Sunday, June 22, 2008

Heritage plants—here after we're gone

June is peony season in the domesticated part of our yard, and this June, despite a cold and dry and windy spring, our peonies have outdone themselves. Here in the high-desert where water is short, I use garden water carefully (we get an average of ten inches of precipitation a year, rain and snow included, and this year's total so far has been a measly 1.84 inches). My priority is our kitchen garden, a set of raised beds that currently is producing more bags than we can eat (to our friends benefit!) of French Market and Monet's Garden lettuce mixes in an array of shapes and flavors from tangy and spicy to licorice-sweet, plus the wrinkled dark green leaves of Catalina spinach, City Lights chard with its stems in neon-bright colors, sweet and juicy Fort Laramie strawberries, and enough cilantro and dill to share with a local restaurant. (Thank you, Rene Shepherd of Rene's Garden Seeds!) The only other part of the yard that gets regular water is my peony bed, a raised bed that lines one edge of the wall containing the kitchen garden.

Why peonies here at 7,000 feet elevation in a valley so dry that cactus and fringed sage are more at home than trees? Because these long-lived plants take both Richard and me back to our childhoods--and earlier. They are part of our gardening heritage. When I advise gardeners on what to plant, especially those new to the arid, high-elevation West where the weather can range from hot and dry to a hard freeze to wind gusting with near-hurricane force to deluges of hail--and that's just in June--I always suggest they walk their neighborhood and see what is growing in the long-established yards, the neglected corners, and the old farmsteads where the houses are long gone but a few plants may remain outlining the foundations. If lilac shrubs still thrive, for instance, or banks of daylilies, or ranks of bearded iris, you know those plants will grow in your yard. The plants that have out-lived us, or the ones that live on because gardeners share seeds, cuttings, bulbs, or rhizomes are the heritage plants of any given place, the domesticated species that have made themselves at home in that particular climate and landscape.

But peonies in the high-desert? These perennials sprout clumps of leaves so early in spring that they come up tinted red to protect them from sun and frost, gradually push upwards on graceful stems, and then sprout buds oozing nectar from their seams and promptly attracting ants by the score. Helped by the ants in ways we haven't yet figured out, those buds bloom into fist-sized and larger masses of petals in white and pink and deep rose-red. Peonies bloomed through the springs of my childhood, their sweet scent drifting across the back yard into my bedroom window. And they bloomed in spring in Richard's childhood, including at his Grandma Lizzie's farmhouse near Possum Valley, Arkansas. They are rooted plants, each tuber capable of living a century or more, and they sulk when transplanted, taking several years to store enough energy to bloom again.

So when we settled here in south-central Colorado, in the town where Richard lived in early childhood, and my brother, Bill and sister-in-law Lucy gave us a gift certificate to White Flower Farm, the mail-order nursery whose catalog is a wonderland of plants, I knew where that gift would go: peonies (with a backdrop of summer-blooming lilies). I ordered a collection of unlabeled varieties harvested from the fields of a peony grower going out of business. Richard built me the bed, and I planted the tubers that fall. And Miss Alice, my mother-in-law, gave me a tuber from the peonies that grew at her childhood home in rural Arkansas. Putting those knobby brown tubers into the soil was one of my ways of rooting: as I patted the earth around one, I promised them silently I would stay to watch them bloom, spring after spring.

Just last week, my writing buddy Janet Riehl of the blog-magazine Riehlife mentioned that her father, Erwin Thompson, grew up on a farm that produced peonies. So I sent him some shots of our blooms. He wrote back a vivid remembrance of farming from the days when peonies were the market flower for Decoration Day, the June holiday when families brought cans of flowers to the cemetery to decorate the graves of their dead. On Decoration Day, we tidied up the cemetery, cutting back the long grass, trimming the shrubs, cleaning off the stones, and placing cut flowers--especially the blowsy heads of peonies, which loosed their sweet scent on the air. And had picnics. Decoration Day is long-gone, as is the farmhouse where my mother-in-law grew up, but the peonies I call "Old Home Place" bloom in white profusion in our garden a thousand miles from southern Arkansas (and 6,900 feet higher) in company with a whole bed of other peonies in blush-pink and vivid rose-red.

There's a vase of peonies on the dining table near where I write, including the pink ones pictured above. When I pass by, they loose a trail of sweetness with a hint of spice, that fragrance that only peonies can make.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Blog versus web site--why both? what's where?

I've been "talking" in email with blogger Janet Riehl of the blog-magazine Riehlife about how I see the connection between my blog, which I started just about a year ago to see how it would work and my long-time web site. The question came up when one of my articles for Audubon magazine, "Creating Buzz," on North America's 4,000 or so species of native bees, the ubiquitous and largely uncelebrated pollinators of garden flowers, crop plants, and wildlands, won a "Harvey" Award from Colorado Author's League. Janet asked if I was going to link to the online version of "Creating Buzz" from my blog. I hadn't intended to, because I see that kind of news as belonging on my web site.

Here's how I explained it to Janet, and to myself as I wrote, a great example of "thinking out loud" via writing:
I think of blogging as a way to explore the longer pieces I might write, and I do that thinking in public because that holds me to a higher standard and often leads me to fuller realizations. Some of my blog pieces become weekly columns or commentaries; others are the seeds of even longer pieces. I have a mental list of blog entries and commentaries that I see as the beginnings of my next book, Rooted: Living Thoughtfully, in Place.

My web site is where I announce my news. I see it as my polished work, including news of my writing and workshops, plus my archives, and the blog as a more personal thinking place. I should make that clear on both. Since I started the blog as an experiment, I guess it's time to give it a permanent place in my web presence! Sometime this summer when I get a break in magazine deadlines, I'll work on linking it more closely to my web site, and my web site more closely to the blog.

Isn't it interesting how explaining something to someone is a way to learn it more fully yourself? That's what happened as Janet and I explored the subject in email. So thanks, Janet. Now I understand why I blog!

Monday, June 9, 2008

A blessing from the land

When my husband and I adopted the half-block of degraded industrial property where we now live, it was a forbidding sight: colonized by knee-high clumps of prickly invasive weeds native to distant lands, littered with industrial junk that even Richard, who collects rusted metal and such for his sculpture work, didn't want, and surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. The "soil" was a mix of river gravel from eons ago when the nearby Arkansas River once flowed here, along with more recent additions of fly ash, clinkers, broken concrete chunks, and a layer of coarse "roadbase," which is just what it says. Still, we imagined restoring the native high-desert grassland, while seriously questioning if anything besides tumbleweed and cheatgrass would ever take root on our half-jokingly labeled "decaying industrial empire."

But we were determined to do something positive with the site gave us a historic building for Richard's studio and would eventually sprout our house. So we called Alex and Suzanne of Western Native Seed down the valley, and asked them to consult on a mix of native plants that might help us return the place to some semblance of its wild community. One hot afternoon, they came, walked through the weeds, shook their heads, and went away. A week later Alex called to say that they'd come up with a mix of locally collected native species that might be tough enough to survive on our harsh site. They called it Roadbase Mix.

That fall, we prepared a test patch about 50 feet long and ten feet wide at one edge of the property: we raked the dry soil into ridges so the winter winds wouldn't blow the seeds away, scattered our precious mix, spread a layer of wood-chip mulch, and snaked soaker hoses through the area so we could water now and then to mimic natural precipitation. And then we waited.

The next spring a pale wash of green sprouts came up through the mulch, and most of them weren't weeds. We were elated. By mid-summer, the rectangle seeded with Roadbase Mix was awash in tiny native plants: blue grama, sand dropseed, and needle-and-thread grasses; and wildflowers including scarlet bugler and violet-blue Rocky Mountain penstemon, golden blanketflower, mahogany and yellow Mexican hats, pink Lambert's loco, and best of all half a dozen tiny Indian paintbrush plants tipped in scarlet. The plants were all miniature, because the "soil" they rooted in was so shallow. But they were there, returning to the place they had once called home.

When Alex and Suzanne stopped by, they stood gazing open-mouthed at the dwarf display. They hadn't really believed that any of the seeds would germinate, especially the Indian paintbrush, one of the trickiest of our native plant community to grow because it requires blue grama grass or sagebrush nearby for its roots to tap into.

The next year our high-desert plants were a few inches taller, and more species appeared. Eleven years later, our wild front yard stops traffic when the wildflowers are in full bloom, and each year we find new species—including mystery arrivals that weren't included in the original Roadbase Mix. There's the microbiotic crust, a miniature community of mosses, lichens, fungi, and algae that bind together the surface of dust-dry desert soils, trapping moisture and creating an insulating layer. The scatter of golden-banner that puts up short stalks topped with sunshine yellow sweet-pea sized flowers in May and June. And the solitary clump of Rocky Mountain iris, the same species that paints wet meadows in a mist of pale purple flowers in early summer.

This year's surprise was a slender plant with narrow, deeply divided leaves that came up through a dense bunch of fine-textured native grass. I didn't even notice the plant until it bloomed in flat-topped heads of many tiny yellow flowers. But when I stopped to look at this mystery arrival, something tickled my memory. I headed for my wildflower books, and sure enough, I knew this plant, although it had been decades since I'd seen it last. It's called nineleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum for those who are fluent in botanical Latin) and it is a characteristic resident of sagebrush country, the part of the arid West dominated by the gray-green shrub with the three-tipped leaves that flavor the air with its signature scent, a mix of turpentine and orange blossom with a hint of spice.

Of all the landscapes I've lived in—from the shore of Lake Michigan and the flat former fens of Cambridgeshire in England to the sandstone bluffs of southern Illinois, from the high-desert basins of northwest Wyoming to the dark hills of West Virginia and the rain-drenched shores of Washington's Puget Sound, from the dramatic rise of the Rocky Mountain Front to the prairie-turned-cornfields of central Iowa and the wide-open Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico—I am only truly home where sagebrush grows. Nineleaf biscuitroot is the same: it only flourishes in sagebrush shrublands. To see it here, sprouting from seeds that must have survived dormant in the soil through more than a century of industrial disturbance since finged sage last colonized this site, is a gift. Its flat heads of tiny yellow flowers and slender form are like a blessing from the land. "Good job," they say. "Thanks for welcoming us home."

I return the thanks, as my patch of decaying industrial empire re-greens itself, inviting the native species back to thrive on this ground we now share.