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Garden as metaphor for life

It’s the same routine every Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m working from home with the dog, Mia, as close as physically possible next to me on the couch. It isn’t uncommon for her to be partially leaning on my laptop. When she does, I just avoid using the letters p, l and m. At exactly 2:50 P.M, she stirs, sensing the arrival of the school bus. Once the sound of the brakes on the bus echo in the house, she darts to the front window, paws up on the windowsill and screeches uncontrollably. Her buddy is home from school and she can’t wait to greet him with kisses and scratches all over his legs and arms. We don’t have her trained at all.

On this particular Wednesday, I have no meetings so I accompany Mia to the windowsill. It’s a rare chance for me to watch my 14 year-old son in action. I watch as he walks down our street, checks the mailbox and eventually saunters on to the front sidewalk. He seems to walk now with a more refined gait. It’s as if he has made a conscious decision to walk more maturely. To me, this new walk started today. In truth, he’s been doing it for a time now and I’ve just missed the transition.

As he opens the front door and greets his furry friend, I consume his presence. Dude jumped to a new level in maturity not just with his new walk, but in all aspects of his being. He sounds like James Earl Jones as he greets me. He’s at least 3 inches taller than when I last took him in. He has a new sly smile that says “I’m aware of the world more now dad.” I love it and hate it at the same time.

When did this all change?

How and why did I miss it?


As I stepped out into the garden last night, ready to take pictures for a future blog post, I felt a twinge of sadness. Not like “waaaaaaah” sad, but more like “aw man, where did the time go?” sad. Just yesterday the Viburnum carlesii shrub was blooming and it was exciting, with the scent dancing in and out of the front windows of our home. Now they are done.

Did I enjoy them enough?

Am I too quick to embrace the next plant in line that’s ready to bloom?

First my son, now my Viburnum; why can’t I slow it all down?

I thought the garden was supposed to be a place of escape from life, not a mirror of it.

But it is, and there’s no denying it.

In fact, I’ve discovered in my middle age that I’m consumed with finding the meaning in everything I do, see, hear, eat, touch, etc. My garden is no longer of collection of plants that look pretty together, but a god damn metaphor for life. And while I fought it at first, and yearned for the simpler days of my first garden, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the parallels and while at times painful, I cherish the life lessons I’m experiencing each time the shovel meets the earth or my dirty fingers pull a weed out of the soil or even when I’m simply evaluating potential changes in the garden.

Here are just a few of the parallels between garden and life:

The effort to be present

Each flower is fleeting. That is what makes them so special.

While there is always work to be done in the garden, there’s nothing more important than taking the time to enjoy it without judgment. Smell that flower, touch that flower, remind yourself that you planted that perennial five years ago and watched it struggle to get established. Now it’s time to experience the payoff.

There are many days when I can’t get out of my head. When that occurs, it is impossible to be present. Sure, life is busy and hectic and there is a strict timeline to be followed to ensure everyone is where they need to be on time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be in the moment while it is all unfolding. Or we can’t take a few minutes to smell the flowers. That is why I have started meditating and so far, so good. The mindfulness practice should help in “life” and in the garden.

Feeling overwhelmed

Every gardener can relate to this one. If you can’t, then kudos to you, you are a unique species. I feel this each and every time I set foot outside, 365 days a year. If I allow it to take over, I become paralyzed with indecision.

My best way to deal is to chunk it all out. Today I will ignore everything except the front garden bed. If I can stay focused on this limited task at hand, I will successfully fend off feeling overwhelmed.

Every individual on earth can relate to this when navigating every day life. Again, if you don’t, you’re awesome … and also a liar. Feeling overwhelmed is a prerequisite for life. Be it managing a family, health, the job, etc., it is exhausting and stressful and how often do we want to throw in the towel? When it all piles on, we can’t comprehend the end of the tunnel. Similar to garden management, often the only way to survive is to manage through a to-do list; a mental one or one that is written on the stationary from the hotel you last stayed at and last felt relaxed.

Compartmentalizing is a necessity.

Planning is great, until it isn’t

More than a decade ago, I went through what I’ll call an “Arborvitae phase”. It appeared to be the best evergreen for my garden and my garden conditions, so I went all in. I purchased a ton of them in all different sizes and colors and planted them as the backbone of my newly developing garden.

Well, this happened.

And this happened.

And this happened.

The plan failed miserably and it took me years to establish a new backbone for the garden.

While I don’t suggest ever doing this, my wife and I put on an addition to our home at the same time she was pregnant with our son. As the pregnancy approached 8 months, we were clearly not going to have everything ready in time, including his room. For that last month, I built a daily to-do list with the hope of still having all of the work completed before his arrival. Looking back, the list was comical but necessary for our own survival.

Here is what we had planned for the day he was actually born (as dug up from an email from me to my wife 14 years ago):

July 12th

John off

Jerry – Light fixtures,fan,smoke detectors and thermostat

Final Plumbing inspection

Final Electrical/Fire inspection

Fill in front beds

Move couch and love seat – Dad

Buy closet fixtures

Buy door stops

Buy shelves for upstairs bathroom

Buy temporary blinds

Finish railing

Buy umbrella stand and cover

Yes, this was for one day. Don’t laugh.

Spoiler: he was born almost a month early and we happily dumped our to-do list in favor of staring at him in awe and enjoying those early days. He may not have had a room ready for two months, but we didn’t care; he was healthy and thriving and that is all we cared about as first-time parents.

Pivoting is a must

This ties into the last one. Once the Arborvitae plan fell apart, I knew I had to keep moving if I wanted my garden to even look the least bit presentable. I diversified my evergreen portfolio and really researched what would work with my conditions. While it took some time to pull it all together, I didn’t look back and didn’t feel sorry for myself. A lesson learned, great; now we push on and see if plan B will be successful.

A parent is ill and needs to move in with us: let’s clear the playroom and find a bed for cheap on eBay.

The school bus will now be arriving at 6:40 A.M: we need to add a back-up alarm to our son’s alarm, knowing he will sleep through anything. We need to buy breakfast he can ingest in 3 minutes. We need to enforce that his devices be off by 10:00 P.M.

We some how end up rescuing a dog without any prior planning: a new morning routine will be born, sleep deprivation will be a given, the kids better prepare themselves for chores and a severe dent in their routine. It will all be worth it.

Embrace or reject chaos

This is a very personal one. I could dedicate an entire post just to this one. I battle this daily in my garden, pulling from both extremes. I love gardens that are wild and out of control and fun. They best resemble how the plants would look in their natural state; the key word being natural.

That photo above isn’t from my garden, it’s from the Garden at Federal Twist. Still to this day, my favorite garden I’ve ever visited.

But my first instinct is control. I want things to be orderly and neat and weed free. I start to shake a bit when I lose control. The compromise between orderly and chaotic ends up looking my current garden: controlled chaos. If the design of my garden starts to lean more one way, I compromise and make changes to counter that leaning. It sounds stressful and overthought and you would be right. It makes me f’n nuts yet I love it as it pushes my garden to bigger heights. Here is my best attempt to attain the perfect balance.

Don’t mention this one to my wife. I’m a brutal pain in the ass. I stack everything. I close all drawers, often before they are done being used. I throw things away for my own personal relief. Before the kids finish eating dinner, I’ve put their dishes in the dishwasher. The dogs toys are put away seconds after she has pulled them out.

I’m not proud of this but I continue to do it. I know that it is potentially impacting the kids (and the dog) in a negative way. My over-the-top organization takes away from my daughter’s creativity. It’s too much and I’m aware I need to change.

When that will happen all depends on the ultimate cost of therapy.

Time management

There’s never enough time to garden.

There’s never enough time for my wife.

There’s never enough time for my children.

There’s never enough time for my dog.

There’s never enough time for me.

Patience and belief

Gardening is all about patience. We know that it takes plants time to get established and thrive with the challenge being how we provide them that time to develop while making the garden look all sorts of pretty.

Plants are expensive, especially when purchased in a large size. The majority of us can’t afford to buy large specimens so we buy them small and allow them time to get bigger and better. Again, that takes time and mega amounts of patience.

As smart gardeners (wink, wink) we know that plants need space to account for their ultimate size. That required space looks painfully bare initially and tests our patience yet again.

With all of that in mind, it took me years to photograph my garden until it was somewhat established.

How many times do we have to tell them to hang up their wet towels? How many times do we have to ask them if they packed everything? How many times do we have to remind them that if they eat poorly, they will feel awful soon after?

The answers are infinity, infinity and infinity.

But deep down, we know it will eventually sink in. They will eventually make the connection. Parenting requires unlimited amounts of patience but more importantly, the firm belief that discipline, advice and tough love will pay off in the end. All of the grunting and groaning along the way will ultimately lead to “you were right dad”.

I hope.

Aging

This is the most underrated enjoyment I get out of my garden. I love aging along with my plants. That aging runs from year to year as the plants get larger and provide more flowers or better fall color to aging within only a year’s time.

I love witnessing the slow decline of a plant from fully thriving, to “I’m kind of tired” to “I’m like way tired” to “it’s time for me to call it a year”.

Each phase evokes an emotion, an emotion that is seasonally relevant. Once a gardener understands this, it takes gardening from hobby to passion.

I can’t get out of bed without a groan. I find myself sighing not because I’m stressed or angry, but because I’m simply breathing. I mix up the dog and my daughter’s name often. I still say “I need to tape that TV show”.

But guess what? 44 year-old John is kind of awesome and a hell of a lot better than 24 or even 34 year-old John.

Even if he can’t recall a single name on the first attempt.

 

Gratitude

I am thankful for all of the deer that have made me a better gardener

I am thankful for my wife who makes me laugh, pushes me to dream and has more integrity than anyone I know

I am thankful for indestructible gardening gloves

I am thankful for a compassionate son who loves to write

I am thankful for 2.25 acres that has been my muse for 12 years running

I am thankful for my daughter and her unabashed enthusiasm and creativity

I am thankful for the health of my circle

I am thankful to have discovered Gary Vaynerchuk and James Altucher and Seth Godin

I am thankful for the written word and how it has dramatically changed my life

 

Macro photography

My latest obsession is macro photography on Instagram using only my Samsung phone. Would love to connect on Instagram if we aren’t already. Just click on the Instagram icon on the right sidebar or hit me up at @jmarkowski0.

Here are some of my latest pics.

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Time to get dirt under the fingernails

There were new blooms to visually consume this weekend and that was cool:

And more to come in the immediate future:

But this weekend was all about getting shit done … in the dirt … with tools … and the bare hands.

Here is a running list of what failed to survive the winter and was subsequently removed:

6 Emerald Green Arborvitae
1 Arborvitae (forgot the cultivar, had white tipped foliage, oh who cares, she is cooked)
1 Variegated Boxwood
1 Green Velvet Boxwood
1 Ilex glabra (Holly) ‘Shamrock’ (with one to go as seen in my foundation planting below):
  

The cupboard is bare with lots of work to do. Annoying, frustrating and exciting all at the same time.

Oh, there are three more Arborvitae that need to go (for those keeping score at home, we are down ten arborvitae in total):
  

A lot of death to handle but in my world of crappy conditions you quickly grieve and move on. Truthfully, good riddance to all of the Arborvitaes. I won’t make that same mistake again.

On a more uplifting note, I planted 5 bare root trees that were given away at my local park as a means of tree restoration after Hurricane Sandy. Two Red Oaks, a Pin Oak, A Bald Cypress and a Sweetgum were all added and it will take some nursing to keep them going but I am up for the challenge:

Most of my winter online plant orders are in and after a day or two of them breathing outside of their boxes, they all went in the ground. Most of them replacing their aforementioned fallen brethren.

A Viburnum ‘Brandywine’:

Two Pennisetum ‘Desert Plains’:

An Ilex ‘Berry Poppins’:

Additional plantings included: 3 Andropogon ‘Red October’, 1 Schizachyrium ‘Blue Heaven’, 1 Ilex ‘Mr. Poppins’, 2 Viburnum ‘All That Glitters’ and ‘All That Grows’ and 1 Rhamnus ‘Fine Line’. Good times.

There was additional dead foliage clearing to allow the new growth to come in:  

Exciting times to see the deciduous shrubs starting to really leaf out:

Even had some critters to chase around:

We were all happy to be outside again:

Garden resolutions for 2014

Resolutions are useless.

We get a temporary jolt that “this will be the year”, but we all know, shit ain’t going to happen.     

Exhibit A – take a look at my garden resolutions from last year:

Soil test fail
Compostfail
Education – fail
  
I couldn’t have made my resolutions any more attainable and yet I still went 0 for 3.

Dope.

So for this year, we are going to shake it up a bit. A little reverse psychology if you will.

Here we go: 

Growing your own food really is a waste of time. I would much rather just buy our produce from a big old supermarket and pay more for it. So let’s make a promise to grow less fruits and vegetables this year:

I love having to move large shrubs once they outgrow their location. The pain of digging it out and trying not to destroy all of the plants in its path once it is unearthed is the frickin best. I vow to ignore proper spacing rules in 2014:
     

I love taking my chances on a plant that deer love to chow down on. Those plants that are not deer friendly, like Allium, are so boring:
    

 

I find berries on shrubs/trees to be such a distraction and an unnecessary mess. Plus all those annoying birds come and devour them. No more plants with berries in 2014:

One of my favorite moments in summer is when we go on vacation and I fail to line someone up to help water the containers. I love the mystery of returning home to see if any of the flowers or even the plants survived. Pure adrenaline. I am going to do more of the same in 2014 and even try to plan our vacation for the hottest and driest part of summer:     

 

The wear and tear, cost and effort of cutting the grass is so worth it. It is so rewarding to spend most of my free time sitting on a lawn tractor. So let’s remove more of those garden beds and add more lawn:

 
Native plants are so uninteresting and do not add a lot to the garden. In 2014 we eradicate them all and add more yuccas and hostas: 

Ignore what my daughter has to say and do my best to fail to live up to her expectations:

Remove all blue foliage plants from my garden:

 
 
 

Keep ignoring my conditions and try to fit a square peg in a round hole. I refuse to attempt to grow a bog garden:

Happy New Year my friends and let’s ignore our resolutions in 2014.

John

Clethra Ruby Spice

When I shop for shrubs, I have specific criteria that I cannot compromise on. The shrub must be deer resistant and tolerant of wet, poorly drained soil. Luckily, over the years I have found that my pool of potential shrubs is much larger than I ever originally imagined.
One of the shrubs that has joyously met my criteria and thrived for years now is Clethra Ruby Spice.
This deciduous shrub has become a personal favorite of mine as it consistently blooms like mad each summer and the scent of these blooms is other worldly. Some other tidbits on this shrub:
  • Survives in zones 4-8
  • Maximum size seems to average out at about 6 x 5. Mine is about 5 x 3 in year four
  • Here in zone 6, the bottle brush-like blooms usually appear in early July and last until early August. The blooms are an absolute magnet to butterflies and bees, especially bees.
  • This shrub appears to be cool with full sun to partial shade but from what I’ve read, can bloom in deep shade and that is all sorts of awesome
  • Like all Summersweet shrubs, Clethra Ruby Spice will apparently sucker although mine has yet to do so
  • Clethra are native to the eastern U.S.
Some photos of my ‘Ruby Spice’:
In bloom:
clethra ruby spice bloom

 

clethra ruby spice bloom

 

clethra ruby spice bloom

 

The shrub shape has been good for me and the bright green and lustrous leaves make this one look good from afar:

clethra ruby spice bloom

The seed capsules look good, post bloom period:

clethra ruby spice

And fairly decent (don’t believe some of the hype), autumnal color:

clethra ruby spice fall color

 

clethra ruby spice fall color

 

clethra ruby spice fall color

Besides the somewhat underwhelming fall color, the only other possible negative is that this shrub is late to leaf out in spring. One would be wise not to place this shrub in too prominent of a location if one isn’t OK with the lack of green in spring.

Beyond that, count me as a huge fan of Clethra Ruby Spice.

What has your experience been like? Please, do tell.

Introducing a new blog series – “I Have to Friggin Move That”

I never shut off “garden analysis mode”. Never.

I am evaluating when I take the dog out for a walk.

I am studying when I take the garbage to the curb.

I am projecting plant growth three years into the future as I throw the football with my son.

I am mentally relocating shrubs while burning the chicken on the grill.

The entire exercise is more of a curse than a blessing. While it keeps my mind active and stokes the creative fire, I can never shut it off. I am thinking about the hideous state of my Sneezeweed plants as I type this sentence (more on that in an upcoming post – Grrrrrrr).

But what I have discovered over the last three years while authoring this blog, is that this type of affliction makes for good post fodder. I feel better as I pour my heart out and hopefully, you can relate in some way, leave me a kind comment to let me know I’m not alone and we can all sleep well at night. Win/Win … actually, Win/Win/Win/Win.

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce a new blog series that ideally, will accomplish what I just outlined in the previous paragraph. I am calling it “I Have to Friggin Move That”. It may be the simple relocation of an ornamental grass to a more strategic locale or the moving of an overgrown conifer or even the violent upheaval of a bunch of perennials that are making it difficult for me to concentrate on anything else.

You get the idea.

So now I will provide you with the first story in a series that will not only force me to take the appropriate corrective actions so I have blog material, but will also stimulate gardening conversation. That is always a good thing.

Please take a close look at the two shrubs in the middle of the photo below:

Actually, here is a closer shot of said shrubs that will drive home my point in a much more obvious way:

The shrub on the left is a Viburnum ‘Aurora’ and the shrub on the right is Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’. I see these two shrubs each and every day as I walk up my front walkway. They have been together for a few months now, ever since I relocated the Viburnum to a deer-free zone back in the Spring. I was only getting two to three blooms on this gem of a deciduous shrub each April as the deer were nipping off the buds in Summer/Fall.

I have been brutally unhappy with this pairing as they are too similar in leaf shape, color and overall size. Because of that, they look really bad situated next to each other. Like really bad. Like a good gardener would never dream of that combo bad. On top of that, I am way down on ‘Endless Summer’ as the blooms are always weak and the shrub itself fails to impress year after year. I have been moving that Hydrangea in my mind for too long and I needed to take action for my own sanity.

And I finally friggin did it:

The Hydrangea was moved to a location where it will have one last chance to show me that it is worth keeping and I moved an Arborvitae ‘Sherwood Frost’ a few feet from its prior location. The Viburnum and the Arborvitae will now have sufficient room to grow and there is a nice contrast in texture between the two new bedfellows:

I have lost the love for Arborvitaes over the past few years but this one caught my eye with its variegated foliage and white “frost” on the new growth. I especially look forward to seeing how it performs in the Winter:

The entire work effort took about ten minutes but it was oh so worth it.

Check another one off. I’ll be able to sleep just a little bit better tonight knowing this is officially off of the mental to-do list.