Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sacred spaces

October 24, 2009

I enjoy reading about gardens and gardening as much as I enjoy actual gardening . Well, almost as much. And I usually have a pile of 4 or 5 books that I bounce back and forth thru, as one will trigger something I read in another, and I have to look it up, and that one leads to....I was almost going to say down the garden path, but that might have been a bit kitschy. Right now I am reading "Why We Garden" by Jim Nolan, and "The World of Japanese Gardens" by Loraine Kuck; a vintage book I found in a flea market in New Mexico, one of the better Japanese garden books I have found. Nolan's book, about cultivating a sense of place, though wordy and esoteric sometimes, is profound, witty and informative, and it has made me look at my gardens with a different perspective. His chapter on sacred gardens is not so much about magic or myths, but how we connect to Nature and the world, the two being inseparable. Earth and her wonders are not put here for the convenience and comfort of humans; we are after all, simply just another part of Nature herself, just as the tiger, the elephant and the lowly snail. No matter what humans manage to do to the environment, Nature does go on at her own pace, with no regard to our comfort or safety.

Finding our sacred space is not so much creating or controlling somewhere in which to "meditate" as finding a balance between wilderness and the profaneness of everyday living. He says" The sacred garden is four-dimensional: not just a place but also a time....the sacred garden emerges when a sense of place is wed to a sense of the timeless." As all of Nature is sacred, a sacred garden can be anywhere; a single ancient tree in the middle of a forest, a peaceful riverbank, a human-designed labyrinth, a tree house, a sandy ocean beach, your own backyard full of plants you have lovingly cultivated. It is truly a sense and not a place.

Japanese gardens convey the sense of a sacred garden , a place to meditate, to wander and lose oneself in peaceful surroundings and connect with nature. They are works of art, and art itself is a sacred space. I find that I don't actually even have to be in a Japanese garden to feel that sense of place, timelessness and peace; just sitting down with the book and gazing at the pictures is all it takes. One totally forgets all the intense labor that has to happen to create that feeling, and wandering about my own garden carries with it that same feeling of forgetfulness. As I walk the mossy paths with my trowel in my hand and a bag of bulbs in the other, or just stroll with my coffee in the morning, I am in a sacred space. Watching a bumble bee with his head buried in a crocus bloom, rear end in the air and kicking as hard as he can to get deeper into the blossom; being momentarily startled by a female oriole as she lands briefly at my feet; watching a fat swallowtail caterpillar humping across the patio in search of a place to spend the winter; walking in the wet woods and being unexpectedly showered as a squirrel races through the soaking leaves above me, loosing a spatter of second-hand rain on my head---these are all manifestations of the sacred and even tho I might not stop to "meditate", the simple being out of doors and connecting with nature relaxes and refreshes my whole being. Problems and vexations vanish like dandelion fluff upon the breeze.

The Buddhists have a practice they call "walking meditation", which often involves working up a sweat, connecting with their sacred space through hard work, interacting with Nature, creating with her in their ongoing work of art. And that to me is the key to a sacred space--not trying to control Nature and Earth for our convenience, but working alongside and with her to create and protect our precious environment so that we may continue to have the sacred places that we need.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Walk softly on the earth

October 19 I love moss! Mossy paths, mossy logs, my moss lawn. Soft, cushy green serenity, the stuff of fairies that live in hollows of forest trees and wear shimmering garments they have spun out of moss; of elves on toadstools, of Japanese gardens, of woods and streams and shade and sunshine. My goal is to someday walk down the paths in the woods and see them carpeted with lovely, velvety moss, to take off my shoes and feel that wonderful texture under my feet.

My moss lawn is in the center of the so-called "Japanese" garden, which is only a Japanese garden in the sense that there is a dogwood, a Japanese maple, lots of iris, a stone bench and a rough stone lantern. It has a stepping stone "walk" thru the center of it, and a bamboo fence. The whole thing is set off by the moss, which stays green year-round. It is native moss, which means it started in the grass on its own, and with some encouragement from me, plus killing off what grass there was in that shady area, is now deep and thick. There are a few spring wildflowers coming up through it; woodland phlox, a few violets and a small patch of ajuga, which is kept in check with an occasional weeding around the edges. When the world gets too hectic and my soul needs renewal, I love to sit for hours pulling weeds out of the mossy turf, and with each weed I pull, restoring the serenity of the green velvety expanse, it is as if with each weed I remove, I am also removing the small irritations that clutter my daily life and restoring my own serenity.

There is a small woods near me, a vertable jungle of honeysuckle, wild roses and blackberries (it use to be a nice woods until the absentee owner cut down all the huge hundred-year oaks and sold them off for pallets (grrr), but there are still patches of moss growing under that tangle. I have carved out a path thru that mess and periodically raid it for mosses to transplant. (I know, one should not ordinarily do that sort of thing but it is for sale, which means the whole thing will be bulldozed and developed in the future, and the owner is already covering some of it with fill dirt, so I feel justified saving what wildflowers and moss I can.) So yesterday I spent the afternoon transplanting moss into my own small patch of woods, edging my small dry creek with it, lining the paths where eventually it will grow to cover them. Native mosses take easily to being moved, and are fast growing, covering an area pretty well in a year or two.

There are hundreds of species of moss and lichens that grow in Missouri, some of which live in dark, shady magical places, and others grow in full sun. Transplanting them is not much of a trick, but you must take note of where they grow and move them to a place where they have the same exposure. Shady mosses with die in the sun, and sun mosses will languish in the shade. It is important to take a good bit of the soil under them. Moss has no roots, but filaments do extend into the earth and they will flourish quicker if they have their base soil to which they are already established. Soil mosses don't grow on compost, so it is important to scrape the area down to bare soil, getting rid of leaves, sticks etc. before you put it down. Pat it firmly into place so it gets good contact, and I even find it is helpful to anchor an edge with a rock, as birds love moss for nesting materials and will pull it up and carry it away. It is for this reason that I usually do most of my moss "planting" in the fall--so it gets a chance to attach itself well before nesting season in the spring. Squirrels also love to bury nuts in it, and then dig them up in the spring, making holes in my moss lawn and scattering bits of it everywhere. I haven't found a solution for that yet. I just plug it back, and it never seems to really hurt it. Holes fill up rather quickly, in established moss it only takes a season.

Weeds can be a problem. I once read somewhere that Roundup (glyphosate) would kill weeds in moss, but not harm the moss, which is not actually a plant, and tried it on a small area. I found it to be true, and when I have an influx of weeds that I can't pull, especially dandelions, I use it sparingly and it works well. It has to be pure Roundup, however, if it is enhanced with another chemical it will kill moss, as will Kleenup or any other weed killers. Roundup also works for clearing the weeds out of a path where you would like to have moss, and in another year you will likely have native mosses establishing themselves on their own on the bare soil, first just a dusting of tiny green spores, then first thing you know, you have a carpet! For small weeds, hand pulling is good, being careful not to pull up too much of the moss in the process. What does come up can just be tucked back into place, or do as the Japanese do with their lovely and famous moss gardens, and use a small pair of very pointy, sharp scissors to cut the weeds away from the roots, or use special tweezers designed for the purpose.

Mosses on logs can't be easily moved. I just move the whole mossy log or branch, or rock for that matter, and place it artistically in the woods. You can scrape some off, and blend it with buttermilk or liquified manure (use a dedicated blender for this!) and pour it on logs or rocks where you want it to grow, and keep it misted a few times a week. It will soon take hold!

Sometimes I run over the moss lawn with a string trimmer if it gets weedy or grassy and I don't have time to spend on my hands and knees, and I find that the tiny bits of moss that get whacked off in the process also spread and start new patches.

Maintaining moss is not that difficult. I have a broom that I use to sweep it of leaves and debris, just as I would sweep the floor, as rake tines tear it up. A leaf blower works well, if you don't mind the noise disturbing the serenity that the moss creates, but I still have to pick up acorns. (Those squirrels, you know.) A twice yearly weeding, light sprinkling occasionally in August when there is no rain, tho remember that these are native mosses and just go dormant in hot dry weather. They will come back beautiful and green when the fall rains begin. They don't need fertilized, or mowed, and add mystery, magic and mythology to your life.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Welcome to Chaos!

Complexity in Nature

“Thou blossom bright with morning dew
And covered with the heaven’s own blue
That openest, when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night”
--William Cullen Bryant

Oct. 18. According to The Farmer’s Almanac, on this day in 1876 the US took formal possesion of Alaska (though what these history tidbits have to do with gardening I have always quite failed to understand). The sweet, sharp autumn air on this most glorious fall day would have made me a pagan if I wasn’t already one. As I breathed it in my whole being felt suffused with golden light. In the big driveway pots rosy pink chrysanthemums hung heavy, spilling over the pot rims in a drips of color, nearly touching the bright carpet of blood red dogwood, yellow hackberry and a veritable rainbow of oak leaves. My barely containable joy on this most magic of days burst wide with the discovery that the UPS man had left a package for me on the porch. My order of bulbs had come! I tore eagerly into the box, not even noticing that I was breaking fingernails in the process, and inhaled the fragrance the wafted from the bags inside—the earthy smell of crocus, tulips, daffodils, and the faintly , pleasantly skunky smell of crown imperial. Though the year was winding down, my gardening year was just beginning!

I have always loved the fall ritual of bulbs, hiding them in secret places among the grass and plants, between rocks and in flower beds, at the feet of trees and tucked beside the stepping stones where I would be sure to see them in the spring on my daily walks. Then in the spring, like the squirrels who have forgotten where they have hidden their acorns, I am delightedly surprised to find them in unexpected places.

My garden is not a new one; rather it is a collection of hopes, dreams and memories of many years. Definitely informal, wildflowers springing where they may, being allowed to reseed freely and only removed or thinned when they become so thick as to rudely crowd their neighbors out or get crushed underfoot. The “lawn”, or so we laughingly refer to it as, is a carpet of wildlings: spring beauties, wild phlox, dandelions, bluets, starry chickweed, oxalis, star of Bethlehem, buttercups in the spring, and only reverts to a mix of grasses and other green stuff in early summer, when it finally gets mowed, and then only in patches until the last of the wildflowers are done. I steadfastedly refuse to let anyone put any chemicals on it, only reseeding with bluegrass in the bare spots when I can’t stand to look at them any longer.

Shade moves across my almost-acre, leaving me with very few sunny spots and mostly dappled, shifting shade. Underneath my beloved wildflowers thrive and multiply in the beds that circle the stone cottage which shelters my husband and I, line the boundaries of our property and wander down into the woods. Some simply grow where they want to, and not always in the same places every year. It is always a surprise to have a whole group of black-eyed susans or Queen Anne’s lace suddenly decide to move 50 feet away to the other side of the house from one year to the next.

But it is a garden of constant change, both according to the whims of Nature, and of my nature. And today was for digging my trowel into the ground and planting, for new beginnings. As I dug into the earth I thanked the Mother for her blessed bounty, for the soft earth, the rain that would make my flowers grow, for the sunshine to give them warmth. A garden is not made by a gardener alone, nor in a day, nor in a generation even. It is a sort of hereditary thing that goes on and on, and needs cooperation between one and Nature; and Nature teaches the person and makes the gardener as well as the garden.Crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths and snowdrops go in the long, curving shady border at the edge of the lawn, in the transition zone between the house and the woods, among hostas, ferns, astilbes, coral bells, ajuga, columbine tricirtis, and under the two dogwoods, one pink and one white, that were planted this last spring and will eventually, in three or four years, grace this bed with their spring flowers. Gardening gives a person lots of time for thought, and as I dug in the warm moist soil I reflected that we plant, as we do things in all life, not for today but for the future, always looking forward to our vision of what we hope it will be like. It was 15 years ago that I began building upon this garden, in this place, and I am still looking forward to the next year of growth, in the garden as well as in myself.

It is time to take a break, and decide my next move. As usual, between ordering these bulbs in spring and the receiving of them in the fall I have forgotten where I intended to put them all. A garden diary, with copious notes, is a necessity in a garden as extended as this one. I really try to keep one each year, if only to write my notes on the calendar, but the proverbial best intentions….. As I sit on the picnic bench in the clearing, the October sun makes me shuck off my light jacket. Rustlings in the woods make me look: a pair of squirrels are playing chase in the dry leaves, tearing round and round in spirals up and down the trees and my Abyssinian cat, Tafari looks up from his perch on the retaining wall, ears perked and ready to join the game. A glimpse of blue through the trees catches my eye, and easily distracted that I am, I’m off down the trail that leads through the wood, my feet making crunchy noises in the leaves that are covering the mulched path. A patch of wild blue asters is blooming in the field beyond my woods and I pick a few for my kitchen window. My chair on the sunny deck beckons me and cup of mint tea in hand I sit and daydream over the garden, but not for long: soon I’m on my feet looking to see what’s going on down there. Weeds need pulled here and there, and before long my tea mug is put down somewhere and forgotten and I’m contentedly back planting bulbs.