Green Gifts

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Though you wouldn’t know it right now, it’s spring. (Seriously, April – what’s with yesterday’s blizzard and this morning’s -20 C wake-up? Are you trying to be an asshole, or does it come naturally?) This time of the year, my thoughts turn to gardening. You guys, I love gardening. It wasn’t always this way. I used to be the kind of person who couldn’t keep a weed alive. I once killed an air plant. Seriously. Google “air plant”, and try to count how many times the word “easy” appears in the search results.

One of the great discoveries of your thirties is this: though you are finally, firmly an adult, you’re far from a done deal. You can – and should – continue to learn new things and dive into new passions. Really, what pushed me into gardening was moving into our current home. It came with beautifully established gardens on all sides, planted and tended by someone who really knew their stuff. From the departure of rotten spring snow til the falling of fresh stuff, lovely bits of life pop up in various spots. Between April and October, there’s always a flower to enjoy somewhere. There are lots of bushes, and tall trees, too. We bought the house in March, and had no idea what living surprises awaited us until we moved the following June.

Of course, it’s not all roses. (See what I did there?) The lovely bushes and trees cost us a fortune in trimming and removal last year, after we realized that one day we might just wake up to find ourselves smothered, jungle-style, if we didn’t fight back. We have wild roses along our back fence that send out runners aplenty, which all have to be ripped out by hand. We have blackberries. That’s nice when we’re nibbling on them. It’s considerably less nice when we’re trying to keep the prickly vines from eating our entire yard. We have a maple tree. Every year, I uproot dozens of baby maples. Those cute little seedlings grow up, you see, and we have room for one – not 78. There’s plenty of mowing for the mister to do. And, while I don’t mind the odd weed (in fact, I adore some weeds, like dandelions), or the lived-in look, I have a deep – possibly obsessive – need for tidiness. The sight of things growing between interlocking bricks makes me crazy, and I suspect that the previous owner of our house had an interlocking brick fetish (if there is such a thing – someone look it up, please). My back is already weeping at the thought of the stooping ahead.

But the learning, the sense of accomplishment, the satisfaction – the joy – it gives me is worth everything it costs. Gardening has taught me so many important things that can be applied to life.

The first thing you see often isn’t the most important thing, and it’s never an island unto itself. From the street, you see a tree. What you don’t see is the rich soil supporting it, insects tunneling in and out of it, enriching it. The strong root system pumping water and nutrients. The wind challenging, shaping and strengthening the trunk. You see a flower. What you don’t see are the smaller plants bracing it. The larger plants sheltering it. The butterflies, bees and wasps pollinating it. The sun and rain feeding it. We all have a part to play.

Things aren’t always what they look like at first. Along the back wall of our house, there is a slow-growing plant with a few dead ends. Its leaves are rather plain. It’s got vicious thorns. For three summers, it hooked my clothes and drew blood, and I chopped it down. Yet it kept coming back – I could not get rid of it. I hated that thing. One summer, I was away alot, and didn’t have time to do my usual hack job. I returned to find it sporting 18 beautiful red roses. With plants, colour and beauty can come from the dullest of corners. Loveliness can lie dormant for long years. So it is with people, if we give them a chance.

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Don’t wait until an opportunity presents itself – enjoy what you have nowThe roses on that bush last a week at most. Some flowers are in their glory for far less time than that. You have to admire them, take pictures of them, pick them to grace your table when they show up – not when your life slows down, or plans have been cancelled, and you have an extra moment. When it comes to flowers, stop and make a moment. They might not be there tomorrow. Maybe you won’t, either.

Be careful what you encourage, whether actively or passively. In a garden, the fastest, most competitive growers are usually the ones you don’t want. Ignore them for an inch, and they’ll take a mile. Get lazy for a week, and they’ll start strangling all the good plants around them. Leave them for a month, and they’ll be all that’s left by the time you come back. The easiest thoughts are negative. The easiest courses of action are lazy. Apathy and evil will flow into a void, take root and boil over. For good things to flourish, you have to pursue them, encourage them and defend them tirelessly.

Even the best-laid plants (and plans) can go awry. You select a plant because something about it calls to you. You gently transport it home, choose the best spot for it, carefully plant it and water it in. You picture excitedly how gorgeous it will be when it begins to flourish. You might even bore your husband and kids and friends with it (if you’re me). Then, a late frost shrivels and blackens it. Or a violent downpour washes it right out of the ground. Or a particularly cruel sun withers and yellows it. Or an animal tears it up. Heartbreaking, but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. You knew you were risking all of those things when you put that sprout in the ground. It feels even more personal and savage if it’s a plant you grew from seed. Houses burn down. Whole towns flood out and float away. Businesses go under. Children die. It doesn’t matter how much of your heart you put into them – some cruel force can just sweep them away anytime. Control is an illusion, foolish at best and dangerous at worst. But if the alternative is not to bother … Well, I’ll take the risk, for a chance to live my life in full, rich colour.

Just beBreathe in, breathe out. Sometimes, the true contentment is found in the journey – in the work. Pick slowly through a tangle of tender green, the smell of rich earth rising, with the sun soaking into your back and your feet firmly planted. Inch by inch, pay close attention to detail. Listen to your heartbeat. Entertain your thoughts. Lose the clock. Lose your expectations. Find yourself.

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In praise of the dandelion ….

This post has been a long time coming. I’ve had it in mind since last spring. In fact, I came this close to writing about dandelions a little over a year ago. Instead, I wrote about a crowd of crazies on Long Island, NY, who were making their teenagers’ lives tough with their ridiculous school safety measures. I thought about writing this post just a few weeks ago, but Mother’s Day made me think about being a mother (go figure). However, the glorious crop of dandelions everywhere I look these days demands to be loved in black and white, so here I go ….

I love dandelions. I love their hopeful, just-try-to-ignore-it colour. I love the feathery lightness of their petals. I love their perfect symmetry. I love the fact that, even in death, they’re beautiful:

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I love that children make wishes on the seeds. I love their resilience. I love them so much that I stop to admire them (sometimes taking pictures of them) on my way to wherever I’m going. I love them so much that I have cheerfully let the lawn become them. I love them so much that I permanently decorated my right arm with them:

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However, I have had enough conversations with the other side to know that not everyone loves them. Some people hate them so much they will acquire a special tool designed to yank them up. They will spend oodles of time and money getting rid of them. They will poison the earth to ensure that they don’t have to look at a single dandelion on their property, ever. They will look down on neighbours who tolerate them. The appearance of a single yellow puffball on their otherwise suffocatingly boring lawn ruins their day. Like bagging up leaves and throwing them away or hosing down your yard furniture and driveway every other week, it makes no sense.

A dandelion looks like this:

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People regularly pay for, and cultivate, this:

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And this:

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And this:

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What on earth is the difference between the three examples of desirable yellow flowers I just gave, and dandelions? The way people fuss about them, you`d think dandelions look like this:

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(Yes, that is a real creature. It’s a blob fish. Google it. Unless you’re eating.)

In case laying out the ridiculousness of your position hasn’t convinced you, here are a few facts about dandelions you might find interesting:

Dandelions are masters of survival. They can take root nearly anywhere, and then become impossible to get rid of. Why? There are a few reasons. For one thing, they are long-lived. A dandelion plant can live for years. You might think you’ve destroyed it by yanking most of it out of the ground, but you’ve merely dampened its spirits. All a dandelion needs to rejuvenate itself is one inch of root. And that root sinks deeper by the year – a dandelion root can grow fifteen feet deep if it needs to. It can muscle its way through gravel, and even cement – so dandelions thrive in the most barren of landscapes. Dandelion fossils have been found in prehistoric deposits – they’ve been around alot longer than we have.

Dandelions are an essential part of our ecosystem. Their flowering is an indicator to bees that the summer is on its way, and in early spring they are an abundant source of pollen and nectar. They are a great source of vitamins and roughage for small animals – rabbits love them. If you like bees, butterflies and bunnies, don’t kill dandelions.

Dandelions are useful. They have been, and can be, used for medicine, food and dye. The roots can be dried and ground to make a coffee substitute (something that made the dandelion of particular importance to early settlers here in North America). They can even be used to make wine.

Believe it or not, dandelions are good for your lawn. Their tough, quick-spreading roots loosen packed soil, aerating it and helping to reduce erosion. The deep root pulls nutrients from far below the surface and makes them available to other plants – like your precious grass.

A colleague of mine told me that he spent an entire day last spring removing dandelions from his lawn. Why? Not because he doesn’t like them, but because he was worried that his neighbours would be annoyed with him if he let them continue to grow on his property. He regretted yanking up what he considers “pretty yellow flowers” just because he was afraid of what people might think. And dandelions are the most common illustration on containers of herbicides …. I believe that people have been conditioned to see dandelions as a problem, and that is why they will go to such lengths to get rid of them. Large squares of flat, green monoculture are not natural – and they are time-consuming, expensive and harmful to the environment. Have you ever really looked at a dandelion – or, better still, a whole field of them? All that beauty is free, and good for everyone.

You bag up your leaves and throw them out …. Say what?

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A couple of days ago, I spent about three hours working on the various yards around our house. Instead of a backyard and a front yard, like everybody else, we have a front yard and two side yards. One of the side yards is similar to a classic backyard – fenced and containing a play structure. The other is divided into two areas, one a sunny terrace of interlocking brick and one a sunken cloister, surrounded by trees. So, really, we have three side yards, I guess? Anyway. Our various yards are not really the point of this post, they’re the birthplace. One of my summer pleasures is taming these yards, since they’re a profusion of both domestic perennials and wildflowers, and you just never know what colours and shapes you’re going to encounter on any given day. I was thinking about the changes each season brings to the yards. When I thought about the fall, I pictured the ankle-deep carpet of leaves I love to shuffle through – and was reminded of things-people-do-that-I-don’t-get. Within minutes, I had come up with a sizable list. The first item, the one that started this chain of thought, is ….

Bagging leaves. First when leaves fall from the trees, they make a colourful covering for the ground, which is rapidly turning to a slurry of browns and greys. As they dry out, they make a lovely crunching sound when you step on them. Through the winter, they provide warmth and shelter for plants and small animals. In the spring, they decay and turn into nutrients for new plants. They’re basically free mulch. Unless you spend hours raking them up and putting them in bags, and leave them at the curb on garbage day. Which alot of people do. Even better: some people bag and dispose of their leaves, and then head for the nearest gardening center to buy mulch. Yeah.

Lawns. Yes, grass is pretty. But so are periwinkles, buttercups, dandelions, lambsquarters, chickweeds and clovers. But because people have been conditioned to see these other plants as undesirable, as weeds, they don’t recognise their beauty or even the environmental value of variety. So they spend alot of money, water, time and sweat on encouraging an expanse of monoculture that does nothing for nature, or the health of people and pets. Sometimes they even subtly bully their neighbours into doing the same. Or they don’t bother with subtlety, and they call the city to rat on the non-conformists. Nope, I don’t get lawns – or their crusaders.

Washing yard gear. Sure, if you like to eat meals outside, wipe the table with a soapy cloth. If a bird poops on your chair, wipe that, too. But attacking your entire deck or terrace with a pressure washer …. Why? Ok, hose it down at the end of the winter to get rid of an entire year’s worth of debris – but then stop wasting water. Unless you live in Death Valley, it’s probably going to rain sooner or later.

Minivans. If you have three or more children, ok, buy a minivan. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. But what is with these couples who start shopping for a minivan as soon as the woman feels her first twinge of morning sickness over their first child? A baby is a very small human being, and does not need a living-room-on-wheels for her transportation. Ryan and I and our two daughters drive more than anyone we know, comfortably, and we’ve never driven anything bigger than a sedan. We save money on gas, we go easy on the environment, and we can take advantage of tight parking spaces. Don’t be suckered into giving up your car just because one of the three back seats is gaining an occupant.

Baby-on-Board signs. Oh, I’m so glad you put that little yellow diamond in your rear window – I was going to ram into you, then screech around you and hurl trash from my open window into yours. Now that I know there’s a baby in your car, though, I’m going to keep a safe distance and watch out for that precious little bundle of joy you’re packing. Know what? Everybody matters; babies don’t belong to an elite group worthy of enhanced protection. Even if you’re the only person in your car, I’m still going to be careful, because I don’t want anyone to get hurt.

Classes for babies. What’s the point? You’re dealing with a person who, over the next couple of years, is going to learn to recognise faces (including his own), talk, walk, feed himself and interact with other human beings (and animals). He doesn’t know yet that droplets will fly everywhere if he smacks the surface of his bath water. This might be funny or scary to him, depending on his personality. He’s going to learn that a crayon dragged across paper makes a mark, and the colour of the mark corresponds to the colour of the crayon. He will find out that there are things behind doors. He will soon know that if he’s being strapped into his carseat, he’s going somewhere. Things he’s probably not going to learn, no matter how much money you fork over or how many Saturday mornings you burn in traffic, change rooms and line-ups? Swimming. Yoga. Tumbling. Ballet. A musical instrument. Because his little brain’s already working very hard to keep up with the basics! Unless he’s a prodigy, which is unlikely for most of us – in which case his talents will emerge on their own, when he’s ready to reveal them. Maybe parents should ask themselves why babies should learn any of these things. The uncomfortable answer might just be that classes for babies are little more than an expensive way to allow new parents to socialize and kill time between naps.

I could keep going, of course, since the list of things-people-do-that-I-don’t-get is long, and seems to grow regularly. But I’ve reached a thousand words, so I think I’m going to shut down my Little Shop of Say-Whats for today. Stay tuned for part two ….