Evergreens

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Trees curbside in winter

Trees curbside in winter.

A Star is  Born

…and a Star is Born.

 

Any homo deserving of his amyl nitrate loves him some Barbra Streisand.  I personally feel a warm tingly in my nether regions whenever I catch her belting out “Evergreen”, that iconic theme song of the 1976 version of  “A Star is Born”.  I feel this even though at times the cold north wind wants nothing more than to shove Seasonal Affective Disorder straight up my, uhm, nostrils.

It is that time of year here in The District, my little Babs and Bobs.  Post-holiday, pre-spring.  Blah.  Long gone is the glitter, and every day the tepid sun rides low across the horizon.  Now is the season of winter’s sparse and still, but even in the midst of these everlasting yet shortened days, not all is lost.  In these grey hours, as one wanders about the city one senses, viscerally, the hope lurking beneath the hopelessness, like a rose under the April snow.  Kids, this is but a time, and time, we’ve learned to sail above.

I sense a new beginning stirring even as I lug about the weight of all this mid-winter drab, for here in DC these are also the days of parking strips littered with discarded Christmas trees – ageless and evergreen (or at least they used to be), fresh as the morning air (if the morning air were in the process of decaying curbside).  Every block, center block, sports a high pile of the shedding detritus of everyone’s holiday cheer.  And in them lies the hope for a new spring’s awakening.  Let me explain . . .

But first, can I just say that I have never lived in another city where such was the tree disposal procedure.  Perhaps all municipalities do this now, in these green years.  But when I lived in Seattle, where I managed apartment buildings with an iron and broom-wielding fist, it was the responsibility of the good Christian (or otherwise glitter-obsessed hanger-on) tenants to bag the remains of their Yule tree and cart it off to the “transfer station” (urban slang for what we called, in my youth, “the dump”).  Same goes for Denver, and Charlotte, and even most recently in Northern California.

Back in my faraway Wyoming youth, we had our own ritual of disposing of the Christmas tree.  With glee, some hoar-frosty evening come early-January, we stripped the thing of its ornamentation, hacked it to manageable pieces, and tossed it in the fireplace.  With a great amount of ember’s crackling and children’s cackling we immolated that Yule log, angel hair and all, bit by bit, branch by branch.  It warmed and excited us, and those memories have through the years remained my most fond recollections of Christmas tree disposal.

Until now.  Until here.

As I mentioned, here in The District one simply tosses the no-longer-wanted, needle-exfoliating evergreen remnant to the curb where it will be, sooner or later, picked up and dealt with by municipal workers.  This will most likely occur later, as this is the District with its federally-mandated inefficiency.  Don’t even get me started on the city’s DMV or Tax and Revenue Departments, which by all accounts are work retraining programs for surly, lazy, and ignorant parolees.

Still, it is the eventual “dealing with” of the discarded trees that enthralls me, for these skeletons are one day finally collected, shredded, and composted in gigantic, steaming piles in the landscape department’s lots.  Come spring, they will be spread around the city’s parks in the form of sometimes tinsel-tinged mulch.

For all of its inefficiency and dysfunction, The District government practices good earth husbandry when it comes to the poor, poor Christmas trees.

They are “poor, poor” because these dejected Firs, Spruces, Pines, and Cedars were once true, living evergreens – loosely defined as a plant that always has leaves, as opposed to deciduous plants which drop their leaves to become bare during winter or dry seasons.  Yes, our Yule trees were evergreens – until that fateful day when Johnny Lumberjack donned his plaid and hoisted his hatchet (or worse, chain saw) and struck them down.  He smote them good, and then they were hauled cross-country to be sold at exorbitant prices so they could be rigged up in our living rooms where they ever so steadily, beneath their cloak of baubles and bangles and beads, undergo the transition from evergreen to everbrown.

This, though, is probably a more humane ending than the one befalling the fallacious “living Christmas trees”:  it’s relatively quick, at least.

I speak now of those potted specimens sold in nurseries and grocery stores and even one’s corner drug store, colorfully advertised to bring joy to your holiday season and then forever beautify your little piece of earth.

Trouble is, they rarely survive, which comes as no big surprise if you can even remotely grasp the concept of plant physiology.  Just think about the process – put yourself in the little tree’s shoes.  Or should I say pot?

Imagine that you are a lovely little Fraser Fir, happily hibernating your winter away in some frigid field.  Just after Thanksgiving you are dug out of the earth, potted up in something appropriately green and red and tacky, transported, and then sold.  You are eventually displayed in some artsy but garish homo loft where, as if the color scheme itself weren’t debilitating enough, the temperature hovers around eighty and the humidity around zero.  You, little tree, awake from your slumber and your sap begins to flow, and then your next year’s tender needle growth begins to stir.  But this den of Gomorrah you have ended up in is a desert clime, not at all what a lovely little fir desires, and if that fact alone doesn’t begin to kill you outright, the humiliation of having your limbs dangled with drapery will certainly do its best to complete the job.  Should you by chance live through all of this, your next jolt is to be moved back outside to some hideous and undersized back yard which the over exuberant gay whore-ticulturist claims is simply screaming for some winter greenery.  Never mind that you have been shocked out of your hibernation only to be placed right back into winter, you will be planted, Madge.

However, because the soil is frozen solid, you end up deposited in a too-shallow planting hole and there you are left to your own devices.  It’s effectively guaranteed that, come April’s thaw, you will have fared no better than those specimens who end up in the parking strips.  They, at least, end up serving some higher purpose.  Their death is not entirely in vain.

Which brings me back to my point:  when I pass by those stacks of dead trees currently lining our city’s fair streets I realize that to a great extent, they are symbolic of this, the dark and dead time of the year.  For in them, and in this darkness, lies the beating embryonic heart of a new year’s growth.  They will return as mulch, and they will nourish next summer’s lush.  Fruitfulness, it seems, sometimes requires sacrifice.  Just as it did for Babs and Kris in “A Star is Born”.

Oscar Wilde (girl, can it get any more gay in here?) once said of this movie’s characters that the woman “is a little more than a woman”, the man “a little less than a man.”  He went on to say (and I paraphrase, quite liberally) that the woman, Esther Hoffman, portrayed by the inimitable Barbra Streisand, is ambitious to become a star but stardom is not entirely necessary.  Sure, it can make her richer and being richer can make her happier, but she could hand it all back and not be a better or worse person.  With stardom she is only a little more than a woman.  A fine, fine woman.

Her co-star, the hair-happy and yum-deli-icous Kris Kristofferon, portrays John Norman Howard, whose career is his primary defense against his own self-destructiveness, that part of himself that leads him into outrageous spells of drunkenness, drugs, love affairs, fights and the other sordid adventures that have made him a legend.  A rock-and-roll legend, and be still my quivering heart (and loins).  Back to Oscar:  he says John’s career is what provides him a sense of who he is. Without it, he is lost and confused; his demons will eat him alive. That’s why he is a little less than a man.

So says Oscar Wilde, and who am I to disagree?

Esther and John have a few coincidental meetings, and then she finally agrees to date him.  John, believing in her (immense) talent, gives her a helping hand and her career eventually eclipses his.  He’s on his way down, she’s on her way up, but at the crossroads of their trajectories they find love.  And, oh, Ki-Ki, this is no ordinary love!  Why, it’s soft as an easy chair.  Spirits rise and their dance is unrehearsed, they have one love that is shared by two, they are two lights that shine as one morning glory and midnight sun, their every day is a beginning, and time won’t change the meaning of their one love, ageless and ever evergreen.

Blah, blah, blah.  As it turns out, things don’t end well in the romance of this seven-foot, fully decorated and shapely Blue Spruce named Esther and the Charlie Brown specimen quickly shedding his remaining needles all over her career.  In this story it’s not that her success galls him, or that she has taken something away from him; the tragedy is that all her love is not enough to keep alive this man who has lost what he measures his manhood with.

Ouch.  That sounds like a mighty painful thing to lose.

The sad, sad conclusion is the final measure of this theme. John takes his own life believing that then he will not drag her down with him.  He becomes the Frazer Fir lying curbside, composting, she the recipient of his mulch.  A star is, indeed, born.

Ain’t nature something?

Here’s the thing about evergreens:  the fact that they are evergreen (in Latin binomenclature, sempervirens, meaning literally “always green”) is a direct adaptation to where they grow.   It’s all very scientific, but I will try to explain using little words.  Just for you.

Deciduous trees (you know, the leafy ones that become bare in winter or the dry season, depending on where they grow) shed their leaves annually.  Evergreen trees don’t.  They do lose leave, but not all at the same time.  As a whole, the tree looks green year-round.  This keeping of the leaves is their brilliant adaptation.  It helps these trees grow in areas where the soil has low or hard-to-access nutrient levels.  See, every time ye’ olde maple loses her leaves, she loses nutrients.  Since the evergreens don’t shed their greenery, they hold on to their nutrients as long as possible.

In warmer areas (relatively speaking, of course – the mountainous pine forests of northern Wyoming are anything but warm in February!), the evergreens are found growing in poor soils – rocky, or thin or otherwise mostly infertile.  Even in primarily deciduous forests, the evergreens – think the rhododendrons of the Great Smokey Mountains – grow in more acidic soils which are lacking in traditional nutritional value.  Moving far north to where there are extremely cold climates, the evergreen boreal forests thrive.  Here, it is too cold for the organic matter in the soil to decay fast enough to become available to plants, thus favoring those who can manage to hold on the nutrients they glean.  Hence the profusion of the very cold-tolerant evergreens.

Here’s another interesting little scientific evergreen fact that comes from a completely different climate.  In our good earth’s most temperate areas, the equatorial rainforest evergreens ensure their own dominance in another way.  Their evergreen leaf and needle litter has a higher carbon-nitrogen ratio than deciduous leaf litter.  This actually increases the soil’s acidity and lowers the nitrogen content, promoting the very conditions that favor the growth of more and more and more evergreens, and making it increasingly difficult for other plants to get a foothold.

Again, ain’t nature something?

One final evergreen fact, and then I promise to get back to the trash talk.  There is a special evergreen called Welwitschia, an African plant that produces only two leaves for the duration of its life.  These two leaves grow continuously throughout the plant’s existence, gradually wearing away at the apex – something akin to how the old Queen Gardener’s apex is gradually being worn to a nubbin.  Welwitschia’s got me beat, though:  she can live for over 1000 years.

Holy moly, Mathilda!  I plan to call it quits at about 150.

People either love or hate evergreens in the garden, and there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.  Personally, I’m a fan.  I appreciate the touches of green in what is otherwise a brown and grey winter garden.  I like the way snow drifts on the evergreens, cloud-like.  And I appreciate the shelter they give to my little feathered friends in the midst of inclement weather.

Evergreens rose to landscape prominence in the United States beginning in about the early nineteenth century, and have been a staple ever since.  Any old gardener, or at least this old gardener, will tell you in his best know-it-all voice that a winter garden is nothing without an evergreen or two.  But there are those who would argue with me, and they are certainly entitled to their opinion.  They should just keep it to themselves.  And out of view.

That’s just me dropping my high carbon-nitrogen content ratio litter around so the haters don’t get a foothold.

Those on the other side of this love/hate divide will happily point out how many overgrown evergreens were originally improperly planted, too close to buildings or other trees, or otherwise forced to grow lopsided and leaning, one half nothing more than a bramble of barren sticks.  They will then remind you of the Japanese deciduous winter gardens, bare branches artfully pruned with winter in mind, so that the snow and ice enhances their delicate shapes.  Add in a red bird or some bright berries and you have something worthy of a haiku.  Such as this one, author unknown:

 

A mountain morning

over the red berry bush,

snow in tiny heaps.

 

I see validity in both sides of this argument, and you should, too (more litter).  Substitute “evergreen” for “red berry” in the lovely haiku and you have painted an image of my idea of a peaceful winter garden.  But I can grasp the argument against the overuse and improper planting of evergreens in contemporary urban landscape, and in that vein I encourage (probably in vain) all gardeners to consider the eventual size and space needs for all things they plant – evergreen or not.

They make small shrubs, you know.

There is a rural legend in Wyoming that it sometimes gets so cold that the trunks of evergreens freeze and explode during the night.  Thankfully, this is simply legend, and any midnight explosions are more realistically attributable to some well-armed redneck that’s had a few too many Budweisers.  Evergreens, as it turns out, are also effectively adapted to holding on to their greenery – and not exploding – during the winter months.

Photosynthesis ceases in the evergreens of these high, cold forests.  For starters, there is no water available to them – it is all frozen into ice and snow.  Water is a requirement of photosynthesis, so the trees hibernate.  Beyond that, though, in order to survive their sometimes half-year seasonal ice capades, the evergreens have developed an antifreeze-like sap which protects their needles and limbs from freezing.  Even if it did get so cold that the liquid in their cells freeze, they have specifically adapted an extra-tough cell wall.  No nighttime exploding trees here.

Another problem for all plants during the dry winter months is water evaporation, and another evergreen adaptation is a waxy coat over the needles.  This effectively seals the surface and wards off winter water loss.

While alive and green for certain, the winter evergreens are definitely not growing.  They are in hibernation.  So, shhhh, now, let’s let them sleep in peace.  And perhaps we can follow suit, as these are the short days of winter’s ennui.

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Moving

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48_Plant_in_box

It’s moving time.  Again.

The Current Mr. Perfect and I are striking out on our own, which requires relocation.  Groan.  But not to worry; like most things in my life, I have an outline for moving (the most notable exception being an overall outline for said life).  My moving outline is a distinct, step-by-step procedure designed to ease the burden of changing my address.  My actual move day will be relatively painless, unlike the move days of a few of the people I have in the past helped with a household relocation.  I speak now of those who wait until the very morning of the move day, after the volunteers have arrived, to begin even to think about the process.  Children’s’ toys strewn about, laundry still in the machines, nary a dish wrapped and packed, beds still burdened with crumpled sheets.  This is an approach I do not advise, especially if you care to maintain your friendships with the volunteers.

Making a move easy requires a regimented, sequential approach.  If you follow the proper steps, come moving day there will be nothing left to do but hoist the boxes and furniture to the moving van, and then un-hoist it all at the new domicile.  To my way of thinking, moving requires forethought and planning.  This is a fact I should verily know; as nearly as I can recollect – and trust me, it took a notebook and a few minutes to conduct the recollection – this upcoming move will be the twenty-ninth time I have changed households in my life.

Mind you, I am fifty-four.  When one does the math, those numbers translate to an average stay of 1.86 years in each home.  My conclusion?  It is no wonder I am a pro at the moving process.  I could probably to do it in my sleep, without help.  Hell, by now at the mere mention of moving most of my possessions independently undertake the moving steps.  To the letter.  Weeks ahead of time, things begin to automatically wrap themselves in (stolen) newspaper and assume their assigned spots in the moving boxes (which, most likely, I have scavenged from the CVS dumpster in the alley or the copy room at work).  There, resting, my “things” patiently wait for the joy of unpacking day in the new home.

If I am being honest, moving a household can be a tedious task.  However, the process does present certain benefits.

First, every single item gets cleaned.  For that, thank your personal God.  Historical evidence reveals that by the time one is preparing to move, everything fairly demands a good cleaning.  The apparent fact that everyone (including me) neglects to wipe down or vacuum the out-of-sight stuff simultaneously amazes and disgusts me.  After all, I consider myself to be a very clean person.  A clean freak, some might even venture.  Ask anyone who has lived with me.  I have shine standards that go far beyond the norm.  My cleanliness requirements border on OCD.

This trait, I own.

I have, by virtue of living with my birth family, various roommates, and a staggering collection of different boys, shared a space with twenty-three different people thus far in my lifetime (for you mathletes, an average of 2.35 years with each).  I rarely argued with any of them over the state of the kitchen sink.  This is because I comprehend that the need to have it all picked up, cleaned up, and put away is solely my compulsion.  Not anyone else’s and certainly not theirs.

I learned this early.

So funny, isn’t it, how certain traits skip a generation?  My mother didn’t give a twit about how clean or organized her house was.  This was possibly the only thing that could have driven me crazy about my beloved mother, had she not preemptively taught me that no one but me is responsible for my compulsions.  My mother didn’t bother to concern herself with household cleanliness, but sometimes nowadays as I sanitize and organize my own home, I can almost hear her mother, my Clorox-scented German Grandma Rose, reminding, “A place for everything and everything washed and in its place”.

When sharing space, it is my wont to give up on nagging and just clean up.  After everyone.  No wonder my friend Carl only half-jokingly refers to me as “Mrs. Garret”.  Still, come move times, one discovers dust/grime/cat hair that one never suspected.  As it turns out, everything must be shined before it gets placed in the new house.  It’s a fresh, clean start.

Another benefit of moving, especially to those of us with minor-bordering-on-full-blown hoarding tendencies, is the chance to winnow out one’s possessions.  One is forced to go though things item by item and evaluate the value (whether functional or emotional) of holding on.  Some things (my Grandma Rose’s vaguely racist Aunt Jemima Cookie Jar, a succulent carrion plant (Stapelia gigantea) which no one but me cares for, a dried rose from my younger brother’s funeral) always make the cut.  Other things – a lively but short green sleeper sofa, a too-blonde 1950’s Dick Van Dyke bedroom set, a much-loved but back-breaking 10-speed road bike – are deemed replaceable.  Or simply no longer needed.

With each move, one takes only the things that belong in that time and for that space.

Moving provides a chance to start afresh, even when the new home is only a few blocks distant (as is the case with my current move).  Despite proximity, it is a new space and a new opportunity.  A new life, if you will.  Conversely, and I know I repeat myself with this adage but it is an adage that bears repeating, each new life also portends the shuttering of an old life.  One door opens, another closes.  Along with the fresh start comes an end.

This is why I like to conduct a private ceremony after all of my possessions have been removed from the home I am vacating.  Once the space is rid of my detritus and shined in preparation for the new inhabitant, I ask the moving volunteers to leave me alone for a few minutes.  I find a comfortable spot to reflect on the memories, on the joy and the sadness I have experienced in that location.  And I give thanks to the space, often accompanied by joyous tears, for hosting me.  Lastly, after I have composed myself, I ask that the space release all of my associations, both those positive and those negative, in order to prepare itself for its new inhabitants.

I have no idea if this has any real impact, but I have always vacated the spaces I have called home feeling like I have taken all of my baggage with me.

I have not, however, been able to take all of my gardens with me.  And that has always been sad.  When departing Northern California to return to The District, I was forced to leave behind my lemon tree, my orange tree, my papyrus, and numerous other much-loved patio plants.  There was just no way to bring them with me in the tiny golden Ford Escort I was driving cross country (three thousand miles) with all of my clothing, a dog and a cat, and a few very select plants.  The Former Mr. Perfect and I specified in the lease for the incoming tenants that they were required to care for the garden, but when I did a house inspection two years later I was dismayed to find most of the plants that were not well-established had perished.  The potted papyrus, among others, had passed.  I was ecstatic, however, to pluck some lemons and oranges from the firmly-rooted trees to smuggle home, nestled in my luggage.

Another time I moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Denver, Colorado, in the dead of winter.  At the time I was in possession of a huge elephant ear philodendron.  I trussed her up and packed her last, in the very back end of the unheated U-Haul truck.  Several days and one-thousand five-hundred and eighty miles later, upon arrival in Denver, I untied her.  Imagine my horror as the frozen leaves shattered into brilliant green shards of ice.  I was left with nothing but the three stubs of her trunks protruding from the potting soil.  Never fear . . . within a few months, those stubs had produced a new, vibrant plant.  Ten years later, when I moved from Denver to Seattle, the philodendron no longer seemed necessary (and at her size would have required her own moving van).  I left her in the care of the Recreational Therapist at the Senior Citizen’s Home where I volunteered every Saturday morning (teaching wheelchair aerobics, mind you, set to the tunes of Sylvester – the ladies loved it).

When last I visited her, it was again as a volunteer:  this time to hoist her mass atop a three-foot plant table to protect the low-hanging, foot-wide leaves from the bruising wheels of one hundred roving wheelchairs.

When I left Denver, enticed westward by the gentle climes of Seattle, that emerald city where my best friends lived and gardens aren’t planned, they just occur thanks to the good graces of a temperate, rain-infusing Garden God, I passed along most of both my indoor and my outdoor gardens.  I moved very few specimens to my new city and state, other than the afore-mentioned carrion plant succulent and a couple of other precious starts.

I had two plant-deficient Denver-based friends at that time, and one avid gardening buddy.  Kathy One (plant deficient and plant ignorant) had just purchased a new townhome.  It straddled a city lot that came with a huge, construction-compressed and barren back yard.  Kathy Two (plant deficient, but motivated) adored my “knack” for houseplants and vegetable gardens, and had just purchased an older home in the distant suburbs complete with established vegetable and flower gardens.  Eleanor (the only Eleanor, a gardener worthy of envy) shared an alley with me.  It dissected our two back yards.  She and I had long appreciated/coveted each others’ specimens over the back fences, and shared seeds and starts and advice at will.

I dug up and transplanted to Kathy One’s dirt pile fresh divisions of many of my back yard specimens:  bright red poppies, purple, white and yellow irises, succulent strawberries, variegated snow-on-the-mountain, orange day lilies, towering and fuzzy-leafed miner’s candle, pink dianthus, and many others.  At the time I was planting them in her hard-pack soil, I knew that few were likely to survive.  Along with her dirt, she just wasn’t prepared.  Like the person who is moving but waits until the last moment to think about packing, she expected that we would shove the plants in the ground and they would flourish.  She had no idea of the steps and care these plants would require to turn her dusty space into verdant bliss.  Still, I consoled myself with believing that at least a few of the hardier (weedier?) transplants would thrive.  I never had the heart to revisit.

To Kathy Two I bequeathed several large, outdoor potted plants as well as numerous specifically requested outdoor plant divisions and a plethora of indoor plants.  The potted plants included a beautiful Scotch Pine “bonsai” tree growing in a half whiskey barrel planter for outside her front entry and a wide bowl with a salmon, February-blooming lily for her kitchen window.  Along with the items I handed over to Kathy Two, I provided intricate written care instructions.   When I visited this friend a few years later, I was ecstatic to find all of the plants thriving.  She had even mastered the art of restarting and renewing.

To Eleanor, I donated only the one item from my garden she most coveted:  a beautiful pink tree peony that grew in the other half of the whiskey barrel.  Such a gorgeous plant!  For years she had visited during its brief blooming period, and when it came time to part with it, I could think of no one else who would treasure it as I had.  I never revisited it, but I am certain that it flourishes to this day.  Eleanor possessed the gardening bug.

Moving might have benefits, but in reality there is nothing easy about it.  It’s painful, and emotional, and despite being an opening door, it is also a closing door.  Once you have moved on, you can’t go back.  Trust your old Queen Gardener; you can’t go back even if you try.  This is the voice of experience speaking.  I will spare you those details, saved for another chapter.

Here’s my advice for moving your treasured houseplants.  If at all possible, don’t attempt to transport the established adult plant.  Make a new start.  It’s much easier to move a small plant in a tiny pot than a huge, established specimen.   Step one (of ninety) of the moving process:  take clippings of every clip-able plant that you intend to move and get them rooting in water (or potting medium) as described in other chapters.  When the rootlets are ready, pot the fresh babies in small, plastic (therefore unbreakable) pots.  Come moving day, place the pots in groups in strong cardboard boxes, adequately watered but not soaking.  Gently pack around the lower pot portion with wadded paper to keep them from tilting and rolling.  Close the lid and you should be good for at least three or four days, often longer.

If the treasured plant in question is one that cannot be started afresh, like my elephant-ear philodendron, gently bundle and truss the leaves upward and inward to prevent breakage and tears and to condense the space requirements.  I find kitchen string works wonderfully for this.  Wrap the pot tightly in plastic to keep the soil intact and then fit in the vehicle as you can (trussed and wrapped thusly, most plants can survive three or four days – or longer – even while lying prone).

Another option is to hack it back as far as possible and start anew – as I inadvertently did with my lovely elephant ear philodendron.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about moving houseplants:  generally, they have become accustomed to the spot in which they have matured.  Move an older, established plant and in the new home you most likely will be faced with sunburn, or sun-deprivation, or too hot or too cold or too something-or-other.  The old ones just don’t transfer as well.  Start a new plant and move her, and she will grow as intended in the new placement, adjusting to it at about the same pace as you adapt to your new environs.

It’s just facts.

As for outdoor gardens:  take cuttings or starts of your plants for transport (similar crating technique to that used for the houseplants), and pass along divisions of those that you can.  And the rest?  The trees and shrubs and bedding plants?  There is just not much to be done but leave it all to fate.  When you visit in times to come, if some have not carried on, consider that the garden at your new home in some ways compensates for the living mass that has been lost.  And for those plantings that have lived on, thriving even without your expert care, let me assure you that there is no joy like that of revisiting.

A special garden in Salt Lake City, Utah, comes to mind.  One summer day while on my hands and knees weeding there, I discovered an infant, volunteer blue spruce.  I tended this tree faithfully for a few years and then I moved on to another city.  Years later when I revisited that garden, the tree loomed over a beautiful Koi pond.  That, to me, was a joy similar to what parents must experience when their offspring embark on successful, independent lives.

Kitchen Garden

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Trust me, it will be sooner rather than later. Enjoy your rest!

At this annual changing of the guard, when the garden is battening her hatches and the first hard freeze of the year looms over the sunset of our horizon, I thought perhaps I should remind all that the ice season is as short-lived as the rest of the seasons, that eventually Old Man Winter will loosen his sturdy grip on the land and the garden, and Delicate Miss Spring will once again arrive in all her flowered, bee-hovering glory.  So here’s a little poem to hold close through the dark months to come, to remind you that the slanted light of spring will find you sooner rather than later.

Kitchen Garden

Winter’s vestigial buttercream melts
in the sweet April sunshine, oozes
down the garden steps.  I warm
the twin loaves of my derrière
on a batch of bugle weed sprouting
along the pathway.
My unseasoned fingers
sift the waiting cocoa soil
of an herbaceous border, flour
impatient for summer’s eggs
and milk.  Dolloped here
among these raw ingredients
I implore – who bakes this cake?

This poem, “Kitchen Garden”, was first published in MO:   Writings from the River, the literary journal of Montana State University, Great Falls, 4th Edition, Spring 2009.

Naming

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Fancy schmancy!

Rosa persiana, Equus caballus, Homo sapiens

By now you know I’m a little obsessive when it comes to the scientific names (among other things).  I’m sure you’ve noticed it in my other chapters.  It’s true, boys and girls (and girly boys, and boyish girls), I like the fancy names.  Who else would refer to his beloved Grandma Rose’s yellow rose as Rosa persiana?  So, so gay – I can hear your snicker from here.  But guess what, Mr. Smarty Pants?  This fancy format of naming also has practical aspects:  it helps us classify and arrange things.  It’s like naming your baby – it identifies him as him and only him.

So there.

This little individual baby goes by Jackson Lassiter.  In binomial nomenclature (what we properly call the “fancy”, or scientific names), I would be identified as Lassiter jackson.

An aside:  Lassiter, it seems, is English in origin, a habitational name from the city of Leicester.  This means it has nothing to do with the sixth grade essay I conjured up for Mrs. O’Neill’s homeroom Social Studies assignment on the origins of our own last names, in which I claimed that my family, throughout history, habitually arrived late for dinner.  We were (at least in my sixth grade essay), aptly named the Last Eaters, which eventually was shortened to Lassiter.

That’s not it?  Really?  Go figure.  Mrs. O’Neill gave me an A for creativity, regardless.

Wherever it came from, my last name, Lassiter, identifies me as a member of my family.  For better or worse.  And my “given” name (more on that in a minute) of Jackson identifies me, individually, within that family.  Binomial nomenclature does the same thing for plants (and animals, and bacteria, and fungi, and every other living organism).

Binomial nomenclature (also called binominal nomenclature or binary nomenclature) is a formal – as in wearing a tuxedo and shiny shoes – method of classifying all biological things by giving them a proper name.  This would be a name with two parts.

Duh.  I may not be the brightest pansy in the garden but I could easily figure out that binomial/binominal/binary translates to two (my bisexual friends will most certainly concur).  And nomenclature can’t mean anything but names.

Binomial nomenclature assigns Latin grammatical form although the actual words are often derived from other sources.  How weird is it that this Latinized naming format is credited to Swedish natural scientist Carl Linnaeus (Linnaeus carl?)?  It effectively began with the publication of his work Species Plantarum in 1753.

Oh my God, I’ll bet that one is a page-turner.  Yawn.

The first word in the two-part name identifies the genus (concerning us humans, Homo, which you know is near and dear to my heart).  The genus name must be unique within each kingdom but it can be repeated between kingdoms.

I know I am a princess, but what is all this talk of kingdoms?

In the United States, the “kingdoms” are Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaea, and Bacteria.  So although there is a plant genus called Rosa, there theoretically can also be an animal, bacteria, fungus, archaea, or protozoa genus of the same name (or all of them!).

But that’s not it.  Please, allow me to confuse this matter even more:  other countries recognize more or fewer kingdoms.  Double oy vey!

Moving on now to the second part of the two-part name, which identifies the species within the genus (for us humans, sapiens, loosely translated as “wise one” – a description that is certainly debatable).  This second name is also treated grammatically as a Latin word although it, too, can be derived from any language.  Its main purpose is to further classify or clarify the species, to identify its uniqueness.  It can be an adjective, a noun, or even a Latinized version of a surname indicating who discovered said species.

Lassiter jackobi?

Let’s return to my grandmother’s cherished yellow roses.  Their binomial name is Rosa persiana – they are of the kingdom plantae, the genus rosa, and then individually identified as persiana.  Plants, roses, Persian.  Their common name is Persian Yellow Roses.

Ahhh . . . yes:  roses.  Juliet, she of Shakespeare fame, says, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”   Juliet implies that a rose is a rose is a rose.

I get your point, Juliet.  But in some ways, I disagree.

Let’s look at the name game.  Sing along with me, if you will.  Jackson-Jackson-Bo-Backson, Banana-Ana-Fo-Fackson, Me-My-Mo-Mackson, Jackson!

Really?  That’s it?  Not one single syllabus of interest.  Not one.

Let’s try Yuri (the current Mr. Perfect).

Yuri-Yuri-Bo-Burry, Banana-Ana-Fo-Furry . . . OK, already better.  And more appropriate.  He is a furry little thing, for sure.

Now, let’s move on to Chuck.

Ok, enough adolescent frivolity; back to Shakespeare, and his adolescent seriousness.  In “Romeo and Juliet”, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet fall in love.  This is a lyrical tale of “star-cross’d” lovers who are doomed from the very beginning as they are members of two warring family camps.  With her famous rose statement, Juliet means to say that a name is nothing more than an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves the person who is called “Romeo Montague”, not the Montague name and not the Montague family.

Blah, blah, blah.  Whatever, girlfriend.

Romeo, out of his passion for Juliet, rejects his family name and vows, as Juliet positively demands, to “deny (his) father” and instead be “new baptized” as Juliet’s lover.  This one short “sweet-smelling” line encapsulates the central struggle and tragedy of the play.

Gag me now with a rose thorn.  Or a Montague.

Juliet believes a rose is a rose, by any other name.  Or is it Shakespeare who believes?  Whatever, whomever:  the two of them tell us there is nothing in a name.

I, for one, am not convinced.

I know people with nicknames, and those monikers are often more appropriate and revealing than their given names.  Alphonso became Butch, Janice is known as Dollie.  Rudy is really someone else in his true life (sorry, reader, I know better than to divulge who that would be).  Others purposefully change their given name to a chosen name.

Confession:  that’s exactly what I did, and unless you are a member of my immediate family and/or someone who has known me for many years, you won’t ever know my given-at-birth name.  I can, however, say without hesitation that I feel much more of a relationship to my chosen name than my given name.

Names, it seems, carry a powerful punch.  Ask anyone who has been called a “fag” or “dyke” or “cock sucker”.  Names can empower; names can destroy.

Here’s a funny story for you:  when I finally decided at forty years of age (!) to change my given name to one that I connected with, my most pressing hesitation was the fear of telling my dear mother.  What would she think?  Would this move come across as a rejection of what she had intended for me?

Imagine my pleasant surprise at her response, once I worked up the nerve to tell her about my plans.  “Oh, son, I never wanted to name you that.  But your Dad was set and he just wouldn’t let it go.  I personally like your new name better.  It’s very you,” she said.

Probably didn’t hurt matters that my new first name, Jackson, was a family maiden name from my father’s side of the family (his grandmother was Barbee Jackson) and that my new middle name, Rexford, was derived from my mother’s long-lost father, Rex Mowell.  My mother, I believe, appreciated the history and depth of my chosen name.

As important of an identifier as an individual name is, though, it certainly is an easy thing to change.  One simply fills out a form, pays a fee, and shows up for one’s assigned court appointment.  A judge whom one has never met asks one to confirm that the change is not intended to defraud or hurt anyone else, and then – presto! – with a judicial declaration and the pounding of a gilded hammer, one’s name is officially changed.

Of course then one must undertake the laborious process of changing one’s name with all of the agencies and companies and entities one deals with in life.  Driver’s License, Social Security, Retirement Fund, Library access.  This ensuing process, my friend, is not quite such a simple task.  Ask any woman who has been married, or divorced.

And let’s hope one loves his new name because all names matter (even the binomial names), if only for the reason than a name identifies a particular someone or something as unique.  Take the wild horses roaming the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Preserve in Wyoming, if you will.  I am intimate with these horses; their range is adjacent to the homestead of my origin.  Take them, for example.

It is funny, and not so funny all at the same time, that many of the area ranchers would agree a la Rodney Dangerfield  – yes, please, take them!  As in, away.

Horsies be gone.

There is a variety of names people call these free-roaming feral horses.  Most locals simply refer to them as “the wild horses out along the highway”.   Meanwhile the Wyoming State Office of Tourism, in glossy brochures and well-designed websites intended to lure East Coast and West Coast tourists and their dollars to the state, proactively advertise the Pryor Mountain Herd as “a poignant and free-roaming symbol of the Wild West”.  Simultaneously, the powerful ranching lobby and their puppet arm, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the very organization charged with their care under the Wild Horse and Burros Act of 1971, essentially identify the Pryor Mountain horses as “pests”.  Still others properly refer to them as Mustangs (in the fancy, scientific nomenclature, Equus caballus).

In truth, this herd is, in fact, the only wild herd in the United States proven by DNA testing to be distinct descendants of the very first horses, the Mustangs, brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors.  While there are certainly other beautiful wild horses roaming our great nation, those other herds, even the other herds roaming other areas in “Big, Wonderful Wyoming”, have been diluted with Thoroughbred or Draft or Arabian blood, mostly via intermingling with escaped or abandoned domestic stock.  But the Pryor Mountain Herd is comprised of true Mustangs.  In their case, a horse is not a horse by any other name.  A horse is a horse is a horse, of course, unless that horse is a Mustang.  Then, he is a Mustang.

Names matter.  Ask my friend Carl, who is more-than-serious when he says that one must be comfortable in their name.  He also told me the story of when he was completing his Dale Carnegie training (and eventually even did a stint as an assistant).  He was taught first-hand about Dale Carnegie Principle #6, which states:  you must remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

One might be well advised to consider that other side of this . . . namely (ha ha), a person’s moniker is probably the sweetest sound he hears, but that it doesn’t have to be his given name.  It can be one’s chosen name, “pet name”, or nickname (if it was given by someone special).

This all comes from Carl, who makes up a name for everyone.  No joke, sister.  He refers to me as “Jack-o-line”.  And I love that nick-name.  I will answer to it immediately.

Back to Wyoming’s unique Mustangs, of whom I have many memories.  I warmly recall one spring afternoon when I was on a solitary drive between the villages of Greybull and Lovell, Wyoming.  I had stopped roadside to drape myself over the spacious hood of my military green Chrysler Newport in the new, welcome sun, to smoke a joint and watch the fresh foals cavort in the distance.

This memory makes me homesick and giddy and almost high again, all at the same time.

An earlier but just as compelling memory is of an autumn drive to Cody, Wyoming, in 1968 with my mother, her and me chatting and giggling in her red and white International Harvester Scout truck (such a cute little outfit).  We were driving to Cody because it was the nearest “city” (even as recent as 2010, still less than 10,000 residents), and we needed a shopping, lunching, girl-talking outing.  On the way, we spotted a small herd of the Mustangs foraging at highway’s edge (behind a fence, of course).  We pulled over to watch them and, although the mares and colts largely ignored us, the ghostly gray herd stallion watched us right back, warily, almost menacingly.  For certain I would have been ill-advised to wander out in the sagebrush where he guarded his harem.

There is little wonder he was so cautious, as it turns out:  our day trip for shopping was a full three years before The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed in 1971 (Public Law 92-195).  Back then, in 1968, these wild symbols of the true west were still being rounded up on an annual basis – to save the limited natural resources of the dry highland plains for the ranchers’ cows and sheep.  Those days the captured Mustangs were outright sold for slaughter.

I have since learned that the ghostly grey stallion was actually a “grullo”, one of the common color schemes of the linebacked dun family of horse colors which is a trademark of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustangs.  Linebacked duns are horses of a base color that are affected by a genetic trait (a trait found primarily in descendants of old world and ancient horses) called the dun allele. The dun allele lightens the coat, whatever base color it is, and adds primitive stripe and bar markings to it, such as a dark stripe running down the back (a dorsal stripe), zebra-like stripes on the legs, wither bars, fish-boning off the dorsal stripe, and spider webbing on the face.  While these markings aren’t all always present on each Pryor Mountain Wild Horse, every member of the herd does have a dorsal stripe and nearly all have distinct zebra stripes on their legs.   Grullo, the color of my beautiful ghost stallion, is a Spanish word which harkens to the slate-like color of a crane (as in bird).   Grullos are black horses affected by the dun allele.

My father used to hold court recounting his stories about “round-ups” of days gone, when the Mustangs were chased via whatever method worked, truck or horseback, eventually moving on to helicopter chases, until they were corralled in the name of saving the range for livestock grazing.  Occasionally, younger detainees were adopted out to farmers or ranchers who had need of horse power, but most often these marvelous creatures were sold “as is” to pet food companies for processing into Fido’s or Tabby’s food.

Despite the Wild Horse and Burros Act, the war continues, and it is a lopsided battle.  The Bureau of Land Management, the agency charged with enforcing the Wild Horse and Burros Act, practices as a means of “management”, largely due to the ferocious ranching lobby in the State of Wyoming, these very same annual round-ups.  These days, the individual horses captured are either adopted out, or placed in perpetual confinement under BLM care until they have lived out their lives in a sort of Guantanamo Bay prison for Mustangs.

Those deemed worthy of domestication, typically the younger horses, can only be adopted out to individual owners, but even by the BLM’s own admission, they do not intensively screen adoption requests, nor do they track what happens to the mustangs after adoption.  There are, in truth, no statistics about how many of the horses pass through their adoption to end up in slaughter.

Easy money for unscrupulous characters.

In a slightly more humane approach, but still questionable, the BLM actively practices reproduction inhibition:  capture, castration, and re-release of the stallions; capture, hormonal birth control implantation, and re-release of the mares.

None of this makes sense to me.  I grew up in Wyoming.  I know how much wide-open public land there is.  Wyoming has 18.4 million acres of BLM-managed land; the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Preserve is only 39,650 acres.  Surely, that is not too much to devote solely to the continuation of this unique sub-species?

As Andrew Cohen wrote in his series of articles in The Atlantic, regarding the proposed reduction of two other wild horse herds in Wyoming via the same removal and/or reproduction-inhibition methods (not the Pryor Mountain Mustang herd in this case but non-Mustang herds located in Sweetwater County), “According to statistics compiled by Jonathan Ratner, of the Western Watersheds Project, one of the plaintiffs who initially filed suit to block the Wyoming removal/castration plan, Wyoming and the BLM currently allocate nine times more forage for livestock than for wild horses in the two herd management areas from which the horses soon will be taken. There are approximately 850,000 acres of public land in those two areas — and the ranchers won’t tolerate more than approximately 300 wild horses there. You do the math. There is plenty of room for all of Wyoming’s four-legged creatures.”

These Pryor Mountain horses are correctly named Mustangs.  They are descendents of the original horses on this continent.  They have born witness to the taming of this country; they have toiled alongside both the pioneers and the Native Americans (in this case, the Crow Indians).  And now they are in danger.

I think it’s time we call a skunk a skunk (because by any other name, it stinks) and ask the BLM to come up with a rational manageable plan that doesn’t cave to the ranching lobby, but instead protects the wild Mustangs of Wyoming.   For they are not only truly a living symbol of the west, they are a scientifically identified and thusly-named individual species which is in decline.  And that, by any other name, is a shame.

Coleus

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All we need is some glitter and we’ll have a show!

(Coleus blumei)

I took it for a faery vision
Of some gay creatures of the element,
That in the colours of the rainbow live,
And play i’ th’ plighted clouds.

-John Milton (1608-1674)
 Comus, Line 298

There is no question why the rainbow flag is the banner for the gay community,  for to belong to this members-only club is to be part of a breathtaking, multi-hued assortment of personal styles and approaches to life.  The gay flag was first designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker of San Francisco, the homosexual world’s Betsy Ross, to illustrate how we as a people, from the leather daddies to the lesbian mommies, from the blatino hustlers to the Birkenstock feminists, represent every culture, ethnicity, age, gender, race, personality, and socio-economic background possible.  We are loud, meek, brown, red, sane, crazy, old, young, black, white, thin, fat, pink, yellow, rich, poor, man, woman, and all things in between.  We come in every tint of every shape imaginable and we stand together under one rainbow-striped family banner.  We are a cheerfully unified, downright campy lot, darn it, generally happy go lucky and working together as we search for our rightful place in the world.  Like any family, we may fight amongst ourselves, but face one of us and you face us all.

Even though surely not imagining the same gay creatures as I, Milton’s poem never-the-less paints a lyrical picture of the gays mingling on life’s playground.  We are a fairy vision that in the rainbow live and in the plighted clouds play.  And in those plighted clouds we thrive.  Gloria Gaynor, diva supreme and the 1970’s poetic parallel to the 1670’s Milton (and much dearer to our dancing gay selves), says it all (and I paraphrase):  we will survive, oh as long as we know how to love, we know we’ll stay alive . . . we got all our lives to live and we’ve got all our love to give, and we’ll survive, we will survive. . . hey, hey!

We are one raucous, rockin’, colorful family; we are a rainbow clan treading stormy skies and it is love that binds us together.  It is not despite our differences but precisely because of them that in our midst I feel safe:  in a band of misfits, no one is an outcast.  I love my rainbow people.

I also love the rainbow that lives quietly in my garden, a living representation of this symbol of my gay family.  She is the humble coleus, a hardy annual and distant relative of the mints, a plant of bright cheer that adds a welcome splash of any color your homosexual heart desires.  Feeling ruby red this season, Dorothy?  No problem.  Salivating for salmon?  Not to worry.  Chartreuse, you say, with a slight lisp and forced French accent.  Un-purse those lips and lower that eyebrow, Sugar, we have that.

A exploding drag show of color, the coleus holding center stage in my garden or impatiently waiting in the wings on my windowsill for their turn in the spotlights don’t disappoint:  Fishnet Stockings (legs from here to there, she shimmies in frog green with deeply indented, dark purple veins), Gay’s Delight (everyone’s favorite little chanteuse, this one lip-synchs Cindy Lauper while clad only in oval leaves of brilliant chartreuse with sexy maroon markings), Pineapple Queen (a Polynesian princess, this mahu hulas across the stage while playing her ukulele, her pointed yellow leaves bordered in deep burgundy), and my favorite, Mariposa (ay carumba!, this butterfly, la Latina muy fuega, has gorgeous scalloped crimson wings with a hint of an orange and pink underglow, deepening to nearly black at the very center).  Bravo!  Bravo!

Although as extravagantly named and attired as the most flamboyant of gender illusionists, the coleus one-ups your favorite cabaret performer by remaining eminently adaptable.  Unlike the queens in the revue, coleus is chock full of reward for very little effort.  Too bad the girls can’t be this easy.  To satisfy, I mean; we know they can be easy in other ways.  But sun to partial shade, dry or wet, free-range or potted; the coleus doesn’t bitch and doesn’t falter.  She won’t get pissy over of a broken nail or a misspelled name.  Except in the face of arid drought (and who among us wouldn’t wither in that situation?) these charmers live to please.  Her thousands of variations – nearly as many cultivars as there are Judy Garland impersonators – bravely and cheerfully endure, putting even Milton’s little fairies to shame as she never fails to put her best size-12 stiletto forward.   Give her an inch, and she’ll take an inch.  Give her a mile, and, snap!, Honey, look out:  she’s gonna’ work that stage.  Uh-huh!

Coleus is child’s play to cultivate.  Although it sprouts voluminously from seed, why bother?  Starts are available every spring at most any nursery outlet.  Always a trend-setter (like any self-respecting queen, she refuses to venture out in anything but the most recent of fashion), each season brings a new color or leaf pattern.  Reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, crenate, serrate, undulate, lobed:  I collect them all and search for new varieties.  But I don’t stop at simply perusing the nurseries and garden centers; I keep one eye cocked in my daily travels, for coleus roots easily.  Shhhh, don’t tell. . . a few of my specimens may have been pilfered from a kind neighbor’s or unsuspecting stranger’s garden or planter.  Accidentally, of course.  Just pinch off a section of stem four inches or longer (size queens can take eight inches if it feels better; the dimensionally-challenged can clip four inches but advertise it online as eight).  Remove the lower leaves and put the stem in water (oh-so-pretty in a tiny glass vase).  She may droop for a day but will perk up in short order and rooting should begin immediately.   As soon as there are sufficient roots – just an inch or two – plant directly in the garden or in pots in most any loosened soil.  Keep her consistently moist until she is established and then sit back and enjoy the show.

Fertilize with a standard water-mixed solution if you must (the leaf application fertilizers sometimes cause white spots to form on her fuzzy leaves), but it is not necessary.  She will do well on her own.   To encourage dense foliage, though, pinch the tips of the stems to force branching and, although she has a pretty blue flower stalk, I find it best to pinch these, too.  Allowing her to bloom may cause a pause in her growth.

I like to mix and match, grouping like and opposite colors and patterns together, and I’ve put on a decent show except for the time I planted an undulating salmon in concert with a lobed pink.  Ewww, girlfriend, looked like two competing Judy’s had a cat fight and nobody limped away the winner.

In full sun these happy little starlets will develop deep colors on a more compact, dense bush with smaller leaves.  In a shadier location the colors may be fainter or change completely, red muting to pink and maroon fading to bronze.  The plant will also be lighter and more airy in appearance, which I think suits the softer look of a shade garden and complements the more delicate plants that typically grow in such exposure.  In any case, when she begins to look leggy, a bit long in the tooth, a harsh pruning is in order.  Don’t be afraid; hack her back to a stump and you will shortly be rewarded with new, vigorous growth.

At summer’s end, say shortly after the close of the Fire Island season but before the hard-earned tan lines fade to winter white, I take clippings from all my specimens for over-wintering.  They first make a beautiful bouquet grouped in a large vase, and when the roots have developed sufficiently I sort them into pretty pots and line my kitchen or office window, where they cheer my every morning as we all wait for summer’s reign to clear these plighted winter clouds.

“We will survive, as long as we have love to give . . .” I sing, as I make my morning coffee.  And I swear they sway in rhythm.

Squash and Pumpkins

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We are all different…we are all the same.

It’s October, and anyone who knows me has witnessed the scene that plays out this time of the year.  It stars me, of course (looking dashing in some fall-colored plaid print frock), obsessively stashing away a precious hoard of winter squash and pumpkins, behaving like some overgrown, tail-less plaid squirrel-man who must make certain that he has enough Cucurbitaceae stockpiled to last until spring.

Which I never do; I always run out come February.

It doesn’t matter that every Saturday I return from the local Farmer’s Market with a plethora of winter squashes, hoisting more poundage than I can comfortably carry.  Or that every year at this time, every spare inch of every closet is converted to gourd cellar.  None of this matters because, apparently, my love of the dish consistently outpaces my ability to procure and store.  Go figure.  Fortunately for me, both winter and summer squashes are available year-round at my local grocery stores.

But that fact does not inhibit my hoarding tendency:  winter squash, like toilet paper, is something one can never have stashed away too much of.

I have always loved this time of year.  Besides being the season when one surrenders to one’s plaid squirrel tendencies, this is also the time of year when spiritual tradition takes a darker turn.  My imaginative Pagan friends begin to prepare for Samhain (pronounced SOW-in and meaning “summer’s end”), while on the other end of the religious spectrum, but oddly similar in production, those of the Christian persuasions prepare for Halloween (which, even with its continuing reputation for mischief and merry-making, is little more than a watered-down remnant of all that it used to be).

Samhain, originally a Celtic Pagan tradition, is a celebration which marks the day of the year when the veil between the living world and the dead world is at its thinnest, when the two spheres are able to interact.   Samhain is observed on October 31 (in the Northern Hemisphere) and is a celebration of the lives of those who have passed on.  It is a time to pay respect to ancestors, family members, elders, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died.  In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities.

Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) is the corresponding Christian-based celebration, also observed on October 31 (the evening before All Souls’ Day), and is a time for honoring the Saints as well as praying for the recently departed who had not yet reached Heaven.  Pope Gregory IV ordered a church-wide observance in 837. By the end of the twelfth century, Halloween had become a day of holy obligation across Europe and involved such traditions as ringing bells for the souls in purgatory and baking bread or soul cakes (“souling”) for christened spirits.  It was traditionally believed that these departed spirits wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve offered them one last chance to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving on to the next world. To avoid being recognized by a departed enemy soul, Christians would wear masks and costumes to disguise themselves.

In modern times, the fickle Christians have attempted to distance themselves from this tradition and celebration.  Come Halloween, rather than costumes and trick-or-treating, they host “Church Harvest Parties” for their deprived children and complain about the escalating dark goriness of contemporary Halloween costumes.  They reference Satan worship, never mentioning that the holiday originated in their culture.

Poor, deprived Christian children.

In these dangerous times of razor blades and arsenic poisoning, trick-or-treating is, in general, a thing of the past.  Not so in my faraway youth, when on Halloween, at sunset, my mother drove her brood to the far edge of town and dropped us off, unattended and attired in whatever outlandish costume we desired (my all-time favorite being the year that she hand-stitched me a flowing witch’s robe and matching hat – without protest regarding gender specifics or appropriateness).

She then waited for us at the near edge of town, while we swarmed unattended from one end of the village to the other, collecting candies, cookies, popcorn balls, and nickels along the way, as well as acting like normal children and causing just the tiniest bit of mischief.  There was no need for worry:  in that small town and in that more innocent time, it really was a case of the village raising the children.  Had anything untoward happened to my brothers or I along the way, my mother would have been the first to know, duly alerted by one of her sewing group or book club friends before anything too serious had been allowed.

Times change, and change is not always for the better.  I am dating myself, for certain, but today’s children are missing out on a special rite of childhood:  a night when, in theory at least, one could romp unattended collecting all things unhealthy while being encouraged to make minor mischief.  We certainly egged a car or two, or soaped a window – innocent merriment that washed off with the next winter rain.  But most importantly, we trick-or-treated more goodies that we could possibly guzzle down in a reasonable amount of time.  Later that Halloween evening, upon returning to the farmhouse, we would pour our bulging goodie bags out on the living room floor and sort them, trade them with each other – my favorite in exchange for yours – but mostly, freely gorge until we nearly vomited.

Another Halloween tradition that is in danger of disappearing is, of course, the carving of the Jack-o-Lantern.  The term Jack-of-the-Lantern first appeared in print in 1750 and referred to a night watchman or a man carrying a lantern.  Previous to this, the term was used to describe a strange light flickering over the marshes and graveyards of Ireland.  If approached, the light always retreated and always remained out of reach.  This mystery is also known as “will o’ the wisp” and “ignis fatuus“, Gaelic for foolish fire. However, the story of the Jack-o-Lantern has legendary status that reaches far back into Irish folklore, beginning with a tale of a stingy drunkard named Jack.

Not to be confused with a stingy drunkard named Jackson.  Seriously.

Jack, an Irish blacksmith, had the misfortune of running into the Devil in a pub on Halloween.  Jack had had a few too many potato vodka and cranberry cocktails that evening and was about to fall prey to the Devil (as the modern day Jackson has been known to do on one or two or several dozen occasions).  But Irish Jack was no one’s fool – the quick-thinking trickster made a bargain with the Devil:  in exchange for one last cocktail, Jack offered up his soul.  To oblige, the Devil changed his form into a sixpence so that Jack could pay the bartender, but Jack quickly pocketed the coin in a bag containing a silver cross.  He knew that this would keep the Devil from reverting form.

Clever Jack.  Remind me, please, to always carry a silver cross in my coin bag.

Once under Jack’s thumb, and in his purse, the Devil agreed not to come for Jack’s soul for another ten years.  Promptly, ten years later, the Devil found Jack walking on a country road – on his way to or from cocktails, no doubt – and announced that he was there to collect Jack’s soul.  Jack pretended to comply, but asked the Devil if he would please climb an apple tree first and toss down an apple. The Devil, apparently not being the brightest star in the sky that clear autumn night, and thinking he had nothing to lose, climbed the tree as Jack requested, but as he was plucking the apple Jack pulled out his knife and carved the sign of the cross in the tree’s trunk.  The Devil was unable to come back down and Jack procured another agreement from him.  The Devil would never take his soul.

Years later, Jack finally died.  Mind you, the tale does imply that it was many years later.  Apparently, enjoying the hard life of a stingy drunkard does not always result in a shortened lifespan.  Thank goodness.

Upon dying, Jack reported to Heaven, but was dismissed from the gates due to his drinking, tricking, and miserly ways.  Again, please do not confuse Jack with Jackson, no matter how startling the similarities.

Jack then went to Hell, but was denied entrance because the Devil remembered his promise.  Jack asked, “But where am I to go?”

“Back to where you came from,” the Devil replied.

The way back was dark and windy, so Jack pleaded with the Devil to at least grant him light in which to find his way. The Devil, in a magnanimous un-Devil like manner, tossed Jack an ember from the fires of Hell.  Jack shielded that ember in a turnip he’d been eating (nom nom) and left Hell to make his way back home, where ever since he has been doomed to wander in the darkness, alone.  His name and turnip lantern eventually became synonymous with a damned soul.

But what does a turnip have to do with a pumpkin, you wonder?  Patience, my dear reader, is a virtue.  Stay tuned.

But first, more storytelling.

It seems that a fear of doomed souls (like Jack’s) venturing back to the warmth of their previous hearths on Halloween spawned a custom which continues to this day.  Originally, Irish villagers would dress in frightful costumes to scare away meandering ghosts. They also left food outside the door to appease the spiteful spirits, and carved spooky faces into turnips, potatoes, rutabagas, or beets, and then placed these symbols of the damned souls in windows or doorways to ward away ghosts.

Enter then the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-eighteen hundreds, which prompted a massive immigration from Ireland to the Americas, and along with the hordes of drunken, stingy Irish came their beliefs and traditions, including the symbolic Jack-O-Lantern turnips.  Unfortunately, the Irish soon learned that turnips were not readily available in the Americas and so they substituted them with pumpkins.

Ta-da!  Told you I would make this make sense.

Now for some well-deserved comic relief.

Q:  How do you mend a broken Jack-o-Lantern?

A:  You give it a pumpkin patch.

Hardy-har-har.

Seriously, even though the Jack-o-Lantern is the most common and enduring symbol of Halloween, the actual carving of a Jack-o-Lantern is another of those rites of childhood that I fear contemporary children are missing out on.  In my youth, my brothers and I were each provided one pumpkin of our choosing, a large spoon for seed removal, and one of my father’s elegant bone-handled butcher knives for carving.  The rest was left to our imagination, and the resulting faces, illuminated from within by flickering white candles, lined our country drive on Halloween night.

Unfortunately, today’s Jack-o-Lanterns are most often ceramic and electric, or even worse, plastic.  Times change, and not always for the better.

Seasons change as well, and despite my grief over the loss of childhood tradition, I continue to love this time of year when summer ends, when we again are reminded that life is an ever-revolving cycle, that the warm season’s vibrancy is most naturally followed by the long sleep of winter.  Is there any more solid token of this change of season than the sudden profusion of hard winter squash and pumpkins?

It’s only fitting.  The squashes turn with all of the seasons, spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter, and (if one has hoarded enough, winter to spring).  From late spring on, one can eat the fragrant blossoms (delicious when fried as tempura), and through the long, hot days of summer the zucchini and crooknecks and patty-pans fill our plates with their bright colors and delicate flesh.  But as the season darkens and summer passes on, the tender summer squashes give way to their larger, tougher-skinned cousins.

This time of the year, after the warm-weather garden is mostly cleared away, the squashes and pumpkins still squat on the ground alongside their sprawling vines, their rinds toughening under each night’s increasing frost and each shortened day’s slanted sunlight.  While a summer squash is light and delicate, and must be eaten as soon as possible after it is plucked, a winter squash is tough and dense and will grow all the sweeter for being stored many months into winter.

Hence my penchant for winter squash hoarding – it is difficult to name a tastier dish.

Last night for our dinner The Former Mr. Perfect served a delicious and aromatic butternut squash and Italian fennel sausage bisque, which The Current Mr. Perfect and I lapped up like hungry orphaned kittens.

. . .

. . .

Is that crickets I hear?

Or gasps?

Yes, dear reader, it is true:  The Current Mr. Perfect and I live with The Former Mr. Perfect, an arrangement that no one outside of the unconventional boundaries of this three-way relationship really understands.

But the three of us understand it.  And really, when it comes right down to it, who else has any need to understand?  Still, this unusual situation raises eyebrows, and not just heterosexual eyebrows.

A year and a half ago, when Current and I decided to take the plunge, and I asked Former if we could stay in my room “for a while” (Former and I had evolved to roommates by that point), I was really unprepared for my community’s response.  It was fairly universal and negative – even the responses from my most stridently liberal and non-traditional gay friends, those who loudly and proudly advocate for their own open relationships and, with their devil-may-care and sometimes slightly superior attitude, proactively besmirch the concept of monogamy and defined relationship roles.  One progressive friend even went so far as to scurry me aside, intending to issue an intimate and emergent image-saving warning.

“Oh, this is just weird,” he whispered.

I disagree.  Apparently, so do both The Former and The Current Mr. Perfect, for even though we are all deciding that it is probably time for us to finally split into two distinct homes, this has been a fairly convenient arrangement for all of us.  We have a cooking schedule, we have a cleaning schedule.  We have a routine.  We have developed a manageable triangular existence and, in retrospect, I realize that life often happens in threes.  At least my life does.

In high school, my best buddies were Beverly and Jackie – two of my plumper classmates, and the two girls whose hefty sides I rarely left.   We were a triangle of trouble, for certain, from cruising boys to drinking cheap sloe gin to smoking cigarettes and accidentally lighting Jackie’s 1955 Cadillac convertible on fire.  But the triangles of my life continued long after high school was finished.

When I met the Very First Mr. Perfect, he had unfortunately already fallen in love with another fellow, supposedly unavailable but unsurprisingly never leaving, and eventually becoming the wedge that drove us apart.  Later, in the Denver years, I was involved in two separate actual three-way relationships:  once when I became the boyfriend of a couple (no way that could come to a good end), and once when I became the long-term paramour of a married man (ditto).

The number three repeats and repeats and repeats in the story of my life, up to now when both the Former and the Current Mr. Perfects and I cohabitate in triangular bliss.  Maybe that’s just the way things happen in my life.  They say in landscaping you should always make plantings in odd numbers to keep it interesting; maybe my life, in general, demands the same.

How coincidental is it that squash is considered one of the “three sisters” in a wide variety of different Native American traditions, within tribes as disparate as those of the ancient Anasazi of the desert Southwestern US all the way to the Narragansett of the coastal Northeastern US.

Again, like Pagan Samhaim and Christian Halloween, it is a case of widely different cultures handing down the same oddly-similar folklore and tradition.  It makes me believe even more stridently than ever that we are all one people, with one history.  Period.

Can we just stop the wars now?  No one is right; no one is wrong.  We are all the same.

Squash is definitely a new-world plant; the word “squash” is an abbreviated form of the word askutasquash, from the Narragansett language.  Certain distantly related varieties of edible gourds were cultivated in Europe before contact with the Americas, though they were quickly abandoned in favor of their larger, fleshier New World cousins.  There is also some speculation that a variety of the pumpkin family might have been established in Africa prior to the advent of widespread global sea-faring trade, but on this there is no agreement. The theory has even been proposed that a buoyant squash, chock-full-o-seed, might have made the long trip across the ocean from Africa to the Americas, which to my mind’s eye is a charming, albeit highly unlikely, scenario.  Regardless, it is certainly safe to say that our ancient European ancestors did not cultivate pumpkins.  Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater:  be damned.

But back to the three native North American sisters, one of which is Lady Squash.  The other two in this triad are always corn and beans, these three crops being the first cultivated on this continent.  In addition to squash’s important role as a food source (interestingly enough, grown then for seeds rather than the flesh), the dried gourds were also used as dance rattles in many Native American tribal ceremonies.  Squash is also a clan symbol in some Native American cultures, such as the Squash Clans of the Hopi and Navajo (whose Squash Clan is named Naayízí Dine’é), the Calabash Clans of the Pueblo tribes, and the Gourd Clans of the Kiowa and Osage.

The Native American story of the Three Sisters varies only slightly from tribe to tribe, and the three sisters are uniformly corn, beans, and squash.  The three were traditionally grown in the same mound in the field:  the corn provided a ladder for the bean vine, and together the corn and beans provided shade to the squash.  In keeping with the triad theme, the Cherokee gardening tradition called for tilling the planting site three times.

Here’s my (heavily) annotated and (seriously) updated retelling of the three sisters’ fable, based on the story as taken from a recorded oral account provided by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island, Canada, as found in “Indian Legends of Eastern Canada”.

A long, long time ago there were three sisters (in this version, we shall identify them as drag queens because I am certain that is what they were).  The three drag queens lived together in a field.  We are not told why, or how, they lived in said field.  We are only told they lived there.   I assume this was because they did not have condo associations or Hilton Garden Hotels back in the day.

These queens were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The littlest queen was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was always draped in brightest green.  We shall name her Beanie Bottoms.

The second sister wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun was bright and the soft wind blew in her face.   We’ll call her Squashella.  She’s was a little ghetto, for certain, but delightful as well.  Squashella could certainly hold an audience’s attention.

The third was also the eldest sister, the drag mother who always stood very straight and tall above the other sisters and tried in an elegantly maternal way to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl (Really?  In today’s fashion scene?), and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze.

Toss those braids, you tall Mama Drag.

You guessed it.  This is Lady Cornie Hole, who somehow reminds me of a polished-up Sharon Needles.  There is something manly about her drag; that is for certain.

There was one way the three drag queen sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always wanted to perform together. This made them very strong.  They were a strong, vibrant drag queen lineage.

One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Drag Queen Sisters – a mohawk boy.  Oh, Lord, look out sisters!  If there is one thing I have learned to exercise caution around, it is mohawk boys.  You must understand that the Current Mr. Perfect sported a dashing mohawk when I first laid eyes on him.  As did I.  Those mohawks are what first drew us together.  We were of the clan of the mohawks, and look where we ended up.

Just like my mohawk boy, the three queens’ mohawk boy talked to the birds and other animals, which certainly caught the attention of the three drags.  Very much like my mohawk boy caught my attention and refused to let go.  Nothing catches one’s attention quite as quickly as a mohawk boy conversing with a seagull.  I’m just saying.

After all, whatever do they have to talk about?

Later that summer, the youngest and smallest drag sister disappeared. Her other sisters were sad, but they never suspected the mohawk boy.  Those mohawk boys are tricky.

Even later that summer, the mohawk boy again came to the field to gather reeds at the water’s edge. There is no mention of what he was doing with the reeds.  Weaving placemats?  Cockrings?  Who knows?  All we are told is that the two drag sisters who were left living in the field watched his receding moccasin trail, and that very night the second sister – the ghetto one in the yellow dress – disappeared.

Now the elder sister and drag mother, Lady Cornie Hole, was the only one left.

She continued to stand tall in her field, however, and when the mohawk boy saw how desperately she missed her sisters, he returned the two younger girls and together, they all became stronger again.

Awww…isn’t that romantic?  Where’s my mohawk boy . . . I need a little cuddle.

Squashes, pumpkins, and gourds are all predominately of the genus Cucurbita, and are closely related to the cucumbers, muskmelons, and watermelons.   They all grow as annuals (meaning they live for only one growing season) and are frost-susceptible, so you should not plant them in the garden until all danger of a late freeze has passed.  They are categorized as either summer (thin, edible skins) or winter (tougher rinds and suited to storage).  Most summer varieties are classified as Cucurbita pepo and have relatively smaller fruits that are eaten when immature (some within 50 days of seed planting).

Winter varieties usually fall into the Cucurbita maxima classification and can be stored for several months.  The most common varieties are acorn, butternut, hubbard, and spaghetti.  Nutritionally, squashes are a great source of complex carbohydrates and fiber as well as being very high in potassium, niacin, beta carotene and iron.

Both summer and winter squash perform best in fertile, well-drained soils containing high levels of organic matter, and despite the Native American tradition of shading Sister Squashella, they do best in full sun.  Organic matter levels can be increased by incorporating well-rotted manure or compost into the soil prior to planting.  You can also apply an all-purpose, granular form fertilizer, something with a rating of 10-10-10.  Because squash and pumpkin plants are susceptible to leaf mold and mildew, foliar-applied fertilizers are best avoided.

Squash and pumpkins are commonly planted in hills.   Gather your garden soil into a mound twelve or so inches tall, spaced a few feet apart.  The mounding allows the sun to warm the soil and seeds.  Place four to five seeds per hill at a depth of one inch and then thin to two or three vigorous, well-spaced plants per hill when seedlings have one or two true leaves.  The latest practical planting date for summer squash is July 20. Winter squash must be planted by June 10.

For an earlier harvest, start plants indoors three or four weeks prior to the anticipated outdoor planting date. Since squash seedlings don’t tolerate root disturbances easily, start the seeds in peat pots, peat pellets, or other plantable containers. Sow three to four seeds per container and then later sacrifice all but two seedlings.  Don’t forget to harden the infants outdoors for a few days in a protected location prior to planting in the garden.

Control weeds with frequent, shallow cultivation and hand pulling. Water plants once a week during dry weather.  Squash bugs and squash vine borers can be serious pests.  Squash bugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts (like some mohawk boys).  Their heavy feeding causes entire leaves to wilt, turn brown, and die.  Several methods can be used to control squash bugs in the garden:  adults and their brick-red egg masses on the undersides of leaves can be removed by hand.  Adults can also be trapped under boards or shingles placed beneath the plants; turn the objects over daily and collect and destroy the hiding squash bugs.  Small, immature squash bugs (nymphs) could theoretically be controlled with insecticides such as carbaryl (Sevin), however, one must remember that squashes are pollinated by bees (as are most plants) and the chemical insecticides kill those gardener’s friends as well.   As always, other and safer methods of insect control are better advised:  why not wait until they are adults and then dispose of them?

Harvest your long-fruited summer squash varieties (zucchini and crooknecks) when they are about two inches in diameter and six to twelve inches long. Scalloped types – the patty pans – are best when they reach three to five inches in diameter.  The fruits should have soft skins/rinds that are easy to puncture with a fingernail, and their seeds should be soft and edible.

Mature winter squash have very hard, dull-looking skins that can’t be punctured with the thumbnail.  When harvesting winter squash, leave a one-inch stem and then store in a cool, dry, well-ventilated location (the Former Mr. Perfect’s shoe closet is a perfect example).

One last squash-related tidbit:  if, like me, you tend to dream about the foods you love, you will be thrilled to know that according to my Dream Dictionary, a profitable opportunity which one should make the most of will come one’s way if one’s dream concerns cooking or eating squash.

On that note, nighty-night.

Failing

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Nothing lasts forever, regardless of intentions.

I wanted to write about earthworms this week.  But life, as is its habit, intervened.  And I failed.

Failure is a constant in any life, be it plant life, animal life, or human life.  Things and people routinely fail.  We don’t always succeed; plants sometimes don’t thrive (often for no discernible reason).  We all fail to achieve, fail to reach a goal.  Failure is something that every being faces at some point, for if nothing else, every living creature eventually dies.  Death is the universal, permanent failing.

This week, I failed on a lesser level, although death is involved none-the-less.  Who could write about earthworms when dismay and heart break rule my inner world?  Earthworms, as worthy as they are, will have to wait.  This has always been a problem in the Old Queen Gardener’s existence:  emotion has always taken front seat.  Practicality?  End of the line, baby (right behind the Earthworms).  We’ll get to you when the pressing emotions have been dealt with.

I wanted to write about earthworms this week, but my Cousin Carla’s father, my Uncle Glenn, brother to my dear, departed mother, has begun his exit from this world.  It is his time of failing.

Here’s the thing:  as I said, every living creature is slowly trudging toward its own eventual failing.  Slowly if we are one of the lucky ones, that is.  Sometimes the pace quickens, if we are so unfortunate as to encounter disease or pestilence.  Either way, with all the time in the world or with not enough time to matter, there is no detour around it, no way to avoid it.  We are born (or planted), we live the lifespan allotted, extending as best we can with careful tending and healthy choices, and then we die.  Sometimes that death seems premature.  This is simple fate.

It doesn’t matter if one is a human, a clump of bearded iris, or a Herford cow:  one will eventually perish.  Nothing but granite and taxes are permanent.  As humans, we can only hope that we have either literally or figuratively reproduced, that our children or our art or our good works will live on after we have moved on.

It’s a sad, sad time for Cousin Carla, and one that I understand intimately and completely.  Uncle Glenn is dying of the same evil that my mother did:  multiple myeloma.  It’s not a pretty way to go.  It’s the way of disease and pestilence – a general ugliness that I am certain every living human has some intimate knowledge of.  Who among us hasn’t been impacted by cancer, heart disease, stroke, or HIV, if not directly then indirectly through the illness or demise of someone we love.  Like our own eventual failure, disease and pestilence are a forgone conclusion if one is to truly live.

Plants, however, excepting some truly remarkable survival adaptations, are generally complete idiots about pest and disease.  They rely on you, the attentive gardener, to understand that they have developed an overnight infestation of aphids.  And your role is to spray the offenders off with a pulsing stream from the garden hose.  Plants rely on you to observe that they have developed mold or mildew, and they count on you to prune the infected portions and reduce the high-nitrogen fertilizer.  Your role, dear reader, is to pay attention, to conduct the necessary research and to intervene against disease and pests as ferociously as any good doctor would.

You owe this to your plant friend.

Sometimes, though, no amount of intervention can change nature’s decisions.  Some plants simply won’t grow for you.  Maybe they won’t grow for anyone.  I like to think so, at least.  They fail.  Miserably.

This is a part of gardening that most resource books won’t reveal and that no gardener ever fully adapts to.  Every untimely plant death is experienced as a personal failure, and feels something like a stab with a dull, rusty trowel right to the center of one’s gardening competence.

Ouch.

Or, conversely and even more maddening, some stupid plant may thrive completely outside of your intentions.  Anyone with a compost bin will understand:  you finally, in a fit of resignation, rip up that failing seedling and toss it to the top of the heap, where it immediately takes root and thrives.

Fucker.

Succeeding, like failing, is sometimes out of our purview – it just happens.

Uncle Glenn is failing, and this is a loss to my family tree.  Uncle Glenn was an exotic presence in my mid-century Wyoming upbringing.  As an offshore drilling executive with Shell Oil, he spent much of his life living in, gasp!, other countries.  He even married a woman from Bolivia, causing a young me to carefully inspect the globe in my Basin Public Elementary School homeroom to see exactly where Bolivia was.

But of most importance to a young Queen Gardener, Uncle Glenn beget my Cousin Carla, who I maintained a crush on throughout childhood (until puberty’s rough man hand shoved me toward other men).  Every summer he returned her to Wyoming for a prolonged visit from whatever glamorous country they presently inhabited.

It was an annual event that both I and my dear mother looked forward to with heightened expectation.

I can’t honestly say that I know my Uncle Glenn on an intimate or personal level. He was a visitor to my childhood, a strong and quiet John Wayne type who expressed more with action than words.  As an adult, I understand that he was my mother’s favorite sibling, and I can attest that he and his lovely wife, Flora Linda, cared for my mother on a daily basis while she was undergoing her own passing on from this heart-breaking illness.

Those are the things that make an adult me love him and respect him; that plus the fact that he raised the truly remarkable woman who is my beautiful Cousin Carla.  He certainly did something right.  Still, even in the dark ages of my Wyoming childhood, as a periodic visitor to my country rearing, he held a poignant role.

Flash back with me, if you will, to August 1968.  Uncle Glenn had returned to the homeland, family in tow, for his annual month-long pilgrimage.  I believe they lived in Aberdeen, Scotland at the time.

It was all so flamboyant to a land-locked farm boy in high plains Wyoming.  Scotland!  For Christ’s sake!

My parents were financially strapped at best, raising six sons on one less-than-middle-class income.  My father worked for a large-scale sodium bentonite strip mine operation, our rural area’s largest non-agricultural employer.  Never mind the ecological implications:  this was 1968.

My dad operated heavy equipment, most notably a grader.  He did an honest man’s work, keeping the gravel roads crisscrossing the badlands between extraction pit and processing mill passable after snow or rain had rendered them far too dangerous for the huge trucks hauling the raw ore overland to its fate.

Interesting facts:  sodium bentonite is a common ingredient in ice cream, chocolate, make-up, and many other products that require a certain gelatinous consistency, which it definitely offers when mixed with water (“Slick as snot!” my Dad used to proclaim.).  But sodium bentonite enjoys its broadest commercial market in the field of oil drilling.  In that industry, the dry powder is mixed with water to form a veritable mucous which functions as a lubricant and sealer for the spinning drill bit grinding through the layers of otherwise impenetrable rock.

In retrospect, it seems my dad worked at the low end of this product while my Uncle Glenn worked at the high end.

When Uncle Glenn paid his first visit to our family farm that summer of 1968, he stoically and without drama (as is his style) took stock and then herded me and my five brothers off to the Probst Western Wear Store in Greybull, Wyoming – seven miles by two lane highway from the verdant acres of our family farm.  Once there he purchased each of us a brand-new pair of cowboy boots.  I am certain that he saw the worn and hand-me-down tennis shoes we all wore, or even worse, our bare feet, and recognized that a problem existed.  Regardless, we were not used to new shoes and it was a rare treat that has to this day not faded from my memory.

That’s not my main point, though.  Here is where my love of Uncle Glenn was cemented.  He didn’t pressure us to buy any certain pair of boots; he allowed us to choose the pair we wanted.  My brother Steven chose pointy, polished and black.  My younger brother Joseph was smitten with some Cordovan soft leather ropers.  I personally chose a pair that was highly impractical for life on a working farm:  a pair of rough-out (suede), buckskin-colored Tony Lamas.   The clincher?  They were girl’s boots.  But there was no protest; Uncle Glenn just smiled and paid.  And I loved those boots.  I cherished them.  I wore them far longer than they were presentable, far beyond when they actually fit my growing feet.  There is no one person or no single pair of girl’s cowboy boots that could have made a budding ten-year-old sissy any happier.

And now Uncle Glenn fails. And this breaks my Cousin Carla’s heart, which in turn breaks my heart.  As an adult I have had the ultimate pleasure of reconnecting with her, initiated when her daughter, Sofia, was awarded a full scholarship to Howard University here in the District of Columbia.  Such is my beautiful, serendipitous luck.  And now Carla is no longer simply my long-lost cousin.  She has become my friend.

My heart now breaks for my dear, sweet friend.

Life eventually fails; that is a given.  It fails for both the people we love and for the plants we love.  There is nothing to be done about it.  No amount of hand-wringing, no vociferous guilt professing, no dedication to hard work or prayer – nothing – can change this course of action.  It couldn’t alter my mother’s trajectory that I assailed myself for not having visited her more often; it certainly won’t slow my Uncle Glenn’s deterioration if Cousin Carla happens to berate herself for living some distance away.  A part of life – the final part of life – is death.  We are all proceeding at the prescribed pace toward that outcome.  Sometimes, as was the case with my mother and is now the case with my Uncle Glenn, the path is shortened.  Regardless, any single day that any of us are privileged enough to awaken to a new sun’s rising, we simultaneously chug one day closer to our own permanent, terminating nightfall.

Plants follow this same birth-to-death lifecycle in one manner or another.  Some grow as annuals, defined as moving from seedling to bloom to seeds in a one-season cycle, their short life dedicated to producing in a timely fashion a batch of seeds that will renew their familial cycle come next spring.  Other plants are biannual, meaning that they grow all gang-busters and glory for one season (like carrots and parsley), store their energy through that first and only winter, and then the next summer direct that stored energy to little other than production of a stalk for purposes of bloom and seed:  procreation.  Other notables in this category are hollyhocks and miner’s candle.  And, lastly, we are faced with the perennials, defined as ever-growing, which is, in my humble opinion, a gross mis-definition.

Nothing lasts forever.  Not mothers; not uncles; not perennials.

The perennials, if their lineage is to continue, must somehow propagate.  Most often they spread outward by way of underground runners, or long stems that fall to the ground and take root some distance from the source, or a crown (where the upper part meets the lower part at ground level) that slowly divides itself outward from the center.  However it is that they spread, rest assured that eventually the mother plant, the originator, will meet her demise.

Most often in our tiny urban or potted gardens we simply don’t have room for them to ramble willy-nilly in their reproductive process, and it becomes our duty to help the perennials duplicate their natural renewal tendencies, their methods of keeping themselves fresh and young.

Oh, but were it this easy in human life.  If I could clone a section of myself and end up with a new and vibrant me to replace myself with, you can bet your bippy that I would.  In a heartbeat.  Alas, I am human, and that is not (at least not yet) possible.  I am stuck with the dilapidated me, the one with decrepit shoulders and achy hips and dysfunctional sinuses.   No regeneration for me; I am the one and only.

Perennials, however, do regenerate.  It is your task as Queen Gardener to help them.  When it is time, if you pay attention, the plant will seem as though it is whispering at you.

“Divide me, divide me,” it says.

Before proceeding, though, make certain that you are familiar with the growth habits of the plant.  Observe it.  In general, those that are begging to be divided will have already started the process for themselves, following their natural course.  They will have begun to form obviously distinct offsets.  All you have to do is gently dig out the entire plant, separate it in to the naturally divided offsets, and then replant the resulting new specimens as you see fit.

Those plants that don’t follow this pathway, or go back to ground come fall without leaving a trace, should be left to their own devices. The exception to this rule is the bulbs or rhizomes, like Iris, which must always be divided.

I might add that the potted tropicals, the houseplants (also “perennial”), should be treated similarly.  If you pay attention to the growth pattern, you will clearly see when the plant needs restarting.  It will begin to dwindle, or the growth pattern will change.  Some species begin to send out long shoots with small leaves and stem rootlets, others begin to exhibit slowed growth, or the main stem suddenly topples and falls over, or there is crown distress.  My advice?  Try two methods:  clip longer portions of the healthy plant stems and see if they root in water.  You can also try rooting hormone and growing medium, but I prefer the water method.  I like watching the tiny rootlets emerge and grow.

Simultaneously, remove the parent plant from the pot and divide her:  gently separate the root ball and attached upper plant portions into two or three equal parts, prune the above surface part back to long stubble, and re-pot in a good, commercial potting mixture.

If it is a single-stemmed plant you are dealing with, like a Dieffenbachia, cut it off a few inches above ground, water-root the upper part, and see if the remaining stub sprouts side dependencies (which will  later be clipped off and water-rooted to begin individual new “mother plants”).

After that?  Hope for the best.  Worst case scenario?  Nothing grows.  Everything fails.  In such cases you are forced to purchase a new specimen.  Best case scenario?  You end up with two or three water-rooted offspring, and two or three root-divided (or stub off-shooting) new plants.  Your plant-loving friends will thank you for the donation to their collection.

But back to the outdoor garden.  As relates to annuals, the solution to propagation is simple:  follow my advice for deadheading, but come late season, allow sufficient seeds to mature for natural reseeding.  Should you require more control than that, Fräulein Miststück, pluck enough ripened seeds to scatter exactly where you want them come spring.  The same advice rings true for the biannuals.  You can start new plantlets every year and nurse the babies though their winter to bloom the second year, transplanting as appropriate, or you can simply allow them free run of the garden . . . the biannuals typically spread their seed widely and indiscriminately, and if you allow them to run their course, you will, as nature intended, be left with a first-year crop and a second-year crop during every growth cycle.

It just may not grow exactly where you planned.

Mother Nature moves in not-so-mysterious ways, yet it is impossible to fully understand her.  She has definite patterns, but she deviates seemingly at whim.  She may inexplicably cause some to fail sooner that expected, even without reason, while others are allowed to bloom late.  She may decree the absolute end to a life for no observable reason and despite your attentive and detailed efforts, that end occurs.  Mother Nature is fickle, yet in her overall good sense she manages to provide for everyone:  for the aphid, for the caterpillar, for the peach borer and the ladybug.  She provides a niche for the hunter, for the hunted, for the carrion eater.  I think we, as humans, forget that we are part of this cycle when, in truth, every species, including us, has a designated role and a preset expectancy.

Somewhere in Mother Nature’s daily planner, our entry and exit dates are etched in granite alongside those of the old apple tree, the old mare, the old crow, and the old Queen Gardener.  This eventuality is unmovable and undeniable. It is unalterable.

It is a sometimes overwhelmingly sad and scary yet absolutely true fact that we are all marching day-by-day toward the time when our own existence fails, when all that is left of us is our offspring, our art, our good works.  Even the earthworms, those detritivores long associated with death and burial, housed below in their dark and moist world, slither toward this eventual failing.  We, and they, have no other option

With respect to knowing that this is the case, we humans are very, very lucky.  Of all life forms, we alone are cognizant of the fact that immortality is not an option and that, as fallible humans, our best bet is to make the absolute most of any day we are fortunate enough to be able to continue living.