There is something to be said for a cold, snowy January. We are so accustomed to unusual weather that typical weather has become its own event. Holiday winter storms and iced-over ponds restore winter to what we expect it to be, and in these times a plummeting thermometer is truly a breath of fresh air. The garden lies protected under a blanket of snow, paw and hoof prints dot trails across the dormant lawn, and fires burn in the wood stove because they are pleasant, not because the power is out. I always look forward to a January hibernation so that I can regroup from the old year and get ready for the new one. This year, the weather is perfect for that.
I was going through some 2011 photos and found this. The Casey Junior Train is the best thing in Disneyland (there isn’t one at Disney World). It epitomizes everything I wanted to visit at Disney theme parks when I was young, and it is pretty much all that is left of the Disney magic that I can embrace. I didn’t really want to go to Disneyland (crowds, lines, heat) but my son was hell bent on seeing this train, and he was right – it’s the coolest thing there. I’m amazed that the Disney merchandising juggernaut has not capitalized on the train mania – aside from a pin, you cannot find any models or memorabilia related to this train anywhere in Disneyland. I’m not complaining (okay maybe I am) but it’s so discouraging when you can buy princess everything and Goofy sweatshirts in size XXXL but not a toy train.
The Casey Junior song from Dumbo is my all time favorite sequence in Disney film – every hue and detail perfect. (The colors in the VHS format are actually richer than the DVD, I think.)
And you know what else I love about it? See the patchwork quilt that makes up the landscape? Those are all succulents, planted by Walt Disney himself, in every hue imaginable. Oh, and my boys rode around in the monkey cage. I loved that, too.
The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is a rare find, a time capsule preserved and put on display for we, the generations that followed. What’s more, it is just down the road from Springwood, the Roosevelt home that is birthplace and burial site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself was instrumental in keeping both homes intact and open to the public, donating his own home to the National Park Service upon his death and persuading the Vanderbilt heirs to do the same when it was clear that no one would buy the estate and its Italian Gardens even at a tiny fraction of its value. It was the foreclosed McMansion of its day, even though it was by far the smallest of the Gilded Age mansions built by the many grandchildren of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, it didn’t even last through its own generation before it became impractical to live in or care for in the economic devastation of the Great Depression.
Two seasons of the above and below stairs drama of Downton Abbey (and a knowledgeable young guide) helped to bring this gently faded and stuffy house to life for us as we walked through. The windows are closed and shaded to preserve the furnishings and keep it cool, but he reminded us that the home was intended as a summer cottage and in its day the windows would have been thrown open to the sumer breeze off the river and every room filled with flowers from the row of greenhouses just across the lawn.
And while its contents are largely intact, the gardens are only now being revived. Having only come recently to gardening I understand now that it is always the garden that is the first to go when a property loses a caring, resident owner. Architecture may take time to show wear, but it only takes a single season to destroy a garden – and in a year like 2012, punctuated by drought and torrential rain, even tended gardens can be decimated. The Park Service had an interest in preserving Sara Delano’s rose garden – FDR’s and Eleanor’s burial sites are situated next to it – but the Vanderbilt’s more elaborate tiered Italian garden with it vast greenhouses did not merit thefunds for preesrvation – the current restoration is funded by private donations, and the volunteers were hard at work when we visited. I didn’t expect it to be so romantic, with heart-shaped beds of pink petunias and so many of the trees flowers I recognize from my own garden, but then I remembered that even then they had to cultivate plants that could survive in New York rather than the warmer climes of southern Italy.
I don’t know if it is a sign of the times or my own skewed sense of history that fuels my current fascination with the early Twentieth Century. Sometimes there are too many parallels, sometimes too few. From my admittedly untrained perspective, Hyde Park reflects the convergence of the styles that dominated the previous and coming centuries. The old money, sober Dutch influenced but early American style of the Roosevelts at Springwood (their walls adorned with family portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart) looked down its nose at the Gilded Age, with the decadent, new-money European obsessed opulence of the Vanderbilts (their walls covered with tapestries of the Medici family crest) and finally followed by the more eclectic, earthy arts and crafts style adopted by Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill (very little fine art on the walls, decorated almost exclusively with photographs of people and events of their own time).
The house at Val-Kill itself is a harbinger of trends to come, a factory building converted into a home, and it’s dropped ceilings, galley kitchen and folding chairs are testament to the fact that not all progress is forward. Part of all of these styles endure, their longevity or re-emergence dictated by the changes in the American way of life. Just like the start of the last century, war and excess are steering us back to the small-is-beautiful after many years of bigger-is-better. Contraction and preservation in the face of uncertainty is not such a bad thing, if such appreciation brings wisdom and, with it, hope.
Our heat wave is nothing compared to what they are suffering in the Midwest, but it’s been a few weeks since a good rain and this is the first time I have seen birds fly directly through the sprinkler’s spray. The early spring brought the bears out of hibernation ahead of schedule and they are showing up all over the place – the most recent within walking distance of our house. Local naturists say that the bears’ feeding schedule has been disrupted and this has somehow sent them in search of alternative sources of food. It is hard to say whether the foxes roaming the neighborhood every evening are part of the trend or the usual order of things. All I know is that I find fur and tails (squirrel, rabbit) and feathers (chicken, hawk, and mourning dove, I think) in the yard almost every day. And last weekend when I went out to see what the kids were doing down the street and it was dark, I heard such a commotion in the woods from all sides when I opened the door that I turned and went back in the house, grabbed my car keys and drove to find them. Our neighbor told me that when he takes his dog out he shines a flashlight in the woods and counts the pairs of eyes that look back.
I don’t know what it means – the drought, the snowy fall and snowless winter, the collapsing glaciers – but part of me wonders if while we are inside on our screens trying to make sense of it we can find a way to save the world crumbling outside. And so I move the sprinkler around systematically to sate each corner of the yard, standing each time for a few minutes, mezmerized by its tick tick tick, and hope that it is enough.
Spring is a month early and I am not complaining even though we have had precious little rain. Having come late to the gardening party I have noticed only in recent years that each spring things sprout and bloom in a slightly different order. This year the change is more dramatic: the peonies are well on their way, even as the forsythia is in full bloom. The tulips seem visibly annoyed to being pushed aside by the busy peonies; they are used to having the front garden all to themselves. The azalea, battered by autumn storms and with no snow cover to protect it from the winter wind, seems to have given up in exhaustion and pushed out only a handful of blooms from nearly bare branches.
I am always particularly glad to see the tulips. The red ones are the first to appear and the first I ever planted. I put the bulbs in shortly after September 11, 2001. Before then, my attempts at gardening were halfhearted and largely unsuccessful; our yard is so shady and the soil so sandy and acidic that no perennial I planted ever came back the following spring. But the previous owner clearly knew what to plant and so the garden she built always filled in nicely. But there were a few spots near the driveway that got a little sun and seemed a little bare, and the events of that fall got me to thinking that I’d been living in our house like a renter – doing precious little to show any kind of long term commitment to a family home now buzzing with three young children. The crazy world (remember Graydon Carter announcing the end of irony?) and the empty skies of that September made me look up from storybooks and changing tables and brought me outside, and made me want to plant something beautiful, something hopeful, for the spring.
So I did. And they bloomed, and have bloomed every year ever since (provided I remember to put out soap to keep the deer from nibbling the bulbs). When the trees at the front of the house grew too big we had to take two of them down and that gave me more sun and soil to work with, and my perennial track record improved: sedum, cone flowers, delphiniums, daffodils, iris, bachelor buttons, phlox, creeping thyme. A few years ago hyacinths appeared out of nowhere and they seem to be proliferating. The original daylilies are stalwart and dependable as ever. The hydrangea and the poppies are dubious and bloom sporadically. The hollyhocks are a total failure. The shady areas still baffle me; the ivies are anemic and I am the only person I know who can’t grow hostas.
Last spring I took an inventory and ordered more tulips and daffodils to supplement my reds – I wanted orange. The box showed up in late August for fall planting, at which time I promptly broke my foot and was relegated to the couch for 4-6 weeks. My plan was to get them in just after Halloween, but when I went to plant them the box was in the recycling, empty. My husband had come upon them and handed the box to my daughter and told her to plant them, which she did, grudgingly, with little attention to where. So all winter long I waited to see if and where they would come up.
This week, they emerged – a few here a few there, some in groups, some in rows, some in places where the deer dined on them so I don’t even know for sure which ones they are. It isn’t the way I would have done it – it is better, creating a haphazard path of blooms up the front walk, starting with my 2001 tulips. Nothing at all about this whole operation went according to plan but it all seems so right – this is her senior year, and these are her tulips that she planted at the only home she has ever known. Next spring I will cry when they come up and send photos of them to her at college which will delight and exasperate her.
It is only now, as I type, that I recall my own mother hovering over her tulips in our back yard in Saint Louis, and how the entire city seemed to be swimming in them the last time I went to see her in hospice. Saint Louis sees spring much sooner than New England so that visit was, for us, like Dorothy emerging from the back and white of winter to full technicolor spring. It was an intensely sad and joyful time, punctuated by tulips. Every time the deer snack on them I swear I will not plant any more, but I don’t think I can stop. Not now.
After all of my hand wringing yesterday afternoon, perspective arrived in the evening. After a patchy, overcast weather all day, a thin stripe of sunshine lit the trees across the pond followed by a pink sky, promising a lovely day today.
And as I watched the full moon rise after the light faded, my boy mention as he passed me, “I planted a seed in your garden today.”
“Yes. I planted my nectarine pit in the garden so that it would grow into a tree.”
Never much of a gardener before, I began planting new things each September since 2001 as a way of reminding myself to appreciate where I am now and to invest hope in the coming spring. The result is a garden that gives me more joy than I ever imagined. This year’s bulbs sit in a box in the garage waiting to be planted, but it’s good to know something went into the ground on the 11th. Now, to figure out where he planted it and keep the chipmunks away from it.
Finally, we stumbled on the Science Channel’s Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero and it was gratifying to see something emerging, at last, from the ashes of that day. No false reality TV drama, just stories and extraordinary images of the new buildings and the memorial and how they are being built. The series is several hours long and worth every minute. Thank you, Steven Spielberg.
We have a sweet children’s book called First Tomato, in which a young bunny picks the first ripe tomato and her mother makes her fresh tomato soup. Only after downloading this photo did I notice that the morning light reveals tiny spiderwebs on the tomato plants, a harbinger of Halloween. Taken just a few days ago, it already harkens back to seemingly distant, definitely brighter summer days, and I am hoping that the remaining tomatoes will ripen before the frost arrives. We wait all through June and July and into August for that first tomato, but we never can be sure when we will eat the last, finding sometimes that the days have gotten too short and we have waited too long.
I have only recently come to understand the allure of gardening and the reward of its cumulative experiences, but I have always admired Verlyn Klinkenborg’s writing (see links at right) about gardens and the parade of the seasons. Today’s essay in the Times brightens further a Sunday morning in July.
I know it’s getting to me when. . .
- I look at my calendar and try to think of reasons to get out of every appointment on it.
- I tell everyone on Facebook to put out their flags for Veteran’s Day and promptly forget to do it myself.
- My family has to get their clean underwear (and pretty much anything else) from the huge pile of unfolded laundry in the corner of my bedroom.
- Making the bed means the bedspread is pulled up over the pillows.
- The fridge looks like my Mom’s – four cartons of half and half (two open), three half-empty bottles of ketchup, six pounds of butter, eight kinds of salad dressing, three bottles of beer that no one likes, cheese with sell by dates from last June and no milk.
- I don’t care if W. takes his stuffed Wallace & Gromit sheep to the restaurant and gets an extra seat, napkin and menu for it.
- I stop watching The Daily Show and the Colbert Report.
- I do all of my reading online.
- I am more interested in my Farmville Garden on Facebook than I am in my actual garden.
- Salad consists of lettuce and cucumber. Every night.
- I don’t like answering or talking on the phone.
- I give one-word answers to questions: ”Okay.” ”Fine” “Thanks.”
- I avoid opening any e-mail with “autism” in the subject line.
- I buy a whole pomegranate.
Summer arrived too late and fall has appeared early. As Jimmy Carter once pointed out, life is not fair. Now that it is cool enough to take a close look at the garden I see that nature is making a mad dash to correct itself. The yellowed greens of September are showing the effects of a rainy July; echinacea and black eyed susans that grew too quickly once the sun appeared in August have flopped over in exhaustion, spent from the sheer excitement of a whole summer in a single month. And the day lilies, still confused by it all, are flowering randomly when they should have been finished in July. The zinnias fell prey to the Japanese beetles just as soon as they went in, and even the daisies gave up in disgust after weeks of rain. The tomatoes are trying to forgive and forget, this being my first year and all, but only the tiny yellow pear variety yields a daily bite or two, which I nibble for lunch (that way I don’t have to share). The sedum, just ready to bloom, is swamped with bees while the lobelia saunters through in cornflower blue, oblivious to it all. See? I have brought you mums as a peace offering for not paying attention to you all month.