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Signs of Life

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Monday morning, after receiving sweet encouragement from friends, I snapped out of my stupor and called a local greenhouse (Scot's, in Vienna, WV) and asked if they had any tropicals. Anything with color or fragrance. Jo said she'd check. She called me back later in the day and said they had some hibiscus, a red mandevilla and what looked like jasmine. My heart leapt. This place had always had jasmines before. I need jasmines. I told Jo she'd know me when I came in: the woman with the puffy eyes.

 I went down that afternoon, stopping at Angel's Greenhouse on the way, where I saw a LOT of poinsettias.

Which helped, even though poinsettias have never been amongst my favorite plants. I guess it's the mass market approach that turns me off. That, and the milky sap, the floppy leaves, the fact that those are colorful bracts and not flowers. The way people just throw them out when Christmas is over. Uffda. None of that appeals to me. I build relationships with plants. Disposable plants: not what I'm about.

 I should give them another chance. He sure grows some beautiful plants.

I got to Scot's right before they closed and there were some pretty sorry-looking plants there; a big sad frowsy double pink hibiscus ( no thanks. I lack both the charity and the space); a frostbitten red mandevilla vine that would just be a giant bugfarm for me, and some unlabeled viney shrubs that had to be jasmines. Jasminum sambac! a good thing, because mine apparently died in the frost. This one wasn't much, having been exposed to cold and drought, but it was definitely alive. And it was $4.50. I trimmed it up and installed it.

 I found an unlabeled J. nitidum, or Royal Jasmine, which I've never grown but which I was able to recognize as a jasmine by its growth habit. It showed signs of having tried to bloom, and been nipped by cold. Let's give it a whirl. I placed it in the bony arms of my Nightblooming Jessamine Cestrum nocturnum, where it would conceal them until green shoots began to show. If they do.

My Jasminum officinale, which was four feet tall and curling over on the ceiling of the greenhouse, has a single live shoot coming out of its frost-blasted base. Yes, it does. So I may have three kinds of jasmine blooming someday.

I was flabbergasted to find a small tropical bonsai of Ficus salicifolia (Wonderboom or Willow-leaved Fig, native to KwaZulu Natal), which will serve as a lovely understudy for my almost certainly dead old bonsai specimen. Sigh. When I cut it back, the leaves were black, and no white sap flowed. Not good.
The baby: Five bucks, sold to the lady with puffy eyes.

I should add here that my beloved temperate bonsais (the maples and cypresses) are FINE, having been stowed away in their pit for the winter awhile ago. So are the orchids. They live in the bedroom.

 There is one living leaf on my once-glorious orange hibiscus. That's it, right at soil level. That tells me something's still going on inside. Woody-stemmed plants tend to survive freezing pretty well. So let's wait on any donations of hibiscus. This single orange is the hibiscus I want, and if I have to wait a year for it to bloom again, well, I'm waiting anyway. I want her back. She's the one.

My attempts to grow citrus have in the past been plagued by armies of scale insects. I initially turned up my nose at this tiny Ruby Red grapefruit tree. And then I looked at the flower buds clustered, and I remembered standing in an orange grove in Vero Beach when I was about 11, inhaling that heady perfume, and seeing my first swallow-tailed kite float over, and I tucked the pot under my arm. Does it get much better than breathing citrus flower perfume and suddenly seeing a bird you thought would always be only a picture in a book?  Five bucks. I bought it for the memories, and as much for its highly optimistic label as for its flowers. I mean, there's a recipe for tilapia with grapefruit sauce right on the label. Oh, bring on that harvest of Ohio-grown ruby red grapefruit! I'll be picking next week, I'm sure.
Reality check: I'll be happy if the flowers just open. I'll be REALLY happy if the flowers open. Oh, how I miss my fragrances. Don't even need a swallow-tailed kite. Just scent.

  It was as if it was meant to be, these last survivors hanging on, marked down to 50% off and losing leaves daily, waiting for a bereft Horticulture Chimp to come in and gather them in her long hairy arms and take them to a much better place. Thankful.

When I got home with my little haul of rescued hopefuls, there was a bunch of poinsettias in the middle of the kitchen floor. Re-enter my barely-suppressed contempt for poinsettias. But when your daughter fixes her baby blues on you and asks if you'd like to support whatever it is they're hawking poinsettias for, you swallow hard and cheerfully order five.

And much as I inwardly recoil at putting big floppy red poinsettias in my snobby little plant paradise, they help. They help considerably.

It's not beautiful yet, but it's definitely better.

Thank you to everyone who has offered support, helpful suggestions, and condolences. It is ridiculous that I did not have a temperature alarm installed in this greenhouse, small and commercially worthless as it is. Fixing that now.  A special thanks to Tim, Timmeh, Weezy, Charles, Shila and Donna for Post-Greenhouse-Apocalypse Help that Helps. I am deeply thankful for my friends who swoop in when things get gnarly.

I have located a little hole in the outside wall where our Internet cable comes into the house. It is our portal to the big wide wonderful world of Google and katydid coprophagy videos. To this small hole, you owe everything that appears on this blog. Through that little hole in the wall I'm going to thread a long cord connected to the phone jack in the downstairs bedroom. That phone cord will run into the greenhouse, and there I will plug it into a THP201 Freeze Temperature Alarm.

The next time the gas freezes in the line, and you know it will, the THP20l will DIAL OUR PHONE and tell us to get a robe on and start the backup electric heater, which is sitting there now on Frost Alert setting. 

And no more jasmines will die.

This is how we learn. One can only be thankful. 

Remembering Beauty

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


I wanted to share some of my favorite photos from the greenhouse before the freeze.

The Bacon and me, soaking up some heat and color.

 How it looked when I walked in on a sunny morning. I'd always chortle HELLO LADIES!! and spend the next forty minutes preening and puttering and checking and watering. Gardening. In midwinter. In the sun. Ahhhhhh.

Nighttime, with the twinkle lights. A ten-inch tall baby hibiscus, grown from a cutting of the big mother plant, which herself was grown from a cutting of a grocery-store plant that finally got too big and leggy to be an asset. Yes, with plants you can start over, I know it, but let me mourn these plants for awhile. 

This willing little baby: ten inches tall, with a five-inch-wide flower. That's reaching your full potential. Well, at least for a little while.

I had made three, two to give away. Now leafless sticks.

And perhaps my favorite of all, the morning trash from the greenhouse, November 22, the day before the freeze. The spent blossoms of tuberose and hibiscus, exquisite trash.

Ehhh, what frost? Did somebody mention frost?  asks Mammilaria. Because me and Fishhook, we didn't notice any problem here. Too bad everybody else croaked. Wussies.

You have to love a cactus with an attitude. That cactus sent a spine into my left index finger last year, and that spine went with me to Belize on a weeklong sailing trip. Awesome. Struggling with snorkel gear and tight swimsuits with only one hand... I remember asking Bill, "You know what you can do with an infected cactus spine in your index finger? "


It finally worked its way out of my finger after a day's immersion in salt water. I had just seen three barracuda hanging silver, motionless, freakily still, came up gasping through my snorkel, and whoop! the spine popped out. Durn cactus. 

But right now, I could kiss it. Could, but won't. 

Greenhouse Apocalypse

Sunday, November 24, 2013

It was my happy place. I made it so, with a lot of help from my friends. 
You'll remember the agony of building the Groanhouse.
and then when it was finally done and stocked with plants and it looked like it was all going to work, it became The Greenhouse.

Recently I strung it with little white fairy lights and every evening before dinner I'd go down there with Chet, sometimes with Bill, and just soak it in. It was my retreat, and it could fix me when nothing else could. Everyone needs a place like that.

It had to do with everything growing and blooming and scenting the air.

Like tuberoses, ten of them, saved while still in bud from the freezing garden, and now perfuming nightly in the salubrious confines of the little greenhouse. 

It was aromatherapy, it was beyond marvelous, and I made it all myself.
I didn't go to a spa and pay somebody a bunch of money for all that. I just made my own spa.

Chet loved it too. This is about my favorite view, the plants between his sweet ears as he sits and meditates on my lap in the evening.

So the night of November 23 Bill and I talked down there for over two hours and we got a few things kind of understood, just sitting in that healing air and taking in the beauty. It was so cold outside, but so warm and humid in there.

It looked like this. And this morning when we got up it looked like this.

The gas line that runs from our well to the house had water in it, and that water froze overnight, blocked the line, and the gas cut off somewhere after 2 AM. 

When I opened the door it was 21 degrees in there.  Everything was frozen solid. 

At 21 degrees, a New Guinea impatiens that looks like this

becomes this

and a hibiscus that makes your heart sing every time you see it
so full of beautiful blossoms and buds for months ahead 

 goes to this

and a tuberose does this

My world crashed around my ears and I howled like a wolf for a long, long time
until Bill told me I had to pull myself together and I said I do not and stomped out to the orchard in the bitter cold to howl out there awhile longer where nobody could tell me it was all going to be OK because nothing was OK. And nothing is OK. It stinks, that fetid stench of leaves dying green, that stench you get after a hurricane or the first hard frost of the season. 

And while I was out there in the orchard a little voice spoke to me and told me to get back in there and start pruning. It was my primitive voice, and I listen to it when it speaks.

I don't know if there's scientific fact behind it but the voice told me that bad chemical messages would travel back down those stems from the dying tops and kill the roots, too. And I had better get those tops pruned way back if I was going to save anything in the greenhouse.

So I rushed back and got clippers and what had looked like this

got thrown out or pruned back to this

and a great pile of death stacked up on the floor

months and years of love and care and growth

night blooming jessamine and mandevilla and geranium and jasmine and tuberose and impatiens and lobelia and hibiscus just reduced to limp dead junk in a few hours while we slept.

I cut everything that was limp or squishy off. I cut until I got to firm stem, and now all I can do is hope.

I have pots full of dead looking sticks. But you never know. Even though the soil was frozen solid in the pots, maybe some survived.

I made an ICU in the living room, because the gas went off again while I was working. I didn't want those who had survived the apocalypse to have to go through it again.  Oh God. Please. We bled the drip valve twice, Bill re-lit all the pilots...Please don't shut off again.

The sum total of the living plants. The rest remain to be seen. 
Actually the three hibiscus babies on the left are probably dead. But I'm not throwing them out yet.

I don't know what inner fire kept Vesuvius alive, but it was the only thing that looked alive when I came in this morning.

I was so relieved to find this newly rooted cutting of my dearly beloved Vancouver Centennial still firm and alive.

It will come back, some of it anyway, but it won't be lush and beautiful in there again for a very long time. Where once there were blossoms, now there are sticks and bones.

If my happy place is gone, I'll have to figure out something else that will save me, probably working even harder on the paintings for my next book. I'll run farther. I'll keep going down to the greenhouse to look for signs of life. And you'll be the first to know when I find some.

A Very Useful Katydid

Friday, November 22, 2013

It's a Sunday afternoon, and some kinda game is going on the TV, and I'm pottering around the kitchen, and we're planning to wash some windows later on, and looking at the job to come I see something on the window. A huge splop of bird poop. And someone's taking care of it for us.

It's a fork-tailed bush katydid, Scudderia furcata, one of the jillion orthopterans that inhabit our ridgetop sanctuary in autumn. At least I think that's what it is. My track record on critter ID in videos is spotty, to be kind. What I know for sure is that it has a real taste for poo. What insects get from bird poop is hard to say. Phosphates and salts at the very least. I've always read that butterflies imbibe moisture from poop because they need those chemicals to make the pheromones with which they attract the opposite sex. Katydids as far as I know use songs and calls as ladylures, so I'm not sure what's going on here. Maybe they just like the taste.

 Mine is not to judge one who eats poo. Nor is it to judge those who would spend three perfectly good minutes watching someone else eat poo. Mine is just to watch, to giggle and sing and share it with you.

 For photos and even a nice recording of the FTBK's rather weak electric-pulse song, please visit my friend Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliott's beautiful site,

These folks are putting up fabulous video and sound from their considerable travels across the country. We've been honored to put them up on Indigo Hill, which never fails to supply interesting material for their coffers. Sorry you missed this epic bout of poop consumption by a fork-tailed bush katydid, guys. Next time!

Cute Dog Video: The Rattly Sigh

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Although I am a card-carrying Crazy Dog Lady, I do not actually have that much experience with dogs other than my own. We had a dachshund named Volks when I was growing up who I loved without bounds, a great, smart, fat, slightly humorless standard x mini who was inclined to snarl over his food, but who could howl along to Edelweiss to bring a tear to your eye. I don't remember his giving The Rattly Dog Sigh of Contentment, and I remember a lot about him.

The key to great wildlife cinematography, and my efforts certainly qualify, is to Anticipate the Behavior of Your Subject. This is a classic setup, and as Marty Stouffer knows, setups are the key to great wildlife cinematography. You simply put the lynx and the bunny in the same chain-link enclosure and go!

Or the bear cub and the mule deer fawn. You know the drill. Because it's hard to just happen upon a bear cub and a mule deer fawn and get footage of them engaged in rollicking play without a chain-link fence, some long sticks and some compressed air hoses. That's our Wild America!

Apologies to Marty, but when I was ten years old I was already throwing things at the TV screen and smacking my little proto-prognathous Science Chimp brow in exasperation at the particular combinations of baby animals he tossed together in the name of wildlife cinematography. The rollicking happy comedic musical score made me want to hurt something. Still does.

But I digress. Chet Baker, Boston Terrier is the star of this particular show. As in most Chet Baker videos, nothing really happens. You looove it.

So tell me true, dear readers...does your dog heave a four-part Rattly Dog Sigh of Contentment when properly tucked in?

Chet Baker, His Ball and The Light

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Chet Baker has a bassetball. It's got no air in it no more.  He done punctured it a long time ago.

He hauls it around and shakes it and chews it, so it is still doing its duty as a toy. 

 The basic tenet of most Boston terrier games is Keepaway. I have this, you don't.

Just try to get it from me.

Please. Try. And you will pull back a stump.

This is a photo of me rooing. You roo through closed lips. It's a rolling yodel, not a bark. You roo when someone is trying to get your toy from you. Or when you want them to try.

Sometimes nobody plays with you at all. They need to come try to get something away from you.

But they are too busy looking at the pear tree in the afternoon sun. Which is loaded with very smelly pears and the deer eat them and I chase them.

And then sometimes the people stop looking at the leaves, pick me up and kiss me in that special light, and that is good.

She pays so much attention to me that sometimes I wonder if Phoebe is going to try to take me to college with her when she leaves next fall. I would be willing to try it, if she was in her room a lot or would take me to classes and the cafeteria. I would like that. I would make quite a dorm mascot. Or even a college mascot. Neither of us has asked Mether what she thinks of the idea yet.

That could be a sticking point.

A Bonsai, Liberated

Thursday, November 14, 2013


We awoke on November 12 to find everything covered in 2" of fresh wet snow.

Man. That big red house looks boss against snow and icy blue cirrus-brushed skies. Whoo. 

A bit later the sun broke out, and a postcard-blue sky shone. I guess it's time to haul in the lawn furniture. November 12. Snow.  Huh. Somehow having a barn red house makes it more fun. 

I had a feeling the Japanese maple needed its picture taken.

Only a week earlier, it had turned the most amazing shades of maroon and glowing orange, underlain by forest green. I don't think there's a thing I don't love about Japanese maples. I love their tiny starry leaves, the way their graceful branches spread out, the dappled shade they throw, the way they stay small and compact for decades, their smooth graybrown limbs, the colors they turn in fall. 

 This one, believe it or not, was once one of my bonsais. It just wanted to grow straight up. It was having no part of being potted. So I planted it in the yard. Whooop! now that was a good decision. It's got a twin in the backyard who's just as lovely.

 I am eyeing two of my younger bonsais right now, in fact, thinking I will plant them out. They're no great shakes as potted specimens. Neither was this one. 

Planted out, this stubborn thin tree that wanted only to grow up instead of out changed its mind in the most magnificent way. 

It's the same age as my big potted bonsais, but big enough to eat your lunch beneath. And that's just what the Before and After Remodeling crew did while they were re-siding and painting the house. It made me smile every time to see them using a bonsai as shade. Wish I'd taken a picture of that. Instead, here's Terry of the BatBoxes sharing his lunch with Chet beneath said maple. 

This morning, snow fell on that tree.

Snow on the baby hands.

An early snow, but a good one. 

I know the maple will soon drop all its leaves, like a tired woman drops her dress at the end of a long day. I have to look at her as much as I can until that time. 

Terry's observation bat box, waiting for tenants, looking toward spring. The maple, still in blazing beauty, looking toward winter. 

Autumn, Don't Leave.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Before. November 5, 2013, my biggest bonsai at its absolute peak of color. Ahhhh!

This morning, November 12, 2013. Siggghhh.

Autumn, don't leave.

I don't want to put my little beauties in their winter grave.

I knew they wouldn't stay this beautiful. I knew I had to look at them as much as possible before it would all be over. So I did.

And this morning, it was all over.  Ah, but still so graceful, so beautiful.

In the next week or so I'll have to bundle them up and prep them for the winter. This means taking them out of their pots, wrapping their trunks in aluminum foil (the only way I've found to foil bark-eating voles. I think it hurts their fillings.)

I'll dig all the spearmint and goosefoot out of the bonsai pit and I'll heel them carefully in, on their sides. I'll cover the rootballs with soil, water them in and lay a glass shower door over top of the pit.

I'll check them all winter and water them when they dry out. 
I've been doing this for 21 years in this place, and ten years before that for the big trees. 

Something so beautiful doesn't happen overnight.

Autumn, don't leave. 

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