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The Secret Garden

Sunday, September 26, 2021


 Burning season is almost here and I can't wait. Bill would call it the caveman in me. Oh, how he loved to burn. And so do I. I've been cutting brush and brambles and honesuckle vines like a madwoman. The only thing that makes me stop is when the poison ivy leafs out in early spring. I've had to contain the slash-and-burn part of my persona since April, and I can feel her rising up again. Winter is coming, and winter is the time for cutting and burning.

This little story starts with a fire, one my friends Walter, Kevin and Bobby started for me last November. They had cut the big Colorado blue spruce on the east hill at my request. Planted in 1992, right after we moved in, the poor thing had succumbed to spruce blight, a fungal disease that is inexorably killing all the Colorado blues I planted. I'm sad about that, because the mourning doves like to roost in them and the chipping sparrows nest in them, but there's nothing I can do against a blight. There's only one left now, and it's dying slowly. 

So they'd cut this tree, and we'd piled a bunch of other stuff I cut on it and set it ablaze. With the help of a little kerosene, we soon had quite the fire, an impressive tower of flame. 


When the burning and tending were all done (and that took a couple days), there was a nice blackened patch in the meadow, sterilized, for all intents and purposes, of the plants that grow so thickly in the meadow. Sumac and goldenrods, vanquished for a brief moment. I saw an opportunity in that blackened patch.

In November, 2020, I'd gone to a roadside down in Whipple where I'd seen New England aster growing wild. Now, for years I've had exactly one New England aster plant on my 80 acres. It grew along the driveway in the shade of the Virginia pines, and it never did well, but its brilliant purple blossoms with their sunny red-gold centers brought me joy. I wanted more of that.

So when those New England asters down in Whipple went to seed last fall, I headed down there with some Ziplocs and gathered a lot of seed.  I waited for a gentle winter rain and scattered them on the burnt soil. Either it would work or it wouldn't. But at least I'd have tried.

My friend Laurie Johnson from Wisconsin is a prairie queen, and she sent me absolute bags full of mixed seed--swamp aster, showy goldenrod and the like. Then I sent her a bunch of butterflyweed seed in thanks. I spread the seed Laurie sent me on the burned patch, too.

While putting together my new webinar on gardening, I found this amazing photo. Do you see the burned spot, the black blotch on the left side of the meadow? There seems to be something coming up in I wish I had gone to investigate then! But no...I forgot alll about it, and let the overgrowth of the meadow keep me from straying from my well-mown paths. Silly me. But that makes the surprise all the more delicious!

I was mowing the meadow paths a couple weeks ago when out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of rose-purple, peeping through the thick goldenrod.  Oh. My. God. Could those aster seeds have taken root? Could they already be blooming?? I didn't think they'd get big enough to bloom the first year!! I thrashed my way through head-high goldenrod and sumac, up to what had been the burned spot. What I beheld took my breath away. 

This is a video I made the next day, after I'd spent all morning cutting paths to it. It will give you some idea how I felt when I burst out of the smothering thicket and into this little secret garden, reserved just for beauty.


Here's Curtis, enjoying this little patch of utter surprise.


I decided, upon beholding this small patch of nothing but asters and pure blessed vibrant color, that there was nothing I'd done around the place that had brought me more joy than simply scattering aster seed on a burned patch. I think part of my rush of emotion was the surprise of it all-- having forgotten I'd done it, and then literally stumbling on it as I mowed--catching that flash of rose purple and following it, breathless, through the tangle, and then coming on this hidden, secret garden.

Because I am a creature of the moment, I was engaging in a ridiculous exercise, trying to rank my feeling on beholding this pop-up aster garden, against other wonderful experiences I've had here at home. 

Which include:

1. the orchard dogwoods in full bloom, cleared of vines and strangling rose. 

 2. bobcats hunting squirrels in the yard. 

3. walking beneath blooming dogwoods in the silver light of a full moon of May. 

Anyway. You get the picture. There is so very much joy around, waiting to be found--and made.  My love for this land is deepening with every small thing I do to improve it. I don't just live here--I interact with the land, and it gives so much back for every little gesture.

I have two enorrrmous brushpiles to burn this fall.  I cannot wait. You can be sure I will be gathering more aster seed by the roadside for the clean black burn patches they leave. Which do I love more? The blue-purple

or the rose-purple?

Total tossup. And lest you think the Secret Garden is a perfect Brigadoon, I found THIS
growing in the middle of the garden

Luckily it was just coming into bloom, and had yet to set seed (I think...) This is Japanese stiltgrass and it has EATEN the prairie meadow, where I had the soil disced to prepare it. Japanese stiltgrass is the entire reason I cannot disc to prepare the soil for planting--it multiplies ferociously when the soil is turned.  I carefully pulled out as much of the single clump as I could. Then I came stomping back and dug up the rootball and carried it to the fire circle and immolated the damn thing. If there is anything I hate it's Japanese stiltgrass. That one plant alone could have completely obliterated the Secret Garden by next spring. Praying I caught it in time. Die badly, you scourge.

There is always, always trouble just around the corner in Paradise, but for now, I'm going out to waller in the glowing success of these brand New England asters, gleaming in the September sunlight

Blue and rose-pink, with happy yellow centers and crawling with happy bees and butterflies

and I'm going to be thankful for beauty like this, and thankful that I get to live in its midst. 

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