dear gayla: how resilient are you feeling?

viburnum setigerum fruit DEAR GAYLA: Word of the moment—and of the day, month, season, and entire garden year: resilient.  From the minute the deafening hail descended on May 21, to what seemed like endless rain at times, to no rain this fall in weeks, a gardener—and a garden—must be ever-ready to bounce back, right?

Frankly, I am now officially almost ready to surrender! Each wheelbarrow load pushed to the compost heap brings me closer to that goal. The wisdom I always refer to when I am pondering the season’s scorecard—as I always do at cleanup time–is the late author (and gardener) May Sarton’s:

‘A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.’

She wrote that in the 1960s. This year’s triumphs had little to do with me–but with the more-than-plentiful rain, which got every fruiting thing, including all my many hollies and viburnums, really loaded up.

viburnum fruit 2I was so happy to hear you like Sarton’s writing, too—yet another thing we have in common. (I’m glad we decided to each give away her memoir “Journal of a Solitude” to some lucky readers this week; details at the bottom of the page.)

dear gayla: a series of letters to a garden friend

‘DEAR GAYLA’: Those two words are how each “letter” in this occasional series begin, each time I write here to my friend Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl [dot] com. They’re a sort of “out loud” reality check we thought might be good for both of us (and maybe fun for you, too). There have been others, if you care to backtrack: about the garden as a “treasure box;” about the coming 2013 season (and some resolves I’d made); about root cellars (something we both dream of having); about dwarf tomatoes (her speciality). Now on with the rest of the latest one…

EVEN THOUGH I was safe inside when that hail came, Gayla, and didn’t get shredded like the poor plants did, I felt beaten up. But–inspired most of all by one plant among the many battered ones–I just kept going.

My oldest of four bottlebrush buckeye shrubs (Aesculus parviflora) was especially brave, you see. Maybe he was just trying to tell me that he wanted to see less of me (or, more specifically: for me to see less of him) when he dropped at least half his leaves during the pounding, and most of the spring’s new soft, twiggy growth.

Aesculus parviflora blooms in JulyThis is the same old friend of a shrub that has been taken down halfway not so many years ago by a microburst of wind (remember?). It had just got back to full size and now…well, let’s just say it got a stern pruning. The amazing thing is how a month or so later he was well along toward recovery. How do plants do this? Impressive. Inspirational. (Though I missed its usually massive number of blooms, above; this year there were far fewer.)

Anytime this season that I wanted to give up, I just looked over at him.

So back to that word: resilient. It’s especially topical this week, come to think of it, as we turn our clocks back to end Daylight Savings Time, heading into the deepening darkness. Though the expression is “spring forward, fall back,” if I am feeling resilient I guess I would technically be leaping backward.  Or at least that’s what it seems if you look up the derivation of “resilient,” as I just did.

I see in the dictionary it probably derives from the Latin resilire, “to recoil,” merging re- (for “back”) and salire (“to jump”)—as in leaping backward.

garter snakeNOW AS FOR the recoiling part. Well, there was some of that here this garden season, if you were squeamish.  (Almost six years into fulltime rural living, I am noticeably less so by necessity, having cleared away dead bodies of every description many mornings after the overnight nature wars.)

There were no 17-year cicadas in my neighborhood, but my garden friend Lee Reich across the Hudson River says it was total and absolute madness. Here it was Japanese beetles such as I have never witnessed. (Why can’t they leave my Canna ‘Musafolia,’ a.k.a. Canna ‘Grande,’ alone?).

And (ophidiophobiacs beware!): It was a year of snakes, snakes, snakes. Which is a good thing, since they eat slugs, slugs, slugs—and those slimy beasts were one of the truly unwanted side effects of so many “extra” inches of rain.

But even my good fortune to have plenty of snakes to do the garden bug patrol for me seems to have backfired, because this year’s crop of garter snakes in particular was mostly interested in eating my frogs—who are not just my most beloved friends other than Jack the Demon Cat, but also the other mainstay of my pest-management team. Every time I turned around, I saw a snake with a frog in its mouth, and it’s not pretty.  Dare I show you? (Yes, I took photos, but hmmmm…don’t think anyone really wants to see. I’ll leave it at the photo of the coiled garter snake, above.)

It was a year of rabbits who didn’t even bother to move when I appeared outside in the morning, and chipmunks marauding in herds. (I know, you don’t call it a herd, but you get the image—technically I think they travel in a “scurry”.)

The one weather stressor I don’t take personally, or regard as an act of violence: frost. (Well, unless it comes in June or before mid-September, that is, or the temperature goes from 80 to 18 in a single week.) We have finally had some seriously cold nights, and I think the plants, including the bottlebrush, and I are happy for the chance to just say “Uncle,” to give up at keeping on, and plan for a little nap.

The final frost of spring and the first of fall are merely bookends to the season, an expected part of gardening in a zone that isn’t frost-free. I enjoy the dance of trying to outsmart it a time or two on either end—you know, with the blankets and upturned patio chairs and so on—but then I just feel ready to let it go.

I hope you and yours—botanical, human, canine, and even canned goods—are all tucked inside safely now, and ready to weather whatever shows up next.


(Oh, and a fast P.S. — Thanks for nudging me to grow the tomatillos. They are so tasty, and so is the jam-like salsa I made from them. I was pulling faded vegetable plants yesterday but the tomatillos were still at it, so I ate a few between chores. Resilient little devils.)

how to win may sarton’s ‘journal of a solitude’


MY FRIEND GAYLA TRAIL (a.k.a. You Grow Girl) and I are each giving away a copy of a favorite book: May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude,” a memoir of private reflection, and fresh starts.

All you have to to to enter is answer this question in the comments box below, then jump over to Gayla’s blog to post the same comment there and double your chances to win.

If my word of the 2013 season is “resilience” (and Gayla’s over at You Grow Girl’s is “messiness”): What’s your word of the garden year?

Have no answer or feeling shy? That’s fine. Just say “count me in” or something like that, and we will. Don’t forget: Click over to Gayla’s to double your chance to win the book.

By the way, I have written about May Sarton’s book before, if you want have a read.

Gayla and I will each select a winner at random after entries close at midnight Thursday, November 7. Good luck to all!

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  1. Amy says:

    My word is “new”. This was my first season in a new house and new garden. I was able to experiment and expand in ways I haven’t before. I tried new things and canned things I haven’t before. It was wonderful!

  2. Wendy says:

    Hello, you two-
    I hope you know already, (for years), about the “resilient gardener”, a book by carol deppe
    And that those of you not familiar, consider looking into it. Most of the nut and bolts. Of what she does don’t apply to me, ( breeding one’s own plants specific to your area a personal needs- celiac, etc.), but the approach to gardening so it’s effective, a support in bad times as well as good- because it’s designed to function that way… was a beautifully conceived, thought-out and tested approach. The ide of the perfect being the enemy of the good bites any of us who are looking for a beautiful, trouble-free, productive garden with no hiccups. And this is a fundamental corrective to that approach. I HOPE this gets to you- or some of you. I
    Ve enjoyed Gayla for a while, and continue to use her book- here’s to more from you both, and recovery, of every type! Best— Wendy/San Francisco

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