September 25, 2007

It's Fall Already? How'd That Happen?

Oh sure the purple asters are a pretty big hint that the autumnal equinox is upon and already crept passed me, but, heck, I've still got a half of a flat of snapdragons I started from seed last February, that I've been babying along just because I hadn't been able to find the exact, perfect spot for them. It seems, the advent of Fall has decided their fate. Next stop: compost pile.

Seriously, where did all the anxiety of getting plants in the ground, staking newly re-sprouting perennials, loading them into my wheelbarrow for yet another new location....where did it go and how did I get here to Fall so quickly? Is the speed of season change anything to do with increased gravitational pull of the sun, global warming, more bovine methane releases I just getting older? Well, the inconceivability of slamming into the sun, the intolerability of slogging through melting ice caps 5 miles inland off the Jersey Shore , the unpleasantness of passing out Gax-X at alarming rates to dairy farmers... are all possible default reasons for the quickened passage of time. However, sticking yet another candle into an (albeit decadent) chocolate buttercream-iced birthday cake (thus ushering in another year closer to 'old fartdom' ) is the least acceptable reason to my vain old self. Sadly, no explanation, either logical, illogical or one based in self denial, has a thing to do with the seasonal-slippery slope a gardener inevitably must careen down as the sun bathes our gardens at ever-lowering altitudes - casting longer and longer shadows - each day.

The appearance of that first, single, yellowed oak leaf is Mother Nature's reminder to let the air slowly seep from my garden balloon for another season. I may be a bit reluctant to chill out just yet, but my perennials quite willingly anticipate a much needed nap under a soon-to-be chilled earth. Even though many of them have already tucked themselves under blankets of mulch, this gardener isn't quite ready to pull up the covers and call it quits. As long as there's one last lingering monarch; a few remaining hummingbirds; the shockingly bright yellow male goldfinches haven't totally muddied to the dull chartreuse of their female counterparts, and my garden is still alive with colorful perennials that have only just come into their own with the appearance of that first, yellowed oak leaf...then this gardener still has miles to go (and beds to tend) before I sleep.

For me, fall is neither an end nor a beginning but a transition. The weather is so quixotic - waxing and waning from cool to hot and dry to wet – if I wasn’t looking at a calendar, I might be hard pressed to tell whether summer was coming or going. But because I know it so well, in spite of the weather, my garden is more in a state of limbo. That ‘garden limbo’ affords an easier transition for nearly all of my plants. If the containers and baskets of annuals still look decent enough and don’t require hauling water from my rainbarrel or dragging the hose to nether regions of the garden, then they’ll be allowed a temporary reprieve from becoming compost fodder. I have the same approach to annuals planted in the garden. Except most of them don’t wind up worm food till next spring. After I’ve collected from them whatever seeds I want to save for next season, I leave them, along with untrimmed or un-deadheaded perennials, as food and shelter for the birds and to better anchor the soil. (Mulch helps too.)

Fall, like spring, are probably the two of the biggest reasons why I love perennials so much. In the Spring (aside from bulbs) they are the first, reliable – and with little or no help from me – signs of life and color. While in the Fall, they ‘keep the music playing’ so to speak right through that transition period. If you learn which perennials actually don’t even begin to perform until that ‘back and forth temperature dance’ is upon us, you can have color in the garden right on through a first snow. Just a few of the perennials still adorning my garden right now are the shorter Michaelmas or New England asters (like the ones pictured above) or my 'perennially' favorite tall aster, White Boltonia Asteroides, this year backed by taller-than-usual brilliant orange annual Tithonia. (Pictured Left).

It's worth the wait for the lovely contrast of white fluffy heads on the chocolate eupatoreum (Joe-Pye Weed) alongside late-blooming pink phlox. (Pictured below).

There's also my much-coveted ornamental grasses like this pinkish-hued, plumed miscanthus next to a "Fireworks" solidago which, as you can see, lives up to its common name and right behind that is a "Pink Delight" buddleia. (Pictured Below) I humbly - yet with a smidge of conceit - admit I have so many buddleias, I actually lost count.

Also, too, are the sedums, the late arriving morning glories and moonflowers, red clusters from pinnapple sages, a second flush of penstemons, a literal hedge of starry white-flowered, sweet autumn clematis which wafts its vanilla scent through my open kitchen window in the evening. Finally, all my favorite three-season shrubs and sub shrubs, constantly morphing throughout the season from lime green to burgundy, dark green, variegated or silver and finally the burnt orange, red and maroon foliage, ultimately forming a frame for some last-minute huge chrysanthemums. Although I love those big, fat globes of button-flowers, I've always considered chrysanthemums merely expensive annuals and being the ever-frugal gardener, I'm reluctant to buy more than a couple. But, my husband absolutely adores them. They 'scream' Fall to him and since that is his favorite season, who am I to deny finding an excuse to peruse another nursery where I might just happen upon some final perennial sales before poinsettias take charge of their display areas and their gates are shut till next March.

I am a perennial-a-holic and admit it proudly. I like growing vegetables. I really like growing annuals. But I love growing perennials. Even in frosty months to come, ice crystals on those ornamental grass heads and snow-dusted sedum clumps will be just as beautiful as that first brilliant gold-coin yellow of my wood poppy or the azure blue catmint heralding the arrival of spring and rebirth in the garden.

And when the snow-dusted sedums have browned beyond recognition and the grasses have bent and bowed under that ice and snow, there remains a magical reassurance that brings a smile to this gardener’s face when I bundle up in winter gear and stand in what I assume is one of my pathways then covered with snow and gaze out over that frozen blanket in the dead of winter. I know that beneath that frosty mantle lies sleeping roots of potential beauty just waiting. Waiting for me to love them all over again. Actually, I love them just as much when they’re sleeping, which is perhaps another reason why I love perennials as I do. Not just because of their inherent promise to return each year. But if, by some fluke of quirky Mother Nature, they shouldn’t return, I can at least hold onto that promise through the cold winter and sometimes …in some years…that Promise alone is just enough to keep me going until that wood poppy finally appears again.

September 12, 2007

Another Part Of The Garden: Garden Forums

Into most gardeners’ lives these days, a gardening forum or two must fall. Chatting online amongst a group of people who share a fondness or outright love of gardening, is as common in these Internet days as was the Saturday afternoon garden clubs of old – sans the white gloves, wide-brimmed straw hats, pearls and teacups. In the online garden ‘clubs’ of today, testosterone accounts for equal participation and baseball caps or no caps are more the attire. Dirty fingernails belie not only lack of white gloves but no gloves at all; bandanas adorn necks instead of pearls; and the drink of choice usually depends upon just how much gardening that particular gardener intends to accomplish the day after. (Hiccup!) Cyber ‘clubbers’ are more likely plunked in front of their computers at all hours of the day or night donned in p.j.s or nightgowns, shorts and t-shirts, overalls or garden-soiled jeans or as bare as a freshly cleared field of corn with perhaps two or three niblets remaining visible to the very naked eye.

While many forum members choose to share their life history along with their gardening history, others choose to protect their personal anonymity and reveal just enough of their lives outside the garden to bridge the gap between total alienation and a certain level of guarded friendship. Still others – rarely - will form deep and abiding friendships that generously spill over into real lives off line for years and years.

The genesis of the world-wide web conceived and birthed instantaneous (depending on your ISP), direct and convenient access to the world outside our door, outside out country and outside our mind. The Internet plied the fertile ground of a basic human need: The need to communicate with our fellow human beings – with the bonus feature of anonymity….and Lo! Forums Were Begat! And yea, they spread unto the globe sending forth messages of love, camaraderie, commiseration, knowledge and some of the vilest behavior imaginable…and unimaginable.

We had passed the pearly gates of Bill, peered through the forbidden Windows and ate of the Apple. We were doomed. But we were curious and still hungry after that measly little apple. We ignored the black cannonballs with their lit fuses threatening us with fatal numerical errors. Although I’ve yet to see a 666, it’s just a matter of time before a way is devised to spin our heads around and spew pea soup on our screens as we contemplate the death of both our soft and hard ware. We survived the Hounds of Hellish HTML; walked away from more crashes than Evil Kenevil and with the safe-sex equivalent to STDs, we slipped into our Norton and Symantec prophylactics hoping to shield us from any CTVs (computer transmitted viruses). Yet no java scripted stones of computer commandments nor St. Steven’s iBook of Jobs could have prepared us for the Damien of Forums: The Troll and his demonic mission to divide and conquer.
The plethora of divergent personalities populating forums who are merely out for a pleasant weave through a new garden thread, provides a veritable smorgasbord of prey upon which a Troll can feast. Divisiveness is an easy accomplishment for the well-armored Troll. Conquering takes a bit longer depending on the tenacity of the Troll and the degree of vulnerability amongst trusting souls or the denial by others of the Troll’s capacity to create unrelenting havoc. His deviant progress, however, can be thwarted or halted outright if more members are as equally tenacious as the Troll to ensure his departure, and if they are wise to the futility of silence when battling the Troll for the hearts, minds – and mostly – the time and tried patience all forum family members. New and old.

In an atmosphere where most forum members just want to be heard, recognized and validated, a simple response from another member usually achieves that affirmation. A door is then opened for the single most important guest: The Dialog. But, any open-door dialog also invites the unwelcome Troll. Once the troll has passed the threshold, can Discourse be far behind? Too many guests and not enough food to go around. Someone has to go hungry. Usually it’s the weakest of the herd, the newest members, who are culled first by The Troll. Unwary of their new surroundings or the ways of the Internet Trolls, the 'fresh meat' wanders off into his net of idiotic rambling babbles. Talking in tongues has a different connotation when referring to TrollTalk. Once gorged on the forum souls of departed newbies and having frightened off potential lurking members - now too apprehensive to even enter the Troll’s killing fields - the Troll becomes greedy, more invasive and hungrier now for the morale of stronger members. Reincarnating in different forms, as real demons some times do, the Troll can fool the most wizened members. Some members succumb. They are polite - even kindly - to the disguised Troll. Others will choose the road of least resistance and ignore the Troll in the hopes the evil one will “just go away”, thus making it “all better” so they can once again resume their innocent exchanges.

A word here about forum exchanges: they can be friendly and informative at best; civil mostly; tenuous and circumspect at times; and uncomfortably inhospitable at their worst. Each person perceives different degrees of importance to what they have to contribute. Just as in real life. In real life what we think is important may not at all be important to our neighbor, our spouses, our parents or children or the person next to you at the supermarket checkout line. Sometimes we envision pearls of wisdom being imparted to others or our humor tickling a smile or laughter. Other times we hope our sympathies and empathies are accepted with the sincerity we intended. On other occasions we humbly share lessons we’ve learned through life experience. All these, we think are of importance because they are important to us…and rightly so. Yet, you must admit, that oft times if we heard those same words or thoughts or ‘life experiences’ – in person – from another, some of us couldn’t skulk away from our neighbor fast enough; shut the bedroom door behind our spouse hard enough; turn a deaf ear to our parents often enough; send our child packing to their room sternly enough; or abandon our shopping carts and escape from the supermarket checkout line desperately enough.

Ah, but therein lies the basic difference between sharing what’s important to us - in person with neighbors, family and even that person in the checkout line - and imparting those same personally-important thoughts with distant, faceless strangers on a tiny screen with a constantly blinking cursor awaiting our next potentially incriminating word. Whereas we can always cross back over to our neighbor’s yard, open the door to the bedroom; invite our parents to a quiet dinner (if we’re still fortunate to have them); walk up the stairs to our child’s room; or remain in line to help pack a fellow shopper’s groceries…none of this is possible in an online forum. All is judged by the written word and written words can more often than not be interpreted quite differently in the eye of the beholder than they were intended in the mind's eye of the writer. There is no visual contact, facial expression, hand gestures or intonation of voice in a forum exchange to enhance understanding or intent. In person, your second chance at clarification is enabled by utilizing all your senses. You can listen with ears not deafened by your own prideful opinion and see with eyes broadened and cleared to view the entirety of the picture. You may still walk away from your neighbor, kiss your spouse goodnight, hug your child the next morning or wait patiently in the checkout line while that shopper finishes their thought – and still believe them to be wrong or annoying, but you’ve given them and yourself the opportunity to share, perhaps, the one and only true thing you can and should share: Respect. You’ve let the other person know their words and thoughts and opinions are important. And Respect is one aspect of furthering understanding between individuals that can be duplicated on forums. But, it must be earned. Which brings us back to....

... Troll Central. A Troll's primary rule of engagement is to dismiss and destroy Respect. Muddle the lines of communication between members and encourage even further discourse. Reminding me of an old Twilight Zone episode where everyone on a block began blaming each other and accusing each other of being ‘an alien’ causing all the trouble in the neighborhood. In the end, they turned on each other and destroyed themselves. All the while being observed by true aliens who ultimately declared: “We don’t have to worry about conquering these Earthlings. They’ll destroy themselves”.

Trolls also calculate the strength of the commonly held comparison between forum families and real–life families. Like any real-life family with dysfunctional members, there are nasty and critical relations, meek and mild, outspoken and confident, people pleasers and people haters, jealous, indifferent, callous, cruel, judges and jurors, leaders and followers, sympathizers and empathizers, experienced and novices, wise and the foolish, humorous and humorless, fearsome and feared. Forum families share the same cast of characters - only with many, many more relatives at the forum dinner table. The trunk, branches, stems and roots of a real family tree could never compare to the vast root system of a forum family. The roots of one single forum family can penetrate walls, towns, cities and countries racial, religious, cultural and political barriers. And if there’s a Martian growing a tomato, you can bet that gardening forums’ roots are beaming through gaseous galactic clouds more deadly than any lingering haze of malathion.

On the whole gardening forums in particular have become a place to learn and share, to brag and compliment and just to shoot the breeze when the spirit moves you. If it’s pouring outside or the temperature is something only to be tolerated by that Martian tomato grower, a gardener is logged on. It’s that forum family mentality the Troll must deduce before he begins his harangue. His barrage of insults, curt responses, condescension and culling of the member-herd are carefully gauged before he draws first blood. If he sees a chink in the family’s armor, a breach in their wall of unity for the good of the entire forum family, his chances for dividing and conquering increase. If he succeeds in severing the lines of communication between family members; if in-fighting between ‘relatives’ causes them to lose sight of the single goal of restoring Peace to their 'little family' by vanquishing the Troll through unified solidarity…then the Troll will win. If, however, the family remains united and provides support by proactively urging The One True Mighty Favah of their beloved forums to send his tech crew of archangels to join battle with the Troll and slam the gates behind him… then …and only then can the family get on with their forum lives and enjoy their exchanges once again. Until the next troll slithers across the threshold or shrouds himself in yet another cloak. And he will.

Truly, anything worthwhile is worth fighting for. Silence never wins over evil. ”Your very silence”, as Euripides said,”shows you agree”. To sit in the sidelines and not participate in even the smallest way (that’s why God invented email) and maintain you still “support” the ‘family’; or to fear being splattered with some bile spewed by the Troll as he scatter shoots the entire family and worry the stain can’t be removed from your nice garden togs; to be so fearfully apathetic and as Helen Keller said, ”Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has not found a remedy for the the worst evil of all: the apathy of human beings”… follow that tact and ultimately reap the reward of peace and tranquility [if] and once the Troll has been vanquished, is, to me, hypocritical, parasitical and cowardly.

One of my favorite phrases and mantras, if you will, for refuting apathy and silence when speaking up for a group - a family – speaking up as a group and as a family – is from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
” Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?'. Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?'. Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?'. But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?'. And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right.”

And what is Right? That is beyond my purview to judge. I don’t judge. I comment and I do what I think is right. I close this with a final quote from Seneca: ”The real compensation of a right action is inherent in having performed it”. In other words, if I feel something is right and I act upon it, there is no compensation, no reward, no gratitude I seek. It is the mere knowledge that I did something - took some action - instead of nothing which is my sole and most fulfilling reward. Does that make me a Better person? Absolutely not. It isn't about Better or Worse or - as I alluded - Right or Wrong. It is about what I perceive as Right for me. And it is that which I will have to live with. And, heck, even Ghandi took some kind of action. Passivity, yes. But passive aggressive action.

In the end, communication still remains the key in gardening forum 'families'. In any family perhaps. If the lines of communication are weakened or compromised by ego or apathy or overt anger, then Trolls just have to sit back and wait for us to devour each other. Like the aliens on that block who just watched ...and waited. Then, our little alleged forum family becomes nothing more than those people standing in that supermarket line who can’t run fast enough to get away from each other.