Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Magic Spots

It's lame to post old essays from long ago. One reason to do so is that I am tying to get me in the swing of posting about gardening. Another reason is that it's an easy way to get the formatting of the text in a more easily transferable format. Right now all I have are the posts recovered from a Topica list which doesn't appear to be visible to the public, but somehow is still on the servers there. Try as I might I can't get the line breaks right. Posting them here allows me to get the text into a form I can work with. In addition it allows me to put in hyperlinks which I didn't know how to do at the time.

It's January and it's cold in Western Pennsylvania. Around six I carried a bit of firewood to my house and noticed the fading sunset. The days are getting longer, but as my grandmother would say: "The days get longer but the cold grows stronger."

The photo is a tree that came crashing down last winter. A few days before Christmas a Blue Spruce was blown down in strong winds. I thought of the picture because of the magic spots I remember most, they've on grand fallen trees. I distinctly remember as a small boy exploring I discovered a tall Tulip Poplar that had fallen down a small hill, such that as I walked out on it I was high above the ground below. I rather shudder about the idea of being unsupervised at such a young age. On the other hand that tree was one of my great discoveries of my life. It was not just the tree, but the decision to explore in it that was so revealing to me. Surely had I been supervised, I would have been told to stay out of it.

I can think of a couple of other occasions being on a fallen tree which were transcendent. Perhaps you too have memories of finding magic spots in nature?


August 12, 2001

The Incompetent gardener was once an incompetent teacher, and I worked for a time at an environmental learning center. Groups of mostly third though fifth graders would come through for multi-day engagements. So they got to spend the night in a camp-like setting. One of the stock lessons that we did was called Magic Spots. The kids were led into the woods and told that they could have a minute or two to find a spot to sit alone to be still and quiet for a while.

Of all the activities, this was the one that caused the most controversy with parents. Some were convinced that the whole exercise was a “New Age” plot to proselytize young pagans. Most educators have little concern for proselytizing. Groups of education majors came to the center for practical experiences in teaching. In explaining the activity, never once did I hear a critique from a religious perspective. But the activity was generally met with skepticism following two types. First was about the objective. Education majors are primed to think in terms of measurable objectives. This is considered an “immersion” activity and the objective here is a skill: observation. This still didn’t satisfy many new teachers. They asked:
“What exactly are they observing? How will we know if they saw it?”
The second area of skepticism was about what is euphemistically known as “classroom management”.
“So the kids are going to sit quietly in the rain for twenty minutes - right?”
But I saw hundreds of kids trooped into the woods and they loved this activity more than all the others.

The treks into the woods were neatly choreographed so that the groups entered at various trailheads; it seemed to each group that they were the only ones in the woods—on a good day. The leaders would take the kids to a predestinated area, stop with them to read something short and inspiring then let them choose a spot nearby. Much of being a teacher is simply keeping track of kids, so the leader would have to find a spot where she could keep an eye out for the kids and then wait. Twenty minutes can seem like an interminable amount of time in a slushy drizzle. But, while the kids might be boisterous on their way into the woods, they were almost always silent on the walk out. In the cafeteria at lunch, the podium and mike was opened for some of the children to tell about their experiences. The kids clamored to tell their stories, and they gushed with enthusiasm. The magic of Magic Spots was still lost on many of the teachers, but it was obvious to everyone that the kids really gained from it.

As any teacher knows, children are first-rate observers; it’s just that their attentions are so varied. And trooping one’s charges through the woods it was often difficult to keep them from testing the projectile characteristics of different objects, from turning every stone, and from felling dead trees. Somehow these same kids could sit still and absorb the world around them better than I could with much practice. They saw skeletal leaves, birds, squirrels, and brightly colored fungi. They created poetry about the spot. Because I was located near them, I saw many of the same things that would so move them:
Goodness, there’s a pileated woodpecker. Here’s a hickory nut there must be a hickory near by. Ah! A fine patch of wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens.
But in naming the world around me, I was never enchanted so much by the sights and sounds, colors and moods, textures and smells, as they were.

There was plenty of mumbo-jumbo in the curriculum and the purpose was theatrical more than anything. So perhaps it is not so surprising that these Magic Spots were controversial. It is not uncommon to think of places as having a life and history. We speak of holy ground, sacred space, and of hauntings. Asking the children to find a “special” place and telling them that they’ll know it when it feels right certainly contributes to their enchantment. But it also overlaps with our adult constructs of place and morality. It was our ancestor, Cain the gardener--apparently an incompetent one at that because the Lord didn’t look favorably on his offering--who slew his shepherd brother Abel. The Lord confronted Cain asking:
What have you done? Listen to the sound of your brother’s blood, crying out to me from the ground.
And from that story on comes a sense that it’s probably not good news when the ground is doing the talking. Dowsers are still often employed to find spots for a well, but this harmless occupation is suspect for other than merely scientific reasons; it all seems a little too witchy.

Still after a school term of sitting quietly in the woods daily with children, I resolved that I should continue to practice Magic Spots. I haven’t really applied myself. I suppose I have thought about special spots around the property and considered making certain spots commemorative and memorable too. The closest thing to magical spot on our property is a stone outcropping. The kids have always located it when they come to visit, even though they have to plod through a bit of bramble to claim it. I can look out my window sometimes to see our cat surveying the hunting prospects while sitting on it, and I’ve used it for sunbathing. The sense of enchantment that can come from a Magic Spot, though, has generally happened without a thought of where I sat and certainly without deliberately fashioning the place.

The other evening I was sitting on the lawn and happened to observe the silhouette of a tall Ash, Fraxinus americana, on the edge of the property. It is probably the tallest tree on the property; the first limb of the straight-as-an-arrow trunk is over twenty feet above the ground. Rather too close to it is a mature Boxelder, Acer negundo. The wood of the Boxelder, or as it is sometimes and more informatively known, Ash-leaved Maple, is soft and not particularly useful. Its shallow root system prevents anything from growing beneath it and the tree regularly sheds dead branches. But it is a huge tree whose mammoth trunk bifurcates only about five feet from the ground, so I've envisioned building a tree fort in it some day. On that evening it was the Ash that caught my attention. Before I could fully register the thought, a fearsome face appeared through the blank spaces of the black leaves. Then as quickly as it appeared the face in the tree soften and seemed rather cartoonish.

I gazed in amusement and wonder at the tree for time before the outline silhouette became visible to me again. It was beautiful. On subsequent evenings I’ve gone out to look for the face. The next night all I could see was the cartoon face. But on the evening after that I waited for the moon to rise and at first saw the cartoon face. And I thought that it was the upturned mouth that made it appear friendly. Suddenly again the monster face appeared and it was the mouth that looked so frightening, like the square mouth of a lion with sharp incisor teeth. It didn’t really startle me, after all the face is just a play of light between the leaves of the tree and my imagination. Soon the more friendly face returned. The tree still surprises me because I’m never quite sure what face I’ll see.

I’m glad that I look at the tree at night and see its face. It is the subtle confusion between it and me that’s so enchanting and magic. It’s fun and informative to learn the names of the plants in the garden, to study their habits, their uses, and their attractiveness to man and beast. But one can become a little too possessive in these activities. The world around us has things to say that we never dreamed of until hearing them. The kids in their magic spots watched and listened and the distinction between outside and inside was not so clearly made. They were enchanted by it.


Magic Spots is an activity outlined with many others in: Van Matre, Steve, Sunship Earth: An Acclimatization Program for Outdoor Learning

One the best books on tree identification is also one of the least
expensive: Harlow, William M., Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada. New York, Dover 1957. Searching on Amazon and not finding it made me suspect the book was out of print. Of course Dover had republished it as the original was first published in the early 1940's.

Dover Publications is a treasure. The Wikipedia entry tells the story of Hayward and Blanche Cirkers and their Dover Publications. I'm delighted that the Courier Corporation is continues the brand. Nonetheless my first instinct thinking the book was out of print was to go to ABE (Advanced Book Exchange) and plug in William H. Harlow into the database. Sometimes I'm amazed by the high prices out-of-print books command. But most of the time they are very cheap, and that's the case with Harlow's books. If you are interested in knowing more about trees, an old textbook by the distinguished dendrologist Harlow might become one of your prized possessions.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Seed Catalogs

Early New Years day 22 year-old Oscar Grant was shot to death by a BART police officer while restrained in their custody. Video of the event was taken by a passenger on a BART train at the station stop and uploaded to YouTube among other places. In response there were protests in Oakland later that week. When I signed into Flickr photos from the protest were featured. Among those who uploaded pictures was The Inadvertent Gardener. I think that's a swell name and probably gets to the serendipity aspect of gardening that I was going for with The Incompetent Gardener. Today via Beth's Blog I discovered that The Inadvertent Gardener blogs! She's way more together than I am, so I can't begrudge her the name. In fact, the smart reader will hurry over there to that place now. That is unless of course for some reason you haven't received any seed catalogs in the mail and want to read a warmed over piece I wrote about them in 2001.


November 6, 2001

In autumn the realization that winter is coming always creeps up on me. One would think that having years of experience the fact of winter would be easily remembered, but a part of me holds out for the hope that perhaps it may not come this year. Still by the end of October the early sunsets and chilly evenings remind me that this will be another year with four seasons. Every sunny autumn day is like stealing a little summer and becomes all the more precious. As I'm going through this old post right now it's about two degrees F outside with a bitter wind.

Just before Halloween my copy of the Thompson & Morgan seed catalog arrived in the mail. Every year I spend many hours pouring over seed offerings and have many favorite catalogs. One of my favorites is Thompson & Morgan; one of the best things about the catalog is that it arrives early. They have a very wide selection and provide beautiful color photographs of most of the flowers. I order seeds from many different companies and have a fondness for them all. So I’m reluctant to single out Thompson & Morgan as my favorite company. Nevertheless, if your mailbox isn’t stuffed with seed catalogs and you plan to send for one, Thompson & Morgan is a good choice because it is such a good plant reference and has so many offerings.

Park Seed is another very good catalog and for many of the same reasons: wide selection, good cultural information, and photographs. Parks has a very inexpensive shipping charge too, which makes it easy to order just a packet or two of seeds.

Seeds are relatively inexpensive in comparison to plants, but it is still possible to spend quite a lot on seeds. I do indeed compare prices by looking at the price and also the quantity. Generally a packet of seeds will provide plenty of plants for the home gardener, but packets for some hybrids and special seeds hold very small quantities. Sometimes seeds are sold by weight and other times by the number of

Johnny’s Selected Seeds provides information of the number of seeds per a given quantities for many of the plants they sell, but figuring it out for packets is usually an academic question for flowers. Nichols Garden Nursery sells many of their seeds by weight and their packets are generous. Many of the same varieties will be found in the different catalogs, but the all the catalogs have developed a niche for themselves. Cooks Garden Seeds developed a devoted following by offering a huge selection of lettuce varieties. Renee's Garden have made their name by selling vegetable and flowers particularly well suited to backyard gardeners.

There’s faith and then there’s confidence. Seed catalogs are only exciting if one is anticipating planting seeds, and for many that seems a daunting prospect. I’ve planted many a seed packet without actually growing the plants to maturity, sometimes not even getting the seeds to germinate. Nevertheless I’ve grown so many plants from seed that I have a degree of confidence about growing plants this way. But seeds are
such a miracle that that faith is remembered in planting them.

My mother has a hard time with plant names and once remarked, “I can’t seem to remember their names unless I’ve raised them as babies.” She’s right that growing seedlings usually does mean that one is more familiar and connected to the plants. There’s nothing wrong with planting a garden from plants purchased in pots. Still there’s much to be gained in starting some of your own, and it’s not so hard.

Seed catalogs generally offer quite a bit of cultural information about the seeds and the plants they’ll become. Gleaning this information sometimes requires interpreting the code that the company provides. It is worth delving into these codes as the information improves the odds for success. Thompson & Morgan’s system for providing cultural information is well presented with a symbols and abbreviations. These
are presented in a fold out page on the back cover for easy reference. With a little practice the symbols are committed to memory making little need to refer to it.

They classify plants according to type, e.g. annual, perennial, biennial, etc.; provide the number of days from sowing to germination and the temperature range for best results; the amount of sun the plant prefers; and give a guide to both the ease of germination and the ease of after care. This is their “Green Fingers Guide” and it is helpful as they offer some demanding plants. Also they have symbols denoting special notes, e.g. that a plant is poisonous, or has edible flowers; makes a good pot or is well suited for baskets. One of my favorite symbols is for perennials that flower the first year from seed. Generally perennials take at least a year from sowing to flower, but there are happy exceptions and it’s nice to know about them.

Variety, and quality are good reasons for buying seeds by mail; you’ll simply not be able purchase some any other way. Most of the mail order seed companies do extensive trailing of the seeds they sell as well as plant development. Thompson & Morgan is a British company, but have had North American offices for a long time. Their cultural information is well documented for American gardeners. Parks trials are done in the U.S., as are most of the other catalogs listed, so their offerings have proven themselves for American gardens. Most of the companies also do lab testing to assure that their seeds have good germination rates and provide extra seed when they fall below the norm. Seed companies generally offer good service, fair prices, and superior seeds.

The seed catalogs that arrive mostly before Christmas provide me with pleasant interludes of “arm chair” gardening. The seeds themselves provide many hours of enjoyment. As a freshman in college I responded to an ad from Parks for a packet of cactus seeds. I was anticipating getting on their mailing list, but a catalog never came. The seeds did, however, and it was fascinating to have respectable looking cactuses by the end of the term. I mention this to suggest that even if one isn’t ready to commit to planting a garden’s worth of seedlings, growing a packet or two on a windowsill is easy and enjoyable. Even grass seed will provide an interesting indoor plant and nothing could be easier! Certainly too there are many seeds that will thrive by direct sowing. Requesting a seed catalog and ordering a few packets is an enriching gardening experience. Do so if your not already an avid fan of seed

The post on seed catalogs I'd write today, if I weren't so lazy, wouldn't quite be the same. The picture shows six of my favorite catalogs as of now. The choice to concentrate on Thompson & Morgan is a bit odd, but there is a certain logic to it. The catalog remains an excellent guide for people just beginning to try to start from seeds. Seeds are quite a lot more expensive than they were in 2001, and I'm more reluctant now than I was to put up the money. Pinetree Garden Seeds offers some of the best values on seeds for the home gardener. I absolutely love J. L. Hudson Seedsman and if I could only have one catalog that would be the one I'd want. Jung Seeds and Plants is very good. While the post concentrates on seeds, one of the recommendations I'll make about Jung is they have always (almost) sent plants correctly marked. As far as seeds got they are the place to get the latest introductions. Seeds of Change is an especially good catalog if you're interested in organic seed.