Not really lazy per se, just recreational. The garden is humming along and the plants are doing their thing. There will be a flurry of activity when it comes time to harvest, but for not it is just a bit of weeding and watering. I don’t spend much time building in the shop during the summer, so all in all, I’ve been relaxing with other activities. Sitting and reading on the beach has taken a healthy piece of my time (O.K., that is kind of lazy), but mostly I’ve been working on rehabbing my right Achilles tendon, which I had surgically repaired about three and a half months ago. Today I started back to trail running, and for my return to the trails I chose one of my favorite place: Appleton Farms. Beautiful rolling terrain mixing pasture, meadow, wetland, and wood. Oh, and Jersey cows.
Appleton is one of my favorite places, probably because the rolling pastures remind me a bit of home, or at least what home used to look like. I started at the visitor center and ran past Briar Hill where part of the herd of Jerseys had taken shelter from the heat beneath a tree. The hill itself was covered in a blanket of Queen Anne’s Lace, considered an invasive, nonnative weed by some, but a regular fixture of the New England countryside nevertheless.
I ran along the dirt farm road between the Great Pasture and The Plains before turning to the west and heading up slope along the Great Pasture toward a low stone fence the marks the boundary between open ground and the wooded Grass Rides. Along the way I was treated to a field of goldenrod (Solidago) and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosa) in full bloom.
I turned south and followed the stone fence up slope until I crested Pigeon Hill, the highest point of the property that offers a stunning view of the farm and beyond. It is also the site of one of the four stone monuments placed in memory of members of the Appleton Family. The granite pillars are the decorative pinnacles from the top of the former Gore Hall at Harvard University which was demolished in 1912 to make way for the new library. The four pillars were gifted to the Appleton family. The pillar at the top of Pigeon Hill was placed in memory of Francis R. Appleton, Jr. (1885-1974).
Heading down from Pigeon Hill I entered back into the wooded trails that comprise the Grass Rides. Passing through low wetlands the trail emerges into a clearing called Round Point where I came upon another pinnacle from Gore Hall. This was the first to be erected in memory of an Appleton Family member, in this case, Charles L. Appleton who died of pneumonia just a few years after returning from active service in the first world war.
After circling back through the Grass Rides I retraced my steps past Pidgeon Hill, along the stone fence, through the Great Pasture and back along Briar Hill. Perhaps not a Lazy Day, but certainly one of joy and discovery. I’ll be back soon to find the other two pinnacles.
As I’ve written before, it has been a tough spring here in eastern Massachusetts. Lots of rainy, cool weather. It seems now that things are looking up, and some of my favorite spring plants are out in all their glory. The vegetable garden is also taking off (finally).
The other good news is that I am out of the waling boot and mostly back on my feet so I am able to get back up to Appleton Farms to see the girls.
Zero waste sounds like a lofty goal, and it is, but rather than be intimidated by it we should remember that “perfect is the enemy of the good,” or perhaps even the possible. So while we (and this is a team effort between my daughter Elsie, wife Hilary, and me) we strive to do our best, we recognize that though we may not be perfect we can always do better than we do now. So, when we say zero waste, we really mean minimal waste. We are taking steps toward dramatically reducing 1. the waste we put out for curb collection, and 2. our use of plastics overall. This second point is important given the current crisis in plastics recycling. Hilary is the one who has planted the seed for our family, but we all share a deep concern over environmental issues so she didn’t have to work too hard to get Elsie and me in board. My passion for building and growing and restoring is inseparable from my environmentalism and is rooted in my concerns about the impact of modern technology and consumer culture. Our move to zero waste will, I think, intersect with woodworking, gardening, and restoring is interesting ways: these activities will help our efforts in some ways (restoring means reusing, and the composting we do significantly reduces waste), but will be challenging in other ways (the dreaded black plastic nursery pot for instance).
There are many really great blogs that cover zero waste living. I’m partial to this one, but there are lists of other “top” zero waste blogs that give great tips on minimizing waste in the home: using travel mugs, switching away from liquid soaps and shampoos, buying in bulk, etc.
We are progressively adopting these practices in the home, but I’m mostly interested here in considering the unique advantages and challenges for gardeners. Later on, I’ll tackle zero waste issues in the wood shop.
Advantages and challenges
In some ways, we have already been operating on a zero waste philosophy. Most gardeners do. First off, we compost everything we can from food scraps to the cardboard rolls from toilet paper. Very little from the kitchen goes down the garbage disposal. Obviously, we don’t compost meat or grease, but just about any other scraps from the kitchen are fare game. That equals a significant waste stream reduction.
There are however two big sources of plastic in the garden that present challenges: the plastic bags in which compost, mulch, and potting soil are packaged, and the plastic pots that come from the nursery and plastic trays and cells that are used for propagation. Eliminating these sources of plastic is challenging, if not impossible given our current infrastructure. Here are the ups and downs and challenges and victories of going zero waste in the garden:
1. We produce a good bit of our own compost, and when we run out, we have the luxury of access to free municipal compost through the Marblehead transfer station. It’s a great deal if you don’t mind filling up your buckets and trugs and hauling them in your own car (and I don’t mind, which is why my wife drives a new car while I drive a used one).
2. I order my bark mulch in bulk and have it delivered, or I use leaf mold which I produce myself. I like to use a coarse wood chip for the paths in the vegetable garden, and I also get that for free from the transfer station (see above).
3. Potting mix/peat/vermiculite. Well, there is no getting around this one. Until garden centers start selling in a “fill your own container” format, I am forced to purchase it in 1, 2 or 3 cubic foot bags. Now, being that we are a seaside town our transfer station has a special drop off area for plastic boat wrap. I am am still waiting on an answer at to whether I can deposit plastic soil and peat bags there.
4. Plant pots. This one is another tough one. New plants, shrubs, and trees come in black plastic pots that range in size from small plugs and “six packs” to 5 gallon. If you are going to buy new plants, there is really no getting around the fact that they will come in plastic–occasionally you will find peat pots, but mostly it is plastic. The best bet is to recycle these pots as if you can (there are challenges for commercial recyclers) or reuse them at home for plant propagation over and over and over until they they break (then recycle them if you can). If you are buying trees or shrubs, try to buy them “B&B” (balled and burlaped), all of which goes in the ground and decomposes. I am also told that Lowe’s will take nursery pots for reuse and recycling (assuming you live near one).
5. Our goal should be not just to reuse or recycle, but to minimize our use of plastic pots all together. It is great if we can recycle plastic, but there is still a large energy input required to do so. For propagating at home, try to use alternatives to plastic pots. Currently I am experimenting with peat plugs, cow pots, and paper pots in place of the flimsy plastic cell trays that have a limited life span.
6. The old adage of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” still applies. In the past I’ve purchased I don’t know how many plastic watering cans only to have them split, break, or otherwise fail after a distressingly short period of time. No more. Now I only buy used/vintage galvanized cans. Occasionally I have some repairs to do, but they last for years and years, and when they finally rust through, steel is readily recyclable.
7. As money permits, purchase high quality tools once and you will likely never have to purchase them again. That means less going to the landfill. For instance, a pair of Felco #2 pruners may run you double the cost (they retail for about $50) of a middle of the road pair but they are very durable, easily resharpened, and most parts (most importantly the blades) are replaceable. This means you don’t need to pitch them altogether and buy new pair if one component happens to wear out. I’ve had mine about 15 years and they have seen heavy if not downright abusive use; I’ve replaced the blade once at a cost of about $10. I keep them sharp, lubricated, and clear of sap, and with some basic routine maintenance they work as well now as they did brand new. And by the way, I would not have even had to replace the blade had I not used them to cut some hard steel wire that damaged the edge beyond what I could grind out. The other lesson is to not (overly) abuse your tools.
8. I’ve stopped buying plastic plant labels and switched to using wood or bamboo. Both materials will biodegrade in the compost pie, though the bamboo will probably do so a bit faster.
The point here is not to be self righteous, but rather to talk about some of the successes we have had–this is tempered by the challenges we face and the places we fall short. In the end though, it makes little sense to restore our backyard habitat or grow our own vegetables if we don’t do our utmost to reduce the negative externalities those activities produce. I’ll continue to try new things and consult with others to find ways of reducing the waste produced by our gardening and thereby increasing the net benefit of our efforts. I’ll be sure to report back on how the paper pots hold up. Next year I will be creating a new garden area, and one of the ways I am going to minimize the use of plastic is to propagate most of the new perennials myself.
This fall I will put the garden to bed and return to my wood shop. Expect another post looking out ways of reducing the waste stream from my shop. Gardening, building, and restoring should be acts of environmentalism, activities that that engender thoughtfulness and care and are a bulwark against mindless consumption To minimize the environmental impact associated with these activities is not just something nice to do, but rather, goes to the core of the philosophy behind those activities.
I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania along the Perkiomen Creek. The creek was wide and slow in parts, and in others, ran more swiftly cutting narrow valleys through farm fields and woodland. The damp cold and ash gray gloom of late winter and early spring proved irresistible to me, and it was surely one of the times I felt the greatest communion with the land. I spent many chilly weekend afternoons and evenings after school exploring the wild places and fallow fields around my home. Decades later, I read a passage in Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning about his own youthful excursions into the late winter wilderness. He found in cold, gray swamps of his youth a great sense of happiness in being in a vast wilderness despite the cold and the damp. Reading his essay It immediately brought me back to the fields and valleys and woodlands surrounding the Perkiomen creek.
I don’t know if happiness is the word I’d use to describe the feeling (as Bugbee does), but I understand what Bugbee was getting at. The late winter and early spring landscape provided me then–and still does today–a quiet moment for contemplation when the snow has faded but life has yet to make a bold vernal return. Inevitably though while tromping through the woods in the dusky haze one would fine a few harbingers of things to come. Even while there was still a chill in the air, the flat colors of the boggy stream bottoms would be punctuated by the fresh green of the emerging Symplocarpus foetidus, known to most as skunk cabbage. A bit later in April another sign of Spring’s arrival started to form dense colonies on woodland floors: Podophyllum peltatum, commonly known as the Mayapple. New life and the promise of summer was on the horizon. Sounds like a perfect plant to add life to the spring garden.
This woodland perennial is native to the eastern United States and hardy in zones 3 through 8. In recent decades other Podophyllum from Asia have been introduced (P. delavayi or Dysosma delavayi–Chinese Mayapple—is particularly stunning), but we grow the native species. Podophyllum likes woodland shade to part shade in cool, rich soil, and can grow up to about 12 inches tall. The American Horticultural Association notes that the native Mayapple will quickly colonize, and, they caution, can be “too aggressive.” That has not been my experience in my garden, but that may be due to the fact that my plantings are occupying relatively small shaded areas in marginal soil. The plant spreads rhizomatously and can be propagated by division in early spring at the first signs of new growth. Podophyllum received its common name due to the 2 inch fruit that turns from green to custard colored as it ripens in about mid summer. There is some debate online and in print regarding the edibility of the fruit; if eaten before ripening, the fruit of the Mayapple (which contains podophyllotoxin which is used to treat warts) can cause intestinal upset. I’ve never tried it, nor do I intend to, but I have read that they are tasty. I’ll take others’ word for it. Apparently the fruit of the Asian varieties is used in traditional medicines while the fruit of the P. peltatum was used medicinally by Native Americans. The leaves and roots are DEFINITELY poisonous. By late summer, the plant will die back and go into dormancy awaiting the next spring.
P. peltatum is hardly a big attention grabber–not terribly tall and lacking in big showy displays–this woodland stalwart disappears from the garden by mid to late summer, giving way to more ostentatious perennials. However, the Mayapple gives every gardener what he or she so desperately needs, a shot of early green. As it happens, that early green comes in the form of a cluster of lovely umbrella shaped leaves that bear a delicate white flower and yellow fruit that has been an important part of the traditional medicine of tow very old and very rich cultures. And, no doubt, there is for me a bit of sentimentality at work as well. Perhaps the Mayapple is not such a modest addition to the garden after all?
Isle au Haut’s most prominent feature is Mt. Champlain, elevation 540 feet; second to that is Sawyer Mountain at 486 feet. The coastline is dominated by granite boulders and shingle beaches (that is, covered with pebbles or cobbles).
The Island biome is categorized as a temperate coniferous forest, with the canopy dominated—it seems almost exclusively—by spruce and Balsam fir. I saw some birch here and there, but very few, at least in the areas we explored. The Island falls within USDA zone 5b-6a, just a tick below us here in Marblehead. The presence of so much Balsam is indicative of the cooling effects of the ocean and the very damp soils.
The forests appeared at first to be stunted like it had been logged or burned, but this is actually the result of blow downs due to North Atlantic storms. The effects of these storms is amplified by the fact that the soils are relatively shallow and therefore do not afford the trees the opportunity to set deep roots. As we hiked, we frequently passed through areas where there had been blow downs that were now being repopulated by waist or head high balsam and cedar.
As the air warmed it was thick with the smell of the balsam which gave way to salt air as the trails broke from the wooded interior of the island and meandered along the rocky coast.
When the trails crossed the shore line one always encountered the intersection of nature and culture as winter storms invariably deposited reminders of Maine’s lobster fishing legacy. Like most nature lovers, I find it jarring when I encounter trash in the wilderness. I kind of liked the buoys though.
Apart from the evidence of fishing by Maine lobsterman, there was ample evidence of the hunting efforts of the gulls. The beaches were littered with the bleached shells of small lobsters, crabs, and urchins that had fallen prey to the numerous sea birds. I watched as a gull snatched an urchin from a tide pool, then taking flight, swooped low over the beach, climbed to about twenty feet and dropped its quarry on the rocks below in order to fracture its shell and expose its soft interior. The gull alighted on the rock, retrieved its prey and flew just offshore to an exposed boulder where it could have its meal unmolested.
The numerous urchin shells also became the medium for a piece of impromptu public art along the trail.
I’ve had people ask me why I like to use the scientific name for plants and spend so much time learning Latin names instead of the easier common names. Here is a perfect example. Depending on who you ask, people will tell you that this is a beach pea, sea pea, circumpolar pea, or sea velching. Botanist know it by one name: Lathyrus japonicus
Like many of the plants I encountered on this trip, Lathyrus was once largely ignored by gardeners. However, as native plants have thankfully come into vogue, I have found retailers who are now propagating this lovely perennial. If I had the right environment in my own garden I would give it a go.
Since we were on the Island early season, many plants had yet to bloom, so I sadly missed out on the glory of these native Iris versicolor (that’s blue flag, harlequin blueflag, larger blue flag, northern blue flag, or poison flag if you don’t want to learn the Latin).
Rocky shores are synonymous with New England, so i was hardly surprised by the Island’s coast. What did surprise me (pleasantly I might add) was the amount of wetland in the Island’s interior. While hiking to camp on on our subsequent excursions around the Island I was taken by the sphagnum bogs. Walking along the hummocky terrain I could feel the ground compress and rebound with each step due to the sphagnum mats that thickly covered the trail and even the surrounding granite boulders.
The sphagnum bogs are an ideal environment for Balsam as well as an assortment of fern, sedges, and one of my favorite harbingers of Spring, Symplocarpus foetidus, commonly called skunk cabbage. This is another example of a plant that went ignored for years but is now finding favor with gardeners, especially those interested in restoring habitat areas.
If you are reading this you should realize by now that when it comes to botany and horticulture, I am an amateur. I am pretty well read, but still an amateur, Nowhere is my amateurishness more apparent than when I am trying to identify ferns. I love ferns and have a few varieties in my own garden and when I see them in the wild I always try to figure out what they are and if I can grow them at home. Isle au Haut has lots of fern.
Crush a frond and breathe in the aroma and you will have no problem identifying Dennstaedtia punctilobula, commonly (and appropriately) called eastern hay-scented fern. I have this is my garden. It is a vigourous grower that will quickly take over areas where the soil has been disturbed. That said, it is not invasive and is easily controlled.
Pretty sure these are Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern), another great garden plant.
Another plant I have added to my list to add to the garden in the spring is the cinnamon fern, Osmundastrum cinnamomeum
While not unknown in the forests of my home state of Pennsylvania, I have associated bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) with the Maine woods since I took a trip to Mt. Katahdin a few decades ago. I love this plant. A low growing groundcover that thrives in zones 2 to 6, bunchberry is happily available from several large commercial growers including Monrovia. I am definitely adding this to the wooded border at the back of our property–apart from the delicate cream colored flower in the spring, it bears a beautiful red berry in the fall.
Equally delicate yet stunning is Triantalis borealis or starflower. Sadly this plant does not appear to be commonly propagated or available in most nurseries–this is also on my list to hunt down next spring.
I grew up tending (sometimes against my will) our family vegetable garden, but my love of ornamental horticulture has emerged in just the past twenty years or so. It has changed my relationship with plants I encounter not only in my own garden, but in the wilderness as well. Once a casual observer who enjoyed the aesthetic qualities of plants I encountered hiking, I now have a deeper relationship.–I stop, I photograph, I pour through books to identify, and I always wonder, can I grow this in my own garden?
The beginning of June my buddy Zeke and I set out for a 4 day camping trip in Maine’s Acadia National Park, but not in the part most people are familiar with. About twenty miles (as the seagull flies) southwest of Mount Desert Island and about 7 miles off Deer Isle is Isle au Haut (pronounced I-la-ho); the island is just shy of 13 square miles, about 60% of which is now part of Acadia.
One source from a few years back claims a community of about 70 year round residents that call the Island home; that number swells to a few hundred in the summer months. A more recent source indicates that the number of full time residents may have dwindled to as little as 40. About 50% of the residents make their living lobster fishing; other activities include businesses that support the small lobster fleet and of course tourism (there is a small bed and breakfast on the island). For a very enjoyable description of the cultural history and life on Isle au Haut I recommend The Lobster Chroniclesby famed fishing boat captain Linda Greenlaw.
So what does this have to do with growing, building or restoring? Well, one of my goals for this trip was to explore the flora of this craggy island in Penobscot Bay and to hopefully derive some inspiration for my own garden. This trip was also about some personal restoration as well.
We arrived in Stonington, Maine on Thursday evening and stayed at Boyce’s Hotel on the harbor; our plan was to eat a final meal of real food (we would be living on freeze dried backpacking meals for a few days) first thing in the morning and then catch the first mail boat to Isle au Haut.
In terms of plant discovery I was off to a good start on Friday morning. While waiting for the mail boat to the island I spotted some lupine among the grass along the side of the road. Lupines hold special meaning in our family.
This one is Lupinus perennis, common name Blue Lupine. These are a great garden plant and grow from 14 to 30 inches tall. Mostly blue but with some variation in color, they like full sun and thrive in tough conditions like well drained, sandy, acidic, and not particularly fertile soils. They are also a food source for the endangered Karner blue butterfly. Interestingly, the lupines found in coastal Maine are not native, but rather were introduced from Europe long ago. However, they are not invasive and though non-native one can’t imagine the rocky Maine coast without them.
A twice daily mail boat from Stonington is the main access to the island. As it departs the harbor it makes its way through a mooring field of lobster boats, sailboats, and sporting vessels.
As we motored out of the harbor the mail boat was skillfully piloted through the channels between several small islands and through fields of lobster buoys. Approaching the town landing on Isle au Haut we entered a sheltered channel called the thoroughfare that divides the main island and neighboring Kimball Island. Moored in the thoroughfare is the small fleet of skiffs and lobster boats used by the islanders. The shore was dotted by small houses and the Island’s only church. This could only be Maine.
For much of the summer, the mail boat will take you directly to the campground at Duck Harbor. We arrived early in the season before the Duck Harbor dock had been readied so we had to disembark at the town dock and hike almost 5 miles to the campground carrying everything we would need for a few days in the wilderness.
Because of the access challenges, Isle au Haut will see just several thousand visitors during the summer camping season compared to the several million who will visit the main part of Acadia at Mount Dessert Island. Camping restrictions also limit the number of tourists. The island contains a single campground consisting of 5 lean-tos, and tent camping is forbidden. This means that one must make reservations well in advance to secure a spot.
When we arrived, there were only a handful of other campers, and so we were treated to long hikes along the coast without seeing another soul. The trails that traverse the coastline afforded stunning views around every corner.
I went to Isle au Haut not just to look at plants or derive some inspiration for my own garden. Grow, Build, Restore. When I talk about restoration I am usually talking about fixing my house, returning a piece of furniture to its former glory, or perhaps sharpening and tuning a jack plane. In this case, I’m referring to me, and I am hardly the first person to talk about the restorative power of wilderness. When I don’t get adequate time outdoors I can be a real miserable shit.
What I observe in many of my friends and in my students is what appears to be a love of 24/7 digital connectedness, and I honestly don’t get it. The constant digital assault on my senses saps my capacity for deeper, attentive thinking. I find myself growing increasingly resentful of the explosion in the number of technological devices that seek to intrude into every aspect of my life. Wilderness is the perfect remedy.
I remember deer hunting with my best friend Jay a few years ago during my last year of graduate school. It was late fall—perhaps my favorite time of year—and I was sitting ten or so feet off the ground in a tree stand in a particularly pretty spot along the Zacharias Creek in Pennsylvania. It was a cold, grey morning and I remember thinking at the time that the scene could have been from one of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of Kuerners farm. Shortly after daybreak a light rain mixed with snow began to fall. I zipped up my parka tight, pulled my hood over my head and counted myself thankful for the thermos of coffee. I didn’t see a single deer, and my bow sat idle across my lap. After a couple of hours Jay sent me a text message from the warmth of his truck to let me know it was time to wrap it up–he hadn’t seen a thing either. But I didn’t want to climb down from my stand and I could have spent several more hours in the tree, cold and wet and completely immersed in that beautiful place and reveling in the time I had to sit and think unfettered thoughts.
As we hiked through bogs and spruce and balsam forest on Isle au Haut I thought of that cold and wet morning several years before in the quiet Pennsylvania woods. I also thought about a hike a decade and a half prior that took me up Cottonwood Canyon in the Crazy Mountains in central Montana. The trail meandered up the mountains to the headwaters of Cottonwood Creek, terminating at Cottonwood Lake. The lake itself was crystal clear and chilling cold being fed in part by melt water from the Grasshopper Glacier. The lake and glacier were nestled in a massive glacial cirque situated at nearly 9000 feet above sea level. Holding in my head these past experiences of wilderness I considered the rocky coast of this small island in Penobscot Bay and thought of my great fortune in having seen so many beautiful places in my life.
Walking in wilderness is conducive to thinking. As we hiked along I was entranced by the place and my own thoughts and the rhythmic tapping of my trekking poles against the granite and soil and sphagnum hummocks under foot. My mind jumped to The Inward Morningby Henry Bugbee, a book I first read while I was studying philosophy as an undergraduate in Montana.
“…my philosophy took place mainly on foot. It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely by walking but through walking…And the balance in which I weighed the ideas I was studying was always that established in the experience of walking in the place. I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality.”
When you are a searcher, your life is spent in pursuit of these moments of insight and clarity that are free of the constant sound bites and noise of contemporary culture. Perhaps this also explains my restlessness that after 43 years has yet to leave me. I also believe that this deep need may be the thing that drives my habitat restoration project back on our rocky piece of land in Marblehead. It is an attempt to restore in my own little corner of the world some correspondence with wild places and create a domestic refuge from the hyper-technological that I experience in my everyday work life. I may not always be able to be in the wilderness, but I can bring some bit of the wild right up to my door.
On our good days, to paraphrase an essay by my former philosophy teacher David Strong,we feel the correspondence between the external things in nature that hold power over us and our own “inward wild.” For David, the inward wild is a frame of mind that
“concerns the basic attitude and standpoint from which we act in our situation and from which we approach things, an attitude to which we are recalled by certain texts and by the things of the natural world itself. It is the standpoint that trues our perception, trues our action, trues our words and our reflections.”
Our encounters with great works of philosophy and literature and with wild places all have a similar effect: through them, David writes, we are “struck clean.” Citing Bugbee, he describes how important these texts and wild places are as they “call upon and summon him to reawakening. He remembers, and is himself again…he becomes content to be himself.” In wilderness, and even in the “wild” of my garden as I am pulling weeds or planting cone flowers I experience the sort of mental and physical acuity to which David and Bugbee allude. Struck clean and feeling myself again I am grateful that my friend Zeke invited me on this adventure off the coast of Maine. And after this lengthy digression, I promise I will spend some time talking about plants!
“The Lupine Lady lives in a small house overlooking the sea. In between the rocks around her house grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way. I know. She is my great-aunt, and she told me so.”
So begins one of our favorite children’s books which has also become a gardening inspiration for Elsie and me, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Though first published back in 1982 I only became aware of it a few years ago when dear friends of ours gave a copy to Elsie. The book is not just a great story and moral tale for children but is also beautifully illustrated by the author. I am not little or old (yet) though we do live near the see in a home surrounded by rocks in between which grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers and we have Barbara Cooney and her character Miss Rumphius to thank for that. How could you look at an illustration like this and not want to plant a lupine or two (or ten)?
There are some 200 species of Lupine across North and South America as well as North Africa and the Mediterranean. Most gardeners are familiar with cultivars of Lupinus polyphyllus (native to the pacific northwest) and Lupinus x regalis. Those most popular with gardeners and that are routinely encountered in garden centers are the result of careful selection, hybridization, and breeding by English gardener George Russel in the early 1900s. The popular compact (growing to 18 inches or so) multi-colored “gallery” series are a result of his diligence and are available in a wide range of colors like ‘Gallery Pink, “Gallery Blue,” ‘Gallery Yellow’ so on and so forth. I have been growing the gallery series for a few years now, and they are beautiful. In addition, they are a favorite of pollinators and hummingbirds and are deer resistant, making them a perfect addition to a habitat garden.
Like other gardeners I have found the gallery series to be a bit fussy, with perhaps 50 to 75% returning for a second or third year. Vermont based nursery American Meadows indicates that many gardeners (especially those in New England) may prefer to treat the gallery series as annuals. I think my mixed results may also be because of changing sun exposure in the garden as plants have matured; Lupines like full to part sun and I fear some of mine may have gotten shaded out.
They are a stunning plant and while I will continue to lavish care on my gallery series lupines in order to promote self-seeding. I also want to introduce some other species and/or cultivars in the coming years that may be a bit more durable including native sundial lupines Lupinus perennis which is significantly taller than the gallery series and can grow to 36 inches. L. perenis typically has a light blue flower but can show some variation in bloom color. On a recent trip to Maine I spotted some lupine growing by the side of the road on Deere Isle as we waited for the ferry to Isle au Haut.
Apart from their beauty and value as a plant for pollinators Lupines also contribute to the health of other garden plants as they are a nitrogen fixing legume. This year I am experimenting with planting Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) around the lupines as a way of keeping the root zone cooler. When planting, pick your spot carefully; Lupine grow from a tap root that does not like to be disturbed and therefore do not take well to transplanting once they are established in a spot that makes them happy.
Anyone who has ever watched the racems emerge from the mount of dark green palmate leaves and progressively bloom from base to tip knows that this is a plant he or she will always want in the garden.
Anyone that has every grown this stunning perennial also understands why Barbara Cooney would make it the centerpiece to the story of Miss. Rumphius.
Alice Rumphius spent much of her time as a young girl in the company of her grandfather who was a carver and painter and who had sailed to foreign lands. Captivated by his stories, Alice Rumphius promises that she too will travel the world and see exotic places and when she grows old she too will live by the sea.
“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do”
“What is that?” asked Alice.
“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.
So she travels the world and as she grows old she comes to live by the sea. When I spotted some Lupine growing by the rocky shores in Stonington, Maine I thought of our Lupine loving traveler and the moral imperative passed on from her grandfather. Looking up the sloping ground above the harbor dotted with small clapboard houses it appeared to me that this little town may have very well emerged from the pages of Comey’s book. In fulfillment of her promise to her grandfather Miss. Rumphius spreads Lupine seeds among the rocks and hills surrounding her little town.
“All that summer Miss Rumphius, her pockets full of seeds, wandered over fields and headlands, sowing lupines. She scattered seeds along the highways and down the country lanes. She flung handfuls of them around the schoolhouse and back of the church. She tossed them into hollows and along stone walls…
The next spring there were lupines everywhere. Fields and hillsides were covered with blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. They bloomed along the highways and down the lanes . Bright patches lay around the schoolhouse and back of the church. Down in the hollows and along the stone walls grew the beautiful flowers.
Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!”
My day job is as a professor of social work at a local university where I teach health care policy (among other things) and lecture on health and behavioral health ethics. When I look at the current debates on health care or other social welfare policies I see emerging a disquieting line of ethical reasoning which says that our moral obligations in this world extend no further than doing what is in our own self-interest; ethicist call this moral egoism. If you’ve ever read Ayn Rand you will spot this impoverished sense of morality straight away. It is the sort of stilted ethics we often associate with children and teenagers whose ego development is still in progress or who have otherwise not yet learned how to share.
As a parent I search for ways to teach my daughter that one’s own self-interest is not a moral end. We teach her—as most parents do—that we have a duty to others. For us this also includes other species and so gardening is as much a moral exercise as it is a physical one. The story of Miss Rumphius has been one of the tools we use in thinking and talking about the moral dimensions of gardening and our greater responsibility to something more and other than just ourselves. The lupines we plant are a reminder of her story that we look forward to every spring.
It is true that we tend to our planting for reasons that may be motivated by our self-interest. We certainly cannot discount our own aesthetic enjoyment or the peace we find in digging in the soil and seeing our efforts to fruition each spring, often in a dramatic and colorful fashion. But it is more than that. We plant in order to restore the land and to provide for others. A place to live for animals or seeds for birds or the creation of something beautiful for other to enjoy, and we do all of this hoping it will continue to flourish long after we are gone.
“Sometimes my friends stand with me outside her gate, curious to see the old, old lady who planted the fields of lupines. When she invites us in, they come slowly. They think she is the oldest woman in the world. Often she tells us stories of faraway places.
“When I grow up,” I tell her, “I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea.”
“That is all very well, little Alice, ” says my aunt, “but there is a third thing you must do.”
“What is that?” I ask.
“You must do something to make the world more beautiful . “
“All right,” I say.
In my professional life I am confronted with the stories and images of those for whom life is a daily struggle of sickness, or poverty, or homelessness, or mental illness or addiction. I am then challenged to help come up with policy solutions to these incredibly complex problems. When one understands as I do the magnitude of the challenge it is sometimes hard to muster the fortitude to keep plugging away. Thankfully, I have many things in my life that inspire me. Most notably the hundreds and hundreds of students that have passed through my classroom who have made great sacrifices in order to pursue a career serving others. It is hard to be too pessimistic about the future when you spend your days surrounded by people who have committed themselves to the welfare of the most vulnerable and marginalized.
My family and I will continue to plant lupine among the rocks around our house not because gardening is some escape from the sometimes unpleasant realities of life or just an act of egoism and self-fulfillment, but because like teaching or parenting or the many other things we do that are aimed at a future and a world that is physically and temporally beyond ourselves planting something is always an optimistic act.