Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why Do I Garden?

The Last Frontier Gardener gets lucky: Alopecurus pratensis 'Variegatus' with Geranium 'Johnson's Blue'

A former high school teacher of mine once asked a similar question to our sophmore honors English class.  His actual question was more terse: "Why?"  After a few blank looks most people started scratching something, anything down on paper.  I filled a page and a half with answers to any and every question I could think of (the Tindall effect! nature versus nurture! igneous intrusive! Jane Austen!) before the time was up.  Turns out the answer he wanted was "because" or "why not?"  Those could be my answers to the gardening question as well if I wanted to be blunt or sassy.  I'll try a little harder than that to convey my answer to a question that can be inexplicable or elusive.

It's a little embarrassing to admit that my first reason for gardening is control.  I am a bit of a control freak about some things.  Having a yard to tinker in to create a certain effect is very rewarding.  And probably just as expensive and exhausting as therapy.  When I moved into my current abode, I inherited one tree, one shrub, and turfgrass. I called it "the fish bowl" because it was so exposed.  There was no privacy, no beauty, and little functionality.  After almost ten years of blood, sweat, and tears, I have made this space into something private, dynamic, functional, and beautiful (to me at least).  Not to say mother nature doesn't laugh at me and my control tendencies.  Weeds, weather, and wild animals all play a part, whether I want them to or not.

Nassella tenuissima lights up a container planting in autumn

The second reason must be that I've always loved the outdoors.  As children growing up in Alaska, mom shooed the six of us outside with great regularity.  "Go play outside."  The cruelty of that woman, forcing us to go use our imaginations in the fresh air!  We roamed the neighborhood and its wild edges having grand adventures.  I still like being outside and having (garden) adventures even though mom is not here to make me.

Now don't laugh, but my third reason is I am a sensualist.  I greatly enjoy having all my senses engaged in my gardening space.  The smell of sweet peas and stock, the movement of ornamental grasses swaying in the breeze, the sound of birdsong, the touch of a furry lamb's ear leaf, and the taste of my homegrown herbs, fruits, and veggies are all sensations I dream of in winter and revel in when it's summer.

Bergenia spp. and Picea abies 'Ohlendorffii'

I could fill pages and pages just like in high school English class, but I will conclude with a fourth and final reason I garden: roses don't spontaneously bloom beneath my feet.  It may be a "labor of love", but labor it is.  I've got to put in some effort to make a garden!

P.S. This post is in response to a call for a 500 or less word essay by gardens of the wild wild west on "why I garden."  I discovered the contest last night and stayed up late thinking/writing about it because it is a good question (and because the contest closes on December 21st).  If you'd like to share your reason(s) for gardening, please leave a comment below.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wintertime survival list: no chemical stimulants required

A patch on the hubby's Scout uniform.

Perhaps you are unaware of the Boy Scout motto.  And you are wondering just what it has to do with a wintertime survival list for gardeners.  Having lived with an Eagle Scout for nigh on eleven years, I have picked up this much: "Be prepared."  Now, I don't know how to tie any of those fancy-shmancy knots, I don't have a pocket knife, and my firestarting tends to involve a lighter of some kind, but I have found that when I am prepared, I am not (as) afraid, so I am going to apply the Boy Scout motto to that trial of trials (at least for northern gardeners), winter.

Perhaps you are wondering just why it is sometimes termed "old man" winter.  Me, too.  I have been thinking about the wonderful qualities of some elderly men I know and I don't think those qualities apply to the term.  No, probably more like "stubborn old cuss" or "hornery, mean, son of a gun", you get the idea.  Or just picture Clint Eastwood in any of his movies.  "Do [you] feel lucky punk?  Well, do ya?"  A really cold winter, with a furious north wind that (skip ahead, squeamish ones) freezes your boogers when you inhale through your nose and dries the moisturizer right off your face, that's old man winter.  I should add, he sucks the hope right out of a despondant gardener waiting for spring and the first green, growing thing.  To aid my sanity and arm myself against such an entrenched and ancient foe, I have devised a short list of survival techniques that get me through the really tough months.  For me here in Alaska, those challenging months are January and Febuary.   

Part of my home garden library: bliss!

1.  garden books and magazines: Sometimes I will find myself staring at the same picture for a few minutes, daydreaming I am actually there.

My skis making an appearance with one of the "moose-repelling" pinwheels I've written about in other posts.

2. outdoor activities: I don't actually hate winter, so I am learning to do things like ice skate and cross-country ski.  I've also set a goal to be outside twice a week doing something with the family.  We'll see how it goes....

Working on a post for the blog.

3. blog: A fun, new (for me) way of chronicling my garden adventures.  I also enjoy reading/checking out pictures on other blogs, and learning about other gardens/gardeners, too.

My smelly soccer bag.

4. pursuing new interests: Over various winters, I have taken up indoor soccer, sewing, and singing in a choir (I'm an alto).

5. refining my "gotta-have-it" plant list: I could do this for hours, and I often do.  Much to my own annoyance, I tend to use scraps of paper and sticky notes and once, in Seattle at a flower show, I used a napkin.  Very classy and organized, no?

Beautiful, yes.  Bleak, yes.

I prepare myself for the bleak months by trying to fill time spent not gardening, with other productive, edifying, and enjoyable activities.  I fully realize every gardener and climate is a bit different, so I ask: What are the tough months where you garden?  And how do you cope?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Where'd the sun go?

It's 9:34am, and the only sun around is the one I drew.  Wishful thinking.

It's 9:30am and still dark out.  I can't whine too much: folks in Barrow, Alaska said "bye-bye" to the sun until late January.  It does become hard though when one heads to work in the dark, works inside, and heads home in the dark, too.  I suppose it's a bit like working on the dark side of the moon or underground.  You just have to take it on faith that the sun came up, because you sure didn't see it.

I snooped around online and found some interesting weather stats at  To help me get my worldwide bearings, I found that gardeners in Anchorage are at about the same latitude as Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Olso, Norway, Stockholm, Sweden, and St. Petersburg, Russia.  And those northernmost Alaskans in Barrow are at around the same latitude as Hammerfest, Norway and Wrangel Island, Russia.  Christine, you're thinking, what the heck does latitude have to do with your missing sun?  And I'd have a three word answer for you: the Arctic Circle.  Contrary to popular opinion, it's not a social group, alcoholic beverage, or hunting technique.  It's an imaginary line that crosses Alaska about 125 miles north of Fairbanks (our second largest city), at 66 degrees 34 minutes north latitude.  Put your finger about where you'd guess the middle of Alaska to be and your probably not far off.  This Arctic Circle is the point at which the sun doesn't set for a day in summer and doesn't rise for a day in winter according to  Thankfully, my garden is well below said line.  I can't imagine the sun not rising for even a day in winter.  The light is scarce enough as it is in Anchorage, but our 5 hours and 28 minutes of daylight on our shortest day, December 21st, seems bountiful compared to nothing at all.

It's 3:15pm and the sun has already set below neighboring rooflines.  A bit discouraging, isn't it?

Northern gardeners tend to celebrate (in a subdued fashion: I usually have my face pressed up against the window, eyes glazed over) December 21st.  Not because it is the official start of winter (puh-leez, that was months ago), but because the winter solstice marks the start of our ascension back to the land of light.  We get a bit more daylight each day culminating on summer solstice, June 21st, when gardeners in Anchorage enjoy 19.5 hours of daylight in a 24 hour period.  Barrow gets 24 hours of daylight.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Those poor light-deprived folk enjoy continuous daylight from May 10 to August 2.  It's feast or famine above the Arctic Circle when it comes to photons!  Just don't plan a Barrow visit between November 18 when the sun goes down and doesn't break the horizon again until January 23.

The last rays of sun illuminate the Chugach Mountain range to the east of Anchorage, 4:52pm.

I also found out that what I thought was the official start of winter, December 21, is actually termed "astronomical winter" and the "official" winter start, as far as how records are kept is December 1.  Yeah, who knew?  "Meteorological" winter, or the winter that has to do with the arrival of cold weather, and not some magical number on the calendar, starts earlier the farther north you live.  Read all about winter at the NOAA National Weather Service link above.  I had no idea things like when it got cold and snowed were so fraught with details.
What all this long-days-in-summer/short-days-in-winter stuff means for Alaskans, other than we grow really huge vegetables, is that we also have a lot of sleeping pattern issues.  My kids try the old "but it's not dark yet" in summer when it's bedtime.  And they also use the winter-time equivalent, the old "but it's not light yet" when it's time to wake up.  I can't blame them, I said the same things to my long-suffering parents as a kid, too.  It's hard for a body to adjust sometimes.  Alaskans (and other far north locales) have high rates of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), suicide, and depression often associated with the shortened or seasonally fluctuating amounts of daylight.  Where, oh, where did the sun go?  Australia, do you have it?

So I think I've figured out the Arctic Circle.  Now if someone could just explain to me what the Mason-Dixon line is...??

P.S. I couldn't resist sharing a funny memory (as it is pertinent to the post topic): A nationally well-known garden speaker was visiting Alaska for a statewide gardening conference a few years back and gave a talk on "moon gardens." She had a beautiful slide show to accompany her encouraging dialog and vivacious manner. Among other things, she emphasized using flowers that open up at night, scented white flowers in particular, inviting friends over to enjoy sunset, and lingering in the garden before retiring for the night, etc. She had me convinced, enthralled would not be too strong a word, but then one elderly, longtime Alaskan gardener raised her hand and said a bit shrilly, "But how can we enjoy a moon garden here? It doesn't even start to get dark until two in the morning!" And I'm thinking to myself, oh yeah, I forgot that bit. To her credit, the speaker did not walk out or say "oh, how awkward" and she did manage to sputter and stumble through her talk.  I'm guessing she won't be coming up to speak to us again and I still have yet to see a moon garden in Alaska.


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