December: Growing

3. December 2016
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

The deep midwinter, with its snow and bitter cold, came early this year. I fussed with the placement of the houseplants, moving furniture so that the Red Star, geranium and bay laurel could get more sun.

Heavy snow hit mid-month and stayed on the ground through Christmas, then disappeared for pretty much the rest of the winter. A couple of bushes planted too close to the driveway got crushed under its shoveled weight—you just don’t know a new garden well enough to judge where to put things. The plants will suffer for it. (A metaphor, forsooth!)

On the other hand, halfway into the winter, the houseplants were thriving.

Houseplants are generally tropical and semi-tropical understory plants (as well as cacti and succulents). They work indoors because they tolerate low light, dry air, overwatering, and poor soil. They’ll tolerate a certain level of neglect, but usually when people kill houseplants it’s less because of neglect than of inconsistent care. Thinking that, since they haven’t watered in two weeks (oops), the solution is to now give the plant constant water several times a day. People alternately starve and drown the poor things. (Protip—under watering is better than overwatering, and watering from the base—by filling from the undertray—is best, as the plant won’t take up water it doesn’t need.)

I used to attempt to bring huge swaths of the garden inside for the winter, potting up not just tender exotics, but even annuals and some of my perennials. I’m pretty sure I ended up on the houseplants’ Most Wanted List, as the vast bulk of them would die before spring. Now I just bring in a couple of proven favorites (proven by not dying), and accept that there are plant-free months in my life.

Most of the houseplants from the old place survived the move. My inchplants just took off in the old garden last year, and retained their lushness indoors, although one of them didn’t survive the move back out in the spring. These plants like low light, which helps, although they also like really wet feet, usually the kiss of death for houseplants.

I cut back my geranium and rooted the stems, creating three plants. If you read ahead a few chapters (once I write them anyway), you’ll see me pot them up together in one of the larger ceramic pots. Once outside in the summer, it bloomed continuously for months, which it hadn’t done in the past.

The 10-year old cordyline Red Star (which sadly ended up dying in the unseasonal early summer heat) put on new growth through the winter, which is unusual for this plant. It’s usually pretty dormant inside. The bay laurel started bright and healthy, but not growing, and eventually dried out. I pinched it way back and brought it back to life. I think it needs more light than it gets inside here, though.

I need a greenhouse window in the kitchen, like in the old place.


December: Waiting

2. December 2016
Planted: A Year of Gardening

The series starts here

December passes in frustrating boredom for northern tier gardeners. Even in the warmest years the sun will sink, the air will chill, and the ground will freeze solid. You have to come in from the cold. Not even climate change can fight planetary motion.

As the winter wears on, one’s gardening chops get itchy, and you start to think about things like winter sowing, a seductive waste of time that involves making tiny greenhouses out of old milk cartons or pop bottles. Supposedly a season-extender, I’ve found that seeds planted this way just sprout when they would have sprouted in the ground. I think northern Illinois winter and spring are just too variable for winter sowing.

Almost ten years ago, I learned of a tradition called “Solstice Sowing.” It’s a midwinter planting to honor different aspects of your life—seeds for Remembrance, Faith, Life, and a tree seed for longevity. In past years, for remembrance I’ve planted Columbine (Aquilegia) and Angelonia. Columbine, because of its whimsical, star-shaped bloom, is sometimes associated with innocence and jest, but also with faith and remembrance. Also known as “Mary’s Shoes” they supposedly sprung from the fallen shoes of the Virgin upon her visit to Elizabeth.

I’ve planted Angelonia, a flower related to lavender. It really has nothing to do with remembrance, but I like the flower, and I had the seeds.

For faith I’ve planted mustard, of course, and other greens. They have the advantage of being useful, as well, and are seedlings that can be put out as soon as the ground is friable.

I planted anemone one year on the death of my aunt-by-marriage. Anemones are the flowers that some say spring from the blood of the dead god, and others from the tears of the goddess who mourns him.

Seeds for Life have been Chinese Lanterns as well as sunflowers. The Chinese Lanterns never come up, not a very good omen. But sunflowers are a wonderful symbol of the life-giving sun that they are named for.

Some years I do plant tree seeds—I tried paw-paws one year, and a cutting from my Magnolia (which sadly didn’t make it—I wish I had that now). This first year in the new house instead of planting a tree, I put up a Christmas tree for the first time in years—the breezeway fairly screams for one, so I decided to honor the call. It stayed up only for the 12 Days, but I left lighted garlands on the windows all the way to the Equinox.

December: On winter

December 2016
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

12- (1) December

November: Thanksgiving

 3. November 2016
Planted: A Year of Gardening

The series starts here

The new patterns are rich, but changing patterns is hard.

In this house, there is no window where you can stand and see the garden. You have to crane your neck, like the old New York joke of an apartment with a river view, if you stand in that one spot and kinda look through those buildings over there. To see this garden, you have to be outside, in it.

My family, or rather my ex-husband Wei’s family, came for Thanksgiving, christening the house, but it felt cramped and awkward, and I didn’t make a very good meal. Wei’s absence was a sour note that no one played, but everyone heard. No one took leftovers home. I think that I won’t be hosting Thanksgiving anymore.

I’m used to loneliness. I even crave it. But loneliness in a space that doesn’t feel like your own space is a different degree of solitude, the more poignant when it happens near the holidays. Surrounded by plant orphans staged in their foster-gardens I geared myself up for the sadness of Christmas to come. Next year the Farm will be fenced and the perennials will have a home.

But right now, I just want to be able to look out a window at a garden.

11- (3) Nov Breezeway

November: Climate change

Planted: A Year of Gardening
2. November 2016

In my own alternate universe it was strange not being able to do my walkabout through the paths in the large yard; I wanted to see “my” autumn garden, developed over years. I wanted to look out my back window and see winter set in, as I had for more than two decades. I liked the anticipation of creating a new space from scratch, especially now that I know what I’m doing, but in the gloomy chill it felt daunting and unfair that I should devote so many years to a garden and not have it now.


The herbs and greens were vibrant and thriving in their protected corner, and the stupid garlic sprouted, despite not being planted in the still-friable soil until November 1. A squirrel found one of the daffodil bulbs, leaving a hole, but I couldn’t tell if she actually managed to dig it out. There were no chunks of bulb around, so fingers crossed.

I went to the local community garden and stole some of the ubiquitous chives.

Gardeners started noticing changes in the climate well ahead of everyone else. Tomato hornworms, once a southern pest, starting showing up in Illinois a few years ago. The ground started freezing later and later, hence my fall-sprouting garlic (as I publish this in December 2017, the ground is still not frozen). The short July dry spell turned into weeks without rain, then storms that used to water the autumn garden started getting violent enough to ruin the autumn garden. Crops like beans that used to fit two plantings now fit three, and cool season crops like peas stopped producing because it was getting hot too early.

Tasks that I normally designate to October were November tasks this year: stealing leaf bags from the neighbors for the compost and the planting beds, putting bulbs and the herbs in the ground. Thanksgiving weekend was more seasonal, cold and damp, with a soft chill and light rain. In this extended mild autumn, there was no bite to the wind or the temperature. I staged the potted plants from the outdoors only to the breezeway. They can come inside in December, I guess.


Just finding the blog? Go back here and find the start of the REPLANTING A LIFE series!

Planted: A Year of Gardening
1. November 2016

While we waited for winter to come, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize, and Donald Trump became President.

And I was in a new house, for the first time in 30 years.

After a sleepless night, I woke up post-election morning absolutely devastated at the outcome. I’ve had my candidate lose before, many times, but never before to someone who made me fear for the safety of my friends and family.

The bright spot of the day was the arrival of my redbud tree. I got this for just $200 from a high-end nursery (retail $650 installed), by purchasing a gift certificate at a charity auction.

I christened it “Hillary’s Red-White-And-Blue-Bud.”

Hillary's red white and blue bud

October: Digging in

Planted: A Year of Gardening
3. October 2016

The first thing I did, literally before moving in, was to plant a garden, specifically an herb garden right outside the back door. My friend Liz and I stacked fence posts to create a raised bed. The posts were memories of the old place, manifesting as leftover wood, from a bed that I dismantled. I heeled in plants that I also liberated, by contract, from that house. Then I cataloged and journaled everything in an online garden diary, as well as a paper journal. It’s why I can write this now.

Oct3-Herb garden

Getting out the graph paper, I planned out four spaces—the alley side yard, a patio, the gangway, and the street side yard—and gave them names: The Farm, The Breezeway, The Gangway and Savory, The Botanic. Since it was already October, too late to plant out in spaces I had not yet defined, the 50 or so plant immigrants from the old place got staged in the new raised bed, in the nook created by the breezeway, and along the neighbor’s fence in the gangway, waiting for the spring.

The space is fairly considerable in context of the surrounding houses, but not exactly Downton Abbey. But this garden had a time scale I hadn’t been subjected to when I put in the last garden, over 25 years. I didn’t have, or want, 25 years to put in this garden. I needed my garden to be done. Leaving a mature garden is wrenching; I needed to compress that time scale to a few months, for my sanity. It required a hard look at resources—horticultural, time, money, effort.

The late fall season limited what I could do before the cold really set in. I started scavenging. I got free raised beds for the Farm from a community garden that was closing, and someone else gave me raspberries. I filled the raised beds with fallen leaves, donated by everyone in the neighborhood; they were thrilled not to have to pay the city to haul them away. Oct3-tree removalI trimmed or took down never-tended trees in the Farm, and had them chipped on site as mulch. I moved 85 retaining blocks that had been part of a very stupid…what—I don’t even know what to call it, a 2-block high “lip” for a real estate agent’s particularly dreadful idea of a privacy planting (a row of arbor vitae in front of the living room windows)—and created a 7-block-high wall to set off a private patio. I laid out that patio with pavers and blocks taken from the old place. My friend the landscape architect was on board and starting bringing scavenged plants from job sites as soon as the ground was soft.

And the memories? They’ve detached themselves from the old house and now live here, where there are no memories yet.

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