Category Archives: garden

Personal Seasons

White tulips losing their leaves.

The words pounding at me should be released through private journaling, so I will just plug in a few photos from yesterday. Chicago jumped 40 degrees in a blink and I am definitely not complaining, even if some of the tulips are keeling over. The unrelenting chill likely kept them going longer than usual anyway.

Seasons are measured in multiple ways. Astronomical, anchored to the sun. Meteorological, to months. There are benefits to widely used measures of time (see railroads) but I wonder if any places on earth have seasons that fall neatly into quarters.

Er, OK. I should stop right here because I know that the whole concept of a season is location and context specific. Those near the equator have a different dance with the sun than those closer to the pole. Industries have a range of rhythms. We have school years and fiscal years. The baseball season spans ten months, from pitchers and catchers reporting in February to the World Serious in November (too late IMO but no one is asking me).

I have eleven seasons of varying length. The spring bulbs carry me through the two worst ones, between mid-February and mid-May.

  • July 4-Labor Day: Summer, ie don’t need a jacket outside but do need a sweater for inside b/c so many people are inexplicably uncomfortable when it’s above 80 degrees, ie the most glorious time of the year.
  • September: Golden melancholy. Back to school. Still warm but days are shrinking.
  • October: Halloween displays and frantic gardening
Halloween spirits hanging from a fence in front of a building's garden,
October-December: all about the decorations.
  • November 1-Thanksgiving: Ugh now I have to put away the Halloween crap, is it too late for bulbs, where are my gloves, who’s hosting Thanksgiving, is it too early to start putting up lights . . .
  • Thanksgiving to Solstice: All about lights and feasts
  • Solstice to Dec 31: Family, gifts, reflection, belt loosening
  • Jan 1-MLK Day: Yay for Scrabble, fake fire place, cuddly dog and snow

Winter is awesome . . . for a little while. Photos (and shoveling) by Michael Burton

  • Late January to mid/late Feb: I should really take down the Christmas tree but I just want to cry under the covers.
  • Mid/late Feb-March 21: Oh! The first green shoots and snow drops! Now I have a reason to unglue myself from the radiator. In 2020, I spied one Jan 31. This year was the latest–March 6th.
  • Vernal equinox to Mother’s Day: Self aware, hackneyed grousing about Chicago’s pitiful excuse for spring tempered by daily garden pictures.
  • Mother’s Day to July 4th: Spring. Risk of frost is very low. Nights are still sometimes chilly (below 70) but days are long. We made it!

Wait a sec I did not mean to write all this. I was going to rage into my journal but I am glad I noodled with this instead. Nothing earthshattering here (and there are already plenty of memes about this topic) but distracting and relaxing at least.

Once the petals fall and the tree canopy above fills out, the parkway won’t be much to look but. . . it will be summer! Thank you snow drops, crocuses, lilies, daffodils, fritillaria, and tulips for bringing the cheer these last few months.

April Showers

patch of garden surrounded by concrete with spring flowers and emerging perennials
The scrappy, shady, tree root congested, parkway in front of our building.

I don’t think I have ever been so relieved for a month to end. Which is sort of silly because there’s nothing stopping tomorrow from being like today besides the extra minute or so of daylight.

We closed with a flourish. Heavy rain. Lighting flickering. We used to have a front seat row for big storms, but now crane our necks for slivers of sky around the outlines of the new houses next door.

grassy parkway with small patches of yellow and pink tulips
These tulips are vestiges of the sunny parkway gardening I did before the houses were built (we are the yellow building).

A cryptic weather alert tried to fill in the gaps. When the emergency broadcast whistle? static? interrupted the last few minutes of Weekend Edition, my interest was piqued.  The  recording was both long winded and tentative. At first it sounded very serious, going on about tornados that have already touched down followed by talk of a tornado watch that included Cook County.

After being told to  brace for hail, debris, and downed trees, I listened carefully to the long list of specific spots considered high risk.  I expected to be instructed to head to the basement (this happens occasionally), but then the whirring static signaled the end of the message. What were we supposed to do with this information? Though we are not far from the listed spots, we are not close either. So I shrugged and  returned to my window perch. If we were danger, I was confident the local alarms would be  blaring.

close up of outside  low mounding plant , green blue leaves holding rain drops
Lady’s Mantle, catching some rain

This is probably not an accurate description of the call, but I’ve got  the gist and it is all too familiar to what we’ve been weathering all year. Big storm. Vague warnings. No directions. Me sitting on the radiator looking out the window with furrowed brow, knees hugged to chest.

And that sounds passive but the thing is that I was outside right until the storm hit. Watching. Yanking out old tulips that have been  all leaf no bloom the last few years. Moving a few plants. Doing what I can in small moments.

Taking deep breaths, maybe  trying to vacuum up this month to exhale hope for better days ahead. For the first time, the dampness smelled ever so slightly of spring.

garden close up, puriple bloom, purple and green leaves
I can never get enough purple.


Releasing the compost is an early spring ritual. We have two bins: we feed one while the other cures? molders? Ideally, when the active one reaches capacity, the resting one is ready to be emptied.

I’m always a bit wary of our home grown black gold. We don’t have enough green and brown garden waste to keep up with the food scraps. Most of the year, red wigglers expedite the process and smooth out imbalances between food and garden waste. Sort of a worm bin/ tumbler hybrid.

The magic slows in winter, especially when the worms die. (sometimes they make it through by huddling in a ball in the middle; the composting process generates heat.). The active bin fills before the resting one has finally digested…. and/or it’s too cold for me to want to deal with it. By February, we are back to putting eggs shells, coffee grounds, and veggie scraps in the landfill. This was less of an issue when we were a three bin family but that’s a story for another day.

speaking of other days I need to just post what I have and then zzzzzz. will come bcaj

storied plants

4/16/22 update: I intended to write about my “so what” re: roses but the preamble took over. Still working on it.

plant with glossy dark green leaves (peace lily) in a corner. Background color is reddish-orange

I cherish the plants with stories, such as the dozens of peace lilies propagated from a display at my father in law’s funeral, 15 years ago. It’s a forgiving plant, and I took it for granted. The leaves would droop, I’d eventually notice, do some watering, and they’d be jaunty again in no time. But after a particularly long spell of neglect, they were spent.

In panic, I grabbed a dishpan and eased the plant from the pot. Let the soil fall from the massive root ball. Pried it apart (long overdue) and picked about ten small sections that seemed most likely to survive. Scrambled to find enough containers, potted them up, and watched over them carefully. When we left town for a few weeks, I asked our pet sitter to water and send photo updates.

Michael had not been aware that the unassuming plant in the corner of our teevee room was connected to his dad. I waited until after the danger of losing it had passed to tell him. Six years later, we have peace lilies scattered around the house and have given many away. It’s a common workhorse plant, but that doesn’t make it any less special.

I am just as sentimental about our snake plant (gift from Karen when our child was born), apple tree (planted the year after we married), and the pink peonies and red rose that have been here longer than we have.

Drat. I know what else I want to say, but it’s just not happening right now.

KWL(sw): rose

4/16 Update: One of my goals is to learn more about plants. I am using the ye olde teaching strategy of activating prior knowledge and asking questions. KWL stands for: What do I know and want to know? And, after researching: What did I learn? But just I always pestered my writing students, I also want to include the “so what.” What does this topic matter to me and maybe others? First topic: roses.

close up of a rose branch full of buds in various states of openness. One is in full bloom, peach hue. Leaves are wet.

Brainstorm of what I know (or think I know). Some of this is basic!

  • been around for a long time
  • can be a shrub, cane, or rambler (not sure if that’s the right word)
  • some are scented some not
  • some bloom multiple times a season
  • are susceptible to disease (rust?) and critters (aphids? )
  • there are natives and cultivars
  • supposed to make a diagonal cut when pruning, preferably with clean shears
  • don’t do well in shade
  • I think the root crown (?) is supposed to be above the soil line.
  • has thorns and woody stems
  • rose hips provide food for birds?
  • mainstay of romantic gestures, figurative language, and The Secret Garden

What do I want to know?

  • why are they so revered?
  • where did they originate?
  • what’s the history of cultivation? what traits have been cultivated and why?
  • what accounts for color, scent, bloom time/frequency?
  • what’s their reach now (in what parts of the world do they grow?)
  • what does the supply chain like?
  • what are the ethical issues around labor practices and environmental impact
  • why does Armitage Produce sell them?
  • what’s the best way to prune and cut flowers to promote new growth without creating a messy thicket of akimbo branches?
  • what determines where a bud will form? how does it erupt from the wood? is it always in the same spots?
  • what’s the purpose of thorns (I am assuming protection but from what?)
  • what are the best growing conditions? soil, light, nutrients?

Why do I care about this topic?

Out of steam. Saving this for another post.

simple solutions

I realize this writing project might come off as particularly frivolous in these times, esp posts like this. My hope is for this to help with healing, clarity and strengthening so that I can step back into bigger pictures.

photo of dead leaf strewn ground and a shrub with bare branches with a blue garbage picker on the ground
A Starbucks pastry bag between the hydrangea and kerria. More evidence of how the neighborhood has changed.

We are in the windy times and that means more  garbage out front. While Chicago’s bag tax has cut down on the plastic parachutes tangled in trees, Covid masks seem to have filled the void. Coffee cups, beer cans, and candy wrappers continue to be mainstays.

We try to stay on top of the big stuff but now that the snow has melted and my eyes are carefully monitoring for signs of spring, it’s easier to spot the inorganic interlopers.

But without winter gloves, I’m less inclined to poke around. Hence the purchase of a garbage picker upper last summer–something I’ve been meaning to do for years. And, no surprise, it’s been in the basement since then because whenever I think to use it I’m already outside.

close up of tulip leaves starting to emerge, tips poking through dead leaves
Last year’s leaves, this year’s tulips (I think)

During this afternoon’s desultory  inventory of new growth, front door already propped open, I had no excuse not to break for two minutes to grab the grabber. It was easy to find because I had tripped over it while looking for something else the day before.

I had also grabbed spare bin  from the basement. Many moons ago I stashed a trash bucket in yard… genius!  But I am more inclined to keep stomping it down than to unlock the gangway and haul it 40 yards to the alley. It was, of course, at peak compaction before I started the deep clean.

Working the claw was a delight, like being in an arcade. Why did I wait so long? No more  snapping the hydrangea’s branches to tease out the tattered donut bags and receipts drifting around  its base or wondering how many sneezes a K95 has absorbed. It spares the baby leaves from my trampling. And it scratches my perfectionism itch, for better and worse. Oh look! A thumbnail sized piece of Styrofoam! Bottle cap! Piece of string! (Hmmm, now I am singing Puff the Magic Dragon.)

After about 10 minutes of work that wasn’t really work, the yard was clear, both bins were empty, and my not so new tool was leaning behind the hydrangea. Easy access. No excuses. Bring on the wind and Takis bags.

Oof. I just realized I need to take out the kitchen trash and recycling which reminds me of the great garbage pile up of the winter if 1998. Not gonna touch that one tonight.

Drat. I think I hear hail.

Compromised and just took out the garbage. Rumor joined me.

sidewalk leading to a chain link fence gate, night time, a black dog walking towards camera

Pulling Back the Covers

back yard with red picnic table buried in snow
The picnic table was a great snow gauge

According to my camera, we spent February under a snow blanket. Plush and sturdy for weeks, high thread count, frequently refreshed. Now threadbare.

I’m glad for the gradual melt. The jagged icicle curtain hanging from the gutters fell piece by piece, thunderous but not terrifying. The apple tree below sustained minimal damage.

I’ve been thinking about the joyous thaw towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As a kid, I didn’t catch that the story was a Christian allegory. Seasons have always been my religion anyway.

Chicago’s winter-spring (winting? springter?) tends to offer a good test of faith. I have learned to squint for the signs, the reassurances, of warm and lush days ahead. This is the time of year I start scrabbling around the musty leaves left over from fall in search of nodding snowdrops, crocus tips and the knuckles of hellebores.

close up of yellow crocuses and white snowdrops surrounded by dead leaves
From another year, around this time.

Until the first big snow, this winter had been dry and mild. By early January, green tips were starting to dot the sunny spots out back. Too early, even by our seasonal tug-of-war standards. As the snow level rose this month, slowly overtaking our picnic table, I pictured the bulbs being tucked back in. Snug and warm and waiting.

blurry photo of a green shoot emerging from wood chips
Spotted in early January

I’m grateful for the slow melt dripping into the soil instead of running off in a fury to the sewers. Peeling the cover back slowly gives our eyes a chance to adjust.

If you are eager for spring, it’s not too early to look down. Once you find one green blade, more will appear. The muds of March will feel less dreary.

photo of snow and woodchips with small leaves emerging from woodchips
Wild (I think) columbine uncovered yesterday

If you want to remember where and when to look next year, take a picture. It might not be gallery worthy. I have yet to master zooming in on a half inch nub while avoiding my phone’s shadow. But I never regret seeing these blurry artifacts from years past. They give me faith that spring will come.

photo of red tulip leaves just emerging--they look like a baby bird's beak
And if you take enough, you are bound to capture something special. I call this Hungry Baby Tulip Beak.

Snow and Steady

View from the sunroom–today and two years ago.

The book of face may be undermining democracy, but it’s still great for cat pictures and capturing fleeting gestalts*, such as today’s breaking point with the weather. After a few weeks of near silence about the spring that has yet to arrive, my feed exploded with snowy photos and exasperation and then exasperation about snowy photos. Yeah, yeah, we live in Chicago. This happens. In fact, FB also reminded that we were bumming about snow on this date in 2016.

The persistent chill has had some benefits. For heat hungry folks like me, the taste of warm March days sharpens the bitterness of April frosts. Even rugged spring perennials can suffer from the weather roller-coaster. Last year, my hellebores were budding in early March. Although cold hardy (called a Lenten Rose for a reason), they are still vulnerable to hard freezes. Recalling the previous year’s late season damage, I sheltered them during a dive into the teens March 11-12. A week later, they were in full bloom.

This year, our garden is moving slowly and that’s OK. Due to some changes in my personal life, I’m moving slowly, too. These pics, including the tentative hellebore on the left, are from the last few days. They’ll be fine when the snow melts, just like we will. Now, let’s play ball! Oh wait, the Cubs home opener was pushed to tomorrow. Drat.

*Not sure if I am using gestalt correctly, and maybe it’s a little pretentious, but I’ve always liked the way it sounds. It’s one of those words which have a sound? heft? shape? that matches their meaning or mood. I don’t mean in an onomatopoeia way. More of an overall form/content alignment. I am sure there is a word for this.