Wednesday, April 05, 2006

...Not Easy Being Green

Maybe I'm just getting a desert mentality but to me a garden looks best the way it does right now - tiny dots of spring green scattered sporadically in an otherwise drab winter landscape.

Out in the dry wasteland the spots of green, or any color other than tan, are few and far between. But they are definitely there - you just have to get out and look for them. It can be hard work, but not half as tough as the effort that the plants put in just getting there.

I've been busily discovering these tiny emerald islands of life over the past week or so as I Spring-clean my flower beds from their cold weather accumulation of blown-in leaves and last year's now dead stems and foliage. I'm trying to give all my perennials a jolt of sunlight and, when it happens naturally, water to get them on their way for another year.

The brash tulips and such that seem to burst from the ground all at once as a full set of healthy leaves, had notified me that it was time to gently push aside the crinkly brown blanket that had covered them for the past several months. The rest just lay quietly waiting to be coaxed into the early stages of photosynthesis.

A few plants, such as the sedum, are already recognizable as tiny miniatures of their future shape. Others are known by their geographic positions, like the thin egg shaped Hosta that are barely breaking through the ground in the eponymously named garden plot dedicated solely to that species. But most are unknown to me by virtue of their current shapeless identity and their co-occupancy of land with multiple other equally non-recognizable or still invisible flora.

Sometimes all it takes is a gentle pass or two with a floppy-tined hand rake to expose the little fellows. Others, like yesterday when I was working in our Iris/Chive garden, require multiple iterations of precision pruning on last year's limp remains. What's left of these plants are about fifteen inches of flaccid, straw-like former leaves tangled within themselves and covered with dead oak detritus. The drill is to carefully cut off a few inches and slowly rake the now-loose plant debris. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Until ultimately you arrive at a crewcut stalk with three or four green future Irises.

Domestic perennials are supposed to start their year like this, after all that's what years and years of cultivation have taught them to do. And in a few months, with more care and the proper weather and moisture, they will play out their genetic destinies in colorful displays of colors, shapes and textures - just like they are supposed to.

But right now, when they seem so small and isolated, there is little to do for them other than to give them the opportunity to partake in the increasingly more available and warmer sunlight and abundant water of early Spring.

Their desert cousins of course don't even get this minimal amount of help. The rain that they need may not show up for weeks, or months, or years, or not at all. And if a particular plant doesn't appear, no one is likely to even notice.

So these dry climate flowers need to be much cagier and more opportunistic than their city-mouse relatives - insinuating themselves into supportive environments and remaining ready to spring forth into full blossom at the slightest hint of water - self educating in the ways and means of survival in a less than welcoming environment.

Tiny plants attach themselves tenuously to stone canyon walls by digging their shallow roots into the only available piece of soft dirt. Their seeds are carried away and dropped by passing zephyrs or ingested and dropped by migrating birds and rodents. A passing thunderstorm generates a fraction of an inch of rain, or a mountain pour-off floods an arroyo, or a river rises ever so slightly on its banks - and the flower blooms for as long and as hard as the available water allows. Then returns to rest and wait.

Coddled and cosseted or neglected and ignored. Intelligently designed and hybridized or self-sufficient fittest of survivors. All of these plants, desert and domestic, somehow have within them the life force to take them from bud to blossom.

It is the picture of that possibility that makes the barely emerging garden the best one of them all.

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