Diagnosis Confirmed: Thinning Problem

Before you call Rogaine or sign me up for the Hair Club for Men as a special exception, let me clarify.

I knew this diagnosis was coming.  It was just a matter of time before I would display any symptoms.  When they finally showed up, they were more painful than I could have ever expected.

You see, I’ve found that I have a problem with ‘thinning’ the seedlings that have just sprouted in my vegetable garden.  To date, I have followed the instructions on the seed packets very carefully.  I diligently planted the seeds evenly (spaced with almost ruler precision if instructed), covered them with ¼” of fine soil and tamped it down carefully.  Just as the seed packets had instructed.

My beautiful (albeit DENSE) row of newly sprouted radishes!

However, now they are instructing me to ‘thin’ my seedlings as they reach 1” in height.

And it is painful.  I almost can’t bring myself to pull their little green sprouts from the rows.  They lived too, you know.  They worked hard and sprouted just like the others, why do they have to lose their hard-earned spot in my row of vegetables?

Why can’t they all just live and produce beautiful vegetables in my garden?   I know the obvious answer to that.  If I want my radishes to have any sort of radish root, I understand why it is I need to be thinning them out.  But that doesn’t make this task any easier.

Peas!

As I knelt down to carefully inspect them, I found myself comparing them like a judge at the county fair:

“This one has a notched leaf.  This one is smaller.  This one lacks uniformity.  This one isn’t quite as strong and green.  This one is not in the straight line of my row.” 

It worked for awhile, this thinning by what I’ll call “Natural Selection according to KT.”  But soon, I couldn’t see any differences in my beloved little sprouts.  They were all equally strong and equally green with equally perfect leaves.  I was quickly left with only the strong, and the picking became decidedly more difficult.  And I had made it about an eighth of the way across one row.

This ‘thinning’ project was definitely going to take longer than I had expected.

I also have to admit that it felt a little disconcerting to be that deciding hand, the final authority judging my poor little surviving sprouts, the ones I had so lovingly planted.  The ones that had made my heart skip with joy when I saw them first sprout delicately out of the garden soil.  Having the ability to grant life, and decide death wound up being a little harder than I expected.  And we’re just talking about radish seedlings here, folks.

Are there things in your life that need to be thinned, like my row of multiplying radish sprouts?  Sometimes it’s not easy to part with things.  Especially those things that you’ve toiled with, that you’ve fought for, that you’ve grown, encouraged and protected.  Emotions like pride and a sense of accomplishment can hold us back from the ‘thinning’ that’s necessary.  Without a little ‘thinning’ here and there, we are allowing those things to take over, pushing the other things in our lives aside.  By letting them sprout and prosper are we allowing them to eventually take over in the gardens of our lives?

‘Thinning’ is difficult, tedious work.  But just like my baby radishes that will swell and thrive with the new room for their roots, you may find that you are granting a little more space for the good in your life.  You might be giving your hopes and dreams just the room they need to take root and provide you with a bountiful harvest.

My darling row of radishes: BEFORE.

My darling row of radishes: AFTER (I think I made a little progress, don’t you? Now just another inch to go between them!)

Needless to say, my first attempt at thinning, didn’t go as easily as instructed on the seed packets.

Maybe it will just take a few more attempts by this amateur vegetable gardener.  Pulling a few more spry sprouts out at a time, until one day, my row will look like it has finally been thinned to perfection.  Let’s just hope I get the job done by July.  In the meantime, I’ll be poring over their little forms, looking for any slight bend, weak leaf, or yellowing stem.

And so it begins . . .

It finally arrived.  The day I’ve dreamt about for the past six months.  The moment you whisk through the doors of a plastic-encased shrine to all things budding and blooming.  The warm smell of fragrant, green-leafed humidity and rich, perlite-dotted soil envelopes you immediately, fanned around you lightly by huge metal blades whisping slowly at the other end of this inverted half-pipe of flora and fauna.  An array of pots beckoning you, enticing you with bright colors, textures and opportunities and the unequivocal instant emotion of hopeful inspiration.

There is just nothing quite like that first deep breath of the summer season inhaled in a greenhouse.  That moment when all things seem possible, even the deep burgundy-robed miniature calla lily hidden in the corner, out of sight of its much humbler Zone 4 flowering neighbors.  Who’s to say how its exotic beauty even made it close to this place, with delicate blooms not well suited for Colorado’s cool nights and short summers.  Maybe it hitchhiked, escaping its hot, humid home, catching a free ride with a delivery van undiscovered, destination unknown.  But somehow, at that moment, even this tropical variety seems do-able.

The possibilities are endless.  As are the trips up and down the aisles.  Slowly surveying the wondrous displays of seeds, turned seedlings, thinned and transplanted, fed and fertilized until robust, with blooms stretched upward as if arms waving at you boldly, saying “Pick me!  Pick me!”

And the competition is stiff.  Pinks, yellows, reds, purple, orange and even blue.  Tall, short, bold, delicate.  The bright eyes of the almost-neon-bright geraniums follow you carefully up and down the aisles, the queens of potted annuals keeping a close eye on their rows of supporting actors.  The sweet, faces of pansies smiling innocently, nodding at you as you pass.

Bright marigolds, uncurling their ruffled arms, laughing happily in deep oranges and yellows.

White bacopa and periwinkle lobelia trail down their pots, following you, begging you to take them with you.

As I scoured the rows over and over today, not so much undecided as simply admiring the beauty, the fragrance and the first of this summer’s blooming bounty, a light mist of small raindrops began tinkling lightly upon the clear plastic roof over us.  Summer’s first sweet orchestra, playing gently and rhythmically, lulling me to wish I could sleep if just for a moment in this perfect place among the flowers, awakening later to their fragrant harmonies of color and the scent of freshly fallen rain.

But today, the afternoon will have to be enough.  I will leave what remains in the care of the fluttering butterflies and sphinx moths, carefully wafting from one flower to the next.

May you enjoy the first of summer’s blessings and embrace the hope of the nearly endless possibilities it offers.

Where the Metal Meets the Dirt

I found them earlier this year.  Paint peeling, marred with scratches and gouges, scarred with rusty scabs, I knew they would be perfect in my little country garden.

I like to think it was manifest destiny, a magnetic pull that brought me to their hiding places two states away.  Trapped within a rusty boneyard of repurposed old metal, I saw through their neighboring junk and felt myself mesmerized by their rough, rusted beauty.  Although still winter, I was already dreaming of their scrolled curves flanked by green leaves, the sun glinting through their open filigrees, a flowering vine creeping carefully up their metal spines.  I knew their home would be my garden.

So after patiently waiting in my dark shed all spring, a few weeks ago they saw their future home for the first time.  How they sun must have quickly warmed their cold metal as I brought them into my slowly awakening garden.  We moved them here.  Then there.  And back.  Until I had found the perfect angle in that far corner of my garden.   They were perfect, just as I had imagined.  They were like long lost friends that I had stumbled upon, not realizing it was garden destiny.

That day we sliced the warm dirt apart with a pick, digging a thin slit in the ground to anchor the heavy weight of its frame.  And as we carefully tamped the dirt down around its base, there was a magical moment when my red scrolled gate stood on its own, rising above my garden, whispering wordlessly of that enchanting, magical threshold that gates and doors instinctively evoke.  And begging questions like

What is beyond?  Where will this lead? And Where have I been?

Where do your dreams meet the reality of the dirt?  Your dreams, too, may find themselves leaned up against a wall in your shed, far from sight and farther from mind.  No matter the business of life, the errands to run, the schedules to keep, the procrastinated projects pulling at you, they will be there still, waiting in the far depths of your mind patiently.

Collecting dust and being pushed further and further into corners, they will wait.

Until one day you come across them again, still beautiful in their dusty, dirty, abandoned corner.  Maybe you will have forgotten all about the bright hope they once shone in your heart.   Or maybe it will seem like just yesterday when you daydreamed of them constantly, feeling they were just within reach.  Will you have the courage to pull your dreams from the depths, dust them off, and move them around in your life until you find the perfect place within your garden?

That day this winter, with my new finds somehow strategically fitted into our vehicle, my heart fluttered with dreams of terra cotta pots, filled to the brim with cascading petunias, seated happily upon my white rusted garden bench.  Of oversized clematis blooms climbing vigorously up the sides of my red rusted gate.  And of the sense of magic I knew they would instantly ignite within my growing garden.

I couldn’t wait for my coneflowers to open their bright petalled eyes this summer to see their new neighbors.  A dream, small as it was, that came to find its feet planted stoutly in the dirt.

Mourning the Fallen

The wind howled today.  In angry gusts of pent up spring temperament, it raged across the ground picking up anything and everything in its path.  Dust flew.  Sand & small rocks flew too.  Tumbleweeds shot across the sky as if propelled from within a jet engine.  I expected to see the fenceline due north of us transformed from open wire, into a virtual wall of crackly weeds, caught and pushed against each other, an abrupt end to their flights by way of a few strings of barbed wire.

As I drove home, the wind had calmed some, but its effects could be seen everywhere.  Random household objects littered the middle of our main thoroughfare.  Diapers, beer cans and shingles were strewn everywhere.  A pine tree, snapped at the base.  All that remained of its trunk were a few sharp shards sticking haphazardly out of the ground.  They pointed sharply upward as if in testimony to their glorious form that had only hours earlier reached its old branches skyward.  Now it had been quickly sawn into long sections, and laid out down the side street as if in a public viewing of its death.  There it lay. Sadly, broken and no longer intact.

I instantly mourned for that tree, its owner and the house that now had to stand alone, without its branched canopy or the gentle song of a breeze through its needles.

It took me back to a sadness I knew well.  On the verge of signing paperwork to buy my very first home out of college, I still felt myself teetering on the edge of whether to do it or not.  Then, the picture of the house in its full summer glory, shaded by a beautiful, silver maple tree in the front yard, would be plucked from the “Pros” side of my advantages v.s disadvantages mental list I had created in my mind.

I dreamed of birds nestled in its branches all summer, lightly cooing outside my window on sunny afternoons.  I dreamed of the beautiful dappled shade it would cast on my green lawn, the fluttering of leaves overhead with summer’s hot breeze.  I dreamed of its green leaves burning with autumn’s fading light, turning the tree into a bold, yellow burst of fall color.  I dreamed even of the joy of raking all autumn, amassing giant piles of crunchy leaves to fall backwards into.

And with those dreams framed in the front of my mind, I signed on the dotted line.

A few years into my new home ownership, I started to notice a change.  Actually one of my neighbors alerted me.  She, too, had a silver maple in her front yard.  With fewer and fewer leaves, and green leaves yellowing all summer, she had resorted to deep feeding schedules and expert advice.  She feared she was going to lose her tree and she was worried about mine as well.

Happily surrounded by fallen silver maple leaves

I tried to act unconcerned, but the fact was:  I had noticed it too.  It didn’t have as many green leaves, and lots of them would yellow and fall to the ground.  One day I even noticed an entire bare branch without a single leaf intact. I hoped for the best, but my heart secretly feared the worst.  I resorted to iron supplements, fertilizer stakes, deep root watering wands and resigned myself to trim the dead branches as soon as I saw them.  The quicker I could get rid of the symptom, I hoped, the quicker it would mend itself.  Maybe these dead branches were just a figment of my imagination or an unlucky summer budding timeline.

I scoured online looking for possible remedies, causes, cures, reasons, explanations and miracles.  Silver maples, it turns out in the area I lived, did often suffer from iron deficiencies, causing the leaves to yellow.  Drought was also a factor.  After enduring three winters of extreme drought, maybe my summer sprinkler system and the city-patrolled, two-day-a-week watering schedule just wasn’t making up enough ground for those other six months of the year.  I learned that silver maples are also fairly short-lived trees.  The negatives were racking up.  I found myself preparing, secretly, for what seemed to be the inevitable.

Apparently this photo was NOT taken during one of our drought winters!

A few years later, despite my valiant attempts at resuscitation, my beautiful silver maple had been reduced to all of two tall branches that still leafed out timidly.  I wonder if those branches missed their friends and the days of happy green leaves, they looked lonely and abandoned.  Betrayed and left to fight what remained of a losing battle.  It broke my heart to remember its green-leafed canopy, its cool summer shade and those piles of autumn leaves.  They were but a distant memory now.

I wasn’t there the day the tree cutters showed up.  The next time I saw my front yard, the only memory of my dear silver maple was a sawed off stump and the naked blankness of my beige and brick house.  The tree had somehow buffered it so gratuitously for all those years.   The character, the longstanding curb appeal, the aged perfection it had infused to my front yard had dematerialized instantly with that final carcass of wood that they dragged carelessly off to the side of my driveway.  What took nearly thirty years to grow had been butchered into saleable-sized pieces in less than an hour.

Like a friend, my silver maple tree had seen me through my first house, my first car purchase, an emergency appendectomy and a revolving line of friends and roommates.  It had watched me come home much too late on a few nights, but it had also seen me leaving the driveway early on Sunday mornings for church.  It saw me through promotions at work, and disappointments with friends.  It watched me celebrate the weddings of my brother and my sister.  Life was good, life was bad and my silver maple saw it all, standing stoically there in my yard.  No expression but the beautiful leafed tears it shed every fall and the proud buds of hope that welled up each spring.

My beloved silver maple, in all its beauty, is but a memory now, long burned in a fireplace for heat.  It is hard to say goodbye and to let a dream go.  To boldly embrace where it has taken you, but also to realize its end has come.  In a pile of firewood that day, I said goodbye to a tree . . . and a dream, but its beauty will live on forever in my heart.

Out with the Old, In with the New

It’s time.  Out with the old and in with the new.

I had procrastinated long enough, hoping to get a new composter in time to still salvage what was left of last year’s old growth in my flower garden, with the dream of turning it into sweet black compost to use this spring.  You can read more about my indecision about composters here.  But today, with the sun shining warmly, short sleeves rolled up, and the first sweat of this spring trickling down my brow, I knew that today I had to do some serious spring cleaning in my garden.

All winter, they stood like statues.  Like beautiful, blooming memories that were cemented purposefully in my garden, as if trying to prove that they really did bloom last summer in profusion.  Only with the casting process of fall and winter, their green life had been stolen, their blooms hardened into black, brittle seed pods, their summer beauty lost to only the remaining brown sticks and stems.

Nepeta "Walker's Low" in the height of its bloom last summer.

Their once-fluttering leaves lay sadly in the ground below them, thick rugs of decomposing, blackish muck.  Nepeta “Walker’s Low” catmint was strung out in a thick mat upon the ground, its bunches of green mint-like leaves and tiny lavender blooms only a distant memory now.

There were the tender annuals, planted carefully that bloomed unrelentlessly all summer.  My beloved Gomphrena “Fireworks” was a favorite.  When I picked it up from the nursery, its tag said it would grow to a height of 36”!  So astonished with this info on its tag, I even asked the nursery’s owner if that must be a mistake.  It turned out, it wasn’t and it bloomed all summer in explosions of pink fireworks 3 feet above my garden bed.

A "Hot Summer" coneflower bursting into full bloom last summer.

And there were the trusty old standby’s, clumps of coneflowers and black eyed susans, standing tall, with only seed pods left upon their thick stems.  Fuzzy lamb’s ears had been diminished, shrunken down tight upon the soil in wilted, wet, grayish green layers of leaves, all former fuzziness disappeared.  They appeared stuck in a wet embrace with the ground, suctioned tight by the forces of gravity, moisture and once heavy snow atop.

Today, it was time to go out with the old and let the new have a fighting chance in my garden.  I pruned, pulled, trimmed and cut back all the old foliage that reminded me of last year’s garden.  My new sprouts need a fresh slate, without the constrictions and remnants of last summer to bend their growth, inhibit their new shoots or block the sun’s warm light.  My garden needed a fresh new start, with room to grow.

We all need a little spring cleaning here and there.  A time to say goodbye to the past, its memories, its promises and its regrets.  To create for ourselves a little hope in our gardens of life, that we can start over every season, every year and even every day.  Pull back the old vines and weeds that are holding you back from growth, yank them out of the thawing soil and give your new dreams and aspirations a chance to sprout, to spring to life and to grow into something bigger than you could have ever imagined.

After I cut all the old growth out of my garden today, I was amazed with what is already beginning to sprout again.  Yet, it took my trimming, pulling and cleaning to reveal that my old perennial friends are still there, beneath the rubbish and leaves of last summer, ready to spring forth with growth again this year.  My hardy geranium “Orion” had new green leaves just barely peeking out from its clump.  I was surprised to see my tall, purple alliums had also poked their noses up out of the soil for some fresh air.  Even my Helenium “Mardi Gras” had a few delicate maroon leaves just barely visible.  But I had to get rid of the old to see the new and appreciate the journey it is just beginning.

Hardy Geranium "Orion" just beginning to unfurl its brand new, fuzzy green leaves.

Fresh, new green sprouts!

If you look very closely, you can even see the maroon tops of new growth on my Helenium "Mardi Gras!"

What will you find as you begin a little spring cleaning yourself?  You may find your dreams are already sprouting, they were just hidden within all the old surrounding them.  So pull back your fears and failings, your past goals and desires and give in to the new dreams that you have for yourself.  I think you’ll find they may be well on their way, all they need is a little spring sunshine, some room to grow and a gardener tending to your perennial garden of life.