Monthly Archives: July 2013

Finding Abundance: English Cottage Gardens, Morning Glories, and Weeds

As the temperature heads toward 100 degrees, I swear I won’t walk the dogs.  But I am easily suckered by guilt brought on by their two upturned drooling faces, and so walk we do.  We go a half mile down the gravel road that runs by my house and then turn onto a dirt road for another quarter mile till we get to a lone mulberry tree.   That’s where I’m ready to be halfway through with our sticky morning exercise.  Not that I don’t get something from it.  I often daydream along the way. This morning the inspiration came from a picture I have hanging near the mudroom door.  It’s of a house surrounded by what I think of as an English cottage garden.  There’s a wonderful assortment of flowers everywhere, of all colors and heights and types.  I like this picture because that is the garden I want to have.  I want to be sitting in the middle of it, in a wicker lounge chair.  I am there with my two dogs (who never run away) lying beside me.  I have a novel (Barbary Pym or Margaret Drabble) open in my hand.  I’m wearing a soft cotton top and skirt (not at all damp from sweat).   And a gentle breeze (bug free) strokes my sun kissed face.  Ah…….what a heavenly place that would be, I think, as I tug Kosmo away from sniffing raccoon scat and wonder why Jack is being so uncharacteristically brave by barking at the neighbor’s cows.   But here I am, on the prairie, where I often feel despair with my gardening attempts. 

My father taught me to love gardening.  He and I would pour over a Burbee seed catalog every February and carefully make a selection, always hopeful that his flowers would look like the ones in the photos.  What he ended up with in our yard in Topeka were little beds of pretty flowers, but hardly lush or abundant and certainly not up to those in the catalog.  My mother liked to comment that it was a lot of effort for so few results, yet she still had her favorites.  Many days she would point out the morning glories climbing up the metal poles of the clothesline.  And she often asked me to pick some nasturtiums to put in a glass sugar bowl for the dining table.  From her I came to especially love these two flowers.  I can’t seem to grow nasturtiums, though every year I buy a packet of seeds, thinking of those delicate orange bouquets on the checkered plastic tablecloth.  Morning glories, however, seem to like me or at least the places I live.  And they come the closest to making me feel like I could be living in that English cottage.  This all started when I lived in town:


My Year for Morning Glories


It seems to be my year

for morning glories.

Three starter plants

from Hort Services–

blue, white, and red.

The white doing best,

reminding me of

Easter Lilies.


in the hundreds,

blues and purples,

candy-striped when closed.

I dug some up early on,

but only half-heartedly.

Now those left are wrapped around

most everything–

zinnias, cone flowers, black-eyed Susans,

the training wheels on Helen’s bike,

the front porch railing

(this last at my suggestion).


Wondering if the other plants

are looking weary

from lack of rain

or slow strangulation,

I go out to clip away

the twisting vines,

but still without much conviction.


It’s the wildness that I like.

And the way they greet each morning

with pure pleasure

at the abundance

of their own beauty.


 Sept. 2000


When I moved to the country, I established morning glories that have reseeded and spread every year, winding their way around sunflowers and rose bushes and fence posts,  and when I see them,  my spirits lift.  But to tell the whole story, there is one other area in my yard that has that sense of lushness.  It is my vegetable garden, though not for any reason most would envy.  In spite of my best intentions, year after year, I let the weeds grow up, entangling and covering up my cucumbers and tomatoes and squash.  I never get around to mulching, I hate to use chemicals, and by late June it’s just too darn hot to pull out all the things I didn’t plant.  And so what I have by now looks more like a what-not-to-do, or as a friend recently said after viewing, “Wow, I feel better about mine!”

I used to avoid looking too closely at this patch by July, but this year I changed my mind.  I have begun to see it less as a failed attempt to grow food and more as a place where anything gets to grow.  Every morning, as I make my “rounds” to all the flower and vegetable beds, as my father used to say, I stop last at this spot.  I step knee deep into the green foliage to check on the one cucumber that’s growing bigger, to pick the last of the sweet pea pods on vines almost covered up.   And then I stand back and look at the whole of it.

It’s the wildness that I like.  It’s the great abundance of variety—of shape and height and wonderfully weedy blossoms.  It’s this willingness to persist over the heat and drought and bugs.  It’s the ability to survive and even thrive in the dog days of my Kansas summers.





Shock Treatment for Murky Waters

Apparently I have “anger issues” which surfaced (no pun intended) over a pool set up in our yard.   It would help my cause here to say that I have a bad history with above ground pools and so it should be completely understandable that I tried to discourage Rose and Wayne from buying a large inflatable one (complete with a pump filter no less) for our family “enjoyment”.    Since they were using their money to pay for it, I could hardly be that much of a spoil sport (oh, another issue I apparently have),  and so the “fun” began.  As you can tell from the photo above, our yard is not level, far from it.  The logical solution was sand, brought in by a truckload.  But (big surprise) it didn’t work, causing one side to collapse, creating a cascading waterfall that emptied the pool in 30 seconds with Rose going over the edge in a free fall, laughing hysterically.  More sand, more leveling, more filling and thank goodness we’ve had enough rain this spring so the well shouldn’t run dry.  When the pool was about a third full for the second attempt and seemed to still lilt to one side, I will admit to saying something to the effect of, “It’s not going to work, it never works, I hate pools, it’s just going to be another waste of money, and I can’t stand it!”   However,  the pool didn’t overflow this time and I did a very generous thing and said I was glad that I was wrong. 

We had several days with lots of splashing and the promised family “enjoyment” including floating loungers with cup holders before the water took on the color of a pale but dead toad.  Somehow it seemed to be my job to research home remedies for this and so I used diluted bleach—several times.  Still that bad shade of green and now the water was also turning very murky.  I suppose I should have known I needed to do something more and sooner but remember this was not my idea and I’ve never had a pool this large and “why am I the one maintaining it and I said I didn’t want it and I knew it wouldn’t be easy and….” 

 I set out to a local hardware store that told me over the phone they had “everything” I would need.  As it turned out, what they were missing was a person who knew more than I did about pool maintenance.  The college-aged sales assistant and I discussed pH levels and what they meant for no less than 20 minutes before I asked if there was anyone else in the store who might know more about all this.  “No one here would know more,” he assured me and finally managed to answer one question by getting on his smart phone.   I came home with a bag full of stuff, including a huge plastic bin of white granules that would make my hard water more acidic, strips to test things I’ve never even heard of before, and something called a shock treatment.   Helen said the only real solution was to drain the pool and refill it with fresh water and no one she knew had to use chemicals in their pool.   Since I figured I might get in trouble for asking Rose to use chemicals from containers with large warning labels on them and Wayne was safely in his own home, I decided that, once again, this was on me.  Eleven test strips, three treatments to lower the pH, and one shock treatment later, the pool started looking better.

And now I have mixed feelings about all my protests about this pool.   Why was I so against it?  Why was I so ready to pronounce it a failure?  And why did all those thoughts make me so angry?  The day after all the treatment,  I was admiring my recently blooming cone flowers when Rose came bounding up to me, a furry caterpillar in hand.   She was heading for the door.  “Don’t take that inside…he belongs outside…he’ll die….put him back,”  I said before even thinking.  “But Wayne said I could have him as a pet,” she so quickly replied.  Ah…..and like the pool, I was outnumbered.   

48 hours later, the pool still has clear water, though wouldn’t you know it’s gone from 98 to 82 degrees, making a dip seem less tempting.  Mr. Fuzzy Wuzzy (or Ms. for all we know) seems fairly content in a plastic cage made just for the purpose of holding insects that Helen reminded Rose was in the attic.  He has milkweed leaves (from our yard) and lettuce leaves (from the store) and drops of water.  He’s left a trail of what looks like small mulberries that match the pictures on the internet of caterpillar poop.  I have been told in a very stern tone that if “Mr. Fuzzy Wuzzy is sitting very still he may be ready to make a cocoon and you should LEAVE HIM ALONE.”  And unlike the pool, none of this taking care of business has been mine.  Well, except when Rose is in town and I have to check regularly and promise to call if there are any alarming events.   

As it turns out, checking on Mr. FW and the pool water has become rather enjoyable.   I don’t want to be known by my children as having anger issues or being a spoils sport—at least not so often, as I believe there are times when anger and spoil sporting seem appropriate.  But it would also appear that a little shock treatment can be helpful.  It can clear the murky waters so we see what’s underneath.   To see that there’s just a slightly dirty bottom and some grass clippings from when Helen mowed but mostly water clear enough to reflect the poles of the trampoline set nearby to use for a springboard.  There’s just a caterpillar that might escape or even die (though not from neglect) but could turn into a butterfly.  There’s just a late middle-aged mother who will need to keep using those test strips but who could spend a hot Kansas summer afternoon drinking ice tea (or whatever) with her children in a pool that, though set on uneven ground, seems stable enough for the time being. 

 fuzzy wuzzy and bobbie