Hot August Daze

Spawns a Limerick Craze

It’s five o’clock on a Friday in August
At last, the mowers have quit for the day
Silence invites
Though we love noisy nights
When crickets tune fiddles and play.

It’s just past high noon on a bright day in August
Midges are resting (thank god) from a grand night of jumps
But skeeters are biting
And chiggers are fighting
To see who wins the race to our rumps.

It’s four o’clock on a Sunday in August
We sit on the porch sipping sweet lemonade
Till steam-bath humidity
Melts our stupidity
We flee to chilled chambers like a frantic brigade.

It’s three o’clock of a heat wave in August
That’s bringing white skies and a long summer drought*
Our grand plants look ragtag
While vines play bully-tag
And we beg, no we pray, for some heavenly clout.

It’s ten o’clock on a black night in August
A rip-snortin’ storm wakes up us and the frogs
Lops trees at their knees
Shreds sheds like split peas
Oh, the clean-ups next day become sad epilogues.

It’s nine o’clock on a bright day in August
I step out and I’m trapped in a tangle of webs
They spin silk by the yard
They’re invading our yard
Sigh! Spiders will rule till summertime ebbs.

It’s one o’clock on the best day in August
Dazzling crepe myrtles gild rail track and road
Dragonflies munch
Hummers sip brunch
But my, how the weeds just seem to explode.

It’s two o’clock on a fine day in August
Cool juice from late peaches tickles our chin
But the temperature soars
We’ll just skip garden chores
It won’t make a difference, the weeds always win.

The stars wink on, it’s the last night of August
We cheer! We’ve survived summer’s dog days
We beat bugs and sweat
Ah, let’s just forget . . .
Surely September will bring fresh bouquets.

Then, as shadows grow long and evenings grow dark
And we’re missing sweet melons while corn stalks turn stark
And days grow cold and winds blow in December
We may look back on August and fondly remember. . .

*This verse refers to August 2018 which was so dry I had to cut plants back to relieve stress.

I hope you enjoy our August 2019 pictures.

Reliable ‘Canyon Creek’ abelia begins to bloom mid-August and goes on and on and on.

Argiope auranta, one of Charlotte’s relatives, takes over a low, mounding crepe myrtle.

Our neighbor Carole calls this her Charlie Brown crepe myrtle, a pretty plant from a seedling we found in our garden and planted by Bob ten years ago. It never grew, never bloomed until this year — with more buds ready to pop. So August has some nice surprises.

Yes, that spider seems mighty content perching on our midge-poop stained car. Probably had a feast during the night.

Sweet Autumn clematis lounges on a witch hazel next to a ‘Limelight’ hydrangea

The crepe myrtle outside our den windows was in prime bloom this year – it’s a dwarf.

Seeds from green-headed coneflower (rudbeckia laciniata) are treats for goldfinches. Looking parched here, these native plants would prefer a moister spot in the garden, or at least a little more shade.

A gloomy day on the water brightened by canna tropicana.

Our happy redbud, sprouted from a seed three years ago.

Red blooms never seem to get around to opening on Turk’s Cap mallow, a relative of hibiscus and cotton, but they make a statement,  and hummingbirds love them. Marginally hardy here a decade ago, today the plant is a happy, and maybe even a little pushy sub-shrub.

August is the month for these clumps of zephyranthes candida from bulbs that multiply rapidly and bloom profusely into September and maybe even October. Shown here with lavender Mexican heather (cuphea), another reliable summer bloomer, and nandina.

A second image of our neighbor’ Charley Brown crepe myrtle showing even more blooms!

Posted in August, Garden Humor, Summer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Right Plant Right Place

Or, The Great Garden Ponzi Scheme

Hey, the Sad Sack Rack in the Big Box Garden Store had bunches of plants on sale today.

Is that good news or bad news?

Good, of course. But I only found one plant I really wanted. It’s in good shape, though. Not like those waifs I’m always rescuing.

Only one plant? Now that is good news. I’ll get the shovel and we’ll get this done right away.

Hmmm, just let me wander around for a while. I want to find just the right spot for it

So I should put the shovel away.

Not yet. I actually have one place in mind that could work very well.

But there’s already a plant there.

I know, but I can’t remember why I put that plant there in the first place. It’s obviously not right.

Looks okay to me.

Not really. It didn’t grow much. Not getting enough sun. Or maybe it’s getting too much sun…Or maybe it’s not getting enough water. Or maybe it’s getting too much water.

Sounds finicky to me.

Well, let’s try it over here.

But won’t you have to take a plant out to fit this one in?

Well, actually, three plants.

Three plants?

Yes. They’re small, so you can’t just move one of them out. The three of them need to move as a group.

Why, are they friends?

Wait. I think I’ve got it all worked out. If we take these two, the bushy ones out from over there, then there will be just enough space for the three small ones. Then we can find a good spot for the bushy ones.

The bushy ones? What bushy ones? I thought we were only planting one plant.

While we’re at it, we should move that plant over there, too.

Haven’t I moved that one before?

Yes, a couple of times, I think. That’s probably why it looks familiar to you. It just doesn’t seem to like this garden. It droops in sun. It sulks in shade. It wilts. Its leaves get spotty.

Do you think it might be happier if you just, maybe, left it alone? Or, here’s a thought, how about throwing it out?

Oh I couldn’t do that.

So how many plants, exactly, are we moving?

I’ve kind of lost track. But it’ll go fast because some plants will go right into holes left from other plants we’ve dug out.

That makes me so happy. What plant comes first?

Maybe before we plant we should get out the loppers. If we limb this bush up and take the plant out that’s under it, then we can fit those other two underneath it.

What other two? Hey, didn’t you just put this plant under there – you said something about great color combinations when they bloomed.

I know but it didn’t work. They only bloom together if the sun, moon and stars are aligned.

Okay, is this plant standing straight in the hole?

Yes, it’s fine, but it has to be moved over by 6 inches.

Six inches? Around here it’ll grow six inches in a week.

But it’s not centered in the bed.

So how many more do we have to go?

Seven or eight? Maybe?

But you only started with one.

I know. How does that happen?

(Let’s pause for clarification of sorts. I hope that some gardeners will see a small bit of themselves in this narrative, though I imagine the more organized and knowledgeable among us will be appalled by the lunacy. Most gardeners will, however, immediately recognize this as dialog between the gardener of the queenly “we” and the digger-in-chief. Let us continue.)

How nice, you’re kneeling to give the plant your blessing?

No, I’m kneeling to chop a root so this plant can go into the hole. But I may as well tell it now – Do NOT get too comfortable, because you’ll probably get moved to another spot.

Well, actually, that particular plant was doing too well where it was.

If it was doing well, why did we dig it?

Because it was always sprawling on the path and flopping all over its neighbors.

But don’t we want to celebrate plants that actually grow?

Yes, but we can’t have plants flopping all over each other.

You have a pretty wide open spot over there. Why don’t we just dig a trench for all these plants, fill it in and call it a day? They could have a jolly time flopping and comparing war stories.

Don’t be silly. Anyway, it’s too sunny for most of them. Oh but I have an idea. We could dig this other plant that behaves itself and put it near the path.
That plant looks familiar. Didn’t we just put it in?

Yes, but it’s not quite the right spot for it.

Looks pretty happy to me.

But it’ll look so much better here.

Didn’t you once have a plan for the garden?

Next year will be better, I promise. If we just make these few changes now, each plant will finally have a real home.

(In the interest of accurate reporting, these conversations actually occurred over a period of days, weeks, months, or even years, but for narrative purposes time has been condensed into an afternoon.)

Well, you didn’t think all this could happen in one afternoon. Even in our garden.

Or did you.

(The idea for this narrative came from a conversation with our son, who, as digger-in-chief in his own garden, has lately become adept at transplanting. And our daughter, somewhat hard-hearted, who now limits a plant to three moves before she stops rationalizing and starts tossing.)

It’s all a part of a gardener’s genes.

The slide show below represents plants that have participated (for better or worse) in these round-robin games. Azaleas and hydrangeas were refugees from Isabel, the rest were either flopping, drowning, drying up, burning up, sulking, or were targets of our sudden aha! garden moments.

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Our Southern Crepe Myrtle

Glory of Summer

We bought her in Spring 1987 from the hardware store, a landmark in town with dark old floors that should have creaked but didn’t and dark walls with wooden cubbies that held all kinds of delicious hardware and wide counters that held crazy-quilts of boxes with seeds and tubers for spring planting.

She was a hopeful little tiger in a two-gallon pot with pretty, com-hither watermelon blooms, and she cost five dollars. Probably she and her sisters had seeded in from a big ol’ tree in somebody’s yard and a green-thumb had dug and tended them and thought maybe there were a few dollars to be had by putting them up for sale.

Here she is about fifteen years ago, nodding to rudbeckia, now gone, victims of an increasingly wetter environment

They’re so cheap, why not get five, Bob said. But I only wanted three, to give some importance to the long path leading to our front door.

I bought five, why not? They were so cheap. The other two became grace notes in the garden.

We never paid much attention to them. After all, they lived and bloomed those first years, when everything else we planted in clay soup bowls whimpered or died.

A doe feels at home in her shade

As they grew, we got out the loppers and pruned low branches that nudged us as we passed by. We never got around to “crepe murdering” our crepe myrtles, that indiscriminate lopping of limbs, trading healthy limbs for the prospect of more blooms that was almost a mantra in those days.

Rain and wind that bow heavy blossoms do tempt one to take action. Patience pays off after a few dry days

We weren’t interested in doing all that work, and we certainly weren’t going to pay to have our trees topped, lopped or chopped, or whatever else chain-saw happy crews were a-hankering.

Occasionally sooty mold blackened leaves. It was probably caused by honeydew, poop raining down from aphids that were sucking tender new growth high up in the tree. Mold spores landed on the sticky stuff until the leaves looked like they’d been used to clean a Mary Poppins chimney.

When we happened to notice it, we said That looks awful. Probably we should do something about it. Then we made a point not to look at it. The old leaves fell in the fall. One year a rainy summer kept the new leaves washed clean. We never found any aphids.

We kept our eyes on the shaggy raspberry carpet that surrounded us instead

So we enjoyed our crepe myrtles because they bloomed reliably and they asked very little from us.

The happiest crepe myrtles grow along sunny roadsides or sunny railroad tracks or in sunny fields or sunny gardens. They stand proud with fulsome crowns and crowded blooms. They seek no protection from the elements. They need no emergency water. Their roots are deep and careless. They have no floppy limbs that need pruning. What would stress any other plant simply spurs crepe myrtles on to brighter bloom.

We rather like the chumminess of our crepe myrtle and carpet roses that today rejoice in the moisture that did the rudbeckia in

(Though we should add that the majesty of sun-swept roadside crepe myrtles is often diminished by unruly ruffs of sprouts at the base that should be cut away but are usually not because no one seems to be around to do it.)

Our crepe myrtles aren’t in blazing sun. They grow in a woodland garden in soil that is much too rich and moist, so their growth is open and casual and sometimes spindly.

(Imagine what joy they would give the chain-saw boys.)

But they don’t have unruly ruffs. Instead, they prefer to put their energy into root shoots that pop up in unlikely places.

One of our crepe myrtles, the middle one along the path was destined to become a sprawling centerpiece on our front lawn that captured our imaginations when she bloomed. Year by year she stretched out and up, shaped modestly with a nip here or there.

Smooth bark, raspberry blooms, and graceful limbs

Her stature reminded us of a commanding old oak in a forest, but she was so much more lissome. After she “molted” her outer shell, her bark would run smooth as silk along curvaceous trunks and her crown flounced summer-bold painted cheeks.

Some years storms and wind brought Spanish moss in from crusty old bald cypress that patrolled the Sound.

Spanish moss, suspended, grasping a limb by an unseen thread

Ironically, these fragile pewter threads that barely clung to her limbs give her a patina of age, even permanence. Maybe she echoes our memories of draped old trees we’d seen on rambles through southern states.

Some years the Spanish moss would blow away and we would hunt for cast-off remnants and try to repair the image, but our human touch had little magic.

No matter. This summer in particular, our crepe myrtle, along with her neighbors in town and country, reached truly giddy heights of Southern Glory.

As she stands today, solo

And as part of the garden

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Madcap May

A Funky Mix of Heat, Drought, Fuzzy Bills, and Pollen

In April, Rain turned our garden into a water park. In May, Rain elected to play hooky. Old Man Sun happily covered for his playmate, and temperatures ran up the ladder quicker than a raccoon scales a bird feeder. Plants that once lolled in spas – fully expecting the pampering to continue — reeled in shock.

Tender leaves born in April crisped and crumbled. Hydrangeas looked like stir-fry rejects. Tired old azalea blooms refused to drop, apparently holding out for a nudge from rain that wasn’t coming. And tiered halos of rosy berries on my pride-and-joy viburnum ‘mariesii’ (pictured in bloom last post) simply blackened prematurely, shriveled and disappeared.

Last June’s berries on viburnum plicatum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’. Some berries are already blackening naturally, a treat for birds. This shrub wandered around our garden for years until it finally found its niche. It’s now eight feel tall. Limbing up punches up its naturally layered horizontal growth habit

Joyous, hopeful sprouts on plants potted from cuttings now hung leafy heads that would later brown and fall to the shears.

Azaleas purchased in autumn should have been merrily on their way in May. Instead, without April’s hydroponics, they looked abject, their few good roots imprisoned in potbound masses, unable to function in the rigors of dry soil.

Yes, we’d roughed up the rootballs on these Big Box azaleas before planting, but we weren’t rough enough. Now we had to super-slash them until we found a few meager working roots and pot them up for rehab. And hope.

Fall planted azaleas looked pretty good on a nice day in April

High humidity and heavy dews can be silent supporters of thirsty plants. A neighbor once joked that he had to wait until four in the afternoon to mow his lawn because it took that long for the dew to dry. Not this year. Humidity remained stubbornly low many days (pleasurable for the gardener), and stubbornly high nighttime temperatures never approached the dewpoint.

Steady sultry breezes, aside from enhancing April’s pine-pollen fling, dried the soil, not just the surface, but deep down. Shredded-bark mulch seemed to disappear, composted cotton dirt felt like grit, and once mucky garden soil turned to concrete unless it had been heavily amended over the years.

Would this be the playbook for the next three months?

Somehow, Japanese iris maintained their bloom during unseasonably dry days

Water. Water. A drop of Water. Please. Their droopy hopey leaves were harder to bear than the droopy hopey eyes of a patient dog watching a steak dinner disappear. But what could we do? Pray to a laughing Sun God? Nope. We played at being Rain Gods.

During dry years from 2004 to 2010 we had designed a simple three-part irrigation system.

  • Buried tubing with individual heads linked to hydrangeas and camellias massed in separate beds.
  • Oscillators set for narrow, mixed beds.
  • Pulsators tethered to tuteurs or fence posts for trees and shrubs.

Alpenglow (Glowing Embers), a tidy mophead, thrived under our DIY watering system

When wet years followed, the system seemed superfluous, and over time, the traumas of transplanting, heavy mulching, and temporary modifications to avoid hurricane damage left it in some disarray.

Now we had to catch up fast. We said we’d only need a few hours to find the leaks, repair and reset. Did you ever notice how plain and simple, easy-on-the-knees garden tasks somehow become multi-day odysseys? Testing sprinklers, however, is not a bad job in 96-degree heat.

And the Japanese iris continued to thrive. . .

Mister heads were buried or missing, tubing cut by errant spades, or even purposely for what are now irrational reasons, sprinklers were broken, and sometimes we just plain couldn’t figure out what we were thinking ten years ago.

The engineer half of our horticulture staff rose to the challenge, spurred, no doubt, by the other half-staff’s nattering over hauling heavy hoses around the garden. This urgent venture required multiple trips to the hardware store for quick disconnects and cut-off valves and timers and oscillating sprinklers. How did he know about all this stuff?

The engineer did not forget the hoses, lightweight hoses in fact, the “future of advanced hose design” according to the label, with a promise to be indestructible. And a five-year warranty! Not that we would ever remember there was a warranty or even be able to find receipts in five years.

True survivors, these Japanese iris were planted in 2006, found in a Connecticut nursery, and have performed reliably regardless of weather, with only occasional thinning

The new system is spiffy. Alas, the half-staff gardener, still marooned in 19th century technology, remains baffled by paraphernalia. Which is why watering ranks below weeding in garden tasks, an attitude the engineer cannot fathom. Which is why I usually look like a wash-up  from a shipwreck when I water plants.

Then along came the fuzzy-bills, swarms of them rising up at night, filling the air so you daren’t open a window, or your mouth, swirling around lights, splattering houses, frying in spotlights. During the day they slept under leaves, so woe to she who rustled a plant.

Their visitations lasted about three weeks. What a movie Hitchcock could have made about fuzzy-bill invasions.

And what a bonanza for spiders who eagerly spun sheet webs in crevices and corners to catch an easy meal. Now bug-splattered, shrouded houses took on an Addams Family aura.

Not our lamp post! Photo from Washington (NC) Daily News. But it could have been!

On the bright side, bird song in our garden spiked, as fat-bellied mamas and papas captured fuzzy-bills for their fat-bellied offspring. And countless dragonflies arrived on patrol, no doubt nourished by fuzzy bill larvae when they lived as neighbors in the mud.

In case you’ve never heard of fuzzy-bills, they are non-biting midges. The males have feathery antennae, which account for the picturesque common name. They have a definite affinity for waterfront property, though they are never mentioned as a possible liability when such property is for sale.

Male Fuzzy Bill. Photo from Coastal Review Online

Midges spend their early lives in water, but when they grow up, they rise like a thousand myriad spirits to fly and mate at night. They only live for a few days, so courtship is a frenzied affair: Hey Babe, here I am, and I can give you everything you could ever want for the rest of your life (an empty promise if ever there was one).

Then a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand eggs encased in gelatin hit the water. They will sink, hatch into larvae, and if they are not eaten by neighboring dragonfly nymphs, will pupate and finally rise to the surface for their short-lived but exotic amorous adventures.

Midges are probably why our annual visitors didn’t catch any fish this year. They arrived in our slip with munchies, poles and bait tucked into their small fishing boat on Memorial Day, father, son and daughter, quietly probing the waters with shrimp-baited hooks.

Dad manages baiting the hooks, and untangling lines

Two years ago, when this photo was taken, the young boy caught 36 small perch in about as many minutes and they called our place Fish City and cruised home to an especially tasty holiday barbecue. This year there were no nibbles. Perch, fat-bellied from fuzzy-bills weren’t interested in shrimp, so burgers and franks headed up barbecue menus instead.

A new (for us) bright red monarda came through in late May, still blooming like a champ in June

The lingering Bermuda high that spiked mercury and stole pop-up showers from us in May has gone on its way. June is spangled with flashy daylilies and hot red hydrangeas – along with some nice rain and reasonable, well, reasonable for June, temperatures.

Will this be the playbook for the summer? July is yet to come.

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Posted in Daylilies, May drought, Uncategorized, watering systems | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Great Azalea Blowout of 2019

A Big Welcome to a Banner Spring!

This sounds like a car dealer’s come-on. But I can’t help it. We’ve gone from soaky  sloshy  soggy to splashy spectacular in just a couple of months.

George Lindley Tabor southern indica azalea, a favorite of ours, grown from cuttings, heavily planted in our garden. This type of azalea does well here but is too tender for northern climates. Deer usually leave it alone

How wet was it? It was so wet even the earthworms hugged the surface, apparently preferring the odds of becoming a robin’s dinner to certain drowning in subterranean ooze. How do we know all this? We spotted worms immediately when we dug holes that flooded immediately.

Big preparations for digging in and moving plants. Photo by Susan

(Reflections on digging. Yes, we know there are rules about not digging when soil is wet because its structure can be destroyed, though, frankly, it’s difficult to imagine any structure in muck. Trouble is, by May the muck has dried to concrete, which leaves little time for our traditional spring transplanting ritual.)

That’s when we move plants around the garden in a botanical rendition of those grand Monopoly and Sorry games, sans dice. Kind of like playing Musical Plants with us as maestros.

Susan visited during the middle of April to help with musical planting. She was a good sport about digging in clay soil that clogs cultivators, sucks in shovels, and mucks up trowels.

Strategies for improving drainage: creating raised beds within a raised bed by boxing up lengths of  pressure-treated timber; adding sand and compost to wet soil. Photo by Susan

(Further reflections on digging. After thirty years of adding tons of chipper-shredded yard waste, store-bought mulch, sand, piles of dead leaves, ground-up tree trimmings, sheep manure, chicken manure, scientifically composted horse manure, composted cotton dirt, peanut hulls, Ranger truckloads from a local soil processing plant (moved out of town, alas), and, finally, “black dirt” (with weeds) delivered in a truck that “don’t dump too good,” the basic character of our soil has not changed.

Despite amendments, the clay keeps asserting itself. During heavy rains clay lenses float to the surface and the slabs must be re-integrated. With patience and time, it all blends to become rich, lumpy, heavy soil that gives countless gifts and can be forgiven for its persistence in mucking up shovels.)

Reliable Rutherford pink once rebelled against our poor drainage, finally adapted after we added heavy doses of amendments

These are the plants we move during spring musical plants rituals:

Impulse buys off sad-sack racks that I will surely rehabilitate.
Volunteers that are just too good to toss, not sure how many Stoke’s asters I really need.
Plants in pots that lost their places during previous spring games.
Plants that were labeled 4×4 but somehow became 8×8.
Plants I can donate to local plant sales (See Volunteers above).
Plants that have struggled for years but surely would thrive if I could only find the right spot.

Axiom: There are always more plants than empty spaces.

A variety I coveted twenty years ago when I spotted it in Bellingrath Gardens, Mobile, Alabama. Serendipitously I found them for sale for $3 a piece  in our local supermarket. They were never part of the Musical Plants games

So, there we were slogging with shovels during light drizzles while the miracles of spring were calling us to play hooky.

How do plants do it? Afloat in winter, parched in summer, year after year. We’ve finally figured out that the truism is true: dreary winter showers are Mother Nature’s prescription for lavish spring flowers.

George Tabor paired with variegated Solomon Seal the length of our side garden. Purple blossoms emerge whimsically from one branch

Occasionally Susan took breaks from muck-wrestling to record these budding miracles. During the second week in April she caught the garden as it was beginning to re-awaken after daffodils retired in glory. Quince, redbud and viburnum and the first azaleas are in bloom. The sky was bright cloudy and the garden green and glowing from drizzles.

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My pictures were taken a week or two later, at the height of azalea bloom. By then, clematis and weigela, dogwood and deutzia gracilis, deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’, and double reeves spirea had joined the celebration.

Also in bloom, but stubbornly non-photogenic at times, was a beautiful North Carolina hybrid with a big name:  sinocalycalycanthus raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine.’ It’s a relative of passalong plant Sweet Betsy (or Carolina allspice) hybridized by the first director of the J.C. Raulston arboretum in Raleigh.

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It was a spring to remember, but it didn’t last long. Old man sun lasered the azaleas with 90 degree rays, and that signaled the end of the show.

Summer is here.

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Spring Always Catches Me in My Pajamas

Is that you, Spring, Knocking at my Door. . .Already?

Could you come back another day, give me a chance to comb my hair? Maybe set a spell, have a glass of tea. . ..

Never fails, I spend the entire winter out in the freezing cold, raking, weeding, pruning, mulching.

Well, maybe not the entire winter. And maybe not in the freezing cold. Thankfully, there was all that rain and drear to keep me inside on the couch with a book.

A winter caper: Freezing weather bursts a hose and enshrines a hydrangea in ice

Every year I pat myself on the back. This will be the year, I say, that I will glide around the garden in chiffon skirts and satin slippers and posies in my hair instead of baggy britches and muddy boots and a dingy straw hat on my head.

Well, Spring says to me, Y’all (I guess she’s got some southern blood) complained so about the rainy winter. And I still feel bad about leaving you out in the cold last March. So I thought I’d surprise you and slip in for a quick visit to perk you up.

Daffodils planted in woods flattened by Hurricane Isabel in 2003 still going strong

Uh, how considerate. Were you thinking of helping with chores, or were you planning to cheer on the weeds?

Oh dear, I don’t mean to get in the way. I could leave now and you won’t have to see me again till oh, maybe some time beginning-middle of April.

Well shame on me for being so saucy. (Where’s my southern hospitality?)

From inside the house we can watch blooms of  quince ‘Jet Trail’ explode,  early native honeysuckle weaving its way through the “sticky’ bush

But Spring is such a tease, don’t you think? Pops in for a minute, then skiddoos away. Winter may be doing the dealing, but Spring is the wild card, a joker in the weatherman’s game of poker.

Problem is, the plants (and sometimes the gardener) think it’s the real deal. They’re sure they have winning hands. They start throwing out aces, kings, deuces, whatever they have, with the giddy highs of winners.

After all these years, they still haven’t learned when to hold ‘em, or maybe even fold ‘em, quit being over-bold, take a pass on winter’s cold.

Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’ seems to tolerate cold days

Those wily winter weeds, now, they are the big winners, kings of the Craps Table. They can parlay a stingy roll on a cold day into a meadow. Not a loser among ‘em. High rollers all.

Their blossoms roll into seeds that roll into new plants that roll into blossoms that roll into seeds. . . And the winnings pile up and the gardener kneels down.

Quince ‘Toyo nishiki’ interrupted by a red ‘mistake’ lifts eyes and spirits away from weeding

Don’t go, I call out, apologetically. It’s true, you’re early but. . .

Truth is, those daffodils get positively perky in your late afternoon sun. They don’t mind winter’s chill, what with that zippy sugar-water anti-freeze in their veins.

‘Ice Follies’, a reliable bloomer in our southern wet land

And the forsythia’s positively flouncy. And the quince is bubbling with color. And the ogon spirea, that lovable mop top, is having such good hair days lately.

‘Ogon’ spirea in fall

And when you roll that big bright ball of a sun up through the trees at 7 am, or is it 8 am now, I must confess I’m lovin’ it.

‘Ogon’ spirea today with nandina berries in the background

Who am I kidding? I’ll take your wild cards any day while winter is still dealing the weather.
I’ll put on my baggy britches, my muddy boots and my dingy straw hat and cheer.

Star Magnolia seeks center stage among blooms of our favorite camellia

Can buds, blossoms, and birdsong be far behind? Do stay a while. Only can’t we slow everything down and stop for a cup of tea?

And by the way, Mademoiselle Spring, I do like your sun on my back

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Truly a Heron’s Garden

Or, Hold those Fireworks!

(Note: Except for one photo of “our” heron,  pictures of herons in this post are from the internet.)

In the beginning we did not understand that the herons had first ownership. We accepted the great blues as belonging to the watery woodlands, invited their loafing and fishing in our slip, became heron watchers from our porch.

Perfect form

It was a treat, catching glimpses of the deep, steady, beat of wings, arch of neck, coat of velvet during majestic flights up the canal. Here, we said, are nature’s true aristocrats.

(Except when herons squawk. Head-turners those squawks are, like cockney spilling from the mouth of a powder-wigged earl. Or, to latter-day ears, blasts from a croaky klaxon.)

Herons are most patrician when they stand silent, solitary, watchful — for how long? — on our turtle log, once a fulsome pine, now retired, taking the waters.

An orderly line-up, pretty much on a first-come basis, though there is some jockeying for position — not that you would notice

Turtles count the log as their territory, but when the big guy sails in, they plop speedy and graceless into the water, well clear of that controlled, balletic landing eased by wings that double as parachutes. We laugh. They are the jester’s counterpoint to royal lineage.

Moving out of the way — fast — but no plopping, yet

Each landing is a perfect touchdown — on a slippery log, mind you — though long toes with talons give strong grip. My, we exclaim, what wonderful balance.

Still as a sphinx , he scans the water. For how long? Probably not for long by his reckoning, but we who never learned that waiting on line is good for the soul become impatient.

Waiting. . .

When is he going to do something?

Ah, there, did you see that? How he stabbed at the water?

Uh, no I didn’t, I must have been distracted by the cardinal that flew in, or maybe I blinked.

No matter, he missed that time. Yes, herons do sometimes miss the mark, more often when they’re youngsters.

First the stab and then the gulp

When he doesn’t miss, now that is something to see. By rights, the impaled fish should remain stuck on his beak. Not so. With a flick of his head the heron releases the fish, tosses it easily into the air, and gulps it down whole. So fast it’s hard to take in. If the fish is big enough, we can watch the lump make its way down that long neck.

Considering the regal behavior we have witnessed, I never expected what happened one day several years ago.

I was practically face down into the soil, planting iris near the slip, when I heard frenzied squawking.

I followed the noise and spotted a bird in trouble, wildly flapping his wings, teetering on a branch.

Our heron? In disarray? What in the world are you doing up there? I called. Come on, surely you can take off and fly? Must be a kid testing its wings.

I continued planting. The squawking continued, maybe louder, if that were possible, and the balancing act, too. I scolded. He squawked. I scolded. He squawked. What did he want? I turned my back square. Squawk away, if you like.

The squawking stopped.

Silence at last. Back to planting irises.

I began to feel a spooky sort of presence. The world was too quiet. The back of my neck tightened. Where did the heron go?

Purposefully casual, I turned ever so slightly.

The heron had landed about fifteen feet behind me. Silent. Patient. Waiting as long as it would take for me to acknowledge his presence.

Once I turned full around, the clucking began, a sort of confidential tete a tete. Or was it pleading? I murmured questions. The bird murmured answers. Back and forth we went, crooning gibberish to each other, each of us immobile, gazes locked.

“Our” heron on the turtle log, majestic from a distance

The bird was patient, more patient than I, it would seem. Edgy, I escalated the gibberish. “Tell me, what is your problem?”

The bird sensed my change in tone and escalated his squawking.

Frustrated because this biped was not getting the message? Was there a threat implicit in the squawk?

The heron began to approach me in that measured way herons have of placing each foot down square as they consider the next step.

I’d never thought much about the size of a heron – but let me just say that they are much bigger up close than you would think from images in books or binoculars.

Nor had I thought much about that dagger-beak, since it was only targeted for fish, wasn’t it?

Even during those intimate murmurings, these things hadn’t occurred to me.

Nor was I prepared for how scraggly the bird looked. This was one unkempt, tired-looking bird. Stringy, matted feathers.

Apparently grooming was not a priority. The long views of velvet-in-flight were replaced now by close-ups of raggedy ringlets.

As the heron approached, I began to think about all these things.

I had an epiphany.

This garden wasn’t ours. It belonged to the heron, and by golly, he was welcome to it whenever he wanted to claim it. Okay, okay, it’s all yours.

Scrambling like a turtle-jester falling off a log, trampling plants along the way, I retreated. When I turned to look from a safe distance, the heron was gone.

I never figured out what happened that day. Maybe an errant young bird needed help and a frazzled parent was trying to make things right. But where from? There was no rookery nearby. Surely we would have heard it, maybe even smelled it.

A single nest

Herons create group hobo camps when they breed, build their twiggy nests in the branches of unlucky trees. Nobody tends to housekeeping, so by the time the demanding, noisy young gobble fish regurgitated by their parents, then splatter poop everywhere, the colony can quickly become a whitewashed slum with a nose-busting stench.

So many nests the tree finally died

You can ask the residents of a certain street in Santa Rosa, California if you doubt me. Herons and egrets have adopted a eucalyptus tree there as their rookery.

During breeding season there is so much guano and such foul odors, neighbors sometimes go berserk. One lit off firecrackers at the base of the tree. The herons didn’t notice. Fishing was too good in the nearby lagoon.

What do you know? Who would have thought that Mr. Majesty was such a mess up close – and a crafty thief, to boot.

That reality hit us later, when we decided to clean out our small pond near the porch. We didn’t think it needed cleaning, but everyone with a pond said it was important to clean a pond regularly, and so did the books.

Frankly, we thought the few goldfish we had looked pretty good, even though they were mostly hidden among pickerel weed and arrowhead and one water lily that sent its pads out to all corners.

Mr. Majesty gets a bird’s eye view of fish ponds

It was a lot of work, but we said we would be speedy. No need to remove the fish.

We drained a good bit of water and removed the plants, which exposed the fish, which speedily alerted the heron during one of his flyovers, which prompted the lawn-chair barricade, which began the rout.

He landed some ways away, skulking, no doubt assured we wouldn’t notice him. (Pretty difficult to miss a bird that stands five feet high with a six-foot wing span.)

He stalked, graceful, pink-panther-like. Dipping low, slinking behind two-foot azaleas, playing for invisibility. Tiptoeing fast, like a roadrunner, to cross open space.

Sidling around tree trunks. Rubbernecking.

Planning the next move, crafty. Rubbernecking.

Scooting behind billowy grass. Rubbernecking.

Would he be bold enough to close in? No. Too near the house. Too many obstacles. Remember those lawn chairs? We turned our backs for a few minutes. . .

Much later I read about a heron gorging on fingerlings in a nursery pond, tricking young fish into surfacing by alighting where the caretaker stood when he fed them.

Looks like this guy needs a meal

He almost got away with the pilfering, but the weight of that feast in his tummy was too much drag. He could not take off properly. He tried to disgorge ballast. Alas, he never saw the truck coming down the pike.

Sounds like a fable, but we had learned well that herons try any ruse to snatch a fish. That’s why gardeners top their ponds with metal cages.

Contented green frogs thinking about canoodling in our pond

That’s why we don’t clean our pond or feed the fish any more. The pond remains fine and healthy. The few fish make a living beneath healthy stands of plants that camouflage the water surface.

A perfect hiding place

A resident green frog chirrups around lunchtime. And dragonflies loaf on spikey stems of pickerel weed.

And so we discovered that the great blue heron is not all royal velvet. Behind the façade are noisy croaks, sneaky ways, a certain gluttony, and slovenliness.

Yet the vision remains. We ignore the tarnish. It’s like being finessed by a smooth orator and discovering the Wizard of Oz and dismissing the discovery as propaganda.

In the end, we made a truce with the heron.  We accepted the heron’s ownership of our garden. He doesn’t exact much tribute from us. It comes down to sole possession of the turtle log when he wants it. But he is leaving our fish alone (probably because it’s impossible to find them among the plants.)

Into the skies for reconnoitering



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The Frayed Waistcoats of Winter

A white sky steals color. In still air, the wet mists of winter take advantage of a sun that’s gone missing for several days and settle down for a spell, polishing leaves that are already forgotten.

They erase distance and seamlessly fold onto our plot, reflecting still water and shadows of trees.

Shorn of color, isolated by mist, the rangy bones of the garden, the storm-scars and misshapen ancestry of former seasons emerge.

Over there is the crushed canoe and near it, the pop-up trees, bowled over by wind, crowns and limbs chain-sawed off, now reaching tall like wacky headless soldiers.

A winter garden is stripped of its frippery.

There are some exceptions. Still in full dress, this native red maple, by virtue of its stature, presides in glory dimmed by the mists. After a peel-off and a short nap it will be first to bloom in spring.

And the camellias, fall bloomers fading, spring bloomer in the wings. That single blossom on an aging ‘Yuletide’ is especially satisfying, since the plant lost most of its girth to a cold winter.

Sho a no saki is but a shadow now, resenting puddles at her feet on rainy days, but still she adds grace to fraying edges.

Birds take full advantage of the fraying, happy that I don’t trim the tatters, leave remnants for them. Silent, practically invisible, they dart from thicket to thicket, mining for berries, seeds, bugs.

Small flocks alert to trespass, noiselessly explode into the dark safety of a crowded windbreak of camellias and azaleas watched over by our whimsical Puck,  long-ago carried home from England swaddled in a duffel bag.

Even the brash Carolina wren is put off.

The chatter is gone from the garden.

The ramrod tulip tree, whose seed germinated the summer we built our house, stands like an emperor blending quietly into the woods behind.

An eon ago, barely remembered now, spring called out to us, Watch me! Watch me! And we did, will do so again, captivated. During midsummer madnesses we reveled in, though we complained, too, about hot wild colors dancing under a hot wild sun.

Even gentle autumn was extravagant with flames and fruits, and the wheelbarrow was not idle.

But misty-gray’s winter wardrobe has no sparks or crackle.

And that’s why we ignore a winter garden. There is no noise. After all, it’s only an interlude between acts.

Of course, there are those certain days when snow mantles frayed petticoats, when crystals ricochet sunshine, and we rejoice in a perfect wonderland that crackles with icicles. We adore snow pictures. (Until we wreck them with our footprints.)

And sometimes, in the blue light of a stormy sky there is a dramatic entr’acte. In this year-old picture, the pittosporum shaping the beds still live. They will be lost a few months hence.

But mostly there is a certain peace that attends aimless wandering in a faded garden. The conscience is quiet. (Must not disturb those birds picking at cast-offs.)

The wheelbarrow waits. Raking. Pruning. Chopping. They can all come later. The garden bids us trespass, poke around its tattered tapestry of bleached stalks and russet seed heads.

Didn’t someone once talk about the world standing still? Perhaps he or she one day walked in a winter garden with a patch of sprawling spent chrysanthemums and an empty wheelbarrow and a lonely bench and unraked leaves.

Of course the garden isn’t truly standing still.

Invisible to us, it’s primping for spring, when the dressing room becomes a full-blown stage and curtain calls are lavish with standing ovations that we can only give a nod to, because we can’t stand still for very long, what with the need for all the planting, weeding, and cutting the sunshine brings on.

Yes, as I write, the sun nudges and the wheelbarrow needs exercise and the wren calls and the hellebores are nodding and taking bows for their first curtain calls. Time to get cracking and quit lollygagging.

(Photos taken over a two-year period)

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Galicia Encantada. . . Part IV

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of camellias in the gardens we visited.  Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.

In which I Become A Smuggler, A Vagrant, A Loiterer, and A Person of Suspicion

Five AM on Saturday came too soon and it was time to leave this enchanted land. I had one last taste of Galician hospitality at Santiago airport. A security agent took it upon himself to help me with my bags and escort me through the small airport.

During the quiet pre-dawn moments we stood chatting I learned that he had some years ago lived in Astoria, New York, only a ten-minute walk from where I grew up. Having exchanged life histories, which we happen to do very well in North Carolina, we said goodby and wished each other well.

From Santiago to Madrid to London to Miami my Carolina home seemed to be calling: seatmate from New Bern, Swiss basketball player visiting his host family from NC college days.

And then there was the Miami airport. Where every plane in the world – and maybe outer space, too — converges at precisely 8 pm. Battalions of travellers emerge to do the maze-creep to Customs.

Time for a reminder of Galicia. . .

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I thought I had sailed through Customs . . .

Until the cutest, friskiest, little beagle/terrier mix wagged his tail at me. He was so proud of himself, wiggling his little bottom like he wanted to dance. Such a sweetie I almost leaned down to pet him but I kinda thought, even with that wiggly tail, his capacity might be official.

He likes your fruit, his handler said. Huh? It’s your fruit, she said.

I’d forgotten. The parador had packed a lovely picnic for me, most of which I’d nibbled on during the day. But squirting orange juice on a seat mate, or dribbling pear juice on luggage didn’t seem appropriate, so I was saving them for my overnight layover in Miami.

Reluctantly I gave them up and started to go on my way.

It’s a little more complicated than that, she said. You didn’t declare them. You’ll have to get checked out at the Official Search Me Center. (I can’t remember its proper name, but you get the idea.)

You know, there is a $300 fine, the Search-Me Control Official said, pausing for effect. . . not for possession — but for falsifying your forms.

Three-hundred-dollars! How about jail-time instead? Might be cheaper and I wouldn’t have to hunt for a hotel room.

Mr. Search Me must have noticed my utter shock. Don’t worry, he said, I believe you.

He gingerly searched my bags, careful not to shift much around, while I privately thought he was the nicest, sweetest man I’d ever met.

By the way, he said, you have a very small suitcase but you manage to pack the whole house into it.

I thanked him. I wished I had the nerve to ask for my fruit back — that absolutely perfect, succulent, juicy pear and orange duo I’d forgotten about so completely but now suddenly craved.

Time for a taste of Galicia. . .

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At ten pm rooms in Miami, if you can find one, go for $329 a night (with or without tax?) and, sorry, shuttle service ends at 10 pm.

Judging from the clutter of luggage and travelers who had already staked claims to seating in the airport hotel lobby, I was not the only one in this pickle. There is discipline and skill to staking a proper claim, I soon learned.  Make the mistake of leaving for a very short minute, or shifting momentarily, and you lose squatters’ rights.

It didn’t matter. Promptly at 11:30 pm the hotel-lobby sentry, who took his job very seriously, told us in no uncertain terms that we could not spend the night in the lobby.

Like true vagrants we did not stir. We were a still and sullen bunch. The sentry, on the other hand, who took his job very seriously, became more strident. We pretended not to hear. Would it be a standoff? We did outnumber him.

Finally, the sentry, did I mention he took his job very seriously, ordered us out in no uncertain terms Would he take action if we did not move? He said if we wanted to camp out, we could find some cots at the far end of the airport on the fourth floor.

This is a very bad joke, I thought, but then again, the sentry took his job very seriously, so he was probably not the kind to make jokes. Reluctantly, dripping with passive aggression, we scattered.

Back to Galicia, if only for a moment. . .

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Then I met a couple who had sailed in Galicia waters. Together we searched for cots, but I declined the offer of the gentleman, elderly but wiry, to carry my bags.

He was already hefting not one but two duffle bags half his height. I couldn’t in good conscience ask him to carry a bag that was packed with the whole house.

There truly were camp cots on the fourth floor. (You should know this if you are ever stranded in the Miami airport, God help you.) They gave us sterilized blankets and pillows, water and granola bars and someone was around at all times.

The experience was, maybe, a taste of disaster relief you see on television after hurricanes, but the room was very dark and there were no TV cameras (I assume).

Which was a good thing. I would not want my TV debut to record pictures of me falling/crawling/hauling myself onto or off of a tipping/slipping/flipping camp cot.

Sweet dreams of Galicia. . .

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Speaking of flipping, my flip phone was my life line to sanity and home. Now the phone was giving me urgent messages about imminent battery death.

No problem, this over-confident technophobe thought. I am fully prepared with my handy dandy cell phone charger. I’ll just plug this thing in wherever it is that people plug these things in.

Is there some trick to this? Nothing is happening.

Oh, a shop girl said dismissively, most of the charging stations don’t work.

I got bold. I found some official who was chatting in the ticketing area and asked him to show me an outlet that actually worked and could he plug it in and check it for me. How could he say no?

Then I waited. In an airport I believe that is known as loitering unless you are an official.

Loitering is not boring. Every official who passed me chatted me up, casually, politely trying to find out why I was doing absolutely nothing but observing the passing parade instead if joining it. Add “person of suspicion” to smuggler, vagrant and loiterer.

What fun it would be to loiter in Galicia. . .

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In addition to knowing about camp cots on the fourth floor, you should know that the Miami airport stretches from Florida to Maine in a straight line. Packing track shoes is a good idea. On the bright side, you don’t have to worry about taking a wrong turn.

I did, however, wonder when my gate number would be posted. I can never understand why major airports that handle a million flights a day seem to have a problem posting gates for planes.

I used to think the numbers came from some hush-hush game of craps played on the fourth floor. Now I know (having spent time on the fourth floor) that there is no game.

Anyway, I hadn’t yet figured out that the airport was a straight line from Florida to Maine, so I asked for directions. Just get in the closest security line to my gate, I was told. Otherwise you’ll be walking forever. That my gate was not listed seemed to be a mere detail, eventually rectified by walking from Florida to Georgia, where I could hover over the departures board like a race-track junkie until odds are posted.

Bring back those memories of Galicia. . .

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I was there! The gatekeeper to security checked my IDs and stopped the line. We have to wait for the dog to get here, she said. And wait we did. Let me tell you, this was not the cute beagle/terrier that had nailed me last night.

This one was bigger, lankier, not cute, and he took his job very seriously. This dog knew his sniff – he could sniff people out without even sniffing. He was obviously a high-level sniffer. But he didn’t sniff me. No, he didn’t sniff me, and he was gone by the time my bags went into x-ray.

Well, the x-ray got me. The X-ray Official rooted around my bags swabbed everything except my underwear. Unfortunately, in her zeal, she did not realize I was carrying the whole house in one little bag, so there was a moment of suspense before she succeeded in rezipping my bags.

Back to the walking, even though I got in the right line, I swear I did, because you are absolutely forbidden to get in the wrong line, I wound up walking from Gate 1 to Gate 60, from Florida to Maine, and me toting the whole house, kind of like backpacking the Appalachian Trail without rocks to trip over.

Or maybe following camellias in Galicia. . .

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A keen sense of observation is required of travelers flying out of Miami’s Gate Number 60. That is because there are five (5) Gates Number 60. Each of the five has three flights listed on its board. Aha, a new kind of vision test? Or maybe they were testing number-recognition in old people.

And here I thought I wouldn’t have enough reading material to last me till my flight left.

Well, everyone seemed content in that waiting area, like they all knew where they were going. But I didn’t believe it. Every time I ask a direction of a traveller who is going my way, just to get a little confirmation, mind you, before I get on an elevator that will take me to Venus when I’m really looking to go to Mars, no one can seem to give me a direct answer. So I think most people are putting on a big show to cover up their insecurities.

One thing about being old and maybe not so sprightly, people think you are either half-blind, half-deaf, or half-brain dead, or half-all-of-the-above, and they are quite willing to help you out.

A kind attendant came up to me and asked my destination. My all-night maze-running, cot-wrestling and airport marathons must have been catching up to me because it took me a moment to lose my vacant stare and focus on remembering where I was going on this particular flight. Which no doubt reinforced the stereotypes described above.

She promised to help me board. This process, incidentally, required another quarter mile of walking outdoors to choose a plane, any plane, from among several waiting on the tarmac. How do people know these things? But I didn’t see her again.

And while I am about it, did you know that they are making seat numbers harder and harder to read? Or maybe that’s the half-blind stereotype. This can be a particular problem when a flight attendant apparently misdirects you on a jumbo jet and you have to swim upstream to find your seat, saying Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me at every pass. On the other hand, maybe that is a result of the half-deaf stereotype.

I fell asleep as soon as I got on the plane. All memories of destinations, flight times, flight numbers, gate numbers, seat numbers, and buses, trains, escalators and elevators whisking me to parts unknown vanished into oblivion. (That is the half-brain-dead stereotype.)

One last farewell to Galicia. . .

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The best part was yet to come. Though I’d been gone for twelve days, I didn’t miss springtime, which sometimes comes and goes in a minute here. All blooms waited especially for me. (Snow and cold weather had nothing to do with the delay, I assure you.)

I felt doubly treated — memories of camellias from across an ocean, and a springtime tour of my own garden. I know I can get lost here for hours and be neither smuggler nor vagrant nor loiterer nor person of suspicion. (Some who know my gardening style might question those assertions, but that is grist for another story.)

Here is the picture that started it all. . .

For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I                                    Galicia: Three Gardens I

Galicia Encantada. . .Part II                                  Galicia: Three Gardens II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III

Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

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Galicia Encantada . . .Part III

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of camellias in the gardens we visited.  Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.

Santiago de Compostela

Breaking News: I could find no evidence of Puss in Boots in Santiago de Compostela. You may remember from the movie, Shrek 2 that Puss boasted of being the great cat burglar of Santiago de Compostela during one of his past lives.

Rooftops below the old city, bonanza for a cat burglar

I’m sorry to say that nobody here remembers seeing him. But that, I guess, is the nature of cat burglars.

Unabashedly I admit that the cavalier Puss in Boots was my first introduction to the city.

Since that movie, the name of this city has rolled off my tongue with cadence and lilt. It was such a delight to my ears, even though I didn’t know a thing about the city.

Now that I have visited, I know that Santiago de Compostela is one of three great pilgrimage cities, the other two being Rome and Jerusalem.

Eighteenth century parish church near our parador

Whether you come as pilgrim or tourist, your travel through Galicia must lead you to Santiago de Compostela.

It is a city of legend and great faith, of soaring cathedral and spacious squares, of history and hallowed dreams, of busy shops and crooked streets.

I came as tourist, initially with the Ciceroni tour group, then later, when my flights home were delayed, I spent time wandering on my own.

When I left I was almost beginning to feel at home in this ancient city with crooked streets where ATMs and grocery stores, fresh produce and  florists, and a large indoor seafood hall (selling Galician mussels, of course) are tucked into ruas with porticos and iron balconies.

Venerable as the city is, I am pretty sure they still pull up those crooked streets at night and rearrange them. Each day presented a challenge for this walker accustomed to city grids.

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If you hear the story behind Santiago de Compostela you will have some understanding of why this is a holy city. It goes back to 44 AD when the apostle James is beheaded in Jerusalem. He is the only disciple of Christ to be martyred.

With the help of angels, the apostle’s disciples spirit the body away, through the Mediterranean, along the Iberian coast, ending in an overland trek to present-day Santiago de Compostela. A perilous 3000-mile journey, like crossing the Atlantic in a skiff, but quite doable when guided by a heavenly host.

Detail of a finely wrought reredos (altar screen)  in the cathedral museum

Fast forward to 700 AD and a shepherd looks out on his field (compo) at brilliant starlight (stela) focused on the burial site. The discovery is so momentous that a church and monastery are built to honor the relics. Three hundred years later moors burn the church to the ground, and construction of a finer, grander cathedral begins.

The name of the city is on tongues across the land: Sant Iago de Compo stela The miracle of St. James becomes the foundation of great faith that inspires pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

St. James with staff on cathedral facade (Detail of Internet photo)

A wave of Christianity explodes throughout Europe. St. James becomes the patron saint of Spain. He inspires holy warriors in their Crusade to defeat the enemies of Christianity: moors, muslims, and arabs. The city becomes the touchstone for celebrating a new, stronger faith.

St. James as Matamoras, the moor slayer

Likenesses of the martyred disciple appear in a range of guises. The bold sculpture on the facade of the Monastery of San Martino Pinario celebrates St. James as moor slayer.

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Santiago de Compostela becomes a destination for pilgrims. A network of routes known as caminos begins to crisscross Europe and converge on this holy city.

The Way of St. James is not an easy way. In the beginning there are no maps, no direct roads, no signs. Pilgrims follow the stars, propelled by faith, informally creating their own web of trails. Terrain is rough, bandits attack, and health often fails along the caminos.

An AD 1140 official guide book listed four major routes with feeders. Since most pilgrims came from France, all pilgrims tended to be called Franks. Though wars and plagues might drastically reduce numbers, pilgrims never ceased coming. Internet map

Prosperity dawns in towns along the way. New churches are constructed, roads improved, hospices and hospitals are built for sick and weary travelers. Shopkeepers offer services — like repairing shoes — to a new clientele from out of town. Itinerant artisans contribute talent and skill to this vibrant awakening during the late Middle Ages.

As hosts of pilgrims arrive, Santiago de Compostela becomes a destination for tradesmen: shoemakers, tailors, bakers, cooks. And artisans, too: stone masons, carpenters, painters, brick layers, and silversmiths. A thriving city emerges.

Ferdinand and Isabella order construction of a hospital for tired, sick and hungry pilgrims. It is a remarkable building, large enough to house a self-sufficient community, with chapels, dormitories, great kitchen, infirmary, apothecary, even a jail and eventually an orphanage for foundlings.

The Royal Hospital is run like a town, staffed by clergy, cooks, gardeners, doctors, nurses, apothecaries, artisans. 

The facade of the Royal Hospital, now a Parador

Our group stayed in the hospital, this rich depository of history. Today it is one of the finest paradors in the country, part of a chain of hotels established by the Spanish government. It still offers free meals to a limited number of pilgrims who apply.

Photographs capture imperfectly the detailed sculpture around the entry, which is designed as an altar screen with a cast that includes Adam and Eve as part of an allegory of man’s sin and salvation.  On either side of the entry are large prominent medallions of the Catholic monarchs. The cloisters in the pictures below were originally functioning areas. 

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The great heart of Santiago de Compostela is its cathedral. Its towers soar. They are the skyline. They are symbols of a saint. And they are abiding landmarks for a wanderer who may not always pay attention to street signs and lesser landmarks.

The baroque facade and main entrance of the cathedral that faces Obradoiro Plaza. Note statue of St. James in center near the top

Medieval cathedrals weren’t built in a decade, or even a century, and this cathedral proves the precedents. A millenium passed from the building of the first church, now in ruins under the altar, to the completion of the cathedral.

Partial reconstruction of the old choir is exhibited in the Cathedral museum

Though it was consecrated in 1211, early romanesque, its architecture goes with the flow of centuries, from romanesque to gothic to baroque. It is a grand cathedral, complex in its footprint, with imposing entrances that open on to spacious squares that in turn complement imposing palaces and ornate centuries-old buildings.

The interior  is large and dusky with wide aisles to accommodate the press of pilgrims who would make their journey of faith toward the altar. The baroque eclat of the altar is not apparent at first, until you come close. Then its opulence overwhelms. I kept my camera hidden.

Below the altar, through a small passage, lies the ornate silver crypt of St. James, a giant gilded leap from those uncertain days of the first century.

Since reconstruction barred the main gates, we entered the cathedral through the gate with the scallop shell near shops selling silver and jet stone, or azabache. On our way, each day, we would pass a Galician playing the bagpipe, a tradition, in this palace archway.

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During those early days, the cathedral was a smoky scene, result of air-freshener incense liberally dispersed by a huge botafumeiro to sweeten the odors of unwashed pilgrims attending masses.

The large, lavish silver censer was managed by eight tiraboleiros who would swing its ropes across the transept with such speed and precision that the botafumeiro would fairly fly up to the vaulted ceiling, then dive back down to just miss worshipers seated in front rows.

The ceremony takes place in modern times, but only under special circumstances. Internet photo

If the cathedral is the heart of the city, surely it is the stonemasons and sculptors who gave the city its soul. Stonework and sculpture on buildings and statuary astonish. Who were these artists and artisans and how did they produce such magnificence over centuries? Most of it in granite! Originally in color!

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If I could sail back  into medieval history, Santiago de Compostela and the Praza do Obradoiro  would be my port of call.

Here, beneath the baroque facade of the cathedral was the workplace for teams of artisans. What a scene that must have been. Cluttered workshops. Tools clanging. Workmen running errands, hefting statues, balancing columns, scaffolding great heights. Each team signed its work, not for recognition by posterity, but to be sure they got paid.

I crossed that stone plaza many times, and each time I remarked how hard it was. New York City’s pavement, set on bedrock is said to be the hardest in the world, and I’ve walked many miles on it. But this grand square of granite stone laid on granite bedrock is made of sterner stuff for soles.

What stories these stones could tell

You can’t see any signs of workshops today. Instead, the Plaza is a gathering place for tourists and pilgrims, and activists and others, though we saw few pilgrims  in March. Pilgrimages are better made in fairer weather.

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In recent decades, partly in response to promotions by the Galician government,  more pilgrims are walking the Way each year, 300,000 of them in 2017. Most carry “pilgrimage passports” stamped at each station as they walk the required 100 km (or bike 200 km).

If they complete the walk and profess spiritual purpose, they receive a compostela, or certificate of accomplishment. It is, in fact, a life-changing experience for many.

Pilgrims may begin the Way of St. James because they are in mourning, or troubled, or seeking fulfillment in their lives. Often they experience deep spiritual awakening that changes them indelibly.

Along the way, they are guided by the symbol of St. James, the scallop shell, which may be affixed to sign posts and mark trails, or worn by pilgrims.

In earlier times the scallop served as water scoop and bowl

Across the avenue from the once-walled city is an elegant park, the Alameda, crisscrossed by paths that invite strolling and lead to overlooks above the city. Here you can find lovely camellias and ancient eucalyptus and lemon trees and banana trees, and palm trees. And hundred-year-old oak trees, called “carballos” in Galician.

And churches and monuments. Two of my favorites depict a pensive Rosalia de Castro, 19th century Galician romantic poet, and the Marias, eccentrc sisters who daily walked the park.

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The Alameda is now almost two centuries old and it bustles in early evening. As I was leaving, I passed two tatterdemalions, tall-and-burly, and lithe-and-slender, having a wonderful time dancing and laughing. That started me laughing. Nobody understood a word of conversation. It didn’t matter. What could be more universal than laughter.

I gave them a few coins and as I was turning away,  tall-and-burly ran after me to plant a spontaneous kiss on the back of my head. (My second continental kiss, the first by a leprechaun helping me down stone steps. Will there be a third?)

Magnolias in bloom, spotted as I was leaving

For those who like statistics, Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage site, a city of about 95,000 people. Its university system has a population of 40,000 students and 2,000 teachers.  Like the rest of the city, the roots of this institution lie in the late Middle Ages. Fonseca College was founded in 1532 by Archbishop Alonso III, constructed on family property. It encloses a lovely cloister.

The cloister with the statue of Alphonso III

And so we leave Santiago de Compostela: its cathedral, its squares, its ruas, its park, parador, and palaces, with reverence for the faith and talents and industry of pilgrims and builders, thoughtful leaders and everyday people, who created this masterpiece long long ago. The cross of St. James remains a symbol of their devotion.

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Next:  Part IV, The Journey Home

For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I     Galicia Encantada. . .Part II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III    Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

Galicia: Three Gardens I       Galicia: Three Gardens II

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