The Spiritual Gardener: New Year’s and Ladybugs

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It is a severe and bitter, perfectly classic, early January morning when I awake at 4 a.m. and I am propelled out of bed by a host of thoughts and ideas that sit gibbering on the headboard of my bed … all the usual things that disturb the rest of parents these days, perhaps at any time in history, and can cause them to stagger to the kitchen for a badly needed cup of coffee.

These are the things that are sent to try us, I suppose, and remind us that earth is not our home. The person known ominously around here as She Who Must Be Obeyed is still asleep, although I would just say that here in North America where we have a right of free speech we are allowed to add (mentally) the surname “But Against Whom Passive Resistance Is Tolerated, Though Strongly Discouraged.” She would tell me to stop being such a Shetland sheepdog and go back to bed, but in this case I resist and stay up with my thoughts.

My dog Cosimo, who actually is a sheltie, is trailing at my heels, looking rather surprised by the early hour but with nothing more on his mind than the pretty certain hope of an early breakfast. It is only ten degrees outside and still dark for hours yet. None of the Christmas lights, indoors or out, have yet tripped their timers and come on. It is not exactly the dark night of the soul, but still it is very dark without.  Our two kids in their late teens are nowhere to be seen, sleeping off their considerable exertions from a New Year’s Eve that mysteriously involved some seriously illegal fireworks and a box of kitchen pots and pans.  Sometimes a parent, in his growing wisdom, does not want to know what exactly his children are up to and last night was just such a time.

Cosimo, the Assistant Gardener, waits patiently by the fireplace for the idea to light a fire to occur to the sleepy gardener on a snowy January morning.

The furnace thermostats are still set to night time and so the downstairs rooms are chilly, but I have a mug of strong, hot, milky coffee in my hands and in the reading room I open the large illustrated coffee table book that I got for Christmas this year, English Country House Interiors. What superb, superlative rooms these are: wealth, taste, antiquity, tradition and eccentricity all combined in a lovely materialist accretion and encrustation that seems to go on and on. My mind wanders in this fantasy land of wealth and taste and privilege for a long time, before I am recalled to the more straightened present.  I try to suppress the cares that disturbed my sleep, and think instead about the frozen garden outside.

The hyacinths are an inch or two out of the ground, in their unflagging optimism, and so are hundreds of leaf-spears of daffodils. The extremely sharp cold of these bitter days will certainly kill off most of the pests in the garden, so we must rejoice over that, though of course on the other hand it is hard on the birds. I try to remember to put bread out for them, and sometimes when it is very cold a dish of warm water, as water is more critical to them than food on a cold day when all water sources are frozen solid. Almost all the insect pests perish in cold like this, as I say, and just think of all the slugs and Japanese beetles that are doomed, though their successors will all be back next year nonetheless.

Many ladybugs survive all but the cruelest winters in our garden, or rather many survive in the garden and many also prefer to find their way inside our rambling, not very air-tight old house. I am forever catching them indoors and putting them carefully back outside.  In weather like this, only these escapees will have survived the cold, plus a few with the good fortune or good sense to have burrowed deep into garden debris near a south-facing wall.

It will be many weeks yet before the hyacinths look anything like this, but already they are poking their leaf tips above the snowy ground.

The first couple of years we lived here, I went out each spring to buy small containers of ladybugs to release into our garden, to establish this small friend with such a ravenous appetite for aphids and other pests. You release them at night so they get acclimated to your garden and don’t fly away, and then by morning (in theory, anyway) they like their new abode and they and their descendants will be your allies and assistants forever after.  Years later, they are legion here and I never see aphids in our garden any more. Victory!

When my son was very small I took him to the garden center once on a ladybug errand and he was fascinated with the little cardboard container they come in, like the containers you get fishing worms in, but with screen over the top. He held the lady bugs while I was pushing the shopping cart through the garden center and, when I wasn’t looking, he poked out the screen to see the bugs better. Of course they all escaped, and we left a long trail of ladybugs through the store. I was ineffectually trying to scoop at least some of them back into the container, while he was giggling with delight at all the escaped bugs, and Daddy’s manic antics.

And the leaf tips of daffodils are also above ground already, holding the promise of a blizzard of white blossom this spring. Seen here are some of my favorites, with delicate petals and tiny orange trumpets.

This weekend was just barely warm enough to get out and do the last of the weeding before the year ended, and I ruthlessly cleaned out the long herbaceous border of its infestation of a tiny but vigorous weed that looks something like watercress.  Then I raked up the last of the autumn leaves, adding them to the mulch pile so the snows and rains of winter will create the dark, rich leaf mold that is worth its weight in gold in the spring garden.  I am so greedy for his stuff that I would treat all the leaves that fall in our yard in this way, if I could, but alas am only human after all and that would be more than I can physically manage, as there are so many of them.  One does what one can.

But what a rich harvest this is and it does so much good in the garden, especially if you don’t want to use chemical fertilizers. The soil in this garden has, just in the space of eight years of treating it with respect, strictly abstaining from chemicals of any kind, especially pesticides, gone from impoverished and clay-like stuff to dark, rich and crumbly garden soil. You can turn over a spadeful of garden earth or sod and find it teeming with earthworms – and, yes a few grubs too, we must take the rough with the smooth after all – and what a joy it is to think of having rehabilitated this one fine acre of garden in so short a time. These were the last two chores I wanted to get done this year, weeding this last bed and getting the leaves all raked up once and for all, and it is a nice feeling to have them accomplished.

I can’t get enough of red flowers in the garden, like these monarda and daylilies.

I notice with joy that the pink “Knockout” roses are still blooming, and enthusiastically too, while their red cousins have completely given up, and it reminds me of what a weak color red is, overall, in the garden. Or rather, the color is not weak, but the plants that bear it generally are.  I do not know why this is so, but the red version of any flower seems to be much less robust than its other exemplars. Perhaps there is a botanical theory that explains this. Red roses are typically much less florid than other colors, so too with peonies, daylilies, red rose mallows, red irises and on and on. It does not mean they are not worth growing for that reason – rather the reverse, in fact, in my view – but it is odd that a color should be associated with lack of vigor, or perhaps I am just imagining this, as I am fond of red in the garden and can never seem to get enough of it.

I feel the same way about blue, which also seems to me to be associated with lack of vigor, but I love it all the more too.  Pastel colors, and whites and yellows in particular, seem not to suffer at all from this debility.  I do like a bit of color variety in a species, and how boring a place the garden would be if every flower only came in one or two colors. But I also think that plant breeders tend to go too far and cannot rest until, merely for novelty, every plant is available in every color of the rainbow.  Do we really need yellow and orange azaleas, for example?  To me, they look hideous in the spring woods, blighting the bright green landscape with their toxic haze of mustard gas bloom. A golden holly is unusual and striking the first time one sees it, but would anyone really prefer it to the classic red, year in and year out for fifty years?  Unthinkable.

One day last spring, at the end of a long walk around our town, I came upon a small planting at my neighbors’ house where, among a festive and traditional gathering of fresh pink and white azaleas, they had planted a splendid, tall group of orange irises.  And not apricot orange either, which would have been awful enough, but pumpkin orange.   Have you ever seen such a thing? And the combination with pink and white was a premeditated insult to the eye.  It stopped me in my tracks and I was thunderstruck by their unseemliness; I had to wonder who had seen fit to inflict this awful plant on the world and on unsuspecting and relatively innocent passersby.

I am all for letting people do whatever they want to do in their gardens, and to indulge their enthusiasms and whims as much as ever they like, however odd.  That’s part of the fun of gardening, after all. But honestly, there are limits. In the old days, in the live-and-let-live West they used to say: “Around here, you can do whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t startle the horses.”

And I think that’s a pretty good way to organize society. But orange irises would definitely be in the horse-startling category and therefore should be outlawed. Or rather, not outlawed exactly, but I do think it would be okay for the sensible, steady sort of gardener to give a sniff of disapproval and move along, shaking his head in wonder at the folly of mankind.

David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.