Sunday, May 7, 2017

Still Life, Close Up

"The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces." Susan Sontag

Watering can, sedum, pots

Photography gives us the power to isolate scenes from contexts and in so doing make them appear self-sufficient: above, a watering can, some plants in pots, and nature poking through and around. Instant still life composition, if you will. This ability to isolate compositions uncovers loads of subject matter in gardens, which while unified wholes comprise an array of scenic elements. Any number of them in fact, as it's rather arbitrary where one scene begins and another leaves off. But the camera's shutter resolves any ambiguity with finality, peeling off a distinct slice of reality and rendering it as self sufficient - a small world of its own. And in these digital times, compositions can simply be re-framed until a pleasing amalgam of content and angle emerges. Now why it is that one collection of objects suits the eye while another does not is a mystery, a product of aesthetics, opportunity, and our subjective intent. Also, the technical frame of the camera's lens, the rectangular boundaries that can be set horizontally or vertically and brought closer or set farther back, causes modes of viewing to appear that aren't necessarily evident in the same way to the naked eye. As a recording device, cameras create a facsimile of reality and in so doing, they create entirely new possibilities.

Cluster of fallen cones, from an Atlas Cedar

Releasing the camera's shutter determines the take with finality, and the beauty revealed (if beauty was sought) is indeed in the eye of the beholder. I haven't reflected on where this urge to assemble things into still life compositions, or to focus on patterns or details in scenery, comes from. But I seem always to have inclined towards it myself (my godmother painted still life settings and close ups, and I was always intrigued by her work), and I still enjoy searching out what to me seems a good cluster. Good clusters almost invariably have some innocence or humbleness or even a naievete about them, although marks of wear, passage of time, and even signs of slow demise can reveal beauty in everyday objects. But I've come to realize that my eye doesn't differentiate still life from close up photography very clearly, so they tend to shade into a continuum of effects. In this post I'm sharing a few of my own takes as eye-bait and to illustrate how simple things - as often found together by chance as intentionally placed - can yield, if not outright beauty, then at least visual interest when they are focused upon and isolated. Of course, the momentary passing light they're seen in matters too, structuring the distinctiveness of the impression left - for in some sense, the collection of objects or block of patterns actually is the light the picture shows it in. 

Snail completing a long stretch across a gap between paving stones

Sometimes you just happen upon subject matter by chance, as when I noticed the snail above patiently crossing a deep gulf between some paving stones. We only see these snails after a rain, while the ground is still moist and they can move about without dehydrating. This picture involves an element of chance in that it only existed for a moment: here the snail is just completing its prodigious stretch across the gap, drawing its shell back over an extended body in completion of its forward movement. Chance timing, while a great generator of pictures (this scene changed in a slow-motion moment) is one source of still lifes, but I also enjoy using certain favoured objects as props in creating my garden still lifes. I deploy these props to catch or model garden effects, as with the watering can in the opening shot in this series, or the weathered teak chairs below. They reliably give specific impressions of light at a particular moment or display seasonal garden effects. The watering can confirms the nature of the scene portrayed, suggests human engagement with plants and implies something quite intimate about the garden itself. Back to the continuum I mentioned: the weathered chairs below could be considered more scenic than still life.

Weathered chairs with emphatic shadow lines

Quite apart from my reliable metal watering can and these weathered chairs, garden plants themselves furnish unlimited opportunities to frame photos as still life. Perhaps this practice bends or stretches the notion of still life even further, but freezing objects at the moment the shutter releases does guarantee the objects are frozen in the outcome. I look for clusters of objects that combine elements of spontaneity and arrangement, so there is something of a found aspect incorporated into the picture (by found, I mean that some force other than conscious human intention is engaged in bringing off the arrangement, such as time, weather, or the chance placements selected by nature). The next shot illustrates this blend of intention and discovery: the pot and rocks are of my choosing, but the blossoms are from a neighbour's wandering wisteria that has grown itself into the scene (with a little encouragement). I find this recognition game endlessly entertaining, with the added benefit of yielding pictures that capture particular moments. There is, I know, if not an artificiality, then an unreality to this, as all growing things are actually in motion and at any point fall somewhere between being born and if not outright dying, then dying back. But, so too are the fruits and flowers in a painted still life, and even the vessel containing them, frozen in the painting's singular moment, likely winds up broken at some point down the line.

Placed rock cluster, pot with cuttings, found wisteria blossoms

To me, flowers themselves are among the most intriguing garden subjects for still life or close up compositions. Individual flowerings typically result in a brief but spectacular show of bloom, after which the plant's presence recedes to context. Below is a shot of a bearded iris that isolates an intricate bloom with its fetching falls against a backdrop of indistinct green tinged with yellow, amplifying the overall impression. I like using this technique of selective focus to create a context that's more colour than form and that has a sympathetic effect by putting the principal object in sharper relief. This makes the background more effect than distinct setting.

A single iris bloom makes a still-life composition

Below is another frame, taken on a different April day. Both the iris above and the tulip below are plants inherited with this garden, some thirty years ago this spring. I've helped them to continue to flourish here by periodically dividing and replanting them in freshened soil, and they have responded by reliably adding their simple beauty to our spring's slow, captivating narrative. I've come to realize through close observation that here on southern Vancouver Island, with our temperate climate and slow, moist spring, the spring-flowering plants actually extend through early, middle, and late embodiments, a fact that can be marshalled by gardeners to prolong a sequence of effects for daffodils, tulips, quince and lilacs that extends their floral effects for a longer season. I was unaware of this potential for floral differentiation after growing up in Ontario, where spring comes all in a rush and things flower simultaneously rather than in distinct sequence. The tulip shown below is in the middle-to-late part of tulip-time on this site, helping push the season into a fifth or perhaps even a sixth week of species-flowering. This time some purplish hints in an indistinct background enhance the delicate pink of the tulip flower. To botanize a bit, we are playing around with varieties to express species-effects.

Tulip flower thrown into relief against a distant background

Another thing I enjoy exploring in plants-as-subjects is the vast array of impressions transmitted over the course of their flowering and finishing, from first appearance to full-on flourishing and even, for some plants, so far as their beauty in running to seed. Below, an annual lunaria has set large seeds that are just discernible within translucent pods, shown while the plant is still alive, yet not that long before it expires and begins bleaching to fall grey. Lunaria, known commonly as 'honesty' in England, is also called 'money plant' in Asia, and 'silver dollars' in the USA. The latter two names refer to its thin, dried seed pods having a somewhat coin-like appearance. In 1884, Van Gogh painted a lovely still life of honesty's bleached pods in a vase with other floral elements surrounding it, but they are not made to resemble coins in his rendering.

Lunaria has set its seed in coin-shaped pods

Camas lilies are native to our slender peninsula on Southern Vancouver Island, a key landscape signifier in spring's slow, spectacular flourish. The quintessential meadow flower, camas thrust up dramatically under the native Garry oaks before leafing out, seeming to appear from nowhere (as bulbs do) sometime between late March and early April, initially strikingly blue-tinged as the blooms appear, but running towards a purple effect as the petals burst open. The shot below captures this briefly blue moment, just before the floral explosion. I am particularly fond of these dramatic local lilies, reintroduced to a garden contrived in a setting of mature oaks. Camas under oaks are a vestige of the extensive coastal prairie once maintained by controlled burning of the underbrush by the Coast Salish peoples, the original inhabitants of Victoria and its environs. Ironically, it was this luxuriant spring flowering that caused the British explorers to first describe this first-nation-groomed coastal prairie as "a perfect Eden", never troubling to understand the role of human intention (or its utilitarian purpose) that caused this 'paradisial' effect.

Camas flowers before the turn to purple

Close up and still life both allow us to observe a cluster of objects, or a pattern made striking by angle and light, and catch them in a framed view with the camera. Each represents a distinct moment in time, frozen by the frame. I obviously enjoy this associating of objects through the lens, which is something that can be done equally well inside the house that animates the garden. The next still life composition catches an interesting combination of shapes, patterns and tones in filtered daylight, with the added complexity of reflection in a mirror. The gentle softness of indirect exterior light gives this shot its mellow, peaceful quality.

Mellow light for a cluster of objects intensified through reflection

Our house-and-garden duo furnishes many opportunities to frame scenic niches, and to catch the two elements in combination in changing lights. Because this 1913 house is panelled and comes with ceilings that are beamed or otherwise spatially divided, potential compositions based on isolating clustered details abound. This capability exists in part because eyes today are fully habituated to seeing photographs of fragments of things - parts taken to stand for the wholes they've been detached from - and yet still capable of invoking mood for the absent totality. We are able to enjoy even the discontinuity effected by the mechanism of the lens and the frame of the image, because our eyes are not much affected by the arbitrariness of its closure at the edges. We literally see our subject matter  photographically when we look into a picture.

Light and shadow effects as still-life

This house also receives a great deal of sunlight, due to its placement on a hill with many windows facing east, south and west. One effect is that the inside receives changing light throughout the course of a day, modifying the mood inside its interior spaces. This allows the framing of many views of patterns and clusters of objects, with scenic nature often glimpsed through windows as part of the scene. 

Recycled stained glass window, itself a still-life composition

Light through windows is endlessly fascinating to my eye, here a stained glass window seen from within a garden shed that's backlit by daylight. This window, one of a pair acquired by chance at auction many years before the shed crystallized, had a long life prior to landing in its current position, having been part of another building elsewhere. I bought these windows based on the fanciful thought that the rather art-deco flower theme would go well in a garden structure that I designed to be observed from the house. As I wasn't actively contemplating building one at that exact moment, it turned out to be a great choice when the idea actually could come to fruition. 

Cluster of chive flowers in an unearthed antique aspirin bottle

One day I was taken by the simple beauty of a some chive flowers in an old aspirin bottle viewed in fading afternoon light, against a backdrop of deco tile. The bottle was retrieved from a midden in the yard, which served as a final resting place for hard goods in the days before garbage collection in this locale, unearthed while turning over garden beds. The combination comprises a humble still life of found and grown objects, reflecting a bit of nature brought inside and placed in a piece of the inside world that was retrieved from outside by chance after having been tossed there decades prior (got that?).

Montbretia flowers bring a foretaste of autumn's fiery colour palette

Many garden still lifes or close ups convey a background sense of the season they represent - flowers flower in a particular window in the unfolding garden season and imply their place and time in the sequence of bloom. Even the quality of the light itself can be seasonally revealing. The picture above is of montbretia, which here flowers in later summer and prefigures the fall colour shift. However, seasonality can be made to play an even more explicit role in defining the overall composition. Below is an example of snow's presence truly defining a scene, in a rather sombre way here due to the dullness of the light on that day. This lack of punch in the light actually reinforces an abstract, monochrome quality, making the scene appear almost black and white (b+w photography amplifies lines of force and spatial presence in its renderings) but for a hint of mustardy yellow on the south face of the limbs and the terra cotta chimney intruding below.

Monochrome light, snow on oak limbs

Just as snow reliably conveys wintry conditions, fallen leaves signify autumn's decisive impact on plants. As the production of chlorophyll comes to an end, foliage-green gives way to underlying pigments masked during the growth phase. This picture to me catches the warmth of fall coloration and the sculpting of the leaf as it has dried out.

Nothing says autumn like fallen leaves, here big leaf maple

Freezing rain in winter can also lend dramatic impact to the appearance of plants, giving even contextual plantings renewed potential to serve as subjects for still life. Seeing the physical world through a glazed coating is visually astounding, rendering the ordinary elements of everyday life freshly intriguing to look at. The aftermath of freezing rain makes me want to go wandering in the wonderland of special effects, seeking after visual interest and knowing that I won't be disappointed (despite heightened personal risk). The next shot is of a clump of ornamental grass inclined under the weight of a thick coating of ice, a structure within a solid that's totally on view.

Freezing rain imprisons grass in translucent ice

The next shot, taken after the same ice storm, shows how universal the coating of frozen rain is, here emphasized on the thin strands of wire fencing. Brilliant sunshine reflecting from the glassy coating brings the ice right up to the eye, which notices the rolling quality of the horizontal wire (traces of the spool it came from) more than it otherwise might. I like the simplicity and relative peacefulness of this composition, which takes a moment to come into clear focus.

Page wire fencing coated with frozen rain emphasizing forms

One winter day I happened to be working in the back garden, collecting the debris shaken loose from trees during the latest winter windstorm. I was taken by the array of bits and pieces of lichen, mosses and funghi littered across the lawn, sometimes appearing on a single chunk of oak branch, and invoking the unique colour palette of these wet-season plants. So I pulled an assortment of random bits together on a garden bench, and from that derived the following shot as a creative clustering of this aerial debris. The picture frame 'notices' it by concentrating them into a group, something our eye wouldn't make appear in quite the same way without the isloation. I enjoy its shapes and colours immensely - the aquas especially.

Found among the debris downed by a winter storm: funghus and lichen assort

Many garden plants interact uniquely with their environment to create special effects. For example, seasoned gardeners often notice the particular way that rain pools on a foxglove's tubular flowers, forming distinct droplets as gravity gradually draws the moisture down to ground. Something about the flower seems almost to repel the water, forcing it to collect as droplets. You can almost feel it moving downwards despite being frozen into a still picture. These effects are transient, so if you're to catch them you need to keep your camera ready to hand. I like to garden that way myself, with the camera nearby. That way, if something suggests itself to the eye, or the light suddenly turns transcendent, the means of recording the passing effects are ready to hand. As often as not, that will simply become a still life composition. Or, is it just a close up? Or maybe a detail?

Raindrops clustering on foxglove flowers

My point is simply that even the humblest of gardens, say an assortment of pots on a deck or a terrace, offers the opportunity to render plants into such still life compositions. Van Gogh did it memorably with a cluster of picked flowers in a vase, a painting now famous that remained obscure in his lifetime  (as did virtually everything he painted), but must have given him intense satisfaction. Look around and you'll see these opportunities lying everywhere. Go ahead and compose. It's a way to preserve a fragment of the flow of time alive for future contemplation. And it's good fun.

Outside-in as spring: crocuses sport their captivating markings

Monday, November 21, 2016

Changing Impressions: Light In A Fall Garden

"Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up. What was is not and never again will be; what is is change." Edwin Way Teale

Noon light illuminates a panel of stained glass in the garden shed

We tend to think of our gardens as constants, as entities expressing a distinct character that persists from day to day. As gardeners, we work hard to create that sense of enduring character in our gardens. But within the garden's confines, and despite our efforts at ordering its space, change remains the norm. Change takes many shapes: growth and decay, additions and deletions, our deliberate plans skewed in turn by nature's hidden operations. But beyond these elemental forces another change agent is always at work, adding its transient touches from moment to moment, varying the way objects appear to our eye and the impression they leave. Time of day, season of the year and, above all, atmospheric conditions alter the light we see things in, affecting how gardens look and feel at any given moment. The sun's mobility, itself varying along a changing arc, modifies the light-yield of day and season, lengthening or shortening the shadows it casts, or dispensing with them entirely when it's overcast.

As gardeners who get to observe their charges in so many different lights, we come to appreciate subtle gradations that modify how the garden appears. Light structures the mood of the garden. The simple act of watching turns out to be an enjoyable experience that itself can be cultivated, even as our hands are busy with tasks. One looks forward to seeing how nature is going to reveal itself each day, especially when the signs at daybreak appear promising. As we grow into our gardens over the years, this practice of observing effects grows upon us, ultimately revealing itself as a practical way of actually living in the moment (as opposed to always living towards the future, not being in the present at all, which many now do). What better way to live in the moment than to observe its particular qualities as manifested by our immediate surroundings? One key to this is the perception that things actually do appear differently in different lights - and, that the way they appear affects their impact on us. Of course, we have to be able to pause long enough to notice them, and remain still long enough for an impression to register. If we can, then certain conditions will command our attention, and at special moments perhaps lead us to experience feelings of awe. This way of approaching light's effects mimics the turn taken by impressionism - recognizing that it's the light of the moment that renders the scene memorable. Viewed from this angle, daylight offers us a living theatre for garden viewing, one that can absolutely captivate the eye on very special days. Sometimes, when conditions are right, bearing witness to atmospheric changes is like having a front row seat at a show nature is conducting. On one such magical day in October, I decided to try and capture a succession of the light's changing effects throughout the day.

Changing impressions caused by the evolving daylight are there to be enjoyed during all our seasons, but fall is a special time. Certainly not every day is evocative in the way this day would show itself (some days display an enervating sameness of effect that drains a lot of the magic, especially, say, in a dreary November). Yet others, and those not infrequently with October's many mood swings here, generate absolutely memorable effects for whole days at a time. The photos below are from the third week of October in Victoria, in conditions that were ideal for this sort of garden watching: the observor available, a variety of atmospheric effects on offer, the day ultimately inducing a glow in everything. I was actually working inside that day, so available to the moments only from time to time - but the scene itself was always visible and thus immediately observable whenever I looked out. I hope the photos and text capture some of the engaging spectacle on display that day.

A misty start after a long night of fall rain, the garden drenched and green

The day dawned through a light mist, after a night of rain. The shot above catches the scene a little before nine o'clock. I'm working inside and looking out through the kitchen windows now and then. One effect of mist is a softening of things, as it diffuses the light and renders the air itself visible. I had a feeling this mist would dissolve fairly quickly into open sunlight, and was intrigued to watch this transition play out. I decided to record these early conditions, so I leaned out a kitchen window and brought the garden up closer with a telephoto lens. The mist in the shot below, while still thick enough to render the background details hazily, is already being infiltrated by fall's golden sunlight.

Similar angle, sun now starting to rise above the mist, fall colours flooding in

Morning mists occur periodically in fall and winter in our marine climate, which sees the jet stream push clouds and storms in off the Pacific Ocean and across the peninsula we inhabit. Mists and fogs are usually associated with an air mass that's come to a standstill, which we experience essentially as a motionless cloud sitting right against the land. This stillness and the shrouding effect of mist always adds an air of mystery to our surroundings (that is, if one isn't traveling in it). Apparently the physical phenomenon of fog is caused by temperature differentials triggering evaporation from land (or sea) to air, concentrated and compressed by inversion, whereby another air mass above it holds the mist in place. When this is the case, especially in parts of the year when the sun's arc is lower in the sky, solar energy has to penetrate the mist for longer before dissipating it. (In Vancouver's West End, fog coupled with inversion sometimes persists for days on end, enclosing the visible world to the point of claustrophobic surreality). Our mists and fogs sometimes blanket broad areas, at other times they are limited to lower-lying pockets of land, and at still others, they are sequestered over the straits, complicating navigation. To someone on land, settled in a secure location, the presence of mist adds ethereal effect to the landscape, especially as it gradually thins out and daylight breaks through. This was exactly the dynamic at work that day.

"Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst."  
                                                           Robert Frost, October


At this point I was beavering away at work and only occasionally glancing at the day's sights through the windows. Things, however, were moving along dynamically. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the light turned more lustrous and golden, and with it the fall palette of reds, yellows, oranges and browns leapt to the eye. Bright sunlight falling on a garden drenched with rain adds a kind of pulsing resplendence to the entire scene, at points seeming almost paradisialy splendid. Our fall sunshine is certainly brilliant, but not so intense as to quickly dry out the landscape, which means these Edenic impressions of verdure and vibrant colour go on and on. Through the flow of moments the surroundings are simply glowing with radiant energy. Check below how the fall colours are beginning to smolder as the sun's rays fully break through (there's now only the faintest hint of lingering mist in the distant background).

Suddenly the mist dissipates, sunlight grows dominant, and fall colours blaze

The sun's appearance renders the world into blocks of contrasty light and shade. Periodically I look up to notice that the shade line running across the back garden has retreated eastward as the sun rises further above the roof, bathing ever more of the ground plane in intense fall light.

Rising in the southeast, the sun casts angled light onto the oaks, lilacs and shed front

From my seat at the counter, our generously sized kitchen windows play the role of framing views that appear astonishingly rich and vibrant. The thought occurs how fortunate I am to have such direct visual access to the garden from inside a building, and how rare and unusual this degree of wall porosity actually is. Ample windows make walls seem semi-transparent, tipping the usual distancing effect towards one of connection. I quietly thank the building's designer for so creatively linking inside to outside, affording me a pleasurable sense of immediacy without leaving my seat.

View-framing window with scenic ensemble

Shade and shadow effects balance the sun's progressive illumination of the scene

Come break time, I stop working to make tea and then wander about to inspect the changing scenes framed through other windows. I am intrigued to try recording some more of these engaging impressions, rendered rather dreamily through the wavy lens of old glass.  It's towards eleven o'clock when the next photos are taken.

Window scene looking southwards across a tangle of shrubs

Mossy green limbs of Garry Oak, looking south-east through living room windows

After another work bout, I decide to head outside for a breath of fresh air and to sample the changing impressions from closer up. The day outside registers as awe-inspiring autumn at its entrancing best: echoes of summer's forceful energy tinged with the faintest hint of winter's approach in the sharpening plays of shadow and light. While the front garden (down slope) is now fully illuminated by high sun from the south, the back garden still shows large areas  locked in deep shadow. The contrast between zones is stark, the oak trees and garden furnishings casting intriguing, mobile shadow patterns into the sunny parts of the scene. The fact the sun is much lower in the sky during our fall equinox lengthens the shadows objects cast. There are also fewer hours of sunlight now, so the daily progression of changes is more compressed and rapid, sensitizing us to its movement. That shortening day, with its less intense solar energy, is what triggers the leaves to stop making chlorophyll, in turn prompting their gradual turn from lush green towards the fall colours. The sunlight however, while less intense, remains brilliant, but not in the blinding, colour-fading way of summer sunshine. Look at the shadows cast by oak limbs on the bay tree in the next photo, imparting a slightly whimsical quality to the scene.

Brilliant sunlight coupled with deep shade effects and sharp shadow lines

High overhead, bathed in full sunlight, a tableau of moss and lichen covers the oak limbs like a shaggy carpet. This secretive world returns to visible life when fall rains swell its array of inhabitants back to prominence. As I observe them now, glowing in this glorious sunlight light after soaking rain, the thought occurs that as gardeners we really should be cultivating this world of plants more consciously for their subtle seasonal effects. While they may be a little lost in the colour-orgy of autumn, by November their presence will assert itself in welcome ways. I'm reminded again of what that canny gardener Sir Francis Bacon counseled so long ago now: "there ought to be gardens for all months in the year, in which, severally, things of beauty may be in season". Here on our suddenly wet west coast, mosses, lichen and their ilk should qualify for more attention in our fall gardens, as they are both beautiful and coming into season now.

An intriguing domain of lichen and mosses that recedes to a mere trace in summer

Come mid-day and a break for lunch, I'm briefly free again to observe the moment's changing impressions. The sun is now more fully overhead, the direction of its light gradually contracting the scene's shaded zones, shortening shadows and further scrambling their effects. At this time of year though, given the elevation of the house on a ridge, some parts of the scene do remain shaded throughout the entire day, emphatically so in the intense sunshine today. These effects, akin to a painter's chiaroscuro, are central to the magic and mystery of the season's changeable light.

Lilac's yellowing leaves through diamond shaped facets

Shadows contracting slowly, light intensifying elements of the composition

Fruiting shrubs display autumn reds and oranges, oak leaves echoed along the path

The afternoon segment of the sun's daily rotation brings subtle new effects in train. Moving into the southwest now, it casts sharply angled light from a gradually shifting direction. Come mid-afternoon, this shifting direction of light causes the garden to appear quite differently. Specific combinations of elements within the garden seem to beckon the eye at this point. For reasons I don't comprehend, the pictures are now virtually composing themselves. Perhaps this sort of light makes every possible scene into a picture.

Scenes seem to suggest themselves to the eye in this light

The tiny pink flowers between the oak and the 'glacial erratic' are invading cyclamen

As afternoon wears on, the changing sun angles continue to subtly modify scenic effects - I am shooting across the direction of sunlight in the next photo, so trees and shrubs appear back-lit, causing a glowing aura to appear along their edges.

Strong shadow line along the curve of boxwoods, golden aura edging tree limbs

Sense of peaceful repose, fall colours still glowing in the later afternoon sun

The sun is now fully into the southwest and descending quickly towards the horizon, but its rays still just clear the treed backdrop to reach deep into both front and back gardens.

Caramel leaves and mossy limbs through wavy glass

Lichen and moss backlit in later afternoon light from the southwest

From time to time throughout the day I've also noticed the earth's fall scent rising up with renewed freshness from recently moistened ground. This earthy redolence is perhaps amplified by my mucking about in flower beds at this time of year, digging out dwindling plants, mixing in fresh compost, and replanting ground with renewed hope. It's also conditioned by the exotic smell of the caramel-toned oak leaves brought down by the night's rainfall, now dried enough to again scrunch under foot.

Neighbouring maple smolders next to greens of box and bay

Near the end of a day's direct overhead light, the remaining rays take on an effect of liquid gold. Now about to slip behind the tall firs to the west and so become diffuse at twilight, the sun splashes a final play of golden light across the south wall of the house.

Last beams of golden light splash against the building as the sun descends in the west

This magical fall day would conclude with a long period of more indirect effects, which also commanded attention but which, at my skill level at least, are less susceptible to rendering effectively as photos. So, echoing the more abrupt way the sun disappears at day's end in fall, my photo-essay ends here too. My eyes were obviously beguiled by the day's effects, an experience I was open to despite my being occupied with my work. It afforded me the possibility of seeing and recording the garden light show as I observed it throughout the course of the day. 

Making oneself available to being engaged by such effects is apparently becoming harder for people today (many now becoming indifferent to their actual physical surroundings, other than as contexts for selfies). There is a clear preference for the distractions of the virtual world over the actual world's changeful appearances. I gather I'm rather old-fashioned in this regard, if anything trying to sharpen my sense of direct engagement with season and landscape from moment to moment. But I should acknowledge my own sleight of hand in this mode of presenting things, as I am in fact using images (hence employing a tool of the virtuality I was just lamenting) to try and convey the potential of being present in person to such effects. I leave it to you to judge whether that worked or not - my intention was to share my own garden in a way that reflects the day's effects and encourages further watching.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The moist-garden returns

Despite ending a growing year, fall's dramatic changes prefigure the next garden iteration

In most places in the Northern Hemisphere, November is an inhospitable month that signals the beginning of winter’s icy grip. But here in temperate Victoria, November marks the end of one garden year and the start of another, forcing complex transitions on both garden and gardener. The mood can be rather somber, as this is the debut of our wet winter, bringing stretches of showery overcast skies and periodic downpours. By week three in 2009, it had already dropped over twice the average November rainfall, and still it came down. The run of rainy-grey days can feel psychologically confining, a depressive start to the season of ‘affective disorder’ where mood tends to be a drag on initiative. Driven by shortening days with lessening light, gloom eats further into the meagre intensity of fading daylight hours. Feelings of hopelessness can take root if this continues without breaks. Some lucky ones decamp for sunnier climes. In the event of no reprieve, consolations simply must be actively sought out.

A fire burning gamely in the grate is far and away the best counter to any signs of cabin fever, but there are some consoling aspects to the rains themselves. One is the welcome sound they make at night: a soft drumming on the roof, metal downspouts gurgling audibly with the runoff. Such sounds cause sleep to come more readily, drive it deeper and make it last longer for those hunkered safely in dry houses. Cloudy skies also darken the night hours, holding circadian rhythms at bay far longer. After the short nights and early starts of summer, whose short-slept habits trail on into fall, sleep is finally sustained and restorative. In longer stretches of wet, an urge to hibernate and slow the pace of life affords a certain pleasure – if we allow ourselves to give in to it! And while November is very wet indeed, even its dampest iterations offer some clearings, with reassuring rainbows and occasional sunny patches. And at such moments, where sun suddenly appears and moss on the oaks glows appreciatively, one is immediately reminded that seasonal chores await attention and finds that the energy for tackling them often readily returns. Sunlight has that sort of effect on gardeners.

Subtle November lights bring out pastel-tinted skies in cool, moist landscapes

Rainfall from November to February delivers the bulk of Victoria’s annual water supply, stored in our Sooke Lake reservoir as run-off from the surrounding hills. But feeling put upon by rain and with so much yet to come down, gardeners aren’t the least concerned about water storage at this point in the year. We’ll be more grateful when suddenly we need water for plants wilting from drought, as happens so rapidly when our climate swings dry. For this moist coastal paradise we inhabit rests on a perennial climate paradox: the illusion of verdure in winter, cast abruptly aside as late spring turns dry and green grounds fade suddenly to buff. Drought takes hold quickly, some years as early as late April, then stretches deep into autumn before the land greens up again. Landscape veers from lush spring plain to baked summer prairie in what seems a blink. Grasses retreat deep into their roots and only reappear when the fall rains entice them back, often far into October.

Dry summer landscape pallette: wheatstraw and caramel share space with arborial greens

This wet-dry climate triggers abrupt changes in the landscape, requiring adaptations on the part of gardeners. Fall rains intensify throughout November and continue into December, typically our wettest month. Experientially though, November often feels wetter than December, as it tends to be less punctuated by periods of open sky (2013 turned out to be an anomaly, more like December). Grey, dreary November can send even seasoned residents packing, in search of sunnier days to offset the blahs induced by contracting daylight hours. Despite November greyness, the return of greenery to lawns and the lush mosses and striking funghi that adorn the Garry Oaks stun the viewer when sunshine returns to the landscape. The plant world glistening moistly in brilliant sunlight is captivating. Even a dreary November sees sunny breaks, due to our fortunate geographic position within the Olympic Mountains rainshadow. Combined with a marine climate that moderates winter effects and keeps us mostly free of snow most winters, the rainshadow effect delivers many more sunny stretches here than either Vancouver or Seattle see. 

Sunny breaks in dreary November bring fall plants to life, here dust lichen tracing mortar bands

Come wet, grey November our climate more resembles that of England, easily fooling us into believing that the English garden is our proper design inspiration. It’s a powerful illusion, comforting psychologically, but a complete misfit ecologically in the long dry season to come. Not surprisingly, many do strive to model gardens here on rhodos, azaleas, hydrangeas, hostas and other exotics that need year-round moisture to really thrive. This choice is often to the detriment of plants and the dismay of admirers come June, when green exits the landscape with jarring finality and moisture-loving foliage flags and yellows. 
Winter colours, here thickets of native Nootka Rose

Not so the native, drought-adapted trees, like oaks, firs, big-leaf maples and the exotic arbutus, nor their natural understory of snowberry, Oregon grape, Indian plum, Nootka rose and ocean spray, which form pleasing thickets wherever we allow them space. Some gardeners do succeed in making facsimiles of English garden borders work tolerably well, abetted by sufficient moisture and mulch to keep their plants from burning out. But this is a running challenge that takes tremendous investments of time and resources to meet. If I’ve learned anything in my decades in a Victoria garden, it’s to fight neither site nor climate by preferring exotic choices. I will always hanker after hydrangeas, but in this climate on this site, the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.

Berries add to the fall colour palette, warming the landscape

Yet, for five-to-seven months a year, depending upon seasonal variations, we do seem to be kith-and-kin of moist olde England and the traditional landscape park can seem a fitting Ur-garden. And this illusion intensifies in our moist coastal spring, which thanks to warm marine air comes early, advances exquisitely slowly, and in most years enables us to relish clear separation of the early, middle, and late varieties of many types of plants (among my favorites: quince, iris, lilac and peony, and simple versions of all the spring bulbs). This slow-release spring allows exceptional flowering complexity in our regional plant palette. Places that jump right into full spring from snowy winter, like my native Ontario, rarely see such a slowly unfolding panorama of blooms. 

Daffodils come early in spring, subject to adverse weather but reviving immediately it melts off

Early spring, daffodils, bergenia and quince provide flowering incidents in the greenery

And how England-like it is when the bulb clans launch their succession of cameo appearances, starting with aconites and inching into daffodils before going over-the-top in the colour-riot of tulips. Until end-April at least, occasionally as late as early June, we inhabit oak parklands carpeted in meadow flowers edged with shrubbery borders. Then ‘poof’, the grass suddenly dies, buff tones appear and we’re as bone-dry as southern California. This plunge, cold-turkey, into near-desert conditions is not for faint-hearted gardeners, and can only be countered by designing with more drought-tolerant plantings. There can be as many as six, and certainly not less than three and a half, months of parched conditions, during which many plants require watering regularly just to survive. On sites with thin, spare soils like mine, stunting is a possibility that stalks the garden. In such conditions it pays to minimize the number of plants needing their hands held day-to-day. Finally after the long months of dessication and watering, fresh rains effect our gradual return to greenery, culminating in these very November downpours just now weighing so heavily on my mood.

The dessicated landscape: beautiful, but not apt for gardening

November – hardly a promising garden month for getting outdoors – also sees the bulk of our annual leaf-fall on the wet coast. By end of week one in 2010, the Garry Oaks were already two-thirds finished shedding. By the end of week three, following several windy storms, they were pretty much done. Ditto 2013.  Individual specimens of sweet gum, big-leaf maple, and trembling aspen may hold their yellow, orange or crimson displays a while longer, but most leaves are down and carpeting lawns and beds, or piling up in wind-driven drifts in corners and crevices. This year there’s a bumper crop of deciduous leaves, courtesy of a long, moist, warm spring – a boon in the garden as leaves are the principal ingredient of fall compost that will be ready in time for dressing spring beds. But these same leaves can seem a bane when weather and lack of inclination prevent getting them cleared from the scene.

Towards end November, the oak leaves are all down and awaiting raking and composting

Twenty years ago the accepted wisdom here in Saanich was that you had no alternative but to burn the oak leaves. So fall typically gave rise to a prolonged period of mostly ineffectual burning –  or ‘smouldering’ to be more exact. People spent days on end stuffing paltry quantities of leaves into back-yard burners, only to release copious quantities of heavy grey smoke. It was widely held you couldn’t decompose oak leaves and that burning was the only effective means of disposal, belied by the choking results but mythically clung-to anyway. Wet leaves simply don’t burn well, period. Back then, many a November weekend was ruined by conditions far too smoky for working outside. Paradoxically and perversely, the few sunny times in a gloomy month were eclipsed by choking smoke.Today such fires are wisely banned in suburbia, there’s more knowledge of composting, and our enlightened municipality offers free curbside collection of piled leaves to anyone disinclined to work them on site. I myself rarely have spare leaves for Saanich’s pickup, but it’s a godsend for many!  To me it’s far too satisfying to return them as finished compost to waiting beds in early spring, and remarkably easy once you acquire the knack.

Saanich crew uses a leaf-vaccuum to collect all the leaves people push to the road edge

Recently, with weather fronts scrimmaging determinedly back and forth overhead, I felt frustrated by the gloomy persistence of showery overcast. Just at a point of despair, the clouds parted, sun appeared, and the idea of raking leaves moved from abstract burden to boon. Working outside, exposed to benign weather, on a productive task and at a congenial pace, to me offers a consummate enjoyment of gardening. Of course, nothing compares with a good outcome that evolves the overall composition. But everyday gardeners tend to see their creations more while beavering away at them than as the leisured observors of finished wholes described in garden books.  No matter, we finally get to be out in it, making it, enjoying the creative act of tweaking the next edition. 

Raking is a prelude to a more thorough pruning and tidying that brings out garden structure

Form re-emerges, the bones of the garden appear in sharper relief

The ground now is often too sodden for many garden activities – often the soil is simply too damp to work. Bulb planting and division for next spring’s early show have ideally been done long before it gets so wet. I say ‘ideally’ because I rarely get to this in a timely way, so find myself waiting and waiting for clear patches to drain soils sufficiently for planting, which hardly optimizes results. But raking leaves on wet lawns is far more feasible, so long as one has water-proof boots ready to hand. Duck boots with warm felt inserts are prized by wet-coast gardeners!

Moss that recedes to a brown rind in summer bulks up and returns to green with fall rains.

Spattered flecks of lichen
The return of the rains and lessening of sun intensity revives a plant realm that should be welcome in our gardens (if not on our roofs and lawns): a complex ecology of mosses, lichen and other plants that adds texture and subtle coloration to rock outcrops and tree limbs. Contracted to a mere rind for the long summer drought, moss is a sponge that bulks up quickly with rainfall while adding a unique aerial dimension to the return of greenery. Moss serves as a green backdrop for the emergence of tiny mushrooms and lichen, coating tree trunks and limbs with a glowing aura when sun immediately follows rain.  Powder or dust lichen appear as spattered flecks on oak trunks or spread themselves extensively on rock outcrops and stone walls, preferring spots that offer sun and damp in a vertical plane. These subtle plants add depth to the return of fall’s colour palette: aquas, greeny-blues, mustard yellows, burnt orange and off-white. They comprise a mysterious world involving complex and poorly understood dependencies with hidden algaes and molds, one I won’t pretend to understand but whose presence adds elegance and dimension to the fall/winter garden. If a garden offers them suitable habitat like rocks and Garry oaks, they will gradually occupy it as naturally as they do our wilder spaces.

Colonies of crepe-like funghi and lichen adorn moist specimen rocks

I’ve been known to select a rock with an embryonic lichen colony to place among new stones and confer a sense of belonging and long habitation to a new garden wall. There are over 1300 species of lichen identified in B.C., classified into orders by their form: dust, crust, scale, leaf, club, shrub and hair. Lichen proliferate widely in wilderness areas but have more difficulty surviving urban conditions. Suburban gardens with rock outcrops and native species are more amenable milieu to them. Because these plants exercise a subtle effect, they don’t leap to the eye with showy display but rather require a viewer’s discerning attention in order to be seen. Noticing algae, funghi, lichen and mosses is for me an active part of the return of ‘looking’ in fall – that facility of becoming able to see the garden anew and imagine fresh possibilities. Because these plants emerge at exactly the moment our deciduous trees are losing their annual growth and heading for winter dormancy, they embody a sense of fresh possibility and signal that the annual cycle is beginning once again. 

A strange world of plants that are extensive but are not erect or showy

Tidying and ordering the garden scene – however fleeting the effect in stormy November where the next event buffets and rearranges everything – brings visual clarity to our arrangements. One begins to see the garden anew, as if it were being inspirited once again, and from here one can again look forward and visualize how it will be come spring. For it’s against this backdrop that spring’s changes will pencil themselves gradually into the landscape. The garden’s bones – its paths, walls, steps and the plants used deliberately to shape spaces – come into sharper relief with the tidying and pruning, unified by the returning greenery. Garden objects made to recede by blankets of leaves and fall litter suddenly rise to the eye as context is restored. A feeling of repose and fitness returns to the scene.

The bones of the garden re-emerge after leaf-fall

Snow makes structure even more evident

Pruning is another activity awaiting rainless breaks. Some of summer’s departed luxuriance is yet to be pared back – shrubs like lavender, santolina, and rosemary all benefit from being pruned to shape, gaining in longevity what they lose in bulk; boxwood responds positively to a tightening of its form; spent flowers need to be removed and many perennials cut off at the soil. All this clipping and pruning effects a return of underlying structure, buried from spring on by waves of fresh growth and flowery exuberance, bringing simplicity back to the fore, which is further resolved by the return of green and the freshening of colour appreciation it begets.

Maple leaves edge a woodland path

Raking leaves stands as one of my absolute favourite ways of working in the fall garden. With deciduous trees it really cannot be avoided anyway, so we may as well learn to enjoy it. Raking lends itself to rhythmic movement, the tines of the rake sending swaths of leaves fluidly into lines and piles. A good metal rake is indispensable if one’s to get lost in the exercise. I see people awkwardly struggling to do this job with the rigid plastic rakes so common nowadays. No wonder they’d rather avoid it! Fighting the tool is never fun. Rigid plastic simply isn’t springy enough for this task, making it something more endured than enjoyed. If you have a plastic rake, ditch it right now and go find yourself a classic metal-headed, wood-handled rake. One with a spring across its back, to give you some twitch when you send the leaves towards your pile. Choose a width that fits the spaces you’ll be working in; too wide and you won’t find it convenient enough to use. A small hand rake is also useful for clearing beds and crevices. You’ll be amazed what a difference quality makes, how much more control over the action you develop, how much more gets done in a given time! With developing skills your metal rake will soon give you access to a workspace that’s known in artistic circles as ‘flow’. Flow is that coveted frame of mind where skills, purpose and ambient conditions come together to achieve outcome and provide enjoyment. The space known as flow can be cultivated, just like the garden itself. In time you’ll find yourself immersed in the activity, body and rake working as one, dancing the leaves along.

Leaf fall (sweet gum) coupled with fresh greens creates striking contrasts in the moist garden

The ultimate reward of raking is the store of raw material accumulated for fresh compost making. In clearer periods, I’ll moisten the caramel-coloured oak leaves with the hose, coat them lightly with damp soil and blend in the clippings from our fall tidying of beds and shrubberies. The wet soil scuffs the leaves, opening their surface for ready invasion of organisms and breakdown. This labour of compost-making is among the most satisfying and enjoyable a gardener knows – easy to do, but not to be hurried. Now it’s a matter of aligning your free time with breaks in the weather so compost can comfortably be worked up. Taking it slowly and methodically, establishing a rhythm with watering, mixing and piling, is the ideal way to make compost.

Mossy oak branches tinged with frost bathed in sun

Composting uses natural agents to break down organic materials. Because I don’t have the nitrogen-rich materials to create a hot compost (best for killing weed and other seeds and for breaking down the tougher materials), I’m building one that will work using the cooler forces of decomposition. I try to keep seeds out of it entirely, and not to inadvertently introduce plant roots that could re-establish themselves in the heap. My goal is to make a tempting hotel for worms and the many micro-organisms that will, over the ensuing months, consume every scrap of green kitchen and garden waste we care to mix in. Forget buying compost ‘starters’, they’re absolutely unnecessary. It’s a matter of getting the right ratio of green and brown materials, coupled with soil and moisture. You bias your pile via composition towards hot or cool; it’s a conscious choice with implications for who/what consumes the edibles on offer. Available nitrogen is the decisive determinant; if you have little, you are running a cold heap. Once made, your pile largely takes care of itself. You can make quite adequate compost heaps with just soil and carboniferous materials, adding the green component with kitchen scraps and garden clippings over time.

You can rely on your heaps to recycle everything from the kitchen that’s not fat, meat, or a dessert leftover. The trick is to establish the pile with a good balance of materials and moisture, making it a virtuous cycle. Then it’s ready to take as much green material as you care to throw into it, with only occasional forking-over. I feel that whether you do or don’t create a formal bin to contain your compost is a site- and person-specific choice. You can keep it as simple as building a pile directly on the ground, which is what we do. You may need to cover it with something to protect the nutrients from rain, but be careful that your cover doesn't tempt rodents to nest there! When it comes time to fork your heap over (a natural accelerant), a pile on the ground is the most convenient to deal with. Box and bin or drum structures make it more awkward to fork things over, mix and aerate. A pile accessible from all sides is most efficient, and can easily be remixed by forking it along a couple of feet. This is especially true when you have large volumes of material, like the leaves from dozens of Garry oaks.

Pacific Madrone's peeling bark layers glow cinammon-red when saturated in fall and winter

More time is spent raking and tidying in November than in compost making. As I rake along I often find myself contemplating the challenges and opportunities offered by the winter months. Hardest of all is the adaptation to shorter days and grey, wet conditions. Yet to say ‘grey’ is to sentence November to a kind of dreary monotony that belies the beauty revealed at particular moments. Grey light can indeed be cheerless and cold, but it can also convey monochrome subtleties to a discerning eye. It’s visually refreshing after summer’s busy colour competition to see the world in a more restrained palette. Unexpectedly, sunshine appears, and monochrome gives way to lush greenery set off by glistening fall berries, glowing mosses, or saturated barks.

A mossy oak with deeply fissured bark lends a sense of great age to a garden.

Cotoneaster and pyracantha are the main berrying plants in my bungalow garden and around the entire region, colouring up in cooler autumn weather. But many plants berry or hip, from roses and ornamental crabs to hawthorn and holly. The berry crop, though restrained compared with summer flowering, distantly echoes its abundance. Deep reds, oranges, and yellows predominate, but delightful cranberries, corals and burgundies also show against glistening greens. 

Late fall end of day light reduces the world to elemental composition

Fall is a subtle, melancholic, but quite beautiful time in a westcoast garden, a season that may well prompt reflection on life’s glories and mysteries, its short course and potential for renewal. One could call it the Buddhist season par excellence, because things are briefly in balance and awaiting change. Berries on shrubs are emissaries and tokens of the annual cycle of growth and decay and rebirth, themselves the vehicle of new life. They’re a reminder to creative gardeners of the possibilities of planning garden events to occur across four distinct seasons. And in many cases they form an invaluable food store for the over-wintering birds that descend on them in waves at various points.

Near-surreal redness glowing in a moment of brilliant November sunshine

Subtle colour harmonies between rock, leaves and berries, set up by a recent shower

Overall, wet fall returns a balance and simplicity to the garden that’s satisfying to contemplate. After relentless chasing of new growth in spring, and the ensuing retreat from heat in summer, fall offers a welcome return of feelings of repose in the garden. Repose might best be described as a placid, serene, and peaceful feeling that is highly esteemed by creative gardeners. It’s the opposite of loud, showy, bright, metallic, and harsh effects. Feelings of repose are amplified when garden choices feel as if they belong as placed, where harmony of relationship exists among elements. In fall, with feelings of repose rising, it becomes possible to think anew about garden designs, to reflect on the experience of the past year, and to slowly draw conclusions: what themes to emphasize, plants to replace, structures to create, or effects to amplify next year; to consider the bones and axes, the steps and stairs, along with the greens of spring as a backdrop to flowering incidents. The rub is simply that most of the changes one would like to effect can’t be made until soils drain sufficiently for easy working. But fall’s slackening rhythms predispose the mind to return to musing about what a garden could be, an integral part of creative engagement in designing and maintaining one. Finally there’s no rush to complete tasks (except for the leaves). How fine, if infrequent in harried lives, to curl up on a couch with a blazing fire and let a garden text loft the mind into imagining what might be next year. Briefly the would-be creative-gardener trumps the slave to garden tasks, and possibilities can be imagined anew. Some part of gardening involves dreaming and imagining what could be; fall turning wintry sees the return of that desire to conjure more definite ideas as to what the garden could become, to aspire to shape one’s own anew.

Even monochrome light in November has its beauty

Fall also portends a return to reading as further stimulus to imagining next year’s avant-garden. I find reading about gardens and plants nearly impossible in summer heats – particularly as garden labour reduces itself to the watering of specimens, dead-heading of plants, and the removal of spent materials to the compost staging area. Come fall the survival imperative governing summer can be forgotten, a most welcome evolution. Come fall, green spreads itself anew throughout the landscape. And with fresh green comes new imagining, conditioned by the current year’s experience, but leavened by the exotica of thoughts captured in books. I’ve been enjoying browsing several books this fall, but I’ll leave that side of it to a future posting. Meantime, I’ve got to pick the oak leaves out of my fish-bone cotoneasters, to prevent them creating habitat for webworms next spring! And after that, the compost heap awaits my attentions. 

Sure hope it doesn’t rain!