Rediscovering Drawing

With this crummy weather, what is a gardener to do? One: go out there and slog through it all and be a noble sufferer. Two: rush out during the good moments: no rain, so snow, no hail, no sleet, no radical winds…Quick, NOW! Or three: hide in a tower-studio and draw pictures of flowers, vegetables, and fruit. I’ve chosen the last option. Last week, it was an artichoke, this week it’s an apple. A month ago it was home grown shallots.


Ilga's apple drawing

Today, I am going to be speaking less of gardens and more about “process.” As a background, once upon a time, long, long ago, I used to draw and paint. We’re talking twenty or more years ago. The many matters of life and work and even the love of gardening and my textile hobbies have taken me away from drawing. For the past several years, I have been saying (EACH year as a New Year’s resolution): I will work on botanical illustration this year. But then, I didn’t do it. The usual excuses came into play: too busy with the garden and events, I just don’t have time; I don’t have a place setup to do it; I can’t start yet ANOTHER project—all of the usual excuses.

Last year, I read about little cards that artists make to trade with other artists (a movement that started in Switzerland). What struck me was the size of these little pieces of art: 2.5 x 3.5 INCHES. That’s the size of a sports trading card. These miniscule bits of art are called: Artist Trading Cards (ATC’s). (You can go to Ebay or Google and search for ATC and ACEO (Art Card, Editions and Originals) in the Art category and you will find loads of “little” art for sale. There ARE purists who say that the point of ATC’s is NOT to sell them but to PERSONALLY trade them. That is not the discussion here.)

Ah-ha, I thought. This is something I can do. I can make a drawing or painting that is 2.5 x 3.5 inches with a minor commitment to materials or time. I was sure I could “squeeze” , a drawing or painting that is the size of a credit card into my day. And so, starting last February, that is what I did. I made a vow to make an ATC every day. Just ONE. At least until gardening season came upon us hot and heavy. I hesitate to show some of the early attempts. Though, I do think that it is instructive.

Ilga's early ATCs

A couple of weeks ago, I took a 2-day workshop in Portland given through the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon: Botanical Illustration. It was a short jaunt, a chance to visit with my friends in the area, AND go to Powell’s Books. I brought my “Sports Card” collection book (I think it’s for football cards or many baseball cards…very classy, blue plastic with sihouettes of sports guys on the cover). It contains my ATC’s….all 170 of them—from the beginning ….and BOY, can you see the progress.

So many people came up to me during the workshop and told me what an inspiration this was, making my little Art Cards, that I thought I would share this here. It CAN actually be applied to the garden as well. There ARE times, on this big place, where just walking out the door can be a discouraging experience. OMG, there are waist high weeds in the beds, dandelions growing through the cobble walkways, the roses look ragged, the lawn needs mowing, trees need planting, etc., etc. It CAN become overwhelming. Time to step back, make a “do-able” plan and then just start. We’ll “do” THIS half of the path today. THAT half tomorrow. One little chunk at a time. It IS surprising what can be accomplished in small steps.




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Random Thoughts of Spring

Color changes dramatically in plants, an obvious change is autumn foliage changes, but consider winter colors of sedums, saxifrages, bergenias and sempervivums, often very spectacular. Another consideration is the red growth on some trees and shrubs in the spring. These can be used to great advantage to show off blooms of another plant. Even the much maligned (in the Pacific Northwest) photinias!

I have read that the reason plants put out those dramatic red new leaves is to fool the predatory insect into thinking that it is dead. Apparently, many insects see red as black or dead…and pass on by rather than lay their eggs on something that is likely not to provide good vegetable lunches for the emerging larvae. On the one hand, I love learning things such as that. On the other hand, I am vaguely disquieted that it isn’t for MY enjoyment. We humans aren’t even a twinkle in the eye of that insect or anywhere in the periphery of that plant’s strategy. But, as they say, get over it and go out there and look around.

There is emergence in the air . There are the “snouts” of hostas and the ruffled petticoats of aquilegias tantalizing underfoot while overhead, the exquisite engineered buds of trees and shrubs are stretching and pushing their way into the new year. I am just struck dumb by the delicacy and precision of the buds on the Acer tegmentosum. Or the virtually antlered rhus branches….for all the world looking and feeling more animal than plant.

Acer tegmentosum buds

Though the pussy willows are distending, dusting their hairs with pollen (yellow on the gray pussies, dramatic red pollen on the black), the magnolia buds are still soft and will retain their fuzz until they burst into flower later this spring. The only magnolia in the garden currently bursting open its buds and showing an alluring bit of flower is “Wada’s Memory.” All the others are still being secretive and mum about the treasures they have to show.

Magnolia “Wada’s Memory”


There is such a pronounced switch in the seasons. Just as there is a day in September when you wake up in the morning and you know it’s fall…so it is in the spring: one day, you KNOW it’s spring. I was just reading a (rather silly—but archaically pleasant) book called: “Of Flowers and a Village” by Wilfred Blunt (1901-1987). The conceit is that a godfather is writing letters to a goddaughter during her convalescence in Scotland—mainly gossiping about his garden and the odd characters in his village. There are observations which redeem some small part of the time invested to read it. The one which comes to mind now is:

“This morning I woke to autumn—a warm autumn morning rather than the cool summer morning of yesterday. It’s like the difference between a fiddle and a ‘cello both playing middle C: the same note, but another quality.”

It’s something Mike and I comment on each year. TODAY it is autumn. TODAY it is spring. No matter that the temperatures are the same. This Sunday it turned to spring. Even though we have freezing temps this morning and a freakish snow on Saturday. Spring is most assuredly here, cold though it may be. With spring, however, comes the realization of how much work is out there to do…and also an assessment of the winter damage in the garden.

For those of your outside the Pacific Northwest area, we had (what we call) a hard winter. Now, by the standards of MOST of the continental USA, we live in a gardening paradise, but we are still assessing our damage in these parts. We had a spectacularly beautiful autumn last year…warm and colorful…70 degree days and 45 degree nights, just enough rain, but not too much—inspired me to put in an autumn photos button on our website.

Then, WHAMMO, in mid-December, we had a 16 degrees one night and it stayed FROZEN for well over a week. Wow! Hard on the people and the plants. Since then, we have had a record cold winter….and a pretty grim early spring. The hellebores are splendid and bulbs seem happy, but the hebes, eucalypts, loropetalums, pittosporums, and many other borderline plants may or may not have a future. We’ll have to see if it was root kill or just down to. I am sad about the eucalyptus trees. There is one with thin-willow-like leaves that looks pretty unlikely as well as the BEST scented one in our garden hasn’t a leaf on it.

Of course, though I may bemoan the losses right now, and swear that my days of “pushing the zone” are over: No more marginal plants. Yet, I KNOW, that next weekend when I go to the Rhododendron Species Garden sponsored plant sale, I will eye those eucalyptus, and think, maybe we should give hoheria or Erythrina x bidwillii another try, and touch the photos of the hedychium in the displays and think, what will autumn be like without their fragrance around the patio and that holboellia was just in too drafty a place. Sigh…. there we go again…pushing the limits, gauging the “warm spots” in the garden, crowding the southern walls and fences with “just maybe” plants. Just incorrigible, I guess.

Cunninghamia tree showing new growth

New growth on a cunninghamia.


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Pond Visitors

We only have a few ducks on the pond at this time of year. The geese have gone. It seems our geese are the kind that haven’t forgotten that they are supposed to fly south for the winter. With the extremely cold weather of these past few days, we have been keeping our fountain going continuously (usually, it’s on a timer for the daylight hours). This protects our koi by keeping the water from freezing solid across the top and diminishing their oxygen. The side-affect is that we are one of the few small bodies of water in our area that stays unfrozen on these especially cold nights. During the night, even with our precautions, the pond has a frozen edging. We go outside and see the ducks walking around on the ice in full view and plumage.

This morning, we had an added pleasure: a Eurasian widgeon and his mate were apparently traveling with a flock of the common American Widgeons. The distinctive Eurasian has a fine red head vs. our own who have green-banded eyes. Both communicate with soft whistles. They are nowhere near as noisy as the Mallards. Those guys tend to wake me up at sunrise during the spring and summer with wild bursts of quacking that sound as though they are laughing hysterically at their own jokes. The widgeons are congregating on the lawn west of the pond where the sun is melting the grass. They graze on land and dabble for pond weeds in the water.

I am still just learning about all the marvelous water fowl that come to visit. In the spring, we have seen the odd Wood Duck and its mate hanging around for a day or two as though checking out the real estate for a nesting site. We built a nest box and can only hope that they might take that into consideration some year. Other short term visitors have included American coots, Hooded Mergansers, and Horned Grebes (which always calls for a “where’s the camera???” clamour).

The big pond has brought us all sorts of delights over the seasons and years: an eagle “taking” a trout from the pond one summer afternoon, pairs of Cedar Waxwings that nest and hunt for insects around the pond, the kingfisher coming round for a look-see, or the Killdeer nesting in the labyrinth (Though the neighbor’s new cat has probably precluded THAT from happening again in the near future), or the Osprey hovering above the pond (while I cross my fingers that all the koi are down in the depths). Our previous pond was much more of a showcase for our koi, while this more unruly pond with all it’s weeds and debris is a showcase for wildlife. Here our koi disappear for weeks on end…with barely a glimpse or a spot of color on a cool day. But then a really warm day brings them out to sun themselves in the shallower water and we enjoy our “living jewels,” as they are called in Japan.

There are, of course, mammals that are attracted to the ponds as well. Raccoons footprints are evident in the mornings and bats seen in the evening sky. I imagine our little bats are hibernating somewhere warm now since the insect population is a bit sparse right now. A couple of years ago, a pair of coyotes found some dog marrow bones out on the lower lawns, We watched from our living room window, as they played “hockey” with the bones on the solidly frozen frog pond to the east of the house. There was definitely a “brave” one and a “wary” one….as they experimented with how far onto the pond they could venture.

Even though our thin coating of snow is disappearing in the drying winds, this whole week promises to be cold, so our eyes will be peeled for the occasional rare visitor. Meanwhile, it’s time to return to trimming the house with festivity.

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