In the Garden:
Upper South
December, 2011
Regional Report

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The shiny black buds of slippery elm portend the spring to come.

Learning To See

No matter which holiday you celebrate, this is a sacred time of year for inner reflection and contemplation. Whatever your feelings about winter, each of the seasons help us to understand and appreciate the full cycle of life, and the darker season is a time of going within. Hopefully, you give yourself the gift of time to do that on a personal level, and I would also encourage you to do the same with your gardening life as well.

Fortunately, winter affords us time to read as well as think, and there is no small number of gardening books to help us in how we deal with our gardens. Some of us may be content with studying encyclopedic volumes, like the excellent books from Michael Dirr, Allan Armitage or William Cullina. Others of us may want to know more about specific subjects, such as succulents, water gardens, or native plants. For sheer pleasure, there are garden mystery books or the semi-autobiographical books of Beverly Nichols as he develops gardens and homes in 1930s England.

Two favorite styles of book for winter reading are either those of personal observations, like the classics from Henry Mitchell or Eleanor Perenyi, or books filled with essays of "fascinating facts," such as from Amy Stewart . There are hundreds of these from which to choose. Some of the most fascinating to read are from 75 years or more ago, either out-of-print and available through used-book sources or as reprinted volumes.

One particular book that combines these two genres caught my eye this fall. Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees (Timber Press, 2011, $29.95), by Nancy Ross Hugo with photography by Robert Llewellyn, helps us look at the ordinary with new eyes, no small feat and a lesson in and of itself.

Hugo first initiates us into observing traits of trees, including leaves, flowers and cones, fruit, buds and leaf scars, and bark and twigs. Then she focuses on ten familiar trees: American beech, American sycamore, black walnut, eastern red cedar, gingko, red maple, southern magnolia, tulip popular, white oak, and white pine. As Hugo writes, her profiles "...describe a process of discovery that can be applied to any tree with equally satisfying results." Her observations, along with Llewellyn's accompanying specialized close-up photography, beautifully encourages us to see the details in these trees, teaching us to discover "the small wonders in these massive plants."

Perhaps my pleasure with this book goes beyond its obvious attractions. Just, perchance, I may be maturing both as a gardener and as a person because I had already found myself planting more trees and observing them more closely. Earlier this fall, I became smitten by the beautiful black buds on a slippery elm near my house, a tree that had previously "just been there" to me. I am also planting more trees, much as my mother did up until she could no longer get outdoors. There is something comforting in marking time by watching how a tree grows from a skinny sapling to providing sheltering shade.

Recently, I stumbled upon a quote from the writings of John Muir. It, along with Hugo's book, will be my touchstones as I celebrate the season and reflect on my life in gardening. May you also find joy in the darkness of winter as we await the promised renewal of spring.

"Happy is the man to whom every tree is a friend -- who loves them, sympathizes with them in their lives in mountains and plain, in their brave struggles on barren rocks and windswept ridges, and in joyous, triumphant exuberance in fertile ravines and valley sheltered, waving their friendly branches, while we, fondling their shining plumage, rejoice with and feel the beauty and strength of their every attitude and gesture, the swirling surging of their lifeblood in every vein and cell. Great as they are and widespread their forests over the earth's continents and island, we may love them all and carry them about with us in our hearts."

John Muir


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