Saturday, December 24, 2011

Decorate the Garden Gate

How to keep Santa's reindeer (and other deer) out of the vegetable garden?

A couple of years ago, i pushed 10-foot tall rebar poles into the ground beside my fence posts. Then i strung nylon twine between these tall, but slender, "fenceposts."

For the gate, i had the building supply store bend a 20-foot piece of rebar into a big upside-down U, 8 feet tall on each side and 4 feet wide at the top. Not until the second summer did the deer figure out that they could jump over the gate (and under the rebar) and munch their midnight snack in the garden.

What to do? I cut a shiny old Christmas garland into sections and hung them from the top of the rebar |¯|.

How do we keep our mental, verbal, and behavioral pests at bay? Mindfulness is our first and strongest deterrent.

First, we have to get to know that pesky thought, that nettlesome rejoinder, or that vexing action. Notice how the body feels just after your particular "pest" has appeared. No need to judge yourself; what's done is done. We are on the hunt, so we have to be stealthy--alert and calm.

When we finally see how our particular pest gains entry, then we will know how to strengthen our defenses. It may be something as fun and flowing as an old Christmas tree garland.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Winter Rallies

The first day of winter is feeling like the first day of spring. Temperatures in the 40s. Slightly muddy dirt roads. A dusting of wet snow that melts as soon as the sun hits it. Blue skies. Chickadees singing. Where am i? Out in the vegetable garden, picking bok choy, mizuna, and red Russian kale. Okay, and maybe some johnny-jump-up flowers for the salad :)

This is a winter like they have in the Pacific Northwest. Fall followed by a cold snap, maybe a dusting of snow, and then a spring that ever-so-slowly unwinds from the end of January into May. But here in the North Country, we do not have the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean. We are on the tail end of Alberta clippers, the winds that come racing down the plains, and the snow that is born out of the Great Lakes.

So far, winter is only teasing us with almost-cold and almost-snow.

As a hospice volunteer, i know that sometimes a dying person rallies when she knows her loved ones are coming from far away. All of a sudden, she looks pretty good, and maybe she's actually eating too. The loved ones think Maybe she's not on her deathbed, after all. But a day or two passes, the rally ends, and the dying person sinks, perhaps into a coma.

Winter is rallying now. She's looking very good. Haggard and barren, yes, but also somehow young.

Simply live this day.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Solstice Bonfire

My solstice party. It's always a task to move a convivial gathering out of our cozy candlelit house into winter coats and boots and down the driveway to the solstice bonfire.

This solstice day, rain began in mid-afternoon--a cold, raw rain--but the forecast showed a few breaks in the clouds. I kept my ear tuned to our metal roof, and at 6:45, after it had already been dark for 2 hours, the pitter-patter stopped.

The fire signs (2 Leos and 1 Sagittarius) dashed out of the house into the dark with paper, kindling, and matches. We didn't want the influence of any water signs (Pisces, Cancer, Scorpio), thank you very much.

Within minutes, the fire blazed, and we invited the rest of the party outdoors for smudging, pomegranates (a la Persephone), and anointing.

The solar year died this morning at 12:30 EST. Now the sun begins its long trek north again. The large brush pile, which became a corpse of glowing embers, also died. Meanwhile, we sang and talked for an hour outdoors before i felt the first raindrop, which died its raindrop death on my cheek, where it became running water.

Winter begins.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Extreme Darkness

Today is winter solstice--a day of extremes--the shortest day, the longest night. The year 2011 has slipped away, never to return. Our life is slipping away. One year: Gone.

Shall we take the hedonistic approach to "eat, drink, and be merry"? Shall we consume as much as our pocketbooks and consumer society will allow? Or does that wind up feeling like "empty calories"? Full of stuff, stuffing ourselves and our homes, yet oddly dissatisfied, oddly empty.

In the Buddha's time (and also in the Middle Ages), some people thought they could attain heaven by self-mortification.

These are the extremes: hedonism or self-mortification.

But let us consider The Middle Way, the way between extremisms, a path of moderation. In this time of extreme darkness, how might we practice the Middle Way between self-judgment ("I'm so bad.") and ego-tripping ("Look at me! Aren't I great!")?

"Be a lamp unto yourself," the Buddha said. In these days of darkness--external or internal--notice your inner light. Sit. Meditate--even if only for 5 minutes.
Notice the flicker of kindness in your heart. Fan that ember so that it glows throughout the front of your body. Spread that feeling of goodwill throughout the back of your body. Spread it through the right side of your body. Spread it through the left side of your body.
Sit. Feel the body filled with kindness.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Distress and Eustress

My gardening is reduced to puttering in my solarium, which is crowded with houseplants. Yesterday i took cuttings of a leggy coleus, and they are making an interesting "bouquet" in a glass of water while i wait for them to root.

Time to give several plants a "haircut" while i'm at it. Several plants are leggy from reaching for the distant sun.

Distress and eustress. Distress: the dissatisfaction of not gardening outdoors. Eustress: the stress of happiness, puttering with houseplants.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Heat Loss

The bare ground is freezing now. With no snow cover, the frost begins t sink into the earth. Water, though is still not frozen.

Heat recedes as the sun is veiled by a thin haze day after day. Nights are clear and crisp, the waning moon in sharp focus. Nighttime radiational cooling is not balanced by daytime radiatinal warming, so the cold is winning over heat loss.

Winter winds win. The body of earth gives up its heat. Do we think our own bodies are any different?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Frozen Roads

When i left home yesterday morning for a day-long retreat with Shinzen Young, the temperature was 36 degrees with a few flakes of misty snow. An hour north of here, the temperature dropped to 28, and the interstate turned into a skating rink. Then 30 miles later, the highway was simply wet, and i could resume traveling at 50-60 mph.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to the salt and sand trucks and to the state highway department, and to the taxes i pay for this convenience of clear roads.

Deep gratitude for these things that i take for granted.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Sun Has Gone Cold

The sun has gone cold. Standing outdoors in the sun no longer warms me, although we are having day after day of clear sunny weather. The sun rides low in the sky and casts long shadows all day long. Since i live in the woods, the bare branches of trees nearly always veil me from direct sun.

Eventually our bodies will go cold too. For the last 2 years of his life, my father had an unshakeable chill that kept him indoors. He, who had worked outdoors all his life, just could not stay warm. He was caged up in his house, longing to go run his horses.

The sun has gone cold and weak. I take a walk in the barren woods, searching for signs of life.

Friday, December 16, 2011

More from the Winter Garden

Since it was 50 degrees yesterday afternoon, i went to my community garden plot and pulled a few turnips. I also harvested the last 3 stalks of Brussels sprouts. And i cut my only flowering cabbage as a flower arrangement. Really! Isn't it amazing that the winter garden continues to feed and delight me?

Some of my friends signed up for a share of a winter CSA (community-supported agriculture) and are receiving bi-weekly bags of fresh winter veggies. Although the pickin's are slim in the winter garden, i find i am subsisting easily on what i find out there. If i go look, there is enough for the next meal. Fresh. Really, really local. And no oil is used to transport the vegetables or the vegetable-buyer (me).

One line from the Loving-Kindness (Metta) Sutta says:
"contented and easily satisfied...."

I am content with the offering of the winter garden and very well satisfied with a turnip-onion-garlic stew and some braised Brussels sprouts.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Baby Green Grass

Remember that 6-foot-deep trench that was dug through my white garden on October 19? Just beyond that garden the reseeded swath of lawn is now sprouting a peach fuzz of fine green grass. The baby grass loved the warmish weather that lasted through November. And now i have to trust that it will be warm enough this winter with its thin blanket of straw.

It's really quite amazing to watch impermanence in action. Lawn became a 6-foot-deep trench became squishy mud became reseeded with a layer of straw became fine green grass. Change happened dramatically and visually.

Our bodies, our senses, our feelings, and our minds change even faster, from second to second. Yet, last evening, when i had dinner with friends from Burma whom i had not seen in 5 years, the first thing we did was say, "You look the same. You haven't changed at all." But many changes have happened: a husband has died, a grandchild has been born.

Fine baby green grass grows on the grave of a loved one.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A "Dead" Poinsettia Blooms

My neighbor, Connie's poinsettia is blooming Wait! Let me tell you the story of Connie being away for 6 weeks last winter and coming home to find a dead-looking poinsettia by the sliding glass door in her basement. She just left it there and didn't water it. Not being one to declare a plant "Dead," she planted it in a corner of her vegetable garden in May. It sprouted leaves.

There it remained until the October frost warnings became dire. Connie dug it up the leafy poinsettia at the last minute and potted it. Of course, it went into transplant shock and dropped many of its leaves.

At the end of November, she cut the leafless 18-inch stems entirely back. Today she brought it upstairs from her cool basement. It's blooming because it has had 12 hours (more recently 14 hours) of darkness every night.

Sometimes we think we ought to just declare our meditation practice dead. Once upon a time, i suddenly stopped meditating, cold turkey, for 2 years. But the right conditions conspired to get me back on the cushion. One of them was Connie saying, "I'm so depressed we have to start meditating again." We had meditated together 18 years earlier, then stopped when she had children. Meditation may have looked dead in our lives, but we both knew the roots still had life in them. We planted ourselves together every morning for 20 minutes. Eventually Connie's depression lifted, and she re-bloomed into her life.

Even when it looks like the life has gone out of a plant--the right conditions--in the case of the poinsettia, not-watering, cool temperatures, and darkness--give birth to new green growth.

Monday, December 12, 2011


My amaryllis is blooming! This success comes after years of hit-and-miss results--mostly failures--with getting amaryllis to re-bloom.

OK. You buy an amaryllis. You plant it. It blooms. Then what?
You hide those wide green strappy leaves somewhere behind another plant. Then i take the amaryllis (and all my houseplants) outdoors for the summer.

I have tried:
1) leaving them in their pots, cutting back the foliage in September, taking the bulbs out of the pots, storing them in the basement, and replanting the bulbs in pots in November.

2) same as (1) except leaving the bulbs in their pots.

3) taking the bulbs out of their pots in May, planting the bulbs in the garden, digging them up in September, and letting them rest until November when i re-pot them.

4) same as (3) except repotting them in September.

My neighbor Cliff leaves his potted amaryllis on the window sill 365 days a year. He never cuts the foliage back. He waters it just like he waters all his other plants. The amaryllis reblooms every December. So i decided to proceed on the theory that amaryllis re-bloom when they become root-bound.

I bought 2 potted amaryllis at a plant sale at the library a year and a half ago. Last spring one of them bloomed, and now the other one is blooming. Success! I feel ecstatic.

Sometimes we really have to hunt for a solution in our meditation to find a meditation object that interests us enough to keep us alert and that will also lead us to tranquility.

Does watching the breath work for you?
If not, try hearing meditation.
If that doesn't particularly work, try watching sensations of the body.
If that doesn't work, try loving-kindness meditation.

You get the idea. My book, The Meditative Gardener, offers more than 100 guided meditations, contemplations, and investigations. Surely, you can find something in there that interests the mind sufficiently so that it settles down for a few minutes.

And then joy arises when our meditation blooms :)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Benefits of Kale

My cholesterol count has been high for several years. Every year, the nurse practitioner tells me, "Exercise. And watch your diet." Next year, same thing.

I've tried other people's remedies, such as red yeast rice or oatmeal with almonds, to no avail. This morning i read about the cholesterol-lowering ability of steamed kale. Steaming kale for 5 minutes makes it 42% as effective as a prescription drug.

I have 3 varieties of kale growing in my winter garden--red Russian, lacinato (or dinosaur), and redbor, a very curly red. Apparently my cholesterol-lowering Rx is standing right there in the garden.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Syzygy happened this morning--the lining up of 3 celestial bodies (sun, earth, moon) when the full moon occurred at 9:37 a.m. (Eastern time). On the West Coast, it was possible to see the rising sun at the same time as the setting moon in eclipse--the last lunar eclipse until 2014.

When we line up our intention with our action, then our karma follows us as surely as our own shadow.

Can you name one of your intentions? To live a good life? To be happy? To bring joy to others?

What action do you take to support your intention?

And what are your un-intentions? Perhaps you can think of an unintended consequence (a.k.a. karma).

Plant the seeds of your intentions, and notice what grows.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Coldest Days

December 9 begins the coldest 90 days of the year. The garden has been put to bed, but the ground is still not frozen. You can plant spring bulbs, which you can buy quite cheaply now. But no dilly-dallying about getting those daffodil bulbs into the ground. Buy and plant immediately, because we can never be sure when the window will close on this pre-winter interlude.

I have moved out the polar fleece jackets of autumn into winter wool coats. I wear woolen scarves or neck warmers every day now, as well as hats and aging gloves with tiny holes in them.

My brother turned 60 yesterday and lamented that 60 is old, and he doesn't want to be old. I see the 60s as the gift decade when you still have your health and are also freed from responsibilities so you can focus on your purpose and passion in life.

The old, cold season begins whether we want it or not. Let's enjoy it for as long as we can. After all, there are some gifts awaiting us a little later on in this season.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Feeding the Goldfish

The little fishpond in my patio garden is 4 feet wide. Since it is 3 feet deep, the fish live there all year long. The resident goldfish are Comets, which are reddish-orange, perhaps mixed with white, and Shibunkins, which are a calico mixture of black, white, and reddish-orange.

I stop feeding the goldfish when the water temperature goes below 45 degrees, usually in mid-October. At that temperature, the fish become quite logy. They look like they are on slow automatic-pilot, unable to dart about, even for food.

December has been unusually warm, and the water in the fishpond is 50 degrees, so i've fed the fish this week, but not every day because i don't want to over-stress their metabolism. Too much food will kill them. The directions say "as much as they will eat in 5 minutes," which isn't that much in cool weather.

Too much of a good thing also stresses us. When we see, feel, hear, smell, or eat something good, our automatic response is "More!" But more is not necessarily better. "More" is craving in disguise.

We are in the season of too much food and too much shopping. Slow down. Eat mindfully and shop mindfully.

Let's think more thoughts of peace, goodwill, and joy and fill up on those :)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Abundance of Watercress

I picked watercress yesterday. In 2 minutes, i filled up a 5-gallon bucket.

Now for the sorting. I pinch off the top one-third of green leaves on stems and compost the remaining stem and yellowing leaves. I am separating green from yellow, separating a preponderance of leaves from the stem, which happily roots on any damp surface.

The Buddha suggests we separate wholesome from unwholesome. Just for today, imagine you are putting your skillful thoughts, words, and actions in one pile, and your unskillful thoughts, words, and actions in another pile.

Uh-uh-uh. No fair beating yourself up for having unskillful/unwholesome thoughts and actions. We are playing the part of an impartial observer here. Oh! Isn't that interesting? We are acting as a referee and calling the move "fair" or "foul" from a balanced viewpoint.
Apply the scientific method; be curious. How did that happen? What happened just before that unwholesome/unskillful thought, word, or action appeared?

Meanwhile, i have about 3 gallons of watercress stems to go into the compost. This quantity of green being added to the mostly brown (at this time of year) compost will hurry the composting process along. And that makes me smile.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Slug Season

Slugs are commonplace in the Pacific Northwest, where they may grow to be 6 inches long, but it's quite unusual for us in the North Country to be seeing slugs in December. They are hiding in the salad greens, the bok choy, and the watercress. I even saw one crossing the dirt road i live on.

One friend refuses to eat greens that a slug has crawled (and pooped) on. But i just spray the leaves with a jet of water to knock all the detritus off.

Here's a Meditation on a Slug from The Meditative Gardener:

The next time you find a slug or other creepy-crawler in your garden, notice the feeling of repulsion. If you can, notice where in the body that feeling of “Get it out of here” or “I don’t want to look” is located.

Notice if the mind has already headed into ways to deal with the slug problem. Stop.

Look at the slug again. Maybe even touch it.

Can you find the feeling of “unpleasant” that comes before the desire to get rid of the slug or move away from it? Can you find the feeling that comes before the mind gets busy?

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Present of Less Stress

We're leaving home the day after Christmas, so we got an early start to the holiday season by buying a 3-foot tall tree. It's smaller than my ficus, my banana plant, a palm, the hibiscus, and the bird of paradise. It's a tabletop tree with one string of lights, so that it will be really easy to de-decorate on Christmas Day.

On the one hand, i feel like my grandmother, whose holiday trees shrunk over the years to eventually fit on an end table beside the sofa. Am i really that old?

On the other hand, i am noticing a lack of stress. I set up the tree all by myself in about 5 minutes. Maybe i won't even open the big storage box of Christmas decorations.

Less stress. Now there's a Christmas present in the present moment!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Winter Leeks

Leeks are growing in my garden. I bought leek seedlings at the Farmers' Market in May and received a leek education. There are early leeks, and there are cold-hardy leeks. Since the garden produces more than enough food from July through October, i don't need anything else to harvest then. I'm looking for something for the late fall garden--like leeks. Siegfried leeks, to be specific. Now they are ready to harvest. I've just been waiting for inspiration and a special occasion.

What are we planting now in our lives that we can harvest later? Mindfulness of the present moment. Sweet and tender.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Baby Bok Choy-lets

Small baby bok choy are growing in the garden. While i wasn't looking, 2 or 3 went to seed, and now bok choy-lets are growing along the seed stalk, which has fallen over and is lying (and rooting?) on the ground.

When we grow sweet little qualities in our inner garden--friendliness, kindness, cheerfulness, self-compassion--we sometimes aren't paying attention when they go to seed and multiply. Then someone says, "You are so grateful for the blessings of your life."

Hmmm. Well, yes, i am. I am practicing taking no-thing for granted--not my sweetie, not my life, and not my checking account. They are here today, but that doesn't mean they will be here tomorrow. Sometimes, change happens very fast. For now, change is happening slowly, and i can pretend that my sweetie and i will grow old together and be comfortable in our retirement.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Salad Days

Strangely, we are in the salad days of the garden. Mizuna, mustard, and watercress grow in abundance along with one other nameless rosette of green.

Although we may think of early spring as an excellent time for greens, by late, late fall, a few of them have self-seeded and made themselves right at home. I add johnny-jump-up flowers to the salad as well.

Shakespeare says,
My salad days,
when i was green in judgment,
cold in blood....

Thinking back to our own salad days, we may have a shudder of shame, a twinge of remorse, a pang of regret--I can't believe i did that. Did i really say that? Oh, i was SO young. So naive. And so sure of myself.

Although psychology has given shame a bad rap, the Buddha praised shame and remorse as being the protectors of the world. The sort of shame, regret, or remorse that curbs our coldness toward other people and other creatures in this world protects all of us.

When we realize the effects of our actions and restrain ourselves for a moment, we are practicing wholesomeness and kindness toward others.

Meanwhile, the salad in the garden is green and cold and sharp to the tongue.