Tag Archive | Flowers


IMG_5194 (800x533)Calla lilies were one of the first flowers I loved.  When I was young, we would go two or three times a year on the four-hour trip to visit my Aunt Doris.  On the one hand, a trip to Aunt Doris’s house was something to look forward to.  She lives in a fascinating place:  in a cedar log house in the middle of a redwood forest on the side of a hill with a small creek at the bottom of the ravine.  There are even banana slugs there.  And she did everything you want an auntie to do:  she gave us little presents, she baked homemade cookies and pies, she shared her extensive collection of movies on videotape with us (it was the 1980s; this was high-tech), she let us help her as she fed the wild birds and squirrels which flocked to her deck, and she took us to interesting tourist spots or shopping centers or other fun places.

On the other hand, though, I was a teenager, and even in the most interesting and nurturing of places, I could find a way to be BORED!  One time, I started to look at the gardening catalogs in the basket next to her rocking chair.  Park Seed had the most varieties of flowers to read about.  Jackson & Perkins was fine, with good pictures, but a significant majority of their volume was dedicated to roses.  My mom already had roses, and they seemed kind of obvious and even old-fashioned.  But Wayside Gardens was the best; the photos on the pages of the catalog were larger and glossier, and there was hardly a variety listed that did not have an accompanying color-saturated photo along the outer margin of the same page.

I am not saying this was cool; I was BORED, you understand, so these were desperate times.  But after a while, I found myself looking forward to seeing what was new and different and exotic.  I was most drawn to those flowers with particularly striking colors or interesting shapes.  That is how I found the calla lilies.  They were just so fascinating.  The unique outer petal IMG_5656 (535x800)wrapped itself in a circle, but without symmetry.  It wasn’t a cup, like a tulip, and it wasn’t a trumpet, like an Asiatic lily.  It was more like a cape worn by the kind of gentleman who could ride a horse, draw a sword, and charm a lady, all without losing his dashing posture or wit.  The colors featured in the photographs were always stunning, too:  solid, bold hues of yellow, orange, purple, fuchsia, and white, with perhaps one or two varieties that gradually blushed from one color to another up the petals.  I have heard these catalogs described as pornography for gardeners, and as an adolescent, I was every bit as captivated by the beauty, the mystery, and the sensuality of those photos as I might have been by the other kind.

I am not sure why I never convinced my mother that we should order some of those calla lily specimens for our very own; perhaps I did not think they would do well in our yard, shaded as it was by four large oak trees.  But ever since I have been a homeowner, I have sought out calla lilies.  When we lived in Boston, I would carefully dig the rhizomes out of the ground each year after the first frost, dry them, store them through the cold season in my basement in a small crate lined with shredded newspaper, and then replace them in the front yard after the ground had thawed and the danger of frost was past. Although the flowers were lovely, the whole process felt like an awkward mix between an amateur scientist’s experiment and a fussy craftsperson’s new project.

Since we moved to the South, I do not have to fuss like that any more.  A few years ago, I smothered the grass around the mail box under several layers of wet newspaper and two or three inches of cypress mulch.  And one of the first things I planted in the resulting flower bed the following spring were some pink and yellow calla lilies I found at a local nursery.  I was thrilled, and I have continued to be thrilled every year since then as they thrust the tip of their first leaves above the rotting oak leaves in the early spring, unfurling them in a dramatic foreshadowing of the petals to come, then sending up their stems to reveal those gentlemanly capes of pink and yellow.

Well, almost thrilled.  A flower bed is never really perfectly arranged, is it?  Over time, the Mexican heather and gerbera daisies which alternate in a line between the calla lilies and the edge of the driveway have grown, spreading to crowd the calla lilies.  So last week, I decided it was time to dig up the bulbs of the calla lilies to move them three or four inches to the east, giving everything room to continue to grow.

And as I dug, I was amazed.  When I purchased the pink and yellow calla lilies, there were three or four stems growing in each pot.  Since they were already blooming, making them easier to sell at the nursery, I was careful to plant them without disturbing the roots any more than necessary.  And, of course, I had not seen anything of what was going on underground since then.  I suspected they had spread some, since the patches of leaves and flowers had increased in diameter each year.  But when I loosened the soil in my search for the rhizomes last week, I kept finding more and more and more.  In each place I dug, there were relatively large systems which included several nodules connected together, ready to produce multiple roots and stems in the coming weeks.  And there were even more independent little bulblets, each with its own small point on the top ready to push a tip through the rotting oak leaves and unfurl.  I kept sifting through the dirt, pulling out more and more, until I had two piles, one of the pink variety and one of the yellow, each with dozens of brown blobs ready to grow and bloom with my beloved calla lilies.

And I marveled for a few minutes about God’s abundance.  Our world was created as a place where, given the right conditions, beauty and joy can multiply over time.  Our world is a place where the asymmetrical, the dashing, and the fascinating can thrive and expand.  Our world rewards teenagers who are BORED, and homeowners who experiment and fuss, and gardeners who don’t have any idea what is happening under the oak leaves rotting on top of the ground.  Our world fosters growth by providing caring aunties, glossy photographs of bold hues, and flower beds that have to be rearranged every few years.  Our world never ceases to amaze me, and its Creator never ceases to deserve a doxology:  praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

I put the most complex systems of rhizomes back in the ground, alternating the pink and the yellow, in a line that is longer now, wrapping down the slope and around to the front of the mailbox.  I am not sure all of them will grow; the ground stays pretty wet as it gets closer to the street, so some of the roots might rot.  And the rest I potted this evening, reusing the cheap plastic containers from plants I have brought home from the nursery.  I watered them, and I will put them out in the sun tomorrow, hoping the tips of the leaves poke up in the next few weeks.  If these potted calla lilies grow, I will give them to the Windsor Forest Garden Club to put out at their annual plant sale at the end of next month.  Because calla lilies were one of the first flowers I loved, and I want to share the abundance of beauty and joy our world produces with others.

A Sucker for Beauty

IMG_0959 (602x800)I’m a sucker for beauty.  The other day, my wife and I stopped at the big box store (please don’t judge us) for a light bulb and a new number 2 to stick on the front of our mail box.  The old one fell off months ago, so we have been displaying to the world an incorrect address; we cannot have that any longer, particularly when the solution to the problem costs 58 cents.

I think my wife believes I cannot go to such a store without at least sauntering through the garden section.  She may not be wrong.  This time of year, I did not expect to see anything interesting in the garden section; they had the typical pansies, dianthus, stock, and other flowers in their vivid fuscias, pretty pinks, pure whites, and splashy purples.  In other places, these annuals appear in the spring, just before the last frost date, to be put out when the crocuses, tulips, grape hyacinths, and daffodils bloom.  Around here, the crocus, tulips, and grape hyacinths just rot in their holes because the weather never gets cold enough for them to work right, and the daffodils I have tried tend to come up early then wait to bloom until the weather gets too hot for them.  When I am lucky, and when I haven’t planted them too deeply, they flash their sunny glory for about a day or two, then they fade because it’s just too warm.  And, around here, the pansies, dianthus, stock, and other flowers are out all winter, embracing the occasional dip below 32 degrees not as a life-threatening crisis but as a refreshing break from the wilting 70s.

But then, as we wandered the aisles of early-blooming annuals, we saw an end cap overflowing with calla lilies.  They were in the colors calla lilies are known for.  There were the cheery yellows and the almost-blacks.  There were warm reds and oranges.  There was a purple color that faded to a creamy rim, and there was another solid purple, lighter than the others, but still rich in its tone.  And no one had tried to make the store display all neat and orderly, with the reds together with the reds, and the yellows with the yellows, and all of that.  All of the colors were mixed up together, with broad, green leaves stippled with white dots under the flowers to give them the heft that colors like that need.  They were like the photos of calla lilies in the catalogs which make us dream each winter of the warm days of the late spring to come.

And they all had that unique calla lily shape.  I think that is why I find flowers like callas and iris so appealing.  These are no daisies, with orderly petals evenly arranged around a center, although those flowers have their own beauty, too.  These are odd, asymmetrical, twisted, and wrapped in their form.  The single colorful petal wraps itself around the stamen like one of those old-fashioned woolen cloaks with no sleeves or buttons, IMG_0960 (699x800)which just hang from the wearer’s neck and shoulders and wrap him up in warmth.  I’ve always wanted to be able to wear a cloak like that, and I have always found the form of the calla lily to be beautiful.

A couple of days later, after worship on Sunday, I went back to the store to buy some of those calla lilies.  I had to have them.  And, of course, they wouldn’t look the same if I just bought one or two.  Part of the effect of the whole display was the great mix of all the colors.  So I bought six of them.  Yes, six.  It was utterly ridiculous.  They cost about $8 each, and I really shouldn’t be spending that kind of money on something as frivolous as flowers for my yard.  And more importantly, it is way too early for calla lilies here.  It is true that we are having an unusually mild winter.  The air temperature only dipped solidly below freezing one day, and that was just last week.  But we have another solid month with a good chance of a real cold spell, the kind that lasts three or four days, with the nighttime temperatures dipping in the 20s and the daytime barely making it over 45.  Calla lilies don’t tolerate that kind of weather.  The callas in my front yard usually don’t poke the pointy ends of their leaves out until the middle of March.  The labels on the calla lilies at the store said they were grown by an outfit in Miami.  And no wonder; fully-grown, blooming calla lilies have no place this far north in the middle of February, even in a mild year.

But I really wanted them, not because it was a reasonable decision, not because it made sense, but because they are beautiful, and I’m a sucker for beauty.  At many times in my life, that has been the best way for me to explain my faith, too.  I choose to see the world through the lens of faith because I’m a sucker for beauty.  Or, put another way, I believe in beauty.  Beauty has to be more powerful than anything else in the world.  At the end of it all, I expect that beauty will win, because beauty is so, well, beautiful.  There is just too much of it in the world.  The natural world is beautiful.  People are beautiful, not because all of our teeth are straight and our lips are adequately pouty or our lumps are smoothed over or our bulges fit into skinny jeans.  They aren’t, and they don’t.  People are beautiful because we are capable of appreciating beauty when we see it, and we are capable, too, of projecting beauty in our actions and words and our laughter and empathy.

Of course, there is plenty of ugliness in the world and in the people who populate it; please don’t dismiss me as naive.  But I look at the beauty of a display of calla lilies in the midst of the sparse, functional big-box gardening department, and I am struck by the mixed-up colors and wrapped-up petals and broad, stippled leaves adequate to back it all up.  And I wonder if I am gazing at “the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.”  Calla lilies are breathtakingly beautiful, so maybe beauty rules the world after all.  People can perceive and reflect beauty in unspeakable ways, so maybe beauty will win at the end of it all.  That is faith.

Although they cost more than I should have spent, and although they don’t really belong there, at least not right now, there are now six calla lilies planted in a circle around the bird bath in my back yard.  They are interspersed with the variegated vinca vine which I planted there last fall, which is right now responding to our mild winter by growing full-force toward the sky, ready to flop over and wind around in a thousand different directions as soon as it gets long enough.  It looks like the temperature will be dangerously near 32 degrees on Saturday night, so I might have to dig out an old sheet to cover them up.  Who knows; they may not even survive the spring.  But there they are, because I am a sucker for beauty.

Trampled Flowers and the Board of Pensions

IMG_1649 (800x533)As a Presbyterian minister, my pension and medical insurance is administered by the Presbyterian Church (USA) Board of Pensions.  The medical insurance which the Board provides is paid for through dues paid by congregations.  The dues for each congregation have always been calculated as a percentage of the pastor’s salary, and the same percentage of salary is assessed of all congregations who have a pastor.  Currently, the dues for medical insurance are 21%.  The congregations of pastors who have no spouses or children pay 21% of their pastors’ salaries for medical insurance.  The congregations with pastors who are married, have children, and have no other medical insurance for their families pay 21% of their pastors’ salaries for medical insurance.

This system is insurance the way it ought to be. It is based on values of shared resources, community support, and fairness. It means that both wealthy and poor congregations can provide good health insurance.  It means that both single pastors and pastors who have three or four or more children are able to serve where God calls them, rather than only where they can make enough money to pay for their health insurance.  But there is a problem:  the 21% dues are not enough to pay for this system.

Last fall, I received this announcement by e-mail from the Board of Pensions. Their Board of Directors had made a decision.  They considered the option of raising the dues which congregations pay to 25% of their pastors’ salaries, but they decided that such a dues rate is too high.  Instead, they decided to change the way the whole system operates, effective January 1, 2014.  Dues for congregations would be cut to 19% of their pastors’ salaries, but that amount would not provide medical insurance for the pastors’ spouses and children.  If pastors want their spouses covered, that would be extra.  And if they want their children covered, too, that would be even more.  As they have done all the calculations, we have learned that, while the congregation I serve will only save about $83 per month next year because of the lower dues, either the congregation or my family will have to come up with an extra $475 per month if my wife and son are going to continue to have medical insurance after January 1.

There have been plenty of responses to this proposal from all over the church.  In December, I sent my own letter to the Board of Directors expressing the reasons I think this is a horrible idea.  But the more I reflect on how I feel about the whole kerfluffle, the more I think about what happened in my front yard a year or two ago.

Near our mailbox, not far from the driveway, is one of those hard, plastic columns set up by the utility companies to tie all the houses in an average suburban neighborhood like ours into the systems for telephones, cable TV, and other such modern conveniences.  It is a light green color, about two and a half feet high, and between it and the mailbox, mowing out there was more of a chore than it needed to be. So one fall, I smothered the grass with cow manure, newspaper, and mulch, and by spring, I had a new bed ready for some flowers.  It is in the full sun all day, so I was ready to go all out:  some Black-Eyed-Susans to remind us of the bouquet my wife carried in our wedding; some Oriental Lilies, Calla Lilies, and Gerbera Daisies just because they are interesting and colorful and beautiful; some Hibiscus and Cannas to add a tropical flair; a “Cemetery Lily” which a friend gave to us; and other plants to add variety and texture.  These were all flowers I had wanted to grow ever since we moved here, but which had not found a place in the more established beds.  Now, they would all have a home.

A few months later, after the Oriental Lilies and Callas had bloomed their hearts out and taken their summer rest, and just when the Hibiscus and Cannas were coming into their prime, after a long week of negligence while something had come up at work, I went out to check on things in the new bed one weekend afternoon.  And I was horrified.  There were big boot prints in the middle of the flower bed.  The lily stems had been trampled.  The Cannas were bent and broken.  There was dirt scattered all over the place:  on the plants, on the mulch, on the driveway, and if I recall right, even on the mailbox.

It seems that a contractor had been sent by Comcast to do something with the wires in the plastic column in the middle of my flower bed. And he had made a decision to simply trample the flowers, scatter the dirt, and do what he needed to do without regard for what I might think.  He didn’t have to make that decision. I had always known that the utility companies would need to have access to the plastic column, and I had tried to keep things clear from behind. As plants had grown up around it, I knew some would even have to be removed for the utility workers to do their job. That contractor could have made the decision to knock on my door, explain his need to access the wires in the plastic column, and given us a chance to work together.  He would have been able to get his work done, and I could preserve as much of my flower bed as was reasonable. And at the end of it all, I would have been able to trust the utility companies to come on my property to do their work in the future.

And that is what I wish the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions had done, too.  I understand that the medical plan is spending more than it is taking in. I understand that some things will have to change, and those changes may mean more costs have to be shifted to our family or the congregation I serve. But they made this decision on their own instead of asking for ideas and preferences from the people most affected by the problems as well as the proposed solutions. And, as a result, I believe they have made a very bad decision. More importantly, I will have a hard time trusting them to make good decisions in the future.

I do not want to feel about the Board of Pensions the same way I feel about Comcast.  I do not want to believe that the Board of Pensions is only looking at their bottom line. I do not want to believe that they look at me as an object in a system they control, who will simply go along with their decisions, pay what they tell me to pay, and be grateful for their charity for offering medical insurance for me at all.  I want to believe that the Board of Pensions will work with the whole church to make good decisions.  I want to believe that the Board of Pensions will protect my interests as much as possible as they deal with the conundrums of rising medical costs. I want to believe they will seek to manage well a system of medical insurance the way medical insurance ought to be. I want to believe they will continue to live by the values of shared resources, of community support, and of fairness. I want to trust them.

But right now, that is not how I feel. In early March, the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions will meet at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, and at that meeting, they are scheduled to take a final vote on the proposed changes. I pray that their need for the trust of the church will be a part of their conversations. In other words, I pray that they think about knocking on my door before they just trample over the flowers.


I have learned since moving to coastal Georgia six years ago that the schedule of gardening is different here than the schedule up north.  When I lived in Boston, the annual rhythm was much like it is in other places in the US.  When the ground was reliably thawed in the spring, sometime between the end of March and the middle of April, perennials could go in the ground.  On Mother’s Day, annuals were planted, and with regular water, they would provide bright colors in the landscape all summer.  The summer was spent mowing, weeding, watering, deadheading, trimming, and doing other chores to keep things looking good; I have photos of Alstromeria, Calla Lilies, and Daylilies blooming in early July.  By late August, the fall flowers went in the ground:  chrysanthemum and aster, mostly, which provided the yellow, orange, and rust tones for jacket weather.  By late October, the first frost killed all of the annuals and told the perennials that it was time to go to sleep for the winter.  The mulching mower chopped up its last leaves by early November, and the only tasks left were cleaning up the skeletal remains of the plantings, storing the tender summer bulbs in the basement, and waiting for the snow.  December through March were the months for reading the reflective prose of all those gardening writers, looking through seed catalogs, planning for new beds to be carved out of the dirt deep under the snowdrifts, and for resting, too.  The only reason to spend significant time outside in the winter was to shovel or play in snow.

In the South, there are two seasons which keep the gardener inside.  As in other places, there is the cold of winter.  From mid-December, when the last leaves have fallen and the mowing and edging machines are parked in the garage for the last time, through late February, when the frost usually stops, there really isn’t so much to do in the garden beds.  Those are good weeks to stay in the heated indoors.

But summer is another time to stay inside around here.  It’s hot out there, so I haven’t really been spending any more time working outside than I have to.  When I do venture out there, it is to do only the most essential work, and then, I don’t do it more often than absolutely necessary.  I refuse to mow more than once every two weeks, and lately it has been more like three weeks between cuts of the grass.  The edging, a necessity with the spreading southern lawn grasses, only happens once a month or less.  When there are no thunderstorms to keep things green, I water the flower and vegetable beds twice each week, but I rely on the sprinkler system to get water anywhere else it needs to be.  This is the time of year when I usually give up on weeding; if there are enough weeds in any bed to take over, they just take over, and I put the spreading of mulch in that bed on the “To Do” list for fall or spring.

Otherwise, June, July and August are times to stay inside.  They are good months for more of that reading or planning.  A few weeks ago, on an afternoon when I was home alone, I started digging around the bird bath in the back yard.  For at least the past six years, it has been surrounded by a complicated mess of ivy, ferns, confederate jasmine, dollar weed, and some liriope gone wild.  A stray palmetto or two shot spikes up every few months, some acorns turned to small oak trees here and there, and one pine tree grew to be taller than me before I lopped it down last fall, leaving a stump behind.  To craft a more ordered bed out of the chaos out there will take some work, and my free afternoon seemed like a good time to start that work.

Big mistake.  I used my shovel to turn over the dirt and bury the weeds in about half of the space, a total of no more than twenty square feet, before I felt myself starting to feel woozy.  I don’t like feeling woozy, and I know that, given how much sweat was soaking my clothes, hair, face, and numerous other places, woozy was not a good sign.  I put the shovel back in its shed, headed into the air conditioning, got a drink of water and a shower, and pulled one of those books of reflective gardening prose off of the bookshelf.  And I haven’t been back out there since, even as the weeds are trying to heal the scar I left on their territory.

It has taken me several years to get used to this new schedule of gardening seasons.  But in this season of my life, I have found this new schedule to work well.  Because my son was born soon after we moved here.  Those first couple of years after he was born, any work that happened in my garden would be described as sporadic at best.  But then, he started going to various forms of preschool.  At first, he went two mornings each week, but then, about the time he turned four, he started going five mornings each week.  Since Friday is one of my days off of work, I suddenly found myself with time to work on projects in the yard.  Hallelujah, and pass the trowel!  I carved a new flower bed out of my lawn that year to celebrate.  Last year, he was in an all-day Pre-K program in the public schools, and things are looking better and better all the time out there.

During the summer, though, there is no school.  That reality makes this a convenient time for us to take a long vacation.  It also means that our church sponsors Vacation Bible School, and all three of us throw ourselves into the art projects, the songs, and the storytelling of our faith community for a full week.  We have found interesting camps and programs for our boy to attend the rest of the summer, just to keep everyone from getting bored, but those are half-day activities at most, and there just isn’t much time to putter in the garden.

But in this season, gardening is just not the thing to do.  Did I mention it’s hot out there?  The thing to do right now is to make sure I have some free time to go play in the pool with my son, or take a picnic supper and a toy bucket and shovel to the beach, or invite some friends over to put our Hot Wheels cars and moveable dinosaurs, not to mention our air conditioner, to good use.

The other day, as I was on my way from the air-conditioned house to turn on the air conditioning in the car, I stopped for a minute in the steamy air to look at a hibiscus blooming next to the driveway.  The hibiscus is one of the few flowers which blooms during the summer here, in spite of the heat and my negligence.  The flower was gorgeous.  The petals were a light orange color, not smooth in texture, but crepe-like and crinkled.  The center was a vivid red, like it was actually living blood, and it was surrounded by a narrow border of pink, almost white, separating it from the orange.  The stamen stuck up in that immodest way, with bright colors at the tip advertising its availability to passing bees and butterflies.

After a moment, as I started to feel the sweat forming on my face and under my t-shirt, I went on to the car.  There wasn’t much else to look at; the Alstromeria, Calla Lilies, and Daylilies lost their blooms weeks ago, and their leaves are looking a little withered by now.  But as much as I appreciated the beauty of that flower, I realized that the schedule of gardening in the South works well for me in this season of my life, when my boy is young and I get to be his daddy.

As the Teacher said, “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”