Tag Archive | South

My Sin and Pine Straw

IMG_0206 (800x533)Southerners do not dwell on their sins; they simply bury them in pine straw.

As I explained here, I was new to the culture and practice of pine straw when I moved to the South. When I was growing up in California, at least in my family, we didn’t spread any kind of mulch on the garden beds.  There were plants stuck in the ground, they got watered, and some grew while others didn’t.  Sometimes the leaves from the oak trees scattered on the beds.  And otherwise, there was just dirt.  If there was a patch where the gardener did not want to show dirt, that patch was planted in some kind of ground cover:  creeping myrtle, ivy, some sort of evergreen shrub, or lawn grass.

Since I have been an adult, though, I have followed the trends of my neighbors and carefully spread mulch on my flower beds.  Since I have lived here in the South, I have learned that, if pine straw is your material of choice, it has to be applied two or three times each year to really do its job.  Last Friday, I finally had a day clear in my calendar when I could provide the spring treatment for the beds in my back yard.

As I looked over my back yard, I saw plenty of my sins.  There were tree leaves everywhere; more fastidious gardeners would have carefully pulled them out or, God help us, used one of those leaf blowers favored by the lawn maintenance services and power-tool-hungry homeowners in my neighborhood.  The sound of those things rising above the fence line from dawn to dusk is more than just an annoying interruption to an otherwise peaceful suburban day; it rattles my brain to mush, so I walk around in a daze until the thing turns off and I can reconcile myself to my surroundings again.  I will not own a leaf blower, and I do not have the patience to collect the leaves by hand.  They stay where the trees left them, right on the flower beds.  But still, although I had good reasons to leave them undisturbed, their presence made the beds look a bit unkempt and me look a bit lazy.

And there were more sins.  Earlier that week, I knew I needed to add compost to the perennials in the back yard.  Since the bin which held the older compost was empty and the bin which holds the newer compost is still working its magic on our family’s apple cores and squash skins, I purchased bags of composted cow manure from the big box store (please don’t judge me).  I generously spread the richness around the base of my plants.  However, other than to make sure I was not burying the stems of my plants too deep in that rich humus, I saw no point in moving the leaves and the old pine straw around.  The microbes in the compost, which are what really bring the miracle of life to otherwise dead soil, would be just as happy if they had some organic matter to chew on as they made their way into the dirt.  So, I just layered the good stuff on top of whatever was there.

And I saw still more sins.  The shriveled and dried remains of last season’s leaves still clung to the bases of some plants.  The walking iris were particularly bad.  I tried just pulling on the dead leaves, hoping they had rotted at the bottom so they would come off easily, but no luck.  The alternative was to go down the whole row with a pair of scissors and remove the leaves one at a time, wrestling around the thick new growth to avoid accidental snips of the good leaves among which the flower stems should emerge any time now.  That sounded like too much fussiness for me, so I left them in place.

In other words, the place looked a mess.  Tree litter here and there, piles of decomposed cow poop showing around the base of my perennials, shriveled up old leaves competing for visual attention with new greenery.  And I just knew that, lurking under all of that, there were thousands of seeds of weeds just waiting until I turned my back to poke their devilish little green leaves where I didn’t want them.  Bless their hearts.

And then, I spread the pine straw.  I shook the needles and pulled them apart to let them weave themselves into a single layer, tucking them up close to the stems of the plants, so all the dirt and mess was hidden.  And then, when I stood back to look, immediately, everything looked even, without any undue variation in level, color, or texture.  I realized that I was looking at God’s grace.  The scattered signs of the inadequacy of my tools and my patience; the crap I spread all over the place, the evidence of my laziness, everything about me that was especially ugly; none of it was visible any more.  I know that the ugliness did not vanish; that’s not the way human inadequacy works.  But under the protective blanket of fresh straw, with time and thought and moisture, the ugliness will be changed.

Under God’s grace, our sin has a place, not to disappear, but to be transformed:  to decompose, to be consumed by the microbes, to be spread out by the force of the water, and finally, to work itself into the soil of our minds and souls.  And then, still under the cover of God’s grace, that sin transformed becomes useful in making beauty:  new roots penetrate to be fed by it, and new stems emerge from it.  Leaves unfurl and flowers bloom because all that ugly sin has been left in place to change and rot and make fertile ground.  Well, ground that is fertile for everything but the devilish little weeds; they are smothered by that same blanket of grace.

I finished the job, pulling the stray needles of pine off of the leaves of my plants, sweeping the wayward bits off of the lawn and patio with my shoe, and giving a little shower from my garden hose to the beds.  I filled the bird baths, put away my tools, sat down in my chair, and I sang a little doxology to myself:  praise God, from whom all blessings flow.


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The intersection of Third Street and Cedar Avenue in South Pittsburgh, TN, where the shootout took place.

My great-great grandfather, “Wash” Coppinger, was the well-respected Sheriff of Marion County, Tennessee, when he was the first one killed in the Christmas Shootout of 1927. The incident made the newspapers all over the country. The town of South Pittsburgh, where the gunfight happened, was caught up in a labor dispute between the owner of the factory which was the largest employer in town and his unionized workers. But, as is usually the case in these sorts of things, it was more complicated than that. Among the five other men killed that night was the man whom Wash had defeated in the election for Sheriff the year before.

When he got the call that he needed to respond to an incident that night, Wash took with him two deputies and his revolver. He left his revolver on the front seat of the car when he got out. One of his deputies was killed with him in the gunfight; the other waited in Wash’s car and got away unhurt. That deputy who survived was my great grandfather, Roy Beene, who had married the second-oldest of Wash’s seven daughters 28 years earlier.

After the killing, everyone in the county seemed to agree that the man most qualified to succeed Wash as Sheriff was his eldest son and Chief Deputy, Turner Coppinger. But somehow, Roy Beene got to keep the revolver. When Turner had completed a couple more terms as the Sheriff, he decided not to run again in the election in 1938, and threw his support to Jack Beene, his nephew and Roy’s eldest son. After his success in the election, Jack’s younger brother, M.C., moved his young family back to Marion County from California so he could take a job as a deputy. M.C. was my grandfather.

M.C. didn’t have a gun of his own, though, so his father let him have Wash’s revolver.  M.C. kept the gun after his law enforcement career ended when his brother did not win in the next election. Later, Jack made it clear that, if M.C. should ever want to part with the revolver, he would be happy to have it. At one point, though, M.C. lost the gun. When my dad pushed his father about what happened, he swore someone stole it; my dad thinks it just got lost somewhere along the way. Either way, it is gone.

Sheriff "Wash" Coppinger

Sheriff George Washington “Wash” Coppinger

When that gun was just a gun, Roy’s generous offer to let my Grandpa Beene have it made sense; the young man needed a gun to do his job, and no one was using that revolver. But by now, we have figured out that it was not just a gun. Because of who had carried it before, and because of the noteworthy way that he had died, that particular revolver had become an artifact. Like others in the family, I wish it had never been lost. I do not wish our family still had it because it was a gun. I wish we still had it because it was an artifact. Although I do not keep any guns in my house, I imagine taking it off of a high shelf and using it to tell my own child the story of his great-great-great grandfather: of the position of respect he held in his community, of the turmoil of labor relations in a small Southern town that aspired to be an industrial center in the early 20th century, and of what happens when people let political rivalries become personal vendettas. All of those seem like good things for my child to learn about as he grows up.

Why do we turn tools like that gun into artifacts? I wonder if we have come to see it as a tangible sign that the people in our family are important. Somehow, our lives would be more meaningful if we had an object to connect us to the meaning which Wash Coppinger’s life had. Somehow, it seems like the respect that his fellow citizens showed him would add to our self-respect, the honor with which he carried himself would make us more honorable, and the significance of his life and death would make our lives more significant. And even when an artifact like that gun evokes tragedy, then somehow possessing the artifact gives the owner a feeling that, in the way the owner lives, there is an opportunity to redeem that tragedy. And so, I would even be willing to make an exception to my distaste for the idea of keeping a gun in the house; it is a small price to pay for such a tangible sign of importance.

And I wonder, too, what is the alternative to craving artifacts to connect us with our history?  Are there other ways to evaluate the significance of our own lives, remind ourselves what it means to live respectably, and even redeem the sins of our parents?  Can we tell the stories anyway:  honest stories of people who did some good things, who made some mistakes, who participated in the events of the places which surrounded them, who allowed themselves to be swept up in the movements of the times in which they lived?  Can we learn whatever we can learn from our forebears without objects to connect us tangibly to them:  how to build up our communities, how to deal with the turmoil of our own times and places, how to show grace in ways that lead to peace instead of rivalry and murder of the bodies and spirits of the people we share this world with?  Or do we need our ancestors to give us that gun to serve as a tool once again, something which we can use to do the job we have to do?

Recently, we learned that the South Pittsburgh Historical Society and the Tennessee Historical Commission dedicated a historical marker in the center of downtown, near where the Christmas Shootout of 1927 took place, describing the incident. It is a nice sign telling the story of the labor dispute and political rivalries that swirled together to cause the tragedy, and it lists the names of all six men who were killed without making judgments about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I have photos of the sign now to show my child, and I hope to take him to see it for himself soon, so he can hear the story and learn whatever he can from it about honor and history and politics, about self-respect and significance and even redemption. But still, I wish I had something more tangible to show him.

The Extraordinary Power of Cold Air

IMG_9374 (2) (800x534)This week, I have been thinking about the extraordinary power of cold air.

When I lived up north, the cold air wasn’t so extraordinary because it was a part of everyday life for months at a time.  Most years, the air would first hit a freezing temperature sometime between mid-October and mid-November.  After that, there were only a few more weeks to clean the piles of leaves off of the driveway, to run the mulching mower over the lawn, to drain the hoses and put them safely in the back of the garage, to do whatever cleanup needed to be done in the flower beds, to empty the flower pots or find a place for them indoors, and to put away all of the other tools for working outside save the snow shovel.  Then, I would hole up in the house, and frankly, I am not sure what happened in the yard after that.  When the snow came, I would shovel.  When branches fell from the trees, I would drag them to anywhere convenient so they would be out of the way.  And I would wait; I would do no other tasks in the garden until the freezing temperatures had started to subside, in the daytime at least, and the sun began to burn hot enough to thaw the ground.

Because the ground would freeze solid.  I remember the first year we owned our little h0use in Boston.  I had decided to put in a perennial bed on the slope near the edge of the back yard.  It was near the end of March, and I was motivated by the new perennials which appeared in the garden departments at the big box stores.  They were premature but tempting, so I started to dig in the soil to make room for them.  After a time, I found that there were several hard spots.  Assuming them to be large rocks, I started to dig in front of them and behind them.  I hauled out the tall steel rod left in the tool shed by the previous owner before he died to try to pry them out.  Sometimes, I would discover that they were, in fact, large rocks.  But other times, after I loosened them, I would maneuver my hands around them to try to coax them out of the earth only to find that they were not stones at all.  They were chunks of soil which were still frozen solid after months of exposure to the cold air above them.

Here in the coastal south, by the grace of God, the soil never freezes.  But for a few days each year, for a few hours at a time, the air temperature drops below freezing.  And I think it is because it is so rare that I notice now the power of the cold air.  If it only dips briefly down to thirty degrees or so, not much happens; the leaves of some of the more tender cannas, hibiscus, lantana, or sage will shrivel and turn brown at the tips.  But if it gets below that, and particularly if it stays that cold for a few hours, the effect is far more dramatic.  Large leaves that had faced the sun all season long, strong enough to hold pools of water before channeling them toward thirsty roots, will become limp.  Thick stems which held those leaves high enough that I had to look up to them will collapse.  Flowers which had just emerged, especially vivid in their yellows and oranges and fuchsias and lavenders as if they were desperate to announce to the world what they can do to attract attention, will turn to a brown mush.

And all of that breadth and strength and beauty falls apart because of the power of cold air.  And even more remarkable is the power of the cold air is not in a scythe which cuts everything down; its power works microscopically.  The liquid inside the cells of the plants freezes, and as it does so, it expands.  It rips apart the walls of the cells.  I imagine that the tears are tiny at first, like something a small patch or a bit of hand stitching would fix right away.  But then, the tears lengthen, and more appear; the gaps grow wider, and eventually, the membranes just cannot handle any more pressure.  They shred, so that when the air turns warm again, the liquid thaws and there is nothing to hold it together any more.  It oozes and flows, and what was once a complex, sturdy structure has failed.  The whole mess is left vulnerable to bacteria and microbes, which consume what is left of those cells which had once held everything together so perfectly.

When I was just out of college, I worked in a community development organization in an inner city neighborhood in Portland, Oregon.  There were a number of neglected buildings in the neighborhood where I worked.  Those buildings had once been beautiful and functional; they had been people’s homes and businesses, they had been theaters and restaurants and apartments and markets.  Every once in a while, I would get to walk through one of them.  Often, they had signs of their former beauty and utility:  lovely carved wood banisters and moldings, dishes still on the shelves and upholstery still on the seats.  But they were collapsing, with holes in the roofs, gashes in the plaster walls, broken floorboards, and dust everywhere.

As I wandered through my yard this afternoon, I recognized my feelings; they reminded me of the way I felt when I toured those neglected old buildings.  Browning flower petals are scattered on my sidewalk like the tattered remains of an old carpet.  The leaves of my giant elephant ears evoke collapsed ceiling panels, stained brown with water damage long before they finally caved in.  The heap of whatever remains there are of my cemetery lily might as well be a pile of trash someone had long ago swept together and then left behind for someone else to clean up.  And the crisp, thin leaves of my variegated cannas I planted in front of the house stand there like exposed lathe boards whose plaster covering had long since crumbled.  The whole landscape is desolate, and anything that still stands high really needs to be cut down.

And it is all because of the power of cold air.  In the world of humans and animals, that power can have tragic consequences which speak of cruelty in injustice; the same thing that happens to the cells of plants happens to the cells of our bodies when they are exposed to the cold air.  But in my garden, where new shoots will rise and new leaves will unfurl with a magnificent power of their own when the spring comes, the power of cold air simply fascinates me.


It is finally autumn where I live.  Around here, autumn is a bit different than in other places.  When we lived up north, we could count on the air to turn chilly around Labor Day.  The leaves would turn yellow and red and brown and start falling soon after.  The first frost would come, sometimes accompanied by a bit of sloppy wet snow, in mid-to-late-October, and the lawn mower would be tucked away after it finished its work of mulching the leaves by the time the turkeys had their worst fears realized.  Around here, not only are things pushed back a bit by the sub-tropical climate, but there are even different signs to mark the change of season.  I first know fall is coming when the grass stops growing; that means the nighttime temperature consistently drops below 70 degrees.  The leaves fall gradually from the trees; the first ones come from the River Birch, which start cluttering the lawn in early October.  The non-native maple trees planted by the previous owner of this piece of land do not turn to brilliant reds and warm, rusty oranges until about Thanksgiving time, and my mulching mower does not gobble up the last of the white oak leaves until just before Christmas.  Although it is possible to have frost in Savannah as early as mid-October, we do not really expect it before November 15, and we sometimes get into December when the leaves on the annuals and perennials all turn to that greenish, brownish mush before they dry up and rot away.

While the signs of autumn are delayed around here, the flowers seem to know even now that summer is over.  The tropical perennials have not exactly stopped blooming, but the quality of their blooms seem to reflect their understanding that time is short.  I have noticed a vibrancy in the yellow and fuchsia of my lantana in the back yard that wasn’t there in the heat of August.  The yellows, oranges, and bloody reds of the hibiscus in the front near the mailbox have seemed more intense lately, too.  The yellow canna that is still blooming out there is different, though.  Instead of greater intensity, it has taken on an almost translucent quality, so that the lowering sun seems to make its petals glow with their light, dusty color.  Those petals are turning brown around their bottom edges even as new flowers spike out the tops.  Everything seems to understand that this is their last chance to put on a show before they go down to the dust.

I do not witness this season, and appreciate its beauty, without remembering an autumn wedding I attended a few years ago.  The bride and groom were in their late 60s or early 70s.  She had never been married; he was a widower.  They had known each other as young people, and I think they had even been in love, but circumstances had changed, and they had gone their separate ways.  They were both successful and self-sufficient; they had their homes paid off and their retirement savings stored safely away.  After his wife died, they found each other again, and they also found a connection which they each, for their own reasons, probably thought they would never find again.

And they purposely chose an autumn wedding.  They did not rush to the altar wearing the costumes of a young bride and groom getting married in the springtime, with their voluptuous off-the-shoulder white dresses or their strong, square-shouldered tuxedos.  Instead, they each walked in dressed with the dignity that was appropriate for the retired professionals they were:  the bride wearing a flowing crepe jacket over her dress in a muted yet vibrant lavender, and the groom wearing a suit in similarly muted colors that fit his body well.  They included music and readings of poetry in the ceremony which highlighted the realities of the season:  a time when flowers still bloom and branches still grow and life is still filled with water and sap and blood moving forcefully through stems and veins, but also a time when everything living seems to be aware that the frost is coming, and with it, the flowers and leaves will close up and the liquids will slow down and finally come to a stop.  We danced at the reception, and there was cake for them to feed each other, but it didn’t go late into the night, and the guests all understood when the bride had to sit down for a few minutes so her bad knee could rest.

The wedding was a beautiful celebration of the season of the year and the season of those two peoples’ lives and love.  They knew they will never have to rent a hall for their 50th wedding anniversary.  But they also giggled and smiled like two people in love, beginning their marriage together the way any bride and groom ought to.  Autumn is like that:  life isn’t over yet, but neither does it seem to roll out all the way to the horizon like it does in the springtime.  There is still plenty to celebrate, and plenty of energy left with which to celebrate, but there is also a wisdom and even a dignity which spring doesn’t have.  Life in autumn is experienced life; it is life which has seen flowers bloom and flowers fade, and watched leaves in bud and leaves which have fallen too soon, and felt the ups and downs of infestations and droughts and strong winds and driving rains.  Life in autumn is life which has endured.  And life in autumn knows fully that life will end, so it might as well have its fun and live its passions and show its color in whatever way it chooses, expectations and conventions and other judgments be damned.

I hear the wind of the late-season hurricane which is passing us by outside as I settle in with the first cup of hot tea I have brewed since last spring.  I know that the wind means more leaves will blow off the River Birch, sending them across my yard, across the neighbors’ yard, down the street, and across the marsh.  I hope I can find a way soon to photograph the flowers still blooming in a way that captures their vibrant colors and bold determination to show off in the crisp light of this season.  And I am grateful to God for the way that autumn bears witness to the full beauty of life.

Pine Straw

There are few times when I feel less like a true Southerner than when it is time to spread pine straw.  For those of you who are likewise not from around here, pine straw is really just pine needles, culled from the floor of southern pine forests or plantations.  It is tied into bales and shipped on trucks to nurseries and hardware stores, where it sells for about $3 a bale.  Gardeners and others who maintain landscapes purchase the pine straw and spread it as mulch in flower beds, around the bases of trees, and anywhere else we want to retain moisture and smother weeds.

For those of you who have never lived anywhere but the South, you should know that this is the only place I know where pine straw is harvested, baled, shipped, sold, and spread in this way.  When I lived in Boston, I had six pine trees on the hillside that was my back yard.  Needless to say, I had plenty of pine needles in that small, sloping yard.  Each spring, I would take my lawn rake and pull the pine needles off of the grass, the sidewalks, the flower beds, and the large rock outcropping which dominated my back yard.  Then, I would discreetly distribute those pine needles all over the hillside where I didn’t want to have to mow.  I went to great efforts to make sure that it looked like all of the pine needles just fell on that hillside; I didn’t want my neighbors to know that I was putting them there on purpose.  It’s not that I thought they looked bad; I was simply afraid they would note my laziness, because respectable people in neighborhoods in New England would rake their pine needles into piles, stuff them into those brown paper sacks for yard waste, and leave them at the curb to be hauled away.  Acceptable mulch for weed control and moisture retention in New England flower beds was shredded cedar or, if you were cheap, pine bark nuggets, purchased in bags at the local big box store.

Similarly, every time my mother visits me here in Georgia, she gently expresses her concern about the pine straw.  She was raised in western Montana, where they would spend a great deal of effort each year pulling the pine needles away from their flower beds and grass.  The belief  there, she said, was that the pine needles have too much acid in them, and leaving them in place will quickly kill your plants.  Her fear of pine straw seems to be visceral; no matter how many times I assure her that everyone here uses the pine straw around their flowers and vegetables, she cannot be persuaded that it is safe.  I just don’t bother explaining to her what the locals do with bacon grease.

When I first arrived in the South, I did not have the courage to use pine straw.  I dutifully drove to my local big box store (please don’t judge me), paid my $2 per two-cubic-foot bag, strained my back loading the bags of mulch into my car, and brought them home to spread around the flowers and weeds.  The bagged product they have here which most appealed to me is cypress mulch.  I was fine with my decision, even if it made me stand out on my block, where everyone else uses pine straw.  A couple of years into the enterprise, though, I read that groves of cypress trees in the swamps of the South are being leveled to satisfy the cravings of suburban homeowners for the inexpensive bags in the big box stores. Oops.

Since then, I have decided to take a “when in Rome” kind of approach to the pine straw.  I figure that the people whose families have lived here for generations, who have spread pine straw since they were knee high to the proverbial grasshopper, and who, in fact, have built a whole industry around the harvesting and distribution of pine straw, probably know what they are doing.  I would never say my mother is wrong, bless her heart; that would simply be bad manners.  But I have wondered if there may be something unique about the interaction between the pine trees and soil in western Montana which makes the pine needles more harmful to bedding plants.  And I certainly am not going to let the propriety of New England keep me from inexpensive, convenient methods of moisture retention and weed control, or at least I am not going to admit it publicly if I do.

So this morning, after pulling weeds and rearranging some bedding plants hastily planted at the end of a tiring day late last spring, I got in my car and drove to a locally-owned nursery, where I casually told the person behind the counter I wanted four bales of pine straw, as if I had been asking for such a novelty all my life.  After I paid, the kind lady hauled the bales off of the semi trailer where they have them stored, protected from the rain, and helped me stack them in the back of my car.  I drove home and started spreading the pine straw in the places where weeds had thrived earlier in the morning.  I have developed the technique for spreading the straw over the past couple of years, since I made the switch to using the local, renewable resource in my back yard.  You can’t just dump the pine straw in chunks; you have to pull it all apart and spread it out evenly.  Sometimes the best method is to step into your flower bed, take a clump of it in your hands and then start to rub your hands together, letting the needles fall freely on the ground.  Other times, you have to pull at it some.  In places where you need it more thickly distributed, you can go over the same area several times.  Where there are plants, it looks best if you gently clear the stray needles off the top leaves and then lift the bottom leaves and stuff it underneath with your hand.

As I was going through this process this afternoon, using methods I have learned only since moving to the South, I was thinking about my faith.  I realize I may not be fashionable in saying this, but I believe there are truths about God and our relationship with God which are universal.  But there are perspectives through which people see, understand, and live out those truths which are very local.  The way I learned to think about God when I was in seminary in New England is not the same as the way my neighbors and friends in Savannah think about God.  The way my mother began to interpret her experience of God when she was a college student in western Montana are not the same as the way people interpret their experience of God around here.  Around here, people of faith are not concerned about the same proprieties that concern people in New England.  Around here, there is something unique about the interaction of faith and daily life which help things grow differently than they grow in western Montana.

And I realized that my garden grows better because of my “when in Rome” approach to mulch, and likewise, my faith is made more robust by a similar openness to growing in the place where I am planted right now.  I find myself grateful to be able to develop techniques I never imagined I would use:  pulling apart clumps of assumptions, letting language that is new to me fall freely around me, going over new ideas again and again until they are thick inside of me, clearing off stray thoughts, and even stuffing some concepts away for a while until I need them in the future.  The whole process seems pretty effective in keeping the weeds in check and retaining the water which has been sprinkled over me.

Thanks be to God!


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.”