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Autumn3.jpgI’m sorry.  November is flying by on russet wings and still I have posted no photos of autumn color!  i meant to write about beautiful autumn foliage, but, with one thing or another, I never managed to get out of New York. So…the only thing to do was to head out to my garden in Brooklyn and take some leaf pictures at home.

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Autumn gardens have their own chaotic beauty of fallen leaves, brown spots, and jagged red vines.  Plus it has been warm this year so there are still plenty of flowers.

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However the queen of the garden, as always, is the ornamental Kwanzan cherry tree, which is nearly as beautiful covered in glowing yellow leaves as it is in summer wearing bright grass green…or even in spring when it is a lambent pink cloud.  I love that tree!

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This post is really the second half of yesterday’s snowstorm post. After I realized how pretty the snow in the backyard was, I decided to put on all my winter gear and walk around the neighborhood. For reasons which elude me entirely, I live in a really beautiful neighborhood (well, I know why I live here, I just don’t know how I continue to do so). The majority of the houses were built during the first twenty years of the twentieth century and they have an outstanding grace and style which modern houses lack in every way (although my landlord and I can both vouch that these magnificent old homes start to fall apart somewhat during prolonged cold weather).

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I am a painter rather than a photographer, but who wants to set up an easel in a billowing snowstorm? For that matter who wants to stand on the sidewalk to paint an elegant old house? Architectural paintings are not my métier as a fine artist! However today I think the monochromatic winter landscape helped smooth out some of my weaknesses as a photographer…

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Sadly, as always with my photography, I don’t feel like I really captured the dark beauty of the blizzard or the decrepit splendor of this part of Brooklyn. Still the pictures are worth looking at just to appreciate the lovely houses of Ditmas Park. Also, with any luck, we have said farewell to this sort of snowstorm for a good long time. Hopefully you are looking at these photos in the tropics or in June and the snow provides only a frisson of wintry intensity rather than weary resignation which all New Yorkers feel as the winter of 2014/2015 draws onward toward its conclusion.
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My Back Yard, March 5th, 2015

My Back Yard, March 5th, 2015

It’s March! As spring takes hold across the United States, I thought I would show some pictures of my garden as the first tender shoots begin to… argh! [indecorous remarks withheld by censors] Well, OK, it looks like winter is going to be here a bit longer. I guess it’s pretty in a cold majestic way, right? We can learn to live like this with no hope or resources…or does anybody maybe want to trek south like in “The Road” and build a New New York somewhere closer to Cuba?

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Winter Garden 3Well, anyway, here are some winter pictures of the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. I know it looks like something out of a darkly beautiful Russian fairytale, but I assure you, there is a dynamic city somewhere behind all of that snow and ice. We’ll check back on spring in a few weeks… In the meantime maybe read some Tolstoy and sacrifice some more sheep to the dark gods?

The street out front, March 05, 2015

The street out front, March 05, 2015

My garden in Brooklyn at the end of June.

My garden in Brooklyn at the end of June.

My summer garden looks a lot different this year for two reasons.  First of all, the hydrangea finally started blooming!  It has magnificent human head-sized blossoms the color of blueberry ice cream (or maybe I should say the color an alien gas-giant planet) and I love it.  I thought the poor thing was dead for a year and a half but now it is the centerpiece of the garden!  There is an allegory about hope in there somewhere.

The second big change is more disquieting.  In shade gardens, the best way to get a colorful ground cover is to plant impatiens—tiny jewel-like five petal flowers which easily grow into a dazzling multicolor carpet. Because they are cheap and hardy (and beautiful–despite what flower-snobs say), I usually carpet my beds with them.  But this year things went very, very wrong for impatiens.   A deadly strain of downy mildew has struck down happy little impatiens across the nation and beyond.   The pernicious fungus is named (Plasmopara obducens) and it has spread like an Old Testament plague through the United States and Great Britain (as painfully detailed in this excessively wordy NY Times article).  I bought a few flats of impatiens from the hardware store at the beginning of spring—but after that there were no more.  I fret that the little red and pink flowers could fall dead at any moment.

Vinca "Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry" (that doesn't get easier to write)

Vinca “Jams ‘N Jellies Blackberry” (that doesn’t get easier to write)

To make up for all of the coral and purple impatiens which I never got a chance to obtain, I bought a bright white New Guinea impatien (which you can’t see in the photo up there) and it is magnificent, however it was so expensive that I only bought one.  I filled up the remaining beds with weird purple-black vincas agonizingly named “jams ‘n jellies blackberry” (who comes up with these names?  Maybe the seed companies should hire some of my poet roommates).   The vincas are growing very slowly.  It is unclear if they will be able to set roots and flourish before the evil squirrels dig them all up.

New guinea impatiens are so pretty!

New guinea impatiens are so pretty!

So my garden is all ferns, Persian shields, caladiums, vincas, and lilies.  I am hopelessly drifting back towards Victorian England while the rest of the world is going all ahead towards ultra- cyber-hip-hop (which is represented in the garden by what exactly? picotee morning glories, track lighting, and giant aluminum cylinders maybe?).  Anyway I also planted some weird autumn plants—passionflower vines and toad lilies—so check back in late summer to see how those turn out!

Spring passes by so quickly. Only a little while ago I was looking out at the March ice and wistfully writing about the redbud tree, fervently wishing it would finally awaken in crimson blooms.  Now most of the glorious trees of spring have bloomed and their flowers have already fallen.  The cherry blossoms have come and gone. Summer is on its way with its roses, lilies, and foxgloves, but the trees have largely finished their majestic yearly display.  However “largely” does not mean entirely. Walking around my neighborhood this week I have noticed many beautiful shade trees covered with fountaining red blossoms.  Since New York City has been busily planting new specimens of every sort of tree, quite a few of these pretty mystery trees are still wearing plastic labels from the nursery (sometimes it is easy to practice dendrology in the city!).  It turns out this lovely tree goes by the unlovely common name “red horse chestnut.”

A Red Horse Chestnut Tree (Aseculus x carnea) in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

The red horse chestnut tree is not a chestnut tree at all: its name is due to the fact that the horse chestnuts and buckeyes (which comprise the Aesculus family) were once erroneously believed to be related to true chestnuts. The name Aesculus means “edible nuts”, but this name too is a misnomer: the nuts are slightly poisonous, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides.  In fact the red horse chestnut tree I noticed on my way to work this morning isn’t even a naturally occurring species of tree.  It is a cultivar between Aesculus hippocastanum, the common horse chestnut tree of Europe, and Aesculus pavia, the red buckeye or firecracker plant—a showy native shrub of the American south.

A Horse Chestnut Tree (Aesculus hippocastanum)

The Germans have long been fans of Aesculus pavia, the common horse chestnut tree, a large beautiful tree with spreading boughs and big white blossoms which appear in late spring.  In Bavaria the horse chestnut tree was planted above the underground storage caves and cellars where lagers were stored.  Brewers and beer enthusiasts once cut ice from ponds and rivers and kept it in these insulated shaded cells to cool the beer during summer (in fact lager means storage in German).  It is believed that Germans first hybridized their mighty horse chestnuts with the ornamental American buckeye shrubs to obtain a cultivar with the best aspects of both–presumably so the beer gardens would be even more pleasant in May thus making lager drinking even more delightful.  The first red horse chestnut trees seem to have appeared in Germany around 1820.

The Bavarian Beergarden (Otto Piltz, 1875)

Whatever the case, the red horse chestnut trees in my new neighborhood are certainly very beautiful right now.  I hope you have noticed that this miniature essay about horse chestnuts is really an elegy to this year’s fading spring.  It was a very lovely season and you only get to enjoy four score or so springs in your life (give or take a few dozen).   It is the merry month of May and summer is coming. Now it is time to go outside and sit beneath the horse chestnut trees of your garden and enjoy life with your friends and family.

Genieße das Leben ständig!
Du bist länger tot als lebendig!

(Constantly enjoy life!
You’re longer dead than alive!)

Flowers of the Red Horsechestnut Tree

So, it’s been a while since I put up a garden post.  The simple reason for this long omission is that I have moved (well also it was winter).  I had a delightful spring garden planted which I had hoped to showcase here–but the vicissitudes of the world intervened.  I have now moved from Park Slope (where no one who is not an investment banker can afford to dwell) to Ditmas Park, a diverse neighborhood of ramshackle Victorian mansions and elegant row houses. On this exodus, I took with me all of the plants that I could put in pots.  Naturally, spring plants do not like this sort of rough handling so mortality was high.  You should picture one of those cattle drives where, after great hardship and tremendous effort, only a few cattle are alive at the end. Um, except instead of rugged cowboys imagine me, and instead of shaggy longhorns picture tulips and daffodils [ed. Are you sure this metaphor holds up?]

Cherry Blossoms in my new back yard this spring

Anyway, the happy conclusion of all this is that my new garden is much more beautiful than the old one was. The ground is rich and fertile and, best of all, some ingenious landscaper from long ago planted a variety of gorgeous trees. This forethought provides the subject for this post, for the new garden features a Japanese flowering cherry tree, the undisputed emperor of ornamental trees.  The tree is old and huge.  It looms high above the two story house and spreads across three (or maybe four) lawns.

Hanami no en (Kunichika Toyohara, 1862, woodblock print)

Such trees are the central focus of spring festivities in Japan where “Hanami” festivals have involved viewing cherry blossoms and reflecting upon the nature of life (and drinking) since the Heian era.  Initially such flower parties were attended only by the imperial family, but the trend of festivals for sakura viewing was soon picked up by the samurai nobility.  The custom combined with the similar tradition of farmers who annually climbed up nearby mountains in springtime to have lunch under the blooming trees.  Soon Hamami was adopted by all classes in Japan as a time of drinking and feasting under the sakura trees.  Tokugawa Yoshimune, an eighteenth century shogun, arranged for the mass planting of cherry trees to encourage the tradition.

Today, the Hanami festival is the major annual spring festival in Japan.  A “blossom forecast” is carefully watched as people prepare their parties.  Then when the trees are blooming, the Japanese spread mats or tarps on the ground to drink and dine alfresco beneath the falling petals.  Of course many people are more interested in eating (and, more particularly, drinking) then enjoying even the most beautiful flowering trees. They are mocked as being “hana yori dango” (more interested in dumplings then flowers) and their drunken antics and passed out bodies are a major component of hanami time in Japan.

As you can see in the photos, the cherry tree at my new place is not the only tree blossoming in the back yard.  It is joined by a showy crabapple tree with deep pink buds and a flowering dogwood.  All of these beautiful trees mean that I’m back to shade gardening and my roses are living out front by the bustling street.

The Cherry Tree (foreground), the Flowering Crapabble, the Dogwood (pale green on the left) and some little white blossoming tree which belongs to the neighbors (right background)

I was bent on fully celebrating hanami with my friends. In the spirit of “hana yori dango” I had already thought out a menu of sake, dumplings, and grilled meats, but, due to a scheduling mischance, I will be on holiday in Los Angeles next week (which is a good problem to have). I have included photos of the initial blooms from my backyard but my roommate ensures me that the blossoms become even more fulsome as the whole tree morphs into a living pink cloud.  I suppose it is fitting that I am going to miss this peak bloom as sakura blossoms are an ancient and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life’s joys.  Indeed to the stoic Buddhist and Shinto faiths which have taken root in Japan, the blossoms are symbolic of the brevity, beauty, and fragile nature of life itself.

"Under the Cherry Blossoms" (by Kunisada, 1852): This could have been me!

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