THE SEEDIEST PLACE ON EARTH

In the world before this one, the Master Gardeners in our area would organize field trips to visit nearby gardens and arboretums, or a group hike to see a rare flower in bloom. But when everything was covered in snow this February, the place to visit was the company that prepares the seeds we would plant come spring. Spouses were welcome, so my husband and I made the short drive to the far side of Asheville for a tour of the Eden Brothers Seed Warehouse where you can buy seeds by the packet or the pound. They call themselves, “The Seediest Place On Earth.”

Our last in-person class before the lockdown was a lesson on propagation that the instructors dubbed Sex In Your Garden, which is actually the title of a book. We learned there are two general types of propagation: sexual and asexual. Sexual propagation is the reproduction of plants by seeds.

For me, the most interesting part of the lesson was how seeds are dispersed. We mostly think of plants dropping their seeds nearby where they germinate and grow into a new plant. It happened in my garden when a seed of some variety landed in a pot of papyrus that was in our little pond last summer. I had stored the papyrus in the shed to overwinter – where it died by the way, but the seed survived and germinated. I planted it yesterday down by the street, although I’m still trying to decide exactly what it is. . .

Some plants have more clever ways to reproduce. For example, impatiens grow little curled capsules that build up tension as they develop so that when they finally dry out in early fall, they split and abruptly uncurl, flinging their seeds as far as possible from the parent plant.

Himalayan Balsam: Impatiens glandulifera. Seeds being shot out from “exploding” seed pod; Photography By Adrian Davies from the website Imaging the Invisible.com

Orchid seeds are described as “dust like” and are carried by the wind. Milkweed, poplar and, of course, dandelions also have hairy structures that encourage flight. Some plants produce buoyant seeds termed sea-beans or drift seeds because they float in rivers to the oceans and wash up on beaches.

Seeds are also carried around by animals. They attach themselves to fur or feathers, and then drop off down the road somewhere. Sometimes seeds are encapsulated in tasty, attractive fruit to encourage an animal to eat it. Once the seeds pass through the animal’s digestive tract they’re deposited through the animal’s waste. This sort of animal-dispersal strategy actually requires passage through the gut of an animal before they will germinate. At the risk of causing a boycott of these plants, cherries, tomatoes, and watermelon all follow this animal-dispersal strategy.

Ants are especially important in the dispersal of the seeds of plants like bloodroot, trilliums, and acacias. They carry the seeds back to their nest where they eat part of the seed, leaving the hard inedible part to germinate inside the nest or wherever the ant discards it outside the nest. The plants depend on the ants to disperse their seeds, while the ants depend on the plants’ seeds for food. If the numbers of one partner drop, it can reduce the success of the other. This happened in South Africa where the Argentine ant invaded and displaced the native ant species. The problem is that unlike the native ant, Argentine ants don’t collect or eat the seeds of the Mimetes cucullatus causing a dangerous decline of the plant in the areas the ants have invaded.

The Mimetes cucullatus plant in South Africa. Photo Courtesy: Thabo Maphisa / OperationWildflower.org

Seeds arrive at Eden Brothers Seed Warehouse from across the world in large bags where they’re divided into the small packets of seeds that we find at our local garden shops. One of the machines still used to automate this process dates to around 1910. While it was fascinating to learn how the seeds arrive and get sorted into all those packets, we were just as happy when the presentation ended because what we really wanted to do was shop.

The Master Gardening textbook claims, “Gardeners can save money and cultivate a rewarding hobby by saving seeds from plants in their own gardens.” Some day I am determined to give this a try, but there were so many seeds readily available at the warehouse. . .

We bought four varieties of sunflowers, red poppies, forget-me-not, everlasting pea seeds, and a quarter pound of wildflower seeds, and then spent the ensuing cold-weather weeks contemplating placement options. It’s hard enough to decide on a landscape design when you can see the plants in place, but take away the plants and it’s a pursuit of total imagery.

The Eden Brothers wildflower mix

When it was warm enough to plant, we literally tossed seeds everywhere. The sunflower seeds are by the fence where they can reach tall toward the sun, the wildflowers cover a big part of left field and a smaller section of right field, poppies surround a planter by my husband’s shed, everlasting peas are by the rock wall, and for the life of me I can’t even remember where I put the forget-me-nots. That’s probably apropos.

No wildflowers. Anywhere.

A few weeks ago I also ordered a thousand Marigold seeds to protect the garden. The directions suggested to plant two seeds per plant, so I spent a full day counting out a thousand seeds two at a time. By the end of the day I had run out of places to plant marigolds.

The really fun thing about shopping for seeds is that you can buy the specific plant you want – not just the ones at the garden center. The down side is that there’s not an ounce of instant gratification in planting seeds.

After several weeks of waiting, there’s tiny wildflower seeds popping up in left field, but none to be found in right field. There’s evidence all around of the marigolds, but not a single showing of the sunflowers or poppies. And I don’t even know where to look for the forget-me-nots. Half the garden seeds have sprouted, the other half definitely have not. None of this has deterred us, yet.

Russet potatoes, white potatoes, bok choy, green beans, red onions, sweet potatoes, and banana squash seeds should be arriving in the next few weeks to finish off our garden. And a thousand mixed-color yarrow seeds are on order to help attract even more beneficial insects.

Twenty-Twenty is the ‘Year of the Seed’ at my garden, which is now officially one of the seediest places on earth.

The Final Exam

After sixteen weeks of class, twenty quizzes, a weed research project, two field trips, a propagation experiment and oodles of self-study time, Master Gardening school is over. I loved every minute start to finish. It was thought provoking, eye opening, steeped in tradition and filled with personal nuance all at once. 

I was pretty sure the lessons on lawns, pesticides and vegetable gardening would have little use in my world. I prefer an organic garden – in fact, it gives me great pleasure to pull those weeds out by their gnarly necks, and there’s never been a desire to create a full-fledged vegetable garden, or have a lawn to mow.

But it was really fascinating to learn to read the pesticide labels. We spent almost an hour on a class project comparing the active ingredients of the major pesticide/insecticide brands, and figuring out what they will and will not do. Creating and maintaining a lawn is a work of art, and diagnosing its ailments could be nothing short of scientific.

We learned to identify the palates of particular insects and the dinner preferences of wildlife (moles eat meat, voles are vegetarians). I’ve already used the integrated pest management approach to rid my irises of those miserable little aphids by moving sage, oregano and peppermint nearby to mess with their aggravating little noses. I have a wealth of new knowledge inside my brain.

The final exam arrived two weeks ago by email. We were given one week to answer 50 questions and the whole thing was open-book. Success was only a matter of finding the exact answer written by an “acceptable” source – meaning that we are not to accept for fact anything that’s written on a gardening blog, or take for gospel the advice from your neighbor’s grandmother.

Some answers came easily; there were two that took several days. It took even more time to answer the question on treating Hemlock Woolly Adelgid because I have realized the Hemlocks at the back of our property and two by our neighbor’s house have this ailment, and I’ve spent hours re-reading everything.

This is a Hemlock on our property, and exactly what Hemlock Woolly Adelgid looks like.

I submitted my completed final exam to our instructor last Monday. On the first day of class, an official name-tag was promised for each volunteer who completes the course and passes the exam. I received the email a few days ago requesting my name-tag selection, so I assume I’ve passed the class. Which means, technically, I am now fully trained and properly prepared “to guide homeowners in making environmentally sound decisions in their landscapes” – even if I’m still unsure about making sound decisions in my own landscape.

Every rust spot, curled, dropped or spotted leaf sends me running for the textbook, and I’ve noticed more than a few million more insects than I ever knew occupied my garden. Then I’m in a panic to determine whether it’s a beneficial insect, or an invasive creature that should be terminated forever. Heaven forbid I kill the wrong insect. It’s exhausting.

And about that vegetable garden. 

My husband and I were having lunch one day last week when we rather abruptly decided to plant a vegetable garden. Maybe it’s because we’re not doing our own grocery shopping these days and you don’t always get exactly the selection you were hoping for, or maybe my fascination with gardening is rubbing off on him. But we’ve planned, talked about and negotiated the details of our little garden over a lunchtime planning session on most every day now for a solid week.

It was during our second lunchtime session that we decided on the list of seeds we’d order: broccoli, asparagus, radishes, spinach, romaine lettuce, mixed lettuce, green beans, russet potatoes, little red potatoes, sweet potatoes, bunching onions, cherry tomatoes, spaghetti squash, summer squash, banana pepper, cauliflower, bok choy – maybe we need more space.

The area behind my shed seemed to be the perfect spot, except that it does eliminate a major part of the area that Mr. Boggs prefers for doing his business in some sort of privacy – although now he seems to simply enjoy lying in the fresh soil. I’ve told him that we’re all sacrificing something these days.

If only we could grow toilet paper.

Breaking Out

It has seemed insensitive to write about everyday life when everyday life has been so disrupted for humans everywhere. My husband and I are in our fourth week of self-imposed lockdown. I do wish I had gotten my hair cut before we started, and I would have liked to shop the local garden center for spring plants just once, but we’ve survived fairly well just being on our own.

We’ve ordered groceries online twice, and tipped handsomely for home delivery. Last week I washed every item before putting it away, but we’re not sure whether this extra step will become a lasting habit. Some days I wonder if I really need to wear a bra, or put styling gel in my hair for every single day of this lockdown, although so far the answer has been yes to both. The only place I feel completely safe is in the shower, and the garden. There is not even the slightest inkling of lockdown in the garden.

The gym, coffee shop, ice cream parlor, playground, restaurants, and all indoor spaces in our neighborhood have closed. The trail around the lake became so congested that it was converted to a one-way course to help folks maintain proper distance. I’ve taken to walking the streets, which includes a fair amount of climbing since every street travels ever further up the mountain. I took this picture earlier this week on my way back down toward the lake.

Master Gardening school was cancelled, including the graduation ceremony planned for early May. We studied the chapters on small fruits and woody ornamentals on our own time, answering the quizzes by email as if nothing unusual was taking place all over the world. Then someone had the idea to video-conference class, and this week we held our class by ZOOM. I’ve never ZOOM’d; never even heard of ZOOM. Somehow we managed to not get ZOOMbombed in the process, and after three hours’ time we had covered lessons on garden vegetables, pests and weeds. Who would have thunk.

Three loads of mulch were delivered during the first week of lockdown. Some day I am determined to have a garden that doesn’t require so much mulch, but Mark and his guys had a lull in their schedule, and we were lucky to have their help for several days to toss that mulch all around. That’s when my husband decided we should also attack the wet and mucky side walkway. A flagstone path seemed to be the right answer, and there were just enough stones in one pallet to reach around the corner and all the way to the steps toward the upper yard. This narrow walkway is begging for an inspired design, and it’s high on my list of gardening projects.

During lockdown weeks two and three, things began to break out through the mulch seemingly overnight. The rose bushes, Montouk Daisies, and all the lavender plants have turned green. Unfurled fern fronds stand tall beside emerging hostas, and the trillium I salvaged the day excavation began last year has miraculously re-appeared. The climbing hydrangea have tiny buds in a subtle promise that blossom-laden vines will reach places far and wide in the weeks ahead.

The Creeping Jenny I indifferently stuck in the ground two years ago could very well take over the front garden this summer, and now I’m having second thoughts. I’ve pulled armfuls out and thrown it behind the shed where it can run amok. Perhaps one hundred years from now when Creeping Jenny has crept throughout the land, some irate gardener will trace its origins to my garden and wonder why on earth I would have done such a thing.

BARE ROOT TREES

Late last year I planted ten bare root trees from the Arbor Day Foundation, and surrounded them with protective covers. If you peek inside the cover, you can see they have developed little leaves, which is pretty exciting. This tiny tree is a Hawthorne.

BULB BEDS

I’ve searched everywhere for plants that will survive the underground spring in left field. Lilies were an easy answer, but the Elderberry apparently also tolerates some degree of wet feet, so I moved it just a few weeks ago to a moist spot above the rocks. It’s completely invisible in every photo, but there are signs of life with tiny leaves all over its spindly frame.

Last summer I had also added Cana Lilies to the spring area, but quickly changed my mind and moved them to the side yard. It didn’t matter. A few have returned after all, so I guess I’ll leave them alone this time. My dream is that some day this difficult area will become the focal point of my summer garden with bulbs blooming en masse.

A fellow gardener once told me that a gardener always sees what their garden can become rather than what it currently is. Case in point. . .

I can’t help but stare out the window and watch my garden grow. Every day there’s a new job to finish, a tender new plant to notice, or a grand idea to ponder. It still looks bleak in many ways, but I feel confident in its potential even still.

The daffodils were beautiful in the front this year, but I got busy and forgot to take a photo. Meanwhile, the day lilies have arrived in some multiples greater than last year, which will probably dictate a relocation project for later this fall.

I could write 500 words about the fascinating job of pruning, but I’ve finally learned the most important lesson of all: when not to prune. The Montouk Daisy is one of those woody ornamentals that prefers new growth on old wood. In the absence of my severe pruning, as in years past, it’s standing tall and strong for the first time.

Small clumps of viola grows all along the edges of the sidewalk where they faithfully return every year. Or, maybe they never leave.

There was a mystery bulb on the garden center clearance cart last summer priced at just $1, but the nice lady at the register dropped it in my shopping bag for free since no one could identify this strange bulb. A few weeks ago, it finally revealed itself. There’s an experienced gardener somewhere that recognizes this plant already, but I have yet to figure it out.

Another surprise came along on Monday in the mailbox. I had made a second small donation to the Arbor Day Foundation a few weeks ago, and they replied with thirty Ranunculus bulbs (buttercups). Hopefully I’ll remember all the places I’ve planted them, and hopefully they’ll look just like this picture.

Until next time, be well. My heart is with you all.

Test Your Knowledge on Woody Ornamentals:

1. What are the four types of vines? __________, __________, __________, __________

2. True or False: When planting a bailed and burlapped plant, leaving the burlap exposed above ground level provides an extra moisture reservoir.

3. What problems can occur with volcano mulching?

a. Tree roots can grow into the excessive layer of mulch.

b. Mulch too close to the trunk allows voles to access the tree to chew the bark.

c. Mulch touching the trunk may cause bark decay.

d. All of the above.

Answer key:

1. Clinging, Twining, Scrambler, Tendrils

2. False: exposed burlap will act as a “wick” pulling moisture away from the rootball.

3. All of the above.

Volcano Mulching:

MIND YOUR BUSINESS

I would have never thought a gardening class would begin with a presentation on spreadsheets. The old adage, “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth measuring” obviously covers more ground than I realized.

Jim is one of our instructors, one of the longest serving Master Gardener volunteers in our community, author of the “You Can Dig It” column in the local paper, and a retired chemical engineer; the latter of which may help explain things as we go along. He kicks off every class with a tip-of-the-day. Sometimes it’s a clever product that makes our gardening chores ever more efficient, a book that may prove invaluable to our future gardening careers, or a quick lesson on drip irrigation. I can’t think of a tip-of-the-day that I haven’t taken to heart, but the spreadsheets were surprising, maybe a little frightening.

TIP-OF-THE-DAY

The TubTrug was a tip-of-the-day because it’s lightweight and durable, but flexible enough that you can grab it by both handles with one hand; which means you can fill it with flowers, vegetables, weeds, or whatever, and still have one hand free to carry a tool. It comes in various sizes and colors.

The Home Gardener’s Problem Solver was written by ORTHO some time ago so the chemical recommendations are out of date, but the front is filled with pictures of common problems and a brief analysis to help diagnose almost any plant issue.

A quick internet search on ‘gardening spreadsheets’ reveals a gazillion different varieties. There’s spreadsheets for managing the budget for buying seeds, companion planting references, crop rotation tracking, formulas one might use to determine the size of your garden based on the number of people eating the vegetables, and spreadsheets to keep track of the seeds you’ve already bought. It’s the same kinds of things you might track if gardening is your business.

One of Jim’s spreadsheets identifies every gardening chore from pruning, weeding, and cutting down the dahlias to unhooking hoses, disconnecting headers, and moving the drip irrigation valves inside before winter. Another includes a full calendar year of fertilizing reminders, another lists all the plants that didn’t survive his garden, and yet another tracks daily rainfall totals. Jim also uses a spreadsheet to track dilutions for the major chemical products complete with a conversion rate based on the specific buckets and bottles he mixes them in. There’s more, but you get the gist.

courtesy: Jim Janke

Most gardening spreadsheets help organize rather than measure, but there’s plenty of things to measure in the garden, and sometimes the plants will do the measuring for us.

Seventeen years ago, the visibility in the area where I live was less than a mile. Ozone levels have improved significantly since that time, but it prompted the installation of ozone gardens in schools all around the area to educate our children about the effects of air quality and to teach them how to monitor air pollutants using native plants.

Ozone-sensitive plants reflect ozone damage on their leaves with tiny, evenly spaced purple to black dots, known as stippling. Eventually, the leaves will yellow, die and fall off. In this part of Western North Carolina, the cut-leaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), black-eyed Susan (Ridibeckia hirta), yellow crown beard (Verbesina occidentals) and common milkweed (Asciepias syriaca) are just a few of the native plants that are good indicator species for ozone gardens.


Ozone leaf damage occurs on the top of the leaf while the lower leaf is clear of symptoms. Photo Credit: handstheland.org

The National Park Service has compiled a list of plant species found within National Park boundaries that are known to have a negative response to high ozone exposure. You may find native plants for your area on this list, or you can even sign up to establish your garden as an official Ozone Garden at handsontheland.org.

If you are a spreadsheet kind of gardener – well, you probably already have your own spreadsheets. But if you’ve just entered my new mind-blowing world, maybe you’ll find some inspiration within the examples below. Happy Gardening. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Pinterest
Seed Organization for the Gardener With Too Many Seeds; courtesy northwest edible life
Courtesy: Walking In Chicago, Leah Ray
Courtesy: Jim Janke
Courtesy: Jim Janke

A community of volunteers measure precipitation across the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas every day. CoCoRaHS (pronounced KO-ko-rozz) is a grassroots volunteer network of backyard weather observers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow) in their local communities. Visit the CoCoRaHS website for more info or to volunteer.

Plant Lessons: a guide for humanity

If a flower contains both male and female reproductive parts, as some flowers do, it is said to be a perfect flower. Flowers that lack one of the reproductive structures, either the stamens or pistils, are known as imperfect flowers. An imperfect flower is also therefore, by definition, incomplete.

Some plants have just one flower; these are called solitary flowers. Others produce clusters of flowers. Scientists first thought flowers bloomed based on their exposure to light. Later they discovered that it’s not the light, but the uninterrupted darkness that triggers flowering – giving us the classification of short day, long day, or day-neutral plants. Day-neutral plants are indifferent to uninterrupted darkness. But some plants, petunias for example, don’t really fit any category because they’ll bloom in all different combinations of day lengths.

A lecture on botany in week two of Master Gardening school queued up a lecture the following week on diseases. Inga, our local expert on the topic, warned that most students wonder how plants survive at all after learning of all the diseases to which they may succumb. I was among them.

Inga made the point early on in her lecture that to identify a plant problem, you must first know what a healthy plant looks like. Some plant’s normal characteristics, or habits at certain stages of growth, can be similar to the symptoms of a disease. Diseases and symptoms of disease are plentiful nonetheless, including leaf spots, fruit rots, blights, fungi, too much moisture, not enough moisture, bacteria, viruses, the dreaded nematodes (tiny roundworms), and even mistletoe. On this note, Inga reminded us that although some diseases cause symptoms and the plant may not look perfect, not all diseases kill. You have to decide what you’re willing to tolerate in terms of appearance.

The lecture on disease was a natural segue to insects. Sam, who has his master’s degree in entomology, and proud owner of an insect collection, had more first-hand knowledge of bugs than I ever imagined possible. Of course, his first point was to remind us that just as soil is not called dirt, real gardeners know that insects are not bugs – although there are a few exceptions, naturally.

For every pound of human on earth, I have now learned there are approximately 300 pounds of insects. They thrive in more environments than any other group of animals, and they are among the oldest animals on earth. They live in the air, in the water, on top of the soil, and in the soil. There’s an estimated 100,000 different insect species in North America alone. By some estimates there are 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects on earth at any given time; a typical backyard contains 1,000 or more different species. I wish I didn’t know this.

Even so, the vast majority are harmless or even beneficial; less than 1% are considered pests. That sounds encouraging unless the 1,000 in your backyard are all part of that 1%. That’s highly unlikely in reality since pests have natural enemies, and the beneficial species help control at least some of the worst pests. In fact, insects and weeds are part of a natural ecosystem.

If you plant a garden or establish a grassy lawn, the natural process begins to re-establish a balance of native and non-native plants. The weed that takes hold in the lawn is the first stage in a sequence of events that, if allowed to continue, could eventually result in a forest. Cultivated plants are not nearly as competitive as our native plants, weeds and insects; cultivated plants survive only with the constant help and intervention of the gardener.

The wheel bug is the largest of the 150 or so species of assassin bugs, a predatory insect of great benefit to gardeners. (Photo by William Johnson)

Master Gardeners are taught that it’s not possible or even desireable to rid the garden of all pests. The best way to control the over-population of pests is to keep your plants healthy and reduce plant stress. Healthy plants tend to resist infestations by pests while plants with low vigor actually attract pests.

Remember, however, in a true ecosystem there is no such thing as pests. Only humans consider something a pest when it occurs where they are not wanted.

We’re taught to visit our gardens regularly to observe what’s going on. Know what to look for and intervene early with a strategy that’s economical, physically feasible, effective, and the least toxic.

If all this is true of plants, maybe it’s also true of humans.

Sometimes we prefer a solitary life while others prefer clusters of friends. There are morning people, night owls, and workaholics. Some folks don’t really fit any category because they’ll bloom no matter what their environment. We’re all vulnerable to disease from time to time, although much less so if we are healthy and stress-free. And an uninterrupted, good night’s sleep goes a long way to help us rejuvenate and produce our best blooms.

Sometimes our gardens seem to have been invaded by pests that threaten the balance of our environment. But what we call “pests” are actually part of a natural system at work. An ecosystem has no pests. Only humans consider something a pest when it occurs where they are not wanted.

Some of us are more competitive while others will require the constant help and intervention of a gardener. No human is perfect, and therefore, by definition, incomplete. The famous line, you complete me, comes to mind.

History suggests the best way to maintain a healthy ecosystem is to check in with each other regularly to observe what’s going on. Know what to look for and intervene early with a strategy that’s economical, physically feasible, effective, and the least toxic to each other – and our planet.

Test your knowledge:
Plants are categorized by their growth habits. These include:
A. Shrubs, trees, and ground covers;
B. Evergreen and herbaceous;
C. Annuals, biennials and perennials;
D. Monocots and dicots.
True or False: Fungicides kill fungi.
Which of the statements below is false?
A. It’s not possible (or even desirable) to rid gardens of all pests.
B. When you see a plant problem, the first thing to do is spray it according to the label
instructions.
C. Prevention is the first tool in pest management.
D. Misuse of pesticides can result in the pest evolving a resistance to that particular chemical.
E. All of the above statements are true.
True or False: The vast majority (>99%) of insects are considered harmless or beneficial.
Answer Key:
C. Annuals, biennials and perennials;
False: Fungicides slow down or prevent fungus attack; they do not kill the fungus directly.
B. When you see a plant problem, the first thing to do is spray it according to the label instructions. False: the first step is to identify the plant.
True

Life After Running

I can vouch that there is no good way to begin this topic after writing dozens of different openings over the past few months. I’ve reminded myself that athletes retire all the time, and it’s probably a difficult transition for all of us. But it seems especially difficult when your head is still in the game, and it’s only your body that has given up. At a time when there appears to be no limit to human endurance, it’s hard to accept that your body does indeed have its own independent limit.

I’ve been a runner since the early 90s. My son was in elementary school at the time, and now he’s thirty-six. I ran every morning with an inexpensive watch on my wrist to be sure I made it home in time to dress for work. And when I took a new job that required travel, I ran in beautiful and interesting cities all over the country.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunities to run in Italy, Spain, and Ireland; and on a treadmill in India where I watched the miles go by in kilometers for the first time. I experienced the horrible side effects of running at altitude when we first moved to Ecuador, and the excitement of running with an elite runner when I went to Africa. But the long runs here at home that followed the river down the mountain to the next town over where my husband met me at LuLu’s for lunch – those were my favorite runs.

Runners remember every race – the mood of the race, the course, every ache, pain and decision we make along the way, but it’s the places I remember most.

My husband encouraged me to run a 10k race in 2007. “It’s only six miles,” I remember him telling me. He realized it was actually 6.2 miles while he was waiting for me at the finish line. I found out when there was no finish line at the six-mile mark, and my lungs were already about to explode. The Chicago marathon followed a few months later, and that race changed everything. Training for marathons, recovering from marathons, planning for the next marathon, researching my injuries, researching new training plans, writing about injuries, writing about training – this became my favorite pastime.

The funny thing about following your passion is that if you go in too headstrong, according to some experts, you may crash and burn at the first sign of hardship. You have to ease your way into this new love, bond with it, and nurture the relationship over time. This way you don’t throw in the towel and quit when the going gets tough.

On the other hand, if you don’t throw yourself into this passion wholeheartedly at some point, you may never realize your full potential. I had the pleasure of easing my way into running slowly over many years, and also throwing myself at it completely.

If you truly follow your passion, your life is going to change. The challenge is to regain control of your life afterwards. The Passion Paradox

Achilles tendinitis took hold in my right foot in 2018 a few months after my first 50k. It was my new favorite distance, and I was determined to run this new further distance again – and as many times after that as possible. But when the swelling subsided there was another problem.

Some runners have run with Haglund’s Deformity in one or both heels for years, but it’s a painful existence that never improves. Your heel feels like there’s glass moving around inside. It swells, gets stiff, and then it’s painful to even walk. Surgery is an option, but it’s not pretty nor a guarantee.

I spent much of the spring and early summer of 2018 doing physical therapy to resolve the Achilles tendinitis and re-strengthen my calf. Eventually I could run without pain, but it didn’t last because the bony protusion of Haglund’s irritated the area around the tendon. So I ran every other day, continued therapy, iced my heel daily, and basically spent the last half of 2018 experimenting. I was willing to try anything, but nothing worked, and the pain and stiffness grew consistently worse. About a year ago, I threw in the towel and retired.

An injury leaves you irritable because of the lost time from training. Knowing you won’t ever run again leaves a pit in the bottom of your stomach that’s hard to resolve. I had been careful to identify myself with things other than running all these years, but there was still the question of what would I be associated with so strongly going forward that it would give my heart a place to land.

Around the same time that I retired, I also partially tore my left rotator cuff leaving my shoulder in a painful frozen state for months. Adding insult to injury, a 60-pound dog jumped up and bit my nose while I was saying hello to his owner.

I can’t begin to count the dozens of angry, untethered dogs that have scared me half out of my mind over the years. Two boxers would bolt through their invisible fence on my long runs down the mountain every week. I dreaded them with all my heart. One particularly lively laborador in South Carolina nipped at my elbows, jumped onto my shoulder, and tore the shirt right off my arm. Dogs were everywhere. I had developed a strategy of sorts: turn off my music, move to the other side of the road, stop for a minute, walk, and I’d yell “FOOEY!” when all else failed. Not one of them ever made me retreat, and they never bit me. Then, this seemingly harmless dog on a leash across the street from my house bites me while I’m standing still. It was as if my whole identity was being attacked.

My husband helped me sort through my thoughts in those early months of 2019. He researched surgery options, different shoes, orthotics, even other sports I might try. Meanwhile, I started walking the trail around the lake by my house. The pace was soooo slow, and every runner that passed me was an awful reminder of why I was on the trail around the lake in the first place. But I could walk for as long as I wanted without pain, and when I finally let go of being angry I realized I really enjoy these long walks.

Abby Wambach writes in her memoir, Forward, that she realized, “Soccer is no longer what I do, but it will always be a part of who I am, an indispensable thread of my past.” She recalls a friend giving her a metaphor about retirement:

“Trapeze artists are so amazing in so many ways because they are grounded to one rung for a long time, and in order to get to the other rung they have to let go. What makes them so brilliant and beautiful and courageous and strong is that they execute flips in the middle. The middle is their magic. If you’re brave enough to let go of that first rung, you can create your own magic in the middle.”

I’ve traveled all these miles for all these years with just my own two feet, and it’s been an amazing journey in every way. My shoulder has recovered, the scar on my nose is hardly visible, I’ve learned to manage my injured heel, and I’ve let go of that first rung.

The Chicago Lakefront 50k was my last race, and my favorite race.

Who’s a Master Gardener?

A class was advertised in the community newspaper that my husband just happened to read in December. He thought I should sign up. The last time he thought I should sign up for something I spent a year jumping off the top of telephone poles, climbing the Alpine Tower, hiking through the mountains, and paddling the cold whitewaters of the Nantahala Gorge. I no longer take these “you should…” suggestions lightly.

I sent off my request to join the class nonetheless, and was immediately met with a questionnaire: “What are your top three areas of gardening interest? (anything I can get to grow?), Other Horticultural Training you’ve received? (None) Gardening groups in which you are currently active? Gardening magazines you currently receive?” (None, and none) I must have managed a suitable answer to every question after all, and the next email announced, “Welcome to the Extension Master Gardener Program!” There were 20 future EMG volunteers enrolled. The first day of class was last Tuesday.

Everyone was invited to stand up and introduce themselves when class began. One man had been gardening for more than 30 years. A lady discovered dahlias last year, grew them in her garden, and won three first-place prizes at the County Fair! Everyone spoke of the challenges of gardening in the mucky clay that dominates our area versus the sandy or loamy soils of their previous gardens in other parts of the country. I finally volunteered to speak, and all I could think to say in the presence of these experienced gardeners is that I just really enjoy playing in the dirt. I could have mentioned that my husband and I had planted over 300 plants and 40 trees this past summer (we planted one more tree a couple of weeks ago), or that I live next door to one of the most special native gardens in the city. But my mind went blank, and no one seemed to mind anyway.

Most of our first class was spent discussing the bigger part of the EMG volunteer’s commitment, which is surprisingly not the 50 some odd hours of training we’ll complete between now and April, but the 40 hours of volunteer service we’re obliged to perform before the end of December. There’s community gardens to help out with and a booth to man at the County Fair, newsletters to write, questions to answer from the general public, wreath making workshops at Christmas, garden tours, and a plant sale. There’s even an opportunity to participate in a workday at the Corneille Bryan Native Garden next door to my house. It will hardly feel like work. But first, we’ll learn everything there is to know about gardening.

The North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook is 728 pages covering twenty-one different topics from soil and composting to propagation, diagnostics and wildlife. When the instructor introduced our first topic he emphasized that “Dirt is what you bring inside on the bottom of your shoes. Soil is what’s in the garden.” And away we go.

Our first homework assignment involved selecting two sections of our own gardens to submit to soil sampling. We would dig seven or eight holes from each site, take a sampling of soil from each hole, mix it all together in a plastic container, and transfer the combined soil to a small box that would be shipped off to Raleigh for analysis. The most challenging part of the exercise, our instructor warned, was to give each section of your garden a name you could remember. My husband came up with the idea of right field, left field, center field and home plate, and so I collected samples from right field and home plate. Apparently, we’ll be reviewing the soil content of our gardens on a Tuesday at some point in the future.

Botany is the subject of next week’s class, and I have made some fascinating discoveries in my assigned reading. For example, some flowers have landing platforms that match the body parts of the animals that perform the pollination, the bitterness in cucumbers and lettuce is caused by high temperatures, and it’s actually the stems on the dark side of a plant that elongate making it appear the plant is growing toward the light.

Plants are amazing, and I’ll be learning just how amazing every Tuesday now through April. Maybe they won’t mind if I go back to playing in the dirt when class ends.