Gardening requires taking small steps

Garden Muse
by: Courtesy of Barbara Ashmun, When the first hellebore bloomed in mid-January, winter became a good  

To keep my garden from reverting to wilderness, I have to do a little bit just about every day. You've no doubt heard 'the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,' but this really sank in one day in 1980 shortly after I'd quit my job as a social worker at Emanuel Hospital.

A friend took me out to a business where he maintained the interior plants and told me his job that day was to polish all the leaves on the dusty ornamental fig plants.

'You're kidding,' I said.

Phil was known for his quirky sense of humor. But he pulled some rags out of his carryall, and a spray bottle to dampen them, and began cleaning each leaf on every fig. I grabbed a rag too, and as we chatted and rubbed, time flew by.

It took patience, but eventually, all the fig trees shone with renewal. 'Wow, I can't believe we did that!' I said. Little did I know that within months I'd be polishing fig leaves for a downtown corporation. It was my first plant-related job, and although it wasn't the least bit glamorous, it paid the mortgage and started me on a new path. Maintaining indoor plants at night freed me to take landscape-design classes during the day. Eventually, I became a designer, teacher and writer.

Enjoy the moments

Gardening is very much like polishing the ficus leaves. Weeding, deadheading and raking are all repetitive jobs that an outsider might view with puzzlement. You're doing what? Again? For how long? You've got to be joking!

But those of us who are hooked know the pleasure of tending our plants. Even though it's January and the lawn is soggy as a sponge, I'm cutting back last year's leaves on the hellebores to make way for the new flowers. As I pull away sweet gum leaves hiding underneath, along with slugs and snails that lurk in the litter, I admire the tender new pink buds that sit at ground level.

When I'm grooming hellebores, I'm at peace. All worries melt away as I concentrate on snipping and grooming.

My 2010 wall calendar has quotes from Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. 'How do we cultivate the conditions for joy to expand? We train in staying present,' she writes. The garden gives us that opportunity every day. Early in my gardening life, I pruned my finger when I lost concentration, a lesson I only had to learn once. Later on, I accidentally cut off hellebore flowers instead of their leaves when I wasn't paying attention. Even the simplest tasks in the garden ask us to stay awake and present, a great gift. If you've ever eaten a delicious piece of chocolate cake without being aware of the pleasure - maybe at a crowded party - you know what a waste it is to miss the moment.

Peace at the Chinese Garden

In winter's quiet, I notice all the small beautiful details. Sheets of chartreuse moss adorn the dampest parts of the garden. I love the soft bright mats - they remind me of the tranquil Bloedel Reserve where moss is deliberately cultivated ( In winter especially, when flowers are so rare, the lively color and velvety texture of moss is welcome.

A golden yucca growing in a pot near my greenhouse brings a note of cheer in winter. Normally outshone by roses and fuchsias, it's a star of the winter garden. From my office window I enjoy the big plants in containers on the patio - the tapered green leaves of black bamboo, the golden striped needles of 'Gold Ghost' pine, the nearly black foliage of 'Dolce Licorice' heucheras.

As a treat one late afternoon, I headed to Lan Su Yuan (Portland Classical Chinese Garden) with my neighbor Megs. The pebble mosaic paths were tinted green with winter moss, and the big beautiful leaves of species rhododendrons gleamed in the rain. Double white camellias brightened the gray day, and in one garden room a yellow-flowering shrub beckoned. It was wintersweet, with a powerful perfume once I put my nose right in the blossoms.

In the late afternoon drizzle, we stood in the shelter of a pagoda and enjoyed the serene expanse of the pond. Later on, Megs reflected on the experience.

'The rain and the peacefulness allow the mind to float off into a quiet place far away,' she said. 'It was so wonderful in the dusk, with the crisp air, and the droplets hanging on the tree branches, and the rain hitting the pond.'

Coming Events

• Ninth Annual Native Plant Sale - Online pre-orders begin Jan. 8. Pick-up and payment will be at 5211 N. Williams Ave., Portland 97217; Saturday, Feb. 20. For a list of plants and ordering information, check the Web site, .