In Rome on a Saturday morning in mid-May, I decided to seize the moment and visit the Japanese Garden at the Istituto Giapponese di Cultura, beyond the far side of the Borghese Park. I was supposed to be resting and recovering from jet-lag before joining a tour on Monday, but I had managed to get a good night’s sleep in a quiet room at Hotel Diocleziano, and I felt up to the challenge.
According to information I gleaned from Internet sources, the garden was open until May 30, with tours every half hour, on Thursdays and Fridays 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. The garden’s location, at Via Gramsci #74, did not appear to be on a bus route, and although there were bus stops on streets adjacent to Via Gramsci, none of the buses that used them had routes anywhere in the neighborhood of my hotel on Via Gaeta. I was near the Metro at Stazione Termini, but the garden is a fifteen-minute uphill walk from its nearest Metro stop, Flaminio/Piazza del Popolo on Line A, and I have bad knees. I gave up on public transport and asked my hotel to call a taxi for me at 9:30 a.m.
Once I had shown the taxi driver the garden’s location on the map, he set off with a will, threading through the hectic morning traffic. At one point, I realized we had left the streets and were driving through the middle of the Borghese Park on paths that I had always assumed were pedestrian-only. Squeezing through a gap between stone walls that hardly seemed wide enough for a vehicle we popped out like a pip from a squeezed lemon onto the wide boulevard in front of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. Then we dove back into maze-like streets with a convoluted one-way system. A few minutes before 10 a.m. the taxi came to a halt and the driver announced, “This is it.”
I paid the fare, clambered out, and went up wide steps into the modern building of the Istituto. A notice in Italian posted next to the reception office informed me that the Japanese Garden was open only by appointment. Oh no! In shock and horror, I appealed to the reception clerk that I had been unaware of the restriction and today was the only chance I would have to see the garden. He relented and said that, if the group that had booked the 10 a.m. tour agreed, I could go in with them. By a stroke of luck, the group turned out to be a social club of North Americans residing in Rome, and they had no objection to a visiting Canadian tagging along. The only problem (for me) was that they had booked a guided tour in Italian, a language in which I can order a meal, but not make conversation.
Although I could not understand the guide, I already knew that the gardens were the work of garden designer Ken Nakajima, also responsible for the Japanese section of the botanic gardens in Trastevere, Rome. I also knew to expect cherry trees, wisteria, irises, and dwarf pines, a waterfall, ponds, and ornamental bridge, and a traditional toro stone lamp. Once through the garden gate, I discovered that the garden had been cleverly fitted into a modestly sized, sloping site.
A peripheral gravel walkway, passing beneath small ornamental trees, took us along the top of a grassed slope with a clear view of the pond and plantings in the dell below. At the bottom of the slope, rounded areas of gravel transitioned between mown grass and beds of clipped dwarf pine and mounded bushes surrounding the long, sinuous pond. We descended the slope, and carefully crossed the pond on irregularly-spaced stepping stones. A narrow path between bushes on the far side took us to an area where the water abutted the side of the Istituto building. Here, large koi swam sluggishly about. Leaving the pond, we climbed a gravel path at the far side of the slope and discovered a wisteria-covered arbour.
While we were in the garden, the skies opened and it rained very heavily. My “shower-proof” jacket had not been any use at all, and though I had sheltered under the umbrellas of obliging strangers whenever possible, I was completely soaked by the end of the tour. I stood on the steps of the Istituto and wondered how far I would have to walk in the rain before finding a taxi or a bus stop. Just then, one of the ladies from the tour offered me a ride, assuring me that I would not be taking her and her husband out of their way. Mariassunta and her husband Adelberto, Italian-born, had lived and worked in Ontario for most of their lives, and then moved to Rome after retirement. While Adel drove, Maria chatted about life in Rome and showed me pictures of family members still living in Canada. They dropped me off close to my hotel. In a matter of minutes, these strangers had become friends, and I hope to see Maria and Adel again when they next visit Ontario.
SPRING HAS SPRUNG
The lengthening days are full of activity outdoors. The natural world is bustling with wild creatures with no time to waste. Territory has to be secured, a mate has to be found and protected, offspring must be raised, and above all, food must be found.
The Canada geese were first off the mark, nesting before the snow had all melted. One pair, incubating in an exposed position, lost their eggs to predators and had to begin again in a better location. Another pair nested out of sight and are now proud parents escorting three goslings.
If the number of male ducks on the pond is anything to go by, there must be at least six female wood ducks and two female mallards sitting on eggs somewhere upstream. We’re bracing ourselves for a duck population explosion. Meanwhile, the unemployed males are paddling around together and occasionally waddling across the lawn to look for corn.
Male red-winged blackbirds arrived early in spring to stake out nesting sites, and had to endure some terribly cold weather. The females sensibly waited for the weather to improve before arriving, but they are here now, and paired-off. The reed-beds where they nest are full of their chatter.
The turkey flock is off in the woods doing who-knows-what, but a couple of loners visit us morning and evening to peck up any corn or sunflower seeds that might be lying around. There shouldn’t be any left after the geese, ducks, grackles, crows, deer, raccoons, squirrels, and chipmunks have eaten, but against all odds the turkeys always find some.
Now that bushes are starting to leaf out, and plants are growing, we probably won’t see deer so often. A group of around seven deer –females and yearlings – have been regular dawn and dusk visitors to the bird table all winter. One with a distinctive white mark on her forehead has been our guest for at least four years.
Sometimes we wonder if we are supplying too much food. The number of squirrels seems to increase daily. At the last count there were fourteen, reds and greys (variously colored silver, brown, and black), running around between the feeders. They are never still, and the flirting motion of their tails draws the eye.
Hungry mother raccoons are now foraging at all hours of the day, trundling around with that characteristic rolling of the hips, nose to the ground. There may be kits in the barn. We are keeping an ear out for raccoon kit noises.
Other people have barn cats. We have a barn rabbit. The floor of the barn is deep sawdust - perfect for a shallow scrape - and there are numerous boxes and pieces of rusting equipment to hide under, plus holes at the base of the wall-boards allow escape in any direction. “Our” rabbit emerges from the barn morning and evening, inspects the garden, takes a nibble here and there, has a run, chases any intruder rabbits, and eventually disappears into the barn again.
Our pond and stream have been beaverless for several years since the beaver family that used to lodge here ran out of small trees to cut down and moved away. All the remaining trees are too large for a beaver to fell, but the ice storm at Easter brought down a huge number of branches, many of which ended up in the water. For several days, a lone beaver has been swimming around the pond looking for fresh branches to gnaw. He (or she) decided to use an old wooden dock that shelves into the water as a dinner table, and sat there for a while daintily stripping bark from branches pulled from the water.
Late March in south-central Ontario is a treacherous time. The first flowers struggle into bloom – snowdrops emerge from snowbanks, crocuses open in a brief ray of sunlight – only to be beaten down by the return of cold weather. Despite a record-breaking mild winter, this spring has brought the usual see-saw of thaw and freeze, and wintry storms.
On March 24th the temperature remained a few degrees below freezing, and on top of two inches of snow fallen the previous day, icy rain began to steadily fall. It continued to rain, freezing on contact, all day. The air was eerily still, with no hint of wind, and ice coated every surface exposed to the sky, drips formed icicles. By mid-afternoon, ice accumulation began to stress trees and shrubs, weighing down horizontal branches past breaking point. At 6 p.m. the power went out.
Alone in the house, following the instructions my DH had written up for such a situation, I opened the garage door for ventilation, started-up the generator, and switched over the circuits for the furnace, refrigerator, well pump, sludge pump, and sump pump. Not sure how much gas was in the generator, I decided to run it for about an hour every three or four hours. I set my alarm for 4 a.m., and went to bed at midnight, with the freezing rain still falling. The frequent crack-crash-thud noises of branches and trees falling made it difficult to sleep.
Overnight, the outdoor temperature dropped to minus 4C/24F and the precipitation turned to snow shortly before it stopped. In the morning, the power was still off, and I continued to run the generator periodically. A breeze sprang up, and more trees and branches fell. Night came, the sky cleared, moonlight reflected off the ice, and the temperature plunged to minus 10C/14F. Very tired, I went to bed at 11 p.m. At 4 a.m. I got up to start the generator and discovered I had left it too late: the sump in the basement had brimmed over and begun to flood the utility room. I got the generator started and the sump pump began to remove the water, but just as I was breathing a sigh of relief, the generator stopped working. It had run out of gas.
I needed to fetch the spare can of gas from the barn. Crossing the icy yard, flashlight in hand, and avoiding walking beneath trees, I made it safely to the barn and found the gas can. It weighed so much, I could hardly lift it. Lugging the can to the garage on the far side of the house took me some time. I then had difficulty holding the heavy can above the generator to fill the tank, my arms wobbling so much that I spilled gas. Eventually, I emptied the can into the tank, and restarted the generator. Disaster averted!
Once the sump was drained and the house heated, I turned the generator off again, but I could not close up the garage because of the fumes from the gas I had spilled. I wedged a log of firewood under the garage door, leaving about a 4-inch gap, and retired once more to my bed. About half-an-hour later, I heard noises and got up to investigate. When I went from the house into the garage, I confronted a large raccoon that was trying to get my garbage can open. He had already rummaged through the recycling boxes, tossing papers, cans, and bottles onto the garage floor. We appraised each other for a few seconds, with him in a defensive posture (standing sideways, back arched like a cat, to look as big as possible), but when I shouted, “Out! Out!” and clapped my hands, he ran off. I exchanged the log propping up the door for a plank only 1 inch thick.
Next morning, the sun was shining, but the power was still off. Every time I phoned the power company, I got either the busy signal or a recorded message that they were reconnecting big population centers first and sparsely populated areas would be last. Guess what sort of area I live in! I risked a drive into town. The roads had been cleared of tree debris, and the gas station had power. I refilled the spare gas tank and picked up some groceries. In the afternoon, I took a look around the garden and the pond. Nearly every tree and bush showed damage, with branches detached or hanging by a strip of bark. The willows around the pond looked as if they had been stripped by an explosion. A large Manitoba maple had toppled, but luckily only onto grass. I did not venture into the woods, but based on what I had been hearing, I could imagine the carnage.
The day went by, and evening drew in. I kept running the generator on and off, lit candles to read by, and mentally prepared for another sleepless night. Then - wonder of wonders! – at 8:40 p.m. the electric clock on the kitchen stove lit up. After an outage of 50 hours, power had been restored.
2015 was the first year since I started gardening that I didn’t begin a new garden project, create a new flowerbed, or devise a planting plan. By the first frost, I hadn’t even finished weeding all the existing flower beds. Basically, all I did last year was dead-head the flowers, and remove or cut down large weeds that were about to set seed. I didn’t even winterize the greenhouse, so all my potted plants that needed winter protection are now either houseplants or composted.
Spending hours working in the garden is not so pleasant when there is pain in your knees and hands. I didn’t plan for my incapacity, and my flowerbeds and the plants in them are highly labor-intensive, requiring endless weeding and pruning, and much of the work to be done is at ground-level. A thyme carpet on a gravel walkway is very nice for the bees, but it has to be weeded every day to remove black medick, clover, bird’s foot trefoil, dandelions, plantains, knotweed, chickweed, etc., seeding-in from the adjacent grass. The same weeding regimen is required for the rock garden, if it is not to be taken over by creeping thyme plus the aforementioned lawn weeds. The flowerbeds with taller occupants act as catchers for the wind-borne seeds of wild asters, goldenrod, thistles, and milkweed, as well as providing a sheltered home for nettles, docks, tree-seedlings, grasses, teasel, wild carrot, vetches, and so on, plus the lawn weeds, which means they need frequent attention too. Without constant weeding, the garden quickly becomes a mess.
First of all, I need a rock garden that can be tended without kneeling. I’ll have to begin by digging up and containerizing the alpine and dwarf plants that I can’t bear to lose. Then I’ll need to hire someone to build a raised bed where they can be replanted.
I can think of two options for the flowerbeds. They will have to be either replanted with shrubs and small trees that can shade-out grass and weeds, or grassed-over and planted with perennials that can live among tall, mat-forming grasses and weeds. I have in the past experimentally planted a few flowers in an un-mowed section of grass, and so far Phlomis tuberosa and Oriental poppies seem able to hold their own, but bulbs such as Allium gigantium and Eremurus failed to thrive. Most recently, I planted peonies and cast handfuls of Cephalaria tatarica seeds into the grass, but it’s too soon to know how they’ll do.
Whatever shrubs I plant will have to be deer-resistant, which narrows my choices. I don’t like the unnatural look of wire fencing in the garden, but I will enclose trees to protect them from hungry deer and beavers. I might try planting some oaks, since they were common in this area before the forest was cleared by settlers in the 1850’s. Maples, pines, white cedar, hemlock, cherries, ash, elm, birches, aspen, beech, and ironwood eventually returned to my property, but not the oaks. Perhaps a heavy acorn finds it difficult to travel without a passenger pigeon to carry it?
If you live in the country, and you have a barn, sooner or later you’ll have a cat. Where it comes from is a mystery, but you can make some assumptions. If it’s friendly, it’s either lost or abandoned. If it runs like lightning at the sight of humanity, it’s feral.
The area I live in teems with excess kitties. It’s rural, a mix of woodlots, ravines, reclaimed gravel pits, and farm fields, with a few farmhouses, occasional houses on sold-off bits of farms (more of this every year), and a smattering of weekend cottages and all-year dwellings on lots unsuitable for agriculture. The unpaved roads have plenty of quiet spots where, unwitnessed, the door of a car can open for a confused cat to be ejected.
My neighbors’ house, close to the road and set at the top of a slight hill, is a beacon for abandoned cats. In the past ten years my neighbors have adopted at least six felines that turned up at their door. Last year they made a heroic effort with Oscar, an un-fixed tom that scent-sprayed everywhere. Oscar loved people, but after he rubbed up against you, your clothing had to go into the wash immediately. My neighbors confined smelly Oscar to a room in their basement during the coldest days of winter. Both they and Oscar were very glad when warm weather arrived and Oscar could go outside again. He was so pleased to escape from prison, he hasn’t been seen since.
Here in my valley, most of the stray cats that I see are skulkers, visible when I look out my window, but slipping away into the undergrowth when I emerge from the house. In summer, they hunt mice and voles in the long grass and the dry ditches. In winter, they are attracted by our bird feeders, while our old, ramshackle barn provides shelter as well as a supply of rodents.
Two winters ago, I was horrified to see a cat eating scraps that I had set out on the bird table for crows and raccoons. On such a cold day that I would not have allowed either of my pampered resident felines to put a nose out the door, there it was, a smart-looking black cat with a white bib, huddled against the wind and choking down stale, dry cat food, stale bread, and shelled peanuts as fast as it could.
I put on my coat and went out to rescue the poor thing, but as soon as he saw me, he ran off. The next morning, he was on the bird table again. I began leaving dishes of cat food in a spot distant from the bird table, and although he would eat my offerings, after several weeks he still didn’t trust me to approach closer than 10 ft. Then he stopped visiting. I phoned my neighbors and learned that they were feeding him, and had named him Tux. However, they could not get near him either. Tux hung around until spring, and then his visits got fewer and fewer, until he was seen no more.
This winter, another feral cat has appeared. It is a fierce-looking tabby with pale green eyes, huge paws, and such long, bushy hair that it resembles a raccoon. With all that fur, it’s impossible to tell what sex it is, and I’m hoping it isn’t going to have kittens in the barn. Hairy, as I have named it, has survived temperatures as low as -33C/-25F and can be seen most days, in all weathers, patrolling the neighborhood in search of anything edible. As soon as it sees me, even if I’m carrying food, Hairy runs away at high speed. I don’t think I or my neighbors will be able to help this one.