“I never promised you a rose garden

Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometimes…”

–Lynn Anderson, 1973

The sun’s not out yet after three days and three inches of rain, yet I’m humming this song as I stroll past the rain garden I developed last year and completed this spring. It’s working!  All that run-off is draining from the hilltop and orchard into the dry creek and on to the rain garden as intended. I’m pleased that finding a practical solution to draining our wet lot has led to such beauty. (See How to Drain a Wet Lot).

Dry leading to Rain Garden

Dry leading to Rain Garden

A rain garden is a plant bed that collects rain runoff and holds water for a short time, usually less than twenty-four hours, while it absorbs excess water into the soil. If planted with native species, it should never require fertilizer or pesticides to thrive. In fact, the plants purify the water before it slowly drains into the nearby lake.

The diagram shows a shallow depression dug with an inflow and overflow designed for three moisture zones. The tall plants selected for Zone A need to tolerate periodic standing or flowing water. Mid-height plants that like average soil conditions may be used in Zone B. Zone C plants should be able to tolerate average to dry conditions and tend to be shorter plants.

“Rain Gardens: Sustainable Landscaping for a Beautiful Yard and a Healthy World,” Lynn M. Steiner and Robert W. Domm

Saturations Zones A-C showing inflow from the dry creek and overflow into a natural area and lake.

Saturations Zones A-C showing inflow from the dry creek and overflow into a natural area and lake.

I tried blazing stars for my tall plants in Zone A last year; unfortunately, they did not withstand periodic water. This year, I used three papyrus plants instead. So far, they are holding up well, with strong roots that absorb water well. I used black-eyed susans, cardinal flowers, swamp milkweed, and turtle-heads last year for Zones B and C. This spring, all these perennials came up again. They are now in full bloom. Swamp milkweed plants perform double duty: they provide a migration path for monarch butterflies. I’ve seen a few already and expect more in September.

The Rain Garden in action.

The Rain Garden in action.

A Monarch Butterfly alights on a Swamp Milkweed blossom.

A Monarch Butterfly alights on a Swamp Milkweed blossom.

To make the transition to the “natural garden” next to the lake, I planted Joe Pye weeds, a wildflower that grows naturally in Wisconsin. All in all, I’m quite satisfied with the result.

Swamp milkweek at the perimeter of the Rain Garden leads to a natural planting of Joe Pye weed.

Swamp milkweek at the perimeter of the Rain Garden leads to a natural planting of Joe Pye weed.


Recently, conversations during my AquaFit class at the Y have been about water. Not the water in the outdoor pool, but the lack of water due to California’s 4th year of drought. We dream up new solutions: “Let’s pipe in water from the Columbia River. Use up some of that extra rain that falls on Washington and Oregon.”

“The new desalination plant in North County is coming on-line this fall. That’ll eventually give San Diego County about 10% or so of the water we’ll need. We should build more plants.”

“But running it takes a lot of power, and that comes from fossil fuels.”

“Northern California wastes the water that could be sent south to farmers. They’re protecting the delta smelt by letting it run back into the ocean and draining reservoir lakes to protect a few steelhead trout.”

“Los Angeles wastes water too. 65% of the city is covered in asphalt and concrete, so storm water can’t seep into the ground water. Yet their flood-control system shunts enough water into the ocean to supply water to half a million people. So where do they take water? From the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Colorado river we all use.”

We don’t spend much time in Southern California gossiping about the weather (because it’s always pretty much the same). Here we ruminate about water. As Joan Didion wrote in her classic essay collection The White Album, “Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive. The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is.” San Diego recycles part of its city water supply in a program called “toilet to tap.” Now they changed the name of the program to “pure water” for obvious reasons, but I do not think reverently about the water coming out of our taps.

I’ve just completed a gardening project as head of our HOA (home owners association) landscaping committee. Our focus has been on xeriscaping and installing a dry creek as a “water feature” in front of the condo building. Because water rationing will only increase as the drought drags on, the creek will of course, contain no water.  What a contrast to the creek I installed last summer at our lake home in Wisconsin! That creek will funnel water off the yard because we have too much.

Dry creek using blue stones to contrast with the multicolor landscaping stones

Many California residents didn’t know what the term “xeriscaping” meant until Governor Brown used the word in his water-rationing speech last week, announcing that California municipalities will henceforth use 25% less water. Xeri means dry, as in Xerox®, i.e., dry copy. Xeriscaping is a landscape method developed especially for arid and semiarid climates that uses drought-tolerant plants, mulch, and efficient irrigation, such as the underground drip method. (Midwest and German friends, you don’t need to know this.) Our HOA committee boned up on xeri and now we’re proud to be ahead of the game. Our drought-tolerant trees, plants, and flowers now stand proud among multi-colored rocks, boulders and pebbles; and our dry creek, filled with smooth, blue river stones, winds around palms from the building foundation to the street, where it won’t leave one drop of precious water.

Palm trees used in xeriscaping

Last fall, I returned from lush Wisconsin with its 50 shades of green to parched, brown yards in San Diego. I told my friends about how I had to slope and drain that lot so that it flowed into a “rain garden” and then into White Ash Lake. Their reaction to my blog How to Drain a Wet Lot,” was “duh.” When I return to Wisconsin in May, I know I’ll find the same reaction when I describe our xeriscaping project to my neighbors there. The rainfall in Polk County in one month, June of 2014, was 9.5 inches; San Diego’s rainfall for that one year was 5 inches, 50% of normal.

For more on California’s water wars, go to http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2015/apr/18/drought-look-ahead/

http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2015/apr/17/sacramento-drought-california-environment-water/

http://www.wsj.com/articles/to-beat-the-drought-l-a-looks-to-nature-for-help-1429199299

http://www.wsj.com/articles/californias-water-woes-are-priceless-1429051903


I’ve been doing a lot of gardening at Northern Bliss, our Wisconsin lake home, this summer. In between gardening and visitors, I’ve been writing my third book in the series, In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss. I’ve been noticing how gardening and writing flow together: engaging in one activity prepares me for the other. Today, I realized why. When I’m gardening, I’m enjoying all five senses; when I’m writing I’m doing the same.

What do you notice first as you come upon a gorgeous garden? I notice the overall garden design, how it flows together. Then I focus on the characteristics of individual plants—colors, textures and how foliage and flowers combine to complement each other—these are all related to the sense of sight.

You’re probably familiar with the oft-repeated command, “Stop and smell the roses.”  I only have one rose bush, but I do have a couple of lilacs, a few honeysuckle vines, and many groupings of oriental lilies. And I have a half-barrel overflowing with wonderfully scented herbs including lavender, basil, coriander, chives and even Mojito.

Touch is another sensual delight of the garden. I love to run my fingers over the smooth waxy leaves of a magnolia; touch the feathery fronds of astilbe; and feel the soft wooly texture of silver sage.

Gardening is best when you leave those earphones or iPods inside. I love to listen to the songs of birds, so I have birdhouses, bird feeders, and birdbaths in my gardens. The swish-swish of hummingbirds in flight and the soft rustle of leaves blowing in the breeze is music enough to my ears. I recently read that a scientific study has proven that the sound of birdsong opens up blossoms. Amazing synergy!

Last but not least is the enticing scent of taste. I love to grab a raspberry or blackberry on the way to the garden, and though I do not grow vegetables because of the deer, I am growing nasturtiums this year for salads.

My dream is to plant as many fruit trees as I can at Northern Bliss, so that can see and smell the delicate, fragrant blossoms, feel the breeze blowing through them, attract even more birds, and pick fruit right off the trees. Meanwhile I’ll continue to enjoy both writing and gardening!

Bluebirds at Northern Bliss (photo by Holly Ricke)
Bluebirds at Northern Bliss (by Holly Ricke)
P1080704 Delphium and hostas
Delphinium and hostas
P1080860 Astilbe and Hydrangea
Astilbes and hydrangeas
P1080881 Nasturtiums and other herbs
Nasturtiums and other herbs


Part I of the “Northern Bliss/Heritage Home” blog series

August 2012, Balsam Lake, Wisconsin

“What will happen to all your beautiful flowers when we leave here in three weeks?” Gunter asks as he watches me just a’diggin’ in the dirt.

I’ve been gardening for over two hours this morning. Enhancing the flower gardens here at our lake home is more than just a chore.  I am returning to my roots. I was born in Polk County, Wisconsin—in Cushing, less than 30 miles from here.

I set my tools down and move my kneeling pad over to the next clump of weeds to be pulled. “Leave? I’m just settling in, marking my territory.”

Digging in the dirt has become a compulsion since we moved many of our belongings from San Diego in mid-July.

“This reminds me of carrying pails and pails of water for my mother’s and grandmother’s gardens,” Gunter answers.  He points to the foxgloves. “The flowers in Bavaria were very similar to these. Only the flowers had different names.”

Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea)

Huge hydrangea

Tiger lilies grow well in Wisconsin

I’m not sure how to explain this drive to dig in the dirt, to go back to one’s roots. The compulsion comes from deep within and the process provides deep satisfaction. And when I’m all tired out, my chores completed for the morning, Gunter says I always return with a smile on my face. So it must be good for me.

Even though I’ve been a sailor throughout much of my life, and made my home on the sea for eight years, as a farmer’s daughter, the need to return to the land is a primal instinct. This is not unusual. Captain Cook, who sailed farther than any man had sailed before, retired on a farm in England near where he grew up, that is, until he was called back to sea again for his final voyage.

This land also provides for me a sense of completion. My family lost its dairy farm to foreclosure after the dreaded Bang’s Disease swept through the herd and the milk could not be sold. I was a freshman in college at the time, and I never had an opportunity to say good-bye to that land. It all happened so fast. Perhaps that created a longing in me that I’ve buried as deep as the foxgloves I have planted here.

If so, that longing didn’t surface until I attended my 50th class reunion in St. Croix Falls in September, 2010. I rarely attended reunions, and may not have come to this one had not my granddaughter scheduled her wedding the week prior. During the event, a classmate of mine asked me, “Are you here to look at a summer home?” Her question startled me. “Lake homes here are selling for half of what they were before the 2008 crash.”

That comment set the process in motion.

For the next two days, Gunter and I drove through the countryside admiring the fall foliage.  “I love all the deep blue lakes, the lush rolling hills, and the wonderful colors. It reminds me of my own roots in Bavaria,” Gunter exclaimed.

“That’s probably why so many German immigrants settled in Wisconsin,” I replied.  “They must have thought the same thing.”

“Lots of FOR SALE signs around here,” he noted. “Interested?”

My heart skipped a beat. “Yes! The home should be here in Polk County.”

Now why did I say that? I’ve never even thought of buying a home here. Not sure I want this. Too many memories—not all of them pleasant.

But the die was cast. Actually, the die had been cast two years earlier, when we completed our world circumnavigation. The planned trilogy, “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss,” would cover the eight years of our sailing adventures. But even then, I thought about writing a book about what happened in the years before we left to go sailing.

During presentations promoting the first book in the series, MAIDEN VOYAGE, many readers asked about our lives before sailing. That would make an interesting story: how did a farm girl from Wisconsin who wanted to escape her past and succeed at business and a boy from Munich who loved math and science meet each other—after many wrong turns in life—and become soul mates?

What would I need to do to write such a book?

I would need to pick up the dialect I’d forgotten. I would need to stay where I grew up for a while to re-acquaint myself with the farming culture again, to regain that sense of place.

OK, I can do that!

Beware of setting a goal. It just may have a way of happening before you know it! I had only a goal. I had no strategy in mind, not even a plan. My writing goal, however, seemed to fit with our shared goal of providing ways to keep our families in touch with each other. Since both of our parents died, Gunter and I have taken seriously the responsibilities of being the matriarch and patriarch of our respective families. We sponsor family reunions where all the children, grandchildren and cousins can get together. Could having one central property for those reunions—sort of a Heritage Home—work for us?

The following year, 2011, we organized a family reunion by renting a cabin on the shores of Balsam Lake, the largest lake in Polk County, to market test the idea.

If we build it, will they come?

It worked!  During the main event, a barbeque on the cabin’s big deck, I counted 28 attendees; they were all related. So the search for an appropriate lake home began.

If it all proceeds smoothly, it’s meant to be.

By the time we left the cabin, Gunter and I had made an offer on a home on nearby White Ash Lake.  After returning to San Diego, and negotiating back and forth, we soon found ourselves the proud owners of a family home.

But the task of remodeling it to make room for our four children and their spouses, five grandchildren (two with spouses), and two great grandchildren was just beginning. We would knock out three walls to make a massive Great Room. I planned the kitchen and dining area to seat 17, the patios to seat 16 and all the bedrooms—including a bunk room we would build—to sleep 16, with space for additional air mattresses. Not all would always come at the same time, but there are always a few extras in any gathering! I am the eldest of ten (nine living), visits by siblings needed to considered as well.

As my readers know by now, Gunter and I love to travel! We had already committed to two international trips—to India and South America—when we purchased the home. In between trips, Mike, my son-in-law, and I managed the remodeling (he did most of the work himself). It was an amazing process and a tight schedule, but a mere two hours before the first visitors arrived in July, the carpet had been laid in the bunk room and the bunk beds installed! (For those readers asking why the India and South America travel blogs remain unfinished, this is my excuse. They will be completed sometime this winter!)

When all the hub-bub becomes too much, I retreat to my garden to dig in the dirt. The birds chirp merrily as they perch on their feeders and splash in their birdbath. The breeze whispers through the pines, birch and oak—so different from the palms in Southern California. And across our dead end street near the woods, a doe stands and stares, daring me to chase her from my hostas.

Life is good here.

She dares me to chase her away from my hostas

 

Yellow Goldfinch at the bird feeder