Light gardeners make a difference

Posted: Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Everything changes. The ground shifts, seasons move on, our pets age faster than we do, winter is wet rather than cold and nothing is at all like it was.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

Our responses are various, some fade, some wait and some move on with the times. Following the conditions we find keeps us in synch with the world. We plant when we can, dig when the ground is willing, and hunker down when the weather turns foul.

Each person lives in a world they help create. The movements they make as they pass through the events of their times are distinct and individual and the traces they leave are singular, unforgettable and personal. Individual lives mesh to form communities, many of which overlap. The community of orchid fanciers might share all members with the larger one of tender plant growers, but has distinct form and recognizable boundaries. Our community lost one of its favorite members this year, when Birdie Mehlenbeck passed away.

You might have seen her at Fred Meyers, working her way among the houseplants, a small woman with bright engaging eyes. Holding a potted plant she identified it not just as an example of an easily produced species, but as a distinct individual life. Passing her life and care into the lives of the small plants she cared for, she showed me that each had qualities that made them instantly identifiable, distinct from all others, even from others grown on the same bench from cuttings taken from the same parent.

I visited her in her home once, carrying some orchids that needed a good home. They became a thread that bound us into a community of two. A decade later, they were still as important as ever, and their individual lives, bloomings and accidental breakings were gems around which we fashioned conversations.

When someone from Fred Meyer told me of her passing, I was swept instantly back into our pairing, even though I hadn't seen Birdie for four years. The irrepressible personality wrapping her concern for the whole world into caring for a collection of small plants popped instantly into focus. The focused energy that made her able to travel about on her own schedule, always busy and always able to pause for a quick few words was as present in that moment as it ever had been. Birdie made her individual place in the world by living her life fully. We can do it too. We create our worlds every day.

This season we have opportunities that were not present before, we can take advantage of the fine weather and work our gardens in months usually denied to us. Pruning branches for our holiday bouquets; we see small green stirrings at the base of the shrubs. The perennials are coming along extremely early. The gambler instinct in us is called out; stay or fold...encourage or hold back. It could very well be the year when the Christmas roses really do bloom during December and the Febuary Daphne in the month of Valentine.

Now is the season of light gardens, plaiting strings of colored gas into glowing arrangements and focusing attention on features otherwise ignored. The feeling spreads from home to home as entire neighborhoods come into bloom; Mint Way to Montana Creek, 10th Street to 13th, Abbey Way to Timberline Court, West Juneau and Downtown Douglas. The dancers spinning in the trees in front of the Ladd MacAulay Hatchery have partners in the trees along the Goldbelt parking lot, and low lying dark masses of shrubbery along unlit Back Loop streets are changed into glowing arrangements of jewel tones.

These created winter landscapes are inspiring, they lift our spirits as we watch the days grow shorter and hear the geese going south. The creative energy harnessed into making Juneau a better and prettier place for us all is the same whether it's flowers and shrubs, or rope lights and garland. I am lucky since many of the conversations I have during the day are with these involved, interesting people, gardeners and non-gardeners alike.

The year is slowing down, but the urge to garden, the feeling of messing about in the world is still just as powerful. There are plenty of days that I'm less than excited to get my rain gear on and go out. Once I'm out in it, it gets just fine, but the process of getting there is a little harder. It makes me think of a bright and aware woman who always kept on going.

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