Monday, June 1, 2020

View from My Back Steps


I don’t get outside much any more. At 79 and with mobility issues, it’s often just not safe for me. However, outside my big sliding glass patio doors there’s a pair of smooth concrete steps and a small patio crowded with potted plants and framed by masses of shrubbery and rankly overgrown garden plants. So pretty often – every day when the weather allows – I sit on those steps and look at the garden and at the world.

I typically have lots of company out there – a pair of feral cats whom I’ve been feeding for a couple of years may be lounging – out of reach but within talking distance. Birds come to the seven tube feeders I keep filled with sunflower seeds. When flowers offer, butterflies and bees flutter or buzz around. And if I’m lucky a hummingbird or two will flit past or even hover momentarily at a nectar-filled blossom. Overhead the sky, clouds, even a soaring hawk or two divert me and soothe my soul.

Because I have such an assortment of potted plants, there’s almost always a display of flowers of some sort and lots of foliage of just about every imaginable kind – beautiful in general and often exquisite in detail.

It’s difficult to be bored with this world in miniature so accessible just by sliding the door open, shutting it behind me (to keep the indoors cats contained) and then sitting down and looking around.

Today a black swallowtail butterfly was visiting one of my big fennel plants, likely laying her eggs for this spring’s crop of caterpillars and future butterflies. Honeybees were seeking sweetness in the dazzling white mock orange blooms – a reward I get every year for labor expended 30 years ago digging a big hole, filling it with compost and loam and fertilizer, then planting a bare-root shrub that looked exactly like three sticks in a baggie. Now it’s as tall as the house and has many offspring surrounding it.

By the end of the steps, carefully sheltered in the shadiest place I could find, is a big pot of Japanese painted fern. I’ve had this for years. Every winter after a freeze, the fronds blacken, wilt, then disappear completely, leaving the pot looking like a barren bunch of dirt. But then, every springtime after the last frost, tiny fern tips start pushing through the surface and, almost before I know it, the pot is filled to overflowing with masses of delicate multicolored foliage, draping gracefully over the rim. And once in awhile I take time to “pet” the fern fronds, spreading them out for best effect while feeling how soft and smooth they are.

Japanese Painted Fern

Surrounding the fern on three sides are four more very special pots. These have spent the winter in my dark garage, completely neglected – there because the contents are plants that will not stand even a touch of frost. Red kalanchoes – exotics from Madagascar – are frost-tender, but (given a bit of care) are also about as tough as a plant gets, and able to recreate themselves from a bit of succulent leaf dropped upon just about any kind of soil. And they bloom from spring until frost, with clusters of tiny tubular crimson flowers that hummingbirds find irresistible. You’ll often see them as houseplants; but in my experience the best use for kalanchoes is providing color and hummingbird bait next to my steps. Sometimes I can sit there and watch a hummingbird from a foot away, oblivious to my presence so long as I stay still and the kalanchoe provides food.


The “Mother” of these kalanchoes was a plant I gave my own mother decades ago for her patio. When she got too old to garden, she gave it back to me. And each year I take branches of this and the others and start new pots, just by sticking the branches into moist potting soil, where they freely take root.

Frostweed Framing Kalanchoes

The “trick” to getting kalanchoes to bloom is much like that used on poinsettias. Put them in a cool, dark place for at least 12 hours a day in the cold season, then plunge them into sunshine when frost hazard is past. While resting in the dark, something in their makeup makes them send up flower stalks with buds at the tops, all ready to open when sunlight is returned to them.

Kalanchoes, Fern, and a mystery plant

And all that is in just four square feet of my patio garden.

5/3/2020 All photos by John I. Blair

Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.

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