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Wednesday, November 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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This Week in Your Garden / Mary Robson

Gardeners find much to be thankful for in their earthy endeavors

Reminded at this season to center ourselves in thankfulness, we gardeners can count our blessings. Gardening, from the smallest pot of crocus to 30 acres of splendor, graces our lives.

Today I'm grateful for:

The plants that work out. Christopher Lloyd, the British garden expert and wit, wrote, "The wonder is that any plants survive at all." He's known for gallant excursions into tropical gardening, despite the English climate. Experimentation can present surprises if we're pushing the zonal boundaries. But even plants selected specifically for a spot might not love living there. And when they do, settling in as if born on site, it's cause for grateful thanks.

Plants I've selected vary in their comfort here. A genuinely successful group emerged with everything in the barberry family, especially the hybrid mahonias. My small woods is edged with native mahonia, Mahonia repens, moderately sized plants that bloom yellow in spring and show frills of red foliage in fall.

They're elegant in a homey way. But their more spectacular cousins, the Mahonia x media, have, in mid-November, sprouted handsome buds on panicles nearly 8 inches long. They'll bloom gradually, reaching full peak in mid-January if mild spells persist. They combine drama and landscape suitability. After three years in place, they're thriving. If you've got a well-drained, part-sun, part-shade spot where you want a splendid evergreen accent, think of the hybrid shrub mahonias.

Garden life beyond plants. An Oregon salamander (Ensatina eschscholtzii) tucked himself between stacks of cedar shakes stacked for the new garage. He surprised me with his brownish, translucent beauty when I lifted a bundle. These terrestrial salamanders live in soil or wood, and they are seldom seen during summer.

Amphibians, threatened in many areas, live happily here. Frogs also surround these woods, more often heard than seen, adding their trills to the air even occasionally in November. Of several different frog genera, I've identified only the Pacific treefrog, Hyla regilla, who appears now and then on the rain barrel top or hose bib. Amphibians require clean water and air; their presence inspires deep thanks.

Birds. Birds captivate gardeners, both for their insect-capturing skills and their beauty. Carl Sandburg wrote of "light-winged fliers," and these, the nuthatches and the chestnut-backed chickadees, flick through the trees. A morning quiet enough to hear their wings deserves appreciation. And I've always admired their neat tailoring, as if their feathers emerged from a particularly capable haberdashery. Providing water sources, even through winter, helps keep birds nearby even more than seeds will.

Gardening words. Writers who illuminate what I'm experiencing receive thanks, too. Reading reflective essays about gardening adds shine to the gardening life. A new discovery this year is Reeve Lindbergh, youngest daughter of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Her gardening life, reported in the context of a book about her mother's last years, holds juice and vitality.

She writes: "In the garden, I love to feel every movement of my body, large or small. I love to smell every scent of earth and bark and sweat and leaf. The pleasure I take in my garden is so physical, and so intense, that I imagine it should be illicit, or at the very least, fattening." ("No More Words: A Journal of my Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh," Simon and Schuster, 2001.)

A few useful books for the pursuit of thanks:

• On the fauna of this area, Eugene Kozloff's "Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest" (University of Washington Press, 1982).

• For reveries of thanks, Florence Bellis' "Gardening and Beyond" (Timber Press, Portland, 1986).

• For history and fascination, Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire" (Random House, New York, 2001).

• And for a summary of all these, Henry Mitchell's "The Essential Earthman" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux: New York, 1981).

Happy Thanksgiving. I'm grateful for your attentiveness as readers. Enjoy reveling in your own particular gratitude list, whether digging comfortably while planting bulbs, or rummaging through a new book on a welcome rainy day.

Garden expert Mary Robson, retired area horticulture agent for Washington State University/King County Cooperative Extension, shares gardening tips every Wednesday. Her e-mail is marysophia@earthlink.net.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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