Soil and Spirit: Planting fall bulbs upside down and still growing right side up

By Jean Golicz, Master Gardener and Board of Trustee Member

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I have been thinking a lot about death. How could I not with Covid-19 fatalities reported every day. On a personal level, I have lost my father-in-law as well as a friend over the past 6 months. Quietly and privately, we returned their bodily remains to the earth. Despite the complexity of grief during a pandemic, I still feel hopeful as a gardener. During a time of year when the grass is less vibrant and the colors are muted, I continue to see new life. The ritual of planting spring bulbs reminds me that plants have a remarkable ability to grow towards the light. My newly repotted plants that have been brought indoors for the colder months now stretch towards the window to get sunshine. If I mistakenly place one of my tulip bulbs upside down, it will still grow. This orientation towards the light is called phototropism.  Bulbs can even move through the soil.  Several bulbs, like crocus and tulips, have contractile roots which pull a bulb slowly to the most favorable depth in the soil.

Kneeling in the memorial garden at Mercy by the Sea with bulbs and trowel in hand, I noticed that even the trees around me were moving. When Christine Valters Paintner presented last year at Mercy, she invited us to walk outside and look for the “trembling.” I never expected to find it then nor did I anticipate seeing it again today. But at the threshold between beach, field, and wood... I found it. Turning away from the memorial garden and glancing in that direction, I saw the trees tremble as they lifted their branches high towards the last rays of autumnal light. I was shocked because for the last few months I had seen these same trees as only diseased and distressed. Everything I viewed was through the lens of a pandemic. So you see, I was shocked to find them trembling with delight. As I approached one tree, I discovered a pool of water gently sheltered in its roots, a font of holy water collected by the tree to comfort this mourner. Kneeling, I dipped my fingers into the cool water and touched my brow. Sharing a blessing with the tree and feeling all that was buried deep below within me and in the trembling earth slowly turning back towards the light, towards life.

Despite the growing darkness, I hope that you too will experience the slow turning towards the light. Consider joining us virtually at Mercy by the Sea to explore the “The Wisdom of Wild Grace” the weekend of October 3rd to the 4th. If you are unable to participate, remember the grounds are open for contemplative walks so you can experience the “trembling and shimmering” of wild things.

For a detailed explanation of these processes check out this Botany Primer.