October 25, 2007

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

“Rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens”, of course. They go without saying. “Bright copper kettles” , however, are too time-consuming to keep shiny, and these days I prefer polartec gloves instead of “Warm woolen mittens”. But when it comes to “Brown paper packages tied up with strings"……those definitely are "A few of my favorite things". Especially if those brown paper packages contain seeds of favorite flowers that I’ve collected from my garden at the end of the season.

It’s always sad to see another season close. My body welcomes the rest, but my heart is heavy with the reality that another year has passed; another chance to ‘get it right’ has come and gone, and ahead, lies another winter’s hiatus during which I'll really, really, really try not to encourage too much sedentary nesting and hunkering indoors over catalogs and cocoa which I know from past slothful...er..."relaxing" activities led to atrophied gardening muscles.

Each fall I promise to downsize the garden next spring and each spring I manage to tweak the hell out of that promise. With all sincerity I vow to reign in my lustful seed ordering next January and only collect seeds of but a few of my own garden favorites before the birds have their fill. “Heck. I won’t need a whole flat of melampodiums to fill that space again”, I’ll scold myself. “Why save all those seeds then? One six pack or two will do nicely if I just space them properly”. Of course as soon as those delusional utterances leave my lips, I can hear plug trays and cell packs, still stacked in the greenhouse awaiting a good cleaning, groan under the prospective, inevitable weight of too many, not-yet-sowed seedlings.

But on a crisp, sunny autumn afternoon, to the exclusion of logic, my frugal gardener’s brain is bubbling with the prospect of all those free seeds just lying outside my front door – waiting to be culled into my cache of little brown lunch bags. I’ll wait till those heads are just browned enough. Too early and they’ll be too green to ensure future germination. Too late… and they’ll crumble to dust as the head is snapped or pruned. After having made the mistake of standing in situ whilst I tried to dislodge ripe seeds from a head and lost most of them to a sudden gust of wind or an unsteady hand (me?), I now just collect the entire head, plop it in its labeled brown bag and separate the chaff later in the house on a white paper towel or paper plate. The ones I can attend to sooner will be transferred to little brown coin envelopes, labeled and sealed and stored in an airtight plastic tool box with several packets of anti-desiccants to keep the seed dry. The heads I procrastinate in cleaning, remain so until sometime when the snow starts flying and then they’ll join the others in that plastic toolbox. More often than not, mostly because the Holidays seem to whip up faster and faster these days and I'm occupied with those activities, I’ll have at least a dozen larger brown paper bags containing full-sized heads, untouched for months, but at least sealed from air and moisture by bag tops twisted and tied with...you guessed it...some kind of string.

It’s comforting to know that despite the earlier and earlier arrival of eye-candy-filled seed catalogs, I’ve got my own stash of free beauties ready and waiting to be deployed into seed-starting mix and warmed on a heat mat. Especially if some of those seeds were, shall we say, a wee bit pricey? Like the $10 I paid for a mere 5 seeds of Vigna caracalla or Snail/Corkscrew Vine. (Pictured Below) Each day I check the ripening, green seedpod for tiny swellings inside indicating seeds are forming. Although I was only blessed with four blossoms on the vine, I’ve noticed at least ten immature pods. One in particular seems to ripen more each hour. I figure if even half those pods render three seeds apiece, I’ve got $30 worth of seeds at my future disposal. Not a bad initial investment for such a great payoff. Despite the scarcity of the blooms (my fault for having placed it so close to a thug-like, Star of Yelta, morning glory on steroids), those that did put on a show, put on a show indeed. Not to mention the perfume!

Two of my other “must haves next year” were almost as costly for a minimum amount of seeds. The first was Zinnia elegans “Magellen Cherry”. (Pictured Left) A newcomer for me this year. With hybridization most zinnias like this one can reliably reward with continued bloom even without religious deadheading, sporting new blooms above old, mostly remaining disease-free and withstands long periods of drought. This 15” variety is one that fills all that criteria. Plus, the color is outstanding and is a magnet for butterflies and goldfinches.

Zinnia elegans “Zowie Yellow Flame” (Pictured Left) is even more impressive. A 2-3 foot (depending on your particular pruning practices) showstopper that creates an unavoidable focal point for the human eye and literally demands that passing bees and butterflies screech to a halt.

But, if I collected no other seed this season at all, I was especially intent upon collecting seeds from another plant that was no newcomer to catalogs at all but another newcomer to my garden: Rudbeckia hirta “Irish Eyes”. (Pictured Below)

The same humongous, 6” across floral rays as Rudbeckia hirta “Indian Summer” I'd grown before. But instead of “Indian Summer’s” dark brown bulging-button eyes, “Irish Eyes’ “ name belies exactly what you might expect: a center ‘eye’ of bright lime green protruding prominently from the heart of perfectly formed, two-tone yellow-gold petals. When paired with a magenta “Wave” petunia, it creates a vignette that is quite striking. Their added attraction for me was their long-lasting and later-season bloom that provided an eye-catching (no pun intended) punch as August faded into September’s swan song for most other plants.

I never cull all the seed heads of any flower. I try to leave most annuals and certainly all perennials standing and unsheared to provide some late fall and winter snacks for my little furry and feathered friends. They also give some structure and skeletal bones for my winter garden. Remaining dried seed heads will nod from the weight of nibbling goldfinches, wrens, titmice and chickadees. Withered stems will brown and crinkle, some turning a slimy black mush when a first freeze hits, recalling only vague memories of a lush colorful garden just weeks before. Muted gold and auburn leaves, already blotting out parts of the lawn, will be gathered and shredded to join the already decomposing annuals dumped from pots and window boxes into this fall’s newly formed compost pile.

I suppose I began seed saving more out of curiosity than anything else. Wondering whether the seeds I gathered at the end of a season would be reborn the following January, February or March when I sowed them inside or which ones would gallantly volunteer in the warming Spring earth and save a poor old gardener lady the trouble of babying it under lights, on heat mats and coddling in the greenhouse. Eventually, just like any other organic gardener who’s not one to opt for immediate gratification and has honed frugality to a fine art, there came a time in this gardener’s journey when I realized the financial benefits of seed saving as well. But…also just like any other gardener – organic or not – the luring floral sensuality of come-hither catalog photos enticing with new varieties gives way to plant lust and frugality is quickly tossed out the window along with a check and an order for way more seeds than I could ever hope to start that year. Oh well, just more of those ”brown paper packages tied up with…. packing tape and first-class shipping labels” to add to my Favorite Things.

September 25, 2007

It's Fall Already? How'd That Happen?

Oh sure the purple asters are a pretty big hint that the autumnal equinox is upon and already crept passed me, but, heck, I've still got a half of a flat of snapdragons I started from seed last February, that I've been babying along just because I hadn't been able to find the exact, perfect spot for them. It seems, the advent of Fall has decided their fate. Next stop: compost pile.

Seriously, where did all the anxiety of getting plants in the ground, staking newly re-sprouting perennials, loading them into my wheelbarrow for yet another new location....where did it go and how did I get here to Fall so quickly? Is the speed of season change anything to do with increased gravitational pull of the sun, global warming, more bovine methane releases or....am I just getting older? Well, the inconceivability of slamming into the sun, the intolerability of slogging through melting ice caps 5 miles inland off the Jersey Shore , the unpleasantness of passing out Gax-X at alarming rates to dairy farmers... are all possible default reasons for the quickened passage of time. However, sticking yet another candle into an (albeit decadent) chocolate buttercream-iced birthday cake (thus ushering in another year closer to 'old fartdom' ) is the least acceptable reason to my vain old self. Sadly, no explanation, either logical, illogical or one based in self denial, has a thing to do with the seasonal-slippery slope a gardener inevitably must careen down as the sun bathes our gardens at ever-lowering altitudes - casting longer and longer shadows - each day.

The appearance of that first, single, yellowed oak leaf is Mother Nature's reminder to let the air slowly seep from my garden balloon for another season. I may be a bit reluctant to chill out just yet, but my perennials quite willingly anticipate a much needed nap under a soon-to-be chilled earth. Even though many of them have already tucked themselves under blankets of mulch, this gardener isn't quite ready to pull up the covers and call it quits. As long as there's one last lingering monarch; a few remaining hummingbirds; the shockingly bright yellow male goldfinches haven't totally muddied to the dull chartreuse of their female counterparts, and my garden is still alive with colorful perennials that have only just come into their own with the appearance of that first, yellowed oak leaf...then this gardener still has miles to go (and beds to tend) before I sleep.

For me, fall is neither an end nor a beginning but a transition. The weather is so quixotic - waxing and waning from cool to hot and dry to wet – if I wasn’t looking at a calendar, I might be hard pressed to tell whether summer was coming or going. But because I know it so well, in spite of the weather, my garden is more in a state of limbo. That ‘garden limbo’ affords an easier transition for nearly all of my plants. If the containers and baskets of annuals still look decent enough and don’t require hauling water from my rainbarrel or dragging the hose to nether regions of the garden, then they’ll be allowed a temporary reprieve from becoming compost fodder. I have the same approach to annuals planted in the garden. Except most of them don’t wind up worm food till next spring. After I’ve collected from them whatever seeds I want to save for next season, I leave them, along with untrimmed or un-deadheaded perennials, as food and shelter for the birds and to better anchor the soil. (Mulch helps too.)

Fall, like spring, are probably the two of the biggest reasons why I love perennials so much. In the Spring (aside from bulbs) they are the first, reliable – and with little or no help from me – signs of life and color. While in the Fall, they ‘keep the music playing’ so to speak right through that transition period. If you learn which perennials actually don’t even begin to perform until that ‘back and forth temperature dance’ is upon us, you can have color in the garden right on through a first snow. Just a few of the perennials still adorning my garden right now are the shorter Michaelmas or New England asters (like the ones pictured above) or my 'perennially' favorite tall aster, White Boltonia Asteroides, this year backed by taller-than-usual brilliant orange annual Tithonia. (Pictured Left).

It's worth the wait for the lovely contrast of white fluffy heads on the chocolate eupatoreum (Joe-Pye Weed) alongside late-blooming pink phlox. (Pictured below).

There's also my much-coveted ornamental grasses like this pinkish-hued, plumed miscanthus next to a "Fireworks" solidago which, as you can see, lives up to its common name and right behind that is a "Pink Delight" buddleia. (Pictured Below) I humbly - yet with a smidge of conceit - admit I have so many buddleias, I actually lost count.

Also, too, are the sedums, the late arriving morning glories and moonflowers, red clusters from pinnapple sages, a second flush of penstemons, a literal hedge of starry white-flowered, sweet autumn clematis which wafts its vanilla scent through my open kitchen window in the evening. Finally, all my favorite three-season shrubs and sub shrubs, constantly morphing throughout the season from lime green to burgundy, dark green, variegated or silver and finally the burnt orange, red and maroon foliage, ultimately forming a frame for some last-minute huge chrysanthemums. Although I love those big, fat globes of button-flowers, I've always considered chrysanthemums merely expensive annuals and being the ever-frugal gardener, I'm reluctant to buy more than a couple. But, my husband absolutely adores them. They 'scream' Fall to him and since that is his favorite season, who am I to deny finding an excuse to peruse another nursery where I might just happen upon some final perennial sales before poinsettias take charge of their display areas and their gates are shut till next March.

I am a perennial-a-holic and admit it proudly. I like growing vegetables. I really like growing annuals. But I love growing perennials. Even in frosty months to come, ice crystals on those ornamental grass heads and snow-dusted sedum clumps will be just as beautiful as that first brilliant gold-coin yellow of my wood poppy or the azure blue catmint heralding the arrival of spring and rebirth in the garden.

And when the snow-dusted sedums have browned beyond recognition and the grasses have bent and bowed under that ice and snow, there remains a magical reassurance that brings a smile to this gardener’s face when I bundle up in winter gear and stand in what I assume is one of my pathways then covered with snow and gaze out over that frozen blanket in the dead of winter. I know that beneath that frosty mantle lies sleeping roots of potential beauty just waiting. Waiting for me to love them all over again. Actually, I love them just as much when they’re sleeping, which is perhaps another reason why I love perennials as I do. Not just because of their inherent promise to return each year. But if, by some fluke of quirky Mother Nature, they shouldn’t return, I can at least hold onto that promise through the cold winter and sometimes …in some years…that Promise alone is just enough to keep me going until that wood poppy finally appears again.

September 12, 2007

Another Part Of The Garden: Garden Forums

Into most gardeners’ lives these days, a gardening forum or two must fall. Chatting online amongst a group of people who share a fondness or outright love of gardening, is as common in these Internet days as was the Saturday afternoon garden clubs of old – sans the white gloves, wide-brimmed straw hats, pearls and teacups. In the online garden ‘clubs’ of today, testosterone accounts for equal participation and baseball caps or no caps are more the attire. Dirty fingernails belie not only lack of white gloves but no gloves at all; bandanas adorn necks instead of pearls; and the drink of choice usually depends upon just how much gardening that particular gardener intends to accomplish the day after. (Hiccup!) Cyber ‘clubbers’ are more likely plunked in front of their computers at all hours of the day or night donned in p.j.s or nightgowns, shorts and t-shirts, overalls or garden-soiled jeans or as bare as a freshly cleared field of corn with perhaps two or three niblets remaining visible to the very naked eye.

While many forum members choose to share their life history along with their gardening history, others choose to protect their personal anonymity and reveal just enough of their lives outside the garden to bridge the gap between total alienation and a certain level of guarded friendship. Still others – rarely - will form deep and abiding friendships that generously spill over into real lives off line for years and years.

The genesis of the world-wide web conceived and birthed instantaneous (depending on your ISP), direct and convenient access to the world outside our door, outside out country and outside our mind. The Internet plied the fertile ground of a basic human need: The need to communicate with our fellow human beings – with the bonus feature of anonymity….and Lo! Forums Were Begat! And yea, they spread unto the globe sending forth messages of love, camaraderie, commiseration, knowledge and some of the vilest behavior imaginable…and unimaginable.

We had passed the pearly gates of Bill, peered through the forbidden Windows and ate of the Apple. We were doomed. But we were curious and still hungry after that measly little apple. We ignored the black cannonballs with their lit fuses threatening us with fatal numerical errors. Although I’ve yet to see a 666, it’s just a matter of time before a way is devised to spin our heads around and spew pea soup on our screens as we contemplate the death of both our soft and hard ware. We survived the Hounds of Hellish HTML; walked away from more crashes than Evil Kenevil and with the safe-sex equivalent to STDs, we slipped into our Norton and Symantec prophylactics hoping to shield us from any CTVs (computer transmitted viruses). Yet no java scripted stones of computer commandments nor St. Steven’s iBook of Jobs could have prepared us for the Damien of Forums: The Troll and his demonic mission to divide and conquer.
The plethora of divergent personalities populating forums who are merely out for a pleasant weave through a new garden thread, provides a veritable smorgasbord of prey upon which a Troll can feast. Divisiveness is an easy accomplishment for the well-armored Troll. Conquering takes a bit longer depending on the tenacity of the Troll and the degree of vulnerability amongst trusting souls or the denial by others of the Troll’s capacity to create unrelenting havoc. His deviant progress, however, can be thwarted or halted outright if more members are as equally tenacious as the Troll to ensure his departure, and if they are wise to the futility of silence when battling the Troll for the hearts, minds – and mostly – the time and tried patience all forum family members. New and old.

In an atmosphere where most forum members just want to be heard, recognized and validated, a simple response from another member usually achieves that affirmation. A door is then opened for the single most important guest: The Dialog. But, any open-door dialog also invites the unwelcome Troll. Once the troll has passed the threshold, can Discourse be far behind? Too many guests and not enough food to go around. Someone has to go hungry. Usually it’s the weakest of the herd, the newest members, who are culled first by The Troll. Unwary of their new surroundings or the ways of the Internet Trolls, the 'fresh meat' wanders off into his net of idiotic rambling babbles. Talking in tongues has a different connotation when referring to TrollTalk. Once gorged on the forum souls of departed newbies and having frightened off potential lurking members - now too apprehensive to even enter the Troll’s killing fields - the Troll becomes greedy, more invasive and hungrier now for the morale of stronger members. Reincarnating in different forms, as real demons some times do, the Troll can fool the most wizened members. Some members succumb. They are polite - even kindly - to the disguised Troll. Others will choose the road of least resistance and ignore the Troll in the hopes the evil one will “just go away”, thus making it “all better” so they can once again resume their innocent exchanges.

A word here about forum exchanges: they can be friendly and informative at best; civil mostly; tenuous and circumspect at times; and uncomfortably inhospitable at their worst. Each person perceives different degrees of importance to what they have to contribute. Just as in real life. In real life what we think is important may not at all be important to our neighbor, our spouses, our parents or children or the person next to you at the supermarket checkout line. Sometimes we envision pearls of wisdom being imparted to others or our humor tickling a smile or laughter. Other times we hope our sympathies and empathies are accepted with the sincerity we intended. On other occasions we humbly share lessons we’ve learned through life experience. All these, we think are of importance because they are important to us…and rightly so. Yet, you must admit, that oft times if we heard those same words or thoughts or ‘life experiences’ – in person – from another, some of us couldn’t skulk away from our neighbor fast enough; shut the bedroom door behind our spouse hard enough; turn a deaf ear to our parents often enough; send our child packing to their room sternly enough; or abandon our shopping carts and escape from the supermarket checkout line desperately enough.

Ah, but therein lies the basic difference between sharing what’s important to us - in person with neighbors, family and even that person in the checkout line - and imparting those same personally-important thoughts with distant, faceless strangers on a tiny screen with a constantly blinking cursor awaiting our next potentially incriminating word. Whereas we can always cross back over to our neighbor’s yard, open the door to the bedroom; invite our parents to a quiet dinner (if we’re still fortunate to have them); walk up the stairs to our child’s room; or remain in line to help pack a fellow shopper’s groceries…none of this is possible in an online forum. All is judged by the written word and written words can more often than not be interpreted quite differently in the eye of the beholder than they were intended in the mind's eye of the writer. There is no visual contact, facial expression, hand gestures or intonation of voice in a forum exchange to enhance understanding or intent. In person, your second chance at clarification is enabled by utilizing all your senses. You can listen with ears not deafened by your own prideful opinion and see with eyes broadened and cleared to view the entirety of the picture. You may still walk away from your neighbor, kiss your spouse goodnight, hug your child the next morning or wait patiently in the checkout line while that shopper finishes their thought – and still believe them to be wrong or annoying, but you’ve given them and yourself the opportunity to share, perhaps, the one and only true thing you can and should share: Respect. You’ve let the other person know their words and thoughts and opinions are important. And Respect is one aspect of furthering understanding between individuals that can be duplicated on forums. But, it must be earned. Which brings us back to....

... Troll Central. A Troll's primary rule of engagement is to dismiss and destroy Respect. Muddle the lines of communication between members and encourage even further discourse. Reminding me of an old Twilight Zone episode where everyone on a block began blaming each other and accusing each other of being ‘an alien’ causing all the trouble in the neighborhood. In the end, they turned on each other and destroyed themselves. All the while being observed by true aliens who ultimately declared: “We don’t have to worry about conquering these Earthlings. They’ll destroy themselves”.

Trolls also calculate the strength of the commonly held comparison between forum families and real–life families. Like any real-life family with dysfunctional members, there are nasty and critical relations, meek and mild, outspoken and confident, people pleasers and people haters, jealous, indifferent, callous, cruel, judges and jurors, leaders and followers, sympathizers and empathizers, experienced and novices, wise and the foolish, humorous and humorless, fearsome and feared. Forum families share the same cast of characters - only with many, many more relatives at the forum dinner table. The trunk, branches, stems and roots of a real family tree could never compare to the vast root system of a forum family. The roots of one single forum family can penetrate walls, towns, cities and countries racial, religious, cultural and political barriers. And if there’s a Martian growing a tomato, you can bet that gardening forums’ roots are beaming through gaseous galactic clouds more deadly than any lingering haze of malathion.

On the whole gardening forums in particular have become a place to learn and share, to brag and compliment and just to shoot the breeze when the spirit moves you. If it’s pouring outside or the temperature is something only to be tolerated by that Martian tomato grower, a gardener is logged on. It’s that forum family mentality the Troll must deduce before he begins his harangue. His barrage of insults, curt responses, condescension and culling of the member-herd are carefully gauged before he draws first blood. If he sees a chink in the family’s armor, a breach in their wall of unity for the good of the entire forum family, his chances for dividing and conquering increase. If he succeeds in severing the lines of communication between family members; if in-fighting between ‘relatives’ causes them to lose sight of the single goal of restoring Peace to their 'little family' by vanquishing the Troll through unified solidarity…then the Troll will win. If, however, the family remains united and provides support by proactively urging The One True Mighty Favah of their beloved forums to send his tech crew of archangels to join battle with the Troll and slam the gates behind him… then …and only then can the family get on with their forum lives and enjoy their exchanges once again. Until the next troll slithers across the threshold or shrouds himself in yet another cloak. And he will.

Truly, anything worthwhile is worth fighting for. Silence never wins over evil. ”Your very silence”, as Euripides said,”shows you agree”. To sit in the sidelines and not participate in even the smallest way (that’s why God invented email) and maintain you still “support” the ‘family’; or to fear being splattered with some bile spewed by the Troll as he scatter shoots the entire family and worry the stain can’t be removed from your nice garden togs; to be so fearfully apathetic and as Helen Keller said, ”Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has not found a remedy for the the worst evil of all: the apathy of human beings”…..to follow that tact and ultimately reap the reward of peace and tranquility [if] and once the Troll has been vanquished, is, to me, hypocritical, parasitical and cowardly.

One of my favorite phrases and mantras, if you will, for refuting apathy and silence when speaking up for a group - a family – speaking up as a group and as a family – is from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
” Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?'. Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?'. Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?'. But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?'. And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right.”

And what is Right? That is beyond my purview to judge. I don’t judge. I comment and I do what I think is right. I close this with a final quote from Seneca: ”The real compensation of a right action is inherent in having performed it”. In other words, if I feel something is right and I act upon it, there is no compensation, no reward, no gratitude I seek. It is the mere knowledge that I did something - took some action - instead of nothing which is my sole and most fulfilling reward. Does that make me a Better person? Absolutely not. It isn't about Better or Worse or - as I alluded - Right or Wrong. It is about what I perceive as Right for me. And it is that which I will have to live with. And, heck, even Ghandi took some kind of action. Passivity, yes. But passive aggressive action.

In the end, communication still remains the key in gardening forum 'families'. In any family perhaps. If the lines of communication are weakened or compromised by ego or apathy or overt anger, then Trolls just have to sit back and wait for us to devour each other. Like the aliens on that block who just watched ...and waited. Then, our little alleged forum family becomes nothing more than those people standing in that supermarket line who can’t run fast enough to get away from each other.

August 23, 2007

You Know You're Not Turning Your Compost Enough When...

...one of your resident red-tailed hawks decides he'd better get his talons busy tossing the stuff if you're not going to do it.

I awoke one morning a few weeks ago to see this "little" guy (if you can say 26" is little for a bird that isn't a condor or a bald eagle) was prancing around in one of my compost piles. I ran to my trusty, handy-dandy Petersen's Bird Guide to identify this handsome devil and it appeared he was a juvenile red-tailed hawk. No red tail at his age, so that threw me off initially. At that point, like any typical 'baby' bird, he was more fluffy and downy than anything and his coloring was still a bit muted although beautiful.

After I took several pictures (of course) I noticed he wasn't exactly prancing. He was panicking as he tried, unsuccessfully, to fly out of the soft, vinyl-webbed enclosure. With every attempt he'd crash into the webbing, bounce off of it and back into the pile. Why was he unable to get airborne, I wondered? Then I saw the chunk of bark that he held clutched in the huge talons of his orange right leg. One of those daggers had pierced through the wood and it was lodged onto his foot. My heart broke as I watched him flutter, crash and bounce continually while that chunk of bark clung to him. Perhaps that was throwing off his balance. I, too, began to panic. I've seen my share of critters in distress in and around my garden and have always done whatever I could to rescue them. So my immediate reaction was to help this poor fellow out of the enclosure.

Racing to the back door to his aid - to do exactly what I didn't know - I suddenly stopped in my tracks. "Linda", I reminded myself, "this is no little finch you're rescuing here!" I could hardly scoop him up in a towel and deposit him in a shoe box. I didn't have any beach towels handy nor did I or my husband wear shoes big enough. Besides, even if he did allow me to get close enough, I risked more than just a gentle brush of feathers should he manage to take flight past my face. The thought of deep gashes from those talons across my cheeks and forearms caused me to seriously pause and rethink the situation and my approach.

First, I needed some protective headgear. Ah! My husband's Yankee batting helmet. But what about body armor? It was 90 degrees plus that morning, but I rummaged through the winter clothes in the closet and hauled out my heaviest, quilted, down-stuffed jacket. Okay: head, body somewhat protected. Now I needed something to fend him off should he decide I was more of a threat than an aid and his increased panic rejuvenated his flying abilities and sent him lunging for my helmeted, down-stuffed body. I didn't want to flail something over my head like a mad woman. That would frighten him even more. (Not the neighbors, however, as they've become used to some of my rather "strange peccadilloes" in the garden over the years.)

Do you ever notice that when you're on automatic-pilot-emergency-must-do-something-and-no-time-to-properly-evaluate-the-circumstances mode...you wind up doing at least one thing that, in retrospect, was totally ludicrous? As in: "What the hell was I thinking?"

In my frenetic quest for a pseudo-defensive weapon to wield and finding it unbearable to wait a second longer to help this beautiful creature, anxiously poised at the backdoor, I reached for the closest thing at hand. A flyswatter. A pink, plastic flyswatter.

Indeed. What the hell was I thinking?

To my relief - and I'm sure the young hawk's - just as I neared the back corner of my house, I saw that not only had he managed to free himself from my 8'X4' leaf mulch/compost pile, but was resting quite peacefully and regally on the corner of my deck. I silently withdrew to the backdoor, closing it slowly as I stepped inside so he wouldn't hear the "click" of the latch, become startled again and fly off. I wanted to see him even closer from the safety inside my house and check that he'd unhinged himself rom the chunk of wood as well. Slithering up to the back window once again, I could see that his talons were indeed free of the wood, and he posed there for some time on the corner of my deck assuming a very stately stance as if to tell me "Go ahead, check me out for as long as you need. I'm okay."

Still wearing my helmet and down jacket I managed to snap a few more pictures of him in all his royal glory as he temporarily claimed my deck for his throne.

You must trust me, dear reader, that there isn't one iota of embellishment here. These were the actual events and my actions as they unfolded. Truly as silly as parts may sound, on that blazing hot morning in late July, I sallied forth unto The Great Piles Of Compost On The Moors, helmeted, downed and brandishing my Excalibur flyswatter which was removed not from a legendary stone but from a metal hook on the wall of my mudroom - to rescue not a fair maiden but one of Nature's gifts that blessed my garden that day. However, on that fateful day, Nature oversaw the welfare of its own as She so often does and relieved me of my gardener's duty as steward of my land and the critters therein.

I removed the Royal Yankee Helmet; shed my regal robes of down and laid up Excalibur flyswatter upon the golden hook - knowing that soon enough another day would dawn outside my castle walls when a new battle would join and "Her Ladyship of Gardenz-A-Lot" would be called upon to once again unsheathe the Holy Grail of flyswatters.

All hail my not-so-little-compost turner!

July 27, 2007

How To Have A Beautiful Garden Without Really Trying

If you believe that... then I've got a bridge to sell you for a buck and, don't look now, but pigs are flying!

Oh, sure, there's so-called "low maintenance" gardens: succulents, shrubs, wildflower meadow-gardens. But even they require some attention. Some time and care and usually results in some aches and pains to the gardener in charge.

Once upon a time in a garden galaxy center actually not all that far away, I foolishly deluded myself into thinking that when I became more involved with perennials, my garden would pretty much take care of itself as opposed to the constant demands of more needy annual plants. Even my neighbor who maintains a vegetable garden and only dabbles in flowers, seemed to think so, too. Uh...wrong!

I've come to several conclusions in this regard after 25+ years of gardening.

The first is that my neighbor doesn't grow enough perennials. If he did, he'd quickly learn they are just as demanding - if not more so - than other flora. When you care for perennials, you're not just caring for them for that season. Your concern is not just the amount or health of that season's bloom but for their safe return and abundance next season and seasons thereafter. With perennials, your eye is constantly on the future for both their well being and the prospect of your own well being enhanced by their continued beauty. Then, again, any gardener will always have at least one eye on the future. Whether it involve the care of perennial flowers and ornamentals or perennial vegetables like rhubarb or asparagus or projecting which annual veggie, flower or herb seeds to save or buy or learn more about or decidedly never plant again! Gardeners alike garden with their feet planted in today's garden and their eyes constantly peering over the fence to next season.

The second conclusion is that no matter what I grow - vegetables, herbs, annuals or, yes, perennials - I will still push the envelope of my body's limitations in order to care for my garden.

Oh, and the third conclusion? It's the lack of basic dissimilarities between anyone who works the soil for their own pleasure. Even the person who grows a single tomato plant in a container along with a few window boxes of herbs and flowers can somehow figure out some way to tire themselves, hurt themselves and spend as much time in the pursuit of their passion, as the person who gardens a backyard vegetable garden or an acre flower garden. Admittedly, the container gardeners won't have to bend quite so much and need knee replacements as will those who garden directly in the earth. But, hey, there's always carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive trowel digging. And...we all have the same dirty fingernails. Big or small (uh, "gardens", not people); vegetable or flower; water or orchards....We are all gardeners, "hear us roar, in numbers too big to ignore". (With apologies to Helen Reddy)). And if you can't hear our roars, then you may know our legions by our faint aroma of fish emulsion and manure and our International Salute to all passers-by: BUTTS IN THE AIR.

So, as to having a beautiful garden without really trying? Aside from the reality that it can't be done, heck, even if it could, that'd take all the fun out of it!

***Note to self: Remember how much fun I'm having after three or more hours of bending, lifting, digging, kneeling, weeding, deadheading and remulching in sauna-like weather, blazing sun or constant drizzle.***

Hey, just where were those garden fairies when I needed them? Seems to me I was pretty much on my own when I was putting some of this together, and I've got the heating pad and ice pack burns to prove it! And then there's those fingernails........

July 19, 2007

The Road Back

After the loss of a loved one, there seems little or no desire to pursue any pleasurable endeavors. Maybe it's sheer lack of enthusiasm. Maybe it's guilt. But, inexplicably - yet ironically predictably - I found myself on the road back to the peace and solace of my garden.

Perhaps it's Nature's simple continuity of life - in spite of our human tragedies - that first diverts and, ultimately, centers those of us who garden with our hearts. And it's impossible to escape our hearts.

Even those times when the pain follows me into the garden on mornings before the sun hits the front beds and gloomy fog still hovers in the tall oaks and pines, it dissipates like the fog when I see the first butterfly or the diamond dew drops in lady's mantle leaves. Chipmunks dart past my feet playing tag; a bluejay frenetically splashes in the birdbath; a gentle breeze rhythmically sways the feathery plumes of ornamental grasses; a red tailed hawk casts a sudden shadow in the rising sun as he swoops over the house. And I realize I'm not crying anymore. My eyes are too busy taking it all in. My frown alternates between smile and awe as rapidly as the arrival of the early shift of bumble bees collecting first-morning's pollen.

"Without having experienced pain, how can you recognize and truly appreciate life's simple pleasures?", my mother used to say. So I guess the pain is a necessary evil if it means continuing to savor the beauty right outside my front door by ensuring that habitat of hope and healing remains and thrives. Although there'll always be days when I'll struggle with that logic, I will also try to remember that in addition to Nature's wonders guiding me back on a more peaceful road, there are always angels in my garden and in my gardener's heart to help me find my way back.

June 19, 2007

Tears For A Tiny Heart

Broken flowering heart bleeds
Tiny heart within a single teardrop
My broken heart bleeds
Endless teardrops for a tiny heart.

~ For My Tyler
May 14, 2007

April 04, 2007


I remember when gardening was supposed to be a form of relaxation. Experimentation. Learning. But mostly, it was supposed to be Fun.

After turning to organics nearly 15 years ago (already 10 years into gardening at that point), I figured it'd have to be even more fun now that I could work with the earth and not against it. Now my yin and the earth's yang could coincide and "grow" harmoniously in my little garden. No longer would I fight with mother nature, but learn to work with her. More importantly I would learn that although my new-found organic enlightenment wouldn't necessarily lighten the physical or time-consuming load, it would lighten my worries over lost plants, lessened harvests, smaller blooms - no blooms - alien bugs and unidentified munchers who fed on my plants under cover of darkness leaving them crushed, skeletonized, or slimed with a fungus.

I learned that "going organic" didn't just mean heavier on the manure, leaving those grass clippings on the lawn instead of at the curb, building a compost pile, embracing the ocean's aroma from a freshly-opened bottle of fish or seaweed emulsion, or finally understanding just why the acrid stench of chemicals made my eyes burn every time I walked past the piles of weed n'feeds in the Big Box stores. I learned that when agreeing to work in partnership with mother nature, you had to accept whatever she doled out. Good, bad or otherwise. Learning and accepting that I no longer had to strive for perfection at all costs...that I no longer had to strive for perfection at all...brought a great sense of calm, relaxation, and helped reacquaint me with why I began gardening in the first place: to have fun.

Too many people I've come across in organic gardening circles seem to have forgotten that gardening is supposed to be fun and that "perfection" is not in an organic gardener's lexicon. It isn't an engineering-degreed, complex calculation of browns and greens; exact to the week, day and minute of seeding and transplanting; to the proper proportion of worms per square foot of soil; till vs. no till; should mulch be grass clippings, wood chips, leaves or newspaper. Would heads roll if perennials were mulched before or after a freeze? Lacking any other viable alternative, would one risk organic castigation if they were to purchase a single bale of peat moss? Would an aspiring organic gardener be shunned if they strived to improve their hopelessly inadequate soil with organic amendments other than compost? And what wrath did they face if they added no compost at all initially - or even the next season - simply because there had none? After all, a gardener "going" organic doesn't necessarily make the transition with a pile of finished compost in tow.

Would a gardener risk eternal organic damnation if they succumbed to applications of pre-packed or bottled organic fertilizers? Would that blasphemous act mock those who sanctimoniously adhere to compost's irrefutable ability to cure and prevent all manner of gardening ills? And what if - armed with a wheelbarrow of neatly finished compost - it still failed to vanquish disease and pests? Would that be the compost's failure or the gardener's? In the eyes of those organic hardliners preaching from bully pulpits built on their perfect soil, the fault, dear Gardener, would lie with Thee. Yet another reason for any neophyte gardener dabbing newbie toes into organic waters to run screaming from shores of compost tea because they were brow-beaten with such daunting criteria from these self-proclaimed "experts" who consistently held the bar unattainably too high. Especially for a newcomer and even for a veteran, these organic demagogs bled all the fun out of natural gardening by mystifying it as rocket science and dehydrating it into soil biology 101.

Surely this current organic perfectionism, once the bastion of laid-back, go-with-the-flow flower children of the sixties - aligned with Rodale's teachings and Rachel 's warnings - would collectively "roll them over Beethoven" in their graves or reverberate a shake, rattle and roll of hippie walkers at the very suggestion that their "least harm" philosophy had denigrated into such organic fascism. Why, I wonder, does it seem so many organic gardeners these days appear to devote more sweat of their brow to the details than to the actual deed itself? Why does it seem so many new organic gardeners are having less fun doing something which should provide more pleasure because of so much intimidation postulated by unforgiving organic evangelicals?

Instead of promulgating the real credo of organic gardening -"Doing The Least Harm" - these alleged "experts" spend more time wagging fingers of chastisement than lending a supportive hand of understanding and helpful information. Instead of praising or commiserating with the newcomers to the organic fold (or even the veteran players) for garden missteps, they mercilessly drop kick each gardener who simply can't maintain optimum soil conditions. Reasons are unacceptable to them. Even pleas for suggestions are dismissed with responses of party line rhetoric, which - when broken down in practical, day-to-day terms - is of little or no constructive value to the poor perplexed gardener. The miserable failure (and I hardly consider the loss of a tomato plant or a begonia a "miserable failure" in the first place) are all laid at the ill-informed, ignorant and pathetically incapable Bierkenstocks of the gardener who didn't heed the Word of the Ozes of Organics. We didn't follow the "rules". We didn't get our soil tested every three weeks or watered overhead a few times because we couldn't afford to replace a soaker hose or there was no time to sprinkle during the day because our kid was sick, so we had to haul the hose out at 7:00 pm risking fungal disease on our hollyhocks. Blame is not placed on the errant whims of Mother Nature or Fate or a prolonged case of the flu or attendance to life outside the garden, but rather our trowels are raked over the coals of failure because we did not follow the path of those self-righteous preachers of garden perfection.

The real irony there is that, organic or otherwise, it is an oxymoron to combine "perfection" and "gardening" in the same sentence, paragraph or thought. Yet, we are beaten about the heads with the limp leaves of our deceased plants and mocked for our shortcomings with snide innuendoes of "I told you so". We are graded as "organically criminally negligent" and deserve what ills befall our garden as a result of our careless and casual irresponsible equation of gardening and fun.

And are those who've assumed the mantle of grading a gardener's term paper more educated, more experienced and more knowledgeable of natural gardening than the average Joe or Joan Gardener? Perhaps. But are they true Educators? Do they educate with broad parameters and allow a student to learn at their own pace? Do they judge a different approach as a mistake or assist a gardener who's taken a new road toward the same goal of doing the least harm? Most importantly, do they encourage experimentation and fun? Isn't that the description of a true Educator? If they don't fit that description, then they are merely close-minded, myopically arrogant preachers who just like to hear themselves talk.

There are many of us organic gardeners out there who still value Fun in gardening at a higher premium than any fixation on failures. There are those who look upon failures as opportunities for lessons otherwise not learned. Probably the majority of us are of that mindset. Yet as in any group or philosophical approach there exists fanatics. These are the ones who threaten to take the inherent Fun out of it for the rest of us. Perhaps most disturbing is that these are the people in positions to bring new organic converts into "the fold" - gently - educating with a soft garden glove and not the back of a steel trowel. These are the people who should know that nature will win out - sometimes...most times - no matter what you do. Gardeners, new and old, must acknowledge that acceptance of a least harmful, organic approach to gardening, also demands acceptance of a garden that may be imperfect through no fault of our own. No matter what blame any presumed learned "expert" may lay at our scruffy garden clogs.

Gardening organically means rejoicing and having fun with the garden that is half empty as well as half full. Perhaps one should perceive no difference in it at all. Half full...half empty. As long as at least one half remains Fun.

April 01, 2007

Ready & Waiting

Well, here's the new greenhouse up and awaiting its first residents. The seedling cart in my office-cum craft room-cum seed starting room is getting a bit overcrowded and since I heat my little poly house with a space heater, some of them will have to get bumped out there even though the temps are still a bit nippy.

Despite a spate of warmer (60 degree-ish) days, the nights have been still dipping into the upper 30's. Forecasts for the rest of this week auger for even colder daytime temps and still more frigid night temps. So, needles to say, the heater in the greenhouse will be cranked up at full thermostat setting (usually kicks on at around 45 degrees). After being coddled inside for weeks, I don't think my little leafy babies will want to shiver under an unheated poly blanket.

And...if the sun decides to shine, then cold or no cold, the inside of that little poly puppy gets up to around 80 or 90 even with outside temps at least 40-30 degrees cooler.

So, it's all set up. Good to go. New shelf system installed and special upper tier shelf to hold the heater and...hahahaha...the oscillating fan when needed. Crushed stone center path to act as a mini-heat sink. (And it sounds nice to walk on, too.) All thanks to my handy hubby. Without him, not only would the greenhouse not have been put together along with all its nifty inards, but...frankly...there'd be no desire to even want to garden in the first place. Or do much of anything else for that matter.

Thanks, Sweetie. I love you. "HOO-RAH"!!

March 01, 2007

"Pack Up Your Seedies in Your Old Seed Bag and....

...Seed, seed, seed. Or was that "smile, smile, smile"? Well, why not have it both ways? Gathering together all the seeding equipment for a new season should bring a smile to any gardener's face. And if you're hearing the echoes of that "Boom!" in Baby Boom, it should also bring a twinge to your lower back a ping to those nerves in the back of your neck and an ooofah! to those sore rotator cuff muscles. Not to mention the snap, crackle and POP! of your knees. Did I mention that gnawing ache in your hip? (Sometimes I amaze myself that I manage to get out of bed in the morning. But, considering the alternatives....even crawling would be an option.)

It's at this time of the pre-growing season that I start to question my gardening fortitude. Maybe I should rethink all these cell packs soaking in the bathtub - over which I must bend my aching back and kneel on increasingly decrepit knees to clean the little black plastic buggers of last seasons soil remnants and possible pathogens? My enthusiasm increasingly wanes as I slog to thoughts of hauling wetted-down bags and containers of seed-starting mix. Did someone groan? Oh, that was me.

The least physical is usually relegated to a rainy, snowy, blustery, icy, nice-to-snuggle-inside-with-a-hot chocolate kind of day. The Annual Sorting of the Seeds. Culling my own saved from last year; organizing those newly purchased and making mental notations of the ones still in transit from the catalog companies. Peering through ice-covered windows, it's hard to envision planting out dates which were begat from hardening-off dates, from whence were calculated as a result of germination-dates which would discern appropriate seed-sowing dates. Coinciding with seeding commencement this year is the erection of my brand-spanking-new-portable greenhouse because it was just too cost prohibitive to invest in a permanent structure at this point. (*More on this later. Photos of husband in peril to come.*)

Initially I'd thought that this year there just wouldn't be adequate time for such "seedy" involvement under indoor gro lights. But, is there ever really enough time to do anything we really want to do? Is there ever really a right time for something bad or untoward to happen? Isn't there just a time when we finally run out of excuses - legitimate or otherwise - and simply have to take the plunge? You know, that proverbial "journey of a thousand miles"? And it's always a bigger plunge and a longer journey than we gardeners anticipate. Despite past seasons' history, we cling to illusions of control; that this season we'll keep a better handle on just how many little seedlings we'll opt to adopt. But, it's just that. An illusion. Somehow, some way...it always manages to elude our alleged control and equally inexplicably, we always manage to adapt.

The other undeniable certainty of this whole seeding game is the natural progression of our commitment: You help bring these living entities into the world, and you nurture them. Protect them and stand at the doorway of the greenhouse as they venture off into the Big Backyard World, their lunchboxes of kelp meal and (hpefully) healthy soil under their leaves. How they fare under that open canopy of sky's school may solely depend on the environment from which they were bred and raised. After all, the seedling doesn't fall far from them what's seeded them. While you know the door to the greenhouse is always open should they ever need to return for some needed CPR (Critical Plant Resusitation), they've got to fend mostly for themselves. Sigh! Seeds. They grow up so fast!

Already adrift in reverie mingled with giddy (if not somewhat painful) anticiption, I am poised with my other arsenal of seed-starting staples: a bottle of Advils, heating pad revved up at full tilt, cats nearby for a quick pet to calm nerves and once again the three of us purring to the faint aroma of fish emulsion. Warmed by the rising heat from heat mats and a bank of flourescent fixtures grateful that for another season I've still got game... even if I'm barely covering the point spread these days.