Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Dog is Getting Old

My dog, Zooey, is getting old.  I keep saying that to people.  “He’s getting old.”

When he was a younger dog and someone came to the front door he would jump up, run to the door, and bark like he was Lassie and Timmy was in a well.  The other night the UPS guy delivered a package and although Zooey really wanted to bark at him, he couldn’t get his hind legs off the tile floor fast enough.  His mind and spirit were willing but his body wasn’t.  That’s when I realized that when I say “he’s getting old” it is a subtle way of avoiding the truth.  The truth is: my dog is old.

Zooey at 5

I have always had dogs.  When I was a kid we had, at different times, good dogs, well-trained dogs, yappy dogs, rough dogs, and sweet dogs.  I loved them all in different ways and one or two of them meant the world to me.  But they were family dogs.  I had to share them with brothers and sisters and parents.

Zooey is my dog.  Although I have shared him with my wife, he has always been my buddy and her protector.

We got him at the pound when he was eight weeks old.  At the time, our marriage was about two weeks old.  He has almost literally been with us as long as there has been an “us”.

Zooey as a Puppy

I am reminded of another dog I loved.  Her name was Poco.  She lived a long life spanning the length of my elementary school days and into my college years.  When she died I wrote an essay called “Landmarks” for a class I was taking.  I was inspired to write the essay because her death, and more importantly her life, had provided me with landmarks by which I found my way.  These landmarks gave order to and created an understanding of the things that had shaped me.  She was there at the bedside when my father was dying of cancer and she was with me when we I started to heal.  She was the only one in the room with me when I watched the Red Sox lose the 1986 World Series.  She ran by me when I rode my bike and hiked in the woods.  She was the ever-present weight at the end of the bed.  She stayed up with me when I came home to do laundry.

And now with Zooey I see the pattern repeated.  He was with us in the beginning.  He saw us struggle and he offered his ears to scratch when we needed something soft to touch.  He gave us an excuse to go on walks so we could talk about our lives and figure out where we were going.  He did funny things and disgusting things that made us laugh and gag.

Both funny and disgusting.

He gave us something outside of ourselves to love and he loved us back.  We often said that having him was good practice for having kids.  Hopefully we learned from all the mistakes we made with him.  He has been with us through some really good years; years that were made better because he was a part of them.

Checking Out the New Thing

This is starting to feel like a eulogy to me and I don’t mean it to be.  I need to save some words for when the end comes.  But I recognize that I’m approaching a new landmark and I’m not sure how to get there or what to do when I’m there.  When I was a boy, I didn’t have to be the one to make the decision.  Mom called me in my Mac Hall dorm room to tell me that they had put Poco to sleep.  The burden was hers.  Now I am an adult and it’s going to have to be my decision.  I’m going to have to be the one to say that it is time.  It is “getting close to time”.  It might already be time.  I just don’t know if I’m ready or if I’ll ever be.

My Family

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Garden Dictionary

I am a nerd.  That doesn't mean I think I'm a genius like those guys on The Big Bang Theory, but I like nerdy things.  I know, I know, those of you who read this blog and who know me in person will beg to differ.  I can hear you all saying, "But Chad, you're so cool and everything you say or write is so urbane and witty.  You aren't a nerd." 

Thank you for that, by the way, but I really am.  Allow me to convince you with this confession: I subscribe to and read Dictionary.com's Word of the Day e-mails.  If that isn't sufficiently nerdy for you, how about this?  I keep those e-mails and I organize them within my Outlook folder based on subject matter, i.e. great German words (of which there are many), words related to drinking alcohol, words that could describe my friends, and words I'll never have the cojones to use in conversation. 

How is any of this relevant to a gardening blog?  It isn't.  Except, in this case, the content of the Word of the Days has been heavily doused with gardening/nature words lately and I thought I'd share some of them with you to see if we could find some clever ways to work them into our gardening "lexicon" (a former Word of the Day, I'm sure).  Leave me a comment if you know some other great but underused gardening words!

boscage \BOS-kij\, noun:

A mass of trees or shrubs.

In places the park and the site itself were edged right up to its rubble and boscage by the rear of buildings...
-- China Miéville, The City & the City
Plunging along a narrow path thick-set on each side with leafy boscage, Paul caught sight of the two retreating figures a few yards only in front of him.
-- John R. Carling, The Shadow of the Czar

Boscage comes from the Middle French word boscage, from the roots bosk meaning “a small wood or thicket” and -age, a suffix that denotes a general noun, like voyage and courage.

weald \weeld\, noun:

1. Wooded or uncultivated country.
2. A region in SE England, in Kent, Surrey, and Essex counties: once a forest area; now an agricultural region.

I am tempted to give one other case, the well-known one of the denudation of the Weald.
-- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
And your advertisements must refer to the other, which is Great Willingden or Willingden Abbots, and lies seven miles on the other side of Battle. Quite down in the weald.
-- Jane Austen, Sanditon

Related to the word wild, weald comes from the Old English word weald meaning “forest.”

copse \kops\, noun:

A thicket of small trees or bushes; a small wood.

The sun was setting behind a thick forest, and in the glow of sunset the birch trees, dotted about in the aspen copse, stood out clearly with their hanging twigs, and their buds swollen almost to bursting.
-- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Despite the December afternoon sunlight, the interior of the copse looked dark and impenetrable. The fact that none of the trees were covered in snow appeared to him to be improbable but welcome.
-- John Berger, Once in Europa

Copse is derived from the Old French word copeiz meaning “a cut-over forest” which originates in the Latin word colpaticum meaning “having been cut.”

frondescence \fron-DES-uhns\, noun:

1. Leafage; foliage.
2. The process or period of putting forth leaves, as a tree, plant, or the like.

What we found were three hundred pristine, mostly level acres with a forty-five-acre pond, completely undeveloped, covered with exquisite wildflowers and frondescence.
-- Paul Newman, In Pursuit of the Common Good
I now become aware of the sound of rumbling water, emanating from somewhere inside the rain forest next to my tropical rest stop. I approach the wet and abundant frondescence of the forest.
-- Richard Wyatt, Fathers of Myth

Frondescence is from the Latin root frondēre meaning “to have leaves.” It is clearly related to frond meaning “leaves.”

braird \BRAIRD\, verb:

1. To sprout; appear above the ground.
1. The first sprouts or shoots of grass, corn, or other crops; new growth.

Oats require about a fortnight to braird in ordinary weather.
-- Henry Stephens, The book of the farm
And yet, in puny, distorted, phantasmal shapes albeit,/It will braird again; it will force its way up/Through unexpectable fissures.
-- Hugh MacDiarmid, On a Raised Beach

Braird derives from the Old English brerd, "edge, top."

bough \bou\, noun:

A branch of a tree, especially one of the larger or main branches.

In the background, behind the pool and beneath the dramatic sidereal display, there is a little tree with a bird perched in its uppermost bough, exactly as there is on the Star card.
-- Tom Robbins, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas
He ran up the creeper as easily as though it had been a ladder, walked upright along the broad bough, and brought the pigeon to the ground. He put it limp and warm in Elizabeth's hand.
-- George Orwell, The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage

Bough can be traced back to the Sanskrit word bāhu, meaning “shoulder.”

willowwacks \WIL-oh-waks\, noun:

A wooded, uninhabited area.

There aren't many airports in Eastern Canada; you look at one like Upper Blackville, out there in the spruce-and-fir willowwacks, and wonder what it's doing there.
-- The AOPA pilot: Voice of General Aviation, Volume 37
Sure there were difficult moments, like an awkward fall below Texas Pass that twisted my previously broken ankle the wrong way, or 30 minutes lost on a wrong turn due to trail that disappeared in a stream, or a willowwacks that just wouldn't end; but overall today was a great day.
-- Mike DiLorenzo, "Yellowstone, 2005." D-Low.com

Willowwacks is of uncertain origin.

amaranthine \am-uh-RAN-thin\, adjective:

1. Unfading; everlasting.
2. Of or like the amaranth flower.
3. Of purplish-red color.

Though she had been made an amaranthine immortal when she was twelve years of age, she'd had to wait for her extraordinary abilities until her body matured to its most perfect state before fully transforming.
-- Kim Lenox, Darker Than Night
It made him jealous to imagine them lost in this amaranthine profundity.
-- Sir Compton Mackenzie, Sinister Street

Amaranthine is a form of the Greek amarantos, "everlasting," ascribed to an imaginary flower that never fades.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rant Diffused

About a year ago I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  It's probably the most important non-fiction book I've read.  And although I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a zealot and I'm definitely not a puritan when it comes to what I put in my body, I do get passionate about what I perceive to be problems with how our food reaches us and the gradual progression of our "food" becoming little more than industrial products packaged for our convenience.  Whatever knowledge and passion I have on this subject I owe to Omnivore.  If you haven't read it, you should.  (Okay, non-paid product plug out of the way.) 

My wife, on the other hand, has other things on her mind and really can't devote the sort of energy it takes to be mad at the world like I can.  I have to be okay with that because its her mind.  But every once in a while, I'll try to educate her about something without overwhelming her in the kinds of drama she doesn't want.

So when she brought home these pre-sliced apples I was prepared to turn it into a teachable moment.

You see, these apples don't turn brown.  Normally when I slice an apple it will turn brown before I can shove it into a tub of caramel and jam it into my gaping maw.  I've accepted this as a defining natural characteristic for an apple so when these apples didn't turn brown it really made me question what unnatural preservatives could be pumped into these to alter them so dramatically. 

As I've stated on this blog numerous times, I'm not scientifically-minded by nature but I am curious about science.  With that in mind, I decided it was time to conduct a non-controlled experiment.  I took this picture with the intent to see just how long it will take for these apples to turn brown.

Here we go.  Do scientists say anything at the start of
a project?  Play ball, we have lift off, or get 'er done? 

While waiting for them to turn brown I got online to do a little extra research.
Brief aside: I am of a generation that has straddled both sides of the information age.  When I was in school research was conducted by reading encyclopedias, source material, and microfiche.  My 8th grade paper was on the history of the atomic bomb.  So I went to our family encyclopedia to start reading up on the subject but I couldn't find anything on it at all.  Turned out, our encyclopedias were older than the atomic bomb was.  Kids have it so easy these days. 
Back to apples.  According to the package there are only two ingredients in these apples.  The apples themselves and calcium ascorbate.  "Haha, Crunch Pak people, I've got you in my sights now!" I thought.  If calcium ascorbate doesn't sound like scientific jargon meant to conceal ghastly side effects I don't know what does.  Acorbate just sounds like something that will harden your arteries, shut down your kidneys and cause priapism.

They don't look great, but they aren't getting browner.

Or maybe it's just good use of science.

According to a company called UniChem it's pretty harmless.  In fact, it sounds like it might even be good for us.
Ascorbic acid is the pure form of vitamin C; however, with the combination of calcium, the supplement calcium ascorbate is produced. Because calcium ascorbate is less acidic and thus, easier on the digestive tract, it can be consumed in high doses without the possible side effects like diarrhea, rashes and stomach aches that may occur in individuals who are sensitive to taking pure vitamin C.
This picture is blurry because I was too drunk on
apple cider to hold my phone still. 

It goes on to say that:
Calcium ascorbate offers an efficient way to supplement vitamin C and the essential mineral, calcium, at the same time. Amongst other mineral ascorbates, calcium ascorbate is a non-acidic form that can provide the same great benefits of vitamin C without upsetting the stomach and digestive system.
So, if the only thing that's been added to these apples to keep them from turning brown is this magical combination of vitamin C and calcium you could make the argument that these apples are even better for you than regular apples are!

Sober again.  No noticeable change in 4 hours!

Still, isn't it more than just a little unsettling that these don't turn brown?  I left the apples out overnight and still didn't notice any browning.  They had gotten very dry and the peels were starting to bubble a little bit but the flesh still looked like a fresh-cut apple.

So I've concluded that my thesis was all wrong and that these apples are probably fine.  They are probably better than fine, in fact.

For an in-depth article on how these apples were brought to market, check out this piece from the New York Times Magazine:  Twelve Easy Pieces.  Within the article are some interesting facts such as:

  • In studies, students in Florida ate twice as many apples when they were sliced as compared to whole apples.  Students in Nevada ate three times as much when the apples were sliced.
  • Americans eat half as many pounds of apples as Europeans do per capita.
  • They figured out that cutting an apple in 12 slices optimizes freshness.  Apparently, when you cut an apple in normal situations the apple increases production of the hormone ethylene.  The cutting also ruptures cells that had compartmentalized substances that suddenly spill out and intermingle.  
  • In 2005, McDonald's stocked 54 million pounds of pre-sliced apples.
  • Before the 1960s, boxcars full of unmarketable apples were dumped into Washington's Columbia river.  Then they learned to make frozen juice concentrate out of those apples instead.
  • Apple growers in Washington harvest apples in late summer and early fall and store them in oxygen-depleted containers so they can slowly distribute them throughout the year. 
So my teachable moment that I was getting all ramped up for?  Looks like the teacher became the student.  Story of my life. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Quiet Story

I have always been drawn to quiet places.

When I was nine my quiet place was within the evergreen canopy of three trees in our backyard.  At that age, quiet places let you daydream from a protected distance about how you can win the adoration of the girl you love.  A quiet place lets you pray that if you could just "go out with her" you’d never want for anything else. 

My childhood house years after we moved out.   It looks different.  Smaller, of course.

When I was 11, I found my quiet in my new bedroom in the basement.  After my father died, the house was quiet everywhere.  But the quiet downstairs was more private.  A boy could cry and not feel shame.  Or he could be happy and not worry that it was inappropriate. 

When I was 13 my quiet place needed to be farther away from home.  So I went to the woods and found a rock upon whose surface provided a view of the valley.  I could see the river and the golf course but cars, streets, and houses were far enough away to make me feel alone.  I needed that.  I needed to be alone because I felt alone anyway.  Being alone when you feel alone feels better. 

Overlooking the Little Spokane River.  One of my quiet places.

Life kept changing.  By the time I was 16 I had fallen in love and had a girlfriend.  It was a different girl than the one I prayed for when I was nine but I still prayed that if God would just let me hold onto her I would never want for anyone or anything else.  But I wasn’t ready for that kind of love.  I was jealous.  I was insecure.  I tried to hold onto things so tightly because I was afraid of losing them.  So I lost the girl.

And when Mom remarried we moved into a new house to “start over” without ghosts and I lost all those quiet places I used to go to.  I had to return to the woods to find a new place for being quiet and although I found one, my thoughts were so loud, so confused, that the quiet couldn't take hold in me.

After high school the quiet was everywhere.  I had my own car.  It burned a quart of oil every 100 miles or so, but it was mine.  I didn’t know where I was going in life, but I drove all over the place.  Maybe I was looking for direction.  Maybe I hoped to find something out there on the side of a road.  Maybe I thought the music I listened to would teach me something.  Maybe.  But I think I was just looking for more quiet.  And I found it somehow.  And I started to feel whole again. 

I spent several summers working at the camp I had grown up going to.  Nestled within the Selkirk Mountains of north-eastern Washington state, “Camp” was a beautiful, joyful place full of laughter, squeals, music, and the crackle of campfires.  It could also be a quiet place.  While I was there I had another rock to sit on.  This one dipped its stony toes in the water of the lake.  Every day I had twenty minutes or so to sit there and focus on the sound of water, the sound of my breath, the sound of my thoughts. 

A stillness abounds in this place.  

Then I had my quietest time.  Summer had ended but school was still a month away so I stayed on at Camp while everyone else went home.  I worked by myself all day.  I raked pine needles from trails.  I painted cabins.  I took down volleyball nets, stacked row boats, and organized life jackets.  It was solitary work and I can’t claim that it was always great, but I think I needed it.  At night I would slip into a canoe and paddle to the middle of the lake and let the breeze blow me around for a while.  I felt like I was right where I should be, doing everything I should be doing.

During one of those nights on the water a man who lived across the lake joined me outside.  I imagine he was looking for his own version of quiet.  He couldn't have known I was there in the middle of that small dark lake.  He couldn’t have known that when he pulled out his trumpet to play a song that he would have an audience.  He played Amazing Grace.  The notes came to me out of the darkness, over the water, and then they went through me.  I wanted to clap for him when the song ended but I didn't want to spoil the illusion.  I wanted to preserve the quiet that rushed in the moment the notes faded.

Life would never be so quiet again.

After college I lived my life as if quietness had never mattered to me.  Maybe I’d had my fill.  Maybe I was getting lazy and couldn't be bothered to seek it out.  Maybe I just didn't need it because my life felt grounded for a change.  I spent my time with friends.  We learned how to play pool and Golden Tee at the bar.  I spent a couple years splitting pizzas, electric bills, and the remote control with four other guys.  We were loud.  We were neighbors-calling-the-property-manager loud.  There was no room for quiet places.

Fizzie's was my bar.  It wasn't quiet but I spent a lot of time here with my friends.

But then I fell in love again and I married a woman who could be quiet with me.  We had a little girl.  And now here I am writing about quietness.  I spend 40 hours a week in an office.  I have to listen to other people’s music, other people’s phone conversations, other people’s whistling, toe-tapping, coughing, frustrated sighs when the copier jams, other people’s noise.  When I go home we play games, read books out loud, we pretend to be dragons and princesses and we scream when the dragon (usually played by me) roars.  These are good things.  I am lucky to have a job and I am blessed to have a family that roars and laughs.  But quietness is in short supply. 

So I garden.

My quiet corner garden.

I don't have a lake to go to and there are no woods nearby.  There is no basement in my little house.  I do have my own car, but I also have responsibilities that keep me from hopping into it and driving around all night.

So I garden.

A gift from my little girl.

And when I'm on my knees and my hands are in the ground it's as if I am praying again.  God, just let me keep what I have for as long as I can.  Let me keep this little garden.  Please let me keep this one quiet place.  Let me keep these people that mean so much to me and I promise I'll never ask for anything again.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Gifts for Gardeners - And How We Can Get Them!

During my extensive web wanderings, I see a lot of internet ads targeted at people who know a gardener that would love something related to their obsession for Christmas.  But the non-gardener is almost always at a complete loss when it comes to buying a gift that the receiver would actually need or want.  And, I fear, all too often the purchaser overpays for something that will be gratefully accepted but ultimately underused or under-appreciated.   For example Red Envelope's garden tote and set of tools for $69.95.  It's a nice thought, but any serious gardener already has these tools. And besides, has anyone in the history of the world ever made a practice of hauling their pruners, hand forks and trowels around their yard in a tote bag?    

At this point in my life I find myself in the fortunate position where I can buy for myself some of the things I need and many of the things I just flat out want.  So when Christmas rolls around and people ask me what I want for a gift this year, there just isn't that much left to ask for.  I wish I could say that my lack of a wish list this time of year had more to do with recognizing the true meaning of the season than it does with my year-long tendency to gratify myself instantly.  That sounds "dirty."  What I mean is that as long as I buy myself whatever I want all year there's really nothing special I need in December. 

Obviously, that doesn't help those people in my life who, for whatever reason, think they would like to get me a gift.  So I have been learning to do a few things to make it easier on them and I thought I'd share those things with you just in case you find yourself in a similar predicament.

Stop Buying Stuff!

The first change I implemented was that I stopped buying myself things starting around mid-October.  For most gardeners, that's not the hardest thing to do because so many of us have already finished our gardening seasons by then.  But in Zone 9A, where I garden, mid-October through mid-November is prime tree and perennial planting season.  So, on some level, this is an actual sacrifice for me (a sacrifice for which I don't get enough credit, I think).  Of course, I found a way to get around my self-imposed spending hiatus and still get trees in the ground at the best time.  I simply buy my trees earlier in the season like I did with this Strawberry Tree.  I bought back in July and kept it in the pot until it was time to plant.  Disclosure time: I've read that this is unnecessary for trees that have been in nursery pots as they will almost always be better off being planted out even in the heat of summer than they are while stuck in a black plastic cauldron.


Another change I implemented was that I started paying attention to the kinds of information I was going to Google for.  Although it seems that the world's secrets have all been recorded in HTML somewhere, inevitably, my online searches would lead me to blog postings or reviews about gardening books that promised even more information.  I find that although the gardening community is pretty subdued in its criticisms about all gardening efforts whether they be books, videos, or garden designs, the cream still rises to the top and the books with truly good information or inspiring prose would surface time and again.  If you've been paying attention to the books in the blogosphere, chances are that you've read about Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs or one of the many books written by the Garden Rant contributors like Garden Up! and Wicked Bugs.  I could easily list another 7 or 8 books just off the top of my head that have struck me as particularly interesting but I think you get the point.  But instead of buying these books for myself like I would the rest of the year, I added them to my Amazon wish list.  The great thing about the Amazon wish list is that people know about it and they can get exactly the book you want without worrying about buying the wrong addition or getting the wrong book entirely.  ("Was it Joy of Gardening or was it The Joy of Gardening?")  Even if you aren't much of a reader, gardening books can provide you with helpful data and inspiring photos.  I tend to read mine more in the winter as I stare out the window and wait for spring so they make wonderful and timely Christmas presents.   

Not gardening related, but I appreciate literal literature.

Gift Cards

Another option is gift cards.  I know, I know.  "How impersonal."  "How unthoughtful."  Well, say what you will about the worthiness of gift cards as presents; I adore them when I receive them even if I wouldn't dare to buy one for someone else without knowing that they also appreciated their plasticy promise of just what you need when you need it.  Gifts cards make good gifts for the gardener because they are easy for people to buy and they can be shipped without having to wait in line at the post office.  And, if they really want to, gift-givers can put them in a Hallmark card that says all the thoughtful things they think that the gift card doesn't communicate on its own.  But here is why a gift card is great for gardeners at Christmas time: very few things can be purchased from a nursery this time of year and put in the ground.  Heck, in many parts of the country, the plant sections of nurseries aren't even open this time of year.  So a gift card to a favorite garden center or online retailer is one way someone can give you a gardening present and still be sure that you'll eventually get exactly what you want.  Lest they think that it's still not a good gift, reassure them that the prospect of getting to use that gift card in spring will excite you throughout the winter months.  And, come spring, it will be like receiving a second gift when you actually get to use it.

Closed for the winter?

Expand Your Horizons

"Gardening" is a pretty encompassing term.  Underneath the umbrella of this one word is a plethora of genres.  You can be a vegetable gardener, a water plant gardener, a bonsai enthusiast, a daylily hybridizer, a plant propagator, a backyard orchardist, an urban farmer, a guerrilla gardener, a cottage gardener, a greenhouse grower, a fairy garden creator, a strawbale gardener and now, at least for the time being, you can even be a marijuana grower.  If you've been doing nothing but growing daylilies for the last decade, consider trying something different.  By doing so, you'll expand both your knowledge base and your shopping list.  Take bonsai, as an example.  As a new hobby you would need to get all new materials: how-to books, shallow pots, copper wiring, a concave cutter, pruning shears, planting soil, and a fresh supply of patience.  By taking up a new interest, you give someone else the opportunity to get you started off on the right foot.  You'd practically be doing them a favor by starting something new because it would be so easy for them to buy you something. 

I love pots.  I have several unused bonsai pots in my pot ghetto and in my garage. 

Consider Becoming a Collector

This is dangerous for a number of reasons, but it will make purchasing a gift for you easier for years to come.  My sister-in-law is a sweet lady.  She's so quiet, so polite, and so afraid to say anything that could possibly be construed as contrarian.  I'm not sure how she ended up in my family.  When she was a newlywed, she made the catastrophic mistake of telling my mother that she collected ceramic cow figurines.  At the time, it was just a new trend in her life and I'm sure it wasn't something she intended to make a permanent part of her life.  Two decades have passed and people are still buying her cow magnents for her refrigerator, cow-shaped cookie jars, cow-print hand towels, and yummy steaks.  Okay, not steaks; I was just kidding about that.  But now that I've mentioned it, I might have to consider that as a possibility this year.  So, if you want to collect something garden related, be sure it's something you can tolerate getting a lot of.  You should probably avoid a collection of gazing balls unless you want your flower bed to look like the ball crawl at Chuck E Cheese's. 

Ball Crawl
Which is which?  Is this the ball crawl?

Or is this the ball crawl?

Wish Lists

Finally, I'd like to revisit Amazon for a moment.  Although most people know that Amazon sells a bazillion different products, one of the coolest features of Amazon is how it puts you in touch with other retailers.  Many of the items being sold on Amazon are not actually products that will be shipped to you from Amazon but from retail partners.  But wait, there's more!  Recently Amazon featured a new tool that will help you keep track of all the wonderful things you could ever want in one simple list regardless of who has the item.  It's called the Amazon Wishlist Browser Button.  It's basically an add-on for your internet browser that you install and then, while visiting any web site if you find something you'd like, you simply click the "Add to Wish List" button and that item will be added to your list on Amazon so people don't have to hunt all over the World Wide Web to find the exact items you want.  I'm using this myself this year and hoping that my wife will get me this Hori-Hori from Annie's Annuals!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Staring Out the Window

Acer japonicum 'O isami' - Full Moon Maple
People love the fall.  They love the crispness in the air, they love the colors, the food, the sights and smells of autumn.  Heck, I’ve even read that some gardeners enjoy raking leaves! 

I get it.  I like most of those things too (you can guess which one I don’t).  As most people do, I also appreciate the unique qualities of this season.  But as a gardener, fall is not my cup of tea.  It’s not my cup of tea because I’m a wimp and I don’t like being cold. 

I grew up on the eastern side of Washington state.  It gets cold there.  Not like it might in Alaska, or in North Dakota, or in Bill and Hillary Clinton’s bedroom, but I experienced my share of “snow days”, I knew people who got frostbite, I knew that when the snow plows came through we’d have to shovel out our driveway before we could go anywhere, and I knew that when the power was knocked out for long periods there was legitimate concern that the very young and very old would be in danger. 

So you would think that when I moved to California a decade ago I would have been one of those people that would have walked around and responded to people complaining about the weather with a snarky remark along the lines of “Hah, you think this is cold?  I remember when they closed my school because the wind chill made it a hundred below zero!”  Well, okay, I’m totally guilty of that.  But somewhere along the way I acclimated to this Mediterranean climate and I stopped being that guy.  My body no longer knows what cold is.  It’s going to be a sunny 60 degrees today and people are walking around with sweaters on inside the office and they are clutching their Starbucks cups as if the emanating heat is the only thing keeping their fingers from turning blue. 

When it is warm here (warm for us, mind you), I can hardly wait to get out in the yard on a Saturday morning.  Now I put it off.  I find reasons to delay going outside.  And when I do force myself outside, I rush through what I now consider to be chores when just a month before those chores felt more like cleansing religious experiences. 

But that does not mean that the gardener in me has gone into hibernation entirely.  My heart and mind are still wholly invested in my garden.  It’s just my California-weakened body that doesn’t want to comply. 

There’s a scene in Field of Dreams that I’ve been thinking about lately because it reminded me of myself.  In this scene, Ray Kinsella has already plowed under his corn and made a very nice but completely illogical baseball field.  The neighboring farmers think he’s crazy, of course, but he knows they just don’t get it yet.  He followed his gut and trusted that his vision will come to fruition.  In a brief moment in the film, the camera catches him staring out the window at his snowed-under field.  He must be thinking about spring, wondering if everything he worked on that summer and fall will make it through the winter.  He must be doubting himself (and his choice of sweaters).  His heart and soul are out in that field but his body is stuck inside, staring out the window just waiting and dreaming. 

I catch myself in this pose and I'm gladdened by it.  There may not be much I want to do right now but so much of Spring's joy comes from Autumn's longing.       

Monday, October 31, 2011

Little Victories

One of several buckets of compost
this year!
I like to know that what I’m doing is correct.  If I think I’m doing something wrong, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll freeze in my tracks and do nothing.  This applies to most areas in my life but it was especially true in my life as an inexperienced gardener.

Not knowing when to prune the azaleas (or if you prune them at all) meant that they didn’t get pruned.  Not knowing when to plant cool season vegetable seeds meant that I bought my carrots from the grocery store.  And not knowing when my compost was done meant I just kept adding to it and made it so that it never was, in fact, finished composting.

But I’ve been learning more about these types of things over the years and gaining confidence as a reuslt.  It’s always a little surprising to me when I actually learn something that is halfway technical - a botanical name, for instance.  But what is more surprising than eventually learning a few impressive sounding names and when to perform specific chores was the realization that as far as hobbies go, gardening is pretty forgiving and it doesn’t matter if I do everything right.  The expert advice may say to plant your Japanese maple in the fall, but if you decide to plant in spring, everything should eventually work out.  I like this about gardening.  It keeps it relaxing to me and makes it more than just a scientific experiment with a strict set of rules that need to be followed.    

I like that I can buy the wrong plant for the wrong space and that my penance for the mistake might be nothing more serious than having to dig up that plant and put it somewhere else or give it away to someone who has the perfect spot for it.  How many other hobbies do you know where you can turn a mistake into a gift? 

Compost ready to be spread.

Although I’m upfront about my lack of a scientific background I have fallen in love with the very scientific act of composting.  I am pretty sure that composting is the only thing in the world that could make me interested in learning about carbon to nitrogen ratios.  It’s amazing how you can fill a bin with shredded leaves and lawn clippings and come back in a couple days to a steaming pile that has shrunk in half. 

Just how hot is your pile, anyway?

And I’ve finally gotten it down “to a science”.  I’ve finally gotten in tune with the way my garden produces debris and I’ve finally made it work for me.  This is my little victory.  I finally timed it so that I could harvest my compost bin in its entirety before the leaves of autumn began to fall. 

Spread out nice and neat - at least until the leaves fell.

That means that I have not only been able to add to my yard buckets and buckets of beautiful worm poop and whatever else makes up compost, but I’ve freed up all the space in my bin for my garden’s busiest composting months just in time. 

And if I do it right, all this should be ready for a new harvest when spring, at the opposite edge of time’s orbit, finally circles back around. 

This is a newly renovated section and that space between the Japanese maples is begging for a few
more plants.  I apologize for the over exposure.  This photo was taken with my phone at midday.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

If You Build It, I Will Plant It

My mom and her husband flew down to visit my daughter and put up with me for the weekend so I wasn't able to blog about anything while they were here.  It's not that I was too busy to blog, of course, it's just that I had to keep up the ruse that I don't have a blog called "Me So Thorny" so my sweet, sheltered, good-natured mother wouldn't discover it and become more disappointed with me.  Besides the title, I may have written a thing or two over the course of this blog's existence that weren't intended for motherly consumption. 

So there was no showing off of the blog, but I did get to show my mom around the yard so she could see what I've done with the place since she was last here.  I guess I passed her test because she wants me to come up with a design she can use for a narrow space between the L-shaped walkway that leads up to her house and the 6-foot privacy wall that borders it.  Although I'm not a professional garden designer, I decided I could still give her the family and friends rate on my services as long as she agreed to fly me down to her place in Florida and feed me for as long as the installation took.  I doubt she'll hire me.

I think we'll reach a compromise though - I'll make a few suggestions and she'll keep my name in the will.  Although my price demands won't be met, I have to admit that I was, and I remain, happy to help.  It's nice when people recognize your talents (or at least your interests) and want you to share that with them. 

Which leads me to the real point of this post.  Several months ago I ran across this planter box/trellis combo at a nursery and loved the design but not the price tag. 

I've tried to zoom in and read the price tag for the sake of accuracy but I still can't tell if it says $389 or $589.  Either way, it's a lot plus $89 more than I wanted to spend so I never pulled the trigger.  And because I chose to take Greek and Latin roots as my high school elective instead of Wood Shop, I never acquired the requisite skills to build such a contraption. 

But the other day a friend of mine, Jordan, posted a picture on Facebook of a wooden bed frame he wanted to build.  It was a pretty cool bed frame and it occurred to me that if he could build something with some artistry to it and that was also sturdy enough to sleep on every night he could probably build something that would look good in the yard and still be sturdy enough to hold some potting soil.  So I sent him the picture above and asked him if he could replicate it.  He said yes and he quoted me a price I liked and the next thing I knew I had commissioned my first piece of anything.  

Like many woodworkers, Jordan is a perfectionist.  I suppose that trait is a necessity given the high cost of both lumber and the reattachment of phalanges.  As part of his preparation for this project he decided that it would be a good idea to go to the nursery where I originally found this design and take a closer look.  Being the honest guy he is, he reported back to me that the original unit was still there and they had marked it down to $299.  "But," he said, "it's really weathered and it's a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  My price quote was for a much bigger unit.  What do you want to do?"

I have a small yard so I try to get things that fit the scale of my garden.  But, and these are big buts, I had already struck a deal with him and I wanted to honor that deal especially since he'd already put forth some effort and you can't just tell another guy that you want the smaller thing no matter what it is.  If you have any choice in the matter, things like trucks, barbecues, gigabytes on your iPad, TV screens, and Subway sandwiches all have to be as big as possible if you want to save face.  Of course, you have to be careful you don't go too big because that just encourages Napoleon Complex jokes.  You see, being a modern man requires the balance of a funambulist. 

Naturally, I yelled "build it, build it, build it!" in response to Jordan's question.  A day later I had a message from him saying he was done.  When he said he had something bigger in mind, he wasn't kidding.

This mammoth creation stands 6'4" tall and is nearly as wide.  I have no idea how much it weighs, but I can tell you that once I decide where to put it, I won't be moving it again.

I learned a couple things in this process: 1. It's more fun and more rewarding to pay your friends for their talents than it is to pay a store (although I still want to support my local garden centers!).  2. Buying large pieces of anything require some extra thought.  You know, simple questions like "where will it go?" should have a readily-apparent answer.  3. If you're going to have house guests for the weekend, make sure they have a good back so they can help you unload heavy objects and 4. bigger may not always be better but it is more fun.  [Insert "that's what she said" joke here.]  

Now the fun part: what should I put in my new planter box?  I'm in zone 9A and it'll probably end up in full sun.  I'm leaning towards something like Chilean Jasmine or an espaliered apple tree but I'd love to hear your suggestions.   

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More Grace Please

I dozed off last night at 7:15 and why shouldn’t I?  It was raining, it was cold, and it was really dark.  Besides, we had turned off Monday Night Football so my daughter could watch an episode of The Berenstain Bears and, try as I might, I just can’t maintain interest in the "Mystery of Stinky Cow Milk" since the mystery is missing after 5 or 6 viewings.  So I fell asleep.  Two months ago I would have been outside doing something in the yard instead of drooling in my chair.   

A season's worth of rampant growth and this salvia is out of control and you can't even see the other plants.

Because I work pretty standard hours, most of my gardening takes place on the weekends or, during the summer months, after work.  So when the nights are dark and the weekends are packed with other things that need to be done, it presents scheduling challenges for me as a gardener.  What I have done lately in the yard can only be described as the bare minimum - maintaining a “someone probably still lives here” appearance.  In other words, I’ve mowed the lawn, picked up buckets of dog poop, and recycled about a dozen fliers advertising landscaping services (I think they have been targeting my house since it looks like I could use their help). 

These Kangaroo Paw blooms last forever - or until mid-October, whichever comes first.

During my lunch break today I went home and had a look around the yard since the sun had finally come out and I have missed connecting with my yard.  What I saw depressed me though.  Everything looks gross.  Crepe myrtle blossoms that once looked great on the tree are now slippery booger-looking things on my pathway.  Our rainy season finally arrived but I failed to adjust the drip irrigation timer so everything that hates wet feet is looking worse for wear.  Most of the plants that were in their glory this summer now look spent and gangly.  It's almost as if it never looked good . . . 

This is just too messy for me.

There are plenty of lessons I can learn from this experience.  I could remember to adjust the sprinkler systems earlier next year.  I could schedule a vacation day next October to devote to fall clean up chores.  I could change my pathway to something easier to sweep and keep clean since it’s apparent that the stepping stone look I thought I loved is not actually compatible with my personality . . . or, I could take the advice of Deborah Silver who recently wrote this bit of gardening wisdom:

I do not have the means or space to mount and maintain a garden that is lovely every moment of the entire season.  I have to make choices.  I like a late and a later season garden . . . This has every bit as much to do with my availability, as their form and flowers. There are very few garden plants I do not like.  I would have them all, if I could.           

But there are those plants that get special care and attention, as their time to be corresponds with my time to give. The big late blooming perennials-they occupy a special place in my gardening heart.  As for your garden, I would make this suggestion.  Choose the season that delights you the most-and go for broke.  If you want to grow great vegetables, organize your gardening efforts accordingly, and make plans for rocking pots of basil.  If you have a summer house elsewhere, make spring your season.  If you are a working person, plan for a glorious garden when you are the least busy.

Trying to be all things at all times sounds way too much like a competition.  A great garden that engages and satisfies an individual gardener is all about enabling a certain quality of life.  Those astonishingly beautiful pictures you see of gardens in magazines-they are all about a specific moment chosen by a gardener.  Choose your moment.

If Oprah and I were friends, I’d confide in her that reading the paragraphs above provided me with my “Aha! Moment” as a gardener.  As much as I would love to have a perfect looking garden in October it is, apparently, the time of year when I have the least to give my garden.  So I’m going to give myself a little more grace and I’m going to try to be happy with giving what I can. 

My Aha! Moment needs a light bulb above my head, but all I have is this lantern.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I Have the Green Thumb

I may not be the most talented or successful gardener in the world, but at least in my household, I'm the one with the green thumb.  If you needed any proof here it is:

My wife received these lovely flowers for a job well done at the office:

Like many bouquets, it came with plant food.  Wanting the blooms to last as long as possible, my wife added the plant food to the water.


Don't those look nice?  Except . . . what is that?  There's something floating in the vase.  Um, yeah . . .  Whatever is floating in the water, and this is just an educated guess, but I think it should probably not be there.

I really wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt here.  Maybe the packet was supposed to dissolve and allow the fertilizer to seep out at a slower pace? 

Unfortunately, I can see from the directions that you are, in fact, supposed to open the packet and poor the fertilizer into the water. 

Oh well, at least she tried.