Thursday, January 27, 2011

What a Scrumper!

I drove home on my lunch break today and saw something that amazed me. It’s important to note that it was my lunch hour; 12:00 noon. In other words: it was broad daylight.

A few blocks ahead of me was a pickup truck with a little ladder on the side and a large rubber hose mounted in the back. It was apparent to me that this was a working truck, just passing through the neighborhood.

I watched as this truck drove past a house with two good sized orange trees in the front yard. Then I saw the truck stop, back up, and cough out a driver who wasted no time jogging over to the tree where he proceeded to shake the lower branches.

I watched him shake it and shake it and though I was dismayed by his actions, I was thrilled when none of the oranges fell. Who does he think he is that he can just pull over and steal fruit from someone? As I passed him I slowed down enough that I hoped he would see me give him my most disapproving look and a wag of the finger. It’s not my house, it’s not my tree, and it doesn’t hurt me any but come on! My neighborhood is not perfect, but we can’t allow people to go about scrumping our fruit. This is where I draw the line!

Of course, I can’t think thoughts like these and put them to paper without simultaneously thinking that I am becoming a grumpy codger who should be embarrassed for his lack of "damn the man" attitude and general live-and-let-liveness.

So, to justify my feelings, I decided to find out if this is one of those things that’s just my problem and something I need to forget about, or do others feel the same way I do? Tangent Alert: this is the same thinking process I went through when the new neighbors started parking in front of my house. Turns out THAT is a hot button topic, but I'm proud to say that I have been dealing with that annoyance much better lately.

I wish I could say that the first place I thought to look for guidance was the bible. But it wasn’t. Come on now, folks! Google knows all! But Google led me to the bible anyway. In the 23rd chapter of Deuteronomy, a book written about 2500 years ago, it actually deals with this very issue. (So much for being a timely, modern blog post!) The last two verses of the chapter say "When you enter your neighbor's vineyard, you can eat all of the grapes you want. But don't put any of them in your basket. When you enter your neighbor's field, you can pick heads of grain. But don't cut down his standing grain.”

It’s the food world’s version of turning the other cheek so long as they don’t go about beating you senseless. Many of the people I found online ultimately come to a similar conclusion. There's a right way and a wrong way to "steal" fruit.

Still, doesn’t taking fruit without asking first feel like stealing and isn’t there something else in the bible about not doing that? Without getting too deep into a discussion on the biblical idea of being a "neighbor", doesn’t it seem like there is a difference between some random guy stopping his truck and taking your oranges and the neighbor kid two doors down who picks up an orange that has fallen to the ground?

I've distilled what I believe are some of the points that right-thinking people can agree upon:
1. If a tree hangs over public property, such as a sidewalk, fruit in easy reaching distance is fair game.
2. If the fruit has fallen to the ground, it is fair game.
3. If a person walks onto your private property, climbs a fence, or damages your tree in any way, that is just wrong.
4. If a person takes more than a few fruits, that is just greed and not the good kind that Gordon Gecko talks about.
5. It's perfectly acceptable to booby trap your tree with fake hornet's nests, motion-detector water guns, and barbed wire.

Of course, the way the world works these days, you're probably asking for a lawsuit if the would-be thief injures himself on your property. Maybe it's best to keep your fruit trees planted in the backyard or keep your harvest expectations low.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The 4th and Forgotten Dimension in Gardening: Time

For as often as I think about time and plan for things in the future, I would hope that I would be more in tune with the passage of time. I am not. I overestimate time. Then I underestimate it to compensate. I get excited about this point in time and I make decisions based on right now. Then I see my mistakes and reverse course and try harder to think with an eye on the future which is a great way to sacrifice the present.

When I moved into this house about 8 years ago, much of the landscaping was already done for me. In this bed here:

the former owner had planted jasmine, azaleas and a juniper. I liked the jasmine and azaleas enough to keep them but I ripped out the juniper that had been struggling in the shade of this location and started with half of a clean slate into which I immediately dumped some white African daisies which looked great for about 6 weeks.

Back then, I was just beginning my infatuation with Japanese maples and all I really knew was that in my zone (9a) they prefer some morning sun with afternoon shade. Well, this particular spot gets filtered shade all morning thanks to a large fruitless mulberry tree and the rest of the day it resides in total shade. It seemed a perfect spot for a shade-loving tree. So I went to Home Depot and bought a twig-sized Crimson Queen and plopped it in the ground. After I ripped out the daisies, which didn't do well once the mulberry leaves had grown in, I also bought a couple 1-gallon sized hydrangeas because those do well in shade too, right? I remember standing back and admiring my handiwork once I had planted those hydrangeas. Here I was learning about shade and sun exposure and a little bit about design.

You wouldn’t know it from this picture taken from my iPhone today,

but that Crimson Queen now spends all day hiding behind those hydrangeas and it's growing quite nicely. If only you could see it to appreciate it!

What I failed to take into account when planning this bed was time. I knew that the Crimson Queen would grow slowly and that the hydrangeas would grow faster. But when I got home from the nursery that day the Crimson Queen was three times the height of those itsy bitsy hydrangeas and it just looked better having the Crimson Queen at the back of the bed. After all, the design books say tall things in back, medium height plants in the middle, and low-growing plants on the borders. It seemed like I was following that advice.

But I looked at the plants that day in 3D only. Had I considered the 4th dimension, I would have designed this bed differently.

Which leads me to this weekend when I hope to fix my mistake. I’m going to dig up that tree and put it where you can actually see it. Then I’m going to put at least one of the hydrangeas against the wall where it should have gone in the first place. I might try to give the other one away. Who knew they would get so large anyway?

Of course, I expect that three years from now I’ll be moving something else around because I will have failed to consider some other design flaw that will only reveal itself in time.

(Proof that the tree does exist)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Feeling S.A.D.?

These winter months are so dreary. As gardeners we experience these months as a time between other, better times. And it can get pretty bleak. But there could be more to that feeling of general malaise than just missing time with your plants.

Before moving to Sacramento, California, I spent most of my life living in the Pacific Northwest – a region known for its cloudy, rainy days. The higher longitude also meant that in the fall the days start getting much shorter much faster than they do down here in Sacramento and by December 21st the days are so short and so often dreary that you start to forget what it was like to see the sun shine.

There’s no other way to say it: it is depressing. The gloom, the snow, the slush, the fog, the cold, the lack of anything with color . . . it can all be soul-sucking even for those that don’t care about gardening and don’t need to get outside to enjoy their pastime. When I lived further north I hadn’t yet started to garden so I wasn’t confused about missing the joy gardening brings me now. But I did miss something. I attributed that feeling to not getting to play sports or go for hikes in the woods and, ultimately, a lack of exercise.

It took me a while to realize this, but it was likely that I was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Of course, being a typical male I never bothered going to a doctor for an official diagnosis so that is just my own WebMD-informed opinion.

According to the Wikipedia entry on the subject, SAD is a “mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter . . . year after year.” The American Psychiatric Association notes that SAD has been linked to a “biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in the winter.” It’s also thought that a sleep-related hormone, melatonin, is associated with SAD. Melatonin has links to depression and it is produced at higher levels in the dark.

The United States National Library of Medicine says that people with SAD can exhibit symptoms including sleeping too much, having little energy, craving sweets and starchy foods. They might feel depressed too. It is estimated that half a million people in the United States suffer from winter-onset depression and that another 10% to 20% may experience mild SAD symptoms. In other regions of the world that are further from the equator, like the UK, as many as 1 in 50 people are believed to have SAD and 1 in 10 people living in the Netherlands are thought to suffer from SAD.

The good news is, for most people these symptoms clear up on their own when spring comes. In the meantime, if you think you might have SAD you can go to your doctor and inquire about treatments which typically range from simply trying to get out in the sun more, light therapy, psychotherapy sessions, and in more severe cases to taking medication.

Aside from any doctor-recommended treatments, here are a few activities you can try to see if they help pull you out of the annual “winter blues funk.” Even if you feel fine this winter you could try some of these options just to see if they make you feel even better than fine.

If you do have SAD, it’s likely that you live in an area where there aren’t many gardening activities you can do this time of year. But don’t let that stop you from going out in the garden anyway and soaking up some of those beneficial sun rays. Bundle up and go out for a stroll in the backyard.

Take a closer look at the way things look in the winter. It is a good time to take note of what is missing (evergreens perhaps?). Try to appreciate the naked form of the branches of your deciduous trees. Spend a few minutes studying the branches and note which ones should be trimmed when the time is right. Maybe even mark those branches with a garden tie so you can come back later.

Is there a nursery in your area that has an outdoor area you can visit? Why not take a trip there and spend some time wandering the aisles? You probably won’t want to buy any plants just yet, but it’s a good time to look for new tools, garden art or patio furniture especially since many places will offer these off-season items at steep discounts. Try going around noon to get the most sunlight possible. When you’re done, stop for a bite to eat and order some fish or something else that is high in Vitamin D.

If you can’t motivate yourself to go outside at all, you can try just sitting next to a bright window. Try looking at your garden from inside your cozy home and think about what you’d like to do with it in the spring. Take your time and soak in that light while you can.

Perhaps you have a hobby related to gardening that you could focus on and that would get you outside? For example, this winter I have committed to learning how to really use my digital camera. I’m going to take a one-day class and then try to be intentional about taking field trips to practice what I learn so that when spring comes I can finally take a decent macro shot of a cool bloom or a crisp photo of a bird perched in a far away tree.

These are just suggestions and they are by no means meant to replace the advice of a trained medical professional. The important thing to remember is that if you think you have SAD, you don’t have to suffer needlessly.

Follow your doctor’s orders, try these suggestions, think of your own ways to get out and enjoy the sunlight and maybe, just maybe, you can make winter a wonderful season again.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sitting in the Garden

When I think about what I want from my garden it almost always leads to daydreaming about a perfect afternoon spent in a hammock or Adirondack chair, reading a book without having the sun in my eyes, feeling quiet and alone, maybe having a sweating gin-and-tonic nearby.

Everything I want to do in the yard is supposed to be in support of this vision. I plant trees for shade, vines to obscure sightlines or to soften walls, and ornamental grasses so that it will whistle when the wind blows through and drown out the sounds outside my little Eden.

But it never comes to that. There is never a finished project for me to recline in and enjoy.

I am frequently reminded of a quote that I have enjoyed thinking about but seldom acted upon. Blaise Pascal wrote:

"Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so."

Although it may be difficult to apply this thinking to some areas of our lives such as finances, applying it to gardening seems rather easy. We even have a well-worn cliché that sums it up pretty nicely: stop and smell the roses.

Against all odds, I did just that today. I was home for my lunch hour and the sun was shining for the first time in days so I wandered outside. After poking my head over the fence to get a better look at the carnage my neighbor created the other day, and tucking in a few unruly threads of jasmine, I wandered over to the part of the garden that will eventually be where that perfect afternoon takes place and I sat down. I sat down and didn’t do anything but look around and enjoy the sun in my eyes. The garden is a mess. There are leaves everywhere. There was pungent evidence that my dog had been there (and evidently ate something he shouldn’t have). There were dozens of things I could have done to improve the garden. But I resisted all urges so that I could just enjoy being there in the present. Thanks for the advice, Blaise.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Views

It was supposed to be a relaxing Saturday. I was going to do some yard work in the morning and then settle in with the wife and child and watch the first weekend of playoff football. And then I heard it. A chainsaw.

To me, a chainsaw in someone else's hands is like watching a child lean over the railing at the Grand Canyon. You want to believe that they know what they are doing but deep down (ok, not that deep down), you are panicked that they don't possess the same common sense that the rest of us do and at any moment they might do something senseless and life-altering.

It's not really a safety issue with the chainsaw though. Heck, I've had a couple close calls myself. What scares me is what the person wants to do with that chainsaw. That's where the senseless and life-altering bit comes into play.

And this weekend my worst fears came true. The guy behind me decided to cut down a perfectly beautiful tree that had, until Saturday, given me something green to look at all year long.

At first I thought he was just cutting off a few branches . . . you know, maybe he just wanted to do some cosmetic limbing up. I guessed that would be okay. But a few minutes later, while the Seahawks were on their way to an unpredictable victory over the favored Saints - a feat that I should have been ecstatic about - all I could do was stare out the window with a tense jaw and a helpless rage as I watched the top of the tree start to angle and then fall, taking with it my happy Saturday.

Now I'm left with the view in this picture which I do not find particularly beautiful. Truthfully, I hate this view now but I'm trying desperately not to overreact. Although I had no intention of doing something different in the flower bed here, this problem has kick-started my creative juices. I'm thinking of moving the weeping cherry tree planted here and replacing it with something faster growing and evergreen. Or maybe I'll choose a tall Japanese maple with striking winter interest? My neighbor apparently hates perfectly good trees (and perhaps he hates me as well) but I don't. So this weekend I have a date with the nursery.