Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Crimes Against Key Limes

When I was just a young padawon gardener without a gardening Jedi to instruct me, my wife returned home from a business trip to Florida bearing a key lime seedling as a gift for me. 

Although northern California is perfect for growing just about every kind of food crop you can imagine, the key lime is not entirely hardy here . . . but it was close enough to give it a shot. 

I suppose it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: that tiny seedling that was brought home in a  woman's purse grew into a bona fide tree in a couple years.  I know, imagine that!

My wispy Key Lime tree in the lower left corner - photo taken in October, 2005.

As I mentioned, key limes aren’t entirely cold hardy here and I wasn’t sure if I’d even like the look of it as it grew into a mature tree, so I chose not to commit ground space to it - although I know that would have probably given it a leg up when the frosts arrived.  So it went into a pot, which it outgrew soon enough, and then I moved it to a half wine barrel where it spent the remainder of its days (that, my friends, is called “foreshadowing”). 

As it turns out, key limes are pretty small and mine never got bigger than a ping pong ball.  It also turns out that, just like Poison told us about roses, every key lime has its thorn too (yeah, it does).  Key lime thorns are abundant, super sharp, and a hazard to anything knitted or made of flesh.  So for the past six years I took a live and let live (or die) approach with the tree.  I gave it some fertilizer once in a while and it got regular water from a drip irrigation system but the tree never really thrived and I never really tried.  There was just no reason to devote a lot of effort to this tree.  It was ugly, mean, and lazy.     

So I killed it. 

And then I performed an autopsy to figure out why it had died.  It turns out that the primary cause of death was repeated hatchet wounds to the lower trunk area.  Secondary causes of death included being root bound to an embarrassing degree and all the corresponding maladies such as a lack of ability to take up water and nutrients.  Like I said, I killed it. 

This mat of roots was at the very bottom of the wine barrel and had to be cut out.

A more appropriately repentant gardener may have given up on torturing citrus right then.  But I had an empty wine barrel, a lust for citrus, and a desire to prove to myself that I could grow something edible.  

By this time though I knew enough to know what I didn’t know so I consulted the web site of Four Winds Growers to help figure out something suitable for container culture in my Zone 9A garden.  I decided on a Washington Navel Orange which, the web site touted, is California’s “famous winter-ripening variety.  Sweet, seedless fruit that ripens in ten months.” 

I have taken much better care of my orange tree.  I give it small doses of 2-1-1 equivalent fertilizer every 4-6 weeks (honestly – more like when I realize it’s been a while), it gets daily water that I adjust based on how quickly the potting soil is drying out, and I even rotate the pot 45 degrees once in a while to help ensure even exposure to the sun to help balance growth.  I plan to take it out of the pot to root prune it and then repot it after the next harvest. 

Other than a few oranges splitting, which was probably caused by extreme temperature fluctuations outside of my control, 

and the fact that it’s not the prettiest tree in the world, I’ve been very happy with my tree and I’m looking forward to enjoying these babies come Christmas time.  

And when I get a hankering for a slice of key lime pie, I just go to the bakery.  All it costs me is a few bucks and a silent prayer asking for forgiveness for what I have done.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Photo Bombing

Photo Bombing.  If you look in the Urban Dictionary there are two definitions; only one of them is fit to quote on my PG-13 blog.  The quotable definition describes photo bombing as "the fine art of ruining other people's photos."

Back in the 90s, before I knew what it was called, I enjoyed photo bombing.  My forte was getting into pictures being taken for the college yearbook.  Among others, I was featured in the International Club photo, dorm photos for dorms I didn't live in, and (shown below) the Pre Med Club.  I was an English major in college.  The closest I got to pre med was rooming with a biology major.

I suppose I got over my desire to photo bomb because I stopped doing it at some point.  Besides, digital cameras have removed the cost factor in taking multiple pictures so today's photo bombers have a harder time permanently sabotaging a photo shoot.  These days I limit my photographic high-jinks to things like getting my picture taken while riding the painted cows in Boston or by hopping on chained-up bikes in Sacramento and pretending that I'm flying down the road.  Immature?  You betcha.  But it's usually worth a few laughs.

Picture quality may have been
compromised by Sam Adams.
Like many gardeners and bloggers, I have developed an affinity for being on the other side of the shot too.  Everyone knows that the right picture says a thousand words but, time permitting, it's in my nature to add a thousand more of my own just to be sure.  When I don't have time to write a thousand words about a single plant or a particularly magical gloaming, I turn to my camera to capture the moment.  Most of my pictures are just ordinary amateurish images that I have taken just so I can look back in a year and see how much a tree has grown.  Sometimes, like in the early spring picture below, I take a photo of my daughter as she seems to grow and change faster than anything else.

In case it didn't jump right out at you, take another look at the background of this picture.  Yep, that would be my dog photo "bombing" this picture.

If he could talk, I'm pretty sure he'd dismiss my remonstration by saying he learned it from watching me . . .

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pot Ghetto

I re-potted this Acer palmatum 'Koto No Ito'  just
because I liked the pot and it was on sale.

The most amazing things to me about A&E’s show, “Hoarders” isn’t the amazing amount of junk that gets collected by people, it’s the amazing number of people they find to feature on the show. 

It's easy to scoff at them but it usually turns out that hoarding is a response to some kind of emotional trauma suffered by the hoarder and letting go of their junk requires them to first deal with the reason why they started their hoarding.  If I hadn’t watched this show, I would have gone on assuming that hoarding is what happens when the average person lets their collecting gene go unchecked. 

I have always allowed my collector gene to manifest itself in whatever manner it felt like.  When I went to the shooting range (i.e. the abandoned gravel quarry in the woods) with my dad and older brothers I shot my BB gun for a little while, but the real fun was collecting my dad’s spent .22 shells and putting them back in the containers they came in.  I collected baseball cards too and eventually filled my room with them.  Then I started collecting books and magazines.  Or at least not getting rid of those I had read.  And for unexplainable reasons I saved toenail clippings in an empty 35mm film canister for a year (or two) in college.  That last bit should probably never have been published because I'm pretty sure that proves I'm a bit off, but I’m willing to admit it here so I can make my point: when I watch "Hoarders" I find myself saying “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” 

Keeping my collections under control is still a struggle for me though.  So a few months ago I decided to read a book called “The Joy of Less.”  The book had a profound impact on the way I viewed the things I have and what gives them value.  It really got me to examine why I keep things like books that I will never read again.  Answer: on the off chance that by having it on my bookshelf a visiting friend will give me +1 in intelligence when they review my belongings to make their assessment of how I live my life.  I know, it’s stupid, but that’s got to be the only reason to hold onto that second copy of "Skinny Legs and All". 

So I’ve been minimizing.  I donated bags full of clothing that doesn’t fit my waistline or my current style.  I finally got to the point where I could recycle CD jewel cases without feeling like I was losing something irretrievable.  And then I threw away about 100,000 worthless baseball cards.  

This was just the first of three great baseball
card purges.

I have made a lot of progress and I have reclaimed some valuable space in my home.  But there is one area where I may have gotten a little worse: my growing “pot ghetto”.  Whoever coined that phrase must have been a poet because it perfectly captures the spirit of any collection of unused pots. 

Pot Pit

My collecting of pots started innocently enough.  My patio takes up a huge portion of my backyard so I started adding pots to it to break up the otherwise nondescript concrete.  One pot wasn’t enough and every good designer knows you can’t have an even number of design elements so two pots wouldn’t suffice either.  Three pots clustered together was a good start but it didn’t leave me enough room to grow a plumeria or some running bamboo that couldn’t be trusted in the ground.  Even numbers still don’t work so four pots wouldn’t suffice – I needed five for sure. And that was just in one corner of the patio.  There was still plenty of surface space that could use some embellishment.  So now I have pots all over the place.  I even have pots that don’t have plants.  They are just collecting cobwebs in my own personal “projects” section of my yard.  

My poor neighbors have to look at this
when they spy on me in my yard.

I justify keeping the extra pots by saying that I can use them to house impromptu plant purchases or for plant divisions or just to mix and match colors as the seasons change.  But the truth is, just like the shirts I donated to GoodWill, my taste in pots keeps changing.  I need bigger pots in newer styles.

The difference is, I haven't been able to bring myself to tear down my pot ghetto and I don't think I ever will.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I have been thinking about fear lately.  Like most things, fear belongs on a continuum.  On one end there is the polite “fear” we experience when we say “I fear he isn’t home.  Can I take a message?”  Or the uneasy fear of self-loathing we get when we are forced to listen to John Mayer's album "Continuum".  And on the other end there is the fear of public speaking which many say is worse than their fear of death. (Raising my hand.)

In my last post I explored my fear of spiders.  On the continuum, I’d place my arachnophobia above my fear of dropping my keys into a storm water grate, but well below my lingering fear that someday I’ll show up for class with no clothes on.  Never mind the fact that I haven’t been in school for years

Although there are things that seem to be universally feared (toy clowns, being alone forever, and dentists), I believe that our fear is uniquely personal.  There’s always a reason for our fears.  My wife fears birds because of an incident that happened years ago.  From what I’ve pieced together, it sounds like some poor bird had the misfortune of entering her house through the chimney and flying around while my wife, a young girl at the time, and her mother ran about frantically screaming and waving tennis rackets at it.  At least that’s how I imagine the scene.  The point is, that's her personal reason for fearing birds.  I knew that about her but I totally miscalculated where on the continuum she ranked her ornithophobia.

You see, for years I’ve done everything I could to encourage birds to come into my yard.  I faithfully restock my bird feeder, I keep my fountain full and clean for them to use if they are brave enough, and I have refrained from using any chemicals that would harm them.  And they’ve thanked me by swarming my yard and dining on my seeds and hopefully my unwanted bugs.  At times, I can look out into my postage-stamp sized yard and count dozens of tweety birds, blue jays, and doves.  And I never once noticed my wife cowering in the corner when this happened.  Because she continued to bring home bags of bird seed for me I just figured her fear of birds only related to invasions of Hitchcockian proportions.

Early this spring I noticed that a sparrow kept flying up to the eaves in the front of our house.  I went to investigate one day and discovered that a screen beneath the eave had been pushed back allowing entrance into our attic.  The sparrow had decided it was a good place to make a nest and I didn’t mind.  After all, it’s not the kind of attic that is used to store old mementos.  It’s just for insulation, spider webs, and ghosts.
Broken attic screen and cobwebs.  Lovely, no?

Weeks or months passed (I wasn’t paying attention to how long) until one day I started noticing constant chirping.  It seemed that a couple eggs had hatched.  Again, a couple weeks went by (or maybe a month?) and I assume it was time for the birds to grow up and start taking care of themselves like every other responsible bird does.  But these birds were total slackers.  They were either too lazy to leave or were too dim-witted to figure out how.  Instead of leaving the nest via the convenient exit their mother had created for them, they decided to go through the attic to the other side of the house where the vents were securely fastened and not budging no matter how incessantly they chirped.  This went on for two days – I paid attention this time.  Midway through the second day I got a text from my wife in all capital letters which is like the modern day version of a parent using their child’s first, middle, and last name to get their attention.  “THERE ARE BIRDS LIVING IN OUR ATTIC.  YOU NEED TO TAKE CARE OF THIS.”  Well, yeah, there are birds living in our attic.  They’ve been up there for weeks (or months)!  I thought she knew this already.  I thought it didn’t bother her because she hadn’t said anything yet.  Apparently, when I told her “we have birds living in our attic” she just tuned me out because I was talking about the garden again and tuning me out is how she puts up with my barrage of useless-to-her information.        

When I arrived home from work a little while later, dinner was almost ready and it smelled so good that I just sort of forgot about the birds, the text message, and the fear continuum.  It was chow time! 

And then all hell broke loose.  As we ate, the chirping that we had been ignoring over the last few days changed.  Suddenly it sounded as if the birds had found their way inside and they had brought a megaphone with them.  They were that loud.  But not as loud as my wife’s silent glare.  Uh-oh.  I knew that glare was screaming “I TOLD YOU TO TAKE CARE OF THIS.”  So I went to investigate. 

In our hallway we have a whole-house fan.  I’m not sure how common these are in other parts of the world but the basic concept is that you have a big, loud fan that draws cool air through open windows in your house and cycles it through your attic.

Our lazy little birds were sitting on the attic-side of the fan chirping for help while their voices echoed off the metal of the vent. 

Not worried about anyone’s fear continuum (because they were just baby sparrows) I got a broom out and used it to push open the vents.  Too my surprise, one of the birds dropped right through and landed with a flurry of wings and screeches.  The flurry belonged to the birds.  The screeches were my wife’s. 

I decided that the best way to handle this would be to get a bucket and something flat to cover it with for a scoop and release.  But when I came back with them I couldn’t find the bird anywhere.  And then I heard the chirping in the attic again.  I concluded that the bird had somehow figured out how to fly and had pushed its way back into the safety of the attic.  A few minutes later I was in the attic, armed with a bucket, a piece of cardboard, and an iPhone flashlight app.  Sure enough, there was the bird sitting on top of the fan.  I was able to scoop him up pretty easily and take him outside to dump him in a place where my dog wouldn’t just eat him.    

On my way to the release point, I passed my wife who had retreated to the safety of the yard throughout this event.  I remember thinking how I must have looked like her knight in shining armor as I carried away her great fear in a bucket.  Men reading this are probably nodding their heads while the women are shaking their heads with a knowing look of pity on their faces. 

For the male readers I should probably spell it out.  See, it turns out that when I came home I was expected to take care of the birds right away.  I had chosen to tend to my fear of being hungry over tending to my wife’s fear of birds in the house.  I apologized.  Although I felt I had taken care of it, her point that I had done it on my time and in response to how I measured the situation was well taken. 

But at least it was all done and we could move on.  Now that I had cleared the attic I could go fix the screens and that would be the end of it. 

Days passed with no more chirping.  The birds had moved on.

The ensuing silence was filled, however, with the unmistakable smell of rot.  “Oh no,” I thought, “I missed one and that poor bird finally died in the attic.”  I almost wish that had been the case.  As my wife discovered a day or two after we both discovered the smell, neither me nor my dog are very good trackers.  That bird that initially fell through the fan that I couldn’t find that I just assumed had learned to fly?  Yeah, I’m pretty sure it didn’t find its way back into the attic.  It died on the floor of our guest room. 

You know what else is scary?  Maggots . . . 

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Salesman, Spiders, and the Heebie-Jeebies

I hate it when strangers come to the front door.  I don't personally despise the people that do it.  I know they've got products to sell or beliefs to share and I support that.  I just don't enjoy telling people no thanks, not interested, or not today.

Once upon a time I was the person that would show up at people's front doors.  But I wasn't selling anything or bringing Good News.  I wasn't even bringing lower case good news.  I worked as a process server throughout my college years.  If you don't know, process servers are the people that show up with eviction notices, divorce papers, or subpoenas to appear in court.  Like I said, not good news.  So I've got some level of sympathy for these guys.

But this last week I saw a uniformed guy going door-to-door while we were eating dinner so I did what every sympathetic person would do.  I closed the blinds and pulled the curtains closed so we could pretend like we weren't home.  I told my wife and child not to make a peep and then I spied on him.  I saw him go up the steps at the next-door neighbor's house and ring the door bell.  He glanced toward my house while he waited and I darted back from my hiding spot between the curtains.  Twenty minutes went by and there had been no knock on the door so I assumed my non-verbal message was received clearly.  I opened the curtains and the blinds and went about my normal post-dinner routine.

And then it came.  Knock, knock.  Who's there?  Interrupting cow.  Interrupting cow [Moooooo].  (That's my daughter's favorite joke right now except when she tells it, she politely waits for you to finish asking "Interrupting cow, who?" before she says "moooooo" and breaks into hysterics.)

This guy had caught me with my blinds open so I had to at least give him the courtesy of listening to his pitch.  He was selling a discounted neighborhood rate for organic poison that they would guarantee would kill all our ants and spiders from the foundation of the house all the way to the curb.  If all the neighbors did it, we could rid the entire block of pests!  But wait, there was more!  As part of their expert service they also look for spider egg sacks so they not only kill the existing spiders but future generations as well.  It sounded like a great deal if you hate living things.

Spider webs are all over this geranium.
I don't want to get too preachy because I know people have different views on this (including one friend of mine who may or may not read this blog).  But since this is my blog I'll tell you where I stand.  I don't like spiders.  They creep me out.  I'm pretty sure there is dead tissue in my arm from a black widow's bite.  But the worst thing about spiders are their webs.  They are everywhere this time of year and they not only collect dead bugs but every bit of yard debris small enough to get kicked up in the wind.  It's a giant, ugly, ghastly mess. 

Blades of cut grass caught up in spider webs along my fence.
Every time I want to relax in my Adirondack chair I have to bring my "spider stick" so I can knock down the webs that I know will be all over the chair and threaded through the slats of it.  It's a pain in the butt but it beats the feeling that you are sitting on top of a spider's nest.  And really, is there a worse feeling in the world than running your face through a spider web?  No, there isn't.  Plus, once you run your face through a spider web, you are bound to get the heebie-jeebies all day long and every time you feel something you have to assume it's the hairy legs of the spider who built that web and it is about to crawl into your ear and exact gruesome revenge on you for having destroyed its hard work.  (In my mind, "gruesome revenge" could mean any of the following: biting your ear drum, laying eggs in your ear canal, or simply taking up camp in your ear and refusing to leave.)

In spite of my loveless relationship with spiders, I have so far avoided the temptation to spray my yard to destroy them because I have read enough about beneficial bugs (spiders aren't insects, apparently) to be concerned about preserving the predator-prey balance in my yard.  I know that if I destroyed generations of spiders in my yard I would only be trading one pest for several others and right now I'm not dealing with aphids or mites or scale and I don't want to.  I just have to put up with the inconvenience of spider webs and, from time to time, I have to smash one in a Kleenex and flush it down the toilet if it decides to take up residence inside.

Like the weeds in my lawn, the spider webs that adorn my fences, eaves and corners are visual representations of my reluctant acceptance of the idea that in order to maintain my garden in a way that I feel good about, I have to accept that there will sometimes be aspects of it that I don't necessarily like.

So, I've been researching non-toxic deterrents for spiders for those areas where I would prefer them to stay away.  The one suggestion that seems to come up most often is to use lavender.  Um, that picture right above this with the spider web attached to the flower . . . that's lavender.  Any other recommendations?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bleeping Squirrels!

I didn't use to mind squirrels.  In my mind they were just harmless little animals that looked like they were having a great time chasing each other and showing off their stunt man-like ability to jump from trees to rooftops to fences.  Oh, sure, there was a time in college when I was convinced that the squirrels on campus were absolutely targeting me with pine cones but I confess to having had a perverse enjoyment of that.  It was like having a daily obstacle course on my way to class.  Okay, maybe "daily" is overstating it, but whenever I went to class it was like an obstacle course. 

Then I got a dog and everything changed.

For the last decade I have more or less adopted my dog's innate hatred of squirrels.  Nothing about the nature of squirrels has changed in those years, of course, but their presence in my yard has resulted in a nearly endless concert of barking and destruction.  When a dog sees a squirrel, it wants to kill.  And when that dog lives with a gardener, what ends up dead is usually just the plant that was going to bloom in a few days had it not been snapped in half by a 90-pound canine on a blood-thirsty crusade.  And I have blamed the squirrels for this. 

But lately my dog has been slowing down.  His hips just don't work like they used to.  He will still attempt to gore a squirrel if he has already been up and walking for a while, but more often then not, he will simply issue a few protesting barks and then lay his head back down as if to say "to hell with it."  It's sad that he is slowing down because it makes it hard to put off thoughts about what comes next for him.  But if I'm honest, the less aggressive personality is kind of a nice change.

So with the dog slowing down, the squirrels have been amping up.  Apparently, word has spread throughout the neighborhood's Squirrel Syndicate that it is now safe enough to venture into my yard to glean the fallen bird feeder seeds or scrounge for whatever else squirrels like to eat.  They come by so much now that it's getting to the point where I actually recognize some of them; this one in particular:

I have had several close encounters with this particular squirrel including one startling episode in which I embarrassed myself in front of several passing motorists.  I pride myself on being a protective father and I was trying to live up to that role while walking my daughter home from the park when the squirrel in question surprised me by running along the fenceline that bordered the sidewalk . . . right about eye level for me.  I won't say I screamed, exactly, but a decidedly non-manly noise did escape my throat and, for the benefit of the drivers with their windows rolled up, the noise was accompanied by a less than courageous looking juke move that did not involve shielding my ward.

Um, anyway, you might be wondering how I know that it's this one squirrel and not one of the dozens or hundreds of look-alikes belonging to the Syndicate.  And if you're not wondering that, please start wondering about it so you don't waste your time focusing on the paragraph above.  The reason I know it was this squirrel is easy.  Check this out:

See that bulge in it's stomach/chest area?  It looks like a camel's hump on the wrong side.  Here's another view:

Eating a stick?  What for?

Is it pregnant or is that some kind of tumor?  Hoping that it was pregnant, I typed in "pregnant squirrel" and did a Google Image search.  Judging from what popped up in the search results, I have definitively concluded that my squirrel is probably not pregnant as this is what a pregnant squirrel is apparently supposed to look like:

This freaks me out.  On many levels.

So it looks like my backyard squirrel has a large tumor growing on its chest.  Since I started by saying that for the better part of the last 10 years I have adopted a hatred of squirrels it wouldn't be entirely genuine if I claimed to be totally broken up about my squirrel's condition.  But I can honestly say that on some level I think that it's too bad.  I know it's a "circle of life" thing and terrible things are happening all around the world every day.  But like all things, when trouble comes to your own backyard, it makes it feel more real and you wish there was something you could do to make it better. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ego Trips

Hopefully every gardener has a nursery that they love going to, even if it's just to look around.  Mine is Green Acres and it's right down the road from my house.  I consider myself to be a regular there.  I say that with the full understanding that my definition of a regular is probably totally different than their definition would be.  But for the last several years I have gone in there at least three or four times a month throughout the year so at the very least they have to give me "repeat customer", right?  No matter how they classify me, it doesn't change my love for this nursery.  I love the plant selection, I love the layout, I love the staff, I even love the satellite radio station they play on the speakers at just the right volume.  But somehow I manage to get in and out without being recognized much by the staff.  My outgoing friend and neighbor, Brian, is less of a regular but when he goes in there they know him by name!

A lesser man would have his pride wounded by this, but the truth is, I know I'm a bit of a wallflower and I don't go out of my way to make my presence known.  Not unless I've had a few too many cocktails anyway.  So it's good for me to have a friend like Brian who is willing to stop an employee and ask a question or find a manager and negotiate discounts on expensive items like fountains (more on that in the coming weeks, I hope).  Discounts are nice, but the real benefit of having an outgoing friend is that it gets me out of my shell a bit more than I'm comfortable with.  My default setting is to believe that when you put yourself out there you open yourself up to criticism and life is easier without that.  That said, my experience has also taught me that not much good happens when I hide out in life's corners.

So, in the spirit of stepping out of the shadows, I decided to add my blog to Blotanical a few weeks ago and it's been a great way to put my blog - and, by extension, myself - out there.  As a result, my tiny little blog has started to sprout.  (Sorry for the bad pun.)  It's been especially gratifying to have people comment on my blog posts and send me messages.  But it's been even better as a means of discovering some great garden-related blogs and bloggers.  None of that would have happened if I hadn't been willing to take a step out of my comfort zone.

This iris has absolutely nothing to do with the post.  I just like it.

Call me shallow, but the comments, compliments, and page views matter to me.  It's one thing to write a blog for nothing but the sheer enjoyment of writing and chronicling your efforts, but when you have an audience, no matter the size, it makes everything that much more fun and rewarding.  It's good for the ego.

Speaking of which, the other day I decided to make good use of my lunch hour so I drove down to Green Acres and bought a few plants I knew I'd want to get in the ground over the weekend.  While I was paying for them, the cashier asked me if I had a contractor's acount with them.  Hah!  A contractor's account?  Who me?  No, I'm just a quietly obsessed gardener who happens to come in here A LOT.

"No," I said, "I'm just a customer" and I walked out feeling like a true regular.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Gardener's Admission

I like growing flowers and vegetables. I like pots, arbors, benches, and potting tables. I like shrubs, ornamental trees, vines and enthusiastic ground covers. I like a little bit of green grass and approving comments from neighbors.  I like eating the fruits of my labors.  I like the way orange blossoms smell, the way maple leaves look and the way Lamb's Ears feel. I like all these things, but none of them are why I invest so much of my time and energy in the garden.

I garden because it fills a need in me.

A few things I like

I garden because I’m nostalgic for my childhood which was blessed with unspoiled woods to explore. I garden because I’m nostalgic about those days when we took our time walking home from the bus stop because we were in no hurry and because we could absent-mindedly braid pine needles and laugh at everything while the air was still and crisp and smelled like apples. I garden because I’m nostalgic for that time when we knew the neighbors were gone and we sat on the top of their fence with our legs hanging over and we took our first good hard looks at their koi pond. I garden because I’m nostalgic for the summers when we made fort walls out of fallen branches and sheets of moss pulled from ancient rocks. I’m nostalgic for those days when we would huddle around a wild honeysuckle plant and suck the nectar from its flowers. It was like sipping sunshine itself.

Photo courtesy of Keyseeker on

I live almost a thousand miles away from where I spent those days. If there was some way to calculate emotional distance, I would guess that I feel even farther away than that. There are very few similarities between where I live now and where I lived then, but when I garden I feel closer to that place . . . at least on an emotional level.   For some reason, when my knees are on the ground and when the smell of earth is in my nostrils I feel transported.  Sometimes I feel transported to another time, sometimes to another place, almost always to a different state of mind. 

I garden because I can plant a tree that will give me the kind of deep shade I loved when I was 10. I garden because I can fill empty spaces with grasses and shrubs and branches that all work together to give me a spot – just one spot – where I can sit with my eyes wide open and still get that feeling I had so long ago when I sat in one of our forts.

Too much of our lives are spent working for grown-up things like paying bills, saving for college educations or retirement.  We work so we can afford a car and we need the car so we can go to work.  We work so we can have a sense of security or we work to achieve validation of our self-worth.  Too many of us work at jobs that don't inspire us, that don't excite us, that don't fill us up. 

So I admit it freely here: I garden selfishly. I garden because it makes me feel satisfied, it makes me feel young again, it makes me feel creative, and it makes me feel like I am in touch with myself and with the world around me.  Gardening makes me feel.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Garden TV: Wilting Before Our Very Eyes?

I’ll admit it.  As much as I love working in the yard and being generally outdoorsy, I’m still a TV junkie.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a couch potato, but good TV is like art to me.  Because TV can combine music, poetry, story-telling, dance, cinematography, and drama it can achieve what I like to call "high art" although I readily admit the vast majority of TV shows do not.

If you are reading this blog, chances are that you would agree that gardening itself can be an art.  It seems logical to conclude then that adding an artistic subject like gardening to an artistic medium like TV could propel the end product into High Art, but for some reason garden programming has never really achieved that.  In fact, much of it is downright bad and boring.

In spite of that, I do have the word “garden” programmed into my DVR so any show with "garden" in the title gets recorded. Sometimes that means I have to go through my library and erase movies like “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, "Garden State" (great soundtrack, by the way) and "Grey Gardens" as well as a surprising amount of QVC's gardening sale-a-thons or whatever they’re called.  But it also means I have hours and hours of sometimes inspirational and entertaining garden programming.

From time to time on this blog I am going to review some of those shows.  This time I will start with one of the better known gardening shows, “Gardening by the Yard”.

When I first bought a house and had to tackle the daunting task of doing something with the yard, "GbtY" was the first gardening show I discovered on HGTV.  In that way, it served as my introduction to some of the basic and finer points of gardening and it became the standard by which I would measure all other garden shows.  Like an adult child, I would wake up on Saturday mornings and tune into "GbtY" as if it were my favorite cartoon.  I devoured episodes as quickly as they aired and after I got my fix I would be stoked about gardening and I would rush out into the yard or drive off to the nursery armed with some new knowledge or inspiration. 

The show is hosted by Paul James who goes by the alias “The Gardener Guy.”  It's not a super creative nickname, but that’s just me being unnecessarily persnickety.  Paul James is the perfect host for a gardening program.  With equal amounts levity and botanical nerdiness, James walked the fine line between entertainment and education.  The result was probably the most accessible program for new gardeners with enough meat and variety to the programming to keep the interest of more seasoned veterans.  Most of the segments were filmed either in James’ own yard in Oklahoma or at the gardens and nurseries of show guests across the US. That gave the show a practical, real-world-applicable feel to it.  As much as we can all marvel at the world’s famous gardens and conservatories, most of us have little gardens attached to humble abodes and no staff to attend those gardens so it helps to see the way a pro tackles routine functions like edging beds, storing tools, composting, thinning vegetables, and cleaning up after storms - all of which are representative of the topics covered by "GbtY".

"GbtY" taught me several things that have become standard operating procedure in my life as a gardener. For one, I stole his term for justifying not waging an all-out war against weeds in my lawn: “biodiversity.” Also lawn related, James was the person to convince me to give up the putting green look.  He convinced me that the best thing I could do for my lawn was to set my mower at its highest setting, use a mulching mower and let the clippings fall where they may, mow regularly so that I wouldn't cut off too much at once, and to fertilize less often than the fertilizer companies say we should.  

The show was also my first encounter with people sharing both creative and functional ideas for the garden.  Suggestions like using wine corks as mulch for a container or using a half wine barrel as a base for a patio table opened my eyes to a creative aspect I hadn't considered before.  That really helped me make the leap from being a guy that did yard work to a guy that loved to tend his garden. 

But like so many things (such as Seattle’s old Kingdome), one of the most captivating aspects of this show was its demise.  In 2008, HGTV decided that they didn't want any more newly-produced episodes of "GbtY".  Over the years, the show had compiled an impressive catalogue of episodes and it appears that the network concluded it would be more profitable to air reruns which it still does today (usually at the crack of dawn on weekends). 

As one of the most successful garden shows, I see HGTV’s decision not to purchase new episodes of the show as the canary in the coal mine. Clearly, if GbtY isn’t going to generate enough advertising dollars, no gardening show will.  Paul James wrote on his blog that the decision didn’t surprise him in the least.  He also made a fascinating observation: even though gardening interest is stronger than ever and we spend billions on it collectively every year, the networks simply can’t get enough ad revenue from garden shows to continue running them.  I don’t know if you blame that on gardeners not watching garden programs or the garden industry companies that either choose not to, or can’t afford to purchase, television ads.  Either way, it's apparent that as viewers begging for more garden programs we can't be choosers anymore. 

Check out Gardener Guy TV for several more 2-3 minutes clips by clicking here.
You can also see full episodes of GbtY by visiting HGTV's web site here.