Saturday, December 22, 2012

You've Either Got it or You Don't

Outside a shop in beautiful Sandpoint, Idaho.
One of the things about gardening that I find most interesting is that it seems like gardeners have a knack for growing certain things while struggling to grow other things.  I know a great deal of this has to do with where we live, what our soil is like, what kind of weather we get, etc.  But I also think there are just some things that people excel at or fail at when they really shouldn’t. 

I think I do a pretty good job at growing Japanese maples in an inhospitable environment for them.  On the other hand, petunias should do just fine for me here but for whatever reason I flat out suck at growing them.  Even gas stations seem to have no problems growing abundant bouquets of them.  And yet I keep trying.  I have tried growing them in the ground and in pots.  I’ve tried growing them in full sun, part sun, and very little sun.  I’ve tried planting them early in the year and late in the year.  I’ve tried hand watering and drip irrigation.  The end result is always a disappointingly leggy, sticky, non-bloomin’ mess.  

Case in point: I have two identical wooden boxes that flank my front door.  This summer I tried growing petunias in each box.  They may have gotten slightly different amounts of sun light because they were a couple feet apart but they were purchased at the same store at the same time and appeared to be grown by the same company.  They were put in identical potting soil and they were hooked up to the same drip irrigation timer.  And yet one of them died within weeks while the other one miraculously looks like this in mid-December no less!  In fact, they look better today than they did in June.  Go figure.

So what am I doing wrong?  What’s the trick to growing petunias that bloom and bloom? 

I visited my alma mater a few summers back and was enchanted by these
hanging baskets of petunias repeated along the "Hello Walk".

Monday, December 10, 2012

Godspeed, Little Buddy

I wrote this post for my Facebook friends initially but I wanted to share it here as well because my dog Zooey has been a frequent subject on this blog.  He was both a companion in the garden as well as a pest.  He kept me company while I moved pots around or pulled weeds.  He kept the squirrels and the cats at a safe distance from me and he always barked to tell me when the girls had come home.  I miss him like crazy.


It used to frustrate me that people would say, “you’ll know when the time comes” because, for a long time, I didn’t know if it was time to say goodbye to my little buddy, Zooey. I last wrote about him almost a full year ago. I noticed how much older he was. How it was getting harder for him to stand up. But I didn’t ever know when it was time to say goodbye. As the months passed I noticed a few other things were changing. He slept more during the day for one. He barked a little less too. But for the most part he still seemed like the Zooey I had always known. 
My family - when we were younger
Friday night I sat down next to him to brush his hair. Back by his tail I noticed some blood. I looked a little closer and saw that he had a bleeding sore the size of a silver dollar. I dabbed it with a paper towel until it was dry.

Saturday morning we went to gymnastics to watch our daughter. While sitting in the grandstands Suzanne told me that Zooey had cried all night. Suzanne’s known a lot longer than I have that it was time, but she was patiently, gracefully waiting for me to catch up.

We had taken separate cars. In the solitude of my drive home, I experienced something close to the “you will just know” moment I had been promised. I didn’t know if Zooey was ready (or if I was truly ready either), but I knew that I could no longer ignore his suffering or downplay it by thinking “it’s just old age” or “he still seems happy.” I couldn’t make him suffer just because I was afraid to make a decision.

When Suzanne came home later that day I told her I was ready. We cried. And we gave Zooey extra hugs and kisses. Suzanne called the vet for me and set up an appointment for Sunday afternoon.

We made eggs for him Sunday morning. Gave him ham at lunch. Fed him treats he didn’t need or ask for. I found him sleeping by the bed and I laid down beside him. I wished I could ask him what he wanted. I wished that I could tell him I would do whatever he wanted. And though we’d learned some of his language in the past 13 years, I never learned what “let me go” sounds like. I wish I had because I’m afraid that not knowing will haunt me.
Sleeping in a quiet place on his last day -
something that had become all too common for a dog that used to be in constant motion.

We tried explaining it to our daughter, who is not quite five yet. “Zooey is old and very sick so we are going to take him to the doctor and he won’t come home with us.” 

“Okay. But when will he come home?”

My heart was already broken. I was sad for myself and for Suzanne. Zooey has been with us since the first month of our marriage. But I wasn’t prepared for the sadness of a little girl not quite understanding what it means to say goodbye forever. 

I took this picture a month ago.  They were brother and sister in our family.
After we talked to the vet about the process and signed paperwork we told Bailey to say goodbye to Zooey and then I took her into the waiting room so Suzanne could have a few minutes with him. When she finished saying goodbye, she came out with tears in her eyes and I took her place in the room with Zooey. I rubbed his head as we waited for the doctor to come in. He laid there on the floor, oblivious to what was about to happen. I felt guilty that he didn’t know and that I couldn’t warn him or talk him through it.

As the vet pushed the anesthetic through the catheter, Zooey tried to kiss her. He was loving and calm and he tried to keep his head up like a brave boy. But then his eyes started to close. I told him that I loved him. I thanked him for being my buddy. And I just kept rubbing his head, hoping that he felt comforted. And then he put his head down between his paws and the doctor left me there in that room with Zooey’s body.

I slipped his collar off over his head, taking note of how he didn’t raise his chin to make it slip off easier. I ran my hand down his back, taking note of how he didn’t lean into my touch. I rubbed his ear and kissed his nose and he didn’t kiss me back. And the dog I had loved, I knew, was gone and wouldn’t be back.

We went to the vet as a family of four. And came back a family of three.

There are reminders of him everywhere. His dog bowl by the dining room table, his basket of toys by the fireplace, the hair he shed (which is everywhere). It’s what isn’t here though, that invokes the most poignant reminders. It’s what isn’t here that reminds me what is missing most. 

Zooey's tags: King of the Yard

Monday, December 3, 2012

Rain Delay

My front yard project has been in a rain delay for the past five days.  In that time we’ve received almost a full five inches of rain.  About a half inch of that came in a single stop-what-you’re doing-and-take-notice 10-minute period Sunday morning.  We stood at the windows and watched the water on the street crest the sidewalk.  If the local news hadn’t brought in all four of their meteorologists that morning and talked at length about this thin yellow band on the Doppler radar I would have been concerned about real flooding.  But I trusted that Mark, Eileen, Tamara and Dirk all knew what they were talking about and that the “extreme weather” wouldn’t stay long. 

The storm has knocked down most of the leaves.

By Sunday afternoon the clouds had finally cleared.  When I stood outside and looked east, I could still see the dark grey clouds and knew they were dumping snow on Lake Tahoe a hundred miles away.   

Berries on an Arbutus 'Marina' - also known as a Strawberry Tree

The sky was still clear this morning so the landscaping crew was finally back at work.  Today’s goal is to dig the trenches for the new sprinkler system.  They are running into some pretty hefty roots leftover though so work is progressing much slower than I’m sure they hoped. 

A red leaf cradled by Lambs Ear

Normally they would also plan to lay the sod today but the landscaper called his supplier and was told that right now the sod is under about 2 inches of water.  If it dries up early in the day they might be able to lay it down but it’ll likely be “heavy as hell” so the sod might have to wait a few more days as more rain is forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday.

Acer palmatum 'Glowing Embers'

It’s a little crazy to me when I think about this being December and yard projects of this type are still being done.  But this is California and, in spite of the storm (or perhaps because of it) overnight temperatures have been in the mid-to upper 40s with daytime highs over 60.  So, why not?  After all, it still looks and feels like autumn.

Lagerstroemia x fauriei 'Natchez' (A white-blooming Crepe Myrtle)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Broken Ground

I am pleased to say that the front yard redo has begun.  The guys came at 7:00 a.m. yesterday morning and brought their sod cutter with them.  I am tempted to ask them to stop here.  Look at all that bare dirt!  I could just go crazy with plants and never bring the lawn mower out front again.  

But I will resist.  For one, I don't think my wife would go for it.  Secondly, the benefit of lawn in this case is that it's actually lower maintenance for me than other options since I can just mow the often-mentioned and much-hated palm seedlings that constantly grow in my yard.  And, finally, if and when we come to a point where we decide to sell our house, I think the "average" buyer would prefer the expected American front yard which means green grass. 

Speaking of grass, in the picture above there is a strip of rock that borders what was the lawn and the walkway.  The landscapers will remove this rock and use it elsewhere.  They will replace it with even more grass.  This is fine with me as I had grown weary of weeding this strip.  I may eventually remove the grass that will be installed where the rock is now and replace it with a curvaceous planting bed or perhaps grow a boxwood hedge, but for now I'm going to let the plan of sodding this area proceed without intervention. 

In the bottom left corner of the picture above you can see a black drip irrigation line.  This line currently runs directly from a hose bib a foot or two away.  This setup has worked for me just fine, but the crew is going to tap into the in-ground system and run the line beneath the stones and re-install the drip irrigation.  This will make the area look cleaner and it will be one less thing for me to worry about.  I find that drip irrigation timers can be unreliable after a while and those pesky batteries die without my permission. 

Unfortunately, what was originally estimated to be a 2 or 2 1/2-day project looks like it's going to end up taking 9 days from start to finish.  The crew has been splitting time between my yard and my neighbor's yard which they are also re-sodding.  They expect to complete the grading of my yard today but they won't have enough time to put in the pipes and lay the sod before the day is done.  And now the rains of Northern California's wet season are scheduled to begin in earnest tomorrow morning and continue for five straight days.  They are warning of potential flooding.  Which means lots and lots of mud in my yard and not a very good time to be trenching sprinkler lines and laying sod.  [Insert grumpy face emoticon here!]

No work will be done in my backyard as part of this project but that doesn't mean things aren't changing there too.  The crepe myrtle leaves are changing and starting to fall finally.  I plan to use the time after the leaves have fallen to study the branching and do some artful shaping - paying special attention to the lower limbs so that eventually I can push the lawn mower beneath it without having to duck.  Those seeds just jump off the tree and attach themselves to my hair.  It's annoying.     

One of my Japanese maples, a 'Glowing Embers' has really gotten orange in the last week. 

The 'Red Dragon' pictured above is still red but it's not the deep maroon that it was this summer.  I love sitting in the iron chair next to this tree.  I love the way they look together.  The colors are so different.  The texture, also, so different.  This is a slow growing Japanese maple.  This is a quality I have grown to appreciate.  This tree looks just as perfectly sited as the day I planted it.  I can't say the same for every tree or shrub I have planted. 

And finally, a seldom-used but fairly old Japanese cultivar called 'Otto's Dissectum' has gone from light green to orange and red.  I've been growing this in a wine barrel for a couple seasons now.  It's such a nice tree.  Some day I hope to create a spot of its own for it - a place where it can sink its roots and grow without impediment and live up to its potential . . . a hope I'm sure we all desire for ourselves and our loved ones. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What a Beautiful World

Although I love to read I am a very slow reader.  As I go through a book, I pronounce each word in my head as if I were speaking it aloud.  It takes me a long time to finish a book of significant length but if the book is good enough, it’s an endeavor I gladly pursue. 
But I also enjoy the satisfaction that comes from finishing a story.  Perhaps because of that satisfaction and because I am a slow reader, I am drawn to short stories.  But I think that short stories are under appreciated these days which is a shame because short stories marry the best of the full length novel with the best of poetry.  In a short story you have characters and plot and prose just like in a novel.  But in a great short story there are things left out – things the reader must assume or imagine on their own just like in a poem.  The writer must choose their words more carefully in a short story as in a poem.  Done correctly, a short story has both the weight and the agility of a broadsword that can cut right through your malaise and leave you feeling as if you’ve just been reshaped. 

A few years back I picked up an anthology called “The Best Short Stories of the Century”.  While I was familiar with several of the stories in the book I had not heard of either Alice Elliot Dark or her short story In the Gloaming.  I didn’t even know what a “gloaming” was or how you’d get in one. 

My office building isn't exactly breath taking, but I was charmed by it last night.

I can’t tell you that I remember every line of this story or that the characters (a mother and her son who was dying from AIDS) made a huge impact on me.  But I can tell you that I was enchanted by the feeling and the mood of this story.  I learned that what I had always thought of as dusk or twilight is also called “the gloaming.”  There was something about that word that I felt drawn to.  It somehow gave new meaning to something I had experienced many times before.  Knowing a new name for it gave it another level of mystery.  Twilight was no longer that brief time after sunset but before total darkness.  It now reminded me of this transforming story.  It reminded me that our lives are sometimes strange and sometimes mundane, sometimes short and sometimes long, sometimes contemplative and sometimes we just don’t pay attention to the way life (or light) changes.

It was half light and half dark and the leaves were half gone.  Everything was in balance.

Filmmakers call it “the magic hour”.  I like that, but in my experience the magic lasts just a few minutes.  And when I walk outside this time of year I am sometimes astounded to find that I have stepped into just the kind of lightness that I associate with the gloaming.  It happened to me last night. 

I felt lucky to be alive.  I felt like standing in the parking lot until it passed.  I felt alive and quiet and a bit giddy.  I also knew, quite acutely, that too much of my life is being spent under a roof and away from windows.  I need these moments of clarity and I need to keep making myself available to them. 

I need to go for more walks.  I need to stand out in the garden even when it is cold.  I need to remember that our lives are meant to be inspired, that we are supposed to revel in the natural beauty of our planet, that we don’t need to capture or prolong these moments just as long as we keep looking for them.

In brighter light, this plant looks forlorn, neglected and out of place.  Last night it seemed like it was meant to be there.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Slow and Steady Wins the Race - Or Prolongs the Finish

I like the story of the tortoise and the hare and how the message is that the slow-and-steady approach wins the race.  I admit that I like it because it helps me justify just how long it takes me to get certain things done though.  I'm not a true procrastinator.  I'm too impulsive for that title.  I'm just slow with certain things. 

It’s been a full four months since I had the mulberry tree in my front yard removed.  With the tree gone I had to swap out a bunch of shade plants for things that love the sun.  It took me a couple weeks to figure out which plants I would use and to get them ordered, purchased, and planted, but I did it and I’ve got that dialed in to my satisfaction now.  I also got right on fixing the broken sprinkler lines in the immediate wake of the stump grinding since some things shouldn't wait. 

But in the last four months, the one glaring thing I had not done was figure out how to address the unsightly mess left behind by the stump grinding.  As was promised, the arborists back-filled the hole with the shredded-up stump.  It looks like soil but it’s not.  The surrounding grass has not encroached upon the site at all.  I suspect it has something to do with the decomposing wood tying up all the nitrogen.  The absence of the tree and its surface roots also made it painfully obvious that my yard is not level by anyone's definition. 

The "footprint" of the mulberry tree.

Back in August, I justified not doing anything about this because I figured that re-grading and then re-sodding my lawn when it was a hundred degrees out was not a good idea.  I’d put it off until September.  But then when September came I had plans that involved a week in Boston and my wife had several trips for work planned.  And it was still really hot.  It just seemed like a bad time to tackle a big project.  October, with its cooler weather would be a better month for this.  Of course, I found reasons to delay in October too.  There was a birthday I had to plan for, a 3-day weekend in Lake Tahoe I was looking forward to, playoff baseball, and still pretty oppressive heat.  At one point I did make a couple half-hearted attempts at contacting a few landscape companies to come out and give me an estimate but I had bad luck with that.  One company never called me back and I decided the other one was going to be too expensive so I cancelled their appointment. 

One of the many "sink holes" in my lawn.
Now it’s mid-November and my yard still has this big gaping hole in the center of it and there are so many holes and bumps that it looks like the template for the old Atari game Moon Patrol. 

If it weren’t for my friend and neighbor, Brian, I would probably be stuck in my tortoise shell barely moving on this.  But Brian managed to find a landscaper that would return his calls and over the past two weeks I’ve been watching these guys tear down Brian’s backyard and rebuild it into exactly what Brian wanted.  On the night they wrapped things up I approached the owner of the company and asked him if he could give me an estimate on my yard. 

I would love to do it myself.  I believe I have the capability of doing it myself.  But I also know that for me to remove 1400 square feet of sod (and tree roots), regrade the entire yard, install a functional sprinkler system and then put sod down, it would take me more weekends than I care to give up.  After some conversation with my wife, we agreed that this is one of those times when it is worth it to pay someone else to do it. 

So nothing has happened yet except that I am on the landscaper’s calendar for the week after Thanksgiving.  And I can hardly wait.  I just wish I had gotten to this point sooner but I'm going to trust that old Aesop had it right and that in the end, I'll be happy that I took the slower approach.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Ghost Story

My friend Calvin, author of the blog, “A Thistle in My Sensitive Area”, wrote a hair-raising post about a voice he heard while working in his office.  This being Halloween, I thought I’d share a ghost story of my own even though it has nothing to do with gardening.  

* * * * * *
Like many kids do, I grew up spending a week of my summer vacation at a camp.  In my case, it was Camp Spalding which is tucked away in the southern edge of the Selkirk Mountain Range in northeastern Washington State.  The main part of the camp consisted of a rustic lodge, seven cabins a couple outbuildings and about 230 acres of wilderness.  It was all snuggled in between a serene little lake and Grayback Mountain. 

One of my cabins on top of the mountain overlooking the lake.  Camp Spalding is in the background.

It was an important place for me because it was where I felt most like me.  I felt accepted, challenged, encouraged; all the things that a good camp should foster in kids.  And because of that I wanted to spend more and more time there as I grew up.  By the time I was 16 I was spending most of my summer there either as a camper or as a cabin counselor for the younger kids.

When I started college I worked on staff as the rock climbing and high ropes course instructor during the summers.  During the school year, when extra money was in short supply, I would drive up to Camp on Saturday mornings to look after the grounds while Bud, the full-time caretaker, enjoyed his weekend.  Spending my weekends up there was hard.  It was hard because I was in college and I wasn’t hanging out with my friends back in the dorms.  But it was also hard because it felt like a different place without a hundred kids running around and without the camaraderie of my co-staffers.  It was lonely and cold. 

I snapped this photo of snow-covered trees one weekend when I went back to Camp with my wife in 2007.

Some weekends people would use the camp as a retreat center.  Those weekends weren’t too bad because even though I didn’t know any of the people it was nice just having them around.  But most of the time it was just me and the dark quiet which was never quite as quiet as you’d think it would be.  There were always noises you couldn’t explain – at least not right away.  One noise, in particular, unnerved me.  It came from the lake, which was frozen solid.  I didn’t know what to think of the low moaning I heard.  “What the hell is that?” I asked myself.  I thought something was out there, on the ice, in trouble.  But the sound was coming from everywhere it seemed like.  It was coming from beneath the ice maybe.  Whatever it was, it just kept moaning.  The sound was both immense and quiet somehow. When Bud came by to check on me I asked him about the noise.  He laughed at me in a way that let me know he’d been there and done that.  “It’s just the ice shifting” he told me. 

Like most spooky occurrences, there was a scientific explanation.  Although I am not strictly a scientifically oriented person, I appreciate the comfort science provides.  When it can.

There was a weekend at Camp where I needed to be up there on Friday night to get the facility ready for a retreat starting on Saturday.  After I finished splitting logs for fires, mopping the lodge floor, and turning on the heat in the cabins, I went back to the lodge and lit a fire in the fireplace.  I had some reading to do for school so I put in REM’s “Automatic for the People” and put my feet up on the hearth.  In spite of the loneliness, it was all pretty nice.  Good music, an engrossing book, a strong fire, and an unlimited supply of hot chocolate at my disposal.  And then I felt something.  Nothing touched me but I felt something all the same.  I felt I wasn’t alone anymore.  I spun my head to look and expected to see Bud or maybe someone from the retreat that had arrived early.  But I saw, instead, a woman dressed from head to toe in gray walking across the lodge floor and into the kitchen behind me.  And then she was gone. 

Alphonse performing at a "talent show."
The fireplace behind him is where I sat on the night in question.

If I’m completely honest, to this day I still question if I actually saw what I thought I saw.  Part of me feels like I made it up or that I’ve embellished it in my memory as I thought back on it.  When it comes to ghosts, I’m more or less an agnostic.  I didn’t tell this story to anyone for a few weeks.  But I could never forget that feeling I had in the lodge that night.

Back at school I found myself in a conversation with a friend, Angie, who had spent the last few summers working at Camp with me.  We talked about everything those days so I opened up to her about the story, prefacing it with “you won’t believe me . . . Heck, I don’t really believe me, but . . .”  When I got to the gist of it, she started shaking her head.  “Stop, stop,” she pleaded.  “Did you talk to Joni about this?  Did she tell you to tell me this story?”   I hadn’t spoken to Joni, one of the cooks at camp, about the gray lady.  I hadn’t spoken to anyone about it.  But Joni had also confided in Angie that she had seen what appeared to be a nun, dressed in gray, walking through the lodge. 

I had been willing to doubt my own vision that night.  It seemed reasonable that my eyes were just tired from reading too much in a dimly lit lodge.  It also seemed completely reasonable that a drafty window could have made me feel something behind me.  There were enough real-world/scientific variables that allowed me to write it off as a weird occurrence.  But all that went out the window when I found out Joni had seen the same thing.  I don’t know how to explain that.

Camp Spalding shrouded in snow and silence.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Back in the '80s you had to cross over the Little Spokane River to get into my neighborhood.  The little river bordered our neighborhood on two sides.  A golf course and a rocky wilderness bordered the other two sides. 

In that way, the neighborhood felt like a fortress and that “we’re finally home feeling” would hit you as soon as you heard the car tires humming on the bridge – well before you actually pulled into the driveway of your house. 

A modern view of my old neighborhood.

Living in a fortress also made it feel like your neighbors were in it with you.  “In” what, exactly, I don’t know.  It was just a feeling that told me we all had something in common, that we believed in something together, that living there meant the same thing to everyone.

Looking back, I see how romantic and na├»ve I was.  But you’ll have to forgive me because I did have some evidence that supported my feelings.  After Mt. St. Helens erupted, for instance, all the men in the neighborhood tied bandanas around their faces and shoveled ash into enormous piles together while every curious kid pressed their noses to the windows and watched in awe. 

Photo Courtesy of the Spokesman Review, May, 1980.  More pictures of the clean up can be seen here.

We organized ice cream socials and all the kids in the neighborhood wore costumes as if it were Halloween and paraded through the streets.  Everyone participated. 

We dropped our bikes in the front lawn when we went to a friend’s house and no one messed with them.  

Every boy belonged to the same Cub Scout Troop and every girl was in the same batch of Brownies.  We walked to the bus stops together.  We got in trouble together.

And in the fall, when the raking was underway, we’d all stand around enormous piles of pine needles in the street and we’d light them on fire.  Dads would stand watch with a rake or a shovel.  Maybe a hose nearby if there was some wind.  And the kids would bring more needles, bags of pine cones, and dead branches and if we were well-behaved we might get to throw some of that onto the fire. 

No, this is not an Instagram picture - just a really old Polaroid
 of me and my dad picking up pine cones in the backyard.

And everywhere was the smell.  It was the smell of smoke, sure.  But it was also the smell of fall.  The smell of taking-care-of-business.  The smell of 11:00 a.m. on any October Saturday.  The smell of hypnotic fire. The smell of a fortress clearing out what it no longer needed.  The smell of being 9-years-old and still having a dad to stand beside.  And if you could take your eyes off the flames you could see down the street that your best friend was kicking pine cones into his fire.  You could see the girl you thought was cute roller skating in wide arcs around her daddy’s fire.  You could see, if you were perceptive enough, that we all had homes and warmth and a family and that was enough.  And even if you couldn’t see that, you felt it. 

It's been nearly 30 years since I stood beside one of those fires.  When I enter my neighborhood now, I cross a mass transit rail.  My neighborhood is bordered by stop lights and sound walls.  The fortress feeling comes only from locks on the gates and deadbolts in the front door.  We press our nose to the windows only to watch suspicious characters.  Our community events are just gatherings of strangers.  If you leave a bike in the lawn, you’re donating it.   

We do treat ourselves to backyard S'mores once in a while.

And I'm pretty sure it is illegal to set things on fire in the road.  Which is just as well.  That smoke is bad for the air and I prefer to compost my leaves.  But you’ll have to forgive me again when I say that I miss the smell of burning pine needles.  And everything it meant. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

No Longer Stumped

Back in July I had a couple trees cut down but I wasn’t able to have the stump of my peach tree professionally ground because the machines were too big to fit within the confines of the brick that makes up the raised bed.  So I have been slowing digging it out by means of my own two hands.  Or, rather, by means of my own sore arms, an aching back and two wobbly legs. 

The peach tree gave us privacy but not peaches.  It was time for it to go.
As I mentioned in my last post (in which I whined at length about the lingering heat) it’s been really hot here for a long time.  Swinging a 5-pound mattock is hard work even in perfect weather.  When it’s a hundred degrees it just feels like punishment.  So I tackled the removal of the stump in small doses.  Sometimes I’d get out there during my lunch hour and swing an ax or pry with a shovel for 20 minutes and then retire.  When I managed to get out there early on a weekend morning I was able to work long enough to make blisters on my hands in pleasing shades of red and yellow.  But most of the time I would just go out there and stare at it, hatefully, so that it knew it was no longer welcome.

While I worked, I filled a 5-gallon bucket with the mashed up pieces of wood.  I lost track of how many times I emptied that bucket but it was more than I would ever have imagined.  When you start digging up stumps and roots you realize that a tree cut off at ground level is just like an iceberg or a character in a John Hughes film.  The substance below the surface dwarfs what you see initially.

I originally thought that this was a beautiful piece of wood cut from the top of the stump of the peach tree.
Now I know it was just the tip of the peach tree iceberg.
But since I last wrote, we have had a few days that weren’t punishingly hot and I’ve been able to expand the amount of time I was willing to work on my one-man chain gang.  And I finally finished about a week ago.  Of course, I use the term "finished" loosely.  There's still some wood buried deep down but, honestly, I didn't care anymore.  I think I removed enough that it won't be a real issue even when the wood starts to rot and the earth settles in around it.   

One of the greatest gardening joys is day-dreaming about what you want to plant when you have a clean slate.  This is especially true when space is limited and your garden plot is not resting upon a supernatural Etch-a-Sketch that can be shaken whenever things go awry or boredom with the status quo takes over.  Such has been my joy for the last two months.

This was my day-dreamer's checklist of requirements for whatever I would plant in place of the peach tree:
  • Had to take partial to full sun.
  • Had to be big enough to provide screening from the neighbor's windows.
  • Couldn't be so big that it impeded the nearby path.
  • Needed to be a good transition from the full sun part of the yard to mostly shade part of my yard.
  • I wanted it to look clean and be low-maintenance.
I considered an apple tree but decided against it because I didn’t want to deal with protecting it from worms or moths or whatever pests might attack it -- not low maintenance.  I considered planting an orange tree that I have had in a pot for several years but decided against it because I like it where it is -- besides, I thought it might get too big without constant pruning.  I considered a chaste tree and even bought one but it failed to meet the screening criteria.  I also considered a clumping bamboo called ‘Alphonse Karr’ but decided against it because even clumping bamboos should be watched carefully when planted in the ground. 

Chaste Tree bloom - in October!

I finally decided that I would, once again, ignore the advice of the experts and plant yet another Japanese maple in a full-sun location because I like them more than any other tree or plant.  And it didn’t hurt that the garden center was running a 20% off sale on all “fall color trees”.  I went with a 15-gallon Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Seiryu’.  It’s a fairly common tree but with uncommon characteristics.  The phrase you’ll hear about it most often is that it’s “the only upright growing green dissectum.”  Translated, that means it’s the only green Japanese maple that looks like the archetypal tree and still has these really cool lacy leaves. 

Seiryu leaves.
It seems like every project leads to another project.  When I removed the
previousplants from this bed it highlighted the fact that the brickwork
needs some serious attention.

I am hoping to give myself and my neighbors some privacy by blocking the view of their windows.

I under-planted the tree with 10 clumps of Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica Rubra).  I don’t think it will take too long for it to take over the entire bed.  Perhaps a year or two.  I could have purchased more, but at $6 bucks each, it would have cost a pretty penny to fill in the entire bed.  Besides, Japanese Blood Grass spreads fairly quickly and it can be divided easily. 

Now I suppose I should work on that dead patch of lawn where the mulberry tree once grew.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Not Really Autumn

I don't care what the calendar says.  September 22nd, 2012 is not the first day of Autumn.  Not here anyway.  It is still in the 90s here.  It is still bright and sunny every single day.  Rain won't fall for several more weeks; probably months.  I won't wear a long-sleeved shirt to work until at least mid-October and even then I will probably complain to no one in particular of being too hot. 

Strawberries are still growing even though the shadows are getting longer.

Sure, there are a few signs that Summer is on its way out.  For one, my girls have put out the fall decorations.

And no matter how hot the weather, the path of the sun through the sky tells the truth.  I do notice the dark in the morning now and I notice it even more so in the evening and I find myself remarking that "it's so dark already."  I am 37 years old and I still haven't grown accustomed to the way we lose and gain daylight.  I doubt I ever will.  I hope I never will.

And maybe because the sun goes down earlier it does get a little colder at night than it used to.  I have cut back the time on the sprinklers to compensate so I guess, in that way, I have admitted to my garden that the fall is near even if I haven't fully admitted it to myself. 

The roses don't seem to know that it's autumn either.

Transitions are always hard and while there is something I love about every new season I can't seem to escape the feeling that the start of Autumn means the loss of something wonderful.  Ingrained deep within me, impressed upon the very DNA of my being, is the sense that summer is when we come alive.  Summer is when we grow.  Summer is when the best things that happen to us happen.  So even if Autumn is great, even if there's nothing as nostalgic as apple cider, even if you sigh fondly at the sight of high school football stadium lights on a Friday night, Autumn still means that something wonderful is gone.  And you can't get it back.

So maybe it is the temperature here or maybe it is my own unwillingness to acknowledge the meaning of it all, but right now, where I am physically and mentally, it is still summer.  At least for a little while longer.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Latest Government vs. Garden Controversy

In the last year there have been a couple high-profile incidents in which local governments have gone after front-yard gardeners and cited them for violating some ridiculous ordinances. 

I am not a political blogger by any stretch but I'm going to go out on a limb and state, in no uncertain terms, that telling people they can't grow vegetables in their own front yard is way past where I draw the line on government involvement in our lives.  If it's not an illegal crop, the government shouldn't have any right to tell people they can't grow it on their own property.

But in today's news I ran across a story that is slightly different but no less remarkable in its ability to make you shake your head and ask "what is this world coming to?"  In this case, the owner of an urban coffee shop in Philadelphia took it upon himself to clean up a city-owned vacant lot that had 40 tons - 80,000 pounds - of garbage at his own expense.  And then he went a step further and paid to have the lot landscaped with benches, fencing and cherry trees.  He did so after making 24 phone calls, 7 written requests and 4 in-office visits to the city's Redevelopment Authority to have them take care of it and all of those requests were ignored or refused.  What's worse, the city had actually cited him in 2011 for the litter on this lot even though the city now acknowledges that he doesn't own the lot. 

The city's unimproved lot filled with refuse.

And what thanks does he get from the city?  Do they sheepisly forgive him the citation they wrote?  Do they thank him and honor him as someone striving to make the city a better place?  How about a symbolic slap on the back and an 'atta boy?  Nope.  They'd rather slap him with a lawsuit.  Apparently the city sees this action as trespassing and unauthorized alteration of private property. 

After the clean-up and re-landscaping
Hopefully this story will have a happy ending.  Clearly, the coffee shop owner didn't have the right to alter property that didn't belong to him and the city flat out told him not to do go forward with his plans.  But I'm holding out hope that common sense will rule the day and the city will say "thanks, but please don't do this sort of thing again."  And maybe, just maybe, the city can use this example as bulletin board material to inspire a little more responsiveness next time a citizen wants to do something to make the city a better place.  Of course, that might also be part of the problem as it sounds like some of the residents in this neighborhood are worried about gentrification.  Still, it's hard to imagine a world in which 40 tons of garbage is more desirable than the shade of a cherry tree and a bench to sit on while you have a coffee. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I Really Stepped in it This Time

Fair warning to the reader: if you find the S-word and the C-word (not the really bad C word though) offensive, you should skip this post. 

Anyone that blogs knows that there are some pretty amusing search queries that lead people to your blog.  For my blog, the term "squirrel porn" is in the top 3 of referring keyword searches.  Seriously?  Yep, seriously. 

As disturbing as those of us that aren't into squirrel porn might find that, I can't help but wonder what people would think of my search queries especially when they lead me to sites like that of the Point Reyes Compost Co. 

There's really no need to discuss the terms I may have been using when I landed in this place on the internet.  The important thing is, I found it and I am happier for it.  It provided me with at least 20 minutes of day-dreaming entertainment in which I imagined all the clever things you could say if you worked for this company. 
  • When you're feeling sick: "Sorry, Boss, I'm not feeling like crap today so I'm going to stay home."
  • When you're feeling totally efficient: "I've got this shit in the bag!"
  • When you're optimistic about the business: "I think we'll sell a shitload of product today."
  • When the spouse asks how you're feeling at the end of the day: "Totally pooped."
Even though Point Reyes is only a hundred miles from Sacramento, I have not seen this product for sale in my area but a quick look at their "where to buy" page reveals that I just haven't been shopping at the right places . . . most notably/surprisingly, Whole Foods.  So the next time I run to the grocery store I can say to my wife without a trace of irony that "I'm just going to buy some crap and I'll be right back." 

I really don't know if their claim that their poop is "premium" holds water, but I'm willing to trust them on this one if for no other reason than I appreciate both their humor and their attempt to do something good with what might otherwise be a shitty problem.  How could I not want to support a company that proudly states, "our products are mostly crap"?  On the "About Us" page they explain their motivation for the company saying:

When the economy turned to crap, it dawned on Teddy that perhaps he should do the same. After all, his wife’s family owns a ranch full of animals providing some of the best manure under the sun. By creating a premium compost company, Teddy could make a living that came from and gave to the land, while spending more time with his wife and kids.

Throughout his career life, Teddy has always felt strongly that people need to learn how to financially nourish themselves and sustain their businesses by using what nature and the land provides. And that’s exactly what he’s doing with Point Reyes Compost Company – taking regional products and investing them back into the land, creating an endless lifecycle while providing backyard farmer products that are used by other backyard farmers like Teddy. Ain’t poop grand?
Indeed, it is Teddy.  And I write that with a shit-eating grin on my face too. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Despair Grows In My Garden

I suspect that everyone hates weeds and that at the top of your list is the weed you deal with most often. I have plenty to choose from but my most hated weed is one that really falls under that annoyingly apt line "A weed is a flower in the wrong spot."

The flowers in the wrong spots in my life are Palm seedlings from just one tree in my neighbor's yard. 

They grow everywhere with no encouragement from me.  They sprout up through rocks.

These rocks border the walkway to my front door.  This area gets no water and yet the seedlings thrive.

And through mulch.

A fresh layer of mulch does nothing to keep the seedlings from reaching for the light.

And where nothing else grows.

I'm amazed at how densely these grow.  Again, all these seedlings from a single tree next door!

They even grow where other things can no longer grow.

When I cut down a tree in the front yard, the shade-loving Baby's Tears and Lace Fern gave up the ghost.

On the plus side, they are fairly easy to grab with bare fingers and pull out.  

Sisyphus photo from Wikipedia
But it's a Sisyphean task and I am no longer feeling up to the challenge.  I try to get on my hands and knees every other weekend and take a whack at these, but after a half hour of this nonsense my thoughts turn from the good and pleasant "connecting with nature" thoughts that gardening inspires to "what did I ever do to deserve this kind of treatment?" 

Inevitably, I'll have to rise from my weeding crouch and stretch my legs and aching back before they all seize and cause me to convulse on the ground like an overturned turtle.  While I stretch, I'll survey the results of my labor and that's when I'll see that for every hundred seedlings I pulled there are another hundred that I missed.  This is no way to spend a life.

And that's when I get existential.  Does anyone else even care if there are palm seedlings where they shouldn't be?  Does the FedEx guy notice them on his way up to the front door?  Do my neighbors think I've let the yard go to hell if I miss a few hundred seedlings?  Does any of this matter, you know, in the long run?  By believing myself to be a "good gardener" and all that entails, am I consigning myself to existential despair since the evidence will always show that I am not what I think I am?  And if I am not what I think I am, what am I? 

"That's a good question," I'll say to myself.  And then I'll go back to picking flowers in the wrong spots while I give the answer some more thought.