Friday, December 20, 2013

Our Unifying Cry: More Light!

Before we sing Silent Night in a Christmas Eve candlelight service, before we open presents by the light of our Christmas trees and a new dawn, before we celebrate the New Year with fireworks, we will go through the darkness of the winter solstice.

Decorating the Christmas tree this year
In my part of the world that means tomorrow will have 9 hours, 28 minutes and 16 seconds of daylight and 14 hours, 31 minutes and 44 seconds of darkness.  The next day we’ll gain just two seconds of light.  The second day we’ll gain 6 seconds, then 9 seconds, 13 seconds, and 17 seconds.  Small gains, to be sure, but the light will come back.

I do not like these dark days.  I get sleepy early.  I am less productive.  I am grumpier than I should be.  But there’s something magical and symbolic about this time of year too.  I have thought lately that it would have been ideal to celebrate Christmas on the 22nd of December instead of the 25th.  That would make it both a literal and a symbolic celebration of more light coming into the world.

What I do like about darkness is that it forces us to take notice of it, to contemplate what it is and what it is not.  The darkness can cause us to be introspective, contemplative, and reflective.   

The best network television show of the 1990s (Northern Exposure) had a wonderful episode called Northern Lights.  The show takes place in Alaska where the nights in winter are even longer so of course, light is going to be on their minds.  This last scene from that episode gives me chills.  May it bring some light into your darkest day too.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tom Seaver, The Constant Gardener

There are two things that I am especially obsessive about.  One is gardening and the other is baseball.  Neither of which are very sexy in today’s culture but that’s okay with me.  I love them both for very different reasons.

So when I read through my e-mails this morning and came across a baseball story called “The Constant Gardener” I just had to read it.

The article is written by Pat Jordan about his long-time friend and baseball Hall of Famer, Tom Seaver.  Seaver’s career began several years before I was born but he was so good that he was able to pitch long enough that I got to see him join my beloved Red Sox for their historic (and heartbreaking) 1986 season when I was old enough to appreciate his contribution to the game. 

Seaver was known for his fastball, his bull-dog determination, and his ability to strike out hitters.  He’s a throwback to another type of player.  A real man’s man kind of guy.  What’s a guy like that doing as the centerpiece for an article called “The Constant Gardener” I wondered?

As I read through the lengthy article I discovered that after Seaver retired from baseball he eventually left his Greenwich, New York home and bought a parcel of land in Calistoga, California which is in the heart of the Napa wine country about 80 miles west of me here in Sacramento.  Seaver converted the land into a vineyard and his business, Seaver Family Vineyards, now produces about 600 cases of cabernet each year. 

Seaver grew up in Fresno, California where his father was in the “raisin business”.  Gardening didn’t interest Tom until he got to the big leagues though.  It was at that point that Seaver returned to his roots because discovered that gardening was a good way for him to relax between the days he pitched.  

"Outlining a vineyard," he said, "is the same as outlining your pitches for a game, or outlining an artwork. I shouldn't tell you this, 'cause I don't want you to think I didn't value my pitching. But if I could go back and have a second run at it, I'd have become an artist."

This quote from Seaver is amazing to me.  I never had the talent to play baseball at that level, but if I did I can’t help but think that my achievements at that level would certainly go down as my life’s work.  That I was put on this planet to play ball.  That Tom Seaver would consider giving all that up to be an artist, to do something like painting or gardening instead, is at once absurd and wonderful. 

He went silent for a moment, looking out over his property. Finally he said, "This was a blank palette when I first saw it. Now it's the most exciting thing I've ever done."

Because Seaver’s career came to an end in the mid-1980s  he missed the period in baseball in which the players started making the really big bucks.  Seaver earned over $1 million a year only twice in his 20 seasons.  He made approximately $6 million total.  That is a lot of money, no doubt, but considering that the league minimum in 20013 is roughly $500,000 a year and the average annual salary of a baseball player is almost $3.5 million, you could argue that Seaver would have been much better off financially if he had been born a decade later. 

When the author of the article asked him about missing out on the big paydays, Seaver responded by saying:

"I started to lose interest," he said. "I wanted to go home. I couldn't do it anymore. I never was pissed I missed the big paydays. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. If I'd made that $30 million a year, maybe I'd just have bought that huge, finished vineyard and let others do it all. I'd have missed out on the pleasure of being in the vineyards every day. My pleasure has always been in the work, not the ego."
As gardeners, I think we can all relate to this.  I think there are probably times when we think about how nice it would be to just write a check and have someone create the garden we’ve always dreamed about.  But if we did that, we’d miss out on the work it took.  And without that work, we’d miss out on the understanding of the garden.  And without the understanding we lose our sense of accomplishment.  And, quite frankly, I think Seaver was right.  The pleasure is in the work. 

Seaver wanted to be an artist.  But he was a Hall of Fame pitcher instead.  Now in his late 60’s, Seaver finds that maybe he’s been an artist all along. 

Just then, the sun came up on cue, click, like stage lights in a theater. It was a pale, reddish-blue color on an overcast day. Tom was disappointed. He'd wanted me to see it in all its fiery glory. Still, the sun's pale light on the vineyards was eerie and beautiful, the vines all darkish shadows without color, until they became a dark green flecked with purple as the sun rose higher, like a French Impressionist painting.
Tom said, "In a way, I'm painting this vineyard as if it was my artwork."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Vegetable Patch Facelift

The first time I saw the house I’m living in now, it was on the internet.  I scrolled through pictures, ignoring the 70-year-old kitchen and the random placement of the laundry machines right next to where the TV was hung on a wall, and I landed on pictures of the backyard.  And then I immediately e-mailed my wife and the real estate agent demanding (nicely) that we schedule a viewing.

One of the things that struck me about the yard was this picket fence vegetable patch.  I have never been much of a vegetable grower.  What I have grown has almost exclusively been done in containers.  

Although I was enchanted by it initially, I quickly realized that there were some problems.  For one, it hadn't been attended to in a long time.  It was filled with weeds, grass, and a struggling patch of strawberries.  I left the strawberries alone and even got to enjoy a few bowls.

I tried smothering the rest of the weeds with the leftover moving boxes and piled a couple inches of compost on top.  I have used this method with some success in the past, but I wouldn't try it again.  At least not for an area that I intended to plant in within a year's time.  For one, I found that even when I dug holes through the cardboard to plant my tomatoes, they all limped along.  I think the cardboard restricted water penetration and I've since learned that it also deprives the soil of oxygen.

After I gave up on this year's crop of tomatoes, I pulled up the cardboard and abandoned the vegetable patch for the remainder of the summer.  Many of the weeds had been killed, but the surrounding lawn was starting to invade in the absence of the weeds.

Unwanted grass.  Is there anything a gardener despises more?

In the picture below you can see that I have a rose bush planted in one corner.  I originally put it there along with a couple other plants just as a holding bed until a permanent home could be located.  I have since decided to leave it be.  I figure that the blooms might help attract pollinators to the veggie patch.  You might also notice along the edges that I tried placing stones as a border to keep the grass from encroaching.  It worked okay, but the irregular shapes of the rocks created gaps.

Around September I decided that I would try to solarize the remaining weeds and grass.  September is a little late for most people to do this but when I installed the plastic it was still well over 100 degrees here which is more than sufficient for solarization to work.  Unfortunately, the hot weather didn't last long enough and the process was only marginally successful.

In the picture below you can see that most of the grass is gone.  Of course, there's still some lingering beneath the ground and it'll surely rear it's ugly green head in the coming weeks.  I also switched out the rocks in favor of a border of bricks.  I think the bricks will work better to keep grass out from growing through as long as I keep up on the edging.

I scrapped my initial plan of making a pathway in the shape of an X and laid out the form below.  It probably doesn't make the best use of space but I don't need or want a huge vegetable patch anyway.

I filled the middle portion with pea gravel and tamped it down to form a permeable place to walk.

And then I decided to paint the fence "Sweet Molasses" Brown.  The vegetable garden is in a prominent place in our backyard and is visible from nearly every window that looks out on it.  I wanted to dress it up a little bit and also to have it blend in a little bit.  I think the brown will produce a nice foil for the green vegetation and when that white rose starts poking out of the pickets I think it will really make a statement.

I also added finials to the square posts to dress it up a bit and better mirror the shape of the pickets.

Finally, after all the painting was finished, the sand swept between the bricks, and the drip irrigation was installed, my daughter and I planted fava beans and a mixture of field peas and hulled oats. I figured that after the abuse this plot has taken I should give it a good start by planting some nitrogen-fixing cover crops this first go 'round.

I'm happy with the way it all turned out and I'm really happy that it's finished because now I can move on to the next project knowing that I've actually succeeded in finishing something.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fall Fest at the IGC

My favorite nursery is a locally owned Independent Garden Center (IGC) called Green Acres.  They have three locations and a fourth one in the plans which is quite a testament when you consider how many other nurseries have had to close shop in the last several years due to the economy and competition from larger stores like Home Depot and Lowes.  I'm not a Big Box basher by any means but a few years ago I pledged that I would only buy plants and related products from IGCs.  I still by tools, lumber, bricks, and Christmas lights at Home Depot though.

One of the reasons I made this pledge was because IGCs and other locally-owned businesses contribute to the quality of my life in ways that publicly owned companies cannot.  The 2013 Fall Festival put on by Green Acres is Exhibit A.

My daughter enjoying her scary balloon.
I suppose Home Depot could put something like this together. I know they have Saturday morning workshops for parents and their kids and a friend of mine takes his daughter often.  But this Fall Festival was on another scale entirely.

We left before the stage was used.  I was afraid it would involve a scarecrow strip tease.

The pumpkin bowling, mini golf and duck races were put on by American River College horticulture students.  This is a great volunteer opportunity as well as a chance for the students to spend some time "in the trenches" and get a taste for what it would be like to work in the retail side of their field.

Pumpkin bowling.
This is a much different version of the game me and my hooligan friends played as kids.

Mini-golf course using fresh sod, jack-o-lanterns and some bender board.  Ingenious.

In addition to the games, there were balloon makers and face painters making kids' days for free.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
 And, of course, there were pumpkins and gourds galore.

There were also some educational opportunities for us including some of information on the Sacramento Bee Keepers association (I think that's what they called themselves).  When we first walked up to the bees I started talking to my daughter about them and I was shocked to discover that she knew more about them than I did.  She knew, for instance, that all the bees we were looking at were females.  Apparently the male drones get kicked to the curb much earlier in the season and quickly die from exposure.  So this time of year it's just the Queen Bee and her workers in the hive.  I guess I've been away from school too long.

All these bees are chicks.

I got to sample a few different types of honey from areas close to here.  It was remarkable how different the texture and taste was when the distance separating these hives was less than 10 miles.

They had sno-cones, cotton candy, and drinks too.  All free.

My favorite part of the morning, however, was when my little girl decided she wanted to take a turn taking pictures of the plants.  I think I've got a future garden blogger in my midst.

My little photo bug.

Going in for the macro shot.

Of course, occasions like this aren't the only good reason to spend 100% of my gardening dollars at IGCs.  But I would really miss this type of thing if Green Acres went out of business.  And how do you put a price on the opportunity to make memories like these?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lake Tahoe

I have started and stopped writing several blog posts over the last month and a half.  Nothing ever felt right though so I didn’t publish any of them. 

But I’ve been visiting my blog frequently so I could click on my blog roll and see what everyone else was writing and I have enjoyed my time as a reader but my lack of writing led to a big problem for me: I got really tired of seeing the same pictures on my blog’s home page every day. So this post is partly just an excuse to change up the scenery a little bit.  

And speaking of scenery, one of the more recent reasons I haven’t been blogging is that I spent this last weekend on a retreat up in beautiful Lake Tahoe.  I took a few pictures with my phone to share here.

If you’ve never been to Lake Tahoe before, you should consider it some time.  Between the lake, the mountains, and the casinos it’s got something for everyone.   

For me, the allure of Lake Tahoe is just being among the trees with the water and the mountains always there in the background.  

Here are some fun facts about Lake Tahoe that you might not know about and probably won't remember next time it comes up on Jeopardy.

  • Lake Tahoe is the largest Alpine Lake in the United States.
  • It is the second deepest lake in the United States behind Crater Lake (which is also a great place to visit).
  • There are 63 tributaries that flow into Lake Tahoe, half the rain in the lake is from rain water falling directly on it, and there is just one river, the Truckee River, as an outlet.  The Truckee river flows Northeast into Pyramid Lake.  For some reason that blows my mind.
  • One of the ski resorts, Squaw Valley, hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics.
  • Because the lake borders both California and Nevada, there is legal gambling along the Nevada side of the lake.  
  • TV and Film buffs may know Tahoe's scenery as the background for the opening sequence of Bonanza while a Tahoe estate called Fleur de Lac provided the location for several scenes in The Godfather Part II.
  • And if gardening is your thing (I know it is), the Thunderbird Lodge has a spectacular alpine garden that is open to visitors.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Putting the D Back in Codling Moth

I was under the impression that there was a bit of irony at work when someone decided to name my most hated garden pest after a word, “coddle”, which means to treat tenderly; pamper even.

Because I can assure you that I do not want to tenderly stroke the slimy looking back of the codling moth larva.  I do not wish to pamper the frass-producing worms.  In fact, when I think about them, I think of them more as the brown and smelly stuff that fills children’s Pampers. 

I despise the codling moth and everything about it, even its name. 

Photo from Wikipedia

But, of course, I was wrong about the name.  There are two “d’s” in coddle and the codling moth has just one “d”.  If I had to guess, I’d say that the codling moth ate that other “d” just like they do everything else.

A not so quick research project of mine (i.e. a few keystrokes on Google and lots and lots of reading about how hard it is to control these buggers) revealed that the moth earned its name after attacking an old varietyof cooking apples called English Codling apples.  

This picture shows the stark contrast between an apple infested and one that will be infested.
Many of the publications I have consulted report that a bad infestation of the codling moth can reduce a crop by 90%.  In the case of my tree, I’d say that’s been pretty close to accurate.  So, this year the codling moths get an A.  I’m hoping next year that I’ll be able to give them that D they’ve been missing and get the destruction down in the 60% range. 

One day's worth of spoiled fruit picked from the tree and lifted from the ground.
Because I’m trying to garden with as few chemicals as possible (and because chemical control in this case depends almost entirely on exactly correct timing) I plan to combat the codling moths in a variety of ways:

First, I’m removing all of this year’s crop.  I will remove the remaining apples, bag them up, and throw them away.  That should decrease the number of moths that overwinter in my yard.

Hungry?  Me neither.  

Second, I’ll try cardboard banding the trunk of the tree.  The larvae will frequently crawl up and hide in the corrugated ridges of the cardboard so you can remove the cardboard after a few days and throw it away too.

I will try hanging a few pheromone traps to kill the moths and disrupt the mating cycle and I think I will move a bird feeder to a neighboring tree since birds are a natural predator of the codling moth. 

I will also try bagging the apples to prevent them from getting attacked in the first place.  It’s going to look strange having a tree with 200 brown paper lunch bags hanging from it but maybe I can try to convince my daughter that it’s not an apple tree, it’s a Lunch Bag Tree.    

If you have any tips or tricks on how you’ve handled codling moths, I’d love to hear them.  I’ve done a lot of reading on this and it seems like a pretty daunting task which is why I’m not aiming for anywhere near total eradication.  

I need a macro lens for my camera but perhaps you can still make out the worm in the middle of the picture.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Depressing Videos About Edibles

I seem to keep stumbling upon YouTube videos that leave me feeling discouraged and depressed about the uphill battles faced by both commercial growers and backyard gardeners.  I was introduced to this first video while visiting Gardening Along the Creek:

I don't often make political comments on this blog, but I can't refrain from stating that I believe without a shadow of a doubt that taking 47% of a farmer's crop without compensating the farmer is wrong.

The next depressing video is about Cavendish bananas - the type of banana that we all eat today (and is also, surprisingly, WalMart's #1 selling product!).  Until sixty-plus years ago we ate a type of banana called Gros Michel but it was wiped out by a fungal pathogen which caused Panama Disease.  And now, apparently, that pathogen has developed a strain that affects the Cavendish and could destroy the world's crop if we don't find a way to stop Panama Disease first.

And how about Citrus Greening which started killing citrus trees in Florida in 2005 and has now infected nearly half the trees in the state and has spread to many other states?  Have you heard of this?

This issue has literally hit quite close to home as it now spreading in California and could soon arrive in my own backyard according to this article in the New York Times.

And if all those don't make you cranky enough, how about fears that our coffee beans are at stake thanks to Coffee Leaf Rust?  There are several good articles on this topic on the internet but this one from the Atlantic does a nice job at pointing out the paradox of how organic coffee might, in this case, be doing more harm than good for coffee plants as a whole.  

I am thankful for the smart people out there that are working on solutions for these problems.  Hopefully some of them will have some good news to share with us in the coming years.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Writing Someone Else's Story

Moving into someone else’s house and making it your home feels like sitting down at a keyboard to finish a story someone else started writing.  Except that all you have to work with is the very last chapter they wrote – the leftover stuff you see today.  You can only guess what those initial chapters contained.

You look for clues that might suggest a motivation or an explanation.  You try to piece together a history from tactile bits of information like the dated color of an old toilet or the design of a windowsill that looks out of place; you recall details in the mortgage documents: names and dates, property lines, easements; or progressive lines scratched into molding marking the growth of the boys that used to share your daughter’s room. 

The door jamb needs repainting but we've held off, preserving recent history.

You find that with some of those leftover plot devices you want to honor its history and build it into your part of the narrative.  But you also discover that the plot needs to move forward and things have to change. 

One of my college professors said that the key to writing good fiction is to make normal people do things that normal people wouldn’t normally do.  In this story, I will have to be the one doing the things that normal people wouldn’t do in order to make it my story, my home. 

I will have to take the workshop that was built by the man who first bought this house and who fathered six daughters and turn it into a game room, or a cigar lounge, or a part-time gym . . . all of these being things that might make that man roll over in his grave.  

The shop has been a catch-all for things without a place inside.

I will have to take the shed that was put here by the last couple so they could store their lawn mower and turn it into a potting shed that will do a better job at setting the scene now that a gardener has come to live here. 

There's room to move around in here and use this as a potting shed
but only  after I find a better home for the mower and my garden cart.

My former garden was filled with potted plants.  I now have dozens of pots, barrels and containers that are unused and need to be written into the landscape or deleted entirely.

I will continue to edit out the trees that don’t belong and the plants that were only meant to be passing background characters. 

For now I have chosen to leave the mysterious lines of concrete in the yard because they say something to me about the history of this place and provide a framework for what might come next.  Maybe these solid relics will become the obstacle my character will have to overcome, or the boundary markers in a child's game of tag.  

These concrete lines span the width of our yard.  I wonder if they once marked the edge of our property.

Other sections of concrete baffle me entirely.  For what were these intended so many years ago?

I will leave the vegetable patch where it is even though it is no longer the sunniest place in the yard because I think it needs to be where it is for reasons I don’t understand myself.  Its weedy state could be the foundation for a tale of a rebirth that could parallel my own life somehow. 

Very gradually, I imagine, the days will come when the things I see will say more about my family’s presence here than the ghosts knocking around this place.  And eventually, many years from now, I’ll come to that last chapter and even though all the stories before it will go missing, I hope the next person picks up on our clues and writes the next chapter and does the things I wouldn't do.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Years of Learning

Temperatures in Northern California finally cooled off into the upper 90s making it possible to devote some of my weekend hours to finishing one of the first main projects at my new house.  All that remains of this project is to think of a name for this part of the garden.  Why is that gardeners have a need to assign names? 

I have spent the last decade watching Gardening by the Yard, Yard Crashers and the innumerable P. Allen Smith shows.  I have read garden design books, books about specific types of plants, and books about the lives of gardeners.  I have read, subscribed to, and written blog posts about gardening.  And all that information, all that time and energy has led me to this point.  In my new garden, I feel as if I have to prove that I actually learned something and that I can apply it to my own life.  What good is knowledge otherwise? 

With that in mind, here are some of the lessons I have learned and how I applied them to this project:

Lesson – Just Live With it for awhile
I waited a couple months before I even tackled this project.  I stood at the window in the house and just looked at this corner of the yard and wondered what it would look like if I did X, Y, or Z.  I checked the sunlight at different times of day.  I went back to the window and imagined some more.  When it came time to break ground I did one thing at a time and then I stopped and went back to the window and lived it with it some more.  From start to finish, this project took 5 or 6 weeks to complete as a result.    

The view of the new bed from our patio

Lesson – Take your time and do it right
Most of this area was grass.  There was an Aristocrat Pear tree and an Oleander that had to go as well.  I dug all these out by hand and with the help of a new “Mr. Diggy” (heartfelt thanks to Calvin).  Then I put in the drip irrigation lines because nothing non-native will grow here without supplemental watering.  And then I went back to waiting.  I waited for the grass I missed to show itself again and when it did, I dug it out with my hori hori (best garden tool I own).  That left me with a bare patch of dirt for a while and I ached to get it planted, but I knew that if I got ahead of myself I could spend a lifetime weeding unwanted grass and that it would be so much easier to do it now with nothing in the way and nothing to disturb.

Lesson – Curved beds look better
My wife doesn’t often offer up comments on my gardening.  She sees it as my realm.  She’ll comment and compliment when I show things off to her but for the most part she lets me do whatever I want and is learning to trust that I have some kind of vision for things.  But after I carved the outline for this bed she broke from tradition and told me “I like the shape of that new bed.” 

Lesson – Paths don’t have to be made of stone
I’ve always loved stone pathways.  But stone is expensive and it’s labor intensive to install.  Plus, there’s the added and ongoing chore of weeding the cracks between the stones.  This time, I’m letting the lawn be the pathway.  Besides, a green lawn when used as a foil to the rest of the garden can be quite charming. Check out these pictures I added to my "Grass Pathways" ideabook on

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Lesson – Repetition
When I go for a walk or take a drive and notice other people’s gardens I am almost always drawn to the gardens that use repetition in their plants.  There’s something wonderful about a garden filled with ferns or large patches of ornamental grasses.  And yet, when it comes to my own garden I have always wanted to use as many different plants as I could get my hands on.  There are hundreds of Japanese maple cultivars so how in the world is a gardener supposed to live with just one?  But in this case, I really did try to limit my plant selection.  I used mondo grass along the border and punctuated the garden with Japanese blood grass.  From there, I pretty much broke the rules though.  I planted a Baby Blue Spruce, a Snow Fountains Weeping Cherry, a Jubilee blueberry bush, a Mr. Lincoln rose that was given to me last month, and a Black & Blue Sage.  Even along the symmetrical trellises, a natural place for repetition, I failed.  I planted a climbing Iceberg rose on the right but planted jasmine on the left because . . .

I love the way Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica) catches the sunlight. 

Lesson – Never plant thorny things where people walk
I really wanted a climbing rose to grown up this shed.  It would have looked awesome to have two climbing roses growing up over the window.  But I remember how annoying it was to walk under the arbors at my last house and get my hat or my shirt sleeve stuck on a thorn.  So I planted jasmine on the trellis near the pathway because it is easily trimmed and it won’t wave a thorny fist in my face when I walk past it.

Non-thorny jasmine on the left
Me So Thorny rose on the right

Lesson – Plants will grow
In my gardening life the times when I have been most pleased with something I have done was initially after I finished planting.  I arranged the small little plants just so and I stand back and congratulate myself on having an aesthetic eye.  And then the plants grow up and things don’t look like they used to.  Why I neglect to conceive of a plant’s ultimate size is beyond me.  Perhaps because I didn’t have the experience of watching them grow to maturity?  This time around I did my best to leave room for things to grow.  As a consequence, there is a whole lot of mulch being used as ground cover right now but I think that in a year or two, much of the mulch will be composting in place and the plants and trees will be filling in.  If not, I can always buy more plants to fill the spaces.