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.