Monday, February 25, 2013

In Praise of a Path and Two Pineapples

I have something to confess. In the last few years, I've been a little off-course. At least, I've felt off-course, and I suspect that many who know me have thought the same. It's hard to explain how one goes from being an English professor to a proofreader in the span of a few years, but I've made personal choices (decidedly right ones) that forced me out of my career. Since then, I've spent a lot of time trying to build something else for myself and wondering if my efforts would yield results. I still don't have a definitive answer, but sometimes I must be reminded that the best things in life often take longer than we have planned.

The long-awaited path through the vegetable garden is complete. Honestly, I frequently doubted we could actually get it done. It was difficult to stay on task each week and make a set of pavers. When we would finish a set and place them, I felt no sense of accomplishment. I just looked at the sandy, weedy space ahead that required more pavers, more time. I could have bought some and saved myself aggravation, but I'm cheap. I also wanted something unique and interesting. Those two words always translate into "more expensive" if you're buying. And I wanted to go a little crazy and stamp lines from a Vita Sackville-West poem into the path. That translates into "impossible to find." So I made them, and they took forever, but now they're done. 

The finished path

Here's an accounting of the path, inspired by Henry David Thoreau:
  • Concrete Frames   Free        (Scrap wood)
  • 30 bags concrete   $75.00    (50 lb. bag = 1 set)
  • Chicken wire           $30.00    (Internal strength)
  • Can of stain            $24.00      
  • Concrete Stamps    $5.00         
                              In all . . . . . . $134.00

That total cost, dear readers, is why I made each one. And once these are fully dry, I'm going to skip up and down that path in celebration. I may even sing "The Wizard of Oz" or something while passing each raised planter bed, especially singing louder by the one dedicated to pineapples.

Pineapples have always felt like a celebration to me. On one of our first days in the new house, I purchased a pineapple from the grocery to mark our new, tropical life. After I cut it, I held the crown in my hand, pondering it. A quick search on the internet confirmed that I could, indeed, grow pineapples in Florida. I just needed to peel off some of the lower leaves and jam the crown into the sand. Then I needed to wait for 2 years. 

For those of you who have read my earlier posts, you are probably groaning, thinking about my great difficulty with patience. "Two years? How could she survive?" you wonder. Well, I was busy, so they weren’t a problem at first. I would occasionally check on them, just to confirm that they were still alive. But when the interior of the house was finished and I could devote more time to the garden, they were a persistent source of concern. Did they have roots? Why were they the same size 6 months on? I relocated them to a raised planter and worried that I was sacrificing too much of my limited space to them. At the one year mark, they were much larger, but I had no real idea how they were doing.

The pineapples at the 1 1/2 year mark

In all honesty, my lack of patience had caused me to doubt those pineapple plants and myself. They were taking up usable space. I should pull them out. The only thing that saved them was my utter lack of time.

At the two year mark, though, I had determined their fate. They were not much longer for this earth. They were doing nothing but getting massive. I doubted my abilities as a gardener. I read failure in those plants. In short, I was Charlie Brown. Impatience had turned to despondency.

Then, one day in August, I was showing some family guests around the garden. I looked at the pineapple plants, pointed, and asked, "What is that?" Of course, they expected me to know.

A ray of hope?

I had absolutely no idea what was happening, but the spiky thing in the middle began to grow rapidly. We all speculated as to what it was. For me, though, it was a beacon of hope. It was a glorious, miraculous unfurling of a flower. It was a daily affirmation as each spike became a beautiful purple bud. I was not the goat.

The flower spike

And 6 months later, those flower spikes had turned into these.

The long-awaited fruit

I am a big fan of ceremony, so once the first one turned golden, I came home from work, lit two candles (having no torches on hand) and handed them to my husband and my mom, queued up Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's music, grabbed a massive knife (reminiscent of a machete), and we marched out in a parade line (down the almost-finished path) to harvest.
Pineapple cutting by candlelight

Those pineapples were worth every bit of effort and wait. They were easily the best fruits I have ever eaten. We should have worn bibs to catch the juice dripping down our chins. And the celebration was pretty fun, too, even if we did feel a little silly.

So sometimes we wonder if we'll ever get on track, if things will turn out okay. Sometimes we fear we're not doing the right thing, that we're headed in the wrong direction. We doubt ourselves. But I like to think that my cheap and wonderful path and those deliciously sweet, shockingly juicy pineapples offer me an important lesson. Life requires work and dedication and perseverance, and though we fear all of our efforts are for nothing, there's always some sweet victory, some cause for celebration. The path will be complete, and we'll find our way.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Slow Road to a Garden and Patience

I think gardening requires passion and patience, and the two rarely conflict for me, largely because I lack all sense of patience. But I do have the passion bit down. I like to think I'm developing some level of patience, if only because getting the actual garden to match the one I envision in my head is taking some time.

Once we nearly sweat to death clearing the gargantuan holly bushes on the side of the house, we were amazed by how wide the side yard actually was. I started getting ideas. I began hatching plans. Those plans involved arbors. Unfortunately, that required my first exercise in patience, since we would have to submit our plans to the neighborhood ARC (architectural review committee) for approval before we could get started. I wanted a narrow arbor for the entrance and a wider one for a swing at the end of the garden. I wanted another small one at the gate in the veg garden.

The Not-So-Secret Garden, pre arbors

I had help building the large swing arbor and was very grateful for the help. But the two small arbors I built on my own. I had this great idea that I should build them in the driveway because it's flat (sloped, yes...uneven, no). I didn't want to create a Dr. Suess arbor to match our palm tree (see previous post) by building in the yard. This really didn't present much of a problem for the veg garden arbor because it is a short 10 foot walk from driveway to placement. I just dragged it in place. The other arbor, however, would be placed approximately 150 feet away. I had to get through the gate into the backyard, then walk to the end of the house, then to the end of the pool enclosure, around the enclosure, up the other side, and then to the intended resting place.

I believe I've mentioned that I'm impatient. I didn't want to wait for the muscle of the house to return from playing golf. So I turned the arbor on its side, crouched to step into the structure, and placed my shoulders under the vertical beams, which were then extending behind me. I stood up. The arbor was still on the ground. So the weight of the structure was one problem, and now my short stature was creating another. No problem, I thought, I'll just carry it by walking on my tiptoes. Yes, Becky. Genius move. That should be super easy. At least I was in for a good exercise for my calves, and I was sure that was the last of the obstacles. As I started to move, however, I noticed that the narrow gap between the vertical beams made it impossible for me to take normal strides. I suddenly became a tiny woman with a 7' high x 5'wide x 2' deep stockade on me, tiptoeing with a 6" I was trying to sneak up on someone. Yet I remained undeterred. Bouncing along, I made my first few steps.

Here's where it gets a little strange. As I was moving from driveway to gate, 3 separate neighbors passed by, each of them in their turn.

"Hello, Becky!" they said.

I could barely turn my head to see them, what with the house on my shoulders, but I managed a wave and a hello. One doesn't want to appear rude.

"How are you doing?" they asked.

Really? Does it look like I'm in a position for a chit-chat? I replied with a less-than-convincing, "Oh, I'm fine. And you?" Never once did any of them offer to help or ask why I had a bunch of lumber hanging off of me, as if they didn't even see it. I thought bitterly of that the entire way. When I arrived at my destination, I really struggled to line up the posts with the holes I had dug, drop the posts into the holes, and push the arbor upright. But I did. And yes, I am, in some ways, the muscle of the house, too. I'm just the shorter muscle. It makes a big difference.

My Great Burden, the Arbor (and a slightly more secretive garden)

I will attempt to include current photos of the Secret Garden soon. It will just require me to pull out a ladder and take an aerial shot. It's getting that secret. The plants are maturing and stretching out, making themselves quite comfortable.

Peeping through the Herbaceous Wall

The vegetable garden was still looking a bit shabby until recently. My somewhat limited gardening skills were taxed by the constant weed problem. When I built the raised planter beds (necessary, I think, for anyone who has all sand for soil), I placed weed barrier fabric underneath the planters, and I think the weeds took that as a declaration of war. They were, no doubt, the superpower then.

The Vegetable and Weed Garden (and arbor in the background)

We are currently in the process of finishing up the paver path, another exercise in patience because I had the bright idea of making all the pavers myself. One set per week. 30 sets. We're staining them this coming weekend. And another phase of the transformation will be complete. My own transformation into a patient person, in all honesty, is really moving along much more slowly. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

And so it begins...

I finally find that I have something to say, about gardening and about the nearly unbearable obstacle that a job presents to my being out in the garden. But I will only post once a week, largely because I know who I am, and that means I'm aware of my tendency to be a little distracted by myriad things. Daily posts would kill me if only because I'm averse to routine. 

So this week's post, as well as next week's, will briefly cover the last 2 1/2 years so that we might get up to speed. After that, I'll just fill you in on what I'm growing, what I'm doing with it, and why I think gardening is better than a desk job!

In the Beginning...
We bought a foreclosure in Florida nearly 3 years ago. It wasn't in terrible shape, as some of them can be. But the property could be described as a barren wasteland. Well, barren is a bit severe. We did have a magnolia tree that had grown into our septic system, and fed for years by the of the home's residents, it had increased to gargantuan proportions. In fact, I could not photograph the front of the house. Every attempt simply made it appear as if I had a tree fetish. 

The Tree...and maybe a house behind it?
The remaining inventory of growing things was especially brief. We had 3 holly bushes on the side of the house that were so large, they had overtaken 3 windows, blocked out all light, and made the side yard look as narrow as an alley in Venice. We had a lime tree that had never been pruned or cared for, so we didn't recognize it as a lime tree. It just looked like another enormous bush. And we had a palm tree that had never been cleared of dead fronds, so while the tree is 50 feet tall, the dead fronds stretched from the 5 foot mark to the 40th. It was like a tiki hut drawn by Dr. Suess. Other than that, we had sand and weeds.

From the start, I spent part of each day in the yard (after I finished tiling in the house) just trying to clean it up and carve out a space for myself. If I didn't, I knew I'd fall quickly behind in the battle over turf...literally. What is it with men and lawns? I always think that if I were as cool as Alys Fowler, I'd have convinced my husband that the entire back of the property could be a good and proper ornamental and productive garden. Seeing images of her back garden just fills me with envy. But I'm not that cool. Instead, I wage a war of a thousand rips--I rip out a little more of the lawn each month. But in the beginning, I took the portion of the yard on each side of the house and dreamed of purloining additional swaths from the turf. Below is the side I designated for the vegetable garden. Tippy (in background) seems to be asking, "Seriously? We're going to live here?" The fence was so wretched that the little girls next door would unabashedly peel off pickets to see what we were up to.

The Future Veg Patch with Inspectors Tippy and Wolfie
Though I regret it today, I did not take photos of the holly side of the house. I think it just felt like I would be taking pictures of greenery. But here's a photo that reveals one of my character flaws: I like to start in media res. Why? Why did I place the fountain pot, plant a mandevilla, and install a trellis before clearing the weed grass or cutting down the holly bushes (encroaching on the left)? But these are questions better left unasked, and so I will move on. It took us two days to remove each of the bushes. So basically 6 days. And we thought it was good, so we rested.

The grass garden? (which is destined for greater things)
 And if I fast-forward to a year or so ago, these photos show our progress.

The Magnolia-Free Front, circa 2011

The Veg Patch (with freebie rain barrel in right foreground!), also 2011

The Former Holly "Garden"
As anyone with a garden knows, this is just the work in progress, which is always in progress and always will be. By late 2011 (which was the 1 1/2 year mark of ownership), we had accomplished quite a bit, and we have finished a few more projects. I'll quickly cover those next week, in addition to some of my great successes and failures in learning how to garden in Florida and some ridiculous tales of my trying to do everything by myself (like building the arbor above in the driveway and carrying it to the complete opposite of the property).

I hope you'll all come along for the adventure!