Monday, March 25, 2013

One Interesting Thing (with a Giveaway!)

I was walking down the hall at work one day last week, and I heard someone's rapid footsteps gaining on me. "I'm not stalking you, Becky," came the voice from behind. I turned to find one of the executives talking to me. "Oh, I wouldn't think that anyway," I assured her. "I'm not that interesting."

She caught up to me, laughing. Then she rather forcefully disagreed, arguing that everyone is interesting in their own way. "I'm sure you could tell me something interesting about yourself," she insisted. As we walked down the steps, I felt the pressure of coughing up some fascinating tidbit. She kept saying, "Just one thing. There has to be something." Honestly, I could think of numerous responses, but one must be careful in selecting an answer. After all, if this was going to be the only thing she knew about me, I couldn't say something like, "I was given the 'Best Belcher' award in college," which is memorable, but perhaps a little horrifying (though true). So for a time, I was silent.

Finally, I said, "I grow corn in my vegetable garden." There. Two interesting things for the price of one. She was genuinely interested. But ultimately, it doesn't matter to me whether she was or not, and I like to think that has everything to do with the way that gardening has changed me.

I Grow Corn!
For far too long, I was ashamed of myself. I believed that by no longer being a professor, I was no longer important. I wallowed. I despaired. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, "I [had] seen the moment of my greatness flicker," and in short, I was dismayed. In trying to find another suitable job, I discovered that no one believed I had any useful skills or experience. So I despaired some more. And in the midst of my malaise (and utter boredom from sitting at home), I began to build a garden. I suddenly had vision and purpose. I felt optimistic--which is especially strange for me--each time I dropped another seed into the ground.

The things that happen in my garden are infinitely interesting, and that's what matters to me. Take, for example, the almost complete destruction of my bronze fennel. I couldn't determine what was eating it, but something definitely hungry was. I felt its loss acutely. I was frustrated. Then one morning at dawn, I tiptoed out to the garden, as I often do, just to see what had happened overnight. I found the fennel destroyer at the scene of the crime, but suddenly, I didn't care that he had been so ravenous. My fennel had transformed him.

Swallowtail Butterfly drying its wings on the fennel it ate

I can come out other mornings and discover that flowers I haven't seen in almost a year have come back for another visit. They're like old friends, falling easily back into conversation with you.

Welcome back, Kew Red Lavender!

And then there are those really exciting moments when I get to introduce new members to our family. This weekend, for example, thanks to yet another giddy online shopping spree at Brent and Becky's Bulbs, I welcomed home the Bishop of Llandaff (dahlia), Emily McKenzie (crocosmia), Robert Kent (canna), one of the seven dwarfs, Sneezy (dahlia), and (dare I say it?) Lucifer himself, luckily in the more pleasing form of another stunning crocosmia. How I ended up ordering so many plants with human or character names is beyond me. I didn't realize it until I started planting them, reading each tag as I opened the packages. I did, however, also manage to add a superba 'Rothschildiana' Gloriosa lily to my online basket. And now they are all additions--hopefully very productive ones--to my home.

Would many other people think I'm interesting because I planted corms, bulbs, and tubers this weekend?  And does it really matter? Somehow, by getting into the garden, I found my own intrinsic value. And that's when, I believe, you discover what you are meant to do in this life.

So, what about that giveaway, you ask? Well, I need some help. I planted a New Dawn rose in the recently-added garden. In anticipation of vigorous growth (again, my new-found optimism), I built a trellis for it this weekend. But I don't know how I feel about it in its present state.

The new garden with a late addition

Here's how you enter the giveaway. Leave a comment on this page, answering this question: what should I do with that new trellis? Should I leave it as-is? Stain it to match the fence? Stain it some other color? Let me know what you would do!

I will conduct a random drawing next Sunday (31 March), so Saturday, 30 March at midnight Orlando time will be the deadline for entries. I'll announce the winner in next week's post.

And the prize? I have a shop on Etsy where I sell my photographs and some garden gifts. My latest addition to the shop is going to be a set of stationery--8 note cards with my photographs. They are the standard size of 4" x 5.5". If you want to see any larger images of the cards, just visit my shop.

A set of 8 note cards for the winner
Anyone in the world (really, in the world) is eligible for this giveaway (except for family members, of course).

Monday, March 18, 2013

Good Night, Sweet Prince

We leave the garden this week to pay tribute to a remarkable soul.

I loved Wolfie before he was born. In the months leading up to my adopting him, I felt a terrible hole in my life. Then one night, while visiting a friend, I heard that their miniature beagle was pregnant. And I suddenly knew exactly what kind of hole I had and how to fill it. Without hesitation, I announced that I would take a male from the litter, and I anxiously awaited his birth. Little Bit, his mother, gave birth to only one puppy, and it was a male, so I knew from the beginning that we were planned for one another. I held him on his second day of life. He fit perfectly in my hand. I marveled at him before handing him back and beginning the 6-week countdown to his becoming fully mine.

When I picked him up at the end of his weaning period, he was a ball of fluff with a little orange paint on him, the spots collected as he rubbed against their house as they were freshening the paint. I took him home, gave him a bath in the kitchen sink, and wrapped him tightly in a towel. Then I held him for an hour, whispering again and again in his ear, "I love you so much. I love you so much." And our wonderful life together began.

Wolfie at 2 Months
Wolfie lived a better life than most people do. He was born in Kentucky, and I brought him home to Ohio. But he had much travel ahead of him. Throughout his life, his paws touched down (and he quickly marked some piece of land as his own) in 14 more states: Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. He had 9 different homes, and he made himself comfortable in each one on the first day there. His home was always made complete by our being with him.

He was an absolute adventurer. When we lived in Pensacola, we could not utter the word "boat" without him opening the door to the garage and sitting beside the boat in anticipation of a ride. He would wait patiently in the truck as we hitched the boat to the trailer, sometimes waiting as long as an hour. But he would not leave the truck. The boat never hit the water without Wolfie in it, right in the bow, ears flying straight out, tongue flapping, slobber flinging. He was the king of the world. And when he hit the beach, he ran to hunt for crabs or to body surf in the Gulf of Mexico.

He defied all expectations on our annual trips to Colorado. No challenge seemed too great for him. When I thought I would have to carry him, he would shake me off and scamper boulders at 13 years old, even though he had had two knee surgeries a few years earlier. He hiked as high as 12,500 feet and for as long as 8 hours when he was 14. He loved the mountains.
Surveying His Next Challenge in CO at 13

Taking a Swim in Frisco, CO at 14

He flew on 4 planes. He was fascinated by fireworks and even tried to walk up to a large can of them while they were exploding just to get a better look. He woke up every morning, including his last, excited for his walk. In fact, he lived every day with joy. He did a crazy dance on the carpet almost every day of his life, wriggling and turning onto his back and making snorts. He loved breakfast, supper, and any treat in between. He wanted to be wherever we were at all times, just looking at us. His trademark smile was the light of our lives. His constant companionship saw me through every difficult day, kept me going through my PhD program, and taught me so much about love. He whimpered when I cried and licked my tears away. I loved waking up to find him by my bedside in his later years, asking to be lifted into bed for the last couple of hours of the night. We would snuggle until the alarm woke us. That magnificent creature, in short, made my life wonderful simply by being in it.

Easter Joy at 15
Wolfie the puppy filled that awful hole so many years ago, and as time went on, he grew and stretched and filled me up completely. He died in the early hours of 13 March, just one month short of 17 years old. As he was dying, I held him in my arms, whispering again and again in his ear, "I love you so much. I love you so much." Now, without him here, the hole seems cavernous. But if I just stop and think of that smile and every wonderful day I had with him, I'm filled to the brim again.

Wolfie's Sweet 16
I would love to hear ideas/suggestions for paying tribute to him in my garden. Please do leave a comment if you have any thoughts about a nice memorial.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Golf, Gardening, and Other Failures

I am the kind of person who likes to be perfect at everything from the very start. It is a character flaw, I've now decided. At first, I convinced myself that it was an asset. After all, who doesn't like someone who strives for perfection? The not achieving perfection, however, causes me undue frustration. In fact, at times, it makes me want to just give up and move on to something else. This explains why I no longer play golf. I cannot fathom, then, why I love gardening so much when I know that it will take me years to move out of the category of "novice." I guess like many golfers, there is just something that makes me want to continue trying--a birdie here, a flower there.

I hope that when you've read my previous posts and seen the photos of my garden you've thought that I have a rather nice one. Maybe you've even thought it was a little pretty (fingers crossed). But I've been keeping something from you all. There are some decidedly ugly bits. I have some visible deficiencies around the garden, some of them downright failures.

Take, for example, my blueberry bush. It has not performed quite as I had hoped. What's worse is that I began with two blueberry bushes, but a person coming to service the yard killed the first one. The recently planted seedling was there when I left for work in the morning, and when I returned home, I found it snapped in half. I nursed it as best as I could, hoping that it would revive, but it transformed into a dry stick within a week. Now all I have is the other plant, which really looks like little more than two sticks, although not dry like its sibling. Those two sticks actually have a surprising number of blueberries on them, but the plant falls far short of expectations. In fact, I wonder if it isn't smaller than it was when it arrived here. It is ultimately supposed to be 4 feet tall, but right now, I'd just be happy with it scaling to heights as meager as 10 inches. I am embarrassed to tell people what it is when they ask.

The sad blueberry...perhaps it misses its mate?
If the blueberry bushes don't scream failure to you, perhaps this fine specimen below will. That's a Petrovskia, or it was, before it became this ghostly figure. The source of its demise is still under investigation. Presently, though, the only suspect in the case is me.
A shadow of its former self
I honestly don't know what to think about my attempts at espaliering apple trees. I diligently researched whether I could even grow apples here in Orlando, but it turns out that there are 5 varieties of apple trees that require very low chill hours. The ones most recommended are "Anna," "Dorsett Golden," and "Ein Shemer." I liked the sound of Anna and Dorsett, so that's what I chose. Very scientific, indeed. I won't even show you photos of Anna right now. She is distressed and has been since she arrived. The Dorsett seemed perfectly happy, though. I had to trim it frequently throughout last summer to keep it in check, but now it looks a little less than impressive. I'm hoping that this is just its winter look, but given my novice gardener status, I'm just not sure.
The struggling Dorsett apple tree
My strawberry-growing attempts have not gone according to plan, either. I was a little short on space for them, so I decided to use hanging planters. I thought they would provide some visual interest at the mid-level across the back fence in addition to being a space-saver. The strawberry plants beautifully grew to fill the planters, and when they began to bloom, the white flowers added another point of interest. Next came the first fruits. I would check on my little white strawberries and make grand pronouncements. "Oh, it will be just a few days before they're ripe and red. We'll be popping juicy strawberries in our mouths in no time." I neglected to consider a potential problem, though. You see, squirrels run back and forth across the top of our fence. It's a veritable squirrel highway, in fact. And though I worried that squirrels might be counting down the days to red, ripe fruits, I did not consider that they may like unripe strawberries. Seems they do because they pillaged every one of my planters.

I like to think that I'm smarter than squirrels. I was certain that I could deter them with my wits. I went to the fabric store and bought some netting, the kind used to puff up prom dress skirts. I sewed the netting into cone shapes and slipped them over the hangers and planters. The squirrels seemed beaten. We had ripe strawberries. I would daily lift the veils on my precious plants and pick a few, sweet fruits. Then my foes must have had a board meeting. I imagined them talking about plans to build new nests in the nearby trees. One asks for building material suggestions. Another pipes up, "You know that red-headed lady who sews? Well, she left some netting on her strawberries. I figure we can use that." And use it they did. Day after day, I arrived home from work to find more of the netting torn from the planters. Once they had used up all of that, they moved on to the coconut fiber lining. The strawberry plants fell out. I was gutted. Only one strawberry plant survived Squirrel War I. I'm not sure I'm up for reconstruction.

The pillaged strawberry planter 
Then there are times that I decide to take a leap of faith, even though the voices in my head tell me not to, that it will be a waste of time, another disappointment. I just took another leap in January. I had Alstroemeria seeds. I love those flowers. They were my wedding flowers, and I purchase them almost every week at the florist. Why not grow them at home, I thought? I read the instructions and began to doubt. I had to sow the seeds on the surface of the soil in small pots. Then I had to put the pots in plastic bags and sit them on a windowsill for 3 weeks. After that, they were scheduled to spend 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Finally, they would return to the windowsill for 3 weeks, at which time they should germinate. Alarms went off in my head. I knew I couldn't do it. I knew it would expose me as inexperienced. Too much could go wrong. It was like standing on the first tee box, staring at that little white ball.

But look who just got a hole in one.

Alstroemeria seedlings in their plastic cocoon

Monday, March 4, 2013

Turf Wars and Victories

T. S. Eliot may have written that "April is the cruellest month," but for anyone who lives in Florida and works a job that involves sitting all day in a cubicle, March is absolutely brutal. Although I am bundled in wool socks and fleece while writing this post, I can anticipate all of the wonderful things that will happen in the coming days. Anemones will be poking their heads out of the ground, adding a shock of red to the secret garden. The lavender will begin to bloom. The fig tree will start furiously putting on leaves. I will wake up on weekday mornings, greeted by a clear blue sky, perfect temperatures, and be blissfully happy. I will tiptoe, recently showered and robed, into the garden to snip fresh chives for my soft-cooked eggs. I will sit outside, dipping my toast soldiers into the runny golden yolk flecked with green, and I will ingest my garden. I will sit, basking in this loveliness for as long as I can. Then I will ready myself for work, thinking of the day ahead that will be, not as I wish it to be (spent plunging fingers into fresh earth and tending to my garden). By the time I arrive at the office, I'll be in a perfectly foul mood. I'll be Charlie Brown again, a cloud hanging over my head.

I have a magical way of lifting my spirits while I am at work, though. I do it by thinking of my garden. And when the images of that space are firmly fixed in my mind--the textures, the soft petals of flowers, the beautiful palette of colors--my land lust takes hold, and my thoughts turn toward expansion.

I mentioned in my first post that my husband has an affinity for turf. I have never asked why. We don't play baseball in the yard. We don't lie in the grass. I can't imagine that mowing it twice a week in the blistering Florida summer is particularly fun. He frets over it like I fret over my plants, but I'm not sure what it gives him in return. I get food and flowers and joy from my plants. He gets aggravation. Yet he loves it like he loves golf (which also gives me nothing in return for a lot of work and is equally aggravating and is why I won't play it anymore).

I, in contrast, hate the turf. I hate it all the more in Florida because I don't think it really wants to grow here. We had sod laid when we moved into the house. It was dead (even after much fussing and fluffing and watering) within 8 months. We replaced it. Then patches started to die. So he replaced the patches. And every day, the turf-lover is out there, on his knees, begging for the grass to grow. For those reasons, I have been working on him. I have been trying to change his mind about that fickle grass. In short, I have been trying to wear him down. I'm evil, you know.

At first, I proclaimed that the next time any bit of grass died, I would claim it for myself. That was too aggressive, I think, as it was met with fierce resistance. So I started posing questions, such as, "Wouldn't it be nice if we had a little tree here, maybe with some flowers around it?" or "Did you see that gorgeous cone-shaped topiary? Wouldn't that add a nice bit of structure if we extended the garden?" I still wasn't getting anywhere. Then I began emailing him photos of yards that were tastefully landscaped without any use of grass because I clearly was not describing what I wanted very well. The last photo I sent him must have hit the mark. It was actually a series of photos from Rebecca Sweet's website.

Now, anyone who has been married for a while has most likely learned this very important lesson. (For those of you not yet married or not married for long, take note.) When your spouse has a moment of weakness and relents on something you've been pressing for, quickly find a way to make the proclamation irreversible and exploit it for all it's worth. Don't judge me. We all do it.

The contested territory

I had that lesson in mind when he took me outside last week, one day after I sent him a photo. He pointed to a patch of weedy, suffering grass and said, "I think you should just tear that up and plant something. Just get rid of everything between the two trees." I was uncharacteristically dumbstruck. I blinked a few times. Then I gathered myself and calmly said, "Okay." With that, I turned and walked back into the house. My eyes probably began to glow red. I began to plot. I wondered if I should run out in the middle of the night to tear out strange patches just to seal the deal. But I hate getting up in the middle of the night, so instead I went to the nursery, bought a bunch of plants, returned home and set them in place, my version of raising the victor's flag. When he came home from playing golf this weekend, he helped me create this (really, he is so generous). 

My new bit of earth

A little extra splash of color and form

This really isn't as much as I wanted to tear out, but one must choose battles carefully. But if you look closely at the photo, I did make the shape of the bed rather strange, like half a pitcher. I'm hoping a certain someone will be out in the yard one day, see how really nice it looks, but think the shape needs smoothing out a bit, and then...

Room to grow?