Monday, April 29, 2013

The Inevitability of Things

I was never serious about gardening in my earlier years. My mom was always in the garden, and neighbors frequently asked her for gardening advice. She was a member of the local garden club. She was a child of my grandfather's hog farm, where they grew quite a lot and helped other farmers with their crops. For those reasons alone, of course, I was meant as a teen to reject gardening until I could mature a bit and get over thinking that my parents only participated in ridiculous activities.

It's strange to think about my early childhood now as an adult, with those defiant adolescent years in between. The early years fade into the background at times, but I have very fond memories of working in my grandparents' back garden (after they had sold their farm and moved into town). I loved the days when my brother and I could climb the cherry trees to get the fruit that no one could reach with the ladders. And I loved pitting those cherries. We did it together, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and grandparents. Picking and snapping beans on grandma and grandpa's patio was another great favorite. But becoming a teenager has a powerful way of setting us on a strange road, away from who we are. I remember proudly proclaiming in those awkward years that I was a city girl who had no interest in farm life. I didn't like getting my hands dirty. I curled my upper lip at the mere mention of gardening. I'm sure I deployed more than a few eye rolls, accompanied by an "Oh, brother!" or two to illustrate how ridiculous it seemed to me. And now at 40, I often daydream of owning four acres (or even just two), keeping a substantial veg plot and some chickens, and leaving space for a lovely flower garden. Eventually, it seems, we all come home.

So here I am, a gardener, a grower of flowers and food, marveling at everything that happens in my own nature preserve. The weeping peach tree last week continued carefully and selectively putting on flowers, dotting them here and there among the great new flush of leaves.

Peach tree blossom in the morning

Don't they make a lovely pair?

My Mexican sage is still putting on a show, three years after I brought it home. Every time it gets a little leggy, I cut it hard back, and it always rewards me. In fact, when I cut the longest branches, I always find, tucked away in the middle of the plant, a whole new clump of fresh growth. The flowers are so fuzzy and beautiful. I like to run my hands over them.

Love the fuzzy flowers of Mexican sage

Right next door to the sage is my Kew Red Lavender. I will forever be in love with this plant. It makes for a sea of silver and magenta, and the texture just adds to the visual appeal.

Another bloom about to burst open

This week I also have what I consider to be a miraculous photo. Lizards are a part of my garden. I even talk to them. They keep me company while I'm working. They are so varied in appearance, and some of them seem to claim specific areas of the garden as their home. Turfman especially loves one he calls "Stumpy," who is devoid of a tail and lives in the vegetable garden. I love the ebony lizard that lives in the secret garden and is often sitting on the bunny's head (it's a sculpture). I've never really seen them do much of anything besides chase each other, stop and do their push-ups, or puff their red dewlaps on their throats. On Saturday afternoon, though, I saw a lizard on the pool enclosure screen who had a mouthful of bug. I had never seen them eat before. He proudly posed for the camera as I congratulated him on his catch.

A magical moment

It was probably inevitable that I would become a gardener. Thanks to the influence of my grandparents, my mom, and Henry David Thoreau (via Walden), the garden--and the food, flowers, and creatures in it--consumes most of my thoughts, and I couldn't be more grateful to them.

This week brings preparations for what I'm calling "The Great Bean Seed Planting Event" in the veg garden. Summer is our curtailed growing season, where we're really limited to growing eggplant, peppers, cantaloupe, and beans (and a few other items). That's exactly what I intend to do. My goal is to get a bean yield large enough to save for the winter. And just wait till you see to what lengths I'll go to get as much food out of my "farm" as I can. It's going to be a fun week, and I can't wait to show you next Monday!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Outside the Walls

Lately, as I've been driving to work, the opening line of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" has been running through my head: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." One day last week, I especially thought of that poem as I headed to the office after a lovely morning walk with Tippy. I'd been struck by the colors of the Florida sunrise. It's often smooth blue with hints of pink. But on Thursday there were a few scattered clouds, and they were deep plum, underlit by a burnished rosy pink. As we continued on the walk and the day began to brighten, the pink became a vermilion; the sky lit up. The air was perfect, the breeze soft on my skin. On days like this, I invariably think of what it would be like to work all morning in the garden.

But, like the narrator of another Frost poem asserts, "I [had] promises to keep," and so I drove in to work, where I entered a building, walked down tight hallways, and stepped into my cubicle. When I sat down, I thought, "Yes, Mr. Frost. Something there is that doesn't love a wall. In fact, something there is that loathes it."

I will forever hate cubicles. No one can explain to me what good purpose they serve. They provide only a pretense of privacy. They don't keep the distractions of others talking at bay. They separate us from our colleagues. As I brood on it, I recall the narrator's words in "Mending Wall" again:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down. (lines 32-6)

I want those walls down, want to be outside of them. I understand that for a person like me, the walls are necessary. Without them, I'd be gazing out on the nearby lake, watching the tall grasses bend in the breeze. My thoughts would quickly turn to my garden, and I would accomplish nothing. The cubicle serves as my blinders, keeping my mind off of the beauty outside and more on the work in front of me. Good walls may make good workers, but they don't make me happy.

Outside those walls, in my garden every single day, something new unfolds. I feel like I've done very little work there this past week, but things in the garden have their own blinders, working well enough without me. The Pink Cascade Weeping Peach tree, but a bare root introduction to the garden this time last year, is now four feet tall and putting on leaves and flowers. 

The first flower on the weeping peach tree
The potatoes are growing furiously, and I'm finding it a little difficult to keep up with the earthing up required to keep those lovely tubers they are producing beneath the soil. Apparently, my grandpa, who was a farmer, often said that if you stood out in a field of corn, you could hear the corn growing. It grew that fast. I'm beginning to think the same of my potatoes, and I love that they make me think of my grandpa.

The potatoes are coming!

The zucchini plants are coming along nicely, though I cannot understand why most of them look rather normal, while one of them looks a bit like a Gunnera plant. I am not especially concerned about its gargantuan size, mind you. After all, that just means that the flowers are considerably larger and therefore have more space for stuffing fresh mozzarella or Boursin cheese inside before I dredge them in my homemade batter and fry them for a little appetizer. I keep telling myself that I need, at the very least, to let the female flowers produce their fruit, but I'm currently addicted to stuffed zucchini flowers and cannot resist raiding the plants.

Hello, future appetizer
Zuke flowers, Boursin-stuffed, battered, fried, & ready for eating
My tomato plants, which are the same ones I grew from seed beginning in August 2012, are still producing delicious fruit. They are beginning to show signs of slowing down, but I still see new clusters forming each morning as I make the rounds.

The tomatoes' early morning greeting
As the garden gets on with its work, I get on with mine at the weekend. I finished the enclosure for the rain barrel. The door is on, the other side of the structure built, the green roof waterproofed and planted. I'm pretty pleased with the result.

One more item off of my to-do list
I made several gallons of compost tea last week, and once the rains move out here, I'll be giving everything a delicious helping of my healthy brew. Tippy has been my ever-faithful companion while I work, making the rounds with me, checking on the plants. When we have a few moments to sit and relax, we return to the secret garden, where our memorial to Wolfie is. Tippy seems to know the exact spot, as she invariably lies down in the field of alyssum surrounding it, even though I beg her not to squash the flowers.

Always near her Wolfie
You will never find us mending any walls here. We like to be out in the open. Outside those cubicle walls I dislike, inside my garden, we are mended every day by the beauty that surrounds us. 

Anything you'd like to see next week from my garden? Any questions you'd like me to try and answer? Just leave me a note here.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Different Perspective

I always looked forward to the days when I taught Tennyson in my British literature survey courses. Of course, if I'm perfectly honest, I also loved the days for Virginia Woolf, Tony Harrison, Philip Larkin, and quite a few others...but I see I'm already getting off track. Especially enjoyable was the day in the course when we discussed "The Lotos-Eaters" and "Ulysses" together. These two poems counterbalance one another, the former focusing on rest and relaxation and the latter touting activity and adventure. For a long time, I sided with Ulysses, who complains that life is too short just to sit down and do nothing. But as I get a little older, I am discovering the merits of those "lazy" Lotos-Eaters, who want a respite and to enjoy themselves.

Actually, the Lotos-Eaters make an argument for rest that most gardeners would be hard-pressed to contradict, as they compare themselves to nature:

All its allotted length of days
The flower ripens in its place,
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil. (lines 80-83)

But then there's Ulysses with all of his nervous energy:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! (lines 22-24)

I'm certain that nearly every gardener has a bit of Ulysses in her (or him). You know exactly what I'm talking about. You create a beautiful garden people just want to sit in and enjoy. You proudly agree to join them, but the second your backside hits the swing, you see a weed, spring up as if you're on an ejection seat, and you're off tidying things up whilst your guests are left to shout to you through the bushes. It can be a little embarassing.

Of late, I have been trying to channel my inner Lotos-Eater, relaxing a bit more in my garden and enjoying it. But forever in the background is that "Type A" Ulysses, reminding me that there is much work to do in the garden. So this past weekend, my inner Ulysses won...up to a certain point.

I have two large rain barrels in the backyard. One is white and currently being overtaken by a bush, thus blending it into the landscape. The other is in the vegetable garden and is a shocking electric blue. Turfman has not been a fan of its garish presence. Now, I'm a lover of power tools. I look for any reason to use them and to use a wide array of them. So last year when Turfman first brought up his desire for the blue rain barrel to be camouflaged, I decided that I would build vertical planters on the sides (jigsaw, compound miter saw, power drill). Those turned out to be less than successful. We dismantled them a few weeks ago when we had the house painted. We added that wood to the pile of wood I had from dismantling my compost bins (which have been replaced with homemade bins that are less susceptible to animal infiltration...don't ask). So there stood the ugly rain barrel, out in the open for all to see again. And then I had an idea: why not build a small shed on one side of the barrel to house all my garden supplies? The other side could just be a wall upon which I could hang wide planters. And the roof could be a green roof.

Now had I been a true Ulysses, I would have built the entire thing, but those Lotos-Eaters inside me are gaining some ground. They were reminding me that if I did build the entire structure, seal the green roof and plant it up, my legs would find it impossible to walk me into work this morning. So I stopped even before affixing the door (though I still can barely walk today). I recognize that in it's half-finished form, it does have the look of an outhouse, what with the downspout appearing like a chimney, but I'm certain once I finish the other half and get the green roof in place, it will look much better. And that barrel will have to get a paint job. It's just far too out there. 
The new garden shed!
Inside the shed

I had to buy just a little bit of wood, but everything else is reclaimed from the previous two failed projects. The camera perspective in the inside shot makes it look a little like something the Mad Hatter might have, but I can assure you that it is completely symmetrical. And really, that's all we need in life--a slightly different perspective.

I love taking close shots of my flowers, but I realized this weekend that I rarely pan out to take in the full view, the larger home in which a given flower lives. When I crouched in the grass to capture this Salvia farinacea "Evolution White" (purchased last year from Santa Rosa Gardens), I had to remind myself to take in the larger picture, give myself a different point of view. When I did, I saw that the salvia held a different beauty in the context of its neighbors.
"Evolution White" Salvia, soft and fuzzy

The salvia in its larger context
And that's what I've come to value about both "The Lotos-Eaters" and "Ulysses"--they provide a different perspective, two ways of looking at things that are equally valid and are probably best taken in equal measure. Sure, it's great to work, to break out the power tools, to accomplish something, but it's pretty incredible to take a different perspective, sit back, and enjoy the view, too.

Now for the big seed giveaway winner, chosen at random by Turfman reaching into the garden hat: Maureen! Give me a shout, and I'll get those in the mail to you!

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Gardener (and a Seed Giveaway!)

Gardening is largely a solitary activity. Most of the time, I really love the quiet space my garden affords me. It gives me time to still my mind and to marvel over the fuzzy texture of a zucchini leaf or inhale the scent of my lavender or take note of the breeze on my skin.

I have to say, though, sometimes I feel pretty lonely in my garden. Sometimes I would like to sit with a like-minded friend on the swing in my secret garden and discuss plans for my garden and for hers. I'd like to talk about the merits of clematis or sympathize with one another over gardening difficulties. It would be nice to confess my obsession with nursery catalogs to someone who has a similar addiction. I have plenty of people I can do these things with via phone, email, Facebook, or Twitter, but I do not know one person in Orlando who would define herself as a gardener, and so for the last three years, I have largely gardened alone.

When I lived in Michigan, I had the perfect gardening friend. We would make our seed orders together. We checked in with each other on how our seedlings were doing. She even liked to walk around Bordine's nursery for hours with me, a thoroughly magical place that always made me feel as if I were being bathed in some elixir. We would slowly make our way through the extensive nursery, touch everything in sight, discuss which plants would look nice in various parts of our gardens, and--most importantly--encourage any and all purchases the other would be considering. I miss her. I miss my garden friend.

My mom is another gardening friend, but she only lives here for a month or two in the winter. I'm left the rest of the year to talk to myself while I'm crouched among the flowers (and yes, recite poetry to the plants). I go to Palmer's Garden and Goods alone, walk through all the plants and wide range of planters, and wish I had a friend to chat with about all of it. This week, so many things were happening in the garden, and I kept wishing that I could show them all to someone else who knows the joy of growing things. The best I could do was call and talk to my mom about the first zucchini flowers, the first fig leaf, the clear indications that my seed potatoes were hard at work underground.
The first zucchini flower...
The first fig leaf
The first potato shoots
One of my long-distance friends emailed last week and said that she enjoys reading my blog posts because it's like sitting down in my garden with me and a cup of tea. When I read it, I sighed and thought, "Oh, wouldn't that be nice?" I do love hearing from gardeners from around the world, but having one in my own backyard to talk about plants with would be fabulous. So, until I have someone who will do just that, I'll include a photo here of a perspective from the swing, and maybe you, dear reader, and I can imagine sitting on it together.

The view from the swing
Look under the swing...Tippy's waiting, too.
Now, for that giveaway. This one is, unfortunately, limited to my readers living in the United States, as it's a seed giveaway. After the inexplicable and infuriating passage of the Monsanto Protection Act, I am even more pleased to be giving away seeds from Seed Savers Exchange this week.  I placed an order for myself, and I decided to make it a double so that I could give one of my readers exactly what I intend to grow myself, thus allowing me to garden long-distance with someone. If you don't know anything about Seed Savers, be sure to check them out. I order almost all of my seeds from them because they are about the important work of keeping heirloom varieties and biodiversity alive, something we need more than ever these days.

What will a lucky winner and I be growing together? Well, I purchased Cilantro, Globe Basil, and Chives seeds. I also went a little crazy and bought Nicotiana seeds and seeds for something called Bunny Tails, which I was just intrigued by.
The Prize Package!
All you need to do to be eligible is comment on this post and tell me what your biggest plan for your garden is this year. And if you are feeling shy and still want to enter, you can just post a comment that says, "Give me the seeds!" Turfman will draw the names out of the garden hat on Sunday, 14 April, so the deadline for entries is 11:59 pm Orlando time on Saturday, 13 April. I'll announce the winner in next Monday's post.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Shedding Skin

"We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come."
--Joseph Campbell

As I sat in a long meeting last week, I began to lose focus, and my mind and eyes started to wander. I looked down at my crossed legs, following them down to my shoes. Horrified, I saw that the sole of my right shoe had separated from the upper, running from the mid-point of my big toe down to the beginning of my arch.

"Not another pair!" I howled internally. But then my thoughts quickly shifted to panic. I started to fixate on what might happen when I left the meeting. Would the upper completely tear away, leaving me with the top of my foot covered, but my sole left behind? (I shuddered to think of the pun and the metaphorical implications of this.) How embarrassing would that be? "There's Becky, the ragamuffin," everyone might think, which would be horrible since I always used to be so particular about my appearance and still think I am. I tried to imagine the best way to walk in the damaged shoe so as to minimize the chances of it disintegrating on me. Limp? But then I was afraid that would call attention to my foot and the offending footwear. I thought it best just to take my chances and walk as nonchalantly as possible back to my desk. Thankfully, I made it back safely.

Ultimately, I was especially disappointed about the shoes, not because I love them all that much, but because I don't want to buy a replacement pair. You see, those shoes don't represent who I am anymore. They don't fit in with the life that is waiting for me, and to purchase a replacement pair, to me, is tantamount to waving the white flag or, as Campbell might put it, ignoring the hero's call. I'll just have to plan my wardrobe differently for a while to accomodate my declining shoe selection. My friend at work made a completely reasonable and valid point when I mentioned this plan to her. Of course, I probably will eventually want to go out somewhere and will need some nice brown casual shoes to wear. I can't just go out to dinner in garden clogs with Turfman (the husband). She's completely right. I can't see them as just another pair of shoes right now, though. My only fear is that, soon, I may have to come to work barefoot, and that's another thing that's only acceptable if your office is the garden.

Thankfully, I got to log quite a few hours in my second office this weekend, both shod and unshod. The corn is tasseling now, so I took a few minutes every couple of hours to give the plants a little shake, sending a light pixie dust of pollen down to the silks below. As the tomatoes begin to slow down production, the eggplants are really beginning to bloom prolifically. I'm hopeful that this time I'll get a lot more fruit and that I don't have to resort to using what I refer to as "The Tickler" to get it. After one of the neighbors called to have a beehive removed, I have struggled to get really good pollination in my vegetable garden, so a small craft paintbrush is my pathetic stand-in for those wonderful creatures.

Corn update

The lettuce is now going to seed, and I'm waiting to collect the seeds for an attempt at growing lettuce indoors. We've enjoyed our daily salads so much that we are somewhat saddened to see the warmer weather arrive. In anticipation of their ultimate demise, however, I happily planted jalapeƱo seedlings between the lettuces. My mouth starts to water every time I think of the abusively hot pickled peppers I'll make from their bounty.

The garden memorial to Wolfie is coming along, too. Thanks to suggestions from my readers, I've been working on something that seems right. In the secret garden, I have placed a small paver with a set of paws and "Forever in Our Hearts" etched on it. I planted the Gloriosa-superba "Rothschildiana" from Brent and Becky's Bulbs on the trellis behind. And yesterday I found a metal dog statue that is a solar light, and he now sits behind the paver. I can view this portion of the garden from my bedside window. It was comforting last night to look out and see it glowing, and I was pleased to find it still lighting the darkness when I woke up this morning. A very special reader has contacted me to offer up Daffodil bulbs in memory of Wolfie, as well, so if all goes right, they'll be coming up next year just around the time we said goodbye, which will be especially poignant. Now I can sit out on the swing in the garden and still feel his presence near.
Wolfie's spot

The life that is waiting for me is in the garden. And if the shoe fits...
My new skin...with ladybugs!

Giveaway update: Thanks to everyone who made suggestions about the trellis! And thanks to Turfman reaching into a hat to pull out a piece of paper for me yesterday, I'm happy to announce that Kerry is the winner of my first giveaway! I'm especially happy that it worked out this way since I somehow removed her comment from my blog when replying to it and had to repost it. Sorry about that again, Kerry.

Be sure to visit next week when I have a seed giveaway!