Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Ugly Yard

“It’s an ugly year.”  So said I to Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome one evening as we were sitting out on our porch, gazing over our thriving crop of brown grass.  “What did you expect?” he replied.  “We’re at the end of a terrible drought.”  “I know.  But...still.  It’s ugly.”  That is where the conversation ended.  Apparently my need to state the obvious and commiserate about it is lost on him.  Good thing I have you folks. 

Last week, I picked up one of my season-by-season gardening books and turned to the ‘Late Summer’ section.  The first line says, in bold print, “The garden is at its best now.”  Whoa.  Was this book written by a native English speaker?  Surely he couldn’t understand what he was saying.  I’ve never lived through a late summer in which my garden was ‘at its best’, but this year is the banner child for ‘Blech’.    

My soft heart hasn’t helped the look of our garden one bit.  I’m a sucker for volunteer plants, which are rather like cats: captivating in juvenile form, and rather regrettable as adults.  The birds transferred some of my carefully selected SongBird Seed Mix to the front border of our bed, where a smattering of 3-4’ sunflowers now reside.  Had they been transplanted to the back of the bed in a timely manner, they might’ve looked halfway decent, but a little procrastination left them right where they were sown.  With browning leaves and drooping heads, they are now well past their glory days.  The meticulous gardener would remove them, but not I.  No, the cardinals and finches are still working on the seed heads, and I love getting double the return on my SongBird Seed Mix.  I paid extra, after all.

Getting double the pleasure from a bag of birdseed.

My weakness for volunteers is especially susceptible in the tomato department.  I have several sprouting
in and around the compost pile.  One particularly enormous specimen has overtaken my back steps.  That soft heart of mine is touched by their tale of bravery, a hypothetically epic story of bitter cold winter nights, greedy birds looking for an easy meal, and parched July afternoons.  Who am I to quash their chance at life?  Additionally, I cling to the hope that one volunteer might reward me with an incredible new tomato variety and a million dollar plant patent, or just really amazing salsa. 

The monstrous tomato swallowing up my back steps is not that plant.  The tomatoes are mediocre at best, and still I’ve accommodated its zest for life.  My reward?  A steadily shrinking stairway.  It is now less than a foot wide, and I’m not talking about the 12 inch foot.  I’m talking one Nike wide.  It’s getting ridiculous over here.  Soft heart be danged, I’m going to get the pruners.  Next year, I’ll be a tough old biddy on those volunteers.  I’ve learned my lesson.  Yeah, right. 

I’ve half a mind to retire this column on the simple basis that a visual overview of my property raises serious inquiries as to my qualifications to be doling out any sort of gardening advice, be it ever so humble.  The other half of my mind confirms that it’s time I return to the ultimate path to riches: substitute teaching.  So it is with a fond farewell that I bid you adieu.  I will miss our little chats. Tall, Dark, and Handsome is going to have to up his conversational skills.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Miss Diagnosis

I picked up a hitchhiker yesterday.  Clinging to my windshield as the Honda hurtled toward Herscher was a small, yellow cucumber beetle.  I don’t know what his hurry was.  Perhaps he was late for football practice.  We certainly were. 

On second thought, I’m not sure that it was a cucumber beetle.  I wasn’t trained to identify bugs by their undercarriage, which is mostly what I could see from my vantage point.  Honestly, upside down or right side up, I’m no genius at identifying bugs.  I pulled an A in Dr. White’s Entomology 280, but it’s been a few years since I sat under his esteemed tutelage.  And I must confess, my interest level in the insect world was marginal at that time.  As a 20-year-old, I was hopped up on hormones and cramming for 4 other courses.  My personal interest in the life cycle of a cucumber beetle was about a 2 on a 10 scale, and that was only because my GPA was directly attached to my knowledge of their love life and appetite.  With no cucurbits of my own to protect, I didn’t have a vested and pressing interest in understanding the complexities of the cucumber beetle.  I was studying purely for the grade.  Five minutes after the final exam, all the hard-won memorization evaporated from my brain synapses.  Poof! 

A cucumber beetle....I think.

Now, in the sunset of my thirties, the distractions have expanded.  The hormones of my twenties resulted in offspring that litter my house with nerf bullets, legos and empty yogurt containers.  The dishwashing and loads of laundry have certainly increased from the free-style life of my college days.  But one significant difference has changed everything between me and Mr. Cucumber Beetle:  it’s personal now.  The insect attack is no longer theoretical.  I have tilled the soil (okay, technically the husband did that, but I supplied the lemonade), planted the seeds, watered the soil, weeded the weeds, watered, weeded, watered, well…let’s just leave it at this: I’m invested.  And now my zucchini are drooping.   This is the life cycle of my zucchini: sprout, flourish, flower, produce 6-7 fruits, then wither, shrivel and die. 

Have I mentioned that I love my little squash?  I slice them thin, fry them in butter, season them with salt, pepper and indecently gooey amounts of parmesan.  Only one of my children inherited my passion for zucchini, which is fine by me, because there are fewer people with whom I must share.  Besides, the two of us alone can eat four medium-sized zucchini in one sitting.  We’re serious about squash. 

No question about it....that's zucchini.  

And now I’m feeling the sting of my lack of focus so many years ago.  My Ortho book suggests the cucumber beetle is not guilty of this serial squashicide.  I feel like a doctor who is unable to diagnose her own child with the chicken pox.  Good thing I didn’t go into medicine.  Research suggests I may have an infestation of squash vine borers.  And they don’t just attack zucchini.  Remember my fruitless pumpkin patch?  A week after I wrote to you of my woeful lack of jack-o-lanterns, I discovered baby pumpkins growing on the vine.  Two days after that, the vines wilted and died.  Cucurbits and I are just not meant to be. 

So what to do?  Give up?  Never.  I can’t garden without zucchini.  It would be like celebrating a birthday without cake.  No can do.  I’m going to burn down all the plant debris this fall and ammo up with some Bug-B-Gone.  I hear it controls cucumber beetles and squash vine borers.  Just in case I’ve misdiagnosed again.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Calisthenics for your Cultivation

In my wavering pursuit of physical fitness, I dipped my toe in the waters of yoga.  Having observed that yoga fanatics always appear slim and trim in spite of the sedentary nature of their sport, I was intrigued.  If a toned physique could be acquired by simply stretching and holding a few poses, count me in!  I scurried out and purchased a yoga DVD.  Several sessions later, the verdict was in: yoga was too slow.  It required a certain level of focus, which my undiagnosed (but raging) case of ADHD undermined.  As luck would have it, aerobic exercise is too fast for me, so I am forced to drift further from my ideal blue jean size until someone develops an exercise program that is neither too slow nor too fast, but nevertheless, incredibly effective. 

My short rendezvous with yoga revealed some surprising similarities with gardening.  Both practice the art of slowing down: you can’t rush the lotus position, nor can you hurry along the flavor forged in a ripening tomato.  Yoga and gardening test your inner endurance (and patience), as anyone who’s ever tried to maintain a half-moon pose or grow a red pepper can attest to.  Both challenge you to find balance.  Yoga tried (and failed, for the time being) to conquer my lack of focus, a contributing factor to the unbalance in life. 

But finding balance in the garden is a mission I haven’t given up on yet, and that destination is reached with a GPS (gardening perfection system) known as design theory.  This framework of rules provides a structure on which to drape your original ideas.  I find them freeing, but I always was the rule-follower as a child.  Goody-two-shoes, that’s what the other kids called me.  The ADHD and rebellion didn’t set in till much later. 

Nowadays I enjoy breaking rules when the mood strikes, and gardening is the perfect outlet to assert my defiance.  This is, after all, design theory, not design commandments.  Take, for example, the rule of odds.  In design, odd numbers of groupings are visually pleasing.  I recognize the validity of this, and most of the time I toe the line.  But sometimes the square footage doesn’t cooperate.  A hideously even number of hydrangeas congregate in front of my porch, because that is what fit.  I would’ve been docked in design class, but in real life, someone has to foot the bill for the extra, and extraneous, Hydrangea.   My checkbook said "No thanks". 

Having given you free reign to break the rules, let me insert one addendum: the occasional departure from a rule is one thing, whereas complete ignorance of its existence is another.  You don’t have to follow all the rules all the time, but you should be aware of them.  I have listed several essentials, along with a question to help you gauge its relationship to your yard.

Sequence: Is there a sequence of activity (foliage, flower and fruit) in your landscape that keeps it interesting all year long? From the early blooming Hyacinth to the late blazing Burning Bush, the riotous colors of Geraniums to the stoic attention of Blue Spruce, no season need go unnoticed. 

Scale: Are your plants in scale with the structures on your property and with each other?  Consider the mature size of plants when locating them around your yard.  Dwarf Alberta Spruce is not interchangeable with Blue Spruce, and a dwarf Japanese maple should not be featured near a giant stand of Miscanthus grass. 

Views:  Are the most important views from the street and the home maximized?  The perspective from that big picture window is every bit as important as the view from the curb.  Spend the bulk of your budget where it will be seen.   

Color: Have you selected colors, both in foliage and flower, which blend and accentuate each other and your home?  Consider studying complementary and adjacent colors on the color wheel to find the best partners. 

A little focus and stretching and your yard will be ship-shape in no time.  Wish I could say the same for my abs.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sweet Success

After two entire seasons of columns dedicated to my gardening mishaps, you may be asking yourself a reasonable question:

Why does this woman continue gardening?  

In spite of all my frustrations and failures, I actually find a lot of peace in the garden.  The growing season coincides conveniently with the timeline of school break.  In the chaos of mothering three summer-struck monkeys, I sometimes (often) feel the urge to scream “Serenity now!”  By disappearing for a bit into the garden, the blessedly mute plant life soothes my frazzled nerves.   Emotional assistance aside, those mistakes in the garden serve a purpose.  They make the rare success that much sweeter.

Gateway to Serenity

One such success this year was Centranthus ruber.  The occasional hummingbird hovers into our yard, but being the greedy naturalist, I want more.  However, I’m also a lazy naturalist.  Too lazy, I’m afraid, to keep up with those sugar water contraptions, so I purchased Red Valerian (C. ruber) last fall.  I knew its long, rosy, tubular blossoms were just the ticket for my hummingbird habitat.  I planted it in the ground, planted myself beside the window, and kept my eyes peeled for the much-anticipated squadron.  Spring turned to summer, and still no sign of them.  Through the mist of my disappointment, I accepted the obvious: for whatever reason, the hummingbirds flew the coop.  They were probably miles away, well outside the range of Red Valerian’s wooing power. 

Later, while visiting with a fellow Irwinian, she complained about a family, a family, of hummingbirds that were destroying her hanging pots, trying to nest in them.  This is no long distance neighbor.  Her front porch is less than 10 seconds away, as the crow flies.  But, clearly, not as the hummingbird flies.  I must accept that I am not in tune with discriminating hummingbird palates - and this is sounding suspiciously like another one of my gardening failures - but wait!  Centranthus may have been snubbed by the bird world, but it turned out to be a surprising treat for this old girl.  Through all the heat of this impossible summer, and in spite of my dog’s best effort to trample them, those rosy blossoms have out-bloomed every other flower in my garden including the King of Longevity himself, Catmint.   I never thought anyone could usurp his throne, but Centranthus has done it.  Had I known all that I know now, I’d have bought three Red Valerians.  Too bad for the hummingbirds.  They don’t know what they’re missing.

Centranthus erupts behind King Catmint.  (Don't be mislead by Penstemon poking in there.
Centranthus has blue-green foliage.)  Carolina Lupine wraps up her tall spiky blooms in the distance.

In the spirit of the Olympics, I proudly set a new PR (personal record) this summer.   I finally conquered that raging case of Red Pepper Ineptitude.  Last year, I did harvest a red pepper – my first ever - although I wouldn’t call it a raving success.  It was, after all, October.  Still, we cock-eyed optimists must celebrate even the smallest of triumphs, particularly those five or more years in the making.  This year, however, I didn’t have to stretch far to reach my accomplishment.  It came right up and bit me in the biscuits this July.  July, did you say?  Why yes, yes I did.  And it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my dear friend, Gypsy Pepper.  I know the Olympic committee isn’t going to add Pepper Cultivation to the competitive events anytime soon, nor could I compete even if they did.  There will be no podium to climb, no medal to wear, no media frenzy to manage.  But as I kneel in my humble soil, picking my sweet Gypsies, I may hum a bar or two of the Star Spangled Banner. 

After being trampled by 90 pounds of raw canine determination her first year at Casa del Uftring, my Carolina Lupine (Thermopsis carolina) looked depressed.  Suicidal may be a more apt description.  The next season, I employed a tomato cage security guard to protect her from our heavily pawed pooch.  She recovered from the trauma of the previous season enough to reward me with her first set of 3’ butter-colored blooms.  It was like a ray of sunshine peaking from beneath the cloud of yesteryear.  This spring though, she stretched up even higher, until she was able to look me straight in the eye.  At that point, she burst out with an explosion of yellow firecracker blooms that continued to fizzle for two weeks.  The Victorian era is renowned for its development of the language of flowers, but I needed no translator for my sweet Caroline.  The sentiment was clear: “Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you for saving me from that four-legged steam-roller!”   Probably not what the Victorians had in mind, but it warmed my heart nonetheless.  Sweet success will do that for you.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Humility Strikes Again

“Mom, next year, don’t plant pumpkins.”  My 11-year-old, fresh from fifth grade, is now dispensing gardening advice to me, his mother, the horticulturist.  I should instruct him on respecting his elders, but he’s right.  The pumpkins were a mistake.  They made the 2012 bloopers reel:

The Plague of Pumpkins.  “What fun it would be to carve home-grown jack-o-lanterns this October!  And think of the savings!”  These were the thoughts that led me to pick up two adorable little pumpkin starts this spring.  The info tag failed to mention that those two small plants would cover an area roughly the size of a city block with their prickly, rambling growth.

Before the takeover....note the unsuspecting onion to the right

Ten minutes (so it seemed) after I planted them, the vines swamped our bonfire pit.  Somewhere, floating fathoms below are the makings of a terrific wienie roast.  They violated the hallowed ground of my tomato harvest with their thistly vines and prickled up my picking.  They steam-rolled the Candy onions, burying their lush, green tops in a jungle of bristles. 

All of this would be a consideration if there were pumpkins growing on these vines.  If.  The flowers failed to pollinate.   There hasn’t been one love connection between Mister and Miss Pumpkin flower.  I could play matchmaker, but who wants to wade into knee-deep thistle-vines? 

Who needs smores when you've got pumpkin blossoms?

Cursed pumpkins.  You are worth whatever I have to pay in October.  I will not be growing you again.  Until, of course, the gardening amnesia sets in…

Big on Taste, Short on Supply.  I have slowly been wooed by basil.  It began several years ago, with a bite of Amy’s Pesto Pizza.  One taste, and I made a pact with myself to look at neither the serving size, nor the fat content listed on the box.  Then, with a clear conscience, I ate the whole thing by myself. 

This spring, I tried Panera’s Mediterranean Egg White on Ciabatta, a refined culinary description for what amounts to an herbal hallucinogen.  The pesto slathered on that sandwich MADE me plant basil.  One minute I was brunching with a friend, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in my garden, a trowel in one hand and basil in the other. 

But the final straw was The $64 Tomato, by William Alexander.  Funniest gardening book I have EVER read, by the way.  Last week, I made his Caprese Salad.  This delightful combination of basil, garlic, pasta, tomato and mozzarella took a chunk out of my basil supply.  That was an herb well spent, but I need to plant more, much more.  Or steal some.  I could be on the road to a life of crime. 

Leafy deliciousness

Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail.  The month of May brought with it a newly expanded vegetable garden for yours truly.  With all that square footage of potential yawning before me, what did I do?  Planted my tomatoes too close together.  Without fail, I always underestimate the size of a mature tomato plant.  It must be some sort of neurological disorder.  Had I three rolling acres of vegetable beds, there’s no doubt the tomatoes would still end up too close together.  This year’s crop of six plants has morphed into one giant tomato hut, similar to the darling green bean/sunflower tents you may have seen in children’s gardens.  Only this structure, having no discernable entrance, requires a thirty-something woman to belly crawl inside to harvest her out-of-reach Romas.  Enchanting. 

Buried Treasure

Assuming procrastination doesn’t get the better of me (and let’s face it, that’s a stretch), I’ll be working out a pre-emptive strike on the 2013 garden plan while the mistakes of 2012 are still fresh in my mind.  My goal: no reruns in next year's blooper reel.  

Gypsy Peppers

Thank you Gypsy pepper for helping my sorry self declare red pepper victory.  You're now a permanent installment on my spring shopping list.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Slimy Feet, Happy Hearts

Nothing a little soap won't fix
My boys recently spent a week at camp.  I sent them each with a bar of soap, and when I returned to fetch them home, one boy’s was still sealed shut.  Five days later.  Draw your own conclusions as to the cleanliness of their camping agenda.  Mothering boys is an adventure in many things.  Today, as I attempt to find a moment’s peace to write, it is an adventure in patience.  But on that last day of camp, the adventure was germ management, and the unopened soapbox was simply a preview of coming attractions.

Near the bottom of the triple-decker pancake of camping gear, I uncovered a water bottle filled with murky liquid.  Either Aquafina had lowered their standards considerably, or someone had meddled with the contents.  A closer look revealed that I held in my hands a makeshift aquarium and floating within was a small, unhappy fish. 

Now, how can one tell if a fish is unhappy?  Aside from the unmistakable belly float, it’s hard to say.  Fish wear no discernable signs of emotion, at least to my untrained eye.  I studied him, but saw no furrowed brow, nor a burrowed frown.  I was forced to diagnose his unhappy countenance with my own deductive reasoning: who could be pleased living in 16.9 fluid ounces, when they had previously enjoyed a fresh, bubbling current, lively interaction with kin, and above all, an unlimited expanse to explore?  Luckily (or unluckily) for him, one of those enjoyments was to be reinstated.  By the time I had all the sleeping bags, fishing poles, and unopened soap boxes loaded into the Honda, my adolescent fisherman had added two more fishy residents to the confines of the Aquafina aquarium. 

Once home, we headed to the creek and stocked up on some aqua naturale, (i.e. slimy creek water).  Our guinea pig, Brownie, happily donated her old aquarium as the new creek habitat.  She recently upgraded to an extra spacious, deluxe wire cage, complete with a small, blue plastic igloo in which she huddles 21 hours a day.  Glad we invested in the expanded real estate. 

We awoke the next morning to find our aquarium population decreased by one.  The third fish, a shrimpy slip of a minnow, had disappeared.  Three noses pressed to the glass, six eyes searched diligently, but there was no sign of him (or her, who can tell?).  I was forced to deduce that he/she had fallen prey to the appetite of one of the larger fish.  Maybe ‘lively interaction with kin’ was overrated.  I examined them to see if either bore a guilty smile, but found instead, two expressionless fish-faces.  What a stoic bunch, these gill-breathers be.

Three days later, both remaining fish had either suppressed or survived any additional cannibalistic urges.  However, it didn’t seem wise to test the waters any further.  It was time to return them to their native habitat.  Surprisingly, that was fine with my mini-Uftrings.  They had already loaded their bikes with a bucket, net, and even a rake for our trip to the creek.  Clearly, they had no intention of coming back empty-handed.  I was relegated to fish transfer both to and fro.  Within minutes of reaching our destination, an assortment of fish, snails and one tadpole swished around behind the Chocolate Swirl Ice Cream label of our repurposed ‘transport’ gallon.  As I balanced the sloshing water on my bike’s handlebars, I realized that this bucket was now a two-fold source of happiness: First, the cool, creamy dairy joy, and then the slimy, fishy, creeky joy.  I’d be hard pressed to say which my kids liked more. 

What is it about running water that draws humans like moths to a flame?  Dr. Sullivan, my landscape design professor, taught that adding a water feature to any landscape increased the client’s long-term satisfaction with the final product significantly.  Whether it is the soothing sound of bubbling water, or the implication that a pool of cool retreat is nearby, ponds, waterfalls and fountains abound in many landscapes.  I wish one would abound in mine, but for now, it’s not to be.  Thankfully, the creek is just a bike ride away.
Creeking Treasure

Creeking is a cheap kick for kids.  I invested $2 in dime store flip-flops, but bare feet certainly suffice.  For those dedicated to germ management (and horrified by my sealed soapbox), a bottle of hand sanitizer and a towel may be advised.  Otherwise, there are no tickets to purchase, no apps to download, no batteries to replace, and best of all, no screens at which to stare.  Each trip holds fresh discoveries and makes new memories.   With Rock Creek and the Kankakee River winding right through our fine county, unplugged entertainment is just a splish-splash away.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tomatoes...tis the season!

The first tomato came early this year to the Uftring house.  We held a daily vigil, watching as one small golden orb warmed to copper and then blazed to a bright orangey red.  I pulled out the Kodak for the ceremonious first pick.  Reverently, I sliced it into three parts, sprinkled it with salt and pepper and dined on that home-grown gourmet goodness with my daughter and son.  A third of a cherry tomato doesn’t go far, but when you’ve waited 8 months for that flavor, it’s divine.  Particularly when your tomato harvest is never guaranteed. 

I have had my fair share of failures in that department.  Take, for instance, the Year of Green Tomatoes.  That June, my plants were covered in a veritable shroud of yellow flowers.  Never before had my garden looked so productive.  Clearly, my green thumb had finally kicked in.  As the green drops of salsa-promise plumped to the size of a small fist, I felt pity for my fellow gardeners.  There they were, poor souls, complaining of black spot, blossom end rot, and hornworms while I teetered on the precipice of my greatest tomato haul ever.  I was beginning to swagger in my puddle-jumpers.

Later, though, as my compatriots began fishing fruits from their garden, I was still waiting for the first blush of red.  Pink, even.  I’d have rejoiced at a hint of pink.  But there was nothing.  The first-pick vigil that year turned bitter as June ended, then July wrapped up and finally August drew to a close on my enormous crop of green tomatoes.  Humility.  That’s what God had in store for me that year.  At the end of September, He opened the ripening floodgates and we ate as many BLTs, salads, and salsa as our digestive tracks would allow.   

So you see, early cherry tomatoes are nothing to sneeze at in this house.  And I, being a tomato failure on multiple levels, have developed a keen appreciation for those who can reliably grow a red, disease and insect-free crop year after year. 

Karyn Gallup is just such a gardener.  I stumbled upon her treasure trove of tomatoes this spring while garage sailing in Bonfield.  Even from a distance, I could see that no hornworm would dare rear its ugly head on a spread so pristine.  The soil looked so much like freshly sifted brownie mix that I had to tell myself not to taste it.  Sprinklers were hard at work, raining over tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, okra, broccoli, cauliflower and eggplant. 

One of Karyn's three vegetable beds

Together with husband Mick, Karyn sells vegetables from her home as the Tomato Lady.  Each morning, she heads out early to her 7000 square foot garden with her workbasket.  In it, she carries Safer Tomato and Vegetable Insect Killer, a bypass pruner for removing ripe vegetables (pulling at the stem stresses the plant), a sturdy trowel, and 3-4 different types of gloves (it helps that her daughter works for Wells Lamont, a glove manufacturer).  She invests at least two hours each day in her vegetable venture.  “I like coaxing things out of the ground”, says Karyn, and it shows. 

The Gallups do have a few favorites: cherry tomatoes for their flavor, ‘Big Boy’ as the best slicer and ‘Brandywine’, an heirloom with great flavor and unique leaves.  Karyn picks her tomatoes at the pink stage and ripens them in an old, converted corn crib, air-conditioned and safe from the greedy pinchers of ravenous bugs.  “The insects are a bigger problem than the weather”, she warns, and to that end she is vigilant in staying ahead of them.  Experience has taught her that hornworms will feast on dill first, so she maintains a stand of the herb nearby to sound the alarm.  Her right hand man, Mick, runs the tiller each fall to kill hornworm larvae. 

By establishing wide rows, Mick is able to run his Yardman roto-tiller through the bed as often as needed.  By the time I toured their property in early July, he had just completed his eighth till of the season.  No wonder the soil looked so delicious.  His fertilizer of choice?  Homegrown compost, and with their harvest averaging 30-50 pounds of tomatoes per plant, I’d say it’s doing the trick.  In fact, two local restaurants are incorporating the Tomato Lady’s produce in their cuisine. 

You can sample the Tomato Lady’s fare at 2828 N 11000 West road in Bonfield.  Their ‘Mater Wagon is out and fully stocked, 7 days a week, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Will of Weeds

Towering 17 inches over my pale golden spread of Kentucky Blue, stands a verdant stalk of Queen Anne's Lace.  I confess I am overdue in mowing the lawn, but not 17 inches overdue.  And this wildflower is no shy sprout.  She’s already begun making preparations for her coming-of-age party with the unfurling of a lacy gown of white florets.  It won’t be long before the suitors come a-calling.

The last two strolls John Deere and I took around the yard were mainly for the benefit of non-cultivated species (affectionately known as weeds).  Plantain, clover, and creeping charlie continue to grow lush and green in my sea of toasted turf.  I’m not disappointed in my grass.  How could I blame it for departing into dormancy?  I abandoned any appearance of bravado by escaping into my climate-controlled living room.  No, the grass and I are kindred brothers in our approach to extreme temperatures: retreat!  What I struggle to grasp is how the weeds thrive in the midst of these inhabitable conditions. 

Disappointed by my inability to master the landscape once again, I searched for an excuse - ahem - I mean academic explanation.   And that brought me to evolution. 

To be clear, I am a Creationist.  I believe the whole earth was formed in seven days by the God of the Bible.  If this strikes you as crazy, I assure you that Evolution (with a big E) requires quite a leap of faith itself.  But evolution (note the little e) is a certainty.  This is the concept of change WITHIN a genus.  Not changing from amoeba to lizards to orangutans, but going from one type of orangutan to another: species adapting to their environment. 

There are two main forces of change in plant evolution: humans and nature.  People have been altering rose, daylily, corn, apple, pumpkin, tulilp, grass, maple (need I go on?) DNA for centuries.  We’ve affected them directly through hybridization and indirectly through the selection process.  All the while, weeds have been undergoing a selection process of their own.  In their case, Nature has been calling the shots, and her desirable characteristics are more about opportunism and less about aesthetics. 

While we’ve been selecting for traits such as flavor, color, and scent, Nature has been selecting for survival: seed production and dispersal, accelerated growth rates, drought tolerance, etc.  And so, while our selections take home all the blue ribbons at the county fair, in an agricultural boxing match, the street-smart weeds reign supreme.  The human race is catching on, though.  We’ve done some selection for survival: developing fire-blight resistant crabapples and Round-Up Ready soybeans, for instance.  But the weeds are way ahead of us. 

So what to do?  What chemical, what tool, what cultural practice will inhibit the growth of these dominant species?  The biology of the thing could tie us up in knots.  The fact is that weeds are going to be part of our environment, always.  And although we pull, hoe and spray them, there is a value to their existence.  Gasp!  I know, now you’re SURE I’m crazy, but read on. 

For one thing, where would we be without weeds?  What if we had to plant everything on earth that was growing?  Weeds might not be our first choice for cultivated beds, but I sure prefer walking on them to slogging through mud.  And while I do love a freshly-plowed field, I don’t think I prefer brown to green that much.  How much photosynthetic oxygen would the earth be lacking if weeds were non-existant?  How much topsoil would be lost to wind and rain erosion if not for weeds’ protective cover?  Almost unthinkably, this burr-under-our-saddle has a value.     

From a philosophical point of view, weeds provide daily object lessons.  They remind us that anything beautiful and valuable in this life takes work.  In our families, our careers, our homes, there is an abundance of proverbial weeds that will sprout.  Failure to deal with them is an invitation for takeover.  I hear my generation say, "Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer makes you happy."  That's weedy thinking, my friends.  Anything worth having is going to require some effort.  And while weeding doesn't make me happy, the manicured result certainly does.  No sense of accomplishment is more rewarding than the one that squeezed you the hardest.  So don't let those 17 inch weeds get you down.  They're just God's way of reminding us that the junk in life thrives on neglect.  So get outside, get pulling, and let the weeds make you stronger.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Handbook in Herbology

The year was 1998.  We were seniors in college, and my roommate and I decided to celebrate our last semester by taking a course together in Herbology.  After three years of watching me study all manner of things green and growing, my accounting-major bunkmate was ready to try her hand at plant ID quizzes.  And as two practical, country girls, we figured we’d have a leg up on the subject material.  After all, we’d grown up running barefoot through gardens of lemon balm and basil.

Our professor had other plans.  He was 100% granola, a tie-dyed hippie, ravenous to enflame the next generation with rage against the FDA and the American pharmaceutical industry.  His lectures were an in-depth study of Chinese medicine and German pharmacopeia.  Now, we girls certainly appreciated herbal remedies.  Two dear friends - Echinacea and Goldenseal - had stimulated our immune systems through many germ-laden months on campus, but this course went beyond our expectations, and not in a good way.  It should've been titled, "Boot Camp for Activists".  The syllabus was loaded with yin and yang and governmental regulations.  Our exams covered more about the eastern concept of balancing body fluids and less about making pesto.  So much for lemon balm and basil.   

I could’ve saved us both a semester of suffering with one copy of Herb Gardening for Dummies (2nd Edition).  Of course, adults hesitate to be caught with these types of books in their possession.  Just last week, our neighbor girl took mine off the shelf, surveyed the cover and turned to me.  “Are you a dummy?” she asked.  “Yup!” I replied without hesitation.

No point in hiding it.

As far as I’m concerned, being teachable is the highest sign of intelligent life.  And this book makes learning fun.  So what if the word "Dummies" is emblazoned on the front in highlighter yellow? 

If the Dummy authors muddled through their own fair share of off-kilter courses, it certainly isn’t reflected in this manual.  Each page is filled with engaging information that’s been seasoned with enough off-the-wall enlightenment to keep you turning the pages.  Apparently ‘informative’ and ‘interesting’ don’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

I was riveted from the opening chapters on the basics.  Yes, the basics.  Surely no one can make an explanation of the latin binomial (two-name) system interesting.  They did it.  Their education on climate was captivating.  Plant anatomy?  Enthralling.  Soil preparation? Spellbinding.  Their history of the dandelion plant (p. 20) alone is enough to make the book worth a look.  

Beyond the basics, the writing team blends the history and how-to of herb gardens.  Want to create a knot garden?  They provide a sample plan and a simple guide to create the challenging knot outline.  Details on mixing vegetables with herbs caught my attention.  Did you know that basil and tomatoes are as wonderful together in the garden as they are in our dishes?  A sample garden design shows which plants to combine.  All told, there are seven plans drawn out to whet your herbal landscaping appetite.  

Two chapters cover herbal concoctions throughout the home.  In the kitchen, in the bathroom, at the table, in the shower, no place is left unexplored.  There are recipes to make your food taste tastier, your hair shine brighter, your lips more kissable, your clothes smell better, and your guests feel more welcome.

In the chapter on medicinal uses, the subject matter was far less intimidating than our pony-tailed professor’s presentations.  With the same sparkling intellect that hypnotized me in the early chapters, the authors covered a score of herbal remedies, including those for bad breath, migraines, insomnia, and motion sickness. 

The last section of the book is an encyclopedia of over 65 herbs.  Each herb is covered thoroughly, including how to identify, grow and use it.  No humdrum horticulture here: there’s plenty of historical and scientific seasoning to fascinate old and new gardeners alike.   The line drawings are wonderful, but I confess, I am a visual girl and nothing grips me like a full-color photo.  Expanding the very limited photo section would be a great addition for the 3rd edition, if ever one is published. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Iron Maidens

If you find that your thumb is lacking even the slightest tinge of green, despair not!  There is hope, in the form of hemerocallis and herbs.  I think of them as the Iron Maidens of Zone 5.  These tough bloomers will withstand the forgetful, the procrastinating, and even the simply misguided gardener.   I should know.  I’ve been all three. 

This spring, our generous neighbors offered us free daylilies.  Free plants always put a smile on my face (as long as I have room for them) and I grinningly agreed to take one in.  Upon arriving to retrieve my hand-me-down horticulture, I discovered that both the plant and it’s root ball were enormous.  I would be in no way, shape or form lifting it into my Honda.  Mr. Nice Neighbor offered to deliver them via tractor scoop, and a day or two later, a leafy boulder of hemerocallis was sitting in our driveway.

My gardening style leaves a lot to be desired in the ‘promptness’ category.  That daylily sat, unmoved, for two weeks (at least).  Aside from sprinkling it with the occasional splash of water and trying not to run over it, I did nothing to sustain it.  Eventually guilt overcame the steely grip of procrastination and I set out to divide my second-hand sun-lover.   A few pokes with the pitchfork revealed that clay soil, exposed for two weeks to the south-facing summer sun, becomes an impenetrable brick.  No wonder Pueblo Indians formed adobe houses with this stuff.  Undaunted, I found my inner Conan-the-Barbarian and lunged the fork into rootball.  The tines sunk in one whole inch.  I lugged the tools back to the garage and pulled out the hose.  For the next three days, I soaked that chunk of earth thoroughly. 

When I was finally able to lodge the spade to a workable depth, I split the root mass into three equal parts.  I planted one in my vegetable garden (which was in desperate need of some beautification, thanks to my little earwig friends).  The other two I shared with my mother and grandmother.  Several weeks later, I returned to my parent’s farm.  There I discovered Mom’s daylily, still unplanted (procrastination is a genetic disorder), and preparing to bloom in her garage.  Now THAT’S what I call an Iron Maiden.

The mistreated daylily, blooming and loaded with buds.

Herbs are my other recommendation for the horticulturally-challenged.  I’m going out on a limb (a bit) in saying this, because herbs have a tendency to seek world domination.  That robust nature is, of course, what makes them so easy to grow.  Left untended, though, their desire for dictatorship can threaten other plants in your garden.  So, for now, stick with these safer selections:

Catmint’s silver foliage and lavender flowers make it a great beginner’s plant because it always looks good.  After it blooms, you can cut it back to keep it growing tightly and encourage a second bloom.  Or not.  If you don’t get around to it, Catmint will look just fine and rebloom sporadically without any encouragement.

The firecracker blossoms of Monarda are a seductive draw to bees, butterflies and the like.   This fiery bloomer will catch the eye of anyone in your yard, giving the impression that you are a horticultural connoisseur.  It also helps that Monarda grows with joie de vivre (best said with a french accent, but for the less cosmopolitan: 'joy for life' with a midwestern twang is acceptable), filling in and looking healthy.  Visitors won’t realize you don’t know what you’re doing.  This is an auto-pilot plant. 

Thyme is a low-growing woody perennial that likes abuse.  Prefers it, actually.  Mine is growing in one of the least hospitable beds in my yard, and loving it.  The un-green thumb could snip a few stems for an impressive addition to a meal, or not.  Either way, thyme will grow beautifully.  If after your season with Iron Maidens, you’re inspired to try indoor gardening, dig up some thyme and bring it in.  You may have a green thumb after all. 

Next week: a book review on Herb Gardening for Dummies

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Iroquois Historical Society's 12th Annual Garden Walk

Saturday morning I turned my well-traveled Honda south, toward the land of Gilman and Danforth.  I was off to the Iroquois Historical Society’s 12th Annual Garden Walk.  Cobbled brick streets lent a historical feel to these quaint towns and their gardeners capped that sense with natural beauty and hometown friendliness. 

I’ll bet more than one visitor to Jo Blanck’s garden found themselves whistling Dixie.  A charming Old Glory bunting weaved in and out of her fence and porch railing.  Red verbena, petunias, and geraniums continued the patriotic tone throughout the yard, which surrounds her childhood home.  The significance of family was reflected in the landscape, from her granddaughter’s hand-painted rain barrels, to the personalized bricks Jo casts herself for each family member.  The beds are pristinely outlined with Border Magic, a concrete edging that was dyed, poured and stamped on site. 

Next door, under the canopy of shade trees, resides Peggy Tammen’s symphony of groundcovers.  Undaunted by the deep shade, she swathed her gardens in Lamium, Sweet Woodruff, English Ivy, Vinca, Hosta and Snow-on-the-Mountain.  Alongside the house, reveling in the glory of a sunbeam, a vibrant climbing rose shot a spark of color into the shade.  Peggy chocked her sunny driveway bed full of catmint, coreopsis, columbine, daisy, daylily and zebra grass.   

Patty Krones ‘comes out to play’ each morning in the garden her mother started over 25 years before.  Her property boasts a mature Saucer Magnolia, Japanese Maple and Redbud, each of them a showpiece in their own right.  The perimeter of the yard is packed with more species, both tender and hardy, than this humble reporter could hope to grow.  With a 50-year-old lemon tree and a 7’ tall butterfly bush, I began to suspect that Patty was dipping her gardening gloves in fairy dust.  Her interactive garden display included a demonstration on forming charming leaf-imprinted concrete sculptures.  Husband Steve fashioned several trellises and one enchanting archway from recycled hog-pen panels.  So inspired was I, that I’ve added “Stalk hog farm recycle bins” to my summer to-do list. 

As I pulled up to Pat Robert’s inviting front yard, giant Alliums reached through the front white pickets to welcome me.  The tidy brick walk led to a magazine-worthy front porch, loaded with cozy seating and cool drinks for sun-weary garden-walk travelers.  A trek to the far side of the house rewarded my inquisitive mind.  There, Pat cultivated a retreat of botanical bounty.  A cobblestone patio is tucked in the space between house and fence, and is ensconced by a robust garden of bleeding heart, Japanese anemone, coralbells, hydrangea, Japanese maple, and astilbe.  Bird feeders and baths draw the attention of musical, winged entertainment. 

By this point, I was behind schedule.  I’d spent so much time meandering through the first four gardens that I began to feel the tick-tock of my watch weighing on me.  I swung by the Inside-Out shop before leaving Gilman.  The gracious shopkeeper offered me a sample of light and refreshing white Sangria, which calmed the clamor of the clock in my head.  With glass in hand, I stepped out of their charming store, onto the beautifully cultivated back patio.  The surroundings were drenched in whimsical container plantings, lush ferns and clematis: a serene setting for quiet conversation with friends. 

Up the road to Danforth, I headed for the backyard sanctuary of Iroquois West principal, Vicki Killus.  Vicki was relaxing in her gazebo when I stepped into the backyard; a well-earned rest for any Garden Walk exhibitor.  Closer to the house, a mass of daylilies and blooming Knockout Roses enclosed her patio, Vicki’s morning retreat.  This hard-working educator installed the walkways that extend throughout her backyard, and lead to the gazebo and waterfall garden, where clematis, daylilies and ornamental grasses abound.

Next door, neighbor and co-worker Tammy Dieken gardens with husband Brad.  He keeps the grass golf-course-worthy, and Tammy gets every square foot of enjoyment out of it…literally, in her bare feet.  Her garden has evolved with her family: space that was once littered with Tonka trucks is now spilling over with monarda, phlox, lamb’s ear, blue fescue, and coneflower.  Brad transformed the boys’ fort into a picnic platform and created a large potting shed for his favorite gardener.  Tammy’s farm girl background is reflected in her container garden: galvanized buckets spilling over with all manner of annual abundance. 

St. John’s Lutheran Church was my last stop in the city limits.  It’s simple and clean landscaping was highlighted with large pots near the entrances, loaded with brightly colored annuals.  Magnolia, hosta and lilies surrounded the building. 

I put a little ‘gravel in my travel’ on the rural trek to the Shule Farm.  Here, LaRee and Terry Shule built a new house on the old family homestead.  In the process of renovating the property, LaRee captured precious family history and transformed it into landscaping grandeur.  A calming waterfall empties into a large fishpond, which sits in the foundation of her parent’s original home.  At the water’s edge are bricks from her parent’s home and flagstone from their former barn.  Daylily, coneflower and ornamental grass grow en masse around its perimeter.   The Shule beds are filled with unique antiques, many of them family heirlooms.  A giant windmill head set in a field of coneflower was my favorite, but LaRee’s impeccable taste and creativity made it a challenge to settle for just one.  

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