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
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