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.
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