Saturday, September 17, 2011

My flagstone patio!

For two months I’ve been meaning to post this photo of my beautiful new flagstone patio, built by my son Kevin of 14-acre Farm. But distractions diverted my energies. First it was the head-to-head with groundhogs (more on that to come), followed by the Forest Ecology class with a wonderful, young, conscientious, you-must-toil-for-these-3-credits professor. Now, a thousand pounds of tomatoes and a trip to Santa Fe later, I am enjoying the Caryopteris and begonias spilling onto Kevin’s geometric patterns. This is the challenge I presented: Use my circular piece of flagstone as a focal point, and connect the utilitarian concrete slab that was poured (without a thought to aesthetics) behind my house many years ago to the part of the lawn that enjoys morning shade. 
Plus, I want more garden space. 

To be honest, the part about garden space was implicit. Kevin knows that I always want more garden space. Which brings me to the point of this post, that is, addiction. Harmonious, unrepentant addiction. Are we not so very fortunate to be afflicted with the need to dig holes and scuff up the earth around petunias rather than, say, plunk our paycheck into a slot machine? A recurring mental image comes to me each time I see a person in mental dis-ease. It is a line, in the dirt or in the sand, take your pick—or, (apologies) shovel. One step over the line takes me from the garden to the dark side, where addiction is not tolerated by the same society that delights in colorful and textural displays, the creation of which occupy my mind when I drive, shop, live. We addicts are cut from the same cloth. Positively, it is called passion. Negatively—mania, compulsion. Our saving grace is that the world we manipulate in our obsession is endlessly fascinating. We dig, we learn. We strive to understand. We teach. Three-year-old Chloe, visiting from New Jersey, held a sowbug last Sunday and watched it roll into a pill. She stroked a swallowtail butterfly larva that was eating my parsley and laughed when out poked its putrid-smelling retractable orange antennae. She showed her mom. She learned, she taught. How many more can we lure over the line with the force of our passion? 

It feels, sometimes, like a race against time.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tomatoes in Containers, part 2

Tomato season has barely begun, but I have a good feeling about the 2011 AAS winning hybrids, ‘Terenzo’ and ‘Lizzano’.  Time will tell whether Terenzo will grab the  “My Favorite Container Tomato” title from ‘Husky Cherry’. The new tumblers are literally a breed apart from the stocky upright soldier that won my admittedly limited trial of 2009

2011 AAS winner 'Terenzo'
Terrenzo’s relaxed limbs that have already exceeded the 20-inch width described in the AAS literature splay from all sides of the container. Its fruits are large for a cherry, and, so far, borne near the center of the pot. Although they can’t touch ‘Sungold’ for taste (what cherry tomato can?) they’re a more than adequate prelude to the season. 
'Husky Cherry' on July 3

I’ll revisit the two (Husky Cherry and Terenzo) in September to see which delivers the most. But perhaps there’s no point in choosing a favorite. There’s a place in the garden for both the upright soldier that perseveres even in the heat and humidity of a Pennsylvania summer and the prone and precocious charmer.  Success, happily, has countless faces.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Carefree Delight, Indeed

“The rose is a rose, And was always a rose …” 
So wrote Robert Frost. 

But roses have many poses. One may take top billing

Magic Meidiland

Another may be part of a chorus line, made all the more stunning by the flash and glitz of a glory repeated many times over. 

I particularly like a rose that can adapt to being a part of an ensemble, a bit player in a big show, playing off of the strengths of the other members. The doggedly gifted might achieve superstardom. But the rest of us must feel our way through the tangle to reach the spot in the sunlight that allows us to spread our own distinctive brand of joy for a moment in June. 

And again, perhaps, in August. 
Carefree Delight and cutleaf maple
“… You, of course, are a rose But were always a rose.”

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Garlic Mustard Day!

Pulling garlic mustard always inspires me. 

Today’s inspiration is, on so many levels, brilliant. I propose that we declare a regional garlic mustard holiday! Imagine watching, watching, watching … then, when the flowers begin to flash along the roadsides but the seeds are still a few days away from causing mayhem, everyone shall take the day off to pull the troublemakers out by the roots. And, clip, clip, off with their heads—just for insurance. And spite. Side by side, bankers and second-graders, mechanics and professors, will find satisfaction and community in yanking out the aliens that (with sinister intent, I suspect) alter soil chemistry and produce prodigious numbers of offspring. At the end of the rewarding session garlic mustard carcasses will lie severed and wilting, a generation thwarted. 
And the beauty of it is, the date of the holiday is to be determined by those who have the most to gain from it: school children. They will be the watchers of the roadsides. They will observe the elongation of the second-year rosettes, and the formation of the four-petaled flowers. “Soon, soon,” they will tell each other. “See? The maple leaves are beginning to open … that’s a sign! And look, the dandelions are blooming.” 

Not only will the understory be made safe for bloodroot and Jack-in-the-pulpit, but children will have a good solid reason to observe what’s going on outdoors. Shall we declare an arbitrator? Or just determine that when the peony buds are the size of peas, the time is right, and allow the twitter-vine to determine that this is the day. 


Yes, I realize that success would doom the holiday, but I have faith that children will not let that happen. They’ll figure it out, and “forget” a patch, leaving it to spew out next year’s bounty. 

And there are those, to be sure, who will stand up for the right of garlic mustard to flourish; who will bemoan a world without garlic mustard pesto. I say, let them eat groundhogs! 

And solve another garden problem.

Monday, April 25, 2011


This was the third time the subject had been raised. I sensed in chef Jason’s questioning tone a distinct dash of demand. The first time I had brushed it off. “What do I know about ramps? I’m a gardener!” The second time I suggested that he contact the person who alerted him to the bounty of ramps and ask him exactly where “down by the stream” they could be found. It seems, however, that neither of these approaches was satisfactory. 

So I did what I always do in these situations: I called my son, the farmer. When Kevin was half my age he had the questions and I had the answers. Now that the ratio of our ages is 7:12 the situation has reversed. It is a beautiful thing. 

Ramps, Kevin explained, are not the same thing as the rampant onion grass that grows in every garden crevice. “The leaves are much wider, about the width of daffodil foliage, and the stalks are purplish red.” Known as wild leeks, they are native to North America and grow in the rich forest soils under sugar maple, ash, and beech. Where Dutchman’s breeches and bloodroot grow, wild leeks might also be found. And the time to find them is right now … which explains chef Jason’s escalating insistence. “He should call Chuck,” Kevin advised. “He’ll know where they are.” 

I dutifully emailed Jason with this information, and Chuck’s phone number. I can imagine him opening this email just as he is preparing to shave a batch of yellow carrots, or unleash his considerable powers on the fresh Hakurei turnips I harvested yesterday. Ramps-on-a-platter is what he wants. Not the name of a person who can explain which part of the muddy ground he must tramp through to locate the elusive cache. 

I give him beautiful yellow-ribbed chard and baby arugula. Mizuna at its spicy peak, golden beets, and bundles of thyme. He wants a wild plant gone trendy because it is hunted not nurtured, desire driven by a vestige of primal survival. To put on my Costa Rican rubber boots and go mucking through the woods in search of ramps would, in truth, be preferable to further testing my strained knee with a garden fork. But can I risk an hour of not planting cauliflower, checking groundhog traps, and inspecting pea seedlings for the mere possibility of finding ramps? 

Who will win: the gardener? … or the naturalist. 
The word hovers. It slinks around the edges of my weekend. From the car window I scan the hollows for lily-of-the-valley-like foliage. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nature vs. Garden

My inner naturalist and my inner gardener are at war.
I knew that for certain yesterday when I found a baby bunny in the lettuce, in the greenhouse, and picked up the little critter and threw him outside. Maria, the Great Pyrenees "watchdog," just happened to be there and, well ... you can guess what happened next. And ok, I was sorry, but just the tiniest bit. I was in gardener mode, and the mystery of who was nibbling the chard to the ground had been solved.

And yet ...
I like the non-human world. A lot. Just last week I discovered a new fondness for crows, of all creatures, as I sat on a bench and listened to the assorted cadences of their calls. And I admired the hovering honeybees as the collected water to thin their honey for the young 'uns.

My inner conflict displays itself in other ways too, such as in my fickle relationship with native plants. I appreciate them for their eco-services and their looks. However, when it comes to covering a bank with something beautiful I pick 'Tidal Wave' petunias over fragrant sumac. And yes I understand that robins and catbirds love native viburnums, but when planting my own garden I was seduced by the perfectly elegant way the berries of the Chinese tea viburnum drooped. I'll take tea, please. With a spoonful of guilt.

I learned, in the course of field journaling, that many of the plants I unapologetically rip out happen to be natives. Clearweed is loved by butterflies; Enchanter's Nightshade is a favorite of native bees; Bur Cucumber is a good source of nectar and grows at such an amazing pace that the naturalist in me can't help but marvel ... as the gardener yanks its tendrils from the treetops.

The naturalist and the gardener are working on communications skills. To this end I entered the war zone today with a conciliatory heart to look for the one that got away. He is still in there--somewhere--eating MY chard, I mean nibbling cutely, as baby bunnies do. I did not find him but did uncover another nest of four newborns. After nudging them gently into a box I carried them outside and eased them into a protected hole, covering them with the same straw/fur mix their mother had used ... knowing full well that they would probably not last the night. But it felt, nonetheless, a little gentler.

Keeping a field journal, I find, maintains the conflict. I believe this is a good thing. If you find yourself similarly conflicted please join ne in a three-Saturday "Art of Nature Journaling" class at the Morris Arboretum in June.

And please don't ask me about the fat mouse--the one with the belly full of bean sprouts--that I spotted while looking for the bunny.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pennycress: Superhero or Salad?

When is a weed no longer a weed? 

When it becomes the best option for making diesel fuel, say researchers in Peoria. We can thank the Agricultural Research Service for discovering that a pesky little mustard-family spring weed commonly known as field pennycress, or, not so commonly, as Thlaspi arvense, produces seeds that are 36% oil and can make truck engines rev and oil furnaces rumble.

Who knew?

And isn’t it convenient that when corn and soybeans are growing, pennycress is sleeping … and vice versa. 

I wish I could tell you that this pervasive garden pest offers the answer to the current economic slump and our dependence on the tenuous good will of our global neighbors in the Middle East. We could potentially grow 8 billion gallons of biodiesel without plowing any additional acreage. This is more than a drop in the bucket … it’s closer to a splash in the pail. In other words, even though pennycress can be grown in the off-season, even though it can be efficiently aerial-seeded leaving behind neither tractor ridges nor clouds of dust, even though it grows “like a weed” with no assistance from herbicides or pesticides, it is not the answer. It’s an answer for a biofuel industry that is struggling to meet the EPA’s required Renewable Fuels Standard without bumping up the prices of corn and soybeans and, in turn, everything else. Best case scenario: pennycress will help diesel fuel blends go from 1-5% bio- up to 20% bio-diesel, and greenhouse gas emissions will hold steady. As will the price of soda. But we’ll just consider that an adverse reaction.

But ... we need to do better than hold steady. In our stuff-stuffed world, where gadgets and fashions must travel from China to the freight depots to the diesel-fueled tractor-trailers to the Walmarts to our closets and rented storage facilities, we need to think about reaching that inner place where enough stuff is enough. 

So when is a weed no longer a weed? Turns out field pennycress is edible, as is another pesky little mustard-family spring weed commonly known as bittercress, or, not so commonly, as Cardamine hirsuta

There’s no down side to free salad!