Sunday, December 30, 2012

January Count Down

January is for dancing. Or it is for slowing way down—and I mean Sigur Rรณs down—and doing some necessary but mundane task. Painting a hallway. Ripping down someone else’s choice of wallpaper. January is for getting a haircut or a new pair of boots, anything to make one feel shiny. January is for making soup.

Crunching through January ice to enter a warm and welcoming greenhouse should be fun. It should be uplifting. But if you’re used to the cheery growth rate of spring lettuce, the happy balance of plant-juice-sucking insects and well-fed carnivores, the satisfyingly speedy April transformation of a handful of arugula seeds to a dark green salad, it isn’t. Fun, that is. It’s work.  As the lettuce seeds I planted two months ago struggle to reach the salad bowl, my spirits sink into their sluggish rhythm. Whiteflies suck our vital juices. We wait. For the sun. 

I need a dance. Or a haircut.

The rate of photosynthesis is dependent on the amount of sunlight. Today, December 30th, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, we were graced by only about 9 hours and 19 minutes of that precious commodity. Tomorrow, we will get an additional 38 seconds. By the end of January the days will be increasing by a full 2 minutes each day, so that on January 28th the day will be 10 hours long, the same as it was on November 12th. Ten, according to Eliot Coleman, is the magic number when it comes to lettuce and other greens. Ten is the number that sets us on the path to normalcy and good spirits. 

In October I planted three full beds of head lettuce in the cooler of the two greenhouses. Even without the supplemental warmth (heated water circulates beneath the soil) they would be doing an admirable job of soldiering though these short days. I harvested the tall romaines first, fearing for their vulnerable tips, and then the splaying ‘Two Star’ heads. ‘Magenta’ is still staged prettily in rows, waiting its turn. Or waiting for the little sap-sucking insects to discover its sweet juices. Which they undoubtedly will. Any day now.
Flowering stem on Dec 30 2012

Spinach is a little more immune to winter bugs. As I cut the leaves I can feel the calcium oxalate crystals on their backs. In fact, I feel them more now, in January, than I do in May—possibly because of their lethargic growth rate. These indigestible crystals cost us the benefits of the calcium, but they profit the plant in some way, either as a repository of calcium, insurance for lean times, or as a defense against chewing insects. Turnip greens have the calcium without the crystals. They also have the bugs. Leaves start out promising and perky but succumb to winter malaise. Two out of three of their ping-pong ball roots turn ugly. Where’s the fun in that?

But look! Phalaenopsis is sending up its lanky stem, its flower buds already visible. I will move it to the kitchen window, where I can watch its progress while making soup and counting, very very slowly, to 10.
9.350 …….

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Crabby Creek Revisited

The big, gracious beech with its carved initials—the one that created its own clearing midway down the steep hill, the one that offered us strong horizontal branches for easy climbing—is gone. No trace remains. Some of the hearts and letters, not all, had been our doing; other climbers had defaced the smooth bark long before we discovered it. A short distance from the void where (we believe) the beech had once stood—much closer, in truth, than in my memory—the challenging cliffs that once served as our wild wild west overlook the creek. Fifty years later, they are still impressive.

The whole of our childhood playground—the cliffs, the creek, the salamanders, the pollywogs—is now a township park, with a sign and all. The fact is, it was always public property, being too rugged for fast-buck developers to easily plop houses upon. But now it is official. With a sign and all. 

The bridges that had made the stream banks accessible to vehicles in the years before we claimed them as our own have crumbled and crashed. That remarkable “road” was probably built between 1935 and 1943, when the United States government provided jobs for eight million men. Back then it’s very possible that humble structures built of oak stood along the banks of the Crabby. Structures that housed families with children. Children who climbed trees and carved hearts in their smooth bark. If so, no surface signs remain. Any trash heaps that may have existed are buried under many layers of forest debris. 

One thing is certain: the dirt road that gave us access to crayfish and adventure predated Green Road, the winding street where our post World War II childhood home still stands overlooking the wooded ridge. 

“You take the low road and I’ll take the high road…,” we used to sing, sometimes walking the low trail by the creek and other times the upper (WPA?) lane as we made our way to the small man-made pond by the railroad tracks. The pond too is gone, a victim of the cul-de-sac built for the convenience of two extravagant houses that replaced our road. The dirt had to go somewhere. 

Why the pond and its associated dam were there in the first place is another question. They were positioned just south of a freight line that was built sometime after the mid 19th century. Was there a practical connection between the two? Maybe not. The pond may have been constructed for the convenience of a wealthy pre-Depression Philadelphian who desired a fishing hole. We do like to control our environment. 

At any rate, the pond is absent and the dam is a useless slab of concrete. Harmless remnants of the past, layered with leaves. I want to walk up the hill to see if blueberries still grow near the house we lived in, or if the deer have changed the plant community that left an indelible impression in my consciousness, but grownup restraint holds me back.

The curved banks of the Crabby have been undercut, in some spots, by waters rushing down hills foolishly cleared of their oaks and beeches. But the surrounding forest is wonderfully alive. Papery beech leaves cling to juvenile trees, and every shade of dirty blonde is represented in the rustle beneath our feet. We see brilliant orange orb weavers, multiple signs of woodpeckers, prints from the cloven hooves of deer. 

Tires lay on the ground near the defunct dam, posed in a distinct pattern, arranged, we guess—we hope—by kids who spend their summer days looking under rocks for salamanders. On hot summer days, we imagine, they “help” the waters of Crabby Creek flow in channels built of stones and sticks, and prod crayfish out of their crevices.

 Maybe they find slim trees that some stunt of nature has caused to bend down, and up, and then down again, and ride them like camels. And maybe, hopefully, they will grow up to know the difference between a white oak and a chestnut oak, and recognize that beeches flaunt their papery leaves far into the winter months, and that dead trees are hotbeds of life. 

They will see white waxy Indian pipes rising from the dark earth, and weave the ghostly images into stories that will play and replay in their minds throughout their lives, triggered by the sweet smell of decaying oak leaves, the rippling waters of a small creek, or the always thrilling sight of the nodding translucent flowers of the elusive saprophyte.

Crabby Creek will live on in their minds as they travel their lives, its steady flow defying attempts to dam or reroute it with sticks and stones. Their future dealings with the natural world—we hope—will be measured by its clarity and its promise. 

This is our best hope.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Discovering Nature's Stories

In preparing for a Nature Journaling Workshop I have been thinking about stories—their seductiveness, and their universality. My partner Bob’s particular gift is learning the stories of the people he meets, every day and every place. A stranger’s offhand comments in a Wegman’s checkout line can, and often does, lead to an extended conversation. Points of intersecting lives are discovered and celebrated. There are friends of friends in common, mutual cheers for life-changing movies from the ‘60s, or shared tastes for smoked salmon and dark chocolate. Every person has a story, and within that story, a thousand others.
Lichen, meet moss.

To me, a solitary walk in nature holds a similar appeal. Fragments of stories reveal themselves with every step. Soft mosses of every shade of green compete with lichen for space on rocks; lichen radiates outward from the center like a new philosophy crowding old-thinkers onto the diminishing edges. Pushing, pushing, a mystifying enmity at work. What forces propel this glacially slow movement … and why?

Goldenrod bunch gall, caused by a fly
Questions. Intrigue. What is that bunching of leaves on the goldenrod stem? Who goes there! Does the crow’s single caw mean something different from the double, or triple caw caw caw? “Being a good noticer is terribly important in learning animal language,” said Polynesia, Dr. Dolittle’s talking parrot. Through a combination of books, databases, and deduction, I attempt to fill in the plentiful gaps between the noticed and the known. Always there are riddles. A puzzle may linger for weeks or years until, one day, an inspiration or flake of information floats to the top. And so the next level of inquiry reveals a whole new set of mysteries.

For Bob, the stories of the people he meets hold endless fascination. For me, they can be tiresome. And yet I wonder how anyone could possibly find the stories of nature anything but compelling. The synapses that cause our brains to snap and crackle differ from person to person, but we are all, in our underpinnings, noticers. We are all curious. We follow every enticing word the media feeds us about the General Petraeus scandal. Details about extramarital activity and international secrets keep coming and coming, and we can’t look away. When the focus is honeybees, the popular media has not so much to offer us. “Honeybees are Dying,” the sensational headlines read. But where are the subplots, the ancillary characters? Major media outlets have little to say about nature’s regenerative powers, about the 4000 species of native bees that are still on the job, about the honeybee’s history in America. Rather than captivating us, the dumbed-down story leaves us with a vague feel-bad sensation. Somehow it is all our fault … again. This is no way to build a good relationship.

Parasitic plant strangles its host!
Coming upon a silly-string patch of dodder I can’t help but ask, “What is your story?” This crazy parasite of a plant has somehow developed a homing pigeon instinct for finding a host. The host, scientists believe, sends out volatile compounds to the dodder that say, “Come to me.” Why would a host send that message to a marauding intruder, one might well ask? And how did the common name dodder come about anyway, and is it related to doddering fool? Mysteries, mysteries. 

What many people forget as they busy themselves with inside occupations is that Nature is not out there. Our story is entwined with those of the goldenrod gall and the long tailed wasp. The air, the trees, the ancient mosses and liverworts, the parasites and gall builders, the rotting trunks and the decaying grasses vibrate with interconnected activity. The Story of the world, which holds a million other stories, is one without an ending. All you can do is grab at threads and try to weave sense into the whole. And try to steer clear of the human impulse to adopt a creed that pulls it all together in a neat package. 

Despite my sometimes impatience I have learned to appreciate the chance encounters at Wegmans (really, I have). Take a minute (or in Bob’s world, 20) to learn a little something about someone and they become real, and the time turns out not to be wasted. A stranger suddenly and unexpectedly gains value. Being a nature noticer requires a similar attitude adjustment, and yields similar rewards, compounded each time you take the time … to notice, to explore, to care. Grab an hour and a blank book. And a drawing pen. Try to leave the camera at home; this is not about capturing images but about uncovering stories. It’s about building understanding, getting lost in the narrative with its multitude of characters and twists of plot. 

Respect—the same respect that is present in any good relationship—is a happy byproduct.

 "Well that," said Polynesia, brushing some crumbs off the corner of the table with her left foot—"that is what you call powers of observation—noticing the small things about birds and animals: the way they walk and move their heads and flip their wings; the way they sniff the air and twitch their whiskers and wiggle their tails. You have to notice all those little things if you want to learn animal language. For you see, lots of the animals hardly talk at all with their tongues; they use their breath or their tails or their feet instead. That is because many of them, in the olden days when lions and tigers were more plentiful, were afraid to make a noise for fear the savage creatures heard them. Birds, of course, didn't care; for they always had wings to fly away with. But that is the first thing to remember: being a good noticer is terribly important in learning animal language." – from The Story of Dr. Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

After Hurricane Sandy

Just imagine, for a moment, that you are a sheep. You and your 60 or so fellow sheep find yourself in an open-ended shelter as a terrible storm rages. A deafening roar fills your world and gusts of wind, such as have never been felt before (although, because you are a sheep, you know nothing about weather history) threaten to lift your shelter up and carry it away. 

Suddenly a massive blast of air pushes the pole structure that had until then offered minimal protection several feet to the west, bending and breaking the water pipe in its path as easily as if it were a strand of spaghetti. A geyser of water is now spewing from the ground; sheets of rain are pouring from the sky. The structure tilts and topples, poles bending and fences snapping. Still the roar surrounds you and you strain against the wind just to stand in place. 

Someone among you takes the lead (is it the same someone every time, or do you, like geese in a V, take turns being the leader, one wonders). Is it sheep intuition that instructs your leader to brace her shoulders against the wind and head up hill? Maybe she remembers the location of the broccoli, and knows instinctively that it is good to eat, though none among you have ever sampled even a single leaf. Or maybe the broccoli’s alluring scent carries through the sodden air and transcends the supposed fear of the moment.

You follow your brave, or clever, or particularly olfactorily gifted—or just lucky—leader over the broken fence and up the hill to the promised land, where the taste of tender florets greatly outweighs the discomfort of the blustery march. You eat your fill. 
You devour heads of cabbage, tender leaves of Brussels sprouts and kale, and a whole long row of broccoli and cauliflower. Big full heads of green lettuce are covered by a flimsy white cloth—it’s only a minor inconvenience to rip through it. When the good stuff is gone there are the grassy blades of oats and delicacies like carrot and parsnip leaves, turnips, and rhubarb stalks. The rain pelts and the wind furiously blasts at your wet hide, but how often do you get a chance to eat like this? 
Never! That’s how often. Usually it’s fields of grass and clover. If you’re really lucky, alfalfa. How sweet are the rewards of an occurrence calamitous enough to disrupt normal life. And, in the case of a sheep, how immediate. 

As humans, the process is slower, and more reflective. When we find ourselves displaced, our homes lacking the things we need to carry on, we have no choice but to experience life from a different perspective. In the midst of our discomfort, a kind friend, a soft bed, a pot of African peanut soup arrive on the scene. 

Suddenly there are conversations that would not have happened, revelations that would not have been learned, a debt owed and instantly discounted, a favor granted, a bond deepened. The garden is in ruins but the good feelings multiply. The sheep now know where the broccoli is kept, we now know that we can trust in friendship. 

I rip out the bare stalks of brassicas and chomped heads of cabbage and count my losses. One, two, three trashcans full of remains will go to the pigs. Enthusiastically they will grunt and rejoice over their good fortune (do pigs rejoice, one wonders). 

Safe, warm, full of contentment, I am once again ensconced with my stuff. The refrigerator has been emptied of its spoiled contents and refilled. The prematurely empty garden is planted in winter rye and vetch, builders of next year's soil. I am much richer for my losses. 

After all, It’s only broccoli.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

What I Love About Dahlias

Here it is, almost November. Among the various tawny shades of ochre and russet is a sprightly tone of pinkish red. Though beautiful in any season the perfect petals of the October dahlia seem especially so now, when the rest of the garden is marching steadily toward senescence, that is to say, death and dying. 

 But what I love most about dahlias is not their conspicuous spring-like colors—it is that their centers are almost always alive. 

Literally, alive. 

Oblivious to cold winds and camera lenses, a bumblebee will bed down in the soft golden heart, staking his claim. You may see an occasional slight movement of his hairy legs, and if you could catch sight of his tongue (also hairy), it might also be in motion. But from a casual observer’s point of view he looks content, sleepy, drugged even. There is no hurry at all to get back home; it is not his job to bring back supplies. In fact, he might very well spend the night clinging to the center of a dahlia blossom. Oh, he may be mildly concerned with dabbing a bit of his scent here and there, but that is early morning work. Afternoons and evenings are for hanging out with friends. 

Like a grasshopper with a taste for pink petals. 

The two seem at peace with the fact that their interests are separate and non-conflicting. I’ll take the petals, you take the pollen. If one or the other gets too close for comfort, each simply adjusts his position. 

And carries on.

October bumblebees are so much more laid back than August bumblebees. This has mostly to do with sex. Males are born only after the colony dwindles, late in the season. Most of the busy female workers are dead by this time, and the point of the activities (or lack thereof) is less about the survival of the hive and more about the survival of the species. All the Johnny-come-latelies need to do is eat, and mate. 

A short time after male bumblebees make their appearance the new queens emerge—the progenitors, the rulers of the hives of the future, the heroes of orchard owners everywhere. A queen will fly to where a male has left his scent, and wait. Presumably, she’s an early riser. 

Because by mid-morning, at least in my garden, the men show no interest in doing anything but luxuriating in dahlia pollen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

2012: A Good Year for Tomatoes

October 13th is a tad early for a first frost in Allentown, PA. But there it was decorating blades of grass and dusting the few fallen leaves. The 28° blast of cold air was decisive. It blackened pepper leaves and wilted the few tomato plants that managed to escape the blight. Last year the temperature didn’t drop below freezing until October 29th, and even on that late date the frost was spotty. 

When gardeners express their sadness during this season of drawn-out dying, others invariably respond with something like, “but it’s the best season of the year! The air is crisp, and the colors are beautiful.” True. But …

Skipping past the details of the list of losses (sultry evenings on the patio, the promises of buds, early morning gardening sessions), I will move right to praising the bounty. 2012 was a very good year—for tomatoes. 

Rather than trust the weather to bring rains when rains are needed, and sun to dry the leaves and protect them from disease-bearing spores, I planted most of the tomato plants at the Glasbern Inn under cover this year, with drip irrigation. And what a difference that measure of control made! A few even escaped this week’s frost.

In this beautiful pile: Brandywine, Evergreen, Zebra striped, Costoluto, Purple Cherokee, Mariana, Carmello.
Brandywines were full and ribbed and pink; Purple Cherokees practically (but not!) bursting. Sungolds in the upper garden cracked while those in three crowded rows in the open-ended cold frame continued unchecked through heat, drought, and rain. Costolutos were picture-perfect! By mid-September Chef Yianni was crying out for mercy. He had created a masterful salad that showcased the colors and ribs of the giant heirlooms. He had smoked the greenhouse Arbasons and Mariana reds and transformed them into a unique, amazing ketchup. He had skinned and jarred Sungolds and Black Cherries by the thousands. 

He was exhausted.

When October 13th arrived with its season-ending shot, we had already moved on. Celery root and salsify, savoy and cone-headed cabbage, arugula and mizuna, carrots of all colors, and beautiful heads of Nevada and Two Star lettuces now fill our bi-weekly cart. Oh there are still a dozen or two summer stragglers. You might think the fall tomatoes would be cherished, but we’re over them, and that goes for the peppers and the eggplants too. Until next year. 

Spring. Beautiful spring, bursting with promise, surging with energy. Tomato seedlings will fill the greenhouse; bumblebees will seek out the yellow flowers. My list of favorites will have expanded to include newcomers with enticing descriptions. 
Carmello: an OP tomato developed in France

One thing is certain. The list will include a medium-sized French red by the name of Carmello. Tasty, reliable, ultra productive, and a necessary part of my latest kitchen challenge—creating the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich. 

But that’s a story for another time.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Pigeon and the Giant

This story begins early on October 28, 2011, when a mass of cold air moving across the mid-Atlantic states met up with a low-pressure area originating from the Carolina coast. The fury of the collision brought wild winds and, the next day, a momentous October snow. The silver maple trees on Cherokee street, still bearing a full load of green and yellow leaves, became heavily laden with nearly 7 inches of heavy white wetness.

Or, maybe it can be traced much further back to the historical causes of the extreme weather events that are more commonplace than in years past, whatever they might be.

Or, maybe it has nothing to do with the freak October storm, but simply springs from the natural decline of living things. After all, the silver maples on Cherokee Street are “of a certain age.”

We can speculate all day long, but that does not change one fact: branches snapped and fell with the sound of gunshots all afternoon and evening of October 29th. On Sunday morning the ground around the houses on Cherokee Street was liberally layered with large limbs.

It just so happens that the Pigeon Tremex, a non-stinging wasp known as a horntail, is particularly fond of weakened or recently deceased limbs of certain trees, including the silver maple. It is likely that they saw, or smelled, or sensed, bounty in this disaster.

Or, possibly the horntail wasps were a contributing factor of the wreckage, exacerbating the weakness of the limbs that ended up littering the ground on that Sunday morning. Because their cream colored grubs live buried out of my sight within the wood, and because I did not inspect the trees for carcasses of female horntail wasps (which have been known to die midway through the act of depositing their eggs into the trunk), or look for the telltale small round holes through which the adults exit, I cannot say for certain that the strange-looking wasps with spines pointing out of their hind ends were present at all. But, as you will soon see, I have reason to suspect that they were.

Yes, I will get to the point. On Sunday, 11 months almost to the day following the rare October snowstorm that may (or may not) have factored in to the decline of the silver maples on Cherokee Street and the subsequent assumed presence of pigeon tremex horntails, I felt the slightest brush, like from a feather, as I was preparing my houseplants for the indoors. Clinging to the side of a pot was a fearsome insect. Actually it was more curious than ferocious, with its dainty waist, and a 3-inch needle projecting from its posterior. Being the savvy researcher that I am, I did a google search for “wasp with long tail.” Wasp was my best guess at the insect’s identity—based not so much on its form as on its hornet-like, “get-one-inch-closer-and-I-will-cause-you-pain” stance. I was right. It was a Giant Ichneumon wasp.

You’re probably wondering how the pieces of this story tie together: an October snow; weak-limbed silver maple trees; a specialized wasp that is drawn only to certain trees that can host a certain white rot fungus, and only when the trees are in a certain state of decline; and a wasp with a 3-inch needle-like “tail.”

As specialized as the pigeon tremex horntail is, the giant ichneumon is even more so. In order to survive, its larvae must eat the horntail grubs that are eating the decaying wood. Amazingly, the adult female giant ichneumon can sense what’s happening under the bark of the tree. She walks along the dead or dying limbs, antennae outstretched like divining rods, until she detects the location of a horntail grub beneath the bark. Then she puts her “tail,” which is actually an ovipositor sheathed by two filaments, to work. Bracing her abdomen with the protective sheaths, she drills through the bark into the tunnel of the horntail larva with her threadlike ovipositor, paralyzes the grub with a sting, and deposits her eggs into it. After a time, the horntail is no more. The following summer, the giant ichneumon emerges in its place. A female ichneumon is greeted by a crowd of eager males—they are able to somehow sense where and when she will make her debut. In no time at all she is out roaming the logs, instinctively, magically (or so it seems to us) finding just what she needs to find.  

We are all integrated in the natural cycles of life and death, decay and regeneration, and the lives of pigeons and giants might intersect from time to time with ours. Their bizarre and somewhat threatening appearances make them stand out from the crowd. We might label the giants “beneficial” parasitic wasps, and the pigeons “pests.” Doing so suggests that we believe it is all about us. Or it could just be that words are not up to the job of characterizing tangential, or parallel, relationships.

Trees age. Limbs crash to the ground. Seen and unseen creatures fulfill their specialized functions. The story continues … indefinitely. There are no happy endings. Or happy endings abound. Take your pick.    

Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Favorite Garden Tools

It wouldn’t take much—an awkward turn of the ankle, a slip of the pruners, or a jolt of the knee when spade unexpectedly hits rock. One stupid move and my life and my livelihood could be upended. So I step carefully.
Favorite tools: Radius stainless steel transplanter, Cobrahead weeder, Felco pruners, holster, Swiss istor sharpener, Fiskars PowerGear Lopper, OR cotton hat, nitrile gloves, and white bucket, all in a Tipke marine cart.

My goal is to become, someday, an old gardener. The alternative—not seizing the first cool September day to sow spinach, or not having too many tomatoes on the counter and too much pesto in the freezer—is unthinkable. To this end, I try never to overestimate the capabilities of my body or my tools. The older I get the more I value my body. Imperfect as it is, it has (so far) ably enabled my excesses.

My mother taught me that cheap shoes are no bargain. I have learned, repeatedly, that the same is true about garden tools. We all meet people who say (endearingly, or so they think), “I have a black thumb hahaha.” To them I reply (with a dead serious look), “There’s no such thing as a black thumb. You just don’t have the right tools.” I truly believe this, being of currently sound body and perpetually dirty fingernails. If they had my #1 weeder, the Cobrahead, they would be equally driven to use the side of the blade to decapitate weeds just under the soil line, and use the curve of the arm as a lever to oh-so-gently unearth whatever it is that doesn’t belong there. I am sure of it.

It took me a long time to declare this my favorite weeder, due to an unfortunate misstep by the designer and chief promoter of the Cobrahead, Noel Valdes. So sure was he that his tool was “the best tool on earth” that he sent out an initial run to garden writers. Sadly, the curvature of the blade stretched with time and use, rendering the tool practically worthless. So I wrote it off and went back to my old #1, the Korean hand hoe. I still have several hand hoes, but they have shown their weaknesses: blades detach prematurely from handles; inconsistencies in manufacturing can affect the “feel.” At some point I gave Cobrahead another try. The current version is truly the best tool on earth. The blue handle is attached securely to a strong blade, which serves as a cultivator as well as a weeder. You can stab it into the soil using the force of your arm, sparing the wrist for gentler tasks, like picking tomatoes. Or sowing spinach. I never, and I mean never, go into the garden without it.

And would it even be possible to own a pair of Felco pruners and not want to use them constantly? The two things I like most about my Felcos are, 1) the blades open really wide, and 2) spare parts are readily available. Every winter I sit down in front of CSI New York, or some other comfortingly familiar set of characters and plot, with my four or five Felcos, a bag of blades, springs, and bolts, a spray can of WD-40, and my Swiss istor professional sharpener. You don’t even have to dismember the pruners to sharpen them with this nifty tool. I give them all a little love (the Felcos not the FBI guys). They deserve it.

And my pruner holster. Yes! The one mistake I make, over and over, year after year, is not clipping my holster to my jeans when I venture out into my own garden. I’ll just do this one thing, I tell myself, and four hours later I am searching through tall blades of grass (lawn maintenance not being my thing) for the pruners I set down … somewhere. When I am “on the job” I am never without my pruner holster.

For bigger cuts, I like to use my Fiskars PowerGear Bypass Lopper. As in, I look for low hanging limbs and dead branches just so I can lop them off with this powerful yet lightweight tool. This is how you know a garden tool is great—it energizes you to do stuff. Another case in point: Since I bought my Radius Garden 200 PRO Ergonomic Stainless Steel Transplanter a month or so ago, I have been edging, transplanting, and digging new beds like a crazy woman. I blame this tool. I punch it into the soil with my upper body (my knees are in good working order and I intend to keep them that way).
--> Believe me, Black Thumb, when I say that the trapezoid-shaped blade with the circle on top is fun to use and will make a gardener of anyone. And the handle’s purple! 

While admittedly not as entertaining as spades and loppers, hats and gloves are important to the garden experience. My criteria for the perfect garden hat are: 1) It must be washable; 2) It must be big enough; 3) It must have a chin strap; 4) It must be sufficiently brimmed. This OR (Outdoor Research) 100% cotton hat fulfills all the necessities, plus it has a UPF rating of 50+. 

I buy Atlas Nitrile gloves by the dozen. They’re cheaper that way. Not that this saves me any money—I give a pair to garden-coaching clients so that they’ll think to call me when they puzzle over plant choices and pruning decisions. I go through about four pairs a season myself, which is not bad considering that I spend the better part of my life in the garden. About the only task I remove them for is sowing seeds. 

For hauling flats of annuals, loads of compost, and piles of weeds from here to there, I use a Tipke Cart. Though billed as a “marine” cart, it is perfect for garden use—lightweight, rustproof, and it folds for winter storage or for transporting to plant sales and such. You’ll need a bicycle pump. I need a bicycle pump. 

Oh, and the white bucket. It’s free. And though I like tub trugs, you can’t sling them over the arm like you can a plain ol’ white bucket. And they’re not free. 

Suggestions for additions to this incomplete list are more than welcome. I’m still looking for the perfect hose nozzle for one thing. But the above favorites serve me well; they keep my knees, wrists, and shoulders in shape …  for the rest of what makes life worth living. My advice to Black Thumb is this: Step carefully, stop frequently to breathe in the whole big picture—life, that is—and carry a purple-topped spade, a blue-handled Cobrahead, and a white bucket. The proverbial green thumb will be yours.  

Note: None of the above tools were sent to me for testing. I bought and paid for every one.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Flowers that Dance

I love flowers that scent the air with intoxicating fragrances, flowers that rest in neat colorful mounds, flowers that coat the ground like a fluffy puddle. 

Late summer dance: Gomphrena 'Fireworks' and Nicotiana 'Whisper Appleblossom'
But most of all I love flowers that dance. Whisper Appleblossom nicotiana, woodland tobacco, Fireworks gomphrena. They hover over the others in a lilting cloud, like syrphid flies over sweet Alyssum, like fluttering cabbage moths over wet muck. Like lightning bugs. 

They drift aloft in a Debussian rhythm, unregimented, suspended. You forget for the moment the details of genus and species, morphology and function. You lose yourself in the whole of the dance. Everyone is keeping the beat. The eye is not directed to any one spot. It doesn't matter.

Until the scene is broken by a single frosty night, or ferocious late season storm, they dance. And then the music stops. Frosty air chills the fallen seeds. Its fingers reach into the pores of the soil. Rhythm and tender green are on hold.

And so we dance, furiously, to strings and keys and pounding palms, to keep our spirits alive.
image from Country Dance and Song Society (

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sterile Plants: All-season Bloomers

A lot of the plants in my garden this year have something in common: they cannot bear young. 

Lobularia 'Blushing Princess': no seeds but lots of syrphid flies!

One might say it’s a triploid revolution!

But let’s start at the beginning.
The flower exists for one purpose—to attract pollinators. Once its powdery pollen is transported by bee, moth, beetle, or some other vehicle to the ovule of another flower, its function is finished. Seeds form. Eventually, baby plants germinate. So as the summer wears on and flowers turn to seeds, the plant has less and less incentive to make more flowers. Unless, of course, some manipulative gardener beheads the dying blooms. 

But what tedium, what fussiness! 
Cleome 'Seniorita Blanca' in late August

How fortunate for the lover of all-season color that plant breeders have stepped in. What! you say? Breeders “play god” and manipulate plants just so we can enjoy cleome that doesn’t become a spidery tower of swaying seedpods, and sweet alyssum that doesn’t get ugly in August? What’s next—tomatoes that don’t rot?  

Well, maybe … but that’s another story.

Back to the point – how, and why, does a scientist make a flower that will not fulfill its function? 

The answer to how is varied and complicated. Why is a little more straightforward. Take lantana, a beautiful flower that is benign in cold-winter regions like Pennsylvania, but a menace in the south. In fact, it’s one of the top 10 weedy species of the world. And its chromosomes are to blame.

Lantana 'Luscious Berry Blend' makes no seeds.
Many organisms (us, for instance) are diploids, meaning we have two complete sets of chromosomes, one from mom and one from dad. Plants often have multiple sets. Lantana can have two, three, four, five, or even six sets of chromosomes. Those with even numbers of sets are fertile (sometimes very fertile), and those with odd numbers are largely sterile. Combine a plant with two sets (a diploid) with one with four (a tetraploid) and the result is: ta da, a sterile triploid! It will start to form seeds but they will never become blackberry-like and fertile. 

Selling sterile plants will not undo the damage caused by the rude tetraploids let loose in warm climates, but it will at least allow gardeners to plant lantana with a clear conscience. And non-seedmaking plants bloom and bloom. Yes, I am aware that lantana berries are ornamental. This, I suspect, is a rationalization that will be handily tossed when the juicy fruits are absent. 
Hibiscus 'Blue Chiffon': blooming itself silly.

Other sterile or mostly sterile plants in my garden are ‘Lilac Chip’ buddleia, ‘Seniorita Blanca’ cleome, ‘Blushing Princess’ sweet alyssum, ‘Diana’ rose-of Sharon (my ‘Blue Chiffon’ rose-of-Sharon is not a triploid but is blooming itself silly nonetheless). Some of my seed-free plants are triploids, others are the sterile hybrids of two different species. 

Burning bush triploids will be available in four to five years, says breeder Yi Li of the University of Connecticut. And other good versions of bad troublemakers are on the way. Scientists are working on making impotent Norway maples, barberries, privets, and callery pears so that they won’t wreak havoc on the few natural areas that have not yet been compromised. 

From the BIG perspective, creating a cleome or sweet alyssum that blooms all summer seems a monumentally trivial achievement. And the self-serving aspect—no self-sown seedlings means more sales—is not lost on me. Scientists working on safe-to-plant versions of invasive plants are providing gardeners with guilt-free alternatives. A sterile burning bush, however, will do little to save the earth. 

But in the evenings, when I revel in the exponential multiplication of the blooms (that still, by the way, attract scores of pollinators), and enjoy the sweet scents, I am happy that breeders tinker with odd-numbered ploidy.  

Now if they would just start working on squash bugs ….

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rock Art

“Make art,” I told the eight student interns from Isles of Trenton. The instruction was greeted with quizzical looks all around. 

The Problem was the pile of large rocks that had been dumped onto a concrete pad 12 years ago during the digging of wells for a geothermal heating system, with no thought about how they might, or might not, be used in the future. Dried leaves collected in the cracks and, over the years, turned to compost. Poison ivy and enchanter’s nightshade (a plant that is not at all as pretty as its name) had taken hold in the crevices until the rocks were completely concealed during the summer months. With roots securely anchored by the weight of the unruly pile, the interlopers were resistant to my frequent attempts at manual control.

I envisioned something neat. Maintainable.

Morven is, after all, a historic property. Visitors visit. Students of history roam about. Watercolor artists sit in front of easels and paint beautiful scenes.  

The opportunity for making art out of rocks and brawn arose in the last day of the tenth year of a collaboration between Morven, a museum and garden in prosperous Princeton, and YouthBuild, an organization that helps young men and women from the ‘hood rise above the expectations the world holds for them. The cultural divide cannot be overstated.

What happened next was pure magic. When asked to explain the remarkable construction that emerged after an hour of creative play, one of the artists remarked, “You can’t really explain it. That’s what makes it art.”
Isles YouthBuild Institute 2012

Even more thrilling than the individual components of the piece—the blocky frames, the found images that had been created by centuries of deposition of weathered rock and detritus, the round rocks dramatically perched—was the collective realization that “Art” is not out of reach. It can be grabbed at will. We need only give ourselves permission to “make art,” and magic happens.

Morven staff members wandered back in ones and twos to view the wonder. Visitors admired it. The creators posed beside their construction for photos, and added their signatures on a piece of slate with liquid chalk. The pride was communal, and it was individual. “IYI 2012” (Isles YouthBuild Institute 2012), reads the top line on the rock sign.

The group had completed many fine tasks during their five weeks on the job. They had edged and mulched garden beds, planted trees and flowers, pruned overgrown hedges, and reworked a hazardous stone walkway. As they showed off these accomplishments there was obvious pride of craftsmanship. None of these, however, came close to establishing the level of cross-cultural bonding created by the rock art.   

Make Art Not War (or something like that ...)
The question raised by this experience is this: If it is so maddeningly simple to bridge a cultural divide by making collective art, how can we bring more creative play into our frenetic days? 

We must give ourselves permission to play, to discover, to create. The creative spirit speaks a universal language, which in turn creates a universal bond. It cannot be expressed in words.

“That’s what makes it art.”