Thursday, April 17, 2014

April: At Least There's Gardening

daisy flea-bane in my corner meadow
It's legislative season in Louisiana, and because I attended a series of book-reading discussions at a Unitarian Universalist church at the beginning of 2013, I find myself this year attending committee meetings of the Louisiana House in Baton Rouge. One little decision, and I became enmeshed in politics, dedicated to promoting an issue of social justice and discovering that the system is recalcitrant to change and the folks in charge stuck in the 1950s. I have written letters, sent e-mails, tweeted blunt political views (in less than 140 characters), attended workshops, rallied on the steps of the state capitol, and created another blog for the social justice group that developed from those book-reading sessions.

I have to remind myself that I was once a poet, a reader of novels, a journal keeper and letter writer. These days, I consume online media and follow people on Twitter. My Facebook feed is now dominated by news sites.

But at least there's gardening to ground me, to remind me that while bureaucracies grind on ever so slowly and political systems resist real change, the seasons cycle and magically regenerate.
spring rain on my backyard herb and flower beds
It's been a wet and cool spring here in south Louisiana. Tom the federal worker planted tomatoes he had sprouted and then had to cover each of them with Dixie paper cups two nights ago when temperatures dipped into the mid-thirties. He said there was frost on the windows of his Ford Ranger, but, fortunately, everything in my flower and herb beds was spared. The aloe veras that I took such pains to cover during every freeze or frost this past winter are now blooming, and even basil seeds have sprouted--though slowly. Zinnia seeds are also coming up. Maximillian sunflowers that I planted last year have re-sprouted or re-seeded, our Knockout roses and amaryllis are blooming, the azaleas are past bloom, and pots on our patio are full of violas and nasturtiums.
aloe veras flowering above a cousin's ceramic art
I have left unmowed a northeast corner of the yard, and it has become a meadow of daisy flea-bane, spiderwort, quaking grass, and clover. The composite flowers, only 1/2 to 3/4 inches in diameter, attract bees, wasps, and flies. Honeybees especially like the clover flowers. I mowed a couple of trails through the patch that I walk just about every day, observing other visitors there. The honeybee, with its little legs bulging with pollen, wonders not a whit about what passes as leadership in Baton Rouge. The tiny red spider cares only for its next meal, and sits attuned to the vibrating web it has strung between several stalks of grass.

Yes, I believe in citizen involvement and in doing what one can to make the world a better, more equitable place, but in these first few months of 2014, I have learned again how difficult it is to achieve that goal. So I find comfort in my garden, in remembering we are destined to be gardens, whether we are pushing up carefully tended turf or daisy flea-bane in a corner meadow.
corner meadow with quaking grass, clover, daisy flea-bane
We found this turtle in a lot next door; a day or two later, I found either the same one or another one in my meadow patch.
Large bee fly with its proboscis buried in a wood geranium growing in my meadow patch. Read about it here: This was a tiny guy. Those flowers are about 1/4 inch in diameter.
metallic green bee on daisy flea-bane
wasp on daisy flea-bane
honeybee resting on daisy flea-bane
small-headed fly on daisy flea bane--Read about small headed flies here:
another, more ordinarily-shaped fly, on daisy flea-bane
My corner meadow surprises me with four-leaf clovers and many other riches of the plant and animal world.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Bees are Back

In mid-February the camellia at the northwest corner of our house began to bloom, and as soon as the last polar vortex swept through and the weather began to warm, honey bees were on the flowers. Yesterday I saw bumblebees for the first time this year; two or three bumblebees having joined the honeybees in gathering pollen from the mustard flowers in our large vegetable garden. They should be enjoying the white clover that is beginning to bloom, too. Clover has spread in large patches throughout the east and north sides of our property, and I usually mow around most of it, leaving flowers for bees and the tender leaves for rabbits. This weekend I found two four-leaf clovers, plucked them, and placed them to dry in a paperback copy of Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire. Last year I found twenty or so four-leaf clovers over the course of the spring and early summer.

With highs in the 70s (Fahrenheit) this past week, I was tempted to begin spring gardening, so I took out a couple of packets of nasturtium seed. The directions advise to wait until all danger of frost is past...and another cold front is heading across the country, with a low in the thirties predicted here for Monday night. Will it frost? I don't know. But I planted some nasturtium seeds anyway in flower pots on my patio. I suspect that they will be fine.

The red salvia and blue-gray salvia have sprouted and are leafing out, violets are blooming, johnny jump-ups that reseeded from last year are blooming, and the tender green shoots of bulbs are beginning to poke above ground. We are waiting to see how devastating the freezes have been to our citrus trees, banana trees, lemongrass, and variegated ginger. None of these plants are showing signs of life yet. The white-flowering althea in our back yard is shyly showing a bit of green, unaware of the cold weather still in store for us.
We are still pulling carrots and turnips from the winter vegetable garden; green shallots are flourishing, but the purple mustard greens and other winter greens have been afflicted with tiny bugs. Tom transplanted leeks in the vegetable garden; they seem to be very slow-growing plants. All his habanero, serano, ghost peppers, and tomatillos have sprouted in their temporary containers. He thinned tomato sprouts yesterday, moving some of the extra sprouts to another container for a friend.

The ground remains too wet to do much weed-clearing in the flower beds. Tom dug a hole yesterday in which to plant a live oak sprout, and the clay bottom of the hole quickly gathered water. He emptied the rain gauge and noted that it measured 2.85 inches of water from the last week-and-a-half, and we're expecting more rain this week. Soon, however, temperatures will begin to rise quickly. I hope we'll get a few dry days in a row so that I can have everything ready for some serious planting.

Time to finalize my summer garden plans.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The February Garden

After the bitterly cold weather caused by "southern excursions" of the polar vortex, here in southeast Louisiana temperatures warmed into the upper 70s this week, reminding us of how quickly the weather can change. If the soil were drier, I might have been tempted to get started with spring planting, but another cool spell is predicted, and the soil is just too wet here to do much serious gardening. The Florida parishes, of which St. Tammany is one, are the wettest parishes in the state. Walking in our backyard is like walking on a spring board, only the springs are broken, and one "splooshes" instead of "spronging" in all but the highest areas. However, for a brief window of two or three days, I managed to get some weeding done in my flower and herb beds around the patio and in my 8'X8' raised beds.

Chickweed is especially abundant in the neglected winter garden, and though I have recently learned that it is a tasty green, according to some, I have viewed it as a very pesky and resistant weed, and I spent hours trying to pull it up, as it had spread prolifically over the winter. As I tried to get all the tiny, clinging, web-like roots out of the ground, I noticed I was scattering the seeds everywhere, so I have only ensured a vigorous return when my weeding guard is down. According to a weed management page of an organic gardening website out of the UK, chickweed is very resilient, its buried seed remaining viable "for at least 25 and probably over 40 years." In addition, "individual seed capsules contain around 10 seeds and the average seed number per plant is 2,200 to 2,700." Perhaps I should just develop a taste for chickweed salad.

Because spring can sneak up on one here, I was anxious to do what garden repair I could before the next rainfall. (We discovered that we had already waited too long to plant Irish potatoes, as we hadn't yet even ordered the seed potatoes.) I trimmed all the bushy bits I had left through the fall for the bees and their brown remainders through early winter for the white throated sparrows to hide among--the branches of Mexican marigold mint, red and blue-black salvia, and the mountain mint near the garden shed. Though we hope our banana trees will re-sprout from the roots, nothing above ground survived the freezes, so I hauled off three or four wheelbarrows full of dead banana leaves and rotting trunks. I also removed all the composting pine needles that I had placed on the pathways between my 8'X8' herb beds, putting down a layer of bark from the water oaks Tom has been chopping up for firewood and a layer of fresh pine bark I raked up in our yard and a neighbor's lot nearby.
sprucing up the garden paths--a layer of bark and then a layer of pine needles (hope I'm not creating cozy homes for slugs)
Then it was on to pulling weeds from the flower bed around the patio and rearranging the outdoor display I re-work every spring, among which I place my potted plants, which are staying warm yet in the sunroom. As soon as the weather settles, I'll move those plants to the north side of the patio and plant seeds--especially nasturtiums--in my other flower pots.
patio arrangement, northside--pots and bottomless basket waiting for seed planting
garden art: folk artist Butch Anthony's square globe and my cousin Karen's earthen habitats
I tried weeding the circular bed around the cedar post bird feeder, but the ground was still sloppy wet. Dill seed had sprouted during the winter, and though the plants had been beaten back by freezes that dipped into the teens, several plants had survived, so I pulled out the weeds around them and left the rest of the flower bed for a warmer and drier day.

Forecasts for next week are suggesting that we will have lows in the twenties, so I'm glad that I postponed any planting or moving the biggest pot plants outdoors. At 6 p.m., today, however, the weather app on my computer tells me that the temperature is in the low 60s, and tomorrow will be a sunny day for the local Mardi Gras parade. I'm just happy that the rain forecast for the end of this week has waited to make its entrance--according to an updated forecast--to Sunday, and I was able to take advantage of these drier, warmer days here at the tail end of a Louisiana winter.
flower bed at the north end of the patio--I'll move the potted plants out here when the weather has settled.
east side of the house: 8'X8' raised herb beds, new pole with bird feeders on the right, new bluebird house in the back
Persephone taking advantage of a warm afternoon on the patio

one of two baskets of tomato seeds that Tom the federal worker planted --they sprouted in the space of two warm days on the patio
Gulf Coast Toad--I caught this fellow out early one morning
Tom's row garden still producing turnips, carrots, onions, mustard greens, some lettuce...and chickweed

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Modifying Project Goals and Expectations

It's a good thing to recognize when to modify your goals. I've done this recently with that project I described in my last post. I am always looking for ways to recycle material into craft or art--or for practical use. For a few years I have been saving mesh bags in which vegetables and fruit are packaged, and though I have used the bags in small projects, as decorative additions to pins and ornaments, I have been wanting to make something bigger, something showier. At first I decided I would make a large, baby-quilt sized wall hanging. As I worked with the mesh bags, however, I realized that I didn't have the commitment for a long-term project like this or the ideas to see it through in a really creative and attractive way. So I modified my plans. Mesh bags, cut in rectangles, reminded me of prayer flags. A banner would be doable.

First, I blanket-stitched together two different pieces of mesh, cut in equal sizes. The back piece was always cut from a flat-weave mesh bag and the front piece cut from a stretchier type of mesh bag. Doing this was very fiddly work, which led to my adjusting my expectations for this project. Then I blanket-stitched another smaller piece of a different color of mesh on front of these two pieces. I decided to incorporate a quote I had heard in an online video, assigning each word of the quote to one plastic mesh rectangle: "You find small melodies wherever you look and listen." On most of the rectangles I cross-stitched the words--and I really don't like to do cross stitch (and therefore I'm not good at doing it!). Then I embellished each rectangle with buttons, other pieces of fruit/veggie bags, or pieces of small mesh gift bags. I then blanket-stitched a backing of recycled lace curtain to each rectangle and crocheted an edging. Finally, I connected the pieces and hung my banner.
front of an embellished rectangle of fruit/veggie mesh (not one in the banner)


close-up of one of the "flags" in my fruit/veggie mesh banner
Someone with better needlework skills could do some interesting things with this whole mesh-bags-into-banners (or prayer flags) idea, but I got tired of the mess on my dining room table as well as the extreme fiddly-ness of the project. Stretchy plastic mesh bags are difficult to handle in large pieces.

I turned many of the remaining mesh bags into something much more practical: scrubbies for the kitchen and the bath. I placed a bar of hotel soap in the middle of some of the scrubbies.
scrubbies made from recycled fruit and veggie mesh bags

scrubby with bar soap inside
Also, other projects were calling for my attention, the long-neglected winter garden, for one. The unusually cold weather we had this winter as those two polar vortexes descended on the South had discouraged me from garden clean-up. And it's always wet in the winter here, too.
the garden after some cleaning up--more to do
In addition, I had purchased at a Goodwill store small ceramic cottages with which I wanted to create a display near the patio, with mosses gathered from the yard.

And I've got bags full of felted wool from second-hand sweaters that I want to make into scarves, throws, and folk art quilts.

Not to mention that I am writing a blog for a local organization concerned about racial inequality in the criminal justice system, and we are trying to educate ourselves about bills coming before the Louisiana legislature this year.  So many little time!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Beginning Project Angst

For the past eleven years or so, I've been interested in creating things out of materials most people throw away. This urge has led me to save "trash" with an eye toward finding some way of re-purposing it. This interest began years ago when I created an art car out of my 1995 Ford Taurus, using paint, recycled buttons, left-overs from needle and thread projects, second-hand Barbie dolls, found objects, bits of poetry. At that time, I was so inspired to do this strange thing--paint and glue stuff on a car that I drove to work every day where I taught in an English Department at a university in Georgia--that I had no second thoughts about altering my primary mode of transportation. I just began. And the project evolved over the seven years I worked on the car and drove it in parades in Houston, Baton Rouge, Austin, and Atlanta.

Creating "The Lady" art car was a big project made out of very small projects. I used Great Stuff to create lips on the front of the car, and I painted eyes on the mirrors. Sections of the outside of the car became small individual canvases, as did the doors, seats, ceiling, steering wheel, dashboard, etc., inside the car. This was a project that so consumed me--even as I was teaching full-time, directing an international program, and rearing two children--that I rarely worried about whether or not I would fail at the work. What was there to fail at such an idiosyncratic project? I often labored in our garage after work, late at night and into the early hours of the morning, high on creativity, possibility, and the freedom of experimentation--or maybe it was the glue fumes from affixing all those buttons and found objects.

The Beginnings of The Lady Art Car, 2002
The Lady art car, 2005

I have not tried such a large project since then, and I have rarely found myself so passionately consumed by an idea, though I have, from time to time, been so immersed in smaller projects that I seem to step into an alternate universe of concentrated and focused activity. Neither have I been able to muster quite the chutzpah or confidence that so buoyed me in the many years I created and recreated The Lady.
The front seat of The Lady Art Car

a stylized bull's face that I created by gluing buttons on the dashboard

The ceiling of my art car was covered with remnants of other projects.

Maybe the lack of confidence in beginning a new project has to do with the circumstances I find myself in now, but each new project, all much smaller than my art car project, begins with varying levels of angst, a questioning of what I'm doing, of whether or not the end product will be worth the time and effort I've invested. When I created The Lady, I rarely felt the lack of any art training, or when I did, I just compensated with an alternate way of expressing my ideas. The whole project was so free-wheeling that expertise seemed unnecessary. Now I often regret not having some background in art or a wider experience in crafting. 

I do watch YouTube videos or visit websites that offer some direction in a crafting technique, and that's useful. A couple of years ago I began an art journal and learned some techniques for creating such a journal out of an old book.

my husband's old chemistry book
the cover of my art journal
In this project, I certainly wish I had more painting skills. My daughter, who completed one art class in high school and who has a talent for watercolor and drawing, says it just takes practice, but I have not taken the necessary time to develop those skills. Too often I start another project before completing one; the ideas come faster than my experience. For instance, I began this journal in 2012 and worked on it quite assiduously until midway through the year. I hope to take it up again this year!

 In the following example, I created a collage with a poem from my childhood to introduce a long essay I wrote and placed in a pocket on the following pages of my journal. When I don't have the technique to match my ideas, I work with what I already know while sometimes doing an Internet search for a quick lesson in what I don't. 

Sometimes that's enough.

The closest I have come to re-capturing the focus accompanied with the free-spirited and untroubled attitude I had when creating my art car has occurred when I began making folk art quilts out of felted, second-hand sweaters. Reading a book on felting for the necessary background, I began with small projects and then worked up to the larger project of my own design. In these folk art quilt projects (I've made three such quilts so far), I relied on what I already knew--hand-stitching, crocheting, embroidery--and supplemented what I knew of applique.

folk art quilt made with felted wool from second-hand sweaters
My daughter's twin bed covered with one of my folk art quilts
 Last year I tried my hand at creating earrings out of recycled bottle caps and pins (or brooches) out of plastic caps from milk and juice bottles. I have no background in jewelry making, and searching craft stores for appropriate jewelry findings was an adventure in itself. Previous projects had provided me expertise in crocheting with beads, so this was a comfortable project, small enough to cancel with little regret if the end product didn't meet my standards. But I was pleased with the results.

bottle cap earrings

Brooches created by crocheting around discarded tops of plastic milk and juice bottles
For the past three years or so I have saved the colorful mesh bags in which fruit and vegetables are packaged. So much of the packaging of the food and items we buy needlessly ends up immediately in our garbage, and I am inspired to discover ways to re-use such material. Here, again, I began small.

heart ornaments made out of fruit and veggie mesh bags and embellished with buttons and lace
Now I am beginning a larger project with the veggie and fruit mesh bags. It's a project I have been thinking about for a long time yet still with just the vaguest idea of an end result, accompanied by the notion that here my art/craft knowledge and technique might fall short. Right now it's all rather a mess.

One would think that all my previous experience would help me overcome the angst I'm feeling about this project--but that isn't the case.  Instead, I find myself focusing on all that I don't know about art, craft, and design. Somehow, I've got to generate the confidence that the idea and effort will produce something beautiful--or thought-provoking or interesting--in the end. Or at least be encouraged by the idea that I'll learn something in the process that will be useful in future projects.

Surely that's enough to start on.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Dispelling the Winter Blues

The weather widget on my computer tells me that it's 60oF outside as I type late this morning, but I've got a fire going in the woodstove in the study. It's just a dreary, rainy, January day, and a fire's cozy warmth keeps the soggy damp and its accompanying winter blues at bay. January is an awful month here in southeast Louisiana--rain, rain, rain. "With an annual statewide-average rainfall of approximately 60 inches per year," writes John M. "Jay" Grimes in "Precipitation Patterns Over the Bayou State," only Hawaii receives more rain on an average statewide basis." January and June vie for the title of rainiest month of the year. Our yard, inhabited by subterranean warm-blooded creatures that like to burrow, soaks up this rain like a sponge, all those tiny tunnels filling with water and creating a surface that makes one suspicious of its ability to hold one's weight. I tried pulling winter weeds on Saturday, and the first layer of soil just peeled back like a Gaia facial peel, the thin layer of topsoil rising intact with the webby roots of the weeds.

Another antidote to the winter blues is the occasional sunny day, such as the one we experienced yesterday, clear, cool, and balmy by noon, when Tom the federal worker and I decided to pack a simple lunch and go on a hike. Every time I think of retiring to northern Minnesota, where we lived for two years, I remember that such a day is never available in January in the Land of 10,000 Lakes--unless global warming gets a lot worse in my lifetime (which I understand might be possible).

We drove to Boy Scout Road in Lacombe, LA, and parked in the gravel lot near the boardwalk that winds through this portion of the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Several vehicles were already parked there, and a large family of several adults and young children disembarked a double-cab pickup as we drove up. That group decided to take the boardwalk while Tom and I opted for the gravel surface of Boy Scout Road which follows the edge of the grassy pine savanna that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains with prescribed burns.
Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, pine savanna at Boy Scout Road, Lacombe, LA (12 Jan. 2014)
We took our time, pulling our binoculars out of the backpack to get close-up views of yellow-rumped warblers and red-bellied woodpeckers. Robins also flocked the woods, startling into flight ahead of us, and on our walk back mid-afternoon, we were serenaded by red-winged blackbirds, heard flickers and doves calling, and  got a glimpse of a ruby-crowned kinglet. We took one of the side roads into the timber until the water got too deep for us to venture much further without getting our feet wet and returned to the main road.
wet timber road on Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge
the high, dry, and recently graded Boy Scout Road
The road continues to a lookout point over the marsh and Lake Pontchartrain toward New Orleans and then winds through pines that eventually give way to hardwoods as the road gets closer to Bayou Lacombe. When we got to the Bayou, I lay flat on the ground, soaking up the afternoon sun while Tom took some photos of the old broken bricks that lay scattered on the banks.
Tom took this photo of the view of New Orleans from the observation deck on Boy Scout Road
On our walk, Tom had pointed out "borrows" filled with water, where road crews had dug up soil to build the road. And he remembered an old professor at Louisiana State University telling a class that he couldn't understand why these holes were called "borrows," as the soil was never returned to its point of origin. When I had stopped to take a photo of a small pond, Tom told me that the depression was not natural, that it was what remained of a clay pit. Someone had told him that local clay had been dug out there to make bricks which were then carted off on boats to build the French Quarter. In a later brief search on the Internet, I couldn't find any support for the claim that the bricks had been used to build the French Quarter, but I did find lots of references to brick-making from clay in the area. And the bricks on the banks of Bayou Lacombe attested to that, as well. I also found a downed tree whose roots were exposed and wrapped around old pieces of brick.
Tom took this photo of bricks on the banks of Bayou Lacombe at the end of Boy Scout Road.
We lingered there at the banks of Bayou Lacombe, lazily waving at a boat full of people that passed on its way up the bayou from Lake Pontchartrain. And now as I remember the clear sky and warm sun, today's gloom seems a little lighter. The fire has been reduced to a few glowing embers in the woodstove, and the temperature has climbed one degree to 61oF. I think I'll let the fire die and save the wood for a colder, gloomier January day.