Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The August Garden: Chaos

The late summer garden is producing lots of peppers: ghost peppers, habaneros, bells, etc.
A two-week absence from the August garden leads to chaos--knee-high weeds, rotting fruit, gourd vines escaping their trellis, empty bird-feeders, grass in the lawn almost high enough to be baled, and wilting plants that need water despite all those previous weeks of rain. We had traveled west to help our daughter move into her new temporary home, leaving instructions for care of the cat and for just a few potted plants I was especially keen to have survive our absence. A couple of days after returning home, I first set about mowing the lawn, a big job with a push mower, and then I started clearing out the weeds and dead plants in my herb and flower beds. The vegetable garden is a mess, with only peppers bearing prolifically, with a few cherry tomatoes still ripening on the neglected vines. The two rows of sweet potatoes had spread their vines over two or three more rows, and that pesky weed Phyllanthus urinaria (A.K.A., chamberbitter, gripeweed), which can take over a bare spot of ground in short order, poked above the vegetables like umbrellas in a summer shower, the undersides of their leaves heavy with seed.

The second task was to water my herb and flower beds nearer the house. It seemed that the area had a dry spell while we were gone. Of course, as soon as I watered, we got rain, first an afternoon sprinkle, and then days of showers.

August is a hateful month to me. I have never liked the heat of these late summer and early fall months in the South. As sweat poured down my face, I was longing for that cooler climate we left behind in Wyoming and Colorado. National news had also heated up while we were unloading our daughter's belongings from our car and taking hikes in our spare time. The heat of August, I'm convinced, brings out the worst in people.

The back yard in August, from a distance quite nice
A little closer look: zinnias brown with some kind of leaf spot or leaf wilt



I removed dead zinnias and basil from this bed, and am waiting to see what reseeds and how it will grow through the fall.
Within a week after we had returned home, these sprawling Maximillian sunflowers were past their bloom, and I removed them to provide more light and nutrients for the swamp sunflowers.
Butterflies continue to visit the garden.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The July Garden: Hot and Humid

salsa we canned the first week of July, using tomatoes from our garden
In southeast Louisiana, June and July are the wettest months, and this year has been no exception. According to one source, the rainfall average for June is 5.89 inches and for July 7.23 inches. Our area received almost 11 inches of rain in June, according to official records and to the rain gauge we monitor in one of my herb beds. And according to climatological data supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, our area received 46.22 inches to 48.24 inches of rain the first six months of this year. The average annual rainfall is, according to various records, anywhere from 60-65 inches a year. Compare that to the average precipitation of the following cities: 
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico:  9.39 inches
  • Duluth, Minnesota: 30.94 inches
  • Austin, Texas: 34.25 inches
  • Atlanta, Georgia: 49.74 inches
  • Crescent City, California: 71.26 inches
  • Seattle, Washington: 37.13 inches
 Add our rainfall totals to high heat (average high of 92F in July), and you can imagine how oppressive summers can be in southeast Louisiana.

For the first time this year, I planted blue borage in one of my herb beds. The plants sprouted and began to grow vigorously. By late June, every plant had succumbed to a fungal disease; the weather was just too wet for borage to thrive. Our tomatoes, also, suffered from the very wet weather, the Cherokee Purple tomatoes being the first to succumb. We did harvest a few Cherokee Purple tomatoes before the plants finally died. Our other tomato plants grew eight or nine feet tall, but they, also, suffered from fungal disease (probably septoria leaf spot), which begins at the bottom of the plants, where rain splashes the spores. These plants did live to provide us with lots of tomatoes though perhaps not as many as might have been possible had they not been affected by the disease. A few fruits continue to ripen on the vines, which look very bedraggled now. Perhaps next year we will mulch the plants after the vines are big enough where the cut worms can't get at them. Mulch should help prevent the splashing of spores.
vegetables from our garden, gathered mid-July
sliced persimmon tomato--The plants did not produce a lot, but the fruits they did produce were big and juicy.
Here at the end of July, the gourd vines are growing vigorously on the bamboo trellis that Tom built, and the cucumbers, climbing with the gourds, are still producing. The yellow squash is probably about finished--I picked one squash yesterday--and the peppers are producing. This year we did not plant any okra, and that was because the ground was just too wet when it was time to plant. Tom did manage to plant sweet potatoes, which are now vining.
gourd and cucumber trellis, late June
gourd and cucumber trellis, late July

gourd and trellis in the vegetable garden, July
 The herb and flower beds in the yard behind the house are on a little higher ground than the vegetable garden, and except for the borage, most seem to be thriving, though the fennel is rather under-whelming. I think I probably should have planted the fennel in late summer, as it might have done better in cooler fall weather. My parsley plants are greening up again, the older leaves having died in the hot summer heat, and the dill has reseeded. Last week I staked and cut back the zinnias, which had grown head-high and tended to fall over as rain loosened their roots. Those are re-sprouting where trimmed, so maybe I'll get a few more flowers through the fall.

Our yard is now very lively with wildlife. The birds like to hide and scratch in the numerous flower beds and to perch on the very tall Maximilian sunflowers and banana trees. Catbirds and mockingbirds--as well as cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers--peck at the figs as soon as they begin to ripen. We have noted numerous juvenile birds at our bird feeders: cardinals, titmice, Eastern towhees, brown thrashers. And one morning we watched a mother bunny nursing her young bunny near a brush pile Tom left unburned when he realized the baby bunny was living in it. That brush will probably stay in our yard until winter--or at least until we're sure the bunny has moved out. Tom created brush piles on the margins of our property, in the understory, hoping that the bunny would find those less obtrusive piles more suitable for hiding from red-tailed hawks and other predators.
Maximilian sunflowers began to bloom in late July.
Younger black-eyed Susan plants near the patio bloomed in the spring and again in the summer, but these older plants, planted near rosemary and salvia in full sun, did not bloom until July.
back yard, late July
Last year I kept a closer watch on the pollinators that visited our yard, as I wanted to learn what plants attracted which pollinators, and I encountered all kinds of surprising creatures lurking in my herb and flower beds. I checked my mountain mint patch several times a day. This year I have noticed less pollinator diversity, but that might be because I have been a little less observant. The mountain mint is covered with honeybees most days, and a few bumble bees and tiny wasps, but I have yet to spy an ambush bug or scarlet-bodied wasp moth, both of which I discovered and identified in the mountain mint patch last year.
black swallowtail caterpillar on flat-leaf parsley growing near our patio
black swallowtail butterfly, I think, though other butterflies are often mistaken for it-- photo taken in July
may be a pinevine swallowtail, photo taken in late July
yellow swallowtail butterfly, late July
bumblebee clinging to the bottom of a spotted horsemint leaf, planted in a pot near our patio
honeybee on zinnia flower, late July
I continue to add new flower beds to our 1-acre yard and to monitor the wild flower plants that spring up in the bushier southern lot and along the northern edge of our acre, where I have allowed what I think is fall-flowering aster to proliferate, along with goldenrod. The garden is a respite from Louisiana politics and St. Tammany Parish's boorish commercial culture of parking lots and strip malls. (Downtowns are often nice, though, with old homes, occasional festivals, and farmers' markets.) But I've never enjoyed the heat and humidity of the South--even as a child in southeast Texas, near Houston and the Gulf Coast--and I always look forward to the cooler weather of fall.
The stump of a water oak we had cut down last summer is now surrounded by a flower bed with black-eyed Susans, yellow lantana, and Confederate Rose. By next summer, these plants should fill out the flower bed.
Another water oak stump is surrounded by a flower bed in which Tom planted native Turk's Cap (at the eastern edge of its range), and I have planted native fall asters and yellow lantana. The Turk's Cap will grow into large bushes.
Turk's cap flower'

Monday, June 16, 2014

June: Gardening as Process

Our back yard, mid-June
Last year the bamboo-covered lot across our dead-end street sold. The lot was cleared of its forest of bamboo, brush, and pine trees, and our little street become much less private as I could now stand on my front porch and see houses on the street beyond ours. For months the house made its slow progress from cleared and leveled ground to roof. Monsoon-like rains fell and made a muddy mess of the tiny yard; trucks parked on its margins, compacting the ground. Then, one day, the house was finished, the new neighbors moved in, and workers showed up to put in a lawn. And that's what they did in one day, arranging neatly trimmed squares of sod and grass all around the house. By evening, our neighbor was watering his grass. By the next morning, the precisely-edged lawn looked as if it had been established for months. Within a couple of weeks, our neighbor was mowing his grass. The house and lawn stood out among its nearby neighbors like a princess among peasants, its suburban perfection at odds with some of the more scruffy elements of the neighborhood.

One resident of the neighborhood had watched the process in awe. "Only in America," she said. "An instant lawn in a day. What a wonderful country!"

In contrast, our yard has been a slow work in progress, and at times it seems as if the elements will win. Grass has been migrating and establishing roots across our gravel driveway. Days of heavy rains encouraged such rapid growth that plants toppled over. Soaked ground loosened roots. Weeds had a holiday and celebrated all across my herb and flower beds. The south lot, especially, is a lot in transition. Tom is still hard at work chopping into firewood the two water oaks we had cut down last summer. He is making progress, and the wood rack is almost full again after a cold winter, but the area remains littered with remnants of wood and bark. I mow around the piles, but grass grows tall between the pieces of remaining wood and waves gaily across the yard to its neatly trimmed and circumspect neighbor like a friendly country cousin.

Gardening for me is a process, but I recognize--and often sympathize with--the urge to have an immediate end result, to hire others to do the work, to buy mature plants every year and rotate those plants in and out of the garden seasonally. That's one kind of gardening. and more power to those who manage such gardens. But I'm willing to work and wait and experiment.

Two years ago, we decided we would have to have the two water oaks nearest our house removed as they threatened the house in this hurricane-prone country. I imagined the stumps of those trees as being the center of flowerbeds and began raking leaves around the water oaks to compost. By the time the trees came down, the leaves had created a layered humus. I had to wait while Tom chopped and stacked the piles of wood nearest the stumps. Then I began hoeing and shaping the beds, removing some of the cast iron plants to a shadier flower bed near our front gate and getting rid of the more easily removed weeds. What we think are two Confederate Rose bushes sprouted spontaneously in one bed; Tom transplanted Turks' Cap in the other, where I also transplanted some native flowers that had sprouted in other areas of our yard. Virginia creeper, brambles, elderberry, and a persistent native plant with bulbous roots had covered the area around one stump, so Tom sprayed the area with Round-Up so that I could remove the weeds more successfully. Their tangled roots spread throughout the soil, and I spent a day last week--between days of rain--clearing the weeds and loosening the soil. This past weekend I transplanted to that new bed Black-eyed Susans that had sprouted near their parent plants in other flower beds in our back yard. We probably won't see any flowers from those plants until next year.

Gardening in southeast Louisiana is tough, as the heat and humidity challenge one's commitment. We had an entire week of rain at the end of May and the beginning of June, with between 10 and 11 inches of precipitation. During the following days of sunshine, we were out of state, attending a wedding, and when we returned, sunny days were offset again with pouring rain. Afternoon showers are common in June. As the planet heats up, humid areas such as southeast Louisiana are projected to have more precipitation and higher temperatures, and gardeners will have to adjust to those changes. Our entire planet is undergoing a process that will enormously affect the lives of not only gardeners but every inhabitant. I hope we're prepared for the work of adjusting.

An afternoon's worth of weeding and thinning my herb and flower beds
weeded flower and herb beds--lemon basil, borage (most of which did not survive the heavy rains), zinnias, dill, portulaca
The once bushy lemongrass has been reduced to one blade-like plant, which I will probably transplant elsewhere. Black-eyed Susan on the far left; rosemary in the middle; blue salvia trying to take over most of the bed; red salvia, far right
white-blooming monarda (bee balm)
Sungold tomatoes beginning to ripen in our vegetable garden
Yellow squash maturing in our vegetable garden
Spearmint loving its new location

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Garden in May

This year our mulberry tree was loaded with berries, and we have been entertained for over a month by the many creatures that have enjoyed its fruits: possums (including a tiny baby possum I saw eating fruit from the ground late one night), raccoons, squirrels, a box turtle, flocks of cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, cardinals, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, red-bellied woodpeckers, Eastern towhees, chickadees, tufted titmice, and a red-headed woodpecker. Here at the end of May, only a few berries remain, picked over by the brown thrashers and the mockingbirds, the cedar waxwings having migrated to their summer breeding grounds by now.

The bird sighting that most excited me this year was that of a wood thrush in the empty lot east of our property. I often hear wood thrushes singing in the wooded areas near our house and along the Tammany Trace, especially in the mornings and early evenings. Their song is very beautiful to me, ethereal, like a song coming from some magically-hidden forest glen. The birds' reclusiveness adds to that magic, as the brown backs and spotted breasts of the birds offer very successful camouflage in the leaf matter where they scrabble for food. Tom the federal worker heard one singing near our backyard and called for me to get the binoculars. And so I finally got a good look at a wood thrush.

 As the mulberries are dropping, our garden fruit is beginning to set. Tom planted four rows of heirloom tomato plants. These plants tend to drop their flowers early on before finally setting fruit, and I was worried that bumblebees wouldn't show up to do the pollinating. However, most of the plants now have small green tomatoes, and I saw tiny bumblebees working the flowers this week. To entice pollinators to our yard, I leave a corner of the yard unmowed, where white clover, daisy flea-bane, and blue spiderwort grow abundantly. Bees and hoverflies showed up there early in the season. I also planted mountain mint near our garden shed, and that patch of mint is spreading. Its unassuming flowers attract a variety of pollinators.
heirloom tomato plants in our vegetable garden, mid-May
heirloom tomatoes growing in our vegetable garden, end of May
figs beginning to grow on one of our fig trees
 Tom also planted several kinds of peppers and cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, gourds, cantaloupe), but some of those plants have contracted some kind of wilting disease, which I hope won't spread beyond the two or three plants that have succumbed. He recently harvested our garlic, the biggest pods we have grown yet. The onions, however, were underwhelming.
garlic from our garden
I worked hard in the cooler spring months, weeding flower beds, adding plants to beds, planting seeds, creating new flower beds, edging and sprucing up the beds. My red and blue-black salvia are blooming, as is the blue borage I planted for the first time this year, mainly to attract bees. The salvia attracts both bees and hummingbirds. We have had salads ornamented with nasturtium flowers and seasoned with parsley and arugula from my herb beds. The Mexican mint marigold makes a fine addition to salad dressing, and I'm planning on trying out a new liqueur recipe in which the leaves are soaked in brandy. I tried out a scone recipe in which I included the chopped leaves of some of my chocolate mint--very good.
red salvia, back; blue-black salvia, foreground
mint, south side of house
Mexican mint marigold, middle foreground (yellow flowers in late summer/fall), lemon balm beyond, banana trees, rosemary, blue borage (lower right-hand corner)--mid-May
blue borage and garlic, front; zinnias, dill in the back (mid-May)
back yard
The Louisiana legislature has been a great disappointment this year, with its emphasis on criminalizing more behavior and adding more punishment for non-violent drug offenders, with its aggressive attacks on Planned Parenthood, women's rights, and the poor--but my garden continues to offer respite from the idiocy of what passes for state governance these days.


RECIPE FOR HERBAL CITRUS SCONES
(from the 1992 Aug/Sept Herb Companion)

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup butter, slightly softened
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup milk or light cream
2 tablespoons herbs (lemon balm, basil, mint, or sage) minced
grated zest of 1 orange
grated zest of 1 lemon or lime

Preheat oven to 425oF. Lightly grease a baking sheet.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Cut in the butter until the dough resembles coarse meal. Stir in the eggs, then fold in the milk, herbs, and citrus zest.

With a melon baller or large spoon, drop the dough onto the baking sheet. Press the blobs lightly with the palm of your hand to smooth and slightly flatten, and leave about 2 inches between them. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the crusts are light brown. Serve hot or at room temperature, with a hot beverage or milk.

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: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/bee_flies.shtml. 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: http://bugguide.net/node/view/7016
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.