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.

(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: 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!