Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a range of other interests

in the constantly evolving

garden of life.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Garden Tour of Our Shutdown Capital

In some ways, Washington never changes. Watching budget battles always recalls the one that led to partially shutting down the federal government in 1995-1996. As gardening columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I wrote the following piece after visiting the capital city in December 1995. After much wrangling and posturing, a 2011 shutdown has been averted. For now.

Washington – Coming back to this town, where I worked (Los Angeles Times) and lived for about 10 years, has its rituals. They include a long, languid meal at an Ethiopian restaurant on 18th Street. A sushi lunch orchestrated by Kawasaki-san at his bar on 19th Street is a must, too.

And in this city of rituals, one of my most pleasing is a visit to the Capitol grounds, where trees and shrubs, discreetly labeled, along with colorful seasonal flowers, complement the stately elegance of the domed building.

The botanical garden, a short walk downhill from the Capitol, and the arboretum, a quick drive away, draw crowds of plant lovers; that is their job. But the grounds of the Capitol please and soothe in a different way –  a garden that captivates without trying.

So it was on a Saturday in mid-December, the day much of the federal government began its longest-ever shutdown, the second closing of the year. The grounds were beautiful, as always, but that beauty served as a counterpoint to the sad and ugly budget battle featuring Bill and Newt and other Democrats and Republicans – a shortsighted, unstatesmanlike wrestling match that crippled so much of the federal city, angering and frustrating visitors like Lyn and me.

Still, there was the beauty. Like the republic, it endures, let us hope. The beginning of a new year is a time of hope, isn’t it?

As Ronald Reagan’s image makers realized when they moved his inaugural ceremonies to the Capitol’s west front, that side of the building is the most visually pleasing, as it opens onto a view of the Mall and the monuments.

I don’t know if the image people thought about it, but that side also is where the plantings thrive splendrously.

Starting on the House side of the Capitol, we admired Canadian hemlock and Japanese larch. Oblivious to the goings-on under the dome, these trees invited touching and close looks on this mild afternoon. And right next to the Capitol steps, magnolias stood sentry, gazing at the gaily dressed Christmas tree just down the way.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lee May's Garden

Passionately Pruning In Search Of The Essence Of A Tree

 By Nancy Schoeffler nschoeffler@courant.com

"I prune, therefore I am."

Gardening writer Lee May is joking, but he has a point.

Since he and his wife, Lyn, moved from Atlanta to East Haddam in 2001, May has created a fascinating Asian-style garden, using bonsai techniques on his trees and shrubs and incorporating bamboo, mosses, stone, large rocks, small bridges, found objects and sculpture in his unusual, highly personal landscape.
The yard had been an empty canvas, almost devoid of any vegetation except for grass. May recalls that he spent two weeks that autumn looking out each window at the blank slate before digging the first hole.

The first step was putting in a dry bed stream of stone that undulates its way across the front of the house. He also trucked in 16 tons of trap rock, a dark chunky stone he liked for its texture, and placed each one by hand at the entry to the 2-acre property.
May says he planted plants where he thought they might be happy and for his own viewing pleasure, both from within the house and when walking around.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

From Bricks to Bread – a Sourdough Journey

So many passions. Ranging from from gardening to sports to eating and drinking, they are much like digging in the dirt, these passions, bringing people together and making lasting relationships.

When I wrote about gardening and food for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I freely admitted from time to time that I was a much better eater than cook. Now a stay-at-home writer, I still am a real good eater, but I'm working to sharpen my skills in the kitchen – beyond my old menu of delights like sardine salad, steamed crab legs, barbecued ribs, and black beans and rice.

Since those days in the 1990s, I've collected recipes aplenty from newspapers and magazines, using them to prepare dishes from soups to meats. But for the last six or seven years, one food resonates most: sourdough.

Sourdough bread, sourdough pancakes. Sourdough starter. Firm starter, liquid starter. All things sourdough were mesmerizing from the first time I awoke one morning and decided I needed to try bread-making.

The appeal includes the simplicity – and the connection I make with times long past, when people stirred together some flour, some water and some time. Let it ferment and when it ripens into a starter, mix part of it with some more flour, making a dough, which rises and gets baked.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fast Talk Hard on Ears and Mind

Why do so many talk so fast?

I've pondered that question for years, as I've tried to make sense of something said by some young person somewhere. Failing to immediately translate the rapid-fire speech, I respond: "Pardon? Say again. What?"

This linguistic challenge, I thought, was like so many consequences of aging visited on us old people, a.k.a. elders; if you live long enough, there's a good chance that various parts of you will slow down, shrink, weaken, dim, fall down or out. So, my brain's slowed enough to prevent me from computing speedy patter, I figured.

Dirt Road Rides (Smoother) Again

The dirt road is back on track. It never goes away completely, but during the wet season it gets deeply mudded in spots. And, we’ve had a real big wet season.

So, some who use the road as a connector to nearby towns have avoided it for weeks, detouring to avoid the ruts and holes that toss cars and jar bones. Those of us who live on the paved section of the road sometimes avoid the dirt portion, too, but because it’s the quickest drive to certain places, we saddle up and go for the rough ride.

I doubt if I’m the only pick-up driver who sees the road as exercise for the truck, in much the same way that a big snow is a welcome reason to kick in 4-wheel drive and challenge a foot or two of the white stuff. And then kick it back to 2-wheel to see if you can make it through. Little games like this fall into the same category as taking sharp curves that challenge the truck – and refusing to brake because you don’t want to show your brake lights to some kid riding your bumper in a tuner.

Monday, March 7, 2011

You Like That Lamp? Hold On; I Like This One

By the time Lyn and I met in 1985, we both had become accustomed to operating like lone managers around the house.

In her previous marriage she pretty much bought furniture, food and furnishings without consultation, knowing her husband wouldn't opine against it. In my previous marriage, I almost never weighed in on purchases for the home – unless they were plants, which I considered my private passion.

Of course, we both wished for a relationship in which each partner cared equally about what went into the home and into the ground around it. That, we figured, would reflect a caring relationship. We got our wish when we got married in 1987. We also got some surprises.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

At Last, Signs of Spring

Hello Spring. You’ve been a long, long time coming – through a hard, hard winter.

Yes, I know, the calendar says spring isn’t here yet, but I go with the weather–guessers on TV, who say the first day of March starts the season.

Looking out my window, I see signs of a sort. Only a smattering of snow remains. And, temperatures have gone balmy, all the way above freezing. For the first time in a long time, the front stoop is . . .  visible. Along with a whole lot of short plants I haven’t seen since January.
Stones Help Lenten Rose Beat the Cold

Any day now, I expect to discover crocus popping up, along with Lenten rose; already, birds and squirrels are singing and dancing. As is my spirit.

The most fragrant sign of spring is out back, where the witch hazel grows. It’s budded up already, so the other day I cut a few branches, brought them indoors and put them in vases of water, placed strategically around the house.

The sharp, sweet, tangy fragrance now comes and goes here and there – in the kitchen, the living room. And, right here on my desk as I write.

I tell you; if this isn’t spring, it’ll have to do until the real thing comes along.