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, August 29, 2011

Irene Carries Us Back to Way Back When

It was a blowdown, not an all-out blowout, and that’s more than OK with me. Irene, the first hurricane I’ve felt up close, left almost 5 inches of rain, a massive power outage and enough branches and leaves in my garden to keep me busy for a while.

But the storm also leaves the lasting experience of having an awesome act of nature become the center of life in ways large and small – and the widespread belief that there will be more to come.

Years ago, I wrote stories for the Los Angeles Times about hurricanes, but that was after they’d gone; I did not live with the waiting, watching and worrying in the days and hours before the storms struck. Nor did I have to deal with the aftermath of those storms.

That changed last week as I read and watched Irene reports with trepidation, trying to gauge what it might destroy, whether we’d need to dash to safety in the basement, whether it would dump enough rain to flood the basement again. Such concerns were enough to keep my wife Lyn and me awake much of Saturday night, so we heard Irene roar in, heard the unmistakable crrraaack! of a tree, the sounds of unknown objects going thud in the night.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Hurricanes & Me: Change in Relationship

Amid the beautiful calm before the predicted Irene, I protect my plants and anything else I can batten down – and I recall my awe-inspiring experiences with hurricanes past.

When I was chasing bad news for the Los Angeles Times as the paper's Atlanta bureau chief, I covered several of these big blows, but, fortunately, I was not in them, not lashed to a tree or pole getting whipped around with wind and rain battering my face. Rather, I metaphorically parachuted into the aftermath and wrote about the devastation that storms had left.

Most notably, there was Hugo, which in September 1989 raked Caribbean Islands and South Carolina, killing scores of people and causing billions of dollars in damage. Like journalists everywhere, my job was to get into places that others had fled. So, I wound up in the Virgin Islands, writing about destruction and death.

Then, as soon as conditions allowed planes to take off from the crippled St. Croix airport, I hopped aboard a tiny plane and headed home toward Atlanta, where I did a touch and go before dashing by car to Charleston, South Carolina. All around this elegant old city, overturned boats littered front yards well away from the ocean, and the hurricane's path up U.S. Highway 17 north was marked by trees snapped in half.

In August 1991, I covered Bob, the most recent hurricane to directly strike New England. I wrote about Bob's northbound path, its grazing North Carolina's Outer Banks, the preparations and apprehensions up the coast.

And, I wrote this from Atlanta, again escaping close contact with a hurricane, in much the way people in many places have seen hurricanes bearing down on them, only to be spared when the storm veers away, blowing out to sea.

Now, for the first time, I am like those people; I know how they must have felt as they waited to learn their fate. I live in the path. I am looking at images of Irene churning and moving north toward my home region, my state. My home. Now, I am wondering whether Irene will slam Connecticut. Or, somehow, not.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

From the Garden Bench: Fall in the Air

I just saw a few reddish leaves on the sourwood. And, the golden raintree's bright yellow flowers have given way to seed pods that are as appealing as its blooms were.

These may be just the normal cycles (or heat-induced changes) for these two, but I seize upon these changes and make them a seasonal barometer. I'm feeling like fall. That feeling recalls a saying of a friend and longtime writer for The Atlanta Constitution; On the first morning without oppressive heat and humidity, Celestine Sibley would say in her column: "There's a touch of fall in the air."
Sourwood: Harbinger, or Heat Stress? No Matter

Never mind whether her morning or mine really indicated the end of summer. It's whether our minds have declared the arrival of autumn. And, if there ever was a summer that needed ending, it's this one.

It's difficult to know what makes this summer so onerous. Maybe it's the unrelenting drumbeat of bad news about the economy, about so many people in so many places trying to kill one another off. Or, the belief that that deadly job eventually will be done by climate change and the natural disasters it'll bring.

Whatever, I'm feeling a need for change. And, as the weather represents powerfully profound change, I welcome any sliver of hope that a shift is in the air. Whether the change is only metaphorical doesn't matter; it's better than nothing.
Golden Raintree Feels Like Fall to Me

Weather experts like to call September 1 the start of autumn, but I felt it less than two weeks into August. When I could water and prune for a few hours, without feeling dazed and damaged from heat. When we could sleep without sweating like pigs – without air conditioning, without having the ceiling fan running on high all night.

To be sure, the rest of August and even September and October could bring back heat and its mind-and body-numbing funk. But I've seen the redding leaves of the sourwood, the fallish seed pods of the golden raintree. The unmistakable shortening of days, angling of sunrays. And, I've felt the barely perceptible sharpness in early morning air.

Whether fall's here or not doesn't matter; I'm there.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Treat a Rose Like This. No, Treat It Like That.

My friend, Anna Davis, nationally known as a fine rose grower, sends me lovely pictures from time to time, and the ones I received the other day are especially beautiful. They come as I anticipate a rose revival in my garden, the time I start seeing more new buds after having so few during the long hot spell. Here's a sampling from the 150 rose plants Anna grows at her quarter-acre Atlanta homestead. There, unlike in my garden, roses never suffer down time.

From the top, they are: Pierre de Ronsard; Nancy Jean; Conundrum; Minniehaha; Soroptimist International; Escapade; Hannah Gordon.
Anna, whose talent earned her the title master rosarian in the American Rose Society, began growing roses 40 years ago, encouraged and influenced by her mother-in-law, "a wonderful gardener." When she's not in her garden, Anna's often delivering speeches about roses, including how to grow them in small spaces. Growing them vertically works well, she advises.

She's so good, she's known to legions as The Rose Lady.

I've learned a lot from Anna over the years, and we certainly share an appreciation for the incomparable beauty of the Queen of Flowers. But, our methods couldn't be more different.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Leaving Sourdough for a New Bread

In the time since I posted a piece on sourdough bread back in March, I've been thinking I should try baking other breads. My sourdough recipes do vary; they call for different amounts of starter, rise times,  flour types. But they're still sourdough. So, I tell myself, maybe a different kind of bread would be nice.

I've gone to other breads before. Several years ago, when I became more comfortable with practicing sourdough, I baked spelt bread and enjoyed the baking and the taste, along with the discovery of this ancient grain. At another point, I made a no-knead bread in a cast-iron pot, using a wildly popular Jim Lahey recipe from the New York Times. Both these recipes called for a little store-bought yeast. The spelt was a one-day bread, while the no-knead bread fermentation time was some 18 hours. The idea was to let time do the work. That one turned out well too, delicious with superior crust and crumb.

Then, there was injera, made with a mix of whole-grain teff flour and all-purpose flour. After several tries I was able to produce an edible version of the spongelike flatbread, but it wasn't even close to what I've enjoyed in Ethiopian restaurants, where I ate my way to supreme happiness, sopping up stews and vegetables with real injera.
Ciabatta Dough Rising, Supported by Folded Cloth

Feeling restless again, last week I put aside sourdough, this time in favor of ciabatta, so-called because of its resemblance to a dancer's slipper. I've bought and loved this bread for a long time, making it a staple of Italian meals, or just with olive oil, cheese and wine. Now, I was ready to try my hand, using a recipe that called for several rises of a wettish dough.

The recipe appealed to me because it included olive oil and buttermilk as optional ingredients. It also called for flouring the dough at several points. By the time I was ready to bake, I knew I'd floured too enthusiastically. Sure enough, when the slippers came out of the oven, they were ghostly, caked with so much flour that I had to scrape off some before we could eat the bread.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Heat Makes Strange Things Happen

How hot is it?

– Well, a little over week ago, Lyn's Prius began flashing its lights and wildly blowing its horn. Around midnight – soon after I'd gone to sleep after working hard in the superheated garden. The auto techies couldn't say for sure, but speculated the alarm may have been set off by the heat.

– Cat Bette uncharacteristically declines to spend the night outside, choosing instead to sleep in the basement, where it's cool. I threaten to join her. Instead, we turned on the central air-conditioning twice in a week, despite our dislike of unnaturally cool air. Friends say the heat's gone to our brains.

– On long gardening days, I drink more than a dozen glasses of water, juice and sports drinks, then go indoors and drink a few more glassfuls, sweating it all out before bedtime.

– Water that comes out of the faucet from the well is no longer ice cold; Its almost warm enough to water orchids.

Speaking of water, there's hasn't been much falling from the sky. It's been so hot in Connecticut (hard to whine when so much of the nation has it so much worse, but we do it anyway) . . . it's been so hot and dry here that trees and shrubs are drooping and wilting, suffering heat stroke – trees and shrubs that never before had done that: dogwood, pine, viburnum, plum, sourwood and others that have been in the ground up to 10 years.

In some ways, I am a Darwinian gardener. I put plants in and water them regularly for a year or so. Then, I let them fend for themselves. That had worked fine up until this year.
It's Been So Hot, Hosepipes Have Had to Join My Watering Crew

Too, whenever I watered, I filled two 5-gallon cans and toted them to the plants, calling it exercise. Lots of exercise, as I have planted an acre of ornamentals. (In one garden years ago, a much smaller space, I dismantled an automatic sprinkling system because I felt it wasted water.) Compared to sprinklers, cans and buckets allow more precision, less evaporation. And, they're less cumbersome than hoses in spaces with numerous trees and shrubs.

Additionally, I have always preferred the cans because they give me close-up views of my plants – especially bonsai, telling me how they're doing, whether they're injured, under insect attack, putting out new leaves or buds.

So, how hot is it?

It's so hot, last week, I bought two 100-foot hoses (or hosepipes, as we used to say in the South).
No Hose Needed; Watering Can Fine When Plants Clump Together

I have been using the shiny new hoses for a few days now, watering the outer reaches of both front and back plantings, using the cans only for groups of container plants. Even as I drag the hosepipes around, cursing these "kink-free" snakes that snag themselves on every obstacle they pass, I know that no matter how much water I put on my garden, with bucket, can or hose, only rain will revive it.

So, I am reduced to watching weather-guessers on television and scanning the skies, searching for promises of rain. I just came in from watering. In East Haddam the skies are gray, inspiring dreams of moisture, real moisture. A thunderstorm? Small shower? Today? Tomorrow? Some day.