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.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

There's a Fungus Among Us

When the rains come and come again, as they have recently, the mushrooms follow. One day I look at a spot, and there's nothing there. The next day – swoosh! – there's an outcropping.

So it is in a swath of mosses I cultivate between the back of the house and Big Momma's Garden. This verdant spot of various mosses, which greens up dramatically in the wet season, is punctuated (literally) by fungusses.

This one came in a clever guise. It seems familiar. Maybe it's some movie character I've seen, or it could be from a childhood fairytale. Whatever, as it breaks the soil, it delivers wonder and a smile. And, always the question: friend or invader?

In any case, mushrooms, fungi, fungusses, serve a useful purpose; their surprising presence calls attention to my need to groom my mosses. At the same time, their sudden appearances remind me that no matter how much I try to keep the moss patch neat, clean and pristine, just beneath the surface grows something that demands to be seen.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Don't Care, and You Just Might Succeed

Breaking up is hard to do. I made it clear in a recent post that I was done with growing food. Trying to grow food, I should say.

Like so many break-ups in life, this one just wouldn't stay broken.

During a walkabout the other day, I noticed that a dwarf peach tree in a container had held onto a surprising number of peaches (some simply dropped off or got stolen by unknown varmints before ripening).

Though I'd expected nothing from this tree, I figured why not give peaches a chance. So I paid closer attention. True to form, a few days later, before they were fully ripe, this crop was ravaged by what I'm guessing were trashy squirrels. Wounded peaches littered the ground.

This'll teach me to say something nice about the bushy-tailed rats, as I did in this post from last April. I thought my squirrel-hating days were over, but as it happens, I just hadn't tried to grow something they really, really loved.

I took the few survivors indoors to finish ripening on a windowsill. These pickings were about par for all of my food crops. 

Yes, they were tasty, just as any home-grown food is, assuming you can keep it away from varmints long enough to get a taste of it.

In stealing the peaches, the squirrels broke a couple branches on the little tree. I pruned off the damaged parts and planted the tree, not concerned about whether it produces any fruit next year. I like it for the beautiful red blooms.

After all, I had quit food-growing. This raises a question. Is there some mystical rule that says not caring about making something work makes that something easier to accomplish? 

To that question, I submit Exhibit No. 2: That's a fig tree behind the peach in the ground. For the first time since I got it a couple of years ago, it produced a few figs, ripening one or two a week.

No matter. I'm still done. Planting this peach amounts to re-burying my food-growing career. Which just may mean I'll get serendipitous crops by the bushel. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Long Distance, Give Me 'Bama Begonia

Every gardener I know grows some plant from somebody else. Some of us wait to be offered. Some of us beg; I'm one of those: I see it, I want it, I ask for it. Either way, we're getting passalong plants. I've certainly begged and received a good number of seeds, cuttings and plants. And in turn, I've passed along those passalongs to other gardeners.

Usually, such exchanges are made in person, hand to hand. But one of my hugely successful and prolific passalong plants came by mail, recalling a method favored back in the day – when George Washington would receive plants and seeds from gardeners in America and other countries; a talented gardener, he loved to experiment with unfamiliar species at his Mount Vernon, Virginia, estate.

Well, at my humble country garden in Connecticut, I wanted to see how hardy begonia (Begonia grandis) would do. So, I asked my friend Barbara W. East of Gadsden, Alabama, if she could share some of her considerable stash. Unpacking plants is always fun, but this unpacking was a triumph, as I had failed to find this plant in nurseries here (it's more available now). Triumph blended with surprise as I discovered Barbara had sent some of the white-blooming variety as well as the pink.

Apparently not widely grown in New England, the cold-hardy begonia comes as a surprise to many of my garden visitors. And because this plant is a prolific spreader, as well as a determined migrant, it's all over my space. I've sent plants and cuttings home with gardeners galore. And they continue to pass it on.

Part of this begonia's appeal is its late-summer and fall bloom time. It is the flip side of the Lenten rose's late-winter and spring bloom time. And its beauty goes beyond blooms; the heavily-veined leaves are striking too, particularly when lit by the sun. Moreover, the seed pods that follow blossoms are art themselves, little lanterns that persist for weeks, eventually fading to the color of straw.

And now, with great pleasure, I give you – in living color – Barbara's begonia.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Meatless in Cleveland

Always interested in food off the beaten path, my wife Lyn and I recently saw our learning curve take a delicious turn upward, thanks to our friend Teresa who visited from Minnesota, bringing wild rice grown on a Chippewa reservation.

Teresa's gift came at a time when Lyn and I had just begun a big shift in the way we eat; we've cut way down on meat and gone way up on fruits, vegetables and nuts. In the process, we've learned a lot about soy milk, tofu, seitan and such.

We had already switched from white rice to brown rice, but this wild rice is a whole 'nother taste. Nutty and crunchy, it has a backbeat in fragrance and taste that is surprisingly tea-like. We've been eating it straight, as well as mixed with with brown and red rice.

Long grains filled with taste and protein.
Ironically, concerns recently rose about levels of arsenic in rice (I saw no mention of wild rice). In the world of research, there's always something. My view: Rinse any rice before cooking, and don't eat it three meals a day.

Speaking of excessive behavior, when we made the shift in our diet, I initially had gone all in, cutting out all meat, dairy, poultry and seafood. Lyn knew this was not the way and simply cut back on those foods.

My irrational exuberance was based on my year-long experience as a vegan in the 1970s when I lived in Cleveland. That experience began casually (rooted in curiosity, not philosophy), and it ended casually – on a lovely summer day when neighbors invited me to a barbecue. The ribs were a great, greasy welcome back to the world of carnivores.

During that year of meatlessnes I lost 20 pounds without trying, tallied no numbers on calories or nutrients, not knowing whether I was getting the recommended 55-60 grams of protein a day. Whether I was just lucky or just young, I suffered no ill effects from my diet. But soon after Lyn and I began our new way of eating about a month ago, I quickly abandoned my totally plants approach, believing bad things might happen if I didn't get enough good ol' animal protein. Such is the contrast between youthful unconcern and older bet-hedging.

Too, my decision to go back to some animal protein is based on my belief that good eating should satisfy the soul as well as the body. My daily search for complete plant-based protein was like work, and the taste of some of it was like, well, artificial food.

To name one, there's the fake meat, seitan, made from wheat gluten. On the other hand, tofu, not trying to be meat, tastes excellent when coated with flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder – and sauteed in oil with peppers, onion, mushrooms, carrots, ginger and whatever else taste buds suggest.

Now, as we eat a good many meatless meals, including that protein-perfect mix of beans and rice, and some meals with modest amounts of grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, organic dairy, seafood, I feel assured that I'm doing no harm; I'll get minimal pesticides and antibiotics – and nutrients enough.

Including those from the wild rice, which contains no fat but is rich in protein. And, taste. Life's too short for anything less.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hydrangea Hunt Pays Off, Year After Year

This image is why I love this hydrangea this time of year. Its colors, faded in the way that says elegance, beauty, simplicity, demonstrate nature’s unique design talent. Too, the branch says aging can be beautiful, and the dings and wrinkles are just natural consequences of time and life.

I grow more than a dozen hydrangeas – mopheads, paniculatas, oakleafs – but none with blooms that color up like this in autumn. 

I first saw this color in the fall of 1987 on the Isle of Wight. Back home in America, I tried for years to find that plant, without knowing its name; I only knew the delicious color that made me stop and stare. I could have described the plant to a nursery owner, but I wanted to find it on my own, just as I happened to see it when Lyn and I walked across the countryside that chilly October day. 

At last, I found it. Eight years ago. Thus began an annual ritual of photographing these blended colors that just get better with age. Like fine wine.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunday Visit With Art of Stone

As anyone who knows my garden knows, I love stone. Two gardening buds, Martha and Sylvia, know my garden, so on a recent Sunday they introduced me to a stone man's art in a nearby town.

The stone man wasn't around, but his art spoke volumes. Here's some of it ( I don't know if he has titled these pieces; the names are mine):

Stonehenge becoming

As we were about to leave, I spotted some bricks in a random pile of assorted materials – old, interestingly shaped bricks worthy of collecting, I thought."If you want them, let's load them up," said Sylvia, who knows the artist and clearly knows her way around his "gallery." Back home, I admired the bricks for more than a week before deciding how I would use them in the garden. Here's what I did:

This arrangement is on the mossy area on the back side of the house, near the little pond with the bamboo fountain and the stack of cobblestones.

After asking Sylvia to check my cost for the bricks, I've heard nothing, which may mean these bricks are worth more to me than to the stone man.

 I hope to visit again when he's home. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the treasure that he just may have considered trash.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Update: Triple Cure for Tosser's Remorse

I wrote recently about an orange jasmine I got rid of and the tosser's remorse that followed. The remorse is gone. I have jasmine again. Not one, not two – but three.

I scored big at Ballek's Garden Center, which this year celebrated 350 years at its location here in East Haddam, Connecticut, so close to my home and so well stocked that I am unable to resist my excessive urges.

It wasn't excess, however, that got me three plants. I bought one pot that had three plants in it; they'd been there for years, growing as one. Look:

I could have left the plants alone, but why not get three for the price of one. So, after giving the unpotted jasmine a good soaking in water with vitamin-enriched Superthrive, I assembled my surgical tools and went to work. 

The operation took a good bit of time and care, as I had to avoid damaging vital parts. 

After they were separated, the plants were allowed to rest briefly in the operating arena before being taken to the nearby recovery area.

Working quickly, I combed out and pruned the roots, potted up the plants and watered again.

Mission accomplished; it's all over but the waiting. I'll leave the three plants in close proximity to one another while they get used to the separation. Before they go indoors for the winter, they should be growing and blooming (they already had buds).

Unlike the super-sized jasmine I tossed, these plants are good size but not too big to fit into my new attitude of a less cramped and cluttered indoor garden.

Truth be told, that new attitude is an old broken promise; I do have a history of re-cluttering, especially in autumn when plants begin returning indoors. But this time I mean it. I do not want to have to go on a sparing-down binge – and go through tosser's remorse again.

P.S. Just in case, I bought one more jasmine. For insurance; if my surgery failed, and I lost one of three, I'd get that old feeling: remorse.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What Kinda Language Is This?

I love language. I don't love what's happening to it. I know, I know, language is always changing; I learned that a long time ago as an English lit major. Language is dynamic, and there's a school of thought that believes if it communicates, then it's OK.

By that measure, the current practice of using the word "kinda" fails miserably.

As in, "I kinda disagree." Do you disagree, or don't you? 

Ditto "kind of," as in, "It's kind of wrong." 

Call it the Language of Equivocation.

It may have begun with the overuse of the word "like," as in "She's like, so talented." Is she talented or an imitation of someone who's talented?

Such equivocation shows up everywhere, in conversation of course, and disappointing, in newspapers and magazines. But during a recent ride on the Metro-North train from Connecticut to New York, my eyes couldn't believe what they saw on a poster flacking the state of Maine:


This was so nonsensical, I couldn't figure out what it was equivocating about. 

Trekking over to the state's tourism Website, visitmaine.com, I looked for meaning in the poster language. I wanted to know what The Maine Thing was.

It was kinda not there.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Tosser's Remorse

The other day, Lyn and I went looking for a small lamp that she had decommissioned; she'd belately discovered a use for the little light. But it was too late. It had found its way to the dump.

Enter tosser's remorse.

"I wish I'd kept it," said Lyn, in a rare example of second-guessing one of her tosser choices.

Such remorse happens in many aspects of living, including in the clothing we get rid of, in the tools we let go. And, especially for me, in the plants we edit.

Living in the compost pile, jasmine poses a dilemma.

Exhibit No. 1: After several years of growing an orange jasmine tree (Murraya paniculata), I got tired of overwintering the tender plant indoors; mealy bugs loved it, and it took up more space than I wanted to give it.

So, in early spring, I snatched it from its pot and stashed it in Big Momma's Garden, leaning it upside a tree and giving it no care at all. Passing it months later, I noticed green shoots at the base. Determined to put this plant out of my head and my garden, I moved it to the compost pile.

Buuut, hedging my bets, I stood it up, and I didn't cut it into little pieces to get rid of it for good. Serious tosser's remorse has set in. I began recalling the powerfully sweet fragrance that was so welcome in the living room during cold, dreary months. And how the little white flowers lit up the space around the plant. I also recalled the reasons I'd tossed it in the first place.

The jasmine is still in the compost pile. No additional growth. Increasingly remorseful, I think of rescuing the pitiful plant and trying to nurse it back to health. But, I'm also thinking of whether I need to start fresh, buy another jasmine. Before winter.

Tosser's remorse. Gardener's curse.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Technology Has Stolen the Wonder

Every now and then I drag my 1980s laptop from the closet and look at it, just to be reminded of how long and how far technology has come and gone.

Even before I tickled the keys on that ol' Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 200 at the Los Angeles Times, I had entered the Brave New World of computing at The Atlanta Constitution in the 1970s – a realm populated with IBM Selectric typewriters, blue table-top computers and skillful typesetters handling hot lead.

Trash 80: Gone Dark, Unplugged, but Unforgotten.

Click ahead to now and try to count the computing changes that have taken place during the intervening decades – including the shrinking of gadgets' sizes, even as their functions multiply.

Because my employers were early adopters of technology, I was one by default; at the same time, I loved and still love technology. In some ways, it is the third side of my professional and personal triangle, joining writing and gardening.

While I garden and write without limits, I stop way below the summit of technology's ever-rising mountain of machines. Unlike my wife Lyn, who posted an engagingly impassioned essay – Loving Technology – on her Website, wisewomennow.com, I have no interest in joining the iPhone world, even as I watch her play the thing like a violin. Yes, I share information from that incredibly smart machine, but my dumb phone rings my chimes quite enough, thank you.

Like an observer, I've tried to understand how I went from early eager adopter – from that first truly portable laptop (my earlier Model 100 had a smaller screen), through countless computers, satellite, cable, DVR, streaming video via Roku and Netflix, taste-tailored music on Pandora (I even Skyped. Once) – how I embraced these technological advances and others and now say . . . enough; here's where I stand pat.

What I think happened was, I saw too many people lost in technology, resulting in their losing touch with nature, other people, their own experiences. How many times I've marveled at people recording a moment instead of being in the moment. The ubiquitous art gallery goer snapping a pic of the priceless painting, the tourist in the public garden flashing the open-mouth smile but never focusing on the breathtaking garden design. And, stunningly, a London Olympics torch runner photographing himself.

All this points to a loss of wonder.

Moments, events, places all get filtered through technological instruments. At 71, I'm old enough to have enjoyed times before those filters. At first, technology advanced at a pace that allowed it to blend with wonder; it became a part of the wonder. I marveled when those huge cell phones of the '80s began shrinking to sizes smaller than a brick. And we boys and girls on the bus marveled too when the Trash 80 (a term of endearment among news correspondents but disliked at Tandy Radio Shack) was replaced by increasingly powerful laptops like my workhorse Toshibas, enabling me to create virtually unlimited files without having to delete words before writing more.

Then, seemingly suddenly, this wondrous technology grew exponentially, making it a normal thing now for babies to use speed dial their mothers. And pre-teens travel with more electronic gear than I toted on any news assignment. Taken for granted, all this extraordinary technology becomes ordinary. And though Radio Shack survives, trying to rebrand itself as The Shack, for me it was never as great as when it sold thousands of Trash 80s to us news–chasing road warriors.

Our loss of technological wonder sadly parallels the disappearance of romance. Red, hot, and cool love-song-singing, face-to-face-talking about love and love-making all have faded into quick texts and tweets that lead to the beautifully ironically named . . . hook-ups.

Yes, it is possible that some new techno-thing hottie will come along and ring my bell the way the Trash 80 did on our first date. But I doubt it. Unless that hot thing can create as much bliss as the sight and feel and sound of a tree, a stone, a stream.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Limping Into Autumn

After the summer that was, I'm happy to join the weather-guessers in saying that, meteorologically, autumn begins on the first day of September, not on the twenty-second.

Celebrating fall right now is a way of psychologically erasing some of the pain brought by the hottest summer, including the two-a-day waterings that barely kept some plants alive, especially those in pots. Speaking of which, I decommissioned so many container plants, my compost has become its own special garden, keeping the discards going better than when they were in pots.

There's something about August. It is the exclamation point on a hellish season, and surviving it amounts to victory. Beaten down gardens and gardeners limp to August's end feeling fatigue that is the cumulative effect of months of heat and drought and sapped energy.

So, when I turn the calendar to September, I breathe deeply on early mornings that seem cooler – and often are, as the night-time temperatures no longer default to the debilitating 70s with matching humidity.

The garden revives, too.

With just slightly cooler days and nights, the kousa dogwood no longer wilts. Roses that had taken much of the summer off, begin to bloom again. In preparation for that I gave them a dose of fertilizer in mid-August.

And now September gives me a dose of anti-August. And even on those days when summer, like a movie monster, roars back to life hot and humid, I know in my mind that summer isn't really here; autumn is. The weather-guessers aren't always wrong.