Monday, January 29, 2007

Ornamental Kale

You can eat kale, but it’s hardly worth the effort. Kale and rhubarb look similar, particularly since there’s hybrid kale with red stems like rhubarb. Both have long gangly stems, like an unkempt celery, with sprawling branches and too-big leafy greens. But between the two I am confused: one you only eat the leaves, not stem, and the other you only eat the stems, not leaves. There’s something about poison. And I can never remember which is which. I think it’s kale/leaves and rhubarb/stems. But in the end, who cares? Nasty dark green leaves, cooked into mush like canned spinach, don’t appeal to me, no matter how you try to add color and seasoning. And don’t even try to explain how nice red rhubarb looks and tastes when added to a strawberry pie. Vegetable-fruit combinations always leave me with a nagging suspicion I’ve been the victim of a bait and switch.

While I’ve managed to acquire a taste for many vegetables as an adult, it’s a taste I’ve had to cultivate very carefully. For example, I’ll never get those green olives with red pimento peppers inside them. My Dad used to order his martini “without the fruit” because he too, fund that the not-quite-bitter taste didn’t add a thing to the martini except perhaps a little latent Vitamin C. Kale is like that, but without the fun of a martini.

But ornamental kale, now that’s a different story. We didn’t plant kale or rhubarb in the veggie garden this year. And we didn’t buy ornamental kale in six-pack pony packs from a local nursery. We planted seeds in October. And here’s the result. The ornamental kale “Victoria Pigeon” adds color and survives the frosty nights without a trace of wilt or frostbite. It looks almost pretty enough to eat.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Where the Back Yard Meets the Canyon

Hidden at the very back of the back yard, unseen from the house and most of the yard, is the remnant of an old pig sty – seen in the left rear of this picture. The giant bamboo I planted years ago (in the right rear corner of picture), is now visible from the yard, peeking over the small rock mountain behind the spa. Over the years, I’ve moved rocks, stumps, and recycled old wooden decking to make some crude steps up the rocks to the right.

One autumn, I dumped a trash-can load of good mulch here – in the spot between foreground to the sunny flat rock in the rear. Then I transplanted succulents who had outgrown their 2 inch pots. No artificial irrigation other than the careless spill from operating the nearby faucet and hose. Our climate – and this location in particular - favors such plump thrifty succulents who can hold water better than a fat girl in a prom dress.

Their south-facing location gets cooked to a crisp in the dry summer, so this is the best season for the succulents living there. The red spikes of the small pencil plant, silhouetted against the white rock in the middle left, have doubled in size. The jade in the foreground doesn’t care if anybody catches its show.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Someday my Frog will Come

Called to early morning prayer by a warming sun, the Wooden Frog abides respectfully, facing east. Mr. Frog sits in the early morning sun dreaming froggy dreams, where once a lovely Japanese princess stood. Behind him, the silent gold koi, slowed to immobility by the previous night’s freeze, make the still-dark surface of the pond sparkle with flecks of gold.

Seems like frogs are a recurring theme in my back yard. Is it because of the metaphor of being rescued by a prince is the defining theme of my life? Nah, I’m already a princess. It’s because frogs occupy a rather unscientifically categorized rung between lizards and fish. Beasts of the earth and beasts of the water: frogs are both. They transform themselves completely from cold-blooded reptiles (again, unscientifically, ok?) to something that looks enough like a mammal to become a prince. That’s more than some people grow up to become.

Friday, January 19, 2007


A nasturtium shows off with virtually no frost damage. Living at the base of the waterfall of the large pond, it may benefit from the higher humidity.

But there’s a better picture here. Squint at the small white blossoms of the alyssum at left. Then take in the larger white rock above the nasturtium, wearing the spiky leaves of the ginger plant draped above it like a bad toupee. I see the alyssum a group of tiny single-celled organisms, gathered before a benevolently smiling full-grown blob. The blob is wearing the orange nasturtium like a bowtie.

Then again, perhaps I should post in the morning, with a cup of coffee beside me, rather than in the evening with a glass of wine.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Study in Sun and Shade

Winder light, fragrantly laden with Vitamin D and warmth, back-lights the small stone lantern. Last night, temperatures were below freezing. This morning, the crisp air invigorates the waking garden. A aeonium, wilted from frost, leans into the lantern, seeking that warmth. The shadowed stone bamboo of the lantern evokes the chilled old bones of an aging gardener.

While I don’t suffer from seasonal light deprivation, dark days of winter can occasion sudden melancholy attacks. But I’ve found a cure.

Today is the day I spend the morning volunteering in the veggie garden: and it warmed me to my bones. The cold stone bones of the lantern will soon be warmed by the sun too, and will share that warmth with its neighbor.

My favorite part of this picture though, is the blurred path leading east into the sun, beckoning in the background. A promise of longer, warmer days.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Three Friends of Winter – and Other Friends of Theirs

In Chinese art symbolism, the three friends are pine, plum, and bamboo, often depicted in Chinese porcelain, paintings, and garden poetry. Years ago, I happened on this motif and it opened up an entire world of plant symbolism to me. Plant groupings, whether in pictures, vases, or in the ground, can convey specific concepts, but only to those schooled in the mysteries of such symbolic groupings. In this particular case, since these three abide in harsh winters, they present an instant metaphor for strength and endurance in the face of age and adversity.

The concept of planting gardens like secret decoder rings made me feel sophisticated and wise. I decided to replicate the three friends at the top of an embankment bordering the back of my yard. Sadly, being initiated in the esoteric Chinese symbolic meaning of these plants didn’t make me an accomplished garden designer. Here is my arrangement in 2004, with the dignified three friends being upstaged by Jesse's pink plastic flamingo in the foreground.

I started with a pine tree, knowing it would be the slowest to grow. I transplanted a tiny seedling from a 2-inch pot – a free gift of the local family Christmas Tree Farm to all customers buying full-sized Christmas trees. Because I didn’t transplant it very well, over the years, it has leaned further downhill to the point where it now grows almost horizontally. This may be just as well, because the embankment sits beneath some primary transmission lines for the local electric company, and they periodically send crews to chop the heads off any trees that threaten to trespass on their wires’ right-of-way. When you pause to consider it however, this is the perfect environment for a pine tree that is supposed to symbolize endurance in the face of adversity. By growing horizontally, the pine tree has escaped the fate of its neighbors who routinely have their heads chopped off in the electric company’s annual pogrom.

I planted a purple-leaved ornamental plum adjacent to the pine, and some black bamboo next to the plum. The plum is pretty ugly, because even if I knew how to prune it sensibly to obtain the beautiful open shapes in Chinese calligraphy, I couldn’t reach it because it perches inaccessibly on the steep embankment.

The bamboo, true to it’s nature, is vigorous. Scholarly students of subtle symbolism say the hollow stalk of the bamboo signifies open-minded tolerance. In my yard, a more apt metaphor would be rampant and uncontrolled imperialism attempting to conquer the entire world, beginning with the embankment and creeping annually further into the small level open yard.

As seen in the picture taken today, the three friends in my yard have been joined by a bunch of metaphorically rowdy companions. Instead of standing lonely vigil on some windswept and inhospitable mountaintop, my pine/plum/bamboo are crowded by jostling eucalyptus, a mallow bush that fully intends to become a mallow tree, a native chemise plant, and an undergrowth of rosemary, jade, and other native weeds.

Instead of conceding that I have failed in my attempt to create a secret symbol of strength in my yard, I choose to consider my effort (like an official of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security referring to our failure to capture Osama actually said) a “success that has not happened yet”.

My bamboo, plum and pine, symbolizing the strength, purity and endurance of cultivated Chinese gentlemen, are surrounded by a bunch of young upstarts crowding out their gentle poetry, and reminding me that we were all young, rampant and loudly distracting once. And that these qualities too, are worth remembering in winter when we have become old and wise.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Mad Gardener's Song: Addendum

Garden gnomes and plastic sprites are tiresome and predictable. But the bare bones of the gingko in winter make a perfect home for my plastic cobra. There he spits, lurking in front of the gingko’s rock. Any garden fairy who ventures into my garden, endeavoring to impart an unseen but magical and mysterious presence, will encounter the red tooth and claw of nature.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Mad Gardener’s Song” by Lewis Carroll:
He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
'At length I realise,' he said,
The bitterness of Life!'

Here’s my addendum:
She though she saw a cobra spit,
Then eat the garden fairy
She looked again, and found it was
A plastic snake so merry.
‘Were gnomes to turn up here’
She said, ‘they’d surely never tarry!’

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Magic Seeds

Last spring, I found a packet of seeds in a local nursery. The seeds were from Renee’s Garden. I’ve always liked Renee’s Garden seeds because the information included is so thorough and well written, but mostly because the illustrations are generally done like botanical drawings.

We planted a few of the magic black bean seeds in one of the raised beds in the veggie garden, next to seeds of a tried-and-true purple Japanese eggplant that tastes as good as it looks, and purple sweet peppers – a purple garden. Sadly, the unseasonably dry heat and the pests that thrived in it deterred the eggplant and nibbled the peppers to an untimely end. But the bean vine put on a show that lasted from March 2006 through the this past week, when I finally pulled out the remaining vines that had succumbed to an unusual frost.

Before I discovered Renee’s seeds last spring, I had never heard of these magic beans or the plant they produce. The description from the Renee’s Garden seed packet says: “Exotic and tropical-looking Hyacinth Bean vines flaunt gorgeious sprays of amethyst and violet blossoms, borne on striking purple stems throughout warm summer weather. The rich hued flowers mature into shiny, flat 3 inch pods that hand like purple patent leater ornaments against the dense canopy of twining foliage. These show-stopping climbers win the admiring attention of all our garden visitors.”

The plant was intended as an ornamental, and it lived up to the description above. At first, we didn’t identify it with a sign. However, it upstaged even the giant sunflowers and rambling and productive summer squash vines, and so many visitors asked about it that we made a sign using the seed packet description, and a scanned image from the seed packet. Although we identified it as ornamental, a visitor from the Philippines told one garden volunteer that he had eaten it as a child, picked when the beans were young and tender and stir-fried with other vegetables – as you would with snow peas.

January is the dream and plan time of the year, when I spend winter afternoons with seed catalogs. Although I’d never heard of this plant before last year, I have noticed it several different catalogs this year, under several different names. I salvaged the last of the dried bean pods and the worn out and weathered sign just this week.

Burpee calls it Dolichos Lablab Violet and identifies it as a heirloom. Together with Renee’s Garden, Park Seeds identifies the seeds as Hyacinth Bean or Dolichos lablab. Furthermore, Park says it is “An Edible Ornamental!“ Select Seeds helpfully provides pronunciation: DOLL-ee-kos, and says it was introduced from Egypt in the early 19th century. Dave’s Garden says the seed is poisonous if ingested, and provides a more complete naming convention: “Family: Papilionaceae (puh-pil-ee-uh-NAY-see-ay) (Info), Genus: Lablab (LAB-lab) (Info), Species: purpureus (pur-PUR-ee-us) (Info).”

Whether or not it is edible, and whether or not you would describe its multicolokred flowers as violet, lavender or lilac, it’s not a plant to use where you want it to blend in unobtrusively. We have carefully harvested dried beans, shelled them and preserved the seeds. It will be back in our veggie garden this summer – together with a new sign. Apart from it’s non-stop show of beauty, who can resist a plant whose names sounds like “blab blab”?