Thursday, June 28, 2007

A message to The Young People

"I am not sure, Miss Worsley, that foreigners like yourself should cultivate likes or dislikes about the people they are invited to meet. Mrs. Allonby is very well born… It is said, of course, that she ran away twice before she was married. But you know how unfair people often are. I myself don't believe she ran away more than once."
- Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance, Act I

Turn your baseball cap around; pull up your pants; stop with the ridiculous tattoos, Stop paying $300 for a pair of tennis shoes. Stay in school.

According to a statistic I just made up for this post, 23% of young people in America today are at serious risk of behaving horribly, drooling uncontrollably, and becoming men and women of no importance by the time they’re 30, because they have been eating too many of those extra spicy Doritos and drinking too much Red Bull and staying up so late playing their violent video games.

Also, don’t smoke under the pansies. Just say no.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Incredible Expanding Gourd AND The Attack of the Giant Caterpillars

“She sat down in a weed patch, her elbows on her knees, and kept her eyes on the small mysterious world of the ground. In the shade and sun of grass blade forests, small living things had their metropolis.” - Nancy Price

Tuesday is the morning I volunteer at the Vegetable Garden in a nearby public garden.In the closing days of June, the morning air still remains cool and soft until well after 8:00 (down here at the 32nd latitude). What a lovely way to greet the day. By the time I quit about noon, it was topping 80.

I harvested a few cherry tomatoes, some small bell peppers, a few delicate strawberries cowering between another ornamental gourd in a raised bed, and a single tomatillo. I patiently stalked zucchini and cucumbers hiding amid the camouflage of their fat stems, beneath plate-sized thirsty leaves. I harvested corn – by climbing in and around the giant gourds that started on a modest hill beneath the wooden tripod where sugar peas are still producing some succulent purple pods, with opaque chartreuse peas inside that look like pearls.

Today, the 4 x 4’ block of corn stalks, including the few immature ears that remain, are sinking into an expanding sea of gourd vines. There is more than one plant out there. Or is there? What if it is a single, mutated monster with at least three different shaped and colored fruits? The gourd vines have overtaken the pea vines, and continue to expand like the Incredible Expanding Blob, which I remember as a giant handful of grape jelly pursuing Steve McQueen. But, where was I?

Another arm of gourd vines reaches out at 90 degrees, behind the herb bowl and surrounding it from two sides. Several solo vines reach around the corn and are now overtaking the interpretive Vegetable Garden Sign, that’s bigger than a doomed rodeo clown trying to distract a charging bull.

After cleaning up, weeding, harvesting and photographing, my final Tuesday morning chore is to give everybody a good soaking and give a big drink to the freshly turned compost. The hose provided a refreshing increase in humidity. Which I guiltily realized, is why we’re told not to water our plants in the hot sun, overhead with a hose. While I appreciated the cooling, I was also washing the harvested vegetables to remove pests. Even so, I felt guilty about wasting so much water to evaporation, with such questionable value to the garden.

I brought home the eggplant, the ripest plums and peaches, the four fattest sweet corn and a bloated Russian red heirloom tomato so sweet it tastes like candy. I left cured garlic and garlic chives, the rest of the corn and fruit and the bigger zucchini and cucumber, plus a few crowded carrots. I was going to let the carrots stay to go to seed this fall, but I couldn’t resist letting some intrigued young teens harvest them, because they couldn’t name guess what the carrot tops were until they gently tugged the long orange roots into daylight.

I left behind a million ripening red grapes that are still tiny and green, as well as green tomatoes and tomatillos in all shapes and sizes. Several passing visitors predicted they would all ripen in the same ten minute window. I got tips from passing visitors about preserving tomatoes, cooking tomatillos, and the name of the green caterpillar in the corn whose name I forgot instantly because I don’t care for creepy crawlies.

And before you call me childish, it so happens that my earliest traumatic memory is sitting on the back steps at Dallas Avenue circa 1952, shucking some corn and having that bug’s ancestor crawl onto my hand and attack! The thing was the size of my thumb – the one I still sucked at the time! Although it’s probably overstating things to assert that this incident is the root of all my dysfunction, antisocial behavior, and inevitable tendency to hurt the ones I love. However, you don’t have to be Freud to deduce that this experience IS the root of my fear and loathing of bugs in general, and green caterpillars in corn in particular.

Later, at home, I stood at my outdoor sink in the backyard, washing the harvest and shucking the corn, I encountered the green caterpillars in three of the four ears I brought home. As I flicked them with my thumb and washed them down the sink, I was strangely comforted to find I reacted with little more than a “yuck” or two.

Perhaps, in addition to all the other benefits to body and soul, at long last, my vegetable garden has given me Closure wrt/ green caterpillars on corn.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Potato Chip Flowers and a Meatball Bush

“I admire what I can never attain - and so we grow; there's no other way.”
- Maurice Hewlitt, Letters to Sanchia
It occurs to me that I don't have to limit my harvest ordinary vegetables like zucchini and tomatoes. I can grow things I admire, even if I never claim to eat them.

Summer in my climate zone permits me to grow all manner of imaginary edibles. So, just because my “White Velvet” okra never sprouted, doesn't mean I can't grow other stuff that I imagine would taste considerably less delicious than it looks. Here are some almost ripe flowers of Potatofolia 'Chipulata' growing amid a small Sausagonaceae 'Boyardeeus' bush.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

…Especially if you are a woman...

"Let us not have a garden of tiring care or a user up of precious time. That is not good citizenship. Neither let us have an old- trousers, sun-bonnet, black finger-nails garden — especially if you are a woman. A garden that makes a wife, daughter or sister a dowdy is hardly Joyous Gard. Neither is one which makes itself a mania to her and an affliction to her family.”
- George W. Cable, “The Amateur Garden", Charles Scribner’s sons, New York, 1914

A kingdom of sea monkeys! An Amazing Pastel Growing Crystal Garden! A magician’s bag of mysterious tricks that will amaze your friends! None of that stuff ever delivered the promise of the picture on the box. Perhaps it’s just as well. These false promises inside the back cover of comic books prepared me for all life’s little disappointments, such as making sub-equal pay for super-equal work.

Which, in turn, prepared me to accept the news that my sunflowers will never look like their pictures on the seed packets either.

No gardener should ever become obsessed with their garden, particularly a “wife, daughter or sister” whose “affliction” may harm her family. Better you gals stick to gardening only so much of the day as you can spare from washing and cooking and cleaning. And don’t forget that there is a real danger, ladies, that your garden may make you look dowdy in your work clothes, or make your fingernails black. Or, oddly, make you a bad citizen. Need I say that if that were to happen, the terrorists would have already won?

These are all fates to be avoided, – or they certainly merited dire warnings in 1914. I find it encouraging to see I’ve come such a long way (baby) and that I can apparently use my precious time to surrender to my primal urges and garden obsessively, or to afflict my family with my dirty fingernails. Take that, EEOC!

This is reassuring, particularly if – like me – you once envisioned a thriving civilization of sea monkeys building tiny skyscrapers in a chipped glass fishbowl. Or if you expected a dazzling perfusion of sunflowers in that sunny corner of your garden, and only one showed up.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Shadow Garden Messages

I heard a cry in the night,
A thousand miles it came,
Sharp as a flash of light,
My name, my name!

It was your voice I heard,
You waked and loved me so --
I send you back this word,
I know, I know!
- Sara Teasdale, “Message”

When I first learned to love to read, I read science fiction. My favorite science fiction theme was time travel. Of course time travel is already possible, but only one-way. A garden is a good place to witness the arrow of time travel pointing into the future.

On a large scale, the sun marks every measure of the seasons as the earth tilts my garden further above the equator in my summer – closer to the sun’s warmth – and rolls it south again in chill winter. On a more modest time scale, the sun marks every measure of a day in my garden by ducking in and out of clouds, and by slowly moving west. In other words, by messing around with shadows.

The arrow of seasonal time brings only tomorrow and tomorrow, but shadow and light still dance as old friends each day. And there is no question of privilege, of one over the other, of conflict between those that have sun and those that have it not. Plants satisfied with their climate thrive, those that aren’t are not invited back. Shy plants that prefer shade, gather beneath sympathetic shadows. Show-offs seeking the spotlight, thrive in the sun’s bright glare.

Gardens, once planted, should evolve slowly and organically, at a spontaneous yet meditatively slow pace ordained by the stars in the sky. And over time, the garden should take over for the gardener, like a science fiction story where some benign futuristic robot relieves his ancient master’s toil.

Gardens permit you to see through the distances of time – a sort of time travel into the past. A shadow is composed of bits of contrast that add up to harmony – between dark and light; soft and sharp; yesterday and tomorrow, and between energy and torpor. Beneath shadows in a garden, you may witness the arrow of time reaching back towards the past.

A shadowed garden is the best place to exchange messages – between travelers who have lived in the garden and those who are yet to live there. A blinding flash of light, a haunting cry in the night, a single shifting shadow – there among still shadows. Whispering their timeless message back and forth: I know, I know.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Troll Garden

We must not look at Goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
- Willa Cather, Goblin Market (from The Troll Garden, 1905)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Laughing Vegetables

“An onion can make people cry but there's never been a vegetable that can make people laugh.” - Will Rogers

This morning, I harvested onions at the Veggie Garden where I volunteer. I brought home some juicy carrots and basil, a few fresh purple and green peas. I’d saved a soft juicy pear to add to the mix for lunch. Mom taught me how to core an apple or a pear, and how to mix it into a salad of yogurt and granola. She cultivated my taste for tangy, sharp, gingery things. As I pared the pear, I pictured me at 15, and Mom about my present age. Back then, I assumed life was a brief trip on a fast train: from Young to Old, or Fresh to Spoiled, or Sweet to Sour.

Strangely and magically, I now find myself standing on the quiet platform of a station between either end of that line. I’m perfectly balanced between beginning and ending. At the “ripe old age of 60” I’m at the stop for Middle Age, Ripe and Pungent. I will not stay much longer, and must be on my way.

‘I’m reminded of an observation by one of the character acts in Tom Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon Show: the Rowan and Martin of American History:

“What Machine is it…that bears us along so relentlessly? We go rattling thro’ another Day, - Another Year, - as thro’ an empty Town without a Name, in the Midnight…we have but Memories of some Pause at the Pleasure-Spas of our younger Day, the Maidens, the Cards, the Claret, - we seek to extend our stay, but now a silent Functionary in dark Livery indicates it is time to re-board the Coach, and resume the Journey. Long before the Destination, moreover, shall this Machine come abruptly to a Stop…gather’d dense with Fear, shall we open the Door to confer with the driver, to discover that there is no Driver,…no Horses,… only the Machine, fading as we stand, and Prairie of desperate Immensity….”

The young Reverend Cherrycoke captured the darkness of the journey, but missed the humor.

As I already know how to cry, I’ve been cultivating vegetables that might make me laugh. Nothing naughty, no smutty Nathan-Hawthhorney allegories that amount to vegetable adultry, as in in Rappacinni‘s Daughter. Something like a sweet tomato is more likely to make me laugh than something phallic and green. And now, I’ve slowed down some, and the rest of the trip looks to be more fun that I’d imagined when I was innocent.

In consideration for a price paid in innocence lost, I have cultivated a much better imagination. Hence the ambiguous allegory of Simone, the immortal plastic alligator, stalking the new black Buddha head at the base of this young pine. I prefer to think they’re laughing with me, not at me.

Furthermore, I submit that the spaghetti squash will make anyone laugh, if not when sown, or cultivated, or harvested, then when eaten. Even the grumpiest, most vegetable-hating child, must laugh – when it appears at the dinner table in the company of tomato sauce and meatballs.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Righteous Indigestion

“If thou art worn and hard beset
With sorrows, that thou wouldst forget,
If thou wouldst read a lesson, that will keep
Thy heart from fainting, and thy soul from sleep,
Go to the wood and hills! No tears
Dim the sweet look that Nature wears.”
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta) is considered a living fossil, having survived unchanged from the Mesozoic period. I was recently reminded what a living fossil I am, when Kevin stopped by to share some of his good beer and grade papers for the college freshman sociology class where he’s TA-ing. Apparently, the generation of students currently undergraduates in college were the collective victims of a state edumacational (sic) system that sucked. This age cohort sucks wrt/writing, to the same degree my contemporaries sucked wrt/geography, or Kevin’s generation (collective victims of “New Math”) often find balancing their checkbooks such a challenge.

So, I got to read this one student’s fifteen-page paper. While universal education is good in theory, it turns out that not every child’s brain is fertile ground on which the metaphorical seeds of knowledge can thrive. Sadly, this student, to paraphrase Longfellow, couldn't read a lesson that would keep the teacher’s heart from fainting.

But, style and substance aside, the real fun is in reading a paper in which the Student, upon reaching the required number of pages, apparently performed a global “AutoCorrect” in Spellchecker, without stopping to review each word. The resulting creative writing makes me wonder if computers haven’t evolved self-awareness. Hilarity abounds.

My favorite mangled phrase was the term “righteous indigestion” which the student used to describe people who were hard beset with sorrows. It also describes how I felt to read a paper written by a representative of the generation who will care for my generation of living fossils when we have forgotten things like the name of the capital city of Columbia.

But for now, I know that the Sago palm isn’t a palm at all. It’s a cyad – a gymnosperm bearing seeds like pine cones that has remained pretty much the same since the Mesozoic age. And, once Spellchecker corrected my spelling of it’s name, I remembered that the capital of Columbia is Bogota.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


"Thou fool! Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom; that idle crag thou sittest on is six thousand years of age."
- Thomas Carlyle

Carlyle probably wasn’t referring to ceramic mushrooms, which presumably had yet to be invented. I can’t decide whether I’m more taken by his concept that mushroom are the oldest art, or by the uncanny number he uses to depict the age of rocks: six thousand years. If Carlyle had meant that literally, it would place him in contention for a blue ribbon in a stupid theory of creation contest. Sadly, today, he wouldn’t be alone.

My backyard – sitting as it does in the middle of a pile of big granite rocks and decomposing granite covered with a thin layer of fine brown dirt in which nothing lives but little black ants – is the perfect setting for container gardening. And containers provide the perfect laboratory to juxtapose plant materials that have no business cohabitating in nature. Like my garish green ceramic mushroom, thriving amid lime green thyme.

I have recently moved my red ceramic mushroom to a new home. A while ago, I made the case that the red mushroom is Fly Amanita (Amanita muscaria) – a poison mushroom. I consider it another relative to Dudley Nightshade – in spirit if not in species.

My recent preoccupation with deadly plants like ceramic poison mushrooms and nightshades in the solanacae family is merely a curious coincidence. Now, enjoy your cup of mint tea, my dear. I’ve whittled you a spoon from my oleander bush to stir in the sugar…

Sunday, June 03, 2007

One Potato, Two Potato

“I am at two with nature” Woody Allen

This is my first try at growing potatoes, and I got this nifty potato bin that is a piece of black heavy plastic with holes and clips that hold the ends together to form a large open-ended tube. I got the basic “Yukon Gold” seed potatoes in the mail and I planted them in March. I’m of two minds as I watch them grow.

On one hand, rather than experiment with fancy Euro-heirloom purple potatoes, I wanted to plant an old reliable to assure we’d enjoy a bountiful harvest. On the other hand, all potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are in the nightshade or Solanacae family – a family tree that has born some deadly ancestors. Who could forget Crusader Rabbit's archetypical villan: Dudley Nightshade?

Not to be confused with Hamhock Jones, the erstwhile postmodern Freudian Ego-Id confrontation personified as the perpetual contest between the hero and villain described by the folks at Bullwinkle.Toonzone as “Dudley Do-Right (A dimwitted Canadian Mountie… and Hamhock Jones”, in the parenthetically described “story of a private eye that had to figure out how to punish a set of Siamese twins, with one good, and the other bad.” Hokey existential smoke Bullwinkle!

But back to growing potatoes. Considering that I was blindly experimenting about growing potentially poisonous things, I probably should have done more advance research.

On one hand, the only potato advice I recall getting from Mom is never buy green potatoes because they’re sunburned. This advice is consistent with the Arizona Master Gardener Manual produced by the Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture, University of Arizona “Green portions on potatoes taste bitter and contain an alkaloid.” On the other hand, according to Purdue University, “sunlight causes a potato to turn green and produce poisonous glycoalkaloids, such as solanine [glycoalkaloid levels of newly released cultivars must be less than 20 mg per 100 g fresh weight to be considered non-poisonous].”

It’s all very schizophrenic, and Department of Homeland Security-ish. Scare me to get my attention, then puzzle and bewilder me into a hypnotic trance. But notwithstanding that Mom was right about the green and sunburn, she was strangely silent on the whole poison issue.

Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet, Horticulture and Crop Science, “Growing Potatoes in the Home Garden” HYG-1619-92 contains a worthwhile but confusing information about harvesting and storage that I’m quoting below so I can refer back to this later in the season.

OSU says, on one hand, that potatoes are ready to harvest no sooner than “two weeks after vines have naturally died down” and they add that “this allows the skins to set and reduces skin peeling, bruising and rot in storage.” On the other hand, like Mom, they scoot right on past the suggestion that “When harvesting at temperatures above 80 degrees F, potatoes should be picked up immediately and put in a dark place. Potatoes exposed to sun and high temperatures will turn green and may rot.”

There’s one final mixed message. The first is some seriously negative feedback - particularly after we’ve followed their advice, and cultivated a massive crop – that we should have thought about suitable long-term storage first. “Most homes do not have a suitable place to store potatoes for more than four to six weeks.” D’oh!

Their final advice about harvesting and storing potatoes is sweetly and hopefully generous. “To store potatoes for several months, the tubers should be cured in a dark place at 60 to 65 degrees F and a humidity of 85 percent or higher for 10 days. After the tubers are cured, keep them in a cool (40 to 45 degrees F), dark place with high humidity. Under these conditions most varieties will not sprout for two to three months.” Great tip. I wonder if those specs conform to the conditions inside a Cuban cigar humidor.

So you can see why, when it comes to potatoes - I’m conflicted as Woody Allen.