Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Shopping Mall Gardening

“A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure. But he is doing something else that is more important: He is making a vital contact with the soil and the weather on which his life depends. He will no longer look upon rain as a traffic impediment, or upon the sun as a holiday decoration. And his sense of humanity’s dependence on the world will have grown precise enough, one would hope, to be politically clarifying and useful.” Wallace Berry, essay “Think Little” from collection “A Continuous Harmony”

One of Berry’s biggest complaints is how Americans expect “abundance without thrift”. One of his gardening commandments is to put back more than you take. Gardeners eventually learn that secret ecological rule. If you just put more ammonium sulfate on the flowers each Spring, your yard eventually may take on the Disneyland appearance of fakeness with swaths of colors God never intended, banks of bright disposable flowers. And they’ll last long enough for you to take a picture to post on your blog, demonstrating your gardening expertise. Good on you.

But this isn’t seasonal gardening so much as it’s what I call Shopping Mall Gardening: replacing hundreds of 4” plants at least four times a year on those tiny patches between the parking lot and the stores. Amid post-Xmas white sales last month, the mall gardeners were tossing out the bloomed-out poinsettias for begonias who always look embarrassed to be following the bright red pointsettias with their meager faded reddish and white flowers. Soon, when the begonias have done their gelatinous best, they’ll be rewarded by being tossed into a dumpster, and replaced with geraniums in shades of Pepto-pink, just in time for the Spring Sales.

The hundreds of 4” plastic pots the geraniums came in will be tossed on top of the corpses of the begonias, as will, presumably, the empty plastic bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizers. Instead of being returned to replenish the soil, I imagine that the begonia garbage will be barged to Indonesia along with mountains plastic drink containers and dead computers and cell phones with their poison and radioactive parts.

I am far from a careful expert farmer, nurturing the soil generation after generation. But I am a novice composter – putting kitchen waste and shredded junk mail in a small tumbler, and forking it into bottomless plastic garbage cans when it’s halfway ripe. A Master Composter would point out that my compost often smells like rotting garbage, and we all know that’s not right. But compost forgives all sins, eventually turning into my homemade version of “black gold” shot through with shiney short ribbons of non-degradable plastic windows that are all that’s left of the junk mail envelopes.

My garden doesn’t care about that, or about the frequent volunteer tomato and pepper seeds that I sow along with lovely wormy compost. I don’t waste, and I don’t consume mass-produced “color-packs” of short-lived flowers, or potted mums that have been forced within an inch of their life to bloom profusely and to collapse and die in exhaustion. A professional horticulturist I know once told me that Miracle Grow stuff, apart from poisoning the soil with salt, acts like, and I quote, crack for plants. That’s a temptation I – and my garden – can resist.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rainy Day Thoughts

“I felt a Cleaving in my Mind
As if my Brain had split--
I tried to match it--Seam by Seam--
But could not make them fit.

“The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before--
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls--upon a Floor.”

Emily Dickinson, The Lost Thought

I’ve heard of balls to the wall, but I’ve never heard of anybody feeling like balls upon a floor. Well, maybe close – I sometimes feel more like those loose balls of dust that gather themselves into corners neglected by the mop – almost, but not quite, coherently ball-like. Would balloid describe that in-between state? Is that what Emily meant?

It’s rained heavily the past few days. The other night, when warning about the coming storm, the weather dude explained we’d have over 8 inches of rain so far (for the year that begins 7/1/08, but wherein the rain doesn’t fall until January), and that the average by this date is only six inches. He reminds us, as we sit before a toasty fire, we’re still in a drought.

If there was a webcam in my yard, it would be obscured by the green shade-cloth that has come unhooked and is flapping in the strong gusty wind. It’s also cold outside – in the 50F range. I know, that’s not something most people would consider cold, but to those of us who have acclimated to So Cal, it’s winter if it’s necessary to actually wear a coat when you go outside.

Days like these are good days to get lost in thought - as opposed to lost from thought.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mood Swing Threat Level Scale

"In winter, I’m trying to get this Earth Mother vibe going, trying to find my way back to The Garden. Instead of fearing the oncoming darkness of age, I’m trying to go with the flow and wiggle out of some of those anger straitjackets, Try and stop being so pissed, for Crissakes! Embrace your mortality. Here too short and gone too long. So what?"
The Gardener

Here is it:
Red: ThelmaAndLouise Manuver, aka holding hands and jumping off a cliff
Orange: Hair on Fire
Yellow: Pants on Fire
Green: Get out the lawn chairs and watch the pretty lights hurling through the winter night sky.
Blue: Say ‘goodnight to Mr. Pillow…’

If that was the Threat Level Scale for Mood Swings, that’d be mine. And yes, I know. it’s not calibrated correctly. One week ago today, I went off the scale into threat level "Indigo".

Here's what happened. I thought it was today’s date. Since turning the page to February, I’d read the calendar wrong This day last week, I dragged Tech Support Guy up to Pasadena to the Huntington Gardens/Library for a lecture on the language of flowers. K skipped teaching his class so he and J could join us. Turns out, the lecture was next week, i.e. today. Worse: turns out we came on the first Thursday which is free day, and the place was mobbed. Did I mention it rained a lot? A Crap Trifecta.

So, we drove 2.5 hours to get there, grabbed a coffee and a bag of potato chips out of the pouring rain at the courtyard snack cart, and then drove back home, timing it just right to hit rush hour – in the rainstorm. In case you don’t know, rain is to people in Southern Cal, like ice is to Washington DC. It either terrifies drivers into slowing down to single digits on the freeway, or it makes drivers impatient with such slowpokes, causing them to drive too fast. The picture is heading south on Rt 15 between Riverside and San Diego, about 4 pm. Most of the traffic is heading north. I was peeking above the windshield trying to figure out what that wet stuff was that was coming down from the sky. The darker it got, the more drivers we encountered who were as befuddled as I.

So that happened.

Then later, we went to the home brew store and bought a bunch of fresh whole grains. I picked mostly hard winter white and chocolate malt. Then, I saw some lovely mysterious grains: long-rice shaped pale green rye, Dingman’s Special Red; and Vienna Blend - a lovely golden. The aromas alone from the grinding was a delight to the senses.

I use the small-quantity exotic grains to make pungent starters and levains. For example, I use it to add rustic color and crumb to dark spicy Eastern European loaves. Since I buy types and quantities that no sane home brewer would ever conceive of, the clerk (a twentysomething of non-specific gender with lots of tats) was confounded by my choices. Instead of providing reassurance by explaining I bake bread, I smiled, cocked my old gray head, and explained that I brew beer in nano-craft quantities. Wow, I just blew your mind, you young wipersnapper!

So, that happened later, and that made the calendar error ok. Maybe I am hitting the breaks better these days. Note to self, why do we keep using metaphors filled with suicidal precipices, small cars out of control, and no metaphorical driver at the wheel? Then again, who cares? At least I’ve got better airbags these days.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Crazy Salad

"It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of plenty is undone."

William Butler Yeats, A Prayer for my Daughter

At the most primal level, a garden is a refuge from the world. It’s the place where Man meets Nature, and where all the first and endlessly variable and complex relations between the two begin. The Garden of Eden however, was not such a place. In Eden, everything was perfect and unchanging. Since the fall, in earthly gardens, man contends with the endless cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Perfection, if it’s ever reached, lasts mere moments in a garden. A flower at the moment of it’s most lovely bloom, is lovely precisely because we recognize that like all that lives, it will die.

Anyway, I’m not so sure I like the idea of a heaven in the hereafter being a perfect and unchanging garden. Immortal gardens would, I think, lose something vital if they didn’t embody the energy of what we call the Cycle of Frickin’ Life. Winter rain is as much-appreciated part of this cycle. We actually had some hail during a particularly hard rain the other day. - you can see it on the ground in the top picture. In the second picture, Lily is checking out this view from the safety and warmth of the love seat in the living room.

In front of the stone lantern, are the two thin stalks of the red-trunked, green-leaf Japanese maple. In the background, to the right of the old olive tree, you can see the bare branches of the red-leaved Japanese maple, silhouetted in the wet driveway beyond. These trees, including a third out of the picture, were moved from the tsukubai garden in the back yard where the two older trees had staggered through harsh dry summers for about ten years, and were on the point of giving up. Japanese maples are one of the inappropriate plants I insist on keeping alive in my yard against all odds. I’ve given up on lilacs, lilies of the valley and most violets. But I insist that these trees occupy a position of respect in the crazy salad of my garden.

The horn of plenty Yeats is talking about is the myth of the cornucopia, that overflowed with whatever the holder wanted. For example, imagine if you will, an endless abundance of cheesy-poofs as you sat by the fire watching old movies on TV. Then, if you wished for linoleum in a green and white pattern, the cornucopia would presumably provide enough to replace the stained living room carpet, including extra to allow for measuring and cutting mistakes. Is Yeats saying that wishing for such a crazy salad would cause the horn to malfunction? Would it perhaps spit out some malformed green and white cheesey poofs, or cheese-flavored floor tiles? Is he saying women in particular are inclined to prefer such a crazy salad in their lives? Is he saying it’s ok for me to try to cultivate Japanese maples in the harsh Zone 9 climate?

Even if he thinks this would be crazy, he refers to such ladies as “fine women” and that is how I chose to interpret his letter to his daughter. He’s saying, be sure to eat your meat, but also to enjoy your own personal crazy salad, and accept the imperfection and mortality of your garden. Good advice.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Tree of Lights

“She carried a basket
full of flames, but whether fire or flowers
with crimson petals shading toward a central gold,
was hard to say—though certainly, it burned,
and the light within it had nowhere else
to go, and so fed on itself, intensified its red
and burning glow, the only color in the scene.”
Eleanor Wilner , The Girl with Bees in Her Hair

A long time ago, Annie Dillard (In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I think) wrote an essay about a person, blind from birth, whose sight was restored when they were an adult. The problem was, their brain didn’t know how to interpret what their eyes were seeing. Upon seeing a tree, back-lit from a low sun, in the brilliant colors of autumn, the newly sighted person called it a tree of lights.

Wouldn’t it be fun to see something in your garden so new and fresh that your brain didn’t know what to make of it? I wouldn’t want to go blind first, but I would like to be able to see things with new eyes. Especially in this black & white month when there’s nothing much happening outside.