Friday, July 31, 2009

Nobel Prize in Garden Blogging Nominations Now Being Accepted

My alphabetized list of suggested categories.

1. Chacun a Son Gout Award – for blogging about your personal taste in gardens that, until you explained, would have been likely to strike others as bizarre, or even disturbing. Also known as the “strawberries grown in tires painted white award.”

2. First Degree Plantslaughter Award – for a post about the most inadvertently cruel murder of nursery starts. Simple neglect doesn’t count – go for creativity.

3. Freestyle Pruning Award – for blogging pictures of topiary that might have been trimmed by a striking longshoreman with delirium tremens. No gum-drop shrubs EVER.

4. Gilding the Lily Award – for blogging about not leaving well enough alone in the garden. You know who you are.

5. I’m Just Saying Award – for a garden post that seemed to make sense at the time, but in retrospect manifests at best the blogger’s twisted sense of humor, and at worst his/her clinical insanity.

6. I’m Special and You’re Banal Award – for a post about the most pretentious groin-grabingly transcendent garden design ever. Extra points for smugness and passive aggression.

7. Moral of the Story Award – for a post that succeeds in refreshing a garden cliché, thereby teaching the rest of us lessons about wildlife survival, beauty school drop-outs, grave robbing, or other obscure topics whose connection to gardens and blogging would have otherwise seemed tenuous or contrived.

8. My Grass Is Greener Award – for blogging about executing a garden idea plagiarized from someone else. Extra points awarded for cloaking your envy with sophisticated disdain.

9. Not My Fault Award – for a garden-related blog post that incorporates a self-deprecating critique of the gardener’s failures, but without including self-pity or homicidal rage.

10. Pride Goeth Before a Fall Award – for a post about a garden ambitiously planted in Spring that turns out by Summer to be more than the gardener could possibly maintain.

11. Squint and It’s Lovely Award – for a post describing a garden that incorporates otherwise offensive elements which, at a proper distance, acquire a degree of sublime beauty.

12. Swing and A Miss Award – for blogging about a boldly attempted, but poorly executed garden vision.

13. That’s Not What I Meant Award – For blogging about the unintended consequences of a specific garden design idea, preferably positive, but consideration given to results that created a mutant strain of Japanese Beetles impervious to any pesticide including napalm.

14. What Were You Thinking Award – for blogging about the gardener’s worst implementation of what seemed like a good idea at the time, but which turned out to be as inviting as cupcakes topped with grease that congealed in the frying pan after Sunday breakfast.

15. Zone Maps Be Dammed Award – for blogging about successfully cultivating an unsustainable garden or plant that has no business trying to survive in your climate zone. (Note this is a high bar to pass because I’ve tried for >20 years to cultivate lilacs (syringa) in Zone 22, and my current attempt still has a few leaves on it’s stunted branches.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Escape from the City

Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will.
- William Wordsworth, The Prelude; or the Growth of a Poet’s Mind

As tempting as the hip urban loft life sometimes seems, I cannot imagine being happy in a high-rise. Even if I had a large south-facing balcony filled with containers and pots of every description, I just don’t see a balcony of potted plants providing any sort of bucolic peaceful oasis of my back yard. Life in an asphalt jungle, no matter how hip or idealized, no matter how good the sushi, how seductive the nightlife, seems to me to be too hard. I’d prefer to spend an afternoon pruning rose bushes or clearing brush, earning the scrapes and bruises and the dirt under my fingernails, instead of earning bruises from bumping into the harsh edges and hazards in the city.

Being somewhat hearing challenged in recent years, I find nothing sinister about the silence of suburbia. The unintended consequence of playing music too loudly back in the day is that I have adapted to the muffled sounds of the real world today, punctuated by the nonsense babbling of a senile person who lives in our house. The background noise of passing traffic on the busy thoroughfare a short block from my backyard provides a sort of background of white noise, punctuated by the noisy birds conspiring to spread the birdseed as far from the feeders as possible. I sometimes hear owls at night, much softer than the sound of car alarms on city streets.

There’s nothing better than smelling the nighttime air this time of year. I live in a Mediterranean climate, 20 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. This time of year we’re getting a bit of cloud cover during the day – they call it a marine layer, but I prefer to call it smog – that moves onshore at night, but not far enough inland as my house. Without cloud cover, the land cools off substantially as soon as the sun goes down – the heat of the day is not held on the ground by clouds – leaving clear chilly nights where the fragrance of eucalyptus trees and night-blooming jasmine permeate the air. I’ve even come to appreciate the occasional earthy smell of skunk as the night critters jostle each other for the water left strategically about the garden.

In contrast, I presume that those city lofts are left sealed against the auto exhaust and car alarms, their inhabitants left with aromatic candles and air fresheners Americans seem so addicted to these days.

The other night, in a major national franchise restaurant, we noted that the small print on the menu warned about food-borne illness eaters risked in ordering dishes with eggs, lettuce, and even antibiotic-saturated beef. Yummy. Even the sushi may be tainted with mercury and other heavy metals meant to be enjoyed best via music, not food. There’s even poison on the night breezes wafting through city lofts – auto exhaust, industrial pollution. Now more than ever, all my senses appreciate my timely escape from the city.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Skirmishes in the Cultural War

“Suddenly, something was slipping away so fast that we had not had time quite to register what it might be. All we knew was that it was irreplaceable. The way ahead seemed dark. Somewhere along the line optimism seems to have perished. Neither of us could identify this feeling of apprehensive melancholy.” Germaine Greer

I’m old enough to revisit my old haunts and realize that was another life, another person. I’m just back from such a vacation with Tech Support Guy, and “apprehensive melancholy” is a fair description of what we brought with us as we returned home.

Once upon a time, I lived in the perfect suburb where all the mommies dressed in matching velour jogging suits and tennis shoes, and enrolled their children to private dance lessons. I once hosted a wedding shower for a neighbor. Invitees included a number of neighboring mommies who brought their inherent superiority along with their gifts. My friend, who was getting married for the second time. also invited a few of the waitresses who worked at one of the local bars owned by an enterprising hippy where she was employed as chief accounting officer. There was a bit of tension between the color-coordinated mommies and the skinny waitresses who were the prototype of women who go out in packs for girls night out, drink a few too many appletinis and yell whoohoo a little to loudly.

One of the skinny waitresses excused herself to secretly do cocaine in the bathroom. When she returned, she did a wonderful impersonation of Julia Child. In an uneven falsetto, this is more or less what she said: “Today we’re going to make toast. First you pour and drink a glass of a crisp white wine. Then, you put two slices of Wonder bread in the toaster, have another glass of white wine, push the toast down, and have another glass of white wine. When the toaster starts smoking, you take a fork and carefully tease the toast up with one hand while drinking a glass of white wine with the other hand.” The impersonation ended in an imitation of a drunken Julie, her speech slurred beyond comprehension, passed out on the floor.

The waitress did a really good Julie Child. By this time, me and my friend both realized there were controlled substances involved. The mommies realized there were aliens in the midst of their private suburb and began to squirm uncomfortably.

Fortunately, the party began to break up about then. The mommies it seemed, all had carpools to pick up from Montessori school, or bridge club, or yoga.

And don’t get me started on the baby shower another neighbor gave my friend later that year. We played that game where each player got a small handful of raisins. Taking turns, we each told of some experience we’d had, such as riding a cable car in San Francisco. As I vaguely recall, players who shared said experience had to give up one of their raisins. The object was apparently to earn the most raisins. So, one player said she’d cheated on her husband. One of the skinny waitresses then proceeded to admit she’d cheated on her first husband. Tossing raisins across the circle one at a time, she continued that she’d cheated on her second husband, her third husband, and her current husband. Good times.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Family Jam

"It was the wise remark of some sagacious observer, that familiarity is for the most part productive of contempt. Graceless offspring of so amiable a parent! Unfortunate beings that we are, whose enjoyments must be either checked, or prove destructive of themselves. Our passions are permitted to sip a little pleasure; but are extinguished by indulgence, like a lamp overwhelmed with oil."
William Shenstone, ‘Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening’ (1764)
Edited and introduced by Stephen Bending & Andrew McRae

My graceful offspring made fresh, organic white peach and saffron jam. Within an hour of her departure the following day, I had opened my jar and enjoyed it for lunch. I put some blue stilton cheese on top and toasted it long enough to melt the cheese and warm the jam.

Here’s the recipe – from Christine Ferber, Mes Confitures:

A scant 3 pounds white peaches. Pr 2 ¼ pounds net
3 ¾ cups granulated sugar
Juice of 1 small lemon
15 threads saffron

Blanch the white peaches for 1 minute in a pan of boiling water. Refresh them in ice water. Peel and halve them. Remove the pits and slice the peach halves. In a preserving pan, combine the peach slices, sugar, lemon juice, and saffron. Bring to a simmer and then turn into a bowl. Cover the fruit with a sheet of parchment paper and refrigerate overnight.
Next day, pour this mixture through a sieve. Bring the collected syrup to a boil in a preserving pan, skim, and continue cooking on high heat. The syrup should be sufficiently concentrated at 221F on a candy thermometer. Add the sliced peaches and bring to a boil on high heat, boiling for about 5 minutes, stirring gently. Skim again if need be. Check the set. Put the jam into jars immediately and seal.

Ok, that’s the recipe. Here’s what we had to do. First, we used a large lemon and doubled the saffron. Next, we had to cook it at least twice as long to get a pretty syrupy set – something we’ve had to do with all Ferber’s recipes. I don’t think she’s lying so much as that she may use jam sugar that has pectin in it - and we can’t get that in the States. Progeny put about half the final mix through a food mill to facilitate spreadability on toast. Finally, Ferber assumes you know all about boiling the jars etc to sterilize them first. We put the jam into the jars and then boil the jars about 15 minutes.

The jam was delicious, and the taste was not extinguished by my indulgence.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Guest posting from SE Michigan

Your volunteer sunflowers reminded me of a photo I had been meaning to share of my own garden volunteers. When I returned from a trip in late June, my vegetable garden (indeed, my entire yard) had become a miniature maple grove. Other than the basil and tomato plants, everything else growing in this photo is a tiny maple tree. (Note the jury-rigged but so far effective anti-bunny fencing, too.) I murdered them by the thousands when I mowed the lawn.

Over the years, I have allowed one or two to shelter and grow strong in the raised garden beds (i.e., in the decent soil I have built above my native clay) for a year before transplanting elsewhere. Successive Arbor Day plantings by kids at the local elementary school had produced a respectable grove of them — before the parking lot was enlarged, alas. Still, a 60-footer remains in the court median in front of my house. The satellite shot shows its form via its shadow. Imagine what our lawns would look like if we did not murder these eager and vigorous multitudes regularly.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Walnuts and Wine

Some writers make their readers feel
Provided with a good square meal,
While others – such a task is mine –
Supply the walnuts and the wine.
A sip of truth – the merest smack,
A pinch of salt, a nut to crack.
- Charles E. Benham, Jottings

The perfect recipe includes a mere sip of truth, the balance of the ingredients being forms of craziness, and various spices. That’s exactly the kind of blogging I aspire to. Why limit yourself to truth when you can blog about alien invasion conspiracies, or spilled birdseed sprouting among the balls?

I’ve been gently moving trowel-fuls of black sunflower birdseed sprouts to sunnier spots in the backyard, and then carefully mulching them against the blistering sun. They began life as sprouts among the decorative garden balls, including the non-reflective repurposed bowling ball trying to look inconspicuous among them.

This is not particularly lovely corner of my yard, but where better to illustrate how well a sip of food fight goes with a sunflower seed to crack? The feeder itself (the white house hanging above in this picture) provides not only opportunistic flowers, but is also the source of loud and messy al fresco bird parties all day long. Birds have poor table (or, feeder) manners.

But my greedy birds go together with sunflowers as well as walnuts with wine.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Serene and Bright

Thy thoughts and feelings shall not die,
Nor leave thee, when grey hairs are nigh,
A melancholy slave;
But an old age serene and bright,
And lovely as a Lapland night,
Shall lead thee to thy grave.
William Wordsworth, “To a Young Lady Who had Been Reproached for Taking Long Walks in the Country”

Melancholy is easy. Serenity seems to be a bit harder, perhaps more so as pale grey hairs begin to outnumber the dark ones. Things fade, as do people, flowers, draperies in the sunny windows, and bones of beached whales bleached by the sun and smoothed by the tide.

So, my hypertufa Pequod is poised on the side of the pond, ready to hunt the elusive white whale. The fish fountain at right only spouts water when the sun shines serenely and brightly on its small solar panel. Apart from the fact that he’s hardly white, he spouts from his mouth rather than his blowhole. So, Melville would probably not appreciate my horticultural tribute to Moby Dick.

Mr. Mosshead has been moved farther into the shade as the summer sun closes in everywhere. I’m not sure if he’ll survive in the south-facing side of the house. While he evokes serenity, he doesn’t do bright. Perhaps I should return him to the spot out front where I harvested the moss. The spot in perpetual shade also gets the direct runoff from a sprinkler head that creates the ideal conditions for moss. Not exactly the lingering summer twilight in Lapland, but perhaps more appropriate to his needs.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


"The soul may be a mere pretense
The mind makes very little sense
So let us value the appeal
Of that which we can taste and feel."
Piet Hein, A Toast

Yep, that’s right. I'm a bacovegetarian. You’ve probably heard of the lacto- and ovo- kinds of vegetarians who also eat, respectively milk products and eggs. Me too. I couldn’t live without cheese, and on my weekly trips to the local egg lady I obtain the most wonderful fresh delicious eggs. Recently Tech Support Guy ordered an egg dish at a local restaurant and we barely recognized the anemic tasteless egg-shaped thing on his plate. He reported that it had a vaguely egg-like flavor, but had hardly any taste at all.

But bacon is, well bacon. Now, don’t judge me. I won't ever eat deep fried Snickers. I can’t stand the things big agriculture does to pigs. Shooting them full of antibiotics within days after they’re born, cutting their curlicue tales off because they pack them so tightly together that they’ll eat each other’s tails otherwise. Feeding them nasty muck and making them stand in their own poop.

We recently saw the movie Food, Inc. which doesn’t talk so much about pigs but will make you cut beef out of your diet unless you’re a soul-dead consumer seeking a slow death from nutritional deficiency and obesity-related diseases. The local county fair is a positive hotbed of irresistible bad food seemingly designed to make you sick and fat at the same time. I particularly love that all the trash cans wore patriotic dress and reminded the overweight customers to keep America beautiful.

So, I pay more to get organic bacon, certified as cage-free or humanely treated. I’ll eat bacon on/in anything: tomato sauce, potatoes sautéed in garlic and bacon grease, buttered toast. I haven’t sunk to coating my bacon with chocolate as they do at the fair, but I’m not saying it couldn’t happen someday. If only I could figure out how to get bacon into my morning coffee, I think I would have invented the perfect food.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Moral of the Story – Making Existential Jam

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
- Albert Camus, the Myth of Sisyphus

I won’t pretend to understand existentialism. I don’t have to articulate the philosophy however, to like what Camus offers. I just love that in the final sentence above, he argues that hope that can be found at the end of Sisyphus’ rainbow. No pot of gold, no pie in the sky, no pretending we have immortal souls. But, instead of despair, we find reason to hope.

My latest obsession is making jam, which I apparently understand as well as existentialism. I’m experiencing some problems there, mostly involved with the last part where the jam is supposed to set up and get jammy. Mine is more soupy. When, despite carefully following the recipe, the stuff doesn’t gel, I begin to despair. I then add pectin, and end up with something rubbery that would make a better hose gasket than toast topping.

While my jam jars boil in the big pot on the stove, I experiment with making labels, which is almost as much fun as making the jam, because at least I can control the result. Someone used to say that if you were an atheist you might as well murder your neighbors in cold blood because the only thing stopping the rest of us from doing that was our fear of eternal damnation. Yeah, that was my Mom, whose faith sustained her, but mostly puzzled me.

The moral of this story? Why, simply that the godless can’t possibly fuck things up worse than the religious fundamentalists who have conflicting Divine Causes to kill and die for. For me at least, it’s easy to imagine us happier without god than to imagine that some day my jam will set.