Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tenth of December and No Hard Freeze

Still growing

No freeze yet

It's just another beautiful day in December. We've had some cold, but nothing cold enough. I can even go out and pick a few more sprigs of Swiss chard for dinner tonight. The hard freeze has so far not settled over us.  The Putterer

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Gardener Tries to Control Time

Growing basil in the cold.

A chill is in the air.

I feel like this is a momentous occasion. It's Saturday, the end of a furiously fast week. It's the first of the season's freezes, at the end of a hectic two-garden summer. It's almost the end of a milestone year that included two graduations and a hell-bent for leather pace at the office. I feel like I'm riding a deranged steed, bareback, yet still holding on.

But yes it's Saturday and just above freezing outside in the garden. And I've started a little experiment to see if I can keep some green growing over the winter. Last Saturday, I bought two basil starters and slipped them into a fresh serving of potting soil and placed a bell jar over them to grow in a sunny spot on my deck. Last night, the first light freeze of the season brought white frost to the grass. Not a hard freeze at all. The Swiss chard is still holding its own and so are the impatiens. The last rose of summer may be singing its swan song, but this morning, I went out and snapped a picture of my basil inside its cozy terrarium. Well sure enough, it's as if I've stopped time and it's the First of May all over again.

Now, would that I could stop time so easily. If I could. Here's what I'd do. This week, I would have stopped the clock on Thursday at about noon. That's when my sweet girl Claire was walking home from her school in Ecuador and a man grabbed her from behind and a women covered her mouth and robbed her of her back pack. Could I have that moment back please, so I could fix it and make it go away?

On Tuesday, I would have stopped the clock at about 12:30 at the gym. That's when the exhilaration in my dance class was at its peak and the beat of the music and the sweet synchronicity of ladies in lockstep brought joy to my heart. Could I have that moment back please, just to savor it and make it last a little bit longer?

At work, on any given day, I wished that I could have stopped the clock just to get ahead on my load. Seemed every time, I finished something, the next thing was at my throat. With a new boss in town, the demand is going to be not only exciting and fun, but aggressively intense. Could I have a little more time please to get it all done?

And now it's Saturday, a beautiful chill morning, sunny outside, my fireplace is roaring, the coffee tastes good. Can I stop the clock right now? The Putterer

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Chilly Tonight and the Lemon Is In for the Winter. Should I Pick It?

My Meyers lemon tree is "in" for the winter.

And so ends the 2011 gardening season. This evening, after working all afternoon at the office—and not in either of my gardens, I quickly hauled in all my plants. The temps are supposed to be in the 20s in some parts of the area and I don't want to take any chances. Our family room looks like a tropical forest. The blueberry bush is poking up over Patsy's head. There's a strawberry plant peeking out from behind Jim and I'm snuggled up between the fig and lemon trees. I pulled the geraniums in too, because I just love the idea of overwintering them again this year, just like Grandma used to.

The question is this. When do you pick the lemon? I read that lemons don't ripen after they are picked and my prize is almost totally yellow. But on the other side of my superstar, there is a tiny patch that is still green. (Its brothers on the other branch are still limey green and likely won't ripen indoors.) So I'm waiting for just the moment. But, when the time finally arrives, what will I do with it? What worthy endeavor will I find for my single lemon? An oven roasted fish dish? Or perhaps, a twist for a late afternoon iced tea. Does a lemon harvested in one's own garden taste any less bitter, slightly more nuanced? The temptation to pluck it has been quite overwhelming these past few weeks. And any time I happen by my lemon tree, my internal iTunes always plays: "lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon, is impossible to eat."

This lovely lemon tree has been giving us such a treat all year. Early this spring, even before it warmed up enough for it to go outside, it was already in bloom. And the scent of its sweet blooms kept our room so fresh. Now we close out the season with that bloom's progeny very soon at the ready.

Now when should I pluck it? The Putterer 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

On Halloween, The Scary Witch is Giving Out Apples

Here's the irony. On Halloween, we buy candy by the bagfuls and give it to the little costumed children who ring the doorbell. Sugary treats that we know aren't good for the little ones are de rigueur. But if we offer a delicious in-season apple instead, we are suspect.

Now I have proposed via my neighborhood listserv that I am going to offer apples and other non-sugary treats to my little tricksters tomorrow night and you'd have thought I was the evil wicked witch of the west.

In fact, I am a witch again this year. It's my favorite costume because I look good in black and because my new hat, picked from a bin at Value Village, becomes me in an ever so wizardry way. It has a dramatic black feather at its brim and a crazy crocked peak.

I went out witching last night at a neighborhood party. A witch gets dressed up for parties by wearing plenty of beads down her elegant velvetine front and drinks rich red Pinot from a skeletal plastic wine goblet. And after imbibing a few, she gets to giggling. Witches hate to be sober especially at the annual neighborhood haunted house party, where down in the basement we creep around in a maze of white sheets and ghoulies and ghosties jump out and grab you and make you laugh even harder, when you aren't screaming.

Well, the kiddies were all dressed in their adorable costumes and I'm sure they are psyched to come knocking tomorrow night, but the subject came up among the adults of what we'll treat our tricksters and that turned out to be rather amusing.

I am giving out apples, said me, the witch. No more sugar, I announced. The stuff is poison. My husband, the lawyer, immediately cautioned me that if anything should happen, i.e. somewhere a child is poisoned by some evil pensioner with a penchant for picking off children using sparkling red apples, I would be suspect. Alas, I countered, let's fact-check it. What if it's a myth? But a neighbor warned that if said child were poisoned and the authorities searched my computer and turned up evidence that I was Googling the words apples and razors, this evidence would send me to the state penitentiary for life.

So sure enough, it turns out according to Snopes,com and Wikipedia, that all those much feared reports of razor blade-infested apples and pin-filled, poison-injected candies that we heard about in the 1970s and 1980s, none of it ever happened. All the safe trick or treating in shopping malls and the X-raying of candy bags at police stations, the media reports, fear mongering, worrying about the safety of our little ones on the one night when we allow them to gorge themselves on sugar is all for naught.

Wait. What? Sugar. Now is that stuff safe? The jury's out on that right now. But it isn't looking good for King Sugar, which, especially if it's fructose, might cause metabolic syndrome and "trigger the process that leads to heart disease, diabetes and obesity," according to the New York Time's 2009 article "Is Sugar Toxic?" by Gary Taubes.

So evil witch that I am, I'm going to be giving out apples and nuts and dried fruits. There are some sugars in those, of course, but likely those are far less insidious and less intensive than the ones housed in the Snickers, the Babe Ruth's, the Tootsie Rolls and the Sweet Tarts that our little kids will bring home in bagfuls. My contribution will be the shiny red apple. Happy Halloween! The Putterer

Friday, October 28, 2011

In the Dark, All Manner of Possibilities

Russian sage has nothing do with this post, because I can't take a picture in the dark.
Dark in the morning in the fall is a dark that just stays put. When you wake up early to get a jump on the day in late October, you can accomplish so much because the daylight just never arrives. My fireplace is roaring and it can't cure the chill, the dog doesn't even show up to keep me warm. I have finished off nearly the whole pot of coffee and still as the clock moves ever relentlessly toward the day, the day just refuses to arrive. So far this morning, I've read most of the New Yorker and I'm thinking I can just sit happily here for another several hours and keep the day at bay.

Outside the threat of an early freeze lurks, but I'm still sure it won't come for another month. This weekend, I have a wide-open dance card. No daughters home. No plans made. Nobody expecting much from me. There is a tiny temptation to go down to the office and get a jump on getting that goSmithsonian Visitors Guide started. But I sure don't want to do that. I could hire some help and clear out the ivy in the back corner by the fence and plan my rose garden for next summer. I want to plant two or three heirloom big bushy beauties to cover the entire slope. I've selected several varieties with sweet scents and rose hips (perhaps, Bayses Blueberry, Belinda's Dream, Chrysler Imperial or Miss Lillian) so that I can make rose hip teas, jams and jellies next fall.

I collected about six pounds of coffee grounds from Starbucks yesterday to take over to the Community Garden. I've got a clover cover crop growing in my plot and I'm wondering if I should turn it under now, while it's still in its early stage and sew in compost and grounds. My friend Anne at the garden has turned each of her beds into billowy piles of rich, dark fluff and I'm envious and want to do the same.

I'm going to go for a run both days because I haven't had any exercise since Tuesday.

I'm going to read travel guides about the Galapagos, because we just booked our trip in December.

I'm going to want to cook cozy comfort foods and a large Sunday morning breakfast.

Maybe Jim will want to go for a bike ride.

And the Sunday Times, I could read every section.

You see what happens when the daylight refuses to show up. I get cocky and think that I might be able to do it all.

The Putterer

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Keeping It In Landscape Mode

I prefer a landscape mode.
I prefer a landscape view on my iPad. I like a magazine layout. I don't want to turn it vertically and see it elongated. Maybe it's because I'm short and I like the ceiling, glass or otherwise, close to my head. Or maybe because my peripheral vision is good and I can see things clearly from my far left to my far right. I said left first, didn't I? I'm not a lefty, I prefer my right hand. But lately my right hand aches, so sometimes I use my left hand, but that's awkward. Don't you hate how everything is political?

I like symbolism and schmaltzy stuff. Cheap birdhouses and silly phrases scratched into garden rocks. I like to buy cheap things, but I prefer to live high end with quality. Still, I can't get past the idea that I can only shop at Sears. Sometimes when I'm at Nordstroms, I feel like I'm crashing a party. I like good design. I think of my Mac as a work of art. But I also like my old white sofa because it's got some stains on it, coffee, pet, dust. It feels good to sit here, because I can't really ruin it since it's already ruined. But it feels good, old, antique, high quality.

I feel fortunate. Like I won the lottery. But then I worry. I  might lose it all in a hurry. One bad decision. One misspoken word.

I feel like I'm stupid smart. I miss things. I don't read things closely. I hurry too much. I have so many opportunities. I can't do it all unless I hurry. But if I slow down, I won't finish. But then, when I think about it, I know a lot. I've read a lot. I'm open to lots of ideas. I'm out there. Bat shit crazy, really. I have a tree instead of a God. But then maybe God resides in the tree. Sometimes when I hug my tree, I feel it pulsing beneath my fingers as if God were giving my a warm hello. That's when I'm slowing down. When my tree and I rest and breath deeply and hear the soft, gentle flow of the water in the stream and quiet still air moves rhythmically from my extreme left to my extreme right. I am religious about my tree. And sometimes, I hear the hymns of my church. I loved church because I loved the music, but now, I don't want to church because it's just another demand to hurry off to.

I'm full of joy. I'm breathing deeply. But I wake up early. My heart aches. Anxiety. My dog is worrying about another storm. I comfort her. I wonder if I really do have intuitive pulses when I wake as if I'm intercepting some strange code that connects through some long severed umbilical cord. My mother to me to my daughters. Do I actually feel someone else's anxiety or is it mine alone?

I am old, but I stay young. My belly is round. My hips thick. My ankles swell (when I fly far). But I can run, I can push up and pull up many times. I can dance at a dizzying pace. I love to be kinetic. Because when I hurry, I get it all done and then I can do more. But then on my sofa, by my tree, I am bat shit crazy, quiet and happy and taking it all in from my far left to my far right and if the sky is falling, it won't hurt too much because it doesn't have too far to fall in my horizontal landscape.  The Putterer

Monday, September 26, 2011

Yelping about Food and Gardens

Garden bounty
We were up in Clarksburg on Saturday, dropping the dog off to be groomed and so with two hours to kill, we thought wouldn't it be nice to go out for breakfast. Both of us were thinking about coffee, eggs and bacon, so I downloaded on my new iPhone the Yelp app and asked it where we should go. Nothing nearby looked promising, but a Bob Evans.

Now Yelp is asking for a review and like all social networks, I already have four new "friends" on Yelp, who include a work colleague, a cousin, an old friend from high school and a gardener. If I write my first Yelp review, these four individuals presumably will see it and I'm a little concerned that my reputation will be tainted for the very reason that of all the great places to eat around the DC area, I will be noted for having eaten first at Bobs.

But never mind that. Here is my review. A bright, cheery facade falsely promising the healthy and hearty. Modest attempt to look clean, resulting sadly in a soggy seat with drizzled drops left behind on my chair from the wipe rag, which was surely soaked in dirty dish water. After swapping out chairs, a friendly waitress came by and gave us a book-length menu filled with every combination of breakfast fare. We read it and couldn't find what we wanted. Two eggs scrambled, toast (Jim), grits (me), bacon and coffee. Waitress pointed out classic breakfast, which we happily agreed to. Out in the parking lot, I watched two couples get out of their car. The girls were beautiful, the boys not so much. The boys had cigarettes, the girls waited with them until they finished smoking. One of the girls continuously tugged self-consciously at her shirt, pulling at it to make sure it was covering her tummy. I sipped my coffee and the blue mug felt warm and comforting in my hands and I closed my eyes and enjoyed the calm of just sitting and waiting to being served. I measured breath going in through my nose and out my parted lips, calling up my yoga instructor's mantra and thinking only if only, I could ever learn to relax and just be in the moment. The food arrived. The eggs were that flat yellow cafeteria material, rubber and tasteless. My biscuits, which came as an un-asked-for side, where oddly white. No integrity. Nothing held them together and they crumbled when you buttered them. The grits, also ghostly white, were soupy and of course, tasteless. I peppered them. Didn't help. I salted them. Not good either. Jim tried dunking the bacon in. But the bacon was rough. It was hard to bite into and when it finally chewed up, little bits of it parked into the crevices between my teeth. I looked around the room, remembering now why I never go to these places and felt sorry for all the people who do. We paid our $20 and tipped the nice waitress.

And like all things in my life, connected and interconnected, the New York Times on Sunday was spot on with their article by Mark Bitman, "Is Junk Food Really Cheaper," which argued that the real cost of preparing good wholesome foot at home, was merely the time and energy it took to do it. Lost to our culture is the desire to make and serve food. And so off people go to Bob Evans to eat ghastly food. Eating and growing and preparing food is a huge part of my life, now. I do it because I enjoy it. And the results are so rich and tasty. That poor girl in the parking lot, pretty but very overweight, her gross boyfriend, baggy pants and shaggy face, sucking on his cigarette. I know, I'm a snob. I'm sorry for judging. I'm sorry, really I am. But oh, if she was my adopted daughter, I think I could help her.

Most weekend, Jim makes me my breakfast. It's his favorite food to cook. That man can scramble an egg that tastes like manna from heaven. The toast is served perfectly hot, dripping with butter. The bacon is salty and a perfect combination of crispy and chewy. He always finds a fruit to decorate my plate, some berries, a melon, a pear. I eat it happy.  Dear Bob Evans, the only thing I can say for you is that I liked your coffee. But I won't be back for any more visits. The Putterer

Friday, September 16, 2011

Making a Plot a Home

This is the entrance to my community garden.

And this is what it looked like in early spring.
Two gardens this summer kept The Putterer in fit gardening form. The community garden on Fenton Street is my new favorite pastime. I got a 10 foot by 20 foot plot in full sun but built on top of an abandoned lot with plenty of nasty stuff in the soil. The county did an awesome job of plowing, prepping and soil testing, but the first year was touch and go. Though after a buying into a share of compost, I did harvest a huge bunch of tomatoes, plenty of basil, some squash and eggplant and pile of pole beans.

Last weekend, I pulled all the tomato plants out. And this weekend, I'm planting a cover crop of clover to help nourish the soil this fall and winter. I'll turn that back into the soil (my back is aching already in anticipation) and next summer, I'll dump a pile more compost in and then, oh what magic will grow there, I can't wait.

But I think the best part of the community garden this summer had to have been my plot neighbors. I got so lucky because I'm just across the path from Gordon Clark, our resident master gardener and just up the way from Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener. I have new friends Anne McDermott and Pamela Trochesset and Colette Rausch and Natasha Hurwitz. The Putterer

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Empty Nests and Spider Mothers

This spring, a mother built a nest at my door. Today, it's empty.
I started this blog in 2009 to collect my crazy ramblings. Here, I record the thoughts that bubble up in my brain, while my hands are busy in my garden. Over the last two years, while my garden took shape (and a few gray hairs grew), young mothers would stop by and tell me how they yearned for time to putter in a garden. My kids, by then, were away from home more often than I cared to actually count. So even as I was a little envious of the children clinging at their knees, I would tell them that we go through phases in our life: childhood, our teens, young adulthood, then parenthood, and finally, gardener.

And the garden is rich with metaphor, fuel for this blog.

This spring, a wren built a nest in the hanging basket at my door and two chicks emerged from eggs carefully laid. If I took a peek, mother bird would sometimes angrily swat the back of my head in a perfectly executed dive bomb from her perch in the nearby crepe myrtle. Despite her warning, I routinely checked on them every time I went in or out my front door. And then one day they were gone. [Full stop, wipe tear here.]

The world has given me plenty of metaphor this past week. We had an earthquake, followed by a hurricane. Monumental events. My house and garden survived both, but they look look like a tsunami hit. All summer, I ignored them, as I sped from shopping mall to box store to specialty shop, spending until my credit card glowed warmly from overuse. Farewell parties. Last suppers. Long talks and long walks. Heartfelt conversations over tea and coffee. It was as if both girls, just like their mother, secretly had a need to shore up and stow away enough nurturing and sentiment to last them the many weeks of their individual journeys.

This morning, I went out to get the paper and a large spider had spun her web straight across my doorway.

Spider mother at my door
You can not ask for more metaphor than this.

"The Spider is an ode to my mother," the artist Louise Bourgeois has said. "She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother."

One of Bourgeois's spider sculptures holds court in the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden on the Mall. I pass it every day on my way to work. Called simply "Maman," her bronz head and thorax hover high overhead and her eight legs drop down around her on the Earth, like pinpoints on a map. Where legs touch down, I've always thought, a child resides. Ever vigilant, spider mother watches over them from on high. When my kids were in school in Maryland and I was away all day at work in the District. I morphed into spider mother. Out there in the world, they were growing, learning, living without me. But I was close enough. (Spider mothers, unlike helicopter parents, are far more nuanced in deciding when they might swoop in.)

Maman's legs now pinpoint further locations on her map. One in St. Petersburg, Florida, the other in Quito, Ecuador, my girls are out there now. And me, I've got some gardening to do. The Putterer

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Smithsonian Catbird Study Reveals A Host of Visitors in My Garden

Earlier this summer, I wrote about a Smithsonian researcher who was in our neighborhood studying domestic cat predation on songbirds. Leah Culp introduced herself to me while I was out walking my dog one day and before long, my garden became a study field. Next to my purple chair, Leah put in a motion-sensitive camera that could photograph both day and night any visitors or intruders to my garden. Last week, the Catbird Study team sent me an email with the above photographs. Two raccoons, a robin and the targeted culprit, a cat, triggered the camera. The good news, my friends?

No Deer! The Putterer

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I Got Lucky This Year

This squash plant volunteered to grow in my garden.

This mystery squash is about 2 inches long right now
Growing two gardens is time consuming and so The Putterer only gets to post on occasion this summer. Yesterday at the Fenton Street Community Garden late in the afternoon after the temperature had dipped from something around 100 degrees to something in the 90s, I spent some time watering my plants. Each bucket of water was infused with some fish fertilizer. I am hoping that the fertilizer will give my poor plants enough nutrition to hold strong through this incredible heat wave and drought period.

I was alone in the garden on Saturday night and so I took a stroll around the place to admire everyone's incredible handiworks. It's truly amazing how in just a few short months a parking lot has become a little piece of heaven. I guess I got lucky when I signed up for my plot. And speaking of luck, growing in my plot is a wonderful squash plant that grew out of a seed that must have been tossed into the compost pile and survived the heat of the pile. I don't know what it is, but if it survives the nasty little squash bugs that ate my other squash plant, I might have some late fall squash to harvest. Here are some photos from the Fenton Street Community Garden.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011


And then finally, it rained!
According to my notes, we did get a little rain on the evening of June 9th, but the last major downpour was May 27th.

Seems like it's been a century.

Last night, the sky just opened up and dumped wet. It was a spectacular performance with waves of light flashes and thundering crescendo followed by periods of quiet pitter patter. I was up for most of it, comforting my poor dog. We sat in the window seat together. She panted herself into a dither, while I tried to wrestle her into some sort of calm. It was of no use.

Sweet irony, as Samuel L. Jackson's read of a new book, Go the F**k to Sleep, has gone viral on the web, that the mother of grown daughters (who, by the way, were out clubbing last night) should have to sit up nights now with her middle-age dog. Admittedly, I have greater patience in my own middle-age years for sleepless creatures. So, there while I sat in the window seat, wishing my dog would go the fuck to sleep, I was reveling in the sweet joy of water returning to our gardens.

I say gardens because now that I hang out in the Fenton Street Community Garden as the happy owner of plot number 24, I now feel anxiety by many orders of degree as worry courses through the blood stream of dozens of gardeners. The lack of rain, I am sure, has contributed to the level of discord as a conversation about what to do over the County's plan to use Round Up at the fence perimeters has escalated into a battle royale on the garden listserv. We are organic inside the fence, but we are Round Up outside. Is it bad? Is it benign? Is Monsanto a devil in green giant garb? The Putterer is on the fence (literally, my plot is right next to it). And I use the evil compound, with great care and caution, in my own garden from time to time to take out poison ivy.

So since we had our last meaningful rain, the Putterer's world has turned many revolutions. Here's a list of my greatest hits.

  • The goSmithsonian Visitors Guide went to press. Yay! I thought I could slow my work day down a bit and collect my thoughts and file my papers, but boy was I wrong. I took the day off today, so I could take seven or eight deep breaths. It just never stops. I love opportunity, but I'm choking on it.  
  • Claire came home from Columbus, a graduate of Ohio State. And then she left again with the car to go get some of her stuff and then she came back again. And then she got her hair cut real short. And the house has just been full of her friends (there's somebody sleeping down in the basement right now). And not only full of friends, but full of Claire. I often say that when she is home, she literally just explodes out of her suitcase. There is the detritus and essence of Claire everywhere you look. I both love it and hate it. But Claire is home and that's all that counts.
  • I had my first colonoscopy. What every 50-year-old must get for their birthday. I won't fully disclose, but the test confirmed my hyperbolic tendency. I am definitely full of shit.
  • Patsy turned 18. And as such declared that she was going to occasionally enjoy a glass of wine at dinner time. I had little say in the matter. When Patsy makes a decision, she does it while pouring the glass.
  • Patsy graduated from high school. And so the biggest high school in the county with some 600-plus graduates and their families squeezed themselves cheek-by-jowl into the rows of seats at DAR Constitution Hall (the very same that denied Marian Anderson the right to sing to its audience in 1939). The crowd represented probably every nationality in the world and this amazing group of kids--who had together received some $9 million in college scholarships and distinguished themselves with dozens of prizes in math, science and community service--while they march across the stage to pick up their diplomas rendered me into a blubbering, nose blowing, snot-swallowing Putterer. When it was all over, we spilled out onto D Street and shut traffic down while we took pictures en masse of our wonderful kids.
And that's pretty much all that has happened since the last time it rained. The Putterer

Saturday, June 4, 2011

"They Love the Rhododendrums"

This morning in my garden, a pair of catbirds had a vicious dispute. I was a witness. Wearing nothing but my bathrobe and slippers, I had gone down to sit in my purple chair with a cup of coffee. The drama unfolding before me involved a cacophony of catbird calls and low aerial combat swoops over the fence and through the rungs of my purple ladder.

I told you all that to tell you this.

My life is wholly related. I am the personification of the world's most complex Venn diagram. Everything I do seems to have some connection to something or someone. As backyard gardener, I am a citizen scientist, trying mightily to understand a miniature ecosystem and my place in it. As Smithsonian writer and editor, I tell stories about the real scientists out there striving to understand our world and our place in it.

This morning, Venn diagram style, those worlds collided. I was out walking my dog and I ran into Smithsonian researcher Leah Culp. She was searching around in my neighbor's bushes. Wearing a Smithsonian Institution baseball cap, her long pony tail poked through the back and a pen was perched behind her ear.

Around her neck, her binoculars hung and she reminded me of guurl version of one of my favorite science adventurers, Roy Chapman Andrews. A pheasant feather in his cap and Mannlicher rifle at his side, Andrews was a dinosaur hunter who traveled to Outer Mongolia in the 1920s and discovered one of the first evidences of dinosaur eggs in their nest. Culp's body was a literal pegboard, sporting field equipment of every kind, a clip board, a tape measure, extra pencils and notepad. And her goal? The catbird. I'd met up with her earlier this week and she had told me about the team of bird watchers that are working all over the DC area for the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center observing the catbird as an indicator species for other songbirds. At work, I have a call out to Leah's boss Pete Marra to do an Around the Mall blog post on the work these researchers are doing.

I told Leah about the catbird drama in my garden earlier this morning and she readily diagnosed the situation as one of "shifting territories." Of course, I thought, it was clear the birds had had some disagreement. She followed me over to my garden to have a look and found in my rhododendrum the makings of a nest. "They love the rhododendrums," she told me. I certainly should have known that, the catbirds are constantly singing to me when I am working in my garden.

I gave Leah permission to come back to my garden and make observations. So you see everything is related. My home garden is now a field research project for a Smithsonian scientist. The Putterer

Thursday, June 2, 2011


It's in the trash!
I am organic, dammit!

But today, I had a weak moment. And not only did I get busted, but there was a camera crew on hand to record it all.

Last night, I was over at the community garden, and after two days of  95-plus degree heat, my tomato plants were looking burned up and anemic. Little or no growth had occurred and I started to panic. So this morning, I went out to the compost pile and filled up six buckets of the good stuff to run over to the garden and give my tomato plants a little extra nutrition. As I was loading up the car, I remembered that I had an old bottle of Miracle Gro in the garage.

I bought the stuff probably about seven years ago. I was looking forward to a prolific garden that year and I just assumed I could achieve that with a gynormous bottle of Miracle Gro. But then that evening, I got to reading all about the Miracle Gro company, which is actually owned by the lawn fertilizer company Scotts. It was just a big waste of money, I learned. Using it in my garden would only contribute to the massive runoff of fertilizers from lawns to streams. Once there, the fertilizers promote algae growth in our waterways, which smothers the fishes and other animals, and well, it's just a disaster all around. So we shouldn't be using Miracle Gro.

I shoved the big bottle into the back of the garage and gave up my fertilizer habit. I was already a compost maker and in fact, I hardly missed the stuff.

Hot Plot
That is until this morning. With my beleaguered tomatoes in mind, I grabbed the bottle out of the garage and thought I might just slip a tiny bit into the soil around my plants.

But much to my chagrin, I was busted. At the garden, the guy with the camera was accompanying the County Garden Coordinator Ursula Sabia Sukinik. They were filming for the county cable channel a story about community gardeners. Ursula, gracious lady and fellow gardener that she is, assured me that I wouldn't need the Miracle Gro and that my compost would do the trick. My tomatoes would shortly be just fine after this heat wave passed. I sputtered out a weak defense, but I was just humiliated.

Ok. I am born again organic. This time for good. While the camera guy interviewed me, we hid the offending Miracle Gro out of site.  Claire and Patsy were there, too. So mother and daughters on TV!

And then when I got home today, I threw the Miracle Gro out.

Ursula, if you are reading this, it's in the trash.

Of course, now I'm feeling guilty about that, too. I mean, how do you throw the stuff out? It's a big old plastic jug; I could and should recycle, but the bottle has to be empty. What should I do with the green little pebble fertilizer inside? The Putterer

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I Know Why the Caged Gardener Sings

I was dressed well, having come from a party, and over at the community garden at dusk on Tuesday night. In my classy sandals and with dangle pearl drop earrings, I was filling up my watering can at the cistern and making trips back to my plot to douse my plants.

As the evening light faded, I was feeling smug and content at my work in creating a vegetable garden in an urban space. We plotters had just gathered for a potluck and shared our stories. I had met most of my plot neighbors and liked them well. This was going to be good.

Another gardener finished her watering and waved goodbye. Realizing I was going to be alone, I asked her to lock up as she left, and then I would follow right behind her.

The last drops of water trickled from my can and now it was dark.
Mosquitoes nipping at my ankles were my first clue that it was time to go. So I grabbed my keys and my sweater and headed back to my car. That's when I realized I might be in trouble. The chain was pulled tight and fastened on the other side of the gate with the combination lock. The other gardener had done just what I'd asked her to do. I was locked in.

Slightly panicked, I slapped my empty hip pockets, knowing full well, I'd left my cell phone in the car. I reached through the fence and tried to angle the combination lock so that I could see it, but darkness and aged eyes were conspiring to make me a captive. I ran to the other gate only to gaze up at the other lock, just out of reach. Back to the main gate, I tried over and over again to get the numbers to line up, but I couldn't make out the notch to see if I was within target. Desperately, I searched the perimeters of the fence for a passing friendly pedestrian. Nada. Even the neighboring park inhabitants (the ones that I feared in the first place, I might

add) had departed.

A car filled with four middle-aged men, their hairy arms perched on open windows, cruised American Graffiti style down Fenton. My saviors, I thought, I ran to the fence to beckon them. Glad that I was dressed well and not shvitzing like a shmendrek, as I usually am after working in the garden.

"Oh car full of aged men, . . .Help me," I called from behind the fence, adding a piercing yelp for emphasis on the "Help!" Wrong approach. The startled bald ones retracted their arms inside their car as it sped around the corner and out of site. Next a tattooed, thin hipster strolled by. I'm old-school. Tats symbolize nefarious ne'er-do-wells. Besides, I was going to have to reveal the secret lock combination to him and he didn't seem the secret-keeping sort. Across the intersection, I spotted a guy on a bike.

"Oh, biker guy," I called. He looked nervously over his shoulder and pedaled away. I began to realize that from behind black prison wires, even a well-dressed gardener seems threatening. A voice calling out from a darkened lot. They all feared what I feared when I asked my friend to lock me in. The mosquitoes thickened along with my worry. Would my husband realize where I was? I hadn't told him.

The story ends well. A nice jogging couple came by and released me from my cage. I profusely apologize for my stupidity. We laughed nervously and introduced ourselves. I got in my car and drove home. Jim was watching the ballgame. Would you have come looking for me in the garden, if I hadn't come home tonight? Nope, he said, I would have figured you were still at the party having fun. The Putterer

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Will the Swiss Chard Like My Cucumbers?

This picture has nothing to do with this post,
but these irises are in bloom now at my fence
in my home garden.

Flash. You know you are really a chronic garden-aholic, when your first thought of the day is whether or not swiss chard is a companion to cucumbers. It was not quite 4:30 this morning when I started pondering my next move in the garden. One thought led to another, including trying to figure out if  I can get a little planting time in this evening after work and before dinner has to be on the table. And never mind, the crush of assignments piling up on my desk at work, which doesn't keep me awake anymore (yay!). I know it will be there when I get back there in the morning.

I am up with the birds again and running around on the Internets searching for the perfect plant to be BFF to my pickling cucumbers. Now, nasturtium, which I plan to pop into the soil just as the edges and around my Putter Fort and next to my neighbor in plot number 25. . . (By the way, I was coming home, waiting at the light on East West Highway next to the Fenton Street Garden. Craning my neck, I could see that the owner of 25 was in the garden. She hadn't shown up at any other time and I was anxious to meet my plot neighbors to either side. I was dressed for the office and it was raining a slow trickle and I actually considered running over there in my heels just to say hello. Plot-aholic!)

Okay, back to nasturtium and cukes. These plants work in tandem with one another. I can plant the nasturtium, as well, on the tomato side of my plot/fort. They will deter aphids and other pests and they will improve growth and flavor to both cucumbers and tomatoes. (By the way, cukes and tomatoes are NOT BFFs (that means "Best Friends Forever". So I have the two plants planted on either side of the fort, separated by my hallway path) And I want good flavor. Besides, I love the taste of nasturtium flowers in my salads. It's always a surprise to my guests when I say, "yes, you can eat that."

But the chard and the cukes are not good mates. Chard wants to be close to tomatoes and beans, not cukes. So any plans for chard have to be reconsidered. Meanwhile, I have this open space next to the cukes. What to do? My friend, Anne, suggests bush beans. I've already got pole beans planted in the back room of the fort. And frankly, I just don't really love beans all that much to have so many growing. Radishes and dill could work. But every time, I've tried to grow radishes, I pull them out of the ground to harvest and something has gone terribly wrong. They never pop out looking like anything I've paid for in the supermarket or at the farmers market. Under my soil, they twist and turn and morph themselves into a terrifying vegetable that looks like an old man's junk. Yuck, who wants that at table?

My friend, Anne, also suggested okra. I have no idea what an okra plant looks like. Oh Miss Google, would kindly show me an okra plant? Holy crap! That one grew to nine feet. Good gracious, I don't think the plot could handle a nine-foot inhabitant. Now, while I love okra and their crazy gooey mess that seeps from their delicious seed-filled pods, every pic I've just clicked on is showing something just a little too gynormous. But the okra is a very good friend to the eggplant and I have eggplant growing that are clamoring to have a buddy. I could try okra at the back fence and if they got too big, I'd just take them out.

Oh, I could do this endlessly. Time to eat breakfast. The Putterer

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Putterer's Plot is Planted

Oh my aching back. Please pass the Advil. I spent, probably, two hours up there yesterday and about three more today. I've got 12 tomatoes, five basil, six pickling cucumbers, two eggplant, 20 pole beans and one squash. And still there's some room for more. I haven't even figured out what can go in the foyer, next to the front door of my garden fort.

Now all I have left to do is plant some herbs, lay in a row of swiss chard, and maybe some bush beans in the back.

The Fenton Street Garden is full of life. I've already met a half-dozen gardeners. I love the social scene--families with little kids, young couples, old couples, master gardeners and novices. It's just a wonderful, wonderful thing. The Putterer

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Plot Thickens

The Putterer's Plot

The front door and the foyer

The Putterer preparing to putter.

Wednesday night after work, I hurried over to the home of a neighbor who had offered up some old timbers—pressure treated wood. They’d been piled up in his yard for more than seven years, he told me, so any leaching of dangerous chemicals would have already occurred. I piled a bucket, a watering can, my red radio flyer wagon, a small rake and a shovel into the car and headed slowly over to my plot (the wood hanging precariously out of the hatchback). Jim came along to help me unload (now he’s complaining of back pain, yikes!).

I had everything I needed, or so I thought. With the car unloaded and Jim gone, and oh yes, Patsy home cooking dinner (bless her) so that I could just work through the evening, it was just me, my plot, a few other gardeners and the desire to get my everything marked and ready for planting before I had to go to sleep and to work the next day.

The posts laid nicely into the shallow trenches I dug out all around the perimeter. One shorter than the other seven easily became the front foundation. Inside the plot, I laid two parallel down the middle to create my path. One more laid horizontal across the top designated the back “room.” That’s when I realized I was building a fort.
Just as when we were kids on a rainy day, we’d push the tables and chairs together and cover it all with a blanket. The compartments within the blanket complex easily morphed into our chambers and hallways. Cozy within, the play fantasies would tumble from our child minds. Here is the door, and here is my room, and over there is my brother’s lair, and my sister’s towered aerie. We’d grab nuts and apples from the kitchen, and hurry back, carrying cheese and pickle sandwiches, to host feasts for our guests in the great hall beneath the blanket. We built forts in every place we played. At my grandmother’s old farm house, we kept two competing forts—girls and boys—under the twin beds in the guest room. On fall days, we piled up leaves and made enormous walled mansions, laid out maze-like across all the yards in the neighborhood.

Inside my vegetable land fort, I traced out a narrow pathway, curving it for architectural effect, through the foyer to the front door. The large room at the back against the fence would be home to my bean tower. Maybe, I thought I could grow beans up the fence with a squash plant at their feet (dare I try corn for a three-sister’s garden?). Along the side, the left chamber would be home for my tomato friends. The right chamber, my cucumber and eggplant aerie.

A woman called from the street, “Looks nice!”

“I’m building a fort,” I yelled back, “Here is the front door,” I pointed with my shovel, “and this is the dining room and the living room.”

She walked away laughing. Crazy lady, I’m sure she was thinking.

Next, I loaded up my red wagon with the mulch chips the county had provided and dumped at the center of the garden. I used these to fill up my center path. The wagon traveled easily over the garden pathways. Back and forth I went, filling and dumping. The leaf mulch, also thoughtfully provided by the county, went into all the beds. And I grew thirsty and my back ached and my arms, covered with dirt, felt heavy at my shoulders.

But oh, so thirsty, and that was the thing I didn’t think to bring over. Water!

Nearby, my new friend Katie was planting her tomatoes in her plot, and she went out to her car and brought back little bottles of drinking water. The cistern in the garden was not yet filled or tapped and so Katie was carefully spilling the drinking water at the base of her tomatoes. I didn’t dare ask. The tomatoes would need it more than I.

I hurried to finish. At home, cool glasses of water and a hot tub to soak in would be my reward once my fort was built. The Putterer