Saturday, March 31, 2012

Boys in the Hood

My helpers

I was so lucky today to have some help. I won't embarrass them by naming names, but there are two guys in my neighborhood, who are the best of friends. They are together all the time and today, they dug holes for me. The Putterer

Dear Soil, Talk to Me, What Do You Need from Me?

Double dug, tilled and composted. What more can I do?

I feel like a Potash-head this morning. Potassium, nitrogen, magnesium, oye.

I am the very model of a garden Major-General. I've information vegetable, animal and mineral, but I'm just so confused.

Plot number 24, by all intents and purposes, should be a veritable vegetable factory this year. It has been lovingly tended to. Last fall, I grew a clover cover crop in it to help build nutrients into the soil. Then I double dug it, turning the rows of clover under to add compost into the soil and to build a fluffy, spacious soil composition that would encourage germination and root growth, and then I added compost to the surface to give it that much more organic matter. Last weekend, I laid over that an additional three to four inches of compost for top dressing. I am, you see, gardening to the letter of the law.

But here's the pisser. I sent soil samples to the University of Delaware the week of March 5th and I have yet to hear back from them. They promised two week delivery, maybe a month if they were busy. But don't they realize that spring is at my throat! I need information, people, and I need it now.

Because, and here's the action I hadn't planned on. Other gardeners at the community garden, after receiving their soil analyses, are putting lime in their gardens!

So, I am a lime lover, I can lime a margarita like nobody's business. People come to my house from all over and are sublimely limed with one of my margaritas. Two, three sips, and I have raised their pH and diminished their acidity, which improves their mood immeasurably.

But for the soil, I don't know my calcium carbonate, from my calcium magnesium carbonate, from my calcium hydroxide, from my calcium oxide. I sure wouldn't want to suffer a morning after from any margarita mixed with that shit. 

Studying my Maryland Master Gardener Handbook this morning, I read that in this state many of "our native soils in unimproved condition are acidic." And that soil acidity is especially deadening where growth is desired. My soil is certainly improved over last year. But my question is what exactly does just the mere applications of compost or organic matter do to the soil in terms of its chemistry? I was under the impression that compost would balance the soil's pH in lieu of chemical fertilizers. Yes?

But on page 64, Marylanders are told that they can mix their soil margaritas with a choice of limestone and dolomite limestone, which are very slow to act, maybe years, or the faster acting hydrated or burned lime. But is that organic? No, of course it can't be. And if you don't get the mixture just right, it will run off and make all the Maryland streams, well, limey.

And as for compost, here I'm reading that you should add no more than a quarter inch to a half inch of compost to turf in year, page 94, but over on page 407, in the vegetable chapter, it says that new garden areas may need four to eight inches of organic matter the first year or two. So that means you are planting young plants directly into compost and not the soil. Can that be good?

I put about five inches of compost into the plot last week and I left it on top of the already double dug soil because I didn't want to destroy the structure of that system. Because you see, I've also read that tilling the soil can severely rupture structure and doing that can take years to repair!

But since my soil test isn't back yet, I don't know if I need to do anything else.

And yet the temptation to plant something was assuaged last weekend, when the master gardener gave me some extra of his plants to plant. I planted those directly into the layer of compost on the top and when I went over yesterday, I was dismayed to see that some of the leaves of the plants had yellowed. Meanwhile, MG's plants directly across from plot 24, were just a lovely green.

I want to die. Just kill me now. Was it the lime? Do I need lime? The Putterer

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Last Days of the Month

A turtle stepping stone stands watch over my greens.

March is over. We're in the final stretch. We closed the magazine. People aren't in the office. It's a time for resting, recovering, readying. I've been living my life on the last days of the month for so long, I don't know any other schedule. My months are always a frantic climb to get it all done, to finish, to sign off, to let it go, to come to a rest and a recover. Even my daughters complied with this schedule. Both of them arrived in this world just days after deadline. Once a friend said to me, "you have no idea what it's like to live without a deadline." The statement stopped me cold. He was right.

I think I'd fall apart. How would you organize your life if you had longer than four weeks of five days, excepting holidays, to finish? The thought is you'd take deeper breaths? Slow down? Me? No way. I might at first, fail completely to get anything done? Would the laundry pile up? The leftovers rot? The weeds and the grass take over? Maybe like in college, after an all-nighter, I'd finally sleep deeply? (Those days are gone forever, I suspect.)

So I took the day off today. I know I'm messing with fire, because that's one day less for the next cycle, but I'm going to pretend for a moment that I have all the time in the world. (Except, in a minute Jim's going to make me drive him to the subway, and Caley will need a walk, and I really need to make those doctor's appointments for Claire, and we're having Friday night here tonight and we're out of wine and limes and cointreau, and I want to go for a run, and mow the lawn, and turn the compost, and go to the community garden to water my greens, and oh what else can I do to turn my day off into a day on?)

It's on that dash, remember the famous line that Jesse Jackson read at Jackie Robinson's funeral, that we live our lives. From the day of the birth to the day of death. The dash on the tombstone is were life lives. Not, the dash from the beginning of the month to the end. Nor, the dash from the start of the growing season to first frost. Nor is it the dash from the chime of the radio in the morning to the droop of the eyelid at night.

I realized, though, this winter as I ordered foundation plants to decorate my new fence in the backyard garden that I might be closing in on the final frontiers of my garden. That after I put in these final pieces, I might be finished. All that would remain is moving plants from here to there, and maintenance. Does that mark an end date or the deadline of my garden. One of my friends asked me what would be next?

What do you do next? When gray sparkles in your hair and the kids are living away more often than home? When you mark a significant anniversary in your career, the kind they give you a cheesy pin for?

What's cool about that dash between birth and death is that it's longer than you think. It's got some time built into it for thinking about possibilities and opportunities. The maybes are kind of exciting. Garden metaphors abound. The tiny green elbow of a future plant poking up through the soil on a crispy, cool spring morning.

But I don't have too much time today to think about that, because really, no matter what you do, there's always a deadline. The Putterer

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A White Picket Fence

A white picket fence makes a plot a home  

Plot 24 is ready for summer. It has a design. It has good soil, amended with about two inches of compost. It is enhanced with stepping stones and a path for accessibility. And it has curb appeal, boasting a proper front entrance and even a white picket fence.

The master gardener who tills the soil in the plot directly across from me was kind about my aesthetics. He calls his a "production plot" and indeed, his is producing. So much so that he had to give up some of his plants to me. I was the lucky recipient of some red leaf lettuce, three brussels sprouts, two each of tat soi, pak choi and an Italian green called minutina. I also dropped in a few sugarsnap pea seeds and some arugula. And at the front fence, three lovely dahlias went into the ground.

And of course, I'll need a new sign—for display of my address and calling card and a whirligig to keep the bird's away they say, but actually, it's really just a pretty flush of spinning colors. The Putterer

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Poking Around to Find Where It All Began

I think what I love most about gardening, besides the act of gardening, is the idea of gardening. And today, I was wondering where that might have first emerged.

Reading, of course. Especially the books I read as a kid. There is something magically transportive in reading about gardens and especially those that make them, travel to them, write about them, or observe them.

My mother was much into reading and had a particular penchant for the 19th century novelist. We were all about Heidi, Little Women, Joe's Boys and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Mom would point out a title and I would dutifully read. I had a spot for literature up in a tree in the backyard. I would climb up about 20 feet from the ground and there was a perfect place where the branches grew into a Danish-designed lounge perfectly proportioned to my ten-year-old self.

"But she was inside the wonderful garden and she could come through the door under the ivy any time, and she felt as if she had found a world all her own."

I wish I could muster the intense focus that I had for reading back then, when I had no responsibility and time stretched endlessly into long, hot afternoons. There was no care in the world. I could be pestered about helping with the housework, but it wasn't my real concern.

Today, when I read, it's always in haste. Hurriedly, I scan headlines, poke around at links, and flip pages from the back of the book to the front. (I've always read the last page first to make sure that I want to go there.) I don't retain too much either. My chemo-wrecked brain feels porous and ideas slip away before I can grasp at them and make them stick. 

But this morning, I'm feeling more retentive and that old feeling of escaping into another world is with me. It's because I am traipsing through a garden of words, some flowery and over grown, others sweet and sentimental, a few terse, but wizened. Here I sit before a fire, early on a Sunday morning. And I'm turning the pages of books, not clicking screens, and reading the words of old world writers, the literary gardeners and their gardens either real or imagined. Reading lazily, never thoroughly, but satisfyingly.

Here's one from Elizabeth Barrett Browning that silences the noise of Internet junk.

As I entered Mosses hushing
Stole all noises from my foot
And a green elastic cushion
Clasped within the Linden's root
Took me in a chair of silence, very rare and absolute.

And for my sleepless menopausal soul.

The Garden at Dawn—Yesterday morning I got up at three o'clock and stole through the echoing passages and strange dark rooms, undid with trembling hands the bolts of the door to the verandah, and passed out into a wonderful, unknown world. . . It was quite light, yet a bright moon hung in the cloudless grey-blue sky; the flowers were all awake, saturating the air with scent; and a nightingale sat on a hornbeam quite close to me, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun. Elizabeth von Arnim, 1899

I have no idea what a nightingale looks like. I'm sure if I've seen one, it passed me by in a hurry. But every book one ever read, surely has a passage about nightingales. I am resisting now the urge to flit away and Google the nightingale and satisfy my need to know. I stay here instead ignorant, but focusing on the words. Is it bird or flower? And the magical nightingale takes on a dream state image, a white feathered ethereal, golden-beaked beauty. Who needs reality when just the word nightingale says it all.

Alice B. Toklas says she had to grow vegetables for Gertrude Stein, but of course she did it all for herself.

The first gathering of the garden in May of salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby—how could anything so beautiful be mine. And this emotion of wonder filled me for each vegetable as it was gathered every year. There is nothing that is comparable to it, as satisfactory or as thrilling, as gathering the vegetables one has grown.

I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. Dorothy Wordsworth

Verily laughed! I'm going to use that in a sentence today. How do you do that? Oh you boorish child, I verily laugh at you. I verily hope you laugh at me. But isn't Dorothy enjoying her daffodils ever so much more than her stuffy poet of a brother, wandering lonely as a cloud?

What a wealth to country children are the dandelions with their hollow stalks, linked into chains day after day, with untiring eagerness, and with the white downy balls, 'The schoolboy's clock in every town,' which come as the flowers fall away, and which sometimes whiten the meadow by their profusion, till a strong gust arises, and scatters them far and wide! Away they float, each white plume bearing onwards the seed at its base, so beautifully balanced, that its motion is most graceful, and its destined place in the soil most surely reached. Anne Pratt

The wonderful evocative meadow. That word. It conjures up so many memories. The fields behind my grandfather's barn. The rolling grasslands that we hiked with the girls on our vacations in the national parks. Even the sports fields where the girls played softball. And dandelions. I had forgotten the game of braiding them together. And the joy of blowing them into each others' faces, not worrying that the seed would land and fill the grass with still more. Who cared if a dandelion grew in the yard?

She remembered what Ben Weatherstaff had said. . . . She did not know anything about gardening, but the grass seemed so thick in some places where the green points were pushing their way through that she thought they did not seem to have room enough to grow. Frances Hodgson Burnett

Poking around in the Secret Garden, that's surely where it all began. The Putterer

Special thanks to Deborah Kellaway's compilation, The Virago Book of Women Gardeners, 1996, Virago Press.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

It's Going to Rain All Weekend

The delicious scent of my vibernum is everywhere.
I am not a photographer, but I can play with the adjustments in my iPhoto software and create some pretty spectacular images. A push, a tweak, a little saturation, some added exposure, a tint, some definition and Voila! Check out my pretty vibernum picture. It looks almost as it does in real life, maybe even a little better? (The image fails, however, to deliver the intoxicating scent of this delicate bloom. It rides on every little breeze.)

I wish I had an extra effects tool for the weather, though. Today, heavy showers. Tomorrow, the same. Over at the community garden yesterday, I hurried to get all of my share of the compost—one cubic yard—into the plot. The compost was delivered to the driveway outside the garden and had to be shoveled into my garden cart and pushed over the wood chip paths and then dumped carefully into the plot so as not to spill into the other plots or onto my central path. I snuck away from work because I knew I wasn't going to be able to get it done on the weekend, thanks to the weather reports.

After it was all done, my friend Anne said, "Aren't you going to plant anything before the rain comes?" Her plot is already neatly growing in rows some onions and parsley and lettuce and even a couple of artichokes that hadn't perished over the winter. Well, no. I wasn't going to plant anything until we had some water in the cistern. But it was going to rain. Hmmm. Change of plans. I could sow some seeds. But I had a party to get to and I needed to shop and shower. So no, I didn't plant.

This morning, though, with the windows open and the birds calling, I woke early and didn't hear any rain. Wasn't too long before my sleepy thoughts turned to gardening. Never mind, that Patsy went out last night and hadn't come home. Pshaw, why worry about absent daughters when I could think about seeds. So I got up and took the dog out, bringing my camera and even before I'd made coffee, I was out in my garden taking photographs and studying the sky. The birds were especially noisy, obviously trying to tell me something. But I wasn't getting their message. A little like the weather forecasters. Rain today! Rain tomorrow! Weekend washout! Maybe! We think! Well, At Some Point! Could Be Just Occasional Showers!

I mean I had plans, people. I was going to not think about gardening this weekend. I was going to read the newspaper. Think about other concerns. Do yoga. Maybe some planks. Get caught up on housework. Watch some basketball with Jim. Go somewhere with Patsy. No, Anne, I'm not going to plant something!

Well, maybe, just a few seeds. Before the rain comes. If it does. Anyway, I can't control the weather, but I sure can crank up the dials on my iPhoto and distort my plants into some crazy-ass images. Here's what I did this morning under a forecast of rain. The Putterer

Sunday, March 11, 2012


My new path.

What else to do on a beautiful Saturday but put in a path. Actually, I did more than that and for that reason, I can barely move my fingers to type this morning. My fingers are connected to the tendons in my biceps and triceps, which are sending sensory snips down to the tips of my toes, but today the garden beckons. I've got more hard landscaping to do. I need to buy more mulch and continue the job of newspapering and mulching the area along the new fence to keep weeds from coming in.

Newspapered and mulched.

I also want to bring all my seedlings out and let them harden off. I wish I could plant them today, but they need about seven days of acclimation. Still,I bought some arugula seed that I'm going to sow and I've got four broccoli plants that I bought at Whole Foods and that can go in. I've already got brussel sprouts and red cabbage growing. I also want to seed the grassy areas with a mixture of clover and grass. And all of this with an hour lost to daylight savings. Never mind the newspaper that needs to be read and the grocery shopping that needs to be accomplished. Life is good. The Putterer

My potting bench.

My new composter.

Another view of the path.

Chives, cabbage, brussel sprouts.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Have I got a Penchant to Putter!

The daffodils are up and so am I.

Boy, am I ready to garden! I was awake this morning at 4:30 and ready to go. It took enormous discipline to go back to sleep.  It's useless to garden exhausted. So now I'm on my second cup of coffee, I've just placed an order for more seeds. I've been so successful growing my first group of plants from seed under the lights that I've order a whole other set; this time annual flowers, nasturtiums and salvias and marigolds. I've also got a couple of heirloom tomatoes, beets and carrots coming too.

It's a beautiful sunny day and I've got a bunch of plans. First, I'm going to go for a run and then I'm going over to the quarry to fill my trunk with a bunch of river rocks to line out my beds and then I'm going to go haul over some pea gravel and lay that into my new path and top off my old ones and then I'm going to go back and haul over some mulch so I can lay down newspapers and mulch out the area near the fence to keep out the weeds and then I'm go to haul over some more bags of leaf gro and start adding organic materials to my home vegetable garden and my flower beds and then I'm going to seed my grassy areas with a mix of clover and grass seed and then I'm going to over to the community garden and pull some weeds and put some chips down on the paths and help lay in some chips in the communal areas. And then I'm going to rest. The Putterer

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Two Soils To Be Tested

Top: Backyard; Bottom: Garden Plot
This is almost as fun as growing tadpoles! Today, I collected two soil samples to be tested by the University of Delaware. I carefully cleaned my tools and bucket and headed over to the community garden, where I took ten spade fulls of soil from different locations in the plot. Next I did the same from eight locations along my new fence. Then I set the dirt out in two trays to dry in the sun.

The two soils each have different jobs to do. The community garden, of course, is my vegetable garden and along my fence, I'll be growing three new rose bushes—Rosa Bonica, Rosa Pinata and Rosa Blaze Improved—as well as some hydrangeas, a kalmia and a fothergilla. The lab asks for information about what will be required of the soil. Satisfyingly, the soil that I collected from the plot was about 150 percent improved over the soil that I started with last summer. When I stuck my spade into the soil, it easily sank deep into the ground without much pressure. Last fall, I grew clover and then turned it over in trenches and then covered it with leaf gro.

Meanwhile, the soil from the fence was dense, buried beneath ivy and full of tough roots and rocks. I had to work hard to break the surface and get the spade into the ground. In many locations, I couldn't really get down to the desired depth of 6 to 8 inches. And the two soils showed a remarkable difference in color. The prepared soil was blacker with traces of clay and the fence soil was more red with hard balls of clay that wouldn't break apart. Tomorrow, I'll measure out one and a half cups from each tray and fill each bag and then mail it off. I'm supposed to have the results back in ten days or so. The Putterer