Monday, January 31, 2011


            Writing this blog is good for me—makes me do things I’d put off indefinitely if I didn’t have to report on my progress. It’s like when Tim and I agreed to put our garden on the Oak Island tour back in 2003 and then had only six weeks to whip the place into show-shape. It was a hell of a lot of work, attending to all the small but important details we’d let slip. Also reminds me of my house in upstate New York, where the light “switch” at the base of the cellar stairs was a live wire you hooked onto another wire to complete the circuit. After eight years of this shocking make-shift arrangement, we decided to sell the house and had a proper switch installed.

            Funny what you’ll live with if there’s no threat of strangers poking around.

            Anyway, I’ve made some strides since December, and hope it doesn’t matter they all took place since last Thursday.

I ordered composter brackets for a second bin. They weren’t at Gardeners Supply, however, but at Lee Valley Tools’ catalog. The price rose 30% between 2009 and 2011—from $60 to $90—but I sort of promised I’d do something about rendering my lovely if unorthodox compost useable. I told Tim I’ll pay for them with the proceeds from my burgeoning writing career. He rolled his eyes and, resignation dripping from every syllable, said, “Like Min and her savings account?” (That’s a funny story, about our friend Min. By the time she married Jim in 1956, she’d salted away $8000. Whenever Jim balked at buying something or other she couldn’t live without, she’d snap, “I’ll take it out of my savings account, okay?” During their 53 years together, she spent that same $8000 about 30 times. By the time Tim and I got to know them, that account was both a legend and a family joke. Now it’s our family joke, too. Min died in July of 2009. I miss her every day.)

Got outside and started cleaning up. Sunday was a beautiful day, exactly what late January is supposed to feel like—temps in the upper 50s, mostly sunny, light breeze out of the west. I pulled the sere remains of the annual may-pop (Passiflora incarnata) off the outdoor shower wall, snipping carefully with my Joyce Chens, to protect the netting the tendrils latch onto and to make the debris small enough to compost readily. (To the compost Nazis: at last a respectable load of browns has entered the pile and was turned in. I hope you’re all very happy.)
Look, Ma!
No dead plants!

Once the shower wall and potting-table top were dead-plant-free, I moved on to the vegetable patch. The first picture in “Tis the Season for Excuses,” posted December 27, shows what I saw upon rounding the northwest corner of the dwarf yaupon hedge. Attacked the tattered evidence of last season’s hopes, not bothering to be careful: the 25-gallon-potful of these leavings ended up on the curb, hopefully forestalling any resurgence of lurking latent pathogens or, PDIC help us, pickleworm larvae. Then I disassembled the deeply ugly trellises I’d cobbled together from yards of pink surveyors tape and pieces of the PVC seed-starting table Tim built me some years back. (Why the shelves were available for conversion is a story for another February or March day.) Finished up by dumping the soil from the melon and potato pots onto the vacant lot next door—it’s biodegradable, y’all—and trimming up the 38 cold-hurt Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’ my grower-friend Christine gave me.

            Doesn’t sound like much, but those chores plus the regular Sunday bird-feeding, compost-turning and walkabout took three hours. By 4:30, my butt frozen from sitting on the concrete driveway while spiffing up the lamiums, I was ready to come in for some cocoa, a shower, dinner, face-time with the computer, and the third installment of PBS’ “Masterpiece: Downton Abbey.” Anyway, it’s a start. Kathy-the-ant shifted some grains. (Kathy-the-ant? See the post cited above.)

The garden as blank canvas
            Moving right along, starting plants from seeds requires a tremendous leap of faith for me. If the poor things have to stay indoors too long past germination, they’re almost certain to fall victim to damping off, drowning (mostly the same thing), insufficient quantity and quality of light, failure to get pricked out and/or moved to larger pots in a timely fashion, or active neglect bred of frustration with the lank, moldy things. My luck (and the plants’) improves with direct sowing, but that often makes for vegetables that don't mature to fruit-set, and flowers that never reach bloom-stage. Nonetheless, last Thursday I ordered 17 packets of seeds from Renee’s Garden—five vegetables, 11 flowers, and a grass mix for the cats, in fond hopes they’ll stop tearing at the Cordyline and the clumping bamboo on the back porch. These will swell the ranks of the two dozen envelopes of embryonic veg left over from last year. 

A cyclamen bouquet
             A quick aside: One of the beauties of Mel Bartholomew’s square-foot gardening technique is that you sow only the number of seeds as the number of plants wanted, instead of scattering a whole packet and subsequently thinning the sprouts. This feature, along with failures distributed into several small pockets rather than a single generalized one, sold me on Mel’s method. I don’t like destroying possibly viable seedlings. It’s funny, really, that I should feel this way. I can yank out a shrub that’s underperforming and fling it to the curb without a second thought. In fact, my favorite gardening quote of all time is English gardening eminence Christopher Lloyd’s bon mot, “Deaths can be imposed as well as waited for.” But I balk at arbitrarily giving some sprouts the thumbs-up and others the thumbs-down, like some ancient caesar.

Solanum pseudocapsicum
releafs and blooms

           Since I qualify as a staunchly average gardener in terms of the amount of time and effort I’m willing to expend on any given endeavor, I figure you might benefit from the occasional eureka moments I experience, and from the guaranteed disasters my adventures in growing from seeds will engender. Oh, come on, you love it when a self-styled “expert” falls on her face. I know I do.

            In mid-January, on our most recent visit to her greenhouses, my aforementioned friend Christine gave Tim and me four beautifully blooming Cyclamen coum, florists’ cyclamen. They make a gladsome sight on the piano, along with the miracle poinsettia and the tapeworm fern. I’m following C’s watering instructions to the letter, hoping for a second batch of odds-beaters.

The Christmas Miracle
poinsettia boldly goes
into February

In other houseplant news, the papayas continue to hum along. They recently got doused with very dilute coffee, alleged to proffer some benefit. I’ve also taken to dumping the leaves from my nightly cup of green tea onto the pots’ dirt. I read somewhere (but where?) something positive comes of this practice, but damned if I can remember what. (If I ever unearth the clipping, I’ll fill you in.) The Solanum pseudocapsicum is releafing, if spottily. It even sports a few blossoms, an overwintering first. The Cordyline terminalis, Pentas ‘Stars and Stripes’ and the verbena continue to hold their own. All good wishes fervently appreciated by all of us.

Soon after the “Making Connections” post of January 19, the clip at left appeared in the Wilmington paper about the better-late-than-never comeuppance of the man who introduced hog CAFOs to North Carolina. And Tim sent me a link to the jaunty jingle, “Monsanto Rag,” which I share with you here. Two little day-brighteners to waft you into February.

Thanks for dropping by, and especially for giving me added impetus to do the things I ought to be doing anyway. See you next time.