Monday, December 31, 2012


            I just spent two irretrievable hours of my life wearing one of Tim’s hard white art erasers (not to mention my thumb) down to frass removing the first three months of journal entries from my second-decade weather observation book. Seemed like a good idea back in 2010, making brief daily jottings on the goings-on in the yard in a ten-years-at-a-glance context. When all interest in continuing evaporated that same May—about the time when being in the garden was ’way more appealing than writing about the garden—I shelved the idea and the book, resolving to deal with the latter before 2013.

            Guess what arrives tomorrow?

            Guess what arrived today? A New Year’s resolution I know I can keep: after 50 years in the trenches, I’m swearing off formal journaling.

            Obsessive journaling is really a sort of masturbation. It’s why the blogosphere thrives. There’s the titillation of others reading, perhaps commenting on, your revelations. There’s also the possibility of the odd 15 minutes of fame, such as the kvetching blogging mom who declared her own kid would be the next Adam Lantz, garnering herself appearances on the morning talk shows. I mean, really. No wonder the kid has problems.

            The realization dawned that I’m no Samuel Pepys (pronounced PEEPS, not PEP-is). The realization also dawned that I turn 60 in 2013. Over the past several years, I’ve been moving steadily toward the place where it’s a lot more important to be out living life rather than just writing about it.

            Does that mean GFTGU has finished its run? No. At least not yet. Playing in the dirt is a life-long love affair, and the best education, and the best therapy ever. But, to steal from Robert Frost,

                                    I have promises to keep
                                    And miles to go before I sleep,
                                    And miles to go before I sleep.

            Happy New Year, y’all. And thanks for dropping by.


P.S. – Wanna know the most profound thing I erased this morning? On March 2, 2010, I wrote: “Met Allan Armitage [at the Davidson College Gardening Symposium]. He’s a jerk.”

Monday, December 10, 2012


            "The Avant Gardener" carries good news briefs as well, such as the following:

            Does an aspirin drench really enhance a plant’s natural defenses to promote growth, reduce stress, and ward off disease and insects? Replying to a reader letter to Fine Gardening, University of Rhode Island Professor Rebecca Brown says yes. One component of aspirin is salicytic acid, a chemical naturally present in all flora. Its name derives from Salix, because willows produce the compound in high concentrations. Dissolve one or two aspirin per gallon of water, and apply generously around the roots of your plants. Dr. Brown recommends a douse every two weeks during the growing season. Seedlings and new transplants benefit from aspirin-water spritzes too. Or you can feed them a tea made of willow twigs steeped in water.
            Except using aspirin’s easier.
In the 'Phenomenal' field
            Know what else is good for headache? Aromatherapy with home-grown lavender. For those of us living in climes somewhat dissimilar to those of the English countryside or Provence, Peace Tree Farms of Pennsylvania has developed a super-hardy cultivar of Lavendula they dubbed ‘Phenomenal.’ Bred for American Horticultural Society’s (AHS) Zones 4 to 8, the silver-foliaged densely branched plant grows to about 36” high and wide, and produces “deep-blue” (hort-speak for “purple”) bloom clusters. Go to Peace Tree Farm’s website for more information.
Honeycrisp apples
            Are you hungry? How about a nice apple? U.S. growers produce zillions of them (more or less) every year. Our own USDA expended considerable time and taxpayer dollars to rank our favorite varieties by volume. And the winners are: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji and Braeburn. But keep an eye out for newcomer Honeycrisp. This yellow and red marbled-fleshed University of Minnesota introduction is on its way to the top.


Blueberry 'Pink Lemonade'
            The busy boys at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service have released two new blueberry hybrids. Early fruiting ‘Sweetheart’ “… not only holds its sweet flavor longer than other blueberries, it produces a small repeat crop in the fall” after the main run in June, according to “The Avant Gardener.” She’s hardy to AHS Zone 5. In keeping with the American fascination with all things pink, the second AHS entry is ‘Pink Lemonade,’ a blueberry whose fruit is, um, pink. (Why don’t they call it “pinkberry”? No one knows.) Only a moderate producer and hardy only to AHS Zone 6, “this novel blueberry gained a ‘best new shrub’ award at the Far West Horticultural Show.” High praise indeed. I guess.

            Both apples and blueberry provide consumers with lots of fiber, which, as we all know, promotes happy and healthy colons. But listen to this, girls: out of 20,000 women participating in a study, those who got the most fiber from their diets had a 25% lower chance of developing heart disease than their processed-food loving counterparts.
Calm down! Have some raisins.

            Got raisins? Swedish researchers found that hypertensives eating a handful of raisins a day appreciably reduced their blood pressures. No one knows why, exactly, but then, it doesn’t really matter, does it?


            One last dollop of good-ish news. Today marks the last of the earliest sunsets here in the Southport area. Starting November 28 and continuing through this evening, the sun’s gone down at 5:03 EST. Tomorrow, we gain a minute as it waits until 5:04 to slip below the horizon. On the other end of the day, however, sunrise gets incrementally later until January 3rd, when it claws its way into the morning sky at 7:17 EST. There it levels off through the 13th. After that, it’s all good with earlier sunrises and later sunsets until the summer solstice in June, when the slow slide kicks back in.

Those wacky druids at Stonehenge
            The actual shortest day(s) of the year fall around the imminent winter solstice, on December 21 this year. Locally, that plays out to 15 days of 14-hour-6-minute nights. For more insight on the long and short of daylengths, check out my December 10, 2010 post, “The Moon, the Sun, and the Shortest Day.” It’s illuminating (haha).

            Okay, that’s it for me for 2012. There’s a visit to Momma in Williamsburg coming up this weekend, and seasonal shopping to cram in before the trip; our ever-patient clients would really, really like their winter containers filled; I would really, really like to find homes for all the plants in our driveway; a stack of Christmas cards waits on my desk to be addressed and schlepped to the mailbox; six pounds of cranberries languish in the fridge, hoping to become sauce and chutney; there's a weaving sampler I can’t wait to get off the loom because it’s produced so damn many “teachable moments”; and a sweater I've been struggling with since first looping yarn around needle requires ripping out all together as I discovered last night I forgot to make any of the sleeve increases.

            That's life as usual chez Fitz. We wish you the least stressful of holidays and are looking forward to catching up after the furor dies down. Sleep in heavenly peace, if you can. And if not, an occasional Ativan helps smooth out those rough edges.

            Thanks so much for dropping by. It means a lot to me.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012


            Is it just me, or does time compress between Thanksgiving and New Years? I’ve taken to setting the stove’s timer to keep me from taking more than an hour to make and record the first weather observation of the day, change the cats’ water, clear the dish drainer, shift whatever laundry’s going to the next phase, answer important emails and delete the junk, and down my two cups of joe. I can never quite believe it when the series of triple beeps start. This morning, for instance, I thought it was the dryer and let it continue for five minutes.

            In the interest of not having to think too much, this post will consist of some bits and bobs gleaned from the November issue of “The Avant Gardener” newsletter. A subscription to this excellent publication would make a dandy stocking stuffer for the computer-literate dirt-monkey in your life: since the venerable Tom Powell retired, Derek Fell has taken the digest online. But it is still soooo worthwhile.


A shelf full of neonicotinoids
            Hooray for Europe. Light-years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to sustainable agriculture, Germany, France and Italy have banned neonicotinoid pesticides, according to an article by Shelley Stonebrook in the August/September Mother Earth News. A growing body of evidence implicates synthetic neonicotinoids (pronounced “knee-oh-knee-COT-in-oydz,” so called because their chemical makeup resembles that of nicotine), a particularly virulent class of systemic insecticides, in the ongoing malaise of European honeybees. Systemic pesticides work by insinuating themselves into every cell of treated plants, from roots to shoots to fruits, and their residual presence is truly impressive. One study cited by Stonebrook found the harvested fruits and vegetables from plants treated with the stuff retained a scary 12% residue. Another study, published in 2012 in Japan, found a correlation between neonicotinoid residues and brain damage in mammals. Beekeepers on this side of the pond want the EPA to get them off the shelves pronto. So far, no dice.

            No big surprise there. Can you say "chemical industry lobby"?

The Swiss member of the Big Three
            Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta are the largest food-crop seed producers in the world. The main business of all three is synthetic chemical production with heavy investment in biotechnology (i.e., genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) to make their patented plants weed- and pest-resistant. Anybody else see a conflict of interest here?  Avant Gardener says, “… who wants to eat a food that has its own built-in insect control even if it is considered biologically safe, or a food that can withstand spraying with a weed-killer? In a nutshell, that is what the controversy over GMO seed is all about, and why some countries of Europe have enforced labeling of GMO food crops, and why similar consumer groups in the U.S. are agitating for GMO labeling laws.”

            Nutshell, indeed. Should be nuthouse, don’t you think?

Your basic female deer tick
            Here’s a bulletin for you: gardeners have a higher-than-average chance of contracting Lyme disease because they, along with hikers, have a higher-than-average chance of attracting deer ticks. Wait! There’s more! Successful treatment of the disease depends on early diagnosis, but: 1) the alleged characteristic bull’s-eye pattern around the bite site often fails to materialize; 2) symptoms—which include fatigue, congestion, headache and joint pain—mimic about 3000 other malaises, like flu, hay fever, arthritis and aging; and 3) the currently available tests for the disease are unreliable. What to do? The “perfectly safe” crowd advocates wearing biohazard suits at all times and hermetically sealing one’s living quarters against mice, who also host the tiny arachnids. Sane people merely maintain routine watchfulness when showering (helps if you have a shower-buddy) and occasionally remind themselves of how few actual victims of the disease they personally know.

            Well, this didn’t turn into the easy-peasy piece I’d anticipated. I forgot how hard it is to avoid plagiarism when excerpting from a text. Bugger.

Stay tuned for a perkier piece next time. And thanks for dropping by.


Thursday, November 22, 2012


              “November is the most disagreeable month of the year,” says Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Jo obviously didn’t live in southeastern North Carolina. Shivery mornings warming to open-window afternoons, nights when you seriously consider turning on the heat, the oblique angle of the light—all these combine to reinvigorate the summer-weary, plants and people alike. A fragment from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Day in Autumn” comes to mind:
                        After the summer’s yield, Lord, it is time
                        to let your shadow lengthen on the sundials
                        and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.

                        As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.
                        Direct on them two days of warmer light
                        to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
                        the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.
                                                                (translated by Mary Kinzie)

            Rilke would not have been impressed if he could see me this chilly morning, huddled on the screened porch, wrapped in baggy pajamas, ratty cardigan and ancient wool socks, cradling my hands around that first life-renewing cup of coffee. I’m looking out at the weed-choked, heat-exhausted, wind-tattered remnants of my garden. It’s been lackluster all season, in performance as well as appearance. I know why, of course: the bustle and brio of spring gave way too soon to the stultification of high summer. The heat got to me, draining away all ambition. I neglected the garden, cultivating only air-conditioned spaces, lying fallow.

            My thoughts turn to the virtues of fallowness. It was common practice in old-fashioned sustainable agriculture, before the advent of agri-business conglomerates and faster-living-through-chemistry lifestyles. Wise stewards of the land fallowed one-third of their fields each year, honoring the benefits of regular extended periods when no marketable product is expected, letting the land lie quietly, recharging. Up north, rock-solid frozen ground and snow cover enforce the rest period: here where the ground never freezes, we have to consciously think about the value of fallow.

            Okay, I decide. I had my respite this summer—now it’s the garden’s turn.

            The plan is this: I’ll finally clean up the vegetable garden and cut down the obstreperous whips of Gomphrena ‘Fireworks,’ neaten up the new bed, empty summer’s containers and compost the lot. When the tabula is almost rasa, I will blanket it with at least three inches of composted manure I never got around to using earlier in the year, finish off with a generous helping of kelp meal, sow red clover and onions in the raised beds. I’ll toss in whatever bulbs I couldn’t resist ordering more of. Then I wait, leaving it alone until March.

Toadflax Farm, fallow
          All the perennials I brought home from Christine’s (grower extraordinaire) this season that somehow never made it into the ground are cut down and arrayed against the walls of the house for that little extra warmth. While the garden rests, I’ll arrange them on paper for early spring planting. Maybe I’ll undertake some hedge control, as an excuse for messing about outside on sunny days, re-energized by my own fallow season.

* * *

         November’s a good time to begin topdressing your plants with composted manure. (“Topdressing” is a horticultural term for “putting stuff on top of the soil instead of digging it in.”) The work seems easier when you’re not blinded by sweat or swatting at biting insects all the damn time. Besides, if you start now, you’ll avoid the February rush on Black Kow at Lowe’s. Your azaleas, Japanese camellias, loropetalums and other late-winter/early spring blooming shrubs appreciate a dollop of Holly-Tone or rock phosphate now to help improve the flower show later. Remove the spent stalks from your lilies and irises, but leave the foliage intact. Don’t cut back your herbaceous plants unless you absolutely can’t stand the admittedly unmanicured sight: the seedheads feed finches and other small birds, and the dead leaves provide winter cover. (Canna lilies are an exception to this rule—their foliage goes all slimy and disgusting once frost hits.)

             As for winter color, I’ll stick with the tried-and-true if ubiquitous pansies, violas, snapdragons and sweet william. Professional note: smaller-flowered violas bloom more prolifically and seem cold-hardier, plus they don’t require deadheading. If it’s less work, I’m all for it.

* * *

             In the current worrisome political and economic climate, working in the garden serves as a calming and grounding activity, reminding us there is still much to be grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

             And thanks for dropping by.


Sunday, November 18, 2012


            Tim, bless his darlin’ heart, spent considerable energy this sodden and blustery week perusing weaving websites on my behalf. He researched harness looms (haven’t mastered the rigid heddle yet), raw wool (spinning and dyeing my own yarn is still a ways down the road), and organic yarn sources. He sent me several links featuring beautiful traditional and modern rugs and tapestries. One could—and does!—lose a lot of time clicking from one to the next, and the next, and the next. Not to be outdone, I connected with Yarn Barn of (Lawrence) Kansas; Stitch ‘n’ Frame out of Urbandale, Iowa; The Woolery in Frankfort, Kentucky; and the used-book site Alibris to find a must-have out-of-print volume entitled Finishes in the Ethnic Tradition by Suzanne Baizerman and Karen Searle.

            No wonder many of our gardening clients and neighbors think we’ve left town, died, or both.

            The link in my inbox Saturday morning opened to Crazy Woman’s Navajo Weaving Supplies. I admire Navajo rugs and blankets, but what resonated in my heart was the contact address. She lives on Hidden Hollow Road in Recluse, Wyoming.

Recluse, Wyoming (courtesy GoogleMaps)
            I glommed onto the idea of Recluse. I visualized a small log cabin on its own private track, called Go Away Gulch Lane, or some such. A cloistered existence has always sung siren songs to me—as long as it’s plumbed, electrified, near a large body of water, not subject to harsh winters, and fully funded. I do have a few standards, after all.

            GoogleMaps’ satellite pictures injected a dose of unwelcome reality into my cozy imaginings. Tucked into the otherwise empty northeast corner of the state, Recluse looks to be a cluster of about 12 buildings in a wide-ish spot on Recluse Road, unceremoniously plunked down in a taupe ocean of raked-gravel-like harvested fields. A precious few algae-green patches erupt into the brown, but I bet they’re densely populated (relatively speaking, of course) with zealously guarded borders.

            Extremely well named, Recluse lies about 200 miles north-northeast of Casper; 200 miles northwest of Rapid City, South Dakota; 225 miles southeast of Billings, Montana; and around 150 miles from the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park—the part lacking access roads.

            Then memories of the time Tim and I drove through eastern Wyoming on our way to Mount Rushmore poured in. We stopped along the absolutely featureless stretch of I-25 between Cheyenne and Casper to look at some big-horn sheep and the still-visible ruts etched into the stony ground by covered wagons filled with hopeful settlers on their tortuous way to Oregon in the 19th century. I read Willa Cather: stories of pioneer women driven insane by horizon-to-horizon treelessness and incessant wind sprang to mind. I would have joined the sisterhood of Looney Lucys for sure. I started to cry.

            That evening, in Casper, Tim and I had our one and only serious fight.

            Because everything goes faster these days, Lucy was creeping in after only seven hours. No wonder Cate Loetscher, proprietor of Navajo Weaving Supplies, calls herself Crazy Woman. She’s certainly made of sterner stuff than I am.

Oak Island, NC (courtesy GoogleMaps)
            Looking at the blessedly blue and green GoogleMap of Oak Island made me think maybe things aren’t really so awful here. It’s certainly a textbook example of being careful what one wishes for, with a soupรงon of the devil one knows is better, yadayada.

            Take a minute from frenetic preparations for the holiday season to be truly grateful for all you already have and are. It may not offer all the delights of Recluse, Wyoming, but grace and happiness reside there nonetheless.

            Thanks for dropping by.