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.


Monday, November 12, 2012


            Tim and I gave a talk to Southport’s Woodbine Garden Club this morning. The hall contains no projector for PowerPoint slides, so Tim spent a couple hours Sunday evening converting them to DVD format for showing on TV. While the disc worked fine at home, we didn’t think to bring the converter box for our antediluvian, non-digital unit with us to the Jaycees Building. Bugger. Back to square one.

Then circumstances turned in our favor. The meeting date had changed a few times, so turnout was light. “Wonderful!” I told president Heather. “We’ll pull the chairs into a circle.” “Oh,” Miss Heather replied. “Like a garden intervention!”

Well, something like that.

Anyway, we had a blast. I promised I’d post the pictures they didn’t get to see on my blog (which we mentioned about 800 times) upon arriving back home. So Woodbine ladies, here's the PowerPoint presentation you've been waiting for. You can click on the pictures to make them bigger. And thank you all for a really good time.

Everybody else, thanks for dropping by. Hope you enjoy the show.


Sunday, November 4, 2012


Today is a day of deadlines. Have an 800-word article due for Carolina Gardener, and a 500-worder for the St. James Plantation monthly glossy, CatTales. (St. James, the golf-course community where Tim and I do most of our gardening work, is not now nor ever has been a plantation. Old Brunswick County maps label the area “Ash Swamp.” Nonetheless, we’ve met many lovely people there who have kept us in food and utilities for many years, and we’re grateful to them.) It is also past time for a GFTGU post. As my posterior has had about all it can stand of sitting (ha-ha: I grow punchy), I propose to repurpose one of those other articles for the blogosphere.

How come Miss Last-Minute procrastinated more than usual? Yesterday, Tim and I adopted a beautiful little part-Siamese rescue kitten at PetSmart. Cats have always been part of my life, but many moons have passed since there was an honest-to-Pete kitten in the house. I forgot how totally entrancing, energetic and exhausting the tiny fur-balls can be. I wish I could cat-nap as effectively as Phil.

Tim named him Phil. I don’t know why.

Phil, charming Dad
Anyway, here’s a picture of baby Phil (I’d include one of feline matriarch Three and doofy ol’ Fred, but they’re both too busy glowering and growling to pose), and a short piece about the genesis of the crop of toadstools ornamenting local lawns as our unusually (pre-global warming) wet autumn meanders along.


During the incessant rains of last August, I had a letter from my mom in Williamsburg, VA, asking what she could do about the rash of mushrooms and toadstools dotting her lawn. Her yardman refused to mow them down for fear of spreading the spores. When I called to reassure her that the growths would disappear on their own, she told me they already had.

We super-sanitary, anti-microbial Americans have visceral reactions to anything fungal, lumping them all into the same category with Frito toenails, moldy food and mildewed shower curtains. As usual, we misunderstand the natural world.

Hyphae on rotting log
Soil fungi are absolutely critical to life on this planet. Mostly, their business of decomposing organic matter goes on unseen except for the occasional sighting of white thread-like structures, or hyphae, on the undersides of wood bark chips, firewood, and lumber left outside too long. Hyphae make up the vegetative part of a fungus, called the mycelium, which can expand outward indefinitely from a single spore as long as there is something for it to eat.

Before you start imagining a real-life “Day of the Triffids,” let me hasten to add the purpose of mycelial activity is to turn solid organic matter—tree stumps, logs, buried wooden construction debris—into nutrients plant roots can readily use. No fungus, no plants.

Fairy ring: Wanna dance, Oberon?
Most of us live blissfully unaware of this necessary symbiosis until the mushrooms/toadstools appear in the lawn. (The terms are technically synonymous, referring to any—wait for it—basidiomycetous fungi; in popular usage, toadstools are poisonous mushrooms. Unless you’re an experienced mycologist, don’t be harvesting any of them for dinner.) Often, the mushrooms form arcs or rings in the grass called fairy rings or pixie circles, based on magical woodland lore of Europe. 

The fruiting bodies of
Marasmius oreades 
on a tree stump
These growths are actually fungal fruiting bodies, analogous to flowers. When a couple of dry days follows a rainy period, they sprout up, literally overnight, marking the active feeding edge of any of 50 or so species of fungi common to turf areas. Although many people consider them unsightly, they are generally harmless and soon disappear without human intervention.

But what if I want to intervene? you ask.

Trust me, you don’t. And even if you did, the process—involving widespread fumigation with chemicals far more unpleasant than fungi and/or massive soil removal, replacement and resodding—is labor-intensive, expensive… and, in all likelihood, ineffective. You can knock down or pull up the mushrooms if you like. The fungi will continue anyway.

Thank goodness.

Thanks for dropping by.