Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Weeding as meditation

Came home tonight and headed out to the front to weed out part of the parking strips. Funny how I used to hate that job and how much I love it now. There's quite a difference between the first time I dug out the strip, which required a pitchfork and a lot of work, and how easily the weeds come out now that they're growing in well tilled soil through a thick blanket of garden mulch. The dirt out there feels so wonderful -- all light and loamy, dark with earthworms. In the right parking strip particularly, the flowers are just monstrously healthy. The picture above shows my cleomes, which are just unstoppable.

There's something very meditative about working in the dirt, watching the sun go down, staring up at sunflower leaves bigger than your head while the occasional bee whirs nearby. My favorite way to end a day. Other than sushi, of course.

I've been giving haircuts to all of the lavender plants this week. (I have at least a dozen, maybe more like fifteen.) I don't know if that's good or bad, but it felt like the right thing to do now that their flowers have dried and turned grey.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Ode to borage

Ah, borage, we hardly knew ye here at the Zalkan house. My favorite plant I grew this year, and one I murdered completely. I hope its plant spirits will forgive me and allow me to grow it more sensibly again next year.

Before I admit my iniquity completely, lets just take a minute to admire borage in itself. Borage, hairy, thorny, unruly-looking plant that it is, was grown by the ancient Celts, who used its infusions to give them courage going into battle. Medieval lasses spiked the drinks of their suitors with it to give them the strength to propose. In folklore, it symbolizes courage, psychic powers, and talent.

Oh plant of many names: Bugloss, Herb of Gladness, Burrage, Bee Plant. Beloved of the honeybees and butterflies. Friend to tomatoes. I’m sorry I killed you.

What I did, in my youthful neophyte-gardener enthusiasm, was to completely disregard the spacing recommendations on my poor borage plants and plant six of them – SIX! – in one square foot of my square foot vegetable bed. Yes, one would have been sufficient in a space of that size. Two might have survived. But six?

For a while, it did fine. It zoomed up to three feet, cascading crazily in every direction, and sprouted tons of those inimitable sky-blue, edible blossoms that look like dewdrops and taste (oddly) like cucumbers. But it was overcrowded and it was killing the plants around it, so I decided to transplant three of them.

Mistake number one. As any number of web sites I now know about has told me, borage doesn’t take well to transplant. The three plants I moved lasted perhaps two days max and then expired. And then there were three.

The three remaining plants, having been disturbed, struggled quite a bit. I staked them up in a peony cage in an attempt to let them grow upwards without squashing everything around them, but they were never quite the same. They browned, they blackened in parts, they writhed… Finally, sadly, I took them out.

Had I never had to disturb them, they would’ve been fine. Had I only planted a fraction of them or simply spread them out, they would have thrived. But I didn’t know anything – not a thing – about what I was doing.

I can’t wait to see them again next year, when they’ll have a place of honor – maybe a few of them in the parking strip where they’ll have room to spread, and perhaps one in a corner of the vegetable bed. One. One nice plant, with lots of room to breathe and spread its leggy branches.

My five favorite plants today:
  1. Heliotrope – how can you not love this plant? With its goofy, bubble-gum smell and its deep dark purple blooms, it’s just lovely. And easy. It’s been blooming since at least June, and is still going strong – no deadheading, no fertilizer, no real maintenance. Next year I might try the white variety as well.
  2. Cleome, standard, specifically the rose colored one. Oh man, am I sold on these. I’ve got 11 of them out in my parking strips, and the seven I planted the earliest are just phenomenal – they’re nearly five feet tall, and so, SO bright. I love the rose variety the most, with it’s hot pink blossoms. It’s an annual, so I’ll have to put it back in next year or watch for seed, but it’ll be in my garden for years to come.
  3. Bee balm – I have both the large and the dwarf varieties and I love them both. Their bloom didn’t last so long – maybe two months – but they were so crazy and alien looking that I couldn’t help but love them. This will definitely be staying in my garden for years.
  4. Pineapple sage – when I put this plant in my parking strip this spring, it promptly died. Shrivelled right up, turned a deep deep brown, and did such a convincing imitation of death that I almost dug it up. Then, after three or four weeks of this, it suddenly heaved a sigh and popped back to life. Now it’s huge and the absolute picture of health. (I made no changes in how I was watering or caring for it.) Probably 2-3 feet high and with a nice bushy mound shape, it perfumes the air so sweetly when I brush against it. I don’t know if it’s hardy, but I hope it makes it through the winter.
  5. Sceptre'd Isle rose – this is another underdog story. I bought this rose bare root from out of state, and it came a little bit late in the planting season. I think I got it into the ground in May. For ages it just sat there, a sad little stick with no leaves or signs of new growth, and then one day, finally, it popped out a few tiny little leaves. From there, it went on to become the most vigorous and best growing of all of the roses I put in this year. (Five. Three flourished, one is struggling, and one is buried in weeds in the back of the deck and I’m not sure whether it’s still there or not.) Its blossoms are the most delicate pale pink, hanging in loose blowsy clusters that fall to the ground at the slightest breeze. It looks amazing with the lavender, and I’m so happy with it that I’m considering getting more.
Little Elf, peeking out of the corner of the sunflower bed. Posted by Hello
The sunflowers are blooming! The little ones bloomed first but the first of the giants opened this weekend. Posted by Hello

Recently read...

While we were away, I was finishing up Diary of A French Herb Garden, by Geraldine Holt. Interesting little book, and a pleasure to read -- I kept thinking I smelled lavender as I read, to the point where I kept sniffing the pages. That's either a testimonial to the evocative style of her writing or a trick my brain was playing on me because of the soft purple ink all of the illustrations are printed in. I really don't think it was intended to be a scratch-and-sniff experience, though... but what a great idea for a new line of garden books!

Returning from Sacramento

We spent this weekend in Sacramento with Brett's sister. Part of the fun for me was looking at was everyone was growing down there - a lot of the plants I loved from Hawaii flourish there, such as the bright fuschia bougainvillea I love so much, and my new favorite bush, the oleander. (Sure is pretty, but follow the link to see all the ways it can kill you.) It wasn't orange season, so I didn't get to marvel at the (to me) relevation that oranges actually hang on trees in people's backyards, like I did when we were there last February, but the central valley is lush and green enough this time of year to keep me googly-eyed out the car window nearly everywhere we went.

Got home and everything in the garden survived. After a long, hot August, Seattle skies poured rain most of last week, which had two effects: it took the pressure off those of us who have been desperately watering every evening trying to keep the plants alive, and it seemingly activated every seed that's ever been placed in the earth. Last night, I took four large buckets of brand new weeds -- four! -- out of the cutting bed alone. The cutting bed, mind you, is about six or seven feet long, and maybe four feet at it's widest point. How did they all get so big so fast?

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Variegated sedge Posted by Hello


My husband says I married him for his yard.

It's not true, of course, but it's a real fringe benefit - a great guy and a bunch of dirt to play in. After living in an apartment for almost ten years with no lawn or garden to call my own, I was delighted to get my hands on the backyard, where a variety of plantings done when he bought the house several years ago had more or less died off from lack of attention.

And thus the mania was born.

I started small. Last summer, I planted my first modest herb garden and tomato plants and was insanely pleased when they thrived. Then I moved into flowers, overrunning the front steps with ten pots of red geranium -- these were beautiful, but surprisingly high maintenance, with all the dead-heading and watering from a can. (The hose wouldn't reach.) They survived, until I left town for two weeks in September - then the heat browned their edges and they never quite regained their vigor. But - it was enough to get me hooked.

Overcome with enthusiasm, I spent the winter poring through seed catalogs and gardening books, planning what I wanted to grow the next spring. This year, I spent more than I'll admit on pots, in the spring. Every trip to Fred Meyer sent me home with six more plants. I started seeds in the basement with a grow light. I put in a raised vegetable bed in the back yard. I carted home twelve cubic feet of dirt, at least thirty bags of mushroom compost, forked my first steer manure, began experimenting with compost bins, and took on the huge job of trying to turn two arid parking strips into self-sufficient low-water-use gardens.

This blog will be my way of documenting what I'm learning and where all of this will end up. It's a continuation of a Web page I ran for several months on my personal site - you can start reading there if you want to catch up.


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