Monday, April 21, 2014

Encouragement Required

I'm sure that some of my former students would recall my advice for what to do when the nagging voices in their heads started to tell them that they couldn't accomplish something, especially that they couldn't write. I told them to tell that voice in no uncertain terms to SHUT UP. Today is one of those days that I have to take my own advice.

When we lived in Michigan, I may have become a little emboldened by my successes in the vegetable garden. I put food on our table and reserves in our freezer. In short, every time I went into the garden, I felt pretty magnificent. Not so in Florida, and it is taking every molecule of self-control I have not to go on a full-blown rant.

My Kentucky Wonder pole beans were initially a wonder, indeed. They were scrambling up the arches I had built and looking fabulous. This weekend, though, I began to notice that the leaves were looking a little strange. I researched the problem, and I'm pretty sure that they have bean leaf mosaic virus.

The sick leaves

Now, I believe most disappointments in life are an opportunity to learn something useful. So my first thought (after "you are a horrible gardener" and "another season down the drain") was what this new problem is trying to tell me about my soil. But so far as I can find in my research, it's not telling me anything about my soil. It's telling me that I have aphids (but I haven't seen any) or that the seeds had the virus. Then again, if I look a little further down the rows, I see that my pepper plants are suffering a similar crinkling, which would suggest that they, too, have a virus.

I'm beginning to think that when I constructed this garden, it merely served as a massive billboard to all forms of pestilence and disease that said, "Here lives a hopeful gardener. Come, suck every drop of that hopeful sap out of her."

I recall watching an episode of the BBC series "The Edible Garden" with Alys Fowler. She was feeling bruised about a catastrophic tomato failure the year before as a result of blight. She was nervous. She decided to give it a go again, even building measures to safeguard her crop. It all got hit with blight again, and she bitterly proclaimed that she would never try to grow tomatoes again unless someone could assure her that they had created a blight-resistant variety. I understand her heartbreak. I put all of my energy into beans and peppers for this season, and it looks like it will be for nothing.

So I've decided to gaze on my side garden and lick my wounds for a while. Neighbors may hear me yelling "SHUT UP!" over and over again and wonder if I've gone over the deep end. The personal pep talks are necessary at present, though, so I'll have to risk it.

At least my New Dawn rose provides some hope

The side garden is in bloom

Monday, April 14, 2014


I cannot tell a lie. I've been inhaling quite a bit lately, and I feel pretty giddy from it. But it's really not my fault. The days here have been reasonably mild and a little breezy, so we've been keeping the windows and doors open. Growing on the wall of the house that forms one side of the Secret Garden is jasmine, and it is in full, glorious, intoxicating bloom. Just the slightest breeze carries that incredible scent wafting through the house. Turfman and I have been spending the weekend inhaling deeply and crying, "Oh, do you smell that?!" It's absolutely divine.

The wall of perfume

This is when the garden begins its full thrust of growth. It's a time of frenzied activity for the gardener, too. I have to keep up with the work to make sure the growth continues. I constructed my first compost tea brewer yesterday, and it's now bubbling away, hopefully making a magic elixir that I can spray on everything in the garden, including the turf. I'm determined to keep everything as healthy as possible this year, so I'm staying on top of weeds and keeping the compost moist and turned.

Plants that had retreated over the winter are now making themselves known again. What was previously a bare patch of earth is now getting filled in by plants that will jostle each other for room in the coming months. The weeping peach tree just opened its first flowers of the year over the weekend. It's hard to remember or imagine what that space in the garden will look like when the tree is in full leaf, so that's something else to look forward to.

First peach flower of the year

I find myself leaning out the windows as soon as I get up in the morning, checking to see what new things are happening in the garden. I'm a bit like a kid on Christmas morning every morning these days.  The presents just keep coming.

Don Juan is putting on a show

But it's time for me to get back in the garden this morning. My fingernails have been clean for several hours, and they're itching for some dirt to be stuffed under them again.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Small but Significant Surprises

Last year, I purchased a 'Zephirine Drouhin' climbing rose. I bought it because its description suggested that it would do well in partial shade, and that's what any plant gets if it's going to sit at the base of the the Secret Garden's entrance arbor. The ligustrum "walls" tend to block out light at their feet. I was encouraged when the rose started scrambling up the side of the arbor shortly after I planted it, putting on a heavy flush of leaves. But nearly 10 months later, that was all it was doing. It had even grown across the top of the arbor, but it produced no flowers.

As usual, I went to the web to get some answers. Most everyone said that they had been disappointed by the rose because it never produced anything. I felt a little bitter at being mislead, but I was still glad to have a plant that was weaving itself through the framework of the arbor. Still, there was a feeling of being unfulfilled.

I was out in the garden on Friday, attempting to get all of the edging installed, when a friend called. I decided to take a break and sit on the swing while we chatted. As soon as my backside hit the swing, my eyes registered a spot of color. I began to shout (sadly, a little into the phone), which I think made my friend worry that I had just seen something horribly shocking. I doubt my explanation made my shouting seem appropriate, but here's what I saw.

Do you see it? In the upper right?

Here she is in all her glory.

Seeing one 'Zephirine Drouhin' naturally makes me want to see many more on my vines, but I could go a very long way on just this one. I don't think I would have seen it had I not sat down to take a break. I had almost lost faith in that plant, and it showed me that there's always reason to hope.

At an open garden event last Sunday, I heard that Gloriosa superba 'Rothschildiana' doesn't do well after its first year. I had lifted the tuber in late fall and protected it indoors, whether that was necessary or not. I bought the tuber as a floral memorial to Wolfie, so it was important to me to protect it. I was a little disappointed when I heard the news because I had just planted the tuber again a few days before. I tried to tell myself that I could get another one each year if I had to, but I went out in the garden on Saturday, and I saw another beacon of hope.

The first shoot of Gloriosa superba

I have to keep reminding myself that nearly every act in the garden is a great leap of faith. Sometimes it's frightening to prune a plant that I know--at least intellectually--needs a drastic trim. I still worry that if I make the necessary cut, I'll never see the plant again. It happens every year with my Clematis 'Jackmanii', but every year, after I've cut it to the ground, it rewards my leap with a leap of its own. Nevertheless, I still fret for the month that I'm waiting for it to show signs of life. It did that  this week.

One week of growth

I don't know why such minor events are so significant to me, why they lift my spirits so much. I know that my shouts of joy either initially frighten people nearby or cause them to laugh. I'm sorry that I occasionally startle people with my exuberance, but I'm okay with the laughter. We should feel joy at witnessing someone else's elation, no matter its source. And I think that we should learn to savor the joy that comes from the smallest of surprises, especially when those surprises remind us that just when we have almost given up hope, something miraculous can happen.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Garden's Spring Sprint (and a Gentle Plea)

I know many of you have had a terribly long slog through winter this year, so hopefully this installment will provide you with things to look forward to in the coming months.

It's a critical time in the productive garden here. The daily temperatures are pleasant now, but it won't be long before the heat is oppressive and the afternoon rains roll out the annual welcome mat to every fungus you can imagine. I'm out in the garden every morning, making sure every plant is getting just what it needs to keep it healthy. As always, I find it such a relaxing, restorative practice, and I don't think I could do without it. That is an introduction to my gentle plea, but I'll save that for the end. Let's get in the garden first.

I have read conflicting reports about whether you can grow potatoes from those you purchased from the grocery. When I opened the potato drawer in the kitchen and found four potatoes sprouting, I decided to give them a try. They seem to be working so far.

New potatoes are peeking out of their
raised bed

I have been told more times than I can count that I can't grow corn in my small garden, but when someone tells me I can't do something, I generally just take it as a challenge. We have had some good ears of corn in the past few years, and each season, I try a new variety.  This bed is a Three Sisters bed of sorts. 'Patty Pan' squash are growing between the corn, and at the end of the planter I have more 'Tatuma' squash and 'Kentucky Wonder' pole beans growing, but I haven't quite mingled them according to that planting plan.

The 'Scallop Patty Pan Blend' Summer Squash and 'Golden
Bantam 8 Row Sweet Corn' are sharing their space nicely
I built a new archway out of electrical conduit that I bent, and I attached chicken wire using zip ties. Hopefully the pole beans will find the new set-up satisfactory. Since my space is limited, I like to use arches over the pathway to increase my useable space.

'Kentucky Wonder' Pole Beans are getting ready to scramble
up their arch
I went a little nuts on the Botanical Interests website when it came to peppers (everything you see in the photos, minus the potatoes and pineapples are from seeds I bought from Botanical Interests). I have 'California Wonder' sweet peppers, 'Traveler' jalapeƱos, 'Sweet Cherry Blend' sweet peppers, and 'Pepperoncini' Greek peppers scattered throughout the garden. All of them are growing really well, so I'm gearing up for Boursin-stuffed cherry peppers, Greek salads, and all sorts of other delights.

I see peppers in my future
My beets are under siege at the moment, so as an organic gardener, I made the choice to take preemptive action this morning. I've rescued all of the beet greens I could, and they'll make a nice side dish for supper tonight. The beets are roasting and will become part of one of my favorite treats -- pickled hard-boiled eggs and beets. I called them "Purple Eggs" when I was a kid, and that's what they remain in my house today.

Someone is enjoying my beet leaves

Actually, a whole lot of someones...
I'm also really excited about my bed full of spinach, bok choy, and blue kale. The bok choy is especially impressive at the moment. 

Bok Choy 'Tatsoi Rosette'

So here's my gentle plea. If you haven't grown your own food, I encourage you to give it a go. Start small, and get some experience and confidence under you. If you don't have much space, buy some beautiful containers. There are plenty of plants that will do well as long as they have a sunny spot. No matter your situation, find a way to do it. It's really rewarding in so many ways. I do get quite a rush from seeing something I've grown finally make it to my dinner plate, but the biggest reward I get from gardening is being a part of the daily miracles that occur. Tending to the needs of a plant and watching it grow sows seeds of joy and peace and real satisfaction.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Looking Back, Moving Forward

I pride myself on my solid memory. Most of my students would likely recall I would often tap my right temple with my index finger and say, "That's a steel trap right there. A steel trap." And for most things (except where I left my keys or whether I remembered to turn off the iron), it has been a safe deposit box for all kinds of information. But lately I've been noticing that things are slipping through the cracks.

We recently had a guest at our house. There's nothing remarkable in that fact. We live in Florida. We get lots of guests. Lots. But he had asked about my garden and wanted to know if I grew anything remarkable. My thoughts quickly turned to my pineapples. He asked a number of questions about how they grew, and to illustrate my explanation, I went to my office and pulled down the two photo books that I've made (using Shutterfly) to chronicle what has happened in the garden for the last two years. I knew I had photos of the entire pineapple growth process. So I showed them to him and explained, and when I collected the books to return them to the shelf, I saw a photo on the back of the 2013 journal. It was an early morning shot of the Secret Garden. "Oh," I said, rather surprised. The guest asked what was wrong, and I replied, "Well, I just don't remember it ever looking like this."

You see, a certain website had announced a garden contest last year, and I'm a sucker for contests. The announcement asked readers (I thought) to post photos of their garden spaces that fit into one of several categories. I decided the Secret Garden would work well in the "Garden Rooms" category, so early one morning, I dragged our massive ladder out to the yard and set it up outside the fence that forms the back wall of the garden. I figured an aerial shot would best capture the whole space.

So I entered the contest, and when the winners were revealed, I discovered that they must have really only wanted photos from landscape architects who had designed spaces that cost a minimum of $20,000. Obviously, I did not even place, but that fact did not diminish the high regard I had held for my garden.

And then I clearly forgot about that moment. I suddenly found the garden lacking. And over the winter, when most plants had retreated a bit, I thought it insufficient, which is when I started planning the redesign. I've been implementing that design in the last several weeks. And then I saw that photo of a magical garden that I could not recall. The steel trap had failed, hung open and slack like my mouth did upon realizing the garden was mine.

My garden last year

Listen, the new design will be equally beautiful. It is taking shape. Sometimes it's hard to remember that  something was beautiful and might be again. Sometimes a memory misleads us into thinking that change isn't required. I'm almost certain this change was necessary. I just wish I could have remembered the pride I felt in the garden, remembered that it's always been a pretty special place.

A peak at the garden now from a
different perspective

An old friend watches over the changes

Monday, March 10, 2014

Springing into a Fresh Start

This is my favorite time in the Florida seasonal calendar. It's that brief but magical moment when we can keep the windows and doors open, when the humidity is reasonably low, and everything in the garden is emerging from its short winter nap. This is the moment of unfurling. It reminds me a bit of putting the clothes for a particular season away, leaving them in the attic for months, and then opening the box again, only to reveal a wonderful world of clothes that I've always loved and forgotten for a moment that I even owned them. Everything has a newness about it.

The Tibouchina in bloom again
The best part of this season is the fact that I begin my gardening with a clean slate. It's a curious truth about gardening that is, unfortunately, not often replicated in human relationships. No matter what I've done wrong in the past, no matter how horrific the outcome has been, there's always hope--perhaps even faith--that things will turn out differently, that I will enjoy a rich and satisfying harvest. This is yet another lesson I wish I could somehow translate into other areas of life.

The seeds I sowed indoors are now sturdy seedlings that I am hardening off outside, and they're nearly ready to join the plants already producing in the vegetable garden. And despite my difficulties with getting reasonable yields from my vegetables since we moved here, despite what seems to be far too many suggestions that gardening here is exceedingly difficult, I still have some inexplicable belief that this season will be different. Hope, indeed, springs eternal when it comes to gardening. 

The secret garden is coming along. I completed one planter. I don't know how I feel about it, so I've decided to take a few weeks to get a clear idea before I move forward. I carefully pondered whether I should get a tattoo nearly 20 years ago, and the delay served me well, so I give the same consideration to many other decisions. But I'm happy to hear what the rest of you think of it.

I have a few reservations…and the upper
plants have not fully grown in.
I gave the Wolfie statue a new coat of paint after I cleaned off the rust. I think the new color is more in keeping with my sweet boy's coat.

Wolfie is waiting for new friends to
be planted

So it's a moment of joyful anticipation that we're experiencing here. Let's hope we learn a little from our mistakes, find pleasure in the smallest of victories, and always keep faith that things will get progressively better.

Monday, February 24, 2014


Gardening offers so many metaphors for life. For one thing, a garden is always in process. Even if you sat down and carefully drew out a detailed garden plan and followed it exactly, you would find upon completion that you wanted to make edits. That's just the nature of things. You learn as you go along. You see what works and what doesn't. You make edits, improvements. This isn't terribly different from life, I hope.

Gardening demands experimentation, as well. In Michigan, my Cherokee Purple tomatoes were magnificent. In Florida, they were something like a disaster. And so I had to look for tomato varieties that might work better for me here. Enter Gardener's Delight, Brown Berry Cherry, Black Plum, Brandywine, Black Krim, and my favorite--in terms of names--Beam's yellow pear. Some have done better than others. Some I'm just now growing seedlings for their trial in the garden. At the end of each season, I take careful notes on each variety so that as time goes on, I can make better choices.

Sometimes the experiments are with plants I've never heard of. Someone on Twitter suggested that I try growing Rat Tail radishes. I thought, why not? They sounded interesting enough, if only because they don't really produce root vegetables but rather seed pods that you pick much like beans. I also liked the the suggestion that I could pickle them. The experiment seemed to going rather badly, though, until last week. All I was getting was tons of leaf growth on plants over five feet tall. Then, suddenly, they started to flower profusely. And now I have the most curious and tasty snack I've ever grown.

The pretty flowers of Rat Tail radish

The spicy little seed pods of Rat Tail

I've also been experimenting with different varieties of sugar snap and snow peas. I've grown accustomed to the beautiful magenta and pink flowers of the Dwarf Grey sugar snaps, but they never produced peas for me. This season, I tried Oregon Sugar Pod II snow pea. Appropriately, they are producing white flowers and a continuous supply of peas. 

Fresh peas are just behind those flowers

I've finally had the courage to pop a nasturtium flower in my mouth, which then led me to put them in all of my salads and even eat the leaves. 

This nasturtium is getting a little
friendly with my ant statue.

Finally, the greatest experiment, the biggest leap of faith I've taken in the garden continues to yield results. As I was trimming back the tomato plants today, encouraging them to focus all of their energy on ripening the fruits they have on before I pull them up and replace them with the spring season plants, I noticed something in two of my pineapple plants. 

A fruit is on the move

We'll be eating pineapples again this summer. These will be particularly special because they are fruiting from the crowns that I cut off of my first homegrown pineapples we ate last February.

I agree with Ulysses, who says, "How dull it is to pause, to make an end," in life and in the garden. As long as I continue to experiment, I may find my fair share of failures, but I'll also find that the garden is forever "a bringer of new things."