Thursday, September 29, 2005

Food Not Lawns

Food Not Lawns

These people are my new heroes. Yes! Rip out your lawn! Plant food! Grow flowers! If you're not convinced simply by the sheer throw-caution-to-the-wind brilliance of this idea, ruminate on this for a while:

"In fact, lawns use more equipment, labor, fuel, and agricultural toxins than industrial farming, making lawns the largest agricultural sector in the United States. "

Which reminds me--in response to comments about flower theft--sure, it would make total sense just to not have a garden in the front yard. In my case, there are a couple of issues:

1. I hate lawns, so what else would go in front?

2. It's a small lot anyway, and the prime space is in front--an unobstructed south-facing slope. Everything else is in the shadow of the house part of the day.

So, I'm happy with my solution, which is to plant perennials that flower freely and easily, so I don't mind if they get snipped. Still, the nerve!

Stealing Flowers

Anyone who thinks that gardeners are naturally generous people, eager to share their bounty and always glad to see the neighbors enjoying the beauty and tranquility that their garden has brought to the neighborhood, has never been around my place in early spring. Sometimes having a garden can be so aggravating that I don’t know why I even bother. I am referring, of course, to the problem of flower theft.

I used to live near the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, where tourists regularly snapped blossoms off my perennials as they walked by. It was annoying, but eventually I got used to the idea that anything that spilled into the sidewalk was fair game. One year I planted a Sungold cherry tomato right at the edge of the sidewalk just for the tourists. To my surprise, the tomatoes were left mostly untouched. I guess they were saving room for churros and corn dogs.

One time I actually caught someone digging a geranium out of my neighbor’s yard. This was taking it too far. I stopped him on the sidewalk and confronted him. A garden is not a collection of free horticultural samples, I explained frostily. A plant is a possession, a thing that someone owns, not a souvenir offered up to tourists to help them treasure the memories of their summer vacation.

He hastily stuck the geranium back in the soil, but not before his children had gathered around to listen to me scold their father. It was a low moment for him and, in some ways, for me, too. I was letting flower theft get under my skin.

I tried to relax my standards a little when I planted my garden in Eureka. Once again, the front yard would be full of flowers. I could have put up a fence or a boxwood hedge, but I didn’t want to build a barrier around my garden, and I certainly didn’t want to create any shade on my south-facing slope. Instead, I planted a row of lavender—a visual barrier, something that is difficult to step over and patrolled by ever-vigilant honeybees. If somebody snapped off a sprig of lavender as they walked by, I’d hardly miss it, and there was always the chance that a bee sting would teach the flower thief a thing or two about crime and punishment.

But it pains me to report that I’ve lost more than the occasional lavender sprig. The worst offense was the theft of a purple “Globemaster” allium, an enormous round flower in the onion family that blooms just once a year from a single stalk. These bulbs retail for nearly ten bucks each (you heard me right, ten dollars for one lousy bulb), and once you’ve grown them, you realize that part of what you’re paying for is the anticipation. The stalk rises to a height of three or four feet, slowly, as you watch and measure and pace and wonder if it will bloom in time for, say, a party you’re giving, or a visit from your in-laws. The bud gets fatter and fatter, and one day, the flower, which is really a cluster of tiny flowers that form a globe shape, starts to emerge. It takes another week or two for the flower to reach its full size, then it might stay on the stalk for a month or more.

Except in my garden, where someone walked right up to the flower bed next to my doorstep, and cut it down with a sharp knife.

It is impossible not to notice the disappearance of a four-foot tall globe-shaped flower from one’s front yard. It is equally difficult to overlook the sudden departure of the lone iris that saw fit to bloom early, or the first daffodil of the year. Oh, and about that lavender: the idea was to pick a sprig of it, just one, while walking by. Yanking out an enormous handful, leaving a fist-sized hole in the shrub, is not an insult from which a lavender plant, or its owner, can recover quickly.

I’m not the only victim of flower theft. Every couple of years, a news story circulates about a proud hydrangea grower who awakens to find her bushes stripped of flowers. The flowers dry beautifully and can be sold in flower shops and craft stores for around eight dollars each. Roses sometimes meet the same fate, as do calla lilies. Florists have learned to be more careful about their suppliers to avoid trafficking in stolen goods.

And if a hydrangea in bloom presents too much of a temptation, imagine the allure of a field of sunflowers. Farmers in flower-growing regions sometimes band together to patrol the fields when their crops are in bloom. Botanical gardens lose rare flowers and plants to theft, and even graveyards are not immune from the wide-ranging appetites of flower thieves.

What possesses a person to steal flowers? Shouldn’t something as lovely and ephemeral as a flower inspire people to do good? Do flower thieves steal anything else—newspapers, potted plants, welcome mats? What bothers me most is knowing that some of the flower crimes in my garden were premeditated. The stalks were not ripped out on impulse—they were cut neatly at their base. The flower thief brought a knife.

The gardeners in my neighborhood have come up with all kinds of strategies to combat this problem. Some have put up signs like the one pictured here. Others plant impenetrable hedges or install high wooden fences. And plenty of people have adopted the same strategies they might use for any other garden pest: relocate the valuable plants away from the pest’s habitat (the alliums are now in the backyard), and where pests are unavoidable, plant extra so you don’t mind the crop loss.

So my front yard is filled with daisies and cosmos and other ordinary, run-of-the-mill flowers. They are so easy to grow that any flower thief should be embarrassed to have to resort to stealing them.

And in fact, some are: from time to time people knock on my door and ask permission to cut flowers. I hardly know whether to be offended by their sense of entitlement, or consider it an improvement over theft, but either way, it forces me to be the sort of gardener I am not: the gracious and kind-hearted sort, who is happy to share the beauty and tranquility of her garden with others, who rushes inside for a pair of scissors and cuts a lovely bouquet while chatting amicably about the communal nature of gardening, and who never, ever mumbles, “If you like flowers so much, plant your own damn garden” as they walk away.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Fallen Fruit

Those of you who know how I feel about garden thieves (I'll post more on this another day) are going to think I've lost my mind, but I just love the idea behind Fallen Fruit. The idea was to create a map of "public fruit" in Los Angeles--fruit growing in public spaces and also fruit planted on private property that overhangs a public space. They publish maps and put out "Fruit Alerts" to let people know when, say, the avocados are ripe.

And they encourage people to plant fruit trees close to the road. Share the bounty.

Most of LA was once an orchard. I like the idea of it returning to orchard, in a subversive way.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Butterfly Gardening

The Fabulous Thing of the Day comes from Butterfly Gardening and There's a butterfly blog, lots of great photos of butterflies, and information about host plants and nectar plants.

In case you haven't explored the whole notion of butterfly gardening before, let me explain: the deal with attracting butterflies to your garden is that you should plant both nectar plants, which provide a food source to adult butterflies, and also host plants, where butterflies will lay their eggs.

For example, milkweed is a host plant for Monarchs; parsley and dill are host plants for some swallowtails. Just remember that when caterpillars start eating your host plants, that's actually a good thing. Take pictures. Make a baby book. Butterflies are on their way.

Best of all, they sell mugs, T-shirts, and other gear emblazoned with some extraordinary photographs like the ones you see above. Check them out here.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Crazy Old Tulips

You know your gardening habit has gotten out of control when:

A. You look forward to receiving junk e-mail from your favorite gardening catalog

B. You are willing to pay $10 for a single diseased bulb because it’s so rare

C. A traveling exhibit on the history of the flower pot actually sounds interesting

D. All of the above.

This brilliant flash of insight came to me when I got my last ‘Friends of Old Bulbs Gazette’ e-mail from Old House Gardens. I got to know this heirloom bulb company last year after I went to Holland and became interested in the old Dutch tulips that were still being cultivated at the Hortus Bulborum in Limmen. Some of these bulbs have been around for four hundred years, and they’d probably vanish entirely if a group of very dedicated, and mostly quite elderly, volunteers didn’t keep them going year after year.

One of the reasons why these tulips aren’t more widely available is that some of them are diseased—sort of. In the late 16th and 17th century, Holland’s tulip mania was fueled by a desire for tulips with wild streaks of color on their petals. These streaked tulips were almost impossible to propagate, and the very randomness of the color variation drove speculators to gamble enormous sums on a single bulb. What the Dutch didn’t know at the time was that the streaks of color were caused by a fairly harmless virus called “tulip breaking virus.” It’s spread by aphids and infects tulips and lilies (with less pleasing results in the lilies.)

So I returned from Holland with a craving for weird old tulips, and Old House Gardens was the only company that could help. The owner, Scott Kunst, has been growing and selling antique bulbs out of his Queen Anne house in Ann Arbor since 1993. Among their offerings I found “Exquisite Rarities from the Hortus Bulborum,” a collection of bulbs that came directly from the hands of the aforementioned elderly Dutch volunteers. They cost a small fortune, but I had to have a few. I called Kunst to ask him about the alleged virus in these bulbs.

“Yeah, it freaks out our customers and sometimes it freaks us out, too,” he said. “But I try to explain that it’s a kind of benign virus, like the naturally occurring bacteria that improve wine or cheese. This is just a virus that causes the pigments to clump together and reveal the naturally white or yellow color of the petals underneath.”

I asked him if gardeners should be worried about the virus spreading in the garden. “Look,” he said. “There’s viruses all around, all the time. Tulip breaking virus is really out there in the wild all the time. Even in my garden, before I ever grew broken tulips, I had a tulip that broke. The virus was already here. But we do encourage people to plant them away from other tulips or lilies.” (It is true that nothing in a garden is ever clean or sterile. Even the “beneficial microbes” added to organic fertilizers are actually bacteria and fungi that do far more good than harm.)
So why grow a diseased old tulip when there are perfectly new, squeaky clean tulips on the market every year? “You can grow what they call ‘modern Rembrandts,’ which look similar, but they’re modern hybrids,” he told me. “The coloring is very crude and harsh, like a paint-by-number painting. In true broken tulips, you’ll see more refined feathering patterns, more damask-like. These modern hybrids totally lack the grace and beauty of the old tulips,” he said.

Old tulips aren’t their only offerings; they also sell any number of spring and fall-blooming bulbs. For instance, you can find two rare and well-loved hybrid lilies developed by Leslie Woodriff, who bred lilies in McKinleyville for many years. They offer both ‘Black Beauty,’ an astonishing lily that grows 5-8 feet tall and produces up to 40 ruby blooms, and ‘White Henryi,’ which produces flowers with creamy white petals and a butterscotch throat with nutmeg freckles. (I didn’t come up with that description myself—that’s actually how Kunst described it to me. This guy knows how to sell lilies.) Many of these rare bulbs are available in such small quantities that you have to order them well in advance--they might only get a couple dozen of a particular rarity like Cafe Brun, which dates back to at least 1830.

There’s something so daring and decadent about buying something old and rare and costly and just sticking it in the dirt. What if a gopher gets it? What if the snails mow it down? What if it gets lost in a sea of geranium or a drift of love-in-a-mist? On the other hand, these bulbs have survived the hit-or-miss attention of generations of gardeners before me. They might just make it in my garden, too.

To feed your habit, visit their webiste or call 734-995-1486 and ask for a catalog. And yes, they will send you an e-mail once a month if you so desire, and from that newsletter you will learn about a traveling exhibit of old flower pots that is not, as far as I can tell, coming to the West Coast, an article on heirloom daffodils in Oklahoma that may date back to the Trail of Tears, and a list of any number of obscure old bulbs that you probably never knew you needed.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

World Naked Gardening Day (WNGD)

Dang, I can't believe I missed Naked Gardening Day. It was September 10. To think I probably kept my clothes on all day that day. Well, mark your calendars for next year--it's always the second Saturday of September.

I could give you a long list of reasons why I don't garden naked, and none of them have to do with modesty. They mostly involve sunburns, bug bites, scratches from thorns, accidents involving tools, sore knees, and the like. But in the spirit of the thing, I will share a Partially Naked Gardening story with you:

Last weekend, I came in from a long day of hardcore, muddy, dirty gardening. It is my custom to come in the back door and shed my gardening clothes in the laundry room so that I don't track dirt all over the house. So I did that, and went upstairs wearing--well, almost nothing. I got a bath started and went into Scott's office to say hello. He looked up from his computer, pleasantly surprised to see his almost-naked wife standing there. However, the expression on his face quickly turned to horror.

"What?" I asked

He just pointed.

"What?" I said again.

"A spider just dropped out of your hair," he finally managed to say.

It was just a little spider, and I guess it had managed to attach a web in my hair and drop slowly down to the ground. I couldn't find it afterwards; it may well be wandering around Scott's office still. He was absolutely horrified and banished me quickly to the bathtub. I tried to convince him that I was just trying out my Halloween costume; he was unimpressed.

The moral of this story is that I am enough of a horror when I come in from a day of gardening clothed. I don't even want to imagine what I'd look like...well. You know.

By the way, if you're uncomfortable with the idea of viewing photographs of naked people gardening, or if you're at work and you fear company policy might prohibit such a thing, please do not visit:

World Naked Gardening Day (WNGD)

Thanks to Tacoma Gardener for pointing this one out.

The Dirt on Dirt

Why Soil Health Matters

Here's a great story from Rodale's New Farm about soil fertility. I think this is a really useful way to think about soil. When he says that soil is not a hydroponic medium, what he means is that it isn't some inert substance designed to hold and deliver the nutrients you inject into it. It's a place where nutrients are constantly digested, recycled, reused, lost, gained. In other words, it's dynamic and constantly changing.

Read on:

"Soil is not a hydroponic medium. You can't spoon feed fertility to roots, even if you apply all the fertilizer a corn crop needs. In a corn-soybean rotation on most soils, if you put on 15C pounds of N, less than 50 percent is likely to end up in the corn plant. It can be as little as 10 percent. The N that does reach the plant may come from last year's fertilizer or from the last decade's. Adding new fertilizer may cause more N uptake, but even that is mostly 'old' nitrogen that enters the plant because the nitrogen cycling system kicked into a higher gear.

It's like a biological banking system. The dollars you get out are not the same dollars that you deposited. "

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Organic Farms More Diverse News - Sci-Tech - Animal appeal of organic farms

Check out the results of this study on the biodiversity of organic farms. The study, conducted by a team of UK researchers, examined 180 farms, some organic and some not organic, and turned up the kind of results that might be hard to appreciate if you're not already an organic farmer or gardener.

"Organic fields were estimated to hold 68 to 105 per cent more plant species and 74 to 153 per cent greater abundance of weeds than non-organic fields," said their report, to be published by the Royal Society today.

"Organic was estimated to support five to 48 per cent more spiders in pre-harvest crops, 16 to 62 per cent more birds in the first winter and six to 75 per cent more bats."

More weeds? More spiders? Well, the fact is that weeds can play a role in breaking up the soil, preventing erosion and controlling runoff, attracting pollinators, and creating compost. And spiders are very beneficial predators that can help keep other bugs in check. In fact, as I think about the lovely spiders we've had in the garden this summer, I realize I haven't once taken a picture of any of them. We should photograph the things we value. Look for photos of spiders, coming soon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I Get By With a Little Help From My Hens

I cleared out a space for a new vegetable bed this morning--just enough room for some potatoes (Scott's request) and some cabbages anad kale. The chickens are very interested in anything involving newly-turned dirt, although they do have what I assume is a well-ingrained instinctual fear of farm implements, which keeps them well away from my hoe. Anyway, with their help I got the area cleared, fertilized, and planted. For more on the chickens, visit Humboldt Hens.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Bug Guide!

This is too good. Learn more than you ever wanted to know about bugs--and those who love them--here:

Welcome to BugGuide.Net! - BugGuide.Net

More Garden Paintings

As long as we're on the subject of friend Annette (who would like me to point out that she is pregnant, not fat, in these images) in the garden at Kendall-Jackson Winery--both the photo and the painting.

Friday, September 16, 2005

I started taking painting classes so that I could paint the garden. But somehow the garden as a whole has not been a very interesting subject for me. (or maybe it's just too difficult for an amateur.) I do really enjoy these still-life paintings, though. Calendula and Fiestaware.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Save Kepler's Bookstore

This may seem off-topic, but nothing involving an independent bookstore is off-topic to a writer. If you've never been to Kepler's in Menlo Park (just south of San Francisco)--well, you may have missed an opportunity to visit one of the finest bookstores in the country. The shop closed unexpectedly a few weeks ago after the owner announced that he could no longer pay the rent on the space.

I just can't tell you how sad and awful this is. A bookstore like Kepler's is a treasure. If I were to list my peak bookstore experiences, they would include the wonderful days I've spent at Powell's in Portland, Kepler's, the incomparable Bookshop Santa Cruz, and just a few others.

Now some investors have come forward in an attempt to save the bookstore. Follow this link to keep on top of the latest developments.

The litter in litt�rateur. � Save Kepler's

What can you do to save Kepler's or your own beloved independent bookstore? Two things:

First, buy all your books from them. If you see a book online that you'd like to own, call or e-mail your local shop and they'll order it for you. Usually they can get a book in just a few days. If you see a book in a grocery store or some non-indie bookstore setting, jot down the title and get it from your local independent. This is easy, folks. I promise.

Second, increase your book-buying by giving more books as gifts. Take your holiday budget and walk into the bookstore with it. I promise you'll walk out with a satisfyingly heavy bag of gifts for everyone on your list. Think of all the good you'll be doing: You'll support your local independent bookstore, authors, illustrators, and maybe even some great indie publishers. Let me tell you, the publishing biz is tough. If you want to keep it interesting and independent, support it with your dollars. And everyone will appreciate getting a book from you. Don't worry if they've read it already. It's the thought that counts, folks.

And since we are, ostensibly, talking about gardening, here are a couple of my favorite garden bookstores:

University Bookstore in Seattle, believe it or not, has one of the finest gardening sections I've ever seen.

Flora and Fauna Books, also in Seattle, has an incredible selection and a very dedicated and knowledgeable owner. Don't miss it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Kill Your Lawn

Each year, Briggs & Stratton, the self-proclaimed world’s largest producer of air-cooled gasoline engines for outdoor power equipment, holds an All-American Lawn contest. For some reason they’ve decided that I need to know about this event, and every year they send me an elaborate press kit, complete with fact sheets and glossy photographs.

Usually the contest is open to ordinary people who just happen to have five or ten acres of golf course-like greens around their house. The grand prize winner gets ten thousand dollars (yep, you read that right—grass is big business), and the runners-up get a one thousand dollar gift certificate to a home improvement store. If you don’t have a lawn worthy of the All-American Lawn grand title, you can still enter the Chance Drawing. Winners of the Chance Drawing get a free visit from a Briggs & Stratton Lawn Doctor to help them whip their turf into shape.

One year, Briggs & Stratton decided to honor ten public lawns. They chose lawns that reflected the spirit of our great nation: “power and influence, pride and competitive spirit, freedom and simplicity.” The American Lawn, they claimed, is “a symbol of the colonial past and a constant ideal in the American-built environment.”

Now, I have never been a fan of lawns—I have ripped lawns out at two houses so far—but I’ll get to that in a minute. First I want you to see what a person is up against when they take a stand against grass. The tradition of a green lawn goes beyond a few suburbanites with their Scot Turf Builder and their riding mowers. This is football-on-Thanksgiving territory, Chevy Suburban-and-Little League territory. In these patriotic times, a person runs a real risk by even questioning the value of The American Lawn.

The top ten public lawn list included the Alamo, the United States Naval Academy, Doubleday Field, and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. In case I didn’t grasp the sheer majesty of these public lawns, slides were enclosed. The Alamo, off in the distance, with a smooth green carpet in the foreground. The Naval Academy, where white-clad officers marched on a neatly clipped field. The American Lawn, Briggs & Stratton seemed to claim, has been underfoot in some of our nation’s proudest moments—battles, sporting events, and explorers looking to stake a claim out west.

Briggs & Stratton has carried on this one-sided correspondence with me for years, but it has failed to persuade me. I just don’t see the point of a lawn. Why would anybody take a plant—grass—and plant it by the thousands, only to chop it down to the ground every few weeks? I like plants that contribute something, but lawns produce neither flowers nor fruit. They offer shelter to only a few creatures, and even those inhabitants—worms, crickets, and the like—are put off by the never-ending applications of fertilizer and herbicide. Lawns demand a rather alarming amount of water. In fact, cities like Albuquerque have decided that perhaps the lawn is not so All-American after all and have put ordinances in place that strongly discourage the installation of lawns in new housing developments.

Now, I know some of you will disagree with me on this. “You’ve got to have a lawn,” friends have told me over the years. “Don’t you like to sit outside on the grass?”

Well, I live in Eureka, I explain, where it is almost always chilly and damp. No, when I’m outside, I find it’s best to keep moving.

“Yes, but we’ve got [dogs/children/cats/bunnies] and they need a little grass so they can run around.”

Hmmm. I’m no expert on dogs, but cats are sly creatures who prefer a variety of hiding places and lookout points. An expanse of grass would leave a cat, with all its inexplicable paranoia, far too exposed. As for children, the kids who visit my garden seem to enjoy a world where the flowers are taller than they are and strawberries and cherry tomatoes are just waiting to be picked and eaten.

“But you can’t plant a garden everywhere,” people say. “It’s too much work. Besides, what will the neighbors think?”

All right, now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. When I bought my house, I hired a crew to dig out the lawn, till in some compost, and spread a layer of chipped bark on top. Grass runs in an uninterrupted expanse on my block, from one end of the street to the other, without so much as a driveway to interrupt the flow. At least, that’s how it used to be. Suddenly there was a gash in the middle of this stretch of lawn, and it did occur to me briefly to wonder what the neighbors might think.

But now I get nothing but smiles and compliments when the neighbors walk by. It is, after all, a cheery sight. Daisies and penstemon, lavender and sage, cosmos and pincushion flower, all bloom with abandon where once there was nothing but lawn. And although I’ve never maintained a lawn, I know that my garden must require less work. In fact, all it needs is a little deadheading in summer and fall and a topdressing of compost just before winter. Most of the plants prefer dry conditions in summer, so I don’t even spend much time watering.

If you’ve ever thought about ripping out your lawn, consider these ideas:

Removing the lawn: I dug out the grass because the ground sloped and I needed to do a little leveling of the site anyway. But if this isn’t a problem for you, consider smothering the grass in 2-3 layers of cardboard or 15-20 sheets of overlapping newspaper. Soak the cardboard or newspaper well and top with at least six inches of manure, grass clippings, dried leaves and compost. The paper will decompose eventually and you’ll be left with good, rich soil for planting.

Groundcovers: There are plenty of good groundcover choices at the nursery. You might plant a few of them at the edge of your lawn and pick the one that performs best. Herbs such as yarrow, thyme, and chamomile all make interesting lawn alternatives and can handle light foot traffic.

Perennials: I couldn’t resist planting a jumble of my favorite flowers. But if you want something more…organized, consider planting masses of just one plant, such as lavender, heather, salvia or penstemon. Here are some great long-blooming choices from White Flower Farm.

Meadows: A wildflower meadow attracts birds and beneficial insects and demands little in the way of water or fertilizer. Native flowers like poppy and clarkia perform well on their own or in a mix with native grasses. If you’re thinking about turning your yard into a meadow, check out The Blooming Lawn: Creating a Flower Meadow, by Yvette Verner and Front Yard Gardens: Growing More than Grass. You can also visit the California Native Plant Society. Come to think of it, a lawn given over to native wildflowers may be the most All-American lawn of all.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Don't Plant a Pest

Thanks to A Gardener's Notebook for tracking down this website on invasive plants. While its focus is Southern California, a lot of these plants are in use all over the West. There's a brochure you can download and more information on a wide range of invasives, from iceplant to eucalyptus.

Don't Plant a Pest

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Veg Cam

Yes, you can watch vegetables grow online. Just remember that this is the UK. If it's daylight in California and the cam is dark, well, there's a reason for that.

HDRA - VegCam !!

Naked Gardening

That's right, folks. Pacific Northwest Master Gardeners Bare All. If you've ever wanted to see Seattle's garden columnist and radio host Ciscoe Morris--well, unpotted--now's your chance.

Master Gardener Foundation of Kitsap County

The Farmgirl Life

MaryJane Butters is a force of nature. She bought a farm in Moscow, Idaho in 1986, hoping to live the rural life of her dreams. It was tough going, but she found some unconventional ways to finance the farm: she started a “Pay Dirt Farm School,” in which would-be farmers can pay three grand to spend a week tending beehives, planting crops, and chopping firewood (you heard me—people pay her to chop wood); she began selling packaged, quick-prep organic meals, and she sold shares in her enterprise to a group of stockholders.

Oh, and she runs a bed-and-breakfast, grows her own biodiesel fuel out of mustard greens, and sells her eggs and produce through a community-supported agriculture program. And she publishes a glossy magazine called MaryJane’s Farm, which is a gloriously disheveled mixture of recipes, gardening tips, advice for decorating the henhouse, and ads for her organic food.

Sound familiar? Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, thought so, too. They ponied up $1.35 million for a two-book deal, and many in the industry speculated that Butters would be the next Martha Stewart—the organic, dirt-under-the-fingernails, version of Martha, the one who you believe might actually do all that cooking and farming herself. And unlike Martha, there’s no need to worry that an ill-advised call to a stockbroker would land her in trouble. MaryJane was recently quoted as saying that, much to her accountant’s chagrin, she hasn’t even opened a savings account. And she’s turned down TV offers so she can stay on the farm.

Her first book, MaryJane’s Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook, was published this summer. I was reading it in the garden last week when my chicken Eleanor jumped in my lap and stuck her beak right into the book as if she wanted to read along with me. That’s when I realized that I was having a farmgirl moment, and that between the egg-gathering, the worm-farming, and the berry-picking, I’ve been having farmgirl moments for a while now. Have I become a MaryJane devotee, or did she just happen to come along at the right time?

MaryJane’s world is not perfect, polished, or unattainable. (On the website she offers Farmgirl Chapter kits for people who want to organize local groups of farmgirls; those requesting the kit are warned, “The cover letter in our Farmgirl Chapter Kit says there are 10 posters included. We didn’t get around to making those posters, so please don’t think we left them out.”) So she doesn’t get around to everything. What do you expect? It’s a farm. She’s busy.

The new book, like her magazines, are an odd blend of clippings, stories, and craft ideas. Enter MaryJane’s world and you’ll meet a woman who embroiders pillows with the alphabet, in the style of an old-fashioned sampler, then underneath she stitches these lines: “My mama said for me to do this—it would be fun—it was not.” You can find out how to “sass up” flip-flops by adding old plastic clip-on earrings. There are ideas for making purses out of old calendars and contact paper, and lots of recipes involving Jell-O molds. MaryJane’s in favor of eating salad for breakfast (just add hard-boiled eggs and chunks of apple) and she likes to wear aprons because “they separate your outside self from your inside self.”

What I love about this book, and the magazine, is that woven through them I hear the voices of women like my great-grandmother, who was all in favor of darning socks and building your own “outpost” in the backyard where you can camp in the summer. She, too, would have called the campfire meal you’d eat out there—roasted potatoes and johnny cakes—a “hobo dinner.”

And when MaryJane wrote that women love chickens because “putting chickens to bed every night satiates our clucking, nurturing nature,” I was sure I was hearing one of my own aunts, who would have guessed (correctly) that I make a point of putting the girls to bed each night. They settle onto their roost, tuck their beaks under their wings, and let me scratch their necks and whisper to them for a few minutes before they fall asleep. Those are the kind of farmgirl moments I live for.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

It's berry season around here. Eureka may be too cold for tomatoes, but it's perfect for berries. These are ever-bearing raspberries that produce a crop in early summer and then again in fall. Berries are prone to some diseases and pests around here, and it's a bit of a trick to know how to prune them and keep them happy. I've been relying on The Backyard Berry Book for my information, and the products in Gardens Alive Fruit Tree First Aid Kit, especially Seranade, have been really helpful in keeping down the bugs and the spots.