Monday, October 31, 2005

Gardening as a Contact Sport

Gardening is surprisingly hazardous work. It seems peaceful enough at first glance. When you think of your mother or your aunt out in her garden, you imagine a woman in a wide straw hat and a flowery apron, laying just-cut roses into a wicker trug or encouraging her clematis to follow the line of the trellis. But gardening is messy and, dare I say it, even violent, and that goes for beginners and experienced gardeners who should know better. In the last year, I have done the following to myself in the garden:

  • Pulled so hard on a thorny weed that it popped loose and flew, full force, into my eye.
  • Walked right onto the tines of a rake, causing the handle to smack me in the head
  • Hit my finger so hard with a hammer that it raised a blood blister I was afraid to even look at for a week
  • Dropped a bag of potting soil into the path and promptly tripped over it, spraining my ankle.

And that doesn’t count the splinters, bug bites, sunburns, unexplained bruises and sore muscles in places where I didn’t even know I had places—all of which surface when I sink into the bath, moaning, at the end of the day.

You’ll notice that all of these wounds are self-inflicted, even the bug bites, which I bring upon myself by not wearing the right gear and not checking for spiders before I reach into some dense undergrowth where I can’t see anything. You’d think that after all these years, I could find a way to get through a day in the garden without hurting myself, but instead I’ve just accepted that gardening is a ruthless, brutal sport. Gardening isn’t pretty. It’s dirty. It leaves scars.

The problem is that this form of hazardous gardening can have the unintended consequence of keeping you out of the garden. I have injured myself so badly that I’ve had to stay out the vegetable beds for weeks at a time. In fact, I finally got into the weight room at the gym when I realized that I was simply not strong enough to keep up with my own garden. If I couldn’t haul a thirty-pound sack of manure around, what good was I?

So I’ve gotten better, but I still have a ways to go. There's still lots of heavy lifting left to be done this year: major pruning, chipping and shredding, hauling in more bags of mulch (I'm using the el cheapo special out in the alley--a mix of Ace Hardware's composted wood products and steer manure--to get ready for some bareroot planting), and general tidying up before the rain hits.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Just in time for Halloween

Looked what bloomed today. I love these Oriental poppies--they grow vigorously, need no attention, and every now and then, they do this. Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 28, 2005

Plants I Can't Grow...

...because it's not cold enough in winter:

Peonies. Which I love.
Most lilacs.
All sorts of other interesting plants I just skip over in the White Flower Farm catalog because they are marked "zone 4-8" and those people mean what they say.

...because it's not warm enough in summer:

Tomatoes. Peppers. Eggplant. Melon.
Cosmos and sunflowers. (OK, I eke out a few, but they need heat to really get going.)
Bougainvillia, hibuscus, other tropicals.

...because it's too damp:

Squash. Melon.
Zinnia (which I love, by the way.)
Anything else that's susceptible to powdery mildews, wilts, et al. Clematis is tricky for me, and I blame the weather.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Plants I Love: A Much Longer List

Lavender, of course.

Salvia, all salvia. I have not met one I didn't like. The flowers are gorgeous and long-lasting, and they lure hummingbirds. The plants thrive in my climate and don't need a lot of water. They are insanely easy to propagate--I have quite literally snapped a branch off, broken it into sections, and stuck each section in the ground on a rainy day. Instant new plants.Pictured here: S. mexicana 'Limelight', one of my all-time favorites, and S. buchananii. Also pictured--S. officionalis, the purple one, and rosemary, another favorite. Posted by Picasa

Chard. Basically, anything edible. Raspberries, blackberries, apples, greens, potatoes, you name it. Any plant you can eat is a friend of mine. Posted by Picasa

Poppies. All poppies. Oooooh.... Posted by Picasa

Artichokes! Ornamental, edible, and (as you can see) able to tolerate a little frost. Posted by Picasa

This could go on forever, so let me wrap it up by saying: tall purple verbena, sweet peas, jasmine, almost any climbing flowering vine, dahlia, penstemon, Shasta daisy, lilac, cosmos, all herbs, especially Hopley's purple oregano, narcissus, especially the sweet little scented daffodils, almost any bulb (including gladiolus, which do not remind me of funerals...), milkweed, scented geranium, true geranium, catmint, yarrow, gaura, butterfly bush...

Plants I have recently become interested in and may go overboard on: ornamental grasses, anything that produces flowers or berries in winter. Alleyway planting of winter-bearing shrubs forthcoming--stay tuned for details.

S. confertiflora (red spike--an amazing salvia) and Leonotis, or Lion's tail (the orange). This is actually a member of the mint family (actually so are salvia) and blooms for months and moths. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Plants I Hate

1. Nandinas. Leaves the color of cockroaches. Ugly little berries. Often grown in the courtyards of dentist offices. Like nails on a chalkboard.

2. Agapanthus. Often grown in the parking lots of supermarkets. Boring, boring, boring.

3. Impatiens. Especially near the end of their miserable, short-lived little lives, when they get scraggly and twiggy. Rip them out, already!

4. Cannas. I want to love them, I truly do, but they are a 1970s gardening cliche and I just can't go there. Like those little button-up shirts with the ruffles down the front and the puffly sleeves that have come back for some unknown reason. Hated them the first time; can't ever go back there.

5. Coleus. See Impatiens. Add pansies to that.

6. Others too numerous to mention: caladium, daylilies, those irritating little marguerite daisies, especially the pink one called "Cobbity," all ferns, dull and overused landscape shurbs like pittosporum, ivy in all its forms, and houseplants.

And yes, I know how unfair all this is. Tacoma Gardener started it...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Gardening? Decorating? What's the difference?

At left: an example of what's wrong with American gardening: Is this gardening or a home decorating makeover?

Seed heiress Anna Ball has opened a 7.5 acre flower garden in Chicago to show off Ball Horticultural's new introductions. The company that has given us decades of dull bedding plants is stopping short to wonder about the future.

"Its products decorate the decks, balconies and garden beds of anyone who has picked up a petunia at Home Depot or at the neighborhood garden center, but getting the flower to the consumer may be one of the most convoluted journeys in commerce. And as Anna Ball grapples with ways of reaching consumers, she is also preoccupied by more fundamental issues: Is America turning from a nation of gardeners to one of mere yard decorators? And will young homeowners, pressed for time and distracted by modern media, come to value this quieter pursuit?"

Anna Ball worries about overwhelming the consumer in choices, but she also laments the shift away from the process of gardening to the idea that plants are merely another product. Little annuals were a pain to extract from those 36-cell flats, but you could nurture them and see them grow through the summer, and that was therapy for the gardener as well as the plant. "It's moving from gardening to decorating, she said. "I suppose some people think it's a good idea, but we don't."

All right, then. Gardening is not decorating. It's not a backyard makeover. It's what you do. It's getting outside and putting your hands in the dirt. It's about spiders and honeybees, worms and ants. Compost. Roots. Dew. Sunshine. Wind. Frost.

Some plants will grow, and you'll call that your garden. But gardening is more than that. Anna Ball, I'm with you.

Journal Gazette 10/24/2005 A gardening giant worries market could wilt

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Fall Harvest

It's that time of year at the farmer's market. Photographing the produce is almost as much fun as eating it. I miss the Santa Cruz farmer's market; I was happy to stumble across Small Farm's many fabulous farmers market photos, many of which probably come from my former hometown. Posted by Picasa

A Halloween Tale

I bought my first carnivorous plant as an anniversary present about this time last year. I don’t know why a flesh-eating plant struck me as an appropriate way to celebrate eleven years of conjugal bliss, but there was something elegant and other-worldly about the plant that seemed just right.

It might not have been the most sentimental gift I’ve ever given, but according to Hallmark, that was our “steel” anniversary, and I couldn’t find anything in steel (knives? mailboxes?) that seemed particularly romantic anyway.

The carnivorous plant I chose was a pitcher plant that is native to bogs in the eastern United States. The leaves rise up in narrow flutes that collect water and lure flies to their death. The one I chose was green with reddish veins—an altogether creepy color scheme that made the plant resemble some vestigial digestive organ that you’d just as soon have removed before it got inflamed.

A single carnivorous plant is a harmless enough creature; mine sits in a sunny window and snacks distractedly on any flies that happen to wander by. But walk into OBJX, the shop in Old Town Eureka where I bought my plant, and a sight awaits you that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck and chill the very marrow in your bones: hundreds of Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, bladderworts, sundews, and cobra lilies, all reaching menacingly toward the giant copper centipede that looms over them and houses a set of fluorescent grow-light tubes.

They may never get a bite of the centipede—a cruel joke played on the plants by shop owners Kellen and Randy Perlman and local artist Wade Badger—but they won’t starve, either. Nearly every plant holds a fly or a gnat in its sticky grasp, and on a sunny day the plant table buzzes with trapped insects whose predicament is only just beginning to dawn on them.

The Perlmans started off with six plants in their shop, which also houses an assortment of peculiar and sometimes alarming artifacts that look like they’ve been hauled down from Frankenstein’s attic: antique laboratory equipment, framed locks of hair from some long-ago departed, blurry old photographs, and dead bugs in little glass jars. They figured the carnivorous plants would appeal to their customers, and they were right: demand for the plants is so strong that they are looking at ways to keep them in stock throughout the winter, when the plants would usually leave the store for a period of dormancy.

“There’s quite a carnivore culture in this area,” says Randy, hinting at a dark side of Humboldt county gardeners that I never knew existed. “There are a few kids—ten and twelve years old—who are seriously into these plants. They’re down here every chance they get.”

It’s not just kids with a penchant for odd plants who flock to the front window at OBJX. Carnivorous plants thrive in bogs, making them a good choice for perennially wet spots in the garden. Another Eureka gardener, Michele McKeegan, chose pitcher plants for her bog garden. “The garden slopes down to the woods,” she explained one day, while we stood on her sunny south-facing slope, “and everything drains down to that one spot in the lawn. I thought about putting in French drains, but then I just decided to let it stay a bog.” It’s a cheerful bog garden, with bright sweeps of black-eyed Susan and cardinal lobelia, but the pitcher plants rise out of the dampest regions and lend it a swampy and mysterious aura.

You can get a carnivorous plant garden established outdoors in Humboldt county as long as the area is wet all year, even in summer. They like acid soil, appreciate peat moss, and will do best if they get some sunlight but are protected from harsh afternoon rays. The California pitcher plant, Darlingtonia californica, thrives along the Darlingtonia Trail in the Smith River National Recreation Area. The trail begins near mile post 17.9 on Highway 199; it’s a two-mile loop beginning at the west end of the parking lot. If you’re considering a bog garden, it would be worth visiting this natural bog for inspiration.

Carnivorous plants will do just as well indoors if you don’t have the space or the conditions to grow them outside. The requirements for each plant are a little different, but in general they need a good source of sunlight (or artificial light) and they should be situated in a tray of water to mimic bog conditions. Plan on keeping a jug of rainwater or distilled water around for them: the minerals in tap water will harm them over time. Most carnivorous plants require some period of dormancy, so if you’re growing them indoors, plan on taking them outside around Christmas and returning them indoors in March. If temperatures get much below freezing where you are, try an unheated room like a garage instead.

Each carnivorous plant employs a different strategy for luring and digesting bugs. Bladderworts live in the soil and suck tiny insects into bubble-like traps when their trigger hairs are touched. The traps reset themselves within about thirty minutes, making them extraordinarily voracious plants.Butterworts put out tiny violet-like flowers whose innocence belies their carnivorous nature. The leaves produce a slippery ooze that lures fruit flies and gnats to their death. Digestive enzymes excreted by the leaves breaks down the bodies of the insects, leaving nothing but empty carcasses around the plant.

Venus flytraps are perhaps the most familiar carnivorous plant; their trap leaves open and excrete a sweet nectar that attracts insects. Once the prey wanders inside the trap, it springs closed and glands on the insides of the leaves begin to excrete digestive juices that drown the doomed bug. (You can force a trap to close empty by running a finger along it, but this is considered highly rude in the carnivorous plant community.)

Pitcher plants are perhaps the showiest of all carnivorous plants, growing up to a foot tall and producing gorgeous, orchid-like blooms. Insects wander into the flute of the pitcher plant, attracted to the nectar it produces, and drown in the digestive juices that fill the lower regions of the plant. If you're in Eureka and you’ve got the stomach for it, stop in at OBJX and see if Kellen still has a pitcher plant “autopsy” on hand: one trumpet-shaped leaf, cut lengthways, containing a ghastly mass grave of dead flies. Oh, and in case you’re worried that a few carnivorous plants on a window sill are going to turn your life into a scene from Little Shop of Horrors, never fear: most carnivorous plants don’t require a steady supply of insects to survive, and they never eat raw meat—or fingertips.

For more information on carnivorous plants, check out Peter D’Amato’s book The Savage Garden.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

More Flower Funny Business

This just in from reader Linda David:

"...Someone came through and cut a huge portion of my irises down in front of my house, just in time for a nice Mother's Day bouquet. Well, something happened last weekend that has prompted me to send this message to you. We are in the process of selling our home and a week or so ago I cleaned up my iris beds. Sometime over last weekend, somebody came and acutally dug up a large clump of iris rizomes on either side of my arbor and quite carefully covered up the holes with bark. I noticed it on Monday evening when I went to the mailbox. I just wanted to add this to your list of rude garden robber incidents. Thanks for reading my complaint. ..."

Monday, October 17, 2005

Delphinium: The Big Lie

Has anyone ever actually grown a delphinium? Really, if you have, please write to me and tell me about it. I remember being so comforted last year when I saw some enormous and gorgeous delphiniums at the farmers market--and I mean these babies were almost as tall as I was--and when I said, "Oh, I wish I could grow delphiniums in my garden like this," the farmer just laughed and said, "Oh, honey. You don't grow these in a garden. You grow them in a greenhouse."

Oh. Right.

This photo comes from Jackson & Perkins, and I don't believe it one bit.

by way of Angela's Garden Blog: Delphinium Destruction

Ornamental Grasses: The Anti-Lawn

For years, I wanted nothing to do with ornamental grasses. I thought they were boring and unproductive. They don’t produce anything to eat and the flowers are insignificant. They don’t attract hummingbirds or butterflies. What’s the point?

But over time, I’ve been persuaded. I realized that the ornamental grasses in my neighborhood look good year-round, and there’s something to be said for that. I used to be content to fill my front yard with flowers that all burst into bloom at once in spring, but now, as we’re getting ready for winter, spring is an awfully long way off. I don’t know if I can stand the sight of my dormant, chopped-down-to-the-ground garden for months on end. Once I imagined the billowy silver and burgundy shapes of ornamental grasses blowing around in the wind and the rain, I was finally convinced. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve planted a dozen grasses in the front yard, and I’ve got room for more. (Fortunately, White Flower Farm just keeps them coming.)

My main source of inspiration has been a book by Nancy Ondra called Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design. Garden photographer Saxon Holt took the pictures, mostly at botanical gardens around the country, and they are breathtaking. In fact, even if you’re not interested in grasses, the book would be worth getting just to study his technique. My garden photographs turn out to be a muddy mess, but his are sharp, bright, and perfectly composed.

And Nancy knows what she’s talking about. The book is aimed at people who want to work grasses into a naturalistic perennial garden, so there are plenty of creative ideas for pairing grasses with lavender, salvia, sedum, aster, and even roses and lilies. (The variegated Miscanthus grass is a cheerful and, as she says, “preppy” companion for pink roses, for example.) There are chapters on front yard gardens, shady gardens, pondside plantings, and even container gardens.

Not all grasses are grasses, and this book covers a number of grass-like plants as well as true grasses. Nancy offers this garden rhyme to help you tell the difference: “Sedges have edges and rushes are round; grasses are hollow and rush all around.” I’ll never remember that, but with her illustrations in front of me, I can tell you that in fact, sedges have stems that form long, skinny triangles, while rushes have solid cylindrical stems, and true grasses have round, hollow stems. She also identifies the various flower forms most grasses offer—spikes, racemes, panicles, and awns—and separates out the clumpers from the creepers, the mounded from the tufted, and banishes the most invasive grasses entirely. However, some grasses are invasive in one part of the country but not in another, so her list of problem grasses is limited to the very worst offenders. Do check with the nursery if you’re not sure what you’re buying. The North Coast Chapter of the California Native Plant Society lists a number of native grasses at their website, including California oatgrass, California fescue, and blue bunchgrass.

While some grasses are drought-tolerant, others, especially the reeds, thrive in wet, marshy areas. Be sure to choose a grass that can handle the conditions in your garden, and remember that even plants that can survive dry summers will still need supplemental water for the first year or two while they get going. After that, you can actually use water to control the growth of the grass—if you want it to be shorter and tougher, hold back the water, but if you want something with more height and lushness, try watering more.

Grasses also don’t need a lot of fertilizer. In fact, too much nitrogen will actually produce more growth than is good for the plant, causing it to put out so much soft greenery that it flops over. Just work in some compost when you plant, and mulch every fall to keep it healthy.

In fact, grasses will typically require less maintenance than the rest of your plants do. Some benefit from a haircut in the winter, but many only need the dead foliage raked out from time to time. Clump-forming grasses should be divided every few years to keep the oldest growth in the center from dying out, and some grasses are so vigorous that you may want to cut out sections just to keep them down to a manageable size.

What I like most about the idea of working ornamental grasses into my garden is the way in which those soft, rounded shapes will support some of the other perennials that are nearing the end of their season. Yarrow flowers, for instance, turn brown this time of year but still make for an interesting shape on the end of the flower stalk. The same is true of gaura, tall purple verbena, and echinacea. Why bother cutting them back when I can let the stalks and dried seed pods stay on the plants all winter? It never looked right to leave the dry, brittle bones of the garden standing through winter before, but the grasses give the garden this relaxed, natural feel that lends itself to letting everything go to seed. That’s just what I intend to do.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Garden - Related Beatles Songs

Is this true? Did Paul McCartney really write these lyrics as stand-ins until the words to "Yesterday" arrived to match the melody? Can someone fact-check this, please? I'd do it myself, but I'm busy.

"Scrambled eggs
Have an omelette with some Muenster cheese
Put your dishes in the wash bin please
So I can clean the scrambled eggs"

Futility Closet

Well. True or not, I've got something even better: The Beetless Gardening Book, by Chris Roth, which has been out for almost ten years and would be impossible to find in a new bookstore--but here, I tracked one down for you at Powell's. This is an older but entirely accurate review I wrote of the book:

Within an hour of getting this book in my hands, I was humming “You’re Gonna Lose That Soil” to myself (“If you don’t add organic matter, you will deplete it soon--yes, yes you will deplete it soon...”) and considering how I could apply the lessons of “Paperback Mulcher” to my own life.

The Beetless, according to the book’s introduction, made singular contributions to the “agri-/horti-/literary/pop culture scene” of the late twentieth century. The band’s members, Jam Lemon, Pear Machete, Rutabaga Variety, and Joychoi Heirloom, formed to express in song the triumphs and challenges of organic vegetable gardening in the Pacific Northwest. Sadly, only fifty-seven of their songs were written down, and the rest are lost to today’s fans. However, the book’s author, Chris Roth, managed to gather together some information about the “Lost Songs of the Beetless”, which he includes in sidebars throughout the book.

Friends of Alan Chadwick will be saddened to learn that the lyrics to “Being for the Benefit of Alan Chadwick”, written by Jam after he found an apprenticeship brochure in the trash, have been lost forever. Other songs were left on the scrap heap after lyrical or musical difficulties. Another farmgirl favorite, “CSA Day” (set to the tune of “Sexy Sadie”), was scrapped due to the clumsy cadence of the lyrics, despite its insightful portrayal of a typical harvest/pickup day.

The good news is that many of the Beetless’ catchy, environmentally friendly tunes survived the ravages of time and life on the road. Their youthful enthusiasm for pollinators is evident in “Bug Me Do”:

“Bug, bug me do
You know I love you
You’ll pollinate too
So please...bug me do”

Fans of rich, loamy soil will be pleased to learn that the perennial classic, “A Hard Clay Soil” made it to this collection:

“I’ve got a hard, clay soil
And I’ve been working like a dog
To add humus so that when it rains
I’ve got a garden, not a bog...”

The Beetless weren’t afraid to tackle more serious, introspective topics, such as the destruction that cats can cause when they walk “Across the Seed Beds First” (to the tune of “Across the Universe”):

“Cats approach the garden beds I worked so hard in yesterday
I curse because I know they’ll walk
Across the seed beds first...”

“The Long, Eroded Path” laments the ravages of wind and rain to the tune of “The Long and Winding Road”:
“The long, eroded path
That leads from your door
May never disappear
I’ve seen erosion there before”

Other Beetless classics that you’ll find yourself humming in the garden include “Here Come the Slugs”, “I Saw Herbs Standing There”, and “Please Weed Me”. Most importantly, however, Beetless fans will appreciate the commentary on almost every song that is found in sidebars throughout the book. In the sidebar to “I’ve Got a Seedling”, Roth notes: “Personal gardening poems are a Beetless trademark. Here the plant’s dilemma becomes the gardener’s dilemma, the plant’s desire inseparable from the gardener’s desire to satisfy it.” Regarding “She Said Raised Bed”, Roth comments, “The pairing of this lyric with the tune of the Beatles’ ‘She Said She Said’ makes for an intriguing combination, highlighting the ambiguity and confusion which can occur whenever we seek truth or intimacy...”

I had a chance to speak with the author once about the origins of the book. “I had been thinking about writing a book on organic gardening,” he told me, “but I couldn’t come up with an original approach. Then one night, after a long, sleepless ride on an Amtrak train, the idea just came to me.” He jotted down most of the song titles in a couple of hours, then spent a few weeks fleshing out the lyrics. For about a year, he was part of a group that played Beetless songs whenever music-loving, organic farmers gathered, including the local county fair. Unfortunately, plans to record a Beetless CD were scrapped when Chris learned that Sony, the owner of the Beatles’ songs, forbade the recording or performing of “altered” Beatles songs for profit.

“That’s so corporate,” I said sympathetically. “If John were still alive, he’d let you do it.”

“I think so too,” said Chris.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Perrone on Butchart

Turns out I'm not the only one who was turned off by Butchart. Jane Perrone says:

"Beautiful though it undoubtedly was, it wasn't really my cup of tea. The planting in a lot of the gardens within the garden were a case of 'bung in the annuals': as soon as anything starts to wilt or die off, it's whipped out and replaced with more temporary bedding."

What is it that's so offensive to serious gardeners about carpets of annual bedding flowers? I think it's the waste. For the same money and effort, you could plant extraordinary perennial gardens, or even, for that matter, extraordinary annual gardens. Hey, if you're going to grow annuals, let's see a wildflower meadow. A pollinator garden. Vegetables! Herbs! Or get Annie's Annuals to supply some of their extraordinary and unusual gems, and plant those.

But pansies and petunias? Puh-leeeeez.

Horticultural: Darling dahlia

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Carbon Nation

Just got my copy of Organic Gardening in the mail--the one with the beets on the cover--and there's an interesting article about carbon. When I think of soil, I'm always thinking about what to add to it--manure, bone meal, microbes, alfalfa pellets, worm castings--it's all about what cool thing I can put in my soil to perk it up.

But the article's author, Erika Jensen, takes a step back and points out that plants live on carbon (and so do we, as carbon-based life forms.) They breathe it in as a gas, they convert it to leaves and branches and bark, and when they die, critters break them down and convert them back into carbon, which other plants can breathe. That's the carbon cycle.

When you add organic matter--manure, compost, shredded leaves, grass clippings--to your soil, what you're really doing is putting carbon back into the earth. She even points out that if the earth stores more carbon, that keeps it out of the atmosphere, where it can contribute (in a small way) to global warming.

Got me thinking. Check it out.

P.S. Oh yeah, I have an article about organic grapes in that issue. Check that out, too.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

UBC Botanical Garden

Jane Perrone's account of her visit to the University of British Columbia's botanical garden got me thinking about the last time I was in Vancouver, and also about the nature of university botanical gardens in general. I love that they are serious, brainy gardens, often organized according to some scheme ("Winter Foliage in Outer Mongolia") that is not apparent to the rest of us. So unlike the more touristy gardens you might visit on a vacation, like...oh, I don't know...Butchart Gardens?

I went to both places a few years ago and lived to tell the tale. Here's the story:

I took Scott with me and before we went I told everybody that he would probably spend all his time in bookstores, and I would spend all mine in gardens, so in a way our vacation together would be no different than our weekends at home. Sure enough, Scott found every out-of-the-way rare book dealer in town, and I hit two of the best-known gardens in Vancouver: the Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, and the Botanical Garden at the University of British Columbia.

I tried to love the Butchart Gardens, I really did. I was sure that there was something elegant and highbrow about the manicured lawns and washes of bright annuals, planted in perfect symmetry just that spring and waiting to be yanked out and replaced come winter. I tried to be impressed by the complete lack of weeds, but felt instead a mixture of jealousy and contempt: as my favorite writer Anne Lamott would say, people with such perfect gardens probably dont have rich inner lives.

I spent an hour trudging through the marked paths with my patient yet very weary mate, attempting to look interested in the rows of pansies, impatients, and dwarf dahlias that carpeted the gardens. After all, we had travelled over three hours by bus, ferry, and bus again to reach this very popular tourist destination. Finally, though, I had to admit that I longed for the diversity and disarray of the wild; or at least the earthy, dirt-under-your-fingernails feel of a working farm, complete with rotting piles of hay and aging manure. The Butchart gardens didnt make me feel any closer to nature; instead, I felt like I had spent the last two hours strolling through a very sterile, well-landscaped theme park or shopping mall. I kept expecting some staff member with that clean-cut Disney Look to rush up in a starched pinstriped shirt and sweep away any seed pods or leaves that had fallen into the path. Even the gift shop was too upscale for me, featuring overpriced jewelry and china with floral themes. Like a visit to the false, glittering Great Mall of America, we left the Butchart Gardens feeling exhausted and unsatisfied. I resolved to hit only one more public garden on the trip: the University of British Columbias Botanical Garden.

We arrived at UBC after yet another long bus ride and trudged through campus. This time, though, I knew we had found the right place: the entrance to the Botanical Garden was flanked by a rich and varied perennial garden, full of native and hard-to-find species, and marked with labels that included not only scientific names, but the seed company source for each plant. I scribbled notes and snapped photographs as we paid our admission into the garden.

The UBC garden began in 1912 under the direction of Scottish botanist John Davidson. He spent years collecting 25,000 plants representing 9,000 species. When he retired in 1951, the entire campus was declared a botanical garden. The pressures of modern campus life, including the need for such minor accessories as buildings and parking lots, eventually infringed on the gardens objectives. Thirty-one acres were set aside for the present- day Botancial Garden.

I was so excited about the vegetable and the native plant gardens that I rushed past the largest segment of the garden, the David C. Lam Asian Garden. Still, a less impatient visitor would enjoy a lingering stroll through the cool, shady garden populated by a wide variety of Asian trees, shrubs, perennials, and ground covers. It is worth noting that the UBC Botanical Garden has a long-standing relationship with the Nanjing Botanical Garden, providing plant and seed exchanges between the two gardens.

Just beyond the Asian garden lies the expansive Perennial Border, as lush and overgrown and filled with west coast favorites as anything I might find in Santa Cruz. Im sure I broke all the rules of the garden by jumping right into the beds, parting flowering shrubs and herbs in search of plant labels. The border curves around one end of the wide, open garden, and leads to what was for me the high spot of the trip: the Food Garden. An incredible amount of food grows in this compact, ornamental space: squash, lettuce, and corn grew in raised beds, along with a highly decorative demonstration of effective companion planting, featuring herbs and vegetables planted densely together in long, wide beds. There is even a small composting demonstration occuping one corner of the garden (Rotting garbage! I thought. Im HOME!). Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the Food Garden was the variety of fruit trees planted in cordons and espaliers. This garden proves that a small amount of space can yield a bountiful harvest, and all produce is donated to the Salvation Army.

Other highspots of the UBC Garden included the Winter Garden, planted with heather, bulbs, and winter-blooming shrubs and vines. Altogether unimpressive in August, this garden must be a real delight in the depths of a dark, cold winter. The Alpine Garden features mountain-growing plants from around the world, grouped by continent; and the Native Garden spans ten acres with trees, ferns, shrubs, flowers, and ground covers native to the region. A bog running through the center of the garden shows off native swamp plants. At the end of the trip, I visited the gift shop, which sells plants and seeds cultivated on-site, and schemed about ways to smuggle some rare specimens across the border.

I left the UBC Botanical Garden a better educated, and certainly more homesick, gardener. I returned to our bed and breakfast that evening in some sort of primordial gardening frenzy, ready to roll up my sleeves and start dividing irises right there in the front yard. Scott wisely pointed out to me that the inkeeper might frown upon guests digging through the flower beds late at night, so I managed to restrain myself and keep my hands out of the dirt until I returned home.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Peak Oil and Urban Farming

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle imagines a future with much less oil, one in which the urban landscape is filled with food because we'll simply have to eat food that is grown, cooked, or killed nearby. "In general," the reporter says, "human energy will replace machine energy, and there will be an increased demand for craftspeople with time-honored skills: shoemakers, soapmakers, glassblowers, seamstresses."

OK, I can make soap--who's a glassblower?

Michael Martine riffs on this idea as well, suggesting that "The cheapest and often best food you can get is that which you grow in your own garden." He points to an interesting site, Vertical Farming, that explores the idea of growing food in skyscrapers.

Michael Martine � Blog Archive � Farming The End of Oil

Inventory of food growing in my garden right now:
Oh, and don't forget the eggs.

Monday, October 03, 2005

More on Flower Theft

It's funny the way this topic gets people going. I wrote about it in my newspaper column a year or two ago and I got a lot of mail then, too. I'll post some of the responses here:

Judy Willis, Fortuna artist and real estate broker, wrote to tell me that the potted plants on the steps of her Eureka office were stolen five years ago. Grace Kerr in the North Coast Journal’s production department is still grieving over the theft of several plants from her potted cactus collection seven years ago. She’s also still looking for the plants, so if anyone has seen a 10-year-old Saguaro cactus seedling (it was 8 inches tall at the time of its disappearance—given its painfully slow rate of growth, it may be only a foot tall by now) and several rare Sulcorebutia and Rebutia cacti, she’d like to know about it.

McKinleyville gardener Beth Deibert wrote to complain about the careless manner in which her daffodils were snatched. “Some idiot snipped just the flower tops off and took them, leaving the tall stems bare. This told me that it wasn't even someone who took them home, put them in water and enjoyed them for a few more days.” She did try putting up signs asking people not to steal the flowers, but the signs were stolen, too.

This seems to be a common theme among the complaints I heard from flower theft victims. It is bad enough for a person who appreciates flowers, who knows how to pick out the valuable ones and cut them down carefully at the base, to steal a flower. But it is even worse for a vandal to come along and snatch a fistful of flowers, destroying them in the process.

Deborah Oehler in Eureka has experienced both kinds of flower theft. One afternoon, she crafted a color scheme for her garden and bought several dozen pansies to plant in a design in her front yard. Two hours after she’d put them in the ground, someone came along with a shovel and dug them up. You heard me right. Dug them up.

It didn’t take her long to find the pansies. They were planted in a neighbor’s garden just up the street. “Of course I recognized that they were mine, because I’d bought a very specific number of pansies in each color I needed,” she told me.

I asked her if she knocked on the door and demanded her flowers back, but she said she knew the people and they made her nervous. “They were creeps,” she said. “Besides, the pansies weren’t worth risking my life.”

She’s had her share of flower vandals, too. After suffering the indignities of trampled rose bushes and stolen plums (“The kids pick them when they’re green,” she said. “Why? Why?”), she finally put up a fence. “It looks nice,” she said. “It’s a four-foot picket fence. And you know what? For the first time, I have been able to enjoy the miniature daffodils and grape hyacinths that I planted under a tree years ago. They’ve never made it through a winter untouched until now.”

But the fence has not dampened the interest of people looking for a few free flowers. “One time a guy knocked on my door and told me that he was getting married. He wanted to know if he could pick some hydrangeas from the bush in my front yard. I told him ‘no,’ and you know what? He got all indignant with me! He demanded to know what I was going to do with them! I told him I was going to look at them. That’s why I planted them in the first place.”

Deborah was getting pretty worked up by this point. So was I. Tales of flower theft will get a gardener’s blood pressure up like few other things will. “Then one day I was walking past the cable company’s office and a guy in an RV with Wisconsin plates was picking these gorgeous snapdragons that they’d planted in front of their office.”

“What’d you do?” I asked excitedly.

“I told him to get back in his RV and get out of town!” she said.

“Yessssss!” I shouted. As you can tell, I’ve had a lot of very stimulating conversations this week.

These stories of flower theft proved that I was not alone. All over the county, people are snipping flowers and digging up plants. But why? Who would do such a thing? That’s when I heard from a flower thief directly.

Artist Nancy Norman came forward voluntarily and described herself as an “almost fully recovered flower thief” whose past transgressions have included picking wildflowers (“I tried to leave some for others to enjoy so I wasn’t all bad.”); picking wild daffodils along Freshwater road (“This seems innocent enough”); and occasionally, late at night, straying into someone’s yard to pick a flower. “It seemed to upset the person I was with, as they had a bit more integrity,” she said.

She also said that she would never take a flower from someone’s yard now. “I treasure the flowers that bloom in my own yard,” she said, “and I would not at all like anyone to take them.” Besides, deer, sheep, and goats have all wandered into her garden to munch on her roses and blueberries. “Some might call it payback,” she said.

Fortunately, something good came out of Nancy’s life of crime: she painted the portrait of a flower thief pictured here. (Sorry about the colors--it's a long story, but the short version is that I don't have a full-color version.)

She also brought me a poem that ran in the New Yorker called “The Flower Thief” by Deborah Digges. Her hands are pollen-stained and dewy, the poem goes, and gone at last are any traces of remorse….

It is charming, really, to think of some gardenless soul out wandering at night, looking for solace in the shape of a flower. Almost enough to make me forgive and forget. Almost.

Nancy, in exchange for the painting and the poem, you’re absolved. As for the rest of you, stay away from my garden, and stay away from Deborah Oehler’s, too. We’re watching out for you.