Wednesday, March 25, 2015

chayote chaos, part 4

In our last episode, I described my discovery that growing chayotes along an old and termite-damaged north-facing fence could destroy that fence and, possibly, a neighborly relationship going back almost forty years. In Mending Wall, poet Robert Frost has some ironic fun with the conventional wisdom that "Good fences make good neighbors," but I will stand by it (yes, pun fanciers, the wisdom and the fence).

A 1980 article in Mother Earth News showed me the error of my ways, and I am eternally grateful that MEN chose to put their back issues on line. But just think how much trouble and grief I'd have saved if I'd found the article last fall! Author Elizabeth S. O’Neill, a home gardener in California's central valley, has wonderful advice about sprouting chayotes:  
. . . locate a market . . . where chayote is sold in late fall. (It doesn’t matter if the fruit has been in cold storage and plastic-wrapped.) 
Buy several ... put them away in a dark, cool (not frosty) place . . . and wait. The seed sprout will emerge and lengthen in the darkness. By February it should be approximately six inches long.
 Then, if your area — like most parts of North America — isn’t yet frost-free, put the sprouted chayote in a pot . . . (Should you live in a zone, like ours, that usually stays above freezing in February, you can simply plant the germinated fruit wherever you want it to grow.)
So now it's apparent to me where I went wrong. I started in early (not late) fall, bought a net of three (not 'several') chayotes, and could not wait until February for the sprouts. Potting was totally unnecessary in our beneficent climate zone.

Oddly, O'Neill does not mention waiting for roots to appear before planting chayotes, but I learned about roots when I took my next step: transplanting the chayotes to a narrow strip of ground along a newer, sturdier redwood fence along the north side of our property. Steve had collaborated with our north-side neighbor in building this fence: digging post-holes to sink the four-by-four supports in concrete, attaching horizontal two-by-fours near the top and bottom of the four-by-fours, facing each section with one-by-sixes, and painting the whole with a wood preservative. No termites here, though they dominate an old wooden shed on the neighbor's side. Good fence, good neighbor. Good place to grow a bumper crop of heavy veggies.

BTW, O'Neill's article lists chayote's many names: 
They are known as christophine or mirliton to Caribbeans, chocho to Madeirans, pipinella to Italians, and pipinola to Hawaiians. (The plant’s scientific name is Sechium edule, but most North Americans call them 'vegetable pears.') 
Pipinella is my aesthetic favorite, but who wants to write or read about pipinella chaosPipinella pitfalls, perhaps, but I'm not going to change titles in midstream. Pipinella sounds more like the name of a female character in a Mozart opera anyway.

I hope you sense that a happy ending will follow closely upon my description of transplanting the chayotes to a spot where they can thrive. Part 5 of this lengthy narrative will, I hope, bring closure and satisfaction.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

chayote chaos, part 3

Remember when I was talking about the theme of getting things right, in part 1 of this series? Now you're going to find out how my experience with chayote squash made me question whether it's ever possible to learn the truth about anything.

Having watched a youtube video about how to sprout chayotes, I felt quite confident when I set two of them -- purchased at a supermarket, not stolen -- in a sunny spot to sprout. After waiting for weeks and then buying two more chayotes at Downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market, I decided it was time for more research. Trying the same approach with the second pair, I reasoned, was something like throwing good money (79¢) after bad ($1.98). And so I went back to youtube and watched someone put a chayote into a brown paper bag and stash it in a cool dark place, coming back in a few days to find a bag full of leafiness. Aha! Here was a new approach I must try. Not having a paper bag of the right size to hold all four chayotes, I located a cardboard box that was just right for three. It fit nicely on a shelf in our cool dark linen closet. This was the point at which we ate one of the supermarket chayotes.

"Where are the links to those two youtube videos?" you are probably asking. Ordinarily I like to give my readers a lot of helpful links, but obviously these two were not helpful. In fact, I didn't see or read anything worth recommending until after the three chayotes were planted in the garden.

So . . . back to the linen closet. I think it's time to simplify this narrative by naming the fruits. ONE of the chayotes starting sprouting nicely after about a week; let's call it C1. Another (C2) showed no signs of any change, but one of them (C3) was seriously shriveling. I looked at more youtube videos, hoping to see something about how chayote roots were supposed to develop. What I saw was chayotes being put into pots with their flat, unsprouted sides down and soil drawn up around them. Most of the top sides were uncovered.

It must have been late December by now, because this was when I announced on an on-line forum that I had put two of them (C1 and C3) in pots and put them on the back porch where they'd get some sun and possibly put down some roots. I don't remember whether C2 stayed in the linen closet or not.

On January 8 or 9, according to my forum, I planted C1 next to my neighbor's fence. It was gratifying to see that a long tap root had developed and was supplemented by lots of hairy feeder roots

C3 was set out a couple of feet from C1 on January 13, while C2 remained in a pot on the bathroom window sill until February 2.

Meanwhile C1 was reaching for the top of my neighbor's fence. This fence, which starts where our chain link fence stops, runs along the south side of our property. Her ex-husband built it at least 20 years ago out of wooden two-by-fours resting on the concrete walkway to their back yard. He finished the fence on their side with a stucco covering painted to match their house Because we wanted to grow vines on our side, we covered it with white plastic trellis through which we can see some termite damage which, though it has been treated by an exterminator, has weakened the fence to a certain extent.

It was AFTER all the chayotes were planted along this north-facing fence and AFTER I'd proudly told our neighbor that they would soon come spilling over the top (fortunately she likes chayotes), that I found an article in Mother Earth News of November/December 1980: "Growing Chayote." According to a teaser right after the title:  "Growing chayote is a great option if you live in a warm or tropical climate. Once established, a single plant can bear 50 to 100 fruits a season." The article also states that individual chayotes fruits can weigh up to a pound each. In other words, I was about to subject an old,   weakened fence we didn't even own to a potential load of 300 pounds, plus the weight of the vines. What was I thinking?

Chayote chaos indeed!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

chayote chaos, part 2

After the explosion of fluff described in chayote chaos, part 1, I decided it was time to go out and actually buy a couple of these beautiful veggies. Chayotes were being sold for 99¢ each at an upscale supermarket nearby. I chose the ones I judged most likely to sprout soon, though the blossom ends of all the chayotes on display were pretty tightly closed. 

Returning home, I set my chayotes in the same spot where I'd cleared out the pile of unwanted fluff from my stolen pseudo-squashes and, once again, waited for nature to take its course.

I didn't record any dates for these activities, but I know that it was still early fall when I bought the two chayotes. When they hadn't sprouted by the middle of November, I started thinking that, like much supermarket produce, they'd been treated with some chemical that would keep them from sprouting. 

Throughout October and November, I was regularly visiting L.A.'s venerable Grand Central Market in connection with a yarnbombing project, and so I purchased two shriveled chayotes at one of the produce stalls. I was charged 99¢ a pound, and so these two chayotes, which looked like they might sprout any minute, cost a total of 79¢. While much of the market has been gentrified in recent months, the produce stalls continue to offer sad-looking produce at bargain prices.

You may wonder why I kept buying chayotes in pairs. Well, one of the things I thought I knew about growing chayotes was that there are male and female vines, and you had to have one of each gender to get the proper pollination. We happily ate the freshest-looking supermarket chayote, and I decided to try to sprout all of the remaining three. It made sense to me that a ménage à trois would improve our chances.

It was not until December 29, 2014, that I made this note in an on-line forum that I frequent: ". . . put two sprouted chayotes into pots, and put them on the back porch in hopes they'll put down some roots."

Why oh why had the sprouting process taken so long? Perhaps we'll get to that in Part 3 of this chronicle of chaos . . .

Monday, March 9, 2015

chayote chaos,* part 1

Theme (in the literary sense of the word) was the subject of it's cereus!, a post from August 2012 where I not only defined a theme for this blog but also illustrated the point by describing my astonishment at learning that a large cactus in our front garden was not a euphorbia but a cereus. (BTW, to understand the sheer gravitas of the piece, it helps to know that cereus is a homonym of serious.)

When I wrote it's cereus! I was reading The War of Art, a book about writing by the prolific novelist Steven Pressfield. Pressfield convinced me that I needed a theme for this blog. Not a subject, a theme.** After discussing the issue in detail, I made a sort of announcement:  "At last I think my major theme is 'getting things right.' Often this means simply learning something new, but it is the kind of learning that frequently requires discarding a preconception."

Last fall, when I started on a quest to grow chayote squash, I began to question whether "getting things right" is even possible. I had heard that chayotes were easy to grow in our climate, and I'd seen them sprout spontaneously from their blossom ends if they were not cooked in a timely enough manner. Little did I know that I was on the brink of vegetable chaos.

I had first eaten chayotes during the late 1950s, when my mother discovered them and quickly made them a family favorite: lightly steamed and served with butter, salt, and freshly ground pepper. Steve likes to grill chayotes after lightly brushing them with olive oil. Today I think this is the best way to prepare them, as it brings out their natural sweetness while cutting our intake of saturated fats.

In recent years I had seen chayotes growing locally on people's fences, and so I thought it would be fun to steal some, let them sprout, and plant them in our garden. Unfortunately I made this decision in the fall, and the fruit was substantially shriveled. The stems were tougher than I thought they'd be, and they exuded a sticky white goo that I'd never seen come out of a chayote. I furtively picked three and brought them home. Setting them under a skylight on our back porch, I waited for nature to take its course. It took a long time, but rather than producing a green stem, each one of them exploded into a mound of fluff. It was like dandelion fluff but the seeds and their silken parachutes were much larger.

At this point, I might have simply concluded that crime does not pay, but I chose to wade even deeper into chayote chaos.
to be continued . . .
- - - - -

* I urge you to visit if you have any questions about how the word chayote should be pronounced. The plant, a native of Central America, was called chayohtli by the ancient Aztecs, upon whom the conquistadores imposed latinate orthography as well as so many other arbitrary standardsI must confess that the title of this posting is a silly attempt to imply an alliteration that is purely visual unless we want to think about how chaos should be pronounced in ancient Greek. Maybe some other time?

** The difference between subject and theme is dear to the heart of every serious student of literature, and is well defined in a brief document created by the National Park Service, of all people. Oh, that all government agencies would be so diligent in training their employees to understand language and culture!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

long dry spell

On January 17, 2014, the California Governor's office released this statement
With California facing water shortfalls in the driest year in recorded state history, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today proclaimed a State of Emergency and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for these drought conditions.
Drought conditions indeed! 

I posted only two items on this blog during the thirteen-month period from December 2013 to January 7, 2015: 

  • fring 2013 (December 3, 2013) celebrated the after-Thanksgiving rain of that year; and
  • when media collide (February 9, 2014) contained absolutely no references to gardening or water. 

Oddly, during POSToccupations' long dry spell, I remembered the 'fring'* piece as being my most recent one, possibly because I visualized the accompanying photo of tiny jade-tree blossoms.

In 2014, heavy rains came right after Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, filling and refilling our rain barrels. No longer feeling like T.S. Eliot's "old man in a dry month, waiting for rain," and thinking "thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season,"** I ventured out to find not only the violets one would expect, but also morel mushrooms! Here was something I felt motivated to tell the world about, and so I wrote my first blog post of 2015 at last.

Weather pundits warn that California's drought is not over, in spite of the heavy rains. Water-saving measures abound: days and hours (minutes!) of watering time are severely limited, cities pay $2.00 per square foot and more for residential lawn removal, and courses in xeriscaping appear in college extension catalogs. People joke about the 'water police.'

Meanwhile, big drifts of California poppy seedlings have appeared in our cactus and succulent bed and, for the first time, in our parking strip. I have committed myself to keeping them alive until they can bloom and set seed for 2016. 'Gray water' from the washing machine will make this happen, and possibly extend the morel season through St. Valentine's Day.

Is there a metaphorical equivalent of 'gray water' that a person can call upon to keep blogs flourishing? Time will tell. In Tree at my Window, Robert Frost spoke of a parallel between "inner" and "outer" weather. I have thought of a parody -- Drought at my Doorstop -- but will endeavor keep the dryness at bay.

- - - - - -
* fring is the word I coined in 2010 to indicate the spring-like season (the first spring) that starts with Southern California's normal fall rains.

** Gerontion (1920), first and last lines.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

a mushroom chronicle, part 4

So far, this chronicle has been devoted to the crocheted mushrooms I've made as yarn bombs. Clumps of three are still flourishing in our garden and our neighbor's garden, while single specimens may be found in pots and baskets from New York to Beverly Hills.

Today's mushroom chronicle takes us in a new direction -- to the live morel mushrooms which mysteriously appeared in our small herb and veggie garden after the post-Thanksgiving rain. Informed of their wholesomeness by diligent Internet research, we have consumed two or three small batches (sauteed in butter with garlic) and are eager for more. 

These specimens, photographed on January 4, look like they'll be ready soon:

I posted a modest announcement of the find on the California Message Board at on December 8: "Since the recent rains, we’re seeing morels in our Culver City veggie strip.Miffed at the total lack of responses to my post, I sent a more explicit email (with photos) to and hope to see evidence of it on their map, which shows only one Southern California sighting in 2014 (January 7 in a Laguna Woods planter, along with wood chips and roses).

Egotism was not the only reason for my surprise at the absence of accolades from the on-line morel community. Morels are such a rare and valuable commodity that I expected to be inundated with congratulations. "How valuable are they?" you may ask, especially if you don't live in one of the states where morels are seriously hunted every spring. In May (only May, it seems) morels are available fresh on line for $36.00 a pound at Wiebke Fur and Trading Company of La Crosse, WI. Dried, they are available year-round for $37.99 an ounce at D'Artagnan, a purveyor of truffles, caviar, and other costly foodstuffs, imported and domestic.

Though Steve and I have lived in states where morels grow wild, neither of us had tasted them until they appeared in our garden. We water them with our reclaimed rainwater and hope to keep them thriving for a long time.

Now I'm thinking about how to crochet some morels.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

when media collide

This new year I set a goal of reading at least six books in hard copy in addition to the uncounted ones I read on my beloved Kindle. After hearing so many people say they prefer to hold real books in their hands, I'd decided that I shouldn't lose touch with the world of print. (Pun not intended but appropriate, and so I must give thanks for its gratuitous descent from the ether!)

My decision was probably also motivated by a woman in my on-line goal-setting group. She was proud to have read a certain set number of books in 2013, in various formats including audio-books, and had upped her 2014 goal to 30 books.

At the turn of the year, I was reading a hard copy of Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You. I had checked it out of the library because it was recommended at Brain Pickings, a favorite blog that makes a 'public library' link for every book it discusses. Often, I'll follow these links and be able to check out a library book in Kindle format, but in this case there was none. Therefore, I used the Internet to request that the book be delivered to my local branch and held there for me -- a lovely process bringing together old and new technologies in a totally efficient way.

I regret to say that I didn't enjoy Bradbury's book as much as I'd expected. It seemed a bit dated (all those references to using the typewriter!) but it did make me feel somewhat righteous to read about writing and make progress toward a stated goal.

My next hard-copy experience was an unauthorized biography of a celebrity. I had picked the book up from the 'free' shelf at the public library after a knitting group meeting there. Though published in 1999, it didn't seem to have been read, and the dust jacket was pristine. Obviously, someone had donated it to the library, which opted not to catalog it. I checked L.A. Public Library's on-line catalog and found that they had six copies distributed throughout their 102 locations. More than enough for a book that was not only sleazy but also poorly written.

So, here I was in the middle of January, one third of the way through my goal of six hard copy books, and not that pleased with my achievement. Furthermore, there was no hint of the tactile gratification I had expected.

Then on January 30, Brain Pickings posted Herman Melville’s Daily Routine and Thoughts on the Writing Life. Just in time, I thought, to get the stale taste of Bradbury out of my mouth! I quickly followed the 'public library' link to "the wonderful 1954 volume Reader and Writer -- a collection of notable meditations on the osmotic arts of reading and writing . . . featuring contributions from such literary titans as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Bacon, and Henry David Thoreau." Alas! LAPL did not have a copy, nor did any library less than 15 miles away, but Amazon offered a used copy for $6.90 and I snapped it up.

On February 4, Reader and Writer arrived in the mail, and as soon as I unpacked it I was magically transported back to 1959 -- my freshman year in college. This book had the heft and gravitas of The Harbrace College Handbook and so many other textbooks. Indeed, it was a textbook, a fact not mentioned on Brain Pickings but nevertheless welcome, for here at last was the tactile gratification I'd expected to find in hard-copy books.

I do not expect to read all of Reader and Writer, and hence it will not count toward my goal of six hard-copy books, but I do intend to dip into it from time to time, and so will Steve. So far, I've read Edith Wharton's delightful account of Henry James' asking for directions in the English countryside, a piece as silly as a Monty Python sketch, and Robert Benchley's irreverent reminiscence of his college days.

Now here's where the media collide (just in case you were wondering about the title of this post). On February 3 I had ordered a new, improved Kindle and, given the complexities of Amazon's delivery systems, it arrived via UPS a couple of hours after Reader and Writer came in the mail. The Complete Works of Anthony Trollope emerged from 'the cloud,' seemingly untouched by human hands, and I wandered back into Barsetshire.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License