Saturday, October 8, 2011

south africa for real

South Africa has had more mentions in this blog than any other country, but until sometime in the middle of 2010 it was not a place I had ever expected to visit. I thought of South Africa, insofar as I thought of it at all, as the place where most of my plants had originated. In a footnote dated March 6, 2010, I wrote: "Egad! In picking up that link [to jade plants] I learned that jade plants are South African natives. Almost every time I Google a plant, it's revealed to be from SA. With freesias, callas, meyer asparagus fern, and who knows what else along with the jade plants, my front garden seems to be a microcosm of South Africa." The operative phrase here was "who knows what else." I certainly didn't, and, in fact, assumed that I never would.

Sometime in the middle of 2010, the Angel City Chorale (ACC)* began talking about a concert tour in South Africa. Originally scheduled for January 2011, the trip actually took place in August 2011 and so, much to my own surprise, I was in South Africa for two weeks in August. Unfortunately, only about 60 members of ACC were able to go. As this is less than half our usual performing force, we essentially had to recreate ourselves as a smaller group with a different sound.

All of our performances were in Cape Town, but the city visit was preceded by three nights at Entabeni Game Reserve outside Pretoria in Limpopo Province. About 30 chorale members, plus a few of their spouses, took this opportunity to acclimate and learn more more about South Africa's spectacular landscape with its astonishing flora and fauna. I was privileged to be in this smaller group.

On the way to and from South Africa, we had layovers in Dubai. At our farewell dinner there, a fellow ACC member asked me whether I had had any 'aha moments' on the trip. I had to ask her what she meant by this, and she said something like, "Oh, you know! It's a life-changing experience where you suddenly learn something new about yourself."  I have to admit that her conversational gambit didn't do much for me at the time, but in retrospect I am realizing that the entire two weeks made up a slowly dawning 'aha.'

I went to South Africa expecting to come back with a wealth of subject matter for this blog, and I did, but it has taken me over a month to process all the new information and adjust my attitudes.

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*NOTE: While this blog has alluded several times to my singing in a large chorale, I've avoided mentioning ACC by name because I do not speak officially for the group. More specificity seems necessary in talking about the trip to South Africa, but please be aware that as an individual member I write of, not for, Angel City Chorale.

I joined ACC in the fall of 2003, auditioning because I'd wanted for some time to be part of an excellent musical group. I also had an inkling that ACC, as a prime example of multicultural American amateur musical organization, might do some international touring. Sure enough, July 2007 found us in Ireland and August 2011 in Cape Town.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

drops in the bucket, part 5

Yesterday was a hard day for Steve and me, but it ended well. Steve, exhausted, asked twice if I would blog about it. I, equally exhausted, said I would not. This morning, however, I am able to focus on the sheer heroism he was able to muster. In fact, I can see how the story fits into a series of postings (drops in the bucket, parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) that, in spite of good intentions, I have not updated since last December. Oddly, it also reminds me of the end of Philip Larkin's wonderful poem Church Going, which has recently been on my mind as so many strands of my personal history seem to be weaving themselves together. Larkin aptly describes how "all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies."

Okay, so it's a long and rather pretentious wind-up for what may seem to be a totally mundane pitch.

Yesterday morning, just as I was finishing a load of bright-colored laundry (and, incidentally, salvaging the last cycle's-worth of water for our garden's thirsty tomatoes, summer squash, rhubarb, and ferns), our washing machine lost its ability to drain and spin out water. It would fill and agitate beautifully, but then it stopped cold.

Frankly, I've been worried about the drain-and-spin function for some time. Since starting to salvage laundry water last fall, I've regularly interrupted the cycle just before it starts to drain, and then started it up again after I've lovingly siphoned out most of the water. Thus the last couple of inches are all that need to be spun out in order to make the laundry dryer-ready. It's easy to interrupt the cycle at this point. I simply leave the lid open until the motor stops (it won't start draining when the lid is open), and close the lid when I'm ready to relinquish the last of the water. Had this process -- used repeatedly for almost a year -- overworked the lid switch? Or was the lid switch destined to fail anyway in a washing machine we'd used regularly for at least eight years after purchasing it from a private party (through eBay)?

With no owner's manual and no chance of invoking a warranty, and with rhubarb leaves visibly wilting, there seemed to be no alternative to asking Steve to fix the washing machine  I had every confidence in his ability to do so, as he comes from a long line of mechanical geniuses and resourceful farmers. Moreover, Steve is now able to draw upon the Internet and the proximity of an appliance parts store.* So it was that, after a lunch of grilled chicken salad which he prepared and served on the patio, he watched on-line videos of how to disassemble a Kenmore/Whirlpool washing machine, I siphoned and scooped out about five gallons of water, and removed a heavy load of clothes.

My suspicion that the lid switch had failed was borne out by an on-line troubleshooting guide. Steve was able to strip down the washing machine and remove said switch with only two screw drivers (one flat-head; one Phillips) and two pairs of pliers (one needle nosed; one fat). Unfortunately his multimeter didn't function as it should have to diagnose the part, but he was able to fix its burnt-out fuse by strategically inserting a piece of aluminum foil (this was the pre-Internet farm boy at his best!).

Steve returned from the appliance part store with a new switch (price: $35.00) in hand. Installing the switch was tedious. I stood by like an ER nurse, handing him tools when he asked for them, and quoting Red Green aphorisms: "If it ain't broke, you're not trying!" and "If the women don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy!" Reassembling the machine was a snap, and when the new switch failed to work, Steve was quickly able to recall that he had connected its wiring to the motor but not to the control panel. This was easily rectified. I was able to re-rinse, spin, and dry the soggy load of laundry. We celebrated with appropriate libations.

BTW, all this work was done without unplugging the appliance, because we couldn't have located the electrical outlet without pulling out the dryer as well as the washer (impossible, given the configuration of our laundry room which is half of the house's original service porch). Later, I realized that flipping a circuit breaker would have made the whole project much safer.

We live and learn, eh? Or vice versa.
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* These resources were not available to us when Steve miraculously repaired our gas stove in 1970, when we lived in a small town in western Pennsylvania. More of that story in a future posting, I hope.

Monday, August 1, 2011

good in the hood -- Lucille

My little marguerite daisies are showing new growth, and as I gently pinch back the tips to encourage more blooms, I see Lucille's hand in my Pennsylvania marigolds. "It's just like this," she said as she broke the tiny stem between her thumb and index finger. That happened in the spring of 1971, and, thanks to Lucille's neighborly demonstration we had a spectacular display of bright orange marigolds along the edge of our driveway.

I was trying to think of Lucille's name while I was in Idaho this June. We have a mock orange growing there. Its blooming season had passed, and, in wishing I could have seen its blossoms, I remembered fragments of a poem I had written about an Indian summer in Pennsylvania. Our next-door neighbor's mock orange had started blooming out of season. I mentioned her by name in the poem, but couldn't quote it properly until her image came up in another month in another state in connection with another plant.

I love the way memory is triggered by simple events, often (for me, at least), involving plants and flowers. Taken back forty years, I revel in thoughts of Lucille, her husband Harold, and their daughter Merle, a trombone player just off to college.

Harold taught our sons, then aged two and four, to say "See this finger? See this thumb? See this fist? You'd better run!" Everyone would dissolve in laughter, and the boys welcomed Harold's gentle punches to their little bellies.

Lucille and Harold were not as obsessive about spring cleaning as many of our Pennsylvania neighbors were, but he washed the windows on the outside while she did the insides. It was a time for jokes and gentle joshing, especially when they did the upstairs windows. They also worked together on washing and clipping their white standard poodle.

While I don't remember Harold and Lucille's last name, I did't remember the FIRST names of our neighbors on the other side until just now, when I Googled them and was directed to Could Thelma and Ray still be alive at 94 and 99? They welcomed us graciously when we moved in, but stopped speaking when our sons flooded their back yard. We got the "You'd better run!" message loud and clear, but without the rhyme and the giggles.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

thrifty tomatoes

On March 3 I reported on the failure of our 2010 tomato crop and described my hopes for a better outcome this year. Earlier this month (July), when BLT's made with homegrown tomatoes should be on the menu, all the named varieties had dwindled to nothing (last year's Roma and Costoluto-Genovese holdovers along with this year's Cherokee Purple and Arkansas Traveler heirloom hopefuls. This year's scraggly volunteer tomato plant bore two pitiful fruits before it died, and last year's volunteer (barely two feet tall) has ONE bright red salad-size fruit that looks promising but feels hard as a billiard ball.

Weakened and discouraged, I have gambled on three overgrown, root-bound tomato plants from the 99¢ Only Store: two Early Girls and one Beefsteak in 6-inch plastic nursery pots.When I bought them, their foliage was grayish and beginning to curl from water deprivation. Generally I don't try to grow Beefsteak tomatoes, which need the warm, humid nights of the Midwest to do really well, and it was already past time for the Early Girls to fulfill their promise. All of these plants had had their main stems cut back to about four inches, while the three or four side stems had grown to over a foot tall and were bearing flowers and tiny fruits. The cut stems, almost a half inch in diameter and thoroughly shriveled, spoke of a nursery's desperate attempt to save one of their main money-makers.

I've never thought it was wise to buy tomato plants of this size or condition, but for just under $3.00 total, I felt I couldn't go too far wrong. At home, I decided to leave the plants in their pots and give them as much water as they could take until they either died or looked more promising. On the third or fourth day of this treatment, I walked out the front door and heard myself say: "Now they look thrifty!"

Thrifty, in the sense of "growing vigorously," was a favorite word of my late mother-in-law, Alice, and indeed she was the only person I've ever heard using it in this way. She would use thrifty to describe animals as well as plants (our cat had "a thrifty coat"; the neighbor's 4-H project piglets "didn't look thrifty"). Alice often said that if a plant wasn't thrifty during its entire life span it would never really recover. This was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a plant didn't look thrifty she would pull it out and throw it in the compost, so of course it wouldn't recover!

Here's a bit of irony. I thought I was being thrifty when I bought three 99¢ tomato plants that weren't thrifty. Yet the experience enriched my appreciation of Alice's colloquial vocabulary (swan, larrupin') and brought back fond memories of  the tomatoes and other thrifty vegetables she grew in Idaho.

Will we get $3.00 worth of homegrown tomatoes this year? In the words of Alexander Pope, "Hope springs eternal" (Essay on Man). There's some bacon in the freezer, ready for those BLT's, and Steve's lettuce crop looks thrifty as can be.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

the putter principle

Unlike Richard Bucket, husband of Hyacinth ("it's booKAY!") on the Britcom Keeping Up Appearances, I love to putter in the garden, and so I generated the title of this essay many months ago.

I thought of my putter principle* as an ironic play on The Peter Principle by Dr. Laurence J. Peter. Since 1968, when that book was published, its title has become a catch phrase for anyone wishing to criticize a corporate or governmental bureaucracy where managers have "risen to the level of their incompetence."

Then a few weeks ago, the ever-diligent Google Reader brought me On the Art of Puttering, an editorial from the Sunday New York Times. I was shocked to read there that "No one intends to putter. You simply discover, in a brief moment of self-awareness, that you have been puttering, or, as the English would say, pottering.**" The editor goes on to describe a day of puttering as "a holiday from purpose." This is definitely not my style of puttering, but then the editorial does not purport to apply to anyone outside of New York City. (Perhaps the New York City style of puttering is practiced by those to whom the Peter Principle pertains! But I don't want to get snide.)

Here in our Southern California garden, within three miles of the weather-moderating Pacific Ocean, I intentionally, ritualistically, and purposefully putter almost daily. I walk around all my little strips and larger triangles of garden and do whatever can be done quickly and without getting my clothes or shoes dirty: deadhead a few blossoms, pull a few weeds, stick an errant vine through the fence, pinch back new growth on flowers or herbs, taste-test a tomato, pick up and throw away some litter, etc.

My effectiveness in puttering is made possible by the fact that three years ago I started methodically cleaning up and organizing our garden space. When any area was mostly clear of weeds and other unwelcome or inappropriate plants, a quick putter became sufficient to keep it looking good enough to make me feel satisfied. For example, removing the invasive Sprenger asparagus fern from our front garden was a major project, but now the occasional putter is sufficient to pick out its inch-high attempts to return.

When an individual plant needs major attention (like, pruning), or an area needs to be reorganized, that becomes a project -- defined by a convention speaker I heard several years ago as "an activity with three or more steps." I think this is a pretty good working definition of a project, and I like to contrast it with my definition of puttering, "a sequence of one-step activities." In the context of my gardening style, a project also means getting into gardening attire, including a hat and durable waterproof shoes, and expecting to spend at least an hour or two at a time -- perhaps over a period of days or weeks. My current gardening project is the establishment of a potting bench area in our back patio.

Focusing on the difference between puttering and pursuing a project, I began to think that I'd like to have the inside of our house well enough organized that a quick putter would set it straight. And this brought up the memory of another Peter's principle. I had read Peter Walsh's seminal It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff. That must have been in 2007, when the book was published. At the time, I was a big fan of Mission Organization on HGTV. Kay had gotten me hooked on that show, which provided pleasant fantasies for both of us. Walsh's book was more realistic and somewhat helpful, but too draconian for me. The thing that stuck in my mind, however, was Walsh's idea that if you had a room well organized you could tidy it up in five minutes. "A consummation devoutly to be wished," eh?

As I mentioned in a recent post, I'm involved in a series of on-line workshops on organizing. Aby Garvey's Simplify 101 takes an approach somewhere between Mission Organization and It's All Too Much. If I don't rise to the level of my incompetence, I expect to be puttering indoors as well as outdoors by the beginning of 2012.

Could it be that freedom to putter is achieved at the very peak of competence?
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Crisswell Freeman's The Putter Principle: Golf's Greatest Legends Discuss the Ultimate Stroke is something else again. Like most of Freeman's books, which now number over one hundred, it is a compendium of inspiring quotations.

** This usage is not universal in the U.K. Hyacinth asks Richard, "Why don't you go out and have a little putter in the garden, dear?"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

talk with a stranger -- Ray

A short, well groomed man, dressed in jeans and a dark tank top, was combing through the dense mat of ivy that grew along a freeway off-ramp in downtown L.A., practically in the shadow of the elegant Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. He used a stick about eighteen inches long, reminiscent of a police billy-club. Kathy thought the stick was a machete, so gave him a wide berth. To me he looked harmless, and, except for the tank top, had the air of being involved in some official activity.

Kathy and I reached our destination and got fast-food snacks, then walked along the off-ramp again -- going eastward this time. The man with the stick had moved about 50 feet up the off-ramp and I realized that he was methodically looking for recyclable and salvageable items that people had thrown out of their cars. Using the stick made sense; it would keep him from being bitten by rats or cut by broken glass, while exposing anything he might want to pick up.

There was a dirt-encrusted pint liquor bottle on the sidewalk, and I commented that it looked very old. He said he had found a bottle that he thought might be even older, and asked if I wanted to see it. I waited while he pulled the bottle out of his shopping cart. It was a very clear glass and was threaded for a screw-on lid. I told him the really old bottles were closed with corks instead of screw-on lids. Then he showed me a tiny bottle he'd picked up. I offered him a dollar for it, and said I could use it to make miniature bouquets with little flowers from my garden.

Taking my dollar bill, he civilly introduced himself as Ray. His smile, though mostly toothless, was beatific. We shook hands and I introduced myself. His smile faded as he told me his sister Frances had died of lupus and that his sister-in-law was also afflicted with the disease. "I think it's a curse," he said.

Ray asked me if I were on my way to church -- a logical assumption given the proximity of the Cathedral and the way I was dressed (midi-skirted navy blue outfit, flower-trimmed hat). "No," I said, "I'm on my way to the flag raising ceremony at the monument around the corner." "Oh yes," Ray said, "the cops came around and warned all us homeless guys to stay away from that."

So we saw no homeless people at the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial flag raising on July 4, 2011. No police either, except for a couple of helicopter flyovers.

Ray would have been very welcome as far as I was concerned, and he certainly could have used a break. If he heard the historic cannon and musket fire, he probably assumed it was just another typical day in L.A.
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NOTE: On June 5, 2010, I posted talking to strangers, which described a pleasant encounter with a Buffalo Bill impersonator on a bus. I thought of running true to form by calling today's post talking to strangers, part 2, and continuing on in a numbered series as I have with several other topics. Numbered parts, however, would not do justice to the uniqueness of these experiences or the special people I meet by talking to strangers.

Friday, July 1, 2011

roses' other names

In recent years, my visits to our Idaho 'vacation' home -- an old farmhouse on 40 acres (no mule) -- have been in June and December. This has meant that I miss the showiest spring flowers: forsythia, daffodil, oriental poppy, lilac, rose, peony, tulip, iris. On two May visits over ten years ago, however, I saw blooms on the single (e.g., five-petaled) roses that had grown forever outside Alice's bedroom window. They were stunning. Both yellow and red-orange flowers grew on the same branches, and one of the neighbors told me that the variety was called Joseph's Coat. Naturally I yearned to see them again.

Thanks to an unusually cool and rainy spring, there were a few Joseph's Coat blooms still hanging on when I arrived on June 11 this year. This was both good and bad news. Good because I could see them again, bad because my number-one 'vacation' chore on this visit was to dig the old roses away from the foundation so that our older son could paint that side of the house. It was definitely not the proper season for pruning roses, but this had to be done, and the plant had certainly survived the drastic trimmings I'd given it in recent Junes.

I happily picked a yellow bud and a couple of full-blown red-orange flowers for a table bouquet that would give me a chance to watch the color changes closely along with our six-year-old granddaughter. I assiduously searched the Internet for Joseph's Coat roses, and found many references to a variety developed in 1964. It was described as 'variegated,' and was a climbing rose, but the photos showed a many-petaled 'floribunda' variety. Another Joseph's Coat rose, only available from Gurney's as far as I could tell, was a double (not single) rose with red (not yellow) buds that turned yellow and then back to a coral phase in between.

Good thing I called Steve's cousin Robert about another matter. He was about to leave town so couldn't get together as I'd hoped, but when I told him I was cutting back the Joseph's Coat rose he set me straight. In fact, Robert had helped Alice (Steve's mother) find the original plant sometime in the early 80's, and gone with her to dig it out of someone else's garden since it wasn't available in any local nursery. Its name was Austrian Copper, not Joseph's Coat, and Robert thought Alice had donated a start of it to the heirloom rose section at the Idaho Botanical Garden.

After having assumed that I was working with a rose that had been in place since the early 1940's, when Steve's parents moved into the farmhouse, I was astounded to learn that it was less than 30 years old. And, googling Austrian Copper at last, I was disabused of many other preconceptions.

Rosa foedita bicolor, commonly known as Austrian Copper, is a species (not hybrid) rose, which means it will grow wild and reproduce from seed. It has been growing in the Caucasus since sometime before 1590. I thought that all roses came from China to England with the eminent botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820), but in fact the wild ones grew on all continents as far back as the 12th century.

In spite of spending so much time on the Internet while in Idaho, I managed to finish cutting back Alice's beloved Austrian Copper rose. A few shoots are standing about a foot from the wall. I'd like to transplant them to more appropriate spots next spring before they get too large to handle.

Now our older son will be able to patch and paint the foundation, then scrape, prime, and paint the clapboards antique pearl with cinnamon cherry trim around the windows. Next spring, Austrian Copper will stand tall, but not so close, against its new background, and I will look at heirloom roses at the Idaho Botanic Garden.

Friday, June 10, 2011

first international yarn bombing day -- better than dogs playing poker!

Tomorrow is the First International Yarn Bombing Day.

To commemorate this momentous occasion, I have spread my little bit of cheer -- two street-lamp pole cozies, about a dozen little crocheted flowers hung on neighbors' plants and gates, and an afghan spread lovingly over a nearby bus bench.

FIYB Day is well timed for me. A week ago Tuesday, I went to a favorite thrift shop and DID NOT BUY ANYTHING. Two days later, I woke up with a very strong image in my head. It was a fabric item folded in a sealed plastic bag, and when I mentally turned it over I realized that it was the classic tapestry of dogs playing poker -- in mint condition -- which I had seen at the thrift shop.

I was seized with regret to realize that I have reached a point in my life where there is NOBODY to whom I can present a tapestry of dogs playing poker. Worse yet, I don't even think I can get away with owning it myself.

And just when I was so seriously and tragically lamenting the possible loss of my capacity for silliness, I was saved by FIYB Day. How much better it is to share a basketful of acrylic yarn objects with society as a whole, rather than give one measly DPP tapestry to one person!

Tomorrow is also the first day of International Knit/Crochet in Public Week, an event I observe pretty much year-round, but on Monday, I will observe it airborne between Los Angeles, CA, and Boise, ID.

Annus mirabilis!

mulch per se

Though I've mentioned mulch in 13 out of 96 postings (well, OK, today's venture will make it 14 out of 98!), I've never designated mulch as a topic, nor have I included it, until now, in my list of searchable labels.

I've thought many times about describing the typical components of our mulch, with its range of color variations, or about how it's collected and applied. I've also thought about comparing our 'free' mulch to the packaged stuff that's purchased by neighbors who regularly throw away the kind of thing I like to spread on the narcissus bed.

Impetus to focus on mulch today came at last from a recent UC Davis blog post citing mulch's legal status as part of the 1990 Water Conservation in Landscaping Act (AB325). Further Googling of this ordinance reveals that it was refined into AB1881 (2006) and implemented locally at the end of 2009. Besides mulching, this body of legislation encourages the use of recycled water and discourages planting of invasive species. Right up my alley, eh?

It's nice to know that Steve and I are in full compliance with state and local laws on water conservation (like, no lavishing of potable water on plants between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., no watering for more than 15 minutes at a time, no water running into the street, etc.), but I started out to talk about mulch. Mulch is required by law in large and/or public and/or newly developed spaces because it saves a significant amount of water. We fall outside these categories but mulch anyway.

The bulk of our mulch consists of leaves, twigs, and seed pods from our street trees, the venerable Chinese evergreen elms. The leaves are small, so they break down quickly into a fine leaf mold. Other tree leaves include eugenia and bottlebrush, plus a huge supply of pine needles. The oily bottlebrush leaves stay green and pliable longer than the elm leaves, but the waxy eugenia leaves curl and turn crunchy as they dry to an orange-y brown. The eugenia produces an ornamental cherry, so that our weeds include an occasional seedling of eugenia or elm. All of these trees are evergreens. There's no glut of fall leaves here, and this is good since we need mulch year-round.

Red flowers from the bottlebrush tree and our neighbors' bouganvilleas lend a seasonal topping to our mulch. Being very light, they rise to the surface and keep their color for a long time.

Steve sweeps up this mix of leaves and blossoms from our driveway, sidewalk, and garden paths, and puts it in boxes for me to spread as needed. Recently I bought a large grey plastic trash can especially for this purpose.

Since our rampant nasturtiums have mostly faded, I've been heaping them, with their mature seeds, on bare spots where foliage from bulbs has dried out. A large infusion of sweet pea vines will complete these piles, which I'll stomp down  a bit before topping them off with leafy sweepings. In accordance with permaculture practrice, this covering will not be disturbed or removed. Volunteer nasturtiums and sweet peas will start popping through it as soon as the fall rains come. Freesias and hyacinths will burst forth on their secret schedules. Mulch is an investment in future beauty, but not all that bad looking in itself.

Mulch per se.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

hundredth post looms

POSToccupations had 70 postings in the year 2010, and has had 26 so far in 2011. What does this mean? The third post after this one will be number one hundred.

I love milestones, and my 100th blog post certainly will be one. How shall I celebrate?

One fellow blogger marked her 200-post mark by giving hand-crocheted hot pads to two readers who sent comments commemorating the event. This made sense, as she uses her blog to link to the page where she sells handicrafts. It was like having a sale or giving a coupon.

I'd like to celebrate by announcing that my collection of 70 posts from 2010 is now available as a hard-copy or on-line book. Alas! This will not happen. My best estimate now is that'll it'll hit the streets in the fall -- just in time for holiday gifting.

Meanwhile, I shall follow Walt Whitman's example and "celebrate myself."

Monday, May 23, 2011


Now in my second year of blogging, it's fun to look back at 2010's posts. Google Blogger's admirable infrastructure (labels, archival dating, and internal Google Search), makes it easy to retrieve information and assess progress.

In March, April, and May of last year, I was engaged in mortal combat with snails and slugs, and devoted three posts to my struggles. Snails and slugs, part 3 will link you back to the series if you're interested in some nostalgia.

This spring, thanks largely to a year's liberal use of Sluggo Plus, our garden is virtually free of land mollusks and their fellow travelers -- sow bugs and earwigs. "Virtually," of course, is a word from computer jargon. It often means "not quite," or "notable exceptions abound." I don't think I've seen a single slug in the spring of 2011, and three or four snails is about average for a whole week. Often, this year's snails are found clinging to bricks or dry branches where they have climbed to wait out the dry summer months.

Feeling smug about snails and slugs, then, and with May more than half gone, I was shocked to find the largest snail of the year a couple of days ago. It was blissfully clinging just inside the lip of my new rhubarb pot! Ironically, I discovered it while sprinkling Sluggo Plus around the plant. I'd seen some damage to new leaves and attributed it to sow bugs, so brought out the heavy artillery. The intruder was revealed when I lifted a small leaf to make sure I'd covered the soil's entire surface. It was tempting to leave him/her to die slowly ("twisting in the wind," as it were), but I opted for my usual "stomp in the gutter" routine.

Not having seen any snail trails leading up to the pot, BTW, I strongly suspect that the snail came from Marina Garden Center WITH the rhubarb. The evidence would have been easy to spot, as it would have to cross an expanse of dry paving stones and rough bricks.

You can be sure that next time I buy a plant I'll check the pot for pests.

Meanwhile, I plan a progress report on the offensive against parking-strip weeds.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

good for the rhubarb

Friends outside SoCal may scoff, but on Monday night and Tuesday morning, we set a record with about 1/4 inch of rain. More fell last night, and today's forecast puts our chance of rain at 40%. It's a veritable monsoon in an area that can go without measurable precipitation from March through October.

Rhubarb is even rarer than rainfall in SoCal, and my recent reading of garden blogs has confirmed the conventional wisdom that the venerable "pie plant" cannot be grown here. I began to fantasize about Lida's homegrown Idaho rhubarb, and my forthcoming annual rhubarb-pie-making ritual (beebopareebop!).

Our first spring in Pennsylvania, I had been determined to plant rhubarb, but was unable to find it in local nurseries. I was told, in fact, that they didn't carry rhubarb because everyone HAD it already. When Gloria invited me to go with her to a large nursery out in the country, I jumped at the chance to buy rhubarb. We had a lovely outing, but rhubarb was not for sale. Finally I convinced a rather arrogant nurseryman that I didn't HAVE rhubarb already. He dug some up for me, wrapped it in newspaper, and put it in the trunk of Gloria's car, but he would not accept any money for it.

Then on this year's Mothers Day outing to Marina Garden Center, Steve and I saw two rather pathetic one-gallon pots of cherry rhubarb. We asked a saleswoman whether it would really grow in our area, and she rather huffily replied that everything they carried would do very well here. "What about that clematis I bought last year?" I wanted to ask, but that's another story.

Needless to say, we bought the healthier-looking of the two rhubarbs. Consulting my Western Garden Book of Edibles (a Sunset publication, of course), I see that cherry rhubarb can be grown in a container. Our three-gallon crock is designated to be its home. Steve has already drilled a hole in the bottom with his trusty ceramic drill bit. I should be able to plant it today.

I figure we can move the rhubarb around until we find a place where it does well, even if that place turns out to be in Idaho.

Meanwhile, the rain IS "good for the rhubarb," as the old saying goes. It enjoys being on display on our new garden bench, and will probably stay there to bask in the morning sun.

Monday, May 9, 2011

read talk walk [sing] write smile

One of my daily routines is to go to Google Reader and see what has been delivered to me through the magic of RSS feeds. Today I was delighted to find 5 Things To Do Daily, by Nina Sankovitch, posted at Care 2 Make a Difference.

Frankly, I almost skipped Sankovitch's wonderful essay. In recent weeks I've been 'attending' a couple of on-line workshops on how to get organized, and have methodically honed my list of the things I need to do daily. There are EIGHT of them, including 'Check Google Reader.' What if I found that I had to add five more? Nothing new will fit on the one-page checklist I've set up on a clipboard, with 31 numbers to tick off after each item.

It was a relief to find that the 'five things' were pretty much habitual for me, and that they were all expressed in words of one syllable. Oddly, "sing" was omitted from the list of five things, though Sankovitch clearly states that one should sing while walking, and so I added "sing" to the five when I used them to title my own post today.

I cannot count the ways in which "read talk walk [sing] write smile" resonates with me at this very moment, but I will outline a few that come to mind in addition to the aforementioned 'to-do list' coincidence.

1. Reading as therapy has worked for me, and it's the subject of a poem (titled Palliative) I wrote about a friend who was dying of lung cancer. Here's an excerpt:

    With six months to live,
    and having renounced an aggressive program of care,
    she sets out read or re-read
    all the novels of Dominick Dunne.

2. Talking with friends and family (strangers, too!) is an important activity for me, and books come up in many of my conversations. My birthday and Mothers Day provided the occasion of numerous phone calls, and yesterday Ruth recommended Donna Leon's mysteries, set in Venice (Italy, not California!). These will make a welcome respite from the heavy Doctorow (City of God) and Atwood (Before the Flood) now at the top of my Kindle menu.

3. Walking while singing was part of the all-day choral rehearsal I attended on Saturday, and walking while watering with reclaimed wash water has become an important part of my gardening routine. More to come on that one.

4. Writing? Duh!

5. Smiling is not something I do intentionally, though I laugh a lot.

As part of explaining her five things to do, Sankovitch describes instances of their application in her own life. Something she had written about a walk in the park with her son (then under a year old, now 18 and getting ready for college) reminded me of a time when my then 4-year-old younger son wanted me to take him to the park. He said, "You can sit on the giant turtle and read." So we went to the park, and I read, though not on the giant turtle, and his negotiating skills have continued to be a big factor in his success as an entrepreneur.

Finally, the sheer phenomenon of being reminded reminded me of something  Ludwig Wittgenstein said about aesthetics. Not something whereof I'm qualified to speak at this time, but Wittgenstein has been on my mind because he's a minor character in Doctorow's City of God.

Now I must re-read Wittgenstein along with the Donna Leon mysteries. The idea makes me smile.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

three score and ten

Today I am turning seventy! It's a milestone.

Celebration will not be elaborate, as I have an all-day rehearsal with my chorale. Singing is always a celebratory act for me, even if it involves hours of exacting repetition..

Steve and I went out for a lavish dinner last Sunday night, and designated that as my 'birthday dinner.' It was early, so as not to conflict with Mothers Day tomorrow. Somehow we feel compelled to space the celebrations in a seemly manner.

For many years now, I have organized birthday parties for myself in the years when May 7 falls on a Thursday or a Sunday. Thanks to the phenomenon of Leap Year, this policy creates a quasi-random schedule that I like very much. Birthday parties are (actually should be) narcissistic affairs, and I don't really need that every year.

Generally my Thursday parties are ladies' luncheons, and the Sunday ones are raucous picnics. All have artistic elements: poetry reading, music, videos, etc. Once I put modelling clay in the luncheon centerpieces, and it was great fun to see a bunch of middle-aged women happily sculpting flowers, implements, and life-like figures both human and animal..

My most recent Sunday party (in the year 2000) was an 'old hippie' picnic at a large city park. Guests were encouraged to dress up (most did!). Extra flowers and beads were available to embellish everyone's outfits. Steve made his signature shish kebabs, and fortunately the cake was NOT "left out in the rain" as in MacArthur Park.

I resist the temptation to check the calendar and figure out when my next party will be. I look forward to the next one(s), and look back fondly on the last one(s) without much specificity..

Upon turning seventy, Steve's mother, Alice, alluded to the Biblical concept that "three score and ten" was the normal human life span (Psalm 90, verse 10). She lived to age 85, and the intervening years were definitely not all "labour and sorrow," as the King James Version expresses it. Nevertheless she would allude to her mortality with remarks such as "Well, I guess this is the last time we'll have blueberry pie!" She also wrote her own obituary, with a charming allusion to The Deacon's Wonderful One-Hoss Shay by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894).

Today I am thinking not so much about my own mortality as about ways to stay young. Sadly my own parents, aged 95 and 96, have lost interest in just about everything except their own aches and pains. They are role models only in a negative sense. I have vowed not to emulate them.

Keeping up with friends and family, learning new things, and finding more ways to celebrate are on my agenda for coming years. These are the stuff of postoccupations for sure.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

very like a dogwood

On Monday I started pruning our big white single-flowered azalea. This is doubly a labor of love: I love the azalea and I love pruning.

It's been unseasonably hot this week, so Monday's azalea pruning took place early in the morning. A late afternoon session yesterday and another early morning session tomorrow may not suffice to finish this ritualistic project, but I should be able to wrap it up on Sunday along with celebrating Mothers Day.

Some people take chain saws or hedge trimmers to their azaleas, quickly creating a clumpy mass of foliage frosted with an outside layer of blossoms. Others remove only the dead blossoms, resulting in uneven growth at the plant's surface and a tangled mass of twigs underneath.

I subscribe to the principle that removing one third of a mature shrub's twigs and branches each year will maintain its ideal size and health. A height of five feet seems just right to balance with other specimen plants while not overpowering the surrounding annuals, I also favor maintaining an "open" shape.

Starting at ground level with loppers and shears and, occasionally, a pruning saw, I approach each branch separately. First, all downward-facing growth is lopped off, then anything that threatens to crisscross with another branch. Finally, the new growth, already extending four inches or so above this year's blossoms, is thinned to encourage spreading rather than clumping. Along the way, all old flowers are removed.

My labors are rewarded by a long flowering season. On February 27 of this year, I reported that the azalea was blooming, and on March 17 that it was covered with blossoms. Indeed, there are a few flowers hanging on, even on branches that have been subjected to my surgical attention. These I will 'dead-head' as they fade.

Several years ago, a neighbor from across the street complimented me on what he took to be a dogwood growing in our front garden. As dogwoods will not grow in this temperate climate, I considered this to be high praise. Who can forget coming upon a dogwood tree in the woods? Its graceful open shape displays individual white blossoms in stunning contrast to the background of dark evergreens.

We had a small dogwood tree in our Pennsylvania front yard, and my azalea obsession may be an attempt to recreate its springtime burst of white blossoms.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

nasturtiums rampant

In Old French, the language of heraldry, rampant means "rearing up," and a rampant animal is depicted in profile standing erect with forepaws raised (see Wikipedia). The name of the animal (lion, gryphon, pelican) is always given before the word describing its stance (rampant, couchant, dormant). Thus the picture at the left shows a lion rampant.

In Modern English, rampant means "unrestrained or violent in behaviour, desire, opinions, etc.; growing or developing unchecked."

In most seed catalogs, nasturtiums are generally described as blooming from early summer through early fall, growing to a height of  10 to 12 inches, though one variety, Jewel of Africa, is said to reach 4 to 5 feet "just the right size to tumble from a hanging basket or twine up a small trellis or patio tub. They can even be allowed to trail along the ground, carpeting the garden in color!"

In our garden, nasturtiums are rampant in all senses of the word, and have been for weeks. After predicting since January 23 of last year (weeding with Emily)  that at some point I would have to define them as weeds, I have continued to let nasturtiums go unless they threaten to choke out a sweet pea, hyacinth bean, boysenberry, viola, fern, or struggling succulent.

Rampant nasturtiums have given a bright orange crown to our eight-foot fence and twined around the potato drum as well as one rain barrel. Soon they will turn my leafless six-foot Australian tree fern stem into a virtual nasturtium tree. They cover dying narcissus and freesia leaves, and retain moisture for tall calla lilies and the last of the ranunculi. Only yesterday, I realized that I was essentially using them as a mulch, up to two feet deep in areas where they sprawl.

Steve and I sit at our bistro table and watch bees, moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds visit the nasturtiums. Human passersby express delight, and toddlers often leave with a bright flower in hand or mouth.

Horticultural memoirs abound. Nasturtiums were rampant in the back yard of the house I lived in from age eight to age twelve. They reared up into the big old eucalyptus trees that lined the backs of all the lots on our street. I was fascinated by their fat, tripartite seeds, and would line them up along the top of a redwood fence to watch them dry out and split apart as summer progressed.

I am astounded to learn that nasturtium, though a Latin word, is not this rampant beauty's scientific name. Nasturtium officinale and& Nasturtium microphyllum are watercresses, while the flowering nasturtium is described by botanists as Tropaeolum majus and a whole raft of other species including Tropaeolum pulchellum, and Tropaeolum sanctae-catharinae.

What do nasturtiums have to do with St. Catharine? A question for another day.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

long path to primrose pride

I am inordinately proud of the Mexican evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) that have finally started blooming in our parking strip. According to seed stories, part 3, I planted the seeds in February of last year, so it took a good fourteen months and two more postings (parking strip, part 1 and part 2before we saw the first pink blossom.

On March 6, 2010, I wrote:
     "New plants -- Mexican evening primrose and California poppies -- will be planted in the sheltered areas next to the Chinese evergreen elm and two well established jade plants, but not until after the war on weeds goes into a moratorium to be specially decreed for that purpose."

The primrose and poppy seeds were planted in pure sifted compost from which a large population of sow bugs had been laboriously removed. I don't remember any weed moratorium, but somehow the seedlings were set out as planned. All of the poppies, along with the primroses sheltered by jade plants, vanished without a trace,* but the magenta blossoms of ice plant at the base of the Chinese evergreen elm are co-existing nicely with primroses. They look very much like the primrose-and-African daisy combo described by fellow blogger 'Garden Wise Guy,' who ends his post with these self-deprecating words: "Nothing profound here. Please move along. Thank you."**

I have transplanted two tiny primroses into the center of our largest front-yard bed -- the one anchored by a white azalea and bordered by a mix of freesias, hyacinths, ranunculi, and convulvus mauritanicus. This bed was a driveway at one time, so the soil is not wonderful, especially in the center, which is populated with drought-tolerant lavenders and an on-again-off-again Mexican sage. Daring to create a horticultural barrio, I have placed the Mexican primroses on either side of the sage, and am looking forward to their intermingling. Naturally one of my poems comes to mind. I wrote about the way a pole lima had climbed my Banks rose: "this magic will touch the slow-cooking beans of winter / and scent them ever so lightly with rose."

Being a wildflower at heart, Mexican evening primrose can be invasive. I hope not to reach the point where I say, with yet another garden blogger: "No more primroses, please!"

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*My poppy saga is described in greener on the other side (March 19, 2011), and I'm happy to report that the poppies from the two four-inch pots are looking healthy though blossomless in the cactus and succulent bed.

**GWG flirts with profundity (consonance and imagination, at least) in Foliage Foundations and Gnasty Gnomes (the Gs are silent). He turns out to be an important Santa Barbara garden designer whose parking strip work has been featured on Sunset Magazine's garden blog, Fresh Dirt.

Monday, April 11, 2011

a plethora of purple

Plethora is a word I use very rarely and with considerable trepidation, because I think it has faintly pejorative connotations. For purposes of today's posting, however, I think it accurately conveys my mild annoyance with a situation that folks outside our favored Mediterranean/subtropical climate zone will probably envy.

On January 15, 2010, when I wrote perennial sweet pea, there were no sweet peas of any kind blooming in my garden, though some vines had reached the top of the fence. I was anxious to see and smell the blossoms, but not overly concerned since I thought it was too early for them. Ultimately, I had a long and successful season of multi-colored sweet peas, and saved a lot of seeds. I did not attempt to identify the seeds by color.

Then on November 28, I reported that a volunteer sweet pea, brought on by fall rains, was already blooming on my fence. It was dark purple. It was the first and only sweet pea that had sprouted exactly where I wanted sweet peas to grow. Others popped up farther from the fence and in the front garden among sprouting freesias. These I moved to stand along the fence, spacing them to occupy a much longer portion of the fence then I'd devoted to sweet peas last year. At the same time, I started more plants from last year's seed.

Late last summer, a community group was giving away free seeds (limit two packets) at a nearby farmer's market . I gratefully took 'Blue Celeste' sweet peas and  'Legion of Honor' poppies*. You may wonder why I took the sweet peas when I had plenty of saved seeds at home. Well, these giveaways were PALE BLUE! I know that truly blue flowers** are very rare, and so I just had to have them.

I planted a lot of 'Blue Celeste' seeds along with my saved seeds, but so far, the only plants in bloom are dark purple and a very pale pink. The pink ones are just starting to open up, whereas there are two more dark purples blooming prolifically in the same section of fence with the original volunteer. Right now I have a bouquet of sweet peas on my desk -- twenty or so dark purple with ONE light pink. Moreover the purple ones have longer stems and larger blossoms, and about half of them are from the volunteer plant that bloomed in November.

Four months of exclusively dark purple sweet peas? To misquote Shelley again: "If purple comes, can blue be far behind?" The answer is a resounding "Yes!" Each day I check the buds for hints of PALE BLUE. It's a vigil.

The wait for perennial sweet peas to bloom has been an even longer vigil. These were planted from seed in fall 2009. They grow wild along the coast of Maine, so I admit they're not in their element here. The vines are tall and healthy, but, after at least a year and a half of easily being green, are just beginning to show some tiny buds. BTW, perennial sweet peas range in color from white to            
- - - - -
*I intend to plant  poppies when when it starts raining next fall.

**My borage is looking good, and it's not only true blue but also edible.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

shop till it drops

Yesterday, Tru's Facebook posts included a link to M. Crow and Company General Store in Lostine, Oregon. I took a virtual shopping trip via their on-line slideshow. (Sorry this link isn't functional at the moment, but I'm posting it here in hopes it'll come back up. Meanwhile you may be able to access a Facebook version.)

Imagine being able to buy a horse collar and a hula hoop, a washboard and an instant-read meat thermometer in the same store. I am enticed by the fine selection of enamel ware in a wide range of colors, and long to ask whether they carry Bliss Foot Soak. Bliss, a powder containing salicylic acid, was packed in a cylindrical cardboard container -- goldenrod yellow with black printing if I recall correctly. It has nothing to do with similarly-named products being marketed today in blue plastic tubes,

Crow's is a True Value Hardware store. Visiting their website, I learn that True Value is a coop owned by individual store owner/operators. A light dawns. This is why True Value stores are so different from each other -- ranging from the glitzy Koontz Hardware in West Hollywood (virtually next door to the Pacific Design Center) to Crow's in Lostine (pop. 283) .

According to another of Tru's postings, M. Crow and Company General Store is for sale. It's only 200 miles from our Idaho farm. Will I get there in time to see it before it goes the way of the Star Merch, Orville Jackson's, and so many other rural retailers that served our parents and grandparents?

I feel privileged to remember shopping in stores with softwood floors, where "brown paper packages tied up with string" was a way of doing business rather than a song lyric.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

in memoriam

Jean's dear husband Bob passed quietly in his sleep on Wednesday night after a mercifully short bout with lung cancer. This afternoon I will attend a 'friends and family' memorial celebration at their home, trying not to ask whether Jean (two helpful daughters-in-law notwithstanding) should be hosting such a thing at such a time.

In recent years, conventional funerals have become very rare. Like classic drama and the traditional sacraments, however, each observance embodies its predecessors and foreshadows future events. We continue to spin a cultural thread of reminiscence.

The first in-home memorial celebration I ever attended was for Sharon's father. It must have been sometime in the late 80s. Steve and I did the music, including some specially requested Sousa marches. I was skeptical but brought out my beloved piccolo. The idea was to move folks from living room to patio in an upbeat manner following all the eulogistic reminiscences. It worked fine.

Steve's dad, Homer, was commemorated in 1994 at a Memorial Day picnic at the family farm in Idaho. There was no music, but I wrote a poem of one-syllable words:

     On a day when flags are flown
     we meet to speak of a man set free ---
     of land he tilled and lives he touched
     in a span of four score and five.

     Where he stood, proud to the end,
     we share out thoughts and know he rests
     as we set forth less one
     on a day when flags are flown.

The line "as we set forth less one" comes back to me every time a life is commemorated.

Today, we set forth less one with Jean.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Sunday's "Farewell to Winter" storm lasted far into the night and brought high winds. Delicate freesias and ranunculi were beaten down onto the sodden ground. I knew that many of them would lift their heads as soon as they got a few hours of sun, but not so my largest lavender. It had fallen over because the wet earth was too soft to support its top-heavy frame.

The lavender in question is a bush over five feet tall. About a year ago I'd pruned it to stand as a tree. Its low branches were not only choking out other plants but also providing an idyllic hiding place for snails and slugs. Fortunately, it responded well to all the chopping and sawing that left it with one thick trunk bearing numerous branches laden with long-stemmed flowers. Heavily mulched but never watered, it must have developed a strong, deep root system -- not quite strong enough for Sunday night's abuse, though.

Monday I mourned, and felt some guilt about having created the unnatural shape that doomed my innocent plant. On Tuesday, though, I resolved to take action. First I used my sturdy pruning saw and removed at least a third of the heaviest branches. This totally filled our green-waste bin, where myriad bees followed. (Until the bin is picked up on Friday, I can lift the lid for instant aromatherapy!)

Steve rounded up three sturdy stakes and pounded them deep into the ground. I used tinseled wire* to tie the trunk in place, and buttressed it with paving stone and brick on the side toward which it had fallen. Oddly, this was the west side. Most of our rain storms come from the west, and this was definitely a Pacific storm (oxymoron?), but the winds were whipping around from all directions.

I plan more pruning, and will try to make lavender wands with some of the long-stemmed flowers.
- - - - -
*This holiday holdover is a favorite garden supply. It's based on flexible wire about the same gauge as telephone wire, wrapped with something silvery, and strung with silver paillettes made of light-weight plastic. As the silver fades, the paillettes continue to quiver in the gentlest breeze. Thus an illusion of fairy dust hovers around plants tied up with it. I used a whole hank (probably about 12 feet) on the distressed lavender tree, so it should look festive throughout its rehabilitation.

Monday, March 21, 2011

shores of tripoli

I have vague memories of VJ Day (I was four) but have been more fully aware of the cessation of many other "hostilities" As my Viet Nam-era Navy Veteran friend puts it, however: "No war is ever really over," even if the U.S. has definitively declared victory or claimed to have accomplished a mission.

The beginnings of wars are a different matter. Someone must have 'shared' the crossing of the 38th parallel when I was in grade school, and the Korean Conflict was a staple of Current Events for a long time while we learned to 'duck and cover' and fear Communism.

As a 17-year-old USO volunteer, I wondered why so many of the Marines were talking about going to Laos, but the Southeast Asian wars started very gradually, perhaps as a holdover from WWII and Korea.

Since January 1991, when Steve and I watched the almost ritualistic start of Operation Desert Storm on CNN, I've been all too conscious of the starts of wars. Thus Saturday's launching of missiles into Libya brought back that memory, along with one of being in Idaho, on the phone with Sandy, while the U.S. invaded Iraq.

I don't watch international news on CNN anymore. It doesn't take a lot of theme music and rhetoric to help me recognize atrocities. NPR's calmer coverage -- punctuated by Tivo'd doses of Jon Stewart's outrageous observations -- keeps my adrenaline level high enough.

My high school Latin teacher, proud to be a Reserve officer, liked to shock the boys with predictions of how he'd be ordering them around in the Middle East as soon as they graduated, if not before. I can't imagine Mr. M lived to see George Bush draw a line in the sand, but I often wonder whether he made it to Southeast Asia.and met any of his old students there.

Now Operation Odyssey Dawn brings flashbacks to and from the shores of Tripoli.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

greener on the other side

On Wednesday, Steve and I visited the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sunland and, on our way home, the Japanese Garden at the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys. In between, we had lunch at a small Lebanese cafe in Sunland. This was a rare midweek outing made possible by the cancellation of Steve's regular Wednesday noon piano-playing gig.

I thought I had visited the Payne Foundation as a child, but my memory was of something more urban, and a place where there were more of the cacti and succulents my parents were collecting at the time. The real TPF is the only nursery where I've seen a sign warning customers to watch out for rattlesnakes. It hangs on the edges of a canyon and is topped by a wildflower trail. A small lizard was the only wildlife I saw.

My goal at TPF was to buy California poppy plants. After years of coveting neighbors' poppies and sowing numerous packets of seed, I finally chose what I hope will be an easier way of getting the state flower to bloom among our cacti and succulents. Four-inch pots of poppies were $4.00 each, and I indulged in two: one classic orange and one multi (white and/or cream, I hope). The rain promised for this weekend should give them a boost and, though it may be too late to hope for blooms this year, may encourage the taproots that make poppies perennial in favored locations. Meanwhile, I squint at nasturtiums and visualize future poppies, asking for the zillioneth time why birds have not brought poppies to me along with Sprenger asparagus fern and other unwanted invaders.

I was tempted by TPF's native ferns and white clematis, but decided to wait until fall, when I can also buy more poppies if this week's fail. In the gift shop (unavoidable because we had to pay for the poppies there) we were happy to find books for two grandchildren's upcoming birthdays: one volume on the whys and wherefores of backyard possums, and one on how to tell which are the friendly insects. Both were beautifully illustrated.

The Lebanese cafe was located at a former fast food site -- Taco Bell would be my guess. I love to see chain restaurant buildings recycled into one-of-a-kind eateries,* whether they're thinly disguised, as this one was, or almost unidentifiable, as most Orange Juliuses which often can be spotted only because of their proximity to car washes. My falafel and Steve's shawarma were wonderful, served with the thinnest pita bread I've ever seen. We seemed to be the only WASPs in the place, which is probably why we were given baklava on the house for desert. How could we ever visit TPF without stopping for more Mediterranean food?

Unlike TPF, the idyllic Japanese Garden was much as I remembered it from a short visit after an LWV meeting a couple of years ago. Spectacular white herons, little brown-black ducks, huge koi, and tiny minnows were among the wildlife we saw. We watched gardeners pole a boat out to one of the islands and place a turtle trap, so we know we didn't see all the resident fauna. BTW the gardeners used a garden rake to propel the boat; this was multitasking at its best.

One detail that I did NOT remember from my previous visit was that the acres of green lawn were made up of pure dichondra; only one small area showed a bit of oxalis. Of course I was tempted to do some weeding, but kept hands (and feet) off.

As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, dichondra grown with a lavish supply of recycled water is in the eye of the gardener who's pre- (and post-) occupied with making this gorgeous ground cover flourish similarly at home. I was inspired to pull more than my daily quota of chickweed, oxalis, and perennial grasses, and to use laundry water to keep the parking strip green through the dry months of summer.
- - - - -
*The new and trendy A-Frame, in a former IHOP location trying to throw off the bad karma of an unsuccessful Mexican interlude, serves an Asian fusion cuisine and is a Beard new-restaurant award nominee.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Hyacinths and ranunculi are coming into bloom in our largest flower bed. The hyacinths are a blue-purple that blends well with four varieties of lavender and predominantly purple freesias, but each ranunculus sprout produces a surprise. A fat red bud was the first to open, revealing a variegated orange and yellow blossom. Its neighbor is pink and white, while orange buds are waiting their turn.

This is only the second year I've grown ranunculi. They are newcomers among plants that go back thirty years and more: a big white azalea, now covered with large single blossoms; a pink camellia just ending its long season of bloom; calla lilies that have come and gone; the shrimp plant and meyer asparagus fern that were here in 1975 when we moved in.

Our front garden doesn't get enough sun to grow really great ranunculi. The flower fields of San Diego County's north coast, most notably Carlsbad, face the Pacific and so get strong sun almost all day every day. There's no way to compete with this 50 acre paradise, or even with blogger Wayne's desert garden grown from WalMart tubers. But I will persist in buying a few ranunculus tubers every year at the 99 Cents Only Store, and planting them in the sunniest spots I can find.

This summer I plan to dig and divide all my freesia and hyacinth bulbs, and will plant new and naturalized ranunculus tubers in between. They stand taller than the freesias and hyacinths, and thus provide contrast in height as well as color. Ideally convolvulus mauritanicus (ground morning glory) will fill in around the base, bearing blue-purple blossoms and staying green while the bulbs' foliage dries up.

"Ave, ave, convolvulus mauritanicus," I wrote several years ago in a poem about "the true and graeco-latin names of all the plants," yet I've never tended these unassuming perennials as well as I should. Steve's mother, Alice, bought them for me during an Easter visit years ago. She liked to go to one of the big local nurseries after our festive meal, and always encouraged me to choose a hostess gift.

Mexican sage has also received short shrift from me. It bears beautiful dark purple blossoms, but I don't care for its strong odor or sprawling shape, so have pulled it out many times. At last I think it's fighting its way back in an appropriate place, in line with the lavenders.

I love the constant planning, evaluation, and compromise involved in gardening. These activities provide focal points for memoir and, at the same time, open up paths to new learning. All this, and an excuse to wallow in dirt!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

déjà vu

Getting POSToccupations from 2010 ready for hard copy publication is taking me back to many pleasant memories, interspersed with more than a few disappointments when things didn't turn out as anticipated.

Last year's tomato crop, so hopefully outlined in tomato madness (March 31, 2010) can only be described as a total flop. The five varieties purchased at the Farmers Market bore no fruit at all. The one volunteer plant, which I was training up into my woody old rosemary tree, bore one tough, thick-skinned, two-inch orb. Finally, the rainbow mix of cherry tomato seedlings never looked promising enough to transplant.

Meanwhile, my neighbor's two lush tomato plants produced countless beefsteak beauties, which we were given carte blanche to pick. Moreover, she had NO tomato worms. Nor did we, but then our plants hardly seemed worth molesting.

But wait! Whereas the 'Bush Goliath,' 'Brandywine,' 'San Diego,' and one of the 'Roma' plants had vanished completely by midsummer, the original volunteer, the 'Costoluto-Genovese,' and the other 'Roma' are in the running for stardom, along with a second volunteer from early 'fring.' In fact, we have picked and eaten three passable fruits from volunteer #1, and two from the 'Genovese.' Two fat Roma tomatoes are nearly ripe, and all four of the plants are blooming prolifically.

I have 'wintered over' tomatoes in the past, but never with much success. Traditionally they are "tender perennials, grown as annuals," but I have little to lose by letting them live. Of course they'll soon be joined by new plants from the Farmers Market, as 'tomato madness' strikes once again.

Other notable failures marred summer 2010's veggie harvest, and may be described in future posts.

But what of the successes?
  • Creeping fig, the subject of my first post, overcame an unpromising start to climb up about 12 rows of bricks. It's not very wide, but I've supplemented it with a row of grass-like succulents whose name I do not know. This identification is a goal for 2011.
  • Gopher purge, one of the tolerated euphorbiae, is standing up to 30" tall and bearing its strange flowers. I had never noticed the lavender tinge on its stems, but am finding it a great component in bouquets of purple sweet peas or freesias. I flame-seal the stems to avoid poisoning my featured flowers -- an extra effort that seems worthwhile, if only that it preserves the gopher purge.
  • Last summer's Swiss chard is still bearing edible leaves and stems, and this year's SC seedlings will soon be ready to set out.
More to come.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

you, percy bysshe shelley!

Kaye reports, from Wisconsin, that they've had snow on the ground since early November, and sends the season's second set of photos to document the depth on their deck, in front of the barn, and in the woods. Her trees look tired.

I have the gall to reply: "In bloom right here right now: azaleas, camillias, freesias, nasturtiums, sweet peas, tomatoes, violets, pansies, calla lilies, dogbane, african basil, and various succulents." I forgot to mention the sweet alyssum, the strawberries, and four varieties of lavender but will not send an update, as Kaye's response ("No. . . you cannot call that winter!") does not sound receptive though she invites us to visit in April or May.

A trip to the mid west in April would be a great treat. Lilacs, peonies, and tulips are among the spring flowers I miss most, but they will not grow in our temperate climate.

Yesterday's Prairie Home Companion, broadcast from San Diego, poked fun at SoCal's current winter storm. They had "some rain," said Garrison Keillor, noting the sailboats in the bay and the palm trees in the canyons, the natives in their woolens and the tourists in their shorts and sandals.

Personally I think the worst of our winter hasn't happened yet. Our coldest nights often come during the first two weeks of March. On warm days I celebrate fring (the green days that start with our rainy season), but I will not acknowledge the change of seasons until the vernal equinox.

To misquote Shelley's Ode to the West Wind,* "If winter comes, spring can be far behind," as Kaye is undoubtedly thinking.

Meanwhile the ranunculi are sending up blossom stalks with fat buds, and the hyacinths have healthy leaves since I cleared out so many of the Stars of 
Bethlehem that were crowding them. One of last year's hollyhocks is standing about 18" tall, and looking like it wants to send up a blossom stalk.
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*I had forgotten that the poem is a set of five sonnets. When those romantic poets "recollected in tranquility," as Wordsworth prescribed, they brought form to their "strong emotion" and thus made it even stronger.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

collecting thoughts

Beverly and I talked about collections and collecting (among many other topics) at a leisurely Spitfire Grill lunch yesterday. I felt compelled to tell Beverly I'd mentioned her in collection completion compulsion, a blog post from last January.* She was off and running when she heard the word completion. One of the things she likes best about her primary collection -- eyeglasses and related paraphernalia -- is that there's no way to complete it. One of the things she likes least is that there is no association of eyeglass collectors with whom to share her hobby.

The distinction between finite collections, such as the 50 State Quarters, and virtually infinite collections, such as Beverly's eyeglasses and my parrots, reveals more about the personality of the collector than it does about the item being collected. We relish the thrill of the chase and the discovery of finding our special objects in different forms. Beverly proudly showed me a brand new scarf holder (what we called a neckerchief slide in Girl Scouts) in the shape of rhinestone-studded black plastic eyeglass frames. No doubt she will wear it with rhinestone-studded black eyeglass frames and a silk scarf printed with eyeglasses.

Collecting is a habit, though its objects may change over time. Beverly told me she had collected Japanese Kokeshi dolls as a child, and recently enjoyed talking about them with an elderly Japanese woman who had lost her beloved collection when she was interned during World War II. This is the kind of thing I meant by "collecting things, we collect friends," the thought with which I completed my first post on collections, and the line with which I hope to begin my long-awaited poem about collecting and collections..

My compulsion to obtain every faux parrot in the universe has waned, but a couple of months ago I was happy to find a bright red ceramic parrot vase. Being tall but not too slim, it will be wonderful for calla lilies, flowering ginger, or the silver dollar plant I hope to grow this year.

Collections can morph into events. Several years ago my parrot collection spawned a birthday party where I premiered my mock-epic poem, This Thing About Parrots, and I have conducted two Chia Pet festivals in recent years. Last June, Karen declared Cat Jewelry Month and launched it on Facebook. I intended to make August Parrot Jewelry Month but failed to follow through. Maybe this year.

Steve has purchased a 50 State Quarters album for each of our grandchildren, and is filling them with coins pulled out of pocket change. At some point he'll give the albums to the kids, hoping they'll take an interest in completing the collections. Thus a new generation of collectors will probably emerge from antecedents on both sides of our family.

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* Sadly, it turned out that Beverly was not mentioned in my original post about collections. I know I was thinking about her at the time -- as the quintessential collector among my friends -- but somehow the idea of collecting eyeglasses was a bit too complex for a beginning blogger to handle.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

honeysuckle? moi?

You will not see me wearing honeysuckle, 2011's official Color of the Year.

Honeysuckle (the color, not the flower), is a pink with a lot of orange in it, and any pink that I wear must be tinged with blue. The rose and berry pinks are my pinks.

Back in the mid 80's, I had my colors "done." It was a revelation. At that time, I was a member of National Association of Homebased Businesswomen (NAHB). One of our tenets was to do business with each other whenever possible, and so I went to Estelle for a consultation based on Carole Jackson's best-selling Color Me Beautiful.*

Estelle recommended that a friend and a husband accompany each coloree, and so Steve and Sharon -- infinitely patient and good-natured -- joined me. First I was draped with silver fabric, then gold. All agreed that I looked much healthier in the silver. The next choice was between black and navy blue. I looked dead in black, lively in navy. This meant I was a 'summer,' and should stay far away from anything with orange tones. I will not attempt to enumerate the plethora of binary color choices that honed in on my diagnosis as a woman who would always look best in soft colors.

Oddly enough, I had been brought up to believe that I looked good in the bright colors my blonde mother had learned to eschew for herself. Because I didn't sunburn easily, Charlotte figured my skin was dark. I particularly remember a formal she made for me to wear to the Cotillion in 9th grade. It was a heavy silk, with large square plaids of black, gray, and two shades of bright/dark orange. How I envied the girls arrayed in frothy light pink or blue tulle, with white pumps even though it was fall. We may come back to the mother-daughter stories some time. Right now I'm fixated on color. Pun intended.

I have religiously stayed with Estelle's 'summer' palette of clothes and make-up with one exception. 'Concert' black. At first I wore it only for singing or flute-playing events, but since my hair has turned mostly white, I feel that I can get away with black just about any time, especially if I accessorize with my better colors (last night, a splashy print of softer blue, purple, blue-red, and yellow on a black background). Yes, there is such a color as blue-red.

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*This seminal book seems to have come out in 1973, but the 1981 and 1985 editions were the ones that everybody talked about. Unflattering colors were a hallmark of 1970's fashion, now being worn as a 'retro' look, but not by me.
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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