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