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.
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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