Wednesday, December 12, 2012

fring at last!

After three consecutive days of rain, fring (that spring-like season brought on by fall rains) is here at last, and the narcissi are blooming on stems as tall as thirty inches. Fring is two months late this year, but well worth waiting for. 

I must revise some of my optimistic forecasts for fring. Calla lilies are nowhere near ready to bloom, and I've not seen as many freesias and hyacinths as expected. None of these well naturalized beauties received any supplemental water, however. Just maybe, now that I've worked out an easier way to save laundry water, I won't be so stingy when the dry seasons start (generally in that  month when certain eponymous showers are supposed to "come your way").

When our earliest and most inconsequential rains came, I had sown buckwheat to stand as a freesia cover, but it did not start sprouting until last week. Then it looked very much like the volunteer nasturtium seedlings that are coming up everywhere. I went on line but could not find a close-up picture of buckwheat seed leaves, and so Steve and I visited the nearby garden where buckwheat had been blooming last May. Sure enough, there were identifiable sprouts bearing their first true leaves as well as the original pair of seed leaves. Now I can tell the difference -- nasturtiums are the ones with the white dot on each leaf (a characteristic retained by their largest adult leaves).

I feel very lucky to have any buckwheat at all. Several on-line sources talk about planting the seeds an inch deep, whereas my seed packet recommended a mere quarter of an inch. With 200 seeds on hand, I had just thrown them on top of the perma-mulch,  hoping that a sufficient number would find their way into cracks between Chinese elm leaves and stay viable during the weeks without sufficient rain. I still have about 50 seeds, and will plant them one each deep if all else fails. But if the buckwheat follows our nasturtiums' fine example, it will also be volunteering next year.

In spite of being so preoccupied with buckwheat, I have noticed that some of the tallest freesia leaves are sticking up through a clump of dogbane which is covered with fuzzy buds. This will create a lovely mixed bouquet if both are bearing flowers at the same time. So the same kind of effect I want to create with buckwheat and freesias is happening right under my nose. Maybe I should start some dogbane cuttings to fill in when the freesias fade.

Other stars of the fring garden include a promising bromeliad 'pup,' scads of volunteer sweet peas, refreshed succulents, violets sending out runners, and the inevitable oxalis -- daring me to weed it out of the parking strip to make room for the sweet alyssum that's on its way.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

by their buds

Texas sun drops have been subsisting in our cactus and succulent bed since we brought home a three- or four-inch pot from a native plant nursery in Ventura last winter. The height of their spring blooming season (maybe three or four flowers at a time) coincided with that of a small barrel cactus and matched it in color: a yellow of almost 'neon' intensity.

Spring 2012 also brought us a good showing of California poppies. After years of planting seeds to no avail, we had bought two small pots (one the standard orange-gold and one 'mixed') at the Theodore Payne Foundation.

In spite of coming from different states, the Texas sun drops and California poppies looked very much alike -- small flowers with four rounded petals on feathery foliage. We enjoyed their simultaneous bloom, but then the poppies' lighter gray-green foliage died back while the sun drops' tiny dark green leaves kept their color and continued to produce the occasional bright blossom throughout summer and fall.

This week, with December looming, I noticed two buds on the Texas sun drops and thought they looked like tiny balloons. Not inclined to assume a nose-to-ground posture to study them, I picked the larger one yesterday and brought it inside for closer observation. The top of the sun drop bud, pale yellow cross-crossed by thin red lines like a miniature gift tie, is a square folded in on itself like a cooty catcher or origami box. California poppy buds are cones, tightly wrapped with a pale green cover (pixie hat) that's cast aside when the flower opens.

I suspect the outside of the sun drop bud will fold back to reveal the flower. On its second day of  captivity I think I see the bud's diagonal lines getting wider -- turning into cracks so as to pop apart. If the flower opens, I will be standing by to look at it under the magnifying desk lamp. Otherwise, another sun drop bud will have to be picked in the interests of science.

Googling 'Texas sun drop,*' I learn that there are at least six species of Calylophus, which belongs to the Onogracea (evening primrose) family. Wikipedia's larger-than-life photo shows "Calylophus drummondii in the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College, El Cajon, California, USA." Noting this location for our next trip to the San Diego area, I eagerly pursue more on-line links.

Calylophus drummondianus var. berlandieri, under the common name of  'shrubby primrose,' was University of Arkansas' Plant of Week in June 2008. Due to some confusion between the work of two 19th-century botanists, the Scottish Thomas Drummond and the French Jean Berlandier, shrubby primrose is often attributed only to Drummond, "a plant collector sent out by London’s Kew Gardens to collect plants in Texas," or to Berlandier, "part of the team assigned to survey and establish the Mexican borderline." In fact, however, it should bear the names of both.

I love these stories of taxonomic history, but now of course I wish I knew what these charming yellow flowers were called by pre-Columbian natives on both sides of the border.

What I do know now, to my great satisfaction, is that some people call Calylophus drummondianus var. berlandieri the 'square bud primrose.' A site devoted to native plants of the Texas hill country shows a beautiful photo and waxes eloquent: "A splash of yellow on a low mound of thin grassy foliage makes this plant special. Plant in full sun and enjoy a flush of spring bloom and additional blooms from time to time in the summer." In this mild climate, I expect a few "additional blooms" in December and look forward to a "splash of yellow"along with our California poppies and barrel cactus in March and April.
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* 'Texas sun drop' also comes up as "an exhilarating citrus soda."

P.S. (added November 30) The bud is opening! I was totally wrong about the diagonal lines, which have become the center lines of each sepal. The other crisscross (the red one) is the one that has split apart to reveal bright yellow foliage folded intricately inside. I have seen what I needed to see and will not need to sacrifice another bud from the garden!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

black friday

Steve and I have never participated in the annual 'Black Friday' shopping madness, but yesterday a computer emergency took us to a local 'big box' store on the dreaded day after Thanksgiving. 

Late in the afternoon, Steve's computer monitor failed suddenly. The screen started flashing on and off sporadically, showing nothing but narrow bands of the display that was supposed to be appearing there. This had evidently happened before, following a brief power failure over a month ago, but at that time Steve had been able to fix it with popular cable-jiggling and on-off switching techniques.

I came in from an appointment around 4:30 and personally tried the above-mentioned techniques to no avail. Guessing that the monitor must have been ten years old (it had come with an older desktop computer), we realized it was time for action.

On our way to the 'big box' store closest to home, we heard radio news of actual violence at an area WalMart, but we pressed on. I have never seen so many cars in the parking lot of our local mall. We circled two or three times before locating a space and joining the mob of customers entering the store. 

In the 'tablet' computer department, there was a line of ten or twelve customers waiting to speak to a saleseperson, but what we used to call 'peripherals' for desktop computers were in much less demand. Still we had to snake through long lines waiting for help with trendier merchandise in order to find our target item: an $80 monitor that seemed totally compatible with Steve's desktop computer.

Safely at home once again, we installed the new monitor and made the adjustments necessary to connect speakers. Steve was ecstatic, watching TED lectures on a wider screen.

How many American consumers bought ONE item so quickly on Black Friday 2012 and enjoyed it so thoroughly before the end of the day? 

Successful as we were, I hope we'll stay out of the stores on Black Friday 2013.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

start passing!

Yesterday on Facebook, Joan said, "Just made jello mold we have had every year for Thanksgiving since I was a kid. Mom and I are only ones who eat it now but to me it just isn't Thanksgiving without it." Thirty-one of Joan's friends 'liked' this, and nineteen made comments, but so far I've seen no answer to my question: "Lime with pineapple?"

Though I wonder how many traditional Thanksgiving dishes will go uneaten this year, I cannot blame Joan for making and enjoying the ritual jello mold. My mother often made a frozen cranberry salad mold (cream cheese, whole-berry cranberry sauce, grated pineapple, chopped pecans, and more sugar than anyone uses in any salad today). If I had the recipe, I would seriously consider making it as a dessert, but would not be surprised if nobody wanted to eat it.

Our culinary relics -- jello molds, candied yams with miniature marshmallows, green bean casserole topped with canned onion rings, and stuffing cooked inside the turkey (to name but a few) are like food placed in tombs or offered to ancestors in so many cultures. The colorful Latin-American Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is my favorite example, and one of these years I'll learn enough to write something about it.

Steve and I are celebrating Thanksgiving by ourselves this year. We have planned a relatively simple meal: turkey brined in a juniper-berry mixture, cornbread stuffing, and acorn squash 'on the half-shell' cooked in the crockpot with dried cranberries. Possibly a cactus leaf and tomato salad if that little bag of nopalitos hasn't joined its ancestors in the compost barrel.

Steve will carve our 10-pound turkey -- at the table, I hope. My maternal grandfather was known for saying: "It doesn't matter how you carve the turkey. Just do it slowly." 

Once when I was in high school, I had Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house and was horrified that her father did not carve and pass the turkey to each individual at the table in a hierarchical order. The turkey came to the table already sliced, a brief blessing was intoned, and the order to "Start passing!" was given along with an exuberant arm-waving gesture. 

Thus Thanksgiving continues to evolve as each family looks inward and outward to select the elements of which we must say, "It isn't Thanksgiving without it."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

a holiday endeavour

Nancy's Thanksgiving e-letter focuses on her once-in-a-lifetime experiences of 2012, headlined with seeing the Space Shuttle Endeavour "up close and personal" in the air over her home and again on the ground on its way to the California Science Center at Exposition Park.

The first holiday letter of every year is always a jolt for those of us who are not as conscientious as we'd like to be about annual mailings to family and friends. Nancy's effort is exemplary. It has a theme and a positive tone. Her brevity leaves us wanting more: about her sweet peas; about her cats; but especially about her.

Nancy's letter reminds me that I still haven't written anything about the Endeavour. It's been on my mind and my list of blog topics ever since that October weekend when Steve and I took the Expo light-rail line to Exposition Park twice: once on the Saturday evening when Endeavour was scheduled to arrive, and again on Sunday morning, when we actually saw the venerable spacecraft inch through the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Steve went on to a 'gig' but I stayed all day and watched from several vantage points including a second-floor window of the Natural History Museum.

I was surprised by my own fascination with the Endeavour, which Steve and I visited again during a 'members only' event at the Science Center. The exploration of space has never interested me much, though I remember milestones: Sputnik, landings on the moon and Mars, the Columbia disaster, etc. I had actually gone on record in May 2010 as having told Kay I wasn't interested in space.

Kay would have loved everything about the Endeavour's big retirement party, and would have wanted to talk about all of it -- including the spelling. Yes, spelling! For some reason, NASA chose to spell Endeavour in the British style, with a 'u' as in flavour and colour. I feel that I could research this issue, but I'm going to leave it alone and remember bigger things: the sheer size of the Endeavour, the spirit of the crowd that came out to cheer it on, the opulence of the Science Center's new exhibit and plans for more, the importance of Exposition Park as a focus for happy memories in my own life.

I will endeavor to write a holiday letter this year.

Monday, November 5, 2012

narcissus, harbinger of fring

Just last month (gardenia essentials), I confidently predicted: "Narcissi and freesias will sprout before Thanksgiving; calla lilies will stand tall before Christmas." When I wrote that, of course, I still believed that Southern California's famous "fall rains" would come in early October and usher in the fring season I enjoy so much.

On November 28, 2010, I described the planting of our narcissus bed as well its sprouting in early October of that year. We were enjoying narcissus blossoms throughout November of 2011 too, but again the rains had come in October.

October 2012 is history, and it's time to admit that I remember many fall droughts and many years when there was no paperwhite narcissus until Christmas. This fall has brought one Santa Ana after another, and today's predicted high is 95.

But bulbs are powerhouses of stored energy. Last Thursday or Friday, I saw that the first narcissus of 2012 had sprouted and was standing almost four inches tall. It was high time to bring on the laundry water.* The narcissus bed will receive at least three gallons every couple of days, and I'm thinking that our Idaho daffodils (not naturalized here yet) deserve life support too.

Our resurgent clematis, thirsty dogbane, Texas sun-drops, and showy bromeliads have received the lion's share of this summer and fall's laundry water, but wizened jade trees and other sad succulents (calandrinia, bulbine, aeonium, etc.) are beginning to remind me of T.S. Eliot's "old man in a dry month."

"Use it or lose it," they say, and this is true of laundry water as well as rain water. If the gardens don't get it, the overloaded sewer system and storm drains will.
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I haven't reclaimed much laundry water this year (see drops in the bucket, part 3 for the October 2010 inception of that laborious process). Ironically, I had simplified my method of siphoning water out of the washing machine but had not really taken advantage of this innovation. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

viewing Trollope in 2012

The following is my submission to a Facebook challenge made by the Anthony Trollope Society. We were to write 300 words on "How I View Trollope in 2012."

In 2012 I view Trollope on my Kindle e-reader.

I know this is not the type of answer the Society expects, but I hope nobody finds it flippant. Buying a Kindle brought me back to Victorian literature after a hiatus of over 40 years.

When I saw that most classic ‘literary’ fiction was available in Kindle format for free, I started amassing it and inserting a Victorian title here and there in my usual regimen of contemporary best-sellers, self-help books, and detective fiction.

George Eliot turned out to be too ponderous, and Thomas Hardy too melodramatic, but, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, Anthony Trollope was “just right.”

Now I carry Trollope’s complete works with me almost everywhere I go. The e-reader simultaneously holds my place in all the books I’m reading, and thus while reading Trollope’s autobiography I was able to segue into novels he mentioned -- “The Way We Live Now,” “Orly Farm,” “The Vicar of Bullhampton” -- and seamlessly return to the autobiography.

Re-reading “Phineas Finn” in August during our ‘Take a Trollope on Holiday ‘activity, I used the Kindle’s search function to look up his references to Belgium. Then I scheduled a side-trip to Blankenberg Beach, where Phineas and Lord Chiltern fought their infamous duel.

Right now, I’m reading “The Claverings,” but when I‘m finished I intend to start researching Trollope’s use of seaside locations for significant events. This project was inspired by a thread in our Facebook discussion of “Marion Fay,” when a Society member posted an old sepia photo of Pegwell Bay.

So how do I view Trollope in the broader sense intended by the Society’s question? I view Trollope as a friend and companion who is always able to delight me with his insights into human character.

Friday, October 19, 2012

an embarrassment of freesias

Early last week, I thought I spotted a weed in our bulb bed, but closer inspection revealed it to be the first freesia of fring, a spring-like season triggered by Southern California's fall rains. The rainy season started very early in October of 2010 and 2011, but this year we're well into the second half of the month, with nothing but a couple of brief sprinkles.

Now that our front garden beds are virtually free of weeds, a single freesia sprout looks very lonely as it emerges from thick brown mulch at the foot of a lavender tree. The appearance of three more sprouts hasn't helped much, and, having reached a height of about six inches, they look even weedier. I hope someone doesn't decide to 'help' me by pulling them out!

The freesias will not bloom until March, and up to that time their grassy-looking foliage will continue to look out of place. As soon as they reach a height of about nine inches, they will start to flop over and lie along the ground. Blossom stalks will rise rather dejectedly from this mass of green, but when at last they begin to open and release their spectacular fragrance, all this early ugliness will be forgiven.

This year, I hope to mask the ugly-duckling phase of freesia development by planting buckwheat, which stands about a foot tall and bears clusters of tiny white flowers. It draws phosphorus from the earth and nitrogen from the air. Thus it is an ideal green manure crop and should be adaptable as a bulb cover for my freesias and hyacinths..

I had never thought of planting buckwheat until last spring's garden tour featured a nearby garden surrounded by a circle of blooming buckwheat. The plantings at this site (a lush mix of flowers, herbs, and veggies) were designed to draw bees and butterflies. Will 'my' bees welcome a change from their steady diet of lavender? Time will tell.

Unable to find buckwheat seeds in our local nurseries, I ordered a packet of 200 on line. Last week I probably jumped the gun by sowing about half of them. The rest will wait until "fall rains heal all.*"
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* Last line of a poem I wrote several years ago about Santa Ana winds.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

the importance of earnestness

Recently my friend Ruth left me a phone message recommending P.D. James' new novel, Death Comes to Pemberley (a sequel to Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, in James' signature genre, the crime novel).

I was not surprised by Ruth's recommending a book, but I was astounded to learn that P.D. James (aka Baroness James of Holland Park) is alive and productive at age 92 -- picking up the Jane Austen thread as so many novelists, filmmakers, fashion designers, and country dance enthusiasts have done in recent years.

I thought I had read all of P.D. James' works, but in looking up titles available for the Kindle, I found Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of an Autobiography and decided to read it right away. Pemberley could wait, I thought, until I caught up with P.D.James and re-read Pride and Prejudice.*

James began Time to Be in Earnest on her 77th birthday, taking the title from Samuel Johnson's observation (via Boswell, of course) that "at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest." I give the context of this quotation to show that Johnson was being descriptive, not prescriptive, in describing a man who is "not infirm, with a look of venerable dignity excelling what I remember in any other man." Indeed, James herself exudes "venerable dignity."

Time to Be in Earnest is a memoir in motion. Events in the present evoke parallels in the past to show how a long life's themes evolve and overlap. Though James is justifiably famous, this is not a self-centered celebrity memoir.** Within a simple framework of life events, James includes a great deal of commentary on the history and politics of her times, plus some insightful literary analysis grounded in her own development as a reader and writer. For instance, we learn that James read and re-read Jane Austen's works starting in grammar school.

Thus it is not a surprise that Time to Be in Earnest closes with the transcript of a talk James had given to the Austen Society on July 18, 1998: "Emma Considered as a Detective Story." This was more than ten years before the publication of Death Comes to Pemberley, but we can be sure that James remained very much in earnest about Victorian fiction and myriad other topics in the interim.

I wouldn't be surprised if P.D.James is working on a sequel to Emma or Northanger Abbey.
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* Though I had seen Becoming Jane when it came out in 2007, I have not re-read any Austen novels since graduate school. Pride and Prejudice has been sitting on my Kindle for months, just waiting for a lull in the recent Trollope onslaught.

** I'm not going to name names here, but I recently started reading one of these and gave up after a second chapter of pure narcissism.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

the medium is the birthday song*

This morning I learned from a Facebook friend that Sheriff John had died Saturday morning in a Boise nursing home after turning 93 last Tuesday, October 2. Internet coverage of the loss has brought a wave of nostalgia to our global village, for 'Sheriff John' was a persona of John Rovick, who hosted Lunch Brigade on L.A.'s Channel 11 (KTTV) from 1952 to 1970.

Lunch Brigade was designed for children who could watch at noon -- preschoolers and kindergartners mostly. I was in sixth grade in 1952, so only saw it on the occasional 'sick day,' then and on into my junior high years. The show really stuck in my mind, though, and so the videos being shown on line today have been very familiar to me.

Seeing Sheriff John open the door and walk onto the set evokes a later icon of children's TV: Fred Rogers, whose Mister Rogers Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS . Of course Mister Rogers would never have shown cartoons, but it's the host's personality that seems so similar. These gentle men were laid-back, non-confrontational adults who treated young children with respect.

Sheriff John sang a special birthday song, Put Another Candle on the Birthday Cake, that is meaningful to many people. I never internalized it to the extent that I did Uncle Whoa-Bill's Happy Birthday Just for You (sung to the tune of the Franz Lehar's Merry Widow Waltz). That's the one I'll sing at the drop of a hat and tend to leave on friends' voicemail.

Unfortunately, Uncle Whoa-Bill is pretty well lost from the annals of media history. He had a radio show on L.A.'s classical station KFAC in the late 40's, and he really knew how to create media magic for children's birthdays. Besides the wonderful song, he would mention a child by name, and give a special message such as: "Follow the string tied to one of the dining room chairs" Sure enough! A special gift would be found at the end of the string.

My coverage of children's media ends with Captain Kangaroo. His show ran from 1955 to 1984 on various channels, and was a favorite of my youngest cousin, Jonathan. Jon asked his mother, my Aunt Isabelle, to write to the Captain and find out what he did with all the leftover birthday cakes from his shows. Like Fred Rogers, Isabelle took children's concerns seriously, and so she wrote the requested letter. Next time I see Jon, I'm going to ask him what the answer was.
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*Allusion to Marshall McLuhan, most famous for defining "the global village" and observing, "The medium is the message."

Friday, October 5, 2012

when the world gives you bandanas

Over two years ago, I had some fun disambiguating* myself from Martha Stewart (see 'marthette, moi?'), but since enrolling in some on-line workshops on getting organized, I've become a subscriber to Martha's Home Organizing Tip of the Day. Some days, the tip is well worth saving for future reference: making a mini-office out of a blanket chest (something I'd done years ago, but not so elegantly) or attaching a power strip to the underside of a desk so that computer cords do not make a tangled heap on the floor.

Today's tip came into my inbox under the title "Lasso Your Laundry," and, as a person whose laundry sometimes strays far afield, I thought this might be one of the good ones. Au contraire! It's all about how to make a cute laundry bag out of bandanas, with cable cord drawstrings.

This gave me a good laugh and reminded me of a bus-travel episode. I had received a bandana as part of the 'bling' at some sort of do-gooder meeting. Afterwards, I was waiting for the bus and wondering what I was going to do with the bandana, when a homeless man came along wearing a ragged pink bandana around his head. I said, "You look like you need a new bandana!" He took it with appropriate dignity and walked off wearing it.

Occasionally I will wear a bandana to keep my hair clean while gardening or cleaning, and when I put it on I always hum the old song "My Home's in Montana / I Wear a Bandana." Refreshing my memory of the tune via YouTube, I reflect that I wouldn't have had this pleasant experience if I hadn't received Martha's Tip of the Day.

Meanwhile, my best technique for dealing with laundry is to do one or two loads (max) per day. I have a hamper-within-the-hamper for the white stuff, and can choose either to wash it or divide the remainder into two or more loads based on color and/or texture. Putting any dirty clothes in a laundry bag of any description would just slow me down, but "whistling a merry old song of the trail" will lighten my load.

Thank you, Martha!
- - - - -
* I describe my first encounter with this problematic word in the color lavender.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

friends removed

Not every noun makes a good verb. Like, friend. I remember the first time someone said to me: "Okay, so I'll friend you and then we'll get together . . . " The progression seemed totally backwards, of course, but this kind of friending occurs in the context of Facebook, where it's totally different from liking. But that may be another story.

I joined Facebook on May 20, 2008. I don't know this fact about myself because I remember it, but because Facebook maintains what it calls a 'timeline' of my activities, at least insofar as they're trackable with my security settings turned to the max. BTW, back in 2008 this 'timeline' was known as a 'wall,' and I liked that terminology much better.

I joined Facebook because I belonged to two organizations that simultaneously decided to try increasing their visibility and influence through social media. ONE group alone probably wouldn't have convinced me, but for a while I was actively adding friends with these two missions in mind. Were the missions accomplished? It's hard to know. I do know that Homeboy Industries, one organization I currently 'like,' posts at least two or three items daily, usually including a 'thought for the day' along with a photo of the person contributing it. Professional PR is behind this effort as surely as it was NOT behind my own groups' efforts.

Earlier this year, I had over 600 Facebook friends and was getting very little enjoyment from social media. Today I'm down to 557 friends (plus 116 'likes') and am actually getting some fun out of my Facebook experience for the first time since the earliest days of membership.

Before I started actively getting rid of Facebook friends, I'd go to the site and find whole screens full of things posted by folks I didn't know or care about. When I unfriended these folks (yes, unfriend is the word I must click on to perform this minor miracle), I free up space for postings from folks I DO know, including a precious subset of real-world FRIENDS.

When I click on unfriend, I get a message that asks, "REMOVE FROM FRIENDS?" My affirmative gets the confirmation, "FRIEND REMOVED," and I click a final "OK." So it's at least a three-step process, as friend removal certainly should be if it were as dire as it sounds.

Alas, two or three of my remaining Facebook friends have been known to post ten or more items in an hour: not their own thoughts but pictures and messages they've picked up and passed along from their other Facebook friends and the myriad entities they've 'liked.' Don't they know they're three clicks away from ostracism?

Years ago I asked Steve whether he knew the difference between a second cousin and a first cousin once removed. "I don't know," he said, "I've never had a cousin removed." The distinction between levels of cousinship still escapes me, but I know all about having friends removed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

gardenia essentials

Getting ready for fall rains is always a major focus of my late summer gardening. For me, these rains mark the end of one gardening year and the beginning of the next, as spring-like ('fring' as I insist on calling it) growth will begin as soon as the ground is thoroughly wet. Narcissi and freesias will sprout before Thanksgiving; calla lilies will stand tall before Christmas, and I will watch my step -- staying on the paths to tend seedlings and pull weeds while naturalized bulbs and corms put on their shows.

During the final weeks of dryness, however, I can thrash around in the thickly mulched flower beds with impunity, shaping and pruning hardy perennials without damaging anything underground. Thus I wallow in the narcissus bed to give the gardenias their surgical makeover.

We have three gardenia bushes in a gently curved row, marking the wide line where a largish triangular bed, devoted otherwise to cacti and succulents, gives way to narcissi and sweet violets.  I will never claim that this is good landscape design. A purist would have removed the gardenias years ago, but I will not give up the late spring sensation of walking out the front door into the fragrance of old-timey corsages and boutonnieres.

I remember buying the first gardenia, a dwarf variety, over 20 years ago, and planting it in the middle of the space. It was disappointingly slow to grow and didn't bear enough flowers to suit me, and so the next year I went out and bought two more gardenias -- standard size this time -- and planted them one on each side of the tiny original. Knowing that they would need more moisture than I was likely to give them, I planted each one inside an old tire, buried to the sidewalls. If all three plants had been the same variety, this might have made an interesting hedge. Instead, the tall gardenias overshadowed the small one until I decided to limit them to about 30 inches in height.

This year's pruning is a slow, sweaty process in unusually hot weather, but as the larger pieces drop away, I am finally rewarded with the almost annual phenomenon I'd been hoping to see: a tiny bud just starting to open on the dwarf gardenia, and several tightly furled ones promising more to come. The first time I saw this, it inspired a haiku:

     spring bloom in fall month
     draws wonder and suspicion
     yet smells sweet as June's

Flowering is where and when we find it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

a bromeliad by any other name

It struck me the other day that bromeliads don't have a common name. Steve said, "Bromeliad IS their common name," and I was somewhat convinced. Everyone calls them bromeliads. Of course the edible variety is called pineapple and the smallest is called Spanish moss. These names are as common as can be, but the rest are Bromeliaceae -- graeco-roman and prickly.

For many years, I treated bromeliads as the fussiest of potted plants. I would faithfully keep their little 'vases' of inner leaves wet while waiting years for the showy blossoms to appear. Potted bromeliads lined up indoors in a sunny window or outdoors along the edge of the porch. My friend Jerri lived up the street and had a similar, hopeful array. Periodically we would top a healthy-looking plant with a ripe apple, and cover it with a paper bag. Seriously. This was the recommended way to induce blossoming.*

One day while walking in the neighborhood, I picked a large geranium blossom from someone's garden and stuck it in the 'vase' of one of Jerri's barren bromeliads. Then I went home, called her on the phone, and said, "Hey, Jerri, I see your bromeliad is finally blooming. It looks fabulous!" She made a mad dash to her front porch, and then we dissolved in the giggles we shared almost daily.

It seems a bit silly to be preoccupied with getting bromeliads to bloom. Of course it's the kind of challenge a gardener loves, but most bromeliads have such stunning leaves that the blossoms might seem a bit excessive to those of us who share the midwestern WASP orientation. As Garrison Keillor would say: "We can get along without it."

Last winter, Steve and I visited the San Diego Botanic Gardens (formerly Quail Gardens) and were astounded by the number of bromeliads growing in the ground there. I resolved to come home and give it a try. Now eight or ten bromeliads of different colors and sizes are growing around the base of my delightfully spurious mater epiphiticorum tree, which sports a small healthy tillandsia and a fringe of Spanish moss. This part of the garden has become a square yard of tropical splendor, backed by a tall row of flowering ginger and a lush Meyer asparagus fern as well as the little collection of epiphytes. In a couple of months the calla lilies will come back to provide their stately contrast.

Meanwhile, I've finally googled common names for bromeliad. There's Earth Star, Urn Plant, and Flaming Sword listed under Common Bromeliad House Plants -- a misnomer if you ask me. I'll try calling them Earth Stars and see if they, or my garden club friends, respond.
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*An apple-and-bag regimen is still prescribed for bromeliad enthusiasts, using a plastic bag -- presumably transparent -- instead of paper these days. Flowering should begin within six to fourteen weeks [!!!] after the two-or-three-day treatment.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

any words is pale

This morning, Steve announced that he was going to our favorite office supply store, and asked whether I'd like to go along. I would've loved to go, but was bogged down in e-mail and volunteer work. He offered to bring me something, and so I asked for "one of everything!" He interpreted this appropriately, by bringing back one item for which he'd paid $3.98.

Before I describe the item, I must describe the store. It's NOT part of a chain, but it's packed to the rafters (possibly above) with all kinds of office supplies, stationery, school supplies, craft supplies, and gift items. Moreover, the staff is knowledgeable and helpful. I love to shop there, and have been known to take friends on their birthdays.

When Steve got home, I asked what he'd brought me. He replied that it was a stapler, and handed me a plain white box about the size of a video cassette. I often borrow a stapler from Steve, so I strongly suspect that this was his motivation for buying one for me. Steve may not know that I think I already HAVE a stapler, but of course I can never find it.*

"It's a stand-up stapler," he said. I opened the box and stood the stapler up (on the wrong end, I'm afraid), and while he was correcting me I read the label on the box: "LED Stapler." Indeed, the instructions started with how to activate the batteries, which he accordingly did.  Upon loading the device with staples, we discovered that it twinkles  brightly for about ten seconds AFTER it inserts a staple in a piece of paper.

This took me back to our older son's years in graduate school. Studying linguistics and computer science, he was assigned to help write the voice-recognition interface for an office robot. I thought an office robot would be a great thing; it should collect trash and help folks find the stapler. Unfortunately, all the robot did was keep track of whether the staff members were in the office or not. This was at least ten years ago, however. Perhaps now there are robots that can find staplers -- with the aid of blinking LED lights or little bells and whistles.

I had to know more, so I googled 'LED stapler,' and (among 18 pages of images) I found the exact thing, except that mine is silvertone, not blue. The device is made by a company that describes itself thus: "China Ningbo Gift Leader Manufactory Co.,Ltd. was founded in 2000 . . . At present, our products include cinema clock, tide clock, cd clock radio, gift pens, keychain, led light, mini tool set, office set, aluminium flashlight, strength ball, and so on . . . So we believe, we will be a good partner if you believe us to do a business with us after beginning. Any words is pale . . ."

How I'd love to click on the tide clock! But right now I'm too busy playing with my new stapler.
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*I can't find my timer either, but the folks at Ningbo may have the perfect solution.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

entertaining aunt hattie

Television coverage of the national political conventions, whether I watch them or not in these days of 'scripted' presentations, always brings back fond memories of my great great aunt Hattie, who spent a couple of weeks with us in the summer of 1952. She was my maternal grandmother's 'maiden' aunt, and lived right across the Ohio River from my grandparents, so I knew her well. As far as I know, however, this was the only time she ever visited California.

Aunt Hattie was renowned as a pianist, organist, and music teacher.  She had studied in New York during her formative years and then returned to the Ohio Valley where she had introduced my mother, Charlotte, to the keyboard at an early age. It was rumored that if Aunt Hattie appeared to be dead, the presence of a train ticket to New York would make her rise right up out of her coffin.

Charlotte regarded hosting Aunt Hattie as more of a duty than a pleasure, and she was obsessed with the question of what Aunt Hattie would DO during her visit. I remember that we visited the historic Farmer's Market at 3rd and Fairfax (a favorite destination of mine), and spent some time in Hollywood: Grauman's Chinese for the footprints, of course, and possibly a first-run movie or two.

In 1952 we had lived in La Canada for two years. At Christmas of 1951 we had acquired our first television set -- a naked chassis, as my parents did not believe TV deserved the status of furniture. It was relegated to the guest house (one large room with half bath) built onto the back of our garage. We ventured out there on a strictly limited schedule, to watch special events including Ohio State football and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, series such as Crusader Rabbit, Time for Beany, and The Lone Ranger, plus variety shows like Spade Cooley and Your Hit Parade.

Naturally Aunt Hattie stayed in our guesthouse, where television was a great novelty for her, and where the Republican Convention was 'playing' for several days. Charlotte was relieved to recall (with some disdain) that "Aunt Hattie loves politics!" and I received a special dispensation to watch along with her, though Charlotte considered political discourse to be unfit for civilized company.

I was hooked on politics after the experience of watching a convention with Aunt Hattie. I don't think I got to see the Democratic Convention that year, as Aunt Hattie would have gone home, but I watched both conventions faithfully for many years though they never measured up to the excitement of 1952's television premiere. And Aunt Hattie's absence was always felt.

I last saw Aunt Hattie in the summer of 1960 at her home in Sistersville, West Virginia. People, including my grandmother, were venturing to talk about the 1960 election but it never became a focal point for our visit.

Aunt Hattie was 76 years old in the summer of 1952, but she lived on into my college years. I sent her a program from one of my choral concerts (probably from 1962) and she wrote back that "young voices can sound lovely together, if they are in tune."

I think Aunt Hattie would have approved my joining the League of Women Voters back in 1994. Charlotte, however, is still shocked by that lapse in my behavior.

Friday, August 24, 2012

it's cereus!

During 2012 my production of blog posts has dwindled, averaging three per month, rather than the two a week I set as a goal in January. In fact I posted nothing here in July or August (so far), which means that the average has actually been four per month -- exactly half of the two-per-week goal.

Setting a specific goal may have been the actual culprit. This is something I have been doing differently in 2012. Taking an on-line workshop in the setting and achieving of goals has been beneficial in many areas of my life, but I think the workshop's focus on quantification has not helped me everywhere.

My Christian-Scientist friend Jean (gone off to Washington, DC, years ago) comes to mind. She said that naming a problem and "giving it a history" made it more real and harder to solve or cure. Jean was talking about an illness or injury that someone (perhaps myself) had endowed with history and thus exacerbated.*

Yes, Jean, this year I have given my procrastination a history, and it has loomed so large that curing it has become a preoccupation, leading me to read several self-help books. One of these has been The War of Art, by novelist Steven Pressfield. I, who so love to fold of phrases inside out (man of nature, spheres of music, science of advancement) fell in love with the title and waded right in.

Pressfield convincingly describes a mortal conflict between creativity and resistance, his name for the evil force behind procrastination. "Do the work!" he cries, "Turn pro!" In more specific chapters about the writing process, it's "Have a theme!" This sent me into a tizzy.

While I am good at identifying the themes in other people's writing, I have never thought about whether or not I could generate themes myself, and this started me on a long path of introspective lit crit.

At last I think my major theme is "getting things right." Often this means simply learning something new, but it is the kind of learning that frequently requires discarding a preconception. As the immortal Charlie Brown puts it, "Linus will have to go to school twice as long to unlearn all the things that Lucy has told him."

Sometimes unlearning is a long, slow process, but sometimes it is a flash of insight. On Monday evening we came home from a two-week vacation to see numerous buds and one spent blossom on what I always thought was a Euphorbia candelabrum, the cherished anchor plant at the northwest corner of our front garden. It's cereus, I realized at last. Cereus lamprospermus, to be as exact as I need to be right now.

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*Alas, the dark and dangerous side of Jean's philosophy is denial, which kept her from recognizing the dementia that finally made it impossible for her to live independently.

Friday, June 22, 2012

lilacs last

I love lilacs, and I love to prune, so it was natural that pruning the lilac would be a highlight of my mid-June stay at our Idaho 'vacation' home. Legend has it that the root stock of this lilac came from Bessie and Otto's farm in 1943, when Steve's parents, Alice and Homer, moved the half mile to what was then called "the Tom Johnson place." Steve, the youngest of three sons, was two at the time. I suspect that Bessie brought her start of the lilac from Mary and George's farm, and so I would be the fourth generation of women to marry into the family and tend a plant that probably came west with homesteaders in the 1880s. Who else do you know who could say: "Please say hello to my lilac-in-law!"

This was not the first time I had pruned the venerable shrub, but I hadn't had a chance to do it for at least four years. Though June may not be the best time to prune lilacs, I was seized by a feeling of "now or never" and spurred on by the purchase of a lovely new pruning saw. There was plenty of dead wood to remove, along with spent blossoms in various stages of desiccation, and so I spent parts of four or five days cutting. During most of this time I was closely monitored by chickens (four hens and a rooster) who like to spend their afternoons in dense lilac shade. They watched suspiciously at first, but their clucks became tolerant.if not actually friendly when they saw that I was scaring up masses of juicy earwigs for them to eat.

My modus operandi in pruning is to start at the bottom, identifying branches that cross each other in their quest for sunlight. This opens up the center of the plant and lessens the number of cuts that need to be made when I finally reach the top. Since this lilac is over eight feet tall, I bend each branch and hold it at eye level while I thin the topmost foliage to stimulate new growth and future blossoms.

Unfortunately, I have never been in Idaho when our lilac was in bloom. Based on Walt Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd, I have assumed that this would be in April. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, and the poem is a heartfelt elegy on him and, by extension, on the Civil War's myriad dead. I visited Idaho twice in April of this year, however, and did not see a single blossom.

Though literary authority often takes precedence in my view of the real world, I also rely heavily on The Sunset Western Garden Book, which pronounces that lilacs bloom in May. Never having experienced Idaho much between New Years and Memorial Day, I at last reconciled my literary and horticultural sources by reference to Wikipedia, where I learned that Lincoln's body lay in state until April 21, 1865, and his funeral train took three weeks to get to his final resting place in Illinois.

Just as I cannot think of lilacs without conjuring up Walt Whitman, I cannot think of pruning without recalling the major surgery I performed on a row of lilacs that grew alongside our house in Evanston, Illinois. The house was built around 1902, and we had bought it in 1972 from an elderly couple (daughter and son-in-law of the builder) who had not done much gardening in recent years.

As a graduate student in English Lit at the time, I was delighted to find real lilacs in what I immediately defined as our door-yard! They shaded the back door, and ran all the way to the front door -- a distance of about 30 feet along an unpaved alley. The shrubs were at least eight feet tall and did not bloom significantly during our first spring there (1972). Disappointed to be missing the Whitmanesque moment, I surmised that they needed pruning, but did not do the work in time to see the fruits of my labors before we moved away in 1975..

You may think I am leading up to a complaint about being deprived of lilac blossoms. Au contraire! Sometime in the late 80s, we took Alice and Homer on a springtime outing to see poppies and lupines in the Lancaster (CA) area. We returned home through Bouquet Canyon, where we visited Margaretten Park, then home to 50,000 lilac bushes on 80 acres of private land bordered by graceful tamarisk trees. In one idyllic day, we saw and smelled more lilacs than most people experience in a lifetime.  It was enough to convince me that lilacs are well worth the wait and whatever labor it takes to help them happen.

Friday, June 8, 2012

the color lavender

I've mentioned lavender several times in this blog, and have been trying to write today's post since February, when I set out the four-inch pot of white lavender we'd brought back from a fancy nursery in Oceanside.

After three months in the ground, the white lavender looks healthy but has dropped all its little blossoms. On-line gardening sites tell me it takes three months for a lavender plant to acclimate itself. Spanish White Lavender will spread along the ground once it's well established, and then bloom in spring and fall. This growth pattern will suit me fine. Our four other lavenders have been trained to stand as trees (see aftermath) , and could use something to hide their knobby knees. I visualize a little girl's light green cotton anklets with white lace ruffles.

If you think of lavender as a color (defined precisely by the Pantone people as PMS 15-3817) , white lavender is an oxymoron. But then the old song goes: "Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green." In fact, this lyric describes the hues of my English Lavender pretty well (perhaps a periwinkle blue, though). My French Lavender's flowers are closer to the Pantone standard for the color Lavender, and my two Spanish Lavenders bloom in a bright pink, not quite cerise.

So just what is lavender, anyway? The word can refer to a plant, a color, or a scent. It can connote an age group or a sexual orientation, and that's not all, according to Wikipedia's disambiguation* entry.

Focusing on the plant will actually lead us back to the color. Wikipedia handles the botany in great detail, differentiating the dentate English and French lavenders from their stoechas Spanish cousins. (The stoechas blossoms are shaped like little pineapples.) But when it comes to etymology I must quote a whole paragraph:
The English word lavender is generally thought to be derived from Old French lavandre, to wash, ultimately from the Latin lavare (to wash), referring to the use of infusions of the plants. The botanic name Lavandula was used by Linnaeus [and] is considered to be derived from this and other European vernacular names for the plants. However it is suggested that this explanation may be apocryphal, and that the name may actually be derived from Latin livere, "blueish".
Can it be that Linnaeus missed something? The English song "Lavender's Blue" comes from the 17th century, but Linnaeus, an 18th-century Swede, evidently did not know it. Nor did he know that the Greeks and Romans did not employ lavender infusion as a laundry product. (Just think of how much better those togas could have smelled!)

This week I drastically pruned our English Lavender tree and filled a green-waste bin to the brim. Aromatherapy awaits anyone who lifts the lid.

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* This word is new to me. Wiktionary defines it as "the removal of ambiguity," which sounds like heresy! Clearly, a posting on the 'old' school of New Criticism must be forthcoming here.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Last June, I proudly placed my first yarn bombs under cover of darkness on the eve of the First International Yarn Bombing Day. Next morning, I walked out my front door to see a neighbor staring intently at the crocheted light-pole cozy that had appeared in his parking strip. That yarn bomb, along with a similar one across the street, is still in place, as are several of the small crocheted flowers I hung in neighbors' yards.

Indeed yarn bombing has turned into a year-long preoccupation. I have placed small motifs (stars, hearts, flowers, etc.) in various places along my pathway: chain link fences, hospital beds, car antennae, mail boxes, cacti, trees and shrubs, etc. The edges of my light-pole cozies are ideal for testing new motifs. Virtual yarn bombs have adorned my Facebook page as I post photos of notable examples, such as the steps of Helsinki Cathedral covered with afghans -- not technically a yarn bomb but a display of donated items to be distributed by Finland's Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters.

Yarn bombing has also been a component of my household organizing effort. Reducing the size of a massive yarn stash will bring order to my designated crafting space while weeding out colors I would not personally wear, use for decor, or inflict on friends and relatives.

And that's not all! A yarn bomb in the form of a large rug-yarn granny square, elaborately fringed, will soon appear in our front garden to replace the stylized 'welcome spring' yard flag that has flown there a bit too long. Visions of a filet crochet jack o' lantern and a giant fluffy snowflake portend an endless sequence of seasonal yard flags to come.

With the Second International Yarn Bombing Day coming up in just under two weeks, I look forward to making a more complex and public installation: crocheted covers for the three arm rests on each of two local bus benches. The public transportation milieu seems uniquely appropriate for yarn bombing, as I have spent many hours knitting and crocheting on buses, trains, and planes. Ironically, arm rests on bus benches are not provided to give comfort or rest. Their purpose is to keep people from lying down. Who likes to recline across a 2" diameter piece of steel pipe?

It will take a long time to sew or crochet six heavy 30" strips onto the bus benches, and of course I'll have to sit on wire mesh while doing it. How long will I want to sit out there at night? Will it be too dark to see what I'm doing? I'm tempted to start my installation in advance. Two strips per night (one en each side of the street) seem like a reasonable quota and will test the venue.

Ars longa vita brevis, eh?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

trollope caves

In trollope galop, I wrote that Anthony Trollope's autobiography was "stashed on my Kindle,"* and not long afterward I started dipping into it. I'll admit that there are some long tedious sections, but along the way I have been moved to read two more of Trollope's novels: Orley Farm and The Way We Live Now. I just started on The Vicar of Bullhampton and am relishing the pace.

Trollope's definition of the novel is something like: "development of character over time."** Though he claims not to plan his plots, each character's story emerges and will be told as long as the author maintains his self-imposed writing schedule.

Much of Trollope's autobiography is taken up with detailing his literary standards and commenting on his contemporaries (he loves Thackeray, hates Disraeli, respects George Eliot, etc.). So far (and I think I am about two-thirds of the way through), one anecdote of Trollope's life has made me laugh out loud, and I must retell it.

After taking an early retirement from the Post Office Department in 1864, Trollope increased the rate of his literary output. Whenever he was in London for more than a day, he would write at his club, The Athenaeum. One afternoon when he was working on The Last Chronicles of Barset, two clergymen came into the room, sat down by the fire, and proceeded to discuss Trollope's novels. The author, of course, perked up his ears and listened very carefully while the two reverend gentlemen complained that he re-used the same old characters too often. In particular, they found Mrs. Proudie (the Bishop's wife introduced in Barsetshire Towers) to be most objectionable. Trollope was incensed. He stood up, introduced himself, and said something like: "Very well. If you don't like Mrs. Proudie I shall kill her off within the week!"

Accordingly, Mrs. Proudie's death scene is horrific. After orchestrating her sudden massive heart attack, and allowing several other characters to feel relieved by her passing, Trollope felt quite guilty, and was haunted regularly by Mrs. Proudie's restless ghost.

Personally, I love the way characters and places recur in Trollope's novels. I am happy to learn that Bullhampton is near the Chiltern estate, which I recognize from the six-volume Pallisers series. I could have handled more of Mrs. Proudie, and in fact was disappointed when Obadiah Slope, her evil minion, left Barsetshire.

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* Now all of Trollope's 47 novels are stashed on my Kindle in a single volume.

** Not a verbatim quote, but this is not a term paper and I'm not going to look these things up.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

bulbine by any other name

At least fifteen years ago, I rehearsed for a play reading at the hillside home of one of the other characters. I think his name might have been David, and will call him so for purposes of telling this story.

David had a large and diverse garden including many succulents. I was drawn to one I'd never seen before, a grassy-looking plant with round leaves about ten inches high, and sprays of tiny yellow or orange-and-yellow blossoms borne on slender stalks rising up to twenty inches above the tops of the leaves. The stalks were so slender, in fact, that the flowers seemed to float above the plants, giving the illusion that they were hovering butterflies or tiny birds.

I asked the name of this fascinating plant, and David said, "I don't know. We always call them the little orange and yellow things." He gave me a generous handful of cuttings, and said, "Don't tell Marsha! She wants some of these, but I've refused to give them to her." Marsha, a mutual friend, was also involved in the play reading but wasn't with us on that day.

The little orange and yellow things did beautifully in my garden, and after having been tried in various places they've pretty well filled up the narrow strip between our driveway and our neighbor's driveway, interspersed with dogbane, various aloes, jade plants, and lion's tail, which supports the orange part of the color scheme. From time to time, I would continue to search for the name -- on line, in books, and at nurseries -- but the little orange and yellow things just had to do.

And then late last fall I finally joined the local garden club and took my mystery plant for identification. "It's bulbine!" said our knowledgeable president, and sure enough -- Wikipedia's illustration was a perfect match for the yellow ones (with some of its 160 species native to South Africa and some native to Australia), while the bi-colored ones turned out to be the rarer Hallmark variety.

I can't say I like the name bulbine very much, and so I'm going to call mine asphodel after their more poetic relatives.

BTW, I recently offered little orange and yellow things to Marsha, but she wasn't interested. Maybe she'd like some asphodel.

Friday, April 27, 2012

invaders appeased

Last Saturday's garden tour, held on the day before Earth Day, was appropriately advertised as a 'green' garden tour. This epithet referred not so much to color as to sustainability. Indeed, plants with grey, blue, dark purple, or cream colored leaves were standouts among the water-wise cacti and succulents.

Politically and environmentally correct practices abounded: rain barrels, drip irrigation, hydroponics, permaculture, cob building techniques, etc. Birds, bees, and butterflies were attracted, invasive species repelled. Literature was distributed, but not lavishly, as attendees had been enjoined to follow interactive on-line maps to the garden sites. It was a day for feeling responsible and resolving to continue along one's righteous pathway, paved with permeable materials so as not to overburden the storm drains and pollute the ocean.

I picked up a few brochures and cards, including one on invasive plant species, a favorite topic on this blog during my recent wars on Sprenger asparagus fern and Confederate jasmine plus pre-blog struggles with Algerian ivy, plumbago, Cape honeysuckle, and Banks rose. But wait! This 'Weed Watch' campaign -- sponsored by the worthy California Invasive Plants CouncilLos Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, and SMSLRWMA -- includes nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) among the species NOT to plant if we are to "Stop the Invasion" of plants that "fuel wildfires, degrade grazing land, contribute to soil erosion, clog streams and rivers, and increase the risk of flooding."

Having posted nasturtiums rampant just over a year ago, and being delighted with this year's stand of the cheery yellow and orange blossomers,* I took umbrage.

One of the things I love best about nasturtiums is that they are so easy to get rid of after they have run their course, or at any time they become tiresome (yes, it occasionally happens!) . Nasturtium roots are so inconsequential as to bring Marvell's On a Drop of Dew to mind: "How loose and easy hence to go, / How girt and ready to ascend."

I do not plant nasturtiums, but I welcome their annual invasion, in my garden and along the highways and byways. Sometimes appeasement seems appropriate.
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* My spell checker disapproves this word, but Yeats used it in the majestic Among School Children ("O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?") I can't resist a parody: "Nasturtium, small-rooted blossomer / your leaves and flowers feed my soul!"

Friday, April 20, 2012

paltry in pink

A little over a year ago, I complained about the limited range of color in my 2011 sweet pea crop, which had actually started blooming at the end of November 2010 with a dark purple volunteer and eventually produced a few pink flowers. The pink ones may have been volunteers, or may have come from the saved seed I'd planted. One thing is certain, however: there were absolutely NO Blue Celeste sweet peas to be seen. Alas! Blue Celeste was the one variety I'd planted out of a commercial seed packet.

After mulching the front garden lavishly with spent sweet pea vines, I thought I'd get a good showing of volunteers. Sure enough, as soon as the first rains came along in October, I saw sweet peas coming up among the naturalized freesias and calla lilies. Only two came up along the chain link fence where I'd planted sweet peas in the past, but, having read somewhere that it's okay to let sweet peas sprawl about on the ground, I decided to leave things as they were and not plant any sweet pea seeds for the fring-winter-spring season on 2011-12.

Now that April is more than half over, the volunteer sweet peas along the fence have barely started to bloom. They're pale pink, with short stems, and the vines are less than two feet tall. Nary a one of the sprawling sweet peas in the front garden has managed to bloom, but some are reaching over a foot long, so I haven't exactly given up hope. If they do bloom, they should deflect attention from the drying freesia leaves, and if they don't bloom, they'll continue to 'fix' nitrogen in their magically fabaceous way. This is a sort of "win-win" situation, but the score is not high.

Years ago (like in the late 70s when magazines came in the mail), Sunset Magazine informed me in a somewhat authoritarian tone that if I wanted sweet peas for Thanksgiving I should be ready to plant them in September. "Who wants spring flowers for a fall festival?" I asked myself. But after we put in our chain link fence, I was hooked on vines.

Though preoccupied with perennial sweet peas and the quasi-perennial hyacinth bean for the last couple of years, I must admit that I miss the conventional sweet pea's fragrant frilliness. In early October, I'll be out there with my saved seed and will even give Blue Celeste another chance

Thursday, March 29, 2012

slimy surprise

Earlier this week I just about finished deadheading all the freesias and hyacinths in our front garden. It's a complex process and has required several sessions of work. We're talking about hundreds of snips here, with faded blossoms joining the perma-mulch and leaves left to dry in place while nourishing the bulbs and corms beneath.

After our recent rains, the floppy freesias tend to form an ugly sodden mass, and so I have developed a technique of lifting their leaves, trimming off the faded blossoms, giving the leaves a shake or two, and letting them fall. This exposes weeds -- petty spurge, oxalis, tufts of grass, and even the occasional Star of Bethlehem -- while fluffing up the dying freesias and making them look a little better during the wait for convolvulus mauritanicus and Mexican evening primrose to fill in.

Hyacinths' blossom stalks stand taller than those of freesias, and their glossy leaves stay dark green after the flowers fade, so deadheading them is easier. Nevertheless I started poking around in their foliage to look for weeds and -- voila!  -- found snails clinging to the undersides of hyacinth leaves. Since discovering Sluggo Plus two years ago, we have not had a problem with snails and slugs, but by the time I'd finished deadheading the hyacinths I'd found eight mature snails and trampled them gleefully in the gutter.

And now my morning ritual must include hyacinth leaf surveillance and land mollusk sacrifice, until the snails find safer places to wait out our summer dry spell. Three succumbed this morning.

Monday, March 26, 2012

noiseless, patient

I enjoy watching spiders, indoors and outdoors, at home and at cultural venues such as zoos and natural history museums. I try to set a good example for arachnophobic friends by transporting spiders gently outdoors instead of smashing them or sluicing them down the drain. I do try to stay away from the black widows and brown recluses, but tarantulas fascinate me.

The phrase "a noiseless patient spider" often comes to mind when I am watching spiders, and recently I felt an urge to know more about its origin and context. I turned first to the works of Emily Dickinson. Since she had written "a fly buzzed when I died" and "how public, like a frog." I assumed she must be my spider poet.

So wrong!

Walt Whitman wrote A Noiseless Patient Spider. This knowledge was strangely satisfying to me, because I've always liked Whitman's poetry much better than I've liked Dickinson's. Reading the whole poem, I was entranced by its tight structure and the parallelism of its two five-line stanzas: the first describing the spider in its "vacant vast surrounding" and the second making an analogy to the poet's soul, "Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them ...Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere."

Ah, the old microcosm / macrocosm theme! Of course I was reminded of Andrew Marvell's On a Drop of Dew, which for me is the quintessential 'metaphysical' poem. "Seeking the spheres to connect them," I moved on to William Blake's Auguries of Innocence, which starts: "To see a world in a grain of sand ... And eternity in an hour" but turns into a series of rants against cruelty at all levels, including "The wanton boy that kills the fly / Shall feel the spider's enmity."

And so I am brought back to spiders, and to my surprise that Walt Whitman had written A Noiseless Patient Spider. I think of Whitman as the poet of noise and impatience -- known for the "barbaric yawp," and "happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place—not for another hour, but this hour" Carol of Occupations, line 157).

I prize silence and spiders, but might never have thought of them together if I hadn't been stuck in this web of poetry.

Monday, March 19, 2012

tree revision

In Cyathea mater epiphiticorum, I wrote about tying a variety of epiphytic plants to the trunk of a dead tree fern that has stood in our front garden for years. I had started this experiment late last fall with two cuttings of basket plant (Callisia fragrans).

With almost daily misting from a spray bottle, the basket plant regularly produced new green leaves at its tips, while its older leaves turned a purplish red and then brown. The redness was caused by exposure to sun, while the crispy brown leaves were simply dead. As new growth slightly outpaced losses, I not only rejoiced in having remade a tree, but also added epiphyllums and epidendrums to the mix and  gave my creation its outrageous Latin name..

A couple of weeks ago, while cutting off dead leaves,  I noticed something sticking out of one of the basket plant stems. Curving to a sharp point, it looked like a parrot's beak, but in fact it was a whole new shoot of tightly furled leaves. Looking more closely, I saw that it was growing on a short piece of stem that had no other leaves. Evidently this stem had broken off one of the two original cuttings.

Delighted with the new growth, I looked critically at the tree as a whole and decided that the clumpy epiphyllums had to go. They had made absolutely no progress, and even if they had, they didn't seem compatible with the feathery basket plant. And so I untied several strips of the raggedy brown towel I'd used to tie the epiphytes to the tree fern trunk, removed and discarded the epiphyllums, and moved a sad epidendrum to a less obvious position.

Two delicate tillandsias of different sizes took the place of the rejected epiphyllums. Finally I added some strands of Spanish moss (actually a type of tillandsia) at the top of the trunk and the bottom of the basket plant stems.

Potentially, my recycled tree fern could bear five different colors of blossoms. I have never seen a basket plant in bloom, and would bet on the common epidendrum to be the first if not the only flower. But it's time for me to step back and let nature surprise me with whatever new growth my efforts may have fostered. Meanwhile, nasturtiums are creeping toward the base of the tree and will create their dependable bright orange accents.

Balanced between control and chance in this fascinating project, I feel uniquely ready for the equinox.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

reprieves and rationalizations

In my continuing quest for personal organization,* I have felt that perhaps I should be planning my blog postings more carefully. In a sense this is a non-issue, because I've never had a problem finding topics. In line with my simple theme of pre[and/or post]-occupations, I simply write about what's on my mind. Problems may arise, however, when an issue is 'date-sensitive.'

Having learned late in 2010 that the Pantone company announces their Color of the Year in January, I have taken pains to post about it on January 31 of 2011 and 2012, and I look forward to doing so in 2013 and beyond. On the other hand, I was chagrined to have missed National Bean Day this year after covering it lavishly on January 7, 2011, only one day late.

In January of this year, I set a goal of writing two blog posts per week, and in the seven weeks since January 9 I have in fact achieved this goal by writing fourteen. Feeling very good about this, as promised by my personal organization guru at, I have turned my attention to March's postoccupations.

Ada Lovelace Day would seem to loom on March 24, as it did when I last posted about it, in honor of Beverly Grigsby. But wait! That post was written in 2010, and my post in honor of Grace Murray Hopper was written in 2009! So what happened to Ada Lovelace Day in 2011? Googling reveals that it was celebrated on October 7 -- not with the traditional barrage of blogging, but with a 'live' event in the U.K. and a few dribs and drabs of videos and blog posts.

Ada Lovelace Day 2012 has been set for October 16, and I have subscribed to the FindingAda blog and requested to join the Ada Lovelace Day group on Facebook, so as to keep abreast of the latest developments. But wait (yes, again)! All of the FindingAda posts  -- even the announcement of the 2011 event -- are dated on a single day (February 9, 2012), and the Facebook page had no postings between March 3, 2011 (announcing the 2011 event) and February 22, 2012, when the group's 'admin' stated: "Oops, forgot we had an FB page! Anyway, yes, 16 October this year! Get the date in your diary and keep an eye on Twitter."

I have indeed made a note of the new date. Keeping an eye on Twitter, however, is beyond my level of commitment to Ada Lovelace Day, and frankly I don't have a lot of faith in the event's other modes of communication. One of FindingAda's February 9 postings revealed that the original blog had been "severely hacked over Christmas" and was in the process of being "rescued." This is sad, seeing that Ada Lovelace Day's mission is to provide role models for women in the 'STEM' disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

I certainly am in favor of role models, and sometime between now and October I should certainly find one to honor on Ada Lovelace Day. In fact, I have two very special candidates in mind. It's nice to know that I have several months to choose between them.
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*Currently this takes the form of almost continuous enrollment in the excellent on-line workshops given at Simplify 101.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

can you take me to the ice rink?

I'd spent most of two weekends helping Sandra get ready to move to Visalia, and when  I drove home from a round of errands on the following Tuesday, I really expected to see that she was gone. She'd been bustling around in front of her garage when I left in the morning, and it looked like she had everything packed up and/or neatly arranged in the parking strip so that scavengers could easily take what they wanted.

As I drove out of the alley onto my street, I spotted Sandra. She saw me, and ran toward my car, virtually throwing herself onto the hood. "Can you take me to the ice rink?" she asked breathlessly. I was puzzled by her request and the urgency of it. Why would a middle-aged woman, needing to get out of town in a hurry, decide to go ice skating in the middle of the afternoon?

The explanation turned out to be simple. Our community's ice rink is a major landmark, but the truck rental agency across the street from it is not so well known. Correctly sensing that I could easily find the one but not the other, she asked me to take her to the ice rink. We both dissolved in giggles at the vision of ourselves wobbling around on the ice in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

Then Sandra said, "I wish we'd known each other when we were young." I just had to reply, "I AM young, but I know what you mean!" Our vision shifted to that of our teenaged selves hanging out after school at places like ice rinks, and the moment became serious for a little while.

I dropped Sandra at the ice rink and watched her run across the street to pick up her rental truck. After tearful goodbyes, she made the three-hour drive to Visalia, where a nice home and a new job awaited her.

There's never enough time to spend with friends. I wish we'd known each other when we were young.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Yesterday I noticed two volunteer sweet peas growing in a crack along the edge of our front walk. I tried pulling them up, but they were deeply rooted. and I fully expect to see them emerge again. Sweet pea surveillance will be part of my puttering routine until the path is cleared..

My first experience with volunteer sweet peas was in November 2010, when I carefully transplanted every one to stand along the fence, interspersing them with sweet peas I'd grown from seed. These became the plethora of purple sweet peas noted in spring 2011.

On the verge of spring 2012, thanks to having mulched last summer with spent sweet pea vines and their mature seeds, I have countless volunteer sweet pea seedlings in the front garden. I provided stakes for the first ones to climb on, and even placed a tomato cage over a big clump of them. But, having read somewhere that sweet peas may be allowed to sprawl, I think I'll remove these props and see what happens.

With three volunteers thriving in the space where sweet peas have been planted in the past, we WILL have a dependable source of blooms -- probably dark purple. Their spent vines will again become mulch for the front garden. Meanwhile, regardless of their state of development, the sprawling sweet peas will be fulfilling their fabaceous destiny by drawing nitrogen out of the air and into the soil. If they manage to bloom, we'll enjoy seeing the flowers rear their little heads in unlikely places. What fun it would be to watch them climb up the camellia or azalea, or even venture among the epiphitic plants on my beloved dead tree-fern trunk,

While sweet peas compete for space, my single hyacinth bean stalk has become rampant on the side fence and garden arch. Its unscented blossoms, though not as frilly as the purely ornamental sweet pea, make lovely bouquets with the addition of African blue basil or another fragrant herb. I try to keep the hyacinth beans from setting mature seed, but it would not surprise me to see them show up as next year's new volunteers.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

berry imperative

Two years ago we bought two one-gallon pots of "spineless" boysenberry plants -- with two plants in each pot -- and planted them next to our chain-link fence behind the herbs and occasional veggies that grow in a 30"-wide strip of south-side garden.

The summer of 2010 brought very few berries, 2011 a few more, and the 'fring' of 2011-12 has brought long canes that must be cut back and tied up properly if our little 'berry farm' is going to be at all productive this summer. This will be a chore, since not all of the plants are as spineless as advertised. I shall wear long sleeves and maybe even gloves to do the deed, but inevitably blood must flow and Lady Macbeth be "done."

Some of the boysenberry canes have grown to where their tips touched the ground and took root. These are usually called "pups," and dealing with them must be my first priority if we are to avoid an impenetrable thicket such as Alice's raspberries made in Idaho when she stopped tending them. If our  boysenberries strayed even a foot from the fence, they'd make it dangerous to pull garlic or pick parsley.

I think I can find room for three or four boysenberry pups along the fence, thus doubling our initial planting. Others will be potted for friends and neighbors (Marsha has been asking for them since she heard that we were growing berries) or shared with the garden club.

The history of boysenberries can be read on Wikipedia, and will explain why those of us who've lived in California for a long time can't hear the word berry without thinking Knott's. Now a massive theme park, Knott's Berry Farm was a place to take visitors from the mid-west for a chicken dinner topped off with Mrs. Knott's fabulous boysenberry pie. The rides grew from exhibits built to entertain folks who were waiting for tables.

I boggle at the notion of having enough boysenberries to make even one pie. Generally I've eaten them out of hand while on my morning putter. Filling a bowl and eating them with a spoon, lightly macerated, is for now a consummation to be wished.

Monday, February 6, 2012

my trollope galop*

After reading twelve Trollope novels in less than six months, I have made a cleansing foray into Nabokov (Laughter in the Dark) and greatly enjoyed the economy of language and tightness of plot. Trollope, writing for serialization and with three volumes to fill for each title, describes every detail of a major character's face, figure, financial status, family heritage, and marital status before s/he is allowed to step into the action. Nabokov, who personally translated Laughter into English, lets these details emerge on a 'need-to-know' basis. Googling Laughter just now, I learned that Tony Richardson made it into a French-British film in 1969. I wonder what Nabokov thought of the movie but will postpone further researches for the time being.

For some reason I feel that I must write more about Trollope before getting back to Nabokov or Doctorow. Maybe there's an ideal balance between input and output, and I must restore it before reading more.

The Barchester and Palliser series provide a very thick slice of life in mid-Victorian England. Politics (both secular and ecclesiastical), architecture, communications, economics, and social mores are treated in great detail, as they must be to develop Trollope's story lines, invariably chronicling the rise and fall of a character's status.

I will admit to being bored by Trollope's long descriptions of fox hunts and parliamentary debates, but I love his ornate vocabulary and am fascinated by his treatment of marriage. From the 'childhood sweetheart' theme, through courtship, wedding ceremonies, honeymoons, everyday intercourse (hey! it meant communication and/or business in those days), obligatory entertaining, and finally widowhood, the reader follows every step.

While the subject of sex is carefully avoided, a reader steeped in political correctness may still feel the guilty frisson that comes from forbidden subject matter, when Trollope descends into the substratum of bigotry underlying his fictional world. Mr. Levy, Mr. Lopez, and the Reverend Mr. Emilius, a bigamous Pole, are treated with broad stereotypes and intense contumely. Italians and Germans fare better unless they are devoted to Roman Catholicism or Judaism, respectively. English people of the better classes can actually live in Italy, Germany, or Switzerland without becoming tainted, but they must return home periodically. Giving birth or dying abroad is to be avoided at all costs.

Trollope wrote 47 novels, some travel books and other nonfiction, some short stories, and an autobiography -- stashed on my Kindle, of course.
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*Spelled this way, galop refers to a lively dance popular during Trollope's lifetime.
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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