Sunday, May 26, 2013

barrels of memoirs

Barrel cacti bring back memories of my family's earliest days in California at the end of World War II. Having been transferred here from Ohio by Owens Corning Fiberglas, my father was called upon to develop applications in many industries, from aircraft to sporting goods. One of his most unusual assignments was a trip to the desert (probably near Palm Springs) to develop 'guzzlers,' fiberglass-lined cisterns that collected rainwater for birds and animals. I can remember how he came home and raved about the wonders of the desert, with barrel cacti prominent among them. 

According to Quail Unlimited, the guzzler project started in 1948. Ten years later, my father was able to act upon his passion for the desert by taking an early retirement and buying a small business there. Over a period of fifty years, he and my mother lived in a series of desert towns, and he ultimately volunteered as the caretaker of a large desert garden in Arizona.

Desert living does not appeal to me, but I do enjoy cacti and can grow them easily in our Mediterranean climate. Not long after Steve and I established the cactus and succulent bed in our front garden, I set out several small cacti which had been growing in pots for years. This may have been a mistake, as some of them were so tiny that we lost track of where they were. Here's a photo of the biggest one, a barrel cactus, with a dime at eleven o'clock to indicate scale:

2013 marks the third spring this cactus has bloomed for us, making quite a show next to the Texas sundrops that match its nearly neon color. Since the barrel is almost perfectly round, it's easy to follow the line of its circumference and to see that the flowers are larger than their host.

I stood on the sidewalk to take the photo above, but when I decided to photograph two more little barrels, I had to step right into the bed. This I did gingerly though I was wearing sturdy shoes, and indeed I almost stepped on a barrel that had successfully hidden from us for over a year. Growing less than two feet from the 'big' barrel, it looks to be a younger specimen of the same variety:

When I narrowly escaped stepping on this little guy, I was heading toward the smallest barrel in the garden:

Obviously this one is a different variety, with its shorter spines and lighter green color. It would be eclipsed by a quarter. I'm eager to see what color its blooms will be, but I'm not holding my breath.

Finally, here's the last known barrel.It's very much like the first, but with longer spines and a somewhat lighter color. The dime (three o'clock) should've been closer to it, but I was not interested in pricking my finger tips.

When I asked Steve whether he knew we had four barrels, he wanted to know: "Is that like a four-barreled carburetor?" Very like that AND "very like a whale," I think.

Barreling ahead through other parts of the garden, I see gardenia buds fattening and serrano chilies setting fruit: pulling together the best of so many worlds.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

you, gregor mendel!

I love the history of science and its early heroes. The eighteenth-century botanists* are my very favorites, but Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) is right up there. He is remembered chiefly as  "Father of Modern Genetics" for his work with peas (and bees!). I am visualizing a black-and-white illustration of pea vines from my high school biology textbook, but sadly can't find it on line. A more beautiful and provocative picture (by illustrator Joseph A. Smith) graces the cover of Cheryl Bardoe's Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas (2006).

I could probably spend the entire day writing about Mendel and/or the history of science. Suffice it to say, however, that Gregor (who advanced to the rank of Abbot) brought us the broad concept of dominant and recessive traits. He practiced a beneficent form of hybridization before 'GMO' became a dirty word. And let's bear in mind that he was working with garden-variety edible peas, whose blossoms only come in white and a pinkish purple. 

What I want to write about today is the history of my recent attempts to grow sweet peas in a controlled range of colors.  

On January 15, 2010, in the earliest days of this blog, I said:
. . . three small plantings of annual sweet peas are in various stages of development. The ones from the nursery have reached their promised five feet (they're a dwarf variety) so are sticking up above the top of the four-foot chain-link fence. The ones planted from seed are close to two feet tall, and the ones from the farmer's market are about eight inches tall and just beginning to reach out for the fence.
Well, I had certainly forgotten ever buying any sweet pea plants, but I clearly remember that the seed packet promised "mixed" colors and I suspect that the plants I bought were the same. "Mixed," in fact, was what I got, including the white ones I really love best and the dark purple ones that become the focal point of any bouquet.

The following year, on April 11, 2011, I reported on volunteer sweet peas coming up as early as the previous November. These I had moved to stand next to the chain-link fence, interspersing them with seeds saved from 2011's "mixed" crop, plus seeds of a "Blue Celeste" variety that I was really anxious to see in bloom. No way:
Right now I have a bouquet of sweet peas on my desk -- twenty or so dark purple with ONE light pink. Moreover the purple ones have longer stems and larger blossoms, and about half of them are from the volunteer plant that bloomed in November.
Whereas 2011's Sweet Pea Report was titled a plethora of purple,  2012's showed up on April 20 as paltry in pink. 2012 was the first year I went for an all-volunteer sweet pea crop, and here's what it looked like:
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. 
After diligently mulching with spent sweet pea vines in the summer of 2012, I went into my second year of all-volunteer sweet pea culture, and as the seedlings came up I let them stand where they had chosen to sprout. Many, as reported on February 18, were in our infamous parking strip. Like this:

In the photo on the left, you can see the gray pavement of the curb running diagonally from right to left. And on the right, Steve's car is visible at curbside. The red-and-purple flower, I swear, was not in the original "mixed" seed packet. It looks like something to wear at a Red Hat Society event.

These long-stemmed blossoms have appeared on dense foliage topping out at around three feet. The 'bushes' would have been taller if I had provided taller supports. I have picked only three or four bouquets over the season. I'm purposely letting them go to seed, and looking forward to 2014's range of colors.

Will I ever grow a white sweet pea? Time will tell. Like blue eyes, white sweet peas must be a recessive trait. And I'm beginning to suspect the alleged pale blue sweet peas of being GMO's. Not in my front yard, Mr. Monsanto!

- - - - -
* Years ago, I ended a poem about plant name idolatry with this line: "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Linneaus eleison."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

basket case, part 2

When I told Steve I was going to blog about the theft of my planter basket made of t-shirt yarn, he asked, "Are you going to excoriate the person who stole it?" This was a difficult question, as I always try to maintain a positive tone. I said, "No, I'm going to lay a guilt trip on him." (Note the stereotypical masculine pronoun. This was what I said. I was too angry for my typically high level of political correctness.)

In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, a touchstone of literary theory, William Wordsworth wrote that "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." The same can be said of most art forms, including blogging, and so, having reached a state of relative tranquility, I set about analyzing the emotions in which my "spontaneous overflow" had originated.
My 'guilt-trip' approach originated in the emotion of anger. It was based on emphasizing the amount of skill, work, and time involved in:

  • cutting and spinning the yarn,
  • making the basket,
  • planting the haworthia and donkey-tail sedum inside, and
  • tending the little planter on a daily basis.

In fact I must confess that I have no idea how much of my time was involved. I had so much fun with all parts of the process that I would gladly have prolonged the time it took. Thus the "powerful feeling" of satisfaction ultimately triumphed over that of anger

Recollecting my satisfaction as an artist actually led to a feeling of pride as I entertained the possibility that my thief had a great appreciation for fiber art. But wait! What if he was only interested in the plants? What if he repotted the plants and threw the basket away? Oops! Here comes anger again. But the plants did have some value even though they're more abundant and easier to get than one-of-a-kind artisanal baskets.* 

At the end of basket case, part 1, I had said I would move my surviving basket to a perch high up on its prickly host. Well, I changed my mind and actually placed it in a more natural nesting spot on the sidewalk side of the cactus. If anyone wants to steal it (thereby demonstrating appreciation for my work as a fiber artist), I think he should be able to do so without personal injury and (especially) without damaging our giant cereus. Imagine walking out in the morning and finding a basket thief sprawled and bleeding on the sidewalk, tangled from head to toe in long cactus branches. Or, he has been able to walk away, finding a pile of branches smeared with blood and bits of torn clothing.

Unfortunately I did not take a 'before' picture of basket #2. It originally held a couple of scraggly epidendrums (about seven inches long and with unkempt-looking aerial roots) along with another hopeful start of the donkey-tail sedum and a branching, reddish green succulent whose name I do not know. Preparing for the great re-hanging, I cut the epidendrums back to one or two leaves apiece, and wove their white aerial roots loosely through the top edge of the basket. Check it out:

Here's the side view, showing tall cereus shadows on the sidewalk behind:

If these epidendrums bloom, it will be the first time I have had any success with these 'poor man's orchids,' after more than twenty years of trying. Will I owe that success to the infamous basket thief?

- - - - -
* In line with all this soul-searching, I have to admit that I had stolen the donkey tail myself -- but only about five little (separate) sections, and those from a part of the plant that would not be noticed. The haworthia was one of two I won in a garden club raffle and thus it would have cost me fifty cents or less ($1 a ticket, 6 for $5).

Monday, May 6, 2013

basket case, part 1

On March 22, I posted this photo on Facebook, not long after I'd posted a shot of my first crocheted mushroomMade in the flush of euphoria over my 'coming out' as a fiber artist, it's crocheted freehand with yarn made from an old t-shirt. It looks sort of like a miniature laundry basket, but who needs a miniature laundry basket? I decided to use it as a planter, and so I lined it with the toe end of an old sock and filled it with potting soil. The reddish plant is a Haworthia (aka Zebra cactus), and the little translucent green things that look like jelly beans are members of the huge Sedum family, best known as 'donkey tail.' The dime should give you a good idea of scale.

The green 'frame' around the little basket is the eight-foot Cereus that anchors the northeast corner of our front garden. Its short but very sharp thorns are borne in little clumps -- good for holding the basket in place, I thought.

In addition to being free and abundant, old t-shirts (which take many years to break down in a landfill) seem to be an ideal medium for small hanging planters. The fabric is light in weight, yet absorbent, while the space between stitches provides ventilation. I found that watering it with a spray bottle worked very well, and I envisioned roots happily penetrating the fiber.

I had previously crocheted other things (hats and bags, mostly) with old t-shirts, but this was the first one for which I actually spun the yarn, on a hand spindle. This extra process added to the amount of time it took to make the planter, but enabled the basket-like texture that I loved so much.

On April 22 (Earth Day), I posted the same photo on Facebook again, with this sad comment:
Well, it's a month since I posted this photo of a tiny planter I'd crocheted from an old t-shirt. This morning I discovered that someone had stolen it out of my front yard. Happy Earth Day, somebody. Hope you're taking care of the little plants.
When the first basket disappeared, I had already crocheted, planted, and hung another one, this time with audio cassette tape 'plied' in on the spindle. The second one looks even more like an oriole's nest. It hangs on the side of the cereus that doesn't face the sidewalk. I think I'll get out a ladder and move it to a higher perch. Six feet may be enough, but time will tell.

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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