Tag Archives: gardening

Tuesday, April 21st, 1.45 pm

DSCF3115Color has thrust itself on the landscape
In quick short jabs—hyacinth blue, daffodil yellow, robin red
If I had a net I could reel in the clouds like a flock of white doves
The mantra begins—mint oregano raspberry sage

Sitting amongst dandelions
I dream of wine, mellow and ripe
The sweetness of honey on my tongue
And an orange tree grown from seed.

I feel the upward thrust through the soles of my feet
First rhubarb nubbins pushing out of the dirt
First purple violets in the lawn
First handsome dandelion by the garden door.

The old cat knows it
She’s been prancing up the black walnut like a skittish kitten
Squirming luxuriously in the new grass
Rubbing her chin against some smell that I can’t even get a whiff of.

The calm air is painted with birdsong
Sun dries the ink on the page
The tug of war between Sun and Moon
Pulls the slow earth from winter to spring.

 

THESE HANDS

DSCF9362These hands–
they hold
and push
and pull
and eat
and give
and slap
and dig
and stir
and knit
and write
and carry
and punch
and caress
and grasp
and pluck
and stroke
and grip
and make love
and cling
and release
and wave
and cradle
and wash
and feed
and clap
and hug
and soothe
and let go.

ODE TO ONIONS

DSCF6345No smell announces the preparation of a meal better than the rich, sweet aroma of sautéing onions. It’s a humble staple of my pantry that I couldn’t do without. Luckily, I live in an area famous for its onions. I keep a special pair of blue swim goggles in my kitchen drawer for chopping the extremely pungent variety that grow in our region of New York State. Known as the Black Dirt, the fertile soil—a result of an ancient glacial lake—is rich in organic matter and sulfur. DSCF5037The latter gives our local onions their intense flavor and earns them a spot in farmer’s markets and supermarkets all over the Northeast.

IMG_8688IMG_8684Starting in April armies of bright green shoots march across the black dirt. By July, they’re standing tall. And in August the stalks wilt, their purpose served.DSCF6369 In September the heady scent of onions pervades the air and the onion crates are stacked high in the fields, waiting to be stored or transported to market.DSCF6366DSCF6357 DSCF6333

Ode To The Onion by Pablo Neruda
Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,
onion
clear as a planet
and destined
to shine,
constant constellation,
round rose of water,
upon
the table
of the poor.

You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

POISON IVY JUNGLE

IMG_8696Not many things give me nightmares, but poison ivy—Toxicodendron radicans—is one of them.

I didn’t even know what the blighter looked like when I started gardening in New York’s Hudson Valley. Vague ideas of Christmas card’s wreathed in leafy loveliness came to mind, and I imagined some minor skin irritation akin to the hives from a stinging nettle. Boy was I in for a shock.IMG_8704

One night I was awoken by an intense itching on the insides of my arms: I’d met my nemesis. But this noxious weed wasn’t going to get the better of me! I put on my armor—heavy-duty gardening gloves, long-sleeved sweatshirt, jeans, and boots—and waded into battle. I even went so far as to ditch my old clothes once I’d beaten my enemy into submission.

It didn’t help. The urushiol—the toxic sap of the plant—worked its way under my defenses. I looked like a burn victim, with oozing bandages swaddling my arms and shins. And don’t talk to me about the excruciating itch that made me tear at my skin like a mad woman.

DSCF4693I tried every remedy in the almanac—oatmeal baths, jewel weed, calamine lotion, cortisone, baking soda, bleach. Yes, you heard that last one right—neat bleach! They all worked to a degree. But the bottom line is that once the angry rash and blisters appear, you have to resign yourself to three weeks of hell.

So it’s no wonder that walking past a lush patch of poison ivy on the roadside is enough to give me sleepless nights. And when a seedling dares to rear its not-so ugly head in my garden, it makes me break out in a cold sweat and reach for the Round-up.

Recently I learned an even more disheartening fact: A study by researchers at the University of Georgia found that poison ivy is particularly sensitive to CO2 levels, greatly benefiting from higher CO2 in the atmosphere. Poison ivy’s growth and potency has already doubled since the 1960s, and it could double again once CO2 levels reach 560 ppm David Templeton (July 22, 2013). “Climate change is making poison ivy grow bigger and badder”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

So, unless you fancy a post-apocalyptic world over-run with vast jungles of poison ivy, curb your CO2 emissions!  DSCF4702

DANDELION

DSCF4650A little girl handed me a limp, browning dandelion the other day. “You need to put it in water,” she said, smiling hopefully. I knew the sentiment all too well. How often had I fallen victim to the lure of a lawn strewn with fuzzy golden flowers and picked handfuls to stuff in jam-jars, only to discover how short-lived their splendor was once picked.

For the past week, on sunny days, I’ve taken a bowl out to the garden and plucked the heads off the freshly opened dandelions. No, it’s not some manic, pesticide free attempt to remove them from my lawn. I’m storing them in bags in my freezer until I’ve accumulated enough to give to a friend to make dandelion wine. I can’t wait to taste the results.

The name, from the French dent-de-leon, or lion’s tooth, refers to the jagged shape of the dandelion leaves. When I was a kid, I spent hours picking these greens to feed my pet rabbit and tortoise.  I learned early on that the white sap that oozes out of the stem is not only sticky, but permanently stains clothing brown! But I still can’t pass a lush bunch without having the urge to pick them. Packed with vitamins and minerals, these leaves make a delicious dish. I first tasted horta—spring dandelion leaves cooked with tons of garlic and lemon juice and olive oil—when living in Greece as a child.

The dandelion has been used medicinally for centuries, and all parts of it are edible. One of its many names is pee-the-bed, for the diuretic effects of ingesting the dried root. It’s far from being merely a humble weed, and yet, this is the plant that herbicide makers love to target in their advertising. Of the numerous names for the dandelion, found in most languages, my favorite is from the Persian, qasedak, meaning small postman because it brings good news.

The First Dandelion.

Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close
emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics,
had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass—
innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,
The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful
face.
–WALT WHITMAN.

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FOR THE FIRST TIME

DSCF4123For the first time this year                                                                                                                              I dragged out the old blanket and spread it on the grass.                                                                  Dozed with my head on my arm,                                                                                                                 the sun warm enough to make me shed a layer.                                                                                   Oh boy my soul needed that sweet touch.                                                                                           And I dozed to the buzzing of bees                                                                                                              in the gold and purple crocuses.

At dusk I stood on the lawn and felt                                                                                                         air move against my skin.                                                                                                                               Not the numbing cold                                                                                                                                    that freezes tears in your eyes.                                                                                                                    But an air scented with earth.

My son pointed out the sliver of waxing moon                                                                                          hanging between silhouetted tree branches,                                                                                             delicate as lace mantillas.

The moon siren,                                                                                                                                           and the faint pulse coursing through the soil                                                                                             seduced the tree frogs out of hiding                                                                                                            to call in lusty peeps                                                                                                                                      from the unfrozen pond.

And now, against the darkness of a spring night                                                                                     A moth drives it’s wings against my window                                                                                             Oh so eager to step inside and make mad                                                                                                  passionate love to my lamp.

TOP TEN THINGS I’VE LEARED ABOUT BLOGGING

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Blogging is not for sissies. It takes time, focus, and hard work if you want to put out blogs that won’t make you cringe down the road. But the rewards are big. As the Write Eejit comes to the end of its first year, I thought it a good time to look back at what it’s taught me so far.

  1. Nobody just pops out a post worth its salt. Even the folks that seem to effortlessly come up with witty and informative things to say on a daily basis have more than likely been mulling them over for a while.   WHITE DEER
  2. It’s an excellent way to get a load off my chest. Feeling aggravated or ecstatic about something? Why not post a mini rant. So what if I’ll forever be known as that miserable woman who hates her cat. I HATE MY CAT
  3. Blogging has a way of bringing things into focus. Coming up with topics not only allows me to live in the moment, but also reflect on past events in a new light. GOLDEN MOMENTS
  4. I get to experiment without having to commit to a specific idea or format. PAGAN MOON
  5. I’ve rediscovered things about my past that had dropped off my radar. HIPPIE ADVENTURE
  6. On good days when I post without a hitch, blogging makes me feel like 21st century Warrior Woman. On bad days when I can’t figure out why my password has reset itself, I’m an FTD (frustrated tech dummy). OLD WRITERS NEW MEDIA
  7. Blogging forces me to set goals and shoot for a deadline, and is a constant reminder to adhere to good writing habits—check spelling and punctuation before hitting “Post”. COTTER PIN
  8. Blogging helps me take that breath and reevaluate where I am, both in life, and as a writer. MUD SEASON
  9. There are many talented and inspiring fellow bloggers out there. HIGH JINKS IN THE HAREM
  10. And when those “Likes” and comments pop up, boy is it instant gratification for someone who spends a lot of time tapping away in no-woman’s land. BLIND SQUIRREL PARENTING

The Black Walnut

ImageThere is nothing like a tree with its seasonal shifts to work its way into the fabric of your life. The Black Walnut is a truly magnificent specimen, well over a hundred years old. It must have been a sapling, or perhaps just a nut forgotten by a squirrel, when our house was built. On the first warm day of the year, I sit on the wooden bench under its bare branches—it’s one of the last trees to leaf in spring, and one of the earliest to drop in fall—waiting for the children’s school bus to lumber up the road. My daughter jumps down the steps, backpack bumping, yelling ‘spring is here, spring is here,’ and immediately rushes to change into shorts and t-shirt. My son already has his shoes and socks off. We sit in the tree’s embrace enjoying afternoon tea and cookies, a holdover from my Irish childhood. We watch the chickadees clinging to the birdfeeders that hang from boughs in front of the kitchen window. Soon we’ll have to take them down so we don’t find our neighborhood black bear picnicking under them. No sign yet of the wren family that likes to nest in the birdhouse fixed to the deeply fissured bark of the trunk.

Our house faces south, backed by deciduous woodland where the deer lurk with evil intentions toward my flowerbeds. The entire garden is on a slope leading down from the tree line—not enough to get a good sled run, but enough to work up a sweat with a lawnmower. The Black Walnut sits in the middle of this slope, and is so conspicuous that I use it as a landmark when giving directions. Its spreading branches are an umbrella sheltering the lawn and casting a leafy shade over the kitchen windows in summer, bathing the house in a cool, green light. It’s wonderful on a hot day to lie on my back staring up through the dappled leaf-light at patches of blue sky. In winter the greenish grey limbs etched in white, stand majestically in the landscape.Image

I have an on-going love/hate relationship with the tree. As far as the branches stretch, so do the roots. They produce a toxin that is lethal to tomatoes, apples and others. If its toxin doesn’t kill plants and shrubs, its thirsty roots will. Add to that its shade shedding branches, and it doesn’t leave me much space to garden in.

Who needs a dog when you have a Black Walnut? It’s constantly shedding. Starting in late spring it sprinkles my seedling trays, set out to harden off before transplanting to the garden, with small greenish flowers and wiggly catkins. After summer storms I gather armloads of felled twigs from under its skirts. Throughout the seasons the nuthatches and woodpeckers run up and down the branches tapping away industriously and strewing chunks of moss and lichen and bark over the lawn. Well before the first frost, the leaves carpet the grass in pale yellow mounds. They are followed by wiry, foot-long, leaf stalks that don’t sit well in my compost heap. Then the nuts start falling and the garden becomes a hard-hat zone.

The walnuts form in a thick lime green, aromatic husk. As they lie on the lawn, turning it into a mine field for the unwary, they quickly rot down into a gooey, black slime, which is one of the most effective orange, brown stains I have ever encountered, impossible to wash out of socks, or off hands. I offer the kids cash rewards to pick them up in bucketfuls.

The hard-shelled nuts are supposed to be delicious. Each fall I squeeze a mound of them out of their slimy cases and set them to cure on a sunny wall. When I remember them a week or two later, the squirrels have long since made off with them. By this stage I am so sick of picking up after the tree that I don’t want to see another nut, and so, promising better results next season, I give up.

The tree is slowly dying. When the nor’easters blow I lie in bed wondering if this will be the one. A few years ago we called in arborists for estimates on trimming the branches that lean over the roof. One chap pulled up in his truck and walked around the Black Walnut shaking his head. He said the whole thing had to go. We sent him packing instead.

Eventually, the Biker for Jesus who lives down the road swung up into the branches and neatly pruned the errant limbs. The cut-up logs are waiting for my husband to make the children a wooden swing seat to hang from its sturdy limbs, and a sign for his company, aptly named, “Black Walnut.”

According to the Audubon Societies Field Guide to North American Trees the wood is ‘one of the scarcest and most coveted native hardwoods.’ Jokingly I say that when it does fall on the house we can sell the wood to mend the roof. But for better or worse, this tree is very much a part of the home we have created for ourselves.Image

Balancing Act

At this time of year my garden goes bonkers. It takes on a life of its own.IMG_4935

Just enough warmth and rain has tripped the switch on new growth, and before my eyes the landscape is transformed into an acid-hued world, dripping with fecundity (love that word). When I step out the door on a mild and misty morning it feels as though, overnight, this green beast has slithered closer to the house, threatening to wraps its tentacles around it.

I find myself waging a battle between cultivating nature, and keeping it at bay. If I don’t get out to weed the vegetable patch at least once a week, virulent native weeds soon overrun the seedlings of spring greens.IMG_4910

And yet, how many times have I knowingly allowed pop ups from my compost heap—serendipity seedlings, I call them—take root and been thrilled by the bonus mini pumpkins or wild garlic. On my morning walks I even carry a plastic bag and spoon so that I can transplant common native wildflowers into my woodland garden. My perennial beds are full of poppy seedlings and daisies that have found their niche. I tell myself I must be doing something right when they start merrily throwing the next generation around.

IMG_4892 Everywhere I turn the concept of balance screams at me. In kick boxing class the instructor dreams up challenging balance poses to strengthen our core muscles and improve our overall physical wellbeing. The latest dietary studies exhort us to eat a balanced diet. And I swear, I strive to balance the carbs and the chocolate.

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between good and evil. I just read Michael Pollan’s fascinating article in the New York Times magazine: Germs, What we can Learn from our Microbiome,  about the community of microbes that colonize our bodies, keeping our bodies functioning optimally. Contrary to what our mother’s said, sometimes it’s beneficial to get down and dirty.IMG_0332

Our lives are one big balancing act: pain versus pleasure, task versus reward, reality versus fantasy. It’s a daily struggle to maintain a middle path, not to become engulfed in one thing over another, to strike the balance.DSC_0347

How true this is in the world of the writer. You have to fall in love with your characters and plot so that you can write from the heart, yet remain detached enough so that you can cut them to ribbons if that’s what it takes. Yes, you need to make time to connect with your reading audience and interact with the writing community. But when chasing the tweet dragon gets in the way of writing, you know things are out of whack. As I tug weeds in the garden, I often think how similar the process is to editing. You want to clear away enough detritus so you can see your story grow and bloom, but you don’t want to remove all those serendipity seedlings.

How to strike that balancing? For me, the key to standing on one leg and not collapsing in a sweaty heap of giggles is to be mindful, but not obsessive. I have to focus on gentle breathing (not the shooting pain in my hip), while staying tuned in to the big picture (the pain is worth it if it makes my butt look awesome in my new shorts). Hey, no one said it was easy!

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Begining of the Gardener’s Year

IMG_3320 IMG_3310So, here’s a little essay I read on National Public Radio a few years ago.

Catalog Season,

The Beginning of the  Gardener’s Year

They start arriving during the holiday season, squished in with the endless toy sale coupons, credit card bills, and the rare Christmas card. The catalog covers are bursting with wholesome goodness, though a true gardener knows the truth – you’ll never get botox tomatoes or porcelain perfect rosebuds in your garden without the use of massive amounts of toxic treats. That aside, their luscious covers stay my hand as I’m about to toss them in the recycling pile. Over the next month or two my bathroom will become the resting place for an ever-increasing pile of plant and seed catalogs. This is for strategic perusal during a moment of privacy in the manic holiday season.

By mid-January, when the deer have eaten their way through anything left sticking up out of the snow, and all hope of a shrubbery is growing dim, I get those first twinges. I feel an urge to see seed trays cluttering up the windowsills and kitchen table. I start feeling wistful for that warm place under the kitchen sink– the perfect spot for cozy, dark, moist germination. I’m feeling the drag of winter, and the hopeful swaying towards spring. Winter in the Northeast lays down heavily from January through February and into March, and then teases through April. But I’m beginning to sense the latent promise of the soil.

The catalogs are dragged out of the bathroom and piled by the couch. On brittle winter evenings, by lamplight, I start the long slow sift. Of course, it’s all about fantasy, little will actually be bought. Gardeners have to dream at this time of year: the perfect herb garden springing up amidst neat mounds of box wood and crunchy gravel, a rustic arbor overflowing with grape vines and late summer roses. Perhaps this year there’ll be a woodland bower with trickling stream and dappled shade flowers. With the back of an old envelope I go to work on the grand scheme.

Once I have perused the warty old heirloom vegetables in the organic catalogs, and the glossy offerings from the established old nurseries and fallen in love with some exotic vine from Peru that will never survive in my deer-infested garden, I pass them on to the children to cut-up for school projects. Those genetically modified tomatoes go right at the top of the food chain. In a Martha Stewart-inspired moment I have cut and pasted a rose garden full of gift tags.

I have a weakness for the cheapo catalogs, printed on wafer thin paper and bursting with special offers and 1¢ marvels. The crudely touched up photographs and the neon colors jump off the page at you. I especially love the cheesy photos of children dressed in ‘70’s outfits and sitting atop giant pumpkins with bemused smiles on their faces. I think my all-time favorite was a bonnie baby clutching a sweet pepper as big as its head with the title “Super Heavyweight Hybrid”. Some of the offerings are intriguing – a fruit cocktail tree straight out of “Willy Wonka” which bears plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots. While others are just plain scary. Surely the ‘Hairy Giant Starfish Flower” comes from outer space.

There is no such thing as too big or too sweet in the vocabulary of the people who write the copy for the vegetable and fruit catalogs. They seem to have a passion for words such as “Juicy”, “Smooth”, and “Delicious”. And then of course there are the names – “Fat “n” Sassy”, Mammoth Melting Sugar, Magnifisweet, Delectable, Phenomenal, Serendipity, Love-Me-Tender and Florida Speckled Butter. How could one not succumb? My success rate from these cheap and cheerful orders is about the same as from the much grander (and more expensive) nurseries. Which only goes to prove that I can kill cheap or expensive plants equally well.

Once I’ve reigned in my ambitions and placed my modest order all I have to do is sit back and wait for that freak 80˚ day in April when the dear UPS man will roll up in his van. Of course the garden will be untilled – a quagmire of spring mud. The tender plantlings will languish in a shady corner of my mudroom for several days. Insistent birdcalls staking claim to sections of the garden will get me out of bed at 6am. With fork in hand I’ll brave a light frost and watery sunshine to start the backbreaking work of turning over the soil in the perennial garden and the vegetable patch. Large clods of earth held together with ice crystals get turned over and left to sunbathe.

Hours later, I’ll waddle, with bent back, to the aptly named mudroom, my boots coated in a gelatinous layer. The next day, if there isn’t a late season snowstorm I’ll plant the baby leeks and get the first sowing of peas in. I’ll look down and notice that the paper I grabbed to put under my muddy boots is last season’s plant catalog.