Monday, February 28, 2011

Enter Ms. Spring! ...And Weeding

Currant blooms~

Thankfully February is almost over and we see remarkable changes in the garden; spring is coming! The Currant bushes have tender green leaves and the Viburnum blooms are the size of a button. The tiny yellow Forsythia blooms, which are always the first to arrive at the garden party, are slowly covering the barren branches before the leaves emerge. Many gardens are sporting darling Crocus and Hyacinths which may be seen as low spots of scent and color. The buds on the early Jonquils and Daffodils are swelling and some have already opened. Tulips have pushed through the soil and a few purple blooms can be seen on the Vinca. The amazing leaves of the Surprise Flowers have broken through the soil as large clumps of yellowish spears, pushing with incredible strength to emerge. Tiny buds of miniature leaves can be seen on the Roses and their arrival truly marks the end of winter.

Woodland Violets~

Unfortunately all of the activity includes the rush of early weeds who have crashed the party like a crowd of raucous drunks. Weeding must begin in earnest with each warm day for if left to their own devices, they will overpower the true guests.

Hoeing is primarily used in the vegetable patch to remove weeds in a crowded space; the hoe can get in and about the vegetables easily without harming them. The hoe, like a good knife, is a balanced tool and this balance allows the gardener to literally drop the weight of it on the intruder without much physical effort. A gentle rhythm is used and is almost like a dance…slowly lift-drop, lift-drop. It is quite effective if done properly. Experts at hoeing are often amused by those who use a frantic chopping-action, which is a waste of energy and also employs the human back to do the job of an expertly maneuvered hoe.

For the flower garden, hand removal is the only logical answer. Experts agree that to truly remove weeds it is necessary to trace the stem of the weed below the ground to the base of origin, follow the outlying roots with the finger tips, then remove all of it in a slow steady pulling motion, root and all in its entirety. This will insure permanent removal of the culprit. It is difficult to feel the root system wearing gloves so many gardeners choose to weed gloveless… thus the term ‘green thumb’.

Weeding can be an almost a Zen-like activity… calming, unrushed, and quieting. When the soil is moist and the weather not yet hot, it can be a perfect way to spend an afternoon. The rewards of successful weeding are a stack of wilting weeds, a lovely garden and the satisfying feeling of a job well done. When the task is completed, reward yourself with the gift of an English trowel. They are relatively expensive but are the best in the world and will last a lifetime. Every gardener deserves one... maybe I'll gift myself this year.

*I suggest my 'weed test' before working all day... pick one and see how quickly it wilts. If it wilts almost instantly, you are free to weed like crazy. If remains somewhat perky for ten to thirty minutes, don't trouble yourself weeding... it will not be a fruitful endeavor. And don't plan to plant anything new on the good weeding days... whatever is planted or transplanted will have a difficult time and will not thrive.

Vegetables... Please Wash Them!

As the growing season approaches, we will no doubt be warned about tainted produce again. With the spinach recall of 2006, the culprit was finally assigned as hogs and rightly so... religious texts are full of references to the uncleanliness of hogs. Then several years ago the tomatoes were apparently poisonous, causing severe illness. What plants utilize from the soil goes directly into what they produce and so producers of the past were careful of what they applied to their crops. Today with much of our produce arriving from third world nations that are notoriously dirty, simple precautions must be taken to assure it is properly cleaned.

While watching a television special on fresh produce I noted workers were packaging strawberries in the plastic containers that arrive in the market while they were collecting in the field. Meaning that the strawberries arrive at the supermarket with whatever the worker had on his hands at the moment, and hopefully he did not have an illness. Additionally over the weekend I watched a television cooking show and noted the lady making the luscious cake did not wash either the strawberries or the blueberries she put between layers of whipped cream! Unfortunately many imagine that produce collected from the supermarket has been washed and sanitized before shipment. Try to assume produce is dirty upon arrival in the market; enjoy it after it has been properly washed under your own supervision.

Lettuce, tomatoes, squash and the like must be carefully washed, onions must be peeled, and celery and potatoes scrubbed with a vegetable brush, and so forth. Don’t wash off dirt…cut it out and toss it. My grandmother, an excellent cook and a thrifty lady, was an apparent recycler before her time. She used yesterday’s newspaper to peel into, then tossed it‘s folded contents in the trash.

Today, as in biblical times, we are warned not to use the same cutting board for meat and vegetables. Cooking kills much of the bacteria naturally occurring on meat but may be transferred to raw produce. We are encouraged to wash our hands between preparation of raw meat and vegetables as well. Wash the counter often and women are encouraged not to place their purses on the counter as purses are notoriously filthy on the bottom. (The very thought of what my purse has ‘seen’ makes me wince.)

With a little effort fresh produce may be confidently eaten and enjoyed for its wonderful health benefits. *Remember to plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Natural Person

*This was written awhile back, but it is still timely...

The Natural Person
After years of rushing about, I finally have some time to reflect and I have some odd realizations. As a young woman, I felt a strong urge to see what would happen if one placed children in a natural setting and allowed them to evolve on their own terms. I had seven in a row, and the results were astounding.

I took everyone out of school when the oldest were in fourth grade. The system was far too stifling for active minds and I felt they needed room to expand. This singular act changed the course of their lives in a most unconventional way. They were insulated from the negative impact of peer groups, religion, and society in general. From this isolation they formed a close bond with each other and nature; they became connected in a natural way and had no need to unlearn the lessons which bind and impact formation of a positive person.

When they were children, each time we welcomed a new arrival I told them I was having a baby for they would have friends that loved them their whole lives. Each addition was welcomed and the current baby and other little children were drug around by older siblings with ultimate patience. Every day was met with unbridled enthusiasm because there was little structure and few demands; our creek and forest were their playground. We rang the 'dinner bell' and gathered three times a day for our meals, which were always taken together.

Reading was encouraged and they spent many hours pouring over the contents of our library; we have 5,000 books on any subject you would wish to study. We studied ecology by checking the creek for healthy plants and crawdads. We learned fractions by cooking, geometry by playing pool. We studied medieval history and made a walnut catapult, entirely pegged and workable. Swords were hammered, cloaks created, and horses were ridden bareback at break neck speeds while playing Three Musketeers or Robin Hood, or tag.

We sat in the topmost field and 'centered ourselves' to see if we could send the imaginary silver cord from the base of our spine to the center of the earth to bring the light of healing energy upward… and Andrew, at only five, could. We learned charity by taking baskets of food we had grown to those who were hungry, we hung prayer ribbons from the trees, raised abandoned baby animals and released them. We opened our door to starving artists, traveling minstrels, occasionally to down-and-out cowboys and Indians. We attended Native American Pow-Wows and even the secretive Sun Dance as invited guests.

Once, as an experiment, we decided to see how everyone would survive if something drastic happened and there was no shelter or electricity available. They created livable sod houses and built a dam on the creek. They believed that painting the window sills anti-voodoo blue would keep ill will away and that Nordic symbols on the gate will not allow evil to enter.

They could see spirits and thought that everyone could. They believed the elements are alive, and that every living thing has a soul. They pray to the angels for protection and instinctively placed food in the grave of the deceased so they may ‘eat on the other side‘.

These beliefs are ingrained in them by choice, not indoctrination, so I think they are fairly pure. Point being, when you allow the person to evolve naturally, they will find the ancient ways all by themselves, without coaching. The past holds the future and if left unimpeded, the natural person will emerge in surprising ways.

*With leaving home and the discovery of various peer pressures, they lost their way for a bit. Happily, they have found it again.... it wasn't lost at all~

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Careful Shopping...

Her Permanent Residence...

Each of us have a choice how we live our lives. Simplicity suits me and was relatively easy for us. Since 1986 my personal ’statement’ to save our planet was to shop carefully. I have found that clothing, household items, cooking utensils, decorating items, shampoo, cosmetics, or anything else can be foraged outside of a conventional store for a fraction of the cost. So I shop yard sales when they are in season, decent thrift shops, community sales and auctions... and sometimes you are rewarded.

At yard sales I meet new people, chat, and look at gardens while I browse, often coming away with the gift of a plant cutting. I enjoy the limited selection and the feeling I am shopping an outdoor bazaar. I also find it amusing to ‘study’ people conducting a sale by looking at their books, which are a profile of their personality… like the little old lady who was selling the 'Harrad Experiment' or the Bible thumpers who read nothing but Satanic novels. Often I am amazed. The man who sold his great-grandmother’s rocking chair for $40 was an enigma as was the antique (signed) Houdin statue for $50... surely a once in a lifetime event I had been waiting for a long time.

About the Houdon...
That day we got started late and didn't really think there was anything we wanted or needed but compulsive people do things by rote so off we went at a little past ten. Besides the nonstop parade of pink plastic baby toys and clothing that should have been sent to the trash bin, there was depressingly little at the first eight sales we attended. I had prayed to the garage sale gods for something special...then as we rounded a corner, we spotted a nice home with a well-dressed elderly lady conducting a sale. She was downsizing she explained and getting rid of everything she no longer needed. Michael had made a bee line for something I couldn't see that was tucked behind a chair.
He asked, "Would you take less for your statue".

"No", she replied, "I really don't care if I sell her or not. I've always been so fond of her. I got her about 40 years ago at an antique shop in New York City. I like her so much and she has lived with me a long time. I wouldn't sell her if she was not too large for our new home. I think she is worth $50.00".
"Okay, he said, "I'll take her and I promise to give her a good home".

I noted his hand was shaking as her opened his billfold and when I glanced at the statue I almost dropped my teeth…she was gorgeous! He picked her up like she was a child and almost ran to the car, as if the lady would change her mind. He looked at me and mouthed, "Come on, come on“, gesturing frantically.

I turned from the front seat to inspect her and noted she was signed and numbered; I further noted the lovely detail and her face was exquisite. I called my friend Maria who is a conservator in Dallas, and she was speechless… "You got a Houdon, a Houdon for $50!" It seems our statue is one important lady.

The Reality of Careful Shopping:
When I shop this way, I (purposefully) don’t pay taxes since taxes have already been paid on what I buy, which is a statement unto itself, and I pay about 5 cents on the dollar.

We can each make a difference in our own way… and sometimes, sometimes, after many, many years...the garage sale gods may reward you!

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Garden As Exercise

Soon, very soon...
February Thoughts~ The Garden As Exercise

Sunday was a gorgeous day that reminded one there are only five more weeks of Winter before Spring makes her official entrance. It was perfect for being outside in the sunshine clearing twigs and snow debris from the beds and greeting the early arrivals in the garden. Undaunted baby-green tips were peeking up everywhere and one can feel the season is coming!

As a hobby, gardening ranks among the most popular activities with an astonishing 94% of Americans claiming it. The fact it burns calories and works muscles makes it a perfect low impact workout. As more and more Americans rush to the gym seeking health through exercise, the gardener simply needs to step outside the back door. Weeding or cultivating can burn 200 calories an hour, while hauling rocks can burn as many as 600. Turning compost is essentially the equivalent of lifting weights. Pushing the mower is the outdoor treadmill and raking is the gardener’s rowing machine. Our exercise machines are trowels, rakes, shovels, clippers, and wheelbarrows; our running track is the garden. And when compared to the sweaty filth accumulating in a modern gym, dirt seems miraculously clean.

Not only will gardening build strength, but it uses literally all of the major muscle groups. It brings cardiovascular benefits and several studies have suggested that gardening could reduce insulin resistance, a condition that may lead to metabolic syndrome or diabetes, both of which increase the risk of heart disease. Only 30 minutes a day in the garden will lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and will prevent or slow osteoporosis.

As with all exercise, it is important to begin gradually and it does seem, rather appropriately, chores in the garden seem to increase in intensity as the weather warms. In a study of heart attack risk assessment using 21,000 male Harvard alumni, it was reported that sedentary individuals had a 100 times greater chance of suffering a heart attack during strenuous activity than individuals who exercise moderately several times a week. Most of the active men listed gardening as their major form of exercise and it is amazing how many people in their nineties are still gardening. Our own Poet Laureate, Stanley Kunitz, still gardened until his death in 2006 at one hundred!

Everyone from small children to senior citizens may enjoy the garden making it a perfect family activity. It is claimed that the sensory pleasure of scented and colorful flowers reduces stress and will also provide a psychological benefit by giving one a fulfilling sense of accomplishment. Gardening is the best health secret on the planet… it is, however, addictive.

A very nice winter read~

Saturday, February 12, 2011

My walkway project

While downsizing I added a path!

Early last Spring... the paths first year.

Late in the season.. spilling over the brick work.

Finished raking!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Snow, Snow and More Snow!

This is my road...
Needless to say, we're not going anywhere today, but it is beautiful~

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Noxious Weeds... a reminder

The Musk Thistle

Gardening fads come and go with the popularity of plants and this years lovely garden or foundation plant may become, over time, an ecological nightmare. As is the case of Purple Loosestrife, which was an exceedingly popular choice for every landscape of the 1980’s. Still sold today in many states, including ours, the plant produces showy magenta-colored flower spikes for much of the season. Unfortunately, it has a nasty habit of overpowering its neighbors, impolitely taking much more than is allowed. It is the Loosestrife’s habit of producing 30 to 50 stems from a single rootstock that has been the cause of the current problems. Escaping from the garden setting, it has been guilty of overtaking pastures and woodlands where it chokes and eliminates the competition while providing no substantial benefit to livestock.

The same is true of the wildly popular Butterfly Bush. Often sold through magazines in the 1980’s, it was unknown at the time this native of China would escape cultivation. It has traveled to roadsides, bar ditches, and pastures, invading natural areas, competing with native vegetation. It does attract butterflies, but cannot be used for butterfly reproduction and unfortunately competes with native plants that do. The bush produces large quantities of seed, up to 3 million per plant, which are dispersed by wind or water. The seeds can remain dormant in the soil for years until conditions become favorable to germinate.

The hideous Musk Thistle has arrived in our pastures as well. Oddly, this thistle has adorned the national emblem of Scotland since the reign of Alexander III (1249-1286)and was used on silver coins issued by James III in 1470. Legend has stated that Norse invaders stepped on them and the thorns pierced their leather foot wear. The invaders cried out in pain, thus alerting the sleeping Scotsmen and assuring them a battle win. As can be seen in the photograph, the base of this dreadful plant is sturdy and incredibly thorny, topped by a pretty pink blossom that is lethal in her production of seeds. A single flower head may produce 1,200 seeds and a single plant up to 120,000 seeds, which are wind dispersed. The seeds may remain viable in the soil for over ten years, making it a difficult plant to control.

Invasive Species web sites for each state list many of the plant species we are to avoid, and they are certainly worth visiting before purchasing an addition to the garden. Some of the plants listed were quite surprising.

*Photo credit J.N. Stuart

Monday, February 7, 2011

Make your path sparkle!

I began to notice little packets of colored glass 'stones' at garage sales a few years back. Often used for baby showers or weddings, they were sold for pennies on the dollar and were well worth picking up to sprinkle on my pea gravel pathways... they sparkle in the sunlight!

Plan a Children's Garden... of Food!

Maybe this will be another 'Year of the Frog'! (Note the cape!)

With snow and ice on the ground and temperatures cold enough to chill one to the bone, it is difficult to imagine that spring is just around the corner. However if in doubt, check the potato bin for it is impossible to slow the internal clock that is telling them to sprout for spring. Even though it is still barren, the garden is hearing the same call as the spuds and action is occurring underground. Quite suddenly when one can not bear it a moment longer, spring will arrive with a whisper of tender green… winter never lasts forever, it simply seems so.

To occupy ones thoughts this month perhaps plan a place in the garden which includes vegetables for children. With poor eating habits a national concern, encouraging a love of fresh food begins with toddlers and habits established in childhood will last a lifetime. Besides providing sunshine and exercise, a garden inspires by giving children the joy of accomplishment as they plant, pick and eat what they have grown. The trusty radish is perhaps the most rewarding for first time child-gardeners because of its rapid maturity. Often called ‘quick grows’, they easily germinate within three to five days and are ready for harvest by three weeks!

Since children enjoy ‘grazing’ while playing outside plan to include some English peas. Among the oldest cultivated plants, peas found in a cave in Burma have been carbon dated back 9750 years indicating they have been used by mankind for quite some time. Rich in vitamins, they arrive at the garden party early and not only withstand cooler temperatures, they require them. With their cute little pod which resembles a ’carrying case’ and sweet little lines of baby peas, their appeal to youngsters is universal.

Carrots are good as well and provide a multitude of antioxidants and minerals. The old adage about eating carrots to improve vision is true as they are a rich in vitamin A, which is necessary for good eyesight. Besides possessing an attractive lacy top while the babies grow below, tender baby carrots have a sweet delightful flavor that includes a crunch!

Onions are a wonderful cool weather crop as well and watching sets come alive and grow is exciting. They have been a global sensation for over 5,000 years and have been consumed by all cultures. Onions have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and lower cholesterol. They may be boiled, with the strained water used to effectively reduce fever. The list of medicinal uses is endless, making them a very important addition to the diet.

When our last son was almost four, he was patiently watching a large onion grow. Each day he asked to pull it and each day we responded with ‘not yet‘. One evening we carefully dug it and replaced it with a nine inch, three pound onion we had purchased at the Farmer‘s Market. The next morning we told him ‘now’. The entire family was ‘in’ on the joke and gathered to watch as he tugged and struggled. He finally managed to pull our imposter, falling backwards in the process. He was totally surprised and delighted by his ‘big ol‘ onion‘! Nothing is better than watching a child’s joy over the discovery that food need not come from the store... it may be grown!

The award winning novel Holes by Louis Sachar features the curative powers of onions~

Thursday, February 3, 2011

And what will poor Robin do then, poor thing?

As the weather continues on the downward spiral, feeding the birds becomes serious business for without our help, many may not survive the current temperature plunge. True bird aficionados feed year round, but I feel it is best to insist they forage until the weather no longer permits or food is no longer easily obtainable.

We all remember the haunting nursery rhyme:
“The North wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will poor Robin do then,
Poor thing?”

The illustration accompanying this little ditty often displays a pitiful Robin lying on its back in deep snow with fixed eyes, twig-like claws, a beak barely opened… clearly dying from either starvation or hypothermia! Notwithstanding the implied cruelty of presenting such images to small children, the visualization of this “Poor Thing” easily instills enough guilt to encourage one to purchase a high quality bag of wild bird feed immediately!

Most birds like the commercial mixtures but if you want to splurge purchase additional sunflower seeds and thistle. Many beautiful songbirds spend the winter indulging in entertaining antics and now that the trees are bare, it is possible to see and hear them far better. Once you begin feeding you will discover the reason so many people find great enjoyment in bird-watching, for every bird has personality traits characteristic to their individual species.

With the onset of cabin fever this week, the birds have taken on substantial significance, providing a most welcome respite on seemingly endless boring days. The Blue Jays are excitable, boisterous, rather the bullies and always traveling in a gang. The Cardinals are polite, laid back and lacking in aggression. All species of the Woodpecker family demand and receive respect; their beaks are daunting and presence can clear the feeder immediately. The darling finches squabble and tumble about while the Black Capped Chickadee and timid Titmouse dart for sunflower seeds. The wonderfully enthusiastic Sparrows are mentioned in the Bible as one of God’s favorites.

Birds eat in regular intervals during the day much as we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. For this reason the feeder is sometimes chaotically busy with all species feeding together in a feathered fluff of noisy competition while other times the filled feeder stands alone. The word spreads quickly among the bird community and bird feeders will find themselves at the height of popularity this time of year.

Lovely books which identify bird species are available at all of the public libraries and it is exciting to identify old favorites and new friends who visit your feeder. And since we have many more weeks of winter, plan to enjoy the bird show… from the warmth of your easy chair!