Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Hittin' the Trail

Here at PrairieTide, our mind is on the open road. Summer vacation, the two most musical words in the English language, begins in just a couple of days. Ah, the blessed time each year without appointments or To Do lists. Just breath in and enjoy the deadline-, meeting-, and voicemail-free air!

In the PrairieTide garden, the rain gauge remains sadly empty. So this means I'm doing a lot of watering to get ready for the big trip. The drought in Central Illinois was just upgraded by the National Weather Service from "moderate" to "severe," and I'm concerned the plants I've put in this year stay alive while I'm gone.

Last week, I walked out to find one of my new hydrangeas shriveled down to nothing. Just the day below the leaves were green and perky. I watered and watered the little thing, but it has not sprung back. One of the blueberry shrubs is looking down, and my container plants get watered every night, but they still seem on the brink of extinction. And all this before I head out on vacation!

Randy's gardener dad has promised to do some watering for us while we're gone. I've experimented with some water timers, with varying degrees of success. My biggest problem is that the water spickett always leaks, no matter how securely the hose is attached. Usually, I just prop up a watering can under the spickett and fill up the can while I'm watering one of the new beds. But if we are to rely on the water timer, we'll need to leave the spickett dribbling the entire time we're gone. I don't think this is going to work.

So in the mean time, my goal is to give every bed a deep, thorough watering before we hit the road. I found this article from Garden's Alive! about preparing a garden for summer vacations.

And guess what? The article is by Mike McGrath, the former editor of Organic Gardening with the goofy sense of humor. So maybe he became an internet entrepreneur after leaving the publishing world...

Aha! A minor change to my settings, and the blog formating problem goes away! Thanks for hanging in there with me.
Saturday, June 25, 2005
My Blog's Gone Batty
I'm not sure why my blog posts are shifting down below my sidebar. I've done some looking around my blog template, and I'm just not sure what is causing the problem. So if you have any ideas what could be causing things to look wonky on my blog, please leave me a comment. In the mean time, I'll look around to see if I can find out what is causing the problem. Thanks for understanding.
Listen Up!
The #1 item on my garden wish list is an iPod. I think an iPod would make a great garden gadget. If I had an iPod, I'd listen audio books, professional lectures, archived NPR ...and music...all without having to fumble with CDs while wearing muddy gloves. (Hint, hint Randy: our wedding anniversary is only weeks away!)

While I remain iPod free, I spent time today paying attention to everyday sounds while I was working in the garden. Our house sits at the top of a small hill. At the bottom of the hill, there is a YMCA. During the winter, I can watch joggers circling around an inside track at the Y. This time of year, the YMCA buildings are pretty well obscured form view thanks to the trees that grow up the hillside. But there is a destinctive summer sound that eminates from the Y that I've grown to really enjoy while I'm working out in the yard.

It's the sound of the "free swim" that's held most every day during the summer.

While I'm puttering around the yard, I can hear kids splashing around. During the free swim times, there's a general pleasant racket in the air. There's the destinctive ka-SPLASH of the cannonball dive. Cries of "Marco" and the echoed "Pollo" float up to my plot. The squealing with delight, the playful shouting and caterwalling. Over the pool's innercom, I can hear the Voice of the lifeguard. I can never make out a word the lifeguard says. "Wa waaa, wa waaa, wa WAAAA." The sound is just like something from a Peanut's cartoon.

From time to time, swim meets are held at the pool. The races held during swim meets have a distinctly different sound from the "free swim" sessions. Some races really charge the fans up. Kids will scream themselves horse, yelling for their teammates to finish the race first. During swim meets, the Voice totally changes. Instead of soundling like a repremand, the Voice sounds professional and announcer-like. It's still indeciferable, but I seem to hear the Voice reading long lists of names. Who's up for the next race, who won the heat, the top three finishers from each school. Every now and then, I'll hear the occasional CRACK of the starter gun. More than once, the starter gun has scared me silly while I'm bent over some shrub.

On the hottest days, the sounds of kids having fun at a pool is surprisingly refreshing. Maybe it's the happy vibe of the noise. Or maybe it's the sound of splashing water. It's almost of good as actually being there myself, kicking back with a tall, cool drink poolside.
Friday, June 24, 2005
Victor's Garden

While we're on the topic of dads, I need to pay tribute to Victor, my father-in-law. He has a small garden behind his West Peoria home. In his small space, Victor grows an amazing crop of tomatos and bush beans every year, and his flower garden always impresses. Victor likes flowers that reseed themselves, so every year his flowers looks spontaneous, improvisational even.

A generous gardener, Victor has given me lots of plants and cuttings (some of which I've managed to keep alive). He's given me carefully-labeled, little plastic bags full of seeds he collects each year. Best of all, this year he gave me a cutting from a purple Rose of Sharon bush that grows through his side fence. It's a uniquely pretty Rose of Sharon, and now a little piece of it is growing in my garden.
Sunday, June 19, 2005
My Dad, Master Gardener
There are lots of great things I can say about my dad. He raised seven daughters. He's had a great career in the agribusiness world. He's the guy you go to if you need help moving to a new apartment or fixing something around the house. He's one good cook. In fact, with my dad, Sunday's are just not complete without whipping up a batch of fudge. basically, he's an all-around terrific guy.

Dad's always had an interest in growing things. We had a 10-acre almond orchard while I was growing in up California. Later, he and a friend ran an apple and pear orchard in Oregon. A couple of years ago, my folks moved to Utah to a town named Mapleton, just south of Salt Lake City and not far from Brigham Young University. They bought 2.75 acres right at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.

Their latest homestead was bare earth when they arrived. Last year, Dad got the idea to start a small U Pick berry farm. He's dubbed the place the McBriar Patch, and he and Mom have planted thousands of new plants. Last year for Christmas, they gave family members a small bottle of strawberry jam made from their new plants. I can honestly say, without any exaggeration or overstatement, it was some of the best stuff on earth. For Father's Day, Dad let me interview him over the phone for PrairieTide. As someone who has been involved with farming his whole life, I thought he'd have some good advice for new gardeners like me.

So how many plants have you put in the ground in the last two years?
I'd say we have about one and a half acres planted in berries. That's about 3,000 everbearing strawberry plants. Some of the strawberries are in raised boxes. This year, we put them into rows in the ground instead of boxes. So that's a total of 9 boxes and 7 1/2 rows, each 150 feet long.

We have 14 rows of raspberries. The rows are 6 feet apart, and they're 150 feet long. We have both summer bearing and fall bearing varieties. This year, we added 300 thornless blackberry plants in three different varieties: Arapaho, Chester, Triple Crown. That's seven rows of blackberries, each 150 feet long.

Yesterday was our first day of operating the U Pick strawberry business. We put on one sign in front of the house, and one sign at the end of the street. Your mother worried all morning that no one would show up. But by the end of the day, we'd earned $140. Not bad for the first day.

You and Mom have done an amazing amount of work putting in all these plants. Tell me about your goals for the place.
Totally financially independence. [In the background, I can hear my mom laughing]. We're going to do a few farmer markets. The U Pick business suits us fine. Plus we have some friends with a fruit stand in Santa Quinn. They'll let us bring some berries in to sell at the stand.

Next year, I want to plant two more types of raspberries. I also want to add a patch of daisies for U Pick flowers. Maybe pumpkins next year. I also have this idea of planting acorns and selling nursing stock oak trees. Buy your own BYU oak tree. Doesn't that sound great? [Editor's note: Hmmmm.]

Do you think the U Pick business will work in your area?
There are a lot of new houses being built on the farm land around here. Because this is Utah, there are lots of families in our area. Yesterday, we were surprised to see so many families show up to pick berries. The parents wanted to show their kids where berries come from.

So tell me about the Master Gardener class you completed last year.
I am a master gardener. [In the background, I can hear my mom say "Except..."]. Except I haven't done any of my summer volunteer hours like I'm supposed to. But I'll get to it! I did a pruning demonstration during the spring. When the farm bureau did their annual "Ag Day", I helped out. This is where they bring in about 40 buses full of kids from the schools to learn about farming. It was held at a local farm with a super fancy riding stable. FFA students were the guides and helped at the booths. The chicken people where there. Folks from the milk industry. The pork people and the beef people were there. I talked about raising apples. See, kids have to realize that food comes from other places than 7-11 and Wal-Mart.

What was the Master Gardener class like?
It covered the basic things you would take in Botany 101. We talked about plant propagation, plant diseases, weed identification, you know. I had to write a paper, so I did one on mushrooms.

I've been thinking about buying one of those mushroom growing kits and seeding it in the woods behind our house.
Get a lot of organic matter and keep it really wet. And make sure you pick the ones you planted, not the ones that come up naturally. While I was working on my paper, I found out three popes were poisoned with mushrooms back in the middle ages. Doing the research for the paper, I toured a local mushroom factory. They don't usually give tours, but they showed me around since it was for a class. They grow their mushrooms on sawdust and straw that's been composted--no manure. The mushrooms grow in the compost for about six months. After a couple of flushes of mushrooms, the soil is sterilized and sold to a compost company.

Since you already knew a lot about agriculture, would you say the class was worthwhile?
It was very worthwhile. I've been involved in ag for years, but I haven't done much in the garden. Then we bought this huge piece of land without anything on it. Since I took the class, we've filled up about half the space with the berries, and we have another acre to go. Your mother is going to take the class next year. Then she'll become the mistress of the garden.

What advice can you give me for new gardeners?
Make enough money so you can hire help. Ha! Just kidding! Gardening is a lot of fun. I killed the lawn last year, and now all we have is a weed patch out front. So I'm going to get out there and plant something new for a lawn. The big thing is to just get out and do it. Try things. Just do the things that you like. It may not be the latest style, but if you like it, it's good.
Friday, June 17, 2005
Something in the Wind

Talking 'Bout the Weather Posted by Hello

The weather around here is making me edgy. All spring, we've had wind. Lots and lots of wind. It's been the kind of wind that usually portends a thunderstorm. The clouds darken, the air feels electric, and rain seems inevitable. And then the storm has passed without dropping a bit of water. While other parts of North America are getting too much rain, we haven't seen nearly enough. Our spring has been windy and dry, a tough combination for new plants.

While I was browsing the shelves of the local library, one book practically blew off the shelves into my hands. The Weather-Resilient Garden: A Defensive Approach to Planning and Landscaping by Charles W. G. Smith got to the heart of what's been worrying me this spring. The book turned out to be very detailed and informative. When I brought the book home with me from the library, I planned to just breeze through it over breakfast some morning. I expected the inevitable list of plants, plus some basic "Must Do" bullet points.

Instead, the book turned out to be an interesting read. I stormed through the book from cover to cover. The section "Really Bad Weather" included information about dealing with cold, ice, fire, hail, drought, heat, humidity, flood, lightening, and salt in the garden. Each section included examples of gardens that coped well with these weather hazards, as well as examples of gardens that faced the weather front totally unprepared. To date, I'd say my garden falls in the later catagory--totally unprepared.

In the chapter on wind, Smith explains that at some point, wind levels reach a strength that no amount of planning and preparation can overcome. But even moderate levels of wind can cause stress and damage in the garden. He outlines what makes a good wind break, plus he mentions some ideas I hadn't considered, like wind berms, pruning trees and shrubs properly so they are able to withstand a storm, and making use of existing structures to protect plants from wind.

After reading the book, I'm rethinking my plan for the backyard to include some sort of windbreak. This is challenging because I have a slope in the backyard that faces into the wind. Maybe a raspberry hedge could serve as a windbreak for the veggie garden. This year's veggies have taken quite a beating with all this wind.

Reading about the weather reminded me there was a rain gauge stored in a closet somewhere around the house. After a bit of scavenging, I found the rain gauge and figured out how to assemble all the little plastic pieces. Turns out, the device includes a thermometer and a couple of spinning arrows, one that shows how hard the wind is blowing, and one to point out which direction. It looks impressively high tech for a small square-foot garden. Sadly...the rain gauge is quite empty...

Sunday, June 12, 2005
Armchair Gardening

Garden Mags to the Max! Posted by Hello

Peoria's best used bookstore is actually a museum. The Lakeview Museum features an ongoing used booksale in their book court. Earlier this week, I needed a little "pick me up." The weather is giving me the one-two punch--heat and humidity. When it feels like a sauna outside, I'm much more incline to while away the day inside enjoying the airconditioning than to spend quality time with my weeds. So I stopped by the museum to browse the bookshelves, looking for a little gardening inspiration.

And lo, an entire stack of used gardening magazines! At 25 cents each, I bought the entire pile for less than the cost of one regularly-priced glossy.

And I learned something interesting. The venerable Organic Gardening used to be funny. It seems that back in the early 90's, a new editor with a sense of humor came on board. The pre-1990's editions are dry and serious, but after Mike McGrath joined the team, the magazine took on a folksy good humor. McGrath started every edition with a hyper-active account of what's going on in his garden. The letters to the editor were answered in the magazine with wacky puns. And the magazine's articles shared some common sense insight along with the thorough research the magazine is known for.

These days, Mike McGrath hosts a gardening radio show "
You Bet Your Garden" that is carried on some local NPR channels. I listen to it from time to time over the internet. It's got McGrath's zaniness, with good gardening served on the side.

Today's Organic Gardening has returned to its roots, which means it's as serious as Sunday. The magazine is also much slimmer these days, with fewer articles and ads. This makes me very curious. What brought about the change? Did McGrath leave the magazine to begin a career as a radio star? Did the return to serious reportage drive down the readership, or did the mag return to it's previous carnation in the hopes of bringing back it's base? Hmmm... Very curious... Whatever the reason for the change, I'd like to find more of the circa-1990 editions.

Saturday, June 11, 2005
Cowboy Gardening

Look! Peas! Posted by Hello

Thunder rumbled in the distance all morning while I was puttering around the yard. The sky was sunny, and the air dry, so it seemed like nothing to worry about. But once I started rebuilding my compost pile, the sky darkened, and drops began to fall.

Meanwhile, the grass in our yard was really looking scraggly. Since we haven't gotten much rain of late, we've let it grow for about two weeks. If we'd cut it any sooner, we'd have just cut off the last of the "green" in the grass.

Randy promised he'd help me mow it today, but with the rain threatening, I didn't think we'd get it done before the cloudburst. Then here comes Randy running around the side of the house with the lawn mower. He was determined to get the grass trimmed before the rains came.

Luckily, we have two matching lawn mowers. This way, we can tackle the lawn in half the time. I went and fired up the second mower, and we did our "synchronized mowing" routine, getting the last patch of lawn shorn off just as the drops began to fall at a steady rate. They entire time we were mowing, I could hear the thunder rumbling over the roar of the mower, and I decided to ignore the lightening flashes in the distance.

By the time we were finished, I was out of breath, clammy from the humidity, soaked from rain, and glad to call it a day. With the rain pattering on the roof, I curled up with a book. Enough cowboy gardening for one day.

Monday, June 06, 2005
Star Wars, Yet Again...

So while I was digging out some sod in the garden, I got to thinking about the new Star Wars movie. When you've got several square feet of sod to tear out, you mind has time to dwell on these things.

There's been a lot of talk in media about the possible political analogies in the new film. It occurred to me as I was ripping out grass that this is just one way to view the film. The film can also be viewed as an analogy for domestic abuse.

Or at least it could have been, if the filmmaker had been a little more courageous. Case in point--Padme's death. First, she swoons after her disastrous encounter with Anakin. She swoons, how is that for realistic? Then, during her delivery, the medical droid says something about there being "nothing medically wrong with her" but that they "can't do anything for her." A few scenes later, Padme dies of a "broken heart." This sounds rather romantic--Victorian even. It's the stuff of romance novels and quasi-historical pot-boilers.

But it just ain't likely. Padme is not the only woman to realize her partner is a monster during a pregnancy. A healthy young person with no history of medical problems will make it through childbirth, whether she's married to Darth Vadar or no. In my mind, this is the big cop-out of the movie.

What is clear is that Anakin showed his violent side during "Attack of the Clones" when he slaughters the Sand People after his mother dies. Padme is aware of this, but stays by his side, apparently to try to help him. This sets up the kind of relationship that is prone for domestic violence. The guy who lashes out when provoked, and the woman who lets it slide because she thinks she can make a fix-up project of the guy.

During the latest film, when Padme and Anakin have their final encounter, Anakin uses his Jedi mind tricks to choke Padme when he believes she's been unfaithful to him. He CHOKES his pregnant wife. Then he flings her aside so he can clash light sabers with Obi Wan over an erupting volcano. This is as clear a picture of the jealous, violent husband as any I've seen in a sci-fi blockbuster.

After the death-match with Obi Wan, Anakin is reconstructed by the Emperor. Now half-machine, Anakin asks the Emperor about his wife. The Emperor says something along the lines of "You killed her. Your anger was too great." At this, Anakin staggers about on his cybernetic legs and lets out a tribal yell. (A good English major would say this is reminiscent of Stanley Kowalski's cathartic"Stella!" from The Street Car Named Desire.)

So there you have it. The Emperor says Anakin killed his wife, but the medical droid says Padme died of a broken heart. In my mind, the medical droid lacked the guts to name the real cause of death--having a violent, abusive, Darth Vadar for a husband. Naming this as the cause of death would have made the movie all the more realistic and powerful.

Yes, I said it. It would have made the sci-fi flick more realistic and powerful. I'm that kind of nerd. Enough sci-fi talk. I better get back to the garden...
Sunday, June 05, 2005
Forest Walk

The woodland garden. Posted by Hello

The community college where I work has a small arboretum tucked away on the far side of campus. The arboretum is maintained by students in the horticultural program. Over the years, students have added an herb garden, enclosed gazebos, and a waterfall. It's a gem, but because of it's remote location, I've only been by to visit a few times. The other day on the way home from work, I decided to stop for a closer look.

What immediately impressed me was the arboretum's casual style. Most of the garden beds are not lined in any way. A grass path meanders through the trees and around understory shrubs without really "going anywhere". Something about the layout of the arboretum makes it easy to walk in circles. Perhaps this is a deliberate effect--a reflection of a monastery meditative garden or a zen garden. Or perhaps they winding paths are a result of the way the arboretum has evolved over the years, with groups of students adding a yellow garden here and a hosta garden without a larger overall scheme.

One thing I really like about the arboretum is the causal woodland garden beds. The plants are mostly about texture and foliage, with a dappling of color scattered about. No one has been overly attentive to weeding in this garden. There were plenty of weeds in every bed, but they didn't detract from the aesthetics of the place. If anything, seeing a few weeds kinda took the pressure off. It's like, if they don't mind having a few weeds here, what's the big deal of a few sneak into my garden?

Lots of color. Posted by Hello

Plant collections seem to be a theme in the arboretum. There's a large hosta collection, with lots of types and textures. Virburnum seemed to be another theme. I also liked this collection of weigela.

One question I have is how they were able to keep grass from growing in the garden beds. Most of the garden beds were not edged in any way. And the garden beds weren't raised either. Yet the grass stayed in the path and out of the beds. Really, it's a mystery.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Can you believe Randy and his dad built this picnic table in just two evenings? It's six-feet long and made from 2x4s. When Randy finished it up, he told me, "You can blog about this, if you want." Absolutely. Posted by Hello
Wednesday, June 01, 2005
Garden Tour in a Book
To learn more about gardening, I'm hungry for good gardening books. I bring home stacks of books from the library, and whenever I visit a bookstore, I browse past the garden section to see what's new. I craze garden books with good writing, detailed directions, and passion. Garden writing, though, can pretty bland. I'm amazed how many books out there offer the same tired advice.

Here'a a brilliant idea: Literature is full of gardens--why not gather those fictional gardens into one collection, and then gleen garden advice and wit from the pen of more talented writers? The Literary Garden: Recreating Literature's Most Beautiful Gardens in Your Own Backyard is just such a book. Basically, it's a gardening book for us English majors. The book culls some of the best garden descriptions from literature, and then uses these descriptions to give advice about basic garden topics. In my mind, the writer who came up with this idea hit on a smart idea. Literature is chock full of fantasy gardens, and it makes sense to draw from the best.

The Literary Garden includes excerpts from Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Katherine Mansfield, and others from an age of classic gardens. Some of the gardens in these books are wild and tempting, others are ordered and secluded behind enclosed walls. If anything, this collection might inspire me to dust off The Mill on the Floss or The House of Mirth for another reading.

After each excerpt, the author of The Literary Garden builds on the selection by offering garden ideas for the reader to try. Admittedly, the garden advice lacks something around the edges. Following the description of the extensive kitchen garden in My Antonia, there is a section about growing pumpkins. The advise on pumpkins is basic and to the point, but it somehow left me unsatisfied. Didn't the discovery of Antonia's garden inspire more than planting a few pumpkin seeds? It inspires me to find seeds for something called ground cherries, to follow garden bugs about their business, to take a nap in a patch of sunshine...something more than just pumpkins.

Squibbles aside, this book is a keeper, if for nothing else than to have a collection of garden excepts from some classic books. Together, the excepts point to what draws me to the gardening world. They all portray gardens as a magical, transformative, otherworldly place. Creating this kind of place in a suburban backyard is another task all together, but at least in this volumn I can point to the source of my desire.

Last time I stopped by Barnes and Noble, there was a stack of Literary Gardens in the Discount Book section. Who knows, maybe you could find yourself tempted to recreate the collection of deadly nightshade from Rappaccini's Daughter's garden.


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