Sunday, March 15, 2015

Rules for visiting a private garden



Spring has sprung and it is time for gardening. It is also about the time people start thinking that they'd like to see someone else's garden, in order to, you know, get ideas. As such, I thought it would be a good time to post a five simple rules about visiting other people's gardens. (I apologize in advance if I sound a bit scoldy about this, but you would be surprised how many people break at least one of these rules during a garden visit. And for what it is worth, I have broken every one of these rules myself at one time or another and regretted it, so this is your chance to learn from my mistakes!)

1. If you ask a gardener take a look at her garden and she says something like, "Gee. It doesn't look very good right now. I'd rather not show it to you," do not say, "Oh, I don't care about that. I just want to see it." A gardener wants to show off her garden in the best light, not when it is just coming out of the winter doldrums and she's been too busy to pull the spring weeds and there are unfinished garden projects afoot (see photo above). To press her on it would be akin to asking to see the bedroom when the bed is unmade and the laundry is not put away. If a gardener doesn't want you to see the garden right then, let it go.

2. When you visit a garden, say something nice about it. I don't care how tiny and insignificant it might be, say something nice. Gardens are hard work and heartache. The smallest improvement can be an enormous amount of labor. Show that you appreciate this. In other words, show that you know how hard it is to garden.

3. Do not ever point out a flaw. Never, ever. Do you think the gardener has not noticed the nutsedge herself? Do you think she has no clue that powdery mildew coats her squash? That the Mexican feather grass fills the cracks in the flagstones? That every single rosemary died during the last freeze? Of course she sees these terrible lapses in garden perfection. She is hoping that you will overlook the stuff she has not had time to address and notice the nice things instead. (See above.)

4. Do not offer advice unless asked. (I think this is pretty self-explanatory.)

5. Even if you are asked for advice, think twice about giving it. Sometimes what people really want is to tell you what they think should be done, and then get your confirmation. This is tricky. You're just going to have to figure out which it is. You will get it wrong sometimes.

That's it. Five rules for visiting private gardens. I think these apply whether you are visiting one informally or as part of a garden tour, since putting a garden on tour is an enormous act of courage and sacrifice, and should be recognized as such.

Happy spring, everyone!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Remembrance Day


My father died six years ago in January, on the first day of spring classes. It was actually on January 7th, which is not the first day of classes every year, but I loved my father and I have always loved the first day of classes, and they are now forever linked in my heart.

I was thinking of him today, in the main because it was the first day of spring classes, but also because I moved a corn plant (Dracena fragrans) that someone gave us at his funeral, from our bedroom downstairs to my study upstairs. There is a north window where it will finally get all the bright, indirect light it has deserved for lo, these many years.

It is a tough plant, and has defied all my attempts to neglect it. When we received it, it was just a little two foot mite, but now it is is five feet tall if it is an inch, and putting out new leaves like who laid the chunk.

I have no idea where the phrase "like who laid the chunk" comes from or what it actually means, but it was a favorite of my dad's, and when he used it, his eyebrows were always raised and he meant "more than you could ever imagine, Horatio." Or something like that.

The family got a lot of live plants for his funeral, most of which were kalanchoes, but one of which was this silly corn plant. I was the one chosen to take home all the live plants, because, supposedly, I am a gardener (though not a houseplant person, which is actually a different species altogether), and it was assumed that I would know what to do with them. (Snort! I didn't even know what these plants were. I had to look them  up--not that it did me any good.) Well, as you might expect, the kalanchoes all gave up the ghost in short order, because, as it turns out, houseplants require, you know, watering and shit. That is to say, they require attention from a houseplant-person (see above, in re, not necessarily a gardener).

But not, apparently, corn plants. They just trundle along in their dark corners of inadequate light, sans water, sans fertilizer, sans anything at all, waiting patiently for their annual spate of pathetic-houseplant-person attention. All it ever seemed to ask from me was no direct light and an occasional "last dregs from the glass of water," and in those things I was happy to oblige. When I thought of it.

Note to people who plan to give live plants to bereaved families: Corn plants. Not kalanchoes. Kalanchoes are lovely, but they require, you know, watering and shit.

Anyway, today on this anniversary of sorts, I moved the corn plant upstairs, re-did the stakes that prop up its leggy stems, gave it an actual watering--and get this, fertilizer!--and danged if it doesn't look happy to me.

I miss you, Dad. Wish you were here so I could tell you about the corn plant and how it is being  a tough little nut, resistant to all neglect, like who laid the chunk.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

In which I begin the greenhouse adventure

My first memory of being in a greenhouse was when I was a teenager, tagging along to a wholesale nursery with a friend who had a thing for plants. I did not care about plants one whit at the time, but I remember walking into this structure filled with light and life and thinking, "I need to live here."

I have always disliked being indoors. I teach most of my classes outside because I can't stand the confines of a classroom. In clement weather I shut off the air conditioning and throw the windows of my office wide open so I feel less claustrophobic. As much as I can, I try to be outdoors gardening, or cycling, or just sitting around on the wine patio. I even take my writing projects outside, to the garden. In fact, if I could, I'd be in the garden all year 'round. That I live in a place where I can do this three seasons out of the year is a plus in my "Quality of Life" column.

But winter, you see, has always been a bit of a problem for someone who doesn't like to be inside, for obvious reasons. With a greenhouse, however, that problem is ameliorated somewhat. I think I knew this, on some deep, cellular level where the soul resides, when I walked into that first greenhouse. Since then, I've always noticed them, wherever I've gone. I spy the top of one through some trees or over the fence in someone's backyard and wish I could check it out. Or I find the glasshouse conservatories in the public gardens and make a beeline for them. Or I try to peer inside the sunrooms of nice houses as I ride by on my bicycle--not out of nosiness, but out of envy.

I first entertained the thoughts of having a greenhouse of my own over twenty-five years ago. But they seemed out of reach and impractical. First, they simply cost more than I could afford at the time. And second, it wasn't that I especially desired to use them for planting things--I wanted the structure made of light more than I did the plants (see above, in re, not caring one whit for the plants), because greenhouses are, well, a way of being outdoors inside. I worried that since I wasn't that interested in plants that should be in a greenhouse, I would build one and never use it for what it was intended. (Even so, through the years, I'd see a plant particularly suited for a greenhouse and think, "I could grow that someday...")

But I'm now at a time in my life when a greenhouse makes sense. They have come down considerably in cost and after years of gardening, I, too, have a thing for plants. However, the real impetus for finally deciding to build one is this realization that they are a way to be out in the garden in the winter. In fact, in what I think is a brilliant design solution to my desire to write outside, I have set it up to be the winter version of my garden writing room (I'm writing this in the greenhouse right now, at 6:30 AM, when it is 18° outside.

So shortly before Thanksgiving, I ordered a 6'x8' Palram greenhouse kit (which is all I have room for) from Greenhouse Megastore, and when the holiday school break came around in December, I commenced to building. Here, in pictures, is the story of putting it together. In future posts, I'll talk about specifics--like heating, the plants I've put in, how I've set up my writing space, and so on. The build and set up was an adventure, but not one that has ended, since my inner engineer has resurfaced as I've tweaked and refined the kit to customize it to my needs desires.

The whole build took eight days, from ground breaking to move-in. The kit itself only took a day for one person (me) to put together, while preparing the base took three. The remainder of the time it took was devoted to the tweaking and moving stuff inside (and buying plants).

Making the base level and square:


I installed PVC pipes so I could run extension cords and a water hose into the greenhouse. I've decided that at some future date, I'll have an electrician put an actual outlet in the greenhouse space, but for now, extension cords are working just fine:

The base was filled with 3/4" limestone aggregate and the next day I began to put the kit together. It was done (except for the roof vent and door) in a matter of a few hours:


I've run a garden hose from a nearby faucet into the greenhouse and wrapped it with insulation:

Starting to move plants and furniture in:

It snowed the day after I finished:


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Holy Water

A couple of weeks ago I was in Nashville, Tennessee for a conference, and in the restroom of the Music City Center, there was a sign on the inside of each stall. These, I have learned in an unrelated matter, are officially called "potty papers." Yes, I shit you not, that is an actual marketing term, and it has everything to do with delivering information to a captive audience, and nothing to do with, erm, well, you know.

Anyway, these particular potty papers announced that the MCC uses recycled rainwater to flush their toilets. The first time I read this, my reaction was, "What the what? They have enough rain to do that?"

Ladies and gentlemen, if we all had to use rainwater to flush our toilets here in the Hub City, we'd be in big trouble. Let's just say that there would be a backlog of flush orders. It would be a sellers market for flushable opportunities.

And then once I got done marveling at rainwater that was so abundant it permitted people to flush the toilet, I thought, "What a terrible waste!" (The rainwater, not the other thing…)

It was interesting to me, as I thought more about my reaction, that I somehow felt like rainwater was a more precious resource than, you know, actual water--actual water being the stuff that comes out of the tap, rather than the sky. This is ridiculous, of course. Rainwater and actual water are one and the same, but my response is symptomatic of the "supermarket syndrome," wherein we think all resources come from a supermarket, rather than from the ground, or an animal, or the sea.

Even so, living in a place where rain does not fall often from the sky--a place where we have our water piped in to us so that we can, among other things, flush our toilets with regularity (I'm sorry, there are just too many opportunities for puns with this subject)--one does tend to think of it with more reverence than the stuff that comes out of the tap. Witness those of us who water our lawns with drinking water, as well as use it to carry our crap to…wherever it is that crap goes when we flush the toilet. Tap water is throw-away stuff. Rain, though, that's a different matter. Rain--as we all know here in Dryland--rain is precious. Rain is holy. You don't waste rain.

Well, I don't have to point out how specious this logic is. By this I mean, of course, how specious it is that rain is more holy than actual water. All water is holy. Period. I nod to the superior logic of that.

But still. Rain. In a toilet. It offends the sensibilities.

Which brings me to the rain chain. A few years ago, when I was trying to decide what to do about the rain that kept falling on our front door landing, I decided the best solution would be to install some gutters and a rain chain. Now, having just told you that I think rain is too holy and rare to use in toilets, you might think that I'd be capturing all of it that I could for use in my garden--and I do just that. However, this particular spot was going to be difficult to use for rainwater harvesting, and besides, I decided that because of the holiness of rain and all that, there ought to be at least one place in a semi-desert/prairie/desert/whatever-the-hell-kind-of-dry-climate-we-are-becoming garden that pays some homage to this holiness. And thus the rain chain, pictured here:


A full explanation of how I made sure none of the rain that flowed through this homagery went to waste is in this blog post. (And in case you are wondering, homagery is a made-up word.)

Then a fellow from Rain Chains Direct contacted me a few months ago and asked me if I'd review one of their products on this blog. I've pretty much given up on reviewing most things. The truth is, it's a hassle. Companies send you stuff, then you review it. Sometimes it's good stuff, sometimes it's less than good. Then I have to report it as income on my tax form (even if it is less than good). Almost always I have to find a home for it after I'm done doing the review, because I just don't need it myself, being already in possession of the product under review. The latter is true with the rain chain. But I said yes this time, mainly because of the holiness thing. I really do think that people should pay some sort of homage to water in their gardens, and a rain chain is a beautiful way to do it.

I warned the fellow that it didn't rain very often around these parts, but I'd review it when it did. To which he replied that I could use a garden hose to test the rain chain. Well, I wasn't going to do that. (See above, in re, "holiness." I mean, would you snack on communion crackers?)

As luck would have it, the very day he sent the rain chain, we got four inches of rain in one hour. It was a miracle! Unfortunately, I didn't have time to hang the chain before it rained. Just as unfortunately, the very next day I came down with the flu, which subsequently turned into pneumonia. I laid on my sick bed for three weeks, listening to it rain off and on, too ill to climb up on a ladder and hang that chain so I could take a picture for the review.

Nevertheless, one day, when it was not raining, I went outside, climbed up on a stool, removed my rain chain and installed the one to be reviewed. Then a couple of nights later, it began to rain again.  I got up off my sick bed, leaned out the front door in my bathrobe and took this picture. Look at that water flow! You don't see that with a garden hose, my friends!



A couple of days later, I took this one in the daytime, and it better shows the prettiness of the chain. (Really, it was a terrific month for rain.)



Brothers and sisters, I think rain chains are that important. I got up off my sickbed to take these photos.

Off. My. Sickbed.

And then, in a flash, I found a neighbor who desired a rain chain--I am assuming because she, too, believes that rain is holy--and I gave it to her.

Listen, you can see from the photo above that it works. It has a very nice gutter guide, too (not pictured), that helps to funnel the rain into the bells. If you don't have one, you should think about  ameliorating that pitiful condition. Otherwise, you run the risk of being someone who thinks that rain belongs in toilets.

And the nice, very patient fellow who sent me this one, would like you to order one from this place, which has a great selection:


I know that he is patient, because periodically, he would send me emails, very politely inquiring as to when I might be reviewing that rain chain he sent me. My responses varied from, "I'm sick, dammit!" to  "It's finals week, dammit!", and he never once wavered in his graciousness. He probably would have preferred that I do the review before Christmas, however, so that those of you who celebrate this festive holiday with the giving and receiving of gifts might get the idea that this would be a good stocking stuffer. Even now, I can imagine that some of you are saying, "Dammit! That was what I should have asked for!" or,  "I could have gotten this for Aunt Hannah, who, as we all know, is traditionally hard to buy for because she says she never wants anything but our love, which we all know is baloney!" or, "Aw geez! That would have been sooooo much better than a new vacuum cleaner!"

And yes, it would have. But the good news is that Valentine's Day is just around the corner….