Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Busy, busy, busy...and some cheering news

What with one thing and another (field trips, last classes, papers to grade, finals to assign, jury duty), I've been busier than a tornado in a room full of cotton balls. However, I did manage to run across this little piece of good news for those of us who commute by bike: DOT

Seems the gub-mint might be getting a clue.

I'll be back in a day or two. In the meantime, ride on! garden on! and do something nice for your neighbor today!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Earth Day Post: We must not avert our eyes

The Management here at The Bicycle Garden interrupt our regularly-scheduled feel-good programming for an important episode of unapologetic spouting-off. This will not be a spout-off in the form of an essay, however. Rather, in the interest of expediency (and our little attention-deficit problem), we will present our rant in numbered and bulleted form:

1) Today is Earth Day. Now, some of you are happy about that and (based on run-ins we've had with a few anti-treehugger soreheads over the years) we know for a fact that some of you are not. Whatever. We don't really feel like getting into a debate over whether we should or should not have a day set aside for the express purpose of celebrating the Earth and touting the many bennies of recycling. Instead, we would like to talk about something markedly less controversial: global warming.

In case you missed our point, here it is again: global warming is not controversial. The evidence that human-driven climate change is upon us is compelling and overwhelming. We don't really understand why it is so hard for some people to accept this, but we suspect it has to do with not really wanting to change the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed.

Listen, The Management doesn't want to change its lifestyle, either. But we are in dire straits right now and the sooner we face up to it, the better. The planet is this really huge ship, see, and it is hard to turn a big ship in a timely manner--and the truth is, The Management thinks we're already too late to avoid the approaching storm. In fact, if we were to let ourselves think about it too long, we'd get all messed up in our heads and depressed, and then The Management would be no good at all in helping to turn the ship. The Management would just be one of those people standing around on deck, sipping a blue cocktail and pretending not to notice the gathering clouds, when what it needs to be is one of the working members of the crew.

The Management thinks the last bit may be another reason people don't want to believe that we have a problem. That is, the implications are so big and scary that it is awfully tempting to dismiss them as media hype. There is a word for this behavior, and that word is denial.

To those still floundering in the denial camp, The Management says: we have no time to waste here, so get over it. We must not avert our eyes from the disaster that approaches. Yes, the storm is big and bad and ugly, and it looks very much like we are going to go down anyway no matter how furiously we bail, but bail we must. We need to stand firm, look trouble square in the face, do what we can, and hope for the best. We must be brave, we must have courage, we must have grit. Let us not speak of fear again. Put on your PFD and grab a bucket.

2) To you who insist on saying that "the theory of global-warming is controversial" simply because it is part of your contrarian nature, we have this to say to you: get off The Management's bus, please. The rest of us have work to do and you are only in the way.

The Management is not going to bother citing the staggering amount of scientific evidence; it is there at the touch of a mouse click, just as the thirteen or so scientists left in the world also in denial can also be found on the interwebs. Citing the scientific evidence, as we have clearly seen, doesn’t seem to change your mind anyway, so let’s just skip it, shall we? We both have better things to do than stand on either side of the ring yelling at each other. You run along and sip your cocktail, and we’ll go try to do our part to save the big ship.

3) To those of you who think that God will save us from this mess we've made of His planet, and therefore it is not necessary to worry about the alarming rate of climate change, we say this: you are free to believe that, but please, get off our bus so we can help Him do his job.

4) To those of you who still believe that God helps those who help themselves: welcome to our bus. The buckets are in the corner.

5) To our friends and colleagues who get all worked up about the nay-sayers: ignore them. We don’t have time to waste trying to change the minds of cocktail-sippers and do-nothing saints. Don’t bother with stunts like chaining yourselves to a tree; in fact, don’t bother with stunts at all. They don’t change the minds of the nay-sayers and they just annoy otherwise reasonable people; as such, stunts are self-indulgent and potentially counter-productive. More importantly, we don’t have time to waste on tree-chaining. We have work to do.

6) Be kind.

To summarize:
  • Global warming: not controversial
  • We must not avert our eyes
  • If you aren’t going to help turn the ship, get off the bus (yes, The Management knows it’s a mixed metaphor)
  • Don’t waste your time arguing with people
  • We have work to do
  • Be kind

Thank you,

The Management.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Public Plantings: A Designer's Response

A couple of weeks ago I posted a couple of responses to Veg Plotting's public spaces meme. I thought it would be interesting to here what the university's landscape architect, Jason Hodges, had to say about what went into the design and planning for one of them. He graciously agreed to do so, and without further ado, here are Jason's comments on the "hell strip on 18th street":

It is rare that I am asked retrospectively to speak or write about my work. I liken this challenge to a medical self-examination. As a design professional I become engrossed in the details of each project: the client, the space, the opportunities and the constraints. Each project is taken on as a new creative opportunity as well as a technical problem solving mission… and so this is an insider’s view my work as a Landscape Architect.

Actually, this exercise is exciting to me for the simple reason that it’s a chance for everyone to learn from Susan’s “village.” It is my hope that the information shared here can be taken into the places where we all live, work and play and used to re-examine and “read” the cultural and physical processes that determine the character of those spaces.

I have chosen to focus on the first public planting project for discussion here; Susan referred to it as “the hell strip between a campus street and a dorm parking lot.” The goals of this project were clearly defined at the outset:

  • Create a cohesive streetscape/vehicular road frontage for three residence halls that is attractive throughout the year and requires lower inputs of water/energy/human resources
  • Limit the amount of turfgrass in the new design
  • Develop a landscape that is safe for students to use 24/7 (walking paths and comfortable places to sit)
  • Screen / buffer the large adjacent parking lots from view of the adjacent street
  • Integrate public art as a seating element

The existing project site consisted of an approximately 650 feet long x 40 feet wide long parkway with an 8’ wide concrete sidewalk. There were no shrubs or planting beds existing in the area and little or no interest in the way of topography. The existing vegetation consisted of approximately a dozen shade trees and patches of thirsty turfgrass, worn down near the soil due to heavy foot traffic crossing over it daily. Several of the trees were dead or heavily diseased and in need of removal. Existing lighting was sufficient to provide a safe space during evening hours.

In response to the project goals and the existing site, the design solution preserves the sidewalk as the primary path while providing a smaller network of gravel paths that criss-cross diagonally through plantings of water-wise (natives and adapted non-natives) ornamental grasses and perennial flowering plants. The plantings are irrigated by drip tubing that is buried beneath a 2”-3” mulch of gravel. Decomposed granite was selected for its durability as a walking surface, its interesting crunchy texture, its ability to allow rain water to infiltrate and its earthy color. In large part, the diagonal sweeping orientation of the granite paths provides that feeling of “negative space” Susan mentions in her previous post.

(The 18th Street hell strip during construction)

One of the major challenges in this project was to successfully screen the parking lot while providing enough pedestrian paths. The solution is a combination of ornamental planting beds, gravel-covered berms and a minimal number of strategically placed shrubs and evergreen trees.

The second major challenge was to find a low cost ground cover alternative to turf that wouldn’t require a great deal of water or maintenance. The solution is the use of a slightly larger granite gravel material as a mulch over all the planting areas and the berms. The planting beds are placed in the foreground so as to claim the majority of your view when driving by or walking through the space and placement of the berms in the background (nearest the parking lot). The larger gravel is not as comfortable to walk through as it moves around under foot so it was used in hopes as a further deterrent to stray foot traffic.

Public art and landscape enhancements are combined in a lot of the work I do for the University. On this project, I collaborated with an artist, Barbara Grygutis from Tuscon, AZ. She was asked to create seating elements for the parkway area. Her idea of taking the blade of grass as an icon is represented by her two slender, curved seat walls. They are constructed of stone masonry and topped with polished granite seating caps. The granite caps are engraved with inspirational quotes. I corresponded around the seat walls with large sweeping beds of feather grass, crushed granite paths and a planting of flowering trees called Chitalpa that will grow large enough to provide shade.

(The mature hell strip in summer; notice students waiting for the bus in strategically placed shade.)

So, there is the designer’s statement #1… I’m looking forward to sharing ideas for Susan’s entry garden.

Friday, April 17, 2009


This is not snow, but hail:

It hit while I was at work, so I couldn't do anything about it except watch it come down and worry about my tomatoes and peppers.

When I finally got home and checked on them, most looked a little battered, but I figured they'd survive:

So I breathed a sigh of relief and went inside for some supper. And then a second round of hail hit, bigger than the first. I grabbed a hard hat to protect my noggin and ran outside to cover everything I could with pots. I don't know if I got there in time, though. As soon as it gets first light this morning, I'll go out and check on everything. I have a feeling the news will not be good...

UPDATE: Damage Report

Sugar snap pea
Chiopas wild cherry tomato

Badly Battered, with questionable prospects:
One "Aunt Ruby German Green" and one "Paul Robeson" (tomatoes)
One "Big Jim," one poblano (Peppers)
One tomatillo

Battered but will surely recover:
One "Aunt Ruby German Green," one "Paul Robeson"
One "Big Jim," one poblano
One "Sweet Chocolate" pepper
Italian flat leaf parsley

All garlic

Not as bad as it could have been.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reprieve for a tree

This tree has annoyed me almost since the first day I planted it. Why? Because:

1) I wanted a plum tree that actually, well, produced plums. Go figure. The guy at the nursery swore up and down that it would, but has it? Nope. Nary a one in, what, six years? I guess it was merely an ornamental plum, which would be all right except for:

2) As an ornamental plum it hasn't been all that, well, ornamental. Both the flowers and leaves have been rather lame. If you aren't actually going to put ripe, juicy plums on my breakfast table, then skimpy blooms and scraggly purple-green leaves just doesn't cut it.

And now that winter has come and gone and things are leafing out, it seems that some of its major branches have gone and expired on me (see photo above, labels "A" and "B"). Plus! It has always had these annoying suckers that spring up from the root stock that I keep having to whack back (see label "C"). I hate that.

I decided on Monday that enough was enough. The tree wasn't pulling its weight and in my gardening book, that means you get sacked. A tree like this expects a little extra pampering, and I am simply not going to fall prey to that kind of wishy-washy, sentimental, unsustainable thinking. "No grit, no grow," I always say.

So I marched out there with a shovel, stuck it in the ground for the first good dig...and saw this:

Oh, fine. Get all lovely and elegant on me now.

So the tree got a last minute reprieve. I took the pruning saw and surgically removed the offending dead branches:

This is your last chance, Mr. Tree! Prove up or it's curtains next year! I mean it this time!

Monday, April 13, 2009

My garden has warts

A couple of weeks ago I did a post on the public plantings on my campus, and showcased a couple of them that I liked, as well as explained why I liked them. You can read about them here.

The spaces I liked were designed by the current university landscape architect, Jason Hodges, whom I met a few years ago, shortly after he was hired. Jason is a long-time friend of the prairie and an advocate of xeric plantings, and as such, we've crossed paths on occasion over the years. Recently he contacted me about participating in a table session with him on sustainable public landscaping at an upcoming conference on a "green campus" action plan for the university.

We met and brainstormed, and during that time I mentioned to him that I was working on a blog post for VP's public planting meme and asked him if he'd like to participate by writing a guest post, giving the professional's response to the client's response to the work, so to speak, by giving us the insider's view of the "hidden considerations" in designing for public spaces. He thought it was a great idea and that response will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, we agreed to doing the table session about sustainable landscaping, and that subsequently spawned a presentation to yet another conference in the following week...ah, the joys of overcommitment.

Well, all that's coming up this week and next, and we hadn't really hammered out what we'd be presenting, so I invited Jason over to the homestead yesterday to have a little confab about it all. Naturally, as gardeners are wont to do, we talked mainly about my neglected front yard instead. And just as naturally, I talked mostly about what was wrong with it, pointing out all the bare spots where I can't seem to get anything to grow, the things that have gotten too big for their britches, and the lumpiness of of the design in general.

And then I gave him some left-over veggie starts.

Maybe it was the veggie starts triggering a sense of reciprocation on Jason's part, but lo and behold, we came up with a great idea for the presentation: we do another client need/landscaper response post, focusing on residential design for xeric/sustainable gardens, using my front yard as a case study.

Did I hit the jackpot, or what?

So without further ado, here is my front yard, with all the warts revealed:

This is the area immediately adjacent to the driveway. As you can see, there is a narrow strip between the plantings and the concrete, which is all well and good, except that we have to squeeze our bicycles through there. Since Walt and I both ride our bikes a lot (arguably even more than our cars during some parts of the year), this is really annoying. I'd like the annoyance factor to go away and to turn this into something attractive and open, over which we can roll our steeds.

This is a spot on the lawn where I've struggled to grow a buffalo grass/blue grama mix; it gets enough sun, so probably the live oak to the left has some alleopathic properties that are inhibiting growth. Maybe.

Sadly, last year I finally got some to take hold...only to have a drunken frat boy drive over it and churn it up. (He also took out part of a split rail fence to the left, for which I've been unable to find a replacement.) I've bought the stuff to re-seed it this year, but every time I think about having to start all over, I grow weary and depressed thinking about how likely it will be to fail again.

This is a little flagstone patio, on which I like to sit when the mosquitoes aren't biting. It started out fine, but it needs some sprucing up.

This bed used to host a giant, overgrown, leggy lavender. I finally took it out a couple of years ago and never got around to replacing it. Now I'd like to put some sort of nod to rainwater harvesting there, with a galvanized tank on a raised planter. Or something.

So here are my "client needs":

1) sustainability (around these parts that means "water-wise")
2) an attractive planter bed for rainwater harvesting
3) a "bike path"
4) a spruced-up patio on which to sit and jaw at the neighbors
5) it must look like a Texas cottage garden
6) it must stop passers-by in their tracks with its rustic loveliness

There you go, Jason. The challenge is on: Let's see what you've got in the way of treatment for unsightly blemishes.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Potted plants

Tomatoes and peppers, waiting for the hail storm that didn't materialize...

Monday, April 6, 2009

A virtual book tour: Susan J. Tweit's Walking Nature Home

In one of my other lives, I am a sometime runner cum triathlete, and in this capacity I occasionally check in on a sassy little fitness blog called Stumptuous. Not too long ago Mistress Krista (yes, that's what she calls herself) had a rant that talked about the importance of failure in our lives. What resonated most with me was what Krista wrote about Gail Sheehy's classic book, Pathfinders. In a nutshell, it is this: the people who have highest well being (i.e., happiness and fulfillment) have overcome some major change/obstacle/failure/disaster in their lives (what Sheehy apparently calls a "transition"). Here is the quote from Sheehy that Krista provides in her rant:

"People of high well-being are not isolated from difficult passages. On the contrary, they are the most likely to report having confronted at least one important passage or transition and having made a major change in their outlook, values, personal affiliations or career. This contradicts the widespread assumption that a consistent life with no great changes or surprises is the most rewarding. Far from it."

I know about this. Six and half years ago my husband and I were in a near-fatal automobile accident. It took a couple of years, but today we are more or less physically recovered. For me, however, the inner change that was triggered by that event has lingered. I simply do not look at life through the same lens anymore, and never will again. It would be too complicated and involved to explain why this is so in a blog post, but I will say that agree with Sheehy: the accident is directly related to my present-day high sense of well-being. In this what could be seen as a terrible nightmare, was in fact a gift.

All of which I report to explain why I found elements of Susan Tweit's new memoir, Walking Nature Home (University of Texas Press), comforting and familiar, because it too is a story of transition. In the early pages of this arresting and moving story of her life, Susan Tweit learns that she has only two to five years to live. That she was in her early twenties at the time and poised on the start of a promising adult life gives the reader should the fact that she is writing this some decades later. The story she relates of the years between is testimony to the transition, the gift, that great difficulty can bring our lives.

It is the story of that gift, not the disease itself, that she is intent on telling. Tweit, in fact, calls the book "a love story." And it so it is: to her husband, whom she met after learning that she might not have much longer to live; to her family; to the Colorado mountains where she makes her home; to the stars in the night sky that guide her; and finally, to her own body and self.

Here is a passage from the book that speaks about that love. In it, she is talking about her husband, Richard, but after reading the book, I realized that she could be talking about her remarkable life in general:

"I don't think I knew what love was back then. Now I believe I do. It's how we are together: the way his face lights up when I walk into a room. His hand, reaching for mine. The fact that our bodies though altered by the years, still fit like paired puzzle pieces. That we can be comfortable in silence, yet be eager to hear what the other has to say. It's that sitting side by side at the end of a long day, when I ask what he's thinking, he says, 'That I love you.' And I know he means it."

Transition indeed. Susan Tweit, as illustrated by her memoir, is a person of high well-being. This is the story of how she got there.

About a year ago, I found Susan Tweit's blog, "A Community of the Land." The writing was beautiful and thoughtful and so I added it to my blogroll so I could check up on it regularly (it has since changed to "Walking Nature Home"). Around the same time, I found another blog, "Brush and Baren," by artist Sherry York. I loved Sherry's post on how she created her prints, and so I marked that one, too. And, as fellow bloggers so often do, I started a correspondance with each of them--only to find out months later that Susan and Sherry are actually neighbors and good friends in the little town of Salida, Colorado. It is little surprise to find, then, that Susan's lovely writing is complemented by Sherry's delightful illustrations of the constellations that play such an important part in the book. The constellation panels in the book have the look and feel of old bark prints, and perfectly open each chapter.

When Susan Tweit asked me if I'd participate in a virtual blog tour for her book, I jumped at the chance. My post is in the middle of the tour. If you are interested in reading what others have to say about Tweit's book, or are interested in interviews with the author herself, here are links to the other blogs along the whistlestop :

March 25: Women Writing the West
March 27: Riehllife
March 29: Independent Stitch
March 31: Love of Place
April 2: Sheep to Shawl
April 6: The Bicycle Garden
April 7: Women's Memoirs
April 8: Susan's Art & Words
April 10: Story Circle Network

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sigh. I have so much work to do.

Didn't I already cover this: tulips on campus?

Seems to me that it is one of the many reasons our fair campus earned this distinction.

Here is my post on what I like about our campus landscaping: homage to place

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Weird weather

Well, I am itching to plant my veggies starts, but the weather just can't seem to settle down. Last Friday it was a howling blizzard that left me with this in my garden:

And these poor irises were so pretty the day before.

Not everything took a beating, though. The arugula was snug in the cold frame and did all right:

And look at this! One of the sugar snap peas that I thought had bitten the dust somehow resurrected itself:

Sometimes good things happen in spite of my efforts.

This week the blizzard is gone, but the winds are still howling. Since high winds usually signal some sort of cold front moving through, I'm reluctant to take a chance on planting. And it's so bad out there right now, I don't even feel like doing any other of the myriad garden chores that want doing. I mean, I will go outside in most weather, but the 35mph winds with 50-60 mph gusts have got me beat this time.