Misdirection

Katie's Bear
Katie's bear coming down for an apple tree breakfast.

I spent the first part of this week with my cousins in the mountains of northern Virginia. Cousin Katie has a lovely cabin in the thick of the woods bordering the national parklands of Skyline Drive. Deer browsed through the yard, looking for the most succulent of grasses, rabbits hopped across the gravel road, turtles crept across the drive.

The neighbor stopped to say hello and to make sure that we knew to keep dogs and children inside after dark. “Bears,” he said.

Yes, the black bear is alive and well and living in our Appalachian mountains.

I felt elated; could not WAIT to see a bear. So I immediately took a seat in the swing-chair on the screened porch awaiting their arrival. Nothing ambled along that night, but sure enough, early the next morning, I spied a dark form squatting on the lawn. Large and blacker than the night that was lifting. My pulse raced with excitement.

A few moments later, when the form had not moved, I began to be concerned. Was he ill? So tired from being chased by the neighbor’s hunting pack that he had fallen asleep right there in the open? Was he waiting for Suzanne to go out for her morning Camel so that he could have breakfast?

Julie's Bear
Julie's "bear" revealed by daylight.

I waited a moment more and my questions were answered.

The bear was not a bear. It was an oval rock about three by four feet in size. I had wanted to see a bear, had expected to see a bear, so I saw a bear where only a boulder rested.

 

 

 

This is what a good writer taps into when they use misdirection. The reader understands what they expect to see from the narrative. My first drafts are exercises in misdirection for me personally. I know this makes little sense since I am the writer and so must surely be in charge of the story, right? After all, I always know the beginning and the ending when I start writing a book. In other words, I know whodunnit. Unfortunately — or fortunately — I have been wrong each and every time. This allows me to write solidly toward my assumed conclusion. Fortunately, my subconscious inserts clues along the way that build toward a very different ending.

Short stories are golden examples of misdirection. A successful twist with which to end them is every writer dream.

Happy Reading!

Thursday’s Harvest

Since I’m leaving town for a Capital Region Pony Club Rally in Maryland, followed by a visit to Ithaca, NY to see my brother and sis-in-law, followed by my family reunion, followed by the Seven Daughters of Seven Sisters retreat before heading home again. I did a harvest for Paul to remember me by while I’m gone. He’s holding down the home fort, plucking the fruits (and veg) of our labors, and petting/cleaning up after/feeding all the critters. If you’re in Houston and want some tomatoes, this is the week to call!

My secret to prevent stink bug damage to tomatoes? Grow melons next to the tomatoes. They love melon more than they love tomatoes, then spray the melons with garlic/molasses/fish emulsion mix and voila — they all Go Away!
Happy gardening!

Pachy-what?

My mother planted pachysandra outside the side door of our house in Louisville. There are two varieties I’ve found available, pachysandra procumbens, native to the Alleghanies — the kind you want to plant — and pachysandra terminalis, which is a lovely plant but which can be invasive if it escapes your beds.

Ours was in a straight bed, one that followed the foundation of our house, and the pachysandra was the first thing that actually grew there for longer than ten minutes. The window to the coal cellar lived smack in the middle of that wall, so the amount of accumulated charcoal was tremendous. (I guess this belies the black earth theory of my previous post!)

I used to love the feathery leaves, dancing to who-knows-what tune as I’d skip out the door to school, or a friend’s house, or up to The Loop for a carton of milk for supper. There were some decorative rocks in the bed with the plants, and occasionally we’d rearrange them like furniture for a different look.

Rabbits nested in our pachysandra after I left home. I got the most exquisite letter from my father  during my freshman year in college detailing the young rabbit’s initial forays into the world outside those leaves. Twitching noses and tentative hops disturbed the foliage, then suddenly, there they were, shooting across the sparse grass under the dogwood where anyone could see them.

It’s a funny thing when your prosaic, way-more-intelligent-than-most father gets all poetic on you. I wasn’t sure where that letter came from, but he followed this with more romanticized musings, all based on things he noticed in the natural world. Animals, plants, weather, stars all equally informed his writing.

Life’s pretty darn short — Go out and plant something — and let the poetic bloom.

Pachy-what?

My mother planted pachysandra outside the side door of our house in Louisville. There are two varieties I’ve found available, pachysandra procumbens, native to the Alleghanies — the kind you want to plant — and pachysandra terminalis, which is a lovely plant but which can be invasive if it escapes your beds.

Ours was in a straight bed, one that followed the foundation of our house, and the pachysandra was the first thing that actually grew there for longer than ten minutes. The window to the coal cellar lived smack in the middle of that wall, so the amount of accumulated charcoal was tremendous. (I guess this belies the black earth theory of my previous post!)

I used to love the feathery leaves, dancing to who-knows-what tune as I’d skip out the door to school, or a friend’s house, or up to The Loop for a carton of milk for supper. There were some decorative rocks in the bed with the plants, and occasionally we’d rearrange them like furniture for a different look.

Rabbits nested in our pachysandra after I left home. I got the most exquisite letter from my father  during my freshman year in college detailing the young rabbit’s initial forays into the world outside those leaves. Twitching noses and tentative hops disturbed the foliage, then suddenly, there they were, shooting across the sparse grass under the dogwood where anyone could see them.

It’s a funny thing when your prosaic, way-more-intelligent-than-most father gets all poetic on you. I wasn’t sure where that letter came from, but he followed this with more romanticized musings, all based on things he noticed in the natural world. Animals, plants, weather, stars all equally informed his writing.

Life’s pretty darn short — Go out and plant something — and let the poetic bloom.

Climbing the Walls

When I got married, One of my favorite new relatives was Helene Levy of Galveston, Texas. She had a beautiful Cecile Bruner that climbed a trellis outside her bedroom window. The petite blush rose was fragrant, and bloomed for Helene more often than was decent. Helene’s enthusiasm for her roses (And her fig tree!) endeared her to me. There is a Cecile Bruner climber outside my bedroom window now in her honor.

My Aunt Myrtle had a vibrant blue morning glory climbing up a post right outside her kitchen window. Butterflies seemed to love it. There was a bell on top of that post, but I believe she put the post there was just so she could see the flowers each morning and start her day with the vision of those unfurling blooms and the winged visitors it drew.

My back pasture is graced with a line of trees along the north side. About ten feet wide, the strip runs two-hundred feet along the fence line. One of the things the neighbors said to us when we bought that field was that they would really appreciate it if we wouldn’t trim the trees and if we would make sure and leave all the “vines” in place. We did, because it was a good windbreak, and because I recognized the vine. Each spring, those vines throw out beautiful clusters purple flowers. Who knew that Wysteria could grow forty feet into the sky using native trees as its trellis?

Happy gardening.

Blinded

So I was potting up a bunch of seedlings the other day and found that I was short on popsicle sticks. (AKA coffee stirring sticks from the coffee shop — I use them, then take them home with me for further use…)

What could I use to id these darned plants so that I could tell them apart when it came time to plant (or share) them? I looked up at the ceiling and found no inspiration, looked at the walls, no inspiration. But wait, what is that under the potting bench? A set of broken mini-blinds that I’d forgotten all about. I’d saved them for just this purpose over a year ago and there they were ready for me to pull out the scissors and snip them to just the right length.

Voila!

I heard about using old blinds as plant markers from Farmers Brad and Jenny at Home Sweet Farm in Brenham, Texas. I had the pleasure of working as an intern/working share member for them for over a year. Learned tons of stuff about plants and good dirt, but the mini-blind tip sure saved me this time.

How to get free mini-blinds to use as plant markers? Freecycle. When Brad and Jenny ran out of plant markers, I posted a want ad on my local freecycle for broken mini-blinds and got back five replies with offers of broken blinds, enough material to make thousands of plant markers. (Remember that on Freecycle it is good etiquette to Offer three times for every Wanted post!) I prefer plastic mini-blind slats, but the metal ones work too — lighter colors are easier to mark and to read.

Happy gardening!

What the heck? — BioChar

I guess I watch too much CSI: Anytown. When I first saw the term biochar pop up in my garden-related reading, my first thought was an appalled, “Ew!” Don’t  know exactly what I thought they were charring, but plain old wood scraps wasn’t my first guess.

Bio Char is a concept that’s been around for a while, but recent articles are touting a region down in South America (mid-Amazon region) where the soil is so rich, you only have to think about putting seeds in to get a terrific yield. This region’s soil is known as Terra Preta. One lovely fact about the soil there, immensely rich in biochar and other compost, is that it is able to hold onto nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. As you can imagine, plants adore this. What does this have to do with you, the home gardener? It means you have a choice. You can continue to buy chemicals to coax growth out of your plants or you can feed your soil and entice them to grow instead. Terra Preta is soil that was fed a lot of biochar a L O N G time ago, and which is now pretty much self-sustaining topsoil. It may look black, but it’s really pure gold.

It’s a funny thought, feeding the soil. Even though I earned my Master Gardener certificate over ten years ago, and one of our excellent sessions dealt with soil health, up until I interned at Home Sweet Farm with Farmer Brad and Farmer Jenny, I did not fully understand the concept. Feeding the soil, be it molasses to help the beneficial microbes multiply (and the fire ants explode) or biochar to help the soil hold on to those precious nutrients so that they stay where the plants can get them rather than leaching down out of the reach of many root systems, is not just a good idea, it is necessary for healthy plant growth with most soils. Along with making for healthy soil, BioChar is shaping up to be a new tool that can assist in mitigating greenhouse gasses. (That is one cool thought!)

 

Now that you know all about biochar and you’re rarin’ to make your own, go for it — let us know how your experience is both with creating  biochar and what the results are of incorporating biochar in your garden.

 

Happy Gardening!

 

 

Purple Power

from purplebearspurpleflowersandplants.com

I belong to an internet-based group of friends who regularly share Purple Power with one another for emergency boosts of virtual support. If you have had an emergency recently that turned out for the best, then I firmly believe it was stray Purple Power that settled around you and made things all right.

To promote all things purple this Spring, I am going on a hunt to find the best purple flowers for the garden.

 

 

 

 

Lobelia: this dainty purple blossom enhances my winter garden here in zone 9, but it’s hardy all summer in most zones to the north. according to the USDA plant pagesLobelia erinus L. or “edging lobeli”, is native to California, Oregon, Utah, Michigan and Pennsylvania. It doesn’t go into why it skipped the states in between, like Colorado, where I’ve so often seen it included in the summer plantings, but there it is. Lobelia is wonderful in hanging baskets, edging a bed, or in pots of all kinds.

 

 

Aster: Similar in appearance to a purple daisy, asters grow about 18 inches  to three feet tall and have a light feel to their foliage in the garden.  Technically, they belong in zone 3 – 8, so they are not ones that grow particularly well for me when I put them in the flower border, but pop up naturally in my pasture. Go figure. They show up in time for the fall garden, so perhaps I ought to wait until then to mention them, but they fit the purple theme.

 

Clemetis: Love, love, love this climbing vine. My Aunt Myrtle had a beautiful one on the post outside her kitchen window and the house sparrows loved to hide in the shadows of the leaves, peaking out to see if she had refilled their feeder perched at the top of the post on which they grew. Zone 4 – 9. Protect the roots against the sun which is necessary for good bloom growth. I dump a heap of compost on the base, which serves to both protect the roots and encourage lots of beautiful flowers.

 

Crocus: Spring would not happen without the happy opening of the deep purple buds of the crocus bulbs. Must have plant for any garden. It’s tougher to establish in my far-south location. the trick is to put the bulbs in pots — worth every bit of effort that goes in for those wonderfully fragrant spring blooms.

 

Passionflower: This is native in my area, so I catch them springing into life back in the woods behind our house. The fact that eventually they produce fruit which feed the wild birds is a happy plus. I know some make jelly out of the fruit, but my sild-feathered friends get them all way before I get to them. Zones 4 – 10. Vines can be up to 15 feet long. Work well in soil if heavily mulched, or in lightly mulched pots.

 

And last, but never least, Lavender:

I have had the worst, absolutely the worst, luck in growing this lovely herb. My cousin, Annie, whose farm Sunshine Lavender Farm in North Caroline has wonderful luck — or just works harder at it. I adore it for oh-so-many reasons. The scent, soothing, calming and lovely in any form. The sight of the grey-green foliage waving in the breeze, the deep purple blossoms standing proud above the leaves, waiting for us to pluck them and make them into sachets, teas, or bake them into delicious breads and cookies.

 

Happy gardening!

 

courtesy SunshineLavenderFarm.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring is Sprung

I’m about to make Deb jealous again. I started my tomato seeds a few weeks ago and am about to stick the fledgling plants in the ground. Uh-huh. You heard me right. Second week in March. Tomatoes in the ground!

You see I garden on the Gulf Coast where the sea breezes coming from 100 miles away still reach my front pasture. (Where the kitchen garden resides.) Typical last frost used to be counted as Valentine’s Day hereabouts, but now it’s the first of March. I can tell it’s Spring by the blooms on the mulberry tree.

At least I thought I could. And then the temps went back down to the 40s. So much for my poor tomatoes in the ground. Thank goodness for freeze cloth!

Varieties planted in Spring 2011:  Vorlon, Carbon, Roma, Better Boy, Yellow Pear, Cour de Blue, Amish Paste.

Happy gardening!

Nitrogen Junkies

I have a love/hate relationship with annuals. Linda Gay, the director of Mercer Arboretum here in Houston calls them nitrogen junkies, because of their dependence on fertilizer — and lots of it — for that signature ‘pop’ of color that they bring to our landscapes.

Here in Houston, we see lots of salvias, the periwinkle blue of Russian salvia, the deep red of Salvia Greggii, even some lovely white varieties, which I particularly like because they make me feel cooler, even when the temps are in the high 90s. (Six months out of our year.) While petunias used to be impossible for us due to the heat, there have been several heat-resistant varieties introduced in recent years that work quite well. Then there are the grasses. Lovely for their contribution of texture and motion to the landscape, I use several in a variety of locations. Grass at least is not as dependent on nitrogen for its allure as the other, more colorful annuals.

So how do we enable these plants in their addiction? The following advice from a Better Homes and Garden’s article shows you the standard advice.

For flowering annuals, use an all-purpose plant food, such as a 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 formula. Flowering plants have a special need of phosphorous and potassium to realize their blooming potential. Foliage plants will flourish with a formula higher in nitrogen (the first of the three numbers in a fertilizer formula).

But do we need to heed this advice? Well, short answer is yes. If you want blooms on your plants, you must provide the food they need to produce the flowers. There are, however, additional ways to provide the nutrition they crave without dumping 5-10-5 on them every two weeks:

  • Build your soil — use compost to amend your soil so that it holds on to its nutrients better.
  • Water every other week with compost tea.
  • Consider using more perennials to build your landscape — still holding to the two above tenants to get them to give you the colorful blooms you want.

Happy gardening!