Saturday, December 29, 2007

Review: Plenty

Review of Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon (Harmony Books, 2007)

This is where the whole 100 mile diet movement got off the ground. Aghast at the distances that supermarket food has to travel, and the waste of oil that goes into such insanities as shipping tomatoes from Ecuador to the U.S. at the same time that the U.S. is exporting tomatoes, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon made a rash vow: that for an entire year, they would eat only food that was grown or caught within a 100 mile radius of their home in Vancouver, B.C.

For a young couple living in a tiny efficiency apartment in the middle of a city, with only a 10 foot by 3 foot garden allotment a short drive away, unplugging from the industrial food system meant long drives in the country in search of food -- at times, any food at all. Their odyssey began in March, the time of year when most fresh foods are out of season and even the cold-storage root crops are beginning to show signs of their age. Potatoes and onions are fine for one meal, but as the authors soon discovered, a steady diet of little else can drive one mad. Fortunately the farmer's markets opened in May, bringing a steady stream of fresh produce for immediate eating and for preservation.

Throughout their culinary journey, the authors reexamine their relationship with food, and even with each other. They expose their mistakes as well as their successes, and draw colorful portraits of the farmers, fishermen, and other characters they met as they discovered just what eating locally means, and how removed we of Western culture have become from our own food.

The one hazard of this book is that it may leave readers with the feeling that this is all too hard. A rash of articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post have all insinuated that eating entirely locally just isn't practical, or is even impossible in today's global market, regardless of how wasteful and unsustainable the industrial food system has become. True, going cold turkey may be an excessive burden for most of us working stiffs who don't have time for tooling around the countryside week after week in search of direct-market farms.

But how hard does it really have to be?

Article writers approach the issue as though it's an either-or proposition: either we eat only locally or we just keep eating the way we are. Hmm, let me see, work very hard to eat locally, or just keep on doing what I'm already doing. Which would I choose? But those aren't our only options. The 100 Mile Diet website suggests starting small. The leap-in-with-both-feet approach is overwhelming, so why not stick a toe in first? Start with one meal, made entirely from local produce. Or one meal a week. Or some chosen percentage of the contents of your grocery cart.

Or start a garden and grow some of the food yourself, your rebel you. You can't get much more local than that.

There are no rules. If each of us does what we can, it will make a difference.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas loot!

I had a lot of good gardening stuff on my Christmas list, and Santa came through with some good goodies. Now if the sky would just stop raining and spitting bits of snow long enough for me to get outside, I could go play with my new toys. I'll borrow a few images from the source websites until I can get some good pictures of my own.

The biggest item that I'd hoped for was this Rubbermaid Storage Bench, ordered via our local Ace Hardware:

I assembled the bench this afternoon, and all but the last side panel went together easily. It took two people, though, and several tries to get the last side panel on. The seat is a lid for the storage box underneath. It now has a spot in the new garden, where it will store some tools so I don't have to run down behind the house every time I want a tool.

Territorial Seed Company was the source for this very nice cold frame kit made by Sunshine Garden House:

That, too, I assembled this afternoon. It wasn't too difficult, but I found it was much easier if I pre-drilled the holes for the screws. Otherwise I was afraid of splitting the wood. I also gave the wood a coat of tung oil. The frame is redwood, so it should be fairly impervious to rot for a very long time, but some extra care will help it last even longer. Right now the cats think it's a nice thing to climb on and to get inside, so the cover already has little paw prints all over it.

This automatic cold frame opener, however, may prove to be a bust:

The scanty instructions in multiple languages were accompanied by tiny, blurry sketches, and were only somewhat comprehensible in any language. Without an illustrated parts list I could only guess at which part was being asked for in each step and exactly where each part was supposed to go. The spring-loaded jaws snapped shut like a mousetrap several times, twice catching my fingers and leaving a bruise on one finger. Even after I got it assembled, I couldn't figure out if it was assembled correctly, nor could I figure out how to make it work with the cold frame. With the temperature-sensitive cylinder in place, the device stays open, as seen in the photo. How is the cold frame lid supposed to shut? I've never liked post-Christmas returns, especially for things that I asked for in the first place, but this evil little finger-eating device may be transformed into seeds and plants instead.

But returning to the fun toys, this Wheeleasy collapsible wheel barrow was simple to put together and should be extremely useful:

It's big enough that it will be a real help when raking fall leaves, and will be good for small hauling jobs. You have to pull out two little pins in front to make it fold up, and there are clips on the front to put the pins in when they're not in use. I was hoping to store this in the garden bench, but the bench is shorter and the Wheeleasy longer than I'd pictured either of them. It'll fit in the storage shed I have, though.

In addition to the toys I got several books, which I'll highlight in upcoming reviews.

One good "gift" that wasn't on my list was the pathology report from a biopsy of a pigmented patch on my face. The thing went from flat to rounded a few months ago. My doctor looked at it and referred me to a plastic surgeon to have it looked at, and by the time I saw the plastic surgeon, it had gone flat again. The plastic surgeon took a biopsy last week, and pulled the stitches this week. While there were a few slightly abnormal cells in the report, there wasn't anything to be worried about, and if the thing does anything weird now, the biopsy itself took out so much of it that the remainder can be frozen off. We gardeners spend a lot of time in the sun, so be sure to use sunscreen, wear a hat, and check your moles!

Everyone else get their Christmas wishes this year?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas goodies: Springerle (anise cookies)

Anise is easy to grow and is lovely in the garden, with its feathery and frilly leaves. It's a great herb for attracting beneficial insects, as the blossoms supply pollen and nectar for beneficial insects to eat. The licorice-scented seeds can be harvested to save for next year or for cooking.

But what do you make with anise seeds?

Springerle, of course!

Springerle are one of the traditional cookies that my grandmother made every year. These are floury, no-fat cookies flavored with anise seeds and adorned with decorative pictures from a special carved roller or wooden mold. Grandma always kept the cookies in a gallon-sized glass jar. Hers were generally hard enough that they required dunking in coffee to make them edible, though I always liked gnawing on them without dunking them. I guess I'm just weird that way. My springerle are a considerably softer, which I suppose has to do with how long they dry before baking. This year's batch is slightly tan because (oopsie) as I was mixing them I discovered I was one cup shy of the amount of unbleached flour that I needed, so I added a cup of whole wheat flour.

It takes two days to make the cookies. The dough is mixed and the cookies are shaped in the first evening, then baked the next day after they dry overnight. For best flavor, make the springerle a week or two before Christmas to allow the flavor of the anise seeds to permeate the cookies. Store them in a tightly-closed container while they season so they don't turn rock-hard.

This recipe will make 5-6 dozen small cookies.

4 eggs
2 cups of sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 cups of flour
Anise seeds

Beat the eggs until they are thick. Slowly add the sugar and salt and continue beating 5 minutes with an electric mixer or 15 minutes by hand. Stir in the flour about 1/2 cup at a time. The dough will be stiff.

Divide the dough in half. Shape in to a slab slightly more than 1/4 inch thick and the width of your springerle roller or wooden mold. Roll the dough with the springerle roller to press the pictures into the cookies. Cut the cookies apart. If you don't have a springerle roller, roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thick and cut into bars 1 inch wide and 1 1/2 inches long.

Lightly grease two cookie sheets and sprinkle thickly with anise seeds. Place the cookies on top of the seeds. They can be fairly close together because they will not spread during baking. Cover the cookies with a cloth and let them dry overnight.

The next morning, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the cookies in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. The initial heat sets the design. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the sheet and allow to cool, then store in a tightly closed container. Seeds that were left on the sheet after the cookies were removed can go in the bottom of the jar to add to the anise aroma.

Essential tools: Grandma's springerle roller and her favorite cookie cookbook, dated 1941.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas goodies: Knock-their-socks-off Pumpkin (or squash) Pie

The frustration for a gardener who has grown some lovely pumpkins or squash for eating is this: you go to the recipe book to find a good recipe for your pumpkins, and what does the recipe call for? "1 can of pumpkin." True, that's the usual form of pumpkin that most Americans are familiar with, but there's nary a suggestion of how much pumpkin comes in one can. One wonders how it came about that pumpkin for eating comes only in a can, while the real things, the orange globes that appear in the stores in the fall, are only for carving. Squash, when it's thought of at all, is more likely to come frozen in a plastic bag that as a whole squash.

So for gardeners or farmer's market buyers, here's my secret recipe for pumpkin pie, which can also be made with squash (which, after all, is really what's in those cans labeled "pumpkin").

When the in-laws are coming over, or you have special guests, or you're trying to butter up the entire office at the annual Christmas party, try serving up this pie. The special spice mix and the vanilla make it yummy enough, but the secret sock-knocking-off ingredient is the rum extract. If you can find real, genuine cinnamon, you're in for an even nicer treat. The stuff sold in the U.S. as "cinnamon" is actually cassia bark, which is cheaper but coarser and has more of a bite. You have to find a specialty spice shop such as Penzeys to find real cinnamon. I haven't yet experimented with using fresh ginger instead of ground, but I may have to try that sometime. To be really genuine, you can use cream instead of canned evaporated milk, but I don't think my arteries would forgive me for that even if my mouth would be in heaven.

First, of course, you have to have some cooked pumpkin or squash. I used butternut squash grown on a local farm for this pie. I grew up hating squash because all I'd ever tried was acorn squash from the grocery store that my mother used to cook with brown sugar, which never did hide the bitterness. Then I tasted butternut. What a revelation. Mellow, sweet, almost as nice as a sweet potato. To cook a butternut squash, I cut it in half lengthwise, remove the seeds, brush with olive oil, and roast cut-side-up at 325 degrees for about an hour. I scoop out the flesh, mash it, and whatever I don't need for the recipe I'm using I freeze in 1 cup portions in plastic bags. If you press the bags flat, they freeze and thaw quickly.

Knock-their-socks-off Pumpkin or Squash Pie

Mix together:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon allspice

Set the sugar and spice mixture aside.

In a blender, put:
2 cups cooked pumpkin or squash
1 can of evaporated milk (regular or nonfat)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 teaspoon rum extract

Blend until smooth.
Slowly add the sugar and spice mix and blend together.

Pour into a prepared pie shell (regular pie crust, graham cracker crust, or whatever your heart desires). I use a deep-dish 12-inch pie pan to hold all this filling. It will also fill two 8-inch pie pans. Sprinkle the top with nutmeg if you like. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake another 40 minutes. The middle will puff up and will still be wobbly when done, but a knife or toothpick inserted in the pie should come out clean. Let cool about 2 hours before cutting. Refrigerate once it has cooled.

Serve with whipped cream. My husband insists on naked pumpkin pie, but I learned better when I was growing up.

Pumpkin pie. Fully dressed. On Grandma's vintage china. Mmm-mmm!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

100th post: a holiday gift to my readers

So cool that I can do something special with my 100th post. In honor of all my readers at Reading Dirt, some lucky family in need will be receiving tree seedlings from Heifer International. Now, if we're lucky, the picture of the cute little girl with the seedlings will show up on this card:

Season's Greetings to All!

Christmas goodies: Lavender Shortbread

Mmm, it's the time of year when the baking begins. My grandmother used to begin her Christmas baking sometime around Thanksgiving, and on Christmas Eve, here came Grandma with a mountain of tins, jars, and boxes of cookies, fudge, divinity, candied nuts, kolace (Czech sweet buns with fruit topping -- Grandma's parents immigrated from Bohemia), pumpkin pie, mince pie, hard sauce, Christmas bread, and all the glories of holiday goodness. My brothers and I ate our way through Christmas vacation with Tom and Jerrys (sweet batter, hot water, rum and brandy -- only a dab of the booze for flavor for us kids) to wash it down. Sometimes leftovers went in the freezer -- if there were any leftovers with three kids in the house and relatives coming to visit.

I can't say I've kept up with Grandma's output, but I do make at least three or four different cookies, some Christmas bread, and pumpkin pie. Some of the cookies are traditional, some I've added over the years, and while I don't strive to do all the traditional cookies ever years, I do make sure I do one or two.

The pie plate in the picture above holds traditional Scottish shortbread -- my father's father's family came from Scotland -- with my own touch from the garden: a hint of lavender. It's easy, delicious, and really truly, the calories don't count when it's a holiday. Or so I tell myself. Be sure to use real butter, or at least one of those butter-margarine blends, because it really does make a difference in flavor. So does the real vanilla.

Lavender shortbread
1/2 cup butter (room temperature)
1 cup unbleached flour
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon dried lavender blossoms

Grind the lavender blossoms in a mini food processor or in a mortar and pestle. Mix with the flour. Add the sugar and mix well. Using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until it forms fine crumbs. Sprinkle on the vanilla and blend in with the pastry cutter. Press into the bottom of a 9 inch pie plate or cake pan (or a shortbread mold if you have one). Bake at 325 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Cut into 16 equal wedges while still warm. Leave in the pan to cool, and remove when it is completely cool.

Now doesn't that look delicious?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

'Tis the Season -- for seed catalogs!

Call them eye candy, call them garden porn, call them what you like, there's nothing like a good seed catalog to while away a rainy or icy winter evening by the fire with a hot cup of tea, planting beautiful gardens in one's mind. Bugs never invade, diseases never strike, the flowers all bloom on time and the vegetables are perfect in the garden of the mind, nurtured by the effusive prose of the seed catalog.

Every gardener has his or her favorite company or catalog. There are catalogs one prefers for buying certain types of seeds or plants, catalogs with the most amusing prose, catalogs with the best and most tempting photos, and they aren't always one and the same.

My preferences have long been Territorial Seed Company and Nichols Garden Nursery. Both are Oregon companies (still on the locally-grown theme, yes?), and both feature varieties best suited for the Pacific Northwest.

Territorial's catalog is richly informative, with complete growing instructions in front of each vegetable section. They have a good selection of garden tools and books, without a lot of decorative flim-flam. Their seeds and plants are almost always good, though one year none of the lettuce that I bought from them germinated. I don't know if it was due to their processing, or if it was exposed to extreme temperatures in shipping. Had I complained, they would have shipped new seed, but I'd already re-seeded with packets from the prior year.

Nichols is located just a half-hour away by freeway, close enough to drive to, in a red barn-like building redolent with herbal aromas. A lovely display garden sits in back. Some years I make the trip, and some years it's more convenient to order from their catalog. The catalog copy itself is sometimes a little dry and may have more typos that one might prefer, but their selection of herbs and native wildflowers for the region is wonderful. They have some downright unusual vegetables (yacon or oca, anyone?), saffron crocus, a selection of brewing supplies for those so inclined, and my very favorite of all herbal teas, Red Dragon. Their Eco Lawn mixes are a nice compromise for people who are concerned about the ecological impact of lawn care, but don't want to give up their lawns entirely. Rose Marie Nichols McGee is the co-author of Bountiful Container, the definitive guide to edible container gardening.

This year I'll be installing some new fruit trees, so I've perused the One Green World online catalog. The nursery is just an hour's drive to the north from where I live, and the catalog features an amazing collection of fruits from around the world. Many are unusual and hard to find elsewhere. If you want to grow a medieval Medlar or a Chinese Goumi, One Green World is where you'll find them. I'll be looking for dwarf pears, cherries, and an apricot, so if I can't find the varieties I want at One Green World, I'll look into Stark's catalog, as well as checking with local nurseries.

I'll also be improving several spots with native plants, so I'll be hitting Wallace Hansen Nursery during its spring sale. There's a nice PDF plant list on their website for drooling over in the meantime.

Now if I really want a big dose of eye candy, there's nothing like Thompson & Morgan's all-color catalog. Not local, but so much fun to look at. For the really discerning who want their perennials just so, try Digging Dog Nursery. For the xeric garden and western natives, High Country Gardens is hard to beat. Their plants always arrive in excellent shape.

Ah, now if only the gardens of reality looked as grand as the gardens of my dreams!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Let the Christmas decorating begin - gardener style

Whew! NaNoWriMo is over (and I won! Yeah!), dead week and finals week are over, grades have been turned in, and I'm back from several days in Santa Monica where I went to a workshop on using some new video-based teacher training materials. Now I can finally attend to my neglected garden and my neglected garden blog.

How about this pretty pansy, all in Christmas colors? It's part of my outdoor Christmas decorating scheme. No blow-up manger scenes with a robotic baby Jesus waving at the crowds, not for this garden. I began the holiday decorating instead with a trip to the garden center for one flat each of white and red pansies, which went in the center circle of the new garden:

Okay, so it's not as exciting and obviously Christmas-like as the robotic baby Jesus. These flowers went in a couple of weeks ago, but the weather has been all blowy and rainy, so they haven't put on much growth. I'm not sure if the neighbors can see enough blooms to recognize the color scheme, but at least I know it's for Christmas! After the holidays are over, I'll find some early primroses in pink to add to the pansies for a Valentine's day display. By the time Easter comes around, the pansies will be fading and the primroses can take over in springtime pastels.

I tucked several red and white pansies into the herb pots on the front porch, which yesterday got wrapped in light-up green garland:

Some years I've started the porch pots with black and orange pansies for Halloween, replaced the black pansies with yellow for Thanksgiving, then moved the fall colors to a flower bed and replaced them with the Christmas colors.

I also moved a few dozen strawberry plants from their old bed to the new bed in the new garden and started mulching them with raked pine needles:

The old bed borders a back-access to the neighbor's yard, and every time they have yard work done, the strawberry bed gets trampled. You'd think that a bunch of guys who are hired to do yard work would be able to see plants instead of trampling them. But no, I have to remember that 1) these are guys, not gardening guys, but just plain guys hired to do some work, and 2) the work they're hired to do is in the neighbor's yard, not mine. So whatever is in the neighbors' yard is important, but my yard is just the place they drive through to get there, and a convenient place to dump their trash. Grrr.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- Ugly No Longer!

I've been a bit preoccupied and didn't get updates on the garden posted, though there's been great progress. The construction phase on the new garden is done! The beds are constructed, the paths are laid with concrete squares and bark dust, and it's ready now for some soil building in the beds and finally planting.

Wait for spring? Are you kidding? I've got a nifty cold frame on my Christmas list and some lettuce and kale seeds under the grow lights in the garage.

Yes, I have been a busy little beaver. Not only have I been a little overwhelmed this term with two new classes to teach, but I've also been doing NaNoWriMo -- you know, National Novel Writing Month. I've "won" the last three years, meaning I finished 50,000 words in a single month, and as I'm over 33,000 now, I think it'll be another win. The last three years I wrote fantasy. This year I went for a whole different genre: a historical novel. It's a Pride and Prejudice sequel.


C'mon, everyone else is writing one.

The flowers are mostly faded in the yard, but there's still color. Besides the leaves turning, there has been the most amazing crop of mushrooms this year. Check out these purply-red Russulas that popped up in the back lawn:

These honey mushrooms turned up under the Rhododendron:

And these, um, LBMs* had the loveliest shading from pale gold to mahogany.

*Little Brown Mushrooms. Very scientific terminology.

Monday, November 12, 2007

When Corn is Not a Cure

The New York Times reported today on growing resistance to new ethanol distilleries in the midwest (requires free registration to read the whole article).

Wait -- wasn't corn-based alcohol supposed to be a cure for our nation's fuel crisis?

Readers of Michale Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, already know the problems with corn-fed industrial agriculture: changes made in the late 1970's in the way that corn farmers were compensated created a system in which the government encourages overproduction of corn instead of paying farmers to allow their land to go fallow. I visited rural Indiana this summer and saw the results. Farmers now plant every last square foot, right up to the roadsides, leaving no hedgerows for wildlife. They pack the corn in as tight as they can, and feed the corn chemical fertilizers to make it grow as fast as possible, which results in nutrient-rich runoff into streams, with a resulting upset to wildlife. Without letting the land lie fallow, which allows some humus to be restored, the land loses topsoil at an alarming rate. All that corn needs water, but there's only so much water in the aquifers, and farmers know they've pretty much reached the limit in many areas of the corn belt. Mountains of cheap corn pile up, leaving food scientists to figure out how to make the current U.S. population eat more of it than ever -- which is why your soft drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup instead of real sugar. A lot of that corn gets stuffed down gullets of steers destined to be corn-fed beef, but their digestive systems aren't adapted for digesting grain, resulting in a host of health problems that would kill them if they weren't slaughtered first. Grass is a healthier diet, and involves more efficient energy conversion (plus, according to some studies, free-range grass-fed beef has a higher proportion of healthy omega-3 fats than corn-fed beef, and lots of folks think it tastes better, too).

Okay, so mountains of corn, prices falling, farmers barely getting by -- why isn't corn-based ethanol good news?

Because we still have an industrial food system plugged into corn. Farmers can't feed the system AND the distilleries just by growing more corn. They're already maxed out. When corn is shunted to distilleries, it drives up food prices for everyone.

Could we unplug from the system? Demand free-range meats? Refuse soft drinks sweetened with corn syrup? Give up breakfast cereals made from de-germed yellow corn meal? Spurn corn-based "green" plastics? Free up more corn for ethanol?

Yes, it's possible. The system is vast and its corn-based tendrils are in just about every manufactured food in the grocery store. Unplugging all at once would put a whole lot of people out of business all at once, but taking small-but-steady measures to support organic agriculture, locally-grown produce, and free-range meat production will help create a market for more sustainable agricultural practices.

Yet corn-based ethanol still has its limits, and that limit is drawn by how much water is available to corn farmers. Is it better to use farmland and aquifers to feed our people or to drive our cars? That's an ethical issue that isn't easily resolved. But it sounds like some savvy midwest farmers already have strong opinions on the issue.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Let's define "yard waste"

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a phenomenon that must be a problem in all communities with municipal composting: yard waste carts full of trash.

When curbside green carts are used as trash cans, collection companies spend time and money separating the compostable from the non-compostable. It seems that citizens have a hard time understanding what "yard waste" means. For some, "yard waste" seems to mean, "If it's in the yard and I don't want it, it must be yard waste." As a consequence, good compostable material arrives mixed with toys, garden tools, grocery bags, empty lawn chemical containers, plastic utensils tossed out with food scraps, broken bicycles, and more.

Our community recycling service uses this phrase: "If it grows, it goes!" That might spare some confusion. The main rule is that if it's something that goes in the compost bin, it can go in the yard waste cart.

Now some gardeners may be wondering why one needs a yard waste cart when one could use a compost bin. For me, grass clippings, weeds, and kitchen waste do go in the compost bin, But when I trim shrubs or rake up fallen branches, I'd rather put the woody debris in the cart. I don't have a chipper, and woody stuff piles up faster than it breaks down. Municipal composting facilities often like to get woody debris, as they frequently need wood chips to mix with the piles of grass clippings they receive. Makes for a win-win situation for me.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

My kittehs has cheezburgers

My three babies, in a picture from a month or so ago, which I captioned on the "I Can Has Cheezburger" website (if you don't know about Cheezburgers, check it out). After a stretch in the voting section, they got moved to the main page. Huzzah!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Eating Locally -- in the Dairy Case

This may not be about gardening as such, seeing as how there's no room for cows or goats or other dairy animals in my fraction-of-a-suburban-acre proto-farm. But the idea of eating locally, as chronicled in my Blog Action Day post, has me rethinking a whole lot of the products my family uses daily (right down to the stuff I knit with, as told on another blog I contribute to -- see Meet Your Fiber Source).

Between thinking about eating locally and reading about bovine growth hormones in cows, I started looking at my daily yogurt with a more critical eye. Bovine growth hormone, for those who haven't read much about it, does for cows some of the things that human growth hormone does for humans. It's present naturally in cows and their milk to some degree. However, pumping dairy cows with extra hormones makes them produce a lot more milk. Nursing moms, or those who have been there, imagine this: you know how it is when Baby hasn't been nursing for a few hours and you're feeling rather "full," right? Now imagine your doctor giving you shots filled with hormones that will make you produce four times as much milk. Ow. Ow, ow, ow.

Okay, now imagine how the cows feel.

Not only do they run around with full udders, they're also at a much higher risk for developing mastitis. Worse still, pumping cows full of milk-production hormones is kind of like pumping athletes full of steroids, on purpose. Suppose somehow it became the thing to do to take athletes in high school and routinely shoot steroids into them to turn them into super-athletes, and they continue to receive steroids all during their careers. What would happen to them? We all know the risks of steroids, including an greatly increased risk of heart disease and accelerated wear and tear on the body.

The risks are similar for cows. Hormone-injected cows are the dairy equivalent of a steroid-enhanced athlete -- all of their highly-shortened lives!

I was happy, then, when I read the yogurt carton at breakfast and found that my favorite brand, Nancy's Honey Yogurt, is totally organic (no cows were harassed by hormones to make this product) AND it's produced about an hour's drive south of where I live. Score two for Nancv's!

So what about my lunch yogurt? I could spoon some Nancy's over berries in a reusable container, sure, which would be a lot more ecological than buying little plastic cartons, and sometimes I do that if I have the time in the morning when I'm throwing things in my lunch box and trying to get out the door on time. But I'd gotten to like my Yoplait Lite, and their cartons are at least recyclable.

So how does Yoplait score? Locally produced? Um, no. Sorry. Yoplait is a national brand, and their nearest distribution center is, well, I have no idea where.

What about cow hormones? Do they have an organic product line? I checked their website and didn't find any such products. So I wrote them a letter expressing my concern about growth hormones and cows. Here's the reply I received:

BST (bovine somatotropin) is a hormone naturally found in cows. The synthetic version of this hormone (not to be confused with a steroid hormone) has been subjected to extensive testing. The Food & Drug Administration, American Medical Association, National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture along with a number of other science-based organizations have concluded that there are no food safety issues in conjunction with milk produced by BST-supplemented cows.

Because BST is naturally found in all cows' milk, there is no scientific way to test the milk to determine if the BST present is from synthetic sources or natural sources. The amount of BST present in milk will not be greater from a synthetic source than it would be occurring naturally.

For more information about Bovine Somatotropin (BST) or Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) you may wish to visit the United States Department of Agriculture' s website at

We hope you will continue to enjoy our products.

Awww, pooh. No plans for an organic product, and a weak, "Gee, there's no way we can test for the stuff, so oh, well." The statements about human safety are a little controversial, I know, but I won't comment on that because I haven't read up much on the studies and I don't know much about the evidence. But it was cow health that I was concerned about, and that wasn't even addressed.

So what were my options for a grab-and-go yogurt if I forget to fill reusable cups the night before? Nancy's makes individual yogurt cups, but my store doesn't carry them any more. I cruised to the dairy case and found Tillamook yogurt. I already buy Tillamook cheese. The Tillamook Cheese Factory is a highlight of any trip to the northern Oregon coast. What about their yogurt?

Let's see, the Tillamook factory is about two hours from here in some of the most beautiful country this side of Heaven. Score one for locally produced. What about cow hormones? Turns out that the Tillamook company is concerned about cows, too. They're working on contracting with dairies in the area that do not use growth hormones on their cows. While not all their products are hormone-free, they're working on that, and hope to have everything hormone-free in the near future. Score nearly two for Tillamook! Now if only they made a "lite" version.

Yes, yes, I could go totally local and make my own yogurt from organic milk. That is, if I could make yogurt and have it actually turn into yogurt. I've accepted the fact that I'm a yogurt dunce, and I'll continue to support Nancy's and Tillamook.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- Trenched, Decked Out

First, part of a fine crop of mushrooms that's been springing up in the yard this fall. I should know the name of this one. It's common enough, and I think it's the one on the cover of Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora -- but I can't find my copy right now. Still, they're lovely mushrooms, something like six inches tall or so:

And on with the garden. Doesn't look like there's much progress, but believe me, a lot of work went into it this weekend. I dug trenches under the circular paths in the middle and filled them with sand, and dug pits in the parts with the worst drainage, lined them with landscape cloth that I'd pierced with scissors, filled them with rubble, covered with cloth, and then buried under the topsoil again. All you can see of all that work is clods of clay on top of the beds. I also hauled concrete blocks that my mother had and didn't need. The teeny patio is laid, and next week I'll fetch the rest for the paths.

All that freshly-dug earth, and Halloween approaching... this suggested a certain something in the way of decor:

Including -- and it's a bit subtle because of the earth tones of the props -- a gardener who met an untimely demise, only boots and gloves sticking out, and a spade still stuck in the earth from doing the deed. I'll have to get out a candle lantern or two to illuminate the spot tomorrow night.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- Rock On, Baby

Monsoon season is upon us, and the skies have been pouring down rain most of the week. A few sun breaks allowed me to getou tand get a bit more done on the garden -- and to discover the quagmire in the middle. Not unexpected. After all, it's sitting on top of unimproved clay that had a couple of tons of concrete squashing it flat for years. When things dry out again and most of the water drains away, I'll pull the sandy topsoil aside in the paths and dig some drainage pits or trenches, fill them with gravel, cover with fine screen or landscaping cloth, and rebury them. That will give at least some of the water someplace to go. Now if only I could figure out a good way to save some of that water for later in the summer when drought season hits.

So here's what we have after this weekend's labors:

Rocks, rocks, and more rocks! I was able to stack a double layer in the main beds and fill the beds with topsoil and compost. Since everything is boggy in the middle, I think I'll leave it as it is for a while. If we get a dry spell it may drain enough to work with some more, but otherwise the beds are pretty much as I want them. I just need a little mulch on the paths, and I'll need to let them dry out and drain first.

Another view:

The basalt rocks look sort of raw and yellow still, but they'll mellow to a reddish rust color. The red is just on the surface where the iron compounds in the stone oxidize -- in essence, the surface of the stone rusts.

Next, I'll haul some concrete squares that my mom has and use them to make a tiny patio at the back, just big enough for a bench. The remaining squares will be stepping stones for the path around the garden. I'll also start moving strawberry plants from the patch where they are now up to the long bed in front, where they should get more sun. I may move the blueberries I have now, too, since sometime in the future I want to build a small wall along the access in the back, and I'd have to move them anyway.

Come spring, I'll plant two dwarf pears on either side of the teeny patio. By then I hope the dead tree will be gone, and I'll replace that with a small cherry tree, with a second cherry (since they need a pollinator) at the other end of the front garden.

Can't wait for spring to come. When this garden is overflowing with greenery, it'll be a sight to see.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day Post: Eating Locally

I'm getting in on the tail end of Blog Action Day, but that's all right. This is, after all, a gardening blog, and writing about environmental action is nothing new here! From turning a concrete pad into a garden (adding greenspace and forage for butterflies and bees) to reducing the feral cat population through TNR (trap-neuter-release) action and rescuing kittens, to gardening for birds and butterflies has turned up here.

Today, let's talk about food. Gardens are often about food, so it fits. I teach biology at the college level, and I've found over the years that very few of my students understand where their food comes from. They know better than to answer "The store." They have the vague idea that food comes from a farm somewhere. Somehow. And dirt is probably involved. Beyond that, not much of a clue. Hence I get some very interesting responses when I ask them about our place in the food chain, or what environmental effects there would be if more people became vegetarians (their visions of poor, overpopulated cattle starving because we're eating all the veggies just tug at the ol' heartstrings).

Amusing, yeah, but not so funny when we ourselves find out how little we know about our food, and with dire consequences. Who knew, for instance, that cat food contained wheat gluten, and that the wheat gluten came from China, and that some Chinese manufacturers were adulterating the wheat gluten to make it look like it had more protein? That took nearly everyone by surprise. But even innocent-looking whole fruit in the produce section can yield surprises. It came all the way from Chile? Really? Was it really cheaper to import a tomato from Chile? Do we know what pesticides are legal in Chile? And let's do the math: if it was cheap to get that tomato from Chile, what pittance what the poor Chilean farmer paid for it? Would he and his family be better off if they ate the tomato themselves?

But more than health consequences, there are environmental consequences. Shipping produce from third-world nations requires a whole lot of fossil fuel. Nature spent something like 300 million years sequestering carbon into the earth in the form of oil and coal. We humans have used up nearly half of that carbon in under 200 years. That's one huge POOF of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Every tomato that came from Chile instead of your own back yard has contributed to that POOF.

But okay, you say, growing my own would be great. I love fresh food, and the thought of what chemicals might be in or on imported food makes me shiver. But I don't live on a farm. All I've got is a little patch of suburbia -- or an apartment balcony.

I don't live on a farm, either. I've got an ordinary suburban lot, with some large trees shading more than half of it. It's enough for veggies -- and raspberries, strawberries, pie cherries, peaches, a few blueberries, currants... amazing what you can squeeze in. Still I don't yet have the space for all the blueberries I'd like to grow. So here's where I got my blueberries this year:

Just north of town there are several U-pick blueberry farms. In just a couple of mornings I picked and froze 60 pounds of blueberries. Yum! Now I've got locally-grown blueberries to go with my morning yogurt.

I was so busy this summer that I didn't get out and do a lot of fruit picking like I sometimes do. When I was a kid, we picked and canned cherries, peaches, and pears. We grew corn and froze it. We'd find abandoned apple orchards and make applesauce. We'd grow blackberries, boysenberries, and raspberries for the freezer. To this day I can't stand the taste and texture of store-bought canned peaches, which are usually canned while green so they have that stiff, plastic-like texture. Nothing like the ambrosia of home-canned peaches.

Nevertheless, I did get at least some of my produce locally:

And I wish I had a picture of the place where I get my eggs: a little house that I pass on a country road on the way to and from work, where hens run around freely and every few days there's a little cardboard sign out that says "Eggs."

Even if you can't garden, even if you don't have a balcony for container garden, you can usually find a source of local produce, be it a fruit stand, a farmer's market, or a locally-owned supermarket that buys from local farmers. Eating locally often means eating seasonally, unless you have the means for putting up produce and the space to store it. But if you can eat locally during your own growing season, give it a try. At the very least, you'll get the best in fresh, fresh produce, and if you've got kids, they'll know for sure where their food comes from.

Y'know, I wish I could require my students to grow a garden for a season before coming to my class. I'll bet they'd understand the ecological concepts a whole lot better.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- A New Garden Takes Shape

Progress! The transformation of the ugliest corner of my garden continues. I spent several hours yesterday and today schlepping rocks and shoveling dirt. Using bamboo to outline the beds, I smoothed out portions of the newly-spread dirt and carried rocks up, bucketful by bucketful, from the back yard where I'd piled them (the rocks came from excavations for a new subdivision a few blocks away).

First I outlined the outside walls of all four rectangular beds and the bed along the sidewalk in rocks. After filling the long bed along the sidewalk with dirt saved from making the flagstone paths earlier this summer, I finished outlining two of the beds with more rocks,and began the filling process. First, a layer of used shavings from the guinea pig pen, then a layer of the sandy topsoil. Then some half-finished compost from one of the compost bins, then some more sandy topsoil. That filled the first two beds to the level of the first layer of rocks. Here's where I left off today:

And from another angle:

I'll need to shift the pile of topsoil a bit to do the other two beds. By then the pile should be small enough to mound up in the middle, where a center circular bed will go. Once I've done one layer of rocks, I'll stack the next and fill in some more with the remaining topsoil and compost.

Hooray, hooray, I'm finally going to have what I've been wanting for a long time: a neat little potager, a French-style kitchen garden. When the dead crabapple comes out, I'll plant some semi-dwarf fruit trees near the house. The long bed is for blueberries, cordon apples, and strawberries, with flowers next to the sidewalk. The rectangular beds are for veggies, and the circular bed is for herbs and flowers to attract butterflies and other beneficial insects.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Review: Naturalist by E. O. Wilson

Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson (Island Pess, 2006).

"Most children have a bug period," Wilson writes. "I never grew out of mine."

Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson tells his life story in this lively autobiography, tracing his path from the small child poking in mud puddles, to becoming one of the world's experts on ant biology, to developing a new science of sociobiology and receiving several prestigious science and literary awards awards. His choice of insects as the subject of his live study, and especially ants, came about quite by accident: as a child, Wilson was fishing on a dock one day, and as he hauled in a type of fish called a pinfish, one of the spine on its aptly-named dorsal fin pierced his eye. The eye became inflamed, leaving him blind on that side. This left him able to study things he could bring close to his face. Insects filled the bill. Knowing that ants had been studied little, giving him scant competition in the field, Wilson devoted his live to the study of ants, racking up discovery after discovery, new species after new species, in some of the most remote places on earth.

Wilson's honesty and candor bring to life the world of science, from productive partnerships to ego-filled infighting in the halls of Harvard. His frank opinions of James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, give a whole new insight into the story as Watson tells it in The Double Helix. Wilson rubs shoulders with many big names in science: George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and others, yet never loses his Southern small-town charm.

I had the pleasure of attending a talk that Wilson gave at the centennial celebration of Willamette University's Biology Department last month. The talk centered on biodiversity and the importance of preserving endangered habitats, and his involvement in the ambitious Encyclopedia of Life. Wilson gave a similar, though shorter, talk when he received the TED prize. See the video here. Happily, I got my copy of Naturalist autographed!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Ugliest Corner -- the Transformation Begins

Only a gardener would get all excited about a pile of dirt:

The bark dust company delivered that this morning -- okay, several hours after they were supposed to have shown up, but it finally came. That's eight cubic yards of a light sandy topsoil, which looks like mostly mineral soil. That'll be fine, especially for the paths between the beds. I have compost cooking away that I'll mix in when I start forming the beds.

After two and a half hours, the pile looked like this:

And I went indoors for some ibuprofin, a hot bath, and a bit of a lie-down.

Back at it tomorrow...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Garden Rant has a challenge for you

The ladies over on the Garden Rant blog set up a challenge on Check out the Garden Rant Global Garden Blogger Challenge to raise $10,000 for garden-related projects in low-income schools. I've added my donation for Walk in the Wild, and outdoor learning garden that a school in Louisiana is hoping to construct. Who else would like to step up and contribute?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Ugliest Corner of my Yard

Several other garden blogs, in the name of full disclosure, have revealed the ugliest bits of their gardens. Here is what mine looks like -- or rather, looked like -- a few weeks ago:

That would be a useless, cracked, mossy, stained, nasty-looking concrete pad, about 22 feet on a side, that the former owners put in for their kids to play basketball on. Right in front of the house. Our kids never played basketball on it, so there it sat. But take it out? "No, Mom," they'd say. "Don't take it out. We could have a garage sale there."

Said garage sale never materialized, and the concrete kept getting uglier and uglier, with more cracks and more moss. Well, the moss was an improvement, really. At least it was green in the winter.

The kids are out of the house and I've lived with this monstrosity for too many years now. The poor "Hobbit tree" is dead and needs to come down, so with the promise of no shade on that part of the yard, and with sunny bits at a premium, it was time. Past time really, but time to do something a bit more organic with the spot.

So last Monday the concrete guys came with a big noisy machine and took away all the concrete. Now look at it!

Errr... ummm... it's, uh, dirt. Nice... well, not even nice dirt. Sticky red clay. But NO CONCRETE! Yaaay! There wasn't even a bed of gravel under it (which was probably one reason that it didn't hold up). I tried loosening the soil up with a digging fork, but while the soil was pretty soft to begin with, since we had a good rain this week, all it did was ball up in a sticky mass on the digging fork and on the bottoms of my feet. Ah, takes me back to my youth, growing up on a Christmas tree farm on a hill made almost entirely of red clay that stuck to our rubber boots until we looked like we were wearing basketballs. I sowed the whole thing with gypsum and called it good. At least that should prevent hardpan from forming.

Next weekend the barkdust company across town is bringing in a load of topsoil. That I'll spread, pile into beds, and have me a raised bed garden. And THAT will finally be an improvement.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

To dig up: potatoes, turnips, Viking treasure hoard...

From the National Geographic website: Viking Treasure Trove Discovered in Swedish Garden.

Aw, and to think that the most exciting thing I've ever dug up in my garden was a lost Koosh ball.

Now there was the time when I was in third grade, when we lived in a rental house that had been a farmhouse, and my brothers discovered a trunk buried in the garden. After much digging and soaking the hard clay soil with a hose, they finally extracted it. To their dismay and disgust, all it contained with some kind of animal skeleton, probably a large dog.

But if there are any Vikings out there wondering where to bury their treasure, I've got a lovely garden...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Anyone want to buy a native plant nursery?

Wally Hansen is retiring from the nursery business, and is selling Wallace Hansen Nursery. It's a well-established native plant nursery that many folks in the mid-Willamette Valley area have come to know, love, and rely on. It appears that Wally would like this to continue as a nursery business. If you or anyone you know has a burning desire to run a nursery, has some nursery business know-how, and would like to live in Oregon, this is a terrific opportunity. Property, house, nursery, existing stock, greenhouses and all are included in the sale. See for more information and tons of pictures.

On a more selfish note -- someone please buy this and continue it as a native plant nursery, because if it goes away, there's no other place around where I can get native plants for my garden! If I'd gotten my graduate degree in horticulture instead of science education I'd be all over this.

Erosion control

It's because the driveway in the back of our house goes like this:

that there's a bit of an erosion problem at the bottom of the drive.

Access to the back driveway is by means of a blind alley, and on the other side of the alley, the ground slopes steeply down into the neighbor's yard. Winter rains go sluicing down the drive and can tear up the slope, which the downhill neighbors keep barkdusted and free of weeds, so there's nothing to hold the slope together except some photinia bushes. The neighbor kids go running up and down the thin strip of bare dirt that technically belongs to the people on the side of us, but the neighbors don't take care of it, and then they go down the steep barkdusted slope, tearing furrows in the already threatened banks. Their experiments in using a hose full blast to carve canyons into the slope didn't help any, either. After I carefully raked the dirt back into place they kinda got the hint that maybe that wasn't a good idea.

I'd placed a row of rocks along the edge of the paving, trying to divert some of the water, but I'm not sure how effective it's been. So I took stronger measures this weekend. After picking up the rocks, I dug a trench along the edge of the pavement and the top of the slope, piled some of the dirt on the slope side of the trench, and mixed the rest with some compost and steer manure to increase the organic content of the red-clay-and-rock mix that serves as soil in this neighborhood. Then I set the rocks against the small ridge I'd raised, making in effect an very narrow "rain garden" -- or rather, a runoff garden. Here 'tis, freshly dug:

Since our monsoon season is late October through the end of June or so, I planted some native spring-blooming damp-meadow plants, specifically Sidalcea (Checker mallow) and Camas, which I picked up at the fall sale at Wallace Hansen Gardens. I know where I can collect Camas seeds in the spring, too, so I'll sow the plot with seeds later. Since the slope bakes in the summer, I ordered some native Goldenrod and some Zinnia grandiflora, both western prairie plants that do well in dry areas and tolerate clay. I just ordered a few from High Country Gardens to try out. If they can tolerate damp winters, they should flourish in the dry summers. All of these plants are butterfly plants, so if they colonize, I may start getting a healthy population of butterflies around here.

As for the bare dirt slope, I wanted to plant that with something that would hold the slope together, but wouldn't need much care, since it's an awkward place to get a hose into. I also wanted something good for birds or beneficial insects. My Red Hot Poker plants needed thinning, so as I was pulling out big, fat corms I thought, "Well, why not these?" They tolerate shade pretty well, they propagate easily, they exist on little water all summer, they're green in the winter, and the blossoms feed hummingbirds and finches. I collected a bucketfull of healthy corms, used my mattock to dig holes in the compacted soil on the slope, and planted the whole bank in Red Hot Pokers. If I'd thought of that sooner, I'd have tried ordering some fall-blooming ones. Oh, well, these were free. I gave the slope a thorough soaking with a sprinkler while I went inside and cleaned out the guinea pig cage, then lightly mulched the slope with the used shavings.

Now to go talk to the kid next door about the problems of erosion...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Kitten Saga continues

Readers may remember that our yard was blessed again with kittens in May (see Kittens: The Sequel). The story didn't end with that post, obviously. When the kittens reached six weeks, I was ready to get them indoors. Alas, if I'd only started a few days sooner -- poor Gadget was taken by some predator and found dead one street over. The neighbor's nosy kid found the nest of survivors in our yard (grrr!) and came over to report that his mom was going to call the Humane Society and have them taken away (double grrr!). That accelerated the plan, and after getting a spay certificate from the local no-kill shelter, I got Toast, the mother, trapped and rounded up the babies. Toast went to the vet and got spayed and came back home.

Here are the babies a couple days after we caught them. I put together a "playpen" in the living room made from those wire squares that go together to make storage cubes. This kept them safe, and and the same time kept them around people.

This is Sprocket...

And here are Edison and Gizmo.

Toast still hangs around the house. She's a smart little girl and saw me take her babies in, so when she came home from the vet, she came up on the deck to peek in the windows until she found them. I feed her regularly, and she's slowly getting used to people. I think she's a little lonesome; when I go out into the garden, she often follows me around.

So the idea was that we'd foster the babies for the no-kill shelter, and then they'd be adopted out when they were past the delicate stage and had been fixed and microchipped. We were quite sure that six cats would be too many for this house.


... we're kinda used to them now. And rather attached to them. Edison, the goofy little brother of the trio, is a lovable little purr machine. Sprocket has the most winsome face and loves to cuddle. And while Gizmo is more independent, she can be a loving little thing, too. They're all doing fine with us, but are still shy of strangers.

So it looks like we're going to have to have a word with the shelter about these three:



and our darling Edison.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Literary Gardener Calendar

It's here! For garden literature enthusiasts who need some inspiration for their own journals, here is the Literary Gardener Calendar for 2008.

This calendar features original photos from my garden, inspiring quotes from fine gardening literature, and journal prompts for each month to help when you out when the words run dry.

I'll keep a link to this calendar in the sidebar, as well as to the books quoted on each month's page -- naturally when you read the quotes, you'll want to read the books as well!

Thanks to the magic of, the calendar is available on demand and at a reasonable price until the end of February 2008. Delivery time is about a week after ordering, but allow more time during the holiday season, as the demand for calendars will be higher and the mail volume will increase.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rebel Gardeners Risk the Law for Forbidden Fruits (and Veggies)

From the Associated Press: Front Yard Veggies Improve Diets, Homes

This upbeat title was replaced in our local newspaper with the slightly more ominous, "Front-yard vegetables fill tables, but rile neighbors."

Used to be, in the U.S. suburbs, in the days of big front porches and convenient back alleys, that the front of the house was for show and socializing, while the back of the house was for service. That's why the kitchen garden was stuck in the back -- rows of vegetables weren't pretty, no more than rows of laundry hanging out.

Then came the post-WWII suburbs and the ranch house, with the loss of alleys for garages, garbage, and delivery. The front became the service entrance, and people moved their living spaces to the back.

Where did the vegetable garden go to? Into oblivion. Just before the turn of the century, about 30% of food was produced at home. By the post-war years, less than 10% was produced at home as people ripped out old-fashioned victory gardens and replaced them with landscaping and in-ground swimming pools. And the number continues to decline. Today less than 3% of food is in the U.S. is produced at home. (See Kitchen Gardeners International: What is KGI? for statistics -- of course, some of the perceived decline may be due to the enormous increase in agribusiness production during the 1950's.)

Now, rising gas prices and the subsequent rise in consumer prices, plus an increasing awareness of global issues and a desire to "live green" has aroused a new interest in gardening. But with urban and suburban land at a premium, and houses in modern 'burbs sit in postage-stamp-sized lots (which is nothing new -- houses in this town built during the 30's were also on tiny lots). Where do you put a veggie garden? Some folks solve the problem by ripping out the lawn, whether it is in the front or the back of the house.

But if you live in a neighborhood where covenants or municipal codes govern what you can do with your front yard, and front-yard farmers risk running afoul of the law. When people think of "vegetable gardens," they think of the old-fashioned American kitchen garden with rows of corn and peas in the summer and bare dirt all winter, not something they want to look at as they drive through suburbia. Or around here they think of little hippie houses with a mad tangle of half-neglected herbs, some of them legal.

Yet with a little inspiration from the French potagers and from the "edible landscaping" concept, people are designing beautiful front gardens with herbs, salad greens, berry bushes, and other food plants that are as nice to look at as they are to eat. What would look nicer: a French-inspired kitchen garden with neat paths, patterned beds, trained fruit trees, and clipped herbs, or a dead brown lawn? (Okay, dead brown in the winter for you folks back east, dry and brown in the summer for us folks out west.) What some front-yard gardeners are finding is that while their gardens may cause raised eyebrows, they also bring the neighbors over to talk, often for the first time.

I know my house, and some houses around here, have shrubs in front instead of lawn. I've been sneaking chard, tomatoes, and other edibles in the front landscaping for years, and this year I'm determined to take out the increasingly ugly concrete pad that the former owners used as a basketball court and replace it with raised beds. We'll see what the neighbors have to say about that!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

This weekend's project: flagstone paths

A yard of sand, a pile of salvaged flagstones, a sorta cool (though humid) weekend, et voila! -- my new flagstone paths.

Okay, so it wasn't quite that easy, as my aching shoulders will attest.

The stones originally came from my grandmother's house, and where she got them from, I don't know. My mom had them for years, and when she sold the old homestead last summer, I hauled as many as I could find home intending to use them.

This summer, I decided, I'd have me some stone paths. I ordered sand last week, and spent this weekend excavating the woodchipped paths. The old woodchips went in another part of the yard, and I dug out a few inches of dirt all along the path (the dirt pile is just visible by the fence). I filled in the excavated paths with sand, and sank the stones into the sand. Some are still a bit wobbly, so I'll keep working on individual stones to make them more stable. There was enough stone to do about 10 feet on the other side of the sidewalk, this 25 foot path, and the 15 food fork off to the left, plus a few large stones for stepping stones and some smaller ones to pile up at the base of the pole that holds up the bird feeder. The smaller stones lining the path are ones I've been digging out of the yard ever since we moved in here about 10 years ago. I need a few more to finish the edging of all the paths, so I'll have to look around and see where I can find some.

Next project: That horrid concrete pad in front of the house that the former owners put in as a basketball court, and is now cracked, mossy, and ugly, is going to go. In its place will be a raised bed potager. Alas, the old "hobbit tree" of a crabapple has died and I'll have to take it out later -- I'm leaving it in until fall, since the Lincoln Constance rose that's been scrambing up it still casts some shade on the house. Once that's out, I'll be putting in some fruit trees in front.

The renovations never end, do they? But then that's what gardening is all about. What fun would it be if you got to the point where you said, "I'm done" and had to stop?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friends of Bush Gardens Plant Sale

If you're in or near Salem, Oregon, and are planning on visiting the Salem Art Fair this weekend, don't miss the Friends of Bush Gardens plant sale. I put in a 3 hour shift this afternoon in the plant holding area, and saw lots of gorgeous plants going off to new homes. There were hummingbirds visiting the crocosmias, which I'm sure the amazing Gretchen Carnaby ordered just for demonstration purposes.

The Bush Gardens surround the historic Asahel Bush House Museum. Of course you won't want to miss the gardens themselves, and the historic greenhouse. House tours are going on all during the fair. The Bush House was home to Asahel Bush, who founded the Ladd and Bush Bank (the original building is now a branch of U.S. Bank). In 1953, the Bush family donated the house and land to the City of Salem, along with much of the original furnishings, making it unique among the historic houses of Salem.

Among the offerings at the plant sale are heritage roses grown from cuttings taken from Miss Sally's rose garden. I also spotted lots of fantastic herbs, rock garden plants, lovely foliage plants, huge hanging baskets -- and of course came home with a few goodies myself!

The sale has a holding area for people who want to buy plants and park them while they look at the rest of the art fair. I spent my shift trotting plants out on a cart as people pulled their cars up to pick up their plants. If you're in the area, come on down!