Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An off-topic political message: VOTE!

Dearest U.S. readers, consider all those who have struggled, fought, and suffered for your right to cast a private ballot in any election, from the Revolutionary War to the Suffragettes to the volunteers right now who oversee elections to make certain they are conducted fairly. Honor them by casting your vote on or before November 4. (For those in Virginia and other places were the dumb flyer went out telling people of a particular political party to vote on November 5th -- ignore it. It's a stupid, desperate attempt by some to negate the votes of others.)

But when you vote, vote informed!

Rumors are flying at the speed of electrons around the internet about both presidential candidates. Make abundant use of,, and, and to check your facts. Here is just a sampling of the many false rumors about both candidates that need to be trashed:

Rumors about John McCain:

"McCain admitted to being a war criminal who intentionally bombed women and children." Fact: It was only when he was coerced by torture in a Vietnam prison that McCain wrote this "confession." In a 60 Minutes interview, McCain admitted that he cracked under the pressure.

"McCain fathered an illegitimate black child." Fact: John McCain and his wife, Cindy, have an adopted daughter named Bridget. Cindy McCain had found Bridget, who has dark skin, at Mother Theresa's orphanage in Bangladesh.

"McCain wasn’t born in the United States so he’s not a citizen." Fact: McCain was born on a U.S. military base in Panama to U.S. military personnel who are U.S. citizens.

Rumors about Barak Obama:

"Obama’s career started in Bill Ayres’ living room. Ayres is a known terrorist." Fact: Ayres was a radical in the 60s and did commit illegal acts – when Obama was 8 years old. Later as adults they were both hired by William Annenberg to serve on the Woods board. They do not “pal around” as rumors claim.

"Obama is a Muslim" Fact: Obama is a Christian. And even if he weren’t, the U.S. Constitution grants everyone freedom of religion. There is no religious requirement for the presidency.

"Obama wasn’t born in the United States so he’s not a citizen." Fact: Obama was born in Hawaii two years after Hawaii became a state. The birth certificate can be found in the public records in Hawaii, and a birth announcement appears in the archives of the local newspaper.

"Obama plans to raise taxes for 95% of U.S. citizens." Fact: Obama’s plan actually lowers taxes for people making $200,000 or less – the majority of U.S. citizens.

"Obama suspended his campaign and went to Hawaii to [fill in unfounded rumor of your choice]." Fact: Obama's grandmother is dying and he suspended his campaign to be with her, as any good grandchild ought.

Vote informed! Look up the facts, read your voter's pamphlet, think, question, reason -- and most importantly, VOTE!

ETA: Comments will be screened. Nutjobs from both ends of the political spectrum need not waste their time trying to post rants.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day: And the Garden Shall Feed Us

This is a world of action, and not for moping and groaning in. ~ Charles Dickens

It's Blog Action Day, and the theme this year is poverty. This got me pondering the connection between gardening and poverty. In a world where increasingly "gardening" is something the professionals do while the homeowner is a way, and in some posh districts, the nurseries refrain from referring to their customers as "gardeners," where is the connection between the garden and the poor and hungry of this world?

The obvious connection is via the kitchen garden. Ever since the first creative person poked a seed in the earth in the understanding that a useful plant would emerge from it -- I picture women who had been observing waste middens and the food plants that grew from them, or children playing with their food as children will do -- people have been gardening as a means of staving off hunger. The coleworts grown alongside peasant cottages in Europe, kitchen gardens of the great estates, maize fields of the native people of the Americas, rice paddies in Asia, wheat and barley fields and date palms of the Middle East, all yielded food in concentrations that could be stored, sometimes for years, to fend off starvation in times of famine.

Here in the U.S., the kitchen garden long held prominence in farms and later in suburban back yards. In Colonial times, the old-style square bed gardening learned from England was favored as a means of growing useful potherbs and medicinal herbs in a small space. As European settlers moved westward into the wide open spaces, the kitchen gardens expanded into plowed plots with the now-familiar long, straight rows that the young 'uns had to hoe between to keep the weeds down.

As people moved to the suburbs, they often gave up their rural habits, but the habit of frugality still held sway. While the front yard was more often than not a showpiece, with manicured lawns and flowering shrubs, the back yard was entirely utilitarian. Deliveries of milk, ice, and groceries came to the back door via the back alley. Clotheslines spanned the back yard, and the kitchen garden held court in a sunny corner.

The Great Depression led to a surge in gardening, even among apartment dwellers. Railroads looked the other way as people plowed up strips of land alongside the tracks to grow vegetables. Golf courses gave way to the plow to allow community gardens. Food production increased as more and more people found ways to feed themselves through gardening, and production continued with Victory gardens during the second World War.

The post-war years introduced new ideas about disposability, pre-packaged covenience foods, and consumerism as a way of life. "Citizens" became "consumers." The frontyard-backyard arrangment was turned around as new housing developments eliminated alleys to cram more ranch-style houses into smaller spaces. Backyards became the living space, groomed and pampered, with a lawn for kids to play on and maybe a pool to frolic in. The front of the house now held the garage entrance and became the place to set out the garbage cans and receive deliveries. In a new era of luxury and convenience, the backyard garden began its decline.

By the 1980's, gardening was at an all-time low. But along with economic, ecological, and energy crises of the 90's and the "aughts" came a resurgence in gardening -- and not just decorative gardening, either. Vegetable gardens are making a comeback. Community gardens are bringing fresh produce to inner cities. And with the generous nature that so many gardeners exhibit, food banks are also benefitting.

With the current economic crisis, food banks are feeling the pinch, and gardeners are pitching in by supplying surplus produce. While the ubiquitous zucchini may get looks of askance, there's plenty of produce that gardeners can contribute from their bounty.

The Garden Writers Association started the Plant a Row for the Hungry program, encouraging gardeners to do just that -- plant an extra row to help feed the hungry. Currently, about 25 million people in the U.S. are in danger of going hungry or seek emergency food. There are over 70 million gardeners in the U.S. Do the math -- if all 70 million planted an extra row of corn, an extra tomato plant, an extra squash vine, imagine all that produce arriving at the food backs, ready to feed people in need.

Even better are programs that teach impoverished people to garden for themselves. The working poor may be fortunate enough to own houses, where backyards can be converted into gardens. Renters and apartment dwellers may have access to community gardens -- or may organize to begin one. The American Community Gardening Association has resources to assist the development and maintenance of community gardens and to develop sustainable communities.

Because really it comes down to that -- sustainability. It's not just about feeding the people we have. It's about making sure that we can continue to feed and house people in the future. Teaching people to garden can teach them about how the ecosystem works and how to value the earth as a provider of resources. It can also teach everyone valuable lessons about the work required to feed us, lest we sit back in our comfortable middle-class homes, munching Crunchy Munchies from a box while watching the television, and forget the labor and ecological impact involved in bringing those Crunchy Munchies to us.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Garden ennui

We've reached that time of the year, the time when the summer has so parched the soil that even the weeds look ratty and lackluster:

When we've left off with diligence and mildew overtakes the vines:

When the aphids have finished slaughering the nasturtiums, and the lettuce has all gone to seed:

And yet the tomatoes remain stubbornly green:

And the watermelon, smaller than a tennis ball, may never come to the sweet glory we expected last spring when we lovingly put the little plant into the cold earth:

Yet not all is autumnal sorrow and despair. The everbearing raspberries are living up to their name, still producing enough for each morning's yogurt:

And the everbearing Tristar strawberries are contributing their share, too, and will probably keep going well into October:

A surprise vine popped up in the front garden, and I'm still not sure what we have. Mini-pumpkin? Gourd? Gourds seem likely, since some went into the compost last year, so there could be seeds.

The cranberry beans kept getting mowed down by slugs and bugs earlier, but enough survived to yield a small crop:

Shelled, they'll produce at least one good beany meal, and still have some left for planting next year. I'll make a point to save those very red ones for planting:

In spite of the load of work and the drag of autumn's ennui, I got the beds in the new garden cleared of everything that had gone to seed and all the leggy, tired pansies, emptied the compost bins of all good compost and spread it on the beds, and tucked everything in for the winter. I had lettuce and kale seedlings under grow lights indoors (about the only place I can get anything to germinate this year -- what's up with the soil, I wonder?), and put those out into the garden for winter crops. The lettuce went under the cold frame, and the kale out in front of it.

With any luck, I'll have fresh greens for the holidays. By then the plants may be finishing and I can start a fresh set of seedlings for the cold frame. January and February will bring cold weather that will slow them quite a bit, but I can usually get new lettuce by April.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Young Death carries a what?

Mythtickle is a relatively new comic on, with a cast of young deities and mythical figures at school with Ms. Nature as their teacher: Boody the last dragon, Karma, Thor, Merlin, and many more. In last Friday's strip, Dziva, African creatrix, has a conversation with Death. Maybe I've been out in the garden too long, but there's just something hysterical about young Death, not yet old enough to have a scythe, trotting around with a weed whacker:

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tia Carmen solves another gardening problem

From today's Baldo comic strip on GoComics:

Sometimes you just do what works, right?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lettuce save...

These tiny dandelion tufts are seed heads of Specked Trout's Back lettuce. Can you tell that lettuce belongs to the Aster family, along with dandelions, thistles, and Bachelor's buttons?

And this is a cute little seed saving kit I got for Christmas:

That's where the Flashy Trout's Back lettuce seeds are going, along with Tom Thumb, a small butterhead lettuce that was sooo delicious when it was in its prime, and other seeds that I plan to save this year.

You don't really have to have a fancy seed saving kit to save seed. Paper coin envelopes from the office supply store -- or fashioned out of used paper -- will do just fine. But if this little kit strikes your fancy, it came from Territorial Seed Company.

Like sewing, knitting, spinning, canning, and growing your own food, there's something basic and satisfying about saving seed from year to year. It's not that we have to any more in these days of global marketing, malls, and shiny seed catalogs. It's knowing that we could if some sci-fi-novel-style disaster struck. Kind of like the Scout who earns a First Aid badge and secretly hopes there will be an accident just so said Scout can dash over and take charge with a confident, "I know what to do!"

With seed saving, there's also the satisfaction of preserving heirloom varieties of seeds that the big seed companies overlook. Maybe it's something that's been in the family for years, or maybe it's something you just ordered this year from a seed exchange. No matter. You're still taking part in an ancient ritual of saving for next year's harvest.

Learning to save seed, grow and preserve food, and manufacture clothing from the sheep or cotton plants on up also makes one a repository of basic survival skills that have kept humans alive for millennia. It is the anniversary of 9/11 after all, and at such a time people's minds sometimes turn to "what if?" scenarios. Too many of my college students think of "cooking" as taking something out of a box and microwaving it. Too few understand where their food comes from. Far too few know that onions have leaves, that potatoes grow in the earth, that someone must actually raise cows -- or that lettuce plants make flowers.

If you want to know more about seed saving, two good books to look for are:

Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth, Kent Whealy

This book contains very detailed information for people who are serious about saving seeds. It stresses the importance of population size for genetic diversity, and discusses techniques for preventing cross-pollination between varieties to keep the seed stock pure. It may be more than the casual home gardener wants to get into, but it's still a useful book, especially the sections on cleaning and storing seeds.

Saving Seeds: The Gardener's Guide to Growing and Storing Vegetable and Flower Seeds by Marc Rogers.

Less detailed than Seed to Seed, this is a good book for the beginning seed saver. Like Seed to Seed, its focus is mainly on food plants, but it does include some flowers as well.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

August in the Garden

Late summer has been a busy time. I spent a week out of town for a grant project, and then for the last several weeks we've had workers here on a special project (more pictures of that later). About all I've been doing in the garden is watering and some routine maintenance. The garden is showing its usual late-summer "it's too hot/rainy/weird weather-ish to get out and work today" rattiness, so here's for some close-ups:

This is something new this year -- a pomegranate blossom on my dwarf pomegranate bush:

And even better, a pomegranate! Compare it to the pansy in the background -- it's a bit smaller than a quarter:

Coreopsis has been putting on a good show this summer, though it hasn't attracted as many bees and butterflies as I'd hoped:

Rudbeckia is just starting to put on a show:

The seeds for fancy ornamental sunflowers that I planted in the spring all came to nothing. My best sunflower is one that came up under the bird feeder from seeds that the birds scattered:

Fall-blooming cyclamen are popping up, a veritable miniature forest of cyclamen marching through the parched soil:

A white cyclamen popped up, a sport that I've not seen before. I hope I get more:

The Tristar strawberries got off to a late start, but they're still producing well. I've had strawberries and yogurt with breakfast every morning for many weeks now:

My lilies have all petered out, except this big white one:

The late spring set everything back. I'm only now seeing the first blush on my tomatoes:

This pink picotee penstemon is just luscious:

My pink and blue border is pretty, but a lot messier than I imagined it:

The blue asters are just starting to bloom to the delight of the honeybees:

Honeybees also like my Chelone (turtle heads). There's a bee crawling into the lowest blossom in front:

Bumblebees seem to like them, too:

One of three small corn patches around the yard. This patch hasn't tassled yet, but the other two have:

And that's where we are at the end of August.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

New blog: Hissy Stitch

I'm overdue for another post here, so what do I go and do? Start another blog, naturally. I've got a bit to say about knitting, sewing, and other crafting that I do, so I started Hissy Stitch here on Blogger. Enjoy!

Monday, July 14, 2008

How green is your pet?

So maybe by now you're conserving on gas (these days, who isn't?), turning out the lights when you don't need them, using summer's heat to dry your clothes, using fewer pesticides and herbicides, composting, and lots of other "green" ideas you've been hearing about.

I know I have. And yet every time I feed the herd of cats we've acquired and I toss yet another aluminum can in the recycling, or scoop out the cat boxes into old plastic grocery bags and toss the bags into the trash, I wonder if there's not a better way.

Well, wouldn't you know it. Of course there is. has a whole page on How to Green Your Pet, from spaying and neutering to prevent pet overpopulation problems, to keeping cats indoors so they don't continue to decimate the wild bird population (or keep them behind safe fencing, such as The Purrfect Fence), to cleaning up after them properly.

Want to go a step further? I've wondered if there's something better I could do with those bags of kitty waste I've been dumping, especially since I've been using canvas bags for grocery shopping and my supply of paper and plastic bags is running low. True, we're not supposed to compost the stuff and put it on our veggie gardens, for fear of parasites and diseases. But it can be composted, using a pit composter which you can build yourself or even buy ready made (or see this model).

I'll be investigating the possibilities of composting pet waste, as I have some questions still. For example, how concentrated are the nutrients coming out of the composted poo? Could I, for example, plant some shrubs around it or a tree near it? Would that supply a steady stream of fertilizer, or would that be too strong for the woody plants? I may just have to try it and see.

The little guy with his tongue sticking out is our Edison, last summer when he was still little. Now he looks like this:

except his back leg is all shaved now because he had orthpedic surgery to correct some congenital problems in his ankle and knee, poor guy.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Review: Noah's Garden

Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

As interested as I am in gardening for wildlife you'd think I would have run across this a lot sooner. Noah's Garden is the narrative of the author's work to restore her 5 acre lot in upstate New York to something resembling native vegetation. It turns out that restoring a habitat involves a lot more than just planting some native species and calling it good. Habitats are interactive systems, and having the right native species for the area in the right numbers and the right combinations are all important.

Once the critical mass is reached, however, Stein herself discovered that if you plant the habitat, they will come. In this case, "they" consisted of plant species that she'd not planted herself, and she watched in amazement as a rare bit of endangered ecosystem self-assembled over the course of several seasons once she had the right woody plants in place.

Noah's Garden is not a scolding rebuke against "foreign" plants in the landscape, nor against any particular type of landscaping at all. Most of the book chronicles the author's personal discoveries on her own acreage and around a tiny vacation cottage. The author does go into why the typical suburban blandscape is so hostile to wildlife. Sprawling suburbs have, in fact, been enormously destructive, as native habitats are replaced by monocultures of lawn and a small selection of nonnative "easy care" shrubs and trees.

Can suburbs and native habitats co-exist? They can, according to Stein, if one is willing to be neither a pure nativist nor an intolerant lawn jockey. Pocket woodlands featuring native trees, berry-bearing hedgerows with native shrubs, wildlife-friendly ponds, backyard meadows created with native grasses and flowers (not the weedy "Meadow in a Can" products) can all contribute to a more varied, more naturalized landscape. Stein also suggests ways in which neighbors with adjoining back yards (or builders who create those adjoining yards in the first place) might cooperate to create islands and corridors of woods and shrubs that are more wildlife-friendly.

And what would be the benefits? Why bother with the work of re-creating habitat when we already know how to do the lawn-shrub-barkdust routine so well? Because the varied habitat can actually help us garden better. A healthy habitat supports birds and predatory insects that feast on garden pests and keep pests from overpopulating in the first place. Water features can harbor toads, a gardener's best friend. And let's face it, wildlife watching is just plain interesting.

When I travel to large cities, where the suburbs sprawl beyond the horizon, I'm often dismayed at the vast artificiality of it all, and at the prospect of anyone attempting to garden for wildlife in the midst of so much wildlife-hostile territory. One yard out of thousands with a hedgerow and a butterfly garden isn't going to restore a habitat. But if that one yard inspires one more yard... and that inspires one more yard... perhaps something wonderful might come of it. (Registering your backyard habitat with the National Wildlife Federation and putting up their official habitat sign is one way of educating and inspiring the neighbors.)

It's unfortunate that Sara Stein has passed away since this book was written. It is fortunate that the book lives on as a testimony to what one person with a little determination can accomplish for this earth.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Save the Bees -- eat ice cream!

Bees, as you may have heard, are in trouble. Many hypotheses have been forwarded as to why honeybees populations have been dropping, including pesticide use (the most obvious), bee mites, lack of forage, and even cell phones. All these hypotheses have some evidence to back them up, and the problem may be a combination of them all.

Some people plant bee gardens, just as one might plant flowers for hummingbirds or butterflies. This helps by providing nectar and pollen for foraging bees, and can support all kinds of good worker bees besides honeybees.

If you're wondering, "Is there one more thing I can do for bees? Just one small thing?" Hagen-Daas has an answer for you. Check out their Help the Honeybees website, an interactive site done in Flash. They have more information on bees, tips for helping bees, info on what the company is doing for bees, and a cute little bee-maker so you can email animated bees to your friends.

You mean I can help bees by eating more Hagen Daas? Sweeeet!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Garden in July

I'm rather overdue on posting these pictures, since many of these flowers have faded already. The California poppies are still going strong, and the Columbine are hanging in there, but the true poppies are gone, and some strong winds took the last of the petals off of the Lincoln Constance climbing rose today:

The crabapple that it's climbing on is dead and must be removed, but that would leave my rose without support. I'm considering -- and one of the older ladies who walks around the neighborhood a lot concurs with my idea -- of cutting out the smaller branches and leaving the main trunk and a few strong branches for the rose to clamber over.

The former ugliest corner, now transformed into a veggie garden, is coming along. Later on, as the pink geraniums bloom more profusely, the front bed will look even better.

Columbines came up in many spectacular colors this year. They tend to wander all over my garden. I didn't get a good shot of the native Aquilegia formosa, which is small and bright orange, before it faded, but the others that turned up are here, starting with the blue and white:

Here's a solid blue:
A dramatic coral pink, with yellow highlights in the center:

A dwarf red-and-white named variety, "The Hobbit," which alas, did not set seed:

And my favorite this year, a shell-pink Columbine with heartbreakingly delicate shading:

California poppies can come in more colors than blazing orange. Here are some in pink:

And a sweet vanilla white:
This pretty annual lavender poppy came from seed sold by one of the historical gardens in town. I made a point of saving seed for it this year for seed exchanges.

I also saved seed from this pink double poppy that appeared all by itself.