Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fall Garden Chores

garden path end of September

Every year the garden seems to grow larger and larger. Plants that were growing a few inches a year somehow accelerate the bigger they get. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong here. This is how plants grow and eventually they slow down. The problem comes when someone with as much desire to fit every plant that he likes in a manner becoming a nice garden runs out of room and they all start growing normally into one another. The results are that you need to prune or eliminate some plants entirely.

In my California approach to life (live your life in private behind the biggest hedges you can grow) I created a walled world of plants. Most of it is deciduous so when winter comes you can readily look into my yard and I can look into others. This of course is not true either because in spite of the plants being deciduous (loose their leaves) the mass of branches and twigs form enough of a diaphanous drape between the yards to blur most of them. Back to what I was saying, so I walled in the garden with plants and surveyed the second floor windows of my neighbors to where additional plantings were needed to block their views into my garden. Eventually all kinds of deciduous and evergreen shrubs or trees were planted to take care of all suspect peep holes into my garden.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t do anything too out of the ordinary, but I like my garden private! I like to escape and read or feed the kois or not be bothered by anyone seeing me and wanting to start a conversation I may or not want to have. A dear old friend, Neil Dahlerup, from California days once told me the a story about his first house and the importance of privacy. He had purchased a little cottage in Laguna Beach. Here the houses were one next to the other and everyone lived behind their hedges in spite the fact that the hedges only hid you. Everyone could hear everything anyone was doing. Before he painted a wall or cleaned a carpet he went out and bought a series of hedge plants to make private an open terrace that faced the street. Of course, he did have all kinds of wild parties in the Jacuzzi he put in the terrace to which I was often privy to, but that is another story.

Pruned twice to bring to this height used to be higher that garage eve

I again digress from the point. So I put all these shrubs and trees that now need to be kept in shape. I had planted a Forsythia hedge between the garage and the garden. I let the hedge grow to about nine to ten feet. Each year, I had to climb a rickety ladder to trim the hedge a least twice during the season. Nothing to far up there, but I am not any younger and each time I would wobble more. So I have brought down the hedge to about 5 feet so I can prune standing on my own two feet. I started doing this in late summer and have just finished bringing it down as much as I can tolerate without opening the garden up too much. It took two major prunings and a period or recovery between them. If pruned all at once it would grow but less balanced. I intend the hedge to creep back up to six feet and hide all the woody cuts I have just created, then it will be perfect. I will be able to prune from the ground and Julia will not worry about finding me with a broken something one day!

Robinia grew out of my dwarf hostas

A second plant that has served me well is a volunteer Locust Tree (Robinia). A bird must have left the seen that has, in the last five years grown into a twenty plus foot three. It grew in an almost perfect spot. Well, almost, it grew in a beautiful patch of dwarf hostas but perfectly placed to block the afternoon sun and act as an umbrella to my outdoor table. Finally, it blocked the views of my neighbor’s second floor windows. I have since it started growing and nurturing another Styrax japonicum that is behind and is now almost 20 feet. It will soon spread its branches and create a wonderful tall wall that in spring will be covered with thousands of magical hanging white stars (meant to be seen from below). When the Styrax is finally the right size I will take out the Robinia and not worry about my constant pruning to keep it out of the gutters and growing too big.

About ten feet of robinia tops were removed

Robinia pruned back to umbrella size. Styrax is coming nicely just behind and to the left

All of this is just maintenance that needs to be done in order to keep the garden in shape and the private world, Private! I hope you don’t think it unfriendly. I really like my neighbors and get along with all of them. My neighbors on either side both have large yards filled with lawn and plantings and all their patio furniture, toys, bicycles, playground equipment, barbecues, sandboxes, abandoned plantings beds, ponds, composters, rain barrels, drainage pipes, tree swings and all their own adventures…do you get the reason why I may want a green wall?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Planetary Issues

longer shadows of approaching fall

As world leaders are meeting at the United Nations in New York City on world climate I wonder how we can manage a planet when we have so many different points of views on these issues? The idea that we have so many purposes in spite of our commonality struck me when thinking about the readers to this blog across the planet. We who read blogs have a certain level of affluence or access to computers to be able to see other points of views on subjects we share with one another. Yet, within the same countries we come from there are varying points of views and needs as to what gardening or survival might mean.

More and more we read or hear that water will be the next major world crisis that will consume our interest if it is not already affecting you directly. Price for water is expected to grow in cost everywhere. Where I live in the East Coast of the United States rain is plentiful. It is so much so, that flooding occurs more than drought. I jokingly always refer to our corner as a swamp. In spite of the abundant availability of water, I pay approximately $70.00 a month between water and sewer charges. This sum is not inconsequetial but I barely use any for gardening. I take for granted the fact that I have clean potable water coming out of the faucet. When I lived in California, rationing of water was beginning to take place because of the millions of people having to share a limited quantity of this resource. I have no idea how water is apportioned in other places in the planet. I suspect some places will be like me while in other places your water may not be metered or there may be limited access to it.

I have, in the past grown the odd tomato, eggplant and pepper plant. I tried growing apples. Now I only grow herbs. I found that food production opened the door to an array of bugs that I did not want fight. Whereas my garden was nearly bug free when in flower production, when I introduced food production there seemed to be an invitation to everything that could decimate both food and flower. I found that such food products were less expensive and tasteful when purchased in a store but sufficiently tasteful for me. I guess I am saying that I am not a farmer but recognize that many people use their gardens for food production. I have ultimate respect for farmers who produce our food and face great deal of challenges in doing so.

My garden measures approximately 150 by 50 feet (50 by 16.5 meters). The idea that I have a garden which is strictly decorative also strikes me as a luxury that comes from living in an industrialized rich nation. Although I am anything but rich in reality or by comparison to others in this country I am sure that when compared to many in the planet I would certainly appear as such.

I tell you all of this because I am rather interested in you. This blog has been viewed by people in every continent. I invite you to introduce yourselves and use this blog to exchange some commonality. In the times we are living, we have never been closer to one another through all of the advances of our technology. Let us find ways and share some stories.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Almost time for soup...

Fall is certainly upon us. The shift in seasons has started, one day cool another warm. It is like an accordion sometimes playing a note sometimes just taking in air. It is quite wonderful to open up all the windows and be able to enjoy days that are not cold or hot. The garden has a way of flowing through the house with the wafting of fragrances from the last of the flowers of the season. The garden looks and feels true. It is as shaggy as it can get and still look nice before the frost will kill it off for another year, but that is still, sometime away. For now, it is just me, the birds and the mosquitoes enjoying the lush vegetation and the errant and overgrown shrubs that block my view down the gravel walk.
Fall has brought the prospect of new employment as the economy seems to be coming back to life. I have several prospects that appear to be lining themselves up. I am old enough to have lived through some of these economic downturns before. Bad periods are followed by good ones; otherwise, we would not have words to describe their differences and historically this is an ongoing process. Our memories seem to only know the present and easily forget the past. When September 11 occurred and the economy came to a screeching halt I lost a wonderful job. It was not the first time, so I was better prepared emotionally to handle the time alone away from my professional colleagues and my creative pursuits. It is never easy to lose a job under any circumstances, but we recover and adapt and in turn make new friends and connections and start another process where we become creative and productive again. If you are out there like me, don’t give up. I may be optimistic but you have to be!
Autumn Clematis fully re-established on wire trellis
Graham Thomas fall flush
Fall has brought some revelations about the summer. While I was traveling in Florida visitors to my garden had dined on fine sushi! Three of my most beautiful kois disappeared from the pond; one was even photographed for an article in the Philadelphia Enquirer. I was suspect of all kinds of treachery ranging from the beautiful hawks that regularly visit in a neighboring towering oak to a tiger like large cat that skulks in the garden. I also even considered human truancy during my absence. The answer was much simpler, as it always is. I had forgotten about similar disappearances in the past when the fish were smaller and more numerous. Now that they had grown to respectable sizes, the largest almost a foot long, they were quickly and sorely missed as they no longer aid create the kaleidoscopic ballet on the water.
The answer, as I said was much simpler. Years ago, a house two doors away had stayed empty for quite some time. Somewhere during this vacancy between owners, raccoons had set up housekeeping in the soffit of an outdoor porch. I managed to trap the father in my garden and he was relocated to the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a wilderness area of great beauty with thousands of acres of pines and other native species thirty minutes away. I have no idea how long raccoons live, but I suspect that the mother found herself another husband and returned regularly to raise her babes in the soffit. This year she must have been working hard to raise three pups, for she consumed my largest kois. Unfortunately and fortunately my neighbors was aware of her residence in the soffit and hired a trained professional to capture and relocate the family. All should be happy looking for trout and shad in the Pine Barrens.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

City Garden Contest

Gardeners at work in Community Garden in Awbury Arboretum

Philadelphia is a most unusual city. It has somewhat of an inferiority complex in its relationship to New York and Washington. Its accomplishments are almost always described in the past tense. It was the first Capital; it has the first zoo, many of the first museums or major collections, the first modern skyscraper etc. Even one of its neighborhoods, “The Parkway” gets often described as an American Champs Elysees. There is nothing wrong with the grittiness or some of its has-been qualities. It has great cultural institutions that include theater, symphony, opera, jazz, and everything you can imagine with a roster of great dining and drinking establishments. It is a city of neighborhoods and of a very varied population where the rich live within blocks to the poor and everything in between. It is a very walkable place and in many ways one of the nicest American cities you will discover.

One of the greatest institutions in Philadelphia is the Not-for-Profit Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) They put on the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest and oldest such in event on the planet. For what its worth, my friends from Kew Gardens thought it was much better than the English, Chelsea Flower Show! PHS is also responsible for undertaking many citywide beautification and neighborhood improvement programs trying to sort out some of the problems left over from having been such an important city in the past. When I first arrived here to do graduate studies in 1992, the city had over 50,000 empty and decaying buildings! Over time, many neighborhoods have seen major renovation and new interest, but problems still remain like in most cities
Flower Bed at Awbury Community Garden
One of the most interesting programs undertaken by PHS is a citywide effort that aims to help create green places throughout the city where people can garden and reclaim many of the abandoned lots where the old buildings stood. This is a major effort, as you can imagine, for many sites are left over with tons of debris from poorly demolished structures. PHS and neighborhoods team up to clean up and create places for neighbors to garden and come together as communities. There are numerous gardens throughout the city and I suspect that no other city in the United States can lay claim to a similar accomplishment.

In August, the City Garden Contest takes place where gardeners are encouraged to enter their efforts for recognition and appreciation by peer gardeners. Judging categories include, small medium and large community, flower, children’s, potted, streetscapes, vegetable…you get the idea. Everyone is welcomed and hopefully everyone is further encouraged to keep doing what they have done to better the city, their neighborhoods and their lives.

I became involved with the group as a student at the University of Pennsylvania when I was working on my graduate landscape degree in early 1990's
. The truth of it is, that for me, it has been the most wondrous experience in my gardening life. Judging gardens has allowed me to meet fellow gardeners from all sorts of social and economic classes. I have been in neighborhoods that were covered with needles from drug abuse where these gardens were one of the first outposts to improving the quality of life.

Individual Plot arranged for socializing and food and flower production

Over the years I have seen every garden imaginable and discovered a lot of wonderful neighborhoods in Philadelphia. There have been fancy gardens where the owners have offered us all kinds of refreshments and goodies to eat and be friendly and at the same time try and impress us to award them a first prize. Similary, we have been in gardens where people were really poor but just as grand an effort was done to show us a great time with very little but their hard work.

It is with great pride that I share with you some of the gardens and the ideas from this year. Our group of four judged the final selections for Community Gardens. Here gardens are composed of many individual plots for people to garden who don't have their own yards. In most all such community gardens there are waiting lists to get a plot. Depending on the demand, some Community Gardens allow you to only keep your plot for a few years and then go on a wait list to get one all over again ( a bit Draconian if you ask me).

These gardens show all levels of participation. In some cases older gardeners teach young gardeners techniques for growing all sorts of plants. The gardens have limited resources but are clever or inventive with what they have: some have water, others borrow it from city hydrants or have rain barrels or drag hoses from neighboring faucets. Food is grown for the individual, for the community or as it has become the case with more successful gardens, they allocate a portion of their food production that is in turn donated to Citywide food banks to help feed anyone who needs it. When you think of it, there is nothing more generous.

Raised beds: if you are on a wheel chair or have a bad back you can still garden

A strange watering manifold by Schuylkill River Park Community Garden!

Some of the great sunflowers from this Summer

Art Museum Community Garden Compost Piles

Art Museum Community Garden Various Plots: A hammock for the weary!

Getting the Tour

More of the plots

Rain barrels for watering that are filled through a main system. Only watering Cans allowed here

Another Glory of Summer

The PHS Awards Ceremony will be held sometime in the middle of October. Unfortunately, some garden win more than others as they have more people participating, more resources or political capital and are in better locations. Regardless, all are winners who garden! All the gardens are in Philadelphia, even though a group of us has been pushing to include the neighboring Jersey suburbs. Happy Gardening!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Summer's End

path with nasturtiums and other growth reaching across
My favorite time of year has arrived with its beautiful weather when sitting in the sun feels warm and not scorching. The sun is bright the clouds are like cotton candy floating on a beautiful blue sky. Yes the season is heading to its magical climax.

Detail of nasturtiums

For quite sometime I have done what I like to do in the garden – nothing! People who look at my garden always wonder the hours and hours that I put in taking care of it all. Yes, there is no doubt that I put a lot of time into creating and guiding the process at the beginning of each year more or less, but then, I recede into the background and take it all in. After the first flush or roses my biggest job is deadheading thousands of hips (a task I never manage to complete) to get more blooms throughout the rest of the season. I don’t need the garden to be perfect and I want it to look as natural as possible. To achieve this you have to step back and let “nature take its course”. It is hard for people to do this and sometimes feel creative. Fortunately, I have always had a lot on my plate besides gardening so that was easy.

Partially eaten and very fragrant hosta plantaginea

This summer season allowing for my unemployed state I have managed to do a lot more than usual around the house and the garden, with a little traveling thrown in for good measure and my house guest episode! This year, I have also had this blog which has nurtured me as much as I hope it has informed some of you. It is hard to come up with a topic each week but so far they have fallen into place by themselves based on garden and life experiences. I have tried to start some storylines about other places that I want to return to in the future.

Japanese Anemones. I thought I had white only pinks survived!

It is hard writing about yourself and not seeming narcissistic. This, as I said before, is a bit of an act of voyeurism and journal combined. For the longest time I have been interested in knowing something about the readers to the blog. The only way you get that is from comments or emails to the site, but reading other blogs I knew of writers who had placed a counting device that gave them information about their visitors. Realistically, many writers use it as a way of branding their sites and eventually monetize them. I had wanted to find out who was out there so I put in a Sitemeter on the blog to get a sense of traffic that frequented the site. For months, it never registered any visitors when in fact I knew many people had visited the site. I finally, took the time to question their support department who said that I had done “something wrong” or when I changed the page format however minor “something had gone wrong”. To my surprise, a quick fix opened up a world of general information on who is reading the blog or at least who stumbled on to it. It does not give you anything specific about the visitors just general area where they are located and which of the stories have been read the most. The numbers of visitors has been steadily growing. What surprises me is that it is as widely read in the US as it is Europe. Besides these two places, there also appear to be people in the South America,Middle East, India, and South East Asia and even New Zealand who have taken a peek. The power of computers, our modern technology and the written word are amazing!

Marvelous recent hybrid Agapanthus 'Ellie Mae'

My back is still out of commission so I have read further volumes; amongst the many, I just finished My Life in France. This is Julia’s Child account of the period that created the person we know and remember. This book is a tie in to the Julie and Julia film (also based on the Blog and book by Julie Powell called the Julie/Julia Project) out in theaters now. The film marries two lives and two books into one film: Julie, a blogger and Julia the famous cook. The film is marvelous but did not give me enough of the Child life. My friend Elena gave me her book to finish while I recover as I have more time to read. I wondered if some of the scenes in the film were invented to make Julia more human, like the sexual innuendo between the hard cannelloni pasta and the male member so out of character but fun to watch! It is funny that we need to invent on lives that were already magical. I have read both books and recommend them. They are both great reading, if from very different points of view.

I laugh at how accustomed we have become to our modern lives with phones, email and now twitter! It took Julia well over ten years to write, rewrite, re-rewrite, coordinate, correspond with multiple publishers, and impress numerous people for her cooking opus: Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A testament to Carbon paper and Royal typewriters! If her celebrity was not de facto, it was sealed when she agreed to test three TV episodes for WGBH Boston produced by 28 years-old Russell Morash (also of Victory Garden and This Old House). By the way, for those of you who saw the movie, Julia did get her diploma from Cordon Blueu in Paris, she passed the second time she took her test.

PS. Every now and then I get a question about gardens that is written as a comment. If you want a personal answer it might help to send me an email. Click on the envelope icon at the end of the blog and you will send an email to me at the blog that I can answer you personally. This time, I will answer here for everyone on a question about Hollyhocks and why they might not thrive from one year to the next.

Hollyhocks are prone to many diseases: Hollyhock Rust, Nematodes, Powdery Mildew, and Oedema (rupture of capillaries from too much water). The first three I know well and the fourth one I just found out. When plants establish themselves after the first year they almost always develop something. Usually you take the seeds and create a new patch of them in a different spot to avoid the nematodes that usually find them and eat their roots. The rust and mildew are fungi that almost always find, infect, stunt and eventually destroy them. Oedema apparently affects them as well as can burst the internal piping that nourishes the plant if they are watered or rains too much. To grow them you must be willing to collect the seeds and replant in different spots each year always keeping in mind to keep them well ventilated and on the dry side. They grow best in hot dry climates. This is why I was so impressed with the batch that I found upstate NY. Good luck with yours!