Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

from Left: Poppie, Vange, Suki, Limo, Me, Sparky, Vori, Landfill, Terry and Zorro

We decided that we needed a group shot of all of us for family and friends. That is simpler said than done. Specially when there are six animals and four people. It is bad enough to get the people to look in your direction, imagine what it was like to get the animals to pose. Surprisingly, the animals came out more natural than the people as we tried to steer them for a pose. Regardless, we all had a lot of fun posing for this sort of family portrait.

Limo, Zorro and Me

Limo, has been running around like a 7 month old Dalmatian, which says a lot if you know anything about the breed. He has been a little crazy while at the farm. He runs around full tilt through the woods like a deer or plays with his pals Suki, Sparky or Landfill in the dog pen. All three are wonderful dogs that have been rescued at one time or another by Vange and Terry. Of course, his favorites are the horses. He has was not really around them in the farm where he was born and last time we were here this summer he was impressed by these giant dogs! Well, enjoy the holidays and lets hope that 2011 is good for us all. So until next year. Happy New Year and Happy Gardening.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Back to North Carolina for Christmas

Limo checking my whereabouts

Last year at this time I was packing the car to join my friends Terry and Vange in North Carolina. Vori, Vange's brother and I made the trip on the Prius in the famous Christmas blizzard( Happy New Year blog January 10 2010). We drove right through it with hundreds of cars abandoned along the road and it and it was hell on wheels. We left the house early am and after abandoning the car at the bottom of the hill made it up to the ranch to have warm delicious soup at about midnight. What a drive!

Also, what a difference a year makes! At that time I was sure that I would move to Asheville, North Carolina to join other retirees and find paradise in that mountainside community. Well, as you can see I am little further south. Many reasons prompted the decision to come to Florida that range from weather to home values and property taxes. Certainly the house I found in Florida could not be passed up.

Just this weekend, I went to a party in the Seminole Heights section of Tampa. This is a historic neighborhood of Florida bungalows similar to mine. The party was at a friend from New Jersey that exited there about two years ago. He lives in a glorious house which has been for the most part restored and modernized to make for a splendid home. As a consequence of its condition the house was purchased for almost three times the price of mine. It made me happy to know that when I get through with my remodel I will have something that will command quite a price as I am by the beach, more or less.

A little plaster opening for the new vent grew quickly!

For now, I have a lot of work ahead of me. As a matter of fact, while I write this blog a repairman is fixing the damage caused by the AC/Heat pump people last week. The new more powerful system needed an additional vent and a return. The crew installing the new vent cut the hole for the new vent and created a little damage around the vent. Plaster is great but if you break the way it is attached to the lath it starts pulling away from the ceiling and can pull more plaster in the process. The repairman has made quick fix of what was a sore on the ceiling of my house. The AC people are not happy about paying for the repair but it was their inability to deal with the plaster correctly that caused the problem. They tried worming their way out of their responsibility blaming the old house, but I applied Teddy Roosevelt diplomacy without a big stick and it is now almost repaired.

Meanwhile, I have a few more simple gifts to wrap and a little packing to do. I am sure I will have to clean up after the repairman as part and parcel of this adventure. Tomorrow, at the crack of dawn we shall take to the road again for a ten hour trip North. With any luck there will be no snow this time and even if it is cold I will be able to drive all they way up to the front door. Limo, I am sure is awaiting a chance to go running with horses as his Christmas wish. Enjoy yourselves, we will.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas in Florida

I am back in Florida. I spent my last day up north, until next year, with my friend Julia having some quality time and in many ways revisiting our life in Center City Philadelphia. I can be somewhat melodramatic without any intention but as we walked the streets of Philadelphia I felt a sense of change and loss as so much of it has changed so dramatically since I first arrived in 1992. So many businesses seem to have changed hands and even for a recent arrival such as myself, I have seen multiple iterations of culture and institutions in very little time. I remember saying to Julia that I needed to go to a place where I have no history, where I don't have to think of all that has come and gone before. I want to discover something new, even if it is not as grand or established.

One such institution is the Old Wanamaker Department Store that has since been Lord and Taylor and now Macy's. Regardless, it still displays one of the most wonderful Christmas musical shows anywhere. I remember a winter in the 90's when my mother came to visit and it was so cold we took refuge in the Wanamaker tea room overlooking the display to warm up and enjoy the show. The tea room and my Mother are both gone and but the display continues as our memories...
In Florida they don't take themselves too seriously but I suspect they manage to enjoy Christmas just the same. I have been to a Victorian Party at the Safford House, the oldest house in Tarpon Springs around the corner from mine where volunteers use the season to celebrate and no doubt to raise some money for their causes and to keep the termites at bay. I say this because the house was built in 1883 out of heart pine and it was restored in the early 2000's only to need a fumigation soon there after for all the new wood that was used in the restoration managed to provide a feast for the little critters. I have slowly started to discover that my house is not all heart pine like I thought and it has suffered more at the little feet of the termites. Oh well, something gone eat you sooner or later.
I have come down in part to install air conditioning/heat pump which my old house needed. The system in place was installed in 1986 and regardless how good it was then it had long stopped working as intended. The recent cold spell here had tested its ability to produce heat and I knew it was not producing cold when it was hot here when I first saw the house. I did not need this expense but what are you going to do? At least there is a tax credit for the new system which is incredibly efficient and will hopefully last another 24 years!

As you can see from the image the old one looks like a little rust bucket and the new one like Darth Vader. The system was installed in a day and the house went from 1986 to 2010 in heating. The heat pump comes on for an hour and the house is toasty. The old one worked all night and never managed to get it beyond the low 60's. Although it is not the heat that I am worried about. I am confident that when summer comes it will be ready to extract gallons of water from the humid air and make life comfortable here in the tropics.

After the Wanamaker show I came home to finish packing for my trek to Florida. I realized that this trip was the beginning of saving some of my oldest friends: my plants. I don't say this with any disrespect to my two legged friends, but I have known some of my plants longer than many people. They have come to me in all manner of ways. I have some of my Mother's plant. One in particular, a Croton, which I have managed to kill and bring back from other cuttings more than once. The Croton, being one of my most important plants from my childhood, as hedges of it lined the entry walk of our home in Cuba. Well, I brought the last two remaining cuttings I had made and figured out that they could go in the Florida soil/sand as soon as I got here. Wrong, the weather turned cold and just as soon as I placed them outside I managed to salvaged them the next day. One more or less okay and the other a bit traumatized by the cold it has never known. So back in a pot they are waiting for warmer days to return outdoors.

This poor little Staghorn fern was given to me by my friend Shinichi Tanaka in Laguna Beach California some twenty years ago. His partner, and one of my dearest friends Niels Dahlerup would put up with me often in their backyard as I directed gardening traffic fixing this, pruning that and helping out as a way of paying for my supper for the many weekends I spent with them. They had a Jaccuzzi garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Staghorn ferns clung to walls and plants making this already delicious place look more inviting. Just before leaving California to go to Graduate School at Penn I visited one final time to have Shinichi give me two of the ferns to remind me of California. This year I lost one and I figured the remaining one should return to a place it can flourish.

I have packed a few others for this trip. My Agave Americana was wrapped and ready to come but the car was full so I was forced to leave it behind. Agaves are indistructible so when I return it will be there waiting for the next trip South.
A plant that made the trip was this Calamondin orange. It has a story and a half! My friend RJ picked the fruits from his homestead in Brownsville Texas. He saved the seeds and grew them in a small south facing window in his Co-Op in Manhattan. Somewhere along the course of events he grew more that a dozen plants and handed them out to many of his friends. I have had mine for six years or so which I brought down from Manhattan and have nurtured into a small topiary potted plant. Well, no more. It now resides in the sand next to the Ponderosa Lemon, the Tangerine and the Mango hoping to inspire it to grow and produce its strange fruit that is somewhat bitter but has a sweet edible rind.
Similarly many of my plants have stories, some not so romantic or complicated but they have been with me for some time. When I really have to cull my life of many things I will worry about lightening my load for now, I now have a house twice the size of the one I have lived in New Jersey so I figure I can take just about anything I want. Most of my dear plant friends will reside in my new Crescent garden, just off my dining room. As you can see it is not much. I have been at work even in the local cold temperatures putting some nutrients into the powdery sand. What a job I have ahead, but the journey is exciting and new.

Bordering the Spring Bayou where the Manatees are wintering in herds to stave of the cold I noticed the local little illuminated train (sorry for the blurry image I left my tripod in NJ) that reminded me of the Wanamaker Christmas display. It is solitary and small by comparison but just as heart filled to those here. My new friend Paula was disheartened by the budget cuts that eliminated some 1500 Poinsettias from the display. Strangely enough that reminded me of another plant to put in the garden. In Cuba and in California as well as Florida, Poinsettias grow and bloom outdoors at this time of year. A house like mine would have had an old plant or two to celebrate the holidays. It will again, Happy Gardening and Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Historic House for Sale, Collingswood New Jersey

Fall in the Collingswood Garden
Neighbors are often the people you least know. In spite of the fact that you live next to them, there are always aspects of them that elude you. I mention this because I returned to Collingswood to spend Thanksgiving with my extended family of friends. My family is near Tarpon Springs and scattered around Los Angeles, but I figured that they would not be disappointed in not spending another Thanksgiving with me as I have not in the past. So I went home to my friends and neighbors for one last round. In the future, I figured my house would be settled enough and with plenty of room to receive any of them and I would start celebrating once again with my family and hopefully with new friends I have made down in Florida.

Of course the trip to Collingswood continues to be about arranging for the sale of the house. I have held off selling and awaiting Spring because I applied and tested for a Federal position which I was told I was the highest score. However, this said, the federal government is stranger these days than in the past because of the change in political power. The position that I had in the pocket has vaporized until who knows when. It is a shame because I was relying on this bureaucratic post to provide excellent medical coverage. So life goes on.

Interiors article in the Philadelphia Inquirer some years ago

I continue to evaluate my possessions thinking if I will ever need this or that book or notes on a subject I could teach or hundreds of other items that attach me to a life that I no longer have and may never have again. Still, I am in the process of cleaning house to make it more palatable to potential purchasers. I am told by all my cable connected friends that in order to sell my house (according to the many, many shows on cable filling the airwaves and time) I must depersonalize it. Of course this is strange to me as my house has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer because of the way it is decorated and the garden has been on numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

I don't get it! Part of a house is who lives in it. We look at Architectural Digest or Country Life or any of the many other voyeuristic magazines that allow us to snoop at houses and properties around the country and the world. These magazines make their business on selling personality. Why must all the sudden my house be castrated of me?

Regardless, I am taking away the excess. I don't think I have much and most will agree with that but no one really wants to see pictures of me and my dead family and friends prominently displayed on my triple dresser in my bedroom. I don't have a grand piano or I would have them on one like I see all the time on Architectural Digest. I am packing boxes of nick knacks and personal items and getting them ready for my next trip to Tarpon Springs.

The house will be a little less me, but the color on the living and dining rooms walls will be the lavender that I painted years ago that everyone thought was strange, but they now realize was a good choice. My kitchen will still be filled with pots and pans and be Mandarin Yellow. It will still look like a chef lives here even though I haven't cooked any major meals lately; one more meal will hopefully unite us again. The paintings on the walls depict some of my own earliest efforts to gifts, inheritances and purchases that trace my life and could belong to no one else in this configuration.

Plumeria (tall) and other plants awaiting transport

Even the garden is loosing a few plants. For years I have made a habit of growing plants from other climates that required over wintering in the basement or front porch. A Mexican Blue agave that can get the size of VW beetle I have managed to root prune and keep from escaping my garden urn must be put in the basement each year. No more, I dug it up, as I will dig up some other plants that would rather be elsewhere and bring them along to the sun and warmth of Florida. One very special plant that I almost gave away last year is my Plumeria from the house in LA. It has managed to slowly fight off dying in this weather for the last 18 years. In the tropics it would be a three story tree. Here it still manages to blooms every odd year but in the future it will grow and bloom every year.

It is hard to say goodbye to a place or to friends. A friend acknowledged my feelings that some of my friends are still angry about me leaving. Oh well, they will get over it as I am less mad myself about some of the decisions I have needed to make hopeful of a nicer future.

A chop at the property line

I, however will not miss my rear neighbors. These are newcomers to the area. If they are any indication of who will be able to afford these houses in the future, well, then my departure is perfectly timed. For the last year they have taken and plasticized every inch of their house and garden. Vinyl siding has been plastered on top of vinyl siding. A new white vinyl fence went up on day one. It was such an abrupt change that it was shocking and disconnecting from what landscape existed inside the, now, Gulag. It contains three of four yappy dogs, so I guess they were doing me a favor. Over the year they took out all the plantings that existed and applied sod and little gnomes and other unique decorations. Upon my return from Florida I discovered that a long swooping branch from my willow was cut at the property line. I had contemplated removing it before they did, but they started hanging bird boxes on it and I thought I was making a contribution. Well, no more. Total sterility has set it. So be it.

So you if you want a wonderful three bedroom historic house in Collingswood, New Jersey with Chestnut interior woodwork and a fabulous garden, drop me an email. I am sure we can work something out. I am off to church so happy gardening!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chores & Gardening in Tarpon Springs

If you ever saw the Money Pit with Tom Hanks or Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House with Cary Grant you will know some of the passion and the fury involved in building or restoring a house. I have been through this three other times and swear I will never do it again, but here I am with tools in hand on a new adventure that involves the creation of a new garden and the restoration of an old house.

I came down to take on some of the hundreds of repairs that are needed in my old house. The escape came at a wonderful time as the weather was getting pretty bad up north and here it has been like a bit of paradise with tropical breezes blowing and hovering in the high 70's to the low 80's. Not bad, at all! However, I have spent time going back and forth from hardware stores to Home Depot to the house and slowly repairing things that bug me. For instance, all the hardware in this house has been painted, not once but twenty times! The door escutcheons are so deformed with paint that you can't tell weather they have detail or are smooth.

solid brass escutcheon paint free waiting to be brushed and paint encrusted one

So I went to a Thrift shop and found a classic crock pot and have cooked all my door and window hardware for ten to twelve hours. The results are that 40 or 50 years of paint have fallen off without much effort to reveal solid brass hardware that had rusted between paint coats. I took a brass wire brush and rubbed with a little mineral oil and now I have historic patina hardware like the fancy ones purchased from high end suppliers.

I have fixed lots of small details from window screens to remove hundreds of nails and patch all the walls. What they held, who knows? I have fixed the sash cords on some of the double hung windows. Windows that in part did not fully open or close and had the gap filled with caulking and newspaper. Real smart for a place crawling with termites! Somehow the quality of the original construction and materials are the only things that has made this house survive almost to its first century anniversary.

Nature is very bountiful here and you are surprised how fast things grow and how they get established with very little effort and in the strangest place. Palms in particular can established themselves in the most precarious places. This one above found the empty corner of my porch. It started as nothing more that a seed the size of a grape and I decided to take it out and transplant it to a useful site, but palms are tenacious.
It would be a while before it tore the roof off as it grew.

This one had been in the ground maybe 3-5 years and had managed to build a stalk almost a foot thick with string roots coming out to establish a connection to the sandy soil and keep it in place when the hurricanes blow. I spent better part of two hours digging this one out in easy to work sandy soil, but the roots where everywhere! I also managed to take another one out between my neighbor and my back fence that would destroy the fence and even one more that had established itself in the drip line of my air conditioner drain. Clever plants.

On an errand I ran into what appeared to be a garden school. There I met my new friend Paula who runs the Gro-Group with her friend Claire. The two of them teach gardening, help with assorted projects and talks at the Library and other cultural institutions around Tarpon Springs on plants and horticulture. Part of the program teaches plant propagation and as a result they had a lot of very interesting plants. As I have said before when two plant people get together all the limitations that might exist in a traditional first encounter totally disappear as their bond for plants is so strong that a friendship quickly forms. Such was the case with Paula and me. She and Claire showed me around the small plot and all the plants that they had available. They had wonderful plants and were eager to find them a good home.

I had been told by the City of Tarpon Springs that they would plant Street Trees for me but only on the public right-of-way. This nixed the front of my house which has a sidewalk next to the curb and the planting area is on my land. Paula saved the day with two Live-Oaks (Quercus virginiana) that I hope will grow fast to shade the front of the property from the blistering summer sun.

Paula not only provided me with some wonderful and inexpensive plants but she also gave me a bunch and had her husband deliver the big stuff for free. She then lent me a tool as I broke my found shovel trying to remove one of the palms. I don't have it all in the ground but will before I leave to go home for Thanksgiving.

Spider lily Crinun

Box of mixed sedums and kalanchoes

Aspidistra (cast iron plant)

Wonderful native begonia

So as you can see I have started an assortment of projects that are manageable and that I can alternate from one to another so it does not become tedious and in the end I get more accomplished. In the midst of all this work I had my first house guest. I was not thrilled at first because I have a lot of work to do. I say again, A LOT OF WORK TO DO! But I thought it would be fun to receive someone in the state that the house is in and take a much needed break from all the work. For four days I have been running around and doing light projects and meeting other of my new plant lover neighbors and getting connected to that world. Tarpon Springs is a most unusual place as there are people here from all over the country and for that matter from all over the world. The climate and the natural beauty have attracted people here every corner of the US and from Canada, Britain and other parts of Europe.

Bounty from a neighbor

Garage sales occur here like every place but the ensuing conversations that come up when you are done dealing can be funny and friend creating. I have had a few of these situations occur as I was looking to pick up very cheaply things that I already own, but am not in a position to bring down. As is these garage sales are a way to meet your neighbors and begin forming what I hope are some lasting bonds. In the process of these sales I have met some great people as they all seem to know me in advance for the house I purchased is a bit of a landmark.

I guess for this Thanksgiving I am glad that I discovered this community and hope that as the tide of employment returns we all find many things to be grateful. Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Gardening!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Two Gardens

Fall has certainly arrived if not winter. The weather has been cold and the gray that I hate so much now tarnish the skies over my garden. My NJ garden is falling apart rapidly and with the impending move to Florida I have not taken the time to do much work on it except to bring indoor all the potted plants that will perish or that I don't want to be cracked by the cold weather.

There is a little bit of color all around. The hydrangeas are on their last legs but still display marvelous hues of the season. Similarly the Fall Sedum is so covered in flowers that you can barely make out any of the leaves.

Probably the most striking plant in the fall garden is Amsonia hubrichtii pictured below at my friend Carmen's garden. No flowers just gold threads to fall all over. Here she has contrasted it with cobalt blue glass which even intensifies the gold and the cobalt more.

Just 18 hours by car south of my Collingswood garden in Tarpon Springs the gray is entirely different. It can be seen in the sky but as moss hanging from the branches of the Live oaks.

As you can see the skies are rich blue and sunny and the flowers are as brilliant as ever. Everyone here is complaining that the weather is too cold. Yes, there is a cold spell going on, but temperatures are hovering in the sixties! People I have talked to from Nebraska, Michigan and upstate New York said that when they first got here they found temperatures in the 60's warm, now after years in exile they find it cold and stay indoors. For me that is an experience yet to come.
I am still enthralled with the discoveries of so many wonderful and fresh experiences, like hedges of mixed hibiscus plants rather than hedges solid stalwart puritanical privet.

A Clerondendron vine locally called Bleeding heart vine has surfaced on my privacy fence and may make contact with the mango. I am not sure if these two are to meet as I don't want the fence destroyed over time, but for now it looks exotic and strange to me.

Bromeliads are everywhere, they are used as groundcover and as I use liriope up north. People plant them as ground cover and then they bloom! Wow! There are so many different types of inflorescence that defy description. I look forward to working with them. I have many around my garden scattered here and there.

Walking the edge of the bayou is slightly different than walking around Newton Creek in Collingswood. As I mentioned before waters here can mean gators and manatees, but then there are plants you can only dream of like this baby red rooted mangrove getting a foothold along the banks of Spring Bayou.

There are many trade offs that take place leaving the sophistication of northern living and coming to this very laid back relaxed environment where nature is so prevalent and people contemplate creation in a different manner than northerners. For one, I thought that during the previous election Florida was showing good progressive signs away from the days of Terry Schiavo in which Governor Jeb Bush intervened on behalf of Christians and right to life groups to prevent the husband from disconnecting his wife to the machines that kept her alive for 12 years in a vegetative state. Of course there were the hanging chads and if you dig even further back you can find Anita Bryant banging the drum of intolerance. Yes, most of the blue to be seen in the area has certainly disappeared in the current election. Tampa's Hillsborough County is the only blue left along with a few other spots near Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale. While I think of it, back home in Collingswood it is still blue in Camden and Philadelphia Counties in a sea of red just like here.

I left Cuba because of the conditions of intolerance, lack of freedom and opportunity faced by my parents. Regardless how I may feel about all the red around me, this country will recover and the tide will swing in another direction. I will help, as the area has just gained another Democrat. For now, I will concentrate on surviving the best way I know how and in the process enjoy the tropics. Happy gardening!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Henri David Halloween Ball 2010

In spite of our current economic woes, people refuse to stop enjoying themselves and Halloween is probably the greatest excuse for all of us to escape some of the madness around us. We gathered last night at the Philadelphia Sheraton Grand Ballroom for Henri David's latest extravaganza. Every manner of costume home made or rented was there. Few wore nothing much. Although the extreme costumes of the past seemed fewer, no one could deny the spirit of the crowd for fun and having a great laugh. Even, Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania made his appearance as usual and schmoozed no doubt on some political subject or other. For the rest of us wine, women/men and song seemed to be the order of the night. We danced photographed each other and had a great time. Take a look at some of the evening's costumes and catch all the photographs on my Picasa album:

Henry as the "Great Pumpkin Jack in the Box"

Ghoul Wedding, one of the great costumed ensembles

Still this year's party was topical as usual. We have the infamous plug

A Chilean miner who spoke no English and could fit in the escape pod.

My friend Vori as the Plague of Modern Hotels: "The Bedbug"

Of course there were from elements of the Exotic to the Criminal

Medusae abounded this year. Here is Paul, Henri's significant other as a refined Medussa

Fun was everywhere

The Na'Vi wearing sneakers were there and enthralled with Dracula

This very elegantly neoprene uniformed couple was a hit.

Cave people anyone?

Then of course there is this character who was unique last night.

On a more southern and traditional note Rhett with his Scarlett

On a French note: Marie Antoinette and Louis made a visit
The day started for me at the Unitarian services were most of the congregation appeared in some manner of costume including our Minister who briefly appeared in Papal garb with an incenser! I then proceeded to go to a landscape project where I shopped for plants at a local nursery and installed them to create a small screen at the clients property. Afterwards I walked Limo around Collingswood to see the kids and get his exercise. So you can imagine that by one in the morning I was wiped out. The party continued until the wee hours of the morning. Last year, Daylight saving ended the night of Halloween so we relieved two in the morning over again. This year, Daylight saving is this coming Saturday. By the time I made it home Limo was ecstatic to see me even in my mild masked antennaed look for a final walk at that strange time of the morning.

Next year, even if I am in Tarpon Springs I will return to Philadelphia to be at Henri's next ball. Oh well, Happy Gardening!

Parting glances!