Garden Adventures

As of Friday morning, RedQuarters has gotten over six inches of rain in the month of May. That puts us over the yearly average (Jan-May), and suggests that the long-awaited El Niño is at last arriving. Rain is great for the plants, better than sprinkler water, in part because it falls more evenly, and in part because it doesn’t have all the minerals that city-water brings with it. The roses have really hit their stride, in part because of the cooler weather. Instead of the low 100s like last year, we’re back in the 50s-60s. And wet. On Friday morning, after a 2.5″ overnight rain, I could see water in the playa lake on the way to Day Job, and heard the frogs (toads) singing for the first time in two years.

And saw a mosquito. Alas.

At long last, Firesprite has finally settled in. I’ve been watching this rose for over five years, and this is the first time it’s bloomed like this.

One of the Knockout™ roses. They are almost Alma proof, except for the yellow ones. No yellow rose really likes RedQuarters.

None of us can remember what the sprawling red rose in the foreground is. Gertrude Jekyll™ is the one in the back. That central cane is eight feet tall. So are some of the side canes. You don’t want to be around that plant in a high wind. Trust me. We have three of them, all over twenty years old and still going strong.

Gertrude is from David Austin Roses. They have a terribly dangerous catalogue. Dangerous because it tempts you to buy things that might not do well in your area, despite the official zone. Hybrid teas, for instance, do not do well in the Panhandle. Anything grafted is also a potential problem, at least at RedQuarters. The rose place in Tyler, Texas is safer for us, sometimes. And there’s the occasional, “It looked good at the nursery, so let’s give it a try.” Some of those have been great. Others? Nope. And at $35-50 per plant, the experiments are getting a wee bit too spendy (as they say in the Midwest.)

Why we put up with being attacked by Gertrude Jekyll™. The flowers have a magnificent scent, and are so beautiful. And did I mention that once established, the plants are hardy?

The snails have not emerged yet. Once they do, DadRed and I will spend up to half an hour every morning tossing them into the street or the alley. Nothing eats them, alas. They are toxic. We do use slug/snail bait, but some always manage to avoid the stuff.


Colorful Bits

Columbine, or actually aquilegia, since it is not blue and white. Aquilegia is the proper name for a group of distinctive flowers that have hooks on them that look like a raptor’s talon. The blue and white sort, the Colorado state flower, is probably the best known. The solid yellow kind seems to be the hardiest, most aggressive, most favored by the birds, and most prone to take over the world.

Yes, the solid yellow dominate my gardens despite my best efforts, out-competing the fancy colored kinds and eating entire roses. How could you guess?

However, since hope springs eternal and memory is short, guess what came home from the regional native plants nursery?

The above is a columbine, per the colors.

I’m partial to the flashy red below.

Aquilegia around here need part shade, cool roots but not too cool, water, and amended soil to bring it down from “the PH of bleach” to “still not acid, but not bad.” The plants are toxic, so please don’t put them in salad or nibble as you weed. They self-seed, some more so than others [glares at the yellow ones]. Birds will also spread the seeds [see earlier glare].

The following is NOT a mutant aquilegia, but one of the first of the Knockout™ roses to bloom. They took a beating over the winter, and are slowly returning to wakefulness. We lost eight roses, a mock-orange*, and the usual smaller plants. The alternations between hard cold and overly warm, all without moisture, stressed the plants past the point of no return. Which explains the eight roses-in-pots waiting on the back patio, all of which need to be stuck into the ground.

*The mock-orange was pushed. We told the contractor building the new raised beds “protect the mock-orange.” We told the foreman “protect the mock-orange.” Dad and I went out to find the mock-orange tossed on top of the fill dirt with the roots exposed and drying. We tried to nurse it along for the past two years, but this winter terminated it. Imagine the plant below, but bigger, and weeping like a willow. That’s what died. Grrrrrrr. It had branches as thick as my wrists. Grrrrrr.


Consider the (Day) Lilies of the Field . . .

OK, iris, but in my defense, they both grow on tall stalks, have large leaves, and need support when the wind starts howling. Like Tuesday, when it was 70 MPH with visibility in town of 1/4 mile in dirt. (Followed by mudballs, then rain and hail. Gotta love May.)

Iris and roses.
Yellow iris and red Columbine. The yellow Columbine have not been as aggressive this year. Yet. . . Yet.
Iris, dianthus (the low pink thing), spring Buddleia, and rose.
Old faithful miniature rose. It hangs out beside the patio and is the sole survivor of twelve years and six roses.
Yes, spring has sprung and the salvia are out to conquer the world.
As I was saying . . . even the garden shark is threatened by the salvia.

Spring is Springing

Apparently the winter was good for iris. That, or they have decided to take over the world. And if not the world, the flowerbeds will do.

Iris with an adoring fan. These are in the back garden, where they have some room to sprawl, because they do.

Some wall flowers, which were found stuffed off in a corner of the WalMart™ garden center last year and brought home to an appreciative home.

The iris are from the local iris society, which has an annual mix-n-match sale.

Iris and columbine, both of which like to take over if you turn your back on them.
Speaking of taking over, the usual suspect (salvia) is taking over the front flowerbed. Again. It needs to be trimmed back, lest it eat all of North America.
The dreaded Lesser Garden Shark stalks the penstemon.

RedQuarters aims for a sort of “native plant cottage garden” look. At least that’s the official designation. It’s more “color that won’t die instantly” in real world terms.

A new arrival. We swore off new roses this year. That lasted ten minutes.
Old faithful Gertrude Jekyll, aka Gertrude, still going strong after 30+ years.

Trees Like Clouds

The wind settled, and I did not have rehearsal. Tasks awaited my attention, but instead I put hat on head, took up my walking cane, and went forth into the evening. Along with a goodly number of other people. It was spring, and comfortable out, with no wind and a minimum of dust.

This has been a good year for Bradford pear blooms. All the pears peaked at the same time, something unusual for this area, and clouds of white hovered along the streets or around houses. In the evening light, the globes and mounds of white floated over the ground like summer puffies afraid of heights. Soon they will begin to send blizzards and showers of white petals onto the yards and passing strollers, but that evening, the flowers clung tight to the branches, almost glowing a little in the evening light. The distinctive scent, not entirely pleasant but certainly noticeable, grew and faded as I walked past each tree or row of trees.

The redbud trees bloomed earlier, and had begun to fade, but the plums and crab-apples seemed to be half-way to peak. Dark purple and purple-red flowers appeared as if scattered by an enchanter along gnarled black twigs and branches. Out of nothing – flowers. “Let there be petals” and there were petals, to misquote Genesis. I can see why the Japanese and others have festivals around the blooming of the trees, because they seem to produce life from barrenness. There are fewer plums and crab-apples than pears in my neighborhood. An infestation of borers, and age, took their toll on the plums and crab-apples a few years ago, and the younger trees have not really gotten large and craggy yet. Far more white caught the eye than did red or purple.

The last freeze, in theory, will come around April eighteen. This means that the wisteria and forsythia are courting danger if they bloom early, and they have been caught before. Two years ago a very hard freeze and snow hammered the wisteria, and it seemed as if two of the neighborhood collection had succumbed. No, they straggled back, determined to prove that they can survive out here, if not thrive. The “tree wisterias” that I pass have a very few, somewhat tentative blooms, but lots of catkins that hint at a large bloom for Easter. I hope they make it. The forsythia is warming up, and tried to attack me with yellow-dotted withies as I passed. It needs a bit of a haircut, but later, after it blooms. It looks like a chest-high, brown pompom with a few yellow spots. By Friday it should be in full bloom. Perhaps.

The hawthorn tree, however, was having none of it. It knows better. The hawthorn has a few buds, but stands in thorny determination to remain bare until all danger has passed. It got hit hard in 2011, when we had an April cold snap that dropped temperatures to 24 with screaming north winds and a dewpoint of -5. The roses turned into rose-jerky, they dried out so badly. The hawthorn lost all of its leaves. Never again. It does not bud out anymore until very, very late in April or even early May.

The tulips and daffodils were at peak as I strolled. Some Daffodils in especially warm and sunny places had already started to fade, after an early start. There are traditional King Alfred daffodils, but also a number of odds-and-ruffles. Small or tall, white or orange or yellow, they announce the arrival of spring, even if gardeners have to hurry out and brush the snow off of them.

The air smelled soft, no dusty but not crisp or moist, either. No unusual scents teased my nose. No one was doing laundry, or grilling, or running the smoker. That will be next week, with Easter, and for some, a three or four day weekend. No, it was just a lovely evening full of playing kids, dogs being walked, and people just jogging or strolling.

Book Review: Garden Variety

Hoenig, John. Garden Variety: The American Tomato From Corporate to Heirloom. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018) Hardcover.

We all know that there are only two things that money cannot buy, per country music. Those are true love and homegrown tomatoes. Most of us have probably grumbled about the visually perfect and rather bland super-‘mater that is found in grocery stores in January, and many of us have sighed and sweated over trying to raise our own tomatoes in pots, or in gardens. And then felt overwhelmed by the produce overload that is known as August-September (in much of the US). Tomatoes are argued over, debated, immortalized in song, have a folk history, and serve as a powerful symbol of the problems of mass-grown corporate agricultural produce. But what if that story is a lot more complicated that most activists think? Enter John Hoenig and his fun book, Garden Variety.

Hoenig starts about 200 years ago, looking at the slow rise in popularity of tomatoes, and the problem of preserving them. You can’t easily dry, smoke, salt, or otherwise store tomatoes. Potatoes, corn [maize], turnips, squash, cabbage, beans, all can be easily kept for the long duration of winter, but tomatoes were a seasonal luxury until canning came along. Ketchups of mushrooms, then tomatoes, and sauces came first because of the limits of technology. Those limits also led to the creation of lots of regional canneries, each using local produce and serving a limited area. In those places where immigrants and others introduced new diets, like the Italians in the late 1800s, tomatoes became a luxury, then a necessity. To have the first tomato of the season brought a lot of money to farmers, and so cold-frame-grown tomatoes appeared, or tomatoes shipped by rail. However, most tomatoes ended up in cans, either at home or through the local cannery.

WWI and especially the Great Depression and WWII led to the explosion of both canned tomato products and the super-cannery. Standardized foods, like canned diced tomatoes, tomato paste, Ro-Tel™ tomatoes-n-peppers, and canned meals grew in popularity. The wars absorbed almost all the tomato products that Heinz and others made, forcing gardeners to can at home. With the shift in the economy and changing leisure-time interests, home canning faded for a while. That shift also led to the end of the bracero and other farm-labor programs. This is where the “industrial tomato” arose, when labor shortages in the 1960s forced growers to finally take interest in a mechanical harvester. Said harvester needed sturdier tomatoes, leading to the modern industrial hybrids.

Most histories of food in the US turn here, following the rise in mass-consumption and the “blanding” of the American diet as corporations came to dominate agri-business. However, Hoenig takes a different track, and points out how a combination of “back-to-the-land,” “gourmet,” and “traditionalists,” led to the resurgence in farmers’ markets and heirloom local tomatoes. Yes, most packaged produce still comes from big farms and corporations. However, the local tomato didn’t wither on the vine, and in fact old-breed varieties grew in popularity, as did farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This complicates the story of “corporate food.”

The book is shorter than it seems, because of the extensive end-notes and bibliography. It is not academic, for all that it is written as an academic monograph. Hoenig aims the work at interested readers, people who might know a little about farm history, or gardening, or food history, and who want to learn more. There are no bad guys, no super-heroes, unlike some books about farming and agri-business in the US. The story never strays from the tomato. I got the sense that Hoenig is not entirely comfortable with the giant corporations that dominate supermarket shelves, and the environmental problems associated with monocrop farming. Those topics are not his focus, however, and he steers clear of the shoals of polemic. I suspect a lot of us share his concerns, and are interested in buying local and supporting more variety in ag when we can.

I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the history of food in the US, in farming and mechanization, and in quirky histories about produce.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book with my own funds, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the author or publisher for this review.