Monday, December 9, 2013

Pondering Connections on a Cold Winter's Night

Sage in winter - sharp, but flavorful.

We had our first real snowfall last night, so winter is officially here. It's hovering in the teens, so curling up with a cat is particularly appealing. Winter, for me, is often a time of contemplation. The hustle and bustle of growing things has paused, leaving the furred and feathered to the rough struggle of survival. On a cold frosty night, the world seems to hold its breath and snow brings an expectant silence.

I've been thinking about connections, particularly to places. I have, and I'm sure you do too, special places that sing to my soul. The house we live in is a kindred spirit filled with quirks and charm. My little patch of land may not be the tidiest, but it is mine and it has thoroughly claimed me.

In general, I seem to connect best to places with trees. Forests speak to me, calm my fears, elevate my thoughts. I can think bigger walking amid trees. Maybe because they are constantly looking up, spreading out. However, there are other places that quiver me. Music is another touchstone and sitting among others enthralled by the miracle of sound created from our own breath and hands can give me goosebumps.

Then there is the warmth of people. I believe in the power of story to connect us all. We tell each other stories constantly, the silly and the profane. The drive into work isn't important, but the act sharing it with a co-worker connects us back to the human experience. How do you tell the story of yourself? How are you connected?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Last Roses of Autumn

We're closing in on mid-October and the last rose blossoms are fading. The heavy morning dew is gilding their elegant buds in a wash of silver, a last breath to preserve their loveliness. I can see the clarion call of winter as the last petals cling like forgotten handkerchiefs.

I leave the last blossoms be to encourage rose hips. I love the winter interest of clusters of fat orange or red hips. They perk up my fall arrangements and look luscious with a glazing of ice. I haven't gotten around to trying to make tea from them, but maybe this year.

Working at a garden center, I inevitably get trapped in the rose department answering questions. Don't get me wrong, I love roses. I just refuse to fuss over them, so no tea roses grace my gardens. I will confess to trying to lure people away from the ubiquitous Knock-Outs across the aisle to the more diverse side of shrub roses. My favorite this year has been 'Calatrava', a fragrant double white rose with a faint pink bud from Bill Radler (creator of Knock-Outs). The key attribute here is fragrant. Many of the other shrub roses are more fragrant and have prettier colors than Knock-Outs with the same disease resistance. Plus, they don't require winter protection unless you feel like fencing the bunnies out. My 'Nearly Wild' pink rose gets eaten every winter back to a much more reasonable shape. If not nibbled, it really would be nearly wild.

So I encourage you to meander through the world of shrub roses. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

O, Beautiful Tomato!

Helloooo, beauties!

Ah, the harvest of my labors. This is not the entire harvest. We've eaten some and given some away, but this represents the bulk of my luscious tomatoes. This year we have Garden Peach (small, yellow, with a bit of blush), Rutgers (big, red, meaty, and perfect for sandwiches and burgers) and Amana Orange (pumpkin colored, large, and tasty). This is the best tomato crop I've had in years. The secret? Kitty litter buckets.

We gave up the big victory garden behind the garage last year. It's just the two of us and the trees got bigger, creating more shade. The soil was tired and needed a break. I did a few tomatoes in half of the herb bed, but soon realized the lilac tree was shading them too much. Fine. We don't need a lot of tomatoes, just a few. This year, thanks to my resourceful in-laws, we used five gallon kitty litter buckets. Huzzah! Tomato victory!

They are bright yellow and tacky as hell, but I don't care. I can move them around easily for maximum sun and water convenience. I also dumped in a solid handful of slow release fertilizer in each bucket. These babies soon overwhelmed my flimsy tomato cages. Next year, maybe I can talk the husband into recreating the Best Tomato Cage Ever based on the barbed wire man traps of WWI. What? Why recreate the wheel when we've got the Army manuals from 1916 at hand?

This weekend, maybe we'll buy a new blender and make gazpacho. I really am not sure how we've managed without one this long. Oh, wait. Crappy tomato harvests. Good thing I've got five kinds of basil to go with them.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Farewell Little Lustron House

We live on a pretty historical block. There are two Sears catalog homes, the original 1890s farm house and a Lustron house. Not bad for our little corner of town. However, soon we will lose one of our little gems, the Lustron.

What the heck is a Lustron house? It's made of steel. A post-war pre-fab relic, this little two-bedroom house is solid steel construction with baked porcelain finish. It's got nifty built-ins, pocket doors and was designed for maximum efficiency. This one has been a rental ever since we've moved in, but we regard it fondly for it's quirkiness. I'm going to miss it. I also am rather fond of the large redbud in the backyard that blooms a rich deep purple-pink. The house going in will be fine, I suppose. It'll have four bedrooms and all the mod cons.  It'll have a porch, so perhaps more than just us will hang out and be neighborly. So, with regret, we say farewell to a quirk of history.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Redbud for Remembrance

This past Sunday my grandmother died. She was 97 and had lived a long, full life. She was my little fiesty Irish granny with a grand sense of humor. She loved a good joke, would hug the breath out of you and made a mean Irish soda bread. She also loved plants. See? I get this obsession honestly. When she moved back up to the Chicago area into a patio home, I think the first thing she planted was a tomato. Then my father relocated an oak sapling he had started from an acorn. Grandma loved her garden, always planting some annual flowers for color and feeding the birds. She and I could talk plants for hours and she adored the pink peony I transplanted from my house.

One tree was special, though, the redbud. Her mother had always loved redbud and Grandma had always wanted one. So, for Mother's Day one year me and Mom planted a sapling from The Morton Arboretum's Plant Sale. I sited it so Grandma could see it from the kitchen window. I planted one at my house too, right outside the kitchen window. There's just something about a blooming redbud first thing in the morning and I knew we'd look at it everyday.

Here's mine a couple of years after planting:

So cute and innocent!

And today:

My husband calls it Snuffaluffagus. Probably time to prune.

Soon we will celebrate the long life of Granny Gorman. For me, she leaves a legacy of tenacity, love, laughter and a beautiful redbud tree.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Someone Stop Me, Please

Frequently, us folks in horticulture tend to be plant collectors. Some can even be plant hoarders. I have wonderful co-workers, but a couple of them still have plants in pots going on four, five years now. Step away from the plant sale, people!

I'll admit to being a bit of a collector, and it doesn't help that I get a discount at the garden center where I work. However, I have a hard time saying 'no' to free or half-off plants, which leads me to the current dilemna - where do I put these?

From left to right:
  • a Regal geranium that blooms purple and white and was too pretty to not come home with me. It'll be covered in flowers again in a week.
  • the pot of pansies and miscellaneous annual that I planted because I needed something cheerful.
  • a Red Dragon contorted filbert from The Morton Arboretum half-off plant sale because, really, it's too cool!
  • a baby weeping beech from that same plant sale because my husband loves them. What? It'll be 30 by 30 feet, but I'll be like 90 or something by then. I can just prune it! (Famous last words.)
  • a Red Charm peony that I bought myself as a 40th birthday present because I've been eyeing it for years.
  • a baby trident maple that was being given away by the Plant Clinic staff (there may be more, if you want one) because it was FREE and needed a good home.
This does not include the chamaecyparis my other boss gave me, wild impatiens and trout lily from a co-worker, and the few edibles going in pots. Fortunately, because I work with a bunch of crazy plant people, I can pawn the free maple tree off on my boss. He's got space. I'm running out of room for trees. Dammit.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

After the Flood: Stormwater Management in Action

Last year, our village finished building a stormwater basin a block away. They tore down four houses and dug out a huge area, planting it with native plants. I got to see the plans and the plant list, and we are still excited about it. Already, we've noticed more birds. I haven't heard frogs yet, but I'm hoping.

Anyway, on April 18 we received somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 inches of rain in 48 hours. Our old cinder block basement walls were spurting water like an artesian spring and we got six inches of water. Our new basin flooded. No surprise there.

Now it's a lake...

Hey, it's 10 INCHES of rain. I couldn't get more than four blocks in any direction, really.  However, what I was thrilled to see was within a day, the waters had receded. Significantly. Our basement drained in hours, not days. Of course it still needs cleanup, but it could be much worse.

As weather extremes continue, I'm glad that our little basin is doing its job and providing habitat for wildlife. The drought is officially over!

Now it's a pond... You can see that bench in the center.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Waiting on Spring

At this point in March I often feel like this:

Weighted. Winter feels heavy and I feel like I'm sinking. I know spring is around the corner. I can hear it in the birdsong and see it in the swelling buds on the rose bushes. But temperatures haven't risen above 40 degrees in a long time and I'm beginning to forget what sunlight looks like. What to do?

Go to the beach.

One of the best things about living in the Chicago area is Lake Michigan. There's something so magical about the windswept dunes and the calls of gulls. I don't care what season it is, the lake is calling me. The mystical combination of wind, water and sand sweeps the cobwebs from my soul. Once again I can marvel at the power of nature and the stubborness of stone. Spring...please come soon!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Winter is for Planting Trees

I think long and hard about what trees I plant in my yard. I don't have nearly enough space for everything I want to grow. I regularly threaten that if the neighbors ever move, I'm buying the house next door, tearing it down and planting more trees.

Hey, cuties!

I come by the tree in obsession honestly. My father is this very moment raising two baby oaks of mysterious origin. He picked up the acorns in the forest preserve a few blocks from their house. Other than being something in the white oak family, we're not sure what they are. I'm waiting for another few sets of leaves before I send pictures to my pals at The Morton Arboretum for identification. Dad and I are bouncing around ideas of where we'll plant these dimpled darlings. They will eventually be large shade trees and neither of us have the space. In the meantime, they have been transplanted into pots in his sunniest window and are doing just fine. Other people start their lettuce right now. We, the crazy tree geeks, start wee little oaks.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Renegade Rosemary

I did it again. I snagged one of the rosemary plants from the pitch pile at work in sheer stubborness. I figured I was rescuing it from the compost, so why not give it a chance? Turns out I've finally found rosemary's happy place in my house - the kitchen windowsill.

There wasn't room in the Fertile Crescent (the file cabinets under the south window in the study where most of the rest of the houseplants reside) so I stuck it on the windowsill figuring it would only be there a couple of weeks. That was in November. The damn thing is doing fine and growing a little bit. We've been using it here and there (handy snips at the ready!) and I water it probably every other day. We did move it to the counter at night when the temps dipped below 10 degrees a couple of weeks ago.

We don't have huge wide windowsills, so I'm not planning on doing herb gardening above the sink forever. I just can't bring myself to move the rosemary when it's so happy where it is. And if it keeps growing, I'll have to pot it up and then it won't fit anymore. Dammit. Stupid plant.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

One Resolution for a New Year

Yes, it's that time again...resolution time! Normally, I'm not one to make outlandish, impossible promises to myself. My usual New Year's resolution is to drink more champagne.

As I think about it this year, I am going to suggest to you a resolution that can be pretty easy to keep, once you make a habit of it. Stop and savor. Yep, that's it. But I challenge you to actually do it. In our busy lives, how often do we pause a moment and breathe it all in?

Take the time to notice the way winter light falls silvery on the peeling bark of a tree. Stop and study the elegant buds of a beech or the fat flower buds of a lilac. Breathe in the sharp air of a cold day. Pause and savor the last ruddy glow of sunset as it glimmers behind the ink etchings of naked tree branches. Mother Nature gives us many gifts, reward yourself by paying attention to her beauty.