Saturday, February 16, 2019

Winters of my discontent

Gardening is a seasonal activity. One of its great joys is how it puts me in touch with the seasons in a deeper way than wondering whether I need a coat or an umbrella each day. (Note: I lived in Portland for 14 years. Umbrellas are for wimps and Californians--unless it’s monsoon season). We gardeners are good at romanticizing the changing of seasons, the rhythms of the gardening life that mark the passage of time. But the cold truth is, winter sucks. At least it does here in the land of frozen ground and snow that is occasionally measured in feet. For me iIt’s OK through about Christmas, because I’m tired from fall harvesting and cleanup and soil prep and tucking the roses in for their winter sleep. (Another note: Roses in Flagstaff require a lot of pampering. I practically have to read them bedtime stories, and still about half of them die.) It’s nice to spend weekends reading, writing, sleeping, and eating too many carbs with no guilt about weeds that need pulling, manure that needs spreading, or tomatoes that need harvesting and processing. By January, though, the lounging around is starting to get boring.

Is it time to plant seeds yet?

No, it's too early.

Can I shovel manure?

No, the garden is covered with snow.

Can I plant something?

No, the ground is frozen.

Can I buy something?

No, it'll die before you can plant it. Besides, the only things in the garden centers are junipers, and your husband is allergic to junipers.

Maybe he can just take Benadryl?


Can I prune the roses?

No, you can't do that till the forsythia blooms.

Whyyyyyyy? WTF is so special about “when the forsythia blooms?”

Because we say so, say the experts with their prize-winning blooms and snooty British accents.

In fact, for most of the winter my inner monologue sounds like a mother talking to an especially whiny toddler. Or like this:

And so it goes, through January (long, cold, and boring), February (short, cold, and boring) and into March, when the ground might actually thaw, pansies might actually show up at Home Depot, and I might spend every day refreshing the National Weather Service page for Flagstaff, hoping to see a sunny day that doesn’t involve 40 mph wind gusts. As I write this, it’s mid-February, and I’m cold and bored. There’s an inch or two of snow on the garden, the ground is frozen solid, and my dogs have resorted to bringing icicles in the house to chew on. It wasn’t always like this.

I started gardening as a small child in Tracy, near the San Joaquin Delta in California. We had winter there (contrary to the popular belief of everyone who didn’t grow up in the Golden State), but it consisted of “cold” days (highs in the 50s) with a little fog or rain or wind on occasion. My mother didn’t garden much in the winter, so mostly neither did I. I do remember someone (probably Mom) telling me you could grow carrots in the winter. So one bright winter day, I seeded two long rows of carrots in the backyard. I don’t know how old I was but probably around ten or so. I do know it was an age that predated common sense. How do I know this? Because I chose to plant those rows of carrots… directly under the clothesline. Needless to say, we didn’t have any carrots that year. (Note for those under 35: A clothesline was a long piece of cord tied between two poles and used for hanging laundry. It’s what we had before dryers, and we liked it. Now get off my lawn.)

I puttered around at gardening here and there (Vancouver, Washington, and Dalton and Ringgold, Georgia, to be specific), but I didn’t start gardening in earnest till we moved to Portland, Oregon, in the mid-1990s. There winter was loooooonnnnnnngggggggg, dark, and very, very wet. My first winter in Portland, the rain started on Labor Day and didn’t stop for more than a day or two at a time till June. It was excruciating. On the rare sunny winter day in Portland, I’d clomp outside in my gardening boots, desperate to see some sign of spring--and promptly sink into the mud. If I walked on the lawn, I left big, ugly mudprints across it. But I’d do it anyway, because even approaching middle age, I still had no common sense. I started getting interested in digital photography in the mid-2000s, so I’d take my camera outside in the mud and try to find something pretty to photograph. In Portland. In January. That’s when I fell in love with hellebores, the only flower to be found on those short, dark, dreary days.

A couple of years after the digital camera, I got a greenhouse in an attempt to preserve both my plants and my sanity during Portland winters. Then I spent winter weekends planting flats of seeds and tending potted citrus trees while listening to the rain rattle against the polycarbonate roof of the greenhouse. The greenhouse and the power to heat it weren’t cheap, but they were probably cheaper than therapy and antidepressants, and they cut down considerably on my whining.

In 2010 we decamped for the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. For the first year or so, I was a kid in a candy store. I’m pretty sure I bought every citrus tree in a 25-mile radius of our house: lemons, limes, oranges, blood oranges, kumquats, even mandarinquats. Yes, mandarinquats are an actual thing. They’re even edible, though “mandarinquat” sounds like a pesticide. For the first time since I was a kid, I could garden in the winter--actually garden, in an actual yard, in actual soil. And a good thing too, because I sure as hell couldn’t garden in the summer unless I wanted to die of heatstroke. You try digging in 114-degree heat.

And so I could be found planting roses in January, harvesting lettuce in February, and juicing oranges from Christmas till Easter. It was blissful. I no longer dreaded winter, though I could often be found trying to dig and plant and weed at twilight in order to wring every last moment out of a short winter weekend day. I wouldn’t give up till well past the time when it was too dark to tell a dandelion from a black widow. Apparently I still had no common sense.

And now I find myself in Flagstaff, where the weather tries to thwart me at every turn. Snow, frozen ground, monsoon rains, howling wind, and dry springs that kill seedlings and nurture wildfires. Most of the time I love it here… but this is not that time. This is the time when I’m done with the cold and snow and frozen ground and bloody nose from dry air and covering stuff with frost blankets and sliding on ice to get to the damn compost heap. Done with my gardening being limited to babysitting my houseplants and spraying my lemon tree for scale. Yes, I have a lemon tree. It’s in my living room from October through May. Thanks to my husband hand-pollinating it with an artist’s brush, it’s even making lemons.

Soon the daffodils will break ground, buds will swell on the apple trees, I’ll be able to take the 2 feet of soil and straw off the roses, and my gardening options will no longer be defined by Grumpy Cat. But till then I’ll make due with seed catalogs and planning next year’s garden and buying roses from big box stores when I find myself in Phoenix, then bringing them back and trying to keep them alive in my garage till April. Yep, you guessed it, I still have no common sense.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Winter wonderland

It finally feels like winter here in the Arizona highlands: snow, highs in the 20s, wind chill in the negatives... good times. I love taking pictures of the garden in snow, because the snow hides the weeds transforms the landscape. I've been working on my annual report post (look for that one tomorrow), so I've been going through pictures of the garden throughout the year. It's hard to believe that this: 

Now looks like this: 

Or this:

Now looks like this:

One of the many things I love about gardening is that it makes me more attuned to the seasons: the subtle shift from spring to summer, summer to fall. Fall to... the sudden dumping of a pile of cold white stuff all over everything. Yeah, I'm not a big fan of winter. I do love the peacefulness and beauty of the garden in snow. Soon it will be time to start seeds, transplant, mulch, and wage war on the grasshopper horde. In the meantime, though, I'll savor the beauty all around me. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Another summer draws to a close

It's Labor Day Weekend, when traditionally we in the US have one last blowout to celebrate the end of summer. Buy some slabs of meat and throw 'em on the grill, or grab your tent or RV or boat and hit the road (or lake).

But I'm a gardener. I can't just take off for the long weekend, because there are green beans to be harvested and pesto to be made from all the fresh basil and ripe tomatoes to pick for salsa and... OK, this is Flagstaff. There are a handful of ripe tomatoes--maybe enough for a snack or two--and a ton of green ones sitting mockingly on the vines, taunting me with a promise that will likely never be fulfilled. Summers are short here in the mountains of Northern Arizona; our average first frost date is September 15, so most of those tomatoes will either end up on the compost pile or get ripened indoors. The last two years, the first frost came late--so late that I not only got ripe tomatoes, but I was harvesting them till November. But I know better than to count on that. The nights are already getting colder, and as of last week I've had to turn on my headlights on the way home from work. C'mon, tomatoes, get busy ripening. I need my homemade salsa!

The tomatoes may be slacking, but there's a lot happening in the garden. As I mentioned in my last post, I've been a slacker this season, so the garden is an unruly, unkempt jungle. Hell, there could be a long-lost tomb out there somewhere, and I'd never know about it. But despite my sloth, it's still pretty. So many things are blooming and bearing and burgeoning! And me being, well, me, I took pictures of most of it. Here we go:

Welcome to the jungle, part 1 - the pond

Welcome to the jungle, part 2. This is supposed to be my lovely little potager. Except that a) I was too lazy to finish putting down weed fabric and wood chips on the paths, so the paths are now overgrown with weeds, and b) when I was doing my spring planting, I developed early season amnesia, a disorder specific to gardeners that causes us to forget exactly how big pumpkin vines can grow. So my potager is now a pumpkin patch punctuated with weed strips.

And more jungle, this time outside the potager. Yep, that thing in the foreground is another out of control pumpkin vine.

And a few more views from the area outside the vegetable garden:

I put this here, not because it's pretty (it isn't) but to remind me not to plant tomatoes in front of my green beans ever again. It makes bean harvesting a major pain.

Garden amnesia strikes again. Surely that tiny little zucchini seedling won't turn into a huge monster, right? Ha! The poor broccoli has no personal space.

I mentioned in my last post that I'm growing a lot of new-to-me things this year. Here's one of them: birdhouse gourds. Why? Because I can. These are from those cheap American Seed packs you find at dollar stores and Wal-Mart. I got 'em last winter when the local Dollar General was clearing them out for a nickel a pack. I guess now I have to figure out how to turn these weird things into birdhouses.

They even have kind of pretty flowers, and they look cute twining across the top of the picket fence.

Another new-to-me plant: hyacinth bean. I thought it would get bigger and climb the trellis, but it didn't.

This pic has a cottage garden vibe (as opposed to my usual "mess" vibe). The zinnias are very happy, and I love the baby's breath in the lower right corner next to the fence.

And we're ready for Halloween--2 months early.

And here's one of my accidental plant combinations that kinda works: Hopi red and love lies bleeding amaranth with Shasta daisy. Too bad something is feasting on the amaranth leaves.

Here's more love lies bleeding. I love this plant! And it seems to do well here in spite of whatever is having its leaves for lunch.

4 O'clocks

And hollyhocks

And milkweed for the monarchs

And the giant sacred datura that survives anything and everything.

And this whole section of jungle

Geraniums and rosemary in the container garden (Yeah, I know, for you garden snobs they're pelargoniums. Go find a British garden tour or something and leave us unsophisticated plant people in peace.) Pretty soon I'll have to haul these in the house for the winter. *sigh*

Another new to me plant: pumpkin tree. I also got this one through a seed trade. They're actually a type of ornamental eggplant.

Here you can see the whole pumpkin tree (big green thing to the right of the pink and red thing, otherwise known as a coleus)

The mixed border along part of the south and most of the west side of the house. I've been gardening in these beds for a couple of years now, so they look a little less out of control than the newer beds.

Blackberry lilies, winter sown in 2017 and nearly eaten to the ground by grasshoppers last summer. To my great surprise, they came back this year and are lookin' good. Hopefully they'll bloom next year.

Another accidental plant combination that kinda works: chrysanthemum and garlic chives.

Last year's cosmos self-sowed, and this is the lovely result.

Phlox and Japanese morning glory

Double Delight rose

And Ketchup and Mustard rose

Sacred Datura right after a morning shower

Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (a wild cleome that is native here and fills the fields in our area with purple every summer). This one volunteered in the mixed border. It's way too tall for the front of the border and looks totally out of place, but it's beautiful, and the bees love it, so it stays. As the plaque in my kitchen says, Martha Stewart doesn't live here.

And I'll end on that rebellious note, because it sums up my approach to gardening quite nicely. "Rules" are more like suggestions. I want to learn from others, but ultimately, it's my garden. It will never be perfect, because I'm too lazy for that, but even in years when I neglect it terribly, it still has so much beauty and brings me so much joy.