(Edible) Food Does not Grow in Refrigerators

Or, Are You Sure that Tomato You are eating is Organic?

Part I:  The Fridge and the Market

I stand in awe of my sister’s refrigerator. It’s a Sears Kenmore, 14 cubic feet. Once I asked her how old it was and she said “very old.” We’ve been visiting for forty-plus years, so I guess it is “very old.”

My sister Elsie and her daughter Linda

My sister lives in a lovely garden apartment in New York City, but the kitchen is so tiny and overhead cabinets hang so low, that contemplating change is like figuring out how to stuff a sow’s ear into a silk change purse.

What awes me is the strategy my sister has developed to pack food away, the finesse with which a random conglomeration of wrapped packages, glass jars, plastic containers and what-nots are deftly layered, pigeonholed, balanced with laser-like precision.

Being quick of mind, you may immediately conclude that, aha, my sister has to play musical crocks every time she needs to get something out of the fridge.

Norwich Meadows Farm booth at Union Square Green Market in New York City

Sorry, but you would be mistaken. On a recent visit, she fed me like a queen. Smoked salmon? Magically, a tray of salmon appeared.

Cream cheese, too? Out came a plate with slabs of cheese. Try some tomatoes, they’re excellent, and sliced onions.

Here’s some mesclun, and romaine, a few varieties of fresh lettuce slipped on the table before I realized it. Oh, I hard-boiled some eggs for us, too.

Butter for the rye bread? And there’s cream for your coffee. Do you mind bottled coffee? It’s so hot out, I thought I’d skip brewing. A large bottle of (good-tasting) strong coffee came out, along with cream and ice.

Handmade Farmstead Cheeses from CT, in high demand at the market

Now you are probably assuming, quite naturally, that there must have been lots of clunking and clanking in the kitchen, that my sister was continually fluttering back and forth like that battery-bunny.

Trust me, we are not a family of flutterers. Our batteries are the other brand.

Further, I am so cowed by the fine-tuning of these edible geologic layers that I rarely do more than move platters to way stations before they disappear seamlessly into that 14-cubic-foot mini-cavern.

Fresh Araucana eggs from Winfall Farms

But storage is only part of the story. Where does my sister find these delectables? At my request she and her daughter took me on a walk to her favorite place to shop, the Union Square Green Market on 17th Street.

Every Wednesday and Saturday (Mondays and Fridays on a smaller scale) an astounding farmers’ market rises from blank pavement, like a full-up movie set with a cast of thousands.

And a phalanx of trucks whose carrying capacity would dwarf a convoy of semis. Like a mirage, it all vanishes by evening.

Imagine the packing up, unpacking, packing for home, and unpacking yet again

The magnitude of the affair boggles the mind, but then, don’t forget, this is New York City, where everything is out-sized.

Surely, this has to be one of the top ten tourist attractions here.

Growers and producers arise before dawn to truck goods in from farms in outlying counties.

They set up canopies, unload equipment, arrange products, post signs (whew!) and put on smiles to land early-bird shoppers.

I’ll take one of everything on the table, thank you very much

The goal, of course, is buying and selling. Marketing produce, most of it organic, is what sustains these energetic entrepreneurs, keeps them coming week after week, year after year to this urban outpost.

Shoppers are serious in their pursuit of fine products, as are chefs who regularly pick up special orders.

But there is an air of holiday, too. Friends meet friends for coffee, families come for a taste of the outdoors, casual strollers bump into neighbors. My sister is a regular, hence her delectable refrigerator.

Keith’s produce stand is a favorite stop for visitors to the Green Market. Lots of variety and it’s all fresh and tasty

One of my sister’s favorite vendors is Keith. His last name is Stewart but she has only ever called him by his given name.

For more than two decades he has been selling organic produce that he grows on his farm in Orange County, New York. He is famous for his garlic, but he also offers about a hundred varieties of herbs, fruits and vegetables.

My sister has known Keith a long time, though probably not as long as she has known her refrigerator. One Christmas she gave me his book, It’s a Long Road to a Tomato, Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life. It’s available from Amazon paperback new or on Kindle for about $15; used copies cost less.

Some pointed humor for urbanites

It’s a must-read for people like me who grew up in suburbia and chafe at standing in line at the super market or (in season) speed-stop for cantaloupe from the Melon Man. (Our Rocky Hock melons are second-to-none.)

But if you grew up in a rural area you will recognize the combination of romance and true grit Keith puts into his reflections on all things farming, from weeds to porcupines and dogs.

He is earnest when he talks about the nuts and bolts of running an organic farm, but good humor and deep love of nature are co-partners. Chores are never finished, yet there’s always time to marvel at the swallows nesting in his barn.

Part II: About that Tomato

Variety is key to success here. Fresh garlic and asparagus in the foreground but a healthy mix of products can help a farmer get by if a crop fails or prices tank

Truly, this kind of farming is not a simple life. Across the country there are about 25,000 organic growers competing with a megalopoly of Big Food.

These farmers follow strict federal standards to be certified organic. They must keep scrupulous records and pass annual inspections.

The other part of not-so-simple is figuring out what will work each year, making a hundred decisions before getting to the bottom line: How do costs balance against income?

An unexpected drop in prices — or bad weather — can wipe a farmer out. Small growers constantly teeter on the brink of a bad year. There are no subsidies.

Hey, I like what they have here

A quarter century ago, organic farming was a grass roots effort, loosely organized.

Enter the USDA to bring order to the meaning of organic. Enter Big Food to give its blessings to irradiation, GMOs and sewage sludge.

No way, said the newly born Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Their energetic campaign for high standards produced 200,000 letters opposing Big Food.

And they won. In 2000 Congress passed a pretty good law, the Organic Foods Products Act that called for a National Organic Standards Board to oversee compliance.

Who of us, unless we grow it, has seen fresh baby’s breath straight from the field?

But the challenges are daunting. All three presidents — Clinton, Bush and Obama – pushed to weaken standards. Today’s political climate is even more treacherous.

Big Food buzz-words like natural, all natural, and 100% natural are meant to confuse shoppers, create billions in profits that cut into sales of organic produce.

There’s also the matter of equity. On the face of it, organic food may seem to be more expensive than Big Food offerings, but is it really?

Tender and new, dug fresh from the field

A study done in 2005 by David Pimmentel on the hidden costs of using pesticides came up with an annual price tag of $10 billion.

Public health costs; livestock and crop losses; destruction of natural insect enemies; pesticide resistance; poor crop pollination; honeybee losses; bird, fish and wildlife losses.

All these costs need to be figured in to the growing of chemicalized food.

No. Big Food is not a bargain in the long run.

Wholesome ingredients whose names we could pronounce on tags labeling bake goods from eastern European recipes

And lately, Big Food has been buying up organic brands so it can gridlock federal oversight and kick the organic label down the road by introducing concepts like Factory Farm Organic and ingredients like GMOs.

Consider the tonnage of GMO corn and soybeans that are fed to cows and chickens every day.

Wouldn’t it be much more lucrative if Big Food could stamp the organic seal on GMOs? Ironically, a recent scam brings home the point.

Truly delectable!

The US regularly imports tons of non-organic GMO corn and soybeans from Romania and the Ukraine via Turkey. (What about pesticide oversight in those countries? Yet another issue.)

Mysteriously, some of those shipments came to be labeled organic.

Somebody made a tidy profit on the value-added organic label before the scam was discovered – too late for those producers who had unknowingly fed GMOs to their livestock.

Could I resist buying? A mini peace lily found its way into my luggage on the trip home

The Organic Consumers Association remains a David in this world of food Goliaths.

They’re the only US organization that focuses solely on concerns of consumers.

They’ve got a following of 850,000 people and 3,000 co-ops, natural food stores, and farmers markets.

They are a vibrant national grassroots network with a solid organization.

They’re strong on education and activism and follow through with lawsuits when appropriate. Recently they’ve published reports on glyphosate (Roundup) residues found in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. They are following this up with press events and protests in seven US cities.

Organic apples, anyone?

“Buy Local, Organic, and Fair Made” is their mantra. Check out their web site, www.organicconsumers.org . It’s impressive.

You can find news about what’s happening in your state and sign up for their newsletter and donate to a worthy cause.

I am grateful that they are there to advocate for us.

And I’m glad my sister keeps her old fridge and shops at Union Square.

I know her (Keith’s) tomatoes are organic – and tasty.

Photo by Keith Stewart shows mowing of cover crops, or green manure, planted in April to nourish the soil for planting in summer

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A Gardener’s Wish List

Vines romp
Rabbits chomp
I wish rabbits
Would adopt habits
Of dining on vinings.

Slugs chew
Slimy glue!
I wish slugs
Would eat bugs
Instead of fancying plantings.

Moles tunnel
Lumpy chunnels
I wish moles
Disliked holes
And would vacate my estate.

Goundhogs? Voracious!
Smart and audacious
I wish groundhogs
Were not plant hogs
And would settle for helpings of nettles.

Voles multiply
Armies of small fry
I wish voles
Put controls
On their dating and mating.

Tics like to suck
Any old pot-luck
I wish ticks
Limited picks
To moles or to voles.

Tree beetles burrow
In fissures and furrows
I wish tree bark
Was not such a mark
And beetles would choke on their oak.

Fawns nibble
On every tender green kibble
I wish fawns would show up
After they grow up
And feed on a diet of weeds

Would that I could
Yes, I think I should
Pack them off in a circus car
On a quick trip to Pixar
Where they can all star

In fake science flicks
That film rabbits and ticks
And slugs, deer, and moles
And beetles and voles
And groundhogs,
Those plant hogs,

Practicing tactics galactic,
Winning high-flown games,
And making high-blown claims
To own
Seats on some Great Garden Throne.

Maybe then they’d leave MY garden alone.

Sigh. . .

Until they send back their heirs new-grown.

Now here’s a rabbit that’s doing what he should be doing: dining on vinings — but wait — that’s MY clematis ‘Henryi’

 

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Daylily Amnesia

Wasn’t the daylily bloom spectacular this spring? Daylilies danced all over the garden. Some we greeted joyfully as old friends come back for a visit. Some we welcomed as prodigals gone awol for a time.

‘Monet,’ an all-time favorite of mine, so I can’t forget the name

Others were, what can I say, except, “Where did these come from?” Or, “Did I really plant these?”

What was it about this year? More sunshine from trees we’d removed?

Terribly rainy weather here that left us awash in muck? (I don’t think daylilies like drowning.)

Timid deer that kept to garden perimeters? (I’d sprayed Liquid Fence soon after most plants budded, since our deer seem to prefer crunchy buds to floppy petals. Did I actually nail it?)

Our “ditch lily,” not native but naturalized here, wanders round the garden

Probably none of the above. What’s canny about the luscious bloom is this: even gardeners who live in different latitudes with different weather and different growing conditions are crowing about their stellar daylily bloom.

I shouldn’t be surprised. It happens every year. Not necessarily daylilies.

One year it was hellebores. I was so proud I’d finally gotten them to grow well, then learned that gardeners up and down the coast had wonderful hellebores that spring. (Instant deflation.)

Wild and woolly, these bring color year after year

Ditto for hydrangeas across the miles, good and bad years. Bloom on viburnum, too, seems to wax and wane in harmony with distance. I chalk it up to one more garden mystery that eludes me — and keeps me humble.

Which brings me to the mystery of Daylily Amnesia. You ask me about any plant I grow, the barest of twigs, and I can locate it in the time it takes a mosquito to land and bite. Ask me about daylilies when they are not in bloom and I freeze.

How could I forget the name of these reliable, 18-inch sweeties? ‘Mini Pearl’

Each spring I say I will get them right. But the moment the last bloom falls, I’m lost in a haze of naked bloom scapes.

Was the yellow one over there, or was it the peach? And where was that nice red one?

I wander with camp shovel in hand, a glazed look in my eye, wondering where those favorites once were, the ones I was sure I wouldn’t forget, the ones I was going to divide, the ones I was going to combine to create indelible, memorable color combinations that I’ve already forgotten.

Scrumptious no-name yellow

I have tried to be smart about this. From my very first purchase I faithfully recorded names on plastic plant labels and started lists.

Yessir, I made lists and I duly filed them in safe places. Didn’t matter. I could never put the names with the colors.

Names like Tiffany or Shooting Star or Summer Ruffles don’t give much of a clue about colors.

Affectionately known as Double Orange, this strong grower wanders around our garden

I figured if I deepened my knowledge my memory would improve.

I took classes offered by nurseries and master gardeners.

I learned good stuff about fans and scapes, diploids and tetraploids, daylily trials and daylily medal-winners, big blooms and small blooms, early, mid, late bloomers, the tall and the short of them, strong stems (good, obviously), evergreen habit (best for the South).

Great classes, great teachers. Didn’t take.

Jazzed-up Double Orange  aka ‘Kwanso,’ surround a glass garden ornament by Linda

I bought the first daylily I saw that I liked. In the heat of swooning over the bloom, checking pedigree was the last thing on my mind. Strong stem, weak stem, who cared.

Mystery plant suddenly bloomed near the path. Turns out my daughter gave it to me last fall (at my request). ‘Frans Hal’, an oldtime and popular daylily 

I bought daylilies I liked from growers I liked, mostly local, and the growers would give me nice freebies, which of course required more memory work.

During a trip to New England many years ago, my daughter and I lapped up a couple dozen daylilies at a growers’ sale before we realized we had no cash.

Clutching our prizes, we must have looked pretty crestfallen. After a split second of indecision, the kindly grower took pity on us and told us to take them home and send him a check “when you have a chance.”

When you have a chance! I relate this incident merely to illustrate how acquiring daylilies was a happy, haphazard affair.

No-name apricot

Apparently growing them is a happy, haphazard affair for me, because I can’t remember where I’ve planted them the day after they stop blooming.

Most daylilies are pretty happy in most climate zones, but after our purchase, I learned that some daylilies grow best in the north, others prefer the south.

Wonder which ones we bought? And where they are in the garden. . . .

Twins, small and low

One day I had an epiphany. I wasn’t all that interested in remembering the names of daylilies. What was important to me were the colors. I decided to write colors, not names, on tags. Not basic colors like Red or Yellow. Too simple. Too vague.

I would write a little essay on each tag: “subtle pink, hint of orange; yellow throat w. greenish tint; tall; late; strong grower; large bloom.” To ensure my notes would endure, I used pencil, because pencil doesn’t fade like marker.

Yellows brighten a woodland nook with faded stokes aster and joepye weed and hydrangea in he backgound

I went one step further. I carried pencil and paper with me, tucked in my pocket at all times for taking notes about current plantings, possible divisions, and smashing combinations. Then I filed the paper in a safe place. The record keeping took hours, probably days.

And did I mention? I took copious photographs, particularly from angles that would illustrate garden locale. These I planned to use as cross-reference to my notes.

‘Brownie Boy’, a bonus gift, blooms up a storm and blends well in groupings

Sorry to say, all that work didn’t help my memory.

When I checked in spring, either I had no idea what my scribblings meant.

Or they had become an illegible scrawl caked in mud.

Or a squirrel had snagged the tags.

My VIF, or Very Important File had apparently rejected my crumpled notes, so photo cross-referencing was out.

‘Brownie Boy’ with roses

Then there were daylilies that were never tagged because the deer got to them before I did or stringy plants had such fleeting bloom they escaped my vigilance.

Sometimes my notes didn’t apply. If daylilies aren’t coddled with good sun, good soil, good moisture, they can get persnickity.

“Tall reds” grow short on dry ground, “strong bloomers” are stingy in shade, and “reliable plants”  faint away if our hard-pack is not laboriously enriched.

Sweet lavender, reliable but retiring, difficult to combine with other colors

You are beginning to wonder now, Why all the fuss?

You ask, Why not transplant daylilies while they are still blooming?

After all, you buy them in bloom. Just cut ‘em back (fans, that is) and plop ‘em in and hope they can stand up straight and finish blooming.

Then you wouldn’t have to decipher all that chicken scratching.

One has to recognize one’s limitations.

Tall red duking it out with wandery woodland sunflower

I happen to be an unbalanced high-stepper in the garden, and a simple but awkward lunge in a tight border (jungle) can bring on disaster.

Wish I could greet this one by name

I dread the sound of snap crackle pop as buds break off. Think what damage I could do if I were lunging and wielding a tool.

And all the more chance that stubborn, fleshy roots will break, especially if they embrace roots of shrubs or trees.

Good gardeners use spading forks to minimize root loss. I use a small camp shovel, inefficient, ineffective maybe, but it suits my size. Which may be why I wind up with five frilly yellows down the road when I am pretty sure I only planted one, which further addles my amnesia.

Volunteer phlox, along with rudbeckia in the background

Our daylily season will end around July 4.

Crepe myrtles will take on starring roles in the landscape at about the same time that daylilies in New England are coming on stage.

I hesitate to deadhead those last lonely blooms. It’s like a final curtain call.

All that’s left is cleaning up rangy, tattery, duly labeled but now anonymous plants while summer bows to autumn’s rolling pageant.

In the true spirit of hope-springs-eternal-in-the-gardener’s-breast, I am content that I have, this season, devised yet another cure for Daylily Amnesia.

An unnamed favorite

I will tell you about it next year, if it is successful.

A hint of skepticism behind my optimism reminds me that, after all these memory-challenged years, the new system might, just might, be deficient.

The surprises next spring will keep me humble – and happy.

Author’s Note: The unnamed daylilies in this post are the products of my record-keeping.

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Flip Flop Spring

A Chronicle in Three Parts

Part I: April Flowers

The saying goes: April Showers Bring May Flowers. It didn’t happen quite that way this year. One fine April day, Bob went round the garden taking pictures—of flowers, not showers. You’ll see serenity bathed in wan sun of an early spring. You’ll see favorite azaleas in bloom. You’ll see a quince, ‘Jet Trail,’ in bloom since January, lately festooned with native honeysuckle. You’ll see a bench inviting you to set a spell.

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Part II: May Showers

Here’s the switch, though not exactly showers. One misty day in early May, a 10-minute storm full of sound and fury barreled in from waters to the south. Hail and pine cones hurled themselves against the house like grenades. Rain swirled and sheeted till there was no world out there. Straight-line winds and tornadoes headed down the canal toward our little piece of Eden.

Garden beds near woods were strafed by shattered forest debris that would continue to drift down for a couple of weeks. Torn limbs, some pretty hefty, straddled shrubs, maybe mauled them, then slid down out of sight. It took us a while to figure out the damage.

You’ll see the hundred-year-old oak that lost its head. You’ll see a bank of uprooted and flattened trees. You’ll see a maple split in two and hanging over the slip. You’ll see a toppled arbor. You’ll see a mess. (The canoe is a remnant left from Hurricane Isabel.)

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Part III: Diesel Powers

A couple of weeks later James and his sons arrived with chain saw, tractor and grinder. They tackled the maple overhanging the slip first, then cleaned up massive limbs torn off the oak. Uprooted and fallen trees we left in place to protect the shoreline from erosion.

You’ll see the front loader snaking carefully through the woods hauling maple logs which would become edgers to paths. Oh, and that’s Bob meditating and then getting down to business. You’ll see the feeding of the grinder, though you won’t hear its sputtering and roaring. You’ll see a spray of chips, deceptively fine and powdery, emerging from the grinder. Then you’ll see the chips going straight into our garden beds to become mulch. The best kind of mulch there is.

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The trees live on.

 

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Plight of a Pickle Pail

Hey, does anyone remember I’m out here all alone?

I’m just a lowly pickle pail done-in
Ain’t never had no steady kissin’ kin
I toil so hard
In your weedy yard
Oh what I’d give for a swig of gin.

Today you see a pickle pail hard workin’
But once I reigned o’er dill and sweet and gherkin
Well-brined, they were
Tastier, juicier, plumper,
Oh please pu-lease stop all that winkin’ and smirkin’

Hauling here, dumping there. Camellia-air-layer duty is best, though.

You take for granted this pickle pail relic
That you got for free from the local deli
You cried in dismay,
As you drove me away
“Open ALL the windows!”
Because you thought I was too smelly.

Oh, what would you do without my travail?
I answer your call without fail.
Need a hand
With all that sand?
Just grab that faithful pickle pail.

Patiently waiting to fulfill your every wish. . .

And then there are those weeds in prime
That you pull without reason or rhyme
They muddy my insides
And splatter my outsides
Till I feel like a partner in grime

I’m not alone, I mustn’t whine
There’s more like me, we wait in line
Ready and willing to haul.
No task too large or too small
To make your garden shine.

I know I must sound like I’m braggin
But I’m proud of our dudes on that wagon

See my friends all over, some just off the wagon. What would they do without us?

Waitin’ for truckin’
To wherever you’re muckin’
And there ain’t never no lollygaggin’.

Well, my handle’s broke, my bottom’s split to eleven
Seems I been working 24 and 7
I did my best
At your request
Now I’m ready to rest in pickle-pail heaven.

 

What are we doin’ here? I wish they’d dump us. This garden trash is makin’ me itchy. Sh-h-h, they hid us while they show their friends around the garden. I hope they come back. Probly not. I think they forgot us.

Pickle Pail Statement:  Readers should know that pictures of us were taken as record shots while we worked. Nobody ever showed us off. Usually they tried to hide us behind bushes when they took a shot, but sometimes they forgot.

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A Gardener’s Weather

It’s the middle of March and they are bickering in the heavens again.

Move out, you Old Goat, you’re done, finished.

Old goat, eh! I’ll show you. Want a blast of wind chill? And some crusty barbs of ice? You—you—you Spring Chicken.

Just waiting. . .

No problem. I’ve got a picnic blanket of warm sunbeams ready to throw over all those fancy schmancy ice crystals of yours. Ha, ha, ha ha they’re turning to mush already.

That’s nuthin’, I’ll tear that goofy blanket of yours to shreds. Got some nice sleet goin’ here. And maybe wrassle up a wind and bring me down some pine cones and gum balls while I’m at it.

Foggy day in March

Why you – you — you Old Goat, I’m blowin’ you up north for good. I’ll get that Sound water movin’ and I’ll flood those canals and rivers so bad you’ll never get back.

Just try, Spring Chicken, ‘cuz I’ll blow you right back south across the Sound and dry up your precious canals.

That’s it! Time for a tornado.

Hah! Can’t do it without me.

Late afternoon polishes the tree trunks

What to do? We innocent gardeners are caught between the two warriors. We slog in February’s rain. We watch our plants sprout green on balmy days, then shrivel in a freeze.

Occasionally there are signs of a truce. Usually late afternoon, if the air is still. A waning, hidden sun, not to be denied, lights pearl clouds. The land gleams like polished pewter. Maybe a kittenish breeze nudges the clouds off, and pewter blends to gold and honey. Until dusk brings on lead.

A north wind laid these daffs down, but they are ready to rise again

The soil is cold and mucky when I dig. They say you can ruin the soil if you work it wet, but I can’t wait for the bickering to end.

Shiny earthworms squirm when I uncover them.

Turn out the lights, they seem to say, we don’t belong out here.

Daffodils love these pitched battles. Sisters of Winter. Cheerleaders of freezes. What’s a little fracas to them? In an over-cooled sun-drenched ice-box, they snap upright, fresh as ever, and nod me good day.

‘Poet’s’ Narcissus has bloomed reliably for twenty years, despite upheavals when I am rummaging in its bed

I am the daffodil detective.

Once the spears push out of frigid ground, I am out there checking, running my fingers around the base to find that telltale flower-bud bulge.

Obviously, the narcissus to the left passed the test easily, which delighted me to no end.

(In the interests of complete disclosure to readers, daffodils have never paid me for these consults.)

This old quince stands as a sentinel next to our front path.

Their playmates are forsythia, quince, and bridal wreath spirea.

An unruly trio, as bold as the daffodils, elbowing for territory, their gauzy, gaudy costumes turn heads up and away from weedy ground.

Farm fields ignore the tumult.

They wait, bristling stubs, last year’s leavings, and green weeds.

Weeds by definition are always green.

Hellebores, too, revel in early spring

Red maples pay no mind to the weather. They seem always to be on time., spattering crimson blossoms in tree branches along roadsides and in swamps.

Red maple blooms on a moody day. Note mistletoe in upper left

Hazy foreshadowing of a new season. It’s a short dance for them, though, they are cast off in a few days, bits of flotsam.

Delicate pollynoses will follow them very soon, flung away in a haphazard search for fertile landings.

Before other trees are even thinking about their offspring, (heck, the beech tree is still only losing its leaves and the oak has not yet begun to let its catkins fly) red maples are finished for the year. They can coast along on whatever weather summer brings.

Bridal wreath spirea, an old shrub, takes more and more territory each year, if we let it

In deference to the venerable oak, it takes a season to grow an acorn. But that nutritious kernel will become the staff of life next winter for forest creatures.)

Bradford pears are punctual, too. Never mind their willingness to go rogue and squander pollen, they are first to flounce.

Crisp, paper white blossoms reflect off my neighbor’s street lamp each night. Sheer filigree of light banishing a circle of darkness the way a full moon shines up the night.

Where there is sunlight, Carolina jessamine festoons trees in our woods

While Jupiter and Saturn chase each other across the ecliptic like good soldiers on a march that never ends.

Forsythia fades but mischievous Carolina jessamine takes up a yellow banner for Spring at the end of March.

It scrambles over fences and weaves through trees, splashing sunshine where you least expect it.

Bright constellations of spent petals swirl in currents driven by breezes. I see the currents clearly because they are marked by streamers of pollen.

Pink flowering almond, an old favorite in gardens, loves early spring

Pine pollen is cosmic dust come for a visit. Yellow clouds sweep in, coat cars and trucks, stain roads, invade the sinuses.

The yellow haze dusts plants with yellow flour, streams down waterways. Gusty rainstorms collect random grains and clump them in yellow rivulets that weave unseemly patterns on roads and cars. They linger until the next downpour (or a car wash).

Gentler raindrops rearrange pollen on leaves into tiny crescents, like fine old needlework.

A late-blooming forsythia surprises us each year after the early bloomers fade

Canada geese make regular noisy tours of our slip while the seasons are tugging. Checking out digs? Goofing off? Impressing a partner?

On a day when Spring seems ascendant, a pair of wood ducks are loafing, until a Canada goose casually sidelines them by flexing feathers. We do not see the pair again. Size matters, I guess.

Prospective parents investigate our waters each spring, then leave. Apparently we lack the finer amenities for raising young.

I see a streak across the water. Otter?

They’re around, and you can see them if you ride the canal. We smell the sea when they choose to dine on fresh water mussels off our point.

Unfinished beaver business?

The beaver that gnawed his way through winter seems to be gone. He finished off some good-sized saplings and chewed some hefty sprouts from a rising red bay.

We spent big bucks to drop a girdled 60-foot sweet gum soon to topple inconveniently. And what, do you suppose, a beaver would do with a tree like that?

They say the sound of trickling water triggers dam-building in beavers, so Bob stuffed a rag in our heat pump outflow pipe to mellow its gurgles.

The ploy seems to have worked, thank goodness.

Redbud blooms burst on a warm sunny day

It’s a whippy windy day. The sun is blinding white and the sky is crystal blue. Clouds are scudding and I hear shrill cries.

The osprey are back, or she is lately back and he, having come early for their rendezvous, is glad to see her arrive.

They fill the skies and cross the sun, their large shadows swallow me up.

Careening and dipping and diving, screeching or cooing, looping away and together, climbing to vertical until there’s almost a stall, challenging the gusts, knowing they can always recover from a ripping wind. Having a glorious time.

Forgetmenots. I can’t get enough of them. Too soon they go to seed but their offspring arrive dependably

When the osprey soar and the shadbush blow, I know that the bickering has ended and Spring has finally booted Winter out.

Redbud and crabapple, box turtles and sliders, forgetmenots and tent caterpillars will stir.

Spring blues and early swallowtails will flutter.

A single azalea blossom will poke out, and the weeds will disappear in a mountain of bloom.

Oh dear, tent caterpillars share the spotlight with jessamine

Eventually, deprived of their ice box, daffodils will sprawl in this new sauna, limp but greedy for a last bit of sunshine before they go under.

Later, as I trim the layabouts, I wonder whose idea it was to plant so many.

Fast forward to late April. Gardeners’ conversations now run to how dusty the soil is, how cracked the mud in the ditch is and how we need rain.

Unless it’s been windy, rainy and cold for a week. (Winter’s last mischievous gotcha?). Then the conversation turns to kaboomed blooms, littered lawns, soggy soil, and lost moments in a green world.

Either way, tee shirts begin to replace jackets and Summer is fast closing in on the skirts of Spring.

An early native azalea, ‘Varnadoe’, on a glittery April afternoon

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Special For Camellia Lovers

Only camellia lovers can understand how a Gang of Eight could capture our hearts so completely that we created a special place for them in our garden twenty-five years ago. Then, capitalizing on our soft spots, they managed to wheedle us into adding another 80 or so as companions.

C. sasanqua ‘Jean May,’ a dependable, large fall bloomer in our garden

Those great big neon blossoms! How they seduced us! This year in particular they’re busting out all over.

It’s a banner blooming season.

So what could be more appropriate for us than to run around the garden taking pictures and updating our series on camellias.

And pinching ourselves that we live in the south, where camellias are king.

C. japonica ‘Lady Clare,’ an all time favorite with camellia growers

We shall always be grateful to the Virginia Camellia Society for introducing us to such flamboyant royalty in the garden.

They offered hands-on workshops and seminars. They freely answered our questions. They taught us to air layer plants. They were dedicated to their camellias.

All this at the Norfolk Botanical Garden where a premier collection of over 1700 camellias attracts visitors from all points.

Formal and stately, C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Gem’ is a heavy bloomer, too

I’m proud to say we led some outdoor workshops, too, specifically on vole control (since we had intimate experience with the characters).

For several years we air layered their heirloom plants in spring and potted them up in fall for sale by the Botanical Garden.

Gradually we learned.

As we did the hard work of preparing soil, planting and pruning, and responding to an assortment of environmental assaults, from barely visible scales to mighty hurricanes, we developed our own perspectives on growing camellias. We tell our stories in chapters that are linked below and in the sidebar.

C. japonica ‘Taylor’s Perfection’ in late afternoon sunshine

You can follow us from our first heady infatuation with the Gang of Eight (Camellias in our Garden) to our serious attempts at growing them: purchasing, siting, planting, pruning, fertilizing, and managing diseases and pests.

We tell how our camellia garden was destroyed and regenerated.

And how could we not discuss air layering, the easiest method we know of propagating our favorites? Our piece on wildlife talks about Most Wanted (birds and bees) and Least Wanted (deer and voles and squirrels – squirrels?).

C. japonica ‘Hermes,’ a long bloomer and a flairboyant addition to our garden

Choosing Camellias, Landscaping with Camellias, and Companions for Camellias are three new additions to our series. We hope that some of the pointers and suggestions strike a chord and give you some new, aha! ideas.

As we tied up the series, we realized that camellias aren’t very different in their needs than most other plants. Much of what we discuss can be transferred to the care of other plants.

Regarding photos, we identify as many camellias as we can, those that were named when we purchased them and some we propagated. Once we began air layering unknowns we found out how difficult it was to put an accurate name to these beauties. Even experts were stumped. Eventually, we found that names didn’t matter. Their exquisite blooms in our garden were their identity.

Another Nuccio introduction, C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’

Our camellias have taught us patience – it takes a long time to raise a camellia.

They’ve opened our eyes to the kinship of soil to plants, the links between healthy life teeming underground and plant happiness.

We’ve watched the sun cross the skies each day and seen its glow on our camellias.

We’ve had a good time experimenting and growing.

We know now that when you plant a camellia, you are planting for a future that is beyond your lifetime.

We hope you enjoy our series on camellias as much as we enjoy growing camellias. You can view the cast of our characters in the gallery below, including the original Gang of Eight. You’ll also find their portraits incorporated into the series.

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Camellias in our Garden       Siting and Planting Camellias

 Pruning and Fertilizing our Camellias       Insects and Diseases of Camellias

Camellias Become  Collateral Storm Damage       Camellia Recovery and Care

Air Layering Camellias     Wildlife and Camellias

Choosing Camellias     Landscaping with Camellias    Companions for Camellias

Special for Camellia Lovers

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