Friday, October 22, 2010

Ornamentals


Photo courtesy Flickr

Steering the landscape towards native plants leaves me pondering just how totalitarian to be about evicting imported species. I voiced the concern to an elder of one of the Eastern Washington tribes, and he just chuckled and pointed to one of my two-story lilacs, saying "Keep that." Andy is one tricky dude, and it’s folly to sample his wisdom without a grain or ten of salt, but it makes sense to design good humor.

The most hauntingly beautiful European-American survivors turn up on old homesteads. It’s a revelation to run across the remnants of a hearth, a patch of day lilies, and a spiny fountain of roses or an apple tree that has repeatedly grown, fallen, and “walked” downhill in the process. The odd iris on a roadside, an isolated daffodil, these say more to me than formal, meticulous grounds that skirt a Norman mansion surrounded by second growth.

Shifting toward native plants has made me aware of the dynamic evolution of the garden. All gardens do this, but the natives have initiated their half of a dialogue that grows richer every season. The property is approaching the point where a few choice and a few ordinary imports stand apart from a native matrix and say what they have to say in their own green dialect.

P.S. I found prettier images to illustrate this post, but this one is the real deal and the Flickr site is admirable. Cabins like this still survive in my neighborhood blocks from downtown highrises. Look behind the "big house" that people put up after they prospered. Also look for ancient commercial buildings with siding that is beveled top and bottom and with windows that really daylight the interior. Note the date on the photo: that's the truth about how recently Seattle was settled by Euro-Americans. The virgin timber (like Amazon rain forest) north of Northgate was not logged until after World War Two.

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More after the jump.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Chosen Weed


Photo courtesy Flickr

Audrey Wynne Hatfield’s How to Enjoy Your Weeds is a 1970 gem of garden writing. A guide to ancient wisdom about the plants around us, there is mention of plantain, said to be much enjoyed by birds.

About fifteen years ago, I began to tolerate plantain on the edges of the lawn. This year’s unusual weather has brought plantain into its own. I fertilized it last spring with time-release beads, and it’s absolutely beautiful now that the rains have come. The well-fed seed-stalk looks like anthurium, and the flat rosette of leaves is bonny and civilized, civilized enough to have been grazed by a slug. I’ll hide a nearly empty beer can near the patch.

I very much enjoy working with native plants rather than working against them. I considered the wisdom of restricting food plants to one narrow border and a set of apple trees and realized that the native areas of the garden grow wrens, finches, wild canaries, flickers, and quite a bit of leisure time for the household.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Onions


Photo courtesy Flickr

This is the time of year to get onions into the ground. Last month I faced the reality of how inconsistent I am about cultivating edible plants and posted twelve patented plastic vegetable growing bins on Craig’s List. They went to live with an earth sciences person in the foothills of the Cascades.

When I was dumping out and stacking the bins, I turned their contents onto the compost border, where thirty years of kitchen waste grow potatoes and corn salad with no supervision except to edit the potatoes to a different area now and then.

One of the bins contained shallots. It had been sitting in the hottest, driest part of the garden. I decided to get out of the vegetable business because a container of onions gasping for their lives by the front door does not inspire confidence in the author of a blog about housekeeping.

A young playwright asked Samuel Becket how to go about his business. Becket told him to “Fail” and then to, “Fail better.” In 1968, when Julia Child was making her mark in the public kitchen, her television colleague Thalassa Cruso was Making Things Grow. Cruso confided that one of the things she enjoyed most about gardening was that she got to compost her mistakes.

When the shallots first showed signs of stress last year, I decided to let them tough it out, to see what would happen. This is not a kind process, and it probably violates a Geneva convention, but it yielded vital results. The wiry little shallots lying atop mounds of pure compost are growing like mad. I seldom cut up a shallot to cook it, but they yield my favorite green-onion topping. It looks as if this year’s crop is in the bag, for less than no effort.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Grass

Photo courtesy Flickr

Recently a woman moved up from New Orleans and made worried noises about lawn care. The only problem with growing grass in Seattle is keeping it under control: it’s impossible not to grow grass in Seattle.

That said, the main concerns about grass culture are social. Community standards vary, and what defines a good lawn in a subdivision with covenants may be quite different from what defines a lawn that’s in spitting distance of downtown high-rises, where keeping the empties off the parking strip is a sign of meticulous management.

This is just a casual comment, but it seems to me that a lawn made up of insta-sod, laid down like high-maintenance Astroturf, is a different critter than an old-fashioned one grown from seed. The three lawns for which I’ve been responsible were sown nearly a hundred years ago.

Autumn is the time to plant grass in Seattle. Early warmth and rain will sprout the seed and later rain will grow it when the temperature is over forty-five degrees, producing deep and healthy roots in March.

My current lawn is dense, deeply rooted, and fine-bladed. I don’t water it at all. It goes dormant in July and greens up after the first rains in September. There are several critical periods for mowing: now, when it’s breaking dormancy, just before Thanksgiving so it will look good for the holidays, and February, when it starts to grow again.

Mowing the lawn just as it returns to vigor generates healthy roots and short green stems. Missing the appointed times simply means that the turf won’t look as well-cultivated as it otherwise might. Nothing will die. The lawn enjoys a good scratch from a conventional garden rake once or twice a year, to accelerate the decomposition of accumulated dead stems and sheet composting from mower mulch. It’s no big deal, and the timing is not critical.

I don’t fertilize the lawn. It makes no sense to initiate a break-neck cycle of growth and mowing when the grass will feed itself if I don’t remove the clippings.

In How to Enjoy Your Weeds, Audrey Wynne Hatfield named the elements of the British Imperial War Graves Commission recipe for a tough, durable turf for the tragically huge cemeteries that were established after World War One. The lawn consisted of clover, yarrow, chamomile, and creeping thyme. Noting the absence of grass, Hatfield comments that in the nineteenth century, the great estates had “lawn boys” whose task it was to crawl over the turf with tweezers, plucking out blades of grass.

I found that strangely comforting, and once I had a lawn of my own to maintain, I began to play with the idea of evicting grass. Thirty years of casual fooling around with the turf have left me with a parking strip and front lawn that are half in clover and yarrow. They look patchy during summer dormancy, because the clover and yarrow stay green while the grass dies. When the rains approach, I sprinkle a modest amount time-release fertilizer on the broadleaf plants to give them a leg up on the grass, and over time, the two have spread and are still gaining.

I keep the edges of these areas trimmed and the walks rigorously swept with a corn broom that adds silica “sickle polish” to the pebbles in the cement. My hope is to give the impression of careful maintenance, and I probably couldn’t get away with this approach in a neighborhood with a covenant.

Clover attracts bees, and if there were small children in the house, I’d consider the wisdom of introducing it. The front garden is a small orchard of dwarf fruit trees. We laid it out with toddlers in mind: the area is fenced off from the rest of the grounds, and this part of the garden is kept only in grass. Incidentally, there’s a gate in this fence that leads to a slide on the front bank, so kids can play on cardboard sleds in the summer and real ones during the rare snow.

I daydream of encasing the trunks of the apple trees in hardware mesh and inviting the neighbors’ pet rabbits to control the grass. Meanwhile, the garden as a whole grows ever-easier to maintain as I relinquish control to native plants and the unmanageable cycles of the seasons.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Good King Henry


Photo courtesy Flickr

In the Eighties, I went mad for garden catalogues, particularly the early offerings from Steve Solomon. I sent away for corn salad, aka Good King Henry, and sowed it as part of an experiment in growing edible weeds.

My intention was to replace bothersome low-growing intruders with something for the table, so that getting down on my knees to remove a plant would be more than an exercise in subtraction. Corn salad has been a hit.

It’s delicious, grows itself, tastes good when in bloom, and tosses little round seeds all over the place when it matures. The less I water it, the more vigorously it reproduces. Two drawbacks are that it looks ratty when it’s going to seed, and that I have to be careful not to eat the plants that seed themselves in the zone of heavy metals close to the old painted siding of the house. I control corn salad by eating it and with the same benign herbicide that I use on unwelcome green intruders.

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