Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Arnold and Maria, the First Family of California, now First Gardeners too?

SACRAMENTO (DP) California's popular First Lady, Maria Shriver, is out in front with the Greening the Grounds movement (which promotes sustainable gardening at state and federal buildings around the country).

In March she announced there would be a new fruit and vegetable garden in Capitol Park, which is adjacent to the State Capitol. Famed chef and food activist Alice Waters is helping to plan the water-conserving garden, and installation is expected in May.

Today the gossips in Sacramento's watering holes are chattering about the unexpected involvement of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger with the garden project. The former actor has a history of media-savvy public appearances. Rumor has it he will be staging a dramatic press event for the garden's ground-breaking.

Whisperers in the state capitol say that Schwarzenegger is going to take the green movement one step further. Eschewing gasoline-powered roto-tillers, he is planning to demonstrate his physical prowess by harnessing himself to a wooden plow and personally tilling the soil for the garden.

Pundits think this athletic feat could change Arnold's nickname from the Governator to the Gardenator.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Asparagus: Fresh and fleeting

A guest post from award-winning poet, essayist, and radio presenter, Molly Fisk. Molly gardens in Nevada City, California. Her beguiling radio essays are broadcast on KVMR-FM and collected on two CDs, Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace and Blow-Drying a Chicken.

In spring a young man’s fancy turns to love, as the saying goes, but quite a few of the rest of us turn toward asparagus. Despite the evidence in your grocery store, it’s ripe only during a one-month window in spring. You’ll know that month has arrived when the price suddenly plummets.

Martha Stewart recommends snapping the ends off where they naturally snap, vowing that this is the tastiest part of the stalk. But she has 400 asparagus beds tended to I’m sure by Japanese master gardeners. The hoi polloi, which is another name for rabble, i.e. us, will often just cut off the last inch or so and not waste so much, figuring a little toughness is par for the course, in asparagus as in life.

I’ve done some longitudinal studies of asparagus-lifespan in my ice box. They generally last a week. Any longer and the stalks get floppy, the heads with their little cedar-shingle-like design begin to slime up. Martha Stewart, however, and Alice Waters and others in the know insist we eat asparagus as soon as it’s picked, and this time, I agree with them. Again, it’s hard on the hoi polloi to search out the nearest asparagus farm and buy directly. For some reason, we’re usually at work. But you can make a phone call to discover when your grocery gets its delivery, arrange to shop that day and eat the little darlings that night, and you’re getting closer — if you live in an asparagus-producing state, those stalks were probably picked no more than two days before.

The novelist Barbara Kingsolver and her family spent a year eating what they could grow themselves or what was made nearby. Her entertaining account is called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Luckily she’d put in asparagus beds three years before, so they were producing — you don’t get any in the first couple of seasons. She said about eating in season that you start out delighted at your first taste, enjoy it for a week or two, and then start to wish you could eat something else. But you can’t. The beans and tomatoes are nowhere near ripe — you’re stuck with asparagus. Then suddenly it’s gone, you’ve eaten your last bite until next April, unless you’re going to buy those expensive ones from Chile that were bred for long distance travel, not flavor, and ruin your carbon footprint.

The big trend in gardening this spring is growing vegetables. We saw the White House lawn torn up for the purpose — backyards across the country are being roto-tilled as we speak. Nurseries are selling out of starts (the seedlings some people plant instead of actual seeds) — it’s a phenomenon, an intersection of the natural foods movement and the recession. This year I’m splitting my loyalties between an organic farm I support and a young friend just starting up on an acre she’s rented.

Don’t I sound knowledgeable about all this? In fact, I was raised a city girl in San Francisco — somewhere in the back of my brain I still don’t believe plants really come from seeds. But everyone says they do.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Are you one of these difficult garden center customers?

Guest post today from Jenny Bennett, a writer, editor, hiker, and not-too-serious gardener. Jenny has an entrancing blog, Endless streams and forests, on hiking and history, that you can find in the non-garden section of my blogroll. At one time Jenny worked in a garden center on Boston's North Shore and met some unusual customers. Do any of them sound like you?

Most of the time, the customers walked in with smiles on their faces, for they were happy to be in the world of plants. And that was a benefit of working at the garden center. It was certainly better than selling duct tape or plumbing supplies. But then, for every nine or ten contented visitors, there would be a cranky sort or (perhaps even worse) someone who was both eccentric and indecisive.

Here is a list of some of our favorite garden center specimens.

-- Nervous house seller: Would load up with whatever shrubs happened to be in bloom, even if it meant putting a rose of sharon under a pine tree. (Actually, I sympathize with this, being about to put my own house on the market.)

-- Seeker of “miniature” plants: Would look at an ornamental pear or a hemlock, then ask, “Is it available in miniature?”

-- Seeker of “frozen in time” plants: Didn’t mind that the plant was six feet tall, but wanted it to stay that height.

-- Unrealistic window box filler: Had large empty window box in full shade: “I’d like it to be a riot of color.”

-- Time-consuming window box demander: “I need to fill six window boxes, and I want you to show me something trailing for the front, spreading for the middle, and tall for the back. In yellow and red.”

-- The knowledge tester: Liked to point at something specialized, such as one of the 20 varieties of groundcover juniper, and ask for full details of siting and care, then move on to another plant, and another: push button, hear salesperson speak.

-- The “yoo hoo” ladies: Invariably elderly. Would go out to the roses or the hydrangeas and then cry out for assistance in loud bell-like tones: “Yoo hoo!”  Some of the guys who worked there took to calling out “Yoo hoo!” to each other in a remarkable falsetto.

-- Adventurous buyer: Wanted to look at the blue spruces even in the midst of a furious thunderstorm.

-- Fussy car owner: Required the interior of their vehicle to be completely encased in plastic sheeting when purchasing a couple of container items.

-- Soul-chilling customer: After being shown many plants, would say, “Nothing here interests me.”  (I could swear the plants wilted in the presence of these words.)

-- Cash register confuser: On Mother’s Day weekend, with a long line of people waiting amidst a great tangle of carts, would decide they wanted to put back the Japanese holly and get a spirea instead.

(The following two are particular, very special individuals rather than types.)

-- The bunny lady: Extremely wealthy, but dressed shabbily and drove a wreck.  Carried her pet bunny in a straw basket, but worried aloud to us that a swooping hawk might carry it off. (There were, in fact, a lot of red-tailed hawks in the area.) Would pick out dozens of her favorite oriental lilies and then keep them on hold for weeks at the garden center. Always came in just before closing on hot, tiring days.

-- The imperious country-club man: One of my all-time favorites—the 60-ish gentleman in the blue blazer who marched up to me and barked: “Show me the lilacs!  Chop-chop!”

Monday, April 20, 2009

Supreme Court leak: Earth Day review of the separation of powers?

WASHINGTON (DP) News has leaked that the Supreme Court Justices will spend Earth Day together, digging into the constitutional issues involved with the "greening" of the White House. A reliable source said this meeting would not be a garden-variety gathering of the Justices, but would take place sub rosa.

There are budding concerns about recent congressional support for sustainable gardening practices at the White House. Congress provided seed money to purchase sheep for the White House lawn, and it set up committees to work in the White House vegetable garden. This congressional intervention with the Executive Mansion may have violated the separation of powers dictated by the U.S. Constitution.

An informal judicial review could be an effective way to get to the roots of the tangled relationship between the legislative and executive branches.

It is hoped that the Court's meeting will not become an occasion for raking up dormant disagreements about constitutional law. 

The Court's Public Information Officer refused to comment on the Earth Day meeting, and it is entirely possible that this leaked story is simply a plant.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Your Vote on Vinca?

My Banner Mountain neighborhood is Action Central for Vinca right now--major, minor, whatever, it's all blooming like mad. 

I was admiring the plethora of Vinca during a walk this evening, and suddenly my Inner Garden Critic chimed in. He seemed to be an Englishman.

The internal dialogue was like those old cartoons, with a pitchfork-carrying Devil sitting on one's shoulder. This time it was a shovel-carrying Inner Garden Critic on my shoulder. 

It went something like this:

DP:  Oh, another bank of Vinca major in bloom! What a lovely shade of blue-violet those flowers are!

IGC:  I beg to differ! What could possibly be more of a garden cliche than Vinca major?

DP:  (falteringly) But I like it. And it's not St. John's wort.

IGC:  You make an excellent point. Vinca major is simply ubiquitous while St. John's wort is actively unattractive. But do please scan the horizon. Your neighborhood is absolutely swathed in Vinca major.

DP:  Well, not many groundcovers get through our snowy winters and dry summers. You know the deer don't eat Vinca. And it's fire retardant too. It's pretty much the perfect plant here.

IGC:  (splutters) Perfect plant? My good woman, I had imagined you finally understood the importance of native plants--and you know very well that Vinca is not native. 

DP:  You're right, you're so right. If there were a good native substitute I'd be glad to use it. 

IGC:  (coldly) It is invasive too, as I should not have to remind you.

DP:  Listen, with my clay soil I need plants called "invasive" just so they stay alive. 

IGC:  Hmmph. Well, at least you grow Vinca minor 'Sterling Silver' with variegated leaves. I suppose I can live with that.

DP:  Thanks. Now let's stop arguing so we can enjoy this walk together.

Silence, as I take a few more steps.

DP:  Oh, would you look at that! There's a magenta azalea about to open!

Inner Garden Critic screams and leaps off my shoulder.

And you, dear reader--whose side are you on? What's your vote on Vinca?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Garden Dictionary definition:


pronunciation: tak-son-uh-mee


1. The practice of classifying plants according to their presumed natural relationships.

2. Slang. the practice of classifying gardeners according to their presumed natural relationships to money. In the United States the classification is done annually in mid-April. Economists have noted a concurrent drop in sales at garden centers when this classification occurs.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Congress to Buy Sheep for the White House Lawn

WASHINGTON (DP) Sheep may safely graze on the White House lawn for the first time since the Wilson administration.

Congress shepherded in a special financial allocation for the purchase of sheep to crop and fertilize the lawn at the Executive Mansion. The use of sheep will eliminate the need for gasoline-powered lawn mowers and petroleum-based fertilizers.

The Congressional bipartisan, ad hoc committees formed last month to support the White House vegetable garden have been a resounding success. Starting today, two new committees will expand the scope of Congressional aid to the White House grounds.

Organic Lawn
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO)
Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA)

The vegetable garden committees established a few weeks ago are still accepting new members.

The Sheep committee, however, is being quite selective and turned down an application from Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Chicken Lady Hall of Fame: The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

Chatsworth House

Chickens are about to overrun the gardens of America. Did you know that the suppliers of chicks have already sold out of many breeds?

We've all heard that every American has turned to vegetable gardening in a big way, and that none of us will be able to attend potlucks this summer unless we can bring our own homegrown tomatoes (this includes Manhattanites who garden on fire escapes). Now it appears that our farming genes have gone hog wild and we are in Old MacDonald mode--where a man's home is no longer his castle, but instead his fully-fledged farm complete with chickens.

My first hint that this trend was on the wing was when I read that Heather at Idaho Small Goat Garden was frantic for fowl, and just barely got her order for chicks filled. In gardening we often look to England for our advisers, and the lovely visage of the leading Chicken Lady of them all sprang instantly to my mind.

England's most famous chicken owner is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire--also known as Deborah, Debo, or, most often, Her Grace.

As the chatelaine of Chatsworth, the ducal stately home in Derbyshire, she continued her own Mitford family tradition of keeping chickens.

The Dowager Duchess is the youngest of the flock of famous Mitford sisters. She grew up in Gloucestershire caring for Rhode Island Reds and White Leghorns, and at Chatsworth raised award-winning Dorkings, Derbyshire Redcaps, Welsummers, White Leghorns and Buff Cochins. Most of her chickens have the run of the park and are a curiosity for tourists. Talk about free range--we should be so lucky as to wander the gardens of Chatsworth without paying an entrance fee.

The Poultry Club of Great Britain praised the Dowager Duchess as "an excellent example of everything which is good about the Poultry Club." I'm not sure what that means, but it has a nice Edwardian ring to it. A true poultry fancier indoors as well as out, Her Grace is a collector of paintings and china depicting chickens. You think that puts her at the top of the pecking order of Chicken Ladies? There's more.

Gifted with business sense, and the Mitford literary skill, the Dowager Duchess wrote several books about life at Chatsworth, including a memoir, Counting My Chickens... The cover illustration of the first edition is a photo of Her Grace holding one of her chickens.

A prize to my first reader who correctly identifies the breed of chicken on the book cover. The winner will receive a prominent mention in my next Chicken Lady post--I would have awarded a live chick, but they're all sold out.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Grateful Hedge Fund Managers Surprise Citizens in Connecticut Town

GREENWICH, CT (DP) A crowd of almost 100 hedge fund managers congregated at 7 a.m. this morning on a sidewalk across the street from a popular hardware store.

Wearing jeans, Barbour waterproof jackets, and gardening gloves, and carrying Felco pruning tools, they waited together in small groups in the frigid morning air.

Their spokesman, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that the men were offering themselves as free day laborers, to work in local gardens.

"A few of us were talking last week, after the announcement that the Treasury Department wanted to lend our industry one trillion dollars to buy toxic assets. We just couldn't believe we'd be allowed to keep half of the profits, and the losses would be borne by the taxpayers." *

"We decided we wanted to give back to the community somehow, and thought it would be symbolic if we volunteered to shape up the growth assets in our town's gardens."

The citizens of Greenwich responded with enthusiasm to the prospect of free help. A long line of Range Rovers and Suburbans quickly formed at the curb in front of the group, drivers leaning out and calling to the men, often asking for managers from certain hedge funds. The men were loaded in, one or two at a time, depending on how much garden assistance each driver needed, and soon the sidewalk was empty.

*No joke. This is the current policy proposal from the U.S. Treasury Department.