Monday, June 19, 2017

My Father, the Vegetable Gardener - A post by Jenny Sullivan



Come April my dad was out in the back yard turning over his vegetable plot, a perfect rectangle positioned between the patio and the garage. The hose to the well he had drilled was conveniently hanging just outside the garage, and he was religious about proper watering.  His lawn chairs were positioned just inside the open garage door where he sat to rest, to smoke, to savor a bit of Four Roses, and to “receive.” Once that garage door went up in the early morning, everyone in the neighborhood knew that Doc “was receiving.”

Geezers, young fellows, and little children came and went all day long. They got cokes and watermelon and cheese if they liked but mainly talk. I believe they came for the talk. Once Dad was rested enough to get back to his garden, often his visitors did not leave. They did not even get up from their lawn chairs. They watched Doc till or weed or water. The little kids, of course, wanted to help, to dig with the shovel or sow the seed. The men wanted to advise or compliment as appropriate.


Sometimes Dad and another fellow would disappear for an hour or so and come back with fertilizer. When the circus was in town, they would go and ask for elephant manure and bring home buckets-full. Dad would find someone in the family, usually me it seemed, and thrust the bucket in my face.
“Smell that. We’ll have some good tomatoes this year.” He loved to watch me cringe and turn my head. What would he do now that Ringling Brother got rid of their elephants and then even had to close down.

Dad loved dirt and talked about his dirt all season long. He was so proud of the soil he gave to his vegetables to grow in. It was black and loamy and luscious. All summer long it fed his tomatoes and peppers, summer squash and zucchini, cucumbers and occasional radishes. And all summer long they fed us.

What he did not grow, he bought from the farmers’ market. Our farmers’ market back then was not the sophisticated affair that many farmers’ markets are today. A permanent semi-circle of shelters, a roof and a table, gave the sellers some shade through their hot day. All of the sellers were very small farmers, some even backyard farmers, who came to town each Saturday.

Dad was a frequent enough customer that folks knew him, and he knew which growers had the best value for the price in his opinion. They did not know each other’s names, but they spoke with the familiarity of people who get together once a week. At the farmer’s market, Dad wanted corn, kale, collards, or mustard greens, and watermelon or peaches.

Summer was tomato sandwiches on lightly toasted white bread with salt, pepper and mayonnaise for lunch, cucumbers every night for supper, summer squash fried down with heaps of onions and lots of black pepper every Sunday dinner along with some of those greens from the market and a peach cobbler for dessert. We enjoyed zucchini bread when Mama felt like baking, which was often. And there was watermelon in the backyard, cold from the refrigerator Dad kept in the garage for entertaining when he was receiving.

We did eat protein. But in the summer meat seemed merely a compliment to the vegetables, except for pork. Dad would drive into North Carolina with a friend for pork that the farmer made available from the poor pig on that very day. And Dad fished for spot and croaker or bought them from the men who brought their boats in at Harrison’s Pier. Summer pork and fish out of the bay have almost nothing in common with a pot roast in winter. They are more like ripe tomatoes right off the vine.


 Mama took care of the flowers and of food in the winter. But food in the summer was my Dad’s. It was not his responsibility but his great enthusiasm. When spring arrived, he donned his warm-weather uniform, a horizontal striped tank top, plaid Bermuda shorts, and bare feet. He died on April 23, 1991. It was sudden and merciful. His heart played out as he tried to rise from his bed, and he was gone. He had already turned over his vegetable garden. I flew down to Norfolk that morning when I got the call, cried with and tried to console my mother, took care of some of the funeral business, what Emily Dickenson calls “the solemnest of industries enacted upon earth,” and then went out back for a quiet moment alone. There in the soft dirt of Dad’s vegetable garden, in his beloved dirt, were his footprints, probably from the day before. Mama set in the plants he had bought and bravely harvested his vegetables that year.




Jenny N. Sullivan is a gardener, author and garden club member in Northern Virginia. Her first novel, From My Father's House., was published in 2015. Sullivan grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, enjoyed a long teaching career in the Virginia Community College System in the Tidewater area and in Northern Virginia.





Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Year of Composting Dangerously - A post by Jenny Sullivan


There was a time during 42 years of teaching literature that spring meant lines of poetry would soon be spilling out of my mouth from Hopkins or Housman: “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring/ when reeds in wheels shoots long and lovely and lush” or “Loveliest of tree, the Cherry now/ Is hung with bloom along the bough."


But then I retired and took a Master Gardeners course! Talk about being a lonely little petunia in an onion patch—or more accurately-- a wild, invasive onion in a cultivated petunia patch. While my teachers talked of monocots, calyxes, endocarps, and bracts, my fellow students carried on about their compost piles. Carbon/nitrogen ratios are very important. Huh? Bulking agents, leachate, and worm castings were the topics of many a lively conversation among my supposed peers. I sat and remembered that year I grew zinnias from seed…and was ashamed.

So, predictably, I did not make it through the internship. Trust me, no one should ask me how to avoid blossom end rot on their tomatoes just because I am at a Master Gardeners’ table at a Farmer’s Market wearing an official  name tag. My best advice would be, “Look around you, fool. A dozen people are selling beautiful tomatoes today.


Buy what you need, then go home and watch Jordan Spieth and Jason Day duke it out on the back nine.”

Still, all that talk of compost got to me. The thought of making my own dirt was not only intriguing but absolutely empowering. What could be more creative? But the more I read about composting, the more confused I became.


So I watched gardening shows where men took 20 hours and $300 to build large wooden composting bins, enough bins to have one for “mature” compost and one for the new pile being formed, and one bin in the middle. What that bin in the middle was for was never clear to me. Other TV guys suggested a far corner of the property (I have a yard, not a “property.”) where bins would not be needed, only real compost piles,  and where any raccoons attracted to the piles would not find themselves at the edge of the patio terrifying guests and their children.
 
Scary? Moi?

One rotating bin in a catalogue looked great. It was like a giant bingo barrel with a handle to crank it. But that bin would have necessitated a second mortgage and would have been the dominant design element in the back yard.

Then one day, I saw a little, unassuming garbage can with holes all over it sitting out back at the Variety Store: a Behrens RS 20 gallon steel rubbish burner/composter sitting up on little triangular legs (good for the leachate) and priced at only $30. I could do this. My pulse quickened. I fantasized where I would place it, on the cement slab where the air-conditioning unit sits. I scooped that baby up and carried it inside the store, using it as my shopping basket, tossing in the socks, the jigsaw puzzle, the wrapping paper, and the embroidery floss I had come for and proudly presenting it and its contents to the cashier. “I don’t need a bag,” I told her. She applied my senior discount, and I walked out of there swelling with the thrill of anticipation. 

We had lots of scratch cooking from that June day forward. All summer long I made vegetable soup so that I could have potato skins and carrots peels. I was happy when the green parts of scallions were not good enough for the salad.


I ripped open used Keurig cups to get those grounds. Everything destined for my compost bin I collected in a little yellow plastic tub and happily carried out to the Behrens RS 20, dumping everything on top of the leaves that the guys neglected to collect from under the shrubs when they were supposed to be blowing them all down to the curb the previous fall. But no matter, I crawled under the bushes and dragged that “brown material,” as they call it at Master Gardeners, out from under its shelter to add it to the “green material” from my kitchen. I needed that carbon/nitrogen ratio, don’t you know.



My Behrens was not on a platform constructed for rotation, so moving the green and brown around in order to introduce a little air into the mix (which all the articles, websites, and TV shows say you must do) was going to be a problem-- or so I thought. Then I remembered the “garden weasel” that I had bought 10 years earlier and that stood abandoned in a dusty corner of the garage. Although it had proved useless for cultivating the clay in my yard, it was perfect for weaseling my compost pile. The cement pad that the RS 20 sat on was even near the outdoor faucet, so adding water, a must to speed decomposition, was a breeze. The universe seemed to be lining up for me to have a great batch of compost, magnificent handmade dirt for spring 2017.


           
Over the winter, it hurt me not to be able to add new organic matter from the kitchen since it would not decompose in time to be dirt in the spring. Now I appreciated the value of having more than one bin. Every time I threw away a pear that had gone mushy or potatoes that had shriveled away in the dark of the cupboard or onion skins, banana peels, bruised apple slices, garlic papers, I kissed them goodbye. Were I a smarter gardener, they would be on their way to becoming precious compost rather than putrefying in plastic bags at Mt. Trashmore.

Finally the time came. Winter broke. The spring day was warm, the plants were emerging, and everything in the compost bin was black and beautiful, rich and luscious, full of vigor, ready to get the season going. I weaseled everything one more time, fluffed it, gave it oxygen.


The gesture served no practical purpose at this point but was a token of my sentimental affection: we had spent so much time together. I tipped the mix into my wheelbarrow and headed off to my rose bed.  I had almost enough compost to dress all eight rose bushes, almost. That’s pretty good, right? Then I went to Home Depot to buy three more bags of compost for $21 and finished the job.



Jenny N. Sullivan is a gardener, author and garden club member in Northern Virginia. Her first novel, From My Father's House., was published in 2015. Sullivan grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, enjoyed a long teaching career in the Virginia Community College System in the Tidewater area and in Northern Virginia.




                                                                                        



                  

Historical Gardening and Bloggers Who Love Other Blogs

I don't normally blog about other blogs. But I have to share this link to the Early American Gardens and Cultural Landscapes. https://americangardenhistory.blogspot.com

You cannot live in the National Capital Region of the United States without occasionally if not  constantly immersing yourself in history - whether it be colonial, revolutionary or civil war era.

Gardening in the 'new world' was quite an adventure for our intrepid ancestors. While they were able to bring much technical experience from the 'old world', farmers and gardeners were faced with growing conditions that required them to be innovative, agile, and quite optimistic.



Transforming wilderness to precise gardens, we can look back on now, was folly. But obviously they succeeded.


If you love gardening and history, this blog is for you.  Enjoy!  Thea

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Ultimate Flower Show experience (Think Philadelphia Flower Show...) A post by Thea McGinnis


Magnificent bridge lined with delft tile at the entrance to
the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's 2017
Philadelphia Flower Show "Holland - Flowering the World"

Like tens of thousands of you lovers of all things flower and garden, I attended this year's fabulous Philadelphia Flower Show.  But my visit was a bit different than yours - because I got to attend before the show opened. How did I finagle that?

One of the many beautiful display gardens at the Show

 I was honored to be asked to participate as a student judge - one of eighteen student judges invited to serve within panels of amazing, talented and professional judges from around the United States.


My team included Andrea Little from Boston, Massachusetts, Barbara Hamacheck from Ketchem, Idaho, and Amelia Crumbley from Mississippi.

 Andrea has been an accredited judge with National Garden Clubs for twenty-seven years.  Amelia is a brand new Garden Clubs of America accredited judge. And Barbara is an accredited judge with Garden Clubs of America.  I'm an NGC student judge and working toward my accreditation.

 This opportunity would never have come my way if I hadn't decided to attend NGC's Flower Show School.  I never really seriously considered becoming a flower show judge but I took Course I (of four) to find out what it was all about.  Honestly? I loved immersing myself in the course work. The Courses are like going back to college for a weekend.  Taking each course for credit is the key, though.  Yes, it requires you to take a very challenging exam at the end of each course, but a few of my fellow students learned the hard way that if you don't go for course credit, and you do go on to become judge, you will have to repeat the course.  What has impressed me the most, though, is the caliber of our instructors. Whether it is horticulture or design, the depth of knowledge and expertise shared with students is an awesome value.

 Back to my experience as a student judge with the PHS -  I arrived Thursday afternoon and immediately met up with NCAGC President-elect and fellow student flower show judge, Robin Hammer.  Robin and I have been lucky to go through our flower show school courses together.  Let's just say - we laughed a lot!!

NCAGC President-Elect
Robin Hammer
Robin and I, plus our dear garden friend, Julie Wadsworth, were invited to a dinner party for judges at the lovely Acorn Club, where we had the opportunity to meet many of the judges and chairpersons we would work with the next day. That's when I realized our fellow judges were from all over the U.S!

We got up early the next morning and met up with our panels. We started at 8:00 a.m. and didn't wrap up our work until about 1:00 p.m.  What impressed me most was how my fellow judges were able to make meaningful points that counted powerfully within our evaluation and decisions. And we were able to give exhibitors instructive comments that always circled back to principles and elements of design we adhere to in NGC and GCA.   I learned so much about the judging process and decision making that day, and best of all, made new friends.  Robin was assigned to a different panel of judges and had a wonderful experience as well.

 After all the scoring and collaboration with a great team of judges, we wrapped up our day with a lovely luncheon. We then got to experience the flower show in all its glory. All in all, it was a unique, fantastic opportunity and an awesome experience. And I loved visiting Philadelphia!

 I love garden club in all aspects of it's mission - as a community organization in your town, on-going member education, hands-on learning, and friendship.  I invite you to attend your local garden club's flower shows and meetings.  Come learn about horticulture and design.

Here are just a few of the exquisite designs competing at the Philadelphia Flower Show:







A charming bicycle basket of tulips

The Philadelphia Flower Show had top quality horticulture specimens, like this
gorgeous Hellebore, on display

Many go home with the names of new plants they can try in their gardens.  I also highly recommend attending any of the NGC courses for accreditation or certification as a consultant, offered to garden club members in your state - whether it is Landscape Design, Environmental, Flower Show Judge, or Garden Studies schools.

Robin and I are now immersing ourselves in completing our credentials by student judging flower shows in the National Capital area.  I'm looking forward to bringing what I learned from judging at the Philadelphia Flower Show to those shows.  My next post on the blog will include a list of our upcoming flower shows.  Flower shows are free, fun, educational and open to the public. Plan to attend one in your area this Spring!  - Thea

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Wintertime Blog - Photographer Brigitte Hartke and the Birds at Her Northern Virginia Feeder



Cardinal before dawn

It is still dark. I am pouring my coffee when I hear the first chirp, chirp of the day.  Cardinals are the first to my feeder each morning, and the last to visit at dusk.  I am always struck by their beautiful red color, and I particularly like the subtler hues of the female’s feathers.
female cardinal
A female cardinal

male cardinal
A male cardinal

Throughout the day, many birds come to visit as I provide a wide variety of choices — seeds, nuts, dried berries and fruit, suet — and what started as a simple attempt to attract and have birds nearby became a rewarding, enjoyable, though time-consuming, hobby; I love to photograph birds in the closest proximity that they will allow.

mixed flock at feeder
A mixed flock at the feeder

My feeder is just inches beyond my window as my camera’s zoom is not strong, and I have had the chance to study them in a very personal way, and to notice things I could not have observed from a distance.

One of my favorite local birds is the Carolina wren.

Carolina wren
Carolina Wren

This little cinnamon-colored bird with the jauntily-angled tail and beautifully-patterned plumage is the acrobat of my visiting birds.  He will hop all over and under objects, and pops up with ease through the hole in the middle of my platform feeder.  One is left with the impression that the wren is having fun. I know he will look for more than one female this spring, sometimes keeping two families going at once. I’ve loved having these birds take up residence in my small birdhouses; but, take care when leaving your garage door open for long as wrens will have a nest going in no time.  Wrens are especially fond of suet and insects. I had four fledglings visit the feeder once, and was absolutely delighted with their antics and behavior as they checked out every nook and cranny.

a native white throated sparrow
A native White Throated Sparrow


I see, feed and photograph many commonly-sighted birds visiting my feeders, and the occasional towhees, pileated woodpeckers, rose breasted nuthatches, sap-suckers, cowbirds, and grosbeaks; I see a number of species of our fairly common native sparrows which please me very much. I much prefer to take photos of the birds perching on branches or foraging on the ground rather than on a feeder as they look more natural.

A Black Capped Chickadee holding a seed

A watchful Junco

Junco

I once supported so many mourning doves that roosted in an oak in the wood just across from my window-placed platform feeder, that it prompted someone to alert me to the fact that I was maintaining a rookery.
Mourning Doves
Mourning Dove 
 I was trying to keep up with  the appetites of up to 26 doves; but they were always there in the tree, day-long residents hanging out through all weathers — and I enjoyed watching them, as I find them such beautifully-plumed birds.
Mourning Dove in snow
 They would usually fly in to feed en masse in the morning and evening — I once counted 11 birds on the platform at once (I should have been scattering the seeds on the ground; it is less stressful for them and discourages the passing of diseases among the birds).  I began experimenting with catching them in flight, coming and going, with my camera shutter speed set very fast.  Speaking of speed, while, on the ground, they slowly beetle around while feeding, once startled or threatened, they are capable of great speed in flight.  They are not the fussiest nest-builders, a friend once remarking that ‘they will cross two sticks together and call it a nest’.
Blue Jay looking in

Blue Jay working a kernel out of the seed

I did enjoy how the proximity of the birds at my window allowed us both the chance for mutual scrutiny.  This they often did, and it is a funny sensation when a bird peers into your kitchen and looks you over. Holding still, I stared back, and occasional took a photo. Those were some of my favorite moments.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

I became accustomed to some of the behaviors over the years.  Blue jays, tufted tits and chickadees will pick up safflower or sunflower seeds and hold them between their talons, crack the shell and eat the seed’s kernel on the spot, then pick up another to repeat.

Tufted Titmouse holding a seed

Nuthatches and some others will grab a nut or seed and fly to a nearby tree to tuck it into a crease or crevice in the bark of the trunk or limbs, to be consumed later.  My guess is that this behavior results in supporting many other birds who will find the food and benefit by it.

Years ago, I received an unexpected gift from the birds.  Birds are a major force for seed dispersal.  Coming to my feeders, they would sometimes leave droppings on the ground beneath, and this resulted in the germinating of a nice little patch of common asclepias, or milkweed;  I came to refer to it as my “science project’, and I left the plants to thrive from year to year, though their site was less than ideal.  I began to get caterpillars which became pupae and then monarchs!

Great Spangled Fritillary enjoying the milkweed patch

The milkweed, the host plant of the monarch butterflies, also provided nectar and sustenance for yellow and black swallowtails and other butterflies as well as many kinds of bees and other insects.  I used the milkweed patch for my macro-photography for years, as it came up every year after its first emergence.
Spangled Fritillary

On occasion, my photography of birds has developed into a photo-session marathon.  I may go days or weeks without taking a bird pic, and then there will come a day, when the snow comes down and the birds come in, and there’s nothing else to be done but to drop all other activities and stand at the window to photograph, observe, and learn.  Dreary days make the birds’ colors stand out, and the white snow reflects light up to highlight their undersides beautifully.  The falling snow adds to the beauty of the photos as well.
Tufted Titmouse

There are several interesting behaviors worth mentioning that I’ve observed for some years.  In the first, there may be very few visiting birds for several days, and then one bird species will arrive, followed minutes later by another, and another.  Within the space of an hour or two, many kinds of birds will be back to feed.  I later learned that these are called ‘mixed flocks’ that tend to travel together.
Downy Woodpecker and male Cardinal 

Another behavior I have observed is birds ‘freezing’ in place when there is a predator or some danger nearby.  I don’t know if one birds gives out a warning that all the birds heed (I have my doubts that the jays can always be relied up for they are known to give a warning cry just to clear the feeder for themselves).  I have seen birds remain unmoving in any way except for a slight movement of the head and eyes to check out their surroundings; this may go on for fifteen minutes.

Blue Jay

Just as suddenly they all go back to their usual activities.  I watched a red-bellied woodpecker, not known to be a swift flyer, move to the house side of a tree and stay there for some time, while a chickadee sat motionless in the same tree. The doves, being very swift flyers, sometimes choose flight, though they are sometimes caught.  It seems logical that predators home in on the movement of birds, and this seems to be the case.  I don’t think this ‘freeze’ behavior is the same as when ‘sentinel’ birds find a place from which to scan for predators while others forage for food.

An alert male Cardinal

Though I must go farther afield to photograph blue and green herons, eagles, and rails, I will always enjoy living with and capturing images of my “Usual Suspects” — the birds most commonly found at our local feeders in northern Virginia.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
 Moving to the more rural Bull Run area last year, I had to bid goodbye to the bog behind my house in Clifton that, because it was the site of many dead or dying trees, brought in great numbers of woodpeckers; and I had to leave behind my milkweed patch, the host of the monarchs, but I am planning to start a new one here. And I’ve seen birds at my feeder here that I’ve not seen at them before my move, while seeing less of others. Many hawks and owls fly by, a dozen turkeys stopped to preen on the lawn right after Thanksgiving, while the cry of owl pairs calling back and forth, too, can be heard (as well as coyotes that I frequently hear howling at night).  On Christmas morning, I saw my very first owl in the wild. I am hoping to get a photo of her one of these days. Yesterday morning, I watched a great blue heron fly by my bedroom window. Though I am happiest on country rambles, until I get a camera with a stronger zoom lens, I am content to take my best bird photographs here at my window — utterly absorbed and, hopefully, completely snowed in.
Nuthatch in snow




All photographs are owned and copyright 2017 by Brigitte Hartke

Contributor Brigitte Hartke is a writer, gardener, photographer, amateur genealogist
and a very active member of Five Hills Garden Club in Vienna, Virginia.  


Brigitte Hartke surrounded by native bluebells at Riverbend
She enjoys learning and writing about the scientific concepts relating to environment and conservation, and the interconnectedness, evolving over long evolutionary periods, of all the many species coexisting within a healthy biome