Monday, October 5, 2009

A lazy post, especially after so many months of dormancy, but still irresistible

Found today at the always, always delightful vintage-album-cover blog, LP Cover Lover:

In other news, can it really be five months--almost the entire gardening season--since my last post here?! Impossible! I swear I have been writing entries here nearly every day, in my mind. Watch for some of them to materialize here, soon. In the meantime, watch out for those gorillas in the misty morning garden. I hear they are especially fond of tulips.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Happy Curb Day!

I first read about today's first-ever nationwide Curb Day in the Buffalo News earlier this week and have been excited about it ever since. (This link will likely expire in a day or two.) Sounds like a terrific idea--but the kind of thing that will only work if it truly goes viral offline as well as on, so I'm doing my bit to help spread the word (at the last possible minute, granted, but better late than never).

The predicted crappy weather around here may put a damp-er (sorry) on the fun in WNY, but it's worth a try. I meant to gather up some curbworthy donations tonight and then it slipped my mind. We've got a copy machine up for grabs if the rain lets up. This all strikes me as an ideal use for what Yankees call "the hellstrip" and Louisianians refer to as "the neutral ground"--that no-man's-land between your home (reservoir of clutter that it is) and the street. Here's a chance to turn it into every-man's/person's-land.

Nike will take your old sneakers (any brand) and transform them into material for playgrounds
Radio Shack will recycle old rechargeable cell phone and laptop batteries
•UPS will take back all those obnoxious styrofoam packing peanuts they use.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I'm not off to a very impressive start with my "One-Man Book Club" idea, in which, theoretically, I report on the garden-related books I'm reading at any given moment. I'm reading a lot of them, actually, just not making time to write about them. For instance, I finished Amy Stewart's The Earth Moved at least a month ago and then moved on to, let's see, a bit more of Rudolf Borchardt's The Passionate Gardener and the last few chapters of Daniel Pinchbeck's 2012 (that one's not explicitly about gardening, but somehow it fits in for me), and now I'm on to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Somewhere in there I read a book about Findhorn, too. If all goes according to plan, I shall comment on each of these sooner or later. And this flurry of intellectual activity will surely stop as the weather stays warmer and spend more time playing in the dirt. But back to the earthworms for a sec. Here's a passage I bookmarked to quote:

When I stand at the edge of a forest, at the base of a mountain, or in my own backyard, looking down at the soil, I feel the way I do when I look out at the ocean, where great blue whales and giant squid swim the unknown depths, where sharks hunt and sea cucumbers wave with the currents. ... The ground has its own kind of fluidity, its own hidden world, its own mysterious inhabitants. What creatures, I wonder, would rise up from the surface of the earth if I stood long enough and watched?

Entomologist Douglas Emlen has an answer to that question: the dung beetle! Previously known to me only as the star of a Kafka story, this lowly critter (who lives a good couple of inches into the soil under pretty much any and every animal's droppings) turns out to be pretty remarkable, as Emlen explains to Terry Gross on this fascinating episode of Fresh Air devoted to his life's work. Do not miss the curiously beautiful photo gallery or the video of two beetles fighting. Looking at them, I cannot help but think of a certain album cover:

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A legacy of leaves

I promised more on the aftermath of my father's recent death. First, here's a recent view of his backyard. Bear in mind he didn't live at home for the last year of his life, which accounts for a little of the overgrown-jungle aesthetic, but even in his heyday Dad was into letting things grow a bit wild:

Those tall, cornlike stalks to the left are ginger, my niece's husband told me. Dad had given him a little a couple of years back, and Lynn loved the smell when it was in bloom, so he was hoping to get more on this trip. (I'm pretty sure, but not positive, that it's this edible kind and not some poisonous ornamental variety. Fingers crossed!) That request, and my own desire to get some more clippings of his mammoth "shrimp plant" (Justicia brandegeana, which used to adorn the entrance to the house where I grew up, and which grows abundantly throughout Louisiana), gave me the idea to bring back to Buffalo a few examples of my father's handiwork as a living reminder of his lifelong devotion to growing things. As I noted before, most of what Dad grew is not really that hard to find in my current neck of the woods; they're just houseplants up here.

Let's continue the tour for a moment. Here's one of my favorite parts of his front yard:

Those ferns popped up everywhere, including this unusual (to me) instance where they almost appear to be growing out of the house itself, midway up one wall:

You can find them anywhere, but they also seemed easy to transport, so I snagged a couple of smallish ferns, along with the ginger, a couple of colocasia/elephant ears (they literally grow like weeds in his yard), a bit of kalanchoe, sanseveria, and his beloved aloe vera. I figured it was mainly a conceptual gesture and I had nothing to lose if the transplants didn't survive. (Somewhere during my labors my sister walked through the yard and pointed out large amounts of poison sumac throughout the property, and then I began to worry I was bringing that with me, too.) Several of my family members expressed skepticism that you could mail plant material across the country in the age of bioterrorism, but UPS said that was not an issue at all. (Besides, nurseries do it all the time, right?) My first thought was to pack everything in plastic pots with a bit of the surrounding soil, but then I found several online resources that all suggested that bare-root is the way to go, both economically and for the health of the plants. (I'd intended to include a link here to a helpful how-to video, but I seem not to have kept the URL. But hey, you can find it yourself if you're that interested. You wrap the roots or bulbs with a moist papertowel, then wrap that inside some plastic wrap or a baggie, taking care not to cover the stalks or leaves. Long story short, it seems to work, which is to say, my specimens did not look dead when they arrived.)

UPS packed everything up for me for not much money; alas, overnighting the smallish box would have cost a whopping $200 or more, which would completely have undermined my "I have nothing to lose" mantra, so I settled for the slowest possible shipping rate: the box sat unsent in their office over the weekend, then left Louisiana on Monday and arrived in New York state on Thursday for a still-hefty 40 bucks. In retrospect, I wish I had told the UPS crew to be sure and leave the box open as long as possible, and to double check the moistness of the paper towels, but that all worked just fine. Everything has subsequently been potted, and I've got my fingers crossed that at least a few will grow again. The kalanchoe's doing best as of now, but I'm also starting to see sprouts on the elephant ears. We'll see what else happens in the fullness of time.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Funeral for a farmer

The family emergency I've referred to here as my reason for not posting more often lately was the last days and subsequent death of my father. He grew up on a wheat farm in western Kansas in the 1920s and lived through the ravages of the Great Depression smack dab in the middle of the Dust Bowl. (All the photos I have from his childhood look like they could have been shot by Dorothea Lange.) I've often credited him with instilling in me a lifelong disdain for waste and introducing me to composting back in the 1970s, when it wasn't nearly as hip and trendy as it is today, certainly not in the smallish Louisiana city where I grew up. He's also a big reason for my current interest in gardening; lord knows it gave us a lot more to talk about in our weekly phone conversations for the last few years. Even before I dove headlong into plant geekery, I was a dedicated composter for at least a dozen years, entirely in his honor.

There's a lot I'd like to say about him here, but I haven't really had the energy for it just yet. (My mother's death about 13 years ago was really traumatic, but I honestly wasn't expecting my dad's passing to take the toll it seems to be taking on me. Granted, the play I was part of at exactly the same time his health was declining was another major factor in my current lethargy.) For now I will simply relate the end of his story: when it came time to prepare a memorial service for him, I thought it would be fitting to incorporate some of the plants he'd grown in his backyard--nothing fancy, just plentiful alocasia, kalanchoe, ferns, and other tropicals that are confined to houseplant status up north. My niece's husband waded through a post-rain swamp to gather cuttings (little did I know he had nurserymen in his own family, but more on that in a later installment) and other family members assembled them in vases and other containers we found among his things. We displayed these at the funeral home, and the next day at his church.

The funeral home offered us one of those memorial cards that are a staple of Catholic funerals--not so much with Lutherans, at least not when I grew up--and rather than go with their default text, I offered to provide something more appropriate. Dad was a lifelong churchgoer, so I felt obliged to go biblical, especially after my concept for a mini-bio detailing the various stages of his life ("farmer / son / father / gardener / etc") just wasn't working. I scoured the (Bible-less) library in the guest room of my friends' home where we spent the week and found a couple of books by the German theologian and political prisoner of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which in turn steered me to a nice image from Isaiah 61: "For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations."

We also had plenty of input in the church service, so I made a request for the Protestant hymn "In the Garden." It's not a regular part of the Lutheran repertoire (and the pastor warned us that the congregation would be less likely to sing songs they didn't grow up with), but it worked. I'm assuming you know the song; I've got several versions on vinyl that I like more than this recording by Johnny Cash (in that stripped-down Rick Rubin phase of his), but this one does convey the unvarnished poetry of the lyrics just fine:

I loved the fact that the pastor devoted a portion of his sermon to Dad's garden--"As everyone knew who ever visited his house, Charles could grow anything," he said early on, after noting the enormous commitment it took for a young man on a farm to take on a wife with four children from a previous marriage. (There was also a spot-on joke about Dad's refusal to turn the damn air conditioner on, in the middle of a typical 100-degree, 100-percent-humidity August afternoon.) It was the kind of eulogy I'd be thrilled to be the subject of, full of personal references reflecting the two men's history together, rather than some generic boilerplate. My father was a pretty eccentric guy, when you get right down to it, and I'd like to think we celebrated his uniqueness with a pair of events as idiosyncratic and down to earth (in more ways than one) as his life had been.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Adorable yet annoying

I assure you, I shall soon resume posting here more often (warned you early on, my record is spotty at best). In the meantime, let's recall the real reason god invented the internet: to let us stumble upon and share stuff like this ...

Cute, yes, but this guy's relatives are the thugs who treated our tulip beds like a salad bar a few days ago.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Of doo-doo and Doo-Dah

I hope to be back in blogging shape again soon, but a family emergency has occupied most of my energy and time of late. Even so, I can't resist calling your attention to this wonderful reprint (repost?) of Daniel Chamberlin's profile from a 2007 Arthur of "Sodfather"/"California compost wizard" Tim Dundon. The main focus of the piece is a wild tale that, "like any good gardening story, encompasses Hollywood producers, fires, suicide, PCP injection, a nude Quaker iconoclast, standoffs with city officials and a violent pet coyote." But just as fascinating--to me, at least--is the way Chamberlin interweaves an entire scientific/socio-political history of organic farming/gardening dating back more to approximately 2400 BC. The prose is both witty and informative, as we see in this passage that explains what all those creepy crawling things are up in my compost pile:

The first stage of decomposition in composting is chemical: microscopic organisms flock to the dead thing and start to secrete enzymes that break it down on a cellular level. As bacteria, saprophytic mushrooms and other fungi eat and digest, they give off considerable heat, causing compost piles to steam and occasionally even catch fire from the trillions of tiny post-dinner bacterial farts. ...

... As the chemical decomposers make the dead organic matter a bit more malleable, the physical decomposers start to show up. Millipedes, sow bugs, springtails and snails are happy to chomp up the plants. Flies arrive bringing more bacteria to the buffet, leaving behind eggs and maggots for spiders, centipedes, mites and beetles to eat. Ants replenish the fungi, transport minerals from within and without of the pile and eat plants and insects. But the most accomplished of all the decomposers is without question the earthworm. ... These original slimy alchemists eat dirt and shit out the organic equivalent of gold: castings, also known as vermicompost. Castings enrich the soil with nitrogen, calcium, magnesium and other minerals, in addition to increasing its ability to retain water. And they attract more earthworms, too.

Speaking of alchemy, Chamberlin begins his piece elaborating a connection that has long been implicit and intuitive to me:

Alchemists were up to plenty of things, many of them having to do with relating to the natural world—and understanding its processes of transformation and transmutation—in philosophical and spiritual dimensions that transcended traditional religious thinking, both Christian and pagan, and preceded modern scientific thought. The whole “lead into gold” thing was but the most lucrative of the alchemical —or hermetic—practices in the eyes of the monarchs and rulers. Alchemy’s material prima as Peter Lamborn Wilson writes in the recent collection Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology, “can be found ‘on any dung hill.’ Hermeticism changes shit into gold.”

In short, the article suggests bridges between all kinds of things I'm interested in (see the tags/labels below), and makes a perfect capper to my reading of Amy Stewart's earthworm book, which I've been intending to write more about--and which I surely will write more about when the time is right.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring has (sort of) sprung

Three cheers for the first day of Spring!
Pity it was still in the twenties this morning.
On the other hand, if you live in Western New York, you know not to get your hopes up.

By far the most pleasant surprise of the day was hearing a strange dripping sound outside, which grew into a loud tapping noise. The source? A woodpecker--not the sort of bird we see (or hear) every day in these parts. Good thing I'd just brought home a review copy of Robert Budliger and Gregory Kennedy's 2005 guide to Birds of New York State that had been sitting around my office for years.

Handy reference guide, although I confess I couldn't figure out which of 9 different woodpeckers I saw. I was mainly consulting the guide to find out why exactly the birds peck in the first place, and it turns out each variety has its own reason: building a nest, finding food, even flirting with the ladies. I also learned that Picoides villosus--the hairy woodpecker--has a tongue four times the length of its bill, which retracts into its mouth "in much the same way that a measuring tape is stored in its case." That may not be the one I saw, who flew to a different tree just as I was getting ready to snap a photo. Foiled again!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

At a snail's pace

Talk about timing: I write about snails as a metaphor for slowing down daily life, and mere days later, Wisconsin Public Radio's To the Best of Our Knowledge airs an excellent episode devoted to "Facing Time". It's packed with great segments, including a look at the Clock of the Long Now (a mechanical clock being constructed in the Nevada desert by the Long Now Foundation and designed to run for 10,000 years), an interview with Carl Honore "(the unofficial godfather of the Slowness movement"), and a conversation with anthropologist Wade Davis about the Australian aboriginal notion of "the Dreamtime."

I'm particularly drawn to this Slowness business, and sense a connection between it and this argument (run in Arthur's blog) by Douglas Rushkoff:

With any luck, the economy will never recover.

In a perfect world, the stock market would decline another 70 or 80 percent along with the shuttering of about that fraction of our nation’s banks. .... If you had spent the last decade, as I have, reviewing the way a centralized economic plan ravaged the real world over the past 500 years, you would appreciate the current financial meltdown for what it is: a comeuppance. This is the sound of the other shoe dropping; it’s what happens when the chickens come home to roost; it’s justice, equilibrium reasserting itself, and ultimately a good thing.

On the opposite end of the speed spectrum from the clock above is this item from the Blog of the Long Now about
an experiment in scale: By condensing 4.6 billion years of history into a minute, the video is a self-contained timepiece. Like a specialized clock, it gives one a sense of perspective. Everything — from the formation of the Earth, to the Cambrian Explosion, to the evolution of mice and squirrels — is proportionate to everything else, displaying humankind as a blip, almost indiscernible in the layered course of history.

The video is a project of the provocatively named Seed magazine, where I also found all sorts of other cool stuff I intend to share here ... eventually.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fun with snails

Behold the common gastropod: you may embrace him as a fellow resident of the planet, mock his glacial pace, express fear or disgust at the many ways in which his life does not resemble your own. Or do all of the above and more ...

First, though, someone might want to break it to the folks who put this clip together that his stars probably aren't "fighting":

Next, courtesy of BoingBoing, a different perspective on this lowly, slowly moving creature:

Snails Go west ! Funny TimeLapse from on Vimeo.

Found that one here, and in the course of trying to track it down again, I came across this "Interesting Thing of the Day" about "non-human farmers" of all sorts:

It was only recently that marsh snails (Littoraria irrorata) were added to the list of animal farmers; they are also the first in the marine world known to be fungiculturists. Marsh snails live in salt marshes and their main food is a fungus that grows on cordgrass leaves. Similar to the damselfish, they cut the cordgrass leaves to create wounds, and lay their excrement into the wounds. The excrement contains the fungal spores (like seeds) and also the nutrients for the fungus to flourish in. Although in snail colonies as many as 1,000 snails per square meter can be found, snails are non-social. Therefore, complex societal structures are not a requirement for farming.

Speaking of excrement, here--by way of an interesting blogpost I found through, you guessed it, BB--is a bit of "zombie snail" action demonstrating that nature is not always a land of rainbows and ponies (though it is a land of all sorts of symbiotic interrelationships between species). I suppose I should warn some of you that this is not for the squeamish, even though it's not that creepy.

Not scared yet? Let's not forget the Giant African Land Snails, who do sound like bad news. But on to happier matters--because that which does not kill us can be taught to deliver our mail.

That's right, I'm talking about RealSnailMail (which BB covered here). According to the BBC, it works like this:
Each snail is fitted with a tiny capsule which holds a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip. RFID allows objects to communicate over short distances. Users of the service send a message via the Real Snail Mail website which is routed to the tank at the speed of light to await collection by a snail "agent". As the three snails slowly amble around the tank, they occasionally come into range of an electronic reader, which attaches the e-mail message to the RFID chip. The electronic messages are then physically carried around the tank by the snails until one of the gastropods passes close to a second reader.
It is then forwarded over the net in the usual way. "It could be quite frustrating for some people," Vicky Isley, one of the artists told BBC News. "It's completely subverting that normal system." So far, the three snails have managed to deliver 14 messages.

The accompanying blog looks pretty cool, and it tipped me off to a "Slow Art" Exhibition during last year's SIGGRAPH. (Damn, I was just too slow in finding out about it to attend!) And here is where my sudden (er, gradual?) interest in the shelled critters moves from cheap jokes and clever puns to a pointed social critique I can really get behind:

In our digital culture, we can task simultaneously, message instantly, and prototype rapidly, but, in doing so, do we create an oasis for contemplation, or do we fuel a hunger for yet more speed? As technology colors all aspects of our world, we see the inevitable pendular response in campaigns that advocate slowness.

The Italian membership organization Cittaslow's manifesto defines criteria for slow cities, focusing on improved quality of life. Internationally, people are organizing to protect regional food systems, traditions, and cuisine as part of the Slow Food Movement. There is a return to artisanship, and a renewed focus on the local, as opposed to the global.

On the other hand, an earlier BB post established that snails can make for speedier data transfer than other life forms. Finally, if it's speed you want--or the chance to exploit a few defenseless critters yourself--behold these directions for running your very own snail race.

Thank you for your time, ladies and germs. And now I am late for work, as it has taken me far longer to post this than I had hoped.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Come out, come out, wherever you are

Everybody else I know is way past Paperwhite Season, but not here at Gardening at Night Central. I've got approximately six containers housing narcissus bulbs, started at various times throughout the winter, and they all look pretty much like this now:

Actually, this sort of late blooming is right in line with the G@Nt aesthetic, which calls for starting things way too late (at night, or in the year). And it's not a bad look, as looks go--ripe with potential. Just no payoff. Not yet, at least.

Anybody reading this have any idea what's going on? These aren't zivas but Grand Soleil D'Or tazettas, which are supposed to take longer to do their business, but still. Some of them have been at this stage for weeks; others have just reached it. Some have gotten lots of sun; others less. There's plenty of water, but not too much. In short, I've done nothing differently than in other years, when I've had more success.

The hyacinths I forced (keeping no good record of when I started their 10 weeks of cold) have also been taking their sweet time, but they're basically doing fine, and I'm getting essentially one in bloom at a time, which is pretty much what I had hoped for in the first place. The paperwhites, though, are a bloomin' mystery!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bustin' out all over ... soon

In honor of Daylight Saving(s) Time and the eventual arrival of Spr*ng ...

The view outside the living room window:

Sure, it looks gray, but examine those branches a little closer and you find hints of things to come:

And speaking of buds, this tulip looks a little like candy corn at the moment, but all things in time:

These bedraggled yellow shoots are allium of one sort or another--either blooming, or plain old onions from last year:

I just hope these guys aren't popping up too soon; March, and even April, in Buffalo can easily bring either snow or bitter cold or both.

Speaking of DST, NPR has aired quite a few stories on the history of the phenomenon itself, possible health effects, malcontents, and the consequences of its recent move to March. Lotsa plugs for this book along the way.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Seed time

I know I've promised not to provide any actual gardening advice here, but that won't stop me from passing along items from other people that look worthwhile, if only to bookmark them for my own future reference. Let's start off with this collection of several annotated lists of favorite seed catalogs and companies by Gardening Gone Wild contributors.

Last winter was the first time I'd attempted to grow anything from seed since the ever-popular Lima Bean Experiment in grade school. Exactly one seedling I started indoors--an ornamental pepper (NOT from a package, but instead the offspring of one I'd planted, which ought to earn me a few bonus points)--actually made it all the way through the summer, and even then it was pretty scrawny. Since the whole endeavor cost little more than $10 (including seeds, peat pots, and plastic mini-greenhouse) and a minimal investment of time, I chalked the experience up to Lessons Learned. (Main lesson: I probably need a heating pad after all. But I enjoyed trying to use the secondary heat from various appliances around the house instead.)

Guess I'll try again this year.

PS. Last year's dismal results only applied to the plants I tried to start indoors; seed sowed directly in the ground fared quite a bit better, particularly the Swiss chard, love lies bleeding/amaranthus, and a tall, yummy kashmiri mallow called sonchal that looked and tasted great, even though I can't seem to find it listed in any book or website on either gardening or cooking. The source for all of these was the Upstate Faerie Herbal Collective, a local seed-saving operation I discovered through my favorite used bookstore, of all places, and I hope to sample more of their wares this coming season.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Down time #2: Into the woods and on the waterfront

In our last episode, our humble narrator found himself with a rare day off and a burning desire to freeze his ass off in the wilderness, or a reasonable equivalent thereof, so he set off for Woodlawn Beach and the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, both located in or near Lackawanna, N.Y., not far from the ruins of Bethlehem Steel and the shores of Lake Erie. We join him at the precise moment when any sane person would have called it a day. But not our hero!

The Botanical Gardens closed at 4, and it would still be light out for almost two more hours (thank you, sun-orbiting planet) so I decided to advance to Plan C and check out Tifft Nature Preserve on the way home. There's a good chance I visited Tifft at some point more than 20 years ago, but the memory is so fuzzy as to be nearly nonexistent. Here was a golden opportunity to take in more chilly scenes of winter:

Here, too, was precisely the kind of place I'd been looking for since I took a trip to the Muir Woods outside San Francisco back in the early 1980s: somewhere relatively near my home with manageable trails suitable for a non-hiker like me to explore on a whim. But not today: By this point, the temperature was dropping into the teens, and the thin gloves I was wearing did little to shield my shutter-clicking fingers from the bitter cold. I walked just far enough along the nearest muddy path to conclude this would be much more fun in warmer weather, then get nervous that one or more heavy gates would be locked before I could escape. Besides, I wasn't really feeling up to the challenge of subsisting on nuts and berries overnight. Even so, I appreciated yet another opportunity to place myself far from the madding crowd (of orchid lovers). Too bad there's no way I can include the sound of this babbling brook; the photo looks grim, but the actual site was more Currier & Ives.

This shot reminds me of those early Soviet films singing the praise of the village's new tractor:

Behold, comrades: three different kinds of compost pile!

Finally--to make up for the spartan nature of those other images up there--here's one I really find quite lovely:

Another wrong turn, this one more or less on purpose--I love taking the "wrong" road and then seeing where it will take me, although I harbor an irrational fear of South Buffalo and related areas--and I gradually made my way through the part of Buffalo that once held the notorious "Infected District," site of yet another video shoot. (I collaborate on a regular basis with a deeply demented man with a fondness for shooting footage in rustic sites on extremely cold days.) I realized it had been quite a while since I'd driven along the waterfront near the Erie Basin Marina, so I thought, what the hell? I even stayed in the car for the most part.

Thus, one final frosty vista ...

... and I was on my way back home at last--home to a new week which thus far has included dentistry, a wake, family politics, and other fun. Thank heavens for down time!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Down time #1: On the beach and under the dome

My schedule has various built-in peaks and valleys, and the last few weeks have been all peak: catchup from two weeks out of town, busy time at the day job, nightly four-hour rehearsals for a rather elaborate performance I am part of, news that my 88-year-old father's health has taken another turn for the worse, news that a beloved artist friend I've known for at least 15 years just passed away. So this weekend I really needed some serious down time--a concept I've never been entirely comfortable with. Saturday was built around sleep and low-key socializing, but Sunday I vowed to spend by myself, entirely on my own terms.

Up until recently, I would automatically have spent such times in a book or music store, at a movie or a concert, or in a gallery. I still love all those places and events, mind you, but lately I find myself wanting to go for a walk or a drive now and then--to surround myself with living things that don't speak or bite. (An artist friend whose day job is working for a community garden organization mentioned in our last conversation that he secretly prefers the company of plants to people, and I totally understand what he means.) When I got a membership to the Botanical Gardens here last year, I vowed to go there as often as possible, especially in the winter, so that's where I headed for the second time in a month.

As luck would have it, confusing signage and construction made me miss my exit, but no matter: I'd already been toying with a Plan B--heading a few miles farther down the road to Woodlawn Beach. I'd been there in the fall for the first time in a couple of decades to shoot video for another performance project, when its new(ish) nature center and boardwalk had looked intriguing. I've always been fond of beaches in off-peak seasons (down time of a different sort), so it was a treat to see Lake Erie in all its bleak wintertime severity, even though both the buildings and the boardwalk were closed.

In a few months, this shore will be filled once more (pending funding, as always) with people sunbathing and kids splashing around in the waves, but on the first day of March there were just a handful of fellow travelers (more than I expected, though) and these wind turbines, which have become a local icon in the last couple of years, bearing silent witness:

Even the trees are sparse this time of year, of course, which helped these brilliant red seedheads stand out amidst the bare branches:

Lest you think I was off in the middle of nowhere, this image pretty much puts Woodlawn in its proper context:

Mind you, it was just over 20 degrees out there, so I decided to continue on to the Gardens for their incomparable mix of rainforest humidity, arid desert air, and other forms of midwinter heat. The annual two-day Orchid Show (partial inspiration for my trip) was in its final hours, meaning the parking lot was full and the already cramped space inside was packed:

Here are a few obligatory shots of the featured attractions. (If you're looking for actual orchid info, click here.)

As it turns out, my travels for the day were hardly over yet, so stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion of "Down time," coming soon to a blog near you.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hacking IKEA aloe vera, and other rainy day fun

I probably shouldn't make a habit of simply reposting all the cool stuff I find on Arthur every day, but goshdarnit, this journal of "Homegrown Counterculture" has been on a roll lately--it's like a cross between Pitchfork and BoingBoing with a little Whole Earth Catalog for good measure. I was intrigued by the subject line "Repairing is the new recycling", except that I tend to stockpile broken stuff and never quite get around to repairing or recycling it. Nonetheless, I can certainly get behind the following manifesto. (Click on it for a readable version.)

Turns out the text is the work of a Dutch art and design collective called Platform 21, and judging from their various projects, they seem to have a pretty playful approach to their mission. There are a lot of artists around the world doing work along these lines lately, and I haven't really seen enough of P21's to get a good sense of how effective or thorough their particular approach may be, but I like what I see on their site. My eyes went straight for "Hacking Ikea" (2008):

Around the world, for a variety of personal motives, professional and nonprofessional designers are making individual alterations to off-the-shelf products. In the process, they pay little or no attention to a product’s original function. Some do it for fun, others out of necessity, and still others out of a critical attitude toward mass production. IKEA hacks--the appropriation, adaptation and transformation of standard IKEA products--are among the most noticeable expressions of this movement. IKEA is a very successful and consumer-friendly multinational, with a large fan base all across the Western and Asian world. But it is also a cultural entity, an economic force and an icon of global change. Therefore it is not surprising that numerous artists and designers as well as the general public, have a special relationship with IKEA. ...

Looking around my home, it's safe to say I have one of those "special relationships," too. The site contains several examples of Platform 21's members' and guest designers' mostly tongue-in-cheek "hacks," complete with IKEA-style diagrams of the specific products being recontextualized. I've included a shoutout to another one on my music blog, but you won't want to miss this satirical response to a common phenomenon:

There is no natural daylight in IKEA, though it does sell plants. They are at the end of the route, where they fulfill the role of decorations to be quickly snapped up. This annoys Frank Bruggeman, who has therefore created IKEA GARDENING: an indictment of the plant as an interior accessory, but at the same time a positive influence. It makes people aware of cultivation: plants are given space, and decorative fruits have been planted as seeds.

The closest store to me is in Southern Ontario--i.e., on the other side of a border that doesn't look kindly on international plant trafficking--so I can't rescue those sun-deprived aloes whether I want to or not. Here's Bruggeman's hack, as photographed by Leo Verger:

Not a bad setup--my favorite part, which I may well be misreading, is the apparent call to plant the potpurri mix. Free the captives of consumerism!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Appetite-spoiler alert (you have been warned)

I seem to have misread the opening line of the introduction to this post on Arthur magazine's blog and assumed that "mellow yellow" was the streetname of some cutting-edge alternaculture new energy drink mixing--you were warned, people--dandelion wine and urine. But no! Editor Jay Babcock was merely suggesting that in this earlier article by "radical ecologist, system designer, urban forager, teacher, artist and mad scientist of the living" Nance Klehm, those two liquids were discussed ... entirely separately. Klehm provides a relatively simple-sounding recipe for wine made from all those dandelions my husband always wants removed from our yard (and he's a homebrewer waiting for the hops I planted last year to take off, so he ought to be open to this latest experiment, too). She argues that the potassium-rich concoction is "one alcohol that actually helps your liver and kidneys!" (Are you listening, o intoxicated garden coach?)

A few paragraphs later, Klehm makes a compelling case for, uh, personalizing your compost with a handy source of nitrogen:

We humans pee on average a bit more than a quart a day, at a dilution rate of 1:5 (the recipe). Each one of us are producing more than two gallons of free plant fertilizer a day. Or around 750 gallons a year--which is enough fertilizer to grow 75% of an individual’s food needs for that year. ...

I can't seem to find anything about the practice in the index to Barbara Pleasant and Deborah Martin's Complete Compost Gardening Guide, but Klehm tells you everything you need to know, I suppose:

... Peeing directly into your compost pile is great. So is collecting it in a jar or a bucket and dumping it into the pile later. Not composting? Then just dilute it fresh (remember the recipe again, 1:5) with some water and use it directly on plants or let it oxidize and turn into a nitrate (i.e. leaving it out until it gets nice and dark) and then apply it undiluted. Not only is this something that has been done for ages around the world, it is still being done. Most people are just hush hush about it.

Given that several of the neighbors in my suburban neighborhood surely think I'm nuts for moving from lawn to flowerbeds, I don't see myself dropping trou in the back yard any time soon, but the jar? Hey, I'm open. (Hush, hush.)

Actually, the Klehm article is evoked in passing merely as a preface to a recent and related Op-Ed piece by Rose George in the New York Times. George is the author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, which was itself discussed in the Times here. She extends Klehm's argument with an international perspective:

Consider that since at least 135,000 urine-diversion toilets are in use in Sweden and that a Swiss aquatic institute did a six-year study of urine separation that found in its favor. In Sweden, some of the collected urine — which contains 80 percent of the nutrients in excrement — is given to farmers, with little objection. “If they can use urine and it’s cheap, they’ll use it,” said Petter Jenssen, a professor at the Agricultural University of Norway.

There's plenty more to mull over in both articles, but I'll leave the remainder of discoveries to you while I sneak off to the Little Garden Blogger's Room, bucket in hand.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Vegas 4: Red Rock Canyon

It's surely a sign of major change in my life that, faced with a couple of unstructured days in Sin City, the two solo activities I'd seek out would both favor Nature over Culture. (Granted, I'd already seen the Strip and the Liberace Museum on an earlier trip many years ago, and besides, most everything was a half-hour drive from our spasinotel.) I've already written about one of my field trips; the other was a mere five minutes from the hocaspino, and shared its name.

After about 72 hours of noisy slot machines, smoke-filled casinos, interchangeable suburban housing developments, and motivational speakers (at the convention that had brought us to town in the first place), I was eager to head for the hills and get away from the crowds. People, people, everywhere! Envisioning solitude and a chance to contemplate my meager existence in the face of desert nothingness and the majesty of the mountains, I packed my journal, a book to read, and some water (despite the fact that I had to return the rental car and meet my husband back in the catelspa in 2 1/2 hours). So it came as a bit of a shock to discover that, first, the city of Las Vegas extends right up to the very edge of this National Conservation Area--past which they are not supposed to build--and, second, the Canyon itself, on a sunny day, can get as crowded as a shopping mall parking lot the week before Christmas. The following scene was unavoidable at almost every single turnoff along the 13-mile scenic drive:

Enough cynicism. What's everybody staring at, photographing, videotaping, and snacking in front of? Why, this, of course:

and this:

and this:

The composition of that third image is intentional, because (inspired in part by Fran Sorin's writing) I've been paying more attention lately to the way plants actually grow in the wild, especially the spacing between them. Not having much previous up-close experience of a desert, I was interested as much in the vegetation between the road and the horizon as in the mountains themselves, spectacular as the latter were:

Time did not permit me any hiking (and I'm not much of a hiker to begin with, though I appreciated the temporary visitor center's annotations of 19 trails, rating them from easy to strenuous), but I did manage to get personal with a succulent or two:

I wish there'd been more time, and fewer people, but then this is pretty much the way it goes when I hit the road. I may harbor fantasies of trekking through the mountains, but deep down I remain perfectly content to view the whole thing through a car window with some appropriately moody classical music playing, particularly when the visitor guide warns

Watch where you put your hands and feet. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, or venomous spiders may be sheltered behind boulders or under rocks and shrubs. Do not touch, collect, or try to kill these animals.

Let the record show: there are no such warnings in the Liberace Museum, though I imagine Lee faced many a rattlesnake in his time. On the other hand, the chances of getting slapped with a palimony suit in the Canyon are slim to none.

(PS. Slightly different set of photos, with value-added Unhelpful Captions, here.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Soil-ent green

Uh oh--as long as I'm enjoying my brief residence on Blotanical's list of the 100 Newest Garden Blogs, I should probably not leave a delightfully eccentric pop song/music video as the first entry newcomers see, even if it does revolve around the garden. Wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong idea. (For the wrong idea, feel free to visit my other, longer-established blog, which generally has very little to do with plants at all.)

In a hasty attempt to appear more conventionally garden-focussed, allow me to call your attention to this eye-opening post at Gardening Gone Wild about plant nomenclature. Actually, the plant part was fascinating enough (and made me totally want to shell out $3 US for the Chiltern Seeds catalogue for what sounds like some terrifically entertaining prose), but what really caught my eye was the revelation that

Soils have names too, but the current system of soil taxonomy is a whole lot more straightforward than plant taxonomy. There are six levels: order, suborder, great group, subgroup, family, and series. Each one of these represents quite a lot of information, and a bit of each level goes into making up the name of any soil.

I did not know that! Handy timing, too, as I've just started reading Amy Stewart's book The Earth Moved, which has me thinking about the contents of the dirt below my feet. I've been looking forward to reading the book since I first learned about it, and I'm only on chapter one so I don't have much to report yet, but I certainly share Amy's provocative observations in the "prologue" :

... I realized that I understood very little about the plot of land under my own house. Do I even hold title to this ground twelve feet down? What about twenty, fifty, a hundred feet? .... Is this little piece of earth mine, all the way down to its red hot center? ... And who lives down there, under my house? ... Millions--no, billions--of organisms inhabit my little piece of land, and it shocks me to realize how little I know of them.

I've been thinking mainly about those unseen inhabitants, but I now realize that even the soil itself has a complex identity, one that reaches far beyond such categories as clay (that's me), sandy, and loam.

Under the oak, she's having a smoke

We interrupt our regularly scheduled 65-part Las Vegas travelogue for a brief musical interlude, courtesy of Dent May & HIs Magnificent Ukulele (courtesy of AllMusic Blog) :

(Pssst: Want more May? Visit my music blog for another video and lotsa links.)

We now return you to Vegas Vacation, joined in progress.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Vegas 3: Springs Preserve

Faced with the prospect of four days in Las Vegas mostly on my own, I did a little online research and turned up the Springs Preserve, a two-year-old combination nature preserve/botanical garden/hiking opportunity/playland/future home of the Nevada State Museum. I initially thought the garden portion was free--and that the whole thing was on the outskirts of town, out where our hotel/spa/casino/conference center was located. Wrong on both counts! The Preserve, which is not far at all from the Strip, will set you back nearly $20 ($4 off with AAA membership), but it was worth every penny. I spent over four hours on the site and still didn't manage to cover everything I'd hoped to. (Guess those hiking trails will have to wait till next time.) This place is immense!

My favorite way to describe Springs Preserve is with this SAT-style analogy:
SP is to the average botanical garden as Cirque du Soleil is to Ringling Bros. This is plant geekdom, Vegas style. But even to call it a garden is to distort the focus: there's a section on the Hoover Dam, a display of gila monsters and other desert critters, a million-year history of Nevada (narrated by President Martin Sheen, no less), a research library, a garden-design clinic, two gallery spaces, multiple performance venues, a locavore-focussed Wolfgang Puck (TM) restaurant, a swank gift shop, and lord knows what else.

I've posted lots of annotated photos here, but there are plenty more where those came from, so here's a mini-tour in words and pictures, starting with a rooftop overview of the entryway ...

Here's the sort of planting that greets you early on, and is omnipresent throughout:

The entire facility has a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, didacticism--the punchline is basically that, hey, Vegas is in the middle of a desert and the planet is on the verge of death and thus it would behoove us all to use less water and less everything. (Works for me!)

I was happy to see a compost-themed playland for the kiddies, encouraging them to enter a simulated pile (shortly after frolicking in an actual garbage truck full of simulated trash).

Compost is also stressed in the grown-ups section, too: one display (which didn't seem to be active during my visit, but it's a great idea) demonstrated how the same plant grows in regular desert soil and in organically amended soil.

Dr. Greenthumb's Plant Hospital was closed during my visit, but I'd love to check out one of these giveaways. (There's also an annual native plant sale.)

It's all very hands-on; in one interactive display you're invited to take a drink of water ...

... and when you do, lights on the other side of a two-way window/mirror are activated and you find out just where in Vegas that water comes from, and where it goes next:

It follows, then, that even the (water-saving) bathrooms are gorgeous::

(The truly cool part--long tubes that emerge from the ceiling and send jets of water onto sinkless sponge pads--is included in the Facebook photo gallery.)

It struck me as typical of the Wild West that, once you enter the main gate, you can explore the territory any way you like. There are maps, but there's no single direction to head. You're totally on your own, free to create your own "experience," as heavy or light on gadgetry as you desire.

I've got even more to say about this place, so watch for future posts. And start planning your own trip.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vegas 2: Real or Fake?

Time for another exciting round of everyone's favorite Vegas quiz show, "Real or Fake?" It's your call, contestants, as we try to sort out the simulated sights from the homegrown ones in a desert town obsessed with both perfection and water conservation, starting with the plant (?) life (?) outside our hotel ...

... the foyers leading into each room ...

... and planters in the lobby ....

Next, on to the Mirage (also home of Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden, which we'll omit for this round) ...

... before wrapping up tonight's episode with an easy one :

Thanks for playing, folks, and remember: there are no right or wrong answers, only True ones and False ones.