Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Madness Is Upon Me

By | Gardening Downtime | 2 Comments

I really need to start a master list of plants I’ve given up on.

It would be much more useful than “plants I’ve killed and will try again” which is a very very long list at this point.

Also, when I make stark declarations in the middle of August that I am DONE this is MADNESS and from now on I will grow nothing but tomatoes and basil in the vegetable garden GODDAMNIT, I really need to write that down and perhaps have it witnessed, because here I am at the end of January wondering if I’ve got room for those dwarf snow peas after all.

And the vegetables are the easy part. When Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery send out their catalogs and I find myself going “Why do I not have ramps? Ramps would be a great idea!” and drooling over the blue cohosh (which is a very expensive plant to possibly kill, and I am a bit nervous) I need a clear, laid out plan that says “This goes here. Nothing else will fit.”

Actually, what I need is a sign taped to my computer saying “YOU HAVE NO PLACE TO PUT IT SO PUT THE CATALOG DOWN.” That would cover most eventualities.

I should not be thinking of blue cohosh. I should be thinking vines. I have space for vines. I made space for vines. I’m thinking two Carolina jessamine, then a coral honeysuckle, then two jessamine, then a coral honeysuckle in the full sun area. Might mix it up with American bittersweet in the shadier sections. I do not need wild cucumber. It’s an annual and not edible anyway. WHY DO YOU TAUNT ME, CATALOG?

There are so many empty places in the garden. They never warn you that you will live with eyesores for years and years and years, that parts will be gloriously lush and other parts will still be a dead zone under pine trees, that lots are scraped and that stuff isn’t DIRT, it’s subsoil and self-respecting plants won’t grow in that and it’s really not your fault, that your yuccas will grow in the moss and the moss will grow in the yuccas and both will apparently be happy and dear god what is wrong with this picture?

This is the season where I stare at the garden and realize how many things need fixing and how many things I am completely unequipped to fix. I realize what a large garden I have made and how many years it’s going to take to fill it. (All the years. All of them.) I am simultaneously paralyzed by too much space in which hardly anything will grow (that grove of oaks and hickories and all those cedars! Mature trees one might kill for, and I stare at them and wish they were ten feet back on the other side of the fenceline!) and too little space in which nearly anything would grow, having painstakingly hauled manure and topsoil and mulch for multiple years to make it habitable.

I want a cottage garden that overflows with exuberance, and did not realize how often that meant that an exuberant plant would eat its weaker neighbors. I want to grow fascinating vegetables and end up having to glove up and root out the cardoons which were supposed to be annuals, goddamnit, and why did no one mention that they will re-seed like Satan on a bender?

And can I grow artichokes in a whiskey barrel?

And why did I wait so long to discover ferns? Why did no one beat me over the head with ferns until I listened?

And why are there never enough tomato cages? They work great for pea trellises—by the time the peas are dead of heat stroke, the tomatoes are just starting to need cages. Chop the peas at the roots, move the cage three feet, there you go. Except that I need more tomato cages so I can grow more peas.

And why is it only January, when there’s so much gardening to be done?

Swans in the Mist

By | Birds | 4 Comments

I went to take the trash out with Kevin, and as we walked back down the long gravel drive, I happened to look up. It’s been very foggy these last few days, so it was one of those oddly bright dusks where the fog is brighter than the sky.

A V-formation of swans went overhead in total silence.

They were very low over the house, almost skimming the tree-line, their outlines just faintly blurred with fog. I could see the darkness of their bills. It was a perfect monochrome image—white birds on white fog with black bills and black scribbles of trees reaching up toward them. There were nine or ten of them, maybe more—it didn’t even occur to me to count them.

It was eerie how silent they were. Geese honk when they go by. These didn’t.

I, being the cool operator that I am, yelled “Shit! Dude! Uh! Thing!” and pointed wildly.

Kevin looked up and said “….whoa.

I scrambled inside and checked the internet. It turns out that North Carolina has the largest wintering population of tundra swans on the East Coast—75 thousand birds. These birds were a good bit farther west and south than usual—I’ve never seen one out here before (or in fact ever, they were lifers for me!)—but given the weird weather and the fact that we’re due a winter storm coming in very soon, I expect they were moving in response to incoming weather, probably heading to Jordan Lake. (All tundra swan reports in this county are on that particular lake, making it a safe bet.)

It was an extraordinary sight, and not one that I expected when I was pulling my coat on to help Kevin drag the trash down to the curb. So I guess you just never know, huh?

The New Veggie Bed!

By | My Garden | One Comment


Made of eighty-five concrete drystone wall blocks (the kind with the little lip so that the top ones can’t slide off the one underneath in response to pressure from behind) and holding a little over a cubic yard of dirt. I did it all myself with my little red wheelbarrow and my little Pontiac Vibe. (Okay, the dirt was delivered, but I still had to truck it from the front yard in the wheelbarrow!) For those keeping track at home, that means I moved well over a ton of materials in the wheelbarrow, over the course of a week.

Stamina. I haz it.

It gets more or less full sun (more toward the front), but is in partial shade in the afternoon, which is actually what you want for veggies down here, since the afternoon heat is merciless. I don’t know if it’ll take tomatoes, but I plan to plant beans, carrots, daikons and beets to start, and maybe some lettuce is in the shadier bits around back. There are a couple of small gaps in the stone, mostly at the corners, owing to the wedge-shaped nature of the beast, and I’ll finally have a spot to tuck a few of those little species that all say “Try planting in the cracks of a drystone wall!” Well, HA! I finally have a drystone wall—sort of—and I WILL so THERE!*

It’s not as big as my main veggie bed that wraps around the deck, but it’s over a foot deep, which is amazing compared to the other beds. (A scant few inches of topsoil and compost over clay subsoil. We do not double dig here. We do not even single-dig. We break our shovels and burst into tears.)  I’m hopeful for the root vegetables this time—I’ve managed small beets in the other beds, and I’m trying Parisenne carrots there this year—but it’s so nice to finally have a space where I’m pretty confident I can do real, finicky, must-have-deep-loose-soil root vegetables.

The rest of the garden in this shot is not very attractive at the moment. Winter is visually much harsher down here. (I never realized how many sins snow hides.) Most of my efforts have been on the front yard, which has nice dried grasses and evergreen Carolina jessamine, but this patch is…rough. Oh, well. I will eventually get some evergreens back here to break up the monotony of dead oak leaves and to disguise the chain link fence, but frankly, there’s only so much you can do in such an aggressively deciduous climate.



*I may be retaining some small bitterness after all these years.

Cloisters and Priest Gardens

By | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

I have lately developed a moderate obsession with monastery gardens.

Mind you, I always liked monks. I’m a lousy Catholic by any standards—the bit about not actually being a Christian is problematic, and my failure to be confirmed is worse and the fact that I never really liked the Virgin Mary* is REALLY bad—but I retain a soft spot for monks. Franciscans particularly, but St. Benedict apparently also laid down in his Rule that the implements of the garden were to be treated with as much honor as the sacred vessels of the altar. This made me feel warm and fuzzy and then squirm with guilt when I remembered where I’d left the pitchfork.

Lots of monasteries were expected to be self-sufficient and so had very elaborate gardens to feed the monks, provide herbal medicines, and make beer. (See, this is why monks are cool. Nuns are terrifying and awesome but I bet they didn’t get beer.)

The whole homesteading movement sometimes leaves me cold—some parts are really great and I support wholeheartedly, and then suddenly the nice person telling you how to make chive-blossom vinegar begins telling you about how the ATF is coming for the guns and the End Times are upon us and how the hell are you supposed to follow that in a conversation? “Ah…heh…well…uh….so what kind of vinegar was that again?”—but I do like the self-sufficient monastery. Much more sensible than one person trying to do it in the backyard.

It was while digging around reading about monkish gardens that I finally (at thirty-five!) learned what a “cloister” is. I always had a vague notion that it was a box you kept nuns in or something, but in fact, it’s a covered walkway around a (usually square) courtyard. It was covered so your monks and nuns could walk in it in all weather, walking around and meditating or sitting and reading or what have you. The center was usually left as empty grass as a meditation on the unseen divine or something along those lines.

Dude. If I had known that’s what that was, I would have been trying to build one for ages. I think infinitely better when my feet are moving and as a small child would pace back and forth in the backyard, daydreaming. (Sit down, brain stops. Walk, brain starts again. I have gotten somewhat better in that I can now type and think at the same time, but I still have to wander around while talking on the phone.) A covered walkway around a courtyard? For walking and thinking in all weather? I would have killed for one of those!

…mind you, I would put some tomatoes in the center. Divinity is all very well but you waste good full-sun growing space, that’s at least a venial sin. And any god worth worshiping would understand about the tomatoes.

The French have a marvelous version called the jardin de curé or “priest’s garden” which is the very small one-parish-priest version. It was supposed to supplement the priest’s diet with veggies, provide flowers for the altar, and herbs for treating the sick. It’s as informal as a French garden gets, which is to say that it’s still about ten times more formal than mine, but still pretty laid back for the type—paths laid out in a cross, religious icon in the center, boxwood edging for the beds. Boxwood was always grown for use on Palm Sunday and was often used to sprinkle holy water. Many of these gardens also had religiously themed areas—plants grown because of their association with Mary, for example. (There’s an excellent little article about them here, which includes the sad fact that in this day and age, the jardin de curé is nearly extinct. Too few curés apparently.)

This appeals to me greatly, and if the topography of my garden had not completely ruled that out, I would be laying out cross shaped beds right this minute.

I have no idea why I like this so much. You already know my feelings on Mary and my idea of a medicinal herb is vodka, but still…something about the whole thing just pokes me right in the hindbrain going “This! This! Like that! Yeah! That’s awesome!” Possibly Catholicism has a genetic component unrelated to the actual faith, which would explain a few things when you think about it. I haven’t the least interest in going to a Catholic church, but the idea of building a Catholic garden causes something to punch me in the back of the head.

Maybe it’s just any spiritually themed garden, and you just don’t see many Protestant gardens out there. (Unitarians, I imagine, do a lot of gardening. It’s probably all community plots and organic vegetables, too. More power to ’em, sez I.)

Although I couldn’t do a Zen garden. Getting the weeds out of the raked gravel in this climate would leave me anything but Zen. Catholicism seems to keep coming up by default.

I’ve already got the boxwood, valiantly as I have tried to slay it. And while you will find no representations of St. Fiacre, patron of gardeners (who was a total dick to women) there’s at least a half-dozen icons of St. Francis in the house. Kevin is a fan. You don’t feed birds and do cat rescue without developing a certain appreciation of Francis. And there’s a couple of Frida Kahlo, who is at least 30% religious icon by now.  Mind you, I’ve got not one but two statues of Ganesh out in the garden, so I’m probably covered on the religious icon front, and I imagine Ganesh and Francis would get along just fine as long as they kept the conversation to the care and feeding of small animals and large elephants.

I’m not sure what I’d do about the medicinal herbs. Perhaps I should just pick very obscure medicines. For example, I recently learned that Virginia iris was used by the Seminole Indians to treat “shock following alligator-bite.” I can’t cure the common cold, but you get bit by an alligator, I can hook you up.***

Probably can’t manage the cloister. But man, if they ever make the blockbuster Dragonbreath movie and I have a bizillion dollars, I am so building one in my dream home…




*I don’t know why. It’s not just her, I suppose, I never had much interest in any mother goddess figure.** Blame it on my utter lack of any maternal instincts whatsoever. I know it’s all vital mythological stuff, but it left me cold. Isis didn’t do it for me either. And Mary never DID anything. There were lots of saints with interesting lives that you could totally get into, and instead everybody’s ga-ga over Mary, whose chief claim to fame was virginity and apparently did nothing much of interest beyond that point. At least Isis went wandering around turning into a bird and engaging in recreational necrophilia. I don’t blame anyone for being boring, but something about Mary just rubbed very young me the wrong way.

**Except Freya. Freya had a cloak of feathers and Valkyries. If Mary had Valkyries, I might still be Catholic.

***My apologies to my readers at BWG who had to read this factoid twice, but seriously, that is just so COOL!


By | plants, Stuff In My Yard | No Comments

Stumbled over this while putting up Redneck Flowerbeds along the fence. (Ingredients–one 2 x 8, two metal stakes, one mallet, one chain link fence. Add dirt and mulch, plant vines along fence line so that you don’t have to keep staring at the @[email protected]#!&! chain link.)

What am I?

My botanical knowledge is pretty extensive in some very specific areas, but “proper names of leaves so you can look them up” is not one of them. So I have no idea what this is. The leaves look a little like plantain and a little like lady’s slipper and are probably something else entirely.

I’m interested because it appears to be coming up RIGHT NOW and it’s January, ergo this is an evergreen or an ephemeral or very very confused.

Seasonally dry woods, hard clay, some leaf litter, North Carolina Piedmont. Nothing else grows in this area except honeysuckle and sweet gum seedlings, so I’m curious as much because that is one tough little bugger as anything else.

Anybody got any ideas?


ETA: Ellen Honeycutt, who is obviously amazing, managed to ID this puppy for me — it’s “Crane-fly Orchid,” a peculiar native orchid that puts up leaves in fall, then flower in summer (after the leaves are dead.) The plant may have been there for years, but it’s so unobtrusive I might never have noticed if I hadn’t been stomping around by the fence line. As each corm puts up a single leaf, there’s clearly a clump of corms here, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for flowers in summer.  Crane-fly orchid is endangered in several parts of its range, but secure in North Carolina.