Category: Gardening

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Texans love their fences. Big, bodacious, imposing fences. Nothing makes us feel safer, or more private, than having our backyards wrapped in the seeming impenetrability of a tall, wooden fence.

Good fences make good neighbors.

We haven’t had a fence for almost four years. Michael is from Ohio, the land of one big communal backyard, unfenced and shared by all.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

When I went to Ohio for the first time three years ago, I couldn’t believe how neat and tidy everything was. It reminded me of living in Switzerland, where everything runs on time and all signs of imperfection are hidden. The Protestant Ethic is alive and well in Ohio. Must be all that good German stock.

One weekend Michael called over some buddies and tore down our old, dilapidated fence. He even talked the neighbor next door into letting him pull hers down as well.

His reason: we were going to re-landscape the entire yard, front and back. We dug up the entire front and back yard and put in subsurface irrigation. Until it was completed, it looked like a nuclear bomb had hit our property.

Eventually, we planted a beautiful flowerbed in the front yard, added plants along the side of the house, and planted a vegetable garden in the back.

The final piece of the outdoor renovation has been putting in a new fence. Or not.

Being from Ohio, Michael loved not having a fence. I was okay with it until we adopted two dogs–two rather large dogs.

For the past three years, every time the dogs have wanted to go outside we’ve had to attach them to two long ropes that are anchored in the ground. This system has not been perfect.

I planted Canna lilies to make a quasi natural fence. Great in summer, lousy in winter, destroyed by Shasta in spring.

Shasta and my natural Canna lily fence

The City of Dallas spent the past year digging up the alley behind our house. In fact, they dug it up multiple times. Each time I felt naked, exposed, vulnerable. There was no barrier between me and our garden from digging machines and men with shovels. The dogs were not happy with these workers behind our house.

I wasn’t either. One of them knocked on my back door one afternoon to tell me I had “beautiful tomatoes.” He asked if he could buy some from our garden. The next time I saw him, while walking the dogs, he asked about our peppers. He couldn’t believe that we grew hot peppers. Yes, Jose, white people eat peppers, too. I refused to sell him any.

A female worker asked me one day what the compost bin was. She thought it was a snake cage.

The owners across the street decided to renovate their rental house. For nine months we eyed each other, finally made introductions, and then became friends. He enjoyed seeing the changes in our garden, and we enjoyed seeing all the work he put into a new deck and driveway, and eventually the house itself. Shasta found someone new to jump on, and I enjoyed listening to him sing along to classic rock.

Then they put up their new fence and we hardly saw them again. Working in the garden suddenly wasn’t as much fun anymore.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

The snoopy neighbor on the other side wondered why we didn’t have a fence and what it would do to his property value. When Shasta ran over to his dog once, off leash, he complained to another neighbor that maybe he should report us to the city.

Good fences make good neighbors.

Finally, after three years of harping, Michael decided to build me a fence. He rallied his friends together again the week I was away in Portland and started digging post holes. He came up with the idea of a fence/flower box, with a trellis-like top portion that would allow us to not feel so closed in.

Beginnings of the fence

Laying the drain at the bottom, and Shasta smiling for the camera

Delivery of two types of dirt for the flower box

Filled to the brim after two days of shoveling dirt

First side completed

We’ve just completed one length. Filling up a four-foot tall, 40 foot long flower box with dirt was a massive amount of work. Next we need to stain it, build the other side (without the flower box), and add gates.

And our next door neighbor, the one who Michael talked into pulling hers down as well? Not happy with us. I thought we were going to leave it open? she said.

Blame it on me. And the dogs.

With thanks to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall.

Rogue Flowers in January

We’ve had a fairly mild winter this year in North Texas. No surprise, really, after the hottest summer on record. I was surprised to discover, however, that there are still a few rogue flowers trying to push out a few more blooms in the cooler temps.  While playing with the dogs in the back yard the other day, a flash of golden orange appeared in the wildflower patch. I believe it’s Calendula, one of my favorite flowers from the summer.

Last spring I bought a packet of wildflower seeds and spread them out along a fence, along with some giant sunflower seeds. Of course it stormed a few days after I spread the seed, and a lot of them washed away. It was fun to see what flowers survived the deluge and would appear throughout the summer. There were quite a few Black Eyed Susans and Sweet Alyssum (which is also still blooming in January), but one of my favorites were the Calendulas. Their large, showy, dark green leaves are impressive on their own, and stand out amongst the more fragile wildflowers. The color of the flowers are a beautiful deep, golden orange.

The other flower that made a reappearance last week was a Blanket Flower, otherwise known as Arizona Sun. It’s trying really hard to bloom, but I think the cold nights were too much for it. It’s a little sad looking, especially in the rain.

This winter has been so mild, in fact, that I’m still able to grow lettuce in my vegetable garden. I’ve been covering them on cold nights with a sheet of clear plastic and, except for an attack of hungry caterpillars that nearly did them in, they’re growing splendidly. The bricks on the sides and down the middle are to gather heat during the day, but also to keep the plastic off the lettuce when it’s covered.

In my book, you can never have enough flowers in your life, so these unexpected rogue flowers were a real treat this week.

The Winter Garden: Kamikaze Gardening Cont’d

Michael and I are novice gardeners, living in the heart of the ninth largest city in the country. I like to call it kamikaze gardening at its best. Now that the weather has finally turned cool again and we can actually spend time outdoors without dying of heatstroke, my thoughts have turned to growing a winter garden.

In my continuing effort to eat healthier, last week I visited my local used bookstore for cookbooks. I was specifically looking for books on cooking vegetables. I found two really great books: Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables and Simply in Season. What I love about both books is that the recipes are set up by season, and go along with the things you might grow in your garden. I can’t wait to try out all the recipes.

After perusing both books, and realizing there are vegetables that actually grow during the cold months, I announced to Michael that we absolutely had to go to our local nursery and plant a winter garden. A few weeks ago we spent an entire day in the garden, cleaning up after The Hottest Summer on Record, and planting a row of loose leaf lettuce. Since we don’t usually have our first frost until the very end of November, we figured we might be lucky enough to get another crop of lettuce before it got too cold to grow anything.

In the spring we had planted a gazillion miniscule lettuce seeds, but a huge thunderstorm the very next morning washed all but seven tiny seeds away. I found seven little lettuce plants scattered around the garden a few weeks later and transplanted them back to their original bed. I nurtured them all spring like they were my children. Despite the dogs’ best efforts at trampling them to death (before we got smart and erected a fence), for a few weeks in spring we had the best lettuce I’ve ever eaten. Then the extreme heat took over and pretty much did them in.

On Saturday we went to the nursery and bought chives for the herb garden, three broccoli, three brussels sprouts, two spinach, and two arugula plants. Since we had done such a good job in the spring of mixing our own compost into the clay soil, planting the new vegetables didn’t take long at all. Hopefully we’ll have delicious winter vegetables from our very own winter garden a little later in the season.

I’ve always been somewhat of a “granola” type, but even I’m surprised by how much I love growing things. Flower gardening brings its own sense of fulfillment and creates  beauty for the house, not to mention being good for the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, but growing our own vegetables and herbs is much more satisfying. I feel both self-reliant and Earth Mother-ish at the same time. Michael and I are making a serious effort to live more self-sufficiently, and this is a step in the right direction.







Canna Lilies: Explosions of Orange

Last spring friends gave us five very small Canna Lily bulbs from their garden. I had mentioned how I’ve always loved Canna Lilies’ height and color and wanted some for our backyard. After planting the five bulbs in the ground, three were growing heartily within a few weeks. The other two bulbs were given up for duds, but they eventually took off as well. Now that we’re at the end of October they’re obviously at their end of life, but have given us beautiful color all summer long. I’m still amazed at how tall and lush the Canna Lilies have become from those five very small bulbs we planted in April.

Healthy Food Unplugged: Thoughts on Cooking

Every few years I get off track with my eating and have to hit the reset button.  This is one of those years.

Somehow I missed out on the Joy of Cooking gene.

I’ve never been a foodie.  I’ve never particularly enjoyed cooking, and for most of my childhood food was something to be picked at and suspicious of.  Eating out was two small packages of french fries. I learned to cook from The New Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook, and the first things I learned to cook were cookies and lasagna.  If it was in the Betty Crocker cookbook, then it had to be healthy food.

Growing up, my mother’s specialties were fried bologna and pinto beans (which I liked), and we ate a lot of Hamburger Helper and Shake and Bake.  My dad loved to cook steak (which I still love) and we also ate a lot of noodles.  Spam sandwiches were not uncommon.  I think most of my friends pretty much ate the same way.

When I grew up and had kids of my own and became a Swiss housewife, it was like being thrown into a deep ocean with no life jacket.  I had to tread a lot of water until I learned how to cook.  There were different vegetables, different meats, and of course, their names were all in German.  There were no days off, no fast food lunches, no take out.  If I wanted pizza, I had to make it myself, crust and all.  Two small children less than two years apart kept me too busy to enjoy cooking.

In essence, cooking was an endless three meal a day chore.

When I came back to the states and returned to college, with two kids in tow and minus the husband, meals were quick and easy.  I was always broke, so we ate a lot of mac ‘n cheese with tuna (still one of my son’s favorites), fish sticks, and noodles.  Between going to classes, studying, writing papers, raising the kids, and waiting tables at night, trying out new recipes wasn’t high on my list of things I had to get done.

Except for baking.  One Christmas Break, a college friend and I went on a homemade chocolate chip cookie binge.  She would come over to my small apartment on campus and we would make a batch of chocolate chip cookies and eat them straight out of the oven.  A few days later, when we had eaten the last cookie, I would call up Jennifer and we’d make another batch.  We must have done this four or five times in a row, until I noticed that my jeans were getting a little snug.  I had just turned 30, and it was the first time in my life I realized I couldn’t eat what I wanted and not gain weight.

I know how lucky I was to make it to 30 before that happened.

When I started teaching, it became all consuming.  Like most American mothers who try to do it all, something has to pay the price, and for me it was cooking.  I hated it.  It was boring.  I didn’t have time.  I still made sure the kids were well-fed, banned soft drinks during the school week, and limited junk food as much as I could, and I even dabbled in vegetarianism off and on.  But cooking was always a chore.  Grocery shopping was even worse.

Besides, there was always something more interesting to do than cook.

Eventually the kids grew up and left home.  One became a near vegetarian and never drinks soft drinks, the other lives for junk food and drinks sodas like a fish.  I take full blame for both.

Without the kids around to feed I took up new interests, like running.  I started to think of food as fuel for my runs and tried to eat healthier.  Running, however, created a carbohydrate junkie.  I craved carbs and sugar, especially after runs over 15 miles, and I constantly worried if I was eating enough carbs.  Even training for a marathon, I couldn’t figure out how I could run 35-40 miles per week and still gain weight.

It was ironic that I could run so much, all in the name of health, but put crap in my body.  I ate whatever I wanted.  I foolishly thought that running would protect me from the ill effects of a poor diet.

Running in the evenings meant even less time to cook for myself.  At the pre-race pasta dinner before my second marathon, I sat across from a new friend who loved to cook.  After talking about the dinners she and her husband loved to cook the most, she turned to me and asked don’t you just LOVE to cook?  When I told her I didn’t, I could see the friendship train roll to a slow stop.

The bottom line is, either I’m completely uninterested in eating, or it’s all I can think about.

Now that I have more time on my hands, I began to wonder, what is the perfect diet?  What exactly is healthy food?  Is meat good or bad?  Are carbs good or bad?  How bad is sugar?  Why do I crave sodas and sweets?  What exactly is healthy food?

I think poor eating, fast food, and processed foods are all symptoms of our too busy lives.  No one has time to cook, or even think about, their health and the choices they make about what they eat.  I was just like everyone else, too busy–and too lazy–to care about what I ate.

As I almost always do when faced with a problem, I started reading.  I discovered that you can find research supporting just about any “healthy” diet that exists.  Low carb, high carb, low protein, high protein, vegan, vegetarian, you name it.  I read In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan.   I liked his common sense approach to the issue.  I bought Alton Brown cookbooks.

We started a garden, and grew herbs.

Growing your own food is like an awakening.  For perhaps the first time in your life you discover how vegetables and fruit are supposed to taste.  If you make only one change in your life, I recommend you start a garden.  Grow something, even if it’s nothing more than fresh herbs.  You’ll be amazed at the deliciousness.

Now I make time to actually think about what I put in my body.  It’s all about eating healthier, and it goes beyond eating organically.  We need to eat with thought:  how far did this food travel to get to my kitchen?  How much nutrition was lost on this journey?  How much energy was expended getting it to my plate?

Last fall I was shopping in a small, local grocery store that has a fairly good selection of organic food.  As I walked towards the back of the store to the produce section, I stopped in my tracks.  I could smell the apples.  It was surprising to actually smell something that good.  They were so fragrant, and I couldn’t remember ever having smelled apples like that in a store before.  Ever.  To me, apples are boring, and flavorless, but I bought a few that day.  They were the best apples I’ve ever eaten.

This was a good reminder:  All food should smell good!!!

Along with this new awareness of how food should really taste, there is now a desire to cook.  I’m taking baby steps, and much of the preparation is still tedious, but I’m enjoying the overall pleasure in good, healthy food.  The biggest change I’ve made diet-wise is to cut out almost all sugar.  No more soft drinks, no more deserts, and no junk food.  I eat a lot more whole grains, too.  In essence, I don’t eat processed food, and that means I have to cook.  I keep it simple, and try to use fresh ingredients.  I’ll never be Julia Child in the kitchen, but I’m starting to love the adventure of building a great meal, from scratch, from beginning to end.

It’s Official: Hottest Summer on Record

I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or celebrate. We all knew this day would come but now it’s official: 2011 is the hottest summer on record in Dallas. Today, with the 70th day at 100 degrees or above, we surpassed the old record set in 1980 of 69 days. This is merely apropos since we learned a few weeks ago that we’ve had the highest average temperatures this summer, and the highest low temperatures ever, but it’s still nice to beat that old, official record. We may break the record again tomorrow, but hopefully the cold front blowing in afterwards will be the end of the triple digit heat. We’ll see. I reserve the right to remain skeptically optimistic.     READ MORE

Before the Heat, There Were Flowers

We made it all the way to 40 straight days of triple digit temperatures here in Dallas, two days away from tying the record.  Most of us were somewhat sad we didn’t at least tie the record because we wanted something to show for our Summer of Misery, like a medal at the end of a marathon.  Oh well.  Little did we know that we hadn’t yet crossed the finish line.  Yesterday we officially claimed the #2 spot for total number of days at or above 100 degrees.  We’re at 57 days so far and need to reach 69 to tie.

I’m hoping we don’t make it to 69.  Chances are we will.

The potentially hottest Texas summer on record also happened to coincide with the summer we decided to start a garden.  We had a bumper crop of tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, zucchini, and herbs in June, but the only things that have been able to withstand the intense heat have been the peppers (jalapeno, habanero, cayenne), okra, and watermelons.  Several of the watermelons split from the intense heat before they were ripe, but the okra is thriving.  I love okra, but have never eaten so much okra in my life.

Before the extreme heat, while the vegetable garden was in its infancy, we had flowers.  Beautiful, vibrant, abundant flowers.  Here’s to the memory of those flowers and cooler days.


Things Want to Grow

The other day I was in the front flowerbed, surveying some of the stalks for signs of life after a colder than usual winter, amazed that tiny leaves are starting to sprout.  I had the thought that no matter what, things want to grow. Ever since I quit my job almost a month ago life around me seems to be thriving.  Even an indoor plant that has barely clung to life for the past five years has inexplicably decided to shoot up a single large white flower.

I can’t explain it.  Maybe I don’t need to.  It’s as if once I made the decision to leave my dead-end job years of stifled and stunted energy had to be released and regenerated.  Demeter is smiling down on me, and my life is fertile once again–in the garden, at least.  Who would’ve thought?

Oh, it gets even stranger.  Two weekends in a row now I’ve had dreams of snakes.  Small snakes.  That bite me.  We’ve found three snakes in the garden so far, and the other day I found a snake skin in the new wildflower garden I planted.  I went online and found a great blog post about snake medicine and another woman’s experience with snakes showing up in her life, too.  Then yesterday, in the middle of boring test prep, a student interrupted and asked if I had heard about “the snake that escaped from the zoo.”  I had to stop and blink a few times before I could process what he had just said.

I know, I know.  It’s spring, snakes are out there, people dream about them all the time, and some even escape from zoos.  Still, it all seems somewhat synchronous.  Have I suddenly manifested all of these snakes in my life and my dreams, or am I merely aware of what has always been there?  Now that I’ve made this major change in my life, am I simply tapping into a universal symbol, part of Jung’s “collective unconscious” made manifest?  I’ve always loved the idea of a collective unconscious, that no matter how different we all are there is a network of understanding that speaks to us all in the language of symbols, images, and archetypes.

I woke up this morning with that same thought again.  Things want to grow. No matter how much of an idiot I am in the garden, or in my job, or in my relationships with others, things change and grow and renew despite my own best/worst efforts.  I think everyone senses this, even if they aren’t strong enough to make a major change in their own lives.  I’ve been surprised by so many friends and colleagues telling me how much they admire me for quitting my job, and most of them seem almost wistful when they tell me this.  Perhaps it’s the idea of change that’s so scary to us, even more than the actual reality of that change–kind of like the monster under the bed that kept our arms and legs tucked safely under the covers when we were kids.

Since I’m still teaching until June, my own Personal Big Change hasn’t happened yet.  Or has it?  Already I’m looking at the world differently, and things are good.  Paralleling my new found fertility in the garden, I’m feeling more creative these days.  I’m calmer, too.  Like the little snake skin I found left behind in the flowerbed the other day, I’m moving on, leaving a lot of stuff behind–and that’s a good thing.

Kamikaze Gardening

Walls can be found in all kinds of places, even in nature, and this past weekend I hit a new one.  I planted a vegetable garden. In our backyard.  In the middle of the city.  Two years ago I planted a flower garden in our front yard, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed gardening.  I couldn’t believe how everything flourished in our extreme Texas heat, but it helped that I purposely chose native, perennial plants.  A vegetable garden, however, seemed like a delicate operation that I wasn’t trained for.  Like I said, this was stretching it for me.

This whole idea came from my boyfriend, Michael, who craved strawberries like he had growing up in Ohio.  Even though Texas is hardly Ohio, and we live right in the middle of a huge city, last summer he built a large compost container and plotted off a corner of our backyard for a garden (Michael loves projects).  He did some research online, built a wooden structure for the strawberries, threw in some sand, and lovingly planted the plants he had ordered online.  He also grew seedlings from some habanero peppers we cooked one weekend, rigging up a homemade greenhouse with reflective walls and a grow light  on our kitchen table. (Did I mention that Michael likes projects?)

During spring break we went to Home Depot and went a little crazy buying packets of seeds and starter plants.  We bought tomatoes, okra, cauliflower, oregano, sage, peppers, onions, garlic, and zucchini.  I also couldn’t resist adding more flowers to the flower garden, and bought some irises, hollyhock, calla lillies, wildflower seeds, and sunflower seeds.  We bought all kinds of seed packets–carrots, celery, looseleaf lettuce, and broccoli, to name a few.

We started on Saturday afternoon, but I spent so much time planting the new flowers and starting a wildflower garden against the back fence, that we never even had time to do anything in the vegetable garden.  We made up for it on Sunday and worked like dogs until it got dark.  Gardening is hard work.  It was hot, too, for so early in the spring, with the temperature hovering in the mid-80’s.



This is where our inexperience starts to show.  We did nothing extra to the dirt in our garden.  We had been adding compost to the ground since last summer, so we figured it was good to go.  Michael kept saying it would be okay, even though my Mother Earth News magazines always talked about ph levels and acidity.  We eyeballed our plots (none of that measuring and using string to make everything nice and straight for us), and plopped everything in the ground.  Our garden was taking shape, but by the late afternoon we were getting tired and cranky.  At one point I saw Michael dig a hole and put in an entire head of garlic and cover it back up with dirt.  When I asked him if he wasn’t supposed to pull the cloves apart and plant them separately, he replied he was too tired.  Running marathons are hard, but my brain was starting to feel as fuzzy as it does around mile 19.  We had definitely hit the gardening wall.

Our garden filled up quicker than we expected, and I still needed to plant the onions.  I decided to add them to the front of my new wildflower garden, kind of like a natural border.  The ground was hard as a rock, and when I mentioned it to Michael he pulled out an entire bag of peat moss from the shed that I didn’t even know we had.  I was secretly thinking we should have added it to the vegetable garden.  I dug a long trench and mixed the peat moss in with the flowerbed dirt and somehow found the energy to plant about 60 tiny onions.  My back was killing me by the time I was done.  I had the feeling my onions were doomed.  Just below the peat moss mixture was a wall of hard clay that I doubted my onions would be able to penetrate.  At the very least, I figured they would be horribly deformed and would make good conversation pieces when I tried to give them to my friends.  Hey, check out these pancake onions.

Somehow, when everything was planted, we managed to pull ourselves together and take stock of our hard work.  With optimism and the satisfaction that can only come from a day’s worth of hard physical labor, we staggered off to the shower, not knowing if anything would actually take root and grow in our own little inner city vegetable garden.