Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dear Nandina

Dear Nandina domestica,

There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just come right out with it...
We're through.
The love I felt for you so long ago, at the nursery, is gone. You were the perfect plant: beautiful color; mostly evergreen but sensitive enough to drop a few leaves if it got really cold; a texture and growth habit all your own; and my God, when you first let me see your little red berries I nearly lost it right there. I bragged about you to everyone I saw; you were my heavenly bamboo baby.
But now that I've gotten to know you better and I've seen what you're like away from the nursery, I know you're not the plant for me.
You grow taller than is good for you and it makes you flop over. There, I said it. I know we've argued about this before, but you just don't seem to change. No matter how many times I pick you up and faithfully stake you to bigger and bigger stakes, you escape, or if you're being belligerent you just break the stake outright, and either way, the next time I see you, you're flopped over again. I can't be the only strong one in this relationship.
And there's another thing... even when there's not enough room and even when I ask you not to, you start spreading and suckering. Well I've got something to tell you: YOU'RE NOT THE ONLY PLANT IN THE GARDEN, SO STOP ACTING LIKE YOU ARE!
I'm sorry, sometimes you just make me so angry, and I don't want to be angry anymore.
I hope we can still be friends, and if you're open to it, it'd be cool if you'd still let me see your berries once in a while, but I'll understand if that's too hard.

I'll always remember you (mostly because you're in everybody's yard)


P.S. I've been seeing your dwarf siblings for some time now. They're beautiful and they know their place. I'm not trying to hurt you, I just want to be honest; they give me what I need.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Fertile Warehouse

This year is to be my grand experiment in urban agriculture. For the past several years I have, as a hobby, grown a few edibles in pots on whatever outdoor surface in whatever sliver of sunlight my rental unit afforded me at the time. Results have included some mildewy peas, grumpy tomatoes, leggy herbs bolting towards reproduction like exceptionally hormonal teenagers, and a salvaged fruiting fig that may as well just join the rest of my indoor Ficus for all its prudish disinclination towards actually fruiting. But this year is different. Having managed to stay put in the same apartment for more than one season and having had marginal success with edibles last summer, I am ready to unleash the repressed farmer within. I will push the envelope of urban gardening to see just how much of my own produce I can produce from nothing but pots on a patio.
So far, this has translated into much more planning much earlier than I am used to. Unable to work my acreage with a team of horses or a tractor (these being somewhat overkill for the 10 or so incongruous square inches of actual earth to be found between the sidewalks, fences and parking lots which constitute my back yard), I must go out and find (i.e. buy) soil and containers in which to put it. This, when you think about it, is a strange but not necessarily interesting twist on the hunter/gatherer versus sedentary farmer dichotomy: I am one in order to become the other.
Moving on...
The point is, because of my stubborn determination to grow food where none should grow, I find myself in surreal places like Home Depot and Costco seeking the cheapest price for earth and pots: two of the first things humans ever knew what to do with. It came as no surprise to me, when I first braved the rush-hour madness of wholesale consumerism at its finest (aka Costco), that they indeed had the largest, most absurdly reasonably-priced bag of potting soil I'd ever seen (not just soil mind you, but if I've interpreted the bag marketing correctly, a whole potting lifestyle: with more satisfaction than a life of charity and more trademarks, patents and overall technology than cell-phones from 8 years ago). So I swallowed my pride with a bit of my soul and lugged a bag onto my oversized shopping cart (how the average Costco patron manages this feat is beyond me; I move dirt for a living and still had to concentrate mightily on thinking un-hernia thoughts). What did surprise me was the semi-aisle across from the potting soil devoted exclusively to fruit trees and blueberry bushes.
These plants, stacked and strangled by packaging, lit by a distant aircraft-hangar fluorescence, seemed as out-of-place as it's possible for plants to be. I picked up a two-pack of blueberry bushes (two different varieties even, for better pollination!) and began questioning my plan. Is this what it means to hybridize the urban and rural tendencies of humanity? Do city-dwellers get to taste the fruits of their own labor only if most of the mystery (and labor, come to think of it) is removed, all the complicated parts filled in for them? Here is part A (soil) and part B (plant); add part B to part A, wait 5 months and enjoy! Repeat the following year! Does this offer any genuine connection to our agricultural heritage? Do we feel like farmers? If Costco started selling live cattle and, across the aisle, brand new cow-slaughtering machines from GE, would they make ranchers of us all?
In the end, I decided that there are worse hobbies to have than amateur gardener/farmer (like amateur cow-slaughterer, for one) and that if busy people can find a few minutes in which to put a plant in a pot and water it a few times and get a few blueberries out of it, they probably feel a measure of happiness and satisfaction, even if it doesn't make them a bonafied dirt-whisperer with an acres-long gaze and dreams of the fertile crescent. If you think about it, the first farmers must have themselves been amateurs whose curiosity or desperation (likely both) led them to add part B to part A. So maybe the Costcoans are channeling that ancient spirit. Even if not, the more people growing their own healthy food, the better, and if Costco blueberries are a step in that direction then so be it.
At least that's what I told myself as I waited in the quarter-mile long checkout line with a shiny new shrink-wrapped two-pack of blueberry plants in my cart.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dead Wood

These are the calm months, in the garden. Autumn's endless leaves have been wrangled, every last one caught and bagged, accounted for. The debris and casualties of the winter's worst storms (knock on wood) have finally stopped piling up. Conifers have shed the bulk of their old, "used" photosynthetic material for the year (don't let anyone tell you that evergreens don't drop leaves every year... I've spent countless hours trying to rake up the needles and scales of pines, hemlocks, firs, Chamaecyparis and Thuja... they wait until the gardener is finally done picking up the big papery leaves of deciduous trees and then, right when he hauls the last lawn bag to the curb and goes inside for a well-deserved beer, they start to sprinkle their small brown needles like a quiet rain that covers all and will not be easily raked, pushed, cajoled or convinced into any sort of pile, forcing our gardener to abandon all thoughts of refreshment and instead to spend the next five weeks or so picking up pine needles with a pair of tweezers).
So what occupies the hardworking gardener during the mid-winter doldrums? For the most part, a bit of pruning and a lot of deadwooding. Now, any resource will tell you that the three D's of pruning (Dead, Diseased and Damaged wood) can and should be removed any time of the year. If you have one garden and much spare time, this is good advice. If, however, you spent most of the year divided between 30 different gardens, frantically speeding from one to the next doing your blessed best to delay their seemingly inevitable descent into chaotic wilderness, you rarely have the opportunity to spend a few hours with your head stuck in a shrub snipping and snapping little pieces of dead wood.
It is only when the rest of the world has turned calm and cool that one finds time to take a breath, clear the mind and look closely inside for the sick and damaged bits that stick out at all angles, subliminally crowding and frustrating what could be a simpler, more beautiful form. These neglected, aborted stubs can become infected, trap other detritus, and render stagnant what should be an open, freely circulating structure. They do not contribute anything; they are not helping anything. When after a long year they are at last patiently sought and removed, one marvels at the transformation, wondering why these things are allowed to accumulate, why we can't see and be rid of them sooner, before the wan clutter tangles with healthy branches and we are confused. As with other things necessary and overlooked we wonder: why can't we make this more important? But such questions are answered quietly, and such answers are often buried under the next season's color and business, forgotten and withered, to be removed as dead wood the next time we find time for such things.