New Dawn and lavender
A ‘New Dawn’ rose blooms among the lavender both grown from cuttings and both sadly in need of being transplanted. This one flower stayed fresh for about 5 days. Roses must like temperatures in the 60s. In May in Austin, a rose is lucky to not wilt after 5 hours.

December 31st, 2006
Week 52: 12/24 – 12/31

Dateline: 2007
This week is clear, dry, cold and windy. As sunny as the days are, the garden is not very inviting. My garden chores this time of year are focused on transplanting self-sown seeds and these are the worst conditions for doing so. I’m busy enjoying the domestic comforts of the Christmas season so I don’t mind being indoors.

I did call in TreeMasters to take out the chinaberry along the west fence on Thursday (12/27). So the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me another pile of wood chip mulch and a pile of firewood from the cedar elm branch which was overhanging the garden house. I waited until all the leaves had dropped so this pile of mulch is clean and white wood chips for the paths.

On Saturday (12/29), I climb up on the roof to do battle with the fig ivy which is smothering the chimney. It’s going to be in the 20s next week and I want to be able to build a fire. I noticed that the fig ivy near the top of the chimney was turning brown from the heat. I feel lucky that we haven’t had a very hot fire or it might have caught fire and we wouldn’t have known it until it had spread and caught the house on fire.

On New Year’s Eve, I watch the fireworks on Auditorium Shores from the backyard. Now that the chinaberry and hackberry trees are gone from the north border, we have a perfect view of the fireworks.

No new flowers this week. The lawns have not frozen, yet, and are still green and much neater this year now that I have a mulching mower again.
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cherry tomatoes
2006-12-21. Austin TX. Cherry tomatoes picked today.

December 21st, 2006
Winter Solstice Salad

I can’t match the incredible tomato reviews that Hanna writes but I do want to share our first and only vine-ripened tomatoes of 2006. Two! We also ate half a dozen others that I picked three weeks ago before our first freeze and ripened in a paper bag. These are from the “Husky Cherry Red” tomato plant from Home Depot that I planted on September 22, 2006 when it was 99F degrees. These cherry tomatoes have a nice tang to them which both of us like. ‘Husky Cherry Red’ is classified as a dwarf indeterminate and marketed for people with small gardens or who want to grow tomatoes in a container.

The lettuce is producing wonderfully now, almost 8 inches tall–enough to make two modest salads a night. The weather forecasters are teasing us with predictions of snow flurries for Christmas Eve but the temperatures look to stay just at freezing, so I’ll cover everything up and try to pull it through. After the front blows through this weekend it will be sunny and in the 60s again.

red oak
2006-12-15. Austin, TX. The red oaks (whether Shumard or Texas I don’t know) hold onto their leaves the longest of any trees my yard. They also grow quickly. This one was just a sprout 13 years ago and now it’s about 30 feet tall.

December 20th, 2006
Week 50: 12/10 – 12/16

Dateline: 2007
First flower: Lupinus texensis (12/15).

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“For seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, Time’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you,” Lev Grossman, Time Magazine cover story, December 25, 2006.

December 17th, 2006
Power of the People

Time Magazine has named You the 2006 Person of the Year: you who blogs, you who has a MySpace account, you who posts video to YouTube. That’s me and you, baby. We’re changing the world. And we’re doing it for free.

“There are lots of people in my line of work who believe that this phenomenon is dangerous because it undermines the traditional authority of media institutions like TIME. Some have called it an “amateur hour.” And it often is. But America was founded by amateurs. The framers were professional lawyers and military men and bankers, but they were amateur politicians, and that’s the way they thought it should be. Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger, and Ben Franklin was essentially loading his persona into the MySpace of the 18th century, Poor Richard’s Almanack. The new media age of Web 2.0 is threatening only if you believe that an excess of democracy is the road to anarchy. I don’t.” — Richard Stengel, managing editor Time Magazine

north border after
2006-12-16. One thing about digging holes is that after you fill them in again, there’s little evidence of all the work you’ve gone through. In this case, the “before” picture below looks better than this “after” picture.

December 15th, 2006

“On page 123 there was a cross-section drawing of how to prepare a rose bed. Instruction: excavate the entire bed to a depth of two feet. I shall pause here to allow time for reeling around and protesting.” –Midge Ellis Keeble, “Tottering in My Garden”

“Unless one is willing to take the trouble properly to prepare the ground, there is no use in expecting success in gardening. I have but on rule: stake out the bed, and then dig out the entire space two feet in depth. Often stones will be found requiring the strength and labor of several men, with crowbars and levers, to remove them; often there will be rocks that require blasting.” — Helena Rutherfurd Ely, “A Woman’s Hardy Garden”

With the weather back up in the 70s this week, I’m trying to get all my December gardening chores done, especially transplanting the three ‘New Dawn’ roses that I grew from cuttings.

I find digging a hole of any depth in my heavy clay difficult. Lacking a cadre of men with pick-axes and blasting equipment, I’ve developed a compromise plan: I dig down one foot and build up one foot. For these roses, I had AJM construct three additional 4×4 foot planter boxes.

planter boxes

I’m planting two of the roses in the, optimistically named, north border. The north of my back yard is fenced with a short chain-link fence and looks directly into the shared yard of a rental duplex. Given these intimate conditions, I prefer neighbors who aren’t much interested in yard work because they spend all their time indoors. The latest renter, however, likes to sit on his back patio and talk all afternoon into his cell phone. His presence (and the fact that he and his girlfriend share afternoon delight with the windows open–he’s apparently very good) has kept me from spending much time in the back lately but this week I decided I had to get this job done. My presence right at the fence line drove him indoors.

north border before

To provide a bit of privacy I’ve let the nandina grow wildly out of hand. My idea, inspired by English hedgerows, was to create a mixed hedge by planting other plants among the nandina and then as the new plants grew bigger cutting back more and more of the nandina. Unfortunately, almost everything I’ve planted has died mostly because I never water the nandina and so I forget to water anything else on that side of the yard. Even the Podranea ricasoliana which has eaten the north side of my garage, failed to cascade gracefully over the chain link fence where I wanted it to do. To block some of the holes in the view, I built a woven wood fence out of pieces of the rotting fence that we took down. I attached it to the chain link fence with cable ties. I’m pleased to report that it’s still holding up well.

Before I could dig, I had to prune back the nandina. I know that it looks better when it’s trimmed viciously but some of it was six feet tall and did a pretty good job of blocking the duplex from sight. I hated opening up holes in the border that will take years to fill in. But it had to be done. The north border is also ridden with bindweed, thorny smilax (I think), and some poison ivy. I’ve spent the better part of three afternoons hacking at roots and digging out a bit of soil and hacking at more roots.

One encouraging note is that there is about 3 inches of leaf mold mulching the nandina. I dump whatever leaves I don’t have room for in the compost here and it’s built up nicely. I read once that the earthworms would mix the top dressing in but I see no evidence of that. The layers of dirt here are clearly stratified. The next 8 inches are pretty good soil: not too many rocks and not many lumps of clay. I can tell I’ve dug here before, twice. Below the friable dir. is black clay.

Another book I read suggested using landscape fabric to line the holes in order to keep tree roots from overrunning bulbs and annuals. When I read this ten years ago, I thought it was ridiculously unnatural. I’ve been humbled. I cannot spend every year redigging every bed. The tree roots suck all the moisture and nutrients out of the soil. Beds where I’ve generously mixed in copious amounts of sifted compost or aged horse manure look like they’ve never been cultivated. Implementing this advice was more difficult than I imagined. Did I dig down deeply enough? Won’t the roots just come in from the side. And should I cut a hole for the rose’s roots–will it ever get that big? will a hole allow the noxious roots to invade?

After I filled in the planter with dirt, sifted compost and Dillo Dirt (aka people poop), I transplanted one of the little roses. It didn’t have much of a root system…or perhaps I ripped out all the roots when I dug it out. Well, it grew originally with no roots at all from a cutting. Maybe it will take. I don’t really understand how Susan Harris can dig up established plants and move them around on whim. I bow before her in awe. In my yard, if something takes to a place, it’s pretty much stuck there forever.

tomatoes in December
2006-12-06. When I uncovered the tomato plant after last week’s freeze, I was surprised to see that it, too, was in denial.

December 8th, 2006
Just Die Already

“For me the gardening year begins in October…Number one on my late-October agenda is to clear out the two twenty-foot-long borders of all the summer flowers, most of which are still giving us a fine show. The minute I look the situation over, I begin to feel guilty and wasteful. They look so lovely, but I have allotted this morning to this project, and my gardener, Junior Robinson, is by my side. We both know that in a day or two frost will descend and have these lush beauties looking unhappy and faded. So I firm up my resolve, turn toward Junior, who’s looking undecided, and tell him that we are going forward with this project now. I ask him if he wants a Classic Coke to strengthen him and he says, “Yes, I’m going to need it.” –Emily Whaley “Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden”

Temperatures have been hovering over the freeze line, some nights dipping just below, just enough to damage the more tender plants and yet not enough to do them in. The ones that are not entirely done in–some cosmos, some bananas, and some four o’clocks just look sickly and sad.

On Wednesday, it warms up to 73F and I spend all day in the garden. First I have to move all the potted plants outside for some water and sun. Then I have to uncover all the plants I’ve covered so that they don’t swelter in this one day of heat. I give them a good watering which should help to keep temperatures a bit more stable. I spend most of the day raking leaves which fell all at once last week. Now for two months, maybe three, my yard is in full sun. One rose, ‘Blush Noisette’, is taking advantage of it and all the others that managed to survive the summer are looking healthy even if they aren’t blooming. As I rake, I also cut back the four o’clocks. Just like Mrs. Whaley, I feel relief to be done with them, to clear the garden down to the bones. Still I don’t manage her firm resolve, nor does my garden have strong bones. Right now, covered in pecan leaves scavenged from the neighbors raking their lawns, the bones of the garden are more difficult than ever to see. Nope, I’m not quite able to follow through–against Mrs. Whaley’s advice I still “waver and quaver” over each decision. Maybe when I turn 85, I’ll attain her admirable ruthlessnes.

We have one day of warmth before the cold funnels down from the north again. Potted plants back inside. Tender perennials covered up. And now that the pecan leaves are raked up, the oak leaves have started falling. I see buds on the narcissus. Spring will begin before fall is even finished. Winter just interjects itself in short, icy spurts.

Gardening as if our lives depended on it.
Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime.
Kenneth I. Helphand.
ISBN 978-1-59534-021-4.

December 2nd, 2006
Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime

Defiant Gardens bookcoverMy good friend KAT noticed that I began this gardening site the week of 9/11. In fact, on the morning of the attack I turned off my TV and went to the Natural Gardener to buy a cubic foot of Dillo Dirt just as I had planned. I spent the rest of the day feeding the roses. Do you think me callous? I think in times of great stress that it is natural that we turn to our gardens, to feel grounded so that we can regain balance, to feel a connection to the larger natural world that enables us to see with perspective, and most of all to find hope in the processes of germination and growth.

Why do you garden? Is it a leisure activity? a hobby? Gardening in this time and place is stripped of necessity. Cheaper food is to be had at the new Wal-Mart and those who argue against paving over farmland to build it and for paying higher prices for locally grown foods are considered a bit eccentric.

I garden neither from necessity nor simply for diversion. I garden from curiousity and compulsion. I garden because I must. And I feel guilty that I have this land and do so little to feed myself. My own garden is primarily decorative. At least it nourishes the spirit.

In Defiant Gardens Kenneth I. Helphand documents gardens tended in impossible places at impossible times: in the trenches of WWI battlefields, in the ghettos of WWII Poland, in the POW camps of Europe, in the civilian internment camps run by the Japanese in the Philippines and those run by the Americans in the USA. These are gardens of necessity, grown to feed starving bellies. But they are something more. They are acts of defiance. Helphand quotes Henry Mitchell’s famous line, “Defiance is what makes gardeners.” and expands upon it.

In an extreme situation beyond an individual’s control, such is common during war, the manifestation of he human ability to wield power over something is a potent reminder of our ability to withstand emotional despair and the forces of chaos. Gardens domesticate and humanize dehumanized situations. They offer a way to reject suffering, an inherent affirmation and sign of human perserverance. In contrast to war, gardens assert the dignity of life, human and nonhuman and celebrate it.

Kenneth Helphand writes many pages of analyses attempting to wrest meaning from the act of gardening under the most horrible conditions. The why seems obvious to me but he does a good job of articulating it. Still I prefer the more concrete descriptions–the answer to my questions of “How did they do it? How did they manage?” The book is at its best when he lets the gardeners speak for themselves. The quotes from letters and journals and the amazing photographs of gardeners who, in many cases, did not survive their imprisonments are mesmerizing, unforgettable.

Of the Minidoka internment camp Robert Hosokawa writes, “Bit by bit they brought home clumps of grass, mint plants, cattail, reeds and willows. Some found cactus, desert moss and bunchgrass. At first they placed these in bottles and brightened up their rooms. Few had gardens in mind but the materials increased and the idea grew. They carried home unusual formations of lava rock, dug gnarled grey sagebrush to plant as shrubbery along their porches. Children cornered little fish in the shallos of the canal and found rocklike mussels buried in soft silt.”

What of today? We have learned to defoliate the landscape with Agent Orange. We bulldoze olive groves that have stood for generations. Are there gardens in Bagdad? at Guantanamo? The American government does not allow them. Yet they grow.