Shampoo ginger: a new beauty queen

Savannah Morning News

September 4, 2016

It’s one thing to be drop-dead good looking and low-maintenance to boot but to have function and purpose as well? We call that a two-fer. That’s exactly what you get when you plant the pine cone ginger. Plus – get this –  the plant’s nickname is “shampoo ginger.” Could that be, especially when it thrives with no water, no soothing words, no worry, when it cares nothing for shade or no shade? Last year I used the oozy, medicinal center of the comfrey plant – nicknamed “bone knit” – to heal a busted knee cap. This year I followed instructions, plucked the bloom, took it into the shower, squeezed the squishy liquid center and used it to “restore luster and brilliance” to my hair, just like the Breck commercials used to promise.

My only beef is this: pine cone gingers spread. They make themselves at home. They take over. And all of this on a spot of land I’ve taken to calling “the garden that used to be a driveway.” The beautiful Texas red-star hibiscus a few feet away? Dwarfed. Overshadowed. Complaining (“Hey, what about me? Last year you thought I was the cat’s meow. What am I now? Chopped liver?”). Dear red-star: I have not forgotten you. You are my first-born (sort of). In a few months, when plants can be moved with minimal stress I will give you a new spot. You’ll have your own turf again. I promise.

I’ve made a lot of these promises lately. Gardens are mutable; they’re liable to change, sometimes for the worse. Last year’s favorite (or was it two years ago?), the delectable dotted horsemint, a member of that sprawling monarda (or perhaps you say mint) family, took my breath away, so delicate, so subtle was she. And that was before I was even sure of her name. But then, wouldn’t you know it, the swamp sunflower, prized for its stature and hardiness, edged closer and closer, took more and more territory and, in a battle royal, edged out my sweet little horsemint. None of this happens quickly. You think all is well, that you’re in control and then you look away, maybe go away for a few days. When you return you forgot you ever had horsemint. Horsemint who? But then this survivor of the fittest pops up in the middle of your drought-tolerant, non-complaining variegated zebra grass and you remember. Aha! Horsemint! Must do something about horsemint. Put it on the list.

Then there’s the beloved indigo. Last year it towered 10 feet high, more a statement than a material for a dye. I’ll leave the dyeing to the good people at the Ossabaw Island Foundation. I just do the planting. Up until now, I never worried about shaking out seeds and replanting it because I never had to. For the past seven or eight years my indigo has always come back on its own. Until this year. Until I broadcast some itty-bitty amaranth seeds I snagged from Janisse Ray’s seed-sharing project at the Tattnall County Library. I thought I had tossed them a safe distance away. Au contraire. I forgot to factor in the strength of those seeds. After all, the grain known as amaranth does go back some 8,000 years. It’s got some pretty good staying power as well.

And it’s a stunning plant. I don’t have any flowers yet and I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to grinding this gluten-free product, but the leaves are two-toned and striking. And it’s tall. At least as tall as the indigo, which it seems to have been dislodged and/or displaced. Boo hoo.

Even worse is what I did to the Scarlett runner beans, another plant I have grown for the heart-shaped leaves and the red, red color – who doesn’t love red? – but which I have never eaten.  In my zest to clear some real estate for more runner beans I inadvertently unearthed some roots of the mother plant. Quick like a bunny I tried to bury them back before anyone noticed the error of my ways. But no dice. No cigar. No one likes to be disturbed that way. The vine died. And I silently cried. They were no beautiful. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I didn’t ingest some brain-eating amoeba while swimming in a lake. I didn’t dislodge the remote control and leave the batteries for some child to put in his or her mouth. I didn’t nick the spleen of a cat in the process of trying to neuter her (not me – someone who should have known better). I merely made a few mistakes in the garden. But that’s OK. Gardens are very forgiving places. Even if certain plants do tend to take over.

Anyway, it’s unseemly for Breck girls to complain.




Our summer: their winter

July 17, 2016

Savannah Morning News

I can think of a million things to do in this heat. Just not at this moment. Not in the middle of a long afternoon where the plants are droopy, the cat is sprawled on the porch and I’m still bleeding from an unexpected encounter with the Spanish bayonet. The chickens are burrowed in some cozy and crazy pile of dirt. The hens look dead. I know they’re not. I also know this: none of the million things I can do in this heat involve going outside at this moment. Not while the sun is high. The cat is hungry and we have no cat food? Give her dog food. We’re out of milk for coffee? We’ll make do.  “The book you ordered is at the Bull Street library,” says the automated voice on my cellphone. I’ll take one off my shelf instead. Why read “Killing a King” (even though I’ve been waiting for someone to finish and return it) when “War and Peace” is steps away. Lots of day – and daylight – to read “War and Peace.” So what if there are all those multiple Russian names that make no sense at all. I’ve started it six times and gotten nowhere. Seven is a charm. Maybe now that I’ve been watching “The Americans,” a riveting series about a KGB-trained couple transported to the U.S. as spies, I’ll understand a little more about the Russian psyche. Maybe. Must be a Russian summer. Now I’m rereading Julian Barnes’ novel, “The Noise of Time,” an artsy, imaginative narrative about composer Dmitri Shostakovich. A little light reading, you know, a quasi-biography (but more fiction, methinks, not that memory can be anything but fiction), a commentary on mortality and death. Cheerful subjects, right? Perfect for 100-degree days. Gosh, I didn’t even mention the challenge of living under the authoritarian arm of Soviet rule. Yikes. Talk about strict.

We’re in the thick of summer. C’mon, people. Toughen up. This is our winter. This is pay back. We can do it. We don’t shovel snow, look for mittens, cover every square inch of skin before venturing outside (except for following the dermatologist’s instructions and slathering expensive and special sunscreen on our faces). We don’t worry about scraping ice off our windshields, turning the steering wheel back and forth, back and forth on black ice at 5 o’clock in the afternoon in the winter on a hill when it’s already dark, heart in throat all the while, or slipping and sliding all the way to that giant room at Optim Orthopedics, which is usually filled to capacity with people who are really not in the best of spirits. You haven’t been there? Good. I hope you never have to.

Nope. None of that for us. We wear flip-flops, sleeveless shirts, bathing suits under loose dresses. Frocks, we like to call them. We carry towels in the car.  Just in case. We walk the dogs through what seem to be empty streets, past empty houses. Where does everyone go? It’s ghostly, desolate. It’s quiet. We know which streets are shady, which lanes are sunny and when. We keep our eyes on the fig trees. They’re getting close. We plot to beat the birds. Ready, set, go.

We go to see 3-D movies like “Tarzan” and take a sweater. Maybe we go twice. We could have missed something the first time. We drive to Tybee Island at dawn to swim with the pelicans and the gulls while the giant freighters make their way against the horizon. We do a little swimming, careful to keep an eye on the shore, aware of the undertow. But mostly we bob in the water. We float. We let the waves take us where they wish, all the while knowing that July is the best time to be in the ocean because August brings jellyfish and swimming with jellyfish means long sleeve shirts and long pants.

We revel in the overhead breeze. Did you feel it? Did you feel it? Quick. Find the list. It’s time to do chores. it’s safe to go outdoors.