Slow gardening produces surprises

Savannah Morning News

June 4, 2017

Everyone wants answers. Quick answers. Quick fixes. Note to anyone writing a book on gardening: don’t subtitle a book you’ve called, “I Grew It My Way” with an after-thought that reads, “How Not to Garden.” That’s not what people want to hear. They want to know how to garden. Today. Right now.         Ah, to be that fish swimming upstream. It’s not easy. To tend that asymmetrical, unbalanced, crooked garden, to be that laissez-faire, permissive gardener who looks for surprises. We’re a whole different category. We lead with our strength. We live for surprises. We embrace the unexpected guest.

Take the amaranth (at least I think it’s an amaranth; it’s tall with a lovely touch of pink on the top). I got it from the seed bank at the public library in Tattnall County in Reidsville. It did so well last year along the side of the house it decided to jump to the lane – skipping over the backyard entirely – where it has established a whole new colony onto itself. But maybe I pulled and piled it out there where it decided, “This is a nice place to live. I think I’ll stay here.” Aside from saying the name and watching the word float out of my mouth, I don’t think amaranth is good for much unless I decide to dry the seeds and grind them into an eatable grain in the event of some major disaster. Not going to happen.

By now I’m used to the ethereal jewels of opar taking up residence wherever it pleases but the delicate panicles (a new word for me) are so pleasing who can refuse it a place in the sun (or the shade), in a crack of the sidewalk (or the middle of a potted plant)? It doesn’t hurt that it’s a green, a succulent that grows in the heat of summer or that it’s not mucilaginous (I think we can figure out the gooey root of that word), like Malabar spinach, a green that will also do well in heat but is too soft or viscous to eat (yuck), or that it’s not persnickety like lettuce, not a fan of Savannah’s summer heat.

Sorrell is another story. This storybook plant, a ruby-red, expansive hibiscus with the makings of a tasty winter drink (with rum), is a gem. I used to have such good luck growing it. Now that I want it so badly it’s playing coy. It doesn’t reseed – at least for me it doesn’t; I hear it does for others, even on a friend’s downtown rooftop garden, probably because they don’t want it as badly as I do. Maybe I am over-thinking this. It doesn’t germinate that well either. No matter. After careful looking – and proper fretting – I’ve identified four little babies that look as if they’ll make it.

Except I want more. Of course. Like maybe a dozen. And I’m still hoping for more. But for now at least I can worry about something else, like the double-fluted purple brugmansia. My friend and cousin Bob Ketai from Bloomfield Hills sent me seeds he harvested from the seeds I mailed him a few years ago. Talk about ornery seeds. And resistant. These little specks of spore play hard to get. They are not anxious to germinate. It doesn’t help that neighborhood cats think every bit of scratched earth is a perfect place for them to do their business. (They don’t even thank me.) So now I’ve taken to broadcasting the seeds and placing a few bricks as a base before I take a round and rusty discarded grill and rest it on top as a deterrent. It seems to be working. After checking on them two or three times a day I do believe there are three itty-bitty seedlings.

The indigo seeds that dropped last year (or are they the seeds I tossed out a month ago?) are starting to take hold, unlike the ones I seeded and tried to transplant (they don’t like being displaced, except for one thing: the shriveled young leaves have turned blue, almost the color of indigo); the horehound (a mint with that crazy name) didn’t complaint too much when I separated and replanted it; and a Gerber daisy acquired from a lovely young woman named Sarah who handed them out years ago to mothers and people related to mothers on Mother’s Day. It has resurfaced among the chaos just below the removal of a eucalyptus tree, a miracle onto itself.

There are other victories too. At least a hundred or so garlic plants to pull, hang and cure. A couple eggplant that look as if they’ll make it along with four pepper plants. My lime and fuyu persimmon trees, both of which are both putting out fruit for the first time. And there’s a pineapple – a real pineapple – growing out of the top of a potted pineapple plant.

None are quite as striking as the two sego male palms across the street. They’re both sporting giant brown phallic cones in their centers. Hopefully there will be some willing female within striking distance so we can have a family. Welcome to the neighborhood. May you live and be well.


Travel through time and space

Savannah Morning News

May 28, 2017

By the time I pulled out of Pittsburgh on Amtrak’s Philadelphian, I had mastered the Keurig coffee maker (even though no one told me you had to jiggle the water first), driven a car without a key in the ignition (without knowing you had to depress the brake and the on button at the SAME time), remembered how hilly this city is (can you say sore calves?), returned to the Giant Eagle supermarket (pronounced “iggle” by locals) and peered into an old-fashioned vintage private railcar festooned with mahogany paneling and cushy seating owned by a man named Bennett Levin. Our train into Pittsburgh from Philadelphia pulled this special, tricked out car, the same car this philanthropic native of Philadelphia offered to carry Bobby Kenney’s body to Washington for burial.

“But why would someone have their own railcar?” I asked the affable conductor walking up and down the aisles, clearly impressed by Levin.

“Why would someone own their own plane?” he answered. “Because the man loves trains.”

So do I but I might love his car more. He probably didn’t have to wonder whether he should reach across the aisle and turn off his neighbor’s tablet, which was “broadcasting” a portion of the Bible. Nothing against the Bible but it was a little loud and it kept repeating itself and the woman was asleep, nodding to the beat of the train when all I wanted to do was feel the trees hugging the tracks, read my book club selection, “The Green Road,” and eat my quinoa salad, a new selection from the café car.

Baltimore, an earlier stop, kind of knocked my socks off starting with the gender-bending 51- foot burnished aluminum statue of two twisted figures facing the front doors of Penn Station, another beaux art beauty. Sculptor Jonathan Borofsky calls it “Male/Female.”

Baltimore (pronounced “Balmore” by locals), Maryland (“Merland”), is the home of bearded irises, John Waters, Ann Tyler, columnist nonpareil Rafael Alvarez, artist extraordinaire Christine Sajecki, The Wire, Edgar Allen Poe’s grave, light rail, row houses, stone houses, ginormous crab cakes from The Dizz, the yellow VW bus from ”Little Miss Sunshine” (a prize from a film festival that sits on Falls Road) and Camden Yards, where we stopped to peer into the iconic ballfield and watch four men lug around a hose to water an infield that is artificial grass.

Baltimore beckons. But I was on a mission – to keep an old friend company following hip replacement surgery. We hadn’t seen one another for nine years; she’s one of those friends for whom time means nothing. She stocked the freezer with Klondike bars and borrowed some fans to combat the heat (clearly she forgot where I was coming from). Five minutes into a walk toward the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland I got the iconic Pittsburgh signal – someone turning his headlights on and off saying, “Go ahead. You can cross the street.” Love Pittsburgh.

Although Baltimore is called Charm City Pittsburgh has its own charm. From my friend’s high rise on Bigelow Avenue we look out onto pitched and pointed roofs that could have come out of a Dickens novel, especially in the winter when covered with snow. More bearded irises, more stories between friends who have known one another for nearly 50 years.

“Now: how did you get to Chicago?” she asked, which is where we met – at WTTW public television. I was a baby; she had four kids. When time races by sometimes you need these refresher moments. At 4 in the morning, in between pain pills, we had time: to tell stories, to reach back, to review. No way I could top her memory of Society of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic boarding school outside Chicago better known as “The Madames.” She and her classmates went to mass and communion every day, wore white gloves for special assemblies and curtsied when passing a nun or an older person no matter what or where. “We got really good at the flying curtsy when we were late for class,” she said. Her mother, her father’s sisters, her grandmother and her great-grandmother all went to The Madams. Her brother, destined for Notre Dame (their father’s school), not so keen on the experience, drank black shoe polish to get out of it.

Every week she and her classmates got medals for their behavior. Because it was a French school the medals were designated rien (nothing), bien (good), assez bien (good enough) or tres bien (very good). She said she got so many medals she looked like a South American general.

She went home every weekend and returned on the Sunday night train where she got sad “looking at people in their kitchens listening to their radios, probably Jack Benny.” After dinner the girls would assemble with their knitting – “lots of long straight scarves” – and listen to the nuns read to them, “classics, like ‘Little Women’ and ‘Great Expectations,’ read with just the right dramatic effect. We loved it.”

For their graduation gift to the school she and her classmates contributed leather coverings to the kneeling pads. “By the seventh grade we had washer woman knees.”

We spent hours trying to pin down the dates of when we did stuff together – and the names of people we knew. Then came the final question, about my dog:

“Is Charlie still with us?”

“Yep. She’s 16, deaf as a post, nearly blind, barely continent, still a cutie.”

Good times. Good friends clicking, again.