Sunday, January 19, 2020

Another Season Begins

Ice-covered branches on an apple tree.
Friday brought freezing rain, coating everything in a layer of ice, and dripping icicles.

My husband went in early in the morning and found the road readily passable, but by that afternoon the gravel road we must take to reach the highway had become a skating rink. I didn't have difficulty walking to the mailbox, but I did not want to drive on it. So much for attending this year's first Extension Master Gardeners' meeting, activity fair and advanced education the next morning... I thought.

Hoses coiled and left in the garden until I can clear a space in the garage to
store them.
When I woke Saturday morning, though, my husband said the icy coating was gone. The stone steps and path outside our back door that had been thickly coated with ice on Friday afternoon were now clear. So I pulled on my clothes and headed into the meeting. Yay!

It is that time of year when the Master Gardeners start building steam for the year's activities. The first big activity for the Douglas County Extension Master Gardeners this year is our Garden Show, which we do every other year, alternating with the Garden Tour. I'm in charge of putting together an information table on Edible Gardening. I've already put a few seeds in soil-filled pots so I can have plants for our table. It won't be about just vegetables, but will include information on edible flowers, as well as herbs and fruits.

Not only does this show allow us to introduce ourselves and our services and activities to the public, but also is our major fundraiser for the year. One gang of Master Gardeners will spent the next couple of months creating garden art to sell at the show. We've also had a "garage sale" in the past, selling used items contributed by Master Gardeners and their pals. I have always had fun with this show.

I took the Master Gardeners class in 2013. When my husband told me about the program, having read about it in the newspaper, I resisted. How could I possibly find time to do this? Especially since the class started in mid-August, the height of tomato and green bean season. He convinced me, though, and I reluctantly applied.

I was accepted (I'm not sure who wouldn't be). Somehow I managed to attend class all day every Tuesday for nine weeks, weed the garden, harvest and process tomatoes, and all the other life things without going insane.

And I haven't looked back.

I have loved being a Master Gardener, hanging with my homies and hobnobbing with members of the public, talking about gardening. I am on the EMG speaker's bureau and upon request am prepared to develop and give presentations to groups on a variety of garden topics. Another favorite of mine is the horticulture hotline. People call, e-mail or come into the Extension office with questions like, "What's wrong with my tree?" "What kind of grass will grow in shade?" "How do I deal with tomato diseases?" And on and on and on. I learn a lot by working the hotline (because I've never known much about trees or lawns).

The Master Gardeners program also has many other activities one can participate in, if you're not keen on public speaking or unsure of your gardening knowledge. Our group cares for several demonstration gardens, as well as the Monarch Watch garden on the KU campus. So if you're up for some weeding and planting and weeding, these are for you. We also need volunteers to do public relations work, feed us snacks at each monthly meeting, teach gardening to kids, organizing, and simply providing support to those doing the educational activities.

Anyone can become a Master Gardener. You don't even have to know much about gardening. All you need is the desire to learn and to help others learn. In Douglas County classes begin in late summer/early fall. They've changed the class schedule since I took it to make it easier for people to fit classes into busy schedules. A fee is charged for the training, which not only helps fund the program, but guarantees that participants are serious about it. If the fee is beyond your budget, though, the Douglas County program offers a certain number of scholarships each year.

Once you've completed the class, to remain an active member you must meet certain requirements for volunteer time and advanced education.  We now must put in a minimum of 30 hours of volunteer work (which includes monthly meeting attendance). We also must complete a minimum of 10 hours of advanced education each year, which is easy because an hour or more of advanced education is offered after each meeting, and many online webinars are available.

You don't have to live in Douglas County to become part of the Douglas County EMG program, you just need to live in a neighboring county that does not have its own EMG program. And if this isn't your area, many other counties offer this program.

To check on EMG activities and find out when they will begin taking applications for this year's class, go to the Douglas County Extension Web site. On the left hand side you will find a menu, click on "Lawn and Garden" and in the drop-down menu click on "Extension Master Gardeners." On the right hand side of that page you will find links to the EMG brochure and our Web site, info on the hotline, and a link to the new class application. However, the application for the 2020 class has not yet been put up. You also can find us on Facebook -- Douglas County Kansas Master Gardeners.

It's been a fun ride with the EMG program. I highly recommend it. But if you can't, or don't want to become an EMG, take advantage of our programs. Check out our table at the Lawrence Farmers Market, call the hotline, ask for a speaker for your club, attend the Garden Show (March 28), walk through one or all of our demo gardens, or attend one of the educational programs after our monthly meeting. Our first and foremost mission is education. Come, let's chat.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

MidWinter Dreams

Perfect white crystals piled on the railing outside my back door.

White crystals piled in a sheer slope, a (sort of) straight line edge atop.

Perfect domes on the posts.

Nature, what an engineer.

Monday morning.

The next morning:

Fog shrouded world beckons.

Black and white and gray.

Nature, what an artist.

I've always felt that fog was magical, I could step into the gray and through to a different place. So I went out into the misty winter morning, down to the pond covered in ice, covered in snow.

Was the spring flowing? I wondered. A long trek to the other side of the pond to check. But I trekked.

I was not the first one to pass this way -- deer tracks in the snow.

A patch of blackberry brambles. I tried to push my way through. Backed out and tried again.

OK. So that's why no deer tracks went through here. I find my way around, through tall grass buried in snow.

And there it is, where water seeps from the ground, over green moss-covered stones, at the base of the hill. An open place in the snow, a small stream of water, a bare flicker of movement. A bare flicker.

I recall the first time I saw this place... February... 15 degrees Fahrenheit... a world covered in snow. Water flowed so that I could hear it as I came down the hill on the other side of the pond.

Today, barely a flicker. December. Perhaps another day it will flow and fill the pool. But today it sleeps. Sleeps. Dreams.

Nature, what a dreamer.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Rosemary by Any Other Name...

"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray love, remember."

Ophelia's words in Shakespeare's Hamlet succinctly states one of the many things for which the herb rosemary can be used. In this instance, Ophelia refers to the Victorian era's language of flowers, in which sprigs of rosemary are placed in a small bouquet to implore the recipient to hold the giver in memory. Or it indicates that the giver will always remember... Sometimes rosemary is placed in funeral wreaths so that we might remember the deceased.

The quote from Shakespeare was repeated, at least one, in one of Agatha Christie's novels, "Remembered Death," in which we enter the story six months after the murder of a beautiful woman named Rosemary. I was certain the novel contained some other quote or reference I could cite in this blog, so I looked through the book (which I hadn't read in ages), became intrigued by the story, and spent an entire afternoon ostensibly looking for useful references to rosemary. In fact, however, I was simply intrigued to find the solution to the mystery. I didn't sit and read the entire thing, just jumped through and reading large portions, formulating my own solution. As is often the case in Mrs. Christie's novel, I was on the wrong track. I got one bit right, but the murderer wrong.

But I digress...

Rosemary is a wonderful plant. It's narrow, blue-green leaves possess a refreshing resinous fragrance reminiscent of pine. And aside from symbolizing remembrance, it is used to enhance memory and clear cognitive function. Ancient Greek scholars would wear rosemary in their hair as they studied for exams to boost their memory. Indeed, when used regularly, rosemary can help improve cognitive function, including memory. I've found that the scent helps clear away mental cobwebs when the brain becomes weary. I have taken sprigs of fresh rosemary to work so I could inhale its scent and freshen my mind when I experienced those mid-afternoon doldrums. Inhaling the scent of rosemary essential oil works the same way.

When studying rosemary a while back, the one aspect that stood out to me (according to my notes) was "clarity." Rosemary assists mental and psychic clarity. It's also antimicrobial, so inhaling its scent or drinking a tea of rosemary can help prevent illness. Diffusing rosemary essential oil in a room also cleanses the air.

All that aside, rosemary is great in the kitchen. We stuff whole, fresh sprigs of it under the skin of chicken before we cook it. As an evergreen plant (if you live in USDA zones 8-10) rosemary is associated with this time of year, when various cultures bring evergreen boughs in to decorate homes. Christmas lore has Mary drying her cloak on a rosemary shrub, thus giving it its fragrance and pretty blue flowers.

I have become quite familiar with and fond of rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis.

Except, officially, it's not R. officinalis any longer.

They've gone mucking about and studying its gene (how rude!) and have discovered that it is too closely related to sage, plain old garden sage, Salvia officinalis, place it in a different genus. Of course, rosemary is related to sage. Both belong to the same family, the mint family, Lamiaceae (formerly Labiatae), which also boasts thyme, peppermint, and a host of other familiar herbs. But it's always had its own genus, Rosmarinus.

Now we must call rosemary Salvia rosmarinus. (Explanation here.) Which means it loses its "officinalis" tag. That species name was given to a number of plants that were once part of official apothecaries. Not that it changes anything, really. But somehow it seems offensive to so abruptly change the scientific name of such a noble plant. Chamomile has suffered that offense more than once, so that I'm not exactly sure what the genus species name is now. And taxonomists have changed family names at time (see my above reference to two names for the mint family). The cabbage/mustard family was once Cruciferae and is now Brassicaceae. The Compositae family is now known as Asteraceae.

Not that the plants care. Only plant geeks like me, and anyone who has reason to deal with scientific names of plants will care. It's always good to know a plant's scientific name, so that when you're dealing with a plant that shares a common name with another species, or which has multiple common names, you can be sure and get the specific plant you want. Herbalists are wise to keep up on such things.

I'm not sure why this name change affected me so. Perhaps because rosemary is such a singular plant and renaming it to belong in a genus with dozens of other plant species just seems wrong. I'll get over it.

As Shakespeare once wrote: "A rosemary by any other name would smell as sweet."
Oh, right. That was "a Rose by any other name..." I'll have to grab some rosemary tea to help me remember that.

NOTICE: I'm back. Not sure why I've been gone for so long. Just one of those things. So I came back with a sprig of rosemary... "that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember" me.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The End Has Come

This scene is no more.

The decaying corpses of these plants still stand... for the moment... but the brilliance of their photosynthesizing life is gone. Our first freeze of the season arrived yesterday morning and summer is truly gone, taking with it the last of the summer vegetables and tender annuals such as these. To the right of the red amaranth are -- were -- bell peppers. To the left of the golden marigolds were nasturtiums and eggplant; all now slain by the freeze.

Gone are the okra, tomatoes (many of which I took down weeks ago), watermelon, long beans, and cantaloupe. The cucumbers, which provided an overwhelming harvest, have been gone (to my relief) for a few weeks, as well.

Often I am reluctant to let go of summer, especially when the first frost/freeze comes early, as this one did. I drag sheets and blankets out to the garden to save the peppers and at least some of the tomatoes, as well as any other summer resident that I deem worthy.

Tomatoes, zinnias and nasturtiums. All now gone.
Not this year. I felt almost relieved when the first frost showed up in the forecast. I dug the sweet potatoes, picked a half bushel or more of green and not quite green peppers, as well as a gallon of hot peppers. I picked a few green tomatoes -- only the two Brandywine, and two Sun Gold plants were left, anyway. Gathered the last okra pods and any other summer vegetable, as well the red raspberries which were still putting on new berries. I went to bed Friday night feeling ready.

When I went out the next morning and found the nasturtiums and melons that shared a bed, melted and dead, I felt no remorse. Instead I felt a surge of joy, a soaring lightness. I felt eager to begin the clearing away. No longer will I feel the urgency of harvesting and processing the summer crops.

That didn't end my harvesting, however. Kale, cabbage, lettuce, bok choy, turnips, carrots, winter radishes, and a few others still grow, made all the better tasting for the chill. These I hope to keep going well into winter with some protection. Plus I have all the summer bounty tucked away in the freezer, or dehydrated and sitting in jars on the pantry shelf. I think I can eat until next season's harvest begins.

Nasturtiums, peppers, okra (background), and datura. Only the leeks (showing
 just behind the peppers and datura) remain
The only thing I will miss are the zinnias, those brilliant flower fireworks. On Friday evening, as dusk deepened I gathered in zinnias, so now (for the first time this year, can you believe it?) bouquets of zinnias are scattered about the house, along with a couple of vases of deep purple twice-blooming iris.

It's time to turn inward, into the house, into my heart, into my soul. Oh you can bet I've still got plenty to do in the garden -- fences to remove and erect, clearing to do -- the tasks never end. But it's all without urgency. I can afford to turn inward.

This afternoon I sat in the middle of the garden, sun warming my shoulders, my eyes closed, and felt the green energy sinking down, into the earth. I embraced the change of seasons, and heard the whole world breathe a contented sigh as it snuggles in, to rest.

Soon the evidence of that movement downward, inward will be apparent as leaves turn color, then fall. The kale and other cold-season vegetables will eventually be shrouded -- first in white, then in plastic -- to give them just a little extra time to grow. The leeks, carrots and radishes will all be dug, and a fire will roar in our stove. All in their time.

Today, however, I will sit in the sun and let summer go.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Of Cucumbers, Tomatoes and Bagworms

Miniature White Cucumbers, my favorite. Productive, crunchy, small seeded, and rarely bitter.
It's been a fruitful summer.

If you come to my house over the next month, it's quite likely I will coerce you into -- I mean -- offer you as many cucumbers as you could possibly want. My neighbor has come up at least twice to pick cucumbers. Today some friends who came over went home with loads of cukes. Last night I took some to a gathering and implored people to take some home with them. I always have more than we can consume, and it is no different this year, even though I planted fewer cucumbers than usual. Why does it seem like I have more than usual?

I eat fresh cucumbers every day and have made more than three gallons of fermented cucumber pickles. Do I really need a fourth gallon? Maybe.

In a quest for something else to do with cucumbers I discovered numerous fresh salads that combine cucumbers with tomatoes, peppers, onions and whatever other summer veggies are on hand, such as Panzanella (minus the bread crumbs for me) and Fatoush (which I fell in love with while dining from the Sunday buffet at a local Mediterranean restaurant). Of course there's tatziki, a Mediterranean sauce/dip made with Greek yogurt, grated cucumber and dill, with the option of adding mint. I love all these. Guess I'll make some Fatoush for tomorrow.

But I've also discovered Gazpacho. Not exactly "discovered." I've known about gazpacho for a long time, but always went, "Cold soup? Um... no." However, desperation sets in and I tried an intriguing gazpacho recipe that uses 1 pound of cucumbers, 1 pound of tomatillos, half a medium onion, one clove garlic, half a poblano chili, and 1/4 cup olive oil.

I don't have tomatillos, so I used Sun Gold cherry tomatoes instead. I doubled the garlic (ONE clove garlic? What good is that?). I didn't have poblanos, so I use a little bit of chipotle. It all goes into the blender and is well-chilled before serving. OK, so, Yum. I mean YUM. I'll make it again and I'm waiting to try another gazpacho that uses arugula and "tender" herbs, such as basil, cilantro, parley when the arugula gets growing well again. It seems that gazpacho variations are many.

But I think tomorrow I'll make fatoush, without the feta.

Of course these salads all use tomatoes as well as cucumbers. That's just fine, as the tomatoes are doing quite well. I'm not so desperate to have other people pick those, as they are easy to preserve, although I do share. The Amish Paste get sliced and dehydrated. The Black Vernissage (apparently the Vernissage group also has pink, yellow and green varieties) that don't get used fresh in the salads will be roasted and frozen in wide-mouth canning jars. Pink Brandywine is best fresh and is The Best fresh tomato, in my opinion. But it's easy to have an excess, so some will be dried, roasted or given away. Fortunately they aren't a super productive variety and I planted just two.

Now we come to the bagworms, of which we also have a bumper crop this year. Unfortunately, I wasn't aware that it would be a bumper crop at the optimum time to manage them (June-ish) by spraying Bt, a biological control. After it became apparent, I just sort of... not "just sort of," I purposely and actively ignored them. By August they've done most of their feeding and so it's not any use spraying. Now they hang like ornaments almost every few inches along all the branches of many of our red cedar trees. With luck, they haven't actually killed any, at least not the important ones.

One of last year's Monarchs shortly after emerging.
I'm not sure why they're so abundant this year, other insects seem to be in short supply. The milkweeds I planted for the Monarch butterflies have not been eaten by Monarch caterpillars, although caterpillars of the Tufted Tiger Moth (I guess they're also known as the Milkweed Tussock Moth) completely devoured a couple of the plants. They tend to swarm the plants, whereas Monarch Butterflies lay just one egg per leaf. Still a Monarch caterpillar can pretty much eat an entire plant.

I've seen a few Black Swallowtail caterpillars -- the benefit of having an abundance of dill and fennel -- but no Silvery Checkerspot larvae on the echinaceas. Even the squash bugs seem in short supply, but maybe that's because the squash also is in short supply. The Japanese beetles also have been blessedly scarce. I'm curious as to what next summer will bring insect-wise. Late cold weather this past winter/early spring might have reduced many of the insect populations...

But not the bagworm population. Why?

I'm not sure even the entomologists can answer that one.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Preparing for the Heat

I've spent a good part of this week so far watering food plants in preparation for several days of high temperatures near or at 100 degrees. I will continue to water something every day. The blueberries will need water every day until the temperature moderates. Everything in pots will need close watching.

My new schedule has me outside early and quitting about 1 p.m. before the heat hits its high. I came in today at 1:15, my clothes soaked as if I'd jumped in the pond. The temperature was 95 degrees F. Too sunny, too hot, too humid. Drink lots of water, folks. It's hot out there. And it will get hotter.

I'm not going to complain, though. It is July in Kansas. We've been fortunate so far. I worked under a cloud-covered sky this morning, which was nice. It was only 85 degrees then, but the beating sun can make even that temperature a shirt soaker. So the clouds were a nice touch. Thank you, Universe. And just when I went in for brunch at 10 a.m., a surprise shower began to fall. Nothing measureable, but it felt good to have rain.

What Kansas is experiencing this week is nothing compared to what other places have experienced. It's not supposed to be in the mid-90s in Alaska, but it was. Last summer (which occurred during our winter) Australia had an incredible heat wave.

And yet people seem oblivious to climate change. But I see it. When you keep your eye on the ramblings of the season as closely as I do, you know when things fall out of whack. And they're out of whack. I know it's a difficult thing to face, but if we're going to make changes that will make a difference, we must face it.

Start by calling your Congress Critters and asking them why climate change, the Climate Crisis, isn't front and center. Why are we allowing bee-killing pesticides to be sprayed over large areas, and toxic crap to be dumped into water? Why aren't we pushing solar and wind power and making changes? Why isn't my grandchildren's future important? Why are we busy manufacturing a crisis at the border instead of dealing with a real crisis, climate change?

But what can I do as an individual besides yelling at the Congress Critters? Plant trees. Look for ways to reduce your carbon footprint, such as driving less, turning off electronics not in use, eating less meat, buying local produce... We do what we can and hope for the best.
Cucumbers fermenting. Dill pickles.

Depression over climate change and the potential lack of any real future is a new thing among young people. I have struggled with it. There is every possibility that, barring a large truck bearing down on me, I could be around for another 30, even 40 years... if climate change doesn't make that impossible. I want every possible moment of life. I want my grandchildren to have every opportunity for a good life. Climate change isn't some conspiracy theory. It's real.

So, enough. I don't like to get preachy on this blog, but we really should be yelling at the people in charge about this. We're supposed to be in charge, but... no I won't go there.

Tomorrow I'm not going to worry about it. I'm just going to do what I can do. And enjoy life as much as possible, regardless of the forecast.

I'll enjoy working in the garden in the morning and whatever indoor projects need to be done in the afternoon... I'll bundle and hang the garlic to dry, watch the cucumbers fermenting on the counter, work on a presentation I have to give on Saturday, vacuum the floors (let's not get crazy now)... Focus on the Now.

For Now I only have to deal with a week or so of high heat. I'll deal with the future heat when it arrives.

Sunday, July 14, 2019


This hummer liked to sit on the glass snail that sits in the pot where the wrens built their nest.
I miss my little neighbors.

A month or two ago a pair of Carolina wrens built a nest cozied in between two plants in a large pot on our front porch. Within no time five little eggs occupied the nest, then five gaping mouths (that was all we could see of the babies in the deep nest). We anticipated watching the babies eventually fledge.

The plants in the pot started looking a bit ragged because I was afraid to water much. I didn't want to flood the nest, especially after the babies hatched. While we sat on our porch at meals, we watched the parents come with caterpillars or other tasty treats, then go again. Often they would perch on top of an iron sculpture at the corner of the porch and belt out a beautiful trill before flying off to go hunting.

Then one morning, a week ago, my husband went onto the front porch and saw the nest overturned and empty. The parents returned, screeching in anguish. It was heart-wrenching.

I know that feeling. A few years ago a cardinal pair built a nest in the bay tree on our front porch. I loved pulling back the shade a crack to look at the eggs, then the nestlings. But one day I looked out and the babies were gone. It must have just happened, because the parents returned and went into hysterics. It tore my heart out.

A year or two before that, cardinals nested in the bay tree. Only to lose the nestlings.

Life is hard for bird parents. It makes me wonder just how many bird babies actually make it out of the nest alive. After watching cardinal parents lose babies from their nests in the bay tree, I saw a cardinal nest tucked away at the top of the black raspberry brambles. It was difficult to see, even when I knew where to look. Surely these babies will fledge.

But, no. They too perished too soon.

Being so small and tasty and easy to capture, baby song birds are on many critters' dinner lists -- snakes, cats, raccoons, other birds. Even squirrels will eat birds from time to time, I recently learned.

Squirrels? No wonder one of the wren parents chittered with such concern when a squirrel was lurking about on our porch. I couldn't figure out why the wren was so concerned about a squirrel. It was as much of a mystery to as is what the silly squirrels like to do on our porch. Sometimes they seem to be licking the concrete. What?

Anyway, we figure the squirrel go the baby wrens, and a squirrel was possibly the culprit in taking out the cardinal babies.

How do song birds cope with losing their young so frequently? I guess they just build another nest and lay more eggs.


We've decided that if other birds start nest building on our front porch that we're going to prevent them by removing any nesting material they lay down. Maybe the birds have learned to cope with their frequent losses, but I don't think I can.