Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I Used to Have a Lawn

I used to have a lawn, but now I have my freedom. Often, I don’t realize how limiting something is until it is gone. Several years after converting to Buddhism, I gave up celebrating Christmas altogether. I had always loved that time of year. I loved decorating my home, wrapping presents, and baking cookies. But after following my own path for several years, it started to make less sense to me. All that holiday prep was not without its own stressful limitations. Trying to find the perfect gift for everyone in my family could be difficult. Budgetary concerns limited my shopping for friends and coworkers. Decorating the house, and then later taking it all down, could leave me exhausted. But I did all of this because everyone else I knew did it too. It was expected. I wasn’t sure how they would react if I would suddenly just stop. One year I decided that I would never know unless I tried. That year, I told my family and friends that I would no longer be exchanging gifts at the end of December and wished them a wonderful holiday season. Then I sat back and waited. I waited for the fallout. My parents didn’t understand entirely, but they respected my decision. Friends seemed almost relieved that they could cross one more name off their list. None of my neighbors even noticed the absence of lights on my home. The decision was made and that was that. But how would I feel? Would I miss it? I can honestly say that without all the stress, I had the best Christmas of my life that year. I still went to holiday gatherings and was relaxed enough to enjoy my friends' company. Instead of baking cookies for everyone on the planet, I learned to bake bread. And on Christmas Eve, I took a long walk through my quiet neighborhood and enjoyed the holiday decorations more than ever.

The decision to give up my lawn was a similar process. Growing up, I had always loved lying out on the lawn in the summer and looking up at the clouds passing overhead. I loved the way the damp grass felt against my skin. I loved the way it smelled when freshly mowed. But as I became an adult and grew as a gardener, my priorities started to change. I had very little time to just lay on the grass and daydream. I started to worry about the amount of water I used to keep the grass happy in California. I was running out of room in my yard and there were so many cool new plants left to try. I made a choice and the lawn was removed. Again, I waited for the comments from neighbors. Oddly, there was none. If they thought ill of me during that time, they were polite enough to keep it to themselves.

During the next few years, the front yard went through a couple of changes. I planted a gorgeous perennial garden and loved it. But then the city took out a pine tree and the sun exposure changed dramatically on over half the yard. As I relocated the struggling shade plants to spots in the back yard, I found myself marveling at the simplicity of the bare dirt. Did I want to expand the complex color combinations of a sunny perennial planting to the entire yard? Or should that change too? Was I still enjoying the plants enough to continue with the weeding, deadheading and dividing that they required? About this time in my life, I was starting to explore other hobbies in graphic illustration and design. As I tended my yard, I could feel myself being pulled back to my office to work on a new project. Something needed to give.

The front is now in the beginning its journey as a low water, minimal maintenance garden. The grasses planted from pony packs are starting to fill in beautifully. Their feathery seed heads are a relaxing sight as they wave in the afternoon breeze. The creeping thyme is filling in nicely around the pavers. The newly planted Erigeron and Gallardia are blooming their hearts out as best they can before the season closes. There are bare spots that still need to be filled in and soil that still needs to be amended, but it can wait. I no longer have to run out and water before work to make sure plants make it through our summer heat. In fact, most mornings I can stand on my porch surveying the garden and realize I don’t have to do anything. And that is the beauty of it. Because I am no longer tied to the care and nurturing of my garden, I find I enjoy it more. Just like that long walk on a quiet Christmas Eve, I can now sit on my porch and listen to the bees as they buzz about the flowers. I can watch the robins as they scratch at the dirt looking for something tasty. I can just be.

Monday, September 14, 2009

It's Almost Pumpkin Time!

Halloween is hands down my favorite holiday. So it makes perfect sense as a gardener to grow a few of my own decorations for the season. I love pumpkins of all shapes, sizes and colors. The more variety I can have, the better. The drawback, however, is that the vines can be huge. The Jarrahdale pumpkin pictured left is on a vine that spans over 12 feet. So as much as I would love to have one in each color, I must pick and choose. This year, the blue-gray Jarrahdale and some mini pumpkins won out.

It is about this time of year that my pumpkin vines start to look a little ragged. This means that they are about done producing for the season and it will soon be time to harvest my pumpkins. But just how do you know when your pumpkin is ready to be harvested? Just follow these tips and you will be able to enjoy your pumpkin at Halloween (and if you don't carve it) and beyond:

1. Your pumpkin is ready for harvest when they are the appropriate color and the skin has hardened enough that you can't easily poke a hole in it with your fingernail.
2. Cut the pumpkin from the vine leaving about 3-4 inches of stem with a pair of pruning shears. Leaving a stem is not only more attractive, but it stops the pumpkin from rotting at the top.
3. Never carry the pumpkin by the stem. It may not be able to hold the weight of the pumpkin.
4. Allow them to "cure" in the sun for about 10 days to cause the stem to harden and dry.
5. Once cured, store pumpkins in a cool location (50-55 degrees) to promote longevity.

The photo of the Jarrahdale above was taken about 3 weeks ago and it has since ripened to a beautiful blue-grey color. Since the weather is still warm and I'm not quite ready to start decorating for Halloween, however, I've decided to leave the pumpkin on the vine just a bit longer.

How has your pumpkin growing season been this year? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The subtlety of the seasons

It's easy to miss the changing of the seasons this time of year in California. The hills have been brown for a while so there really isn't much chance of a seasonal display. The geese aren't migrating anywhere, but rather take a morning flight around the neighborhood only to settle down at the lake they took off from. But there are signs if you look carefully.

Every morning I have to duck under the garden orb spider's web that stretches from my door to the front hedge. The spider, less than a quarter of an inch now, will be about the size of a quarter in October. The morning light on the seed heads of the Prairie Love Grass seems to be particularly enchanting now. And the afternoon breeze is coming from a slightly different direction as it cools down the yard after a day of warm weather. Fall is on its way.

But because the seasons don't abruptly start and stop, there is much overlap in vegetable growth. And it's this time every year that I have to make the difficult decision of when to take out the still producing warm season crop. Most of the time the decison is based on when I have time to do it. Such is the case this year. With the nursery season slowing a bit, I'm able to take an extra day off here and there. With the long Labor Day weekend here, I decided that today was the day. The colorful basket above it the result of a portion of a veggie garden's demise. The mini pumpkin vine that has come up as a total volunteer was already starting to wither and die so the fruits of it's efforts this year will now decorate my front desk well into the holiday season. The Lemon Boy tomatoes have already found there way into a batch of salsa blended with mango and peach chunks for a bit of sweetness. The eggplant will be chopped and sauteed to be stuffed into the Anaheim peppers with a bit of cheese for tonight's dinner.

As bittersweet as it is to see this garden season come to a close, I'm anxious to get a jump on the fall season. Snap peas have already been planted along with another crop of potatoes. A few bunches of lettuce are waiting for their spicier companions--arugula and mustard. Soon I'll be deciding if I want to battle the cabbage moth's offspring for some broccoli and kale. So as I uproot and chop the plants that have produced so well this season into neat little piles, I find myself feeling reinvigorated and renewed. Once again the garden becomes a clean slate in which to plant. And once again my gardening spirit is reborn.