Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Benediction of Rain

We owe a mighty vote of thanks to all the folks who were praying for rain. Two storms, one yesterday, another due in tonight, are expected to bring four to six inches in the lowlands and more on the hills. What a difference a little bit of moisture makes.

Even thought it's not nearly enough to save us from unprecedented drought -- the current soakings will only bring total rainfall so far to not quite forty percent of normal -- the backyard is a whole new place. How long has it been since there were fat water droplets clinging to the textured surface of the kale leaves? It seems like years.

There is a softness in the air, a new urgency in the song of the birds, and a sweet fragrance from the darkened soil. St. Francis had it right when he praised "Sister Water, so humble and precious and clean."

There is a heightened awareness now, all across California, of every precious drop, gallon, and acre foot. Trying to do my small part, I set out a plastic garbage can in the back yard as an instant rain water cachement system. A few inches have been collected already from the first storm. It's a tiny tiny drop in an extremely large bucket (the whole state and its water deficit) but it works as a consciousness raising gesture.

We are ready for the next storm, and the next.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hyacinth and Friends

A little white hyacinth is blooming in our backyard, where no hyacinth has bloomed before!!! I've bought them before, of course, at the supermarket, in tiny ceramic pots for forced blooming indoors. After all, who can resist a hyacinth in the springtime?

This one was growing up out of a pile of compost. I imagine the spent bulb came out with the kitchen scraps and landed in a propitious spot. Not realizing what it was -- no blooms were showing -- I unwittingly uprooted it while shoveling compost and adding insult to injury, or rather injury to insult, I sliced off a bit of the bulb with the shovel.

When I saw what it was I immediately planted it in the rich soil along the fence. I was sure it was done for, but plants can surprise you and I am always ready to be surprised. How nice to be rewarded with an un-looked for bloom. Let's hope it prospers in its new home as a symbol of rebirth, regeneration, and second chances, or, actually, third chances: house, compost pile, and now, planting bed. A three-time winner and a fitting tribute to the beautiful youth Hyacinth, beloved by Apollo but accidentally, tragically, slain by him and immortalized in an ever renewing flower.

Flowering at the same time across the yard in the bed along the other fence is a little mystery bulb, a migrant from the front yard. It must have come in with the leaf litter I collect in the front yard to cover paths in the back yard, following the permaculture practice of using onsite materials whenever possible.

There are dozens of these unknowns in the front yard, coming up every spring as long as we have lived here. And now they will be colonizing the backyard too. Another un-looked for spring bloom.

The wild onions are also blooming now in the shade under the plum trees. No mysteries or surprises are involved. These are tenacious weeds I happen to be fond of. They appear with the early spring bloomers and spread opportunistically everywhere there's an opening. I like them as additions to spring salads -- all parts are edible and have a mild oniony tang.

What all three of these pretty volunteer plants with their hopeful white flowers have in common is that they have chosen to grow in our yard. May they prosper (within reason).

Friday, February 21, 2014

Spring Begins, Again

It's been a long, long journey round the sun since the last heralding of backyard plum blossoms. But spring springs eternally and nothing can stop its burgeoning progress. Neither 500-year-drought nor neglectful gardeners with other priorities will hold it back. Welcome, little beauties! We are really, really glad to see you, bringing fresh chances and new opportunities to begin again.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


A lovely array of purple crocuses catches the light and cheers the heart, marking a further step in the inexorable onset of another springtime.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Waiting for Spring

It's time for the plum blossom extravaganza to begin in our backyard, but continuing chill has put a damper on things. The best we can manage is to make a fuss over some fat buds lining the bare twigs at eye level and a few hard-to-see blossoms way up at the top of the tree -- a mere handful. Not much is happening in the neighborhood, either. Usually by Valentine's Day there is an appropriately festive display of ruffly pink and white bloom lining the streets.

As a reference point, last year on this exact date, February 17th, I took the annual iconic photo of a just-opened perfect white plum blossom low enough on the tree to allow for close-ups. This year, fat buds will have to do.

Plum blossoms call for haiku, of course, but will buds suffice? Pondering this deep question, I noticed the waxing half moon, faintly visible through the denuded upper branches of the tree (not very visible in my photo, unfortunately): a reminder that poetry is where you find it.

Half moon caught in the
Bare branches of the tall plum --
Yet time does not stop.

If time is still moving then spring will surely come.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Winter Doldrums

When I stand and survey the backyard these days the usual allure is missing. The garden does not draw me; the weather is too cold. Granted, the temperature gets up into the high 50s and even mid 60s during the day and at least part of the time the skies are clear and sunny. But the psychological pull -- usually so irresistible -- is just not there. The chilly air, the cold ground, the wan sunshine seem to highlight the brown freeze-blasted plants and the scruffy bare branches of the trees. (No doubt, people in less temperate climate zones are justified in muttering: "Wimp.")

There is certainly plenty to do out back: clipping and pruning, putting wood chips on the paths, composting and mulching, on and on with a long list of usually enjoyable tasks that really need taking care of to get ready for the return of the planting season.

The relative lack of greenery exposes, in mute reproach, all the half-finished tasks from last autumn. The northern part of the garden is pretty much in limbo, suspended animation, waiting for the next surge of activity, like Sleeping Beauty awaiting a kiss from a Prince Charming who is simply not very motivated just now and prefers to stay inside and leaf through garden catalogs or read books on soil building. (Updated below.)

The only organized area is the southeast corner where several beds of winter greens have been supplying our table through the wet, cold months. There is a sense of order here if you don't peer too closely and notice that the plants look a bit storm battered and muddy, with slug-infested, decaying outer leaves. But nobody lingers here either. The most we can usually muster is a quick dash to pick what's needed at the moment, then a dash back to the warm kitchen. Wimps.

UPDATED: February 9, 2013. It must be said that, recently, a real Prince Charming has been doggedly clipping away at the towering rose thicket. Thank you, H.!!!!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Twelfth Night Tomatoes

Every year it's the same thing and every year it's different. Maybe that's the real appeal of gardening. The regular annual cycles provide a way to hold on to the minutiae of daily life, the precious details that slip away unless they are gathered into patterns. Long after you've forgotten what happened last year, a similar milestone shows up and a whole sequence of years comes into sudden focus.

I think that's how it became a kind of ritual to celebrate the last of the tomatoes. And there's usually been a handy holiday to coincide with using up the final few jewels collected from withered vines hanging in the garage.

In 2011 we had tomatoes on Valentine's Day (and beyond); the year before we celebrated with New Year's tomatoes; before that we've had Christmas Eve tomatoes. Part of the ritual has been to see how long the season can stretch, so we've been pushing the celebration later and later. But this year New Year's came and went and I realized we weren't going to make it to Valentine's Day. Last summer wasn't such a great season for our backyard tomatoes and the supply overwintering in the garage was meager to begin with. By this weekend we were down to a handful of Sungolds.

No worries. There was a perfectly respectable holiday just sitting there waiting to be noticed. January 6: Twelfth Night! What does it matter if we have never observed the last of the twelve days of Christmas? It was a fine time for one more feast. Since we were over-feasted and over-feted from the previous twelve days, we settled for a brunch, strictly in-house.

There were enough Sungolds for scrambled eggs with fresh parsley and thyme from the backyard, blending two garden seasons in one festive dish.

B. produced a handsome loaf, so we had homemade whole grain bread.

We also had a King cake, or Rosca de Reyes ("kings' ring") because, well, you know -- Twelfth Night. The Magi arrive bearing gifts. Celebrated with a special cake. I went to a local Mexican market to buy one ready made but the ones for sale there were clearly intended for large extended families. They made me think of the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the groom's family -- two nervous Anglo parents bearing a small Bundt cake -- comes to meet the bride's family -- a crowd of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, second cousins and two very jovial parents presiding over a large feast.

So I went to Trader Joe's and bought a teeny coffee cake, some cream cheese, and various fruits and nuts to decorate the top. I hid in the cake one of those foil covered chocolate coins, because that's what you do with a Twelfth Night cake, hide a token in it. We weren't exactly sure what it means if you get the piece with the token. In the British tradition it evidently means you are king or queen of the revels; in the Hispanic tradition it means you have to make the tamales for Candlemas on February 2. But it didn't matter because no one got the coin until much later when the leftovers disappeared and whoever got it is not openly admitting to it, perhaps concerned about making those tamales. It wasn't me, I know that much.

Anyway, it was a very fine brunch. We toasted the occasion with goblets of water, the wine of heaven. And the Twelfth Night tomatoes still had their homegrown savor.