Ready For My Close-Up


On most days, the only way I get through my life is by
reminding myself that it's okay to have very relaxed standards about pretty
much everything. The whole house needs to be vacuumed, but it's not as if Good
Housekeeping is coming over to do an inspection later this afternoon, and
besides, nobody ever died wishing they'd spent more time running the vacuum
cleaner. So that can wait.

I spend my days in grubby jeans and
oversized sweatshirts that conceal several layers of T-shirts and, on some
days, flannel pajamas, but then again, Vanity Fair is not likely to show up
around lunchtime for a portrait. So I'm okay for another day.

Naturally, I use this approach in
the garden as well. The oxalis and wild onions are coming up as they do every
winter; several overgrown shrubs are in desperate need of a good whacking; and
the latest round of transplanting and dividing has been postponed because we
haven't had the rain that makes transplanting such an easy job. (Not that I'm
complaining about the sunshine. Oh, no.) But who cares? It's not as if Sunset
is sending a photographer over.

Except they are. This week.

The Garden of 2009

January never really feels like the beginning of the year to
me. September, with its end-of-summer, back-to-school vibe, is the time of year
that makes me feel like I’m starting over. January just feels like more of the
same: more cold, more wet, more long, dark nights.

But I can’t help but look ahead and
think about what I want to do differently in the garden this year. And I’m not
afraid to call them resolutions. Everyone I know has become resolution-wary;
when I ask them what their New Years resolutions are, they laugh and back away,
saying, “Oh, no. I don’t do resolutions.” But really, what’s wrong with
resolve? What’s the problem with making your intentions known? Are we really
that afraid of commitment? Is there some penalty for not following through on a
resolution that I haven’t been warned about?

So with all the resolve I can
muster, here’s what I intend to do in the garden this year:

Visitors to the garden


I was headed outside today with the intention of cutting down the overgrown verbena bonariensis, which was looking quite brown and dull now that it's truly winter.  But there were three bright yellow finches–at least, I think they were finches–perched on the wiry stems, picking seeds out of the flowers.  So the tall purple verbena stays.

I couldn't get too close without scaring them off, but here are some highly cropped photos.




Bloom Day

Bloom day collage
Among garden bloggers (a small but mighty force in the blogosphere) there is a tradition of posting a photo of whatever happens to be blooming in your garden on the fifteenth of each month. It's a useful practice for a gardener; if you keep it up for a couple of years, you will be able to look back and notice that your pear tree has been blooming earlier than usual, or that the poppies that used to fill your front yard have disappeared, prompting you to—well, remark upon the fact that your pear tree is blooming earlier, which is exactly the sort of conversation-starter that makes you so much fun at parties. Or maybe you’ll remember how much you liked all those poppies in the first place and re-seed the flower beds. Something like that.

In December, Bloom Day landed just before the first big winter storm hit. I thought my garden was looking desolate and downtrodden. I thought there was nothing in bloom. I envied all the people I'd run into around town who told me they were retreating to Mexico or Hawaii or San Diego for a tropical holiday. Deck the halls with bougainvillea, I could imagine them singing around their outdoor fire pit, which would be more for ambience than heat, while back in Eureka I looked around among the slugs and dead twigs in my backyard for a flower to photograph.

But in fact, my Bloom Day survey was pretty impressive. There was an exceedingly ambitious red brugmansia, also known in some circles as angel’s trumpet, which was producing enormous, tropical, trumpet-shaped flowers well after Thanksgiving for reasons known only to it. The giant old fuchsia that I threaten to kill every couple of years was blooming as if its life depended on it, which it does. Bright orange calendula, which used to bloom in abundance in winter until the chickens developed a taste for the seeds, had managed to come back in a few spots. There were a lot of fennel blossoms, and I know that fennel is practically a weed but nobody said weeds don't count on Bloom Day. I even found one bedraggled and confused Shasta daisy with its head bent mournfully to the ground. I yanked it up and forced it to smile at the camera, then let it sink back into despondency.

Garden Gifts, 2008

It used to be such a simple, innocent question. What do you want for Christmas? Tell me and it will save me the trouble of buying the wrong thing. Tell me and you'll probably get it.

It's a question we've heard from our spouses, parents, children, friends–what do you want?

And just like that, you could name it. Some sparkly little thing that caught your eye. As long as it was modest and perhaps scalable (you'd be just as happy with the paperback; you'll take a dozen bulbs or a hundred), you'd probably get it.

But this year it is so not okay to want stuff. In response to the "What do you want?" question, I find myself giving answers like, "I want you to hold onto your money and stay out of foreclosure"—and I actually mean it.

However. Just for the moment. Let us hearken back to those simpler times when it was okay to want stuff. Let's pretend your loved one has decided that virtue has its place, but so does buying something pretty for the person who has agreed to wake up next to you every single day, no matter how old and weird you get.

Let us celebrate stuff.

In the name of research, I took a little trip around the county and checked out all the stuff for sale at garden centers, bookstores, and garden gift shops. I also asked a few friends around town, all dedicated gardeners, what they wanted. Here’s what we came up with:

What I’m Thankful For: Dirt

Last week I posted a survey on GardenRant asking gardeners if the economic downturn had put a dent in their horticultural shopping habits. Of the 85 people who voted, a third are going to the garden center a lot less than they used to in order to avoid temptation, and another twenty percent have brought spending to a complete halt.

Not good news for garden centers. But there were some bright spots among the comments people posted: Several people said their spending habits hadn’t changed, and they admonished the rest of us to patronize garden centers now if we want them to be there for us later.

And plenty of people said they might not be buying plants now, but they’d be back in the spring when it was time to ramp up their vegetable garden. That’s what many garden centers are counting on: a desire to eat locally, combined with a need to cut grocery bills, will get everybody growing their own food again. Seed companies saw their sales go through the roof this year—some of the larger suppliers actually ran out of vegetable seed—so the prediction is that 2009 will be even better for the seed companies, and we will all be growing our own green beans next summer. Works for me.

But no matter how much you’ve reined in your own spending this year, there is one horticultural indulgence you can definitely justify: Dirt.

The Obama Garden

I wrote this on the morning after the election, as I was trying to tame my hangover in time for more champagne at another victory party that night.

During his acceptance speech last night, President-Elect Obama laid out many challenges that Americans face, but he overlooked our most pressing problem: what to do with all those hours that we have been devoting to obsessively checking the polls and monitoring YouTube for Sarah Palin snafus that we can forward to our friends.

I’m glad that I did my part – who knows what might have happened if I hadn’t forwarded all those videos and generally kept a close eye on this campaign for the last twenty-one months—but to have the Internet-campaign-insanity feeding tube unplugged all at once is a little distressing. I seem to be connected to half of Humboldt County via Facebook now, and I can tell from your Facebook profiles that many of you are feeling the same way. What are we supposed to do now?

I wish Obama would keep up his daily e-mails to his considerable base of supporters and give us all new instructions on how to fill our time. “The first thing I’d like you to do is drop and give me ten push-ups,” he might say. “If we’re going to change the world, we’re all going to need some upper body strength. Then—go outside and pick up some trash. We’re going to have clean streets in this administration, and I’m putting you in charge of that. There’s more coming, but now I have to go pick a Secretary of State. I’ll get back to you this afternoon.”

Lacking any instructions from the President-Elect on how to fill my day, I’m heading outside to do a little pre-winter cleanup in the garden. It gets me wondering: what would an Obama victory garden look like? What can I do in my own backyard to support this administration?



It was just another typical evening in the Stewart-Brown

ME: Honey, would you
like to hear some fun facts about bats?

SCOTT: Actually, I
was just wondering if there were any fun facts about bats I hadn’t heard
already, so your timing is perfect.

ME: Did you know
that there’s a guy at HSU who has developed software to record the sounds that
bats make and then analyze the data to identify which species are out
there? He got a grant from a program at
the Pentagon to go all over the country and set up these bat monitoring

SCOTT: The Pentagon
is monitoring bats?

ME: Bats hate our

SCOTT: Well, we
always knew that. What else have you

Gardening in the Pacific Northwest


Those of us who garden on California’s North Coast tend to
live in a state of denial about the fact that we are actually gardening in the
Pacific Northwest. We like to think of ourselves as California gardeners. You
know, California. Santa Barbara. Monterey. That sort of thing.

But the
fact is that we have much more in common, climate-wise, with our horticultural
compatriots in Portland and Seattle. So when Timber Press sent me a copy of
their new Guide to Gardening in the Pacific Northwest by Carol W. Hall
and Norman E. Hall, I knew that the reference guides to gardening in California
that I keep on my bookshelf were in for some serious competition. (That
includes you, Sunset.)