Thinking Outside the Garden Plot


By Carole Corlew
A friend says I should think outside the garden plot. What? “You make the best pesto in the world.” Okay, I agree (ha ha). “You should take it to the farm market.”

She says she knows someone who quit her day job after getting involved in olive oil. Yes that’s right. Olive oil. She and her husband researched and researched it and know all about the many kinds and they order it and sell it at farm markets and the like. They don’t even produce the olive oil.

So my friend said I should make my pesto from the organic basil I grow, freeze it in little containers and take it down to the EPA’s little farm market held on Fridays, I think, just to start. And see how it goes. Because the word is someone brought a big cooler of frozen pesto there and sold out in two hours. Selling that pesto for $12 a container! Imagine!

My pesto is something I originally made from The Silver Palate Cookbook. Then over the years I adapted it. I don’t measure. I use nuts and parmesan and olive oil and salt and pepper. But I also use flat-leaf Italian parsley to cut the taste of the basil depending on how strong the basil tastes. I don’t always use pine nuts. I might use something else. And I don’t use olive oil and cheese in the quantities called for in that original recipe.

My pesto is good, I admit. And I like to use organic ingredients. And sea salt because I think it has a pungent taste and supposedly it has more nutrition.

I might just do it. Think outside the garden plot.
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And because I’m practicing my linking, I am linking to Miss Moon here.

Published in: on July 9, 2011 at 1:50 am  Comments (1)  
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A Gardener Salute

At first, the strange thought crossed my mind that they were saying goodbye, the hummingbird hovering just over my shoulder, followed by one dragonfly, then another and another, then at least a dozen spiraling through the air as though by design.

I had been talking about hummingbirds and dragonflies to my friend Dana. I’d wanted to see them in my garden out front. I’d glimpsed a hummingbird dash by twice in seventeen years out back, in the secluded patio, but only for a second. I had never seen hummingbirds in the front or dragonflies in either place.

I moved recently, a few miles away, to a different house. But I’m still going back to garden some at the old place. We haven’t cleared out yet. I wasn’t even thinking of the hummingbirds and dragonflies when I sensed something just over my shoulder.

And there it was, a hummingbird so close I could almost touch it, just over my head, near my shoulder. It was not in the flowers, but hovering in mid-air so close to me. Then it was off, replaced by a dragonfly. Then another and a third and a fourth, then at least a dozen circled the space above me.

And at first the strange question popped into my head “are they saying goodbye?” Then the frankly magical thinking that maybe they were reeling through space that day in a unique salute. After all, years before I had looked over the plain green spaces there and seen a vision no one else had thought of and brought it to life.

I coaxed bright colors from the earth, odd lilies and different jeweled mixes popping from the neighbors’ stands of hostas, pansies and azaelas. Others had hydrangeas, I had the delicate Starburst variety.

In the summer, carpets of giant zinnias grew huge, flanked by exotic Angel’s Trumpets that few had seen or heard of, huge bell shaped flowers unfurling from long okra-like pods, flooding the night air with a citrusy vanilla perfume.

The spectacle brought new people to the courtyard. Neighbors who never stopped to talk began to look forward to the sight. And as I gardened, day after day, for months each year, breaking out bright colors in a city often known for its grays, I became part of the landscape, as gardeners often do. My movements were a meditation, I was happy there, at peace.

And as my time in that space came to a close, maybe something humans cannot detect went off in nature’s radar. Maybe the hummingbirds and the dragonflies sensed a shift in a magnetic field. Something as simple as the fact that I am not out in the garden at night anymore.

So maybe their strange, unprecedented dance was a flyover in my honor as I moved on, a few miles up the road. I’m going to think of it that way.

It definitely wasn’t goodbye. Because I see them now, everywhere, the dragonflies. They are just there, often when I look up, their silent wings swirling in the air just ahead and above me. Keeping vigil. Keeping company. Showing me the way.

Published in: on August 11, 2010 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Tip for Transplant Shock

I am making sure my garden is extra special this year because we are selling the house after 17 years. This is sad, but I’m feeling better. One thing that helps is getting in some gardening work at the new house in between unpacking boxes.

I’ve been deadheading and pulling out vines and removing buckets of clay from the front flowerbed in the new place so I can transplant a few things from the old one before it goes on the market. Just a few things. I want to leave the essence there. It is part of what makes that house so special.

A friend’s father, Chuck, reminded me of a gardening tip I had forgotten. We were putting in hostas in the back yard of the old place, which had been cleared of clutter and the small dogwood and holly trees trimmed. The roses had barely bloomed for years because of the large shade tree just outside the gate, so I took those to the new house.

So now the back is a serene, shaded meditation garden. The patio is lined with hostas surrounded by smooth stones flanked by bursts of pink flowers. Chuck, who is an artist, suggested this to contrast with the bold splashes of color from the giant zinnias and Angel’s Trumpets that line the walkway out front.

I was talking about watering the plants after putting them into the ground and Chuck said, “I dig the hole, then fill it with water.” Of course! The summer heat in northern Virginia has been sweltering, reminding me of Alabama. I had already lost a couple of zinnias I tried to transplant. Zinnias don’t like to be moved, anyway. I had forgotten this old gardener’s trick.

So now I’m back with the program. It’s so simple. Dig a hole, put in the tip of the hose, fill with water. Pop in the plant, let water trickle in as you fill with potting soil and make sure that is nice and damp.

Even in the hottest part of summer, this will lessen transplant shock.

As for me, I’m still working on that.

Stay tuned.

Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 4:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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When I See Cleome, I Think of You

The cleome reminds me of Alabama, of long stretches of green hill and field and wood. But it also brings to mind a tall, skinny boy and a stunning, unexpected romantic gesture.

The spiky flower that comes back year after year looks like the Wild Honeysuckle that grew in the woods behind my childhood home in north Alabama. My father tried to transplant a bush or two into the yard, but they never grew outside those woods.

I loved the flowers that cascaded from the Rhododendron canescens. The blush blooms and spiky stamens set the woods on fire. I’ve never tried to grow them here in northern Virginia because I can’t imagine they would survive. So instead I scattered seeds one year from some cleome I’d brought up from Alabama. They’re not the same, but they’re close.

And every year, when I see that first spiky pink bloom, it takes me back.

I remember the knock on the front door. My father opened it. He looked outside and no one was there. He went out on the porch. I followed. Then he said, “Well, there goes that boy, running off into the woods. He left you something.”

My father pointed to the porch step and a huge stack of Wild Honeysuckle, my favorite flower. Which that boy knew. That boy and I had exchanged taunts for ages, never saying a nice word to each other that I had recalled.

I was a young teenager holding onto my tomboyish ways. I was mad about the flowers. At first. I think I charged into the house, slammed the door. Then I went back and got the blooms, put them in water. I remember being puzzled. Why did he do that?

I never asked him about the flowers. He never mentioned them. We stopped taunting each other. Then, he moved away.

I forgot about the flowers, about the boy, for a while. But obviously they were a gesture that said so much more than the boy was capable of saying.

Something along the lines of: I care. I always have, that’s why I bug you. I have to leave now. I’m sad about that. I know you love these flowers. I hope you will remember me.

And I do. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, know this: Every single summer when I see the cleome, I think of you.

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My Dream Garden

My earliest memory is of giant pink petunias waving in the breeze near my face. Then I remember a hand, someone giving me a slice of apple. Sunshine. Smiles and laughter. A good memory.

I had the idea for years that this was a dream, because the petunias were so huge. But then I saw a photo from our early days in Texas, where I was born. I was a baby sitting in a little seat in the yard beside a bed of petunias. An arm was in the picture, at the edge, handing me a slice of apple. I was smiling.

A few years after that picture was made, we moved to Alabama, to a house in the middle of a cotton field. The field was awash in blooms, of all things. I didn’t know cotton started out as beautiful pink and white flowers that turned into hard green bolls, which later burst with soft, white, seed-filled cotton. Cotton that smelled like earth and sun and the sky and rain all wrapped up in a radiant white package.

If you ever see a cotton field glowing with white foliage, with cotton, stop, get out and pull off a branch. Risk it, just do it. You won’t be sorry. Smell deeply. Because then you will experience a small bit of why people who are brought up in the deep south can’t quit it.

It’s the giant petunias experienced as a baby, then seen again and again at the green thumb neighbor’s house in summer. It’s the way the cotton field smells after a hard rain breaks a brutal heat spell.

It’s the riot of color most of the year, even in winter, when the camellias bloom deep red against the houses.

The bounty never ends. The memories last a lifetime and beyond. You never get over it. No matter where you go, you fill your garden with those early flowers/memories, or you try, you approximate, you get as close as you can. Year after year after year you work on it. You feel like you are in a dream sometimes. And then your child bends down, his eyes closed, he is smelling a flower. And he is smiling.

Published in: on July 8, 2010 at 2:07 am  Comments (6)  
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The Better Gardening Road

When I realized, finally, that I would never be an orchid grower, I shifted to plan B. I would grow flowers that looked like orchids.

After all, isn’t that what we do, or should do, when we run into life’s inevitable disappointments? We move on. We focus on other things. We lose that “great love” and find out later he/she wasn’t actually good for us after all.

Regardless, in the best of all worlds we find out that life is in the journey.

So, I found some bulbs that looked to me like orchids. And they shook up my garden in that lull time between the blooming of the lilies and the unusual-for-here Angel’s Trumpets and the masses of zinnias, some of which eventually reach my height.

I picked up some bulbs called Pink Tigridia, from Costa Rica, the flower pictured on top of this post. Actually, I planted them and promptly lost the label. I went on Facebook and a woman I grew up with, my new botanical guru, figured out the name for me from her reference books.

Doesn’t it look like an orchid?

I bought some other bulbs that looked like the white orchid I lost, but even wilder. This one is the Hymenocallis.

People are walking by the flower patch out front and stopping, looking at these odd blooms in wonder, asking me what they are. They aren’t orchids, certainly. And that’s fine.

I have my own path. And this one is strewn with wild, unusual colors and shapes taking up residence among the staid hostas and evergreens. Blooms that have never been in my prim neighborhood before in these shapes and configurations.

This was another reminder to be true to myself, both personally and in a botanical sense. It is the much easier road. And in the garden, the beautiful one.

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 4:41 pm  Comments (4)  
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Gardening, and Life, Unforced

I failed, again. The orchids died during the winter. I just can’t grow them.

Maybe impatience, watching too carefully and an improper setting too close to heating vents doomed the orchids. But that’s okay. Because I’m through with the needless trying, in gardening and other aspects of life.

I’m no longer envious when I see others in the flow, doing something so easily. Well, maybe a little. But I don’t need to try to duplicate the ease of others now.

Because I have my own zone. My garden, for instance, is distinct, unique to me. The blooms fit my personality. Like the old-fashioned, predictable zinnia, which in my garden is anything but.

Aunt Re had her African violets, which were perfect, not a spot on them. In fact, you had to stare a moment to make sure they were real.

She was a sweet woman, a worrier. The violets must have liked being made over. She kept them in a room with a big sliding glass door covered by drapes she would pull open and closed throughout the day, carefully calibrating the light just so.

She never had the children she wanted, and lavishly loved her nieces and nephews, making us feel special. We all responded in kind. Most of us, to this day, when asked about our favorite relative, will answer, “Aunt Re.”

Then, there’s the baking. For years, I’ve made a little southern butter cookie called brown-eyed Susans. They have a chocolate splash on top with a sliver of almond. I’ve given out the recipe, but no one makes it the way I do. That and pecan bar squares, which a friend in Tennessee told me how to make and people often request it now.

Once, a woman I knew who was an excellent cook insisted I was giving out those recipes with altered ingredients on purpose, so others would fail. Which was ridiculous. I’m happy to share and even offered to hold a “baking class” to try to find out what these cooks were doing to make the cookies hard.

With all baking, for instance, I follow the specified time broadly, but I watch and check too. Sometimes the items just need to come out of the oven sooner and that can’t be predicted.

I know when something is done by looking at it, touching it, sometimes. Plants are the same way, the ones I grow just feel right to me, they look right. So the orchids are the last ones in my wasted effort category.

Like relationships with the people we care for, I don’t force them or try too hard now. There are so many beautiful blooms out there, so much love. And I am safe in the knowledge that somehow, like these surprising Hymenocallis bulbs, they will find me.

Hymenocallis

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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Watching My Terrain, Too

I kept snapping away at the star-like lily with my camera. This is the first year for these spectacular bulbs. And they have such an unusual appearance that of course they are right at home in my wild garden.

The sweet new neighbors, who fly helicopters for a living, eyed them suspiciously. I suppose if you have such a precarious career, you might need a more tame bloom to provide calm in your off hours. The Hymenocallis, Greek for “beautiful membrane,” is definitely not tame.

So, I clicked away on my knees, then practically lying down on the sidewalk at one point, trying to get the pinwheel blossom centered in exactly the right background. The blossoms, radiant white trumpets pushing from a base of long spirals, look best in contrast against grass or bushes painted deep green by the warmth of spring.

And what about us, I wondered? What setting looks best on us?

I remembered how I looked when I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t talking about it, but the state of my mind and heart were in plain view.

I lost so much weight people were calling me “emaciated.” And I cut off my long curly hair, not in a flattering short cut, but in a pixie or nearly a buzz cut. I wore much beige, khaki clothing, nondescript. I wasn’t sure my gender was particularly obvious, in fact. I wasn’t engineering my silent scream on purpose. I wasn’t even aware my state of mind was so obvious until I saw pictures much later.

This happened several times over the course of about a decade, during my first marriage. Then finally I left that life. My hair grew out, for good, and my clothes regained their color and flair. I often have on shawls now, light in texture but vivid in color.

I carefully watch my terrain now. The flowers I grow taught me this.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 11:19 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Sharing Space

I had lived here only a short time when a neighbor asked me to share in the rental of a community garden plot. At first, I was not particularly inclined. The space, a new one just opening up, was not close and the beds would need lots of work to resuscitate.

But squirrels had demolished my attempts to grow vegetables in the back yard, a hazard in our neighborhood. Plus I liked this woman. My transition to a new home and motherhood at the same time had not been easy. So I agreed.

I was in for some surprises. The first one was that my new friend, who had been a successful businesswoman before changing careers after becoming a mother herself, had absolutely no idea how to garden.

We were both busy and I went to the space several times by myself, turning over the packed soil, adding top soil, amending it to add richness so plants would grow. I remember wondering when she was going to join me.

Then, kneeling in the soil, spade in hand, with several tomato plants I had just bought at a nursery, she confessed. “Now what do we do?” she asked, or something to that effect. “I meant what I said. I don’t have any idea how to start.” She was laughing then, saying something about digging holes. Or was it rows? Or what exactly does a person do?

I had gardened with my parents in rural Alabama as a child. My sister and I skipped barefoot down garden rows, dropping potato pieces into the freshly turned soil. We pulled weeds and picked the produce we ate minutes later on the supper table. My father gave me a small plot to grow gourds.

His strawberries were so delicious people begged him to grow more and he did, turning it into a small side business. He paid my sister and me, and our friends if they wanted, to pick the berries and handle sales to people who made reservations for as many quarts as possible every year, their names written in a notebook he kept in the telephone stand in the hallway.

My friend’s mother was from Alabama, so I had assumed some familiarity with gardening had been imparted at some point. But I was wrong. And I’ve come to find that my friend is not really that unusual, at least not in places like this, in northern Virginia close to D.C., where available land and time is scarce.

But gardening is regaining in popularity, even in urban areas. People talk about it frequently, this yearning to have a closer connection to their food and to beautify homes and neighborhoods with living things.

In fact, another friend and I plan to start a raised garden soon in the yard of her new home. Her 5-year-old son can’t wait. He wants to grow beans and pumpkins. And I plan to slip a gourd plant into a corner for him. For old times sake.

So I’m thinking back to my other friend and our time at the county garden plot, her surprise “confession” that she didn’t have the slightest idea how to start. And I remember that she seemed a bit embarrassed by that.

But there is no need for discomfort. Gardeners aren’t like an old co-worker who would charm favorite recipes from others, then act coy and ultimately refuse to divulge her own. Gardeners love to share. We give of ourselves. But the thing we need to remember is that sometimes we really do need to start at the beginning.

And my neighbor? We aren’t gardening together these days. I got absorbed in flower gardening around my home. Plus, the plot was too far away and people waiting at the bus stop caught on and kept filching the produce. But my neighbor and I grew a friendship. She’s my closest friend in the neighborhood, to this day.

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 9:44 pm  Comments (2)  
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Story Time in the Garden

My garden will be different this year. I want it to be like a storybook. That’s because I’m clear, finally, about the “autobiography” aspect of gardening. And that means it is time for substantial editing.

Planning hasn’t been a priority until now. My garden has been the whimsical me with a dash of sentiment laced with a big dollop of the crowd-pleaser. I’ve also cared for some plants beyond their time, maybe, because they’ve always been here. The roses in the back, for instance.

The elm outside my back gate was a youngster when we moved here almost 17 years ago. But now it soars over everything, throwing shadows over everything much of the day. The roses don’t like that. The dogwood and my holly reach into the elm branches, not a love embrace. I’m always having to call on somebody to please trim the tree back.

But it is time for another pair of eyes to look over my garden spaces. Someone who won’t be sentimental. Someone who wasn’t the new mother who saw those roses in bloom for the first time after moving in during the harsh winter just before the baby was born. Who had been hounded by such postpartum depression that she boarded a plane with her 3-month-old during a snowstorm and flew home, to the sunshine, and never wanted to come back.

But her husband kept calling, asking her to come home. And he kept telling her about those roses.

And then, finally, I was standing at the back door and there they were.

I never expected such a profusion of reds and fuschias, which were followed by creams and yellows. When I first saw those roses, I could have sworn I heard music from somewhere, under the leaves and branches. But that was just the sound of my spirit, lifting finally, after being held down by months of despair.

This year, I don’t plan to spend so much emotional capital on trying to save plants that need to be moved, or need to move on. I’ll plant other roses if I need to, for June, my birth month flower. And I’ll plant seeds for the tall, wildly colored zinnias the neighbors expect from me now. And I won’t stop growing Angel’s Trumpets, they are an addiction now.

But I intend to be even more specific with my gardening writing and editing, so to speak. Because the garden is my story, the one I show to the world. And one thing I have wanted for a long time is the Camellia. At least one shrub, maybe two.

The Camellia is the Alabama state flower. Other than magnolias and honeysuckle, nothing reminds me more of Alabama. But this is not something I can just run out and buy on a whim. I need the kind that is cold hardy.

So this is the time to consult experts, people who run quality nurseries and landscaping services. This is their lifeblood, after all. Consider them matchmakers.

William L. Ackerman, retired from the U.S. Arboretum, said colder winter started damaging and even killing the spring-blooming Camellia Japonica and the C. sasanqua in the late 1970s.

C. oleifera, a white flowered species from northern China, fared better. So the Arboretum began a breeding program to develop cold-hardy plants. A substantial group exists at nurseries today, Ackerman said. Within that group, he said, there is “a specific cultivar best suited to every special location or situation a gardener may have.”

I am in that group. Looking for something specific, a Camellia love match. Something with a glossy green leaf, a splash of flower. Which takes me, in my mind’s eye, to the place in the photo posted at the top of this article — home.

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Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 9:26 pm  Comments (2)  
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