The Fruits of my Garden: Figs, Apples, Pomegranates, Asparagus and Berries

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The second fig crop is still ripening on my Ficus  ‘Petite Negra’.
Days are shortening and nighttime temperatures are cooling down. Yesterday was our first dreary and wet reminder that our days are numbered. It misted and rained. Clouds hung in the air all day—as did the smell of PNW dampness. The city of Portland felt autumn as the season sauntered just a little bit nearer.
Columnar Northpole apple (Malus) produced more fruit than ever! It tasted sweet, tart and crisp.

This was not much of a harvest year for me in terms of edible crops. I like to grow ornamental plants for their seeds so that I can harvest them for my online garden shop. I do harvest something, but it’s not what most people think of when they think of harvests. I’m a seed farmer, but I grow a few things to eat too.

Dwarf pomegranate, Punica granatum ‘Nana’.

My dwarf pomegranate was grown from seed and I collect seeds from it each year. Since the shrubs are young, each year they produce more and more fruit. This year is by far their best so far and I expect to have more ripe fruit than ever.

Flower on the dwarf pomegranate, Punica granatum ‘Nana’.
Ripening fruit on the dwarf pomegranate, Punica granatum ‘Nana’.

There has also been a growing herb collection around the house. I’ve been cooking more recently and it’s something John and I very much enjoy doing together. This winter I intend to plan the garden better for these activities since we find ourselves buying so many herbs all of the time. Limiting salt in my diet due to my swelling disease has really made me appreciate the taste of herbs so much more. We barely use any salt now. If you cook your food right, paying close attention to flavors, it’s amazing how far herbs can go to replace sodium.

The overgrown asparagus bed. These were grown from seed.

When I originally planted edibles in the garden I wanted to plant things that were either difficult to find or else ornamental and unusual. The asparagus was neither. It reminded me of the fresh asparagus grown by Italian-American farmers in the PNW. Even though I can still buy it at the store, I really enjoy my own plants more. What’s nice is that even though they’ve been neglected, they’re still very productive.

Evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum.

My native evergreen huckleberries are also wonders to behold this time of year. Usually they are packed full of fruit but I guess mine aren’t going to be this time around. Since last year I had an amazing crop I don’t mind at all. These are amazing ornamentals for shady corners so it’s simply a bonus if they produce for me too.

The image of edible gardening shame—an unused and overgrown raised bed.

This year I was hoping to use the raised bed for a large basil planting. I never quite made it but next year I’ll make it happen. Now that there’s a pesto- and polenta-loving Northern Italian in the family I can get past my Southern Italian culinary preferences. I always loved basil (and polenta) too. Next year will be the summer of basilico around here. (I can already smell it on the horizon.)

The first 2013 crop of figs.

I recently took an online poll of my fig-loving friends for recipe ideas. Since I was raised to just eat them fresh I thought it was time to do something different. (Besides, I can only eat so many with goat cheese and pistachios before I begin feeling a bit piglet-ish so I wanted to find something healthier.) A Parisian friend recommended Honey Roasted Figs and Rosemary (Figues rĂ´ties au miel au romarin) and I am so glad that he did. The figs tasted fantastic!

Honey Roasted Figs with Rosemary
• about 1 dozen fresh figs
• 1/3 cup honey (fresh and local if possible)
• 1 large sprig of rosemary broken into 4 pieces
• freshly cracked pepper
Heat oven to 375F. Wash and dry figs. Cut in half. Arrange open side up in a baking dish. Drizzle figs with honey. Arrange the pieces of rosemary between the figs. (If you want the rosemary taste to be stronger, I suggest adding more.) Crack pepper over the figs. Place in oven and bake for about 15 minutes or until the honey begins to caramelize. Let cool. Can be served with a nice mild—yet tangy—goat cheese.
 
C’est magnifigue!

(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)

A Letter to Mr Palm (My First Gardening Mentor)

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Mr. & Mrs. Palm’s home and garden.
Mr. Milton Palm: my childhood horticultural mentor.
Dear Mr. Palm,
I miss you a lot and it’s good that we can talk again like this even if you’ve been gone for many years. If you don’t know it already, I think about you a lot. The conversations we had about soil physics and the lives of plants really stuck with me. I guess our meandering conversations about history, observation, and nature really meant a lot to my growing mind. Those are still a residue in my world and they will always be there. I return to our conversations often but you’re not there anymore.
Did you know that I named my retail seed shop after you? I thought for a long time that I should name it after Grandma Virginia but then I realized she wasn’t the seed person. She always bought her annuals in flats.
You taught me about the germination process and how to get seeds to sing and dance for me. (I mean germinate. You know that’s what I mean though, don’t you?) For some reason I still have your seed flats and cold frames in my mind. Maybe next year I’ll finally build a few simple flats and a basic cold frame like the one you had at the base of the rock wall near the stairs from the upper gardens. You’d like to see that, wouldn’t you? I don’t think I can make that seventeenth-century Buddhist temple you had there living amongst the grapes on your arbor though. I still cannot believe you made that for fun one winter. You were tickled by the idea that no one your age was building those things in Milwaukie.
You were a trailblazer.
I remember you telling me again and again about the importance of native grasses. You dreamed of a time when people would plant grass gardens and the grass could grow freely with wildflowers. Whenever I see amazing meadow designs I always think of you. How sad it is that you’re not around to see them, but I am here, and they will always remind me of you—as do the pollinators.
The pollinators are struggling now, but you told me that would happen. I remember it’s why you were so concerned about suburban gardens and the overuse of chemicals. It’s why we spent so much time together in your gardens just looking at insects. I was amazed at how many there were, and that I’d never noticed them before, but that’s because your garden was a safe place for them.
The chair at my desk in my office is your old oak chair. It once held a dictionary you so loved and other books you were reading at that time. I have one of your favorite dictionaries too. Yes, I use the Internet a lot now, but I still need to look randomly at words for fun. The chair is paired with Grandma’s old kitchen table. Do you remember it? She used it as her storage bench in the garage. It was beside the back door. Whenever she was working on something it’s where she’d stage the things she needed to get the job done. For some reason I felt that pairing it with your chair would bring me good luck. The business is growing, but it’s not easy. I suppose life is painful and sometimes we struggle. You taught me that too. While I work and sort seeds I think of you and smile. I know how much you’d like what I’m doing.
You were an amazing neighbor to Grandma. Thank you for bringing the beautiful widow roses and for talking to her about documentaries and National Geographic articles. She was a woman ahead of her time, and you always knew how much I took after her. I might be crusty and grumpy at times, but I still have her heart, the heart of a poet. She liked you too because you respected her and treated her as an intellectual equal. I know that was important to her.
As I think now of gardening I wish you could be here. There are so many things I’d like to ask you. I would ask you about your muses and inspirations and I think that you’d just look at me and say something like, “Annie, now why would I fuss with that sort of thinking? I’ve got plenty of other things to think about and do.” I can close my eyes and see your grin, it was nice and broad, and then you’d show me your pretty teeth as your grin morphed into a big smile. I used to love how much you’d tease me about thinking too much when you were cursed by the same thing.
When you got sick I was so upset that I couldn’t come over to see you. During your funeral and afterwards I cried a lot because I was devastated that I hadn’t been able to say goodbye. I still remember when I saw you last though. It wasn’t like my last conversation with Grandma Virginia, but it wasn’t bad. I think the cancer must have been starting then because you didn’t look well. We still made the most of it though—talking about plants and books.
At your funeral I remember your minister told us about how you were an agnostic but you went to his church just in case. Then he told us about when you’d telephoned him late at night, waking he and his wife up, because your night-blooming cactus was in bloom. I tried growing a Selenicereus grandiflorus from seed this year and it worked. I think I neglected it though so I may need to begin again. You know I will make it eventually. I want to call and wake people up too when it blooms but I’m probably more likely to post pictures of the occurrence on Facebook. Oh, how you would hate Facebook!
My mind is still all over the place and my garden shows a vast array of my green interests. Someday I will have another herb garden too—just like the one you made for me when I was a girl. I was too young to understand all of those plants well, but you gave them to me and that was a gift I’ll never forget. You were the first man to give me a garden of my own—albeit a portable one. It was quite glamourous that summer up on the deck in my treehouse overlooking the creek. That herb garden you gave me changed me and opened up something really important inside of me.
I have new mentors now and I hope you don’t mind—maybe you brought them to me? I think you’d like them a lot. We’re all plant nerds and many are word nerds too. We talk of plant exploration and seed collection. Sometimes—with others—we just go around on nursery tours testing out our botanical Latin. I was doing ok with that but a lot of stress threw me off my game. I hope to get back on that ball again soon so that I can be more comfortable with my green people again. I like that song and dance a lot. You know how often I wanted to get lost in your garden with you. I’m an adult now and I still seek out that exact same kind of pleasure. I am not alone though—not at all.
When it comes to my design style I’m inspired by art and nature. You would probably tell me that’s impractical, but I think it’s because I live in the city and it’s different here. (You’d have to agree with me on that front.) I learned a lot from you though about nature, recreating it, and then embellishing it a bit. Your soil lectures taught me how that was all possible. I remember you taught me about the movement of the sun too. Maybe I’m not that impractical after all. I know that you would have liked to see more food here in my garden. I do have a fig tree at least and I’m not finished yet. (Your dried fruits during our long discussions were the best. Maybe someday I’ll finally get around to making my own dehydrated fruit but I probably won’t make my own industrial-sized dryer with an old engine. I do live in the city. I doubt my neighbors would care for that kind of ingenuity.)
I’m so grateful to have known you Mr. Palm. You made my youth a happier place and you helped me to better understand that I was passionate about something my parents didn’t quite understand. I needed that and you were a good friend to me. Long before I knew about other weird kids with elderly best friends, you were my BFF.
Thank you.
It was sad watching as the developments encroached more and more upon your privacy and garden. 
The hardy Fuchsia and the gate to Grandma Virginia’s are all gone now. I have only this photo and the many happy memories. Thank you again.
(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)




My Garden (An Exercise in Garden Writing)

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Back of the house as seen from the back corner of my garden. The willow arbor is floating there to the left.

After having seen many residential gardens over the last few years I think it’s safe to say that mine is rather small, a regular city lot, with areas more or less here and there in strips along the north, south, and west sides of the home. The backyard is probably more of what would be traditionally called a garden, but even it is quite small when compared to larger gardens seen in this city. It is square, roughly 30′ x 30′, and in its heart is my 10′ x 10′ living willow arbor. For me, this is the shaggy, ragged and often messy heart of my garden. It’s my outdoor living room. It’s cozy and a bit wild—probably a bit like me.

This area looks sort of finished but if I’d pulled the camera out a bit the illusion of order would disappear. (That’s Cryptomeria japonica ‘Spiraliter Falcata‘ there on the right and an Impatiens tinctoria on the far left. Still cannot find the tag for the really hardy evergreen fern there but I’m working on it. The grassy bunch is a lovely Carex.)

Then there is the rest. The bits and pieces. I see swipes and swatches as I wander around watering in the heat. I see finished areas followed by piles of trash that I’ve not yet picked up from old ideas for projects. There are the overgrown run-on sentences of the garden—mostly vines. My garden is one that’s a work-in-progress, it’s an artist’s studio. This place really is my mad plant scientist’s laboratory. 

Antirrhinum majus ‘Oriental Lanterns (TM)’ grown from seed I bought from Park Seed. The color is amazing and the plant is a great plant.

My house faces west. The front yard is not really coherent. There is the tiny hell strip, cut up into three uneven pieces. There is a central area, with a privacy planting, meant to keep the eyes of those on the sidewalk away from my large front window. The parking area is there too but it’s currently filled with racks and pots and is more of a staging area this summer. An edible garden once ran along the southern side of the house. It is overgrown now and a mass of tangled plants. It was created initially to be the domain of my ex, but I’ve not yet fully reclaimed it. I hope to soon. 

Life in the hammock on a summer evening as I dream of better times ahead.

I see the memories of each and every plant and space. I see the ghosts of plants who’ve come before and which are gone now. I want to garden to build a future now more than to remember the past. This will be challenging for me, but I want to do so. So much about gardening requires time and patience. I’ve finally learned too that gardening can be exhilarating when you rip everything out and begin again. Just like a diseased plant, it’s best to rip it out. Some plants struggle in the wrong conditions, I have been one of those plants. 

The real garden here at home. The back boundary has been an eyesore for years. Here is Mona the Cat watching the apartment dwellers. Someday soon I’l have the fence I’ve been hoping for and planning for years.

The front garden runs along the fence and turns along with the walking path into what is my north garden. It is the access walkway and no one ever wants to go that way even when I encourage them to do so. Someday I’ll actually consult someone about how to make that entryway more enticing, but for now, I’ll just continue to gently encourage folks verbally. 

My engagement bike along the North Side of the house. (Yes, I’m engaged to be married.) The bike “La Dama” is now my mobile seed-collecting unit. I can bike to homes nearby and collect seeds from gardens locally to be sold in my online store. So far, the whole process has worked wonders for my health.

I like the small northern strip. I don’t like having to look directly at my neighbor’s house, but he’s a nice man. He just isn’t as into privacy as I am. He has landscaped with English laurels (Prunus laurocerasus), Japanese privet (Ligustrum japonicum), and cedar (Cedrus)—all having grown randomly on his property from seeds dropped by birds or else they were blown in on the wind. He then plucked them and rearranged them into rows. Amazing in its own way I suppose as a lesson in patience and he has loads of that virtue. He’s a great neighbor and I like to harvest from his ever-growing army of Western Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum). (My first client has also been grateful for this too.) 

Sedum morganianum in my office. I’m taking care of my indoor babies before it gets too dark and cold outside to do so in the fall. I hate transplanting houseplants when the days get shorter. It’s best to care for them now. Their roots will appreciate it and they’ll be far less likely to fall prey to pests and disease.

Forgive me for not writing about my plants though. Major life transitions recently have made that painful. I’m healing. I’ve learned a lot. So many memories were tied up in every corner of green in my space. During the past few years I’ve really come to understand how unusual I am in that sense. My plantings have held such sentiments. But I know that I am not the only one. There are those who garden to decorate. Some re-create a time, or a place, or a feeling. Many just want symmetry and low-maintance. Some want that impression—a replication seen in a magazine. I planted to forget. I planted to create another kind of reality. I remember far too much and I’ve come to realize recently that I’ve never forgotten nearly as much in my garden as I’ve remembered. 

The garden of my mother.

My home is the home of a woman who up until recently didn’t really understand she had a moderately serious case of OCD. When I was highly stressed during the past decade—for the first time in my life—the negative effects of this affliction really showed themselves. Now I’m using my “old friend” to help me to organize, clean and make sense of the chaos I’d created during so many years of unhappiness and loneliness. I’ve taken my life back and I no longer see OCD really at all. I had no idea that such severe and extreme stress could do this to someone. In hindsight, I have been that woman. 

I’m very detail oriented. This can be a wonderful thing—especially for making pastries.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy I have a light form of OCD but I want to use it for good. The kind I have appears to have helped me in the past with my academic achievements. I have an amazing memory and when I want to organize and categorize things, it’s like breathing for me and I find it extremely relaxing. It puts me in my happy place. When I’m stressed though, things fall apart. I’ve lived with a lot of stress for many years now and my garden shows that still. It’s the last frontier of my former life but I’m making sense of it now. I’m re-writing my garden as I’m re-writing my life. 

First harvest of the season from the Ficus carica ‘Petite Negra’.

For these reasons I do not see what others see. As I walk the circle around my home I see what never was, I hear the echos of arguments, there were the joyous moments after my divorce, conversations with friends and foster kids, and I see myself wandering, wondering what to do with myself. I see myself crying in pain during times of horrible illness and swelling. In my head the refrain, “I need help,” repeats over and over. It is far more difficult to ask for help than it is to prune a Japanese maple. When I walk in my garden, I see and feel the pleasure pruning the Japanese maples has given me during the worst of times. When I felt my worst emotionally, I always sought my pruners. 

The front of the house July 2013.

You’d think that this would make for an organized garden but mine is not. There are yet many unfinished projects. I’m slowly trashing them now and am making room for a new period in my life. I’m keeping the plants that grow well and which bring me happiness. If the memories are too painful, reminding me of when I fell and broke my fingers, or when I fell and hit my head, I’m trying not to let the plants die. Instead, I am either giving things away or moving them. The memories are dying instead and things are no longer falling apart. 

Maurice the Cat in his happy zone.

I should add more pictures but I’m still ashamed to do so. With a party coming up to welcome my fiancĂ© into his new home I’m making strides. These things take time, energy, and money and I don’t have a lot of any of these right now.

I’m one of the many chronically ill divorced people who’ve filed for personal bankruptcy. I’m not a perfectly comfortable member of the middle class and I’m not ashamed to say so. That’s what I feel and see when I see my garden but I’ve been learning to see so much more.  

I feel that I’m lucky and gifted to be here—to be able to continue living here. I’m loved now too—a lot!—and I’m learning to be part of a team. We plan to buy the house and stay here. These things take time, but sometimes things work out for the best. I’m learning that too and being positive makes a huge difference. I adore all of the positive green people in my life and want to thank them from the bottom of my heart. We gardeners are ever the optimists and you’ve all helped me feel alive during a time when I really needed the lifeline. Thank you.

Gardens are for people and this garden is a big part of me. I really look forward to sharing it more with others in the future—and I guess that means you’ll get a bit more of me too.

(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)

A Dream Garden: When I first met mine…

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Antiquo jardín del Alcázar de Sevilla (Joaquín Sorolla), 1908.
Writers, dreamers, poets and artists have thought long and hard about gardens for centuries—and so have the more religious and practical among us. At least I imagine they have because I’ve studied such things, but I’m far from certain. So often nowadays I find that these real characters of history are just as real to me as any who are fictional. I guess I’ve grown and that fine line is no longer there. It all blends together. It’s all a pastiche. 
 
I’m not religious myself, but I was raised in a Catholic family, went to Catholic school for 12 years, and I now consider myself Catholic by culture. That’s how I ended up visiting España with my parents back in my early 20s. Dad wanted to go there for 10 days to take photos of churches and to visit the region of Estremadura. The three of us traveled south from Madrid during the month of December and I’d like to say that I remember a lot more than I do, but I spent most of my trip feeling unwell. 
 
At night my dreams were in Spanish. (Back then my Spanish-language fluency was much better, although that had never happened to me before and it felt strange—yes, foreign.) During the daytime, my mind wandered back-and-forth in the backseat. I felt between worlds.  
 
As we drove I thought a lot about what a cousin had recently told me concerning our Sicilian ancestry. He’d researched our family as part of his Master’s thesis and had found that one of our earliest relatives was actually a Morisco from Spain. Fresh in my mind was the way my father had vehemently been unable to accept this discovery. Today he’s softened and has accepted that it’s likely true, but at that time, it dramatically altered how we saw ourselves.

Jardín de Carlos V en el Alcázar de Sevilla (Joaquín Sorolla), 1910.

Before I knew it we were in the beautiful city of Sevilla. We stayed there for a few nights and went to several museums, a Flamenco performance, we ate delicious food, and then one day, while walking around on my own, I stumbled upon the Alcázar of Seville. I went inside. 

The gardens of the Reales Alcázares de Sevilla changed me. I think I was transported there away from myself. They were—and still are—my dream gardens. It was there I felt so many new and wonderful things as I saw plants that seemed so unreal to me. I felt so alive and so awake. In many ways it felt more like home to me than my own home. I had never felt that way before and I haven’t felt that way again.

To me that’s what a dream garden is about and it’s what we seek to make when we design gardens. We want what I can only describe as being a kind of religious experience. Like in meditation, we consciously count our breathing until we transcend and forget ourselves. We want gardens to give us that kind of rush too. It’s deep. I know. It seems very much connected to something inside of us that’s human. Many of us crave this feeling. It’s spiritual whether we like to admit it or not. It’s calming. It’s soothing.

To Christians, it’s a return to Eden, and to those who follow Islam, it’s called Paradise. In Arabic the word is جنّة or Jannah—and that’s short for garden. That day in Sevilla I felt like I’d visited Paradise. Ever since then, as a gardener, I’ve wanted to recreate that feeling.

That has been my dream.

(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)