Our Garden Home After 1 Month Away

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It’s always nice to come home. Normally I would have freaked out at the mess in the garden and all the work I needed to do but one month in Italy has performed its magic. My Italian side still has nothing but positive, wonderful, and charming things to say about the place.

“Look at all that green? Where did that come from? It’s fantastic!”

“It looks like a lovely cabin in the woods. Who lives there? I do! What fun!”

And lastly, “Let’s straighten things up and have friends over. We must have something to celebrate, right?”

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Home Sweet Home.

From the plane I’d been able to see roughly where I’d grown up just outside of the city, and then I saw one of the few Italian family farms left in the area. Not too long ago there were so many more and all of the large Italian families in the city had one of their own.

All of this was quite emotional for me. In the space of a generation or two so many had disappeared as Italian-Americans were able to become so many more things because we do have that ability here, or at least we did. Now I’m not so sure about the American Dream, but I know for many of the immigrants in my family, it was real.

Having just returned from Italy were there are so many small farms, it made me sad—but proud too. Oregon is a great place and I am so happy to live here. It’s not always comfortable for me, but overall, after this last trip to Italy, I feel like both of my feet are firmly on the ground now. Funny I find myself wanting to sell produce or plants or even food more and more, but I know exactly where that impulse comes from and I am proud of it.

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Willamette Falls, Oregon City, Oregon.

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Rossi Farms on NE 122nd Avenue. One of the few Italian family farms left in the area.

After passing out for a few days I was able to get up the energy to walk through my garden to see how things were going.

So many of my favorite plants were blooming, and thanks to friends, all of the seedlings were doing great too.

The plane rides had been really hard on me and my swelling was very bad initially but it got better and eventually I saw my doctor and we discussed where I was at concerning my health but I will get to that in another post. I just wanted to emphasize, it really took me several days to get out and walk around and when I did it was quite painful.

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Rosa “Sombreuil”.

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Clematis “Jackmanii”.

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Unknown Dutch Iris.

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Unknown Dutch Iris.

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Rosa “Golden Showers”.

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Rosa rugosa.

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Billbergia nutans, Billbergia Bromeliad, Queen’s-Tears.

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Fave blooms.

The fava bean plants immediately excited me—even though I was in pain. As much as I’d loved being in Italy, I missed my kitchen and while there I’d wished I could have spent more time just hanging out in kitchens watching people cook. I have so much to learn and often feel like a pokey and useless creature but what comes out of my kitchen usually makes me proud. There was so much I didn’t see in one month. There were so many words I didn’t get to hear.

Back home I recommitted myself to cooking more difficult things and I’ve set out to learn more skills.

I also decided that my war on the edible garden is over now. My distaste for my former life is done and I’m ready to move on and I knew I badly need to do the garden renovation dance.

So, during the last week I’ve attacked the front yard with a great gusto, but I have a few big projects to get through before I can say the kitchen garden is up and running as it should be. I am renovating and clearing several areas at the same time with particular goals in mind. Yes, I want more food space, but I also need to dedicate my time and energy to plants which produce seeds I can sell. Maybe I can even get to some plant selection of my own in time. I hope so. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.

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LuLu gained a little bit of weight while we were gone. I hate to call her neurotic, but she has her issues. Overeating nervously is one of them. 

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Maurice wanted us to know we were missed. Many stern looks were tossed our way between naps.

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Mona was happy to see me and couldn’t sit still. Even at her age she’s still Miss Wigglesworth.

The cats were happy to see us—as you can see. At first LuLu was in shock and hid from us but she continued to look at us with a pinch-me-is-this-real? look. After a few days we all settled in again. I think that’s in part due to the fact we had a great house sitter who really cared about the cats. Additionally, I think that we have 3 cats now who like one another. Mona getting along with LuLu has been a welcome surprise.

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Sweet souvenir: my new Bialetti.

We brought back a few things from Italy. Since we had to carry everything, I wasn’t feeling quite as generous as I wanted to be but my back survived.

My first gift to myself was this lovely little coffeemaker. Now I can make a quick shot of espresso just for me. Or, I could make one for you, the garden visitor. It works perfectly and makes a great cup of espresso.

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Not sure yet where we will hang this up.

The second gift to ourselves were these terra-cotta pieces for the back garden. We had to have St. Mark’s lion, and for me, well, something more historic.

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I mentioned LuLu is a bit neurotic, right?

That first week after we returned this is what always greeted me when I left the house or when I returned home. She melted my heart all over again. We immediately went on diets together too and I’ve been enforcing strict activity goals for her. Ok, maybe not that strict, but both of us have lost some weight.

The Fragile Spine: The Gardener’s Nemesis

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I’m baaaaack and feeling better than the last time I was here. Who knew that what this girl needed was a quick back surgery?

I certainly didn’t see that one coming!

It all started just after I walked to see my ill friend in my last post. I’d seen my doctor the day before and she’d scheduled an MRI for me. That Friday I went in, had the scan done, and then we waited until Monday. At the worst, I was expecting a cortisone shot or some pain medications and rest. But then she called and told me I needed to see a neurosurgeon. Wha!?! She explained that the scan showed some bulging and other irregularities and she hoped I could get in to see the specialist soon.

I waited through another long weekend. I’d made an appointment for early Monday morning and honestly I was curious about what was going on. By then I was experiencing constant pain, numbness and a pins and needles sensation in my left arm. The pain was making me miserable so I stayed away from blogging. Instead, I worked on the garden even though I was hurting so badly. It kept me busy and I did see some great results. (More on that in another post.) Maybe it wasn’t the wisest decision, but it helped with my worry too.

Dranunculus vulgaris looking lovely this year.

Now, all gardeners know back pain, am I right? It’s just what happens to us after hauling, digging, and sifting through the dirt. The pain is our Badge of Courage. We’re proud of our backs.

My back has been a wreck for a long time and I honestly cannot recall when it all began. What I can say is that it’s been getting worse and worse for the past few years and working outside has been exhausting for me.

The pain begins and I’m simply spent. I retreat indoors in defeat.

The front garden is partially a riot of color right now and I’m sort of in love with it.

Since my relationship with pain is rather complicated I didn’t really know if what I was going through was a problem or not. I blamed my swelling disease. I blamed falling down the stairs. I nursed it as best as I could but I just decided at some point that sometimes my back hurt—a lot.

I found this Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ bloom in my garden the day of my surgery. It’s my first and I’m a proud Mama.
I also have high pain tolerance and that’s become detrimental, hence, back surgery. This past year I’ve been more regularly declaring my back issues to my doctor and she seemed to agree that as long as I walked and stayed active it would cause less pain. I thought I’d been keeping it honest so-to-speak but I guess I still didn’t describe my experience as accurately as I could have but I didn’t stay silent either. I tried. I honestly tried.
Even when I did these preventative measure though, they didn’t work. Or, I should say, over time they stopped working for me altogether. Things just kept feeling worse.
Lovely Begonia leaf.

Pain is already part of my chronic illness condition. Swelling causes pain. I know that type of pain though and it’s lessened a lot since I was prescribed my new medication several years ago.

The back pain I felt—especially after returning from Italy—was different. I could barely stand up and I just wanted to cry. It was excruciating. Thinking things through, this sort of explained the urgency, but I still didn’t really understand what was wrong with me and how it had happened.

Lovely Bletilla striata about to open.

On Monday the neurosurgeon examined me, then we looked at my scans together. When I saw my spinal cord being pinched by a collapsed spinal canal, I nearly jumped out of my seat. It was clear that my spinal cord wasn’t happy and the herniation caused by the narrowing in the spinal column explained the pinching pain when I moved my head. And of course, the pressure from this was pinching my nerve.

Ok, I got it. So I looked at him and said, “What do we do about it?

Lathyrus sativus azureus. 
Well, I recommend surgery,” he said.
I’d expected a cortisone shot and this far exceeded my expectations. I was surprisingly both shocked and thrilled. Then I wondered how much longer I’d have to wait. I’ve never heard of anyone getting back surgery quickly. I just did not think it was possible.
How soon will this happen?” I asked.
Right away,” he said and we walked down the hall to make the appointment at the front desk.
I was ecstatic when I found out I’d only have to wait 7 more days.
The front garden on the day of surgery. John and I both laughed at the lone orange lily in the boxwood hedge.

Well it’s true, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

I had one week to prepare for 1 month of little to no upper body physical activity. For a gardener in the month of June this isn’t exactly easy when you’re the primary gardener in the household. I’m working hard to recover quickly though. I can begin going on nice walks again soon and I’ll focus on that first.

Many of my garden plans for this summer had to be folded up and put away but I didn’t mind. I’ve never been so desperate to feel better and I was truly at the end of my rope.

Flowers John bought from Quinn in the City Flowers. These were just what I needed during my overnight stay in the hospital.

It’s not completely clear to me when the debilitating pain began, but I suspect that when I fell down the stairs in the front of my house nearly 3 years ago I seriously hurt my back. At the time I was more concerned about my swollen ankle. Weeks later I discovered after the Fling in Seattle I’d broken two fingers too but I continued to believe that my back pain was only temporary and I chose not to have it examined.

The injury lingered and remained consistent throughout the divorce and remarriage. While working as a caregiver, it made my job impossible at times. I ended up quitting because of it.

 A box of trial plants from Terra Nova Nurseries arrived the day I came home from the hospital. It felt a bit like Christmas.
Ok, so what’s the takeaway?
Honestly, I just want everyone to take care of themselves and to use caution when they’re walking. I might be a klutz, but all it takes is some uneven ground and an unsteady gait. What I’ve also learned from this is that when I fell and broke my tailbone and two vertebrae many years ago, it’s likely I caused light nerve damage in my legs and feet. This is likely how my balance has worsened along with my gait.
This is what a Posterior Cervical Laminectomy looks like a week after surgery.
I’m fully committed now to returning to the gym to improve my life. I can’t keep this up. I don’t want to live like this anymore.
My nurse often sleeps on the job but he’s been with me 24/7 this past week.
There is no nerve pain currently in my left arm and my fingers are no longer numb. I can tip my head back to look at the ceiling and there’s no stabbing pain from the pinched herniation. I’ve been dealing with that sensation for years and I won’t miss it at all.
My view from bed could be worse.

These things take time to heal, and seeds of change must be planted, so as I lie here in bed, I’m just reading gardening and plant books. This is a nice time to reflect on the past and while moving forward to a healthier and brighter future.

I’m so excited.

My life just keeps getting better and better. I’m so thankful. I just cannot say that enough.

St. Expeditus.

A friend of mine returned home for a visit to New Orleans before we knew about the surgery and she didn’t return to Portland until after it had happened. So, she bought me this statue of St. Expeditus while she was there as a souvenir. Seeing as he’s the patron saint of emergencies and expeditious solutions he’s more than welcome to look over my garden and I until I’m well again.

So far, I think he’s doing a great job, don’t you?

My 9 Silly Things I Couldn’t Garden Without

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1.) Lemonade. But it must be sweetened with honey and I insist that it have a splash of rose water (or orange blossom water). This is not for everyone, but for this gardener, it’s key to my overall happiness. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, yes, it might smell like to soap.)

2.) Gluten-free snack with Oregon marionberry seedless preserves. It is a type of blackberry but it tastes about 1000x better.

3.) Inexpensive headphones and my loud Indie music. This is so that I don’t have to listen to the sounds of the city: public buses, barking dogs, ambulances, police flying by on their way to some other part of Portland, and the random drunk walking down Burnside. (I live one house in from this very busy street and it is sadly still quite loud.)

4.) Heart. Yes, I like to garden with heart. (Since my mother is going to read this, yes, “Happy Mother’s Day Mom,” I am just going to remind her that I garden with a lot of heart. (It’s not intended to be an inside joke, but I guess it might be…)

5.) A place to crash. For years I’d avoided using this amazing vintage chaise but as a converted chronically ill gardener—who is currently in much better health—I plan to use it more now than ever because I’d like to continue being happy and healthy.

6.) Bling. This goes in my hair so that if no one hears from me for a day or two they’ll find me in the garden more easily. (I suppose the same goes too if I’m just ignoring your phone calls or email messages.)

7.) Nail polish. I simply cannot say enough about how much better I feel when I’m a complete and total dirtball, with crisp and dry hands, and then I look down and I think, “Damn, those look nice at least.”

8.) Furry companions. For Mother’s Day they posed for this group picture. Trust me, this is not something they like to do everyday.

9.) iPhone. I love it because it plays music while I Google plants. Need I say more? (Note the MacBook in the reflection. I love it too but I did hate bringing it outside so often.)

The Country Store and Gardens and Beall Greenhouses on Vashon Island, Washingtion

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Due to my island lallygagging on Thursday we were only able to make it to two plant places on Vashon Island before we had to go sit in line to await our ferry to West Seattle. This was fine with me though because I was happily on island time.
Before leaving for Vashon, a gardening friend of mine in Portland let me know she wanted a plant from Colvos Creek Nursery and that I could find it at The Country Store and Gardens so that was a priority for us to pick up for her. (FYI: It was a Garrya elliptica and it is perfect.)
I was surprised that I’d never been to The Country Store and Gardens before, but back when I used to visit frequently, I was only a teen and not yet a gardener. For years I wanted to be a writer and back then I was studying and reading much more than I do now.

The Colvos Creek Nursery sales area is located right next to the parking area. It is stocked regularly and if you call ahead, they can make sure to have what you are looking for from their catalog available to purchase at this retail site. It is the only place on the island where you can purchase their plants. (If you have not seen their catalog, I highly suggest you click the link at the end of this post. It is like the Christmas toy catalog for plant nerds.)

Additionally, The Country Store and Gardens has its own rambling nursery and plant area, but it is not for those who like everything to be glossy, pretty and organized. For some, like myself, it might bring back memories of their childhood and some may want to linger all afternoon. It is a nursery, but it reminds me more of what I like to call now: Plant Labor-itories. There are tons of rectangular beds with some plants planted, while others are in pots. You could dig through them for ages and ages and you’d feel like some kind of plant explorer discovering something very special and new.
My mentor Mr Palm had a huge garden that looked a lot like this and it made me so happy to see one again.
Someone planted a lot of very special plants that were seriously enjoyable to find here and there.
Ulmus x hollandica ‘Jacqueline Hillier’.
Tree Mallow, Lavatera maritima.
Tree Mallow, Lavatera maritima. 
Not sure which plant this one is but it was so pretty planted beside some grape vines.  
Double pink Anemone.
Double pink Anemone.

Inside The Country Store, if felt like stepping back a bit in time, but not completely. In a way, it felt appropriate to the location since Vashon really was rural not too long ago.

Seed racks in the store.  
Gardening tools on display.
In my last post I promised you overgrown and abandoned greenhouses, and I wasn’t kidding. These have looked like this ever since I started enjoying the island, but I wasn’t truly struck by them until I learned more about the history of the Beall Greenhouses.

At the end of this post you will find a link to a page I found online so I won’t tell you everything, but this facility once housed not only one of the largest rose producers in the country, but it also supplied folks all over the world with orchids.

This is what the 25 acre growing facility looks like today.

It is difficult to imagine this is where rare orchids from England were shipped to for safekeeping during World War II, but they did live here for a spell.

We had to dash off to catch the ferry, so DIG Floral & Garden had to wait until the next day, but I was happy because I knew that if we had to drop off some sample wines before my husband’s pouring that evening in Capitol Hill, I would be rewarded in Seattle with some more plant shopping. While waiting for the ferry, I saw this sign, and although it made me sad, I loved the typography with the many different languages of our diverse West Coast. It amazes me sometimes and it makes me sad that I no longer teach ESL to immigrants and refugees.

While my husband went off to grab some food, I watched as this African father and his daughter learned about kayaks from a man who’d driven his down to the dock behind a riding lawnmower. The kayaker noticed their curiosity immediately and I stood nearby them as he showed them how the whole operation worked. I learned that the pair had just come over to the island for the day and were planning on taking the bus around before returning to Seattle. For five minutes the kayaker gave them the complete tour and answered all of their questions. He then invited them down to the water to show them how to get into a kayak and we all watched him as he paddled away.

Just then someone’s car radio blasted old 1990s Nirvana music and the moment broke apart a bit in my mind. My husband ran back to our car with some Mexican takeout and we drove onto the ferry.

The Country Store and Gardens Vashon Island, WA
Colvos Creek Nursery and Landscape Design Vashon Island, WA
Beall Greenhouses Vashon Island, WA

Here Comes the Rain Again

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It’s July in Oregon, and this year, we’ve had horrible weather. Typically this is our driest season and yet it continues to be anything but dry around here.

Even though the weather has not been rosy, I trekked out anyway to visit Heirloom Roses in Saint Paul, OR with a friend of mine and one of the foster kids.

Despite the horrible rain, we all had a really good time learning about roses by shopping for the ones with the characteristics we wanted the most. I looked for miniatures and super fragrant old roses for crafts and my ever-so-lovely rosewater. I just cannot get enough of the stuff for my iced tea. Last year I even made rose petal beads too and it was much easier than I ever would have imagined.

Other than the nursery visit, I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors in my chair, working on my shop on etsy. I have been collecting tons of seeds in the garden too, and when I rest up at night, I flip through old gardening books to unwind.

This year my neighbor friend is letting me collect seeds at her house so I can add to my online inventory. Like me, she just lets things grow and it’s all natural and I’ve had a great time collecting seeds from the plants I grew from seed a year or two ago. I kind of feel like a parent almost!
Bottlebrush Grass, Elymus hystrix.
It bothers me that there are still piles of completely neglected plants around our house, but I am finally getting back to them. Some of the plants have been sorted to sell on Craigslist, and others have been sorted to plant asap. Many of them are super lovely wildflowers from California and other Western places. So many of them are so breathtaking I feel awful about overdoing it to the extent I may have jeopardized their well being and perpetuity. I need to keep their seed strains alive, right? Somebody other than myself has to care about this.
Elegant Clarkia, Clarkia unguiculata.

Lastly, I suppose I should explain the neglect since up until now I believe I’ve been pretty sheepish about my little incident. I am sad to have to show you my foot amongst all of the blooms but let this be a reminder to all of you gardeners out there with weak ankles. I fell twice before I hit the jackpot with my last big tumble and this ensuing swollen ankle has been with me now for a few weeks. With a husband working hard at the vineyard in California, and a swelling disease that worsens when an injury occurs, life has been really wonderful around here.

Continually re-injuring an ankle is not that uncommon and I should have prevented this by doing better aftercare after I stumbled over a bag of potting soil and fell and hit my face on a rock just after twisting my left ankle for the first time. Little more than one month later I fell again walking on some river rocks but that time I only gave myself whiplash after hurting the same ankle again. This past time I really did it.  Walking down concrete stairs in the dark and missing a step ended up with me being completely unable to walk on the foot for a week.
Tomorrow I am off to see the doctor though and I am seriously hoping that I will be more comfortable for the upcoming Garden Bloggers Fling in Seattle next weekend. It should be a ton of fun, swollen ankle or not.

Cemetery Roses

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I found this old cemetery rose at a pioneer cemetery near Astoria, Oregon. My husband and I love to seek out these old plants when we go on our trips because it really is such a fun activity when you are traveling with so little money. When I was a child, doing this kind of thing was normal, but now, young folks don’t always do these kinds of things, often calling them old fashioned or outdated. All I know is that it is an activity that I used to like to take part in, and I still do. I hope that my nieces, or even my future nephew, will do the same in the future.
These small rose blooms smelled amazing and although the cuttings I took did not take, luckily I will be able to return there soon for some more.
I hope to add a few others to my collection too as time goes by. Let me know if you have any great ones.