Friday, June 24, 2011

It's never that simple

There are many challenges in gardening, especially when you are gardening in a climate that is different to what you are used to. I like to try growing new things. I managed to get a sweet potato from the supermarket to sprout and grow. I've kept it in a large pot to limit any possible damage that may arise from viruses and other diseases with the supermarket bought root. 

First, I was surprised by the beautiful leaves, until I saw the flowers! They are lovely, but do I cut them off to send the energy to the root? I decided not to bother. I've given this project ornamental status. If I eat from it, then I eat!
In many cases, it is recommend that you cut off the flowers to strengthen root crops. This year I discovered Garlic scapes. These are the flowering shoots of the garlic and should be removed at an early stage. The good news is they are edible - great in a stir-fry. In fact, all parts of any of the Allium family are edible. Mine developed when I was in Ireland and were quite advanced when I got home. But chop it up and fry it in a wee pan and they are delicious.
The bulbs did suffer from being left with the flowers developing too long, but the only variety that had produced scapes was the Chinese purple. I think it was a fairly decent crop. I wish I'd planted more! Now, I've just got to let these dry out in a shady spot with the leaves on so they can take in that last wee bit of goodness.
Of course, another challenge is competing with the small furry natives. While we were in Ireland, the squirrels had themselves an almond party! Not a single one left on the tree, but lots of shells on the ground.
Timing is all important in the garden. Right now I'm waiting for my lettuce to set seed so that I can collect it for the next crop. It seems to take forever and it looks so unsightly, like I'm a lazy gardner who hasn't cleared away the rubbish!
But if anything has shown holes in my gardening prowess it has to be the tomatoes.  They just are not growing. At least not compared to my neighbor Al's - who is the king of the giant tomato! Last year it was the same story. This year, my garden is doing better that it was last year. The mulching with compost helps, as does the fish emulsion, the bat guano and the Dr. Earth fertilizer. But still those tomatoes are not filling up those big cages I bought for them.
I was tempted to phone the Master Gardeners hotline. But wait a minute - I am a Master Gardener - I can figure this out myself.

As I sat out by my tomatoes, with my Master Gardener Handbook open on my knee, I had a serious pep-talk with my tomatoes.

"Listen up guys," I began. "What's going on? I bought you the best cages I could find - beautiful Texas tomato cages, the biggest I could get and you hardly fill them.

"I'm giving you the best of organic fertilizers.

"I've taken a magnifying glass to search for russet mite and found none.

"If you had nematode worms you'd probably be in worse shape than this and you aren't wilted.

"Sure you have a tiny amount of aphids but come on. Guys, I'm supposed to be a Master Gardener and you lot are making me look bad!"

I heard Al on the other side of the fence working in his yard. He's probably one of the few people who won't think it strange that I talk to my tomatoes. I asked him what he does with his. Perhaps he does amend his soil a little more than me. And his use of miracle grow will not cause that difference - nitrates are nitrates to the plants - they don't care about the source of the molecule. But then he asked was I watering them enough.

"Oh yes," I said, fairly confident that I had this one right. I see the damp soil every morning when I go out to say hi to my plants. It might be a dessert here, but my veggies are never denied water. So I replied, "thirty minutes, every morning."

"Hmmm," Al said, "I water mine for ten minutes every second day."

Mystery possibly solved! I researched it a little more on the internet and found the symptoms for overwatering exactly describing my tomatoes.

"Over watered tomato plants can not take up iron. The leaves will start coming in pale green or yellow. The lower leaves will fall off and the plants will grow and fruit poorly."

I'm so used to plants growing in the rain soaked soil of Irish gardens, that I panic a little at the scorching sun here and perhaps have overcompensated by giving too much water. I really hope that this is what is happening. The new watering regime kicks in today - fifteen minutes, three times a week. I'm happier to spend less on water, but I won't believe it grows bigger tomatoes until I see it!


Friday, June 17, 2011

Did my garden miss me as much as I missed it?

Judging by the growth spurt - no! Okay, so maybe it's an illusion. I go out every day and peer closely at my plants to see if they have grown any in the last few hours - seriously mad, I know, but I can't help myself. So you can imagine what joy it is to see my garden after three weeks. Things have really got growing out there.

I was greeted first by a profusion of flowers in the native garden. I arrived back after dark and they seemed white in the moonlight, but the next morning the Hookeri Evening Primrose (Oenothera Hookeri) flaunted her full glory.
Considering this was six inches tall when I bought it last October, it's simply stunning. And close up you can see how beautiful the blossoms really are.
The coyote mint ( Monardella villosa) has also blossomed. As well as having perfumed foliage, the purple blossoms are attracting the bees.
The old plum tree in the front yard, one of three non-natives spared in the conversion, is rewarding us for our mercy with bough breaking loads of fruit. Delicious! I see plum jam in my immediate future!
The pomegranate has blossomed. Hopefully, it will produce more fruit than it did last year -a grand total of three pomegranates! Perhaps that extreme pruning the year before last has paid off.
In the succulent garden, most of the plants are happy and some have even sent up blossoms. What a big turn around from the days when I seemed to kill every succulent I looked at!

Some funky things are going on with my vegetables. I have several squash volunteers. They sprung up in the mulch under the fruit trees. Before the mulch went down, I used everything in my compost bins to provide a layer of compost whether it had composted yet or not.  My guess is that these are from a butternut squash we'd eaten a while ago.
Why is it that volunteers seem to grow better than the ones I carefully tend to?

While I was in Ireland it rained here. This patch of unseasonably (though I've yet to figure out just what seasonable means in California!) cool weather brought a few surprises. The late peas, that I had given up on and hadn't gotten around to pulling, took off. Back to having mange-tout and sugar snap peas for dinner again - yipee!
After reseeding my parsnips several times I eventually got them to germinate. And now look at them.
I'd tried and tried to get kolrabi, the space ship-like brassica, to grow. Again I'd given up, had noticed unidentified brassica leaves growing amonst the peppers and decided to leave it until I came home. I was astonished to see a beautiful apple-sized kolrabi - ready to harvest.
I sliced it and stir-fried it with the peas and carrots I've been harvesting.

I've also been harvesting French round carrots. These are excellent for stony ground or containers. I was growing them for fun and because I got a free packet of seeds. Now, I'd grow them for taste. They have a lovely aniseed aftertaste. I steamed these ones.

The pole beans are living up to their name and growing nicely up the poles.
In the foreground you can see potatoes that are ready to harvest, and which I actually have harvested since the picture was taken. I love the maths of gardening - I planted 3 potatoes here and dug up 16 of at least the same size, if not bigger. On the topic of potatoes - my bags of spuds have really taken off.
It won't be long before I'm harvesting them.

My last garden observation involves alcohol. I have sunflowers planted in two beds. One of the beds is orderly and quite regimented. I can watch as these little sun soldiers stand up tall and turn their faces to the sun, all facing the same way.

The other bed is the one where I carried out my beer experiment on the slugs. I did spill some, but oh boy, those sunflowers have really been partying! Can you tell which bed is which?
Byddi Lee

Friday, June 10, 2011

Parting is such sweet sorrow

Bunbeg Strand, County Donegal

6.30 am and the sun was splitting the sky while I drove down the road to Dublin airport. Tears were still dripping off my chin as I approached Newry. I could still picture my sister standing in her driveway, waving to me. Sorrow bubbled up so violently in my chest, I thought I'd burst. I wondered why on earth I'd moved to the opposite side of the planet, away from my Mum, my sister, brother-in-law and nephews.  Not to mention the scores of friends and other relatives I'd met with over the past three weeks.

My Dad always said that the best time to drive the road to Dublin was at daybreak. He was the ultimate morning person. With the sunlight reflecting emerald from the fields, against the azure backdrop of the sky, I felt that Ireland was giving me her very own send off with this rare glimpse of good weather.

I ran the events of the previous three weeks through my head, determined not to forget one slobbery kiss from my three year old nephew and committing the relatively saner conversations with his older (nearly-six-year-old) brother to memory. The image of my Mum's teary eyes, as we struggled to be strong in our farewells, seared my brain. Was living in California selfish? I know she misses me .

In order to cheer myself up, I rattled through the good memories - in-jokes between my sister and I about cows doing star-jumps to keep fit - a you-had-to-be-there moment when we spotted cows running around a field. When she wondered why they were doing that, I suggested that maybe they were working out. She looked out the window then piped up, "Oh look there's one doing star jumps." A mental image joke that highly amused us but baffled my mother.

I thought of the craic I'd had with Laura up in Belfast and how well she'd looked after us. I mourned the lack of time I'd had to spend with friends, yet loved the stories that started with, "Do you remember the time..."

After each reunion and parting there were at least private tears, if not public ones. I feel proud and fortunate to have all these people who love me, but bereft to not be able to see them everyday. Yet, somewhere in the back of my mind a voice whispers the old cliche, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." I reckon that is more the case that absence makes you appreciate what you may otherwise take for granted.

As I queued for immigration preclearance in Dublin, one line of a Bruce Springsteen song rolled around my head. Except this was the version that my  nephew sings in his cute little three-year-old voice.

"My was," deep breath so next word can be blasted out, "BORN in the New S A. My was," breath, "Born in the New S A." (Repeat adinfinitum!)

By the time I reached New York, I'd gotten over being nearly engulfed in emotion at leaving them all behind. At the airport to greet me was my Godfather, my Dads brother, who had immigrated to the "New SA" many years ago. I spotted him waiting at the barrier for me and I realised that here was a kindred spirit, another pioneer who would understand what I was feeling.

With joy and gratitude in my heart, I welcomed the bear hug that reminded me home is were the heart is, and I looked forward to the next couple of days with him and my lovely Aunty, pushing away the thought that another round of goodbyes would follow before I'd be reunited with my lovely Husand in California. Good times roll on.

Byddi Lee

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Believing in Belfast

I think that when you leave a place you remember it in your minds eye the way it was not when you last saw it, but when you first got to know the place. I moved to Belfast in 1987. I spent the 1990's getting to know the city - especially the bars! Coming back to visit now, is like travelling forward in time from those days (well technically it is!) to see the futuristic Belfast. They used to have an advertisement on the telly for Belfast back in the day. The catch phrase was "Belfast is buzzing". I suppose they were limited - after all they didn't want to advertise that Belast was booming! But now, despite the past Troubles and the current recession it looks like it is doing both. And all in a good way.
As always the cityscape is peppered with castle like buildings nestled in amongst the modern buildings.

For years it seemed that Belfast never changed, other than lose the odd building here and there in a bomb blast, which usually served to irridicat urban decay! (In Belfast we alway had to look on the bright side.) But now it has some amazing new arcitecture...

And sculptures - What happened to the old band stand at cornmarket?

In Belfast the best architecture is often seen on the rooftops.

Walk around the city and look up.

I don't know much about architecture but I know these are pretty amazing.

And all found within an couple of blocks of the City Hall, the iconic heart of the city.
And even inside (you can go in for a look around) you need to look up too.

My parents always said that you never need a watch in Belfast. Just look up and there will be a clock on a building.

Interesting that the time on the clock is 3.10. I'll always rememeber watching the hands on that clock move from 3 o'clock to 3.15 the week after the Omagh bomb killed 29 people. Thousands of people gathered in the city center to hold what began as a minutes silence and became 15 minutes. In the errie silence of both sides of the city joined soundless in grief the seagulls wheeled about overhead, and we stood with the wee hairs tingling on the backs of our necks. A solemn occasion that stretched across the divide, and that I think went a big way to starting the healing process among the great people of this wonderful city who so deserve it.

As always Belfast is all about the irony. There are some bemusing new additions to Royal Avenue.

Suposedly to comemorate the 100th anniversary of the building of the Titanic, I wonder if these struts are meant to resemble the ribs of a ship. It seems strange to put so much effort into remembering the worst maritime disaster ever and bang on about how we made that ship  - shussssh!

I came to Belfast from Armagh to go to University. Even now as I pass by the gates of Queen's University's Lanyon Building my heart squeezes in pride and nostalgia.
Belfast had not been my first choice. I had wanted to go to Trinity in Dublin, but we simply could not afford to go there. Instead, I went to Belfast where I learned that the people were the salt of the earth and the craic was ninety. I loved my time here - I had my heart broken and pieced together here. The city itself felt like a teenager to me - with all its Troubles, it never gave up - all it needed was someone to believe in it. And I did. I never felt like travelling and abandoning her until she was making her way to peace. She saw me through my adolescence and I through hers.

A small city, I always felt Belfast was the perfect size for a country gal like me.But even before I left it, three years ago, its variety of shops, bars, clubs and resturants - enough to suit a wide range of tastes - threatened to overwhelm me. Since the peace process has kicked in, the city has grown out of its akward teenager like stage into a gracefull young adult. I unfortunately have aged much faster!

For those who prefer a  less hectic pace of life, why not explore the leafy suburbs of the Lisburn Road, an umbilical of trendiness following people out to Lisburn, now a very popular place to live.
Or stroll through one of Belfast many parks. Peace can be found in Belfast - Believe me. There is a lot to see in a visit to Belfast - don't lets its reputation put you off. Believe in Belfast and she won't let you down.

Byddi Lee