Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: gardening

Professor Lucretia Blackwing

The kids wanted me to play outside with them. Be a Hogwarts professor, they said. I had a million things to do, but it was a fine day and it seemed reasonable to take an excuse to do the outside stuff instead of the inside stuff, so I said I would, because: about a month ago, I got spring fever and bought some tomato seeds and planted way more than I have space to grow, and I’ve never had much success with tomatoes from seed, until this time. So I needed to prep a bed for them. I told the kids I’d be Herbology professor and we’d study nightshades.

So I started digging and first thing, Kiran (Hogwarts name Lila Blackwing, because she is my daughter in Hogwarts world, and I am Lucretia Blackwing) asked me what I wanted to teach about nightshade. She said it made her think of “deadly nightshade,” and I concurred that some nightshades are deadly, but there was one in particular that we commonly eat. She was not able to guess it, even when I told her that what I was doing at that moment was a hint. Finally I told her tomatoes.

Rowan (Hogwarts name Stella Galaxy) was in a more academic mood (I always think she should be a Ravenclaw, but she was a Slytherin today), so I told her to go inside and get my Jeanne Rose Herbal and look up nightshade and write me a report on it. She couldn’t find the book so she started searching the internet. Conveniently, her computer is next to a window that overlooks the tomato bed-to-be, so I told her to search “Solanum,” and she found an enormous amount of information. I’d forgotten, myself, that potatoes are nightshades, too. She took lots of notes, but I haven’t seen the report yet.

I dug until I hit some concrete, and couldn’t plant a tomato there. Kevin came home from church and we got ready to go the the in-laws’ for Sunday dinner. So it was a fruitful morning. I did a small amount of gardening, got some sun and fresh air, and progressed in my ongoing lesson that magic is absolutely real, and everything is magical, if you’re willing to look at it the right way.

Photo by Rowan Ireland

Photo by Rowan Ireland

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Veronica on Winter’s End

Rachel’s had a difficult week, and doesn’t feel like writing tonight. There’s so much writing to be done, but so many expectations to fulfill (though, strangely, when I ask her who holds such expectations, she can never seem to provide a name). She didn’t have a vehicle much of the week, and she’s been trying to get someone to dig up her sewer pipe and replace it, with snow on the ground. So she asked me to write tonight in her stead.

At first I thought, not much happening this time of year. Every creature is still holding its breath, waiting for the days to get just a little longer, just a little warmer. But that’s really not true at all. The juncos (Junco hyemalis), also called snowbirds, have been active and visible all winter, and they are still here for a couple more weeks. The cardinals are nesting, as evidenced by their cheery song. A flock of snow geese (Chen caerulescens) flew over, in a northwesterly direction, marking the full moon. I’ve always wanted to see them on the ground, but to date they have invariably eluded me, rising up and continuing their long migration before I arrive at whatever avian rest area they’ve been reputed to frequent. Nevertheless, it’s a privilege to see them over my head, as they fly to the far north to nest.

And the garden? Well, if you’d leaned close to the ground at just the right moment, after the snow melted, you might have been injured by a garlic sprout shooting up so fast you wouldn’t see it until it poked you in the eye. They’re fully two inches tall now. Well, they were yesterday afternoon, who knows, by now they may be two or three times that height. When the year is winding down, I have to force myself to plant garlic; but its appearance in the early spring brings tears to my eyes, it’s such a relief after the interminable winter.

So that’s what we have this week. Rachel will be back next week, one way or another. The current difficult lunation will pass, she’ll get her meds straightened out, and spring will save us all, eventually, as it always does.

What signs of life are stirring in your neighborhood?

I don't have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

I don’t have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

Lambsquarters, Christmas Tree, Feline Birdwatching

With the Christmas tree in the patio door, Wildfire and I can watch the birds in the yard without being seen. Normally, they see me through the door and scatter. Today I got a good long look at four juncos (Junco hyemalis) and a sparrow, which I think was most likely an American tree sparrow, Spizella arborea.

Somewhere on the internet, I once saw a story about an old farmer who lamented the fact that his son, in taking over the farm, had hired someone to spray all the lambsquarters (Chenopodium album). The old man said that there had been bad years when the crops failed, so lambsquarters were all they had to eat. But they survived because of it. (In another reading of this story, we can imagine why the son, in the brash way of youth taking over from the older generation, would be inclined to destroy all lambsquarters in a violent and toxic manner.)

With this story in mind, I’ve let lambsquarters grow in my back yard. The first year or two, it was because they’re such a terrific source of nutrition. They’re really only tasty in the early spring, though I could still steam a few leaves with spinach through the summer; but we don’t actually get much overall from this so-called weed. Maybe I should be like the sensible gardeners, who take out even nutritious weeds to make space for the more desirable cultivated vegetables. But then, in winter, I saw the black-capped chickadee return day after day to munch on lambsquarters seeds, while perching on stems that poked up above the deep snow. The fantastic source of nutrition for humans is also a lifesaver for birds.

That was all the impetus I needed. I let lambsquarters have part of the vegetable patch. When I took them out in the fall, instead of tossing them into the compost, I bundled them up and tied the bundle to the leg of the treehouse. Naturally, this year I had a nice patch of lambsquarters under the treehouse, and at this very moment, four juncos and an American tree sparrow are having their way with it. Why buy birdseed when you can just let the weeds take over?

Sure, it’s a bit chilly lying here on the floor under the Christmas tree, but true birders put up with way worse conditions than this.

Happy winter, dear friends.

What Lives In Your Neighborhood?

It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time to notice nature. Admittedly, sometimes it involves sitting for a while, seemingly doing nothing. Type A people can’t do it. But other times, you see things just because you’re willing to.

I spent about an hour today clearing some weeds, cutting tree shoots, watering the few cultivars I have this year. The weeds have become so overgrown that I’ve learned new things about them. One vine I’d always thought was some kind of bindweed turned out to have a flower completely different from the morning-glory trumpet shape of Convulvulus arvensis. It really doesn’t look that much like bindweed, so I’m not sure why I thought it was related, now that I think of it. Today I discovered it is honeyvine milkweed, Cynanchum laeve. This one is truly a vining milkweed, and, as such, it is a food for monarch butterflies. So it turns out I do have at least one monarch food on the property.

Watering Rowan’s pot of zinnias, I saw a little moth I didn’t know, and it was kind enough to let me get a good shot. Then, while ripping up some weeds to expose a beleaguered rose, I inadvertently destroyed the web of a striking black and yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia. Sorry, ma’am.

By that time, it was too hot to work outside, and I was hungry, so Wildfire the kitten and I came back in for lunch.

When you go outside, even if it’s just from your door to the car, look to see what’s out there. What lives in your neighborhood?

Life Wins

My sister Melora Creager is doing a project about suicide and overdose, and she asked for input from friends who have been affected by these tragedies. I sent her the post I wrote last fall, Black and Blue, and You, which was a letter to a person I knew who committed suicide many years ago.

In the letter I mentioned that I needed to prep the garden for winter, and this week, as I re-read it, the garlic I planted at that time is just coming up. The ground is bare, and if you didn’t look closely, you might think it dead. We’ve had an unusually cold winter, with plenty of snow, but to the winter garden, snow is just melting water. Look closer, and you can see the deep green shoots poking their way out of the dirt.

I’ve suffered from depression all my life, and in my forties I am just beginning to manage it effectively. I’ve escaped the clutches of fear, anxiety, anger, and despair, some days by riding them out; some days by naked willpower. I’ve learned that peace, joy, and gratitude reside within me. They are always here, but I have to choose to tap into them, no matter how seductive the darkness can be.

When the days are getting shorter, and everything appears to be dying, it can be tempting to give in to the darkness, to curl up and wither with the countless fallen leaves. Planting in fall is an act of faith that the earth will continue to spin. Nothing can stop the cycle of the seasons. Even when all I can manage is to hold on and ride it out, winter eventually dissipates and life wins.

Garlic sprouting

Gardening, Rachel-style

I usually give all the gardening and nature posts to Veronica, but this one isn’t worthy of her master gardening skills. It’s very much a Rachel kind of project, starting with, not surprisingly, a prominent bed where nothing could grow.

When we came here nine years ago, it was full of irises and day lilies. Very nice flowers, but they were over crowded, not having been tended for who knew how many years, and they only flower for a short time in spring. I wanted to stretch the bloom time through the summer. Right away I took out the bulbs, leaving only a few that were hard to get out. I had a vision of native prairie wildflowers and grasses, approximating a little patch of prairie on the lawn in front of our motel, highlighting the sign which rises up out of the bed. But the first year I just put in inexpensive annuals, because I didn’t have time just yet to manifest the whole vision.

Everything died. Plant food did nothing. A soil test showed normal acidity. Over the years I did everything short of taking out all the soil (which I have concluded was actually construction dirt) and replacing it. I was thrilled to start composting, but failed to maintain proper balance and after a couple years I was adding more bugs to the dirt than nutrients. I know people say that roly polies cannot eat live plants, but I guarantee you it is not true. When we die and leave our bodies, we will be one with everything and have access to all knowledge. Then we will know without doubt two things: where all those socks went, and that roly polies eat flowers.

My friend John Queen invited us to take some perennials from his garden, and for a few years we had a very nice echinacea. The butterflies loved it. I tried transplanting weeds from the cracks in the parking lot to join it. Surely if they could grow in gravel, they could grow in this stuff; but they didn’t. Eventually the echinacea died too.

I gave up on native plants and put in anything I could think of. Ice plant shriveled. Ornamental grasses were seeded but never appeared. Year after year, all that grew there was buffalo grass, bindweed, and the few scattered irises I’d never managed to remove. Last year we got in some queen anne’s lace, which was kind of pretty for a short time and looked like the untended weed it was for most of the summer.

Spring rolls back around, though, every year. Most years I get that itch to give it one more try. Rodeo was coming, the one weekend every year when we know we can rent every room suitable to rent, and turn some people down. It had been a couple years since I’d added the pest-infused compost, so maybe they had gone somewhere else. I decided to put in an assortment of cheap annuals and throw down some mulch, in the spaghetti method (throw it at the wall and see what sticks). If it all dies in 2 weeks, I won’t have invested much.

Of course I couldn’t resist adding a few weeds from the parking lot. So far the daisy fleabane is doing much better than last time. This year was the first time I’d seen salsify here, and it doesn’t transplant well generally, but hasn’t died yet, so I’m considering that a success. In fact, rodeo is over, everyone has checked out, and every plant I put in is still alive, so my first goal has been reached. I have pictures to prove it.

Salsify Seeds

Salsify seedhead

When a fairy wishes to make a journey by air, one might hitch a ride on a salsify seed.

Two days after I posted about transplanting salsify to a flower bed, one of the buds opened into this stunning seedhead. I’d seen them before but hadn’t ever taken a closer look. I probably photographed it a bit early, because later every one of those seeds had put out its own parachute. Fully open, the seedhead has a graceful symmetry, more complex and lovelier than the dandelion to which I previously compared it. A few hours yet later, and they were all gone.

Salsify, Tragopogon dubius

Today’s pretty flower is another of our guests here in North America, and, as far as I can tell, not one who makes herself particularly useful. Salsify is considered to be edible, though other species are more commonly eaten than dubius, which I’ve concluded is the one I have here. It does have a thick taproot, which is the part one would eat; the greens are sometimes considered edible as well. As for medicinal value, I believe this is the first plant I’ve researched for which I find none whatsoever.

I transplanted one to a flower bed today, just because I find the bloom pleasing to look at, and the seeds will be displayed in a manner equally striking. If you imagine a dandelion in her explosive seedy glory, perhaps mutated to be several times typical size, then you approximate the salsify seedhead.

This specimen was growing in a gravelly matrix, hardly worthy of the word soil. She was with some daisy fleabane, which you can see in the pictures. I put them together in the flower bed, so they wouldn’t miss each other. I don’t yet know if they will like their new home; I’ll have to wait and see.

Update: Two days later, this plant opened a seedhead. It’s as exciting as the bloom. See the picture here: Salsify Seeds.

Dandelion Syrup

Prairie Fire driveway

I have a strange way of gardening, which would surely drive most gardeners crazy. It turns out that, when you get to know them, a good number of weeds are edible, even wildly nutritious, if not downright medicinal. Hence, I don’t weed much. In fact, year after year, I get the best yield from the least interference with the ways the plants grow, whoever chooses to show up, whatever ways they are useful.

Sometimes it takes a while for me to discover their properties. One annoying, invasive plant appeared one year, and I let it grow big so I could study it. I couldn’t find it in any of my books, and the leaves didn’t look appetizing. It’s a tall, kenspeckle thing that doesn’t look pretty anywhere. In the fall it turned reddish brown and produced a strong seed stalk, which would look nice in dried flower arrangements, so that’s something. But still, it could not be mistaken for anything but a weed, so finally I gave up and tried to pull it, which was impossible, so I started digging. I found an enormous tap root, which was a brilliant yellow inside. Now that got my attention. A root this big had to have some kind of power. I left some of the plants for next year.

Eventually I happened to get in my hands a book on medicinal weeds, and I looked for this one in particular. It turned out to be yellow dock, also called curly dock, and other names, and it has dozens of purported uses. I harvested most of them, leaving some in what I hoped would be less-than-conspicuous places.

I’ll tell you more about yellow dock later. Today’s post is really about dandelions. Normal people are supposed to get rid of them. Would you stay at a lodging with a lawn that looked like this one above? If a business owner is this inattentive to the first thing a potential customer sees, what on earth might be inside? A dripping faucet? A cricket in the bed? If a customer pulls into the driveway and turns around and leaves, I can’t blame her. She doesn’t know that I loathe herbicide, that I’m no stranger to a dandelion digger, but that I’m very intentionally saving these dandelions, and not just for the honeybees.

Last year I read about dandelion syrup, also called mayhoney, though honey isn’t necessarily part of it. It is a European tradition (naturally, since that is where dandelions are from, after all). Dandelion syrup can be used as a sweetener, like other syrups and honey, and it can also be used medicinally as in cough syrup. But most of the recipes I read called for about a quart of dandelion petals, no green parts. The smallest recipe I could find required four cups of petals. That seemed like an awful lot of dandelions. I didn’t think I had enough, but I kept thinking about dandelion syrup all year, and never got around to doing anything about all those weeds. They’re one of Kiran’s favorite flowers, after all.

Well, not surprisingly, there are more of them this year, and that time has come around again. I hunted up a recipe for dandelion syrup today, and found one that could take as few as one hundred blossoms. Now, that would be easy. The kids and I gathered roughly 150 in a few minutes.

dandelion blossoms in a basket

Then I had to separate out the petals. Kiran loved caressing them.

dandelion petals

Our 150 blossoms yielded three and a half cups of petals, enough to double the recipe. The petals simmer and infuse overnight. They told me they wanted to be in the sun, so I’m putting them in a sun tea jar outside. Tomorrow I’ll strain, add sugar and lemon, and cook it all down to a syrup.

Next time you pull up to a motel, and you see what looks like an unkempt property, think of all those weeds as raw materials, medicines, and foods. It’s hard to partake of them and control them as well. That picture at the top of the page? I took it after we had harvested the 150 blossoms from that very spot. I couldn’t even see a difference. Kevin intends to mow them today, but of course we all know the bees will get their fill from the new blooms that pop open tomorrow.

And isn’t that exactly how it should be?

Hello world!

Hello world. I’m Veronica Speedwell. I live here at the Caryatids community, a wonderful place where people can still live in tune with the natural world. I’ve been here all my life, and now am the head gardener. I can’t think of a job I’d rather have.

I have a story for you. As a child, I knew a woman who saw fairies. She often spoke of them, and of other beings, of their various personalities and the things they did. She had conversations with animals and devas. She was a beekeeper, and always claimed to know the feelings of the bees in the hives. I didn’t take her seriously, though I did attend to her teachings about growing plants. She had the most lush, abundant garden, which fed so many people to such satisfaction. I would have loved to have her gift for growing things, but cared not a bit for her fanciful talk of the intimate lives of every living creature, of countless invisible entities, and of things which were real but had never been alive, such as the rocky hills we lived in, the soil spread like a blanket over it, the granite mountains buried deep below.

One day my teacher sent me to gather some basil from the herb garden. When I came to her with my hands full of the piquant greens, instead of taking them from me, she instructed me to hold them and ask them how they would like me to prepare them for eating. It was a strange and uncomfortable question, because naturally if I were asked that question, I doubt I’d reply in friendly terms. Nevertheless, I posed the question, feeling quite silly, to the freshly picked, deep green plants.

The answer came not to the question I’d asked, but to the one I hadn’t. The answer was a feeling, as all-embracing as the aroma of the basil itself, a feeling of complete and joyful willingness to give “itself” to my nourishment. The feeling was so strong as to be undeniable. I stood there inhaling the luscious fragrance, and inhaling with my soul the fragrance of ego-less, limitless giving. It was so pure that it could only be honored by partaking of the herb. Had this awareness and desire been present all along, and I never noticed it? How could it be? I was speechless, enraptured.

And thus began my love affair with plants.

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