Squirrel Rant for the Year

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Ah, yes. No garden season would be complete without a post detailing some of the unique and creative vandalism perpetrated by the darlings of the neighborhood this year. I freely admit, I hate them. I love them. Of all the pests I have to battle for the harvest…slugs, cabbage moths, earwigs and rolypolys, powdery mildew, hail, and Dane the mangy rescue mutt…squirrels are the only ones that make it personal. They could be French with their flagrant insults, chattering at me and biting their nails, throwing green apples down on my head and tossing perfect, beautiful peaches to the ground after a single bite only to stare at me from the branch in defiance, daring me to take offense. If they carried rapiers I’d fear them.

Mostly, they’re all the same to me, these garden rats. Furry. Cute. Rapacious. Infuriating. But twice now, one has been born that stands out from the rest. Six or seven years ago it was Hugo the Great, acrobat extraordinaire whom I swear could fly…fly I tell you. He sprang into this world either fearless or completely insane and his feats of leaping high overhead across impossible distances only to catch the merest twig tip and cling while it whipped him up and down in wild thirty-foot arcs left both me and every squirrel who chased him with mouths agape in awe and terror. I only saw him the one year of course. He was destined to die young. But oh, what a glorious season. I adored Hugo. He lived like a meteor…hot, fast, and brief.

But his memory faded over time and I was lulled into complacence. I eventually forgot that great ones, avatars, sometimes appear among this race…until late July when I discovered the first beautiful eggplant lying mangled in the pathway. Now I assure you, over time I’ve grown familiar with their favorites, these squirrels.  Fruit has always been their main target and I’ve adjusted my efforts accordingly.  The apple tree I gave them early, it’s always been theirs to plunder, and this year I finally surrendered both the peaches and my four espaliered pears as well. I still fight for the grapes as the muslin bags I tie on each individual cluster have so far foiled their best efforts but up until now they never thought to molest the vegetables.

So when I first spotted the eggplant I naturally thought it was Dane the mangy rescue mutt because Dane will eat anything…anything I tell you…but then I glimpsed the second eggplant lying beneath the spruce tree where they nest, and when I walked over to pick it up I found a hole the size of a golf ball with telltale teeth marks pocking the rest of the skin.  That was when I realized, with sinking heart, that a new squirrel god was nigh.

I’ve named him Ivan the Terrible and, unlike Hugo, his presence gives me no joy. He brings naught but destruction and waste and has so far vandalized not only my eggplants and tomatoes, he’s chewed holes in all the pumpkins, half the butternuts, and eaten about twenty percent of my Delicata squashes outright. Five weeks ago he started eating every new, young squash, regardless of variety.  The muslin bags on the grapes thwarted all his efforts but in his malice he chewed the clusters off the vines anyway and left them lying there on the ground for me to find and weep over.

I pray that, like Hugo, Ivan, too will die young, and that this season will be the only one in which the garden suffers such depredations. But secretly, I fear a darker destiny. I’m haunted by the idea that, like the Yosemite bears who learned to peel open cars for the Cheetos inside, he might teach the other squirrels his ways, that they might all look with fresh eyes on the true abundance of food available and give rise to a new breed that would finally consume everything…everything…I grow.

Sigh.

Perhaps it’s a sign.  Maybe I should think about finally downsizing the garden a bit to get out kayaking more.  I must admit, I’m getting older and farming the backyard is getting harder every year.  Could this squirrel actually be Ivan the Liberator? I’ve seen stranger messengers.

Hmm.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

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Hail in the Garden…yikes!

We’ve got a major storm passing through southwest Idaho as I write. It started at our house with some of the biggest hail I’ve ever seen, (including during all my years in Iowa, a state which can throw up a doozy of a thunderstorm.)

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Evidently, we got off lucky.  Down in Jordan Valley it was golfball-sized, and there was one report of baseball-sized hail.  Good-bye windshields.

The hail we got here was big enough to decimate my squash patches though.

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But Bert, Bertha, Beatrix, and all the other winter squashes are okay.

I tried to take a video during the worst of the hail fall but screwed up and only got a couple of seconds.  Here’s an earful of what it sounded like though.

It was all pretty exciting and I…big thunderstorm fanatic that I am…actually loved the whole thing. The hubster laughed when I told him so and commented that thunderstorms are the only thing in existence that could trash my garden and leave me happy about it afterwards.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

 

Squashland

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Bert

Bert is a Hubbard squash, the largest this year.  Missing are pictures of Bertha and Beatrix,

also large but harder to photograph as the girls are both shy and hiding under leaves.

Bert is the first Hubbard squash I’ve grown who is too big to fit in the oven.

(He’s deeply embarrassed and keeps apologizing.

Squash are actually quite tender on the inside.)

This means, of course, that he’ll have to be cooked in pieces,

a ticklish affair since the shell of a

seasoned Hubbard squash

is impervious to knives.

Hard.

So

Hammer?

Saw?

Drop him five feet onto concrete?

Other ideas anyone?

We’d be grateful.

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The Pumpkin clan are also doing well.

Fat Hamish in the lower left is a wild thing and recently confided

that when he turns orange

he wants to be shot out of a cannon.

Turns out he’d only ever heard about the flying part

and not the landing

so now he just wants to be carved to look like

Bob Marley.

Simple enough.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

I’m still here. Updates on wildfire smoke, a hospice patient in the family, and garden things.

Readers, forgive me for I have sinned.  It’s been two and a half weeks since my last blog post…which is a first.  Maybe it’s a sign that my life really has been just as busy as it feels but still, excuses are boring so I’ll just leave it at this:

Hello and I’m glad to be back.

Updates:

Mon Pere: I wrote a blog post about my father-in-law’s unique dance with aging a while back (see Elders and the Strange Gravitational Effect of Final Mystery) and since then his spiral has tightened.  He was admitted into hospice care a couple of weeks ago and, as so often happens, his symptoms have greatly improved since then.  Finally…relief.

It was interesting watching him work his way through all the many and powerful misunderstandings that still exist about hospice in the minds of most people.  He was very reluctant to take the step because, as he said, “I just don’t feel like I’m dying yet.”

And rightly so.  He’s not.  He’s still very much alive…and he will be until those final days or hours when his body begins it’s final, dramatic shut-down sequence.  Until then, he will not…I repeat NOT…be dying.  He’ll be living with a terminal illness which is not only a completely different thing from dying, it’s where hospice care really shines.

So far the hospice staff (along with family members) have managed to get his escalating pain…previously managed separately and inefficiently by three unrelated doctors in three different far-flung offices…back under control.  His medications have been consolidated, coordinated, and increased enough to actually do the job.  A nurse visits him regularly at home so he no longer has to make an appointment (then wait a week with out-of-control pain before having to drag himself down to whichever doctors’ office is involved.)

After months of debilitating pain he’s been able to finally return to his normal cheerfulness…to doing the kinds of things that he loves.  It’s a transformation we’re all profoundly grateful for.

The hospice he’s with also brought equipment and aid into the house that’s making things a lot easier for him…from getting out of bed, to going to the bathroom, to getting around the house and farther, to taking showers comfortably and safely.  He’s looked at me a couple of times in wide-eyed wonder and mentioned what a gift it is–that it’s all paid for through Medicare.

“It’s free,” he whispers, not quite believing that this help he’s needed so desperately–that’s allowed him to finally stop thinking grim and drastic thoughts and happily return to everything he still loves and longs for–is his for the asking.

I think it’s hard for all of us to believe right now, that there exists this one small part of our tortured healthcare system that’s actually delivering what we all want it to; relief and a better life.  And saving money to boot.

I just wish everyone understood that more.

The Wildfire Smoke:  It’s awful.  It’s like hell.  Brimstone shit.  I got up the other morning, looked out the front door, and this is what the sun looked like:

Seriously.  No photo shopping.  Everyone is a smoker these days.

Air quality has been in the dangerous zone for a couple of days here but it’s far worse up in the mountains near the fires.  On an air-quality scale from green to red, the town of Salmon, Idaho’s air is rated purple…beyond red.  The mayor just had surgical masks handed out to everyone in town and yet still…the fires are likely to rage until the snows come to put them out sometime in late fall.

Prayers for early snow in the Northwest this year are currently being solicited.  You can just send them up into the air where hopefully the jet stream will blow them into a smoke plume.

And last but not least…

The Garden: Harvesting mode.  Roughly forty jars of pickles canned so far (halfway through), twenty quarts of frozen green beans, a shitload of grated zucchini both frozen and dried, pickled peaches, sun dried tomatoes, a lot of blanched and frozen turnip greens, and dehydrated elderberries coming out our ears.  (Everyone is getting elderberry brandy for the holidays this year.  Good flu fighter.)  Oh yeah.  And winter squash.  Lots of winter squash.  And tomatoes, basil, corn, potatoes, peppers, beets, and eggplants waiting in the wings.

It’s been a good year in the backyard.  Gratitude all around.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt And A Surprising Miracle With Homeopathics

Poor guy.  Poor us.  It’s been a struggle since May.

Dane is a big, black, mixed breed, Humane Society adoptee that we’ve had for (let me get the paperwork out to check) five and a half years now.  He’s almost seven years old and weighs in at over a hundred pounds.  He’s smart as a human toddler, playful as a puppy, imaginative (seriously…he pretends), loves children, kills small animals, is a mortal danger to cats, is cooperative and good natured, can’t get enough of people, and is constantly underfoot because he likes to be in on all the action (unless he’s sneaking tomatoes out in the garden at which point he becomes all but invisible).

He’s also had more medical problems than any dog I’ve ever owned.  We’ve dealt with everything from excessive drooling, incontinence, and hair loss to multiple accidents and epilepsy.  It’s always something with him.  Always.

But this year has been the worst.  He blew out his back knee in May, which was kind of catastrophic for both he and I because we haven’t been hiking together since.  His recovery has been complicated and slow, and I’m trying to come to grips with the fact that he’ll probably never be able to romp across hills and mountains the way he used to.  (Of course, said romping is probably what destroyed his knee in the first place, but still.)  If he can someday at least sniff and explore along trail-sides, I’ll consider us very lucky.

Around the same time our orthopedic problems were developing, we also lost control of his epileptic seizures.  Dane has grand mals and, not only was their frequency drastically increasing, they were beginning to consistently cluster in multiple events.  For those who don’t know, clusters are bad because they don’t give the brain enough time to cool off in between seizures, which can lead to brain injury and even death.  This was happening in spite of a drastic (and I mean drastic) increase in medication.  The seizures also contributed to re-injury of his leg, and the pain levels from that were growing increasingly difficult to manage.  He was losing his appetite, refusing to eat and, sometimes, even refusing to take his (many, many, many, many) meds.

The situation was clearly Spiraling Out Of Control (SOOC) and it was at this point I decided to change vets.  Old Doctor had been our vet for sixteen years so switching wasn’t easy.  However, other than surgeries and continuing to increase the dosage of his meds, (which clearly, to me anyway, wasn’t working), Old Doctor had no other options in his tool kit.  And when I asked him if he was willing to work with me in looking for other options, he told me no.

Wha…excuse me?  No?  Just…no

I was admittedly a little nonplussed but still appreciative of his honesty.

So I plunged back into the searching-for-a-new-vet world with a heavy focus on alternatives and eventually discovered our new vet, Dr. Out-There.  (You want options, baby?  I’ll give you OPTIONS…)  This woman was a banquet…a freaking cornucopia…of other possibilities, and after walking up and down the buffet line a few times I settled on a couple of new treatments to try.

You know what she suggested for his epilepsy?  A homeopathic remedy.  A small blue bottle of some kind of tincture with a dropper as delivery system.  Now, I’m not unfamiliar with homeopathics.  I’ve occasionally used them over the years on myself and the kids, with varying degrees of success.  But for advanced epilepsy?  Frankly, it seemed like a stretch.

However, I dutifully went home and administered the required dosage (plus a little more because one or two dropperfuls just didn’t seem like nearly enough) and, lo and behold, Dane has not had a seizure for 42 days!  Not one.  Which has floored me.  They were coming nine days apart in clusters but now?  Nothing.

(So far anyway.  Knock on wood.  I hope I’m not jinxing this by writing about it.)

It’s been like a miracle.  I can’t begin to describe the relief we’ve been feeling around this house since they stopped.  We’ve also had an orthopedic brace custom-made for his leg and it’s made a huge difference in terms of protecting his knee from re-injury and giving the joint support while it slowly heals.  (It’s also kind of sexy looking.  People keep walking up and telling us that, from a distance, they thought he had a bionic leg.)

The pain is still an issue but we’re able to manage it with a fairly low dose of acetaminophen.  And as for his appetite?  Well, it’s still off but it turns out that has nothing to do with pain.  Far from it.  No.  Our boy isn’t eating his dog food because he’s eating gallons of garden tomatoes instead.  (And yes, gallons is a literal measure.)

At first, I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t gotten one ripe tomato off of five heavily-bearing plants all summer long.  Then I started finding the chewed-on but uneaten green ones he left lying around because he’d eaten so many by that point he’d actually grown picky and would only eat the red ones.  (He’d turned into a connoisseur.) That was when I realized what was really going on.  He wasn’t hungry for his dog food because he was engorged from grazing in the garden.

Well this clearly had to stop so, after erecting a bewildering maze of barriers (which utterly failed), Dane was placed on strict house arrest with only monitored visits to the backyard.

But he’s still refusing to eat.  You see, he got used to the chicken bouillon and other moist and delicious tidbits we were putting in his food to try to get him to eat and now he’s not interested in plain dog food anymore.  He’s become a picky eater.  He walks up to the bowl, sniffs a couple times, then turns and walks away to the backdoor where he collapses and lies looking longingly out at the tomatoes.  (Did I mention he’s dramatic, too?)

But…ha ha!  Little does he know he’s dealing with a mother who nipped the picky eater tendency in the bud with her other two human children early on in their little lives.  This cunning mother has a technique called hunger and, given enough time, it always, always works.

I’ll admit that he’s still wining so far because I think he’s sneaking windfall apples back behind the straw bales when he’s supposed to be pooping.  But it doesn’t matter.  I’m patient.  Unlike Dane I know that, sooner or later, this other food source will dwindle and then, my friends, he’ll be at my mercy.

Oh yes.  He’ll eat his dog food again.  And like it.  This, I promise.

To close, here’s a little video of him in his better days. 

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Garden That Got Me To Settle Down

Gardens are not static environments.  You can’t just plant a flower bed and a tree and then expect them to stay put like, say, an arrangement of furniture.

No.

Those lovely flowers will instead grow (hooray!), bloom (yowza!), get spindly (huh?), wilt (wait a second…), and die (ugh) before scattering their seeds to areas of your property you wouldn’t have thought possible (WTF?!!).  At the same time that tree you planted will also grow (and grow and grow) until it eventually shades out the flowers below and the seed scattering which seemed like such a problem in earlier years will no longer be the issue.  It’s now the bare dirt where nothing survives.

Even though I fell in love with growing green things in adolescence when my first, obliging houseplant survived, I didn’t discover this longer-term, dynamic garden relationship until my forties.  This is because, for the first 37 years of my life, I didn’t live in the same house for longer than three and a half years.  For the first seventeen, I was a Marine brat and that’s how often my father was transferred.  The next six years of migration were the result of my on again/off again college attendance.  And the last fourteen involved first one husband who bought and fixed up properties (our homes) for resale, and then a second husband who was adventurous and highly mobile.

Due to this nomadic lifestyle, I’d never had a long-term, committed relationship with a garden before.  Oh, sure, I’d dated quite a few, but always with the understanding that it wouldn’t last.  I was basically in it for the botanical sex; sticking my seeds of choice into the fresh, fertile soil and then devouring the resulting, delicious fruits of the tryst before cinching up my roots and moving on to the next plot.

I was a confirmed bachelorette of the garden world…and perfectly happy with the life.  So when the hubster (adventurous husband #2) and I made our fifth jump in five years and landed in Boise, I had no reason to think this garden would be any different.

I went ahead and sunk my heart and soul into tearing out all the old landscaping (i.e. roses and grass) and replacing it with something more eclectic, but mentally, I always kept myself ready for the next move.  For the first five years, I told myself I could still dig everything up and take it with me when we moved again.  Then, once it became clear that this plan was delusional, I resigned myself to taking a smaller collection of favorite things; a few large rocks, all the container plants, and the old bathtub I’d rigged up as a fountain.  (Basically anything that weighed more than a quarter ton.  The hubster usually fell silent during this part of the conversation.)

This lie survived for eight more years before transitioning into the final period of denial where the hubster and I no longer talked about moving at all, but didn’t realize we were no longer talking about moving.

And then, in 2008, I suddenly realized I was trapped.  I’d held still for too long.  My roots…which had been kept oh-so-carefully tucked up in the belt for decades…had slipped loose while I wasn’t paying attention, snaked their way down into the soil, and transformed this house and garden from temporary way station into permanent home. We’d accidentally and unintentionally created something I could no longer afford to lose.

I had no idea until that moment just how badly I’d needed a home that I wouldn’t have to leave behind.

So.  That’s the story of how, over the last sixteen years, the garden and I (I call her Redbud) have become intimately acquainted.  She’s the lady who landed me, the one who finally got me to settle down.

But, as with any good relationship, I’m always discovering something new, too.  Redbud’s microclimates are constantly shifting with the changes in tree cover and watering experiments.  (I do so love to tinker.)

One of our recent successes involves a narrow strip of side yard on the north side of the house which leads from the front yard to the back.  It’s barely eight feet wide and, for the first nine years we lived here, I mistakenly assumed that nothing would grow there but shade plants.

Upon closer study I realized about half this strip actually receives direct sunlight from May through early July, enough time for any seedlings planted to get a good head start.  So I began to think vertically.  I suspected that if I built a trellis tall enough, any vines started in May would be able to to chase the southward shifting sunlight high enough to escape the return of shade in mid-summer.

And lo and behold, I was right.

You can see how the lower squash leaves die off from lack of light (on the right) while the vines on top flourish. This year has been good for butternut squash.  I have six vines and will probably get fifteen or sixteen squashes.  I try and alternate years between winter squash and pole beans.

To utilize growing space, I planted four shade-loving Schisandra vines on the shadier (left) side of the trellis.  (They require both a male and female for cross pollination so the more vines one plants, the better the odds of getting one of each.)  Schisandra berries are supposed to be a powerful herbal remedy but I wouldn’t know anything about that.  After four years I’ll finally harvest a single cluster of berries this fall, which is not enough to have an herbal effect on anything.

Since the fence that continues along the northern border of the backyard has the best southern exposure on the property, I’ve lined it with espaliered fruit trees.  There are two pears and two apples, which all failed to produce this year because the f—g squirrels bit off almost all the fruit buds in late April.  Here are the espaliered pears:

The two muslin bags in the lower right corner are protecting this years crop–two pears–from further depredation.  It’s working so far.

I’ve had better luck with the peaches; so much so in fact that, despite early fruit thinning, three branches have broken so far under the weight.

The squirrels are chewing off upwards of ten or fifteen fruits a day now, so I’ll probably revert to last year’s strategy and strip the tree early, allowing the green fruit to then ripen in a protected area.  While the taste is inferior that way, at least I win. Gardening, like any good, long-term, committed relationship, is full of compromises.

Redbud’s grape predators are threefold; squirrels, robins, and Dane the mangy rescue mutt. Muslin bags have been an effective deterrent for all three.

Occasionally, a frustrated squirrel will chew through the stem causing a grape cluster, bag intact, to fall to the ground.  Dane has discovered that if he picks these up and delicately mouths them, he gets a delicious shot of grape juice.  He therefore leaves the squirrels unmolested when they’re working around the vines.

Dane is the sole predator of garden tomatoes.  He stripped the bushes once this year.

We were forced to cut down a couple of beloved but badly misplaced trees this year.  We decided to create pedestals out of them.  The driftwood are pieces we’ve collected from various spots along the Pacific Northwest coastline.

 

 

Clearly, there is no tree stump involved in the last photo but I like the driftwood and figured I’d toss it in anyway.

And now, I apologize for the abrupt ending but Redbud calls and I must away.  Happy gardening to you all!

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

 

 

 

Accidental Photo II

Something happened yesterday around sunset that I hadn’t seen before.  For about one minute:thirty-five, the last rays of the sun peeked out from under tumultuous, massed storm clouds and found a sliver of pathway between the branches of three big trees, around the patio roof, and through a major tangle of wisteria to actually make it in our kitchen window.  The light was golden, dramatic, and lit up two vases sitting in the window like luminaries.  And…in a complete fluke…I had my camera to hand.  I took a dozen shots or so and this was at the peak of the light:

Hardly prize winning but it caught the effect so I was happy.  It also, funnily enough, turned out be another accidental photo.  I was only aiming for the vases but wound up capturing an entire series of worlds that I hadn’t seen when I first snapped the shot.  I mean, look at them all.  There’s…

1) the outside, distant garden,

2) the illuminated, inner world of the vases,

3) the invisible realm of glass separating the two (you can only see it by the ghostly reflections it casts),

4) the world of shadows at the bottom right, where the silhouette person lives, and then

5) the dark abyss just under the shelf.

There are more than five of course, (like the neighbor’s world through those darkened windows in the upper, right hand corner) but you get the gist. Without the camera I only perceived a single world with the vases as its dominant focal point.  All the other unique, fascinating worlds present were reduced to background noise, like visual mall music.  It took the camera to give me the time and mental shift necessary to see the rest.

I realize our brains are designed to take the overwhelming barrage of sensory detail that batters us at every moment, and filter it down to just one or two things that we can actually focus on.  And this ability is a good thing.  I understand that.  Without it we’d all have Asperger’s.

But it also means that this seemingly solid, worthy, dependable world we put so much stock in is actually made up of layers upon layers of different realities, entire alternate worlds in fact, most of which we completely miss, all the time.  Our perception of everything around us isn’t even real.

Or no…it’s real enough taken by itself I guess, but it’s only a teeny tiny sliver of what’s really real.

It’s like what the poor sun had to do to itself to make it all the way inside our kitchen window: Reduce an entire star’s massive energy field–immense enough to warm and light an entire solar system–into a low spectrum sunbeam, roughly 2 foot by 3 foot, that only lasted for a minute and a half. Talk about partial.

Having said all that though, still.  The illuminated vases were very…verycool, and I guess that’s enough.  Sometimes, the slivers alone will knock your socks off.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Pictorial Display of The Garden Before It Started Turning Into A Farm

Over the last few years I’ve been transforming our small suburban lot from the relaxing, tranquil garden area (that I spent years of back-breaking labor developing) into a food-producing space.  I’ve torn out quite a bit during the conversion and have no regrets…it’s still beautiful, just in a different way…but some old photos recently turned up and I thought I’d throw them up here as a kind of memorial to the past.

I give you:  The Ghosts of Garden Past

Below: Rustic trellis built from old fence posts hauled down from the cabin in Stanley, and pruned water sprouts from a vining maple tree.  Today it supports an espaliered pear tree while the hosta bed behind is a vegetable patch.

Below:  Another trellis (at the end of the walkway) built from old fence posts.  This one now supports a grape vine which isn’t doing very well because the black elderberry shrub just to the left of it morphed into a black elderberry tree, shading said grape vine into a powdery mildew, non-producing, struggling state of sub-survival.  I love it anyway god help me and can’t bring myself to put it out of its misery.  I don’t know why.

And again, below (I think you probably get it by now):  Mint and oregano bed in the lower left hand corner. (I know, I know…they shouldn’t be together.  But I never told them so they’re not prejudiced or anything.)  Daylilies just beyond them removed to make room for more herbs.  Same hosta bed-now-vegetable patch to the right.  Same trellis.  (It’ll show up a few more times because a suburban lot is just that small, no matter how tricky your photographic angles.)

Pathway with trial of assorted ground covers…I planted three different kinds then waited to see which would grow most successfully in this spot.  In a contest between corsican mint, elfin thyme, and speedwell, the weeds eventually won (as any non-anal grower of ground covers…i.e. none…could have told me.)  Pathway is now pea gravel.

Let’s play “where’s that trellis?”  Daylilies on the far side also removed to make room for rhubarb and currants.  Garden shed to the right.

Herb bed with lemon balm and yarrow.  (I’ve never had to sow seed for either of these herbs again.  Quite the opposite in fact.  I now have an enjoyable spring/summer/fall pastime called weeding the f—–g lemon balm and yarrow sprouts that come up everywhere, every year.)  This bed now contains zucchini and tomato.

Garden shed again and twin compost pins tucked away in the back.  There are two big, furtive locust trees–out of the picture to the left, on the other side of the fence just behind the compost–who think that we’re just the greatest neighbors since sliced bread.  They are to the compost what the squirrels are to the fruit trees.  It’s a relentless battle to keep their sneaky roots from completely taking over inside the bins.

A young, slender trunk-ed, western catalpa tree (the one in the middle with the big elephant-ear type leaves) planted from seed that I stole from a tree in the downtown arboretum.  Why?  Because nurseries around here don’t sell these young trees anymore.  In spite of the fact that they were immensely popular with the Victorian set at the turn of the last century because of their dramatic leaves, stunning early-summer display of unbelievably fragrant white blossoms, and fascinating, rattling, foot-long seed pods, nowadays they’re considered messy.  God forbid a tree should ever drop anything on the ground.   (BTW, did you notice one of the aforementioned big locust trees trying to hide just behind it?  They’re always doing that.)

The lamb’s ears in the container (bottom left) is now lemon thyme, the golden juniper just above it is now a lavender shrub.  But somehow I can’t bring myself to cut out the bigger golden juniper on the right, even though it currently occupies some of the best growing real estate on the property.  It’s like an old, quiet, pleasant, low-maintenance tenant that’s been there forever in a rent-controlled apartment building.  I don’t have the heart to kick it out…so will just have to wait until it dies before I can move somebody else in.  Sigh.

And one last time, “where’s the trellis?”

 This spot next to the front door hasn’t actually changed but I love it so much I’m sticking the photo in here anyway.

One of the two patches of grass left on the property that the hubster has somehow managed to protect from me.  (So far.  It’s still on the endangered list.) 

 And lastly a perennial flower bed next to the driveway, which is slated for mowing so I can slap up a bean trellis instead.

Thanks for joining me on this walk down memory lane!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Let There Be Light! Easter and The 14′ Stihl Telescoping Gas Powered Pole Tree Pruner

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In honor of Easter I’m following a Let There Be Light! theme in today’s post.

The first miracle?  Sunlight  now penetrates into areas of the property that haven’t seen it in over a decade (some of which probably still shouldn’t…oops) because last Saturday we rented a tree pruner and got totally carried away.  The loss of restraint may have been due to simple gloom-fatigue, but more likely it was because of the totally bitchen miniature chainsaw (seriously!! a tiny chainsaw!!) strapped to the end of a long pole that could reach anywhere.  Anywhere.

It was heady stuff.  Who knew that even itty bitty chainsaws can grant that level of intoxicating power?  The chore quickly turned into a kind of pruning Bacchanal, except no wine or naked women.  I believe we cut something off pretty much anything taller than four feet.  Redbuds, catalpas, blue spruce, photinias, apple and maple and peach, and then there was the mugo pine.  (God?  Please help the mugo pine.  We didn’t mean to hurt it like that and we’re really, really sorry.)  The little Stihl Beast cut through tree trunks like butter, apple wood like soft pine, and soft pine like a it was a down pillow exploding, only with wood chips instead of feathers.

We just couldn’t seem to stop.

(The mugo pine; going from five trunks down to two)

The bad news is we have to wait for the trees to leaf out to learn who survived and who didn’t.  But the good news is twofold: 1) The sun will shine on our happy home once more so I should be able to get a decent crop of vegetables again;

(Sugar peas and arugula seedlings: note the elegantly arranged chicken wire to keep out the hostiles)

…and 2) the drastic pruning created all kinds of carnage for the squirrel interstate highway system around and over the garden so maybe Dane the mangy rescue mutt will finally be able to catch a couple of them in his powerful, crunching jaws.  (As I mentioned before here, I currently feel no charity towards them.  None.  They declared war on me, so I will despise them and wish every conceivable kind of harm on the twitching rodent horrors until our usual winter’s truce returns.)  

In the meantime I have a lot of debris to clean up.  Because of time constraints and back pain we hauled anything that fell over into neighbors’ yards, to the dump.  Then we piled the rest into three (big!) piles: one on the driveway, one under what’s left of the mugo pine in the corner, and one in the middle of the lawn.  Why?  Because in spite of the fact that the hubster leans toward hauling the rest of it to the landfill as well, I’m hell bent and determined to chop it all up and use it for kindling and firewood in the wood stove next winter.

Why am I hell bent?  I don’t know.  I just have to.  It’s one of those things.

So five days later I’m about two thirds of the way through the first pile on the lawn.  The hubster is twitching a little himself as he worries about the grass slowly dying underneath, but still refrains from pressuring me.  (Saint Hubster: patron saint of obsessive compulsives.)

I’m doing it all with hand pruners and loppers, cutting each individual piece to sixteen inches or less.  (Again…I don’t know why.)  I’m piling everything against the back fence where it can dry out in the hot, summer, high desert sun so as to readily ignite come next November.

(Looks like salad, no?)

But enough of that.  Now, on to the second miracle.  In spite of last weekend’s widespread destruction, we still managed to preserve and protect the perennial gifts of hope, rebirth, and new life (thereby following a loose Easter theme), that Spring has brought back to the garden this year.  Here are a couple things I found blooming around the garden this morning:

(rain drops on bleeding heart)

(miniature iris with a cluster of hens and chicks on the left)

(and some tulips nestled among the up and coming daylilies)

Blessings on all your gardens and families and Happy Easter!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Squirrels and Spring: The War Begins Anew

The Enemy

The little shits.  I just discovered they’ve gone and bitten most of the flower buds off the espaliered apple and pear trees I planted three years ago.  This…the fourth year…would have been my first to actually get some fruit off these trees, but now?  There will be nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.

No flowers, no fruit.  I’m beaten before the season even started.

Squirrels.  I hate them again.  I spit to the side after saying their name.  I bite my nails at them, chop my elbow and flick my fingers in the air.    I suddenly remember everything they did to the garden last year (every year!) and abhor them with the same passionate loathing I feel in the beginning of each new spring.  My animosity towards them resurrects like some dark and toxic perennial plant, the longer days and increasing warmth calling it forth from its long, winter dormancy.  I recently received a wondrous book for my birthday, The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale, and I turn now to look up hatred because this terrible lust for vengeance I feel requires long and sharpened words on which to impale the little, rodent horrors.

Malevolent, bitter, venomous, antipathy. They are abominations. An execration upon the land. And I hold them, my enemies, in eternal aversion and disaffection.

Take that.

It’s so strange, how this resumption of hostilities takes me by surprise every year.  I’m not sure how it happens but, every winter, I seem to mysteriously forget the previous year’s vandalism and begin to think they’re cute again.  Probably because they are, with their flicking tails and miniature hands and adorable, pointed little faces.  During the season of Long Cold I somehow forget how they laid waste to my peach harvest and bit the heads off every last sunflower and ate my bean sprouts just as they were emerging above ground.  The fact that they gnawed vast patches of bark off our trees and dug up the potted plants and chewed big holes in the tool shed eaves slips my mind and instead, I enjoy watching them hop around the porch, nosing among the fallen bird seed and coming up to peek at me through the sliding glass door.

In winter they’re like a meditation, these tiny gifts of life itself.  A reverie.  A delight.  A lovely, hope-filled reprieve from an otherwise bleak and dreary  garden hibernation.  And then?  Spring comes…poof!…and their true nature reveals itself as they start mindlessly destroying things like the furry, four-footed Jekyll and Hydes they are.  Warm and fuzzy one second, then fanged and slavering the next.

So the battle resumes.  Time to go load up on packages of carpet tack strips to tie along the branches of the peach tree and run some electric wire along anything espaliered.  I need to make more muslin bags to cover the grape clusters as the gray monsters chewed holes through a majority of them last year, but I think I still have enough chicken wire to protect the veggie beds until the seedlings reach a stage where they’re no longer so enticing.

And last but not least, as the most important weapon in my arsenal, I have the squirrel-catapult-is-awful-yet-we-can’t-look-away video.  (Click top video if you, too, need release.) And just so you know, this time of year I make no apology (none!) for laughing oh-so-hysterically when I watch this.  Firstly because, as I mentioned in last year’s squirrel rant, I once saw one fall fifty feet out of a tree in our backyard, stand up, brush its pants off, and light a cigarette.  You can’t injure these things.  C’est impossible. But second and more important, even the squirrels are glad I have an alternate outlet for the violent emotions I feel towards them right now.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

Right Up There With the Discovery of Fire

And now, a brief break from dying to tell you about a discovery I made last year that, in my humble opinion, was nothing less than a huge leap forward for mankind.  (Or at least for the part of mankind that gardens or cooks.)  But first a couple of garden-related shots:

I spent a glorious afternoon yesterday planting garlic, spreading compost, pulling up the bedraggled remains of marigolds and pepper plants, laying in some straw, and harvesting my first-ever crop of Brussels sprouts.  There were eight plants and this is what I got.

It wouldn’t feed a duck.

There should have been a bumper crop of carrots as well but Dane the mangy rescue mutt discovered where they were planted and that, as they say, was that.  He pretended to be sorry as I dragged him over to the scene of the crime, pointed at the ravaged soil, and yelled No!  Dammit, no!! but he wasn’t really.

Dane’s long established motto is, “Better to ask forgiveness than permission”, and secretly he was feeling smug.  He also showed great interest in the garlic I planted yesterday so that bed now has a top dressing of wire mesh across the top.

The cold frames are full of lettuce in readiness for colder weather and now all I have left to do is build a compost pile from the autumn debris.

There.  Enough of that.  Now for the meat.

What I really wanted to share here is no less than one of the greatest discoveries of my lifetime:

Powdered vegetables in baked goods.

That’s right, my friends.  I’ve found something that could change the world.  It may well rival the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel.  You know all those baskets of extra cucumbers every year that you don’t know what to do with?  Or the zucchinis that get away from you and morph into baseball bats over night?  Well, I’ve discovered a way to turn them into something that’s not only edible and nutritious, it’s scrumptious.

Impossible, you say?  Too good to be true, you exclaim?  But au contraire, I waggle my finger in front of your face.  Please read on first, then decide.

I figured it out last year when I was struggling with the biblical flood of pickling cucumbers coming off the six (six!) vines I’d planted.  (Please, please, in the name of all that’s good and holy, don’t ever, ever plant six cucumber vines for two people.) Their yield thrilled me in the first month, daunted me in the second, and swept me out to sea by the third.  I had north of fifty jars of pickled products by the end of the summer and the little abominations were still coming on.  The neighbors refused to take anymore.  Even Dane wouldn’t eat them.  So I began desperately combing the internet searching for new ideas.

I came across a backpacker’s forum of all places, with numerous testimonials swearing to the edibility of cucumber chips.  Simply slice and dehydrate them for a light weight, refreshing, nutritious snack on the trail, they said.  Delicious! one backpacker claimed.  Better than potato chips! sang another.

A day’s effort later and I stood looking down at a large, plastic bowl full of the nasty little things.  One bite and I realized too late that these were backpackers for godsakes; hungry, dirty, tired people with no access to real food.

However, I was desperate.  While I had no idea what I’d eventually do with the things, dehydration at least preserved them.  It bought me time until I could figure out something else.  So dry them I did until the first freeze finally, finally! came and killed off the mother ships.  Then later, because the bags of dried chips took up so much frigging room, I decided to put them through a coffee grinder (beware of cucumber dust!) and store the resulting powder in jars for the sake of efficiency.  At the time I had vague thoughts of making salad dressing with the stuff, or flavoring vegetable dips or cold soups.  It actually took another month for the lightning bolt to strike.

It came to me on a night that I’d made soup for dinner and needed a fast bread.  I was too tired to make biscuits or cornbread, didn’t have time for muffins or a real loaf.  So I opened the cupboard searching for another option and there they were; a jar of freshly ground cucumber powder and a package of whole wheat pancake mix, sitting side by side.  Suddenly, a brilliant light shone down from above, angels burst into song, and I heard the voice of God:

Yo, He boomed.  Check it out…a flour alternative.

And that was that.  History officially began.  I made my first batch of pancakes substituting cucumber powder for a third of the mix.  I fried the batter in olive oil, we dipped the patties in our bowls of lentil soup, and they were…I kid you not…out of this world, drop dead, fantastic.

A year later and I’ve expanded the vegetable repertoire to include zucchini, yellow squash, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, winter squash, and what would have been a lot more carrot powder had Dane not been such a successful root predator.  I’ve used the powders in pancakes, muffins, cornbread, the bread machine, biscuits, and I plan to try it out in pretzels, crackers, cake, and cookies as well.  (Cucumber and zucchini are quite sweet.)  The finished products are a little more dense than usual, and additional liquids are required as the powder sucks up moisture like a sponge, but the nutritional value is superior to canned goods and, for those seeking regularity, the fiber content is off the charts.  (Just sayin’.)

Final note:  I actually discovered a few months ago that I’m not the first human being to figure this out after all.  Bummer.  Long before coffee grinders were invented people used mortars and pestles to grind stuff.  In a fascinating book called The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide by Linda Runyan, she describes how during her years of homesteading she used to regularly grind up dried, wild plants and use the powder in breads and other dishes.  However, my disappointment in learning I was not the first was mitigated by the knowledge that there’s a whole helluva lot more edible stuff out there than just the fruit and veggies I grow in my garden.  You wouldn’t believe it!   The weeds growing in the lawn alone are a veritable buffet; clover, dandelions, crabgrass, and more are all edible. (Only those you haven’t first tried to kill with chemicals of course.)  So there’s plenty more experimentation available in the years ahead.

Bon apetit.


copyright Dia Osborn 2010

The Garden Undead

Okay.  It’s Saturday morning, the hubster is gone, and I’ve got a wild hair to write a post.  (It’s either that or sit down with my book on parasites…which is fascinating, entertaining, and well written, don’t get me wrong.  I just don’t feel like reading right now.)  I know I just announced that I’m only going to post on Fridays but maybe it would be safer to say that I’ll post at least on Fridays.  That way I have some wiggle room if I feel chatty in between.

I finished canning the last of the peaches yesterday and they tasted  funky, which was to be expected seeing as how I picked them all hard and green.  The squirrels this year took off about three-quarters of the fruit before I finally went out one afternoon in a rage and stripped the tree of every last piece of anything remotely edible left on it, right down to the pea-sized, green, furry, little knots that they wouldn’t want anyway.  I didn’t care.  I wasn’t gonna leave anything for those vandalizing garden rats, just in case.  They make me so angry! It wouldn’t be so bad if they would at least eat the peaches.  But they don’t.  They take one bite then throw them on the ground and move to the next one.

Which Dane the mangy rescue mutt loves of course.  He’ll eat anything (including squirrels but even he can’t catch them!)  He just stands around there under the tree with his mouth open, hopeful.

One year I bought carpet tack strips and spent the entire day tying them on every branch of the tree.  My thinking was I’d turn it into a thorn tree of sorts…make it painful for the squirrels to run along the limbs.

Poor little peach tree.  By the time I finished it looked like a bad Halloween costume, like it was going to the party all dressed up as a wannabe black locust.  The strategy worked though.  It slowed the squirrels down even though it didn’t stop them completely…nothing short of a stake through their beady little hearts can do that.  But at least they were eating with a limp.

And then, last week a squirrel nailed me in the head with an apple as I was walking under the apple tree.   That tree is theirs!  I don’t even try to stop them with the apples, I let them have everything on it.  But I swear the brat waited until I was right underneath then dropped a big, green apple, catching me square in the middle of the head where it took a big bounce and then fell off down to the ground.  I could hear them all snickering up there, behind their nasty, little claws, but there was nothing (nothing!) I could do about it.  So I went, fuming, inside and watched the squirrel catapult video again, and that made me feel a little better.

I know, I know.  That video is mean and the squirrel might have gotten injured, but honestly?  I don’t believe it did for a second.  I don’t think you can injure those things.  I saw one fall fifty feet out of a tree in our backyard once and just stand up, brush off its pants, and light a cigarette.  Hand to God.

Stake through the heart, people.  Stake through the heart.

Having said all that though, baby squirrels are just adorable.  This spring we had one that kept coming up to the patio door to look in the house.  My desk sits right next to the door where I can look out at the garden and I was utterly spellbound, watching its little hands there pressed against the glass, its innocent face peering in.  It was tiny and sweet and fearless and curious…and then Dane saw it and blew out through the dog door on to the patio like a hundred pound, black fur explosion of sharp teeth and drool.  The squirrel was too inexperienced to understand what was going on, it didn’t know how to get away, so it panicked and just kept racing back and forth from one end of the concrete to the other.  It was only going to be a matter of seconds before Dane got it but then, suddenly, I blew out through the patio door screaming like a banshee, hands splayed, electricity firing out my fingertips and hair and, hurling myself fifteen feet straight through the air, I tackled him a scant heartbeat before he was about to snap the little guy up.  The baby recognized its window of opportunity and ran up the wisteria trunk, skittering away to safety across the top of the arbor.  Needless to say, it never returned to the patio again after that.

Y’know, I just had a thought.  Could that possibly have been the same squirrel, all grown up, that dropped the apple on my head?  How ironic would that be?

Although I have to admit if it was, I’d be kind of proud of the little scamp.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Searching for a Positive Thought

Question:  Do I have a positive thought in my head today?

Hmmmmm…..

Mmmmmmm…….

Ummmmmm……

Nope.

Something is munching on my just-emerged seedlings in the new garden plot.  All of them.  Anything young, tender, and vulnerable is getting eaten alive and the pace is accelerating.  Two nights ago it was a nibble on a single cucumber shoot.  Last night they took out two chards, half the marigolds, and they seem to be eating the black bean shoots before they can get their little, green heads above ground.  At this rate I might lose everything tonight.

Of course, I could always go out there and do something about it.  I could cut more plastic rings to keep the freaking, tiny terrorists away from my plants.  Or break out the diatomaceous earth and sprinkle it around the stalks to slice the bodies of whoever’s-doing-this to pieces as they crawl toward my babies.  But that would be intelligent and productive.

No, no.  Better to just sit here paralyzed in front of the computer instead, wasting time and life surfing all the bad, bad news and worrying, worrying, worrying.

It appears that, just like the pace of seedling munching in my garden, the pace of bad news out there is accelerating.  Sovereign debt crises.  Persistent unemployment.  Gargantuan budget deficits.  Deepening recession.  Floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, geopolitical conflicts, domestic discontent, drag-on wars.   Gulf oil spill.  Gulf oil spill getting worse.  Gulf oil spill getting catastrophic.

I mean, really, I want to stay abreast of the news.  I do.  I aspire to be an informed citizen.  But where-oh-where is the balance between staying informed and protecting one’s mental health?  The other day when I told our neighbor about a funnel cloud that blew through the valley the previous afternoon, she said she didn’t know anything about it.  My jaw dropped.

“Didn’t you see it on the news?” I asked her.

“Oh, we don’t watch the news anymore,” she answered and smiled.  She looked serene.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, wondering when the last time was that I smiled like that.  When did I last feel that kind of simple peace?

Oh yeah.  It was when I was working out in the garden, that magical place where troubles tend to first crumple, then disappear altogether.  It’s like getting a lobotomy, only reversible.   I can temporarily forget everything by sticking my hands in the dirt, pulling weeds, building compost, or just kneeling there in the grass lulled by the bees buzzing.

It’s a perfect place where birds sing, rain falls, and flowers bloom.  A place where new life is always beginning, over and over again.

Like Disneyland, where the horses only poop in the service area and all the ducks are male so they never mate in front of small children…

Okay.  Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe it’s more real than that.  In fact, when I think about it, there are terrorists in my garden world, too.  Little No-See-Ums who try to stop all that new life by devouring anything and everything young and tender.  But in all fairness I can’t really fault them for it.  They’re just hungry and trying to live, too.

However, I can try and stop them.  I can give my beautiful, beloved little seedlings some protection and the opportunity to grow…

…and mature…

…so that I can eventually eat them instead.  (Who’s the terrorist now, eh?)

Silly, silly humans with our trans ocean oil rigs that are too deep to fix, our financial engineering that is too complicated to understand, our banks that are too big to fail, and all our other magnificent, wondrous innovations that may well be too brilliant to work.  We can be so absurd!

Which is perhaps not the most positive thought in the world but it does make me laugh.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn