Fifty Down, and Fifty To Go

As of yesterday, I am fifty years old.

Just this once, I don’t have to share:


Yeah, right. Multi-tasking. I’ll just keep telling myself that. Baby sweater obligation completed, I find myself once again with two projects on the needles. The green cardi from Nashua Handknits #3 you’ve already seen in progress, and I’d set it aside to make the baby sweater. Looks like it will remain on the back burner for a while longer, although I do love it and intend to finish it in time to wear in the fall:

I got as far as completing the shaped bottom, which is sort of a modified version of the traditional feather and fan stitch (and I’m doing it in one piece on circular needles to eliminate side seams), when I was struck by the desire – the need – the compulsion – to make a completely different cardi from Knitting Lingerie Style by Joan McGowan-Michael. Needed something subtly amazing to wear over a rather bare summer dress, a nude color with a cream paisley pattern. What a fabulous, feminine collection of patterns she has given us! In my stash, I happened to have (what a coincidence!) enough Manos in an ethereal shade of creamy pink to make the bed jacket shown here:

I know the Manos will pill, but I’ll treat the jacket gently. On size 9 needles it’s a quick project, at least so far. Haven’t yet gotten to the short rowing for the ruffle… always a challenge for me no matter how often I try to master it. I finished the back in an evening, and am a good way up the two front panels today. I’m already trying to decide which of my vintage mother-of-pearl buttons will make the perfect closure at the side.

Have I ever mentioned hollyhocks here? Don’t think so, yet look at this specimen. Taller than the 6′ fence behind it, sturdy of stalk and prolific of flower. My, oh my – gorgeous. I planted several of these about five years ago, but only this one and a couple of the others return year after year. Guess I ought to plant a few more.

This afternoon, in yet another attempt to keep the peach tree from keeling over before the fruit ripens, I culled at least another hundred babies. So sad. Does anyone have a recipe that calls for seriously underripe peaches?

Happy June!

The (Very Big) baby sweater is washed, blocked, and finished except for the buttons: Yippee! The child may not be able to wear it until he enters toddlerhood, but at least I know he’ll fit into it at some point! Made a collar instead of the hood, and my co-knitter found bright toggle buttons to finish it off.

My husband loves these calla lilies, and the color is so unusual. We transplanted them out of a pot into the ground in several locations, and they are just now coming into bloom:

Here are the first strawberries, nice and high up in the pot where Vincent van Bunny can’t reach them. Mr. Lizard is made of plaster, so he remains untempted by their approaching ripeness. Nonetheless, I check them every day just in case. So far, no competition.

This clematis is living proof of the persistence of nature. Every year, the vine gamely poked up out of the ground at one corner of the iron fence. Thinking it a mere weed in my first couple of years tending to this patch of ground, I yanked it up and tossed it into the green waste bin. No pesky kudzu-like vines were about to offer competition to my prized climbing roses! Fast forward six years and suddenly this spring, having planted several other clematis… I realized with a slightly sick feeling that the leaves on this errant vine bear a suspiciously strong resemblance to the clematis that I had planted with such tenderness and care in other parts of the garden this spring. So I let it stay… just to see what it would do. Lo and behold, as the saying goes, this was the beauty awaiting my mortified eyes the other day when I noticed it had burst into bloom, mocking my faithlessness:

Baby zucchini are appearing in the vegetable beds, and tonight I steamed the first little yellow scallop squash to have with dinner. These remind me of little jewels, and this yellow-green color combination thrills me. If only I could find some hand-dyed yarn in this range!

Vincent Van Bunny Makes Himself At Home

Strolling around the garden early this morning, camera in hand, I surprised Vincent Van Bunny (Surely there’s no better name for a one-eared rabbit!) hiding in a corner of the back patio. He bolted out, hopping straight toward me in a panic before veering to the left and under the fence into the neighbor’s yard a la Peter Rabbit. Time to spray that Liquid Fence again. I’m not too upset by his presence – in fact you can probably tell I get a kick out of seeing him – because after all these weeks I’ve seen no evidence that he’s eating my plants. As a precaution, I netted a lot of the vegetables, but even the unprotected ones seem fine. And believe me, I check them every day. Some would say obsessively. I justify that obsession this way: yesterday in my lunch salad I was able to include a handful of tiny, sweet Blue Lake green beans fresh off the vine. Yum.

Lots of new blooms to report. Darlow’s Enigma is another of the heirloom climbing roses we planted early in the spring. The flowers are tiny and sweetly scented, but a LONG way from covering the trellis by which they are planted.

The hydrangea is loaded with flower clusters this year after a particularly hard pruning last fall. The color, although perhaps not so interesting or intense, mixes well in bouquets. Like the lady’s mantle, it adds a note of the green I love as a foil to the other flower colors.

The Zephirine Drouhin climbing roses, nearly thornless as promised by J & P, are just beginning to bloom. They will eventually climb the trellising over the front and back gates.

Reclaiming its regular patch of ground is the bee balm (Monarda) I planted a few years back. Every year it spreads a bit further and by mid summer has gone all leggy and unattractive. But now, in late spring, it attracts the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds in abundance, more than living up to its name.

The baby sweater is nearing completion, especially if I decide to leave off the hood and make it a simple cardigan. I want to be done with it by the end of the first week of June, and since the only seams will be at the shoulder (three-needle bind-off: easy peasy and good-looking to boot) and fitting the sleeve caps into the armholes, that should be doable. After I wash and block it to soften up that Tessin yarn, I will return it to my friend who made the sleeves so she can sew on some cute and colorful buttons.

With my 50th birthday fast approaching, I’ve decided not to indulge in any age-related angst and simply to milk it for all it’s worth. Any friends reading this who’d like to take me out for lunch, dinner, or a drink, I’m saying YES to all offers. And I promise: no whining, no pity parties, no pulling my eyelids up or my neck down to ask, “What do you think? Eyes or neck first? Botox or collagen?” Nope. You won’t hear it from me. The women in my family have good genes; my paternal grandmother lived to 94. If I’m lucky, I’ll do the same, and I’ll be one of those in the scarlet high tops, whacking disrespectful children out of the way with my cane as I skateboard past them in the mall. Then I’ll climb (slowly and carefully) back on my Vespa and putt-putt back to the senior living community.

It’s My Blog and I’ll Knit If I Want To…

Having admitted to myself (the first step to recovery is to admit there’s a problem, right?) that when I’m not in the garden it’s because I’m knitting, and when I’m not knitting it’s because I’m in the garden, I’ve decided to include knitting in the blog (so much for the concept of recovery). For those whose interest is exclusively the gardening, I will continue to post photos of my garden throughout the seasons. But for those who share my alternative passion (knitting, that is) my projects both on the needles and off will now get air-play as well. Such as these tipless gloves I made last fall out of Koigu KPPPM from Sandi Rosner’s little book Not Just Socks.

I try really, really hard to stick to one project at a time. I like to think I’m disciplined when it comes to knitting, although anyone who has seen my yarn stash is falling on the floor laughing by now. But the actual knitting, come on. Seldom will you see me with two or more projects in progress simultaneously. Although below is one project that languished in oblivion – I mean in progress – for the better part of three years while I attended to other urgent matters such as my husband’s birthday sweater which he received mere days after his actual birthday and weeks before Christmas so there.

Shadow the Queen of All Cats loves this beaded shawl, made out of Schaefer Helena from a pattern by Lily Chin. I figured out where to place the beads (not part of the actual pattern) using the “Hoisted Atop Stitches” method in Chin’s book Knit and Crochet with Beads . I had only the one skein, so the shawl is more of a shoulder wrap, but cozy nonetheless.

Thus, we reach my present conundrum. No sooner did I start a new cardigan for myself out of the soft Classic Elite Princess (40% merino, 28% viscose, 10% cashmere, 15% nylon, 7% angora):

than a friend and I decided to share the work of making a baby sweater for another friend’s daughter, who is due with her first baby in mid-June. She’s making the sleeves (read: has already completed the sleeves), and I am to make the body and hood. Well, this morning I finally cast on… because I’d really like to finish my cardigan first but let’s face it, Little Miss Alacrity is making me look bad.

The good news is, the hooded baby sweater is a quick and easy Noro pattern: simple six-stitch cables down the front and around the edge of the hood, on size 9 needles (we’re using Muench “Tessin,” a machine-washable wool blend that gets softer with each laundering).

Spent a solid hour dead-heading the roses yesterday, and realized that the first flush of bloom is nearly over. Time to fertilize the plants and do the Full Moon Dance to the Gods of Rebloom. There are still buds on several of the rosebushes, and if memory serves (god only knows who memory serves lately – certainly not me.) some of them are late season bloomers anyway. This Crown Princess Margareta from J & P has loads of new buds on it and new growth appears virtually overnight just below the latest dead-heading cut.

Below is the first bloom of a new “Arctic Queen” clematis from Chalk Hill Clematis, which I planted early in the spring by the back gate. It has only two forlorn and skinny shoots at this point, and they are so wobbly I had to prop them up with plant supports. The flower, however, is gorgeous. I look forward to the day a couple of years from now when these blossoms smother their section of fencing:

Unidentified Flowering Objects (UFOs)

This was given to me by a friend who couldn’t remember its name. It is an evergreen perennial, and the original clump has doubled (perhaps tripled) in size since she gave it to me. I think, from a perusal of my Sunset Western Garden Book, that it’s Stokesia laevis, or Stokes Aster, but if anyone knows differently, please educate me. Maybe sea holly, or sea lavender?

Our front garden is full of volunteer California poppies in the standard neon orange-yellow. I love their cheerful brightness among the roses, and encourage them to spread. The following, however, brought me up short. Never before have I seen anything like this in the California poppy family:

That’s it for the UFOs, but here are a couple of new flowerers I particularly like. This geranium is of the “Firecracker” variety, with brilliant magenta flower spikes. They’ve been very happy to share a pot with the pink snapdragons.

One of the new climbing roses from Heirloom has begun to climb and bloom. Frankly, the climbing is a little slow for my liking, but the blooms are lovely. The variety is “Super Dorothy,” and the deep rose shade is absolutely splendid. If I close my eyes, I can already see them covering the pergola in the back garden… although that is years into the future. I hope I’m still living here then to enjoy them. The blooms are teeny-tiny bits of rose perfection, and the buds – well, we’re talking the size of my pinkie fingernail. Lovely delicate fragrance, too. One floribunda stem would make a bouquet worthy of Tinkerbell.

Holy Pond Scum!

Oh, how quickly the pristine trickling waters of the new “water feature” devolved into algae-coated, mosquito-infested sludge… and so much for the advice of the delivery guy, who blithely suggested, “Just pour a capful of Listerine into it from time to time: No Problem.” Hah!

The local nursery offered Pond and Fountain Water Cleaner, and I hope it works, because you can see the less than satisfactory results of the Listerine Solution above. Blech! And since I just learned that the new owners of the house next door are planning a 1,700 square foot addition that will virtually double the size of the house, the sound of that fountain may help me keep my sanity while the project is under construction. So much for my fantasy of sitting outside under the pergola this summer, writing and knitting to the splashing sound (not jackhammers and drilling) of the fountain.

That Wascally Wabbit

A distant cousin of Peter Cottontail’s seems determined to take up residence in the garden. I’ve spotted him sitting still as a stone among the primroses, and cozying up to the strawberry pots with their unripe berries dangling temptingly from each pocket, and even – not surprisingly – checking out the vegetable garden. How do I know it is always the same rabbit? Easy. He has only one ear… definitely a distinctive feature, or rather LACK of feature, among the rabbit population.

This guy is obviously a tough customer. No shy little Easter bunny is he. Oh, no. More like the mafia capo of the rabbit species, surviving in the wilds by dint of his cunning and speed… except for that unfortunate incident that cost him an ear. The only rabbit allowed to stay in this garden is this one here: A gift from my daughter for Mother’s Day.

You’d never know it to see this tree, bowed as it is under the weight of ripening fruit, but I have pulled a couple of hundred baby peaches off of it, to try and give these thin, young branches a fighting chance. Sacrificing any of the fruit is always hard; every handful that goes into the green waste bin is one less pie or tart, or one less jar of peach jam I’ll be able to make in July. Better to be noble now than to watch the whole tree rip out of the ground because the peaches are too heavy for it to support their weight. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

The first baby artichokes are making their appearance on the new plants. I’m hoping for three this season, so we can each enjoy one without having to share… because if there aren’t enough artichokes to go around, dinnertime can get ugly in this house!

Floribundajulie’s Amazing Technicolor Dream Joseph’s Coat

I still remember visiting the garden of my daughter’s fourth grade teacher not too long after we’d moved to the Bay area. She had, among many other wonders in her garden, a magnificent Joseph’s Coat climbing rose in full bloom on the afternoon we saw it. I remember being astounded that a single rose plant could host blooms in such a wide variety of colors, splashing across its leafy green backdrop in clear shades of yellow, apricot, orange, coral, and rosy pink.

It is a considerable thrill, then, to look out at my own back yard now and see a Joseph’s Coat rose clamouring across our wrought iron fence with an equally stupendous show of blossoms. It took four years to reach its present glory, but every time I look out the back door I know it was worth the wait.

This is probably anticlimactic, but a few postings ago I promised a photo of that Banana Flambe tall bearded iris that was recently added to the front garden. Although it is disappointingly fragrance-free, the stalks are enormous, easily 36″ high. The flowers themselves are probably close to six inches in size. Here it is:

This Is Spring?

What with the cool temperatures and sporadic rain, I can stop complaining about aphids and move on to grousing about powdery mildew on those new roses. At first, I thought a couple of them just weren’t getting enough sun, but now I realize it’s the weather. This too shall pass, but at the moment those curling leaves and that suspicious white film creeping over the leaves is enough to curdle my insides. The back garden’s mature roses, however, WOW! Take a look: (That’s a variegated leaf weigela behind the rose)

The variegated leaf pelargonium is blooming, and has its very own ladybug. Where was she when the Attack of the Mutant Aphids was underway?

These white bearded irises were a “gift” from a friend who had divided hers and left these extras in a hefty trash bag, intending to dispose of them. I performed an intervention and gave them a home in my garden. Had to divide them again last fall, and now they are everywhere! Not much fragrance, but that cool blue-white is a lovely foil against all the more vibrant colors elsewhere in the flower beds.

I knew eventually the personal would creep in to this blog. I just got my braces removed after an eighteen-month stint with rubber bands, metal wires, the works. No more metal hooks to snag the insides of my cheeks, giving me a fleeting resemblance to the Jester of Batman fame. No more do the insides of my cheeks feel like raw hamburger. No longer does it take me 20-30 minutes to floss. No longer does anyone mistake me for a teenager… wait a minute: maybe that part wasn’t so terrible. There are compensations, of course: I may look middle-aged, but boy-oh-boy are my teeth ever straight!

Spring Is Bursting Out All Over

Been busy with the camera over the last week with the irises up and blooming, the roses succumbing to a combination of aphids and caterpillars despite my best efforts to flush them away with blasts from the garden hose and my Godzilla-like gloved hand swiping at them, and the peach tree already heavy with pea-sized peaches on every branch. Have been running star jasmine vines through wires strategically attached to the fences, and the weeding, of course, never ends.

Here are the first Joseph’s Coat climbing roses in bloom. This is the established one climbing the back fence… pruning it back extra hard over the winter has resulted in the most incredible lushness this spring, and the established roses have NONE of the aphid problems of the tender new plants in the front bed.

This new tall bearded iris, called “Anything Goes” is a gorgeous raspberry color, all veiny (and vain, too, perhaps) and deliciously scented. My sister, who is in San Francisco this week on business, spent an afternoon here with me in the garden this weekend, and declared that the purple bearded irises smell just like root beer. We put some new yellow irises up in the front bed, called “Banana Frappe” but they are not yet in bloom so their debut portrait will have to wait for the next post.

The water in the fountain grew increasingly nasty-looking over the last couple of weeks, murky and an inviting breeding pool for mosquitoes, so I sought advice. Hence, I poured a couple of capfuls of Listerine into the water this afternoon, having been assured that it would do the trick. Has anyone else heard of this remedy? Now I wonder if people listening to the fountain’s lovely trickle will feel the sudden urge to gargle or brush their teeth?

I’m also just about to pick the first batch of rhubarb. The leaves are the size of elephant ears (Okay, maybe a pygmy elephant) and I’m glad I resisted my urge to pick the stalks a week ago because they really shot up and are now thick, crimson, and juicy-looking.

Finally, I am so pleased with the way the shade bed turned out. The corydalis really pops against the bleeding heart and the various shades of green. To my amazement, the hellebores in that bed are still vibrant compared to those planted in the beds that get a little more sun during the day. I guess they really do prefer deep shade!

And of course the bleeding hearts themselves are so delicate and airy. Even though there are so many more blooming riches ahead in summer, I still think spring is my favorite season of all:

A Series of Firsts

No sooner do I go out of town for a week (to visit my parents on the cold, rainy East Coast) than spring makes herself at home for real in my garden. And what a thrill to return home to find trees leafed out, progress all around among the new plantings, and the titular series of firsts awaiting my arrival.

Five one-gallon azaleas planted around the base of the fountain are just starting to bloom. Pale pink, with blushing frecked throats, ever so delicate…
The first bearded iris, smelling like the Rolls Royce of grape candy. I feel the beginning of another collection coming on. Irises currently in my garden either came with the house, or were given to me by a friend who divided her white ones and then found she had more than she could use. I’ve seen one called “Anything Goes” at the local nursery, the colors of which are raspberry and pink. They sound gorgeous, and I might not be able to resist. Especially since they are being sold in enormous pots in which there are already enough rhizomes to divide. Hold me back.

The first rose buds, on one of the Joseph’s Coat climbers and on a hybrid tea that we planted a few years ago and which is now over six feet tall and among my favorites for its reliability in pumping out dozens of spicy-scented, long-stemmed beauties every year:

New growth on all the citrus trees, but none so dear to my heart as the richly perfumed blossoms on the navel orange, which I’d been about to give up for dead after it languished for two full years following transplanting to a sunnier part of the garden:

Does anyone have as many aphids on their roses as I? We planted several new roses from Jackson & Perkins early this year, and while the bushes themselves have leafed out and appear healthy, they are SEETHING with aphids. Bought a container of ladybugs at the nursery to set loose in the evening, and hope they will engage in a feeding frenzy since my sprays of water seem only to encourage the little buggers. Also fear I’m seeing white fly on them… how much indignity can tender new roses tolerate? I’m reluctant to use a systemic pesticide, since my garden is pesticide-free and I’d like to keep it that way. But I’ve never had aphids like this…

Oh, My Aching Back…

I guess it was inevitable, with this frenzy of spring activity. Spent a good part of Saturday amending the last raised bed, now that the thornless blackberries have been consigned to the green waste bin (I know, I know, I loved them but no one else in the family would eat them… wouldn’t know a good blackberry if it jumped up out of the bowl and bit them on the nose. Plus, to my eternal annoyance, there were evidently two different kinds of plants, one of which produced sweet, plump and gorgeous berries the size of a giant thumb. These plants, of course, were far less prolific than the ones that produced the sour, seed-loaded tiny berries that disintegrated into a sticky mess when picked and were always crawling with ants.).

Once my strong, agreeable, he-man husband (who might someday actually read these posts, you never know) finished uprooting, shoveling, turning, and raking the soil, I got busy planting artichokes. Three so far, and if I can find two more there just might be room for them. I found the standard green globe variety at our local nursery, and perhaps will be lucky enough to find some of the purple ones if I venture a little farther afield. Anyone know of nurseries anywhere in the East Bay carrying more esoteric artichoke varieties?

That last tomato I planted, by the way, is a Hillbilly, from W. Virginia originally. Yellow fruit with red streaks. Sweet tomato-y flavor. Did very well last summer, so all I ask is more of the same.

The dogwood blossoms seem to have gotten pinker, and our rhody is in bloom. It is ancient and exceptionally leggy. I might get brave when it goes dormant again, and lop off the tops to see if it produces some new growth down near the bottom of the shrub.

Found lemon-scented geraniums at the nursery, and planted them near the patio table so the citronella fragrance might help keep the bugs away.

Also found the variegated leaf pelargonium I love, and potted those up this weekend as well. The flowers aren’t much to look at, but with these leaves they don’t have to be:

Nothing Makes Me Happier Than…

Nothing makes me happier in the spring than a pot of primroses and pansies by the front door.

Unless, of course, it’s the fact that the new dogwood is in bloom for the first time.

Or, perhaps, it is seeing the delicate white blossoms on our ancient Bartlett pear tree that over the years has provided the fruit for many a tart and jar of jam or pear butter.

Maybe it’s the satisfaction of prepping the vegetable garden for another summer. Turning the soil and adding amendments is labor-intensive and progresses much more quickly when I bribe my husband with promises to plant his favorite squash and tomatoes (well, I like them too, so it’s really a win-win proposition!). It’s a thrill to see those pristine raised beds all ready to go. This year, I couldn’t resist NINE different kinds of tomatoes (Brandywine, Watermelon Beefsteak, Pineapple, Black Krim, Green Zebra, Black Pineapple, Costoluto Genovese, a paste variety, and one other I can’t think of right now). I must be crazy.

I’m probably way too late, but threw a couple handfuls of sugar snap peas into the ground last week just in case they might still sprout. Even if I get no peas because the weather heats up too fast, we’ll eat the shoots! That’s rhubarb in the foreground of the photo below, a division of which was gifted to me by my friend Sandy, who has since moved away. I have a fantastic recipe for a rhubarb-citrus chutney that I’d be happy to share. It sounds kind of gross, but the rhubarb flavor is completely masked by the other ingredients and acts more as texture. It’s delicious over pork tenderloin or with cheese. Really.

Wow! Has it really been over a week since my last post? Too much happening in the garden to sit myself down at the computer to update. Last week, as further research for an article I’m writing, I toured the Ruth Bancroft Garden with their delightful media liaison person. Talk about hidden treasure… this wonderful garden is tucked away in plain sight, smack-dab in the middle of suburban Walnut Creek.

Devoted to succulents – agaves, cacti, echeverria, and aloes, to name a few – the RB Garden is the charter member of the Garden Conservancy, and is better known to garden lovers in other parts of the world than in our own. They have an annual plant sale (the better to have succulents of your very own), a Mother’s Day boxed tea and tour, and other workshops on things like plant propagation. Very cool.

With cacti that bear a startling resemblance to characters from a Dr. Seuss book, and agaves like props from “Little Shop of Horrors” – complete with flower stalks that appear to be gigantic mutant asparagus erupting from their centers – this public garden is understandably a hit on the elementary school field trip circuit. It’s quite amazing, and you should go there. Soon.

In my own back yard, this crazy warm weather (80 degrees two days last week) resulted in visible growth in all sectors of the garden. The blue of the corydalis, coupled with its speckled leaves, add lovely notes of color and texture to the shade bed, especially now that the pink bleeding heart is just starting to bloom. Those fragile looking one-year old roses from the Heirloom mail-order company have at least tripled in size. The clematis have tiny leaves and flower buds sprouting on them. I transplanted some of last year’s given-up-for-dead geraniums, and those are leafing out. Yes, they’re stinky, but the shot of brilliant red flowers in mid-summer is just what the back patio craves. The flowering plum trees are blooming and leafing out, a gorgeous shiny claret color.

Eternally delightful are the hellebores. This deep burgundy one thrills me… the blooms seem never to fade, and they last for months. No sign yet of flowers on the daphne, but I’m ever hopeful. Besides, if we missed the flowers this year we’ll surely see them next year. Did I mention the dogwood is about to bloom? I’ll have photos of it in the next few days. Here are some other things coloring up the garden… primroses, which do fine until the sun gets too hot for them, and then splat! They wilt in the blink of an eye.