A Time of Abundance

Experienced gardeners and farmers accept that each growing season isn’t completely predictable.  Every year, crops may yield huge numbers, or a natural disaster may destroy them completely.  The ebb and flow of times of plenty mixed with times of scarcity is a result of living in a natural world that we can use, but can’t fully control.
Novice gardeners (the category in which I still fall) often feel surprised when their vegetable gardens provide several meals’ worth of produce, and likewise also feel disappointment when the reality of a tough growing season does not match expectations at planting time.  Lamenting to other, more mature gardeners in the past about problems such as my dying cucumbers or my unproductive squash plants has often been met with a response of “Most cucumbers haven’t handled the heat spells very well this year” or “This hasn’t been a great year for squash.”  Such responses have always made me stop and mentally re-evaluate my own awareness (or lack thereof) of what I can truly control.  And, they’ve made me begin to appreciate my occasional gardening successes.
Currently, dear readers, I am living in a time of abundance.   Much of it has come in the form of a little happy baby boy, who, like the songbirds and the first flowers of spring, arrived in March.  My home, my heart, and my life are overflowing right now, and I can’t logically explain why I get to experience it all, with its joys and successes, busy days and long nights.  My husband and I wanted children for years before our son arrived, and so the opportunity to live this abundant life leaves us grateful beyond words. 
Every single day, I have more to do than I have hours available (forget whether or not they are “waking” hours – that’s no longer a factor that determines whether or not something gets done!).  Some people feel frustrated by that feeling of never getting ahead, and once in a while, I do stop and wonder if I’ll ever feel rested again.  However, I primarily see my life as so full right now that I never have to look far in any direction to engage in some fulfilling activity.  Everywhere I turn, I am surrounded by the opportunity to do something that I love, and very often it is for or with people that I love.  Minor irritants may occur, perhaps even daily, but they are just reminders that I am living a real life, not chasing a dream that may end suddenly.  
My blog has been empty and my garden has been full – primarily of weeds and plants that the deer have destroyed.   Then again, I have achieved a small victory in my triumph over the evil squash bug this year (several squash have been picked and eaten, and we’re still going strong with not a single bug in sight!).   I also was quite happily surprised by the explosion of flowers on my gardenia plants – their fragrant blooms were the highlight of my front yard for nearly a month, and I have no idea why.  I fed the roses their food this year but overlooked the gardenias, and still, they brought out their showiest flowers yet.  I did nothing to deserve that, but I enjoyed it, nonetheless.
I am already looking forward to sharing my love of the outdoors and my gardening adventures with my son in the coming years.  And I also realize that times of abundance come and go, as do times of grief and need.  Whatever the future may hold, I have to capture this year in my memory, and take a little time now to marvel in the wonder of its goodness.

Harvest and Thankfulness

Thanksgiving has come and gone... the gardens and fields have yielded their best.  We had so many reasons to celebrate and give thanks this holiday.  Not only have we enjoyed many delicious and beautiful blessings from nature this year -- we also have much hope for the months to come.

I've neglected this blog for a couple of months, while other issues and obligations came up in my life.  My neglect is also partly due to the annual autumn Midwestern frenzied state of mind that has accompanied me even here to the Southeast.  Mentally, as summer ends, I'm closing out my end-of-season summer chores, I'm preparing for winter, and I'm feeling pressure to "get things done" as the days grow shorter and the nights colder.  However, the harvest is over, and the canned tomatoes, peaches, and pickles are ready to eat.  Autumn has been beautiful and eventful, but the approach of winter signifies a change of pace. It's time to return regularly to blogging again. 

August Beauty

I can't let summer pass without featuring my favorite flower, the gardenia.  White flowers always emanate such quiet elegance, but gardenias seem to rise above the others into a class of their own.  

Gardenias are romantic, fragrant, graceful flowers.  They are also very delicate and notoriously difficult to keep healthy.  I decided to attempt cultivating this flower shortly after we moved into our house.  I planted 3 small gardenia bushes 2 years ago, and 2 more last year.  The variety?  Gardenia Jasminoides ('August Beauty').  Each of the plants cost less than $7, so I figured that I wasn't throwing too much money away if it all didn't work out.  The plants were truly a bit scrawny, and although I knew gardenias had the potential to become very large shrubs, I truly didn't think my gardening skills would be able to take the plants very far.  Sometimes, it seems as though weeds are the only plants on our property that can rapidly grow to full size.

It did, however, work out.  Wonderfully.  My gardenias have exploded in growth and have truly become the pièce de résistance of my entire gardening effort.  They've overwintered well and have responded nicely to a spring trimming for two years in a row now.  Each summer they provide gorgeous, scented blooms. 

I feel as though I could easily begin to brag here about my accomplishment in keeping such a finicky flowering shrub alive.   The fact is -- I wish I could take credit for their lush, healthy growth, but I can't.  I have very little idea why they are so very healthy.  A big part of it has been pure luck.  Yes, I've done my best to promote their growth, but I've done that with all of my plants and haven't always achieved the same result (in fact, I rarely achieve the same result).  In case you are interested in trying your hand in growing these lovely plants, here are my best guesses about the contributing factors that I believe may have played a role in this success:

Pest control.  The biggest problem I've encountered with my gardenias has been, not surprisingly, bugs.  Yes, white flies are real, and if you have a gardenia, they will come.  Try looking up the phrase "problem with gardenias" in Google, and you will immediately find questions and concerns about the white fly.  I'm not sure how much of a true threat those annoying little bits of flying fuzz pose to the plants, but I've eliminated them (each time, temporarily) with a spray bottle of water and a little bit of Ivory soap.  I can't completely keep them away, but I make an attempt to reduce their numbers.  In truth, the gardenias have usually looked healthy with and without the white flies, so I'm not certain how much I am helping.   I also rid my gardenias of an infestation of thrips once, using a mixture of Ivory soap, water, cayenne pepper, and garlic.  The thrips did have a devastating effect on the gardenia blooms -- they tended to eat them from the inside out, before the flowers had a chance to open.  Regular mulching and trimming nearby weeds has also helped eliminate the thrip population.

Humidity.  This factor may not be within your control, unless you have a greenhouse.  Gardenias respond very well to humidity.  The hottest, thickest, stickiest (and in my opinion, most miserable) summer weather will cause gardenias to rapidly add to their height and depth.  The healthiest growth seems to appear in those hot summer months, and the leaves turn that satisfyingly deep green.  Personally, I am not sure that gardenias can't survive without humidity, but realize that, if you do not live in a climate that yields summer moisture as regularly as the produce section of the grocery store, your gardenias may not grow as quickly as you may expect.  I've read that attempts to spray water onto the plants with a spray bottle cannot mimic the natural humidity on which gardenias thrive, and may in fact contribute to the growth of unwanted fungus.

Location.  I chose to plant my gardenias underneath the bay window in the front of our house.  My original idea was that, once the plants flowered, I would be able to open the windows to breathe in the delicious aroma of their blooms.  (That hasn't quite worked out -- see my notes on humidity above.)  Their location next to the house and underneath the protruding window gives them just a little additional protection from cold weather.  Gardenias are not fond of winter.  My gardenias have survived several light snowfalls, but they rarely have to endure a night below 15° F.  If you live in a chilly climate, you may need to bring your gardenia indoors for the winter, or cover it for a little additional protection for those nights that get very far below freezing.  Also, my gardenias also receive full morning and evening sun, with just a little bit of sun in the early afternoon.  They are, however, protected from the sun during the most glaringly hot portion of the day.   

The gardenia flower turns brown very quickly and easily -- even the simple touch of a human hand can leave oils on the bloom that will turn it brown.  Perhaps that adds to the flower's exotic appeal.  The blooms on my plants are also frequently hidden among the lush branches and leaves -- my plants do not obviously showcase their little white gems.  Rushing past these plants will not allow one to appreciate their presence.  They may want us to slow down when we walk by -- to take a deep breath, and draw in their aromatic August beauty.     

Spicy Sprigs: Growing and Drying Oregano

Growing and drying oregano is an easy and rewarding process.  The foods you make using “homemade” oregano will taste better, too!
Whether planted in the ground or a container, Greek oregano grows and spreads quite readily.  I normally keep all of my herbs in pots on my front porch; others like to create in-ground herb gardens.  Oregano is a low-maintenance herb – it only needs regular sunlight and moisture to thrive.
Drying oregano does not require a dehydrator.  The following list of everyday household items will accomplish the task:
·         Scissors
·         Ties, strings, or rubber bands
·         Large paper lunch bag
In my opinion, the single most difficult part of drying herbs is waiting for the plants to get large enough to cut.  I wait until the branches are a minimum of 4-6 inches long before I cut them.  I also try to cut sprigs of different sizes from various places on the plant, or from a couple of locations on multiple plants, in order to promote further growth. 
Never cut your herbs in the heat of the day, especially in warmer climates.  A good general rule to follow is to cut the branches at the same time of day that you might water the plant.  Generally speaking, that time should be early to mid-morning, or mid- to late evening. 
Once you’ve got a bunch of cut oregano in hand, wash the oregano in lukewarm water.  Run your hands gently over the leaves and move the branches through running water to remove any hidden dirt or bugs.
Dry the oregano thoroughly.  Remember, our goal is to quickly dry the oregano so we can crumble it up into seasoning, so a good job here is essential to the success of the entire task.  I usually shake any obvious water drops off of my oregano, pat it gently with paper towels, and then spread the cuttings apart on a wire rack, leaving them to dry for just an hour or two. 
When dry, put your oregano in a bunch, with the cut edge of the stems arranged evenly on the bottom.  Use a tie, string, or rubber band to secure the bunch right above the bottom edge.  You may need to strip a few leaves at the base of the bunch in order to get a tie securely in place.

Hang the oregano in a well-ventilated area that is not exposed to much sun.  I’ve heard that some people hang their herbs to dry from their garage, shed, or barn rafters.  During summer months in humid climates, however, it is not ideal to hang the herbs anywhere outdoors.  In some cases, it’s possible to run string underneath bookshelves, and attach the oregano to hang under the shelves to dry.      Personally, I use paper bags to store my oregano while it’s drying.  I simply take a large paper lunch bag, cut a few holes and slits in it to allow a little air to move into it, and place the oregano upside-down in the bag, with the bunch of leaves at the bottom and the cut stems at the top.  I then close the very top of the paper bag in a bunch, around the base of the stems, and secure it with a rubber band.  I usually place it in a location that has some air movement, but away from anything that could knock over the bag or get it wet.  If you must locate your herbs in a safe place that does not get much air movement, you can also place a rotating fan nearby to promote air flow.

Now comes the second hardest part – more waiting!  Usually, oregano should sit for a minimum of one to two weeks.  The leaves will wither, dry, and shrink.  However, if you walk by the paper bag and smell it during this time period, you’ll find that the aroma remains quite potent! 
To verify that the oregano is dry enough to use or store, take the oregano out of the paper bag, and put your index finger and thumb around one of the leaves, and rub them together.  If the leaf readily and easily crumbles, with no additional effort needed, the oregano for crushing.

To remove the dried oregano leaves, simply place the oregano over a storage container or into a sealing plastic bag.  Place your thumb and forefinger around the base of each stem, and run them along the length of each stem to strip the leaves.  After the leaves are removed, you can crush the leaves further, or use them as they are. 
After you seal the bag or container, observe it for a few days.  If you notice drops of moisture appearing inside the storage container, your oregano is not completely dry yet, and you must give it access to fresh, circulating air immediately to allow the moisture to escape.
Plan to use your oregano within a few months.   If you do not plan to use the oregano within the next 3-4 months, you can store it in the freezer and take it out only when using it.
Lastly – don’t forget that oregano dried from the garden will be quite a bit stronger than the kind you buy in the baking aisle of the grocery store.  Take that into account when adding it to your recipes.  Enjoy!

The Heat Giveth, and the Heat Taketh Away

This post is written in remembrance of my dear, departed potted annuals.  May they go in peace, knowing they once brought beauty and elegance to my front porch.

It's hot here in central North Carolina, and several of the plants are showing the results of it.  These annuals, which once looked full, lush and healthy (as pictured above) are now quite beyond their prime.   The term "burned to a crisp" might be appropriate, actually.  The dahlias (center) have completely died, the begonias have brown and curly leaves, and the trailing bacopa are stringy, bloomless, and look a little worse every day.  Each year, I enjoy putting together a different mixture of annuals for my front porch, and I really liked this particular mixture.  Back during those balmy spring days, when I perused the annuals at the garden shops to select this year's varieties, it was hard to imagine the brutal, searing heat that was on its way.  But it has arrived, nonetheless.

About this time every year, things get a bit out of control in my gardening efforts.   The garden becomes difficult to keep watered sufficiently, the weeds in nearly every landscaped area get a little worse (OK, in truth, a lot worse), and I'm simply not outside as much.  I still put forth some effort, but I also begin planning for fall, when we'll get those blessed breaks in humidity and the five-day forecast won't have so many 9s in it.  Once the temperature reaches more than 60 degrees above or below the freezing mark (I've experienced both), I prefer to spend more time indoors.  Miserable is miserable, and either way, I'm just not tough enough to stay outside for long.

Although some of the summer plants are beginning to bloom less, and some are dying back, a few of them are absolutely thriving in these conditions.  My gardenias and elephant ear plants (Colocasia) are clearly loving this weather; each time I water them, I feel as though I could watch them grow, if I just stood next to them for a few more minutes.  I'm thankful they don't require much more from me in this heat than a good soaking with the water hose now and then.  I'll write a post on each of them later this month, to share a little of their vitality in this August heat.  It's their turn to be in the spotlight.  And I'll be happy to write those posts -- from the comfort of my air-conditioned home.   

Tale of the Swallowtails

The sight of a butterfly drinking nectar from a garden flower can evoke an appreciation of a simple and delicate beauty. However, we rarely stop to think about the less-than-picturesque life the butterfly had prior to that point.

This story recounts how a few garden intruders completed their transformation into butterflies, with a little help from the community.

The Discovery

One hot Saturday, I came across a brightly-colored caterpillar while weeding. Because it wasn’t on a plant, I left it alone, and soon afterward returned indoors to escape the heat.
Meanwhile, this caterpillar carried on… and called his buddies.

When I returned to weed that evening, I noticed something was wrong with the dill plants. ...

(Read the rest of the story here at Your Gardening Friend, a blog that helps "equip beginners with the necessary tools and know-how, the building blocks, to feel confident in starting and maintaining a garden, as well as the more experienced gardener with some gratifying and challenging projects."  I've certainly learned quite a bit from this blog, and I'm sure you will enjoy it too!)

Ready to Soar

I had a little audience while I was watering my flowers the other evening. 

A pair of young bluebird eyes (or two) kept peeking out from the hole in the nesting box.  They would make little peeping noises, raise their heads to look out at me, then, dart down out of view, giving a bit louder cheep when they discovered I was still standing nearby.  It became a hilarious game after a few minutes! 

I realized I couldn't get too close to the nest, however.  Once I stepped just a couple of feet directly in front of them, they looked out at me and were probably geniunely frightened.  They stopped chirping and got very quiet.  In a way, I was glad they recognized the threat of a potential predator. 

These cute little bluebird youngsters are about to leave the nest, to strike out on their own in the great big world.  They clearly were viewing that world from their nest, as they were preparing to fledge, to lift their wings and fly out for the very first time.  It must look large, scary, and, most of all, unknown to them.

Of all things that came to mind at this time, I was reminded of the scene I came upon while shopping the day before I had my little game with the bluebirds.  I had stopped to pick up a few small houseware goods in Target, and I saw multiple mothers walking the aisles with their older teenagers, buying supplies for college.  Many of those young people are preparing to step out in the great big world themselves, and deal with experiences they've only been told how to manage to this point.  The term "leaving the nest" is quite a cliche, but I clearly saw the parallel this week, in a way I never previously had.  

It seems, however, that we usually have more than one "leaving the nest" moment in our lives.  We stand at the precipice of unfamiliar territory, peering over the edge, preparing to step out and soar over it.  We're just waiting for that one, motivating moment, in which we will lift our wings to take flight.