A Dark & Dismal Flower
“Mind the seeds you plant, and the flowers that you tend,” advises Aunt Maeve as she hands a packet of magical seeds to her little niece.
From that mix of seeds sprouts a mesmerizing, magical journey for one little girl.
Each day, the girl plants a different seed, only to see flowers bloom into botanical allegories of her own behavior: The bright seed of Cheerfulness grows towards the light. The seed of Patience grows slowly and blooms after many moons. In the garden are virtues: Kindness, Hope, Generosity, Humor and Gratitude. But also failings: Fibs, Misery, Tattle Tale, Vanity and Argument. Each flower represents a quality that the little girl cultivates (or battles) within herself.
Mother and daughter authors J.C. Herz and Eve Scott take readers on a vivid, interactive adventure whose literary language and exquisite animated illustrations are deeply evocative. The narrative and imagery opens the door for even young children to reflect on their own behavior and moral choices.
This was the handout I gave to the DIY Del Ray’s “Urban Farm Tour” groups who visited my back yard last weekend:
Our micro-farmstead started out as a large brick patio in the back yard. I don’t know why the previous owner, or the original builder, felt like red brick floor in the middle of summer would make a great place to socialize. We knew we had to do something to break up the “pizza stone” effect during the hot summer months. Our raised beds run along the perimeter of the old patio – my husband built them as a Mother’s Day gift. The raised bed in the middle was added a few years later – another Mother’s Day gift. Some women get breakfast in bed. I get to hear a table saw going all day, and a lot of digging.
1) If possible, be married to an incredibly strong person (our new shed is a mini CrossFit gym). Digging is functional fitness!
2) Compost: The soil in our area is a thin layer of top soil over solid clay – not a hospitable environment for most plants, especially ones whose roots go deeper than six inches. Clay in the topsoil causes an impenetrable shell to form by mid-summer and prevents drainage, which causes root rot in the winter. Soil amendment is the way to go. We compost (deluxe double-barrelled composter was yet another Mother’s Day gift). But when we replaced the chain link fence along the side with a wood fence and wanted to plant asparagus, we needed to buy compost – a lot of it. We dug 960 pounds of compost – 24 40-pound bags – into the bed that runs the length of our back yard along the fence. Because asparagus is a) labor-intensive to plant and b) dies if it’s waterlogged over the winter.
3) Scale: More is Different
To people who have one or two raised beds with herbs and a couple of tomato plants, I say: enjoy it! Be happy where you are! It’s too late for me – save yourselves! But seriously, the pleasures of a small kitchen garden are different than those of a nano-farm in your backyard. Small kitchen gardens are easy to weed – you can keep them looking pretty with minimum effort. When you go from dozens of square feet to hundreds, you make peace with the fact that a certain amount of crabgrass will get to enjoy the lovely compost you laid down. It’s not going to be perfectly weeded and pretty because it’s not a dollhouse.
4) Harvesting: Be Careful What You Wish For
I thought it would be great to have five kinds of beans in the garden – an heirloom foodie cornucopia of haricot verts, yellow wax beans, purple beans, bush and pole beans. Harvesting these beans became a nonstop, daily field-hand chore. I did learn my lesson about too much zucchini (after four seasons of family and neighbors dutifully accepting bag-fulls of it). Now, zucchini is a baby-vegetables-only proposition. But I totally overdid it with beans. Which leads to:
5) The Slippery Slope: Preserving. You are lucky I’m not slipping a Ball jar of dilly beans through your open car window as we speak. Damn you, Del Ray Variety Store canning-and-preserving section!
6) Bird Net is a Double Edged Sword: We net our tomatoes because if we don’t the critters get them (they don’t eat whole tomatoes – they take small bites out of multiple tomatoes). The bird net makes it harder for critters to get the tomatoes. But it also makes it harder for people to get the tomatoes, or tend the tomatoes. It’s a trade-off.
7) Fruit is More Delightful Than Vegetables
But fruit is more fun than vegetables, especially if you have kids. We have figs ripening up on the big tree to the left of the porch, and blackberries along the side fence in the front yard. Scuppernong grapes grow on the tall trellis against the west (driveway) wall, and passion fruit vines grow sort of wild on the other side of the house.
The tree in the middle of the strawberry patch in our front yard is a sour cherry tree – this year we harvested enough for a pie (it’s a young tree). Half of our front yard (between the driveway and the path) is strawberries – we got 11 lbs of strawberries out of that strawberry patch by the end of the strawberry season. And by “we” I mean the kids, 8 and 4. There is something primal about children foraging for fruit. And fresh-picked strawberries that have been warming in the sun are a different fruit than the kind you buy in stores or even at a farmer’s market. The moment that strawberry is picked, the aroma of it, and the warmth of it as you bite into it, is unlike anything else. People talk about the difference between a vine-ripened tomato and a store-bought tomato. But the difference between a store strawberry and sun-warmed, just-picked strawberry is even bigger.
Gathering fruit and eating it out of hand is what I want my kids to remember from their childhoods. Strawberries are hardy in this area – they survived this year’s harsh winter like champs. And they reduce the amount of yard you need to mow. Highly recommend as a ground cover. Note: there’s a fence and a lilac-bush buffer between the sidewalk (i.e. the neighborhood dogs) and the strawberry bed.
8) Children’s Garden Beds: Our kids have had their own garden beds starting at age 4. We plant tulips for the spring and the child’s choice of flower or vegetable in the summer. My daughter’s bed has popcorn and marigolds. My son decided he wanted to be an edamame farmer, since that’s his favorite food. It’s great for kids to choose what they want to plant, bury the seeds, and have some basic responsibility for watering. Better still, they get to decide when to cut the flowers and who they’re going to share them with, and they get bragging rights at dinner or during winter when we pop the popcorn. It gives kids ownership and a real sense that they’re contributing to the family in a way that’s real, that doesn’t patronize them.
The children’s beds won’t be dutifully weeded, watered or harvested, but that’s OK. It’s important to teach the importance of watering, weeding and harvesting to keep flowers and veggies producing. It’s also important to let kids fail. Untended plants will croak. Let it happen.
9) Bees: A New Adventure: You’ll notice a beehive along the side fence in the back yard, almost parallel with the back porch. We’re raising them a) to support the honeybee population, which is cratering across the country, b) to pollinate our own fruits and vegetables, and c) because my husband has seasonal allergies and local honey is supposed to alleviate that. Our bees are Carolinian bees – they’re very docile, and we’ve only had one sting (a bee flew into my son’s hair, and my attempt to push it off his head frightened it – little Jack turned to my husband, pointed an accusing finger and cried, “She made it sting me.”
10) Don’t be afraid to mix flowers and veggies. We have dahlias and cosmos, and sunflowers mixed in, or alternating with melons, okra, and everything else. Tall, bold flowers are fun to throw into the mix – they reinforce the “garden-ness” of an urban farm, and they create a luxuriousness of backyard bounty. After all, if you didn’t grow vegetables, you’d buy them at the store. Armfuls of flowers? It seems extravagant, almost Victorian, to have flowers in every room. But if you grow them, that’s what your kids (especially little girls) will cherish: being able to cut flowers, arrange them, and put a vase in everyone’s bedroom. It’s very gratifying for little girls (and grown-up girls) to be able to do that.
11) Hazelnuts: Time Will Tell. We have some very young hazelnut shrubs along the front fence, which will hopefully pollinate the corkscrew hazel in front of the porch (they’re grown for their ornamental branches, but do make nuts if pollinated by other hazels). Who knows? The urban farm motto is, “It’s all an experiment.”
If I had one wish for the neighborhood, it’d be for people with enough space in their yards to plant hardy pecan trees – they get tall, create great shade, and pecans are really tasty. Willis Orchards sells hardy pecans, from yard-high saplings that cost around $10 to 8’-9’ young trees that cost around $100. We don’t have the space for them – but if another derecho wiped out the big maples in our back yard, I’d want to plant a couple of hardy pecans.
2014 Year To Date Garden Harvest:
31 bouquets: tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, roses, irises, peonies, sweet peas, dahlias
1/2 lb spinach
7 lbs. radishes (French breakfast, purple daikon – eaten fresh & pickled)
11 lbs strawberries
4.5 lbs spring peas
1/2 lb arugula
7.5 lb beets (chioggia, Touchstone gold)
3 lbs Sungold cherry tomatoes
6 lbs baby(ish) zucchini
22 lbs heirloom tomatoes, vine ripened
13 lbs green tomatoes
14 lbs string beans, five varieties (“Velour” and “Capitano” are favorites)
2 lbs shell beans
4 lbs okra, Clemson spineless and Red Burgundy
2 lbs edamame
3 lbs leeks
1/2 lb cucumbers
1 lb figs
Still growing or ripening: sunflowers, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, dahlias, one tomato plant, grapes, leeks, okra, edamame, beans, popcorn, figs
Fall planting: brussels sprouts, chard, beets, kale, arugula, cauliflower, romanesco
Before we were married, my husband and I bought a brick house with a giant Chinese elm growing along the west-facing wall. This tree was massive, almost a meter wide at the base, with gigantic limbs arching over the roof. It sprinkled tiny papery leaves everywhere in the fall. We surveyed the heavy boughs looming over our roof and the trunk roots six inches from the house’s foundation and decided the tree’s cooling shade wasn’t worth the risk of structural damage. So we took it down.
But now the brick wall looked bald, and it baked in the afternoon heat. It needed something to clothe it, to insulate and decorate it. I decided to plant a climbing rose that would soak up the afternoon sun and cover the wall in blossoms. It needed to be a rampant climbing rose – one that could grow wide and tall and cover a lot of real estate. I asked an online community of rosarians to recommend the botanical equivalent of a Broadway showgirl, a rose who’d throw open her arms and belt out at maximum floral volume. The answers that came back were unanimous: “New Dawn.” New Dawn blooms pale pink, and her canes go on for miles. She’s easy, the rosarians explained. A real climber – and delightful, if you’re into that sort of thing.
New Dawn lived up to her reputation. She bolted across the brick wall, soaked up the light and thrived in Northern Virginia’s summer heat. She grew and bloomed like a long-running musical, showering us with pink roses the spring after our wedding, and then when my daughter was born and my son was born. One year, a Hindi woman found me in my front yard and said she was amazed to see so many roses growing on the wall. She asked if she could take some for a celebration. Of course, I said. The pale delicacy of the roses on the rampant vine seemed almost a form of false modesty – the diva in a peignoir lowering her eyes, “Why, this old thing?”
My daughter grew from baby to toddler and into grade school dazzled by this rose, by its stature and extravagance. After the thicket of canes had grown up and around the wires, seven feet tall and nine feet wide, birds came to nest there. The thorns didn’t bother them. Three nests were bracketed by rose canes, high up. In winter, when the canes were bare, the nests were more visible and beautiful – the weavework of the birds. The nests seemed like a blessing on the rose.
And then, two years ago, something seemed wrong with the canes at the very top. The leaves were spindly and oddly shaped. The flower buds didn’t open. And the canes had ten times the usual number of thorns. They were almost more thorn than stem. They looked angry.
I called a local gardening emporium and described the unusual canes. There was a pause on the other end of the phone, before the woman in the perennial nursery sighed, “I’m pretty sure you have rose rosette disease. It’s a virus – it causes the rose to grow all those thorns and spindly leaves and deforms the flowers.” The disease is also called “witches broom,” because the sprays of leaves produced by a diseased rose are red, dense and withered – gothic, really. I asked the lady at the nursery if there was anything I could spray on the rose to get rid of the disease. “There’s no cure for it,” she sadly replied. “You can prune the top canes off, and maybe next year most of the canes will be healthy. But eventually, it kills the plant.”
This was a blow. Not just because we’d be losing a plant that enhanced our house’s curb appeal, but because as a caretaker, I now had to live with New Dawn’s lingering disease. There was hope for one more year of vitality but whether it was next spring or the one after, our New Dawn was going to die. And as she died, she would become more and more difficult to deal with, because of the bristling thorns on the diseased canes. She drew blood from the person looking after her – me. But I didn’t resent this, because it was so sad, because my rampant rose was dying and I didn’t know how long it would be before there was nothing left of her beauty, until she was all thorns and knobs of sickle-shaped leaves and withered buds that would never open.
I pruned off the top canes. The next spring was a mix of beautiful blossoms on half the canes and witches brooms on the rest. This is our last spring and summer, I thought. After this summer, there will be nothing healthy left. I made sure my daughter paid attention to New Dawn’s blossoms in her last season, her finale.
I grew strangely fascinated by the diseased parts of the plant. Rose rosette isn’t a disease that causes a plant to wilt or drop leaves. The diseased growth is exuberant. The thorns are strikingly numerous and aggressive the stricken canes. The leaves grow red in dense bunches. Fresh growth is twisted and ugly, but it’s strong, the way one imagines a witch’s hand is strong. There’s a kind of awful attractiveness in its virulence.
The following spring, before the rose broke dormancy, we dug out the root and cut canes off the wires, up to the middle of the wall. The upper tiers of the rose had the birds’ nests, and we didn’t know whether they were still occupied. We didn’t want to disrupt the nests if there were eggs in them. So we let the dead canes dry out, a skeleton scaffold for the birds’ nests. We planted grapes on either side of where the rose had been rooted, to train up the same wires. It seemed stupid to plant another rose, since disease was likely lingering in the soil.
One of the grape vines didn’t survive the frigid winter of 2013. But one did, and we’ll plant a replacement to keep it company: Reliance, a red seedless grape that does well in the heat. My four-year-old son won’t remember the rose. He’ll only remember the grapes as he grows from an adorably tender, squishy preschooler into a strapping adolescent. All he’ll remember are grapes ripening in the summer heat, and how sweet they are, right off the vine.
I think, I hope, my daughter will remember the rose. She’ll remember being a little girl, looking up at a wall of flowers. She’ll remember our showgirl’s exuberant charms and put-on delicacy. She’ll remember how sharp and unkind an ailing beauty can be, and we still take care of things, even when they become thorny. She will help me salvage the nests, and decide where they belong.