The Backyard Dirt
Ruth, a recently retired English teacher, has lived most her adult life in San Jose, California, but relocated to Taylors, SC in May, 2011, to share her mother's golden years and to be near three sisters. Now she's excited to have a house with a yard 10 times the size of her property in California, and can't wait to get digging! Follow her blog to see how a recent transplant experiences gardening, both ornamental and vegetable, in the hot clay of South Carolina.

Recent Blog Posts

May 22
Blooms and Beds and Garden Buddies   (2 comments)

Apr 08
Cardinals, Crows and Thunder Snow.   (4 comments)

Jan 02
Minding the Future Garden as the Old Year Wanes   (3 comments)

Dec 30
Brimming Well of Winter and Goblets of Ice   (4 comments)

Dec 16
The Garden Green, Deep in December   (3 comments)

Nov 26
A Taste of Cold November   (3 comments)

Oct 28
In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the (Garden)..I’ll Be There   (4 comments)

Oct 11
Summer Garden Residents: The Original Earthlings   (4 comments)




Blooms and Beds and Garden Buddies
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 05/22/13

In my South Carolina garden, earth has long stretched out of winter's yawn and spring is full throttle.

The bleeding hearts I planted last year made a stunning debut..

and the peonies were grand in white ball gowns with cherry red waists.

Though the roses will languish soon in the furnace of South Carolina summer, they flourish now in tender spring, like this Double Delight..

and the Zepherine Drouhin, both nubile members of my young garden.  Love that dark pink, the ruffle of cool petals, gulping the fragrance.

And the most ancient of all my roses, hailing back some think to Shakespeare's age, the Autumn Damask twines on one of twin gothic arches..

along with ma cherie Madame Isaac Pereire, old quartered rose of delicious perfume and 130 raspberry petals I've counted in one bloom.


This has been a spring for the flowers; even tiny volunteer jump-ups in glowing gentian violet and frothy white-linen blooms of pyracantha were enrapturing.

Though I needed to relearn breathing after seeing these scarlet Asiatic lilies drenched in early morning light.

You'd think the veggie garden would pale in comparison to the splendor of my ornamental blooms.  Yet my farm blood sang  when seed potatoes arrived in late March.  I was ecstatic, cutting them and leaving them to air dry for a couple days, levitating with dreams of homegrown Yukon Golds to plant in the backyard.  I believe the stories of how better they taste than grocery store spuds.

So right as April stepped in, I planted my potato pieces.  Here in my "East Garden" beds, where I added the two new ones in front of the old five, I put the potatoes to the left of the center bed and at foot of azaleas.  You can see my dogwood-stick markers if you look close.  The farthest beds jutted together and only separated with an 8-inch gap, I label as #1 (seen with a crazed string grid of pea trellis I wove last fall) and #2 (with the bolted-mustard yellow blooms).  The potato bed is #3, the center one by the windmill is #4, the next bed over with the other pea trellis and the onions is #5, and the new beds are #6 and 7 from left to right.

To me, the greenery is gorgeous in the potato bed #3, seen a little closer this way a week ago, with companion kidney beans.  This is where okra grew last year.

This other new bed #8 is in my "West Garden" beds, glaringly new wood easy to spy next to the weathered#9 where my five sisters grew corn, squash, cukes, pole beans, and cantaloupe last summer.  Belle (that's my darling just visible in the right mid ground) is out with me one morning at 5:20 a.m. in early April as we overlook the asparagus bed I planted only two weeks earlier.

The treasured one-year-old Jersey Supreme asparagus roots rehydrate here in rain water mid-March prior to planting.  You can't rout a gardener's hopefulness.  I planted these in perennial bed #8, taking no more than an hour, with a thrill that I'll have asparagus growing here till I'm near eighty, my vision bright regardless of future apocalyptic possibilities in the intervening years.

A couple months later, the baby asparagus have put out their feathery foliage from the first ignored spaghetti-size asparagus shoots that rose.  These baby shrubs will grow larger through the summer and die to brown in the fall when I'll cut them back to the ground.  Next spring I'll let those first pencil sized shoots go another year like this one.  In 2015 I'll begin my spring harvesting.  Patience now will pay off for years after.  Under the foreground pine straw, incidentally, I have tucked Quinalt strawberries for my sister Kathy, though those roots, hopefully viable, are invisible around the borage you see growing there.  Down the center of the baby asparagus are planted Jackson Wonder butter beans, an old variety I found at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE), a favorite organic garden repository I just discovered online this winter.

Don't get dizzy, but back in the new east beds, I planted more treasured legumes.  The top #6 bed is edged with White Acres I also planted last year, from Cherry Gal Heirloom Seeds.  Down the center oft he bottom bed #7 is Whippoorwill southern peas, also from SESE, a variety planted by fellow gardener Thomas Jefferson.  The same company provided the bush cucumber Homemade Pickles, growing in two rows on the right, and the Old Time Tennessee muskmelons that we funny Southerners call cantaloupes, planted in four overzealous hills on the right, though only one in the middle is showing here.  They are supposed to be the fragrant football-shaped melons of memory that Daddy grew when I was a stalk-legged kid chattering with him out in his sunny half-acre garden, oblivious to our many future partings ahead of us, now permanently accomplished.  All of these are in his honor, all my gardening, so much of me, too.

Last week, as they promised, SESE sent my most recent garden package, Beauregard sweet potatoes..

Plunge your thirsty just-arrived roots immediately into rainwater.  And plant them that day!  They languish from their box journey and crave revival.

Under my crude scaffolding, the sweet potatoes rest in their new #6 home with temporary shade from punishing noon provided by dog blanket and clothes pins.  The infant potato slips that survive my clumsy handling can eventually cover the scaffold with beautiful rampant vines and hopefully leave room for my dearest White Acre peas surrounding them.  The spent peas will vacate the premises in August, leaving more room for the potatoes to form for a September harvest. 

Here, beds #1 and 2 (far right to diagonally near left) begin to green out.  In bed #2 lemon balm are in its far corners.  That's bee balm in deeper green at the foot of the tall center oregano.  On this closer side by the listing Park Seed trellis are Blue Lake pole beans.   A few crookneck squash nestle in there also, unseen behind the oregano.  Bed #1 beyond..

.. is home to sage you don't see here, with Burpee heirloom Country Gentleman shoe peg corn on the far end, and SESE Virginia peanuts on this end.

These baby peanuts are tribute, again, to my peanut farmer Daddy.  He and Jimmy Carter at one time walked Daddy's fields.  It seems the future President was curious about Daddy's success with rye at the time, a new closer planting or something.  But the peanuts I hope will yield a few pots of boiled salty luscious treats, though my family may grimace at that mention.  Once, a clueless teen, I left a pot on the stove at brisk boil to go bake cookies with a neighborhood friend!   HEL-LOH!   My eldest sister found the house filled with an acrid metallic smoke when she came home hours later, the peanuts glowing coals and the aluminum pot in molten pools on my mother's turquoise stove top.  I arrived in time to hack and choke in the remaining fumes, staring open mouthed at the damage on the stove.  Woo, a close call and me, dang it, undeniably guiiiiilteeeee.

In the middle bed around the water feature, I have planted a dozen okra, seen here as dime sized leaves.  Last summer these Clemson Spineless grew 8-9 feet high and my prolific 8 plants supplied us with many toothsome okra dishes.  We ate fresh pods sliced thin and mealed to fry crisp, and in chunks with tomatoes, so yummy, and in many soups over the winter from my frozen stash.  This bed #4 will also house sweet bell pepper.

Bed #5 currently sports Urban Farmer Seeds' Little Marvel peas, more of my prized legumes.  Barely visible through these peas are Texas sweet onions I put in last fall.  This week I perhaps mistakenly harvested them too early, as the erect stalks with buds clearly bulging at their tips had not withered and fallen, but I read that budding onions stop forming the bulbs.  Later further reading makes me think that this variety just performs that way.

The small onion bulbs are curing under my carport in trays like this.  The onion buds got browned in butter and went into mashed potatoes, the brown buds crispy and the softer green ones chewy and onionly yummy.

Last but not least of my new planting is bed #9, the largest at 16 X 5 feet, bristling with 20 tomato plants, onions on either end (and a few along the right side), interspersed with hot peppers.  Those are tobasco in the back center near the darker green yarrow.  Right in the middle is a little enclave of Burpee's Fordhook organic zucchini.  I have the deeply lobed Costoluto Genovese tomatoes that Thomas Jefferson also grew, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Country Taste, Beefmaster, Early Girl and Better Boy (both that Daddy said you always had to include), Money Maker, and Mater Sandwich.  Basil and sunflowers, hyssop and morning glories, and marigolds will join the soon-to-be riotous welter of greenery here.  I hope to can a few more than the four quarts of tomatoes I got last summer after we gobbled my crop mostly fresh.

Meanwhile, my fellow beloved gardeners, Masie Cake, who thinks because I really got her at 5 weeks, that we are biologically mother and daughter,..

and Spud, otherwise known as Caspar, White Lightnin, Lil Spirit, and Mighty Snake Terrier (shhh he's really a Jack Russell but told me recently he's now a snake terrier, after he shook to death several harmless little serpents in our backyard dirt this spring);..

our adorable Bella, cutest feisty little street-smart rescue-Chiweenie always starting fights her backside can't finish..

and finally mighty mouse: Otto, aka Ottopilot, Ottomatic, Ottobot, or just Boo..these, my four garden buddies and I all bid farewell from the backyard dirt till next time.   Meanwhile where are those other seeds....



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Cardinals, Crows and Thunder Snow.
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 04/08/13

Yes, it's been awhile, a few curve balls well aimed at my gardening.  Early February and spring was just around the corner (or so I misconstrued), with misleading hyacinths and daffodils and paperwhites nosing up from the slumbering earth... enough to get a gardener's blood burning.  Can't plant yet, but there are numerous preps for an eager gardener to do. 

Eight beleagured rose bushes installed around my house last spring were also waking up, dreaming of roses and perfume,  feet crowded by encroaching grass, and that good goblet shaping needed.

Out front, my prized Yoshino cherry, a big selling point when I bought my house the summer of 2011, curiously bristles with crape myrtles planted under it, and they needed to be seriously curbed.

Window boxes, bedraggled and accusatory, were once glorious with lariope, chartreuse sweet potato vine, and loads of various pink impatiens.  Yes I confess neglect.


And, of course, there were the three new raised beds I wanted to add to the backyard veggie garden scheme, making last year's plan complete: two on the east side of my yard and another on the west.  In February, I regretted an overambious planting of greens.  Poor turnips, spurned by their own surfeit.  New spring crops spun in my brain.  And then: SURPRI-EEEZE. 

My brother kept telling me not to get lulled by 2012's uncommonly early spring.  February does have surprises.   THUNDERSNOW!  That's NOT what I planned for the new beds!

South Carolina was suddenly capricious and northern!

Ok, it was beautiful, cardinals and crows salient red and black against the white muffled ground.

The newly bolted mustard, let stay in memory of mustard carpeting whole California orchards with the brilliant yellow I loved for my forty California springs, were now crystal with snow. It made a gardener stand inside and stare out, thwarted and amazed.  And then a family-rampant flu, that followed the snow, truly punted my plans off the horizon for weeks, long after the snow vanished.


I did continue to browse garden books and compile planting charts.  You can't keep a gardener down long.


Not long and I could prune up the roses, circle them with compost, surround them with a good mulch.  They will need all the help they can get with the curves South Carolina heat throws to roses.

I started tomato seeds, here ready to thin.

The cherry blossomed in thanks for severely curbing the misplaced crapes, though hopefully not so much that we lose their magenta summer blooms.

And the window boxes may just revive, new tenants snuggling in....

promising cheerful pink and chartreuse waves to passersby, as the same pretty windowboxes did to me when I first spied my house.  An hour's attention will truly pay off, especially since I discovered my screens can raise for easy watering and feeding right from inside: creeping Jenny, bacopa, impatiens, ivy, sweet potato vines, caladium.  Yes glory to come.

Then out eyeing my beds, getting ready to sow the big summer crops soon, I enjoyed the mustard blossoms, the first blooms even before forsythia shrubs, full of bee music, fragrance, brilliant yellow, bright green, and life, flight, industry.

Just one more lesson from my garden: let a crop bolt--at least leave a fews plants to bloom, even though the mustard is not so edible after--for these kinds of sensory and habitat dividends.  Another bonus: seeds to come,  pods replacing the blooms, soon after the wise bees move out front to the cherry.  Yes, the gardener returns after winter's hiatus, new life ready to astonish, the ancient mandala to roll, the hallalujah chorus ringing in my ears.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Minding the Future Garden as the Old Year Wanes
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 01/02/13

The first night of the year rained a good inch

and the dogs were out to explore in the damp dawn of the winter backyard without me.

Though I did glance from the screen porch steps at my garden beds, biding my time to put in the new ones.  That blank space in front of the windmill is begging for the two new beds to complete my original plan.  One will be a perennial asparagus bed while the other rotates it's annual tenants: this summer: melons?  The lumber is stowed away for those beds just waiting for a warm dry afternoon coming soon.

Inside I've been preoccupied.  This morning a few shots of my tree before I pack away the ornaments, saying goodbye to the cute little acorns my sister glittered up for my favorite ornament gift this year.  Several colors, like this aqua..

and this green.  They make inspired ornaments on small trees.  But mostly I have kept the old year company as it waned by doing odd gardening jobs inside.

Several were inspired by this squat jar of spicy pear jam.  A friend, who got pears in a Harry and David gift, mentioned how delicious they were but sadly  getting too ripe before he could eat them.  Thoughts are things.  The light bulb in my head produced four little jars of jam: I saw jars at Target and bought them, googled a recipe, simmered the fragrant mix to this consistency, and jarred them.  My friend thanked me with a box of half-pint jars as well as a jar of jam each for my sister and me.  Mmmm.  Tasty, but it opened a craze in me from the past when I was a young pregnant mom learning to can from the orchard plenty and my mother-in-law's talent during the San Jose seventies: pears, apricots, the most delicious plums, boysenberries, apple butter and sauce, tomatoes, chowchow, sweet pickles.  I fed four sons on those great quarts.

So the pear jam awakened a sleeping dragon.  I next had to try orange marmalade from the Barefoot Contessa: four thinly sliced oranges as well as two lemons, peel and all, of course, sugar and water cooked to the jelly stage on the candy thermometer and jarred for gifts.  And the rage to preserve is BA-AAACk.

I have a canner with rack and jar lifter and funnel from those younger canning years, which I dusted off and used to jar four quarts of tomatoes last summer.   I decided I could get ready ahead of time, as this year closes, for my gardening plenty next summer.  My mother had some jars and lids she contributed from her basement, and I found some at Good Will with smooth, unnicked rims for a few bucks.  My thrifty heart loves  a good find and salvage.

The jars meant reorganizing my laundry room storage.  Over the folding counter, I made the middle shelf for larger jars; over the washer I'm stashing smaller jars.  It will be very convenient off my kitchen to store the canned food where these jars are.

The short squat half-pints are adorable, new to me, but I'd bought the last package at my nearest Target, so I ordered three packs online.  They arrived in smithereens, the UPS man suggesting I refuse delivery as he handed me the rattling chinking package of obviously broken jars.  I heeded his advice.  Luckily a store a little further away still had three packs for a fraction of what Amazon and TrueValue is charging for these exact jars.  And I remembered how handy 24 oz. jars were from my back in the day experience.  Found online, they shipped free to a nearby TrueValue.

I truly love good tools and these little babies will be so handy next July and August, in their various sizes and shapes.  Can't you see cherries and peaches, blackberries and tomatoes.  Mmm.  Cobblers and soups ahead!

More online research brought another package, this one intact.  Visualizing better tomato crops this year from lessons I learned last summer, I got a handy tool:

this sturdy $10 rack at the perfect diameter will convert an ordinary stockpot into a second canner,enabling me to double the processing when I can my summer tomatoes.  It's reversible: one side for quarts, flips to the other side for pints and smaller jars.  Et voila: another canner for 1/8th the cost.

Of course, I'm a Craigslist browser also.  Love these old canners, galvanized and huge, so not too practical.  But a small upright freezer like this one would fit perfectly into my utility room off the carport.  The side by side in my kitchen is way too small for next summer's produce already hatched in my imagination.  This lil freezer would hold white acre peas and okra, green beans, corn, pesto and asparagus galore.  (Well..when I get asparagus in a couple years).  Some veggie keeping I like for the freezer, some to can.  I prefer to preserve tomatoes in beautiful vermillion jarsful, or pickles and chutney, and some green beans.  The freezer will hold the rest of my surplus.  You can guess what I'll spend some of my tax return on!

I do need to be frugal on my retirement pay.  So when I see something that looks like a great deal for my garden use, I have to resist the impulse to grab it.  For instance, last summer, researching how to pick beans (don't laugh: picking tales from friends who had a cherry farm in Turlock, California made me wonder if beans had an important technique for picking, like cherries do).  This graceful farmer on YouTube intrigued me with her elegant gestures and picking apron.  (When I pick, I button a plastic strawberry basket into the front of my jeans, but I admired the idea of her apron).  Since she didn't give it a name, I started googling likely terms..

..and found it on Etsy, under "harvesting apron", but, at a cost of nearly $70 delivered, I couldn't indulge.  Thankfully, I'm resourceful when I want to mind my budget..

So I studied the apron design, then did a V8 when I spied my garden-green Bi-Lo bag.  Grabbed some supplies: green grosgrain ribbon from my Christmas wrapping, snips, and plastic storage containers.

I folded the bag, half inside-out, cut some regularly-spaced-out buttonhole-sized slits vertically near the fold, then threaded the ribbon through the slits.  For fun, I pulled out enough ribbon in front to make a bow.

I fitted a perfect sized storage container into my bag and tugged the edges up around it.  An extra, smaller container inside the larger one leaves room for separating different veggies as I pick, or to keep tools apart from the tender beans or squash, or for some other need.

Here's the way it wears.  It will free my hands to part vines and pick beans or okra or peas, squash or tomatoes--hands freed to pick without worry of where I left the container last in my distraction.  I'm happy, and I saved money.

So, during the lull between the old year and the new, between winter and spring, while there's wet weather and ice, I can prepare in many ways for the luscious summer to come.  I'll save money by devising my own smart tools and extending the resources I have already so I can get that used freezer, one that's tidy and rust free. I'll store away canning supplies as above, dig out my yellowed pickling recipes that survived a divorce and my dear ex-mother-in-law long since gone to her reward.  There will be sun come soon to put in the new beds.  I'll keep dreaming day and deep in my sleep about my garden to be.  My daddy was a farmer not for nothing after all, teaching me how better the food is when you grow it yourself and what a miracle is a garden.  All I can say is thank goodness for Daddys and Mamas of all kinds, for good ideas, for online shopping, for a new year before us, and any time at all for gardening in the backyard dirt.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Brimming Well of Winter and Goblets of Ice
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 12/30/12

Yes, it's winter, for sure, with wonders to ponder on a cold morning, like an ice goblet sprung in a engineering enigma from the birdbath

hollow, and brimming with irresistible dipper to sip!

But the thermometer has lost it's ever-lovin mind!

And things are frozen bonkers:

The turnips and collards bow to the ice

and the stalwart crystal-coated alyssum shivers persistently, the only thing left of the summer okra bed.

So glad I grabbed a few tools in a warmer interlude a week ago

getting a hare to stob in some stakes by the peas

and macrame a string trellis, wearing a pair of sheers to clip the twine.

We've had rain in the Piedmont this colder week, several inches several times, and there's still

the fruit of the earth to pull: turnips and carrots and radishes, oh my!

But mostly the frosty garden slumbers, giving opportunity of course, for mad scheming in the warm tummy of the house..plotting to finally add the other two raised beds of my original plan for the east garden, and a second bed on the west grounds next to last summer's five sisters.  I have the lumber, cut to spec, in my shed even now, waiting only for warmer days to build them, my favorite Christmas present along with bags and bags of Black Kow.  I plan to use that new long bed for one larger favorite crop each year: maybe corn that likes leg room to grow it's dear gift, double room for tomatoes I can put up in vermillion quarts, or snaky stretches of pole beans, or cantaloupe and watermelon.  This summer, though,  it will be white acre peas.  I can't wait to see what sixty-four square feet of peas will yield when eight plants were so generous last summer--from them I got several pots.  The bed adjacent to it that now hosts greens, in the spirit of rotation will be tomatoes and basil and bee balm this summer.  On the east side, the future bed #6 will be a perennial spot for asparagus and strawberries. 

The insanity is deep rooted.  I troll online for garden lore like companion plantings, squandering delicious hours of cyber mania, stopping to leap from my computer chair only for a quick jig or fist pumping and cheers, thrilling with anticipation, and scaring my dogs into a fit of barking. 

This time I make sure I've ordered the necessary plants before they're sold out, knowing they'll ship in time to plant for my zone: asparagus, like this long-lived male version that's supposed to yield for years..till I'm 77 (?)..

and yummy Yukon Gold seed potatoes for east bed #4 where the okra once stood and the alyssum now reigns.  I ain't Irish for nothing.

Yes, I'm a Park Seed junkie, scheming for old species to pop in my garden, to add the tangy purple Cherokee to the tomato seeds I've saved (plus the Mater Sandwich and Money Maker varieties I don't show here), Virginia peanuts to buddy with corn in east bed #1 (mmm, salty boiled peanuts here we come), and something different like the sharp black radish in its garden tuxedo, though I already ordered it from a competitor.

I can't resist Burpee's lure, either.  Since I'm going for organic and open-pollinated, I lean toward heirlooms, especially ones with a southern ring like tobasco peppers and Country Gentleman, the shoe peg corn.  The kidney beans I'll dry for chili made from my canned tomatoes: just add rice, cheese and onions for a feast next winter, when I'll be scheming garden gates and a lantern-strung pergola.  Thomas Jefferson is my garden and mental model, so I'm proud I have seeds of his prized painted lady vine to bring bees and other sensual delight to my backyard dirt.  Legume innoculant will be a fun experiment to try.

One day next summer, maybe where these peas are, I'll photograph that Thomas Jefferson vine, the fragrant deep-pink and white blossoms twining up corn or tomatoes, or looping with the beans, squash, and melons.  Can't wait for those summer treasures, ornamental sirens to call the pollinators and veggies for great Southern tables.  Yes, like other gardener hearts, my blood pumps with water, earth, sun and seeds, even in winter.  California never gave me ice goblets nor crazy thermometers, and roses loved that black ground unlike the poor posies here that succumb to black mildew.  In one season climbing roses there were taking over New York, while here they shrivel and look ashamed.  Even so, I'm still thrilled to trade that wonderful western wilderness I spent forty years wandering for my South Carolina paradise now.  There's so much scheming and so little winter left.  Only eight more weeks till we start an early spring crop!  Maybe then I can get some English peas from the pretty, properly-timed planting.  I'm resolving to correct some blunders I made last year, and do things better this next one, in my glorious, Southern backyard dirt.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

The Garden Green, Deep in December
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 12/16/12

My garden in December does not burgeon with tomatoes and beans and peas and corn and cukes, morning glories, marigolds, squashes,  bees and bats.  Oh, do I have great memories of that welter of vegetation there in summer when the backyard was a thick green sward, not a crispy brown mat.

Even though the paperwhites out front are popping up unseasonably their surprising spring faces in the deep of December,

there are still wintry concerns, even so,  to manage in the backyard.  The bee bath,  by the east beds and windmill, needs filling, if not for the bees,

then for the birds.  Since I'm not using the table as I would for sitting outside as I did in summer, I've lifted this watering dish above ground and can watch birds bathe on cool mornings as they feed nearby.  I watch from my screen porch, sip coffee, and seethe about the neighbor a block behind me cutting a second driveway on his ample land behind my yard, as is his right.  But dang it, now I get to see his white truck and van in the thinner trees of winter.  I plan to move the crape myrtles sprawling out front under my cherry tree back along this fence to screen his cars from view a little.  I'll do that soon.  And give the table another coat of rustoleum.

I have other tasks to face.  Recently I heard a rusty squawking from the backyard sounding like some horror-movie soundbite.  Nothing  a little WD-40 coudn't fix on the cawing windmill.  It sadly needs rustoleum to cover peeling paint and welding soot, as well.  On my list of winter duties to get to.

I've taken cuttings from the angel trumpet out front and have them in water to root on my screen porch till spring.  The one in the backyard, I just let go bare legged, not cutting it back.  It's near the house and I'm experimenting to see how it survives the winter au natural.  These cuttings are my insurance in case it doesn't fare well.

Not that I don't also have an incredibly green garden still, here in December.  This is what was a tall three-sisters bed in summer, seen here a few weeks back now planted much lower, with collards on this end and turnips on the other.  (The foreground corners are milk thistle and yarrow.  I like to mix up my beds to call the pollinators as variously as I can.)


The pot liquor bounty has grown since that shot.  Turnips (left) and collards (right) make great pots of greens for winter eating

I've harvested the golden globe turnips twice already.  This latest load is about a half bushel.


with delicious roots to stud the hearty greens and pot liquor in a steaming bowlful.  Big Mama says fresh pork seasoning with turnips and smoked pork with collards.

Next harvest of greens will be a mix of turnips, the collards, and maybe some spinach (on the left) and mustard (right).  Oooh.  Just need cornbread, the newest recipe I've tried, my current favorite cornbread,  is Bobby's Moist and Delicious cornbread that he demonstrates online with his blue-eyed mama, Paula Deen.

I really admire how pretty the romaine lettuces are in the beds now.  Time for Caesar salad.  I've only pulled a leaf, so far, to munch when nearby. 

And coming soon are sweet crunchy carrots.  This one pulled recently is just a preview.  My sister enjoyed one yesterday four times this size.  I'm already planning to tuck a row of carrots in nearly every spring bed edge after tasting this little beauty.  I never get over the wonder I feel when plucking food outta my backyard dirt.

And my ever-hopeful legume-loving heart still anticipates fat pea pods to show up before things get too icy here.  Look at the peas closely and I think I may get a handful.  You agree?  Whatever the case, I'm loving my precious South Carolina: to see the wedgewood blue skies over the bare tree tops in my once-a-forest neighborhood, catching the winged ballet of brilliant red cardinals and herds of fat robins feeding in my backyard, to hear the black satin crows raucus outside, to smell the cold December freshness and pluck out a turnip, radish, carrot, still searching for a beet.  It's paradise to my long-home-starved soul now back where I should be.  The garden is my bountiful tutor.  She teaches me daily what mistakes to avoid, what successes to repeat, so next autumn for example I can harvest spaghetti squash and beets to roast.  To make earlier and wiser planting choices.  And she gives me mental room in winter to roam towards spring madness: the plans to draw for new beds and new crops to try, the seed catalogs to lure me, the nursery aisles to wander, online searches for organic boosters, seed potatoes and drip systems to install.   Arrrggghhh.   Ain't it GREAT!  I hella love my state of being.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

A Taste of Cold November
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 11/26/12

In the South Carolina Piedmont, cold November paints the maples mellow red and brilliant yellow.

Crape myrtles flame with orange, blazing in the cold before the trees all bare their branches to the winter sky.

The yardmen are piling leaves in my compost area with their grass clippings.


And I have a shed, neglected all the busy summer, that needs straightening: tools are tumbled in a dogpile, debris windblown on the floor, and gardening supplies in shameful clutter.

Time to sweep...


.. and hose down dirty wheelbarrows, tarps, tables, and seed starting supplies..


so the shed can overwinter in better order.

Even near winter, my garden still rewards a farmer's soul I garnered from my peanut-farmer Daddy, and my gardener Mama whose corner yard fifteen houses away is a showcase in our neighborhood.  For me, garden bounty in the fall includes beautiful romaine lettuce that does well in cool temps.  l'm so glad it's hardy; it's my favorite lettuce.  I want to grill and chill these when I do steaks next, maybe this week, harvesting these heads, drizzling down the head from the trimmed root ends with a good Caesar dressing before I toss them on a hot grill, mere seconds per side before turning, long enough for grill marks, smoky flavor and a good wilting to create  great bite and flavor.  Just like Chef Gloria does at Chef Peter's studio, Chef 360, here in Greenville.  Mmmm.  All you need then are baked potatoes, piping hot, salted and creamy, with a juicy t-bone.

I'd love to add peas, but though the Burpeana peas are pretty in my garden, so far nary a blossom, much less sweet plump pods; I hold out hope, however, as I do for carrots and beets, unmet also as yet.

The weather is frosting up now, but a week or two ago my peppers still bristled with these waxy green spires.  My first winter garden, nature gives me OJT (on the job training) for a novice.  I left the peppers from the summer garden because blooms still popped up and turned to fragrant spikes.  I got three crops from them all told, handing out a toothy pepper sauce to friends and family.  In my bones I knew I better bring them in soon, though I had hoped for some to color in the thinning sun.  The air whispered warnings to make one last bottle of pepper sauce before the fruit succumbed to the cold.  So, I picked, washed, bottled, added salt, and boiling vinegar.

And managed to bottle summer one last time in glass, cooling here on my screen porch and destined for a family I know who demands their life robusto.

So glad I listen to my tutors, because sure enough, the next day I woke to find the poinsettia pepper plants in the bed by the windmill all withered from the night's frost.  That was close!  The tiny peppers I left, hoping to see get just a little bigger, maybe turn red, were ruined. 

I'm grateful radishes like the cold better.  I love this gridwork table for rinsing my roots by the back steps.

and the scarlet, snowy-white, and purple radishes, loaded with minerals, vitamin C, and fiber are just plain crunchy-delicious with a dip of homemade ranch: sour cream, buttermilk, garden scallions and garlic topsThese both graced my crudite presentation at Thanksgiving.

Yesterday, I harvested golden globe turnips, rinsed them on the table by the steps

and brought them in to fix them like my Mama taught me.

Peel the roots while browning a few strips of bacon and a fresh pork chop.  In go the roots in thick slices...

Then liquid (I use chicken broth) and the thoroughly washed whole greens, spines and all.  Looks like a huge messa greens, but we all know they cooked down to a more modest amount, but enough for a couple servings each for my mother, nearest sister a mile away, and me.

After an hour simmer, you can pull the greens onto a plate with tongs and cut into better bite sizes with two knives.  The greens begged for moist, buttery cornbread.  My own pepper sauce gave zip to the turnips and pot liquor to soak cornbread in, a hearty, satisfying lunch on a cold November day, to enjoy with posies from my yard: paper whites, marigolds, burning bush, iceberg rose, part of my Thanksgiving centerpiece.  All this was perfect fare for watching Gone with the Wind  three days after Thanksgiving.  I'm thankful the South has moved on since those cinematically-depicted days, that I'm back home here, and for a fall garden yielding soulful sustenance from the backyard dirt.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the (Garden)..I’ll Be There
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 10/28/12

Fall has come full-blown to the Piedmont of South Carolina: the maples are brilliant, dogwoods and cherries are bare, and acorns pop and clatter as you roll down your driveway, leaving a golden flour that once made tribal bread.

My queen tree by the drive, the cherry, un-leafing weeks and weeks ago, was one of my first signs of fall coming.   Now her silver sheen and beautiful shape are openly displayed above the Kelvin Floodlight dahlia and sprawling crape myrtles.

Fall prompted me to bury more bulbs: hyacinths, daffodils, and paperwhites, adding them to jonquils and freesias I tucked into my front yard last fall.

Only snuggled into the bed the end of September, my new bulbs woke already, sending up green, making me doubtful of their survival to a fragrant spring.

The backyard dirt, though, is the main area I dote on--my veggie garden.  I postponed clearing out the summer garden till the last week in September, when the marigolds and peppers and okra were still rampant, but the remaining tomatoes straggled.   Eighteen plants gave me tangy red fruit to grace my own table and others': salads, sandwiches, soup, sides: mmmm, thank you, talented vines.  Next summer I promise to prune and feed them better so the tomatoes don't hurry off like this year, too tired and lean to keep producing their treasure. 

The marigolds were the plants I tore out most recently.  I first prevented sure injury by upending plastic bottles on the exposed rebar...

sharp bars left when I lifted off the trellises made of electric conduit pipe, elbows, and zip-tied plastic mesh.  They were sturdy, economical, and light, a breeze to stow for the winter in the shed till I need them in the spring; they worked like charms.

I plotted the new fall garden to sport English peas, carrots, beets, onions, spagetti squash, broccoli, radishes, and greens: mustard, collards, spinach, turnips. These are the seeds I planted, experimenting against online advice that the piedmont doesn't do broccoli or onions from seeds very well.  To hedge against the good chance the advice is based on strong Piedmont knowledge..

I put in sweet onion sets, also, that I spied at Lowes a couple weeks ago, almost 30 bulbs for three bucks.  In another nearby bed,  seeded with mustard and spinach, I stuck nine romaine plants bought the same day at Lowes. To the far right of the onions, here, are young Burpeeana Early peas, and immediately right a straggly row of Golden Globe turnips I thinned last week to a foot apart.  Left of the onions are Short 'n Sweet carrots for my shallow raised beds; in spring I'll deepen the soil with layered composting again, and then I can plant sweet nantes.

Meanwhile, I'm eager for beets to pop up their ruby globes, though now they are tiny plants, where the white acres grew, with pretty spatulate leaves edged in magenta.  They share the row with garlic bulbs I bought at the grocery store, twelve cloves plunged a finger deep in the soil in a double row just beyond the beets.  The broccoli seeds on the other side of the white acre pea bed have not shown their faces, and I fear the worst for them, no shows that create question marks.

In the bed seen behind the one above, I interplanted more beets with radishes in the center rows, since radishes will mature and be harvested in time for the beets to form freely, with carrots down one side of that bed and more peas on the other side.  The spaghetti squash in this immediate bed, some hiding in marigolds, will not have the hundred days they need to fruit before the first frost, but I enjoy their pretty plants, apologizing to all my garden beneficiaries for not timing better.  Too bad for the squash you bake in the oven and then scrape out the pale flesh stranded like pasta.  I'm hoping to find cold-weather-successful brussel-sprout plants somewhere to replace the okra stalks that need to come out next.

The five sisters bed on the opposide side of my yard, having lost the summer sisters: beans, corn, squash, cukes and cantaloupe, is now fall planted half-crosswise with Georgia collards and half with Golden Globe turnips, flanked with radishes on the long side by where doxie Otto stands, and with Granix hybrid onions on the opposite.  This is one long bed and the other yard side has five shorter ones.  To the five, over there, I want to add two more in spring, and on this side, also two more: a smaller perennial bed to leave unmolested for asparagus and shrub herbs, and another longer one to be planted in some single, space-demanding favorite crop each season, backbone vegetables like corn, peas, beans, potatoes--the satisfiers of the garden.

One resplendent jewel nasturtium lingers past the summer, one I left in the collards for the leaves like lily-pads and blooms drenched in coral color.

Four weeks after seeding, radishes are lifting their Cherry Belle prizes, all getting ready to harvest.

I was thrilled to pull the first  spicy samples for my friend who loves them and who washed and popped them whole into a salad this week.

I myself harvested chives, garlic and onion tops, and a few mild peppers to garnish a walking taco dip for my sister's drop-in party this week, the basic seven layer dip in layers: refried beans on the bottom, seasoned with salt and tobasco, then sour cream, shredded extra sharp cheddar, finely diced tomatoes, sweet onion, my chopped herbs above, cilantro, and a final seasoning of salt, pepper flakes, and more tobasco.  So lip-smacking with corn chips.  My sister said her guests practically left grooves in the platter scraping it for the last residue of the dip.

I laid out sprinkler hoses among the collards and turnips in the five sisters bed before I planted...

...and reconfigure as needed a soaker hose in beds on the other side of the yard where the summer tomatoes and peas were, beds looking so different without the trellis heights.  I need a watering supplement now and then, like when Hurricane Sandy skipped giving rain to the Piedmont this week.

Now, I'm enjoying the last flowers my ornamentals are making in the cooler weather, this lacecap hydrangea, pink in the summer, going lavendar now...

and the climbing lantana  putting out her best show since getting planted in spring, a mere six inches high all summer, now eighteen.  Guess she prefers a cooler party. 


So here we are, it's a waiting game, a bet I've made with the fall garden that by Thanksgiving a few weeks away, I'll have some veggies to serve for the holiday: some beets to roast with carrots and onion or some romaine for a grill and chill caesar salad (mmmmm, first tasted at a Chef 360 Catering  birthday party here in Greenville), or a bowl of English peas, or even just crisp radishes for crudite with chive dip.  If not..I have summer harvest waiting in the freezer, though hope still reigns for the fall veggies.  My dachshund buddies Belle in the left photo (tiny in the low right corner) Otto on the right, and Masie somewhere looking in the trees for the missing squirrels,  join me in watching the garden till then.  Maybe some of my ignorant, random planting will not be too late to yield some sweet and savory gifts from the backyard dirt this fall, if nothing else good lessons to learn on how to time each crop better next year.  Whatever the dividends, I'll keep you posted...



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Summer Garden Residents: The Original Earthlings
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 10/11/12

The primal planet owners, the original earthlings, are welcome in my backyard dirt and the main reason I shun pesticides in their habitat.  I'm learning this year just how benevolent these garden citizens are in sharing my garden with me.

The correction of my wrong thinking began with the bee decline several years ago, and this-spring's reading, illuminating my head about the other pollinators like the common wasps.   My knee jerk wasp-reflex comes from a third grade stinging at Girl Scout camp in a shoe one morning: three before I could kick it off.  A new respect dawned on me this spring though, an environmental adult's.  So I welcomed this gentleman's nest in a birdhouse on my screen porch, he so slender and elegant in all black..

and his cousins, these red paper wasps, here on a morning roam of white hydrangea, doing unbid garden duty in their own quest.

I left a yellow jacket nest, counter to instincts, fencing it in the ground to protect yardmen and dogs from accidental or eager disturbance.  I admired yellow jacket music and industry in my vegetables all summer, while they ignored me when I jostled my arms among them to tie up white acre pea limbs or to pluck corn and squash.

And who doesn't adore bumble bees in their flannel pajamas humming in spider wort blooms, busy also in peas, beans, squash, peppers, okra, petunias, alyssum, all garden over, filling their pollen baskets hung like sidesaddles while they drank.. did honey bees gathering pollen and nectar in the corn tassels,

and the Eastern Carpenter bees droning dreamily along, wearing black patent-leather pants and gossamer wings over yellow angora sweaters,

going to lavender hyssop spikes in large benign parties, maybe overdoing, till they clung stupefied like drunks at a bee bar, so fascinating.  Gayla Trail, in Grow Great Grub, says that the taste of hyssop is "between mint, fruit, and licorice" and leaves and flowers make a great tea, a harvest I plan next year.  The carpenters relish hyssop qualities, are one of the first returning migrants in the spring,

the females setting up camp like this one in my backyard shed, sweeping out the sawdust from her perfect porthole to the nursery, maybe one for the mama of my handsome hyssop partiers, all doing their part unrequested by and unmindful of us.

Butterflies pollinate, too, like this variegated fritillary in summery oranges, yellows, and fluted brown, sipping from the marigold juleps and dusting in couture style the fairy pollen dust with her ball gown wings.   

The beautiful biplanes of brown dragonflies dust the marigold crops too.  Seeing them I put out watering stations for evening bats that dine on mosquitoes, each eating a few thousand each night, feeding a third their weight in an hour, and pollinating also in the process.  I'd read that bats love dragonflies, and was hopeful of secret bat diners when, several nights last spring, whole fleets of dragon flies darted overhead in the dusk where I sat on the backdoor steps to see their display.  In days to come I'd spy little zooming bats at twilight, camera shy in their erratic flights, circling from mysterious homes and doing great favors in spite of being hated and misunderstood for eons.  Thank you, handsome bats in your leather jackets for ignoring my Halloween decorations and servicing my garden anyway. 


Giving a lie to the idea that only the garden pilots pollinate, I tip my respect to the diligent ant, here in their love for peony buds and peas, giving rise perhaps to the post-hic-ergo-propter-hic idea that ant ministrations are essential for peonies to bloom.  I suspect some delicious lure from the buds invite them instead.  These eager guys sure swarmed the break-off points from my harvest of ripe and swollen peas, often making me brush off their feathery runs on my hands and arms, and biting in their jealousy at my intrusions in their treasure.

There were other workmen who performed their craft in my yard as the gorgeous weaving here in the garden loom testifies.  I misted it to crystallize the pretty pattern, but the artist hid backstage somewhere. 

As did this one, whose fine mesh creation the dew made a gossamer vision in the grass, good affirmation that my organic approach was not thwarting nature and further education of an almost invisible ecosystem afoot.

A whole other world exists that can humble and fascinate when we take the time to appreciate.  This Carolina mantis scared the moody out of my son just here from California and amazed at the insect life of the South.  Slim Shady here in his/her green and brown livery lingered on my carport window

just long enough to snag a moth dinner, indulging my camera, staring levelly with glassy onyx eyes as he munched, reminding me of his life and unacknowledged partnership before winging into the night.

Some buddies were frankly startling to discover.  Oops, did I jump back when this baby garter twined away from my fingers as I picked peas one morning.  Ok, not knowing that he eats slugs, worms, ants, and insect eggs, but in my defense, also not wanting to blithely dispatch him, I scooped him in empty milk cartons, and with pounding heart ran him over to the woods beyond my fence in surefooted haste. 

I felt a little guilty when his mother gave me the cool shoulder one early morning soon after, slithering into my pea patch unimpressed as I muttered some of Emily Dickinson's "A narrow fellow in the grass occasionally rides" to justify my knee jerk reaction to her son, how I can't help the biped reflex, even to a friendly serpent: "attended or alone without a tighter breathing and zero at the bone."  My smart explanation fell unfortunately into empty air.

It was easier to welcome the nameless little lizard who made a disturbed appearance when I cleared the five sisters bed in September.  I do admire the elegant reptilian suppleness of lizards; he was nimble and fleet, and welcome news that I haven't killed off good buddies like him who eat flies, spiders, slugs and caterpillars.  I anticipate his return, maybe into the collards and turnips, before his winter snooze.

The most emotional response came when an American toad appeared in my backyard, strange relief washing over me at the visit of this long lost friend from my childhood, for his cold textured skin, wrought with wonderful pattern, his lithe twist in my remembering hand, the clawed resistance of his feet, the pull of his leg in a gentle stretch for release.  I sorrow that so many of his kind are the first to succumb in poisoned environments and grateful for his participation in my backyard; feasting on slugs, spiders, fleas, worms, insects, this talented songster whose pleasant trill in the trees and brush often gets taken for cricket chirrups, serenades through a respectable thirty years of life.  I love ya, man!  And all y'all other under-appreciated fellow earthlings out there in your intelligent wild, light years above our puny estimation.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

It’s a Cruel Cruel Summer, Now You’re Gone
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 10/04/12

Apologies to Bananarama for lifting their anthem, but it rings true in my ears at wistful times when I miss the summer garden: it's a cruel cruel summer, now you're gone.  As the seasons turn, I fondly recall the bounty of fresh produce from my first South Carolina garden.

Early summer offered the perfume of basil, crunchy cukes, okra, and succulent summer squash: mm m mmm,  how delicious and fun.  Finding these to harvest and serve was exciting as childhood on Easter morning.

And oh, did I ever treasure my darling white acre peas.  Long imagined in my forty-year California exile, these beauties were great prizes.  They gave me many delicious dishes that took me back to skinny grade school time where fireflies in the twilight chased me home to suppers with these on the table.

And the stuff of ancient and present dreams: sweet, soulful corn, swelling out their wondrous ears, and my joy, savory satisfaction come down the eons right to my garden and table.  I can still hear my family raving with their forks lifting bites of corn.

The carmine queen of the garden, majestic tomato, heavy with juice and color and flavor, reigns in my thanks for her generous gifts; she knows she's the favorite.

Those proud dishes I served from the early summer garden made us swoon: tomato cucumber salad, cream corn, fried okra, white acre peas, and squash.  Tomato sandwiches or the red fruit sliced with olive oil and basil and peppered cottage cheese for lunch.  Okra and tomatoes over rice.  Salads.  All the garden-side munching of beans and the warm yellow tomatoes straight from the vine bursting with juice in your teeth, fingers reaching for guiltless pleasure.

Oh, and let's pay homage to the sweet and fragrant cantaloupe very much like the ones Daddy used to haul to our country table from his sprawling, fertile garden; they were so far above the faded things in the grocery bins.

And I loved the green beans I sauteed quickly with onion, bacon, sesame seeds, and lemon..or simmered with potatoes for my beautiful youngest sister stealing away from Pittsburgh on her visit in August.

The slender pungent peppers: sleek and vibrant.  Ohh.  The smell was euphoric!  Wow.

and voluptuous waxy bells for pepper steak in its rich gravy over rice, holding their own with beef and bamboo shoots, rich soy, toasted sesame, onion.

The fresh harvest may be over, but I still have garden preserves lovingly stored in my kitchen: dried, canned, frozen to enjoy in the cooling months to come, when the green outside turns winter brown and thermometers shiver.


Twenty kinds of seed tucked into medicine bottles will hide in my freezer in a single gallon bag so they can resurrect their miracle vegetable, herbs, glorious blooms alive with bees in spring: marigold, morning glories, hyssop, borage, yarrow, sun flowers, cantaloupe, hot and sweet peppers, corn, okra, peas, pole beans, runner beans, and four kinds of tomatoes.  I collected a bag of dried white acre peas I'll use for New Years' hoppin john, ones that hid in the thick foliage or waited too long on the screen porch for fresh eating, but too precious to toss.  And I saved half a spice jar of my own basil seasoning: simply dried in summer air.

The freezer sports two quarts of cream corn; two quarts of shelled peas; four bags of okra: whole for soups, sliced and mealed for frying, and one quart cooked in tomatoes; two quarts of green beans, three quarts of bell peppers, and two cups of pesto: enough to transport many dishes.  Every meal these treasures grace will make me thrill of summer.

Four quarts of tomatoes will recreate soups, chili, and pasta, while five bottles of pepper sauce, four given to friends and family, will spice a lot of platesI gave away fresh produce all garden long, loving the brightened eyes and my sister's "Farmer Ruby" dubbing.   Maybe the summer is gone, but so many veggies and blooms continue to bless and grace us that I honestly don't really relate to Bananarama with their city pavements burning.  Not any more.  My summer was generous with memories and sensory presents, not cruel.  My summer with the backyard dirt did not leave me all alone.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Catching Summertime in Nets of Seed
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 09/18/12

Quick!  Before I tear any spent friend from its garden bed here at the start of fall, I'm collecting seeds, little pellets of summertime to hoard against winter.  I have put aside specimens all summer with this garden-end advent in mind, (ready to savor the cool weather garden, but really with a heart for spring). 

If a pod of okra or  white acres or blue lakes or an ear of corn, whatever this summer went unspied too long on its vine or stalk, I'd put it aside to dry, thinking about seed.

The first was corn, wringing the kernels from the cob as my sister and I did when we were small to feed the chickens or Albert, the  mean turkey, at Grandma's.  He'd chase you!  Gobbling and shaking that scary wattle!  He was vivid enough as I wrung seed from the cob to make me laugh here fifty years later, though I'm a little skeptical of my success with this corn.  It was a Burpee hybrid, Early and Often.  What I want are open pollinated, organic seed.  I may never use this corn for the garden again, but it did give me Albert back for a minute.

My sister, the retired kindergarten teacher, had saved medicine bottles, ready for my asking, and I found these labels in Walmart's canning jar aisle, also promising in their attributes.

Though I only grabbed them after I'd scrawled info directly on my first few bottles with a sharpie or taped down a scrap of labeled paper.  It was easy to throw seeds on a plate when I was cleaning a garden bell pepper for stir fry, opening my only Hales cantaloupe come to maturity but invaded by worms the last few days, scraping the seeds from a cucumber I let get too large.

Blue lakes were pellets popping from the dried pods I found on the vine, in shape and jar rattle nearly the same as tic-tacs.

I kept a green bowl holding dried white acres that I'd find through summer, and chose the prettiest ones to save for seed.  I'll bag the rest to make as dried peas for New Year's hopping john.

The Okra pods cured to a beautiful muted charcoal-gray-and-ecru stripe, splitting open like balsa to spill out dark seed. Imagine, I tell myself, this buckshot carries the map to those pale-yellow organza blooms with the deepest-magenta throats.  Magic, unlikely enchantment..

My first seed lesson several years ago came from a little powerhouse of a furious gardener, maybe four-foot ten and 80 years old, who had given me some Brandywine tomato plants.  I grabbed her in church one Sunday to rave about those backyard tomatoes.  "Good news," she said with her mouth freezing in a tight twist of patient doubt as she asked, " Did you save some seed?"  She had me cold, and chagrined that it was too late for those memorable Brandywines.  Now I know to set aside the good tomatoes on paper labels to ripen red, then squeeze seed into a bowl on the same label,  ferment them in water for two or three days to purify..

then rinse the pulp off through a tea strainer..

or paper towel in a metal basket, tap seed onto a labeled foam plate to dry for another few days, then slide into a bottle.  I have the fluted Costoluto Genovese, hearty Beefsteak, juicy Early Girl and Better Boy, and lovely Country Taste tomato seeds saved.


Not to neglect the ornamentals and utility blooms, I've harvested sunflowers to dry on my screen porch and then thumbed out the seed, some to plant, some for the cardinals and squirrels.


I gathered the round morning glory pods that were hiding the dark and light seed, the morning blooms dark purple, pink, and white.  So, do the lighter seeds form the white blooms?


One of the last steps I took before leaving my California house of thirty-three years, after selling it in November 2011, was to clean up the garden: tearing up tomato and red-runner bean vines to trash.  I pocketed some beautiful beans and planted them here this spring, marveling at how they and I traveled so far to find this new home.  Now the resulting pods hang on a screen-porch hook to dry for next spring planting.  How can they be as beautiful as these in their dark pottery glaze?

So, my seed savings accrue: corn, peas, beans, peppers, cantaloupe, cucumber, tomatoes, okra, sunflowers, morning glory, borage.  I watch these last few days for strange mysteries: the way marigolds and bee balm and yarrow yield seed; for the basil to bolt, bloom, and seed; to let the soggy little borage pods I rescued after the rain today dry, split, and reveal the ordinary minute egg of the garden, the hard little miracle seed that remembers who it is again and again, and resurrects itself through eons of spring. No wonder we gardeners are such fools for hope.




RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Down at the End of the Garden
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 09/11/12

Yes, inertia comes to the garden; things go from order to disorder seemingly overnight.

One day after rain, the proud leggy okra suddenly tilts at a crazy angle, even though I've lashed the stalks together.

The peas play out and list over, spent and tired.  A meager final harvest of a fistful of peas one morning and I pull them up with a resigned sigh.

The damp air is suddenly charged with an earthy root perfume.  I'm instantly a tingling four-year old, riding the combine again with my sun browned Daddy harvesting his peanuts, we both drinking in the same wet-earth legume aroma evocative and awhirl around us.

Yes, it's sad to remove my first White Acres from the garden.  But the smell rewards me and so does the space provided for the Poinsettia hot peppers working on their second clutch. are the busy California Wonders in the bed next door dangling heavy emerald fruit in their beautiful leaves.

But the tomatoes are too crowded, too wet, too tired in my tight planting.  The vines hang brown and bedraggled behind the okra stalks..


and next to the basil and the Golden Guardian marigolds, and drooping from stakes, judicious pruning let go too long.

The sunflowers have set behind the tomatoes and beg to be harvested.  So I clip spongy branches, tug up roots, shake off earth, salvage flowers for seed, cull stunted green tomatoes I find still whole.  Discard the unlikely marred ones.  Leave one or two vines that look promising.

Pile the weighty debris in the wheel barrow to dump over the fence in the woods.  The labor revitalizes. The cooling air calls to fall planting.


And the cleaner beds give light and air to the remaining workers, the peppers, some tomatoe galaxies that continue to fruit their red planets.

The stalwart okra with ethereal blossoms that drop in a day and put out the pods in two.

Most of all, though, is the room now for autumn  garden ideas to roam my mind.  I will miss tomatoes, peas, basil, corn, green beans, squash, the luminous summer.  But I'm already poring over books and nursery websites for the sturdy fall veggies, robust and rich.  Daddy's bride, my other mama, said just the other day, "Hey, it's almost time to put in your greens!"  Yeah, turnips, spinach, mustard, collards...and beets, carrots, English peas, onions, broccoli, garlic.  Ah, Daddy.  I see why you loved your farm: the ebb and the flow of the seasons, the garden at rest, the garden in motion.  You sing your song in my blood, Daddy.  Just like the garden.




RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Piquant Power in the Languishing Garden
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 08/16/12

August is already cooling the teeming July garden...

The white acre peas are playing out, though eight plants gave me several bowlfuls swimming in their own rich broth so far.


The okra stalks, over seven feet tall, are unstable now, lashed together and leaning after the last 3-inches-of-rain thunder storm, and still yielding weekly favorite dishes of savory okra and tomatoes over rice.

The five sisters are languishing at summer's end, and, though Masie the dachshund could care less, the  Blue Lakes yield a mere few slender green beans a day when I can ferret them out of the tangle of this arrangement.  Next summer I will use teepees to let the beans climb; the corn stalks by now are too spent and list under the welter and weight of the later maturing vines. 


But in mid August, there are the bright emerald rewards of pungent basil..

..turned to pesto in the blender with olive oil, garlic, parmesan, walnuts, kosher salt..


and, stirred into steamy angel hair pasta, the heat wakens and marries the garlic, cheese and herb to a peak of joyful flavor, enough pesto even left to freeze for later.

The Poinsettia Peppers, too,  are coming into their own, a week or so back bristling spikes on the plants by the water feature..

are a happy harvest in this morning's basket, picked in respect of the pepper's piquancy, keeping fingers  away from tender eyes and puppy noses.

Optimistic as always, I've been begging and saving bottles, anticipating this particular morning's pepper sauce:  some from junktiques, my little sisters' and Mama's kitchen salvage, a friend's honey liqueur bottle (I obligingly helped empty), washed in hot soapy water, rinsed and filled with boiling water to sterilize, they cool here for the peppers.


A pepper bath first, a brisk rinse too.


then pop off the stem caps, slit each pod to release flavor and heat, sort the reds out to distribute color in all bottles..

pack into narrow glass throats, add kosher salt..

while the white vinegar boils, sharp in the house, potent for its flavor-rendering and preservation role in the sauce..

when added to the bottles of peppers, only three full so far, but hopeful for more!

Cap with cork, pourers, or stoppers, and cool;  let sleep a few weeks; and then greens, peas, beans and soups come alive in this elixir.  The pungent aroma in the early morning rooms tweak my nose with pepper spice as I blog, and on the window sill morning light sings in the glass and fruit.   One for me and two to share.  And maybe more for the waiting bottles if another crop comes through in these last few weeks.

So yes, the garden languishes and fades near the end of the season, with one last spurt of growth to tangle in the windmill..

beautiful tendrils that can hamper movement, beguile the gaze..

the overgrown garden offering pretty vistas for the sobering eye and some last minute spice to the dinner tables ahead.  It's poignant to know some garden workhorses will soon retire.  Thank you brother and sister veggies, Gracias herbs and aromatics.  Time is coming to harvest final treasure, savor summer lessons,  ponder fall, to reconfigure beds and make place for the autumn-garden delights.   Now though, there's still  summer heat and rain and good times to prize.




RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Sanctuary and a Garden Spectrum
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 08/05/12

Wow, it's good to be alive in a South Carolina garden, so much variety in tiny views, teeming with life and beauty.  No way is  this due to random chance and why is it unintelligent to think there's a Maker, when no one would question there's a designer behind a watch or a Chevy truck or The Mona Lisa?  At any rate, there's soothing balm here: close-up glimpses are the ones that can lift a day from the ordinary to the profound, and few better than visual epiphanies in the garden: morning dew and colors merging and separating again into sharp focus..

starting in the cheery red of the visual spectrum end with Brazilian Red Runner Beans peeking from tomatoes vines..

or near the maturing cantaloupe and squash and beans of the five sisters bed, very scarlet in the bud and fading in the bloom..

to that rich voluptuous tomato-red registered in the nerve of the eye..that anticipates the juice's tang in the mouth..

and the round orbs that illuminate the moniker of love apple..

and gives apple delight to eye and palm.

In the garden spectrum next, orange can lift the spirit far from gloom: Golden Guardian Marigold..

in their frondy foliage,

and Autumn Beauty Sunflowers a bee (or human "bee"ing) adores..

and no surprise why sunflowers have such a name soaring seven or eight feet in the sky

the Mammoth variety holding sway above the garden green like solar flares in the play of yellows among the green, yellows visible to the eye beyond the camera's like the cherry tomatoes in their yellow clusters, the white acre pea blossoms that age from snow white to butter yellow, black-eyed susans, marigolds,

the similar-yellow blooms of cucumber, cantaloupe, squash and the sheerest organza..

of pale yellow okra blossoms with magenta throats, luminous in morning light..

and green, green, green in the spectrum merging into blues and deep purple morning glories, aptly named, that drenched royal hue in early light

and the softer same family of spiky hyssop florals..

or the minute spray of lavender yarrow that travels in the spectrum finally here in my August garden


to bluey pink of Tidal Wave petunia heading in the range to violet.  These are a few samples the August veggie garden gives of paradise right here on South Carolina earth, micro glimpses of the grander scheme from the palette of the universe.  Color, shape, texture, taste, temperature, fragrance, the flare in the brain we call joy.  All this, like the complex machinery in a cell, is the potter's mark of a designer, and as impossible to randomness as getting a single line of Shakespeare from perpetual throws of Scrabble tiles. Yeah, throw in human nature and we can misrepresent and muddy the clearest, loftiest instincts in us; pointing fingers, weapons, rhetoric at each other; vicious and divisive as history and the nightly news testify.  I love a garden--soothing sanctuary from the clamor we humans wage at each other, myself included, though I only want moments of refuge in the greenery not a permanent hermitage.  The human world is amazing, also.  Today, though, it's yay garden, boo strife.  



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Blessings of a Southern Tongue
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 07/23/12

Summer time and the garden delivers one more good reason to love being repatriated Southerner: the food!  And what more representative food for our cuisine than Southern vegetables?  That magic time is finally here: harvest, when all the garden efforts pay off in dazzling Southern ways: fresh sweet corn, tender okra, savory summer squash, plump tomatoes bursting with that color and taste..

and white acre peas, all my veggies, were popping out their first wares mid July, just in time time before a trip to the Charleston islands to make a garden veggie lunch for my Mama and nearest sister. 

For this first harvest, I shelled the peas in memory of countless childhood times doing just that, zipping off the stem, running a thumb down the opened pod, depositing little peas in an old pan, not a pretty pottery bowl as now.  But I never minded that southern chore because the dinner dividends surpassed my typical wish to be biking or playing cowboys or soldiers in a war.

My garden this year gave me fourteen first ears for garden party fare, another veggie I cheerfully helped my mother prepare out of sheer love for the dish.  Along with shelling peas, getting ready for creamed corn was right there, also, husking the ears, rubbing silks from the squeegie clean kernals,

slicing off the bare tips of the kernals and scraping the remaining kernal and milky starch from the cobs with guaranteed milk and bits pelting your face, arms, and other surfaces around: so messy!  But the milk easily washed up if you got to it fast, and, anyway, delicious visions and memories of that buttery corn taste and the creamy, chewy texture totally eclipsed the splatter.

So easy too, a little water, butter, salt and pepper and a few minutes to simmer to perfect silky texture.  This is always where my fork goes first on a dinner plate of Southern veggies.


The yellow is such a soft color in contrast to the rich vermillion and tangy tomato.  For our lunch, I sliced some tomatoes and put others in a salad with basil and cucumbers from my garden, adding sweet onion and a little vinaigrette.  My sliced garden okra I dredged in corn meal, and fried into crisp coins.  Squash I cubed up and added to chopped onions caramelized in bacon fat, sauteing the veggy mere minutes for that tricky medium between a great squash taste that is only cooked in with still a tooth to the bite.  I stir it carefully and remove it before it's not quite tender enough.  That residual heat finishes it perfectly off the burner.

The spread was pretty, just family-style dishes lined up on the counter, though greens and cornbread and iced tea rounded out the menu (out of sight here, since not from my garden but indispensable to Southern palates like ours).  My sister makes cornbread light as a layer cake and the smoked turkey wing made the greens delicious with it.  This spread may have been taken from the pages of Gone with the Wind, a book I remember reading in seventh grade class, mouth watering in my hunger, with the novel hidden in the propped up girth of my science text.  Even then I loved the Southern veggie and was seeking my culinary culture in all it's twists and turns, not knowing then my favorite okra, for instance, made way to my Carolina garden from Africa.

This garden party let us savor those dishes.  The views from a brown bare lawn last winter that prompted visions of this green lushness pay off for us in cuisine, but the garden rewards to a Southern heart are not found just in the taste from family days past and present of veggies like cream corn, smooth white acre peas with their satisfyling flavor, okra, juicy tomatoes.  There's not much work in the garden right now in the full swing of summer, except harvesting.  That's one reward a garden delivers, but there's also relishing the blowsy green overgrowth, the nodding bloom and pod, the round red shapes on leaning vines.  It's the early morning hum and burrowing of bees amid the leaves.  The heady fragrance of basil warm in the sun.  The drip of spent rain soaking garden earth.   Most of all it's the pleasure of a region felt deep in the soul, registered in the garden by nose and eye, ear, hand, and taste on the tongue, forged in our history and perpetuated by us fortunate ones who call ourselves Southern.  The garden gives us Southerners some of our best blessings.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

In the Eye of the Garden
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 07/09/12

In a garden, what grows, what accrues, is not always veggie or posie, shrubbery or branch.  But often it's also decor, and it can be questionable.  Not everyone, for instance, loves a gnome, and I ...

am not the biggest fan myself.  But my sister, darling of my life for decades.. IS a big fan, so here's Mr. Gaudy doing his cheesiest at my front door, garish, sentimental, permanent, and nobody better say nothin about it.  He's my doorman because my sister gave him to me.  The rabbit, now, more lapin than cartoon, is my cuppa tea.  I grabbed him up at the consignment shop Southern Housepitality here in Greenville.  And his pal, the gnome, I can't talk smack about.

The two buddies sit in in close proximity to one of my fondest garden ornaments, the white wrought-iron chair I found at TJ Maxx in Santa Maria, California.  I was on the way home to San Jose from visiting my Seabee son in Ventura about 2007 when I stopped to check out a favorite store.  I had to wrestle the chair into the back seat of my Solara, but it got home then for the last two hundred miles.  And it came with me last year cross country to my new house in South Carolina.  Here you can see a volunteer viola and the emerald green moss I love so much on the porch.

Right near the step is another treasured object--the garden fairy, twin to one my sister has in her South Carolina yard, and a gift from her. The bronze material is garden classic, thankfully not the temporary resin (sorry, Mr. Gaudy) I can fall prey to at any given moment for a winsome design.  This fairy used to charm a pot of cherry-red and white geraniums by my door in San Jose.

Another prize near the front steps traveled with me from the west to the east coast, I think from a Ross store.  He's the campy metal turtle peeking from my impatiens here, emblem of my love for reptiles period.  Perhaps I enjoy a turtle ornament because I admire the primordial reptile, cool, lithe, tough.   My Daddy might correct me and inform me that this is a TOR-torse, as he pronounced it.  Driving to my sister's early one morning, a whole mile away, I spied a green-brown box turtle in her narrow neighborhood road near the creek, and, stopping to get it safely across to the other side, met an old memory of Daddy doing the same while my eight-year old self watched Daddy from the car and nervous of traffic that might loop over the hilly highway. 

This blue boy plant holder came from Uncle Mike's Junktiques and holds a pot of Shady Lady Impatiens I started from seed.  The pot came from my English teacher colleagues and originally held a sympathy plant when Daddy passed.  Boy decor is close to the heart when you're a mother of sons.  This one doesn't seem to mind that metal bumble bee over his hand one bit, a true gardener at heart.  Just this morning I was amazed again at how the benign yellow jackets patrolling my peas steadfastly ignore me as I spray water on their industry and rudely jostle my arms among them to hoist up plants for staking.

My staunchly patriotic sons might not agree that the Stars and Stripes belong in a garden-art blog, but is sure one outdoor object that swells my chest to see in my garden scheme.  Another reason I love my Carolina neighborhood are the several banners I spy from my porch as I set mine up at sunrise or take it down at sunset or inclement weather. 

This birdhouse was with me in California, too, built by one aunt and painted by another, Mama's retired sisters who live near each other in southwest Georgia.  Photographing it this morning, I flipped the top to see if any wasps had nested in it .. and found a well-packed nest squared to the walls I never suspected.  In San Jose, it hung near my Cecile Brunner, and nary a bird visited.  Brava, Mama (or Papa) Bird~

Just yesterday, my youngest son, who has recently joined me here from California, assembled and mounted this $11 windmill I got at Harbor Freight.   The only other one I've seen in the neighborhood is in my mother's front yard fifteen houses away; the truth is, I put it up to link my yard and hers for passers by.  Designed to discourage moles, I hope it fails.  I want  a mole, good ole carnivore, to eat underground grubs.  Voles now, it can scare away all it can, though I won't hold my breath.  I love the galvanized windmill here.

But in the backyard, THIS is my favorite garden object, a heartthrob find at Uncle Mike's Junktiques this summer (and in many blog shots).  Some vanes were broken but Mean Gene there knew a nearby welder, et voila, it turns in the wind, showing its direction.  Pictured here, the peas are just beginning to grow.  Now weeks later, they reach into the windmill and the hyssops wave purple spikes around it.  Its red vanes are burnt black where the welding torch's healing fire touched.  Rustoleum will restore it soon, the only red and green windmill I've ever seen, handy for pulling out the other red touches Burpee provided.  The yellow rain gauge behind it, birthday gift from my sister..

..once sported this polka dot snail that I stuck in the windmill tower.  Recently Chuck, my friend/yardman, was using the trimmer around my raised beds and somehow popped the snail off the rain gauge, but I loved and wanted to keep the sunny touch of color.  I stuck it here on a whim.

Along with visuals, I crave the music of chimes, like the muted tok-too-tok of this one my son and daughter-in-law brought me back from Hawaii. . .


and the traditional chimes that ping, trill, and strum in the harpist-breezes of my screened porch, each humming its own memory.

One is pretty hideous in its iridescent-frog design, but I bought it unseen from a charity for the blind and I can see it, so it stays.

I have a collection of bricabrac frogs, one in every room of my house, to be silent reminders (f.r.o.g. = forever relying on God), and strive to keep them realistic like a bumpy toad in the grass, but when your granddaughter hands you a gift with her eager face all a-light, whacha gonna do?  Yeah.  Lovingly display!

There are other touches of the artistic or grotesque, like this pre-Columbian gargoyle-like garage sale dog face, tribute to dogs who run rampant and adored in our family lives. .

 and bird feeder that my resident squirrels like to sit and swing in while they gnosh, or sometimes allow cardinals, finches, robins, wrens, titmice to partake. .

.. and a final must, the newest of several patio sets my backyard offers.  Provide seating, ice tea or beer, a cigar, or mere conviviality, and unexpected chats,  even impromptu garden parties transpire.  I grab these sets up willy nilly and plunk them in likely spots.  Now I need strung lights, tiki torches, stone paths, music, and toothy treats. This is how we furnish our lives, with symbols and ritual markers, sometimes art and sometimes ain't, but always nurturing, human, desirable, and deep.. in the eye of the garden.






RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Midsummer Treasure in the Garden Greenery
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 07/06/12

Midsummer, just past the Fourth of July fireworks, the middle of serious summer heat (and drought) and there are treasures every morning to uncover in the green garden growth of the back yard. 

The cool twine and twist, the waving deep green leafery has my kind of delight waiting for my eager eye to spy and ready fingers to pluck.  This year it's Burpee BurpFree Cucumber, pendulous and tasting of summer sun all the way to the tender skin.

The squash puts out its crazy-cool large and crinkly leaves, with the many blossoms a luscious deep yellow, till one morning there's suddenly fruit instead, Burpee Early Prolific Straight-neck.  So yummy sauteed just crisp-tender with bacon and sweet onion.

The okra stalks are over my head now and daily popping out their garden alchemy, first a flower for one day, kin to hibiscus (my Daddy called it hot biscuit)..

and two days after the bud falls, the resulting nub is a pod ready to harvest.  The Punjabi ladies in their jewel toned saris tortured San Jose green grocers when the scant displays of these veggies appeared now and then in California, their expert fingers popping the pods and snatching ones that met their mysterious approval.  These are Burpee Clemson Spineless, so southern when sliced, cornmealed, and fried piping hot in olive oil or giving gumbo and veggie soup their green thickening.

Basil is fun to snip and share with my niece who loves caprese salad.  Myself, I like to add it to spaghetti sauce, panzanella, bruschetta, or just deeply inhale the minty licorice glory of it.  And the more I snip, the more it replenishes.  Love that life spirit!  The Burpee Sweet Basil is just my cup of pesto, too!


There are still things I'm waiting for, watching progress with avid eyes. The California Wonder sweet pepper, here an inch wide ball almost invisible, will transform whatever dish they grace when plump and crunchy.  And the Poinsettia hot peppers, now little green spikes, will soon bristle red yellow and orange on the plant, and give piquancy to greens and peas when I pack them into the neat bottles I have saved in my pantry for pepper sauce: pretty green wine bottles, an oval liqueur, several old colas in sinuous shapes, green and pebbled clear, from junktiques.  Just add hot vinegar, pop on a pour top: my nose already twitches for that sharp aroma!

My garden tomatoes are heavy and leaning with great promising globular shapes, red gold soon!  Mmmmm: fat salty slices on a bacon sandwich, tomato sandwich, in zippy pico de gallo, on a plate with fresh peas and corn, with plump cottage cheese curds peppered and tangy, gorgeous red jars of the juicy fruit dotted with yellow seeds for sauces and soups, so summery and as rich in life as in memory.   Oh, tomatoes, come on DOWN: Costoluto Genovese, Country Taste, Beefmaster, Early Girl, Better Boy, and a nameless bastard volunteer beauty that offers delicious yellow plummy bursting mouthfuls right off the vine.

I'm greedy for the first ears of corn from this bed: Early and Often sweet corn.  The first ripe ears will go straight to my sister, darling of my life for fif...a few decades, for whom I planted this five sisters bed.  She love a corn-on-the-cob party of a summer night.  A white clothed table set with salt and butter and heavy glasses of iced tea waiting for the steaming ears to land.  No lie, some of these stalks are 7 feet tall and climbing.  The silks are looking browner and the ears are getting almost to the voluptuous fat picking time.


And...Yes!  Please come to fullness this weekend, dear White Acre Peas (that I finally found at Cherry Gal Heirloom Seeds this past winter).  Hearty and creamy and soul-satisfying little green peas that make a great rich pot liquor for cornbread.  Dash on some pepper sauce and pass the tomatoes and salt!  Ohhh...can't WAIT!!!


And someday I just might get some Blue Lake green beans from the amorous vines embracing the corn stalks, though right now they still only produce small winsome blooms.  I love the meaty green beans steamed al dente with toothy new potatoes and butter...mmm.

I am so in love with gardening!  It gratifies me to no end to tend my garden magicians: stake, water, croon to, caress, feed, prune, adore while they tuck away these Southern treasures, for me to find in their soothing green arms, cupped like manna.   O taste and see. ..



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

A Tender Bouquet of Tips and Tricks
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 06/18/12

I confess, I love Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Pied Beauty" celebrating "dappled things" (like brindled cows, stippled trout, finches' wings) but also "landscape plotted and pieced" and appropriate here, "all trades, their gear and tackle and trim," in other words useful, varied, interesting tools. 

It's like soothing balm to behold and handle and use a good tool.  I'm so enamored of this hose sprayer I bought recently, a Gilmour, about $11 at Lowes!  It fits like a custom tailored weapon in the hand.  You operate it with a thumb lift and the spray settings are smooth and effective.  The stream can blast across my yard to a target spot in a tight clean lance.  The mist is delicate and cool.  The cone is a circle of distinct lines.  My favorite, the shower, is full enough to deliver a good but gentle drink to young green plants.  It's sheer bliss to water early mornings with this one that so outshines that drippy stiff circle of my old sprayer that took two hands to turn.


And the handy placements of these galvanized tubs (from Uncle Mike's Junktiques) under strategic downspouts yield other unexpected watering pleasures.  One is straight out the door to my carport and near a place hoses haven't yet been stretched.  The bucket can water a thirsty climbing hydrangea at the corner of the carport under the eaves where rain doesn't always reach it, or the clematis just on the other side of the tub, also kept dry under the eaves,  or give a quick wash to a nearby Japanese viburnum, a baby buddleia, and hanging viola baskets.  That other tub is right at the edge of my backyard tomato beds.  I can dip up a container of water to douse an extra thirsty plant, moisten a trug of soil mix before planting into the still composting beds, or plunge a watering can in for an easy mix of fish emulsion all without trudging across the yard to the hose.  I'm so gratified at their useful adjacency.

The rain barrel is close at hand for the most thirsty of my raised tomato beds, giving water harvested free of cost and pure of chemical.  That hose attached to it's front is a godsend so I can snake it easily into my watering can, also a favorite tool: gotten at TJ Maxx from my Mama for a birthday present.  The color is soothing and the rose delivers a sweet and gentle wash.   My two colorful trugs bought on the cheap at Walmart are in constant use, here to moisten and carry garden soil, but great for lugging water, holding my plastic-container cloches, covering small plants during a freeze or hail storm, catching weeds as I uproot those rascals, collecting materials to transport to my sister's yard for some garden task all ad imaginarium (my Latin phrase invention).


I also love that I included this lil water feature in my raised bed design.  The water lily will eventually bloom to replace the silly plastic floater, but mostly I enjoy the lily pads, the reflections, the idea my swooping visiting bats might take a drink of an evening.  I plan to put a gentle solar bubbler in to stave off mosquitoes or add a few mosquito fish.  The gurgly sound of a bubbler will be such a great tonal addition, though!


But water is not all I love.  This comfortable-weight, folding metal table has proved SO usefully portable in a number of gardening tasks: under the maple-tree shade at the garden edge to hold my drink and plans for a quick reference or to make a note in the journal; it lifts materials needed cutting to a good back-friendly level like the netting for the trellises; and it keeps lil pots I'm planting out of roaming dog path.  At the moment this table is in my potting shed as another useful horizontal surface in there, but I've used in my carport for unloading trunkfuls of garden purchases, and I know it will make a great garden lunch table for my mama and sisters.  Who'da thunk this of an unthinking buy at my favorite second-hand place, Uncle Mike's Junktiques, here in Greenville.


I also find a simple delight in the cloches I happened on when trying to keep squirrels from digging up seeds I'd planted.  At first that was their main job, like the 2 liter bottle shown here, top half with lid off for easy watering, the bottom half so clear for good progress viewing, and a jelly jar protecting a sunflower seedling.  Yeah, they keep paws-off but also create a humid greenhouse atmosphere to maximize water and temp for germination.  I've used them all through various seasonal plantings.  The latest was germinating borage seeds that are now healthy little plants in my tomato beds, fun little cucumbery leaves to nibble in wonderment.  I rinse removed cloches and store them for the next need.  Love the recycle and reuse!


It's been so cool to have this inexpensive outdoor clock as reference during any given gardening fervor (Lowes).  I congratulate myself on my self knowledge every time I glance up from some gardening addiction to see time has galloped away from me UHgain, and I need to scoot on to my appointment or engagement.  Smooth move, girl!


And the trellises have lived up to my expectations as sturdy support for garden climbers.  Thanks to a little research and plotting, I am blessed!  A good idea is such a joy.

Small things yield ongoing pleasures too.  Like this shallow round  galvanized pan (Tractor Supply, under $10) I use for perfect gardening toting.  I bought it for a possible drip pan under the hose or a bee bath, but it turned into this favorite use.  I carry it with me to nurseries.  This time it carries purple sage, oregano, hyssop, and lemon balm when I had an herb urge one day.

The two shallow plastic industrial light covers I got at Uncle Mike's Junktiques make perfect bee baths instead.  I add a few stones and a little water that invite pollinators to take a sip during their garden buzzing.  I love to watch the wasps circle above it, then drop in a dead man float for a few seconds before lifting off and zipping away.  I feel so benevolent, rare balm to a usually crusty soul like me.

And I love my snips for gentle harvesting from the mama plant.  The cover keeps the point from digging through my garden apron (another favorite) for a sharp nip.

I have been so thrilled with my first use of a garden fork.  It makes short shrift of digging sod hunks up from a new planting spot.  Foot down the tines, rock them puppies around, bend down the handle and there's a nice plug of sod popping up to throw in the wheelbarrow.  (I trot them around to fill up dips and drops in my backyard lawn later, which take hold amazingly well with good watering.)


Another slick trick I found was rooting a clipping, monarda (or bee balm) shown here.  Print up the Google-search instructions, slip the planted cuttings into labeled gallon bags, zip them up for a steamy 10 day rooting with occasional unsealing to check soil moisture, then remove the rootings when you see leaf growth.  I love the little orchid spikes from this successful rooting.  And isn't a little success good for the soul?

You can't forget the dispatch a good pruner can make on a root dug up in a potential bed!  Much better than elbow grease yanking and the curses that follow!

And thanks to little yellow flags or lowly twigs and labelers in their great function of notifying the yardman not to mow down a planting!

And I couldn't believe how fast a cover you can find with garden and household items to protect garden prizes from hail threat, though sometimes it must perplex the neighbors when no announced hail materializes.  Oh well, just whisk them away.  It's still a good idea!


And you cannot, you must not snub the endless fascination and ancient art of the three-sisters planting technique (or five sisters in my case).  The lush green abundance is a gardener's drug of choice, and the symbiosis of corn stalk supporting the reaching bean tendril, the amorous embrace of the bean holding up the stalk, and the gorgeous generous leaf and spread of the squash plant cooling all their feet is just too delicious to say.  (And incidentally, the touches of Burpee red this season are great pops of color I didn't overtly plan). I admire the ancient ones' ingenuity in the three sisters, and tip my hat to these ones who came before us, Indian fore parents.  Garden tricks and tips are fun to pass on, but they ain't nothin' new!




RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Raspberry Roses Among the Onions
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 06/11/12

Last June, when I first drove into my mother's town, having crossed the country from California with just my two dachshunds as plenty company, the first thing that caught my eye about the house I was to buy, was the sunny back yard--fence for the dogs, sun and space for a garden.


Sure I admired the crisp tan brick trimmed in smart black.  But that yard.  .wahoo.  I was a goner and I'm not ashamed to say it.  I was looking for that yard.


It was seven years ago with a very limited budget that my mother's gardening inspiration woke me out of some urban stupor and into decision to make my neglected California backyard an enjoyable Southern outdoor room.  Only 15 x 25 feet for the whole yard, I put a small patio of pavers in sand outside my back door to complement the aggregate mowing circle already defining the yard to the left of the patio.  I found two little nearly dead stick trees on clearance in a far back corner of Home Depot: a weeping cherry and a dogwood (though a cornus florida proved just as unhappy in a California lawn as I read it would be).   I wanted Southernness and fragrance in my trees as well as the backbone shrubs I planned.  Lucking upon ones at a local nursery that I'd been looking for, I spaced out two tea olive shrubs, two gardenias, and two angel trumpets.  In the corner directly forward of the backdoor, I plopped an unlikely looking elderberry of six bare stems that I ordered online.


Soon I also added an iceberg rose, a climbing Cecile Brunner, an Aroma Therapy rose, a variegated buddleia, and a Social Climber rose.  Tomatoes went in a circle of bricks.  My son built a black screen for the Cecile Brunner.  Eventually I found an arbor to put by the Social climber (though that was in 2010, the year I sold the house).  

A riot of white, pink, purple, and yellow in the roses and angel trumpets, a running geranium by the AC compressor, elephant ears behind the tomato circle, morning glories, penstemmon, frothy alyssum, thuggy four o'clocks volunteered under the fence from a neighbor behind me, some furniture, a drip system for watering and the rest was that great black dirt, mild weather, and nurture.

The backyard was more living space, and we loved our time there. .

and the transformation there transformed me into an avid digger forever.

When the dogs and I left, it was hard.  The elderberry was a giant.


And so were the angel trumpets dwarfing the six foot fence.


The Cecile Brunner ate New York.  Even the dogwood bloomed for us one last time that spring. 

So an ornamental garden is important for me here in South Carolina, and veggies are not all I grow.  I planted five roses on the west side of my house.  They love that afternoon sun on the hot bricks, and are listed in order from just beyond the red lilies here toward the fence: a white Iceberg, yellow Sun Flare, red Opening Night, pink August Damask, and just past the fence, Madame Isaac Pereire, with a climbing New Dawn way in the background to the right of the raised corn bed shown in progress here. 

A gorgeous yellow dahlia planted early spring like a dream sun turned to cool bloom this week, for some reason unresponsive to my plantings in California..

Gardenias, that refused to grow in my California yard, never once beyond buds, already stud the shrub I planted beside the carport in March.  The heady aroma is pure South, wafting through the brick fretwork of the carport wall especially in the evenings as I enter and exit my car.

Hydrangeas, also, I finally can get to grow, here a pink lacecap counter levered over a spreading yellow lantana (which my mother says smells like your childhood.  How can you not want lantanas therefore)..

And you must include the irresistible rose that may just be the Four Season Rose, August Damask, from the sixteen hundreds, the one most prized by the perfume industry..

as well as the dazzling raspberry quartered rose with it's famous perfume, quintessential rose attar, Madame Isaac Pereire.  I counted 148 petals packed in one rose.  Already I see the dreaded black spot, on some of these antique shrubs, that drive South Carolina to Knockouts.  But give me this perfume any day, this spellbinding form.  I'll deal with less than perfect performance any day.


So yes, I love ornamentals: the fairy dresses of hosta flowers, frothy crape myrtles, water lilies that nasturtiums mime. 

And the wild flowers like the spider wort.  I have lovingly murmured heartfelt admiration to them as I nestled into the red earth here two more roses: Zepherine Drouhin and Dick Clark, a Carolina Jessamine, a Japanese snowball viburnum, daffodils and freesias, dahlias, angel trumpets, Nikko blue hydrangea, rhododendron, a cerise ivy geranium, purple lantana, mammoth elephant ear, lady ferns, impatiens, petunias, buddleia, alyssum, and handfuls of wildflowers tossed with abandon. 

Veggies reign supreme in my gardener's heart, but the posies are a heart-pounding-close second.  I myself still find rapturous ornamental beauty also in the various green leafery of corn, squash, bean..

and the soul-feeding form of okra foliage.  Such a feast to the senses a garden gives.   Ah, my soul sighs in South Carolina, home at last.




RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Carnage in the Backyard
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 05/28/12

In my Georgia childhood, I loved the firefly displays: winking fairy lamps in the treed dusk, and clammy lil critters: slick green tree frogs translucent as blown glass suctioned to our sliding glass door, so common then and magic.  My closest facsimiles for decades after were artificial: fake dusty-glass frogs and tacky firefly lights to string on the patio.

Along with the lack of heart-thumping thunderstorms, California never gave me fireflies or garden frogs my forty years there.  So when I started my veggie garden here in South Carolina, I committed to an organic approach: no poisons; instead, natural alternatives for combating pests.  Roundup and Sevin dust make me cringe for our society of frogs and fireflies, reptiles, mammals.  If Sevin hits the neurological systems of pests, for example, and there's such a rise of things like autism and Parkinson's, I can't believe it's a coincidence, and suspect maybe our zeal for science sent miracle pesticides of the fifties right up the food chain or from the ground water to contaminate us.

It's easy to say I want to attract the pollinators, especially after the honey bee dearth of the last few years.  Let's invite, I say to me,  the gentle bumble bee and scarier wasp (even though one of those red devils stung me at third-grade Girl Scout camp three times before I could kick off the loafer it inhabited unsuspected overnight).  I ignore well-meaning visitors who suggest I plug up the perfect portholes of the carpenter bee in my screen door and the wooden shed siding..

..or spray the wasps that weave their way into the birdhouse on the screened in porch.  I want my various winged friends, yes even though dachshund Masie is allergic, swelling up twice in California after some backyard sting, like a mini Shar Pei swathed in swollen wrinkles.  So when Masie eats six or more bumbles in one month, I'm chagrined. No way to repay my partners, lured to early demise.

Since the poor buzzers are easy targets for her once they zip in the dog door and crawl on the screen, I keep a jar and card to trap and transport them back outside Man, does their wrath resound in the temporary jail of the jar before I hurl them into open air.  I tender the papery bodies of the unlucky ones to contemplate my future actions since the bees have deserted their portholes in my yard.


It's one thing to want the lazy giants, bumble bees, in the garden, or even wasps.  However: yellow jackets??  The nest presented itself when my friend and lawn man got stung one Saturday.  Yellow jackets once attacked my sister with over fifty stings when she mowed over just such a nest.  Neighbors were scooping handfuls of swarmers from her clothes.  I'm sure Masie's California stinger was a yellow jacket.  So, freaked out, I sneaked out in the dead of night per online advice, masquerading in a makeshift bee outfit: taping long clothes at ankles and wrists, donning socks and shoes and gloves, a pith helmet with tulle pulled around it: no access to exposed skin for an errant sting.  Then I stuck down a square barrier over the site and fled.  The little intimidators snoozed the whole time.  At least my doxies can't stick a curious nose down this hole or get too close dropping their land mines, so now maybe the garden can benefit from the patrol of yellow jackets after bad bugs while my dogs and mowers not suffer.

Commitment to peaceful coexitence can also be tested in scarier ways. My other doxie, Belle, has strange slender looks.  There she stands in my California yard the day I adopted her four years ago.  She's a chiweenie, really, passing as doxie, as you can spot in her Sister Batrille ears and prominent eyes from south-of-the-border genes, that long slim figure from her doxie line.  But in South Carolina, after only weeks in our new house with the exciting fenced backyard, Bella came in writhing and crying at my feet, curling back her nose in pain.  A bee sting I thought, grabbing her, her heart racing and nose swelling.

But the vet pegged it: snakebite.  In the blurred cell camera at the vet emergency she is pitifully deputy-dawg looking.  I forgot about the serpent in paradise and Bella paid. She survived, only a few days in the ER on antibiotics and pain meds, mighty snake bite girl.  Not a month later, hearing the dogs' duet chorusing outside, more strident than usual, I peeked out the screen door to shush them and froze.  Under the maple, twenty feet from the house, they had a four foot long, two inch thick, sinuous snake on alert between them as they yelped.  It made patient defensive movements at Masie while neither dog heeded my frantic commands to come inside.  I groped a shaky hand to the first long handled tool in my utility room and ran down the back steps with .. my broom???  One glance a few feet away told me it was not a viper head, so I swept the dogs inside and ran to call a friendly neighbor.  A king snake, elegant black suppleness with narrow cream bands, must've wrinkled away to safety during my gaspy phone call.  Luckily I didn't grab a lethal implement after her.  These beauties eat other snakes, immune to the venom, and rodents.


But this year I met a stranger not so harmless, a copperhead, in a friend's yard.  We didn't kill him either, still respecting his function, I'm nervous to confess after several shocked reactions from others told.  There's that dilemma: to help live or help die. This year there were two other snakes also.  The same day my lawn man found the yellow jackets, I discovered later with a sad chill a little guy in the mown grass, sans head and tail, about the size of a silver pencil with fine brown one millimeter dots spaced down its back, very slain.  And another alive, the next day out by the tomato beds, this one a solid silver ribbon steadfastly still, with a tiny narrow head, whom I scooped up in half an iced tea carton and threw over the back fence, running in high steps like a majorette, and pouring a wriggling serpent martini back and forth between plastic cartons, crying out all the while.  No need; I think I have identified him as a garter snake, eater of slugs and little vermin, beyond harmless to beneficial.

There is more carnage to tell besides mower-chewed snakes or Masie-snapped bumble bees, one that left me bawling like a child, cupping limp tiny fuzz ball bodies on the screened porch. Carolina wrens built their nest in a hanging basket out there this spring.  I watched the few weeks as the pale, marble size eggs hatched into hungry mouths to feed. 


 The diligent parents came carefully with their offerings and scolded from the shepherd's hook when the dogs were on the porch.  The birds fledged before I knew.  One day, I released joyous doxies to their backyard.  A while later I stepped out to see them run; a movement caught my eye: a miniature wren clinging to the brick of the porch, and another fluttering near it.  Too late I knew the birds had left the nest for the porch confines.  A glance revealed two already dead on the rug, so quickly cool, one drowned in the dog's water bowl!  I corralled the dogs inside, dismayed, and walked them out front on leashes for a couple days so the parents could enter and feed the remaining two.  One night the two puffs cuddled on a corner porch ledge.  The next morning, both crowded in a little notch between boards by the dog door.  But Masie got out again.  Not even my racing could save the last two or inform the baffled parents who came with food for days, cheeping arrows in my conscience. 


Meanwhile my garden has moved on, from regret and fear, to flourishing.  There are bee baths by the windmill and herbs planted to attract pollinators: hyssop, bee balm and lemon balm, borage, oregano, chamomile.   And the nasturtium, marigold, alyssum, petunia, sage and basil will do their aromatic and pretty part too.

The tomatoes and okra and white acre peas are looking more and more like themselves, lush and green, a true garden, yes, where stingers and venom may lurk. I'm nervous about snakes, never once a concern in my California neighborhood.  And I'm hoping Masie escapes allergic stings.  It's going to take respect and study, this partnership with garden nature.  I'll learn, I reassure myself, as the yellow jackets swarm to the five sisters bed for the fish emulsion in the watering can drink.  I step easy in the grass when I roam my garden each day, checking green progress and watchful for "narrow fellows in the grass".   It's a dicey proposition, rife with responsibility, to live in this new no kill world where victims still fall.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Of Compost and Shalimar
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 05/17/12

When I was a youngster, my mother was in her hey day during the Kennedy years and an avid admirer of Jackie Kennedy.  To me, my slender Swedish-heritage mother in her secretary pencil skirts, blouses, and shalimar, rivaled the elegant first lady. 

Her daughters have always schooled themselves at Mama's style and tastes, so when she retired decades later, by then in marketing, gardening become her new passion, of course I took note, lured by her thrall for the earth, and soon snared by the sirens of my own California dirt.  Through the years when I visited summers, I often helped her dig redolent kitchen parings into her compost site.  And now, fifteen houses away, I can truck off wheel barrows full of that dark treasure.

And, it follows that I now want my own compost site right here in my back yard.  Kitty corner from my main raised beds is the perfect place, back there past the tool shed, the dogwoods, and out of sight behind the structure my son calls the triangular murder house


It's perfect.  It's already fenced at the corner behind the play house so I can contain it on one side with concrete blocks and on the other with an old chain link gate I found on the property.  I dug a hole behind the house..


..while inside I'm always collecting coffee grounds, rinsed egg shells, sadly spent cut flowers, tea bags, lemon wedges, fruit and vegetable leavings, in short culinary castoffs-thrilled that these will stay out of the trash and transform to garden loot.  When I'm cooking, I gather each days parings in a handy bowl..

 and transfer those collections frequently through the day into empty coffee containers stowed under the sink.

While those three containers are getting gradually filled, I also shred newspaper at my feet when I'm working on the computer.  Then when full, I empty the parings into a bucket and the shredded papers into a trug, ready for the compost pile.


 I first pour out the kitchen green goods as evenly as I can over the dug site, add newspaper, a favorite gourmet dish of the desirable earthworm.  Water and a good dig in with the pitch fork.  Sometimes pulled weeds not gone to seed, shredded leaves, dug up dirt, whatever makes sense, goes in.  This is an ongoing enterprise I hungrily study from blogs and books and busy observations of gifted gardeners.

The site is easily closed up from my digger dogs, and a barrow's simple access to compost.  There's no reason not  to take these few steps the way I see it. The clever industry of microbes and earth worms yielding such riches is a garden bonanza a shame not to appropriate.  My modish Mama, after all, didn't raise no fools; and I, proud thief, enjoy stealing pages from her book.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

When Dogwood Leaves Are Squirrel’s Ears
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 05/12/12

My quarter-Cherokee father used to talk about the "Indian" three-sisters technique of inter planting beans, corn, and squash for an excellent agricultural symbiosis.  I've been hankering for a raised corn bed since I put in my other beds.

It was part of my plan to build this bed on the other side of my yard, having read to keep corn and tomatoes at least 20 feet from each other.  I decided to add cukes on one end and cantaloupe (ok muskmelon) on the other, with the three sisters in the middle, so my dream bed ...

was more like five-sisters, very appropriate for me being the eldest of, you guessed it: five sisters.  I had long since bought my veggie seeds...

Next I had to get the bed built.  I soaked newspaper again, laying thick overlapped pads of it in my-measured-and-staked-with-string plot, then a 4 inch layer of wheat straw, a layer of bagged mushroom compost rich with chicken manure, a 3 inch layer of shredded leaves, then 3 inches of alfalfa hay, more shredded leaves, ending finally with my mother's dark compost.  I took my cue from Lasagna Gardening and just composted away, no careful carpentry this time.  But what a mess, ten inches high but melting fast!

I opted this time to stake the pine boards in place: with boards and a pack of twenty-five stakes, I got away from Lowe's this time for $40.  Not as pretty as my screwed together siding, and probably, considering that law of the universe about things going from order to disorder, becoming more and more wobbly as the stakes loosen.  Determined, though, to plant corn in early May,  I eyeballed my layout and marked the spacing with twigs.


According to Renee's Garden (I googled three sisters planting and found the site), I should have started planting the three sisters when dogwood leaves are the size of squirrel's ears, were I following the authentic Iroquois technique.  I plan to do that next year, humbled by and drawn to the nature-aware wisdom.  According to Renee, plant all three seeds literally in one hole, get a tangled mess.  So I modified that site's clear ideas for my own.  First moisten potting soil with rain water, since layered composting to be planted immediately needs potting soil to line each seed site. 

In each spot you plant a 6-inch square with corn planted at each corner.  I cloched mine after watering the seed, not taking my eye from the spot till I had a container snugged down good over the planted corn.

The idea is to wait till the corn is four inches high and plant the beans near the corn, with squash interspersed between these corn/bean squares.   It took about a week, but the little greenhouses, my humble plastic cloches, kept birds and critters from robbing the unsprouted corn, and a humid atmosphere hydrating and warming the seedlings with condensation.  I gently wiggled the cloches up to remove them, respectful of the sprouts, and lightly smoothed down the disturbed soil around them.

Time for the beans to go in, really mostly Blue Lake pole, but also these beautiful Brazilian red runner beans I saved from the last dried vines in 2010, cleaning my California garden to relinquish my home of thirty-four years to the buyer that December.  A deep current ran in me then; sharply conscious of leaving an era in my life, I plundered garden seeds to bring with me: morning glories, zinnias from my daddy's yard, nasturtiums, and these.  It was momentous to see the large glossy beans drop smooth and heavy as stones from the labeled envelope I'd slipped them in eighteen months ago, remnants of Indian pottery, glazed black  and edged with terra cotta brush strokes.  Some of these babies will climb the corn stalks among the Blue Lakes.

With beans to climb the brave corn sprouts, and squash alternating among those groupings, a few morning glories and nasturtiums tucked in, and the planned cukes climbing up red trellises on one end, and puny melon sprouts on the opposite not very promising, my five sisters are cozy, bristling with cloches again to help the girls do their ancient work.  Corn to support the twining beans which replenish nitrogen to the soil with their rhizobia, while the squash, liking the shade at their feet, provide a living mulch.  The old ones believed time was not linear, that we all spin around in time, past-present-future, more connected than we know, not really so distinct and separate in our dimensions, as we see time.   A garden makes that feel true when you hold the same enchanted seeds, come down through time. and know the sisters are magic.








RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

A Dingo Ate My Byebee
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 05/03/12

Hopeful visions of a savory harvest dance in my planter's brain when seeds are going in the ground, so they were definitely busy mid April.


A couple weeks back, I ran out to my beds ready to get the okra and white acre peas in the ground.  I soaked the seed a couple hours and went out to the beds with a trug of moistened potting soil, seeds in the Burpee seed dispenser, and those visions attending my efforts. 

Since the layered composting is still in progress, I knew I had to load holes with the soil as I planted.  I appreciated the usefulness of the Burpee seeder.  I could more easily control the number of seeds for each planting spot by tapping them out the dispenser hole when I dialed it open, and closing the hole between planting to contain those tiny roly poly rascals.  Once on this soil, the spilled dark okra would be nearly invisible for me to retrieve.   I have been known to dump out minuscule dots that way.

Twigs from my yard marked each seeded spot.  I watered in and went about my usual business.

A few days later, doing my typical morning parole, I was stopped cold by evidence of vicious squirrel vandalism.  It did feel like a dingo ate my byebee.   My marker twigs were uprooted, holes flagrantly stared at me, and discarded sunflower shells dug from my plantings lay about in disarray along the poor ruined beds.  I was shocked.  Fifteen sunflowers along the edges of the beds, ten okra, and a dozen white acre pea plantings looked completely compromised.

This was warfare.  Don't get me wrong..I love a little squirrel diving from tree branch to tree branch like a daring forest trapeze artist tantalizing my poor Masie and her hopeful dachshund heart.  But I was not going to lose okra and white acre peas when I finally could grow them in their native south!  I couldn't rely on Mase to help, bless her.

I planted new white acre peas, figuring the already sprouted seedlings could survive squirrels.   I could replace any plants whose spot proved to be too plundered.  I ruled out temporary fencing as useless.  These characters perform routinely in the trees.   Without nets.

Then I discovered the idea online of putting containers over planted seeds to frustrate squirrel thievery.  Hey, hadn't I been saving all those iced tea containers for just such a possible need?  At first I cut the tops off, but once at the garden beds, I realized I could use the tops too.  The lids were handy to unscrew and pour in water.  So now I cut containers in half, using both ends.

I also used a two liter bottle, so clear it was my favorite little cloche, making me rue my preference for tea over two-liter soda.  Those translucent Solo cups,  glass spaghetti and jelly jars have also joined my usage.  Hey~it worked. 


I removed the cloches yesterday and have found all plants sprouted up, okra in the first, white acre peas in the second, even sunflowers are rousing up!  I guess the dingo got maligned about my babies.  But in the process, I learned that those little covers kept a hydrating atmosphere going.  Believe me, Ima gonna use this idea when I put in the 3 sisters bed any day now.  I know the squirrels will rally round for that corn!  But covers might slow them down.  And if I get called away from my garden for a few days, the cloches will also keep my seeds nicely moist.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Swings for the Garden Queen
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 05/01/12

I will never forget the spring my father, retired from his Georgia farm,  visited me in San Jose.  Staring out the kitchen window at my small backyard, Daddy proclaimed my need for tomatoes and left in my car for the garden center a few blocks away.  I expected two or three plants tucked along the fence at the foot of the new lawn, my usual practice.  But no.   Visiting with my mom, it was not till the deed was done that I beheld a dozen plants  lined up prettily in the center of the expensive green sod, bristling with 8-foot stakes.  And Daddy's quick nod: that's how it's done.


Don't get me wrong.  I luxuriated in those voluptuous glowing tomatoes warm from my garden that summer, fat salted slices with fresh ground pepper and cottage cheese washed down with great glasses of iced tea.   I am a southern girl.  The whole neighborhood  and my church friends also enjoyed that farmer's bounty.  Not just for future lawn preservation did I install a permanent corner home for those red darlings of the vine.   A tomato cage and stakes were just fine for support then.

But now garden hunger and a slim budget demand mutual respect.  Rejecting flimsy wire cages, bamboo teepees, expensive folding screens, those gorgeous wrought iron tuteurs I really wanted but couldn't afford, I settled for a resourceful alternative, found in Bartholomew's All New Square Foot Gardening,  portable trellises made of electrical conduit pipe and metal elbows found easily at Lowes.  The pipes come in ten foot lengths, but even though only $2 each, the store cheerfully cut them in half.  I wanted five 5-foot-high-and-wide trellises, so it worked out neatly to get eight pipes halved, a cost of $16.  The ten elbows were a whole box I had to order, at $50 for the bunch.  Ten 18-inch lengths or rebar was another $20.  And plastic netting, $20 more brings trellises to $21 + change each.

Easy to assemble the legs from a crossbar with the elbows and a screwdriver..

Then it was just a simple collection of the assembled frames, measuring tape, hammer and rebar, along with a trusty friend


to measure out the spacing of the rebar pieces, hammer them in, then slip each frame in place over its rebar twins.


Plastic netting and zip ties finished the trellises.  The beauty is that they're sturdy.  And I can move them around when I rotate the garden queens next year.  And none too soon, either.  Today I planted about a dozen and half tomatoes.


Along the outer edges of my beds in a big U around the garden, the infant queens will soon bound up and be twined to the screens in proud display, swinging round and tempting on the net.  I can barely wait, hoping for a sharp acid like the ones Daddy used to grow, tasting like the ants just left, no bland flat mush.  From my own started seedlings, I planted  Italian tomatoes, Costoluto Genovese, Park Seeds' Country Taste, Beefmasters, and Daddy's two standbys: Early Girls and Better Boys.

Impossible now in this thin dimension outside heaven, but if I could have one more amazing, luminous walk with Daddy in his garden, or mine, I think he'd agree I might be learning his garden lesson about what counts.  





RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Heart of Rain
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 04/26/12

In South Carolina, rain is not a season as in California, where it rains predictably from late fall to spring.  And NEVER in summer.  Here the skies open in wonderful surprises all year long and keep Greenville living up to her name.   It was one major homesick detail for me during the 40 years I lived in California: no trees lashing in the pre-rain wind, no great rolling crashes of thunder, no crackling tongues or sheets of lightening, no ropes of rain falling falling falling, or water streaking windows, gushing from gutter spouts and flowing down the street.  There, just a steady gentle rain watering the good black earth.  Now, back home, my heart of rain exults.

So what self respecting organic gardener would not ask for a rain barrel for her March birthday?  It took some research.  Seeing the online and YouTube series of 60 gallon barrels people were lining up in their collection schemes, I cut to the chase when I saw these containers selling on Craigslist.  Food containers like this sounded like a good alternative.  Holding 250 gallons, I have what four of the smaller barrels hold.  It seemed like a good idea to position it under the camellia beneath my kitchen window and right by the raised beds I've just installed this spring.

We assembled materials to convert this container to a rain barrel: Fiskar's diverter I ordered from Amazon, saving about $20 from what True Value would charge to order it; got a longer 1-inch clear plastic tube than the short corrugated one that came with the diverter; one-inch and one-and-3/8-inch circular bits, gorilla glue, hacksaw, measuring tape, pliers, screwdriver, pencil, gloves, brass hose end, drill, masonry bit, and wire snips. 

The one-inch circular bit worked like a charm to drill a center hole in the black bottom cap of the barrel.  We glued in a brass hose connector.  We also drilled a hole in the top white cap of the barrel for the clear tube to come from the nearby downspout diverter to the barrel.

Following diverter directions, measuring and marking as instructed, we first sawed through the targeted downspout with the hacksaw and then cut the back wall with wire snips.


The diverter inserted easily into the the downspout, but we lashed it down, below, and added metal plate bracing above, to stabilize the wobbly fit.  Then connecting the clear tube from the diverter to the barrel, and creating a loop to hold it to the wall, we were ready for the reported impending rain.  A lively thunderstorm gushed rain from  all my downspouts, but only a disappointing quart or so got into the barrel.

That meant revisiting our design: lowered the loop on the wall so there was better down flow, and inserted a piece inside the diverter to more efficiently divert water from the downspout into the barrel tube.

Blew the debris from the gutters (thanks to a handy silver fox's skills)...

And, VOILA, the next rain brought, rain.  In 20 minutes, we had 100 gallons and even light rain garnered another 50.   Our added length of hose makes it easier to fill a watering can.   It's great fun to see the rain flow down the tube and rise up the metal bars, each of which measure 50 gallons: visibly 150 right now.


Not to stop there, I added a galvanized tub under the other downspout near my garden.  Handy for dipping unchlorinated water for the plantings just beyond the gate there.  (Masie my dachshund can always sneak into the shot--"Hi, Mom").


And out front, the downspout by my carport provides more collection.  Easy to run out my laundry door for a dipperful of rain water for seedlings under the laundry gro-lights.  All this is just me getting ready for the summer thirst in the garden.  I guess the next water detail will be harnessing the barrel for soaker hoses!  A heart of rain just enjoys the sensory balms of rain, but a heart of gardening wants it in the backyard dirt!





RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Seed Fever and Monkey Business
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 04/13/12

You know how it goes: you've paged through the catalogs with shaking hands and feverishly pondered the tantalizing choices at online sites and store shelves; the neat packets arrive in the mail; you choose some at Lowes, and the list dazzles: sweet peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes chosen for their old tang and by your father's advice, white acre peas, Hales cantaloupe, squash, cuke, corn, pole beans, herbs and wild flowers to attract pollinators, marigolds and garlic to chase off chewers.

Spring fever dictates gardening action differently in South Carolina than in northern California.  February was still shivering in winter here, when there I knew fruit trees would be blooming.  But, ah, I did have seeds..

and a likely surface in the laundry room (much closer than my mother's offered basement 15 houses away) to tend seedlings, and a perfect cabinet bottom for mounting grow lights.

With grow lights in place, I inflated peat pellets with rain water, gathered my seeds, sower, markers, labels, scissors, and other paraphernalia of my addiction.  I charted rows of shy seeds which do not cotton, I had read, to direct sowing: 8 hot peppers (pimiento picante poinsettia), 10 cantaloupe (Hales Best organic melon), 6 sweet basil (ocimum basilicum), 6 hot pink tidal wave petunia (my first pelleted seed experience), 2 red double pirouette petunia (which would've been more, but the teensy seeds dropped in one fell invisible swoop from the little green sower shaped like a white-out wand), 4  Burpfree cukes (pepino burpfree), 8 bee balm (monarda didyma), 6 lavender (lavendula vera), 6 California Wonder sweet peppers (pimiento dulce), 6 sage (salvia officinalis), 6 Miss Butterfly (buddleia Davidii).

I rummaged up a disposable baking dish as my tomato seeder and in went rows of tiny seeds for five kinds of tomatoes: Better Boy, Early Girl, Costuluto Genovese, Country Taste, and Beefmaster. And I salvaged a foil sweet-roll pan for some Shady Lady impatiens seeds.

It wasn't long until the clever seedlings were sporting their cotyledon leaves, the cukes and melons bounding up when some seedlings were minuscule.

    I transplanted them last week, the cukes first. 

Yesterday, I saw the tomatoes needed transplanting, so I marked the pots: BB= Better Boy, EG=Early Girl, CT=Country Taste, CG= Costuluto Genovese, and BM= Beefmaster. 

And then chose the best seedlings to promote to the next grade.

Did sweet peppers (SP) and hot peppers (duh, HP) the same way

till we have new plants lifted to the light

or glowing in a southern window.  The cukes and melons are still the ones leaping the most, nearly ready to go to the raised beds, along with direct sown seeds this weekend.  It can really be a satisfying slake for postponed garden urges to take these seed sowing steps, when it's too soon to actually plant in the beds.

And so I felt my little trill of gratification, until, in the cool of one recent morning, out to weed the raised beds of volunteer wheat before planting this weekend, 

when what should I discover on closer inspection is that wheat was not all that volunteered in my garden.  What was left after pulling grass

was a virtual, random, prolific crop of volunteer tomatoes, these come of their very own volition without invitation or planning or my fevered preparation of any sort!  No grow lights, labels, catalog, mail order, shopping, seed packs, or my happy jonesing and shake.  Nothing was required.  Just nature, and, attending that, my own astonished and amused realization of great good fortune and garden chagrin.  This begs the obvious conclusion that my farmer father would find incredible I'm just seeing: sometimes perhaps the unmonkeyed-with basics (seed, dirt, sun, rain) may really be just the best way to garden after all.





RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

The Darling Buds of March
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 03/29/12

One of the great delights for a Southerner like me (born and raised in Georgia), returned home to the South after 40 years in the wacky and wonderful wilderness of California, is spring in my new state of South Carolina.  The first year in this house and yard means every season is a study in discoveries, mysterious treasures (and trials) former owners, along with nature, have hidden in the earth for me to find; often nameless, uncharted, undaunted by my arrival, they continue in their lives and twine unfazed and unimpressed into mine.

The cherry exchanges its pale pink blossom for new leafing, as the crape myrtles also begin to leaf at its feet.  I watch for their colors and where to transplant them in my yard, not wanting them to crowd the cherry, empress of my yard.  And what is the tree leafing out behind the mailbox?  The former owners have called it a Japanese dogwood, so I'm on the hunt to name it and to know it.

Azaleas in my new neighborhood reign supreme and my yard proves no exception, I'm thrilled to see.  I never knew such frothy bloom.  Just look at those white party frocks!

One thing I always wished for in my former zone 9 was peonies.  I promptly planted Margaret Trumans in a sunny curve of the bed under the cherry out front, understanding, of course, that it may be next year before I enjoy her arrival.  And then one morning, see what emerged from the backyard dirt, a peony, several, and maybe even that same magenta hue I chose out front.  The leaves are tender and so new, unblemished and perfect.

And, under azaleas, lilies of the valley appear, also, budding out their rich perfume my mother loves so much that all her five daughters gift her often with emollients and other aroma therapeutic toiletries in this fragrance.  I planted 8 of these last week, desiring those tiny wax bells and that delicious scent to show up some day under my dogwoods.  And here they already are, gems of sensory and familial delight rising from what I thought was hosta curls.

In the shady corner bed, that bare stem I hardly noticed last summer has become a red leaf Japanese maple, which I have plans to free from this tangle.

The Madame Isaac Pereire rose that I planted offers her two cents to spring surprises, the plus her ready bud so soon after arriving from Texas into my Carolina soil, supposedly the rose for the perfume industry.


And spring life does not omit winged friends, my darling future pollinators. This innocuous corner house which my son, visiting from suspicious California, dubbed 
"the triangular murder house," was once a little playhouse.  Behind there I'm planning my compost bin.   One morning I spied sawdust on the doorstep.  There are several perfect little portholes around the structure, like this one above, engineered by carpenter bees.  The long ragged strips were left courtesy of termites, I'm thinking.  I watched the busy "c" bee shoving out his saw by-product that recent morning, making his own house instead of settling for little ideas I planned to put out.  He is one reason I want poisonless gardening in my yard.

So I handle the inevitable other growth, chickweed, and his weedy thug friends with old fashioned pulling, opting away from the chemicals my lawn man suggested.  "Your yard back there is eat up with chickweed," he said in certain guilt as though he were responsible for the rampant carpet of weed invading my property like d-day and about to win the war.  My waiting wheelbarrow of pure chickweed keeps getting handfuls donated every time I venture out back.  I mutter promises to my pollinators.  And keep pulling.

Now take a gander at the growth in my newly layer-composted beds!  I suspect that's wheat come from all the seeds I eyed in the wheat straw used generously in my layering, per online and written advice.  Seeds, really, I thought, strewing the straw with great misgiving, expecting just this to happen.  How can wheat straw even be good mulch?  Doesn't wheat spring eternal in whatever beds it's mulched into?  In my avid reading, I've seen it often used, and now this first seeding will vie with my veggies.   Oh well, it's living dirt!  I hope earthworms plow it now, even as I tickle these very words out in the muffled patter of keys.  We share this planet, after all, with buds and bugs and poor ole weeds, and even errant wheat, somehow got the bad luck not to be wanted.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter      

Garden Drums and Spring in the Blood
by Ruth Mason McElvain - posted 03/20/12

It was just last May, after a four-day solo drive from California, that I wheeled my car into a modest Taylors neighborhood in the remnants of a forest.  There it was, on a drowsy side street, the little brick house of my dreams, just fifteen houses from my mother's, and for sale.  I rolled past in slo-mo, heart pierced by the front yard full of trees and South Carolina sun, and the glimpses I caught of a fenced backyard ready for a gardener and two digging dachshunds to move in.  Wuff!


And this is where I call home now.  This first spring has dug deep into my psyche, awakening garden drums, the farmer's daughter in me obsessed with dirt, seeds, sun, rain, visions of greenery and the bumbly buzz of bees .  The Yoshino cherry by the drive and white thrift under the mailbox shimmer in my mind, wild violets scatter in unexpected places...


even what looks like wild muscari at my halted feet surprise me in the backyard one morning, here brimming along with pale trumpets redolent of garlic, like nothing I ever saw in proud California.   February weeks ago shook awake my garden fever, driving me to seed catalogs, online googles, local garden shops, junktiques, garage sales, my mother's tool shed, blogs to make my thouhts reel,

and trips to the library for armloads of books.  I jot down ideas in a fresh garden journal till


a rough garden scheme forms.  Time to choose the herbs and flowers to attract garden friends, visualize fat tangy tomatoes, nasturtiums, and cukes climbing trellises,   southern veggies like white acre peas, okra, mustard greens, hot peppers for bottles of pepper sauce, squash, sweet potatoes, beets and carrots, a crazed tangle to separate into seasons and likely companion planting, and new things to try: borage, bee balm, hyssop, along with the old buddies: alyssum, marigolds, and zinnias.

The site dictates itself with wise logic.  My back yard is half bisected crosswise by the shade of forest trees behind my backyard fence.  The sunny horizontal half near the house only offers this side pictured in the top right since the top left portion you can't see hides a septic tank.  Besides, it's right under my kitchen and mudroom windows.  Perfect!

A good neighbor's truck and a trip to Lowe's deliver carefully planned lengths of untreated lumber.  I settle for pine because I can afford it now, fully expecting to replace this wood of my rasied beds gradually with expensive cedar, probably in the near future as the soft pine disintegrates in weather and dirt.  The frames assembled on my screened-in porch,  corners connected by galvanized screws and inside metal braces, become only five beds of the seven my plans anticipate since funds dwindle for right now.  Okay to start smaller.. just start, I say.

I line them up in early March where I've plotted my garden, even if a little truncated at present, and assemble newspapers, bags of organic compost (reeking grandly of chicken manure), wheat straw, worm castings,  the garden hose, wheelbarrows and pitchforks, buckets, trugs and concrete blocks.   Piles of summer grass clippings and shredded fall leaves are mounded behind my fence in the woods.  And my mother has many years of deep, rich compost waiting, just fifteen houses away.


First I lay down heavy wet overlapping pads of newspaper directly on the sleeping sod, which,  I've read in Lasagna Gardening , will kill the grass and draw the diligent earthworms.   Next I layer bagged "compost"--mostly gooey chicken manure, then several inches of wheat straw, ditto a similar layer of mixed leaves and lawn clippings, more wheat straw, my mother's compost, and finally 15 bags of top soil.

I finally end with a set of filled beds, orphaned right now on the edge of the lawn and lost-looking.  Soon, however,  I'll sow seeds, erect trellises,  add some kind of enclosure and paths, put out a birdbath, a bee bath, add a water system, get a rainbarrel, let the windmill blow.  Sheeesh, I'm excited.  But hot sweaty work is best attended in South Carolina by our old friend...


a tall cool glass of raspberry iced tea on the screened-in porch, in view of my incipient garden and springtime dazzling the yard.



RSS | Print

Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter