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 27
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....

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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.

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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.

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