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)




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...

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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.

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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.

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