Exuberance of Spring Gives Way

Mimi Hedl

Sooner or later, the exuberance of spring has to fade, and the business of producing seed and fruit begins in earnest. The crazy ways spring makes us feel, having to do many things at the same time and feeling like we make no headway, have disappeared for another year, and we can settle in to our summer routines.

So I go about my daily chores, filling bird baths, spending 45 minutes on bamboo eradication, (GRRRR!!!) pushing tomato plants back inside cages, all the while taking stock of what chores need doing: straw on black currants and rhubarb, make a bed for last five purple sweet potato plants, plant more zinnia seed, sow pole bean seed where tall telephone peas ripen seed and the list, of course, goes on.

View of the culinary garden from the figs

And then, at least for the next few days, I do what I want to do, and not what I HAVE to do. Let the play begin. Of course to the casual observer, it still looks like work. I don’t lay in the hammock and contemplate my navel, or read one of the books in my stack of summer reading, I do garden-related things, but chores I’ve neglected because they seemed so trivial and unimportant, but they nagged at me, nevertheless. With the pressure of spring released, I glide into the new season.

The pokeweed in the perennial garden looks beautiful, its architecture magnificent, but I know what lies in store if I don’t dig out the roots. Three good-sized plants grow now; I could have a forest of them. It takes ten minutes to dig out the deep tap roots, used to treat cancerous tumors. Pokeweed leaves, early in spring, provide greens that taste like asparagus. The berries produce a beautiful dye. These facts gather in my mind as I dig; the folklore of every plant dear to me. I warn folks that every part of this plant has poisonous qualities; that you have to change the water twice when you cook the greens. The fact this plant contains an anti-viral mitogen makes me respect it even more. I don’t know how the research has gone in HIV and cancer treatments, but would provide an interesting topic for anyone so inclined.

I move to the first quarter acre that, slowly, I am giving back to native plants. In the far section, near Kuan-yin and the downed red oak, staghorn sumac tries to move in. The mother plants produce beautiful red fruits; and if you’ve seen adult male deer’s antlers, you know exactly what the fruit looks like. What a fine lemonade drink the berries make. Boiled in water, strained, a bit of simple syrup added, and who needs lemons?! I like the mother plants along the fence row and in the wild area, but I don’t want them moving into the “meadow” as they belong to the cashew family and cause a slight dermatitis when you brush up against them.

The runners pull out easily when they first come up, effortlessly really. But since the tornado, I haven’t ventured into that area, and now have twenty suckers coming up through the tall grasses. I use my pruners and cut them as close to the ground as possible. They’ll sucker again, but this time I won’t wait so long. While doing this, I pile some of the redbud branches into a neater pile, out of the way of the mower. This little effort makes me feel more in control of my world and more able to deal with the results of the tornado. I sit down, in the grasses, and watch all the fluttering about me. Because I burn these areas in winter, I don’t have to worry about ticks, a blessing indeed. Just to sit and watch all the life flitting about me. Ahhh…

clematis versicolor

Before lunch I go out to the park and weed around one of Missouri’s native clematis, versicolor. I’ve worked around this delicate clematis, opening up so the area so its beauty comes through. Have you seen a sweeter flower? The first of the plumbago has begun to bloom there too. That little scene inspires me, the simple beauty; an awareness of how many years I’ve waited to watch this vignette unfold. Don’t we live for these moments and then stand back and sigh with pleasure.

The last chore before I walk into the house for lunch and a nap, I cut a dead end off the vitex, or summer lilac. Every time I walk by, many times every day, it bugs me, sitting there dead and ugly, right in my line of vision. But I don’t take the time to use the ratchet pruners because I have too many important things to do….Whatever, it took 5 seconds. Now a list of small tasks that irritated me, have disappeared and I feel lighter and happier. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much.

The gardens fill with lovely scenes. The eyes know how to frame these pictures. We walk our gardens so often, we manipulate the vista, tweak it here and there, creating a world, our world, that gives us beauty and inspiration. I give you a couple of mine.

Butterfly weed and grinding stone

Fresh Peas in June

by Mimi Hedl

Oh to stand in the garden before sunrise, picking peas that will grace one of my favorite springtime meals: new potatoes and garden peas in a cream sauce, seasoned with mint. This year only the amount of new potatoes I want to sacrifice will limit me. The tall telephone peas have reached the 7-foot mark, and each vine has dozens of pods, each with six or seven peas stuffed with sweetness and delight.

I’d never grown potatoes before coming to Strawdog. Gladys, a grandmother figure who cussed like a sailor and taught me how to pluck the down off geese, talked about “graveling for potatoes.” I’d never heard the expression. You reach your hand under the plant (after it flowers, indicating that fruit exists below), and steal some of the small, new potatoes. Don’t take too many! Three or four small potatoes from each plant; you know you’ll come back for more.

I’ll have a salad with my dream spring meal too. Lettuce still grows, but has started throwing up a central flower stalk and some of the older leaves, near the stem, exude the bitter latex wild lettuce has in excess. If I trim each leaf near the base, then the rest of the leaf tastes sweet. Now that the daylilies, hemerocallis fulva, have begun blooming, they cap my salads instead of tomatoes, that will come later.

Do you put daylily blossoms in your salad? Or maybe you’ve made a salad exclusively with daylilies. Talk about color! If you grow different hybrids and don’t use poisons, you can serve an exclusively beautiful salad, unique to your flower garden.

I told a young gardener with a new nursery she could eat the daylilies, and demonstrated their goodness, to her delight. The next time I saw her, she said she told her four children about eating the blossoms, and they proceeded to sample them all. They preferred her most expensive daylily, Catherine Woodbury. She said they claimed it had the sweetest flavor.

Such pleasure to hold a daylily flower in your hand and pluck the petals from the stamens, then drop the stamens and pedicel in the compost bucket. It feels like an adult version of “he loves me, he loves me not.” The petals stay crisp longer than lettuce, but I still refrigerate the blossoms until I use them. Truthfully, usually I make a mad dash to the garden just as I prepare to serve the salad. Folks tend not to want to try the flower, they scrinch up their faces, but once they do, they feel equally surprised at the flavor and texture, crisp and fresh, just like lettuce. They become instant converts.

When the day has come to a close, the last peas blanched and packed in bags for the freezer, eyes too tired to read anymore, I lie on my bed in the summer kitchen, with katydids filling the background, the jagged hum of summer, and watch the fireflies illuminate the sweet gum tree with flickering light. I could be back in Superior, Wisconsin, walking home in the dark from playing with the neighborhood kids, trying to catch fireflies and immortalize them on my body.

Calm Returns to This Hilltop

by Mimi Hedl

A week has passed since the tornado roared by the summer kitchen, me with the covers over my head, like a scared little girl, trying to hide from the monster in the closet. My son-in-law has gently scolded me for not going down to the root cellar, or at least inside the house, into the bathroom, and waiting until calm returned. I assured him I had no time to run down to the root cellar, the wind would have carried me away. Maybe I should have gone inside, but I witnessed, on a lesser scale, the beginning of the universe.

From under the covers, in the darkness of early, early morning, I heard the freight train coming directly for me. Although I trembled and curled into the fetal position, no thoughts ran through my mind, I simply surrendered. Or maybe one thought did pass through my consciousness; the energy I felt must’ve been what swirled about when the universe came into existence. For that I trembled in awe.

After the tornado passed, I fell back to sleep, not waking until neighbors knocked on my door to see if I survived the night. They told me of all the trees that came down on Strawdog, on the county road and on their property, and I felt grateful for my life. In thirty-five years, we never came face to face with a tornado.

And so the clean-up began. My love, and need, for order destroyed, I made piles of dead branches and green branches. The dry ones I can burn soon, the green I’ll add to the brush piles as they burn. So much brush. So much bending. This will take weeks and weeks. The great-great grand daddy tree, thrust into the earth like a tooth pick, made an arch I can walk under, mow under, until this fall, when someone has time to take it apart, piece by piece. The top of that red oak covers half of the quarter-acre garden, where Kuan-yin stands. The landscape turned topsy-turvy.

The exhaustion that comes with a natural disaster, or any kind of crisis, attempts to subvert my good nature. I go slowly, concentrating on weeding one plot at a time, preparing one seed bed, planting beans and melons, trying not to look at what I have no control over. All in good time, all in good time, I repeat, ad nauseam. Those simple words keep my sanity in check. How do people in war-torn countries survive? I notice more news stories about people dealing with disasters, or I pay more attention to those stories. At one time or another, we all deal with one plague or another; some seem hit harder than others. Sigh.


The Flanders poppies bloom. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row…” They bloom with larkspur and milk thistle all in happy reverie. The bees busily work the pollen until the flowers look worked over with loving attention.


A common yellow-throated warbler came to the front door. It had injured a foot. I snuggled it in the red honeysuckle, hoping he would heal and fly on.


Then a flat-nosed skink and his friend basked on the summer kitchen, not caring that I came within a few inches. The sun felt divine.

And the Indian pinks bloom in profusion, multiplying many times over in another meadow area. First I planted one, and now I see dozens and dozens. Glory be to the flowers. My peace and equilibrium will return, for now, I feel grateful for quiet moments.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns

by Nita Hill

I put Joni Mitchell on to inspire. The album cover features a group of people carrying a boa constrictor (I have no idea if boas hiss). When I think of hissing and lawns I think of sprinkler systems. In Portlandia if you are an ordinary person and you happen to water your lawn you would be labeled a pariah. Here in Trumplandia, people who live in houses that are worth less than their cars have sprinkler systems. I am very uncomfortable having the sprinkler system automatically discharging such a valuable commodity. In the first place, I have maimed it several times with my now totally dull shovel and it might cost a bit to “get her up and running” and secondly, I am a creature of guilt.

Honestly though, I did spend about an hour with the PDF of the brain of the system and made no progress at all so I bought the arching/fan kind you connect to the hose and will try not to let the front yard go to hell.

In Portlandia people have removed most of the grass and have veg gardens or some fruit trees in the front so that they can survive the apocalypse or at least look like they care. Here, I guess people don’t worry about the apocalypse or maybe for them it has already occurred.

While we are on the subject of lawns, there will be dandelions. I personally don’t have a huge charge on them. The other day I took my dandelion popper to hand and aimlessly walked around the back yard popping some out. It is really satisfying to get the whole “carrot” out but it rarely happens. It the six years we lived in our last house, I was able to reduce the population of the back yard to only a few from almost total coverage. Anyway, the guy who is putting down a new floor in our basement after he ripped out the dreadful brown shag asked what I was doing. I think of it more of a walking meditation than a project of interest, but he thinks like the natives, so he owned the issue here. He told me that just that day he had seen someone vacuuming the seed heads with a real vacuum. Not a shop vac even, but a carpet vacuum. I have to say, that is impressive and if you hear a hiss rather than a roar from a vacuum it makes for a perfect way to wrap up this missive.

Garden Excavations 2, The Sequel

by Nita Hill

I haven’t bothered to count how many gardens I’ve inherited. The first house I ever owned cost 20K and was in a neighborhood in Memphis in the midst of gentrification. There was a strip of land between me and Spencer. Spencer spent his time on his front porch sitting in a rotting Lazyboy in a bathrobe that his butt had worn through. Sometimes after a day of imbibing he would rise and stand on the edge of the porch and howl like a wolf. The narrow strip seemed to need planting. I would go to the state forest and steal ferns because I was poor and because the strip was under several large oak trees. Well, digging it out became an adventure in car parts. Someone had worked on a truck or car and simply thrown the parts in the strip where they were buried under years of leaf mulch. I thought that those parts would be the worst thing I ever encountered.

Working on this latest garden I’ve found the ordinary stuff: Legos, Christmas light bulbs, shingle scraps, lots of used charcoal briquettes, nails and screws and even a poker chip. Then I came upon an orb.

The orb looked familiar and, before too long and much digging, it revealed itself.

Eventually the entire commode was exhumed. I don’t expect to find anything that interesting ever again.

Kuan-yin

by Mimi Hedl

Kuan-yin stands near the edge of the old asparagus beds. In Buddhist mythology, she represents the Goddess of Mercy. In paintings of Kuan-yin, she has a dove flying toward her, representing fecundity. We all want a fertile garden, so we chose this particular aspect of her nature to accentuate. We could call on her mercy when the early frosts came or droughts threatened. Over the years we found it easier to give simple titles to our yard art, a catchy phrase for visitors to latch onto. More complete explanations could come later, when we sat down at the kitchen table to visit.

Ron, ever-resourceful, made her body out of a steel tomato cage with an old lamp shade frame wired to the top of the cage. After four years on Strawdog, we had a surplus of old canning lids, the gilt for her magnificent presence. We hammered holes in the lids, two together, to sparkle on both sides, wired them in long strands, and soon Kuan-yin came alive.

In those early years, the trees and shrubs we began to plant hadn’t made much of a presence. You could see our place from D highway, the state road 400 feet away. When we erected her, we had strangers stopping by wanting to know what that sparkling thing was. “It’s so bright it nearly blinded me as I drove by,” said one farmer. He didn’t know about Buddhism, but he did know about helping things grow. Since we already had the title of “those weird folks,” this only added fuel.

About seven years ago, the Mary Washington asparagus we started from seed, directly sown in the four beds, tenderly weeded by Ron, began to slow down, as did this gardener. At first I simply mowed the paths between the beds instead of mulching them. That helped, but it still seemed like too much labor for little return. Then, during the dog days one summer, feeling defeated, I stopped mowing those paths, stopped weeding the beds too. Abandoning those beds, that carried my footprints as well as asparagus, over many years, made me sad.

Little by little, I began to see subtle changes. The natives from bed #5, the native propagation bed, began to seed in both bed #6, the comfrey bed, and the paths of the asparagus beds. That made me happy. The royal catchfly, silene regia, a tall, red hummingbird flower, went wild, as if it had waited for this moment. Seedlings began to appear everywhere. Suddenly, hundreds of plants appeared. Notoriously difficult, they became the envy of the wildflower folks. I demurred, I had nothing to do with it, just stopped mowing.

It baffled me to watch the changes. Purple poppy mallow grew in paths, in beds, under asparagus, near Hollis’s thistle. (Every time I see one of these evil dudes, I put a bamboo stake in the ground, so I know where to attack with pitch fork.)The aromatic aster ─ so named because as soon as you find yourself brushing up against it, you swoon ─ knew no bounds. A favorite with the migrating monarchs, another nectar source multiplied.

And the blue-eyed prairie grass appeared out of nowhere. It belongs in the iris family, though so small as to appeal to fairies. Once you realize you look at an iris, you see the family characteristics, but until then, you don’t know how to look at the plant.

This new prairie has taught me how to look. I visit it early in the morning, before the sun rises, and later in the evening when the sun has begun to set. The light at those times fascinates me. I see plants and insects at one time that I couldn’t see at another time.Down on all fours, the best way to become part of a landscape, I find tiny seedlings, wild lettuce that has to come out so as not to contaminate the seed I’ll save from cultivated lettuce, and asparagus I’d missed in the morning. Like a child, I explore and savor, lying down now and then, to look up at the clouds.

As with wild places, a sense of peace, different from more heavily worked parts of the homestead, fills this space. That probably explains why I visit it so often. I like to pick the asparagus too, if only a handful a day. My evolution as a gardener, as a woman, seems present here. Memories drift by as I walk in the twilight. I pause for a moment, let them in, then watch them disappear as a firefly glides by. Kuan-yin accompanies me. She still blesses the gardens with fecundity and me with her mercy.

Kuan-yin accompanies.

Rock Garden

by Nita Hill


I just finished it yesterday. There are more plants than you can see. I borrowed extensively from the rest of the garden.


There were railroad ties going down into the sunken patio. I scabbed them from the patio and made these stairs. I think they are safe. These are 80 lbs of concrete in there!

RANCHOD: occasional reports from the laboratory garden at Rancho Deluxe

My friends, Richard and Judith Selby Lang, artists and environmentalists in the Bay Area, have a wonderful blog, “RANCHOD: occasional reports from the laboratory garden at Rancho Deluxe.

“Grandson Jude and King Midas,” courtesy of Richard and Judith Selby Lang

The Langs ran San Francisco Electric Works for years. I got to know Judith when she created the most marvelous artwork for my six-year traveling exhibition, The Veil: Visible & Invisible Spaces.

From the “ABOUT” page of “RANCHOD” —

The big joke was “Rancho DeLuxe” in its Ur-state was basically a tear-down. Once a cabin circa 1917, it became a hunting retreat and party house for the DiMartini family in the 1940s. After years of neglect, the house was composting itself and on its way down the hill. The basement came with a seasonal creek water-feature and three 20-yard dumpster loads of rotting rat-turd laden couches. Deluxe indeed!

Richard named it for the eponymous 1974 movie of modern day Surrealist tale of Montana cattle rustlers who plied their trade with a pickup and a chain saw. These days we simply call it the “D”.

On its way down the hill yes, but the hill is five acres, with an acre and a half of south facing pasture including a 1917 nine hundred square foot barn— funky but stabilized and re-roofed.

Nothing but charm, distant views and ample space to realize the counter-culture dream of “back to the land”. What we call the “’60s” was more than sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, more than liberation politics for the non-white non-male, more than the tsunami of gurus blabbering self realization. It was all that, for sure, but mostly the ’60s were about accepting the incumbency of your own life as you were called on to make your own reality in a DIY dream of self-sufficiency. The dream was if you did it yourself you could leave behind the tiresome denunciations of “the man.”

Amen.

Judith’s journey of living an alternative life-style began in ’70s in the foothills of Napa where for three years she lived without electricity and running water in a hand-built “pod.” She honed her bio-dynamic gardening skills and had a goat named “Ergo.” All the while, she painted watercolors and learned to play Greensleeves on the recorder. Her simple back-to-the-land adventure got complicated by the vision of building a natural food store, so she found herself living in town and being in business. Fast forward to 1999 when she met Richard, a kindred spirit who shared her fascination with Helen and Scott Nearing as exemplars of the living the good life.

In 1974, Richard moved to Woodacre in the San Geronimo Valley from Wisconsin with an MFA degree in sculpture. The University of Wisconsin has a vibrant Ag School and so electives in soil science, vegetable production, the history of US farming were on the syllabus. What fun field trips! Finally, in 1992, Forest Knolls became home at the “D” where he had the luck and scant wherewithal to buy a place where we all can experiment to our heart’s content; to fool around with our own brand of Practical Biology, to see what the Earth could provide when you combine the notions gained from the peripatetic life of the artist, with the rigor of dirt, germ plasm and sunlight.

In this family we are all dedicated artists of varying brands, willing to fiddle around to see—just how does this life work anyway. This blog is a report of the ongoing fiddle. It is by no means a practical guide for anything save that fiddling which has it’s own strange music.

I’ve just been alerted to this blog and am following it with huge enthusiasm. Check it out. The Langs are amazing people — just who I’d like to be if I ever grow up. https://ranchodblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/04/midas-the-sunflower-king/

New Plants and Old Wives Tales

by Nita Hill

I’ve been trying to give away strawberry plants. I posted the giveaway on Nextdoor Neighbor. So far, I have given away almost seventy-five plants. I could give away another seventy-five easily. For some reason, I have three separate beds of strawberry plants. I guessing because they multiply so quickly, duh. My intention is to put in a Japanese garden in one of the beds.

Anyway, the point of this post is that everyone out here (Spokane) says thank you. I find it really bothers me. In the South, where I’m from, you never say thank you. It curses the plants. So, I went a-searchin’ on the Google and found this…

One theory on the origin of this saying is that if you do not thank someone, the devil won’t notice something wonderful has been given to you, and therefore won’t be able to kill it. Another is that the plants themselves prefer to be stolen, and think they will do better, so you shouldn’t tip them off with the words thank you. A variation on this, and probably closer to the origin, is that they grow better in order to make you feel as guilty as possible. There is someone who mentioned a friend who took this so far that they not only wouldn’t say thank you, but would make the giver turn their head while she pretended to steal the plant.

It warms my heart that plants are given volition. I believe, as I once read, that everything has its own share of consciousness (I think it might have been Schiller). If we regarded that as the truth, the world would be a very different place.