Monday, November 24, 2008

The Oven Bird

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

“The Oven Bird,” by Robert Frost

This poem always reminds me of Thanksgiving--and vice versa--because for years, I thought "Oven Bird" was Frost's dark metaphor for a turkey. But as all English teachers learn eventually, sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke; there is actually a little bird called an oven bird (I'm from the West, and it wasn't until I moved to the East that I learned about oven birds, which are small birds named for the shape of their nests). Still, wrong as I was, the poem evokes late November for me and remains one of my favorites. So it seemed a good intro for my (early) Thanksgiving post and my (late) contribution to Dave's Garden Blogger Fall Color Project.

We're in the middle--really, past the middle, moving toward the end--of that other fall we name the fall. The sky is full--of rain, of wind, of leaves, of birds. The leaves are inches thick on the ground, and yet the trees are still full (lots of work ahead). The woods around the house shimmer in the lower autumn sun, which almost seems to catch them from the underside.

The gold of the poplars sets off the deep reds of viburnum and dogwood.

I've never seen an oven bird--we may not be forested enough for them anymore. But other migratory birds keep our autumn woods in constant motion.

They rest in the pines--from 40 feet below, it's hard to tell the cones from the birds.

And their "song" is deafening. Fall is busy--the trees and flowers may appear diminished, but the chaos of autumn reminds us that nature is in constant flux, and that falls leads inexorably to its opposite. Still, spring seems a long way off.

Salix and I are spending the holiday at the beach with friends. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Vegetable update (on the very pathetic side)

My contributions to Garden Blogger's Vegetable Update are always minimal because I don't have a vegetable garden (or, as we like to call it, a deer diner). But plummeting temperatures this week took out the few offerings I had. My little cowhorn pepper, despite being sheltered by the house, crumpled in the cold:

I'll be able to ripen these last few peppers, but I'm afraid the plant will have to go to the compost heap. And the last brown turkey figs didn't get a chance to ripen.

The birds' vegetable gardens, however, are doing fine. Best-in-show right now are the Pyracantha coccinea, especially the one with the western exposure, which is covered in berries.

Even the herbs are feeling too straggly to have their pictures made--unless I decide to grow some inside this winter, my next updates will have to be more bird food.

Thanks to Tina, Skeeter and Dawn at In the Garden--check out their site to see what's growing in other vegetable gardens. And, umm, happy winter.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Books, Rules, Memes, but no Gardening

There's this book/meme thing going around. I'm not tagging anyone, so don't run away! (umm, yet--at least if you like to read). So Mr. McGregor's Daughter found out about it from both Red Dirt Ramblings and Gardening While Intoxicated, and then invited others to play. Or really, read.

Here are the rules, which I've broken twice:

Grab the nearest book at hand (no fair looking for something intellectual, just what’s within arm’s reach of your keyboard). Turn to page 56, go to the 5th sentence and post your results - include the 2-3 sentences that follow to provide some sort of context. Then turn around and “tag” 5 or so more blogging friends to do the same.

I'm not much for memes, especially since I didn't even know what they were until like a month ago, but I'm pretty fond of books, so this game sounded great. And then I looked at rule 1. And this, no lie, was what was (and still is) next to my computer today--

Two instruction manuals, my sudoku book, and a book about CSI (I'm obsessed with crime drama). Pretty slim pickings.

So I cheated a little--I went up to our old desk top in my office, and had better luck--this very sweet book from my sister, the last book-for-fun that I've read:

It's the memoir of a woman who rescues a standardbred (a trotter, if you follow horseracing at all). Here's p. 56, line 5 ff.--she's adopted the mare and her foal, but has just discovered that the previous owner's vet is going to reclaim the foal to offset a debt:

"Giving out the names and addresses of all the foster homes to the former owner of the horses seemed completely irresponsible to me. What was to prevent him from stealing back the mares, from threatening us, from sending one of his cronies over to beat us up, or from chopping off Georgia's head and sticking under my blanket while I slept?"

If this book were a film, it would be a chickflick. I'm more inclined to the dark side of things--another 10" would have brought you one of the Dexter series (the crime drama thing again)--but I love horses, and this book was heartbreaking.

So, the other rule I'm ignoring? As I promised at the start, no tags. But check out Intoxicated's and Rambling's, and MMD's selections, and I'd love to know what you're reading. As long as it's not a cell phone instruction manual.

And my next post will definitely be about gardening (hmm--does anyone know of any crime dramas with a garden motif? I've often imagined an episode involving foxglove . . .)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Still-in-Bloom Day, November 2008

It's 73 F. and raining--not the warmest November 15th we've ever had (the local news tells me we went into the 80's in 1993), but quite unusual nonetheless.

And the flowers are loving it (well, at least after I pull the wet leaves off them).

The Knock-out is still a knock-out.

And it's still in bud--a little spider is using one as home base.

The Rosa moyesii is looking a little tattered, but it's still blooming alongside some Salvia guaranitica.

The red of the petals is much deeper in the fall, almost crimson, especially against the gold chrysanthemums:

And a little bug has found some shelter in its petals:

My white shrub rose is also still going strong (and providing food for yet another bug):

This Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis) would probably not be in bloom this time of year, but I just bought it at Lowe's plant clearance, so it's proving a nice addition to the otherwise mum-dominated white garden.
A low-growing white begonia is spreading nicely--I pulled this out of an on-sale hanging basket in summer 2007, and it came back beautifully.

In other parts of the garden, blues dominate. The Angelonia and the Mexican Heather are still going strong--I hope that if the winter remains mild, the Mexican heather might even overwinter.

The heliotrope is loving the cooler weather--this one is nestled in with some thyme and a yellow pansy.

The pansies are establishing themselves nicely--they should bloom all winter. I've planted these blue ones next to some gentian.

I've never grown gentian before (another fall sale at Lowe's)--the blossoms close at night and open again in the sun. I think it's a cool weather plant--it will be interesting to see what it does next summer.

I've been trying to get a good shot of a gaura blossom all summer--here's one (also with buds, also with a bee).

And the ginger lily (Hedychium--I'm not sure of the cultivar) continues to bloom--this one's providing a bed for a sleepy drone (if you haven't already, check out Randy's post on Creating Our Eden.)

And here's my ever-blooming Euphorbia lomi--along with Ranunculus wishing you a Happy Bloom Day (created by Carol at May Dreams Gardens--stop by and check out what's blooming all over the world!)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Arizona Still Life

Arizona and Virginia are eerily opposite. Virginia is humid, semi-tropical, and almost chaotically lush; Arizona is dry, desert-y, and from a Virginian's point of view, almost austere. (Case in point--a Southern Californian visiting my Virginia neighborhood once remarked, "Why don't people here take care of their lawns?" He was used to the pristine, manicured, leafless neighborhoods that an arid climate allows--I told him a Virginian with that goal would either be rich enough to afford a landscape crew or on the brink of insanity). My Virginia garden isn't just visually "noisy." It's often literally loud and it's in constant motion--most months, it's difficult to separate the birds' chatter from the hum of frogs and insects--and the slightest breeze sets the trees going--leaves rustle and trunks groan. Arizona--at least the southern part--is probably windier than Tidewater Virginia, but nevertheless it's incredibly quiet. The distinct calls of a coyote, a quail, a mourning dove punctuate the silence, and long periods can pass in which nothing moves. And the sky is blue, and cloudless, and huge.

This is the view from my mom's back porch in Sun City, Arizona, an expansive retirement community northwest of Phoenix. I grew up in Glendale (also just to the northwest of Phoenix), and my five sisters and brothers and most of their kids and grandkids still live in Arizona. It's a second home to Salix and me, and we spend as much time there as we can.

As you can probably see in the photo, my mom's extended back yard is a golf course. When I was growing up, most people had lawns, but I'd say now that most--or at least many--don't. You usually see expanses of grass like this only on golf courses and in parks, and even on the golf courses, the grass is mainly on the fairways with relatively small rough areas (and lots of rocks). Most homes have desert landscaping.

This is a shot of the back of my mom's house from the golf course. The two tall palms are in her front yard, and the back porch looks out on the 13th hole--it's an ideal location if you like golf, especially since the tee box is close enough to the house that we don't have to worry about stray shots (even mine!).

One of the reasons Arizona seems so still to me is that cactus are imperturbable. Even the smaller ones like agave and aloe seem unruffled by the wind. I didn't like cactus growing up--probably stepped on one too many--but I've come to love them as an adult. Still, I've had trouble identifying a lot of these desert plants (I'd love to be edified and corrected if you recognize any . . .) This cactus in the corner MIGHT be an Espostoa lantana, or snowball cactus--it's "woolly" (meaning lots of fine needles), and it's 12-15 feet tall.

In the other corner of her yard, a kind of Cereus cactus grows between the two palm trees. Cereus have beautiful white flowers, and typical of many cacti, they bloom at night. Most cacti aren't flowering in October--that will be substance for a later posting.

This is a barrel cactus in her front yard--if you look to the left side of the photo, you can see a little yellow baby sprouting.

The iconic cactus is the Sajuaro (Carnegiea gigantea). The Sajuaros can grow more than thirty feet tall, and like many cacti, are very slow growing. It can take decades for a sajuaro to develop its first arm. They are protected in Arizona (for example, you can't just knock one down to put up a house). This one is across the street from my mom's house--the house is a one-story rancher, so this one looks to be about 20 feet. You can see holes where martins or maybe small woodpeckers have nested.

Of course, not all of the plants in Arizona are cacti. One of my favorite shrubs is Caesalpinia mexicana, or Mexican Bird-of-Paradise. My mom's is about 7 feet high and maybe 10 feet wide--rabbit and quail nest underneath it. From about April through September, it's covered in bright orange and red blooms that give way to seed pods in the fall. Here's one last bloom among the pods:

And here's a closer shot of the leaves and the seed pods:

My mom will cut hers back to about a foot when the weather cools down (the plant dies back in the cold). It self-seeds very easily--I've started several plants, hoping at least to grow them as annuals here, but they don't like the humidity and they don't live long. Still, our Virginia summers are getting dryer and dryer--maybe one more go this spring!

Lots of flowers in Arizona bloom almost year-round, like these oleanders on the golf course:

Bougainvillea clambers up walls and across roofs (in Virginia, it's a good year when mine hits 6 feet before the temperatures dip).

This flower is a fairly common landscaping plant--it's all over the golf courses. But no one knows what it is and I haven't been able to find it in my books or on the internet. I have the sense that it's something really common--anyway, I love the gray and yellow combination.

This is another common plant in the neighborhood--it's a large shrub, often trimmed into a flat hedge or a ball shape, and the flower looks like an abelia, and again I have the sense that I should know what it is . . . but I don't. And again, I love the combination of the purple flower against the gray-green leaf.

Bush honeysuckle grows kind of like bougainvillea (as opposed to the kudzu-like invasiveness of honeysuckles here), and the residents often trim it into neat arrangements against walls . Here's the lovely orange blossom with a little visitor:

And a closer view:

The palms are the tallest trees one sees; most of the trees are quite small by Virginia standards, many of them never growing as tall as the ranch-style houses they surround. This little oasis on our golf course is framed by palms, juniper, and mesquite.

(By the way, I love golfing on nearly tree-free courses. Sand and water don't bother me that much--but put a tree in sight, and I'm going to hit it. I spend most of my time on Virginia courses looking for my balls in the woods . . .)

Here's another mesquite tree on the golf course:

And one at my sister Kelley's more rural home in northeast Phoenix:

My mom and I think this next one is a kind of juniper. The curved trunk makes it look like a bonsai (I realize of course that bonsai trees are stunted tall ones--still, when I first arrive in Phoenix, I have the impression for the first couple of days that not only is everything quiet, but the trees also seem miniatures).

So I'm exaggerating a little bit: there's lots of movement in my mom's back yard, and this little morning trek from the Cereus cactus through the Bird-of-Paradise shrub to the tall cactus on the other side is a daily occurence.

And when Virginia visits Arizona, things don't stay quiet. The occasion for our visit was my mom's 80th birthday party, and we all dressed in the style of the decade of her birth (well, most of us). Here's my mom with her brood, save one brother who arrived fashionably late.

And here's the latecomer with Salix, clowning in Amelia Earhardt's goggles (I call this one "Superfly").

I was busy enough with the party, then with catching up with sibs, then with a side trip to Southern California, that I didn't visit any of the great sites like Sedona or the desert museums--I'll do that at Christmas. In the meantime, I'm working on another post on Venice, California gardens--and trying to find time to get work done in my own!