Friday, November 15, 2013

The Roots of a Gardener

"Dad had a stroke."  It's been a week since my sister said those words over the phone and my life and my world got turned upside down.  I flew to Buffalo the next morning and my family and I have spent the last 7 days in and out of the stroke unit at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo, where he is receiving wonderful care.  After a very grim first couple of days, things are actually starting to look up a bit for my father, although it's going to be a very long and slow recovery.

While I'm staying with my mom I'm sleeping in the same room I had as a kid, which happens to have the exact same furniture as when I left for college 33 years ago.  The view out the bedroom window into the woods behind the house is exactly the same as it was all those years ago and every square inch of this house is saturated with memories from my childhood.  My father still has a garden out back, flowers now (well, at least in warmer weather) but when I was a kid it was a vegetable garden.  It was my job to keep it weeded--something I hated--but I have many happy memories of working alongside my father, digging and planting, and especially harvesting the vegetables, literally the fruits of my labor.  I enjoyed giving the vegetables to my mother, who was (and is) an excellent cook and transformed the eggplants, the green beans, the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the bell peppers, and the zucchini into the dishes that are still my comfort foods.  My father has always taken such pride in his gardens, mowed the lawn himself right up until the age of 82 (although I doubt he'll be able to do that any longer), and has grown the most enormous and beautiful rhododendrons I've ever seen, putting up fencing around them every fall as my parents prepared to head to Florida for the winter so the deer wouldn't eat them.  The rhododendrons welcome my parents with their flowers every spring, just as they are returning.

My mom asked me a few days ago where botany came from: how on earth did I ever get interested in that field?  Because as a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs and fossils and wanted to be a paleontologist, and as a teenager I collected insects and went into entomology at Cornell.  So why plants?  The answer is my father.  Although I don't remember it, he tells me that I loved "working" in the garden with him even when I was 4 or 5 years old, back when we still lived in Syracuse, and one of my earliest memories is picking a daisy and "planting" it in a paper cup full of mud, and plopping it on the table when my mother had some women over for bridge.  My father always gardened and was in charge of the outdoor plants, but my mother always had houseplants indoors.  How could I not have ended up loving plants?  And when we moved from Syracuse to a nearly-rural suburb of Buffalo, I found myself surrounded by forests full of strange and mysterious wildflowers like trilliums and jack-in-the-pulpits.  The latter were among my favorites, but I wanted to know the names of all of them.  My father helped me look them up in the encyclopedia and gave me a little patch of the garden, where I could plant anything I wanted, and I started bringing home the plants that I found, trying to grow them (although not always successfully).  Many other people along the way helped cultivate my interest in plants, but my father planted the seeds, and for that I will be forever indebted to him.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

DC Tropics on TV!

Photo:  Michael K. Wilkinson

In 2007, Dan and I started planning a renovation project for our 1927 rowhouse in Washington, DC; construction was completed in late 2008.  Earlier this year, part of our project was featured on an episode of HGTV's "Bang For Your Buck".  In case you missed the episode, it will be airing again on Friday, November 15 at 10:00 am (but check your local listings).

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Fabulous Fatsia

Fatsia flowers 3
Something spooky-looking emerges in my garden in the fall.  Every October without fail, shortly before Halloween, fat buds begin to swell on my Fatsia japonica and from them emerge ghostly flower buds, tightly packed into little balls and looking more like some fungus that would emerge from the grave of a hastily-buried corpse in a science fiction movie.  Only when they fully expand and the thousands of tiny buds open do they begin to resemble actual flowers, and even then it's more like the poor plant had an accident and exploded while it was trying to bloom.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Fall color

Fall color

Washington, DC is not exactly known for our fall foliage, but here and there, trees stand out with brilliant reds, oranges and yellows.  But fall color from... a crape myrtle. Who would have thought?  I've had a love/hate relationship with this particular crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia cultivar) for years; it's growing in my neighbor's yard but most of it overhangs my front walk and steps.  I have no idea which cultivar this is but it was probably planted by my neighbor's parents well over 30 years ago.  It's a tough tree, growing in poor, dry, compacted soil and never getting any care of any kind, and produces masses of bright magenta-pink flowers all summer.  And that's when I start hating it a little bit.  The flowers may be beautiful, and the first few that drop onto the walk and steps may be charming, but then they just keep coming.  I sweep, and by the time I get to the bottom of the steps, more have fallen behind me.  They get mashed underfoot and tracked indoors, and when it rains they wash into our gutters and drains, clogging them up.  But in the fall all is forgiven, when the leaves produce this glorious red-orange color for just a few days, and then the leaves fall all at once, creating the perfect mulch for my plants.  But if I ever planted one for myself, I would site it well away from any walkways!

Fall color