4. August, 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

08- August (4)I used to live a 15-minute walk from Chicago’s lakefront. I chose the new place partially for that proximity but it’s an additional 30 minute walk; a little more of a commitment. I seriously considered buying a condo off one of these beaches, but decided I couldn’t live without a garden of my own.

The beaches in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood are part of the long “forever open and free” stretch that makes Chicago’s lakefront so unique. For most of its length, even in sections downtown, the lakefront is public space, open to anyone, never taken over by developers with their hands in the pockets of City Hall.

Considering Chicago politics, it’s remarkable.

This stretch has a nearly uninterrupted stretch of beaches from the city limits at Howard to Loyola University, more than 2 miles, with one mile-plus length of sand that includes piers, a small lighthouse, snack stands, two Park District field houses, and restored dunes. When we first moved to the area the beaches were nearly 60 feet deep, but lake levels have now decimated a lot of it, completely obliterating several small coves, and shortening the walk by nearly half a mile. People who used to have beach at the end of their street now have tiny bays.

On August 21, I sat on this beach with my daughters, and watched the sun disappear in the middle of the day. I’ve witnessed many partial eclipses, although never a full one. The lasting impression is of eeriness: it doesn’t really get that dark, but there’s a strange stillness to the moment, when even all the birds go silent, and all that’s left is the waves in front of you, and the city at your back.

3. August, 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

I wrapped up July and started August by landscaping my sister- and brother-in-law’s house. They aren’t gardeners; Mary, my sister-in-law, views the garden the way Fran Leibowitz viewed the sidewalk—it’s what have to cross in order to get to the cab. I suggested a backyard seating area, bright flowers, a fruit tree. All got rejected, on the theory (knowledge) that they had never and would never sit outside. So I ended up putting in five different essentially maintenance-free ground covers: three varieties of bugleweed, a sedum, and chameleon plant. A lot of corners were filled with divided iris, lily-of-the-valley and hosta from other parts of the yard, as well as both scavenged and transplanted shrubs.

My landscape designer friend Maureen says that “maintenance free” is the holy grail for the kinds of people who hire landscapers to put in their gardens. And ground cover is pretty maintenance free; once established you never have to mow, or even weed very much, as it crowds out even aggressive weeds.

A new planting, however, is not maintenance free. You have to weed, and water, until it fills in, which can take a couple of years, especially if you don’t invest in enough plantings to fill the space. We could have used double the number we planted, but it wasn’t in the budget.

Mary says she hates “gardening.” I would just like to clarify that “taking care of the yard” is not the same thing as “gardening.” Saying that you let your lawn and plantings go to hell because you hate to garden is like saying that you never clean your house because you hate to build furniture.

The yard at my in-laws’ two-flat was, to put it charitably, a disaster 30 years in the making. As I joked to neighbors walking by while I worked, you have to do this at least every 40 years whether it needs it or not. It gets no full sun—at best it gets dappled shade. When they moved in, they put in a barberry hedge (because nothing says good neighbors like a thorn hedge—were they hoping to catch the fleece of the golden sheep?) and then never trimmed it. Ditto the spirea and a vicary golden privet. The barberry was overgrown, tangled and half dead.

I started by covering both the front and back with heavy black plastic to kill the weeds, leaving it there for 6 weeks. I shaped, pruned, and trimmed the barberry so that you can see the vase-shaped structure of the plant, but leaving a fountain of branches overhead. A lovely and unusual form for barberries, which people generally cut into little box shapes with power trimmers. I did get several helpful neighbors and my mother in law telling me that I was doing it wrong, and must cut it all even. Thanks for the (unsolicited) input, but no.

At the end of the month my son Seng and I started planting the ground covers. When I pulled off the black plastic the weeds were all gone, but a lovely moss was thriving. Unfortunately, six weeks dry had turned the soil into concrete.

I marked off the patches for the bugleweed (ajuga), a sedum, and dead nettle (lamium). We got 2 of the ajugas and the deadnettle planted, about 300 plants, before we cashed it in. I came back on my own twice to finish the front, and then a third time for the backyard. I had originally thought Seng and I would be able to plant the whole property in a single day. We thought we could dig out individual holes with trowels, but in the end had to use the big spade to turn and break up the soil.

I did the last two plantings on my own, but because they’d been watering, the soil was mercifully looser and it went fairly fast. The yard should bloom in succession in the spring, from the pink lamium to the purple ajuge, to the yellow sedum. It didn’t rain, however for the entire month, and the weeds took over. They continued to neglect the new plantings over the course of the following year, with no watering or weeding. The weeds have taken over again.

They should have put in the patio.

2. August, 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

Late in July I went to my hometown of Urbana for 3 days. Urbana is an old land grant college town, plopped in the middle of the farmed prairie, a place where midwest Republicans, generational farmers, and liberal intellectuals get along just fine.

I walked around the beautiful restored prairie south of town, managing to get there right at peak bloom. I go to Urbana a few times a year, sometimes for a day or two, sometimes there and back in a single day. It’s a place to restore myself. To remind my lizard brain that there’s a place I belong to, and that belongs to me. A place where I understand in my bones how it works.

The prairie is part of Meadowbrook Park, which in addition to the prairie restoration includes a large community edible garden, a cultivated herb and flower planting, a sculpture walk, and a big children’s playground. They’re now restoring an open woodland— removing the invasive trees and understory and replacing with native wildflowers, as well as creating a small wetland.

Prairie and native plant restoration is another movement, like community and backyard gardening, being addressed from backyards to neighborhoods to national parks, with much the same goal: to bring our systems back in synch, and to reconnect to the world as the goddess intended it to look.

I lived just a few blocks to what is now Meadowbrook when I was in high school. Then it was farm, university-owned and therefore cordoned off with an 8 foot chainlink fence. There were with some uncultivated areas, very very rare in central Illinois, gone back to woodland. The city of Urbana spent almost 20 years slowly acquiring the land to stop the sprawl that was overtaking it, and creating a park as big as the whole central campus- with a main perimeter walk a couple of miles in circumference.

Although I have no country people in my background, going back generations, Urbana in the mid-late twentieth century was still a country town; although I’ve lived in Chicago longer, and have urban roots through parents, grandparents and even great grandparents, being an Urbana townie gives you the pretension of being from the country. It’s right there in a way that country isn’t back east, where I went to grade school. Back east, country comes in and out, cities giving way to towns giving way to farms, and you go ’round the bend and there’s the city again. Country and city cheek by jowl.

In Illinois, the city ends at Interstate 80, and then it’s just farms and silo towns for mile upon mile upon mile. The Chicago and suburban kids who end up at U of I find the drive mind numbing, but I love it– the barns and the silos and the long, straight prairie horizon. Sometimes when I would drive home, I’d go up Route 41 from St. Joseph just east of Urbana, all the way to Kankakee, where it ends at the highway again. Out here, where the Interstate never created fast food and gas oases, and the roads were never paved, it feels as remote as the Sahara. The cornfields stretch like sand dunes, impossibly immense, but it’s as unnatural as downtown Chicago, an artifact of humans.

08- August (2c)There’s a creek running through Meadowbrook, with several charming bridges along the path. When I was living nearby there was no creek. Like the creeks in Manhattan, it had been drained and buried and diverted to accommodate the farm. It has also now been restored.

The country isn’t really the country even out in the country. It’s just another type of urbanization, of subsuming the natural landscape to human needs.

1. August, 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here 

I worked through the summer as an educator and gardener for the terrace garden at a senior living facility. There are about forty 4×6′ common beds (mostly with trees and shade plants), and 25 beds for the residents. I’ve been working with these gardeners (average age 80) since April, and it’s a truly lovely way to spend one afternoon a week.

Gardening with the elderly is interesting. There was Bonnie, who gave no fucks and dished to me on everyone in the building. Richard, who just quietly took care of not only his little plot, but all the ones around him, too. Patricia who could not be placated, to the extent that she invented traumas to complain about. Fortunately, she didn’t really remember them from week to week.

08- August (1d)Fern felt that everyone should have a tribute to the Cubs in their bed, because how about those Cubbies, but failing that why couldn’t we build a replica of Chicago’s historic water tower? Bob clearly no longer knew what the heck was going on, but his sons planted him a vegetable patch, from which he’d hand out whatever he’d picked to whomever he encountered. Alice asked for her plot to be moved, and then freaked out when we did it, so we moved it back. She introduced herself to me once a week for the entire summer.

It’s the best job I ever had.

08- August (1a)

July: The food in the garden

3. July 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

While all the building and socializing was going on, of course, the garden was doing what gardens do: growing things. July sees the first steady harvests–early tomatoes, peppers, greens, cucumber, early beans, garlic, the first of the carrots, herbs.

Home gardens have become a leading edge of the fight to save the planet. Gardeners are rescuing habitat, propagating native plants (and therefore saving native insects and birds), and providing food not just for ourselves, but for the wildlife, even as more and more of our urbanized landscape succumbs to concrete and sprawl. I had to do some research for a client once that suggested that their network of community gardens, serving just a thousand families, reduced “food mileage” (the distance your food travels to get to you) by 30,000,000 miles. Yes, that’s thirty million. Imagine if every family with a sunny space grew just some of their own food.

I started growing vegetables and berry fruits when my kids were small, from that typical urban mom’s idea that wouldn’t it be cool for the kids to see where food comes from. Nearly three decades later I grow most of my own produce, resorting to the grocery store only rarely, and mostly for guests.

07- July (3a)All summer I “grocery garden”—that is, I eat what I grow, as it matures. Where I have too much (like 3 gallons of beans) I preserve by canning, fermenting, or freezing. The goal is to get through from harvest to harvest, a 12-month cycle, without buying anything green. It all comes from the garden. I have a chest freezer and an extra waist-high fridge to store it.

I like to think of this as a special diet, let’s call it the Food Diet. It works like this: eat food.

If it comes in a bag with a lot of writing on it, it’s probably not food. If you can’t combine it with a couple other things to make a third thing it’s probably not food (for instance flour+yeast+milk+shortening=bread. Try doing that with Flaming Hot Cheetos.). Anything in a box or a bag with a lot of writing on it that you combine with water or milk to make a third thing is probably not food (for instance, instant potatoes).

For that matter, if it says “instant” it’s not food. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what is meant by “instant oatmeal.” Not sure how much more instant you get than just regular oatmeal. What are they doing to that stuff that it needs to be labeled “instant?” I’m thinking of starting my own brand of Instant Fruit! It looks like, um, fruit. Comes in its own package! Just add chewing.

If it’s in a superfluous package, it’s not food (think McDonald’s apples). Any meal product (as opposed to snack or dessert) that lists high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient is not food. (For instant, major-label bread.)

You get the idea. You don’t need a list of “acceptable” foods. When you’re on the Food Diet, if it’s food, by the above definition, then you can eat it.

After being a food gardener for so long, I take for granted what vegetables taste like, and when I, rarely, buy non-local produce at the grocery store I’m always struck by how tasteless and mushy it is. One forgets what they pass off as food in our carbon-dependent culture.

07- July (3b)By July, I had planted all my food: 20 tomato plants, 15 peppers, 4 eggplants, two full beds of beans, plus the corn, celery, pumpkins (which succumbed to squash vine borer later in the summer), carrots, kale, chard, leeks, onions, herbs, and potatoes, as well as strawberries and raspberries. I planted a pear tree and a grape vine, but they won’t bear for another 3-4 years. (Leaving the fruit at the old place was one of the really wrenching losses, because they take so long to mature.)

A lot of home gardeners, like me, started by thinking about where our food system had gone off into the chemical wonderland, and trying to climb back out of that rabbit hole. I moved the process back into my home, making my food system not just consumptive, but also productive, because I am the producer of the raw ingredients, and creative, because I am the artisan behind the meal.

We’ve been encouraged by the food and advertising industries to think of ourselves as helpless and stressed—no time, no expertise, no access—especially as regards our food. They don’t even call us “people” or “citizens” anymore–we’re “consumers” or “viewers;” our lives reduced to passive acts. Consumption is what defines modern life. And it doesn’t count unless you spend money on it. We have in fact, been blamed for various moments of economic woes, because we stopped buying things we didn’t need, and moving into houses too big and expensive for our needs.

We’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by forces that do not have our interests at heart, to become part of the processing of ourselves.

Consumption is a fatal disease. There are lots of foods you can easily process yourself. Illiterate peasants and pre-literate cultures have done it for tens of thousands of years.

My little farm, and the creatures who live there, are part of that.

2. July 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

Creatures are a garden’s fourth dimension, moving through the rooted spaces. Humans, insects, worms, microbes, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and all sorts of less desirable rodents.

Early in July, with all my transplants a little too shocky for a good bloom, there weren’t many insects other than the ground-dwelling bees in the mulch, and lots of fireflies. However, the vertebrates found me.

The gardening books will spell out for you when to transplant—before the bloom, after the bloom, when your plant is this size or that size, when the root ball is new, or when it is formed. They’ll tell you how much soil you need, and what amendments to put in and and and

And I’m here to tell you it’s mostly bullshit. Transplant when you need to transplant. Except for avoiding long dry spells, you can really transplant any plant at any stage in its life cycle. The first year, you’re going to lose the bloom, and some growth, no matter how carefully you follow the instructions. Transplants get sullen and shocky. Very much, come to think of it, like transplanting humans. I should know.

There are some things you need to do: If you’re digging it up, rather than planting something already potted, bring as much soil with it as possible—use a large spade to dig out a very large area, and try to keep that chunk of soil together, so you retain the whole root system. Make a hole twice as wide but exactly as deep as the dirt or root ball of the plant you’re moving. You want the hole twice as wide so that new roots are encountering loose soil rather than hard walls.

Flood the hole you’ve dug with water, wait for it to drain, then flood it about a quarter full again and put the plant into the standing water. Back fill with a little compost and the soil you removed. Create a small berm around it to hold the water in for the next few weeks, and water it every day (except if it rains) while it reestablishes its roots.

I’d say it’s another metaphor, but I mostly water myself with beer, so I don’t want to push it.

The rabbits remained unaware of the Farm and the Breezeway, but they loved the shady Botanic, where unfortunately, they chowed down on some of the smaller and more tender transplants, costing me all of my annuals and a lot of the diaspora and scavenged plants. Once the Botanic fills in, they and the grackles are going to really love the privacy the plants will create, but hopefully will stop eating the plants before they have a chance to grow. I have chipmunks as well, a creature that was absent in the city, even though I was just a mile away, and unfortunately rats, living under the sidewalk in the farm. I haven’t seen the larger wildlife–raccoons and possums–likely because of the protected railroad right of way just a block away. Why hang out in peoples’ yards when you can hang out in the forest?

In addition to the animals, birds, and insects, my July garden hosted other sorts of helpers. Hobbled by the wrist injury, I enlisted my young friends Mealah and Ben as well as my daughter and her boyfriend to do some heavy lifting, and to rebuild (for the last time, we hope) the Breezeway patio.

Of course, along with the god and the helpers comes trickster Loki, in the form of the squirrels. The squirrels love the breezeway wall, winding in and out of the blocks, and climbing on and sitting in the baskets. As at the old place, they use the top of the fence as an express monorail. They proceeded to help themselves to my corn starts, destroying not the ears (which hadn’t form yet) but the stalks themselves. I ended up doing four separate plantings of either seeds or starts trying to get enough corn going, and ended up with 15 good stalks. But it was touch and go.

With the fence up, I put out my inanimate garden friends, too- the Breezeway wall now hides a Chinese soldier and a little beehive, a shell, an iron gazelle, and a cast iron squirrel. In the Farm I made a little shelf for another Chinese soldier, and hid verdigris frogs and turtles.

The clay goddess now protects the garden from outside the front gate, and the tiny concrete god guards the back.

July: The god in the garden

1. July 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here 

07- July (1b)The Breezeway garden is in the territory of a mated cardinal pair.

They visit several times a day, landing in the tiny native patch, or on the wall, or on the tree stump, bringing a bright flash of color before they fly off again.

At the Touhy garden, it was robins. They would always be the first birds to visit me in the spring, often sitting fearlessly close while I worked in the soil. I used to call one bold male “the god in the garden” because he seemed the manifestation of the god returning to earth for the Equinox. In their hope for worms from the disturbed soil, the robins would tolerate the human and her tools.

The cardinals are more skittish. Even small movements from inside the Breezeway itself cause them to startle and fly off. It seems somehow fitting for the rarer cardinal to take the god’s role now, and ironic to have a mated pair adopt me in my singlehood.

I didn’t see too many robins in the new year in the new space—mostly starlings, juncos, jays, and woodpeckers. The grackles that were a mainstay at the old house are also absent, probably because there isn’t enough ground cover yet with all the plants so new. Grackles like to be under things.

In July my fence got built—a 6-foot privacy fence with key-locked gates that encloses the Farm and the gangway, making the back of the house more private and secure.

07- July (1a)I contracted for the fence back in April, but bad weather kept pushing me down their schedule. Finally, just two workers showed up and built it in two marathon 16-hour days. There was only supposed to be one lockable gate with a metal frame, but they accidentally put in two, so I got the second one for the cost of a standard gate. Nice.

The gate encloses the “backyard” of this property which doesn’t really have a backyard—it’s got two side yards, a narrow gangway off the kitchen and breezeway, and a very narrow front yard that is mostly the city’s easement. Because of this, I had been meeting everyone walking by, no matter which part of the garden I was in; they were intrigued and fascinated in particular by the Farm. Gardens by their nature are social places, attracting not just insects and mammals and birds (and even reptiles) but people too. Even gardens as solitary as mine are social places. With the fence up, I miss the casual conversation of people passers-by.

I make it a point to sit at the open Breezeway patio in the morning and the late afternoon.

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