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Copyright © Sheryl Williams - Yardfanatic 2016. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Brown is the New Green - the Quest for a Sustainable Lawn

Carex texensis - in spring
These hot August days have driven me inside for my summer dormancy where I weakly wave to my plants and wish them the best until October. I do suit up (hat, gloves, long sleeves) to mow my neighbor's lawn on occasion so that I can add the clippings to my compost.

Many people have strong opinions about lawns in relation to the chemicals and water resources used to keep it perfectly green. Not just lawns - driving home from work the sprinklers were mostly watering the road in an attempt to keep the median green.

My own front yard is approximately 625 square feet. If I watered it the recommended 1 inch per week, it would use about 1,677 gallons a month (1 inch of water = .62 gallons/square foot.)  That's a lot of water to keep alive something that you can't eat or put into a vase. It will also require fertilizer to keep it going, which then means I'll have to mow it. Water, fertilizer (even if it is organic), and gasoline. Suddenly the word "sustainable" isn't springing to mind.

What is sustainable anyway? There are a lot of definitions. Environmentally speaking, some say it is anything that endures over time without artificial, or man-made input. Watering from a hose is not considered a sustainable act, while rain falling from the sky is. If you have to supplement plant growth in any form, that, to some, is not considered sustainable. The lines blur when you enter in the whole organic movement. Some say that as long as you use organic inputs, like cow manure or compost, you are being sustainable because those sources are renewable resources. So, if I go ahead and have a lawn, get rid of the mower and use a goat to graze and fertilize it, I'm being sustainable. To me the argument becomes ridiculous because having a patch of green grass that requires all this maintenance makes it artificial - and therefore not sustainable - to me. Plus I'm not fond of goats (used to raise them, don't want to repeat the experience.)

Clearly, there must be room in the middle. There is something about the makeup of human beings that loves to see a sea of green. Maybe it is our pastoral past where we associated green fields with good hunting. In any case, telling people to give up their lawn is just not going to fly. What we can do, is help people make better choices. Instead of a thirsty lawn of St Augustine, consider reducing the size of the lawn and plant more ornamentals. Trees and shrubs don't require as much maintenance and are just as lovely. We also must change. It should be perfectly fine to plant Buffalo Grass and let it go brown and dormant in the summer - thus eliminating the need to water at all.

My own lawn is history. I killed all my St Augustine grass seven years ago and planted sedges (Carex texensis) in a much smaller footprint. I only water once a month if it hasn't rained and I don't mow it (although you can if you wish.)  I've spread wildflower seed so that in the spring and early summer I have my own meadow.   The peripheral ornamental beds are planted in natives and antique roses that don't need to be babied through the growing season. An added benefit is that many of the ornamentals provide food and habitat for our native birds most of the year.

It's my contribution toward being responsible to our growing population and shrinking resources. Water in Texas (and most elsewhere) is finite, and we all need to work together to make sure we conserve. Having a brown lawn should be a badge of pride - brown should be the new green!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Farmstastic Working Farm at California State Fair Cal Expo Grounds

I was lucky to spend my vacation with my best friend, Jess, who happens to be on the The California Exposition and State Fair Board. We grew up in 4-H and FFA, then went on to teach Vocational Agriculture, so going to fairs is a nerdy pleasure. For me it was especially nice to get out of the heat and humidity of Austin and enjoy dry days and cool nights in Sacramento, California.

The fair, as always, was a hoot and I am happy to announce I did real damage to the food booths. I also got to chat up the livestock exhibitors and discover all the people we have in common. Several hogs, goats, sheep, cattle, and even a sturgeon were petted and cooed over.

But the real highlight for me was The Farm.

Squash
CalExpo has a working demonstration farm right on the grounds. And while I've seen other similar treatments, most notably the Children's Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, this is a real working plot of land to showcase California agriculture.


Corn
Eggplant on other side of corn

Japanese Eggplant
There are 3 1/2 acres where about 70 different crops are grown. It also features an outdoor kitchen, greenhouse, insect pavilion, blacksmith, and Farmer's market. Master Gardener volunteers are on hand to answer questions or you can stroll on your own to learn about drip irrigation, the crops featured, and other interpretive information on pollinators, water conservation, and soils.

 

Kaiser Permanente is the main sponsor but others, like Save Mart Supermarkets, also contribute and participate. The Farm regularly hosts tours and has special programs for K-6 graders.


What's cool about this is that it's all in raised beds using concrete landscaping blocks. This lifts the garden so it's easier to see but more importantly, allows them to install the farm right on the expo grounds. It also brings the flexibility to move things around as needed.
 I was captivated by the Barn Owl box they have installed. Since the neighbors cut down their tree that hawks nested in, I've been overrun with squirrels and rabbits in my fruit and vegetable garden. I'm thinking a nice Barn or Great Horned owl family is the just the ticket.

Armenian Cucumber
While I was there the garden was well visited and I went to a couple of cooking demonstrations at "the grill" by Keith Breedlove and learned some great new tips. Always a good day when I can combine cooking, gardening, farming, and eating! And it was all done safely due to the many, many, hand-washing stations. Jess and I had to wonder how we've escaped death given that we were raised around livestock, and while exhibiting at fairs shared meals and napped with our hogs (and steers and sheep and cows.) All that exposure must have given us ironclad immune systems.

Tomatoes on Trellis
Both Jess and I are gardeners so it's always fun to see what's growing. However, for many urban dwellers the idea of picking something from a tree or seeing a live squash is a thing of wonder.

Okay, maybe not the squash but those flowers are beautiful and made me hungry for my favorite Squash Blossoms Stuffed With Ricotta recipe (I skip the tomatoes and add in feta.)

Was also fun to see the wine grapes growing (and even more fun drinking the wine slushies that were featured in the SaveMart Wine Garden.) 

Oranges (not quite ripe!)
My kiwis that I grew in Oregon didn't look half as good as the vines they had.
Kiwi Vine and Fruit
Apples
The other tree fruit were all properly espaliered to show off the ripening produce. Very hard not to just pick it all - but the fruits of this labor go to the local food bank.
Apples
Apricots
Cantaloupe

Strawberries
Watermelon

Spaghetti squash
And just in case you are worrying, I did spend time elsewhere. There was live music sprinkled throughout and time looking at quilts, photography, painting, and other fine arts. I took two classes: one in wine tasting and the other in extra virgin olive oil. Watched jam and chocolate dessert judging and sampled some incredible local cheese. Also very moved by their new exhibit celebrating professional farm workers. The Chavez family was there and it reminded me of my own family's history as California migrant farm workers in the Great Depression. It is America's story - people who work the fields (or factories, or mines, or woods) in order to provide their families with a better life, then proudly send their children to college. I am very grateful that I got to be there for the ribbon cutting.  Poetry - celebrating the growers, harvest, and the harvesters all at once. As it should be.

A special thanks to the amazing staff and board members at CalExpo who made me feel welcome and allowed me to tag along with Jess. It was very cool to see the behind the scenes work of pulling off an event like this (which runs three weeks: July 14 to July 30.) Let's just say it was easy to sleep on the plane when I returned home.

Now, how DID they make that bacon wrapped ear of corn and how much wine to add into the ice cream machine to produce a slushie? 








Saturday, January 7, 2017

Favorite photos from 2016

It's been quite a year for me. I traveled to Europe for the first time, one of my oldest friends died from pancreatic cancer, my husband's illness has worsened, and my dad died. Oh yeah, and the world has gone to hell thanks to our recent Presidential election.

Just. Breathe.

So I continue to avoid the news, tend my garden, bake bread, volunteer where needed to reverse this political tide, and remember the bright spots.

Here are my points of light represented in photos.
Bernini's David
  
Michelangelo's David

Never before have I stood in front of stone and watched the subject breathe. These depictions of David were alive. The detail, the look in his eyes, the muscular stance, all mind blowing. The Bernini statue is at the Borghese Gallery in Rome. The Michelangelo statue, which is about 17 feet tall, is in Florence at the Accademia Gallery. These photos aren't particularly artistic, but they take me back there, and for that reason are a favorite.
Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Florence

Florence was a schooling in the Medici family. Their status and wealth funded much of the Renaissance and their legacy is still staggering. The Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River was basically a covered, elevated walkway for them that connected Palazzo Pitti to the Palazzo Vecchio. When I rounded the corner after visiting the Ufitzi it seemed to briefly transport me to the Florence of the 1500's.

The goal in Florence was primarily to visit the Ufitzi and Accademia, beyond that I didn't schedule us for anything in particular. After the Ufitzi we had lunch on the south side of the Ponte Vecchio and then wandered further south past Pitti Palace. I had no interest in touring that facility so we kept walking and crashed right into Boboli Gardens. I've seen photos of it in various books and magazines so am familiar with it. I could not believe I just walked right to it. Some sort of horticultural tractor beam, I believe. I had completely forgotten that it was in Florence and, duh, right behind Pitti Palace. I kick myself for not knowing that ahead of time so that we could have spent most of the day there. As it was, we were both tired and my husband isn't really a garden enthusiast, so I wanted to be sensitive to his health. This meant I went through that garden at 40 miles an hour.
Peonies in formal Boboli garden

Oh, and what a garden. The site is about 11 acres and overlooks the Duomo and the rest of downtown Florence. Florence is a busy place with lots of traffic and noise. But when you enter this garden it is completely muffled and all you can hear is bird song. This is mainly due to the use of "wild" areas. The individual garden rooms are all buffered by expanses of mature trees and unmanicured undergrowth. As a result, you have to really hike around to see everything - as if you could. This is someplace to visit multiple, multiple times, not only for the garden but for the statuary. When the garden was installed the Medici hired local artists to build pieces specifically for the garden. "Local" artists means some of the greatest of all time. Ah, the life of the Medici family.
Neptune's fountain, Boboli Gardens

It's not often that you can visit a garden that is 500 years old (construction started in 1550.) The allee of Cyprus trees features mature specimens and walking amongst them I felt like I was being ushered by benevolent, majestic, thoughtful, protective, Ents (Lord of the Rings reference.) The light was not the best that day but I love the perspective of the photo.
Cyprus Allee, Boboli Gardens

I'm hoping you don't see this as "How I spent my vacation" but most of my favorites are from the trip. We caught up with our booked garden tour in Varenna, Italy. The residents have done a good job of maintaining the neo classical buildings and all of the ones in the town were beautifully painted. Of course, I had to find the orange house with green shutters. I have no idea why I am attracted to Orange (my garage doors are the same color as this photo) but I spied this immediately. I love the color and texture contrast. I took about 20 of these all over town - thankfully you will be spared.
Green Shutters Varenna, Italy

Varenna, Italy
Varenna is on Lake Como so a lot of our activities required a ferry trip. I love this photo of the town nestled into the hillside in all it's colorful splendor. Around every corner and down every street was incredible beauty. I was out of breath a lot because I was continually gasping from delight. All the while though, I could hear my dad in my head. He always maintained that there is no reason to travel because the Pacific Northwest is the most beautiful and jaw-dropping place on the planet. I have to admit that I am biased to almost agree. As I visited these places and wondered at their marvels, I couldn't help but compare it to places where I grew up. Rather than being bored or smug it made the world much smaller. Here the old world looks very much like the new world from a geography point of view. Seeing those Alps crash into the Mediterranean sea had the same effect as when I first saw the Rockies rise up out of the prairie. I felt as if I'd come home - and the people I met seemed like family. Probably WERE family since I am of European descent.

At the Melzi garden this gondola caught my eye as we approached the main house. The whole scene was beautifully framed by the pollarded London Plane trees. Those trees were all over Italy and the south of France. I learned that their horizontal branches provided much needed shade in the summer months.

Giardini di Villa Melzi, Bellagio, Italy

Still on Lake Como, a visit to Lugano Switzerland provided this unexpected sight. The sculpture depicts "Eros Bound". It is quite large and there were little kids climbing through it when we walked by. It's a haunting image to me even though severed heads are a commonplace on tv.
Eros Bendato, Mitoraj, 1999, Lugano, Switzerland

On the way to France we stopped off in Monte Carlo. That sea is such an amazing color of blue. The ubiquitous prickly pear was a little reminder from home. Elsewhere Agave Americana bloom stalks dotted the view. Apparently they are an invasive species in southern Europe. Makes me smile. Payback is a bitch.

 
Prickly Pear and Agave overhanging Mediterranean Sea, Monte Carlo
In France we were fortunate to visit the garden of Lawrence Johnston. Yes, that's right, HIM. After creating Hidcote he retired to the south of France and began work on his own garden, Serre de la Madone, outside of Menton, France. What I like about this garden is that I could just imagine him futzing around deciding where to put all the plants he collected.
Moorish Garden, Serre de la Madone, Menton, France

There were so many amazing plants and garden rooms, I was very glad we were allowed to just walk around and soak it in. The spent Chasmanthe bicolor danced in the sunlight in the Angels Staircase Garden. It was surrounded by an old and dark olive orchard. Rounding the corner into this spot of sunshine was magical.

Chasmanthe bicolor at Serre de la Madone, Menton, France
Menton, France used to be part of Italy, and has the same lovely neoclassical look. These buildings are made of stone blocks that have been stuccoed and painted. So beautiful you don't know where to look...
Basilique Saint Michel and red tile roofs in Menton, France
...until you see this, which is, by far, the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.  The bloom is about the size of a Peace rose, but the colors and form were like a painting. 

Jean Piat rose, Menton France

Market day in Menton was such a treat. Yes, I ate my way through it. Citrus has always been an important component to the Menton economy. They have a whole garden dedicated to it and a particular variety of lemon that they have developed. The limoncello they make from their lemon is very good. Two bottles (okay, and some jam) came home with me.
Farmer's Market, Menton, France

Pomelo Duncan - Citrus paradisi Macf. Menton, France 

Gratuitous cute cat picture. They have chicken wire over the window and the iron work is actually painted on the building. Menton, France
I really hated to leave Menton because there was so much more to see and I didn't get to any of the gardens along the beachfront. I also didn't fulfill a wish to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. It's definitely a place I'm going back to. And when I do, I know just where to start.

Beachfront, Menton France


It was May and the roses were at their peak, which was ever so evident at the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France.

Pink was Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild's favorite color and roses were at the top of the plant list. The frothy blooms were spilling over edges, ballooning in between other plants, and pooling into soft mounds along the pathways.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild,  Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France
Like the other gardens we visited, new world plants were showcased, but put into the landscape in English Cottage style. The effect was mesmerizing and I'm trying to figure out how to do it properly in my own garden.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild,  Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France
In Provence we encountered numerous Roman ruins, one of which is the Pont du Gard aqueduct. It's gigantic - and so precise. There's no mortar in this and running my hands over the stone in the arches gave me goosebumps. Human beings built this. Wikipedia has a great excerpt written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau when he first visited it in 1738. It describes exactly how I felt when I saw it.

I had been told to go and see the Pont du Gard; I did not fail to do so. It was the first work of the Romans that I had seen. I expected to see a monument worthy of the hands which had constructed it. This time the object surpassed my expectation, for the only time in my life. Only the Romans could have produced such an effect. The sight of this simple and noble work struck me all the more since it is in the middle of a wilderness where silence and solitude render the object more striking and the admiration more lively; for this so-called bridge was only an aqueduct. One asks oneself what force has transported these enormous stones so far from any quarry, and what brought together the arms of so many thousands of men in a place where none of them live. I wandered about the three storeys of this superb edifice although my respect for it almost kept me from daring to trample it underfoot. The echo of my footsteps under these immense vaults made me imagine that I heard the strong voices of those who had built them. I felt myself lost like an insect in that immensity. While making myself small, I felt an indefinable something that raised up my soul, and I said to myself with a sigh, "Why was I not born a Roman!" 


Pont du Gard aqueduct, Vers-Pont-du-Gard, France
I love impressionist art and two of my favorite painters are Van Gogh and Monet. I've seen several canvases over the years and we were lucky enough to be in Arles when many of Van Gogh's Provence paintings were on loan from Amsterdam. What I like about Van Gogh, and this group of paintings in particular, is that he paints with a passion and fervor that matches my own love of the subject matter. When I saw one of his iris paintings I burst into tears.

One of our stops on the tour was Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy. Every single step was into a painting. To see the gardens, the orchards, the asylum, the surrounding landscape in person, with the vision of a painting inspired by it made me a little dizzy. I tried to channel him as much as possible to take photographs of the same subject matter. When we walked past the olive orchard and it's dancing trees, I felt the now familiar bubble of emotion rise into my throat.
Olive orchard, Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy, France
The last leg of our trip was to Paris and I made the pilgrimage to Giverny to see Monet's garden. It was a complete revelation. Monet's genius was painting the light, not the subject matter. When I stepped into his garden I recognized that same genius in the landscaping. Every element was oriented to capture the best light no matter what time of day. Gone were the formal structures I had been seeing on my trip and instead, it was a riot of plants jammed into spaces so that he could paint them. Long stretches of planting beds dotted with interesting trees and shrubs were framed by green hedges that forced you to concentrate on small elements. Again I tried to channel the artist and took photographs of the light. Every single photo was a masterpiece by this amateur photographer. Next time I will stay all day instead of the three hours we were allowed on the tour.
Water lily pond, Monet's garden, Giverny, France
Paris is one of my bucket list cities and I regret that we only had three days. We tried to cram in the big sites and go to the Louvre, but it simply wasn't enough. The Parisians were all very nice to us as well as helpful - we couldn't have asked for a more welcoming experience.

Notre Dame rises above the Seine in all it's gothic glory, but it's the inside of the building that you must experience. We saw so many churches, all of them holy places, some built with more love than others, some more intimidating and authoritarian. Notre Dame, despite the crush of tourists, was a sanctuary to me. It made me feel like it stretched it's arms and held me close in a loving embrace. I could almost hear the heartbeat of the stained-glass windows, the statuary, the altars, and those magnificent arches. When I rounded a corner to this altar, it was hard not to just fall to my knees. I lit a candle instead.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
We had a memorable meal near the Grand Palais Garnier and the ceiling seemed to fit in with everything else I'd experienced on my trip. Sipping wine, eating decadent food and the good company we were with culminated with the beauty of this ceiling at Le Grand Cafe Capucines.

Paris, France
Back in the real world, one of my oldest friends lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. A tree near the house had to be taken down earlier in the year and since it was close to Easter, he decided to carve a cross with his chainsaw. The wheel reminds me that Darrell was from a pioneer family. A fitting tribute for someone who was taken way too soon. And I mean taken.
Phoenix, Oregon
The underside of this blue palm frond caught my attention when visiting Peckerwood Gardens in Hempstead, Texas. The garden was named after the plantation in Auntie Mame and for the woodpeckers that frequent the property. Despite the blush, it's a showcase of native and adapted plants from Mexico, Texas, Asia, and Florida.
Blue Palm, Peckerwood Gardens, Hempstead, Texas
And finally, back to Paris. We were on the Batobus headed for the Louvre when we passed under this bridge. The whimsical figures silhouetted amongst the passersby captured how I felt at the moment, and I still laugh every time I see this photo.
Paris, France

Thank you for indulging me and making it all the way to the end! I am looking forward to what this year will unveil and the introduction to new delights. I really am a very fortunate person and am grateful for all the moments that add up to a life. Thank you for being part of it.