Tag Archives: #urbangardening

Spring Unfolding

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Today marks the vernal equinox, and looking out at my garden, I’m eager to get outside and be a part of the day by getting my hands dirty.

The air over the past few days has been soft with warmth, spiced with the scents of new grass and turned earth, sweet with birdsong.

Nomadic harvest dress.
Artist: Nicole Dextras

My garden and I will be engaging in our usual dialogue, the one that starts when the snow melts and goes on until the snow starts falling again, usually some time in December.

It’s not a one-sided conversation; the garden talks more than I do, tells me what it wants or doesn’t want, and I try to come up with a witty or timely response. We don’t always speak the same language, and I know that’s my fault.

Cutting down a line of long grasses yesterday, I found the winter nest of some small mammal hidden beneath a particularly imposing clump. There was a thick ball of moss, leaves and grass that had been a home. I had just been telling myself that I should cut back these grasses in autumn for a tidier look; now I’ll be sure to leave them long as an invitation.

Weedrobes
Artist: Nicole Dextras

I’d like to think I have some say in shaping the garden. Often enough, the garden laughs me off and does as it pleases. Mostly, the garden shapes me.

I wouldn’t call us friends, because I impose myself on the hospitality of this small space. I try to listen. I try to be companionable. I don’t always succeed.

I suppose that’s true for my life outside the garden, too. We are a work in progress.

Weedrobes
Artist: Nicole Dextras

Sparse Harvest

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Here’s the bounty from the garden fig tree this year:

 

The thumb-sized fig. Photos: PKR

The grape-sized fig.
Photos: PKR

Granted, it’s not from the generous old tree we had for fifteen years, the one that didn’t make it through a transplant followed by a harsh cold snap a couple of years ago.

The fig newbie managed a decent harvest last year; probably the long heatwave and lack of water are to blame for this season’s fig dearth.

There are a few little fig buds that tried to grow once the weather cooled in September, but it’s a case of too little water, too late.

Better luck next year.

Autumn vine on a nearby wall.

Autumn vine on a nearby wall.

 

Dog Days

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We’re in the middle of a significant heat wave here in eastern France – the French call it la canicule, a word which has at its root a reference to a celestial body other than the sun.

Between July 3 and August 11, the star Sirius rises almost in conjunction with the sun – and Sirius is the brightest star in the Canis Major, the Greater Dog constellation. Actually, the term goes all the way back to the Egyptians, who began their New Year with the return of Sirius.

For centuries it was thought that the star brought with it the heat of summer.

Hence, the ‘dog days’ of summer.

Sirius in Canis Major Source: Space.com

Sirius in Canis Major
Source: Space.com

I was out early this morning – as I am every morning these days – trying to save some of the garden plants from withering under the blazing sun.

We lost some beautiful trees in the deadly canicule of 2003. While I can’t save all the leafy friends, I have been trying to keep a couple of the more fragile ones from drying out, including a gnarled apple tree and a small Japanese maple.

Our garden is an old one – it’s been worked in one form or another for hundreds of years. When we arrived here twenty years ago, the small enclosed space was home to twelve flower beds and nine fruit trees scattered across a mosaic lawn. photo 1(4)

We re-planted the garden a few years ago to be much less water dependent and pollinator-friendly. We reduced the size of the lawn by around half, laid pebble paths through the shady areas, built raised beds,  put in lavender rows and planted grasses that fend well for themselves.

One of the trees that doesn’t seem to need much help is our mirabelle tree – sure, the harvest will be a fraction of what it was last year, but the tree is flourishing and content.photo 1(5)

We have large trays of water out for birds and insects.

The lawn – which I just reseeded this spring – is a loss. It crunches underfoot, but I don’t see the point in watering it. I’ll take the long view and replant in autumn for next year.

photo 3(3)

As I was watering a small fig tree I planted against a stone wall, a small bird emerged from beneath the hosta leaves that line one of the paths. It was looking at me, and looking at the spray of water, then back at me – so I inched the water a bit closer to the bird, and before I knew it, another bird had joined the first and they were chirping like mad as they enjoyed the short shower.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

If this is the shape of summers to come, I guess I’ll be reducing the lawn even further, and gardening for heat resistance.

In the meantime, with no end to the heat in sight, I’ll just do what humans have been doing in this situation for the entire length of history – try to take it easy, and pray for rain. If I can rely on the tradition of dog days and Sirius setting in early August, I shouldn’t have much longer to wait.

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France. Source: France Pittoresque

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France.
Source: France Pittoresque

Let It Grow

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The garden lawn got its first seasonal trim yesterday, weeks after neighboring lawns around our place were abuzz with lawn mowers. Why do I wait so long and leave the lawn so untidy?

Over the past couple of years we redesigned the garden to use less water, so the green lawn area takes up much less space than it used to. The garden no longer a lawn dotted with flower beds, and is now a series of walkways with flower and vegetable beds, accented by a lawn.

Photo: PK Read

The grass cutttings.
Photo: PK Read

A large, lush lawn just uses too much water and is too product-intensive to make it a viable element for a lazy gardener and water miser like me. But laziness is only a small contributing factor to why the unruly lawn of winter and spring doesn’t get the flat-top treatment at the first possible opportunity.

In any case, our lawn is never golf-course perfect. Even mown, it’s a mess of green stuff and low flowers, all cut to the same length, with proper lawn grass in between. Fine by me.

I like seeing bees and other pollinators at work across the entire garden. At a time when many blossoms haven’t yet come out in full force, the various pollinators here are dependent on blossoming trees and small spring flowers. Our flowering lawn is alive with movement just above its surface.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Photo: Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

What a bee sees:
A dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) photographed with the light spectrum
visible to humans (left) and bees (right).
Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Finally, I enjoy the way it looks. I like the bright carpet of small daisies, violets, sundry ‘weed’ blossoms and yes, even the giant dandelions (at least before they go to seed).

When it comes down to it, the lawn is left long because I like working in the garden and walking through ankle-deep flowers. I like being surrounded by the mad life of springtime.

I look out over the lawn, just mown yesterday, and see a scattering of flowers that escaped the blade and are raising their heads. Bees are harvesting pollen. The sun is shining. See you later – I’ll be out working in the garden.

Happy Earth Day 2015.

A Few Beginnings and a Couple of Ends

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The weather turned cold this week, grey skies and a chill wind after two weeks of balmy temperatures. Two steps forward, one step back. No excuse not to get some garden work done, though.

Last week was all bumblebees and sunshine, this week I found this fellow, a little black cricket, taking shelter from the cold in our garden shed.photo 1-4

 

And I found this hideaway when I uncovered all the herb garden pots. When we moved here almost eighteen years ago, the garden – more wild back then, but also far less organic – was rampant with large land snails, the brown kind. I used to find specimens larger than my palm. Rather than destroy them, the greedy mouths that ate my fledgling plants, I’d take them to the farm next door.photo 2-4

If I showed up with a yellow snail like the one above, it was quickly destroyed by my elderly neighbor Maurice. The big brown ones, though – those he used to eye hungrily (if the season was right) and pop them into his snail house for feeding on garden scraps – until feast time came and the snails themselves were on the menu. We’re in rural France, after all.

Both neighbor and snails are now long gone, and if I miss one more than the other, the lack of snails is still a sign of how developed the village has become since we arrived. Dozens of new apartments and houses, the fields, hedgerows and orchards gobbled up by streets and fresh suburbs.

The mirabelle tree has hundreds of buds, but just a couple of them are showing any coy petal.photo 4-4

I planted a magnolia tree a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t had much in the way of blossoms until this year – this season, the tree is heavy with velvety green pods ready to bloom.

Just down the road a mile or so, the magnolia trees are in full bloom already, but we are a little bit higher in altitude, and it makes all the difference.photo 3-3

I was weeding around the roses, a large yew hedge at my back, when a large chorus built up around me, a rowdiness of different birdsong. Loud and distracting. Breeding season, I thought, not wanting to get up and look.

It continued, louder, riotous. I stood up, looked around. The bird feeders were empty. It’s gotten cold enough that the insects for which they’d abandoned the feeders are gone. Fine, I told the birds. Pipe down.

I filled the feeders and the song changed.

Finally, this witch hazel has it all – the dry winter remains of blooms ready to drop, a single blossom still holding its shape, and a green leaf budding out.

Everything about spring on a single twig.Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.23.49 PM

Of a Circular Nature

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A flood control project in the Pikine suburb of Dakar, Senegal, has changed a community by redirecting flood waters into basins and creating urban gardens from the water.

Aerial view of Pikine with flooded areas in the center. Photo: John Scott-Railton

Aerial view of Pikine with flooded areas in the center.
Photo: John Scott-Railton

Previously, the flood waters that inundated the area were left to either recede on their own – during which time all stores remained flooded and the streets impassable – or the water was pumped into the ocean.

Close-up of homes abandoned to flood waters and weeds. Small garden plots can be seen at the top left. Photo: John Scott-Railton

Close-up of homes abandoned to flood waters and weeds. Small garden plots can be seen at the top left.
Photo: John Scott-Railton

A surface system of drains channels the water to a new underground canal. From there, the water flows through a natural filtration system and through a series of basins.

This results in a water reservoir that remains intact through the long dry season. Herb gardens, rented out for a nominal fee to families, are cultivated for market sale. The image below is a screenshot from a short film on the Live With Water project (click here to view the film), which was initiated by two local Pikine women.

A water basin containing captured rainwater.  Image: Live With Water/Thomson Reuters Foundation

A water basin containing captured rainwater.
Image: Live With Water/Thomson Reuters Foundation

There’s a strange circular aspect to this story: Created in the 1950s, the area was only really settled in the late 1970s, when people from drought-stricken regions relocated to Dakar. They were sold land that became Pikine, which is now a city of over one million.

At the time – during years of major drought – the low-lying land was dry. The area was, however, actually situated on the beds of dormant, shallow lakes. With increasing heavy rainfall during the short rainy season, beginning in 2005, the lakes did what they do. They filled with water.

So those fleeing drought ended up on flooded lake beds, redirecting an over-abundance of water into reservoirs.

Megalithic stone circles, Siné Ngayenne, Senegal. Photo: Didier Euzet

Megalithic stone circles, Siné Ngayenne, Senegal.
Photo: Didier Euzet

Flavor Assumptions

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I walked out of the house this bright morning and found a small blossom on the rosemary bush near our entrance, the first one of spring. We moved in almost twenty years ago, and the plant was massive and gnarled, even back then.

According to the neighbors at the farm next door, the rosemary bush was planted at least twenty years earlier. I trim it, sometimes, or not, and it just carries on year after year, blooming and growing and scenting the air around our house with its clean, piney perfume.

A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary.  Jan van Kessel the Elder (Antwerp 1626 – 1679) Source: Alain R. Truong

A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary.
Jan van Kessel the Elder (Antwerp 1626 – 1679)
Source: Alain R. Truong

Rosemary as an herb is even more deeply rooted in Western Europe cuisine and culture than the old plant is against our house wall. I cook with it all the time, combining it with whatever seems right–thyme, parsley, oregano, garlic. They all seem like intuitive flavor pairings.

There’s a beautiful interactive map of flavors created a couple of years ago by Scientific American that diagrams flavor connections between various foods, from rosemary to roast beef.

In Western cuisine, the tradition is to pair foods with overlapping flavors. I was raised in the culture of Western cuisine, which is probably why pairing rosemary with thyme or basil seems natural to me.

Excerpt from The Flavor Connection.  Click here for the full interactive map of foods with connecting flavor compounds. Source: Scientific American

Excerpt from The Flavor Connection.
Click here for the full interactive map of foods with connecting flavor compounds.
Source: Scientific American

A recent study showed just how different other traditions can be. Indian cuisine, for example, tends to pair non-matching flavors and chemical compounds, rather than those that have many points of overlap.

The study, called Spices form the basis of food pairing in Indian cuisine, starts by stating that “(c)ulinary practices are influenced by climate, culture, history and geography. Molecular composition of recipes in a cuisine reveals patterns in food preferences.” The food elements that form the basis for this kind of negative flavor pairing are spices.

The study authors posit that Indian cuisine developed along both nutritional and medicinal lines, and that the availability of spices played a large role in that. Perhaps the lack of ready accessibility to spices in Western culture–until fairly recently spices remained expensive–is one reason they play a smaller role in Western food matching.

A flavor graph of Indian cuisine. Ingredients are denoted by nodes and presence of shared flavor profile between any two ingredients is depicted as a link between them. The color of node reflects ingredient category and thickness of edges is proportional to extent of flavor profile sharing.  Caption/graph: Jain, Nk, Bagler

A flavor graph of Indian cuisine. Ingredients are denoted by nodes and
presence of shared flavor profile between any two ingredients is depicted as a link between them. The color of node reflects ingredient category and thickness of edges is proportional to extent of flavor profile sharing.
Caption/graph: Jain, Nk, Bagler

At any rate, I was surprised at how many of my own assumptions about which foods and flavors intuitively go together are based on the culture in which I was raised. I love Indian cuisine, I cook it occasionally, but I can’t say the pairings come naturally to me.

If assumptions as fundamental as ‘what tastes good together’ are so determined by culture, where do other assumptions diverge unseen?

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) Source: Plantcurator

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum)
Source: Plantcurator

The Urge to Affiliate

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photo 1I was out on a run yesterday, my usual loop, when I found this piece of tree bark lying across the path.

Here along the border between France and Switzerland, we’re in the midst of a bise blanche, a fierce wind that blows down through the Geneva basin from the north.

A bise blanche weather forecast looks cheery – wind and sun, like this:Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.35.12 But the wind is a bully, cold and muscled. Roads and paths are littered with parts of trees and debris.

This bark segment caught my eye because it was colonized by so many different groups of lichen, moss and insects and spiders. Part of an arboreal architecture, home to so many other forms of life.photo 3-1

I couldn’t resist stopping to take a few pictures.

It’s a vision of life living on and with other life. photo 3-2

I had planned on writing today’s post on biophilic design. It’s defined as the integration design principles for architecture and urban planning with ‘biophilia’ – “the passionate love of life and all that is alive” (Erich Fromm in 1964) and “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life” (Edward O. Wilson in 1984).photo 1-1

The concept of bringing nature into cities and buildings has been gaining traction (taking root?) over the past couple of decades.

There are aspects of sustainability (green walls and vertical gardens, for example), but many correlate the integration of nature into design, including sunlight, with lower stress levels and better health and improved well-being.photo 2-1

Industrialization and its design aesthetics often led to a distancing from nature in homes and cities; many would argue this has been to our detriment (not to mention damaging to the environment). Biophilic design is an ongoing discussion on letting nature back in.

Feeling the wind blow through me while looking at this heavily inhabited bit of bark on a blazingly sunny afternoon, it’s almost impossible to imagine keeping it out.

Life finds its way in everywhere.photo 2

Road Works

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We’re back from our trip to Vietnam, and I’ll be posting a few pieces from that visit.

For starters, I thought I’d put up this photo of the largest, cleanest, newest road I encountered in Vietnam (or almost anywhere else, for that matter).

Three lanes in each direction, lined with broad sidewalks and trees, with a fully landscaped median strip, it ran for several miles between nowhere and nowhere on the central coast outside Quy Nhon. It was utterly devoid of traffic – with the exception of our little bus and the guy up ahead of us on a loaded-up scooter.DSC02635

But since it’s harvest season and rice is out on the roadsides to dry, this super-sized six lane thoroughfare didn’t go unused – outside the small village where it began, it was used for rice drying.

A blurry shot taken from the bus…but there's the farmer's scooter and the large grain rake for turning the rice, which takes a day or two to dry.

A blurry shot taken from the bus…but there’s the farmer’s scooter and the large grain rake for turning the rice, which takes a day or two to dry.

Each square of rice represents the harvest of one small field, cut and threshed mostly by hand. The rice husks are used by some to fire small ovens.

Women separating rice from chaff near a gas station parking lot.

Women separating rice from chaff near a gas station parking lot.

Drivers make a careful arc around the rice, even on very busy streets.

What a cooperative approach to road use.

Rice drying in another coastal village.

Rice drying in another coastal village.

Horses, Railroads, Seeds and War

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I learned a few new words today while on a trip down a research rabbit hole.

And as is so often the case, I can’t remember how I first got to the interesting blog, Cryptoforestry. But get there I did, and that’s when I fell down the hole.

The first word I learned is polemobotany, i.e. war botany. The study of fauna impacted during the course of military activity.

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Greater Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus serotinus), which rode into Sweden on German military trains during WWII.

In a book on invasive species, author James Carlton describes how there was little danger of any unintentional hitch hikers on caterpillar-treaded vehicles from central Europe surviving the trip to desert conditions in the Middle East during the 1991 Gulf War.

In contrast,  the Australian military took steps to clean military vehicles on its tropical base in Darwin, Northern Territory, to prevent the introduction of invasive species to the similar environment of East Timor in 1999. Of course, the Australian military was part of a peacekeeping force, not an aggressive invader.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Another word I learned is related: polemochores, the followers, or seeds, of conflict. Coined at the end of the Second World War to denote alien plants introduced through war-related activities, this term refers to the tiny agents of polemobotany, the hitch hikers themselves, trespassing along with invasive forces, setting up camp and making themselves at home.

Unlike the invasive humans, however, polemochores would have to fall upon friendly ground to take root and thrive.

A further narrowing of the lens when it comes to polemochores led me to a couple of very specific types of botany study: hippochores. These are seeds introduced by horses and their foraging during the course of human conflict.

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

A further term, not nearly as official-sounding but just as interesting, is railroad botany: The botany of railroad tracks. Specifically, the botany of areas in which there are alien seeds transported by rail, particularly during conflict. This enlightening term was found in a 1979 paper titled Flora of the Railroads in St. Louis, Missouri by Viktor Mühlenbach, which someone kindly added to the Internet.

I found no specific terms referring to seed transportation by trucks, tanks, ships or boots during conflict, but I’m sure they exist.

Overgrown railroad tracks Photo: Frank Dutton

Overgrown railroad tracks
Photo: Frank Dutton

I did, however, find a reference to ‘rubble fauna, the plants that established themselves in the rubble of bombed urban areas during WWII – rubble offering “warmer and drier conditions than natural habitats and (being) a suitable habitat for plants and animals from warmer regions of the world. Many plants that were previously rare became permanent members of the urban flora in war-damaged European cities.”

So many ways to describe inadvertent anthrobotany, the way in which we alter the world around us through our human activities and disputes.