Wild Sunflowers

A Wild Sunflower thrives roadside.

 

Helianthus annuus; Opuntia humifusa; Artemisia tridentate

My good friend and office wife, Kristin, is away on work-related travel this week to a location on the Wyoming-Montana border.  She’s there to help the Crow Indian Tribe develop sustainable tourism programs on their reservation.  Don’t ask me exactly what that means, or precisely how she plans to accomplish it.  Sounds impossible to me, yet she is as excited about this venture as she has been about her similar projects in Peru, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, and Jordan.  Kristin cares about people, and cares whether or not tourism impacts their culture in a positive manner and serves to improve their lives, no matter how and where those lives are lived.  She is passionate about sustainable tourism development, and that is one of the reasons why she has my undying respect.

Plus, she is just a plain old hoot to have around the office.  I’ve said it before, I will say it again:  I collect oddities, including odd people, and she is one of them.   Case in point:  do you know what her two greatest fears are?  1)  Brain Aneurism.  2)   Being mistaken for a drag queen.   There.  Enough said?

When Kristin first announced this project, I reminded her that she would be developing said sustainable tourism no more than forty miles from where I was born and reared (as we phrase it in the country).  I advised her to be prepared for a world that is as foreign as any of the countries she has traveled to (and trust me, she has traveled to most of them).  She didn’t believe me until after she had witnessed first-hand the culture that is my birthright and the landscape that is my homeland.

For weeks following Kristin’s return from her first trip to this desolate part of our great nation, she would spontaneously burst into my office to share some little detail about the local landscape or culture or the people’s habits that she had suddenly remembered with a renewed surprise or amazement or shock.

“They have prairie dogs!” she once exclaimed.

“Yes,” I replied with a broad smile, because I personally think prairie dogs are one of the cutest things in all of nature.  “That’s home.  We have prairie dogs”

Kristin now makes her second journey to the Wyoming-Montana border, a locale that, while not where I choose to unfurl my bloom, is none-the-less where my roots lie.  There, as these last days of September tick off, the morn is fast approaching when frost or  snow will have descended and put everything in its path to bed for the long winter ahead, be it human, animal, or plant.  Mind you, most things plant-related have long since been driven into hibernation by the blast furnace hell that is summer in that clime, those three months when temperatures hover around a dry one hundred degrees on a daily basis and thunderstorms are as infrequent as they are welcomed.

Late September, however, is the prime blooming period for the native Wild Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) that sprout along every ditch bank and highway (where they survive by collecting the precious extra precipitation that the nonporous asphalt sheds to the shoulder).   This time of year they are a brilliant bit of flash in an otherwise weather-washed landscape.

I awoke this morning to a photo that Kristin had texted to me, of a four-foot Wild Sunflower plant in full bloom.  She had snapped the photo with her cell phone camera along the side of a remote two-lane highway, a scene very familiar to my youth.  I knew in my every cell that the stark blue sky arced above from one horizon to the other, that the surrounding rolling grey terrain was endless.  I could smell the heady fragrance of the sagebrush (Artemisia tridentate), which also chooses to bloom in the fall.  And I swear if I stared intently at the photo I saw the bright yellow flowers waving gaily (or is that gay-ly?) in the wake of the passing traffic.

These plants are true survivors in a brutal landscape, and they have evolved special characteristics to ensure that they pass their fertilized seeds on to face the next summer’s fossilizing heat.  Their foliage is lined with glandular hairs that can cause allergic contact dermatitis in foraging humans, animals, and insects.  The flowers specifically attract fall-occurring butterflies, like the Whites and Sulphurs, who ensure pollination.  And, finally, the plants are known to accumulate nitrates from the soil which can sicken mammals who indulge in the foliage.  The seeds, however, are safe to eat; I have seen many a charming chick-a-dee hanging upside-down on a seed pod, lunching.  In fact this wildling was cultivated and domesticated by Native Americans, like Kristin’s Crow, for use as a food source – they selectively developed varieties with much larger seeds.

Kristin’s text-messaged Wild Sunflower photo immediately transported me back to my rural youth, to walking in the fresh autumn sunshine along deserted blacktop, to a time when I was unfettered and unaffected.  Remembering my own long-lost innocence warmed me.

“My favorite!” I replied.  “Aren’t they beautiful?”

Kristin answered, “Yeah, I love how they grow along the highway when everything else is dry and dead.   I think you should write a chapter about desert plants, or plants that thrive in nothingness.”

“My cousin Carla has been bugging me to tackle that, too,” I typed back.  And this is true.  Cousin Carla has revealed that she can only grow plants that require abuse and neglect to thrive, and that she thinks you, dear readers, would find this to be an appropriate and interesting garden topic.  I think she is correct.  Cousin Carla also thinks that Wyoming’s Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa) are reminiscent of Wyoming’s men:  thorny and stubborn, but underneath vulnerable and, occasionally, capable of blooming with absolute and stunning beauty.

Kristin followed up.  “It wouldn’t be hard although might be a bit personal.  This is a rough place that is pretty harsh, unforgiving yet beautiful.  Things like these yellow flowers not only find their place, but they thrive . . . but you compare that to the same flower that I had in my garden this year that died because I gave it too much (water, shade, love, etc.).  Everything (everyone) simply has to find the conditions where they thrive.”  And then came the words that touched my heart:  “Reminds me of you.”

I have three simple thoughts about this exchange.

First, when has Kristin, or anyone, ever witnessed the old Queen Gardener shirking from something personal?

Secondly, I think Kristin has covered the bases on why the Wild Sunflower is an especially poignant plant specimen and how its adaptation relates specifically to gardening and more generally to life.  She has done so succinctly and with a heart-felt simplicity.  There is little I could do to improve on her message.

Lastly, I have now been compared to a roadside Wild Sunflower, one of my absolute favorite flowers and a plant that is personally meaningful to me.  I can die happy.

I posted Kristin’s photo on Facebook with a simple status update:  “Kristin sent me this photo from the wild west . . . makes me a tiny bit homesick for somewhere that hasn’t been home for decades.”

And, indeed, it did.

Seeds

Seed distribution diversity…fascinating!

 

Once upon a time, I collected seeds.

Seeds, you perverts:  not seed.  I’ve said it before, I say it again:  get your collective mind out of the gutter.

For my seed collection, I plucked or picked up seeds that I found as I walked my dog, walked to work, walked to or from the local club . . .  I’ve been know to stagger across a darkened yard long after midnight to surreptitiously clip a specimen I especially desired.  Wherever it was that I happened to be, walking in whatever location I called home at that moment, I gathered seeds.  This was a collection that spanned several years and several cities.

I kept my amassed seeds in a huge, cylindrical glass vase which was then placed on a side table.  It really was a decorative touch.  The seeds, visible through the glass, fascinated me – nothing more so than the way the smaller seeds naturally settled to the bottom of the vase while the big, cumbersome seeds rode along at the top.

These seeds are rather like life in general, I often thought:  be small and settle to the bottom; be cumbersome and you will rise to the top.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

I lived in California’s Bay Area as the vase reached capacity.  It must have contained at least three hundred different seed varieties by that time.  Showcased in their glass cell were morning glory pods, sycamore balls, cockleburs, primrose and wild rose and moss rose, everything from big seeds like black walnuts and acorns to tiny seeds like thistle, and every size and shape in between.  I adored my seed collection.

I’ve always been a collector (bordering on being a hoarder), and I’ve always loved all of my collections.  During the same years that I collected seeds, I also picked up small pieces of mechanical and industrial metal that I found on the streets as I walked here and there:  rusted nuts and stripped bolts and broken spark plugs and bent door latches and odd links and hooks from chains.  I basically picked up any small metal item that dislodged from some old car, boat, bike, or trash truck.  I kept that collection in a large, dull, smoke-glazed pottery bowl which I aptly named my detritus bowl.

Next I started gleaning shards of beach glass whenever I was at the shore: broken bits with the dangerous, sharp edges worn smooth, rounded by the ever-present grinding force of waves and sand.  My favorite in this category was the half-bottom of a jar that still screamed, in bold relief, “MAYONNAISE”.

The beach glass ended up as the artificial sea bottom in an aquarium where my pet goldfish, Spot, lived.  Spot was with me for almost five years, some kind of record in goldfish keeping, I imagine.  It is hard to love a fish, but that fish, I must confess, I loved.

Yes, reader, for much of my life I have been slightly obsessed with my collections.  Perhaps a bit more than slightly.  Why, even as I write this, I am as pleased as punch that in my workplace I have recently been provided with a honey-maple, four-tier bookshelf.   Not to hold books, mind you, but to house my collection of “creatures” . . . my plastic Holstein cows from childhood; a quacking duck key chain given as a “creature gift” from my office wife, Kristin; an Alaskan native American totem pole replica given as a thank you for networking a friend into a job; a horribly frightening clothespin figure reminiscent of a headless horseman hoisting aloft his severed pumpkin face, of which I cannot venture to guess the origin; a boy and a girl hippopotamus dressed for the opera (the hippo is the unofficial mascot of the university I work for).  That is just to name a few.

There is also the carved wooden dolphin from my first cruise to the Mexican Riviera with a Former Mr. Perfect and a leather penguin finger puppet (I don’t know where this came from, but Kristin believes it must have been from some scandalous leather event).  There is displayed the magnetic owl thermometer I stole from my mother’s refrigerator the last time I visited her, next to a tiny gold pig complete with curled tail that I found walking to the gym one day.

Kristin becomes fairly apoplectic that the farm animals aren’t placed adjacent to the other farm animals, the brass camels with the plastic camels, the big birds with the little birds.  She rearranges, and then when she returns to her office, I put them back where they belong.  It’s a daily ritual.  I like to mix and stir while she prefers categorical order.

I continue to infuse new specimens into my organized disorder regularly.  Nearly every day I add something to this collection, something found or something gifted.  Soon enough I will need another bookshelf.

The point is, I collect oddities (including odd people – like Kristin – but that is another chapter entirely).  It so happens that one of the oddities I collected once upon a time was a huge, cylindrical, glass vase filled to overflowing with seeds.  Now, dear reader:  let me tell you the second half of the seed collection story.

Act two opens with the Former Mr. Perfect and I agreeing to bring a kitten into the household.  We named the little adopted orphan Elliott (to create a play on words with the dog’s name, Missy – you hip hop aficionados will appreciate that reference).

The second that tiny ball of fluff moved in, all of us – the Former Mr. Perfect, the dog, and myself – took a step down in the pecking order.  Baby Elliott asserted his role as the true leader, king of the house (still does!) and that was that.  Such is the way with cats.

Right away I noticed that the feline baby devil was extremely interested in the vase of seeds . . . probably rightfully so.  They most certainly exuded enticing hormonal and earthy scents, irresistible to a playful kitten.  All I can say is, his little baby cat tail snapped back and forth in a spasmodic and overtly sexual display whenever he got within sniffing distance of my seeds.

Oh, I’ve lost count of the times I have been confronted with this problem . . . me and my smelly seeds.

After an appropriate amount of tail jerking and nose sniffing foreplay, Elliott would stand on his back legs and try with all his kitten might to fish out the top seeds with his front paws.  He desperately craved those large cumbersome top-riding sycamore balls and morning glory pods.

I’m no dummy.  I moved the vase to the mantle, out of reach of kitten fascination.

Or so I thought.

One day as I showered upstairs I heard a crash, followed by a softer sound that reminded me of marbles being rolled across a hardwood floor.  I immediately knew what had happened, so what greeted me when I flew down the stairs, naked and dripping, was no surprise.  The vase and all of its contents had been knocked from the perch of safety and lie shattered and scattered all over the first floor of the townhome.

By the time it was over, I understood the horror the Jesus people feel at the very idea of spilled seed, for it took me weeks of vacuuming, sweeping, and hand picking to get up all those f*(*ng seeds.  The spilled seed debacle drove me over the edge, and I now whole-heartedly agree with the zealots:  it is best avoided.  Those things are extremely hard to clean up.

As difficult as they are to retrieve from beneath the furniture or on top of the baseboards or clinging like a beetle to the drapery, seeds none-the-less present us with a firm reminder of the potential of life and of renewal.  Seeds embody creation.  It is their role as a symbol of rebirth that explains the Adonis garden.

Adonis, you may recall, was the Greek God of beauty and nature who retreated to the underworld every winter and was resurrected every spring.  I think he most certainly was one of “the boys”, as I see a significant resemblance to more than a few of the young gay men of today, who likewise suffer from their own version of the Adonis complex (the need to have the perfect body) and subsequently retreat to P90X home workout isolation and/or their gym for the winter, only to be resurrected in all their taut glory come swimsuit season.

The Adonis gardens, baskets of soil planted with quick-sprouting wheat, fennel, lettuce, and barley seed, were tended by horny, adoring Greek women (fag hags, I am convinced) to celebrate the studly God’s return.  The Adonis gardens were living charms intended to welcome back the season of fertility and the handsome, young fellow.  I am fairly certain that each and every one of today’s Adonis-complex-riddled gay boys has a bestie girlfriend preparing some kind of basket or other to celebrate her personal Adonis’ springtime return.

Even some sects of the seed-spilling-phobic Christian zealots play the Adonis garden game.  Sort of, that is:  they have switched out Adonis with Jesus.  I have read that in Sicily, the women of certain churches plant similar pots a week or so before Easter and line them up along the alter, where they sprout without fail on Easter morning.

I am an atheist, and don’t believe a word of any mythology.  I go to churches only to look at the art and hear the music.  Or the occasional wedding.  But when it comes right down to it, I am as superstitious as any savage about the power of nature.  Any gardener knows what I mean; you can’t work among seeds and plants for any length of time and remain unmoved.  They are truly miraculous.

The miracle they are evidence of for me is the miracle of evolution.  Animal adaptation and diversity has nothing over the plant world; seed evolution is truly just as amazing.  Seed distribution technique is fascinating:  from dandelion puffs sailing on the breeze, to coconuts floating endlessly and aimlessly in the clear blue South Pacific until they wash up and sprout on a remote atoll, to Bishop Pine cones that won’t release their seeds unless subjected to a forest fire (which means the adult trees have been destroyed and a new generation is required), to my beloved maple helicopters fluttering away from the mother tree, to cockleburs and other stickers that hitch a ride on any hairy (or clothed) passerby, to the tiny seeds of berries which end up in bird bellies along with the sweet fruit, only to be pooped out intact, thereby planted at whatever distance from the point of origin our little feather friend happens to have flown before nature’s urge strikes.

Plants have become experts on how to disperse their seeds, and every single dispersal is chock full of potential for a new beginning.  All it takes for the new life to emerge is the luck of having been placed in the right location:  a little dirt, some sunshine, and water.  It’s a bit like my random life, dispersed as the breeze or the birds or the currents decreed, and flourishing.

Seeds are powerful symbols within a vast array of cultures and they come with a plethora of interpretations.  Rice is hurled at newlyweds to ensure fertility, pomegranate seeds are offered at New Year’s to help usher in abundance and prosperity.  Perhaps more than any other seed, though, mustard seeds are the most widely symbolic.  People of varying religions like to carry one with them as a reminder of their faith, most often in the form of a mustard seed necklace.  It seems they can’t agree on which God is the one true God, and are ready to wage a bloody war to the death to prove their side, but they can readily agree that mustard seeds are a symbol of bona fide faith.

All the more significant, isn’t it, that food prepared with mustard is said to be “deviled”.

One of the earliest religious references to the mustard seed was made in the fifth century by Buddha, who told the story of a young mother grieving over the death of her son.  She asked Buddha to find a way to bring her son back to life, and he told her it would only be possible if she brought him mustard seeds from a family that had never experienced death.  The grieving mother searched all across the land, and gradually realized that every family has faced death. Buddha used the mustard seed to teach her that death is common to all.  Jewish texts tell the story of the universe starting out at the size of a mustard seed, and then expanding to what it is now.  Here the mustard seed is used to symbolize that from small things, great things are brought to pass.

Mustard seed is incorporated into a number of Pagan rituals, including those meant to expel demons and ensure that personal obstacles are overcome.  Mustard seed is also combined with other spices in Pagan rituals that promote fertility, increase personal power, and provide protection.  Even Jesus used the tiny mustard seed as a symbol of faith in Matthew 17:20 when he said (and I paraphrase), “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed . . . you can move a mountain.”

Jesus probably identified mustard seed in this parable not because it is the smallest seed known to man, but because it was the smallest seed known to the Palestinian farmers of the day.

It is no wonder I can’t pass up an unknown seed.  To this day I must pick one of every new variety I stumble upon, and inspect it, and if at all possible, plant it.  Every single seed has some kind of story to tell, has some special significance in the world’s seed collection.  A seed is a tiny urn storing all the vast power of life.

Here’s a tip, though:  a large, cylindrical glass vase is probably not the best place to store your seeds.

Most seeds will keep at room temperature in a paper envelope for at least one year without significant loss of germination.  If you need to save your seed for longer than this, you will need to take additional steps.  A ten-year shelf life can be achieved for most seeds by drying them to less than eight percent moisture.  To accomplish this, the seeds must be subjected to a temperature of one hundred degrees Fahrenheit for at least six hours.  Whatever you do, do not put them in your microwave.  Place them in a conventional oven with the door opened.  When appropriately dried, package the seed in a moisture-proof container and store in your refrigerator or freezer.  For this purpose, “moisture-proof” means that the seeds won’t get wet if the whole package is submerged in water.  Sealed jars typically work better than plastic bags.

Of course seeds decide when they will, and when they won’t, germinate.  When I was a child on the farm in Wyoming, for some unfathomable reason my father once came home with several fifty- pound burlap bags of radish seed.  I have no idea what their purpose was – certainly not feed as even the omnivorous hens turned up their beaks at them.  I, however, was in heaven.  Every spring for several years I tossed handfuls liberally all over the farm, and every year, despite being stored in a granary that was frozen in the winter and hot in the summer, wet during rain storms and dry during drought, radishes grew.  We were never short of radishes.

The most important thing to note when buying seed, though, is the date stamp.  Some less-than-reputable outlets (box hardware stores, as one example) simply put out last year’s unsold stock when spring rolls around again.  While this might work for fifty-pound bags of radish seed, it probably won’t guarantee success for your sustenance or flower garden.  Purchase fresh seeds from a reputable nursery (or gather your own) and then follow planting instructions, either as printed on the container or as you find in a search of the gardener’s best friends, the gardening book or internet.

Some seeds, like morning glory and certain bean varieties, come with complex instructions:  nick the shell and/or soak in water for twenty-four hours before planting.  Although I follow the instructions faithfully, I do so filled with wonder at how they managed to ever sprout in nature.  There must be some ecological or environmental factor that we, the gardeners, are mimicking.

Seeds, it rationally seems, are feminine in nature.  In the Spanish language, they are called las semillas, in Portuguesa they are sementes.  Both words are of the feminine gender.  Seeds are mothers, sisters, daughters.  They are the hens.  But they are also the eggs.  And just like is the case with those fowl, we are left to wonder:  which came first, the plant or the seed?

 

Autumn

Autumn on a Wyoming Farm.

 

Last weekend was the long Labor Day Weekend, when the calendar makes note of the end of the summer season.  As is a tradition here in the District of Columbia, the remnants of a Gulf Coast hurricane (in this case, Isaac) barreled through late Saturday night to mark the occasion.  Mind you, I was involved in a mutually-drunken phone conversation with my favorite sister-in-law, Dollie, during most of the storm.  We gossiped about my brothers, our nieces, my other sisters-in-law, and everyone in between.  Meanwhile, Isaac blew and rained and generally wreaked havoc.

He blew nearly as much hot air as Dollie and I did.

That damn Isaac was certainly no Southern gentleman.  Like a bull in the buttercups, he left my garden tattered, positively downtrodden.  Still, I was not unprepared for his wrath.  This is an annual event.  The day after, as I inspected the coleus which just twelve hours earlier had been three-foot-tall colorful flags unfurled in the breeze, but that morning were damp rags pounded to the ground where it appeared they would remain, I was reminded that this weekend is always the weekend when I begin thinking about shutting up shop on this year’s garden.

Like every aspect of my existence, and every transition phase in my life, it is with mixed but powerful emotions that I confront this change.  Queen Gardener is, indeed, a fickle one, a reality that has caused me much grief in many situations.

The saying goes that for every door that closes, another opens.  My problem is, I am never certain upon which door to focus my attention.  While the Former Mr. Perfect and I were disentangling, and the Current Mr. Perfect and I were beginning the entwining process, I was at an utter and complete loss as to which door to take.  Rather than moving toward one or the other, I stood for far too long between them, stranded and paralyzed.  I was unable to make a choice.

This indecision is a theme that has repeated in various capacities throughout my life.  I am always the one who stays too long in a miserable job because of my fear of jumping from the frying pan into the fire – not an ungrounded fear, as I have done exactly that on a few of the occasions when I mustered up the fortitude to actively participant in my own life’s major decisions.  Fortunately, this has been quite infrequent as I have truly enjoyed a mostly random life, moving through it as the currents directed me.  Even more fortunately, those serendipitous tides have seldom steered me wrong.  They have, in fact, been very kind to me and conversely, some of the absolute worst outcomes of my life were the result of decisions which I have finally, painfully, proactively made.

I am known for focusing on the wrong door when I do, eventually, choose a door.  I bang my stubborn forehead repeatedly against the door that has closed, and turn a blind eye to the one that has opened, sometimes missing it completely.  I have very little positive experience with these cursed doors.

What, pray tell, does that say about me?

As to lying to rest my summer garden, it is with both a sense of sadness and a sigh of relief that I prepare for the task.  I very clearly see the door closing, but I am ready for the long winter’s nap.  And already I sense next year’s door opening.  Overall, it is with a feeling of suspense that I approach this transition.

Here are gardening words to live by:  breathe deeply and move forward.  Appreciate the past, the closed door, for what it has provided.  Anticipate the future, the open door, for its burgeoning potential.  One door closes, another door opens.

I’ve had a very successful summer of gardening.  I’ve minimized my losses and optimized the beauty of my daily life.  I’ve enjoyed goods produced by my own hands, organic nourishment derived from no more than dirt and careful tending.  But now this period draws to an end; this door closes.

The potted peach tree already looks tired, as if she is long overdue for her snow-capped sleep.  And indeed she deserves it!  In this, only her second year of production, root-bound and all, she managed to provide me with thirty beautiful, furred balls of nectar.  Soon I must repot her, but not until she has lost her leaves and gone dormant, as otherwise I risk messing up her natural cycle.  I will also avoid pruning her in this season, as already beneath her tattered leaves I see that next year’s fruit buds have developed . . . a new door opening.

Some gardening resources advocate pruning trees and shrubs in the fall; others proclaim that spring is the only time to undertake this necessary and frightening task.  There is, indeed, much vociferous discord about when to prune blooming trees and shrubs. After trial and error, here’s my general rule of thumb on the subject:  if the plant in question blooms after June 30, it is safe to prune in the fall.  If it blooms prior to that date, it should be pruned only immediately after it has bloomed; otherwise you will simply be removing the bloom wood for the next year.

Roses, however, should always be pruned in the spring, as there is invariably some winter kill, often as much as half of the cane.  Prune in the fall and one is often still forced to prune again by half in the spring.  Best to just leave them be and see what remains come spring, and then take it from there.

One door closes.  Soon enough the nights will begin to chill and the morning dew will incrementally get heavier, presaging the morning we will awaken to a hard frost, the whole of everything covered in brilliant white ice.  That will be the end of whatever is left of the annuals:  the zinnias, vincas, petunias and begonias, which have steadily been decreasing in volume of late, as steadily as I have been deadheading the spent portions.  They will bow out, and will need to be clipped off at ground level and disposed of (oh, but were a compost bin available to me).  Their demise will be without grief, though:  who would want it any other way?  It is the order of the world and all things in it:  birth, life, death.

The coleus, too, will be no more after the first freeze.  That frost will slam that door closed.  Long before then, though, I will have snipped their bedraggled remains – thank you, Isaac, you blow-hard bastard – and arranged them in colorful vases to line the window in my office.  There, like a botanical rainbow, they will root.  Mid-winter, I will pot them up in some pretty containers where they will finish out the hard season.  They will brighten my every work day until spring, when I move them back out to the garden.

A door opens, life is reborn.

The frost will spell the end of the basil, too.  Or would, had I not had the foresight to hack it back to main stems just this past week as both the plants and I knew the end was nearing.  They had stopped their profuse production of leaves and had even stopped struggling to bloom.  As is, I now have a freezer full of basil pesto which will, over the winter, warm me almost as much as my summer garden has.

The hardier herbs, the perennials like the mint, oregano, thyme, and rosemary, also recognize that summer is ending.  Their new growth is compacted and condensed, closer to ground or stem which means less exposure to the elements this winter.  They are no one’s fools.

The parsley, which has also begun to produce a more condensed and rigid leaf stem, is right now in this transition season busily storing up sugars and starches in the form of swelling parsnips, which, as a biennial (growing in a two-year cycle) they would utilize next spring to fuel their flower and seed production . . . if I didn’t have plans for parsnip soup later this fall.  A door opens.

Growing up on a sustenance farm in Wyoming, the line between the door closing and the door opening was blurred.  There, the cycle of life, of opening and closing, was continuous and ever-present.  Vegetable, animal, human:  we all moved with a natural flow from season to season.

Putting the farm to rest come fall was no easy task, but the process also ensured that life didn’t meet its end when the cold moved in from Canada.  We worked hard every day of this transition period.  As we worked, the Southward-migrating geese flew overhead in a “V” pattern, sometimes so close that we could hear the wind rustle through their pinion feathers – a heart-quickening sound.

There, beneath the crisp blue autumn sky and the honking geese, we plucked every unripe tomato, pepper and eggplant left on the vine.  We then sandwiched them between layers of newspaper and stored them in a house-adjacent lean-to shed, where they continued to ripen in the barely above-freezing temperature well onto Christmas.  Apples and pears and plums were stored likewise.  Potatoes and fennel, carrots and turnips, and even the last remains of beets and radishes had to be dug out and stored in wooden baskets in the same lean-to.  Beans were dried, okra and peas canned, cucumbers pickled, corn shelled.  Alfalfa was cut and dried and baled and stacked, oats were harvested and bagged and stored at the ready to carry the livestock through winter.

Corrals and chicken coops were cleaned out before the freeze, the valuable manure stacked on a dry, rocky hillside to cure for a few seasons before it was returned to the earth, its nutrients put to good use.

For many people, the approach of autumn means nothing more than pretty leaves and the chance to wear a new season’s fashion.  For the gardener, fall is a reminder that doors close and doors open, that everything is apt to change and that life is both cyclic and permanent.

I would have it no other way.

 

 

Marijuana

Some weeds are better than others.

Cannabis sativa; Canabis indica; Cannabis ruderalis

removed

baby you know
i love you more than
warm biscuits and honey butter
i’ll be with you ‘til dirt turns to diamonds

so don’t get bent

when I say that today’s favorite fifteen
counted down while you were out getting diapers
i leaned over the ninth floor railing
smoked a joint beneath the tired winter sun

inhale               hold

come on baby you know
you’re better than black beans with rice
and ham after eight long hours grinding for our room and board
but sometimes a man’s just got to step off and rest

sirens               church bells                 brick
pigeon rustles on a ledge below me

you know I need you more
than a heart-shaped red velvet cake and
a big glass of milk but baby you know that what i
wanted was a quarter hour and a tight one

to be somewhere alone

*(this poem was previously published online at Boiling River Poetry Journal, 2010, and in The Smoking Book Blog, 2011).

 ***

I sometimes long for the good old times – those years when every summer I grew a forest of marijuana (Cannabis selections), then smoked it for the duration of the year (the smoking always followed by the eating of anything that wasn’t nailed down).  But before you get your knickers in a knot, sister DEA spy, rest assured that Queen Gardener has given up on the production of his annual crop of “special fern” – as one friend who tended my garden during vacations used to refer to it.

I gave up this gardening tradition not because it is illegal and I, as well as my nearly perfect roommates, could be tossed in jail for it, although that is certainly a compelling reason.  Almost as compelling is my XXX-rated porn fantasy of being locked away in male-only confinement with hundreds of other lonely, demanding men, their prison-yard muscles tearing out of their thin, orange coveralls and their handsome, criminal faces throwing suggestive glances my way.

Well, then.  Perhaps I should start some seedlings right now.

No.

The reason I no longer grow pot is because I so very rarely partake of it these days.  My aged sinuses and asthmatic lungs can’t handle the smoke, and even though I could whip up some magic brownies or a thick ganja-laced hot chocolate, delightful when spiced with a bit of cinnamon and cayenne pepper, I really must abstain.  You see, dear reader, in my dotage I naturally have enough trouble remembering details, connecting with those around me, and keeping myself motivated.  I don’t need any further murkiness.

Therefore, despite the daily devotion to the herb that I maintained throughout most of my younger life, Queen Gardener nowadays usually (usually!) declines.

I smoked weed long before I drank alcohol.  In small-town Wyoming, mid-century, it was simply easier to come by.  Marijuana was everywhere; alcohol, one had to plan for.  And it seems it may have been this way throughout history.

Archeological evidence points to civilizations smoking the devil’s weed as far back as the third millennium BC, as illustrated by charred Cannabis seeds found in an ancient burial site in present day Romania.  In 2003, a leather basket filled with cannabis leaves and seeds was found buried with a 2800-year-old mummified shaman in Northwestern China.  Cannabis is also known to have been used by the ancient Hindus of India and Nepal, referred to as ganjika in Sanskrit.  Why, even smoking pipes dug up from the garden of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon contain traces of Cannabis.

I doth proclaim, if weed waseth good enough for Shakespeare, it certainly is fair thee well good enough for thine old Queen Gardener.

Cannabis is indigenous to Central and South Asia, and there are three recognized species (as well as many hybrids).   The original species are:  Cannabis sativa, the tallest at upwards of ten feet and also the most widely cultivated; Cannabis indica (called Indian Hemp), shorter and often cultivated for its more dense growth habit which results in more produce in less space with much less visibility; and Cannabis ruderalis, a wildling which is rarely cultivated for recreational use as it has the lowest level of THC (tetrahydrocannibinol, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana).

I would be far too embarrassed to divulge to you at what age I was first handed a joint.   But I will tell you I was no more than fifteen when I set out to try my hand at growing weed.  I attempted to germinate one of the seeds that had come along with my most recent pot purchase.

My gardening instinct started early and spread widely.

My teen-aged garden-prone friends in Wyoming sprouted their seeds in the warm, dark confines of their sock drawers, nestled between layers of moistened paper towels adjacent to the girlie (or in some cases, boylie) magazines.  But I am always in favor of the most direct route:  I plant my seeds in the dirt.  To this day, an argument over the two sprouting methods rages, even though fewer and fewer home gardeners grow from seed.  Marijuana is now decriminalized in some form in twenty-three different jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, and medicinal marijuana dispensaries are popping up like literal corner drugstores.  To a grower’s joy, these outlets sell embryonic cloned hybrid plants with fantastical names like White Widow, Blue Dream, Bubblelicious, and Alaskan Thunderfuck.

Seeds are bypassed.  Color me thunderfucked.

Still, I am old school.  I grow from seed.  I enjoy the sprouting; the watching as the tiny seedling hardens, matures, and produces.  I appreciate the idea that my produce is following a natural cycle, is organic and home-grown.  I stick by my seeds and I argue about which germination method is best.  As does the other side.

“Not all the seeds sprout!” Freddie-of-Seattle fairly screeches.  “By pre-germinating, I am certain not to be left with an empty space.”

No matter the method, pre-germination or direct planting, the seeds you use must be virile if they are to sprout.  They should be green and meaty and healthy in appearance.  They should not be grey in color and should not be shriveled.  A simple test is to drop a couple of test seeds on a hot frying pan. If they pop like tiny firecrackers, they are probably good for planting purposes.

Pot seeds remind me of my years in Salt Lake City, where I cohabitated with the best roommate of my life.  Miss Jane and I were perfect buddies, perfect roomies.  At one point we agreed, as we always did on everything, that a pair of caged finches would be a lovely addition to our third-floor walk-up apartment.  We hung their bamboo container in the west-facing sunroom and named the little birdie couple Peaches and Bailey.  Trouble was, neither of us could bear caging them.  We opened their door and allowed them free-flight of the suite, which they vastly enjoyed.  It is indeed a special pleasure to watch one’s evening TV as a tiny bird whizzes by every few minutes.  As creatures of habit, though, every night they returned to their little bamboo home to roost, and occasionally during the night Peaches laid a tiny egg, no bigger than a pearl.  But they never truly nested.

We routinely treated them to marijuana seeds which they gobbled like popcorn.  And then they commenced to singing, loudly and non-stop.  I always thought Bailey sounded a bit like Woody Woodpecker, while Peaches did a solid back-up.

We were a lovely foursome until one day in a pot-inspired spate of murkiness, Peaches flew out the back window, never to return.  Bailey died of heartbreak not long thereafter.

It was reefer madness, I swear.

For the germination stage of marijuana growth, if you use the paper towel method, you must carefully place the sprout in loose soil the moment it emerges from the seed shell.  If you plant your seeds directly, always bury two or three seeds together as Freddie-of-Seattle is, indeed, correct:  not all of the seeds will germinate.  Plant them about a half-inch below surface, pointy end up.  If more than one sprouts, pluck all but the strongest looking one.

And if you grow the super-potent dispensary hybrid clones, more power to you!

At fifteen, my soil-planted seed germinated.  I kept the infant illegality in a coffee tin filled with garden dirt on my bedroom windowsill, hidden from sight behind the vibrant blue and gold curtains my mother had sewn for me.

As it turned out, it was not so well hidden.  I came home from my play one day to find the seedling snipped off at ground level and lying chopped to bits atop the soil.  Also carefully placed in the Folgers can was a brief note signed by my mother.  “Try onions or tomatoes.  Not this, not in my house.  Love anyway, Mom.”

To this day I envision her fuming in her kitchen that afternoon after discovery of my secret garden, so angry she might have even been swearing (a rarity!), yet unwilling to involve my father or the law or to even risk alienating me.

In retrospect, this vignette is both poignant and typical of my mother’s great grace.

Should your seedlings survive your mother, keep them in as sunny a location as you can.  Marijuana plants need an absolute minimum of five hours of sunlight per day (eight is better).  Whether seeds or clones, you can plant in late April or early May, after the last frost of the year in your area.

The plants can become quite large, so if you are growing directly in the ground, space them about five feet apart.  I typically grow mine in terra cotta pots which allows me to move them as I need (including hiding them in a shed or closet when unfriendly eyes come to visit).

Water thoroughly, but allow the soil to dry slightly between watering.  Do not fertilize until the plants are established and have at least eight true leaves.  Fertilize thereafter with caution (they are sensitive to over-fertilization).

When the babies are very young, they tend to be floppy and to have trouble holding their little heads high.  It is advisable to stake them at this point to avoid breakage and to ensure an upright plant after she does harden, which she will when she enters her rapid growth period (the vegetative state).

I was nearly vegetative for most of my teen years, and in my state of perpetual pot-induced bliss, did some pretty stupid things.  Like the time I left a full ounce of marijuana in a sandwich baggie in my car’s glove compartment . . . on the very day that my father had promised to replace my radio antennae, which required glove compartment access.

“It’s not mine,” I lied.  To no avail, as he of course didn’t believe me and flushed the whole eight dollar bag down the toilet.

Eight dollars!  Oh, as I said previously, how I sometimes pine for the good old (inexpensive) times.  These days, marijuana, even the lowest-grade Mexican ditch weed, fetches far more than that.  The World Drug Report published in 2008 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime claimed that a typical U.S. retail price for marijuana was $238-420 per ounce, depending on quality.  This is a range that rings true to my experience and I am here to testify that prices have certainly not dropped since 2008.

The price increase may be a case of “you get what you pay for”, as research undertaken at the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project found that the average level of THC in samples of smoke available on the street increased from four percent in 1983 to almost ten percent in 2007.

But, still.  Only eight dollars?  And not that long ago!

These days, in the United States, Cannabis is the overall number four cash crop and is number one in many states including California, New York, and Florida.  It is estimated that the illegal pot industry generates up to forty-five billion dollars in sales every year.  This statistic leads the Queen Gardener to ponder why the Federal government doesn’t just decriminalize, regulate, and tax.  Like alcohol, which in my humble opinion truly creates more of a societal problem than any number of stoners ever could.  Stoners are, for the most part, bumbling and harmless.  Meanwhile, the tax on forty-five billion dollars, plus the savings in reduced drug law enforcement, would pay for millions of school lunches and untold unemployment checks, not to mention the resultant boon to ice cream, potato chip, Astroglide and Reese’s Pieces sales.

I mention Astroglide because, quite frankly, there is nothing quite as scintillating as good, pot-fueled sex.  As the kids say these days, “it’s da bomb.”  Marijuana can relax the body, allow the racing mind to focus on what is at hand (no pun intended), and create a sense of isolation from the rest of the world.  If you are lucky, that is.  Sometimes, the opposite is the effect.  Queen Gardener himself can no longer imbibe and indulge:  If I do, I find my mind wandering in the middle of the act toward what it is I have left undone on my desk, whether or not I remembered to take the laundry out of the dryer, and, oh!, wasn’t that a funny stinger on Big Bang Theory earlier this evening?

As I said:  in my dotage, I don’t need additional murkiness.

Sex, however, is very important to the proper cultivation of marijuana, for the plants come in both sexes and for an acceptable end product, you must limit your crop to female plants.

One summer I ended up with two male plants.  “It can’t be that bad,” I thought to myself.  Wrong.  By September I had two robust six-foot plants that, unfortunately, produced little more than a daily dusting of yellow pollen all over everything in their vicinity.

As is the usual case with most things, the males are worthless.

Here’s how to sex your plant:

First, you will need a high quality, hand-held magnifier.   Around the middle of July and onward, use said magnifier every few days to look for sex gland growth.  The timeframe for reaching sexual maturity (the flowering stage) depends entirely on which species of marijuana you are growing and under what conditions.  Hours of light vs. hours of darkness is a primary trigger, but sativa varieties mature later than indicas, and hybrids mature dependent upon their inherited percentage of each variety.  Therefore, begin inspecting middle of July, when the flowering state is apt to begin, and continue until sexing is achieved.

Imagine yourself, if you will, crouched beneath an illegal plant, magnifier in hand, searching for sex organs while on lookout for roaming guards.  Duck and cover and fondle, so to speak.

Oh, the memories.

In short order you will notice the sex glands developing.  They appear at the base of the leaf stem, in the nook where it joins the main stem, and look something like a tiny (hence the magnifier) green sac.  A female plant will grow one or two pistilla from the sac, pointed protuberances that, upon very close inspection, will reveal a covering of miniscule white hairs.  The pistilla look something like tongues extending outward, their purpose being to catch the male’s pollen.

The male plants will develop balls (seriously) which hang below the sac.

Sounds easy, right?  Tongue equals girl, balls equal boy.  But I am here to tell you:  it is not.  It takes practice and more than a bit of time spent on one’s knees with a magnifier inspecting plant sex glands to finally see what is right before your eyes.  However, rest assured, once you recognize the difference, you will never forget.

And then comes the hard part.  If that baby that you have lovingly tended from a seed back in April to a sexual teenager in July turns out to be a male, there is nothing to be done but rip him up and discard.  Just imagine yourself King Herod, ordering the execution of all the boy children.  Or Sophie, making her choice, in reverse.

Approximately thirty to fifty percent of marijuana plants are male, so plan accordingly.   If you intend to end up with two mature, bud-producing specimens, start with four.  If you intend to have good smoke, rip up the boys.  Even if you love them, even if you are obsessed with the idea of the plants comingling and producing offspring, my advice remains:  rip up the boys.  If a male is left intact and allowed to pollinate a girl, she will direct her energy toward seed development.   Withhold a male’s pollen and she keeps striving and striving, producing more and more THC to make herself more and more attractive to the absent male (praise be that she is blind and cannot see that he does not exist).  This frustrated female marijuana bud is called “sensemilla” (without seeds), and is one of the most sought-after pot products available.

After you rip up and discard the unfortunate males – you could play a somber dirge as you toss them to the compost heap, if that helps lessen your burden – the next step in the growing cycle is patience.  As my pot-growing guru, Eric-in-Oakland, advised, “Patience is a virtue.”

Hmmm . . . this is probably not quite the same thing as my Grandmother Rose meant when she repeated this to me.  In either case, it has been a life-long lesson, and one that I still struggle with.

I spent a portion of the Denver years cohabitating with the worst roommate ever.  Evil Pam and I moved into a house in the western suburbs in early spring, and during the move-in walk-through with the new landlord, noted a ten-by-ten plot in a secluded corner of the backyard fairly brimming over with three-inch marijuana plants.

“I’ll mow those down,” the landlord said with what I detected to be a hint of baiting sadness.

Suffice it to say, after some delicate hemming and hawing and gentle reaching out of feelers, it was agreed upon that the plants would be left intact and, eventually, we would give him a portion of the produce.

Have you ever heard of such stupid tenants?  We were to absorb all the risk, complete all of the work, and finally “be allowed” to provide the goods back up the chain of command.

What was that, the mimicking of a gulag work program in Russian Siberia?

No, it was just two young and dumb and totally mismatched roommates.

Those plants grew like, well, weeds.  By mid-August, they stood two feet above the eight-foot privacy fence.  And at least two feet above both my patience level and, jail fantasy or not, my capacity to remain calm in the face of my own escalated criminal activity.  This wasn’t like I had just a couple of plants in terra cotta pots tucked away:  this was a jungle, a ten-by-ten-by-ten cube of pure prosecutor’s delight.

One day, in a rare instance of roommate cohesiveness, Evil Pam and I had had it.  In a fit of fear we hacked down the immature plants and hung them in the basement to dry.  Imagine the manipulating landlord’s dismay when he received not a few baggies of potent and mind-altering bud, but a number of grocery bags stuffed with useless, dried, headache-producing leaves and twigs.

I’ve always blamed our eviction on Evil Pam’s herd of cats and their wayward toilet habits, but in retrospect I realize it may have been the result of our inept drug cultivation skills.

Patience is a virtue.  This is the gospel according to Eric-of-Oakland.  And it has proven to be the perfect truth.  Eventually, if you just let her be, your Cannabis plant will begin to drop her large “shade” leaves and begin to form the buds – the much sought-after product.  When you see them developing, it’s rather like watching that first tomato go from green thumbnail-sized infancy to full-on red lusciousness.

But patience continues to be a virtue long after the buds have developed.  In order to end up with the very best product possible, you need to wait until the THC level is at its highest.

Bring out that magnifier, Gert, we ain’t done with it yet.

Once the buds have developed, you will need to inspect them on a daily basis.  Under magnification, you will see that the buds and the very small leaves contained within are actually covered in tiny, white hair-like structures called trichomes.  These are actually oil glands, and they produce the THC-laden resin, the purpose of which is to help trap the pollen.

You see now why we want no males in the vicinity?  A horny spinster is much more desperate than a happily married young mother.  Oh, but were it this easy to determine when a potential partner is receptive to advances.  Imagine yourself again, at the local dance club, magnifier in hand . . .

As it ripens to its full potential, the droplets of resin that form on the trichomes and tiny leaves transmogrify from transparent goo to lovely amber-colored goo.  When amber is reached, it is harvest time.  Often the lower branches attain harvest potency before the upper branches, so it is important to observe a selection of buds from your plant.

Here in the District, prime harvest time (depending on the plant variety and what kind of summer we have had) comes around the end of September or the first week of October.  If you live in a more Northern clime, it will be earlier (remember, light vs. dark, the “photoperiod”, is a key marker for your plant, and light vs. dark varies from North to South).

Oh, silly reader, we are not yet done.

Once the resin globules show amber, you must clip the bud from the plant, leaving an inch of two of the branch stem.  Cut off any large leaves that remain, leaving only the flower bud and the tiny leaves it contains.  Then you must hang your harvest by its vestigial stem in a dry, warm location where air can easily circulate around it.  If you have an outbuilding, I would suggest using that.  If, like me, you live in an eighth-floor condo, you might run a piece of strong across your bathroom or spare bedroom and cure the buds there.  In these cases, you might also consider leaving the vent fan running to avert prying neighbor’s noses.  You might be used to the smell, but they probably aren’t!

Eric-of-Oakland taught me that the harvested buds are ready for storage when they are dry(ish) to the touch but still have their gooey quality.  His test?  If it is dry enough to combust in his pipe (or vaporizer, water bong, joint, etc.), then it is ready for storage.  He advocates sealing the product in a glass jar and placing it in the freezer.  Sunlight and continued exposure to air, he tells me, degrades the potency.  I have more than once had difficulty remembering my way home from Eric-of-Oakland’s, so I trust that he is an expert on maintaining potency.

However, should your freezer be unavailable – kids, roommate from hell, or just a need to have it stocked to the brim with emergency supplies – I find that sealing the buds in Ziploc sandwich bags and storing them in a dark drawer, cabinet, or closet works just as well.  Remember, though, marijuana has a distinct and pungent odor and some sealing is required to avoid detection (should you need to avoid detection).

Now that you have that stash of free, organic product, let me roll us a joint, a skill I learned from a hairdresser (Marco-of-Salt-Lake-City).  Apparently, it is exactly the same technique as turning hair on tiny rollers for a tight perm.

Let’s fire that thing up and see how you did.  Inhale, hold, hold, hold, and exhale.

Whoa, man, where’s the fudge?  And ice cream.  With peanut butter.  Are you going to have the rest of that jar of Nutella?  Now, where did I leave those Oreos?

Hey, do you mind if I bring this bag of potato chips and this bottle of Astroglide to bed?