Book Review – Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter

This book is a fantastic read: funny, thoughtful, unpredictable, and engrossing. It is the author’s tale of urban farming on what started as a garbage-strewn lot (a lot she did not own) in inner-city Oakland, California. I read through the 267 pages not in a single sitting, but close to it.

farm city 2

Carpenter and her boyfriend raised all kinds of fruits and vegetables, as well as beehives for honey. However, it’s the farm animals that generate the best stories. The author started small with chickens, then moved on to turkeys, ducks, geese, and rabbits. Finally, she raises a pair of hogs, who definitely qualify as serious livestock:

When strangers at dinner parties questioned the legitimacy of the term ‘urban farmer,’ I only had to show them a photo of me scratching the pigs’ backs with a rake, the auto shop lurking in the background, and the debate was over.

At one point the male pig, Big Guy (200 lb. and growing at the time), makes a dash for freedom. Carpenter has to organize a posse of neighbors who cut Big Guy off with a cordon of trash containers.

The author’s version of urban farming is not for the squeamish or for those who desire the affluent urban professional lifestyle. She obtains food for the pigs and other animals by dumpster diving. The pigs have a special fondness for fish guts to be found behind certain Chinese restaurants.

This might not be the best book for vegetarians and people who are especially tender-hearted about animals. Carpenter describes slaughtering her chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and pigs in a sensitive but matter-of-fact manner. She doesn’t take these lives lightly, but she isn’t apologetic either.

Farm City talks about people and community as well as fruits and vegetables, eggs and meat. She gets to know the people in her neighborhood, from the homeless guy who sleeps in the abandoned car near her house to the kids who are so excited to see real rabbits. She also introduces us to a wider network of other people striving to raise good food in the city, who provide mutual assistance in a variety of ways.

Carpenter is still pursuing urban agriculture. You can read about it on her blog, Ghost Town Farm.

Novella Carpenter
Novella Carpenter

I certainly have no intention of becoming an urban farmer. However, Farm City makes the reader appreciate what Carpenter and like-minded folks are trying to do, and it is impossible not to enjoy the humor and honesty with which she tells her story.

Druping Under the Weight of Botanical Knowledge

I’m very glad I recently took an evening class in botany. For one thing, I now know what a drupe is.

A large berry.
A large berry.

You know when you are reading about some plant, say a serviceberry (Amelanchier), and the text says that the fruit is a small drupe? I no longer think that “drupe” is some random typo that sounds vaguely insulting. Now I know that serviceberries have drupes, not berries, and so should properly be called servicedrupes. This is an even worse name than serviceberry, but more accurate botanically, which is what is really important.

Drupes, you see, have a single seed. Berries have multiple seeds. Tomatoes are berries. Really. So are blueberries. To botanists, tomatoes and blueberries are practically indistinguishable, which is why I don’t visit when they are making spaghetti. (Tomatoes are berries botanically, but are vegetables legally as determined by the US Supreme Court in Nix v. Hedden.)

You know what else is a berry? A watermelon. Yup. If you don’t believe me, look it up. Watermelons and other melons are pepos, berries with a hard, thick rind. So on summer picnics we should be enjoying some juicy waterpepo, or waterberry. Oh, and an orange is a hesperidium, a berry with a leathery skin.

Strawberries have multiple seeds, so you might think they are berries. You’d be wrong. A strawberry is an aggregate fruit, because the fleshy part is derived from many ovaries. Each one of the seeds counts as  a single fruit called an achene, so the famous Ingmar Bergman movie should be called “Wild Aggregate Achenes.” When I say achene people often respond: “Bless you!”

Aggregate Straw-Achenes.
Aggregate Achenes.

Peaches and apricots are drupes. Cherries are drupes, so you could say that life is just a bowl of drupes, though that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Almonds are drupes, not nuts, but hazelnuts are nuts. They just are, OK? Walnuts are a subject of some controversy. Some botanists think they are nuts, but others think they are drupey nuts, or nutty drupes. I am not kidding.

berry club
My thanks to JL Westover of for permission to use this cartoon.

So I am grateful to my botany instructor. I now know that some berries are not berries. I know that other things are berries even though the thought would be absurd to the uninitiated. And while some nuts are nuts, other nuts are  not nuts, while still other nuts might or might not be nuts.

And now I have shared this knowledge with you.

You’re welcome.

Annual Sunflowers in Perennial Borders

As Christmas nears, visions of annual sunflowers are dancing in my head. I’m thinking about what I want to change in my main flower border along the driveway.

Sunflower 'Italian White'
Sunflower ‘Italian White’.  Photo: California Horticultural Society

I’ve grown native perennial sunflowers, but they have been a disappointment. Surprisingly, western sunflower (Helianthus occidentalus) has been unable to compete with the other border plants, and has almost disappeared. Downy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) has grown to monstrous height, but the quantity and quality of flowers has been unimpressive.

So I’m thinking annual sunflowers. Specifically, I’m thinking of ‘Italian White’ a cream-colored, multi-branched annual that grows to 5-6′. I grew ‘Italian White’ at the house we lived in before temporarily moving to Wisconsin. It grew just in front of a south-facing picture window, which enabled us to watch the goldfinches up close as they fed on the seeds. That was in the first year of a new bed. Unfortunately, in the second year ‘Italian White’ did not grow well. While it self-sowed, the seedlings were shaded by the early perennials to the point that the stems were falling over.

Sunflowers at Giverney.Photo:
Sunflowers at Giverney.

But there must be a way to successfully include annual sunflowers in a perennial border without the sunflower seedlings getting excessive shade. I am inspired by how Money included sunflowers in his borders at Giverney. The only solution I can think of is starting the seeds indoors so that they get a head start on their perennial competition.

Have you tried growing annual sunflowers with perennials in your garden? How did you ensure the young plants got enough sun, and how did it work out?


LBJs Are Eating All The Bird Food

Not clones of the Texas-born President. Rather, the dull little birds that Judy calls LBJs, or Little Brown Jobbies.

Lately I’ve been re-filling the peanut feeder almost every day, and the bulk of its contents are going down the gullets of LBJs. I’d say they’re eating most of the sunflower seeds as well.

House sparrows gorging themselves on peanuts bought with my hard-earned dollars.
House sparrows gorging themselves on peanuts bought with my hard-earned dollars.

The real offenders are the house sparrows, also called English sparrows. Despite what they call themselves, they are actually finches, which gives you an idea of how unethical they are. These rather drab creatures, a European import, are voracious eating machines. They travel in flocks and tend to squeeze out other birds. There are larger nuisance birds like grackles and starlings, but they at least are somewhat easier to deter.

At times I consider putting an end to my backyard bird feeding because of the LBJs. But I always conclude that the pleasure of watching orioles, cardinals, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, nuthatches and others outweighs the irritation of watching LBJ devouring my peanuts, sunflowers, and money.

Besides, there’s no point in being a bird snob. We’re never going to get rid of the house sparrows, so we might as well get used to them. What’s more, if you look at them in the right way and squint a little you can see that they have a sort of understated charm. There’s that little black bib and the white patches on the cheeks … OK, the charm is very understated.

White-crowned sparrow
White-crowned sparrow

There are other LBJs which really are more appealing, especially if you look closely. It’s kind of like stamp collecting. White-throated sparrows and white-crowned sparrows have attractive head coloring. They are also mostly ground feeders, and so shouldn’t be blamed for emptying out the bird food.

White necked sparrow.
White-throated sparrow.

So how do you feel about the LBJs – frustrated, resigned, or ready to give up on the whole bird-feeding game?

Book Review: Home Ground, by Allen Lacy

I fear that garden writer Allen Lacy is simply no longer read as often as he should be. Lacy was a native Texan, a philosophy professor who gardened and wrote on the side. Living in southern New Jersey for most of his career, he was a garden columnist at the Wall Street Journal for five years and at the New York Times for seven.

home ground 2

Lacy wrote or edited ten books. Favorites of mine include Further Afield (1986), In a Green Shade (2000), and The Garden in Autumn (1995). If I had to pick just one, however, I would unhesitatingly go with Home Ground (1984). Except for The Garden in Autumn, all of these books are collections of short essays.

Cheerful, earthy, and erudite are three adjectives which all describe Lacy’s prose. His passion for gardening was heartfelt, and he was subject to serial and alternating obsessions: for daylilies, for daffodils, for hostas, for Oriental lilies. But he maintained a sense of perspective and a sense of humor.

My favorite passage from Home Ground concerns his attempt to camouflage his emerging daffodil obsession:

“I’ve got this daffodil catalog from Oregon,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t betray mania, obsession, or grave infatuation. “Did you know that a daffodil called Lyrebird costs $100 for just one bulb? What kind of damned fool would pay that kind of money for one bulb?”

“Be careful now,” she said. It was clear that she thought I might be precisely the sort of damn fool I referred to.

“What do you mean, ‘be careful’?” I asked.

She had me cold. I once bought the same shirt in eight different colors, and I had just shaken a mania for daylilies … I had no intention of buying Lyrebird, but by dwelling on its outrageous price I was perfectly capable of convincing myself that at only $50 Impressario was an outright steal.

In addition to abnormal gardener psychology, Lacy’s essays deal with the virtues and defects of a variety of plants, with what makes a garden inviting and beautiful, and with a variety of other subjects including the decline of decent watermelons since his childhood in Texas. I particularly liked his parody of certain garden advice columnists of the day and their tendency to deal in worst case scenarios.

allen lacey
Allen Lacy

Your diefenbachia is infested with artichoke mites … Unfortunately, they carry Herpes IX, a virus which spreads rapidly to apple trees, juniper, sedum, delphiniums, zinnias, and humans, where it causes impotence, a yearning to travel to places you can’t afford, and sometimes an untimely death. Burn your house to the ground immediately, see a physician, and make certain that you have a valid will.

Advice like this makes it clear that we all would benefit from reading a copy of Home Ground, or some of Lacy’s other books.

Chicago Botanic Garden’s Dixon Prairie

Here’s another post about a summer visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden. This time I want to write about Dixon Prairie, one of the less visited parts of CBG.

Dixon Prairie is a 15 acre restored prairie with six different ecological communities, from wet to dry, black earth to sand and gravel. In addition to the grasslands, there is burr oak savannah, wetlands, and lagoons. Wildlife – insect, bird, mammal –  is numerous and diverse.

We were there in July, when the wildflowers seemed to be at their peak. Fortunately, Judy brought her camera.

Blue Heron in the lagoon along the prairie. CBG is working to improve shoreline erosion.
Blue Heron in the lagoon along the prairie. CBG is working to improve shoreline erosion.
Heron in flight.
Heron in flight.
Doe in the grasses.
Doe in the grasses.
2009-07-19 13.55.13
Purple Martin House.
Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)
Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)

If you live in the Chicago area, go see the Dixon Prairie! Do you have a favorite local prairie, meadow, or “wild” garden?

Before concluding, I want to respond to the questions asked by Nadezda at Nadezda’s Northern Garden.

My favorite Christmas flower: Amaryllis.

Christmas preparation I never miss: Buying gifts.

What is the scent of Christmas: Judy’s baking.

Favorite Christmas song: Dropkick Murphys’ Christmas Song (with thanks to my friend Joanna).

Said the Robin to the Botanist …

If I were Lewis Carroll I would write a poem to go with these photographs. I found them while perusing old pictures, something I do a lot of when the weather turns cold. These were taken during a summer visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Judy found a robin who felt that the statue of Carl Linnaeus in the Discovery Garden made for an excellent perch.

Robin: "Don't look so pleased with yourself."
Robin: “Don’t look so pleased with yourself.”

Linnaeus has a rather beatific expression. The robin seems to be scolding him, saying: “Time to get serious! Life is no picnic!”

Robin: "You think you can support a family studying flowers?"
Robin: “You think you can support a family studying flowers?”


2009-06-14 15.57.19







Venice of the North

A few days ago I reminisced about visiting my older son Daniel while he was studying in Russia. That first post was about the few days we spent in Moscow. This is a follow-up about the second and final leg of the journey in St. Petersburg.

Let me start with a bit of advice for people traveling with their college-age children. You can congratulate yourselves if you have instilled the value of thrift in your offspring. However, beware of letting those children purchase the train tickets for your overnight trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Otherwise you will find yourself lying in the very narrow upper bunk of a four bed compartment, afraid to fall asleep because you might roll over and flop onto the floor. Much more comfortable accommodations are available for a very reasonable price.

Enough grousing. Actually, Daniel found me a very comfortable small hotel on Nevsky Prospekt, which is a sort of Main Street for Downtown St. Petersburg.

The Hermitage.
Hermitage in the evening.
Hermitage in the evening.
In the Hermitage Courtyard.
In the Hermitage Courtyard.

This is a beautiful city that is very much worth seeing. To start with, there is the Hermitage, which was once the Winter Palace of the Czars. We mostly looked at the building itself, and only examined a handful of items from its massive art collections. The views from within the Hermitage courtyards are especially lovely.

St. Petersburg is built around rivers, canals, and the sea – hence the nickname Venice of the North. Many buildings are painted in pastel colors which, combined with the waterways, give this city a feel very different from Moscow. Danny and I took a boat ride through the canals which was great except for the fact that we froze our tushes off.

A city of canals.
A city of canals.
Canal view.
Canal view.


We spent a good deal of time at the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, which was built in the 19th Century on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. I thought this church was even more remarkable than St. Basil’s, though it is not nearly as old.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.

St. Petersburg is a great city for walking and wandering. The subways are easy to use, though they are build very, very deep in the soggy earth. When Danny and I got tired of walking, we stopped in a cafe for hot chocolate, which is extremely thick and sweet in Russia. Our favorite was Cafe Singer, located on the second floor of a bookshop. This provided an excellent vantage point for watching the people and traffic on Nevsky Prospekt.

Danny making a fish face during our boat tour of the canals.
Cafe Singer on Nevsky Prospekt.
Danny making a fish face during tour of canals.

My last evening in Russia was spent with the family Daniel had been living with while studying at St. Petersburg University. They were extremely welcoming, and provided a homemade feast along with a lot of high quality vodka. I very rarely drink hard liquor, and as we toasted each other my hosts scolded me for sipping instead of downing each glass at one go. Next morning I took a cab to the airport, slightly hung over but very glad I had been able to share Daniel’s experience in Russia with him.

Book Review: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

If perennial flowers are the backbone of your garden, as they are of mine, you may occasionally feel the need for an orthopedist. Keeping perennial flowers blooming, attractive, upright, adequately contained, and the right size and shape is an ongoing challenge. Experience and occasional expert advice are necessary to meet that challenge with reasonably consistent success.

well tended per garden

That’s where The Well-Tended Perennial Garden comes in. Author Tracy DiSabato-Aust has written a useful and engaging book that should be read through once and then kept on hand as a reference work.

The first part of the book deals with staking, dividing, pruning, cutting back, bed preparation, rejuvenating old beds, and the intersection between plant maintenance and garden design. I found the sections on staking and cutting back to be particularly useful.

I grow a lot of wildflowers that exult in my fertile garden soil, often growing much taller than books and catalogs indicate they should. I usually end up cutting back AND staking a lot of these plants. And with all that, I may still end up struggling with floppers.

From reading DiSabato-Aust, I learned that I should probably be cutting back many plants earlier and harder. In some cases I should cut back a second time (I’m talking about you, New England Aster). I realized that my Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) didn’t bloom much this year probably because I cut it back too late in the season. And it turns out I could be cutting back the spires of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) for more compact plants, whereas I thought cutting back would result in no blooms at all, which is the case with Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis).

I would have had more of these Wild Bergamot flowers if I had cut the plants back earlier.
I would have had more of these Wild Bergamot flowers if I had cut the plants back earlier.

There were also some interesting ideas about staking I’d like to try out. For example, tying stakes in an X pattern holding back plants as a group, rather than vertically to individual plants. This could work with taller, bushier plants like asters and Monarda. I’m also curious, though a little skeptical, about using chicken wire with stakes. Can that really be done in a way where the chicken wire is not visible?

Spare the shears and spoil the New England Aster. I should have been cutting them back harder!
Spare the shears and spoil the New England Aster. I should have been cutting them back harder!

DiSabato-Aust appreciates that gardening is an art as much as it is a science. Few cookie cutter formulas can be applied because there are so many environmental variables. In addition, every approach to perennial maintenance involves trade offs: more compact plants versus delayed bloom, longer bloom time versus smaller flowers, etc. You cannot approach these trade offs without having a personal vision of the kind of space you want your garden to be.

Cardinal Flowers can be cut back. Who knew?
Cardinal Flowers can be cut back. Who knew?

The second part of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a guide to the maintenance of about 300 perennial species, with an emphasis on pruning. This section especially merits use as a reference book on its own, a valuable one because plants can differ dramatically in how they respond to being cut back, pinched, etc. In addition, there are lists of plants by maintenance characteristics.

I’m not ready to embrace everything that the author recommends here. For example, she is enthusiastic about peat moss in bed preparation, and declares it environmentally sound without any hint regarding the fact that others disagree.

Even so, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a stimulating and practical book that would enhance any gardener’s library.

The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust, Timber Press, Portland OR, 2006.

Tardy Wildflower Wednesday: Celandine Poppy

Gail over at Clay and Limestone hosts Wildflower Wednesday on the fourth Wednesday of the month. I’ve been travelling and forgot about this, but I’m not too embarrassed to bring up the rear with a tardy post.

Celandine Poppy
Celandine Poppy

I don’t know about you, but it does me good as I hunker down for winter to think about cheerful spring flowers. One of the most cheerful, to my mind, is Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). This is a native of moist woods in Eastern North America.

Celandine poppy has four-petaled, bright yellow flowers. It blooms in April and May in my garden, which makes it good for combining with grape hyacinths. It has interesting leaves – deeply lobed, with a slightly downy look and a nice blue-green color. There is occasional re-bloom in cool weather. The plant makes interesting nodding seedheads.

Cellandine poppy blooming with grape hyacinths.
Celandine poppy blooming with grape hyacinths.

This is a flower that is easy to grow and requires no coddling. Some people consider it to be a thug. That has not been my experience, though it does self-sow moderately. The seedlings are easy to transplant. Celandine poppy is not really a poppy, and is unrelated to the invasive Ranunculus poppies.

The foliage will die back in hot summers. When this happens, it sufficient to cut the leaves back and you will get new growth before too long.

If you’re looking for something with yellow blooms for spring that can tolerate some shade (and you’re tired of daffodils), Celandine Poppy is worth considering.

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