Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Yes, that blurry yellow thing.  It's not Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day yet, but in two weeks we could have a foot of snow, and today I have a (badly photographed) crocus!  Also a recorded temperature of 61 degrees F.

Also snowdrops, but since they've been blooming since November I am not so impressed.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A singular concern

Oh dear, rather a long time since I posted.  It's been a migraine/insomnia/backache sort of week, with lots of work stuffed in between the inoperable periods, so that may explain the gap.

I have plenty to post about, mostly about seeds and seed catalogs (went to a fun seed exchange yesterday, got to meet Ira Wallace and hear her speak, got all my seed orders in after collecting the freebies of which there were plenty) but today, while putting together the data that will hopefully allow me to create a coherent map for the demo garden (mapping my own garden is a luxury I will not have time for, I suspect), a linguistic puzzle occurred to me, trivial to be sure, but I'll share it anyway.

So, when we're making lists of vegetables (and other plants too, I think, but I'll stick with veggies for now), whether in a catalog or for planning purposes or whatever, why do we state some of them as singular and some as plural?

I give you some gratuitous (and singular) Swiss chard, and carry on, citing from the Southern Exposure catalog in Ira's honor, as I think their usage is completely typical.

Singular vegetables:

Gratuitous plural tomatoes
Plural vegetables:

Some oddities: broccoli is an Italian plural that's treated as both singular and plural in English; collards doesn't really have a singular; Southern Exposure makes the choice to list "Muskmelon" in the singular, but I usually see "Melons" (and often "Watermelons" too).

So why these default choices?  I considered the idea that plural vegetables are those that bear multiple product on one plant, so you can't really have just one (although I have had tomato plants like that), but then one hopes to get more than one okra per plant and squash are notorious for overproducing.  You can have just one plant of cabbage or chard, but one corn plant is not good strategy.  Radishes produce one root per plant, as do all the other root vegetables in the plural list, and artichokes, if you can get them to bear at all in this climate, usually have one flower bud, but are always plural in catalogs.

Most but not all of the cabbage family plants end up on the singular list, including all the leafy ones (if you discount collards as above).  In fact leafy things are generally singular, unless you call them "greens."  Leeks and onions are always plural, but you never hear "garlics."  Eggplant, the fruiting nightshade family plant, is routinely singular (even if you call it aubergine), whereas peppers and tomatoes are always plural.

So I really have no answer other than "tradition" though I expect it could be investigated.  I can tell you that an excerpt from "Landreth's Companion for the Garden and Farm" of 1884 (conveniently provided in the fancy new catalog) gives us much the same usage except that carrot, leek, onion, pepper and tomato are singular.  I'd have to burrow around a bit to find older sources than that.

Probably I should be concerning myself with more important matters (like making the damn map) but distraction gives life savor.  Along with vegetables.  (Please ignore implied lack of verb-subject agreement.  Vegetables are usually plural, and somehow not so appealing when not.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Three things

1) Article today in the WPost about the new loosening of Latinate standards in the botanical world (plant names will still be Latin (or as much as they ever have been) but officially published descriptions may now be in English.  Did you even know they were still in Latin?  I didn't).  It's interesting and a slightly more complicated issue than one would think, but what really struck me was this sentence:

"The same [using Latin names] goes for the pretentious gardener who, trug in one hand, pruners in the other, can wax on about the Syringa (lilac), Salix (willow) or Solidago (goldenrod), et cetera."

Yes, well, I talk with my hands half the time, so I'd have to put something down first.  Ha.  And then I looked at the byline and it's Adrian Higgins writing that.  Adrian, how could you?  It's like a librarian describing hair buns and glasses on a chain and vicious sshhing.  I actually don't use Latin names most of the time in the gardening context, but sometimes it's just good sense, if the common names are common to more than one species and you really want to be, hm where does this word come from, specific.  And it's a good memory exercise.  When I reach the point of forgetting the common name but having the Latin come to mind immediately without hiding behind another name beginning with the same letter, then I will be worried.  Rosmarinus officinalis, that's for remembrance.

2) We're doing a seed catalog review series over on Grow It Eat It.  The link will show what we've got so far; there will be more.  And I did call Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds "food gardening porn" over there, too, so never say I'm not brave.

Speaking of (1) above, I have a sneaking preference for seed catalogs that give you the Latin even for vegetables - and I don't know why I should say "even for," as though pretentious Latin-naming was the exclusive property of ornamental gardeners.  I know we don't generally talk about chopping up some cabbage to make Brassica oleracea var. capitata slaw, but it is interesting to know that the "cole" we do use is from the Old English (and Latin and Greek) for the brassicas then extant, such as kale and rape, and it's actually quite important to know what others plants fall under Brassica oleracea, such as broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kohlrabi (there's that cole again), and Brussels sprouts.  They are all the same plant, variations bred out of an original wild species.  Similarly, chard and beets are both Beta vulgaris (this usually surprises people immensely when I tell them, even assuming they've heard of both vegetables).  Anyway, I could go on about it for days, but check those seed descriptions for bits of Latin.

3) My son's high school is doing the musical of The Secret Garden this spring.  Am itching with anticipation to see what kind of set they'll come up with for the exterior scenes (and should I volunteer to help?).  I dreamed I went to Misselthwaite again...

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Missing, please do not find

photo nabbed from HGIC
The last few years here in Maryland have been, among other things, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug Years.  Most people are aware of this invasive insect (introduced into Pennsylvania in the late 90s and gradually spreading) as a winter home invader, often on a large scale.  When spring comes, the bugs vacate and - as far as the average homeowner is concerned - vanish.

Gardeners and farmers, of course, know where they go.  They've been increasingly destructive pests with an ever-broadening menu that includes many of our most common and beloved food crops - corn and soybeans included, so watch out when they get to the Midwest - as well as ornamental plants.  They suck, literally - as true bugs, they have sucking mouth parts that drain the juice from fruit, leaves, pods, etc.  They feed on corn right through the husk, and here

is what they do to tomatoes.  This is why many of us learned this year to pick our tomatoes while still mostly green but just blushing with color, and ripen them indoors, and even so some of them were damaged.

I hold out no hopes for garden relief this summer; we'll be dealing with these bugs for a while.  (Research is happening on a parasitic wasp that might help.)  But - and I still say this with fingers crossed - whereas the last two winters we've lived with stink bugs in the house, buzzing across the room and slamming into lamps, crawling up the wall next to the bed, hunkering down on the toothbrush - this winter has been nearly bug-free.  I've cleaned up a few dead ones and flushed a few live ones, but the jar-with-a-little-dish-soap I'd prepared to collect and kill in goes unused.  Last winter I had upstairs and downstairs jars, and collected several bugs in each every single day.  So is it just our house they don't like this year?  Having discussed stink bugs with lots of people of late, I conclude that their habits are erratic at best (the bugs, I mean, not the people), and you just can't predict which house or garden will be attractive to them when.  But our house is accessible - full of holes - and I sure as heck had them outside last summer, and at least some of them came indoors early in the fall.  Are they all hiding in the attic or the shed, due to the relatively warm winter?  (In their natural habitat, I believe they hibernate in cracks and crevices just above freezing.  Warm houses are actually detrimental to them, since staying active all winter burns energy they don't replenish (they don't eat in winter) and many die before spring even when we don't pounce on them and consign them to a watery doom.)  Are they all hiding behind the books I never get around to reading, among the appliances I never use, or under the clothes I need to sort out?  We had some in September, so where have they gone?

If found, please do not return to my house or garden.  I have had enough, and I do not want to find one in my bed, on my plants, or inside my underwear while I was wearing it, ever again.  I suspect this is just a respite, but any time without them is fine with me.

Much info to be found here if you want to read it.  If you live in a region not yet invaded and want to invent a little Stay-Away-Stink-Bug dance, I'm sure it would be a big YouTube hit.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Other stuff I write

Until I get down to serious seed-shopping and starting, my winter posts might be a bit sporadic here, so in the chance you're dying to read more of my writing, here's where it's at.

I've been writing book reviews for Washington Gardener Magazine for over a year now - and if you live in the DC area and like gardening, please do subscribe!  I write for and administer the Grow It Eat It blog (link in sidebar).  At some point I plan to pull together some articles to submit to various gardening magazines; this blog helps me try out ideas.  But nothing in that line yet; I'll be sure to let you know.

I have an account at Archive of Our Own, a fanfiction site run by the Organization for Transformative Works, and yes, that is a real thing, and yes, I do write fanfic, when the occasion occasionally presents.  It is possible that some of my readers here will enjoy my piece "In Defense of Food," which is a loving parody of Michael Pollan and the local/heirloom food movement wrapped in the delicious trappings of C.S. Lewis's "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" (the appendix to The Screwtape Letters).  If the idea of devils chewing on locally-produced, compost-nurtured souls calls to you, you are probably as odd as I am, but at least you can indulge your craving.

Most of my fanfic is written in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga universe, so if I've surprised any Bujold fans here, jump in.  It's not all about gardening, of course, but I put together an essay that's turned out to be pretty popular (linked in a festschrift and an academic paper as well as read a fair amount), titled "Runaway Roses and Defiant Skellytums: Thoughts on plants, gardens, horticulture and botany in the Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold" which can be found here, and just recently wrote what manages to be a story about garden design that appeals to a science fiction-reading audience, "The Emperor's Garden."  I note that both of these contain spoilers for major plot points, so if you have started the series but not finished it, or think you'd like to read it someday unspoiled, take heed.  If you haven't read the books but think you can cope with confusion and destruction of innocence just to enjoy my prose, be my guest, and I'm honored.

There.  That was a little different than the usual garden blog fare.  Welcome to the blending of my universes.  *takes big panicked gulp before pressing "post"*

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A garden of bright images

Here are some photos my husband took Sunday while we were wandering through the last night of Brookside Gardens' Garden of Lights exhibition.  (If you're local... well, sorry, you missed it.  So did I, almost, if that's any consolation.)

Have a sunflower (at least I assume that's what it was.  A tall one):

Have a dragon.  And a baby dragon!  Or a sea-serpent and a baby sea-serpent, whatever.

This is a great thing to do with park/garden space in the winter (I wish it went on longer.  Again, the lights = Christmas association; doesn't have to work that way), and I think a nice fundraiser for them.

Friday, January 6, 2012


I really have to stop the thing where I get an email about something I've neglected to follow through on, have an "O guilt!" moment, and delete it unread.  (Mass emails, I mean; I don't do that to individuals.  Often.)

Project Budburst is one of those guilt-inducers; I mean, not only did I stop acting as a citizen science recorder after one year, I cut down the tree I was noting phenophases for.  (It was a box elder, growing in an inconvenient place.)  I doubt I'll participate this year either, but it's really a worthwhile project, so I am pointing it out to anyone who'd like to get involved.  All you have to do is pick a plant from their list, note when it buds and leafs and so forth, and send them the data.  Enough data collected from enough places, and trends start to emerge.  (Really weird trends this year, I'll bet.)

*dusts hands with satisfaction at having done a small part of civic duty*

Monday, January 2, 2012


This is going to be a great gardening year!


Sound convincing enough?  A lot of New Year declarations are magical thinking; if we wish things firmly enough, they will come true.  Gardeners are optimists by nature (we wouldn't be doing this crazy stuff otherwise) but even we need a little help.  So... 2012! !!! Everything will grow well, and all the awful weather will work to our advantage, and the world won't end, but perhaps planting lots of squash and corn to placate the Mayan gods wouldn't be a bad plan.  Or to placate the squash vine borers and the brown marmorated stink bugs... but hey - my fingers have cramps from all the crossing, but so far no stink bugs in the house to speak of this winter.  Not that it's been much of a winter (temperature is dropping like fury as we speak, though).

I've never thought January 1 (or 2) was the best time for setting goals for the year; it's dark and cold and the world is full of germs and the house is full of sugary fatty things.  But it is, ironically, a good term for setting gardening goals, since there isn't usually that much to do in the actual garden.  I don't want to jinx myself, but putting forth a few ideas might come in handy later, or at least give me something to laugh at in the unending torrential heat of summer.

1) In general, I'd like to get things in sufficient order here to be able to have an Open Garden for the Master Gardeners in, say, June.  (We will probably host a high school graduation party early that month as well: a different sort of getting things in order but in a general sense tidying up is necessary.)  I don't have to have all the projects finished, God forbid, but having a good idea of what they are and how I'm going about them will help me explain my chaos to MG visitors, all of whom are polite but sometimes in that I-am-biting-my-tongue way.

2) The back part of the vegetable garden needs to come into existence as something other than weeds insufficiently smothered by cardboard.  Sheet composting is all very well, but if that's what I'm going to do I need to import some composting materials to pile up, and if not, I need to build some more raised beds for the side that doesn't have them, and fill them with soil.  Then I could, you know, actually plant something back there.  Also, the paths and corners of the existing garden (and the new part) need to be tamed into something less likely to sprout weeds (and/or mint) most of the year.

3) I need to Not Kill Things.  Which means all those new trees and shrubs do actually have to be watered, yes, even if it's annoying and inconvenient.  So far I am making excuses for not doing it, but at least it's been raining on and off.  It will be easier when the outside water is turned on again and we get a new longer hose.  Which we will be very sure not to run over with the lawnmower.

4) I must a) mercilessly clean out the front west corner and surroundings beds and turn them into Things of Tidiness; b) mercilessly clean out the northeast side bed and decide what it's going to become; c) keep up with weeding everywhere (ha); d) pray for the fig tree, but also figure out what's going to replace it if it croaks; e) pray for the pomegranate, but not care too much since it is an experiment; f) decide what goes in the little porch corner bed where nothing lives except the mock orange I hate; g) plant a climbing vine that is not Japanese honeysuckle on the bicycle "sculpture"; h) get rid of the Japanese honeysuckle that is everywhere; i) etc.

5) Some new stone paths would be nice.

6) When I find that perfect source for sheet composting materials, I can start a few more beds, including one near the driveway into which I will transplant the peonies that never did well out front, plus some other peonies, plus something else that is not peonies.

7) Some day I will map the garden.  I don't think I should promise that for this year.  There will be more to put on the map if I wait, yes?

And... maybe I will continue this another day, and maybe I won't, but you get the idea.  I have many other resolutions that don't have to do directly with hands-on gardening, but those are generally less fun to talk about.  This is the "let's see what happens" year!  Something will, I have no doubt.

Happy New Year!