Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “flowers”

A Piece of My Mind: To Green or Not to Green (LATC Feb 1,2017)

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After four years of drought our lawn was a patchy mélange of sparse grass, tough weeds, exposed tree roots, and bare dirt. We have a corner lot, and even with the rose garden, clothesline, and veggie garden along one side, the lawn area still wraps around three sides of our house – a lot of space to replant or re-imagine.

In recent months I had comforted myself that our yard was not yet the ugliest and most neglected-looking on the street, but it was sinking quickly into contention for that title, and one by one the other practitioners of benign neglect were re-landscaping.

Some folks in our neighborhood had opted for xeriscaped yardssuper-water-wise with lots of wood chips replacing grass and featuring agaves, sage, fountain grass, and other drought-tolerant plants.  This style of landscape looks good with mission-style architecture a la Santa Fe, but our house is a modified ranch style.  Desert landscaping doesn’t fit.

Plus, I heard from a reliable neighbor that the cost of such a total re-invention of our yard would be in thousands of dollars.  It would take us a long time to pay the investment off in water savings, no matter how ecologically correct it would be

Our gardener, veteran of many years of rain cycles, assured us that a lawn renewal – not with sod, but with seed, could be done at a fraction of the cost of re-landscaping, and now was the ideal time, with a series of winter storms coming in to break the drought.  So, despite my Sierra Club membership and longing for green cred, we agreed to his plan: first, thatching the yard to get rid of the existing scrubby growth, then reseeding with a drought-resistant grass, fertilizing, and hoping for rain.

The gardener’s team arrived, and in one Saturday morning our patchy, weedy yard was transformed into a smooth brown expanse of tilled soil  It looked so much better that I almost wanted to stop there.  But the gardener had already sowed seeds, and we sat back to wait for our new lawn.

Whoops!  Here come the birds!  Flocks of little brown sparrows and black-capped chickadees descend on that yummy grass seed.  I shout at them and shoo them and toss pebbles in their direction, and they fly back into the shrubbery, then flock out again as soon as I am inside the house.  How will there be any seeds left to germinate against this feathered horde?

Here comes the rain!  Buckets of rain in storm after storm for almost two weeks in January!

Here comes the grass!  It’s not exactly a smooth green carpet, and the little blades are noticeably sparser close to the shrubs that sheltered those dratted birds, but it is indubitably grass.  Surely those little blades will grow thicker as they push on into the sun!  And then

Here come the weeds! For four years of drought we had not worried about weeds- even dandelions had trouble thriving in baked adobe clay.  Now we have our first new dandelions.  Can oxalis and sticker-burs be far behind?

In another month or so I should be able to tell you whether we should have gone with the xeriscaping after all.  Stay tuned!

 

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Freeway Free in France: Awesome Albi

 

I had always wanted to go to Albi ever since in college I saw a poster a roommate had, which looked almost other worldly in its having no relation whatsoever to my ideas of Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals. Somehow I missed Albi when I was a student traveler, and when I saw that a small detour could take us there, all it took was to point out that Albi is also the home of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum to convince my travel mates to make a stop.

20160912_024628docAlbi did not disappoint.  The cathedral of Ste Cecile is the largest brick building in the world.  Brick, not stone, not concrete. It rises from the central plaza in Albi at the side of the Rhone River like some kind of fantasy, all smooth curves and unbroken surfaces. Only slits for Windows.  Towers that just keep on going.  Our first glimpse had us tripping over our jaws. We walked around from the back of the church looking for the entrance, and found a welcoming Gothic/Baroque carnival of white stone at the top of marble steps leading into the brick fantasy. 20160912_030001doc

Our guidebooks told us that the original cathedral had been build with an uneasy eye to the local Albigensian sect, a group which had been declared heretic by the Pope, but was thriving in Albi.  The new bishop designed his cathedral as much as a defensible fortress as a place of worship, just in case the local heretics got rebellious.  Only a hundred years after the completion of the vertical cathedral had the welcoming entrance been added.

Once inside, our jaws dropped again. If Escher had combined with Joan Miro and Provençal fabric designers to color the interior of this building, they might have come up with something like this – a riot of pattern and geometry in bright reds, yellows, greens, and blues, ending in arched recesses painted in equally diverse designs, one a yellow sun on a blue field decked with stars, another twining with ivy, etc.  september-2016-239doc

Most cathedrals draw your eye to the front with a representation of Jesus triumphant at the right hand of God with Mary beaming proudly and all the apostles lined up.
  How sissified.  Ste Cecilia devotes the entire wall to a representation of the Last Judgement, with the apostles, yes, lined up, and then maybe 1/5th of the available space devoted to the saved, in order of rank, with the clergy first, Archbishops and bishops leading, followed by virtuous royalty, and then by the hoi polloi, many of whom have the list of their good and bad deeds hanging in book form around their necks.  Some of the dead are still rising from their graves, while the ones who are not saved are already beginning to writhe.  The bottom third of the space shows most graphically what kind of punishment awaits the greedy, the lustful, the proud, the gluttonous, the envious, and the slothful. But where is Anger?  And where is Christ sitting in judgment?  Oops – the Bishops wanted to expand the nave and create a special chapel for themselves, so Christ and the Angry sinners made way for a nicely arched door behind the altar.

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After touring the cathedral (a well arranged and narrated audio tour takes about an hour) we went for another outdoor lunch at the Clos de Ste. Cecile, in an former school behind the cathedral.  Excellent.  More Foie Gras, more goat cheese, more dried duck breast, more walnuts.  20160912_042141web

Then we started on the Toulouse Lautrec museum. This is the worlds largest collection of TL, but much of it is devoted to sketches and preliminary studies for the works we have seen in the Musee d’Orsay.  Still a lot of information.

We finished our trip with a short stroll around the Bishop’s Garden, a formal boxwood arrangement whose floral elements are changed regularly to reflect the theme of the season. Oddly, this season’s theme was a tribute to Joan Miro, so the floral elements reflected the colors of his painting in non-symmetrical arrangements. Quite interesting once you figured out what they were trying to do.

So far, no hassles, no arguments, no breakdowns, and nothing but sunny (though a bit over-warm) weather. Cross fingers.

A Pop-Up Heritage Garden (Town Crier, March 2012)

narcissusIn mid-January on my street corner a carpet of green shoots transforms each year into hundreds of waving narcissus blooms – the maximum bloom cresting during the coldest days of winter.
Someone at least 30 years ago planted some narcissus bulbs in the orchard which formerly marked the end of the street. It may have been the original owner of the orchard. It may have been the first owner of the house built in the housing development which replaced the orchard, or the second green-thumbed owner who planted over a dozen different varieties of fruit trees in the place of the original apricots. It may even have been my father, who was a city kid who did his best to become a green-thumb gardener for over forty years after buying the house and land in the late 50’s.
Somehow the bulbs survived my father’s regular roto-tilling of the orchard, the bull-dozing of the fruit trees when our house was built next to my parents’ in the 80’s, the re-landscaping, covering with new soil, and planting of a rose garden after the new house was built.
One summer day as I was picking roses, I saw a bulb lying on the ground. Wondering where it had come from, I picked it up. Underneath it was another bulb. I picked that one up too. The hollow where it had been was lined with more bulbs. It was like the classic Dr. Seuss book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins; each bulb I picked from the hollow revealed more bulbs beneath and around the first one. I had discovered a bulb mine!
Apparently the bulbs had been dividing and multiplying under the topsoil until they had run out of soil; then the bottom layers began pushing the others upward until the top-most one was simply lying on the surface. I fetched an old pair of panty hose and began loading bulbs into it. When I had taken all the bulbs that seemed loose in the bulb mine, I threw a couple of shovels-full of dirt into the hollow to encourage the bulbs that were left, and hung the bulb-filled stockings on a nail in the garage.
When the rains came to soften the dirt, I planted the bulbs in the bare space around the oak tree on the corner. I didn’t know I was supposed to imitate nature and scatter them randomly, so I set them out in orderly rows, counting as I planted. By the time the stockings were emptied, I had planted 250 bulbs.
The next year I spotted a bulb lying on the ground in a different place. The new bulb mine yielded about 150 bulbs, some of which I shared with my sister in Davis and my co-workers in San Jose or planted in pots as Christmas gifts. The leftovers went to another bare space beyond the oak tree, and along the parking space in front of the rose garden.
Over the next years as the bulb mines appeared and disappeared, I began offering bags of bulbs to my neighbors up and down the street. My Adopt-A-Bulb campaign has become almost an August tradition.
Last year I only harvested about 50 bulbs from the newest satellite mine, and I and my neighbors are running out of bare spaces in our gardens. But in January, when the narcissus are all blooming together, I think about the long-ago gardener who planted the first bulbs, hoping to make the world a little bit more lovely. Though it only lasts two weeks, it is a wonderful heritage.

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