Halloween In The Garden

October 31, 2010

In years past, we have decorated elaborately for Halloween, spreading massive amounts of spider webs from the rooftops to the landscaping, practically blocking the front door with threads intertwined with spiders – small plastic ones, large stuffed ones and everything in between – and skeletons, preferably of the glow in the dark variety.

Not this year. Every October 31, we see fewer and fewer trick or treaters – it’s now more than halfway through our designated hours and we’ve had about 15 total. The webs are a hassle to clean up; I still find them wrapped around plants the following spring. The kids aren’t interested in helping us decorate and really don’t have the time on the weekends. Tony and I would rather spend our time on a walk.

So the skeletons stayed in the attic, complaining to the spiders about the lack of victims. Maybe next year.

I did think of things that could, and do, scare me in the garden. Here is the list.

Lemon verbena, purple loosestrife, dusty miller, goldfish loose in the sewer system. Insecticides, pesticides and germicides. Drought, flood, extreme cold, searing heat. Rabbits of all shapes and sizes. High humidity. Powdery mildew. Aphids. Garbage dumped by kids walking through my yard. The smashed pumpkin. Rats. Opossums. Grizzly bears. Sticker bushes gone rampant. Volcano rock spread in garden beds. River rock in garden beds. Cutting through a wire when digging a hole. Pollen that itches, grasses that scratch and burn your skin. Finding dead things in the spring pond clean up.




So how many fried green tomatoes can one eat? Especially when it’s really not about the tomato, it’s about the breading. Lots and lots of fried crumbs. Not so healthy in the long run.

And I have dozens and dozens of green tomatoes. Damn that zucchini. I needed to do something with them as the idea of wasting them turns my stomach. Raised Catholic by nuns who were, ahem, past their prime, I was besieged by religious superstitions that I adhere to – consciously or not – to this day. One of these delightful ladies scared the living hell out of me with a long lecture on waste. “The devil,” she warned, “follows all of us around and collects everything we waste – every slip of paper, every scrap of thread, every bit of pencil – and then stockpiles it for when we die. And when we go to hell,” (according to those nuns, we were all going south. Your chance of getting into heaven was rather like the snowball’s chance of making it through the opposite destination), “the devil will use all those wasted scraps to feed the fire that will burn you for all eternity.” She didn’t actually finish with “Bwhahaha!” but she may as well have.

Rather a graphic thought for an 8-year-old, but it worked – I don’t waste.

I picked the biggest of those green tomatoes and decided to try making up a green tomato soup recipe. It was yummy and delicious – Tony even enjoyed it and he’s not a soup guy.

Green Tomato Soup – about 3 bowls

Melt 5 tablespoon of butter (the real stuff, not those funky spread things) in a low stockpot over medium heat. Dice one medium onion and saute until soft in the butter. Dice about 8-10 green Roma tomatoes and add to the onion. Saute and until softening, stirring occasionally.  Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and several good pinches of pepper. Rub 3-4 dried basil leaves between your hands, over the pot, powdering the herb into the onions and tomatoes. Move ingredients to one side of pot and add about 1/2 cup white wine (I used a pinot, but really whatever you haven’t finished off would be fine). Increase heat to high and reduce until sauce thickens. Add about 2 cups of chicken broth (I like Emeril’s. Alot of taste and little salt), bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 15-20 minutes. Drip in 5-6 drops of tabasco sauce and stir. Serve with corn bread.

Now the devil will gnash his teeth – no fuel for those eternal flames today!

Cool, crisp and just about perfect for moving plants today. It could be a little bit moister, but ah, who’s complaining?

I put the ladder against the honey locust and pressed in the transplanting shovel. The soil here is beautiful – like chocolate cake crumbling in a spoon. I slice and dice the lumps into grainy pills, easily and quickly, then scoop it out with gloved hands to see how big the hole is. Just right, I think.

Griffey whines at the back door and someone puts him on the lead and lets him out. He’s recently been shaved, so he trembles a little in the breeze, but looks at me with a faceful of fretfulness. Lucky, our 13-1/2 year-old poodle, is most definitely not well today. He has always been a bundle of nerves, anxious, jumpy and hyper to the core. Today, he cries, shakes and stares at us pathetically, then snaps when we pet him. It could be just another in his series of mystery illnesses, soon recovered from, but Griffey is not so sure.

I dig up the hydrangea that’s in an inconvenient spot for watering, slicing around in a circle. The dirt is gently shaken from the roots and the plant is carried over and settled into the new hole. I fill in the hole with that coffee-ground dirt, shake milorganite over it and unroll the hose to give it a soak. The hose sputters, chokes, bubbles and then flows onto the hydrangea.

Griffey goes in – and Lucky is holed up in his own cage. I hear a squirrel chit in staccato – they are really masters of the vocal pattern. There is a burst of foxglove, bright pink and spotty. I am so looking forward to this patch next summer. I am anticipating so many flowers, so much color.

I notice buds on the lilac, a promise for spring. I haven’t seen any mice in days – they must have taken the hint of the relocated compost bin; they haven’t shown up in there either. I can see them, packing up their wee mouse suitcases, putting on their little mouse hats, like guests who’ve overstayed and been handed bus tickets out of town, annoyed and self-righteous. “Well,” they grouse under their tiny mouse breath, “If we weren’t welcome, what were all those picnics about? Really, if you’re going to put out a spread like that, we’re going to assume it’s a standing invitation.” They humph and grouch but move along, realizing they are now pariahs, perhaps hanging a “To Let” sign on the door.

I check the hydrangea and see that the water is still being almost instantly absorbed – still thirsty.

There are tiny pearl button mushrooms in the vegetable garden. We will not eat them.

I make a pocket of my sweatshirt and pick the biggest and nicest of the green peppers and bring them into the house. Back to the hydrangea, I press my foot into the soil and it gives moistly. I turn off the water and begin to roll up the hose. It’s in bad shape, this hose, covered with kinks that have popped the vinyl, exposing the black inner layer. I was going to replace it a few weeks ago, but decided that, until it springs an actual leak, it’s still usable, still functioning. It looks like a hillbilly hose, but it still works.

We have an appointment with the vet.

Healing Frost Damage

October 29, 2010

Tony turned on the heat last night and that familiar smell from the furnace signaled the official start of uncomfortably cold weather. This morning, I realized that the compost bin, in its new site, may very well be on a sprinkler head. I didn’t notice one when I placed the shell there and Dominic didn’t notice one when he reassembled it there, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

SIGH… One more thing to deal with now… how dumb were we!

I’ve been obsessively checking the brussel sprouts lately, comparing them with images online. They are not ready to harvest. How long do these blasted things take, for heaven’s sake?!? I check them again and sure enough, still too small to do anything with. Is this like the watched pot? Maybe I should take a week’s break and then come back? These plants fall all over the garden; they do not stand upright like the photographs. What did I do wrong? Next year, with the lack of zucchini and watermelon, we may see a significant difference in stem strength and growing time; this year, I’m playing the hand I was dealt.

I pass by the brussel sprouts and stop dead. The green peppers are completely wilted, black and drooping. The basil is frostbitten, the beans shot and the tomatoes a disaster. Only the peas, the sprouts and the spinach are happy and healthy. The garden has suffered from that cold weather. I take a closer look and give up all hope for any beans this fall. So many tomatoes will never turn red. I can see all the green peppers so easily.

Just yesterday, Dominic mentioned that UIC had not responded to his application. I asked about a back up plan and he just smiled and lifted his eyebrows. I shook my head – this boy loves putting every single one of his eggs in a solitary, capricious basket. Today, I hand him a big envelope from Loyola University – a school he has also mentioned several times – and say, “They might be interested in you – why don’t you apply here too?” Tony chimes in, “Yeah, bro. See what’s inside.” He looks at the envelope, smiles and says, “Well, I did apply here too.” Really.

The envelope is opened, and all hell breaks loose. He screams, he jumps, he grabs me and hugs me right off the ground. “I GOT IN!” he shouts, he repeats over and over again. He dances around, calls Richie, calls my parents, calls almost everyone he can think of in a 5 minute period. He is so happy. Smiles, smiles, smiles. Shouts, laughter, joy!

In less than 3 months, this boy will be all “caught up”. He will be at a university, surrounded by peers, challenging himself intellectually and emotionally. He will be setting his feet in the path he has wanted to take since he was 5 years old. He will no longer be on a side track, a weigh station. He will be in it – right where he should be.

I am terrifically happy and terribly scared. I trust and have faith that the damage done by the frost that settled on his life 6 years ago is healed, that the slow and steady growth he’s achieved continues, that the blight is over and done with. He is so full of promise, so full of dreams, so full of potential – and now so full of joy.

Throughout the evening, he smiles at me and asks, “Hey, Mom. Did you know I got into Loyola?”

And every time I smile back and say, “Yes, dear. I do.”


October 26, 2010

So windy today! There are tornado warnings, high wind warnings and flying object warnings. Well, I made that last one up, but there should have been.

It is warm, almost like a tropical storm – but this is Chicago, so not quite. The first thing I notice is that the wooden ladder is laying in the grass. It weighs a good 50 lbs, so these are indeed serious winds.

That ladder is the last remaining piece of the kid’s swingset. My dad built it about 16 years ago, after Rich built Dominic a sandbox that Eliza absolutely loved. She would toddle into it, sit down and begin creating – sculptures, houses, paths, castles, all the set pieces for the stories she spun as she sat there, becoming more and more covered with sand. Hours and hours of play, by herself or with Dominic, chattering dramas and comedies for the set of plastic animals that called the sandbox home. Families of lions, giraffes, rhinos, monkeys and more, a Christmas present for Dominic a few years before. McDonald’s Happy Meal toys joined the bunch; old kitchen tools and cups rounded it out.

The sandbox then formed the base for the swingset, solid and heavy for a fort above and swings and climbing ropes off all four corners. When we moved to Tinley, it was disassembled and came with, then reconfigured to take advantage of the bigger yard. There was one long beam and an A frame that came off the fort, which some of the goofier kids in the neighborhood would use as a tightrope – although they were told not to many, many and many times. Eliza continued to love the sandbox for years, well past “childhood” and into junior high. Looking for Eliza in the summertime? “Check the sandbox” was always the response. She would hunch over, scooping, smoothing and scraping, blonde hair glistening in the sun, muttering, laughing and chattering.

When she was 13, boards began popping from the fort, bending upwards like a cartoon. It was crunch time – do we fix these boards or get rid of the swingset? As I was still catching an occasional delinquent walking that beam, 7-8 feet above ground, we opted to take it down.

My god, what a wrench. We were no longer a yard for children, no longer a play place; an accurate reflection of our changing lives, but a very sad moment – and season – nonetheless. Everytime I saw the blank square in the grass, seeded but still struggling, it made me sigh. I sighed for past summers – books read and lunches eaten in the fort, hours of pushing a swing and talking and singing and sharing, blankets dragged up that ladder, tricks done on the swings and ropes.

My dad had asked if I wanted to keep the ladder and of course I did. For years now it has leaned against the house behind the chimney, a gentle piece of “art” that means so much.

Flimflammed by Francine

October 25, 2010

Sunday night we sat on the front porch, rocking and watching the rain. The lightning flashed, the rain splattered, pattered and thundered. We rocked, me on the glider, Tony on the rocker, Griffey on Tony’s lap, barking at the thunder (Griffey, not Tony) and talked about how this rain would knock all the remaining leaves from the parkway trees.

And then Tony saw him. Clarence jumped onto the porch, ran around the perimeter next to the house – right behind the rocker and right behind the glider. Oh ick. I saw a flash of movement, but didn’t really understand it. Tony swore up and down that he jumped into the flower bed by the Dr. Seuss clematis, but I was still creeped out – and so was he.

Griffey hadn’t noticed a thing.

Today, Tony sent me an email that requested that we deal with the compost bin immediately because he was in Trapper Nick’s camp: He didn’t want them in the house. I have to admit that every movement – a falling paper, a swish of dust – made me a nervous wreck. Letting the dogs in and out of the back door I was ever vigilant and stood there on guard.

So I sent Dominic out to empty the mulched leaves onto the new beds and then fill the yard waste bin with the compost. Frankly, I am amazed he, the reigning king of the germaphobes, agreed to it. But he did. And pitchforked the whole thing out, while I told him where I’d seen mice run out, told him to watch for nests deep down and was in general a little skittish.

I went inside to work and the next thing I knew, the bin was emptied, rinsed out and unassembled on the patio. I hadn’t heard any shouts, no screams and no alarmed calls of “Mom!”

He found no mice. Not one. None scurried out as he pitchforked, none impaled on the prongs. Not inside, not underneath, not behind. No nest in the soil below.

Well, what the heck?

We did move the bin down by the vegetable garden and Dominic put it back together. He filled it back up with the compost, getting a little grossed out by that, and of course, needing an immediate shower.

The bin is now at the farthest point from the house – a not-so-convenient haul from the back door. I shall have to buy a covered container to accumulate peelings and eggshells so in the depth of winter, we’re not trudging through the snow several times within a meal preparation.

The space where the bin was, within the hosta bed, is a perfect location for one of the Annabelle hydrangeas that was inconvenient to water with a hose. Divas need to be placed where they can be pampered, so I will move it soon – before winter, so it has time to put down legs and settle in. That spot is soaked with compost tea and crumbled with enriched mud. The hydrangea will love that spot.

So where are all the mice?

Tony and Griffey on the porch, pre mouse siting

Our wandering pumpkin met with unsavory characters last night – and so did one of his buddies. Seeing as one of the Rules Of The Suburbs is that you have to have Jerky Idiot Punks who can’t respect private property, two of our pumpkins were smashed on the driveway last night. I could go off right now, on a long rant about teenagers and young adults with brain-dead, ignorant parents, but that’s really not productive, not positive and not useful.

So I won’t. And Tony cleaned it all up before anyone got up this morning.

Aside from a few impatiens getting a second wind, the little bit of rain from yesterday was sucked up, wicked up and blown away this morning. More was promised today, but the sun was bright and warm and the breeze – wind, really – was quite brisk. Still drought conditions and no rain to be seen.

I swung gently in the hammock and watched the squirrels travel between our pin oak, still covered with leaves, and the neighbor’s tree, now completely bare. It was like one of those optical illusions; I knew the squirrels were there by the noise of the rustling, the branches bobbing as they jumped, and then suddenly they were visible, as if by magic, when they moved into the next tree. Almost like those children’s books with the sliding paper doors.

When I tried to dig up hostas to work on the Neither Here Nor There bed, it was bone dry, hard as concrete. I sat in the grass, visualizing all the digging that needs to be done. And I gave that up for today.

I did fill the watering can up four times from the rain barrel and dump the water into the compost bin. I weeded the new beds along the fence, cut down all the grass and dumped it into the compost bin. Trimmed the spyria bushes.

I picked up the grass that my mom brought me, still wrapped in plastic bags and soaking wet, and took it over to the front beds. I sat on the front porch and thought about what needed to be moved where to make room – and sense – for this grass. This soil is like coffee grounds, crumbly and fine in your hands, so I pulled out more cinnamon-fern-that-isn’t, dug up a large salvia plant, divided it up. The grass went just a little to the right of where that salvia was.

I sat on the sidewalk and thought about the salvia, then planted it along the edge of the walk. I sat again, looking at the milkweed stalk at a 45 degree angle to the ground. I uprooted a tall steel rod with glass knobs, pushed it into the soil and then tied the stalk to it with plant tape.

All the tools were put back in the garage and I headed around back to dump the weeds into the compost. Clarence waved hello before he dashed down into the depths. Turning on the hose, I watered and watered the bin, up and down, back and forth, side to side. Clarence scurried out of the bottom of the bin first and hid under the hostas. Francine was next, seemingly a bit confused as to where to hide, and she selected a clump of garlic chives.

I have to get that hardware cloth. Like – now.

Broken Promises

October 23, 2010

Tom Skilling tells me today will be one rain shower after another, soaking the ground, satiating the plants – water, water everywhere.  “About time!” I think as the first few drops fall mid-morning, about 10:30. I dash outside to make images of the ripples in the pond as the drops kerplunk into circles.

I discover real frost damage on those beans, the tops wilting and looking like frozen lettuce. Most of the blossoms are wilted too, a strange kind of off color. Will we get beans now? Will we get just a few?

The brussel sprouts are still  happy, still growing, still swelling. The tomato plant has sustained permanent damage as well, leaves bleached and blackened, oddly enough at the same time. I wonder if the green ones will continue to ripen or if they are now out for the season.

It drizzles on and off, one and off and then stops raining completely by 11:30 and doesn’t start again. Damn that Tom Skilling.

Losing Air

October 22, 2010

There was frost out on the pumpkin, metaphorically, this morning. The grass on the east side of the housed was encased in rime, frost covered the leaves in the vegetable garden. As the sun rose higher, that moisture sparkled and shone of the leaves covering the lawn. For once, I was grateful for sticker plants, as the ice picked out the edges of each sharp edge, creating almost a mistletoe effect.

Everything was flat, like a deflated balloon. The impatiens simply melted, the hostas disappeared, the foxglove lay like a flounder on the soil. Some basil leaves are frozen deep green and look like they won’t recover. The beans are overlaid with a luminescent glaze. Some of the sedum looks almost bleached.

I made photographs of the leaves and the blades of grass, my moccasins getting wetter and colder. I am confused as to where this humidity is coming from – there is still no rain.

The smallest pumpkin seems to have grown legs; it is no longer near the other two, but by the front door. Maybe it was indeed frosted last night and huddled against the brick for warmth. Or perhaps it spent the better part of the evening trying to jump and ring the doorbell, to ask to come in. I move it back where it belongs.

A few days ago, Dominic mowed the front lawn to gather up the leaves. That chopped up garden gold was supposed to be dumped along the fence to build those beds for next year, but apparently he missed that memo and it went into the yard waste bin. Days later now, the clean neat line on the lawn is still evident. There has been no rain, no wind, to disturb it. Kind of like the astronauts’ footprints on the moon – still there decades later, untouched by the elements. And the neighbors haven’t raked or mowed. SIGH….

Now that everything has deflated, I see my “dead bunny” statue that’s been hidden all summer long by overwhelming Joe Pye weed. I giggle.

On my quest for StufIt copper mesh without shipping fees, I contact Trapper Nick, here in town. I’m hoping he can provide the copper mesh. I ask for what I want and he asks what I’m trying to do. “Bait box,” he says. “You gotta get rid of them.” I tell him no, that I just want to keep them out of my compost. “Hardware cloth,” Nick says. He is not a man to waste words. “Wrap the bin in it.” He explains that they can’t get through the 1/4″ holes and that will work. He also recommends, again, a trap to eliminate them. I explain that no, they’re living outside where they belong.

He tells me the same thing my mom did. “You better hope they stay there.”

garlic chives

Finding the Apartment

October 20, 2010

Francine and Clarence still hanging out on and around the thistle sock today. When I went out of the door to water the vegetables, they didn’t bat an eyelash. When I came back around on the patio, they acted like they belonged on that sock. Maybe being that small, they don’t think we notice them.

I called to Dominic because I knew mice hanging from the bird feeder would interest him. I told him to look at the feeder and tell me what he sees. He looked and sure enough, exclaimed, “are those mice?!” I love it when my kids get a kick out of the same things I do.

We crept out of the backdoor and they were unphased. The door shut and they didn’t notice. We crept onto the flagstone path and they still didn’t care. We were nearly close enough to reach out a hand and touch them when they finally decided we were a threat. Clarence leaped off the feeder and Francine, accompanied by a friend, scurried into what I thought was a small pile of leaves.

Dominic’s sharp eyes saw all, though. They have a hole near the feeder; a cozy home underground. Bright eyes and pink noses peered out, darted away, blinked again and then rustled out of the back door, into all the foliage next to the pond. Hmmm…. I said. Looks like we have a whole colony living out here. He smiled and said, “well, you won’t get rid of them.” I remarked how it was first rabbits, now mice! He laughed and said, “Mom, it’s like Redwall out here. It’s Matteo in our garden!”

Those were some of the first books we read apart and together – he read them first and then I would read them. The books tell stories of Redwall Abby, a safe place for mice and otters and hares, continually besieged by evil fox and stoats and weasels. Grand wars were fought for Redwall, and the descriptions of the feasts always made me long for honey on wheat toast.

The brussel sprouts look nearly ripe, on one stalk especially. I’m seeing that I should wait until they are 1″ – 1-1/2″ wide before harvesting. We like them small, so 1″ is the goal. The peas are bushier, the beans covered with white blossoms. The tomato plant is sprawling, leafy and green, bright beams of red here and there as the fruit ripens. The spinach was delicious on pasta with scallops the other night. I’m letting the remaining peppers get red now, sweet and crisp. I’m watering out there every other day now – we are in a drought. It hasn’t rained but a drizzle for weeks. I am regretting and rueing not getting the sprinkler system up and running this year.

Strangely, I am in the mood for toast.


the front door