Friday, April 29, 2016

Do you 'kitsch'?

When I was a child, one day my father brought home a fine wooden duck cut from pine boards. It was painted to look like a mallard.  It had wings designed to rotate at different speeds depending on the windspeed; it swiveled and served as a wind vane.   We placed on a pole for all to see.  This was my first experiences with "kitsch" but I didn't know the word then.

Duck with rotating wings
Kitsch is a word borrowed from German - kitsch objects are found in many (all?) cultures. Designs are often based on popular or cultural images.  It is sometimes called "art of the people" when compared with 'fine art'.  Objects or pictures can be hand made one of a kind objects or factory made copies.  Kitsch is meant to be 'fun', it is a statement of who you are and what you enjoy, it is a statement of humor for your neighbors to enjoy.  Originality and creativity are important.
German gnome
Once when we were staying in a pension in Hungary - I walked through the neighborhood to see if I could find examples of Kitsch in the front yards.  With the exception of a few porcelain Gnomes and a couple of medieval looking Gargoyles attached to modern homes - I found few... There was a sad sameness to all the homes - neat front yards, trimmed lawns, a few shrubs... but no "art".  In American yards it is much the same - Why is this?  It is our cultural loss...

Thai dancers
In some neighborhoods in Central America amazing kitsch is more common - simple wooden carvings, religious figures of porcelain, creations of tile and mirrors, terra cotta burros, roof top ornaments... The line between a unique creative art piece with something to 'say' and kitsch is sometimes difficult to define...  Should the religious objects be classified as Kitsch - Do plastic manger scenes set up in America qualify as Kitsch...?  Niles has a peewee golf tournament each summer with individuals setting up different holes in back yards - each participant puts a gaudy pink flamingo in their front yard to advertise. Good example.

Photos or paintings can be kitsch as well
I know people who collect kitsch - searching everywhere for their specialty - old antique toys become kitsch when collected and displayed, porcelain puppies, French postcards, peasant art, farm tools, British tea cups, Silver spoons collected from cities of the world, license plates...  It appears that kitsch is in the eye of the beholder not the original item itself.  In Niles we have 6 or 8 specialty shops that sell every manner of kitsch...

This giant kitsch is used to sell mufflers
If you want to look for kitsch - go look in the average American bathroom or kitchen .  I often see porcelain fish, birds, mushrooms, or woven baskets with seashells.  The bottom line is that when these displays are well done  does it add to the enjoyment of the visitors to that bathroom? What is chosen for display tells something about the person who created them.

Mass produced kitsch straight off the shelf
How you feel about kitsch is largely a matter of your personal history, and who you are reaching out to through the display... - I hate "cute" stuff - Once we stayed in a bed and breakfast with " darling" little stuffed kitties and "sweet" little pictures painted in the sentimental style of the early 20th century, doilies and little stitched messages on the wall... Not my thing.  Nor do I like places with cross-stitch messages like "Don't Pine for Me" "You are the Apple of my Eye".  Not me...

Variety of pieces in a shop window
My preferred Kitsch makes me smile for its originality.  I like something that the person has made or painted themselves.   I like pieces that tell something about the owner.  I also like pieces that tell something about the person’s belief or culture.  Good kitsch in Peru may be a roof top assemblage of objects with origins both in the Christian era and pre-Christian symbols.  A well-made scare crow would be kitsch; a clever carved jack o lantern is a kitsch object with a brief life time. 
A Czech garden snail ( 1 m. high )
In this age of standardization many people fear standing out by expressing their unique creativity by making or showing kitsch.  Kitsch has a 'bad name' in our culture as something cheap and of little value... I think this is  also the result of many mass produced 'cutsie' products flooding the market.  How many plastic gnomes or chipmunks can you take?  On the other hand I know someone who makes the most amazing bird houses our of old boots - bicycle wheel water wheel that uses the water coming from the down spout, clever wooden buildings or garden toys...those things bring joy.

Much of the earlier 'Blackface'  Kitsch was demeaning and filled with racist images

So how do you feel about Kitsch - do you love it, hate it, put up with it?  What Kitsch do you have in your bathroom or front yard? I think Kitsch is one of the last remnants of how we express our creativity  to the world - Tell your story! Do Kitsch!

Unter Wasser Mann - Czech Republic ( Mythical creature lives under water - He catches and holds  under water  children who dont  follow safe practices in and around water.  " Unter Wasser Mann will get you..."

Friday, April 22, 2016

Do you think I overdid it this time?

 I never went near a fava bean until 2 years ago - We were in the highlands of Equador with Heifer project to learn about developing collective co-ops among small independent farmers.  In one farm, the farmer brought out two well roasted guinea pigs and a bowl of steaming hot lava beans with fresh olive oil and a bit of salt... they were so good!  (I felt it was my duty to also have a good serving of guinea pig - sort of like rabbit... I liked it! ) .  But I discovered the favas are delicious - and I determined then and there to grow my own.

One small part of my fava "farm"
No vegetable on earth is easier to plant and grow, and is more productive
 than favas  All you have to do it scratch the soil ( before the fall rain is best ) stick in a seed and forget about it. No need to water or weed - leave it to nature.  With the winter rains, the seeds grow and thrive into a nice small bush...  I dont what what ever got into my head this year - but I plugged in dozens of seeds all over my yard I was thinking that in the heart of winter its nice to see green healthy plants growing and thriving . 

Beans inside their pods

 But now our back yard is a fava bean forest - the plants are now as tall as I am - dozens of them with beautiful long 9 inch pods - each with between 3-6 seeds larger than a Lima bean,  I like them (Judy doesn't) - but I tell her that they are also adding Nitrogen to the soil - and they look rather nice.

Shelled favas
Fava beans have quite a history... prior to the time of Columbus Europe did not know the beans that we value most today... Favas are grown in the Mediterranean  countries, but also through much of Europe.   British gardeners have long prized them , and call them "broad beans".  The nursery rhyme "pease porridge hot" refers to broad beans,  also the story of  "Jack and the Magical Beanstalk"  refer to favas.   Dried favas were soaked and served aboard the slave ships bringing their cargo from Africa to the North American Plantations.
Dried favas ( go to a Mexican market to buy a packet for next years planting!)

Humans have been eating them since 6000BC ( and also genetically modifying them by plant breeding to create the modern varieties   The early Egyptians, loved them (and still do) - in ancient times they were considered to have magical properties,  The Greeks have long enjoyed them (with the exception of  Pythagoras - who would not allow his followers to eat them - I dont know why). The Romans (ancient and modern) created tasty recipes, they are known in India, Africa,  China, and  Mexico and Central America.  They are popular in Spain and Portugal and the Azores ..  Favas can adapt to cold climates: they can be planted after the last hard freeze.  The big puzzle is why they haven't ever really caught on with most North American gardeners.  One reason may be the unfortunate nickname they picked up in America - "Horsebean" - This is the power of bad press!

But some considered them sacred - The Romans saw the fava bean pod and seed as  visual metaphors of human sexual parts. Some of the early Romans had very active imaginations!
Favas made like hummus - Lebanese

I also learned something else about favas from the hill country of Peru - I was told that the people of the land - cook the favas in boiling water - with the seed coat remaining on the beans - its a nice texture and flavor.  "City people" - " those in wealthy restaurants" insist that the beans have the seed coat removed from each bean - frankly I dont get it... I  enjoy the complete bean with the seed coats present... I guess that makes me a peasant..

The painstaking task of peeling each bean

So what am I going to do with all my favas? - I enjoy giving them away - (please if you read this,  please come and pick some up!)  I do enjoy eating them - and they are very adaptable to many different ways of cooking.  Some I will dry.  After I pick them, the plants will end up in my compost and will decompose nicely during the summer.

Favas and Portuguesa linguesa - Yum!

Here is a sample of a few recipes -

You can even buy them canned - OK - but not nearly as tasty ( think of canned peas and fresh peas) 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Doin' it right...

My views about gardening changed after a visit to Oaxaca Mexico – Water is scarce in Southern Mexico, and the plants that most people grow in gardens there are adapted to living under local ecological conditions.  Now we are told that La Nina ( a dry winter) is very lively to return next year - so we can't get too smug about our average rainfall this year.  

If you dont particularly enjoy frequent watering, or paying high water bills, or consider it your social duty - consider making a change in your landscaping.  It doesn't have to be a huge all at once change.  The first step is to determine  what plants would adapt normally to your climate - educate yourself by reading and talking to experienced people - A good place to begin is with this book: (its a bit expensive but you can find it in your library)
Arid culture plants ( cactus, many succulents ) require less care and less water... But Natives also have a special charm.

Ethnobotanical garden - Oaxaca

When we returned home I thought, “Why am I trying to maintain a lawn, whose concept originated with the estates of England?  Why am I trying to grow flowers that are naturally adapted for moist regions of Europe and New England…? These plants need constant attention and lots of water under our California conditions.“ So I started looking at plants found in Northern California that are adapted in this environment.  Several years ago I starting ruthlessly pulling out thirsty plants and replaced them with natives.

Our climate is pretty much a classic Mediterranean climate (which is determined by temperature patterns, a wet winter, followed by a long dry summer) There are several places in the world with similar conditions – the southern coastal areas of Europe, Coastal areas of Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia. Over long periods of time each of these areas has naturally evolved plant varieties that grow well with those conditions. I found a few books with information about Mediterranean plants. My favorite is “Mediterranean Gardening” – Heidi Gildermeister <>. 

Once I knew what I was looking for, the next question was finding the plants. My local nursery had very few; every time I visited other nurseries I looked for more…They were hard to find. I discovered in the SF Bay Area specialty nurseries with only native California plants.  One of my favorites is Ruth Bancroft Gardens:  Its worthwhile to become a member for discounts and special classes.  Another source are the monthly plant sales held at the Botanical gardens in San Francisco. These are plants that volunteers start from the garden collection, or brought from personal collections.  You do have to be careful though, because many of the plants they sell are not low water plants - but if you know what to look for they are great. In the last few years, low water plants have started catching on - and they are now more available in local nurseries.

Three warnings: (1) If a plant is identified as native – it undoubtedly is native to somewhere – but is it native (or adapted) to my location? There are water intensive natives that I steer away from. (2) I discovered some wonderful acclimated plants but very quickly they grow way too tall – out of proportion to what I want in my garden… or they spread quickly by runners and become invasive… So read about each plant before you buy it and add it to your garden. (3) Low water plants need a regular good water supply the first couple of years until their roots are established.

Two years ago we made the big commitment and took out the last piece of lawn ( the grass in front of our house). With the help of our son Peter, we rototilled the soil, shaped the ground into an agreeable contour, covered it with weed guard to prevent weed germination, and covered it with 1-2 “ native gravel and stones… making holes at natural intervals for the new plants…

I do my best to place plants with the right sunshine needs, but sometimes it is necessary to move them when you get to know their characteristics better – I did a lot of fine tuning until every plant seemed happy with its sun and water location. My planting goal was to establish the same natural planting distances found in a semi arid natural location. I still grow a few favorite flowers and vegetables that need water – for convenience I try to keep them in one part of the garden so that I am not carrying hoses all around the garden. 

A great advantage of many Mediterranean and California native plants is the ability to propagate desirable plants by breaking off a portion and planting it directly in the soil ( usually during the cool/naturally wet part of the year). Many varieties will root easily. If you buy a plant you like, within a few years you can establish off-shoot plants. If I see a plant that I like in someone's garden, and if it seems appropriate, I may ask for a cutting - I break off a piece from the back - low down near the ground so not to distort the mother plant.

My additional reason for going with low water was to minimize garden maintenance work. There is one major pruning in late fall, another minor pruning in mid summer. There is much less  summer watering, no lawn to mow… so overall I have reduced my garden work… it doesn’t look like a new England garden with daffodils and zinnias… but it has a natural "wild" beauty that we like very much – plus we attract a multitude of hummingbirds, butterflies, and friendly birds and insects.The current over all trend in my garden is to move more to succulents and certain cactuses... they have their own beauty.  My final advice is - dont think that planting a garden is a once and forever thing - I constantly pull things out and plant new things  - with the beauty and character I desire...Good luck!

Friday, April 1, 2016

In Praise of Ordinary Things

“Sometimes the most ordinary things could be made extraordinary, simply by doing them with the right people. (Elizabeth Green)”

What are "ordinary things" for you?  For us  they are such things as a simple shared meal, sharing tales about the events of the day, giving and receiving comfort for the 'bumps and bruises' of normal life,  planning and laughing together, walking together in a beautiful place.. doing the routine things that make up our lives...
A favorite corner of Quarry Lakes park

 The three pups and I walk for an hour on alternate mornings - other days I ride my bike for an hour... and Judy does just the opposite - so the pups enjoy good walks every day.     As we ride or walk, spring is the season of  daily small surprises - the golden California Poppies and occasional Purple Lupine are splendid,  grass is forming seed heads, Crain flies are out and active, ( with their giant mosquito appearance),  big black stink bug beetles  meander on the trail.  

The 3 stooges - Willy, Roxy, Rusty

Clouds of small male water insects swarm and hold in  a tight  flight pattern hoping to attract a female.   Blue belly lizards have emerged and are sunning  of the rocks, and for days now they have been adding water to the Quarry Lakes to bring them well up to normal... Hurrah!  Flocks of migratory birds come  for a while and then continue on their way...  Right now we have gangs of cormorants  and grebes hanging out  in the lakes.

My friend the Crain fly

Spring in California is a continuous parade of subtle changes –We dont have the dramatic emergence of green sprouts, and the running of the sap, such as they have in New England.  Even in the coldest days of winter there is always green grass, always something blooming,  and signs of growth activity (even days when we have a touch of frost) . But  I know that winter is past by the  return of bursting leaves, fruit trees blooming, and the advent of hay fever... I picked the March avocados, oranges  are ripe and soon we will have loquats.  My spring garden is in: Swiss chard, Romano beans, Zucchini, Cucumbers, Beets, Tomatoes, Manoa Lettuce, and Favas...and all doing well. 

Lettuce and beets from last years garden

I love to visit the coastal forests this time of year  (We go to the neighborhood of Pescadero) – the soil is moist, trillium is blooming (both white and purple) , banana slugs abound...and the small streams flow  over moss covered stones. (Such melodic sounds!)  Birds sing a cacophony of forest songs ... it's still cool and the trails are empty of people.  The coastal redwoods have a special charm in this cool misty air...

Not actually ordinary - but time with family and friends is always great 

I complained a lot  about the rain this winter!   I'm a bit like the farmer who cried "Bad rice" - hoping to fool the weather spirits into giving  more rain... February was terrible - almost no rain.  In March we got hit with a Pineapple express - a steady series of warm tropical storms that did wonders for our rain totals... At the moment we have just attained the season average - but this could well be the end of our season.   For the foreseeable future not a drop more predicted.  And worst of all, the mountain snow pack falls well short of season normal.  Almost all of our rain this year was due to  two rainy spells that gave us 90% of our season's rain.  At this point some of our reservoirs are looking pretty good...But they are predicting a dry La Nina year next winter... Save  keep saving water folks!  Let those lawns stay dry - 

Our hills are actually green - much of the rear they are "golden" 

Judy and I  have a family policy of catch and release when it comes to  insects and spiders in the house: big giant Crain flies with their long fragile looking legs, fast moving wolf spiders  on the floor, and every now and then a lizard will get into the house.  Generally we catch the critter in an upside down water glass and slip a card under a glass to trap them...Then we release them in their preferred habitat out doors.  I have a special feel for releasing crane flies - they are so delicate and beautiful.

Trail lunch at 10000 ft, after a morning's hike

Do you notice the springtime sky?  I am a cloud watcher - great fluffy cumulus - little wispy cirrus - even ice crystal sun dogs when the sun is low in the Western sky.  I watch the changing position of the rising and setting sun.   Now every day the sun follows a path higher in the sky and sets further North.  Sometimes if the dust particles,  smoke, or water particles in the air are just right there are even glorious reds, oranges, red in the sunset.  I understand it has to do with scattering and refraction of light.  We have too many city lights to see the night stars well - for that we have to go high in the mountains  where we lie back on great rocky boulders and watch for shooting stars...
A telephoto shot of the moon in my backyard

This past year we started feeding birds - I built a platform feeder and we buy seed 60 lb sacks from a farm supply store.  With the first morning light the gang of little grey birds in hard at work and we watch the drama of their feeding routine progress... Everyone scatters when a Stellar Blue Jay arrives - and they really panic when a hawk visits- the real marauders are a gang of Band tail pigeons - Judy runs out and shouts and waves something - and they dash off  in fear... And when we go to bed at night the call of the grebes and other water fowl calling to each other from the lakes...Us and our birds...

Lunch at the Zlatnik bird station

These are some of the ordinary things that  make up the mosaic of our lives... Not the sort of things that deserve comment - but they are the things that bring 'salt' into our daily life...

I love the alternatives open to us here - an hour to reach the ocean, 3 hours to the high mountains, 4 to the high desert