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There May Be Kiwis! and Other Garden Delights

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

 In the fall of 2015, my friend Caroline from South Dakota sent me a few rhizomes of an iris her grandmother, Cora, had planted in her yard as a newlywed in upstate New York. That's a long time ago. But the iris went along, as irides do, and it prospered and multiplied and was handed down to children and grandchildren. Caroline sent it to me, and this was its first blossom in 2016.

I've divided it three times, and this is the clump now. It's a giving plant, smelling of sweet grape bubblegum. Yum!!


The bleeding hearts that bloomed so beautifully and fully this year were given to me as wee seedlings by my friend Lucy from Northfield, MN several years ago. The kids and I had a wonderful visit there when we came out for my mom's interment in Iowa in the spring of 2016. While doing a little weeding in Lucy's garden, I found the babies, and asked if I could have some. And look at them now! I've never seen such long stringers of beauty!! And they're throwing seed children everwhere, just like Lucy's do.

 Yep, we windin' up to seed your garden with bleeding hearts you can give away in a couple years. Sweet little peas in a pod. I'm excited! Nothing the Propagation Chimp loves like good plants that reproduce. She also loves plants with a backstory.

You may remember the Dean's Fork peony that I dug in the fall of 2011 from in front of this tiny tumbledown house that's since collapsed and been utterly swallowed by the forest. Nobody would know there's a house there now.

 But on a late May walk with our friends David and Mary Jane, we saw something glimmering through the weeds and young saplings. A peony, persisting.

 That smelt of heaven and lily of the valley and dry grass, with a shell pink outer ring and a big pouf of starchy white in the middle. I came back that fall and just barely managed to find the peony in all the weeds and woods, and dug two little eyes off its side.

They grew and prospered in my Heirloom Garden, two small eyes becoming two enormous bushes.

And still it grows, and there's a new dog in the yard now. Peonies go on for a century or more, if you let them.

But the big news in Zick's gardens this year is going to be the hardy kiwi vine. I think it was 2004 when I saw a plastic box full of smooth-skinned green kiwi fruit, the size of a very large grape, at Giant Eagle. I bought them. They were a flavor explosion. I eyed the tiny black seeds in them and wondered to myself if I might grow a vine. Knowing kiwis were dioecious (meaning they have both male and female plants, and both are needed to make fruit), I planted a bunch of seeds. Three eventually germinated and became plants, and I prayed there was at least one male in there. Or that they weren't all one sex. That's a tremendous leap of faith, to grow three enormous vines for nine years, because what if I planted all three and didn't get both sexes? I'd have a tower of vegetation and no fruit.

And here's the kicker: I wouldn't know for NINE YEARS, until they bloomed and either did or didn't set fruit, what I had!

But I grew them on and planted them out, and waited.
Oh, how I waited. Sometimes I cursed that vine (or those three vines) as they scrambled over my deck and had to be trimmed back several times a year. I didn't water them even when it was dry. I kind of hated them, because year after year went by with nothing but greedy leaves.

This is what they look like, Year 15. That's about 13' of biomass there, and I have to trim it back so it won't engulf the tea roses and run its tendrils into the house! It reaches for the sliding glass door and I have to bat it back.

On Year Nine, it made some small flowers, but it didn't set fruit. I think it's so interesting that the plant has to be nine to bloom. How does it know it's nine?   It made a few more each year. And to my great joy, on Year 10, it set a few fruits. WE HAVE A MALE, PEOPLE!! It turns out we have TWO FEMALES and ONE MALE and THEY ARE DOING THEIR THINGS!! I started feeding and watering the vines. That made a difference.

 Below are the male flowers. See that black ring of stamens?

There's nothing in the center of the male flowers. No ovary like the females have. Just a ring of stamens, shedding pollen. The whole vine is humming with small bees!

Now here are the female flowers. See that lovely green ovary and the starburst of the white stigma atop it? Ready to receive pollen!

When the petals fall, as they have on the middle two flowers, you can see the nascent kiwi baby forming!! EEEE!!!

I think we could have the bumper crop of all bumper crops this year. Last summer, there were enough to let some of our friends taste them. And Phoebe was here for the harvest! She was as excited as I was. I fed some to Sara Bir, the celebrated forager who is author of a new book called The Fruit Forager's Companion.  I was privileged to feed her lunch, with homegrown kiwi for dessert. I was also privileged to write a review and blurb for her book! She lives in Marietta, Ohio, and greatly enhances the food scene here. She and I both can be found in October, rummaging around under the fabulous persimmon trees in town. :) When Sara tasted them, her face became thoughtful and still. I forget exactly what she said, but it was something like, "This is a new and explosive taste sensation for me." Oh yeah. Explosive. These kiwis are A-MA-Zinnnnggg!!

So I just wanted to crow a little bit, about the fabulous informed chance that led me to grow three little black seeds, to hope, for 10 years, that I had at least one male; to get, by pure luck, one male and two females; and now, in Year 15, to finally be looking at reaping the harvest of that faith, that care, that love. Good things take time and faith.

 Curtis, relaxing and panting like a steam engine after a long, long hunt.

Geraniums in my hanging baskets, all of which miraculously lived through the Great Greenhouse Freeze of January 30, coming back from the roots. Or, in the case of Happy Thought in back, from a cutting I'd taken into the house. Hope and care and time and faith.

 Grandma Cora and some Granny's Bonnet columbines, which strew their seeds everywhere and pop up in the funniest spots. My kind of flower.

 Petunia "Night Sky," which, for me, evokes stars, galaxies, comets, planets, and sometimes hearts (do you see it?)
 Scoff not at petunias. A purple petunia was the first plant I ever grew from seed. I was in kindergarten. I brought it home in a paper cup and tended it all summer, and it was beautiful, and so are these. Open your heart to petunias. If someone has told you they don't like them, and you've decided you don't, either, it's time to examine your prejudices. Because this new variety makes me squeal with delight.

Lobelias, another favorite. There are so many favorites in May.

Saving Jemima: The Audiobook

Sunday, May 19, 2019


I spent most of three days last week recording the audiobook for Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-luck Jay. Normally, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hires voice talent to record books. Not this time. Nope, it would be me or nobody! As I read, I chuckled to myself, thinking the following random thoughts:

1. Criminy this writer loves polysyllabic words!
2. This is HARD to READ
3. Who but me would even know how to pronounce this stuff?
4. Much less how to emphasize this sentence?
5. Uh-oh. Here comes a rough passage. Don't choke up. DON'T CHOKE UP.

It was certainly interesting to have to read my own writing aloud. Mostly, it was a blast! I was surprised how much fun it was. Reading an audiobook incorporates acting and emotion, timing, storytelling and some technical know-how (like what to do when you flub a line). But it also is a really good way to discern if you're telling the story well. 

5 1/2 years delivering commentaries for National Public Radio's afternoon show All Things Considered  was the best possible training for this gig. I felt completely comfortable and pre-adapted. And after all, these are my words, so I might as well own them and read them like they mean something.
I cut my teeth in radio, writing and performing the three-minute commentary form. This, though, was a slightly different animal. This was reading entire chapters at a time, ranging from 1,200 to more than 4,000 words. 
I found out I could read only about 3 1/2 hours total in a day, but I got almost half the book done in that amount of time. Gotta say I'm kind of a beast at this. I really, really dig it. I think it's going to change the way I write, to make it more conversational and easy. 

I really enjoyed working with Houghton's Executive Producer of Audiobooks, Tommy Harron. He was patched in via Skype from Park Avenue in New York CITY!! (thinking of the old salsa commercial). We worked with a local sound engineer named Joe Huck, and that was great, because I could just drive into town and set up in his studio and go with it. I was sad at first, because Bill and I had set up this beautiful soundproof booth in our basement in March, and we'd done a couple sound tests with Tommy,  using Bill's wonderful podcasting equipment. We were all ready to go, but it wasn't to be. If I could have gotten eight hours out of him in a few sessions, it would have been so lovely both to read my new book to him and have him engineer the recording. But in the end he just didn't have the strength to do it.

It's just one small thing in the pantheon of things that were taken away from us when he had to leave. 

Anyway. I was grateful to be recording my book with anyone, grateful to have the job, grateful that there seems to be a growing market for audio books again. It made me think about podcasting, which Bill was so damn good at, and kept urging me to dive into. Well, I have a lot of irons in the fire, and I never got to it while he was alive, but maybe I will when the dust settles and I can look around. 

Liam was newly home from school, and I hated to leave when he was home, but he's sleeping until almost noon, so I didn't miss all that much time with him.

Now, Curtis was another matter.  It hasn't taken this dog long to get utterly spoiled, assuming his Ma is going to be home 24/7. And I have been, mostly, and the only trip I've taken, I took him along! (New River Birding and Nature Festival in Fayetteville, WV).

This is the extreme stinkeye he fixed on me as I pulled away the first morning.

The weather was cold and kind of nasty, so that was fine. But oh, I hate to miss any spring skies, being indoors.

I hate to miss any spring light.

But I got to see Marietta in that light on my lunch breaks This is our awesome ca. 1904 courthouse! It's really marvelous inside, too. 

I saw this awesome Pontiac LeMans 350, ca. 1972, in its original paint (ya think?)

The rear view was even better. They knew how to design cars then. For looks. They weren't terribly functional, but man, they looked cool.

 This car was being driven, I surmised, apparently without preciousness or irony. It was strewn with the ordinary stuff of daily life, and there were no oversized fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. You don't see that very much.

I did a bit of dogspotting and found this young refugee from the Humane Society shelter, who was adopted with her brother. Her owner was lovely and we had a wonderful lively yak. This doggie is half Lab, half coonhound, and she had the most marvelous disposition and the slidy loose shiny skin of youth.  A delicious buttercream sundae of a dog.

On one lunch break I walked the railroad tracks behind the home recording studio in the Harmar section of old Marietta. I could have walked them all day, listening to the catbirds, orioles, tanagers and vireos singing.

And then I got to come home to my road and my Three Graces in spring afternoon light. Let me know if you ever get tired of seeing them dance, because I don't.

And when I got home, someone jumped right up into the driver's seat and told me I was not to leave without him again. Ever, ever, ever again.

Yes, this brilliant, empathetic, sleek, kind, clairvoyant tigerdog is wrapped tightly around my heart, wound in and out of the ventricles, and I'd have it no other way.

Ever Seen a Chickadee Quilt?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

I can't begin to tell you how sweet it is to stand on my dirt road on a May morning and drink in the sights: the light, the sky, the clouds and the sounds of the birds who make their homes on our land. It's such a simple thing, to walk out the door, trot out the driveway and about a half-mile down the dirt road. I find myself praying it stays dirt for good; that nobody plops houses on the haymeadows or lets them grow up to woods. Simple prayers, but heartfelt.

In this video, you can hear, more or less in order, Carolina wren, song sparrow (scold), indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, American redstart (the really loud see see sweew) Eastern towhee, Tennessee warbler, a school bus turning around, orchard oriole, common yellowthroat, American robin, a possible blackpoll, and northern cardinal. Of those, only the Tennessee warbler and blackpoll are  migrants, headed farther north; the rest are going to hang around and breed right here. I'm pretty used to picking apart a cacophony of birdsong into its various contributors, but this presents a bit of a challenge. It's a birdsong menudo. Everyone's singing at once!


I watched the young male redstart and a pair of white-eyed vireos fluttering in the sunlit edge, looked for but couldn't find the tanager and orchard oriole, and gazed at my beautiful new doggeh, feeling very lucky. 

It's all so beautiful. I could never tire of seeing the light stroke across this landscape, especially with a cur in the foreground. Going out with Curtis every morning puts a big piece back into my scattered jigsaw puzzle of a life.

The field daisies are just beginning to bloom, dotting the haymeadows with clean stars of white. They always start blooming well before I'm ready for them, and every year they're a delightful surprise. Oh! The daisies are out! Even before it really warms up for good. It's a disgusting 46 out at 5:47 AM which is what you get when the skies clear and all that heat radiates out into space. But then what will follow is a sunrise and a sparkling sunny day, so hauling all that stuff back into the greenhouse is ultimately worth it.  I've let daisies come into my flower beds, because they make me happy. I can see how they got out of gardens and into everyone's fields.  

One of the things I do in spring and summer is check my bluebird boxes. Technically, I try to hit each box at least once a week, but when there are babies, I check a bit more. Things can always go wrong with babies, and it's good to be looking in.

Checking my boxes gets me out into red-headed woodpecker habitat like this. Hearing their querulous squirks! lifts my heart. Seeing their banner colors stops it. 

Really, how can a bird be so gaudy, so perfectly clean-cut, so noisy and social; so delightful? Red-head was a pretty obvious choice by Bill for his favorite bird. Someone less enthusiastic and outgoing might have chosen something more subtle. (Says the person who chose blue jay).

You may detect hazy August light in these shots. I certainly do. Though I usually post up-to-the-moment iPhone photos, for the birds I occasionally have to go back and raid the long-lens archives. Not apologizing. Just 'splainin'. 

Ahh, that's better. Look at this glowery May day!! And I get to be out checking bluebird boxes in it! Lord. What a place I get to live in. These skies, I'd put them up against Tuscany's any day.

Here's a box, perfectly sited by my sweet late friend Jeff Warren. He built the box, I built the pole and baffle. We were a team. 

Inside that box, three bluebirds, two males and a female, 14 days old. They're atypical 14-day-olds, small and not as fully feathered as they should be, but thanks to all the rain, the hay is tall and foraging is tough for bluebirds when the hay gets so tall. They'll be OK, even through these nights in the 40's, because it's going to warm up and quit raining so much now. Right? This is why I check more often when there are babies. Someone might need help.

Though it's really pushing Blogger to ask it to publish two videos in one post, here's the father of these babes, dive-bombing me. Turn the sound up to hear the angry castanet snapping of his bill as he comes close. This bird was paired for years with a female who was just as aggressive as he. She disappeared, and their box went empty for the first time this spring. He's turned up at this box, several hundred yards away, now paired with a female who vanishes under duress.


Of course, I am perfectly aware that the dive-bombing male here could be the son of the pair in question, but finding the box the Aggressors had occupied for at least five years suddenly empty led me to the possibility that the female died and the aggressive male moved. My observation from 37 years of running bluebird boxes is that, in eastern bluebirds, female choice drives nest location. I've seen male bluebirds try to override their mate's choice of a nest site, and it is not pretty. Those girls know what they want, and a male can resort to beating her up and even tearing out her nest, trying to get her to change her mind. So, having perhaps lost his mate, Mr. Aggressor had to change locations, letting his timid new mate dictate where the nest would be. It's kind of nice to be swooped on by only one bird. Maybe just a touch of PTSD from my years of working with least terns, who swooped, sometimes struck, and pooped on me, too.

Back in the Aggressors' original box, someone finally moved in! What a wonderful surprise! And not a bill snap to be heard.

I am usually wearing going-to-town clothes when I check the boxes on this road. The tall hay is almost always wet, and so am I.  But oh, the sights you'll see!

I watched this pair in a haymeadow on my road fool around with a half-built nest for weeks. They only got serious when a pair of tree swallows showed interest in the box. I suspect the female is getting quite old and just had to gather herself to build and lay this year. She's usually a late nester, but initiating a first clutch on May 12 is really pushing it. Still, she laid five beautiful eggs (the norm around here is four). I honestly think these small Gilbertson PVC nest boxes, and the small slot boxes as well, discourage bluebirds from laying their full normal clutch of 5. Which may not be a bad thing; in times of privation, it's tough to raise all five. It's always a pleasant surprise to see a fiver in my little boxes. 

But the best surprise of this day was yet to come. This PVC box in my driveway started out with bluebirds who laid two eggs, then mysteriously abandoned. I think they started over in another box just down the driveway. Why, I have no idea. 
Another(?) bluebird came in and covered the eggs with a new grass lining. Well, OK. If they're going to go to waste...I dug down, fished the cold eggs out, and farmed them out into two other nests, where they both proved to be infertile. Maybe that first bluebird knew something about her own eggs.
The renovating bluebird never laid eggs in the nest, and it sat empty for several weeks. I left it, because something interesting could yet happen, and it was a perfectly good, fresh nest. One day I found it all tamped down and neatened up. Oh! Someone's been renovating! 

And a few days later, a very pissed off Carolina chickadee shot out and scolded at me when I checked it. Oh!! I left her alone for a week. You don't want to disturb a nest-building bird. And when I finally checked again, I found the MOST marvelous thing.

A patchwork chickadee quilt, made of three kinds of fur (rabbit, squirrel, and something with dark brown wooly underfur); some soft grass, and two wads of green Hollofil!!!  I suspect the Hollowfil is still from toys Chet Baker used to shred on our lawn. Hollofil doesn't biodegrade, but it is wonderful insulation. Chickadees know this. They love it, and Polarfleece too. I found a chickadee nest once with purple Polarfleece from Chet's (and now Curtis') favorite blankie. She must have gathered it while it was hanging out on the line!

While she's laying, a Carolina chickadee makes a little quilt that she lays over her eggs to hide them when she's away. Because I have checked many a chickadee nest, I knew to lift the patchwork quilt. It came up in one neat piece, like a blanket. And there beneath, treasure.

I covered the tiny orbs back up and went on my May way.
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