Sunday, May 30, 2010

Summer Games

Oh, how wonderful that the camp chairs are back in the car! That we're back on the small (really small) ball park circuit, making the rounds in the late afternoons between Mound City, Oregon, Rock Port and our lovely ball field in Tarkio with the back drop of river bottom fields and grain bins. We jump in the car, dusty and sticky from a day on the farm, grab some tea or a pop, and we're set for an hour of simple entertainment. No stress, no tears, no recriminations, no hassling the ump or any other official. Just sport and the knowledge that the cycle continues as small boys pick up mitts and bats as they have for lo these many years.

And when do you get your first fishing pole? My grandfathers were both fishermen. Laura and I got our first Zebcos from Grandma and Grandpa Froerer. With target circles of automobile belts laid out on the river rock driveway behind their house, we would practice casting our rubber plugs from the rock wall like we were on the dock at the Lake. I don't know if we improved our aim, but we improved our distance and the activity kept us outdoors for hours. Its a vignette etched on my senses: the click, click of the reel, the snap, crackle and pop of firecrackers, the woo-hoo-hoo of the mourning doves in the silence between explosions.

Granny and Grandpa Renken had a pond on their acreage. We would cover ourselves in Off against the ticks and chiggers and wend our way on the mowed path through the fescue heads. I was cool as could be when it came to threading as many pieces of earthworm on my hook. Though economical as well: a prenibbled worm was still good for another cast. Hate to waste good bait, you know. But in the heat of August, the worms retreated to cooler spots and the grasshoppers were big and ubiquitous. But nasty to catch with their prickly wiggly legs and black tobacco spit. Not only that, but merely hooking them between their head and body could sometimes make their heads fly clear off with the first cast and you were back to square one without a single nibble. I had a particular hierarchy when searching for hoppers; in my opinion, the medium sized brown and orange were preferable to the soft green ones. The giant flying behemoths were completely out of the question. You may notice that I fail to mention artificial bait. Sure, we had some lures in our tackle box, but were only allowed to use the little popper bugs occasionally. We fished for blue gill mostly, and my grandpa cleaned those up for eating. If we caught a bass, he was released back to his soft green home. We learned to be quiet and stand still on these outings; fishing teaches patience.

Granny and Grandpa had a sturdy wooden croquet set too. Croquet was an evening game of rollicking competitiveness. To "send" someone's ball into the lilacs, or the honeysuckle, or the willow, was a psychic victory and higher priority than finishing the round through the double wickets. I remember my mother methodically destroying all comers at croquet as she inerringly aimed her mallet at the opposition's balls or smartly knocked her ball through each wicket first. While taunts and hoots were an expected accompaniment to the competition, we would frequently be exhausted from laughing so hard.

These were the days before central air conditioning. Except for a comfortable hour while Granny ironed and watched her soaps in the cool basement, all play was out of doors. It was never too hot to play hide and seek or climb the apple trees in the orchard. We never floated in Granny and Grandpa's farm pond, but spent hours in the new pond my folks built on their acreage in Callaway county. You could hunt frogs if you didn't mind mud between your toes, but watching clouds in a tube was the preferred way to cool off.

We didn't have a farm pond worthy of the name while the kids were growing up. We had to be content with running through a sprinkler strategically placed to cool kids and water posies. Occasionally, a trip to town to the pool would be reward for surviving a particularly nasty afternoon. Or maybe overheated foreheads would be cooled in the quiet dusty confines of the library.

Whether forty years ago, twenty years ago, or just last night, we all make the most of our summer evenings. Until mosquitoes drive us indoors, we sit on our porch or pull weeds for recreation; we grill, we drink tea and watch the walkers of our neighborhood or the little kids on all sizes of bikes. If Ben and Kenzie were here, they'd be playing frisbee. Gabe, Abbie, Lizzie and Aaron would be out of the blue pool by now and dripping their way to some clean jammies and their beds. Tonight this pleasure was abbreviated by the second great sport of summertime: watching the storms roll in. The green skies of the north and the weather patter on KMA drove us indoors to find the ball game on the dish and finish off the angelfood cake and strawberries. Its June 1 and the summer games stretch before us.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Batter up !!

They swing; they miss. They pound the plate; they corkscrew into the dust around home plate. They are so anxious, they nearly clock their coach while he is adjusting their hands on the bat. They slide into first, slide into second, run through the stop sign from the third base coach and tippy-toe to home plate to avoid the next batter who is also over enthusiastic and has snuck up to the plate. The happy runner stomps on home with both feet.

In the field, they watch the ball. Most of the time. Sometimes one's hat must be adjusted. Sometimes a teammate's stance just looks so good that it must be emulated. Sometimes, inexplicably, there is some action beyond the game that must be observed, even if it means turning one's back on the plate. Sometimes an at bat takes just a pitch or so too long and the 'ey batta stance becomes a squat in the dust of the infield.

This is t ball II and it is in the best tradition of so many facets of sports and summer. Its local; around here, that still means a pretty good hike between games, but nothing beyond the next county. Its casual; the early arrivals park close enough to sit in their cars, but most of us pull out camp chairs and water jugs and cheer from any shady spot on the sideline. Its relaxed; younger kids clamber up the bleachers or roll down the slope. 

 The players know the final score; the adults have no idea. Everyone plays, everyone bats, the dads pitch and the games end after three innings or one hour. Each inning last three outs or five runs. Guess which outcome is most likely? Hence casual; hence relaxed. It will all be over before anyone gets too tired, too sunburned, or even too thirsty. Though some of the senior members of the crowd leave because it is suppertime.

Aaron and Gus are our family representatives on the Tarkio team. Aaron has played exactly one year of ball. And notice I didn't qualify that year as "organized" ball. Gus is an old hand; he wears Albert Pujols' number 5 and sports a massive Jim Edmonds' uppercut swing. When he connects, the ball goes a long ways. I can see Aaron linking cause and effect: Gus pounds the plate, Gus hits a home run. Next time up, Aaron pounds the plate too.

This game, the fans can actually keep track of which team is ahead. One inning, the little Mound City kids hit three ground balls to the Tarkio pitcher. He tosses the ball over to first before the runners cross the plate. Its not a three up, three down inning, but a three out inning may not occur at this level of play for the rest of the season. When Tarkio heads to the dugout after their last at bat, whoops of excitement roll across the field before the boys file out and slap hands and chant 'good game'. The kids have a "win" under their belts to brag about amongst themselves and recap to any family not in attendance.

Sure enough, my phone rings about 10 minutes after we get home. Its Aaron and he's telling me "We won! 14 to 5!" Then he asks me if I heard them yelling in the dugout. 'Yes, I did,' I say,' You should be excited to win your first game'.
'Do you think Mound City heard us?' he asks. 'I don't know, Aaron. They were probably listening to their coaches talk about the game.' 'Well, I didn't want their feelings to be hurt.'

I reassured him that it was OK to be happy with winning and their team had come out afterwards to meet and greet. But I saved that moment to tell his mommy and daddy later on. Its good to hit the pitch; its good to score a run, and maybe one of these days Aaron will also catch a ball or throw a runner out. But it only took one game to realize the guys in the other dugout are just like him and to live up to that age old saw:

'Its not how you win or lose, its how you play the game.'...

Or in this case, celebrate afterwards....

Friday, May 21, 2010

Its all I can do

What a hard week this has been. Throughout the spring the ups and downs of weather, bugs, irate customers, mud, cold, pain and fatigue have more or less fallen within the boundaries of a normal distribution. Up until this week, we kept telling ourselves that. But the inexorable march of the calendar and the way the temperature refused to warm have made a successful spring season fade from possible to improbable to unlikely. We may consider flowers a necessity but not every consumer will slog through the slop to pick out the perfect color combination for the shady but dry spot on the front porch next to the rocker. Priorities differ.

But that's not what weighs on my heart this Friday. A dear friend is gravely ill and her loving family is burdened by worry. We who are concerned friends but separated by distance and respect for family privacy can but imagine and pray. We know in our heads that everyone near and dear is in God's hands, but knowing doesn't erase our feeling of frustration and need to help in some way, any way. How hard it is to pray earnestly without despair! How I wish we could see visible sign of these sincere and loving appeals as they raise through the air to our Heavenly Father. How encouraging would we frail and lonely humans find a winged column of birds in flight, or a torrent of raindrops flying upward, a reverse of the Showers of Blessing promised in the hymn. God gave signs to the wavering Israelites and there are times I feel like asking, 'what makes You think we're any stronger?'

Of course He is hearing. He doesn't need our efforts or our petitions to know what to do. Prayer is for our comfort, to bring us closer to Him, not to let God know what we need or what our loved ones need. The fact that we can pray at all is an answer.

So we must take this opportunity to concentrate on loving. To do our work, our chores with our mind on heaven while our hands work on earth. To focus on thankfulness for daily bread and effort. To remember that our measure of success is of no merit of itself. We get up every day; we shall not despair.

When I am sorrowful, I know I cannot talk myself into or out of anything. I must step back and let He who is strong pull me out of that rut. Our duty and our privilege is to keep going.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cleanin' Up

My mom always had problems with leftovers. We kids always took our lunches to school; my dad packed his lunch and thermos too, in his old metal box. Clearly, what she cooked would feed somewhere between four and seven, but not two full family meals. As a result, periodically my mom would find little plastic freezer squares with....hmmmm, something green and fuzzy inside. This was such a small blind spot that it got to be rather endearing; there was even a cartoon on our fridge for years about green things lurking in the fridge.

She also had cedar chests of fabric remnants. Often, these pieces of cotton kettlecloth would resurface as jumpers or skirts in our wardrobe, but the levels of colorful cloth in the chest or on her sewing table never seemed to shrink. There was just too much potential good in these pieces of the end of the bolt.

Blind spots shift from generation to generation. I have far too many clothes in my closet, but I am not a fashion hawk and don't send nearly as many well worn shirts or tees off to Good Will. My work clothes are more disreputable; the standard level of wear and tear and grime is high, but the dress code at my job has a low threshold for stains and tears and a threadbare tee still has its place as a transition between spring cover and summer ventilation. Blake's overalls head for the trash can when certain key seams fail, but not when the cuffs are frayed or the pliers pocket springs a leak from one too many screwdrivers.

The most obvious blind spot: the piles. Piles of newspapers at the foot of the couch. Piles of magazines on both ends of the kitchen island. Piles of paperbacks on the coffee table. Piles of paperbacks and travel books on the little kid's chair on my end of the couch. Piles on the big desk upstairs...these are undifferentiated agglomerations of newsprint, excerpts, research booklets, reprints from the internet. Any one of these could be vital. Some are passe'. But until the occasion arises, no one knows which is which.

The best recent cleaning event was the painting/carpet cleaning/ furniture moving/file cabinet acquisition project in the greenhouse office. By the end of the plant season, the office is an abysmal quagmire of mulch, potting mix, scraps of paper, tags, discarded clothing. On the Sundays I do payroll, it takes an hour of picking up before I can even stand to attempt to do office work (one of my admitted quirks). How satisfying it was to move even the old bed, ditch the stuff stashed under the bed, and paint over the stains and grime accumulated over the last two years. Rug doctors are wonderful appliances, but nothing beats new paint for a pick me up.

Alas, the big cleanups at Spruce lie ahead. The house plants are still living in the sun porch, happily because it has stayed cool and they had some heat this winter, but they will still shed mighty amounts of organic matter on their way down the stairs and out the door for their summer sojourn. Before I can begin potting the summer pots, I make myself move the house plants. We've lived here for nearly eight years now. Do you know what that means? Eight years is as long as a perennial garden can survive in a grassy environment without major rehab.

This week as I delved into the back yard for the first time this spring, I just about went back inside to crawl under the bed and stay. Despite days of hoeing last fall, the brome has completely eaten my daylily bed and the bed around the old lilac. DESPAIR!! My loving husband, in a moment of crystal clear perspicuity, offered to find some magic in a sprayer that would attempt to rescue the perennials from the ravaging monocots. I have to tell you that desperate times require desperate measures, and if the daylilies cannot be salvaged, I will take a Roundup jug to the whole mess. That's rather like burning the barn instead of scooping out the manure, but not really. My first garden at Deadman's was plagued with bindweed.
 Roundup would knock it down but by the end of the summer, the hideous white blooms would dominate. Only a good six years under black ground cloth killed it back...but for well less than six years! I know well that that a pasture in mid Missouri wants to become a forest, even though the transitional stage of cedars and brush is no more attractive than growing out a perm. But here on the prairie, every natural process points to grass and only 1) a prescribed burn, 2) Roundup, or 3) yearly tillage and a planting of annual flowers or vegetables prevents this natural transition from occurring.

So, darn. Before I can call my spring cleanup complete, I have to face the sea of grass in the perennial beds. Last weekend, it took me two hours to clean out the closets and bag the two piles: one for Goodwill, one for the trashman. But it will take at least one pair of garden gloves, innumerable sharpenings of the hand hoe, several tank mixes of Roundup and whatever other magic Blake has up his sleeve, AND digging up the enormous clumps of daylilies from their current home, to make spring cleaning of the garden a reality. When folks tell me they want to plant perennials so they don't have to plant every year, I don't climb on my step ladder and begin to preach.
If anyone should ask my opinion, I would tell them to eschew perennial gardens for mixed plantings with wide swaths of glorious colorful annuals. Like a firebreak, an annual garden provides a barrier to the invasion of the rhizome. I love daylilies; I love balloon flowers; I deeply adore coneflowers and rudbeckia. I am passionate about my July flowers.

But for cleaning purposes, give me a good sun coleus any day.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

My Mother's Garden

I have a wonderful mechanical planter in the greenhouse. Sixteen little needles vacuum up the bouncing seeds in the vibrating tray. A switch trips the vacuum on each row as the needles rotate up and down and the little seeds drop through the metal tube and plop into their nest of peat moss and perlite. A swift trip through the little dirt machine gives them the equivalent of a cotton thermal blanket to keep them moist and toasty til the various physiological processes awake the sleeping root.
But when I was growing up, my mom did things the old fashioned way. Dixie cups of soil allowed us to start a few favored flowers indoors early, but for the most part, her flower garden came up in rows carefully sowed or sprinkled after the natural frost free date in our northern Illinois garden. Gardening on Highland Ave. involved a trip to the local nursery; I can't remember exactly what route we took, but I do recall the nursery yard of trees, the scents of chemical and peat, moisture and mulch. The garden center was a low informal shed but the seed packets were arranged symmetrically in bright array against a wall. Bins held bulbs, sets, assorted roots and who knows what else. I wasn't a gardener from birth and I certainly never helped pick out flowers or trees or shrubs at that age as I later scoured antique stores for enticing pieces of Victorian furniture. But the garden center was a wonderful place to be, full of crannies; a maze of aisles, packed dirt paths and piles of stone.
Our yard was just prettier than most of our neighbors. My mom had a long front flower bed in front of the house; my dad had built a low white fence to support the taller annuals. One of my dad's rules was to keep shrubbery away from the house proper, so instead of the traditional foundation planting of pfitzers or spirea, our house had a flagstone path with stonecrop sedum between the stones. This was never totally successful but the battle against little creepy crawly weeds was joined annually. The north side of the house was my mother's rock garden. It was a cool damp planting full of stones collected various places and planted with assorted sedums and yarrows and hostas. Following the path led to a compost pile surrounded by hedge; the back yard was contained by the same hedge. When we were little, we had a swing set in the back yard. There was also a small vegetable garden that later became a rose garden...or was it the other way around? At any rate, raising roses in that climate was a sketchy proposition and led to regular replacements of some dearly departed beauty. Perhaps seed packets didn't trip my trigger but strolling through the rows of roses, smelling the blooms, reading the names, certainly did. The Morton Arboretum had a gorgeous and extensive rose garden, the only part of a childhood visit there that I remember. 'Mr.Lincoln', red, 'Charlotte Armstrong', pink and the queen of the garden, 'Peace' were the roses that graced the kitchen.
The south side of the house faced the blistering sun and even though my folks planted a silver maple for some speedy shade, the snapdragons my mother planted for several years didn't thrive. Two other short timers were the mountain ashes with their lovely clusters of berries and finely divided foliage. Alas, year by year another branch would die off until they too were discarded. The backyard was tiny on our corner lot, but just outside the privet hedge was a tamarisk. I know now that these small trees can be terribly invasive and pesky, but in our yard, the tamarisk was an exotic with its blue green haze of foliage topped in summertime with lavender plumes. Even the name evoked far away climes.
My favorite tree of the lot was the half wild crab in the front yard bordering the fence and flower bed. It was more a shrub than a tree, low and spreading, with profuse pale pink blooms followed by large crabapples smaller than Mac apples but much the same shape. They were large enough to be picked by the bushel and I don't remember a flaw to them. Perhaps they were tough skinned; more likely my folks sprayed for pests like they did the apples. Unlike the Yellow and Red Delicious "dwarfs" in the north yard, this tree always had a crop. With experimentation, my mom developed the knack for cooking the crabapples down into a rich red tart jelly of immensely concentrated flavor. With such a quantity of apples annually, we enjoyed crabapple jam nearly year round. Occasionally, the batch would set up so quickly, we wound up with crabapple taffy. Sometimes it wouldn't set at all and we poured crabapple syrup onto our toast. One year I made some apricot jam that I considered near to the nectar of the gods, but only that one time did my jam surpass the jam of that unknown crabapple tree.

The bright and cheery annuals were simple staples of seed grown posies. Blue morning glories covered the white fence. Cosmos nodded in the summer heat. Four o' clocks grew bigger and bigger as the summer afternoons lingered on. My favorites back then were the little moss roses that fronted the border. Late in the summer we would chalk the sidewalks and driveway, or play hopscotch, or roller skate, then rest up and pick the little caps off the seed pods and sprinkle the little black spheres across the garden.

My mother stayed at home with my sister and me. She cooked every meal, cleaned, gardened, sewed, shopped. She was room mother innumerable times; I was always proud to have my vivacious and lovely mom along on field trips, or at Girl Scouts, or helping with Vacation Bible school. We traveled with my father and enjoyed relaxed summer days walking the small towns of the West, swimming in the motel pools, and reading lots and lots of books.
We were the beneficiaries of an eclectic upbringing, full of imagination, culture, hand labor, and togetherness. I had the wonderful example of a loving partnership of a marriage as my father helped with household chores and my mother joined him in his myriad interests.

Did the garden gene come from one side of my heritage...or the other? That's hard to tell, but I know that growing up with the house plants crowding the picture window, the decades old Christmas cactus strategically placed for cool winter sunshine, the weekend trips to the Forest Preserve to learn the names of the local flora, all made it just that much more likely that I would love the out of doors, the marvelous plant kingdom God has provided for our health and happiness. And so, on this Mother's Day, I want to give credit where credit is due: to memories of my mother's lovely flower garden and my lovely mother as well.

or maybe just a smile?

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There's no use complainin'!

I'll make no promises tonight with regard to coherency, organization, or nitpicking editing. Nope, my brain is working just fine, but its either in a groove or a rut, depending upon definition, and all I see in my sleep are flats of flowers, missing packs, rows of racks. That phantasmagorical vision will slowly fade over the next week or two, to be replaced with a more normal sleep, dream cycle.
But this week is Mother's Day, a benchmark if you grow spring bedding plants or run a flower shop; the high water mark of the gardening season most years. Our short but busy retail season will peak this week and quickly decline. But during the next week, we'll be visited by lots of moms, daughters, husbands, and sons, all in pursuit of flowering happiness for mom's day.
I won't see my mom on Mother's Day; I may not even see my mother-in-law, but I'm pretty certain to see my two daughters, if for no other reason than they will probably come water and work at the greenhouse on Mother's Day.

Over the years, we've run the gamut: one ridiculous Mother's Day, the family joined every other family in a four state area at a smorgasbord at the Tall Corn Motel. The kids were little; I assume it was just Lee and Ann at that point, because the luncheon date was Grandma Hurst's idea, I think.

One Mother's Day, Blake delivered plants to one Omaha Earl May and I took a whole load of baskets to another Omaha Earl May, leaving the greenhouses alone and unwatered for the whole Sunday. Several Mother's Days have been rainy and....well, rainy. On those days, we've paid bills, taken care of a few late customers, and felt miserable for our garden center customers. One Mother's day weekend in particular, it rained so hard that a flash flood occurred down in the #13 and #14 greenhouse. We pulled orders, but mostly we attempted to rescue flats of flowers pulled below the surface by the undertow.

On a couple of those cool damp Mother's Days, I've ridden to Lincoln with Blake delivering plants. He and I don't go many places together this time of year; not even home usually, so a plant trip is a bittersweet proposition. It means we aren't as busy as we probably should be, but still enjoying a chance to sit and ride (me) and a chance to ride and not drive (Blake).

Blake always takes Millie along on a plant trip sometime around Mother's day; after all, she has the double celebration of birthday and Mother's Day. She gets to pick out whatever catches her fancy and Blake gets to spend four uninterrupted hours with his mom.

When Ben was younger, he would bring a corsage from the Flower Mill and I would wear it with my work clothes most of the day. I still have one of the posies in my kitchen, a remembrance of a thoughtful little boy, proud of his initiative and his gift.

Several years ago, we did leave the greenhouses and customers to themselves and attended church on Mother's day. That was the day the three little babies were dedicated on Mother's Day. Gabe, Lizzie, and Abbie, all received baby quilts from the loving hands of their Grandma Millie and Jayne. What a loving and touching remembrance for all moms, new and old.

Millie always took turns with her other siblings in hosting Grandma Nelson for Mother's day. Even in the midst of planting season, we would get together for supper, one big dirty working family, in honor of the moms.

On a Mother's day years ago, my mother and I went to Katy's Station restaurant in Columbia for lunch. I don't remember stumbling over the news, but I do considering the import of what I had to tell her: that Blake and I were engaged.

Last year my lovely family hired help to clean up the sticks and debris from the flower gardens. I felt pretty guilty about leaving the work undone for someone else to haul off, but thoroughly appreciated the impulse to give a gift specifically designed for me.

Not that I need anything. Sure, this is the season of unrelenting work. But today I got a long newsy note from Kenzie with news of the family in Virginia. And the rest of us worked together. Sure, its not a golf game, or a picnic, or a cruise, or even a barbeque. But the weather was perfect; the sky dramatic; the work rewarding; the kids were loud and jolly.

Porgy sings, 'I Got Plenty of Nuthin', a gentle reminder to be thankful for what we've got. Well, I got alot of baskets to haul this week, but I'm not complainin'.