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It was 64 degrees on Saturday. We’d spent part of Friday chipping away at the ice that encased our (long, long, terribly long) driveway so that we could go out to eat, since we were tired of cooking–like, I expect, a lot of people on that day. Saturday the driveway was damp but clear. “Why did I get a sore shoulder from chipping when we could have just waited?” Eric wondered.

It was wonderful to go out in a light jacket, but I was also ashamed of my yard. My parents were there (after being stranded at O’Hare after American Airlines cancelled their connecting flight and rescheduled them for a flight the next night, Christmas Eve, which would have had them waiting for thirty hours at the airport, and offered no hotel or food vouchers, just a vague apology. We got them two of the last train tickets out of Chicago and they spent most of the thirty hours with us instead) and they quite naturally wondered why the yard was covered in bronze beech leaves when the neighboring yards were relatively clear. We made excuses about the late leaf fall and the early snow, but I was still embarrassed. I’m waiting for it to snow again so I don’t have to see the yard. I could have spent some of Saturday raking (or maybe rescuing the leeks), but we had a lot of goofing off to do and not much time to do it in. The garden would wait.

Mom was amazed by my lemon tree, which has at last yielded two mostly-yellow lemons. I’m waiting for them to ripen fully. Then I’m going to make lemonade, or lemon ice cream, or lemon meringue pie, or maybe eat them straight, and finally hack down the tree to get rid of the scale. (Incidentally, we made a lemon meringue pie with real lemons for Christmas dinner, and Dad, who has never had anything but store-bought before, commented that it was so much more lemony than any other pie he’d tasted. I was quite proud.) I’m a little sad that my annoyance over the scale is intruding on my enjoyment of the fruit, but it’s probably best this way.

She was also interested to see that one of my pomegranate plants had a single flower bud on it. She has several plants but hasn’t seen any of them flower. It hadn’t quite opened by the time she left. I’ll have to take a picture and send it to her.

Since it hasn’t snowed yet, I’m contemplating fixing up the compost box when I get home today, or maybe on New Year’s Day since I’ll be off and there will be daylight (though it’s coming back now!). I’ve been dumping my compost onto the raised bed as a temporary compost pile. I think I’ll probably keep doing that. It’s winter; therefore it is not time for gardening. I can’t say that part of my brain is switched off, but my desire to get things done is pretty dormant. The garden will wait.

I’ve got to clean up the very last of the seeds before my parents get here. The leeks are poking out of the icy ground. We’ll be eating carrots and green beans from the garden on Christmas Day. It’s unbearably cold and I can hardly remember being too hot among the jungle of the garden in August. That’s all I’ve got for now, I’m afraid. There are things afoot that are sucking my time and energy, and there are parents arriving tomorrow to celebrate the holidays and the return of the light. Merry Christmas, happy Solstice; may peace and love be with you.

The Toledo Botanical Gardens offered a boxwood-wreath-making class yesterday, and I went. I regretted it as I was setting out, since it was snowing heavily and my tires are not the best, but I made it there without incident (except for mistaking a side entrance for the real entrance and parking in what may have been employee parking because I didn’t want to risk having to turn around).

The class consisted of seven women, one maybe late thirties and the rest fifty or over except for me. They were all TBG volunteers, and I felt a little left out. Maybe I’d better start volunteering in the spring. (The instructor reminded us all about the spring plant sale. Me, I’m looking forward to the seed shop.) The class itself was a little more basic than I’d thought, but then there probably really isn’t much more to making a wreath than this and perhaps some artistry. If you’re curious, this is how you do it:

1. Cut a lot of boxwood, more than you think you’ll need, in late summer or early fall. The instructor didn’t specify how to keep it fresh, other than mentioning “spray it every day.”

2. Collect a 12″ wreath wire form, a roll of ~26 gauge florist’s wire, and clippers.

3. Cut the boxwood into nice-looking branches about 6-8 inches long.

4. Place the wire form in front of you with the concave side up. Layer the less-nice boxwood into the hollow of the wire form. This forms a background. You’re looking at it from the back side, so turn the nicer side of the leaves toward the wire.

5. Attach your wire to one of the wire form cross bars. Wrap the wire around the form to capture the boxwood, repeating your loops every 1-2″. Turn the wire form over.

6. Collect a bundle of 3-6 boxwood branches, enough to cover a spot on the wireform completely. Lay it down. Wrap the wire, as tightly as possible, around the lower part of the branches, where the leaves are stripped, three or four times.

7. Repeat #6, this time laying the nice part of the bundle over the wire-wrapped stems of the previous one so that you can’t see the wire.

8. Repeat #7 until you’ve covered the entire wreath. With the last bundle, tuck the stems under the leafy part of the first bundle and wrap carefully under the leafy part.

9. Hold up your wreath and give it a critical look. Tuck individual sprigs of boxwood where you’ve left wire uncovered or it just doesn’t look full enough. Cut and tie off the wire.

10. Add whatever interesting twigs, berries, ribbons, or other paraphernalia you want to add. (We only had the boxwood–some of it budded out for visual interest–and a nice red ribbon.)

11. Place in a cardboard box and spray with a “sealant” to make it shiny and keep longer, if you want to.

12. Hold it up and admire your handiwork.

13. Sweep your area quickly and leave before anyone else because it’s still snowing and you want to get home before the roads get any worse.

The instructor suggested letting it dry and then spray-painting it silver or gold, or using it as a centerpiece with a candle in the middle. I like mine as a natural wreath, but I’m going to look around my yard today and see if there’s anything I want to snip and tuck into it.

Behold my 2008 cotton crop:

A cash crop it ain't

This came off the plant I’d put in a pot on the porch and brought indoors when it got cold. My intent was to keep it over the winter and put it out again next spring, but it turned out to have a raging case of crinkly brown insects–more scale?–and so I quarantined it until its buds opened. “Congratulations,” Eric told me, sincerely. “You’ve grown something that shouldn’t be able to grow in the north.” I suppose he’s right. In about fifty years I’ll have enough for a hat.

I planted green and brown cotton. I didn’t know which one this was, but the seeds have green lint around them, indicating they’re Erlene’s Green. You’ll note the lint on this one was very white, though. I don’t know if that’s because of its indoor conditions or the bugs sucking the juice out of it or what. (They’re now outside, dying horribly, I hope, the way they made the poor cotton plant die.) I’m a little disappointed, frankly. But after all, I did grow something that shouldn’t be able to grow in the north. Next year I’ll take more care with the bugs, and maybe not plant cotton in the ground at all, and see if I can’t get a better crop.

I’m reading about seed-saving here and there, and seed-breeding, and contemplating doing a cross myself next year to see what happens. And I keep seeing the same grating message to seed-savers: “You can’t save seed from hybrids because the seeds will be sterile.” People, this is not true. There are other, good reasons for people not to save seed from hybrids–they won’t come true to type or they’re patented, for example–but this one is, with possible rare exceptions, totally false.

I think the main problem is the word “hybrid,” which has a couple of meanings (like the word “theory,” but let’s not get into that right now). Sometimes it means “organism/object/whatever created from two different species/departments/whatever.” Like the mule, which is certainly sterile. But in gardening, it generally means “species created from parents of the same species but dissimilar traits.” (Here’s where the rare exceptions could come in–it’s perfectly possible to get offspring from two different species wherein the offspring really are sterile–like the mule. But it’s not common in animals and I don’t think it’s common in plants.) It doesn’t mean creating a chimera. A plant hybrid is the equivalent of crossing a purebred cocker spaniel with a purebred poodle–or a black man with a white woman, for that matter, except without the genetic purity. You get the same species with the same procreative abilities (unless you start looking at bulldogs, which I’m told have been bred for looks so much that they can’t procreate on their own), plus a new mix of characteristics. You get a mutt. Mutts can breed.

It would make seed-breeding really hard if it weren’t possible to cross different types of peas, or tomatoes, or C. moschata squash, or what-have-you. How would you get genetic diversity? Different traits? How do you explain the wanton crossing of squash and corn? Yes, they’re domesticated and their characteristics aren’t quite like they would be in the wild, but they don’t cross like the proverbial chicken because it’s a lousy way to propagate their species. They do it because it’s a great way to propagate their species. Genetic diversity –> wide variety of traits –> greater chance that some will live no matter what happens –> species survival. They don’t care whether they still taste the same as long as they keep on surviving to the next generation. (An organism is a gene’s way of making more genes.)

Inbreeding plants also have a good method for ensuring their survival, doin’ it for themselves; it’s just a different one. But they too can be crossed. Look at Rebsie’s beautiful pea-breeding experiments. (I’ve mentioned these before. I just love them.) That’s what I’d like to do, only with beans because I like them better (and I don’t want to be a copycat). There’s no scientific reason why it won’t work. And there’s no scientific reason not to save seed from hybrids. There are practical ones, but if you want to save seed from that Early Girl or Graffiti cauliflower to see what happens, you’ll get plants next year. Maybe you’ll get something good, maybe you won’t–but you will get perfectly viable plants.

In the ongoing, absolutely riveting saga of the yard cleanup, I meant to rake and to get the last of the compost onto the raised bed and put the box back together today. However, it snowed overnight, so I’m just gonna skip it. If I leave the bowl of kitchen scraps on the counter all winter, will I have humus by spring?

I went back to the farmer’s market this morning. This is the first all-enclosed winter market of the season, and it made me feel at home because this is how it was when I started going last year. (I think this is the way everyone should be introduced to the farmer’s market. First, the small experience of surprise and gratitude that there are people offering fresh local food even in the dead cold. Then, the gradual unfolding of the full market experience in the spring and summer, amazement blossoming as the vendors multiply and the offerings become more juicy and ephemeral. That way, summer is the happy addition instead of winter the sad contraction of one’s blessings.) I was also happy to be back because I let our fridge empty of produce since we’d be gone. So I picked up squash and spinach and two small cauliflower and a long spear of brussels sprouts, since neither Eric nor I have ever tasted them and they look so cool on the stalk, and was sorely tempted by the popcorn and the homemade plum jam but resisted.

It’s really very nice to give up on my own yard and my own efforts for a while, and just enjoy other people’s. This week we’ll have roasted brussels sprouts and marinated spinach salad (or at least I will) and I’ll make parathas with cauliflower filling. I might even fix that compost box, if it gets warm enough. But most likely I’ll just wait until spring.

I won’t say I have triumphed over my camera/computer connection, because I haven’t, but I have at least figured out how to get pictures from the camera to the computer without involving a second computer. So, behold that poor adolescent Romanesco broccoli that froze before it could grow:

The fragile heart of a doomed vegetable

I’m reading a depressing, though good, book (Passage by Connie Willis) and my mood is kind of sad at the moment, but I still see this little sprout as a hopeful sign. Maybe next year I’ll get one to the size of a golf ball!

My mother’s living room is full of fruit trees. “I used to eat pomegranate without eating the seeds inside,” she explained, showing me a tub of about eight little shrubs. “And I put them in the garden with the other kitchen scraps, and they grew! They say the flowers are pretty so I’m going to grow them and plant them outside next year.” She also has a kumquat tree, purchased from California; two avocados from abandoned pits, both a nice size, and two tiny satsumas. It almost makes me feel bad about buying seeds.

Flowers and even fruit are only the beginning. In the seed lies the life and the future.

Marion Zimmer Bradley

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