Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bearded iris: The Grand Lady of the perennial garden

Planting perennials that keep on giving in more ways than one has long been my approach to gardening. With minimal care and investment, you reap great rewards in terms of beauty and a bounty of new plants to share every few years.

Among the daylilies, hostas, Moonbean coreopsis, peonies, roses and the like reside what I call the Grand Lady of the Garden, the bearded iris.

My mother, the furthest thing from a gardener herself, had a clump of very resilient yellow iris growing in front of the bay windows of our childhood home, and I was always drawn to them. So when I started building my own gardens, I knew they would be included.

A long way from yellow

When I set out to find those yellow ones my mother grew, I discovered a whole new world I had no idea existed. There were irises in pink, purple, white, red, soft blue, and every color combination of those – with fabulous names like Beverly Sills, Pink Cherub, Sweet Musette and Lady Friend – in varying heights with their typical stunning spear-like foliage.

The one word I could come up with while pouring through the choices was “elegant.” The ruffle of the petals to this day remind me of a Grand Lady dancing in her ball gown -- soft, pretty, feminine. To think that such a beautiful flower emerges from a blob of a brown rhizome is still amazing to me, but emerge it does with a minimum of care.

It's quirky, but not complicated

Planting these glorious beauties is pretty straight-forward and should be done in mid- to late summer to allow root systems to develop before cold weather sets in. Irises like full sun and well-drained, slightly acidic soil. The one thing you do have to be careful of is not to plant them too deep. Leave a small mound on the top of the rhizome exposed; if you don't, they may not flower.

They also don't like nitrogen-rich fertilizer or mulch, both of which can cause the rhizome to rot. Use a light dusting of bone meal or superphosphate in early spring and then a month or so after the blooming, or use a generic 6-10-10 fertilizer mix.
If they do develop rot (recognized by bases that have become loose or soft and are sporting little holes) the good news is all you have to do is cut the bad spots away with a sharp knife.

Irises may also stop flowering well if they become too overcrowded. The plants should be thinned every few years by digging up the clumps, cutting rhizomes apart, removing any soft spots or holes, and leaving one healthy fan and firm, white roots. Replant the larger new rhizomes and share any extras with gardening friends.

Generally speaking, iris beds should be kept free of weeds to keep them looking best in their ball gowns, and flower stems should be cut back to ground level after blooming. The leaves should be left alone if they look green and healthy, but anything that looks diseased or brown should be removed and destroyed. (Don't put them in the compost pile!).

If Mom could do it ...

If this sounds intimidating to you, trust me when I say that iris are one of the easiest care perennials out there. Believe it or not, a then inexperienced gardener did all of the above some 35 years ago with those yellow irises in front of the family home. Now, the descendants of that original plant still thrive in my garden today.

If my mother could grow them, and I can grow them, so can you! Happy gardening!

Would you survive a disaster? Would you want to?

I have had a survival kit for more than a decade. My offspring and close friends (you don't tell just anyone you have one) have scoffed at it and mocked me, but I'm more certain than ever that I'm on the right track with this one.

The world is a crazy-scary place, and all the disasters – whether made by nature or mankind – should give us a dope-slap of reality and make us confront the question of whether we would be prepared if something catastrophic occurred.

The kit

The survival kit started out with the basics - you know, first aid kit, flashlight, batteries, portable radio, etc. That seemed enough once upon a time. Then Y2K came and predicted doom, so I added things like blankets, some canned goods and a can opener and granola bars (they never go bad, do they?).

I forgot about the kit for awhile, but then 9/11 came, bringing with it for the first time in my lifetime the realization that not everyone loves America and that what had been happening on foreign soil was now happening here. And, given a chance, the perpetrators would do it again, and again, and again.

More was needed for my survival kit. In went potable water pills, iodine pills, masks that would keep air-borne particulates out of our lungs, a thermal body cover, heavy duty first aid items such as blood-clotting spray, a tourniquet, lots and lots of bandages, tons of triple antibiotic cream, bug repellent, a small tent-like cover, Sterno, and on and on.

Will I use it?

So here we are, 2013, and I'm more fearful now than I've ever been about the fate of my world.

The entire Middle East region is in the middle of something that I'm pretty sure will be felt 'round the world for decades to come, and Korea can't wait to obliterate us.

Here in America, we're well on our way to financial collapse, which can't bring anything good with it.

So now I have to ask myself a question, not about what I should add to my survival kit, but whether or not, in fact, I actually want or need one.

There are some things you can “survive” but, given the circumstances of your surroundings, would you want to? Other things, such as those that have been going on in the world in recent years, seem more a matter of lasting long enough to see yourself and those you love die of starvation, dehydration, radiation poisoning, disease, or the ravages of the elements.
I'll hang onto the survival kit for awhile longer, I guess, but whether I'll use it when the time comes, or be able to grab the (now) four bags it's in, is another matter altogether.

Those of you who might be interested in establishing a kit to use, or not, can find helpful information atReady America (ready.gov).

Coming to terms with being a senior citizen

Senior citizen? Elderly? Just plain old? Me?

My ride into the City of Elderly is speeding downhill, as I skid only mildly gracefully into 64. The road hasn't always been a smooth one, and I've got more than a few lumps and bumps to show for my efforts as I careened off life's cliffs, picked myself up at the bottom, bloodied and bruised, and climbed back up.

To my way of thinking, you have to be a complete fool not to learn something positive from each bad experience, so I look for the lesson. The introspection has been interesting and often enlightening, and I've gotten pretty darned smart, if I do say so myself. But the one thing that I've found to be the most difficult to come to terms with is the idea of actually being “old.”
What is “old” anyway? Is it a number? A look? A state of mind? Who decided when “old” actually transpires?

I'm told I don't look old (I love those people!), despite the decision to let my hair go naturally, and heck knows I don't feel old! But yet, officially, I am old enough to retire and be considered a senior citizen.

Sigh …

When did this happen?

I've never felt younger, but I'm a nicer, wiser and more contemplative version of my former self.

I like that.

Certainly I take better care of myself physically, nourish mind/body/spirit, and still dance like a maniac around the kitchen, throw myself into all things with a vengeance, and despise being idle either in mind or body. The difference is I usually pay for it with aching everything instead of with a hangover. Where once I thought, “Yeah! Let's do that again!” I now ask myself what the hell I was thinking!

I'll keep at it though, and they'll be carrying me out feet first with my dancing shoes on!

Now that I'm at the exact same age my mother (who seemed so old to me) was when she died, and just a dozen years shy of my grandmother's when she met her maker, I've wondered why we have to be so close to the end of our existence as a human being before we master the fine art of being alive.

Why does it take us so long to figure out who we are, what our purpose is, what we want to be when we grow up, how to accept and to love and to forgive – ourselves, as well as others. I can't answer the question in a definitive, informative way, but I can say that I've answered it for myself.

I know that before I had experienced heartache and failure and the occasional self-loathing, I couldn't learn another way. If I hadn't learned another way, I wouldn't have grown emotionally, and if I hadn't grown emotionally I'd still be asking the questions, and that kind of thinking isn't good for an “old” person.

So, bottom line is: If you THINK you're old, you are. If you believe yourself to be the best you've ever been – smarter, wiser, kinder, prettier/more handsome, funnier, more interesting, etc., then you are.
I know I am. And I'll bet you are, too.

Women can be better than ever after the nest is empty

What do I do now?

That's a question many women have faced and one I've contemplated for hours on end since my full-time wife and mother hat has been put away. How do you go from being a 24-hour nurse, chauffeur, nurturer, teacher, guidance counselor, activities director, cook, maid, laundress, coach … to just being “you.”
How do you even know who “you” is?

The empty nest

Empty Nest Syndrome is real, and it's a tough adjustment. When you find yourself alone, and your kids no longer really need you and have gone about the business of being grown up long before you are ready to let them go (are you ever?), there's a profound sense of loss, of nothingness, of lack of purpose.

When every minute of your adult life has been spent thinking of everyone's needs but your own, it's hard to wrap your head around the idea that it might be OK to do something for yourself. My first thought was that I should keep myself available, because the kids might need me for something. The thing is, until they have children of their own, they don't need you for much except money or doing their laundry, and after they have children of their own they mostly need you for babysitting and an occasional loan.

You can get very old, bored and gray waiting for Prince Charming to come along or the kids to actually “need” you again once they're grown.

Once you've figured this out, and resigned yourself to the fact, that real sense of finality sets in. You look for ways to fill the void, such as cleaning closets, scrubbing everything that doesn't need scrubbing, shopping for things you don't need and usually can't afford, walking the dog longer (you know, the one the kids said they would take care of if you just let them have it), crying, feeling deserted, unappreciated, unloved …

But then …

You realize this isn't all bad!

It's all about you!

For the first time in a couple of decades you can do what you want to do when you want to do it and with whom you want to do it!
If a friend calls and asks you out to lunch, you don't have to say “Oh, I don't have a babysitter, I can't go,” or “Let me ask (the former) Prince Charming (now turned frog) if I can go.” You can go, and every damned day of the week if you want to!
You don't have to pack lunches, and make breakfast, and drive a bazillion kids to a bazillion different places all in the same day, and you don't have to cook dinner at all if you don't want to and you can eat oatmeal at midnight instead!

You can use the bathroom when you actually need and want to, and you can take a shower and walk naked through the house without tripping on anything left where it doesn't belong! (It's never pretty when you fall down naked!)
You can control the remote, eat popcorn in bed, and read 'til 2 a.m. with lights blazing if the mood strikes. You get to listen to your kind of music and watch your kind of TV shows.

You don't have to pretend to be listening or interested in anything but what you really are interested in and want to listen to.
You can finally take that long self-promised yoga or exercise class, or go back to school, and find enough quiet time to meditate and discover who you are.

It took me most of my life, but now at nearly 64 I've discovered “me.” I've found out I actually like myself, that I'm a good, kind, caring person, and (I humbly think) one who anyone would be lucky to have in their world. I didn't always feel that way, and if not for the natural progression of life and an empty nest I wouldn't have had the opportunity to feel it now.

So what now?

I nurture the newly-found me with music, writing, reading, meditating, eating well, and exercising. I've joined a Glee Club (though there are those who would argue I can't sing!) and a new church. I play rollicking games with my girlfriends, go out to lunch, sing unabashedly into hairbrush microphones, and work on coffeehouse activities. For the first time, I'm taking care of me.

Don't get me wrong, I'd go back to the days of a house full of kids in a minute. I loved those years. I loved being married, too. But we can't go back, and I have to be content with the life I have now, so I intend to make the best of it.
If you're facing an empty nest, do yourself a favor and look at it as the beginning of the first day of the rest of your life and embrace it. You'll be the best you've ever been for having made the transition with the courage it requires. Good luck.

A beautiful garden doesn't begin in “dirt”

It's barely spring here, but already I'm excited over the prospect of getting out there and getting my hands dirty.
There's something about the soothing newborn green of early shoots rising up out of the cold ground after a long winter's hiatus that makes me feel almost giddy. I know that might not seem reasonable to some, but if you're a gardener you get it.

Where it began
My love of horticulture was deeply entrenched through years of watching my grandfather tending to his vast yard, planting, weeding, muttering at whatever varmint had visited the night before, all while listening to his transistor radio and cussing out the Red Sox.

I spent a whole lot of time talking his ear off and asking questions such as what he was doing with all that chicken manure from the hen house, and why his strawberries were the biggest, sweetest and most deliciousever, and just tucked the information away for when I finally awakened to the fact that gardening could be a labor of love and not a chore!
That was nearly 40 years ago and, with each passing season, I've expanded not only my plantings but my knowledge. The most important thing I learned was that the foundation – the soil – was the difference between success and failure, grand and mediocre, luxurious and sparse.

Half-hearted efforts

My first few attempts when I was a young mother gave me exactly what I put into it, which wasn't much. Ever the optimist that I'd be the exception to the rule, I didn't prepare the soil but instead just plunged those poor little plants feet first into a base that even earthworms rejected.

Needless to say, the plants rejected it, too, and all I got was a bunch of scraggly, starved -looking impersonations of petunias. After a couple of years of that, I decided if I was going to waste my money on plants at all, I had to nurture them like children.

Conquering dirt

At first, the idea of breaking up all that ground and removing boulders, weeds, etc., seemed daunting. Then lugging bag after bag of manure and peat moss and working it into the hard, lifeless mass became a challenge to conquer rather than dreary work to be finished. But little by little, the smell and texture of the earth changed and gave rise to hope. It was dark and rich, clumped lightly in my hands, and had a heady aroma that to this day makes me positively swoon!

What was once nothing more than dirt was now a source of life-giving nutrients – nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and a host of trace elements– that would take care of my babies. I was spurred on to conquer the Gardening Gods, and I have!

It doesn't stop with one

One glorious garden gave rise to two, and two to three, and three to four. Hybrid day lilies, irises and brown-eyed Susans flourish everywhere as they happily multiply and spread. The peonies and roses throw off heavenly scents as you brush by them in early summer, and delphiniums and hollyhocks and whatever annuals draw my eye that season fill in the spaces.
The vegetable garden and the earthworms that aerate the soil live happily between the perennials, with cucumber and squash vines running here and there, and the bursts of reds and yellows of ripening tomatoes add an element of surprise to garden visitors.

Over the course of the decades every available inch has been planted, dug up, redesigned, added to, divided and shared. It's a glorious thing when the gardens are in bloom and strangers stop by the side of the road to tell me how beautiful they are
But through it all, the thing that has remained the most important is the life-giving replenishing of the soil. Without it, none of the rest would be possible.

How to get there

To give your plants the best chance at being beautiful, there are some basic steps to follow:
1. First, till the soil to a depth of about 8 inches or so (the depth of most root systems), which can be achieved either with a rototiller or a pitchfork. It can be tough work, but you'll be rewarded for your efforts.
2. Work in lots (I mean LOTS) of organic matter, such as manure, peat moss and/or compost, and an all-purpose fertilizer that is high in phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium (all key ingredients for good plant growth).
3. Check the pH level of the soil with a kit that is available at any garden center. If the level is over 8.0, add lime; if it's below 6.0, add sulfur. (Both are available at garden centers.) In the mid range is where most plants will thrive.
At the beginning of each new season, add more of the good stuff and, over time, your "dirt" will have become a soil that will be the envy of your friends and luxury living for the earthworms.

Flash mobs the answer to world peace?

Have you ever considered that the world would be a far better place if we focused on our commonalities, such as our ability to smile, and laugh, and cry, and feel joy and grief, and to love? If you have a bit of sense, of course you have! But, have you ever thought that maybe, just maybe, Flash Mobs could be the answer to world peace?

Think about it. How does it make you feel when you watch a video of a Flash Mob executing a spontaneous public display of personal spirited abandonment? Don't you wish you were there when it happened? Don't you wish you were uninhibited enough to do it? Every time I see one I get all goose-bumpy and end up with a wistful, wishful grin on my face. Then I think, “God, I'd love to be part of a Flash Mob! How much fun would that be?” (Forget the fact that I have absolutely no coordination or sense of rhythm, but that's another story!)

What if we all decided on a tune and focused on traveling in the same direction to the beat of the same drummer, with one goal in mind? What if that goal was to make everyone feel happiness and a sense of oneness in simply being human?

The science behind it

The idea may lead some to think I've lost my grip on reality, but there is some scientific research to back up it up. Dr. Alice Cash of Healing Music Enterprises, who has a masters in social work and has spent two decades of her life studying the relationship between music and human behavior, says "when a mother sings to her infant, her brain releases oxytocin just as when she breastfeeds, and the chemical immediately strengthens the bond between mother and child."

She goes on to point out that music is a part of almost every human gathering, from sporting events to church services to ceremonies, and college reunions always feature their "Alma Mater," which means "our mother," and is sung with deep respect. A grant study by Arizona State University backs Cash up. Their ultimate findings on the psychological data showed that music generally has a positive influence on mood and brings people together.

One of the researchers, Lisa Ehlers of Herberger College School of Music, says "It seems to affect joyfulness most positively" and also boosts energy.

Could we do it?

If you take Cash's teachings and ASU's findings and apply it to the entire world (our mother?), could we achieve peace and that elusive respect for one another? Imagine yourself standing in the long line at the local Wal-mart for awhile and starting to get cranky. In this same fantasy, the guy next to you starts to dance to the piped-in music, and you give him an oddball look like he's nuts. It probably even makes you feel uncomfortable and embarrassed for him. But what if he started to sing out loud, and dance with more purpose, and then the woman in front of him started to, and the kid in the next line, and on through the store.

Could you resist the urge to at least smile if not jump in yourself?

Music is infectious, and so is happiness. I've long said there would be no wars if people were required to smile every day (and mean it) and hug one another, and I'm beginning to think that's true of Flash Mobs, as well. Could you argue about politics? Spread hateful rhetoric? Bomb your neighbors? Dwell on what makes you different when it really doesn't matter at all? How can you hate someone you sing and dance with?

Magical connection

One of my very favorite Flash Mobs took place at a food court mall at Christmastime in 2010. One voice started singing the Hallelujah Chorus. That, all by itself, was something to behold. But when one voice joined another, and another, the effect was truly magical and would have brought me to tears for sure if I was there.

Another that I love is one that featured 200 people in Central Station in Antwerp singing and dancing to Do Re Mi from the Sound of Music. I mean, can anyone not sing that song?

The thing about Flash Mobs is that they know no age, race, creed, color, or religion. The mere act of having a common purpose wipes out any differences we may think we have. It takes effort, but it pays off. It's the way life should be. Why is it so hard for us to do? Why can't we all be active participants in something bigger than ourselves? I'm telling ya, Flash Mobs are the answer.