Grape Arbor Update

Last May I built an arbor for my grape vines. It was a project I’d intended to do for a long time. You can see what the space looked like before I put up the arbor:
Before arbor

And how the arbor looked when finished:
After Arbor

Here is what the arbor looks like this morning:
Arbor in fall

Vines have covered it completely and trail off of it in all directions. You can see that the vines are funneling all their energy into making grapes and preparing for winter. The leaves have lost their new-leaf sheen. In only a few weeks the leaves will turn yellow and fall away. One of my tasks for this week is to collect grapes:

There are lots of them hiding in and among the vines. I’ve also got pears and walnuts that are ready to harvest. I guess I’m like the vines, storing up food for the months to come. But for a moment I can stand back and admire the arbor, which is finally what I pictured when I first planted vines seven years ago. Growing things takes patience. I need to remember that when I’m frustrated by parenting or writing.

Writing Retreat at Home

Two years ago this week I left my house and went to a writer’s retreat at Woodthrush Woods. That trip was both hard and wonderful as is chronicled by the blog posts I made during that week. I visited Woodthrush Woods again the following summer during the first Writing Excuses retreat. That time the trip was more wonderful than difficult, the hardest part being that my trip was more abbreviated than I would have liked.

I’m thinking about these retreat experiences because today is the beginning of the second Writing Excuses retreat at Woodthrush Woods. I will not be in attendance at all for an assortment of good reasons, none of which have anything to do with fear. Yet I find that a piece of my brain has traveled to Chattanooga with Howard. I’m thinking about the forest there. I’m finding that the feeling of being at a retreat is surrounding me even though I’m still at home. I’m going to roll with that feeling. This coming week looks to be a much calmer week than those which have come before. I’m going to take that calm and make a stay-at-home retreat out of it. I’ll do things that evoke memories of my retreat experiences. I’ll go for walks, light candles, cook food for fun, and take some pictures. Mostly I’ll put writing into the middle of each day rather than focusing on all of the other things first.

I don’t know how successful I’m going to be at this. It is hard to shift patterns and thoughts when I’m surrounded by all the trappings of normal life. Yet I’m helped by the photos and tweets I see from people I know who are there at Woodthrush. Those words and images evoke the retreats for me. I just need to capture that feeling and nurture it, even when my morning is spent prodding groggy kids out of bed and sending them off to school.

In the spirit of a writing retreat, I just went walking in my back garden. I took my camera and paid attention to the beautiful things that I saw. The space is much smaller than the woods around Woodthrush, but my garden does not lack for small beautiful things, or at least small interesting things.

Here is the sun rising over the mountains as viewed through the branches of trees in my back garden.


While walking the woods I took many pictures of the trunks of trees, often with vines or moss. I’ve watched the threes in my garden grow from saplings to adult. It is fascinating to me the way that the skin of a young tree starts to break up and become tree bark.
Tree bark

And then there is the long time resident of our garden, Winston.
Seeing him makes me happy, though of late I’ve looked past him more than I’ve looked at him.

My world is beautiful. I must walk in it more often.

Demolishing the Deck

Some time before we bought our house, a previous owner built a redwood deck in the back yard.

I took these pictures of it three years ago when we made a family project out of pressure washing and re-staining it. Look at how lovely it was. Particularly note the even-ness of the deck planks.

Having seen what is underneath, I’m certain the trouble had already begun, but none of it was evident from the surface. It seemed solid. Then last year we started noticing that the planks were uneven. Some of them were pushing up. Others were sinking.

I took the picture after we’d already spray painted a warning line on a particularly bad spot and after I’d removed some railing. Most of the deck was still solid underfoot, but some of it felt…soft. We figured we had a rotten beam. Howard and I discussed options. We don’t have the money to replace the deck. To get at the bad spot, we’d have to pull apart everything. We knew once it was apart, we probably couldn’t get it back together. We decided that demolition was what we had to do, because it was going to be a safety hazard otherwise.

It was hard to decide that staring at the surface. Everything I could see looked nice. I felt bad making a mess of all that beautiful wood. But I got out the drill and pulled off the railings. Then we pulled off the trim.

You’ll note there is still a section of railing close to the back door. We’re hoping to save that portion of the deck as it feels solid and we need some sort of landing for the back door lest we step out and fall two feet to ground level.

It doesn’t look so bad in that picture. There were an abundance of spiders and bugs as we removed boards, but most of the structure seemed okay. Until you looked close.

There were spots of dry rot. And every single trim board was partly rotted away at the bottom. You can see where the ends of the boards had dissolved back into dirt.

With the railing and the trim out of the way, we started pulling up the planks.

That support beam was not one of the soft spots. It was under a spot that felt solid. Note the underside of the plank.

I’d imagined that perhaps I could give all the wood to someone who could use it. But pretty much every board had some kind of rot or fungus on it. When we got all the planks up, the extent of the rot was apparent.

The entire sub structure of the deck was on its way to becoming dirt.

There were beams we could crumble with our bare hands.

In fact, Kiki did crumble one up, just for fun.

We used a crowbar and a 4′ wrecking bar to get the planks up. Except usually we only had to get one end loose and then we could yank it up with our hands. Either the boards were rotten or the screws were so rusty that they just broke.

We were careful as we proceeded, because bugs, spiders, and weird things. Fungus is weird.

I don’t even know what this thing is, except it is growing out of one of the major support beams.

It’s about the size of my hand and looks like a face hugger alien. But it doesn’t twitch when poked with the end of a crowbar.

As we got closer to the house, we found the jungle of lint.

You see, the people who built this deck did a really good job. The deck was very sturdy. Built to last, and that is why it survived for almost twenty years. Unfortunately they also did something very stupid. The dryer vent blows into the enclosed space underneath the deck. It supplied warm, wet air into the enclosed space for twenty years. No wonder fungus grew and the wood rotted.

Here the narrow two inch slit for air to vent from the dryer.

That was all under the deck planking.

So, whatever we decide to do with the space that no longer has a deck, it will be something that allows the dryer to vent in open air. I bet our clothes will get dry faster too. I admit I’m also excited that the hose faucet will also be in the open. We used to have to reach into a hole in the deck in order to reach the faucet. It was half-jokingly called “The Spider Hole.” It was excellent spider habitat, particularly for widow-type web spinners. As we were demolishing we only spotted one that might have been a black widow. The others were brown, but every bit as creepy.
The square part around the faucet is clear because I removed the spiderwebs in order to detach the hose. It looked pretty much like the adjacent square, with all the webs and egg sacs.

The planks are all removed. Later this evening we’ll tackle removing the rest. All of it is going in a big pile on my driveway. We’re going to have to borrow a truck to take it to the dump, but I think that’s a job for another day. For now I leave you with a picture of our cat who is confused by this project.

My California

I imagine that people who have never visited California picture it as beaches and palm trees. California = beaches and palm trees. It is true that the state has an abundance of both when compared to most of the rest of the world, but for me those are not the things which make the place feel like California. I suspect that every person who has visited there will have their own list and those lists will vary greatly depending on which part of the state they went to and what interests them. I lived in California for the first eighteen years of my life and this is a photo tour of my California.

The first thing I wish I could share is not photographable. It is the feeling of the air. I can sense the ocean in the humidity and mildness of the air even in the parts which are hot and dry. It is like a blanket, mostly comforting though occasionally stifling. When you get within a few miles of the ocean you can smell it and taste it in the air too, but further inland it just gives a feel to the air that is gone once you cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. That air makes me want to wear light clothes and put on sandals, even if I’m there in January.

Of course we must start with a palm tree. They definitely feature in my California.

But for me palm trees probably mean something different than most of the world. This particular palm sits in the middle of the next-door neighbor’s lawn. It used to be much shorter and there used to be two of them. They were constantly full of the sound of cooing pigeons, burbling, nesting, flapping as they flew in and out. I know my neighbor thought of them as a huge nuisance, but I liked them. There were other birds too. Sometimes we’d find baby birds that had fallen out of the nest and attempt to save them. It never worked well, but we tried. One year a pair of kestrals decided that the palm was a good nesting place. We got to watch them teaching the fledglings. The neighbor kids caught some of the fledglings and kept them in a cage for a few days before they were informed that holding birds of prey is illegal. The parents came and retrieved the fledgelings as soon as they were freed. But the coolest of all was the pair of barn owls who lived up there, one per tree. We’d see them fly out in the evenings and sometimes heard them. We sometimes searched for, and found, their owl pellets on the ground. I loved knowing that owls lived in the palm next door.

So for me a palm tree is a bird sanctuary. I love them for that, though they are, sadly, not easy to climb. Some time in the past fifteen years squirrels moved into the neighborhood and took over the palm tree. This did not please my neighbor, who put a metal sheath around the trunk to keep them out. So now the squirrels nest everywhere else instead. Once chased out, the pigeons have not come back. The palm tree is quiet now.

While I’m talking about trees, this is a pepper tree.

You see them all around the bay area (surrounding San Francisco bay.) They’re like willow trees in that the branches droop and trail. This one has been trimmed. By preference the branches will trail all the way to the ground. We had two of these next door as well. I loved the spicy smell of the leaves, it was particularly sharp when they were crushed. This meant that pepper tree leaves were part of many childhood potions. As pepper trees age, they hollow out in the middle. Old ones become something of a hazard because they split open or branches fall off. We knew that one of them was hollow because it was filled with a beehive. We called it the Bee Tree and stayed away from it. I have many bee tree stories, but that would be too long a digression for this tour.

This same neighbor (she had all the interesting plants) had cactus.

There were century plants, prickly pear, and that tall one. We used to go pick spines off the cactus for part of our games and she used to scold us and tell us not to. About four years ago one of her century plants finally sent up a tall spike and bloomed. Supposedly they only do that once per century, so I guess the cacti had been there for a while.

Further out than my neighbors yard, I have fond memories of these juniper bushes.

They have the weirdest looking berries.

People always complained when we picked things off their decorative plants. So we only picked a very few when they weren’t looking.

In our front yard we had a bed full of ivy just like this.

I think someone planted it picturing it climbing up the brick of the house. Instead it wanted to take over the ground. We didn’t like the ivy much, but the big snails who lived in it were pretty cool. We liked them. I think my parents finally got rid of the ivy on their third major eradication effort. The stuff was hard to kill.

The neighbor across the street had a bottlebrush plant.

She was a second mother to me and didn’t mind when we picked stuff in her yard.

So now it sounds like I spent my entire childhood filching plant matter from the neighbors and making potions with it, which is possibly true. Also I can see that this tour perpetuates the idea that California is filled with green and growing things. It is, so long as humans are willing to throw water around. The untended areas all look like this.

Rolling hills of yellow dry grass. (That row of trees in front is human planted.) It is lovely when seen from a distance, particularly when the wind makes the grass wave. It is also a significant fire risk, so most of the hills have fire breaks mown across them. There are also scraggly trees.

Here is an example of more natural landscape.

The trees in this photo are big because there is an aroyo right behind them. Aroyo = stream, many things in California have Spanish-based names because of the settlement history of the state.

You can see some of that influence in the architecture.

There are lots of buildings featuring stucco and slate roofs. Those clay tiles work great for managing rain, they’re awful anywhere it freezes.

This next building I have always loved. It is a feature of my home town.

I don’t know the history of the building. I’ve never even been inside. I’m not Catholic and I feel shy about asking to tour someone else’s sacred space. Maybe someday. I understand they have beautiful stained glass windows. Sometimes I got to glimpse them from outside if the interior was lit after dark.

While I’m touring man made things:

Yes it is a mailbox, but this one is my neighborhood mailbox. I walked past it every day as I walked home from elementary school. I remember the day one kid put a dead mouse inside it and hid to see if the mail lady would scream. Then he was told he’d committed a federal crime. He was terrified the police would get him so he ran away. I’ve noticed that California has lot of neighborhood mailboxes. Utah does not and I miss them. I know I can leave letters out in my personal mailbox at the end of my driveway, but somehow that feels less official than taking a short walk and dropping a letter into a tardis-blue box. (Are they bigger on the inside? Do the letters travel through time and space to reach their destination? I like mailboxes.)

I suspect the difference has to do with the fact that most California houses have mail slots on the house rather than mailboxes near the street. It is a solution to a problem. I see other solutions to other problems everywhere, the landscaping of houses for instance.

Those rocks are not a gravel drive. They are small river stones in place of a lawn. Many yards do this, have spot plants with decorative rocks or pavement. Utah is all lawns, which is somewhat silly in a high desert, but we have a huge watershed to support them I guess. Also that round tree, they are everywhere. I don’t know what they are, but the round shape is created by periodically shearing off all of the branches until you have a trunk with two or three large branches off of it. Then the tree freaks out and grows long whippy branches off of the branch stumps. It is not my favorite treatment of trees. Though the leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow in autumn and they’re great for leaf jumping.

Here is another example of California landscaping.

This yard has looked exactly the same since I was seven years old. Sadly the yard across the street removed their little decorative wishing well. They probably got tired of kids sneaking into their yard to toss things in it. Not that I know anyone who would do that. Ahem.

This landscaping was new to me, but I really like it.

They put some effort into creating a lovely scene rather than just throwing down rocks and calling it good. They’re going to spend the next 10-15 years trying to keep kids from wandering off with all those lovely blue rocks.

I could probably keep going describing the California I knew growing up. Each memory I write trails a dozen more in its wake. Instead I leave you this.

It’s a bird on a telephone wire. There are poles and wires everywhere, at least in my home neighborhood. In more modern developments they probably buried the wires. Or maybe they can’t due to earthquakes. I just know that as a teenage birdwatcher I spent a lot of time staring at birds sitting on wires. This one is a mockingbird. They don’t live in Utah and I miss them. California has lots more birds in more varieties than Utah. I miss that too. But I particularly miss listening to mockingbirds outside my window. I wish I could convince them that Utah is a nice place to live.

I visited with a friend while I was in California. She caught me looking up at a palm tree and swinging my be-sandaled foot.
“You miss California! You should move back here.”
I do miss some of it, but not all of it. I’m glad to visit, but it isn’t home anymore. I can tell, because I go to California and write a tourist-type post pointing out all the interesting things. I’m not sure I could do the same for Utah. We have interesting things, they feel normal for me and I hardly notice them anymore. California is nice to visit, but Utah is home.

Building a Grape Arbor

Yesterday I wrote about my grand garden plans. One of them involved grapes and an arbor.

I left the space for one when I put posts into the ground. The idea was to have a grape hedge with an arbor. Today I bought lumber and pulled out my power tools.

The timing on this really was perfect. I had an overcast day and if I’d waited any longer the grapes would have been unweildy to work with.

It is not a particularly elegant arbor, but within only a few weeks you’re not going to be able to see much of it anyway. Next spring, when the wood has had time to weather, I’ll stain it to better match the posts to which it is attached.

It is nice to finally see one of the grand garden plans realized.

Making Friends with Flowers

I did not always know the names of flowers. I knew the popular ones, the ones that most people know: rose, carnation. I came to know the rest in 1999 when I was recovering from an extended illness. I needed a year of peace, I needed to emerge from a winter of illness into something green and growing. So I read gardening books and I made grand plans for how my garden beds would mature. On any day when the weather cooperated I went outside and made the acquaintance of flowers. I learned their habits, I discovered which ones faded out like guests who leave a party without staying to say goodbye. And I learned which ones were my staunch friends.

To my surprise, my best friends were not roses. I thought they would be. My middle name is Rose, I thought I would always carry that connection. We bought this house only a year before my illness when it had twenty rose bushes and my grand plans featured those bushes. I loved them enough to buy rose gloves that went up to my elbows. I tended them, clipping dead flowers all summer long and amassing piles of thorny sticks in the annual pruning. Yet where roses lived it was hard to grow anything else. If I tried to work around the bases of the rosebushes, they drew blood. I wanted many flowers, not just one.

The rosebushes are all gone now. I didn’t set out to remove them all. It was a series of decisions. This bush needed to come out because I wanted a peony. That one had died. Those were blocking passage to the neighbor’s yard and scratching kids as they ran back and forth to play. One by one they were gone. I remember them fondly. But not fondly enough to make space for new ones in my life. Instead I have friendlier, more sturdy flowers. The irises and peonies which are blooming now I planted all those years ago. I’ve neglected them a lot during the years between. They’ve spent much time swamped with weeds. Yet they’re still here. As are the lilacs, mock orange, wisteria, day lilies, bleeding hearts, and lily of the valley.

My garden now does not look much like my grand plan. The plan was beautiful, but high maintenance. What has evolved instead is mostly self sustaining. It is a green space with some flowers instead of a showy floral display space. This spring for the first time in years, I’m once again planning improvements for my garden. They are small plans, all aimed at doing extra work this year when I have help, so that I can do less work in years to come. I’m not even planning the entire summer’s work, just this week and next week. I take each week as it comes, knowing that each Saturday when I take the time to garden, that is a gift. One that I have not always had. I became a gardening because I needed to heal. Gardening still heals me. Why do I forget that?

Maturing Trees and Getting Older

Our trees have begun to poke their roots out of the surface of the lawn. This surfacing of roots is the natural result of having mature trees. The roots have grown in girth, just as the trunks have. They used to hide under the lawn, now they can be seen. This creates new challenges for our back garden. Where we once had to struggle to keep lawn alive in scorching summer sun, we now have protruding roots and spots where the lawn suffers because it doesn’t get very much sun. The challenges of a young yard are different from those of an older one.

I had my eyes examined about a year ago. I went because I’d noticed changes in my vision and thought that I might need new glasses. Upon hearing that I was forty, the optometrist looked at me sadly and said “The forties are not kind to eyes.” He’s correct. More and more of my friends are acquiring bifocals and reading glasses. Howard has had to adjust his work processes for the changes in his eyesight. Focusing my eyes takes far longer than it used to. Sometimes I have to hold a book in this position, other times in that one. My eyes are not the only things that I feel changing in my body. Dozens of small things work differently than they used to do.

I’m not complaining about my yard or about aging. There are advantages to mature trees and there are advantages to being forty. I’m spending much less time afraid than I used to. Most things I encounter I have the accumulated knowledge to handle with ease. This morning I was out with 13 year old Gleek weeding the tall grass out of the spot of dirt which is supposed to be an herb and vegetable garden. “How do you do that?” she asked.
“Do what?”
“Get the roots out with one pull.” I turned and looked at her. Sure enough, she kept pulling the tops off of the grass stalks while leaving the roots. My hands have been pulling weeds for so long that they know exactly where on a stalk I should grab, how hard to pull, and that slight twist that breaks the roots free. I don’t know when I learned it. I didn’t even realize it was a skill until I saw that Gleek didn’t have it. Being forty is like that all the time. Hundreds of things have become so easy for me that I’m hardly aware that they are complicated.

When the gardening work is done for the day, I walk in my yard. I trace the length of roots along the surface of the grass. One of the roots runs for more than six feet along the surface of the ground until it disappears under the fence into my neighbor’s yard. I can see the places where vines have grown through the fence and are breaking planks apart. I see the lattice we attached to the wall fifteen years ago, which is now a crumbling ruin around the trunks of the vines it once supported. I look at all these plants that I put into the ground. I now get the array of blooms that I pictured long ago when I planted a tiny wisteria stick and hoped that it would not die.

I don’t know what is coming for these plants. Possibly the roots will begin to trip people. The trees reach over the house now. Sometime soon we may have damage to repair because a tree begins to die, or begins to fight with the house. I can look ahead and try to imagine, just as I pictured grown trees when I dug holes for baby ones. Of course when I pictured canopy overhead, I didn’t picture roots underfoot, yet I get both. The future I’m going to get will be different than I can imagine today. I will be different. Like the trees, I am going to continue changing and maturing. I’ll need different glasses. My body will change. My capabilities will alter. Some of that I’m going to dislike, just as I get annoyed with my eyes right now. Yet I’m sure that continuing to age will continue to bring me unexpected gifts along with the annoyances.

For today, I walk my yard, tend my garden, and try to make decisions that will be good for years to come.

Digging out Weeds

This was my front flower bed at 9am this morning. Grass has always been a challenge in this bed. I’ve fought with it for years, never quite able to eradicate it because I was reluctant to really dig up the bed for fear of hurting hidden spring bulbs. Then I had two or three summers where I did very little gardening. The grass began to win and this year there were no spring blooms. I decided it was time to take a shovel and dig everything up. When I began digging, my hope was to dig it out and buy some flowers to plant to make things pretty. Within a few minutes I could tell that the grass was so pervasive and wide-spread that the only chance I had to really get rid of it is if I employ a bare earth policy. I need to dig up this bed every few weeks all summer long to be able to find all the hidden grass and morning glory roots.

Step one is mostly complete.

You can see that I left the peonies, a couple of day lilies and some flax down at the end near the rock. These are good strong perennials and they are the basis for the flower bed that this will become. For this year they’ll just sit there surrounded by dirt. If I succeed in my war of attrition on the grass, then when cool weather arrives in the fall, I will plant some more perennials. I have all summer to think about which ones I want.

As I was digging, I thought about this bare earth approach in other areas of my life. There is often a stage in creating something beautiful that is downright ugly and a whole lot of work. Last year was a bare earth year for our family as we cleared away lots of mess and reconfigured some relationships. This year the kids are poised to bloom. Right now my novel is in a bare earth phase. I’m just working and it feels like there is no way that it can ever be a thing of beauty. But sometimes it takes a summer of digging weeds before there can be a summer of flowers.

Taming the Garden

Somewhere in the years, Mother’s Day became and emotionally complicated holiday. It didn’t used to be. I try not to make it so now, but sometimes it is because my children and husband want to do something nice for me and I want to let them, but I don’t want them to feel obligated. Sometimes it slides by without a ripple and all is happy. Other years it is a fraught day with emotions other than happiness and contentment, even though all of the scripts state that Mother’s Day is supposed to be a day when Mom is happy. This year I saw the holiday coming. I also know that money is tight and so the last thing that would feel happy is extra expense. I sat everyone down yesterday and declared that what I really want for Mother’s Day is for our yard to not be an absolute wreck. I was surprised at how willing the kids were to go along with this plan. I think they liked having a clear goal.

This morning the work began with clipping and clearing. We broke out the mower for the first time and trimmed back various bushes and vines. The pom pom spruce got sheared back. We stared at the apricot tree and the pear tree, but both have gotten so tall that we’re going to need some sort of a pole saw to give them the trimming that they need. Four hours of work across five people and we’ve cleared away a significant mess. This evening some of the dry branches will have a second use as fuel for our fire pit. There will be smores. Next week will all be hands and knees work. We’ll need to get down into the flower beds and pull out all the extra grass. I want to clear the dirt enough that I can sprinkle seeds. I’d love to plant flowers that will bloom this year, but I don’t have the funds for that. I can do seeds though. I have a big stock of them that have accumulated over the years.

At one moment during the morning I stood and watched my kids at work. They were all focused on their tasks at hand, which is not at all how family work days used to go. They functioned as a crew and got lots of work done. Then afterward they did more things together. I have to remember that we play together more happily when we’ve worked together first.

It would be so lovely to spend this summer glad every time I step outside my door instead of sad and guilty. That would be a lovely gift indeed.

Tending and Blooming

I used to be a gardener. It is still a thing that I love and someday I will again make time to tend the ground and grow flowers. Right now it is simply not as important to me as a dozen other projects that I have. I find time to get outside and beat back the weeds, but that is not the same as being a focused gardener. A tended garden is a thing of beauty. My garden is a wilderness where plants have a survival-of-the-fittest battle with only occasional intervention from me. I’m pleased that sometimes the flowers win.

Every year Thanksgiving Point Gardens hosts a tulip festival. I always intend to go. One year I even scheduled an outing to go, but then one of my kids picked that day to pretend to be sick. All of the other years, at least five or six of them, I simply missed the window. Somehow the two weeks in April when the tulips are in full bloom always were busy. I would look up at the end of the month and realize that I’d missed my chance yet again.

This morning, for the first time ever, I didn’t miss it. My friend said “Do you want to go?” and I said “Yes.” So we both ditched our piles of work and we wandered the gardens.

Beauty can be found wild, in untended corners, or even wide open spaces. Yet there is an art to a tended garden, I walk there and I know that it is loved because someone had to get down on hands and knees and dig. They had to get dirty, tired, and sweaty to make sure that all goes well. A tended garden takes a sacrifice of time. I’ve spent my last few years tending other things. This year I’m watching my children bloom when last year was life torn up, mud, and despair. Sometimes tending something is like that, you have to make a big mess before beauty can happen. I’ve also tended many books and last week I got to see them arrayed in a booth where others could see the results of all those invisible hours. My garden is full of weeds, but my life is full of things that are beautiful because of the effort I’ve put into them. So perhaps I am still a gardener, just not of flowers right now.