Memorial Day

image by stephen marrinan

photo by stephen marrinan

When I was growing up, Memorial Day meant a parade down the main street of our small town. People’s fathers appeared mysteriously in uniform, accompanied by the high school marching band, scout troops, local service clubs, and fire engines. My sister Lorna and I walked into town to see it, and followed the end of it to the VFW post, where speeches were made, ice cream in dixie cups was given out free, and a softball game was organized in the weedy next-door lot.

We had pictures at home of my father wearing the Army Air Force uniform that hung in our hall closet, but he did not put it on or join the parade. He was raised a city boy, but he hated crowds. Lorna and I weren’t big on crowds either, but we were very big on ice cream. Still in our single digits, we didn’t understand what memorials, or veterans, or foreign wars were, or what they had to do with the official start of summer, permission to wear white shoes, or free ice cream. But we gleaned from the speeches and the surroundings that the point was to be grateful: for the veterans who fed us, expecting nothing in return; for the musicians carrying their shiny instruments in the gleaming sun just to play for us; for the watchfulness of the firemen; for the warm light of summer; for the softball game that might last until dark; for all these things we licked our sticky fingers with gratitude.

irisSometime later I found out what war was, all loss, terror, and heartbreak, and then I was truly grateful for anyone able to pitch in and stop one. This meant the World War veterans, of course, but I had also heard of Victory Gardens. Now I thought I knew what they were – a way to stop war by getting people to garden. It made sense to me: if people put in the effort needed to grow things, to care for them patiently and see how beautiful they were, why would they want to blow them up?

It was later still that I found, sadly, that people could think of other people the way I thought of, say, the woodchuck. His needs opposed to mine, he becomes The Enemy. It’s a word that has momentum.

More May

Over the weekend Doug put another round of cedar planks on two of my raised garden beds. I lugged a few hundred pounds of dirt into them, and though they could have used more, I planted my tomato seedlings anyway. They were getting leggy indoors. The Supersteaks had grown so tall they already needed staking. IMG_5086Here they are with tomato towers from two manufacturers: the galvanized ones from Burpee are heavier gauge, so they stand up to windstorms better; the green ones from Gardener’s Supply, which they call tomato ladders and which stack, are taller and support the tops of the vines better. I don’t have a favorite between them, and never having been one for matched sets of things, I like mixing both kinds. I have a third type of stake, too – the spiral kind – which I will deploy for the other tomatoes. I don’t use tomato cages. They make it too hard to weed, and anyhow, I like to claim I have free-range tomatoes.

Speaking of weeds, a number of them snuck into my herb garden, so I’ve also been putting time into evicting them. It’s the herb garden that’s really free-range, right out in the open because deer won’t eat fuzzy, scented leaves. Except for getting weeded IMG_5081now and then, it really fends for itself. It has a long season, providing sage for Thanksgiving dinner and thyme whenever not covered with snow. The lavender, garlic chives, and chamomile are self-supporting, and it also boasts monarda, russian sage, and shasta daisies. The only annual is – or, will be – basil, various kinds, colors, and sizes. As soon as I get the aforementioned weeds out of the way.

Another area getting my attention now is the woods. I have vastly reduced the amount of garlic mustard growing there, but eternal vigilance is required, as many of the neighbors upwind are not so careful. I don’t so much weed the woods, as curate it. Pulling the garlic mustard has made the ferns very happy. IMG_5082The lovely tall flowers blooming all around my chair here are dame’s rocket – not phlox, as I thought when I first saw them. Many people put them on an equal footing with garlic mustard and react to them with horror, but they are way less trouble, much easier to keep out of places they’re not wanted. And the deer don’t eat them, which is not true of phlox.

And then there’s the front yard. No time for that right now.

Urban Farms

A few days ago I went on a tour of urban farms in Detroit. The city has large swaths of empty land where derelict buildings were torn down, and a lack of fresh produce available to current residents. city orchardThis combination would seem to make urban farming an obvious win, but as we learned on our tour, there are many complications. The soil is poor, and full of debris; the city still has many restrictions in place that limit farm options; and then there’s the human factor. For every group happy to have the tomatoes, there’s a group that wants its city back. What is the best use of this land? What is the possible use of this land?

Detroit is about 140 square miles in area, and there’s not even agreement on how much of it is vacant. One group claims it’s 40 square miles; another claims it’s only 25. Being a city built around cars, its glory days featured neighborhoods spread out with plenty of road access and parking. When you knock down two houses that once had landscaping around them, you get a bigger empty space than when you knock down an apartment building where several times as many people once lived. Houses in these neighborhoods stand now like a melancholy smile with teeth missing.

city emus

Emus guarding city chickens

In one such neighborhood – Boston Edison – we visited Food Field, an urban farm named as a play on Detroit’s home football stadium, Ford Field.

city farm

Miufi farm

Not far away in the North End, we saw a farm run by the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, or Miufi.

The various small farms in Detroit get together to sell community farm shares, since each farm grows a fairly small range of produce. The miufi farm gives its produce for free to anyone who shows up and asks for it, though that may soon be only for North End residents.

detroit 14

Up on the Roof

And one more example of urban farming in Detroit is up on the roof of the fifty year old restaurant/bakery/ microbrewery/dairy, Traffic Jam and Snug. They grow fresh herbs and vegetables for the restaurant, and with a greenhouse up there too they have fresh herbs all winter. They don’t have to struggle between their urban and farm roles, but do both at once.

If Detroit real estate recovers its value, these farms may find their land worth too much to keep undeveloped. Farmland around Ann Arbor is protected by non-profits that buy the development rights; thereafter the land can still be sold, but only as a farm. Will Detroiters come to love their urban farms, and conserve them? Will they outgrow the farms? Or will urbanization by mid-21st century will take some completely different form? Detroit may be a good place to see what happens.


Usual Miracles

It happens every year of course, but it’s still fairly amazing when the lawn goes from frozen white to flowy green, and the trees from bare fingers to fluffy gloves, in so short a time. I start seeds indoors in March in perfect confidence that this will happen, and then it does, and I’m amazed all over again. This is an important part of why I love having four seasons – the sheer strangeness of it, for all its familiarity. It’s a cliche and a revelation all at once. When I lived in California and missed the seasons, people would say, oh but you can drive from lawn to snow and back again here all in one day. This completely missed the point. Going somewhere else and finding it different is hardly a surprize. Waking up to it in your own yard is.

Once the trees that bloom on bare branches have strewn their pink and white in profligate manner for a couple of weeks, it’s time for new leaves, on them as well as on the other trees. The bright bunchiness of new leaves can make the trees look full of yellow flowers, and makes me think of some lines by Robert Frost: “Nature’s first green is gold/ Her hardest hue to hold.” But as he goes on to sound a cautionary note about the passage of time and I am not in such a mood, I won’t quote the whole poem. Frost is the perfect name if you’re going to write a cautionary poem about spring. You can find it here, if you are in that mood:

and page down a bit.


Another cool plant emerging in the woods now is the mayapple. My first year here, I pulled up some towering garlic mustard and found a forest of foot-high green umbrellas hiding underneath. Each plant had a single leaf but there was a thick patch of them, and they really looked creepy. Sinister. may applesI had no idea what they were, so I posted a photo to Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation facebook page and they identified it for me, along with their compliments on the garlic mustard removal. Mayapple. On further inspection each leaf had a dainty white flower under it, sort of like a lonely apple blossom; but the entire plant was poisonous. So my initial impression was correct: sinister. It’s interesting to think that we have some kind of inborn recognition system for dangerous plants, and intriguing to wonder who decided to undercut that native wisdom with a perhaps cynically chosen name.

I have to say this for garlic mustard – it is well named. Pull even the tiniest seedling of it and you smell the garlic on your hands. I make the most progress by starting at the west edge of the property, and clearing the garlic mustard as thoroughly as I can going east. That way, though I still get seed blowing in from neighbors to the west and seedlings come up ridiculously thick at that edge of the woods, there are few seeds launching from the middle of my woods to continue eastward. The patches peter out there. But it’s important to try to establish something else when the garlic mustard comes out, to give future seeds less purchase. I’m trying an assortment, in addition to the catmint, plumbago, and lamium I’ve already mentioned, and will report on what works best.

Knowing that garlic mustard was imported deliberately as a salad herb, I once tried picking young, tender leaves and putting them in a salad. Blech. I also tried a garlic mustard pesto recipe. Blech again. I suppose it might do if you had no actual garlic. Why didn’t they just plant garlic in their gardens?

Happily, the more I curate my strip of woodland, the less the deer linger there. I didn’t expect them to mind it being less wild, since they have been known to destroy even totally-landscaped gardens in town. Out here on the margins they do have the option of open woods, and I am extremely glad to find they prefer them. recovering dogwoodsThe year before last I planted two small dogwoods and the deer nearly killed them, stripping off bark as they used the trees to scratch the so-called “velvet” from their new antlers. Seems like they could at least have dropped the old antlers in my woods, in exchange. But in the fall I wrapped some protective material around the trunks and they are now recovering, even blooming a little.