Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Not everybody's cup of cappuccino

I wandered around on my bike yesterday, wanting to pedal a little more than a trip to my usual neighborhood haunts would require. So I headed west along Minnehaha Creek, our wonderfully wild and natural urban bicycle byway that leads through little passages of woodland right in the city, then turned north at Pleasant Avenue and headed up—literally—through the neighborhood known as Tangletown. It's so-named for the rabbit warren of curving streets that lace through and across each other as they climb up from the creek. It's an excellent workout, especially since there's no way to get any kind of momentum before you find yourself on a rather steep incline.

I intended to end up at a new little bakery and cafe known as Pattisserie 46, at 46th and Grand, but discovered that they're closed Mondays. So I headed over to Anodyne Coffee, just a few blocks (and at only a slightly higher elevation) away.

The baristas were in good spirits, as they usually are there. A regular customer came in and the barista asked how's it going, and the customer said she'd been working in her yard all morning, digging weeds. "My back yard is almost completely purple with creeping charlie," she said with a weary sigh.

"Sweet," said the cheery barista, her gaze on the espresso machine as she prepared the customer's drink.

"And my front yard is full of dandelions," added the regular.

"I love dandelions," said the barista, seemingly oblivious to the exasperation in the regular's voice.

Gotta love that barista.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sweet Violets

I've been seeing lots of violets lately, in lawns and gardens and the crevices of sidewalks. They appeared about the same time as the dandelions, right after we had a hot day followed by lots of rain. I have no understanding, and certainly no sympathy, for those who consider them such a menace that they'll part with their hard-earned money to have some chemical company come and poison their lawn just to get rid of them.

Amongst the various definitions of insanity,  I'd suggest that poisoning your lawn and, subsequently the birds and other innocent creatures who visit it, in order to destroy a harmless little flower growing amongst the otherwise boring blades of grass really ought to be one of the top ten.

Common sweet violets (Viola odorata) and their cultivated cousins the pansies (Viola tricolor), and also all members of the viola family, are not only pretty, but also tasty mixed in a salad or decorating a cake. They're mildly sweet and, in truth, offer more in the way of edible decor than flavor. One of our neighborhood bistros, Al Vento, has grown pansies in the planter boxes surrounding their patio, and last spring, I remember the waiter snipping a few for the chef, who used them as a garnish with dessert.

Of course, we're not the only species that can enjoy violas as food. Rabbits will happily munch on them rather than on your garden plants, if the supply in your lawn is plentiful. Fritillary butterflies prefer them as larval plants, and recently emerged bumblebee queens appreciate the nectar after their long winter nap—and anything you can do to get bumblebees to stick around will increase the yields in your garden, especially on the tomato plants, which bumblebees pollinate better than any other insect.

Despite their delicate appearance, violets are tough and sneaky little flowers. Hence, all the efforts to eradicate them from lawns eventually fail. They spread by underground runners as well as by seed, which is why they tend to colonize a given area once they get started there. And when they are ready to go to seed, they nod and tuck their little inconspicuous seedheads out of site and near the ground, so regular lawn mowing doesn't even affect them.

They have some medicinal uses, too, though I've never tried to use them in this way. According to this site, the ancient Greeks used them to "moderate anger" and strengthen the heart, and one of the common names for both violets and pansies in old England is Heart's Ease. A delicious bit of irony, when you think of the people so irritated by them that they'll do anything to kill them.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Julia's Garden: Emerging and Transforming

Julia Johnson was the former owner and gardener at this house. She passed away a few years ago and the house sat empty for a couple of years while the family waited for the market to improve, or so I understand. I'm glad they decided to sell it when they did, because it was right when we were looking last spring (actually, I think they had listed it in January and by spring when we saw it, they had lowered the price—must have reached that point when an asset becomes a burden!)

We closed on the house on July 2 last year, spent the month of July madly doing as much as we could to upgrade and spruce up the house, as well as simply to make it better suit our own tastes, then moved in at the end of July. So, our focus all last summer and fall was on the inside of the house (except for installing gutters to redirect the rain from the roof, but that was for the sake of the inside, as well, of course). Now it's time to start on the outside, my favorite part!

Julia was quite an avid flower gardener, but apparently not a vegetable gardener. The space at the back that we had assumed must have been her kitchen garden because it enjoys such terrific sunlight and is completely overrun with weeds, raspberries, and a random assortment of flowers, was, as it turns out, where the family used to park their second car. That would explain the two slightly skewed rows of heavy concrete pavers we've been hauling out of there! (We hardly noticed them last summer, when the weeds were three feet tall!)

Our neighbor Joe informed us that Julia "threw some raspberries in there" because she didn't know what else to do with the suckering canes. Ah, raspberries; a mixed blessing, indeed! There is a thriving thicket of them against the fence that we share with Bonnie and Joe—a thicket that grows on both sides of the fence, and it's not clear which side it started on! Taming that thicket is one of my daunting tasks this summer. But, fortunately, we all love raspberries, so it'll be a labor of love.

I imagine the same explanation applies to the clumps of lupines, blackeyed Susans and echinacea in the former parking space, all of which also grow elsewhere in the garden. Chances are she needed to divide these robust perennials and couldn't bear to discard them. Who can blame her? I have started potting up clumps of them to bring to a spring plant swap or two. It'll nice to have something other than orange daylilies to offer!

And then there are the daffodils, tulips, and grape hyacinths. What a treat to see these emerging and opening up this spring. I should not be surprised there are so many daffodils, because it would seem that Julia really liked yellow. We painted over a few faded yellow walls last summer, and when we visited the estate sale for this home last June, I selected this figurine dressed in yellow as a memento of Julia. The daughter-in-law taking payment said, "This one looks like Julia, too." Whether that's true or she just said it because I told her why I was buying it, I like to think of this pretty little lady as Julia's totem, or maybe I should say "avatar." I named her Julia, anyway. She's too fragile to keep outdoors, but I brought her out to the garden to pose alongside Julia's daffodils for a photo.