on the top shelf of an Edinburgh garden superstore.
December 16th, 2014 § 0
December 10th, 2014 § 0
My first term as a new horticulture student ended Friday, and I am a strange mixture of relieved it’s over, proud of myself for surviving, and excited to get back to school. The last six months were some of the most challenging I’ve ever lived, beginning with the decision to leave my beautiful farm in Virginia and move to a foreign country where I knew no one, all to try to learn something new at age 35.
And I am happy to say that I have indeed learned a lot, which really came into focus when I received the most recent issue of my favorite magazine, Gardens Illustrated. This British publication is so lovely that I’d actually splashed out on an international subscription when I was still living in the U.S., and it is no understatement to say that the writing, photographs, and knowledge contained within its pages influenced my decision to study horticulture. When I got a U.K. address, one of the first things I did was subscribe to Gardens Illustrated here. My first issue arrived last week, and while paging through it I was amazed to see that after three months of studying horticulture, I am reading a completely new magazine. What’s changed? I’ve learned a new language.
Latin. That language no one speaks but everyone said, while I was growing up, was “just so helpful” for understanding what seemed like everything in the world. As a young student I didn’t study Latin, yet I managed to grow up and become a semi-literate member of society who garnered a fair share of bylines without anyone knowing my secret linguistic deficit.
And then came the first week of horticultural training, and into my hands was thrust a list of 25 plant names. In Latin. That I had to learn to identify from live material and name. It Latin. I swallowed hard. The gig was up.
Before I had time to panic the class was herded outside on a high-speed zoom about the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, trailing our sprightly and quintessentially English head of education as he pointed out each of the plants on the list and where they grew. All while spouting even more Latin.
The class stood beneath a tall tree that had just about dropped all its buttery yellow autumn leaves: Kalopanax septemlobus. Our teacher picked one of the tree’s leaves up off the ground, counted the seven lobes out loud, and tossed it on the ground, scoffing, “It must be broken.”
And off we zoomed to the next plant on the list.
We did this every week with a new list of plants, and one of the things that’s most amazed me about this transition is that I am actually able to learn and remember all these new plant names. In Latin. Which brings me back to reading my magazine, where, because it is a reputable horticultural publication, all plants are referred to by their Latin names. Today, when I read down a list of plants and came across Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’ which was just on my last exam Friday, I almost leapt from my chair out of sheer joy of recognition and understanding. Now I know that rather complicated name refers to the relatively prosaic little black mondo grass that edges municipal plantings everywhere. And which isn’t actually, technically, a grass.
For the first time in a life spent loving plants I am learning to call them by their real names. This might not seem like a lot, but one of the major benefits of binomial nomenclature (two name—there I go with more Latin, somebody stop me!—the first being the genus, second species) is that if you know the genus to which a species belongs, you are well on your way toward a basic understanding of the fundamental characteristics of a plant whether you’ve seen it or not. How handy!
Before I began my course, I used to kind of just gloss over those Latin plant names, as one tends to do with things in foreign languages one doesn’t understand. But now, for the first time in my life, I have begun to read and understand this language. And it’s a whole new world.
November 26th, 2014 § 1
I miss writing in this space, and have many stories to tell. However, my return to higher education has hit me like a lead cudgel and it’s been all I can do to just stay on top of my assignments and exams, all whilst navigating the zillion challenges attendant to plopping oneself alone in the midst of a foreign country.
However, I wanted to post a few photos showing where I am two days a week, at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. All day Tuesday I have work experience, in which I spend four weeks at a time shadowing different professional teams at the gardens and doing what they do. Everyone has been great to work with, and I have to pinch myself that I get to help care for such a beautiful and respected garden. Then I am at the gardens again all day Friday, when I have horticultural practices all morning. It’s a very hands-on learning day where we’re again working with garden staff—some of them the best plantsmen in the world in their areas—on all sorts of learning scenarios. Friday afternoons is plant recognition, when we learn morphology, taxonomy and take high-speed walks through the garden with the head of education as he points out everything we have to learn for weekly identification tests…in Latin.
These photos are from last April, when I first visited the garden as a tourist having no idea that in six months I’d be working here…even though when I walked through the gates my first reaction was that I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Strange how we dream our lives into reality, isn’t it?
The Chinese hillside. The Botanics is very active in China now, with many staff going on lots of seed-collecting trips and bringing material home to Edinburgh for propagation.
The John Hope Gateway cafe and reflecting pool. To the left is an area planted in the perennial/meadow style, which in April is not doing much but looks fantastic in the late summer. On this deck was an outdoor display of the International Garden Photographer of the Year photos, which I had written about here last February, never expecting to see the prints in person.
The alpine yard, which is a miniaturist fantasy with all these gorgeous tiny little plants flowering in rock installations. The British love their alpines—I am working on some theories as to why but need to do more research.
So while I have not been tending Bonafide Farm, nor writing on this blog, I have been here in Ediburgh, at the Botanics. The first term is over at the end of next week, and I hope then to catch up on some writing here. Until then, I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving!
October 30th, 2014 § 11
I know it’s been nearly two months of silence here on the Bonafide Blog, but just wanted to pop back in to say that I will now be writing from Edinburgh, Scotland!
I moved here in early September, arriving on my 35th birthday, and have since been studying Horticulture with Plantsmanship at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Scotland’s Rural College. It’s been a long-held dream to study plants in the U.K., and I am really excited to be doing it at one of the best places in the world for the study of horticulture.
It’s been an absolutely crazy two months, during which my world turned upside down. I was pretty sure I’d shut down the blog. But now circumstances have evolved so that I will actually be doing some farming in Scotland, so I plan on writing about that here as well as the odd observation or two about expatriate life. I may even get around to exploring all the lessons I learned at Bonafide Farm, as promised.
To everyone who wrote asking about Tucker, he is safe and sound living the good life with my parents just a short drive away from the old Bonafide Farm. He is enjoying his new home, where he has a full-time canine playmate, and of course the love and attention of my parents, who are wonderful with him. My kitty is there as well, and all my chickens found good new homes with friends. I’m not going to say it was easy to leave them all, but every creature is well-taken-care-of and happy.
Thank you all for your lovely comments on my last post. I didn’t really know so many people were reading and finding what I wrote useful and inspirational, so it was a wonderful surprise to hear all the nice things you had to say. Thank you for reading, and I hope you stick with me for the next iteration of Bonafide Farm. More to come, very soon!
August 25th, 2014 § 7
I am writing to you tonight, and it’s the last night I’ll sleep at my farm. At least for a good long while. Not to worry: I am on to a grand new adventure that includes higher education, expatriation, creative passion, and the pursuit of yet another great, big project. I plan on sharing full details soon, and I’ve already written several posts in an attempt to tie up the lessons of last five years of my life with a tidy little bow.
But tonight I am walking through a house that’s half empty, awaiting the movers in the morning. In the past few days I have felt my spirit draining from this home, a second skin that I designed and built and lived in and loved even before it was realized. It is wrenching to leave this place, where every inch of house and land hold vivid memories and lessons that I can only hope will make me stronger, more empathetic, and more resourceful in the future.
My heart is breaking into a zillion pieces. I am a turtle whose shell is being removed, but it was my own choice to do the removing. After building an entire ten-acre habitat, I am traveling into my new life with nothing but two suitcases.
But I am so damn happy. I am so proud of what I have done here. I am so amazed at the kind of person living here has shown me to be. I am so grateful for everything that I have been given, and all that I’ve learned. I am so thankful for my parents, who made every bit of this possible and who continue to support and love me while selflessly encouraging all my crazy ideas.
Tonight I ventured in the dark to the end of the driveway to stuff one last garbage bag in the can. As I walked back toward my house, which looked so warm and friendly lit from within, I crumbled inside thinking of how I was leaving the place I’ve most loved in my entire life and how a ten-year dream was ending. But then I turned on my heel toward the hayfield in the front yard, and up above me was a vast clear sky full of brilliant stars. The Milky Way galaxy stretched right across the farm like a painter’s pale white stroke, and here and there I could make out faintly blinking lights from airplanes traveling high above.
All the people in those pinpoint flickers are going somewhere else. And so am I.
August 21st, 2014 § 0
Last weekend I picked what felt like about 50 pounds of tomatoes. I have only ten plants, but it’s been an unreal tomato season here—the best since I’ve started the farm. I have no doubt that it correlates with our cooler-than-usual summer. When tomatoes are exposed to the high temperatures (day/night temperatures of 95/80°F) that are common during a typical Virginia summer, it significantly reduces the number of pollen grains that each flower produces and releases and decreases the pollen’s viability. No pollen = no fertilization = no tomatoes! But this year, which has been cool enough that I’ve had my air conditioning off more than on, with night time temperatures regularly in the 50s, has kept the tomatoes happy and pumping out fruit.
I recruited my mom to help me process these beautiful tomatoes, and we made a good team. She washed and scored each tomato with a knife. Then I dunked them for 30 seconds in boiling water before plunging them into a cooler water bath. I slipped off the skins and chopped/crushed each tomato to pulp before adding it to one of three stockpots I had bubbling on my stove. With fistfuls of basil, a couple of heads of roasted garlic, and a bit of salt, the tomatoes cooked down into a sweet, beautiful, nutritious sauce free of pesticides, preservatives, and all the other frightful things that show up in commercial sauce (e.g., high-fructose corn syrup).
It’s not clean work, and it’s hot standing over boiling water for a couple hours. But I know that last year when it was brutally cold outside and I opened up my freezer to find containers of homegrown, homemade tomato sauce, it made winter just a bit more bearable.
August 15th, 2014 § 5
Yesterday I took some time to clean all my garden tools. I soaked them for a few minutes, then scrubbed off all the caked-on red mud and chicken manure. I took a wire brush to the rusty spots and today I will apply a thin coat of oil to stop any further rusting.
As I cleaned I remembered all the hours of hard labor on this farm, working alone and getting to know my own physical limitations and the strength of my willpower during the days spent forking mulch around my trees and turning compost, cutting new furrows into the spring garden, and sweating through the tear-inducing frustration of trying to pick-ax a planting hole in dry, red clay. There are so many stories behind each of these tools. There’s the hand maul that finally did in my rotator cuff while I was splitting wood during this winter’s polar vortex and the elegant little hand weeder that was a gift from an exboyfriend who did more than any one else save my parents to support my farm dream. I don’t ever want to lose my favorite short-handled red cultivator, which I bought to use at this farm’s predecessor, my community garden plot in Arlington, and that’s almost always at hand. And of course I’ve prepared homes for hundreds of trees and plants here using that one shovel and a couple trowels.
For historical perspective I’ve kept a couple of delicate “Lady Gardener” tools that I was given as a skinny kid who just wanted to dig in the dirt. I guess I’m not a lady gardener now that I’ve graduated to the man-size tools, but if you’ve ever seen me caked in dirt, sweating and bleeding and cursing as I try to bend the earth to my will, you’d know that anyway.
This humble little collection of steel and wood is what brought Bonafide Farm to life. The least I can do to thank my tools for their service is give them a garbage can bubble bath and a little hot-oil rubdown.
August 12th, 2014 § 4
Last week the house got a major upgrade in that one of the two entries now has proper steps!
Yes, I am embarrassed to admit that for more than four years I lived with two cinder blocks and a couple paint-stained board as my only way off the back porch. It was one of those things, of which there are myriad when you build your own house, that get left to the last minute because I couldn’t decide on a design while the contractors were on the job. The contractor left, and I was left with a precipitous drop off the porch onto a wobbly 2″x6″. I adapted, and managed to navigate the tricky board/door combination okay, and as these things happen when there are a zillion other projects higher in priority, it just became normal. If a bit kountry.
But last week, thanks to a few day’s hired labor, I now have a proper set of stairs at the back of the house. I had a flash of inspiration last winter when I realized a simple set of stairs wouldn’t suffice in this situation. It would have been too hard to stand on them and open an out-swinging door. So I came up with this idea to make essentially a mini-deck, which gives plenty of room to operate the door and also all sorts of nooks for sitting, potted plants, English Shepherds, etc.
In time the new pressure-treated wood will weather, and then if I am feeling ambitious I can paint it to match the house. But for now I am thrilled with how it turned out. I keep going in and out the door so easily that I laugh with delight, remembering how annoying it was before. I grilled out last weekend and didn’t burn myself opening the door like I did on the fourth of July! Now if I just had a nice stone patio for my new steps to connect to. It’s in the master plan…maybe in another four years!
August 6th, 2014 § 0
It took me a long time to get used to having a dog that constantly keeps his eye on me, even when pretending to relax. At best it is intense, at worst somewhat creepy. But now after three and a half years of living with my “English shadow” I am having a hard time imagining Tuck not having my back at all times.
Last night he watched me as I prowled about the woods, photographing the surprise lilies. He came right to the edge of his invisible fence line, as I walked beyond it, and didn’t budge.
Sometimes Tuck is silly, often he is playful and excitable just like a typical puppy. Sometimes he is the purest expression of wild joy that I have ever seen, flying at full speed across the field first thing on a cool morning. But ever since I have known him he’s also had a serious, contemplative side, and that’s the Tucker I saw last night—his old-soul face. I wonder what he knows.
August 5th, 2014 § 1
As I drove into town this evening, I kept noticing naked lady lilies (Lycoris squamigera) blooming in the yards of some of the oldest houses. These fascinating members of the Amaryllis family are bulbs that first appear in spring with strappy leaf growth, looking like beefier daffodils that never flower. The leaves die back and then, suddenly, in late July or early August tall stalks shoot from the ground and unfurl translucent pink flowers that do indeed have the luminescent glow of bare flesh. Because of this disappearing/reappearing trick, they’re also known as surprise or resurrection lilies.
Because of their ephemeral nature, it took me a few years to realize I had a clump of these lilies growing in my woods near the previous owner’s junk pile. I hurried out there tonight and caught my own naked ladies on their first day of bloom. Like many lilies, these have a strong, sweet scent. They really are pretty magical, holding court in the old oak grove.
I associate surprise lilies with old homesteads as they are amazingly long-lived. I wonder how mine got in the middle of the woods. I have several mysterious patches of cultivated plants in my woods, including groups of irises and other spring-flowering bulbs. Were they planted to mark a grave, perhaps of a beloved pet, or were they chucked into the woods during garden cleanup, as I’ve done with some of my own iris rhizomes?
I suppose I will never know, but I enjoy them just the same.