Transplanting Wildflowers

September 3, 2014

Daisy fleabane

Daisy fleabane

This column first ran in the August issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine. Read the original post here. You can read all of my Backyard Living columns via ABOUT. Sometimes they also run on the Boiled Down Juice. 

This past week we received yet another warning notice from the city of Little Rock informing us we were violating city code. This happens often. We make our home in the city but in many ways we live like we’re in the country. We sometimes hang out the laundry to dry in the sun and we tend to let our gardens grow a little wild. I understand this lead some people to assume we don’t value our home. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

We like to hang our clothes out to dry because the sun is a natural stain remover and the wind a natural energy conserver. It’s cheaper that way and, besides, I like the way the clothes smell. Wind-dried laundry reminds me of my grandmother who made her home in a tiny house on Second Street in Dardanelle. Having never had the luxury of a dryer, she hung everything on the line. Some of my best memories are running underneath those sheets as they whipped in the wind. As an adult with my own family I’d give just about anything to have a conversation with her now. Sometimes when my sheets smell like the outside air it’s almost like I can hear her voice and feel her calming presence. She made do with little, and this is a lifestyle I want my own children to experience, even if it does sometimes put me at odds with city officials.

But this time the notice wasn’t for the laundry but rather for all the “uncultivated plants” in the front yard. If you’re a regular reader of this column you know how much I love flowers and how much time I spend cultivating them. Hardly a day goes by that my sons and I aren’t tending to the multitude of baby flowers we have coming up around the house. For my first few years of gardening I didn’t really have much of an awareness of native varieties. But in recent years I’ve been trying to educate myself about creating a safe and welcoming habitat for bees and butterflies and have therefore turned my attention to the native plants and wildflowers these creatures prefer. It’s not that they don’t also love many of our more cultivated, human-made varieties. But nothing suits their fancy like mother earth’s wild growing blossoms.

Wild backyard

Wild backyard

I’ve been planting a lot of wildflower seeds, but I’ve also been taking notice of what comes up on its own. In an old neighborhood like ours where the lawns aren’t covered in bermuda grass the wildflowers come up easily. This spring I noticed one beautiful variety that seemed especially at home: the Daisy Fleabane. Looking much like a tiny, spidery daisy, it grows about 2 feet tall or more with little clusters of flowers near the top. According to my Arkansas wildflower guides it blooms from around May to September all around the state. It’s usually found in open woods, dry prairies, fields, pastures, roadsides, and disturbed areas. It comes up readily in our backyard and along the side of our house, far too pretty to plow down with a lawnmower.

I watched them bloom for a while and, recognizing that least part of the yard would need to be mowed, I decided to dig some of these wildflowers up and transplant them in my garden beds. They were easy to remove and look great at the base of my strawberry plants and next to the yarrow. I’ve added some next to the zinnias, butterfly weed, sunflowers as well. According to my online research it helps to remove the spent flower heads to prolong the growing season. Much like cultivated daisy, the root bases need to be divided every few years to ensure proper growth and prevent overcrowding.

I’m not exactly sure if it was the Daisy Fleabane that triggered the notice from the city. It could have been was the multiple patches of blue, purple and pink cornflowers, the flowering cilantro or the False Dandelion, another favorite that features beautiful yellow flowers that only open in the mornings. After all, what is a weed? Who gets to make such a decision? Ask one of my four year old sons and he’d be quick to tell you one of the prettiest flowers in the world is the fuzzy head of a dandelion, a flower people literally spend thousands of dollars trying to kill with Roundup. My sons aren’t alone. The bees also love them and the plants themselves are loaded with nutrients, make great teas, and add nutrients to the soil. God did a great job of making plants, but we humans are always trying to change up the landscape in hopes, I suppose, of convincing ourselves the wild world can somehow be restrained. What does this say about what we fear?

So I’ve made a compromise. I keep my wild plants, but I get the city off my back by digging up the wildflowers and moving them to my official garden area. After all, if it’s encircled by a rock border who can argue with my flower choices? And besides, it saves me a lot of money and makes my front yard literally buzz with winged creatures. And it gives me sons an endless supply of flowers to pick, which means I can more easily keep their curious little hands away from my carefully cultivated, high-growing foxglove and delicate carnations. There’s nothing like watching my growing sons walk through the large swaths of city wildflowers, knowing that at least for a short period of their life I can do my own small part in what I believe to be the most sacred act of parenting: encouraging what already grows wild.

Advertisements
Why we need laundry soap.

Why we need laundry soap.

Here’s the January installment in the Pennywise column I’ve been writing for Savvy Kids. Thanks for reading! 

A few years ago my husband and I decided to start making our own laundry detergent. We were on an extremely tight budget and looking for ever-more creative ways to save money. Three years down the road, making laundry detergent has become one of my favorite domestic activities. And it’s recently become a source of wonder for our twin toddlers. This probably makes us sound like we don’t get out much. But hear me out: Making laundry detergent is a form of household magic.

If you’re new to the world of DIY homemaking or urban homesteading, or whatever name you want to ascribe to this make-it-yourself form of domesticity, the thought of making your own laundry detergent may sound a little over the top. People often wonder, will it work? Is it hard to make? Where will I find the time? I can get cheap detergent at Wal-Mart, so what’s the point, anyway?

First let’s talk about frugality. According to a little online research, we discovered that store bought laundry runs somewhere around twenty cents to forty cents a load. Homemade, on the other hand, is only about two cents a load. If your household produces a high volume of laundry, the saving can really add up. But honestly, I’ve never sat down and calculated our savings.  I just know I can buy a package of washing soda for about 3.00 dollars, a box of borax for another 3.00 dollars and a few bars of soap for another 3.00, and I’ve got what I need to make laundry detergent for the year.

Does it work, you ask. I’m a gardener who lives with two three year old boys, two cats, two dogs, and an artist/cyclist/semi-handyman. In other words, we’re quite familiar with dirt, and laundry is a serious subject around these parts. Since beginning to make our own detergent, I’ve never noticed a difference in the quality of our laundry, and our clothes come out just as clean and stain free as they always have. As an added bonus, we’ve also greatly reduced the amount of plastic bottles we throw in the recycling bin since we reuse the designated detergent container for each new batch. In our case the reusable container is an old four-gallon ice cream bucket we got from a local deli, so we double the recipe. But any two-gallon container will do.

I like saving money and I’m happy to have found another way to decrease the amount of waste we produce in our home.  I also like knowing that this soap is better for the environment, free of toxins, and doesn’t dump any dangerous chemicals in the communal water supply. But to be honest, this isn’t why I look forward to whipping up a new batch every few months.

When I grate the soap and dump the shavings into boiling hot water, the concoction fills the house with a soft, soapy smell that permeates every room. My children love watching the steam rise from the big bucket and the opportunity to stir all the ingredients together, observing the powders dissolve and knowing they’re helping make something so essential to our daily lives. After we’ve finished the process, and we put the lid on the bucket to let it cool, I take this opportunity to talk to them about patience and the art of waiting (you’ve got to work that subject whenever you can, right?). Twenty-four hours later we lift the lid and find the concoction converted into a gel-like substance that’s ready to be stirred and wash their dirt-covered clothes. It only takes a few minutes to make a batch, a seemingly simple act that infuses a little bit of wonder into an otherwise normal day.

You can find numerous soap recipes online, including some that call for liquid soaps like Dr. Bronner’s. Here’s our favorite recipe.

Ingredients:

*1/3 bar of Fels Naptha Laundry Soap* (found in the laundry area of most large stores), grated. You can use a hand grater or an electric. We use an old cheese grater reserved specifically for this purpose.

* 6 cups water

* 1/2 cup washing soda (Found in the laundry aisle of most stores)

*1/2 cup borax, (same as above)

Directions:

  • Heat 6 cups of water on stove. (An old cooking pan works perfectly).
  • Add soap shavings and let them dissolve.
  • Stir in washing soda and Borax and mix until dissolved.
  • Boil mixture for 15 minutes and remove from heat.
  • In a 3 or 5 gallon bucket, add 1 quart of hot water and add the soap mixture. Stir together.
  • Add enough warm water to make a 2 gallon mixture. Mix until blended.
  • Let sit 24 hours.
  • Stir before each load and use about ½ cup per load.

*You can substitute other bars of soap in the place of Fels Naptha. Use 2/3 of the bar rather than 1/3.

hands cookies

Photo by Bryan Moats.

This was originally published in Savvy Kids magazine as the December edition of the monthly “Penny Wise” column.  You can read my regular posts for Savvy Kids here. 

When I think of Christmas it’s not typically the trees or lights that first come to mind, but rather the warm squishiness of a clump of cookie dough, or a dense buttery piecrust, in my flour-covered hands. I love the feel of the rolling pin moving across the bumpy textures and the yielding malleability of a simple sugar cookie awaiting shaping. Baking is such a tactile experience, the transformation of a weighty mass of disparate flavors into a light, doughy, chewy morsel of warm perfection. Ultimately it’s the hint at alchemy that sustains my interest, the transformation of so many separates into such a satisfying whole.

Growing up with my maternal grandmother in a multi-generational home, and with the other grandparents less than five minutes away, kitchen alchemy was part of daily life. These were women who had cooked from scratch their entire lives; women who survived the Depression. They knew how to make delicacies like wild Muscadine jelly and how mix up a little flour, eggs, and water and create a feast. But during the holidays they, along with my mother, would go all out. Cookies and pies for days, y’all. And the best part was they always let me help.

I can clearly remember my maternal grandmother’s wonderful butter-stained recipe cards and her wrinkled hands in the dough, flour in the crevices of her silver wedding rings. Her kitchen was tiny and her movements precise. She’d give me eggs to whisk or flour to sift, and if I ever drove her crazy being so small and underfoot she never let me know about it. Providing me with an opportunity to fall in love with cooking was more important to her than a clean kitchen.

When I think of my mother baking, I recall her moving around her own small kitchen like a speed skater, the constant swish of the athletic pants she was so found of wearing in her last years, and surrounded by three different cookies in various stages of completion. She had this wonderful and weird quirk of baking at all nontraditional times of the day. Come Christmas time she was likely to be whipping up cookies into the wee morning hours, and more often than not, even as a young girl, I’d be up with her. It was way past my bedtime, of course. But she knew those magical moments of midnight alchemy were worth infinitely more than following bedtime rules for their sake alone.

When my sons were first learning to speak and their words were few and (adorably) far between, they called any muffin, cookie, or biscuit I made a “mama cracker.” I’ve always marveled at their creative and highly descriptive use of limited language, including their short stint referring to ice cubes as “water crackers.” But the phrase “Mama cracker” was especially touching. They’d watched me make these baked goods and therefore named them after me. Such a name wasn’t just creative use of limited language. It was an idea funneled through a sieve.

According to Miriam Webster, the word “alchemy” has a few definitions, including the more historic concept of medieval chemical science, which involved a “speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.” But it’s also a word meaning “a power or process of transforming something common into something special,” and/or “an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.” What is baking if not the process of transforming of something common (flour, eggs, milk) into something special? And, beyond that, baking has become one of my many attempts to mysteriously (or blatantly) transmute stories from one generation to the next.

My mother and both grandmothers are gone now, and the holidays are, at best, bittersweet days reminding me of this deep loss. They weren’t perfect people, but they were the women who taught me about being a woman, and I’ve learned that baking is one way I can channel the sadness of this loss into a more peaceful memory. I see my grandmother’s hands in my own, and I’ve clearly inherited my mother’s curse of kitchen multi-tasking and late night baking. Not nearly as patient as the women who came before me, I try to remember to shrug off the mess as my sons’ attempts at stirring sends a large cloud of flour into the air and onto the floor. When they break the egg with too much force, sending the shells into the mixing bowl, I get a fork and pick them out. After all, this is how they’ll learn to love the magic of baking, which is something I really want for them as men. And such pilfering through such childhood memories may be one of the ways they’ll one day search for me when I’m gone. I’d rather not be remembered as the woman who freaked out about broken eggs.

I’m a folklorist, and we often talk about Foodways, the study of the gathering, preparation and consumption of food. In this sense, food is a window into a much larger exploration of a given region, the cultures within that region, and the unique and individual stories that contribute to the larger whole. Looking at the stories behind food is like peering into a series of window opening out not only to the past but also towards the future. When I teach my sons how to cook I’m channeling my grandmother who channeled her grandmother; I’m channeling my mother who learned from her aunts and cousins. And, in some small way, I’m laying the groundwork for the men my sons will become. So it’s not just a pie (slightly crunchy from the eggshells) my sons and I are making. It’s a mysterious transmuting of one generation to the next, a ritual transforming many common things (food, memories, parents) into something special.

Leaves

December 31, 2012

leavesgThis was originally published in Savvy Kids magazine as the November edition of the “Penny Wise” column.  

You can read my regular posts for Savvy Kids here. 

Regardless of age, there’s something about autumn that tugs at our core. The new crunch underfoot, sharper air, and richer colors. After a light rain, the moist leaves collect in gutters and along roadways, filling the air with an earthy, sweet smell of decomposition. Those that don’t make it to the gutters are crushed by cars and pairs of so many hurried feet, becoming little ghosts of themselves, their outlines haunting the sidewalks for weeks.

Autumn is so clearly a time of transition. As an adult, and as a gardener, there’s a tinge of grief in knowing that ultimately autumn is not the joyous, electric, pregnant rebirth of spring, but rather a shift toward the dormancy of winter. The colors are deep and rich just before everything turns brown and gray. Soon everything freezes and the plants reign in their activities to focus attention to their invisible processes underground.

Whether it’s the literal or conceptual variety, dormancy isn’t something most humans do well. Or at least that’s the case for most that I know. Props to you if you are wiser. Whereas we may mentally understand the plants aren’t actually dead but just storing up to burst forth in a vibrant spring, we seldom enjoy the waiting. And for those of us who have lost loved ones there seems to be something about fall that exaggerates the hurt. The days get longer, the natural world less colorful. Autumn signals that transition into a process of waiting, the silence, and long periods of dark that are so reminiscent of the mourning process.

My three year old sons, unfettered by thoughts of time (or perhaps more aware of it than I) are fascinated with the spark and immediacy of this seasonal transition. The cooler air has pushed their already energetic selves into a whole new realm of excitement, their little voices perpetually turned up to 11. Even our elderly, overweight dog—who has spent most of the summer panting and dozing on the hardwood floor—seems to be coming alive, running down the back steps and sprinting through the leaves, ears perked up to chase a squirrel run the fence line.  Who can deny the zap of the unexpected chill or the magic of texture-rich leaves that lay in drifts around the city? My sons love to reach down and grab them up and throw them in the air, crunch them in their hands, and stare intently at all the little lines and shapes.

Watching my sons I forget the sadness of fall and reminded of my own childhood leaf exploits. All raked up in a big pile, I was about six or seven and I had grown bored of running and jumping in them. Always a little to anxious for a home of my own, I wondered if I might be able to build some kind of house out of them. All I needed was some kind of paste, I thought. I’d mold them together and then make a dome of sorts. I slipped in the kitchen, mixed up some flour and water and egg to produce some kind of plaster. I dumped it on some of the leaves and began my attempt to sculpt a hut. My trusty dog—whom I had ever so creatively named Pups at age five—had other ideas. As I tried to mold the leaves, he ate the dough. Clearly he was much smarter than me, instinctively knowing the only thing that pasty mixture was good for.

My sons are not quite old enough to attempt to build leaf forts, and I hope when they are they’ll be a bit smarter about the whole process. But they are fascinated with this dying part of the tree, and I’m endlessly thankful for their curiosity and willingness to fall in love with autumn without fear of winter. The best education, of course, is observation, and so we go traipsing along, talking about the different shapes of the leaves, how each leaf can tell us about the tree from which it came. This gives us an excellent opportunity to discuss the importance of being a good steward to these living creatures that provide us with oxygen, shade, and healthy soil. And we’re not unique in this. If you spend much time online you’ve probably noticed all the parenting blogs are overflowing with leaf crafts, recommendations for leaf books, and instructions on how to make an alphabet chandelier from leaves (just kidding about that last one, although I’m sure some super mom somewhere has done this). I have yet to meet a young child, or a parent, who isn’t fascinated by leaves or fascinated with our child’s fascination. To state the obvious, trees are downright amazing.

More often than I’d like, I wind up using guidebooks and Google to learn the name the varieties. Despite living in the central Arkansas area for most of my life, I have so much to learn about these giants all around me. Whereas my grandparents knew almost all their names and their uses, my parents’ generation has, regrettably, lost sight of this magical knowledge that I’m so desperate to pass on to my children.  But isn’t that how it goes? What one generation forgets the other seeks. And it works both ways. Watching my children find amazement in the wind shaking the leaves from the trees reminds me that transition is a fundamental part of life. Nothing something to be feared but rather something to embrace, as best we can.

Photo of our laundry by Saira Khan

I recently started writing a column for Savvy Kids magazine in Little Rock. Entitled Penny Wise, it’s my humble attempt to explore the magic in the mundane.

Soon I will get this blog updated with all the new writings, but until then you can read the first two columns by clicking on the links below.

October: The Clothesline

November: Fall Leaves 

More coming soon.

I am terrified of frogs. It’s a nonsensical but truly debilitating fear I’ve lived with for as long as I can remember. I recently met someone else who shares my fear. We are considering a support group.

But here’s the deal. My sons LOVE frogs. They pretend to be frogs, they always want to find frogs, they like to ribbit like frogs. No other animal captivates them in the same way. WHY?

I realized when I became a mother that one day I’d have to tackle this fear.  Someday soon when their little hands become more adept they’ll pick one up one of the toads from the garden and carry it to me proudly, and I’ll have to try and not hyperventilate or loose bladder control.  And from a purely theoretical perspective I know that frogs are great creatures, especially environmentally speaking. The garden needs frogs. But my fear is greater than my logic.

So recently I decided I’d give myself some art therapy and attempt to knit a frog.  As I tried to figure out the design for his body I made myself think about frog bodies and legs—the way they are formed and the way they move.  This was not fun for me. I persevered.

I’m a beginning knitter at best, so my frog looks nothing whatsoever like a real frog.  My friend Dawn says it’s a “pickle bee.”

Thankfully, G and E adore him and consider him a frog.  They even took up for the little creature at library story hour yesterday.  I was finishing up some of the minor details on his legs when another kid asked me what I was making.  When I said “frog,” he looked skeptical and disagreed.

“It is frog maybe,” E explained to his new friend. I beamed.

So today while the boys were sleeping I set Mr. Frog on the porch by the flowers for a photo shoot and he kindly obliged. If this whole writing/research thing doesn’t work out I’m going to open up an ambiguous animals store on Etsy.