Post 397: rhubarb

I’m driving a veteran to an out-of-town surgery appointment tomorrow morning, so you get two posts today.

I stepped outside my back door this morning to find my mint, peppermint, chives, and rhubarb all growing like proverbial weeds. I should have checked earlier, in April, because the rhubarb always is best earlier in the season. The others will be fine when I get to them!

The rhubarb, though, I decided to pick and make into a simple sauce. I like that, it’s less caloric than rhubarb custard pie (which I make with a meringue top…!), and simple to make. It’s in the refrigerator now, and I’ll have some when it is nicely chilled.

Selfie with rhubarb. Yep, there I am again wearing a red shirt! It's one of those Nebraska things.

Selfie with rhubarb. Yep, there I am again wearing a red shirt! It’s one of those Nebraska things.

yard nazis, part 1

A friend of mine, the late Margaret V., lived in a retirement community in Arcata, California. Though she wasn’t a major gardener, she did like to plant a few flowers on the borders of her lot and place potted flowers on the steps up to her home. Every summer, I’d get at least one letter from her complaining about “yard nazis”, maintenance staff who weed-whacked this border flower she’d nursed all summer or, inexplicably, knocked over that potted flower on her steps. She’d be livid!

I lived in a regulation house at the time, and always had a big garden in back, nice flower beds in front, that I worked years to get just so. I worked very hard to improve the soil until it required almost no effort to turn, it was so loamy. I double-dug all beds and amended the soil every year. All that in a yard that started with clay soil.

Then I had major illness (Wegener’s granulomatosis), which made maintaining a yard of that size more than I could manage. We moved that fall to the retirement apartments where I live now, a pleasant if not fancy duplex that started out as WWII housing. The yard maintenance, we were assured, was handled by staff, as was snow removal, and so on. One could, however, have a small garden along the foundations of the apartment, if one wished.


Bluebells are pretty, but, like morning glories, have a weedy growth habit. I dug out tons of them at the house. They return without mercy and they spread like the weed they are.

I tried small scale gardening at the apartment the first summer. Someone before planted a variety of flowers and roses I didn’t particularly care for (other than one climbing yellow rose): Bluebells, morning glories, some wimpy plant that hates dry conditions and looks like hell when fully hydrated (name?), iris (which are lovely for a couple of weeks once a year, then not so much), snow-on-the-mountain, two awful artificial-looking red roses with no scent, and a nice yellow rose (also no scent). Not to my taste mostly, but, well, not tragic. I’d try to work them out over years. Gardening, if nothing else, is an exercise in patience and planning. Oh yeah, and hope!

yellow rose

This yellow rose has a clean, floral scent, and grows outside my bathroom window. It is the one rose at the apartment I do like.

Management or an earlier tenant used crushed rock to cover unplanted areas as a weed control and to make things look pretty. Like hell! Hell to dig, though I finally broke through using a garden fork I fortuitously brought from my old home on the chance I’d one day be able to garden again. What I found under the rock was compacted, worn out soil much like I’d started out with and spent years building up with composed leaves and grass at the house. “Shit,” I thought! No, at that point, shit of the right kind would have made me very happy!

Also, I left a huge rhubarb patch at the house, thinking it wouldn’t be right to take any with us when the new owners could enjoy it as much as we. The new owners tore it out and tossed the plants in the trash. (My old neighbors tattled on the new owner…!) They had no idea what to do with it or that a couple of the neighbors always enjoyed large amounts of it each year because we shared it with them.

There were some neighborhood rhubarb patches at the apartment complex, a plant here and there, but the old neighbors scouted it out and usually beat me to it. They’d lived here longer. They knew the routine. I resolved to plant my own, which I documented elsewhere in this blog. It took two, three years to get an amount of rhubarb that gave us a taste of it each year, if nowhere what we had at the house.


I was so happy when I finally got rhubarb to grow in the dead soil out back! I added lots of compost and fertilizer to the spot where I planted it, and, unlike my first, failed effort, had the lovely early spring surprise you see in the photo!

spring has…almost…sprung!

I am a spring time person. I love the cold nights and the cool days, the soft rains and the raging thunderstorms, the smell of loam after a storm, the plants sending out new shoots of life I will enjoy into autumn. It’s hard to be cynical and sour when everything comes together, new.

Those who read this blog from time to time know that last year at this time I did a series of walks with my handsome ginger tabby, Louie. Louie and I had small adventures each time I followed him on his walks. They always were concerned with, from Louie’s perspective, “What’s new in my territory?!” Then, August 1, 2011, Louie died suddenly of lymphoma. I didn’t know until the very night he died that he was ill. To this day, I grieve that fact because I had medical insurance on Louie. He could have had a couple more years if we’d caught it in time. Yeah.

But it is spring time, time to put away the sorrows and travails of the previous years, and enjoy the resurgence of life.

This year I have Louie’s successors, the kitten brothers. Full of life and the dickens, Andy and Dougy aren’t Louie, but they are a new adventure for me. Louie I rescued from the pound when the veterinarian estimated him to be five. The kitten brothers come to me when they were a bit older than two months, last September.

The kitten brothers. Cynical Andy, just now starting to accept things as they are and enjoying them a little. He was the sicker of the two kittens, and had to put up with more than a life time of baths to wash the diarrhea out of his fur. Ugh! Goofy Dougy, always ready for a good time. He and Andy play well together, and I think Andy benefits from Andy’s goofiness, his “come on, Andy, let’s chase each other all over the apartment and hunt each other down” way of keeping Andy occupied with what’s necessary for kittens: A good time, all the time, thank you!

Spring. The kittens are eight months old, as of March 1st. They make me laugh. They make me look forward to getting out of bed in the morning. They behave badly but are good, little kittens by and large. Explorers of their realm, little predators learning how to do it by hunting each other -and me sometimes – they are spring spirits, young, reckless, adventuresome, rough around the edges, but holding the full promise of a renewal of the cat presence I liked about Louie in my life. They enter spring as kitten teenagers. That should be interesting!

I’m in a spring mood today. The remains of last year remind me of the cycle of life that ends in death for all living things, but there always is that little sprout poking up through the dead leaves, impossibly small now, but just waiting to spring forth as rhubarb, the first chives for a light oniony touch in an omelette, or maybe mint for some tea.

Spring. My season!

seasonal miscellany

The coming of warm weather doesn’t appeal to me. I have difficulty with heat, perhaps a side effect of the Wegener’s granulomatosis, this disease I have that affects the small and medium size blood vessels. The how and why don’t make much difference: I hate heat!

The coming of warm weather has salubrious results if you are a member of the plant kingdom, however. This is the iris season where I live. We just went through the flowering crab apple (and other apple varieties) season a couple weeks ago. A bit earlier than that, to my delight, the rhubarb I planted last year made a small appearance. I think I planted eight plants, of which only two came up. From the two, I might yet get some rhubarb from the relatively larger one.

There it is! My little rhubarb! Actually, my little big one.

I’ve planted a couple of heirloom tomatoes, a Brandywine and another the name of which escapes me. Somewhere around the end of August, I should start to have too many tomatoes to deal with. The varieties I chose both are of the beefsteak style: one slice’ll do you because one slice covers the hamburger, BLT sandwich, whatever you have it on.

In past, when I had more consumers of tomatoes available, I planted up to eight plants. I’d make a delicious tomato plate with vinegrette and herb dressing (nasturtium, marigold petal, several varieties of basel, and two varieties of mint). Whew! That was garden eating!

Now, for the latest cat news!

Have I mentioned Louie can be willful and just plain obnoxious when he’s in a mood? My brother and my Seattle sister both have cats. They proclaimed Louie a sweet cat, but I testify to this: a sweet cat is still a cat! That’s my breakfast, my coffee, my juice, my chair. Yeah, like that!

The warming weather makes Louie, my ginger cat, restless to get outside and be a cat. This goes against my will for him. I live too close to busy roads to just turn him out. When Louie looked out the back door and found a visitor, keeping him in became harder yet. I call this familiar neighborhood cat “J. Doe”. Louie called it several names of his own before it fled, stage right. After this visit, Louie became much, much more interested in getting out on his own.

Even when the late spring snow came, and I let Louie experience wet paws, his wishes were delayed, not ended. J. Doe would have to wait for another day.

Louie’s behavior outside is reasonably good. I walk alongside or behind him. If you’ve ever “walked” a cat, you know they piddle around much more than most dogs. Sniff, rub, roll around in the loose dirt, just sit there, dig a potty hole (I approve, sort of- less litterbox waste to deal with, but an outside booby trap for an unsuspecting gardener.). When I’m ready to go in, usually when Louie starts to wander farther than I want to carry a 20 lb. (9kg) cat, I pick him up and take him back home. Yeah, he gets pissy about it, whining, threatening, ears folded back.

“Save it for your little cat friends, Louie.” Which, in this last photo, he demonstrates he did.

faith, the other kind

I have faith. I am, in fact, an elder in the local Presbyterian church. But that’s not the type of faith I’m writing about today.

A few weeks ago, I received a small box in the post. It isn’t that unusual that I receive such boxes, but I was curious to open it to find what I’d ordered this time. I slit the tape sealing the box and opened the flaps, expecting music CDs, perhaps movie DVDs, because the box proportions suggested those treasures might be inside!

I cleared the packing away, and looked down in shock. Horror? Instead of something lovely, like a new J.S. Bach CD, the treasure turned out to be… three shrunken, black, organic somethings, the nature of which I could not guess. Then I found the packing slip under the black, mummified remains. Rhubarb! I’d forgotten I’d ordered rhubarb last fall, and these three scary things were it!

I have a rare form of vasculitis (Wegener’s granulomatosis) that nearly killed my body five years ago, but rekindled my faith, the first kind. Since then, the path to recovery left me less able to do gardening at first, though the strength needed (and a move from a house to an apartment, where the garden is much smaller) has returned mostly. I can do such things as plant tomatoes, if I wish, or lots of flowers (which I always have around me), or dried out, mummified rhubarb starts.

That’s where the other kind of faith comes in. To look at the starts, I would guess the best place for them would be the compost heap, if I had one, or the trash. Yet I have received such unpromising “bare root” packages before that turned into magnificent roses, lavender, grapes that were ambrosia and nectar in one, right off the vine! “I dunno,” I thought, because the “bare root” rhubarb starts looked, umm, unpromising!

I put the rhubarb starts in a plastic tub I’d filled to the top with water. “Over night” is the usual time you soak “bare root” starts, but I couldn’t imagine a week of soaking doing much to revive these specimens! I checked the next morning, decided to soak them 24 more hours. At the end of 24 hours, I checked for: 1. any sign of life, and, 2. any indication of which end was up because the starts, in the mummified state, didn’t give many clues. Both questions answered, at last! One end showed growth that suggested the top to me, even if the little shoots almost looked like roots.

Maybe another night’s soak would sort out the ambiguity….Which it did! The rooty-looking sprouts turned out to be the start of stalks. That’s all I need to plant the starts, which I did this morning after preparing the ground with lots of organic matter and rich, loamy garden soil, the way rhubarb likes it.

I told you this was about faith. It is! Gardening is an act of faith, a belief that working the soil to create a perfect environment for the flowers, fruits, and vegetables you like and want to grow will result in a harvest- in time, the Lord willing, and if you have faith, the other kind!