Monday, January 25, 2010

Narcissus unfold joys of spring

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel, January 24, 2010)

My kitchen smells like springtime. The flowery aroma isn't due to some artificial air freshener, incense or cleaning product. It's the result of three bulbs and a bowl of sand. The sweet smell of narcissus is scenting the room.

The narcissuses were a gift hand-delivered by my son from his 93-year-old grandmother in Seattle. My mother-in-law is an avid gardener. During the winter, bloom-filled containers face the picture windows overlooking Lake Washington. Mary has a green thumb, a trait inherited by our 26-year-old son, who lives with her in Seattle.

Timmy gave me the narcissus bulbs a few months ago when he was home for a visit, but for several weeks I did nothing with them. The brown papery bulbs sat on the window seat inside the paper bag they came in. Unlike my husband, who grew up in a home where forced bulbs were a seasonal norm, my childhood home was devoid of interior gardening. Perhaps that's why my confidence for growing indoor plants has always been shaky. Nonetheless, I decided to give the bulbs a go. How hard could it be to force flowers to grow?

As it turns out, it wasn't hard at all. One day, with a burst of optimism, I took down a glass bowl from the shelf, went down to the lake and filled the bowl with sandy soil. I then took the three bulbs and pushed their pear-shaped bodies into the sand until about half of their brown surface was submerged. I filled a jar with water, gave the potential blooms a generous drink and set them on a windowsill in my kitchen, where I could see them daily and add water whenever the soil became dry to the touch.

It didn't take long before green leaves began to appear. Day by day, more leaves sprouted, grew taller, fuller and more and more verdant. When the leaves stretched over a foot tall, I began to wonder if greenery was all the bulbs would ever produce. Where are the flowers? I asked myself. Did I do something wrong? Should I have used dirt instead of beach sand? Was I supposed to refrigerate the bulbs before planting them in the container? So many questions popped into my head. So many doubts crowded out my budding enthusiasm.

Then the other day, as I was washing yet another sink full of dinner dishes, an unfamiliar but pleasant fragrance drifted my way. What's that? I wondered as I looked about. It was too pleasant to be coming from the compost bucket sitting on the counter and too floral to attribute to the ripening hand of bananas hanging nearby. I wondered if it could it be the bulbs. My eyes glanced quickly toward the windowsill.

Sure enough, that's exactly what it was. At the tip of two of the three bulbs were clusters of small white flowers. Although the blooms had not yet completely opened, the dainty petals already emitted a heady essence. I buried my nose in the cup-shaped flowers and inhaled deeply.

Suddenly I was no longer in my kitchen cleaning up the remains of the evening meal. I had traveled back in time to a place where daffodils grew wild. I was on Cape Cod. I was in the yard surrounded by fields of paper whites, narcissuses and daffodils. It was springtime, and it felt wonderful to be outside at last in the warm, flower-filled, sweet-scented air.

Back in my kitchen, I opened my eyes. The view from the window in my Central Florida home looked oddly similar to the long-ago view from my Cape Cod kitchen. The recent cold snap had zapped the color from the foliage. The same sense of one season giving way to another prevailed upon the landscape.

It's amazing that something as simple as a narcissus bloom can trigger such sensual and visual memories. I'm glad I unpacked the gift my mother-in-law gave me and took the time to plant the bulbs in a bowl of sand. The effort on my part was minimal compared to the rewards I received. It was proof once again that you don't have to inherit a green thumb to reap the benefits of a floral display. Gardening is a pleasure anyone can enjoy.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Wild turkeys join wildlife menagerie

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 17, 2010)

On the first day of 2010, a flock of wild turkeys wandered out from under the banana trees and headed up the hill toward the citrus grove. I was in the kitchen looking out the bay window. At first I saw one turkey, but by the time I grabbed my camera and slipped outside, three more birds had appeared.

Wild turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo, are one of nature's success stories. Rather than declining in numbers, turkey populations have increased gradually over the past 80 years. That wasn't always the case. In the early 1900s, hunters had killed so many gobblers that the species was on the brink of extinction.

Things changed in 1937 with passage of the Pittman-Robertson Act, which imposed an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition to help pay for wildlife restoration. Once preservation efforts were in place, turkey populations rebounded. Today more than 7 million birds wander the woods and fields of North America.

Florida is home to the Osceola, one of five subspecies of this native North American game bird. The four turkeys I saw appeared to be females. Males, called toms, have distinctive spurs on their legs and beards — tufts of modified feathers — growing out of their chests. I didn't notice either feature on the birds I observed, which led me to believe they were all hens. All four were a similar size, about 30 inches tall. Males tend to be larger than hens, weighing a good 10 pounds more than their 8- to 12-pound counterparts of the opposite sex.

It puzzled me that I saw only females. Because this was only the second time in 19 years that I had spotted turkeys on the property (and the first time occurred only a couple of weeks earlier), my knowledge of turkey behavior was limited. To learn more, I explored online sources such as the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. From those sites I discovered that before mating, female turkeys segregate themselves from the flock and gather in small groups. Because mating season for Florida turkeys begins in February, it may be that the flock of hens I saw was exploring our property in search of potential nesting sites.

Whatever their reason for passing through, I was elated to observe turkeys on our property. In the past few years I've seen more wild animals than ever before. In 2009, in addition to the usual suspects — armadillos, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels and possums — I observed coyotes, bobcats, foxes and otters. Ralph and I watched turtles lay eggs and a pair of sandhill cranes raise babies.

During our walks we've encountered numerous snakes, spiders and butterflies. One day a peacock wandered through our nursery, and every night an osprey roosts on a perch my husband placed in the middle of the lake. Water birds feed daily on fish in our lake, and songbirds flit from one flowering plant to another.

In early spring we enjoy the song of whippoorwills, and I'm always attentive to the cries of hawks, nightjars, killdeer and kingfish. We even have a resident pair of screech owls who (hoo?) annually nest in an old mailbox mounted beneath the porch eaves. I love the menagerie of critters that wanders through our property, and I was delighted to have a flock of turkeys join the parade.

When we bought the land in 1991 it was raw and barren. Over the years we've worked hard to repair damage done by a peat-mining operation. We've nurtured the soil, replanted the land and resculpted its contours. Our plan has always been to create an oasis for people and a sanctuary for wildlife. On many occasions we've wondered why we chose such a huge project, but then a flock of wild turkeys wanders by and the reason for our undertakings seems suddenly clear.

There are many ways to measure success. For Meleagris gallopavo Osceola, success can mean the resurgence of a breed once hunted to near extinction. To a landowner with the intention of preserving nature, success can be charted by individual gifts. On New Year's Day I received such a gift. You might say, "It's just a turkey." I say, "It's a treasure — another of nature's precious gems in my own back yard."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Palm fronds top beautiful bamboo gazebo

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 10, 2010)

Until recently, I hadn't paid much attention to palms. I knew there were different varieties, each with its own characteristics, but that's about all I knew. I might have remained palm-ignorant if not for our newly constructed bamboo gazebo.

"I'd like to thatch the gazebo with palm leaves," I told Ralph at the project's beginning. "I've seen it done at a number of places, and it looks beautiful."

"But will it last?" Ralph asked rhetorically.

He was sure it wouldn't. I insisted it would. I explained how the Seminole Indians had been using palm fronds on chickee huts for hundreds of years. Thatched roofs, I had learned, not only stayed dry in downpours but often outlasted conventional roof coverings during hurricanes. I didn't succeed in convincing my skeptical spouse. Ralph refused to believe that a roof covered with leaves would work. After a while, I began to have doubts myself.

To seek alternatives, I went online and came up with two possibilities: a custom-made canvas cover and a Tahitian-style rain cape called a palapa. Both options had merits as well as disadvantages. The canvas cover wouldn't have the natural look I was after, and it was expensive. The palapa was aesthetically pleasing and a bit less pricey, but it wasn't durable. We'd have to replace it every year or two.

The more research I did, the more confused I became. I didn't know how we'd cover the gazebo until Ralph and our builder, Robbie, got talking.

"A long time ago, I thatched a roof out of palm fronds," Robbie told Ralph, "and it lasted for more than 14 years."

Robbie's revelation did what I was unable to do — convince my dubious spouse. The next morning, Ralph was eager to experiment with palm fronds.

"Why don't we try doing it out of palm leaves?" he suggested.

Suppressing the urge to shout, "That's what I said in the beginning!" I quietly agreed.

The next day we took a walk around the property looking for palms. Although our trees are predominantly oaks, pines and bamboos, a few palmettos dot the landscape.

We noted where the palmettos were growing, cut a few fronds and brought them back to see if Robbie could use them. That night Ralph made some calculations. To cover a 14-foot-diameter roof, we'd need about 700 palm fronds. On our property, we have less than a dozen small palmetto bushes. Clearly, I needed to discover some new sources.

After Robbie gave us the go-ahead, I began searching for suitably sized palmetto fronds. What I discovered was a wide variation in both stem thickness and leaf spread. Some palms have broad stems, while the stems of others are too slender to secure with screws. Still other varieties have stalks with needle-sharp spikes or sawlike teeth. Because I was looking for a pain-free experience, I concentrated on spike-free scrub palmettos.

Sabal etonia is a low-growing palm with fan-shaped leaves that spread about 3 feet wide. Native to Central Florida and prolific in undeveloped areas, the palm has a thick stalk that extends through the middle of the leaf section, providing a thick, sturdy arm quite suitable for securing to roofs.

It took about 20 hours to gather, set in place and secure all the palm fronds we needed to cover our roof. The finished product looks beautiful, smells wonderful and even sounds nice in a breeze. During a recent daylong downpour, the thatched roof effectively shed water, proving to skeptics like my husband that a leaf roof can keep an area dry.

I'm delighted with how things worked out. In my house of bamboo and leaves, I've found an easy peace, an escape from the stress of everyday life. When I'm sitting beneath the gazebo's thatched roof, I feel like I'm inside an upside-down bird nest, as interwoven with nature as the palm leaves are with one another.

In the course of a few weeks, I've been transformed from a person who ignored palms to someone fascinated by this lowly plant's many attributes. When I drove to town this morning, I kept noticing how many palms I passed. My eyes may have registered beauty, but my mind was of a different bent. It was cataloging sources for future frond-foraging trips.

Monday, January 4, 2010

40+ years and still jumping

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 3, 2010)

Many people own trampolines, but I wonder how many families are as committed to their trampoline as we are. Our backyard bouncing station came into my husband's possession during his teen years, and it has been with us ever since.

"My sister and I used to take gymnastics lessons," Ralph recalls. "Our favorite part of class was always the trampoline portion."

Trampoline time in gymnastics class was limited, but Ralph's parents overcame that obstacle when they purchased an 8-by-14-foot regulation-size trampoline for their children to use at home. The same metal-frame structure sits in our backyard today. Recently, Ralph replaced the trampoline bed, which has needed replacement only three times in more than 40 years. With its taut new bed, the structure is just as sturdy, reliable and full of bounce as it was in the 1960s.

"Do you realize the bed I just replaced only cost $10 more now that it did 20 years ago?" Ralph said this morning. "That's pretty amazing when you think of how much more expensive most things are today than they were in 1990."

What's just as amazing is how quickly my husband was able to put his finger on the two-decades-old invoice from All American Trampoline and Swing in Ogden, Utah, and that the company is still in business. Not only was Ralph able to produce hard copies of those previous invoices, he also has the company's printed catalog in his files.

"The price of the trampoline bed increased by only 6 percent since 1990, but the shipping cost increased by 50 percent," he said, studying the two invoices.

While my husband marveled over the company's frugality, I found myself fixated on the longevity of our relationship with a piece of exercise equipment. That trampoline has been a part of my husband's life longer than I have. Like the aluminum rowboat my parents gave me when I was 13, my husband's trampoline is one of his oldest and dearest possessions.

It also may be one of his bulkiest possessions. An 8-by-14-foot trampoline is a cumbersome piece of equipment, but that never stopped us from toting it from one residence to another. Since 1970, Ralph and I have moved the trampoline seven times.

Not only did we continually dismantle and reassemble this goliath of exercise equipment, we took the installation process a step beyond what most people do. We dug a deep hole at most of those locations and sank the metal frame into the ground. It takes more work to do it this way, but the extra effort goes a long way toward preventing injury. An in-ground trampoline is much safer to jump on than one perched several feet above ground.

For more than four decades, our backyard bouncing equipment has provided us with entertainment, exercise and unexpected benefits. I always knew it would be a source of fun for the kids, and I wasn't surprised to discover how much our whole family enjoyed the bed's springy surface as a place to rest, read or watch the stars. What I didn't anticipate was discovering how beneficial regular bouncing could be for my health.

Even a very light workout of simple up-and-down jumps for 10 minutes a few times a week improves flexibility, coordination and balance. It also strengthens muscles, provides an excellent cardiovascular workout and does wonders for weight loss. I'm sure my husband had no idea back in 1964 that the gift his parents gave him would one day be part of his 58-year-old wife's exercise routine or aid in his own quest for increased stamina and a stronger heart.

When I think back about all the inanimate objects we've owned over the years, few rival the trampoline's longevity. It has outlasted every car, piece of electronics or appliance we've ever bought. Is it possible to feel committed to a piece of exercise equipment? Let me be the first to jump in to say: Absolutely!