Monday, July 25, 2011

One person's weed...another person's gift

The tiny pink flowers of Portulaca pilosa, commonly known as pink purslane.
Simply Living
July 25, 2011

Until recently, our yard had a number of bare spots. Not anymore. All of a sudden, many of those exposed areas are covered with the tiny pink flowers of Portulaca pilosa, commonly known as pink purslane.

I didn't plant these undomesticated relatives of moss rose and I doubt if a green-thumbed gremlin is sowing seeds behind my back. No, my surprise blooms came directly from nature. Although some call them weeds and scorn their appearance, to me, pink purslane is a gift I'm glad to receive.

Portulaca pilosa is a Florida native that loves hot weather and tolerates drought. A low-growing succulent, it attractsbees, butterflies and birds. Although pink purslane is one of its nicknames, it is also called shaggy portulaca, pigweed and kiss-me-quick, one of my favorite monikers because it not only suggests the flowers' lipstick color but also its fast-growing pace.

Perhaps the name that best captures the plant's essence is chisme, Spanish for "gossip" because that's how fast the seeds spread. Portulaca pilosa propagates easily through underground rhizomes, seeds and broken-off pieces of stem. It also has the uncanny ability to lie dormant for up to 40 years before sprouting and bursting into bloom.

That must be what happened in our yard. Dormant seeds were probably disturbed during recent excavations. With the ground upturned, underlying seeds found themselves facing a perfect storm for germination. The intense summer heat, sudden showers and limited botanical competition encouraged sprouting. And sprout they did. When I walked back from the barn on a recent morning, I saw that several brown patches of dirt had vanished beneath carpets of bright pink blooms.

Not everyone greets purslane's ability to pop up unexpectedly with such an enthusiastic welcome. Many people consider this ground-hugging wildflower a scourge on the landscape. To them, it is an invasive weed choking out grass, popping up through cracks in pavement and creeping its way into unwanted garden space. They strive to eliminate all traces of purslane by whatever means necessary.

I don't feel that way.

Why waste time and energy spewing environmentally dangerous herbicides on a plant that has so much to offer? In addition to being an attractive groundcover that thrives on neglect, flourishes in places where few other plants grow and attracts wildlife, purslane is also a powerhouse of nutritious value. This edible herb is high in vitamins A and C, contains traces of iron, calcium, potassium and phosphorus and has more omega-3 fatty acids than any other plant source.

In a 2006 TV broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Mehmet Oz touted purslane's merits.

"Purslane is rich in omega-3 fats," he said. "Those are the healthy oils we want to coat our membranes and our joints. You can make them in salads. In my home, we mix them with yogurt and garlic and it's just spectacular."

I haven't tried Dr. Oz's concoction, but in my own lazy way I've come to appreciate purslane's edible qualities. As I do with sorrel, another somewhat acidic but juicy wildflower, I like to pluck off a few purslane leaves to munch on when I'm in the garden or taking a walk.

It is possible to make flour out of the plant's ground-up seeds or to sprout the seeds like alfalfa, but purslane's most commonly eaten parts are its tender tips and stems, which are tastiest when picked before flowering. Pinching back the plant at this stage has the added benefit of encouraging new growth, an important feature for those who value the sweetly sour flavor of this underappreciated potherb.

Purslane recipes are many and varied. The raw tips are good in salads and sandwiches but can also be steamed like spinach, stir-fried, pickled, used as a thickener for soups and as an ingredient in a number of baked dishes. Medicinally, the leaves make a soothing poultice for wounds and burns. Native Americans used a juice made out of purslane leaves to relieve earaches and traditional Chinese medicine uses it to treat infections and dysentery. Its syrup purportedly treats dry coughs.

It has been an unexpected treat to discover pink purslane in my yard. Finding a preponderance of volunteer plants that not only look pretty but also taste good and attract wildlife is nothing short of wondrous. Yes, they are weeds and, yes, they spread robustly. But is that really so bad?

Perhaps A.A. Milne had it right when he wrote, "Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them."

Monday, July 18, 2011

New to gardening? Plant a cherry tomato!

Tomatoes the size of large marbles grow in clusters on heat-loving cherry tomato plants
Simply Living
July 18, 2011

If you have never gardened before but want to begin, plant a cherry tomato. Fast-growing, prolific and practically foolproof, these marble-sized red, orange or yellow fruit (yes, tomatoes are actually fruit, not vegetables) make a wonderful first-time gardening project.

One plant is all you need. A single cherry tomato planted in rich, loamy soil will produce more fruit than most people can eat. I know because I have four, and that's three plants more than needed to fulfill the culinary needs of my family.

Unlike many other vegetables, cherry tomatoes like hot weather. Plant a seedling now and by the end of August, you'll have surplus tomatoes to share with friends. We grow our plants in 15-gallon nursery pots, but they also do well when planted directly in the ground.

Successful gardening of cherry tomatoes depends on three basic variables: location, soil and water.

Location: Choose a sunny spot. These members of the nightshade family require six or more hours of sunshine to do what they do best — produce prodigious amounts of bite-sized fruit. Because of their propensity to sprawl, give them plenty of room to expand. Seedlings might be little when purchased, but young plants grow quickly. That's especially true when planted in the right kind of soil.

Soil: We like a homemade blend of compost, manure and peat augmented with wood chips for aeration, but if you're a new gardener, you might want to buy a ready-made mixture formulated for vegetables. Miracle-Gro, Jungle Growth and Scott's are among the many companies offering such products. Some even include built-in time-release fertilizers.

Water: A regular irrigation schedule, supplemented by hand watering when needed, is necessary for good growth and production. Determining how often to water is a matter of experimentation. Tomatoes that are not getting enough moisture will have wilted leaves, while overwatering causes the fruit to split. We mulch our tomatoes heavily with grass clippings to preserve moisture and water daily. In areas where water requirements limit irrigation to twice a week, it helps to supplement by hand. Besides, spending time in the garden watering plants is a good way to become familiar with each plant's needs.

Like most garden plants, cherry tomatoes are vulnerable to certain insects and disease problems. Fungus and viruses can affect plant production. Caterpillars can munch leaves, while slugs, snails and stinkbugs can damage the fruit. Fortunately, potential problems are easy to nip in the bud when you are frequently outside watering your plants or harvesting fruit. We opt for hand-picking pests instead of blasting them with pesticides, but both methods are effective.

The biggest mistake I make growing cherry tomatoes is providing inadequate staking. A healthy plant can grow 6 or more feet tall and almost as broad. This year I thought I was being clever to surround each seedling with a bamboo teepee. For the first few weeks, I diligently secured the growing stems to the upright canes with garden twine, but before long they grew so fast, I couldn't keep up. When I enter the garden now, the teepees tilt precariously, and the plants take up so much space I can barely squeeze by.

In an ideal world, my staking and tying would have continued throughout the plants' long productive period, and no stems would be touching the ground, but this is hardly an ideal world. My lack of attentiveness resulted in limbs lying directly on the ground, where crawling bugs have easy access. I won't be harvesting those tomatoes. Fortunately, I won't need to.

The cherry tomato plants in my garden are producing more fruit than I can eat, so it doesn't matter if a few go to waste or wind up as the main course of an insect's supper. However, over time, many of those unpicked or dropped fruit will sprout into more cherry tomato plants. That's where all my present plants came from. They began life as last year's dropped fruit.

If you're a newbie gardener looking for an entree to the world of gardening, cherry tomatoes is the way to go. But be forewarned: Successful gardeners must be ruthless. One cherry tomato plant today will turn into multiple plants next season. When they do, thin out those volunteers mercilessly, saving only one or two of the healthiest-looking specimens as keepers. Do that, and your reward will be a controllable harvest of homegrown goodness.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Being a parent means living in an unending zone of crisis

It's not unusual for a parent to inadvertently get locked out of a car but when a baby is locked inside, it's time to call 911,

Simply Living
July 11, 2011

There should be a sign on our front door that says "Entering Crisis Zone." Hardly a day goes by without some emergency commanding our attention.

Today's crisis occurred minutes after Ralph and I lay down for our midday rest. We were settling down on the bed — me with a book in hand, Ralph already sprawled out, ready to snooze — when the phone rang. It was on Ralph's side of the bed, so he picked up. Our daughter was on the line in near hysterics.

"What happened?" I heard him ask before he switched on the phone's speaker. "You locked yourself out? Where? And the baby's in the car?"

"In the parking lot at Target," my daughter explained. I could hear the trembling in her voice. "What should I do?"

Our 23-month-old grandson was inside my daughter's locked van in a Target parking lot. Unfortunately, the clicker and keys were in the car, too. When her shopping was completed, Amber had fastened the tired baby into his car seat, shut the door and instantly realized that she had locked the baby in — and herself out of — the vehicle.

It's an easy mistake to make. I once locked myself out of my car twice in one day! However, I never locked myself out with a baby in the car, and never in the middle of one of Florida's hot summer days.

"Let me call Target and see if the security guard can help," I said, as I hurried to the computer to look up the Clermont Target phone number.

While I talked to a helpful employee, Ralph used the cellphone to relay information to Amber.

"The security officer is trying to find you in the parking lot," he told her. "Wave your arms or do something so she can find you."

Unfortunately, in her anxiety, Amber neglected to tell me which Target she was patronizing. I assumed it was the one in Clermont, but I assumed wrong.

"I'm not in Clermont," Amber explained. I could hear our grandson's cries in the background. "I'm at the Target in Winter Garden."

Back to the computer I went, searching simultaneously for Target's Winter Garden phone number and for local locksmiths. When I got the Target representative on the line, her response was unexpected. "We can't help you," she said. "Call 911."

The locksmith said the same. "If the child is under 2," he explained, "you need to call the fire department. They'll come right out."

And they did. Our daughter called 911, and help quickly arrived. The van door was unlocked, and our grandson's tears stopped as soon as his mother picked him up. Everyone was fine, if a bit shook up.

"Well, that was unexpected," my husband said, as we walked back to the bedroom. "You never know what's going to happen."

He's right. You never do. The entire episode probably took less than 20 minutes, but it was 20 minutes of adrenaline- pumping tension for everyone involved. That's how life is. One minute you're lying down, ready to take a nap. The next minute you're in crisis mode, calling 911.

Maybe the only sign I need on my front door is one saying "Parents Live Here." Being a parent — no matter how old your children are, or even if your children have children of their own and no longer live at home — means living in a never-ending zone of crisis.

"Putting out fires," my husband said. "That's what we're good at."

I couldn't agree more.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fireworks can't compare with nature's own sky shows

Sky shows aren't always pyrotechnical...

Simply Living
July 4, 2011

Many Floridians will be attending firework displays tonight as part of their Fourth of July celebration. Pyrotechnics have been associated with Independence Day since July 4, 1777, a year after the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. In those days, revelers celebrated the day by lighting bonfires, ringing bells and setting off fireworks.

Although Congress did not make the Fourth of July an official holiday until 1870, people continued to mark the day by igniting black gunpowder and other explosives. Right from the start, fireworks became an Independence Day tradition accepted by all and loved by most.

Although I appreciate the spectacle of orchestrated pyrotechnic displays, they don't make my heart sing. Despite living in theme-park-crazy Central Florida, where, for the price of admission, one can attend extraordinary illuminations, I shy away from such over-the-top events. Even smaller, city-sponsored displays or backyard blasts of bottle rockets fail to pique my interest. Given the choice of watching fireworks light up the night sky or watching stars do the same thing, I choose stars every time.

I'd rather sit on my front porch on July 4 (or, for that matter, on any other day), gazing out and upward. With a cup of tea in hand, friends and family nearby, I savor the pleasure of nature's own sky show.

On past Independence Days, my stay-at-home pastime has yielded some amazing performances. I've seen beautiful moonrises reflected on the lake as well as moonless nights filled with twinkling stars. Flickering fireflies have added sparkle to the lawn, while fleeting meteors have showered the sky.

On nights when it has been stormy, lightning has illuminated the darkness. I've been entertained by the percussive tattoo of raindrops on the roof accompanied by jagged streaks of white and the roar of thunder. Heat lightning has been equally impressive. I've watched silent streaks of brightness do an electrifying dance.

Because of Central Florida's fabulous cloud shows, lightning-free Independence Days have also been captivating. Puffy pillows of shape-shifting clouds change color by the minute, capturing my imagination and inspiring awe. Why pay for fireworks that explode in patterns when cloud patterns are there, free for the watching?

But my passion for nature's own sky show isn't about money. It centers on beauty and the wonder of nature. Dusk is a special time of every day, holiday or not. Sunset is a dash of transition, dividing the day into light and dark.

The waning sunlight triggers activity for many mammals, birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles. Diurnal birds fly by in a "V" formation. As they head home to roost, nocturnal creatures are just waking up. A decided buzz underscores the evening hours. At dusk, an insect chorus presents a rising song accompanied by the steady croak of frogs and toads. Aerial entertainment begins with dragonflies, followed by bats, nightjars and owls. I get more pleasure watching the erratic flight of mosquito-catching bats than watching Roman candles, missiles or flowery diadems.

Even without artificial illumination, nature puts on impressive displays. And if you miss one show, there will be another — not only on July 4 but every night of the year.