Thursday, October 1, 2009

For the Love of Dirt

Dirt, humus, compost, it’s all about the same here in the Keys and it’s the gardener’s best friend. With this in mind, I’ve been surreptitiously watching a mulch pile slowly decay for the last few months at a local park, jealously wondering when the maintenance staff was going spread it around. This stuff would make GREAT dirt. I noticed a staff member lounging on his slick little golf cart and decided to broach the matter. Grabbing a cold Coke out of my cooler I coolly strolled up to the cart.

“Hey man, you guys want that mulch…or can I take it off your hands?” I innocently asked holding the soda out to the relaxed man with ’Frank’ stenciled above the pocket of his clean khaki shirt.

‘Frank’ took the icy drink, looked sideways at the pile, gave me a crooked grin and said, ”My name’s Steve. Go for it"

I didn’t ask.

Albiza lebbeck
“Sweet, this ‘ll only take a couple minutes”, I gleefully thought while backing up my nifty Mazda pickup truck to the pile. Next, I pulled out my trusty pitchfork, that tends to live in my truck bed, thrust firmly into the pile, pulled upwards and nothing happened…

As it turned out, this pile was strategically placed under an spreading Woman’s Tongue Tree, Albizia lebbeck (so named for the loud rattle made by the dried seed pods in a brisk breeze, sorry ladies) , an extremely fast growing tree, thus the mulch pile was packed solid with long white tendrils of roots. An hour later, after struggling to bust up these recalcitrant roots, cracking my ancient pitchfork handle and repeatedly giving the hairy eyeball to the snickering park maintenance dude, the pile was finally overflowing my pickup truck bed.

 I cruised back down the Overseas Highway, homeward bound on sagging truck springs, leaving a wispy, confetti-like trail of rotting mulch fragments blowing gaily about behind me and...directly into a convertible Mustang filled with fist shaking tourists. Sorry about that, folks, oh well, life is a breeze in the Florida Keys.

After whipping into my driveway I backed the truck up to my wonder machine. Did I ever tell ya about my chipper/ shredder. I love that machine. It is a Mackissic 12p with a 10 horsepower electric start engine, powering 24 swinging hammers of fury and packing a 3 in chipping capacity that inhales branches…if you properly maintain it, which I do…sporadically...but unfortunately not lately. Following multiple, lengthy starting attempts the engine caught and the spinning hammers of death began to whirl. Ok…safety sun glasses, check…ear protectors, check…it’s time to make dirt. I love this part.

Preparing to unload, I grasped the handle of my truck tailgate, pulled mightily and suddenly I was looking at the broken off handle in my hand…now tell me, who makes tailgate handles out of plastic, Mazda, that’s who, sheesh.
AfterI wrapped my pitchfork handle in some ever so stylish duct tape, hoping it would hold together the now splintering linear crack, I climbed up into the mulch-filled truck bed and began heaving forkfuls of decaying chips and roots into the yawning shredder maw. Instant compost poured from bottom of the infernal machine making my heart leap with joy.
My already leaping heart slammed to a halt when I felt something crawling up my thigh and I looked down at my leg half buried in rotting mulch.To my horror I noticed a reddish centipede of truly Herculean proportions making his way upward toward the comforting, dark, fabric shrouded recess of the leg of my shorts.

At a time like this there are only two options, be ever so cool, make like the statue of David and freeze marble still or the second option, the one I took, which is to spring into action. Screaming a banshee war wail (mine sounded more like a spoiled toddler who just dropped his ice cream cone in a mud puddle) I hurled the pitchfork from my hands, began frantically swatting at my leg and commenced to do a full minute of a furious, leg-kicking, shoe flying, chicken dance the likes of which may not again be seen by mankind.

I never saw where the killer centipede went, other than not in my pants leg, due to the fact that my ear muff hearing protectors spun sideways around on my head, managing to cover my eyes. That is of course, after dislodging my Oakley shades…which unerringly flew into the shredder hopper and were instantly vaporized by the hammers of doom.
 I do know where the pitchfork ended up. You’ll be pleased to know the ever-so stylish duct tape was completely intact when I grasped the handle and pulled the pitch fork tines from the spider-webbed remains of the now ventilated back window of my formerly nifty truck…sigh.

Ahhh… for the love of dirt.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Torchwood Days

In my last post I mentioned Farrel and Randia Torchwood, neighbors of mine back in the late 70’s. Folks living in the Keys often are an unusual bunch. The oddest of them are Keys Characters and this couple was just that. In reality they were solid good people just a bit quirky. Let me tell you a little tale about them from back in those days…

Vibrations shot up the hickory handle carrying through the bone and nerves, traveling a familiar route. Wrist bone to elbow, shoulder to neck. Synapses closed, their electrical impulses flashing invisibly. A hypothesis was formed and a conclusion reached.

“Geez, I hit caprock already”, I groaned. Another silent curse formed on my lips as I massaged an aching shoulder, tingling elbow, and numb wrist.

Sinister chuckles emanated from behind a shaky driftwood fence.

Havin’ fun yet? Don’t stop now, boy!”

Creaky cackling followed the intemperate outburst. This I attributed to the semi-toothed grin I know to be lurking beneath a pair of twinkling, wrinkle shrouded, gray eyeballs currently peering through twin knot holes in a slab of splintered dunnage held up by trap rope.

“Yeah, Farrel, this is just my idea of a great time in paradise” I muttered, “Paradise lost.”

I forlornly compared the height of the 14 inch rootball that supported a healthy Glenn mango and the pitifully shallow depression I’ve painfully carved in the calcareous, limestone fill I wishfully call soil.

“How many times I got to tell ya, boy, build up the bed first, afor ya spend yer doubloons on a tree?”

Pearls of Keys wisdom like this are common from my neighbor, a sun-baked former crabber turned garden troll, named Farrel Torchwood.

“Now whatcha gonna do with that puny stick in that there pot next ta ya? I got just the spot fer it. Next to the ‘Proud Mary’. Might could give ya a double sawbuck fer it, I might.”

“Farrel, you know that’s less than half of what I paid for it”, I complained.

“Well, boy, now the way I sees it, less’n you want ta keep thet little twig in a pot forever, en water it ever’day, ya might be better off puttin’ thet sprout where a man can turn a spade. Just might I could get that Sea Hag ta turn loose a couple o’ them mangos to ya, come pickin’ time.”

The slight and back bent Farrel, together with his wife, a large-boned, rough looking woman, Randia, have created a dense arboreal Eden on their land. From the depths of that seemingly impenetrable jungle, only an octave below that of nails on a chalk board, comes a banshee wail, “FARREL, YOU OLD COOT, I HEARD THAT!!.”

Randia emerged through the foliage; a beefy callused hand pointed a pitch fork menacingly at Cap’n Torchwood.

“I’ll give you ‘sea hag’, you scupper-lipped bilge rat. You leave that boy alone and git your bony butt back here. I ain’t gonna pick them alligator pears by myself, ya lazy, useless, bearded barnacle.”

The Torchwoods had sold tropical fruit from a roadside stand made from the stern half of a partially burned wooden 45-foot Chriscraft Sportsfisherman which sat on the Key Deer Boulevard frontage of their property. A rickety canopy made with thatch palm fronds, perched precariously on the dry-rotted gunnels, shaded glistening avocados, yellow key limes, star-shaped, waxy carambolas. The transom atop which the fruit rests proclaims, in peeling paint, the name “Proud Mary.”

With two decades of labor behind them, this ever- battling couple had built large deep beds of rotted compost, some two feet deep, growing a host of trees and shrubs, all with a singular purpose. Seemingly every plant was edible in one way or another. Stocky Raja Puri bananas grew with elephant ear- leafed Malanga. Lemon grasss completed with spindly sugar cane and pineapples abounded beneath a broad Cannistel.

“Aw now Randi, them avocados kin wait a bit. This boy here was jist askin’ more damn-fool questions and I was jist tryin’ to set ‘im straight“,lied the Captain. “He thinks he can plant thet mango by using his back ‘stead of his brain. Seems he doan’ listen too good. I told ‘im, a body should pile up a wad ‘o mulch abouts four foot deep, water ‘er down a bit, mix in some seaweed, maybe some horse dung and grouper heads to really heat up that pile. I told ‘im if’n he turns thet pile ever so often, why then the boy’d soon have hisself some real dirt.”

“Why you lyin’ shiftless trap robber… what you are really tryin’ to get is him to part, for next to nothin’ I’ll bet, with that mango. Now son, you listen here, you just move over about ten feet southeast from where you stand, and swing that mattock. This mangy, eight-fingered, rum-swilling, pirate cut down a fine Jamaica tall coconut nearly six years ago, before you bought this parcel of ground next to us. That stump must be rotted out by now so you’ll dig just fine in that spot,” Randia tells me, a gentle smile creasing her lips, incongruous on this mercurial, broad shouldered woman.

Swiftly turning back to Farrel, Randia bellowed “As for you Cap’n Chumbag…maybe them gator pears kin wait but what ‘o that busted limb on the Spanish lime from last night’s blow? It’s squashin’ my Jicama trellis.”

I swung the pick tentatively in the indicated spot and the flat rusty blade sank as though in butter. I could still hear Farrel’s receding voice, ”Randia, you’s as impatient as a big city snowbird, ya wench…I shoulda’ left ya at Diamond Lil’s saloon the day I met ya…”

Picking up my shovel my thought at that moment was, “Ahhh, paradise regained.”

Monday, September 28, 2009

Fantastic Foliage

Alocasia Plumbea"Indica metalica"

“Splat!!” An over-ripe guava, hurled across the driftwood fence had just torn through the newly unfurled leaf of my Alocasia Plumbea and exploded in a gooey impact on the trunk of a Bismarkia palm next to my head, covering my face and chest in sticky, stinking shrapnel.

Bismarkia nobilis

“Farrel, knock it off!!” I yelled at my 70 something neighbor, a former crab fisherman now turned scrawny garden troll… one Mr. Farrel Torchwood.

“Better duck next time, ya fish belly swab. Ya knows I’s at war with them iguanas.” came the screechy reply.

Wiping the glop off my face and shaking my head at the old pirate’s antics I returned to my digging, trying to carve a new home to my formerly perfect Alocasia, while keeping one eye open for incoming fruit.

Dracena marginata"Tricolor"

This event happened many years ago. It came to mind when I was gazing at a killer Alocasia in a Key West garden. It also reminded me to tell you folks some many stories, or the Torchwood Chronicles, as I like to think of them, regarding Farrel and Randia Torchwood…but those are for other posts.

Monstera deliciosa

Tropical gardening, like temperate gardening is often about the stunning flowers that we are able to incorporate into our landscape. Both types of gardens has their share of vivid colors, hues and shapes of blossoms that are sure to turn the heads of even the most jaded, concrete jungle dwelling, bright-lights of the city loving, urbanite.

Codiaeum varigatum "Croton"

However, in this chilled out, coral rock digging, star-light loving, islander’s opinion tropical gardening leads the pack in the foliage department. We have immense array of vibrant colors, soft or crisp textures, wispy or audacious shapes from which to choose when conceiving of a whole development sized landscape or a small corner vignette.

Crinum spp.

Now don’t think for a second that I disparage the temperate gardener, those hardy souls among you that have to deal with frost, winter’s bitter chill and snow. Oh no, these fine gardeners ALWAYS find a way to incorporate magnificent foliage into their gardens, it’s just that I feel nature has blessed the tropical gardener with a larger foliage palette to work with. So enjoy a tiny sample what we are given to play with.

Platycerium spp."Staghorn"

Sunday, September 27, 2009