August 11, 2018

Nov sunflower
Dried sunflower, November 1999 (Prismacolor colored pencil on toned paper)

At the time I created this piece I was doing a lot of art on toned paper. Canson toned paper works well with dry materials like colored pencil, graphite and ink pens. I have used gouache on such Canson paper, but it’s not really made to get very wet and will pucker some after it dries. Not really a fan of that. I use toned paper in my art for very specific effects. For example, since the sunflower and morning glory were to reflect an autumn hue and time of year, the gold background supported the color of the dried flower as well as the time of year. Another example of my use of toned paper was posted with my April 7, 2018 Trib story. That featured a couple of tulips on grey toned paper. (For this illustration I actually did use Prismacolor colored pencil over gouache. But I applied the paint using a dry brush technique, so the paper didn’t get excessively wet—no puckered paper there.) I wanted the grey color to make the red flowers topping the thin green stems pop off the page. Of course when the story was printed, the background was eliminated—so much for that affect. I also used the grey toned paper for an illustration (done for a San Luis Obispo children’s a magazine story) of a couple sparrows drinking water from a wine barrel fountain in my backyard. The grey background echoed the color of the grey/brown birds as well as the grey patina of the oak barrel. And I used bright blue and white Prismacolor colored pencils on the grey toned paper to render water spilling into the barrel. Pastel colored pencils were used to look like a child had drawn a rainbow on the wooden surface. Again, the pastel colors popped nicely off the grey background. I have also seen toned paper used to great effect by other artists when he or she wished to add white gouache highlights. As I have said, I don’t usually do that because the final puckered paper bothers me more than the wondrous effect of white highlights.

Nov sunflower story
Telegram Tribune, SLO, November 1999

This article was originally written for the San Luis Obispo Tribune as something a mom or dad (family) could do with his or her child in the garden in the fall. It described a fun activity where a child would be encouraged to walk around outside, picking up seeds (e.g. dried sunflower seed heads etc), cones, bark or whatever seemed interesting. For added fun I encouraged the reader to also collect fall seeds on his or her feet by putting on old wool socks over their shoes for their journey. Some dried seeds will inevitably stick to the sock and hitch a ride to somewhere else. And when the walk is done you can plant the sock in a pot of potting soil, water and wait to see what grows. It’s often just a bunch of weeds, but there have been times those weedy plants have produced a California poppy or two (Those seeds are way to tiny to see and pick up. You just have to be lucky, I guess.)

So this week, as it has been extremely hot, I am imagining a cooler time of year. In fact, it is so hot my tomato plants are an “all over” golden color. It’s like the white-hot sun has bleached out all the green, leaving the plants a pale crispy yellow. A couple weeks ago it was so hot that every cherry tomato on my giant plant shriveled up. They looked like they had been cooked right there on the vine. (I was imagining I could cook some eggs on the sizzling dirt dusted hot concrete, adding just a few sun-dried/sautéed tomatoes to a gritty outdoor omelet.) I am left wondering how to save the tomatoes I have left. I have a fair amount of experience gardening, so when I plant something in my garden I have certain expectations of what should happen. And this summer’s strange crop has been anything, but what you might expect.

Is there a farmer in your genes?

When my son and I lived in Paso Robles our mailbox had been planted in a wine barrel filled with dirt out at the curb. (All the mailboxes on our cul-de-sac, and nearby neighborhood, also had the same “wine country” curbside mail delivery set up.) I planted that barrel at different times of the year with annuals. Early in the summer of 1999 I filled that planter with sunflowers. About mid July I added morning glory seeds (Ipomoea purpurea) to the soil. The intent was to have the drying sunflower stalk as a kind of natural stake for the twining wildflowers. (The art you see above reflects exactly what it looked like.) It was nice to have that round mailbox planter filled with such color year round. I remember that we had a very grumpy mail lady on our block. The first summer we were in that house I gave her a bouquet of my heirloom sweet peas that were growing in the planter, right under her generally disapproving nose. She told me later that it made the cab of her little mail truck smell heavenly. After that, she was rather nice and we had pleasant conversations every time I saw her on her route up our block. Not all my neighbors planted their wine barrel, but I always kept ours looking nice and even replaced it when the wood got rotten and started to pull away from the circular metal hoops that held the planter together.

I know there are a fair number of people who think gardening is for the birds, but I love it. About the time I was writing stories for the Trib I was also doing editorial work on gardening books for Sunset. Most of the time that work was fun. I got to talk to gardeners from all over the country, with most of my focus on gardens in the Pacific Northwest and the South. I spent a lot of time on the phone with these people, asking them about photos of plants in their gardens that were to be used in the Sunset books. I remember speaking with one gardener in Alaska that described thick plantings of 8 to 10-foot cornflower blue delphiniums she had around the perimeter of her log house in summer. She said they were extremely tall and thick because of Alaska’s extra daylight hours during that season. I guess I was lucky to have spoken with her at all that summer day as she had just gotten back from an extended Alaskan kayaking trip. She was also a painter and said that one of her greatest joys was to look out her studio window at snow-capped mountains that framed a nearby Juneau ice field. (I just this minute looked back at the photos of her garden in the book, “Gardening in the Northwest,” and it must be truly sublime to live there amongst all that garden beauty.) For the same book I remember interviewing an interesting gardener who was obsessed with abutilon and had them in pots all around his Snohomish, Washington garden during the summer months. I think I heard that Snohomish, an hour north of Seattle, is not a particularly hospitable place for such a delicate flower year round. In fact, I think I have also heard that the weather up there could be summed up as 9 months of winter and 3 months of late fall. So, his precious plants needed to be brought indoors during the cold weather months. He told me that all of the pots were brought inside his house and placed at every available spot he could find, including on his clothes dryer in the laundry room. He also added that he had to farm out many of his plants to indoor spots at friend’s houses as well. Such dedication to beauty!

I have many such stories of gardeners around the US, but I thought I would finish up here with a gardener I spoke to in North Carolina. His family has owned an apple nursery, Century Farm Orchards, for generations and they specialize in heirloom apples. He said that they were trying to find grafts of apples that were grown in his area during the time of the Civil War, but had somehow gotten lost over the years. You may or may not know that the apples we eat do not come from trees that started from a seed, but rather as a graft on an existing apple tree rootstock. Apples grown on trees that started from a seed, like those that planted by Johnny Appleseed, are used to make cider. And it seems that those early American settlers grew a lot of apples to make cider. If you want to know more about those early apples there is a wonderful book called “The Botany of Desire—A Plant’s Eye View of the World,” by Michael Pollan. Mr. Pollan not only describes Johnny Appleseed and apple cider made by pioneers in the early days of the US, but he also describes our human relationship/desires for 3 other plants—tulips, marijuana and potatoes. Very interesting reading.

So, like it or not, someone in your family was a farmer. And you probably wouldn’t have to go back too far to be able to name that someone. My grandpa on my dad’s side worked as a sharecropper and took care of horses for someone else on their farm in Nebraska and Wyoming. My dad’s mom’s family “worked the sugar beets” in Minnesota when my grandma was a girl. I don’t know as much about my mom’s early farming roots. It seemed that her parent’s families were most recently from cities in the east. Of course my mom told great stories about how her dad had come to California to be a farmer. He had chickens, rabbits, hogs and a huge garden when they lived in Mariposa. My son’s other grandparents were definitely raised on farms growing up. His grandma’s family settled part of Adelaida and raised almonds and walnuts. And his grandpa’s family settled part of Estrella and dry farmed wheat.

My dad had this old saying that drove us all crazy, and it went something like, “…you know my mom and dad were the first generation off the farm.” I was never sure what that meant, but it almost seemed like an excuse for their struggles to earn a living in Long Beach in the 30s. Of course there was a depression, so maybe everyone was struggling, whether they were fresh off the farm or not.

So, don’t be afraid if you find yourself at a nursery looking for something to plant, or you put on a sun hat and go into the garage to look for a shovel. And if you find yourself weeping with joy when a friend brings you a load of compost, soil amendment, or manure just go with it and plant something beautiful.

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