Thursday, June 21, 2007

Morning Glories, Good and Evil

If anyone from the West Coast of the US is reading this blog, they are probably already spitting, holding up their crosses and instinctivly reaching for their herbicide bottle at the mere mention of morning glories. Those from the midwest who have fond memories of morning glories climbing up and over the garden gate, might wonder, "why the commotion?" Morning glories and bindweeds are in the same family, the distinction is really a bit academic. Small bindweed (right) is a pest in temperate zones the world over and my garden is no expception.

The "nice" morning glories in the seed packets are mostly Ipomoea tricolor, which is a tropical plant that grows like wildfire through the hot, humid summers of the central and east US, then conveniently dies back at first frost. Many of them are stunningly beautiful, and the perfect plant to quickly cover a fence, where it produces a new crop of beautiful flowers each morning. But imagine if it were perennial and spread by runners...

It's the perennial, spreading ones that give the group a bad name, and in particular, Calystegia sepium, or hedge bindweed. Originally brought as an ornamental, it is such an aggressive self-seeder and spreader that it has been listed as a noxious weed in many areas. Even the mention of the word "morning glory" to a Seattlite is sure to start a rant, and trying to convince them of their merits is like trying to convince a southerner of the delicate beauty of kudzu. If hedge bindweed gets in your garden (and it will), you must eradicate it at first sight, or be resigned to battling it for eternity. It covers entire hillsides, where it engages in a botanical "Battle of the Titans" with the viciously thorned Himalayan blackberry. Add to this the fact that most of the good ones (Like "Heavenly Blue") need more heat to do well that your average Seattle garden has, so they don't perform well at all. Thus they never get the opportunity to experience their good side. Strangely, though I run across hedge bindweed occasionally in Istanbul, it doesn't seem to be a monster here at all. Perhaps it only survives but perfers a cooler climate to really take off.

Though I used to regularly curse the person who introduced Calystegia sepium to the US as I dug the fat, brittle runners that seemed to descend to the pit of hell (or perhaps they originated there), I can't really blame him. Morning glories are beautiful and beguiling. This is why, when I saw a stunning, deep blue morning glory engulfing a balcony and wall on the Greek island of Samos, I threw caution to the wind and grabbed a runner. It died without rooting. God was giving me a second chance. I didn't listen, and when I found a plant eagerly smothering a mulberry tree in my friend Souzana's garden in Naxos, I was thrilled to find actively rooting pieces. I had the perfect place for it - an already-dead mulberry tree in the middle of my patio, completely surround for several meters in every direction by cement pavement.

The plant I'd fallen in love with was Ipomoea indica, or "Blue Dawn Flower." With a name like that, who can resist? Though it almost never produces seeds, I. indica is by all counts, a monster. It's also common on the west coast of the U.S., where it charmingly envelops fences, houses and, if given a chance, neighborhoods. A tiny piece planted where its happy will shoot up to 25 feet in a season, branching out and covering whatever its growing on. As soon as its happy, it then starts sending down "drop runners" which creep along the round, rooting as they go, to send up new vines (not much) later. But it's such a beautiful monster; I don't know any other morning glory, my old favorite "Heavenly Blue" included, that produces such a rich, astoundingly blue flower. It's very difficult to do it justice in a photograph. Mine is a year old, and produces several hundred new flowers each morning. The header of this blog is that very vine. Unfortunately or fortunately, God may yet give me a second chance, as Istanbul winters can be quite unpredictable. Last winter was so mild that even an avocado survived, but a really hard freeze will kill I. indica, or at least cut it to the ground. Until then, I'll let myself be astounded anew every morning at the amazing deep blue universe above me, and be forgiving as I regularly pull away the two-meter long runners that it manages to shoot out over the surface of the patio each week or two. As long as I don't let it reach the soil, I think God — and the landlords — will forgive me.
After a stint in the neighborhood market, I took a rest in the garden and had a glass of a drink that I believe is unique to Greece and Turkey: poppy sherbet. My garden produced an amazing overgrowth of poppies this year, and I found I could collect nearly a pound of petals a day during the height of bloom. The syrup (which can also be made into jelly) is made by boiling the petals with sugar, water and lemon juice. It's then strained and bottled. It's normally a laborious process as the black blotch at the base of poppy petals reportedly has thebaine in it, and it must be cut out. Luckily the strain in my garden has little or no black (something less than desirable from my own esthetic point of view but great for making poppy syrup!).

To make the drink, you just pour some of the syrup into a glass, add cold water and ice if you want, and stir. Its flavor is very difficult to describe; like beer, it's one of those things that seems to be perfect for hot summer days, when the slight bitterness is really refreshing.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Artichoke and Sunflower Revisited

There it is, what's more to say about it really? Except that it has that warm, powdery smell of dandelions.

I also took another shot of the sunflower, this time with early morning light.

A Couple of Composites

Even in a garden that's a bit of a disaster area like mine, June is almost sure to be a great month because so many things are at their best. One of the biggest families of flowering plants is the Asteraceae, or Aster family, otherwise known as composites, because the single "flowers" are actually a complex inflorescence made up of sometimes hundreds of individual flowers. The disc of this sunflower is the mass of fertile flowers, the "petals" are the infertile "ray" flowers, which serve as advertisement so that the pollintors will find the business part of the inflorescence.

If you don't believe me, look at this photo up close. (Actually, you should just believe me. But look at it anyway, I guarantee you you will never see a sunflower the same way again!) You can clearly see the individual flowers, each of which will produce exactly one seed, with the sexual parts protruding promiscuously to smear pollen on and receive it from visiting insects.

The Composite family includes lots of familiar/favorite garden plants like daisies, chrysanthemums, marigolds, achillea (at left)... the list goes on and on. It also includes some edibles, like artichokes. I think most people know that an artichoke is a big flower bud (actually a giant thistle), but it always surprises me how many have never actually seen an artichoke open. I planted three last year, and as cleaned artichoke hearts here go for anywhere from 50-75 cents a piece (and cheaper if you take you artichoke salesmen's pictures and provide prints!), I decided to let mine open. It's a spectacular sight. The picture to the right is an artichoke bud just beginning to open; the flowers aren't yet visible. I'll post a picture of the fully opened one when it's time. But be sure to look at this one enlarged too; it's pretty amazing....

Amaryllis, Old Varieties

With a few notable exceptions, most nurseries in Turkey don't have lots of unusual varieties. It's Acres-O-Geraniums (and petunias, and begonias, and...). It's t
oo bad because Turkey actually has an amazing wealth of flora, and a variety of climates, from Mediterranean to alpine to subtropical rain forest in the Black Sea. The reason is that most urban dwellers want what they can grow on their balconies.

What there is in Turkey is a lot of old varieties of plants that have been around for a long, long time. This is true both of vegetables and fruits, and for ornamentals. A particular region will have its favorite plum, apples or peppers, and ladies pass around cuttings and seeds of their favorite houseplants and flowers. Sometimes they acquire interesting common names in the process. Şekerlalesi ("sugar tulip) is actually a type of begonia. Sometimes they generalize - Amaryllis, Lilies, Iris and Daylilies all get called zambak ("lily").

I have a "plant buddy" across the street in the persona of Meliha hanım, a lady of about 65 from Şile. She is always coming up with starts of things - Hydrangeas, a different winter squash (seed from her brother). And now she and her brother are growing Nicotianas (strangely unknown here) and a very fragrant type of evening primrose that we've been growing in our family since I was a kid. Last year she gave me a plant, grown from seed, of an amaryllis (Hippeastrum) that she grows. I've seen various forms of this, most of what the ladies grow here are not the huge-flowered Dutch varieties but smaller-flowered ones of all colors. They grow easily and bloom profusely; I saw a house in Yedikule the other day that had at least 15 pots of them, all in full bloom. I really like the one Meliha hanım is growing; scarlet-orange flowers with a creamy throat, and a little more than half the size of a Dutch amaryllis. This plant is only two years old but is already blooming for the first time, and I have about 20 more on the way from seed.

Though enthusiasts value variety and are almost sure to keep trading plants, the scene is not so rosy in the area of Agriculture. The European Union has a very limited list, restricted to a few varieties, of the fruits which are deemed acceptable for import, and right and left. As an example Turkish farmers are abandoning the many old varieties of cherries to grow one bing type, old Apple varieties in order to grow "Starkin," a Red Delicious type, and Golden Delicious. The same is happening with some local varieties - Turkey has many different varieties of quinces, but "Ekmek" (a variety that can - almost - be eaten out-of-hand) has now been deemed "the best" and has become the only one available on the market. As more and more people leave the villages and abandon agriculture, many if not most of these varieties will disappear.

An Artifact

Several friends have suggested that as I'm living not far from a 1,400 year-old former Byzantine church, the ground below me should be full of artifacts and I should be digging deeper than just the topsoil. I haven't done it so far. But I did come across something nice the other day - a fairly old copper vessel that, judging from the looks of it and the time it took me to get the corrosion off, had been under the ground for quite a while. It took half an hour or so with copper cleaner, but it cleaned up purty nice! Maybe it's a hint that I need to do more work on the soil...I have found other things as well - sheep bones and old tea spoons mostly.

My Magic Bubble

Even though it seemed unrealistic to hope for a garden in Istanbul, every spring I would be overcome by a longing to dig in the dirt, to plant. In about July of 2005, it hit me again, and I started thinking about what I could do.

If you don't like metaphysics, just skip the next two paragraphs.

It occurred to me that it wasn't so much the garden (or anything else for that matter) as a physical entity that moved me, as my own response to it, my perceptions of it. Think of the possible reactions of several people looking at the same garden. One might say "pretty" and move on. Another might be overwhelmed by the beauty of it. Another might see it in terms of what it's missing (tomatoes, geraniums, whatever). And yet another might say "if I could put a parking lot here, I could make a lot of money." What makes the difference? The things that resonate inside them when they see/experience a garden. In that sense, the garden is just a piece of real estate but its essence, its beauty (that we perceive) is actually inside us. We all carry around our own garden inside of us. Or maybe our own parking lot. Why not, the world needs parking lots too.

So I decided to explore the garden inside me, see what it was, what it resonated to, and enjoy that. What I saw were qualities, growth, development, change. Watching a seed, which contains the entire potential of all that plant can be, sprout, grown and bear fruit, is fascinating to me. Once a garden is established, it's still developing; different plants come up, bloom, go down; seeing them make their reappearance in the spring is like meeting old friends again. As I looked at that aspect and enjoyed my "inner garden," what happened was that I started noticing "gardens" everywhere, in a dandelion suriving in a sidewalk crack, in a little green space betwee two buildings.

About two weeks later, a friend visiting from Rize who was visiting Istanbul called and said "You have to come see the place I'm staying! It's just right for you!" He described a two story house in a big garden, with fig, quince and mulberry trees, and a huge expanse. "Great," I said, "But is there an opening there?" "The ground floor comes open next month." It was August 29, which meant I had two days to give notice to my present landlord. We hopped on a bus and checked it out. It was amazing, just the entrance was a sell, a 30 meter path between an old wall and a mosque garden. The garden itself was overgrown, neglected for 12 years.

In Seattle, there is an old neighborhood in the First Hill area, which has become completely surround by hospitals and development. You go through all these immense buildings, and suddenly find yourself in a quiet several blocks of old houses on green, tree-lined streets. It's known by many people as "The Magic Bubble." The current tenants of the ground floor were gone so I couldn't even see the inside of the apartment aside from a couple peeks through windows. I said "I'll take it!" I knew right then that I'd found my own "Magic Bubble" in the middle of Istanbul. Or it had found me. Below is moving and decontamination day.

I've started gardens in neglected back yards before, but this was something else altogther. It had truly gone wild. It had been invaded by Ailanthus trees, or "Tree of Heaven," and a more inappropriate name has never been thought of. They are invasive, they sucker wildly and produce thousands of seeds. And they stink too. The Turkish common name is much more apt: "Osuruk ağacı," or "fart tree." There was a carpet of weeds up to a meter deep in places. And an added bonus: A decade or so earlier the owners had been forced to demolish a back corner of the building over a property dispute with the neighboring mosque. The cement, brick and other rubble from that part of the house was in a pile (as there is no vehicular access), but when I started clearing, I realized that much of it had been strewn througout the yard. I had my work cut out for me. I won't talk too much about the inside of the house except to mention walls painted suicide-invoking colors, wall-to-wall carpet in the kitchen with moldy sticky god-knows-what ground into it, and a floor with so much paint spattered on it that it looked like an attempt at impressionism.

The first job was to clear out the weeds, then get as much rubble out of the soil as I could. This is a never-ending process because it keeps surfacing; there is always more. When I gathered up all the weeds, I ended up with three piles as tall as I am, and I'm not a short guy. Eventual compost if I could get it hot enough to kill the weed seeds. I also began to become acquainted with some of the wildlife inhabiting the soil and especially the pockets between the rubble. Giant snails and slugs (I have 6 varieties which are worth a chapter in themselves), scorpions (the little fellow on the left actually showed up in the kitchen sink, but he has friends). The scorpions are not a dangerous type by the way. What is a bit more dangerous, or at least painful, are the 6 inch-long Scolopendra centipedes. Luckily our species seems to be the least aggressive, which I've determined by 1) pressing lightly on the back of a couple; they just try and get away; and 2) having one crawl up my pants leg and repeatedly get squeezed between my jeans and an expanse of tempting, tender buttflesh. I'll post a picture soon. Of the centipede, that is. The last picture here is roughly the same view after the bulk of the cleanup. All the rocks, rubble and bricks came out of the soil itself. Another 40 buckets full were gathered up and thrown back on the main (unsalvageable) pile. I think if I had known how bad that would be, I probably would not have taken the place. There was also the issue of a major bit of fraud on the part of the upstairs neighbor. But in the end it's been an amazing place to be.

Starving for the Green

This post was originally in "Multiple Realities of Istanbul" but as there were increasingly more posts relating to gardening and only marginally to Istanbul itself, I decided to split the gardening posts off into their own blog. Transferring them all will take a bit of time.

All you have to do is check out Istanbul on Google Earth to see that central Istanbul has a lot of cement in it. It's not devoid of greenery; there are parks and they are working on making more, planting median strips and highway embankments.

It wasn't always this way. There was a distinct Ottoman garden culture, and old engravings and photos up until the 1950s show a city full of wooden houses, many of which had back gardens, small towns along the Bosphorus backed by lush hillsides and fields. But with a few precious exceptions, the building boom caused by the massive migration that began in the 70s and continues unabated has made that Istanbul a thing of the past. The fields behind Arnavutköy that produced their famous fragrant pink strawberries now sprout endless rows of cement apartment buildings. In most neighborhoods there are only a very few old houses remaining among the valleys of concrete; they and the shady courtyards of some of the old mosques are enough to remind one that this was once a very, very different place. Still, its a city built on fertile soil in a fairly mild climate, and any area left free of cement quickly goes green. Pretty much any sidewalk crack or rock wall has something growing out of it. It's as if it still longs to be a green place.

Like most foreigners living here, I started out in the Beyoğlu area. It's Istanbul's main "European" face; dominated by the pedestrian İstiklal Avenue, it is probably the easiest place for a foreigner to live. English-language bookstores, lots of cafes, easy transportation, varied shopping and resturants and an "anything goes" atmosphere are some of the many reasons many newcomers choose to live there, or in the once ill-famed but now swank neighborhood of Cihangir.

But I didn't grow up in a big city, I grew up in Iowa, at the edge of town. We always had a yard, my mother was an avid gardener, in 10 minutes I could be in fields or woods, and that's where I spent most of my free time.

In Seattle, a city with a real gardening culture (probaby because just about anything will grow there), I was seriously bitten by the gardening bug. I lived in my last house there for almost nine years and soon the weed infested lawn in the almost bare back yard was gone. The picture here shows where I started every morning; my garden was like another room of my house.

When I came to Istanbul, it was for a specific reason, to study music. The original plan was to stay six months, but it ended up being six years and counting. I went back for a summer to wrap up affairs in Seattle, sell replaceable belongings and put other things into storage, and, hardest of all, deal with the garden. Having already farmed out the real treasures out to trusted friends, I held a sale in August. In a day's time, what was diggable or if any real value was gone.

But "Slaves to the Goddess Flora" have no emancipation day. Or to put it another way: once a hortisexual, always a hortisexual. The first house I lived in had two small balconies. They were completely filled with pots within a month or so. Then I moved into a place with no balconies. I went to window boxes, and what was too big to live there was donated to the back yard of the music school I was attending. (I quickly encroached upon that garden as well!) The next place had a balcony again, and space for window boxes and they were all filled in short order.

But as nice as potted plants are, they are no substitute for direct contact with the dirt, the smell of soil, of weeds ripped out. On a small balcony you can look at your plants, but a garden is (ideally, to me), a place to be in. They are places of constant change. Each spring, summer, fall, even winter would bring memories of what was growing during that season back home; the smell of sweet box, or winter daphne, the excitement of the first poppy opening in May, the first raspberry off the canes. I would always just put it off with the logic that finding a house with a garden anywhere where I could afford, and that wouldn't put me out in isolation, was just not something I could realistically hope for.