Gardening on a Whim


The dahlias sleep in the empty silence. T.S. Eliot

I consider myself lucky to have a home with a large garden. It’s a wonderful haven and a welcome respite from the computer. But any outdoor space can be a lot of work, especially since we have no grass in the back yard, which is certified as a National Wildlife Refuge. You’ve got to amend the soil (here it’s mostly clay), put the right plant in the right place at the right time, pinch and/or deadhead to promote more flowering, prune, water, feed, etc. And weed, weed, weed. No herbicides or pesticides allowed.

Yet for all the time it demands, the rewards are plentiful. Nothing matches the joy of sitting with my partner under an arbor smothered with fragrant jasmine blooms. Or savoring a tomato fresh from the vine. Watching hummingbirds as they zoom from bottlebrush to lavender to tithonia and then take a break on an arch or tree limb. Halting mid-step as I catch sight of a lizard engaged in what looks like push-ups—they do it for exercise as well as to scope out the area for predators. Yelling like a banshee when I see a neighborhood cat trotting off with one limp in its jaws.

Like most avid gardeners, I’m constantly looking for new plants. After many, many episodes of “Gardener’s World,” I decided this would be the year to try dahlias, those wild, almost gaudy, flowers up to a foot wide (at that size, they’re called “dinner plates”). They looked like a safe bet. Plant the tubers in a sunny site, watch them grow, pinch a bit for stronger plants, and then gather glorious blooms all summer. What could be easier?

Then I read the instructions that came with my mail order. They need at least 6 hours of sun but can fade and/or wilt under bright light and excessive heat. That sent me back to the drawing pad, as I’d planned to plant them in southern and western parts of my yard. Now I’m looking at the eastern side. Morning sun, afternoon shade.

Trouble is, I’ve dedicated that area to drought-tolerant plants. In hotter climates like Sacramento’s central valley, dahlias, once their first set of true leaves appear, need a deep soaking 3-4 times a week. Yikes!

And apparently snails and slugs feast on them; planting instructions recommend putting out bait as soon as the tubers are in the ground. But my garden is organic, and snail bait is not, even the ones that purport to be safe. (I take a jaded view of such claims, especially when they come from pesticide organizations.) So I’m hoarding natural remedies—eggshells and coffee grounds and Epsom salts—and hoping they’ll work. It’s that or going out several times an evening with a headlamp to pick them off manually.

I haven’t planted them yet. The ground isn’t warm enough (60 degrees minimum). They’re sitting in their shipping box on a shelf in the garage. But spring is coming fast—too fast. I’ll be digging holes soon and hoping for the best.

And reminding myself to do more research the next time Monty Don tempts me to add an exotic plant to my yard.




Image of “Firepot” dahlia

Gardener’s World

How Much Sunlight Do Dahlias Need?

A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Dahlias


For the Love of Accordions

“The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man’s soul.” – Beethoven 

I grew up listening to my father play the accordion, an instrument he learned in high school in late 1930’s New Hampshire. He was a taciturn man, but music brought out the best in him and gave me a glimpse of the smiling charmer who snagged my mother’s heart. Especially when he played her song: “Juanita.”

He could be fierce about it. No one dared make a sound or interrupt him while The Lawrence Welk Show aired, especially when Myron Floren, Joann Castle or the maestro himself took center stage with their keyboards and bellows. Half our hi-fi cabinet boasted albums by accordionists. (The other half was filled with salsa artists, but that’s another story.)

They’re fascinating instruments, beautiful and complex. The process of making one is incredibly precise. With up to 600 reeds, the final tuning alone can take up to 16 hours.

You can perform just about any kind of music with an accordion. Folk, blues, rock, pop, Latin, Tex-Mex, Italian, Irish, French, Celtic, Cajun/Zydeco, even classical. A lot of people associate the accordion with Weird Al Yankovic and the polka. Its range is far wider. Musicians you might not expect have embraced it. Julieta Venegas, the Mexican singer. John Lennon. Sheryl Crow. Jimi Hendrix. Billy Joel. Danny Federici (who played with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Bank). Stevie Wonder.

Elvis could play one—badly, if you believe the rumors.

My first piano accordion, a bare-bones model for beginners, cost less than $100, far less than the $40,000 the exquisite Pigini Mythos commands. It was tiny but allowed me to learn the basics of posture and playing while seated. What looks easy involves quite a bit of work.

Before you begin

Keep the keyboard aligned with your chin.

Rest the middle of the accordion on your left thigh.

Hold out your right elbow.

Tuck in your left elbow.

Remember to work the bellows smoothly. Accordions need air.

To play

Practice the melody alone until mastered.

Do the same with bass notes/chords.

Put both parts together.

And then you’ll have … music?

I’ll be honest. The air in my room turned blue when I practiced. My partner complimented me on the variety of curses I knew. In different languages, no less. A metronome helped to keep the tempo regular, but my first songs sounded like dirges. I played everything s…l…o…w…l…y and gained a new respect for the pros.

That first accordion ended up in my second-grade classroom, where the kids happily embraced a budding musician and sang along to pieces from my early Palmer-Hughes instruction books. Its replacement was a vintage De La Rosa I picked up at the Cotati Accordion Festival, an annual event in northern California (link below). Made in Italy, mid-size, mother-of-pearl keys, gorgeous sound.

Did I get better with a more refined instrument? Yes. A well-made, well-tuned accordion inspired me to work harder. I remember how happy it made me to tell my teacher that I’d reached a point where I felt one with the music.

It’s an intensely personal experience. Notes seem to play themselves, your body and mind transport to another dimension. When you finish, there’s hushed silence as the vibrations fade.

You don’t have to believe in God to understand what Beethoven meant. Music has spirit. Music has soul.

The benefits go beyond the divine. According to research, learning any kind of instrument sharpens your brain by utilizing higher cognitive functions. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Playing music improves mental and physical well-being at any age. These days, that’s a bonus I’ll gladly accept.

If you want to learn more, or glimpse the pin-up calendar featuring women who love their accordions, here are a few links to get you started:

How Accordions are Made

Accordion Babes

Cotati Accordion Festival

The Brains of Musicians

Could Playing Music Drastically Alter Your Brain?

Thanks for reading. Images:

Photo of Viola Turpeinen

Photo of Julieta Venegas:

Photo of Elvis: