Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sweet And Sour Fall Color

We are having a particularly rainy and windy fall in the Seattle area this year, but don't let that keep you from enjoying the vivid colors of the season. For example, look for two of my favorite trees for fall color: Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum).

Native to the eastern US, sweet gums are attractive trees that can grow to 60' tall, 20-25' wide. They are sometimes mistaken for maples because their leaf shape is similar.
In fall, these leaves turn color in multiple shades: burgundy, red and yellow. Certain cultivars, such as 'Festival' and 'Roundiloba' are especially showy with bits of peach and orange mixed in with the purples, reds and yellows. These trees are stunning! If you are fortunate enough to pass one on your daily rounds, watch as the leaves progress through color changes as the days go by. They'll take your mind off the rain.

Sourwoods are also native to the eastern US. They are much smaller than sweet gums, taking several years to reach a height of 20 - 30', making them good trees for urban yards. I don't think they are planted nearly enough here. They are well suited to our acid soils and cool summers.
Sourwood leaves remind me of fruit tree leaves, like apples or peaches. But in fall, unlike the leaves on fruit trees, sourwood leaves turn brilliant red, orange and black-purple. The display is even more of a head-turner because in late summer, and early fall, these trees produce drooping clusters of white, bell-shaped flowers. (They are in the same family, Ericaceae, as the Strawberry tree.) These flowers make sourwoods easily identifiable this time of year. They are said to be fragrant, so get up close; fall breezes quickly carry the scent away.

In spite of rain and blustery weather, this is a good time to get outside and observe the change of seasons. In the Northwest, we are blessed to have a huge variety of trees with different growth habits. We have longer, more colorful autumns than other parts of the country because as one group of trees fades, another begins to color up. Most years, this means that we have close to three months of color. Enjoy it!

If you live in the city of Seattle and need a good tree guide, consider Arthur Lee Jacobson's "Trees of Seattle: The Complete Tree-Finder's Guide to the City's 740 Varieties." This book has become a classic, and for good reason.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Gardening with Disabilities

For most of my life, I have had problems with my back, left hip and leg. (I describe these issues, and the Birmingham hip resurfacing surgery I had in 2008, in this article posted on my other blog, Where I Am Now). But I love gardening and, in spite of pain and, later, serious disability, I refused to give it up. In fact, I would say that as my physical condition worsened, I needed the solace of my garden even more. The only question was, how to keep going?

Over time, I found several things that made gardening possible, and easier, for me. Here are some of them.
Raise the level of the garden. Raised beds bring the height of the garden up, so you don't have to bend down so far. If building a raised bed is too difficult a project for you to manage, try containers. I grow nearly all my herbs in big containers just outside my kitchen door. I don't have to bend very far to reach them and they are always close by when I need fresh herbs for cooking.

Use a kneeler benchThis item has been the greatest help to me of any tool I can think of both in the garden and for any household project that requires being on my hands and knees.
I have to tell you, though, that I have almost never used mine as a bench. I flip it over and use it to kneel on. Knee pads are fine, but believe me, if you have trouble getting up and down, the "arms" on this kneeler make it so much easier. Being able to grab those arms and push myself up or lower myself down made the difference, for years, between being able to work in my garden and having to hire someone else to do it.

The arms are good props, too, when your back is tired. Lean on one arm while weeding, raking or painting the deck. This saves your back and makes it possible to get more done in a session.

Find tools that fit your hands and level of strength. I used to struggle with cheap pruners that were made to fit a man's hand. I have small hands, even by women's standards, and over-extending my reach constantly to use those pruners gave me terrible cramps. Then I discovered Felco pruners. They come in different sizes for different hands. And there is a model with rotating hand grips that make pruning easier for people with wrist and grip issues.

I also am a big fan of my hori-hori knife, which is two or three tools in one, meaning I don't have to lug a bunch of stuff around with me when I garden. If you are using a cane, you know what I mean. When you have only one hand free to carry things, you want to be as efficient as possible.

Another of my favorites is the hand rake. I have deep shrub beds and when I could only bear weight on one leg, raking standing up was an unwieldy project. I found that by positioning my kneeler in the bed and using the hand rake, I could easily get under and around shrubs and do just as tidy a job with less discomfort.

Look for other tools at The Wright Stuff. They have a collection of ergonomic garden products designed for people with arthritis and limited mobility.

Wear proper shoes. For years, I couldn't reach my left foot to tie a shoe. That meant that all my shoes were slip-ons. The problem with slip-ons, though, is that they are easy to walk out of, and that would cause me to lose my balance. This wasn't such a big problem indoors, but out in the garden where surfaces tend to be uneven, slip-ons could be dangerous.

Then I discovered elastic shoelaces! I simply replaced the regular lace on the left shoe of a good pair of walking shoes with an elastic shoelace and suddenly I had a safe, comfortable slip-on. The elastic laces stretch just enough to allow my foot to slide into the shoe then tighten up, nice and snug, to keep the shoe on and give me good support.

If you have been gardening with a disability of one sort or another, what have your experiences been? I know there are many other helpful ideas and products out there. If you have some to share, please comment. Thanks.