Tuesday, July 17, 2007

White, Red, and Blue, Blue, Blue!

Once again, the Solano County Fair has come and gone. It's rather like a rite of mid-summer: the Fair opens, almost nobody shows up except those loonies (like me) that love county fairs, the Fair closes, and I go pick up my entries and a sheaf of ribbons.

This year, I didn't enter any jams, jellies, or pickles in the Preserved Foods competition. Preserved Foods is a bit tricky to do in the Bay Area: most of the county fairs happen just as the major canning season starts, and things have to be put up within 1 year of the opening day of the fair. This means you either spend most of the summer putting up things that won't be judged for nearly a year, or you scramble at the last minute to come up with award-winning entries. I've done both, and won both Best of Show and Reserve Best of Show in both 2004 and 2006. However, I didn't do any canning last summer because it was much too hot, and then we went on vacation for 3 weeks. I tried to do a little canning right before the deadline, but my heart really in it this year, and I wasn't satisfied with the results, so I just passed on entering anything.
I made up for the lack of Preserved Foods by entering a bunch of different things in different Textile and Baked Goods classes. Even though I was hampered by a bad can of baking powder--Clabber Girl, the baking powder I've used for the past 40 years seems to have been reformulated to remove any trans-fats (in baking powder?!?) and doesn't act the same as the old baking powder--I still had 9 of 10 entries finish "in the money," and 5 of the 9 had blue ribbons tacked up next to them. I did nearly as well in the fiber arts: 6 of 7 entries finished in the money, and 3 won blue ribbons.

But wait! There's more!

I came home Friday evening, and there was a telephone message from someone at the Solano County Fair, telling me I had won a "special award," and that I and two guests were being "comped" admission to the Fair on Saturday, so I could be present at the awards ceremony at 6:00 p.m. As we were already going to the Fair with a bunch of friends, and had a fistful of comped admission tickets already, I didn't worry about retrieving the comp tickets. We went off to the Fair, spent an hour buying different snack-like foods (corn dogs; garlic fries) that went well with beer, and made our way over to the MacCormack Building for the big awards ceremony. We got there early, snagged perches on a couple benches, and waited. And waited. AND WAITED. Nearly an hour after the ceremony was supposed to start, it finally did...with the announcements of the winners of the different 4H awards. Now, I don't have a problem with 4H, and it was sort of cute (for the first 10 minutes) to see these little kids go up to receive little trophies and cash prizes for growing 28-lb. cabbages, making the best jam, or stuffing and mounting a buffalo head. However, it was hot (the MacCormack Building doesn't have air conditioning), everybody was tired, and we missed several hours of the fair.

However, the Fair officials finally got the end of all the kids' awards, and announced that Meyer Cookware Co. had donated two of their 5-piece bakeware sets for a Cookie Bake-Off, so all the cookie entries had been entered. A little girl who won for her baking won the Junior Division Cookie Bake-Off, then the official doing the emceeing said, "During the entry check-in, a woman came in with all these entries, and when I said she must be hoping to win at least one blue ribbon, she said, 'I don't do this for the blue ribbons...I'm going for the Best of Show, Reserve Best of Show, and the Sweepstakes.' Well, she didn't win those, but her cookie entry was loved by every one of the judges. The winner of the Senior Division Meyer Cookie Bake-Off is Dawn Jacobson!" The Lizzies, made from a recipe from my grandmother's cousin Mary, had won what turned out to be this year's top prize. I was both very pleased (it's a great recipe) and very embarrassed (Did I really sound that arrogant?) as I went up, posed for a "grab it and grin" photo, and got my set of bakeware, to the cheers and applause of my friends and the rest of the crowd.

So, the results:

Blue (1st Place) Ribbons:
--Banana Bread (my grandmother's recipe wins for the second year in a row)
--Streusel Coffee Cake
--Carrot-Pineapple Muffins
--Lemon-Poppyseed Bread
--Handspun Yarn, 2-ply, Other Than Wool (SoySilk)
--Handspun, Handknitted Item (Monmouth Cap)
--Handknitted Item, Other (Child's Vest)

Red (2nd Place) Ribbons:
--Currant Scones
--Handspun Yarn, 2-ply, Wool (Corriedale)
--Handknitted Item, Socks

White (3rd Place) Ribbons:
--Hot Milk Cake
--Chile-Cheese Cornbread
--Nut Brown Bread
--Handspun Yarn, Singles, Wool (Suffolk)
Landscaping, or "You couldn't pay me to do this!"

I've been remiss in writing my blog, spinning, or weaving the bookmarks due October 1st because we (me and the long-suffering, ever-patient husband) have been relandscaping the front yard. Landscaping is one of the items on that short list of things that I will do for myself (because I'm a cheapskate), but that I would never willingly do for any amount of money, because it's far too much like work.

"Gardening" is not "landscaping." Gardening is fun. I love to putter in the garden, snipping dead flowers off the roses, pulling a few weeds, especially with a lovely cold beverage at hand, and the promise of grilled food and dinner on the patio that evening. Landscaping, on the other hand, involves moving large quantities of very heavy topsoil, fertilizer, soil amendments, and mulch. Landscaping requires the use of tools like rakes, shovels, and in our area, a mattock (which most non-gardeners refer to as a "pick-axe"). Landscaping is hot, dirty work that includes multiple trips to the Yard Waste Center (for clean topsoil), the local building materials yard (for mulch), several nurseries, and Home Depot, sometimes all in the same day.

We have slowly (OK, very slowly) been relandscaping nearly the entire property since purchasing the house in 1994. Part of the delay has been money--landscaping can be very costly, especially when you have to put in "infrastructure" (retaining walls, patios, a garage, etc.). Part of the delay has been time--it's hard to tackle a big landscaping job over a weekend, and many of our weekends are taken up with other things. Part of the delay has also been trying to decide what will grow best in each area, as we have a property that can best be described as "problematic."

The big problem is the soil: there isn't any. Our property is on the northeastern slope of a large sandstone hill, with 4 to 12 inches of clay. Dig through the clay and you hit the sandstone. Dig down through the sandstone enough (about 7 feet), and you hit water, because we have a very high water table. When we first bought the house, I managed to dig up one bed on the east side, and improve the soil to the point I can grow roses and irises in it. Otherwise, plants are limited to what can be grown in containers and raised beds. We "hardscaped" (a fancy term for "paved over") the backyard--not difficult to do once most of the backyard was taken up with a garage--and built large raised beds around the patio for a nice collection of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Doing all this work takes time, so the front yard was left until we had the time, energy, money, and desire to relandscape the entire front, an area about 15x75 feet on the north side and east sides of the property dominated by a huge Monterey pine. The entire yard sloped down toward the streets (it's on a corner).

This is the third time we're landscaping the front yard. The first time, we ripped out the junipers, repaired the board-and-gravel stairs, and planted arctotis stoechadifolia (African Daisy) across the slopes. The goal was to create a simple, low-maintenance, drought-tolerant front yard. The result was a bunch of dead plants that either didn't get enough sun (thanks to the slope), were poisoned by the acid soil (thanks to the pine), or were run over (thanks to the stolen motorcycle that crashed into the front yard).

The second landscaping adventure included putting in retaining walls (goodbye slopes!), trying (and failing) to get rid of the oxalis that blooms every spring, and seeding (and reseeding) a lawn. I actually managed to get a nice lawn growing on the 100 square feet that got enough sun and weren't under the pine tree. The lawn died last summer when we had two weeks of 90+ temperatures, and I couldn't put enough water on the lawn to keep it alive. The only things to survive were the hydrangeas and Sprenger asparagus ferns planted in wine barrels along the foundation of the house--they were in the perpetual shade.

This time, I'm giving in to the demands of the pine, the terrain, and exposure (garden-speak for how much sun the area gets). It's quite a mix, from complete shade to lots of sun, from hard-packed clay to very acidic loam (years of pine needle mulch creates that). I sat down with my trusty Sunset Western Garden Book, looked at lists of plants that like permanent shade, partial shade, bright sun, filtered sun, acidic soil, and are easy to grow, and came up with a nice plan and plant list. The list is heavy on azaleas, ferns, and a rhododendron in the shady, acidic areas under the pine, the hydrangeas and ferns in the complete shade in front of the house, and more sun-loving plants (including a gardenia, several dietes, and lots of bulbs) in the sunny spots. We've "sculpted" small hills to create enough topsoil for the plants to thrive, in spite of being planted on a bed of clay and sandstone, with paths in between the hills for access through different parts of the garden. The entire yard is now bordered by a boxwood hedge and soon have that finished "professional" look by judicious mulching with ground redwood bark (aka "gorilla hair"), both to hide the drip watering system and to protect the plants while they're getting established. The azalea in the photograph above, which was "borrowed" from the Azalea Society of America's Website, is "Redbird," one of the 4 varieties of red and pink azaleas in the yard.

So I'm spending a little money (less than $2,000), some time (about 150 man hours), and a great deal of energy, to save a great deal of money (about $20,000). An equitable trade-off for my own yard, but you couldn't pay me enough to do this in your yard!