Eric Milner: Birthday Remembrances at 101

dad in India

Eric Milner, center

My father traversed an interesting path, one of travel, adventure and creativity. Born in England on October 6th, 1915, today would have been his 101st birthday. Daddy studied botany and horticultural science at Wimbledon Technical College. He worked as a student gardener at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London. Now you know where I got my love of gardening.

In a letter he saved dated October 1st, 1937, it says:

“Mr. E. Milner came to us on Sept. 16th 1935 as a Student Gardener. Since that time he has spent 4 months in the Fruit Department, 2 months in the Rock Garden, 8 months on general outdoor work and 10 months under glass. His experience with us has included the propagation and maintenance of stove, glasshouse and herbaceous plants, all of which we grow in considerable variety.”

So formal! After completing his courses, he moved to India to work on a tea plantation around 1937.  He remained in India during the second world war serving as a translator.

In a letter dated 7th May, 1946 from the India Office, Whitehall, it says:

Sir,

“Now that the time has come for your release from active military duty, I am to convey to you the thanks of the Secretary of State for India and of the Government of India for the valuable services which you have rendered to your country at a time of grave national emergency.

At the end of the emergency you will relinquish your commission, and at that time a notification will appear in the London Gazette (Supplement), granting you also the honorary rank of Captain.  Meanwhile, you have permission to use that rank with effect from the date of your release.”

He returned to England in 1946 and shortly thereafter immigrated to Canada where he met and married my mother.  Together they owned a pair of flower shops for a few years.  My father later managed a nursery in my hometown of London, Ontario.

Lucky for me his hobbies included photography and the careful assembly of albums, like the one pictured here.  I remain fascinated all these years later of his time in India and his work planting and propagating tea in the Darjeeling region. He died far too young. A smoker of pipes and unfiltered, hand-rolled cigarettes, he lost his life to cancer when I was just nine years old. He was 54.

Darjeeling album

Photos from Daddy’s time in India

planting tea in India

Planting young tea, photo by Eric Milner

tea growing in India

Tea Grows in India, 1939, photo by Eric Milner

There are so many things I would ask him if I could. What was it like to be a boy in England in the twenties?  Who were his friends?  What drew him to botany and landscaping?  Dad’s treasured albums leave subtle clues, but each photo poses more questions.  There are pictures of my namesake Aunt Alys and his parents, neither of whom I met, but pictures of others too. Who were they and why did their image make it into his photo albums? If Daddy had lived to a ripe old age, his own shared memories would be a part of our story, and perhaps most of them mundane.  Instead they’re a mystery that I can’t quite solve, special moments from a life interrupted.

I feel connected to dad when I’m tending my garden or digging in the soil. He lives in my heart and at the end of my proverbial green thumb. If he were here to celebrate this birthday, I would thank him for the gift of my life, for his compassion and care and for passing on his love of the earth. I would wrap my arms around his slender frame, give him a hug, and tell him all the things we missed together.

 

 

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The Colors of Fall: Our Own Special Tree

colorful leaves

Colorful leaves

New England states are known for stunning displays of fall color.  My husband and I crossed the country by train one year so we could enjoy the spectacular (and fleeting) beauty.

We also had the good sense to plant our own fall color in the strip of land between the street and the sidewalk.  Though there were four beautiful trees growing in the back yard when we bought our house in 1996, we didn’t have a single tree out front.

August, 1996

Planting the tree
August, 1996

We planted two that first year, and have since planted a couple more.   The Magnolia shows off in early spring with huge, snowy-white flowers but the fall belongs to the splendid Chinese Pistache.

The City of San Jose requires a permit before planting a tree in the sidewalk strip, the space between the sidewalk and the street.  They provide a list of “approved” street trees.  Approved trees must have non-invasive roots, non-staining fruit and other good-neighbor qualities.  In the past, neighboring streets sported Liquidambar trees.  They’re pretty but a nuisance when planted curbside.  Invasive roots lift the sidewalks, causing myriad tripping hazards, and the seed pods are hard enough to twist an ankle when stepped on.  I remember getting them caught in the wheels of the boys’ s stroller and later in the undercarriage of scooters.  One by one, homeowners removed the Liquidambar, leaving neighborhoods bereft of trees.

A few years back the trend reversed, and once again families are planting trees.

Planting a tree is an act of hope and optimism.  It also says “I’m here to stay!”  My family moved a lot when I was a child, and I moved even more during college and my early working career.  The same was true for my husband. Planting a tree outside our front window said  “we plan to stay awhile.”

chinese pistache newly planted

August, 1996

chinese pistache spring

Spring, 2011

Now and again my husband grumbles that our tree is not as tall or as full as the one across the street.  I immediately come to our trees’ defense and assure him that it’s just fine.  BK (before kids) we used to measure the tree’s height each year.  We settled into life raising two boys, and measured their growth each year instead.

Winter Views of the Pistache

Growing boys, sleeping tree

Now we have three strapping teenagers (two boys and one tree) and all three are taller than me.  The colors of fall, and our beautiful tree, are an introspective time to reflect.

chinese pistache

November 12, 2013

hummer in pistache

This little hummingbird sang while I raked

Final Score: Pumpkins, 8, Squash Bugs, 2

Things got a bit dicey in the pumpkin patch last month.  Nearly a dozen pumpkins grew happily on the vine until disaster struck.  A rapidly producing colony of squash bugs moved in and things turned ugly.  If you have any doubt, take a look:

This pumpkin never had a chance

This pumpkin never stood a chance

Instead of leaving the orange pumpkins on the vine to harden, I harvested all but two and set them on the patio thinking I would wipe them off before bringing them indoors.  The next day, the squash bugs found the harvest!  Eek!

I brought the pumpkins inside one by one, wiping them down with the first thing I could get my hands on: my son’s lip balm. (Desperate times call for desperate measures).  I didn’t want to bring garden pests indoors, so I figured the coating would put an end to anything I missed.

polished pumpkins

Polished pumpkins

We’re big on pumpkins around here: we grow, harvest, decorate and carve them. It’s been a family tradition for a decade.  I also enjoy saving  seeds for the next season. This year I gave a few starters to friends, and passed on some seeds to an adorable pair of three-year-old twins that walk by the house with their dad. They planted the seeds and grew pumpkins of their own. I’m delighted.

The pumpkins hung out in the living room for several weeks, but as October approaches, it’s time to bring them center stage. I created a display on my iron bench combining an eclectic mix of drying lavender, three pumpkins and a refurbished fairy garden. Check back next week for the fall upgrade.
DSC_0012

DSC_0013-001

I love October. It starts with my birthday, ends with Halloween with plenty of goodness in between.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, this Boo season brings a special visit from Boooooomdee. She told me to expect her on the whisper of a dandelion, but I think she was teasing. I’ll go to the airport to fetch her just in case.

Boo season, here we come!

 

Self-Seeded Pumpkin: Late Season Wonder

Okay, so squirrels aren’t always destructive. There’s a good chance that a squirrel buried one of last year’s pumpkin seeds at the edge of the lawn. That seed managed to survive all the activity around building the curb garden (twice), not to mention the proximity to the street.  You couldn’t ask for a clearer example of ‘survival of the fittest.’

I spotted the tell-tale seedling early on, but didn’t expect it to survive.  I let it be of course, and it gradually sent out true leaves and a few flowers.  Given the dense root system of the lawn, I figured it would overtake the pumpkin.  I removed chunks of lawn around the tiny plant without disturbing the pumpkin’s roots.  That did the trick.  Look at the progress of this plant in less than 30 days:

Curbside pumpkin plant, August 24th

Curbside pumpkin plant, August 24th

Curbside Pumpkin plant September 18th

Curbside pumpkin plant September 18th

I’m seeing the tell-tale signs of late season mold on the leaves, but the flowering continues. Hopefully we’ll have one more orange pumpkin to add to the mix before the vine retires for the season.

Be sure to check back for updates.

Pumpkin plant closeup

Pumpkin plant closeup

green pumpkin

Yep…it’s a pumpkin!

Pumpkin Harvest, Cousin Shelley

Squash bugs

Squash bugs

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know this is pumpkin harvest week at gardeningnirvana.  The probable final count is ten, 12 if you count Frank and his cousin Shelley.  I left a few late-season fruits on the vine since I’m nothing if not optimistic when it comes to pumpkins.

The squash bugs continue unabated, so I need to come up with a plan.  I want to use the soon-to-be vacated planting bed for my cool season crops, but not until the bed is pest-free.

I’m soaking seeds on the kitchen counter as we speak for peas and beets.  Broccoli seeds don’t require a good soak, but I need to get busy setting them out soon. The first day of autumn in our hemisphere is still a month away. The changes in the air say otherwise.  I hate to miss a good planting opportunity.

In case you missed yesterday’s post, here’s another peak at Frank.

frank the pumpkin

Frank aka a pumpkin casualty

Frank wears his scars proudly, forgiving the gentle gardener for her blunder. Shelley on the other hand has piercing eyes and a lopsided grin, courtesy of an unknown pest. Since everyone loves a good ‘before and after’ shot, without further ado, here’s Shelley:

2013, 08-27

 

Pumpkin Pests (Uninvited Guests)

The pumpkin vines are looking a bit tired and who can blame them?  They’ve been producing lemony-yellow flowers, luxurious vines and fruit since April.

Pumpkin vines

Pumpkin vines, going strong since April

Pumpkins are usually a 90 day crop, so clearly they’re past their prime.  Guess what?  I found two, beautifully formed yellow fruits, basking in the late-season heat.

Pumpkin Newby

Pumpkin Newbie

I also found pumpkin pests.  Are you sensing a theme here?

Pumpkin Pests

Pumpkin pests come in all colors and sizes

pumpkin bugs

Harvest now, before it is too late!!!

I’ve seen these little grey creepers before, but they came late in the season and didn’t seem to hurt the pumpkins. I’ve not been so lucky this year. Since two of the smaller pumpkins were already collapsing, I decided to leave them there, thinking the pests would leave the hardier pumpkins alone.

Well!

Within a few days I found them on my biggest pumpkin, so I decided then and there to harvest the one large fruit. I twisted the pumpkin from the vine, and set it out-of-the-way on the path. When I went back to get it and bring it in the house, I failed to give it the respect it deserved. Ms. Overachiever here tucked the pumpkin under one arm, the kitchen scrap bin under the other and,  if you were reading last Friday, you know what happened.

Thud!!!

Splat!!!

Sad, sad gardener.

cracked pumpkin

Split clean through

Anyhoo…I’ll be sure to include this one in my 31 days of pumpkins in October.

Now, about those pests…

Andrea Meyers identifies these as Squash Bugs (aka Stink Bugs).  You can read more on her beautiful site.

Planter Box Fizzle: Failure to Thrive

I’ve been trying to swallow my disappointment at the sorry state of my flower bed. In my imagination (a rich and fertile place I might add), the bed is flourishing.  Instead, the mint, herbs, annuals and transplants are all stuck in idle.

My husband lovingly built the raised bed along the sidewalk strip this past spring. It’s quite large (4′ x 16′) so instead of buying bags from the nursery, I ordered planting mix from a local landscape supplier. I wasn’t home to accept the delivery, and ended up with a lot more than I needed.  My friend, Jazzy, helped me remove all the excess and a friend down the street took it by the wheelbarrow-full for her own budding garden.  At last it was ready to plant.

Doesn’t this look pretty and full of promise?

garden bed front garden newly planted

Here it is several weeks later.

Even the ‘volunteer’ pumpkin plant that jumped ship is doing better growing in the grass (lower left).

DSC_0017

Given the seasonal heat, sun and proper irrigation, along with a generous covering of mulch, the plants should be thriving.  Instead, a crop of black mushrooms sprout along the surface each morning, eventually wilting under the mid-day sun.

Today, I got to the bottom of things.  Or more accurately, the top.  Instead of delivering ‘potting mix’ they delivered topsoil!  It’s heavy, sandy and ill-suited for my needs.

The supplier offered a refund today, but they can’t remove the delivered soil.  They suggested a few bags of high quality premium mix, free of charge, but I’ll need to amend it by half, so I still need to figure out what to do with over a cubic yard of topsoil.

Right now, I’m just overwhelmed.  I’ll keep you posted.