Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category
It’s early, and I’d like to be stitching. But my fountain pen leaked all over my fingers and even after scrubbing off the ink, there are stains. I worry about leaving black marks on the piece of linen I’m—ah, and now I’m derailed by the search for a verb that accurately describes what I’m doing to the linen. Not embellishing, ornamenting, decorating—all too ornate, too fancy. Ferning, perhaps. Covering it with ferns.
I’m handstitching a drawstring bag (this pattern) because handstitching, including and especially embroidery, is one of the very few activities that quiets my mind enough for real thought. Gardening works, sometimes—if I don’t fall into a swirl of longing for plants I have neither time nor budget for—and has, in the past, yielded entire books while my fingers occupied the rabbity part of my brain. Mopping wood floors works: the smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap, the light gathering on the boards, the repetitive motion. I miss the job I had for a couple of years in San Diego, cleaning the floors of a yoga studio on Saturday mornings before it opened. I did some of my best writing while vacuuming or mopping those bare floors in empty rooms.
The thing about floors is that cleaning them doesn’t take terribly long. And then they’re finished. You rinse out the mop head, put away the bucket, and you’re done. Gardening is never finished, and neither is stitching, really—I may finish one project but there are a dozen others clamoring in the wings. Lately I find myself dreaming of an interval in which I could tip the balance in the other direction: spend the afternoons stitching instead of writing. What’s with that? I baffle myself. But I have these ideas, you see…
And if there’s anything slower than writing a novel, it’s handstitching! Ha!
We finished our readaloud of The Firelings yesterday. Oh, how I wish this were still in print! If you ever come across a copy at a library sale, snatch it up. I’ve read it at least twenty times since my dad brought it home from a used bookstore when I was eleven or twelve. Probably more. It explores, as I wrote here some years ago, “the relationship between custom and reason”—a tension I have always found intensely fascinating, as anyone knows who has heard me refer to the “ham in the pan.”
I didn’t get my hands on Carol Kendall’s other books until I was older—gosh, much older, my archives tell me. I posted about The Gammage Cup in 2010, shortly after reading it for the first time. (Scott, when you see this, skip the blockquote—I know you prefer to encounter a new book with a totally blank slate. I’m probably starting Gammage as a readaloud today.)
Kendall is one of those writers whose voice I just plain enjoy. She’s a quirky storyteller with a taste for misfits. This novel is about the Minnipins, a tradition-loving people who live in small villages in an isolated mountain valley. Their distant ancestors settled here after escaping from terrible enemies about whom little is known, now, except their names: The Mushrooms. A few centuries ago, one of the Minnipins journeyed over the mountains and back via hot air balloon. Most of Fooley’s souvenirs—and memories—were scattered when he crash-landed back at home, but the remaining fragments have been carefully enshrined in a village museum and in the customs of his descendants. (You can tell them apart from the rest of the villagers by their names, which are taken from a scrap of paper that survived the crash and is now presumed to be a list of the friends Fooley made on his journey: Ave., Co., Wm., Eng., etc. “The Periods,” as these folk are reverently called, run the village.)
Folks in the village like things to be done just so, and they have little tolerance for eccentrics like Gummy the poet or lively Curley Green, who recklessly paints images of things from real life, in disregard of the proper classical style. (My kids love Kendall’s work, but her character names drive them up a wall.) When Muggles, the reluctant heroine, and her misfit friends begin to suspect the terrible Mushrooms are preparing for another attack, they have to persuade the rest of the villagers that the danger is real. Instead, they get kicked out of the village.
Whoops—time to accompany Huck to his garden gig. I’ll come home with strawberry juice on top of the inkstains. You see why I need afternoons free for stitching!
Booknotes: The Gammage Cup
Photo from July 2011
I’ve just had a slender epiphany. For my Patreon yesterday I wrote a post about small projects—how many I have underway, and how satisfying it is to complete them—when it struck me that as a writer and an artist, nearly all the projects I care deeply about and think of as my Real Work are huge in scope.
I write novels, which can take years. Especially historical novels, with their months and months of research.
I have two separate, original, multi-piece embroidery projects underway, and if I thought novels were a slow-burning endeavor, boy howdy. I write at light-speed compared to the rate at which a stitching project develops from a glimmer of an idea to a transferable design to a finished piece hung on the wall. With embroidery, each ‘draft’ on the way to a final piece can take months. Even if, say, there’s a global pandemic keeping me housebound for a year, creating gaps of time where wandering around the science museum or meeting a friend for lunch used to live, my hands and eyes can handle only so much stitching and staring in a given day. And attempting something grand means lots and lots of iterations, lots of experimentation, lots of snipping away errant stitches so you can try something else.
And then of course there’s my epic, my life’s work—the homeschooling project, now in its 26th year, if you begin the count from the spring of 1995, when I began the read-and-research jag that has never stopped.
Pondering this, these large-scale endeavors I’m drawn to, in the context of my being a person who relishes the sudden, the new, the different, the spontaneous, the immediate—I have to laugh. We all live in various states of tension, tugged at by opposing forces (for example, you long to travel but don’t have the funds; or you’re happiest when you’re running but your knees are giving you hell); so the contrast between my nature and my aspirations isn’t unique, but it’s amusing.
Perhaps that’s why I took so readily to blogging and its later incarnations (most social media platforms are vehicles for microblogging, with twists): their quick turnaround, their perpetually changing nature. These forms of expression allow me to share ideas and experiences quickly, and to engage in immediate discourse about any topic that has seized my interest, right away, while the flame is burning high.
Meanwhile, the slow-burning project is simmering away, satisfying a whole different part of me. And it’s the determined part, the part with vision, the molten core roiling deep under the surface.
I grow sunflowers, and I grow trees.
As I said at the start of this post, it’s a slender epiphany—a morsel of self-understanding, not a revelation that changes the course of a river. But it’s a nourishing morsel, a crumb of lembas, that offers sustenance to both my practice of blogging and my larger-scale projects.
The splendid truth (to use Gretchen Rubin’s splendid term), of course, is that sometimes you discover that one of your sunflowers has grown into a towering oak. And some of your trees turn out to be bonsai. Either way, the point is to grow something.
Photo from August 2017. Not an oak.
Through this lens, I can survey my cluttered studio, my open tabs, my Scrivener files, my baskets and bins, and see the garden for what it is: abundance. Life. I grow milkweed, and I grow blueberries, and I grow river birches. (I also, let’s face it, grow a fair share of Bermuda grass.)
What are your flowers? What are your forests?
actually my poppies
First: very important: in that last post, I forgot to caption the photo! This matters only because I meant to say it was my neighbor’s garden, not mine. That daisy-and-lupine combination is magical and I’d like to copy it as soon as I can…which may not be for a long while. The vicious pandemic grocery budget has absorbed several other categories of funds at present. Plus I’m still paying off my little skin cancer adventure.
Fortunately, living in my Northeast Portland neighborhood has expanded my take on gardening. My first spring here, I walked around in wonder, dazed, drunk on beauty. The yards all around me astonished me daily with wave after wave of bloom. If you followed me on Instagram in Spring 2018, you saw my enchantment in action—every day, photo after photo of some delightful combination of petal and leaf in a neighbor’s front yard. And, knowing Portland has many dazzling corners, I kept thinking: gotta get to the rhododendron garden, gotta get to the rose garden—but I was still recovering from radiation then (it takes a long while before you feel fully yourself after treatment), and “gotta gets” weren’t in the cards yet. Then one day it struck me: I live in a giant garden. This whole neighborhood. It’s all right here rolling out from my doorstep, free for the drinking-in, and not a morsel of work required on my part.
That realization hushed the gotta-gets right up, and ever since, I walk around this neighborhood (it’s called Roseway, for Pete’s sake) feeling like Mary Lennox. Everything’s wick and wonderful and surprising.
I met the neighbor who owns the lupine garden (oh I wish you could see her entire yard; there’s no lawn (my ideal); it’s all daisies and lupines and poppies, and one big peony in the middle) once last summer, during the hot months, when I was out for a nature walk with Huck and Rilla, and the neighbor (we didn’t exchange names, pity) was out front, weeding. I gushed over her lemon balm, which smelled heavenly, and she immediately grabbed a shovel and dug up a clump for me. Gardeners and sourdough bakers are the most generous folks around, always eager to shove some treasure into your hands. It helps, I suppose, when your treasures are things that multiply abundantly.
Sourdough: of course you know I had to restart my starter this spring, what with 80% of the internet obsessed with baking at the moment. I had a good one going two years ago but never seemed up to baking with it (see above re: low energy for a good long while post radiation) and eventually I let it go. Before that, I had years of sourdough starters on and off in San Diego and Virginia. Again: much more tending of the starter, not so much baking of bread. (Sourdough bread, that is. I baked honey wheat loaves almost daily at some points. Remember when I had a whole bread blog?)
This time around, I’m baking. Yesterday’s loaf wasn’t my best: the cooler weather? A wetter dough? I got a decent oven spring but the crumb was dense, not airy like I aim for. And I thought the loaf was just a tad undercooked. Which made for a hilarious moment when Rose told me this was my best sourdough bread yet: it’s the perfect texture, she said. Rilla emphatically agreed. They like a dense, moist loaf. Which means I can never go wrong! No matter how the bread turns out, someone in the house will think it’s perfect.
Which is how I feel about my neighbors’ gardens, all of them. What you’ve nurtured here: perfection. Any gaps or flaws you may perceive are invisible to me. All I see is your magic. Those purple irises against the lime-green euphorbia: inspired! Your lawn full of tiny blue forget-me-nots: a poem I’m learning by heart.
It’s Saturday morning and I’m lazing in bed, drinking cocoa and dipping lightly into social media, which I mostly ignored this week. Saturdays are the only mornings my alarm isn’t set for 5:45. I could sleep later on weekdays but my two boys get up around 6:45 and I really love having that quiet hour to read and write. I’m committed to the practice of poetry before screens, even if some days it’s a bit of a wrench to drag myself out of bed that early. This week was extra challenging because I take allergy medicine at bedtime, and its soporific effects last into the morning. Portland’s spring is spectacularly lovely but it also wants to kill me a little.
I could take the meds earlier but I’m equally time-greedy about my evenings. I try to use 7-9pm as another block for creative work, with a break in the middle to go tuck in my Huckleberry, for whom this is still an important ritual. (My last little kid, y’all…Rilla became a teenager this month. Can you believe it?) Then Scott and I watch an hour of TV, and then I read in bed for a while, where “read” means “hold my Kindle in front of unseeing eyes until Scott gently removes it from my hand.” Often I turn on the Kindle next morning to discover I highlighted random phrases as I dozed off, like:
tics. The simple action of sweeping
Norman was unaffected by her because
Uh, super helpful there, sleepy Lissa.
I learned last summer that as our Pacific Northwest evenings lengthen, I won’t be able to resist that magical golden-hour light, so the 7-9pm time block for creative work will give way to long walks, and I’ll have to find other ways to create room for playing with color and words. Of course in a way my whole day revolves around those activities: reading to and chatting with the kids, doing art projects together, working on various writing projects in the afternoons. But I’ve learned I need to give myself chunks of time for creative play that has no end-purpose—no deadlines, no expectations to meet. Lately I’ve been enjoying drawing houseplants—on index cards, mostly, because that’s the ultimate low-pressure canvas—or doing Procreate tutorials on the iPad. (I’m trying to catch up to Rilla and Beanie. Their Procreate skills far surpass mine.)
Not that I have any wish to hurry spring along! I could linger here for another three or four months. My bitterroot is just beginning to bloom, and the dogwoods are in full glory. I remember last May as a month full of swoons—the light, mostly, that miraculous glow illuminating the clouds every evening, turning the air blue and gold.
I may be getting carried away with photos—I have hundreds like this from last spring.
Some quick notes on things we read this past week:
—Began a readaloud of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, a lovely novel by Grace Lin. I wrote a BraveWriter Arrow guide for this book last year; it was one of my favorites from the year’s lineup. I’ve been looking forward all year to enjoying it with Huck and Rilla.
—Continued our nostalgia-read of Brambly Hedge. It’s slow going because Rilla and I have to spend long minutes cooing over every tiny detail in the art.
—Rilla (my resident green thumb) and I have also spend loads of time poring over my treasured-since-college copy of Crockett’s Indoor Garden. Rilla has taken charge of the houseplant-watering schedule, which is marvelous since I’ve been…unreliable on that front these past two years. My goldfish plant is getting ready to bloom, we repotted the aeschynanthus, Rilla’s jade cutting, and a few other overcrowded treasures. Rilla has a small succulent collection that began with cuttings given to her by a neighbor whose cat she looked after for a week last summer, augmented by plants harvested from a beautiful succulent wreath my sister gave me for Christmas. And this week we inherited a large fennel volunteer that was taking over my friend Ron’s vegetable bed. Trying to decide whether to plant it in a pot or in the small raised garden bed out back. The latter was probably sundrenched when it was built, but now the neighbor’s magnolia is leaning over it, casting heavy shade over the bed for much of the day. Our fennel will probably prefer a spot on the sunny front steps.
My parents gave Rilla a big box of flower bulbs for her birthday (thirteen! did I mention?!)—dahlias, daylilies, glads, and I forget what else. So those will be going into pots this weekend. Luckily we inherited a dozen large clay pots from yet another neighbor who was clearing out her garage before a move. And a big bag of potting soil! Such riches!
My rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, and chives survived the winter. The basil, not so much. (Its demise was expected.) The potted blueberry has buds and there’s a nice fat poppy coming up where I planned to repot the dahlia tuber Ron gave me when we moved in. My yarrow is looking lush and the foxglove has gone bananas! No flower stalks yet but the leaves are huge and abundant. And my tulips, oh! I can’t get enough of them.
But I’m supposed to be writing booknotes here! Apart from things I enjoyed with the kids, I didn’t get much reading done this week—I had an unusual number of out-of-the-house events in the evenings. I’m enjoying Austin Kleon’s latest, though—Keep Going. Come to think of it, I read that one with the kids as well—they love his artwork.
I’m about halfway through Mike Monteiro’s Ruined By Design, which is thought-provoking and somewhat chilling.
The world is working exactly as designed.
The combustion engine which is destroying our planet’s atmosphere and rapidly making it inhospitable is working exactly as we designed it. Guns, which lead to so much death, work exactly as they’re designed to work. And every time we “improve” their design, they get better at killing….
Design is also a craft with a lot of blood on its hands. Every cigarette ad is on us. Every gun is on us. Every ballot that a voter cannot understand is on us. Every time social network’s interface allows a stalker to find their victim, that’s on us. The monsters we unleash into the world will carry your name.
This book will make you see that design is a political act. What we choose to design is a political act. Who we choose to work for is a political act. Who we choose to work with is a political act. And, most importantly, the people we’ve excluded from these decisions is the biggest (and stupidest) political act we’ve made as a society.
Fascinating and unsettling, and it feels like an important conversation for this moment in time.
Today I’m in the mood for some entertaining fiction—maybe another Terry Pratchett since I so enjoyed The Wee Free Men. My only highlight in the Kindle edition: “an egg’s worth of education.” I read it aloud to the kids so that fragment can’t have been the thunk of a sleeping hand on the screen. I guess I just liked the notion! (Tiffany barters eggs for knowledge when the scholars come to town.)
This week on Medium I shared a peek at how I used a Trello board to help with my novel revision. And squee—the most exciting moment of my week—my editor sent me the cover sketch for my new book and it’s fabulous! I can’t wait to share it. The artist is brilliant and the sketch just crackles with energy. I’m so happy. I think we’ll have final art for it quite soon. Of course the book doesn’t pub until summer 2020, but seeing the title in print makes it feel very real!
Happy last-weekend-in-April, my dears. I’d love to hear what you’re reading and planting!
—teaching my first Brave Writer class, Comic Strip Capers, which was a delightful experience
—final steps for a grant for a wetland recovery project
—an eight-week writing workshop (local, ends tomorrow)
—a massive post about my skincare favorites for Glittersquid
In the thick of:
—revising a novel that’s due in May
—catching up on Journey North Mystery Class with Rilla
—prepping for my second Brave Writer class, Penning the Past, which begins in May
—teaching three semester-long literature classes for homeschoolers
—reading essays from the above
—a longterm assignment for a disabilities-related nonprofit in Portland
—a massive decluttering project, which is going about as well as I indicated in my KonMari post
—homeschooling adventures with Rilla and Sean
——including a readaloud of Half Magic
——and lots of poetry
——and a trial of JAM’s “Invent Your Own Machines” class
—a Downton Abbey rewatch with Beanie (her first time)
Not getting done:
—the weeding (yikes)
—the taxes (tick tick tick) (double yikes)
—the umpteen posts sitting in drafts here
—a picture book manuscript I’ve been back-burnering for way too long
—as much reading as I would like
—Liquitex Paint Party at the Art Stash (acrylic paints demo)
—Daniel Smith watercolor demo at the Art Stash (with the DS owner! should be cool!)
—kids’ piano recital in May
—teaching Brave Writer classes in May and maybe June
—SDCC in July
What’s in bloom:
—grade soda lupines (roadsides)
—wild mustard (roadsides)
I lost my voice for a week, and with it my mojo. I’m better now but still tired and feeling (here at the end of the day) low in spirits, probably because I just caught up on the news. I’m not accustomed to this feeling and I don’t wear it well.
The morning was nice, though: warm sun after yet more rain (so much rain! it’s been years since I could say that!), and thyme seedlings feathering up near a volunteer pumpkin sprout. That self-sown arugula I found last month up and bolted on me, and now it’s flowering: starry white flowers, petals veined like insect wings, tangled with the yellow marguerites. I’m not complaining. I’m not sure I’ve ever grown a leafy edible that didn’t bolt. Some years back, I realized my favorite flowers of that summer were my gone-to-seed cilantro. The leaves had turned bitter but oh how lovely those small lacy blossoms all along the back fence. Maybe now that we’ve had some rain, I’ll plant a packet of cilantro seeds and let most of it run away with itself.
I was revisiting a favorite gardening book recently, Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts. For some reason I had it in my head that she was a garden writer (among whose number are some of my lifetime favorite writers, like Elizabeth Lawrence and Katharine S. White). But a rabbit trail enlightened me: Perenyi was actually a novelist and memoirist. Green Thoughts was her only garden book!
Her obituary in the New York Times describes her as a “writer and deliciously opinionated amateur gardener,” which struck me as an epitaph worth having. Why, I’m a writer and an opinionated amateur gardener, I thought. Whether or not those opinions are delicious must be determined by each reader, I suppose. But the description made me laugh and I experienced one of those little mental kaleidoscope twists after which new patterns reveal themselves to you. Until now I’ve more or less rolled my eyes at my own gardening idiosyncracies: I seldom do anything by the book. I grow things in odd places and wrong seasons. I ignore what I ought to tend, and I fuss over what wants to be left alone. I’ve got lettuce and herbs and flowers all growing in the same big pot, because it sits on the front steps and I know I’m most likely to notice it wants watering, after this burst of weather is past and the baking days return.
It’s funny that while I have no qualms whatsoever about tweaking and adapting some educational resource to suit my own preferences, when I make the same kind of tweaks to proper garden methods I do so with a measure of chagrin, an internal acknowledgement that I’m ‘doing it all wrong but oh well.’ It’s possible, now I think of it, this inner critic (it isn’t a loud one) is the voice of our neighbor back in Virginia, who was positively tormented by my unconventional approach. He’d see me on our sloping lot across the street from his house, painstakingly grubbing out weeds that were absolutely going to rebound with vigor the following week, and he’d holler “helpful” recommendations of Round-Up across the road. “Can’t!” I’d yell back. “It’ll kill the milkweed!” That I planted milkweed on purpose made him sputter. We drove each other crazy, Tom and I, but only during the summer. I planted forsythia, redbuds, and dogwoods at the top of that slope, which means he had me to thank for his lovely spring view. Not to mention the enormous throng of monarch butterflies that mobbed my asters in the fall.
(That’s a big sprig of chicory behind the asters. I left a huge patch of it wild in our yard, intermingled with Russian thistle. Both are wonderful plants for a butterfly garden, but they aren’t exactly lookers. Not by conventional standards, at least. The chicory was glorious in the mornings, like a sheet of fallen sky, but by noon the flowers had closed up and all you had was a patch of scrub. This is why Tom found me trying as a neighbor. And let’s face it: if there is one place I have never belonged, it’s a neighborhood with a homeowner’s association.)
(Well, that and high school gym class.)
Anyway, I’ve decided that being remembered as a “writer and deliciously opinionated amateur gardener” would be a fine thing.
Speaking of idiosyncratic gardeners, here’s another thing that made me smile this morning. I discovered that Rilla had added a little pot to our container garden under the front window. It’s the yellow pot in the photo below—full of weeds. The grass (which is mostly weeds; see above re: no Round-Up) has turned meadowy with all this rain. Rilla knew I was going to mow soon and (she explained) she was afraid all the “beautiful weeds” would be shorn. So she dug some up and gave them a safe new home.
Remember those pumpkins I said might be ripe in time for Christmas? More like Valentine’s Day. We gave most of them away to a neighbor (who thanked us with pumpkin bread, so we came out ahead) but kept a couple to perpetuate the cycle. We’ll ignore these and let Nature do her thing, and maybe we’ll have some seeds sprouting earlier in the season this time around. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the jarring contrast of spring flowers and fall harvest.
Spotted two tiny caterpillars on the milkweed! Sadly, however, we also found a withered monarch chrysalis hanging on the fence with a pinprick hole in it. It looks like we’re raising caterpillars for something’s lunch. Not cool, Nature. Monarchs have enough to contend with these days.
1. Leaving the house early yesterday morning, I spotted a pair of goldfinches feasting on the seeds of my basil—yes, another herb I forgot to pinch back, and now I’m glad
2. Pink milk and candy hearts
3. Saturday night ritual: art time with Rilla while the older girls watch TV with Scott (after the early-to-bed boys have conked out). This week, we binged on Cathy Johnson videos. Oh, I just love her, murmurs my girl.
4. Weeded the front-yard flower beds. Began, at any rate, and made good headway. After I mowed the other day, I discovered just how much is in bloom. Nasturtiums, coreopsis, sweet alyssum, snapdragons, viola, milkweed…Ellie said it’s okay to talk about my flowers, hope you don’t mind. 😉
5. Set up a new palette and spent a good while testing colors with Rilla.
6. This one’s a Big Happy: today I finished the last empty page in my very first complete sketchbook. I started it on August 30. Have drawn or painted almost every day since (even if only for a few minutes). Feeling pretty chuffed.
November 25, 2014 @ 3:23 pm | Filed under: Gardening
Faded: the sunflowers. They’re drooping in sad-Charlie-Brown fashion all along the side wall. They amuse me.
In bloom: yellow daisies, masses of them. Pink geraniums, always. Orange zinnias, still going strong. Sweet alyssum and snapdragons, recently added. (The summer alyssum crop, grown from seed, carpeted a corner of the yard all summer, then went brown and weedy. We missed them and put in a few nursery plants to tide us over until the next batch of seeds comes up.) Bougainvillea, small but promising. Lavender, keeping the bees busy. Basil, because I forgot to pinch it off.
In fruit: Tomatoes! Hurrah! I moved them to the front yard this year and voila, they are producing abundantly.
But overshadowing all of these by a mile: the renegade pumpkins. Last year (Halloween 2013) we had one jack-o-lantern and two smaller uncarved pumpkins. These got left alone when we tossed the melting jack-o-lantern. (That’s what carved pumpkins do in Southern California. They dissolve on the stoop.)
The two little pumpkins became a quiet science experiment during the course of the year. One was partly under a bush and retained its integrity for months. The other, in full sun, decomposed rapidly. All of us enjoyed comparing their progress during our comings and goings from driveway to front door.
By July, the shaded pumpkin had joined its mate in the circle of life: its skin crisped and cracked like old, brittle paper. Seeds spilled out everywhere. Did I pay them any mind? I did not.
In August, we noticed sprouts. Not only at the site of the departed pumpkins, but also along the side wall near the sidewalk.
By October, we had vines. Big sprawling vines with huge leaves, trailing all across the lawn and beyond. We had to keep kicking them off the sidewalk back onto the grass lest they trip up passersby.
And now, two days before the final pumpkin holiday of the year, we have (at last count) a crop of six young pumpkins of modest size in various shades of green and yellow. Not orange. No, not quite orange yet.
I figure they’ll be ripe in time for Christmas.