Time On My Hands

I see by the date of my last post in July that many moons have passed since I posted. Indeed, the act of writing itself has become foreign to me while my hands were used to weed, water and plant seeds. The cultivated earth mistress that demanded most of my attention this year has finally been put to bed, all 5,000 square feet of her. I look at my hands beat up by countless days of cuts from the soil knife or spines off the squash vines, and can actually see clean fingernails as familiar calluses fade into the paleness of my skin.

For the first time in months, I have time on my hands and I find myself a bit lost. The house cries out for attention–closets full of items tossed in randomly for lack of space or safety from sharp kitten teeth, floors that need a good scrubbing to rid them of ground-in garden soil, receipts piled in a drawer with budgets long neglected, paintings and craft projects waiting to be finished before spring. (I could go on, but it’s too early in the day to start drinking.)

I look around in amazement and wonder what happened to that obsessive-compulsive overachieving minimalist who used to inhabit this body sitting here on another dreary mideast morning, the sun that I used to curse for heatstroke by midmorning in the summer, now nowhere to be seen. Wild birds huddle at the feeders outside my insulated windows and the nearly full-grown cat I rescued is squeezed into her favorite cardboard box that’s now three sizes too small for her.

Like a growing child who puts on last year’s winter clothes, I find that my old ways and concerns no longer fit me in this new life of organic gardening, rural living and community consciousness. I’ve learned so much beyond what not to plant next year, or how to manage when the power goes out. I’ve tested my physical limits and personal boundaries this year, and found out when to say no. I’ve become more of a realist and less of a dreamer, although my imagination is still sparked by the light glinting off of dewy spiderwebs and ice-encased red berries.

I’m back to long walks on the wild trails down by the river with my spouse, a patient man who has put up with my obsessions and depressions for over 30 years. Finally, we have the luxury of staying home on snow days without the guilt or grueling commute on dangerous roads. And because of the little community we live in, we can avoid the isolation that rural life often demands in the winter. Gathering together on cold, dark nights before solstice for food, music and laughter, or organizing a trip to the college town close by, are perfect anecdotes to the winter blues.

Meanwhile, there’s still some kale sleeping under its winter blanket, pale parsnips waiting to be harvested from frozen ground, and plenty of sweet potatoes to last us through the holidays. It’s been a good year and time to celebrate.

Maybe I’ll even paint my fingernails.

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Deja Vu All Over Again

Just as John Fogerty so famously sang, this summer’s movie reel is a continuous replay of events from nearly twenty years ago. Again and again I’ve been struck by the similarities. Indeed, there are even close parallels to childhood and teenage summers gone by. But almost two decades ago, I was adapting to a new life in a strange place, juggling a giant garden and a gaggle of pets, with no idea where this was all headed.

Three years later I was headed back to the suburbs, with a newly diagnosed autoimmune disease and a sense of defeat. Nice try, I thought, too bad my attempts always end in failure. All for nothing. Flash forward to 2018 and like so many of my random life experiences that held no rhyme or reason, suddenly that brief foray into organic gardening and sustainable living provided the foundation for me to start a new garden with support from fellow gardeners in the community I now call home.

Based on the wisdom and guidance of those who have lived and loved this farm and retreat center for many years, the 5,000 square foot vegetable garden that is part of the property’s centerpiece full of flowers, fruit, shrubs and trees, has produced over a hundred heads of lettuce, bushels of heirloom tomatoes, countless cucumbers and ridiculous amounts of squash.

And the community members have responded by creating beautiful and delicious dishes out of all the bounty in addition to produce for the retreat center. Whereas before I was alone in my endeavors trying to find ways to give away excess food, now I have a network and a sense of connection with my fellow villagers. Just the typical random morning chat in the gardens with coffee makes all the years of preparation for this cooperative garden effort worthwhile.

While in the garden at the beginning of June discussing lettuce with one of the chefs, the other deja vu element showed up in the form of a tiny kitten with blue eyes followed closely by a local vet who happened to be attending a retreat that day. “She’s a tortie, seven or eight weeks old,” the vet called out, “barely weaned. A baby.” The whole retreat group tried to catch her, to no avail. I was left waiting for my ride at the end of the evening, dead tired but unable to ignore the gut-wrenching mewing coming from the shrubbery.

Flashback to 2002, when my last cat landed on our doorstep in the country, full of fleas and desperate to live with us. And beyond that experience were the ancient memories of kittens abandoned in my parents’ farm fields, tiny cries for help from corn and bean rows that I would answer because I couldn’t ignore those sounds without my heart breaking into pieces.

Now I was closing in on two years since my last cat’s passing and vowed not to get too attached. Certainly no kittens, I said, too much work. But once again I couldn’t ignore those desperate little cries, and I started meowing back. She came straight to me out of the bushes, dripping wet, and climbed right into my arms. Turns out she was a neighbor’s cat that crawled up under a car, took a little ride and tumbled out about a mile down the road. She suffered a scraped nose and lost one of her nine lives, but she managed to find me just when I needed her. I just didn’t know it yet.

So here I am at the end of July, with a lifetime of living accomplished in just a few short months, with a cat and a garden and too many vegetables. But also with a sense that all that’s come before has prepared me for what I need now, to start all over again.

Where Has All the Rain Gone?


Naturally, or unnaturally it seems, we’re experiencing a drought where I live just when I’ve started to garden again. Community members scour the skies, and hunker down in front of the computer weather sites while keeping their phones tuned to weather apps. Time and again I have watched a promising storm split within a mile or two and circle around us. We water incessantly, nearly every plant has already peaked before June, new temperature records are set daily.

This is life in the new climate, I fear. The art of growing food becomes more than a practice in sustenance, it becomes a leap of faith. I can only plant the seeds, and hope our well doesn’t run dry. Water becomes more precious than gold. The guidelines set by local county extension offices are now meaningless. A seismic shift in seasons sends us all reeling — even the wild ones who are frantically trying to raise their young feel fast-forwarded by weather extremes.

And yet, I wake early every morning anticipating what I will find growing in the garden and what has pushed itself up from darkness, not caring whether it was watered from a hose or the sky, the will to live overriding all.

April’s Foolishness

The tulip’s version of the “jester hat.”

As a gardener, April has been the most challenging, frustrating and puzzling month so far this year. I have enjoyed it immensely. There’s nothing more “in the moment” and strangely invigorating than carting 164 tomato plants to safety amidst gail-force winds and snow, or protecting 260 lettuce seedlings with 16 sets of cotton sheets kindly donated by a fellow gardener.

I remain in debt and awe to the remarkable recovery witnessed in plants and the kindness of community in helping to grow food, plain and simple. Looking forward to Beltane and May’s gentle (non-freezing) breezes.

Here’s to the merry month of May!

Invasion of the Vegetables


After a hiatus of many years, garden mania has once again taken over my soul and my house. Seeds are germinating in my art room while sweet potatoes hide in our coat closet and tomato seedlings await their peat pots on the kitchen counter. These days you’ll find me wandering around with a plant mister and planning charts while checking projected night-time temps on my phone and muttering about frost-free dates in my sleep.

On gusty nights I wake up in a cold sweat wondering how my lettuce starts are faring now that they’re finally hardening off in the unheated greenhouse that tends to lose its panels in a strong wind. I’ve been known to rescue them after dark for an overnight stay in the protection of my house, much like a parent sheltering her young from the blows of life.

Nearly twenty years since my last foray into seed starts and county extension handouts, I’ve found that much has changed with the proliferation of new technology in growing lights and heating mats, but very little in terms of my anxiety and protectiveness toward my “plant” progeny.

And while garden centers and box stores will be full of perfectly potted specimens lined up in pristine rows to pop into soil when the weather finally warms up enough to shed our winter coats, the little farm where I live grows organic with an eye to the unusual and the flavorful, and strongly supports the seed companies that provide ethically obtained, preferably heirloom seeds that are untreated and unsullied by the corruption of corporate tampering.

Besides, that first taste of juicy home-grown heirloom tomato will be well worth the vegetable invasion overtaking my home.

The Downsizing Dozen: Tiny Tending

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As suburbanites everywhere march along to the beating blades inside their lawnmowers and collect the stray mulch that spring downpours washed out of obsessively sculpted landscapes, I fill my two little railing planters with carefully chosen herbs I will use in my cooking, at three stories up on a tiny balcony. From this great height, my old life of lawn maintenance and yard work seems very far away, indeed.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I spent my childhood in the country on several farms and remember spring as a frantically busy season at my grandparents’ family nursery, where thousands of annuals were sold in the merry month of May alone. Fields were tilled and planted, and the family garden begun but often neglected for farming’s other pressing demands.

I’ll never forget the first garden of my very own. My daughter had been born early that spring after a difficult pregnancy on bedrest. I was finally recovered, full of energy and new life, so I dug and laid out a little plot for square-foot gardening at the corner of our rental property. I bought garden tools and poured over seed catalogs, amended the soil and put up trellises for the vine crops. By June everything I planted was up and thriving.

And then my husband landed the job of his dreams halfway across the country. By July, I had to leave my little garden behind, and start over. But I never stopped gardening. Every year at the first misstep of winter, when the soil begins to wake and earthworms stir under the robins’ watchful eyes, I feel the call. It’s in my blood, a part of my genetic duty.

And this year wasn’t any different. I’ve worked all sizes of gardens, from half an acre to containers on a patio, but this has to be my smallest space, yet. Our diet these days restricts eating large amounts of nightshades like tomatoes and peppers, which is mainly what I planted in years past. Nowadays, we use plenty of fresh herbs, and instead of ornamental flowers, I’m trying out a couple of everbearing strawberry plants with pretty pink blooms as an added garnish.

I’ve no doubt that given the chance, I will tend to a larger garden in the future. The tools I bought for that first little square-foot plot are safely stored in our garage, waiting to cultivate bigger dreams. But until then, this is enough.

Once a month for the next twelve, I’ll feature another step in the downsizing journey that didn’t just begin when we sold our suburban house and moved to a small walk-up apartment in June of 2014. This shift to a simpler life has been years in the making, and I hope you’ll join me in my family’s quest to get down to basics. My inaugural post entitled Giving It All Away was featured in July, Make It Stick in August, Following Your Feet in September, Case of the Missing Mac in October, Diminished Drumsticks in November, Dwindling Decorations in December, Finding Focus in January, Forgotten Food in February, Travel Time in March, and Shifting Into Single Gear in April.

Gardener’s Lament

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Somewhere between my water spigot and a
neighbor’s neglected fence, I have lost the war.
From all sides, weedy minions encroach on my best
intentions, they’ve infiltrated the deeply dug beds
of my dreams and smothered seeds that failed to
germinate my hope for a better eden. Day after endless
day, I beat back the crabby masses, insulting insects
and gluttonous gophers, haul water to parched leaves
curling out in the field, and nurse the injured nibbled by
deer and stepped on by meter readers. With the help of a
full seed moon, I long to stand vigil against raccoon thievery
and possum vandalism, but reluctantly I must retire until the
bird’s insistent reveille when I will rise to fight once again
despite my stooped back, cracked cuticles and poison ivy.

NaPoWriMo #14

I’m writing a poem every day in April as part of NaPoWriMo’s celebration of National Poetry Month. Won’t you join me in poetry?