Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Update 2 of ?: Garden

It’s been a long while since I wrote a blog post and there’s a lot to catch up on. But rather than get dragged into one long, neverending story, I’m breaking it into several little bits, a la John Grey, Earl of Bwythn-y-Llan. Who knows how many I’ll accomplish before the day wraps up?

The big news this week around these parts is the weather. After weeks of spring deluges, the rain has trickled off, and we’ve had only one good shower in the past month. It was dry enough before that for me to have drained my 40-gallon rain barrel, one 2-gallon watering can at a time. I was relieved to get a refill before Mother Nature turned off the spigot for good.

So, with occasional watering, this was my garden last week.

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Not overwhelming, but the right-hand pea trellis had finally turned into the lush wall of vegetation I was looking for, and the pods were starting to fill. Sadly, last year’s pea-eating pest was back at it, and I didn’t know how to dissuade it. The damage was too high for rabbits, so I assumed the lately-arrived squirrel population (our neighborhood is still developing a tree canopy, so we’d been squirrel-less until the past year or so). I sprinkled cayenne powder, tucked onion tops and garlic scapes into the vines, and tied shiny bits of paper and ribbon onto the trellises. The onions seemed to work for a day, but nothing else had any effect.

Then Miss Chef happened to catch the thief red….feathered.


Yes, she saw a cardinal eating my precious peas! Now, I’ve been very conscientious about creating a little bit of habitat here for wildlife: no chemicals for lawn or garden, a little patch of wildflowers I let grow in the backyard, avoiding invasive plants, and of course the birdfeeder and birdbath. I stopped filling the feeder after spring had turned and I deemed it easy enough for them to find natural food sources. But after Miss Chef’s report, I filled both the feeder and the birdbath…however, I’ve not been diligent about it, so it’s hard to tell if it helps.

In the meanwhile, this week’s forecast looks like this:


And according to Mr. Weatherguy on the tv, there’s no relief in sight. It’s only been a few days into the heatwave thus far, and here’s how my garden looked this morning.

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The deep shade makes it look darker and lusher, but take a second look and you’ll see signs of stress. The peas and nearest tomato plant are turning yellow from the ground up. For the tomato, that’s a common virus which will eventually kill the plant, but I can still get a little harvest from it. For the peas, that means it’s too hot and too dry. I haven’t been getting up early enough to water as frequently as I’d like, and frankly I’d rather save my dwindling supply for upcoming crops like my beans, peppers and squash.

But darn it, those vines keep putting out new sprouts and flowers amid all the yellowing leaves.

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So I was out there this morning, trying to at least get them through the week. But since checking the 10-day forecast, I think it may be time to stop kidding myself.

The garlic and onions have been indicating they’re ready to come out, too, and while my onions have been rather pathetic, I did pull out some handsome heads of garlic.

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Dirty, yes, but handsome to my eyes.

While those plants are gasping their last, the resilience of my squash plants entertains me. This is what they look like in the heat of the afternoon. You’d think they were toast.

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Yet once the shade rolls on in, they look like this within an hour:

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Amazing, eh? And even better, they’re working diligently on growing me some squash.


Heck, if I can get just one crop through the next couple of weeks, I’ll feel like a successful gardener.

Update 1 of ?: Rosie


Sometime this year Rosie turns 11.

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You’d hardly know it, short of looking closely at her eyes, which have developed the typical cloudiness for an older dog. She’s as energetic as ever when she grabs a toy and does her “I want to go outside” dance (which closely resembles her “I’m hungry” and “I want some attention now” dances.) And while she’s developed at least one white whisker and the little patch on her chin nobody ever sees has grown a bit, by all appearances she hasn’t aged a day since she walked in the door almost 9 years ago.

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So fierce

Yet one telltale change is marking her time on Earth. Over the past several months I noticed her hearing seemed to be diminishing. Her ignoring of my “c’mere”s seemed a little beyond passive stubbornness, and it was obvious from her startled waking growls that she was no longer able to hear the cat’s plaintive greeting meows. I mentioned this to the vet during her annual checkup in May, and she confirmed there was nothing outwardly wrong with Rosie’s ears, so it was surely age catching up with her. She’s such a sweet, responsive girl it didn’t really matter; she rarely used “I didn’t hear you” as an excuse.

But one morning last week at breakfast, Rosie was looking me right in the face when I gave her the “ok” to eat. (I make her sit and wait when I place her bowl on the floor. I told you she was a Good Dog.) After I gave her the command she just continued to smile eagerly at me, awaiting permission. I tried again louder, then a third time, at a shout. It wasn’t until I added a swipe of the hand in the direction of her bowl that she jumped up and dove in.

She’d done this before, hesitating as if she weren’t sure I really meant “ok.” But usually that was accompanied by a false start and some tail swishes. Not today. It was as if she’d forgotten to turn the volume up in her world.

Over the next few days Miss Chef and I repeatedly tested the dog’s hearing, calling her loudly from right behind. It became apparent from Rosie’s startled reactions whenever we touched her that she had no idea we were anywhere nearby. Seemingly overnight, her hearing had gone from “poor” to “practically nonexistent.” Thank goodness she’s such a calm dog and never reacts aggressively when we frighten her. I’ve been searching for gentle ways to awake her from her naps—waving my hand in front of her nose worked once, and tapping the floor if she’s not on the carpet works too.

Though it may seem like “aw, such a shame,” I’ve actually been kind of enjoying this new adjustment. I guess it’s the scientist in me, testing new ways of communicating and interacting with her. Fortunately I had already taught Rosie many hand signals—come, sit, stay, look over there cover most of our daily needs. Oh, and the “Where’s your toy?” shrug. Yes, I taught her that! I’m glad she’s such a quick learner, and had picked them up almost effortlessly along the way.


This is not me. Also, crazy eyes are not part of the signal.

The only thing I wish I’d developed a signal for was “good girl.” Because I can tell she misses the balm of verbal praise. She often comes over just for a little pet-pet, seeming to want that reassurance that she used to get so frequently via tone of voice. I’m trying to teach her a “good girl” sign now, but it doesn’t seem to have clicked yet. That’s ok, pet-pets are a nice substitute, if a little hard to achieve when one’s hands are full.

And then there are some other benefits. Like when I want to go from bed to bathroom to bed again without a dancing, huffy escort who thinks any post-sleep movement means it’s time for breakfast. Or when I let her in the backyard, she no longer hears me close the door and turns around with a look of betrayal; she just goes on about her sniffing and peeing business.

So, all in all, I’m content that it’s her hearing that’s gone, rather than sight, mobility or general well-being. And aside from missing her “good girls,” she doesn’t seem to care at all. As long as she’s still able to hang out in the front yard and sniff the world wafting by, Rosie’s a happy pup.

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In case you were wondering, that second picture is her yawning. Not so fierce, actually.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Garden Journal: Now we’re growing!

Through late April and most of May, I was disappointed in how my garden looked.

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Oh, it was growing, and mostly weedless, but it sure didn’t look lush. My peas in particular weren’t making the progress I wished for.

Well, maybe it’s time, or that great downpour we had last week, but finally things are starting to pop out there.

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Three weeks’ difference has made me happy. I had one rogue radish pop up, and let it bloom there in the front. I was happy to see tiny little native bees on it last week. I recently read that those overlooked species do more pollinating that all the honeybees who get all the press. So I’ve been looking with pride at the clover in my unmowed lawn and thrilling at the constant swarm of miniature visitors to the parsley flowers growing wildly between our patio pavers.

And I doubt that’s the only reason, but surely it helps explain the great luck I’ve had with pollination this year?

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Last year at this time, only one tomato plant had put on two tiny green fruits, but this year all 3 of my plants have bunches of fast-plumping tomatoes hanging on them. I’m only hoping they don’t all come ripe when we’re in San Francisco!

The peas, while behind last year’s schedule by about a week, are finally looking plentiful.

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And while last year’s beans were already flowering by this point, these guys look pretty happy…besides, they’re a different variety.

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Usually I grow bush beans because I don’t want to be bothered with poles. This year I wanted to try a pseudo-three sisters approach, with poles instead of corn (modern varieties take lots of space & water). Sadly, my squash plant didn’t germinate here, so it’s just beans and poles.  Oh well.

Luckily, my other two squash plants did germinate, finally.

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They are in our fabulous raised bed built last year—the hoops and covering were supposed to help me get a jump-start on spring gardening this year, but I dithered so much about what I wanted to put in here that it’s now a total summer bed. There’s a lonely onion and a cilantro plant in the back. I took this photo right after Miss Chef harvested about 1/3 of the cilantro, so it’s doing better than it looks from here. In fact, I think it’s planning on bolting (flowering) soon. Fortunately, I’ve got a few other cilantro seedlings scattered around other beds, so we’ll be able to enjoy it a bit longer. The seeds are coriander, which is an easy spice to harvest, and fun to use. I should plant cilantro more often.

Part of the reason my garden doesn’t look quite so jungly as last year was my surrender on the broccoli front. I had about seven plants come up from seeds, half a dozen that survived transplanting into the bed, but only 3 that made it through a last, brutal freeze in March (or was it April?) I could have bought plants, but they take up a lot of space, so I thought I’d be reasonable and just grow what I have.

And now it’s time for examples of “right plant, right place”…and its opposite.

This is my biggest one.

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Handsome fella, isn’t he? Now here’s the one on the opposite corner:

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I’m not sure what the difference is here, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the garlic, either the shading or anti-companion status. Lots of things don’t like to grow near garlic. Also notice it’s more bug-eaten than the other, which I think is more effect than cause here. Healthy plants can resist pests and disease better, which is one of the benefits of using natural methods like companion planting, feeding the soil through compost, and mulching for water retention. Part of the end result is less need for pesticides.

That’s enough Gardening 101. There are more interesting things to look at. Like flowers!

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Well, this looked more impressive a few days ago, when there were fewer dead ones and more new ones. But I’ve got a nice self-propogating mix of galliardia, coreopsis and brown-eyed susans established in my front bed now. I should dead-head the spent blooms to encourage more flowering, but it’s hot out here in the afternoons!

At the bottom of the driveway, Miss Chef’s asiatic lilies are giving their annual show right now, too.

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And walking back to the house, I noticed one of our Mystery Trees has started bearing fruit. Wish I knew what it was!

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Also, this oddball popped up next to our neglected herb bed.

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I think I’ll keep this one.

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

First tomato!


It’s tiny. It’s green. Apparently, it’s a little fuzzy…but it’s the first of the season!

Also, some of the seeds I had decided would never come up, came up. One day bare soil, the next…beans!


Dunno what happened to those leaves, but I planted two at each stake, so we’re gonna play survival of the fittest. Gardening can be brutal, didn’t you know?

Wow, this picture came out fuzzy.


The garden seems less green than usual this year. Still, the peas are finally getting the idea and climbing the trellises, though I had to help a few of them out. And the tomatoes have grown enough that I needed to loop some string around the stakes (thus the discovery of their firstborn). It’s been pretty warm here, getting into the low 80s (27-ish C), and I’d love some rain. Sadly, none is forecast anytime soon and I’m getting nervous this may turn into another drought summer. I really prefer when Mother Nature takes care of watering for me.

In other news, my favoritest pastry chef in Charlotte recently opened a brick-and-mortar location, and I stopped in today to check it out. Here’s a little something to make you hungry.




The chef is French—oh so French—and makes the best pain au chocolat I’ve had stateside. Time to work my network and get this man some press!

That’s about all the excitement I’ve fit in this week, between delivering bread and scooping up spices. That’s ok, even my quiet weeks keep me occupied. It’s good to be busy again!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Food, flowers and Big Trip 2!

I was chatting the other day with my “boss” about my various paying gigs (she’s been a sort of acquaintance/friend for years, so it doesn’t feel like a typical boss-employee relationship), when she concluded, “It sounds to me like you’ve got four jobs.”

I try not to think of it that way. But I have been pretty busy.

On April 19th, my writing gigs got me a free pass as a media judge for one of the Competition Dining events being held in Charlotte. (Here’s one of the stories I wrote about it; in brief it’s a single-elimination bracket pitting a series of local chefs in secret ingredient matchups; the diners get to vote on each course without knowing which chef cooked what.) A couple weeks after I got my tickets, Miss Chef was invited to be a Pro judge for the same night—so we got to go together! And one of the organizers knew us, so we were seated together, even though we went via different organizations and had different contacts at the event.  Cool, huh?

There were six courses, but I won’t include all my photos. Here’s one of the apps:


It’s a tortellini made with purple sweet potato, wrapped around rock shrimp and accompanied by a bit of lobster tail. Poor me, right?

Actually, it was a challenge to keep up the flow of tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook updates while still tasting and entering my scores for each course. I normally wouldn’t blast out every single course of a dinner like this, but I figured I was there as a media person, so I was going to earn my dinner.

Here’s one of the desserts:


It’s an empanada, a cheesecake bite and toasted marshmallow, all made with different kinds of sweet potatoes. Oh, in case you hadn’t figured it out, the secret ingredient was five types of sweet potatoes, from five local farms. Both these dishes were by the winning chef, who defeated one of our good friends. I hated to see Chef Coleman go down, but it was a just victory, as he had some execution issues on a couple of his dishes. Besides, the winner was from last year’s state champion team, so it wasn’t exactly an easy battle.

As April wound down, I made a point of backing off on pitching stories, as I’d piled up too many deadlines before starting my two regular jobs and was about to have a nervous breakdown. So while I do still have some busy, busy days, I’ve finally started to have some free blocks of time. Of course, what else was I going to do with that during the lovely days of spring, but tend to my garden?


Although some of my herbs didn’t do well this winter, the spring garden is finally gaining way, and I’ve just put in my summer plants. You can see the squash and cucumber seed packets in front! On the left of the pathway, inside the stately row of tall garlic plants, the tomatoes have taken up residence. On the right side, you can see the peas finally making a break for the trellis, and the faintest of green smudges that are my tiny carrots and onions.



I didn’t do a great job of reviewing my companion planting information from last year’s workshop, but I do remember that onions chase away lots of pests, and they don’t need much room. So I’m happy to grow as many as I can get!

Here’s a view from the other end.


On the left are three tall stakes I’m using in a partial adaptation of the three sisters planting—no corn, but there are bean seeds at the bottom of each stake, and a squash seed in the center. Every year is an experiment in my garden. Now, I could also point out the two little bell pepper plants on the right side, but I doubt you can really see them, so you’ll just have to believe me. That thing you might want to think is a pepper plant is one of my three remaining broccoli plants. I don’t hold out much hope for a good harvest, as they’re still really small for this late in the spring. Still, I grew them from seed, so they’re gonna get a chance to prove themselves.

This past week I actually had an entire day off, with no writing deadlines, so I even had time to play with nonedible plants. These are some of the dozen or so marigold volunteers that came up in the garden. I potted some up to give away, because I couldn’t stand to toss them all in the compost pile.


A couple of Facebook friends queried whether I was sure they weren’t ragweed! After researching images, I can see why they’d be worried, but I’ve never had ragweed on my property, while I have had lots of prolific marigolds. I ended up planting one in a front bed, and look forward to teasingly posting photos of my “ragweed” flowers later this summer.

I also treated myself to some begonias and a decorative sweet potato vine for my big pot on the front stoop.


I love the white begonia flowers with the darker bronze leaves, but they can be really hard to find. I hit up a local nursery and got mostly white flowers. Close enough.

So, what’s this about Big Trip 2? If you were along for the ride four years ago, you’ll certainly remember our Big Trip to London and Paris. This one’s not quite that big, but this summer we’re finally heading off for another long flight—this time to San Francisco!

I’ve got family out there, including a 20-something cousin I’ve never met(!), and a Thai aunt who is all about some serious home cooking. Once again we are totally overplanning, but this time it’s Miss Chef scheduling everything. She’s already made two big reservations for us: at Coi, a hot new restaurant all about local food, and (drumroll) at the French Laundry, arguably the most influential restaurant in America in the past 20 years. It’s incredibly difficult to get reservations, and I never thought I’d get the chance to eat there. But Miss Chef was determined, and after an hour spent dialing and redialing and sitting on hold, she finally got us seats--at 9:15 pm. Better late than never, right?

I’d probably better stop eating tomorrow.

Anyway, we’re also hoping to do a day trip to Napa valley, and another to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, another bucket list item for both of us. I’m sure I’ll need another vacation to recover from this one, but life’s all about making memories, in my book.

Right now, though, I’ve got to make some clothes clean. So much for my glamorous lifestyle.