The Chartreuse Thumb

nature-chartreuse-pixabay

Gardens have surrounded me for most of my life. The yard of my Michigan childhood was a fairytale hide-and-seek mixture of giant lilac trees and gnarly grape vines, along with bounteous flower and vegetable beds. My parents were avid gardeners, and I learned a great deal from watching them over the years.

As an adult, I struggled to come into my own by fighting bleak, sandy soil to produce healthy annuals, thick day lilies, and mammoth rhubarb. The years that followed sent me in many different directions, to the heat of Texas and North Carolina, then the short and bittersweet growing seasons of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Azalea, camellia, clematis, Rudbeckia, delphinium…lovely names for even lovelier blooms. As my stack of gardening books and catalogs grew, so did my knowledge of all the little tricks. Prevent slugs from hatching in hostas before the tender leaves unfurl? Had it covered. Make sure the clematis actually climb up the arbor? No problem.

Recent winds of change have carried me back toward my children and their families in Texas. Temperate conditions offer beautiful gardens for most months of the year. Only problem is, none of them are mine. For the first time in decades, my garden fix must come from visiting those owned and tended by others. Quite an adjustment.

Indoor gardening has always been a challenge for me, which I’ve met with varying results. Winning this quest has now become even more crucial. My large windows offer profuse light, and the multi-tiered plant stand is full. All of my original selections haven’t flourished, I admit, and some have already taken the slide of shame down the garbage chute.

Fault lies in the choices or the tending, and the blame is all mine. The trick is finding exactly what works in this third-story substitute for a garden, among traditional houseplants and bedding varieties that can be fooled to grow and bloom for a season.

Relieved that the temperatures are now lower, my screens can finally allow the cooler breezes in to ruffle the leaves. On other positive notes, this is the longest I’ve ever managed to keep chives or mint alive, inside, and I’m experiencing the joys of cacti and aloe for the very first time.

Perhaps I can put some of those random bits of knowledge stored in my head to use. Could trial-sized soapettes be wedged into pots to prevent those pesky little flies? Might be easier than bathing the plants in that insecticidal soap every few weeks. Maybe some of you have hints to share, as to what works best in homes with certain conditions of light, temperature, humidity and four-legged friends.

Who knows how long my red-tipped, yellow chrysanthemum will survive. For now, it serves as a beautiful alternative to the multi-colored maple leaves of my youth. Nothing stays the same, which gets me back to the chartreuse thumb. It’s not worse or better than the green… just different.

 

 

Outdoor Gardening in the Winter: Juxtaposition as a Handy Writing Tool

jasmine
Jasmine

~Hot sun formed a cap for my bare head. Warm, rich earth felt heavenly, flowing between my fingers like coins of gold. As I plucked a catnip plant from the basket, the citrus odor pleasantly tickled my nose. After deciding on its resting place near the brightly blooming yellow jasmine, I turned to my favorite, the mint. Probably my herb of choice because I could usually coax it to grow anywhere, I imagined how its refreshing aroma would deliciously waft in through the open window. As I reached for the next plant, I felt a bead of sweat break free on my back and begin its trickle downward. How many months had it been since I’d experienced that not-unpleasant sensation?

Movement caught my eye, and I worried for a second that Mildred had made a successful escape. In relief, I discovered the merrily blinking pink lights snaking around the stair railing and the sleek tortoiseshell safely perched on the other side of the window screen, happily batting at red and white, heart-shaped decorations.

“How in the heck did I end up here this winter?” I thought for the thousandth time, feeling that familiar, magnetic pull back toward the north.~

 Readers on the west coast or in southern locations wouldn’t see the weather described in February from this opening scene as juxtaposition, but many of us hailing from colder climes certainly would. Setting up this type of contrast is a handy strategy for grabbing the attention of readers from the beginning. Try it, in your next piece! Meanwhile, since this snippet is from my own personal journey, I’ll be adding to the story as my life unfolds…

Winter Gardening for the Soul and Writing Inspiration

flowers and computer

Very few of us are lucky enough to live in a climate sufficiently mild on a consistent basis to grow flowers and tender plants outside year ‘round. Even here in Texas, where I’m visiting my daughters and their families for the holidays, blooms are quite limited. The constantly rising and falling temperatures are certainly a challenge to gardening. I’ve already watched my daughter and son-in-law drag their potted plants into and back out of the garage, where they gained added protection from the frost. Tonight’s plummeting predictions probably point to a repeat performance, as well!

What’s an avid “grow-seeker” to do, to get that gardening fix during the long winter months? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Buy a new and unusual flowering houseplant
  • Invest in grow-light shelves for plants needing more light than your windows offer
  • Force bulbs for spring blossoms all winter long
  • Grow something edible, like sprouts, leaf lettuce, or herbs, in a sunny window or under your grow light
  • Explore the fun of tending a dish garden
  • Check out some gardening books from the library and plan a new garden area for next spring
  • Buy a beautiful bouquet of flowers and meet the challenge of seeing how long you can keep them fresh

I imagine that many fellow writers out there also use growing things, indoors and out, as inspiration in their writing. If the view out your window right now is sadly lacking (I’m lucky to be looking at a blooming rosebush, but the rest is quite bleak), it’s up to you to remedy that situation.

Just the act of writing about this today reminds me that I need to “keep growing”. Besides that, I surprisingly came up with a fun idea for a kids’ book as this piece evolved. I’m keeping that topic a secret for now, but you’ll probably find out more in future posts.

 

Herbs and Spices: an Affair of the Palate

I love having the power at my fingertips to lead a potentially good meal around the corner to becoming even better, with simple touches of just the right herbs and spices! What’s the difference between the two, you might ask…is it just the form they’re in, whether fresh or dried? Actually, it has more to do with their origins.

In doing some research to refresh my memory, I was reminded that herbs come from the leafy, green parts of the plants, while spices are derived from the bark, stems, root or bulbs. I’m always surprised if a friend admits to not using many of either, since my over-the-top collection of the dried varieties boasts about 50 little bottles neatly arranged alphabetically. Sounds like a lot, I know, but they all get used, eventually.

Fresh herbs are my preference, but they don’t last very long from the grocery store, and chives is the only one I have luck with growing, long-term. I can keep rosemary, basil, sage and parsley alive for a while, either outdoors or in, but the time is limited. I have a growing penchant for the pungent ones that arrive at the stores in their own little tubes, mixed with a little oil, like ginger, cilantro and basil. You may want to try these, if you haven’t already.

The dried combinations available in the supermarkets are tasty, too, like Italian, Greek and Moroccan seasonings containing herbs and spices that naturally lend just the right touch to foods from those areas of the world. The concoction that I wouldn’t want to do without, though, is Herbes de Provence. The high prices sometimes hint at being imported directly from France, but don’t let them fool you. The less expensive brands in the plain plastic containers work just fine, or you can make your own blend. As Peter Mayle points out in his book, Provence A-Z, there are rules in place that assure the resulting “recipe” for mixtures actually bottled in France: 26%, each, of oregano, rosemary and savory, followed by 19% thyme and 3% basil. I also enjoy a bit of lavender thrown in!

While using a pinch of that favorite “French” concoction recently, my mind started wandering to what “Herbs of Michigan” would contain, leading me to think about which ones might be tied the most closely to regional foods from this state. Better yet, what about a mixture particular to the Upper Peninsula, called “herbs da U.P.”, if you will! I’m sure the combination could vary widely, since immigrants including Finnish, French Canadians, Swedish and Cornish traditionally came to this part of the country to find work in the mines. A specialty that comes to mind first is the Cornish pasty (pictured below), that meat pie so well-known in the upper reaches of Michigan. Many pasty (rhymes with “lastly”) recipes call for onion, tarragon and thyme, which could make an interesting dried blend.

Based on your location or cooking areas of expertise, you may already have your favorites. You could even bottle your own personal blends, to have ready and waiting as you don your apron! It would be great to hear from readers about their herb and spice preferences.

pasty

Parallels Between Gardening and Writing

                                   beans cropped

Upon returning from my wonderful week of visiting my daughters and their families in Texas, I was struck by how many similarities there are between gardening and writing. Although I don’t feel compelled to wear a sun hat and gloves while I write (I do sometimes turn on my sun box to help prevent SAD or wear my fingerless stretch gloves for comfort at the keyboard!), the two activities surprisingly have many things in common:

  • We get to make something out of nothing and play “creator”, carefully placing seeds and seedlings or germs of ideas to tend and grow.
  • As gardeners or writers, we see the products of our efforts. Without sufficient watering, coaxing, trimming, thinking, researching or writing, we can expect poor outcomes.
  • In either activity, we often have to be brutal to get the desired results. Plants sometimes require cutting back, digging up and moving to achieve optimum growth, or to prevent vegetation from overtaking other struggling plantings. Writing stories and books often involves scratching sentences, sections and chapters, or possibly throwing out entire works to begin anew.
  • Those of us who work with our hands in the earth to care for growing things or lovingly write stories, books or articles to portray the ideas in our minds can experience the same rewards upon fruition. The work is finished (for that moment). Leaves glisten, flowers sparkle and plants stand tall. Words flow smoothly across the pages, and the paragraphs express exactly what we saw in our minds’ eyes.

There were recognizable changes to observe in the garden when I returned home to Michigan. Clematis had exploded with dark purple blossoms the size of small dessert plates. Pots of nasturtiums merrily twinkled with trumpets of yellow, orange and red. Vines of pole beans wore blossoms and finally reached the apex of the sapling tee-pee supporting them. Bush beans hid tiny, baby beans peeking from among the leaves. The black-eyed Susan presented buds on the cusp of unfurling. I wish I could say that my writing indicated that much progress on my return, but it was a “vacation”, with a great deal to accomplish in a short time. Many of my experiences, observations, notes and memories will eventually creep into my stories and books I’m sure.

As for the plants like the delphinium and the lilies that are already beginning to die down for their annual rest, how does that relate to creations of the pencil, pen or keyboard? I think of that process as a connection to recharging our “writerly batteries”. We might feel compelled to set aside quiet time to people-watch, research, complete select training in the craft of writing or attend conferences.