Archive for gardening

Chocolate, Sourdough, and Other Blessings

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

MFK Fisher in France

MFK Fisher in France

A few weeks into the pandemic, a big bang broke this stillness of a stay-at-home Saturday afternoon.

An electric fuse had blown, which meant the third floor had no lights, and the wi-fi was down as well.

When I say a fuse was blown, I don’t mean a modern one made of steel that’s neatly labeled. We have those fuses in the basement. The fuse that blew was antique, the kind of curiosity no contemporary electrician would have on hand.

Our mercurial fuses

My husband called around to a couple of historic neighborhood hardware shops. The second store, Falkenhan’s Hardware, still had such early 20th century fuses in stock. Tony got six of them for ten dollars, and an hour later, he screwed in the new fuse while I kept my fingers crossed. Once again lights shone, fans whirred, and a wi-fi signal allowed us to keep going with our work.

The famous King Arthur pizza!

We are now solving problems with our own hands. In my neighborhood, several homeowners are up on their roofs, replacing shingles and painting the porch trim. And we are gardening like gangbusters. Seed companies and nurseries have an estimated 300-plus percentage rise in business. The green proof is visible in raised beds, garden boxes, and potted plants growing everywhere you look. 2020 is the best year for gardening, ever.

My garden box with lettuces

And while I don’t peer through people’s windows, I suspect many more people are cooking, some for the first time in their lives. Fortunately, newspaper websites abound with cheerful instruction, as do websites like Kitchn, Food52, and Bon Appetit, and King Arthur. Six times already I’ve baked King Arthur Flour’s Recipe of 2020, a deep dish cheese pizza that involves making pizza dough yourself and setting it up for a no-fail rise by using a cast iron frying pan. King Arthur is also the go-to spot for fledgling sourdough bakers, and those who use sourdough discards to thriftily make more food, like the sourdough-chocolate cake below.

A sourdough chocolate cake!

I leave no stone unturned, when it comes to culinary thrift. Before I got my garden box going, I harvested dandelion leaves and wild onion from my garden. I freeze vegetable scraps, chicken bones, and shrimp shells to make different stocks. In fact, I’ve become such an old-fashioned homemaker that I’m freezing cut-off pieces of fat to melt down into lard.

I can stay out of the stores because I’ve found local farmers who sell to customers directly—not just at farmers’ markets, but by porch delivery, the US mail, or curbside pickup. And within the city, at least four restaurants I know are not just offering takeout, but regular  ingredients to home cooks.

Here in Baltimore, curbside pickup from my local restaurant, La Cuchara, means signing up online a day ahead for what they can order in for us from their farmers and food distributors.  On the luxurious side, these curbside pickups have included fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters and diver scallops and rockfish. More goodies have been local strawberries and turnips, garlic ramps, and morels, oyster and porcini mushrooms: all priced at, or slightly below, regular grocery prices. I’ve adjusted to buying what the farmers and restaurants can provide—blocks of butter rather than sticks, and takeout containers of olive oil and canola that I funnel into clean, recycled bottles at home.

Local kohlrabi and sugar snap peas

I wonder how long restaurants will keep going with the marketplace model. The truth of it is, I’d rather swing by a restaurant and open my trunk than enter the maelstrom of a grocery store, where I cannot count on all patrons being masked.

I also experiment with foods that arrives weekly in a Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) bag: things like kohlrabi, tatsoi, and many kinds of lettuce. The CSA movement across the United States was started by small farmers who want to sell their harvest to customers who’ve committed at the season’s beginning to paying them for four to six months’ worth of vegetables, fruits, and other products.

And what if the CSA throws more collards and kale into the bag than the Masseys can handle? It’s easy to drop off extra greens or asparagus or lettuce to someone who needs it. Food is so precious now. One of the stories I like best is that of Michelle Brenner, a furloughed worker in Washington. During this pandemic, she got a new name: The Lasagna Lady, after baking and donating more than 1200 large pans of lasagna.

My mother was born in Germany during the war years. As long as I’ve known her, she has carried a small bar of good chocolate in her purse and kept an ever-changing assortment of chocolate bars and boxes in the house. All this chocolate—even though I rarely have seen her eat more than one square. The chocolate is for giving to others. She says having it in her bag is a legacy of growing up as a child of war. With the pandemic, I’m starting to understand this better. While chocolate’s sugar is an energy and mood boost—instant food that keeps well—it’s much more. Emotionally, holding onto something like chocolate is a reminder that we are safe, and we still have treats to enjoy.

World War II food reminds me of the legendary Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Best known as MFK Fisher, Mary Frances was born in 1908 and became a legendary cook and writer during a time that gourmet food was a man’s business.

My first taste of her writing was The Gastronomical Me, witty and wonderful essays about her life as a young bride discovering 1930s France through its food. Her adventures made me eager to start my own writing life overseas. And with the help of my husband, that wonderful amateur electrician, all that did come to pass in Japan in the early 1990s.

One of Mrs. Fisher’s greatest works was written and published during World War II. It’s a book of essays and recipes called How To Cook a Wolf. The grim title is a play on words referring to finishing off fear, and also satisfying one’s appetite when there’s little available to eat. Although my assumptions could be wrong; it has a graphic chapter on cooking small animals such as “hare” and pigeons.

Mrs. Fisher believed that while the war was terrible, it also shook people into the right frame of mind. Here’s a bit that amused me, especially because of the COVID-19 sourdough boom.

“Lastly, perhaps because of the very propaganda that seems so contradictory, it has been easier to buy food with a little taste to it, once you have conquered your distrust of the thick neat slices and the transparent wrappings. You have even been able to get sourdough bread once a week in some groceries: a frail wisp of the old nose-tickling loaf, but at least an effort in the right direction . . . Sometimes, when you go past a factory in the “foreign” section of a town, and smell the honest exciting smell of real bread baking, you remember a part of your childhood, and feel a child’s helplessness before the fact of a whole nation’s cautious acceptance of its own simplicity.”

Sustainable Hope

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

On a recent day that I was missing fresh greens,  I walked into the garden. It was long before I’d planted my first seeds for lettuce. Not much was there. And yet…

I appraised the dandelions. Their gay golden faces are dotted all over the lawn and garden beds. I needed to weed anyway, and as I got down on my knees, I saw how beautiful and crisp and long many of the leafy plants were. They were absolutely fit for a “spring mix.” As I dug up a few clusters of dandelions, I saw more and more that I wanted.  I could have a series of salads. I hesitated, wondering if I was depleting my garden of food I might need later.

After I had taken many handfuls of crisp greens, I washed them in a deep bowl, rinsing them over and over until the water ran clear. I dried the greens in a towel and then and mixed them with hearts of palm, red onion slices, a bit of orange, and a little bit of leftover fennel. With a little oil and vinegar and honey, it was a delicious salad.

I have butter lettuce and romaine now, thanks to a couple of businesses that have their own delivery truck service. When I make an order, I get things for my neighbors, too. I am making my own bread and biscuits. I feel like no matter what, I can feed myself.

I was so glad for the dandelions the day I needed to eat them. They’re still popping up here and there, and I doubt they’ll ever be eradicated. I’m also taking wild chives from the lawn, and feeling grateful for their snap. It reminds me of the stories from elderly Japanese people who recalled eating grass during the war years, when there was no rice and not much of anything else.

I was placing a blueberry bush into the garden today. Turning to get some compost, I noticed a large black bird with a tangerine-colored body was staring at me.  Could this be a Baltimore Oriole, a bird that represents our city and sports team, but that has eluded my gaze in the decades that I’ve lived here?

The oriole was sitting on the branch of the lilac that I’ve considered removing because it grew horizontally rather than upward. Now I realize the handicapped lilac make the perfect perch for this bird to watch over the garden. Did he realize the awkward human was planting something that would make exquisite dining for him in the next months?

The makeshift becomes magical sometimes. And as daunting as the next months are supposed to be, I will keep hope in my heart.

Victories for Nature

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The skies are blue, the clouds dense, and it’s quiet enough that you can hear the birds. Our two dogs have never had more attention. And with a lack of places to go, I am in my garden.

The leading picture for this blogpost is a raised bed garden belonging to my neighbors, Joe and Sarah. Their practical, proud use of front-yard real estate takes on new meaning this year, as people long for a small way to be in control during a time of uncertainty. Everywhere, people are planting masses of herbs, vegetables and fruit into so-called victory gardens—a term that hasn’t been used since World War II, when people were encouraged to provide for themselves to allow more resources for men and women serving overseas.

Debbie planted herbs in cinderblocks, and so much more

Growing vegetables and fruit is an exciting challenge for me, because I am more of a wishful gardener than a skilled one. I have had the blessing of green space around home throughout my life. I have been planting and marveling at my small progresses over the years. Yet I don’t believe I will ever have the commitment to be a daily gardener.

Native Toad Trilliums grown by master gardener Debbie

My mother gave me Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden when I was 9. This masterwork of children’s literature was written in 1911. It romantically details how gardening transforms two depressed children—her very old-fashioned theory that has recently been recognized as a therapeutic practice. In the novel’s Misselthwaite Manor, an estate in Yorkshire, England, gardens are described as being set up in a series of outdoor rooms that literally have stone walls and wooden doors that lock, presumably to keep out animals and others who don’t have rights to food or flowers. Glancing through my beloved book this afternoon, I realized that gardens in my American city suburb are anything but walled and hidden. Quite a few people, like Joe and Sarah, have turned their front yards into working kitchen gardens. Fruits and vegetables and flowers intermingle, and in my particular section of North Baltimore, plants native to the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian mountains are widely encouraged, with transplants shared like bonbons by those in the know.

I enthusiastically visit public gardens and my neighbors’ yards with an appreciate eye. Until recently, I would say, “next year I will get serious about gardening.” Fortunately, I decided 2020 was going to be my serious year, and I had the foresight to start working last fall. Kay McConnell, a tremendous, environmentally oriented garden designer in my city, masterminded a backyard garden planted with natives that would thrive in the various conditions of my space; wet, dry, shaded, and sunny. Together Kay and I planted over 400 native perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees.

My garden’s baby dogwood is part of a group a woodland grove

Tulle protects strawberries in Debbie’s garden

In the past, I’ve grown a few herbs and capsicums and lettuce in a tabletop vegetable garden (often called a salad box). My husband built the structure in a weekend (yay!) and we filled its shallow pan with soil meant for raised bed gardens. It works fine, but it’s pretty small.

The “salad box” only has chives at the moment

I decided a few weeks ago to go a little bigger with vegetables. I began by making Zoom calls to accomplished gardening friends who had been eating from their gardens for years. I picked and chose from what they were doing. I see that almost all of my mentors have blueberries growing, some of them interwoven in floral landscapes; others set aside as little monarchs, walled off from intruders. When you plant things that taste good, you have to put in obstructions, if you want some of it for yourself.

Tom and Liz’s blueberry has to be fenced to keep it from the family’s chickens

No chickens are getting to Tom and Liz’s Stuttgarter mini onions!

I heard that blueberries are good in sandy soil, but I will spread them around to various spots to hedge my bets. The blueberries will be shielded from the birds by netting.  I don’t feel guilty, because there’s an open row of flowering chokeberry shrubs for the birds and anyone else. Apparently, squirrels and rabbits aren’t interested in garlic and onions, so I planted shallot bulbs and garlic cloves right in the dirt under the lilacs.

Betsy’s blueberry is artistically melded into a perennial landscape

Garlic and onions underground

I hope to harvest something for our family; therefore, most of our vegetable and herb plantings are on an elevated, gated deck just off our kitchen. This is the same location of the tabletop vegetable garden, and various pots of struggling tomatoes. And something new—dresser drawer garden. It’s just like it sounds. We drilled holes in the bottoms of the boxes for drainage, filled them, and put them on a granite workbench.

Dresser drawers hold shallots and radishes

I’m fortunate to live in a state with an early spring, and long warm summers that allow fruit trees like plums and peaches. Another blessing is that although my city of Baltimore offers plenty of restaurants, shops, and arts establishments and diversity of experiences, it also has city neighborhoods with trees and gardens and plenty of walking space.

If I plant marigolds, will it keep pests from my veggies?

How can I feel housebound when my garden has so many corners to spend time in—whether it’s to attack a patch of truculent ivy, or plant herbs and flowers in a pot, or hunt down dandelion leaves for salad? To stroll onto the deck and pluck a few chives to sprinkle over soup makes me feel wealthy beyond measure.

This spring, gardening books are piled high in the living room coffee table, next to my bed, and fill the shelves of the dining room. Still, nobody should feel they need a book to explain how to start growing flowers, fruit and vegetables. The internet is full of help. For a non-commercial, knowledgable overview, check out the New York Times column by Margaret Roach, as well as her long running podcast, A Way to Garden. (The podcast episode I’ve linked is a discussion of the idea of a pollinator victory garden). Adrian Higgins, the longtime gardening columnist for The Washington Post, also writes inspiringly about modern victory gardens and many other topics.

The quarantine gives us room to breathe and get close to the soil. And that’s a victory in itself.

Gardening on Deadline

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

For too long, I’ve been lost in the LED-lit, indoor world of writing. Over the last month, I was intent on doing nothing else except finish a book.

It also happened that late November turned out to be the only time to plant a garden. Fall planting is easier on trees and shrubs that will get a good watering all fall and winter. Yes, I had a book due; but the garden also had to be installed, after having been delayed by several months due to Maryland’s unusually dry fall.

The garden and I have been at loggerheads before. My quest to unsettle a little less than an acre of city land began when I moved in with my family during the fall of 2012. The first thing we did was absolutely violent. We hired a company to drill four wells 500 feet deep inside our long, sloping lawn. The racket it made! The ash that spewed into the neighborhood air! The sky looked so gray over our street that somebody called the fire department.

Ah, the geothermal wells. They make it possible to have a modern air conditioning system where the air passes over the cold water, deep in the ground, and returns to the house. No chemicals, no excessive use of electricity.

From almost the start, our land has served us. But it has always been scraggly around the edges. Every spring I would be filled with inspiration that would trickle away about the time the mosquitoes settled in for feasting at the end of June. I wanted a garden full of native plants to support wildlife and suppress weeds. But how? The longer I fretted, the more the weeds spread.

Three years ago, I dug a small front garden myself with native plants, but it was such a hodgepodge without coherent flow that I wanted more assistance the next time I tried an improvement. This fall, I felt blessed to be aided by a native gardening education consultant/garden artist/all-around genius. Kay McConnell is well known in Maryland for the beautiful native plant gardens she designed and installed at the Friends School of Baltimore, Stony Run Meeting, and other spots.

Under Kay’s eagle eye, a weed-filled stretch running along the back of the property was cleared in late August as the site of our future rain garden. The clearing and regrading of the earths was done by strong men driving big machines. The new space they created wasn’t flat smooth dirt, but two raised banks surrounding a long basin. This would catch water that ran down our sloping lawn toward the lane. The saved water would feed the kind of plants like native iris and milkweed that like their feet wet.

As the dry fall turned into a rainy November, the prepared, empty garden space slowly became wet. Kay rooted through her native plant stock and area nurseries, looking for the best shrubs, trees, grasses and native perennials. A willow, magnolias and dogwoods were found, along with itea, bayberry, buttonbush, various ferns, swamp milkweed, oak leaf hydrangea…

The list went on. Over several days in late November, Kay unloaded shrubs and flowering plants and grasses from her car. The trees came in with European Landscapes and Design, the company that had done the original garden clean-up and preparation.

I recently heard a few different people use the phrase: “We go big, or we go home.” It’s a 2019 cliché. However, I could not deny that things were getting very big, right at my home.

I was thrilled to realize that every single tree, grass and shrub would feed local birds and insects. The garden design has woodland, meadow and swamp sections, with everything flowing together in an artistic manner, with fields of color, and high and low points. I found myself spellbound watching Kay. She is a true artist in the garden, arranging plants and rearranging them as the visual flow becomes apparent to her.

As I worked under Kay’s direction, I learned so much. She taught me how to plant a natural looking drift of small flowers. I absorbed the new thinking on weed control: don’t tug them out, which disrupts the earth and activates weed seeds. Instead, cut them close to the ground to weaken the plant.

I saw, through her eyes, how an aged stretch of asphalt pavers could become a dining terrace or site for a fire-pit gathering spot. And as my neighbors strolled along the lane that runs on the other side of the new garden, they had plenty to say. Michael, after visiting with us a few times, commented that he felt that spirits had entered the garden that were never there before.

And that’s how writing works, too. A bulky stone is chipped away to reveal the story hiding within. It takes time, but it’s always waiting for you.

And the thing about gardening deadlines is that the only one that really matters is set by nature. One can’t dig after the ground is frozen—unless, perhaps, you have a geothermal drill.

And putting a plant into earth does not guarantee it will emerge in the spring. That is the mystery I’m entering.

Mid-Atlantic Native

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

All pictures in this post are of Mt. Cuba Center, Hockessin, DE

I came to the Mid-Atlantic at age 18,  so I cannot claim to be a Mid-Atlantic native. I didn’t marry a local man, either—I married someone from the Deep South. Yet I’d like to think Tony and I have thoroughly embraced this area for raising our family, building friendships, working hard, and planting our dream garden.

Light-snow winters followed by sunny warmth from April to September make vibrant spring, summer and fall gardens. It’s easy for strong plants that survived here for millennia to spread and thrive in home gardens without the watering can or sprinkler. Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania abound with a diverse range of flora. If planted in supportive layers, these trees, shrubs, flowers and vines shelter each other and feed helpful insects and animals.

A few beneficial plants, like swamp milkweed, are the only food that newly hatched monarch caterpillars can eat before they turn into gorgeous winged beauties. (Milkweed grows in different varieties in other parts of the country, too).

A few years ago, I had the grass removed from the small double gardens in front of my Baltimore house. I planted the soil with an assortment of Mid-Atlantic natives. My novice’s theory was that if most of the native plants I picked were of varieties taller than two feet, it would mimic the feeling of the English cottage gardens I love, but would be totally native.

OK, what happened?

It worked too well.

I now have tall, sprawling forests of mountain mint, rudbeckia, coneflowers, bleeding heart and liatris on either side of my front walk. I’d heard the rhyme about a garden sleeping, creeping and leaping as the first three years pass. In year four, this garden is booming with some seven-foot flowers that need to be re-homed!

My garden is healthy, but it’s not glamorous. When I look at garden magazines, I sometimes envy the aesthetic glory that comes with choosing plants for beauty, rather than whether they help insects and animals.

But I believe in natives with all my heart, and I believe that natives can be used decoratively in many different ways. I need to see it to believe it—so I went to visit the Mid-Atlantic Native paradise called Mt. Cuba Center.

Mt. Cuba Center is an old mansion surrounded by more than a thousand acres of undeveloped countryside in Hockessin, Delaware. The place began in 1935 as a 126-acre wedding gift from the du Pont family to the newlyweds, Lammot du Pont Copeland and Pamela Cunningham Copeland. At the time, Pamela appeared the perfect country lady; nobody knew she would emerge as one of the most forward-thinking horticulturists in America.

The Copelands’ handsome brick colonial revival house started out with proper, pretty plantings of perennials of all types bordering the brick paths. But as years passed, Pamela became more interested in the native plants of the area. In the late 1950s, she hired landscape architect Seth Kelsey to revise the gardens to be natural—highlighting plants of lower Appalachia in a beautiful way, and tucking man-made ponds at the end of forest paths, and so on. I find it refreshing that the Copelands became serious gardeners more than twenty years after getting married—a similarity Tony and I share with them.

Lammot DuPont Copeland passed away in 1983, Pamela Copeland wisely established the Mt. Cuba Foundation before her death in 2001. Since that time, the foundation has added adjacent packages of land and expanded naturalistic design education. Some of the most useful features are trial plantings of popular native plants to help the public figure out how to incorporate the most successful cultivated natives in their own homes. The public can walk along on small guided tours by volunteers who clearly practice what they preach.

Mt. Cuba has greatly expanded its boundaries. Last year, the Red Clay Reservation and Mt. Cuba merged, so there is now a grand sweep of protected land to serve as a haven for endangered plants and wildlife. In all, it’s almost 1100 acres. I can only imagine how thrilled Pamela Copeland would be to see this.

Lucky for me, Mt. Cuba is less than two hours drive from my house. It seems that in the Mid-Atlantic, you can get almost anywhere—from beach to mountains to city—in about an hour or two.

On a lovely day in late July, I drove out to Mt. Cuba with Tony, our picnic basket, two straw hats, and bug spray. Temps were in the 90s, but because of the shady tall trees, it felt more like the 80s. And we didn’t need our insect repellent—maybe because there were so many beneficial insects devouring mosquitoes?

I had been here once before, in late spring, so the ephemerals were not showing their small sweet faces, but bolder colors were on stage. Along the great stands of milkweed, the monarch butterflies drank pollen and debated where they would lay their eggs.

How red the native azalea was! How delicate, the pale green ferns. Dragonflies zoomed over the ponds, and tiny frogs swam with elegance.

As I sat on antique lawn furniture eating a cucumber sandwich and drinking a cup of tea, I contemplated the gardens’ rolling, green hills, utterly devoid of street lamps, roads, and cars.

I realized that Mt. Cuba is more than a native plant sanctuary. It’s a living embodiment of “This Land is Your Land”—the heritage we can’t risk losing.

A Writer’s Garden

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was home for a short week between book tour traveling, and the main thing I realized was how delicious it felt to be home for spring.

The more common wish in America is to be “home for Christmas.” But Maryland’s shining moment is spring. It is a long, fruitful, blossoming season. It starts in February with crocuses, continues with daffodils and forsythia and hellebores in March, rises to tulips, azaleas, plum and cherry trees in April, and rioting roses everywhere in May and June. Maryland is not one of those places that suddenly switches to summer—it’s a very slow, enjoyable process, whether the plants are native or adopted.

It is fun for a garden enthusiast to spot gardens in  Arizona, California, Wisconsin and Washington, but I feel an urgency to get back to my ragged garden, which is only growing more outspoken every day. My husband only has so many hours in his day, so I sent out an SOS for help. I was very lucky to find a local gardener to take care of the six or so old rose bushes in the back and also attack the weeds. So when I come home, I feel pleased, rather than defeated.

During my time home I also did a lot of daily writing. It’s inevitable that these two loves, garden and book, coincide in the spring.

I believe a lot of writers like to garden. Tending flowers and writing books are quiet, meditative processes that each involve creation and reshaping. Both are hard and take years to get results. And often, an interest in gardens can begin no matter what kind of place you grew up in, because of books.

Did you read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett? I read this famous 1910 serial-turned-novel set in Yorkshire when I was a third grader living in snowy Minnesota. My mother had not yet started her odyssey into passionate gardening, so I knew nothing about gardens except for being charmed by the wildflowers that edged our paths, and climbing the sprawling old apple tree with bird-pecked fruit to read a book. I probably read The Secret Garden in that tree.

Many years later, I live in my own old house on almost an acre, which is a big lot for a house inside the city. In a few ways, it is similar to the garden experience of the fictional Mary Lennox. One certainly has to chop, tear and pull what is overgrown, but then come surprising discoveries.

Here’s one. Under a rectangular expanse of weeds that rise to happy heights every summer, there is an actual cement floor about twenty feet long by ten feet wide. It’s likely that it once was the foundation for a garage. And there are neatly paved paths throughout the garden, mostly covered by a thin layer of earth and lovely moss.

I love the moss and plants that belong to Maryland. The native plant garden I put in three years ago in the front of the house is growing so vigorously that birds have decided to secret themselves in a thicket of four-foot-high black-eyed Susans (which won’t flower until August). Daisy, the little Yorkie-Cairn terrier who lives with us, realizes the birds like to go there, so the rudbeckia forest has become her number one spot for exploration every time she goes out. As Daisy charges in, there is an explosion of feathery action. So far, nobody’s been caught!

During the brief time I was home, I worked on Perveen 3 in fresh air with the sun on my face. This is entirely possible because we have an outdoor sort of room on two sides of our houses: screened porches attached to bedrooms, in the event it is too hot to sleep inside.

I have seen photos of old sleeping porches fitted out with enough cots so the whole family could sleep in air that finally turned cool. I imagine all the story telling that went on, finally quieting down so the go-to-bed soundtrack would be left to the crickets. In those days, there might have been a nighttime call from a train, not drag-racing cars. And the wake-up alarm would have been birds.

Writing on our second floor porch is a sacrosanct ritual starting every May that lasts through September. I’ve set my porch with a vintage wicker chaise for reading and sleeping, a table for eating and writing, and a cheap old desk that faces tall trees where I stare at squirrels when I’m bored. The dogs stay with me, looking down two stories to the lane behind the house. They enjoy the power that comes with being high up and feel invincible from the wrath of those they bark at.

When I first moved into my Baltimore home, a few people suggested glassing in the sleeping porches in order to have more bathrooms. The suggestion was never taken seriously. I would never want to lose the joy of being outside-in that the porch provides. I hope whoever takes over the house after I’m gone feels the same.

A Pink Moment

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My baby cherry tree!

These days, pink is everywhere. Millennial Pink is the official name of the soft hue that now colors chairs from Target, rose-gold phones from Apple, and yes, pink clothing for both genders. Why this soft shade now? Is it because treatment of people has become so hard? Pink is a color of childhood, whether you call it blush, petal, nude or cherry.

Cherry is a pink that simply gives me joy. The Baltimore-Washington area has a long, mild spring, and the crowning glory of our area from March through April are the cherry trees, which bloom in waves, depending on their age and variety. I grew up in snowy Minnesota reading Japanese fairytales with cherry blossom themes and books about dolls from Japan such as Rumer Godden’s 1961 delight, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Did that set me on a lifetime love of sakura trees?

One of the old-friend cherries nearing end of bloom

My street in North Baltimore has some very large, sprawling flowering cherry trees that might be older than the 40 years I’ve been told is the average cherry tree lifespan. But how old are they?

Sakura trees were brought into the United States by an American food explorer working for the US Department of Agriculture called David Fairchild. Mr. Fairchild first shipped them from Japan to his garden in Chevy Chase, MD in 1902.

President Taft’s wife, Nellie, took to heart his idea of beautifying Washington with cherry trees. It was also a difficult time in the country, when there was popular agitation over immigration of Asians. This idea was a variation of an olive branch. Could Americans see something good about Japan?

Mr. Fairchild was tasked with brokering a deal for cherry trees in the nation’s capital with the Mayor of Tokyo, who then offered them free. The first cherry trees were shipped to Washington DC in 1909; however, their roots were found to be heavily infested with insects that could have wreaked havoc across many agricultural species in the United States. These trees were burned in 1910. The Japanese who heard about it were not angry—they were sorry to have sent a defective gift and insisted on sending more. In 1912, healthy trees were planted in Washington and celebrated ever since.

I have been to the Tidal Basin to admire this sweep of cherries and see the excitement of Washington DC’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. I’ve also seen the blossoms celebrated this year in Vancouver, Canada. Cherry blossoms create a kind of worldwide party where we all stop and pay attention to nature. And in the 1990s when I lived near Yokohama, I’ve participated in Hanami parties, enjoying not just the trees but the special decorations throughout Japan and cherry-themed foods that go with the fleeting blooms.

Cherry blossom fans in downtown Vancouver

Entering their second century of life in the United States, the cherry blossom tree is no longer a fragile, exotic beauty. The City of Baltimore’s tree program donates all kinds of trees to neighborhoods where residents want them; not just cherry, but serviceberry, redbud, and others that are beautiful, yet support native insects. My street had suffered the death of several aged giant cherry trees, so an enterprising neighbor put together a plea for more cherries to go on any street in our neighborhood five years ago.

The green-leafed cherry in background is one of our grand dames

One early spring day, trained gardeners planted four seven-foot-tall trunks with bare limbs in front of my house. I bought water-bags and tucked them around the young trees, so they would have a slow release of water all the time during our hot summers. Now the trees are approaching 30 feet high and don’t need their waterbags, except in extremely prolonged heat waves. They flower several weeks after the street’s grand dame cherries, so we are fully blooming two weeks long.

I am grateful to our block’s seven new children, and four senior citizens, for showering me in pink every spring regardless of politics and fashion.

Summer in the City

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


In Spring of 2017, I hired a man to dig out the grass in front of my Baltimore, Maryland house. He thought I was crazy to pay him for that, but I had the idea of replacing the grass with a lot of perennials that are native to Maryland and Virginia. I wanted to plant food for the local bees and bugs (the good bugs, of course) and have the feeling of a full, lively cottage garden. Native gardening guru friends told me this kind of garden doesn’t need much water, because the plants are used to the climate, and such laid-back flora grows happily without special attention.

I also heard a saying that was meant to encourage me: the first year plants sleep—the second year they creep—the third year they leap!

I was pleasantly surprised to see plants getting a nice, full shape the first year. But this year, WOW. I don’t really think we can pretend anyone is creeping. The mountain mint is a monster stalking the entire space!

Lots of rain made these plants really grow, and it’s amusing to see my short dogs wandering through their personal jungle while bees buzz gently overhead.

Another thing that surprised me about my impromptu native cottage garden is how long it is taking everything to flower. With these natives, varying shades of green are what I’m stuck with for a long time. I will have to wait till August to see yellow petals on these Black-eyed Susans below, and they are already approaching 6 feet tall.

One of my goals this summer was to “be in the garden” most mornings while it’s still cool. An overdue book turned my mornings into writing sessions on the screened porch until today—July 17.

The middle of July is usually when most people stop gardening. But it’s my start date. I had a bunch of weeds to pull.

But they easily gave way. Today I did a spot-check on a Virginia Sweetspire bush advertised as “good for poor soil” that I’d planted this May. I watered it a couple of days in the beginning and then I started writing overtime and let it go without extra watering.

I think the Sweetspire, below, got mad about that.

Can I make things better for the poor shrub this late in the season? And is there any point in planting anything more in the bare dry spots…or is that insane with the 90 degree heat that lies ahead?

If you ask me, is easier to plant a garden than to write a novel; but it’s more tempting to disappear in a rewrite than to pull ivy.

A Sour Treat

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Pink rhubarb stalks fill the tables at farmers’ markets in early spring. With the stiff body shape of celery and the tender texture of a fruit, rhubarb is the barb of jokes—a misunderstood and under-appreciated bit of produce.

I speak as a rhubarb convert. The first time I saw the ragged green plant growing near the garages of my first two houses in two different states, I thought it was an inconvenient weed that needed to be dug out. Someone explained it was rhubarb, but I still wasn’t drawn to trying it. For starters, the rhubarb was on a dog-walking route. I’d seen canines appreciating it. I also recalled stories about part of the rhubarb plant being poisonous.

Minnesota-grown rhubarb (Gertens)

But the shunned rhubarb gnawed at me. Cafes and gourmet friends offered me delicious desserts where rhubarb was an ingredient, sometimes mixed in with strawberries or other sweet fruit.  I developed respect for the soft, tangy substance that was proving itself a valuable team player. I felt better knowing just the big green leaves of the plant are full of oxalic acid—the infamous poison. The stems are edible raw or cooked.

I bought my first bunch of rhubarb from the Wedge, a Minneapolis co-op grocery. Since rhubarb does very well in places with cold, wet winters, Minnesota turned out to be a prime spot to buy rhubarb. I made a cobbler that I thought was tasty, although nobody in the family clamored for it. Too sour, they said. In my mind, rhubarb’s tang is similar to that of lemon curd—but ever so much more succulent.

And rhubarb’s got more going on that the average fruit or vegetable. Both Chinese and Europeans discovered the stems aid with digestion, so it was used as culinary medicine. Rhubarb is rich in  calcium, and Vitamins C and A; however, its superstar ingredient is Vitamin K, which fosters brain health. A single serving of rhubarb provides 45% of suggested daily Vitamin K.

The stems themselves have a lot of power—they cause the blood to run thin. This means rhubarb is something that shouldn’t be eaten to excess by hemophiliacs or people on blood thinners. But you could make it a regular part of your diet if you’re bulking up on foods to potentially stave off dementia, need calcium to strengthen your bones, or are wishing to be more “regular.”

Rhubarb enthusiasts have their own heaven on earth. The Rhubarb Triangle is a nine-square mile area between three villages in West Yorkshire. For generations, Yorkshire farmers have treated rhubarb like royalty, raising it in barns lit by candles in order to avoid sunlight’s photosynthesis, that would color the leaves and stripe the stems green. This results in a deep red color of the stems, and supposedly sweeter flavor.

Rhubarb Triangle-grown rhubarb plants have leaves that are chartreuse!

The thing about garden-variety rhubarb is one only has to add sugar to make it what you want. Apparently rural children sometimes eat raw rhubarb canes are dipped in sugar and eaten. I tried this, but it was too hard and sour for my taste. It brought me back to thinking about poison.

The mystery writer began pondering exactly how rhubarb could wreak havoc. She imagined an impatient woman in her fifties serving lunch to her eighty-year-old aunt, a wealthy woman who’s a health fanatic and has been living too long for everyone’s taste. The oxalic acid leaves were shredded and went into a salad with a sweet dressing. The evil lady’s idea was that the bitter taste would be misidentified as escarole or another bitter lettuce—greens that the elderly aunt approves of. However, you’d have to eat a LOT of rhubarb leaves to die, rather be sickened. My guess is the old lady would recover and write her niece out of the will.

Ingredients for rhubarb compote

Ingredients for rhubarb-apple chutney

Cooking rhubarb chutney

One farmer’s market bundle of rhubarb can be transformed into one very sweet cobbler or pie. But you can find those recipes everywhere! I took that bundle and divided it to create two non-dessert rhubarb recipes. They’re so easy you can cook them at the same time and have a rhubarb compote with yogurt for breakfast, a cheese-and-rhubarb-apple chutney sandwich for lunch, and a scoop of that chutney with an Indian or Western dinner. If you really wanted to push it, you could put warm compote with ice cream or on cake for dessert.

Rhubarb-Apple Chutney (makes 1 ½ cups)

  • 1 ½ cup diced rhubarb (about 1-inch)
  • ½ cup diced apple (any sweet kind)
  • ½ cup dried cherries
  • ¼ cup finely chopped red onion
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 ½ teaspoons red-wine vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper (1 dried chili pounded)
  1. In a small non-reactive saucepan, add rhubarb, apple, cranberries (or cherries), onion, water, honey, ginger, vinegar and crushed red pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until rhubarb is tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer about 5 more minutes, until it becomes a thick sauce.
  2. Pour into a glass container with lid and refrigerate.

Rhubarb-Apple Chutney is good with rice and other elements of an Indian meal, or on the side with grilled or roasted meats. It’s also nice on a sharp cheddar cheese sandwich. The chutney will keep in the refrigerator for about a week.

Rhubarb Compote (makes 1 cup)

  • 1 ½ cup diced rhubarb (about 11/2-inch)
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup fresh orange juice
  • 3 pieces of orange peel
  • 3 whole cloves
  1. Combine all ingredients in a small non-reactive saucepan. Cover, bring to a rapid boil and cook over low heat for 15 minutes, until the rhubarb is tender, stirring occasionally.
  2. After the compote has cooled, taste it for sweetness and add extra sugar if you like. Remove the orange peel.
  3. Pour into a glass container with a lid and refrigerate.

Rhubarb compote stays fresh keeps in the fridge for one week. It’s good with Greek yogurt or whipped cream; mixed into porridge; or spooned over pancakes or  sponge cake. One word to the wise is the two recipes look almost identical, once cooked. So label them—unless you like the taste of red onions mixed with ice cream.

The finished chutney

Sparks of Hope

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Speaking to supporters for his presidential in Iowa in 2008, Barack Obama said: “Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead, or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shoring from the fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.”

30 days after our election, I can see a number of things that give me hope.

First is ‘Old Friends,’ an Amazon Prime commercial that began running in the UK, Germany and the US last week to mark the holiday season. The advertisement features an Episcopal priest and a Muslim cleric in Britain who are faith leaders, rather than actors. This fact probably explains how beautiful the men’s connection is. I could watch this ad time and again and still tear up. Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, made a powerful, quiet statement of hope to all. This commercial may be the first ever to feature a Muslim cleric. The risks taken by running ‘Old Friends’ closes the deal for me regarding Amazon. I am happy to shop from Amazon—just as I’m really pleased Bezos has owned and expanded the subscriber base of the Washington Post. 

Teamwork and forgiveness have also turned around the dire situation at the Standing Rock Reservation. To summarize a very complicated situation, the US government was planning to run part of the Dakota Access Pipeline for natural gas through a burial ground on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Hundreds of Indians and their friends stayed present at Standing Rock in bitter cold to keep the digging from beginning. They were abused by the police. Some military veterans pledged to come to the reservation to protect the protestors from the police, and but a serious confrontation was averted. Last Sunday night, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it will not approve an easement allowing the DAP to run through the reservation. The leader of the Sioux community was asking protestors to return home with the hope that the situation will continue toward peaceful resolution. A moving forgiveness ceremony in which military veterans acknowledged their past role in oppressing Indians and taking land took place this past Monday, with Chief Leonard Crow Dog telling Wesley Clark Jr., “We do not own the land. The land owns us.”

tru2u design on Etsy is giving 25% of profits to Amnesty International

Without a word, but a sign, people can show solidarity. The Safety Pin Solidarity Movement began a few months ago, following the U.K’s vote to leave the European Union. Since then, violent acts against immigrants and people of color have risen. British people spread the tradition of wearing safety pins on their coats or sweaters to publicly signify that they are “safe” people who will support anyone being marginalized. I loved the idea, and to make my symbol stand out, I bought my own colorful safety pins on Amazon Prime (of course, given the ‘Old Friends’ commercial.) However, artistic safety pin jewelry is popping up everywhere, including in wonderful jewelry form from Etsy artists such as tru2u jewelry, sometimes with some portion of proceeds going to a human rights organization.

The last thing bringing me hope is the sun. Autumn really has not ended in Maryland. The weather is warm,  the crimson maples are holding their leaves, and the earth is still soft enough for planting. So I finally got down to business. I never get around to planting bulbs in the fall, but since Thanksgiving, I’ve planted 100 daffodils, 100 Narcissus Thalia, and 100 muscari latifolium. No matter what happens this winter, I’m sure I’ll see some flowers in the spring. The cycle of nature is the strongest proof that hope has a reward.