My Autobiographical Garden

All gardens  are a form of autobiography.” – Robert Dash.



I can’t stop thinking about my back yard. To say that events have not unfolded back there as expected this year would be a gross understatement.

I tend to take a benevolent dictator stance as a gardener. I agree to plant seeds with the understanding that in return said seeds will grow into objects of beauty and astonishment, seeking only to please me.

Of course sometimes  – ahem- often, things don’t turn out the way I hoped. And when that happens I always think I have next year to correct the situation.

And then I find out I don’t have next year to correct the situation, because the garden has taken a new path altogether, regardless of my wishes.  I realize I have counted upon an illusion.

Take this year. In late 2013 a pseudo ice storm froze several Leyland Cypresses, causing them to fall over my fence and knock it down.

The trees weren't pretty, but they did conceal a tacky shed next door.

The trees weren’t pretty, but they did conceal a tacky shed next door.

As the bitter winter weather continued with low, low temperatures I huddled inside the house unaware of  how my plants would be affected.

When spring finally arrived, I saw I had lost Grandfather, my enormous rosemary. I counted on his leaves for cooking and his lovely aroma to greet me as I swam in the deep end of the pool.

This was an enormous rosemary named Grandfather. He didn't make it.

This was an enormous rosemary named Grandfather. He didn’t make it.

This was Grandfather during healthier times.

This was Grandfather during healthier times.

And my poor fig tree. It was dormant for a long time and when it finally began to leaf out, it was from the trunk and not the branches. What will this do to my fig crop this year? I don’t know.


Because of the Leyland Cypress tree incident, in the spring we made the decision to cut down our remaining Leylands along the back fence. They had outgrown the bed and covered the patio beside the pool to such an extent that it was impossible to walk past. Down they came, leaving another gaping hole. We planted new arborvitae there which will eventually fill in.

The new arborvitae barely clear the fence.

The new arborvitae barely clear the fence.

Despite my optimistic outlook, many of  my vegetable and flower seedlings drowned in the rainy spring. What has lived has not seemed very robust. And to add insult to injury, to quickly fill in the front of the bed with the new arborvitae,  I planted geraniums. Yes, they are hardy and colorful but they look like little old ladies.

I think they burned their hair sitting in one of those hair dryers at the beauty shop!

I think they burned their hair sitting in one of those hair dryers at the beauty shop!

My gardening sprits matched the general ennui of the flowers. I could see this would not be a summer in which to have a flower fashion show, for there were no saucy teenaged fuchsias, shapely gourds, or statuesque bee balms in red high heels.

The garden had turned a corner, and so must I. Like so many events in my actual life, the truth of the garden jarred me. Who knew that after so many years of devoted service that I could lose my giant rosemary? That I would have only one single red hot poker bloom? How could I figure out solutions for the garden situation  before me? Should I just give up this gardening game?

This backyard dilemma had a ring of familiarity to me. I realized that once again my garden had  mirrored my actual life.  To make a 32 year old story short, a long time ago I had children.

1981-01 I did not know what I was doing but I did the best I  knew how.

1984-08a1988-01a Every time the children reached  a new stage in life, I was not ready. I wanted things to stay the way they were, whether it be kindergarten, third grade, or high school, because the future was unknown, and I always thought if I had a little more time I could really get the knack of the current situation.


But those pesky kids kept changing on me, until they finally left the house.

2003-25 Of course I didn’t know they were really gone when they left, because like all mothers, I had bargained with myself. Sure, I could be a good sport about letting them leave BECAUSE THEY WERE COMING BACK. College is temporary, right?


In time I accepted that they had begun their own lives, and that I had mistakenly believed all these years that I had unlimited opportunities to be a hands on parent. Again, I had relied on an illusion. We had all turned corners, begun to walk new paths. There would be no going back.

I pondered all of this as I regarded the new open spaces in the yard. Where the trees had knocked over the fence, I now had room to put in a few new hydrangeas. I could see that that corner, previously difficult to reach, could now become a destination. The giant rudebeckias would have more sun.

DSC_0011I didn’t plan it, but now that it had  happened, it seemed  just right.

I decided that the geraniums were a one season aberration. In my mind they would look more at home in a red state yard. That one was as easy to fix as a bad haircut.

And my vegetable garden? I’ve decided it’s time to start over. I’m going to turn the whole area into a larger bed with room for large stands of flowers as well as vegetables. In sections I’ve been turning the last grassy part of the yard into a bed, lasagna style. Before long I will be able to move some flowers which are  cramped where they are into spots where they can have more room to breathe.The change will be a good one.


The part where I have existing flowers and vegetables I will leave for the season. Though many things are not hardy, I do have some carrots, tomatoes, a cucumber vine, some okra and tiny eggplants.


But at the end of the season, I’ll uproot everything and lasagna it as well, enriching the soil, which will make a more hospitable environment for next spring.  I’ll put some kind of a path leading from my sunroom door all the way to the new destination at the back of the yard.

While I’ve been contemplating what to do in the yard, thoughts of my own life have not been far away. For several years now I’ve been an empty nester, at peace with the new path and actually quite pleased with the fun it has offered. Until I experienced it I never could have dreamed of the pleasures that would come along when one part of life ended and another began.

But I have known that  more life changes  were in the making, for they always are. Just one week ago today a whole new path  opened up for me when I became a grandmother.

GRANDMOTHER????? That would mean my own daughter is a Mother. Thank goodness I did all that good work letting go, so that I am very confident she and her husband are ready for that role.

My daughter has claimed for years she was ready for motherhood!

My daughter has claimed for years she was ready for motherhood!

But what about me? The path is not clear. The only way I  know how to be a grandmother is to go over to my daughter’s house several times a week, and to have my grandchild with me at my house the other days of the week. In other words, seamless intimacy.  Immersion, even. How will I accomplish this when my grandson lives across the country?

I have worried and worried about this while dumping out bags of peat and pulling the endless weeds which proved to be my most bounteous crop of the season. And now the baby is born.  It discombobulates me even to think that he was born AND I WASNT THERE. I haven’t yet held him in my arms, but I gaze at him on FaceTime with some deep intensity every chance I get.

I’ll tell you one thing. Several, actually. Maybe I don’t know yet how I can function as a long distance grandmother, but I am going to kiss the fool out of that tiny blonde head. I’m going to trace every tiny wrinkle in his feet until I know each one  by heart. I’m going to memorize the sweet smell of the back of his neck to comfort me when I’m away from him.

As I plan flowers for my new destination spot at the back of the yard, I imagine sometime in the near future a pair of sturdy toddler  legs running past me to hide behind the burning bush. It’s just right.

IMG_2978                                                      Welcome, Baby Micah!


Bon Voyage!

Dear 2013,

A  few nights ago I  navigated myself to your outer deck and from there leaped onto another vessel named 2014. I  hope she will be as hardy and productive as you were when I was with you. Having only been aboard for four days, I haven’t exactly gotten my bearings. I find myself looking out portholes, back to where I see your sturdy form  chugging away in the opposite direction, growing smaller in my vision with each passing day. I know it’s too late to turn back now.

Things don’t seem the same without you. It’s not that I’m pessimistic  about my trip aboard the 2014, but thus far we have no shared history. The sudden change has caused me to reflect on our time together, on moments of whimsy, creativity, tedium, frustration and exhilaration we shared. From my vantage point I would say we had a successful voyage together. To thank you for your loyal service I am sending you some remembrances to look over when you have the inclination. Here they are, in no particular order:


A feast for the eyes and the spirit.

A feast for the eyes and the spirit.

The mild winter of 2013:

A return to the meditative practice of knitting:

Luscious color ways.

Luscious color ways.

Embracing my ongoing remedial skill level in painting:
IMG_2292 IMG_2294

Gardening – Some things came up; others didn’t.DSC_0273

Preserving – The famed laboratory kitchen. “Figging”, by the way, means something other than picking figs in the back yard. It has to do with punishing one’s female slaves. Who knew?DSC_0721

Writing – NaNoWriMo. I never dreamed you would navigate me through this, 2013. I would recommend the experience to anyone. And of course it is not over. So far I have had three people read my little book. Hopefully 2014 will bring more readers!

Daily Happiness:

The Condo – I will be posting more about this but in June of 2013 we were finally able to begin to use it.DSC_0708

Family: 2013 helped me see my children wherever I could: San Francisco, New York, St. Louis, Seattle, and in my own home.


Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge


Under the pergola


In St. Louis, opening up “Breaking Bad” Christmas presents.


In an enthusiastically decorated German restaurant in Manhattan, drinking mulled wine.

At the Space Needle

At the Space Needle

In St. Louis

In St. Louis

Not So Good Ideas: Of course no voyage is without some pratfalls, like flooding your bedroom and having to pull up the whole floor,IMG_2162IMG_2419Or  an imaginary ice storm which uprooted two cypress trees and knocked over my fence.IMG_2422I’m very grateful that the very nice fence man who came  the next day was not also imaginary.

2013 darling,  I could go on and on, but I just can’t include everything. You were a good companion for me; healthy but sassy, unpredictable but rarely actually harmful, full of surprises but also on a good path.We made some precious memories.  I’ll miss you, but it’s always good to leave when you are still a little reluctant to do so. Wish me luck with my voyage on the 2014; she has some large shoes to fill. Speaking of shoes, I’ve got to go now. It’s time to find my sea legs on the good ole 2014.

Happy Sailing!

Granulatin’ Bad

Sure. I look pretty harmless. I’m polite to the neighbors, fairly unobtrusive when I leave the house, as middle aged ladies often are. No one could look at me and know that in August, within the confines of my home, I’ve got skills, mad skills. Because when boiling sun and steamy air turn the tiny green figs into golden orbs, I’m Granulatin’. Granulatin’ Bad.


You’re no doubt familiar with someone else who may appear mild in the outside world,  but who  leads a whole other life right under his neighbor’s noses. That’s right –  Walter White.

Don’t think I have anything in common with Walter, or Walter with me?  We’ll just see about that! Here are some similarities:

Photo Source: IMDB

Photo Source: IMDB


Obviously we’re both bad you know whats.

1)  Highly desirable product:  Walter’ s blue meth is apparently the stuff of dreams. OK, fine. But you should  see the eyes widen when I walk into the yoga studio with a box of twelve gleaming jars of fig preserves.  Excited murmurs float across the studio. When class is over they make a beeline for every last jar. Unconditional acceptance of your product by a yoga class says only one thing: 99.1 % pure, total quality.


2) Large amount of raw materials needed:  Walter buys his in more than one location to avoid suspicion. But I HAVE to buy mine in multiple locations because no one stocks as many jars or as many boxes of pectin as I need. And unlike Walter, because I deal with a live ingredient, I  can never predict the exact amount of supplies I need. They may suspect me of something at the grocery store when I dash in wearing sticky shoes and a stained T shirt and buy ALL of their eight ounce  canning jars,  but they know not to question me. I dare them to. 

3)  Specialized work environment and equipment:  We each need to set up a pristine, industrial workspace. Mine is the kitchen. Walter  may have a gas chromatograph while I use a spoon and my own mouth for quality control, but the concept is the same.

My lab.

My lab.

Walter's lab. Photo courtesy of

Walter’s lab. Photo courtesy of

4) Total concentration: We can’t do anything else while cooking.  We’re basically unreachable. When my harvest begins, I am in a flurry of picking, washing, cutting, cooking, sterilizing. My hands get too sticky to even think of touching a phone. So don’t call me. Walter and I agree that production stops when we say it stops.

5) Hazards:  Yes, it is hazardous work. You are familiar with what Walter has faced through the years: beatings, torture, kidnapping, and even death. But what about me? I’ve bravely faced my share of challenges. Here is a short list:

a) Balancing on the part of an eight ladder where it says not to standDSC_0736

b) While keeping up with a bag of figs over one shoulder

These babies aren't light.

These babies aren’t light.

c) While grasping at leaves and branches and clutching them to your chest so you can pull off the figs with the other hand, sweat dripping off your brow,

d) And a swarm of mosquitoes gets close and personal with your armpits,

e) And getting down from said perch,

f) Dealing with the crazy violence that seems ubiquitous in the fig tree world

Nobody saw nothin'.

Nobody saw nothin’.

g) And even having to hide some ominous, foreshadowing symbols from my family, like this.DSC_0718

Inside the house, once I have gathered my figs I  still have to endure deep, deep stickiness from spilled sugar and gooey figs, boiling water, hot pans, an extended cleanup, and last but not least, the sick feeling that comes from tasting preserves fifteen times. Let me tell you, I’ve paid my dues!

I'm tough enough to take the heat.

I’m tough enough to take the heat.

Walter and I, we’re a pair. We may threaten, cajole, and intimidate, but we get the product out.  Still, we have our differences. First he sells his product for top dollar while mine is  free of charge. Maybe I could sell mine, but unlike Walter I have no partner to handle the distribution end. Second, he can’t taste his product, but I can. Mr. White always uses the   same recipe, while I  I experiment with new flavors. This year I’ve added a little something different in every batch. Walter never divulges his recipes, but I can. I’m not trying to corner the market.

Walter in his work clothes

Walter in his work clothes. Photo:

As fig season winds up, so does Walter’s last season. I don’t have a good feeling about his prospects, but he may surprise me yet. While we wait to learn his fate, won’t you try some of my  fig preserves? Really. They’re free, and you won’t have to worry about going to jail!DSC_0710 Postscript: This years flavors: cinnamon, cinnamon and ginger, rosemary and port, pepper, basil, amaretto, and that’s all I can remember. Tell that to the D.E.A.

Kite Grabbing

Have you ever found that intending to do one household task quickly leads you to another, and another, until suddenly it’s two weeks later and you’re still in those same gym clothes?  And you feel as though you have been hanging on to the end of a kite tail whipping in the wind? Well, good. Because I don’t want to be the only one.

Here’s how it started for me this time. You recall  that we are in the process of building a pergola? Fine. In the last two weeks there has been lots of activity directed toward that goal. In the aftermath of all this hubbub, which included eight house guests, I simply wanted, in some sort of misguided attempt to feel in control of my environment,  to pick up some of the unripe figs which drop from the tree  onto our pool deck each year. “Luckily,” I said to myself as I approached the pool deck, “you have a couple of weeks to recover before the “Fig Season” is upon you”, But no, what I found on the tree were definite signs of quickly ripening figs. Millions of quickly ripening figs. If this were a movie I would pan over my horrified face while playing some “Psycho”- like music.

I  truly love my fig tree and all the delicious goodies I make from its bounty. But in the last three years the harvest has been so generous  that this little City Farmer has had to go into overdrive to handle the massive amounts of fruit. There will be more on this topic  later, but for background I’ll just say that a few years ago the few figs I had made a nice appetizer or pizza topping or two, but by last year I made over 150 jars of fig preserves and only stopped because my brain refused to give my hands any more orders. Or maybe the orders were sent but the hands refused.

Last year’s fig preserves

Anyway, I knew I needed to inventory what preserve making supplies I had from last year. But that would mean going into my pantry, where I had shoved my remaining  2011 jars of preserves plus empty jars and  unused bags of sugar. As hints to my recent house guests had not inspired those people  to do it for me,   I resolved that I would have to clean out the pantry myself prior to the inventory if I did not want to cause an unwelcome avalanche of cans and jars raining down on my head. For yes, the pantry had gotten completely out of control.

But a certain discovery earlier this week booted the pantry cleaning right to the top of the list. This was when I heard my husband shout from inside the pantry. “We’ve got BOTULISM!” I came over to investigate, because he tends to get upset about these things. There he stood with a corroded and/or exploded can of ten year old jackfruit in his hand, no doubt with his mind reeling with all the grisly possibilities of WHAT ELSE could be found within those unsavory recesses of the pantry.  “Not to worry,” I consoled him as I disposed of the offending can. “On Friday I will clean out the pantry.” And just like that I was committed to a horrible task that I only perform once every ten years or whenever I move, whichever comes first.

I somehow forgot to take a before shot of the pantry, so you’ll just have to trust me, but here are some shots of what was emptied.

Feel sorry for me yet?

How about now?

Here is the empty pantry.In the end it wasn’t as awful as I had feared.  I can honestly report that here were no more exploded cans. But I did throw some away preemptively.

Like this one.

It is somewhat reassuring to know that with four cans of baking powder, I need not fear running  out of the vital ingredient  in the middle of an important baking session.  And it is gratifying that for the first time in my life, the snack foods are completely unprotected from the grubby hands of children and teenagers, which means that I too, if I have a mind to, will be able to reach the pretzels on the bottom shelf instead of leaping several times into the air toward the top shelf  like a trained poodle grasping for a treat.   And look at these cute estate sale finds I had shoved in among the bags of sugar and cans of soup.

Here is the finished pantry.

NOW I can inventory my existing canning supplies, so I know what to buy, so I can wash all the jars and have them ready for when I bring in loads of figs twice a day, so I can wash and prepare them for canning. Whew! And for your information, I am still in my gym clothes. Some days are just like that.