Life as I know It

My photo
San Luis Obispo, California, and South Bristol, Maine, United States
Author ~ Illustrator ~ Lecturer

Friday, May 20, 2011

Patchwork Quilt of Life

Early spring leaves of the redbud are red, peach, gold, and purple.

Dear Friends,

Life is a fireworks show of color and and experiences right now, and I am so amazed and grateful for everything. This is a patchwork quilt posting because I've been mostly working on my goes and forgive me if it jumps around too much, but that seems to be my life lately.

My grandson's strawberry patch is bursting with berries (they're happy with their thick mulch of Cambria pine needles). He loves going out with his little colander and picking the fresh from the garden.

My friend Ronelle (My French Kitchen) had a recipe for fried berries with balsamic vinegar in one of her last postings. I tried the recipe, and the berries are great on a salad or on a goat cheese appetizer. The tastes of the sweet berries and the tart, rich balsamic are an amazing contrasting combo.

I've planted native columbine (Aquilegia formosa) throughout the garden for the hummingbirds, and they're shouting out their irresistible red. Yesterday my friend Stephanie Roth Sisson told me that as a child she always squeezed the spurs and sucked the nectar. We tried it, and it was wonderful. In all the years I've researched history of children's interactions with plants, I've never run across anything on kids sipping columbine. Some parts of columbine are toxic, but after sucking the nectar and dipping back into ethnobotany, I've found that this part of the plant is edible. Caution: always teach your kids to never eat anything in the garden without adult supervision...and that adult better know what is safe and edible!

Many years ago, when I owned Heart's Ease Herb Shop and Gardens in Cambria, California, I featured the works of artist Julie Whitmore. This was one of the garden signs she painted for me, and I love the message, "Nothing Without Labour." So true. Each day looms large, and we all face the obstacles and challenges of making a life, whether it is working for ourselves or someone else. We can't gain any ground if we don't stick to our goals and labour, labour, labour.

I am so lucky. My commute is short. Early mornings, after working in the garden, I walk the pathway to Mockingbird Studio and think of all the things that make me so happy and grateful.

I'm grateful for a short commute 

for my best friend who is never daunted by my long lists of ideas (translates to projects for him)

for grandkids who know that I love sunflowers and are happy to bring them to me...

for a granddaughter who loves the kitchen rocker better than any other chair...and who loves reading the family scrapbook put together by my cousin Patti Lovejoy McKee (and who loves socks as much as I do!)

for fruit trees laden with oranges, lemons, and limes (not my apples)

for being greeted by the unexpected beauty of "The Queen" epiphyllum

for the miracle that overnight the roses and the bougainvillea both burst into bloom

for the perfect symmetry of the Chalk Rose, Agavoides, and Imbricata echeverias

for the explosion of perennial flowers in the new backyard garden

for the skippers

for the blanket flowers (red and yellow) that are turning into one of the best feeders for not only butterflies and syrphid flies, but also goldfinches. The goldfinches land on the pincushion heads and pluck seeds from them.

for the simple pleasure of picking blueberries on my commute

for the visits of voracious ladybird beetles. We have some great conversations.

and thankful for the aphid wolves (offspring of the ladybird beetle) who eat hundreds of aphids each day. When I was a kid, I thought these larvae were "Halloween Bugs" because of the orange and black. I used to watch them working their clean-up in my Grandmother Lovejoy's garden. Now they're doing the same job in mine.

I'm grateful for family, friends, nature, beauty, and the simple joy of making things with my own hands in my own way and somehow earning a living doing it. Remember, "Nothing Without Labour."

All joys,


P.S. Please drop by my newest Lowe's posting "Confessions of a Compulsive Weeder,"about how to beat tenacious, unreachable weeds that pop up in cracks and crevices. I think you'll like this simple tip.

P.S.S. Thanks to all of my wonderful followers for tipping the 400 mark. In celebration, I'd like to do a give-away of this introspective and elegant book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books), which has won many awards, including the John Burroughs and the National Outdoor Book Award.  I am thinking of my readers who are really examining life, meaning, health, and other issues. Members of The Grimy Hands Girls' Club will also receive a special bonus gift. If you're not already a member, be sure to join us. To enter, leave a comment on this blog posting no later than May 27. Winner will be drawn May 28.

P.P.S. For those of you near Oklahoma City on June 1, come join the Oklahoma County Master Gardeners for my talk and potluck luncheon. Check here for details.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Be Ignited

"Be ignited or be gone." 
Mary Oliver

This dragonfly is a male Blue-Eyed Darner
Aeshna multicolor 

Dear Friends,

I am ignited every morning when I slip out the door and into the garden. How can a person NOT be just looking at the opening flowers, the birds flocking to the fountains, and the insects winging by for a visit? My love of all these natural wonders is what keeps me going through the toughest of times. My wish for YOU is that you be ignited every day of your life.

Thank you for all the e-mails, letters, and gifts. I am overwhelmed by your many kindnesses and look forward to someday meeting you in person. In the meantime, I'm happy for this world of blogging, which has put me in touch with so many wonderful people.

This morning as I lifted cloches off my baby sunflowers (oh, they're a yummy attraction for insects and birds), I realized how much I enjoy and depend on the tools of my trade. I love their simple beauty, usefulness, and durability. What would I do without them? Oh, and YES! The onions are up and growing. I guess my apologies were accepted.

Herewith some of my favorites:

Cloches of all kinds. Tiny pots protect little seedlings. Oh, and watering cans, they're such personalities.

The big glass cloche is over 100 years old, the smaller one is from my old store, Heart's Ease. The woven cloches are similar to some vintage ones I sketched in my journal many years ago.

I love the old wicker-work cloches, but they're difficult to find. Most were woven of willow and just didn't last.

So where did I find these? In our local Tuesday Morning store. These are actually lined with a light fabric and are supposed to be used for food covers, but they're identical to the old garden cloches and serve me well as they are. 


...and more baskets. They're fruit and herb holders, weed transporters, picnic baskets, egg baskets, and so much more.

Tools, tools, tools. The trowel hanging on the wall (left) was made for me by a beloved little boy 40 years ago.  The paper cloches (bright orange) are suitable only during dry weather. They're lined with a waxed paper.

I love all my tools, especially the old ones.

Like this double hedge trimmer that Jeff bought at a yard sale. Yummy.

Old buckets, good trimmers, bulb trowel, and dandelion grubber help make my life easier.

This old herb drying rack was made for me by a friend. I've dried zillions of herbs and edible flowers on these shelves for many years.

And I love this old flower press made by Arlene Shannon's (former owner of Greenfield Herb Garden, Shipshewana, Indiana) father. 

I cherish my paints, brushes, and papers. Some of the brushes have been in my life for 30 years. They've traveled around the world and across the country with me many times, and because of them, I can paint all the birds I love.

Male and female Cardinals for my new children's bird book (no title yet). 

Lastly, I cherish all of YOU! Thanks for dropping by and leaving your thoughts about life.

Take care,


P.S. Please visit me on my Lowe's blog and leave a valued comment. They've posted my video on how to plant a hummingbird garden in a container.

CONGRATULATIONS Suzanne at Blueberry Cottage. You're the winner of The Kitchen Gardener's Handbook by Jennifer R. Bartley (Timber Press, 2010), which I know you'll love. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Apologizing to Onions

This mini-hummingbird garden is in my upcoming Lowe's blog posting.

Dear Friends,

Have you ever forgotten to plant something you bought? I am guilty of this. I bought lots of onions, shallots, and garlic in February and promptly forgot about them. They languished in my garden shed through the gentle rains of spring, and last week, during a heat spell, I walked inside the shed and smelled the wonderful aroma of onions. "Yikes," I yelled as I grabbed the basket filled with small red and white Cipollinis (the best onions for sauces and caramelizing). "I am SO SORRY I forgot about you."

This was filled halfway with onions, which I have dutifully planted (finally).

I immediately took them to the newly mulched garden beds and planted them around sunflowers, tomatillos, artichokes, and cinnamon basil bordered by Nepeta (catmint, not catnip, but the lovely lavender flowered catmint). Honestly, if I apologized less than a hundred times (once for each onion), I would be amazed. Now here is the thing.  I believe that plants have the most amazing will to live, so I'm betting that though many of them were shriveled little fragments of paper, many will survive and thrive.

You can see the Nepeta, the tall spires of love-in-a-mist (I use the seeds as flavorings), and the little twigs sticking up all over. They are markers for the sunflower seeds so that I don't dig them up accidentally (also so my grandkids didn't stomp the seedlings during their hunt for Easter eggs).

I witness the amazing will to live every time I work in my garden or spy a seedling struggling up through a tiny crack in the pavement. When I attended the scion exchange of the California Rare Fruit Growers, I picked up a few twigs of pomegranate to graft onto my old bush, and then I forgot about them until last week. I reached into my jacket pocket, pulled out a handful of twigs, and realized that I had another handful of forgotten possibilities, but I believe in the life force. I stuck the twigs into a glass of water on the kitchen counter and VOILA...

...the miracle of the life force of plants.

I never take the miracle of a plant's life force for granted. So, I am optimistic about the onions and the pomegranates, and I am optimistic about the life burgeoning in my gardens. And, I'm not only talking about plants, but also birds. I want to share the final days with my little family of hummers.

To make sure that they would have plenty to keep them in my gardens, I planted more coral bells, fuchsias, impatiens, and red nasturtiums, and right outside my studio I filled a big container with a mini hummingbird garden.

Heuchera (coral bells are a hummingbird favorite)

Colorful Lotus vine to frill the edges of my hummingbird container garden.

Alum root, Heucheras, and Lotus Vine– watch me design and plant this in my upcoming blog for Lowe's. It includes a video and photographs. I hope it will make planting a hummer garden easier for you. And please, do leave a comment!

Together for the last time.

Perched on the side of the nest, and then LIFT OFF, and I was there to watch its first flight.

Little sister left behind just fluffed up, spread out, and enjoyed the dappled sunlight, the roomy nest, and a mama who kept coming back with food she didn't have to share with anyone.

To say that I checked on this little one 50 times a day is probably no exaggeration. She was so used to me that she barely budged, just sat and eyed me until two days after her big brother had left. Then I walked out to check on her, she helicoptered straight up from the nest and flew away. I'll admit it. I got hit hard with the empty-nest-syndrome (again). I felt relieved that they'd made it, but so sad to lose their welcome presence in my garden and in my life.

Look at all the hair, feathers, and spider web.

I turned to walk to the studio and there she was; the little one sat on a twig above me and chittered her tiny call. I grinned from ear to ear. Ahhh, that amazing life force. Onions that were left unplanted and hummingbirds that thrived despite the odds. I watched as Mama dueled with jays, chased crows, and put up with a nosey human. They made it. Hurrah!

Later in the day, I was feeling blue. I sat at my work table and there, right outside my studio door, was one of the hummingbirds feeding at the coral bells. Maybe I shouldn't wallow in my empty-nest syndrome. Maybe they'll raise their young here someday, and the life force will flourish. 

Until next time.

Lovingly and see you in Oklahoma City on June 1st at the Oklahoma County Master Gardeners meeting.


The Kitchen Gardener's Handbook

P.S. Please leave a comment to be eligible for this wonderful book give-away. Jennifer Bartley, the author of Designing the New Kitchen Garden, has written The Kitchen Gardener's Handbook, which is stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with goodies galore. You'll enjoy great recipes, ideas, and photographs of bouquets you can adapt for your home, an A to Z compendium of edible and decorative plants for the home and garden, and Jennifer's professional yet do-able garden designs. I love it that she describes this as a book that "will help you live with the seasons, embracing what each has to offer." She does it with her inimitable grace and style. I want her to adopt me. Drawing will be next Monday, May 9. Comments must be dated May 8 or earlier.

Remember, members of the Grimy Hands Girls' Club always receive an extra gift if they're the lucky winner, like Susan Freeman of Ash Tree Cottage.

Thank you dear Jennifer for letting me excerpt one of your recipes for others to enjoy. This is a bit esoteric, but I know that many of you will love the process of picking wild elderberry flowers and making your own cordial. I love doing this and haven't done it in years, but I will this year.

Elder Flower Cordial

Makes 6 cups

12 to 15 large flower  heads
3 lemons
4 cups sugar
3 cups water

Select flowers at the peak of their bloom: the tiny flowers will be fragrant and white. Remove flowers from the stems and place in a crock pot or ceramic bowl. Zest the lemons and add to the flowers; then slice the lemons very thinly and add them to the bowl with the sugar.

In a saucepan, heat the water until it's just boiling. Pour it over the flower-lemon mixture and stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Cover and let steep in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 days, stirring periodically.

Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth and place in saucepan. Bring the mixture to a hard boil, cook and pour into sterilized glass jars. Attach lids and store in the fridge for 1 to 2 months. Serve with 3 parts of sparkling water or champagne to one part elder flower cordial.