Next Year May Be Better (The Garden)

A rare Saturday with nothing planned. Much to do, but nothing required. The ‘to-do’ is catch-up cleaning, inside and out.  The garden looks abandoned – petunias dried up in the window boxes, basil plants going to seed, morning glories strangling scraggly rose bushes and in the vegetable garden, pokeberry and crabgrass reign. A few perfect, little heirloom tomatoes are rallying on an almost-leaf-less plant, and I hurry to rescue them before the birds and squirrels attack. And jalapenos – I can’t make salsa fast enough and they wrinkle on the kitchen counter. But the garden is at the end for the year.

As the days finally cool down, I plan on how to prepare it for winter.  Rather than yank up all the crabgrass, I’ll probably cover it with newspapers, then layer leaves, compost, dirt in ‘lasagna’ garden fashion. By spring, it should be rich earth, ready for planting. Although it was a bad year, I am planning for next. An optimist – next year may be better and, in any case, I will try.

Summer Eating

Some days, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what to make for dinner. I may start first thing in the morning or while I am making a salad or sandwich to take to work. I assess what’s in the refrigerator and imagine turning my on-hand ingredients into a meal everyone will love. By 3 pm, I’m planning in earnest, deciding if I need to stop on the way home to pick something up. From Trader Joe’s it might be cheese (a great selection and reasonably priced) or from Whole Foods – a whole-wheat lavash or, around the corner from us, Stew Leonard’s for a good piece of meat or chicken.

From June through October, the menu is determined by what what I pick up on Wednesday in my CSA share.  If there’s corn in the box, I’ll boil water so we can eat it right away since the sooner corn is eaten after picking, the more delicious it is. A bounty of torpedo onions over the past couple of weeks became French Onion soup on one of last week’s rainy, cool days by caramelizing thinly sliced onions for close to an hour with a dash of some dry booze and some beef stock. I threw a chunk of baguette into each bowl (SoNo Bakery – gorgeous small-batch bread) grated and melted jarlsberg on top. Yum.

Last week, our meals were particularly tomato and egg-centric.  Our CSA box has been heavy with luscious tomatoes and we took care of our neighbors’ 7 chickens.  Every afternoon, we walked down to their yard and pulled open the coop door to release the clucking mass of feathers so they could peck the grass while we raked their pen, gave them more food and were rewarded with an average of 5 exquisite little eggs a day. (much more fun than taking care of a cat!)

An omelette filled with sauteed shallots and swiss chard one night, scrambled eggs with black beans, jalapeno and corn folded into a lavash, both got smothered with fresh salsa. With my handy little chopping gadget, it takes only moments to turn a tomato, a jalapeno from my own garden, cilantro, half an onion and a squeeze of lime juice, into a tangy sauce.

Today:  green beans, very bitter arugala, handful of potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, basil and those beautiful little eggs… fritata? My favorite food sites are always full of inspiration:,, and


The changing light of these early mornings reminds me that my favorite season is on the wane although there is a full month before school starts (thanks to my daughter, school still marks time for me) and many more days of sweltering heat and humidity yet ahead of us. But I mourn the passing of long daylight hours although I recognize that melancholy lends a sense of sweetness to every moment.  I savor the light, the heat – time. I take deeper breaths and almost taste the summer-scents of earth and grass and when the wind is right, the rich sea smell of the nearby Long Island Sound.  I reassure myself that there are a good two months or more of paddling to be had and still a promise of harvest from the garden.

My tomatoes are disappointing – some creature – (I suspect the squirrels) has found every fruit before me, gnawing some, devouring others.  The guilty rodent prefers the heirloom variety and we have yet to taste one. On the other hand, although I know it his favorite, the groundhog has ignored the patch of edamame and I see teeny little pods clustered in amongst the purple flowers. I have no complaint about the lettuce: just when I think we have had our final salad, I find more leaves hiding beneath the cucumber vines. I must remember to always, just keep looking.

Summer Weekend

Sunday – and I have barely touched my list of things to do. As always, if the weather allows, at the top is to get out on the water and yesterday, we did –  kayaking out around the islands, getting out to walk on sandbars and swimming – floating out where the snowy egrets feed, sparkling white against the green grasses and blue sky. It is easy to let the hours pass out there but eventually, the to-do-list beckons me, our stomachs rumble and we head back to shore.

The garden pays the price for these leisurely afternoons and the weeds are winning the battle.  I search between the green for things to pick and did make my kickin’ salsa with our jalapenos, one tomato from the garden and one from our CSA box, cilantro and red onion. So far, the only thing that the big pests have been eating are the eggplants. I have managed to pick only one slender purple-black fruit but now only find carved out shells of skin hanging on the vine. Since no one in my house particularly likes eggplant – including me, I consider them my decoy plants.  Except for bites out of tomatoes left by annoying squirrels, the lettuce, swiss chard, edamame and cukes have not been touched.  Of course, the mean-old ground hog who has decimated my garden in years past is probably just waiting for the lovely little soybean pods to appear before feasting.  But just in case we’re doing a vegetable swap here, I’m happy to sacrifice the melenzano.

Besides the housework, also getting short-shrift from me are the piles of New Yorker magazines, Sunday’s New York Times and an ever-growing stack of books. It seems impossible to keep up with it all. During my week away I managed to read three-weeks worth (does it really have to be a weekly?) dabbled in many memoirs and books but read The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman cover-to-cover loving every page.  Brilliantly rendered characters – each profiled in chapters that flesh out the life and death of a newspaper in Rome.  Now I am hooked in a ‘I don’t want to stop reading yet’ way on Little Bee by Chris Cleave, deservedly on the Best Seller List.  A page turner, with gorgeous writing.  I was particularly moved and impressed by his telling of grief – or rather, of aftermath of tragedy – because grief is too simple a word for the emotions in those of us left behind and he brilliantly, poignantly, captures the complexity of that undertow.

Farm-Share Veggies

Week two of getting my CSA farm share and it is full of wonderful green bounty, including some strange veg.  Opening the box I found a tangle of weird stems – garlic skapes – the bit at the top with a flower bud. Nestled at the bottom of the box was kohlrabi – a strange looking root vegetable.  The kohlrabi still sits but the garlic I have tossed into my fancy new dual blender-food processor to make a fantastic pesto.  The skapes give it a milder flavor.  Instead of just basil, I stuffed the processor bowl with arugala from my own garden.  Planted too generously this year, it is already very strong and spicy and threatens to bolt – then too bitter for my taste.  A generous handful of walnuts, and parmesan cheese and scooped out over just-cooked orzo, it was a scrumptious summer dinner.  Leftovers will get the addition of feta and grape tomatoes and be a pasta salad.

Did I say I loved my new kitchen tool?  I also had a massive half a head (I split the share) of chinese cabbage that I shredded within minutes with carrot and a touch of scallions.  Cleared that out of the bowl and made a dressing by adding a few inches of fresh ginger (easily peeled with a spoon- thank you Martha Stewart!) sesame oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce and a scoop of peanut butter and a shake of red pepper and gave it a whirl in my new machine before mixing it with the cabbage mixture to make a slaw.  Immediately delicious and after marinating in the refrigerator all night, ready for tonight’s dinner as a side to some Asian-y cooked chicken or maybe just (egads!) some really good hot dogs.

I could spend all day in the kitchen — but the garden and kayaking calls.  Reports on those adventures soon.


Cilantro, mint, sage, spring onions, strawberries. The harvest begins!  Yesterday made a carrot, apple, ginger, mint salad with a yogurt, honey, lemon juice dressing. Roasted red pepper dip by blending cream cheese, cilantro and a touch of cayenne to give it even more of an edge. Strawberries are big and bountiful – the challenge is to get to them before the slugs and birds. Spring onions – fatter and more substantial than a scallion – are already forming scapes. I wonder if they can be eaten like garlic scapes?  Yesterday’s harvest was sliced thin and cooked in a skillet until they were crunchy bits – perfect to toss on top of the chicken cooked in a soy-ginger marinade with a preserved lemon thrown in for good measure.  A few leaves of sage as garnish for this crazy flavor combo.  After weeks of no inspiration, I am excited by cooking again.

In another few weeks we will be picking up our first CSA box of organic vegetables of the season. Always an adventure to open the box.  In the first weeks there will be plenty of greens – beautiful young lettuce, basil, garlic scapes, (pesto!) arugula and much tastier strawberries than ours. Then strange things like fennel and other vegetables I have to look up recipes for.  I have a weakness for cookbooks but in the end, use only three or so regularly.  Deborah Madison’s vegetarian cookbooks are fantastic – full of inspiring recipes using wacky veg.  A new favorite is Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express. Rather than being in recipe format, the book is broken down by season with simple paragraphs giving suggested meals. Most of the ingredients are already in your cupboard and fridge but with Bittman’s guidance everything becomes more interesting. With just a few sentences of inspiration you can throw together simple meals, a catalyst for the kitchen.  That can of beans? Turn it into a burger that even your fussy kid will eat.  For something different try Japanese egg crepes or Peanut Soup. Yum.

Embracing the chaos

I am not an organized person and while I envy this quality in others, it will never be mine.  That’s not to say I am not efficient and responsible: my desk may be a mess at work and at home – but I never miss a deadline and my bills get paid on time.  This is just my style.  And it translates to everything – including the garden.

This morning, dressed in sweatpants and tee-shirt retrieved from the floor, hair flattened on one side and eyes still bleary with sleep, I took the dog out for his quick, morning walk.  I live on a quiet street and rarely meet anyone at this hour. Bordering our not-quite quarter acre,  Hosta, Iris, Day Lilies are growing in abundance.  Looking at this mass of green through my sleepy haze, I recall my autumn vow to separate these plants in the spring: divide the Day Lilies and Hosta plants, give away the Bearded Irises (strange, almost vulgar looking, I think) before they reached full bloom and I could still see space between them.  Too late: they swallow each other up in a green mass and they in turn, are overwhelmed by the hedge that stands now like a wall between our house and the street.  I used to be able to trim this hedge standing in the street – now it is at least 8 feet high and dense.

In another corner of the garden are the once scrawny twigs sent to me by the Arbor Society for a $10 donation.  I did this at least two years in a row – dutifully planting painted twigs only inches long into a corner of the garden where they would not get trampled.  Now we have about 7 trees in the works. They are growing within feet or even inches each other.  I meant to move a few of them this spring while it was still early – before their leaves began to sprout.  We moved two last year – digging around the roots and then wider, deeper yet to get some kind of root ball.  Finally, cursing and bothered, we chopped at the dangling roots and yanked them out – moving them, (not very hopefully) to a spot where they have more room to grow.  Amazingly, they survived the trauma and are still alive and  have grown quite a few feet.  We vowed to get to the others before they got bigger. Too late again.  None of those little trees I stuck in the flower garden for safe keeping and then, forgot about, will leave without a fight. For another year at least, there they will stay.

To add to the garden chaos, I planted two cherry trees in the hope of one day eating fruit from them.  Slightly bigger sticks that probably won’t bear fruit for a decade because I’m too frugal to spring for the $60 it costs to buy a large one from the garden center.  All of these saplings live beneath the massive oak that’s not far from the mulberry tree, so tall the branches lean over the garage. Another oak stands at the end of the drive and a quartet of trunks make up the maple tree shading most of the front lawn.

At this point, we feel overwhelmed by the growth, the weeds reclaiming a patch we cleared two weeks ago, the neighbors annoying forsythia that hangs like a curtain about to come down over our blueberry bushes.  But it’s nature doing its thing and it’s gorgeous and lush and the birds love us.


The sky is cloudless, the temperature is perfect and  I am torn between being in the dirt  planting vegetable seeds, tomato and jalapeno pepper plants – or writing.  Since I seem to only be able to write in solitude, when R leaves to run an errand, I drop my spade and dash inside to write, and when his car pulls in the driveway, I head back to pull weeds and water plants. And in this way, I find a kind of rhythm.

Here I am inside now – garden gloves abandoned in the dirt.  I have less than an hour before M is home from school.  A room of my own?  I imagine such a place for myself  and maybe, one day we can transform the crawl space – not quite an attic.   But if I could really disappear for hours on end to a cubby of my own, away from them and our shared life, would I? Certainly, if this was my ‘work’ but not now.  All moments beyond the hours spent at my job are carefully mined and  ultimately, it is the time I spend with these ones I love, that is most precious to me. But were I to win the lottery…

May 1st

Six years later. A Saturday again. How different my life is now.  Today, I am grateful to just feel sadness.

An excerpt from my still-in-progress memoir:

“On the morning of May 1st, I woke early.  It was as crystalline a day as last year  – the air fresh and full of spring smells, the light extraordinary.  Molly was still asleep beside me – we’d watched a movie in bed the night before and I let her stay.  As usual, the dog and cat acted as my alarm clock, looking for food and attention.  I slipped out of bed to attend to them.  I fed the cat, filled the kettle and put the leash on the dog.  There was now a curtain over the door to the garage, but as I passed it, I saw in my mind’s eye, the scene of the previous year.  I continued out, following the dog as he made his way along the weedy area next to the black-topped street.  I breathed deeply, inhaling the earthy smells of the spring morning.  The new leaves of trees were vibrant green and light pouring through to the street created patterns of movement.  How I loved spring!  Maybe today I would go buy flowers for the garden.  That’s something I could do.  I would plant them in a different place than last year.  Too many ugly memories near the other part of the garden.

Back in the house, Molly still slept.  I found some incense I’d bought in Kyoto last summer, dug through the kitchen junk drawer to find a lighter, and went out to the garage.  I spent the year scurrying past the door, quickly getting in and out to retrieve a shovel or rake.  This morning, with the light pouring through the windows, I stood beneath the beam and lit the incense.  I waited there until the thin purple stick turned to white ash, thinking of Ian, forgiving him.  I felt calm and peaceful as I watched the stick turn white and crumble onto the cement floor.

“I hope you’re at peace, Ian.  We’re okay and …we forgive you for what you did.”  It was the closest I had come to praying in a long time.

I wanted to think of him as being at peace.  For a long time I thought of his suicide as vindictive but gradually I was realizing how much pain he must have been in – a pain existing long before I even came into his life.  I used to berate him,

“Look!  You have everything: a beautiful daughter, a supportive wife – we both love you.  You have a house, your own business.  Why isn’t it enough for you?  Why do you keep risking it all for this drug?”

Of course he couldn’t answer. But I imagine now, that none of it was enough because none of it made his pain go away. He was trying to escape what must have been a terrible, deep anguish and Molly and I were collateral damage – it was never really about us – was it?  This pain prevented him from thinking of anything but getting free of it – through drugs and finally, death.  I wanted to understand what the cause was – something in his childhood?  I searched my memory for what he told me about his past but could remember nothing to explain his troubled soul.  On the other hand, I knew he’d been traumatized by his days in the British Army in Northern Ireland and stints in the Angolan other places secret wars were fought.  He refused to tell me more saying it was too horrible to talk about although he made it clear he had killed people – did this haunt him?  In the early days together before he was using drugs again, or at least before I knew about them, he would sometimes wake in a cold sweat worrying he hurt me in his sleep.  I urged him to go to talk to someone to get counseling.

“What is some guy who has sat in an office all of his life going to make of what I have been through?  The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve had to do?  No.  I don’t want to talk to anyone about this stuff.  Especially you.  I don’t want you to know, it’s too terrible.”

And I never pushed him.  I didn’t want to know either.”

April Showers

Today’s rain is welcome.  Yesterday I spent hours potting herbs (parsley, oregano, lemon verbena, basil and more basil) and filling window boxes. As I make my morning tea, a movement outside my kitchen window makes me jump – newly planted red geraniums out of the corner of my eye appear as if someone is looking in at me. It will take some time to get accustomed to their presence.

Although recent sunny days have been lovely, I am glad  to stay inside, read papers and do indoor spring cleaning tasks. Every room in the house is filled with the scent of lilacs – the result of trimming almost 3 feet off the top of an overgrown bush. This was one of those jobs I have meant to do each year and never gotten to – until now.  The blossoms were out of reach of my nose so it was time. According to a Google of ‘Pruning lilacs’ one should wait until the flowers have finished blooming. But wanting their evocative fragrance in these rooms, we took the lobbers to the branches and now the shrub looks sad – all chopped up. Fingers crossed it hasn’t been traumatized too much and next year’s blooms will be glorious.

We’ve done a lot of that around here this year – hacking away at old growth, chopping butterfly bushes practically to the ground. What were awful looking stubs only a few weeks ago are sprouting green. It works. Of course, all summer we will have to look at the bald limbs of the lilac and trust we have done the right thing for the future. There are so many ways this applies to my life: in a mundane way, cleaning out closets, throwing out, giving away, making SPACE!  But in psychic ways too. I will try and examine thoughts and habits so long ingrained in my life they might just be stunting growth and try and be brave enough to make uncomfortable changes for a healthier future. A good exercise for the seasons.


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