Thursday, January 22, 2015

At The Wheel

Adrenaline and adventure drove the first two weeks here. That adrenaline is gone. Despite the fact my parents-in-law were in town for a week, providing company and opportunities to explore our new locale, I have been feeling very sorry for myself the last few days. I've felt alone, missing my communities of friends, coworkers, gardeners, and neighbors. I left behind a house and garden I loved, and right now having a garden again seems out of reach. I've put my name on the community garden wait list. I'm #23. Real estate is very expensive around here, so I don't know when or where we'll buy another home and another yard of our own. Meanwhile, the course of my professional future is murky at best. I know where I'll be working in one month but have no idea where I'll be working in eight months. I miss certainty and rhythm. As a result of all of this, I've had a few teary pity-parties.

This week, I began to take the helm. I found a nursery that will soon become part of my regular stomping grounds. I went to my first class at the local pottery studio and instantly found people with whom I could easily talk. I began to tell people what I want to make out of my life here—to feed a garden and a community and to write—and talking to people leads somewhere. Silence and self-pity lead nowhere, just circling in on themselves, pulling powerfully down, a slow drain of stagnant water.

Because yesterday the sun was bright but not too warm and the hills were calling, Indiana and I hiked the trails of the City of Belmont Open Space, a hike that will soon become a habit. The views are expansive, the trails edged with the good kind of wild, and the hills are steep enough to toughen up this ass of mine. I've needed to kick my own ass.

I'm beginning to feel better.

When my in-laws were here last week, we visited the docks in Sausalito. The houseboats of Sausalito have no plots of land. They have a dock, decks, sun, and people who clearly love plants. These gardens are funny and beautiful, land or no land.

The deck out front of our rental home will be my yard. I have sun and love. I can make my garden here. Now, it's time for me to focus on the community building and writing. Anyone know of a job for someone who can garden, teach, write, and teach how to garden and write?

Friday, January 09, 2015


On our last night in the old house, my friend Sarah picked 20 pounds of lemons for us to stow away in our cars for the trip north from the bountiful Meyer lemon tree. The tree was already in place, producing but small and scraggly, when we moved into the house. Our first winter there, I layered 6 inches of partially composted horse manure under the tree. The next year, I built in-ground worm composters (bottomless plant pots with a heavy stone or concrete over each) around its drip line. I cut out dead branches and bathed it periodically to remove smog and critters. The tree took off. It grew wide and tall and dark-green-lush. I had to cut it back twice a year because it wanted to be huger than I could manage. Every winter, it gave me enough lemons to use for every purpose imaginable, to share with local friends, and to send to my parents and friends across the country. This year, thanks to Sarah's faithful help, some of those lemons followed us to our new home.

Most of what I've done since I've lived here is unpack and arrange. Also, I've walked the dog. Other than that, I have made things with lemons: Meyer Lemon Vanilla-Bean Marmalade, lemon curd, roast chicken with a lemon stuffed inside, a very lemony bean salad, Moroccan chicken, lemon salt, lemon poppy seed cookies.

In order to save the fragrance and punch of some of these last lemons, I've made a half gallon of preserved lemons. Preserved lemons are the anchovies of the fruit world—you either love them or you don't. Similar to anchovies, they're very salty, pungent, and a little funky from their slow ferment, and they are used as a flavorant. They're made similarly to anchovies too, packed in salt and their own juices. When I saute kale or chard with garlic and minced preserved lemons, people (not my husband) ask me what makes the kale taste so good (nothing could make kale taste good to my husband). The preserved lemons—along with saffron, ginger, cumin, pimenton, garlic, and olives—are what make Moroccan chicken special, they zip up green veg and salad dressings, and they do wonders in a seafood pasta. By setting that half gallon of Meyer lemons on the basement shelf to ferment for a few weeks before going into the refrigerator, I'm saving the bounty of the tree at our old house for a while longer. Those lemons will grace our meals for the year to come.

Here, at our temporary-for-who-knows-how-long rental house, there is a sad little potted lemon tree already in place on the sunny deck. It needs more soil in its pot, some judicious pruning, and fertilizer. It could use a bath. I bet I can save it. I'm certainly going to try.

Thursday, January 01, 2015


Ten days ago, movers packed a truck full with our furniture and boxed goods and headed north. They were to arrive at our new-to-us rental at 10am the next day. That night, our good friends came over and helped us pack our personal items into our cars, clean up the house, and say goodbye. E and I got a few hours of sleep on our old mattress that we dragged out to the curb just before we left for good at 3:30am, racing to get to the rental before the movers did.

It was a dark drive. My husband drove ahead in a pickup. In my little car, our cat yowled the whole night, but we tunneled along through black-dark and into the velvet charcoal of the Tule fog in the Central Valley before dawn. Dawn broke as we rolled over the hills south of the Bay, then we found ourselves climbing up the spine of the Peninsula, and we were here.

It's an imperfect house without a level surface anywhere in the place, but it has some gems: lots and lots of sun that streams in on wood floors, a huge front deck that looks out over rolling hills and treed neighborhoods, a room that will serve as an office for me—an office! The cat has already discovered the joy of floor venting heaters. And our dog, well, this move has been the best possible event for our dog.

The busyness of our move and the temporary living apart of me and E led us to recognize that we couldn't give Indy the time he needed in the interim, so this fall, we sought out a Bay Area dog trainer who focused on aggressive dogs. Indiana lived with this trainer for a month. When he came home to E at Thanksgiving, E had the fence already built in the back yard and had a warm lap waiting for him. The dog that came back to our family was still Indiana, with all of his noble love and loyalty to us, and his desire to crawl into our laps even though he's so big, but without the aggression towards other dogs that made both his and our lives harder. Our rental house has a dog park a few blocks away. In our old life, a trip to the dog park was an impossibility. Now, it's a joy.

There are many parts of this move that told the both of us, even though it would be very hard, it was the right thing, but this better life for a creature that we have loved but imperfectly served since the beginning of his time with us seals the deal. We're home.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Reason

It's been quiet here on A Thinking Stomach, and there's a reason for it:

This summer, we learned that E may win a great job; in September, he won it; last week, he moved north to start it.

Ever since the possibility of the move came up I was certain it would happen, so I stopped planning for a fall or winter garden, and started planning on shutting things down. Every step outside to work in the yard now is an effort to clean up, clear out, erase. I'll be here in Southern California for two more months, shutting the ranchito down and selling it, cleaning up our rental property and selling that, closing up my chapter at my school, and in general, transitioning. It's a lot. But, I am enough. 

I'm not ready to write about what the ranchito has taught me in our years here, or to reflect on two decades at my school, but I did want to give you a glimpse of what's going on so you know the reason for the silence. 

It's not an unhappy silence—I'm so excited for the new possibilities the Bay Area will provide the two of us, the new growing climate to learn, the new places to explore—and it's only a temporary silence. A Thinking Stomach is not a place, but a part of me, and it goes where I go. 

This morning, a quiet fog settled over the garden and the canyon. I worked cleaning out a vegetable bed, and dug up the ginger that had grown from the single piece I planted this spring. After pulling it up and handling it's pearly newest shoots, my fingers smelled like candy. This life, even in the midst of change and anxiety, sleeplessness and hard, hard work, is sweet.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Portraits in a Garden: Christopher Lee

Loretta Allison, Spade and Seeds, and Christina Wenger, A Thinking Stomach, have set out to find gardeners who can teach us how to live better in our outdoor spaces. Home gardeners who have designed their own spaces—large or small—in ways that feed their homes and their spirits draw us to them. We figure we’re hungry to learn from them, so you might be also. Join us in our occasional series as we explore their spaces.

Text by Christina Wenger
Photography by David Kiang
Art Direction by Loretta Allison

A peaceful man with an easy smile, Christopher Lee has been playing with plants since he was a kid. Somewhere along the way, he got distracted and ended up earning his masters in health administration. After just a few months in an office, he realized he had made a mistake, and left to return to plants. He’s been working as a freelance flower designer ever since, and in the past five years, he’s also been piecing together his own personal paradise.

Christopher has turned blank apartmentlandia into a beautiful, food-producing, fish- and chicken-inhabited, manicured jungle. Before visiting Christopher’s home, I didn’t know jungles could be manicured. I learned the beautiful way.

From the street, the apartment complex does not look like anything could be hiding behind it. But, as I walk into the center parking area, I notice concrete cut out of the parking spots, replaced with trees and spider plants. Between two young trees sits an old bathtub, planted with trailing herbs. And then, wait a minute, in front of the door of the bottom floor apartment is a large colony of dendrobium orchids in peak bloom, an Asian ceramic crock housing a mini-pond and water lettuce, pots of elegant succulents. The deeper into the complex, the more interesting it becomes. 

Christopher leads me through a gate and into his side yard, where spider plants never looked so good. They grow thick and lush under newly planted shade trees acquired from LA’s free tree giveaway. One tree will grow to shade a seating area Christopher has built out of a succulent wall garden and mid-century modern chairs his neighbor discarded. The turquoise caning of the chairs plays off the glaucous grays, lavenders, and lime greens of the succulents. Behind us, cuttings of succulents Christopher salvages from jobs, neighbors, and friends relax on a table, waiting for him to arrange them into the living sculptures that populate his garden. I hear the sound of water running.

Just beyond us is another bathtub, this one full of small koi and water plants. I laugh. I didn’t expect a koi pond here, and certainly not one built out of an 80s-era bathtub, but it’s beautiful, and it works. The fishes’ tails write loopy poems of peace along the surface of the water. Beyond the koi tub, the garden opens up into a small backyard, where foliage creates layers of texture and color. The far edge is a carefully maintained bamboo forest, where Christopher cuts out any unwanted stalks and trims off the lower branches. He has tied the stalks with transparent fishing line to keep them at their most balanced angles. Below the lacey canopy of bamboo leaves are ferns, elephant ears, cymbidium orchids, and variegated spider plants. Green, green, green. Quiet.

A gray wooden fence surrounds the yard, and Christopher built a slightly raised deck—painted the same color—out of big-box store fencing; he painted both from brown to gray. The gray softens the space, greening the greens and playing with the muted palette of potted succulents. He has more of his turquoise-caned chairs and a small table on the deck. Strings of white Christmas lights create a transparent ceiling that must provide a lightning bug glow in the evenings. Nearby, another large Asian ceramic pot houses a still pond of duckweed and guppies.

But amidst the calm, there are more surprises. While I’m squatting to check out the bed closest to the back of the building, a shady, damp place full of food plants that I’m just beginning to parse out, Christopher, who has stepped away for a moment, returns carrying a bantam Brahma hen with a corresponding rooster scurrying behind him. The chickens live inside, but relax outside with Christopher in the backyard, where they scratch in the herb bed. He sets them down, and they walk confidently past me, right into the greens. The hen chuckles; the rooster looks alert.

While I watch them dig and peck, Christopher explains what’s in the bed. He shows me the Asian greens he’s grown from a seed mix, and the mint, Vietnamese coriander, and Vietnamese fish mint that trail throughout, all grown easily from cuttings. These herbs are all very invasive, but as they live in this bed, surrounded by concrete, they can sprawl without becoming a threat. Large-leafed oxalis sends up its trios of emerald hearts. Red-stemmed chard quilts with color. Bronze fennel and an overwintered tomato provide floppy, filigreed height. The bed is a beautiful mess.

Overall, hard work, discards, freebies, and a distinct and careful design sense have created this space. Christopher rescued many of his plants from his work and received cuttings of many others from friends. The bathtubs in the front and back are discards from the apartment building’s remodel; the outdoor furniture, the neighbor’s trash with a new slick of paint. Yet, there’s nothing cheap here—it’s all elegance.

I could stay here in this peaceful place for hours, but I have other commitments, so go I must. My heart rate has slowed here; I’m refreshed. I’ve been graced by the calm of green, the presence of a joyful, generous gardener, and surprise.

On that sunny, breezy day, I leave Christopher’s house with ideas and Vietnamese coriander cuttings.

Takeaways From Christopher’s Garden:
Ask your gardener friends for pass-along plants: Succulents, spider plants, Vietnamese coriander, mint, and fish mint grow easily from cuttings. Watch out though—mint and fish mint are invasive and unless they’ll be very contained, you may want to grow them only in a pot.
Use what others won’t or can’t: Rescue from the side of the street objects that could be beautiful with a little elbow grease—tubs, pots, furniture.
 Gray is good: Have you ever noticed how green everything looks on a rainy day? It isn’t just because of the water, but also the color. A backdrop of soft gray opens the space and plays well with both lush greens and glaucous succulents.
Get your water fix by building a pond in a pot. Set water lettuce in it and a few guppies or mosquito fish; keep it in a shady spot so it doesn’t overheat, and monitor water levels.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Eggplant Love: Saving Seeds

My favorite eggplant is Rosita. It's gorgeous. I'll show you pictures when my fruit that are currently swelling and coloring are harvested. But despite how special it is and how well it grows in my yard's climate, some years, it's nearly impossible to find commercial sources of seed for it. That's just one of the many reasons it's important for me to save my own seed.

My friend Loretta at Spade and Seeds gave me a Thai Long Green eggplant seedling this year, now growing in the same bed as my Rositas. It's a nice eggplant, too: productive, pretty, and mild. The seedling she gave me blossomed well before my Rositas, the only other eggplant variety in my yard (or on the block, for that matter), so I knew the first fruit it set was isolated and would produce true-to-type seed. I decided to save seed from that fruit to give to her as a thank you for the seedling.

So, I let it grow. And grow. And then it became firm and turned from its lovely soft green to a vibrant gold. The mature fruit means that the seed is now mature as well.

Once I picked it, I brought it inside my shed to work. Though you could do it this way, it'd likely be very tedious to dissect an eggplant, using tweezers to dig out every small seed. So, I tried to be more efficient. Using a box grater, I grated the bottom third of the fruit into a large bowl. Grating the flesh loosens it up enough for the flesh to separate from the seeds. Checking to make sure I had grated all the flesh that held seeds, I poked around in the flesh above the bottom third of the fruit, but the only seeds to be found were in the bottom.

I added some water the bowl to help separate the flesh and the seeds even more. The flesh floats in water, while healthy seeds sink, so the two fall away from each other. Here, my summer intern is holding the bowl up to the shed's ceiling so you can see how the seeds have settled on the bottom of the bowl.

We used our bare hands and scooped up most of the floating flesh. Some still remained, so I added water, swirled the mixture together, and while swirling, carefully poured off the water and the floating flesh. That left us with almost-clean seeds.

After another couple swirl-and-pours, the seeds were completely free of residual flesh.

We plopped the seeds on a labeled sheet of parchment paper (the seeds won't stick to it as they dry). 

When they're completely dry, I'll package them up and give them to Loretta. She'll be able to grow quite a few children of her gift to me next year. Later this summer, I'll repeat the process for an isolated Rosita fruit. Never will I be unable to find seed for my favorite eggplant.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tomato Love: Saving Seeds

When you find a tomato variety you just have to grow again because it is so delicious, or when you find an individual tomato plant that stands out above its sisters in health and productivity, you can save seeds to keep this plant's true-to-type children in your garden for years to come.

Here's how you do it:

Early in the season, when the flower buds are strong but not yet blooming, place a poly "wedding favor bag" around a flower bunch prevent any cross pollination. If a flower sets fruit inside the bag—remember, tomatoes are perfect flowers and can fertilize themselves—remove the bag and place a twist tie or similar on the stem. That is the fruit you'll save seeds from, as you know it will be pure, without any crossing with any other variety.

Once the fruit ripens to dead-, soft-, almost-exploding-all-over-itself-ripe, remove it from the plant and bring it somewhere you can work. Cut the fruit open and slip the pockets of seed and gel into a small bowl or mug, scooping out as many seeds as you can. Feel free to slurp up any remaining tongues of flesh you have left over after scooping out seeds.

Add a splash of water to the small bowl of seeds and gel so you have at least a quarter cup of liquid. Set the bowl somewhere warm but not in the sun—in an unused part of your kitchen (yeah, right), or perhaps in a shed or shady, protected place. Let the bowl set and grow mold. Depending on the temperature and time of year, that floating layer of mold can take anywhere from a day to three. If it's hot, like it is here in the summers, add water if it looks like the bowl is drying out before mold forms. Why the heck do you need to do this? Each seed in a fresh tomato sits in a tiny purse of its own gel that contains a hormone preventing the tomato from germinating inside the warm, wet fruit while it's still on the plant. However, after falling to the ground, a tomato rots, and that rotting process frees the seed from it's protective pillow, allowing it to germinate when the weather, moisture, and warmth are right. When we save seeds ourselves, we've got to emulate the rotting process by using very ripe fruit, collecting seed, and letting it mold over.

Once a thin layer of mold forms over the surface of the tomato-seed liquid, add a little more water to make it easier to work with, then carefully pour off most of the liquid. You'll have a collection of healthy seeds on the bottom of the bowl, where they've sunk. Add some more water to the bowl and swirl it around, then dump the contents of the bowl into a small, fine mesh strainer. Rinse the seeds under running water, agitating the seeds as necessary to free any clinging clumps of flesh. After the seeds are free of debris and drained, gently dump them on a piece of parchment paper.

Use pencil to label the variety name on the parchment paper, and place the paper somewhere inside your house to dry. A couple times a day, stir and break apart any clumps of seeds that form. The seeds are like velcro, and they'll want to stick to each other.

If you live somewhere warm and dry, like we do, the seeds will be thoroughly dry in a week or ten days; somewhere else, you may need to wait longer for the seeds to completely dry.

Once dry, place them in a labeled container that works for you (small sealing ziplock bags, little snapping boxes screws come in, tiny jars), and place that container somewhere even-temperatured and dark, where the seeds can survive with decent viability for seven years.