Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Soul Food

There are many problems with the book The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti, but there are many greatnesses as well. One such is this, a snippet of philosophy the main character Ambrosio shares that the author tucks away in a footnote:

"I have a litte jar in my cave," he said, "a four-liter jug, the last wine made by a good friend of mine before he died: Joselito. It is now the second anniversary of his death, and I'm always thinking of him. I think of how he might have laughed at this joke, or that moment. Any little thing will remind me of him. And once in a while I want to drink his wine. I want to drink him, not his wine. I take a swig of it, of him, and I put the cork back on him. Maybe someone who hears this thinks I'm off my rocker, but this is what I believe: When I give anything—wine, a tortilla, my cheese—I am inside that. And of all the people who eat what I offer, only a special few realize that there's a spirit present, that there's my love."

Friday, February 06, 2015

Oxalis Redux

One plant I keep coming back to over and over, especially since our move north, is oxalis. I've written about this genus before and how I love its ease as a garden bulb, the way it provides textural foliage interest and satiny color when it blooms, the way some species of it persevere in dry, alkaline soil.

When my in-laws were here a couple weeks ago, the three of us headed over the Golden Gate to wander through Muir Woods. There, matted in jade tufts under the ruddy columns of redwood colonies, one of the California's few native oxalises, Oxalis oregana lives. The leaves of this species make perfect hearts that close in on themselves when too much sun breaks through the redwood canopy. They need the shade, moist fine leaf litter, and climate control of the giants above them, and when they do bloom, their blossoms are shy shells of veined white or palest pink. They're precious plants, lovely and tender.

On another day, we spent the afternoon in Half Moon Bay, just a hop over the spine of the Peninsula from where my husband and I now live. There, dramatic sweeps of the invasive weed Oxalis pes-caprae (aka Goat's Foot, Cape oxalis, and many other monikers) sported carpets of silky lemon blossoms. It's impossible for me to stand among these banks of yellow and not think of Wordsworth and his daffodils, the natural beauty that sustained him in times of pensive solitude.

Here, on the bluff above the ocean, these flowers shine, shine, shine. I know Oxalis pes-caprae is invasive—of it, Bay Area garden writer Pam Pierce writes, "Experienced gardeners say that it is unlikely you will ever get rid of Cape oxalis completely. In fact, some joke the best way to get rid of Cape oxalis is to move." Metaphorically, though, I admire the weed's tenacity and perseverance. It's blooming its head off in a new home, making this foreign bluff a joyful place, something its cousin who stays home in the safe shelter of others cannot do.

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.