Thursday, January 31, 2019

Miners' Lettuce

In the late spring two years ago, my first spring in my San Francisco home, whenever I wandered through McLaren Park, I collected Miners' Lettuce seeds. A native plant that's also a delicious salad green is a plant that is made for a garden like mine.

The following late winter, my now-stepdaughter and I threw seeds in places in my yard that seemed like natural habitats for the plant. Of the thousands of seeds we tossed into the soil, only one plant grew to maturity. I was frustrated. The climate and conditions seemed perfect for this not too picky plant. But I also consoled myself: prior to the work I started in my garden when I moved in, the soil had been covered with a thick layer of industrial plastic—not weedcloth—topped with mulch. No rain got to most of the soil. I didn't find worms or beetles or red spiders when I dug around. I found very little that was alive.

But, that one plant made it and I didn't nibble on even a single leaf. Instead, I babied it along, and when it went to seed, I tossed those seeds everywhere.

This year in the rainy season, Miners' Lettuce has popped up everywhere, even in places I don't remember tossing the seeds. Perhaps the plants have resulted from seeds that have laid dormant until they could find their foothold. Perhaps they needed the fungus and worms and slender salamanders that have moved in.

Perhaps everything just needed to rot a while for the growing to get good.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Holding the Sun

Over Thanksgiving, Scott and I rented a friend's beachside cottage on the northeseat corner of Oahu. We had planned this trip for a long time, but we hadn't known how incredibly perfect every part of it would be. We didn't know to dream how good it could be.

  • Watched sunrises.
  • Hiked ironwood, Norfolk Island pine, and native forests, orchids popping up trailside.
  • Rode horses through banyan groves to the coast.
  • Found Scott an incredibly beautiful-sounding ukulele.
  • Drank mai tais while watching surfers. 
  • Drank mai tais while watching a snowy college football game (can't take the WSU out of the man, even in Hawaii).
  • Snorkeled and snorkeled, encountering every color of fish, vibrant eels, and even a sea turtle.
  • Shopped at a farmers' market and ate all the available mango and banana varieties, passion fruit, guavas, papayas, and even a new-to-me fruit, the eggruit. Eggfruit, by the way sounds like something you wouldn't want to eat, a fruit the texture of a cooked egg yolk. But, it's rich and delicious and reminded me more of a particularly nice roasted kobacha squash.
  • Picked out ice cold young coconuts from a cooler, watched the tiny elderly woman machete off the top point, then drank from them greedily. Scott, who had never tasted fresh coconut water, said, "This tastes like really, really good milk." Later, I broke the coconuts open by hurling them against concrete, and I devoured the tender, pliant flesh.
  • Visited a botanical garden and explored the ethnobotanical section of the garden, mesmerized by the medicinal and food plants.
  • Fell in love with breadfruit and breadfruit trees. Seriously, they are amazing trees.
  • Visited a coffee and chocolate roaster, tasting our way through Oahu grown and Oahu roasted washed process and natural processed coffee and local chocolate.
One of my favorite pictures from the trip. We really enjoyed watching this woman surf. 

We came back with sunshine inside, and when Scott and I found yummy California-grown mangoes in the grocery store the following weekend, we bought a bunch. I knew I had to make something that preserved that feeling of gold.

And, so I consulted every mango chutney recipe I could find, and came up with something that's a hybrid of several recipes. It's gently spicy but not burning, sweet and fruit-fragrant, sharp with mustard and ginger, held to the earth with nigella and tumeric. When I make it again, I will up both the ginger and the chile, but here is exactly what I made this time. Scott and I had it with lamb shoulder steaks the other night and ate almost a whole jar. This is happy food.

Mango Apple Chutney

You will need:
3 pounds ripe mangos, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1" chunks
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (I used Diamond salt)
2 cup sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
3 garlic cloves, grated or finely minced
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 1/2  pounds tart apples, peeled, cored, and chut into 1/2" chunks
1 cup golden raisins
2 finely minced chiles (I used Aji Amarillos)
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon grated fresh turmeric
1 teaspoon nigella seed
1 1/2 teaspoon brown or black mustard seed

To make the chutney:
Place the mango chunks in a glass or other nonreactive bowl and toss with salt. Let sit overnight, or for at least half a day. When you're ready to cook the chutney, drain off whatever liquid has collected.

In a large pot that has a lid, stir together the sugar and cider vinegar, and place unlidded over high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has melted. Stir in all the rest of the ingredients. Turn the heat down to medium. Partially cover the pot until all the ingredients come to a boil, stir, partially cover again, and stir again. Repeat this for 10-15 minutes or longer (depending on what variety of apples you have), until the apples just begin to soften.

Remove the lid and cook for another 10-15 minutes or so at medium heat, or until the mixture is thick like a sturdy applesauce. The mango should have mostly cooked down and lost its structure, while the apple will likely keep more texture.

If you'd like to preserve this for a while, as I did, you can follow the USDA National Center for Home Food Preservation guidelines here.

This recipe makes 4 to 4 1/2 pints of chutney.

If you can't transport yourself to Hawaii this winter, here is Scott's beachside rendition of White Christmas, complete with Hawaiian shirt, ocean waves, and ukulele to help ring in the season.

Thursday, October 11, 2018


A few weeks ago, my family biked through our frequent Sunday route in Golden Gate Park. After we had loaded the bikes on the back of the car and begun to drive away, I remembered I had wanted to stop by the Fuchsia Dell, a corner of the park I had not yet visited. We skirted the edge of the park then dropped back in a small parking lot near the main entrance. Scott and my stepson stayed in the in the car to read while my stepdaughter and I hopped out to explore the fuchsia beds. We walked wide-eyed through the glen, pointing out different remarkable flowers that hung like costume jewelry on huge bushes, often also loaded with edible berries. We fell most in love with Fuchsia denticulata and held the neon pink, orange, and green flowers to our ears like giant '80s earrings.

Fuchsia denticulata

The original Fuchsia Dell was built in Golden Gate Park in the 1940s. In fact, fuchsias have been in San Francisco likely since Spanish times; Pam Pierce reports that 24 varieties appeared in a flower show in 1854, just a few years after the Mexican-American War. But, an invasive pest, the fuchsia gall mite, arrived in the 1980s, wiping out most of the fluffy hybrids that lived in the Dell and in the city.

A friend who recently toured our neighborhood's gardens texted me a picture of another gardener's Fuchsia splendens with its coral and green tubular flowers and tasty, tangy fruit. "Get me a cutting," I replied. Too late, she had already left the garden by the time I replied. By the way, that's the way our community is—we can ask each other for cuttings without seeming rude. It's my gardening heaven.

Since I have been thinking so much about fuchsias lately, when I had a half day at work yesterday, I spent the afternoon poking around another great collection in Golden Gate Park at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. The Cloud Forest gardens are loaded with species fuchsias blooming right now. Their flowers are orange and magenta, or green and carmine, or really long, or so copious I lose count before I can scan halfway along a branch. The plants are often large bushes or small trees and as loaded with berries as they are with flowers. The hummingbirds are everywhere; their buzzing wings and funny chirp-squeaks sound from every direction. Being surrounded by all this life and color is incredibly joyful.

Fuchsia boliviana

Fuchsia boliviana "Alba"

In researching more about the weird fuchsias that call to me (not the ballerinas of the genus but the modern dancers), I came across the website Fuchsias in the City. I understand this man's interest, and the depth of his research is incredible. Check out the Fuchsia Dictionary page. Amazing. To share such a resource makes an obsession admirable.

Fuchsia vulcanica

At this point, I have three fuchsias in my own garden that make me happy but not satisfed: the sometimes mite resistant Gartenmeister Bonstedt; one of the first, now almost historic, mite resistant hybrids, Fanfare; and the species Fuchsia fulgens. But, I want more, especially of the funky, fruity, non-fluffy species varieties. I'm putting out an all call now. Here are species I hope to someday have in my garden: Fuchsia denticulata (I want this plant so badly), F. splendens,  F. vulcanica, maybe a F. boliviana in either red or white, too. Got cuttings?

I have no idea what species this is, but it is as tall and wide as a person and loaded with flowers. I want it too.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Star of the Party

Yesterday, lots and lots of people walked through our backyard. It made both me and Scott particularly happy when a group would cluster on the patio on top of the property, relaxing on the benches and chairs, taking in the view. It's what we like to do, too. It is centering to observe downtown, the Bay Bridge and the freeways, way down below, the traffic silenced by distance. It's like watching the city's blood pump, further proof of its vibrant life. 

Visitors asked about the peppermint geranium, about the runner beans, about the pepino dulce, about the apples and pears, and about where we found all of our cobblestone. However, none of those took as much attention a small, sturdy annual. Early two springs ago, I planted two starts of Blue Pimpernel (Lysimachia monelli, formerly Anagallis monelli). They grew well for me, and even reseeded within the same growing season. At the end of the season last year, I tossed seeds from the old plants in places where I wanted more of that deep blue, and it came up everywhere I wanted. In one part of my yard, right along the front stone retaining wall, there's a thicket of flowers.

I don't water these plants. Sometimes I cut them back when they get too leggy. They show off with very little help from me. The bumblebees love them, and they look so good with California poppies earlier in the season. They've made my yard their home.

Yesterday, visitors stopped, surprised by the blue, at the front stone wall. They took pictures. They asked me what it was and how much water it needed. They happily accepted the seeds I collected from the older branches for them. 

These little plants have given so much pleasure with so little effort, and now they're on the way to new homes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Two Ps and Lots of Pods

This Saturday, the Portola Garden Tour is happening. Though I've had lots of people in my gardens through the years, they'be been friends, produce swappers, and interns; this is the first time my garden will be a stop on a garden tour. I'm a little nervous.

Since I know people will ask questions, I wanted to take the time to write down what we have done to get to this moment, and where we're planning on going from here.

What We Have Done (Preparation)
  • In order to prepare the house to sell in the spring of 2016, the previous owner covered the entire back that wasn't dense with shrubbery in thick plastic and poured mulch over it, plopping occasional succulents haphazardly across the slope. My first order of business was to remove all the plastic and scoot the mulch back over the soil. Plastic over my soil? Nope.
  • I next pulled out banks of rosemary (no one needs that much rosemary), leaving one plant that arches gracefully over a retaining wall. I pulled out sticky Pride of Madeira bushes, fungus ridden roses, misplaced succulent plants (placing them in better spots), and ivy that threatened from all the edges. 
  • Once I removed sad, sick, or overwhelming plants, I discovered that I had a pretty good framework to build upon. I removed some rotten planters and built up edges and low retaining walls, echoing the existant cobblestone walls. 
  • In the space the rosemary left behind, I began building a meadow on one side and planted a couple citrus (Meyer lemon and Bears lime) on the other.
  • After Scott and I met and fell in love, he became an active and enthusiastic participant in the development of the garden. He and the kids helped me remove the overgrown shrubs: purple hops—almost tree-sized—and flannelbush. The flannelbush made me sad. I had yearned to grow that plant in a garden for years, but once I had it, I learned it really didn't work in an urban setting. I couldn't plant anything around it without making it rot away, I couldn't prune it without destroying its architecture, and its soft wood couldn't stand up to San Francisco's strong winds. And, once we took it out, the views opened up to all of downtown and the Bay Bridge. We also took out a mostly dead lemon bush.
  • Scott and I built our vegetable bed and the first bean and pea trellises. My method for building these towers (also great for tomatoes), is to bend a 4' by 7' concrete reinforcing wire panel into a cylinder—lengthwise for beans and peas, shortwise for tomatoes—wire it together, and wire it to a couple stakes driven into the ground.
  • We hired a contractor to rebuild the portion of our retaining wall that was failing on the north west side of the property.
  • I planted and began espeliering two apples (Hudson's Golden Gem and Goldrush) and two pears (Comice and Warren).
  • Scott and I built a small bed dedicated to garlic in its growing season and a cover crop in garlic's off season.

What We Will Do Next (Planning)

  • Our first project that we can't wait to start is rebuilding the garden's pathway. We plan to tear out each wooden beam and replace it with mortared cobblestone. We'll dig out the landscape cloth (because landscape cloth is always a bad idea in the long run), slightly grade each long step of the path, set flagstone in, individually and permeably mortared, and in-fill with gravel. This will be much easier to maintain than the disintegrating decomposed granite path. It will also tie in to aesthetic elements we already have in place in the space; in short, it will look more unified.
  • Next, we need to pull up the bricks on the top patio, regrade the surface, re-build the patio's perimeter, then reinstall the brick patio.
  • In the early spring, when the Carex pansa begans to grow gangbusters again, I'll dig up runners and begin a meadow on the opposing side of the existant meadow. Each side of the path will then begin with a carex meadow underplanted with bulbs and studded with perennials and reseeding annuals. The carex to the south of the central path will grow around and under the citrus trees eventually.
  • We will build two more bean/pea/squash trellis towers and install them between our three existing towers.
  • I need to sketch out a plan for potted plants on the lower patio to help it look more cohesive, then we will put that in action. 
  • We will break down and use up a lot of the refuse wood from taking out the shrubs; then, I will be able to continue installing my fuschia, begonia, and Ericaceae (native huckleberries, Agapetes serpens, Madeiran blueberry) mania up at the top. Maybe, if I can keep them alive, I'll plant some native lilies up there, too.
  • We will continue to build up the succulent bed to make it look more sculptural and oceanic.

My Favorite Thing Happening Right Now In My Garden (a Lot of Pods)
I can't get over this Ayacote Negro runner bean tower. It has unstoppable flowers, brings in droves of hummingbirds, and offers a bounty of juicy green beans and future dry beans.

This is the top of the trellis, looking over the fence into the yards of my neighbors and down the hill towards downtown. If you look hard enough, you can see the SalesForce tower poking its tall head above the fog below it.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

My Job

My job keeps growing.

For 18 years, I was a high school English teacher, and for a good part of those years, a department coordinator. But, though I think I was a tolerable leader of the English department at my previous place of employment, I was in no way that leader that I have become today. For, the chaos and change in my move and subsequent divorce a few years ago taught me much.

When I first started at my current work four years ago, I recieved the job title of Interim Director of the Library. Then the word Interim went away. Then I added chairperson of a couple committees to my job title. And now, in addition to my library responsibilities, I'm teaching again, co-developing a program for struggling students.

So, what does my job look like? Here's a sketch of a day:

I open the library at 7:30am. In the early morning, there are already kids outside the library, waiting to get in to finish homework and use the space to study. As the start of the school day nears, more and more students arrive, and the atmosphere shifts from one of study to one of socializing for a few minutes before the first bell. During this time, while maintaining order in the place, I also check out books (yes, a few!), calculators for the day to those who forgot theirs at home, noise-cancelling headphones to those who need silence to study, whiteboard pens to those who need to work with a study group in the collaborative spaces, and any and every art supply for projects. Students likely will ask me to read and comment on papers that are due later that day. Students will ask me for research help, help with the printers, help figuring out when a teacher has office hours, and whether they should go to Sonoma State or Cal Poly Pomona (or Santa Clara or LMU or Brown or Bowdoin or any other permutation). I fix a stapler or a hole puncher or a printer. Then school starts and another library faculty member comes on for an hour or so while I go to my office and try to catch up.

In my office, I pay invoices, evaluate usage of our various subscription databases, research new books that fill gaps in our collection and order them, plan work for student workers, schedule library staff for irregular calendars or when one has to be out for an extended conference, retreat, or illness, take some time to think about what the library faculty is doing and give props where props are frequently due and guidance where it's needed, build informational literacy lessons for me and library faculty to deliver in classrooms, assess success of our library offerings, answer so many emails, work on materials and support for the program/class that I co-lead, send overdue notices, write library newsletters, send out information about a faculty discussion group I co-lead, work on vision and strategy for continuing to move the library forward, read some professional texts. And more.

Later in the day I'll be on the desk for two more big chunks of time and work with students. Frequently, I'll run upstairs to a history or science or language or religion classroom (ironically, never English) as soon as I'm off the desk again in order to lead a class on a research-based lesson. Then I'll run to the class I co-teach and sometimes get teary over the beauty of the students' learning and challenges. Then back to the library desk or office.

After school, I usually have a meeting. Once a month, the meeting is with other department heads and our boss; other times it will be with the Writing Across the Curriculum committee I chair, or with students in the Outdoors or Book Clubs that I moderate, or with a colleague with whom I'm collaborating on a project, or with the team of faculty and students with whom I'll be on retreat the following week.

That's what I get paid for. At 3:30, I leave work to go home and begin the work that is essential to me for which there is no payment: shopping for groceries and cooking, step-moming (or bonus-moming, depending on your perspective), walking the dog and feeding and cleaning up after two critters, networking the neighborhood via the garden group I started or other means to help build and maintain a healthy local community, working in my garden or at the pottery studio, cleaning.

Years ago, I thought I was busy. My busy-ness is different now. I no longer grade papers—the relief of that is larger than I can state. It's like removing a boulder from my brain or a skyscraper off my toes. I can think and move so much more freely. But, the variety that is part of my every day is so much wider, and the community I serve daily, both in my work and in my home, larger. These roles take creativity and care in different ways than I've experienced before.

As a result of this, I haven't written much. My lack of writing makes me feel constipated with words and ideas. I have so much I need to get out and I'm not sure when or how it will all be released. It will be though. I must be patient with myself.

Because, if I've learned anything in the last few years, a big part of my job is to love myself.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Floors and Ceilings

I'm in the downstairs bedroom, a room tucked behind the floor level garage and below the kitchen and master bedroom of the second floor, which is the main living area of the house. The furniture that furnishes every room but this one is either in the garage or under tarps behind the house. As I type, sitting on a bed that used to be Scott's when he was single, the ceiling above me shakes and pounds. Reggie-the-cat and Indiana-the-dog are also exiled to this room with us for the next two weeks, under the shuttering ceiling.

We're getting our floors done: refinishing the wood floors and replacing the ugly, contractor-grade kitchen tile with wood to match the rest of the flooring. We are living downstairs while this is happening.

The job has been on the books with the flooring company for months, but in the last couple weeks Scott and I plotted and planned how to make this work well. We hired day laborers through San Francisco's Day Laborers' Collective and mapped out where we'd put things. We thought about what kind of meals we'd be able to eat with limited access to our kitchen. How we'd make sure Indiana had room for his crate. How we'd set up the television so we could watch Season 5 of The Great British Baking Show. Yesterday, after the day laborers had helped us move our heavy furniture, we removed everything else from the main floor, we covered with tarps what was outside to protect it against the weather, and we set up the downstairs to be livable. We even went on a little walk. We congratulated ourselves on how much we had accomplished and how well we had worked together.

Neither of us slept well last night. We were in a bed that should be familiar, but is smaller than our regular bed and we've grown accustomed to space. Reggie yowled mightily a couple times to let us know he wasn't happy about our new arrangement. While I slept, I made room for the cat, which left little room for Scott. The only creature mellow and flexible was Indiana, who snoozed comfortably in his crate.

This morning, we woke up cranky but excited for what was to happen. Scott left for work. I started to think about how to set up a little outdoor kitchenette to make these couple weeks even easier. The first worker arrived at about 8:30am and we greeted each other cheerfully. He set to work prepping the kitchen for tile demolition. From down below, I could hear the screech of his tape dispenser, the refrigerator being rolled out of its spot, and the wonky door noises of our dishwasher.

Then, I heard yelling. He bellowed, "Hello?!? I need help!" It took me a moment to realize he was calling me, the only other person in the house, but when I did run upstairs, I found him desperately trying to control a water hose that sprayed all over the kitchen and had already made a lake of the kitchen floor.

The shut off valve for the kitchen appliances had failed, so though the worker thought he had turned the water off before he detached the dishwasher hose, he hadn't. There was no way to turn off the water under the sink, so I had to run downstairs and turn off the water mainline.

Now, we have no sinks. Or showers. Or toilets.

I think I can replace the faulty valve this evening when the workers leave; I certainly hope I can. But, I'm certain it's not the last hiccup with the floors. It's only Day One. I better not have hit the ceiling of my patience yet.