Sow There! Growing enthusiasm for winter garden lessons Nov. 9, 2018

Tuskan gale, growing nicely last year. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
November 9, 2018 at 4:30 am

Since you asked … Yes, my students are learning about plants. Some days I am reminded that my enthusiasm is contagious. Weeks ago, I brought a hyacinth vase into the classroom with a dull, gray bulb perched just above the waterline. When I toured the room with the vase, even I was not impressed. The glass container went atop a high shelf, away from the reach of curiosity.

We’re learning about months of the year, days of the week, etc. I couldn’t help but give an overview of the crops that grow in this area and the work farmers do each season.

I spent 17 years writing about local farming, and I’ve toured most local crops during most seasons. It would feel like a shame to let all of that information go to waste.

When I described spring, I talked about the small planes twirling through the sky, flying low above six inches of water. Ripples spread across the smooth surface of the flooded fields; rice scattered like a hard rain. The descriptions of autumn included trees shaken by vehicles that looked like they should be on the moon. I described the lobster-like claw and how nearly every nut falls to the ground in seconds. These kids may not have seen local farming in action, but they certainly saw it in their imaginations.

When we worked on an art project — the life cycle of a sunflower — it was hardly a stretch to revisit the hyacinth bulb, still unimpressive, but now with roots growing into the water.

The children appeared mildly interested, and I tucked the vase away, again in plain view.

One day, one of the boys tugged at my arm with excitement.

“Miss Hacking, Miss Hacking. At lunch you should walk around the room with your vase. The roots have grown!”

I am not certain that any of the other children were impressed, but he and I knew the moment was magical.

If you’re thinking about what to buy me for Christmas … I would like a Costco-sized bag of miniature paperwhite bulbs, and perhaps an amaryllis or two. Throw in several bags of clean pebbles from the dollar store and some shallow planting containers, I might add you to my list of Valentines.

Planting winter veggies

I always try to time the planting of winter greens for the days right before a good rain. Sadly, the rains should have been here by now. Instead, we’ve had days that reached 80 degrees. If I had known the weather would hold, I would have continued to water the mystery squash growing along my fence line.

I still recommend placing seeds of spinach and kale in the ground right about now. The garden books also recommend planting broccoli. However, I’ve had nothing but mediocre luck with this cruciferous vegetable. Broccoli sits in the ground all winter, growing imperceptibly. Then it bolts and makes flowers. Last year I learned you can eat the leaves. This is nice, I suppose. However, I would far prefer to eat Tuscan baby Kale.

This particular seed packet is worth the investigation. If you harvest often in the early spring the leaves keep coming, small and not stringy like the kale you now and hate. When the plants get larger and woody you can go through the rigmarole of massaging the leaves so that the more mature kale is edible.

Two weeks ago, we planted spinach and kale in our school garden. I checked Monday and the sprouts were about an inch high, just in time for our lessons on measurement.

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Sow There! Rose show and memories of gardenias, Nov. 2, 2018

Roses from the Handsome Woodsman’s memorial. (Photo by Heather Hacking)

















A long time ago, I had a short conversation with a friend. She was walking toward a blue time of the year, the season when someone in her life had died. I know now that she was sharing because she hoped for a little extra kindness in the days that followed.

But I was the wrong person, at least at that time.

“How many years has it been since he died,” I felt the need to ask.

Years. More than a decade.

She likely read the confusion in my face. That was a very long time ago, and certainly did not merit melancholy each and every winter.

A few weeks ago, Facebook sent me a friendly reminder that it is time to hold my own sadness in my hand.

“Here’s a picture from 2 years ago,” Facebook notified me with cheerful nonchalance.

“You remember that night, right?”

Yes, I do.

It was our anniversary. In the photo, the Handsome Woodsman looked especially handsome as we celebrated five years from the day of our first date.

The hasty image was captured exactly two weeks before he died in the car accident that left black skid marks along Highway 99, just north of Meridian Road.

Thanks Facebook. I might have forgotten the bowl of delicately prepared vegetables at Leon’s Bistro, or the way the buckles of his suspenders reflected candlelight.

Facebook was right. That night was worth remembering.

Last week I attended an event with a guest speaker. Part of the man’s story was about being in a car accident. The man lived and three people died.

A friend texted me later that night.

“I was oblivious tonight that the details of the car accident may have been upsetting to you,” she wrote.

It wasn’t the details of the accident, I wrote in reply.

“What affected me more,” I wrote, “was seeing your boyfriend’s hand reach out to touch your knee and knowing Dave’s big paw would have been draped across my shoulder.”

Little moments of “what if …” happen all the time, and not tied to tales of tragedy. This week it was a gardenia bush. I walked by the white flowers at dusk and remembered that Dave would always, always, always, pick me a gardenia flower, even if he had to stretch his long arm into someone else’s yard.

Will picking myself a gardenia always make me smile and always make me a little bit sad?

I hope so.

Nov. 1 may always remain my personal “Day of the Dead.” This week we celebrate all Saints Day and Dia de Los Muertos. Both are days of celebration.

Two years ago, about this time, I lost someone very important to me. I’m telling you because I may need a bit of extra kindness in the days that follow.

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Sow There! Math and other reasons to grow out of season, Oct. 19, 2018

Sugar snap pea seedlings rise above the soil. (Heather Hacking — Contributed photo)

PUBLISHED: October 19, 2018

If you have children or grandchildren, please help them grow sugar snap peas. You can fill a paper bag with hundreds of bulk seeds at Wilbur’s Seed and Feed on Meyers Street in Chico, Place a few in a dish with half a tablespoon of water. Check the water each day.

In about three days the magic begins to happen. There’s nothing like a thick, perfectly obvious seedling to teach the life cycle of a plant. Bonus that they serve examples of green snap peas in the school cafeteria.

If you want to add in some reading comprehension to your garden lesson, read Jack and the Beanstalk later that night.

When I brought in the sugar snap pea seeds, my students didn’t really know what was in store for them. Neither did I. This is not the right time to plant them.

I just knew I had seeds going to waste in my cupboard and I should take them to school. When I showed the children the sprouts, they looked mildly interested. Some noticed them when they were washing their hands at the sink.

I teach at a charter school and my children eat lunch in my classroom. A few weeks ago, I announced that the first children who finished their lunch and cleaned up their desks could help plant the seedlings in soil.

Most of the children didn’t hear me. A few did hear me. Those few managed to clean up their desks at a speed for which I would not have previously believed they were capable.

I had intended to only grow five plants in the classroom. That’s because I had only five small plastic pots in a pile at the side of my shed.

A garden volunteer stopped by the class and I bragged about my seedlings. Soon more pots appeared.

Most importantly, more children learned how to clean up their lunch quickly.

Now the question is what to do with these beauties. The plants are balanced precariously on a chair in a south-facing window. It’s the wrong season to grow them. The happy tendrils are ready to grab onto something. The children still have work to do to prepare the planting area. The plants might die over the winter.

But I can’t be bothered with realistic details. The plants are beautiful just as they are.

Magic days

You remember what a magical place a garden can be when you’re looking through new eyes. Recently we had our first real work day, if you can call it that.

Three adults were ready to guide young hands in some serious weed-yanking. I had crammed in a lesson about the life cycle of a plant — from seed of life, the taking of nutrients, air, water and sun, then the full circle of seed production.

That information may or may not have been absorbed by young minds. However, I am certain that the class wanted to be outdoors to see things for themselves.

This was our first foray into the actual garden. The children were gentle at first, as if walking into a postcard. White “butterflies” glided through the air and green tomatoes clung to the tall plants. One white flying creature (a cabbage moth if you haven’t already guessed), landed on a boy’s finger and stayed there for a long time.

I think I saw this scene in a Disney cartoon, with Snow White singing in a lovely soprano voice.

Another boy yanked some weeds, but was soon digging in the soil with a stick. He kept digging because he kept finding things — a worm, a slug, an earwig. A crowd gathered to view these new wonders. I followed the lead of the garden moms, who asked children to bring snails and slugs to a bucket, where the living creatures would be removed from the garden.

Two weeks later, the garden adventure included adding heaps of fresh soil to the garden beds. We had intended to plant seeds of spinach and kale. Yet getting their hands dirty was so much fun we ran out of time.

I might need to get my kids out there sooner than our allotted garden time. Should we shave some time from a math lesson? Is gardening more important than math? I’m thinking we’ll make a point of measuring how much the plants grow and count seed-planting as part of the equation.

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Sow There!: Second life for Vinca and a hormone recipe, Oct. 12, 2018

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The faux half wine barrel overflowrs with flowers. I love that the plant is mostly white, with one little corner with pink flowers. (Heather Hacking — Contributed photo)

PUBLISHED: October 12, 2018

Once upon a time I would spend many winter hours reading gardening books. (Remember books? Those are those things we dusted before we learned to do a Google search). I bookmarked pages and made lists. I kept a list of things I hoped to remember at the appropriate times, like when to plant seeds indoors or outdoors. I checked seed packets and counted back 12 weeks from the last frost. I learned the date of last frost in this area. It’s around April 30, my birthday, which is easy to remember

I learned a lot of things the hard way, such as not to expect much from broccoli plants. I also stopped planting tomato seeds in January in the window sill. That was just silly. You can buy two plants for five bucks in May.

All of that … and I don’t worry about gardening much anymore. I plant what I want where I know it will grow. Mostly I learned that if something doesn’t grow, there are always more seeds and plants where those came from.

This month I’m sharing a few tidbits from things I learned more recently. You can do what you want with this information. If you end up including it in a book, I’ll be happy if you buy me lunch.

Success tally sheet

Most people plant Vinca rosea as an annual. This Vinca is dramatically different than the invasive Vinca we call periwinkle. Also known as Madagascar periwinkle, Vinca rosea is sold in early spring in six-packs and has shiny leaves. The flowers are similar to Impatiens, yet will thrive in the blazing sun.

Typically, the plant melts with the first frost.

Last year was rather mild and I tried an experiment to keep my Vinca rosea alive. I had read it is technically a perennial plant, but only if you’re living in a climate like Madagascar.

My blooming treasures were growing in one of those faux wine barrels, made of hard plastic. When I saw that the nights would dip below freezing, I covered the plant with another faux resin wine barrel. Some of the leaves received damage, but for the most part, the plants survived. Then they thrived.

I moved the barrel to the entrance of my walkway. The first thing I see right now when I walk toward my front door is a flowering success. After a long day of teaching, I need that.

Just for fun, I’ll try to keep the plant for a third year. I learned that Vinca rosea goes partially dormant in the cold weather. You won’t notice, but the plant isn’t growing. At this time, its best to keep watering to a minimum to avoid fungal disease.

You can also make new plants of Vinca rosea through cuttings. Who knew? Yet, we’re getting near the window of time when this will work. The SFGate website recommends cutting a stem at a leaf base and putting the stem in fresh potting soil. Many people also use a rooting hormone to increase their success.

One of the key ingredients of rooting hormone is often a synthetic version of indolebutyric acid. (No, children, you will not be tested on that word).

Oregon State University’s Cooperative Extension online article “How to Make a Rooting Tonic“ has a step-by-step method for making a rooting tonic that includes the acid with that impossible to pronounce name.

Home hormone recipe

• Collect two cups of willow branches or three cups of willow bark. (Young branches include the highest concentrations of the acid. The branches should be fresh, not gathered from the ground).

• Cut the branches into small pieces, 3-6 inches.

• Place the pieces in a large pan.

• Boil one gallon of water and pour it over your clippings.

• Let sit for about a day.

• Pour the magic willow water into glass jars with lids (after taking out the branches). You can store the liquid for about two months.

When using the willow water, soak the tips of your plant cuttings for several hours in the willow water. The goal is to thwart bacteria, fungus and viral diseases.

Some people also dip their plants in honey, or boil water with honey before soaking stems. The “How to Make a Rooting Tonic” article also includes a few words about trying this.


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Sow There!: Making a tally of things that went right, Oct. 5, 2018

Harlequin bugs float at the surface of soapy water. The pesky invaders devastated the kale in the garden. (Heather Hacking — Contributed photo)
PUBLISHED: October 5, 2018 

Fall is a time of deep (and sometimes trivial) reflection. These days I have formed the habit of mulling things over each and every day. After seven hours as a new teacher, I spend my evenings thinking about what worked, what I should teach anew and what I have no business ever talking about again?

One of my many mentors at school, Autumn, reminds me to accept grace while realizing that I will make many mistakes. Accepting this deeply will help me to share the same attitude with my students, she advised.

She’s right about a lot of things, and she’s right about this.

I tend to make a tally of my missteps. Letting this load up on your shoulders can leave you hunched over in pain after a long day.

A new habit is to compile a nightly list of everything that went right. After a few weeks of framing things this way, I realize that most things were OK and some things were downright amazing.

It’s easy to use this same focus of the lens when looking back on my year of gardening.

My biggest green thumb victory was to allow several ratty kales plant to remain in the garden.

Before I went on vacation in mid-summer, I had been marveling at some amazing, and yet-to-be identified eggs on the underside of the kale leaves. They were like shiny jewels glimmering in the sun, I mused, before I knew better.

After my time out of town I returned and the beauties had hatched into harlequin bugs. Not just a few, but hundreds.

Some of the kale plants were already on their way out, ushered into the state of decline thanks to the unscrupulous leaf sucking of the harlequins. When I saw so many greedy bugs, I grabbed a bucket of soapy water. The tub looked like a huge vat of harlequin bug soup.

Cool-weather kale plants don’t look pretty in mid-summer, and they didn’t look pretty with bugs crawling here and there. I tore most of the plants from the ground.

But here’s where I did something right!

I read that harlequins not only love kale, they’ll take tomatoes as a second-favorite snack. With some semblance of (almost accidental) wisdom, I allowed a few kale plants to remain.

Let me tell you — I was a harlequin bug smashing fool for the remainder of the summer. I can’t begin to tell you how many adult bugs and egg clusters I smashed between my bare fingers. Thousands would not be an exaggeration. They love kale. They gathered on kale plants. I knew where to find them.

Hardly a day would go by that I would not find something to kill. The kale plants became more and more devastated, the leaves like ancient papyrus found in a secret cave. However, by having the kale as the plant to lure them, my tomatoes remained intact.

Recently, I was out in the garden at my school with the kids and the adult volunteers.

The children marveled at the joys of nature, and saw a bug on one of the plants.

I instinctively reached for it – yanking my hand away just in time to allow the children to enjoy the beautiful red and black colors. One volunteer and I winked at each other. I knew she would have also smashed that bug if she had spotted it on her plants at home.

I guess this experience counts as two victories – knowing when to hold them and knowing when to fold them (between your fingers).

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Sow There!: You can smell fall in the air Sept. 21, 2018

Zucchini is actually a fruit, and third graders enjoy it even more when it’s been cut into fun shapes. (Photo by Heather Hacking)
PUBLISHED: September 21, 2018

I felt the first rustle of autumn while picking up twigs from the lawn. The first fall wind is gentle and shy, nudges you with short whispers. The wind reminded me that I needed to cover some outdoor wires with electrical tape before the first rain.

Early fall has a certain smell — an accumulation of the scent of spring and summer, perhaps. More likely, its simply decay, like when the odor of an overripe banana can fill your entire house. Regardless of its origins or composition, I like the smell of early fall. But then again, I love the smell of compost as well.

I have heard that humans (and undoubtedly birds and other animals) connect with smell and memory in a way we may not completely understand. I looked it up and the “olfactory bulb” is connected to areas of the brain that are linked to emotion and memory. When the Handsome Woodsman died, I kept his shirts carefully covered, knowing one day they would no longer contain his scent. You might smell a mango in the grocery store and have gooey memories of your Hawaiian honeymoon.

Humans aren’t isolated in this memory/smell business. Something is going on in a dog’s brain when they return to that same spot, again and again.

Then, of course, there are the birds. In a month or so those migrating waterfowl will be having a hootenanny at wild places like Llano Seco Wildlife Refuge. Do they smell fall as well?

And why do they gather for so long?

Now that I’m a teacher, I think I have that figured out. I know that it takes a long, long, long time to teach a group of third graders how to walk in a straight line (without talking or touching the walls). I can’t even imagine how long it takes to organize a group of wild geese to fly in the same direction in a perfect V-formation.


Fall, and my olfactory bulb, reminded me that it’s time to think about spring-blooming bulbs — daffodils and hyacinth. (You can plant tulips as well, but you need to know they won’t bloom a second year in this climate).

If you haven’t purchased spring-blooming bulbs yet, go shopping. Many stores begin selling them in August, which is too early for me. However, the best selections might be gone if you wait until late November.

The students in my class don’t even know how excited I am that soon they will see hyacinth bulbs, with dangling jelly-fish roots, growing in hyacinth vases. I have them in my refrigerator right now. If you buy pre-chilled bulbs, you can force hyacinth bulbs in the windowsill right now. The vases are nicest to really give those white roots a chance to shine.  I’ve also had luck with shallow glass bowls partially filled with pebbles. (You can buy clean, small rocks at the dollar store). Better Homes and Garden recommends wearing gloves when handling the bulbs because they can irritate your skin and eyes.

The bulbs should flower in about six weeks. If you want to have blooms at Thanksgiving, you can wait to start the process in mid-October. If my classroom show-and-tell works as I hope, I’ll put another batch into vases again next month.

Tomato frenzy

The zucchini growing in my back yard have behaved predictably. I have harvested one zuke in the past week and a half. The tomatoes, however, are ripening ridiculously. I do not know how salsa with cilantro was ever invented, because cilantro goes to seed in hot weather and is long gone by the time the harvest for tomatoes is robust. For this reason, I buy cilantro at the farmers market and freeze. You can smash a bunch of leaves into an ice cube tray and cover with plastic, then transfer to another container once the cubes are frozen solid.

School garden

Our school garden, however, is still rocking. Last week our garden gals, Jackie and Michelle, brought our third-grade class some veggies. Of course, I used the opportunity to teach children that zucchini is actually a fruit. One of our amazing moms, Angie, cut hearts and stars in the middle of green fruit slices for an afternoon classroom snack. The veggies were a big hit, the hummus dip not so much. This was fine with me. Leftover hummus makes a great snack for a starving teacher.

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Sow There!: Food and water use – you may wish you had not wondered 9/14/18

How much water does it take to grow inedible mystery squash? Too much. (Photo by Heather Hacking)
September 14, 2018 at 3:25 am

Existential zucchini crisis

Growing zucchini,

All summer, last summer, the summer before.

Hovering over raised bed

hose gripped

wishing for the end

of watering

or whatever.

Leaves large, deep green


like the year before.


like the year before the year before

And before …

Water ever flowing

Years slipping

Always growing

zucchini, hose holding, water flowing.


Saturday, I wandered through the farmers market — again. It’s a habit to go to the market. Maybe there will be something I should buy. The sun’s out. It’s Saturday. After buying more children’s books at the Friends of the Library sale, my car almost drives itself to Second and Wall streets.

I thought about buying zucchini. The fruit was shiny and I had two dollars in my pocket. My stomach was growling. I should support local farmers.

Then I remembered I have two, perhaps the last two, home-grown zucchini in the crisper drawer of my fridge.

It’s near the end of the season, and my main form of post-teaching relaxation is to habitually stand near the raise bed watering zucchini and tomatoes. I still water the sun-dried kale, merely because the plants house harlequin bugs. If the kale is there, I can kill the bugs.

Garden habits are a funny thing.

Two years ago, we were saving water due to drought and now I’m standing over my raised bed pouring gallons of water into a black plastic truck bed liner filled with soil, hoping to get two or three or six additional zucchinis before the first frost.

I’m teaching math these days and if you calculate the water use per home grown tomato, you’ll understand why it feels like we’re standing near our raised beds with a hose in our hands for nearly the entire summer., a website that does not hide its bias, will help you calculate the water footprint for common foods. They also note that once you add in water costs and energy costs for food shipped around the world, the resource impact adds up quickly.

I found this information fascinating and have stolen their research for the information below. The amounts of water are based upon one pound of food:

Lettuce, 15 gallons; cabbage, 24 gallons; cucumbers, 28 gallons; potatoes, 30 gallons; oranges, 55 gallons; apples, 83 gallons; bananas, 102 gallons; corn, 107 gallons; wheat bread, 154 gallons; avocado, 220 gallons; tofu, 244 gallons; rice, 403 gallons; olives, 522 gallons.

Chocolate, 2,847 gallons. They just couldn’t help themselves. They had to throw in chocolate as a comparison.

Oh, and zucchini? Thirty-one gallons.

I dare not calculate the water use for the mystery squash plant growing in the compost pile, which has become entirely ornamental.

You can also feel badly about your dinner tonight by checking out this cool interactive infographic from the LA Times, Another source is an article in the Huffington Post, footprint_n_5952862.html. Some of the data varies. A pound of chicken, for example, requires about 588 gallons of water, which surprisingly is close to chickpeas, which need 501 gallons. Then you can consider beef, at 1,700-1,800 gallons per pound.

If there’s any moral, other than me having fun by writing bad poetry, I think the lesson is to yank your summer veggies when they stop producing. You can buy veggies at the farmers market and stop watching the water flow from the hose.—

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Sow There!: Snails and tomatoes, a great combo for the classroom 9/7/18

September 7, 2018 at 3:52 am

My third graders love fresh vegetables. We eat lunch in the classroom, and one day I was walking between the aisles demonstrating healthful eating habits.

I was about to make an announcement that one of the children had asked to share something with the class.

“Class, it’s time for sharing.”

Hands shot up into the air.

The children naturally thought it was time for me to share my snap peas. I obliged.

This inspired me to bring in my excess tomatoes. Each day I slice them up and the arms shoot up in the air.

If you’re growing tomatoes in the back yard, you also likely have enough tomatoes to feed a large classroom. You may also have some unwelcome backyard visitors — tomato hornworms.

Hornworm habits

The University of California Cooperative Extension website states that midsummer is when these monstrous munching caterpillars hit their peak. You’ll also see a second generation right about now. I snipped two hornworms in half with my pruning shears several weeks ago, which is a record low number for my yard.

In the past, I had the luxury of spending 10 minutes or more chasing these camouflage beasts with a careful eye. First you notice dark green blobs of worm poop on a leaf. Soon you’ll spy some barren tomato plant limbs. Keep looking and the ugly creatures will come into view and it’s a surprise you could have missed it during the first 20 sweeps of the eyes.

If you’ve ever been up close with these ugly guys, you’ll notice the hideous mouth, the masticating machine that drives the green leaf destroyer.

You’ll sometimes find baby hornworms, but I mostly find them when they are up to five inches long and have eaten four times their weight in tomato stems.

If you spot one, don’t be too quick to kill. Take your time. Take a good look. They’re fascinating to watch and they don’t bite. They move slowly, giving your plenty of time to enjoy the creature that simply wants to eat and eat until turning into something that looks like a burrowing, mummified pinky finger.

As heinous as hornworms can be, please think twice about using chemical control.

Handpicking is easy if you just give it a few minutes. Insecticides can harm bees, and you need bees to pollinate many things in your garden, like the mystery squash growing out of the compost pile.

To the birds

Last week I spotted obvious signs of a hornworm hidden somewhere in the overgrown tangle of tomato vines.

• Dark green blobs of worm poop? Affirmative.

• Barren branches with leaves stripped? Yes, indeed.

But where was the worm?

I looked and looked, but I did not have the time to be a diligent worm detective.

There’s a moment that arrives when you shrug your shoulders and create a fantasy in your head. This hornworm must have been devoured by a bird. Yes, that’s it. My plants will be safe because that hornworm was obviously whisked away into the air, perhaps taken to a nest where a family of chirpers gobbled him greedily.

Birds into action

It’s not unlikely. Hornworms and bird beaks are known to bump heads.

Several garden chat websites noted you can try to lure birds to your tomatoes by posting a makeshift bird feeder. A tuna can filled with birdseed and mounted on a small post should do the trick. The birds arrive and soon spot what you would have spent half an hour searching for with your human eyes.

I read somewhere that raptors actually have specialized vision that allows them to see mice urine from a distance. It glows a different color letting them move in for the kill. I’m not sure if this is the case with birds and hornworms, but it makes me feel better about not being able to spot the buggers quickly.

Show and tell

Last week I was thrilled to learn about æstevation, a form of hibernation snails go through when there is lack of water. A few days later, one of the children in my third-grade class was discovered with a handful of snails.

In hindsight, I should have told her to keep the snails outdoors.

“Great,” I said, “I had hoped to track down some snails for a thing I want to do. Can I have one?”

I dropped the other two snails out the window when she wasn’t looking.

For about two days I kept her snail captive in an enclosed, yellow pencil sharpener. Later that week it was my time for show-and-tell. The snail had sealed up tight, creating a tight gluey goo over its normally oozy section.

First, I showed the children the sealed snail. Then I asked them to make predictions about what they thought would happen if I put some water and the snail in a small bowl.

They’re smart. They figured it out.

Just a few minutes later, the snail was racing to escape the bowl. Unfortunately, I had to resist the students’ request to keep the mollusk as our class pet.

The children were mildly impressed with æstevation. I was thrilled.

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Sow There!: Plants of mystery, plants of new promise, 8/31/2018

A monster of mystery. (Photo by Heather Hacking)
August 31, 2018 at 3:27 am

Once again, I learned something the hard way. At least this time I learned that growing a lesson can be a beautiful experience.

For those who don’t want to read the entire story and choose the summary: Nothing good grows from a compost pile.

Regular readers may recall the May article about the mystery squash growing in the compost pile. I shouldn’t be surprised that the greenery grew to such large proportions. As far as nutrients go, you can’t get better soil than rotting refuse. There may be four, five or many more plants crammed into that overgrown corner.

My best guess was that the mystery vine was Delicata squash, which I tossed on the pile and barely covered with soil.

My research turned up some verbiage from Cornell University, which states that Delicata seeds will produce plants true to the mother plant. That information turned out to be about as close to rubbish as the place where the plants grew.

The fruit has been mysterious and disappointing, but the plants are lovely. The vines clambered in and around the cheap metal fence, providing a little privacy from the passersby in my alley. The leaves are rich green, as large as a bread plate and heart-shaped. I watched as sturdy, black carpenter bees arrived in early morning to soak their legs in sticky pollen. The vines overran the fence and twice I had to drag them out of the middle of the alley, to protect my squash from being squashed by vehicle traffic.

I dreamed of buckets of Delicata.

I’m not certain, but I suspect Chuck Quackenbush must be hiding somewhere in the vines.

The plant produced, of this I am certain. Several little pumpkin-like specimens arrived. Other hanging ornaments slightly resemble acorn squash, with smoother skin. Then there are the warty dogs – objects with un-popped bubbles on yellow skin. I took a yellow dog to my classroom and the kids have admired it on our nature table.

Edible? Yes.

Delicious? Nope.

I did try to cook one squash that looked like my longed-for Delicata. The “delicate” attribute was lost somewhere between seed and fruit.

Why would I eat disappointing mystery fruit when I can harvest zucchini from a nearby plant at the rate of approximately one each day?

A farewell gift

Who knew such a tiny beginning to grow into such a hairy prickly beast of a cactus. (Photo by Heather Hacking)

Once upon a time, my friend Richard and I wandered around the Thursday night farmers market. Richard bought some cacti. He chose promising three-inch plants from the really cool cactus guy with the French accent, AKA Claude Geffray.

Walking around the farmers market with a prickly purchase isn’t the wisest move. If we had been less impulsive, we might have waited until we had eaten our basket of strawberries.

I could write a novella about the virtues of Richard, who has helped me through additional prickly predicaments, including installing a water heater, being my movie sidekick on lonely Saturday nights and listening to me moan about life in general until well past midnight …

You can just take my word for it, he’s one of those truly great friends.

When he told me he was leaving town, I did not try to dissuade him. When a person has learned to listen for the next best step, and a life adventure presents itself, a wise man or woman takes that next best step.

His trust in this decision is inspiring.

This week we said some formal goodbyes. The tiny cacti were a gift to my garden. After many years, they’re too big to take on a boat to Alaska.

Richard deposited two oversized metal buckets near my rusted wheelbarrow. The plants, just like our friendship, have grown. One plant is a silvery white, tall like an Italian Cypress but covered with hairy spikes. We called it “Cousin It.”

The other, also grown to a rather large size, is similar to a prickly pear cactus, but with fewer prickles. I’m glad to have the gifts, but I will miss the gift-giver.

My prediction is that I will still need Richard’s good advice. When I call him in Alaska at midnight, his time zone will be one hour later.

I don’t know where I collected this quote, but it is by Shakespeare. I remember reading it in about fourth grade, savoring the words and rewriting them in red ink with my father’s manual typewriter.

Maybe I was saving those words for today:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

or lose our ventures.”

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Sow There!: Discover the connection — clean cars and snails, 8/24/2018

August 24, 2018 at 4:17 am

I’m driving a Prius these days and I feel pretty darn smug about it. The school where I began teaching this year is just a few miles away. I fill up the tank when I’m on the south side of town, and a smile to myself when the bill is nine bucks.

I bought the car used from one of my delightful friends. She knows I’ve been busy, so we agreed to meet for lunch every time the tires need to be rotated. This ensures we’ll see each other about every 6,000 miles.

Look closely, beneath the tiny specks, this snail has sealed itself up tight for the summer. (Photo by Heather Hacking)

Driving a Prius has its perks and drawbacks. People literally honk and wave their arms dramatically. This is not out of joy for saving the planet. Usually they are driving very large vehicles. It might be my own bias, but it seems like they have been waiting for me to accelerate slowly so they can make a horn-assisted comment about my less-than-hasty style. The noise often occurs on the Esplanade, where the speed limit is 27 mph. If you drive 30 on the Esplanade you’ll race to the next stop light and wait for the light to change.

I admit, even on the open road I drive only five miles over the speed and I obey posted speed limits around town. However, I drove this way even before I drove a hybrid. Maybe the stereotype for slow-pokey Prius drivers is true, only because people who buy them don’t care about torque.

When people honk at me, I like to play a game in my head. If I continue to drive my normal pace, will I catch up to them at the next stop light? Usually I do. I smile to myself and don’t turn their way. Sometimes I am a car’s length ahead.

When I met Mary, the previous owner of my Prius, for the tire rotation, I was embarrassed about how dingy the gray gas-saver had become. I’ve been hauling teacher books in and out of the car for weeks. The back seat is strewn with a plastic model of the planets, miscellaneous wrappers from contact paper and empty cardboard boxes. I haven’t washed the car for weeks because soot had been falling from the sky. The vehicle had a fine patina making the color more charcoal than gray.

After lunch and a long chat, Mary drove me from lunch to the garage. I was delighted to hop into her car and note that her ride was also filthy on the outside. When we were suffering in a drought my car blended right in with all those other dirty vehicles. Now I have no excuse. I took the car to a drive-up self-wash the next day.

More news from the ivy

A few weeks ago, I let loose with a long rant about Ivy. It’s nice that when you publicly air a complaint, you often hear from others who have suffered even more hardship. Wendy wrote that she has been battling ivy for 15 months. The infestation covered a 40-foot fence, and she hired some guys to come and grind out ivy stumps. Good luck, Wendy. Robert wrote that it took him three years to get to the point where he wasn’t sweating over unwanted ivy.

Amanda wrote that she rented a weed wacker with metal blades. If you’re not in rocky soil, the blades can cut through the soil and into the roots, she said. I haven’t tried this yet. I’m waiting to hear how it works out for Wendy.

However, I found something interesting while I was digging around in my unwanted vines. Well, snails aren’t exactly that interesting. Naturally, when I saw the snails, I started to stomp on them. These snails weren’t budging. They were as hard as rocks. Were they petrified snails? When I investigated, I saw that the gooey stuff on the bottom of the snail was dried, actually sealed shut. It was as if some kid had plugged up the hole with rubber cement.

I always wondered what happened to snails in the summer, and why they come out during the first rain as if they’re late for a party.

It’s called aestivation, or estivation if you don’t’ want to get fancy with that “ae” combination. Just as you would guess, the snail shuts down when its dry. Just like food packed for backpacking, everything changes when you add water. One study discussed on Wikipedia states that a snail can wake up after 10 minutes of having water cross its path. Several insects were listed on the aestivation list, as well as crocodiles, desert tortoises and some frogs. Another on the list is the fat-tailed dwarf lemur. I included a link so you can see I am not making this name up,

Of course, this brings me to the question: If I had washed my Prius on my lawn, how many snails would have slithered back to life?

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