Sow There! What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes, July 30, 2020

Vibrant, homegrown tomatoes. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
July 31, 2020 at 3:30 a.m.

The time of the great tomato harvest is upon us. This time of year, I often write four columns in a row about red tomatoes, followed in the fall by eight columns about green tomatoes.

I love tomatoes as much as anyone, but as often as I write about them, I seldom eat them.

Tomatoes are best eaten red and warm, one after another, as if you’re on the show “Survivor” trying to eat your fill before someone suggests you share with the group.

When I eat tomatoes, I’m standing in my yard.

Many gardeners know that tomatoes are best when they are not refrigerated. They lose their flavor and texture when cooled, and end up tasting like tomatoes you would loathe buying at the grocery store. Yet, sometimes you get a huge batch of ripe and ready fruit all at once.

The Steamy Kitchen website suggests keeping tomatoes at room temperature if you’re going to gobble them up within a few days. Cooling is OK if you pop the ripest of fruit in the cool storage, and then eat them within four days. When you take them out, let them return to room temperature; Some, but not all, of the flavor, will return.

The modern bad habit of cooling tomatoes is exactly why store-bought tomatoes taste like a communion wafer, and why summer fruit is such a treat.

When I taught third grade I brought tomatoes to the classroom and tried to teach the class John Denver’s version of the “tomato song,” The children laughed at me, and did not sing because their mouths were full. This did not stop me from dancing and singing by myself.

Too much of a great thing

I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but I have plenty of tomatoes, thank you very much.

Recently I visited Mandy and Larry in Red Bluff for a backyard barbecue. Another gracious host was Eloise, age 6, who must have soon sensed that I love all things garden. Eloise gave me an extended tour of the yard, the birdhouses, the cement alligator, the spider shack, her grandfather’s music studio, the place where the dog leaves droppings … She was queen of her domain and clearly enjoying sharing every fact she knew.

Due to the pandemic, the gathering was outside, which meant the tour could have been completed within minutes. That’s why we toured the yard three times.

You can learn a lot about your friends when their loquacious 6-year-old granddaughter has an audience and wants to extend the conversation.

The family lost their home in the Camp Fire, and bought a “new home,” whose hearthstone was set in 1898. Each time I visit, there’s a new home improvement project underway.

Mandy and Larry are so madly in love that it could make you sick if their happiness was not contagious. It seems like everyone within their circle is kind and thoughtful to each other. I’ll need to visit more often so I get in the habit of sharing love and joy with all those I encounter.

Before the visit, I had worked most of the day organizing my new classroom in Tehama County. With all that busy, busy work, I had forgotten to eat. I set down my purse and demanded food before Mandy could finish setting out the appetizers.

Perhaps the family concluded I was incapable of feeding myself. When I left, they tried to send me on my way with potato salad and fruit from their backyard trees.

Their tomatoes were stacked in a mound, in various sizes and colors. I could take as many as I wanted, they urged, grabbing large containers.

Ummm. No thanks.

Someday I may invest in one of those portable freezers, where other people’s summer fruit can be stored. But for now, my freezer has met with maximum capacity.

Storage tips

Tomatoes, by the way, can be frozen whole, which takes almost zero prep.

Some folks like to dip them in boiling water and yank the skin away. I don’t bother. In winter, when you’re trying to find room for frozen pizza and leftover turkey, you’ll find the frozen tomatoes shoved in the back covered with a haze of frost. Plop them in a skillet with zucchini and lots of garlic and you have a mighty fine stovetop stew.

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Sow There! Oh, the places we hope to go, July 25, 2020

Once upon a time, Mom was making plans for her next adventures. Now she sits at home sewing masks. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
July 24, 2020 

When a teacher plans a lesson, she tries to build an “anticipatory set.” This means helping students to access background knowledge, providing an overview of what will be learned and hopefully building some excitement. It’s sort of like the “pre-show” before the show.

With only a few weeks until school begins, I’m prancing around in my personal anticipatory set. Fractions swim through my head as I’m washing dishes. A snippet of a good idea will arrive, and I’ll rush to my computer to save the idea. Before bed I read children’s books, placing sticky notes on pages that will create cliff-hangers. I can hear my future students groan — “You can’t stop there! What happens next?”

I don’t know my children, but I’m thinking about them all the time. I’ll teach them socially-distanced, noncompetitive games. I’ll pre-record videos so I can sing songs. Maybe they’ll talk me into buying a class gecko.

In other moments, I’m feeling woefully unprepared.

Then Melissa sent me a text message.

Into action.

Spiral notebooks were finally on sale for 25 cents. I rushed to the big-box office supply store. The purchase limit is 30 notebooks. I was wearing a mask so the clerk won’t recognize me when I return for more. I must have been giddy because I decided to buy each of my future students a 50-cent box of crayons. These are needed. We can no longer share school supplies.

Of course, it’s more fun to dream about triumphant classroom moments than to wonder about the uncertainty of classrooms under threat of COVID-19. My school plans to begin with in-class instruction, with the understanding that things may change quickly. I will continue to dream. I will continue to plan. Above all, I will simply hope for the best.

Clipped wings

“Adults are just outdated children.” – Dr. Seuss

Thinking about my future students helps distract me from the fact that I’m mourning the loss of my parent’s retirement fun.

Life has many cycles. My parents spent many years in their youth ensuring all of my basic needs were met. I’m hoping they live a long, long time and I will be able to return the favor.

In my teens, I was eager to put some footsteps between my life and my childhood home. I traveled, and I did not invite my parents.

In my 20s, when I visited my folks I piled all my dirty laundry into my car so I could wash my clothes.

In my 30s, my parents complained I did not visit often enough — and even said I could have as much quality time with their washing machine as I needed.

Now I just wish I could give them a hug.

When my parents both retired, they started off on their own adventures. For years, Dad and Lynda traveled to bodies of water where Dad could scuba dive. Mom and Steve prefer to pack up the RV and dip their feet in a lake.

I have watched endless slideshows, with commentary, as they rehashed visits to island nations or classic car shows.

Now my parents are grounded. They watch movies on their huge televisions, and Dad watches too much news. It’s a big day when the Schwan’s deliveryman sets the box of ice cream on the front porch.

The pandemic cuts slices through all of our lives, through all generations. Watching my parents lose months (and who knows, a year?) of well-deserved fun really makes me mad.

I want the best for them — to travel, to explore, to uncover the depths of their unfettered potential, to share with others, to add lines to their crow’s feet and to sing songs while driving down some dusty highway.

Instead, they are wasting their youth.

My stepmother has pre-existing respiratory problems and is resigned to the fact that she may not leave her yard until epidemiologists announce a vaccine.

When I visit my mother, we have a “safety talk.” Where have I been? Who have I been with? Did I hug anyone? Were our mouths and noses covered?

Even after full disclosure, we sit on Mom’s back porch, six feet away.

I’m excited to meet my new class of students. Yet, once school begins, I’ll see my parents more often via Zoom conferences than on the back porch eating Schwan’s ice cream.

Once upon a time, Mom was making plans for her next adventures. Now she sits at home sewing masks.

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Sow There! Summer survival mode, July 17, 2020

Nope, moving your toaster oven to the front porch to make pizza is not glamorous, but it’s a Chico survival skill. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

July 17, 2020 

July is the price we pay for living in amicable Northern California.

Most of the time, we have it pretty good. We’re a few minutes from the Sacramento River, a few hours from the mountains, and there are still places where you can let your dog run off-leash. Our towns have community events. When we attend these events we actually run into people we know.

Yet, in July it’s fairly easy to feel like living here is a mistake.

Some of those otherwise nice townfolk are cranky, or maybe it’s me. Anything left in the car will melt and nights are sweaty and sleepless. Once upon a time I would go to the grocery story merely to stand in front of an open door in the freezer section. Coronavirus has killed that thrill.

This is why civilized cultures have siestas. There’s no use in even pretending to function like a normal human being when our brains are about as slow-cooked as Gramma Dorothy’s pot roast. A nap in front of the air conditioner is about all the work that should be done from noon to two.

Yet, we stay because we’re in too much of a brain stupor to pack it up and leave. Plus, everyone knows it’s too hot to move in July.

And soon, fall arrives and memories of the summer of our discontent will fade. The gingko trees will turn an electric shade of yellow, catching those long, slanted rays of last light. Before we know it, we’re taking afternoon strolls in the neighborhood, waving at our neighbors as if we didn’t have a big fight that day when we were both hot and cranky.

Summer escapes

I will not compare my sweat-filled, pandemic-impaired life to others. Thank you, Michelle, and David, and countless others who recently bragged on social media about their weekend excursions in Fort Bragg.

Going to the rugged beach town is almost a community event. Nearly every time I visit, usually in July, I run into another Chicoan wearing flip flops and cargo shorts as they snap photos for Facebook.

If we were not sheltering in place, I might be at Lake Almanor, which is the other place you’ll bump into people with Chico State license plate holders.

It’s July. We would rather be somewhere else. Yet, one month of unbearable heat is better than 365 days of horrendous Bay Area traffic.

Summer survival

If you’ve lived here long enough, you’ve learned a few survival trips. Here are a few from my war chest.

  • Fill a cooler with blocks of ice. Rest feet in ice chest while pointing fan over the cool air. Make sure to point the airflow directly at your face.
  • Frozen two-liter bottles in the swamp cooler.
  • Eat popsicles for dinner.
  • Run through your neighbor’s sprinklers.
  • Linger in the milk section at Costco.

This week I had a solo version of a July barbecue. I had frozen pizza in the freezer, but there was no way I was going to turn on the oven indoors. I have a toaster oven, which I only use in July. Using an electrical cord, I baked half a pizza on the front porch.

Now I have room to freeze those peaches that were a gift from Dawna.

Remember your plants

My dear friend Roger called last week. He’s funny. Rather than simply pick up the phone to say hello, he makes up an excuse to call, usually a plant-related question. This time he was wondering why his cucumbers weren’t producing.

“They’re wilted,” he said, sounding a bit wilted himself. “I’ve been watering them twice a day, and nothing seems to help.”

They’re wilting, dear Roger, because it’s so hot they want to die. Cucumbers, and other plants with big leaves may wilt during the day, just like humans. I told him to check them with a flashlight after the sun went down, and likely he would note they had perked up.

Of course, as soon as I told Roger this news, the cucumbers in my raised bed died.

Move your pots

If your potted plants are looking beaten and disrespected this time of year, they may be trying to tell you something. They may be telling you they would rather die than spend another day in direct sun. Just because the gal at the nursery said the plants will survive the worst of Chico’s summer heat does not mean the plants actually prefer to be miserable.

This time of year, I try to remember to move my potted plants under one of those polymer sun shades.

You can also find the best places for sun-battered plants by checking where the stray cats nap in your yard. Chances are, your plants will prefer the shade vs. the Great Incineration.

Also, pay attention to plants in terra cotta. These faded orange pots are attractive, and they last a long time. Yet, they’re porous and the increased airflow allows the soil to dry more quickly. The air can help keep fungi and other plant boo-boos from populating the soil. Yet, I prefer plastic for most things except for cacti.

You can also find umpteen crafty ways to paint (and seal) terra cotta pots so they don’t dry quickly. However, that’s a project for any month other than July.

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Sow There! Taking on the burden of other people’s garden bounty, July 10, 2020

Doing the right thing includes helping a friend unburden a peach tree, leaning from an overabundance of fruit. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

July 10, 2020 

I refuse to compare the bounty of my garden to others. I’ll still ache with envy when I see your willowy cosmos, softly nodding toward your perfectly painted picket fence. When I see your manicured lawn, competing for the highest marks in category “park-like setting,” I’ll think of the Bermuda grass clawing its way along my gravel driveway. However, I don’t begrudge you for the overflowing, almost impossible to carry baskets filled with garden vegetables and fruit — especially if you share.

My garden suits me just fine, small and manageable. The “raised bed,” is literally a black plastic truck bed liner filled with dirt and placed at a slight angle. My entire planting area is about the size of my queen-sized bed. The fact that I am able to grow a few zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, tomato and a harlequin bug-infested mass of kale is an astounding victory.

I say, bravo (and please share) to those who are harvesting so much produce they should open a food pantry.

Thank you Helen H. for flashing your bowl of tomatoes, piles and piles of tomatoes, amazingly red tomatoes, posted on social media weeks before my green tomatoes had even a blush of red. Your follow-up photos of bags and bags of tomato sauce in vacuum-sealed bags was also inspiring. I remember touring your garden years ago. I think you have garden superpowers. You are the Gal Gadot of gardening, and I refuse to feel badly that my first Celebrity tomatoes were harvested after the summer solstice.

Thank you Diane Clark, most esteemed of mentor teachers, for gleefully posting pictures of your “zucchini boats,” when your Z.O.U.S. (Zucchini of Unusual Size) required you to bake when we should all be in a pool sipping blended drinks.

My two yellow crookneck squash will never compare because I harvested them early when I just couldn’t wait. I accidentally harvested a Delicata squash before it was even ripe.

Nope. I won’t compare my little vegetable garden to others. My cucumbers still look like gherkins, but please don’t feel smug or sorry. When I finally post photos, I’ll expect your accolades.

Eating large

Recently I was grateful to gather with a small group of women in Anina’s backyard. When I returned home that evening, I felt contentment, a feeling I embraced like a long-lost teddy bear. In isolation, I’ve tried to focus on the moments when I’m well and wonderful. Other moments, I’m feeling alone and confused about the unknowns. Feelings like these tend to accumulate like water-soaked bits of rice in the drain of a soon-to-be clogged kitchen sink. It’s a struggle to continue to pretend everything is normal when the world is no longer normal.

I needed to sit in the safety of a friend’s backyard, tip back in the lawn chair I always carry in the back of my car and be within proximity of warm and wonderful women. We literally went around the socially-distanced circle and shared one topic for which each of us struggles, followed by encouragement, non-judgmental advice and acknowledgment.

(Exhale).

While I waited for my turn to be unburdened, I munched on an amazing salad.

I might not be able to grow amazing vegetables, but I certainly can eat them. The tomato was from my own garden.

Most mornings I suck on spinach and fruit popsicles. (Frozen spinach, misc. frozen fruit and a few tablespoons of protein shake to help with the blending. After pulsing on “smoothie setting in the blender, pour into plastic popsicle molds). Eating well means I can continue to say “yes, thank you” when my overburdened friends have extra produce.

LaDona’s peach tree was so heavy with fruit the limbs sagged. When I couldn’t eat fresh fruit fast enough, the fruit went into the freezer. My totally cool neighbor has an apricot tree. When I go to the farmers market, everything is so colorful I tend to buy too much, with the excess added to my future frozen smoothie stash.

Wacky pesto

This week I felt compelled to make pesto. I don’t particularly love pesto. However, I planted about 30 seeds of purple Thai basil seeds, and they all decided to grow. The plants are green, but the flowers are purple.

Pinching the flowers of leafy greens is important because otherwise the plant will go to seed and die. Usually I eat the flowers in the yard. The purple Thai basil flowers have a slight licorice flavor.

Pesto is usually made with garlic cloves, but I have garlic chives. These reseed easily, and clumps grow in the path of bark that is theoretically intended to keep out weeds.

I also did not have pine nuts, but Samantha grows walnuts and usually gifts me a bag in the fall, which I shove into the freezer. (Any nuts will work in pesto including almonds and pistachios).

With these three ingredients in the food processor, I added olive oil and presto — pesto. Most folks add Parmesan cheese to pesto, but by this time my pesto was so different, I didn’t miss the cheese, which would have required me to don a mask, change out of my pajamas and head to the store.

Please share:

I’d love to hear other wacky, make-shift recipes people have created in isolation. Feel free to forward photos of your garden achievements as well. I won’t be jealous, because I have everything I need.

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Sow There! Squeals for returning to school, July 3, 2020

In my mind, more things should be purple, including this bread from Country Morning Bakery and the official color of a school. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
July 3, 2020

CHICO — March, April, May, all gone. June also slipped by.

I cringe to think of the long list of things I did not accomplish during this span of time. Instead, I will remain thankful that I kept my sanity and my health.

For days and weeks and months

my

days

have

gone

by

very

slowly.

Journal entries, self reflection, long talks with friends and the setting of intentions. Sure, I did all that.

Yet, I hope pandemics are not among the times “that prove what you are made of.” If Girl Scout badges could be awarded for activities during a pandemic, I would earn the barbecue potato chip badge and the badge for pacing around in a circle.

I must not compare my deeds in isolation to the deeds of others.

Folks who work in essential services deserve our gratitude. They worked during uncertain times and had to worry about their own safety while dealing with people who were scared and irritable.

I must not compare myself to others, but I noticed a buzz around my neighborhood as people refused to sit idle.

Determined do-it-yourselfers could be spotted with stacks of wood hanging out of the back of their pickup trucks. People replaced fence posts, built sheds and transformed their landscaping. Two of my friends are writing books and countless people have cleared away every scrap of clutter from their homes.

Of course, we can’t disparage others who remained static, uninspired, nursing uncertainty by binge-watching TV shows. Some of us became obsessed with the endless stream of news, which led to bulge-worthy forays to the bottom of a bag of Hershey’s kisses.

We all deal with stress differently. Some people took life-altering online classes, and others hunted harlequin bugs as if hunting bugs was a full-time job.

My main, outwardly visible accomplishment during this stage of the pandemic has been to gain five — followed by counting calories to lose five — pounds. At times, tracking my food was the one thing for which I had total control.

You’ll notice I’m reflecting in past tense, because suddenly the doorway has reopened to “the real world.”

Last week I attended the paperwork signing party for my upcoming teaching job, Fifth Grade in a nearby county. The friendly people at my new school even served healthful snacks. I was given keys to my classroom and unloaded the first of many boxes that will become my amazing classroom library.

Smitten

When you’re newly in love, each new detail about your new person is a thrilling discovery. New love sparks a need to share these rich details with friends, sometimes friends who haven’t had a boyfriend in 3 ½ years.

Smitten friend: (breathlessly) “I just have to share this with you …”

Patient friend: (rolls eyes).

Smitten friend: “Get this …” (unnecessary and annoying anticipatory pause) “his favorite color is BLUE!”

Patient friend: (nods absently, composing text message to her mother).

Smitten: “I asked him ‘Why blue?’ He said because the sky is blue. I don’t think I’ll ever look at the sky in quite the same way.”

Often, this hormone-enhanced, nonessential information is followed by the type of squeal best left to teens on a slip-‘n’-slide.

I’m not in love. However, I have found myself experiencing some inner squeals these past few days.

I have a new school.

Certainly, there will be challenges (including how to teach with new social distancing requirements), but right now all is new.

The fire hydrant at my new school is in the grass among the clover. This hydrant is saying hello,with arms wide open. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

My new school’s mascot is the PIONEER! You see, I love all of the “Little House on the Prairie” books, and the Ingalls were pioneers. If we have a school mascot dress-up day, I can wear summer dresses made from chintz fabric. My students, led by their joy-filled teacher, will frolic across the green grass, running in slow motion like the opening credits of the “Little House” TV show. Maybe we’ll have a school carnival and my students can bob for apples.

Our school color is PURPLE, and if I haven’t said it lately, my favorite color is purple. Please don’t confuse lavender with purple. My favorite purple is deep and royal, exactly the same as the purple for my NEW SCHOOL.

When I poked around my new classroom I found scripts for reader’s theater. I intend to lead reader’s theater, and now I don’t need to hunt down a class set of scripts.

My classroom, by the way, is number 13. That’s my lucky number. No kidding. When I was young I had no reason to think 13 was unlucky. In my mind, reaching the age of 13 meant an exciting new stage of life. When I learned people disliked this number, I felt sorry for 13. I like to root for the underdog. This classroom was meant just for me. (Squeal).

I can only imagine how I will feel when I meet my students.

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Sow There! Searching for Dr. Bronner, June 26, 2020

Blackened aphids on portulaca, after being sprayed with soapy water. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
June 26, 2020 at 3:30 a.m.

Stuffed in a cupboard, or hidden in plain view? Somewhere in my house there is a brand new bottle of Dr. Bronner’s pure castile soap. I saw it recently, but my memory is blurred by heat and the state of chaos that is my life in seclusion.

Weeks ago, I had plenty of time to venture under the kitchen sink to reorganize cleaning products. Who knew I had so many half bottles of dollar store cleaning solution, a jar of putty, plumbers tape, stainless steel polish and lemon oil?

I should look under my sink more often.

In early March, I shopped all over town for hand sanitizer. My group from the college was headed to Washington, D.C., and everyone knows airports are covered with communicable diseases. I couldn’t buy sanitizer at the store but found a recipe to mix rubbing alcohol and aloe vera, and funneled the goo into travel bottles.

I wish I had simply looked under my sink. When I recently reorganized, I found two mostly-full bottles of hand sanitizers parents had gifted to my Third Grade class in 2018.

I can only imagine what useful items I will find when I finally reorganize my shed.

As for the castile soap, I know it will reappear.

Castile soap (and other types of plant soap) is useful for killing soft-bodied insects like aphids, mealy bugs, whiteflies and spider mites. To do the deed, you need to get the bugs soaking wet with a diluted, soapy solution. This same trick doesn’t work on hard-bodied insects, like stink bugs, nor my new foe: the adult harlequin bugs.

Spraying a mass of aphids like a crazy fool is fairly rewarding. When you look back a few minutes later, the bugs are gray, and later may turn black. More importantly, they are dead. Yet, it is just as easy to take your fingers and squish the bugs when you see them.

Note, plant-based soap is different than heavy-duty detergents used for cleaning lasagna baking dishes. These soaps have strong degreasing agents, which can also strip natural oils and natural wax from the surface of your plants.

The writers of the Garden Myths website, https://www.gardenmyths.com/dish-soap-damage-your-plants, suggest buying a bottle of insecticidal soap, which contains potassium and a special kind of plant-friendly fatty acids.

Of course, this requires thinking ahead and placing the insecticidal soap in a location where you can find it easily. (Again, smashing those bugs with your bare hands has many advantages).

You can also just snip away the offending life forms. Many times I’ll look closely and notice 100,000 aphids in a plant-feeding mass, resting in a defenseless, sucking pose. Within seconds, I can remove the entire branch and stomp on the bugs while wearing plastic garden clogs. Another aphid-fighting technique includes spraying the bugs away with the hose nozzle set on “jet stream.”

If you choose the quick thrill of soapy water, Dr. Bronner’s is a brand that has natural oils, less likely to harm plants. The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, http://www.pesticide.org/aphids, recommends a recipe of 1 tablespoon to two cups of water. You can add cayenne or cinnamon if straight soap isn’t enough fun. Remember, you need to get the critters wet, so the best time to spray is morning, so the liquid evaporates more slowly and will eat into those soft-bodied insects.

As for those hard-bodied insects, such as the harlequin bugs, the harsh chemicals of hard-core dish soap do just fine when I whisk the bugs into a bowl of soapy water, avoiding that damaging business of actually spraying soap on my plants.

In search of Dr. Bronner

As for the bottle of Dr. Bronner castile soap, I’m guessing it will turn up this winter. By then the aphids will be long gone. The folks at Dr. Bronner’s offer umpteen other ways the soap can be used, https://www.drbronner.com/all-one-blog/2017/06/dilutions-cheat-sheet-dr-bronners-pure-castile-soap/, including washing the dog, controlling ants and vegetable rinse, among others.

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Sow There! Things you notice when you have the time, 6-19-2020

They’re tiny seeds, but after falling several feet onto lush leaves, the landing sounds like the slightest patter of rain. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
June 19, 2020 at 3:00 a.m.

A friend stopped her bicycle at the edge of my yard, guessing correctly that I would be on my knees battling Bermuda grass.

LaDona and I usually visit at her house, because she likes to feed her friends and I enjoy eating her food. I dusted off my kneecaps and gave her a tour of my squash and tomatoes, and handed off another plastic bag filled with kale seeds.

The kale has become quite an overgrown ordeal.

I could and should yank the plants from the ground. Instead, the plants have gone to seed, again. The lazy plan is to let the seeds scatter in the wind, hoping for a carpet of new seedlings I can snip with scissors. They probably won’t sprout until the fall, but I’ll be ready if and when nature does her thing.

As LaDona and I chattered about this and that, I absent-mindedly began squishing harlequin bugs with my bare hands. The kale was crawling with them.

I almost never wear garden gloves, and frankly, I didn’t think about whether LaDona would find my hand-picking barbaric. The smashing was simply a reflex. Those buggers quite clearly needed to disappear.

My habitual domination over harlequin bugs began in July 2017 when my sister and I returned from Costa Rica. The Handsome Woodsman planted the kale in October 2016, a few weeks before he died. That first year, the idea of pulling those plants would have meant destroying his final garden gift.

Now that I think about it, these are those same plants. Who knew kale could live that long? Now I can understand more clearly why the stalks look like tree trunks, three inches in diameter.

However, back in the summer heat of 2017, those plants were newly overgrown.

I had been traveling, and without my interference, there were so many harlequin bugs on the kale, it looked like my raised bed had become the H-bug travel destination. I learned to strategically position a bowl of soapy water, and whisk the critters to their death.

I searched daily and soon learned to recognize nymph H-bugs, and even the barrel-shaped, silvery eggs, which are deposited in neat rows on the underside of leaves.

The party is over for harlequin bugs that have returned again and again to the kale that is grounded in place three years and counting. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

When I spotted harlequin bugs again this year, I needed to remember everything I had learned and forgotten. Oh, that’s right … the bugs will suck the life out of your plants.

Kale or cabbage is often used as a lure, to keep the critters from more desirable summer producers, such as tomatoes. I must have done a good job of hand-picking over the years, because the kale plants are alive. In addition to the dried seed pods, new leaves are growing from the “trunk.”

As for the reoccurring problem with harlequin bugs, this is my own fault, as usual. The surviving (and hiding) adult bugs spend the winter in the stalk of the kale plant, which any sane gardener would have burned on a bonfire.

I’ll put some thought into whether the original plants have outlived their usefulness. In the meantime, the bug infestation has given me the opportunity to feel triumphant. I have mastered my technique of the sly-hand backslide, as well as the splash dunk.

More time for hushed observation

Harlequin bugs, the first daffodils, a ripe tomato … all can be noted as markers of time. Some days I feel like a 12-year old on summer vacation, grounded in place. The minutes pass slowly, which means I’m looking at things more closely.

I had forgotten what it feels like to sit, listen to the wind chimes, and clear all of the air from my lungs.

Recently, I unveiled a new outdoor living room.

A heavy plastic tarp is propped up on a metal frame, covering the sturdy wooden picnic table that takes four grown men to move. A string of white lights adds just enough sparkle at day’s end, and I moved my brass floor lamp under the overhang to illuminate board games.

Living the dream. If I invite only one friend for dinner, we can sit six feet apart.

More than 85 potted plants are arranged in no particular order. As a backdrop, the concrete block wall is covered in needle-nosed ivy, from the “floor” to about 14 feet into the air.

I recall the first time the wall “talked to me.” It was a warm, cloudless evening and I thought I heard the slightest patter of rain.

After a curious investigation, I found that the sound came from the green wall.

It was the ivy. Pale green pods hide under the leaves. I saw, and heard, as those pods popped open. The rain-like sound was the tiny seedlings falling onto the leaves.

This week, as a friend and I sat at the table gorging on takeout from Alibaba restaurant, it was that time again.

Patter, patter … the gentle sound of rain with a cloudless sky, nowhere to go, and all the time I needed to sit and listen.

 

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Sow There! Bermudagrass hates shade, and other long-term plans, June 12, 2020

Sometimes you need to look the enemy in the eye. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
June 12, 2020 

For decades I’ve railed against privet as my most-hated garden nuisance. Sentiments certainly have not faded. However, the major privets in my life have thankfully been removed. And just like a battle-ready warrior, I’ve moved on to a new foe.

Bermudagrass.

Why now?

I’m certainly spending more time in my garden. Was I unaware in the past? Did the plant’s heinous impact suddenly grow more fierce? Why does it seem to be making this mad dash to gain territory, despite my increasing exertion to yank, pull, deprive and mulch?

An article in Field Science (a magazine dedicated to turfgrass),  https://sturf.lib.msu.edu/article/2010mar32.pdf, notes that Bermudagrass does not tolerate shade. I’m certain there are some folks who would argue this point. However, I realize the unmanageability of my tangle of Bermudagrass corresponds with the cutting of all trees from my property a year ago.

Thank you Field Science, for being so scientific.

Buckets filled with Bermudagrass, ’tis the current bane of my backyard. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

The outrage! Not only is the shade gone, but Bermudagrass has crawled quickly across my little universe.

Life has many battles and even more choices to make. In some ways, the grass if fine. It covers up the soil, looks green, loves Chico’s summer heat. All might be tolerable if it could just keep to itself. However, the very essence of Bermudagrass is to infringe upon the rights of all other plants.

A year or more ago I scored a truckload of mulch from some amenable tree trimmers. Ha!

As mulch decays, it does deplete the nitrogen from the soil, but I didn’t care. I wanted that Bermudagrass to suffer — without water, without nitrogen, without love. Surely the mulch should smother out the subterranean onslaught of roots and shoots? To further darken its growth path, I layered the bottom of the mulch with cardboard, recycled from the boxes accumulated from my home-delivered groceries during those early days of sheltering-in-place.

Nope. Each day the grass gasps for breath, emerging from the woody mound, snaking its way across the splintered wood as it reaches toward the fenceposts, the defenseless tall fescue, the raised bed. I dig and curse, yanking fistfuls after fistful. For two square feet of territory, I may fill an entire five-gallon bucket with its claw-like spokes.

Defeated, dejected and down-right angry, I have to take a break. There are other things to do now, like worry about how the heck I can teach elementary school children in the days of coronavirus.

Just when I’m not looking, just for a few days, the plant must note that I have temporarily put down my spade and gloves. That’s when the star-like seeds appeared, the torturous last barrage of hatred in the form of tiny seeds that scatter joyously when yanked with an angry fist or mowed by my meek electric mower. The seeds, by the way, can stay viable for two years, lurking among the defenseless blades of “good seed.” The good seed I sow in vain each fall, somehow hopeful that the enemy will know it is outnumbered.

Some good advice on keeping the encroachment to a minimum include ensuring the “good grass” is in great health, and that you mow at the highest possible setting. Also, shade helps.

As has been the case in the past, my research turned up additional sour advice: Cover the infested area with black plastic for six months or two years, depending on which websites you read. Mulch doesn’t create great soil due to the aforementioned depletion of nitrogen. (LaDona, my erratic gardening guru adds nitrogen under her mulch for just this reason). The Press Democrat, https://www.pressdemocrat.com/lifestyle/9607706-181/avoid-the-bermuda-grass-blues, suggests “sheet mulching” with cardboard and six inches of composted greenwaste, then waiting up to two years. Am I expected to have this kind of patience? Where would I find this amount of composted greenwaste? I don’t cook in an industrial kitchen.

Specific chemicals are sometimes suggested, https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/lawn-care/specific/bermuda-grass/managing-bermuda-grass.htm, and I can understand why some folks resort to this option. I’m just not ready to bring out the poison guns.

There is hope, of course, in the longer scheme of things. Pre-emergent chemicals, applied at the right time for two years could kill off most of those seeds, if I manage the timing before those tiny enemies take root.

Here also remains the longer view: An oak tree in my yard is now as tall as an NBA basketball player, and some day, some day, one fine day, it will cast the shade that “Field Science” claims will see the decline of the virulent beast.

I’ll learn to pick my battles. About two years ago I was given two potted Indian peach trees. They were a gift from the amazing Ernie Dalton, who gave me a tour of the Nord School garden, http://www.nordcountryschool.org/uploads/5/2/3/3/5233925/sow_there__what_youll_learn_in_a_garden_built_for_kids.pdf. I finally put the peach tree in the ground and have been ensuring it gets water. You guessed it, the Bermudagrass likes water as well. For the sake of that future soft-skinned fruit, I will continue to fight. I will dig until my fingernails are ragged to keep a circle of peace around this tree… until the tree grows and slowly gains victory through shade of its own creation.

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Sow There! June, another excuse to plant more seeds, June 5, 2020

 
  • Withering poppies are ready for seed harvest, just about now. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
June 5, 2020 at 2:45 a.m.

CHICO — Putzing around my garden has been a great solace the past two and a half months. Random meandering, around and around, the hose like the limits of a chained dog. After a while, my mind has slowed down and if I knew how to meditate, I may have indeed reached some form of inner peace. Yet, I do not perceive a great transformation, outward nor within.

Gardening is something to do, and I eventually receive a sense of accomplishment. Tomatoes are mid-way up their metal cages and vine vegetables have found the edge of the raised bed. Progress reminds me that even if the world seems to be swirling in uncertainty, the garden ticks along at its own predictable pace.

In many ways, tending my garden and losing five pounds seem to be the only things for which I have control.

And here we are in June — the longest day of the year still two weeks away, already suffering through 100-degree days.

However, there are still new things for which we can plant our hope. The trusty Chico Valley Area Planting Guide for Vegetables — https://ucanr.edu/sites/bcmg/files/184803.pdf, print it and laminate it — suggests that now is the preferred time to plant Brussels sprouts in sheltered containers. Who knew?

In early July, we can do the same with seeds of cabbage and parsnips. Seeds of corn, beans and melons can be sown now. Another factoid, stuck in my heat-dulled brain, is that June is the time to plant pumpkins.

Pumpkins, some unwanted

Pumpkins are trying to grow in my compost pile. This is where I dumped the orange orbs I planned to bake in the winter. In previous years I would let the vines grow as they may, watering them a little. Invariably, disappointment grew with the fruit that more closely resembled a hardened Nerf football than anything that would merit warming in the oven. Most store-bought pumpkins are hybrids, and the seeds reproduce with unpredictable variables.

Nope, this year I’m yanking out those hopeful pumpkin sprouts as soon as I spot them among the dying poppy plants.

Seeds in the neighborhood

Recently I wrote about poppies growing in the cracks of my alley. Poppy seeds are best planted in the fall. You can bury them just under the soil, and then forget about them. The rains nurture the plants and you only need consider squirting the plants with a hose when the flowers are about to fade.

I buy poppy seeds in bulk at Northern Star Mills, https://northernstarmillschico.com. The shelves with pitchers of bulk seed are on the right, before you step down into the room with the hay bales. In that same area of the store, you’ll find big bins of bat guano, dried sea kelp, fish meal and bone meal. This is where I buy bulk amounts of Osmocote for my potted plants. I simply refill the big plastic bottle of Osmocote that is now depleted.

If you have nothing else to do these days, you can walk around the neighborhood and gather poppy seeds from cracks in the alley or edges of other people’s yards. If you ask permission, you could even meet your neighbors.

Poppies are among the plants that launch seeds to allow the spring-time patches to gain territory. In nature, I imagine the seed pods reaching a point where they explode, seeds flying like cannon balls.

 

Right now, the seed pods are brittle after days of blistering sun. To gather for next year, I carry a small plastic bag into the alley, and carefully grab the dry beige pods with a cupped hand. You can also pull the grayish brown poppy plant by the stem and walk around the yard shaking out your pandemic frustrations, like a seed-sowing pompom.

My guru of erratic gardening, LaDona, parades around her garden with dry arugula in hand. Later she can feign surprise when the seeds grow.

 

When I perused her yard last week, she had a lawn-like area of new arugula sprouts at the base of where mature plants only recently towered. She said the plan is to snip off the new seedlings as microgreens.

In my yard, I have a kale plant that was too impressive to kill, and now looks like the trunk of a small tree. I recently bagged so many dried seed pods I could sow kale across the entire front lawn of Bidwell Mansion.

I’m willing to share, and will send seeds to the first 10 readers who send me their address.

Kale is best planted in mid-October, or follow the same instructions as above for poppies.

June forget-me-nots

This month I always try to remember to plant seeds for zinnias. Zinnia, a sun-loving flower that will bloom all summer. The flowers are as bright as the ceramic pottery purchased in a Mexico souvenir shop. Faded, they’re still lovely.

Zinnias in June. You can sow seeds in March and April, but they won’t grow. The problem is, I often forget to buy zinnia seeds. I’d be tickled to trade kale seeds to any zinnia seed hoarders among my readership.

While you’re borrowing or buying zinnias, it is not too late to plant sunflower seeds and many other heat-loving flowers.

The good folks at Renee’s Garden, https://bit.ly/2UclBZ4, suggest sowing a second crop of edibles now, including squash, beans and chard, with plans for a late-summer harvest.

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Sow There! Plants that prefer to be left alone May 29, 2020

 

Because it’s not enough fun to have a bush with purple flowers, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’s flowers fade to pink on day two, and white on day three. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
May 29, 2020 at 3:45 a.m.

Bitz is one of those people who always has the best of intentions. When she declared “You really need to see this woman’s yard,” I knew she was speaking from her heart. We arrived in separate cars and separate masks. I’m not into fashion these days, nor makeup or other forms of adornment. However, choosing a mask is an important task. I have masks from a multitude of fabrics — dragonflies, John Deere tractor, cartoon farm, hot chili peppers. One mask shows the bottom half of my face with a huge smile, just in case you can’t tell if I’m smiling under the mouth protection.

When we arrived, we clearly saw that Wendy’s yard is so large a person would have absolutely no problem keeping 10 or more feet away from others.

The gracious gardener gave us the tour, which took us a while; Her yard could easily be featured in one of those garden glamour magazines. Mini paths meander through what might look like overgrown foliage. Yet, Wendy’s plants are merely allowed to grow as they like, within reason.

When I looked around, I thought: When do these people eat or sleep? However, the garden tender soon pointed out that the plants have figured out over time exactly where they grow best. Of course, she’ll do some thinning to keep things in check. As we walked she deadheaded flowers and gathered fresh blooms for the bouquets Bitz and I each received as a gift.

One key to letting plants do their own thing is to choose those that reseed readily. Of course, she has the luxury of a lot of space.

I like this idea, and not just due to the fact that I’m lazy. When I visit LaDona’s yard, one of the things I love the best is that edible plants are growing in odd spots. If I’m hungry, I can walk around and nibble on arugula or chard that just happens be growing near my kneecaps.

Wendy’s yard contains mostly ornamentals, as well as a carefully-clipped mound of fruit trees that are kept small for easy picking. Wendy’s hubby attended the fruit tree pruning workshop at Hodge’s Nursery on the Midway, which helps people keep their trees 5-6 feet tall.

While Wendy watches the flowers grow, the vegetables are mostly the domain of her guy.

As for the seeds everywhere, sometimes this means there are extra plants to share. Many go to friends, and others will go to the curb where neighbors can grab some greenery while they’re walking by. Bitz and I didn’t even need to ask, we were offered some beauties to take home that day.

What I loved about Wendy was the glee with which she pointed out many of her favorites. And with so many plants, she can walk around gleefully all day. I was taking notes to learn what likes to grow in Chico.

Bunny bloom larkspur, she pointed out, has a bloom in the center that looks just like a bunny rabbit. You need to look closely. In the center of the pink petals, a close eye will discern the outline of bunny ears. The plant reseeds easily, as mentioned.

We also fell in love, again, with an old favorite, Love in the Mist. Wendy calls it “Nigella,” (Nigella damescena), which somehow sounds regal and fits the statuesque, drought-tolerant plant. Nigella can fill up an empty space with seeds that pop out of a dry lantern-shaped bloom in late summer. The dried flower stalks make interesting dry arrangements indoors. Wispy blue flowers look like floating dancers in a ballet.

The seeds of Nigella are also used in Middle Eastern cooking, or even more casual munching, and have a mild nutmeg flavor. Some folks toast them and add to cakes (similar to poppy seeds) or to chutney and spices. The writer at A Gardener’s Table blog notes her young daughter will eat them while standing in the yard. Again, this beauty loves to drop seeds, which can be helped along if you rough up the area by scratching the soil with a hoe.

Another plant that loves to sprawl includes Spirea, which enjoys areas of partial shade. This plant grows so well in Chico, you’ll sometimes spot it growing in the gravel in alleys in the avenues.

Sprinkled throughout this particular yard was feverfew, another cheery, sun-loving flower with tiny daisy-like flowers.

Of course, all this discussion of no-fuss does not mean there is no fuss.

Bulbs, for one thing, were a hassle to keep around thanks to the critters from the nearby oak trees and burrowers in the soil. Wendy buys ¼ inch aviary wire at Collier’s Hardware and folds it into baskets. She places the baskets in the ground, fills with bulbs, then covers with soil.

Some other choice plants in her yard include the money tree (with half-dollar sized circles that turn opaque as they dry), and several others I forgot to write down during all the excitement.

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