Sow There! The fine line that makes a good neighbor, 1-3-2020

These vines look fairly inobtrusive in their dormant state, but the can become a big tangle in mid-July. (Heather Hacking — contributed)
January 3, 2020
In this compact and complicated world, it’s difficult to move an inch without offending someone.

We drive slowly, dress scantily, speak loudly or hang signs in our yard that state our opinion.

When it comes to being neighborly, its usually easy to cut each other some slack, rather than holding a grudge that could last until someone’s children go away to college.

I’m really lucky to have great neighbors. We give each other cookies during the holidays, and watch a locked house when one of us is out of town.

Barking dogs, late-night engine repair and your backyard band — it’s all OK until someone calls for code enforcement.

Over time, I’ve become friends with my totally cool neighbor, “D,” who works on his truck for weeks on end, and is currently remodeling the interior of his workshop. He seems to appreciate when I show up uninvited. I bellow “knock-knock” through the open doorway to his man cave, and if I hear a murmur, I’ll walk through the corrugated metal threshold. During a brief but meaningful talk last month, he said I was a “ray of sunshine,” which I interpreted as an open invite to stop by his shop any time I needed more positive affirmation.

Fresh-grown grapes vs. good neighborliness? Tough choices. (Heather Hacking — contributed)

Sometimes I bring gifts from my yard, including tomatoes or blood oranges. He never fails to reciprocate with a tour of his current creative project or other wild inspiration.

Last summer, during what was otherwise amiable conversation, I learned that he was the culprit behind the disappearance of my poppy plants.

For years, I have placed poppy seeds in the cracks in the pavement along the alley. In the spring, even rows of orange flowers grow. Yet, D is new to the ‘hood, and he didn’t know any better.

He confessed that he mistook the poppies for weeds, and once he started scraping the pavement with a shovel, he couldn’t stop until all my poppies were dead.

I forgave him. He knew no better, and now he knows.

It was easy enough to buy more poppies from the giant pitcher of seeds at Northern Star Mills.

More recently, I was bragging about my grapevines, which sprawl across the cyclone fence we share. I saw his brow twitch, just a slight movement on what is otherwise a smooth forehead. I realized the unruly vines might disturb his sense of a well-kept aesthetic.

“Do the vines bug you?” I asked without thinking of the outcome.

“A little,” he said. I knew this was an understatement.

Of course, the highest of neighborliness would include a future that does not include vines growing into his side of the fence. However, who am I to keep a vine from doing what it does best? My neighbor is new. The vine is well established. I can’t (or, more honestly, won’t) move the entire plant, not now.

Plus, if I pretend like I don’t know it bothers him, he probably won’t complain. Let’s face facts: I didn’t make a fuss when he murdered my poppies.

D didn’t ask me to remove the vine. However, I do feel a tiny bit of guilt. I’ll give him raisins next fall. Maybe that can make up for my grapevine sprawl.

It could always be worse. I have friends who have built fences or elaborate tarp structures to obscure the view of broken-down washing machines or a travel trailer used for spare parts. A vine with a will of its own is far less obnoxious than a whirling windmill, well-stocked aviary or a Winnebago filled with beer-drinking relatives.

It’s time to prune the grape vines. I’ll see if there’s a thing or two I can do.

I can’t make promises. But when my treasures arrive from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, I’ll look for a sunny spot away from the cyclone fence where I can grow my dragon’s tongue purple beans and ground cherries.

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Sow There! A world of seeds at your fingertips 12-27-10

Ancient corn, you just don’t see that every day. (Heather Hacking — Contributed

December 27, 2019 at 4:34 am

For yet-to-be-understood reasons, a garden catalog appeared in my post office box. Normally, I’m peeved when I see junk in the box. This time, I was giddy to receive this unsolicited mass marketing.

Way back when, gardening catalogs were a source of needed joy on days when there is more darkness than light. I could sit on my cold floor in December, catalogs splayed out like a fan, and dream shop about the things I could try to grow.

In those days, (early to mid ’90s) I was convinced that once you ordered from one catalog, your name was immediately sold to numerous seed companies. Soon you had enough gardening catalogs to cover every wall of your apartment in glossy vegetable images.

And then things changed. My wild guess is that seed peddlers decided the dwindling response rate did not justify printing costs. Instead, companies began sending countless emails. This just wasn’t the same. These emails were lost in the sea of junk email coaxing me to click on or or

When the barrage of electronic junk mail becomes unbearable, I abandoned the email account.

However, this brave seed company tracked me down. Thank you, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, I had not realized how much I had missed you. You found me just at the right time. I was ripe and ready to look at shiny photos of flowers grown by experts, captured with perfect lighting at the exact moment of their highest beauty. I have free time right now to relish image of flowers so bizarre, they look like props on a “Star Trek” episode. Even if I don’t order seeds from South America, lovingly kept in cultivation by descendants of ancient peoples, I am glad to know they exist.

Thank you for giving me a reason, on a cold December night, to daydream about perfectly ripe crookneck squash and tomatoes with stripes like a zebra, melons that resemble decorated Easter eggs.

Yes. It was love at first sight. They had me at “Free shipping.”

I was so mesmerized, I sent them a check (yes, an old-fashioned check, the paper kind).

My guess is that my name will now be sold mercilessly and more catalogs will soon stuff my mailbox.

At Christmas, Mom and I spent quality time browsing through the Baker seeds.

We expressed sounds of admiration over winged beans, with edges that looked like feathers. Cauliflowers mottled with color, as if someone sprinkled the Cruciferae with purple paprika. Black nebula carrots – purple with yellow stars in the center — something Sasha Sagan might have nibbled in childhood. Strawberry popcorn with 2-3-inch burnt-orange ears. Black corn, purple corn, amber corn, country gentlemen corn. Who knew?

A good catalog includes facts that may or may not be useful, but provide entertainment and wonder. Maiz Morado corn, for example, was grown during the Incan Empire and is still used in South America to make a beverage, for use in dye and ground into flour, the Baker Seed editors chose to reveal in small print. Of course, you can also grow it in your backyard and eat it from the cob.

Glass gem corn: translucent kernels that “shine brilliantly like glass,” “decorative and delicious.”

Of course, I never grow corn. That’s not the point.

You just can’t get seeds like this on the racks at Walmart.

Some of the vegetables are simply dazzling and bizarre: tigger melon – the size of apples with vibrant yellow fruit and fire-red zigzag stripes on the outerside. These were so weird, they may also be manufactured by Mattel.

I left the seed catalog at Mom’s house. We made a pact that she would buy some packets, and the next time we meet, we’ll have a mom-and-daughter seed swap. This way, we did not need to argue over our choices. I’m trying to talk her into visiting the company’s brick-and-mortar store in Petaluma. I had planned to visit when I spent a weekend in Sebastopol the summer of 2018, but I was sidetracked by a free concert in a park.

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Sow There! Crazy cardboard confections with kids, Dec. 20, 2019


I brought home boxed gingerbread kits from a big box store for the children to dive into at a recent make-up Thanksgiving get-together. It was a hit. (Heather Hacking — contributed)
December 20, 2019 

I’m done. I usually hate shopping. When I shop during the holidays, I soon dislike people. I need to buy something for Dad, but he’s likely to get one of those gift cards sold near the checkout at Safeway.

Thank goodness we have one more farmers market before the big gift day. When I gift candy-covered almonds, I never worry about the right size or the right color.

The point of this time of year is to actually enjoy the holiday. If I ventured to consumer-land right now, I’d return home empty-handed with a sore jaw from grinding my teeth.

Yet, there is plenty of joy to be had writing Christmas cards. I’m so glad I bought a big box of them at Costco, well before Halloween.

Last year, I did not get around to sending cards. Just like everyone else, the fires blew out my sense of stability. People didn’t need cards last year to remind them of joy and love. They needed clean socks, a place to sleep and a kind soul to take in four stranded dogs.

This year, when I returned to my ritual of writing Christmas cards, I noticed there were many friends on my list for whom I have no address.

There were also a few people who are no longer on the planet. Two years ago, Auntie Georgie sent me what would be her last holiday card. We had been exchanging cards since I was 12, after our family visited her lakeside home in Eagan, Minnesota.

That summer, and a few others through my teens, I joined her for Jazzercise in the balmy basement of the house Uncle Don built. She showed me the black paper photo albums with pictures of the two as high school sweethearts. When he flew B-52s over Europe, he sent her photos he took from the air. In another photo, he was dashing in a bomber jacket. “I’ll fly back to you soon,” he wrote.

I feel honored Auntie Georgie took the time to write, even that final year of her life. She said she could hardly hear, did not see well, and it was hurting to hold the pen, but she was content to know she had good people around her and had lived a great life, she said.

I hope to be sending Christmas cards well into my 90s. However, by then, anyone who is 12 years old will probably look at you mystified if you say the words “postage stamps.”

(Wall o’ gift cards)

New traditions

The final weekend of November, my mom’s side of the family had “make-up Thanksgiving.” Nope, it wasn’t enough to gorge to the point of discomfort with Dad and family, we needed to do it again a few days later with Mom.

My niece has three children, ages 13, 12 and 9.

Typically, our get-togethers go like this:

  • Hugs, hugs, share the joy of being together.
  • Pizza, genuine conversation, dessert.
  • Kids slip into the guest room to play video games or watch a movie.
  • My sister, Mom and I talk, giggle and recall embarrassing times from our past. Mom’s beau consistently cannot get a word in edgewise.

At some point, the night is done and I realize the kids have been gone for hours and I didn’t have a chance to ask them embarrassing questions.

Candy crafts

A few days before my food journeys, I spotted a tower of boxed gingerbread kits at a big box store.

That looked fun – icing and colorful candies, all on a gingerbread cracker that probably tasted like cardboard. This was the kind of thing my mother would have never bought during my granola-based childhood.

“Do you think the kids would like this?” I asked when I sent a photo via text.

“Who cares,” she replied. “I’d have fun making it.”

At make-up Thanksgiving, I brought out the box and pretended I didn’t care if the children joined us.

“Look, Sunrise,” I said to my older sister. “I brought this great candy thing we can make.”

These kids are like cats. They act like you’re invisible, until they’re interested in something you are doing.

A few minutes after my sister started licking frosting from her fingers, the kids saw the gum drops in fashion colors and postponed their slink to the video game room.

Now we’re talking — a family sitting at the amazingly large dining room table, a silver baking tray at each seat to catch the gooey, nearly inedible icing.

Even if no one else said it out loud, I am the best auntie ever! I even brought extra tubes of icing so no one would fight over who was hogging the tube of red frosting.

We did not follow directions. We ate half the candy before it became artwork. No one ate their gingerbread, but no one cared.

When we noticed the children had left the room, the adults brainstormed some ideas for next time. Maybe we could decorate sugar cookies, or work on a puzzle, make origami swan mobiles or track down a Lite Brite.

The last I heard, my mom saw a gingerbread house kit, and we’ll be in the candy art business Christmas Eve.

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Sow There! Green tomatoes, chapter 4, 12-13-2019

If this photo looks familiar, it is because we’ve been talking a lot about green tomatoes, which are now officially in season. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

December 13, 2019 at 4:27 am

“What are you going to write about this week?” a friend asked while we were shuffling from side-to-side and grooving to one of my favorite bands, the Yule Logs*, at a Chico State Christmas party.

“Green tomatoes,” I shouted.

“Again?” she said, now yelling as Marty Parker began to croon.


Yes, I’m writing about green tomatoes — again. Maybe I’ll write about green tomatoes until Valentine’s Day. I have a mind to start a blog dedicated solely to green tomatoes. Forget about teaching or working with international programs at Chico State, maybe my future fortune will be made selling green tomato Christmas ornaments and lime-green plush toys.

My future assistants at the Green Tomato Empire will publish a cookbook that will fold into the pocket of green tomato aprons. For the holidays, we’ll sell calendars, with each month dedicated to the varying stages of tomato growth, including helpful and humorous cultivation tips and recipes.

I do believe there is a partially untapped market among green tomato fans, including those who reached out in earnest after my previous, and misinformed, disdainful writing about the unripe fruit.

I won’t quite call myself a convert. However, I discovered that green tomatoes are exceedingly excellent when toasted at 450 degrees for 20 minutes.

On the warm side

Recently, my friend Thor was en route for a visit, and my house was so cold, I was wearing my jacket and beanie cap.

When you live in a small, old house, there’s little need to turn on the wall furnace. You can bake dinner and heat up the house with one simple turn of the knob. My oven is conveniently located about 8 feet from the edge of my couch.

The baking sheet was covered with cauliflower and I decided to throw in some green tomatoes that might otherwise rot in the colander on the cold kitchen counter.

Double yum. Sweet and chewy, and even better with a bit of Tapatio sauce … I regret deeply that I gave away so many green tomatoes to a coworker and my totally cool neighbor, Del.

Baked green tomatoes: the new comfort food.

I also found some tips online about using a melon-baller to make a half circle on top of the green fruit, then sliding in some slivered garlic and a dollop of oil. That sounds nice, but more work than necessary.

The Spruce Eats,, also recommends:

  • Using green tomatoes as a bread-free base for eggs Benedict.
  • Serving slices of green fruit with soft mozzarella and (out-of-season) basil and balsamic vinegar — green Caprese.

Scott, who owns the long-loved Brooklyn Bridge Bagel shop downtown,, sent a note to suggest spicy pickled tomatoes. I’m thinking I’ll buy a jar of pickled cauliflower and carrots, eat them, then save the juice for sliced green tomatoes. Three weeks in the fridge should do the trick.

Maybe Scott will be inspired to start a new menu item, with a bagel, pickled green tomatoes and cream cheese, red tomato slices when in season. Of course, I’ll want credit but will forgo royalties.

Michael shared a childhood memory of sharing good times with grammy while making green tomato relish. If he sends the recipe, I will gladly revisit this topic.

Another kind couple wrote that they make green sauce, substituting green tomatoes when the recipe calls for tomatillos.

That’s enough for now about green tomatoes. I need to save some material for next week.

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Sow There! Long live those green tomatoes, 12-6-19

A late, unwanted, yet beautiful harvest was had one cold morning. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
December 6, 2019 at 3:46 am

Tomatoes can be a perennial plant in tropical South America. Yet, around here, they turn to slimy mush when you leave town on a cold day.

Before leaving town for a visit with Dad, I snatched three red, ripe cherry tomatoes, which would turn out to be the last for the year.

When I returned from my family holiday feast, 3 pounds heavier, I knew the time was overdue for tackling the tangle of tomatoes.

Looking over plants that were once mighty is a source of sadness. My tomatoes had a triumphant run. I grew large, cherry tomatoes, planted as seeds in January by my third-grade students. In mid-winter, I helped the garden gurus keep the plants cozy in our school greenhouse. When the weather suddenly turned warm, I drove to the school on weekends to offer them water.

They grew and grew until we proudly sold them at our school’s harvest festival.

When the web of life get tangled, it’s time to yank those sad tomato plants. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

Over the summer, the plants produced so well in my yard, I was inspired to dry not one but two full loads in my dehydrator. My guess is that I’ll have dried tomatoes on hand from now until 2021, even if I share a few with select friends.

Yet, even heroic tomato plants can take a quick dive to death’s door. By the time the snow and rain swept through the valley, my tomatoes were so wearied, they looked like Jon Snow after battling the white walkers.

When I returned from the weekend of ice cream and Edward’s key lime pie, I had only one hour of daylight remaining in my weekend.

I snipped off the gnarled leaves of the once-stellar tomato plants and discovered an overabundance of green goodness. Green tomatoes. So many green tomatoes it seemed like a waste to toss them in the compost pile. Of course, I had no intention of eating them.

I had learned my lesson years ago. Once, I had been filled with curiosity, and had more time on my hands. I sleuthed out seldom-used green tomato recipes. I tried frying them, and made some type of green tomato fritters. I even made a small, experimental green tomato pie.

However, when you can buy chocolate, ice cream and French fries easily, these vintage Southern recipes for green tomatoes lose their appeal.

I concluded those quaint recipes stemmed from hunger. If you had a farmhouse filled with growing children, you’d find a way to eat every last twig grown in the garden.

Maybe some sort of nostalgia for a better time came over me. I decided those green tomatoes were too beautiful to waste.

I decided to pick the fruit and at least give folks a chance to eat them. It didn’t take long to gift them to a coworker and my really cool neighbor, Del.

I kept a few and will decide this week if my palette has changed. I could eat just about anything that is drenched in batter and deep fried, perhaps even cardboard.

Some recipes seem fairly straightforward: About four green tomatoes, salt and pepper, oil, 1 cup cornmeal, 2 large eggs.

Slice the tomatoes ¼ inch thick, season and pat dry. Dip the slices in beaten eggs and drag through the cornmeal. Fry and dip in your favorite dressing. One friend suggested adding Cajun spices.

I’ve had trouble with fruit flies recently. However, I’ll try to ripen a few of my green goblins indoors.

I found a video online,, which suggests wrapping each tomato in newspaper, then placing the batch in a cardboard box. Adding some apples will help speed up the process. The trick is to check them once a week and see if there’s anything that needs to be tossed. Choose a cold closet or garage, because temperatures need to be 50-70 degrees. Or you can add a bit of apple and stuff the green tomatoes in a paper bag.

Undoubtedly, the tomatoes will taste like those mealy, pinkish-white tomatoes we find in the grocery store this time of year, but hey, they probably still contain high amounts of Vitamin C.

A few more notes

If you want to torture yourself with other tomato possibilities, I found some information about starting new tomato plants with suckers, found between the tomato’s main stem and a leaf branch, This video is worth watching, simply to listen to the guy’s Southern accent.

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Sow There! Gift-giving grumbles — old or old-fashioned? Nov. 28, 2019

 Hyacinth bulbs can be grown indoors year-round; just add water. Another project idea is to bake pumpkin seeds, but this orange fruit may be destined for the compost pile. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
November 29, 2019 

Bulbs in barely-August, Halloween costumes in September and Christmas wrap before Turkey day … Stores are more and more brazen these days about stocking the shelves for events that are still a season away.

I shake my head with confusion and hear myself muttering: “Things just aren’t the way they used to be … .”

Now I know what getting old feels like.

I could call it “old fashioned,” but frankly, my traditions are just “old.” I send paper Christmas cards, buy gifts in stores with a roof and walls and sometimes make gifts by hand.

In the near future, we’ll have hologram Christmas trees and virtual visits with Santa. Most households will have a special room in their garage to “make” gifts via a 3D printer.

This week, I used my cellphone to log a holiday event in my Google calendar. (This whole cellphone calendar idea is new to me, but makes sense in a modern world).

My calendar is color coded – work is blue, personal is purple and days deemed as holidays by Google are green.

Since when did Black Friday become a holiday? I’m so outdated that the green reminder of America’s biggest shopping day was a huge shock to me.

I can understand why Taxes Due is a helpful reminder. However, I’m fairly certain the mass merchandisers can do a decent job of reminding us about Black Friday, without the aid of Google.

Very soon, Black Friday will also be outdated. While visiting my folks, we saw a television commercial for the “12 days of Black Friday.” Will Google soon add 12 green reminders on my cellphone?

Gifts with glue and guts

For several years, I tried to rebel against the consumerism of the holiday – mostly because I lacked available funds.

I also liked the idea of making crafts in my living room while watching schmaltzy Hallmark holiday romance movies. The problem is that I’m not very crafty. Some gifts were a hit, like the hand-painted clay ornaments, no-bake fudge, crochet washcloths and painted “God jars.” Other years, my gifts looked like they were made by barn animals. One noteworthy disaster included the origami swan mobiles, made with recycled Christmas cards and attached to a metal clothes hanger.

Some ideas are better left as merely ideas.

This week, I visited Dad and perused the holiday decorations, which are on display year-round.

“Dad, whatever happened to that really ugly origami swan mobile I made that year?” I asked.

“The Smithsonian stopped by one day and asked for it,” Dad quipped.

As much as I make fun of merchandise that arrives in stores months before you need it, I’m glad spring-blooming bulbs were on sale before I became temporarily unemployed.

Last year, I grew hyacinths in my classroom almost continuously. At the winter break, I gifted each of my students with a bulb, a glass jar filled with pebbles, and planting instructions.

My intention was to again have bulbs blooming year-round.

At my current job at the college, I share an office. So far, I have two hyacinth bulbs in vases. The roots are growing nicely and I should have blooms before Valentine’s Day.

Three bulbs are doing their thing on my kitchen counter at home.

I haven’t counted, but I think I have about 40 bulbs remaining.

I can’t think of a better “crafty” Christmas idea than planting bulbs in decorative pots, and giving them as gifts. A hand-written note will explain that the pot of dirt should be placed where it will receive rain. Next spring, the recipient will appreciate how much I love them.

In the meantime, I need to get cracking on writing those old-fashioned Christmas cards. Maybe my friends will be inspired to use them for origami.

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Sow There! The case for the clunker, Nov. 22, 2019


Heather Hacking shows off her 2019 Honda Civic, her first “new” car. (Heather Hacking — contributed)
November 22, 2019

A few weeks before my last birthday, I signed away a bunch of money for a brand new car.

Dad called a few weeks later and asked me how I liked my new ride.

“I guess I’m getting used to it,” I said.

He laughed (at me). “You’re the only person I know who is not excited about driving a new car.

“It just doesn’t feel like me,” I said.

I’m just not the new-car kind of gal.

What feels like “me” is cruising in a car with so many dents, I feel comfortable parking in a big-city, bargain-priced parking lot in the bad side of town. In a clunker, you don’t hesitate to haul 10 bags of steer manure in the trunk. You don’t cry when you spill coffee on the passenger seat. Driving an ugly car means you have more freedom, such as never needing to drive through a car wash.

The majority of my cars were handed down when my parents upgraded their rides. This ensured I always got a great deal, and knew the car’s maintenance history.

People who drive brand new cars drive like they’re riding in an egg. They cringe when teenagers erratically open their car doors quickly in a parking lot. New-car drivers find a space in the parking lot hinter-land, as if to advertise they drive something precious – and you don’t.

Over many years, my mother and my father had separately encouraged me to buy a new car. The nagging increased in intensity each time I had engine trouble.

In the case of my father, he had spent more than his fair share fixing water pumps, cleaning battery terminals and investigating strange sounds. When he reached his 70s, he said his days of wrenching were over; I needed to buy a new car or find a boyfriend with a tool chest.

Both my father and my mother also wanted assurances I would not be stranded (again) on one of my favorite, dusty back roads.

When my birthday rolled around, Mom offered me a bunch of money with strings attached: She’d pay for a chunk of the new car, if I paid for the rest.

Could I truly end this particularly unglamorous chapter of my life?

In some ways, I blame my penchant for clunkers on my parents.

When I turned 16, I gained freedom in the driver’s seat of a 1975 Gremlin. Sure, the kids in my affluent Bay Area high school made a few jokes. I took that in stride. I was headed for the wild beyond. My car had a cassette player and I was ready to be unbridled. The fact that I did not have air conditioning meant my hair was perpetually blowing in the wind.

In college, “Wayne’s World,” was a big hit and the jokes intensified. For some reason, everyone believes Garth drove a Gremlin in the film. It was a Pacer, people! Not a Gremlin.

My Gremlin was a gem. It kept going through college and for several years into my career at the newspaper.

The vinyl on the bench seat began to peel, and I covered it with bedsheets. One day, my brother needed some cash, and I paid him to wash it. Some vital component must have rusted, because the passenger side door never closed again. I had to tie the door shut with a belt. To get out of the car, I scooched over the bench seat and opened the door on the passenger side.

And yet, the engine kept going. At the bitter end, the brakes were metal-on-metal and I drove carefully to Chico Scrap Metal, where I received $16.50.

I drove two other cars into the ground, pocketing money from the Cash-For-Clunkers program – a 1992 Saturn with an obliterated transmission and a 1998 Toyota Camry that had logged 311,000 miles.

My logic, all this time, has been that a cheap car requires $1,000 in maintenance a year, but almost nothing upfront.

I bought the car, a 2019 Honda Civic, which is at the top of Consumer Reports’ lists of reliable, reasonably-priced vehicles. If all goes well, I can drive my first new car until I retire my driver’s license. My step-dad helped pick it out, based on the latest safety features. My first week with the car, I took my students on a camping trip. They stomped with muddy shoes in the back seat, and I was glad.

“How do you like that new car?” Dad asked more recently.

“I’m getting used to it,” I said. “I got my first ding in the paint when I was parked at the grocery store. That makes me feel better.”

Last weekend, I drove my nearly-new car onto my lawn and washed it. It had been a while, and I might as well enjoy the fresh paint, even if the car’s value dropped $5,000 the minute I drove it off the lot.

It was a beautiful day, so I waxed it.

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Sow There! Trading rain for an extended autumn, Nov. 15, 2019

Just another day in the neighborhood. (Heather Hacking — contributed)
November 15, 2019

Almost every day, unless I am ill or traveling, I drive along The Esplanade.

This week, I’ve caught myself holding my breath, thinking “wow,” and “thank you.”

Fall is my favorite season.

I don’t get tired of crimson, amber and umber – or other colors that have common names like brown, yellow and orange.

If the air is chilly, my windows of the car are rolled up tight. The view prompts me to turn off the radio, as if I will be able to hold more closely to the visual when there is no sound. The leaves whiz by my windshield with a silent soundtrack, and what remains hanging in the trees will glint in the whisper of the sun.

I know I’m not the only one wowed by what we get to see every day.

I landed a job at Chico State University, which puts me smack dab in the middle of glorious leaf land. (My plan is to go back to teaching as soon as someone will hire me for a class in August 2020).

At the college, you can wander all day in awe, and never tire of the fading colors.

Just another day in the neighborhood. (Heather Hacking — contributed)

I often overhear students who are new to town. They’ll say “Wow,” and “I can’t believe the leaves.” “I feel like I landed on the East Coast,” someone might utter, with or without an East Coast accent.

It’s nice to know when others share a common appreciation.

A few years ago, I saw some guy walking into the middle of the street on the Esplanade. There was a pause in the flow of traffic, due to a red light down the way. The guy snapped a photo and it made me smile to know someone simply had to capture that multi-colored moment.

It turns out it was Jeff Pershing. I recognized him because he has played his guitar in town for about as long as I have used a 95926 zip code. Somehow knowing we shared this simple appreciation makes me listen more closely to his music.

Alas, like spring flowers, chocolate-covered almonds and youthful skin — fall leaves are not meant to last. All it takes is one solid rainstorm and those leaves can hit the ground like propaganda flyers from a biplane.

As much as I’m excited that the leaves are lingering, there really should be rain by now.

I know I’m getting old because I hear myself say things like “things just aren’t the way they used to be.”

When I was younger, and even a few years ago, I distinctly remember we would have rain by now.

By now I should be able to scatter grass seed in the bald spots of my lawn, and let the rain do the work of watering new seedlings.

By now I should be able to plant seeds for spinach and kale in my raised bed, then forget about the seeds until early spring. By now I am usually pressing poppy seeds into the cracks in the pavement of my alley, knowing the seeds will sprout and orange flowers will appear in the spring.

I tracked down an article on the Weather Channel Website The article states the obvious: It hasn’t rained, and we should have rain by now.

The good news is that we can enjoy the fall leaves until Thanksgiving. For that, I will be thankful.

Maybe this weekend I’ll do some gardening. I’ll scatter some grass seed on the windshield of my car, and then rinse off my car while its parked on the lawn.

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Sow There!, Nov. 8 was anything but a normal day at school, Nov. 8, 2019

November 8, 2019 at 4:19 am

Autumn mornings are crisp and children on the playground aren’t necessarily noticing the beauty of the amber and golden leaves. In those few moments before school, kids are chasing each other around in small circles or giggling in even smaller circles.

A year ago, the bell rang and my third-grade students at a school in Chico created a somewhat disorderly line facing the glass doorway. My mind was not in the sky, but going over details of lessons-to-be.

In passing, I heard chatter in the hallway about a “fire near Oroville.” We could smell smoke in the air, but my focus was on teaching how to tell time on an analog clock. I checked my phone when children were working in small groups. Pulga. The fire was near Pulga. That was very far away.

Before teaching, I was a newspaper reporter. Every fire we heard on the police scanner was a potential call for action, but most fires are stamped out quickly. When you’ve worked the news beat for a few years, you begin to build your list of devastating fires – The Poe, Musty Buck, Swedes … As a writer, I helped share slices of those big stories, including interviews with people staying in shelters, folks searching for their pets and those fighting the fires. Over the years, we’ve watched in disbelief as the big news of local fires became huge news, including whole communities displaced in Clear Lake and Santa Rosa.

Yet, last year, Nov. 8, the first morning of the Camp Fire, I was a teacher. It wasn’t my job to race toward the flames. My children were safe in their seats, the fire was far away, and we were learning about the big hand and the little hand.

The children raced around outside during snack break. I met them at the blue line on the blacktop, where they gathered, somewhat orderly. Their cheeks were flush from the chill. As I faced them, my back to the south, I saw their wide eyes and frightened expressions. They saw the sky over my shoulder.

The sky! Gray and a deep orange, a monstrous mound of color that simply should not be in the sky.

When we reached our classroom, and settled into chairs, I gave an update with cool teacher-authority.

“I checked the news earlier today,” I said calmly. “That fire is far, far away from us.

I believed those words.

Yet, nothing was OK, and would not be for a long time.

“We need to focus on our work today, but let’s take a moment and think good thoughts for all of the people who might be really scared right now, those people who are close to the fire, and the animals as well.”

We did not know that right then, people were trapped in their cars with fire on both sides of the road.

Just a few hours later, we were working on multiple digit subtraction when a parent arrived at the door. She was there to take her son early — not home, but somewhere else. She lived in the fire zone and evacuations had begun. We didn’t know yet, but her house was one of the thousands that would be lost. Her family would live for months in an RV, parked in front of another classmate’s home.

It would be weeks before we returned to school. By then, the children knew that everything was not OK.

I can’t begin to share the many vignettes that occurred over the remainder of the school year. On the first day back, we gathered in a circle on the carpet near the bookshelves. We talked for more than an hour. There were times, months later, when children drew pictures of their homes, with relatives staying on couches or parked in trailers in the driveway. Some children needed quiet time at school, because there were few quiet spaces at home. And little by little, we learned triple digit addition and the difference between an adverb and an adjective.

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Sow There! Cleaning out the gutters, an unwelcome season, 11-1-19

The time to crunch leaves is when they are crunchy, not when they are a soggy mess. And yet, I hoped my students last fall would think smashing slimy leaves was an enjoyable garden task. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

November 1, 2019 at 3:14 am

Autumn has a certain smell. I’d need to create a new word to describe it succinctly. Bits of dying or recently dead plants are churned in the air. Wind mixes up the dust and the you can smell the grass that is covered with morning dew. What ends up at your nostrils is the general smell of decay, in a good way.

Somewhere in that scent soup, an olfactory genius might track down the stench from the gunk stuck in the rain gutters.

If you’re looking for a job this weekend, cleaning out the rain gutters is a good bet. The worst time to clean out the gutters is when there is a river flowing over your windowsill and you need to don a Gorton’s Fisherman’s yellow jacket and climb up a slippery ladder.

Gloves are key for the rain gutter ordeal, because you never know what you’ll find in that thin, folded metal — rodent remnants, walnuts or small plastic balls tossed by the neighborhood children, for example. I’m sure the organic material is suitable for compost, but I’ve actually never added the gunk to my pile.

This is a gross job, and that is precisely why many of us avoid the task until spring.

The equivalent of rain gutter goo is the hairball that accumulates in the sink. Every so often, I’ll notice the sink is draining slowly. I know hair is down there  and will dig around in the drain with the tweezers until I find something I can grab. What comes up often looks like a partially decayed gerbil covered in gray slime. The smell is atrocious, but I’m lucky to have a delayed gag reflex.

Cleaning out rain gutters can be nearly as frightening as the sink.

Somewhere in my shed, I have a plastic scooper with a rectangular edge that is made specifically for rain gutter cleaning. Of course, I can never find the tool when it is needed, and end up using gloved hands or a gardening trowel. Then there’s the bucket problem. It’s tough to balance on the ladder, dig around with the trowel, fight the urge to gag and aim accurately at the bucket.

I’m thinking our city is fairly forward-thinking. I appreciate that we have a leaf pickup service during the fall. Couldn’t the city simply add a rain gutter cleaning service, timed just a few weeks before the first rain? Or better yet, we could create a ChicoCorps, with young people paid to provide community services, including rain gutter cleaning, compost turning and perhaps a timely fall rose pruning.

More to do

If you’re avoiding a really big task, like cleaning out the shed or rain gutter detail, now is a good time to put fallen leaves to good use.

A gal named Kim created a video that gives some tips on how to compost leaves in black plastic bags, I found the video last year and thought my students would have a great time crunching the leaves.

However, the fires raged through Northern California, and many good plans were delayed. By the time our class made it to the leaf detail in January, it had rained and the leaves were no longer crunchy. The students thought handling the soggy leaves was gross.

They were right, and I hope I haven’t ruined them for future tasks like cleaning out rain gutters.

We did manage to mash up about a quarter of a bag, which sat near the greenhouse until it was thrown away months later when I wasn’t looking.

In the video, Kim advises filling black plastic bags when the leaves are dry. Crunch the leaves, either with your hands or by rolling on the bag like a bean bag chair.

Poke holes in the bag with a stick and then soak the leaves with the hose. Set the bag in a sunny spot to create compost over time. When it’s time to spread the decayed leaves, they’ll be contained within the bag.

Of course, you can also rake leaves onto your compost pile, and turn the pile a few times over the winter. You can also simply let the leaves lay on the ground and deal with them next spring, about the time you get around to cleaning out the rain gutters.

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