Sow There! Give your tree a big hug, Aug. 30, 2019

Lasting love. Did the maple tree grow for the 20-plus years it has been in my life? Did I grow? What I do know is that it has been looking down on me all this time. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
August 30, 2019

I was 2 ½ years old when my family moved from our first home in Hayward. It was here I learned to crawl and squawk, and apparently learned to love trees.

On the day we moved, our family had a caravan of pickup trucks to haul our treasures to our new house. My parents tried to stuff me into the black Volkswagen Bug with the oval window in the back, but I grabbed onto the tree in the front yard. I’m betting my parents laughed when they took the photograph of their youngest child, squalling like a wounded hyena. I was young, and pre-verbal, but making my first big stand for something I believed in.

“I hate change,” I would have wailed, if I was at an age where I could speak in complete sentences.

We visited the house once or twice before we left the town forever. The new residents cut down “my tree.”

I’ve had other tree loves over the years, including the weeping willow in Auntie Jeanne’s backyard in Benicia. A single rope dangled from the strongest limb. It was here I learned to “fly” on the plank swing.

My aunt and uncle also loved that tree, and tried to keep it as part of the family. However, the tree sent roots in every direction, which repeatedly ruined the plumbing.

In college, I loved many a tree. I liked the gnarled, bush-like tree outside of Laxson, which seemed like it would gladly hug you if you lingered long enough. At One-Mile, I grew fond of a tree near Sycamore Pool, where I wrote poetry and watched strangers from a distance.

Maple leaves, currently green, soon to turn to lovely yellow. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

Why a tree? I think it’s because when we spend time quietly, we spend time with our most intimate thoughts, and the tree is there as an open-minded witness.

Today, I adore a nearby maple tree. It’s so tall you can’t see to the top clearly without a pair of binoculars. If there was a tree that “knew me,” this would be it. Most of my most embarrassing and triumphant moments have been in the grace of this tree’s shade, and it even wears a few scars of my making.

I do not know if I ever actually “talked to this tree,” but there have been times when I felt it was listening.

Shadeless summer

The older we get, the more we should come to expect things to change. This summer was another big loss. All of the trees in my yard were chopped down. I can’t say that I had any deep-rooted love for these trees, but I sure do miss the shade. I don’t leave the air conditioner on while I’m away. The sun beats down on the roof like an angry hammer of Thor. I now keep my chocolate in the refrigerator and have moved dozens of plants under a sun shade.

When I take walks in my neighborhood, I want to talk to strangers and remind them to give a few minutes of appreciation for the trees in their yard.

“Look at that tree! Look at your shaded porch. Can you imagine life without these trees?”

I would say all of that and more, but I suspect those strangers would think I was a wacko.

Sure, some trees make a mess in the fall or require expensive trimming every decade. However, life without shade is dismal indeed.

And here is the lesson learned, the hard way as usual. Before the trees were lost to the chainsaw, I took them for granted, disparaged them, resented them. The lowly loquat, the garbage-dumping silk tree, the most-hated privet … The mulberry tree alone escaped my scorn. Had I known what 103 degrees would feel like without those trees, I would have talked to them more often. In retrospect, I should have given them more praise.

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Sow There! Hyacinth bulbs a delight no matter the season, Aug. 23, 2019

Yes, ridiculously large, fire-engine red blooms can withstand the pokes from children and stale air of a classroom. Amaryllis can be forced indoors for a huge show. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
August 23, 2019 

For many years, I have scoffed at the audacity of Costco to sell hyacinth bulbs in August.

I love shopping at Costco. You can wander for hours, rest in their sofas, nibble on snacks and consider what you might need three months in the future. Right now, your child can pick out her Halloween costume. In about a day and a half, Costco will be selling Christmas ribbon and ornaments. Perhaps your child wants to dress as a Christmas tree for Halloween. How lovely to have so many options.

If you’re a good consumer, you can store your costume and ornaments next to the 10 oversized boxes of cheese puffs you bought at Costco last week.

This year, I was pleased that hyacinth bulbs are ready to fall into my shopping cart. In fact, I had been waiting for them. The other day, I roamed the overstocked aisles and asked a nice, helpful man in a red smock: “Where the heck are the hyacinth bulbs? It’s already August!” He assured me they would arrive “any day now.”

Hyacinth don’t have the visual impact of Amaryllis, but the bulbs bloom well indoors, when the bulbs are first chilled. Hyacinth are delightfully fragrant. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

There’s no rush, of course, except that I have learned that hyacinth bulbs can be forced year-round.

Last year, hyacinth and other bulbs were a great source of joy – for me and for my students.

My first classroom bloom was a hulking, blazing red amaryllis, which bloomed before the weather turned gray. After that, I began on an indoor-bulb-a-thon. Something was growing in a vase until the daffodils bloomed outdoors in the spring.

For the winter holiday, I gifted each child in my class a glass jar, a generous amount of pebbles and their own hyacinth bulb. During winter vacation, several parents emailed me photographs noting bulb status. These moments are among the underreported joys of teaching.

When I bought a huge bag of hyacinth bulbs this week, I immediately placed a bulb in a specially-shaped jar with water, and popped that beauty in the refrigerator. Over the next many weeks, white roots will grow from bulb, reaching with white tentacles. When the bulb resembles a jellyfish, I’ll bring it into the classroom.

Chilling? Thumbs up or down?

Note that there’s some question about whether spring-blooming bulbs need to be chilled if you intend to plant the bulbs in the ground. I’ve read that most bulbs purchased at the store have already been given a jolt of cold. Newly purchased bulbs should be ready to plant as soon as you get the gumption to dig a hole.

I scoured the very small print on my new bag of bulbs, and there was no word on chilling vs. not chilling. I am thinking the bulb-sellers want their consumers to be successful. If the bulbs needed to be chilled, they would probably tell us.

What is chilling?

Many bulbs, as well as other plants, need a time of dormancy before they can repeat their life cycle. Almonds grow well in this area, because trees get enough “chilling hours” in winter to signal the tree to flower and create a batch of nuts.

Several bulbs can also be tricked into thinking it is time to bloom. In this way, we can chill bulbs and then force them (I prefer the terms tease or coerce) during most times of the year.

The quandary over ethylene

Of note: Hyacinth and other bulbs can have their growth stunted if exposed to ripening fruit. My fridge is currently filled with berries and corn, so I’ll be careful. Fruit releases ethylene gas. I skimmed through several scientific articles on the subject, and learned it is tricky to know how much gas from ripening fruit will do damage. I’ve had good luck so far by dropping one or the other (the fruit or the bulbs) into a paper bag and storing in the crisper drawer.

When to plant outdoors

As for planting bulbs in the ground, a garden guru once told me to wait until Thanksgiving. If the bulbs are in the crisper drawer, you can chill them for as long as 16 weeks, or as little as 6-8 weeks. For many folks, by the time Thanksgiving arrives, you need every inch of your fridge for storing pre-meal food, then post-meal leftovers.

Some bulbs do not need a chill. The American Meadows website, ( notes that amaryllis, anemone, crocus, Dutch iris, freesia, lilies, daffodils and ranunculus can be simply planted without a zap of cold.

Tomato outlet

The you-pick peach sale at the Chico State University Farm has come and gone. I did not make it this year, mostly because I do not have any room in my refrigerator.

However, you can still pick yourself a peck* of tomatoes along Hegan Lane at Laura’s tomato stand.

The price is $1.25 a pound and runs on the honor system; You put your dollars in a drop-box. Laura’s dad is a genuinely nice person, and occasional tomato public information officer. He sent me an email so I could share the ripe news.

Laura’s stand is on Bruce Lane, which is just off of Hegan. The best way to get there is to travel south on Park Avenue, until the road turns into the Midway. Travel just past the veterinarian’s office, and take a quick right onto Hegan. Watch for Laura’s signs to Bruce Lane, on the left.

A peck of pluots?

Also from Laura’s dad, the stand that sells pluots via the honor system was also open for business last time he checked. The Pluots ( are a cross between plums and apricots. You can try them, while they last, for $1.50 a pound.

* Peck: As in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” is an archaic term for about two dry gallons. We think it’s funny to hear that someone picked a “peck” of something. According to Wikipedia, the “peck” was funny even when the tongue twister was new. Apparently, pickles were almost never picked by the peck, even back then. Who knew?

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Sow There! Dried fruit, and how to hoard it for a rainy day, Aug. 16, 2019


Tomato candy, only 139 calories per cup. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

August 16, 2019 

I need to stop buying delicious and beautiful fruits and vegetables from the farmers market. I do this every year. I stroll while I’m hungry and end up with a fridge filled with really good eating intentions.

This season, I’ll also blame the cruise ship. During my family’s recent jaunt to Alaska, I consumed (quite possibly) tens of thousands of calories in the form of drizzled chocolate, toasted hazelnut and creamy coconut. After gorging night and day on treats, my body was so saturated with sugar, it’s a wonder ants did not find me in my sleep.

The day I disembarked, I craved spinach and antioxidant berries, and stocked up on zucchini, carrots and kale at the farmers market. For several days, I bought and ate healthful foods like my life depended on it.

Then the tomatoes in my garden spurted a big batch. Next, the seedless Thompson grapes were discovered along my cyclone fence.

On the cruise ship, I experimented with whether one could overdose on chocolate, meringue and lemon curd. (I lived). Can you OD on Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables?

Easy food preservation

If I were a more generous person, I would have donated my excess produce to a local charity. Yet, this thought did not occur to me until I sat down to write this column.

When I brought some baskets of tomatoes to share with my mom, sister and niece, I ended up coming home with a big bag of ripe figs.

Next, I put a lot of thought into how to preserve all this summer overstock to overindulge later in the year.

Tomatoes and grapes are both candidates for freezing. In the past, I would wash grapes from my garden, freeze them in snack-sized plastic bags and add them to fruit smoothies.

Tomatoes can also be frozen ( to use in marinara sauce in the winter. To prepare them for freezing, cut a cross in the skin (for peeling later), then dunk the fruit in a pan of boiling water for 1-2 minutes. Scoop them out quickly and place the red rubies in a bowl of ice water. Once they’re cool, you can easily slip off the peels and pack the tomatoes into freezer-friendly plastic bags.

However, it’s so hot right I doubt even Rachael Ray would bring water to a roiling broil if she lived in the Sacramento Valley.

These days, my air conditioner is burping and gurgling to keep up with the heat.

It’s so hot, I don’t want to run the washing machine and dryer. I would rather wear my clothes a second time and spray them with fabric freshener.

Despite the heat-induced brain fog, I remembered the food dehydrator I tucked away above the silent washing machine.

When I ran the extension cord out the dog door in the laundry room, I could run the dehydrator from the back porch. If possums came to nibble on the fruit overnight, they put the lid back.

Now I have yet another dilemma: Can I keep from eating ridiculous amounts of super sweet Thompson raisins, dried “tomato candy?” and semi-moist figs?

Compared to ice cream, dried tomatoes are a calorie bargain ( at 139 calories a cup. Raisins pack more paunch at 433 calories a cup. However, just a few on my morning oatmeal probably won’t ruin me for my size 10 jeans. Dried figs are delicious when nibbled with a cup of coffee.

Also, I’ll be teaching again in a week or so, and on my feet for at least 10,000 steps a day.

My guess is that dried tomatoes and raisins will be a big hit among my students, if I find it in my heart to share.

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Sow There! Peak season for summer sweetness, Aug. 9, 2019

If berries were art, this would be my “blue series.” Torani dark chocolate blends well. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
August 9, 2019 

The past several weeks have been prime time for some serious berry gobbling. I would never say that I eat well. If I’m on my own, an obscene percentage of my calories are consumed in the form of ice cream. However, I’ve had a guest staying at my house, which means we’ve been going out and about, and bumping into some beautiful food.

Thor and I went to the downtown farmers market and I rediscovered that mid-summer is a fresh fruit and veggie bonanza.

I bring extra containers when I shop downtown, because more than once I’ve arrived home with fruit mush at the bottom of my reusable shopping bag. The bountiful bargain right now is three baskets of berries for $10, mix and match.

One morning, we poured blueberries over oatmeal. In the afternoon, sliced strawberries and raspberries were added to a salad. Cucumbers, crookneck squash and cherry tomatoes were ready to grab from my own small garden.

When it came time for ice cream, one would accurately presume that a mix of berries was liberally added to each bowl.

Another night, I crafted a simple dish with mixed berries beautifully arranged on a plate, with a small bowl of Torani dark chocolate dipping sauce. To be extra fancy, I brought out my tiny shellfish forks.

My version of “slow food,” is to really savor each bite, and decide which berry goes best with chocolate.

Thor likes geography. Perhaps to justify a second helping, we spent time deciding which part of the tongue registered sweet and tart, and which part of the tongue tingles when chocolate is applied.

A sampling of weet, seasonal fruit. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

The next week, we opted to add blackberries to the mix. These served well with a breakfast of berries, plain Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of granola. Berry preferences vary. Some folks savor the wine-like richness of the black, while I prefer the electric sweetness of the nearly over-ripe raspberries.

Peaches also shouldn’t be overlooked this time of year. Farmers market vendors offer sweet samples. This is important, because shopping for fruit makes me really hungry.

I always make a point of buying peaches that are still soft-ball hard, this way they don’t turn to mush when you jostle around the market or dance along to the tunes of a street-corner musician. I let the fresh fruit rest for 2-3 days on my warm kitchen counter, then pop them in the fridge.

When you bite into a cold, perfectly ripe peach, your mouth puckers with the sweet and tart, your lower lip gets cold, juice drips onto your fingers. You can’t help but savor the goodness in your mouth, working the pulp like a dog licking peanut butter.

Soon at a farm near you

The Chico State University Farm holds a peach you-pick-it event every year on Hegan Lane. This is the time to buy a bucket of peaches. You can be a star by bringing a huge box to work and offering them to your coworkers.

When I called the farm this week, they expected the peaches to go on sale mid-month.

My school does not begin until the fourth week of this month, which means one more summer fruit fling before I hunker down to a year of teaching.

Call before you head to the farm. The hotline to check for the exact dates is 898-4989.

My guess is that peaches will make a perfect substitute for any of the food combinations mentioned above (yogurt, salad, chocolate). I’m willing to do the research. My hypothesis is that Torani dark chocolate sauce enhances all foods, even sushi.

Keeping it going

Just for fun, please share how you have been enjoying local summer fruit. I’d love to get new ideas and share them with other readers. Also, I’d love to learn how to make an epic fruit tart.

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Sow There! Scavenger hunt at Butchart Gardens, Aug. 2, 2019

Row after row of lovliness at Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia. (Heather Hacking — contributed)

August 2, 2019 

When the cruise ship pulled into Victoria, British Columbia, I had a quest: Butchart Gardens (

The gardens are renowned for the great number of flowering plants crammed into a small place. Long ago, limestone was mined to build roads in Canada, and to make Mr. and Mrs. Butchart very rich. When the limestone was gone, what remained was a huge, ugly pit.

Jennie Butchart may have felt guilty, or likely was a very kind soul, and used her newly-mined money to pay for wagonloads of topsoil. Over the next several generations, the Butcharts transformed the eyesore into a watercolorist’s dream.

Spanning 55 acres, the gardens grow up and down the terraced cavity, with narrow paths now overpopulated with flower geeks snapping images for social media.

I wanted to see it all. I wanted to linger over every plant. I wanted to indulge in pollination rituals and smell every rose named for a celebrity. Yet, our silly cruise ship tour only allowed 1 hour and 20 minutes for flower exploration.

Less than four hours seemed like an insult. Yet, I was on vacation. Complaints are not allowed when you are intent on family fun. Just like everyone else, I clicked my camera rapid-fire. I would relive those moments when I subjected my friends to three-hour vacation slide shows.

Our timeline at Butchart Gardens did not allow for a snow cone stop, nor did I even consider waiting in line for the bathroom.

Our only stop was to ride the carousel. One of Dad’s many mottos is that you can never walk past a carousel.

Looking high and low

Meanwhile, I was on a quest.

My friend Chrissy had taken the Alaska/Canada cruise the week earlier. We had arranged a game where she would hide a message for me somewhere in the gardens. She found a great spot, hid the note under a rock, and sent me pictures. One picture was of the view I would see when I found the note. The other picture included a stone bench and her elbow pointing toward a rock.

My clue was “up high.”

Garden to-do list

Got it.

View 900 varieties of plants, ride carousel, find note.

For an hour, my family raced around the former limestone quarry. The gardens at the rim of the former quarry were definitely “up high.” I followed them to the bottom of the garden area, and back up again. I did not see a stone bench.

We rode the carousel and I must have become disoriented, because I momentarily forgot about Chrissy’s note.

The path ended at the gift shop, but I had not found the hidden note.

My family said they would stall our cruise ship bus driver – Dad can extend a story with segues and rich detail.

I raced back down the path, razzle dazzle past new groups of garden viewers who had only begun their 1 hour and 20 minute journey. People had stopped in the middle of the narrow path, posing with their extended families and comparing the heads of their toddlers to the size of dahlias.

As I power walked, I heard at least one person say “she must really be in a hurry.”

Around yet another bend, I saw the overlooked “up high” place. A column of rock, undoubtedly not limestone, rose from the center of the garden pit. I knew there must be a steep staircase.

By the time I reached the top, my heart was pounding. The only exercise I had done on the ship for the past week was to run for second helpings of chocolate cake.

I spotted the bench. I turned over the rock. I found the soggy slip of paper. Chrissy had drawn a picture of a chicken and written the words “Hi Heather.”

I was elated.

Snap, snap. I took a picture.

I also knew that my friend Paul planned to take the same cruise to Alaska Aug. 4-14. I hid a note for him in case he visits the garden.

I had no time to be clever. My note reads “Hi Paul.”

The race back to the tour bus was even more harried. Now I was traveling in the opposite direction. I consoled myself in knowing I would never see these people again. I moved quickly, but I know I heard a few comments about the hurry I was in.

By the time I returned to the cruise ship that afternoon, I felt like I had earned that second piece of chocolate cake.

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Sow There! Creating a vacation state of mind means finding a good plant-sitter, July 26, 2019

Creating a vacation state of mind means finding a good plant-sitter | Sow There!

A crookneck squash arrives in the yard in September 2016. (Heather Hacking — Enterprise-Record, file)
July 26, 2019 

My Feline Unit went missing in 2017 while I was away on a long vacation. As much as you prepare for a pet’s well-being while away, something can happen.

The cat was the second pet lost while I was away having fun. When I was 15, I entrusted my water turtle to my younger cousin. It died on her watch, and I admit I’ve never really forgiven my cousin.

When my long-haired Manx kitty went missing two years ago, it was a rough homecoming. My Handsome Woodsman had died eight months earlier in a car crash. Grief on top of grief left me lost in my own head.

After that trip – 17 amazing days in Costa Rica – my search for the cat turned somewhat manic. Rather than deal with my feelings, I put all my energy into finding that darn cat. I put up posters, printed her photo in my column, posted flyers at veterinarians and plead for help on social media. For months, I took walks at dusk, dawn and mid-day, calling her secret whistle that normally brought her indoors for food and a snuggle.

Even today, two years later, I sometimes drive down side streets in the avenues, hoping that something white, furry and familiar will catch my eye.

Losing a loved one – a pet or a person – is tough, and perhaps even more painful when you hold hope that one day you will be reunited.

With all of this background, I totally understood why my Dad and his wife were nervous about leaving their pets when we took a family vacation.

All in the family

Pets really are part of our family. Last spring, our third grade class compiled data as we learned to make bar graphs.

“Raise your hand if you have a pet,” I said to the class.

All of my children raised their hands. My fingers stayed by my side.

“That’s so sad you don’t have a pet,” one child blurted out without raising her hand.

“You should get a cat, Miss Hacking,” another child advised.

“No. A dog,” a boy said with certainty. “You should get a dog.”

I just shook my head and smiled – sadly.

Several Sow There! readers have written to suggest I adopt a spare pet they have in their yard. Yet, it has felt disloyal to replace my beloved fur ball before an appropriate period of mourning. You can’t just bring a thing into your home because there’s an empty pillow on the couch.

Is two years enough time to mourn?

On the road

Of course, being without a pet has its perks. A few weeks ago, as I packed my bags for the Alaska cruise, I did not need to find someone to take care of a cat.

For my Dad, and anyone else with a much-loved pet, finding a pet-sitter is a big deal. If you find someone willing to stay with your animal, it needs to be someone who won’t try to move into your spare bedroom. A good house-helper shouldn’t snoop, steal or make your house party-central. Most importantly, the pet-friend needs to give your animal as much love as the pet would receive if you were home.

My dad has two little dogs who are decidedly pampered. The pups are hand-fed chicken breast and need their long hair brushed frequently. When an Alpo commercial comes on TV, the dogs rush to the bottom of the screen and yap with high-pitched glee. The dogs also need exercise and a warm person to snuggle. Taking care of those two little dogs is a big job.

It all turned out well. My reliable friend Thor was already visiting the area, and agreed to house-sit for my Dad.

But even with the dogs in good hands, Dad and my step-mom worried while we were gone.

If you’re traveling, there’s a silent helpless feeling that comes with leaving a part of the family at home – be it a teenager, a cat or a tank filled with neon tetras. Things happen. I understood their angst. I was worrying about my plants.

Five friends (Christina, Mark, Jim, Bill and LaDonna) agreed to drag the hose around the yard while I feasted on the cruise ship. You would think I could gain 7 pounds on cruise food without a worry in the world. However, when we reached ports, I texted helpful reminders to the plant-tenders. I knew Chico was blistering hot and the rhododendron could not make it three days without a drink.

I was so reassured when Bill sent a text saying all was well with my plants. He even texted photos of crookneck squash happily awaiting my return.

The same was true for the dogs at Dad’s house. Thor sent reassuring pictures of the dogs yapping at the TV during dog food commercials, the pups calmly curled up on the couch.

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Sow There! Water plants for a friend is a lot to ask

The interior of the new shade structure looked like the Rainforest Cafe when I went on a trip recently and asked friends to help water. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
July 19, 2019 

It’s true that part of the joy of taking a trip is the anticipation. This is certainly the case for me.

I visualize my family and my rubber chicken running in slow motion along a pristine beach, the watercolor sunset making our skin glow with soft pink hues. In my trip-planning mode, everyone we meet is genuinely friendly and each expense costs less than our budget.

When in vacation anticipation mode, I look at Google maps and view endless photos of other people’s idyllic vacation moments. I’m genuinely happy for them.

Long before I triple lock the front doors, I’m breathing more deeply. Sometimes I swear my blood pressure is already lower, as if I’m soaking my toes in cerulean water and my tummy filled with fattening foods.

All of that … what fun to plan.

Unless you’re the plant lady.

Plant lady

I’m the plant lady. It’s an elite club.

  • Ladies living in shoes with too many children …
  • The gal with so many cats she can’t sit on the furniture.
  • The recycler with so many Cool Whip containers he builds a plastic tower in the living room.
  • Floor-to-ceiling displays of Franklin Mint decorative plates, covering multiple walls.
  • Readers with good intentions who have so many stacks of newspapers they no longer have room in their house for books …

We know who we are.

Guitars, Teletubbies, Precious Moments figurines, bulky exercise machines, DVDs, porcelain dolls, National Geographics, purses … it’s easy to have way too much of things we love.

I collect plants. Most of them are in pots.

I moved to my current cottage about four years ago. Certainly, enough time has passed that I could have built or paid for decorative raised beds and a simple drip irrigation system.

Nope, I wander around the yard nearly every day, with hose trailing. It’s a ritual I like.

Thinking is not important. I notice which flowers are just about to open. I witness bees doing important work and I squash cabbage worms.

The interior of the new shade structure looked like the Rainforest Cafe when I went on a trip recently and asked friends to help water. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

In these moments of mindlessness, solutions to problems can come to me like the wind.

It’s hard to remain twisted inside when all that is needed is to walk 6 inches at a time, controlling running water.

Being the plant lady hurts no one, unless she wants to go on vacation.

Selfishly, I like to plan a trip in early July, when Chico is miserably hot.

“Hello (long, lost friend): It’s July — can you come to my house and stand in the bitter heat and water my plants?

“I know we haven’t talked since I started teaching last August. Yes, I’m great. How are you? I don’t have much time to chat. I’m leaving town in two hours. Can you save my plants from almost certain death while I’m frolicking in fun far, far away?”

Richard, good man that he is, gave an honest reply. “I would really rather not, but you know I will if you really need me.”

I couldn’t argue with that. He’s done my dirty work a time or two. I did all that I could to find other helpers. I want to ensure I can use him as a backup another time.

Luckily, I did not need to go door-to-door searching for a 12-year-old child and bribing him with $20 bills. I asked several friends to stop by and tend the hose once or twice, on a specific date. Teaching must have helped improve my organizational skills because this time, I made a spreadsheet.

I know exactly the right gift to give my helpers as a token of my gratitude: A plant.

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Sow There! Adaptation to the sun, part 2, July 12, 2019

Shade is not always a luxury. Often it requires hard work to acquire. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

July 12, 2019 

Some of us remember the old-style camping tent.

On a camping trip, you roll into the park at dusk after a long, dusty drive.

The kids are sent off to play as the parents unpack the car, truck or van. From a safe distance, children hear the clank of metal poles.

The tent was inherited from grandfather and probably predates World War II. The color is olive green, stained with brown from various adventures. The heavy canvas can withstand rain and hail, and muffle the laughter from late-night storytelling.

The problem is putting the thing together – usually in the dark.

Nowadays, we have tents with bendable poles that slide together without a harsh word being spoken. Today, you can pop a tent up in 10 minutes. Children can even help.

Long ago, with grandfather’s tent, the miscellaneous metal pieces were dumped on the ground like a puzzle. Some pieces had elbows, and others were shaped like a T.

The parents worked “together,” which often meant disagreeing on which piece should be connected next. Shouts of “just hold still” could be clearly heard throughout the campground. Near the end of the confusing job, sentences were punctuated with curse words.

Shelter needed

Last week, the tree demolition crew buzzed through my life. Every tree was destined for destruction.

The noise from the chainsaws was unsettling. More troubling was the image in my head of what the yard would be like when the job was done. I saw 106 temperatures, a roof so hot the squirrels would singe their paws. Citronella candles in the shed would melt from the exasperating heat. Every shade plant would die. Nights in an unshaded bedroom would feel like sleeping in a crock pot.

I understand the logic behind the change in my landscape. My landlord decided to “Get it done.” The mimosa tree literally had dead wood dangling. To prevent damage to my car, I parked 20 feet from the front walkway. My landlady decided to trim the trees once every 10 years. More trees will return, because that’s what trees do.

On day two of tree destruction, I did the sensible thing and joined my friend Thor for a few days at Lake Almanor.

When I returned, my house was how I had envisioned. The men wearing chartreuse vest and matching hard hats were gone. Huge, round chunks of tree carcasses remained, pushed against the perimeter of the property. Sawdust covered the mostly-dead Bermuda grass lawn.

Every living thing was exposed.

My first thought was to spend the remainder of the summer at La Flor De Michoacán Paletería y Nevería, my favorite ice cream shop, rather than face the hot reality of the interior of the shadeless house.

A little help from a friend

However, Thor saw the pain on my face. Being the nice man that he is, he said we should brainstorm for solutions.

I remembered a pile of metal poles that were leaning against the Mulberry tree. The tree was now a stump, but the men with chainsaws had returned the metal to generally the same location.

The poles were the bones of a shade structure. Once upon a time, when the Handsome Woodsman lived in Paradise, he built the shade structure to cover his Ford F-150 truck.

When he moved in with me, he planned to rebuild the shade at our shared house.

Yet, that never happened. Why would it? Putting up a structure like that – with endless mysterious pieces and hoisting a heavy tarp – was always a job for another day.

I found the black, plastic milk crate that contained those mysterious pieces. The tarp was hidden under sawdust. It was still in good shape because, until recently, it had been stored in the shade.

Thor, ever clear-headed, said if we worked in the relative cool of the morning, we could slap up that old shade structure and begin to rebuild what once was a more normal life.

Rather than dump the puzzle pieces on the ground, he lined up the pieces in a logical order. I was of very little use at this point, but managed to follow directions and found a piece of paper and a pen.

With mathematical precision, he determined what each piece of metal should be used for. We counted the poles (they were all there!), and he diagrammed the logical location of each piece.

We climbed a ladder, straightened poles with a maul and stood on the picnic table. We spent money at Harbor Freight, then used ropes as a pully system to drag the heavy plastic across the frame.

The structure, now complete, has as shade footprint of 16’x20′ and is 10 feet tall from peak to base. The time spent to erect it took about as long as it took the tree crew to transform the yard.

Thor was my new hero and together, we affected change.

As is always the case in life, there is more work to be done.

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Sow There! Black-hole sun, here it comes, July 5, 2019

Black-hole sun, here it comes | Sow There!

  • I made the mistake of peeking out of my (now sunny) kitchen window to watch the work on the mulberry tree.
PUBLISHED: July 5, 2019 at 10:00 am | UPDATED: July 5, 2019 at 10:09 am

“Sun, sun, sun … here it comes.”

My brain was abuzz with Beatles tunes last weekend after seeing the flick “Yesterday.”

Monday morning there was a loud knock on the front door. The visitor was one of four men standing in my driveway. They wore chartreuse vests, and wanted me to move my car. I padded out there in my bathrobe.

Tree trimming.

Many times in life, we must bravely face decisions that are not our own and are forced to make way for the chainsaws placed in front of you.

I decided to accept the fate of the trees.

Perhaps as an exercise in self-soothing, I decided I really did hate those trees.

The bad tree list

They weren’t trees, really. They were weeds. Nobody planted them. They began to grow one day, and continued unchecked. Years passed and they became part of the fabric of my yard, eventually creating a green shroud for my cottage in the Avenues.

Weed trees bear no fruit, unless it is messy and tasteless. The blossoms are far from lovely.  People keep them around because they provide the most basic services a tree can provide: Shade.

As for my particular trees, they cast down plant detritus most seasons of the year.

Here’s the quick facts (in no way reflective of actual horticultural facts):

·      Loquat: (Extremely “lo” on the hierarchy of desirable trees). Leaves fall onto the ground like tough, crunchy melba toast. Fruit is useless. Squirrels eat a bite of bland fruit, then pelt the remainder on the hood of my car. Fruit eats paint on my car. Seedlings sprout from nearly every potted plant.

Provided shade to bedroom window.

·      English Ivy: A tangle of deep green vines obscuring the loquat, roof line and sidewalk. If left undisturbed, the ivy would have gladly grown straight through the front door. Seedlings discovered in nearly every potted plant.

Provided shade to bedroom window.

·      Mimosa: (In my case) menacingly tall with a large crack in the trunk. Dead branches dangled over the car. Three seasons of yard garbage. Seasonal downpour of tawny-colored fuzz. Fall seed pods clogged the rain gutters. New trees volunteer easily. Seedlings in nearly every potted plant.

Provided shade to half the roof.

• Privet. Mounds of black seed balls that look like oversized clusters of black pepper. Seedlings in every pot. Seedlings in vegetable raised bed. Purple bird poop on hood of car. Purple bird poop eats paint on car.

Shaded my living room window.

• Mulberry: Robust and fruitless. Trunk size: two feet in dimeter. Limb size: one foot in diameter. Brutish nature sometimes results in dents in the rain gutter.

Shaded kitchen window, shed and back portion of house.

I had to leave town the second day of the chainsaw chorus. The tree crew was amazing, roping off giant limbs as if workers were auditioning for Cirque de Soleil.

When I returned, piles of logs, cut into four-foot sections, create an entirely unattractive perimeter to my soon-to-be sun-baked yard.

It’s done. I accept it. I will need to find new options for about 70 plants accustomed to shade. I will survive.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.


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Sow There! Plant envy while traveling, try not to covet the alstromeria, June 28 2019

Alstromeria is a long-lived bloom, in a vase or in the yard. The tricky part is getting it to sprout. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

June 28, 2019 at 3:40 am

It’s easy to fall in love with a land when you’re on vacation. People are generally kind to strangers, and a visitor’s footsteps follow the most-favored paths. If you happen to stray to the less-polished parts of town, things looks brighter through a traveler’s lens.

Last week, seven teachers from my school attended a week-long training in Sebastopol.

I knew this town in my youth. When I was 8-13 years old, I would visit a childhood friend for weeks at a time. We climbed apple trees and gathered blackberries. I remember going to the beach, and walking down long roads covered with gravel.

Things have changed, as things always do, and Sebastopol is now a cute little town with gift shops, a Whole Foods store and new restaurants. We also stumbled across a concert in the park, with a huge crowd of gray-haired people twirling on the grass.

Many of the side roads near downtown look much like they did in my youth, with large lots without fences and the occasional goat or horse in the front yard.

When I visit a place for more than a day or two, I sometimes fantasize about moving there. I might go so far as to research home prices, and that usually dissolves the idealized image I had created in my head. There may very well be a direct correlation between home prices and a climate where plants thrive.

Green garden envy

Our group stayed at an amazing house with a lush garden. The foxglove was 9 feet tall, and this is not an exaggeration. Spikes of blossoms did not tip over like they do in my yard. I breezed by big bushes of alstromeria, which will survive in the shade in my yard, but only for a few years. The hydrangea were also massive. I could tell it had been blooming a long time because many of the flowers had already dried.

Did the people who own this house know a thing or two I needed to learn? Did they bring in truckloads of compost every spring?

Then I noticed the trees and fence posts, as well as just about everything else made of wood. So much lichen was growing that the wood looked like it was covered in dull green/gray paint that was peeling.

Yes, the fog. That pure, misty air in the mornings, laden with just enough water to mist plants into happiness … that was the key to the plant prosperity.

Lichen are not waxy like plants and do not hold water when it is dry. Lichen can absorb the morning water vapor.

Chico’s USDA climate zone ( is similar to Sonoma County, but those misty mornings make a big difference.

The treasures in this yard included a medium-sized tree, which I am guessing was Chinese lantern. Exquisite ornaments hung throughout the tree, with papery red blooms and tiny red jewels at the bottom. I could have danced all night under that tree, and yes, we had a full moon.

Tricky alstromeria

I gathered a few dried alstromeria seed pods, also known as Peruvian Lily, in the hope of bringing a bit of this beauty to my own backyard.

Yet, there may be reasons people buy alstromeria in 1-gallon pots, rather than seed packets. Thompson and Morgan ( advise that gardeners have the best luck when the seeds are recently produced by the mother plant. They also advise planting seeds in midwinter to early spring.

Even if you do everything right, the T&M website said only a few seeds may sprout, and some of these may emerge a year later. Another source (, this one in the United Kingdom, says to plant seeds in vermiculate, cover with plastic, then place in the fridge for three weeks. Next, move the dormant seeds to a 70-degree environment. “Germination may be erratic.”

The reason the seeds wait, according to Thompson and Morgan, is that the seeds go into dormancy if the conditions are not exactly right.

Got it. They might as well just say it. These plants are best when purchased in a 1-gallon pot.

If you do plant alstromeria, they’re worth it. Cut flowers will last for weeks in a vase. I’ve also learned that when the stems die back and turn brown, you can gently shake them as you remove the dried stem. This stimulates the root system. As you shake the stem, you should probably also shake the seeds onto the ground. Who knows; they might grow someday if they feel like it.

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