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

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

Existential zucchini crisis

Growing zucchini,

All summer, last summer, the summer before.

Hovering over raised bed

hose gripped

wishing for the end

of watering

or whatever.

Leaves large, deep green


like the year before.


like the year before the year before

And before …

Water ever flowing

Years slipping

Always growing

zucchini, hose holding, water flowing.


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

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

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

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

Garden habits are a funny thing.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and zucchini? Thirty-one gallons.

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

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

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

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

September 7, 2018 at 3:52 am

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

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

“Class, it’s time for sharing.”

Hands shot up into the air.

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

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

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

Hornworm habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the birds

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

• Dark green blobs of worm poop? Affirmative.

• Barren branches with leaves stripped? Yes, indeed.

But where was the worm?

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

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

Birds into action

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

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

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

Show and tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re smart. They figured it out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I dreamed of buckets of Delicata.

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

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

Edible? Yes.

Delicious? Nope.

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

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

A farewell gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

His trust in this decision is inspiring.

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I was saving those words for today:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

or lose our ventures.”

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

August 24, 2018 at 4:17 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More news from the ivy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sow There!: History of garden science through children’s books, Aug. 17, 2018

A collection of books, mostly acquired through the Chico library Saturday morning book sales, awaits third-grade students. (Photo by Heather Hacking)
PUBLISHED: August 17, 2018 at 4:04 am | UPDATED: August 17, 2018 at 2:14 pm

For a year or more I’ve been hoarding children’s books. The Friends of the Library holds an amazing book sale every Saturday, (except holidays) 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. at the Chico library. If you want to see what I look like without my hat, you might spot me there.

Until recently I wasn’t sure what grade level I would be teaching, so I bought everything I loved reading as a child, had always wanted to read as a child or had watched children reading in third grade last year. The books are a quarter, so I kept buying. This summer I started reading them.

When I was 8, 9, 10 and well into my teens, I was that kid with the flashlight under my comforter, reading into the wee hours. I bumped into things because I read while I walked. I used big words I had recently learned in print, pronouncing those words so poorly it sounded like I was speaking gibberish.

As I turned pages this summer I realized it was not simply nostalgic memories. Children’s books really are well-written. They’re sweet and usually turn out happily at the end. I read most of “Where the Red Fern Grows,” but decided not to finish it. I know how it ends.

Other page-turners at my bedside included “The Lyon, the Witch and Wardrobe,” “Heidi,” “The Little Princess” and several books that won Newbery awards. I saw other worlds through the imagination of Avi (a children’s author) and lapped up the pastoral poetry in “Esperanza Rising.” Most recently I read “Farmer Boy,” which we’ll read in my third grade class this year.

Another full bookshelf includes many childhood favorites. (Photo by Heather Hacking)

Giant pumpkins

In Farmer Boy, little Almanzo (Laura Ingalls’ future husband), is growing a pumpkin in hopes of winning a prize at the fair. Many gardeners know the giant pumpkin trick is to trim off all but one vine on the plant, and to trim all but one flower. When the pumpkin pumps all its energy to one orange orb, that pumpkin is a potential prize-winner.

Almanzo’s “trick” is to cut a small slit in the vine and attach a wick, which provides a steady flow of milk to the vine. Garden writer Jane Goodwin  highly recommends using a mason jar, never letting the milk go dry and bandaging the wound.

Where do we get traditions like giant pumpkins? Farmer Boy and Almanzo’s pumpkin adventure took place about the same time Henry David Thoreau grew seeds of the Mammoth pumpkin, which are believed to be descendants of giant squash. The giant squash likely made nice snacks for oversized sloth and giant elephant-like creatures that became extinct 12,000 years ago. (Read more by the Smithsonian.) Thoreau was mighty with his pen, and wrote about his big beauty, which weighed 123 pounds — not much in these days of oversized orange fruit.

I like the idea of playing with our food, especially when this play results in pumpkins the size of a Mini Cooper.

Big ideas

Yet, why stop at pumpkins? Why not giant zucchini contests? Is it because Thoreau did not champion the cause? If allowed to grow to maturity, zucchini will grow to a natural size of one meter. I think mine could reach that point in about a week. We think of zucchini as the size of a banana because we pick them in their infant stage.

What if we selectively bred zucchini, rather than holding them back? Could we carve giant zucchini into canoes and paddle a green tub around Black Butte Lake? What about an organic, edible zucchini summer sunshade, made from thin planks of sliced giant zucchini? At the end of the day at the beach, build a bonfire and sprinkle with jalapeno-flavored olive oil and dust with crushed red pepper.

Likely, I’ll bring zucchini from my home garden to school this year and offer them to my students. School begins next week, and I am over-the-moon excited.

Yet, for now I will harvest one zucchini a day and force myself to eat one zucchini a day.

About this time of year, I usually research zucchini recipes. However, our newspaper’s lovely Nancy Lindahl recently wrote about splendid ways to serve zucchini large or small.

Check out her great ideas for zucchini pancakes or brownies,

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Sow There!: A tale of ivy and why chainsaws were invented Aug. 10, 2018

Ivy mainstems likely grow larger than this, but this beauty was enough to waste a perfectly good afternoon. (Photo by Heather Hacking)
August 10, 2018

In most cases when you hear garden advice, it’s just that — advice.

However, let me state this advice loudly and clearly so there is no room for ambiguity:

Do not let ivy devour your yard.

I made this mistake. I’m regretting it. I’m at the age where I actually have learned a thing or two. You can be wise if you listen now rather than learn the hard way.

As usual, most of this is my fault. I should have tackled the ivy as soon as I moved into the house. As the new resident, I inherited a ratty fence, which is literally galvanized mesh (chicken wire) affixed from one metal stake to another. Believe me, this rag-tag perimeter looks much better when it is draped in greenery.

Ivy was growing along this humble boundary line, and I let it grow. I helped. I wove the green strands between metal squares, coaxing the vines to stretch as far as the grasping tentacles could reach. Thank goodness I did not add fertilizer because the plant might have climbed the utility poles and snuffed out my internet.

Meanwhile, another plant is growing nearby. This one has the pleasant nickname of “cat’s claw,” and is also known as yellow trumpet vine. Cat’s claw is also evil and invasive, yet it produces lovely yellow flowers in the spring. By the time this beauty is ready to devour the house, I’m hoping I am living somewhere else.

Earlier this summer I decided the days of the invading ivy were over. I thought I would simply trim it back to the nub with pruning shears. That first day I filled an industrial-sized black garbage bag with vines, and barely made a dent. As I worked, I discovered a bag of mulch that had been covered in vines for the past year.

Did I mention that this summer has been very, very hot?

Another ambitious day I grabbed handfuls of greenery, filling another two giant bags. This time I snipped main arteries when they came into view. I thought I would let the detached vines die, and return when my body had recouped.

Another week I untangled dry vines, only to find more heaps of firmly-attached ivy vines. After much sweating, snipping and hauling I hit the mother of all ivy stems — a stout, spiked main stem larger than the trunk of a young tree. I’d estimate the circumference at about two inches, although I may very well be exaggerating, my mind poisoned from heat and my eyes bleary from drips of sweat.

I reached the point of being hot and bothered, and eventually became obsessed. I found the handsaw used to cut down Christmas trees in the forest.

Sawing in the heat, at an odd angle, shoulder and hips in a pile of spider-filled ivy … I had reached that magical point of determination. For entertainment, I ran a narrative through my head about battles with ivy through the ages. I have concluded that the chainsaw was invented about two days after humans first battled ivy with a handsaw.

More ivy lurks beneath the lawn, if these less-than-loving tendrils just under the surface are enough of a clue. (Photo by Heather Hacking)

When I went inside to gulp water, I realized only 32 minutes had gone by. I thought it had been hours and hours. Time goes by slowly when you’re lying on the ground at an odd angle, performing a repetitive motion that could inspire technological advances.

Yet, I didn’t trust that I had won the battle.

Plants are amazing. If you cut two separate grapevines and graft them together, they will become one. My damage to the main mother ivy could conceivably grow back together — the two parts fused into one, and ready for revenge.

Under the influence of heat stroke, I spent another half an hour huffing and puffing to cut an additional inch from the main vine, creating a big gap that could regrow only if this particular ivy was a new form of alien super-plant.

I’m not certain, but I would wager a guess that plants like this are also the reason stump removal machines were invented.

Five huge black plastic bags of ivy trimmings have been hauled away. There was so much detritus, I called my friend Ladonna and asked if I could fill up her green waste can. And yet, the job is not done.

The University of California Integrated Pest Management website states that brute force alone is rarely enough. What I should have done was apply chemicals to the open wound of the plant before I went inside to take a shower.

My guess is that I will be wrangling ivy for years to come. By then, the trumpet vine and the yellow flowers may have taken over. Likely the ivy will return, inching its way back to its home on the ratty metal fence. I’ll be years older by then, and I doubt I’ll go to the trouble of laying on the ground with a chainsaw.

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Sow There!: New love and taking a chance with old seed packets, July 27, 2018

PUBLISHED: July 27, 2018 at 6:57 am New love is amazing, and at times annoying. We’ve all had a friend who makes a match and looks 10 years younger, irradiated and giddy, her voice a tone of a thousand tiny ringing bells.

New love makes your body pump natural chemicals, a treasure/pleasure box of dopamine and norepinephrine. The chemicals make the lovesick person energetic and euphoric, and in some cases — annoying. If you’ve lived long enough, hopefully you’ve spent some time on this natural high.

New love also causes interruptions in otherwise normal conversations.

I could be talking about my Uncle Ned’s recent surgery, when suddenly …

Dopamine Dora declares: “That reminds me, let me tell you this adorable thing New Beau said yesterday.”

How did my uncle’s surgery remind Dora of her beloved? Because her new infatuation is the only thing that was on her mind.

If you’re ordering a hamburger …

Dopamine Dora: “New Beau loves the sauerkraut here. I would have never thought I would fall for a guy who loves sauerkraut …”

And on and on it goes, ad nauseam.

Many forms of love

I am realizing that romantic love and new teacher love have a few things in common.

Now that I am consumed with setting up my classroom and daydreaming about teaching plans, my mind is entirely focused on my future students.

Most every conversation with friends includes a long, detailed story about placement of desks or fun things the children and I may or may not do. I haven’t even met my students, and already we’re dancing in the hallways. I’ve been looking over last year’s class photo to memorize their names, and already I’m talking about them in a dopey way.

Many other loves have similarities. Puppy love, for example, can include a seemingly endless display of cute pup photos from your friends’ cell phone. If you find two avid gardeners chatting near the punch bowl, they’ll be love-loving on hydrangea, or sharing their love/hate relationship with Hosta. I don’t entirely understand the hubbub with World Cup soccer, but I know if two guys love it, that’s about all they talk about.

The thing about new love is that it doesn’t stay new. It leads to attachment, which monopolizes fewer conversations and blooms into something far more worthwhile.

I can’t wait.

 (more below pictures)

Thinking of cooler times

With the passing of the summer equinox, each day is shorter than the day before. That’s meaningless in my mind when it’s 105 degrees and walking to the far regions of the yard feels like hitchhiking through Death Valley. Unless you wake up at 6 a.m., not much is going to get done when the heat sucks your energy like a black hole.

I was upset with myself when I realized I forgot to plant zinnia seeds in June. I’ve learned the hard way that May is too soon, and this year June came and went. I grabbed the seeds from my kitchen cupboard and foolishly stuck them in the ground, then realized the seeds were older than my expired canned foods.

I won’t be disappointed if the seeds don’t grow. The seeds would be wise to decide it’s too hot outside. I’m just glad I don’t need to look at those ancient seed packets next year.

I know I’m not alone in wishing this heat would go away. Last week I was running errands, in a rush. I was comfortable in my air-conditioned car, and I had some zippy tunes playing on the radio. When I pulled into the parking lot downtown, my patience was tested as a group of people inched across the black pavement. Their soundtrack had a dramatically slower tempo.

I parked. My song ended. As I walked, my pace also slowed to a zombie march.

Now that I’ve exhausted my supply of expired seeds, it’s time to think about a cooler season. I realize it’s now or never for planting seeds of cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Carrots can be planted in July and August, according to the trusted Chico Valley Area Planting Guide. If you have counter space, you can start lettuce indoors. I’m thinking the best place for pots is in the middle of the kitchen floor, so it’s more difficult to forget to add water when you’re dancing the zombie trot.

Beating the odds

Planting older seeds is never the best choice. However, some seeds may surprise you. The Gardening Know How website notes that germination rates decline over time. This means the life in the seeds expires. Corn and peppers may term out after a single year, whereas beans, peas, tomatoes and carrots can “live” in their paper package up to four. Cucumbers and lettuce may give you a show of life after six years. The key, the writers state, is to keep your packets in a cool, dark place, perhaps a place like my kitchen cupboard.

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Sow There!: Leaving a road behind you, July 20, 2018

July 19, 2018 at 10:27 pm

Just a few weeks ago I was driving north to yet another chat with strangers for a possible job as a teacher. This interview was no different than the others. We all smiled and made eye contact. I responded to questions. I knew I was being judged. The job interview process is messy, and in my mind inexact, always leaving me with words I wish I had said.

Driving back to Chico, I traveled a different road, taking unknown backways and allowing Google Maps to reset my course to home. There’s a quiet in a moving vehicle, windows up, the outside world dulled by the hum of air conditioning.

During the daily grind, helpful self-talk can become buried under worry and endless-to-do lists. In the semi-silence of my drive, I doubted I had landed a job that day. Yet, I had a strong sense that the next right steps for my life would soon find me.

After my Handsome Woodsman died in the car crash Nov. 1, 2016, working on my teaching credential became my distraction. From other people’s perspective, my hard work may have seemed noble. In reality, it was easier on my heart to focus on those things right in front of me than to slip into the dark void.

People in my inner circle and more distant orbits gave me praise. “I’m impressed by how hard you’rer working,” they said, or “You’ve really kept your focus, despite …” (Always those trailing thoughts — those things that don’t need to be said).


Sure, I thought.

“Thank you,” I said.

You can hear praise a dozen times, and usually it doesn’t sink in, until a time when you’re alone in a car and passing rows of orchards and miles of open pasture.

On that dry day, nothing had changed. I did not yet have a job. I likely bombed the interview. Yet, down this different road I was pleased with where I had traveled so far.

“Here I am,” the previously hidden voice said.

There are a lot of really bad things I could have done in the past year and a half. I could have wallowed in self-pity, sunk to the depths of self-destruction or lashed out at loved ones. Maybe I did those things, a time or two. Yet, I did not conclude that because nothing in life is certain, I might as well not try.

Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time surrounded by people who are all about the future — teachers and children. There’s so much joy that takes place in a classroom, I can see clearly now that my recent time has been well spent.

When I returned from a vacation with family, my new life was waiting.

Starting next month, I will be transformed into “Miss Hacking,” a towering and cheerful presence in the lives of third graders at a local charter school. The school garden is lovely, the people are over-the-top kind, and the walls in my classroom are pale yellow.

It’s now time to put all of my energy into the next new things.

ZOUS, zucchini of unusual size, can hide well among super hot summer foliage. (Photo by Heather Hacking)

Green foods abound

In the heat of summer, it’s not uncommon for flowers on our vegetable plants to go to waste. Bees won’t fly, plants are conserving energy and let’s face it, living things move slowly when they’re half-baked.

This week I found my first ripe and ready zucchini, the kind of green bullet that would make a nice snack for Jolly, that supersized green giant. Next week I’ll pass by my favorite squash merchant at the Thursday Night Market. (He’s on Third Street, just past the nut guys). I won’t need to buy squash for at least two weeks.

Note to self: check zucchini daily or you might have food more suited for a catapult than a frying pan.

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Sow There!: Summer plants get by with a little help from friends, July 12, 2018

July 12, 2018 at 10:36 pm

My seemingly short and well-deserved vacations this summer caused me to cash in on friendship equity. My dad’s side of the family organized a cruise to Catalina and beyond, as well as a hop to Hogwart’s castle. When you’re gone for a week during a heat storm you need more than one reliable friend. To keep my potted plants alive, I created a watering schedule then asked several friends to commit to stopping by on a certain day.

I sent electronic reminders while I was on the road.

Long ago, my dear friend Kara was my go-to gal when I needed someone to go above and beyond. Kara’s heart is as big as the Grinch’s heart at the end of the story. I wasn’t the only person who noticed her (seemingly) endless willingness to do for others.

One day Kara said she had decided to stop being everyone’s helping hand. I agreed wholeheartedly. “Good for you. People really do take advantage of your kindness,” I said adamantly. “But you’ll still water MY plants when I go out of town, right?”

Kara was right, of course. So I’m trying not to burn out the friends I was able to ask for this recent journey out of town.

Green plants are a true testament of friendship. (Photo by Heather Hacking)

That vacation came and went. Just a week later, I had an unscheduled call to leave town for a week. This was really pushing it. I had just recruited folks, nagged via social media and said thank-yous.

I’m not willing to make major life changes, but I’m beginning to wonder if I have too many plants. I should have/could have installed a drip irrigation system years ago. Or – gulp – maybe I should pay some reliable teenager to make the rounds with a garden hose in one hand, and her cell phone in the other.

In the meantime, I’m feeling grateful that my friends were willing to do me yet another favor.

Things I learned the hard way

Simply because a plant is listed as “hardy” or “full sun,” does not mean that plants thrive when left with very little water in 100-plus degree temperatures. When you leave home, move all the plants to partial or even full shade. Having all the important plants in one place also makes it easier for your incredible.

Other potted plant tips

Water runs through a pot quickly, and a contained plant will need more water after a day in the sun. In summer, liners under the pot allow the roots to absorb additional water. Keep an eye on things, however, because standing water for long periods of time will damage roots and could lead to a nasty mosquito problem. Some folks use hydrogel crystals, which absorb water then release moisture to the soil. However, I don’t like the idea of adding polymers to perfectly good soil.

Mulch does wonders in the raised garden bed, as well as in a container. With mulch, less water evaporates and the soil is protected (a bit) from the heat of the sun.

Overall, container plants need a steady diet of fertilizer. Each time water flows through the soil, nutrients are whisked away. Adding compost is a good plan to improve the quality of the soil. Yet, I rely on Osmocote (available in bulk at Northern Star Mills), a time release fertilizer. I add a teaspoon of the granules whenever it occurs to me, usually once every 2-3 months. Do not add fertilizer to a dry pot, because you can burn the roots.

In summer, potted plants may actually need watering every day. You can use this information when you are asking friends for a much-needed favor. One reason is that as plants wither with neglect, then regain their shape, it takes a lot out of the plant. Better to get a small shot of water every day than to go through the trouble of looking half dead (until they’re really dead).

Allowing for loss

The first time I left town for an extended vacay, I was seriously bummed when I returned and found dead plants. Of course, I blamed my friend Thor who was housesitting. Surely, he did not provide the right kind of plant love I had learned over the years. However, I’ve lost more than one plant this summer despite an abundance of loving intent. I’ve also learned to tell the kind-hearted hose-haulers that it’s OK if something drops dead while I’m gone.

The final vacation garden tip is to surround yourself by really nice people and be prepared to return the favor.

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Sow There!: Harlequin bugs are unwelcome house sitters, June 28, 2018


PUBLISHED: June 28, 2018 at 10:40 pmWhen I returned from a quick vacation I found uninvited kale sitters in my garden. A hundred harlequin bugs would not be an exaggeration for the number of critters that were happily munching and reproducing on the large kale plant that remains.

I knew they were harlequin bugs because just a week before I had been amazed by some fascinating egg clusters on my garden leaves. David Walther, garden guru at Spring Fever Nursery and Gardens, saw my social media post. I had posted a magnified view of some “amazing” critters, which looked like jewelry glistening in the hot sun. David knew they were harlequin bugs, new to this area and hard to kill.

“Squish those guys,” he wrote.

When I arrived home from my journey, it was much later and “those guys” had grown. They had gathered. They were greedy and having a rowdy time on the plant near my fence.

I didn’t bother to unpack my bags. My homecoming included working until the fall of darkness, scooping up red and black harlequins and dropping them into the trusty silver bucket filled with soapy water.

Luckily, harlequin bugs don't swim in soapy water. (Photo by Heather Hacking)
Luckily, harlequin bugs don’t swim in soapy water. (Photo by Heather Hacking)

I must admit, I was once squeamish about touching bugs, smooshing bugs between my bare fingers. I might still scream when I see a hairy spider or when a bug flies into my hair. Yet, recently I have become a bug warrior.

When those books recommend hand-picking, what they really recommend is to get elbow-deep into a bug’s life and take charge of the underside of those leaves.

After most of the visible harlequins had been whisked into a watery grave, I began the search for the next cycle of life. Under nearly half the leaves I found the neat columns of silvery-looking eggs, which are actually black and white when viewed through a zoom lens.

David said that the harlequin is “new” to this area. My research notes that the kale-lovers are persistent pests for plants related to cabbage, and suck the life out of plants.

They’re rarely found north of Colorado, according to a University of Florida bug website. Apparently, the authors of this blog did not have a chance to check out my back yard.

“Eggs of the harlequin bug resemble tiny white kegs standing on end in a double row. Approximately 12 eggs are laid together in one batch, usually on the underside of the leaves of the host plant. Each egg is marked by two broad black ‘hoops’ and a black spot. The eggs hatch in four to 29 days, the time varying with the temperature.”

I can attest that in this weather, the eggs hatch in about a week.

Among the favorite daytime snacks, harlequins munch on collards, cauliflower and radish. They’ll also go for fruit trees, eggplant, okra, beans and tomatoes.

Another website said kale is often used as a “trap plant.”

When I read, this I was very pleased that I had allowed one kale plant to remain while I traveled. Only six feet away, my two tomato plants are doing well and currently bug-free. Believe me, I checked.

I found a nasty hornworm and three tank-shaped stinkbugs, but no harlequins on the tomatoes and zero egg masses under the leaves.

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