Sow There! Failing grade on gift giving, Sept. 4, 2020

This photo is of an actual gift received during my birthday in April, at the height of the coronavirus shelter-in-place. Some gifts are much-needed. Luckily I was home, so the contents of the package did not melt. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
September 4, 2020 

Our culture is one of gift-giving. It’s a good thing because buying things happens to be an important aspect of our economy. I’m mostly kidding, but I think if we didn’t have holidays with gifts as a focus, some of the men in our lives would never have new socks and new underwear.

I’m not particularly skilled at gift-giving. This shortcoming can be directly linked to the fact that I hate shopping. Stores have too many choices and these choices are muddied by the subtle ways marketers are trying to divert my attention. The items I don’t want to buy are placed directly in my path, making it more difficult to find the gift I had in mind. When I shop, I resent the hard-working people who are paid to ask me what I want to buy, so that they can find me something they want me to buy so that I feel guilty if I leave without buying.

As for shopping online, see the part about “too many choices” above.

Over the years, I’ve learned that my best strategy is to buy something for a friend or family member when I stumble upon a gift by accident. This means I might buy local pickles in mid-summer, and give them as gifts at Christmas. I have a plastic tub in my closet where I stash these treasures.

Note: if you receive a gift from me and the box is crushed or the label is scratched, it is not necessarily a re-gift. Your gift was probably at the back of my closet for months and months.

I’m also terrible at receiving gifts. I feel the intense pressure under the watchful eye of the gift-giver. They are hopeful, wondering if they have guessed right about my unexpressed yearnings.

That’s a lot of pressure.

How do I know if I love, love this magenta sweater? Will it go well with the magenta purse this family member gave me last year? I need to go home and try it on for size.

At least I know my failings. If I’m not expressive enough at the moment, I try to send a follow-up text when I’m enjoying something that I received.

Thank you Lynda for the ice cream bowl and spoon dishes. It always makes me smile to eat my oatmeal from a dish that looks like it is a waffle cone. It reminds me that tonight I can eat ice cream.

Lynda is top-rate in the gift-giving department. She knows she can never miss if she includes chocolate.

Gifts from the garden

This brings us to the gift du jour – garden excess.

As mentioned, numerous times, I’m drying things these days. With tomatoes ripening daily, I previously offloaded my dried tomato stash from last year. I think these gifts were genuinely appreciated. However, now that I think about it, other people may simply be better at saying “thank you” and sounding like they mean it.

Mom must genuinely like dried tomatoes because when I texted that I could bring more when I visit this week, she replied “yes please.”

These days I’m drying raisins. Maybe I have not asked the right folks. Most of my friends and family simply said “no thank you.” I try to cajole, explaining how good they will be in baked goods. Fresh raisins have an exceedingly chewy texture and light color never found in that box of raisins packed in a lunch and returned home 20 times. Home-dried raisins also have a glaze of chewy caramelized sugar you won’t find in the red box with that girl wearing the red bonnet. Nope. Apparently, none of my friends bake oatmeal and raisin cookies these days.

(My raisins, by the way, are amazing in the oatmeal I eat every morning to maintain my energy through a busy morning of teaching).

The fresh grapes were a bigger hit. LaDonna and Kara asked me for a second bunch. Antonio at my new school said yes twice (although I highly suspect he was just trying to be nice).

As for other foods that are in oversupply in late summer, I’m heartened to see that at least others are having little success being gracious. Our lunchroom at my school is overflowing with peaches. Yet, it’s tough to give things away when the coronavirus means teachers only visit the lunchroom for a quick dash to the copy machine.

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Sow There! Someday we’ll be together, Aug. 28, 2020

Grapes drying into raisins. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
August 28, 2020 at 3:30 a.m.

Umpteen days ago was my first meet-and-greet with my new students. Of course, it was more than simple introductions, intense eye-contact and masked smiles. We had information to give to families, such as language arts and math booklets and the all-important Chromebook.

Similar to a drive-through at a fast food restaurant, families cruised through a line of idling cars. Teachers trotted over for a quick hello, and to hand off the goods.

I met them!

I know this was not the right way to start a school year. These greetings, very brief, sent me home on a high. These are my kids. My new class. We are going to do amazing things this year, or at least as close to amazing as is possible through WiFi. In the planning stages of a new year, it seems like you’re thinking about your new students all day long, and certainly the first thing when you awake. To meet my companions on this adventure made it all very real.

Of course, my new students were wearing masks, sitting in their cars and partially obscured by car windows.

I saw their enthusiasm, and it was contagious.

When I drove home that day, I had one of those fleeting moments of panic. Will I be able to pull this off? Will my enthusiasm translate through the internet? I turned off the radio and talked to God, asking for the strength and wisdom that teaching in a pandemic will take.

And I began to cry, gratitude tears. Someone hired me for something really important. I had just met these beautiful little people who deserve every last drop of the best inside me. I won’t do anything perfectly, and I won’t be as organized or precise as the teachers with whom I am surrounded. But my 10-year-olds have a teacher who can’t wait to know them better.

That day I went to Costco, and I felt different. When I wandered around the hulk of a store I found myself saying hello to other shoppers, looking past their crazy cloth masks and giving them a sincere nod and a smile they couldn’t see.

By the time this column appears in print, our class will have been together two weeks.

We’ve had many amazing moments, but there were also the moments I wondered again if I had what this takes.

My children know this is rough; Their joy to be in a school environment is stronger than the bummer of facing a Chromebook all day while surrounded by their bedroom walls.

Yet, the mute buttons, pulses of internet reception, younger siblings who want to play, the loss of nonverbal teacher behavioral tricks — the learning curve is steep for us all.

One day I found myself in the middle of our school’s playing field, alone, asking for help and allowing my breath to reach into the smoky sky.

Nothing bad had happened. Yet, it was clear in my mind that Zoom was invented for busy adults who want to meet online for one hour.

Even with dance breaks, holding students through early afternoon left me feeling like a Chromebook that had not been plugged in the night before.

I stood on the green lawn, waiting for this moment to pass. If I can be as patient and kind as my students, we will find a way.

Then I saw my dragonflies, oblivious to the hazy sky, crisscrossing my peripheral vision. My totem insect reminded me that the exuberance of life and inner strength (from us all) will be just within view when they are needed.

Grapes drying into raisins. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

I drive to Tehama County to use my classroom as a video studio. One day the internet was down.

Now I know how the kids feel. Sitting in your own living room all day in front of a computer is rough. Then I hit a computer snag.

“Let’s go tour my garden,” the teacher said. I pointed my lens at only the pretty spots in my yard, ate cherry tomatoes for my virtual students and picked a few grapes.

“I’m drying my raisins,” I told the students. “Someday we’ll all be in the classroom together, and I’ll share them with you.”

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Sow There! Raisins on the horizon, Aug. 14, 2020

Grapes arrive aplenty, the only downside is that it’s all at once. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)
August 14, 2020 at 3:30 a.m.

This week the bumper crop is grapes.

For regular readers who were eager to read endless columns about harvesting, preserving and eating ripe red tomatoes, no need to lament. I’ll have plenty to say about tomatoes as the weeks progress.

However, I need to write about grapes right this minute. Yesterday, today and for just a few more days, I have grapes on every shelf in the refrigerator. My freezer is filled with frozen fruit. Yet, I have found the smallest of available spaces to squeeze in the smallest of bags filled with grapes. (Frozen grapes, by the way, are a great treat when you run out of low-carb fudgsicles after the stores have closed).

I’ll attribute the overabundance of grapes to the fact that the grapevines were expertly groomed in mid-winter. I’m certainly not bragging here. An actual expert showed up at my house while I was not home and pruned my grapevines when I wasn’t looking. Thank you Mark Carlson, (who writes an email newsletter about pruning and trimming, http://www.secondleaves.com/). Mark stops by periodically to say hello, and sometimes I am actually at home. He never calls first.

I’m wildly speculating here, but my guess is if he doesn’t see my car in the driveway he looks around my yard. Something in my yard will scream at him, and he can’t help himself but get to work.

At first I thought that he must feel sorry for me. When I’m teaching, I run out of time to do important things like prune the grapevines and put away my groceries. In the time of pandemic, I had slow, languorous moments — many, many moments. Now I wonder if Mark feels sorry for me because I obviously don’t know what to do in my yard.

Last winter I began to prune the grapevines, which weave in and out of the cyclone fence between my square of earth and the yard of my Totally Cool Neighbor. However, I soon got sidetracked when I noticed the grapevines were pliable. I found a video on YouTube, created by a gal who wrassled with grapevines like some would rope a calf at a rodeo. Soon I had 12-foot sections of vines snaking across my lawn, pruned and ready to twirl. By the time dusk arrived, I had completely forgotten to finish pruning the actual vine.

Sadly, none of my friends wanted the wreaths I made. If you’re a crafter and want some now-weathered, circular frames, poorly crafted during the down-time of coronavirus, let me know. They now have a distinct “weathered look” after sitting in the sun all summer.

When Mark arrived last winter, he must have spotted my vines and wondered why they were pruned so poorly.

I’m hoping that one day Mark and I will have a deep discussion about that oak tree that was “pruned” badly when the Handsome Woodsman tried to kill it with the lawnmower.

After Mark’s expert touch, the grapevine reacted with gratitude and this year it yielded more grapes than I would have ever requested. (For some useful tips on grapevine maintenance: https://extension.umn.edu/fruit/growing-grapes-home-garden#watering-986011)

Great harvest

When do you harvest grapes? My experience is that you nibble a few grapes while they are on the vine and decide if they taste mostly ripe. If you notice a few juicy bulbs have started to turn to raisins, don’t wait any longer.

I certainly won’t complain that there are too many grapes. When my friend Kara stopped by for a garden chat, I put grapes on the picnic table and she couldn’t resist a nibble, and then many more.

Cold grapes are like that. When it’s hot and you’re sitting outside with no breeze for hundreds of miles, a bowl of cold grapes is the next best thing to a chilled wet rag on the nape of your neck.

The school ‘share table’

The teachers and staff are beginning to trickle in at my new school. I’m trying to make new friends, and it feels really good to offer a container of chilled, green grapes. Bonus that I’m proud of the fact that I grew them in my yard.

Friday, I ventured into the front office, grapes in hand. I also had about five questions in my head, that only office people can answer.

When I offered the grapes, I was immediately pointed toward the “share table,” where I could help myself to cold, ripe plums. There were tomatoes as well, but I already have an overabundance.

Yes, I landed at a good school with good people. Sharing of fruit is only one indicator of “goodness,” but it’s high up there on my list.

Our school board voted last week to begin the school year online. This means I will not be able to share cold grapes with my students.

Grapes aplenty

The problem with grapes, as well as tomatoes, plums, zucchini and sumptuous desserts during the holidays, is that they arrive in abundance at one time.

I’m fairly certain that wine was discovered after piles and piles of grapes were tossed into a mound because the village people were sick of eating grapes. Yeast from the environment was already in the soil, and soon there was some big-time fermentation to discover.

Tune in next week. If all goes well, I’ll have some news on my experimentation with making raisins.

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Sow There! Dehydrated brain axioms, Aug. 6, 2020

Here today, dry tomorrow. (Heather Hacking — Contributed)

August 7, 2020 

Weeks have blended into one another and I’ve done what some of us have done – let my brain turn to mush. We all have our routines and in another life these included getting ready for work and leaving the house. In seclusion, I’ve packed on some new habits.

I check the stock market most mornings. You see, I had time on my hands in mid-March, stocks took a slump and I figured the pandemic would only last a few months. I bought Disney stock at $97 a share on my new online trading account. As I watched my five shares move up and down I had faith that people would soon be lined up to see America’s most famous mouse, wearing $40 Disney brand hats.

Now I watch the stock market to see what I woulda, coulda and am glad I did not buy.

During this downtime, I formed the habit of logging each food item I ingest via the MyFitnessPal app. This habit certainly eats up time.

When you’re in a pandemic, you find ways to fill each day. Before it became blistering hot, I walked three miles a day, watched the PBS NewsHour and ordered things on Amazon. I also made fruitless phone calls, sometimes for hours, trying to find out why I have not yet received any funds from unemployment.

Sadly, I am also obsessed with Coronavirus statistics, adding numbers to an excel spreadsheet that tracks grim facts about the world.

And now, my focus needs to shift to teaching fifth grade.

The problem is, I need to stop doing all of these things that have become my mind-numbing new routine.

When I sit down to focus on work, it’s as if some of my brain axioms have dried up like the tomatoes in my dehydrator. I need to plan for my classroom, but somehow my mind thinks I should be logging my calories or checking my fictional stock portfolio.

If I’m having trouble, I can only imagine what sort of brain axiom retraining my students will require after five months of home isolation. Likely, their habits have included video games. Their hands may now be formed in new configurations that make it difficult to grip a No. 2 pencil.

Time doesn’t stop

In the meantime, my classroom looks beautiful. My district is in another county and the plan is to have students in masks, at a safe distance, listening to a teacher who is muffled behind fabric. I have moved seven houseplants to their new home in my new classroom. When I worked with the international program at Chico State last year, the participants gave me hostess gifts from their countries. The top of one bookshelf has become my “international corner.”

My classroom was stocked with an amazing number of books. However, I lugged in my own collection. When I loaded up every bookshelf I could find, I realized I needed to put some books back in my storage shed.

If all goes well, my students will be in the classroom at least long enough to remember school is a wonderful place. No one knows the future of the pandemic, and I may very well end up teaching online. I’d prefer that my students meet me in person if we end up continuing our friendships via pixels on a computer screen.

Garden gifts

As mentioned last week, I grow a lot of tomatoes but don’t eat them. This time of year, my food dehydrator might be heard into the wee hours, whirling hot air on the front porch. My house is small, and even one appliance spewing heat can raise the temperature from unbearably hot to incredibly unbearably hot. I run the extension cord out the front door and set a timer for 17 hours.

Dried tomatoes are easier to give as gifts than regular tomatoes. Most people I know currently have mounds of just-picked tomatoes on their kitchen counters.

When I taught third grade, the children loved dehydrated tomatoes only slightly less than those high-fructose corn syrup “fruit snacks.” When we had popcorn parties, I added a bowl of dried fruit near the popcorn, and the treats all made it into children’s mouths, and onto the floor.

So far, I have harvested and dried one overflowing bowl of home-grown tomatoes. The trick is to stop dehydrating when they’re still pliable when warm, otherwise you’ll have dried tomato chips, which children also love. I store dried tomatoes between layers of waxed paper in my great grandmother’s glass cookie jar. To keep them fresh, I add those little packets of silica, which I saved from packaged foods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too much of a great thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ummm. No thanks.

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

Storage tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other moments, I’m feeling woefully unprepared.

Then Melissa sent me a text message.

Into action.

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

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

Clipped wings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I just wish I could give them a hug.

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, they are wasting their youth.

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

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

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

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

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

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Sow There! Summer survival mode, July 17, 2020

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

July 17, 2020 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer escapes

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

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

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

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

Summer survival

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

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

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

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

Remember your plants

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

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

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

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

Move your pots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 10, 2020 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating large

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

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

(Exhale).

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

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

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

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

Wacky pesto

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

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

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

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

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

Please share:

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

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

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

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

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

For days and weeks and months

my

days

have

gone

by

very

slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smitten

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

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

Patient friend: (rolls eyes).

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

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

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

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

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

I have a new school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should look under my sink more often.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In search of Dr. Bronner

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

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