Second Chances for the Beans, the Squash, and Me

I tend my garden every day; weeds offend me—deeply—as do dead leaves and dying flowerheads. I find it easier to keep on top of problems, like squash bugs and hornworms, than deal with them once they’ve taken over. Not everyone can devote the time or energy required to tend their garden this way, and I know how fortunate I am. My tending tendencies are also temperamental. I cannot let things slide.

Here in rural Virginia, most folks grow the same thing--tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, and watermelon—and do it by throwing seeds on the ground and walking away. In a typical year, casual gardening works remarkably well. This summer has been relentlessly hot and humid, with inconsistent rain, and even my garden, coddled and spoiled, has stumbled.

Case in point: after a strong start, my zucchini and yellow crookneck squash shriveled up and died, almost overnight. Summer without squash? Impossible! Not to be defeated, I planted more yellow squash in a different spot about six weeks ago, and I’m pleased to report they are doing beautifully.

The bean season was too short, undoubtedly due to the weather, so I replanted both purple French velour and Algarve beans at the same time as the squash. As the tomato plants become straggly and the rest of the garden winds down, it’s refreshing to see bright green leaves and colorful blossoms again.

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If you’ve been following along, you might recall that I was awaiting news from my publisher about my next book. Well, like the squash and the beans, I’ve been granted my second chance, not for one more book, but for two! Stories We Never Told will be published early in 2020, and the next one…Never mind. I can’t think that far in advance; I have a book to write!

That’s my life for now: making my daily count of one thousand words and tending my garden. (And cooking and storing the harvest, of course.) My garden and I are in stride, making the most of our second chances, approaching the next season with renewed vitality. Getting a first draft down is daunting business. I am hypercritical of everything and yet must stop myself from fixing things. Essentially, I tell myself to shut-up every few minutes. But like most endeavors, if you keep at it, you will get there. So I write, and put my faith in eventual magic.

Winter is coming, but not quite yet. The squash, the beans, and I have work to do.


Sowing the Blank Page

The blank page. The cursor blinking, counting seconds, heartbeats. It’s intimidating as hell to stare down that white sheet and find the word with which to begin. Then the next one and the one after that.

I’d like to tell you it gets easier once you’ve written a book, or four, but it doesn’t. If anything, it gets worse. Take the book I’m working on now. (I’m the Henny Youngman of writing. Take my book—please!) I am stalling so badly on writing it that I’ve actually created a synopsis. I hate synopses! We all do. But even a synopsis is less terrifying than that empty page.

Writing must be the one profession in which the more you do it, the less you believe that you can. We’re a strange bunch but try to love us anyway.

To get myself going on this book, I’ve tried all sorts of tactics. Watching Chef’s Table isn’t working, nor is drinking wine. Not even cleaning out the closets is resulting in words on the page. So curious.

Yesterday, I was looking for a photo on my phone and happened upon this one:

That’s my vegetable garden before it had vegetables. South-facing and gently sloped, it was, before my beloved took the rototiller to it, simply part of a field. We added truckloads of compost, creating a blank canvas, and encircled it in electric fencing, to keep deer and groundhogs and rabbits from raiding it. A few months later, it looked like this:

These photos gave me an idea. What if I considered the blank page as a freshly dug plot, empty but overflowing with potential? The earth, the unplanted earth, is not blank. It is moist and rich with nutrients and life. (And weeds, sure, but I know how to pull weeds.) Tomorrow I’m going to open that word document and take a new look at the blank page. It’s not empty. It just hasn’t been planted yet. If I set down the words and tend to them, they will grow; it is the nature of both seeds and stories. So much of what they become is already present—in the soil, in the case of the garden, and in the writer, in the case of the story. The page is not blank. It is simply waiting, like a field looking toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, patient under the sun.

Très Jolie

I just flew in from France and boy are my arms tired. Okay, not my arms so much as my frontal cortex. But I will leave my complaints at that because my husband and I had a lovely time in the French Pyrenees. Mountains, gorgeous weather, French food, cheap, delicious wine--that's the formula, right? 

I've got loads to chat about, but a certain manuscript has been pining for its author and I can't leave it mewling in the drawer for much longer. So for now, a brief commentary on how pretty this part of the planet is, especially in full spring bloom. We've seen lots of gobsmackingly beautiful wildflower displays in our time, but nothing compared to the flower riot in the mid-Pyrenees.

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And it wasn't just nature on display, the locals had a hand in it as well. Here's a park in a teensy hamlet where we stopped for lunch.

This is one of my favorite images. Someone went to the trouble of placing flowers in an attic window simply to please passers-by. A random act of beauty.

The city of Narbonne was the last we visited. The city landscaper had a fine eye and a sizable budget because every bridge and railing looked like this one.

This flower-filled cart blew my mind, not just because it was such a cheerful sight but because of its location: outside a supermarket and gas station. Yup. 

Maybe we should all participate in decorating the world more often, in small gestures or large ones, making the world a prettier place for anyone who happens to walk by. 

Enjoy your summer, and each and every beautiful flower, mountain, beach and sky. 

The Profundity of Turnips

I've been a bad blogger. Would it help to know I've finished another book in the meantime? Not really? Okay, how about if I show you a pretty picture. This is from 5:30 am today. Can we be friends again now? 

What a glorious spring we've had! That cold, snowy thing called winter is but a distant memory. In fact, I'm sorry I brought it up. I planted the earliest of my crops about a month ago: radishes, spinach, arugula, peas, chard, beets, kale, more kale, and turnips. I don't know why I planted turnips. I can never get them to germinate, much less grow. I've had a vegetable garden nearly every year since I was twenty, and I don't recall ever having a decent crop of turnips. Or even one turnip. But, inexplicably, I had some seeds from last year's vain attempt at turnip propagation, so I planted a small bed of them.

It's not that I adore turnips, but I seek variety in my gardening. I once grew a gorgeous crop of okra that I gave away because I discovered I couldn't get over the slime. (I now know you can cook past that, but this was in my youth. Wise Old Sonja knows better.) I like to grow a little bit of this, a little bit of that, or, preferably, a lot of this and a lot of that. It interests me, both as a gardener and as a food wrangler. 

So I planted the turnips and, big surprise, nothing happened. The peas were slow, too. But the radishes and arugula were speedy!

I convinced myself I had made a mistake in the turnip department. Perhaps I had covered them with too much soil. Perhaps, in a white matter whiteout, I had neglected to plant them at all! So I sowed another bed. And waited. 

Guess what?! The first batch came up. They sprouted! They grew! They thrived! Two weeks later, the second batch sprouted and grew and thrived. It was full-on turnip madness. 

Those beauties closest to the camera are the turnips. Behind them are more turnips, the first batch that I'd already partially harvested. Behind that are the beets (oh faithful beets) and the chard (oh lovely reliable chard).

Aren't they pretty? 

I'm certain you are asking what I made with all those turnips, and if I perhaps regretted that second bed. Not for one moment. They are delicious. First, the greens, especially from the thinnings, are versatile and extremely nutritious. I saute them with garlic or shallots, hit them with a little red pepper flakes and a squeeze of lemon, and serve them on crostini, or over pasta or with eggs. 

And what about the turnips themselves? These fresh garden lovelies are not bitter. I've diced and caramelized them, added chopped kale and mixed with pasta and lots of Parmesan.  Heaven. I've sauteed sliced turnips and leeks in olive oil as a base for a savory tart. Gruyere and lemon thyme are great choices for this dish. And I created a pureed turnip and carrot soup, with a sauteed turnip green garnish which I served with grilled cheese sandwiches on homemade bread. 

Yes, you can come over. Please bring wine.

The other spring surprise in my garden was the cilantro that popped up on its own. I rarely can get my favorite herb to germinate, and here it was growing all by itself from the plants I let go to seed last fall. (If you grow cilantro and have never allowed it to set seed, you are missing something. The seeds, especially when green, are tiny flavor bombs. This is coriander seed, natch.)

This year it's turnips and cilantro, another year it's a bumper crop of butternut squash and I can't grow a zucchini (a zucchini!) to save my life. Most of the things I grow do just fine, but gardening is always a bit of a crap shoot. You can't control everything, certainly not the weather and definitely not the deer.

There is little room for despair in gardening. You try, you learn, you live to garden another year. There is no fail. But there are successes, if you place a smidgen of hope in a tiny seed.

Now, my friends, I'm sure you are expecting me to draw the circle closed and suggest that writing, if not LIFE, may be a little (or a lot) like the story of the turnips. Some things grow, some things don't. Some of it is down to us but much of it is just the breaks. A open packet of seeds is an invitation to hope that if we try again, this time it just might work. 

If I were to draw that comparison, it might be trite. It also might be true. 

Last Picks

My Mothers' Day garden is closing down for the winter. *Sniff* What a year we have had! The freezer is full of tomatoes, tomatillos and pesto. I've got pickled peppers in the fridge and the memory of enough wonderful garden-supplied meals to last until it's time to start again. Here's what it looks like now.

It's bare all right, but the gnome is standing proud on his pole. We've got a saying at our house: "Don't be such a gnome pole." The meaning is abundantly clear.

There is still a stalwart stand of chard, a few lettuces that survived the frost and the deer, and a clump of radishes that might yet make it into a salad. But the last pick of the season is behind us. Look!

I don't fry much (I'd only have to run that much further every day), so those green tomatoes were earmarked for chutney. We all love Indian cuisine, so chutney is a staple. I hardly ever have ketchup in my fridge, but we go through a dozen pints of chutney a year. 

This year I used this recipe. I'll let you know how it is later, because chutney needs to sit in a jar and meditate in the dark for a few months. I'm certain that's what it does. Pickles need time, too, but who knows what pickles get up to when no one's looking. Let's move on, okay? Oh, I left out the hot chili in the recipe. The chutney is supposed to be an antidote to viciously hot curries, not add fuel to the fire.

Chutney's not difficult to make; you just throw it all together and cook it a while. The tedious part is sterilizing the jars, waiting a year for 60 gallons of water to boil, and, finally, boiling each batch pints for 15 minutes. But, good things take time, unless it's a quickie or a really good knock-knock joke, and this is worth it.

Aren't they fabulous? The '09 vintage was superb, and the '12 vintage was a close second, but I have high hopes for these babies because of the crystallized ginger. But we must wait. The chutney must meditate. 

And meanwhile we can hope. We think of spring as a time of hope, but I'd argue it's fall. I mean, by springtime you don't need hope; you're already in the money. The days are long. The world is replete with asparagus, strawberries, daffodils and peeps. You've got mud instead of snow. It's progress. But here in November, with winter standing like a snowdrift between now and the beginning of the next Mothers' Day garden, hope is what we've got. And lots and lots of frozen tomatoes.


Pigeon vs. Hornworm

My husband calls me "Pigeon," not as a term of endearment but in recognition of my visual search abilities. I'm good at spotting things and so are pigeons. In order to survive, a pigeon must be skilled at detecting the edible crumb or seed amid a background of inedible stuff. They are so adept at this that Navy researchers have trained them in search and rescue. The pigeons sat in an observation bubble aboard a helicopter and pecked a disc when they spotted a colorful speck in the vast sea. Read more about Project Sea Hunt here.


I haven't been trained in search and rescue, but if you lose the back of your earring or need help finding a cryptic bird or animal, I'm your pigeon. This skill came in handy during field work, when sneaking up on things was my job. 

My powers have been stretched to the limit lately, however. Something was chewing my tomato plants. 

The nerve! The garden has been so prolific, and I was determined to stop this munchery. Brace yourself now as I reveal the culprit.


The tomato hornworm. They can be five inches long! Let's say it together: YUCK!

The problem is they are very hard to see. They crawl down into the dense part of the plant during the day, then come out and eat the tender bits at night. I'd search and search and never find any. Their crypticity was defeating even this pigeon.

Then I saw one that looked like this.

A little research told me this hornworm had been parasitized. Yay! Meet my new BFF, the braconid wasp.


They lay their eggs on hornworms, paralyzing them. So if you are hornworm hunting and see one with white eggs on it, leave it there. Help, in the form of more wasps, is on the way.

But of course the wasps can't find all the hornworms or I wouldn't have a problem. So I did a little more research and found help of a technical, rather than a biological, nature. 

A hornworm detector, aka, a UV flashlight! I was so excited when it arrived in the mail. As soon as it was dark enough, I went hunting. It worked! I found six hornworms the first night, two the next and only an occasional one since. Which is fantastic, because they really are gross.

So, if hornworms ever plague your garden, you know what to do. You're welcome. And this parable serves as a reminder that nature has the power to humble even our best talents.

Garden Brag, I mean, Update

It's been a bit hectic around here, what with one daughter turning 21 and the other packing up and heading off to Europe for six months. Oh, and I had to review the copy edits on HOUSE BROKEN. Terrified of sending it to press with a booboo, I had a hard time letting it out of my hands! 

Which is all to say that I will write a proper post later this week. For now, I thought we could monitor my Mothers' Day garden. 

Here it is on the day it was born. On three say, "Awwww!"

A month later, everything had gotten a grip.

We had radishes, lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula and basil. June was sweltering, so the lettuce didn't last long and the arugula got so strong we could've used it as paint remover.


Today we had our first tomato for lunch. There's no photo of it because we ate it. Here's what the garden looks like now. 

We're harvesting peppers, chard, beets, cilantro and, of course, zucchini. I'm doing battle with the Japanese beetles that are threatening the beans. So far, I'm winning. I've had to cut back the tomatillos because they were crowding out the onions, but other than that, everyone is playing nicely. And, as you can see, it's a no-bunny zone. They are EVERYWHERE. 

Hope you had a fantastic Fourth!