Jun 29 2019

The Briar-Bower

So I glanced out at the back yard this afternoon and realized I’ve created some kind of Blair Witch masterpiece back here.

First, there’s the defunct chicken coop, still echoing after all these years with the memory of raccoon screeching and blood. You can just look at some buildings and know that a massacre happened there. (I’m so sorry, my fluffybutt girls.) A deeply haunted energy, as the kids say.

Secondly, that vine-covered tree in the distance that fell over more than a decade ago and refused to die. It’s just growing on its side now, looking up at the blackberries and morning glories draped across it like “this is fine.” And if you go around to the other side it looks like this: 

Oh that’s right my friends, we (and by “we,” I mean Sam, but he did it because I asked him to) hacked back the briars just enough to create an awesomely spooky little tunnel into a secret world that looks like this:

See? That’s the tree that fell over. When we first moved in I envisioned this as a place for the boys to the play, a natural tree fort, but the truth is they spend almost no time there because they’ve got Fortnite and YouTube instead.

I’m the one who likes to go out there and sit, because I find it a meditative and a magical place. A secret grove where the fae energy is strong. I dragged that bench in there, and put the little froggo statue at the tree’s roots, along with a birdbath. As decorations, or offerings.

As an offering to what? I dunno. I am an atheistic nature worshipper, a lapsed witch. It’s just an offering to life, mostly, because I’m super inspired by this mock orange tree that fell over and refused to die. And I love the little world that it created by continuing to flourish while having a bit of an extended lie-down. I come and fill up the bowl with water sometimes, though I also intentionally let it run dry in between, to keep mosquitoes from breeding there. It means something to me, though I couldn’t necessarily say what.

In my head I’ve called this spot the Green Chapel, or sometimes the Briar-Bower. If you sit on the bench and look up over your head, it looks like this:

The big leaves are a fig tree that’s spilling over from the neighbor’s yard, and supporting some of the smaller vines as it does. I think sometimes about that song from Hamilton, about sitting under your own vine and fig tree. I mean it’s from the Bible. Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. But I think of it in Hamilton form, and I hum it a little bit sometimes, and usually by the time I come on out from under there, I feel comforted.

Mar 30 2014

Darwinian Landscaping


(Photo by Sam)

So this is what our front yard looks like right now—do you like my lawn gnome? I had the bright idea that if we got some boulders and dropped them around the yard, it would magically transform our “patch of overgrown weeds” into a “wildflower rock garden.” Accordingly we traipsed off to the rock store, loaded up the station wagon with some nice big ones, and heaved them into the front yard. I gazed around at the results and said, “Yeah, we’re gonna need more rocks.”

Here is my approach to landscaping: Every fall, when the rains start, I buy a few plants and I put them in the yard. Then I do absolutely nothing to help them. I don’t weed, I don’t fertilize, I don’t water. Usually I put a little rock next to them, so that when I come out the next time I can easily spot whether or not they’re dead yet. When the next fall rolls around, if the plant is dead, I put something else in that spot.

I call this “Darwinian landscaping,” and the amazing thing is that it works pretty well. I mean, obviously a lot of plants have died on me. But so far we’ve got some native sage, gooseberries, and manzanita that are thriving; two rosemary bushes that are going like gangbusters; some very happy and bee-covered lavender lining the walkway; a native penstemon that looks like it’s gonna pull through after all; a fuschia bush that probably won’t; and several low-growing mountain lilacs that I have high hopes for. And weeds. Lots and lots of weeds.

And you know what? The weeds–especially the weeds that make pretty flowers, and attract butterflies and bees–are welcome to compete. I don’t know why a patch of oxalis with its cheerful yellow (and edible!) flowers should be considered any less desirable than a violet or geranium. It’s not a native plant, but then again, neither is my lavender. So long as the oxalis can thrive without water, fertilizer, or pesticides, it’s welcome in my weed patch wildflower rock garden.

But we are gonna need more rocks.

Sep 17 2012



I’ve been able to harvest quite a lot of tomatoes over the past couple weeks—the cherry tomatoes ripened first, and they’re still coming in waves, while now we’re getting these little plum-sized guys as well. I honestly don’t remember the varietal: I think it was either Stupice or San Francisco Fog. I’ve also gotten a few bigger, darker tomatoes from our third plant, though most of those are still green. (Was it Cherokee Purple? Next time I’m writing the varieties down somewhere.)

So I’ve been making a lot of tomato salads. Garden tomatoes with cucumber, olives, and feta—or with basil and fresh mozzarella—yum! Still, the tomatoes are coming faster than we can eat them. Time to start foisting them on the neighbors!

Jul 31 2012

First Harvests


I picked a small bowl of blackberries from our yard today. They were quickly devoured:


For lunch we had spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, parmesan, a fresh tomato, a handful of pine nuts, and some basil from our garden. Imagine me kissing my fingertips here: it was mmmm-mwah!


We also harvested the first zucchini from the garden this week. One of them was normal-sized, and I cooked it in a pot of black beans and rice. But the other was monstrous, bigger than a man’s forearm, and that one I hollowed out last night and stuffed with brown rice, sausage, tomato, and cheese, then roasted in the oven until it was soft and beginning to brown. It was delicious. Even Robin, who is in a strong anti-vegetable phase right now, ate some and said it was good.

There are more mondo zucchini lurking under the leaves. I see them, but they’re still pallid and unripe. It’s possible that they’re actually squash. The squash and zucchini have grown so thickly together that I can’t really tell where one vine ends and the other begins. Meanwhile the tomatoes are still green, but I am casting covetous eyes at them every day.

Jul 9 2012

New Camera

I got a fancy new camera (well, a fancy new-to-me camera: I bought it used) so this afternoon I went around snapping a lot of pictures of random things. Like knick-knacks on a bookshelf:


and chickens:


and flowers:


and my little garden, which is now bursting over its boundaries:


I’ve learned an important lesson about squash and zucchini, by the way. Squash and zucchini don’t play nice in an intensive gardening set-up. They’ve already swallowed up the eggplant and the artichoke and are muscling in on the thyme and the chives. The mint is fighting back, though, and the tomato plants are holding their own and protecting the basil and parsley as well. Next year the squash and zucchini get their own bed.


May 27 2012



I finally planted my garden! I’m an absolute novice gardener so I don’t expect that everything will take, but I’m super excited to have home-grown veggies this summer. I’m basically doing square foot gardening—densely planted raised beds—though I kinda just eyeballed the grid. We got the vegetable starts at Whole Foods (which in turn bought them from a nursery in Sebastopol).

From front to back we’ve got: a pot of strawberries, parsley, two basil plants, two different heirloom tomatoes and “super sweet 100” cherry tomatoes, oregano, eggplant, artichoke, summer squash, chives, “green dragon” cucumbers, zucchini, and mint. (Some of those plants are going to need stakes, but we haven’t done that yet.) The back row is planted with okra from seed, so we’ll see if that sprouts.

The second garden bed is slowly being filled with compost. Next year I’ll plant that one too, but we’re starting small.

Nov 10 2010

Yard Work

When we bought this house, the front yard was a jungle of sticker-weeds. It was one of the first things the neighbors said to us, after “Hello” and “Welcome to the neighborhood”—”So…what are you going to do with that yard?”

At the time I said something breezy about having it landscaped. And in fact I did set up an appointment with a landscaper. She said it would cost five thousand dollars to haul away all the trash and put in a front yard of drought-tolerant grasses and shrubs with a drip irrigation system and extensive soil amendment. I said, “Hmm, thank you, we’ll think about that.” And we did. We thought, very briefly, about the fact that we do not have five thousand dollars, and if we did, we would have a better use for it than setting up a irrigation system for plants that don’t mind drought.

So between the time we moved in and now, we have done very little to the yard. We hacked down the big thorny things, and then we just kind of waited to see what would happen. Over the dry, hot summer, of course, nothing happened: around here, most plants and grasses go dormant over the summer unless they’re being watered. Now the fall rains have started up, and greenery is sprouting everywhere. So to help it along a bit, we ordered a few things from a native plant nursery, and we have just finished planting them.

My fondest hopes are pinned on the manzanita tree. Here it is, as of today:


It’s the little shrub cowering behind the rock in the foreground. It doesn’t look like much now, but if it thrives, it will eventually grow to be about ten feet tall. In January and February it will bear clusters of beautiful pink flowers that the hummingbirds will fight over. The rest of the year it will have splendid red bark and glossy green leaves, and it will provide berries for chipmunks and shelter for birds. I really hope our manzanita tree is happy here.

That unsightly dead trunk you see in the background will be cut down, one of these days. After some consideration I’ve decided to let the jade plant (the bush on the right) live, even though it is not native to California. Neither am I, after all. If it doesn’t ask anything of me—because it’s not going to get water or fertilizer or any other kind of intervention—then I won’t ask anything of it.

My second-fondest hopes concern our new mountain lilac bush. I took a picture of it too but it was so small as to be effectively invisible. If it grows, though, it will turn into this beauty.

I also planted a couple of different wildflowers, just as an experiment, to see if they can compete against the volunteer grasses:

wildflower plantings

If they do well I’ll get more, and I’m also planning to sow some California poppies from seed. Those guys are really hardy and I think they probably will be able to compete.

In the back yard, my camillia bushes are glorious with flower. Well, one of them is:

healthy camillia

The other one Sam butchered with a pair of gardening shears, despite the fact that I begged him to leave it alone. I literally wept when I saw what he’d done with it.


He says he “got carried away.” I don’t know how a person can reduce a lush, full shrub to a skeleton without realizing at some point what they’re doing, especially when their wife is pleading with them to put down the shears and step away from the plant: I think he kept going just to be contrary, because he didn’t want to be told what to do. I am still heartbroken about it. As you can see this bush is hardly bearing any flowers this year. I think it will grow back eventually, poor thing.

I am obviously still harboring a grudge over the camillia bush, but I have mostly forgiven Sam, not least because I want to get more work out of him. This weekend his dad is coming down to help us put up a fence around the back yard, so I am looking forward to admiring the menfolk as they do all the hard manual labor on that one. Maybe I’ll put on a nice apron and serve lemonade.

Mar 15 2010

Urban Farm Magazine

My father-in-law sent me an issue of the new Urban Farm magazine, and I can honestly say that I haven’t been this excited about a magazine since I first subscribed to Dragon in seventh grade.

(It came wrapped in brown paper, maybe because of the Clyde Caldwell covers: I didn’t even know enough to realize that the brown-paper-wrapping was a sign that something shameful might be inside. I haunted the mailbox every month waiting for the new issue to come. When I first started writing short stories, Dragon was the only market I submitted to. The first stories were really bad; some of them were actually Dragonlance fanfic. But I kept writing them and sending them in. Then-editor Wolfgang Baur replied with form rejections at first…followed by encouraging, personalized rejections…followed by actual letters with suggestions for revisions…and then at last in my senior year of high school he actually bought one of my stories and it ran in the magazine. It was one of the high points of my life, and Wolfgang Baur—with his willingness to help a naïve teenage girl churning out the dragon fanfic mature into a real writer—remains one of my models for what a great editor can be.)

Anyway! Urban Farm! The issue Dave sent me has articles about backyard chickens, various composting techniques, self-sufficiency (for the really committed), and some basic stuff like community gardening and CSA boxes. I immediately looked for a subscription card, but they’re so new that they aren’t yet offering subscriptions. I’m following them on Twitter, which I guess is the next best thing! I want my backyard chickens so bad.