June 30, 2009

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW? Posted by Sheila Connolly and Sarah Atwell, both of whom have dirt under their fingernails now. I may have mentioned that I planted a vegetable garden this year. Yeah, yeah, most people did that eons ago. Heck, I did that eons ago, although the last serious effort was in student housing in California, where you could lay claim to a plot in the community garden. I enjoyed that a lot–until the moles ate it. They sneak up from below and eat the roots first, the furry little...creeps. So there were a few moves, and a number of inhospitable yards (um, sun is required to grow things, right?), and then we ended up in Massachusetts and I found myself writing a mystery series about a woman struggling to transform herself from a municipal financial analyst into a small farmer overnight. I don't pretend that it is easy. In solidarity for my heroine Meg, I decided I should put my money where my mouth is and plant something (in addition to the two apple trees in my front yard). My lot (all one-quarter acre of it, largely occupied by house, stable, driveway, sidewalks, etc.) gets little sun, thanks to some trees that are probably as old as the Victorian house (and are threatening to fall down, but try to find a tree company who wants to tackle giant dying maples, especially those where public utility wires are intertwined). So I spent some time observing, and trying to find a spot that received at least a few hours of sun daily (that is, if the sun ever shines again in Massachusetts, which right now is debatable). I located the optimal place. I measured. I came up with a plan. Soil was the next problem. We are not exactly on the beach, but the soil on the lot is mainly sand, in between a lot of smooth pebbles, with a few tree roots thrown in. In other words, not much will grow in it, which means I had to add soil. Which meant I had to build a raised bed to fill with soil. At that point my husband conveniently left the country for three weeks. But I am a determined Yankee (when I'm not an Irish dreamer), so I persevered. I ordered lumber and had it delivered (I chose to go with a garden bed the same size as the lumber, so I wouldn't have to cut anything–I don't do power saws). I cleared the space of what pathetic stringy grass there was. Then I had to level it, because it sloped a bit (four inches over 16 feet, if you really want to know). Then I built my box, level and square. Go me! And I set in it place and I anchored it with lengths of 2x4s hammered into the ground and screwed to the box. That thing is not going anywhere. Then dirt. I ordered dirt: four cubic yards of primo topsoil, already mixed with manure. It was delivered–in a heap on my front walk. Small problem: no way a dump truck could get anywhere near the garden bed. That meant I had to schlep the dirt, one wheelbarrow at a time, from the front of the property to the back of the property. Great exercise, all that shoveling and shoving. And I accomplished it (although there's still a lot of dirt sitting on the sidewalk, but I'm working on that). Then, per the instructive class I took a while back from Frank the Organic Farmer, I carefully mounded my bed (for drainage and for access down the middle). I was ready. Like all good newbie gardeners, I ordered a whole bunch of catalogs and pored over them. As a new convert to local and heirloom foods, I stuck to organic catalogs and those which preserve seeds at risk of disappearing forever. I also discovered I wanted all the weird-looking plants, like conical cabbages and spiral cauliflower. What I didn't want was food that I could buy at my supermarket, or even at the local farmers market or farm stand. And I wanted to plant potatoes. A decade ago, when I was visiting Ireland with my daughter, we stayed at a bed and breakfast in Leap, Co. Cork, the town nearest to the townland where my grandfather was born, population 250 on a good day. The B&B had a wonderful view of Glandore Harbour (and it turned out that the owner's mother-in-law had known one of my great-uncles, who kept a horse in what is now the recording studio behind the pub Connolly's), and my daughter and I would usually take a walk along the harbor at the end of the day before dinner (we would feed the swans along the way). Once, in living memory, there were twelve families in the cove where only two live now, and we would walk by what I first thought was an old shed–until I looked more closely at it and realized that it had been a tiny cottage, and there were potato hills outside the door, even 50 years after abandonment. So the Irish side of me had to plant potatoes. Now, I have never grown a potato in my life, and I had no idea what to expect. I dutifully ordered some (yeah, I know, I could get the same bleeping things at the market, but that didn't seem right) and followed instructions and planted them. And waited. And while I was waiting, I looked at my compost pile (another earnest project conceived last fall, because we have no leaf pick-up around here, and no way to drag all the leaves those aforementioned giant maple trees produce each year to the town dump ten miles away), where last year's leaves are still sitting in wet clumps. Of course I also deposit my organic garbage there, and lo and behold, a plant sprouted and grew–fast. I looked upon it: could that be a potato? It could indeed. I carefully transplanted it into...
Oh The People You'll Meet Posted by Kate Flora We've just come through graduation season, where thousands of young (and not so young--my own mother finished college when she was over fifty) people listen to the advice and exhortations of commencement speakers and then head out into the world, clutching mortar boards and copies of Dr. Seuss's book, Oh The Places You'll Go. Well, I have a little more advice for graduates, aspiring writers, and other citizens of the world: If you keep you eyes open and your ears attuned, you'll also meet a lot of fascinating people. And meeting these people, and hearing their stories, helps to connect us, and can make life grand. For example, as a result of a casual discussion by some of my writing students several years ago, I learned about Craigslist. I was then trying to furnish a small Maine cottage on a shoestring, and it seemed like the perfect place to find those necessary bits of furniture. I'm still looking for bits--lamps, desks, small bedside tables, duvet covers and bookshelves. In the course of my driving around, I've met a lot of people and heard so many fascinating stories. I'm still wondering about the little girl in Belmont whose single mother was selling the furniture, loading their possessions into a Honda Pilot, and driving back to California so her family could help her sort out the child's mysterious illness. I got an Ektorp chair and a hassock, she got a fistfull of dollars and a book for her daughter. And after she dropped off the furniture and drove away, she left me admiring her courage and wondering if everything would be okay. Among my favorite Craigslist encounters was the young doctor who had a whole shelf of thrillers in her living room (we writers love it when someone reads what we write!). I bought a lovely mirror from her. It was still on the wall, and she quickly whipped out a tool kit in a pink case, pulled out a battery-driven screwdriver and detached the mirror. Then she smiled at the pink case. "My father gave it to me," she said. Inspired by her, the following Christmas I bought each of my nieces their own tool kit instead of clothes or jewelry. Last week, my search for the "right" chair for my son's room led me back to Craigslist, and to an ad for an antique Eastlake reclining chair. (Until recently, the room was maintained as a "shrine" to the lad, complete with Natural Born Killers and signed Marilyn Manson posters. I've finally given myself permission to redo it.) I answered the ad, and was directed to the nearby town of Winchester, Massachusetts. On a whim, since the poster of the chair had used the moniker, "The Painted Porch," I googled that name, and ended up on a facebook page that told me a great deal about the person I was going to meet. (Sometimes, I think we can all agree, the folks selling stuff can be a bit dubious.) Barbara Leslie, who loves to restore and paint old furniture to resell, turned out to be an absolutely delightful force of nature. At eleven in the morning, I got to meet her, her parents, and her house guest, all in their pyjamas. I immediately fell in love with the chair, and she scooped it up and popped it into the back of my car (it's almost as big as I am) like it was a feather. And it was then I learned that living with her husband, as well as shifting large pieces of furniture around, had made her strong. Her husband, she said, was a professional wrestler. What name did he use, I asked. "Oh, Brutus The Barber Beefcake," she said. So I had to come home and google that. And what a delightful fellow he seems. Here's his photo...but don't go by this. Go yourself and look him up on line. Amazing story. Sadly, he wasn't home, so I didn't get to become the newest Beefcake fan. But just to show how much value there is in occasionally leaving home and going out among other people, last week I also taught the first session of my six-week class for beginning writers, Six Easy Pieces, a series of lectures and exercises practicing some useful pieces of the writer's craft. And, as it turned out, one of my students runs a series of basketball camps for grown-ups, called Never Too Late Basketball. And here's the REAL inside scoop: S.J. Rozan takes his classes and has named a detective after him.(Who needs six degrees of separation. I've felt close to S.J. since our first books were reviewed together in the Washington Post. And I never wanted China Trade to end.) So if your creative juices aren't flowing, or you need a new chair, or you just love the thrill of adventure and the inspiration that comes from hearing new stories, leave home, go in search of something--a plant, a chair, an obscure grocery item--and take the time to talk to people. See who you meet and what they tell you. And then, come back here and share it with me.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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