Plant Companions: The Story of Scarlet, Violet, and Arabella

Arabella’s magenta blossoms remind me of tiny dancers twirling.

I’m an unabashed plant geek, nerd, lover, whatever you want to call it. Plants are in many ways, more my “people” than humans.

Despite my abiding affection for plants of all kinds, especially those native to the sagebrush sea of the intermountain West, I’ve never been much of a keeper of house plants. With one notable exception: Schlumbergera, the genus known in the horticultural trade as Christmas cactus, even though these plants are not cacti, and they bloom in May in their native range in Brazil, where they’re called “Flor de Maio.”

My relationship with these epiphytes native to the dry tropical forests along Brazil’s southeastern coast goes back to 1985, when then-six-year-old Molly wanted to buy her daddy a plant to brighten up his office in Olympia, Washington. She and I visited a grocery store with a floral department where we both fell in love with Scarlet, a slip of a Schlumbergera with about three short stems and flowers as bright as the name Molly chose for her.

Scarlet as a teenager, in full bloom

Scarlet lived happily on Richard’s desk until we moved to Boulder a few years later, and there she preferred our sunny apartment living room. Where she was joined by Violet, who we found abandoned and squirrel-nibbled in the yard. (Schlumbergera are not outdoor plants in northern climates.)

Violet, named for the delicate color in the throat of her flowers

Scarlet and Violet moved with us from Boulder to Iowa to New Mexico to our eventual long-term home in Salida, Colorado. Scarlet thrived in Salida, and in fact, grew so large that we took to decorating her many branches with Christmas lights and ornaments as our holiday “tree.” (Violet, always more delicate, never grew large, but she bloomed every year quite faithfully until Richard’s brain cancer.)

When Richard began hospice care at home in September of 2011, Scarlet was living on a flagstone shelf in our bedroom, in view of his hospital bed. She began to bloom early that year, and he chuckled many times about the queer resemblance of her buds to parrot beaks, and smiled over the beauty of her scarlet flowers. (Violet didn’t bloom that year at all.)

One of those parrot-beak-like flower buds

A few nights before Richard died in late November of 2011, I woke in the dark to the sound of a crash. I got up groggily and searched the house, but couldn’t find the source of the noise.

In the morning, there was Scarlet on the concrete floor of our bedroom, her pot shattered and her stems broken. How she fell from her secure spot on the wide shelf six and a half feet above the floor, I do not know. But it surely felt like a leap of grief to me. She was always Richard’s.

I gave away cuttings from the undamaged stems to friends and family, and potted up a piece of Scarlet for me. She rooted and grew, but Scarlet never really recovered from the fall and Richard’s death (nor did I, for that matter). Violet began to diminish that winter too.

Fast-forward six years and my move home to Cody. I brought a few small cuttings from both Scarlet and Violet. They didn’t look great, and I wasn’t sure they’d make it.

Late that winter, my Cody friend Jay’s dad died, and Jay and his wife Connie asked if I would like the enormous Schlumbergera from his dad’s house. After my experience with Scarlet and Violet, I was hesitant. But I finally agreed. Which is how Arabella, then just finishing her glorious long season of bloom, came to live in the corner of my dining room, between the two large sets of windows.

Arabella basking in her light-filled corner spot.

Arabella, named for her abundance of hot-pink flowers that look like dancing girls caught in mid-twirl (those are her blossoms in the photo at the top of the post), settled right in. She thrived through the disruptions of electricians, plumbers, painters; and even through the shock of removal and replacement of the banks of windows on either side of her spot. And then around Halloween, I spotted the first of hundreds of buds appearing at the ends of her arching stems.

When Arabella began to bloom in early December, I dug out a string of colored lights and some of my favorite Christmas ornaments, and carefully decorated her branches, happy to revive the Tweit-Cabe Christmas-cactus-as-Christmas-tree tradition.

Arabella as a slightly psychedelic Christmas tree

When Connie and Jay came for dinner a few days later, Jay told me the story of Arabella’s life. It seems that his mother was teaching at the Hardpan School, a one-room school that moved from ranch to ranch depending on the availability of space, up Southfork outside Cody in 1935. The school was at the Hardpan Ranch that year, and when his mom visited the McCulloughs, who owned the ranch, she admired the Christmas cactus in their log ranch house.

Twenty-one years later in 1956, when Jay was in first grade in Meeteetse, 30 miles south of Cody, his teacher, Mrs. Smith, who with her husband had bought the Hardpan Ranch from the McCulloughs, brought her class slips from that very same Christmas cactus Jay’s mom had admired. He gave one cutting to his mom (Jay and Connie still have that huge Schlumbergera plant) and one to his grandmother.

The latter is Arabella, who now lives quite happily in the corner of my dining room. So my days are graced by the company of a plant special to my friends and two generations of their family, and with a heritage that goes back many decades in the place I call home.

There’s an even deeper connection: Arabella and I, and this wonderful house I am bringing back to life, all share a birth-year. We all came to be (or root, in Arabella’s case) in 1956, which makes us each 61 years old. I’m aiming for many more years together.

Arabella guarding my Christmas presents!

Oh, and what of Scarlet and Violet? Over the summer, two of the slips I brought north rooted in their shared pot. One grew big enough to produce one flower just after Halloween: Violet. I think the other slip may be Scarlet…

Finding My Inner Plant-self in a Field-Journaling Workshop

On Saturday morning, I propelled myself out of the house much sooner than I usually do (I get up at six, but I normally practice yoga and write before I venture out into the rest of the world). I did yoga, but then dressed, gobbled my breakfast, made my cocoa in a to-go cup, gathered my fieldwork knapsack, a sketch pad, pencil and other stuff, and hit the road in Red.

My destination: Buffalo Peaks Ranch, the summer home of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, where I had signed up for a Field Journaling Workshop with award-winning artist Sherrie York. (Full disclosure: Sherrie is a fellow Salidan, and I've known her for oh, about 15 years. Her art regularly tours with national shows, so my praise isnt just personal bias.)

Wait! you say. You're a writer. What are you doing going to an art workshop? 

Good question. I signed up for Sherrie's workshop on drawing from nature on impulse. It just felt like something I needed to do to stretch myself. On the hour-plus drive to the ranch in South Park, I second-guessed my decision: I'm not an artist, and I haven't done any drawing in a long time. I'll make a fool of myself…  

Once upone a time I enjoyed drawing illustrations of plants. In fact, for a short while, I illustrated my own weekly newspaper column for the Cody (Wyo.) Enterprise. (I drew the illustrations by hand with a rapidiograph fountain pen, which I think may qualify me as an antique.)

One such illustration… 

Then I met Richard and Molly, fell in love, and left a half-hearted pursuit of a graduate degree for life as a wife, step-mom and freelance writer. (Not necessarily in that order.) I kept up with illustration for a while, but honestly, I am better with words, and the love of my life was a true artist, so I let his art fulfill that part of me. 

Which was fine. Until he died too young of brain cancer, and life as I thought I knew it ended. When I emerged from three years of scrambling to pay the bills, and get my financial and literal houses in order, I promised myself I would take advantage of the wrenching change in my life to take new paths and try new things. 

Even if I made a fool of myself. 

So on Saturday morning I found myself sitting in a semi-circle of other workshop participants (most of whom, I noted, had brought real drawing tools) gathered in the shade off the front porch of the historic ranch house as Jeff Lee and Ann Martin, the co-founders of Rocky Mountain Land Library, introduced Sherrie. 

After we participants introduced ourselves, Sherrie reminded us that what she was teaching was not so much drawing, though there would be plenty of that, but observation. Slowing down to really "see" the world around us so that we could sketch without the cliches our minds like to use: stick figures, for instance, or a square with a triangle on top to represent a house. Symbols instead of the real, detailed reality. 

To practice observing with hand and eye, she had us do some drawing exercises, beginning with blind contour drawing, which Sherrie is fearlessly demonstrating in the photo above. You look at what you want to draw until you can feel your eyes trace its contours, the edges and also its three-dimensional shape. And then when you are ready, you draw a continuous line without looking at the paper, feeling your way. 

The end result may not be a literal representation of what you're focused on, but I can tell you, it feels like what you're observing. And the exercise snaps your mind out of short-cutting to a symbol; it's great practice in seeing detail and shape. 

After a few more drawing exercises (my favorite was gesture drawing, where you quickly sketch in the basic shape of the subject, using flowing lines), Sherrie handed out two "prompt cards" to each of us, each bearing a word or phrase, choosing the cards at random from the stack in her hand, and sent us out to sit quietly, observe, and then sketch what we saw in our journals. 

I took my prompt cards and wandered off to the sun-warmed prairie hillside above the ranch house, where a flash of scarlet caught my eye: a lone indian paintbrush flower in bloom, dwarfed by the harsh high-country climate to about four inches high. I clambered up and sat on a chunk of lichen-crusted sandstone next to that flower, and read my prompt cards: 

"Retrace your steps." and "Go back." 

Really? What the heck did those have to do with field journalling? I sat quietly, absorbing the sun on my skin, the sound of a Say's phoebe whistling from the buildings below and nearer, a Vesper sparrow calling, and looked at the indian paintbrush that had called me over. 

Retrace your steps. Go back. 

Right. I started to laugh out loud as I got it. I call myself a writer first and a plant biologist second because writing is how I've earned my living for decades. But the truth is, plants were my first love and they are still the beings I find endlessly fascinating out of the whole web of life that makes this planet home. 

On famly hikes when I was a kid, while Mom, Dad, and my brother kept their ears tuned for birdsong, and their eyes scanning for wing-beats, my gaze was turned to the green and growing universe around me. Once when I was about six, I was so engrossed in spotting new cacti on a hike in the desert, that I sat right down on one. A fishhook cactus, aptly named for its spines, which are not fun to remove from one's hind end. 

Plants, as I've often said, are my people. Their lives and their relationships with every other creature around them never fail to amaze and intrigue me. They are our breathing buddies, exhaling the oxygen we need to survive, and inhaling the carbon dioxide we and our industrial processes exhale (in overabundance). They are a beautiful, extraordinary, and bewilderingly diverse assortment of forms and flowers and cones and leaves and spines and limbs and trunks and tubers and twigs and bulbs and roots. They are the fragrance of existence, the original solar-powered life, the lunch-meat that feeds the rest of the world. Once I thought I'd make a career of studying them as a field scientist.

A much younger me, pre-Richard and Molly, working as a plant biologist for the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming.

Sitting on that hillside above the ranch house on Saturday, sketching the indian paintbrush, I realized that I have done that, not perhaps in the formal researcher way I imagined. I've gardened my way across the West as we followed Richard's career; I've drawn on plants as the pioneers in my volunteer projects restoring degraded streams and blighted land; I've planted and gathered seed and photographed and admired plants wherever my travels have taken me. 

And now, I could in fact, retrace my steps and re-focus my life and my work on honoring the leafy beings who first sparked my imagination and sense of wonder. So, for the rest of Sherrie's workshop, I drew plants. Not terribly well–my drawing skills, unpracticed for decades, are pretty rusty. 

The most lively and engaging sketches on this page of my field journal from the workshop, starting with the wild iris seed capsules on the top left, are… plants, of course. 

In the doing, I remembered a key part of me I had not exactly forgotten, but set aside. I'm not just woman alone, the widow still figuring out what the rest of her life will be. I'm plant-woman, she who takes joy, inspiration (literally, breathing in the oxygen these photosythesizing beings off-gas), and purpose from working with plants. 

I had already decided my next book would be about plants. But I hadn't realized it would be about me, too. Plant-woman, finding her roots (pun intended).

Somewhere, Richard's spirit is chuckling and grinning: he's the one who carefully saved those old pen-and-ink plant drawings. Perhaps he was just waiting for me to remember. 

Radical: Returning to My Roots

Eve was a radical. And how I love the word radical because it means going to the roots. –Eve Ensler, from her 2014 talk for the Bioneers Conference

I’ve been nurturing a radical notion for some time now, one that isn’t quite clear yet. But I’m starting to see it take a kind of diaphonous form.

I mean “radical” in the sense Ensler was using the word in her talk about reimagining the story of Adam and Eve; the way Botany uses the word radical, as a term for something that springs from the root. (The word comes to English from the Latin radicalis, itself from radic– or “root.”) 

The photo above illustrates radical plants: Cobra lilies, Darlingtonia californica in the language of science. They look like something out of science fiction, and they are carnivorous, supplimenting the meager amounts of nitrogen in the coastal swamps where they live by luring insects, especially flies, into those skylit “hoods” where the insects buzz around, confused by the light, and eventually fall into the pool of liquid at the base of the modified leaves and are digested by the microbes that live there and share in the nutrients harvested. That’s a radical but very practical adaptation to thriving in a difficult environment. (The photo is from the Darlingtonia Wayside north of Florence, Oregon, a stop on my recent trip. )

My roots as a scientist are in Botany. But my affinity for plants goes deeper than that, originating at least partly in a childhood spent learning wildflowers with my mother, who loved all flowers, but especially those native to this continent, from inches-high “bellyflowers” she knelt to admire on alpine tundra to the head-topping Silphium, Compass plant, of the tallgrass prairies. 


Pursh’s milkvetch (Astragalus purshii), all of three inches high in bloom, and just the sort of alpine wildflower Mom took delight in. 

Plants, I like to say, are “my people.” Plants aren’t demanding, though they do reward attention, and they don’t overhelm me the way humans–especially en masse–sometimes do. I’d say that plants don’t talk back, but given what we now are beginning to understand about plant communication and behavior, that’s not exactly true. We just may not recognize their back-talk yet. 

The radical notion that is beginning to take shape in my mind is about going back to my roots in restoring nature. In addition to learning to identify wildflowers from my mother, I also learned to rescue them in clandestine raids to vacant lots slated for development. Mom and Dad would load our bike baskets with plastic bread bags, trowels and gloves, and off we’d pedal to a location slated for bulldozing, where we would dig up wildflowers to carefully transplant into Mom’s garden. 

A young Lupine plant (I don’t know the species) sprouting from volcanic gravel at Crater Lake National Park. 

The notion is rooted (sorry, I can’t resist the pun!) in the field research I’ve done informally over three decades of restoring nature, whether burning patches of prairie or planting a bluff at a coal-fired power plant in a gritty industrial neighborhood to provide habitat for hummingbirds and bluebirds–and inspiration for the human employees; whether restoring a narrow ribbon of riparian shrubs and trees along a channelized creek to clean the water of urban pollutants, or re-wilding the abandoned and degraded parcel where I now live. 

This radical idea also draws on what I’ve learned over the years about nature as a healing force, both from my own experience of living with a chronic autoimmune disease and in the research I’ve read on the positive effects of “nature exposure” on all manner of conditions, from kids with ADHD to adults with high-blood pressure or mental illness.

Time in nature, we are begining to understand, has a powerful healing effect on all manner of ills, physical and mental to emotional. Restoring our bond with soil and water, animal and plant also restores our balance in the world, and heals the wound that being estranged from the community of life has dug in our souls.


A flower fly sipping nectar from the Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) in my restored mountain prairie yard.

Plants are the pioneers in restoring nature, the living architecture on which life builds. Native plants, in particular form relationships as soon as their roots touch the soil, “calling in” the other species, from microscopic microbes to winged, finned, furred and scaled being, who together heal soil, water, and land, creating the natural society that brings such joy and surcease to we humans. 

I speak “plant,” I have personal experience with the healing power of nature, I practice habitat gardening, I do urban nature restoration, I write and give talks and teach. The idea forming in my mind is both rooted in and integrates those sometimes separate areas into a mission given urgency by Barry Lopez’ comment over our lunch a week and a half ago that he feels we are in a time of perilous unraveling–unraveling of human culture, of our connection with each other and with the planet that is our home. 

Wholeleaf indian paintbrush (Castilleja integrifolia) recolonizing my formerly degraded industrial yard.

I believe that plants are key to restoring not only the glorious web of life that animates this blue planet, but also our own health and spirits. And I am beginning to envision a way I can be help a re-ravelling of sorts to revive we humans, our neighborhoods and cities and culture, and our relationship with each other and with the rest of the species on this planet. 

That way involves becoming an evangelist for estoring nature where we live and work, and recruiting and training others to help spread that renewal, plant by plant, plot by plot, across the country and the globe, a corps of people who know how to weed and seed, water and nurture the very roots that will help re-grow a vibrant planet and healthy humanity. A “Restore Corps” as it were. 

I don’t know how this radical idea, this vision of sprouting a world-renewing movement from my own roots in nature, Botany, and writing will take shape. But I do know it is calling me to act from my deep love and respect for the community of humans and nature and for this glorious living earth, the only home our species has ever known.

Spring and Change

Spring is springing in my garden thanks to the huge dose of moisture from that pre-Earth Day snow, and there’s change ahead for me as well.

Uintah penstemon blooming today in my rock garden. Uinta penstemon blooming today in my rock garden, offering its nectar and pollen to native bees.

What’s up?

First, if all goes well, this will be the last post you’ll read on my current website. A new website–which will include all the blog posts currently on this one–will go live sometime in the next week or so (same URL, just a new platform).

The project has been months in the making, and wouldn’t have taken nearly as long if I had kept up. My friends who make up the programming/design/editing team have done their part, but I’ve lagged at writing new content, partly because I was on the road a lot in March and April, partly because of the infection in tooth #23, which has really zapped my energy.

The new home screen--I accidentally snapped the screen shot as the slide show was changing images.... A peek at the new site–I accidentally snapped the screen shot as the slide show was changing images….

The other big project absorbing my time now that I’ve wrapped up a season of successful habitat-gardening talks is what writer/editor/fiber expert Deb Robson calls a “French polish” of Bless the Birds. Here’s how Deb describes it (through finishing wood):

You rub the surface with 0000 steel wool and then brush off the tiny bits of wood, shellac, and steel and then coat with another dilute layer of shellac: repeat until the wood gleams gently as if lit from within.

It’s a great metaphor for the kind of fine work I hope to accomplish with this pass through my memoir.

I really thought I was done after the last major revision. Only in the weeks since I emailed the manuscript to my agent (who in one of those twists of a complex universe, never received the email), I’ve had snatches of memories float into my consciousness, small details of the sort that speak to the life Richard and I lived and the people we were. Evocative details, necessary, I think, to the success of the whole story.

Like this passage from Richard’s first-ever night in the hospital, long before we knew the bird hallucinations presaged a brain tumor that would eventually kill him:

I remember vividly that first night in the hospital when the cheerful aide delivered a dinner tray filled with food I couldn’t imagine Richard ever choosing: chicken-fried chicken buried under gravy, mashed instant potatoes and anemic canned peas; a plastic container of waxy fruit cocktail floating in sugar syrup, and another container of chocolate pudding whose ingredients, I would have bet anything, contained no actual nutritional value at all.

“I could go to the deli over on Colorado Avenue,” I said, “and bring you a real dinner.”

Richard thought for a moment. “No. I’m going to submit wholeheartedly to the treatment my doctors recommend, and that includes eating hospital meals.” He poked the slice of squishy white bread sealed in plastic next to the plate and added, “Except perhaps the bread.”

I’m five chapters in (out of 34) and feeling good about the work.

Then there’s tooth #23, lower jaw, front. It’s abscessed and can’t be fixed by a root canal. Choice number two is orthodontia and some kind of cap. Last week I drove to Colorado Springs to talk to the orthodontist; next comes another consult with my dentist to determine the final plan. The cost and time commitment are both staggering. But it’s got to be taken care of.

And it’s spring: I’ve a new website sprouting, I’m working on Bless the Birds, and my restored mountain grassland yard is beginning to bloom.

As are the annuals I just planted for pollinators in the galvanized steel window boxes I designed for the faux window that decorates the street-side wall of my house.

Real windowboxes with real flowers on my faux window... Real windowboxes with real flowers on my faux window…

It’s spring, when as ee cummings wrote, “the world is puddle-wonderful”–or here in the puddle-deficient high-desert, the air is at least intermittantly showery and smells delicious, full of life waking up.

It’s hard to be gloomy in this season of possibilities!


Gardening (and living) As If We Belong

For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Mt. Ouray, white with fresh snow and almost 14,000 feet elevation, rising in the distance beyond Salida. Mt. Ouray, white with fresh snow and almost 14,000 feet elevation, rising in the distance beyond Salida.

As the weather turns from winter storms to balmy days and frosty nights, I’ve been thinking about spring and the habitat-gardening workshops I’ll be teaching in a few weeks.

Teaching is a great opportunity to stop to reflect about why I’m passionate about my subject. Not just about plants, which I love with an absorption and sense of kinship I don’t always have for my own species, or about the communities our green and rooted kin weave across the surface of this extraordinary living earth. I also think seriously about why I engage in the sometimes-misunderstood, physically hard, and often-lengthy work of restoring nature in urban places.

The answer is always the same. Because I love the work. Because nothing else is as satisfying as seeing the meanders and the baby trout return to a formerly channelized urban creek, or scarlet indian paintbrush freckling a lively native mountain grassland seeded where before was a sterile turfgrass lawn, or the monarchs flutter in to a patch of newly established native milkweed, or the kids standing in awe, mouths open, as the first hummingbird they have ever seen hovers to drink nectar from the wildflower patch planted next to their city edible garden….

Adult monarch drinking nectar from a native common milkweed along "my" block of urban creek. Adult monarch drinking nectar from a native common milkweed along “my” block of urban creek.

Because nature restored is a glorious, confounding, exuberant community of interrelated lives who together express the unique story of each place. Because watching life weave a healthy existence is a source of continuing inspiration, education and flat-out wonder.

Because this earth is my home. Because, while my people may have arrived on this continent a mere century or two ago, I belong here in this high-desert valley in the shadow of the highest ranges of the Rocky Mountains.

I eat food my hands have grown in this gritty soil; its minerals structure my cells. Airborne molecules of the volatile organic compounds our native big sagebrush wafts onto the air bubble through my blood with each breath I inhale; the sight of aspen clones painting whole mountainsides in brilliant gold and the resonant calls sandhill cranes winging high overhead infuse my soul.

L'il Bites tomato cotyledons sprouting on my living room windowsill for the summer garden. (Thank you, Renee's Garden Seeds!) L’il Bites tomato cotyledons sprouting on my living room windowsill for the summer garden. (Thank you, Renee’s Garden Seeds!)

Because, as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes, I work at living here as if our children’s future mattered–the harvester ant children, the infant whitestem evening primrose, the young greenback cutthroat trout and larval mayflies, the monarch caterpillars, the baby sagebrush, the downy sandhill cranes all gangly legs and beaks, and the children of my human community.

I garden to restore habitat and healthy nature because all our children matter, because they are all part of our future.

Because it is my way of taking care of this land. I teach habitat gardening and restoration of nature to others because our lives, material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual do depend on it.

Dryland native meadow yard Richard and I restored at my old house. Dryland native meadow yard Richard and I restored at my old house.

And because I want others to feel the joy and awe, and the deep sense of satisfaction and belonging that I do when I see the earth restored. Because it is an antidote for the paralysis and despair that come when we’re faced with seemingly overwhelming environmental problems. Because my hope for and faith in the future rests on all of us on this glorious, animate blue planet, the only home our species has ever known.

Because when we garden as if we and the generations to come belong, we live as if we do, too. And we all benefit.

(Revised version of a piece first published in Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens, a national blog-zine I contribute a column to each month.)

Edible Garden: Starting Tomato, Basil and Eggplant

Last week, a packet of seeds from Renee’s Garden, my favorite supplier of easy-to-grow, delicious and beautiful garden seeds landed in my post box, my personal signal that spring is on the way.

New seeds and new varieties for my summer garden, thanks to Renee's Garden Some of the new seeds and new varieties I’ll plant in my edible garden, thanks to Renee’s Garden.

On Saturday evening, I dug a seedling tray out of the stack in the garage, found my organic germinating mix, gathered the seed packets I needed, and carried my supplies inside to the living room.

It’s too early and too cold still at night to sow even Renee’s enticing-looking new Tuscan baby-leaf kale and cool-season mesclun mixes in my containers on the front deck, but it’s just the right time to start tomatoes, oriental eggplant, basil, and sweet alyssum indoors.

I filled each of the tiny pots to the brim with germinating mix (a special fine-grained, nutrient-rich soil mix for starting seeds). Then I worked row by row through the flat, planting one variety per row. I started with ‘Aurelia Bolognese’ Basil, Renee’s new basil introduction from the region around Bologna, Italy.

The flat of 40 pots ready to be filled with soil--seed packets lined up as well. The flat of 40 pots ready to be filled with soil–seed packets lined up as well.

I read the packet for each kind of seed, and then planted one or two seeds in each pot at the required depth, and pressed the seeds firmly into the soil (the mix compacts, which is why I filled the pots full to start).

Next came a row of ‘Little Prince’ oriental eggplant, a variety that produces small oval fruits with nutty flesh and thin, edible skin. ‘Little Prince’ is perfect for container edible gardening.

'Little Prince' eggplants with Black Krim (left) and Persimmon (right) tomatoes from my old kitchen garden. (Both tomato varieties are favorites, but too big for my containers.) ‘Little Prince’ eggplants with Black Krim (left) and Persimmon (right) tomatoes from my old kitchen garden. (Both tomato varieties are favorites, but too big for my containers.)

After the eggplant row came the tomatoes, four varieties. I used to grow seven or eight, but then I used to garden for a whole household. Now it’s just me, and while I love eating and giving away tomatoes, I have to restrain myself from growing too many!

First the yellow pear tomatoes, an old favorite and a variety ideal for fresh eating (friends often pick and munch these bite-sized, sweet tomatoes as they pass the stock tank that holds my tomato plants on the way to my front door).

Then a row of a new variety, ‘Litt’l Bites’ cherry tomato, specially bred for window boxes, hanging baskets and other small containers.

Stupice tomatoes ripening on the vine last summer. Stupice tomatoes ripening on the vine last summer.

I followed that by two rows of reliable favorites, Stupice, an heirloom variety of rounded, rich-flavored salad tomatoes; and ‘Pompeii Roma,’ a heavy producer of fruits great for sauces and stews, and good keepers that ripen until December inside, providing me with fresh tomatoes into winter.

Yellow pear and Pompeii roma tomatoes ripening inside in November. Yellow pear and Pompeii roma tomatoes ripening inside in November.

Last, I planted a row of ‘Summer Peaches’ sweet alyssum, a small, spreading annual with early blooming, sweet-smelling flowers. I’ll tuck alyssum into the edges of my containers of edibles to attract and feed pollinators and other beneficial insects.

(Addition: Thanks to my friend Louella for pointing out this blog post on planting sweet alyssum with organic lettuce: the flowers’ sweet scent and nectar attracts hover flies, whose larvae are voracious aphid predators.)

Hover fly adult on the lettuce in my garden; the larvae are natural aphid control. Hover fly adult on the lettuce in my garden; the larvae are natural aphid control.

I labeled each row so I’d remember what I had planted. I soaked the wicking mat under the pots, which will keep each little pot evenly moist, and carefully sprinkled the dry soil of each pot from above.

Then I set the tray on the heating mat on the shelf in front of my south-facing living room windows (the heating mat warms the soil, encouraging germination).

Watering the pots with their seeds.... Watering the pots with their seeds….

Now I just have to wait for the miracle as tiny green cotyledons, the seed-leaves, appear from each tiny nugget of life in the moist soil. Come on, spring!

Red and I head up Poncha Creek on our way to Marshall Pass

Time Out: Marshall Pass Road & Aspen Gold

Red and I head up Poncha Creek on our way to Marshall Pass Red and I head up Poncha Creek on our way to Marshall Pass. (I was not driving when I shot this photo!)

Late this afternoon, after I finished writing two grant applications and one report on a landscape restoration consult, I gave myself a time out–that is, time outdoors, not punishment. Red and I took a leaf-peeping drive to see the aspen on the Marshall Pass Road southwest of Salida.

Marshall Pass is the old railroad route over the Continental Divide; between 1879 and 1890 it was the only line between Denver and Salt Lake City, and thus the Pacific Coast. During that time before cars and highways, Salida was the center of rail travel in the Colorado mountains, and saw trains carrying U.S. Presidents (including Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt) and other famous folk.

The Denver Rio Grande & Western train heading up Marshall Pass in about 1890 Photo: William Henry Jackson The Denver & Rio Grande Western train heading up 10,842-foot-elevation Marshall Pass in about 1890. Photo: William Henry Jackson

The Marshall Pass line was narrow-gauge, with rails just three feet apart, which allowed for a tighter turning radius in the switchbacks climbing the over the high passes but meant smaller cars and smaller freight loads.

D & RGW work train doing maintenance below Marshall Pass. Photo: Colorado Historical Society D & RGW work train below Marshall Pass. Photo: Colorado Historical Society

After the standard gauge line was built over Tennessee Pass above Leadville, the Marshall Pass line became a local route; the upper part of the grade was abandoned in the 1950s and became a scenic auto route. (I live along the lower part of former line where it cuts through the town of Salida; it is now a popular section of Salida’s 8.5-mile town trail system.)

The Marshall Pass Road along Poncha Creek (that's 13,275-foot-high Antora Peak in the background). The Marshall Pass Road along Poncha Creek (that’s 13,275-foot-high Antora Peak in the background).

The beginning of the grade is mellow, and then it begins to climb, and climb, and climb, winding its way toward Marshall Pass and the shoulder of Mt. Ouray.

Aspen flickers in the dark forest of ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs Aspen flickers in the dark forest of ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs

At first the patches of aspen were small, and scattered. But so bright! As the road wound its way uphill the clumps of aspen took on different hues, including orange and scarlet.

Aspen leaves from green to gold to red! Green aspens with red tips are particularly beautiful against the silvery-blue of that big Colorado blue spruce behind them.

I stopped to shoot photos and inhale the cool air whenever the sun came out from between afternoon rain-clouds, or the colors were especially lovely, or a cut in the old narrow gauge roadbed invited investigation, or whatever. [Warning: Possible aspen-color overdose ahead.]

The sun came out.... The sun came out….

Making the backlit mountain mahogany shrubs particularly lovely against gray clouds... making the back-lit seedheads on the mountain mahogany shrubs particularly lovely…

Aspen-dappled mountainside with Antora Peak in the background, but from higher up Aspen-dappled mountainside with Antora Peak in the background again…

And around another bend, this view of the Sangre de Cristos with aspens on their lower slopes, across the San Luis Valley... And around another bend, this view of the Sangre de Cristos with aspens on their lower slopes, across the San Luis Valley…

... and then a blast of brilliant aspens below the road, reflected in O'Haver Lake … and then a blast of brilliant aspens below the road, reflected in O’Haver Lake

Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos... Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos…

It's time to turn back, but let's just see what's around this curve... It’s time to turn back, but let’s just see what’s around this curve…

Oh yeah! Mt. Ouray spills a flood of aspen from above... Oh! Mt. Ouray spills a flood of aspen from above…

Okay, we'll turn around after this next curve... Okay, we’ll turn around after this next curve…

Well, just one more stop... Well, just one more stop…

... after this curve … after this curve

... and these crimson aspen … and these crimson aspen

we'll turn around and head downhill (in second gear)... Now we’ll turn around and head downhill (in second gear)…

and only stop a few more times... … and only stop a few more times

when it's impossible to resist one more shot... when it’s impossible to resist one more shot…

...or those scarlet-tipped aspens against the silver-blue spruces are just too lovely. …or those scarlet-tipped aspens against the silver-blue spruces are just too lovely.

Which explains why it took me almost two hours to drive the 36-mile round-trip between Salida and just below Marshall Pass.

From evening shadows in the mountains to a flood of golden sun in the valley. From evening shadows in the mountains to a flood of golden sun in the valley.

I was feeling worn-down before I left. Now I’m not. After time out among the aspens and the peaks, my heart is full of wonder and my spirit is tap-dancing.

And I am grateful once again for the gift of life on this numinous blue planet.

Yeah! Yeah!

Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes by Meriwether O'Connor

Two Outstanding Indie Books: Joe Potato, and Stories in Stitches

When I go looking for a new read, the proliferation of books is sometimes simply overwhelming. So when I discovered these two indie projects by authors I knew through previous work, I wanted to share them with you.

Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes by Meriwether O'Connor Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes by Meriwether O’Connor

If the short stories in Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes don’t make you belt out at least one (perhaps astonished) laugh like the woman in the photo on the cover, you may need to take your sense of humor in for a check-up. Meriwether O’Connor knows and deeply appreciates rural Appalachia, its people and their no-nonsense and sometimes desperately hardscrabble existence.

Each character in these stories is someone you might meet there: vivid, unique and offering a wry and rooted view of life. And each has a recipe to share.

In this extraordinary collection, you’ll learn about apartment “rabbits” in New York City and how to catch and cook them, and meet Gardenia and the one unlucky squirrel that ate a hole in her trailer and thus became dinner. You’ll watch as a third cousin touches up the hair of his dead relative with black shoe polish at a funeral, and learn his recipe for peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches fried in a cast iron pot. (“Yes, you can use other metals, I understand, but what better skillet is there that can also be used in self-defense?”)

After reading Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes, you’ll understand “local food” and Appalachian people at a whole new level. I’m not at all surprised that this collection was nominated for the Weatherford Award (yes, the one Barbara Kingsolver won for Flight Behavior). Or that Carolyn Chute, author of the best-selling novel The Beans of Egypt Maine, said about O’Connor and her stories:

VERY engaging style…Vivid characters…A strong writing voice like (this) is rare.


Stories in Stitches, Volume Three, by Donna Druchunas and Ava Coleman Stories in Stitches, Volume Three, by Donna Druchunas and Ava Coleman

Stories in Stitches is a collaborative effort between award-winning author and knitter Donna Druchunas (who wrote Arctic Lace, among other books) and well-known designer and knitter Ava Coleman. Stitches is actually a series of books on the stories behind the patterns of hand-knitted creations from dolls to socks and sweaters.

And I do mean stories: Volume Three, on patterns from World War I & II, tells the tales of both author’s ancestors, and thus of the people and culture involved in those wars. In “Dancing Stitches and Flying Fish,” a sock pattern and its history conjures a story that Donna Druchunas’ Eastern European Jewish grandmother might have told,

My grandmother sat at the foot of my bed when I was a little girl. Every night after she fluffed my pillow, tucked the blankets in around my neck, and kissed me on the forehead, she would settle in and tell me a bedtime story. Every night the story was the same.

Bubbeh’s name was Tzivia, she would begin….

The flying fish sock pattern that inspired Donna's research into Jewish history. The dancing stitches sock pattern that inspired Donna’s research into one particular chapter of Jewish history.

You don’t have to be a knitter or a fiber person to appreciate the history and storytelling in this gorgeously designed and beautifully written series, or to understand how hand-made objects can reveal so much about who and why we are.

Opening page of one of the stories in Volume 3 of Stories in Stitches. Opening page of one of the stories in Volume 3 of Stories in Stitches.

As Ava Coleman writes in the Editor’s Letter,

We tell our stories so future generations remember. Sometimes that is so we don’t repeat the mistakes of past generations. Other times it is to share skills and ideas with our future generations. This issue shares a bit of both.


Traditional publishing offers a curated experience: editors, publishers and marketers select the books they think are good and publish them. Indie publishing offers a wide-open proliferation of voices and stories. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so much.

Until you spot a treasure among the multitude, like Joe Potato’s Real Life Stories and Stories in Stitches. These voices and stories simply shine.

My front and side yard "wildscapes," mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress.

Plant Therapy, or Working with Wildflowers

My front and side yard "wildscapes," mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress. My front and side yard “wildscapes,” mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress.

I exhausted myself this weekend engaging in plant therapy. That’s a good thing.

I worked on all three of my personal urban habitat restoration projects: Monarch Spur Park, the pocket park at the other end of my block; Ditch Creek; and my own yard, formerly a dump site which I am returning to high-desert prairie dotted with wildflowers and native shrubs.

Pulling tumbleweed and kochia from the mountain prairie along Ditch Creek. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman, Hometown Habitat Pulling tumbleweed and Kochia from the mountain prairie along Ditch Creek. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman, Hometown Habitat

Whenever I’m worn down emotionally or the level in my creative well ebbs, I head outside and tend my wild “gardens.” Working with plants–especially the wildflowers, grasses and shrubs native to this very place–restores my spirits and my balance.

A growing body of research confirms that simply being out-of-doors is healthy. Physical effects of what researchers call “nature exposure” include lowered blood pressure and heart rate and increased cardiovascular health, plus improved ability to heal and less pain.

Native golden currant along Ditch Creek beginning to show its crimson color. Native golden currant along Ditch Creek beginning to show crimson. Just the color makes me smile!

Time outdoors, in the more natural the setting the better, also helps increase our ability to concentrate and focus, and thus to learn. (Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that time in nature can be as therapeutic for kids with ADHD as popular behavioral medications–without the side effects.)

And as anyone who has ever gone out for a long walk and come back having solved a problem or feeling like a weight has been lifted from their soul can testify, time in nature improves our emotional and spiritual well-being.

Do those hikers look happy and mellow, or what? (Richard and me at Bandelier Nat. Monument. Photo: Sherrie York) Do those hikers look happy and mellow, or what? (Richard and me at Bandelier Nat. Monument. Photo: Sherrie York)

I’m in the midst of an intense and draining revision of my memoir, Bless the Birds. By the end of each week, I feel like the story has taken all I have, and then some.

Hence my need to get outside on the weekends and immerse myself in plant therapy. Give me a piece of ground that needs love, and a source of native plant seeds and seedlings (thanks, Ellen, for the latest batch!), and I’m good.

Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush and Showy Fleabane in Monarch Spur Park. Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush and Showy Fleabane in Monarch Spur Park.

Yesterday, working with a small but enthusiastic crew on fall clean-up in Monarch Spur Park, I was thrilled to yank out a patch of tumbleweed and discover the first Indian Paintbrush to seed itself into the park, once the junky vacant lot and now a demonstration garden for restoring pollinator and songbird habitat, and saving water.

(Thanks to Bev, Billy, Bonnie and Louise for the help weeding, digging and separating plants, and trimming the big cottonwood tree.)

Walking home along Ditch Creek and picking up trash along the way, I smiled as I heard the distinctive “Zee-zee-zee” calls of a flock of Cedar Waxwings gorging on chokecherries in a small tree that Richard and I planted 17 years ago as a tiny sapling. That chokecherry is now about ten feet tall and loaded with fruit, hence the waxwings feeding.

The chokecherry showing its burgundy fall leaves on the top left. The chokecherry showing its burgundy fall leaves on the top left.

Today I worked in my own yard. I planted some native perennials I bought on sale at a local nursery (planting in my “soil” is good physical exercise, involving wielding a mattock to hack out the rocks) and pulled weeds from my fledgling mountain prairie.

As I worked, I noticed wildflowers I hadn’t realized were still blooming and heard hummingbirds chatter as they sipped flower-nectar to fuel up for their long flight south.

Desert Four O'clock (Mirabilis multiflora) blooming in the "hellstrip" between the sidewalk and street. Desert Four O’clock (Mirabilis multiflora) blooming in the “hellstrip” between the sidewalk and street.

Neighbors stopped to chat and admire the yard. A flock of Canada Geese flew overhead in a ragged V, honking back and forth.

By the time I finished, and cleaned up my tools and me, I was worn out. But I was smiling. Restoring my patch of earth restores me too.

Showy Goldeneye (Viguiera multiflora) blooming in my front yard prairie. Showy Goldeneye (Viguiera multiflora) blooming in my front yard prairie.

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat."

Hometown Habitat

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat." Calliope hummingbird perched in my own “hometown habitat.”

I spent the weekend working with Catherine Zimmerman and Rick Patterson, the visionary filmmakers behind the Hometown Habitat film project.

Hometown Habitat aims to tell the story of people all around the country who are using native plants to reweave the community of nature, healing the places where we live, work, and play by restoring habitat for wildlife, especially pollinators and songbirds, those little guys who run the world, to paraphrase EO Wilson.

Why care about native plants and landscaping?

Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn't a native plant, but the others are). Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn’t a native plant, but the others are).

Because as Doug Tallamy, entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home points out, native plants are the ones that sustain native insects (monarch butterflies, for instance, have vanished from huge swaths of the Midwest because industrial agriculture has eliminated their food source, native milkweeds).

Without native insects, we will have many fewer pollinators and drastically fewer songbirds, since songbirds need insects to feed their young. Fewer pollinators means less food for us to eat; fewer songbirds means a true silent spring, no morning chorus of birdsong at all.

A world without birdsong and butterflies is not a world I want to pass on.

The mission of the Habitat Hero project. The mission of the Habitat Hero project.

Restoring habitat at home is also the message of Be A Habitat Hero, the project I’ve been working with. So last week, the Hometown Habitat crew drove to Colorado to film Habitat Hero gardens and their passionate gardeners along the Front Range from Fort Collins to the Pueblo area, and even to Salida.

Me in my film studio living room. Me on film in my living room. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

Hence my weekend in film, which included having my living room turned into a studio complete with lights and cables snaking every which where to connect with the camera and sound equipment. (I was so mesmerized by the hour-long setup process that I didn’t even think to take a picture.)

The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek. The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek.

Yesterday morning, Catherine and Rick followed me along “my” block of Salida’s Ditch Creek while I spent a sweaty hour yanking out invasive weeds and talking about the native plants Richard and I nurtured along the creek, plants that have restored a vibrant natural community in the midst of busy streets and asphalt parking lots.

In the afternoon, they set up at Salida High School to film the Wildscape workshop I taught, co-sponsored by GARNA, the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association and the Habitat Hero project. Catherine and Rick even followed us back to the creek for the field trip.

I felt like a film star when it was all over, assuming film stars end their days hot, sweaty and exhausted, with no voice left!

Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

I don’t expect a big part in the final film: I know that to find the story, you shoot hours of film from which you extract maybe two minutes. I am simply honored to participate in an inspiring chronicle of a grassroots native plant movement (pun intended) that is contributing to the beauty and health of our landscapes, urban and wild, and to our own wellness.

Which brings me back to the why we should care question. As I was writing this post, I thought about Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of a young Black man who was just beginning to find his way in life.

In view of Michael Brown’s death and our collective responsibility to all young Black men and in fact to young ones everywhere, why care about native plants and nature?

Because the health of our environment is inseparable from our individual and collective health–physical, mental and spiritual. Because to create a just and generous society takes each of us working in our own way.

Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek. Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek.

My way is to heal nature in my own neighborhood, with the aim that its beauty and wellness will ripple outward to make this whole world a nurturing and welcoming place. For all.