A New Potato

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Spring sprouts are signs of hope and progress

Sprouting From The Heart

Over the past few weeks I’ve been traveling to Seattle a great deal to visit my daughter, who is still in the hospital. At first the days seemed as bleak as my spirit, grey and cold with biting winds and spatters of icy rain and hail like frozen needles. As the days rolled on, wild cherry trees that grow along the ferry walkway started blooming and bees appeared despite the continuing cold snaps. The journey into the city has stages too; the walk to the ferry, among well off white people; the boat full of a less homogeneous bunch of people going to all sorts of places; the long hike up seriously steep streets to First Hill (or Pill Hill, as it’s called for the numerous hospitals and clinics that cluster there).

As you clamber up the hill, the streets get rattier and the people get far more demographically mixed. Tent encampments are tucked between buildings or even along blank walls, anywhere out of the wind that offers a scrap of shelter. There was even a camp at the back of the hospital until someone’s tent caught on fire and the police cleared everyone away. During the pandemic, the main entrance to the hospital was closed and everyone came in through the crowded emergency room entrance. That’s still the case, so we line up to check in with an armed guard who puts everyone’s bags and gear through a scanner tunnel and motions us through a metal detector, one by one. Knitting needles are not a problem, luckily! We each get a wrist band marked with the day of our visit, but once we get into the hospital, nobody gives us a second glance (unless you look lost, when everyone will stop and kindly show you how to get where you’re going).

A Wild Ride And A Safe Harbor

The past month has been such a wild ride and I’m still reeling a bit from the whiplash of so many sudden changes but as my daughter gains strength, I am recovering some of my own strength and resilience as well. It’s devastating, shocking, horrifying to see your offspring teeter on the brink of death. Hitched to what seemed like countless tubes, she looked unfamiliar, someone I didn’t know, yet I could tell she was in there somewhere, even if she couldn’t speak or respond. After a week in ICU, that became my mantra, “I see you” and I said it to her over and over. The staff kept saying, “She’s in the right place” and I felt that Harborview was indeed a safe harbor.

As the crisis passed, her care got complicated; she came in to the hospital with a horrible skin condition caused by pustular psoriasis-the very name sounds as awful as the condition is. Two sudden surgeries turned her into a post surgical patient and the underlying medical issues became less of a focus as new issues arose. We slowly got that sorted out, more or less, and as the days and weeks accumulate, my daughter is coming into focus as well. When I asked if she wanted her phone or tablet or music, devices she used almost constantly before all this, she said, “Not really, no.” She went on to say that she hadn’t been just lying there all this time. Once her medications got adjusted and she was able to think clearly again, she’s been doing a lot of life review.

Looking At Life Through A New Lens

For my daughter, this catastrophic event is turning out to be a turning point in several ways. Her life has changed irrevocably and that’s just what it is. Her spirit is stronger than it was before all this came down; she’s been so depressed for so many years that it had to have felt like ‘what it is’ as well. Now, however, she’s starting to experience something else. As her body recovers and she’s able to sit up in a chair, to stand up for a minute, to balance without falling over, her spirit is leaning into each little victory as a sign of hope and progress. She says that she feels like she’s been given a chance to reset herself physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. She’s seeing her world through a new lens and it looks better that way.

During the dark years of depression, she didn’t have the energy to engage fully with her own life, let long anything else. Now, she’s seeing ways to learn new skills, to make different choices, to accept help of many kinds. Being helpless puts you in a position of HAVING to accept help if it’s available and one silver lining has been that she is realizing that accepting help is a strength, not a weakness.

About That Potato

As you can see, the potato valentine has started to sprout nicely. When the soil warms up a bit more, I’ll cut it up, let the cuts dry off a bit, then plant the eyes in fresh soil. Come summer, we’ll be harvesting the children of the heart. Onward, right?

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Love Of Nature & Natural Love

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My potatoes definitely love me

I Love My Garden, Does My Garden Love Me?

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of my favorite comfort reads, and I’ve been dipping into it a lot lately. Over the past week, my daughter ended up in the trauma ER at Harborview/UW Hospital, was almost discharged on Wednesday, collapsed in the wheelchair, was rushed to the OR for emergency surgery, had another surgery on Friday and got a surprise colostomy. She’s had an enormous amount of testing and exceptional care all the way. After all this, it’s still not clear exactly what’s going on but seems to be a complex, interrelated autoimmune issue. Today she’s (probably) being moved from the ICU to Acute Care, which definitely represents progress. We are both so deeply grateful to the medical team and the awesome and respectful care she’s getting (the few people who have misgendered her so far were older white male docs, surprise!).

Given all these rapid, abrupt and terrifying changes, browsing through Braiding Sweetgrass and letting those healing, wholesome earthy images and stories sink in has given me the peace to sleep at night (mostly). I’ve also been able to spend a few sunny hours gardening, spreading compost, pulling up a few deep rooted weeds and noticing which plants are coming back after the prolonged cold. My grandkids have been with me in between hospital visits and we’ve been doing some late harvesting of garlic and potatoes, like hunting for buried treasure in the chilly damp earth. The potato shown above made me remember a chapter where Dr. Kimmerer and her daughter consider their own love for their gardens and wonder if the gardens love them back. How would we know?

What Natural Love Looks Like

Looking at the rich, healthy, crumbly soil in my pea patch, I feel like that lovely healing soil represents love both ways. I put in love and care and supplements and the soil came to life as the living creatures in the soil food web responded with wellbeing. Now the soil is clearly flourishing. Looks like love to me! Maybe it’s not personal exactly; I doubt that my garden “knows” me, but I feel confident that the soil biota and the interwoven webs of natural relationships between soil and plants definitely know when they have what they need and are able to function well. We even know now that many plants help each other, sharing nutrients as needed when times are tough. Sounds like love to me.

That’s what the idea of ‘forest bathing’ is all about too. Walking in the woods, we can experience that same reciprocal wellbeing as we breathe in the feel-good forest bacteria, natural plant fragrances, and refreshed air. Our exhaled carbon dioxide is eagerly absorbed by plants and soil alike and we all function a little better. Same thing happens in our gardens, so no wonder we feel refreshed and soothed just by puttering with plants! Garden Bathing is definitely A Thing! Judging by my own responses, I’m guessing that even reading about plants and gardens can be beneficial, just as meditating on peaceful images or thoughts can help us calm down and feel more comfortable.

About That Potato

The silly part of all this is that I feel like the adorable heart shaped potato is a valentine from the earth. I’ve so enjoyed looking at it and holding its smooth rounded curves in my hand that I can’t quite bring myself to eat it. Obviously it won’t stay fresh forever, but if I don’t eat it, it will soon start to sprout. Then I guess I’ll do some heart surgery and plant out each piece that bears a bud, feeling like I’m planting garden love. Happy first day of Spring! Onward, right?


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Flowers That Shirk Their Duty

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Small but plentiful sedum flowers offer a bee buffet

Why Pollenless Plants Are Pointless

In recent years, gardeners have found more and more sunflower seed packets labeled as ‘pollen free’ and ‘best’ for cutting. It’s certainly true that pollen-free blossoms are less messy as cut flowers, lasting longer in the vase and never leaving sticky, oily stains on clothing or table linens. In fact, there’s a strong market for cut flowers that lack pollen, not only for the tidy minded (apparently interior designers and party arrangers love them) but also for the allergy prone. Allergy sufferers can enjoy quite a few flowers that are naturally low in pollen, making them good choices indoors and out. Among these are begonia, cactus, clematis, columbine, crocus, daffodil, dusty miller, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, pansy, periwinkle, petunia, phlox, rose, salvia, snapdragon, thrift, tulip, verbena, and zinnia. And of course, those female pollenless sunflowers.

Why females? The pollenless sunflowers have been bred to present only female characteristics, pollen being a guy thing in the plant world. While most of the great sunflower clan bear blossoms that are equally rich in nectar and pollen, a few are male-sterile, lacking pollen by nature. These girly blossoms can still set seed, as long as pollen-bearing kin are growing nearby, and they still provide ample nectar to browsing bees and fellow pollinators. However, bees feed pollen to their larval young, and it’s also an important source of protein. The new pollenless sunflowers are hybridized from their male-sterile kin and cut flower growers are planting them by the millions. As the proliferation of pollenless sunflowers extends to home growers, planting as many pollen-rich varieties as possible would be a kindness to bees.

Sunflowers That Give Back

Though many pollen-free sunflower packets are labeled as such, they aren’t all self declaring cheats. To be sure of planting pollen rich varieties, look for classics like Mammoth Russian and Mammoth Grey Stripe. These big guys produce enormous blossoms on stout stems that can top 10 feet. Giant White Seeded has been handed down for generations thanks to its prodigious seed production. They’ll be visited by pollinators all summer and by birds galore when the seeds ripen. Wine red Velvet Queen, ember dark Red Sun, tawny Soraya, and Giant Sungold are all abundant pollen and nectar producers that are beautiful enough to earn a border position. Autumn Beauty is a lovely seed strain with blooms in sunset tones, from rose to burgundy, coppery oranges and clear old gold. The varied blossoms are bee and bug magnets from August into autumn. So are the dark eyed, sunny yellow flowers on Henry Wild, a multi-branched heritage sunflower that can exceed 6 feet. Towering, big-headed Arikara is a golden-flowered, flavorful heritage seed strain from the North Dakota. Hopi Black sunflowers are a traditional source for dyes in many shades, from burgundy and rose, purple and lavender to blue and black. (Dye colors change depending on the natural mordants used.)

Pollen and nectar rich perennial sunflowers include Helianthus angustifolius, an easy going 6-footer with abundant clusters of 3-inch blossoms from mid to late summer. Helianthus Lemon Queen is similar in size, with sheaves of citrus yellow flowers that continue well into autumn. Even taller Helianthus maximiliani sports showers of golden yellow blossoms from midsummer into fall. All are multi-branched plants, produce ample seed that bring birds flocking to the garden. The perennial sunflowers are best suited for larger gardens where their spreading tendencies will be an asset. In smaller spaces, a lively array of annual sunflowers will better serve the birds and bees—and you!

What Bees Need

Around the country, there are thousands of native bees and other pollinators competing for floral foodstuffs; over 400 species of bees in Washington State alone(!). Though many are generalists at need, most bees prefer their natural diet of, guess what? Native plants! If we want to keep native bees around (and remember, many of them are far more efficient pollinators than honeybees), plant natives. Where space is limited, let them form thickets or hedgerows along the edges of your property; even small clumps of native plants will be beneficial to a wide array of pollinators. Let native groundcover perennials like Tiarella, Tellima and Tolmiea form lacy mats in shady areas, along with unassuming but useful little selfheal (Prunella vulgaris, my granddaughter’s favorite plant, who knows why). Next, add some shrubs, such as salal and snowberry, Indian plum and wild roses, oceanspray and ceanothus, manzanita, mock orange and elderberry. If you’re short on inspiration, check out the Xerces Society’s plant lists for your area, pick some you like the looks of, and start a native pollinator patch.


Despite the international interest in nurturing bees, those fuzzy little honeybees still get the most media attention. According to archaeologists, humans have been enjoying honey for at least a hundred thousand years and bees have been domesticated in various ways for around ten thousand of them. As humans migrated over time, so did honeybees. Along the way, they’ve adapted to many conditions and are now the poster bees for the generalists. Honeybees can and will dig in to any flowers on hand, as long as there’s food to be had. That said, there are quite a few flowers that even they can’t access, notably doubled blossoms, which keep out all but the most determined and strong insects. Breeding for extra large, extra colorful flowers has also had hidden costs, since often these blossoms produce little or no pollen or nectar since their energy budget is blown on bling. If bees could ask, they’d probably say’ “Keep it simple!” since single flowers offer more nutrients than snazzier blooms. Onward, right?


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Be Prepared And Bring A Book

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Add transporting books to your to-go bag!

Preparing For Whatever

I may have mentioned before that I have a dozen ex-sisters in law (long story). I’m still in touch with a few, including one who was recently discussing which books belong in her to-go bag. Here in the maritime Northwest, most people are very aware that The Big One could happen any time. After the horrendous quakes in Turkey and Syria, our Governor reminded us that we should all make like a scout and Be Prepared. That mostly means having a well-stocked to-go bag, which can be a backpack or small carryall of any kind. It’s supposed to hold essentials for a few days, from IDs, vital paperwork, food, water and medications to undies and extra socks. That’s already a pretty big pile to cram into a small bag, but as Karen so rightly said, “Waiting for disaster shouldn’t be tedious.”

That started me thinking about books I would definitely want to have on hand while waiting for a catastrophe to unfold. For me, the best choices would be books that make good doorways into another, more appealing, reality. When the tsunami whooshes and the ground shakes, escape literature would be perfect, right? Also, not to be a downer or anything, but as the crow flies, my island home is very, very close to Bangor Naval Station, a major US submarine base and a very likely target should anyone be feeling cross with Americans. We may not be Ground Zero but we’re probably only some fraction of a percent away, so why quibble?

Lovely Garden Books For Tough Times

Among the many books that transport me to pleasant places are garden books written by Margery Fish and Vita Sackville-West. Both were Englishwomen who came to gardening relatively late in life and both made remarkable gardens. If you’re traveling to England, East Lambrook Manor and Sissinghurst are still open to the public and still offer at least a bit of the personal qualities their makers gave to them. Since few of us can simply fly away when dire events occur, their books (still in print, at least in England) are a more reliable way to journey with these intrepid gardeners as they develop their own plant palettes and explore their way to success.

Gotta say that it never hurts to have an ancient stone wall or two for backdrop, as both gardens do, but both gardeners were also bold experimenters who didn’t mind making mistakes. Margery Fish in particular was funny and frank about her oopses and proved the claim that we learn more from error than from perfection (as if that actually existed). She taught me NOT to remove every tag from dead plants so you don’t just keep planting the same “good idea” things in places that aren’t actually optimal and having them die. She also did trials of grey and silver foliage plants and found that quite a few could grow happily in various kinds of shade despite the then-literature being adamant that they wouldn’t. Vita talked about the way a little color improved the famous White Garden (a heresy at the time). She also underlined ways that contrasts of form and a little pop of color could transform a stiff vignette. Good teachers both!

Whisked Away To Other Times & Places

Another set of books that are magically transporting for me have to do with magic in some form or other. Some of my favorites are intended for YA (Young Adult) readers, as well as some J-Fic written for tweens (roughly 8-12, depending on the kids). Some such books are dumb beyond belief but others are as well written and thoughtful as any SERIOUS adult book. (SERIOUS seems to be a euphemism for dire and depressing.) I’ve been reading Diana Wynne Jones’ books to my grandkids, who are currently enthralled by The House Of Many Ways, a very funny sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle. Whimsical and wry, it would be an excellent book to read to young people (or anyone, really) by candlelight with the power off and no idea what might be coming next.

Tove Jansson’s delightful Moomintroll books were gateways to wonders of both the magical and natural worlds for me. As a child, finding the first English translation of Finn Family Moomintroll was better than birthdays and Christmas combined (much better, actually). As an adult, I especially treasure her Summer Book, written for adults at a time when she and her partner lived on Klovharu, a tiny island off the windy coast of Finland. Tove Jansson was a keen observer who was as taken with mosses as with trees, awake to weather shifts and fascinated by the ocean in all its moods. Though many people might find them start and barren, she found endless inspiration for her writing in her windswept, austere surroundings, where every green shoot was a treasure and the sea was both giver of great gifts and a frequent threat to life and home. Maybe that’s what makes her thoughtful, sometimes mysterious books such excellent reading when things change. Onward, right?



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