A Wholesome Distraction

Run Julia Child’s tian through the garden for a taste treat

Gardening As Active Meditation

My new meditation app informed me this week that, according to recent studies, humans spend on average about 47% of our waking hours in a distracted state of mind. What’s more, we feel less happy when we are distracted than when we are focused on absorbing activities. I find that figure staggering but not really surprising. Who among us has never found a pair of socks in the refrigerator (just as a purely random example) or the car keys in the laundry basket or…. Lately I’ve found myself reading the same page over and over without taking in the sense of the words and realizing that my mind is whirling. Sometimes the distractions are world woes or family issues, and sometimes they’re practical issues that need attention. Sometimes I think I slip into distraction mode out of sheer habit. Or out of denial? Lalala I can’t HEAR you?

Whatever the cause, that response has become so automatic that though I’ve adjusted my workload to reduce what’s on my plate, it’s taking me a while to adjust to feeling calmer. Apparently I’ve still got the habit of hurry and I can still get revved up in a heartbeat. However, as our weather shifts from heatwave to mere summer warmth, I’m rediscovering the active meditations of gardening. There are walking meditations of course, but I really enjoy a good pruning meditation. I noticed that a recent tree renovation session left me calm and invigorated, maybe because it required both thoughtful attention and assessment and action, and the activity was fruitful and satisfying. When no tree needs attention, there’s always the neoclassic bindweed meditation, peacefully reeling in a mile or two of vine like living yarn while setting the captives free.

An Endless Cycle, A Fresh Start

Prepping beds for planting fall starts is even more soothing. Renewing the compost coverlet for heat-weary soil, watering deeply, tucking in hopeful young plants, all feel comforting to me and they’re clearly refreshing to the garden. Rather than fuming over some fresh political iniquity, I find peace in pulling weeds, grooming flowers, planting fall vegetables. The timeless work makes me feel connected to generations of gardener ancestors who did this same work in other places, other countries, going back for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

Gradually, this gentle, healing work absorbs my attention and helps me stop arguing in my head with people who aren’t here. A wholesome distraction from the toxic kind? Bird song replaces my inner ranting. My hands feel the life in the soil, the health in a vigorous young plant, the fatigue in an aging one as it slides toward slumber or slow decay. Here in the garden, all these states are equally natural; the growth and the resting, the new life and the ending life. Peace, it’s wonder-ful.

Running Julia’s Tian Through The Garden

When zucchini starts appearing on my porch, I don’t panic. Instead, I make a family favorite casserole which always gets eaten up eagerly (maybe because I never mention the main ingredient?). Golden-crusted and smelling like summer, this simple dish is delicious right out of the oven and makes lovely leftovers. It’s great as an omelet filler or a pleasing stuffing for roasted tomatoes or sweet peppers if your family leans that way.

My recipe started off as one of Julia Child’s classics, Tian de Courgettes au Riz. We find this streamlined version to be tastier, lighter, and fresher in flavor; instead of draining the grated zucchini, then adding more liquid, you simply add a bit of liquid to the vegetable juices. With less oil and no butter, you don’t get an icky oil slick oozing from each serving. Fresh corn and grated vegetables add color and flavor, and swapping Parmesan for Asiago or Pecorino are fine options. See what you think!

Julia’s Zucchini Plus

2 teaspoons avocado or olive oil
1/2 white or yellow onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon basil salt (or any salt)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup raw long grain rice
About 2 pounds zucchini, grated (6-8 cups)
1 or 2 cups raw corn kernels (from 1 or 2 ears)
1-2 cup grated green beans (optional)
1 cup chopped sweet peppers (optional)
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1 cup sliced basil leaves
1/2 cup milk or broth
3/4 cup grated Asiago or any favorite hard cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Rub a 3 quart casserole with oil. Heat remaining oil in a wide, shallow pan over medium heat, adding the onion and 1/4 tsp salt and cook, stirring a bit, until soft and slightly golden (about 10 minutes). Add garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add raw rice and cook, stirring a bit, for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, toss the zucchini with flour, pepper, and remaining salt. Add corn, green beans and peppers (if using), basil, the milk or broth, and half a cup of cheese, toss again, then stir in the rice mixture. Mix well, then spoon into the oiled casserole, cover tightly (use foil if you don’t have a covered casserole dish) and bake for 60 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees F, remove foil or cover, sprinkle on remaining cheese and bake for an additional 15 minutes until crisp and golden brown.

Posted in Birds In The Garden, Care & Feeding, fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, Planting & Transplanting, Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Many Kinds Of Meditation

A close relationship with nature promotes well being

Nature And Emotional Health

Last week, a friend kindly shared a phone app with me that’s intended to help train our anxious, busy minds to slow down and relax. After several frustrating false starts (involving endless loops of the same annoying suggestions) I set my phone aside (I didn’t throw it!) and went outdoors. The irony of becoming even more upset and irritated by this helpful app was definitely not lost on me. I walked down to the local waterfront and strolled along the beach for a while, and within in minutes, I found myself laughing at the absurdity of my morning’s “meditation.” When I got back home, I found that the app had corrected itself and now works perfectly. Might there have been the possibility of user error? Hmmm. I’ve certainly noticed that my rather limited tech skills tend to evaporate when I’m stressed and/or tired and it’s all too likely that I was causing the problems myself. I have to wonder how many other issues might be similarly self inflicted.…

Though our garden is tiny, it still gives me great pleasure, but a longstanding issue with vertigo often limits the amount of bending and stooping I can do. A wise older gardener once told me two secrets to gardening comfortably into old age: When you get down on your knees, do everything that needs doing at that level before standing up again(!) Also, always keep a five gallon weed bucket at your side so you can hoist yourself back upright(!!) Both those little tips have been very helpful and probably kept me from quite a few tumbles. My daughter, who also has the familial vertigo issues, also has long covid, and for over year now, she’s been even less steady on her feet than I am on a rough day. Recently, she slipped and fell into my little garden bed, fortunately not hurting herself badly, but she said it took her quite a while to get herself back up. A bucket might have made that less arduous, but we don’t always expect to fall or be prepared to crawl around.

Walking Meditations

Anyway, in the process of getting herself upright, the back of the bed got pretty thoroughly crushed. It took me a while to tidy it up, as every time I saw it I felt sorrow both for her disability and for the mashed plants, which were already not happy in the sudden heat. For several days, I watered the mess with averted eyes, not wanting to know the full extent of the damage. Instead of gardening, I practiced a walking meditation suggested by the app. I’m very fortunate to be able to walk out my door and be among trees or by the waterfront in a matter of minutes. I remember in the early days of covid isolation worrying about the people stuck in small urban apartments with no place safe and calming to go. I also recall crossing the street hastily if I saw anyone coming up the sidewalk, and feeling scared when cyclists tore past me. For all we knew then, everyone was streaming viral droplets and everything we touched might be contaminated, from groceries to door handles. Right? We all learned to be afraid of each other, to back away when approached by a friend or neighbor, to stay apart and let no one in our homes. The only time I felt safe and comfortable was when I was at home or walking in a natural environment.

I was certainly not alone in this; every park all over the country was quickly packed with people seeking refuge in the natural world. Gardening, too, became more popular than ever as people discovered the pleasure and comfort that comes from being around plants. A recent study found that gardening creates peace of mind even for newbies; a series of 8 twice-weekly gardening sessions significantly reduced stress, anxiety and depression for women who had never gardened before. Another group were given art lessons instead and had similar benefits, but though both activities combine learning, planning, and creativity, the physical activity of gardening gave that group an extra boost of energy and well being.

Back To The Garden

When I finally got up the courage to clear away the mess, the damage wasn’t as extensive as it looked. Maybe all the broken stems protected the underlying plants from the heat and dry winds, because they look surprisingly healthy (if somewhat smaller). The resilience of the plants gave me hope for my own resilience, and my daughter’s as well. Covid caught her as she was slowly coming off decades of trying to be a man and feeling desperately wrong in that role. Several years with a wise and perceptive therapist helped her unwind the tangle of thoughts and ideas that held her frozen until she was able to realize that the core issue was false identity.

Even after just a few months as a woman, she became happier than I’ve seen her since pre-puberty. As she blossomed into her true self, even the relentless depression that’s held her hostage for decades began to ease. Getting breakthrough covid last June was painful for her and the ongoing physical symptoms remain uncomfortable but though the virus has taken a terrible toll on her energy and ability to get around, her mood remains largely positive. That’s more than I can say for myself (obviously), but she makes me hopeful that I too can learn to stay positive despite all the dreadful things going on in the world. At least some of the time (right?). I keep thinking about annoying slogans like ‘happiness is an inside job” and ‘you can be right or you can be happy.” Humph. Shades of Bobby McFerrin; don’t worry be happy? But, ok, yeah. I’ll give it a try, and also I’ll get my poor neglected garden back in shape. After all, there are many kinds of meditatin, and weeding and tending plants is right up there on my list. Onward, right?

Posted in Care & Feeding, Health & Wellbeing, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Endless Cycle of Renewal

In the bud, there is a blossom, in the blossom is the seed…

A Baby Arrives & A Friend Walks On

After a week of high temperatures and drying winds, I woke this morning to grey skies and a gentle drizzle that softened the air and felt like a blessing on my cheek. The garden still needed to be watered, of course, and it felt comforting to rinse the dusty leaves and watch the water soak into the soil instead of pooling and running off the desiccated crust. Coming after a cool, wet spring, just a week of high heat relentlessly dried out flowers and foliage despite daily watering. Even the indomitable oregano got fried in a few places where the plants get a lot of reflected heat. Now, there’s a lot of tidying up to do in the wake of the heat wave. Some plants sailed through just fine, others faltered and some simply gave up the ghost. Gathering up the crisp, browned and battered looking stems, I found myself thinking about how quickly a living branch can become shriveled detritus fit only for the compost heap.

A celebration of baby joy

Perhaps my mind took me in that direction because this week has been one of swift reversals and vivid contrasts. On the positive side, a far away friend whose pregnancy has been very difficult was safely delivered of a healthy baby after a scary period of doubtful outcome, a joyful blessing to the whole extended family. That joy was balanced by the fading away of a dear friend who recently suffered a fall and a brain bleed. Over the past few days, as I sat with Mary to give her daughter a break, I thought about her rich, full life with awe and appreciation. A pastor, an educator, and a firm and faithful friend, her generous, useful life touched hundreds if not thousands of others in positive and life affirming ways.

A Life Well Lived, A Life Broken Off

The slow, quiet hours of sitting vigil are often both as sweet as sad, especially when the departing person has lived a long, full life. Sometimes I knit, sometimes I sing or talk softly, knowing that people can hear us even when they seem unresponsive. Sometimes the time was shared with visitors who came to whisper a few words or share a story or two. Members of the choir Mary and I have sung in for years came to her bedside to sing her on her way, with many shared remembrances and tender moments. Another group, the Threshold Choir, came to sing their beautiful songs of passage a few hours later, and a few hours after that, Mary peacefully walked on. Mary was a woman of strong and thoughtful faith, faith that showed up in her daily life as well as in her writing and speaking. I didn’t need to cry for Mary’s passage, as it seems very clear that she will be greeted with joy and thanksgiving wherever and in whatever form she may be.

As I walked home yesterday, which turned out to be Mary’s last day on the planet, I was thinking about Mary’s legacy of love and hope, courage and strength, and feeling so blessed to have known her. A block away from home, I met a friend who told me with horror that another friend’s son had just died in an accident and the stricken, shocked parents had to make a long, arduous trek into remote Canada to share that terrible loss with his sibling in person, so he wouldn’t learn it alone and far from home. Then, I cried. A lot. That death felt shattering, heart breaking, devastating. A recent college graduate, a talented musician, an endurance athlete, a funny, smart, remarkable person with loving family and friends, gone in an ungraspable moment.

Vulnerability Without Shame

A dear friend, another choir member, is a hospice chaplain who generously offered her services to any of us who felt the need for comfort. She pointed out that a new loss can get emotionally connected with other losses and griefs that we may not have had time or resources to work through on our own. The resulting tangle can feel overwhelming and unmanageable. As my late, beloved therapist used to say, “Well, hello to that!” Sounds about right to me! By now you will probably be relieved to hear that we are finding a time to meet and I’m definitely looking forward to the luxury of doing some deep work with someone I appreciate and admire.

Growing up in New England, seeing a therapist was considered a bit shameful and embarrassing, a solution only for weak people who can’t suck it up and keep soldiering on. It’s poignant to dream into what my family life might have been like had emotional help been available and acceptable. I am so grateful that the idea of soldiering on has zero appeal for me now and in fact feels like dysfunctional denial. As an elder, I get to honor my own vulnerability and that of others, to learn what self care looks like at this stage of life, and to accept help with gratitude. Onward, right?





Posted in Care & Feeding, Health & Wellbeing, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | 6 Comments

Offer Love & Enchantment, Not Weeds

Inviting children to experience natural enchantment (holiday catcus flower)

Who Will Be Tomorrow’s Gardeners?

My favorite part of summer is spending outdoor time with my grandkids. Over the years, I’ve often been asked how to engage children in gardening, often with comments about how quickly kids get bored. Well, yes. Few kids-or adults-truly LOVE weeding and watering. My grandkids like watering but only if it means spraying with the hose and making rainbows, not bending over to deliver water right to the roots of thirsty plants. People of any age don’t fall in love with gardening unless they experience its enchanting side. How does that happen? Growing from seed works for some kids, especially with big results like sunflowers or zucchini. My grandkids love to make new plants from cuttings, starting with Schlumberga, aka the ‘holiday cactus’ family, or jade plants and spider plants, all eager rooters that plump up into plants very quickly. As they nurture their own seedlings and starts, the kids develop a deeper respect for plant life. They begin to understand that plants can live or die and that creates a sense of responsibility that moves them to (usually) treat plants more like kittens or puppies than like inanimate objects.

For others, magic awakens while examining flowers, bees, and other insects with a magnifying glass (carefully, so not to burn plants or tiny critters). Really SEEING how beautiful and intricate the simplest blossom is can spark a lifelong fascination with plants, at least it did for me. As a child, I happily burrowed into bushes and watched nearby poppies bursting out of their bud sheaths in slo-mo while my brothers played a rowdy game of hide and seek. After reading The Borrowers, I started making what are now known as fairy houses, using flowers and petals and leaves of all kinds, as well as shells and feathers, moss and bark. Pre-pandemic, I facilitated fairy house workshops at the local library, and often parents commented curiously on their child’s level of interest, usually saying that these kids were not particularly interested in gardening at home. What made them so engaged?

Engagement & Agency

Perhaps the most important factor was that a good Fairy House program excludes parents except as passive onlookers, and facilitators actively discourage adult interference. There is supervision and oversight, of course, but the children’s own creativity is allowed full rein and they are also allowed the luxury of constructive failure. They are offered a wide range of natural materials to experiment with and given encouragement as needed, but they get to experience a little frustration as well as the soaring triumph of success when their own ideas become workable. It often works well to get kids to work in pairs, as it’s fun to exchange ideas and get enthusiastic responses. Rather than offering suggestions, adults can be most helpful by waiting to be asked. It’s fine to help gather and carry raw materials to the chosen building site, but try to stand back and allow the youngsters space to develop their own creativity. Find a pleasant log or rock to sit on and listen to the birds or watch the clouds or just immerse yourself in being outside. When kids see us glued to our phones or other devices, they get the message that outside is too boring to merit our full attention(!).

Some of my favorite experiences involved wonderful children’s workshops for making nature based art, inspired by the early work of Andy Goldsworthy. We’ve woven blankets of long grasses, and made colorful mandalas with leaves and flower petals. We edged public paths with colorful autumn leaves, then watched as the wild wind swept them all into brilliant airborne art. We sewed leaves into long garlands with beading cord and draped them over shrubs. We tucked allium and poppy seedheads into tree branches like holiday ornaments and made marvelous mosaics with leaves and seedpods. We made wreaths with lichen covered twigs and rosehips. Always, the children developed their own ideas, found their own favorite materials, created amazing patterns, and always they loved the activities. What’s not to love?

Mosaic making with garden gleanings

Less Becomes More

In general, I find gentle guidance to be far more effective than micro-managing. Having grown up in the 50s, when parenting was horrifyingly hands-off by today’s standards, I tend to let kids experiment rather than steer too much. In our middle class neighborhood, kids were encouraged to play outside all day, as long as we showed up for meals and went to bed on time. My brothers and I experienced this as mostly benign neglect, taking full advantage of our freedom to ride bikes to the library daily (me), play in the nearby woods, climb trees, build forts, and mess about with boats on the local river. Back then, nobody seemed worried about possible dangers and I don’t recall anything awful happening to any of us until the 60s crashed over us, bringing Viet Nam, a smorgasbord of drugs, and some complicated freedoms in their wake.

To this day, I delight in gently guiding children in hands-on outdoor activities. It’s heartening to watch children find such joy in playing with garden gleanings that would otherwise end up in our compost, or planting a magical mouse-sized forest of vivid annuals. Even without (or especially without) adult suggestions, the range and scope of their imaginative makings is impressive and often unexpected. Most avid gardeners have a story about a parent, grandparent, or neighbor who made them welcome in the garden as a child or as a tween or teen. If we’re lucky, the young people we invite into our gardens will become tomorrow’s gardeners, alive to the living world. It’s hugely important, because when we encourage children to play creatively in the garden, we offer a living link to the natural world that can last a lifetime. Onward, right?

Posted in Annual Color, Crafting With Children, Garden Design, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Plant Diversity, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments