Thursday, July 1, 2021

What is my seed starting mix?


Living in a small Midwestern city like I do, I'm grateful that our community has a locally owned greenhouse and nursery. I don't just try to support it, I pilgrimage there as soon as they open their doors (usually late January-early February) for the season. I breathe in the smells of dirt and liquid fertilizer, which in late winter in Iowa is basically the smell of Hope with a capital H, for those of us that struggle with dark winter days. 

I am a particular fan of their seed starting mix, a special blend that is light, fluffy, moist, and just right for germinating all the things I like to grow in my garden-- annual flowers like zinnia, marigold, calendula, sunflowers, and amaranth; and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and cucumbers.

This year I wasn't as successful starting seed as I usually am, though I'm not blaming my local nursery's bags of soil-- they are only one factor in the complex and tiny miracle of unfolding new plant life. So many things I did wrong this year-- I tried to use up older packages of seed that wouldn't germinate; I started some seeds too late, and others too early. I tried to grow some seeds that I have yet to conquer successfully (Bells of Ireland, Nigella) when I was too distracted by work stress; I failed to grow some stupidly easy plants because of the same distractions; I discovered too far into the game that my lighting timer wasn't working properly, denying them the light my veggies and flowers needed to truly thrive. 

It's weird to be writing about seed starting right now, as we are well past the seed starting stage, well past spring and into high summer. But this year has been weird. We've had March days in the 90s (Fahrenheit) and June frosts. The plants and I have had multiple trips out to the patio, back into the screen porch. We've had weeks of nothing but rain, but are now verging on drought in Iowa. Up and down. Back and forth. Forward and backward. Start and stop and give up for this week, try again next week. Even now, that hot weather seems here to stay for awhile, the garden is upside down. The chrysanthemums are too early. The cucumbers, running late. 

It's been that way emerging from the pandemic, as well. Vaccines have been very much progress. My strong reaction to them (hives) was not. I have been eager to get out, see people, do things. I often come home from these first-in-a-long-time activities a sweet and sour pickle of attitude-- delighted to be out of the house, full of vinegar about the how exhausting humans (including myself) can be sometimes. I thought I had missed them. I return from their company not so sure.

So I put the mask back on and flew to Georgia to see my sister. We hiked the Appalachian Trail to Preacher's Rock on Big Cedar Mountain. It was beautiful but I was out of shape and clumsy, skinning my knee falling on the steeper switchbacks. It was embarrassing and yet how could it be any other way, after more than a year of eating and drinking my feelings, and trying to get a grip on a new managerial position from the sofa? 

We ate lunch out and had midday margaritas. We went for walks. We shopped for anything and nothing. We talked. We talked a lot. The topics weren't necessarily important-- we talked about kitchen cupboards and plants and running shoes and dogs. But the talking is the medicine. It is a way to be with our ancestors. It is a way to straighten our girl crowns. It is a part of my seed-starting mix. 

Since coming back from that trip I've been able to distinguish a few maddeningly conflicting truths about seed-starting. I know that the same seeds that failed to grow carefully planted in the shelter of my house in March are springing up in random places in June from seeds that were accidentally strewn last fall while cleaning up the garden. While my carrot seeds were too old this year, I know scientists have resurrected a date palm seed from Biblical times, and I myself have grown hollyhock seeds that were at least a decade old. While March is long gone and it is too late to start peas and spinach, there is still time for planting sunflower seeds and another crop of basil or dill. We are always simultaneously out of time, just in time, too early, too late. We grow amazing things with planning and care and also by marvelous accident and benign neglect. It's how the beautiful weeds wind their way through through our carefully planted rows, both pushing stem and leaf upwards toward the sunlight. 

Things I have been doing: 

Binge-watching Home Town. I fell back in love with the fantasy of reviving an old house in an hour. 

Making whoopie pies. They are good straight from the fridge with a glass of milk. 

Planning to carve out a small craft room in our basement. Lighting and waterproofing come first!

Cleaning the bathroom supply closet

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Capable of Enchantment

Sunday snow in the backyard

This week I attended a memorial service for Mike, the younger brother of my best friend in high school. He fought a battle with cancer he could not win. 

When I was thirteen, I was friends with his sister, and their life on the other side of town seemed a lot more like a family should be. I lived in a tiny duplex apartment with a divorced, frequently worn-out working mom; all the wounds of our family's detonation were freshly bandaged but still sore. They lived in a house just a short block from the cemetery and easy walking distance to our junior high school. While they were also a family who had divorced and remarried, they seemed to have all the representative parts-- mom, dad, house, yard, dog-- that constituted "normal" in those days, and to me their house seemed like a reprieve from all the not-normal that my own life contained, with its hand-me-down clothing from older cousins and a diet that often relied heavily on 10lb bags of potatoes. 

While my friendship was with his sister, Mike was the tag-along little brother to our new-to-teenhood adventures. He was Norwegian blonde with ruddy cheeks and a bit of the devil in his blues eyes. His sister and I would walk through the cemetery after dusk, to have a private, quiet place to talk about the seriousness of our thoughts about boys, our mothers, our plans for life. Mike would follow, lurking behind headstones, leaping out to to scare the living bejabbers out of us, running away laughing. We would make rice krispie bars in the kitchen after school; Mike would be in and out, snitching marshmallows out of the bag, later making off with large slabs of the finished product. We would go ice skating down at the park, and Mike would be there, making many expert, speeding loops around the ice to my wobbly beginner one, coming to a dramatic hockey stop again and again, spraying ice chips everywhere. 

Now that I'm past middle-age, the friendship with his sister is no longer, over years ago because of hurts we couldn't work through. While I'd been in touch with Mike now and then over the past decade, it was mostly to share that he too, was estranged from her. She did not attend the memorial service for her brother. That "normal" that I had seen and so coveted when I was a kid was just an angle, a trick of light in the form of ice skates and rice krispy bars. They had their struggles too, as all families do. The details aren't my story to tell. But it took the perspective of the fully adult me to realize it, and to deeply feel the gratitude I have for the family that gave me those memories, despite whatever troubles were housed within their walls. 

Today is Sunday, and it is snowing. It is an enchanting snow, but it is February. I am no longer as capable of enchantment as I was in, say, December. But I live in Iowa, and complaining about the weather is futile. This is what February in Iowa looks like. The fifty-three-year-old me is also not capable of enchantment with "normal" as I was at thirteen, and indeed I wonder why I even wanted it, now. But that is the way of growing older. This is what 53 looks like. What remains are the gestures of half-grown children from long ago. Mike still skates smoothly away under a street lamp in the park, snow falling from dark skies on his impossibly beautiful blonde lashes. He smiles, and pants out bursts of frosty breath.  

Sunday, January 31, 2021

I am not an empath, and other ways I am (not) coping

Over my lifetime, I've flogged myself and prided myself over my hyper-sensitivity, in equal measure. I hate that it often makes me the odd one out. Hate that it at times has makes me literally physically ill. Hate that it necessitates a list of coping strategies that don't even occur to many. Hate that whatever is neurologically different about me, I can't seem to put it down or choose my way out of it. 

Still, I admit taking a kind of grim satisfaction in being a so-called empath, able to intuit the emotional states and intents of other people, often so correctly it seems like clairvoyance. I may not always like what my emotional antennae are reporting back to my highly anxious cerebral cortex, but it's a kind of darkly beneficial superpower, isn't it? Isn't it?

On Inauguration Day, I was watching the 46th President of the United States take his oath of office. I had live coverage streaming from my personal laptop most of the day, while I sat at my work laptop and attempted to act as though it was a normal day. It wasn't. It already wasn't, like so much of the past year wasn't, like so much of the past four years weren't. I was working from home, on the sofa, with a quilt in my lap, pandemic style. Guarded from harm. 

The Inaugural proceedings were not normal either. The president and vice president took their oaths of office in a capitol on high alert, full of national guards, before a nearly empty venue, with masks and distancing. Guarded from harm. 

On that day, I was a peculiar combination of lighthearted and wildly anxious. I let myself enjoy the assembly of past and present presidents and first ladies. I took in the perfection that was Amanda Gorman's poetry, hair, and vivid gold suit.  I, too, laughed at Bernie's mittens. I noted the symbolism of all that purple (red + blue = purple). I counted how many times Joe said "unity." I considered that this sunny hopeful moment came the day after a memorial service to 400,000+ dead of a pandemic our country has failed to contain. I stood watch for violence that (thankfully) never came. It was a stew of outward hope and relief and inward fear and grief that boiled up into the emotional equivalent of carsickness after a long trip-- I'm glad we're finally here after that long awful ride, but now I need to go throw up. 

I didn't actually "throw up," until the next day. I was again at my work laptop, at the kitchen table, drinking my morning coffee and reading my e-mail, which included some information about the policies and plans of the new Biden-Harris administration. Policies and plans that were common sense. Practical. Inclusive. Humane. Optimistic. Responsible. I don't really remember starting to cry. Just that there were big fat blobby teardrops falling on my forearms, the table, the keyboard. Breath went out of me like stale air exits a house from an opening door. I could feel the muscles that run up my back, neck, and shoulders sag downward, suddenly all out of tension.

Somewhere between the day of fat blobby tears and last weekend, this meme popped up in one of my feeds-- "Babe you're not an empath, you have PTSD from an unstable household, and are sensitive to emotional changes as a defense mechanism." Ouch. 

I grew up where the expectations were that I would be good. Really good and clean and tidy and polite. And quiet. And not cause trouble. Or talk back. Talk, even. In many ways, the relative peace of the household depended on my ability to disappear-- verbally, physically, emotionally. What did that train me for? Withdrawing. I am a special forces-in-camouflage level withdrawer, able to sense impending danger, gather my feelings up tight around me, sink below the radar of community, colleagues, friends, and family, out of their depth and unavailable, sometimes even to myself, for long stretches at a time. Guarded from harm. 

Until I bumped into that meme, I thought I had addressed that part of myself with some reasonable self-awareness, that I'd made a conscious decision to shed that part of my behavior, like it was an ill-fitting jacket instead of a layer of dragon scales that I had grown. I was wrong. How do you flay that off of yourself when it's the only armor you've ever known? Who is brave enough to stand all tender and bare, when the enemy is all around? I wasn't. I can see all the ways, now, that I simply returned to the well-worn grooves of my own history, for the last four years of this authoritarian insanity, the last year of this global pandemic. 

I have no doubt that plenty of others have traveled their well-worn grooves to get them through this time of outrage and untruths and disease. The thing about survival tactics is that they work, at some level, even if they aren't psychologically healthy ones. If survival is the goal, and it was for many, many people during these last four years, then a measure of grace is needed, both for those whose response was fight, and for those whose response was flight. 

While I'm trying to decide what that measure of grace might be, how to bestow it upon myself and others, I am hopeful that the coming days and months will give us the air and light and space we need to figure it all out, and find other ways of living besides just surviving. 

Things I'm doing right now: 

Painting interior house trim, and hating every minute of it. 

Reading a cookbook: Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi

Losing sleep over the anxiety-inducing ideas presented in this New York Times article: "How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted."

Adding salted caramel-flavor Bailey's Irish Cream to vanilla buttercream frosting. This isn't sponsored. This isn't a recipe (add a few tablespoons to a batch for part of the liquids). It's just solid advice for cake eaters. Go do it. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

A Secret and Inward Working of Powers

"Winter should not be considered as only negation and destruction. It is a secret and inward working of powers, which in spring will burst into visible activity"

--Henry James Slack

It's January in Iowa, pandemic month 4,682. We're indoors and home-bound, more or less, both by the normal cycle of the seasons, and by an uber-virus. 

This does not sound at all like a "secret and inward working of powers." It sounds like drafty upstairs bedrooms in an old house. It sounds like being sick of cooking every. damn. meal. It sounds like I haven't had a beer at the taproom with my coven in forever. It sounds like a barely stifled whimper. 

January, thankfully, is also when the seed catalogs come, and with them, the power to imagine the Garden that Might Be. 

There is a lot of daydreamy goodness to that when the only thing keeping my fingers warm is a mug of tea, and it is still a long time (in pandemic months or normal ones, for that matter) until spring.  

I know that I am at my most perfect self as a gardener in January, when all things seem possible, and the pages of the catalogs are full of bright vegetables and soft blossoms. Seed and plant catalogs are the storybook version of real gardening, a storybook that I am all too willing to read, over and over again, like a young child. What happens between April and September is sweatier, buggier, full of earthy delights (I can literally stop and smell the roses) and equally earthy disappointments (just what the hell ate my collard greens?)

I like to consider myself a gardener. A planty person. Herbal witch. Urban farmer. Green thumb. Horticulture geek. But I am not convinced that I am or can become a gardener in any fully adult way. I can't have some sophisticated color scheme, because I want to use all the crayons in the box, from burgundy black dahlias to snow white daffodils. My perennial garden is organized much like my mind's thoughts, with a random assortment of plants crowding the borders. What may have started out with a plan slipped out of bounds as my interests grew this way and that, and so did the bee balm and black-eyed susan, all over the place. And while I came for the flowers, I stay to feel the dirt in my fists, nudge a strange bug along a leaf, and stand still watching, while a possum toodles along the back fence line at dusk. If I were without neighbors, I might make mud pies and sour smelling mashes of dandelion petals and water as I did when I was five. I'm a little less tame in my garden. I like it that way. 

While I have no interest in the perfection of award-winning landscape design or neatly trimmed lawns, I still want to be better at growing things. Better at nurturing green life. Better at raising my own food. Better at taking care of the small patch of Mother Nature under my stewardship. 

That part of January garden planning requires putting down the pretty storybooks, and engaging in honest reflection on my past history. (Are you listening, America?) Not just the successes, but also the total failures, and everything in between. It's where reality and daydreaming meet, and it is the fertile ground where a future garden begins to take shape, the one that with any luck I'll get to tread with dirty bare feet come June. 

Last summer, I grew beautiful little red peppersWe stuffed them with chives and cream cheese, and roasted them. It was my first real success growing peppers from seed for this garden, and I am proud of that accomplishment. It took some research into the best varieties for our region and a heat mat for seed starting, but I learned better ways to grow a healthy food I wanted to eat. 

I grew gorgeous dahlias like this one, a variety called David Howard. But that is only half the goal in tending these half-hardy perennials in a cold winter state like Iowa. They require their tubers to be dug up and stored inside for the winter. The last two winters, I've killed the tubers-- once by keeping them too dry, and another time by keeping them so moist they rotted. This year they are stored in the basement trying yet a third storage method. I may be too stubborn, but I am awfully fond of these lush sunset blooms. 

Sometimes I am a good or terrible gardener on what seems like a purely accidental basis. I discovered I am good at growing geraniums, or pelargoniums. The photo below is Lady Plymouth, a scented leaf variety. I give them a sunny window or a spot under the grow light indoors during the winter and water them once a week. In summer I toss them outside into the patio boxes, where except for regular watering and some occasional feeding, they go do their thing without a whole lot of angst on my part. I've been told they're not for amateurs. And yet here I am, with a growing collection of them.

I am accidentally terrible at growing alocasias, a beautiful tropical houseplant with what appears to be a lengthy list of finicky demands that must be met in order for them to flourish. I've read up. I've searched the internet. I've watered them more. I've watered them less. I've watered them more, but less frequently; and watered them less, but more frequently. I've watered them from below. I've watered them from above. I've misted them. I've kept their leaves clean. I've watered them with distilled water. I've watered them with room temperature water. I've inched them closer to the window. I've inched them further away from the window. I've praised them, named them, petted them, begged and pleaded with them, prayed for their little planty souls. They all come home, put out a few new leaves just to make me think I've got them figured out...and then slide into a slow death spiral I can't seem to pull them out of. It's maddening. 
I sometimes keep the dead bodies around to torture myself about the money I've wasted watching these things die on me. 

Here's what they're supposed to look like, from the florist at my grocery store. I didn't bring this one home, because I'm beginning to feel like a serial murderer. I am bad news for you, plant babe. 

Last summer I also managed to grow slimy, inedible cauliflower, overcrowd my entire vegetable garden to the point that it underproduced, and kill a rather expensive flowering mandevilla vine. We also decided we missed green beans, which we did not grow last summer, and can cut back on tomatoes, which we love, but that we are almost too good at growing. 

By Jan. 19, when my local greenhouse opens and I can go buy this year's supply of seed starting soil, I will have spent hours with the storybook side of this exercise as well as the honest assessment part, along with seed inventory, list making, sketching on paper, and making decisions half-driven by the cook that is me (leeks! squash! tarragon!) and also by that inner five-year-old (cool rocks! snapdragons! marigolds as big as your head!)

Garden, I'll be ready for you when you wake up. 

Things I'm doing right now: 

Reading a history book: 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry, by Andrew Bridgeford

Enjoying a Facebook page where you can all-caps vent your spleen on its "Shouty Thursdays": Tales of a Kitchen Witch

Making calendula salve from Homestead and Chill