Category Archives: Little Lessons

Monster beets

Beets as big as your head!

Beets fit for Goliath.

You don’t always know what you’re going to get when you pull up greens from winter root vegetables like beets and turnips. Even a master gardener like our friend Suzanne can be surprised – kind of like feeling something ominous suddenly tugging the end of your fishing line.

A cooler-than-normal spring has given us a prolonged season for winter vegetables, and Suzanne is still harvesting a few. She brought some fresh-from-the-earth goodness for dinner one night recently.


But, my, what beets you have! What to do with a 4.5 pounder? She had two of them, gargantuan roots that could have been used in one of those kettle bell exercise classes.

They were easier to chop than we expected and surprisingly edible. We juiced them with a little fresh mint, apples and a stray clementine or two. It made a rather large mess with all the greens in our small kitchen.

So, a little lesson: Don’t leave the root veggies to fend too long for themselves. Or the summer veggies, either, for that matter. Beware, the season of squash is fast approaching.

Acrobatic caterpillars

They ate themselves out of house and home, and they have disappeared, hopefully to pupate.





The party lasted several days, and they left the place trashed. Not a leaf or blossom on it. The gardener could have pulled the dill stalk that remained, but left it alone. Perhaps because our weather has been cool, it’s sprouted new leaves and a blossom.

Little lesson: Don’t panic. Things recover. And there will be Monarch butterflies soon, assuming the mockingbirds didn’t pick them all off.

Discipline with Excess-ories

Living small is not about acquiring more.  The consumer orgy known as Round Top is not a good place to be if you are trying to learn to let go of stuff. The event long ago stretched beyond the idyllic burg of Round Top for miles in both directions along Texas Highway 237, about 20 minutes from Brenham, bringing a wild mix of antique, collectible and junk fairs twice a year, in early April and early October.

Hard to resist, especially when the vendor explains that she's making her chandeliers on the spot from combined parts.

Hard to resist, especially when the vendor explains that she’s making her chandeliers on the spot from combined parts.

If you have just a smidgen of shopping gene in you, Round Top exerts a powerful pull. My niece Lesley hadn’t ever experienced it, so I took her out for a very long day earlier this month. She’s contemplating her first apartment, and apparently planning to fill it with Coca-Cola memorabilia. We found plenty of that in the fields at Warrenton, which is where you go when you don’t mind a serious scavenger hunt. (If you want the goods beautifully curated and marked up accordingly, head to Marburger Farm.)

Some people grumble that Warrenton, long a junker’s paradise, has been overrun with cheap imported goods. But further back in the fields, you can still score a treasure here or there and find vendors with garage sale-like setups, where everything’s thrown on a few tables and marked $5 or $10.

Made here in Brenham, as it turns out.

Made here in Brenham, as it turns out.

It’s best if you’re on a mission. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, the visual cacaphony can overwhelm you pretty fast. My goal this time was simple: I’ve coveted Margaret Meier’s vintage European flax linens for years. Based in Florida, she sets up at the Rose Field in Warrenton as Vintage Fabrics & Etc. I had a project in mind: recovering a much-loved chair we bought for $75 years ago in the mountains of North Carolina.

European flax linen: Stay tuned. The chair should be ready in three weeks.

European flax linen: Stay tuned. The chair should be ready in three weeks.

My eyes fell on a 13-yard bolt with a double butterscotch stripe in a darker-than-usual color. Margaret, a subtle but sure saleswoman, assured me I’d made a great choice: the butterscotch was rare, she promised, especially on a bolt so wide. Almost $700 later, it was in my trunk. And we’d been out less than an hour, with the full day ahead of us. Dangerous.

Of course you don't need it, but these vendors sure know how to make you think you do.

Of course you don’t need it, but these vendors sure know how to make you think you do.

My discipline held up with objects like bird cages and lanterns. But because the garden yields so much joy, and it needs to be brought inside or shared with friends, I have allowed myself to continue collecting small vases. As luck would have it, a booth that clearly stood out as something different was at the aptly-named Excess show, where a lot of the dealers make and sell goods from repurposed industrial objects.

I could see these hanging from the living room ceiling.

I could see these hanging from the living room ceiling.

Many of these vendors are regulars but I hadn’t seen John Norton before. A chemist from North Carolina, he buys up lab glass from factories — test tubes, beakers and such — and “Silver Flashes” them. He says that unlike mercury glass, his pieces hold water; although he warns against shoving in thorny rose stems, which can scratch the silver.)

Lesley shops the Industrial Age Antiques booth at Excess.

Lesley shops the Industrial Age Antiques booth at Excess.

Norton’s beakers exude the coolness of objects you might see in a MoMA catalog. In fact, he said MoMA had contacted him about selling them. Look for them in the museum store soon if you’re in New York. In the meantime, Norton’s company, Industrial Age Antiques, also has a website.

I cratered.

I cratered.

I managed to keep my purchase to just small bulb-shaped vase. Lesley couldn’t resist, either. She’s a fast learner.

the roughage shines like a miracle

April is National Poetry month, and Mary Oliver’s “Poppies” caught my eye today. The last norther of what has been a beautiful, unusually long spring for us has deadheaded most of the pompom poppies today. The ‘Martha Gonzales’ roses are going to be much happier soon.

live in the layers



by Mary Oliver (1935- )

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—

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‘Lilac Wonder’ Tulips

We can’t grow lilacs in these parts, and tulips are often iffy. But these little ‘Lilac Wonder’ tulips (Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’) look promising in their first season.


I planted the bulbs last fall, and was thrilled when the first blossoms peeked above the ground a few weeks ago.


I was surprised to see the blossoms hugging the ground when they opened. They’re demure –  nothing like a big Holland tulip – but they’re cheerful and they are hopefully not one-shot wonders. Becky at the Arbor Gate says hers naturalized.


This week, they grew legs.


A first-year garden is kind of a pitiful thing, all that mulch still visible; but this is a good start.


Cedar waxwings


A flock of cedar waxwings visited last week.

The winds are blowing from the south one day, the north the next, a phenomenon of late winter-early spring that seems to mirror my city girl vs. country girl identity crisis.

It’s also bringing birds.

One of the things I loved most about our house in the city was the way in late winter, just for a day or two, a flock of cedar waxwings visited. They’re like a party of masqueraders with that band of black across their eyes and those tufts on their heads that make them seem like they’re always racing forward, head into the wind.

The first time they came, I heard them before I saw them: a quiet but insistent chorus of little chirps. It was a clear morning but it also sounded like rain. I looked up into the big water oak in our backyard, saw a sea of buttery-yellow bird bellies and realized they were raining blue-black berry poop all over the patio. A very small price to pay for the sight. (The Mr., of course, has hated them ever since.)

They loved the cherry laurel near that spot, technically a neighbor’s tree. The neighbors built some kind of pavilion thing back there and the tree died, but the birds came looking for berries anyway for a couple of years. Once, a baby flew into the large windows of my studio and landed in a potted ‘Cecile Brunner’ rose, where it was speared by a small thorny twig.

Horrifying. And yet, how else are you going to get so close?

It wasn’t dead, but it was stunned, and I picked it up. Birds weigh NOTHING. I pulled the twig out, set it on the ground and left it alone. When I went back to check on it later, it was gone, hopefully recovered and not devoured by something.

So imagine my surprise last week, on a cold, clear morning, to hear a familiar peeping as I bundled up on the deck with a cup of tea. Of course it made perfect sense! We have three cherry laurels, two of which tower above the house.

The flock swooped back and forth between the cherry laurels and a fine vantage point from the top of our big, bare pecan.

Okay, winds of change; life in the country is good.

Adios, Garden Design

On a rare day off when I should be outside pulling weeds, I am doing some long overdue catching up with the online gardening community. One of the first stops on that itinerary is always Garden Rant, where Elizabeth Licata reports that Garden Design magazine’s April issue will be its last.

I used to devour that magazine every month – stop everything and head to the couch when it arrived, and read it cover-to-cover. I say used to, as in the 1990s, when every issue was a surprise of gorgeous design and plant porn. Rarely usable in my own little garden, which was only half the size of the one I’m starting now, but inspiring nonetheless.

Even though I stopped reading it some time ago, I’d saved years’ worth of back issues in those silly plastic holders you buy at Office Depot. They were organized for quick reference. I don’t recall ever actually using them until right after we sold the Houston house, when I had to make some serious decisions about what to keep and what could go.

I couldn’t part with the back pages that offered excerpts of classic gardening books, so I tore a bunch of those out and put them in a folder. Who knows where that folder is now – somewhere between here and a box in The Abominable Storage Unit.

The young couple that bought our Houston house wanted it partly for the garden, so I left them a few of the best, most appropriate issues. The rest went, finally, to recycling.


But I didn’t let go of the many books those pages led me to – including Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts – A Writer in the Garden (an all-time favorite, always on my nightstand), Russell Page’s The Education of a Gardener, Elizabeth Lawrence’s The Little Bulbs – A Tale of Two Gardens and William Bartram’s Travels.

An Orange New Year

The Batch 2 labels.

Weeks have passed. The holidays are long gone. But the cheer of oranges dangling from the trees continues, and yet another large bag of plucked beauties awaits processing.

Oranges on tree

One of the first lessons learned from the Great Marmalade Experiment of 2012, which has segued into the Continuing Marmalade Experiment of 2013, is that you only need 5-8 oranges to brew up a dozen small jars. I haven’t counted the fruit on our two trees, but it looks like enough to start a business. Even after my friend Jean came and took some.

OnLadderAfter a very cold week to start the year, the weather has been warmish most of this month. Ripe oranges are beginning to fall from the tree and roll across the driveway or into garden beds. I could just harvest them, chop them up and call it compost, now that we’ve installed an Envirocycle bin out by the back fence, and it’s hungry. But then I wouldn’t have all this good raised-Catholic guilt hanging over me.

My friend Suzanne brought another friend over to help  me scrape and julienne the first batch using a recipe I found online.  Work intervened before the job was finished, so I hauled pots, jars and liquidy stuff to the Houston apartment — even smaller than this one! – to finish.

A zen personality helps when it comes to the julienning.

I cut up a tin foil tray to make a “rack” so the jars wouldn’t burst. I sterilized the jars in the dishwasher. I used a soup ladle to transfer the soupy liquid to the jars and wasn’t very exacting about filling to 1/4 inch of the rims. I was sure, when that stage finally arrived, that I had produced not marmalade, but some very pretty orange syrup.

But miracle of miracles, those gratifying little “pops” followed, a sign the lids had sealed. And the next morning the liquid had set beautifully into a clear marmalade.

My first batch. No one has died.

My first batch.

I took a jar to work with warm scones, and my friend Greg, the food editor, rewarded me with Elizabeth Field’s pretty book. It has, among many other types of marmalades, at least four recipes for using Seville oranges. Eye-opening. Mouth watering.

Elizabeth Field's new book is full of inspiration.

Elizabeth Field’s new book is full of inspiration.

Given our small kitchen, I am supposed to be on gadget lockdown. But the full trees outside (or did someone say “fool” trees?) justified the purchase of some marmalade-making tools. Into the already-full cabinets came Oxo’s Good Grips 5-lb. digital scale (partly because it’s flat and easy to store), a Progressive “essentials” set including a one-handed jar lifter (who knew there was such a thing?), a canning funnel (designed to fit over jar lids, with measurement lines) and a lid lifter (a plastic stick with a magnet on the end). I stopped short of buying a rack – the cut-up tinfoil worked just fine.

The newest book from the Baker Creek Seed Company folks has a great primer on canning.

The newest book from the Baker Creek Seed Company folks has a great primer on canning.

Jere and Emilee Gettle’s new The Baker Creek Vegan Cookbook also arrived serendipitously. No marmalade recipes but an excellent primer on canning. It made me manic about checking to make sure jars aren’t chipped.

Batch 2, Field’s Whole-Fruit Seville Orange Marmalade, was easier to make – it eliminates the peel scraping – but resulted in a cloudier marmalade.

Oranges, a lemon and a ton of sugar are all you need to make an excellent marmalade, but I couldn’t resist getting a little fancier with Batch 3, Field’s Aromatic Orange-Apple-Ginger Marmalade. The most labor-intensive of all but Mr. Glentzer’s favorite to date.

Little Green Ornaments

Sweetgum balls

Prettier than pecans, with a dangerous attitude, sweetgum balls have also been shaken out of their trees this week onto the streets. Don’t they look like something a Medieval torture specialist would have slung over his shoulder?

These might end up sprayed gold, dangling from a Christmas tree. Assuming we actually break down and buy one. The pressure is on, with family coming.

We haven’t had a “live” tree since the first year we were married, when in the bliss of newlywed-dom the Mr. tested his allergies for love. Unfortunately, that tree was amazingly fragrant. We took all the ornaments off and flocked it, thinking that might somehow block whatever made the Mr.’s eyes bulge red. Didn’t work.

That year, and for quite a few more, we retrieved a 1970’s vintage “bottle brush” tree from my parents’ attic. Ugliest tree ever. Then we broke down and bought a nice one, which we finally retired this summer when we moved.

It’s happy news when the marriage outlasts a few faux evergreens. Although the ritual of hauling it out and decorating it can be a source of friction. The Mr., frankly, is pretty indifferent about the whole business.

Tree shopping begins.

Now, the conundrum is limited square footage, and I was surprised to see the plethora of small-space options out there. A category called “slim” trees seems to be coming on strong, some of them about 40 inches wide at the base. And beyond “slim,” there’s the “pencil” shape – which looks positively anorexic.

Many look quite lifelike, and their designs have moved way beyond bottlebrush into forms and needles that mimic nature. Blue spruce, anyone, or Aspen fir? It makes me laugh that at Balsam Hill, which appears to be a good online source, the choices are broken down by “Most Realistic,” “Realistic” and “Traditional.” Traditional apparently meaning that you accept the tree is fake, so who cares if it looks like it was just plucked from the Blue Ridge Mountains?

And lights! You’d have to be crazy anymore to buy one that isn’t pre-lit, at least until you think about it for a minute, since you know those PVC branches are going to outlast the bulbs. And then what?

A Reflective Season

Lights from inside give the deck a warm glow at night.

Sitting on the deck tonight with a glass of wine, it was hard not to get a little philosophical. Maybe it’s the frequent sight of home care nurses checking in on the older neighbors, walking out with their clipboards and driving off. Maybe it’s the recent death of a friend’s father. Maybe it’s just the season – the inevitable winding down of another year that hums underneath all the holiday noise.

Thomas Kinkaid would have loved this place at night.

We’ve been more industrious than the squirrels since we moved here in June. What is this place we’ve made, or we’re making still — and why do we keep working so hard to make it more?

Tonight’s moon.

Go ahead, bay at the full moon, crazy woman.