Forecast? Bleah!

So much for my resolve to write riveting thought-provoking posts.

The Last Post

A friend of a friend died recently. I’d never met him, not in the real world, nor my friend either. And yet there is a hole left in my world marking his place in my life. Winston Rand…He was a pretty good guy.

Winston wrote vibrantly right up to the end. In the week before his death he wrote a post, “Fears of My Demise…” not about dying but about upgrading to the most recent version of WordPress. He was thinking about buying a cool little Honda scooter. One of his own favorite posts (and a favorite among his readers) was A Will to Live…Revisited written just two months before his death.

Reading through the archives of Winston’s blog got me wondering about all the blogs that will live on after their authors are dead. Will I have written something worth reading or will it be just an embarrassing mind dump, my usual litany of complaints about the weather? How much of this is just chatter? Shouldn’t I write every post giving it the attention I would if I knew it were my last?


The bamboo leaves rustle, rustle,
shaking away in the eaves.
The stars go twinkle, twinkle;
Gold and silver grains of sand.

If I had some bamboo, I’d make a Tanabata “tree” today, write my wishes on paper and tie them to the tree. Then, if tonight’s skies are clear, those star-crossed lovers Altair and Vega could meet for their once-yearly tryst across the Milky Way and in their happiness grant my wishes. More about Tanabata.

What would I wish for? Rain. Cooler weather. A truckload of mulch. Some black bamboo. And a nice garden house to sit in to enjoy it all.

What would you wish for?

Susan Wittig Albert: In Search of China’s Father

Update: Winner Announced

Congratulations to Dianna Otterstad of Lewisville, TX who won a copy of Nightshade in the drawing.

Today I’m happy to welcome author Susan Wittig Albert. As I read her latest China Bayles’ mystery, Nightshade, I was thrilled to discover that several scenes are set quite near Zanthan Gardens and in other Austin locales quite familiar to me. Now I’m expecting to see China around every corner. I did have the pleasure of meeting Susan during last weekend’s Spring Fling–which just goes to show, that in the world of gardening and mysteries, you never know what might happen next. — mss

In Search of China’s Father: A Book-Bridging Story

Many thanks to MSS for hosting me today at Zanthan Gardens. China Bayles logoThis blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the latest China Bayles mystery. For those of you who haven’t met her, China is a former criminal defense attorney who left the rat race and moved to Pecan Springs TX, a small town at the eastern edge of the Hill Country, halfway between Austin and San Antonio. There, she owns an herb shop and tends her gardens, when she isn’t solving mysteries. One of the mysteries she’s compelled to solve arises out of her own past, out of her father’s death, some sixteen years ago.

(Spoiler alert: this post contains some information that is part of the mystery—but only some. There’s still plenty of mystery left for you to solve.)

China’s Past, China’s Present

Real people have a past—that’s one of the things that make them so interesting. Writers know that their fictional characters need a past, as well: to give them depth and substantiality, to make their present actions understandable, and to hold the reader’s interest. As a series writer (mysteries are usually written in series), I’ve loved having the opportunity to let my characters’ pasts come to light gradually—not all at once, and not all in one book, but bit by bit, as their present situation summons up the memories of the past.

book cover Thyme of Death

China Bayles tells us a bit about her past in almost every book. In Thyme of Death, we learn that her father, Robert Bayles, a successful Houston lawyer, influenced her decision to go to law school and become an attorney. She did it to “get his attention,” she says, “to please him.” But nothing China did could ever please Bayles, a cold, remote man who had little time for his daughter or his alcoholic wife.

A bit of my own personal history here: China’s relationship with her father was modeled on my own troubled relationship with my father, a stern, distant man who inspired me alternately with adoration, as a girl, and fear, as a teen and as his alcoholism grew worse. I struggled with my feelings for him for years, even after he died. Writing about China’s relationship with her father has helped me see mine more clearly.

book cover Bleeding Hearts

As the series moves along, we begin to understand that China’s inability to trust men arises in part from her unhappy, untrusting relationship with her father. In Bleeding Hearts, more of the backstory emerges. We find out that when China was in her teens, she had a weekend and summer job in Bayles’ law office, where she met the partners, her father’s secretary, Laura Danforth, and Danforth’s son Buddy. We learn how her father died, in a fiery car crash sixteen years before the present. And we discover that Laura Danforth was her father’s mistress, and Buddy—now a practicing attorney, introduced by his real name, Miles—is her father’s son. This back story plays out as one of the mysteries of the book, as China meets Buddy. At the end of the book, Miles gives her a batch of letters Robert Bayles wrote to his mother, letters that cast China’s father in an entirely new light.

book cover Spanish Dagger

In Spanish Dagger, more details of China’s father’s story emerge. We discover that Laura Danforth did not believe that the car crash that killed Bob Bayles was accidental, and that she was still trying to solve the mystery when she died. Miles, her son, is carrying on that search and wants to involve China, who is not at all anxious to get dragged into a past that she finds altogether unpleasant. But in Nightshade, China has to get involved, when the search for the facts behind her father’s death comes home to haunt her. What happens in this mystery is going to change China’s life completely, in ways she can’t begin to understand—not yet.

In Search of China’s Father: A Book-Bridging Story

The story of China’s father was so complex that I didn’t want to try to tell it and solve its mysteries all in one book. Instead, I chose to develop it across three books: a trilogy within the series. The story is introduced as a subplot in Bleeding Hearts, when China meets her half-brother and learns about her father’s illicit affair with Laura Danforth. It continues and is expanded (but is still a subplot) in Spanish Dagger, as China finds out more details about Danforth’s investigation into Robert Bayles’ death. It becomes the central plot in Nightshade, where all the mysteries are finally resolved.

I love writing mysteries because they’re written in a series and a series offers so many possibilities for character development and extended story-telling. I could never have told the whole story of China’s relationship with her father and her discovery of the truth behind his death in a single book. It would have been far too complicated, and important parts of it could not have been developed.

book cover Nightshade

I realize that I’m taking a chance doing this. Some readers may be irritated at not having every loose end tied up in the final chapter, as is usually done in a mystery. And a reader who begins the series with the second or third book in the trilogy may have some catching-up to do. But the story itself was too rich to compress and too important to ignore. So here it is, complete at last—that is, as much as a story can be completed. As I said, what happens in Nightshade is going to alter China’s life in some very important ways. How? Well, gosh. We’ll just have to wait for the next book or two, I guess.

Susan’s Blog Tour

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.

Thanks again to Zanthan Gardens for hosting me today. And thanks to all the readers who are following this blog tour through cyberspace. If you have questions or thoughts to share, post a comment. I’ll be around all day, and tomorrow and the next, to reply to your comments. — Susan

My pleasure, Susan. — mss

Kate’s Gentle Plea

Thanks to all of you who wrote such sweet things about my wild garden. I’m very lucky to live in an equally wild neighborhood where unconstrained exuberance is celebrated rather than regulated. I took some photos today of some of my neighbors’s gardens so that you can see that mine fits right in.

Bouldin Creek cottage
2008-03-29. Bouldin Creek cottage with larkspur and decorated car.

In particular, Vive’s comment struck a chord. I didn’t approach making a garden with any set ideas; that is, I didn’t have a vision starting out. Unlike Margery Fish I didn’t really set out to make a garden at all. I just liked puttering around in the dirt among the plants. The concepts I developed over time grew along with the garden, grew out of the garden. They are still evolving. I use this blog a lot to work out my ideas, to mull them over out loud. Discussing my ideas with all of you helps me clarify my thoughts. Visiting your gardens via your blogs inspires and encourages me.

I was a writer long before I was a gardener. So I’ve actually given much more thought to the problems of finding (and keeping) my voice as a blogger. However, nothing I’ve ever written has matched the eloquence and good sense of the post written by my friend Kate in her Gentle Plea for Chaos.

I write this post specifically to my readers at Blotanical who will not find Kate’s post there among the Picks because I want you to know that although Blotanical is a wonderful introduction to the world of garden bloggers, there is an entire universe beyond it. Take this moment and click through to read Kate’s post. Now isn’t that something to think about? I can’t think of much to add, except maybe…

Find your vision. Celebrate who you are. And be.

Bouldin Creek cottage
2008-03-29. Bouldin Creek cottage with fairy circle.

I’m No Hoe

…though I’m known to be a bit rakish.

Heidegger says that one way being asserts itself is when we notice the absence of something. Presence is being ready to hand, handy. Absence is being missing. When my hand rake went missing about a month ago, I felt its absence keenly. I didn’t know how much I relied on, how handy it was, it until I lost it. I’ve been using various tools in its stead; I even bought a hand cultivator but nothing has worked as well for me as my old hand rake.

I’ve shopped around town for a replacement and finally found one today at Breed and Co ($9). It is from The Rumford Gardener, their Oxford Series Mini-Rake. (How could I go wrong with a tool named after AJM’s university?)

Now some of you, (Carol!) may find it inconceivable that I do not use a hoe. I’m more of a hands-and-knees gardener. I don’t feel comfortable gardening at a distance, standing up. I’m really in it for the dirt.

I find this mini-rake perfect for getting in between the annuals in the meadow and breaking up the crust in the mulch after a hard rain, for uprooting small weeds and pulling out leaves (especially those stuck in the agaves). I don’t know if it is my favorite tool, for I could not do without my Fiskars pruners or my trowel either. But I really missed it and I’m happy I found a replacement.

It’s A Jungle

When I wrote a post on local nurseries for Metroblogging Austin last spring, I missed several nurseries that I’d never personally visited. Eager to make amends, I’ve since been to Red Barn, Emerald Gardens, Hill Country Water Gardens, and It’s a Jungle.

I had tried to find It’s a Jungle, which specializes in roses and orchids, a couple of times before; this time, armed with better directions from its website, I succeeded. Located in a converted suburban house on Kramer Lane, it’s easy to miss. The tiny parking lot was almost full when Margaret and pulled in although there didn’t seem to be anyone about. We peeked in the back yard which is completely filled with potted roses and one very prolific pear tree. We wandered up and down aisles of roses in containers grouped by type. I spotted quite a few that I was unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, some of the labels were difficult to read, faded by Austin’s glaring summer sun. Few things irritate me more in a garden center than poorly labelled plants. So I was beginning to feel dismissive until the owner came by to see if we had questions.

In Austin, most local nurseries get their roses from The Antique Rose Emporium. I didn’t see their labels on these roses so I asked who supplied them. “Oh. We grow them all ourselves. Except the ones that are patented. We get those from Jackson and Perkins.” I just stood there with my mouth open. “You grow all these yourself?” “Most of them. And we have free classes so you can learn how to propagate them yourself, too. We use the same “bag” method that the rose rustlers use.” Now I was suddenly very impressed.

We wandered around the grounds with a new appreciation for what we were seeing. Then we decided to check out It’s A Jungle’s other specialty, orchids. I’ve never been the least bit interested in orchids or houseplants of any kind. But I do like visiting greenhouses and orangeries. The first hothouse we went into seemed to be a working greenhouse and many of the orchids were out of flower. Still Margaret and I both saw things we liked.

Then we entered the main hothouse and were stopped stunned in our tracks.

It really was a jungle.

We wandered around and around enchanted by flowers each more exotic and beautiful than the next. How could anyone decide among them? I can see why orchid people become fanatical. The owner was at the potting bench repotting several orchids and Margaret said that she could tell by the way he lovingly cradled each plant that he absolutely loved them. She insisted on buying me one. And, indeed, we could hardly walk away from such a personally tended collection without supporting it in some way. But was I ready for the commitment? Me, who’s never met a houseplant that’s survived the experience. Aren’t orchids horribly fussy? Maybe I should read some books on them first.

Within a few minutes I was walking out the door with a little dendrobium and a pamphlet from the American Orchid Society on how to take care of it. “Come to the class next month and learn how to repot it.” the owner said as he rung up the sale. I promised I would. Is this the beginning of a new passion?

Blog Action Day: The Environment

Do you remember when you stopped being a citizen and became a consumer? In the United States, at least, we the people are almost always referred to as consumers by the media and government officials. Thinking about it a bit, I have to admit that I personally produce almost nothing but waste which is so conveniently flushed away or hauled away that I never face the consequences of it. Can you imagine the change to packaging or even the materials from which things were made if we had to personally confront all the trash we produce? I don’t have a garbage disposal and I do compost my kitchen and yard waste. I reuse when I can and recycle when I can’t reuse. And I frequently reuse other people’s stuff, buying most of my clothes and many of my books and DVDs at second hand stores. I haven’t forgotten my mother’s lessons in saving paper, string, and rubber bands. Nor have I forgotten my own childhood observation when I lived in the Philippines and observed Filipino children sifting through American trash–because they could make a living on what we threw away.

Ultimately though I am a consumer, not a producer. This bothers me. Despite my garden in an unusually large yard for this urban area, I couldn’t survive a day on what I grow myself: my single tomato, a handful of pecans, and half a dozen jalapeno peppers, or 8 precious persimmons. I couldn’t even grow those without having water piped in, or being able to drive to the nursery for manures and amendments. Suddenly left without the cheap foodstuffs I take for granted, I’d quickly starve.

I’ve been very interested lately in following the Angelina Williamson’s experiment over at Dustpan Alley. She has taken the challenge to eat locally-grown foods (food grown within 100 miles of where she lives) as much as possible over the next year. She lives in Oregon and has been busily preserving the bounty of local farms. And she has her own hens. In sharp contrast, I don’t even have a pantry (much less a nicely stocked one) and I’m excited that living in a town that has both Whole Foods Market and Central Market that I’m able to buy beer from Belgium and sparkling water from Italy. Ouch! Leaving that kind of carbon footprint I might as well be driving a SUV and living in a McMansion.

Angelina got me wondering exactly what I could find to eat in a 100-mile radius from Austin. Texas is a big state after all and 100 miles won’t even get me to the coast to get seafood from the Gulf or to the valley for oranges and grapefruit. Off the top of my head I could think of deer, pecans, and wine. Maybe goat cheese.

Looking into it some more, I discovered Andy and Julia at Eating Austin who are also challenging themselves to eat locally-grown foods. Jumping from one of their links I came to the Edible Austin resouce page, which lists all sorts of locally available foods and where to get them, including a list of farmers markets and CSAs. (I was a bit surprised to find apples on the list. Apples in central Texas. Who is growing those?)

I also came across Local Harvest, a site which helps you find growers by ZIP code.. There’s a lot more growing on in my area than I’d have guessed.

I’ve been meaning to check out Boggy Creek Farm for a long time. It’s quite famous in Austin. But, oooh look! What about Angel Valley Organic Farm. Or Johnson’s Backyard Garden. Or Green Gate Farms. Here’s a cool place I’ve never heard of Barnison Farm. They sell through the Austin Farmers’ Market. We sometimes shop at the Austin Farmers’ Market because it’s just a stroll across the river. It’s a growers-only market which includes supplies within 150 mile radius of Austin.

After browsing 10 pages of local growers, I’ve discovered that there is a lot more food available in and around Austin than I ever dreamed. I just need to follow Angelina’s example and think a little more about what I eat and where it comes from and try to make better and more informed choices. I do it with other things (like conserving and recycling). But despite years of following the organic movement, I discover that I am horribly complaisant about my food supply. Angelina, thanks for setting an example, for nudging me out daily habit and piquing my curiousity. Curiousity is always a good first step.

Daffodil Rap

From the Cumbrian Tourist board, Wordsworth for the YouTube generation. Yep. Wordsworth’s “I Wondered Lonely as a Cloud” has been turned into into a rap in order to make it appeal to a new, younger audience.

“A spokesman for Cumbria Tourism, which was behind the innovative approach to th. poem, said: ‘Wordsworth’s Daffodils poem has remained unchanged for 200 years and to keep it alive for another two centuries, we wanted to engage the You Tube generation who want modern music and amusing video footage on the web’.”

I don’t mind the rap nearly as much as I mind the guy dressed up as a squirrel in the video…er, that’s MC Nuts…actually Sam the mascot for the Ullswater Steamers. shudder

There were no daffodils in bloom the last time I was in the Lake District and, I’m happy to report. no rapping squirrels either!

Seed Buying

Carol at May Dreams Gardens asks What kind of a seed buyer are you? Actually she posted a long questionaire.

Q: Do you carefully read all of the seed catalogs sent to you and then browse the Internet to compare and contrast all the options, then decide which seeds to buy?
A: I love reading descriptions in seed catalogs and I carefully compare the descriptions with any information I can find in books and, now, on the internet.

Q: Do you buy seeds from ‘bricks and mortar’ stores and get whatever appeals to you as you are browsing?
A: I typically buy my seeds from ‘bricks and mortar’ stores; companies I like such as Renee’s Gardens, Seeds of Change, and Botanical Interests are easy to find at our local nurseries and even at supermarkets like Central Market. I do my research by reading the catalogs and then go to the stores to buy. If I wait to send in an order, the seeds often arrive too late for our climate.

Q: Do you buy vegetable seeds in bulk where they scoop them out of seed bins, weigh them and put them in hand-marked envelopes?
A: The only seeds I’ve seen sold this way are seeds for winter groundcovers at The Natural Gardener.

Q: Do you buy seeds for just vegetables, or just annual flowers? Do you buy seeds for perennial flowers?
A: I buy seeds primarily for annuals and some vegetables. However, I’ll buy any type of seed if I’m interested in growing the plant. I like to experiment.

Q: Do you know what stratification and scarification are? Have you done either or both with seeds?
A: Yes. Yes. The advice for growing bluebonnets often suggest scarification because it has a tough seedcoat so that not all the seed sprouts at once. That way if conditions prove unfavorable (typical in Central Texas) some seeds are left to sprout when conditions improve. I find, however, that fresh seed (my own) sprout readily. I have the most success with soaking tough seeds overnight–or until they swell up.

Q: Do you order seeds from more than one seed company to save on shipping or buy from whoever has the seeds you want, even if it means paying nearly the same for shipping as you do for the actual seeds?
A: I typically get seed from one source; whoever has the most thing I want to buy. I haven’t ordered from a catalog in several years because we have such a good selection in our many local “brick and mortar” stores.

Q: Do you buy more seeds than you could ever sow in one season?
A: Of course! I’ve stopped buying tomato seeds, though, because I always end up with far more plants than I have room for.

Q: Do you only buy seeds to direct sow into the garden or do you end up with flats of seedlings in any window of the house with decent light?
A: When I worked in an office I sprouted seedlings on top of my computer monitor. Great bottom heat. Now I sow in a seed bed and transplant. Many of the plants I originally started from seeds are rampant self-sowers so I don’t have to start them anymore…just transplant them from wherever they sprout.

Q: Do you save your own seeds from year to year and exchange them with other seed savers?
Yes. And I’ve given away seeds, too, via this blog. But I’ve stopped doing that because I discovered that too many people were demanding and unappreciative.

Q: Do you even buy seeds?
A: Yep. There’s a stack of seed packets right here at my elbow making me feel guilty.

Q: Do you have a fear of seeds? Some gardeners don’t try seeds, why not?
A: Obviously not. I started with bulbs and then moved to seeds because I didn’t have the money to spend on large plants. Because I wanted year around flowers I did then move on to perennials…thinking that in the long run that they’d be more cost-effective. This year, though, after losing many perennials to drought, I’ve decided to go back to seeds and have a spectacular spring and then take a rest through summer. I also propagate plants (such as lavender) from cuttings.

Q: Do you understand seeds? I once bought seeds at a Walmart in January (Burpee Seeds) and the cashier asked me, “Do these really work? Yes, they do. “Isn’t it too cold to plant them now?” Well, yes, if you are planning to plant them outside. I don’t think this cashier grew up around anyone who gardened.
A: Yes. Well some of them. A lot of information about seeds is written for gardeners in a different climate than Austin’s. Sometimes it’s difficult to know when to plant them. I’ve decided to do more trials on my own to see what’s appropriate for Austin.

Q: Do you list all your seeds on a spreadsheet, so you can sort the list by when you should sow them so you have a master seed plan of sorts?
A: I don’t use a spreadsheet for my seeds but I do make other kinds of lists. One of my resolutions for 2007 is to consolidate all the data I’ve collected so far and figure out what I’ve done. I do have a spreadsheet for my oxblood lilies and for my irises.

Q: Do you keep all the old seeds and seed packets from year to year, scattered about in various drawers, boxes, and baskets?
A: Every once in awhile I throw them out and then regret it and begin hoarding them again. Maybe someday I’ll make a huge collage of seed packets on the side of the garden shed.

Q: Do you determine germination percentage for old seed?
A: Nope. At some point I just throw them all into the seed beds to see if anything will come up.