Archive for the ‘Gardens’ Category

Microcosmic Drama

June 17, 2020

Teeny-Tiny Toad (actual size 1/4 inch)

Jim and I have a very small pond in our yard: 125 gallons empty, a lot less water when one accounts for displacement from plants (blue pickerel weed, aquatic plantain, underwater grass) and the dirt they hold, creating a little marshy section at one end.

Nonetheless, it has become the key element in the miniature ecosystem that is our yard.  One of the many native creatures that benefits from it are New Mexico Spadefoot toads.  This year, we have an ebullient population of tadpoles that are in the process of turning into toads.

The toadlings are super tiny (less than a quarter inch) and easily mistaken for insects.  Until we started watching them go through the various stages from black dots to “Hey, I have legs!”, I never realized all the hazards they face.

Monday morning, I saw a teeny-tiny toad hopping from boulder to boulder that is the small gravel around our pond.  I scooped it up, intending to either to either place it back into the water or into shelter under one of the spreading squash leaves.  To my horror and astonishment, I discovered that it was being attacked by ants.

Not big ants either.  Two really little ones.  One ant each had grabbed each hair-sized hind leg (actually, hair-sized is probably too large) and was holding fast.  Being on the side of the toads, I dropped the toadling into the pond, where it succeeded in kicking loose the ants and diving under a lily leaf.

I think I’ll lower the water level a few inches to keep ambitious toadlings from hopping out until they’re a wee bit larger.

Yeah.  I can’t save them all or the world.  I know ants need to eat, too, but there’s plenty for the ants to eat without eating toads.

Silly?  Sure.  But then, I write books for a living.  Do you expect me not to be silly?

Bitten Off, Coming Back

May 2, 2020

Frost-blackened Accented with Renewal Green

We’ve had a warm spring, which meant that a lot of our perennials started leafing out on the early side.  Then, in mid-April, we had just enough of a frost that many tender leaves were killed.

Sometimes, even if a plant is well-established, a sudden chill like this can kill not just the leaves, but limbs.  Sometimes you can lose the entire plant.

Jim and I have been watching carefully and, as of today, we have seen evidence that although we lost leaves, we haven’t lost any plants.  Yay!

Pictured is our pomegranate shrub.  Whether or not we get fruit will be the next question, because pomegranates produce leaves first, then flowers, then fruit.  (Unlike, say, cherries or apricots, which flower before they leaf out.)  Our pomegranates usually need the length of the summer to ripen, and this year they’ll be getting a late start.

But the shrub survived.  That’s what’s important.  We’ll rejoice at the leaves, hope for the flowers, dream of the fruit to come.

Thyme For Irony

April 22, 2020

Pink Chintz Thyme

I’ve had a twist in my stay-at-home, work-from-home, whatever you want to call it, lifestyle.  Before I tell you about that, an update.

The cover for Wolf’s Soul,  the sequel to Wolf’s Search, is still not right, so I’ve ordered Proof Three.  So I don’t bore the folks who tuned in last week, here’s a link to a mysterious masked writer and a copy of Proof One.

I’m thinking about using the proofs as one-of-a-kind giveaways.  Does that sound interesting?

(If you’re really eager, sign up for my mailing list, because at least one giveaway is going to be exclusively offered there.  There’s a link on my website.)

So, now for the twist….

I’ve been very careful about self-isolation because I have allergy-related asthma.  For five days of the week, not much changed.  My office is in my home.  I work for myself.  Jim is retired and took over most of the errands about a year ago.

Weekends changed, absolutely.  That’s when Jim and I would go out, see friends, host our gaming group.  Going anywhere or having guests ended for me over a month ago.

This year, maybe because of our wet (for us) winter, allergens are at a high level.  So despite my being careful, my asthma ramped up.  About two weeks ago, I had to add a medication that has taken about half my voice.  The half that remains sounds as if I’ve swallowed a rusty scrubbing pad.

Okay.  Maybe not that bad.  Well, not all the time.  However, if I talk for more than a few sentences, my throat gets tight.  So here I am, now properly self-isolated because I can’t even take a phone call without scaring the person on the other end.

But I’ll manage.

Two more weeks to go on the meds (which are helping a lot) and I should be back to what passes for normal.  Meantime, our gaming group is now experimenting with meeting on-line via Zoom.  When we did, I kept the hot drinks on tap and managed all right but, later, my throat called me a few choice names.

So there you have it.

Oh, the picture?  That’s pink chintz creeping thyme.  To me creeping thyme is a great plant to illustrate irony because—ironically—it doesn’t much mind being stepped on.

Or maybe I should think of it as a thyme of fortitude.  Yeah, I like that!

Okay, I’m off to romp with the treecats.  The yet untitled Star Kingdom novel 4 (in collaboration with David Weber) is taking shape and I want to see what happens next.  Later!

Seeds of Hope

April 8, 2020

On The Edge of Hope

If there ever was a hobby—or craft or skill or activity, whatever you want to call it—that is based around hope it has to be…

No.  Not writing. (Although there are days…)

No.  I’m talking about Gardening.

There’s a traditional rhyme about why you plant four seeds.

One for the blackbird

One for the crow

One to rot

And one to grow

There are a lot of variations of this rhyme.  I’ve heard “mouse” instead of “blackbird.”  Or “pigeon.”  Or even “farmer.”  Or “for the wind” rather than “to rot.” But the message is always the same.  Plant four times what you hope to end up with, because three-quarters of your effort will not benefit you personally.

I know that every garden I plan is—when looked at statistically—a preordained failure.  Nonetheless, I keep on planting.  Four times the seeds.  Extra plants.  This past weekend, we planted the containers that will hold flowers.  Since my allergy-related asthma has been revved up, I spread a tarp on the kitchen table, and brought the window boxes inside.

Last night, waking up in the dark hours, I realized I’d seriously over-planted marigold seeds, even by the guidelines of the aforementioned verse.  Oh, well.  If too many come up, I can always transplant them and give marigold plants to my friends, right?

As you can see from the picture, my new copy of DreamForge magazine arrived this week.  I think editor Scot Noel must have precognition because, long before the current national emergency, he had chosen “Tales On the Edge of Hope” as the theme for this issue.

What people miss so often is that there are two things we call by the word “hope.”  There is the dangerous hope, what you might call a gambler’s hope.  Roll the dice and hope for the best.  Believe things will get better, but don’t do anything to assure that they will.

This last sort of “hope” is typified by the “gardener” who tosses seeds in unprepared soil or in where there is too much or too little light.  Then forgets to water.  Then floods.  And says, “I hope I get some nice tomatoes this year…”

Call it hope, but you know what it really is, don’t you?  It’s wishful thinking.

The hope I advocate isn’t some light fluffy warm-and-fuzzy belief in the best.  Real hope is a fighter.  Hope is facing that you’ll plant four seeds, get one plant—and even that plant might not make it.  Hope is doing what it takes to tilt the odds in your favor.  Hope builds a lighthouse, draws maps, patches the roof. Hope says “What four seeds I can plant to assure that I have flowers and fruit?”

Don’t be fooled by wishful thinking. Make the real hope your battle cry.

As Green Leaves Fall

November 13, 2019

Autumn Has Arrived!

Although the ash tree in our front yard changes color, one of the weirdest things about autumn in New Mexico is how many trees shed green leaves.  Imprinting as I did on autumns where leaves turned red or yellow, sometimes brown, then dropped off the trees, walking through my yard and scuffing my feet through green leaves still feels subtly wrong, even after more years in New Mexico than I lived in D.C.

Many of the leaves that stay green are from trees that are not native.  Mulberries, in particular, tend to drop massive quantities of dark green leaves, often within a few hours.  Native plants, by contrast, tend to go brown, then quietly lose leaves a few at a time.

At this moment, we’re pretty much done with our garden.  We have a few determined radishes, which we’ve framed with bricks to help retain some daytime heat in the hope that they’ll continue to grow.  Otherwise, it’s clean-up time.  This was a great year for wild asters.  By the end of summer, it was hard to walk in the yard without pushing them aside.  Many of the plants grew over five feet tall.

Jim’s been pulling them, and after making several shirts unwearable because of the amount of aster seeds that stuck to the fabric, he’s decided to dedicate one shirt to this job.  He’s also dug our first compost trench, and a lot of these plants will go in there to become the basis for next year’s soil.

Hmmm… This reminds me…  Now that we’ve had frost, we really need to dig the Jerusalem artichoke tubers.  We store these in a bucket of loose dirt.  Over the next couple of months, we’ll add them raw to salads, or toss them in to bake with chicken.  Raw, they have a texture a lot like water chestnuts; cooked, the texture is more like a cooked carrot.

As our surroundings shift from summer into autumn, with a few days that distinctly feel like winter, I’m shifting from writing to editing, with some forays into research and development.  Wolf’s Soul has now been read through by me twice (once on my computer, once printed out and marked with a red pencil).  I’m currently making hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of small changes.  Then Jim get his reading copy.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the next Stephanie Harrington novel.  (For those of you who missed the news, David Weber and I have signed contracts to write three more.)  Weber and I have worked out the main plot element.  Much of my creative process right now involves working slowly backwards, creating story elements, especially about characters, that will help make the story “real” to me.

It’s fun.  Demanding, but the sort of challenge I really like.  I see a trip to the library in my immediate future…  But first, more manuscript grooming.  Catch you later!

Is Your Homework Done?

September 25, 2019

A Bonsai Maple Forest

I used to get asked that question by my parents—a lot.  Now I ask it of myself, especially at times like now when I have several writing projects that are crying out for me to get one done so I can move onto the next.

There’s Wolf’s Soul, the sequel to July’s new release, Wolf’s Search.  There’s the new Star Kingdom book with David Weber, for which I signed contracts a couple weeks ago.  There are various other projects, including a short story that started hopping up and down after a recent exchange of e-mails with Alan Robson, my former Thursday Tangents collaborator.

Here’s the problem.  And the big secret. Back in school, getting your homework done before goofing off was almost certainly productive behavior.  However, when you’re a writer like me there are times that staring at a screen or keyboard or pad of paper or whatever is precisely the worst way to get your creative juices flowing.

The same can be true of any profession that calls for an element of right brain thinking, or even non-thinking.  There’s a value to daydreaming, staring at the wall, doing a craft project, or any number of things that look like goofing off to someone on the outside.

Many years ago, I wandered on about how walking away from whatever you’re working on can actually be the best thing for those of us who draw upon our subconscious to get our work done.  Inspiration comes from the quiet corners of the mind, and sometimes the Muse doesn’t answer on demand.

So, why is there a picture of a bonsai at the start of this Wandering?  Two reasons.  One was that this weekend Jim and I went to Aki Matsuri, the Japanese Autumn Festival, and this was a display we really enjoyed.

The other is that bonsai are a good metaphor for a creative life that looks, from the outside, like what it isn’t.  Bonsai look like lovely, natural forests in miniature, but actually they are the result of a lot of crimping, cramping, cutting, and restricting.

For me, my creative life doesn’t work that way.  Mine is more like my yard which, right now, is overwhelmed with wild asters, going every which way.  Yesterday I sat in the yard and stared at them.  And then my Muse started whispering in my ear…

Wild Asters And Other Aspects Of My Yard

Carrots, Tree Rings, And A Question

August 21, 2019

Kuroda and Black Nebula

I want to ask your opinion on something but, before I do so, there’s a horticultural experiment I forgot to report on last week.

This involves carrots.  The Black Nebula variety have proven magnificent.  They carry their dark purplish-black color right to the core.  Sometimes even the “greens” should be called “purple-blacks” instead.  The first time I noticed this, I was very startled.  For one worried moment, I thought we’d discovered a strange new virus.

Even when the Black Nebula greens stay green, they’re purple at the base, which definitely makes distinguishing which carrots are which a lot easier.   The guinea pigs fully approve of “purple-blacks,” which is a good thing, since we grow the carrots partly to share with them.

Our other new (to us) carrot was the Kuroda, which we tried because it’s supposed to be very good at handling heat.  So far, that’s proven true, and the carrot itself is quite tasty.  The greens (which are green) are more delicate than those of the Black Nebula.  Ziggy O’Piggy shows a slight preference for these, while Dandy likes those “purple-blacks.”

One thing I definitely learned this year is that what most catalogs mean when they say “handles heat well” is not the sort of heat we’ve been getting in New Mexico lately.  We’re still routinely hitting between 99 and 100 daily in our yard, dropping to 59 to 61 at night.  Forty degree temperatures shifts are confusing our plants to no end.

We tried four types of beans that were all supposed to be good with heat: Purple Queen (bush), Dragon Tongue (bush), Rattlesnake (pole), and Red Noodle (pole).  Only the Red Noodle, which are a liana variety, have thrived.  The rest have either refused to grow at all or have given up.  I think next year we’ll go with the Red Noodle or another liana variety, and skip bush beans entirely other than the tepparies.

This week we had to take down most of a catalpa tree I planted soon after I moved into the house.  Even with us watering it regularly, the stress of the increasing duration of hot days was too much for it.  It is trying to come back from the base, so we took it down in the hope that, without the rest of the trunk to support, it will make a comeback.  There are types of trees that do this and, as this is not a graft, we’d get the same variety, not the rootstock.

Although taking down a tree that we’d had for over twenty years was hard, doing so provided an interesting data point.  The tree rings showed conclusively the results of the hotter, dryer summers we’ve had lately.  Given that some of the inner rings (which are from further back in time) reflect before we were routinely watering the tree, this proves how much less useful rainfall we’ve experienced the last ten years or so.  By “useful,” I mean rain that the tree could draw upon.  Our soil is very sandy so, while a gully washer may give us a lot of moisture, much of it runs off or drains away before the plants can use it.

Catalpa Tree-Rings

Hmm…  I’ve gotten carried away here and nearly forgot to ask my question.  This week is Bubonicon, right here in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  My first item of programming is Friday at 5:00 p.m., and it’s my reading slot.  I was thinking about reading from Wolf’s Search.  It will have been out only about six weeks by then, and I’m hoping that those in the audience who have read it wouldn’t mind.

Does that seem like a good plan?  I have a few short stories I could read, but I’m so immersed in Firekeeper and her world right now, that I’m eager to share this novel.  Copies will be available at the convention, so you won’t be left hanging.

Bubonicon’s schedule is now available on the web.  I hope I’ll see many of you there!

Wolves, Gardens, And Cool Stuff!

August 14, 2019

Zinnias Uncaged!

This week, in addition to getting back into the storyline for Wolf’s Soul, the sequel to July’s new Firekeeper novel, Wolf’s Search, I did some work on another project (which I will tell you more about when the contracts are signed), saw a new depiction of Firekeeper (sneak peek below!), and assessed my garden.

As you may recall, Jim and I did a variety of experiments in our garden this year.  Now that it’s August, I’m trying to decide what worked and what didn’t.  Complicating matters were the depredations of a baby rabbit we dubbed Frippery Wigglenose Scamperbutt.

For those of you who have been in suspense, we did save the zinnias out front, and they are now looking marvelous.  As I suspected, once the leaves were large enough to get coarse and prickly, Frippery lost interest.   A greater availability of the wild plants that are a more usual part of his diet doubtlessly helped.  We’ve seen both him and PF “weeding” our front area’s gravel for us.  Nice to have helpful wild bunnies.

We tried several new varieties of beans this year.  Most didn’t really do well.  I think when catalogs say “good in heat,” they don’t mean New Mexico heat, and especially my yard.  However, a new variety of liana did great and we’ll definitely repeat.  Not surprisingly, given that they were originally bred by the indigenous peoples of Arizona, all three varieties of teppary bean have done fine and are beginning to set pods.

Well, except for those Frippery got to.  Those are a bit behind, and part of one row never did recover.

Our eggplant is doing pretty well.  Our squash (mostly zucchini) is thriving, so we’re giving up on what “everyone” told us to do, and will go back to planting in the early spring and simply praying the squash bugs don’t bother us.  Our peppers have been very slow.  I blame cooler than usual nights early in the spring.  However, some are finally coming on.

Tomatoes are mixed.  We’ve lost quite a number to curly top virus, but have enough to begin to decorate our salads.  And give the guinea pigs.  Ziggy’s new favorite food is tomato.

I’ll replant chard and arugula when daytime temperatures settle in the mid-nineties, rather than spiking over a hundred.  That should be coming soon, and hopefully we’ll have autumn greens.  The herbs are doing very well.  I have made the cats happy with lots and lots of catnip.  Soon I’ll be clipping basil to freeze for later pesto.

Speaking of growing projects of another sort (how’s that for a clever transition?), my friends at DreamForge magazine have announced a really cool new contest.

The topic is whether the current wealth of data that surrounds us is a good thing or not.  You can find more details at the link, but I’ll tell you right off: there is a cash prize, and the winning story will be published in the on-line edition of DreamForge Magazine.  Don’t forget, this means it will be accompanied by a full-color illustration, something increasingly rare these days.

This is also a good time to remind you that the first ever Firekeeper short story, “A Question of Truth,” will appear in the new issue of DreamForge.  The story is set before Wolf’s Search, so there won’t be any spoilers, but if you read it, you’ll know something that only Firekeeper and Blind Seer know!  It’s illustrated by Elizabeth Leggett, who gives her own twist to how the now early twenties, slightly more civilized, Firekeeper might look…

Elizabeth Leggett’s Illustration in DreamForge 3

DreamForge is only available by subscription.  They offer a variety of options including their lush print version, a combined print/digital version (for those of you who can’t bear to get fingerprints on your beloved magazines), and a quite affordable digital version.  Details are available here.

Now I’m off to pull out my colored pens and continue working on the reverse outline for Wolf’s Soul.  I got a bit worried last week that I wasn’t speeding along fast enough.  Then I realized I was tinkering and tightening along the way.  I can’t wait to start writing the thrilling concluding chapters.  Tune in next week and I’ll tell you if I managed!

Background Noise

June 26, 2019

Frippery Stalled At the Fence

In the background as I type this, I hear the steady sound of Jim putting up a rabbit fence.  Despite our best efforts to close gaps in our aging fence, Frippery Wigglenose Scamperbutt, the rapidly growing baby bunny keeps coming in to eat our bean plants, as well as whatever else he fancies.  Most recently, he tried some exotic Shock-o-Lat sunflowers, nipping them off where they won’t be able to grow back.  Given that he ignored wild sunflower plants of the same size, I admit to being a bit irate.

We actually have a new fence for the west side of our yard on order, but it won’t go up until sometime in July.  Until then, we’re learning what Frippery likes.  Bean plants are definitely on the top of his list.  Variety doesn’t seem to matter.  He’s sampled three varieties of teppary beans, Rattlesnakes, and Purple Queen.  He’s tried sunflowers.  He’s nibbled Swiss chard.  So far he doesn’t like tomato plants or squash plants.  He hasn’t tried the basil, which is a blessing, because he could mow down the row of seedlings in about three minutes.

We have another reason for wanting to keep Frippery out of our backyard.  Our two guinea pigs, Ziggy and Dandelion, have a hutch outside in the shade of the larger catalpa tree.  We don’t know if wild rabbits carry anything that wouldn’t benefit guinea pigs, but we don’t want to find out.  Ziggy, in particular, is a bit fragile.  She loves grass, which we don’t have much of at the best of times, and in this very dry late spring, early summer, we have even less of.  I don’t want Frippery to eat or contaminate Ziggy’s treat.

Still, at times I feel just a little like Farmer McGregor from the Peter Rabbit stories, although we’d never go so far as to have Frippery or PF in a pie.

On that cheerful note, I’m back to focusing on minutia and the like, as Wolf’s Search moves closer step by step to publication.

Take care!

Frippery Wigglenose Scamperbutt (And Other Denizens)

June 19, 2019

Newly Hatched Baby Quail and Mom

This last week was particularly good for wildlife spotting in the nature preserve that is our not very large yard.   For the first part of the week, we had a family of newly hatched quail chicks and their parents living in our front yard.  Based on watching her herd the brood, Mama Quail was using the landscaping as a play pen to keep her youngsters from wandering too far.

Frippery Wigglenose Scamperbutt Under Cedar

We also had a baby bunny show up.  He was very visible for several days, and somehow acquired the name Frippery Wigglenose Scampbutt.  The picture doesn’t really provide scale, but I could have easily held him on one hand.

PF and Frippery

It’s unclear whether Frippery and PF—our more or less resident cottontail—are related.  Certainly, PF did not seem unduly enchanted when Frippery came bounding up, wanting to play.  Of course, since Frippery’s idea of a fun game is to run at someone with intent to pounce (something we saw him do to sparrows, doves, and even sharp-beaked Skinny the Thrasher), PF can’t exactly be blamed.

Skinny has continued to show up pretty much daily with a younger thrasher in tow.  Last Sunday, I moved the fence around our front flowerbed so I could transplant some of the volunteer tomato plants that had come up.  (Volunteer plants are a consequence of using grey water on some of our beds.)  I left for a minute to carry some of the transplants around back. When I returned, Skinny and Skinny Junior were actively investigating the changed landscape.

Maybe because they don’t have wings, the rabbits are less delighted by alterations to their surroundings.  When Jim left a coiled hose under the ash tree near the bird block, PF would not go near, not even after one of the white-winged doves had investigated the coils closely, up to and including stepping right into the middle of the largest coil.

PF was not to be fooled.  That was a boa constrictor, for sure!  Of course, if we’d put something interesting to eat on the inside of the coils, he probably would have let appetite overcome his apprehension.  I mean, we’re now pretty sure he’s the one who squeezed into our backyard to have a go at the bean plants.  This would have involved encounters with all sorts of new and potentially dangerous items.

Our annual tribe of toads is now making regular visits to the teeny-tiny pond in our backyard.  Most nights, we fall asleep to the sound of their song.  The lizards are very active and, based on the clipped tails I’ve seen, several have had encounters of the not quite deadly kind.

Even if we do need to occasionally replant something, it’s worth it for the fun we have watching our co-residents…  I guess this just means we’re part of the circle of lunch.