Archive for the 'Books' Category

Here is what I do not understand

There are crazy search terms that lead people to my blog. But why, oh why, would someone come here because they searched for “Harry Potter, naked”?

That’s so wrong, people. THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT GROWING THINGS. And by that, I mean plants. Not Potter.

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The Great Pumpkin, revealed

I’d like to tell you that I have a very simple philosophy for living, but in truth, I am a woman of many corollaries. Among these is that I believe strongly in taking leaps of faith—trying things out just because they have potential. The way I see it, at worst, I end up with a lot of good stories to tell. Or I move to Iowa. Or both. See how this works?

There are others like me. They might not move to Iowa, but they do things like grow ten-foot-long gourds or 1,400-pound pumpkins, just because they can. This goes well beyond growing a tomato bigger than my hand, or even beyond my fellow blogger Michelle’s quest to grow the perfect pumpkin in her own back yard. These people have taken a huge leap of gardening faith, and as a result, have a great story to tell.

Backyard Giants coverSusan Warren, who is a deputy bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, followed the 2006 giant pumpkin growing season in Backyard Gardeners: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, which hits bookstores tomorrow. From the challenges of weather to disease to outright sabotage, Warren chronicles everything that can go wrong—and the miracle when things go right—for those growers obsessed with these behemoths.

I received an advance reading copy of Backyard Giants from one of the author’s friends, and agreed to take a look at it just because the concept intrigued me. Giant pumpkin growers do their thing exclusively for the glory—it’s not these bad boys end up good for making pie, and even carving them is a challenge, and as the book discloses, often the giant pumpkins don’t even come close to resembling the Cinderella-carriage ideal.

Susan’s book vines through the stories of several growers, but focuses primarily on Ron and Dick Wallace, a father-son team on a quest to break the world record for Big Pumpkins. Besides bringing with it the coveted orange jacket that, presumably, is really only appropriate to wear to a pumpkin-themed gathering, growing the biggest pumpkin of the season brings with it the attention of this select group of fanatical growers, a certain amount of prize money, and the satisfaction of knowing one has accomplished the impossible.

There is always a slow point in the growing season (although, I have to say, with just under two years of growing seasons under my belt, I’m probably not qualified to say “always…”), and the book does have a central section that seemed to hover longer than necessary on the minutia of pumpkin growing, but the action gains momentum rapidly toward the end of the book. By the end, even as the pumpkins’ growth slows, the action carries forward, leading to a most satisfying conclusion.

Whether you long for the Great Pumpkin’s appearance or not, Backyard Giants is an interesting look into a world of obsession and, for many, total futility. Whether you’re a gardener or not, I don’t know anyone who can’t identify with the quest to make something totally improbable happen in their life. As tomato season gives way to a more pumpkin-like time of year, I encourage you to check out Backyard Giants.

Harry Potter and the Mint Killer’s mojito

As she demonstrated with our red snapper fixin’s, The Mint Killer has turned around her reputation this year. In the meantime, my mint has been struggling—it was doing fine until it didn’t get any water for three days. Apparently mint really can be killed—by all kinds of people.

On Friday, when I was at The Mint Killer’s place picking up my half of our CSA share, she offered me some of her bounty. “Maybe I’ll make mojitos,” I said.

“Absolutely,” she said.

The arrival of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows just after my parents headed off on their further journey today set me up for the opportunity to sit on the front porch, under the magnolia tree, enjoying a very Happy Hour. It seemed only right to put The Mint Killer’s mint to good use in a drinkable way.

Please note: I have in reserve the best-ever mojito recipe for a crowd, courtesy of my cousin in Grand Junction, but this is the recipe I would recommend when, you know, a whole pitcher is totally inappropriate.

MojitoMojito a la Mint Killer
(Serves 1)

A handful of fresh mint leaves, washed and dried
1/2 a lime
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
1 part light rum
3 parts soda water

  1. Place the mint leaves in the bottom of a highball glass. Add the sugar.
  2. Squeeze the half-lime into the glass, then slice the lime into smaller pieces and drop them in on top of the mint-lime juice-sugar mixture.
  3. Using a pestle (I’ve heard of people using the back of a spoon, but I’ve not gotten good results that way…), muddle (not muggle) the mixture together. In layman’s terms, that means to take the pestle and give it a good smooshing until everything is mixed together and smelling minty-lime-like.
  4. Add ice to fill the glass. If you have crushed ice, that’s more authentic. If you just have ginormous cubes like me, they work just fine.
  5. Fill the glass up a quarter of the way with the rum. Top off with soda water and stir.
  6. If you’d like, garnish with lime, mint or both.
  7. Drink, preferably with a good book.

This post is my contribution to Weekend Herb Blogging, which is being hosted this week by The Chocolate Lady of In Mol Araan. Please stop by later in the weekend to read the full round-up, although I may have to wait to read it, myself, until I’m finished Book 7.

Garden Bloggers’ Book Club: The Gardener’s Year

Karel Capek didn’t care much for growing vegetables. In “On Market Gardeners,” one of the short essays that comprise The Gardener’s Year, he addresses the readers’ imagined complaints that he only traffics in flowers.

“In reply to this charge I say that in one of the numerous phases of my life I also ruled over some beds of carrots and savoys, of lettuce and kohlrabi; I did it certainly out of a feeling of romanticism, wanting to indulge in the illusion of being a farmer,” Capek writes. “In due time it was obvious that I must crunch every day one hundred and twenty radishes, because nobody else in the house would eat them; the next day I was drowning in savoys, and then the orgies in kohlrabi followed, which were terribly stringy.”

A market gardener, huh? I guess that term fits, although I have to say…the decision to garden had less to do with Farmer Genie dreams, and more to do with a headlong crash into inevitability. I live in Iowa, therefore I garden.

And because I garden, I’m once again taking part in the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club, for which Capek’s slim volume of dryly funny essays is the March selection.

Capek feels my particular pain. “Yes, only when he becomes a gardener does a man appreciate those threadbare sayings like ‘the bitter cold,’ ‘the merciless North wind,’ ‘the harsh frost,’ and other such poetic cursings, he even himself uses expressions still more poetic, saying that the cold this year is rotten, damned, devilish, cursed, beastly, and blasted; in contrast to the poets he does not only swear at the North wind, but also at the evil-minded East winds; and he curses the driving sleet less than the feline and insidious black frost,” he writes in “A Gardener’s March.”

Rotten. Damned. Devilish. Cursed. Beastly. Blasted. I might not have used any of those particular words, but I certainly used more tawdry synonyms. But the book was originally published in Czech in 1929, so I assume the approved language for book printing was a little more gardenesque and a little less barroom brawl.

But Capek sallies forward through the year, reminding all gardeners that the next month, April, is “the month for planting.” His essay examines the phenomenon of ordering a few too many plants.

OK, maybe more than a few.

“And so, one day, some hundred and seventy seedlings meet in your house, and they must be planted immediately; and then you look round in your garden and find with overwhelming certainty that you have no space left for them,” he writes in “A Gardener’s April.”

Capek didn’t have access to a computer, but for all intents and purposes, he wrote as if he were keeping a year-long blog, providing oblique insights into his own experience by presenting them in larger-than-life fashion. Every hose in Capek’s world is cranky and about to splash everyone around it. Every flower is a risky venture. Every season, fraught with danger of some sort or another, provides an opportunity to learn, again, that in the end, the gardener is at the mercy of a larger miracle.

Garden bloggers’ book club: Two gardeners

When you’re new to gardening—and I still consider myself firmly planted in newbie soil—everything is a revelation. As the various books of the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club have rolled out, it has introduced me to topics and authors about which I know nothing. Other garden bloggers, however, post about how a book is one of their favorites or one they’ve always wanted to read—they’re clearly more dug in to the world of gardening literature than I am.

This month’s book, Two Gardeners: Katharine S. White and Elizabeth Lawrence – A Friendship in Letters, edited by Emily Herring Wilson, is one I half-expected to be a little stodgy. But it surprised me from the very start with how much I enjoyed it. First of all, there were these words from Elizabeth Lawrence, which comforted me and my haphazard style of planting: “Far from being an expert, I am the most casual of gardeners…I just put out things and let them take their chances.”

Second of all, I had no idea, when Carol at May Dreams Gardens named this the book of the month, that Katharine S. White was E.B. White’s wife.

Note: I was delighted to learn more about Katharine White’s contribution to The New Yorker and to gardening, as well—I’m not relegating her to the role of wife. But that connection tied me to her more tightly from the start of the book than I might have otherwise expected. See, E.B. White’s novels, particularly The Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web, were among my very favorites when I was a kid. If I recall correctly, I enlisted both my Dad and Mom to read them to me, chapter by chapter, even though I could handily read them myself.

So it’s like the transitive property of equality in Geometry. My nostalgia connects me to E.B. White, who is connected to Katharine White by marriage. Therefore, Katharine and I? We’re like old pals.

I was also taken by some of the logistics issues faced by both Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence. The two of them constantly spoke about the challenge of keeping up with the correspondence, while assuring each other how much they valued their communication, and they make plans again and again to see each other. Their physical paths cross only once, and Wilson describes that meeting as being “in some way disappointing.” Yet as Katharine’s life came to a close, their correspondence friendship remained as strong as ever.

The book brought to mind all the women who I “know” through the Internet, either who I’ve met through blogging, or through message boards, or through other means. Some of these women, even though I’ve never met them in person, provide me with a strong foundation of friendship and support on any number of issues.

In fact, I have a particular group of women who I consider to be among my closest friends, even though I’ve only met a few of them and may never meet some of them in person. There are people who consider that to be a little strange—how can anyone make a connection solely by computer? I direct them to this book, or to any number of other books of edited letters out on the market and say: how is this any different?

I often feel overwhelmed by my own pile of correspondence, whether that’s the number of emails in my Action folder waiting to be answered (and to those of you who are waiting to hear from me, trust that I haven’t forgotten about you…), or the cards and notes I stick in a folder on my desk labeled “Do This Now-Now-Now” or carry with me in my planner to answer in a stolen moment. Like Katharine and Elizabeth, I’m probably never going to catch up, and I just consider it a wonderful thing that my inbox and mailbox are both overflowing.

Katharine even talks about repetitive stress syndrome at one point. “I have been to the doctor, but he gave me a superficial examination and said it was roughening of the bones and told me not to bend my neck and not to work over a desk,” she writes to Elizabeth. “Great! I simply have to.” It seems that carpal tunnel syndrome and other computer-related issues aren’t the newest things under the sun after all.

Perhaps that’s the best thing about this book, from my reading. Sure, these women traded incredible insights on gardening and plants. But what I walked away with was a reminder of the depth of friendship that is possible even when friends don’t see each other very often, or even at all.

Snow and ice and Lenten sacrifice

Snow meltDuring my week between jobs, I’ve been working my way through Two Gardeners: Katharine S. White and Elizabeth Lawrence – A Friendship in Letters edited by Emily Herring Wilson, which is the February selection of the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club. In a letter dated June 15, 1959, Katharine White adds, “P.S. It is 48 degrees here today and has been this for 48 hours. Discouraging.”

I have to agree with Mrs. White. Were it June, 48 degrees would be greatly discouraging. And by greatly discouraging, I mean it would make me cry long wracking sobs into my pillow while Steve tried to pull me out of bed by one leg.

But it’s not June. It’s February. And as I read that line, it was, in fact, 48 degrees outside, which is positively balmy for this time of year.

Today has been even better. I met Steve and my friend Alison downtown for lunch, and when I left the house, I passed the mailman. He was wearing shorts. Shorts. Bare knees and all that jazz. Just before I got to the restaurant, I noticed another bank displaying 55 degrees on their sign.

I actually considered sitting outside to read Two Gardeners. I know that would last about five minutes, because it’s really not that warm, but compared to the temperatures we were having even just last week, this is pretty fabulous.

I feel a little dirty. Here it is, Ash Wednesday, and I should be abstentious, self-sacrificing, demure. Instead, the warm sunshine is melting the snow into rivers along the curbs, and it puts me in a mood of celebration and excess. I declare to one and all that this year, I’m giving up snow and ice for Lent, because really, who needs them?

The Amy Stewart road show

Amy StewartAs I said last week, Amy Stewart is on a book tour for her new book, Flower Confidential: The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful in the Business of Flowers. Steve and I attended the reading, and though Amy had started the day with a flight that took off somewhere around (and by around, I really mean before) the crack of dawn, and had spent her day juggling television and radio interview crews, she had time to hang out post-reading.

It’s always a pleasure to meet fellow bloggers, and I’m such a big fan of Amy’s work, so it was fun to hang out and get to know her better.

Amy read snippets from her book, but spent even more time talking about her research process as she delved into the flower industry. She illustrated her examples with flowers she’d picked up at a local florist in Iowa City, from carnations to gerberas to Stargazer lilies.

I walked away from the reading determined to do a better job of approaching flowers the same way I approach food. I’m always curious about where the food comes from, and even if I don’t always buy local or don’t always buy organic, I’ve gotten in the habit of just simply paying attention. But flowers…I haven’t paid as close attention to cut flowers as I have to my food. I’ve just started reading Flower Confidential, but I’m looking forward to the better consumer that I’ll be by the end of the book, and to putting my new-found knowledge to good use.

If you’re interested in hearing Amy speak, check out her full book tour schedule. I encourage you to attend an event!


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All words and images (unless otherwise credited) on The Inadvertent Gardener are © 2006-2008 Eugenia E. Gratto. All rights reserved.

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