Give Peas A Chance

Good Day, Sunshine
Good Day, Sunshine

With autumn nearly upon us, I find myself growing a bit wistful for the Summer That Wasn’t.

Some people, especially those back East who suffered through months of sweltering heat, might find it hard to relate to the longing for warm summer nights. But this year in Seattle the summer “heat” consisted of a couple of days when the temperatures flirted with the gay 90s, then slunk back into the cool 60s where they feel more at ease.

Flowers all over town thrived. Vegetables, not so much. But, even so, the intrepid Seattle gardeners found ways to coax wondrous results from city gardens. The proof can be found in Seattle’s thriving P-Patches, the community garden program administered by the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

Since its beginning in 1973 on two and a half acres at the Picardo Farm in Wedgwood, the program has grown to include 73 P-Patches all over town, 23 acres in all, planted and maintained by roughly 4,000 passionate gardeners. And more gardens are added each year.

Peace grows in garden rows.
Peace grows in garden rows.

Each is unique. Some are as beautifully laid out as formal gardens, others so densely crammed with vegetables and flowers that the walkways between the beds are hard to see. Every one is a treasure.

Yesterday, with thunderstorms forecast and a brisk breeze blowing, we set out to visit the Picardo Farm plot, to revel in its late summer glory before the rains smashed things too much. It was glorious. Cherry tomatoes, ruby red chard, towering beans, swelling pumpkins, dancing cosmos, dazzling dahlias, countless berries and squash and beets. Oh my.

By the grace of gardens I am fed, body and soul. Mine is the church of blue sky. Rain is the sacrament that keeps us all alive. Thanks be to God, or whoever is holding down the fort while he’s out minding other universes.

The Yearning Curve

Ripeness is all, the fellow said.

Tried Green Tomatoes
Tried Green Tomatoes

If that’s true, I got nothin’. Plenty o’.

This is the fifth summer I’ve been gardening in Seattle, and you might think I would have made the adjustment by now. You’d be wrong. The problem is, I’m still thinking in Virginia summer terms. As in: July means hot. August means “oh my freaking god thank you for air conditioning.”

Here in Seattle, of course, many residents eschew air conditioning altogether. The temperatures so rarely rise into the 80s, and the humidity, like the rain, vanishes after July fourth. Vegetables which thrive on heat tend to sulk in Seattle. I know the feeling.

In a Virginia summer there are things you can grow without even trying. Zucchini the size of kayaks. Peppers aplenty. And tomatoes. Aaah, tomatoes.

Every winter when the seed catalogues arrive I try to restrain myself. Remember last year? I say to myself. Remember those two scrawny tomato plants you started under lights in February? Remember the pathetic crop of puny rock hard tomato-shaped things that resulted? Yes, I reply, but this year will be different.

Suffice it to say, it never is. At least, not in a good way. This year we seem to be bypassing the summer season entirely. We had two or three days of 90 degree peaks, but my tomato plants weren’t fooled. They waited it out, and sure enough, the heat swept off to the East Coast, where people understand it.

So here it is, nearly the end of August, and my tomatoes are the size  and color of green olives. At this point, personally, I’d prefer the olives.

At the start of the season here in June, a gardening friend of mine gave me a fine big healthy tomato plant she’d nurtured in her garden shed. Ironically, it was an heirloom variety, a “Green Zebra,” and supposedly it would have eventually produced tasty, edible, green tomatoes. I’ll never know. The night temperatures are already getting down into the 50s. The days are rapidly getting shorter. There will be no ripe tomatoes, either green or red, from my garden.

Will I ever learn? Doubtful. It’s human nature to strive for that which is unobtainable, be it world peace, a publishing contract, or a ripe tomato. All things considered, I think my chances are best with the tomato quest.

The Artful Cat

Attitude Is Everything
Attitude Is Everything

Some people like cats for their frisky playfulness. Others admire their sleek style, or their affectionate natures (where applicable). And of course some people loathe cats. You know who you are. Get out now while the getting’s good. Because today’s topic is the way art imitates cats, and vice versa.

I have worked for a succession of various cats over the years. Some were loveable. Some not so much. But in one area they were all equally endowed. For those of us who are susceptible to it, cats possess a degree of glamour unmatched in the human sphere except in the case of babies and super-models. But while most babies eventually lose their charm, and even super-models fade with time, cats retain their decorative quality for years.

I’m a sucker for the way cats fit themselves into the landscape. To me, a garden without a cat lacks something fundamental. Not everyone looks at the world through this furcentric lens, but some artists seem to share my view.

In the months leading up to our move out here, we visited the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia, and there I saw an oil painting that spoke to me on every level. Painted by William Raphael in 1908, the work , titled “Hollyhocks,” captures the lovely untidiness and happy colors of a flower which has always reminded me of the rural Virginia countryside where I first saw it bloom. But what made the painting irresistible for me was the understated presence of a cat, lurking on a fence above the blooms.

Hollyhocks, 1908, William Raphael
Hollyhocks, 1908, William Raphael

Well, I knew I could never own the painting, but I thought maybe someday I could recreate the image and photograph it. After all, I had a cat. All I had to do was grow some hollyhocks and wait, right?

So it’s been almost five years since I got that bright idea, and I’ve come to accept that it’s much easier for art to imitate life than for life to imitate art. Because, while I have managed to grow some pretty swell hollyhocks in the last couple of years, the cat has been less than cooperative. There’s a fence right behind the flowers, just right for cat sitting. And many’s the time she has sat upon it. Just never when the damned hollyhocks are in bloom.

Today she deigned to offer a compromise and lounged on the bench which sits in front of the hollyhocks. The image I managed to capture in no way matches the arresting beauty of Raphael’s canvas. If you want to see that you’ll have to visit Vancouver. As for me, I’ll be waiting by the bench. Sooner or later the cat will come back.


Poppy, opiate of a gardener.
Poppy, opiate of a gardener.

Karl Marx once wrote that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” If he were alive today I think he might be tempted to alter that assessment.

Here and now, as I find myself caught up in the enthusiasm for World Cup, Wimbledon, and baseball, it seems to me that an argument could be made that sports are the modern opiate of the masses.

It’s understandable. As the world we live in grows increasingly complex, its problems more critical, its resources more threatened, its human population more recklessly contentious, sports offer an escape from the conflicts of the real world. How much easier to simply concentrate on a game. And if you need a frisson of conflict to add savor to your sports, you can always indulge in the ever-popular critiquing of the players, or questioning the line calls, or finding fault with the umpire’s decisions.

While the bludgeoning continues in the world outside, in the ballpark, on the playing fields, on the green lawns of Wimbledon, a level of decorum, balance and harmony prevails.

I’m no expert on politics or sports. But I have played a game or two, and I know how hard it is to keep your eye on the ball. That’s really the secret to most sports, and to much of life as well. Distractions multiply. Some think only the young are prone to distraction. But the older you get, the more vulnerable you become, as memory banks overflow with associations and emotions. You never know when some stray sight will trigger a cascade of memory that will utterly floor you.

The trick is to stay alert, stay nimble, and keep your eye on the ball. Even when it’s not a ball.

The Big Tease

Rainy Day Tulips
Rainy Day Tulips

They’re doing it again.

Up there in Skagit Valley, where the land flattens out for miles and the snow geese arrive in feathered clouds each spring, the tulips are tempting.

I succumbed to the call when I first moved to Seattle four years ago. I thought what could be more thrilling than acres and acres of tulips in bloom?

I can laugh about it now.

Veterans of the Pacific Northwest know all too well that only an idiot would expect to tiptoe through the tulips in early April, when the annual Skagit County Tulip Festival gets underway. The sadder but wiser tulip enthusiast wears full-body Gore-Tex and carries a sturdy full-size umbrella. For, although it is true that when the tulips bloom, the fields light up, it is also true that the sun is under no obligation to make an appearance.

The year I went, the temperatures were hovering in the low forties, wind gusts were in the teens, and a bracing drizzle completed the ensemble. Before I’d managed to shoot my compulsory two dozen snapshots, my nose was red, my lips were blue, and my teeth were chattering. Good times.

I’ll always remember that day for another reason, too. When I got home with my frozen feet and chapped face, I was drinking a restorative cup of cocoa when I opened my email and found a gushing note from my then-publisher, who was halfway through reading my second novel and loving it. She assured me she would be contacting me soon and that I could “expect good news.”

Pucker Up
Pucker Up
Hah, hah. Yes. I can laugh about it now.

Still, I’m glad I went to the tulip festival, if only because now each year when the forecasters begin the tulip drum roll, I don’t feel the urgency to salute. Been there, survived that. I’d do it again. Probably not this year, though. After we had the warmest January on record it seems we shot our wad for warmth. Since then it’s been back to the good old forty degrees with intermittent showers that we all know and love so well. It’s not so bad as long as you can find a nice warm bookstore or cafe to while away the wet hours. And of course it makes it easier to stay inside at one’s desk and work on that next novel. The one that’s sure to find a loving home somewhere.

The sun will come out eventually. I’m still expecting good news.

As The Worm Turns


It’s springtime in Seattle at last. May finds us stumbling out of our burrows, blinking in the unaccustomed glare of bright sunshine. We’re digging, mowing, spraying, playing. There’s a sort of frantic sense of urgency to it. We know it can’t last.

All the more reason to throw our backs out today, for tomorrow the clouds and showers will, in all likelihood, roll back in, the temperatures will sink into the sullen forties, just cold enough to ruin a picnic.

But it’s all good. The days are getting longer, the Mariners haven’t started losing daily yet, and the roses are just beginning to throw caution to the winds and embrace the fleeting season.

Many people tout Seattle’s weather, dreary as it may be for eight or nine months of the year, as the reason for the region’s seductive charm. And it’s true that when it’s good around here, it’s really good. No humidity, few bugs, no need for air conditioning, brilliant vistas in all directions. What’s not to like?

Well, I could start that list too, but I don’t have time to spare. My garden is a mess. So what else is new, you say? Hey, just because I can’t keep a clean house is no reason to assume my garden will reflect the same casual attitude toward symmetry and style. No, my garden suffers from the same syndrome that dooms my wardrobe: I’m a sucker for impulse buys.

In my closet a lifetime of dubious choices has left me with a collection of mismatched tops, skirts and pants, to say nothing of footwear. It’s a cacophony of colors, patterns and styles, none in harmony. Sadly, the same can be said of my garden. I have, of course, made attempts to bring some sense of order to the chaos. But no matter how firmly I set out on the path of discipline and simplicity, I end up in the Bermuda Triangle of gardens. Plants go there and disappear.

I’ve tried to correct this. And judging by the collection of landscapers’ business cards which flutter onto my doorstep like confetti, the professionals look at my garden and see a cry for help. But, I really don’t want someone else working in my garden. The whole point of it is that I get to play in it. It may be a mess, but it’s a reflection of what I am – a sinkhole of desires, dreams and delusions. For me, the garden is a metaphor for life. The point is not to get it finished, but to keep at it.

So I’ll leave it to the horticulture experts and the hired landscapers to create garden perfection, while I stick to what I know – making messes, thankful that, though I may never escape my own folly, at least I’m still digging it.

Trowels Up!

It’s Earth Day, a time when thousands of people who regularly eat at McDonalds, drive SUVs and spray chemicals on their lawns take a moment to reflect on the miraculous planet on which we all depend.

blossomAnd then the moment passes, and we go back to our spendthrift ways, shopping for stuff we don’t need, and eventually tossing most of it into landfills buried like ugly secrets in every part of this beautiful nation.

Such a short-sighted species we are.

But, on this day, I choose to be optimistic, in part because I’ve brought children into this world, and I have to hope that we’re going to be able to keep it going for them, and all the children on the planet.

One bright shining change I see, from the ways things were almost forty years ago at the first Earth Day, is that awareness is finally growing faster. Back then, I witnessed the first Earth Day celebration at a concert in the shadow of the Washington Monument attended by only a few hundred rag-tag hippies and a small core of a new group of specialists called environmentalists. The word ecology was new to most people. The concept of recycling was widely disdained as ineffectual. We took diversity for granted.

Now we seem to know better. The world has changed, is changing still, and I believe there’s reason to hope that the planet, at least, will survive. Whether humans do remains to be seen. But, if they do, I think gardeners will play a big role in the realignment process of the skewed perspective that has gotten us into this mess.

Gardeners, like farmers, know that you can’t really fool Mother Nature. You might manage a joke now and then, but ultimately, unless we respect the fundamental balance of nature, and how interdependent we are with other life forms, we stand in real danger of poisoning the roots of the tree in which our human nest is delicately balanced.

In 1970 pockets of passionate gardeners recognized the danger of destroying diversity in the lust for corporate profit. Now, millions of dedicated gardeners and visionary citizens around the world are working together to protect the environment and to encourage more people to understand the vital links between all growing things.

The internet has facilitated this process, connecting gardeners worldwide through a vigorous network of sites dedicated to the idea that, as one of my favorite sites,, puts it in their manifesto: gardening matters.

I used to get a certain amount of grief from various people about my compulsive gardening, my oohing and aahing over plants, as if I had some sort of mental problem. Well, I can’t deny that I may have some issues with detachment. But, I stand by my conviction that gardeners are needed, more gardens are always welcome, and there can never be too many flowers.

It’s Earth Day. Today, tomorrow. Hopefully, next year, next millennium.
There’s still time to grow a better world.

Paradigm Now: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Self-publishing

My love affair with men of the woods began with a man in green: Robin Hood.

When I was twelve years old my family moved to a brand new neighborhood, where I had to go to a new school, in my new glasses and my new five inches of height, clothed in my customary shyness. During that lonely transition period, each day I came home from school, made myself a cup of cocoa, and curled up in front of the television to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood, where right always triumphed over might, and Maid Marion managed to be both alluring and resourceful even though she never let her hair down. At the time I preferred the television version because it never went into the sad final chapters of Robin’s life as related in the book. On the small screen, Robin and his merry men never shed a tear. I longed for such a life.

Well, time passed, I got contact lenses, got noticed, and things changed, but my passion for men of the woods never stopped growing. The journey from the green wood  to the Green Man was a short flight of fancy, with stopovers in The Secret Garden and Terry Pratchett’s Disc World.

I know I’m not alone in my love of magic trees. A recent news story that lit up email boxes around the world told of the plight of the real Sherwood Forest in England, where environmental degradation, developmental pressure and inevitable old age have combined to reduce the once four-thousand-strong legendary woods to a stand of barely more than four hundred massive oaks. Many of these ancient giants have names and are beloved by historians, English majors and environmentalists for the sense of solid truth they lend to the flimsy stuff of legends and folklore. Perhaps Robin of Loxley wasn’t all that we would like to think, but the woods in which he hid demand reverence.

And what, you might ask, does all this have to do with the chaotic state of modern publishing? Well, there’s never been a better time to be a Robin Hood of the written word — to infiltrate and outfox the system that once made it impossible for any but the well-connected and the very fortunate to get published. Thanks to modern technology we are in the midst of a redistribution of power, if not wealth. Never has it been so easy for so many to reach so many readers. With online publishing, blogging, print-on-demand options and internet marketing, the barriers to the open market are falling, and this opens up a whole new world of opportunity.

But of course, all that glitters isn’t sold. And if a book gets published in the forest and nobody hears about it, will it ever be read? Probably not. Without a brilliant marketing strategy, a new book has little chance of getting past the dungeons and dragons of the publishing world unless the author is an actual wizard or sorceress,  or can make a deal with the devil, or Oprah, who might be more powerful.

Scrambling to keep up with changing trends and marketing tactics, few conventional publishers can afford to process and evaluate the deluge of new material being generated on all fronts. Consequently, though the  publishing tree has sprung many new branches, it’s not yet clear how many of them will bear fruit.

Like many an aspiring author, I first tried the conventional, recommended route to getting my fiction in print. I sent out query letters by the dozen to agents and editors. I attended conferences and had pitch sessions with more editors and agents. I entered contests and got evaluations from other writers higher up in the food chain. But, although I had a lucky break and managed to get a novel published by a traditional publisher, the experience didn’t lead to quantifiable success. I sold a few books. But the leg up I had hoped this would provide proved inadequate to keep my later submissions from sliding right back into the slush pile.

Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking, and I began to  feel a sense of urgency. What if I died without ever getting my stories out to the reading public? The world would be none the worse, no doubt. But, who can say? If my small fantasies could lift the gloom from a few readers’ hearts, surely that would be worth all the humiliation and effort it took to get them in print. Wouldn’t it?

Yet, like most would-be authors of a certain age, I had been taught to consider any form of self-publishing as a craven act of pathetic vanity.

And then I read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, chief editor of Wired magazine. The book makes a clear and persuasive argument for the validity of the new world of self-published works, from music to literature to independent movies, as the new paradigm for creative enterprise. Anderson argues that this new paradigm is made possible by the modern miracle of the internet, and it’s impossible to read his book and not feel a spark of Judy Garlandish optimism: Let’s put on a show! Or record a CD! Or publish a book! All these things are possible now, in part because of the unlimited virtual shelf space of online commerce.

The Long Tail of the title refers to the graph of supply and demand, which, in pre-internet days was ruled by the iron constraints of actual shelf space. If your book, CD or whatever didn’t sell in appreciable numbers, it wouldn’t be stocked. But now, the virtual shelf extends almost infinitely, like a long tail, and retailers can afford to “stock” an item which might sell at the rate of one or two copies a year, at the far end of that long tail.

Once I embraced this concept, I followed through by contacting one of the new online self-publishing businesses. I chose to work with iUniverse mainly because they have an arrangement with Barnes&Noble which offers certain qualified self-published works a limited trial stay in an actual brick and mortar B&N store. Although the process of qualifying for that “Publishers’ Choice” designation turned out to be a lot more demanding and expensive than I had  expected, after many months of painful editing I finally qualified, saw my book on the shelf at my local Barnes &Noble, and enjoyed a brief glow of accomplishment.

However, doors haven’t swung open. Most newspaper and professional reviewers refuse to deal with self-published works, and the market-driven demand for entertainment saturated with violence, sex, horror or suspense has little patience for small tales of restrained wit and compassion. Bigger, faster, badder. Those are the guidelines which rule.

But, I do not despair. My Green Man lives. His tendrils spread quietly, branch to branch, hand to hand, word of mouth. My hope has always been that he would be discovered by passionate gardeners, and passed along, like heirloom seeds.

I know Alice and The Green Man will never be a bestseller. But, I harbor the hope that somewhere down along the long tail, it may eventually grow into a minor horticult.

The Green Fuse is Lit

He’s lean, green and on the scene.

It’s been almost four years since he first showed up in my head, his green eyes twinkling with amusement, his bare skin scented with ferns and fresh cut grass. It took me a few months to get him down on the page. And then a few years to chisel away the excess verbiage that shoots from my pen with all the vigor of witchgrass in the border. Then the long process of trying to find some editor or agent who felt the same way I did about him, and well, as the children say, let’s not go there.

But, now, at last, another spring is upon us, the cherry tree outside my window is swollen with fat pink buds, and the pace is picking up. Today is the Vernal Equinox. It’s a good time for a Green Man.My new book, Alice and The Green Man, is about a woman who belongs in a garden. It’s the story of what she learns about herself when she has to fight to save the garden she has created on an abandoned lot. It’s a love story, of course. But in many ways, the love at the heart of the story is the love of gardens, of growing things, of touching the earth and feeling its deep healing power.

Okay. Those of you who don’t garden are right now fidgetting and looking for the remote. I know gardening isn’t a passion shared by everyone. But, for those who know the thrill of it, nothing else comes close. Well, maybe sex. But it could be argued that that is just another name for gardening. You sow seeds. With luck, they grow into wonderful new living things.So, it seemed to me, as a writer, that if you put gardens and sex together in a story, you could really have some fun.

I’m not the first one to think of this, of course. But I believe I am the first one to give the Green Man a chance to show what he can do. I see my new book as a kind of hybrid. It’s a cross between The Secret Garden and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For many gardeners, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden stands alone as a kind of rich allegory about the transformative power of a garden. But, like many books we read as children, the text remains locked inside that innocent place where only children belong. Once a reader grows up and discovers that the world isn’t quite as civilized as one might wish, it’s hard to feel at ease in a garden, however secret.In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a truly adult classic, a woman rediscovers her own earthy passion through her relationship with a sexy man of the soil. Compared to the modern anything-goes-and-farther-than-you-would  style, DH Lawrence’s lush brooding prose is probably too slow for an audience geared to the frenetic pace of Sex and the City.

In Alice and The Green Man I have attempted to break new ground, to make a secret garden for modern adults. A place to have some fun, enjoy a few moments respite from the headlines, and to feed the childlike hope that it is not too late to save the garden that is this Earth.With the mounting evidence that global warming is not some fuzzy  theory but a hard fact, and that mass extinction of countless plants and animals is already underway, there has never been a more important time for readers to become gardeners and vice versa.

I do believe one person can make a difference. Maybe a small difference. But, even small differences can add up to something measurably wonderful. Planet Earth is, in essense, a small garden. Now is the time for all of us to nurture the greenness on which our lives and the lives of future generations depend.

Dylan Thomas once famously described “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” the mysterious power that pulses through our lives, taking us toward the unknown future. Humankind must learn to cherish this power if we are to save our planet for future generations. Now is the time for all Green Men to come to aid of the party. The Green fuse is lit.