Friday, April 30, 2010

Sarah MacLean on Gardens and Temptation

I am not a gardener.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of gardening . . . the idyllic afternoons spent bathed in warm sunshine, hands in soft soil (in my fantasy I’m wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat—you know the kind—with the scarf built in?) . . . but when push comes to shove, I’m terrible at keeping plants alive in my third-floor Brooklyn walk-up, and if I had a garden, I feel certain it would be only a matter of time before I committed involuntary botanic genocide.

My characters, however, have lovely gardens. Big, beautiful English gardens filled with rosebushes and peonies and hedgemazes, and even those who cannot afford a top-notch gardener have the wild English countryside rolling across their lands. But for the purpose of this post, I’m sticking to the impeccable gardens.

You know the ones I mean . . . they have perfectly trimmed grass and perfectly groomed topiaries in the shape of angels. Or rabbits. Or whatever you’d like. They boast rows of rosebushes and bowers of ivy and they definitely have a fountain. One in which the three fates are very likely frolicking nude.

There is something about those pristine English gardens that calls to me as a writer—unfailingly manicured, they just beg to be the backdrop for something entirely scandalous.

Midnight trysts . . .

Skulking criminals . . .

Long-awaited professions of love . . .

My gardens have provided dark, leafy cover for them all—along with glittering balls and, in my most recent book, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, a fateful meeting that a wallflower would never forget.

Poor Eve. If Eden was anything like these gardens, she never had a chance.

What is it about gardens that calls to our most primal desire for scandalous things? What is it that tempts us to try out our inner wood nymph? I mean . . . is it just me? Or are rakes that much sexier when under cover of rustling leaves?

Sarah MacLean’s New York Times Bestselling debut adult romance, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake begins and ends in a perfect—and appropriately shadowed—English garden. You can find it in bookstores everywhere. Visit her at or follow her on Twitter at

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Black + Green = More Than Ivy for Me

I have a black thumb.

For as long as I can remember, ivy is the only plant I haven't accidentally killed. I'm serious here. I even killed cactus.

I moved up and down the west coast, bringing my trusty ivy with me in the back of my VW Golf. The ivy's limbs (or is it branches? appendages? tentacles?) now stretch to at least 30 feet, winding around my bookshelves. I've had to trim it back several times so it wouldn't take over.

I love my ivy. My bookshelves wouldn't be complete without it. But it was time; I wanted something MORE from a plant than having it look cool. I wanted to EAT what I grew.

Luckily, after moving into our new house last fall, I discovered my better half has a green thumb.

I'd heard rumors to that effect, but I'd never had a chance to see it for myself while we lived in tiny apartments. But now that we have a yard, I get to reap the benefits. The bigger veggies -- like the tomato plants, at left, and zucchinis, at right -- are still growing, but we're already eating salads from the garden every night.

It's true, there are some slugs that show up in the garden. But when they come out at night, I'm safely hiding in my study with my ivy.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Martha Gardens To Eat

Two years ago, the hubby and I purchased our first home complete with giant (by San Francisco standards) backyard. Only problem? The yard looked like this:

Which is to say..I couldn't eat anything in it. There were nearly three dozen rose plants. Quite a few dead trees. The landscape required significant weeding, watering and nurturing...all for what? So I could look at it?

Oh, hell no.

So I did what anyone would do. I ripped up, tore out, and killed 95% of the plants in that backyard. I don't care if you tell me there were prize-winning roses in there. Unless they taste like donuts, they had to go.

Instead, I created a culinary haven with:

HERBS! (from L to R, lavender, thyme, parsley, cilantro, rosemary)


And a bevy of FRUIT! (cherry, apple, pear and plum trees still a year or two from edible production, not pictured: lemon and lime trees, blueberries)

The yard is still a work in process, as you can see. We've had a few failures - namely some green beans which yielded great but tasted like dust. We have a brick patio in the back that needs furniture. Next to it is a little patch where we'll plant strawberries. One of the veggie boxes is awaiting a crop of brussels sprouts and cauliflower.

I kept a couple of rose bushes...just so I didn't feel like such a bully. The tea tree has been trimmed but still gives the yard a splash of color and height. I can't eat those guys...but I can sure as heck eat most of everything else.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Growing Children

Growing Children

by Lisa Hughey

I want to have a beautiful garden. I love flowers, especially the sweet smell of old-fashioned roses.

I'm getting better at growing roses, this is from a pot on my patio.

I love freshly grown tomatoes and corn and strawberries. I come from farming stock. My great-grandmother worked a farm and then a decent sized backyard garden until she was in her early 90's.

She was an amazing woman, who survived an alcoholic husband and really hard years. She lived in an old farmhouse near the Eastern Shore of Maryland and worked seventy odd acres of land and raised chickens. She didn’t have indoor plumbing, just running water in her sink and an icebox for her food. Her pantry was chock full of canned vegetables and glass Mason jars of homemade jam.

I have very fond memories of visiting her on family vacations. Her house always smelled wonderful. We’d come in and she’d whip up custard style cornbread in a beat up metal mixing bowl. She never measured ingredients, just tossed everything in and whipped the corn meal, eggs, sugar and evaporated milk and then poured the batter in the pan.

While the bread would bake, she’d sit down at her old kitchen table with a mason jar of wildflowers in the center. She’d pour a cup of coffee and then set the cup in a ceramic bowl and add cream until the coffee overflowed into the bowl and the drink was the color of caramel. We would gab about life, waiting impatiently for the bread to be done while she slurped up her coffee in great big gulps.

Me at thirteen, with Ma Mae Littleton in the middle, and her daughter, Nellie, my grandma on the right.

Visiting her was always like going to another world. She didn’t work that farm because she loved gardening, she worked because she had to and she raised two daughters into women almost single-handedly. She worked at growing her children just about as hard as she worked the farm. She set an example I still aspire to even though she’d laugh at the size of my ‘vegetable patch.’

My planter boxes from last year, I haven't quite gotten the vegetables in the ground this year...soon.

Somehow the time to make my garden really shine never comes. I spend a lot of time with my kids or at their sports or various other activities or just hanging out with them. I finally realized that I know the time with my kids is precious and I need to savor every moment. I’ll have time to work a garden after I’m done growing my children.

And I hope both do her proud.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Gardens, Not Gardening

L.G.C. Smith

I've loved gardens all my life. For as long as I can remember I've had vivid pictures of gardens of all types in my mind. Here are some I've visited recently that look exactly as they should.

Erddig Hall in North Wales

Chillingham Castle, Northumberland on the left and right. A private walled garden in North Yorkshire, center.

As to my own endeavors, I am, at best, a desultory gardener. I really ought to do better. I don't mind getting my hands dirty. I'm not fond of bugs and creepy crawlies, but I can co-exist peacefully with most of them. I'm downright happy to see honeybees and bumblebees, ladybugs, lacewings, earthworms, and other beneficial creatures. I know enough about plants, soil structure and garden micro-climates to keep things alive, if not always flourishing. I even used to put in considerable effort making my back yard look like there was a gardener in residence. From certain angles, it can still look decent.

My back yard this morning.

Then my sister moved in kittycorner behind me. We share a four foot overlap in our rear property lines. With my sister came Elsa, the German Shepherd-mix puppy. Like most suburban dogs, Elsa is mad about squirrels. Oh, the stories I could tell about Elsa and the squirrels. But that's another post. The problem with Elsa and the squirrels is that Elsa runs right through whatever lies in her path when she's in pursuit -- several times a day. My garden is in the way. All day, every day.

The gate the dogs come through.

Then came Magoo. He's Elsa's dog, and he did indeed stop her from eating all my sister's shoes, eyeglasses, and upholstered furniture. Alas, Magoo loves to sit in flowers. He weighs eighty pounds.

Magoo in a border he'd already been trashing for three years.

Magoo participates in some of the squirrel chases. What really revs him up, however, is nocturnal trespasses by non-resident cats, rats, raccoons, possums, and skunks. Preferable hours are 2-4 AM. Anything that gets between Magoo and the trespasser is in trouble. Plants? Trampled. Uprooted. Tall stems snapped. In that area where Magoo's sitting, I used to have foxgloves, aconitum, delphinium, campanula, blue bearded-iris (there were a few of those left in the photo; they're gone now), delicate shell pink gladioli, lilies, echinacea, scabiosa, and more.

Now I have low stuff that self-sows: forget-me-nots, cranesbill, nasturtiums and violets; big thorny things like roses that Magoo can't flatten; trees; weeds.

A gardening flaw I can't blame on the dogs is my tendency to let things get overgrown. In our genial Mediterranean climate, it's easy to do. This is my deck from a couple of different angles. Note the overgrown bushes. We do trim, just not often enough. The cats have taken over.

Other gardeners might use this area for people, but I find the cats (three of them, none of them mine) never complain about the lack of pruning. They like it. There are lots of shady, protected spots, or what The Leezlet has dubbed 'cat bedrooms.' There are weeds that make nice nests in said bedrooms. If the cats mind that we haven't stained the deck in six years, they're keeping mum.

My father has a plan for the Cat Lounge. He wants to turn it into an outdoor living room for people. That would be lovely, but it sounds like work and expense are involved. Besides, the cats would only think it's for them, and it'd be so covered in cat hair we wouldn't be able to use it.

Here's The Leezlet last November burying D.C. in leaves. He's not as patient or long-suffering as he looks. It's his lounge, and he's not budging. Ever.

Despite abdicating most gardening duties due to animal depredations, I retain one of the tenets learned from my parents. They were born in rural South Dakota in the 1930s. If you have land, even a tiny bit, you grow food. You never know when it will come in handy. Flowers and pretty plants feed the spirit, but when the Big One strikes, you can't eat them. We have a huge orange tree (only about 600 pounds this year; light crop), a Meyer lemon, a Santa Rosa plum, a Moorpark apricot, and a Sierra Beauty apple. I also have lots of herbs, and the vegetables are over at my sister's where The Leezlet is learning the gardening ropes.

I love gardens, and I consider gardening a basic life skill. Nonetheless, I'm rarely motivated to do more than the bare minimum to keep my garden usable. I will continue to visit and imagine gardens better than my own, and enjoy them tremendously.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Serene is Clean

Camille Minichino, aka Margaret Grace, aka Ada Madison, is a woman of many talents: She's a brilliant scientist, talented author, generous teacher....

She's also that oh-so-rare creature in the Bay Area, a woman who is not afraid to say, right out loud, in front of anyone who cares to listen
: "I hate the outdoors. Mountains, oceans, the wide open: blech....Give me Manhattan any day!"

Around these parts, that's pretty close to sedition, if not blasphemy. At the very least, they're fighting words. Is Camille/Margaret/Ada daunted? No, she is not. As far as I can tell, she's not afraid of much...except maybe dirt. And worms. And birds.

So naturally, when the topic of "gardening" came up, I just had to ask for her take on the subject.


I've never understood the concept of playing in the dirt.

Dirt is, well, dirty. And gardens are nothing if not dirty.
Aren't we always trying to remove dirt from our lives?

We bathe, wash our hair and our clothes, and in some cases even our kitchen floors. We suck up dirt with vacuum cleaners, flush it out of our eyes immediately upon contact, scrape it from under our fingernails, and hope the kids don't drag in too much of it.

When you say, "I've got some dirt on her," you don't usually mean you've heard she's won an Edgar or that she's asked you to be her maid of honor.

And consider dirt's synonyms: crud, dreck, dregs, filth, gook, gunk, mire, muck, scuz, sleaze, slime, smudge, smut. "Serenity" and "soothing" are not among them. You see my point.

All this is why I never step into a garden on purpose.

Then there are weeds. How can you tell a weed from a plant? Darned if I know, except gardeners have it in for weeds. They're like serial killers of any green things they didn't plant themselves. We have weed killer, but not fern killer or boxwood killer. What's up with that?

I've seen my neighbor pull up one perfectly good-looking green thing and plant another that looks pretty darn close. I don't get it.

You'll never catch me weeding. Live and let live, I say.

Friends of mine garden (v. trans.) food. They spend hours and get dirty planting fruit and vegetables. Hello! There are people who do this for us. I think they live in Nebraska. Anyway, somehow, they deliver clean, dirt-free, bug-free berries and tomatoes.

I'll admit my brother-in-law's tomatoes taste better than the ones from the truck that comes from Nebraska, or maybe it's Iowa, but my brother-in-law's tomatoes are dirty. I won't touch one until someone else scrubs it clean and cuts it open, lest I find, eeek! a worm.

Worms are even worse than dirt because they can follow you around if they choose, like a wormy guy.

And don't get me started on the birds, often found in gardens, with their high-pitched voices and lack of potty training. Geesh.

There's one garden that I do like. My miniature version. Notice I've labeled the sack, "soil," which is cleaner than dirt. The whole scene is pretty clean, in fact, except for the bloody boots. They probably belong to a gardener who just murdered a weed.

In case you're wondering if I'm really serious about all this anti-gardening stuff, here's a photo of my back yard.

Since I don't like to go outdoors when it's sunny, my husband took it for me. He says the green things are weeds and I believe him.

The other things that are growing there are an FM antenna and a satellite dish.
Garden-wise, I call this serene!

Thanks, Pens Fatales, for letting me play in your garden today!

Camille Minichino is a retired physicist turned writer.

As Camille Minichino she's published eight novels and a short story in the periodic table mystery series, featuring GLORIA LAMERINO.

As Margaret Grace, she's published five novels in the miniature mystery series, featuring GERALDINE PORTER.

As Ada Madison, she's poised to release a new series, academic mysteries featuring SOPHIE KNOWLES.

Visit them all at

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Here Goes Nothing

What's this weeks theme? Gardening? Really? I need to come up with something to say about gardening. Ummm...ok. Nobody blame me for going the "when in doubt, upload all the pictures you can" route.

So, gardening. Um, I don't do it. Nope. I'm no good at it. Don't believe me? Here's a picture of my current dead house plant.

That's what happens to plants when they spend any prolonged period of time around me. Imagine if I tried for a whole garden. It would be unconscionable.

Now, I like gardens, big public gardens. The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is a favorite.

I have a soft spot for the Oakland Rose Garden. I was married there.

I troll the google image looking for photos of long ago, far away gardens to fire up my imagination. Places like this.

                                               And this.

Pretty, right? No doubt cause I'm not in charge of watering them.