pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: indoor garden


forsythia snow

it’s come to this:

starved, hungry, every pore of our souls aching for release from the waning soot-sodden days of winter, i slide into sloppy old boots. clippers in hand, clippers that haven’t been shaken from their deep winter slumber in too long a while, i trudge across the ice-crusted snows. crunch-crunch goes the sound of my footfall. i pass bumper crops of pellets, rabbit pellets, i presume, and splashes of blood-orange whose origins i can’t bear to ponder. they’re the scant signs of life here in the tundra that is my back garden.

i’m on a mission. a mission to bring on an awakening, a seasonal awakening. and if i need to indulge in trickery, in prestidigitation with clippers, well then, that’s what i’m signed on to do.

it’s simple enough, this magic trick: trudge to your nearest forsythia bush, snip at the neck, all those long-limbed branches that, at this point in the year, look like little more than so many tangled sticks.

ah, but look and look closely: see the nubs tucked close to the stick, the tiniest hands clasped in prayer? those are the wee little blooms in the making, the sepal and stamen all huddled together, awaiting their cue. their cue of course comes from the sun, its angle and surge. any day now, the globe will have spun far enough, aligned us with just where we need to be for the vernal awakening.

but sometimes you just can’t wait. you need to get out there with clippers and boots and hurry it up, put gas to the seasonal pedal. (even when you preach the gospel of savoring the slow march of time.)

oh, there are signs that springtime is coming. they’re trickling in, a bit more by the day. i’ve heard it in birdsong. the birds aren’t checking their date books, aren’t awaiting the thaw. they’re warbling their vernal love-making hearts out, because that’s what you do when your DNA insists you perpetuate the species. you make it your job to whistle up an egg-laying mate. or at least someone with whom you can coo in the cold. and the light? the light is purer, less blue, more white. it’s straining to gather full steam — or something more zaftig than the pale arctic puff that’s kept us shivering in our cotton-lined boots.

my mama, of course, taught me this trick, and her mother before her, most likely. i might come from a long line of seasonal tricksters, miscreants of natural ilk.

it’s called forcing, and it’s plain old alchemy of life: warmth + water = blossoming. and it goes something like this: trudge. snip. fetch. plunk in water, warm water. wait. bloom. voila, you have forced.

i looked up the word force. it’s not pretty. it cropped up in the 14th century, with roots in old french. forcer, “conquer by violence.” egad. guilty as charged, me and my sharp-toothed clippers. too hungry to wait for the seasonal rotisserie to turn up its offerings in natural rhythm.

no, i had to conquer by violence, if snipping a branch at the neck is deemed a violent act (and if you were a bush you’d certainly say so).

and if dragged into the court of seasonal acceleration, i’d plea for a wee bit of compassion. i’d try to explain that here in the wee days of march, here when we’ve indulged in the season of winter with its depths and certain deprivations, we can’t help but respond to the seasonal tug, the one that pulls us, yanks us, into the next chapter. it’s akin to the itch that sometimes finds us leaping ahead in the steamiest novel, to peek at how the story unfolds, who marries whom in the end, and whose days are numbered.

my winter, you see, has taken a serious turn for the dregs in the last couple weeks. people i love are suffering, are scared, are facing the darkest of days.

i’m so itchy for light i won’t be surprised if i strip down to my bare naked legs and pull out a chair to soak up the lamest, the flimsiest of rays. in my snow-laden yard that would be.

but the light that i seek, truth be told, is the light that shines in the soul. illumination of the deepest kind. i pretty much stumble through days  — from hour to hour — with the words of my pleas and incantations rising up from my lips. there is so much to be prayed for. there’s so much at stake.

and that, in part, is what drew me to clomp through the snows, to clip what the old bush had offered. “here’s your rare chance at the promise of spring,” it whispered. and i answered. with clippers.

forsythia table

dear chairs, are you too going a bit batty by now? are you aching for the stirrings of spring? oh, for the day when the wee slips of green poke their hard heads through the soft crust of earth.

so what might be the seasonal rites and holy vespers you indulge in to beckon the resurgence of soul?


herbs in winter, er, spring

okay, so five minutes ago it was winter. and most likely, another three and it’ll be winter again. last week at this time, out my window, it was the arctic tundra. only thing missing was the mush dogs.

now, it’s a vast ocean of blkkh. isthmuses of scant white surrounded by sog (the ground when it’s turning to sponge). small continents of sooty dirt gray melting inch by inch into more sog.

but the slant of the sun, and the scant touch of warm in its rays, sends message to brain cells: stay alert. there might be an end to the winter.

now i might be an avowed winter baby, love nothing so much as a warm woolen sweater, my nose pressed to the glass, watching the cotton puffs fall from the sky. but even the winteriest among us need a small pharmacopoeia of sorts to get through.

my elixir of choice, the one i take daily, multiple times a day if i can, is the herb. not dried in a bottle. not crumbly inside of a jar. but real and alive, bright green on my sill.

i’m telling you the thing that gets me through winter, the thing that keeps red blood in my veins, is the three pots of herbs that grow just to the west of my faucet.

they keep me, well, green. i snip and i sprinkle all winter. i am plowing deep into faux summer, even if only through the gardeny taste that swirls on my tongue. fresh and just picked, right here in the months of the snows.

i bite into the clean of cilantro. i melt for the tender tendrils of thyme. i spice things up with my ruffly basil.

i make believe it’s my garden. i clip and i water. i turn to the rays of the sun, so my herbs they can be coaxed to trigger the chlorophyll. (or however that works.)

but still, i am sorry to say, with regular regularity, my herb pots they shrivel and die. i might get a few weeks out of the basils. the lavender rarely lasts a few days. and the thyme it takes time before it turns crumbly and brown. not unlike those herbs in the bottles. but eventually it indeed turns to crumbly.

and i, sisyphean in style and psyche, i trod a path right back to the produce patch at my grocery. pluck myself one more pot of basil at $2.29. not a high price for midwinter sanity. if in fact it’s keeping me sane. (those around me might tell you it’s not.)

i do know it’s keeping me pink–pink in the cheek, pink in the heart. i eat them for breakfast and dinner. snip them on cheese on my toast. toss with abandon into the stew. adorn like a madwoman each plate, basil poking from the mashed potatoes, thyme branches strewn like the wreath of a hero atop the breast of the chicken.

and if i manage time for some lunch, i eat them then too. i reach in the drawer for my kitchen shears, pretend that i’m clipping an orchard of espaliered apple when only it’s a 4-inch expanse of basil, or the lone stem of lemony balm.

if you’ve been poking around here awhile you might have noticed a trend: i am a girl who leans heavy on growing things. i am a girl who needs gardens. even in the dark days of winter.

so i strongly advise (and i’m not one for advising) that if you can, if you don’t mind the suggestion, you dash to the store, any old supermarket, and you buy the start of your garden.

these herbs, they have history. it’s not like they’ve just been invented. they’ve been around for a very long time, and they seem to have a solid reputation for making for all sorts of miracles.

a quick run through the herbalist, in alphabetical order:

basil, they gave as house gifts in renaissance england because, well, it kept the house flies away.

bay they once planted to protect from lightning strikes. the caesars were certain it kept conspiracies, hmm, at bay. in the 1700s, in england, it was thought to do in the devil. the priestesses of apollo chewed a wad of the stuff before spewing a prophesy. not long after, wise folk prescribed placing it under your pillow to bring on dreams, prescient in nature.

chervil, a sure cure for hiccups. sipped in a tea, that is. (sipped in a broth on holy thursday, it reminded the sippers of the resurrection of christ. says so right here in a book.)

coriander is one of which to be careful. ol’ pliny, the first-century agrarian, cautioned against too much of the seed, which he found had narcotic tendencies.

dill, diluted in water, is the thing to soothe colicky babies.

lemon balm is a tad schizophrenic. on the one hand, it was recommended to scholars to sharpen their memory; on the other hand, it was doled out to insomniacs who found slumber in its sleep-inducing powers.

marjoram, thought to have been touched by venus, is big in the love potion department. italians bunched it in nosegays and gave it away to banish sadness. how lovely.

mint will whiten your teeth.

oregano is boldly medicinal, prescribed over the ages for everything from toothaches to opium addiction.

parsley was first eaten by romans; the greeks long before them made wreaths for weddings and sports games, but only fed it to horses.

rosemary, get this, was put under the nuptial mattress to a.) increase faithfulness, and b.) keep away insects and mildew. who knew?

tarragon, thought to fight off fatigue, was slipped into shoes in the middle ages just before trodding off on a pilgrimage. a pre-cursor to dr. scholl, i suppose.

lastly comes thyme, an all-purpose herb if ever there was one. athenians made liquors of it, bathed in it, burned it in temples. egyptians embalmed with it. i thought it was good on my cottage cheese.

and so, there you go, an alphabet of herbs for your daily consumption. grow them. sniff them. stuff them under your mattress. not a bad sport for the winter.

now, i was going to share a little herb recipe here. i had oh so many choices. but i swear i’ve run out of room. so i promise, the lazy susan this weekend, will proudly display one of these choices. you get to vote. 1. sage apple cake. 2. baked snapper with onion and balm. 3. simple tomato sauce. all courtesy of “herbs in the kitchen: a celebration of flavor,” by carolyn dille (i’m not making that up) and susan belsinger. vote and vote often. this is chicago, you know…..

urging on the equinox

“hey, lady, what’s with the sticks? what’s with the sticks sticking straight up from the glass?”

i can hear you saying that. hear you thinking, oh my she’s gone mad, here in the unrelenting arctic of winter.

mais, non.

it’s just the latest of my little home experiments to grope for the rope, to pull through this dark tunnel of white, white and more white. and cold. did i mention the cold, barreling once again at us from up where the polar bears roam?

those sticks, friends, are not just any sticks. they are the sticks of the forsythia, a flowering shrub, a cloud of pure lemony yellow, whose very name, it seems, begs us to force, to force spring to bloom.

force me, the forsythia beckons.

and my mama–the true keeper of these sorts of knowledge–she reminded me, tapped me on the shoulder, said, “don’t forget the forsythia.”

february, apparently, is prime time for forsythia. for the forcing of sticks in general. forcing them into bloom, that is. rather than forcing though, i like to think that i’m coaxing, i’m urging, i’m begging a break in the please-bloom-for-me department.

so, intent on seducing some spring from my sticks, i trudged out through the deep drifts of the snows, felco no. 2 pruners in hand. looking like some kind of a nut case–once again–i dodged and i darted, all around the forsythia bush. i clipped a long one here, a not-so-long one over there, going always for the sticks with the big balls of nubs. those would be blooms in the making.

once i made for the house, and dunked them in water, of course.

now, being the daughter of a woman who merely cuts and plunks in warm water, no muss and no fuss, i, decidedly different, decided i needed to research this task.

i consulted a few books, did a little digging online. and these are the 10 commandments i came up with:

1.) do not cut before february 1, the l’il sticks need to slumber on ol’ mama bush. if they haven’t had sufficient sleep, out in the cold, they won’t even think of opening their lids.

2.) when you’re out at the bush, cutting like a madperson, try if you can to cut on an angle. apparently this gives the stick more of a throat for guzzling water–once you and your sticks are inside.

3.) speaking of madpersons, one tome tells to use a hammer (once sticks are cut, obviously), to smash the poor ends of the stick, the last inch or two only, as if this too will give the poor stick more capacity for taking in fluids. eesh.

4.) okay, once in from the snows, try very hard to imagine it’s spring, and then, you creative devil, you, try to recreate it, there in the cold and the drafts of your sweet little house.

5.) for best blooming, do not plunk your sticks straight in the vase, the books tell me, but rather submerge them in a tub of cool water. for 24 hours. (be careful to step around them when you step into the shower, should that be the tub of submersion.) if you haven’t a bath for your sticks, misting, they tell us, will do. mist like a rainforest though. mist with reckless abandon.

6.) once soaked, but not soggy, your sweet little sticks are ready to stand and perform.

7.) find a spot, sunny and warm, but not straight in the glare or the heat of the sun. (the sun, remember, that big yellow star allegedly on the payroll for purposes of keeping us warm? ha.)

8.) change the water every few days. our little sticks do not like drinking water turned mucky.

9.) one final tip: if any blooms start to bloom under water, dispense with those blooms. they are so much fodder for bacteria, the books tell me, and they’ll do in the whole bunch much sooner.

10.) stand back and admire. in less than two weeks, more likely just one, you’ll have a whole shock of spring blooming there on your ledge.

now, here’s the part where i come clean: i broke at least two and a half of those commandments, two venial sins and one half of a mortal one. i did not cut on an angle, i did not hammer the heck out of my sticks, and i did not soak in the tub, not with my sticks i did not. being at least a little bit of my mother’s daughter, i pretty much ran in the house, misted, and dunked. and the misting i only did after the fact, after i culled the whole list of commandments.

but you know what? it’s only been a few short days since i was out nipping away with my pruners. and, truth be told once again, i was a serious doubter. oh, yes, i was willing to play along with this forcing of spring, but i really couldn’t imagine that i had on my hands much besides a nice bunch of sticks in a vase. i was the skeptical queen of the sticks.

well, you can already guess where i’m going here: those sweet little sticks, at three days and counting, are already performing. where once there was brown and more brown, no life in sight, suddenly there is green. the softest, tenderest most vernal green. all up and down. all over those sticks.

the sticks, they are telling me: do not give up. do not lose hope. spring it is coming; it’s clinging and waiting on a stick that’s well within your grasp.

the show is unfolding. i have a sense it’s one i don’t want to miss. and i hope, neither do you.

p.s. not only forsythia are willing to bring on the equinox early; february is the month to beg a few branches of the crab apple, cherry, almond or plum, japanese quince, pussy willow, rhododendron, azalea, and the serviceberry. don’t give up hope. plenty bloom in a mere week or two. cherry, almond and plum should bloom in two to four weeks; japanese quince could take four; rhododendron and azalea might take four to six weeks. but that still beats march 21, the day the world turns to spring.

little miss hyacinth

hmm. when last we left little miss hyacinth she was asleep at the back of the fridge, tucked back by the leftover spaghetti and the butter-under-cow.

she had, just before last dispatch (“honey, what’s that growing in the fridge?” 12.14.06), been rescued from the deep recesses of the laundry room. where she had unwittingly, and against her deepest desires, been wrongly abandoned. there on a shelf with the holiday wrappings and curlicue ribbons.

what did i know about hyacinths? i was, still am, a hyacinth virgin. when the little cheat sheet that i carried home with her told me to leave said bulb in a cool, dark place, i thought the back of the storage room was as good as it gets.

i was wrong.

so i righted my ways—once shown the light by my bulb lady friend.

i fetched poor miss hyacinth, hoisted her up from the cellar and into the back of the fridge. where she sat, nestled alongside her leftover neighbors, sinking her tush in a bath of cold water, soaking up all that she needed, all that she wanted, so she could let rip a tangle of white waxy roots.

i don’t know about you, but if i sat in cold water for a month and a day i might go on some sort of a strike. a protest, you know. a no-growth, no-how, sort of horticultural tirade.

hmm. seems that she might have.

friends, little miss hyacinth has been out of the fridge for a full 11 days now, and barely a peep has she made. her green leaves, they are tight. her buds-in-the-making, they are pursed and determined. she seems, by all measures, hellbent on not moving.


remember how our bulb lady friend likened the big red amaryllis to that teenage boy who had no desire to move ’til he was good and well ready (“red triumphant” 1.18.07)?

well, meet little miss prissy hyacinthy who seems to be the bulb equivalent of the teenage girl who has locked herself in the bathroom for hours on end, swiping mascara, dabbing gloss here and there, sweeping cobalt-blue blush all over her most striking cheekbones.

we have been banging on that bathroom door for days now. but she won’t answer. won’t come out. won’t even humor us with a note slipped under the transom.

by even the worst prognostications, she was, by now, supposed to be strutting her stuff, perfuming the daylights out of the kitchen. but nooooooo. here we are bounding toward february and she is in there doing god-only-knows-what with her girlie-girl bag of botanical tricks.

so we just thought we’d let you in on the big bulby letdown. and tell you that little miss hyacinth seems to have turned into some sort of behind-closed-doors balled-up prima donna.

we’ve little to do here but leave her there on the sill. we shove her toward sunlight. we whisper sweet nothings. it’s useless, it seems.

so we slump by the door and we wait and we wait. she’ll be out as soon as she runs out of mascara.

p.s. and meanwhile, ol’ stud boy amaryllis, mr. red buds on long tall stout stalk, is putting the rest of the winter garden to shame. he’s up to six, count ‘em six, trumpets on high. the boy, finally roused, is running and running the bases. long past home, he’s back over to second. (if you can do such a thing in baseball…) maybe he’s showing off so little miss hyacinth will come out of her shell.

red triumphant

like a recalcitrant boy in the corner, my amaryllis it did nothing. day after day–nothing. not a sprout or a shoot or a peep.


so much so that at one point i thought it a dud. a firecracker without fizzle. i’m not one to chuck things, but this baby was nudging me in a corner.

tucked in the loamy soils the day after thanksgiving, it sat idle straight through advent. i had done what it wanted: gave it light. gave it space. even replaced the cheap green plastic pot that it came with, with a sporty red aluminum bucket. what more could an amaryllis want?

apparently, time.

‘bout the third week into this non-adventure, when i had decided its sole purpose in life was to take up a chunk of my corner, place holding forever, i put in a call to the bulb lady; you’ve met her before here, jennifer brennan, my life coach on all things dug in the ground.

well, says jennifer, laughing, “amaryllis, i’ve said for years, are kind of like teenage boys.

“it’s gonna grow when it wants to, and the only thing it’s going to please is itself.

“might be christmas, or valentine’s day, or easter. no way to know.”

hmmm, i said, eyeing my adolescent boy with the green tip popping out of the pot.

okay, then, so i’ll wait.

considered blaring some tunes. but then figured the ones that i’d pick would be so out of date, the poor thing would stay hunkered in soils just to spite me.

so i went on with my life. cast ever-so-casual a glance off to the corner. but not too often, and only when the teenage bulb was not looking.

and then, well after christmas, somewhere around epiphany, appropriately enough, the ol’ boy decided to stretch. must have been getting out of bed sometime in the mid-afternoon. like my own 13-year-old only dreams of being able to do.

it stretched and it stretched, inspiring hope, hinting at joy. if i waited. if i did little but sprinkle the occasional few drops of water.

and then, oh my lord, what had been one stalk turned into two. and what had been one amaryllis-in-the-making on one of those stalks turned into two, too. do the math, and it looks like we might be in for a three-ring circus.

yesterday, all day, it was like watching the teenager suddenly decide there was someplace to go. every time i turned around that red trumpet was blaring a few extra notes.

and then, when i walked in the door after the ol’ car had died and my key ring exploded all over the parking lot, losing a key in the process, i shot a glance in the corner and my heart did a dance.

just when i needed it most, the ol’ boy he was blaring. mouth wide. tonsils dangling. if he’d been a sick teenage boy, i could have swabbed the germs right out of his lungs, he was so open wide.

i stood there and marveled. he had moved when he wanted to, all right, but somehow–in that magical, mysterious way of the world–his moving came just when i needed it most.

his sidekicks, they’re opening as i type. by nightfall i could have three teenage boys out there, all carrying on wildly. all carrying on, red.

and i, as their long-awaiting mama, could not be more tickled. they are, in the end, red triumphant, oh so triumphantly red.

anyone out there waiting and waiting for triumph, triumph in any color? anyone with a tale of life unfolding on a time table all of its own?