Lipstick PlantIn January I watch my garden from the porch, balcony and driveway, and through every window in the house; I study the dead, dormant and living from afar. I check the rosemary and lavender to see how they’re faring. From the bay window they always appear to be surviving.

In winter the frenetic wind chimes and scraping of patio furniture skidding across the deck taunt me. I count the number of cloudy days in a row—twenty-seven—and wish it would snow. I need clean white to cover dead brown and nourish future green. I need snow to entice me outside and crunch underfoot. In winter gardens and some gardeners rest; I’m restless.

Ten years ago I vowed to have a plant in bloom year round, forcing me to garden inside in the winter and startling my houseplants due to the unusual amount of attention they began receiving in the fall. My Christmas cactus blooms for months each year. I set a record in 2013; I mean the cactus set a record—blooming non-stop from mid-November to Easter.

The green and purple shamrocks, Oxalis oregano and Oxalis triangularis, bloom intermittently depending on how often I fertilize them, whack them back when they get leggy, and keep them in bright indirect sunlight. The lipstick plant, Aeschynanthus lobbianus, blooms for several weeks in the fall to early December. The Hawaiian hibiscus, which was a five-inch twig when it arrived in a bubble wrap envelope my mom sent from Hawaii, blooms on tropical time i.e. whenever it feels like it.

There are times I failed; I mean the plants failed and I had to purchase a new plant to avoid a bloom-gap. I divided my fifteen year-old peace lily and it hasn’t bloomed since. The dendrobium orchids produced splendid leaves year after year, same with the amaryllis. I finally transplanted the amaryllis; now it produces two stunning leaves a year outside.

Years ago I purchased an emergency, bloom-gap Kalanchoe. The nursery owner told me the plant was sterile and I may as well throw it in the trash when it finished flowering. I took cuttings from the Kalanchoe and rooted them in water before planting them next to the original plant. Both bloomed six months later. I’ve taken cuttings from the original plant for eight years and used them in dish gardens, window boxes and in the ABC Garden at the Kimberling Area Library Children’s Garden.  (It’s not easy to find a plant that will survive a Missouri summer with a genus that starts with k.)

Winter is Gardener Reading Season. Thirty magazines from 2014 are stacked on my end tables—unread issues of Horticulture, Garden Design, Fine Gardening, HGTV Magazine and Better Homes and Gardens. I usually catch up by February and donate most of the magazines to gardening workshops and the library.

Two periodicals I savor are Baker Creek’s Heirloom Seeds and Rare Seeds Catalogs. Filled with enlightening information, enticing descriptions and page after page of colorful photos with a full spread in the middle, they’re porn for gardeners. Who can resist Fantome Du Laos with its glowing, creamy-white fruit and sweet flavor? How could you say no to Love-In-A-Mist’s wispy, feathery foliage surrounding beautiful blue, white, pink and purplish-blue blooms that date back to English gardens of the 1570’s?

This gardener can’t go on without Japanese Black Trifeles—“Attractive tomatoes the shape and size of a Bartlett pear, with a beautiful purplish-brick color. The fruit are perfect and smooth with no cracks. The flavor is absolutely sublime, having all the flavor of fine chocolate.” Ooh, la, la? Yes.

When I see daffodil shoots push through the soil from the living room windows in early February, the houseplants start to lose their allure and the magazines and catalogs return to being inanimate objects. I drop my restlessness at the front door and I’m in the garden to uncover the first bit of green emerging from every plant in the new season.



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SweetFlagThere’s a mysterious track by the Sweet Flag. It’s eight feet long, two inches wide and a half-inch deep. It looks as if a one-legged chair was dragged across the soil. I didn’t ask the man who tried to catch an armadillo with pink, yellow and green marshmallows why he’d drag a broken chair through the garden. There’s no need to irritate RJ with Christmas around the corner.

I called my Master Gardener guru friend to discuss the new track. She promptly dispatched the chair-dragging theory. “It could be a snake track although most indigenous snakes are hibernating now. Are the sides of the track smooth? Does it curve?”

I put my cell on speaker and crawled beside the track. “Some snake,” I shouted towards the phone, “the track widens to six inches by the dianthus and it’s not smooth; it’s messy. There’s mulch scattered everywhere. Mowgli had a snack.”

“It’s not a snake,” Kathryn said.

I shuddered “It’s not a snake?”

“Do you see any tracks?”

“I just told you about the track,” I said.

“No,” Kathryn replied patiently. “I mean tracks as in an arma…”

“Just don’t,” I said as four smudges in the dirt coalesced into the easily identifiable prints. “That damn ‘dillo’s supposed to dead. Or hopefully hibernating with venomous snakes.”

“I doubt it’s the same armadillo,” Kathryn replied.

I knew it was the same beady-eyed garden destroyer; the year round bane of my outdoor existence. He was nicknamed DD for two reasons: he was a damn ‘dillo and he was a dumb ‘dillo. “The worms and grubs are hibernating, Kathryn. Our armadillo’s the only ‘dillo dumb enough to be hunting worms and grubs in December.”

My friend murmured something about a lack of scientific reasoning when it came to armadillos before she hung up.

Later in the afternoon RJ discovered uprooted Sedum ‘Blue Spruce’ by the Vinca minor. I watched him follow the trail, picturing him tipping back a one-legged chair. RJ said, “I might have better luck trapping him now when food’s scarce.”

“Good idea,” I said, turning my head to the right, fervently hoping today’s Nor’easter would turn into an unprecedented Missouri Midwesterner.

“I’m not going to kill him if that’s what you’re worried about,” RJ said.

“I’m worried about how many times you think you’ve killed the armadillo and the trap’s busted. Would you like a new one for Christmas?”

“Sure, as long there’s a new iMac Retina Display inside.”

I watched two Chickadees and a Titmouse fly back and forth from the bird-feeder on the front porch to the closest hickory tree, noting my neighbor’s gorgeous outdoor Christmas decor and a fake pumpkin hiding behind a viburnum in my garden. I was picking up the pumpkin, which I’d overlooked during my fall/Thanksgiving cleanup two weeks ago when RJ said, “Remember the duck recipe Grandpa Boyle told your dad about?”

“Yes, but what does a duck recipe have to do with armadillos?”

“Your dad said the recipe could be used for armadillos.”

“Dad was joking, RJ.”

“Just listen—your dad said your grandfather’s discourse on the duck recipe took twenty minutes because of the way Grandpa Boyle meandered. Your dad lost focus and wasn’t really paying attention…”

I laughed and said, “until the end of the recipe. Grandpa Boyle took his time, telling Dad to put the duck on a board and season it with ¼ t. of salt, pepper and paprika, and oh, not to forget a ½ t. of thyme, lemon peel, rosemary, sea salt, oregano, basil, celery seed and a ½ cup of bacon bits and onion flakes. Grandpa said to bake and rotate the body every five minutes, sometimes cooking it at 250 degrees and sometimes at 350 degrees. To keep baking the duck until very well done, even charred around the edges. At that point you throw away the duck and eat the board. Nobody in my family could cook duck properly.”

“I think that would be a fitting end for the armadillo. Don’t you?” RJ asked.

Even if RJ trapped the DD, I wasn’t serious about actually turning him to toast. Besides, he’d probably survive being broiled. “Tell you what, RJ. When you capture the armadillo, I’ll be in charge of cooking.”

RJ nodded.  “That’s a great idea because nobody will be surprised when the recipe is ruined.”






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tomatoesBefore I could cover my ears, Ron Hearst of KY3 News said two nasty words. He announced a killing frost would occur Halloween night; as if October 31st wasn’t scary enough without Jack Frost creeping around the yard taking out plants.

“Boo, Ron. How about a little notice?”

“Are you talking to me?” RJ yelled from upstairs.

“Can’t hear you,” I said, even though I could. “You’re yelling at me from upstairs.” (RJ says he can’t hear me when I yell from upstairs, which is true when his hearing issues are flaring up.) I walked to the bottom of the staircase and said, “I’m talking to Ron Hearst. It’s going to freeze tonight.”

A muffled “I know” came from the upstairs bathroom.

“You know? How long have you known there could be a killing frost tonight?”

“Since Monday when they started talking about it.”

“And ‘they’ are?”

“My coworkers, the mail lady, the weathermen. You should watch the news sometime.”

“I pay attention to the news,” I said, “but not necessarily the local news. Besides, I have five weather apps on my phone and I just stopped wearing shorts two weeks ago.  There are summer flowers blooming in the garden. If it’s going to freeze, I have to prune the Hawaiian hibiscus and move it inside, wash the houseplants and move them inside, harvest the tomatoes, peppers, basil, cilantro, sage, lemon thyme, lavender, rosemary…” I glanced at the clock, “and I have two hours until it gets dark.”

RJ hurried to his computer and studied several graphs and weather reports. “The weather service says there’s a freeze warning down Highway 65 to the Arkansas line. We’re included.”

“You’re one hundred percent certain our county is included? I don’t want to pick unripe tomatoes and peppers if I don’t have to.”

RJ gave me his expressionless face. “I have a show tonight. You’ll have to figure it out.”

“Fu-udge,” I said softly. “Guess I know what I’m doing tonight.” (In certain situations like this one, the “udge” sounds like “uck”.)

“Sorry,” RJ said. “I’ll cover the lettuce and broccoli when I get home.”

“They do okay in cold weather but thank you.”

I went to the closet and looked at the coats with disgust, choosing a windbreaker before gathering scissors, a Sharpie, pruners, Ziploc bags for freeze-drying herbs, pots and potting soil for begonia cuttings, my flower press, paper bags for drying herbs upside down, Lysol to clean pots and gin, vermouth and olives for fortitude.

After carving one eye and two eyebrows in a pumpkin, I carried a huge Boston fern inside, leaving a trail of fronds and dirt from the kitchen door to my bedroom. I vacuumed and cut flowers for my press. At 6:45 p.m. I turned on the outside lights and grabbed a Black and Decker Lantern from the utility room.

At 8:00 p.m. I handed out candy to four trick-or-treaters, ate the last olive from my martini and warmed up homemade split pea soup. I  exchanged my windbreaker for my down parka and returned to the garden—I think it was my garden—to pick peppers and harvest herbs. It was 10:30 when I threw the tools, supplies and remaining plants and cuttings in a heap on my potting bench in the garage.

RJ covered the lettuce and broccoli with old blankets around midnight.

I woke up November 1st and rushed downstairs to check the damage. The Angelonia, mums and hacked-off herbs were fine.  The pepper and tomato plants were cream-of-mush. “What was that?” I said. “A hit and miss killing frost? A Halloween joke?”

RJ shrugged. “A discriminatory frost? Most of the annuals are toast. Of course the cold crops are fine. It’s probably because we live in a micro-climate here by the lake.”

“I know where we live but do you know what this means?”

“Yes Ma’am—fried green tomatoes for dinner.”

“Don’t call me Ma’am. It makes me sound old.”

“Okay, Miss Julie,” RJ said.

“Not sure I hear you, Richard,” I replied.


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Miniature gnome under Japanese painted fernThree years ago a Master Gardener described my garden as eclectic, semi-formal cottage. She toured my garden last year and said it looked wonderful considering I was raising my three-year-old granddaughter and advocating for a sibling group of six foster children. (A seventh sibling was born this year.)

As I’ve mentioned, my garden was featured on several garden tours, the last in 2011 when our youngest child had been out of the home for five years. There wasn’t a weed in sight or a bud that dared not open as nearly a hundred people wandered around the garden discussing plants and garden design. Candace Clark, a renowned regional artist, used brushes and oil paint to transplant dianthus and lilies to canvas.

I wouldn’t mind if the people who viewed my garden on the tours stopped by today. I’d have to run crime scene tape around the woodchuck burrow to prevent broken ankles. I mean the fox den. Our neighbor was walking his dog several nights ago and said his dog started barking and chased after a fox. The fox ran into the woodchuck’s burrow.

This tour will be a DIY tour because I’ll be hiding in the Red-tipped photinias and crape myrtles to gauge reactions to the upright twigs and sticks placed in uneven lines and half-circles by the pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) and miniature roses. I’ll be keeping count of the eye rolls and grimaces when the cutesy frog, bunny and gnome “statues” are observed under the coral bells (heuchera) and Japanese painted fern.

I hope folks appreciate the new garden additions—the fairy houses, big wheel, trike, buckets, scoops, bubbles, bug house, jump rope, hula hoop, Disney Princess trowels, gloves and garden rakes. Perhaps I’ll need hazard signs but I doubt it; these kid accouterments are all Day-Glo pink, orange, purple and yellow.

Those who don’t compliment Eden’s sparkle chalk drawings on the garage wall and truck, who celebrate their birthdays but don’t remember being a kid, will be diagnosed with long-term memory loss. When the terra cotta pot succulent garden is spotted on the hood of the car, the floral rain gauge sculpture (minus the glass measurement tube) discovered on top of the lilac bush, the iron butterfly sculpture located upside down in the birdbath planter, giving the appearance of a dead blackbird; there will be screams, from me.

My fellow Master Gardeners may be surprised to find me hiding in the crape myrtle bed; it’s one of only four weed-free beds in the garden. Most would be curious about the holes in the uneven bed. I had no trouble finding the cause. I caught my grandchildren and two neighbor children digging for bugs. My heart rate climbed while RJ explained he’d given the kids permission to “gently” turn the soil.

I muttered in my outdoor voice as I marched to the kids. I told them they could tromp around and dig to their hearts content in the English ivy bed. Sure the ground was hard as a rock but hard ground needs to be worked and they have lots of energy. RJ said they were too young to wield pic axes.

Naturally the insects the kids dug out of the weed-free bed died in their bughouse sanctuary. I dumped their bodies back in the bed and consoled myself with the thought that they were enriching the (disturbed) soil. The next day there were more holes and the bughouse was full of squiggling earthworms, snails, potato bugs and caterpillars. I released all but the snails in my square foot garden after Eden fell asleep. (Did anybody care enough to release the bugs trapped in my bughouse when I was little?)

It rained again last night. After RJ mows the lawn this afternoon, I’ll redirect the kids to their new digging spot in the nicest section of grass.  I’m going to hide in the red-tipped photinias and crape myrtles and gauge RJ’s reaction.

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Cover of Felicity & Barbara PymAuthor Harrison Solow’s creative genius is apparent, and cleverly cloaked in her genre-defying novel Felicity & Barbara Pym. The story is told through Professor Mallory Cooper’s one-sided correspondence with her student Felicity, who’s considering a liberal arts degree without considering the context of literature. Felicity is intrigued by her esteemed professor’s extraordinary life, and her own media-bottled notions of Hollywood.

Professor Cooper employs the novels of underrated English author, Barbara Pym, and a cornucopia of witty, erudite opinions and subjects —weak male characters, word derivations, mousy women, academic posers, religious assumptions, prejudiced poetry, the significance of clothing in novels and the intangibility of fame—to entice (and boot) Felicity out of her teenage status quo.

Harrison Solow removes the reader’s literary boundaries without the reader realizing she placed an eraser in their hands. Felicity & Barbara Pym is a proof of the unification theory the author refers to in the book’s preface in which “seemingly unrelated facts or principles can coalesce into a magnificently unified microcosm, wherein all components balance beautifully, harmoniously and usefully with the application of appreciation to knowledge.”

Readers of all levels and circumstance need to keep a pad of paper and pencil handy while reading Felicity & Barbara Pym. Long after they’ve finished the novel, the majority will still be on the path placed by Solow in her tuition-free, DIY literary tour de force.



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