Attention to Detail in All Things

digital illustrationI’m far from being the world’s best gardener. I may have the perfect skill set as a lazy dilettante, loving the design process and having a tremendous appreciation for all of the non-laborious joys of a garden, whether it’s well tended or not. A bark-boring beetle or a sculptural skeletonized leaf can be as beautiful as any spectacular, pristine lily or a lilac’s heady bloom. A moss-choked stone path is as glorious as a graceful fountain encircled by perfect tea roses and rosemary. And I have had quite the aversion to trench digging, rock picking and weeding ever since I was old enough to be conscripted by my parents for the purpose.

But I also know that if a garden is to have any hope of continuity and flourishing in flower, it needs occasional attention to such details, at the least, from Nature’s seemingly random hand. The gusts and waterings, composting and tillage performed by her weather and her handyman crew of creatures all do their parts in keeping the landscape in beautiful form. Even better chance of thriving if I do my part, too, having noticed what details might better prosper under my attentions, however slight they might be.

I was reminded of it recently as I watched a family make their valiant attempt at getting a group portrait. Flanked by grandparents, the parents stood holding their two little boys: Dad, in back, held the eight month old and Mom, ahead, wrangled the three-year-old. No one seemed able to get the normally placid toddler in front to hold still for even one quick photo, or to understand why he was so unusually squirmy, until someone finally noticed what I could see better from my side angle: that the baby was cheerily leaning forward at intervals and yanking his big brother’s hair. Detail noticed, problem solved. Had that adorable little scalawag been able to keep up the practice, I have little doubt there would’ve been need, eventually, for an expulsion from that particular little Eden.

I, meanwhile, must try to keep after my own gardens, the real and the metaphorical, and make sure the little buzzing creatures and weeds don’t get too far out of illustration

Foodie Tuesday: Something Completely Different

It’s not just a trademark Monty Python phrase; sometimes in cookery it’s worthwhile and enjoyable to veer off and say it’s time for Something Completely Different. I’m not talking about molecular gastronomy, because I have neither the knowledge nor the patience to imagine and execute anything quite so transformative, but it can certainly be useful and even tasty to rethink the what-I’ve-always-done approach from time to time.photoMaking broth as often as I do, I’m regularly faced with the aftermath of it in the form of tiny meat scraps, softened bones and mush-cooked vegetables and think it a pity to waste anything that might be salvageable. So a little while ago I got intrigued by seeing what I might do better with this stuff than merely throwing it out.

First thought was that bones are bulky yet biodegradable objects that, in a landfill, will take up a hunk of space there a lot longer than, say, those of a decaying creature left to the elements would do. And that, coincidentally, a soil amendment and critter-control element often required for good gardens is bone meal. So I dried out the bones thoroughly and set them out in a safely remote corner of the yard where the compost heap lives. Waste not, and all that.

More to the culinary point, I thought it silly to toss out all of the vegetable leftovers of the process when, though they will certainly have given up some of their nutrients to the broth, will probably also have gained some back from their fellow ingredients along the way, so they oughtn’t to have lost all of their nutritional worth in the cooking. The carrots are the only members of the party that haven’t mostly melted to nothingness in my usual broth process and can be individually retrieved, so I picked them out of the strained ingredients, along with a few small pieces of celery and onion, and pureed them with just a touch of added broth and a pinch of salt, and had a nice, faintly savory pudding.photoAdding some juice-packed mandarin orange segments (reserving the juice for later use elsewhere) made it into a really tasty little side dish of comfort food with very little effort. Warming some black raspberry jam and drizzling it on top of the pudding or swirling it in made it into an even jazzier little light dessert. The contrast of the punchy colors was matched by the contrasts in savory and sweet, in the soft pudding and bursting orange sections and the tiny crunches from the berry montageAll that was left for reinvention from the broth straining was the marrow and meat that, while not enough to make a meal alone, still filled a bowl with beefy goodness. It was clearly too soft to be especially attractive as a pot roast sort of thing, let alone a plated slice of anything recognizable as meat. Paté came to mind. Heck, I’d already had the stick blender busy to make my carrot pudding, so why not put it to further use on the day? The beef bits, along with a couple of hefty tablespoonfuls of butter, a half teaspoon or so of salt, and a little broth to make it workable, got pureed into a smooth, buttery spread that waits in the freezer for the time when it will be thawed, chilled in a ramekin, and served with crackers or toast, cornichons and cocktails, just as though I were an ideal 1960s magazine housewife. Well, I grew up in the ’60s and I’m a homemaker; close enough.


It may not look like much, but as a poor-man’s fois gras it’s dreamier than you might think. I like to think of myself in a similar fashion, ’60s housewife or not. Wink-wink.

Foodie Tuesday: Composed vs Composted

Many things that taste delicious don’t exactly look as dreamy as they are to eat. Of course, anyone who has eaten in a reasonable number of high-end dining establishments knows that what does look impressive may not live up to its pretensions sometimes, too. But it’s worth trying, at least when serving guests, to make the food look appetizing as well as tasting great, and if guests deserve the respect, why shouldn’t we give it to ourselves?photoWhen I’m cooking in my DIY (more accurately translated in food terms as ‘Dish It Yourself’) mode for varied appetites and needs, it limits what I can do in terms of presentation a little more than usual, but in some ways it can simplify it, too: as long as I’m not dealing with allergy, I can serve foods in proximity that I know not every one will want in the same mix or proportions. So ‘composed’ presentation and ‘deconstructed’ dishes can be a fine and fun way to create something that looks more attractive and inviting than if I go ahead and blend all of the meal’s parts before serving. Case in point: this quinoa concoction, which is basically a confetti-like mishmash if stirred all together before serving, whereas if I simply keep the ingredients a little more separate when plating it all up, suddenly it looks ever so much more like an artful arrangement and a come-hither dish–which is more in keeping with its being a pretty tasty collation, by my standards. So yes, I did even make the pretty composed version when I was the only person showing up at the table. I really do like me that much.photoStrawberry Quinoa Salad

The ingredients for this are quite simple and, as I prefer, completely flexible in terms of trading items in or out of the group and setting the proportions. In this instance, I used the following combination: quinoa cooked in bone broth, sliced ripe strawberries, butter toasted sliced almonds, cubed fresh mozzarella, diced yellow tomato, and minced fresh basil and mint leaves. I kept it all at room temperature and dressed it with my balsamic mint vinaigrette (balsamic vinegar, melted mint jelly, a spoonful of pureed fresh cilantro leaves, and macadamia nut oil blended to taste) and a pinch of crunchy Maldon sea salt, and all together, it was Just Right. And pretty, too. Still and all, when I ate the other half of the salad the next day after having stirred it all together, it was just as good to eat. Guess I’m not too hung up on appearances after all.

Eschatology meets Scatology without Apology

photoParting Gift

No leaf is greener than the rising blade

Of grass over the grave where I am laid

I, who in life was fitted in this wise:

So full of $h!t as born to fertilize–

Useless in life, perhaps, but still of worth

In death, as food to feed a hungry earth;

Now blooms adorn my plot in dazzling wave,

Rejoicing in the cr@p that fills my grave–

Howe’er a rotter I, when breathing air,

At last as corpse I do my earthly share,

Delighting all the butterflies and birds

With brilliant lilies compost-fed by tu®d$–

Yea, e’en this sewage soul is heaven-sent:

Earth’s beauty’s nourished well by èxcrémê

Better Off as Compost


digital image from a photoSnaking Suspicions
Bartholomew’s bones are now buried
In a bag in a box in a berm,
And when he has fully recycled,
He’ll become a new breed of a worm.
In life he was lousy and lurid,
Licentious and lickerish he;
Bartholomew Bogle was wicked
As one creepy creature could be.
So down in the dirt he is digging
New depths better suited his sin,
Alive, quite the snake, let us make no mistake,
Now interred, he’s the same in new skin.
Let Bartholomew go to the devil,
Worming down to the deep for his due,
And at least we can bless in our hearts the good lesson:
I won’t be a Bogle–will you?digital artwork from a photo



Mormor's swing, tucked into a corner under the maple tree that in springtime was full of naturalized trilliums, bleeding heart, wild currant, Scilla and other northwest treasures, and in summer, covered with Clematis durandii from foot to arbor . . .

This coming week I get to have consultations for bids on redoing our yard landscape! As I’ve plotted the Q&A lists extensively over time, I have been more and more recollecting my mother’s gardening style and values, and beyond that, returning to her father’s–Gramps’s. Their influences remain deeply embedded in my own ethos of gardening, to be sure.

I won’t be able to strictly replicate either of their styles or efforts, nor should I, since neither the climate and conditions of my current home nor my own personal imprint would make it useful or meaningful to do so. But what was truly valued by both of them in the general sense was upheld in their methods and the lovely and personal and hospitable outcomes of both because it was about combining the sensible and practical with the sort of building and design that would enable them to do more of the tasks of gardening that they each enjoyed, and fewer of those that they didn’t. In short, they were both ‘sustainable’ garden advocates long before there was such a popular trend, and they still both chose plants and arrangements and additions to the yard that suited their sentiments and likes.photoFor Gramps, of course, there was a strong influence of frugality that came from being first an immigrant (and even before that, presumably, from being raised by typically scrupulous Norwegian savers) and then a hard-working General Motors employee (he worked on the crew that produced the first amphibious vehicles). After all of that he was an independent farmer, mainly of sheep, and then also a longtime carpenter and home builder. He was never in any get-rich business, and he appreciated old-fashioned things and earthy things, so it wasn’t a stretch for him to look with his carpenter’s eye and see in his shed the makings of all sorts of fine pasture fencing, outbuildings, picnic tables, benches and more.


Gramps's compost bins, quite beautiful in their own right and certainly very practical, as well as the models for Mom's own bins later . . . and, perhaps, mine yet to come . . .

His idea of plantings began with the practical as well, so if there was any space at all there was always a beautiful kitchen garden with corn, raspberries, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, rhubarb, and all of that sort of loveliness, and between that and his fishing trips and raising lamb there was a lot of good eating. But beyond raising fine fruit and vegetables on his property, furnished with rich home-cooked compost from his lovely row of hand-built bins, Gramps did have a graceful nature-inspired aesthetic sensibility, capitalizing on the canopy of majestic Douglas-firs and filling in with the native understory treasury of dogwood and trilliums (the source, of course, of Mom’s first ones), azaleas and rhododendrons, ferns and primroses and bleeding hearts and yellow and fuchsia-colored wild violets. For a person who gruffly eschewed frivolity in the main, he had a mighty tender, bleeding heart of his own when it came to the beauty he saw in nature, and he capitalized on that very well in his garden.

His daughter learned from it, and being more overtly sentimental, added yet another layer of appreciation for those marvels and jewels of the natural world that she could nurture to their fullest expression in her own garden and yard, wherever she lived. She adopted her father’s practical and often laborious attentions to getting the most out of the existing landscape and quickly put her own imprint on it and enriched it over time to the degree that her yard was always rightfully an enviable small park for visitors’ delight. By the time I finished college and then spent three years working near to and therefore boarding with my grandparents, thanks to the ridiculously affordable living there–then finished grad school and started working near my parents’ place and moved back to take advantage of the ridiculously affordable living there (anybody sense a theme? I blame the genetic link to Gramps’s frugality)–I had a much greater appreciation myself for both what it took to create and maintain such glorious properties and how much respecting nature’s own local inclinations would be a value-added approach to healthy, sustainable, logical, creative and gorgeous design.photoI had the bonus, while living at my parents’ again, of not only the privacy and flexibility afforded me by their frequent travel for his work, but the opportunity to practice my own incipient garden design skills both while following Mom around and learning the names and natures of things and while taking things into my own hands whenever they went out of town for any length of time. First of all, having learned a couple of useful things about how to treat some of their plants, I practiced my sculptural pruning skills on them, opening up the lacy umbrella of a laceleaf maple, making faux bonsai out of some of their smaller evergreens, and limbing up tree trunks to clean and open up the space for all of the pretty understory things Mom had brought in as starts from relatives’ gardens, from her trading with friends, and from various nursery expeditions over the years. It was during this time that I especially fell in love with trees. The craggy Garry oaks native to that area are a fairly uncommon yet extraordinarily lovely and impressive variety and I nurtured a seedling or two myself along the way in hopes that sometime long after I’m dead they too will be magnificent and grand old trees sheltering their homes and their denizens like the massive ones already in town.photoHere in Texas, it’s the two stately post oaks and that lithe red oak in back that endeared our home to us at first notice, along with our two splendid Bradford pear trees. There’s quite the community of sweet oak seedlings sprouting in their shade, and I hope very much that I can manage (with lots of help and advice from the local experts, of course) to relocate a number of them to foster a natural-style mini-grove in a back quadrant of our property over the many years to come. That will help create a fitting foundation for the whole wild, native and well-adapted collection of plants intended to fan out from all of that into the rest of the property. Fun times ahead!

In addition, I love to incorporate some traditionally indoor materials into my gardens so they feel a little more like an extension of the house and invite leisurely visits. I’m thinking of things like the burnished brass chandelier you’ve seen tiny glimpses of in previous garden photos, a little cozy kitchen-style seating on the patio, and a bench or chairs for shaded stopping on the front porch as guests arrive for a gathering. But although I see lots of lovely yard swings around town and love them, I never see people sitting in them–it’s almost always too terribly hot and often very bug-pestered here–so there won’t likely be an investment of money and labor to create a swing like the arbor swing (above) that I designed and my brother-in-law built with my semi-able assistance, to surprise Mom with a little long-fostered-wish fulfillment, while she and Dad were off on one of their longer

Still, I do want our yard to invite exploration and to be particularly attractive from all angles inside our air-conditioned house, year round. So many possible ways to accomplish that, that I am excited to see what I can learn and be inspired by, even from a first conversation with each of the landscapers who will visit here this week. I suspect I’ll need to be getting out all of the tools I have, and then some, and it’ll take a bit of a while to get the whole project well and truly underway. I know I’m a little rusty at some of this, having lived with tiny yards for quite some time before buying this house, and will have to relearn much and discover many new things in my new climate. But oh, how invigorating to begin!