Signs of Spring


They are everywhere now.  Hints of color or bold dashes.  Lush green.  Deep yellow, blue, purple, and orange.  After watching the gardens I pass on my way to work unfold, I finally remembered to tuck my camera in my pocket so I could remember this joy next winter when we are once again smothered in snow and ice.


I was so hesitant to photograph other people’s flowers that I waited until I reached more quiet back streets to finally take out my camera, passing by some of my favorite gardens in the process.  How silly when I stop to think of it: passing cars wouldn’t care a bit.  And yet the feeling of intruding on another person’s private space is palpable and I expect any moment for them to come out and tell me off.


But on my walk home I was too distracted by the new emergence of flowering trees – I would swear they weren’t blooming when I passed them in the morning – to care what anyone thought.  Midway through photographing the second flowering tree, a woman my age pushing a stroller stopped walking to give me time to finish a photograph.  As soon as I realized she was there I leaped out of the way, but instead of passing me by she stopped to tell me of the bloodroot flowers growing a few houses down.


Indeed, the white flowers I had photographed in the morning were bloodroot, or Sanguinaria canadensis, and they are apparently toxic.  They can also be used as a red dye, but since one of the (questionable) alternative uses of bloodroot is to kill skin cancer cells, it wouldn’t be my first choice to use on something I will have next to my skin.


Now that I’ve overcome whatever disinclination I first had about photographing other people’s flowers, the camera comes with me everywhere.  I’m hoping that by taking pictures of plants I pass in gardens, in the park, in the cracks of the sidewalk, or wherever they find a foothold, I will slowly start learning to identify what grows in our urban environment.  This is all part of a master plan to forage for both food and dye stuffs, since my ability to garden is currently contained to pots and whatever I can convince my parents to grow in their garden in Maine.  And who knows, maybe I’ll meet some kindred spirits; there’s nothing that invites conversation with strangers like doing something out of the ordinary in a public space.  I still remember the person foraging for crab apples from a tree on the main street of a small Maine town who was more than happy to tell me what she was up to – those crab apples make excellent pickles, apparently!



After Work


At ten to five I realize I should have left already.  Stuffing the assorted mason jars that carry lunch and the obligatory breast milk in my bag, I grab the laptop, pumping supplies, and my coat.  Sometimes, when I leave earlier, I like to think of walking out the door as a small act of resistance against a career designed to leave little room for anything else.  Me, leaving early, bag in hand, a smile on my face, not sneaking away as though anyone is keeping track.

Spring is starting to emerge and entertains me on the walk home.  Little gardens are tucked in the front yards and side yards and in-between yards, some only showing hints of life with brown grass and twiggy hedges.  Others have come utterly alive in the last few weeks with a  parade of early spring flowers; snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, hyacinth, and other delicate white and purple flowers whose names I cannot remember now.  Tulip leaves are everywhere, the excitement mounting as I wait for a new symphony of color.

Sometimes on the walk home I call my parents or grandmother to chat for a few minutes about the little things Adi is learning or how she is sleeping.  Other times I prefer to think about all the plans I can’t help but tidy away in the back of my mind, waiting for a yard of my own, a house of my own, more time of my own.

Fumbling with the keys, check the mail, open the door, and it’s the squeal of a baby as she sees her mama’s home.  Her daddy is lounging on the sofa trying to contain her glee and waving arms without losing his glasses.  Someone’s hungry!  Boots off, mason jars unloaded, milk in the fridge.  I change into house clothes that are already covered with a layer of drool and snot.  I try not to think about that.  Adi and her daddy have followed me into the bedroom and as soon as I’m done changing she reaches out for a huge baby hug.  Home-coming is my favorite part of the day.

While James works on dinner, Adi and I snuggle in bed for nursing and reading.  After weeks of waiting for it to arrive via inter-library loan, I have six delicious issues of Taproot Magazine to pore over with a baby in my arms; there is no greater bliss.  Finally satiated, Adi chirps and squirms and reaches out to grab the colorful pages.  I’m hoping Taproot makes it back to the library in one piece.

Dinner is ready, baby is stripped down to her diaper, and the table is set.  We’re all eating split-pea soup with sourdough bread so fresh that it’s still slightly warm.  James has been experimenting with some of the whole-grain bread recipes in Tartine Book No. 3 and this new bread recipe he started making a couple weeks ago with oatmeal is fast becoming my favorite.  Even Adi, who is only slowly coming onto bread, would rather put buttered pieces in her mouth than on the floor.

Long after the adults have finished eating and in the middle of a conversation about how James doesn’t like gardening or want to have a hoard of farm animals someday and how that is fine because that way he will have energy to do the things I don’t want to do, like taxes or setting up computers or making tons of money by sitting at a desk all day solving other people’s problems, which apparently I’m fine doing as long as I don’t get paid a lot of money for it; Adi starts flinging split-pea soup across the kitchen while trying to wiggle out of her highchair seat.

Dinner is over and it’s time to wipe up the baby and clean up the spray of food that has collected on all nearby surfaces.  After James does the dishes and I put Adi in her PJs, we cuddle up in bed once more for a snuggle, some bedtime stories, and a final nurse.  On a good night, Adi falls asleep in my arms and settles down in the fetal position in her crib without a peep.  Lately, we haven’t had a lot of good nights.  Teething and ear infections have meant a lot of rocking and singing, extra nursing, and finally, when nothing else works, quiet playing in the dark while an exhausted parent lies on a futon in her room.

But tonight is a good night, and soon I’m tip-toeing away back to the living room that is also our kitchen and dining room to make myself a cup of tea and sit on the sofa to watch the sky turn dark.  From the sofa I can see four different kinds of trees with their bare branches outlined against the intensely dark blue sky.  Each tree’s branches have a different character, some branching smoothly, others with a series of crooked turns, one with large spine-covered nuts.  Looking up, I can almost imagine that we don’t live in the city surrounded by pavement and cars and not enough gardens or fields of wild flowers.

For the next couple of hours I have my time to dream and create, to read and write about all that is and all that I hope will come.  There is still the laundry to hang up, dry diapers to put away, and perhaps a bit of cooking to do for dinner tomorrow, but otherwise this time is my own.  Tonight I am reading Taproot issue 10::seed and thinking about my lost garden in California and about the pots and grow lights that provide a dispiriting replacement in our new home.

Despite my frustrations, I can’t help but be hopeful.  Nature is stirring around me with an intensity I haven’t felt in years.  The transformation from barren wasteland of snow to verdant jungle is underway and soon I will be enjoying the first asparagus and spring greens, even if I am no longer able to grow them myself.  In my container garden new life is also stirring, with pea and fava bean sprouts breaking out of the soil to stretch ever upwards.  Spring is here and it is time to rejoice.



Apartment Gardening


Despite living in a tiny apartment with no south-facing windows, I am determined to grow and forage as much of our food as possible. Unfortunately, the most straightforward approach – having a garden plot of my own – will have to wait for an open spot in our local community gardens or for me to get up the nerve to ask my neighbors about borrowing a section of their yard.

In the mean time I have been tinkering with container gardening with varying degrees of success.  The first lesson learned was that even our southeast-facing window does not provide enough sunlight in late fall to keep sprouts alive.  Much hee-hawing later and I finally decided to supplement using a metal reflecting lampshade and a warm-spectrum CFL.  This allowed the basil, cilantro, and spinach to grow more than an inch tall, but has resulted in strangely crisp and dry leaves and the tallest basil plants I’ve ever seen (now more than two feet tall).  Part of the problem may be my lackadaisical approach to watering or possibly my insistence on not buying any special fertilizers for potted plants.  The watering I can work on, but I feel quite strongly that the whole point of growing my own food is to be self-sufficient, so I won’t be buying any soil supplement any time soon.

Now that spring is on the horizon and I have garden on the brain, I’ve finally decided to try a rather extreme approach that should solve a number of issues simultaneously.  The motivation comes from the fact that we still don’t have a good composting system worked out.  As much as I would like to have a dedicated worm bin, there just isn’t room for it in our tiny kitchen-living-dining room.  Pouring over some permaculture books from the library last week, I saw a reference to composting in place by adding veggie scraps directly to potted plants.  This is something I had tried in my California garden plot in various ways, either by putting veggie scraps on top of the soil as a sort of mulch or burying them a couple inches deep to speed up the process.  But I had never thought to try it in container gardens, mostly because one doesn’t usually have worms or much life of any kind when starting from bags of potting soil.  What I had forgotten, however, was that I had planted a bit of chives from my parents’ garden into my otherwise lifeless soil and somehow at least one worm has survived!  After burying some sweet potato peels a few days ago, a quick peak under the surface shows a couple baby worms wriggling around; I couldn’t be more excited!

IMG_7416Veggie scraps have been hidden under the soil with a light mulch layer of fallen basil leaves and (unsalted) pistachio shells.

I’m still not sure how this system will work in the long term.  Will the soil be too dense for container gardening?  Will it start to smell or provide a home for an (unwanted) ant colony?  How many containers will I need to use up all my compost as worm food?  How will it work with small seedlings compared to my basil monstrosities?  My hope is that this system will allow me to buy less potting soil to begin with and require no additional fertilizers in the future.  A tall order to be sure, but the only way to have a truly sustainable apartment garden.