The Cactus

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Tonight at dinner, my daughter went running up to her room and came back to the table with something in her hand. “Here,” she said, thrusting it into my hand. “Do you like my cactus?”

Over the past year or so, she has developed a love of succulents. I’m not exactly sure when this happened or why, but slowly, the plants began to disappear from the windowsill in the kitchen and reappear on the windowsill in her room. I noticed that some smaller pots were materializing, and shoots had been taken from the plants of mine that hadn’t yet made the trek up the stairs. [I am really hoping she doesn’t decide she needs some of my Christmas cactus in the next few days because it has just started to poke out some teeny tiny bud-lings….]

I examined the ceramic cactus in my hand. It was “growing” in a pot that almost looked like a wicker basket. The plant had understated spikes that gave the green ball a distinct cactus look. And the cactus bloomed with two dusty pink flowers.

“It’s beautiful!” I told her when I had finished my inspection.

“I made it,” she told me.

“No you didn’t,” I responded, only partially convinced by her words.

“Yes I did. It came out of the kiln yesterday.” And then she turned it upside down, so I could see the bottom. “My initials,” she pointed out.

Indeed, the bottom indicated that the piece was handmade. And it was beautiful! She just started taking a pottery class at school, this year. I can’t wait to see what else she brings home!

Veggies and Weeds #atozchallenge

Life Lessons from the Garden:

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I have spent the past several years as a gardener in my town’s Community Garden. At this time of year, I am typically planning my vegetable garden. I am acquiring seeds and making sure I have the proper fencing. I am hauling out tomato cages, and sorting through tools and row markers, loading up a bucket of supplies, and planning the layout of the garden I will grow. Not to mention fretting over how I am possibly going to fit everything into my small 10 x 20 garden plot (which is actually two plots in our community garden).

I have taken many lessons from the gardening experiences I have had throughout my life. I only hope that my children have learned one or two of these lessons as we have gardened together.

Planning: If you want to get the most out of your garden, you have to plan ahead. Vegetables are not planted haphazardly. Some require rows, some hills, and some—like tomatoes—are more individual in nature.

Patience: Once you plant the seeds, it will be a week or two before you even see the tiniest shoot of green emerge from the ground. And those shoots are just the beginning. It will be much longer before you can truly enjoy the fruits of your labor.

“Personal space” varies: Just like people, plants have different space requirements. Some plants only need to be separated from their friends by a couple of inches to grow to their potential, but others need their own little patch of space to grow up and spread out and produce the best vegetables.

Focus on the good: Nurture the plants you want in your garden. Remove the weeds, insects, and rodents that are not healthy or wanted and may even be harmful. These things can grow out of control, take over and ultimately, choke out the good stuff.

Persistence: As with any relationship, a gardener must constantly work at gardening. One day, you may spend hours in the garden weeding, and two days later, the weeds will have taken hold, once again, as the prominent greenery. Constant care and attention are required.

Things don’t always turn out the way you planned: There are so many variables that factor into a successful garden. Depending on the weather, the forces of nature, the local fauna, you may not reap what you think you have sown. One season might produce smaller than normal tomatoes. One season might produce a bumper crop of squash bugs—which means no squash/pumpkins/watermelon. But each season brings surprises. There maybe disappointments, but there will likely be pleasant surprises, as well.

Self-sufficiency: Growing a garden demands a great deal of attention, but it also demonstrates the amazing human potential to feed oneself using the resources of nature. And if your crop is big enough, you can preserve some of your harvest (by freezing or canning) for the coming winter.

Satisfaction: After a busy year of planting, watering, nurturing, weeding, and chasing vermin out of the garden, you can relish the satisfaction of having grown your own food. And there is nothing better than garden fresh veggies picked within the hour. Yes, vegetables taste just a bit better when you have grown them yourself.

This year, I will take a hiatus from my garden for a number of reasons. I will miss the daily reminders of these simple life lessons. But perhaps next year, I will choose to garden once again.

Thanksgiving Research

Last night after Thanksgiving dinner, my aunt offered me a turnip from a bag she had in the trunk of her car. At first, I said no, but then I changed my mind and decided to take one. After all, she had extra, I like turnip, and I am currently working with a limited diet. I took one and stashed it in the trunk of my own car. The cool nights, I figured, would keep it fresh until I could cook it this weekend.

This afternoon, I took my children to a local shop that we enjoy visiting. The shop has all kinds of fun toys, games, gadgets, greeting cards, decorations, etc. We did a little holiday shopping, and I came away with a bag of goodies. We decided we would walk the main shopping district of this small town, but I wanted to put my bag in the car first. I opened the back, not even thinking.

C’s brow wrinkled in surprise. “What’s that?” he pointed to the corner of the trunk, and I immediately remembered that I had placed the turnip in that spot last night.

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I laughed. “That’s a turnip. Looks like jicama, doesn’t it?” I asked him. When my aunt had given it to me last night, I realized the similar appearances between the two roots. I think C, who has recently discovered jicama, was hopeful that I had purchased (and hidden) this in my car trunk.

The similarities did prompt me to do some quick research on whether jicama and turnip are related. I was surprised to learn that jicama is actually a legume, and the root is the only edible part of the plant; the rest, it seems, is poisonous, and contains a chemical used in pesticides. Turnip, on the other hand, is a root vegetable, and even the greens are edible. Despite the similar appearance, these two roots are not related.

The things you can learn when you think your car is a good place to store a turnip for a day or two…. And now you know, too!

Brussels Sprouts

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This morning, my youngest almost caught me putting Brussels Sprouts in his lunchbox. Almost. But I snuck them in before he saw me. Yes, you heard that right: Brussels Sprouts in his lunchbox.

This is the point in the school year when I start to get bored with the lunches I pack for my children. Now, I understand that my children are perfectly capable of packing their own lunches. However, they would put it off until the last minute, remember as they are running out the door, grab something from the pantry, and call it lunch. On any given day, such a “lunch” might consist of an entire ‘party size’ bag of chips or a single granola bar. Then, the kids would arrive back at home hungry and cranky, and they would snack their way through the pantry and the refrigerator before dinner, ruining their appetite for real nutrition. Since I don’t want to take my chances, I pack their lunches. Every day.

So last night, I put out the question: What do you want in your lunch that I haven’t been putting in there?

And W, being the smart-alec 14 year old that he is, said (without hesitation), “Brussels Sprouts.”

“Ha!” I chuckled. “What do you really want?”

And I got the typical 14-year-old-kid response: “I don’t know.”

Surprisingly, I actually have Brussels Sprouts in my refrigerator. Last week, there was a story on NPR about the local crop of Brussels Sprouts, the fact that they are in season despite the cooler weather, and how they are actually sweeter after the cold sets in. And I bought some on my next trip to the market.

This morning as I packed lunches, I popped two Brussels Sprouts into a sandwich bag. I was getting ready to draw a smiley face on the bag in Sharpie when I heard the upstairs bathroom door open. I quickly threw the bag into W’s lunchbox, minus a note or smile face. I went about the rest of the breakfast/lunch preparations as if nothing unusual had happened. Because in our house, that really was nothing unusual.

As expected, he didn’t eat the Brussels Sprouts. Instead, he jokingly offered them to a friend, who actually took a bite. From the report I got, I’m pretty sure when W found the bag in his lunchbox, it was good for a mid-day giggle.

Real Estate

“Mom, can we grow some fresh herbs on the windowsill?” C—my culinary kid—asks me out of the blue. We live in a townhouse, and we have windows on only our north and south walls. We have one main window where plants will actually grow, our south-facing kitchen window, and thankfully, it is a picture window with a deep sill.

“Um, sorry,” comes the voice of W from the other room. “I’ve already reserved the windowsill for a science experiment.”

“Dude!” C replies (because for some unknown reason, boys always call each other “dude”). “You can’t reserve the windowsill!! What kind of ‘science experiment’ do you have planned that you can do in the kitchen anyway?” His attitude is typical of a 16 year old who knows everything, and it is designed to be off-putting to a younger brother. W doesn’t bother to respond. He knows he will be criticized and chastised for even thinking he could take over the windowsill. In fact, through his brother’s tone of voice, he already has been.

“You can’t claim the windowsill,” C continues on his rant. “All I want to do is grow some herbs. Herbs belong in the kitchen. We can use them for cooking… we can dry them… and, your science experiment… in the kitchen? Really?”

“Mom already said I could do my science experiment. On the windowsill.” W is quiet but firm in his response. Personally, while I remember him saying he wants to ionize soil to see if plants will grow better, I can’t remember any other experiment; so I am hoping that this is the one. The combination of the stress of single-handedly raising three teenagers and middle age is not always the most conducive to productive thought processes. Things get lost in my head more often than I would like to admit.

“W, remind me again which experiment you want to do? I remember several you mentioned recently,” and it’s true. There is always something brewing in the head of this kid. Newer, better, more effective ways to do whatever the task at hand. And unlike his Mama, he has no problem accessing his thoughts and ideas in his amazingly complex mind. Thankfully, I am right that he wants to test plants and soil.

“Why don’t you combine your projects?” I suggest. “We can see if herbs grow best in soil that is ionized as opposed to soil that isn’t.” I, of course, think this is the perfect solution to the problem, and one that will limit the clutter on my windowsill. My boys do not.

“I don’t want my herbs to be part of some science experiment! He can grow his own plants in his experimental soil!” Clearly, this discussion is going nowhere. At least nowhere positive.

“Well, that would be a way for you to both use the windowsill and to collaborate. Ionizing the soil isn’t going to hurt your herbs. It’s not like he’s using radiation or something hazardous.”

“No way, Mom!” C leaves the room, and W and I look at each other. I roll my eyes. It is going to take some convincing. Teens are tough that way. Once they know something (and by know, I mean yup, he’s the expert), it can be difficult to sway them otherwise. Experimental soil or not, it seems this is the most likely solution to the real estate issue.

Of course, there is another option. I could continue to hog the windowsill with my plants. I do, after all, pay the mortgage.

Roots and Shoots

The plants on my windowsill have been growing pale and leggy with neglect, so the other day, I transplanted the most needy of the lot. One of them had been pushed off the windowsill in the midst of a cat-fight months ago; it was lacking dirt and trying to hold itself together in a cracked pot. This plant was my first patient. After some loving attention, it is still struggling, though I am hopeful it will overcome the recent stresses it has faced.

My Christmas cactus was my second patient. It had outgrown its small pot and was craving a larger space in which it could stretch its roots—spread out a bit. I had no idea how bad it had become until I slid the roots from the pot. It was—essentially—all root. There was little dirt in amongst the tangled, pot-shaped ball. This plant has begun to recover from the stress of roots that were too tight.

The third plant to warrant my attention was purchased as a miniature plant, but had clearly moved beyond “miniature” status. A new, larger pot, and it is doing just fine, thank you. This plant is standing straight and tall, undaunted by its early days tagged with a “miniature” label. It is healthy and shiny and reaching toward the sun.

The experience of re-potting these plants has made me see that sometimes, we also become “pot bound.” We long for more in our lives, and we look for change—something new or a new way of doing things. We might need to stretch our own roots and move on to another phase in our lives. We might start something new or end something that isn’t working. We might re-plant ourselves in a different location, putting down roots in a new area, or simply spreading our roots where we are as we readjust the path of our journey. Or, we might, instead, send up new shoots by taking on a new project or a new way to challenge ourselves. Whatever you choose, I hope you find the space you need to stretch, to spread your roots toward stability, to grow tall, and to stand proud.