Earth Day in my Gardens

It’s Earth Day!  What better way to celebrate than to show you my gardens?  This post was written last year when Amanda Soule of Soulemama asked her readers to submit a piece about their garden.  Each month she selected one to share with her readers.  Well, my gardens never made her blog, but they can sure make mine!  Shall we go for a stroll?


Gardener: Johanna Levene

Garden Location and Zone: Denver, Colorado – Zone 5

Vegetable Garden Size: Home (300 sq feet) School (500 sq feet)

Image 1 - windows into the gardenSpring in the Garden 

How long have you been gardening?

I don’t ever remember not gardening.  My spring and summer childhood memories revolve around Mother’s Day flower shopping, mixing bright blue Miracle Grow water for tomato planting, and sitting very quietly with my mom listening for tomato hornworms as they chewed their way through our plants. When we found one we’d fling it into the street, except the one time we put it in a terrarium and watched it grow into a spectacularly terrifying moth.

Image 2 - Johanna in the gardenMe and Raggedy Ann in my grandma’s garden 40 years ago

I taught my husband to garden when we bought our house and he has taken over most of the maintenance while I still focus on the new plantings and the vegetable garden.  We’ve moved away from the chemical fertilizer of my childhood to organic gardening, but he brings a new kind of technology to our efforts.  As a mechanical engineer he can be found weekend mornings walking around our yard with his AutoCAD drawings of our garden recording the growth, blooms and colors of the plants.  He maintains both an electronic and hard copy of these maps:  he is a modern garden dork.

 Why do you garden?

Gardening is one pastime that brings our family of diverse interests together.  In our life we have two working parents and an only child and it’s easy to get swept away in all the things we “should” be doing.  Gardening makes us slow down and spend time together because we all enjoy being outside together playing in the dirt.

Where do you go for gardening inspiration?

My garden inspiration is largely found in walks through the neighborhood, visits to my parent’s house, and trips to my local nursery.  I have been known to steal seeds from a neighbor’s unique flower or bring a trowel when visiting a friend who has a particularly pretty iris.  

What’s your biggest gardening challenge?

In Denver late freezes, summer hail, and early freezes are the destroyers of gardens.  Last year we planted two Sundays before Memorial Day and our garden was demolished by hail two days later.  The year before we had Japanese Beetles for the first time.  We tried to control their population by borrowing a friend’s chickens for a weekend.  We believed in that solution so much that we got our own chickens last year in order to avoid loading chickens into the back of my Subaru.  Also chickens turn bugs into eggs, which is awesome.

Image 3 - Hail DamageLate May hail damage and our white picket fence.  Poor plants.

 What’s your biggest garden accomplishment?

For the past couple of years we have included our daughter’s friends in the planting and harvesting of our garden, and we’ve loved introducing new kids to our garden.  Last year our family expanded our influence to include seventy-five third graders at our public elementary school.  The parent who had been in charge of our school garden was graduating her oldest child, so when the school asked for volunteers we jumped at the chance.  We plant with the kiddos in late May and harvest in September.  We love every minute of it.  My favorite moment last year was at the plant sale when this tough eighth grade boy came loping down the stairs and said, “Do I smell tomato plants?  I love that smell.” Even the big kids get excited about the garden.  The school garden gives kids a focal point that they look forward to in the younger grades, own in third and fourth grade, and then remember in the later grades.

What do you most love to grow?

We grow flowers and vegetables.  In the veggie garden tomatoes and Anaheim peppers are our standby favorites, but the past few years we’ve grown potatoes, and they are magical.  The plant grows, the plant dies and you don’t know what the harvest looks like until you dig around.  We never fail to miss a spud or two so the potatoes just keep perpetuating.  Oh, and don’t get me started on pumpkins.  One day you have no pumpkins and the next day one has grown so big you can’t get it out of the tomato cage.

Image 6 - pumpkin in a cagePumpkin in a cage

In the flower beds we have tons of spring bulbs: tulips, miniature iris, hyacinths, crocus, and daffodils.  My heart thaws every February when the first crocus appears.  We’ve got color all year, but the flower gardens reach their peak in spring and early summer.  In Colorado, July and August are a bit hot and dry for many blooms.

If you have children, what role do they play in your gardening?

We include our daughter as much as she wants to be included.  From year to year her interest and commitment change, but we try not to force her into gardening because we think nothing ruins a kid’s love of “yard work” like being told they must participate.  Last year my husband and I did most of the planting – both times, stupid hail – by ourselves.  The spring vegetables are her favorite and she’ll head out to the garden before school to snack on lettuce and snap peas.  In the fall she’ll help us harvest the veggies and process them for storage.  Our daughter is also enjoying our new role as garden parents at school and is looking forward to her turn planting the school garden this year.

Image 7 - baby in the gardenGardening before she could walk eight years ago

 Can you share one or two of your favorite gardening tips?

We’ve lucked into a couple of natural pest solutions that make gardening easier:  plant cilantro right next to your tomatoes to keep the hornworms away, and a huge lemon verbena plant in the middle of everything keeps a variety of pests away and smells great when you *accidentally* crush it when weeding.

 Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your garden?

We have an urban garden at our house, and it supplements our meals, but does not come close to providing all the food our family eats.  Our school garden provides an opportunity for kids to learn where food comes from and harvest a feast for the fourth graders in the fall.  Our gardens are as much about growing our family and community as they are about growing food.

 Can you tell us about yourself?

By day, Johanna Levene is a manager of a team of ten web developers, database administrators, analysts and projects managers that build web tools about renewable energy and alternative fuels.  In the evenings she transitions to a mom of a third grader which can include the roles of a soccer coach, gardener, meal maker, and pet caretaker of two cats, one hamster, three chickens, and a few snails.  Once the kiddo goes to bed, Johanna’s evening persona morphs into a crafter with a primary focus on knitting, and an aspiring novelist.  When she’s not busy with the rest of that stuff she manages to be a wife too.

A Fishy Passover Tolerance Lesson

As a child I could get a little rambunctious at the grocery store.  I clearly remember that when my brother and I got exceptionally crazy mom would threaten us.  She’d point to jars filled with gelatinous covered white orbs and say, “If you guys don’t cut it out I will buy this and make you eat it.”  We’d squeal and make faces and wonder what poor kids had to eat those creepy floating things.  Into adulthood I’d walk through the Ethnic Food aisle and shudder a bit on my way to the pasta and salsa looking into those clear jars.  Still I wondered who ate that stuff.

My senior year of college it happened. I met a boy, and one day he took me home to celebrate Passover with his family.  The Seder began and we ate parsley dipped in salt water, raw horseradish root in an apple dish called haroset.  All ceremonial foods, all different, but all edible.  I enjoyed the readings and the novelty of the celebration and learning about a new culture.

Feeling moderately comfortable at the table the first course of the actual meal was served: gefilte fish.  Someone set in front of me an albino patty with gelatinous quivering globules glistening on its surface cradled on a bed of lettuce.  All around me strangers I wanted to impress covered their helpings with fluorescent pink horseradish and dug in with apparent glee. Here in front of me was the nightmare of my childhood and I had two choices: be “that disrespectful new girl” and shun this foreign food or face my fear and try a bite.  There was not an option to run screaming from the room.  This was before the days of smartphones so I couldn’t snap a picture and send it to my mom with an eww, like I did for this blog post.  I had to put on my big girl shoes and face my fears if I wanted to be respectful.  I don’t think I made it through half of the fish and I know I drank an entire tumbler of water but I ate enough to not make a scene.  The rest of the meal followed without incident.

Twenty two Passovers now, give or take.  I’ve watched guests come and go and seen the judgement passed down upon those who do not try.  I’ve learned that no one thinks it wrong that I enjoy my fish with a piece of Matzo, which at least hides the horrible texture with a bit of a crunch.  I bought the New York Times Passover Cookbook and with fear read the gefilte fish recipes only to learn that it really isn’t that scary.  Just whitefish cooked in broth until the broth congeals.  I could make it myself, but I don’t.  I don’t buy it either.  Instead I make the haroset, hard boil the eggs, make the dessert and bring the wine.  I feel at home with the ceremony.

I also learned that my husband will always eat the second half of my patty.  I push it onto his plate and yum yum he finishes it off and asks for another.  No judgement, we are so cute sharing food.  I always help clear away the fish plates and bring out the matzo ball soup, which I love.  Before I sit down I refill the water glasses.  It still takes me an entire glass of water to finish off my fish half.

This life we live, it’s filled with scary slimy fish isn’t it?  Things we reject without a thought or a consideration for being different and gross, and really they might be different and gross to us even once fully understood and experienced.  Things we threaten our children with because you’ve got to make them behave in the supermarket somehow.  Every year at Passover I think my lesson is one of overcoming the fear of the unknown, different, and strange and while not embracing it – and certainly not enjoying it – at least learning to tolerate.  For my husband’s Jewish family and their ancestors more tolerance would have changed history.  And really, isn’t that an acceptable lesson?  Maybe we can’t embrace each other and all join hands in unity, but a little tolerance – even if it requires a big glass of water – goes a long way in this world.

Happy Passover, happy Easter and happy spring to you readers.  May you find tolerance for yourself, your beliefs, others, and other’s beliefs in your own little corner of the world.

The Recliner

Today would have been my Grandpa’s 103rd birthday.  A few years ago my mom uttered this infamous – in our family – statement, “It makes me feel better knowing that if grandpa was alive he’d be dead by now.”  She’s right.  If my grandparents weren’t dead already they’d probably be dead by now, but the week bracketed by their birthdays is still one that pulls at my heartstrings.

Adding to the angst this year is that we finally got rid of their recliner.  When my grandma died, I inherited this gem.  I was poor, just out of college, and furnishing my first apartments and home.  Somewhere in there Grandpa’s recliner became mine.  I didn’t care what it looked like because I just wanted a comfy place to sit.

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Now the recliner has lived with me 16 years, which is longer than it ever lived with my grandparents. The chair has seen me and my boyfriend turned husband through innumerable head colds and bouts of bronchitis: nothing is better than a recliner when you are stuffed up and coughing.  My daughter has spit up, peed, pooped spilled, and snotted on this chair.  Throughout her infancy breast-milk was leaked all over it because I loved nursing in this chair.

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When our basement construction started, heralding the end of the recliner’s life in the house, the baby chickens pooped on it while my daughter sang lullabies to them in the garage.  I hand medicated little baby Rosie chick in that chair.  There may or may not be mice in the chair because there are mice out there.

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The time for the chair to leave our home had come.  No more would my daughter recline the back, extend the footrest and launch herself off her indoor playset.  Finally I could stop worrying which kid-friend would end up with stitches from emulating my daughter’s antics.  We will never figure out where that missing thumb screw goes: the one that fell out of the bottom one recline. I’m sure there is a whole set of knitting needles and stitch markers hidden in there, never to be found.

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Before putting the chair out to the curb I went out to the garage, curled up, and read in it one last time.  The book was A Man Called Ove, a perfect choice because my grandpa could have been named Ove he was so much like that character.  I read, I cried, I remembered, and I watched my cats stalk spiders and mice.  Finally, I turned off the lights and, like a dope, said “Goodbye chair.”  By the time I got home from work the next day it was gone.  My mom said, “It was an awfully big memento,” and it was.

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The first post-chair evening I was down in my study digging around in my sewing machine cabinet and for a moment I smelled cigarette smoke.  Throughout my childhood my grandparents were both smokers and that scent still calls up memories of them.  At that moment I realized that one of them was reminding me that my sewing machine belonged to my grandma.  I remember sewing Halloween and theater costumes side by side.  I still use her manual, filled with her hand written notes, every  time I need to sew on rickrack.  I still have a big memento and one that isn’t going anywhere.  All I need to do to reconnect to them is sew something and, you know, my husband did just mention that the chicken coop needs curtains.  (Well he actually said “The chicken coop needs window blankets,” but either way it means sewing project.)


Correction 10/28/2016

I misquoted my mother in the original version.  She did not say, “It makes me feel better knowing that if grandpa wasn’t already dead he’d be dead by now.”  The corrected, and even sillier, quote is above.  Thanks mom for pointing out my mistake.  Love you!

A Wild Rumpus Tradition

There is somewhere you must visit if you are in Minneapolis, Minnesota if you are a reader, or a parent; if you are a parent of a reader; if you are a lover of books; or if you are a lover of pets.  You must visit Wild Rumpus.  You know the allusion right?  From Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Thing Are.

 “And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

Let’s start at the door, shall we?  The youngest Afthead is almost too big for the small purple door built into the normal grown-up sized door.  Almost too big, but not quite.  5 years now we’ve been making an annual trek to the purple door.

 

 

You walk in and the store is half zoo, half pet shop, half bookstore, and half magic land.  (Yes, I know that equals two, but this bookstore is greater than a single bookstore.)  It has cats with no tails, chickens, doves, creepy albino rats, cockatiels, chinchillas, ferrets, tarantulas, fish hidden in the mirror in the bathroom, and a really ugly lizard.  The cats are free to roam the store and their tailless ends are usually followed by a parade of children trying to grab a pet or a snuggle.  The chickens are also free to roam with a similar parade of kids, but they aren’t normal chickens.  They are like poodle chickens cute but a little foreign.  If chickens and cats need a break they retreat behind the sales counter taunting the children with their proximity and inaccessibility.

When you are done staring at the floor looking for animals your eyes travel upwards to the shelves and shelves of books.  There are books taller than you can reach: picture books, beginning readers, later readers, science books, geography books and even grown up books.  In the back of the store there is a scary section.  The albino rats live there, and there is a hole in the floor where some other creature lives.  When I was a kid, this would have been where I lived.  I’ve always loved scary books.  Not my kiddo though, she’s in the beginner readers picking out books she’s never seen outside of her classroom and she’s delighted.

About this time you glance up to stretch your neck and notice the boat carving a path through the ceiling.  Yep, in case there isn’t enough magic in this place the ceiling is actually a river with a rowboat carving a path through the white ceiling and leaving a path of blue green water behind it.

If you are in Minneapolis carve out an hour and go visit.  It’s right by the airport.  You won’t regret a moment there.  In fact, you might end up feeling like you’ve doubled your investment.