Fuck the bread … the bread is over. Sunday May 17th.

There are days when I don’t get out of my pajamas, don’t brush my hair, hardly speak a word to any living being. Though I am able to enter into muttering and grunting exchanges with inanimate things like my laptop, the stove, cookery books. Some books are good for reading, other books are best for hurling across a room, aimed either at someone’s head or simply hurled for pleasure, for the gratification to be derived from launching something heavy into the lightness of air, listening to the whoosh, followed by a thump, thump, thump.

It is best, on such days, not to look in the mirror. On such days, when bumping into the mirror, I either go back to bed and pull the blankets over my head, or go out into the garden. There lies salvation, so you might think. Not always. Last week I came up against the dishevelment and chaotic overgrown

disaster

of the white garden

“White Garden” is a grand and preposterously inflated term for what is merely a large bed in the middle of the backyard, between our offices and the chicken run. I was originally inspired by the idea of the alluring night scents of such famous gardens as Vita Sackville West’s at Sissinghurst in England. I’ve written about the development of “my” white garden in the book I began many years ago and am just picking up again, Gardening in a Strange Land. Suffice to say now that this “garden” was a misconceived project in many ways, but one that I have never quite been able to relinquish. Like those grand passions that have seized and consumed and derailed one from sensible existence, and that somehow won’t go away, even after years of therapy and self reproachement and rapprochement too, even then they won’t go away.

When the chickens were let loose to roam the the backyard, before their run was built, they laid waste my little oasis of gentility. After they were confined by the stylish run that Matthew built, rather than seizing the opportunity to begin again, differently, I couldn’t resist, I just couldn’t stop myself from buying six packs of tiny white flowering plants and even now and then a four incher foxglove, and I even inveigled Steve to start me some white hollyhock. I began dreaming.

But neglect turned my dreams to dust. So I turned my back on the white garden and gazed upon the mass of Brazilian plume flowers

Jeffrey keeps reminding me (ironically, but i can detect an undertone of alarm) of what his mother would have said – that in these times (behind closed doors, unseen, unsocialized) we must not go to pieces. Or as Alexandra Fuller’s family would have said, in her marvelous Zimbabwe memoir, Let’s Not go to the Dogs Tonight.

So I pull myself together, reach for the beautiful ceremonial green bowls hidden away from quotidian life on a top shelf, and make a dish of marinated egg yolks with sushi rice.

And along with it:

steamed bok choy

The bowls, combined with the use of chopsticks, seem to introduce a modicum of etiquette into the low-key savagery into which the house- and-garden has descended.

We eat the sushi and eggs while watching Baby Face. Barbara Stanwyck, in this gratifyingly wicked pre-code movie (i.e. before censorship) plays a woman on the make, who manages to rise in the world by seducing and using, with immense joi de vivre, one poor man after another. She tries reading Nietzsche, but tosses him aside in favor of a manual on Etiquette.

my I-phone caught her in the act

Baby Face revives me, and I get to work on the white garden. The bulbs – mainly different kinds of Paperwhites and some ornithogallum – are gorgeous when they bloom. But then the long green leaves loll and languish all over the bed and can’t be cut yet because as long as they are green they are supplying nutrients to the bulbs underground. And then the brugmansia which smells so divine at night drops its flowers and leaves which get tangled in the rose bush which in its turn is growing into the mandarin tree. Craig prunes the mandarin and cuts back the Iceberg rose – a daschund that thinks it’s a great dane.

I start by tying up the bulb greenery to at least make some room,

clean up the Brugmansia debris, pull the far-from-white nasturtiums, and wonder about the maderense geraniums that have migrated from the chicken run, small now but destined to be huge and purply pink blooming.

All kinds of forgotten wonders emerge as I squirrel away:

a closer look reveals phlox, antirrhinums, dianthus and diamond frost euphorbia. The dianthus is so shy that it’s blushing.

sweet peas

and most miraculously

the two foxgloves are there, beginning to open, reaching skyward


Exhausted by all the renovating work but battling a self-satisfied cheshire cat grin that has settled in to my face I stagger into the kitchen and bake a triumphant

pound cake

that we eat with strawberry compote and freshly made yoghourt

Jeffrey took me to Thornton hospital the next day and dropped me at the front. I negotiated very easily through several stations, several questionings, until eventually I made it to the Jacobson wing for Outpatient Surgery. The hospital was quiet, none of the usual hustle and bustle, and because the nurses were less harassed (though no doubt stressed by Covid) they were very genial and chatty. The bone marrow biopsy this time was a dream, after feeling pleasantly drowsy I drifted off and then was woken, not having felt at all the drilling through bone.

At home I walked through the arch of scented Sombreuil and onto the porch, where

the jasmine is now blooming

I stop and breathe, give thanks that we remain safe and alive. On the other side of the porch

the purple mandevilla

almost the sole survivor from when I bought the house, Annie must have planted it.

There are days when I don’t get out of my pajamas, and simply can’t face mixing up the dough for another effing loaf of bread. My friend Patricia Montoya posted a link to an article by Sabrina Orah Mark in The Paris Review (May 7, 2020). I stole her title today by way of homage because it resonated so precisely, the cackling it induced made me feel so much better. When Orah Mark called her her mother to complain that, like most of us, she couldn’t find either flour or yeast, anywhere, her mother retorted: “Fuck the bread. The bread is over.”

And then the Strawberries started Whimpering. Sunday May 10th

Lovely cool day. Woke at 5 and read a little of Hard Times – so dramatic, marvelous oratorical speeches, and magical conversions of villainy. The inventiveness of the language is breathtaking, like discovering a new plant that you could never have imagined

This week have been throwing myself into cooking and heavier garden work. First up fish pie After all that work in the garden needed some comfort food. Heike went to the fish market and got us some fish

An orange-hued fish pie! Because there weren’t enough potatoes I added in some yams (which looked fun but rather overwhelmed the subtlety of my oh-so delicate white sauce and the fish itself). Also, didn’t have enough fresh fish so added in a can each of salmon and tuna. That worked well. Somehow fish pie, like shepherd’s pie, always does the trick; like Dickens it can turn a hard or dull day into a marvel of festivity. It’s partly about texture – the merging of mashed potato with more gooey delights, and the surprise of comforting blandness shot through with unexpected tastes and aromas.

And of course I added in

fava beans

In the mornings I worked in the front garden before it was sun drenched, where the ongoing project is the pathway where I have been trying to keep the weeds out so that the dymondia

can grow between the stone paving.

Grass is the worst culprit but there is another alien moving into the territory: dichondra.

I suppose I will let them battle it out

and wait to see which survives best, with least pampering. Both of them, however, spread beyond the pathway and I suspect that the dichondra will be harder to keep under control. When did I plant it? I have no memory and suspect it’s wandered in here from some other garden. But I’m constantly amazed when I look back at photos and notes to recall the plants that once grew in this garden which I have entirely forgotten, or they have been edged out by the obsession of the moment.

Every so often I stand and stretch and then am deflected from the chore in hand by the need to pull grass and dandelions growing as high as the flowers. The wretched weed we call hydra is back, I think it’s ruella, it has a pretty purple flower, though I am trying to expunge them before they flower this year. The approach I take is one of attrition – with these plants that have  spreading rhizomatic roots it seems useless to try pulling, they just spread more aggressively. The way we finally conquered the bamboo was to cut cut cut, as soon as the shoots appeared, and eventually the roots were starved and died away. Eventually, however, can be  a long long time and attrition can wear down the perpetrator as well as the victim.

As well as grass and dandelions and other hopeful vagrants I thinned and wrenched from the earth a lot of fennel. The way it seeds and spreads would seem to assign it to the category of weeds. And it’s true that I seem to spend almost all the year thinning and pulling. Yet still I love to have it in my garden, front and back. As gardeners know the distinction between a flower garden and vegetable garden is not clear cut. All vegetables produce flowers. And many flowers can be eaten. One of the reasons for growing flowers in among the vegetables is that they attract pollinators – the butterflies and moths and humming birds. And one of the reasons for letting the fennel grow in the front yard, among the flowers and fruit trees, is that the foliage is fabulous – feathery and flowing, a willowy green. Then, when they bolt, they grow pretty high and bold and the flowers appear – large yellow umbals. 

Posh restaurants charge a lot for dishes mottled with fennel pollen, and here we have a meadow! But this is the real clincher

the roots


fennel grow long tap roots so they are great at breaking up and conditioning clay soil.

Then the strawberries started whimpering: After harvesting so many beautiful luscious squishy berries I felt remorseful for the way I have neglected them. I cleaned up the bed, getting rid of the dead leaves, composted, watered (the irrigation doesn’t seem to be working, tho it hardly matters now as they have mostly escaped the bed and put down roots all over) and then a jug of diluted fish oil and seaweed. I haven’t grown strawberries for about thirty years, so am kind of winging it. After this summer I will do some research and divide them properly.

After the renovations I felt better about eating the strawberries, gathered a bowl and on my way in to the kitchen, stopped by the chickens. They love strawberries even more than we do if that’s possible. I throw them the damaged berries, but not in any random fashion, it’s a skill to make sure they each get one, especially Lorelei the most timid. Isadora is the greediest and a bully to boot, and Gigi is the smartest. To begin with you have to know how to hoodwink Izzie, and then it all flows smoothly.

The strawberries we ate with some quickly made scones (or what, in this country are called biscuits) and a drizzle of cream

While weeding and cleaning in the front my frenzied mode would subside every so often, I’d sit sit back on my haunches and look around. And saw some surprising things growing in the garden

like a cat, hiding in the shadows

or a single remarkably late exhibitionist freesia

Suddenly while my back was turned, hunched over the weeds

Graham Thomas burst into bloom

and the first pomegranate blooms

turned into small fruit

Last year was the first fruiting year for this small bush and it yielded precisely ONE pomegranate, that was plucked and made off with by some villainous poacher, before it was even fully ripe. Growing fruit in the front yard I am happy to share, but that is just plain mean. Though of course it could be that the poacher was just seduced by the glorious shiny ruby-slippers quality of the fruit and imagined that, if in possession of the prize, they might be transported to the Land of Oz, or perhaps to somewhere rather more lascivious.

I was happy to hear last week from two gardeners in other parts of the world. My friend Liz Sisco, who has moved to Tucson with her husband Charlie for part of the year, sent me images of her developing garden. When I visited her in the New Year of 2019 (a great road trip with my old friend Lyndal Jones, a performance artist, who was here from Australia and keen to visit Biosphere which also intrigued both Liz and I) there was no garden. Tucson has such a different climate from San Diego. It snowed while we were there and now the temperature is over a 100 degrees. So Liz’s vegetables are growing in pots, very productively, and she has planted trees (fruit and others) and natives of various kinds. I particularly love this photo which shows

a very different garden

from what you have been seeing on my site. And here’s a close up of that elegant Parry’s penstemon, a wildflower native to the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona and northern Mexico.

The other message from afar came in the form of a posting from Judy Annear, who moved last year from Sydney to a town in the country about an hour from Melbourne. She writes, “As someone who never, until 6 months ago, had a garden I am slowly learning the nuanced lives of plants.” Not so slowly, I think, her description of the plant life in her neighborhood is so vivid. I believe that all her years as a photo historian and curator have trained her powers of observation to the nth degree, and close observation is a good part of gardening. I laughed at the way her quite lyrical posting ended thus: “The new romance with plants is somewhat back breaking, and I am deeply annoyed that the possums come in the night and shit in the birdbath.”

You can read her full posting as a comment at the end of ” Turning Something Sweet into Savory Delight,” Friday May 1st.

Oh what a difference a few hours, or a day, or a month makes. Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Here are the chamomile flowers, early in the day

And then, as the sun comes up, they elevate their petals 

and lift their game

Other changes take a little longer. Look at these poppies slowly, over days, lifting their heavy heads. 

You wonder how those slender necks can ever do it 

But they do. And then they open. They do it every year, and they come up all over the yard, back and front. Although they have changed color over the years, their purple hue grown more dusky. They grow from seeds, blown hither and thither, are not perennials, although they appear so.

Just as predictable as the return of the poppies is the return of my chronic cancer. A telehealth visit today with my CLL (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia) oncologist, Thomas Kipps. It wasn’t a surprise, I knew it already from the way my lab results have been trending, and fatigue creeping into each day. It wasn’t a surprise, but still it was a shock: time to start treatment again. It was a shock in that I was unprepared for how depressed this would make me feel. I think it’s the sense of being confined to the category of “sick person” again, and by this I don’t just mean “being sick” but rather, all the time and management that goes into being a patient: spending hours on the phone, endlessly making appointments, waiting for calls, investigating insurance, making sure that my different specialists confer and that treatments and drugs don’t clash. Scans and labs ahead, but worst of all, as I really dread it, is a bone marrow biopsy.

The Covid nightmare had fairly successfully brushed the phantom of cancer under the carpet. In the context of the pandemic my own little dis-ease is trivial. So many people affected in all sorts of devastating ways. But today they seem compounded, my own miseries and the misery of the planet. 

Analogies between human and plant bodies, or between the human body and a garden can only take you so far. But those analogies can, nevertheless, take you somewhere, somewhere better than a deep dark hole. Particularly when you harness the imagination. I sometimes imagine that my chronic cancer is a bit like a perennial plant. It comes and goes but never really disappears, sometimes it seems to have disappeared because it stays away for longer than usual, but then it pops back stronger than ever. Or, like the annual poppies, it turns up in a different place, slightly mutated. 

To cheer ourselves up we plucked and ate 

the first tomato

for lunch. The insects had wormed into part of it since it grew so low on the ground, but we had more than half and although it wasn’t zinging with full flavor, since the days have not been hot enough, it still tasted of summer.

I planted two seeds of the Row 7 Centercut squash (tromboncini), less than a week ago. 

Here they are, bursting through the soil, tiny but strong

When they are established I’ll snip one of them at soil level. Pulling could disturb the fragile roots of the one destined to remain. And in any case I usually prefer to cut plants at ground level rather than pull, so that the roots can rot in the ground and add to the fertility.

If a few hours can make a difference, or a few days, so too a few months. Fruit takes time. Here are the fejoa (pineapple guava) flowers

The two trees grow outside the kitchen window, on each side of a short path, watered by grey water from the laundry. If you took the Welcome tour you will have walked between them as you transitioned from the side of the house to the back yard. My idea is that when they grow tall enough they will meet overhead, forming an arch that you walk through into a different mini-world. Actually the idea of the arch came from my friend Tershia who has a great eye. The flowers are gorgeous, the fleshy pink petals edible. And when the flowers fall the bulbous part under the flower, the ovary, grows into fruit. 

we have not yet had fruit from these young trees but this year looks as though it will be bountiful

I love every part of this tree: look at the bark and the color of the leaves, deep dark olive on one side, soft grayish green on the other other. In the breeze it shimmies and glows.



We ended the day with comfort: a kimchi ramen (that same kimchi whose making was documented in The Duck and I), swimming in Jeffrey’s great stock and padded out with bits of chicken left over from his Sunday night roast

From Murder Hornets – Shock and Horror – to the Balm of Baking. Monday, May 4, 2020.

Each morning you rush out to the garden with your cup of coffee and then tiptoe around the beds where you’ve direct seeded, or approach quietly those plants that might be beginning to show signs of fruiting. You tiptoe without reason or rhyme, hold your breath and gently move a leaf here and there, searching for signs of emerging edibles.  You do not want to disturb them, you speak coaxingly in low tones, are inclined to break into a lullaby. 

look! look! the first tiny zucchini

It’s such an exciting time of the year, as the summer crop starts revving into life. My Doctor, MM, tells me that the quarantine has been so long that her kids have learned to plant a variety of seeds and actually seen them sprout and grow! I remember as a little kid the excitement and fun of watching maize seeds in a jar, captured between glass and blotting paper, sprout. And everyday at this time of year, for a short time each morning, I enter again that childhood zone where curiosity and revelation fuel the everyday, radiating wonder.

Here is the Jetsetter tomato I’ve been watching ripen day-by-day.

Almost there!

Slow planting continues – in the front yard: a cactus dahlia and green sunburst sunflower. Also some spreading vines, a bit of an experiment: an eight ball squash, and a sweet passion melon, one on each side. Also have a delicata squash to go in. Normally it’s not such a great idea to mix these snakelike creatures in with flowers and fruit trees, partly because they take up so much surface room and are likely to displace the more modest and delicate flowering beauties. Plus, they are greedy feeders and their requirements are different from the predominantly floral denizens of the landscape they are now inhabiting. Reading Lab Girl today Jahn reminds me that any plant is as big below ground as above. Moreover, I’ve never succeeded in the past – mixing in the squash and melons in the front. But this year I’ve made sure to situate the plants at water outlets, and will watch and nurture them closely. As the summer progresses the front yard becomes more and more bare as only the most sun loving flowers persist, therefore as the melon and squash expand so will the space around them.

Certainly it’s no option to leave the garden purely to its own devices. There is always a struggle between the stronger and weaker plants. And often those designations of ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ are not intrinsic qualities but have to do with climate, the soil, what kinds of nutrients are available, how strong the sun is, how long or short the days are. Take the African Blue Basil, planted between the fruit trees and the veg at back, mainly because it is a bee magnet, and also because it is beautiful and smells divine.

It is crowding out the little citrus tree it’s meant to be nurturing, and needs to be severely cut back. It’s a reminder to me of how invasives can thrive in certain environments and crowd out other plants, most injuriously, natives. Neither of these plants are native, it’s true; the environment I conjure into being is artificial, but equally we might say that most environments are stochastic and even the most apparently wild, if they have been traversed or occupied by humans and touched by their baggage at some stage, require constant vigilance.

After feeling the bush vibrate with the whirring hum of bees I come inside and read, horror-struck, about the ‘murder hornets’, an Asian insect that has hit US shores and is beginning to decimate bee populations. The report is grueling to read, detailing scenes of savagery and carnage. On top of everything else they have to contend with, namely toxic sprays, the bees now have to face this. And the repercussions for our crops if the pollinators disappear is devastating. The story is all over the media, reported in all major newspapers. I go to my ‘go to’ site for further information – the Facebook group, San Diego Gardener, started by Nan Sterman and John Clements. This is an amazing resource, composed of experienced gardeners and professionals as well as absolute beginners. People post fascinating photos and snippets of info and links to useful sites, and people ask questions and get helpful responses. I don’t even have to start searching for ‘murder hornets’; the topic comes up straightaway. Someone posts a link to an entomologist, Doug Yanega, from UC Riverside, who has worked on the hornet, and states categorically that there are no living murder hornets in the U.S. Suddenly all the panic stories are discredited, the hype dies down, and the fear of invasion is put on hold. Though the paranoia simmers away. While it certainly behoves us to be alert to the invasive patterns of particular flora and fauna, the irruption of the hornets panic suggests a displaced form of the xenophobia that exists not far below the surface of this country’s hospitable ethos.

To recover from the shock of the murder hornets I turned to the balm of baking. Gathered chard and oregano and eggs from the garden and using the goats cheese that came our way via Heike I made an easy tart. Deborah Madsen has a  recipe for a yeasty rustic dough which I often use – you simply press it into the quiche dish and don’t have to prebake. The pine nuts got a little burnt but still tasted delish.

But not all my baking works. A loaf of bread emerged from the oven

looking and feeling like a heavy discus

Jeffrey’s suggestion is that we use it to hurl at the squirrel – cackling and purloining with shameless impunity – that torments us.

However, I can’t resist posting a better looking bread. Even though I know that by so doing I enter, cravenly, into covid-one-up-manship, the puerile posting of feeble achievements in domestic adaptation and ingenuity.

Turning something sweet into a savory delight. Friday, May 1, 2020

In the morning  Steve brought around a tray of plantlets and a bag of lemons for me to preserve as we are almost at the end of the current jar. Here is an image of his potting shed. I’m lucky that he brings plants to me, but this photo does beckon me into the space, it’s so seductive, a gardener’s delight—so many unusual plants, so carefully tended.

And what about those beautiful old fashioned watering cans, so elegantly designed and gloriously preplastic.

Before Covid and after he retired Steve used to come around early on Thursday mornings and weed for an hour. What a friend!

and then Jeffrey would make each of us a poached egg, gathered freshly from the three generous harpies

today we gave Steve a slice of the savory matza brei J made for lunch. It was delicious.

By this gesture – turning something sweet into a savory delight–J managed to turn the tables on a malevolent ghost that has haunted our relationship. When we first met J tried to seduce me by an offering of matza brei, which needless to say he did not know that I hated. Really hated, to the extent of feeling queezy when faced by its stickily sweet lumpishness. Needless to say the seduction did not work, and we’ve muddled along, but this barely suppressed failure (on my part, to overcome sticky earlier marital associations; and on his part to misjudge my taste and person, imagining me to be a much sweeter person than I am) has existed as a sort of ghost at the table, a bit like Elijah, never there but still taking up space, and always threatening to materialize. So, when J was inspired yesterday to turn matza brei into the most delicious savory concoction, he banished the ghost, and I guess it means we will stagger on together into the twilight.

There is a covid ritual to these exchanges: We all wear masks, Steve deposits his gifts on the stoop and steps back at least six feet. I bring in the bag of lemons, wearing gloves, and then put out his wrapped slice of matza brei and step back again, and we exchange the day’s news.

In the vegetable garden I planted out another green fingers pickling cucumber to make up the trio at the base of the tepee, a pepper from Craig, and three marigolds, and tied up the tomatoes, reusing the twine that was holding the favas upright.

Lesley Ruda, my oldest friend in the world—we grew up together in Zimbabwe, and she now lives in San Francisco—sent me, even before she saw my last post about delphinium color, a pic she had taken walking in the Golden Gate Park

true blue

And speaking of color, look at the foliage on the Persimmon; it seems that it was only a few weeks ago that it was a bare scraggy twig sticking up out of the ground

now: vivid chartreuse foliage, which will darken and drop as the fruits ripen, turning densely orange

Secret is in full bloom again, the most lovely and most highly scented of the roses that still grow in the front yard 

You can also see, also in full bloom, and dwarfing our house, Mme Alfred Carrière, an antique climber, released in France in 1879, considered to be a Noisette though its blooms are more Bourbon-like. It has nearly thornless canes, is a repeat bloomer, and seems to suffer no diseases here. There is a fun story of how I came by this rose, but that must wait for another time. The salvia is Indigo Spires that has been growing in this garden since its inception, though it meanders around, always returning, however, to roost with Secret—an harmonious pair.

In the evening I cut the fat fennel from the cucumber bed, chopped it into tiny pieces and used it, with onions, as a base for my version of Sicilian pasta. Fennel and sardines, pine nuts and raisins, tomato paste and saffron. When I lived in Sydney I would use fresh sardines, but they are hard to come by here. We were lucky, however, to have a can of large succulent aromatic sardines from Portugal – part of a package of rare cheeses, luxury canned fish and ham that arrived as a gift from Katie and Susan for my birthday. I only wish we could have shared the bounty with them. But we will do some sharing when we are released.

With a final scattering of snipped fennel fronds.

We ate the pasta with a bright green salad from the garden, one of the last of the season.

It is too hot here for lettuces to grow, in the summer, without a great deal of coddling