Writing: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

At the New Year, writers always resolve to write more. That’s a given for me. Other than that, I’m not going to get squishy about all the other resolutions I probably ought to make. In retrospect, 2014 was generally a good writing and publishing year. Early in the year, I published Howie’s Hungabird Dilemma in which a determined Howie figured out how to Howie's Hungabird Dilemmakeep his crotchety neighbor lady from trying to whack the hummers with her tennis racquet. Crazy plot, huh? It was inspired by a third-hand rumor about a woman who did just that. How could I not write about it? Some adults had trouble with “hungabird,” but my kid readers got it!

My next book, Three Sisters Garden, was intended to come out in October but was plagued with unexpected ghosts and gremlins. Excellent illustrator, Casie Trace, developed a carpal tunnel-like problem in her precious

Three Sisters Gardenright hand and couldn’t paint for weeks. Then later, the full bleeds didn’t fully bleed, meaning the book had to be reformatted by my ever-patient and resilient book designer Rita Ter Sarkissoff. Simultaneously, my ebook version got hung up in dueling KDP accounts. We finally solved that issue. Kind of. All formats are up and available. Sigh. This book is not only about three little girls gardening but is the modern version of the American Indian tradition of planting corn, beans and squash together in one mound. Gai's Go-Away-Come-Back Garden

Now, my next children’s gardening book, Gai’s Go-Away-Come-Back Garden, is slated to be published in April. Illustrator for this book, Jack Wiens, is diligently working on his paintings–and they are outstanding! What goes away and comes back in a garden? Perennials, butterflies, hummingbirds, snails, Gai lets the lightning bugs go.lightning bugs … and, Gai’s parents and his babysitter. (Oh, how he dislikes that word!)

In a grand departure from children’s gardening books, I may just publish a collection of short stories entitled Adventures of the Hotel Sisters. In the 1920s, five little sisters did in fact grow up in a hotel–my mother and four aunts. However, the adventures are wildly imagined, fabricated, and fictionalized. While my kid gardening books are for grades K-3, the Hotel Sisters  in Teens & 20sHotel Sisters is for an older audience, grades 4-7 or 8. If I do keep my single resolution to write more, it will be focused mostly on the Hotel Sisters–with perhaps one additional gardening book for good measure. Please stay tuned to this blog, my website sandybakerwriter.com and Facebook.com/sandybakerauthor.

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You CAN Have an English Cottage Garden

My article first appeared on the Sonoma County Master Gardener website a few years ago. It’s still relevant today as we enter our fourth year of drought here in Northern California. It’s a long article, but if you love English cottage gardens, you’ll love reading this.

Even in these lawn-eliminating, water-conserving days, the sand-boulder-gravel-dry river bed-cactus look of Arizona yards isn’t for everyone. If you want instead to have an English cottage garden, you can! If you are crazy about the colorful charm, the carefree (but carefully planned) cottage look, you can have it and save water, too. Some of the proposed plants may differ from the “original” cottage garden species, but you’ll get the look and use less water while you’re at it! The key is to PLAN NOW, PLANT LATER.IMG_0484

The original English “cottagers” were frugal, not frivolous, and filled their tiny front yards with a combination of vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and a few flowers, especially fragrant ones to camouflage the unpleasant odors emanating from harsh cottage living conditions. Cottage gardens evolved over time, sometimes with formally planted beds and later with a generally more exuberant and chaotic appearance. Our sentimental attraction to the style perhaps makes us feel that the scones are ready to be pulled out of the oven and tea served.

If you like the look, then you are going to be thrilled when I tell you that many of the plants I suggest are original English cottage garden varieties. First of all, no (or few) roses and hydrangeas. I know, I know, you feel they’re a must-have! They aren’t. They’re water hogs, but the trade-off will be a lovely, fruit-bearing apple or pear tree.

Habitat0090Think in terms of layers: descending from the back, tall to medium to short. Think ecstatic eruptions: wide variety and no commitment to a single color or species. Think fragrance: perfumes that will grab your olfactory sense and pull you straight into the midst. Think verticality: trellis or arbor cloaked with romantic climbing, twining vines. Think interplanting: edibles and ornamentals. Think endless waves of blooming. Think butterflies and hummingbirds. Think people: add a bench, stepping-stones, a birdbath. Bring your camera.

Small Trees and Shrubs  Consider height, but in terms of smaller trees. Two natives come immediately to mind, one, the Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’, actually a shrub limbed up as a tree, an evergreen with brilliant medium-blue flowers in the spring. Deer can decimate ceanothus, but with this one pruned above deer-height, it ought to thrive. The second is Cercis occidentalis, another spring-blooming native, often multi-trunked but tree-like. Redbud is its common name, but the flowers are more a deep magenta. You can spot it in the early spring on the hillsides and along creeks and canyons. Or try RibesIMG_0237

Other small tree candidates include Olea europaea ‘Wilsoni’ and ‘Little Ollie’, both non-fruit bearing olive trees. Fremontodendron californica, or flannel bush, is more shrub-like, but it can become quite large and bushy if it’s happy in its location. Do not water this once established, or you will kill it. You’ll recognize the three-inch bright yellow mallow-type flowers in late spring and its hairy, rough, maple-like dark green leaves. You already know crape myrtle does well here because you see it blooming magnificently all over the county beginning in July; shrub and tree forms come in many colors from lavender to pink to red.IMG_0936
Another good tree (or shrub, depending upon how you prune it) is Vitex agnus-castus or chaste tree. Upright lavender, white or pink spikes bloom from late June through August at least. Or, if you want to mix in an edible, then add an apple or pear dwarf variety and keep it pruned that way. Think of how beautiful the blossoms look in the spring and how they both attract bees, a beneficial insect we need in our gardens! And, you get to eat the fruit! They do take some water, however.

Buddleia, or butterfly bush, is a welcome addition to any cottage garden, stunningly fragrant and in pink, lavender, purple, and white. They can be dwarf or grow upwards of 10-12 feet. I’ve fallen for Eriogonum, or buckwheat, a CA native that comes in many varieties, sizes, and colors. For a dramatic show-stopper, choose E. giganteum or, St. Catherine’s lace. The creamy flower heads can be 18 inches across and appear like huge bouquets of Queen Anne’s lace. Give it space and no water once it’s established. I prune it for shape and size control in late spring. A number of other appropriate shorter buckwheats will do fine towards the front of the garden: E. fasciculatum and E. grande var. rubescens, red buckwheat, more a dark pink or crimson.

IMG_1943 Climbers   In my mind, a cottage garden just about always has a picket fence, a trellis or an arbor of some sort. None of these is mandatory, nor is the cottage itself, but climbing vines or vegetables have always been part of this style garden. A sturdy arbor or pergola is perfect for wisteria, either the lavender or white variety. Solanum jasminoides, or potato vine, works well too, floriferous though not fragrant like the wisteria. The potato vine, usually white, is airier than wisteria but gets tangly and becomes home to nesting birds. Keep both these vines in check with fearless annual pruning.

Don’t forget morning glories. Of course there are always the cottage garden sweet peas, glorious in their colors and fragrance. They and their cousins the edible peas are climbers and look lovely against a wall or even trained up a small tree or shrub. Other edibles to add to the mix might be pole beans and tomatoes.

Smaller Shrubs, Herbs, Perennials  Many of the plants mentioned so far share a common characteristic: their foliage is gray or gray-green, just about always signaling a certain degree of drought tolerance. It’s not 100% foolproof but always a trait at least to check on. A group of plants exhibiting exactly this trait includes yarrow, dusty miller, artemesia, lamb’s ears, Russian sage, hyssop, the succulent sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and santolina or lavender cotton. All of these are typical for cottage gardens and provide a good combination of color, texture, and fragrance.

IMG_0302An authentic cottage garden wouldn’t be complete without lavender, would it? Add the early-blooming Lavandula ‘Stoechas’, the June-blooming L. angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’, and finally L. ‘Provence’ or ‘Grosso’. You’ll have waves of heavenly fragrant lavender flowers from March through late July. You will swoon with the scent and seeds, and so will the bees, butterflies, and finches! Another aromatic plant to include is rosemary, color busting out with the daffodils in January and lasting for several months. What a joy it is to see that purply-blue in the doldrums of winter! Other herbs common to a cottage garden are oregano, thyme, and marjoram, either the ornamental or culinary varieties.

The salvias, commonly called sage, are excellent choices as well. Some standouts might include S. greggii, autumn sage, now in shades of pink, red, coral, and bi-color and a favorite of hummingbirds. The larger varieties S. clevelandii, brandegei, leucantha, leucophylla, and microphylla are all exceptional, wonderfully scented, and attractive to both butterflies and hummers. Perfect for a ground cover is our own S. sonomensis; however, it appreciates a bit of shade. There are more than 900 salvia species, many of them California natives and quite appropriate for your cottage garden. Some are airy and see-through, some are more dense and shrubby, some are woody, and some herbaceous. Betsy Clebsch’s A Book of Salvias and her follow-on A New Book on Salvias are two of the best books around on the subject.

IMG_0622For some brighter colors with a prairie look, add black-eyed Susan, blanket flower, milkweed, Verbena bonariensis and rigida, and the beautifully airy Gaura lindheimeri, or whirling butterflies. The verbenas and gaura can seed around a bit, so keep your eye on them. And not to be excluded are the lovable, sentimental hollyhocks, a flower that every grandmother’s garden had in it. Nowadays, they come in shades of light pink and yellow to almost black.

Spikey flowers always contribute textural and height interest that draws the eye upward from the lower mounding plants. Try watsonia, iris, ixia, liatris, Russell lupines, and red-hot poker. Mixing them in with the native grasses muhlenbergia, blue-eyed grass, or California fescue provides a provocative study in contrasting form and color.

Rooters and Runners, Seeders and Sowers   Cottage gardens tend to be informal, exuberant and “natural” in appearance because true cottagers didn’t mind a little self-seeding, with plants traveling here and there, filling in empty spaces. They liked “free” seeds and plants to share with neighbors. The plants I note next have personalities and goals of their own and like to travel by seed or underground roots and runners. These are drought tolerant but assertive; give them water and they turn aggressive! They add sooooo much to a cottage garden, but they bear watching! Take heed.

IMG_0308Borage is an old-fashioned herb and one of my favorites, though some dislike it intensely for its seeding-around habit and its hairy, prickly, sticky leaves and stems. Despite those traits, I love it because it blooms early and long, it’s intensely blue, it attracts tens of hundreds of bees, and the flowers can be used in salads or as garnish on other foods. When it’s gone to seed, I toss the seedheads onto barren or weedy places where new plants will appear next season, or perhaps even later this year.

Cerinthe is great in sun or dry shade. It’s about 12-18” high with mottled gray-green foliage and tiny dark purple pendant flowers. A 4” gift plant can turn into hundreds, reliably each spring; I deadhead the plants and sprinkle the seedheads to places I want additional plants the following spring. I am not disappointed. When the cerinthe are spent, I pull out all the plants and recycle them, but not in my own compost pile which may not heat up enough to decompose the seeds.

The same goes for nigella damescena, or love-in-a-mist. Someone gave me a handful of seed-filled pods one year. I now have millions, I swear. They have feathery green foliage topped by cornflower-like blooms in three shades of blue, pink, or white. They’re cottage garden-perfect. However, once you have them, you will never not have them. They are prodigious seeders, but I like them anyway because they fill in the blanks between the decline of irises and other early bloomers and the burst of June-blooming perennials. And the pods are excellent for dried autumn arrangements and wreaths.

Linnaria, Jupiter’s beard, Mexican evening primrose, rose campion, and four o’clocks have habits similar to the three just noted above. They are all drought tolerant and wonderfully worthy of cottage gardens. As someone once said to me about these plants, “Be careful what you wish for.” It is their genetic responsibility to thrive and survive—and they will. It is your responsibility to decide if you want them in your garden.

IMG_0945And finally, one flower I have not mentioned but must include is helianthus, or sunflower. It’s so uniquely American. The books officially say it takes a “lot” of water. Unofficially I say, nonsense. I typically have a half-dozen bird-planted sunflowers in places where I would never personally plant them, on barren, unirrigated packed adobe dirt! Somehow the seeds germinate and the plants grow. If I remember, I’ll give them an occasional squirt of water, and that’s it. Sunflowers are spectacular; birds feed on the seeds, and finches love the leaves.

Many paragraphs ago, I advised you to PLAN NOW, PLANT LATER. The hot, droughty summer is coming and we’re all on water restriction. When you put in new plants, they require extra water until becoming established. Now is the time to plan your cottage garden–it is not the time to do a major planting. Fall is when you want to do it instead: mornings are dewy-damp, days are cooler, and the rains are coming. Vegetative top growth slows and stops, but the roots are actively growing and establishing themselves.

Habitat0036So use the hot days of summer to sit in the shade and plan which plants you want to include in your new garden. Visit nurseries and their websites to check out the plants I’ve mentioned; even take photos. Some nurseries have excellent demo gardens where you can see the plants in situ. Then buy and install in the fall and let the rains naturally do the irrigating for you (for free). Come springtime, you will be amazed at the growth and lushness of your young cottage garden. And, an added advantage of planting in the fall is that many nurseries hold sales; you will get some real deals on your new cottage garden plants!

Happy cottage gardening!

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Prompts Inspire Writing

Do you have days when you simply cannot think of a thing to write? In fact, have you ever experienced writer’s block for weeks or months? You’re brain- dead, uninspired; life is boring, you’ve heard no interesting conversations, upside down carBlue gatewitnessed no exciting or weird events, there’s nothing. Try writing to a prompt.  What’s a prompt? Non-writers don’t know what that means or think you’re nuts. It’s a tip, an idea, a push, a clue, a trigger, a little something to get your creative juices going. It can be a picture, a word, or an object. A prompt can tickle your brain, reawaken a repressed emotion, recall a long-ago event, stimulate a Ferris wheelshiver or laugh, feel disgust. Certainly any of these reactions are good for a quick poem, short story, vignette, or brief memoir. PlayhouseWhen seeing or hearing a prompt, I’ve found that quickly putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and just writing is the best way to capture my immediate and honest response. I always return to rewrite, expand, add description, action verbs, emotions. Look at the photos embedded in this post. I pulled them out randomly from my files. Use any of them to inspire you to write something, Plant gianttombstonesanything. Spooky, cute, nostalgic, charming, frightening? Use your emotion to write. Take a prompt-writing class. Go to a website, such as http://thewritespot.us/marlenecullenblog/, where you will get a prompt practically every day. And just write!

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THIRST: An ode to hummer, monarch, and drought

THIRST

High-spirited hummingbird thirsty and parched

searches unceasing for moisture so scarce 1 hummer

flies to the fountain for droplets of froth

soars through the sprinkler for a sip on the fly

inspects a curled leaf to drain hidden dew

grabs a short shower in the garden hose spray

and zips to the birdbath, diving down for a drink. 70 HUMMERS OVERWINTER

While monarch stands still at the pond’s shallow edge

unfurling proboscis to suck and to savor

hummer hovers to dip slender bill for a taste.

Two creatures divergent in language and form

silently aware the other exists  MONARCH ON BUDDLEIA

share space to slake thirsts on a hot droughty day.

Sandy Baker ©2014 (reprinted from Redwood Writers 2014 Anthology Water)

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Outlander Captivates Me!

I do not have time to read 850-page books. I barely get through my monthly book club books. I need to write. My garden beckons. I have Master Gardener and Redwood Writers obligations. Oh, and there’s my husband, my house, and the laundry that all require attention! A dear The Outlanderfriend lent me Diana Gabaldon’s The Outlander, a big fat paperback that she’s read twice. Thanks a lot, Lucy! I am now into the fifth book in the series in as many weeks. I cannot put the books down!

I’m not even a Scot, but being so drawn in as I read, I almost feel like one. Gabaldon’s books are epic novels, historical novels, time travel novels, all mixed into one, who knows? Because I do not have any more space on my bookshelves for 850-950- page books, I have Dragonfly-in-Amberuploaded about eight of them onto my iPad–which I now carry everywhere! I sneak in a few pages or a chapter waiting in the dentist’s office, waiting for a friend at a restaurant, waiting in line at the grocery store, at bedtime, or whenever I find a few extra minutes between one activity and the next.

I write 32-page children’s gardening picture books with a plot and have co-authored one 300-page international intrigue novel (The Tehran VoyagerTriangle). I’m stuck in the middle of TTT’s sequel. To know that Gabaldon has written eight of what she calls her “enormous” books plus smaller novels and novellas in between is quite amazing to me. I applaud her, commend her, and cheer her on. And I can’t read them fast enough!

Drums of AutumnHer books are enriched with history (mid-1700s in Scotland, England, France, and the early American colonies plus 1946 and forward in the U.S.), medical terminology and procedures including childbirth, plants, herbal The Fiery Crossministrations; geographical and topographical description; period clothing and food; American Indian lore and practices; nautical terminology and descriptions; plus poignant family relationships and passionate romance. And it’s all so well-written and interesting that I cannot stop reading them!

I have not watched the series on television as I am able to watch it in my mind and feel it in my heart as I read each book. I’m there, hiking up my long skirt to slog through the mud, cooking on open fires, sheltering from the rain in caves (these are the easy scenes), and flying through the cleft in the stone circle to a time and place that already happened 200 years ago. Start with Outlander and you won’t put Gabaldon’s books down. Hooked on books is a good thing! (Just what DO those Scotsmen wear under their kilts??)

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Three Sisters Gardening is Real

Meet the Iroquois “three sisters” of gardening: corn, squash, and beans. A long time ago, the Iroquois knew that those vegetables could happily grow together in a single mound. Three Sisters Garden In my upcoming book Three Sisters Garden, they are known as Cara, Sara, and Bari.

The three vegetables are companions that thrive through cooperation: corn is tall and provides the vertical support for climbing beans, and the large leaves of squash planted at the base provide shade for moisture retention and pest control. Today’s gardeners and nutritionists know that these vegetables provide carbohydrates, vitamins, and proteins necessary for us to stay healthy. They are fun to plant using this method and delicious to eat. Cara, Sara, and Bari find that out although the sisters aren’t always cooperative!

Corn, Squash, Beans 19Upon learning about the Iroquois tradition, I was inspired to interpret it into a modern educational version as a children’s gardening book. Illustrator Casie Trace has beautifully put my words into charming and clever pictures. This will be my seventh children’s gardening book, following this year’s Howie’s Hungabird Dilemma and Color My Garden, a habitat gardening coloring book in both English and Spanish. Three Sisters Garden is supposed to be released before the holidays. I’m definitely keeping my fingers crossed.

Gardeners have found that planting these three vegetables together is also a space-saving device. If your gardening space is limited, plant them in a half wine barrel. Or, you could plant them in mounds in a narrow side yard, in a small plot next to a patio, or even in your front yard where you’ve removed some or most of your water-guzzling lawn. You need soil enriched with compost, lots of sun, and access to water.

Yes, vegetables require water, and even though you may be trying to conserve water, vegetables give you something in return that lawn does not: food! You’ll also find that the blooms on the plants will attract bees and butterflies for pollinating–just what we need for a healthy and productive garden!  There’s plenty of kid fun and good gardening information on my user-friendly website www.sandybakerwriter.com. My children’s gardening books are available there as well.

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Secret Garden Sanctuary

Visualize an almost-secret space in your garden, a secluded sanctuary, even spiritual, where you can sit, stare, sleep, think, read, or sip tea. Everyone Secret gatedeserves such a secluded spot. And it must be a separate place where you cannot see the garden chores staring at you, but one which gives you a stunning view of your flowers, the ocean, a stream, or the woods.

Seriously consider a small place, surrounded by something substantial: a lattice-covered wall behind you with climbing honeysuckle or jasmine or sweet peas to stir your olfactory senses. Or use the side of your potting shed or barn or other outbuilding your hidden gazeboaway from snoopy visitors or silly kids and then enclose with trellis or lean-to. You want to feel cozy, enclosed, surrounded, safe.

Add a simple bench with plumped up pillows, a soft throw for breezy days or chilly evenings; a little table or chest for your tea or for storing your book or journal. On either side plant some shrubs with fragrant and soothing blue blooms, such as lavender, upright rosemary, or butterfly bush, to inspire serenity.

Path to somewhereLeading to your special space but partially hidden by other blue, lavender, gray, and white flowers, perhaps install a slate stepping stone pathway, inter-planted with low-growing thymes or chamomile. On each side, place screening plants, such as butterfly bush, tall verbena, or lavatera. They will attract beautiful butterflies and bees which are efficient pollinators and wonderful to sit quietly and watch in your solitude. Sneak in your digital camera and capture them at work. If your growing conditions are such, plant a pair of dwarf citrus trees whose fragrant blooms will send your senses soaring.

private garden benchAs for additional plants, try a range of grays such as artemesia, licorice plant, curry plant, fescue, blue oat grass or other ornamental grasses. Add some blues like low-growing veronica, forget-me-nots, and the re-seeding annual love-in-a-mist. For white highlights, include Shasta daisies or alyssum.

Sactuary for writingConsider adding several shepherd hooks from which to suspend candleholders or lanterns to spread a bit of diffused light when you wish to sit in the evening after the sun has set, the crickets have begun their song, and the fireflies are dotting the dark. The sweet scents of the lavender, salvia, and jasmine infuse the still air, stirring your soul to say thanks for one more glorious day.

Your own playhouseI have seen and dreamed and desired and designed such a space. I had one where the vines grew up over the heavy wire trellis. Beneath it was a pillow-covered antique bed-bench and a little table for my coffee mug. But we moved, and now I must begin again. It is not too much to wish for. You, too, deserve a special, secluded space for sitting and staring and thinking and sipping coffee, a place for inspired writing, inspired gardening.

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