Nitrogen Junkies

I have a love/hate relationship with annuals. Linda Gay, the director of Mercer Arboretum here in Houston calls them nitrogen junkies, because of their dependence on fertilizer — and lots of it — for that signature ‘pop’ of color that they bring to our landscapes.

Here in Houston, we see lots of salvias, the periwinkle blue of Russian salvia, the deep red of Salvia Greggii, even some lovely white varieties, which I particularly like because they make me feel cooler, even when the temps are in the high 90s. (Six months out of our year.) While petunias used to be impossible for us due to the heat, there have been several heat-resistant varieties introduced in recent years that work quite well. Then there are the grasses. Lovely for their contribution of texture and motion to the landscape, I use several in a variety of locations. Grass at least is not as dependent on nitrogen for its allure as the other, more colorful annuals.

So how do we enable these plants in their addiction? The following advice from a Better Homes and Garden’s article shows you the standard advice.

For flowering annuals, use an all-purpose plant food, such as a 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 formula. Flowering plants have a special need of phosphorous and potassium to realize their blooming potential. Foliage plants will flourish with a formula higher in nitrogen (the first of the three numbers in a fertilizer formula).

But do we need to heed this advice? Well, short answer is yes. If you want blooms on your plants, you must provide the food they need to produce the flowers. There are, however, additional ways to provide the nutrition they crave without dumping 5-10-5 on them every two weeks:

  • Build your soil — use compost to amend your soil so that it holds on to its nutrients better.
  • Water every other week with compost tea.
  • Consider using more perennials to build your landscape — still holding to the two above tenants to get them to give you the colorful blooms you want.

Happy gardening!

Whirled Peas

“For the love of Pea, won’t you please grow?”

This is me, nervously watching, and occasionally verbally abusing, my spring plantings. I’ve currently got potatoes, fennel, cabbage (left from the fall) broccoli (ditto) and brussel spouts (ditto). I know I’ll never see actual edible stuff off that broccoli and brussel sprout plants, but I can’t give up on them, I just can’t. (But I’ve planted a few broccoli seeds, just in case.)

So far, the highlight of the coming of spring is the duet of Asparagus tips that appeared this week in the clump I established last year. If I hadn’t noticed them because Buttons was peeing on them, I might have harvested them…but now…thanks to the 6 pound wonderdog, not going there. (Note to self: put up fencing around the clump to prevent future “watering”.)

But those peas…wait…I think I see some green!

What do you mean you can’t see it? OK, I”ll go back out and take a better picture…

Wow those grow quickly! (Actual time-lapse between photos is three days.)

These are Lincoln garden peas, which I look forward to crunching in my spring salads. Last year I only got about three pea pods off my peas, but the year before I got tons, well, was able to freeze about two cups, and had fresh peas in my spring salads for about two months. Mmmmm. Lincoln peas are supposed to do better in warm climates. South Texas counts as warm which is why I’m planting this variety this time around.

Bed Prep:

  • Check the soil Ph. Optimum conditions for peas are a soil with a pH of between 6.0 or 7.0.
  • Add compost to make sure you have a good level of healthy soil.

Planting:

  • Inoculate your seed for better healthy growth.
  • Direct seed, space at 2″.
  • Plant 2″ deep.
  • Create Rows 2″ apart.
  • Sow additional seed in additional bed space every 2 – 3 weeks for succession plantings.

When to plant:

  • Depends on your climate.
  • Like cool weather, but are susceptible to easy freeze damage.

Where to plant:

  • Like raised beds for good drainage.
  • Rotate your crops. (Even if you have a small garden! The bed pictured above had squash and cucumbers in it last season, so the rotation worked out well for me.)
  • If you find that your peas turn dark they may have a fungal disease. Remove and dispose of separately. Don’t turn under as this won’t do you any favors — only continues the problem in that bed’s soil.

Happy gardening!

Write Away

I’ve been in revisionist country lately, so haven’t done much new writing. The best thing about all this is that I enjoy revising. It’s so much easier than doing the rough draft. I liken revision to working with clay on a potter’s wheel. Shaping, scraping away unwanted flaws, imprinting patterns, changing the shape of it so that it is more pleasing. Writing a book is like building the clay molecule by molecule, word by word. Once you get that clay into a basic shape, you have your rough draft.

Editing, now, that’s where the hard work of spinning all that clay pays off. You can pinch and pull, turn it around to look at it from all sides — and do whatever the hell you want to with it because you created it. It didn’t “happen that way” because that’s the way you wrote it the first time around. Even if you are channeling Ernest Hemingway, you might be getting interference on the line.

Here’s my recipe for revision:

Ingredients:

  • One completed manuscript.
  • One completed storyboard for each scene.
  • List of overused words: a short example of mine are…just, very, anything ending in ‘ly’, ‘ing’ or fronted by ‘was’, ‘to be’, whatever my critique group says is my word of the month.
  • One finger capable of hitting delete even if I really like that sentence.

Scenes: Pull out the storyboards. On the basis of the info on the page, state why that scene belongs in the book and why it belongs where it is in the narrative. Cut any scenes that don’t move the action, motivation, or character growth forward.

Characters: Do they all form a vital function in the storyline? If not, do they need to stay as a supporting character. Have I over-described supporting characters? (Don’t want the reader to finish the book and wonder about what happened to him/her.)

Dialogue: Read it out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it fit the character who is speaking? Is it age/geographically/gender/socio-economic/etc. appropriate?

Exposition: Where is your white space? (hint: usually around your dialogue or fast-moving action.) Lay your chapter pages out and see if there are any dense areas. Look at them. Does it work? Does it need breaking up? Do you need more description because all you have is dialogue?

Sentence Structure: Have you ended sentences with prepositions? (In dialogue it’s ok, otherwise avoid.) Do all your sentences follow the ‘Subject, verb, Bang/Pow!’ format, or do you have a pleasing variation of sentence structures.

Punctuation: How many commas can you take out and still breathe while reading the work out loud. Did you use parentheses, semi-colons, colons, and quotation marks correctly?

Repeats: (AKA Deja Vu.) How many times do you use a word in the same paragraph? It sometimes throws a reader off if you touch someone on the shoulder over and over again. Have them take their honey’s hand before the awkward pat on the shoulder. Do you have two scenes that seem eerily similar?

Touch/See/Taste/Smell/Emote All The Senses: We don’t just see things. We feel them in a myriad of ways throughout our body. Develop a vocabulary that includes the taste of happiness on the tongue and the fear of fire on our skin.

Color your way to a visual understanding: I go through my rough draft in printout form, using my nifty box of 48 color Crayons to mark sections with sentence structure. Underline the Subject/verb/object sentences in blue, the ones with an independent marker in the middle with orange, and ones where I use fragments with red. And so on. This gives me a nice visual for the rhythm without me having to worry about missing something because I got distracted and didn’t notice I had an entire page of sentences with the same structure. I do the same thing with dialogue, each character getting a different color. I usually do this along the right side of the manuscript page. I mark the left margin of the page with plot. Is the action centered on the main plot or a subplot? Again, each plot line gets its own color.

Then I revise the electronic copy, print it out and do it all again.

Eventually it pleases me enough to let it go. Or the deadline hits me over the head and I have to let it go. Either way it is a darn sight prettier than it was when it started.

I’ve now finished five novels. (Three in print. One more in half-way to rough draft-dom status.) Despite the fact that I could conceivably consider myself an experienced novelist, I still have to do this for each and every book I write. It takes me a year to write a book — at the least. There’s a lot to forget about the process in that amount of time. Must be why I face the blank page of each new book with a feeling of complete and utter panic.

What am I thinking?

I know I’ve done this before, but I have no clue what I’m doing!

Fortunately, now I can go back to some of these blog entries and have at it.

Happy Writing!

Divide and Conquer

I have a lovely stand of Mailbox Pink Crinums in my side garden. (So named because the gardening friend who gifted them to me had them planted by her mailbox and she had no earthly idea what variety they really were.) I first planted this set of beds ten years ago and it is certainly grown into a welcoming place.

However, despite all the welcoming feelings, this past year I noticed a snake in the midst of my perfect paradise. (This actually literally happened, but I’m only speaking metaphorically for the moment.) My bulbs were in desperate need of more space. Since that meant that either I needed to dig up the Desert Willow and relocate it — or divide the bulbs, I picked the latter.

  • Outline the area. I used my shovel to put a line in the dirt around the area where the bulbs currently reside. This is more difficult than you might think when you have five different varieties of bulbs in one spot. Hint: Crinums are the big ones; narcissus are the small ones.
  • Decide how large a space you want the final clump to cover.
  • Dig up your bulbs. Some sources tell you to pull everything, some say just the outside areas. I pulled them all.
  • Amend your soil while you’ve got the space. I use compost from my pile plus a little organic fertilizer such as pelleted chicken manure or cottonseed meal.
  • Replace as many bulbs as will comfortably fit into the space you want your future clump to fill.
  • Pot up the rest. Share the wealth with friends.

Once the freezes are over, we can all exchange as many starts as we want! If you’re in Houston and want some of the Mailbox Pink Crinum, let me know.

Tea Sipping

Image from www.designedtoat.com

In Texas a Tea Sipper is a name given the University of Texas students by the Aggies, a rival state institution. I always laugh when I hear someone say this as if it’s a bad thing, because I’ve been a tea sipper from long before I moved to the great state of Texas and birthed a child who grew up to be a Longhorn.

I never did learn how to drink coffee. Despite my gardener’s love for the grounds, the brew itself is too bitter for my taste. My mother got me started on Constant Comment tea when I was in high school and I have since migrated to a variety of teas — I pick the flavor to suit the moment. My palate isn’t as sophisticated as S. J. Rozan’s Chinese-American detective, Lydia Chin, who often sits down to a fragrant cup (the better to get answers out of a recalcitrant witness) but I do have my personal preferences. English Breakfast in the morning. Earl Grey or Constant Comment in the early afternoon. Lemon Zinger in the late afternoon. I also drink most of my tea “white”. I started doing this the year I lived in Moscow and my fellow Nanny, Di Biggin, always put a dollop of cream in without asking. Pretty soon I couldn’t drink it black without feeling uncouth.

There are a number of good mysteries featuring tea. Laura Childs’ Tea Shop mysteries are the first that spring to mind.  Alexander McCall Smith’s famous detecting duo at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are tea-drinkers. My second book, Three Dirty Women and the Bitter Brew has tea in it, but the published version had much less about tea than the first draft did. I had to change just about everything in that book once I realized I’d hung the plot on a murder weapon it would be rude to use.

The Charleston Tea Plantation, purchased by Bigelow Tea in 2003 from William Barclay Hall, a third generation tea-taster. (Yes, that’s a real job!) Hall developed the brand American Classic Tea, which is still marketed by Bigelow. As the only domestic American-grown tea, it truly is a treat to enjoy. I took the tour of this lovely plantation in the summer of 2000 with my Uncle Ed, a canny businessman who was very impressed with their business sense. They had a wonderful harvester that clipped the Camelia Sinensis hedges at just the proper level to get the leaves at their utmost freshness. The minute I saw it, the warped and highly imaginative writer in me wanted to use it as a murder weapon. (Fictional!!) I began the story and it sailed on until I got to the middle of the book. In an effort to get my creative efforts back on track, I called the Plantation to do some due diligence by getting permission from Mr. Hall and his business partner to use their location in my book. I had been so wrapped up in my need to write that I hadn’t truly considered how others might feel about this notion of clipping a victim with the tea harvester until I heard the shocked response to my horribly naive question. Out of respect for the gentlemen-owners and their efforts I pulled the location and the murder weapon from the story and started over.

What seemed like a writing (and personal) disaster became a gift. Without the gimmick of using a murder weapon that no one else had ever used, the story became much stronger. In short, I owe this business not only for many wonderful cups of tea, but also for a stronger sophomore effort.

Cheers!

Pushing Up Daisies

I just finished my fellow Master Gardener and landscape mystery writing author’s first book, Pushing Up Daisies. Rosemary Harris has delivered a delightful story with a solid lead character who knows her way around a Connecticut garden.

One of the things that frustrated me with the Three Dirty Women series was the fact that the publisher wanted to have the setting for the books be located somewhere I don’t actually live. This hampered my ability to get enough gardening into the books to satisfy myself. I was grateful to gardeners in the Carolinas for answering any questions, and I did get a trip in to do some on-site research. (No fun was had of course, as it was a business trip!)  As the series goes on, I fit more and more information in, but I liked the way Rosemary was able to make the gardening such a huge part of her story right from the get-go. If I were ever to go back to garden mystery writing, I would set the books on the Gulf Coast so that I could more easily weave in more plant lore.

One of the reasons I read gardening mysteries is to learn. Fellow Texan Susan Wittig Albert was the first such author I read, and I fell in love with her China Bayles series. Ann Ripley is a fine example of this section of the mystery gendre. Mary Freeman is another. Naomi Hirohara is a particular favorite of mine, with her gentle, complex weaving of tales about Mas Arai.

So while it’s winter outside, grab yourself a good read about your garden, be it one of mine, or one of these other fine writers, and dream.

Happy Reading!