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!

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Stop and Smell the Roses

Souvenier de la Malmaison, courtesy Antique Rose Emporium website

I was browsing back through my blog entries and noticed something strange. For someone who writes about landscapers, I sure do post a lot of veggie tales.

So, today, I’m going to stop and smell the roses. Specifically the roses of the Texas Rose Rustlers. These legendary folk actually still exist, and here’s the website to prove it. You can even join up if you want.

What happened was that awhile back there were a bunch of abandoned homesteads in far flung areas of the state. Passionate rose-lovers would drive by, spot a specimen they couldn’t identify from their car,  pull over, and go in search of more information. First they’d go up to the house, calling out just in case the owner’s out in the garden, or shed, or barn. (Any real Rose Rustler always asks permission first of any available landowner before wandering someone’s property. It’s courteous — an important part of the Texas Rose Rustler Code — plus it’s pretty darn prudent. Texas has a law saying that you can shoot trespassers.) Once permission is obtained to look, (Or, in the beginning of the movement when such things were more common, abandonment of the homestead was verified.) the interested party then goes to the beauty in question and pokes about a bit, trying to figure out from the hips, blooms, leaves and habitat just what it could be. If permission is granted to take a cutting, then selections are made, clippers are pulled, and the deed is done.

I have a bed of Katy Road Pinks that came from a Rustler’s foray onto an old abandoned farm just west of Houston. Lovely single pink roses, compact and fragrant. These pinks are an ever-blooming variety cultivated long before such things were patented and sold under a trade name. Other roses have been identified and re-propagated for sale by those professionals among the Rustlers. One of my favorite nurseries is outside of Brenham, Texas and run by one of the original Rustlers. The Antique Rose Emporium offers a multitude of specimens that settlers to the area carried with them when coming to establish their homestead out here in the wilderness of early Texas. I trek out there at least twice a year to smell their roses — and bring a new specimen home for a trial. Belinda’s Dream, Caldwell Pink, and Old Blush are three of my favorites. This coming spring I’m adding a Paul’s Scarlet climber to the gate on the west side of the house. Took me ten years to get an arbor that would stay up longer than an hour so that I could put this one in. (I am not very good at building this sort of thing. Bought this arbor already made.) I planted one of these in honor of my husband, Paul, two houses ago and I loved it. Too large to dig and move with us, I had to leave it for the new owners. I hope they appreciated its handsome blooms.

Happy gardening!

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Query Please?

One of my favorite how-to-write authors, Noah Lukeman, has penned yet another terrific how to book for writers. Write a Great Query discusses the topic at more length than I have here, but I will try to distill into a few paragraphs what I try to put into my queries. Remember that I have now sold half as many books as I have written, which is three more than I would have done had I not written all of them — and written queries that got them sold.

Top Tips for a sucessful query:

1) Remember this is a professional correspondance. Be yourself — but use a professional tone. I just know one of my early queries was posted on an office bulletin board as a, “Can you believe this?!” example because I wanted to be funny. After I’d stamped it, driven over the post office and mailed it, I thought about it. I was horribly embarrased by what I had just done, but it was too late to correct my error. Write it. Read it. Sit on it. Reread it. Rewrite it. Sit on it. Have someone else read it. Rewrite it. Spell check. Grammar check. Fact check. Then stamp it, drive to the post office and mail it.


2) Don’t send a query about a fiction work that isn’t finished. Agents and Editors are not there to encourage you to complete your work. In order to get a read, they need a full manuscript available when they ask to see it. Cart. Horse. You understand.

 

3) Keep it brief. A query is a page. First paragraph: Introduce yourself. Second paragraph: Introduce the book you’re pitching. Third paragraph: Wrap it up.

 

4) Include why you are the only one who could write this book in the personal information you give in the query. In my case, it helped to be a master gardener to write mysteries about landscapers. The fact that the gardeners in the books were far more successful in their skills than I am at home doesn’t matter. I knew what I was talking about when I mentioned what plants should go where in the landscape.

 

5) Don’t hesitate to give a full synopsis of the book in your paragraph about the work. Really. I am not kidding. You need to be able to summarize your book — beginning, middle and yes, end — in a paragraph. You don’t want them to feel like they’ve seen it all before when they get to the manuscript pages.

 

6) Include more than one way for the person to whom the query is addressed to get in touch with you. E-mail, phone and physical address.

 

7) You do not have to mention copyright in the query. They’re pros. They understand you own the material.

 

8) Follow directions. If they want queries through the transom on an alternate Tuesday, then do it their way. They are looking for the next big thing. Don’t throw roadblocks in the way to their discovering that you are just what they’ve been looking for.  E-mail if they say e-mail. Snail mail if they say snail mail. Send only what they want, not twenty five of your best lines with a hot air balloon attached to lift it out of the box when they open it. That sort of thing is wasted on the mail clerk.

 

9) Allow them time to read the darn thing before following up to see if they got it. A gentle note dropped in the mail asking if they’ve gotten down to the part of the slush pile with your work in it (with a self-addressed post card) isn’t a horrible thing after a couple of months.

 

10) Don’t be afraid to multiple submit. Just let them know in the query that they are not alone in getting the material. Just please don’t say it in a threatening way. “Lots of people have this and you may be too late,” does not have the same ring as “I’ve sent this to several people and I especially look forward to hearing back from you.”

Happy Writing!

Julie

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Read It Out Loud

Microsoft stock clip art

Better yet, get someone else to read it for you. I was reintroduced to this wonderful practice last month when I attended my second SCBWI-Houston meeting. I was pretty excited about finding a knowledgeable critique group and really wanted to hear what they had to say about my Middle Grade work. I’m used to working for adult audiences, and kids “hear” things very differently. It is important to get the voice, subject matter, and characters just right so that the audience for which the prose is intended appreciates it. If I’m not going to do it right, then I don’t want to bother doing it at all.

 

I’ve been part of nuturing critique groups and critique groups inhabited by the devil incarnate. Listen first to any group, then run if you feel wholesale bad vibes. Most groups are a mixed bag of people, and chances are that at least one person in the group will give you some valuable insight. One thing you absolutely must be able to to do before sharing your work with others is to be able to listen without being defensive. If you start defending each and every point, then you aren’t going to learn a darn thing. They’re trying to help you. (Well, most of them are. Some, like my long-ago devil, are simply blocked writers shedding their misery all over your manuscript. That’s easy to deal with. Don’t keep the pages that person held and/or scribbled all over. Burn that set with some ritual sage to clarify your creative passages and move on.) I have learned more from good critiques than I got out of an entire How to Write a Novel course. Thank your lucky Muse for these folk and listen with your heart as well as your ears.

 

The SCBWI group was one of the good groups. Each set of pages was read by a different person, but never by the author. This was a variation on the theme from my last critique group where we read our own work. I liked it. Hearing someone else stumble through what you thought was witty dialog or over a name that is difficult to pronounce is informative. Plus it leaves your hands free to take notes! There was a wide variety of material being critiqued, as well as a wide variety of skills being brought to the table to render critiques. Not everything said applies wholesale to everyone’s work, but you never know which of the points being made strikes a resonating worry you didn’t even know you were harboring over a sentence or wildly diverging plot point you’d snuck in your piece.

 

Finding a critique group is the hard part, but you can always start by attending a local professional writing organizations meetings. Houston is fortunate to have many active writer’s communities: MWA, West Houston RWA, NW Houston RWA, Houston Bay Area RWA, SCBWI, Houston Writer’s Guild, Houston Ritual SF BreakfastBay Area Writers LeagueClear Lake Area WritersFinal TwistHouston Writers NetworkInprint,  Scriptwriters, HoustonWhite Oak WritersWoodlands Writers Guild, and  Writer’s Ink. This is not a comprehensive listing, but a good place to start looking if you live in Houston and write.

 

Now sit down and get to work!

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To Veg or not to Veg

Had the most wonderful butternut squash enchiladas last night at Bar Annie. It was a lovely night in so many ways — I was out with Jo Ann Fleischhauer, a brilliant artist, John DeMers, a local foodie here in Houston, and my long-time good friend Nancy Galeota-Wozny. I always love meeting new people — I learn so much about so many things — very stimulating, not to mention just plain fun.  Jo Ann, the true vegetarian among us, asked about good options for her, and as soon as the waiter rattled off the description of the enchiladas, I knew what I wanted.

 

John asked me why I got that particular item off the menu when I’m not a vegetarian. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes a good steak is the only thing that will hit the spot, but most of the time when I’m out in public, I seek out the veggies. I happen to think they taste wonderful, and they make me feel healthier after eating them. (Please do not correct this impression. My waistline is very happy this morning.)

 

This morning I looked up recipes (none of which I am sure comes close to Robert Del Grande’s creation) for butternut squash and found tons. Not surprising — as a winter squash, it keeps well, plus it’s versatile as heck.

 

Butternut squash is a relatively new variety, and definitely a New World kind of veg. Various internet reports have it originating in Massachusetts or Mexico. Since both start with M, we’ll let that interesting discrepancy slide. It has since reverse migrated, becoming a favorite as far away as South Africa. The orange color gives you a clue that it is high in Vitamin A and C, fiber (of course), manganese, magnesium and potassium. In other words — great for you.

 

My favorite home-cooked recipe for this veg is Butternut Soup. Grab a hunk of fresh baked bread, a crossword puzzle and enjoy. The apple in this particular recipe brings out the butternutty goodness of the squash really well.

 

Another favorite for a cozy dinner night at home is Butternut Squash Risotto. This is a dish that ranks pretty darn high on my comfort foods list. Light the fire, dish it up in a chunky bowl, grab a blanket to share with your spouse and Mmmmm.

 

So the next time you go out — or stay home — try a vegetarian option. It’s good enough to eat!

 

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Losing Control

I am hanging on to my temper right now. Mad as can be and not a darn thing I can do about it. You see I am mad at myself. I haven’t taken the time to sit down and work for a week — instead doing family things, holiday things, everything and anything that would keep me from working. Not that this is bad, but it’s not as productive as I had promised myself I would be this month. There are compensations, my dad’s 80th birthday, my son and daughter both home at one time not once, but twice this week. The annual family gathering at the Galveston family’s home. It’s still hard to forgive myself the time spent celebrating when I should have been chanting, “Pages to go before I sleep.”

I wish I could say that this week was an anomaly. If the truth be told, I am easily distracted from getting my work done. There is always something requiring attention, be it the dog, the laundry, or some other itch I have to scratch. Even my daughter has figured out that working is hard to do. Her blog entry on procrastination shows that she has not learned from my mistakes.

How to cope with that horribly consistent urge to put off doing today what can be put off again tomorrow? Leave. Put on your walking shoes and pack up your tablet and paper or computer and go to whatever place stimulates your work ethic. Mine is the local coffee shop in the morning and the local community college library after noon. Neither one is quiet. Neither one is conducive to a meditative state. Both have the advantage that the only thing I have to do there, the only responsibility that belongs to me, is to write.

Letting go of that responsibility — the dishes in the sink (They’ll still be there when you get back…) the socks unmatched upon the bed (They’ll still be there when you get back…) the dinner you planned for your husband (He’ll still be there when you get back — and may have ordered Chinese takeout when he discovered you weren’t home and haven’t left dinner in the oven…) — is tantamount to saying that what I must do, long to do, but never give myself permission to consider first: write — is important.

That means that tomorrow rather than working outside in my fall garden, saddling up the mare to tool around the pasture, washing clothes or dishes or the bathtub, I will be a good little writer and sit down to write. Of course, even then I will not be totally free to lose myself in my work. While I’m writing, I’m always sure what I’m producing is dreck, and that there is little chance of editing it into usable prose. Picture me sitting in front a typewriter, ripping page after page from the roll as none of the sentences I create fit the scene I am writing. (Of course, I do this on my computer, so it’s a little more earth-friendly. Doesn’t provide the same physical relief of being able to rip up the pages — unless you take the time to print them out first, but imminently more practical.) But even being blessed with a particularly cantankerous internal editor, being a writer, I’m there in the chair with my muse and my will to stick with it. I pound and pound and pound until, eventually, joyously, I lose the urge to trash the words as they come out and I lose my sense of place and time — lose control — and get something accomplished. And it will feel glorious to be back at that wonderful place in my mind once again, hard at work.

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Adding Up – Fertility

Photo from www.ncagr.gov website

I know it’s only the end of November, but it’s never too early to get a good head-start on planning for the spring garden. To that end I have been investigating ways to increase the soil’s fertility in ways that contribute to the long-term life of the soil.

What have I found? Well, the first thing I found is that I need to discover the state of my soil. To do that requires a soil test. Soil sampling should be done a few months in advance of any planting so that the nutrients have time to do their magic before the plants arrive to make use of them.

Wait until your soil is medium on the moisture meter — not muddy, but also not dusty — should clump in your hand when you pick it up and sqeeze it, like a good cookie dough. Dig a hole in the ground with a clean(!) shovel, get all the active organic matter (AKA roots, leaves) out of the hole, then take a slice about an inch thick down one side. Dump this into a clean(!) container. Do this in several places within the area you want to grow one particular “crop”, be that your garden, the perenial flower border, or your expanse of green, green lawn. Once you’ve got all the samples in the clean)!) container, mix well and put a sample in a clean(!) paper lunch sack. (In case you missed this point, cleanliness is next to Godliness in soil sampling.) The sack should be about half to two-thirds full to enable the lab to run an effective test on your sample. Tape shut and label with your name, sample location (ex: Front Field, Back Garden), the date you pulled the sample, and what you want to grow (ex: veg, flowers, hay) in that location. Each soil lab has their own form for you to fill out, but labeling the bags themselves will help you complete those forms and help the lab figure out which bag goes with which form.

Effective soil sampling can give you all kinds of nifty information, from the basics of Ph, Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus ratio up to and including what trace minerals are missing from your soil. The Texas Agricultural Extension Agency runs samples, as do private labs. Some are better than others, so be sure to use a reputable firm.

So you’ve got the results of your soil samples in hand and want to do something productive to help your soil grow healthy plants. A few rules:

1) Only fix what’s broke.

Seriously, don’t add amendments that will increase the factor that is already present. These items you’re testing for all work in concert with each other. Throwing the ratios of say, Nitrogen to Phosphorus off only hurts you.

2) In for a penny does not mean in for a pound.

Only add what will fix the problem. This is the flip side of cautionary number one. If you over-fix one of your elements — the ratio will be thrown off by your actions — and you just paid good money to compromise your soil’s fertility.

3) Go organic.

It is worth it to put life back into your soil instead of chemicals. While those chemical fertilizers may have been manufactured and marketed as fixing the problem, chances are an organic solution will last longer and not cause as many unwanted side-effects.

The Extremely Green website has a wonderful fertilizer guide page giving you some idea what to add to amend your soil for the desired results.

As an endnote, I wanted to share the following link to Sunset’s article about adding coffee grounds to your compost heap. I have a hard time convincing my local coffee shop that *I* should have those grounds, so I wondered if they were worth fighting for. Have a look at the article and decide for yourself.

Happy gardening!

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Persistence

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The logan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

– Calvin Coolidge

 

And a shorter, but equally worthy quote from the same source:

 

I have found it advisable not to give too much heed to what people say when I am trying to accomplish something of consequence. Invariably they proclaim it can’t be done. I deem that the very best time to make the effort.
– Calvin Coolidge

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Swiss Chard — not as neutral as you’d think

Photo of Swish Chard from GardenGuides.com
Image from GardenGuides.com

I grew up in a family rabid about Ohio State Football. I never quite understood how this logically translated into a vegetable eating exhortation, “Julie, eat your spinach like Popeye, so that you can grow up to play football for Woody Hays,” but it was one I often heard. My parents would have been better served to have chosen Swiss Chard as the vegetable they associated with Ohio State Football as it actually comes in red.

I live in the Gulf Coast region of Texas and Spinach does not do well here — too much heat and too much rain. Swiss Chard, however, loves the climate. Also known as Spinach Beet (It’s actually a relative of the beet family.) this grew all spring and through the summer for me, although I did find evidence of insect damage at the height of summer.

I direct seeded the beds with seed from one of my favorite sources. I prepped the bed with the usual mixture of compost and some additional fertilizer, covered the seeds with about 1/2 to 1 inch of soil, and watered it in. They sprouted in about two weeks — a long time during which time I was certain the ants had enjoyed quite the picnic at my expence. Once they were up, I followed safe advice to thin the seedlings to six inches, using the thinned plants as garnishes in salads.

I harvested leaves as they got large enough to look good to eat. For me this meant anywhere from six inches tall to ten. The more I harvested, the more leaves appeared. I harvest from the outside in to allow the fresh leaves room to grow.

Nutritional Info: Leaves and stalks come loaded with vitamin A, C, and contain Vitamin B, Calcium, Iron, and Phosphorus. Does not contain the Oxilic Acid present in Spinach that blocks absorption of Calcium! Weight watching junkies like me will appreciate that they are very low in calories, while being high in fiber.

My favorite way to cook them is to stir-fry both the stems and the leaves together with some garlic in a little olive oil. Mmmmm!

Happy Gardening!

Julie

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