One of the things I love about gardening is that every year is different, and every year, there’s the chance that something will astound you.

This year, it was the Provencal pumpkin.



I bought it at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center plant sale, just because it sounded unusual. It was a little late to start a pumpkin, and it started off slow but then it just grew and grew. And grew. I also bought an exotic Hopi squash, which was a total bust; all the squash rotted on the vine pretty much as soon as they got started. But the Musquée de Provence just kept going.

Here’s my prize pumpkin, growing. This was August.


I put a board under it to keep it off the ground and discourage critters, but other than that it was totally self-sufficient. Moderate water, no fertilizer, and lots of time to itself. This treatment seemed to agree with it: here’s what it looked like at harvest, right before Halloween. Allegedly the average size for these is less than 15 pounds. Mine was about 45 pounds.


In case you wondered, it does turn orange with sun exposure, even after you pick it, and this big boy’s currently making the rounds as a Thanksgiving dinner centerpiece. There were a couple of other little pumpkins coming along and the vine was healthy and huge – hundreds of feet long with multiple branches – so I just let it go.


Today, with December right around the corner and a cold, wet winter settling in,  I decided it was time. I harvested three small pumpkins and found that the reason the vine was so huge and healthy was that it had rooted itself in more than a dozen places, tunneling 3-foot long roots under the wood chips into the dirt.


Confronted with that kind of determination, I couldn’t help myself. I left a sprout.

musquee de provence

Who knows? It’s also called the Fairytale pumpkin, so – it could happen. And if it does make it – next year’s going to be a phenomenal year. And yes, pumpkin, with all due regard to the Delfonics – you did.

Blame my grandmother.

Years ago, she taught me to cook a roast chicken by smell. “Put some salt and pepper in a bowl,” she said. “Now go through the spice rack. Open the jars and smell what’s inside. If you want your chicken to smell like that, put some in the bowl. If not, go on to the next.” Thus did I learn to cook – and as a result, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life.

Take this one – Plum Torte from the New York Times. A classic, and a guaranteed no-fail, as the lovely person who baked it for us last week assured me, and delicious to boot.  Thing is, we don’t have plums growing on the road – we have blackberries. And when I got home from picking a quart or so, I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder….”

July in northern California means blackberries

July in northern California means blackberries

So, blackberries instead of plums. Then, as I was reading the recipe, I thought, “Why white sugar? Wouldn’t brown be more interesting?” Honestly, brown sugar’s ALWAYS more interesting, so, half brown sugar and half white.  Then, as I was putting it in the oven, I remembered I was supposed to sprinkle sugar over the top, and I thought, “Why sugar? Why not that wild honey we picked up?”

Before I remembered about the sugar on top

Before I remembered about the sugar on top

Okay, I may be congenitally unable to follow a recipe but I’m not completely stupid: honey has more moisture than sugar and blackberries already have more moisture than plums so, no. Bad idea. But I did use brown sugar instead of white.

Sprinkled with brown sugar

Sprinkled with brown sugar

And that got me thinking: what kind of idiot person  doesn’t follow a recipe? Especially the FIRST TIME you make it? And that got me thinking, “Are there two kinds of people in this world, recipe followers and recipe non-followers? What other character traits might the non-followers exhibit? Are we all “rules are meant to be broken” types?  OMG, is THAT why I keep pissing off the legal department at work?”

And of course Google came next and guess what? There’s a pretty spirited debate about this. I didn’t learn any mega-truths about personality types but I was gratified to find out that when it comes to recipes, Daniel Patterson’s on my side because that’s pretty good company to be in. Although, as he he points out, it’s a lot easier to be creative when you have a basic grounding (thanks Gamma!). And when it comes to rules in general, there’s a pretty good argument on both sides, including from Marilyn Monroe, who famously said, “If I’d observed all the rules, I’d never have gotten anywhere.”

The blackberry torte came out swell. Next time I’m  making it with wild honey.

Big bad rule breaker

Big bad rule breaker




So you know all those little plant tags that you collect over time? I’ve never known what to do with them.Yes, it”s handy having them near the plant but I don’t like the way they look in the garden and they always end up blowing around or disappearing anyway. Years ago a friend told me her solution was to save them all in a container, kind of like swizzle sticks, and I’ve been doing that faithfully, but it actually doesn’t help a whole lot, because a year or two later, I can’t match up the tag to the plant. But last weekend we went to the Western HIlls Garden in Occidental, an amazing plant wonderland that  just reopened after nearly being lost forever, and I bought a really cool plant with a really cool name: an Alstroemia pale pink, called “Princess Mathilde,” and I wanted to remember what it was.

Enter Pinterest. I’ve played around with Pinterest for various collections of ideas but I never thought of actually using it for something USEFUL.

My new board is called My Garden: http://www.pinterest.com/schoolhousekat/my-garden/.

I know, I know, I should have thought of a more original name, but I was just so excited to get rid of all of these!

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It’s sweet pea time! Sweet peas are amazing things. They were, according to Wikipedia, “the floral sensation of the late Victorian era” and they have the names to prove it; enchanting names like Bronze Prince, Black Knight, Mrs. Bernard Jones, and Lady Grisel Harrington. And the scented ones smell heavenly. But despite how carefully they’ve been bred and cultivated, my experience of them is that they are wanton enthusiasts and hardy as hell – almost as hardy as sunflowers, which have been known to sprout from randomly tossed seed in the same unhospitable soil. Lucky for me! Last weekend, I felt like planting sweet peas and realized I didn’t have any. Darn it. Then I looked down.

sweet peas

These are all volunteers from last year. Against all odds, they sprouted in wood chips covering hard packed clay. So really, how delicate could they be?

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Here’s what they look like when you dig them up. The whole pea comes with the sprout.

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And I had so many! All of a sudden it seemed like everywhere I looked there was another sweet pea sprout. So I carefully dug them all up and then replanted them along the wagon wheel fence, which was where they had been last year and where I wanted them again. And yes, dear reader, each little group of transplanted sweet peas has its own little string to climb up. It took hours, and was the perfect, meditative job for someone with a bit of an obsessive bent (i.e., moi).

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When I was finally, painfully done, I looked around for my next project and found these – crazy little sunflower sprouts that had patiently waited out the winter in the bottom of a terra cotta pot and sprouted hopefully in about a teaspoonful of soil. So I carefully transplanted those too. And this week, I’m happy to report, most of them are still alive.






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Yes, we’re facing the mother of all droughts in California, but – who could imagine a summer without sweet peas and sunflowers?




Wonders of the Woods

In the summer, the Schoolhouse is in a lovely glade in the redwoods. In winter, it’s just in the redwoods. Still, things grow, and as spring approaches it’s time to tame the troops. Here’s the back pathway up to the driveway AFTER I got done cutting back the lavender and everything else:


But that’s not the really exciting part. The exciting part is what I found while I was doing it. Here’s the ground I was working on: see anything?


Of course not, that’s the point. But look closer:


Wow, what the heck is that? I’m so glad I didn’t step on him. I called Steve and he thought it was a skink but I googled skinks and we knew it wasn’t one right away because skinks are scaly like lizards. So then I thought, you know, I don’t know if one actually exists but it really looks like it’s some kind of giant newt or salamander. So I googled giant salamander and guess what? It exists! Dicamptodon ensatus is the California giant salamander. There are several varieties and ranges and one is Sonoma to Mendocino. The ones that don’t live in streams live in dark, wet places in the woods. And here’s what’s really cool: they can get pretty big, up to 11 inches long, and they EAT BANANA SLUGS. Okay, I did not see our guy do anything but sit there but I found a picture of this and it is awesome:

Picture 3

Here’s our guy back in his hole. I did not even see him move.

Pacific giant salamander, hiding

Wonder what I’m gonna find next time?

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