The Summer That Wasn’t

And, just like that, the summer vacation is over. The kids are getting back to school, each on their own schedule. Except … this time these first back-to-school days are no different than any other day. We’re all still at home, all day every day, changing from night pajamas to day pajamas and vice versa.

Six months into the Covid 19 pandemic and counting.

Did the summer ever start? It doesn’t feel like it has. If it did, I can’t say where the time went. I certainly don’t have much to show for it…

We had so many plans for spring and summer 2020, so many things to look forward to.

The pandemic cancelled everything, of course.

For the first couple of months of lockdown, while the kids were busy with Zoom school, I managed to find solace in my fabrics and art. I composed textile poems, had fun with textile insects, and finally found the time to play with Ann Wood’s bird and owl patterns to create textile sculptures. I even made three pieces of tapestry with the Jewish Blessing of the Child, one for each of my children, just in case…

But when the school year ended, I put art aside. Together with my family I embarked on house and garden projects. We started with The Big Cleanup, a family tradition that got a bit neglected in the last few years. We did the usual deep cleaning, but also something new. Realizing that school will be remote in the coming school year, we also re-organized big parts of our house to accommodate everyone’s new needs. It was a lot of work.

By the piles of stuff my neighbors left on the curb, I could tell that many of them were doing the exact same. Later, newspaper articles confirmed that organizing/decluttering was, indeed, a pandemic side-effect

Like the house, our garden suffered from some neglect in the last few years. Perhaps because I put more time into art than into gardening. Not this summer! Once we  finished organizing the house, I put my kids to work in the garden. Together we weeded, pruned, pulled, planted and painted. We even started a Victory Garden. 

Then, a surprising thing happened. Once I started gardening, I didn’t really feel like doing anything else. Not even art.

It was an emotionally difficult summer, to say the least. The news went from bad to worse. Sickness, rising numbers, fear, despair, death. Political turmoil, civil unrest, racial tensions. Economic upheaval, unemployment, homelessness. Heat wave after heat wave, record-breaking heat. My mood went up and down. Then a little deeper down. Some days were good. Some OK. And then there were days in which I couldn’t do much at all.

The garden took me away from my phone, the news, social media. The flowers made me smile. The lush green allowed me to BREATH. Surrounding myself with plants felt healing. So in the garden I stayed.

There was always more to do out in the yard. For the first time ever, I saw the full cycled of spring and summer. Flowers bloomed and faded, others took their place. There were daily little changes. I became more aware of the wildlife my garden supports: the many kinds of pollinators, the birds, the visiting mammals. My garden hummed with LIFE.

I was confined, but an entire little world awaited right outside my door…

Yes, it turned out gardening was another side effect of the pandemic.

Like half of humanity, I was also busy with pandemic domesticity. Although our vegetable garden ended up being a complete failure, refusing to produce a single vegetable, our fruit trees were quite prolific. 

We gave some fruit away, but I also made a year’s-worth of jam.

And baked numerous apple pies. And cakes. And muffins. And more pies. They didn’t last very long.

In mid August, we experienced another heat wave, one that raised the temperature in Death Valley, CA, to 130 degrees, “setting a world record for the highest temperature ever observed during the month of August.” This led to a freak thunderstorm, which ignited over 600 fires all around California. The wildfires literally smoked me out of the garden and back into my sewing room. It’s been over two weeks now, and the air quality is still poor, keeping me inside.

I miss my garden, but it did feel good to reunite with my fabrics. So far I finished my pandemic quilt (more on that next time) and composed a wildfire-inspired Textile Poem:

I also made a larger art quilt influenced by the wildfires. I call it Ashes.

The weather forecast for this coming weekend predicts yet another record-breaking heat wave. I guess I’ll just have to stay in and keep creating…

On Real Very Hungry Caterpillars

A few weeks ago some cute caterpillars started appearing in my yard. I was busy preparing for my craft fair at the time, and hardly spent any time in the garden. I noticed the little crawlies, but didn’t pay them much attention.

At one point I took a break from sewing to peek at the newspaper. Our local paper mentioned a caterpillar-epidemic in my town. Somehow, I didn’t connect this tidbit of information to MY caterpillars, and just didn’t think much of it.

Anyhow, I have this agreement with wildlife, you see. Critters of all sorts are entitled to live peacefully in their own habitat outside, as long as they leave the inside of my house to me and my family. How they conduct their lives is their own business.

As the days went by, however, I found more and more caterpillars crawling all over my windshield when I drove the kids to school. When I got out of the car, more and more of them stuck to my hair. They were dangling from the neighbor’s oak tree, whose overhanging branches cover most of our driveway. It started getting a bit annoying.

One day my daughter made an atypical demand: “Mom,” she said,  “you should kill those caterpillars.” But how could I kill caterpillars? I’m vegetarian! And, like everybody else, I raised my kids on “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” story. Caterpillars are cute. They’re fuzzy and hairy. And they turn into butterflies… OK, not always butterflies. Some turn into moths. Like those very caterpillars in my yard, which, I later learned, were all western tussock moth caterpillars. But I like moths, too. When I was working on my Dare! quilt, I did research on moths and realized some were as beautiful, if not MORE beautiful, than butterflies. I just couldn’t kill them.

A few days later I happened to look out of a second-floor window. I saw my neighbor’s oak tree from above, and noticed something was off about it. It took me a while to realize what it was: all the ends of the branches, even the ones on the very top, were chewed to the bone. The new spring growth was all eaten away, about 20 inches of it on each and every branch! Someone badly chewed many of the old leaves as well…

That was when I realized that caterpillars weren’t that cute after all.

But I was still busy preparing for the fair.

Another week went by. I was bringing the garbage bins back in from the curb one evening, when I noticed my dwarf avocado tree. I planted that tree about three years ago. It didn’t grow much the first couple of years. Early this spring it finally spouted new branches and leaves! I was looking forward to seeing the tree grow. But when I saw it now, it was completely ravaged!

The tender, new leaves were entirely gone. Most of the old ones were badly shredded, too! I suddenly knew what Pharaoh felt like when the plagues hit!

This was not cute AT ALL! This, my friends, was a declaration of war!

The very next morning I drove to a hardware store, where I bought a bottle of an all-insect pesticide. I returned home promptly, and sprayed the tens of caterpillars on my avocado tree. Then, I sprayed their comrades on the nearby bush. I sprayed the ones feasting on my roses, and on the plant next to those. In fact, I sprayed any caterpillar I saw! I came back in the afternoon and sprayed some more. Came out again the next day, and the one after that…

By the end of the week I could find no more live caterpillars. I thought I won. Then my neighbor pointed out the cocoons. Western tussock moth cocoons now cover his oak tree like a cream-colored fuzzy blanket. They are high up, of course, on the trunk and upper-most branches, way out of our reach…

Soon moths will hatch, I know. They will lay more eggs. And next year, new caterpillars will crawl all over my plants… But worry not. I will be ready for them this time! Me and my spray bottle.

You might wonder what became of my avocado tree. I was sure it was done for. In the last few days, however, it started showing signs of new growth. There’s still hope for it, it seems! I’m watching it closely, just in case…

Getting Into Spring Mode: A Visit to Filoli Gardens

I love to travel near and far to explore beautiful places. Every now and then, however, I am surprised to discover new gems right in my back yard. This happened last week, when a friend took me to one of her favorite places: Filoli Gardens in Woodside. I lived around here nearly half my life, yet did not even know about this place. Once there, I couldn’t believe I had never visited before.

Filoli Gardens

Filoli was the country estate of a wealthy San Francisco gold-mine owner. He purchased the land shortly after the big 1906 earthquake, when many rich people chose to leave the city. The construction of his mansion began in 1915, but the development of its gardens took a few more decades. A subsequent owner continued expanding the gardens, bringing them to what they are today. That second owner donated the estate to the public in the 1970’s. Consequently, it is now open for all to enjoy. Telling by the crowds, it seems that a lot of people do, indeed, enjoy it.

When I visited last week, the gardens were full of tulips in all colors and shapes, giving it the feel of a spring wonderland:

Percy, the vain resident peacock, was an added bonus:

Peacock at Filoli Gardens

The combined effect of colorful gardens, grand house and peacock was truly breathtaking. Admittedly, seeing these meticulous gardens made me feel somewhat self-conscious about my own garden. I had to remind myself that this site is maintained by a large paid team of gardeners together with hundreds of volunteers, whereas I try to fight the weeds all on my own…

My friend and I spent a lovely morning in Filoli. We marveled at the various gardens (in addition to the tulips there are also a camillia garden, a rose garden and a fruit-tree garden). We enjoyed the beautiful weather, had lunch at the cafe, and checked out the gift shop.

Me at Filoli Gardens

All that fresh air, combined with the lively blossoms, put me in spring mode. Energized, I wanted to run right back to my sewing room. Hence, the resulting greeting cards are probably  just the beginning of my spring sewing:

ANYTexture purple tulips card, fabric greeting card ANYTexture pink flower card, fabric greeting card

If you’d like to see the estate and enjoy its flowers, too, you can start planning your visit here.

Year of the Weed: Spring in My Garden

I’m not sure how it got here so fast, but March is upon us already. Spring will officially start this weekend, with the move of the clock. It was a great relief, after four long years of drought, to finally have a rainy winter in California. Not just any rainy winter, mind you, but a record-breaking one at that! Our water reservoirs are now full and overflowing, and our snow-caps are at record deep. We sure needed the water, but many of us were no longer used to the long stretches of dreary, wet weather. Recently, however, the days of rain have started to be interrupted by longer and longer intervals of sunshine, and hints of spring are all about us.

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Falling Leaves Don’t Only Inspire: The Art of Composting

It took only a day or two of rain and some strong winds to strip the glory off the maple tree that inspired my Falling Leaves quilt. In the last few days, instead of shining with magnificent fall colors, my garden was filled with sad-looking naked branches, and huge piles of fallen, muddy leaves:

Fallen leaves in my yard

Granted, I must admit that some were still quite beautiful, even on the ground:

Fallen leaves in my garden

To me, however, even in their deplorable state, falling leaves are a pure treasure. And not only for their former (or lingering) beauty. I already confessed to being a little obsessed with recycling. Whenever possible, I religiously recycle paper, plastic and metal, and of course–FABRIC. I also already mentioned my love of gardening. So it is only natural that, whenever possible, I try to recycle in the yard, as well.

One of the first things I did once I got my own garden, was to take a composting workshop. This might seem somewhat unnecessary to all you seasoned gardeners. At the time, however, I really didn’t know much about decomposition. A workshop seemed appropriate. It lasted about two hours, and could be summed into one sentence: fill a bin with 50% green cuttings and 50% dry material, mix, wet, and wait.

Since then, I’ve been trying to return everything that comes from the garden back into the garden. In the city’s garden-waste bins I deposit only diseased plants, parts that are too fibrous, or especially-thick branches. Everything else goes into my compost bin:

My compost bin

In fact, there are many weeks in which I don’t even bother to take the city garden bins to the curb. They are often completely empty.

Composting everything is a lot of work, and requires some advance planning. For things to compost at a reasonable time (for me, that means up to a year), every plant needs to be chopped into smaller pieces. In spring and summer this translates into hours and hours of standing above the compost bin and chopping green cuttings. In the fall, the main season for collecting the “brown” component that composting requires, it means hours of collecting leaves. After I collect the leaves, I store them away in paper bags, and add them to the bin slowly over the remaining months of the year.

It’s actually really good for the soil to just let falling leaves decompose where they fall. There are parts of my garden where I do just that–let nature take care of itself. I collect only leaves that fall on paths, the lawn or on other plants. Depending on the location, I either rake or vacuum them. The vacuum automatically chops the leaves into smaller bits, which are easier to store and which decompose faster.

Last weekend was my last crafts fair for the year. The weeks leading to the fair were hectic, leaving me with little time for anything else. Once the fair was over, however, I took a break from sewing. This week I tried to catch up on all the neglected tasks. The garden was on the top of my list.

I still haven’t used up all the leaves I stored last year. This year, therefore, I decided  to  use everything I collect as ground cover. A thick layer of ground cover (preferably six inches thick) helps protect roots from frost, and in summer helps keep the moisture in. So this week I raked and vacuumed wherever needed, and then deposited piles of chopped leaves all over the yard:

A pile of shredded fallen leaves in my garden

In the coming days I will spread these piles more evenly, covering as much ground as possible with this highly-beneficial dry material.

The hours (and days!) it takes to collect leaves and other organic matter, chop , spread, or compost everything aren’t always pleasant. However, all that work pays off in the long run. My modest compost bin reliably produces rich, high-quality and entirely organic (!!) compost. My compost is swarming with life: earthworms, Armadillidiidae (also known as Roly Polies), earwigs and all kinds of other creatures call it a home. Once I even found baby salamanders in the mix! Every year I spread this compost around fruit trees and on flower beds. It enriches the native California clay soil, feeds the earthworms–who in turn dig and loosen the soil, bringing air to roots–and in general makes my plants happy.

The reward comes in spring and summer, with amazing flowers and tasty fruits . And it all begins with these leaves, that shine with golden light in the fall and then turn into black gold by summer!