Quite A Year for Coleuses


My front stoop, end of summer.


If the title of my post sounds familiar, it’s because it’s co-opted from Bailey White’s slyly humorous novel Quite A Year for Plums, a favorite of mine. Given the summer we’ve had of record-breaking rainfall, I thank my lucky stars I didn’t plant as many flowers as I have in the past, since only the coleuses and the ferns (and, surprisingly, the marigolds) flourished. Whenever it wasn’t raining it was time to mow the grass, which took on a sense of urgency. Mow now or miss your chance! One could say that, even more than coleuses, it’s been quite a year for lawns … and mushrooms (especially the kind you can’t eat, that pop up out of the grass the day after you mow it) … and biting insects. Still, this summer was a happy time in which I can easily recount its pleasures. At almost every point of it, I sported a really nice tan, which surprised me; apparently, long walks under cloudy skies have the same effect as long walks under sunny ones. I also got to dance a lot – first, in my favorite, flowy red dress and platform espadrilles at a wedding in Pittsburgh, where the young couple were members of a ballroom dance group that my husband and I belong to, and who held their event at an elegant old mansion situated on the vast lawn of Mellon Park. And again, a week later, at a beautiful rustic lodge near our home, where my niece married the boy she has loved since middle-school, and I celebrated in a cream-colored dress swirled with blue and green roses the color of seaglass. When you get to wear at least a couple breezy dresses and dance at weddings of people you love, then it’s been a good summer. That’s what I remind myself whenever I am wont to complain, because while the weather itself was dreary (and, sadly, in other parts of the East Coast it was more than dreary, it was devastating), the 36 consecutive days I spent in the hospital at the very beginning of this year are still fresh in my mind. Now, more than ever, I realize that a summer of which you can say you spent leisure time with friends and family, sported a tan, and ate fresh cantaloupe – even while waiting out downpours and swatting mosquitoes left and right – is still a pretty good summer.

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Me (left) dancing the Hora at the wedding of our friends (seated) in August.

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts at Mellon Park

The mansion housing the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, where the wedding was held.

Dancing the Hora at the Wedding

In addition to it being quite a year for coleuses, it was quite a year for beans. Black beans, white beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans – none of which I grew, but which became the focus of what I learned to cook as I made my transition to a whole-food, plant-based diet. Up until this year (up until my cancer bout), I’d always been a meat eater, and while I’d always invested well in purchasing high quality meats and making the time to cook most of our meals from scratch, I quickly learned that eating plants the whole-plant way – which is to say, in a way that largely eliminates refined foodstuffs like flours, sugars and oils – is far more of an investment in both money and time than my former diet was. For one thing, almost everything I buy now is organic, not just produce but things like spices, grains, nuts, seeds, coffee and tea, which makes it close to double the price of non-organic items in a lot of cases. Secondly, obtaining the same amount of calories I got from eating meat requires eating a whole lot more vegetables than I was ever prepared for. I’m constantly running to the store to replenish my salad greens and fresh produce – and making vegetable-based dishes requires lots of prep time: there’s the washing and drying of produce, followed by what seems like an endless amount of chopping for the kinds of recipes I’m learning to make. But ohhh, the food itself? It is yummy, complex, and multi-layered, with curlicues of spice that entwine around the exquisitely fresh taste of simmered and sauteed veggies, which in turn are married to layers of earthy beans, lentils, or grains that lend a satisfying depth to these dishes. There are sauces made with cashews blended to a creamy deliciousness I could have never imagined, as well as garnishes of other nuts and seeds that add a layer of salty crunch to a soup or casserole or curry. Yep, you could say it’s been quite a year for curries, moussakas, stews and other delicious fare at my house, and this is largely due to a vegan blog I found called Rebel Recipes. Niki Webster, whose blog it is, hails from the U.K. but her inspiration largely comes from the Middle East, an area of the world she has frequently visited in her travels. I’ve made so many dishes from her blog – a delicately sweet turnip soup garnished with toasted hazelnuts, a hearty peanut-sweet potato-cauliflower stew, a Levant-style moussaka with chickpeas (my favorite), and a cherry-tomato tart (see my photo below), just to name a few. Niki has an ingenious way with herbs, and though I very rarely make or eat dessert anymore, I did make her recipe for black-bean brownie bites on a night when we were having a friend to dinner and in doing so, reveled in her pairing of dark chocolate with fresh thyme, which she uses as a garnish for the brownies. Her site is so good that one need not be a vegan to appreciate it, and while I don’t know her personally – I’m just a fan – I urge anyone who has a love of soulful, vegetarian food to check Rebel Recipes out.


The heirloom tomato tart I made from Rebel Recipes. Niki’s is prettier, go see it!

That’s how my summer went. How about yours? I hope it was good!


The Best Part of Summer…


… is planting flowers and watching them grow. I got a late start this year, but this is how my yard is shaping up so far.

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My yard is so shady that to get much color in it, I rely on annuals. Maybe I should rethink that, though, as the flowers that seem to do best are my perennial daylilies and rose campions, both of which bloom profusely and require little care. Plus they more or less reflect the wild, blowsy nature of my yard which, despite the fact that it isn’t as well-manicured as I’d like it to be, is still much loved. I’m in heaven when I’m outside lying on the lawn reading a book or just watching the birds. It’s the best part of summer for me — what is yours?


Outside My Window


Our weather in central Pennsylvania has veered toward the gloomy in the last week of May, and under the canopy of the newly-leafed oak trees that tower over my yard and those of my neighbors, my house feels too cool and grey for my tastes. Everything inside feels too “close” to me, if that makes any sense. But outside my picture window, the blooms on my rhododendron have held me transfixed: for the second year in a row, the blooms are big and floaty in a way they never were before in the twenty-some years I’ve lived here. I attribute the change to a happy accident — an overzealous pruning I did back in August of 2015, when at the end of summer, everything in my yard struck me as too shaggy. I have no idea how to prune things properly — I find that when I’m in the mood to lop off excessive growth, I’m too impatient to research what rules one should follow. I just start hacking away. And that summer I knocked off numerous branches from pine trees before uprooting (or so I thought) every strand of bishop’s weed, hosta, and wild grapevine from the bed in front of my picture window before stopping short in front of the rhododendron. I had never felt any love for this gigantic bush: it wasn’t something I had planted — like every other plant in this unruly bed, it came with the house, and after so many years, it looked like it was intent on swallowing the house. I hated its shapeless, shaggy mass of leaves so I just started lopping and trimming the hell out of it, taking away most of its bottom branches, until it looked like a small tree. I liked the shape of it much better — it had a visible trunk (not like a normal tree has, but its two main branches twisted together to somewhat resemble a trunk) and a round, lollipop mound of leaves on top that looked quite attractive after they were liberated. I had no idea whether this rhododendron would ever bloom again, but at that point in time I didn’t care. The new silhouette was becoming and gave the bed a sense of definition.

By the following spring , I think every hosta, grapevine, and bishop’s weed came back double-fold to the bed I had so carefully razed and mulched and replanted in coral bells. But the rhododendron? For the first time in my life, this shrub that is so common to yards across the northeast United States became something new and beautiful to my eye. Its blooms were huge, buoyant, and, at the same time, graceful. Pruning them to the extreme that I did imparted airiness that allowed the blooms to look distinct rather than a wookie-like tangle of cotton-candy flowers and overgrown vegetation.  When this year’s flowers are finished blooming, I will prune it again (I didn’t touch it last year) as it is already starting to acquire a bushy amount of new growth.

As I mentioned before, this was a happy accident, and I don’t intend to sound like an expert, because I’m very obviously not.  However, I felt compelled to write about it as a reminder that it’s sometimes worthwhile to take a big risk in the garden. If this rhododendron had died, I would have been left with a big hole in that space that I would have had to replace, but the risk seemed worth taking since I had grown to resent this plant. And in this case, manicuring a shrub that most people (where I live) tend to leave in its wild state turned out to be a good move for me, giving me more control over my garden space and making me see the plant in a whole new light.


Photos: my own.

The Fish In My Garden Slumber



My raised bed garden, with slumbering fish, on this gray January day.

The fish in my garden slumber,
Dreaming of summer waves of flowers,
The coral reef of coleuses and caladiums they once hid in,
A sky that winks down at them like another ocean,
And the sea-weediness of lawns and vines.


7a1bc28e45a6edd5f35df99ba54e4a43How is your garden faring this winter? Do you enjoy looking at it when it is in this season of rest? Under a soft-focus lens, mine looks peaceful and dreamy, but in reality it’s rather drab, and I’m fantasizing about when it is in bloom again.