Meager morning harvest. Was this really it? I was already on the path of knowing I needed to improve my soil, but this was a total eye-opener. Even these few offerings from the veggie garden aren’t as healthy looking as they should be. I realized recently that I’ve been gardening the same backyard for ten years now and somewhere along the way I forgot that soil upkeep doesn’t happen with an application of leaf mulch twice a year.
I’ve always known that the soil is where it matters most in the garden. Regardless of the quality of plant or seed or the amount of sun and rain, if you don’t stay on top of building and maintaining the health of the soil, you’re losing.
At some point, I got lazy. That’s the truth of it. I could give the typical excuse of “life” getting in the way and all that bull, but really it was pure laziness. And then last week a book that has been on my shelf for two years finally caught my attention—The Third Plate by Dan Barber.
Just 100 pages in and there have already been so many poignant quotes that have made me say, “DUH, Jenn. DUH.” Gah.
It’s embarrassing, really, to acknowledge here that at some point I lost all sense when it came to the soil of my gardens. After that pitiful morning harvest, I started thinking back to just a few years ago when I would go out on a similar morning and come back with my big ol’ antique colander and shirt full of tomatoes, peppers of all sorts and sizes, piles of herbs, eggplants with depths of purples so beautiful it became my favorite color. I would make sauces and salsas, cook and freeze, share with friends, coworkers, and family, and still have more.
It wasn’t just the abundance either. You could taste the difference in each variety of tomato, pepper, and eggplant. There were flavor and textural variations, as intended. I think I first noticed two years ago a drop off of not only production but quality. Did I do anything? Put out six inches of leaf mulch twice a year and hoped for the best. Stupid.
Today, I started the fix. With a weather forecasting rain for the next few days, I figured it was a good time to get some nutrients into that soil. By the way, this is what the skies looked like even with a 90% chance of rain for the day…
But anywaaay, I know weather prediction will never be perfect or spot on, so I got out there to work. First thing, I put out a big bag of mushroom compost. Pulled what was left of the leaf mulch and some of the scrappy, dry dirt away from around the trunks of my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and herbs, and filled in with a hearty moat of the compost. I know it’s not ideal to apply the compost in this way, but the hope is that the rain will work it in and the worms I know are still down there will come up to pull it down.
After doing this around all of them and going through the mushroom compost and a bag of cow manure I forgot I had, I put down a fresh layer of leaf mulch and watered it all in. This is my idea of a patch in hopes of salvaging some flavors and production. I also started more long term repairs.
Finally got a compost bucket going again. I used to always have one and it was easy and obviously rewarding. Again, laziness took over. No more. I set up the bucket right down off the back deck, which is right where the kitchen is, so all kitchen scraps will now go into the compost pot. Luckily, I found a 30 gallon black plastic pot under the front deck that still had some previous composting attempt in it. Already rich with worms, I added some leaves and grass clippings and will start to add those veggie bits. Getting back on the right path seems doable now.
I know that there are the fancy-schmancy compost bins you can buy, but an elevated bucket that drains has always worked for me. It’s big enough to make good compost, but not so big that I won’t want to work it correctly.
My other longer term plan is to plant clover or beans or some other nitrogen-fixing cover crop. That will make a big impact for the next growing cycle. I am also doing more research into crop rotations that will improve the soil in a specific area for the planting following it.
I’ve had a soil-sense awakening because of a book. It’s overdue, but I’m relieved that it happened. My gardening practices needed an intervention, and as I get back on track to improving my garden soil, I’ve found a renewed interest in learning as much as I can about soil and the microbial life that is right below our feet. It truly fascinates me. For some people, it’s the galaxies above. For me, it’s the intricate universes below.
The funtastic start to the long weekend quickly took a turn by Saturday night when I started having some psychologically deflating side effects from the high dose of Prednisone I was put on last Wednesday. I had forgotten how intense this level can be and ended up feeling awful on Sunday. By Monday, I needed something to get me back on the positive mental track and since gardening out in the heat was out of the question, I went to the other space where I can always find something to invent, experiment with, or edit— my kitchen.
The drive to edit doesn’t stop when I leave the office. I’ve realized that it infiltrates most of my life. From the high-walled, razor-wired personal stuff to the blatant spray painting of an antique chandelier, I’ll make a tweak if I see fit.
Baking is not immune to my editorial revisions, to be sure. As I’ve said many times before, I can’t seem to follow recipes to the letter. It must be some sort of mental block. Or I’m just too damn stubborn.
So when I needed a pick-me-up on Monday, I searched the kitchen to see what I could create from what was on hand. I knew I needed a dessert for the Greek family Memorial Day dinner, so I first gathered up the basics of flour, sugar, and butter. Found three limes that were leftover from a gin and tonic weekend…and then it hit me—new cocktail cookie! I already knew a good iced-lemon cookie recipe, so I decided to adjust it into a liquored-up treat.
I always like a splash or two of whiskey or bourbon in a pie, and I’ve done a cookie with tequila, so gin seemed like the natural next step in editorial experimentation. Starting with the original recipe, I changed the call for lemon zest and juice to lime, added a big dousing of gin and an extra egg white (because it was there and needed to be used). I’m no chemist, and I barely math, so this was risky and I knew it. But it felt right and I was starting to feel better myself. The dough came together nicely. Perhaps a bit sticky, but the taste was spot-on. Sweet tart scrumptious. As with the lemon cookie recipe, it was hard not to sit there and just eat all the dough raw. I controlled myself and rolled out tablespoon-sized clumps onto the cookie sheet.
While those sticky, little dough balls were in the oven, I whipped up the icing for their tops. Knowing the liquor in the dough would mostly bake off, I decided to bring back the full strength in the icing. Powdered sugar, lime zest, lime juice, and gin—what could go wrong?
Nothing. Nothing went wrong with that. It was delicioso! Meanwhile, the dough balls were puffing up into what looked like wee biscuits. It was bizarre and I wondered if it was the addition of the gin or the extra egg white. Either way, they were looking almost fancy and I was getting excited. The previous day’s pains and discomforts were melting away as this new baking adventure was coming together.
Ding! The cookies were done, out da oven, and onto a cooling rack to set a bit before drizzling with the icing.
The smell was like the feel of summer evening drinks with a sweating glass pressed cool against a hot brow.
Once they were cool enough to drizzle, the idea of a drizzle wasn’t enough anymore. I coated those biscuity looking babies to the hilt. I mean, why not? They ended up sitting in puddles of ginny sweet goodness and it was glorious to gaze upon.
The final cocktail cookie had a texture that carried the heft of the glaze well and the combination felt just right. The full-force gin in the icing gave it a kick that everyone was surprised with but enjoyed…especially my coworkers. What? *Clears throat*
Moving on…the pick-me-up experiment is going down in the books as a success, and I’ve named them Jenn Gin Cookies. Gin and tonics are restricted to a glass no longer!
Jenn Gin Cookie Dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons finely grated lime zest
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 stick of unsalted butter, room temp
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg (plus one egg white if you want to do what I did)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Gin
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons lime zest
1/3 cup fresh lime juice with a big splash of Gin in it
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and zest in a bowl. In another bowl (I used my KitchenAid), beat the butter and granulated sugar until fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla, and lime juice, gin, and combine. Finally, add in the flour mixture gradually with the mixer on low.
Drop heaping tablespoons of dough onto the cookie sheet about 1 inch apart and bake until golden on the edges. About 15-20 minutes depending on your dough ball size. Be sure to flip them halfway through.
Let cool completely and then “drizzle” with the glaze. They should set for about an hour before devouring.
Today was Jetski Kev T. Bronson’s Gotcha Day celebration. His true adoption date was May 22, but that was a Monday and who can have a proper party on a Monday? So today, we celebrated Jet. The wonder dog.
The story of how Jet, and his numerous nicknames, came to our humble home is not a long one, but was a giga coaster on emotional rails.
It started with a death. Jet came into the rescue because his human dad died and the family couldn’t keep him. At 13 1/2 years old, we knew it would be hard to place him in a new forever home, but we try to save as many as possible regardless, so we jumped on the opportunity to take in the old guy. My previous foster, Bugsy, had just been adopted by my next door neighbors, so my home was open and I’ve always had a soft spot for the senior dogos. Those who know me, know I can’t not love a grey face.
Old man Jet arrived at my house mid-March. We had just started our busy season at work and I thought a senior dog that was already trained and used to another dog and cat would fit in fine even with my long work hours. The granddaughter of Jet’s former pop brought him over and told me everything she knew about his personality and quirks. After an introduction to my girl, RJ, and a stroll around the yard, it was determined that he would do well with us.
I pretty much knew immediately that he wasn’t going anywhere. There was something in the way his ears bounced when he walked and his foggy eyes that made me know he was home.
And he did fit in well. He learned our routines and went right along with the feed times, work schedule, treat times, bed times, and walks. During the day he’d sleep in the front room that he claimed as his own and at night he’d sleep across my doorway. We were now a pack of four and we were all happy.
I had noticed that Jet limped a bit and really didn’t like you to touch his side or his stomach. Figuring the limping and touchiness was due to age-related issues, I started him on high quality food and supplements of glucosamine/chondroitin and Wobenzyme. In a few weeks, there was a clear turn around in his ability to walk without a limp and get up off the floor easier. Seemed like we were on the right path to keeping him as mobile as possible.
Then he went in for his checkup and microchip. Our vet informed us that he had never been neutered, at some point he was shot and the bullet was still in him, and something bad was going on in his stomach. This was a Monday They wanted to do x-rays before the neuter, which was scheduled for Friday. Friday came and they put him just in twilight to do the x-rays first. They were shocked by what they saw—a softball-sized and shaped tumor in the area of his spleen and possible swollen pulmonary arteries. There would be no neuter that day. I remember, I was stuck at work where I couldn’t check my cell phone or email, but a note was sent to me that he was “okay.”
After the call to tell me the full facts, we immediately scheduled an appointment for an echo-cardiogram and ultrasound for the following Monday. These showed that he had a slight heart arrhythmia, but his pulmonary arteries looked okay. The tumor was clear and it was on the spleen. Once they had the results, our vets wanted to go in and do the surgery Tuesday morning. No waiting. It was too risky with a tumor that size. Even if benign, it could have burst at any moment causing him to internally bleed out.
By this time it was the first week of May—our absolute busiest week at work. My emotions were out of control and I’m not one to ever show much emotion. I was so scared that I would lose him after he just came into my life.
Two amazing vets went into surgery to remove the spleen, tumors, and do the neuter on Tuesday morning. Again, I was away from all communication at work and having to try and focus on what was happening before me instead of getting caught up in my thoughts of what was happening to my Jet boy right then and whether he would make it through. At his age, putting a dog under is dangerous, but I knew he was in the absolute best hands for the job. And I was right.
They took the spleen with the massive tumor, which also had two other smaller also perfectly round tumors on it…and his balls. So in total, Jet lost five balls that day. But he made it through the tough surgery and was awake and grumpy! I took his grumpiness as a good sign. The next day, another note was delivered to me at work where I was once again away from communication that read, “Jet is eating, but only if hand fed. He’s being spoiled.” He ended up spending the rest of the week at the vet’s office and they continued to spoil and fall in love with him. It’s really impossible not to. By the end of the week, we were all missing him at the house, even RJ.
Jet was home. Finally. Again. He started his slow healing process with a lot of rest and painkillers. Each day he got a little more mobile, ate more food, and his personality started coming back. I remembered his Easter morning face that I captured right as he woke up. He had the biggest smile and looked like my own little pun dog pup. That boy was coming back little by little. The biggest difference was his mobility. Once off the heavy duty painkillers, he was walking without any limp and even trotting a bit! Another new revelation, he enjoyed a belly rub. Before, I couldn’t get near his belly.
And then, on my birthday, I got the call from the vet that the tumor was BENIGN. Best birthday present ever!
Needless to say, Jet has made a wonder-dog recovery. He demands nightly walks now and is so much more comfortable. No more constant panting or barely being able to make it up one stair. He still has some pretty intense arthritis in his spine, but we’ve got the right combo to keep him pain free and moving.
The emotional roller coaster seems to have rolled back into the station. For now. Nobody knows or is promised the future though, so today we celebrated Jet and his official adoption into the Bronson family. And it truly has been a family trip. Without the emotional and financial support of my huge-hearted parents, none of this would have been possible. It’s things like this that make me believe in the connectedness of everything. Jet landed exactly where he needed to be. And more so, where I needed him to be. The pack grew unexpectedly, but we can’t imagine how we were before him.
Jet’s Gotcha Day party included his sister, Ruby Joon, and two former fosters, Lolly (and her mom) and Bugsy. Ol boy didn’t really want to play or have anything to do with the young’uns, and he wasn’t overly thrilled about the doggie cake with the candle, but I did catch him a couple times with a smile on his face.
We all wished for many more healthy years for Jetski Kev T. Bronson when blowing out the candle on his Gotcha Day cake.
There’s a roadside attraction of sorts in Lake Wales, Florida called Spook Hill. You throw your car into neutral at the white line and it rolls uphill on its own. Or what appears to be uphill. I think I remember the whole extended family driving over one time from Bartow where we spent our Christmases. My grandmother probably sent us just to get us all out of the house for a little while so she could breathe. Pretty sure I was unimpressed by the whole rolling backwards uphill thing. I was older than the pic to the right, but I’m going to guess that the face I was making was likely the same.
Today, doc told me I’ve relapsed. Again. What is it now? Four times in three years? Five? I really can’t remember. It’s abundantly clear that my body wants me dead. Unfortunately for my body, it’s dealing with a brain that has zero fucks to give about what the body wants. None. My brain is like the weapon of an apathetic martial artist—nonefucks.
I stole that. Ha.
In March, I went for a second opinion at Shands in Gainesville. It was an impressive facility and the doctors spent over two hours with my mom and me, going over all my medical history and discussing it in minute details. At the end of the visit, they said my doc has done everything they would have done. My mom asked them point-blank what they would do if they were me. The main doctor said if she kept relapsing on prednisone, she would try another immuno-suppressant. There are more out there that carry their own barrage of side effects, but staying on steroids forever is brutal on the body.
First things first though, get me back into remission. So a pounding of prednisone is what the doctor ordered. Took the first dose of the increased regime tonight. Back to the big guns…bigguns…BIG ‘UNS. My mind so frequently warps to Al Bundy, it’s slightly disturbing. What is that about? This isn’t funny. Thing is, if I can’t laugh about it, I won’t make it through. That’s true for everything that’s difficult for me. I can be upset, angry, and grieve, but eventually I gotta start laughing.
Doc says, “You’ll have all the energy you need now!” Thanks for the random bit of enthusiasm, but it doesn’t suit you. And, yeah, I admit that my stock response to the question of “How are you?” has been “Exhausted.” for the last few years, and I do hate feeling slothy and narcoleptic, but come on. What he really meant was, “Bring on the insomnia!” And I don’t know why I just bought that loaf of fresh bread from the bakery while picking up my pred script. Unless I want to balloon up like Violet Beauregard, carbs need to stay the hell away from my face-hole for the next few months until I’m back in remission.
And then I get to try a new immuno-suppressant. The last one I attempted made me itchy all over and straight-up suicidal, but I’m optimistic about this next one. <—That was another joke. I try to stay away from optimism. It’s how I keep from being disappointed in life. Or is that why I keep my expectations super low? Maybe both.
Fact is, either option is craptastic in its own way. Quality over quantity. Quality over quantity. Quality over quantity. If I say it enough, it’ll make it okay, right?
At the end of the driveway this evening with the dogs leashed and ready to go, I looked left, I looked right, and I realized I live in a valley. Whichever way I go, it’ll be uphill. I can put my drive into neutral and hope the roll happens on it’s own, bringing with it the optical illusion of fun, but I’ll still be going uphill.
Faces of accepting yet another relapse:
Last week, a new friend asked me if I had any spiritual beliefs. Without hesitation, I replied, “I can’t wait to become compost.”
I realize this may sound a bit grim, but as a gardener, I’m a witness to death giving rise to life.
Soil. Dirt. Earth. Whatever you call it, it’s the starter of the garden. There’s nothing quite like burying bare hands into healthy dirt and lifting it free. The heft and scent of it. The hyphae strands like highways for worms. It’s a world of its own and to hold that cradled in my palms is the closest I come to communion with a higher being.
It was years ago now when I first learned of the mycelium networks in soil that my scattered thoughts on spirituality became cohesive. Everything is just energy in different forms. From spongy fungus to screeching hawks, tomato blossoms to cirrus clouds, box turtles to magnolias, dung beetles to humans–all energy.
When I say I can’t wait to become compost, what I really mean is that though I’m content in my current form, I know through the natural breakdown of my body, I could become so much more. In the words of Bill Callahan in his song titled Say Valley Maker:
“So bury me in wood
And I will splinter
Bury me in stone
And I will quake
Bury me in water
And I will geyser
Bury me in fire
And I’m gonna phoenix
I’m gonna phoenix.”
Earth Day garden pics