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Follow me at The Quarantined Gardener

Dear Friend,

Thank you for being here with me. We are all just doing the best we can right now. I’m finding one way to feel calm and control is to cultivate growth in my home. When the virus escalated in Pennsylvania, I could count on my plants. But the local grocery stores became sparse, and then we learned which businesses are life-sustaining. My heart sunk. Garden centers didn’t make the cut. Suddenly, friends and family started calling me for advice.

“But I don’t have a green thumb like you.” Yes, you do. All you need are seeds, soil, and sun. The way to the garden to table lifestyle has very little to do with your thumb and is much more rooted in your mindset. Whether you have a windowsill in a small apartment (like I do), a balcony, or a piece of land, you can sustain yourself. You are free to grow outside and in. Gardening is not canceled. 

To help you grow your own food during the coronavirus, I’m sharing tips as The Quarantined Gardener. Follow my new blog for more. Let’s grow together in 2020.

Happy Spring,
Sienna

Quarantined? Here are 9 fast-growing foods you can sow in containers in early spring

“Do you really need more seeds?” they said.

“You’re a crazy plant lady,” they said.

Proud crazy plant lady here, and yes, as we roll into the sneezing, coughing, roaring 2020s, we do need to sow more seeds! We might be home for a while and, naturally, several friends have grown curious about what’s going on in my windowsill. I believed I could save the world with plants, though I never thought a State of Emergency would be declared so early in the growing season.

This is an interesting thyme. I mean, time. During this Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve learned which Pennsylvania businesses are “life sustaining.” Fortunately, farmers made the cut and their doors are open for locals wanting to avoid crowded grocery stores.

But most garden centers remain closed.

Garden nurseries keep us plant-lovers going. They not only sustain, but also birth new life. I await the day they open their doors, revealing the first pansies, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths of the season. Among the blooms, I’d buy onion bulbs every March and herbs to harbor indoors until mid-May. Of course, that was in the time before. This is 2020.

With mature plants in hand, we could be growing more of our own food, faster.

The good news is: We can still count on Spring. The Vernal Equinox dawned early on Friday. Mother Nature knows we need her – our Zone’s Last Spring Frost Dates are coming in late April, well before Mother’s Day. Let’s meet her with open arms.

Gardening is not canceled. Start planning and growing your garden from the indoors out. All you need are seeds, soil, and sun. You can sow from home.

Lettuce begin. Here are 9 fast-growing foods you can sow in containers in early spring.

Lentil sprouts

This is my “Haft-Sort-Of Table” for Norouz 2020.

Soak lentils in water overnight. The next morning, drain and rinse them and leave them in a jar to sprout. Remember, seeds germinate underground, so the jar should be set in a shady location away from direct sunlight. Every couple hours, give them a rinse. You’ll start to see little shoots grow within a day or two! Eat them as they are or plant them in a pot like I did above. This is definitely the fastest, most satisfying first experience for a novice gardener.

Why sprout lentils?

1) Lentils are the traditional centerpiece of the Haft-Seen Table for the Persian New Year. Each of the seven items is pronounced with the letter “س” (seen), including these “sabzi” greens. This holiday is called “Norouz” which translates to “New Day” in Farsi. As our planet is changing and challenging us to think on a global scale, let’s celebrate renewal.

2) Sprouting lentils and any other legumes makes them easier to digest and increases their vitamin B and C content. Sprinkle them on your meals for a little added fresh crunch. (I know there is no substitute for potato chips, but I’m just doing my best here.)

3) Fun fact: Lentils are used as a base for some soft cat food. Honey loves them too.

Microgreens

On my windowsill, I’m also germinating alfalfa and broccoli microgreens. Vegetable varieties like these will be ready to harvest in less than 2 weeks. Herb microgreens take closer to 25 days.

Soak 6-8 hours in 4 parts warm water (not hot) and 1 part seed. Rinse and drain. Spread evenly in a mason jar and, like the lentils, shade them from direct sunlight. If you have a particularly warm, shady spot in the house that gets up to 75 degrees, the seeds will germinate much faster there. Drain 2-3 times per day.

Note: Seeds are living! Give them breathing room. I secured a piece of wax cloth on top of the jar and poked holes in the top with a fork. This way, the seeds can get proper air circulation and it will prevent seeds from falling out each time you rinse. (An even better tool for this: pantyhose.)

In 3-4 days you’ll start to see them sprout. Sprinkle them on your meals for some extra nutrition.

Buy the same ones I’m growing here.

Spinach

Spinach loves spring. Sow seeds indoors and transplant about 4 weeks before the last spring frost date (which is normally closer to May 15th but this year it is April 30th in Bethlehem!). Careful not to disturb the roots as you remove the seedlings from their first homes. Spinach prefers cool temperatures and full sun, but tolerates part shade. Actually planting it in a somewhat shady spot will extend the growing period before the hot temperatures make the plant “bolt” (make flowers/more seeds) in summer.

You know that “Baby Spinach” that comes in plastic bins at the store? That could be growing in your yard or on your windowsill by late April, early May. The seed packets for most varieties claim the leaves will mature in 25 days, but like any leafy plant, you can pick it sooner.

To grow spinach on your windowsill like I will for a while, find a variety that is known for doing well indoors such as Catalina. Sow the seed in a container that is at least 6 inches deep and place in a spot where temperatures do not exceed 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Water often.

Buy here and elsewhere.

Kale

Kale is not my favorite to eat, but it is one of my favorites to grow. This hardy green grows in big, bountiful patches from just a sprinkle of seeds, and it thrives (and tastes better) in the cold.

Sow seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep into well-drained soil. In two weeks, seedlings will appear. Thin the seedlings (and eat them!) so that the remaining seedlings are spaced 8 to 12 inches apart. Water often.

Kale is typically planted 3-5 weeks before last frost, but with the weather being pretty warm in our zone, I’d say go for it as soon as those seeds arrive in the mail. Harvest the largest leaves outdoors and baby kale indoors.

Buy here or elsewhere. Check that it’s not labeled “ornamental.” Ornamental varieties are not meant as food.

Arugula and loose leaf lettuce

Arugula grows like a weed. Sow even a single seed now and you’ll have non-stop salad throughout summer. Transplant seedlings 2-3 weeks before last frost or sow directly into the ground. Like spinach and kale, arugula and other lettuce varieties appreciate full sun but will do well in partial shade too.

If you want to grow and harvest arugula indoors, you’re in luck. Most houseplants crave the southern sun, but arugula will do just fine in a north-facing window (like mine!). Sow in a small pot and the leaves will stay small; in a larger pot the leaves will grow bigger. The plant can reach up to 2 feet and eventually produce flowers like the white, edible ones pictured above from my former garden.

The photo on the top right shows the loose leaf lettuces I grew in my very first garden. Depending on the variety, lettuces mature in about 50 days but I find the younger leaves to be more tender. Pinch the heads to harvest and watch more grow quickly. In the gardening world, this is known as “cut and come again.”

Buy my favorite loose leaf lettuce mix here.

Radishes

While the greens above can be grown in different conditions indoors and out, I recommend growing root vegetables only outdoors. Root vegetables should only be sown directly into the ground or the pot where they will mature.

For radishes, prepare a wide, shallow window box (at least 6 inches deep) with potting mix. Place in full sun. Sow seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep and 1 inch apart 4-6 weeks before last frost. As seedlings emerge, thin so they are 2 inches apart. Water regularly. Keep the roots moderately moist.

Cherry Belle and Easter Egg varieties will be ready to harvest in just 30 days. If you don’t have a very sunny location, that’s okay; radishes will still grow slowly in part shade.

Buy a multi-color Easter Egg mix here.

Baby carrots

Like radishes, carrots are a root vegetable. Sow directly in the soil. Even if you don’t have a big garden, you can have shorter “baby” carrots. Choose a pot that is 6-15 inches deep depending on the variety of carrot. Nantes grow 6-7 inches long, while Chantenay grow only up to 5 inches and can be grown in poorer soils.

Sow seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep and 1 inch apart 2-3 weeks before last frost. When seedlings have grown 2 inches tall, it’s time to thin them. Instead of uprooting, cut them carefully with a pair of scissors. Carrots have delicate roots.

As you do for the radishes, keep the roots moderately moist in a full sun to part sun location. Check with your finger that your soil is not soaked but not completely dry. Throughout summer and fall, sow carrots every two or three weeks to keep them coming. Harvest yields every 30-50 days.

English peas, snow peas, and sugar snap peas

Every Saint Patrick’s Day, many gardeners mark their calendars for Snow Pea Day.

When snow peas and regular garden peas breed, they make sugar snap peas. Plant both varieties outdoors on trellisses. Snow peas thrive in full sun, while sugar snap peas only need 4-5 hours of sunlight a day.

If you have a balcony, the vines could grow around the railing (I’m looking at you, Mary the music therapist.) Sugar snap peas do well in containers and the “Oregon Sugar Pod” snow pea variety does too.

Farmer Bethany Towne grows peas a plenty. She is looking for volunteers to help her at the NCC East 40 Community Garden. Reach out to her on Instagram @east40farm. Learn to garden and take home fresh food. Maybe I’ll join you …

Expect peas in 8-12 weeks. Explore quick-growing varieties here.

String beans?

This is my new experiment! Rumor has it string beans will grow in a window that gets 6-8 hours of sunlight per day, in a pot that is at least 8 inches deep. I’ve been growing Royal Burgundy abundantly for several years outdoors. We shall see how they do in my window. If you want to try this, find a bush bean variety. Pole varieties are how Jack and the Beanstalk got started; their vines will travel to your neighbor’s house and back, and actually that would be pretty cool too …

Grow your own and buy local!

So all those foods are born for spring. Amid the quiet of our quaint Pennsylvanian towns, you can still flourish from your window, balcony, or yard. Buy some soil wherever you can find it (here’s a good potting mix on Amazon) and get creative with containers. You can plant in anything with drainage. Plastic pots, put a hole in them. Buckets, put a hole in them. Baby pools, put a hole in them. Egg cartons, paper towel rolls, that cracked pot you made in preschool, any container that is 3+ inches deep has promise.

If you want to keep your garden growing into the fall, check out my seed sowing guide. And if you want a proper mini-greenhouse of your own, I recommend Park Seed’s Bio Dome.

Meanwhile, support your local farm stands. The farmer Liz at Crooked Row Farms and Papa Thad at Jett’s Produce are open for business, and so are many others. Here is a list of Lehigh Valley farm stands that are open.

And just now, Gary Warren of Lehigh Valley Kombucha knocked on my door and delivered a bottle of sweet watermelon.

I know the virus is spreading like fire, but let’s trust nature’s wisdom. Native Americans believe fire is medicine. Every year, many tribes start controlled fires to modify the landscape, nourish the soil, and ultimately sustain their culture and economy. In unprecedented times like this when we feel powerless, we may feel like the flowers being burned. But we are the soil. We can cultivate a fresh foundation from the comfort of home. It’s a New Day.

Wishing you all a safe, healthy, abundant season. I’m here if you have any questions. Click here to receive this free guide from my new persona The Quarantined Gardener: “The Secret to Growing These 3 Superfoods in Your Window.”

Can taking an improv class cure my S.A.D.?

This is the story of how an anxious cat named Honey stole an improv show at Steel Stacks.

A little penguin robot watches over Honey when I’m not home. While I was gardening in Mexico last winter, the penguin’s non-descript face would light up red to warn her of my incoming calls. She’d offer a string of meows and tell me all about the train going by. I’d tell her in my highest pitch that the weather is much better in Merida and I might be flying her out to start a new life with my Latin lover. She’d roll her eyes, then knock over the penguin.

To brighten up this winter, my new year’s resolution was more of an experiment. Instead of traveling to a sunny spot in the south, I stood my ground here. Every week, I’d muster the energy to walk the few paces from my apartment to the Banana Factory with one question on my mind: Can taking a standup comedy class cure my S.A.D.?

A scripted writer walks into improv

Improv and standup comedian Addyson Teal.
Improv and standup comedian Addyson Teal.

The first walk-in class of 2020 was improv. I thought I’d give it a try. As I was making my way there, I checked in with Honey on the penguin. When I looked up I met two delightful humans, our teachers Addyson Teal and Sarah White.

Introductions were a little unconventional. We started off “passing energy” with a game of “zip, zap, zop.” Then, each of us used alliteration to give an extra punch to our first names – I was Sentimental Sienna, then there was Bobbing Bob, Creative Christine, and our “classroom buddy” Sassy Sarah. To keep the energy flowing, we’d add a sound and gesture to go with it. I made a -V- with my palms below my chin and whispered “Sentimental Sienna” then passed the energy to “Bobbing Bob” and so forth.

Scenes felt a little stressful as we were thinking what to say and do and how to move on the spot. It all comes back to: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? How are we feeling?

In my writer’s mind, that means character, setting, plot, personality with a dash of motivation. This is easier for me to do on paper than in a room full of humans influencing the story. Amazed by the constant positive feedback – Addy and Sarah’s genuine cheers of joy – I hadn’t felt this supported in a creative space for a long time.

So I had gotten my feet wet. But my comfort zone is scripted! “Where do I register for standup?” I asked Sassy Sarah. She said, “I do standup too! Improv is a great way to learn how to fill those awkward gaps and make them fun.”

That made sense and we did have a ton of fun. I’d be coming back for improv next week. Zip zap zop.

Improv 101 a.k.a. ‘Daddy Cat Daddy’

Improv standup comedian Sarah White.
Improvised standup comedian Sarah White.

Bugs with big photographed personalities greeted us in the Banko Gallery. Troupe members I’d come to know as a dental hygienist with massive range, a graphic designer who undeniably looks like ZZ Top, and a couple boys in their early 20s who have less filtered filters than the rest of us. Getting to know each other involved getting acquainted with an invisible gracious goat named Gregory. That’s all the inside scoop you will get on Gregory. Know that he is very grand, and like the dental hygienist, has a massive range for adopting character traits.

We warmed up on what Sarah called the “Park Bench of Truth” where two people have an open, honest conversation based on a random one-word suggestion. Other ways we got to play were pretending to be on Second Dates, an opportunity for us to work on listening and to stay present.

After a few weeks, our awkward Tinder dates turned into full-blown scenes. One guy I will always remember as being raised by birds, another couple got cold feet while flying to Mars, a goldfish inspector rekindled a relationship with a certain housewife, and between squirrels wearing top hats and the shady ice cream sprinkle dealers on the sidelines, we even made space for taking spin classes during the apocalypse.

It all comes back to: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? How are we feeling? Questions that we’d answer during quick “layups” (Sarah is also a basketball coach) I also found very grounding.

To take our scenes above and beyond, this one still gets my writer gears turning: “If this is true what else is true?”

Ooh, that had me hooked.

Then we learned how to do a full set. Based on a one-word non-food suggestion from the audience, one of us would step off the backline and tell a story. Then another, then a third. Inspired by a certain detail, character, place or feeling from one of these stories/monologues, pairs would step out and perform scenes.

“What if my monologue sucks?” I asked.

“It just has to be honest,” Sarah reassured me. “All the group needs are a few details to grab onto.”

These are known in the writing world as “telling details.” I could hack this.

Improv 101 Graduation Show at Steel Stacks

Improv 101 Graduation Show at Steel Stacks, Bethlehem, PA. Thursday, Feb. 20.
Improv 101.

So we all set the intention to just have fun. If we were having fun, the audience would too. Plus it’s Steel Stacks on a Thursday. Fortunately, not too many people saw me fall face down on the stage during the dress rehearsal.  

After I took the “break a leg” suggestion too literally, an inside joke became our troupe name, “Daddy Cat Daddy,” and quite fittingly, Sarah called us her “kittens …”

… which brings me to Honey. Since the audience put out those pet vibes, I seized the chance to share a story about my cat. When I adopted Honey, she was seven months old, a shy skittish rescue. This ruffian (not sure where that word came from) would hide in the basement of my house underneath a woodpile. Tempting with a laser and countless treats, I’d coax her up the stairs and then she’d return to her rubble. How could she live her best life in a basement?

I gave her space, as recommended by the vet, and it worked! Then came the tip-tap of her overgrown nails up the basement stairs and all the way up to the attic where I was writing on my laptop. This shy little thing suddenly had a lot to say – she talked my ear off. In hindsight, what she was really saying (in cat) is: “You know if we got an apartment we wouldn’t have to climb so many stairs!”

So I took her advice. While researching how to transition an anxious cat to a new home (because it didn’t go well the first time) I splurged on chamomile infused treats and a special diffuser and some sort of hormonal wipes. Move out day was stressful. We created a safe space for her in the house with all those treats and hormones. I finally returned to get one last thing – my precious Honey – and she had fled to the basement under the same woodpile. All the progress we had made, gone.

Much to my relief, the laser trick coaxed her into the carrier. We finally got the apartment. I carried her up the stairs. All the stress-relief diffusers going, I carefully open the carrier and she walks out … tail straight up and says (in cat): “Oh, this is nice! I’ve been saying all along we needed a change!”

As Honey tossed around her chamomile treats like toys, I inhaled a pot of chamomile tea. Maybe I should have done more research on how to transition a human.

Real talk on the Park Bench of Truth

This is the story of how my cat Honey overcame her anxiety.
Honey Bunches of Oats!

If we had all the time in the world on the Park Bench of Truth, I’d explain why she was so scared in that house and share the backstory of the woodpile. But we don’t have time for that at improv, and that’s okay. Zip zap zop. People want to laugh – people need to laugh. All you really need to know is who she is today, the squeaky slinky of a cat who has a lot to say.  

During the scenes, I watched in awe how my troupe members could transform Honey the Cat into a quirky sales lady at an herbal shop and the rubble of wood she used to hide under could be used to make a pirate ship. These telling details created new stories.

This was incredibly healing for me in ways I could only tell you on the Park Bench of Truth. Let’s just say Sarah’s words from class rang so true: “It doesn’t matter if it’s good because once it’s out there, it’s gone.”

My bad memories had lifted and new ones had replaced them with comic relief.

Telling a story about my jumpy cat, on stage, without warning quieted my anxiety (and my seasonal depression). I’m just as surprised as you are.

Since rubbing elbows with the local comedy crew, I’ve learned I’m not yet in a place where I can develop my character with another person long-term. I spent years playing a role and I just want to be myself. And I’m grateful to have found a circle where I feel comfortable sharing stories and experiencing how it evolves through others’ interpretations – more alive than ever.

Those who love to bring laughter often need it the most. We swap frowning and smiling drama masks at the drop of a hat. I’ve found a tribe where I can explore the laughing half of my writer’s self. Comedy is a toddler distracting me from my work, and I love it. Now if writer’s block creeps in, I can rely on that dynamic relationship.

What is improv?

Improv is vulnerable. Improv is safe. It might feel like only you on the stage, nothing to hold onto, no drums sticks, no script – just your wits. Improv is also the headspace you may have left behind in childhood, where you can revive your old playmates and invent new ones. At improv, you are not alone.

Sometimes we save it for therapy. Other times we save it for the page, or the stage. All the while, we work that story muscle. My comfort zone is scripted. Whenever I want to venture off-script, I know where to go.

If you’re curious how improv can lift your spirits, join mental health and improv professional Emily Kreiger for “Improv Anxiety: A Workshop,” Sunday, March 22 at the Banana Factory. Tickets here.

From the Ground Up: How the NCC East 40 Community Garden Kindles Our Creative Fire

I left my suburban garden last June with too many tomato seedlings. We needed to find a home – fast. When I taught ESL at NCC, I was always so grateful for the East 40. But I couldn’t imagine packing my planting vision into the “family plot” I shared with my mom and dad. So late into the season, I surrendered. Community was my only option. Our family of three rallied together to tame the weeds.

The whole property was once wilderness and not that long ago. Nine years later, driving down the gravel road to the East 40, you’re greeted by families. Vibrant purple and pink petunias paired with horseradish, nestled on either side of my massive potato planter, to protect the potato leaves from incoming pests. Blooming cosmos in pockets carefully constructed of straw and compost across the way from the hoophouse where students tend to young greens. My father’s Center for Clay and Fire has set up camp here too, a sanctuary for ceramics students to process clay straight from the ground, fire pots on-site, and eventually sell their work at the college’s farmers market on Wednesdays. Just like the potatoes with their companions, we have everything we need in one place.

Between the main campus and several local nurseries, the NCC East 40 Community Garden was planted at a convenient location yet private, tucked along a well-preserved tree line, lush green in summer, bold and bright with autumnal foliage come October. Our organized paradise started, as all gardens do, with a dream.

How our green thumbs got the green light

  • Liz Wagner starting seedlings for the NCC East 40 Community Garden.
  • Building raised beds at the NCC East 40 Community Garden
  • Starting a community garden in the Lehigh Valley - NCC East 40 Community Garden
  • Students and volunteers build a new structure at the NCC East 40 Community Garden.

Who would become the East 40 coordinator – Kelly Allen – wanted to start small. His vision always centered around the creation of an outdoor learning space, but it wasn’t his dream, at first, to cultivate the 40 acres east of campus. Kelly, starting as an adjunct professor of English at NCC in 2009, wanted to bring a community garden to a much smaller space near Penn Hall.

Meanwhile, newlyweds Kelly Allen and Meg Mikovits planted their own garden. Meg had started as Moravian College’s writing center director. Their first year was pretty ambitious – chickens lay eggs and vegetable plants led lives of their own throughout the spring, summer and fall. It was a powerful learning experience.

“I made silly mistakes like building a trellis for bush beans,” Kelly remembers.

But being academics, they knew how to apply research. Together, they made important connections between critical pedagogy and experiential learning involving the growth and consumption of food.

“Marriage, gardening and teaching all happened that same summer,” he says.

So, Kelly’s conversations at NCC with other gardeners stemmed from the home. On campus, rumors spread that the 40 acre-property could be turned into athletic fields, or, to the budding gardening community’s disappointment, a parking lot. To stop this from happening, faculty from the existing Environmental Task Force flocked to Kelly’s office. Student life director Frank Pologruto, professor of communication Donna Acerra, and professor of philosophy Ken Burak were instrumental in the first proposal for the property.

“We didn’t have much of a green identity,” Kelly reflects. “People like Frank, Donna and Ken saw potential.”

That’s when NCC’s environmental tasks turned into environmental actions. Their proposal presented several options, but the top two were: 1) let the space go back to native woodlands, or 2) farm it.

Woods sound great, in theory, but a field of unwieldy trees and bushes and grasses is a magnet for invasive species. Maintaining the woodland could possibly be more intensive (and expensive), the team realized, and the possibility of a thriving garden became more enticing.

However, there was a key ingredient missing – students. Kelly asked the question which should be at the core of every decision made on a college campus: “Where’s the student vision and how’s this impacting their academic experience?”

For the garden to be communal, it needed to include the student community.

Mike McDonald was the first student to put roots down. Leading the project’s steering committee, Mike encouraged more students, staff, and faculty to take action. By Fall 2010, the college president Art Scott asked Kelly to come to his office. A process that could have taken years took months, and in December 2010, the garden got the green light.

But they still needed to get out of the weeds. The first summer, Kelly and Mike prepared the land and began growing. Overcoming obstacles meant balancing three things: money, labor and knowledge. Grateful for the increasing support from the college, as more students participate, the more the garden grows.

Now, we have a prolific vegetable garden, an orchard, a vineyard, a compost area, a beehive and flowers to attract these pollinators – all connected in a single ecosystem.

Cultivating the literary and culinary arts

  • Romanesco harvested at the NCC East 40 Community Garden.
  • Bethany Towne, a massage therapy student, agrees no-till is the way to go. She is farming one acre to supply several Lehigh Valley vendors with fresh ingredients: NCC’s student-run restaurant Hampton Winds, Nature's Way Market, the Kellyn Foundation, Local Mama Catering Company, and Lit Coffee Roastery and Bakery.
  • Our Halloween at the NCC Farmers Market, Wednesdays 10-2.

The East 40 stands as a pillar among other Lehigh Valley community gardens where students, staff, their families, and the larger community unite over their passion for growing fresh food.

Sowing the seeds across campus, the community makes strong connections between the sciences and humanities.

While it was snowing at the start of the semester, American Literature II learned about famous authors in the comfort of a classroom. Then, as the daffodils bloomed, they took that into the natural world. If author Kate Chopin was out at the East 40, they considered, how would she use language to describe this space and the stories it holds?

To better understand the dynamics of outdoor learning, psychology professors are conducting an experiment. Three instructors from the communications department, one from English and another from sociology are each teaching the same class, one inside and one outside to prove whether outdoor learning truly benefits student success. (This isn’t news to the students in the control and experiment groups. They know they are being studied while they are studying.)

Still, the garden is not an exact science. As the climate shifts, so does the outdoor learning environment.

“Every year is different and depends on our ability to adapt to those changes,” Kelly says.

Fences keep the increasing deer at bay and the no-till method allows the soil to absorb the heavy rainfall we’ve had the past few summers.

Bethany Towne, a massage therapy student, agrees no-till is the way to go. She is farming one acre to supply several Lehigh Valley vendors with fresh ingredients: NCC’s student-run restaurant Hampton Winds, Nature’s Way Market, the Kellyn Foundation, Local Mama Catering Company, and Lit Coffee Roastery and Bakery. As planned, she harvested rows and rows of onions this year. The vegetable many cooks use to start a recipe does not interest deer, rabbits or groundhogs (or even our curious fox friend).

Both gardeners and farmers worry about critters and climate. Farmers dependent on crops and clients tend to have a different relationship with the land.

“If you make a mistake in the garden, you can dig out five kale plants and survive the winter,” Bethany says. “There’s more pressure on a farm to make decisions that may or may not be best for the soil, the ecosystem and public health.”

But this young farmer’s mindset is more holistic. “Both farming and gardening can connect the grower to the earth,” she says.

Growers are creative people. The gardener who is a biologist, potter, writer, or cook envisions what the space will look like tomorrow after the storm, next year after the snow. Like any art project, the garden starts with a blank canvas. The earth does a beautiful job painting it; dandelions attract bees in spring then comes the queen anne’s lace in summer. My modest pollinator patch keeps our bees nuzzling in yarrow, salvia and catmint.

Sparking inspiration for the Center for Clay and Fire

  • Teabowl by ceramics professor and artist Walter Heath, founder of the NCC Center for Clay and Fire. Northampton Community College / NCC East 40 Community Garden, Green Pond Road in Bethlehem, PA.
  • ncc east 40 community garden center for clay and fire how community gardening helps me garden mindfully
  • center for clay and fire ncc east 40 community garden how community gardening helps me garden mindfully
  • ncc east 40 community garden how community gardening helps me garden mindfully
  • Amanda Jimenez, Tony Williams, and Sienna Mae Heath (me) exploring the clay art at the NCC Farmers Market, Wednesdays 10-2, Bethlehem, PA.
  • Bahereh Khodadoost selling her original clay art at NCC's craft show and the NCC Farmers Market - Northampton Community College, Green Pond Road in Bethlehem, PA.

The East 40 is also a hub for visual artists. While many harvest food, NCC’s ceramics students harvest clay. At the NCC East 40 Center for Clay and Fire, professor Walter Heath teaches how to process, sculpt, glaze, and fire pottery – all on-site. Even our Indian corn is used for texture on tea bowls.

“Our experience feels so spontaneous and serendipitous,” Walter says. “Poetic yet practical. In the garden, there is a primal connection to clay, that one doesn’t get by taking clay out of a box, forming it and firing it in an electric kiln.”

Everything they need is at the garden, including the kiln. During the First Ancestors workshop every summer they do a “fast fire.” Compared to the traditional lengthy wood firing, the fast fire is a different animal (and it conserves wood). Not better, not worse … just different. Results depend on the flame and the ash deposits, which are less pronounced in a short fast fire than in a traditional wood firing because it lasts five hours, not five days.

Fast fire rests between this traditional wood firing and raku. While raku swiftly produces decorative, often iridescent pottery, the fast fire pieces are functional. The beauty of the experience – elements of each type of firing, but the outcome is of a different nature.

“First Ancestors” is rather fitting because the first known ceramic object that represents a human symbolizes fertility. She is the Venus of Dolni Vestonice. She, and we, join a long line of animals. There was a time before us, and there will be a time after. It’s up to the group of potters to pave the way.

The family tree rings true for our family of three – my father Walter (a transplant from Oklahoma), my mother Bahereh Khodadoost (a transplant from Iran), and me. Our road led to the Lehigh Valley and finally to Northampton Community College where we feel very much at home.

“To be a family of artists/gardeners it all comes down to our ability to stay united and to stay One with Nature,” Bahereh says. “The air, water, clay soil, fire and light, and the universe all play a role in the process which in return produces soulful produce and vessels that nourishes our spirit. I consider myself only as a co-creator in the whole process. We do our part from our creative mind and from our heart, and we, individually and collectively, become a part of this unique process. We become a part of the sacredness of it all.”

“Sacredness is the reality embedded in every human being and in every creation,” she says. “As every season is a renewal of the last one, yet it is different and unique in its own right, the same is true with firing, especially with raku or wood firing. Every firing carries some elements from the previous firings, yet it is unique and it is different than the ones who have come before it, and each holds its own unique beauty.”

Ancient pottery lineage follows from father to son to grandson. Now, we welcome anyone into the tribe. Here at the East 40, international students grow food they miss from their home countries. Those interested in sustainable food systems gain perspective abroad and share the lessons they learned. Anyone hungry for stray squashes is welcome. Community gardening has the power to spark light in all of us – gardeners who write, who cook, who sculpt, who study, who travel. Community creates the balance our planet currently craves. Companion plants are like people. They take care of each other.

Forest Bathing ‘Like a Faun in the Desert’

In the spirit of World Mental Health Day, let’s talk about seasonal depression. Going forest bathing helped me welcome the autumnal equinox with grace, but every day can be a struggle. How do you prepare for winter?

For many of us with seasonal depression, the first cool night signals a warning that it’s time to drop vitamin D infused oil on our morning toast, or else succumb to darkness. The sun sets a little sooner, the window for soaking up sunshine nearly closed. When I awoke on the fourth Sunday of September, I figured, all the more reason to let my blankets release me into the wild of Little Pond to go “Forest Bathing with H.D.”

Our guide was Anisa George. Her mother Bridget, who along with Bill George founded the arts retreat in 1996, motioned for me to park on the mix of gravel and grass across the way from their quaint refinished farmhouse. I nibbled on the edible garden of spearmint, cinnamon basil, and nasturtiums (which I think of as rogue peppery petunias).

“Welcome back,” the mother-daughter duo chimed in unison. Little Pond served as a spiritual and creatively charged oasis during my childhood and here I was, having owned two houses, changed my career, and circling around from quite a few travels abroad – home.

This was my first Artist’s Date as is encouraged in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. I was looking forward to forest bathing and writing something to capture the experience. Because writing with calm and gratitude is something I struggle with, especially in the darker months, I’ve set an intention: I am willing to explore gratitude through my creativity.

Typically, the Artist’s Date is just for you and your artist alone. I decided to make mine more communal.

Seven of us settled in a circle near the pond. Anisa shared the history of forest bathing – the English translation for the Japanese tradition of immersing oneself in nature. This tradition is only a few decades old. In the 1980s when workers were collapsing at their desks, the government took action. The result is now a global phenomenon, encouraging humanity to reconnect with the landscape.

Invitations and sharing circles

In forest bathing, there are invitations and sharing circles. Each free-flowing activity is an invitation to savor the sights, sounds, textures and scents around you. When given the sharing piece, similar to a talking stick, we could answer this question: What are you noticing?

“It’s okay to pass. It’s okay to share silence,” Anisa said. This added reassurance made me feel so free. Poetry, though not typically a part of forest therapy, sparks a calming freedom within. Anisa presented scrolls of poems by H.D., the Lehigh Valley poet also known as Hilda Doolittle who was a great lover of the wild. The first piece of parchment pulled from the cup revealed:

Behold the dead are lost,
The grass has lain
Trampled
And stained
And sodden
Behold
Behold
Behold …
The grass rises
With flower-bud;
The grain
Lifts its bright spear head
To the sun again
Behold,
Behold
The dead
Are no more dead
The grain is gold
blade
stalk
and seed within;
the mysteries
are in the grass
and the rain.

“What stands out to me is ‘Behold, behold, behold’!” said fellow forest bather Gerry Nugent. “Even if it’s been trampled, behold, it’s still beautiful. We have the four seasons in Pennsylvania. Never know what we’re going to get.”

After this first sharing circle came the first invitation. Anisa guided us up a hill to a mowed oval surrounded by trees. Laying like blades of grass, we became curious of what we’re welcoming on an inhale and what we’re giving on an exhale. 

Each person inhaled something of their own and exhaled what they need to give to the world. For me, I welcomed the wind to join my breath. I welcomed confidence in the life I’ve built for myself in the past year. I gave gratitude to the family who helped make it possible.

Mindful of Motion 

Prior to our next walk, Anisa asked that we be mindful of movement: “What’s in motion? If the only thing you notice is yourself, you might want to slow down.”

Children are constantly in motion. Inspired by H.D.’s “wild fulfillment” (and I by Brene Brown’s to be bold and play) we spread milkweed seeds to the wind. The pods slipped open, revealing what felt like a thousand dandelion seeds with the texture of a down pillow. I was surprised how many could fit in even the smallest spaces. Tapping into my inner child, I coaxed the next generation of monarch butterflies to pollinate this patch next summer.

Inevitably the group would disperse, like the seeds themselves, so Anisa taught us how to call each other without cell phones – we howled! The lesson learned is, first of all, it’s fun to howl like wolves in the wood, and if I can’t hear one wolf, perhaps I can hear another and then know it’s time to return to the sharing circle.  

The Camera and Photographer invitation brought to mind technology again, but soon we learned it only needed the human eye and hand. My partner was Kait Smart. Having just met, we embarked on this trust exercise. She closed her eyes and I walked her to a textured stump. Then we switched roles and ended up blowing more milkweed.

“Look at this, this is what I see,” Gerry described the perspective gained by taking pictures in pairs. “How often do we get to do that in our daily lives? Maybe I will after this.”

Bridget George and Sally Cordova shared their adventure, too. When you keep your eyes closed, you can still see, Bridget noticed. “There’s always this flickering. Even when Monet’s eyesight left, he could somehow paint the landscape.”

Finding Home

After all, every molecule of the human body is nature. During our Hide and Seek, we went off individually into the deep woods to look for something that’s waiting to be found. Another poem by H.D. lingered on my journey:

shall I lie in the meadows sweet.
escaped,
escaped from the lot
of men,
like a faun in the desert,
like a wind
by the river bank?
again,
again
shall I rest
ecstatic in loneliness,
apart in the haunted forest

For our last final sharing circle, Anisa surprised us. From her photo lens bag came a bamboo mat, a teapot, and ceramic cups. She steeped goldenrod which stems from the Latin “solidago” meaning solid, as it is used to heal wounds and make them whole. Flourishing in September, it is a pioneer plant that thrives wherever it is sown. Its presence nourishes the soil.

Coming home to ourselves and to each other was the budding theme. Bridget was the last to join the circle but hearing her howls in the distance we knew she grew near. “I went so far into the woods not wanting this to end … and I found this perfectly broken beech tree.”

Joanna also found a tree, smooth with two limbs for arms. Sitting in the groove of this tree, she reflected. She felt comforted, calm, home. “I value the playful space between sharing, invitations and all the wilderness of nature,” she said. “I needed structure today but also space for the unexpected.”

Sally and I brought back mixed nuts. Beautifully, she shared the phases of life in the form of green and brown chestnuts. My experience was similar. I threw acorns to hear them bounce off the bark of grown trees and returned with a few nutshells, some whole, some broken. This invitation was a mixed bag, I confided in the group. Cradling a white wildflower by the roots, I set an intention to transplant it. So, like fauns in the desert, Joanna led me through gnarled vines, prolific raspberry bushes and modest granite crystals to her beloved tree. Her temporary home became mine, then the flower’s.  

For future events, visit https://www.meetup.com/Lehigh-Valley-Forest-Therapy-Meetup-Group/.

Discovering ‘The Artist’s Way’ in Clay, Compost, and Crafted Story

“Are you an artist too?” Liz the Potter asked me.

“Yes, I’m a writer,” I replied without skipping a beat.

This was the first time I called myself an artist and a writer in the same breath. Liz is my dad’s colleague, a fellow ceramics professor. As we pulled weeds around the kiln at the East 40 Community Garden, I spoke of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

This 12 week course paves a spiritual path to higher creativity. What that entails, I’m realizing on week two, is less writing and more exploring.

Recovering your creative self forces you to look within for the “monster” who could be blocking your flow. The first chapter recovers a sense of safety – cracks to fill with gold, as Japanese potters have done for centuries.

One of these imperfections arrived for me on page 27 in the form of “the shadow artist.” Writing and gardening take more convincing than the strictly visual arts. Falling into those categories, I already struggle to assert my work as art. But what most tore at my roots was the shadow artist, who often lingers behind the scenes, telling the stories of others’ creative pursuits. Sculpting narratives, I fear, does not hold the same weight as the sculptor himself.

I am a professional writer. By day, I write about architecture and landscapes. In the early evenings, I make space for harvesting at the garden, and in between, on nights and weekends when I’m not strung out on social media or running off to a festival, I build the storyboard for my novel, brainstorm, draft, all these active verbs to describe, what looks like on the surface, a petite 29-year-old sitting at her desk.

Balance is key, so my mother reminds me. Coming from “a family of artists,” as we coined ourselves in the 90s, I feel predetermined to dream a dozen ideas at a time – even my novel is written in four voices.

Now, welcomed into larger circles of visual artists, I still feel like I’m on the outside looking in. What’s your medium? Words. Compost. Flowers. A photographer friend said he can relate. “True. But you still have something to show for it in the end, an image.”

If a picture can say a 1,000 words what’s the point of writing them?

Finding the Reason to Create

Purpose, fittingly, is where Liz the Potter led the conversation.

“I’m in this in-between stage. My reason for making art is changing,” she said, feeling blocked but perhaps the Creator within is just lying dormant, awaiting the right time for transformation.

Liz is in the middle of the fastest fires and the slowest wood burning kiln – Raku, the traditional Japanese way of firing pots. No matter the climate, with Raku you never know what you’re going to get.

I find the same to be true in the garden.

While we moved bags of wet clay in a wheelbarrow, my hands caked in porcelain, I dived deep to where my shadow artist lives. I rarely make pots; I lug pounds of processed clay from A to B. For my job I interview architects but I’ve never designed a space in my life – the closest thing being the prolific landscape of edible flowers and vegetables here at the East 40.

“Shadow artists often choose careers – those close to the desired art, even parallel to it, but not the art itself,” Cameron writes. So fiction writers become reporters, closet painters are art teachers. “And so the child who is himself born a storyteller may be converted into a gifted therapist who gets his stories secondhand.”

Don’t all writers get their stories secondhand? Isn’t the art weaving them together in a tale that sparks change and healing? I reacted on the defense.

Then it dawned on me: How can I reframe my shadow artist and give it power? My morning pages revealed, after a random stream of consciousness, that the shadow artist in the dark is the shadow architect in the light. My day job has me steeped in setting.

My reason for writing isn’t so much changing, it’s growing. How we let the landscape shape our stories is through mindfulness. We let, we listen. One of the most common grounding exercises is to notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste. The best place to do this is in a well-designed space or garden. Here, we heal.

As a reminder, I start my day reciting these affirmations from The Artist’s Way:

“My creativity heals myself and others.”

“I am willing to be of service through my creativity.”

“As I listen to the Creator within I am led.”

Tell me your story

What’s your purpose for creating? When do you feel blocked? How are you led back to your inner artist?

Photo courtesy of EMorrow Productions.

Reclaim the Sky: How Flying and Gardening Help Me Stay Grounded

I’m at the airport again! Since 2010, I avoided flying until one fateful New Year’s Eve, I impulsively booked a trip to Merida, Mexico. That was six months ago. Now, I can’t deny it – I’ve caught the travel bug.

Fast forward to June 2019, I was given the opportunity to spend one week at the Highlights Foundation – a writer’s heaven nestled in the boonies (as we call the countryside in Pennsylvania). On this “Geography of Home and Soul” themed retreat, we let the landscape shape our stories. Expressing a sense of place and home is my focus every day in my architectural writing. Many of you know I’m also writing a book based on my 2010 travels in Europe.

I was scared to fly again after a nine-year hiatus. I worried I would relapse, never want to travel again, or worse, end up back in the hospital. Fortunately, it triggered the opposite. As I learned during a Calm meditation, I’m done being a Warmduscher, the German word for “warm showerer.” I set an intention this year to venture outside my comfort zone and I’ve never been happier.

Overcoming my fear of flying again

What we’re most afraid of is often the thing we are meant to do. (Likewise, the story we are frightened to write is the one we are meant to tell.) My grandfather was a pilot in WWII. My father grew up playing in airplane hangers, and one day, while all alone in a field, a plane hovered uncomfortably close. He’ll never forget its shadow. Worried the pilot did not see him, the little boy camouflaged by the Midwestern wheat, my dad’s instinct was not to run left or right. It was to run forward – with the plane, not against it.

The first step to overcoming my fear of flying came as a surprise. My Uncle Michael wanted to show me where he “glides.” We parked at Jersey Ridge Soaring and joined the middle-aged men drinking coffee from styrofoam. This is nice, I thought. Michael and I can snack on the tomatoes we bought at the farmer’s market and watch other people fly.

Gliding is not quite flying, I realized. The glider is tied to the tow plane, and at a certain altitude the glider releases the tow and catches the wind like a bird.

Before I could say no, Michael nudged me into a Schweizer SGS 2-33, an American two-seat, high-wing, strut-braced, training glider (with a professional guide in the back, of course).

Heart pounding, I surprise the both of us by cheering as the tow plane takes us up. One thousand feet. Two.

“When we get to three, you can let go,” the guide shouts.

“What?! No, you do that!”

“No, you’re up front. That’s your job. See the big red knob? Pull it when I say so.”

Pop! The tow releases. Like a yellow model airplane, it dives toward the lake. I’m free of its rope.

When I found my first thermal, a bald eagle joined the dance, and I knew my days of warm showering were over.

Getting grounded with garden therapy and meditation

Being an anxiety prone gardener, another coping mechanism I’ve learned is planting feet firmly on the ground, visualizing my toes as roots spreading into the earth.

Other times, garden therapy means attacking thistles with a shovel. Just depends on the mood I need to internalize and release. Horticultural therapy works wonders; I hear the U.K. is prescribing gardening, instead of pills, to treat depression. Turns out the antidepressants are right there in the soil. At our fingertips are microbes to increase cytokine levels, which results in higher serotonin.

Mental health, flowers, and flight run in my blood. My mother sat me down at a young age and explained that I will always be pulled to the east and to the west. An immigrant’s child is a two-sided magnet. So tangled in my patch of wildflowers, I let my knees sink into the earth and imagine a string connecting my head to the sky. This is the bi-polarity I’ve learned to embrace. Drawn to the earth and to the clouds, it’s become clear that … sometimes, getting grounded means letting go.

Rooted in Acceptance: Ami Kunimura’s 5-Day Self-Care Challenge

Ami Kunimura’s 5-Day Self-Care Challenge really challenged me this week. Each time I gave up, she said: “Maybe this doesn’t come easy to you, and that’s okay.”

Ami, can you hear me? 🙂

She can. I’m amazed by this music therapist’s ability to bring people together, and to keep up with all our Facebook comments. The level of patience and understanding this woman has is outstanding. Our community is one of the few mental health-related groups I’m a part of where I truly feel heard and connected (the other is led by my dear friend Mary Lang).

So when Mary texted me a friendly reminder that the self-care challenge is coming back, I marked my calendar.

Day 1: Reconnecting.

Crocuses bloom in early March in Zone 6b.
“First a howling blizzard woke us, Then the rains came down to soak us, Now before the eye can focus — Crocus.” -Lilja Rogers, American poet (1908-93)

The first step was writing a Self-Care Statement – same as last year. I got this, I thought. I tore off April 8’s page from The Old Farmers’ Almanac Calendar and wrote on the back in blue:

My true purpose for self-care is to give and receive love, to feel present and immersed in the joy all around me.

Now the underbelly of working on your mental health is when you craft super-positive statements like this, it pushes you to look inward. I slumped in my chair and realized: I don’t feel very loving or present lately. I go for walks, not so much to clear my head, but more to make some sense of the racing, rather angry, thoughts up there.  I feel pretty present gardening, take note of my neighbor’s daffodils blooming, the tulips popping up next. But I’m not anywhere near 100% – whatever that means.

Day 2: Saying No.

Starting basil, chamomile, yarrow, peppers and more in my new Park Seed kit.

Adding to the calendar page floating on my desk from the day before, I wrote, this time in pink:

Saying no to listening to my “Let It Go” playlist means saying yes to embracing springtime in the garden and my writing projects. (Thank you sandwich.)

The side note is a friendly reminder to speak kindly to oneself, ie: ‘Thank you for responding to my need to release my anger, but this playlist may not be the answer. Thanks again for the idea.’

What I’m attempting to let go is not the divorce of last year – that has been put to a peaceful rest. I need to release negative emotions toward a couple of other people who are no longer in my life, so that I can live fully with the many people who remain.

Day 3: Grounding.

On a walk in Southside Bethlehem

For me, Day 3 came a day late. Coming to terms with the statements above, I needed some time to practice that Thank You Sandwich. Eventually, I scrambled for a pale green pen and jotted down:

I can take a breath when I’m feeling distracted.

It’s only April, and I’m already catching myself panting in the garden, running from one task to the next. How do I know when moving quickly encourages creative flow, or feeling frantic? Something to keep in mind.

Day 4: Self Kindness (and Sakura)

Sakura and Self Care.
Sakura Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

By this point in Ami Kunimura’s 5-Day Self-Care Challenge, I was two days behind. I didn’t beat myself up over it, and as she reminded all of us: “Maybe this doesn’t come easy to you, and that’s okay.”

Saturday was a perfect day – 70 degrees and sunny. I started 60 more seeds in my window (including, for the first time, okra!). Then I cracked open the notebook I bought in Mexico and watched Ami’s Day 4 Video (and skipped ahead to Day 5). Unable to muster up my answers at home, I figured, what better place to feel mindful than among the Cherry Blossoms at the local library? Pen in hand, I marched on my mission – to finish the self-care challenge and savor Sakura.

I learned about Japanese Shumei healing and agricultural practices at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Bethlehem, PA.
Serenity Garden at Bethlehem Area Public Library.

Before I knew it, I was wearing a kimono, drinking green tea, and partaking in a Japanese healing ceremony called Jyorei. As the drums sounded, blossom petals graced our faces, all those who had planned to come or, like me, just stopped by.

Taking a moment, I shifted my body forward on the concrete bench. (I’m a humble five feet tall, so my feet don’t touch the ground very often.) Feet planted, I looked upon the Serenity Garden. Blossom petals graced my face, my knees, and I refocused on my notebook.

This is the kind letter I wrote to the self with Ami’s template:

I care about you and you are important to me. Positive words I’d use to describe you are: genuine, innovative, growing, stylish, friendly, and insightful.

Thank you for putting your best foot forward this year. You’ve blossomed throughout the four seasons and I admire your efforts.

I want you to know that you are worthy of love. I’m amazed how the right people waltz into your life – gardener Emily, neighbor and fellow cat-lover Emily, writer and traveler Mariha, farmer Thad, free spirited Amanda … You attract goodness and radiate goodness.

And I’m proud of you for creating an authentic life – landing an apartment with a view of your favorite city, cultivating 5 gardens in 1 year (!), and forging a schedule filled with writing, gardening, and music.

Love and light in the midst of darkness,

(Self)

This exercise can feel odd. As a writer, I describe ideas and people and places, but when it comes to myself, I’m kind of at a loss. The letter I wrote looks like it’s off the desk of a third grader (oops, negative self-talk), but I’m thankful that Ami motivated us to offer ourselves and each other kindness.

Day 5: Hope

Sprouting flax to make brushes, April 2019, Bethlehem, PA.
My dad and I are sprouting flax to make brushes at NCC East 40 Community Garden.

I took a deep breath … and turned the page.

In 6 months from now, I want to feel: open, full, centered, and accomplished.

I want to be: loving, loved, accepting, organized, and productive in my work and projects.

Our next task was to find a song that makes us feel hopeful (way to incorporate some music therapy, Ami!). Considering I had bolted from my apartment to the tree line with MIA blasting in my ears, I wondered if I should try something different. Not should, could.

So I revisited an old standby, “Light and Day” by Polyphonic Spree. I picked it up a few years ago from the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

In the film, when their last memory of each other is about to be erased, Clementine pleads: “What do we do?!”

Joel shrugs. “Enjoy it,” he says.

Perhaps it’s time I embrace light and day. ‘Just follow the seasons and time … reach for the bright side!’ … Still, “Light and Day” wasn’t quite resonating. As my friend Mary recommends: Start listening with where you’re at, then find songs that bring you to where you want to be.

By MIA’s music, I feel both empowered and in flight-or-flight mode. Nobody can catch me. I’m on a mission.

My main goal is to stay present. A song, which helps me feel focused, is completely out of my comfort zone: “GO!” by Santigold feat. Karen O. It accompanies June’s run through the Boston Globe building in Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Exploring life outside my comfort zone while maintaining routine was actually the theme of my conversation with Ami last year. What I perceived to be conflict, she saw as opportunity. This is an exciting time. I get to experiment with the times of day when I feel most creative. Garden when I want to. Write when I want to. Build my very own routine, my own space of comfort.

Outside of those boundaries … I took my first plane ride in 9 nine years, to Merida, Mexico and got to garden there!

So far, so good, 2019.

The last question of the self-care challenge was: What do I want my life to look like 6 months from now?

In six months, it will be October. I’ll turn 30 years old, and my parents, sister, and brother-in-law will have celebrated their birthdays too.

By 30, my first novel will be nearly drafted – my schedule is set to finish by the holidays, then to Pitch Fest in New York City in March!

I imagine I’ll be harvesting chamomile from the sprouts started in my window. Sipping tea under a blanket with my cat Honey, paging through my Spanish language workbook … and booking a flight to a warmer location for winter, likely New Orleans.

Ami Kunimura’s 5-Day Self-Care Challenge – I DID IT!

Persian Carpet Zinnias can germinate within 24 hours!

As for this past weekend, I didn’t get much “done.” I met Emily to talk about the possibility of delivering mushroom soil, but didn’t actually get it. I bought flowers for the shady courtyard behind my apartment but didn’t plant them yet – waiting until tomorrow after the Wind Advisory passes. (Pictures to come!)

That being said, life is about the journey. Spring is the season of progress. At NCC East 40 Community Garden, the flax sprouted, the first of many steps my dad and I will take to make brushes. I started 60 more seeds in my window … and the zinnias have already peeked their little heads out!

Rooted in acceptance is the best way I can describe tending to my self-care. We can’t all be zinnias. Sometimes it takes weeks, even months, to germinate. Maybe I can get to a point when I listen to that Polyphonic Spree song on repeat. But if MIA is what I need right now, that’s okay too.

Even on Vacation

Photo by Bazaart Arte & Galeria.

I still have dirt under my fingernails from gardening in Mérida, Mexico.

On New Year’s Eve, I rang in 2019 at a small party. The host, Laura, gushed about her upcoming trip to the Yucatán. “Roseann and Douglas have a spare room at their Airbnb,” she shared. “You should come!” Frozen rain spit on my windshield as I drove back to my apartment. I decided – creo que , I need to chase summer. New Year’s Day, I purchased my first plane ticket in nine years.

Laura and I poured over pictures of the Airbnb. “Us … here?!” We couldn’t believe it. The U.S. Dollar goes a long way in Mexico, to a restored vacation rental in the historic center of La Ciudad de la Paz, the City of Peace.

Airbnb in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico
Our Airbnb in Mérida where the locals are restoring their heritage and architecture.

The night before our flight from frigid Newark to sunny Mérida was a New Moon. When I, at last, hovered above the Gulf of Mexico, only a few stars dotted the sky. Yet below, a line of light came into view – la luz of the longest pier in the world, at Progreso Beach.

Moving forward, our aircraft descended into the glow of Mérida, my new home for the next two weeks.

We welcomed a warm breeze through the car windows. A blur of street bulbs and billboards passed us by. Roseann guided me to my suite. The bedroom door opened up to the courtyard, the bathroom to the pool in the open-air common area.

planting bourganvilla in merida mexico
Prolific bougainvillea pours over this wall.

Mid-morning, I unlocked the windows and revealed the most prolific bougainvillea bush I have ever seen. Hot pink, prancing through the courtyard of palm trees and dracaena. Este era el cielo. This was heaven.

As the four of us gathered by the pool, it became clear that I had little to no plans for this trip. Fortunately, Roseann and Douglas know the lay of the land. Our religion, Baha’i, has a center nearby with a garden that needs a lot of love.

A garden nursery is just a few blocks away – Lucio’s Vivero. Perfecto! While the Baha’i Center prepared for their Friday night dinner, the moon smiled upon us, a Waxing Crescent, and I daydreamed of planting an herb garden so that we could cook with fresh basil.

I also studied conversation starters in Spanish (Cuál es el nombre de esta planta? Necesita sol o sombra?) and certain plant names to speak of at the Nursery:

  • Basil / Albahaca
  • Parsley / Perejil
  • Lavender / Lavanda
  • Rue / Ruda
  • Rosemary / Romero
  • Mint / Hierbabuena (literally “a good herb”)

Kicking dust and brushing my fingers along the pastel painted doorways, I found the Vivero tucked on the corner of an urban street.

Lucio's Vivero in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico
Angela at Lucio’s Vivero in Mérida, Mexico.

Scents of lemon, lime, and orange trees filled the space. I kneel to smell a cluster of lavender bushes and behind me are what I know to be house plants – poinsettia for Christmas, peace lilies, and pothos vines. In Pennsylvania, we maintain them on our window sills, yet here in Mexico, they run free. Even snake plants, aloe, agave, and henequen (more on that later) run wild.

A woman named Angela poked her head out from the greenhouse, entertained all my questions and shared that she, too, has a garden and a cat. For the first time on this trip, I comfortably held a conversation in Spanish. Funny, “plant people” just get each other, despite cultural and language barriers. Zones knew no boundaries in this scenario.

Orchid vine in Yucatan
An orchid vine!

She explained that the native herb “epazote” aids in digestion, and I recognize it as the garnish on one of my recent dinners. Among the basil, parsley, lavender, rue, and mint … this epazote and a pink Corona de Cristo were additions to my repertoire. I even discovered an orchid vine (!).

Just as I would at home, I picked up pot after pot, hierba after hierba, joking that I want to buy it all, “Quiero comprarlo todo!”

Usually my first plant shopping spree of the year wouldn’t happen until April, maybe even later after the frost. But here, in Merida, my spring started in February.

The night of the Baha’i dinner, I showed up with a cardboard box of plants. Shoreh, our amazing cook, made a Persian eggplant-zucchini dish with rice and bottom-of-the-pan potatoes, tadigh. A few of the herbs found their way into the fruit salad for dessert, and I realized my fantasy of gardening by moonlight.

Under the Waxing Gibbous Moon, a little boy bounced around the garden’s borders and played in the dirt, and his sister wandered through the space seeking purpose. I ticked at the ground with a pickaxe … tink, tink, tink. Soon, I collected enough rocks and tiles to possibly make a new patio floor.

Garden at Baha'i Centro in Merida, Mexico
Arriving at Centro Baha’i with herbs and a new flower friend.

This niño and niña noticed I was having more fun than they were. He stopped banging a shovel on the concrete and chose to hold a light by my side. I encouraged him, “La luz es muy importante, muchas gracias” as she crouched near and tossed the rocks into the proper pile.

We dug the last hole together, for the rosemary. They settled the root ball and we took a step back to admire our creation. I imagine these kids will proudly pick herbs for many dinners to come.

This bit of the garden was meant as a gift for the Baha’i Center, yet it was also a gift for me to garden in the dead of winter.

baha'i centro in merida mexico
Centro Baha’i in Mérida, Mexico.

Overwhelmed with gratitude and the realization that my time in paradise was coming to an end, I caught the gardening bug again … and scooped up many more plants at the same nursery:

  • Salvia
  • Dracena
  • Chifleras
  • Coleus / Coleo
  • Caladium / Caladio
  • Vinca / Vicarias
  • Pink Poinsettia / Nochebuena
  • Pothos Vine / Pothos Hiedra
  • Orange Tulipan, which is in the genus of Hibiscus, but reminds me more of a dinnerplate dahlia.
dracena, coleus, vinca, and caladium in the yucatan
A ceramic planter of dracena, coleus, and vinca.

Lucio made a good point: “Are you going to need a delivery?”

On my last day, a tour group came to the door and offered a ride to Chichen Itza and I politely declined. Even on vacation, I garden. Potting flowers that would otherwise be dead or dormant at home, I created a temporary sanctuary for me, and what I hope is an ever-growing place of peace for the people of Mérida. Esa noche, the Full Moon of February beamed on all the Wonders of the World, including ours.

For the prelude to another gardening adventure in Montreal, check out Reclaim the Sky: How Flying and Gardening Help Me Stay Grounded.

Urban Gardening at a Coworking Space: CoWork 414 has the newest community garden on the block

When I moved to the City of Bethlehem from the suburbs, I needed to find a garden. Urban gardening at a coworking space hadn’t crossed my mind, but it was yet to come.

Jennifer had already got me in on the ground floor of CoWork 414. Next, she welcomed me to dig up the dirt in the back “yard.” Presented as a way to help – it is truly a gift.

An urban garden buds among coworkers

9 - side 2
Hot pink roses and petunias at ESSA Bank called for color.

So I figured I’d try out urban gardening. Growing plants, especially edible ones, seemed tricky in the hustle and bustle of the city. But I do enjoy harvesting lunch between client calls.

We walked to a patch of weeds. Small, though, just two manageable beds and a Japanese holly bush already took up most of the one on the left. Among Jennifer, Gary, Donna and me … we predicted to be done within a week.

But “done” is not part of any gardener’s growing vocabulary. A garden is a work in progress

It started in the middle of summer. The heat wave enticed me to the air-conditioned office, but one afternoon, before our 4th Friday Celebration, some of us couldn’t resist the outdoors.

The soil is so easy to work with here. Weeds wiggled out effortlessly after one of our many thunderstorms. 

We discovered that the bed on the right buried tree roots. Surprise! I didn’t dare touch them. In a battle between a human and a tree, the tree usually wins.

But with Jennifer’s tug on a trowel and stomp on a spade, she lifted them right out.

Conversation sparks an “emergency marigold run”

community garden at coworking office cowork 414 bethlehem
Marigolds, and more margiolds.

A sunny Saturday prompted us to plant, finally! Jennifer mentioned, “I’ve looked everywhere, and this late in the season I just can’t find any marigolds.”

“Leave it to me,” I said.

I called up Ray and Vicky at Pharo Garden Center. A flat of marigolds – reserved.

Bright and early, I flew to Pharo.

“Thanks, Ray, I had to do an emergency marigold run.”

“Where are you gardening today?” he asked.

As Ray knows all too well, I have four gardens: my window, the courtyard behind my apartment, a plot of vegetables at the NCC East 40 Community Garden … and now a landscaping task at CoWork!

CoWork gives GrowIt dianthus samples a home

dianthus growit samples in Pennsylvania garden
Thanks, GrowIt, for the dianthus samples!

Next, we need mulch (and more flowers).

My apartment buzzer rang on cue. GrowIt gifted me these samples of pink dianthus, all boxed up and ready to go. It was like Christmas morning in the Christmas City.

I scrolled through the GrowIt mobile app. Dianthus need lots of sun. With a few minutes to spare, I thought, I’ll just pop them in at CoWork.

Four bags of mulch greeted the four dianthus. These pink ladies found their way in line with the marigolds … and one thing led to another, and I weeded and mulched the beds. In a small space, you can actually get tasks “done.”

Growing a productive, creative environment

community garden coworking space bethlehem pa

Now, the marigolds line our entranceway, up to the red door, and create a striking contrast of orange, yellow and pink blooms.

Jennifer and Gary sourced some really interesting varieties, ones I hadn’t ever noticed before. Two shrubs, Blue Baron Rhododendron and Valley Rose Pieris, and a new basil for all of us – Pesto Perpetuo, which is both beautiful and edible. Sweet Lemon Mint, oregano and sage top off the collection.

More edible plants have joined the herbs outside. Jennifer sprouted basil in a red bowl, which served as a centerpiece in our conference room and now rests among the sage and pesto perpetuo.

Purple bush string beans, from my seed collection, are towering over the marigolds. Sebastian who works next door at ESSA Bank donated anaheim pepper seedlings. (Donna found four peppers today.)

verbena and lantana spillers urban gardening
Lantana and verbena spill over our parking lot bumper.

In the front of our humble space, verbena and lantana spill over a parking lot bumper. Turns out urban gardening is pretty easy. I love this spot. We took a barrier and gave it a purpose. I’ve learned that cultivating a space, whether in the city or the country, means using the resources available in the most productive, creative way possible. Together, that’s what we do at CoWork 414.

Read our full story here: https://cowork414.com/bethlehem-cowork-community-garden/