A Lance-Leafed Stonecrop By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet…Maybe

“What IS that flower? Is that Small-flowered Lupine or Bicolor?”

“Why do you need to know? What possible difference does it make?”

“It makes a difference to ME.”

“Why? So you can show off your rad amateur naturalist skills?”

“No! I don’t need to tell anyone else. I just want to get it RIGHT.”


I have this same conversation with myself, on nearly a daily basis, during wildflower season. Wildflower season in the San Juans lasts about 9 months, so that’s a lot of conversations.

Point is, whether it SHOULD matter or not, to me–it does. Supposedly, I go for walks as exercise. Power walks. But gods help my fitness regimen should I venture out with a camera.

It starts as appreciation. “Oh wow, look at those wild roses go.”

The rest of the year, they’re just brambles.

“Let’s just take a closer look. Mmm, sweet!”

Ready for my close-up.

“Okay, walking fast again. But–oh my, have you ever seen such a THICK clump of Hooker’s Onion?”

Seriously, Mr. Hooker? Couldn’t you have named this flower after your wife or something?

By now my “walk” is a goner. “Ooh, wonder what the world looks like from the perspective of one of those Harvest Brodaeia?”

Not a bad life down here.


Or better yet–don’t. Let’s just keep this rarity to ourselves, shall we? Cactus in the Northwest!

For that matter, why should the flowers have all the attention? Aren’t the new leaves of this Salal just as eye-catching as its blooms?

Caught MY eye, anyway. Silky-soft too.

And the new fronds of the Grand Fir? Good enough to eat!

Some people–and lots of deer–actually do.

Even Madrona bark looks floral in the sun.

Photo credit: My Special Tree

But the worst are those darn ID’s. “What IS this one? Gotta remember to look it up when I get home!”

Non-native, I’m pretty sure. Do I care? Nope. Just wanna KNOW ITS NAME.

Recently, however, my annoying need to NAME plants received a vote of confidence from a well-respected source: botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer. I started reading her book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Dr. Kimmerer is a Bryologist–a moss expert–and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. And right off the bat, she has this to say about the importance of names:

…Often, when I encounter a new moss species and have yet to associate it with its official name, I give it a name which makes sense to me: green velvet, curly top, or red stem. The word is immaterial. What seems to me to be important is recognizing them, acknowledging their individuality. In indigenous way of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. (p. 12)

Yes! Right?! Yes. That part that I highlighted in red…THAT is what drives me to name flowers, to get their names “right.” I want to recognize them, call them out, respect them. Would it matter if I got those names “wrong”? Of course not. I might as well call them Fred or Cindy. But taking the time to look up those names, talk about them with other flower nerds, think about where those names came from and whether they fit or not…THAT matters. To me, and, I like to think, to the flowers.

Hello, Fred. Or Cindy. (Or Menzie’s Larkspur, actually. No, I am NOT showing off.)

As for mosses, and Robin Kimmerer’s book…more on that, next post.

Are you a wildflower nerd like me? Care to weigh in on what drives you to NAME?

This Means War: My Neighbor Food-Gift Arms Race

It started with lettuce. You can’t freeze the stuff, right? Or bake with it, or make lettucesauce or lettuce jam. It’s just…lettuce. And there’s only so much salad two people can eat.

So I brought a bag to the neighbors. They were grateful.

Next week I brought some more, plus some arugula. Same story. Except Neighbor Rick mentioned they were going crabbing and would bring us some if they got lucky.

For a time, they didn’t. Meanwhile, I brought them more lettuce.

Then the crabs found their way into Neighbor Rick’s pots.* He brought us two–cooked and cleaned. We dined in ecstasy. And I brought them a small bowl of raspberries.

[One of my favorite sayings is, “I don’t want a ____, I just want a friend with a _____.” In this case: boat, pot, crab license.]

Couple days later: two more crabs. “I work at a bakery,” I told Rick. “Can I bring you some treats?” But no–Rick and family are trying to stay away from those kind of temptations. Curses! Nothing for it but to bring more raspberries.

Then Neighbor Rick upped his game. “We’re gettin’ a buncha crab now, gonna make some gumbo,” he told us. “Can we bring you a little?”

We were imagining a wee side dish for our dinner, and we were excited for that. But when Rick came over with the gumbo…well.

Unfortunately, I did not think to take a picture of the beautiful domed island of white rice, sprinkled with spices, rising from a sea of okra, tomatoes, shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage, fish, with four more crab-halves dangling their claws over the edge of the dish. But here’s what the leftovers looked like the second night:

This is only about a third of the leftover crabmeat…

…which is also when Neighbor Rick dropped off the rack of “extra” baby back ribs, barbecued in a marionberry sauce. This time I remembered to take a picture.

So…full…but it still makes my mouth water!

At that point I FORCED him to take home a fresh baguette from my bakery, and a bowl of truffle balls from my freezer.

If we don’t achieve some kind of detente soon, I may forget how to cook. But I see no end in sight. And me with no zucchini!

It’s August. Anyone have a food-gifting story to share? (I still have raspberries.)

Berry Odd Life Lessons: Wisdom From the Razz Patch

My raspberries have gone crazy this year. Out of control, fill-the-fridge-wait-no-start-filling-the-freezer crazy.

I’m not bragging, understand. I’m simply gobsmacked. Because my raspberry patch’s fit of overabundance owes NOTHING to me. I’ve done diddly. Weeding? Nope. Fertilizing? Are you kidding? I didn’t even water them.

Note: this is a salad bowl, not a cereal bowl. And I’m filling it daily, and then some.

Wait, take it back–I did fight off a few salmonberry bushes a couple of weeks ago, which had insinuated themselves into the razzies–just enough to reach the good stuff. I won that little war, but the salmonberries definitely left their mark:

…and I’m not even showing you the scratches on my arms.

Point is, though–I didn’t EARN these berries. And yet I still get to enjoy them. Apparently Nature ain’t no meritocracy.

This is what benign neglect looks like.

Ironically enough, though, as I’m picking my way through this undeserved bounty, I find I’m practically killing myself to get every…last…berry…through the salmonberries, through the chain link fence the original planter of these berries put up…ooh! those ones just out of my reach look even better than the ones I just picked!

Just walk away, Gretchen.

Which tells me…what, exactly, about myself? I am perfectly happy to accept good fortune–so happy, in fact, that I unconsciously turn privilege into right and strain for the very last drop of goodness as though I had worked for it. 

Hmm. Lesson? Learn to accept the berries I cannot reach just as delightedly as those I can? Gratitude AND grace?

Workin’ on that. I’ll let you know.

Aw, They Grow Up So Fast: My Lil’ Grandgarden Turns Three

I’m gonna have to stop calling it my Grandgarden. 

Three years ago, when Son Two hacked a couple of rows out of our backyard’s over-shaded, overgrown onetime raspberry patch and stuck a few seeds in, that’s what I called it. Didn’t take any responsibility beyond watering for a few days when he went off-island.

Fast-forward three years. Son Two’s long gone to the east coast. Last year I decided I could handle the responsibility of planting and watering my own seeds. So I did…full of trepidation about getting tied down to another 20 years of garden maintenance (which I thought I’d left behind when Son Two graduated and we moved to an island full of organic farms).

So it’s MY kid garden now.

Nothing ambitious–a few rows of greens. Some broccoli and potatoes. And some strawberries, originally planted by Son Two. Sure, I can handle that. Didn’t even get too bummed when the raccoons beat me to the ripened strawberries.

This year, I cleared a little more. Still didn’t plant anything I wasn’t sure could thrive in such shady conditions.

Secret to success: low standards!

Still didn’t commit myself to fertilizing, beyond a few shovelfulls of compost, or staking. Got too much going on to spend hours out there. But regular minutes, weeding, watering, harvesting? In MY garden, once more?

Yes. And I’m not even counting on those strawberries. The raccoons are even more committed to my garden than I am.

Try not to notice how big those berries are getting…

Thanks, Son Two, for getting me re-started. And my hat’s off to all you COMMITTED gardeners. This semi-committed one is glad you’re there. Got any strawberries, just in case?

If We Can’t Weed the Bad Stuff, Can We Grow Enough Good Stuff?

Usually I enjoy weeding. Yeah, it’s violent–all that chopping and yanking, and today, since I was digging up salmonberry plants, wrestling and scratching–but it’s very satisfying. Such a simple job: getting rid of bad stuff in order to grow good stuff. 

Today, though, I came inside early, and not because of the scratches. My heart just wasn’t in the violence of the job. I kept thinking about LeBron James. He’s arguably the most famous athlete in the world, and probably one of the richest and most-loved American Black men (unless you’re a Golden State fan). And yet even King James isn’t immune from our current climate of hate. Someone spray-painted racist slurs on his property.

Says LeBron, as quoted by NPR,

“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, you know being black in America is tough,” James said. “And we got a long way to go, for us as a society and for us as African-Americans, until we feel equal in America.”

I know most people who voted for Trump are probably not racist, thuggish bullies. But the guy they elected has empowered racist, thuggish bullies to crawl out from under their rocks. Some say it’s good that at least we know they’re there. I say…

…what do I say? I think that’s why I’m writing now. I want to grow something at this moment, not weed it out. And my thoughts are turning to Brian Doyle, a sweet, wonderful writer who died last week in Oregon. I am thinking about how he found goodness and joy in the everyday. Like in this “proem” from his little book, The Kind Of Brave You Wanted to Be:

And Then There is This

Here is who is really cool. Here is who is really

Admirable and to be emulated and what is holy:

The few people who get up instantly when their

Sister is suddenly sick, in awful ways, at dinner.

They just jumped up and dealt with it. It’s dirty,

And there’s no advantage in it, no money or sex,

No fame, nothing but stench an bleah and eww,

And then a young woman sat with the sic sister,

Letting her rattled sick aunt lean on her shoulder.

I saw all this. There’s all this talk, and then there

Is this. You know exactly what I am saying here. 

Live another day, salmonberries.

Do you know exactly what I am saying here? Can you give me something admirable and to be emulated and holy from your life right now? I need a little of that.


Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader? A Veggie IQ Test

Do you know what this plant is?

(courtesy geograph.uk.org via Wikimedia)

(courtesy geograph.uk.org via Wikimedia)

If yes, congrats. If no–don’t worry. I bet most Americans don’t. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised when my third-grader “Little Sister” correctly identified it in my garden the other day. And that’s what gave me the idea of using salad as our weekly afternoon activity.

I’d been thinking we’d go for a walk, maybe climb on on some rocks and play pretend games–good, healthy stuff. But then we stopped to water my garden and I started asking her about plants.

She knew peas, broccoli, lettuce (not all the different kinds, but hey, she’s eight!), and kale. She even recognized carrot plants, though they’re nowhere near big enough to harvest. She recognized potato plants–yup, that’s what that picture’s of. She didn’t know arugula and she didn’t like it one bit either, but again–eight, people. I know I would’ve hated arugula at that age too.

“I know what,” I said, “let’s make a world-record salad!”

“What’s that?” my little friend asked cautiously. She’s used to my hyperbole by now.

“That’s where you make a salad and try to set the world record for how many things to put in it. I think the current world record is, um…fourteen.”

“OK!” She liked the idea, and immediately began helping to gather peas, lettuce and baby kale. But no arugula.

Of course, not having planned this activity in advance, I didn’t have all that much salad-y stuff in my fridge. No tomatoes, no cabbage, no red onions. I did have carrots and an avocado, so in they went. We were  only up to nine.  So we had to get creative. I found an apple, and that led to a new category of salad-toppings.



“What about this? What is it?” In went a chopped-up apricot. To my disappointment she vetoed anything pickly or cheesy, but she was happy to use nuts, so we toasted some almonds and sunflower seeds. And she kept count.

“Fourteen…does lemon juice count?” We had squirted some on the avocado and apple chunks.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “But you know what would? Arugula.” I swear I wasn’t intentionally playing “gotcha.” But it worked anyway. Arugula brought us to 15 and set a new world (or at least south-end-of-our-little-island-on-a-given-day) salad record.

The reason my young friend is so knowledgeable about plants is that her school has a garden-to-table program, funded by grants and community fundraising. The kids are intimately involved in producing and preparing their own food, and they’re not scared of it. When I pick my Lil’ Sis up from school on Tuesdays during the school year, I frequently learn they ate squash soup or roasted cauliflower for lunch. At an American public school! Makes me proud.

But that wasn’t what I intended to write about. That salad that we made? It was the afternoon activity that kept on giving. When my little friend asked me why avocados were healthy, we googled it. That led to more googling, about the difference between “good fat” and “bad fat.” Then we googled Potassium and started learning about cell membranes. All from a salad!

At the end of our time together, I kept some of the salad for me and sent the rest home with her so she could teach her family about cell membranes. She may or may not remember that, but I know I learned something: fresh food is as good as a trip to the library when it comes to generating learning.

But now it’s your turn to weigh in. Did we aim too low? Should we have gone for 20? What else should we have put in that salad? 

Confessions of a Lilac Thief

I need help. I’m in way too deep. Into lilacs, that is. A full-bore passion.

I simply cannot pass by one of these oases of burstingly bushy blooming globules without burying my face in it…and then stealing a fat sprig to tuck into my ponytail.

You know you want me.

You know you want me.

I’m a lilac thief. I can’t help myself.

Come to think of it–don’t help me. Let me drown in happy, scented lilac love. Just tell me, if you know…what IS it about these flowers that is so entrancing? Is anyone else suffering from their delightful bewitchment? 

You're MINE, lilacs! Oh, wait...you actually are mine. Heh.

You’re MINE, lilacs! Oh, wait…you actually are mine. Heh.

Or do you have a secret flower lust of your own? Go ahead and share. I’ll never tell*.

*except in the usual social media ways

Need a Gardening Break? Try a Grandgarden!

Gardens are like children. Gardens ARE children. We fret over them, nourish them, exclaim and grieve and exult in them. We celebrate the way they enrich our lives. And we take lots of naps to recover from them.

I gardened vigorously for 20 years in our old life in Tacoma. When The Mate retired and we moved to this beautiful island to begin our new lives, I decided to let my fellow islanders do my gardening for me. They do it so well! And I feel good about supporting their work, which in turn gives me beautiful farmland to ride my bike through.

But. Come harvest time, when everyone is bragging and posting about their adorable new peas (fall) or tomatoes (summer) or apples (fall), I feel a twinge of nostalgia…and envy. More than a twinge.

Maybe next year I should think about putting in my own garden again…?

You said you weren’t going to tie yourself down to watering and weeding any more. You love your freedom, remember?

But I love baby arugula too.

Stay strong! Go to the Farmers Market!

But this year, I found the best answer to those inner promptings: the Grandgarden. Son Two took up residence nearby last spring, and asked “if it was OK” if he put in a garden in our unused garden space.

Gosh, lemme think about that…OK, done.

Son Two came and went throughout spring and summer. I occasionally, very occasionally, garden-sat–i.e., watered. I did NO weeding. But harvesting and eating? Plenty. Kale, beets, tomatoes, tomatillos, carrots, salad greens, potatoes, herbs. My Grandgarden’s tiny and fairly limited, but I don’t blame Son Two–I mean, he’s a single dad, after all, and new at this. I’m full of pride–and my fridge was full of veggies.


Now in the darker months, even though my Grandgarden’s not getting much sun, it’s still doggedly producing Grandgreens. We even had a Grandsquash the other night! I forgot to take a picture of that, but here’s my Grandarugula:


I know. She gets that tenderness from her grandpa.

But I doubt Son Two will be around next spring to produce a Grandsibling. So it may be up to me. Oh dear, here come those inner voices again…

Siege Gardens in Syria: The Ultimate Expression of Gardens as Hope

The new shoots of spring are an ancient metaphor of life and renewal, from the earliest human literature. Spring equals hope. Even the word, “spring,” connotes energy and forward movement.

What gardener doesn’t feel the joy of new produce, fresh from the earth? Or what eater, for that matter? Even now, when I’m not currently gardening (although I am enjoying the garden my son planted, my “grandgarden,”), I feel that rush of excitement. “Ooh! Baby greens!”

Now imagine what that means in wartime. In the middle of a besieged city. Last week I read this story in Al Jazeera online, and I knew I had to share it. 

The Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk, according to the Al Jazeera story by Annia Ciezadlo, was established in 1957 as a refugee camp for displaced Palestinians, taking on a sad permanence as the Palestinian non-homeland issue calcified. But with the “Arab Spring” of 2011, Yarmouk stepped into a horrible new role:

When the rebellion against Assad began, in March 2011, displaced Syrians flooded into Yarmouk. Opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army began to clash with local pro-regime militias. On Dec. 16, 2012, the government sent Mig fighter jets to bomb a mosque, a hospital and four schools where displaced people had sought shelter.

From then on, the siege tightened every day. The government checkpoints in and out of Yarmouk would close for four days, then five, then six. Soldiers would confiscate any amount of food over a kilo. They would open bags of bread and count the pieces to make sure there were no more than 10.

Here’s what Yarmouk looked like, thanks to Assad’s fighter jets:

(Courtesy AFP/Getty Images)

(Courtesy AFP/Getty Images)

Into this desperate situation stepped the gardeners. According to the story, rooftop siege gardens were planted gradually, secretly, and communally. I’ll let Annia Ciezadlo tell it in her words:

“You can say that this was something psychological,” says Osama Jafra, the alias of an organizer for the Jafra Foundation, a community development group that started several of Yarmouk’s large communal gardens.

About six months into the siege, around the end of June 2013, a neighbor hailed Jafra on the street. Since Jafra worked for a charity group, the man asked, could he get him money to buy seeds?

“Why?” Jafra asked.

“Come. I’ll show you,” the man replied.

He took Jafra to one of the schools that warplanes had bombed six months earlier. In the abandoned courtyard, a playground was alive with flowers and greenery. With seeds, they could transform it into a vegetable garden.

Jafra made a deal with his neighbor: I’ll get you $50 for seeds if you agree to share them. The next day, Jafra recruited staffers and volunteers to cleaned up the camp to cultivate the abandoned play area. Neighbors saw what they were doing and began to help. Even children pitched in. They finished in four hours.

“When the people and the children started to work with us, everybody was so happy,” says Jafra. They planted dandelions, parsley, tomatoes, eggplants and lentils. They called it the Palestine Garden.

And so a transformation began among the urban inhabitants of Yarmouk. They discovered the secrets of farming, like the best time to water the garden — at night, so the precious water would not evaporate. They learned how certain plants, like fava beans, can renew exhausted soil. They found seeds and farming skills among the rural farmers who had fled to Yarmouk when drought and later war engulfed the Syrian countryside.

This story of hope and redemption has a terrible dark side.

In besieged Yarmouk, gardening is a matter of life or death. In June 2014, a government shell killed three men just outside one of the neighborhood gardens. At least two people have been shot and killed by snipers while foraging for wild greens. And anyone providing food, water or medical care is especially at risk of being assassinated, kidnapped by armed groups or disappeared by the government. In the first three months of 2015, as fighters from ISIL and Jahbat Al-Nusra were infiltrating the camp and preparing to take over, at least 10 nonviolent activists were killed.

That’s right. In Syria, gardening can get you killed. And yet…people garden.

(Courtesy Lens Young Yeidani, Al Jazeera)

(Courtesy Lens Young Yeidani, Al Jazeera)

I cannot think of a more powerful emblem of hope. Stories of war usually make me feel helpless, and this one no less so. I wish I could send these people some seeds, or money for equipment–anything to ease their task. But at the same time, reading this, I feel something more: gratitude and awe for these folks in Yarmouk, fighting a dictator one lettuce at a time.

Got Weeds? Pull a Modern Tom Sawyer: Try Garden Fairies

The Garden Fairies are back. 

I blogged about this a year ago, but it’s that season again. So for all of y’all who didn’t know Wing’s World in 2013, let me paint a quick picture.

My friend Susie has a HUGE, GINORMOUS garden. It’s actually a labyrinth whose winding paths enclose multiple circles of beautiful flowers and healing herbs. But the garden fairies are really only interested in the growing things, not the shape of their beds.


Like any gardener at this time of year, Susie struggles to keep her flowers one step ahead of the weeds. Like any gardener, Susie wishes she could find someone to help her with this endless-seeming chore.

But Susie is smarter than most gardeners, including myself. Susie doesn’t ask for “helpers” to “weed.” Susie invites “garden fairies” to a “garden fairy party.” Where we weed.

How brilliant is that? What woman doesn’t want to be a fairy, at least for a couple of hours?


We weed, we talk, we feel good about ourselves, and then we have a potluck lunch. (These fairies need more than nectar, ok?)

Last year, after a few Garden Fairy Parties, I decided our fairy wings needed to be more than imaginary. So I got us some.

Gretchen fairy


Hey, we’re not just doing grunt work here. We’re FAIRIES!


OK, truth be told, we don’t actually don our wings every time. They’re kind of a pain to pin on, turns out. But…we feel ’em anyway.


So think about it. Tom Sawyer made whitewashing a fence seem like the most fun a boy could have in the world. Susie makes weeding into a fanciful party. What sneaky crafty technique could YOU use to lure invite your friends into doing your humdrum work for with you?