Garden Diary: Summer’s Bounty

porch-1Here, we have the citizens of the porch garden, hiding from a potential frost in the dingy hallway outside my apartment.

(We also have, top left, the Icelandic poppy plant I purchased to bring to work, which was super pretty until it got sickly, and then I forgot to ask my officemate to water it while I was in Iceland, of all places. That was its final death sentence. There’s also a resilient plant atop a plant stand—both from Cooper’s dad—that he’s had since college. It survived abandonment while Cooper was in Chile, but can barely survive Haroun, hence its hallway banishment. My dad rescued the Norfolk pine, next to Cooper’s plant, from a garbage bin in his alley. It’s the only plant that I fertilize regularly, which may be why Cooper’s mom always tells us it’s gotten bigger.)

Next to the poppies is an impulse-buy: a dahlia to live on our front porch, which gets the western sun and is unshaded by any trees. I thought its flowers would keep me satisfied while I waited all summer for the front porch sunflowers to grow.

Then, three long, plastic window boxes with nine! basil plants, for basil gimlet cocktails and pesto and pizza. Two sculptural terra cotta pots that I lusted after at Terrain for months, if not more than a year, before they went on super-clearance and I let myself buy them. ($15! Only $15! Sure, they’re just beautiful terra cotta pots that could probably break very easily, but the size I bought started at FIFTY-EIGHT dollars apiece. Highway robbery.) They house the parsley, left, and the thyme, right. Behind them are some bright red geraniums,  a perfect fiery red with a hint of orange, to add color to the green farm on my little fire escape. Not pictured is the under-appreciated tomato plant.

So like I said in this post, the plants were mostly the same as last year, the first year of the porch garden, but with more basil and a few flowers.

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The start of the garden, on May 9th. I also wanted to add plants along the outer edge by the railing, possibly hanging a few window boxes from the slats, but Ikea sold out of the planters I wanted, and I never chose what to plant, anyway. Maybe next year!

On the left is the porch viewed from the stairs, also on May 9th. On the right, just over a month later, the tomato plant had grown several feet and we may have already harvested the basil for a batch of pesto once. The basil got much bigger after this.

One day at the end of June, I set some of the plants up on the railing (including my little cacti from the bedroom window) to catch the morning sun. Because we’re so close to the next house, with a big tree above, we get narrow patches of sun at different angles throughout the morning. Since I was home and able to move the plants around as the light changed, I did. Plus, the plants looked pretty against the yellow house, and I could see them from inside for a change.

The morning outing didn’t go well for those three basil plants. They took a spill, narrowly missing the car parked in the driveway below. We made pesto with the mangled leaves, repotted the scraggly plants, and happily, they survived. (Never again, at least not for the planters that don’t quite fit on the slanty, narrow railing.)

porch-6So all summer, the garden saved us from buying unnecessary bundles of parsley, just to season occasional meals then throw the rest away. Our fresh pesto habit was made cheaper by the homegrown basil (plus Cooper started to substitute walnuts for pine nuts). There was always thyme when we needed it.

Besides the endless supply of pesto pasta and pesto sandwiches and best of all, pesto pizza, my favorite part about the porch is that it’s a simple, refreshing place to sit—the best place for hour-long phone calls. I’d bring out a big pillow and lean against the railing, legs stretched out in front of me. Sometimes I tried to write this blog. Sometimes I did stretches on the colorful, woven mat. When I was tired, I’d lie back on the pillow and just stare up at beautiful patterns made by the tree above me. Happy to be outside, and alone.

plants porchThis photo is from early October. The planters are full of dead leaves from the tree. Today, November, the basil still hangs on, though it’s not as impressive as it still was a month ago in the photo. The parsley, thyme, and geraniums have moved indoors, to try to live on winter’s western light, à la The Unexpected Houseplant.

Then, there were the sunflowers.

Back to early May and the impulse-dahlias, their deep red petals looking elegant with the dark shingles and sleek galvanized steel bucket behind them (à la 66 Square Feet). I planted the sunflower seeds in the buckets in mid-May. (No, please pretend my shingles look like a chic, black- or charcoal-painted Scandinavian home; it’s what I do, powerless as I am against the actions of the landlord.)

Some of the websites I came across cautioned against growing anything larger than dwarf sunflowers in a container, but others thought I could get away with it, so I bought a pack of autumn mix something-or-other seeds. The plants should grow six feet tall or more, some with red accents on the petals, if their petals weren’t red outright (I wish I’d had some crimson sunflowers). I planted three groups in each bucket, with two or three seeds each group, and a bucket on each side of the door. I thinned them out eventually, reluctantly. Neighborhood animals thinned them out some more, so my reluctance seems merited.

I tried to follow the watering directions linked in the previous paragraph, (so much water! don’t do this if you don’t have an outdoor faucet and a hose!), and then I stopped taking pictures until the end of June, when the tallest plants were already door-height (above right). Most of the summer, we were lugging a water bucket down the stairs twice a day to keep the soil moist (woodchips or something on tops might have helped.) The first bloom opened at the very end of July, days before we left home for a week in Iceland:

One of the sunflower plants did its best to one-up Jack and his beanstalk. It only made it partway up the second story, but I think that’s pretty impressive for a nonmagical sunflower seed from Lowe’s:

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sunflowers 8 portrait.JPGThe last bloom from the last plant still standing, this week. Perfect for the kitchen table. Farewell, summer.

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

img_9586When I got off the bus at work that Monday, the first thing I felt was the invigorating chill of the October air mixed with the cheery morning sunshine. The prairie patches grown by the university as a less labor-intensive, more biologically diverse and sustainable form of landscaping, still buzzed with life and waved in the breeze. I felt light and free and happy as I strolled past, the earlier dread of missed buses and unknown inbox contents set aside.

How do I hold onto that feeling? How can I possibly hold onto that feeling when I have to wave my ID card at the door, climb the three flights of stairs (my choice, but I don’t always enjoy it), and turn on the computer, that mesmerizing and dulling device that rules so many work lives?

I could have walked the entire way to work, but only if I was ahead of schedule.

I could have sat down on that sidewalk like a weirdo and breathed in, breathed out the peaceful morning smell, willfully ignoring the heavy car traffic behind and the hulking office buildings ahead. But knowing that I was only briefly postponing the inevitable, that I needed to move along and get to work, would have distracted me.

What I thought, as I walked toward the wide expanse of parking lots that I snake through to cut the most direct path to my building, was that this was why I wanted to go up north that weekend. I wanted to leave everything behind except for my boyfriend Cooper (I’d take Haroun and Table Cat too, if they were dogs) and put all my focus in the moment, in the beautiful forests and waters of the Upper Peninsula. No worries except about what’s for the next meal. Feel tall standing on big rocks. Bouncing feet along the trails. Bundled up in sweaters and scarf and jacket against the wind. Experiencing things that really matter.

The thing is, travel is also stressful. There’s always an opportunity cost. In the final four to twenty-four hours before departure, I start to panic. Why do I want to leave this apartment and these cats that on a usual day, I wish I had more time for? Why do I need to skip town, when town is full of good food and better people and really, lots of pretty trails and a cozy bed I know? How will I know what I want to wear two days from now? When will I ever write about the trips we already took, when will I curl up with all the books in my stack and catch up? I rarely get much reading done on trips, because no matter how long we spend away, it’s not quite enough. Often, I get lost and exhausted in the decision-making.

Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I don’t know how to be present, maybe I don’t really know what I want, because I want too many things.

We hadn’t planned our getaway yet, didn’t have a place to sleep, but it was only days away. Cooper had a long to-do list, better tended to with undivided attention at home…and yet, despite not working out the logistics, we had planned on an escape to Lake Superior all year. There was nothing I wanted to do more than this.

So We Went, and It Was Glorious

img_2691img_2793img_9795We spent two nights at a motel in the unincorporated community of Paradise, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay. We visited Tahquamenon Falls surrounded by the resplendent colors of autumn, all golden light the first afternoon. We visited the Lower Falls again for a longer hike the next day, when we had the world mostly to ourselves, cocooned under cloudy skies with all the trees and the largest lake in the world* in front of us. The final morning, the beach at Whitefish Point was all ours, too, as the blue-green waves crashed and crashed, and the blue sky started to peek through.

Why do I travel? I travel to feel free, to fly loose from daily cares, from what others want from me and from what I demand of myself. I travel because I like to see new things, because I like to bring stories I’ve read to life and build my interest for other place’s pasts and presents. To disconnect, and to connect.

Things were really simple on this trip. Heavy storms the first night and the next morning put our power out, and so we cleaned up and wrote by candlelight, internet-less, until lunchtime. Other than that, our goal was to be outside together—mission accomplished.

*largest freshwater lake by area

Looking for Puffins

iceland lumix reykjavikpuffin-tour-watching-puffinsiceland reykjavikWhale watching was on our to-do list in Reykjavík, but we didn’t plan ahead for it. We also figured that it would be wrong to leave Iceland without seeing any puffins, as colorful, goofy, and famous as they are. On our second to last day in Iceland, Cooper, Emma, and I drove the southern coast of Iceland, from Grindavík all the way to the town of Vík, near the island’s southern extremity. I had intended for us to catch the ferry to the Westman Islands off the coast, where we were sure to see puffins, but time was short, so we focused on the mainland instead. One beautiful spot was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, where many puffins nest in the spring and summer. I wasn’t sure if we’d actually find a puffin, since we weren’t sure exactly where to look, but it was exciting when we did! So exciting, in fact, that we decided to go on a puffin boat tour in Rekyavík the next day, instead of whale watching.

Dyrhólaey Nature Reserve

iceland south coast
Looking east toward Reynisfjara beach; the town of Vík is just over the ridge.

Continue reading “Looking for Puffins”

Reykjavík Does It Right

Day one, we wandered from our apartment by the old harbor, heading down any street that struck our fancy. We met a friendly, giant calico cat near houses with inviting gardens. It was bright and sunny, and I could instantly imagine spending long afternoons and late nights here, grilling dinner and chatting outside until the sun got to setting.

On the way back to our apartment later, we saw two probable tourists greeting an even bigger animal. The next day, he was out again, and so we got acquainted with the giant feline we thought could have been a dog, christening him Huge Haroun. Same colors, same fur—but his head was at least twice as big as our spunky Haroun’s. We pet Huge Haroun until he caught sight of another cat and bounded off in pursuit. We felt sorry for his target, whether he or she was enemy or reluctant paramour (we suspected the latter).

We passed some churches and wandered through a pretty, green park, also populated by friendly cats, along with some relaxing Icelanders and their little dogs.

From my repertoire of weird Icelandic facts: Dogs were made illegal in Reykjavík in the 1920s, due to a tapeworm that they passed on to humans, often fatally. I think it was in the 1980s that the city started allowing exemptions to the law: if you paid an annual fee, and your neighbors consented, you could have a dog. Dog ownership is on the rise in the city, but Reykjavík remains a city of cats, and friendly ones at that. Most of them have homes: cats are required to be microchipped in Iceland, and a study I read about somewhere found that almost all of the cats they met on the street belonged to someone. What lucky cats they are, free to roam this pretty city and make friends all around. One of the apartments we tried to rent required guests to keep a window open, so their cat could come and go, and Cats of Reykjavík posted a funny story from someone who woke up with a strange cat in their bed. There’s approximately one cat for every ten people in Reykjavík—it’s my kind of place.

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Jane, Cooper, and Huge Haroun, with his massive head and mane.

Before we wound our way down to the city center, we found ourselves in a neighborhood of impressive houses, still mostly made of corrugated metal painted pretty colors, and also surrounded by lovely gardens. We were on a little hill, and looked across to see famous Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrím’s church) in the distance. We headed vaguely in that direction and explored the charming city center, talking for a while by Tjörnin, the small lake behind the parliament building, and mysteriously passing up a waffle cart opportunity in favor of (quite good) vegetarian dinner, like responsible adults. (We got rave reviews of the waffle cart from my friend Carolyn when we met up with her on our final day, but failed to track it down. Do better than us!)

The waterfront beckoned, so we walked along it, before eating dessert al fresco at Café Paris on Austurvöllur square. On our way home, we watched the sun set over the harbor, Snæfellsjökull (snow mountain glacier) far off in the distance. Continue reading “Reykjavík Does It Right”

What Do You Want for Your Next Home?

I know what I want next. In fact, I want so many things for my next home that it’s impossible to reconcile them.

There are the bare necessities: a dishwasher, on-site laundry, a bathroom guests can use without having to walk through our bedroom. A bedroom big enough for a queen-size bed complete with headboard and footboard. Enough space for my desk and papers and Cooper’s desk and papers to coexist comfortably along with a living room and a dining table that fits more than four people.

Whoa now, that’s already asking a lot, especially considering that we’ll still be renting at our next place, and it will most likely be an apartment. Let me make it more fantastical for you, though.

pinterest-2pinterest-1I dream of a guest bedroom/office, with a beautiful iron bed, an extra sofa or at least a pretty bench at the foot of the bed, a wall of bookshelves. I want a restful place for my friends to sleep when they visit, safe from cat fur and early wakers rumbling in the kitchen. I want doors that really close, sometimes, for the guests and for me.

I imagine a kitchen that can be clean. Fresh paint, truly flat and smooth surfaces, no weird grime. I think we might need a hood over the stove because of all the grease our current kitchen collects, but maybe cabinets without sticky paint and grooves in all the surfaces, without a forced air vent on the floor directly next to the stove, would be easy enough to clean. There’s a big table in the new kitchen, so we can cook dinners to share, with a bench or maybe a corner banquette on one or two sides.

(A home built with right angles, perhaps, although I plan on it predating World War II, and so maybe it’s too much to ask for straight floors.)

I hope for a real porch, if not at least a weird fire escape like we have now. I want to eat outside and each year, grow a few more plants than I did the year before. (All I really added to last year’s garden were prettier pots and some geraniums.)

And then sometimes, I dream really big. I see us buying a house that would be a lot more work, but probably also a lot of fun. We plant trees and fill our yard with flowers and herbs and vegetables and put solar panels on the roof. We try having our own chickens, like Ali and Drew, so we know the eggs we eat every day come from animals who are healthy and appreciated. We could host our parents for weeks at a time and give a dog a home and throw big parties.

laundry cat.jpgBut that’s a completely different life from the one we’re living now, and it’s not a life I’m really ready for. I want a little more space, and a different layout; I’m sick of coming up against the same limitations every time I try to make our home work better or look different. Mostly, I want to be able to better accommodate friends and family, and ease some burdens in our daily life (laundromat trips!!)—but without spending a whole lot more money, or widening our carbon footprint. I don’t want to upsize just because we can. I don’t want to accumulate anything we don’t need or truly want. I get frustrated now sometimes because we have too much furniture, not enough space for our things to breathe, no room to pull out couches to clean under them. It’s so easy for the cats to run from one piece of furniture to the next as they chase each other wildly in the evening, following the furniture packed into the perimeter and endangering the plants, the lamps, the external hard drives I haven’t put away because I’m not done with them yet. It’s only a matter of time before they cause a cataclysm.

But, you know, I really don’t know where I’ll be living next year. Anything could happen, be it a real bed or a laundry closet next to the bedroom or three bedrooms, a garage, and a chicken coop.

What else? What do you plan on changing when, or if, you move again?

Unexpectedly Iceland

The possibility of a trip to Iceland appeared in my inbox out of the blue. A few minutes later, I was already texting Jane back, mid-evening-walk. I had very little practical knowledge about Iceland then, though I had seen a lot of photos from people who had been there. It wasn’t anywhere on my current travel list, but it had been when I studied in Germany for a year in college. So Iceland was a wildcard, but not completely unknown.

(Okay, practically everywhere was on my list that year, when budget airlines and high-speed trains, not to mention open borders, made anything seem possible. The big destinations I missed out on during study abroad—not that I’m complaining—were Morocco, Turkey, Scotland, and Scandinavia, including Iceland. I also failed to see large parts of Germany, which I regret more. Hamburg and Bremen and the North Sea and Dresden and the castles on the Rhein; I barely even saw the Schwarzwald, the Black Forest, which surrounds the city I lived in.)

At that point, late May, our big plans for the rest of the year were nil: Cooper and I had, yet again, ruled out the possibility of a trip to Italy and Germany. Too expensive, too ambitious, and Cooper now had conflicting obligations for September. We weren’t sure what we should do instead. Jane, who’s been friends with Cooper since middle school, was preparing to move from Atlanta to Minneapolis with her husband Ed. I was preparing to invite myself to Minneapolis, hopefully en route to Lake Superior’s North Shore and a road trip home through a more northern Ontario than I’d previously encountered (another harebrained idea I wasn’t sure we could pull off in the time we had). Jane wrote back that they were thinking of Sweden, Denmark, or Iceland for a vacation before her job started, since she had never been to Europe and flights weren’t too bad from MSP. Did we want to come?

Staying away from mainland Europe quelled my instinct for extended, multi-country trips. The flight to Iceland from Detroit was cheaper than any other European destinations for the summer. Plus, it’s a small country. Michigan is almost two and a half times bigger in area, and Detroit has far more people than Iceland does. We thought it would be manageable, and rewarding, since it’s bursting at the seams with beautiful and unusual scenery. How often do two of your closest friends offer to meet you in Iceland? Of course we wanted to tag along!

iceland south coast

I looked into costs, plane tickets and car rentals and accommodations. We panicked, a little, since by this point Cooper and I were expecting more of a drive-your-own-car trip, not a journey to a much more expensive continent (okay, technically, tectonically, Iceland is on both the North American and European plates). I worried it meant we wouldn’t be able to afford Europe proper next year.

I clicked through slideshows of the top Icelandic sights and got overwhelmed by how much there was to see, all over the country. I narrowed in on southwest Iceland and still found more than we could do in six days. I definitely wanted to go. A week after Jane first mentioned it, Cooper and I bought tickets for $860 each, to fly to Keflavík International Airport via Minneapolis. Emma, my oldest and most adventurous friend, decided to meet us there too, on her way home from Ukraine. So we rented a two-bedroom apartment, plus sofa bed, in Reykjavík, and a little automatic car. Cooper and I traveled around the Great Lakes region, worked, read about Iceland (mostly me), bought hiking boots (Cooper) and a rain jacket (me), and waited for July 30th.

Absolutely, 100% Worth It

I love Iceland. I expected and hoped to enjoy the trip, of course, and I knew the company would be great no matter what. But there’s a lot of hype about Iceland—everyone seems to return enchanted—and I wasn’t sure if it could be as good as people say.

But for us, it really was. Continue reading “Unexpectedly Iceland”

Here, Saturday

The wind is strong, the air is silver. Or is it grey? The sky is grey, in that bright, impenetrable, there-is-no-more-sky-only-blankness way, but the wind jostles the trees and comes in to swirl in my clean apartment, and I think the air is silver because it feels like such a gift to feel the season start to turn like this, to hold this day in the palm of my hand, to hug my world to myself, a new world after all the sun and heat I’m now accustomed to.

It’s September now. There’s time for burrowing into the couch, or spreading my limbs as I lie on the carpet. A dark morning asks for lit candles on my desk, and I oblige. I know that lighting a different mood can make for magic sometimes; it could trick me into writing.

I look forward to hot evening baths on winter nights. I’ve tidied the apartment day after day because I want to welcome friends in whenever I can, and to feel the peace of this refuge every evening. I still dream of road trips, of lakeshores and bare feet, but also of fiery trees and warm scarves. My wanderlust will not be sated, but now that things are different, I’m trying to hone in on home, on here, instead of my focus always flitting around with all the different theres.