Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pocket Gardens

Pedaling my bike through the neighborhood, taking Pao for his twice-daily run, I see a lot of gardens. There are many beautiful ones to enjoy, filled with roses and hypnotically green lawns and attractive, mature trees. I like looking at the the not-so-beautiful gardens, too, and daydreaming about how I'd fix them up and make them better.

Some of my favorite gardens, however, are what I call "pocket gardens." That is, little spots of greenery so small they barely qualify as garden. Some are planted on purpose; some have sprung up on their own. But all are equally charming.

This one, below, is on the large side for a pocket garden. It's on an alleyway, and unless you're taking out the trash or parking your car in the adjacent apartment building's first-floor lot, you'd never know it was there.

It is almost entirely made of succulents. I love how the varied colors and shapes make this little patch almost look like an underwater garden.

In between all the various shades of green, from bluish green to almost black, somebody has placed a single, painted decorative concrete brick:

The brick's angular lines and jaunty yellow color contrast perfectly with the arch-shaped, multi-leafed plants surrounding it:

A thoughtful hand has carefully placed a single piece of driftwood in the garden, underscoring the watery allusions in this space:

A few feet away from this well-planned pocket of succulents is a happy accident-of a-garden:

A very cheerful flower--a Lazy Susan?--thrusts forth from a tiny crack in the pavement:

I admire this plant's tenacity. Clearly nobody planted it, and nobody waters it, but it has the energy to thrive and push out the most adorable flowers:

Do you think it knows how wonderful it looks, next to the brick-red fence and the bright blue trash can?

On another street, next to an empty lot and a bag of discarded trash, an arresting plant grows in splendid isolation:

Not watered, not fed, not trimmed, and certainly not ever lovingly talked to, this vine nonetheless thrives.

And it produces the most glorious, gigantic, ethereal flowers. They are at least five inches across:

The shape, size and five points of the flowers resemble a Brugmansia, but these blossoms don't hang down; they face up toward the sky, and they have no fragrance that I can discern.

Even its galls are otherworldly looking:

Can anybody tell me what this plant is? In the meantime, I'll just enjoy it.

A good place to look for pocket gardens is anywhere near a water source. This tiny patch of moss forms every spring and summer underneath the drip outlet to our home's air-conditioning system:

People go out in the forests to gather mosses like this; I've got a micro-patch in my driveway!

Hiding underneath a large Hydrangea bush in our front yard, a tiny patch of blue caught my eye the other day:

It's Lobelia, and it must have traveled some distance to volunteer in my garden, because I have never planted this.

But based on how well it's thriving, and how much I love this color of blue, I may plant some. I've noticed pocket gardens often tell you what wants to grow, and where.

My friend and neighbor C. has a low point in the street in front of her house. There is always standing water there, which drives everyone crazy. Standing water attracts mosquitoes, which can carry the West Nile Virus. The city of Los Angeles has been out several times to try to fix the situation. They've improved it a little, but the problem persists.

That's the bad news.

The good news is, it's a beautiful little watery pocket garden. I love how the the red-painted curb behind the blades of grass almost looks like a sunset behind tall, sculptural trees:

Turns out, I'm not the only one who enjoys this little mini-marsh:

Apparently, there's a lot of us who appreciate a sweet pocket garden.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: "Blood, Bones & Butter"

I recently completed a UCLA Extension course in "The Art of Creative Nonfiction." It was a fantastic, challenging, life-altering class. As part of each week's homework, our wonderful instructor had us read excerpts from outstanding autobiographies. One week, she introduced us to "Blood, Bones & Butter," by Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of the restaurant "Prune" in New York City.

The excerpt was compelling, intriguing; I wanted more.

So I bought the book on my Kindle and roared through it in about three days flat.

And then I went out and bought the hardback. There are some books you just HAVE to own. This, for me, is one of them.

If you admire strong women, if you love stellar food writing, if you are intrigued by the concept of an award-winning chef who can write as well as she cooks, you need to read this book.

Hamilton's descriptions of food are sensual, forceful, amazing. But what really blows my mind is how fierce, how brutally honest, her writing is. She tells her story in an unvarnished, take-no-prisoners kind of way. Toward that end, she throws everybody under the bus--her parents, her siblings, her husband, and even herself. This woman is fearless!

Here's what no less a luminary than Anthony Bourdain says about her book:

"Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever. Gabrielle Hamilton packs more heart, soul, and pure power into one beautifully crafted page than I've accomplished in my entire writing career. Blood, Bones & Butter is the work of an uncompromising chef and a prodigiously talented writer. I am choked with envy."

And this, from chef/writer/TV personality Mario Batali:

"Hamilton has changed the potential and raised the bar for all books about eating and cooking. Her nearly rabid love for all real food experience and her completely vulnerable, unprotected yet pure point of view unveils itself in both truth and inspiration. I will read this book to my children and then burn all the books I have written for pretending to be anything even close to this. After that I will apply for the dishwasher job at Prune to learn from my new queen."

Please, if you love to eat, cook, feed others, or read, you must get this book. I promise you will consume it.

And it will consume you.

Ms. Hamilton, you are my new goddess.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


My living room looks like it's ready for a yard sale, these days.

There are boxes and boxes of china, pots and pans, cooking tools, and such:

They rub shoulders with cartons of old family books (part of my ongoing attempt to catalog my parents' library):

Bags of clothes and still-working small appliances slump here and there:

Things still in their plastic packaging hang out in heirloom chairs:

Color slides by the boxful (and sometimes, by the wipies-tub-ful)...

...vie for space with leftover light fixtures, with their installation instructions miraculously still intact:

This Tinkertoy on steroids is actually a partially assembled wine rack, which The Hubby and I no longer need since installing a wine cooler in the kitchen a year ago:

Some things I'm not sure why they are, or how they are, in my possession:

A small army of miscellaneous glass and china:

waits patiently near the red chairs I bought at Goodwill (yup, I still haven't taken off all those doggone green stickers):

Bric-a-brac shelves, occasional tables, stretched canvases and framed art lean here and there in the corners:

It is simply impossible for me to assemble a bunch of things and not have polka dots pop up at least once or twice. These are vinyl table cloths I purchased for $1 each. They will probably turn in to shelf liners and drawer liners:

And boxes of...nothing...lie around, waiting.

Everything is waiting.

Waiting for a day, coming pretty soon, when most of this stuff will be carted off to the Funny-Looking House. Whatever Lovely Daughters #1 and #2 don't want, I'll turn over to charity.

And, I hope, The Hubby will stop muttering "hoarders" and "wives" in the same breath.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The $6.51 Solution

The other day, I was walking up to my front door and took a good, hard look at it. Can you see the problem?

Yeah. A handsome garden pot with nothing growing in it. Nothing says "I care about first impressions" like a pot full of dusty pebbles on your front porch.

And the Cyclamen to the right side wasn't looking so good, either. Kind of...tilting. Losing steam.

What was wrong with it? I picked up the plant to peek underneath, and this is what I found:

Euwwww! The poor thing was sitting in water (never good for a plant), and to make it sadder, the water seems to have drawn, then drowned, every June bug in the neighborhood.

Poor June bugs; I love them. They remind me of my childhood in Kansas. Such silly, bumbling bugs.

Anyhow, trapped water is what happens when you stick potted plants (with drainage holes in the bottom of the pot) into ornamental pots (with no drainage holes whatsoever). And then forget that the gardeners come by once a week and water the whole thing to Kingdom Come.

So I tipped out the excess water and the dead June bugs....

And went to my local garden center, where I found a lovely Boston Fern on sale for just $6.51, including tax:

Because there's more space to the right side of my front door, I put the fluffy fern there and moved the Cyclamen to the narrower, left side:

Balance--and greenery--restored. And it only cost $6.51.

I'm still sad about the dead June bugs, though.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Wine-Bottle Openers

A few weeks ago, I had a wine-bottle opener that looked a lot like this:

It was a classic design, purchased from Williams-Sonoma, and it was great. Sturdy and reliable, it opened many a bottle for us. But then it disappeared during an alfresco party for Lovely Daughter #2's college graduation, with lots of people and hubbub and shared dishes.

It happens.

So Lovely Daughter #2 went to BevMo and bought one that looked a lot like our old one, but it was cheaper. Wobblier. Definitely not the same. She thought I might not like it, so she also went to Williams-Sonoma and bought one that was waaaaay more expensive. Nothing like the W-S one we lost.

(Imported. Italian. In a presentation case, for Pete's sake, with red velour interior.)

It came with its own little brochure of instructions:

Really? I need instructions on how to open a bottle?

I missed my old opener. But these options--one cheaper, one more pricey--were all we had. I put the expensive one aside, intending to return it, and decided to go with the cheaper one.

Last night, I was opening a bottle of wine with the new, cheap opener, and the dang thing bit me! I don't know quite how it happened, but I caught a significant chunk of my thumb in the winged-nut devicey-thing, and it almost tore a divot out of me.

Hurt like the dickens.

(You know I'm not a hand model; I don't even pretend to have a manicure going on, here.)

This morning, I took a closer look at the pricey one. The "bitey" parts are enclosed in black, heavy-duty plastic. That's good; it can't take a nip out of me! And its movements are smooth, flowing, and it feels beautifully weighted in my hand.

And the silly brochure of instructions? It turns out to be just a roundup of all the bar tools this firm makes. The only info I needed was right on these two pages:

Oh! The base thingy it's sitting in turns out to be a two-way tool; it's a bottle-cap opener and a device to cut the foil off the top of a wine bottle.

Well, okay, that is handy.

But ultimately what won me over to this more expensive one is 1)the well-crafted, smooth workings of the opener and 2)the safety factor. Who wants to be using a tool that can turn around and hurt you?

My mother always used to say, "A workman is only as good as his tools."

Or, a woman is only as good as her wine-bottle opener. So, buonaserra, bella. You're my new best bar-tool friend.


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