Every Seed Holds a Story

Inside every seed awaits a story. I’m currently holding two different seeds: one for my vegetable garden, the other for my next book. I know from over 40 years of gardening how my tomato seeds will grow, but my next book? I’ve only the seed of an idea. Who knows if or how it will grow.

First – the garden seed, because this one always makes me happy.

Like a child who begs to be read the same story over and over, I get excited every spring when I pull out my seed boxes and start the planting cycle. I start with a packet of tomato seeds – one tiny disc floats onto my open palm – saved from last year’s tomatoes to start this year’s crop. It’s both the ending and beginning of life. Within this little seed is the story of my 2022 garden.

Growing season has been coming earlier and hotter – one consequence of climate change. This year I decide to push my luck and start two early-ripening tomatoes three weeks earlier than usual – a calculated risk that may pay off. I place the six pots on a warming pad in the sunroom and with great patience and faith, wait for the seeds to begin their magical transformation. About a week later, I notice a little bump of soil pushed up by an emerging seedling. From the bare stem, two leaves unfurl. I turn on the overhead grow lights and watch for the second set of leaves, then call my gardening friends in excitement.

I know how this story continues. As the plants grow, I’ll repot them in ever-larger containers. Eventually they’ll join the other seedlings in my outdoor nursery: pepper, eggplant, squash, cucumber, chard, kale, and a selection of other tomatoes. At this point, I’ll start exchanging extra plants with neighbors – we’re always eager to try something new.

In the Sierra, we traditionally don’t plant until Mother’s Day, but I’m having to change old patterns of gardening because the growing season is getting progressively hotter and unpredictable. Tension and plot twists may be important for good fiction, I can do without it in my garden story! Still, my gardening friend John and I agree that our gardens are our happy places, and with COVID, they’ve become our havens.

Like a book I’ve read many times, I can anticipate what will come of my seeds: celebrating the first tomato (and saving its seeds); sliced tomatoes sprinkled with basil leaves, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil; thick tomato sauce for spaghetti and pizzas; and weekly gatherings of family and neighbors to share the bounty. In late summer I’ll shift into canning tomato sauce, catsup, and whole tomatoes, or dehydrating thin discs of tomatoes to thicken up winter stews. I try to remember to save the seeds of my earliest and most flavorful tomatoes to cultivate those characteristics for future seasons.

Last tomato of 2021 – enjoyed on March 14, 2022 !

When frost threatens, I pick all the viable tomatoes and store them in newspaper on the back porch. Although at least half don’t make it, the ones we enjoy over the winter are a reminder of next year’s story.

Both gardening and writing require a time of quiet renewal and regeneration. I don’t plunge right into my next garden when the summer vegetables are over. Same with writing. There’s a reason winter is dark and fallow – it allows time for contemplation and integration.

I published Heart Wood two years ago. “What’s next?” people ask me. Until recently, I was at a loss for how to answer. Then I discovered a box of love letters from 1968 between my boyfriend in Vietnam and myself in San Francisco. Now we’re married, and fifty-four years later, we’re reading them back to each other. It feels like the seed of something – perhaps memoir, fiction, or simply transcribed as part of our family’s story for posterity.

But recently a friend handed me the seed of an idea for another book. I must admit, I felt a leap of excitement – a good sign that there’s life in this seed. I’ll share more when I see what grows!

Heart Wood can be purchased at your local bookstore and on Amazon (ebook and paperback)

Potato Chip Leaves

Out in my vegetable garden, the late-morning sun scalds my neck as I clip off yesterday’s “potato chip leaves” from my butternut squash plants. In my 40 years of raising vegetables, I’ve never had this problem of leaves air-frying on the vine, crisp and brown like potato chips. My husband comes over with his make-shift shade cover, a contraption of 40% shade cloth stretched over a frame of PVC piping, supported by four bamboo poles. We work together to angle the frame so it protects against the blistering sun. We’ll do the same for the next raised bed…and the next.

In recent years, I’ve focused on growing food we can eat during the winter, so this spring, I over-planted butternut squash. Twelve little seedlings emerged. I transplanted three to another bed, leaving nine healthy seedlings to fill the raised bed. They were doing just fine; the 2:00 AM drip watering and layer of mulch kept the ground moist. And then on July 7th we were hit with a mega-heat wave.

110 degrees Fahrenheit!

I took a photo of the outside temperature reading and sent it to our daughters. “Look at this: 105 degrees! No, wait, it’s now 106.” Every half hour I documented the rising temperature until it peaked at 110 degrees. These were Death Valley temperatures – not our mountain homestead’s. I was so absorbed with the thermometer, that I didn’t think about my veggies until my evening stroll out in the garden.

I’m aware that some leaves naturally wilt on hot days – it’s the plant’s natural response to preserving moisture, especially the cucurbit family: squash, cucumbers, melons. They’ll usually perk up again when it cools if the soil is moist.

But this was different. The sun was hot, but even in the shade, the air itself was pizza-oven hot. About half of my butternut squash and cucumber leaves were dried crisp as potato chips. Young tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants were so shocked and set back, that this will probably be the first year I won’t have enough tomatoes to can.

We’re like the proverbial frog who’s merrily swimming in a pot of cold water, hardly noticing the slowly increasing temperature until it’s too late and he’s boiled to death – which is probably how the extreme heat of 2021 snuck up on me.  Climate patterns have shifted slowly over several decades, but now, they’re ramping up. In the late 1970s when we first settled into the western slope of the Northern California Sierra, it was common to get 2-3 feet of snow at a time. Today we’re lucky to get 2-3 inches at a time. Same with rain. Whereas we used to count on rain starting November, now we’re lucky to start getting substantial rainfall in January or February. We worry that our well might run dry.

The end of gardening as I’ve known it and time for a whole new gardening strategy

The extreme heat wave of July 7, 2021 and subsequent hotter-than-usual days will forever change the way I garden. I’m already thinking of new strategies for next year’s vegetable garden and I’m hoping you might have ideas to add to the list.

Please send your suggestions to me at: heartwoodnovel@gmail.com, and I’ll share them in a future blog.

Here’s my start:

  1. Focus on seeds that are drought and heat tolerant. I’ve a feeling we’ll be seeing more of these in the 2022 seed catalogues.
  2. Create moveable shade covers for my raised beds that can also serve as early/late frost protection. You can do a lot with PVC pipes and shade cloth.
  3. Study how indigenous peoples and desert dwellers grow food in hot, arid climates,  such as the “Three Sisters” approach where corn, squash, and climbing beans create a supportive environment for each other.
  4. Focus on plants that grow well in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall when it’s not so hot.
  5. Let the shade of tall or vertical crops shade plants below. I might plant corn as a wall of shade in each bed.
  6. Continue automatic drip watering between 1-4 am, and mulch, mulch, mulch to preserve moisture. Mist plant leaves by hand in the cool of the evening.
  7. Research the “50 Future Foods” project that I wrote about in Heart Wood.


I’ll end with a new plant in my garden that is growing well in this year’s heat: the North Georgia Candy Roaster Pumpkin. Originally cultivated by the Cherokee peoples in Southeastern part of our country, it’s like a cross between a butternut squash and pumpkin and stores well. I can’t wait to try it this winter!

Purchase Heart Wood at your local bookstore (support independent bookstores!) Print and eBooks at online retailers and HERE on Amazon.

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Contact the author at: heartwoodnovel@gmail.com