How to Trim A Christmas Tree: The Tessa Edition

The vote was unanimous: no breakable ornaments on the Christmas tree this year.

Kitten in Christmas Tree

Those eyes! That face!

Our growing kitten, Tessa could hardly believe her luck. Were we really putting up a tree in the house?

We have an artificial Christmas tree that we set up in our living room the day after Thanksgiving. With the boys home from school and Mike off work, the four-day weekend is the perfect time to trim the tree.

Kitten in Christmas tree

Mike may have needed a bandage after this encounter

kitten in christmas tree

Mike and Tessa exchange looks

Like most kittens, Tessa’s curiosity peaks at the sight of anything new. So after assembling the tree, we let her explore. She wasted no time climbing into the tree for a little adventure. As Mike sat on the floor opening the branches she jumped up, climbed down, rolled around and peered out at me with excited eyes.

two faced kitten in Christmas tree

I’ve got my eye on you

From now on, when I hear the expression “lit up like a Christmas tree” I’ll think of our tiny terror frolicking through the limbs. Who needs lights when you live with Tessa?

Well…we still wanted some lights. Once she lost interest we strung the lights and the boys carefully chose the soft, unbreakable decorations to hang low on the tree. I gave it a second pass, and moved up anything that hung too low. You have to think like a kitten. We unplug the lights when we’re away, and nearly two weeks in, all is well.

kitten in christmas tree

Tessa gymnastics

two faced kitten in christmas tree

She may never come down from the tree

If Tessa’s likeness were a tree ornament, they might look like this.

Do you celebrate Christmas? If so, do you also decorate a tree?

Tessa's back side in the Christmas tree

The End

Loving and Losing Sylvia

It was 1982. Freshly graduated from the theatre program at San Jose State University, I had just landed my first theatre job. Feeling both excited and terrified, I also felt entirely out of my league. That’s when I met Sylvia.

Sylvia Muzzio

With Sylvia in the San Jose Rep costume shop, November, 1982

If you follow the money, you won’t find it in the theater. San Jose Rep’s small costume shop occupied a couple of classrooms in a vacant elementary school, in an unremarkable part of town. Yet between those walls, magic happened.  Under Resident Costume Designer Marcia Frederick’s guidance, Sylvia Muzzio, Marcia and I crafted some of the most extraordinary costumes you’ve ever seen.  We were three  creative women working in very close quarters, yet we always got along.

Sylvia mentored and mothered and minded the shop and taught me about theater and life along the way. She personified warmth and care. I shared things with her that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others. Her open nature and gentle soul invited you in. It was a gift at the time, though it took age and maturity to fully grasp how special she was.

Sylvia nurtured her children, her grandchildren and those of us lucky enough to be part of her circle. She always wanted the best for people. She was modest and unassuming, but honest and direct as well. I loved her.

While I was in an unhappy relationship in those early years at The Rep, Sylvia told me that I needed to find an Italian, someone warm and affectionate (like her). When years later I met and married Mike Francini, I enjoyed recalling that memory with her. “Sylvia,” I said, “I found my Italian.”

Sylvia Muzzio

The four of us gathered for the first time in many years in 2010. Alys, Jim, Marcia and Sylvia

Marcia Frederick, Sylvia Muzzio, Alys and James Reber

Marcia Frederick, Sylvia Muzzio, Alys and James Reber, Founder of San Jose Repertory Theatre, November, 2013

Sylvia Muzzio

Sylvia and Rick share a laugh at a reception for The Snow Queen, November, 2013, San Jose Rep

Sylvia had a year of major health problems, hospitalizations and treatments, then seemed to miraculously kick every last one of her ailments to the curb. I saw her earlier this year for lunch, and though frail, she was upbeat and engaged. I started one of those “let’s get together when you get back from Shasta” emails and hoped to see her again this fall.

Sylvia Muzzio

With Sylvia and Marcia, 2015

Marcia called me on Monday to let me know that Sylvia was gravely ill. Sylvia and Marcia have remained close friends for many years. It came on suddenly in the last two weeks.

I spoke with Sylvia for the last time Wednesday morning. She was groggy from her pain medication, but she knew who I was and said it was good to hear my voice. She died this morning in her sleep.

And so I weep.

Death lies on her, like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.

Romeo and Juliet (1597) IV, scene 5, line 28.

Goodbye dear friend.

Halloween Cards: Crafting from my Garden

This year I’m crafting Halloween cards from my garden. It’s been a lot of trial and error, but I’m having fun.

My approach to crafting Halloween cards is often catch-as-catch can. I’ll spot a few things here and there in a store, or I’ll pull together items from my stash. No two cards are alike, and I’m fine with that. For me, that’s part of the fun.

Halloween cards

Halloween cards from prior years

This year, using my Big Shot die-cutting gadget, I’ve made several chlorophyll prints from the abundant pumpkin leaves trailing across my garden. The leaves transferred beautifully, revealing wonderful detail.

pumpkin leaf chlorophyll print

Pumpkin leaf impression

With success on my side, I decided to try making prints using the bright yellow pumpkin flowers. I had to be judicious, because although the pumpkin’s leaves last for weeks, the flowers close and drop within a day or two. I made flower impressions in phases, also enjoying the process.

Pumpkin flower impression

A: Pumpkin blossom, B: Pressed pumpkin blossom, C: Partially removed, and D: pumpkin flower imprint

Though the flowers transferred well, the color didn’t last. Within a few days the brightness faded to a soft peach. I used the imprints anyway, for a subtle suggestion of color and because they work well with my Halloween theme.

Since I was on a roll, I braved the crazy heat, and gathered a few more items: the drying flowers of the Nepeta (cat mint) and some of the dropped pine needles from a neighboring tree. The dried flowers left a mottled brown impression, perfect for the pumpkin stems, also known as a peduncle.

nepeta going to seed

Nepeta going to seed

Drying Nepeta flowers and leaves on paper before pressing

Drying Nepeta flowers and leaves on paper before pressing

nepeta impressinos

Nepeta impressions for peduncles and background

The pine needles made a wonderful textured paper. I wanted to suggest the ribbing you would see on a real pumpkin. It’s subtle, but I like the way they turned out.

I rubbed yellow ink on the textured paper, then stamped two more layers of the stamp set with orange and russet ink. After stamping two different pumpkin shapes, I cut the small pumpkin images using my Big Shot. I made the stems using the Nepeta paper print.

Here’s the design:

I used a clever die to create the black card-stock base of the card. I used the pumpkin leaf imprint on one side and the flower imprint on the other. In the center I cut two small pumpkins from the pine needle paper using a clever die and stamp set that allows layering for a more realistic effect. I cut the stems, known as a peduncle, from the mottled Nepeta print for a natural look.

This particular style is labor-intensive, so I only managed to make eight cards. That said, I did a lot of experimenting along with using new tools. Next year I’ll be able to apply what I learned.  I punched squared out of all the different materials I used and mounted them on a piece of card stock. This will help me remember the different techniques for next year.

I used the remaining chlorophyll prints to make traditional fold-over cards. They were equally fun. I’ll blog about them later this week.

Are you trying something new and interesting?

Note:

To my friends out of the area, please know that we are safe. There is an active series of fires, 100 miles north of San Jose. Though we are sheltering from the heavy smoke as best we can, we are not in danger. My friends in Santa Rosa are safe. You can read more at the link below.

http://m.sfgate.com/news/article/2-big-wildfires-prompt-evacuations-in-Napa-County-12262945.php

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Not a Zucchini?

There are three volunteer pumpkin vines growing along the side of our deck. At least I thought so. Upon closer inspection, one of the plants might be a zucchini.

Zucchini or Pumpkin plant

Zucchini or Pumpkin? July, 2017

Zucchini or Pumpkin?

Zucchini or Pumpkin? August, 2017

Zucchini is an American term for courgette or summer squash. They’re harvested when the fruit is small and cooked in a variety of ways. When left unchecked, they will grow substantially. I learned from Sarah the Gardener that overgrown courgettes are known as marrows.

I’ve never been a fan of zucchini. People wonder “how can you be a vegetarian and not like zucchini!?”  I don’t mind it in soups or zucchini bread, but otherwise I’ll give it a pass. My favorite greens, in the following order, are broccoli, green beans, snow peas, bell peppers, and several others I’m forgetting and then zucchini. Technically, zucchini are a fruit, but most of us think of them as a vegetable. That said it still doesn’t make the list when I could be eating pears, green apples, kiwi, grapes, and melon. Sorry zucchini.

I digress.

Pumpkins and zucchini (or courgettes) are members of the Cucurbita pepo or Cucurbita genus. The leaf and flower of both plants look quite a bit alike. Our plant, however, didn’t develop a trailing habit. It grew more like a shrub.  While making the garden rounds, I notice the unusual growing habit of the fruit. Unlike a typical pumpkin it was long and narrow. When Mike returned from a long trip to South America, he pronounced “It’s a zuke.” He grew up in an Italian family where his mom prepared lots of zucchini in her day.

Apparently I had an overgrown zucchini (marrow) on my hands. I would follow Sarah’s lead and prepare it for eating. Sarah made marrow chips with her overgrown fruit. She’ll show you how here.  Sarah says they’re delicious. I could disguise the flavor and texture through food preparation. Brilliant!

I cut the fruit from the plant and left it to harden off on the deck for a few days. I kept an eye on it outside my kitchen window.

Zucchini or Pumpkin?

Miniature Buddha for scale

You know where this is going, right? It started turning orange!

Not a zucchini?

Time will tell.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

My Ever-Changing Garden

One of the simple pleasures of gardening is the ever-changing landscape. No two plants are alike and no two seasons are quite the same. There are happy accidents everywhere, helping balance the ever-present and predictable weeds.  San Jose summers are hot and long, but occasionally nature serves us a reprieve. I relish those days when the stars align and I have both the time and the weather to spend outdoors getting things done.

Of all the things you can grow in a small garden, pumpkins are among the most spectacular. It seems you can witness the change every day. Within 90 to 100 days, one healthy seed can sprout, grow, flower and fruit, trailing across the landscape at amazing speed.

Self-seeded pumpkin vine

Self-seeded pumpkin vine growing along the side yard

A couple of pumpkin seeds took root in our narrow and shady side yard, with one of those two vines traveling the length of the house and eventually rounding the corner. That vine is now winding its way across the patio.  With leaves the size of a platter and flowers as broad as your hand, watching pumpkin plants grow evokes a certain optimism and joy.

pumpkin vine on patio

The pumpkin vine emerging from the side yard and crossing the patio

Years of drought brought about many changes to our garden. It started with the removal of the “grass strip” between our sidewalk and the street. My husband grew up with spacious, green lawns. His reluctance to remove the lawn took some time to overcome, but in the end we replaced all of our lawn with native plants.

In preparation, I sheet-mulched half of the back yard for close to a year. The process destroyed the lawn, amended the soil, and prepared the area for native plants, all at the same time.

sheet mulching

The process of sheet mulching: cardboard, dried leaves and other organic material

We replanted the entire area with California native and drought tolerant plants. They use far less water than a lawn, attract beneficial insects and birds, and are healthier than the monoculture of a lawn.

sheet mulched back garden

Healthy soil, several months after sheet mulching

back garden patio and native plants

Back garden replanted with natives (Mouse and Lindy on the chairs)

Back Garden: Half of the dried out lawn and half sheet-mulched lawn

Back Garden: Half of the dried out lawn and half sheet-mulched lawn

native plants back garden

Back garden replanted with natives about a year later

Removing the front lawn also brought about interesting changes. The act of turning the soil for native plants invigorated dormant seeds. The year after the lawn came out, we not only had native plants but sweet peas, cornflowers, California poppies and Nigella.

When the  garden looked bare after the sweet peas went to seed, I hit upon the idea of planting pumpkin vines in their place.

front garden pumpkin vines

I planted a few pumpkins in the front garden (the only plants that are not self-seeded this year)

I’m enjoying the variety of successive planting.  I smile when I see a neighbor through my kitchen window slowing down to look at the garden. Tending a healthy garden means others can passively enjoy it too.

Learning to love succulents has been another big change for me. One by one though, I’ve been replacing potted annuals with succulents.

Succulents are well suited to our dry, arid climate. They get along well sitting in sandy soil. I water them sparingly, perhaps once a month, and in turn they reward me with color change and tiny blooms.

I planted a miniature peace garden earlier this year, only to see it collapse during a heat wave. The baby tears baked in the sun, even under the eaves of our house. I slipped out a few times to water the plants, but that tiny garden didn’t survive in  the shallow bowl and the pounding sun.

miniature peace garden fizzle

Peace garden fizzle: triple digit temperatures were too much

miniature peace garden

Replanted miniature peace garden, sheltered by a coleus

Since I refuse to embrace any metaphors about a dead or dying peace garden, I composted the dried plants and started over. This time I changed out the annual baby tears for succulents and added chamomile, which can go almost dry between watering. I shaded the entire mini garden with a coleus, my one concession this summer to a water-loving plant. I find the color variations irresistible.

There is a twinkle of autumn in the air today, a reminder of the seasons ahead. My garden is a wonderful teacher, regularly reminding me that change is good.

Are there interesting changes going on in your life?

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Solar Eclipse in My Garden

It’s been an exciting day here in North America. Depending on where you live, you could witness the first total eclipse of the sun in the U.S. from the Pacific to the Atlantic since 1918.

AccuWeather total solar eclipse

Map of total solar eclipse route. We live in the 70% range – Source: AccuWeather

Here in San Jose, we witnessed a partial solar eclipse for about 2 1/2 hours. It reached its maximum impact at 10:21 a.m. when I popped outside with my camera to take some garden pics.

The occluded sun cast crescent-shaped shadows on the ground and the side of the house. I took this photo one minute before maximum impact.

crescent shaped shadows eclipse

During the eclipse: Crescent shaped shadows cast by the tree on the side of the house

Here’s what I noticed in the garden:

Most of the flowers in bloom remained open with one exception: the pumpkin blossoms. The flowers started curling in, and when I checked on them after lunch, they had closed up tight. Fascinating!

pumpkin blossum during solar eclipse

During the Eclipse: Pumpkin blossom closing in 10:23 am

It was eerily quiet when I went outside. We had less birdsong than usual.  The bees, however, continued on with their day.  I admire their industrious nature and silently thanked them for keeping our planet afloat.

bees during solar eclipse

During the eclipse: the bees didn’t seem to register any difference

National Public Radio aired live updates throughout the day, and though it’s radio and not TV, they managed to convey the excitement as the eclipse crossed a thin ribbon of states.

Back in the garden, I enjoyed the interesting shadows.

Pumpkin in shadows solar eclipse

During the Eclipse: Pumpkin fruit in shadows 10:23 am

California poppies during the solar eclipse

During the eclipse: California poppies 10:24 am

pumpkin shadow during solar eclipse

During the eclipse: Arching ribbon of shadow on the pumpkin’s surface 10:35 am

Indoors, the cats were oblivious. (See Monday through Sunday for comparison…ha!)

Did you witness all or part of the eclipse today?

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Garden Tomatoes: An Uninspired Tale

I’m not sure what to think about this season’s garden tomatoes. The expression “failure to thrive” comes to mind. Sadly, the basil and the corn in this box aren’t doing so hot either.

VegTrug with corn, basil, tomatoes

VegTrug planted with basil, tomatoes and corn. They’ve all remained small

Generally speaking, tomatoes are fairly easy to grow. The plant is part of the nightshade family, so their poisonous leaves remain untouched. The small yellow flowers attract the bees and before you know it (usually!) you have a vine of ripening tomatoes. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the production as they fruit all at once. That has not been a problem this year.

I planted half a dozen bedding plants in the spring. Some years I start from seed, but I didn’t save any last year so I went the lazy route. I put several small tomato plants in my raised VegTrug and three more in my vegetable box.

native garden and veg trug

May, 2017. Everything looked healthy in May. The nasturtiums surrounded the tomatoes, until the heat set in

I had one more plant in need of a home, so I popped it into the curb garden where it would get plenty of sun in the company of the perennials.

It’s taken nearly four months for three of the plants to produce.

orange cherry tomatoes

The first of the tomatoes

orange tomatoes in planting box

The first of the tomatoes in the planting box. They’re small but delicious

The plant in the curb garden never grew more than a few inches tall and the same goes for the plants in the VegTrug.

curb garden tomatoes orange

Tomatoes growing on the left side of curb garden box…all five of them!

I amended the soil, and watered faithfully once the rain stopped. The plants aren’t drooping or diseased and there is no sign of garden pests. They’re just small and sad and completely unremarkable.

Poor soil could be the culprit though I amended the soil with coffee grounds which I got for free at our local Starbucks. I kept an eye on the water and I know they’re getting full sun.

Since I really wanted at least one healthy tomato plant, I bought a larger bedding plant in a different variety and planted it in the curb garden. It’s too late in the season to start over with a small plant or from seed. All the perennials are thriving in the box so I know the soil is robust. The new plant looks healthy so far, no thanks to my mad gardening skills.

tomato plant curb garden

Newly planted curb garden tomato plant

newly planted tomato

Flowers on the newly planted tomato

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, fire season is upon us. Locally, we’ve seen three small fires, two in San Jose and one in nearby Saratoga. They were all extinguished within 24 hours. A fire in nearby Saratoga burned on the other side of the ridge from the camp where my son volunteers. That definitely gave me pause.  The emergency alert system sent out a text saying to shelter in place, but when I checked on my son he said all was fine. We learned the following day that the alert went out to everyone in the county!  I’m glad the system works, but the error unnecessarily alarmed a lot of people, including this worrywart of a mom.  The largest active fire is in Mariposa/Detwiler. It’s burned 76,000 acres so far, but crews have it 40% contained. My hat is off to these firefighters that work tirelessly under unimaginable conditions throughout the fire season.

2017 Detwiler Fire map

Source: Google Maps

Save