The Exercise Room

I have one “before” photo of this room, which actually makes it look more cheerful than it was. This was the bedroom of the previous owners. The man died in the 1980’s, I think, and his wife died a couple of years before I bought the house — in this room, I believe. There was a nurse’s call button still plugged ino the wall, though the room was otherwise empty. The entire house had issues, but this room in particular was drab and dark. The paint and wallpaper looked to be decades old. The pictures on the wall took the form of pinned magazine photos. Though the entire house was neglected, in this room you could smell poverty.

We are talking about my first visit to the house, almost exactly seven years ago. Robert had died in our California bedroom only months before. There was no bedside button. I called the paramedics, who did their best, to no avail. I was still coming to terms with living without him. So, walking into this room, where a woman slept without her beloved for decades until she died in apparent destitution, well, it hit me pretty hard. The whole house needed work. This room needed an antidote.

Thus the pink paint. I tend to favor saturated and grayed colors. Here, no, it had to be bright. So, bright it is. Since then my challenge has been to tone it down with the brown of the sofa and floorboards and the blues of the carpet and reformer. I’m auditioning that lithograph right now. The colors are right and it’s a strong image. I just don’t know whether it is strong enough to hold that entire wall.

Thus too the choice of this room for the exercise equipment I brought from California. I found the vibe in this room to be too disturbing to put guests here and anyway, the stuff had to go somewhere. Why not the room that needs to be livened up?

The place is pretty well equipped. I have a rowing machine, a TV to distract me from the boredom of rowing, a Pilates reformer, a DVD player with way too many exercise DVDs, a yoga mat and props, hand weights, a balance ball, a medicine ball and miscellaneous books and other stuff. Yes, I do sometimes use it, generally in winter when going outside is not fun. I also have my meditation altar here, right where the bed used to be; I try not to think about it.

That’s basically the story of this room. It still has a different feel from the rest of the house, though no longer a problematic one. It is quite practical and peaceful. I have read that pink is calming and it does seem to be the case. This is no longer a difficult room to be in at all. Jacques seem fine with it.

Potager Report

Well, so, it’s harvest time. There are thousands of cherry tomatoes that I could neither eat nor give away. They are pretty much smashed on the ground, so I predict many volunteers next year, too. We could have all manner of tomatoes, given the unharvested remnants of this year’s bumper crop. I was able to rescue a few San Marzanos from the rotting mess. That’s it. Those mice can have at it.

We are clearing the kitchen garden. We could have gone for a winter crop, but Julien and I were so sure we’d simply repeat the failures of previous years that we didn’t plan very well. Plants went all over with no though of sunlight or water requirements. The whole irrigation setup was piecemeal. It’s too chaotic to simply continue.

So, out go the old plants. There are a few straggler butternut squash still ripening, plus some beets and carrots that I’m in no rush to harvest; I’ll leave them until last. Julien is a no-dig convert, so once we have cleared the area we’ll spread some aged horse poo that he gets from his neighbors — ah, the aroma — then a thick layer of cardboard. Then we’ll probably replace the plastic and walk away.

We’ll come back in spring. We’ll relocate the plastic sheeting to conform to whatever planting plan we dream up, then do a proper soaker hose/drip installation. I added a couple of hose bibs in the area, so that should go pretty well. There should be no neglected areas and thus no need for standard sprinklers.

We have had a long spell of steady rain, so the fruit trees are happy. I think we got four tiny apples plus a couple dozen mirabelles. But nothing died, which is a big improvement over my usual results. I see a few crossed branches and all so a winter prune will happen in January. We’ll also take a closer look at the Wild Wood. We found a hazelnut tree in there, and a quince. We need to encourage them and engage in further exploration.

I should be doing a winter pruning of my roses, but, well, lazy. Roger did a couple of them, most unexpected, thank you Roger. I should also weed around them and figure out what to plant under them that will choke out the abundant grass — abundant only around the roses, of course. Dream on if you think I’ll be able to get an actual lawn going.

So that’s it: the kitchen garden and the rest of the property, too. Long story short, we are tidying and settling in. It’s nice.

Entry Hall & Exterior

So this is what I bought. I was sitting in California nursing a sprained ankle and a broken heart when a realtor sent me this photo. If I like it in person, I said to myself, this is my house. I did and it is.

The house had issues, to put it mildly. That sad exterior coating — in this area they stucco over the stone rather than leave it exposed — was falling off in chunks. Pipes and wiring were all exposed and most in dubious condition. Rising damp was rotting the whole place, inside and out. But the slate roof was new and the foundation damp but solid. So I went for it.

They removed and replaced all the old stucco. They removed the rotting shutters and then, well, they just painted them and put them back up. For now. Windows were replaced with wood-framed thermopane windows which only leak a little bit.

Notice the incredible disappearing garden. It’s a long story, only partly attributable to contractor devastation. That yard is full of rocks and gravel. The stunning row of chestnuts had been pruned in a way that caused them to rot. Rather than have them fall over we pulled them down. The topsoil is almost nonexistent. This is the most serious unforeseen condition. It will cost well into five figures to properly landscape the front garden.

The entry was dated. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. Note head-height display cabinets. Note one original fixture that does nothing for the space and one replacement, which doesn’t work, either. Peeling paint is one effect of rising damp. Maybe the tile is a postwar replacement of, I’m guessing, the same gorgeous wood floor that was in the dining room. I don’t want to know who thought emphasizing the door to the electrical panel with avocado green paint was a good idea.

Oh, and the original doors leaked. Maybe the contractor didn’t notice because for over two years that door was never closed. We’re still working to remove the water stains. Baking soda is pretty effective.

At least you can see some improvements here. Display cabinets, gone. Paint, improved, with cabinet door de-emphasized. Radiator, damage from rising damp and unsympathetic tile replaced by heated stone floors.

This space has such a strong axis that we just went with it, giving it this solidly symmetrical pattern. I hope the horizontal lines stop that mental rush to the back door. Because I didn’t want the strong contrast of the more commonly seen black accent tiles, I was happy to find this more subtle variation.

Here you see the crew from Reignoux Creations installing one of the new doors. Steel and bulletproof glass in a period-sympathetic design. It works for me and I can’t recommend Reignoux highly enough.

Above their heads is a Fortuny light fixture, one of two in the entry. Things that match, what a concept. Also, as with the floor pattern, I hope the horizontal lines of the fixtures balance the strong front-to-back axis.

So here it is, home sweet home. The shutters are back, the door replaced and there is now a little foundation planting, at least. I’ll talk about the terrace, which you see to the left, and the apartment, which you see to the right, in later posts. This at least is clean and tidy and won’t invite one of those “abandoned” posts you see tagged on Instagram. I love those, but still.

I must have some shots with furniture in them, but sometimes it’s nice just to see the space. This is looking toward the back garden, with the old door still in place.

Opaque glass at the front door for privacy.

Clear glass at the back because I always want to see my scruffy garden.

I haven’t mentioned the stairs because they just needed to be cleaned. While alterations to the house were often dubious the original house, at least to my taste. was spot-on. Here is one of the details that figured in my decision to buy the place.

And here is Jacques, perched where he can see the front and back doors, sense upstairs activity and scent possible kitchen treats. Smart little dog.

Kitchen & Dining Room

So okay, inquiring minds, at least one inquiring mind, clamored for more house pictures. The terrible truth is, they are just crazy disorganized. They came from half a dozen sources over what, six years now, so they are scattered all over the place. And while a great mind, Frank Lloyd Wright’s, declared the fireplace the heart of the home, this mind declared fireplaces to be energy inefficient space hogs. In this house they were not even pretty. All were removed. Wright’s symbolic heart, gone. So where to start? Why not the middle?

Okay, too weird. Why not the start? This is the old dining room. Note the gorgeous, probably elm, flooring that has buckled and become unusable because for three years before I arrived, nobody heated the house. Don’t ever do that to your house, not in a place with freeze/thaw cycles and lots of rain.

The guys removed the wood. My request to have it stacked for reuse was met with “Nah nah, can’t hear you,” and every last bit of it was burned. Why did I fire my architect? Here is one reason. So, out came the floor, leaving this odd half-basement that I think was filled, sort of, with rocks. Eventually, out came the fireplace. Of course the icky dark gray marble remains in the garage to this day.

Stone, pierre de Bourgogne to be exact, replaced the wood. We installed heated floors in most of the ground floor, reducing the need for radiators and giving the house nice, even heat. There are no hot or cold spots and the heat is lower than with radiators, so the air is not so dry. That said the heated floor does create a barrier that eliminates mildew, at least in the rooms where it is found. The basement and the utility room can still have problems.

Mildew, this in the old kitchen, is not your friend.
The guys removed the old ceramic tile. Jacques supervised, as only he can.

I must have a better photo of the old wall, but where? Anyway, you get the point. The kitchen and dining room were separated by this thick stone bearing wall and the kitchen was a dump, destined to become a big storage area if we didn’t fix that. Honestly, it was awful, useless as a kitchen and, as a dining room, just sad. So they removed the stone and put in a steel beam, thus joining the two spaces. Now the light flows from the front of the house to the back. I have a big kitchen where the elm-floored dining room used to be — note fireplace that warmed Dad while everyone else froze — and improved circulation and access to what is now the dining area.

Here it is, open, free space. Note the hole in the wall. The old dining room had a solid wall flanking the fireplace. I wanted natural light from multiple directions. Also I wanted a terrace at floor level to replace a kind of poky corner outside. So I had the guys put in a window, for which you see the opening, and a door which you see below. It was quite a fight, another nail in the architect’s coffin. But I won and really, it is so nice to have those things.

This, too, gives you some idea of how much nicer it is to have that wall gone. You can see the Lacanche stove where the fireplace used to be. A range hood has since gone in. The plumbing and wiring are in. The walls are insulated and finished; Stuart had a painter buddy who had some free time, so the entire house was painted way too soon, but it was a good job and the guys protected it, so, okay. Stuart and Liam are installing the cabinets, which were made in his workshop. Stuart also made the windows and the door.

The kitchen needs its range hood, but you get the idea. It is big, by French standards, light-filled and highly functional. The bar stools are by Thomas Moser and came with me from California. Most of the lighting is LED spots. The one hanging fixture is from a shop in Melle.

It is so nice and open. Maybe I should have left it like this, but I stood in the dining area to get the shot and I can’t relax at the table if my view is of the cooking mess that awaits me. So I had Stuart add a low bookshelf that is just enough higher than the countertop to hide a world of cleanup.

Here is the dining room without its furniture and, in general, with quite a bit of work to be done. The stone flooring is cut in to make room for bookshelves. Someone, can’t say who, exactly, has a bit of a cookbook addiction.

This is my only immediately available photo of the dining area. The furniture came with me from California. The bowl is made by Soy, in Istanbul. The view came with the house.

Checking In

It’s almost fall. That seems so crazy. It’s not as if nothing has happened.

In the real world, RBG, RIP. Am I worried about what comes next? You betcha. In my world, I might possibly have sold the rental house, for the second time, don’t want to jinx it but maybe, maybe. We have a new house guest, this time a young man from Afghanistan who left 15 years ago and has yet to find asylum. He’s almost legal, here in France, and finds our guest room to be a step up from the rat-infested basements and all where he has been staying. Supposedly he is about a month away from finalizing the paperwork. Hope so.

I know I have been promising you photos of the house. Before and after, all that. I’m getting there, sort of. Where my motivation has been sidelined by overthinking, mainly, my friend Roger Stowell has stepped up. I encourage you to search Instagram for roger.stowell.35, where you will find his take on the place, along with the many other images that he posts. Brilliant guy. Please like, comment, subscribe, etc. Let’s keep him going.

Jacques Report

Yes, Jacques has been digging. It’s okay: the mice have found the kitchen garden. This is war!

In general the garden is doing pretty well. We are eating all the tomatoes we can stand and reducing the rest to sauce, which we are freezing for winter.
Sometimes things grow where I wish they wouldn’t. You see morning glories burying my nonblooming jasmine. I hope when it clears out I will find the anemones I planted this spring.
To get back to my little wild man, I was prowling the potager, wishing Julien had taken maybe twice as many tomatoes home with him when, underneath the plastic sheeting, I could hear the pitter patter of little feet. I had noticed that something was actually eating a tomato — not a bird or a worm or snail, no, actually eating it. And now here, on the opposite side of the garden, was an actual culprit. No no no: I’ll share, but this was getting out of control. I had no choice but to say the magic words: “Jacques, come here!”

Now, Jacques comes when he figures there is something in it for him. The rest of the time, forget it. Maybe he heard the scratching too. He was there in a flash, pouncing on the little moving bump. Yes!, though I think the bump got away. Since then Jacques has been on permanent mouse patrol. He actually goes through the plants, nudging leaves aside so he can sniff and peer through the foliage.

Sometimes he digs. Yesterday I decided to harvest some potatoes. The tomatoes and squash are fighting for space and the potatoes were looking a little peaked anyway, so why not pull them out. It turns out those little shit rodents were eating the potatoes, too, but only from one plant. Go figure. So of the half dozen plants I pulled out, with a little canine assistance, only that one hole held any real interest for him. I’d pull up a plant, he’d sniff, then look at me. “So why are we here?” Then he’d return to this spot, where he spent a good hour, pretty much the way you see him.

I think he wore himself out. He’s been pretty sedentary for the last 12 hours or so. But I’ll head back out there this afternoon, it being tomato time. I’m sure he’ll be right there with me.

Is This It?

I may have solved the riddle of the ten zillion tomato plants.

If any of you care about my kitchen garden the way I do, getting right down into the weeds, as it were, you will remember that I have tomatoes right, left and center. Tomatoes and butternut squash: everything else squeezes in around the edges. The question is, how did this happen?

I think I figured it out. We had tomatoes for lunch, as we have done every lunch for a couple of weeks now. Not complaining, just saying. The first ones to ripen were these gnarly, irregular things. I’m trying to work out a variation of all cats being grey in the dark, but it’s not coming to me. Anyway, chopped up, gnarly works just fine. Some other varieties are starting to come online. We have beefhearts now and I think I saw a possible San Marzano turning pink.

So, today’s lunch, herbed omelet and a caprese salad. Just as I was about to dispatch this guy, have him meet his mozzarella, I realized. This is a Berkeley Tie Dye. What looks in the photo like a blown-out highlight is, okay, a blown-out highlight, but the main thing is, it’s yellow. Green, yellow and red, all on the same ripe tomato, a sure sign. I planted Berkeley Tie Dye last year. Not this year.

So this is the deal. The possible deal. Last year I planted all kinds of things. Then I ran off to Paris and left everything to fend for itself. Not many things came up. Some things came up, bore fruit — cherry tomatoes are pretty indestructible — and the fruit just rotted on the plant. Or maybe I threw it toward the compost bin and missed. Anyway, there were all these seeds left in the ground that just laid dormant.

This year I have spent a lot of time at the house, actually watering and taking care of things. And as avid readers know, we do no-dig; the seeds would still be near the surface. So my guess is that seeds from last year sprouted right alongside seeds from this year. Hey presto, bumper crop.

Fortunately I have a lot of cookbooks.

Garden Devastation

I couldn’t resist. My new electrician turned up with a digger. He only needed to dig a couple of holes but I had paid for the thing for the whole day. So could he….

Well yeah, sure, way more fun than wiring. And out came at least half a dozen old tree stumps and a whole lot of volunteers that planted themselves in the wrong places.

It looks pretty bad right now, but soon it will be just fine. I’ll be able to re-establish some visual axes and keep bay laurels and all from undermining walls. I’m more concerned about this mess. I sprayed what smelled like fish emulsion all over my veggies, only to find out that I was supposed to avoid the leaves. Oops. The tomatoes and potatoes didn’t mind, but every squashy melony thing took a serious beating. You’re looking at Sugar Baby pumpkins. We’ll see if they come through.

The butternut squash didn’t get fertilized/blitzed to quite the same extent, so they should be fine. It looks like nothing will take out the tomatoes.

When I pulled out the bushes, I worried about demolishing habitat. In fact there were no nests in those bushes. There are plenty of other nesting areas, plus of course I have put in nesting boxes. In addition to the hoopoes and all that we see, it looks like the barn owls have returned. You can see a feather, top one below, and I startled something when I stepped into the garage the other day. I’m thinking barn owl. I think the other two feathers are from a crow and a little owl.

So things are settling in. If I can figure out how to get that fertilizer under the leaves, all will be well.

Field of ???

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In the last few weeks we have had a lot of rain. While I stayed out of the way, the kitchen garden totally soaked up all that water. Now I have a sort of squash jungle, aided and abetted by more tomato plants than I will know what to do with. Tomato baseball, maybe. But what kind of squash? And those little bushes, the ones in the space where we thought we planted okra, is it really okra or are we looking at 20 more tomato plants?

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I won’t show you the zucchini. It’s a little obscene, though it makes fine zucchini bread. I thought this was a baby pumpkin but Julien says no, it’s some kind of round summer squash. I guess you stuff them. We poked around in there and found a few other things. Little did I know, they look like baby versions of their grownup selves. So the butternut squash is already yellow and elongated, etc. So that’s easy. But what about those ones that are flowering but not producing? And how do I get these guys to lay off the leaf growth — enough is enough — and start making more veg?

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In between the squash and tomatoes, Julien planted carrots, onions, all kinds of things. It’s more like foraging than harvesting. I go out with a bag and start pulling up stuff, saying, oh look, beets, onions, how nice. Maybe there is chard. We finally have recognizable arugula, mizuna and tatsoi. He couldn’t  understand doing a garden without potatoes, so I found starts for quite an exotic variety over here, russets. We will finally have decent potato soup and I think he’ll take a few home so his wife the chef can make potato bread. Now that he knows zucchini bread can be a dessert, I think he’ll be feeding it to his kids.

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It turns out my tomatoes just needed about ten times more water. Now they’re doing great. We have two plants that look to be enough, all by themselves, plus, seriously, about 20 mystery plants. Some we planted. Others are volunteers from seed left out last year. Flowers, maybe a few actual tomatoes but I’m not sure which ones. I’m hoping some cherry tomatoes show up. The polythene cloth that I put all over the place is an absolute lifesaver for a lazy gardener like me. It covered the weeds, the cardboard and hay we put down to kill the weeds and all that dirt that rots the food before I can get to it. I love the stuff. It’s reusable, fortunately, and when it gives up it falls apart. I think it can be dug right into the dirt, so no worries. You’re not looking at future landfill.

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On the pest front, things are not too bad. They seem to find most of what they want out in the meadow, that brown area in the back of the first photo. Apart from that they seem to zero in on older plants that we’re letting go to seed. They’ve been staying away from the healthier plants. Plus we do get a little help from bugs we like.

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The fruit is doing better than maybe it should. These are entirely uninvited plums growing on shoots from a tree that was cut down before I arrived, but with the roots left in place. I have three or four trees like this, plus leftover raspberries. Some we’ll keep, some we’ll try, probably futilely, to eradicate. The deliberately planted trees, eh, I’m glad I’m not a farmer. My bumper crop of cherries also soaked up all that rain, then burst. I have two trees full of previously gorgeous, now rotting, probably fermenting, fruit. If you stand under the trees you can get a little buzz. That’s about the best I can say for them. We have a few apples. Everything else looks happy but is not really producing yet. It will happen.

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All my drought-resistant flowers turn out to be secret drinkers. It’s amazing what they got up to while we were hiding from the downpours. Suddenly they are huge and everywhere. We have roses about this color. When you step out the front door the scent is amazing. And thanks to the blog buddy who suggested a garden fair a short drive from the house. I went and found these lovely bushes that look remarkably like hollyhocks and fill in a neglected corner in a very pleasant way.

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I’m still not used to winter. We had a warmer winter than usual, but still, it’s not for me. So all this growth, the late sundowns, all of it, I am cherishing. We are between the freezes and wind of winter and the heat waves of summer. It’s pretty nice.

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Tomato Confidential

Tomatoes. Worse, a tomato challenge. I’d wonder what I was thinking, but I know. I was in Paris and the seeds were still in the package. All things were possible. Then one of my sisters wrote to ask how Charles Dowding grows tomatoes. Dowding gardens in a part of England with a climate very like mine. Good question. I think he only ever grows cool weather crops, lettuce and the like. Uh oh. I realized those tomatoes would be a challenge, indeed.

So. The tomato up front there is one of two purchased from Julien’s kids’ schoolteacher. Healthy, leafy, things, but so far no tomatoes. Maybe too leafy? Behind it are more teacher tomatoes, some other variety. Julien won’t even bring me any of the way cool black heirloom tomatoes from the seed packets. Next week, he says, always next week. I’m getting a little concerned.

After all, how bad could they be? Look at these volunteer tomatoes, crowding out this squash. If they’ll grow, why not those other ones? And what is that squash anyway? Butternut? A pumpkin? I planted two: it could be either one. Zucchini? Maybe there is a point to labeling and keeping a garden diary.

Why didn’t I do a strawberry challenge?

Or a blueberry challenge? I am so desperate for blueberries that I ran out and bought a dozen blueberry bushes. They are all happy and cranking out the fruit.

I could have done cherries. We’ll have a bumper crop this year; the eau de vie awaits them. It looks like I might even get some apples and plums, though it is way too soon for an apple or plum challenge; even I am not that ambitious.

I know. A nettle challenge. You can see my nettle hedge behind my bolting no-bolt arugula and some of the slug food formerly known as squash. I would definitely have won a nettle challenge.

Right now I think about the best thing I can say about my kitchen garden is that it’s a good thing I have a market close by and reliable online shopping. As you can see above, my okra is doing about as well as my tomatoes, maybe a bit worse. Some green thing out there, tatsoi, maybe, shame we didn’t label it, tastes great and hasn’t bolted. The nettles are working their way into quiche and various other things.

The big success is my pro bono project, the meadow. The grass is seeding, on warm days the crickets are chirping and the mice, I won’t say, this being a family blog, but there are a lot of mice out there. All this attracts the birds, who may well have eaten the wildflower seeds, as I have not seen one wildflower out there apart from the Queen Anne’s Lace, which I have sworn to eradicate. But the tomatoes, so far, well, maybe a few. I live in hope.

Garden Update

We are starting to get the rules on this first phase of loosening the lockdown. It actually sounds worse in some ways than lockdown itself. Many people have to go out, but with distancing and masks, it’s going to be quite unpleasant. Julien was telling me about what his kids will have to deal with at school. One thing and another, it sounds worse than just staying home. Add to that the suggestion made in some quarters that the virus is mutating into a more dangerous form and, well, no thanks.

We’re going to stay home. Rather than deal with lines, masks, the various unpleasant restrictions, we’re ordering online. The SO’s office is making arrangements to allow as many people as possible to work from home as much as possible. He may not go back until September. There may be pit stops for haircuts — the Bowl Cut is not a good look — but that’s it.

Meantime, the weather is gorgeous. We have had this great combination of sunlight and warmth by day and rain by night. No one told the peonies they had to stay in or wear masks, so they’re just going for it, as are the strawberries. My no-bolt arugula bolted; maybe it didn’t read the package. We are learning to cook with nettles; Julien trained them into a hedge, so we always have a huge ready supply. Somebody — maybe the hedgehogs I encouraged to return — has been randomly digging up my squash, maybe looking for bugs. Weird, but some remain. The fruit trees are fruiting. The birds are eating all my wildflower seed, but apart from that the meadow is doing fine. The owls are dropping digested mouse carcasses on my terrace, so I guess they’re doing fine as well.

I am grateful to my delivery people, who have been doing a terrific job; grateful to Julien, who is keeping the weeds from taking over; grateful to everyone who facilitates my current decision to boycott the universe. Such beautiful weather, and so many masks to make for a friend who distributes them to the Paris camps. I did say I was staying in…

Danica has a Go Fund Me page. It’s old, but still accepting donations. I’m sure all of us who are not worrying about making our own payments are donating wherever we can. But, if you’re not already tapped out, give some thought to supporting her efforts. She volunteers: every penny goes to the refugees.

Almost Easter

I was hoping to gloat over my assured triumph in the Grand Tomato-Off, but, you’ll see, that may not be so certain. So let’s do something else. Here is a peek at my heroic efforts to shore up the locked-down economy. Heroic, I say. It turns out that avoiding Amazon turns up some interesting alternatives.

And, well, then there is the tomato thing. Julien did the paperwork necessary to get blanket permission to work. Yesterday he brought over tomato plants started by a teacher at his kids’ school. This is the good one. The others may be goners. The plants he is starting for me might arrive next week. So I’m thinking hmm, it’s April. I still have time. Maybe. As Lance Armstrong used to say, it’s where you finish that counts. A little performance-enhancing fertilizer might just do the trick.