Photo of the month

Roni is all smiles as she poses for a photo with one of her favorite authors, Debbie Macomber, during a book signing event at Hilltop Plaza in Richmond on May 11. As aspiring authors ourselves, it was both inspirational and a bit awe inspiring to be in the company of one of today's most successful fiction writers. Macomber is as down home in person as she comes across in her writing. It was a great afternoon. Photo by Glenn.

May 2005

On May 1 it was back to toiling in the yard. Today we are preparing our experimental barrel garden. Glenn is busy knocking out some of the new weeds to prepare a spot for the barrels. Photo by Roni.

These are the barrels all set up on their concrete footings, waiting for the concrete, gravel, sand and potting soil that will line their innards. Photo by Glenn.

You might notice from this angle that the "lawn" is a little less weedy than it was last month. The hoe worked wonders, but there is still much work to do. Our gazebo is covered in wisteria vines. The barrels are still waiting for dirt. The thing at the right is a garbage can, not a planting barrel. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn tests his back muscles by hoisting a bag of potting soil over the edge of the first barrel. Photo by Roni.

The first barrel filled with dirt, Roni goes to work planting our dwarf navel orange tree and some alyssum. So far the rains have kept the plants well watered. Photo by Glenn.

We don't normally let our cats roam outdoors, but occasionally they get past us. Be's cat, Eevee, is on the prowl in search of whatever lives in the ice plants along our retaining wall. Photo by Glenn.

Roni is hard at work on the second barrel as she has already filled it with lavender and garlic. This one contains mostly herbs. Photo by Glenn.

Our Chenin grape is the most vigorous grower in the yard this year. We staked it up with some plastic stakes and string, and now it is very happy. With luck, this branch will swell with grapes during the summer. Then we'll have to figure out what to do with them — wine or raisins, probably. Photo by Glenn.

May 2, Ben enjoys a day off of school in honor of his 11th birthday. He engages in one of his favorite afternoon activities: watching Yu-Gi-Oh on Kids WB. Photo by Glenn.

Eleven... Man, we're feeling old. Photo by Glenn.

Every year adds one candle to the task of blowing out the cake. There's so much wax and flame that it's impossible to tell that the design atop the cake is Yu-Gi-Oh characters, which Ben requested. Photo by Glenn.

Ben still doesn't quite have the knack of snuffing all the candles in one breath. In bowling they'd call this a 7-10 split. Photo by Glenn.

What's in the package? What's it matter? It's the anticipation and the sheer joy of shredding the paper. Photo by Glenn.

Ben unwraps the 11th book in the "Series of Unfortunate Events" saga. This is a cool gift, except that he has to finish reading books 5 through 10 first... Photo by Glenn.

The rains haven't let up much in May, but the lizards know how to take advantage of the occasional spots of sunshine. It's a bit tough to see here, but there are three Western fence lizards at the tops of the two retaining wall stones in the photo. These puppies are huge, as far as this lizard species goes. Photo by Glenn.

You can see a bit of our ice plant in bloom in the lizard photo above. Here's a closeup. These are hearty plants, as they have survived well over the past five years with little watering on our part. Photo by Glenn.

Ben is trying his best to be patient, playing his Gameboy Advance while sitting Indian-style on the floor of Joann Fabrics in Richmond as we wait in line for Debbie Macomber's book signing May 11. Fortunately for us it is a short line. Photo by Glenn.

The moment Roni has waited for. She's at the head of the line and gets to chat with Debbie Macomber. Ben came over to say hello. Photo by Glenn.

Debbie Macomber writes a message to Roni on the title page of her copy of "A Good Yarn." Roni has put the book away in a plastic bag for safe keeping. Hopefully she'll actually get to read it too. Photo by Glenn.

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Roll out the barrels

May 19, 2005

It may not be as high stakes as the War on Terrorism, but our years-long battle with Mr. Gopher has become legendary in its own right. One need only look back through the archives of this newsletter to read our harrowing tales of how we have fought (and mostly lost) against the voracious appetite of this subterranean beast that has made our yard and garden his home. We've tried everything from gopher gassers and steel jaw traps to the infamous gopher fence -- nothing has worked. And over time our yard has been turned into Swiss cheese by the critter's network of tunnels, our precious plants pilfered from their beds, cut down in their prime or crippled when their roots have been mercilessly severed.

But now we think we have found a solution that not even Mr. Gopher can penetrate: barrels. Yep. Big ol' oak barrels of the type that vintners use to concoct premium wines. They're plentiful at the home and garden centers this time of year, and sawed in half they make excellent planters. No, we're not the first to try this solution, but it is the first time we have tried it, if you don't count the boxes we constructed three years ago to plant garden veggies. Those were sort of a hybrid of barrel gardening in that we used redwood boards left over from our old retaining fence to construct the sides of the planters, but they had no bottoms, just some wire mesh we threw down at ground level and rested the box frame on top. The planter boxes have well withstood gopher attacks, but not termites. Wood in direct contact with bare soil is a no-no in California. These barrels we have started using are much more solid than those garden boxes. They have solid oak bottoms that no critter short of a beaver could chew through. And because we have placed them on foundations of concrete blocks, there is no direct soil contact, hence less likelihood of termite problems. (They can still hang out inside the barrels, but it will take them decades to do any major harm.)

We decided to start with just a couple of barrels as an experiment, and also because that was the number that Roni could fit into the back seat of her Toyota Corolla. We prepared an area along our back patio by hoeing away some of the weeds on what used to be the back lawn. Glenn smoothed out the sand, laid the concrete blocks, and rolled the barrels into place. Next we filled them with chunks of broken concrete, a layer of gravel, some natural sand from our yard, then finally topped them off with premium potting soil -- a fertile blend of planting material. In one barrel Roni planted alyssum and a dwarf citrus tree that is supposed to give us navel oranges hopefully by next winter. In the other, she planted lavender, mint, oregano, garlic and some other herbs. We're watering by hand for the time being, although Mother Nature is doing her level best to save us the effort. Here it is the middle of May and we have yet to escape the storms that keep rolling through, dumping rain on us like it was still winter.

The upside to the rainfall is that our yard -- the part Mr. Gopher hasn't consumed -- is looking nice and green. Even our front lawn, which has been largely neglected, is less weedy than it was a year ago because the grass is growing so well. Our honeysuckle plant that appeared mysteriously about a decade ago has grown to the point that it dominates all the other plants in its vicinity. Imagine "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," where the alien whateveritis takes over its unsuspecting hosts and consumes them from within. They still look human on the outside, but inside they're this insidious beast. The honeysuckle dies back in the late fall and winter, allowing the wax leaf privets and guava tree to break free of the vines for a few months. But every spring, our honeysuckle returns stronger than the year before, smothering the plants with its perfumey white and yellow flowers that you can smell from 30 feet away. If they weren't so sweet and pretty to look at you'd call them a noxious weed.

Roni purchased a bird feeder a few weeks ago and placed it near our fruitless mulberry tree in the back yard. The birds have been going to town on it, and she can't keep it filled fast enough for them. Sparrows are frequent clientele, but we also have a Steller's jay who thinks he owns the place, and a pair of mourning doves who are nesting somewhere in the vicinity. When the sun occasionally peeks out from behind the rain clouds and warms the stones of our retaining wall, we often see two or three large western fence lizards sunning themselves. They do this little routine where they stretch themselves out on the top of a stone and do "pushups" on their front legs. We joke that they must be body building, which is how they grow so large.

Speaking of growing large, our pile of weeds was getting out of hand thanks to all the yard work we've been doing. So when our garbage company held its semi-annual cleanup day May 11, we took advantage and put out almost a dozen bags by the curb. It was barely scratching the surface, but it felt good to get rid of at least some of what we had accumulated. Now if we could only tackle the garage...

May 11 turned out to be an eventful day for more reasons than yard work. A few weeks earlier, Roni was reading her e-mail in which she receives an occasional newsletter from several authors she enjoys reading. In one mailing, she discovered that New York Times bestseller Debbie Macomber would be coming to the Bay Area for a few days in early May to promote her newest novel, "A Good Yarn." It turned out that her closest appearance to us would be the evening of May 11 in Richmond, so Glenn took the day off work and we all piled into the car for the drive to Hilltop Plaza. Because Macomber's latest book is themed around quilting, she went the unusual route of holding her book signing at a Joann Fabrics craft store. Odder still because there is a Barnes & Noble bookstore at the other end of the same strip mall.

We arrived just a bit before 6 p.m. Macomber was only scheduled to be there from 6 to 7, and Roni was anxious to go inside because we didn't know how long the lines would be, given her status as one of the top fiction authors in the world. We needn't have worried. There were no more than a dozen people in line, and we constituted a quarter of them. That made for an intimate experience, as Macomber visited with her small group of fans and shared pictures of her friends and home in Port Orchard, Wash. She took plenty of time signing everyone's books, and wrote a very nice message in the cover of the hardback that Roni bought at the signing. Even Ben got something out of it, as he came away with a free bookmark and a little sticker. Macomber was also giving away imprinted vinyl cachet bags with samples of her favorite tea, coffee and hot chocolate mixes. Roni and Glenn both appreciated the opportunity to get to meet her. As aspiring writers ourselves, it is inspirational to meet someone whose work you admire and who has become successful doing what it is she loves.

Our other big event this month was Ben's birthday May 2. The big 11. He got the day off from school, which was a good thing because he was bouncing off the walls all day. He was basically happy with his gifts, although he complained that he didn't get anything he really wanted because we didn't get him the Pokémon Emerald Gameboy game he'd hoped for. He rectified that situation a couple of days later when he purchased the game from Target using some of his birthday cash. He got plenty of books, including installments of "The Edge Chronicles" and "A Series of Unfortunate Events." There were new Hot Wheels, a clock radio/CD player, and a new CD to play in it. He also got a copy of "Simpsons Hit & Run" for the Gamecube, which he took to quickly despite thinking that he wouldn't be interested in it. Kids at this age tend to be fickle, sure they won't like something new that they've never even tried, then falling in love with it. If only the same applied to school!

Glenn, Roni and Ben
This page was last updated on Saturday, June 25, 2005 at 02:26 hrs.

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