Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Chicken Chronicles – Part I

Zora (left) with "Kayley" and Lily with "Julianna"

Zora (left) with “Kayley” and Lily with “Julianna”

For the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my very first garden-writing story. It was written over 13 years ago, before the current wave of urban gardening/chicken raising/etc. had taken hold. (I remember talking to someone around this time about our “strange” little project and she had laughed and made a statement that surprised me, “You know, artists always do things ten years before anyone else!”)

I now look upon this sweet time with wonderment and so much love. The little girls in the story are now grown (22 and 19) and their mom and dad have grown up a lot too, in so many ways.

I hope you enjoy it.

—Sandra Knauf

The Chicken Chronicles

As a typical modern American, raising chickens seemed a throw-back to the olden days, kind of like smoking your own hams or pounding your clothes on rocks down by the river. Still, it was my fantasy. I was already an avid, ecology-minded gardener, for three whole years, and it seemed the natural progression of things, going from cultivating plants to raising the animals that could provide their fertilizer. Ah, and what a picturesque fantasy! Chicken manure for the garden, fresh eggs, a sweet little hen house with Martha Stewart charm in my very own urban backyard. It all began to be realized when I became friends with an elderly neighbor lady who raised bantam, or miniature breed, chickens. If she could do it, surely I could.

That winter Grandma Ruby and I hatched a plot. Ruby had two contraband roosters and four hens, and we decided that come spring, when her hens “went broody” and began to “set” (got it in their heads they wanted to become mamas and began to stay on a nest of fertilized eggs) we’d pull a switcheroo. I’d transport the maternal chicken to a shed my husband Andy and I would convert into a hen house, along with a rooster for companionship, and then, in twenty-one short days, Voila!, we’d have adorable, peeping, baby chicks running about. Perfect rustic bliss.

Late spring came and our plan came into action. One evening at dusk, I transported the chickens, in bushel baskets covered with worn bath towels, from Ruby’s house to their recently renovated home. The chicken shack, as I called it, was clean, freshly painted, and nicely scented with pine shaving litter strewn on the newly-poured concrete floor. Around the front, Andy had built a sturdy four-foot-tall wood and wire fence around a small yard. Inside hung an old broomstick for a roost, and a row of three covered nesting boxes. A straw-filled box for the broody hen sat on the floor.

I gently placed the hen’s toasty-warm eggs into the box. Then the birds, already named Deianeira and Hercules by our daughter, seven-year-old Zora, were released. They were handsome chickens, about one-fourth the size of regular ones, with cream-colored heads and golden bodies. Zora and her four-year-old sister Lily watched.

The Lilliputian rooster with long, curved tail feathers strutted his stuff, surveying his surroundings with a quick eye and elegant arrogance that could only come from a genuine cock-of-the-walk.

“He’s a good-looking little guy, isn’t he?” said Andy, smiling. I found this to be encouraging as he had not been thrilled with the scheme. To be honest, he often, though not coming out and actually saying it, left me with the feeling that he thought my idea was ill-conceived at the least and crazy at the most.

The hen, not in a cheerful mood about her abduction and relocation, ignored the egg-filled nest on the floor and flew to one of the wall boxes. That’s okay, I thought, I’ll just put the eggs under her there for now and then move her down to the floor when they’re closer to hatching. Deianeira pecked at me as I tried to gingerly slide the eggs under her. She then let out a screech of a curse and moved in a huff to an adjacent box. I understood perfectly: “I don’t know who you are, but I don’t like you!” After I filled the nest with her eggs she decided she’d get back on them after all. I felt a small cluck of triumph as we closed the door on the coop for the night.

The first dilemma came the next morning. Aware that we were harboring a rooster, I spent most of the night anxious, worrying about the racket he’d make in the morning. Sunrise crowing was not a city value, hence the five hen limit. My husband and I awoke at dawn and looked at each other. Silence. Great, I whispered, maybe he isn’t going to crow at all! Ten minutes later, at exactly 5:20 A.M., Hercules began to announce the day. Now I didn’t know if all bantams sounded like this, but this guy’s crow was scratchy, hoarse, horrible, like someone with laryngitis, “UR…UR…. UR….UR.. Uurrrrr….” It started out strong, then deteriorated to a deathbed gasp. Not like the movies. I closed my eyes. It’s so loud! I thought. Maybe that’ll be it, though.

Andy and I hunkered down in the sheets and listened. Hercules didn’t stop, he sounded the dawn alarm every few minutes, and every time I cringed. We didn’t know what could be done about it (besides murder) so after lying there awhile, wondering if and when it would ever stop, we got up. I made coffee and waited for the neighbors to come over and string us up. So this was what mornings on the farm were like. “I didn’t know it would be so bad,” I said to Andy as I sipped my coffee, wincing at yet another cock-a-doodle-doo.

“I’m telling the neighbors it was your idea and I didn’t have anything to do with it,” replied my chivalrous mate. While we were both newly horrified every few minutes when we heard another fingernails-on-chalkboard salute, after a while we found ourselves grinning sort of perversely at each other at the wickedness we were up to.

Of course I’d decided at 5:20 A.M. that Hercules was history, but I had to wait before sneaking him back to Grandma Ruby’s. We agreed I could bring him back, even though she said her neighbors actually liked hearing the roosters. I wondered at that now. A couple of hours later, after chasing the rooster around trying to catch him, while Andy watched, laughing, and having the little guy get a small wound on his comb in the process (the rooster, that is), I finally cornered him, threw a towel over him, and put him in Ruby’s basket.

I returned to Grandma Ruby’s with the basket on my hip and a guilty heart that I had not only chickened out on keeping the rooster, but had injured the beautiful, obnoxious bird. Ruby only assured me he’d be okay, asked how the hen was doing (fine, still on her nest), and graciously took him back.

Back at home, we commenced waiting for the eggs to hatch. During this time I tried to make friends with the hen. Several times a day I came in meekly, speaking in a soft and friendly tone, practically prostrating myself before the Queen of Eggs. I brought her the mixture of corn, millet and other grains that they sell as scratch, plus a few treats, usually chopped up apples or greens. I tried to pet her. Every single time I came near she gave off outraged chicken vibes and pecked at my hand. She belonged to Grandma Ruby, no one else. She never left the nest in my presence. I never saw her eat. Only once I witnessed her off the nest. I heard the frantic, “BAUK! BAUK! BAUK! BAUWWK!” and raced outside to her rescue. There she was, running around the fenced area, still “bawking,” feathers ruffled. I couldn’t find the source of her terror, and my appearance didn’t calm her any. After a few minutes I shut her back in the coop to quiet her. I worried that she might not return to the nest, but she did.

After twenty-two days, Ruby and I became concerned about the unhappy, solitary (crazed, in my opinion) hen—that she’d spend all that time on her great task, and, as Ruby put it, “not have any babies.” It was becoming clear that it would probably not happen. A few days before, I moved her nest to the floor in preparation for the big event. She became more furious than I imagined possible. She raised her hackles (all the feathers down her neck) and actually looked like a cobra. She began pecking at me vigorously, defending her eggs, and in the process broke one of them. There was no chick in it—just the shrunken, jelled remains of what once had been. I was surprised it didn’t smell bad. The next day, I noticed an egg I accidentally left in the wall box when moving the clutch. I took it outside, nervously opened it, and found it too was empty. Both the hen and I were depressed. She’d failed as a mama and I’d failed as a chicken raiser.

The next day I called a feed store just south of our city. Now nearly July, I felt my time had been invested and I was determined to get chicks–one way or another. I inquired about ordering a couple of day-old bantam Silkies as a back-up plan, in case the hatching did not occur. The feed store lady lent a sympathetic ear as I bemoaned my situation and said she’d call me back with a due date on ordering.

Three days later the phone rang. “Your Silkies are in,” she said.

I caught my breath. “Oh, I didn’t actually order them–I was just asking.” Suddenly everything was happening too fast.

“I placed an order later that day and added a couple of Silkies, in case your eggs didn’t hatch. It’s okay if you don’t want them, someone else will.”

“Wait,” I said, suddenly all aflutter, “I do want them. I’ll be down in a couple of hours.”

My daughters, patiently expecting along with me all this time, were as happy as I was–we were finally going to get chicks! The week before I had shown them a picture of Silkies. They are not your average looking chicken. Originating from the Far East, they were first mentioned by the Italian explorer Marco Polo when he wrote about them during his travels to China in the thirteenth century. Silkies are chickens whose feathers look like fur. You’ve heard of big hair, they have big “fur.” A sister-in-law calls them hippie chickens, but they look more like glam rock to me, the Ziggy Stardusts of chickens. They look this way because normal feathers have barbules along the barbs (the individual branches off a feather) that hold the barbs together, sort of like velcro. Silkies lack these so their barbs go out in all directions, giving the fur effect. So they’re very fluffy, from their feet to their topknots, the feathers atop their heads. They come in black, white, and buff, have unique black-toned skin, and five toes, instead of the usual four. I thought they were very cool. Zora and Lily did not. When I asked if they’d like to have that type of chicken, they exclaimed in unison, “No! Those chickens look weird!” This burst my bubble, temporarily. Later, when I told my mom about their reaction, she said, “Don’t worry. When they see them, they’ll like them. Trust me.”

Once at the warehouse-sized feed store, we were directed to the back where a big stainless steel horse trough held a couple hundred active, peeping chicks. A cornucopia of fluff danced before us–black chicks, white chicks, black and white, black and yellow, yellow, yellow with brown markings. There were bantams, about the size of a fifty-cent piece, and regular sized chicks more than twice that big.

Baby chick acquisition greed swept over me. I quickly rationalized that since we were already there and the chicks cost less than three dollars apiece, it would be ridiculous to leave with just two. I asked the feed store lady if there were “extras.”

Zora, who always astonishes me with her innate sense of style that I know does not come from my side of the family, nor from her father’s as far as I can tell, fell in love at once with two big yellow chicks with brown speckles and stripes. They were full-size Araucanas. Araucanas are a South American breed that used to be advertised in the backs of old issues of Organic Gardening as the “Layers of Colored Easter Eggs.” Martha Stewart raises them for their elegant turquoise blue- and green-shelled eggs. They are chic chicks. We were both disappointed to learn they were spoken for.

We decided to concentrate on bantams. The feed store owner scooped up my two white Silkies, who looked like fluffy white ordinary chicks except for their darker skin, and placed them in a small ventilated cardboard box. After some discussion, we settled on four more—two white and black chicks she called Golden Sebrights, a little black one with a yellow belly, and a yellow one that looked just like the kind you see in all the storybooks, except it had down-covered feet. With the latter two I forgot to ask the breed, and as bantams are too small to “sex” we didn’t know how many would turn out to be hens and how many cockalorums.

On the drive home I felt giddy. The girls were too and it came out in continual arguing over whose turn it was to hold the box. “Please be careful!” I pleaded repeatedly, my eyes darting to the rear view mirror. Amid the mania, I silently hoped that the mother hen would accept them so I wouldn’t have to take care of them.

At home again we went to the girl’s playroom, formerly a small sleeping porch on the back of the house. A cardboard box with a sixty watt light clamped onto one side for heat would be the chicks’ temporary home. We gave them food and water. Since I read it was best to wait until dusk to try to sneak them under the hen, we had a few more hours to enjoy them. Over this time we played hostesses to everyone we could find who might be interested in seeing them—our next door neighbors, the eleven-year-olds playing across the street, and a classmate of Zora’s and her mother who happened by walking their dog. I figured if the hen accepted them we wouldn’t be allowed close contact, so we indulged to the fullest.

At dusk I cuddled a Sebright chick next to me and took it into the hen house. The hen eyed me with her usual dislike. As I nervously slipped the fully alert chick under her she reacted immediately. But it was not with innate love towards a new life. Instead she turned and began pecking vigorously at the chick—at its head. I screamed in horror and grabbed him. She screamed. We screamed in unison. For several seconds, chaos reigned in the darkened coop. The whole scene would have been highly comical if it wasn’t so heartbreaking.

The next day Grandma Ruby told me I should have taken some of her eggs away first, but by then it was too late. There was no way I’d try again and risk getting one of the chicks killed. I’d already decided to raise them myself and she could hatch hers, if she had any, and we’d deal with it that way. After a few more days, though, I felt certain it wasn’t going to happen with the hen. After telling Ruby I thought it best to bring her back, that I was pretty sure the eggs were not going to hatch, she agreed and asked me to first put them into a pan full of water to make sure. If they floated there were no chicks. They all floated.

With a heavy heart I returned the hen to Ruby. She had wanted me to keep her, as a gift, as a sort of living bond between the two of us in our mutual hobby. She wanted to share with us the sight of a mother hen being trailed by a group of rowdy little peepers. “I don’t know why I like chickens so much,” she’d declared on several occasions. Once she confided that her husband, who passed away seventeen years earlier, didn’t share her fondness, and never wanted her to raise chickens. “After he died,” she said, a determined expression settling over her beautifully wizened face, “one of the first things I did was buy some chickens.”

(To be continued . . .)


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One Tree, One Year

Sample cover for One Tree 365.

Sample cover for One Tree 365.

One of my Facebook friends is Ciarán Burke, a plant enthusiast and teacher who graduated from the National Botanic Gardens in 1990. He’s also a writer, photographer, and lecturer, and he and his wife Hanna run The Garden School in western Ireland. Some of you may remember his (very cool) scoodoos project that we featured on Flora’s Forum  a while ago.


Ciarán Burke teaches at The Garden School in Ireland and writes extensively on horticulture. He's also an amazing photographer.

Photographer Ciarán Burke teaches at The Garden School in Ireland and writes extensively on horticulture.

Well, Ciarán wrote me the other day about his tree project–it’s called OneTree365.

Every day, since last December 4th, he has been photographing the same tree on the road near his home in County Mayo, documenting the growth through the seasons and the changes of light, but taking the photos from different views and at different times of day.

On a video describing the project,  Ciarán says, “When I started the project my aim was to get to know the tree. To share its beauty with others and to appreciate a moment of nature each day, to feel grateful for ordinary, everyday life.”

He says his initial worry about the project becoming boring (one tree, gray skies) dissolved almost immediately as he found himself in a different daily scene.

I think it’s a fascinating project. The photos are amazingly varied but for me the most intriguing aspect is wondering–how close you would feel to a tree, to a place in nature, if you visited it and photographed it almost every day for a year? Ciarán has been posting the pictures on his website for the project and received encouragement that the project would make a great book. As the project would probably not appeal to traditional publishers and would be expensive to print, he has decided to raise funds for a 60 page color photobook himself. (Each page will feature 7 photographs.)

He’s put the project on Ireland’s crowd-funding site “Fund It.” Here’s the link. The project will be running only through December 3rd, so if you’d like to help out, now’s the time.

Also, if you know anyone who will be visiting Ireland you might want to share this little tidbit: for a £250 (or more) donation you get the book, a framed photo of one of twelve tree images, and a guided tour of the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin for you and a group of friends (max number 8) by Ciarán. The tour lasts 4 hours.

It’s also noted that the OneTree365 project will be featured in an exhibition/installation in Charlestown Arts Centre in County Mayo in March 2014.

To learn more about the artist/teacher and his work, you can visit his website, Blooms ‘n’ Food, or click here for  a list of Ciaran Burke’s talks and other websites.

–Sandra Knauf

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Colorado’s Calendar Girl

February - Bison at South Park

February – Bison at South Park

I’m lucky; my friend Rhonda Van Pelt creates a calendar each year from scenes in Colorado. She does the legwork, I get to enjoy scenes that I’ve very likely visited through the year but did not photograph (and even if I did, I would certainly not get these photographs).

The above shot of bison was taken in February near South Park, Colorado. Rhonda says of that day, “I was heading home from Leadville, cutting across South Park on Highway 24, when I noticed the resident buffalo herd was near the fence. Even better–the white one was there, too. Those big, homely beasts seemed to pose for me as I took numerous photos over the fence.”

(When I saw this image all I could think about was the sacred white bison in Native American religions. I looked it up and found out these bison are amazingly rare. In fact, The National Bison Association estimates that they occur only once in every ten million births. While I’m not sure this one is 100% bison–I’m thinking probably not, as bison are and have been bred with cattle for a very long time–she still seems quite magical!)

Rhonda sent me a few samples from her wonderful 2014 edition, along with descriptions of her experience photographing each:

May Old North End tulip

May: “The Old North End is a historic neighborhood in the heart of Colorado Springs. More than a century ago, the men who made their fortunes in the gold mines of Cripple Creek and Victor build their family homes there. Current residents lovingly care for the gardens in front of their Victorian mansions.”

July RRC buck

July: “Red Rock Canyon is a beautiful park near my home in Colorado Springs. I hike there every chance I get and usually see tracks or other signs of wildlife that wanders the acreage. On this day, I held my breath as I saw this gorgeous buck, but was able to take a few photos before he bounded away.” 

August Balloon Classic

August: “Every Labor Day weekend, Colorado Springs hosts the Colorado Balloon Classic. It’s so much fun to watch the colorful giants head skyward and to capture photographs of their flight; every year is different depending on which way the wind pushes them.” 

Dec G of G and Pikes Peak

December:  “Most people in this area feel extremely blessed to have a view of Pikes Peak and to be able to roam around the rock formations at Garden of the Gods. I’m no exception–I can drive less than 10 minutes away to enjoy this vista through the seasons.”

To see more of Rhonda’s work visit her website.

Rhonda is  selling her calendars for $20 each plus shipping if outside of Colorado Springs or Manitou Springs (approximately $5 more per calendar). All photos are also available as greeting cards. For more information and to order, email her at

–Sandra Knauf



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Tom’s Turkeys

"Yes, we have wild turkeys on and around the ranch out here in Peyton!   Tom"

“Yes, we have wild turkeys on and around the ranch out here in Peyton!” 

This week I was going through my emails and found one from one of Greenwoman Magazine’s most romantic writers, Tom Preble. Tom wrote about his Peyton, Colorado ranch in Greenwoman #3 (“Never Surrender!” – an exciting tale about hail on the Colorado Plains) and in Greenwoman #4 (“A Generous Season” – a story that’s as much about Tom’s love for his wife as it is about the bounty of his wife’s garden). More than one reader swooned a little while reading that tale!

It was sweet that Tom sent me these photos of his turkeys, and he said I could share them with you.

It seems here as if the toms are in competition for this hen.

It seems here as if the toms are in competition for this hen. How puffed up they are!

Tom’s bio:

Rancher/writer Tom Preble lives in his self-built, earth-bermed, and energy-efficient home and ranch on the Palmer Divide east of Colorado Springs. Something of a Renaissance Man, Tom has wide ranging interests, from astronomy to welding to philosophy. Trained as a computer electronics engineer and now semi-retired, Tom drives a school bus over the back roads of the Colorado prairies and observes and writes about his little friends on the bus.

Tom Preble

Tom Preble

Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving,

—Sandra Knauf, Tom Preble, and the Happy (safe for now) Wild Turkeys

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Women of the Land: Marji Guyler-Alaniz’ FarmHer Project (With a Dedication to Mr. Lee)

Lois at Dairy-Air. Lois has a micro-dairy with about 15 goats. She makes artisan cheeses.
Lois Reichert at Reichert’s Dairy Air. Lois has a micro-dairy with about 15 Nubian and La Mancha goats. From their milk she makes award-winning artisan cheeses.

Some of you may have seen the very memorable Dodge Ram Super Bowl commercial about farmers this February. To recap: as Paul Harvey recites “So God Made A Farmer” (written in 1978 for a Future Farmers of America speech) romantic images of the American farmer flash on the screen (mostly rugged, weathered men in worn jeans and boots and hats, working in fields, tending livestock, driving tractors, joined with daybreak and sunset landscapes, a church, the flag, etc.). It was a beautifully and cunningly crafted commercial and it made most of us go all gooey inside, full of admiration for that powerful icon, the American farmer.

For me, the afterglow lasted about a minute. Then I thought, c’mon, this is about selling trucks! And besides, isn’t most of our food grown by big ag? (I had to admire the master manipulation by American admen, though, even as I detested it.)

Last week I learned that another viewer was bothered by a different skewed aspect of this commercial.

Namely, the lack of women farmers.

In the commercial they are almost as scarce as hen’s teeth. Actually, there are more cattle than women represented.

The bothered viewer was Marji Guyler-Alaniz, a 33-year-old Iowan who had spent over a decade working in the agricultural industry. She knew her farmers and she knew a lot of them were women. In fact, women now represent the fastest growing segment in farming and the number of women-operated farms has been exploding. (A USDA blog post, entitled “Women Farmers: One Million Strong”, stated that a recent Economic Research Service report showed the number of women-operated farms has more than doubled in the last thirty years.) Yet, like most of us, when Guyler-Alaniz thought “farmer” she automatically thought “male.” She said it didn’t click with her until the Super Bowl ad that we had this stereotype.

The discrepancy between myth and reality stayed in her mind.

Guyler-Alaniz related her “ah-ha” moment during an interview in Modern Farmer. “I read a story afterward that criticized the lack of images of women in the commercial,” she said. “Two nights later, I woke up in the middle of the night knowing that’s what I had to do. I had to get photos of women farmers out there, build an archive of these women who have long farmed or are getting into farming.”

Dinnertime at Twyla and Kim's Earth Biscuit farm.
Dinnertime at Twyla and Kim’s Earth Biscuit farm.

Guyler-Alaniz decided the photographs would be simple and honest—nothing posed, nothing staged, just real women doing real work. She would call the project FarmHer and it would bring awareness about the women in American agriculture.

She knew her task would be rewarding, but it wouldn’t be easy. She would have to find the farmers, and funding, and it would take time, a rare commodity for the mother of children ages 2 and 4. She forged ahead, launching her FarmHer website, and she began photographing farmers this summer, traveling while her husband watched their children.

IMG_1698 copy 2-2 (2)

Even though this is the inaugural year of the FarmHer Project, and Guyler-Alaniz has, so far, only photographed women farmers in Iowa, her beautiful images are starting to get a lot of attention. Last week she was featured in Upworthy where over 20,000 viewers clicked on her website in one day. There have been other articles written about her project, including a very insightful one that includes information on America’s women farmers written by Tove K. Danovich of Food Politic (you can read it here).

My personal favorite: a stunning silhouette of Angelique at Wabi Sabi Farm.
My personal favorite: a stunning silhouette of Angelique at Wabi Sabi Farm.

Guyler-Alaniz wants to expand her project. She’s received invitations from women farmers around the country to visit their farms. She is working hard to make that happen, and is fundraising through selling prints of her photographs, T-shirts, and canvas bags.

To see all the beautiful photographs from the FarmHer project, along with other items you can purchase to help with funding, visit the website. (Needless to say, these items would make fabulous gifts this holiday season.)

* * *

Postscript:  An Explanation of the Dedication

This project struck a chord with me,  not only because I care deeply about America’s farmland and farmers (I grew up surrounded by farms in rural southeast Missouri), but because it stirred memories of what it has meant to me to navigate our male-dominated world.

I’d like to share my personal “FarmHer” story. In 1978, the same year that Paul Harvey gave his speech “So God Made a Farmer” I was a sophomore in high school. Our town was very small, population 1,000. We had two major clubs students could join—Future Farmers of America (males who took Agriculture) and Future Homemakers of America (females who took Home Economics). That year I decided that I was bored with Home Economics. For years I’d known how to cook and I didn’t like sewing. The other things we learned, instruction on putting on makeup, embroidering, just seemed . . . silly. On the other hand, the guys studied things I was genuinely curious about—plants and animals. I loved nature and I did well in biology class. Besides, Agriculture class looked fun. We’d watch the boys get on the bus, taking off on another of adventure, a field trip to some farm, soon to receive a front row education in what “it” (life with that capital “L,” and business, and making your own way in the world) was all about.

I mentioned my desire to some male classmates. I was warned that it was “something that I probably wouldn’t like”—and they told me they had to witness (and maybe even participate in, I can’t remember) the castrations of pigs, and births of calves, bloody stuff like that. The subtext was clear: it was “not a place for a girl.” I didn’t buy it. “I can handle it,” I said (and I knew that I could).

Determined to follow my desire, when it was time to sign up for classes that next semester I wrote in “Ag” on the card instead of “Home Ec.”

I was soon called into the principal’s office. Mr. Lee was wearing his usual outfit of dark blue suit, white shirt, red tie, black-rimmed glasses, shiny black shoes. His dark hair was cropped, severe, in the style popular with authority figures of the day. He knew me as a student who made good grades, but also one who also liked to push the boundaries. I had been in his office a few times in junior high, once for truancy and several times for general misbehaving (chewing gum, cutting up in class), but that was three years ago. I didn’t think my past reputation would matter now. I was a young lady. I’d been in Home Economics for three semesters.

There was no discussion. “I am changing your class to Home Ec.,” said.

And that was that.

I wasn’t empowered enough to go to my Dad and stepmother about this. They had five other younger children to deal with and they had made it clear at other times that they backed whatever rules the authority figures enforced anyway. I also felt a little guilty. I look back now and of course I was made to feel I was “overstepping my place.” And for full disclosure—my motives weren’t 100% pure. I liked boys a lot, better than girls, really, at that time. The thought of being in a classroom full of them was enticing indeed.

I left the office and let my anger and disappointment fester in silence.

Researching this post I discovered that girls were officially allowed in Future Farmers of America starting in 1969. Obviously it took more time for it to be socially acceptable across America, and especially in small towns.

Today, as our Thanksgiving holiday nears, I want to give a heartfelt thanks to Marji Guyler-Alaniz, and to all the women farmers.

—Sandra Knauf

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Zoe Tilley Poster’s Nature Connection

Three Dogs - an original drawing by Zoe Poster Tilley

Three Dogs – an original drawing by Zoe Tilley Poster

Some of you may remember Zoe Tilley Poster’s art from Greenwoman Issue #4.

She created an illustration for our “yucca mama” story, which first appeared right here in Flora’s Forum in July 2012On Yucca Moths Illustration Zoe Poster Tilley 001 (2)

She also does fabulous butterflies.

Solar Mountain Butterfly

Solar Mountain Butterfly

I’ve been admirer of her art for a long time and I love her writing too (you can enjoy both on her blog, Pearled Earth). Zoe’s an expert gardener, an animal lover, a nature lover, a food lover (here’s one of her posts we shared on Flora’s Forum, showing one garden harvest), a great cook, a talented artist, an exceptional writer, an entrepreneur, a mushroom forager! And that’s the short list. So many cool things rolled into one.

It’s been fun watching her business grow this last year. She brings her life into her art; her drawings represent the nature and animals she sees and connects with at her home in Pennsylvania. Raccoons, foxes, owls, butterflies, goats, cats . . . take a look for yourself at her Etsy store.

When she posted about her latest creations, gift tags for the holidays. I kind of went . . . wild over them. (Chickadees! A cute squirrel!)

gift-tags-desk (1)

No doubt about it, these are the tags to grace my gifts this year. Won’t they look sweet on a jar of homemade pickles–or a book wrapped simply and rustically in brown kraft paper and a colorful ribbon? I thought so, and so bought the download immediately. You can too–or better yet, get the download free (through November 30th) with the purchase of Zoe’s original Christmas cards, or a drawing, or an adorable T-shirt for a baby (with a little skunk on it) . . . there are so many possibilities. Here’s her Etsy site again.

–Sandra Knauf

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Amy Stewart’s Writing Secrets

Best Selling Author (and gardener and chicken raiser) Amy Stewart. Photo by Delightful Eye.

Best Selling Author (and gardener and chicken raiser) Amy Stewart.                              Photo by Delightful Eye.

(This interview was first published in GrowWrite! Magazine, in their February/March 2012 issue.)

Is there anyone out there who is not in awe of Amy Stewart? In twelve years she’s went from fledgling memoirist to New York Times Bestselling author—of her last four books (The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential). She’s won numerous awards, she’s a highly sought-after public speaker, she’s a co-founder of the wildly popular group blog on gardening, “Garden Rant,” and the co-owner of a to-die-for antiquarian bookstore in Eureka, California. (And, dear readers, this is the short list. )

All of this is impressive enough, but what endears Stewart to us is that she is unpretentious and, even better, she knows how to have fun. Her lectures incorporate humor (lots of it); Stewart-watchers have had a blast laughing through her faux-newsy video for Wicked Bugs and her horticultural homicide trailer for Wicked Plants; and we’ve felt like a special guest, just hanging out with the girls, at the occasional delicious Garden Chat Cocktail Hour video. One video features Stewart, in her garden, drinking raspberry-infused vodka out of a Mason jar, joined by her chicken, Bess—who, in a later post is captured snatching a bit of peach out of a bourbon/peach cocktail).

What’s not to love?

I considered it not only an honor to be able to ask her questions about garden writing, but a selfish pleasure. I learned a ton, and you will, too.

Knauf: When did you start writing? Was your first writing project your first book—From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden?

I always wanted to be a writer—I was one of those kids who wanted to be a writer when she was five. But yeah, apart from the kind of writing that all aspiring writers do when they are young, FTGU was my first book. I’d been writing a garden column by the same name for a local paper, but the goal was always to write a book. I was very inspired by a food column I used to read in the Austin Chronicle (when I was a student at UT in the late 80s/ early 90s) by Petaluma Pete, the nom de plume of rock critic Ed Ward. He was writing about food, but from the point of view of a fictional character who had this complicated personal life. So it was about food but it was also this sort of interesting running soap opera. I thought, “You can do that? You can write like that?” I always wanted to tell stories, and that’s what he was doing.

Knauf: You created your first garden after you finished grad school and moved to California from Texas (I’m calculating that this was in your twenties?) Did you come from a gardening background? Is your family from Texas? Please tell me a little about your gardening background.

Yeah, early 20s—I was 22 when I finished grad school. I’m from Texas and I’m a fifth-generation Texan on my father’s side. I have no family gardening background. I grew up in the suburbs, and people did go out in the miserable heat and do something called yardwork, but I never wanted to.

Knauf: Who are your favorite garden writing authors? Your favorite writers?

I was very inspired by Carl Klaus, a writer who founded the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa. His My Vegetable Love and Weathering Winter are two beautiful meditations on gardening. And of course I love Katharine White, and I love her husband (E.B. White, best known as the author of Charlotte’s Web) even more. He actually wrote quite a bit about small-scale farming. And I am not just saying this because she’s my friend, but I truly think that Michele Owens is an absolutely brilliant writer and that Grow the Good Life belongs on everyone’s shelf. As for other writers—I’ve never known how to answer that question. It’s like asking somebody what their favorite food is. Well, what are you in the mood for? Having said that, a partial list of authors I adore would include: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, E.B. White, Joan Didion (especially the early stuff), Geoff Dyer, David Foster Wallace. I adore Nick Hornby, I love PD James and pretty much any female British detective novelist. . . oh, and every week I try to keep up with the New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper’s . . .

Knauf: I have to put in here that Grow the Good Life was my favorite gardening book last year. Your latest book, The Drunken Botanist, is scheduled to be published next spring. [Editor’s note – it came out in March 2013 and became a NY Times Bestseller this year.] What are your ideas for your next book? (Hopefully this question won’t cause a groan of exhaustion!)

Stewart: You mean after Drunken Botanist? Not saying! I’m going to be a writer-in-residence at Portland State this spring, teaching a nonfiction writing workshop in their MFA program, so I get the luxury of a couple of months in Portland to lounge around and explore my next topic at my leisure. At least, that’s how I’m imagining it will go. I hear they just started allowing liquor sales at food trucks in Portland, so maybe I’ll just see how much good food and drink I can consume in a ten-week period. That could be fun, too.

Knauf: To what do you attribute your success (aside from writing great books)? I know a lot of your time is spent in traveling and promoting your work through speaking tours and other events. How big a part do you think that work plays in sales?

Stewart: Well—I guess I would just say that I do this full time. I don’t do anything else. I don’t have kids, my husband also works all the time so he’s pretty self-sufficient, I don’t have any other kind of job—I just literally work on writing and selling books all day, every day, seven days a week. I don’t take days off. I spend the evening in front of my iPad or my laptop, doing work-ish stuff. (Fortunately, my husband does the same. This is our way of at least being in the same room together!) I barely garden—you would not believe what a terrible garden I have—and I take a little time out to paint, but not enough. Today, for instance, I woke up thinking that I would paint for sure, and it’s 4:00 and I haven’t gotten up from my computer yet.

The other thing is that I aim for a non-gardening audience. I mean, I write about plants and bugs and the natural world, so I know gardeners are going to read that. But with a book like Flower Confidential, I want people who never thought they might be interested in flowers, or the flower industry, to read it and go, “Wow, that was fascinating. Who knew?” So really, I’m just trying to tell stories that would be broadly interesting to anyone.

But really, whatever success I’ve had I owe to Algonquin. They work so hard on every book they publish, and they only publish one or two books per month, so each book gets a lot of attention. They really know how to engage the national media, and they are willing to invest in book tours and big promotional campaigns. That strategy is definitely paying off for them—Water for Elephants, for instance, is a major bestseller thanks to their efforts. They’ve published every one of my books and I adore them.

Knauf: Algonquin sounds like a dream-publisher—how lucky you are! I have to disagree with your “terrible garden” statement, though. I’ve seen it in your Garden Rant videos—it looks like a real garden, a “garden with soul,” as you described your first garden in FTGU. Lush, diverse, and with adorable, friendly chickens in residence! When did you decide to raise chickens, and why?

Stewart: My husband and I moved to Eureka in 2001, right when FTGU came out, and—I don’t know. I guess we just thought it would be fun to have chickens. We bought an old house, we had a decent-sized yard, we were both working from home—seemed like a good idea at the time!

Knauf: What advice would you give to authors who are about to publish a book to maximize sales/promotion?

Well, I think most people know what they should do, it’s just a question of whether they can, or want to. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for an event I could do with another author, and I’ll call them up and say, “Hey! Let’s go on the road together! We could do this cool thing!” and they say, “Um, you know I have a job, right? I can’t just go on the road with you.” So some things are just not possible.

Here’s a hint: Make sure your book (as in, a clickable image of the book, maybe with the title underneath) is right up top on your website/blog/internet presence. Just last week I was talking to my editor at Algonquin about a couple of authors and she Googled them as we were talking. She said, “Seriously? This is supposed to be a blog about the book? Where exactly is the book?” She never could find it.

Your website/blog should be so professional that a producer for Good Morning America could look at it and know that you’re organized and professional and worthy of their time. It should look slick and cool. This does not have to cost a lot—I did a pretty simple WordPress site for Drunken Botanist and spent less than $500 on design, using people I found on eLance. I’ll redesign it a bit when the book is done and I know what the cover looks like, but at least I’ve got something that looks presentable.

And please do go to independent bookstores and try to do wonderful events and help them make sure lots of people show up. No matter what city it’s in, take it upon yourself to invite area garden clubs, master gardener groups, native plant societies, tell your friends, ask them to please bring their friends, whatever. And encourage everyone to buy their books there, not online or from the trunk of your car. I own a bookstore, and I can tell you that your local, independent bookseller can stand behind a counter and hand-sell your book all day long if you give them a reason to. Especially if your book is regionally-focused—you need to go make friends with the booksellers in that region! Bring them cookies! Be easy to love! Send thank-you notes! I hear garden authors say “Oh, it’s not worth it to go do bookstore events, because I only sold like five books and that’s not worth my time.” Well, the question is not how many books they’ll sell that day. It’s how many they will sell that year, and next year, and the year after. It’s about your whole career. Same goes for independent garden centers and botanical garden gift shops, by the way.

Oh, and I would say: Don’t make a video if you don’t have a really cool, preferably funny idea and you know you can pull it off. Will people who don’t know you, and don’t care about gardening, watch it and forward it to their friends? That’s the question.

Or, if you are going to do something that’s just a narrated slide show and your voice saying, “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I’m the author of. . .” then just really think about why you’re doing it. That sort of video can be useful for interviewers who don’t have time to read your book, or maybe even didn’t get it in time, for your radio/TV/newspaper interview. So do you expect to do interviews like that, and do you hit a lot of good points that will give them interview questions? And are you or your publicist sharing it with media people when the interviews get set up, so they’ll know to watch it? And if it’s for potential readers, how will they find it? Last time I checked, Amazon charged $1,000 to post a video with a book listing (I honestly am not sure if that’s still current information), so is your publisher going to pay for that? Will the video even be distributed where people can see it?

I’m just not sure if a video is always worth the time and money, that’s all.

Another tip for authors with a book coming out: Reach out to your publicist shortly after your book is turned in and “accepted.” Most publishers hold a sales conference in spring and another in fall where they pitch the next season’s books to their sales reps. For some reason, authors are generally not told about sales conference. I don’t know why, because I think they could help. Try to find out when your book will be at sales conference and ask if you can help supply anything to them—a short (usually two minute or less) video clip, or a sheet of “fun facts” about the book.

And about those fun facts—your publicist may or may not even read your book, and they really might not understand what’s so unique about your book. Contact your publicist and ask if they would like you to write up a Q&A (you ask the questions and answer them), as well as a page of interesting facts/talking points. In my case, I wrote a list of interesting facts, sent it to them for corrections, proofreading, and final approval, then sent it to my web designer and had them make a nice design for it. I’ve done this for every book except my first one.

You can see an example here: My publisher was really impressed with the design and ended up covering the design costs. Otherwise, it probably would have gone out as a Word document on their letterhead with some bullet points.

Also, let your publicist know how available you are to tour (and remember, you don’t get paid to go on book tour), ask them for feedback on your website, and ask them what else you can do to help promote the book. Some of this communication happens through the Author Questionnaire they send you, but it doesn’t hurt to reach out in addition to that.

You can also offer to help write catalog copy, press releases, etc. You may have more clever catchphrases, and you might have a better sense of what interesting quotes should be pulled from the book.

I mean, don’t be obnoxious about this stuff, but offer to help, and if they say yes, get them what they need quickly, make sure it’s proofread and professional, and try to do it without sending them a hundred emails in between. Also, make it clear that you won’t be offended if they don’t use what they send—you’re just offering them options.

Knauf: Fabulous information; Amy, aspiring writers everywhere will thank you for those tips! You are very active in social media and are a co-founder of the popular gardening blog, “Garden Rant.” I have to know how “Garden Rant” came about? Who had the original idea?

We were all kind of doing the same thing on our own blogs, which is that we were not talking about what we did in our gardens that weekend. We were taking about politics, culture—anything and everything that might be vaguely related to plants. And we had the kind of off-the-cuff opinions that garden magazines didn’t want to print. We were writing all the kinds of things we couldn’t get published anywhere else. So we knew each other, we were reading each other’s stuff, and we just decided that if we joined forces, we could get more readers. It’s nice to have partners so we don’t each feel obligated to post every day. I really recommend a group blog. There are lots of them now, of course, but I’d like to see more—if you write about container gardening, or edibles, or whatever, why not contact the other authors who do that and create one mega-blog and build a big audience?

Knauf: What is your favorite book out of the six you’ve worked on so far—and why?

Stewart: Oh, the latest one is always my favorite, so Drunken Botanist will be my favorite until I start the next one.

Stewart is the author of From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, and the New York Times bestsellers Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers; Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities; Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army and other Diabolical Insects; and, her latest, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks.

You can read Greenwoman Magazine‘s review of The Drunken Botanist on our website. (Scroll down to the fourth book.)

—Sandra Knauf


Filed under Garden Writers We Love

“Springs Woman Tends an Amazing Garden and Equally Lush Magazine”

Now here's a "before" picture of the garden in early June. "Before meaning before a summer of distractions, publishing a book, fires and floods, etc. A bit more orderly for Lily's graduation party.

Now here’s a “before” picture of the garden in early June of this year. “Before” meaning before a summer of distractions, working overtime every day, publishing a book, fires and floods, etc. It is often wild and out of control (as seen in the Gazette article) but I wanted to show that it can be more orderly, especially when we’re preparing for a party. This was right before Lily’s high school graduation party.

Yesterday Carol McGraw’s story about Greenwoman Magazine, my gardening life at home, the novel Zera and the Green Man and everything else related to what I’m doing and a lot about the “why” came out in the Gazette here in Colorado Springs.  Carol did a wonderful job–beautiful writing and perfect reporting.

There are a lot of complaints about journalism, and about how reporters “don’t get it right” in interviews (and I’ll admit, it’s an imperfect world) but she nailed it.

I’m grateful to be able to share it with you today. You’ll find the story here.


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A Little Nonsense with Edward Lear

I thought I’d share some nonsense, but then it turned a bit serious. I’m referring to Edward Lear.

In the next issue of Greenwoman we’ll be publishing a few illustrations from Lear’s book, Nonsense Botany. I thought I’d share some other illustrations, to give you a taste of his nonsense, and then write a little about Lear.

A few of his illustrations:

Edward Lear's Shoebootia Utilis

EdwardLear_Barkia_Howlaloudia 001 (2) copy

EdwardLear_Enkoopia_Chickabiddia 001 (2) copy

Clever, don’t you agree?

I knew his nonsense poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat,” well. It is one of my favorite rhymes. When I read his biography, I learned that he was (as I often discover about artists) more amazing and interesting than I imagined. I did not know the more serious aspects of Edward Lear.

He was born in 1812, in Holloway, England, the penultimate (I learned that means second-to-last) of 21 children born to a middle-class English family. He was raised by his oldest sister Ann (who was 21 years older than Edward), and when he was four he left with Ann permanently, due to family financial troubles. His sister would play the role of doting mother in his life until her death some 50 years later.

Lear’s life was plagued with many health problems, including grand mal epileptic seizures (starting at age 6), bronchitis, asthma, and, later in his life, partial blindness. He was frightened and ashamed of his epileptic condition, and according to his adult diaries if he felt a seizure coming on he would leave as to not have any witnesses. Not surprisingly, with all he had to contend with, he also suffered from depression, starting at age seven.

Edward Lear drawing by William Marstrand

Edward Lear drawing by William Marstrand

In spite of these afflictions, he was hardworking and a highly skilled artist by an early age. By age 16 he was earning his own “bread and cheese” through his drawings. Not long after that he was employed by the Zoological Society as a serious “ornithological draughtsman.” Lear’s first publication was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830. He was 19 years old and his work was favorably compared to that of John James Audubon.

You can find all forty-two lithographic plates (drawn from life, and on stone) here at the Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture and also through Wikimedia Commons.


Salmon-crested cockatoo, Plyctolophus rosaceus

Salmon-crested cockatoo, Plyctolophus rosaceus (Isn’t it GORGEOUS?)

He was also a fine landscape painter:

Masada or Sebbeh on the Dead Sea, 1858

Lear’s painting Masada on the Dead Sea, 1858

Throughout his life Lear painted and traveled widely. Near the end of his life he realized a lifelong dream, to illustrate a volume of Alfred Tennyson’s poems.

Lear’s love interests centered upon men and his most “fervent and painful relationship” was his platonic bond with Franklin Lushington. They met in 1849 in Malta and Lear fell in love. He spent some time touring with the young barrister through southern Greece, but Lushington did not reciprocate Lear’s feelings.  Nevertheless, the two were friends for almost 40 years, until Lear’s death. Edward Lear never married although he proposed to a woman twice. (This must have been late in his life as the woman was reported to be 46 years his junior. Both offers of marriage were turned down.)

In the 1870s, declining in health, he made his final home in San Remo, a coastal city in north-western Italy, best known as a tourist destination on the Italian Riviera. Lear named his villa “Villa Tennyson.”

He died there in 1888, of heart disease. He is buried in the Cemetery Foce in San Remo.

Lear’s headstone is inscribed with four lines from Tennyson’s poem To E.L. [Edward Lear], On His Travels in Greece: It references Mount Tomohrit in Albania:

Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair.
With such a pencil, such a pen.
You shadow forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there.

To leave on a happy note, I’ll end with his most famous poem. (By the way, “runcible,” as in “runcible spoon” is one of the delightful nonsense words Lear invented.)

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
    What a beautiful Pussy you are,
         You are,
         You are!

What a beautiful Pussy you are!”


Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
   How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
   But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
   To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
   With a ring at the end of his nose,
             His nose,
             His nose,

With a ring at the end of his nose.


“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
   Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
   By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
   Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
   They danced by the light of the moon,
             The moon,
             The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

–Sandra Knauf


Filed under Art & the Garden, Garden Writers We Love

The Gardening/Game of Thrones Connection (NSFW . . . sort of)

A little birdy (okay, Zora) alerted me to this connection last week after she visited her college friends in Boulder over Halloween.

(Zora dressed up as Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones.)

Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons on Game of Thrones.

Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons on Game of Thrones.

Zora as glamorous Mother of Dragons.

Zora as glamorous Mother of Dragons.

Apparently, not a lot of the young people in Boulder are familiar with Game of Thrones but one friend also loves the show. He showed Zora a Playboy interview with Peter Dinklage, who plays the character everyone loves most, Tyrion Lannister. 

Peter Dinklage in Playboy

That’s where she learned of the gardening connection. In the  20-questions-style interview  Dinklage was asked a rather gross question:

“There’s a video on YouTube called “Peter Dinklage Gets So Much P—y,” in which two guys discuss how much you’ve been getting laid since Game of Thrones. They estimate your sexual activity has increased 600 percent in the last few years. Does that sound about right?”

Dinklage (who is married and has a young daughter) responds: “It depends. By ‘p—y’ do they mean actual p—y? Or is it a metaphor, like for gardening? Because if that’s the case, then yes, I’ve been doing a lot of gardening lately. If they mean sex, they might be getting me confused with somebody else. But if p—y means wearing old-man sweaters and watering my herb garden, then absolutely, I’m getting so much p—y.”

Ahh, the wit!

I tried to find more information on Dinklage’s gardening, but, alas, interviewers are not asking him more on that subject. I did, however, find this fantastic interview in New York Times Magazine.

–Sandra Knauf

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