My plastic womb

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things –
We murder to dissect.

Enough of science and of art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned,” 1798

In this week’s Literary Gardener column and podcast, I discussed “greenhouse romanticism,” a genre of literature and poetry in which the relationships between plants and people are highlighted. In the 19th century, Romantic writers like William Wordsworth waxed poetic about nature as a way of criticizing the effects of the Industrial Revolution, which was moving people further and further away from nature and into cities and factories.

I wonder what the Romantics would have thought about gardening in today’s plastic-covered greenhouses? Indeed, plasticulture has transformed greenhouse gardening since polyethylene became commercially available after Word War II.

My plastic womb

For the past seven years, I’ve been growing plants in a 10 x 20 foot greenhouse covered in woven polyethylene. I’ve been impressed with the reinforced design of the 12 mil film (a mil is one-thousandth of an inch in thickness), which has made the greenhouse cover more resistant to stretching, tearing, puncturing, and turning brittle. The weave diffuses sunlight throughout the greenhouse, which reduces shadow spots, although the transmission of available sunlight is slightly reduced to about 85 percent. (By comparison, 6 mil clear polyethylene transmits about 90 percent of available sunlight inside the greenhouse.)

Polyethylene and other plastics are highly processed petroleum-based products; as such, I don’t think Willliam Wordsworth would have considered modern greenhouse gardening “sweet (a)s the lore which nature brings.”

But maybe that’s because Willy never gardened in a plastic-covered greenhouse. I love working with the plants in my greenhouse in the middle of winter when it’s cold and raining outside. There’s something about being in the enclosed space with the earthy smell of soil and growing plants and the sound of fat raindrops hitting the plastic roof that makes me wax poetic:

My Plastic Womb

Look up! My Friend, and quit your texts;
Surely, you will be fitter:
Look up! My Friend, you’re cyber-stressed;
Why all these tweets and twitters?

Venture ‘way from your plastic screen,
Give your tired thumbs a rest;
Yonder, there’ a capsule of green
Plants, where fragrant air is best.

Breathe deep! Take in the fertile smell!
Soil, rich, with tiny lifeforms –
Rain patters on the plastic shell,
Yet the womb is cozy-warm.

And look! Tiny seedlings emerge,
Gazing sunward as to home –
Oh, what joy to hopefully urge
New life ‘neath the plastic dome.

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What’s on your garden reading list this winter?

“The garden is a ground plot for the mind.” ~ Thomas Hill, The Gardener’s Labyrinth, 1577

In Sunday’s column, I shared my winter reading list for fellow literary gardeners – those who agree with garden designer and writer Mirabel Osler (1925-2016) who wrote in a A Gentle Plea for Chaos (1989), “Books nourish a gardener’s mind in the same way as manure nourishes plants.”

I am always looking for good fiction writing about gardens and gardening, so I was delighted to find The Garden of Reading: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Short Fiction about Gardens and Gardeners (2005) edited by Michele Slung. Did you know that the word “anthology” has botanical roots, deriving from the Greek words for “flower” and “gather”? Slung has certainly gathered an intriguing assortment of 24 short stories about flowers and other plants and the gardeners who tend them.

Her book provides gardeners with a perfect opportunity to take a break from garden how-tos and explore gardens of the mind imagined by diverse authors such as Eudora Welty (A Curtain of Green), James Thurber (See No Weevil), Doris Lessing (Flavors of Exile), Sandra Cisneros (The Monkey Garden), Robert Graves (Down to Earth) and Stephen King (The Lawnmower Man). As author Roxanna Robinson notes, “This collection of stories explores the very notion of gardens…After you’ve read these, you still may not know how to prune a rose bush, but you know a great deal more about human nature.”

My tip for this week: Find a copy of The Garden of Reading or another fiction story about gardens and gardeners and allow them to nourish your gardener’s mind. Please share what’s on your winter reading list by posting a comment.

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Foraging for Poetry

My wicker basket swells.
I forage for our supper
but poems cling like lace on lichened branches
stanzas tumble from the boughs
as copper petals catch the breeze.

~ Jo Parfitt, “Foraging for Poems,” 2017

Fall in Southern Oregon is a great time to forage in our gardens and neighborhoods for home décor because there’s such a plethora of flora

A basket of my foraged flora

available – fall blooming flowers, fruit hanging on tree branches, leaves turning fall colors, grasses with feathery plumes, perennials with interesting seedpods, tree limbs with attractive bark, and shrubs bearing vibrant berries.

So this fall, I decided to forego dragging out the storage container labeled “Fall” and forage for home décor, instead.

I thought my foraging for flora escapade was pretty successful until I read author and writing mentor, Jo Parfitt, describe how foraging for chanterelle mushrooms in the Norwegian woodlands helped her find her poet’s soul. According to Jo, “It was not many minutes into the excursion that words began to pop into my mind. Poems began to form and inspiration bubbled.”

Wow! I guess I was too focused on how I was going to use my foraged flora to create fall arrangements, and I missed all of the poetic possibilities! In “Foraging for Poems,” however, Parfitt writes:

Words, like mushrooms,
emerge from nowhere,
they muscle in and shriek, “Me! Me!”
But beauty is a siren’s song.
I’m told to leave them be.

So, I used the free verse style of Parfitt’s poem to describe my own foraging experience:

The Foraging Basket

Foregoing the container marked “Fall Décor,”
I found an old wicker basket at a thrift store – her 
Pinecones came free.
The basket and I forged a companionship as
Foragers of flora in
My gardens at home and the
Ripened fields and orchards at
Historic Hanley Farm.

I hunted for
Flowers, fruits and berries;
The basket collected all of the
We carried
Our flora

Now, I think the basket
Let go of
Our gatherings  
After all, what is the
Meaning of a
Basket except for
What she holds?

But, I, compelled to
Sort and arrange,
Didn’t notice as I spilled from
The basket what we had gathered and
Reshaped her jumble into “Art”-
More orderly, but less honest
Than the Pinecones
She held before.


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Caps Off to the Yellow Jackets

I clean in a swarm of yellow jackets,

sure they won’t sting me, so they don’t,

though they can’t resist the fish, the slime,

the guts that drop into the bucket, they’re mad

for meat, fresh death, they swarm around

whenever I work at this outdoor sink

with somebody’s loving catch.

~ David Young, “A Poem for Adlai Stevenson and Yellow Jackets,” 2000

Yellow jackets are busy this time of year, bringing food back to the colony’s current queen and next year’s queen, still developing in the nest. I enjoy watching them fly back and forth like soldiers on a mission, but the nests in my pasture and next to my barn are safety hazards to my family, horses and dogs, so they will have to go.

I don’t share David Young’s conviction that they won’t sting me, especially in the fall when they are hyper-defensive about their colony and food sources are dwindling.

Young continues his poem by describing how he will get rid of the yellow jackets:

Later this summer we’ll find their nest

and burn it one night with a blowtorch

applied to the entrance, the paper hotel

glowing with fire and smoke like a lantern,

full of the death – bees, hornets, whatever they are,

that drop like little coals

and an oily smoke that rolls through the trees

into the night…

I will let winter’s cold kill off the colony naturally (save for the queen, who will find warm shelter to hibernate and will emerge next spring to begin the next generation of yellow jackets. I’m sealing the hole in case something else wants to nest in the hole). However, Young’s reflective prose poem about a summer vacation he spent in Maine in 1956 has inspired me to try out this style of poetry to describe my own experiences with yellow jackets during my first summer on our property in Bandon, Oregon.

Caps Off to the Yellow Jackets

It’s summer, 2018, just outside of Bandon,

a coastal town in southern Oregon, and I am watching

two hired men with a tractor and trailer pick up felled

alder trees in the pasture and haul them away for shavings.

The noise of their machinery drowns out the foghorn at the

Coquille River Lighthouse and the crashing surf at nearby

China Creek Beach, but I know they are there, waiting

for the busyness of today to be done.

Suddenly, the younger of the two men starts shouting

and running, waving his green Ducks cap in short, jerky movements.

“Bees!” he yells, swiping the air, “Sons of bitches got me real good!”

Four times he’s been stung on his arms and his neck, but

he doesn’t stop working, he must be used to this kind of pain.

I am not, so I walk carefully over to the nest, a hole

in the ground underneath a thick limb; not bees but yellow jackets

are flying to and fro, protecting their queen like foot soldiers.

Their home has been invaded, their queen’s rest disturbed,

and I can’t fault them for their wrath; I’d do the same if I felt

threatened and had a stinger attached to my abdomen.

This pasture has stood empty for years and the yellow jackets

have claimed it, but now I have challenged their right and I will fight

for it, too. Sometimes there’s just no use in trying

to get along.

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A lesson in verse about sprinkler head maintenance

In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
~ Baba Dioum, Coordinator General for the Conference of West and Central African Ministers of Agriculture

Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry engineer, spoke these words as he presented a paper in 1968 at a general assembly meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  His quote was included at the bottom of an email I

Baba Dioum

received from David Searcy, Conservation Coordinator for the Medford Water Commission, in response to my article about cleaning out sprinkler heads. David provided important information about conserving water as we water our gardens and lawns, and I want to share it with you. Here’s what David wrote:

“I appreciate your columns in the Sunday Mail Tribune. The August 26th edition especially was interesting to me because of what I do. Quick background: 6 years at the Medford Water Commission (MWC) and 40 years a part of the landscape (original) Green Industry, teaching for about 30 of those years.

"Parade of Perennials" - one of several Rogue Valley gardens featured on the Medford Water Commission's website.

I wanted to point out to you some resources available to Rogue Valley residents, not mentioned in your article. Both the City of Ashland (COA) and Medford Water Commission offer Free Sprinkler Evaluations for their customers. We both offer Sample Lawn Watering Schedules based on 20 years of historical Evapotranspiration, (which are applicable for all areas in the southern Rogue Valley) and an up to date lawn watering Infloline to help schedule sprinkler timers. (COA 541-552-2057, MWC 541-774-2460) Additionally, both of our websites have Water Wise landscape portals with hundreds of pictures of homes in our area for landscaping ideas and tips. On the MWC site we have a number of brochures such as Landscaping to Save Water, Water Efficient Plants for the Rogue Valley and a Homeowners Guide to Landscaping Irrigation and Design, to name a few, along with videos and links to other water wise websites.”

Thanks so much, David!


David’s email and Baba Dioum’s message about conservation got me thinking about didactic poetry, a style of verse that contains a clear lesson for readers. Some famous examples of didactic poetry are Virgil’s Georgics, John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man. Religious poems have often been didactic, such as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (also referred to as an allegory), and school curricula have incorporated didactic poems to help students remember information. One example is the classic, anonymous poem that teaches the days of the month:


Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
February has twenty-eight alone.
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting leap-year—that’s the time
When February’s days are twenty-nine.

Here’s another didactic poem by Jane Taylor (1783-1824), who also wrote the words to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” In this poem, Jane instructs us to be as humble as a violet:

Down in a green and shady bed
A modest violet grew;
Its stalk was bent, it hung its head,
As if to hide from view.

And yet it was a lovely flower,
No colours bright and fair;
It might have graced a rosy bower,
Instead of hiding there.

Yet there it was content to bloom,
In modest tints arrayed;
And there diffused its sweet perfume,
Within the silent shade.

Then let me to the valley go,
This pretty flower to see;
That I may also learn to grow
In sweet humility.

There is no shortage of didactic poetry about water cycles and water conservation. I like this simple poem written by English poet P.A. Ropes that teaches readers how to water plants:

A Watering Rhyme

Early in the morning,
Or the evening hour,
Are the times to water
Every kind of flower.

Watering at noonday,
When the sun is high,
Doesn’t help the flowers,
Only makes them die.

Also, when you water,
Water at the roots;
Flowers keep their mouths where
We should wear our boots.

Soak the earth around them,
Then through all the heat
The flowers will have water
For their thirsty ‘feet’!

Adopting P.A. Ropes’ rhythm of A (6 syllables)/B (5 syllables)/C (6 syllables)/B (5 syllables), here is a didactic poem I wrote about cleaning out sprinkler heads:

A Clogged Head

Strolling through my garden,
Something was amiss;
Flowers were drooping,
They shouldn’t look like this!

I inspected further,
It didn’t take long
To find a clogged sprinkler;
That’s what had gone wrong.

To clean the spray head, I
Shut the water off,

My happily watered flowers!

Then unscrewed the nozzle,
And with a tug so soft

Lifted out the filter
And cleared the debris
That clogged all the holes, it
Was easy to see.

I soaked the nozzle in
A pail of warm wat’r,
Cleaned the spray head with
A piece of stiff wire.

The filter was replaced,
The nozzle screwed tight,
Turned the system on
To check if all was right.

The spray’s nice and even,
“Thanks!” my flowers cheered;
“Please clean the sprinkler heads
In spring ev’ry year!”

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A goat for the gorse

Each sunny day upon my way
A goat I pass;
He has a beard of silver grey,
A bell of brass.
And all the while I am in sight
He seems to muse,
And stares at me with all his might
And chews and chews.

~ Robert William Service, “The Goat and I,” 1933

Robert W. Service (1878-1958) was one of the most commercially successful poets of the 20th century, although his most popular works were not highly considered by the literary set of his time. Indeed, Service did not consider his work poetry. He said, “Verse, not poetry, is what I was after … something the man in the street would take notice of and the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in the pub would quote. Yet I never wrote to please anyone but myself; it just happened. I belonged to the simple folks whom I liked to please.”

Gorse in bloom

My husband, Jerry and I, recently bought some property about 5 miles south of Bandon where we hope to build a retirement home. Unfortunately, the property has gobs of gorse, a highly invasive plant species that thrives in disturbed, poor soils.

Anya, an Applegate Valley resident, responded to my recent column about the gorse and provided some helpful advice. Here’s what Anya shared with me:

Goats gorging on gorse

When I lived in Mendocino one goat cleared our land of gorse. They love the stuff. Sheep require fences. Goats can be tethered and do fine. We built a 4′ x 4′ x 4′ barn on skids,with a circle bolt attached to it. We chained the goat to it with a 50′ chain. (they’ll eat rope.) When the circle was clear we moved the barn. A salt block and a bucket of water were the only other requirements. And he really didn’t drink all that much water–got plenty of moisture from the gorse. We got a free unwanted older male goat for this. Males are smelly because they pee on themselves to attract females so many people don’t want them. Wethers are good too.

Goats are herd animals, so don’t use a female–males are more used to being alone. You can use several females if fenced, but a movable shelter means you don’t have the expense and maintenance of fencing.If you’ve never known goats you’ll be surprised how lovable they are. Ours had horns over 2 feet long and never tried to attack us cause we made friends. But you can get ones that have been dehorned. You have to keep their hooves trimmed, but if the land is rocky they do it themselves. Good luck!

Thank you, Anya! In honor of the goat’s penchant for gorse, I tried out the A-B/A-B/C-D/C-D/E-F/E-F/G-H/G-H/ rhyming style of Robert William Service for my own simple verse:

A Goat for the Gorse

Thickets of gorse stand ten feet tall,
a wall of thorns.
We need a goat to eat it all,
one with two horns,
and lots of teeth to chew the gorse,
strong belly, too.
It’s not a job fit for a horse,
but a goat’ll do!

Jerry is hard at work clearing gorse and blackberry bushes!


New gorse is growing on cut trunks. We need a goat!


Gobs of cleared gorse on our property in Bandon



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Flowers by the sea

When over the flowery, sharp pasture’s
edge, unseen, the salt ocean

lifts its form—chicory and daisies
tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone

but color and the movement—or the shape
perhaps—of restlessness, whereas

the sea is circled and sways
peacefully upon its plantlike stem

~ “Flowers by the Sea,” William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

Perhaps it was because William Carlos Williams was both a physician and a poet that attracted him to a style of verse that emphasized careful attention to precise words in order to create images of clear visual detail. Yet, as a poet, Williams was also an experimenter. “Flowers by the Sea” is an example of his exploration of flexible rhythms such as enjambment, which is the continuation from one line to another to form a single unit of meaning. (Emily Dickinson also used this style in many of her poems.) Such an organization allows readers to shape new perceptions of the familiar – in this case of flowers and the sea and their interaction.

Here are some pictures I took of flowers by the sea in Bandon, Oregon, and my own exploration of Williams’ poetic style to describe Romneya coulteri:

Nestled in foliage silvery green,
bold white Romneyas lift a golden orb

to taste the salty breeze,  or perhaps
to smell for wildfires,

for in the charred remains
the “fried egg” flower heads release their progeny

into the acrid air – returning life
to the ruins.

Romneya coulteri

Dierama pulcherrimum

Lavender and palm trees

Bright red pelargonium

Grassy retreat

Cerastium tomentosum


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Barrels of flora

“Wine is poetry in a bottle.”
~ Clifton Fadiman, American editor and author (1904-1999)

Some might say wine is poetry in a barrel, and I could say the same for plants.

I’ve had success growing a variety of flowers, herbs, vegetables, shrubs and dwarf-sized trees planted in wine barrels in my garden at home and at The Bard’s Garden at Hanley Farm. (Shakespeare also mentioned barrels a few times in his works, including a “beer barrel” in “Hamlet”). The aged oak and metal rings of a wine barrel create a rustic look, and I like the fact that I’m growing plants in a unique container that reflects Southern Oregon’s wine culture and my own enthusiasm for wine.

Keep in mind that hot summer sun like the Rogue Valley has been experiencing lately dries out container plants faster than those planted in the ground, so be sure to increase watering as needed. Now is a particularly good time to keep mulch around your container plants, but be sure to add mulch to soil that is already moist.

Local resident Heide Seeman also enjoys growing plants in wine barrels, and recently shared a brilliant way to protect wine barrel gardens from frost with a clear plastic umbrella. Here’s what Heide wrote:

“Since we do have late frosts, I have this magic trick with clear umbrellas. I cut off the handles and bought pieces of copper pipe about 20 inches long, just big enough in diameter to hold the umbrella.

I stick the copper pieces into the middle of the barrel, but leave about 4-5 inches above the soil.

If it gets too warm during the day, I can pull the umbrella up a bit and hook the opening and closing mechanism on the umbrella stem onto a copper pipe to hold the umbrella just a bit above the rim so air can circulate. The umbrella easily adjusts to tilting as well.”

Thanks, Heide! I think this is a great idea for growing winter greens!

Wine barrel garden with clever cover!

Here are a few pictures of plants I’m growing in wine barrels:

Myers lemon tree


Artemisia 'Powis Castle'

Pygmy date palm

Once I started looking for them, I’ve been finding wine barrel gardens everywhere!

Gazania, candytuft and other flowers in Bandon

Pretty pelargoniums in Bandon

Dwarf tree planting in Jacksonville

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“Smoke gets in your eyes” so stay inside

“When your heart’s on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes.” 
~ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” American composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach for the 1933 musical, Roberta.

I realize this old show tune is not really literature. However, it has been around for a good long time, and at least 62 (so far) remakes of the song have been recorded from 1934 to 2014 by singers as diverse as Glenn Miller, Nat King Cole, Cher, Englebert Humperdink (not his real name), Barbra Streisand, Jerry Garcia, Freddy Mercury, Judy Garland, reggae artists Bryan Lee and the Dragonaires and  Zoot and Roulf from The Muppet Show.

One of my favorite renditions of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was performed by jazz artist, Patti Austin.

I feel relaxed whenever I listen to this golden oldie, but I’m anxious about all of the smoke in the Rogue Valley getting into my eyes when I garden. The other day, I ran my finger over the hood of my car, and it came up black with soot. That stuff isn’t just getting on my car, either; it seeps into the house and me.

If I’m going to be outside for awhile during smoky days, I protect my eyes with sunglasses and my lungs with a respirator that’s designed for smoke.

Plants have pores, too, called stomata, on their leaves and stems. Residue from wildfire smoke can clog a plant’s stomata and disrupt photosynthesis; that’s why it’s a good idea to wash off foliage that’s been exposed to extended periods of smoke, preferably in the morning so plants have time to dry off and mildew doesn’t have a chance to settle in.

Let’s face it – gardening in extreme heat and unhealthy air is not fun. It’s best to stay inside when the air quality is poor. Now is a good time to focus on harvesting all of those tomatoes and peppers that are becoming ripe, and to becoming a little more relaxed about weeding and deadheading. I’ve decided that I’m going for the natural look.

While I’m relaxing inside on a smoky day, what better song to play than “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”?

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Childhood memories of growing eggplant

“To this day, I cannot see a bright daffodil, a proud gladiola, or a smooth eggplant without thinking of Papa. Like his plants and trees, I grew up as part of his garden.” ~ Leo Buscaglia,”Papa My Father,” 1989

As I was growing up in Central Florida, I was part of my dad’s garden, too. He didn’t grow daffodils or gladiolas, but he did grow eggplant. This unusual vegetable (technically a berry) was my introduction into how the food I loved at the dinner table was grown and harvested outdoors (not at Winn Dixie). Helping my dad in the garden began a lifelong connection between the earth and my food that I have tried to pass along to my own children.

'Black Beauty' eggplant growing in my garden

Now I grow eggplant (Solanum melongena) in my own garden, and I particularly enjoy growing heirlooms that have a long history behind them:

  • ‘Black Beauty’ – introduced in the U.S. in 1902
  • ‘Long Purples’ – first recorded in U.S. in 1855
  • ‘Lisatada de Gandia’  – introduced in France in early 1850s
  • ‘Old White Egg’ – introduced in England in 1500s; this cultivar is why eggplant is called eggplant (now they are called aubergines in England)

I grow eggplants because they thrive in my hot backyard garden, they grow well in grow bags, they have pretty flowers and foliage, and I enjoy eating them grilled and in eggplant parmigiana (my dad’s recipe). In addition, eggplant is a nutritious and healthy food:

  • They contain antioxidants to fight cancer.
  • They are rich in manganese for healthy nerve functioning.
  • They are filled with dietary fiber for colon health.
  • They are low in calories (although my eggplant parmigiana is not).

Blossom drop

Other than some earwig damage early in the season, I don’t have much trouble with insect pests or diseases invading my eggplants. The biggest challenge I encounter growing eggplant is blossom drop due to intense heat. Triple-digit temperatures dry out the container soil quickly, and I have to be prepared to adjust the drip irrigation so the plants don’t become stressed. Eggplants need 2-3 inches of water every week, and it’s best to water thoroughly less frequently so the moisture reaches the deep roots of the plant.

Extreme heat also causes the flower’s pollen to become inactive because the stressed plant is trying to reduce the amount of energy it needs to support fruit. I can relate to this – when I’m stressed, I certainly can’t handle any new projects!  Providing shade for my plants during hot afternoons has helped reduce blossom drop, although I have had some casualties during our recent heat wave.

Even though I’m not 100 percent successful at preventing blossom drop, I will continue growing and learning about eggplant. Every time I cut an eggplant from its stalk and carry it

Homegrown purple eggplant and tomatoes

into the house, I think of my dad and the garden I helped him tend when I was a kid. It’s a memory that’s definitely worth a few setbacks along the way.

I found this beautiful memory of a garden with eggplants written by English novelist and poet, Doris Lessing (1919-2013). She wrote:

“The smell of manure, of sun on foliage, of evaporating water, rose to my head; two steps farther, and I could look down into the vegetable garden enclosed within its tall pale of reeds – rich chocolate earth studded emerald green, frothed with the white of cauliflowers, jeweled with the purple globes of eggplant and the scarlet wealth of tomatoes.”

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