Archive for March, 2010

The Gardener in Me

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

On this blog I mostly write about books and book travel, dogs and family. But you know what has me jazzed lately?


Yes, that simple, age-old pursuit of sticking hands in dirt and nurturing seeds into plants and plants into harvests. I’ve always had a passion for it, ever since I was a kid. As I described in The Longest Trip Home, I used to be my father’s yardwork sidekick, helping him cut grass, rake leaves, pull weeds, and trim hedges. Then in ninth grade, I sprouted some popcorn seeds on my windowsill and watched them grow all winter. (Yeah, I was growing some other things, too, but you have to read the book for that.) My windowsill popcorn led me to dig up part of the backyard. “You want to do what?” Dad asked with some agitation, sensing another lame-brain kid idea that would become his headache. But he relented, and in my square of soil I planted tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, herbs, and lettuce. I was hooked.

All through high school and college, I kept that summer garden going. Dad’s fears were never realized; I stuck with my little plot, keeping it weeded and tidy and hauling in a surprising amount of food. Mom, one of the world’s great cooks, was thrilled. She made good use of the backyard produce I brought in each day. One of her great garden creations was a dish we called eggplant pizza. She would sauté eggplant slabs in olive oil, then top each with a slice of tomato, fresh herbs and swiss cheese and placed it under the broiler. Who knew such a dreaded vegetable could be so delicious?

After college, I continued to find whatever bit of soil I could around the various rentals I lived in, planting a few tomatoes and whatever else I could fit. Then I moved to Florida, married Jenny and settled into our first house on Churchill Road in West Palm Beach. The first thing I did was plant a garden, using all the knowledge I had acquired since that first effort back when I was 14. The whole bloody thing was fried to a crisp within weeks. Florida, I learned, played by its own set of rules. For one thing, you planted vegetables not in the spring but in the fall. This way the tender plants avoided the scorching summer sun. For another the sandy soil needed serious amending to nurture anything other than sand fleas. I began reading Organic Gardening magazine, learned how to compost, and how to repel insects without chemicals.

In one of those life twists no one could predict, a decade later I found myself moving my family to Pennsylvania to become editor of that magazine. While at Organic Gardening, I did what you’d expect: I gardened with abandon, on a grand scale. We now owned two acres of land, and I dug up plenty of it for flower and vegetable beds. I grew everything from corn on the cob to purple potatoes to giant pumpkins to heirloom melons. And tomatoes. So many of them, we ate all we could, canned as many as we had jars for, and gave the rest away.

One year led to another. I left the gardening magazine for the Philadelphia Inquirer, but kept the big garden going. Until 2004 when I began to work on my first book, Marley & Me. Suddenly, I had a new preoccupation — and not a lot of time for toiling in the soil. After the book came out and became a bestseller, and then a movie, the time crunch only grew. I spent weeks on the road, and the garden beds filled with weeds, sad orphans of neglect.

This is a long way of saying that, six years later, the gardener in me is back. We live in a new home now, just a few miles from our old place, and with even more land to dig up. My life has calmed down considerably, and this past winter I found myself back to my old snowbound preoccupation of perusing the seed catalogs, which are to gardening what pornography is to sex. As soon as the ground thawed, I sent a soil sample off to Penn State University and was thrilled all out of proportion to the news that the earth beneath my feet is pretty close to perfect, not too acid, not too base, and needed no amendments other than good old fashioned compost.

As I write this, the daylilies and sedums and other perennials are all poking their heads up, and the peas I sowed on St. Patrick’s Day are just breaking ground. The daffodils are in bloom, and the cardoon and and rhubarb and oregano and tarragon made it through the winter and are back, too. Down in the cellar beneath a row of fluorescent lights, some 200 vegetable seedlings are enjoying a pampered introduction to life. They better not get too comfortable. In a few weeks they are going to find the world is a harsh and hostile place, filled with bitter winds, scorching sun, and ravenous predators. (I have a love-hate relationship with the scores of deer and groundhogs around here). But my little charges have my assurance I’ll do everything in my power to help them through it. First up: a new fence worthy of Leavenworth.

And that’s what’s happening on this end. The promise of a new spring. It’s good to be back.

From Philly to Florida

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Apologies for being AWOL on my blog here for the past several weeks. The month of February was largely consumed by…three guesses…yes, snow shoveling. Here in eastern Pennsylvania, it snowed and it snowed. And it snowed. And, being one of those guys who believes only weenie men hire other men to cut their grass and shovel their driveways, I pretty much made a full-time job out of snow removal. It was fun up to a point. Man against nature, mano a mano, and all that. And then I began rationalizing it as a way to stay fit without joining a gym. Screw the Stairmaster; I had Snowmaster. In the final days, I just gave in and did as my father used to do: offered up my agony to the poor souls in purgatory.

In the midst of the February blizzard month, I got the great idea of a South Florida getaway. It is where Jenny and I spent twelve years of our lives and where all three of our kids were born. Of course, the night before we were supposed to fly out, yet more snow hit. A lot more. I spent five hours plowing and shoveling, getting my tractor stuck (and stuck good) twice. But I did manage to dig us out, and at 6:30 the next morning we were on our way to Philadelphia International Airport, the only car on the road. The computer said our flight was on schedule; and so did an airline rep I reached by phone. We arrived at the airport and were overjoyed to find not a single person in line at security. Our lucky day! Then we got to the gate and I found out why. Our 10 a.m. flight was still sitting in Orlando. The crew was stranded in Pittsburgh. And all runways in Philadelphia were closed. The whole family tried to be philosophical about it. Hey, in every life a few snow emergencies must fall. Scrabble, anyone?

We made it to West Palm Beach six hours late (not bad, considering), and burst out of the airport doors to enjoy the balmy tropical air. Whoa! Retreat! An icy blast greeted us, more worthy of Boston than Boca. Suffice it to say we didn’t do a lot of swimming or even sunbathing during our chilly five-day stay, but we did see a lot of old, great friends and had a lot of fun. We visited our old houses in West Palm Beach and Boa Raton and other spots that I described in Marley & Me. I showed the kids where Marley fouled the public beach and where the neighbor girl was stabbed. We went by their old school and favorite park. I didn’t know teenagers were capable of such nostalgia. And on the warmest day — a respectable high of 67 but with biting winds — all three kids and I threw hypothermia to the wind and went body surfing. Freezing but great fun. When we woke on our last day in Florida, the thermometer read 42 degrees; a few hours later when we landed in Philadelphia, the thermometer read…. this is not a misprint…. 42 degrees.

And now March is here and hints of spring. I spotted my first swamp cabbage popping out of the ground in the marsh, and the forsythia and cherry branches I cut last week and brought inside just burst into glorious bloom. My mother used to force blooms each year in late winter, and now I do, too. And every time I do, I think of her.

I’ve also been keeping fairly busy on the author front. Last week I participated in a panel discussion sponsored by the Philadelphia Free Library and One Film, One Philadelphia. Our topic was books that have been made into movies. I told the story of how I learned 20th Century Fox wanted to turn my book into a movie (while standing in a parking lot in Stuart, Florida), and how the process went (about as smoothly as any author could hope for). On Friday I spoke to two groups of children at Moravian Academy in Bethlehem, PA, not far from my home. And the day before that I signed copies of my book at the Moravian Book Shop (, which continues to offer signed and personalized copies of all of my books for shipping anywhere in the world. On March 16, I will be in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to speak at a fund-raiser breakfast for Erin’s House for Grieving Children. It’s a great group that helps a lot of kids who have lost a parent or sibling, and I’m looking forward to speaking there. Come on out if you’re in the area.

And finally, my latest illustrated children’s book, Marley and the Kittens, is coming off the printing presses as I write this and will be in bookstores late next month. More on that as we get closer.

Happy Almost Spring, everyone. We earned this one.