It begins. Another season of gardening is under way. The first tender shoots of vegetables are just starting to peep out of the ground: beets, spinach, rainbow radishes, lettuce and two varietals of carrots.

A new season brings new characters to our community garden. Our neighbor, Bonnie, has retired to Florida. She left behind a giant rosemary bush that managed to survive the awful winter. The new tenant farmer hasn’t shown his/her hand yet.

Debbie, a new gardener last year, built wooden terraces and carefully tended her plot. But she was evicted by the Alexandria city overseers, because she actually lived over the border in neighboring Arlington (along with several others). Too bad, since she actually took care of her plot, which is more than we can say about some of our fellow gardeners. People fall in love with the idea of gardening, and when reality sets in, many abandon their plots and let the weeds take over.

We chatted with our friend Anne, who has gardened at Chinquapin longer than we have. One of her new garden neighbors is a chef from the steakhouse Charlie Palmer. We tittered at the chef who knows so little about the food he cooks. He took a set of onions and planted them in one clump. He’s already put in some tomatoes and peppers, a risky move this early.

Obviously, we community garden veterans have our eye on the chef. Stay tuned. The season is just beginning and the plot thickens…

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I still have a sense of wonder about the city where I have lived almost my entire adulthood. So much to do and see, from sports and culture to nature. In this case: First Friday Dupont, where once a month a handful of Washington art galleries throw open their doors for a public party.

Think of it as a pub crawl with art.

Thanks to a tip from my friend Chris, the art enthusiast, we walked from gallery to gallery, savoring a bit of wine, a cracker with cheese and some amazing art.

First a word about Chris. We have known Chris and Jeff forever (and I’ll leave it at that), and it’s always great when you discover a new side to an old friend. Quite simply, Chris opened my eyes to art. If you go to an art gallery or a museum or even a garden with Chris, she helps you understand the symbolism, the history, the back story. She is a docent at the National Gallery of Art and she helps you find things in paintings or sketches or sculpture that the casual observer (me) would never see.

Our first stop Friday night was a gallery showing the works of their friend Eleanor Kotlarik Wang


a flyem Eleanor

Using paper, wood and canvas, Eleanor layers silkscreened images with paint and then applies sanding and scratches. The result, as her website says, is “Organic forms (that) appear to float … They are airy, free and unattached to any sense of space or time.” The colors were amazing, ranging from royal blues and purples to yellows and oranges and deep red touched by gold. It was a thrill to hear Eleanor talk about her art as we strolled from frame to frame.

At another gallery, tucked away in a historic carriage house, we were wowed by the work of a Bulgarian artist, Kiril Jeliazkov. Huge paintings in vibrant colors depicted Brazilian dancers, a street scene at the Eiffel Tower, a café in Paris, and taxis crowding dusky New York street. His public art has been exhibited around the world, including a PGA golf tournament in Palm Beach.

At the end of the night, we made a pact to spend more First Fridays at Dupont Circle, then drifted toward home thinking about art. 

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

The legend goes like this: After God finished molding Man from earth, he took the remaining material, shaped it into a date palm, and placed it in the Garden of Eden. Dates are mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible and 20 times in the Qur’an.

There were dates everywhere in Abu Dhabi. The Arabian native fruit is an ancient sign of hospitality.

Dates were essential to the survival of Arab tribes. The fruit was an essential part of their diet; they consumed several pounds of dates a day, washed down with camel milk. And the date palm tree was used for everything from fabric to lumber.

There are more than 100 varieties of dates, mostly grown in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. I saw a dizzying array of them at an Arab version of a farmer’s market on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. You could get everything at this market: fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, fish. There was an entire row of date vendors. At one shop, I asked the vendor to make up a sampler of every variety he sold. They were different colors, and some were drier than others — but honestly, to me, one pretty much tasted like another. I assume a native palate would be able to discern the differences.

Date Market

Date Market

We also saw a date palm orchard at the oasis of Al Ain.  Our guide told us the Emiratis take great pride in serving dates harvested from their own plot of land.

Dates are a heart-healthy food, low in cholesterol and rich in potassium and iron. The average date has about 25 calories.

That is, until you turn them into an incredible appetizer, Devils on Horseback. My friend Paula turned us on to them years ago – she stuffed them with goat cheese, wrapped them in thin-cut bacon, and broiled them until the bacon was done. (Obviously a Muslim wouldn’t wrap a date in pork!) The contrast of salty, sweet and creamy is amazing.

I brought home a box of chocolate-covered dates, which my colleagues gobbled up. Now I’m dreaming of that appetizer…

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

Imagine the countryside dotted with cattle. Replace the image of cattle with camels. Now picture herds of camels loping across the desert sands, trailed by a white-robed shepherd.

This is the enduring vision I will keep of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Not the skyscrapers that soar high above the Persian Gulf, nor the Emiratis shrouded mysteriously in abayas and kanduras, but this majestic animal icon of their history.

1941590_10201667805282346_1661266698_oFor centuries the Arab tribes roamed the desert, bedouins whose simple life revolved around the camel. The camels carried them across the vast windswept sands, provided milk and yogurt and meat, and eventually gave up their skins and hair and even their bones for tents, clothing and other necessities. A man’s worth was measured in part by the number of camels he owned.

The camels have long since given way to Ferraris and palaces and other lifestyle choices of the rich. But the Emiratis still keep herds of camels, perhaps to remind them of the humble roots that preceded their oil wealth. Even today, they race their camels and take great pride in winning. There is even a camel beauty contest.

I had a brief immersion course in ‘camel’ on my trip to UAE. We stopped by the race track at Al Wathba and watched the camels train. Then on to Al Ain, an oasis surrounded by 3,000 farms and the highest concentration of camels in the world.

As we drove to Al Ain, herds of camels appeared now and then against the beige and rust-colored sand. When we pulled over to the side of the road, the inquisitive animals would come right up to the fence line to ponder us.

They are handsome – white (primarily from Sudan), brown and black (Saudi Arabia). These are one-hump camels, known as dromedary. They can go two weeks without water and they can live for 50 years. Their small heads are dominated by doe-like eyes and comically ridiculous lips and teeth, offset by narrow mid-sections. Their giraffe-like legs taper to plate-sized padded feet.  They make the craziest sounds (audio/video here).

Al Ain still houses a camel souk in the plains below Jebel Hafeet, the brutish limestone mountains that separate Dubai from Oman. The market is divided into more than 100 neat pens, where a thousand camels (and goats, sheep and cattle) are corralled for potential buyers to ogle.

Expensive white SUVs slowly circle the paddocks, often filled with parents and children, selecting the camels or other animals they want to buy. A camel destined for slaughter goes for 3,000 dirham, or about $850. (At the market, camel meat is cheap – less than $3 a pound.) A cow, which will provide milk and birth calves for years, sells for 10,000. And a fortunate leggy animal chosen to work with the highly-prized racing camels can fetch 24,000 dirham.

camel souk

camel souk

We lingered at the camel souk, enthralled by the beautiful beasts, from week-old babies to full-grown animals that top 7 feet high.

On the drive back to the city lights, it was easy to dream of the centuries when man and camel roamed the endless desert, before oil rigs rendered the camel obsolete.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

You may have heard: Washington DC is full of snow wimps. Even the threat of snow prompts schools to close and governors to order a state of emergency.

Here in Alexandria, Winter Storm Pax has dumped eight inches of snow, which is now being crusted over by sleet and rain. Ugh, some heavy-duty shoveling awaits.

But today’s snow is just a blip compared to some of the worst snowstorms we’ve weathered here. A recap, with thanks to NOAA – and apologies to my friends and family who live in REAL snowbelts. The difference is that you can handle it. Here, not so much.

January 7-13, 1996. NOAA calls it the Great Furlough Storm because it came on the heels of the infamous federal government shutdown. Just as federal workers were about to return to work, Mother Nature intervened. By the time three separate storms blew through, Washington was buried under up to 3 feet of snow. At our house, Will’s friend Nick came for a sleepover and wound up stranded at our house for several days. Fond memories of seeing those childhood buddies romping in the snow.

February 15-17, 2003. Call this one the President’s Day storm. Much like the current storm, this one started down south and moved up the eastern seaboard, dumping 16 inches to 26 inches of snow. Will and Sam built snow caves in the front yard.

February 13-14, 2007. The Valentine’s Day sleet storm. Snow turned to ice which knocked out power. Sam was visiting a friend at Boston College by way of Jet Blue. The airline canceled hundreds of flights and stranded Sam, who wound up taking the train home on a trip that took 12 hours. Jet Blue took years to recover from an operational and PR disaster.

December 18-19, 2009. The Christmas Eve storm dumped 16 to 18 inches of snow on all three area airports at the start of the holiday travel season, snarling air traffic for the rest of the holiday.

Snow Men

Snow Men

February 5-10, 2010. This storm spawned the nickname Snowmageddon. It was really two back-to-back storms. The first dumped 18 to 32 inches of snow, followed a few days later by another foot. The one-two punch broke the previous record set by the Knickerbocker storm of 1922, infamous for a collapsed theater that killed 100. At our house, we were relieved that Sam was still home for an elongated holiday break before he went abroad for a semester. Young strong shoulders.

What are your most vivid snow memories?

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening


I was talking with my mother, cell phone in hand, idly straightening things as I walked around the main floor of our house. Then I walked past the living room window and froze: A police car circled our cul-de-sac and parked in front of our house. Followed by a second police car.

I hastily bid adieu to my mother (sorry Mom!) and hollered to CRR, “There are two police cars parked out front!”

Why the panic?

A seemingly random killing in Alexandria had occurred two days earlier, following another in November. Both within a mile of our house.

We like to think we live in a small town. Alexandria, Va., has fewer than 150,000 people, and the fabric of this city is still as tightly woven as when George Washington called it home. Many conversations include the phrase, “You know so-and-so, right?” and the answer is usually yes.

So these two recent unsolved murders in a neighborhood where crime is almost nonexistent, following on two earlier killings since we moved here, have rattled an entire community. The murders have this in common: The victims were shot in broad daylight in the entryway of their homes, either suggesting they knew the killer or unhesitatingly answered the doorbell as most people do in this area.

Or did, past tense. We are all paying attention to our surroundings now.

We talk about the oddball connections with the victims. The latest, Ruthanne Lodato, is the sister of my longtime gynecologist, who lives just a few blocks over from us. The November victim, Ron Kirby, was a respected transportation planner who was known by several friends and colleagues. One of the earlier victims, Nancy Dunning, was a real estate agent who wanted to sell our house on Windsor Avenue at a price we deemed too low (turned out her estimate was spot on, ruefully). Another was Robert Rixse, a doctor in our pediatric practice.

If you live in a minority or poor neighborhood of Washington, murders happen all the time and rarely break into the Washington Post metro section. But these killings made the front page, occurring as they did in an affluent neighborhood where everybody knows your name, as the “Cheers” TV slogan went.

It is a comfort to know that Alexandria is such a caring city, even as we mourn the dead and speculate about the possibility of a serial killer.

Back to the police presence on Sunday. I walked out and asked the three policemen what was going on. They said they had a “message to deliver” to my next-door neighbor. It probably wasn’t good news, but it was a relief to know it wasn’t related to the murderer in our midst.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

At a holiday party, one of the guests regaled us with stories about her neighbor, a famed pastry chef at the French Embassy in Washington. Arnaud Herodet had chucked his glamorous career after tiring of being on call at all hours for M and Mme Ambassador and opened a catering business out of his home.

Here was the clincher: Arno also sells his classic French pastries every weekend at a roadside stand at Gilbert’s Corner, a notch in the road (U.S. 50) half way between Washington and Middleburg. This called for a road trip.

So today Chris and I drove out to Arno’s stand, a couple of tables stacked with pastry cases beneath an awning – open to the bracing 45-degree weather and downwind from the BBQ smokers that also sell on the corner. (Arno says the lobster stand there will re-open in March, followed by a produce stand in April)

Arno stood alone behind his glorious offerings, and told us about each pastry as we oohed and aahed. It was almost too painful to choose, but between the two of us, we pretty much got one of each. French pastries always sound sexier in French, so I’ll crib liberally from Arno’s brochure.

  • Tarte Citron Meringue (lemon tart with a brulee’d meringue)
  • Tarte aux Fruits Frais (tart topped with custard and fresh fruits)
  • Tarte Linzer ala Confiture de Framboise (tart with custard topped with raspberries)
  • Choux au Caramel (Pastry filled with rum cream topped with caramel)
  • Tarte Boudaloue aux Peches (tart filled with cream topped with peaches)
  • Tarte aux Noix de Pecan et Rhum (tart topped with pecans and rum-soaked raisins)

There were another dozen varieties – all painstakingly constructed pastry masterpieces. My mouth was watering as I picked out five. As Arno placed them carefully in a box and I pondered the remaining empty space in the box, Arno gently pointed out that I had neglected the chocolate offerings. Ah! So a piece of the Tarte Chocolat Pistache (chocolate crust filled with pistachio chocolate cream topped with chocolate curls and whipped cream) joined the crowded box.

amazing pastries aux Arno

amazing pastries aux Arno

Then Chris picked out her boxful of exquisite pastries along with two bags of macarons (too many flavors for me to even recall).

The gallant Arno showed us his Facebook page, chatted about his business, and sent us away with brochures describing his catering service. You can find him every Saturday and Sunday at Gilbert’s Corner, selling pastries to the Middleburg elite and just plain hungry folks like us. Oh, they were delicious!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening


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