Research is one of my favorite things about writing a novel. Though I will never turn down the chance to tear through a library like Hermione, the research that gets me really excited is the stuff you can’t get out of a book. If I was smart like my friend Maya, I would use writing a novel as an excuse to research things I’m already passionate about. Instead, I studied just enough ethnography in grad school to justify chasing characters down rabbit holes in the name of understanding and find myself doing things like joining a hackerspace and going to a startup launch party and trying (and failing epically) to learn how to program and wandering around questionable parts of San Francisco in an attempt to understand an extremely intelligent character in my thesis novel who gambles on an obviously terrible startup idea.

A few months ago, I wrote a scene that starts with Professor Julius, one of the characters in my novel SIREN, working in a vegetable garden. It wasn’t an important scene, but he was an important character–the protagonist’s mentor–and his choice to keep a garden piqued my curiosity. SIREN takes place at a boarding school that houses and feeds students and faculty alike, but Professor Julius wasn’t just gardening to unwind. He was gardening to feed himself, and I couldn’t figure out why. I knew that the food at the school wasn’t bad. The novel begins with a character sneaking into the kitchen for a loaf of the school cook’s homemade bread, so why would Professor Julius go through the trouble?

I decided to investigate.

Sunflower Starts

These sunflowers might look innocent, but they are secretly plotting to take over the world.

Gardening should be in my blood. Some of my earliest memories are of digging potatoes with my grandfather and stealing peas from my parents’ vegetable garden, but apparently some things aren’t genetic. I have tried to keep a garden in four states and three different climates, and almost everything I’ve tried to grow has shriveled and died. And that was when I started with plants that had already gotten past the delicate seedling stage and were already hardened by life at Home Depot.

potted plants


Logic (by which I mean baseball) would say that I’d struck out, and I was beginning to think that Herbology was a class at Hogwarts because keeping a garden growing is just magic in a floppy hat. But writing Professor Julius’s kale patch and inheriting a seemingly empty planter box* gave me just enough of an excuse to start collecting seed packets again.

I had no reason to believe that this time would be any different than my previous attempts to grow things, but luck has been on my side so far this year. Before I had a chance to do what I usually do (dirt + seeds + crossed fingers = ?), I stumbled on Garden Betty, who has been blogging through the process of going from seed to vegetable. Simple things like knowing when seedlings need heat and when they need light has made all the difference. It’s been a little less than a month now, and a tray of seedlings is occupying my desk, Lemon Queen sunflowers are threatening to take over the kitchen, and a row of radishes is putting up their first leaves in the planter box outside. I’m no gardening expert, but I can list a dozen things I’ve done wrong now, and when I run into trouble I’m starting to learn what questions to ask.


This was my desk…

When I started gardening, I thought (optimistically) that I was going to learn about self-reliance and experience the satisfaction of biting into a tomato I grew from a seed. If my luck continues to hold, maybe I will. In the meantime, I no longer wonder why Professor Julius keeps a garden.

And that has made all the difference.

All of my basil plants are named Pesto.

All of my basil plants are named Pesto.


*The planter box was actually planted with strawberries. Thank goodness for Twitter: