Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Oh, my aching garden

My hamstrings are reminding me that gardening season is here. I'm a middle class American, doing a sedentary job; I don't do a lot of squatting in the course of my work. But Sunday was a bright and beautiful day, coming on the heels of a lot of rain and gloom, and Chuck and I worked on the garden. And, like every year, I am reminded of my forgotten resolution of the previous year, namely, to get into gardening shape by doing squats.

I've mentioned before that we are doing Square Foot Gardening this year. (Or, as I heard Chuck telling one of our sons on the telephone while we were out working in the garden "Your mother is micromanaging the garden this year.") I've had the book for a while, but have just been too lazy to try to convince Chuck that we needed to do it, and then to actually DO it. But since we won't have access to a CSA this year, and since I am trying to make more than 50% of what we eat local, I wanted to get the highest yield possible from our garden.

We have 2 beds, 19 by 4 feet, for a total of 152 square feet.

On Sunday we (meaning Chuck) raked and smoothed both beds, laid drip irrigation hose in both beds (we used this last year and we were really pleased with the results), and laid planters paper on one bed, to suppress weeds. We didn't have enough paper to cover both beds, leading to a complex negotiation as to whether we will buy more paper for the second bed, or use a newspaper substitute.

Then we marked the squares on the paper covered bed. We used some synthetic green twine and aluminum wire bent into stakes. Finally, we planted 4 squares of onions- 72 to pull as green onions and 18 for large onions. We also planted potatoes. This year we are trying a tip we read in Mother Earth News, and planted in cardboard boxes.

One thing did occur to me in the middle of the night Sunday- I had forgotten to put in place anything to support the beans or tomatoes. Mel Bartholomew, the Square Foot Guru, suggests stainless steel pipe, but I don't know if we can afford that. We'll have to give this some thought.

I was reading Susan's blog, over at In My Kitchen Garden. She rejoices in the arrival of spring, but reminds us of how quickly things change in the season of growth. Let me add my voice to hers in reminding you to stop and look at all the tiny signs of spring that are all around us.

As it happens, I had taken some pictures of what's popping up in the woodland garden, and the horseradish beds. The new seed starts in the greenhouse window are looking good, too. I have 2 kinds of eggplant, 2 kinds of tomatoes and 4 kinds of peppers.

(Susan's camera is way better than mine, I think I'll have to take a look and see what she uses. Very few of the pictures I took came out well.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Party Dog

Well, last week I posted pictures of my grandpuppies for weekend dog blogging. This week, it's Party Dog, the dog with garb for every occasion. Here he is wearing his Mardi Gras outfit.

Party Dog, better known as Ender, came to live with us in late spring, 1995, just before my older son's 15th birthday. He was about 7 months old, and teenaged boy plus teenaged dog made a great pair. My son would put on his Rollerblades, and E would tow him around our neighborhood- they made quite a picture.

Ender stayed with us when my son went off to college, transfering his loyalty to my younger son, until he also moved away. E showed himself to be an urbane, cosmopolitan fellow, meeting the world in the form of the foreign exchange students who came to live with us. He also learned to tolerate a variety of college students who lived with us at different times. He preferred students who provided treats.

The last few months of his life, Ender discovered MySpace, and did quite a bit of blogging. You can read his thoughts here. He died 3 months ago, today, and we miss him.

Weekend Dog Blogging is hosted by Sweetnicks- you can see the full line-up each Sunday

Monday, March 19, 2007

An Appetite of Robins?

Most of us know to call a large group of loud black birds a murder of crows, thanks to the 1999 movie starring Cuba Gooding. But how many of us call the large group of starlings we see wheeling through the sky a murmuration? I don't know who chooses the collective nouns to identify large groups of animals, but I am always fascinated to read them. I understand an ostentation of peacocks, and a charm of finches, even an instrusion of cockroaches. But a bouquet of pheasants? A business of ferrets?

On Sunday afternoon, I glanced out the window here by the computer, and noticed a large number of robins perched there. We had snow on Friday, and there was still quite a bit on the ground, so I assumed the robins were waiting hungrily for a patch of ground to thaw out so they could eat some worms.

A bit later we went upstairs to fix dinner. As I washed my hands at the sink, it looked to me as though the hollybush in the backyard was getting ready to pull up roots and walk off; branches were trembling and shaking, the whole tree seemed to be in motion. None of the other trees in the yard were moving, so I looked more closely.

The holly bush was full of robins, feasting on the hollyberries. The tree is large, at least 10 feet tall, and big around, and I estimate there were 50 or more in the tree. You can't see them well in the picture, but if you look at the midpoint between the clothesline post and the red thing on the dog run, you can make out a stack of 4 birds, one on top of the other, as if they were sitting on a ladder. The tree is thick with them.

Today however, my tree is as empty of robins as it is of hollyberries. What better to call a large group of robins than an Appetite? If you would like to learn more animal group names, check out the San Diego Zoo animal group names page.

Despite the snow and the miserable head cold that struck me down over the weekend, it seems that spring is here. On the garden front, the leeks are growing valiantly in the greenhouse window, holding thier own but still looking like nothing more than tiny blades of grass. The tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds are luxuriating on the waterbed; planted on 3/14, only the Flame tomatoes have sprouted, everything else remains stubbornly under the soil.

I got my last shipment of seeds today, two kales, Black Tuscan and Red Russian from Sow Organic, in Oregon. I'm frustrated by the snow and cold. I want to plant things. In other years we have been able to get our potatoes in the ground on St. Patrick's Day; we weren't able to do that this year. I am thinking of starting some lettuces in a window box planter and trying to grow them in the window greenhouse. I tell myself I should be taking a more Buddhist approach and appreciate the end of winter without wishing it away. So I watch the robins and think about the purple flowers of the hellebore, buried under the snow near the waterfall, invisible for now, but there none the less.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Weekend Dinosaur, err, Dog blogging

I'm so excited about the idea of weekend dog blogging that I am writing this on Tuesday and saving it until the weekend. And these aren't even my dogs!
These behemoths belong to my son and his girlfriend, but they are so cute I am compelled to show them to the world. Beefeater Maximus, the lovely brindle gentleman, is about 10 months old, and weigh about 140 pounds. His fawn friend is Sequoia- she's about a year old and slightly over 100 pounds.
I first met Beefy in September, when my older son brought him along to my younger son's wedding. He was a cutie, about 4 or 5 months old. My dog Ender, a crabby old man of 12, didn't like him one bit, but the rest of us were captivated. My son told me that English Mastiffs are very low energy dogs, big couch potatoes, in fact.

Because Ender had some antisocial tendencies, before the majority of the wedding guests arrived he took a short vacation to the Dog Spa for the weekend, but Beefy didn't get banished. He did spend the afternoon looking around for E, with an expression on his face that said "Hey, where is that guy? He wasn't very much fun, but I miss him!"
All the guys went out for the bachelors party, and I got to be the good grandmother, babysitting the pup. My son told me that Beefy would sleep. HAH!
The perfect couch potato decided to have a very active period between 1 and 4 AM. He found and chewed on everything, and I mean EVERYTHING! It had been a very long time since I had either a baby or a puppy in the house, and some might say I am "housekeeping challenged". That meant that there was a lot of stuff to interest a puppy. Especially balls of handspun yarn, sitting so attractively in a bushel basket. And my dirty laundry, waiting in a pile to go to the laundry room. After a couple of hours of this, I thought my head would explode! I had to call my husband and tell him to come home RIGHT NOW!
But he is awfully cute. And it is kind of like watching dinosaurs in the backyard.

Weekend Dog Blogging is hosted by Sweetnicks; you can see a full line up on Sunday.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Yesterday, the first crocuses.

Today, a skein of tundra swans migrating overhead

Tomorrow, a predicted 7 inches of snow by 7 AM.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How's That Local Eating Thing Going?

My email yesterday brought me some thoughts from the Eat Local Challenge blog. VI gives a report card of sorts on how the Eating Local thing is going at his house here at the end of winter. I decided I'd take stock as well, and found we are doing OK, but not as well as I thought we were.

Our last couple of trips to the grocery store I had to buy garlic and onions, spinach and kale. Two sweet potatoes each week. Once the bounty of Texas Ruby Red grapefruits sent each year by my parents ran out, Chuck has been buying Clementines (are they oranges or tangerines?), and he has been purchasing some nasty, hard pears since we ate up our supply of local apples. I bought a parsnip and a bunch of celery to make some vegetable stock. Bleu Cheese and Feta, and the plastic American he insists on eating found it's way into the cart as well. Stonyfield Farm yogurt and shredded cheese in bags, a loaf of nut and flax bread round out the purchases, along with some brown rice rice cakes and a half dozen organic avocados from the local natural food market.

I guess that's not too bad, although I am embarrassed about the cheese. Good local artisan cheese isn't a problem around here- I get marvelous sheep's milk Romano Peccorino from the same guy I buy my lamb and pork from. His cheddar and gouda are pretty good, as well, but somehow I can't bring myself to shred them up and put them in things. Hence the bags. Another local dairy, Keswick Creamery has a nice selection of cheese, but are a little more difficult to find.
I used to always make my own yogurt, but I used non fat dry milk to save money. No way that's stuff is local, or even organic or sustainably produced. I did purchase a half gallon of good local milk this week, from Trickling Springs Creamery, and I will have to decide which is more important to me- the fat-free aspect or the local aspect. I struggle with the Stonyfield Farms piece of this- they look good, I haven't heard anything bad about them, but they aren't local.

In my freezer I have a ton of fruit- peaches, cherries, black raspberries, strawberries. Last year when we were feeding 4 people, every Sunday morning Chuck made a huge fruit salad for breakfast, supplementing whatever fruit was in season here with tropicals and out-of-season grocery store fruit. When we started really watching where our food came from, I froze or canned a LOT of the summer fruits I love so that we could have the good stuff all year round. I didn't think about the fact that 2 of our four Sunday morning breakfasters wouldn't be with us this year. Now that we are only 2 people eating, we quickly discovered a fruit dichotomy. I love the summer fruits in my salads; berries, cherries, peaches, while he prefers melons, kiwi and the fall fruits- apples and pears. Sunday morning fruit salads became a point of mild contention, and sort of fell by the wayside.

However, I have another theory about the demise of the fruit breakfast salad. Eating locally is by necessity eating within season. More and more I find that I don't want to eat things that are not in season; in the summer I have to have a salad every day, but in December, salads are not appealing. January sees me making pots of soup that cook for days in the crock pot, August has us eating vats of gazpacho. I know that fruit will taste good, but it just isn't what my body wants right now.

Vegetables- I have winter and summer squash in the freezer- I have been using them to make our breakfast muffin. I still have quite a few tomatoes; frozen, canned and dried. I have a couple heads of escarole; I need to find a recipe other than soup with white beans and escarole. The frozen leeks are about gone, but I still have several cups of dried. I have a lot of frozen roasted Anaheim peppers- perhaps Chile rellenos for this Sunday's breakfast. Chard and turnip greens are lurking in the corners of the freezer, maybe some corn.

I have to fight my tendency to hoard food and get that freezer cleaned out. I'm not too worried about the fruit- as the new fruit comes in, I can make jam with whatever is still frozen. (Of course, then we have the problem of who will eat all that jam! Christmas presents for everyone next year, I guess!) Chuck made a tasty fruit milkshake the other day, and that's a possibility. But I've been eating a really tasty ice cream substitute lately; a serving size container of fruit or vanilla yogurt, a half cup or so of frozen or partially thawed fruit, a tablespoon of Sucanat or home made peach jam. Put all that into a bowl, stir it up and pop it into the freezer for an hour or two. Be sure and get it out before ice crystals form. The yogurt thickens enough that it can pass as ice cream, almost. If I forget about it and let it freeze solid, I just let it thaw a bit, stir and it's good to go. Does the nice creaminess come from the inulin in the Stonyfield Farms yogurt? Guess I will have to try making my own again.

I already have some changes I need to make in mind. Unless I stumble into a new one, we won't have a CSA, so I have planned out a less haphazard garden, using the Square Foot Gardening idea. I've already got my leeks started- they look like tiny green threads in the picture below. We do have a lot of local produce stands where I can get the regular vegetables, but they don't usually offer anything out of the norm.
I'll freeze less fruit, no matter how my hoarding gene nags me. But I will purchase lots more of the Gold Rush apples we bought this fall. A Golden Delicious cross, man, these were maybe the best apple I have ever eaten; I hear they store very well too. I live in an area thick with orchards, and fruit is easy to come by. Toigo, one of the larger local orchards carries a tremendous variety of apples and Asian pears, and does sell in the markets in DC and Maryland.
If I had to grade our effort, I guess I would give us a C+. We'll see what my grade is next year at this time.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The robins lied!

Well, first the American Food Industry cheats me of my full quota of kinds of squash and melons, and now the robins lie to me. Life is hard, I tell you.

Last Tuesday, March 6, I saw the first robin of the spring. I was very happy; while we had a late winter here in S. Central PA, with cold and snow not coming until February, once winter arrived, it was brutal. Temperatures in the deep freeze for the first 3 weeks, and snow, covered with ice covered with snow again.

But Monday, March 5 was sunny and warm. There was a little snow on the ground, back in the back where it is shaded. On Tuesday the backyard was full of birds- all the familiar winter birds, juncos, chickadees, cardinals were there, plus a host of the birds you don't realize have been gone until they return. The ground was covered with mourning doves, plump and pinky-grey, wandering around like maiden aunts or fussy grandmothers. The grackles and the starlings were marching about, turning over leaves in that military, authoritative way they have, and mobbing the feeder. When I saw the two robins, I knew spring was on the way, and I celebrated. I planted seeds, I dreamed of my garden.

Wednesday we had 8 inches of snow. Schools were cancelled; I got a snow day from work. It was cold again, and the winds blew incessantly. We didn't see another robin until today (Sunday). I don't know where they hid out- perhaps they high tailed it back south for the week. I had no idea that robins were such liars! I'll never trust them again.
Well, in all fairness, perhaps the robins were just as tired of the winter as I, and they were just pushing the season. It is a beautiful day today, after all.
The two pictures show the same part of the backyard. The first picture is just closer. In the second picture you can see the Kwan Yin statue in the center of the photo.
I heard from my friend Sveta, in Minsk; she tells me spring is arriving there, and the birds are out. She planned to spend her International Women's Day holiday taking a walk in the forest to look (and listen) for birds. I think of Sveta everytime I look at the birds in my backyard; we know each other because her son spent 3 weeks with us last summer as a foreign exchange student in a special summer program. We found we share many interests, especially birds. We exchange letters and pictures frequently via email, and I have learned much from Sveta and her son Vadim. I am so proud and pleased that she reads this blog.
And that reminds me- now is the time to think about hosting a foreign exchange student next school year. We participated in 3 programs- one full year exchange student from Korea, one half year student from Brazil, and the 3 week student from Belarus. They were all good experiences; we had fun, and I hope the kids did as well. You don't have to have a nuclear family with kids in high school to host, either- the first year we had a student, our youngest was in his last year of college. I've known single people who were hosts, as well. We worked with AYUSA; there are other organizations, as well.

Monday, March 5, 2007

We're being Cheated!

When you go to the grocery store, how many kinds of eggplant can you find? There's the deep purple one that everyone recognizes, perhaps the long, thin lighter purple asian eggplants. If you are really lucky, and shop at a "fancy" store, you might find white eggplants, smaller than the "regular" kind. At a farmers market during growing season, especially in an upscale area, you might be able to find Rosa Bianco, with lovely lavender swirls on a white background. But that's about it, at least in the places where I shop.

Well, if this what you know of eggplants, let me tell you, you don't know nothin'!

I just got my hard copy of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds 2007 catalog, and I am in awe. Jere Gettle, Baker Creek's founder, lists 39 kinds of eggplant. Thirty Nine! Seven pages of different kind of melons, not including watermelons, and 25 varieties of cucumbers! Not to mention the six pages of winter squash, and the tomatoes broken down in to color categories- green, orange, pink, purple, red, striped, yellow and even white.

My jaw dropped; I was amazed. And as I thought about the variety of foods available at my local grocery store, the main thought running through my mind was "I've been cheated!" (Or maybe it was "I'm BEING Cheated!") Even in the best, fanciest, yuppiest grocery store you don't find this sort of variety in the produce section. So here we sit, eating the same 5 or 6 vegetables- corn, green beans, broccoli, lettuce. Wow, I'm hard pressed to think of others. Spinach, maybe? Carrots? This sparsity of veggies is perpetuated; we end up feeding our children the same few things. Why, when there are so many lovely things to eat in the world?

Transportation, for the most part, is the culprit. We get to eat those things that tranport well. The average dinner travels over 1500 miles "from field to fork" , so we are limited to eating things that can be picked green and travel well. By and large, being picked green and transporting well doesn't equal tasting good.

Fear is another reason- we are afraid we won't like the taste of something, or that we won't know how to prepare it. We pass that on to our kids too, feeding them special "kid friendly foods" and teaching them that they really shouldn't be expected to like anything they have never had before.

How can we fix it? First, by eating local. If you can't garden, join a CSA (Community Sposored Agriculture). Find one near you at Local Harvest or The Eat Well Guide or The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. If there are no CSA's near you, try a farmers market. It's a fun Saturday trip.

Second, be willing to experiment. I had collards and kale for the first time this year, because they were in my CSA share- I LOVED them! We tried celeriac for the first time, too, same reason. If it's in your CSA box and you have already paid for it, what a great incentive to try it at least once. At the farmers market, ask the farmer, chances are she will have some recipes or cooking suggestions. Or use the Force, er, the Internet. You can find a recipe for anything there. Of course, if you are reading food blogs, you are probably already an adventerous eater, and I'm preaching to the choir here!

By the way, there are places in your grocery store where you can find diversity- among the processed foods. The cereal aisle, the chip aisle, the soda aisle. Isn't it pitiful that we have so much choice amongst the manufactured food (Typically made from corn and wheat, plus a big slug of preservatives and artificial colors) and so little choice amongst the real foods?
Well, I've placed my seed order. I did have a problem related to the number of varieties available, though- I had a hard time choosing only the amount I can fit in my garden. Oh, well, I have long tried to convince my husband that the front lawn is wasted space- perhaps this is the year I'll put a new garden in out there. Then you'll be able to identify my house- I'll be the one with 39 eggplants instead of bluegrass.