Thursday, May 31, 2007

Eleanor Perenyi

I'm stepping away from the garden for a few days (going to DEEtroit, especially to hit my favorite spice shop downtown), so I thought I would leave you with words that are not my own. (I feel I've been overly wordy lately anyway.)

Eleanor Perenyi has not written enough on gardening, in my mind; she is my favorite writer on the garden, though. I tried to find her take on peonies, as she had said something profound about their ability to drop their petals "like prom dresses atop the grand piano," or some such; don't quote me. But instead I found this paragraph on vegetables. Please note the date, and her sentiments.

"All that has changed. I am a full-time resident now and not as hell-bent as I used to be. I have cut down on many things, but nothing short of total decrepitude could make me decide to give up the vegetables. Ordinary greed comes into it, of course, and the bolstering of insecurities: Scarlett O'Hara grubbing for yams evidently made more of an impression than I realized at the time. But most of all they bewitch me with their textures, infinitely varied forms, even their sounds--the silky rustle of cabbages, the rattle of peas in their pods. Whether in orderly rows in the garden or lying in a heap on the kitchen table, they are almost too beautiful to eat, which at least proves that one isn't just a hog. Given the aesthetic choice, I prefer vegetables to fruits or flowers. I am hardly the first to experience this half-worshipful emotion (think what Chardin could do with a scallion or a plum), but it is undoubtedly sharpened by the premonition that I may be the last. The seven-year-old-son of one of my garden helpers brought this home to me the other day. An intelligent child, he wanted to know what were the pea pods he saw lying in the compost heap. I explained. Still a blank, and it came to me that although he knew perfectly well what peas were, he had supposed they came out of a cardboard box, frozen. And there will soon be many more of him than me. Already I am something of a freak in the community on account of my vegetables, herbs and fruits. I foresee the day when I graduate from freak to witch." from Green Thoughts: a Writer in the Garden, 1981.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Going to seed

Treviso type radicchio reaching for the sky

I was walking around the garden on Monday wondering what I could photograph (and thus talk about). We're a bit early on most things, though I have been cadging a few peas as they ripen. Give the gardens a week or more and we'll be thick into Lettuce Season.

What struck me as I walked around are the biennials: they're quite huge. I am allowing them to go to seed. I've intentionally grown open-pollinated vegetables (and most heirlooms are OP) for their added benefit of seed-saving. You can't do that with hybrids: they don't come true from seed. The annuals are obviously easy to get to go to seed: the peas, beans, tomatoes of last year are in jars and little envelopes stating their provenance and date of harvest, usually in my mud-smeared script. Biennials, though, are a second-spring affair. Many things, usually root crops, kind of hang on through the winter to then hurry up and shoot into seed once the weather warms again. (This can also happen with wonky spring weather, as I noticed with my little Asian brassicas like tatsoi, mizuna and pac choy: these things are flowering as well; I had planted them under row covers a bit too early for their tastes, apparently.)

So seed-saving is a venture I undertake not only because of its obvious point of thrift. I figure I can also do a bit of artificial selection to reward, as it were, the sweetest of the carrots and the least bolt-proof of the lettuce types that I grow. With the tomatoes, I can likewise edit out the least worthy of the Green Zebras, say, as there seems to be a wide range with that particular heirloom variety. And on and on.

Not to anthropomorphize too much, but I was also considering what "going to seed" meant in human terms. Yes, colloquially, it means "letting oneself go," but that isn't what these leeks, parsnips and chard are doing around me. Nope. They have worked hard toward this point, saving precious starches to up and put out that seed pod, that flower. And in that sense that is what I feel like I have done with this mothering venture I undertook. The sweet bloom of my 20s has long gone. My 30s was the time of waiting and storing energy, and then parturition. My 40s has thusfar been that of infant and toddler care. And so it goes. Gone to seed.

It's a sweet life, and I am glad to be living it in a garden.

Monday, May 28, 2007

This I believe

You're looking at billions of my friends

NPR listeners know this title is a revived Eisenhower-era personal essay program in which average Joes and Janes, and then some famous ones, voice their personal credos and tenets. With listening to enough of them, you start wondering what your own walking papers might be, especially since so many of them veer heavily into faith, or a leap thereof, into the unknowable. So I have done some thinking.

I believe in the power of microbes.

My smaller forays into food preservation have given me a healthy (and maybe unwarranted) fear of BAD microbes, so if I can something, I am most certainly doing it in a way least hospitable to something that can sicken us. With thought, though, I realize that most microbes are good, or at least benign. And, if you pair with them correctly, wonderful things can happen.

I am talking about sourdough bread, of course. But I am also talking about my other small steps into yogurt-, kefir- and cheesemaking, and those countless reliable others out there who brew beer, make wine, and make other wonderful comestibles like tempeh, kimchi, mead; soy sauce, miso, sauerkraut; bacon, ham, sausage, jerky. Salt cod, smoked salmon. All these wonderful things take advantage of something unseen. And if that isn't faith, then I don't know what is.

And then there's the garden. I am in love with my compost piles, as has been well documented here. By pairing with compost, I give my plants a little microbial home cooking, in the hope that (most of them) will end up helping MY home cooking. Compost, of course, is the ultimate belief in the power of putrefaction; it's little deaths, and their products, that make it all happen.

Most of what our food preservation is is a suspension of putrefaction: a short vacation before the ultimate death of what we eat. It's a way to extend the harvest. And in most instances, it's a delicious detour.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Nothing confounds a gardener more than 3 days of vacation and 3 days of predicted rain.

Let's just say the laundry is done, the house and the potting shed are now spotless, and there's a lot of bread that's been made. But I have another day and a half left!!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Time for a dip

Small frog hugging the barley straw

We just had two days of record high temperatures. And, like most places this spring it seems, there has been no rain. I wanted to tell this frog "Move over," as dang it was hot even for me, and I usually can handle a high mercury reading.

My husband's wish came true and we got both a lot of rain last night and a blast of cool air moving through today.

The frogs I am sure really do not care.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

You are getting sleepy

I am not cultivating fields of these things, but did you ever wonder why the DEA doesn't come down hard on red-blooded American gardeners about their poppies? Okay, okay; the fastidious amongst you will say this is Papaver orientale that I am growing in my front yard, not P. somniferum (the opiate). I don't know. They look the same.

But if I had to rely on this as a cash crop, I would starve. They don't like this hard soil. So when they do grow and bloom, I get all dreamy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Check this out

I told you this clay soil was tough! It snapped off a tine of my three-tine cultivator yesterday. Granted, this tool is older than Methusela and it also hasn't rained in a while. But still. (And the tool still works; I just have to jiggle it differently now.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I don't love lovage

A shading oasis in the sun

It may seem entirely strange to nongardeners that we gardeners would bother growing things we don't like to eat. You don't buy things you won't eat at the supermarket, that logic goes. But gardeners are not necessarily slaves to logic.

There are very few things from the garden I will not eat. Horseradish is one; I am also not overly fond of turnips. Others of my ken like these things, so I spare precious soil space to their cultivation. There are other things I have gladly given up space to, if only because of a plant's botanical beauty. Amaranth fell into this latter category last year. There are other things I grow that I could eat, but do not. These things usually serve some other noble purpose, like borage (a bee magnet) and cardoon (wild taste and heartbreaking statuesque beauty).

But lovage. I hear some kind of whiny voice in my ear that tells me, El, if this stuff was so good, EVERYONE would be growing it and eating it. YES it tastes like celery. Its stalks purportedly make lovely stirrers for Bloody Marys (I'll take mine with gin thanks), and it is a lovely thing to behold, breaking the soil so early like the most anticipated fall-planted bulb. But its taste? I can discern the tiniest snip in a monster bowl of salad, the headiest cup of minestrone. And I don't love lovage.

It does have an upside. It gets so tall so early that I can safely grow poky potted seedlings in its shade.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Watering the gardener

Every garden needs one of these handy

I realized with some amusement that the garden expansion I undertook last fall meant it is no longer a one-beer task to water all the beds.

Now, lest you get the wrong idea, I am not much of a beer drinker (and even then I am more of a beer sipper, so drawing out the process) nor am I a profligate water-user. But the seedlings are babies, after all; they're babies whose roots are not quite down 2" yet to that nice moist subsoil. (Interesting note: my daughter, upon hearing me call the seedlings "my babies" said "But I'm your baby," which led to lots of sidestepping on my part, saying the seedlings are her babies too.) I am also a compulsive mulcher, so watering (and weeding) theoretically is not needed nearly as much. There's no mulching the wee ones, though.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

New Tools, part 2

Sometimes, what you already have works so much better than something you can buy.

This is a foot-long piece of #5 rebar left over from when we built the chicken coop's foundation. It is an EXCELLENT dibber for planting onions and small lettuce transplants. If I were a true garden geek I would figure out how to put a nice handle on it so I wouldn't end up with a stigmatum on my palm.

You know what else works well to poke holes in this clay? A nice pointy stick.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Who sez we ain't got cultcha?

Bubble bubble toil and trouble

For over two weeks now I have been cultivating a sourdough starter. Fussy stuff, that sourdough, especially if you follow this woman's recipes. (And really wasteful, too: I probably had to throw out 2/3 of the flour I actually used to make this thing. Which means I won't be doing it often.) I have had hand-me-down sourdoughs, with some success. This one? Well, it was...fussy!

Terribly fussy. But, as ever, I'll first follow an unfamiliar recipe exactly as written and then, should the results prove less than satisfactory, I'll mess with it the second time around. The starter is fine. Not super sour; not ridiculously active. Unfortunately, I did not have the 14-18 hours hours she required for a substantial, 4x rise, so I did make do with 11 and a 2 1/2x. But the bread was pretty good. Dense, chewy, faintly stinky.

Anyone out there have loads of experience with sourdough? (I know about you, Nada...) Do you do wet starters or dry? Always use the same flour? Have you had one die on you? Is all this effort really worth it, especially when my usual bread fits in very well with my lifestyle, or is sourdough a "special" bread only? Its attractions to me are 1. it's somewhat magical, just water and flour and 2. the bread lasts a wee bit longer than "regular" home-baked bread. So I am wondering where this bread will fit into my bread repertoire.

We had a tiny salad out of the garden last night (yea!), along with sage/garlic baked cranberry beans from last year's harvest, and this bread, and local wine. We'll be trying to eat a lot closer to home this season, and I will probably document the process here. (If you would like any of the recipes, please email me and I will gladly pass them on.)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Consider the conifer

Tracking animal tracks in the first snow

Half of our property, more or less, is wooded. It's more like a park than a dense copse, though. It is actually an overgrown meadow.

When the original woods was cleared for farming at the turn of the last century, the original owners planted a peach orchard. Peaches are a huge crop in this town. The Red Haven was cultivated here. The peach orchard remained until about 1960, then this family cut them all down and planted strawberries. This lasted a while, then they let it return to being a field and used the hay for their milk cow.

When the cow was gone, the meadow remained. But, as many of you know, nature abhors a vacuum, especially in the form of a field, so soon came the brambles (wild roses and blackberries), the seedling trees like sassafras and maple, and of course the pine trees. The old fart (the guy we bought the house from; he was one of 10 children raised here, and he sold it to us when he was 89) liked pine trees, so he let them grow, and mowed everything else down.

Conifers. They make me itch, but I do love looking at them. And surprisingly, they're not the static things I thought they were. They change color all the time. They change shape. Right now they're candling (sending out shoots for this year's growth). Last week they were pollinating. If the breeze picked up, it looked like the fog had rolled in.

And, if we look closely, the trees share their secrets. Like this cedar apple rust gall on this juniper. Spooky, isn't it?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Spring is not shy

We're stepping away from tulip season now and into that of the irises. Here are a couple latecomers with a couple of amphibian admirers on the pond's hill.

Spring is certainly a show-off season.

Ooo! Ooo! Late edition: the wisteria is blooming, too. (And yes, that's a new flower bed behind it. Just when you think you have enough to do, you pile more on.)

Monday, May 14, 2007

A different way to edit a post (hole)

Welcome Wall Street Journal readers! I am really glad you found me out here in the hinterlands. (For the rest of you regular folk, Blog Watch mentioned this little blog, and Phelan and the ubiquitous Susan for a bit about novice farming.)

In my quest to live to a ripe old age, or at least to spend the next 50-odd years still pushing dirt around, I have taken on a new task. You already know about my compost-turning fixation. Pond-digging, ditch-digging and woodchip-slinging are also quasi-regular activities. So here it is:

Post-hole digging. Have I gone on and on about our clay soil lately? And how digging it up is nearly impossible, like digging rock-hard ice cream out of its carton with a too-flexy spoon? Well. Here I am, the day before yesterday. It took me the better part of an hour to dig down 24". I have another foot down to go, and...another 12 post holes for the new/improved chicken run.

This is not a task I relish.

I (heart) Lake Effect

Red Russian kale in bloom (buzz buzz)

So the weather has flipped. By this I mean that big lake a mile west of us is doing its thing: it's insulating us. It has flipped in that now it is just plain cool. The two NPR stations I listen to are in towns about an hour south and east of us and now they announce things like highs in the 80s "but cooler by the lake," meaning we'll maybe see 70. (Winter's converse is it is inevitably 10-20 degrees warmer here.)

What does this mean, besides a drawn-out tulip season? My garden is POKY. I still haven't harvested a salad of means out of it yet. Sniff. But it is coming!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mothering the garden

Straw panic

There was a threat of frost, or at least really low temperatures, last night. I hurriedly spread a bale of straw over the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, and then spent the night worrying about everything else out there. (It only got down to 45*.)

Ah. I will be happily spending the day out there, attending to many tasks and creating new gardens. I hope all the rest of you moms out there have as lovely a day ahead of you!

Friday, May 11, 2007


I could stare at this all day.

The tulip season is on the downslide. I think Tom did very well in his selections. I sent him here last fall with a hasty list (species, Kaufmans, Darwins) and just enough information to know that parrot = good.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Meet our new peeps

The newest residents of Old Vines are four pearl guinea keets. Male? Female? Who knows. They're loud and proud and have the hooky-spooks much moreso than any of the chicken chicks. Cute, though, and boy are they tiny. And to show how busy we are here, we've had these birds a week and I haven't posted about them until now!

In other bird news, our big chickens have been released on parole every afternoon when the kid comes home from school. They are so bored in their chicken run; they just sit under the lilac bush and hold court, not letting the younger chicks come near the food or water bowl. (Definite pecking order evident here, and that's why there's now a second feed station in the pen.) So they are happy to walk the grounds again, and either I or the Australian cattle dog are not far away if the hawk makes a return. The dog is really great with them, and knows they are her charges.

The new plan is to let all the chickens and guineas out for part of the day. That should happen around mid-summer. Guineas are pretty territorial (actually, most people have them because they're pretty good watchdogs), so between 8 chickens and 4 guineas, that's a lot of eyes on the sky should danger swoop down. Better than three sets of eyes, certainly.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Wicked bugs

Ever fascinated by the circle of life thing evident on the land, we decided to give these evil forest tent caterpillars (Malacosoma disstria Hubner) to the chickens as a treat. So we hand picked them from their webby nest and put them into a plastic tub. Then we put the tub in the chicken run. Bloody Beatrice, always the first at a meal, looked at them, oh so tempting in the tub, and stuck her beak in. She pulled it back quickly, shook her head and went in again. Same thing!

Obviously, these creatures emit a don't-eat-me stink that is really unappetizing, even to omnivorous Bloody Beatrice. So we drowned them in some soapy water.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A good forage

This morning Tom and I went over to the burned-out asparagus farm. It made me sick, that devastation, that...stupidity that is arson. (I will probably blather on further about the house itself and what we found in another post.)

It occurred to me that the kid is getting big and it would be kind of a pain (and also dangerous) to drag her over to this land. Then it occurs to me (DING!) that we should go when she is at school. This is a mindshift, I will have you know. The kid goes everywhere with us; she's like an appendage. We use most "adventures" as learning experiences. There was lots to see, lots to eat at this farm.

But the asparagus was just beginning to ripen, and only in the areas closest to the house. Another week or two and it will be Extreme Pig-Out Season. Yums.

And of course I brought my buckets and trowels. The haul today was sedum, iris and (ta-da!!) rhubarb. Oh and those lovely spears.

Monday, May 07, 2007

On fields

The first mowing happened this weekend. Now, normally, this would take place about 3 weeks ago, when the grass first "needed" it, but life has a way of getting in the way of what will be an 8-hour tractor ride.

I have always thought about taking a horticultural census of our fields. How many things really do grow here? And how many different types of grass are there, especially. I believe Gene Logsdon took a census of his fields in one of his books (and I don't have any on hand here at work) but the tale told there in his Ohio lands would be similar to what we find here. These are but a few of the "known" things, and what is interesting is none are natives. The pictures are of dandelion, creeping phlox and ajuga. They're pretty much everywhere on our land.

The first mowing brings quite a great bounty to the cultivated areas here. The clippings are now covering every bed (save the seed beds), and they hug the base of every fruit tree and vine. Clippings are also a great boon to chilly compost heaps as that fast blast of nitrogenous decay really heats things up in them. And clippings are also great as the "lazy woman's compost," as I leave some in a heap for the chickens to tear through on one of their parole outings. In two years, it's as good a compost as my rhythmically turned heaps.

Ah. I am not sure how much mowing we'll be doing this year. I am convinced, though, that it is for the better: of our pocketbooks, certainly, especially if gasoline does hit $4/gal. as is predicted this summer; of the growing things themselves, and also better for those sheep we are buying.

Friday, May 04, 2007

All work and no play...

Spring, as I have mentioned, is a bit busy here on the farm. Not so busy, though, that we don't all stop what we are doing and go fly kites, especially if the wind is just right and the sun warm, as it was on Tuesday. Kite-flying, for a three-year-old, is only so exciting (especially when the darned things are up in the air) so M thought she'd decorate her dad's chair.

It's a good use of those "unintentional" blooms.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Too hot for them?

It's been a good year for tulips around here. (Should be, considering how many hundreds I planted last fall.)

But this article really depressed me this morning.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

New Tools, part 1

New manure fork, compost (reused ice) bucket with a day's junk, and newly-turned pile

So, our camera is back.

This weekend we retrieved, shoveled and spread maybe 7 yards of woodchips onto the veg garden's paths. I weeded the paths first, then put down a year's worth of saved cardboard boxes (flattened of course and spread out like a jigsaw puzzle over the paths). Then, in with the chips. It wasn't particularly hard work; it just took a while.

Tom bought a manure fork for the task. Now, I thought we could get by with the tools at hand, as that is the tactic I take with most things around here, but (and I admit it) this was a great purchase. And as I also have admitted, I am a compulsive compost-turner. Using this fork for the job takes half the time, as it lifts twice as much.

But now I am wondering. If it takes half the time, will I enjoy it so much? (It's kind of a meditation for me, turning the pile.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Happy May Day

Horseradish, complete with slug

BUSY. Such is the life of a mid-spring gardener. Considering this is everyone else's story, too, I won't bore you with the details.

I will say, on the avian front, that a pair of green herons have decided to nest in the woods across the road not far from the evil red-tailed hawk pair. And the indigo buntings are back, residing in some boxes built by the bird-loving neighbor behind us. And I haven't yet seen the oriole pair that nested in a front-yard pine last year, but I have my fingers crossed. With the cardinals, goldfinches and house finches, chromatically, there's much to be seen in the feathered set around here, including the chickens.

But I will ask this question: why are crows black? Does this color offer them an evolutionary advantage, or is it that they're such fashionable bullies that they figured this color worked best for them?