I’ve done a lot of cooking over the last month, making daily meals for Bud and me and concocting feasts for the holidays. Small feasts for the three of us in these unsettled times. Because of Covid, we were unable to have Thanksgiving with my sister Susan and her family, Charles, Corey and Liz. And our usual Christmas Eve guests couldn’t make it either. But we had a lovely time, just Zoë, Bud and I. We took walks, played Scrabble, watched movies and started a Liberty puzzle. And we cooked and ate. Here are a few of the dishes we enjoyed.
I learned a new word. I’ve noticed that current recipes call for pomegranate ‘arils’, seed pods inside the pomegranate, rather than seeds.
We had our annual Shark’s Ink. lunch with Evan, Alana, and Roseanne. I made a tart using a new recipe for the crust from Dorie Greenspan’s latest book, Baking with Dorie. I topped it with a cream cheese/yogurt/lemon/scallion mix, smoked salmon and arugula.
In the Cuisinart, pulse together 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour, 1/3 cup almond flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add 4 ounces unsalted butter and pulse several times until butter is in smallish pieces. Add 2-3 tablespoons minced herbs. I used dill and parsley. Add 1 large, cold egg and pulse just a few times until dough is moistened and starts to come together. Add dribbles of cold water if necessary but don’t make the dough wet. Dump onto counter and grab it together. Form into a disk. Roll between parchment sheets to 1/8 inch. It will be an irregular shape but that’s part of the charm. Prick and chill for 2 hours or freeze for one hour on the parchment, covered with parchment. Release the dough from the paper and place one of the sheets on the baking sheet. Lay the dough on it and cover with second parchment sheet. Bake at 400° for 18 – 20 minutes. This is the only baking so it should be lightly browned and cooked through.
Cool. Spread with cream cheese lightened with yogurt or sour cream and mixed to taste with chopped scallions, lemon zest and juice and black pepper. Top with smoked salmon and greens. Serve at room temperature. Bud used a pizza cutter to make rectangular slices.
I’ve been making a delicious butternut squash salad from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. Of course, I changed a few things but essentially follow his recipe. I used red chilé as the spice. I’ve been hoarding a jar of Shed Red – a gift from Rodney Carswell.
Roast the peeled, sliced butternut squash, dusted with New Mexico red chile, olive oil, salt and pepper, at 400° for 20 minutes, turn over and roast 10-15 minutes longer until brown and tender. Let cool.
Meanwhile peel a lime, removing all white pith, quarter and cut each quarter into slices. Make the sauce. Combine 1/2 cup full fat yogurt, 2 tablespoons tahini, juice of a lime, 2 tablespoons water, and salt to taste. This should be pourable so add a bit more water if necessary.
Layer the squash on a platter and drizzle with the sauce. Scatter the lime slices and any juice over and garnish with cilantro leaves. I sometimes add pomegranate arils. Serve at room temperature.
On Christmas Eve we made tamales. I use a recipe for fresh corn tamales from Rick Bayliss’ Authentic Mexican. (Luckily I had one bag of Zweck’s corn in the freezer.) We made a production line for filling the corn husks.
For Christmas morning I made my family’s traditional bread – Nut Roll. As I mixed and rolled the dough I thought of my mom – and my sisters who were doing the same.
On to the new year. It finally snowed settling ten inches on Blue Mountain Road. The mountains have well over 100 percent of the annual snow pack so things are looking better for our drought situation. I count my blessings, among them you, my readers. Stay well and keep cooking.
Finally, I built my stairway to heaven. It only took three steps, but many, many years until I had the inspiration, the time, and energy to steal away from the head gardener and our mutual duties, and just do it! What an adventure. To finally sit up with the birds and feel the flutter of their wings, to see the world from above, to claim my territory, (will I have to mark my territory? Yikes!), to defy the squirrels and chipmunks, and mostly to escape all worldly concerns and let the child in me soar.
Once I’d finished all I planned to do to celebrate the solstice, Christmas and the coming New Year, I felt like I could play, regardless of the looks I’d have to endure from my dear friend, the H. G. Years ago, when the steps to the front deck finally gave up the ghost, I couldn’t bear to make cook wood out of the beautiful old oak, so I stashed the stair stringers away in what I call the Museum (the old hay barn), along with so many other treasures no one else seems to think have any value. But what do they know, I say to myself. We all live with our fantasies and know what we need to tap into those dreams.
Frankly, fear, that ol’ bugger, kept me from taking on this task. I have few carpentry skills and no engineering ones. I didn’t quite know how to go about putting the stairway together. On that recent day in December, I simply acted like a competent carpenter, who knew what to do, and slowly and carefully, using all my accumulated mistakes as guides, did it.
Once I decided how long to make the steps, the rest went like clockwork. With a calm mind, dismissing fear, the project seemed elementary. I couldn’t have put the screws in without a drill as old oak becomes hard as nails. Jeremy always comments that working on this old oak house presents more challenges than anything he’s worked with. I can believe it. Even when the oak was green we had to drill for every hole or spend time pulling out a bent nail. Jeremy’s grandpa, Roy, helped us now and then with the building of the house. When I pointed out a nail that he hammered home bent, he said, “This way you’ll always remember me.” He was right.
I set the stairway snug up against the venerable sweet gum trunk. It fit nicely, hugging the tree. I climbed up, and up, as far as my vintage legs would safely carry me, and then I sat. Oh my, it felt better than I remembered. (Barbara painted me up in our crab apple tree with Ron holding a basket down below. I love that painting.) And I continued to sit, watching the birds flit in and out, in and out, as they bobbled on the bamboo perch, then into the feeder, each taking its turn except when a woodpecker would show up. The woodpeckers command authority and no one challenges them. My neck started to hurt from moving it back and forth and in and out as the perpetual motion of birds kept me engaged.
You may notice the custom made bird feeder. It has many adaptations. Every time a woodpecker, bluejay, squirrel or chipmunk found a way to abscond with more than their share of sunflower seed, HG would add a new device to foil them. Several I found ingenious, like the wire cord that holds the lid shut so the squirrels can’t open the lid and squirrel away seed for frigid days. The bamboo cane acts as a spring board for the birds as they lite on it and then bounce to the feeder or a branch, creating lovely musical sounds.
My friend Walt, if still with us, would’ve laughed and said to me, “Did you get that at Walmart?” And I would’ve replied, “No, they were too expensive so I had it especially designed by HG.” And I admire each funky touch she adds to it, never knowing when I’ll find her sitting at her work bench intent on the latest iteration. And so it goes.
Why would fate decide to have someone show up at that moment? I heard a horn honk and honk. Pause, then honk again. I dislike that local custom. Allegedly they do this to alert you, to tell you someone has entered your property and not to shoot. To me, it sounds like, “Stop everything you’re doing and come to me.” So of course I don’t go, as I’ve waited years for this adventure of mine and I plan to savor it. I do laugh about the coincidence and hear the door of my Honda open and close. Hmm, someone has left something for me.
When I finally climb down, all goes well except the stairway moves a bit as I hit the last step. OSHA would not approve. Now I need engineering skills, as I must attach the stairs to the sweet gum. That took several hours, to figure out where to put the support, collect the proper wood and screw everything together. I have a few more mistakes to add to my resumé that I feel grateful to’ve learned. Now if I can just remember them.
In the days after this triumph, the head gardener and I started raking up the gum balls. They feel like marbles under your feet as you walk. After several days of raking, we then got down on all fours and picked them up, plopping them into baskets, then the wheelbarrow, and on to the compost. I like this method. It eases your back and you can feel every gum ball and see countless cedar seedlings, gifts from the birds as they perch in the sweet gum. They pull out easily when only a few inches tall, even in dry earth.
Every day that I go out to fill the feeder or carry the compost bucket down, I find more gum balls, some still resist the wind and hang on, some won’t fall until spring. Now I feel like our dad. We’d see him bending over to pick up some piece of lint or what not on our floors, cigarette dangling, spilling ashes here and there, constantly. And because he held that position so often, I identify it with him, and now I do it, but outdoors instead of inside. (When you heat and cook with wood and go in and out of the house with muddy shoes, you can’t keep the outside from inside.) But gum balls have a finite nature and that, dear Dad, I will stoop for.
My friend Jill, who works with a tri-county recycling program, told me the city of St. James experimented to see how long it would take for gum balls to decompose. Three years and they turn into elegant compost. I even saw a gum ball scoop on the Internet, so folks don’t have to bend over. Considering the amount of gum balls one 35 year old tree produces, I’d say this gimmick will sit in the garage, unused, and the marbles will collect under those gum trees. This job would be perfect for high school students, heck, any students, whatever age. Don’t we have a student conservation corps in every community?
It’s been several weeks now that the ginkgo tree has shed his leaves, (yes, he. The females have an offensive-smelling fruit) but I wanted to show you the before and after pictures. One day gold filled the tree and the next day the gold lay on the ground. A haiku in motion.
And look at the Cimarron lettuce in the cold frame along with a parsley plant, thriving in these unseasonable temperatures. Even if the weather turns cold and we have below 0°, the lettuce will resurrect come spring. It amazes me how little protection lettuce, parsley, cilantro and other greens require to hold to life. And come spring, the lettuce will spring into action and become those long-sought after fresh greens. For now, I’ll spend a part of everyday up in the sweet gum, climbing my stairway to heaven.
I’m ready for a trip but unfortunately, the threat of the new covid variant means no travel. We did make a dash into Denver on Saturday for lunch at The Bindery and a matinee performance of The Lion King, the tickets a present from Zoë two years ago. We had a lovely time with our daughter and the fabulous animal/humans in the play.
The days are sunny and warm, the nights cool. It’s very dry. As pleasant as the days have been, I’m ready for some real winter. My cooking is stuck in a no-man’s-land for inspiration. I’ve been depending on my pantry and my old standards to feed us tasty but, to me, uninspired meals. I did get Dorie Greenspan’s new book, Baking with Dorie, from the library, and am eager to try some of her savory recipes. Maybe my cooking doldrums are over. More on that later.
I remembered a recipe for shrimp cakes in my book. With frozen shrimp in the freezer and a hunk of butternut squash that needed to be cooked, I conjured up a pretty good meal.
For 2-3 servings of shrimp cakes:
Thaw and peel 8 – 12 ounces of shrimp. Chop them fairly finely, but leave some small chunks. Add a teaspoon of minced ginger, a minced clove of garlic, a couple of green onions, chopped, a big pinch of hot red pepper flakes. Stir in a large egg white, (save the yolk for the coating), and a tablespoon of panko – bread crumbs. Add a bit more if the mix seems wet and runny. Chill for 1/2 hour.
Form into 4 – 6 small cakes, squeezing a bit to combine. (Large portions are hard to manage.) Dust with flour, then dip into the beaten egg yolk, then into panko. The cakes are delicate at this stage so handle them gently. Put on a plate and refrigerate until time for dinner. This chilling will firm them up.
Sauté at medium heat in 2 tablespoons olive or safflower oil until browned and cooked, usually about 3 minutes a side.
I made a cabbage slaw to accompany the shrimp cakes. Shred enough cabbage to make two cups or to taste. Add 1/2 a thinly sliced apple, chunks of roasted butternut squash, and a handful of chopped cilantro. (I had half an apple left from lunch and a piece of squash from another dinner. Use what you have.)
For the dressing, combine the juice of 1/2 a lime, a teaspoon of maple syrup, a teaspoon sesame oil, a big pinch of hot red pepper flakes, and 1/2 teaspoon shoyu. Add a tablespoon of two of olive oil. Taste and adjust to your liking. Toss the veggies with the dressing and top with toasted pepitas.
I served the cakes and slaw with roasted, rather, over-roasted, Yukon gold potatoes.
The temperature dropped last night. Perhaps we are finally in for some winter weather.
Could you call any place more beautiful than where you find yourself at any given moment? ‘Tis a tribute to the planet we live on, to marvel at how life presents itself in any environment, in astonishing variety. I’ve acclimated myself again to my beloved Midwest after spending a week in Florida, by the ocean and the Indian River. And to my good fortune, I met a botanist, right across the street from where my daughter and family live. He’s as eccentric as me and funky in his own way too. When our eyes met, I knew I’d encountered a kindred spirit, especially when he pointed out, in his jungle of a garden, one plant after another he’d started from seed, the pride obvious and his successes a testimony to his persistence and passion.
The Big, Heavy Hand hadn’t descended when I returned, but the driver’s side window in my ‘96 Honda refused to go up when I drove home from my trip at 11pm. I laughed. Welcome home, the window said to me. You will now face one challenge after another. Let’s see how calm you can stay and deal with each trial, as this is the life you chose, a homesteader’s. OK, OK I said to the voice and threw the blanket I keep in the cooler away from mice looking for nesting material in this underused vehicle, over my legs and sang with the Halloween music on KOPN, one of the last free-form radio stations in the country. If I hadn’t stopped for that Big Mac, something I’d never had before, the window would never have been rolled down, so that made me laugh too. After a week of being in the bosom of love and two energetic grandsons, it all seemed right, the price we pay for an adventure.
I managed to pick one more bouquet of zinnias and see their exuberance in the gardens before a killing frost arrived. We will plant even more zinnias next year. Everyone from flies to people love this flower. The monarchs sipped up their nectar when the asters had shut down for seed making. With activity slowed way down in the gardens, I could observe the butterflies instead of noticing and then quickly moving on to the next chore. To see their proboscis going into each ovary, as carefully as a brain surgeon, lifting out, and going into the next ovary, methodically and carefully, transfixed me. Sometimes it takes a combination of approaching winter and a healing vacation to slow us down.
Rain kept us from planting the garlic until the 5th of November when sunshine and blue skies ruled. I declared it garlic planting day. We worked all day, from 8am until 3:30. In the chilly morning, we first sat inside and separated the cloves of the garlic heads of the five varieties we’d plant. Italian Silverskin, Rocambole, Sicilian Silverskin, Music, and Jane’s Hardneck.
We divided the cloves of each variety into four piles and plopped each lot into a clay pot, put them in a basket to haul out to the appointed bed. I like how the cloves look inside the pots, and how the pots look in a basket. The head gardener rolls her eyes at me, she thinks plastic would work just fine with a card board box as basket. I tell her planting the garlic is like the running of the bulls, a celebration. “Whatever”, she mumbles and out we go.
What? I thought to myself. The bed selected for this year’s garlic still had bean trellises, native plants, and a few rogue garlics that sprouted with the rains. I looked at the head gardener, and in as much of an anti-accusatory voice as I could muster said, “Hmm, I thought you said you’d take this all down while I was gone?” And she replied, coolly and calmly, “It all looked too beautiful to destroy. I wanted you to enjoy it when you came back.” And of course how could I argue with that? I thanked her for her thoughtfulness. In jig time we moved the palm sedge and ageratum out of the new garlic bed, dug elephant garlic we’ll use as leeks in soups, piled the bamboo for separating later, raked the bed smooth, and declared it ready for planting.
Planting garlic with autumn breezes, lovely sunshine, mellow soil, invites a leisurely pace. When the wind picks up leaves fall to delight the eye. I toss my head and close my eyes, it’s the essence of autumn, right now, on this November afternoon. Absolute perfection.
I’d made a note to cut down the amount of garlic we grow, and did, by 100 cloves. You see, in early July, when it’s time to dig the garlic, for some reason, that’s when the head gardener goes on vacation and few of my gardening friends come by, it’s hot and humid and the soil does not dig easily. What’s that expression that warns us about paying a price for a hasty decision, oh yeah, marry in haste, regret in leisure. Well for the garlic and planting, it would be, plant in Autumn, regret in the Dog Days. So this year it’s at 324 cloves, next year it’ll come down by how hard the digging is in July.
The head gardener makes the first thirty-foot furrow. I bend down and put in the stake for Italian Silverskin, pick up one of the terracotta pots and carefully plant the cloves 3 to 4” apart. Then in goes the next stake for Rocambole, and so on, until one pot filled with each variety has been planted, one long furrow, filled with garlic.
We trade positions, I make the furrow, she plants each variety in its turn. We both get lost in the process, the garlic looks beautiful, there aren’t too many mole runs we have to avoid (the garlic would free fall a good ways into one of those runs and never make it back to daylight) so we make good time.
Soon the last set of garlic goes in the fourth furrow, we’re both thinking about a beer and a rest. It’s been a long day. I remind the head gardener we must first haul over a bale of straw and cover the garlic. Several years ago some enterprising critter saw all the freshly turned soil and had a hay day going after cutworms, throwing garlic cloves every which way. What a mess! I learned new words after that episode. From then on, I made an iron clad rule: straw must go over the garlic before any beer gets poured. And so it was, is and ever shall be.
With the garlic snug in the earth, my anxiety vanished. All the other garden chores could wait. No panic to pull up tomato cages or take apart trellises. The clean-up will provide happy hours, even if it feels cold. Just pleasant, mindless work. My thoughts will travel many a road, some happy, some not so much. Through it all, I’ll feel eternally grateful my sweetheart brought me to Strawdog, where life might not always be easy, and sometimes the challenges seem too big, but it’s home, it’s where I belong. This piece of earth and I have made a pact. We belong to each other.
I keep a good stock of favorite ingredients in the pantry, fridge and freezer so when time comes for supper, I can count on finding the makings of a delicious meal.
The other day I had my five o’clock writing meeting and hadn’t made a plan for dinner afterwards. What can I cook? It was a cool, grey day so soup sounded good. Something hearty enough to be the whole meal with corn muffins or garlic bread on the side. I remembered my trusty fish soup recipe, a simple, delicious dish. I had a head of fennel in the veggie drawer and onions in the pantry. With a can of fire roasted tomatoes, frozen pollock and shrimp, dinner was all set. Plus I could make the soup base in the afternoon and add the fish and shrimp just before we ate.
If you are using frozen fish and shrimp, thaw them first. I used about 2/3 pound of frozen pollock fillets and 6 large shrimp for two generous servings. We had a bit leftover for the next day’s lunch. This recipe is adaptable to whatever you have available. Use basil, tarragon or parsley instead of fennel, another variety of fish or scallops. Add green chilé, celery, red peppers or potatoes. But do try this delicious version first.
A simple fish soup
Chop an onion and a head of fennel into thin slices that will fit on a soup spoon. Sauté these in a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep pot until translucent and almost tender. Add a couple cloves of garlic, smashed and minced, a teaspoon of fennel seeds and a big pinch of hot red pepper flakes. Pour in a 15 ounce tin of tomatoes, either pureed or chopped. Then add 4 cups fish stock, vegetable stock, or water. (I make a simple shrimp stock. Cook shrimp shells in 4 cups of water, with a hunk of the fennel top and a bit of onion, simmer for 30 minutes then strain.)
Bring the soup base to a boil then lower the heat and cook over medium-low for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
At dinner time, reheat the soup and add ½ – 1 pound of fish cut in 1-inch slices – pollock, cod or other white fish – and ½ pound of peeled shrimp cut into 1-inch pieces. Simmer until just cooked, 3-5 minutes. Garnish each bowl of soup with chopped fennel fronds or parsley. I had leftover salsa verde to top ours.
As I prepare for my first trip since the onset of the ‘Pandamnic’, I walk the gardens, soaking up autumn’s sunshine. A seductive breeze blows, making me want to lie on the grass and daydream. And it’s Sunday after all, one of my days off. I should indulge, and will, knowing these magical days are numbered. In spring we feel the endless possibilities stretched out in front of us, in autumn we feel an impending doom, even though we have many, many days of happy moments before the big hand descends and wipes out most traces of greenery.
Everything looks vibrant and alive. The yellow passionflower even set on some late flowers, such a modest flower compared to the showier purple passionflower. I like its quiet ways. The pineapple sage outdoes itself in blooms though few hummingbirds remain to enjoy the nectar. Fall lettuce seeds have germinated since our 4” rain a week ago. Salads will delight again. Acorns fall, red buckeyes mature, and native trees and shrubs ripen their drupes and berries. The head gardener saw a mockingbird stealing some of the deciduous holly berries and I heard her scolding the poor bird, that he needed to wait for winter. I had to laugh at how wonderfully she wants to control the supply of winter’s food.
I walk with her and point out the lush drupes on the flowering dogwood trees. These fruits have oodles of fat and the birds positively adore them, as do squirrels and our chipmunks, so much so we seldom manage to collect seed for starting new trees. We procrastinate and then, as if the trees never produced any fruit, the drupes disappear. I suggested she add that chore to her list. She loves lists and will add something to her list if she does a task but didn’t write it down. Curious, I say to her, and move on. I do not want to incur her wrath. And also, I’m sure I have my peculiarities, though I can’t think of any at the moment.
The rusty blackhaw berries taste like prunes. Granted it would take a lot of these berries to equal one prune, but like my foraging friend Rebeka says, “they’re packed with nutritious goodies”. Mostly they’re fun to pop in your mouth when you’re out splitting wood or just walking by the shrub and nab a few for a treat.
Come a cold day in winter, a flock of cedar waxwings will descend from nowhere and devour almost every berry left on the deciduous holly. I’ve watched this mad, frantic orgy before. How comical the birds look with their black masks, pulling off such a heist.
The American Beauty Berry’s fruit doesn’t seem popular. Deer and birds are supposed to relish the seeds but I don’t see many takers. My attraction to the shrub is its leaves. They contain natural deet that works wonders on mosquitoes and flies that want to drive you crazy. It’s especially nice to use these leaves on babies delicate skin, the fragrance of the leaves giving a lovely perfume to their baby smell.
Doesn’t this strawberry bush, a member of the Euonymous family, look like something from another planet? This is its first year to produce fruit and has surprised us with its many permutations, this last one when the seed is ready to dehisce. Normally it only grows down in the boot heel of Missouri, but the changing climate has given it a chance here, especially in protected areas.
The last native shrub, pasture rose, produces beautiful hips. I’ll collect them after the first frost and use them for tea. Three hips provide as much vitamin C as an entire orange. It’s a delicate tea, tasty on a cold winter afternoon. When my new neighbor, Petra, saw these hips, she said, “This makes me remember my grandma in Germany, in Würzburg. She collected rose hips and kept them in a jar for winter too. Will you give me a start of this rose when I’m ready to plant my gardens?” No words could make a gardener happier, and I replied, “With pleasure.”
Monkshood! This is a triumph. It’s been growing in the Death Garden for years and years, to little fanfare. Last year I moved some to Brother Cadfael’s Garden, the medieval monk who’s good friends with the woman in the Cottage Garden, after all, their gardens are side by side. Well, just a few days ago the flowers opened up. Look at the incredible hoods, just like a monk’s. I’m reminded of an accidental poisoning in New York City when a monkshood flower fell into a diner’s glass, and that was that.
With all this bounty, heading into the dark months doesn’t seem so daunting. As the weeks go by the supply of berries will dwindle and the head gardener will remind me how she wanted to curb the birds early foraging. I’ll smile and let her know she was right and then remember that nap I took on the grass, looking up into the weigelia and finding my little friend, showing me the way.
Cache La Poudre, Virginia Dale, Tie Siding, Laramie, Happy Jack. These names evoke sweet childhood memories of car trips in the West. We had lived in Laramie while my father worked on his doctorate and after moving to the Midwest, spent each August traveling back to our beloved mountains.
Recently, Zoë had scoped out a hike at Vedauwoo, a National Forest site between Cheyenne and Laramie that is one of those remembered names. We set out on a Sunday morning to explore. Huge tawny stones rise from the high prairie in a formation called Turtle Rock. More like Rocks as the granite outcrop is made up of many squarish, round-edged stones. Set between the crystalline blue sky and the golden aspen woods, our view of the rocks changed with every turn of the trail.
Three miles later we were ready for lunch. I had packed sandwiches and salads in metal tiffin boxes, perfect for transporting our meal.
These are a new sandwich favorite. Goat cheese on crusty bread topped with slices of summer tomatoes and strips of roasted green chilé.
We sat at a picnic table at the trail head among scattered boulders, content with the exercise, the food, the company, and the glorious day.
This week, Bud and I needed another dose of that deep yellow aspen color and made a trip to Caribou Ranch Open Space above Boulder. The drive along the Peak to Peak Highway was one stunning view of hillsides and roadside aglow with aspen light after another.
We were lucky to find a parking spot in the often full lot at the trailhead. The four mile hike begins on an upward path over a ridge through pine forest then drops to follow the edge of a large meadow. Patches of that amazing gold studded the mountainsides surrounding us. Some aspen had taken on a reddish-pink color. What causes that? Moisture? Temperature? Location? Probably all of those. There’s so much I don’t know. And what is it about that deep aspen yellow that resounds in my heart?
Rain continues to pass us by. We’ve had a few brief showers that tease more than give comfort. All the plants, trees and shrubs slough off leaves. Everything is a miasma of tiredness. This year we decided not to water anything except the eggplants in pots along with flowers and herbs on the deck. This cycle of drought will become the way of the future. We need to know what varieties do well in dry conditions, fortify themselves and survive. The head gardener looked in her notes and found our last big rain in mid-July, during blackberry season. That was over two months ago.
The underground river the native plants and deep-diving weeds have created lets these gardens thrive without rain. I can’t describe in technical terms what takes place deep in the earth, science was my worst subject, but I have a poet’s license and I pull it out at times like this. All the roots from thousands of plants surrounding and near the vegetable gardens go deep, deep down. The roots cross over and around each other and send feeder roots in every possible direction. They create a bed, a liner, a receptacle for storing water. When water in the upper layers becomes tough to come by, the roots of the flowers, herbs and vegetables dip into this underground lake, put their straws down and suck up water by osmosis to sustain their lives. This image belongs in a children’s book. (Hmm, maybe it was math…)
In addition to no rain, for weeks and weeks, the temperature hovered near 100° with humidity over 80%. We worked from 7am until noon. Then dripping with sweat and bordering on exhaustion, we’d hose off and retreat to the coolness of the house. This meant many tasks remained undone. Like not picking the pole beans. When we did remember to pick them, they were well on their way to becoming dried beans. If you leave too many beans on the vines through neglect or because you want to save the seed, the vines will stop producing flowers, hence no more fresh beans. And in high temps the flowers would appear and then fall off.
We don’t need seed of the Blue Lake pole beans so we pick the over-sized beans, shell them, and have shelly beans, a favorite in these rural parts. They taste delicious, kinda like fresh limas, though they take longer to cook than fresh green beans. I’m still hoping, the last resort of the desperate, for beans and go out every few days and pick whatever the vines offer.
Only one cucumber vine survives, looking sadder than sad. I felt tempted to water the cucumbers even though I needed to see if they’d hang on. The zucchini and white scallop squash have, much to our amazement. No fruits, but vines still alive. How did the squash bugs not devastate them with the extreme stress they endure? I wouldn’t brag about the way things look, but the gardens continue to soldier on. With temperatures next week in the mid-70’s maybe, just maybe, rain will follow.
Reduced garden chores meant I could take the opportunity to build a cradle for the bench in the Meditation Garden, a task on my list for several years. The large slab of wood sat close to the earth and visitors have complained about the difficulty in rising from such a low position. And it was wobbly too and might throw you off balance when you tried to get up. So I lugged old oak 2 x 8’s over to my saw horses and set to work making 2 x 4’s for this cradle. I will spare you the grueling details of my trials and tribulations, the different hardware I tried before carriage bolts did the job. It took me a lot longer to put this together than I’d thought, but what doesn’t? And I had to take it apart two times before I finally got it right. When I carted it out to the garden in the wheel barrow and put the slab on and saw how nicely it fit, how comfortable and solid it felt, I shouted Yahoo!! for all the neighbors to hear. To sit on this bench and watch the gold finches feasting on the sunflowers, hear their happy chirping, and to watch them come right to the bird bath, ahhhh…
On one of my trips to the Park, I stopped in my tracks when I glimpsed the unmistakable leaves of poison ivy on the edge of the Butterfly Garden. (Sort of silly to have a butterfly garden when the entire homestead is one, but I designed that back when I was young and naive.) Red flags go up when I see poison ivy. Just like I can visualize what goes on under the earth in our underground river, I can see poison ivy taking the farm. I’ve known people who had to sell their farms because they got sick or had to take care of a loved one and then poison ivy took over, literally. So I told myself to come back with a hoe and gloves. And I did.
Poison ivy turns me into a mad woman. I go after those vines, carefully, but with determined energy. The hoe searches for the source of those running vines and then slays with bold strikes. (The vines grew around the button bush, the lone shrub in the back-middle of the photograph below, a butterfly magnet.) By the time I’d finished flay-ling about, the earth looked like a pig had rooted in the area. Let no root go unturned became my motto.
Suddenly this garden caught my imagination. I had neglected the interior for years and years, not finding time to tame it. But now, I felt inspired, and the drought gave me the gift of time.
The next day I went out with pruners, garden pruner, (a gift from Jeremy, a mini chain saw), garden fork and rake. I cut or dug out every tree or shrub seedling, all the blackberry canes, the buck brush and other seedlings that move into neglected spaces and decide to call it home. Inside this quiet garden, a clean canvas appeared.
The lilacs on the south side of the garden and the summer lilacs, or vitex on the north side of the garden shelter the garden for its new life as a protected meadow. A beautiful, graceful meadow that could only come about after years of waiting for a transformation. There’s something magical about making a new garden out of an old one. When we began, we made gardens out of pasture land where nothing but grass grew. Now, 40 years later that Butterfly Garden became old and neglected only to find a new life. For a gardener to witness those changes and be an active partner feels like completing a cycle of birth and death. One couldn’t have come without the other.
Once I had the floor of the garden clean I raked everything to the sides. I could see the job wasn’t over. Branches hung in my eyes, caught me underfoot. The fun part began, pruning the lilacs and vitex. Whenever any of the young artists would come for ‘therapy’ in the gardens, the task they loved the best was pruning. If you’ve never had the pleasure, I encourage you. Learn pruning basics, then away you go. Most of these acolytes did a good job, but a few of the daydreamers would get carried away and there wouldn’t be much left of the shrub when they woke up. (I’d have to laugh as I remembered helping a handsome young man prune a fruit tree and while we talked away and I was smitten with him, more of the tree disappeared than I’d planned.) Everything grows back, I told the young women, so it wasn’t a big deal, only amusing to see what undirected direction looked like and the shock on their faces when they realized what they’d done.
The lilacs had years and years of dead limbs running in and out of the live branches. It didn’t take much thought to get rid of the dead wood. With the vitex it became a work of art. I wanted them to flow just so and give the gardeners or visitors easy access without branches hitting them in the face or impeding their walk. To look at the shrub and decide what should go, what should stay, and where you should cut it, well, it’s indescribably peaceful. Have you ever watched a gardener prune in a Japanese garden? It feels like that looks. You can’t see what the pruned vitex looks like in this photograph, but ‘lovely’ sums it up. Once the wildflowers take over in a few years this garden will become a secret garden of sorts, shrouded by fragrant shrubs. I am excited. Without the drought I would not have taken on this task.
I’ve also watched the monarch caterpillars growing from little specks to big enough to go into chrysalis. You’ll see a sprouted monarch on one of the sad zinnias. Water in the bird baths has been number one on my list of chores. Everything from tiny bees to butterflies to birds of every sort have used these baths during the drought. The deer come at night. To watch a bird taking a bath is truly one of the seven wonders of the world. These small tasks take on a more significant hue in a drought. I have time to linger, to enjoy, and not scurry about trying to conquer the world on all fronts.
One early spring day years ago, out preparing the garden, I found this toad. Frozen and then dried. When my sweetheart, Ron, saw it, he laughed and said I’d found the Buddha incarnate. This toad has been my inspiration for 25 years. When you look at the face, how can you not burst out laughing? Rain or no rain, life seems good, and this wise, funny toad helps me face it all.
Addendum: Halleluiah! On the 21st of September, the night before the fall equinox, rain began to fall at 12:40am. It fell hard enough I went inside to close the window by the computer, my desk, and to unplug the phone since the lightning came so close. And now, in the morning, I see a new world, the rain barrels filled, the temperature cooler and the tired world taking on a new hue.
It’s been a great year for Colorado peaches. Zoë brought me a twenty pound box last month and Bud’s assistant, Evan, a keen bargain hunter, has scored several boxes for himself and me. We’ve eaten many pounds of fresh peaches on our granola, with ice cream and out-of-hand. I have made a dozen jars of sunny peach salsa to eat on cold, grey winter days and I’ll make a peach pie this week with the last of the crop.
Zoë makes this salsa and kindly shared her recipe.
After peeling and chopping 12 peaches add 1/2 cup white vinegar, 2 tablespoons honey, 4 chopped jalapeños, a chopped red pepper and 1 1/2 cups chopped red or yellow onion, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin, a handful of chopped cilantro. Mash some of the peaches. Cook until thickened 5 – 10 minutes. Put into hot jars and process in a hot water bath for 22 minutes (or 15 minutes at sea level). Makes 4 pints plus some for eating right away.
I don’t have many specialized tools in my kitchen but this jar lifter and wide funnel are invaluable when canning.
As the summer slowly turns to fall, my zucchini plants have sprawled over their garden bed. Big, prickly leaves hide just the right size squashes – if I spot them before they become unwieldy clubs. The stealthy giant zucchini is a challenge for all of us vegetable gardeners.
My considerate plants have put out fruit at a reasonable pace. I can keep up with their production if I am vigilant in my harvesting. The fat one on the right was hiding.
One of our favorite zucchini dishes comes from Yotam Ottolengi’s cook book Plenty, a marvelous compendium of vegetable recipes.
Zucchini and Hazelnut Salad
(This recipe is for two-three servings but can easily be multiplied.)
Cut 2 medium sized zucchini into long skinny strips 3/8 inches wide, either diagonally or along their length. Toss with a tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper.
Heat a grill pan or a cast iron skillet until very hot. Lay the zucchini on the dry pan and sear until grill marks appear, just a minute or two on each side. You don’t want to cook the zucchini but rather barely soften it and get a bit of char.
Spread the strips on a platter and sprinkle with a teaspoon of your best balsamic vinegar. Top with ¼ cup chopped, toasted hazelnuts, shaved parmesan and torn basil leaves.
A zucchini frittata makes a delicious lunch or supper. For two servings saute a smallish zucchini, a yellow squash and a small onion, chopped, and some slivered beet greens in olive oil until tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add a bit more oil or a hunk of butter to the skillet tipping the pan to oil the sides. Beat together 4 large eggs and add to the skillet, shaking the skillet to distribute around the veggies. Dot with crumbles of goat cheese and cook over medium heat until edges are almost set. Put skillet under the broiler for a couple minutes to finish cooking the eggs. They will continue to set off the heat so don’t over broil.
Cut into wedges and serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Buon appetito.
Every summer about the first week in August, the memory of autumn creeps in. A cool breeze, dill going to glorious seed, pawpaws ripening, all signals that summer will bid us good-by. The abundance of the earth and jungle-like conditions in our gardens will not endure. Because we’ve suffered through intense heat, some of us through fires, the thought of autumn buoys us. We’ll welcome the end of mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers and inferno-like conditions. Until, of course, winter arrives and we fondly remember glorious summer nights. Call us fickle.
Before the arrival of this cooler weather, we’ll have to endure more extreme heat and humidity. The cucumbers have slowed down, especially with no rain for several weeks. Instead of picking twenty cucumbers a day, I’ll find one and feel grateful. Blessedly, a summer squash plant has succumbed to squash bugs (we planted over zealously) and one melon plant up and died too. We survey our gardens and watch the changes. Everything looks a bit tired, like the head gardener, but we plod on, hoping rain will come and give the gardens their second wind.
Truly, I see myself as a gardener. My calling is to take care of this piece of earth. Now I realize we have too much earth to handle. Eighty acres for one person and a head gardener, with no machines but a push mower, hmmm – not so good. Seed drifts about the countryside. Only mowing and poisoning keep any plant in check. The homestead, the gardens on the three acres, we maintain, we watch for unwanted seedlings of all stripes and colors. It’s the big fields, the twenty-five acres, where natives have been planted that cause anxiety. My neighbors don’t have the luxury of time to think about invasive plants except my new neighbors, the young couple, who I have high hopes for. Now they’re too busy building their house to deal with autumn olive, multiflora rose, Hollis’ thistles and…
Now, sericea lespedeza. Sericea has taken center stage. I could make a list of offending plants we’ve battled. Most of them due to my enthusiasm, uncurbed by thoughtful research. In other words, being seduced by a plant’s beauty, fragrance, grace, whatever, to the point I was unable to foresee the future assault it would carry out. No offensive seed drifted to the fields, only to the gardens. And we’ve stopped their assault over the years. However, with sericea, I had no hand in its introduction to our fields.
Sericea lespedeza was initially planted at the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station in 1896. They were looking for a plant that could survive drought, control erosion and add to the soil’s fertility. After 125 years, sericea has done more than that. It’s taken over vast tracts of land, from Michigan to New Jersey, south to Texas and Florida and even in Hawaii. It has become a curse word to farmers and land owners in general. Like many non-native plants, there are no controls, no natural predator or eater of, no mite, no bug or anything to keep it in check. So now we have another catastrophe on our land, one of many I may add. It’s a bit of a nightmare, like letting the genie out of the bottle.
Until now, Strawdog has been unbothered by this legume. In fact, quite frankly, I didn’t even know what sericea looked like. But oh boy and howdy! I do now. Friends came over for dinner and as they walked around the gardens, Clayton casually looked out into the fields and said, “I see you have a healthy specimen of sericea.” He stopped me in my tracks. “What!!” I exclaimed. “No!!!” I go into crisis easily. I always think the worst will happen. So for me, he could’ve said the world is coming to an end. This seems crazy and it embarrasses me to confess, but it’s true. I slid into doomsday mode. Clayton tried to convince me to just forget it, but I couldn’t. I knew I had to confront this new menace.
I managed to put my anxiety in a box for the rest of the night. The next day, obsessed, I walked the fields. I realized our twenty-five acre field of natives had a veritable infestation of sericea. How did the seed arrive so quickly and perniciously? The extent of the infestation nearly drove me crazy. There was so much of it, I couldn’t believe it could be a bad guy. In fact, I had the folks who we bought the native seed from send me a list of all the seed they’d sent when we planted the field in 2018, just to make sure it couldn’t be something else. I scoured the internet for sericea look-alikes. I didn’t want to believe we really had this dreaded plant. I was still in denial.
I spent one to two hours, down on my hands and knees, early in the morning, snipping each woody stalk with my Felco pruners. When my friend Agnes helped for the first time, she declared “This is so rewarding, to clear a patch.” “Rewarding?” I replied. “It’s a curse. And it goes on and on.” Her company made the task more pleasant and after two weeks, maybe five of the twenty-five acres seems clear of this legume. For now. Of course it will return, just not go to seed this autumn. All the bad guys come back; the good guys just disappear. Sigh…
And that was the easy five acres. The rest of the field has big patches of 100 square feet. Each one would take me three hours to cut down only to have it come back and be ready to flower this time next year. There’s no way I or we, could cut it all down yet this fall. I was beginning to see the reality. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed.
Sericea’s attractive. It has soft green leaves with a silvery back coat. No prickles, no thorns, nothing unpleasant. I can see why the pedologists in North Carolina admired this plant, not realizing its aggressive nature. (Keep this in mind in all things plant and human!) I could take up sericea eradication as my mission, neglect the homestead gardens. Such a thought made me realize maybe I had lost my good sense.
My neighbors and friends, John and his son Jeremy, came by at my bidding. I told them about my problem and asked them if they’d use their zero turn mower to cut down the big patches. I’d do the isolated plants. First they told me, “Mimi, sericea’s everywhere, you won’t get rid of it.” I said I realized this, but I signed a contract to take care of this field and I feel responsible to my neighbors too. If, I continued, after five years of continually cutting and burning, sericea returns, I will admit defeat. “I know I’m crazy, but I feel compelled to do this. I love this land.” And Jeremy, who has hunted here for twenty-five years said, “I do too.” And they also laughed and agreed I was crazy. Nice to get the small talk out of the way. They said they’d mow the patches.
A few days after this conversation I drove to Linn for our drive-through electric co-op meeting. I slowly drove the back way, noticing all the sericea in fields, along the roadsides, even in folks’ yards. If we could see Covid, it might look like sericea. I felt physically sick at the sight of so much sericea but also oddly calm. With something so common, how could I possibly expect to be a sericea-free island?
Over a week has passed and they haven’t mowed the big patches. I walked out into the field this morning, as the sun was coming up, and saw beauty as well as an unstoppable force. Maybe Jeremy saw that too. The only way to temporarily get rid of sericea, is to use poisons. After 4 or 5 years of poisoning sericea, it supposedly will die. Then birds, the wind, seed on a tractor, will reintroduce it and you’re back to square one. I will not use poisons. Period. Just like farmers with picture perfect fields, poisons become a way of life in order to maintain the perfection. That explains some of why we’re now in such trouble with the earth.
Like our Pandemic, some things can’t be eliminated, only contained, managed through clever and careful techniques. We simply have to accept that which we can’t control and learn how to live with it. We all face these challenges, with our bodies, our families, our jobs, our mental health, whatever. Part of living happily comes from accepting our limitations and moving on.
I have spent hours thinking about infestations, reading about taking care of the land, and now have admitted defeat. I simply can’t fight it. Every time I think about sericea taking the field, infecting the neighbors’ fields, I get an anxiety attack and want to cry. It will drive me crazy if I don’t accept the reality. Our fields have sericea. I will watch the battle between it and big blue stem, Canadian rye and the other lovely forbs. The bob whites call many times every day. They don’t seem concerned about sericea, nor do all the pollinators, floating above it all.
So I focus on the homestead. I think about where I want to plant an alder copse, a smoke tree. I watch the Indian pinks go to seed and calculate when the seed will be ripe. I pick the beautiful grapes and native peaches and feel grateful for the bounty of this piece of land. The earth doesn’t care what plants grow in the fields at Strawdog, along the road sides or anywhere else. The earth has millennia to sort it all out.
Only we humans care. We think we know what to do, like the soil specialists, or pedologists, did when they advocated using sericea lespedeza to solve an erosion problem. Just as we have to think about what we plant, we have to carefully consider how we will contend with plants we don’t want. It can’t be all about US. The earth, the universe has its own ways. We must respect them or bear the consequences. I feel humbled and ready to cooperate, to accept invasives and try to control them where possible. It was a painful trip, coming to this acceptance, and I feel sure I’ll have moments of backsliding.
As the days shorten and the time to plant fall crops comes, the head gardener and I bound around the gardens with a bit more vigor, though a bit ragged looking and still bearing the red splotches from one insect and another, scratches from blackberry canes, and blisters from over-use of the pruners. It’s in the job description. We welcome it all, grateful for our able bodies so we can experience this piece of land going through its changes, as willing caretakers. In fact, she and I seem to have found a place of harmony. Maybe she sees how hard I’ve worked and how devastated I feel by the presence of another invasive. Whatever, I welcome the friendly gestures, however long they may last.