Waiting for the Rain

by Mimi Hedl

The stressed gardens

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…

Where the finches come

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.

Lilacs, vitex and button bush in cleared area

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.

What a difference a day makes

End of the Season

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.

Zucchini Frittata

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.

Into Summer’s Depths

by Mimi Hedl

Pawpaws ripening

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.

Sericea lespedeza

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.

Native peach

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.

Lushness of the gardens

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.

Loaded teepee

Peach Season

Kite Flying on the Cape 1988, pastel on paper, 41 x 30 inches

Our summer has been busy with artist visitors.  In late June Claire Sherman, Jon Cancro and their daughter Iris were with us for eleven days.  Claire made a lovely new litho with Bud while Jon and Iris took many hikes in the mountains.  At dinner each evening, 19-month-old Iris entertained us with her unusual tastes including spicy chile crunch, pickles and, her favorite, olives. She discovered cherries and ate them with gusto.  One night she enjoyed red beets and cherries ending up with a vampirish red mouth.  Delightful.

Robert Kushner is here now working on a large two-paneled print.  I enjoy cooking for Bob who is an appreciative eater and knowledgeable cook.  We have had lots of vegetables ─ zucchini and beets from my garden, and green beans, eggplant, lettuces and cabbage from Zweck’s farm stand.

The big news is that it’s peach and apricot season.  I scored a box of organic, Colorado apricots and made 17 jars of glorious deep orange jam.  While jam making, I remember my friend Maggie who delighted in apricot season and always gave me a jar of her concoction.   This is how I make it.

For each cup of sliced apricots add ½- ¾  cup of sugar.  (I use ½ cup sugar then add an additional cup to the batch).  Stir and let sit until sugar starts to dissolve.  Crush some of the fruit with a potato masher or a pastry cutter.  Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the fruit is translucent and the juices thickened.  Crack apricot seeds to extract the kernels and add two to each jar. (I use a hammer on the stone wall outside my kitchen). Ladle the hot fruit into hot, sterilized Ball jars and seal with the lid and ring.  Twelve cups of fruit and 7 cups of sugar yielded about 12 pint jars of jam.

Dinners with friends have brightened the summer after many months with no socializing.  I am often called on to bring dessert and have made a couple of peach sweets ─ a peach and apricot crisp using ground almonds in the topping instead of flour to accommodate a gluten-sensitive friend, and stuffed peaches, an Italian recipe from my book.

For four servings, halve and pit four peaches. Scoop out some of the flesh to form a cavity. Mash this with ½ cup ground almonds, 2 tablespoons softened butter, 1 egg yolk and 1/4 cup sugar.  Mound the filling in the peach shells, top with sliced almonds and bake in a buttered baking dish at 350° for 20-30 minutes until the filling is set and the peaches soft.  Serve warm or at room temperature with a dollop of créme fraiche, plain yogurt or ice cream.

Blackberries Ripen

by Mimi Hedl

Cleaned blackberry patch

Blackberry season has begun. The head gardener picked the first batch a few days ago. I reminded her, as I looked through the berries, that the berries won’t ripen anymore after picking, so we need to carefully choose the berries we pick. She glared at me. A ripe blackberry is sweetness personified, an unripe blackberry makes you pucker and use far too much sugar.

To pacify her, when she complained about all the dead canes in the patch and how difficult it was to decide which berry was ripe and those that needed a few more days in the sun, I told her I’d clean up the patch. Frankly, I should have done this task weeks ago, but summer has a way of tripping us up and unless we have explicit lists, and honor them, we will forget many, many chores until they look us straight in the eye. And the blackberry patch was a mess! A real, horrible thorny mess.

Armed with long pants, long sleeved shirt, leather gloves and my trusty pruners, I spent a cloudy Saturday morning, with more rain promised, cutting, then pulling out one dead cane after another. Needless to say, the ripe blackberries rebelled and fell off the canes. I felt bad, but I knew our friendly turtles would have a feast. You say, why didn’t you pick the berries first? Because I would’ve had to pick them with heavy leather gloves, necessary to navigate in and out of the dead canes without getting mercilessly stabbed.  Can you imagine how many berries I’d manage to get in my basket?  The head gardener had an impossible task.  I should apologize, but…

Not only did many dead canes interfere with the picking process, but Virginia creeper, that beautiful 5-leaved vine neophytes mistake for poison ivy, had also moved in, crept in. Climbing in and out of the canes, I had to explore the terrain to find the source of the creeper, and then extricate it. Some vines were just too strong, they’ll require a fork to dig them out. Later, I promised, when the blackberries quiet down.

The head gardener picked all the berries with red. Bowl by sister Susan Hopkins.

By lunch time the patch looked picture perfect. I picked the ripe berries and now have a quart, enough to make a generous blackberry cobbler, using Edna Lewis’ wonderful recipe, a recipe I’ve used for almost 40 years. When Zoë and Hilary, my niece and daughter, were young, they loved blackberries, maybe not picking them so much, but yes! To the cobbler.

Mary Tindall and I used to go blackberry picking together, all over the woods. She and her husband Ray were our good friends (Ray died and Mary moved away). He was a back yard mechanic who could just tap a pliers on the engine block and make ‘Ol Red, our ‘62 International, purr.  Mary had a sweet heart, loved company and had us over for countless barbeques. Their daughter, Tara, became one of Hilary’s Belle friends. Every Saturday when the Tindalls would drive to Wal-Mart in Owenvsville to do their shopping, Hilary would ride along and be gleeful over the candy and soda and then TV she could watch at their house. We deprived her of those essential building blocks and she was beyond grateful the Tindall’s gave her what she needed.

I don’t think Mary liked the picking of the blackberries as much as the company and the chance to chatter away. We’d get into the thick of blackberry patches and before I knew it, my greedy hands had touched poison ivy. There wasn’t hardly a blackberry expedition that didn’t end in a good case of the rash. That is, until I learned to identify jewelweed.

Jewelweed has hollow stems with sticky sap inside. This sap contains, among other things, a substance called lawsone that gives the mighty blow to both poison ivy and stinging nettles. Rub this sap on your skin, and like magic, poison ivy and nettles become neutralized. And often, blackberries and jewelweed will grow in a similar habitat, shady and damp.

I remember one year we took our nephew Corey and one of his friends blackberry picking. They got into the poison ivy and I spied the jewelweed close by. I had the boys rub the stems all over themselves and they never broke out into the rash. Phew!!! I thought to myself; one disaster avoided. Still plenty more to contend with, like ticks and chiggers and wasp stings and blood suckers… Shall I go on? No one will want to come visit!

Bee on native rose

With the 4th of July a week behind us, summer seems well on the move. When I was in high school I remember marking this date as summer half over before school began again. Groan. Now as I tend the gardens, it’s more of a time to observe, make mental notes of tasks to do in the future, watch caterpillars feeding on their special plants and wondering where they’ll go to spin their chrysalis.

The male cardinal has been making eyes at a female lately. They’ll mate one more time this year and it looks like that will happen soon. It’s hilarious to watch their antics and wonderful to pause and take it all in.

Earlier this spring as I was preparing a site for the okra, I came across this rabbit nest. Look at the sweet little bunnies! As much as I don’t like them eating my plants, I do like seeing them bop around. As my friend Jessie observed when she saw a hawk sitting close to her garden, that hawk will help keep everything in check. It’s only when things get out of balance that we have problems.

So I observe the hawks stalking the area and I know a kind of balance exists. Nothing turns out just like I would program it, thank goodness, as I do get distracted by one thing or another, and couldn’t maintain order like Mother Nature when she’s unfettered by chemicals and poor conservation. I feel grateful to observe the order, the health of the plants, the life cycle of so many insects and other creatures.

To watch the pipevine swallowtails feed on the pipevine and become partners in these gardens,

to see the honey bees pollinating,

and the milkweed tussock moth caterpillars devouring the milkweed, (what an amazing single file),

to watch black snakes in flagrante delicto,

and to see this bushel basket gourd flower at sunrise.

How does one count her blessings but in all these small scenes of beauty? Especially with a blackberry cobbler in the oven.

The yucca are blooming

We have had a whirlwind of changeable weather. After the rains that draped our hills in green cloaks, the heat bore down making record temperatures. The last week has been rainy and cool. An abundance of wildflowers are blooming including our many yuccas. The hillside is dotted with their tall spires of creamy-white blossom. The deer and rabbits feast on these delectable petals and so do we.

We eat a lot of salad, my favorite food. My concoctions take many forms and when once a year the yucca bloom I include the petals. I was inspired to add them to a NYTimes recipe for an arugula and roasted asparagus salad. The once-a-year flowers are crisp and slightly bitter.

I roast asparagus in my toaster oven, a quick, simple way to achieve great flavor. Snap off the tough bottom part of the asparagus stalks and arrange on the oven pan on a piece of parchment. Sprinkle with olive oil and roll the stalks in the oil. Add salt and pepper. Put into cold toaster oven and roast at 400° for 3-5 minutes until just tender. Cool and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces.

Toss with arugula, cut into bite-sized bits, the petals of 6-8 yucca flowers, and a vinaigrette made with a crushed and minced clove of garlic, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Serve with a crispy fried egg.

During our heat wave, salads were my go-to dish for supper. This watermelon and feta combo tastes great in the heat and is a complement to any grilled meat or fish. With the arugula going wild in my garden, I include it in all my salads. It’s particularly good with the melon and feta – a lovely, bitter counterpoint to the sweet, salty tastes.

Cut watermelon into bite-sized cubes. Add to salad greens and dress with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Top with crumbled feta and a handful of toasted pepitas.

Then our weather changed to cool and rainy. The hills retain their green glow and we wear socks and long pants. I thought of cold weather ingredients and made a farro and celery salad.

Have ready a bowl with three stalks of celery sliced thin, a crushed and minced clove of garlic, the juice of half a lemon and some grated zest, several tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper. Add hot chile flakes to taste. Cook a cup of farro until tender. Pour the drained, hot farro over the celery and dressing and leave to cool.

To make the dish more summer-like I added the first snow peas from the garden, lightly cooked, a few slivered mint leaves and fresh dill. We had leftover grilled salmon flaked on top. Toasted sourdough to accompany.

Who knows what the weather will be but I am thankful for the rain that helps my usually dry, struggling garden thrive.

Late Spring on Blue Mountain Road

Our hillsides look like they could be in Ireland, a green carpet, at least to a Coloradan accustomed to our brown, sere landscape. Spring is busting out all over with an abundance of wildflowers, lilacs and apple blossom.  I’m cooking with early produce from my garden, arugula, lettuces, baby bok choy, parsley and chives.  Soon the snow peas and snap peas will flower.  I look forward to zucchini, tomatoes and Colorado cherries and peaches.  But not quite yet.

In the meantime I made a simple lemon buttermilk pound cake to go with store-bought strawberries and homemade yogurt.

This cake recipe is from Marion Cunningham in The Fanny Farmer Baking Book, a book I return to again and again for a range of dependable recipes for baked goods.  I make it in my Cuisinart but a mixer or a wooden spoon would do just fine.

Buttermilk Lemon Pound Cake

Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour an 8-9 inch loaf pan.

Cream together ½ cup butter, softened, and 1 cup sugar. Stir in 2 large eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Have ready 1 ½ cups unbleached flour mixed with ¼ teaspoon baking soda, ¼ teaspoon baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt. Add this to the butter mixture alternately with ½ cup buttermilk, 1 tablespoon lemon zest, ½ teaspoon vanilla. Stir until smooth and well blended.

Pour into prepared pan and bake at 350° for 40 – 45 minutes.  Check with a toothpick or skewer for doneness.  Cool on a rack for 10 minutes then unmold and cool completely. Serve slices with fresh berries, peaches or other fruit and a dollop of homemade, maple syrup-sweetened, yogurt.

Homemade Yogurt 

I’ve made yogurt for years.  We eat it with our granola each morning and I use yogurt in other preparations from tuna salad to cucumber raita to a sweetened garnish for cake, pie, or fruit. Since we moved to Blue Mountain Road (24 years ago) I make fewer trips to the grocery store. I have a well-stocked pantry and freezer and make bread, crackers, salsas and cookies to insure that I can put together a meal without relying on a far-off store. Plus, I couldn’t stand the pile of plastic tubs I accumulated when buying commercial yogurt.  So I make my own, two quarts at a time.  The two quarts last us about eight days.

I like Siggi’s whole milk yogurt for my starter and 2% milk as the main ingredient but use what you prefer – whole milk, 2% or 1%.  Choose any live yogurt you enjoy eating for your starter.  Whole milk yogurt provides the best culture.

First, heat a quart of milk to about 130°, until it begins to form a skin.  Watch so that it doesn’t boil over. I have spent many minutes cleaning up my stovetop after a milk volcano erupted.  Pour into a large ceramic bowl or Mason quart jar and let cool to 115-118°. I use an instant read thermometer here. (At this temperature you can hold your finger in the milk for the count of five.  It will feel hot but tolerable.)

 In a small bowl combine 1/3 cup of the starter yogurt and a dipper-full of the warm milk and whisk until smooth.  Pour back into the large bowl or jar of milk and stir well. 

Cover with a plate or lid and place in a warm spot.  I use a picnic cooler into which I put a jar of boiling water to maintain the warmth. An oven with a pilot would be a nice warm spot too.  Leave for 6-8 hours until cultured and thickened.  Gently place the bowl or jar in the fridge and leave until firm – usually overnight.

From the Irish-green foothills of the Rockies, I send you my best wishes for a delicious and bountiful late spring.

Exuberant May

by Mimi Hedl

Glorious ninebark

Spring has simply exploded. The scenes change more quickly than my eyes can absorb. I feel like a mother with quintuplets trying to keep up with the essentials of feeding and changing, though in my case, it’s weeding and more weeding. The compost bins hungrily gobble up all the greenery we haul in wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow. After a winter’s diet of dried stalks and meager contributions from the compost bucket, all this green stuff makes the changing of straw into gold a reality. The compost pile feels eager for the task at hand.

 A day finally arrived when the forecast didn’t include any below 50° temps for a solid ten nights.  OK tomatoes, let’s rock and roll!  And that’s just what we did, from 8 am to 5 pm, with civilized breaks and naps for this less than youthful gardener. By the end of a lovely Friday, 22 tomato plants found their new home in the earth, planted up to their necks, with bamboo tops to disguise their presence.

Protected tomato

You’ll remember the head gardener and I fight critters of every sort, including each other. The cutest, tiniest bunnies run around now. I mean, they are as adorable as any baby ever could be. When I see their sweet noses twitch, I melt. Of course the head gardener scowls at me. She knows what these little monsters, (her words, not mine), can do to the plants we set out. In order to avoid a serious quarrel, I came up with strategies, similar to my teepeenies that worked well for the cabbages and early lettuces. I showed her my plans and she grunted but didn’t quite approve.

 I always feel nervous when I think I’ve come up with a solution for someone who lives in the same world I do, but with different values. I recognize these creatures have 24 hours of every day to do as they please. I accept that raccoons harvest each ear of corn as it reaches its sweetest. We don’t plant corn any more. This year we’re using potato boxes to grow both Irish and sweet potatoes because we can’t control the voles underground. How can you control something you can’t see? There’s no vaccine for vole control. No doubt more data, and maybe tears, will become available when potato harvest arrives…

Cabbages with bamboo barriers

 However, we can protect above ground plants. It may seem tedious. We went from the teepeenies to these bamboo barriers for the cabbages. Deer can’t get in and rabbits haven’t squeezed under. Granted, it may not look like a photo shoot for a fancy gardening magazine, but then neither does leaving lots of weeds to disguise the presence of choice plants. ‘Confuse them with abundance’ has become our new mantra. Who cares what the garden looks like if it produces delicious food – for you!

 And that’s partially what the bamboo tips do, confuse. With all these fluttering dried bamboo leaves bending down over the tomato plant, surely nothing could be hidden there? The shovel you see with the bamboo is called a sharp shooter. Because the tomatoes had grown 16” tall, it would take a regular shovel to dig the initial hole, and then the sharp shooter to go the extra few inches so the tomato would have its entire stem in the earth where roots will grow in all directions, securing the tomato from winds and enabling the plant to find trace minerals down under.

Sharpshooter and bamboo leaves

 This tomato planting day was possible because my friend Agnes had come the day before. She teaches physics at the university and gave her last final early that morning and needed garden time to relax and unwind. I encouraged her to dig plants to take home to her new gardens as we’d have rain over the week-end and into the next week and the plants could settle in nicely.

Coral Bells

 She went about her pleasant task and I weeded cheat grass out of the Medicinal Garden. It makes the compost pile smile. So many seed heads, abundant protein and easy to digest. It’s an annual grass and makes tremendous growth in the spring. Really, it’s impossible to get rid of. Kinda like chickweed. I see it all as fodder for the compost. I slide an old butcher knife under the roots of this grass to release its hold and into the wheelbarrow goes the clump, after clump, after clump.

 We broke for lunch and while I cooked, Agnes mowed. Then after our lunch, she mowed. In fact, I had a tough time keeping up with her. She would empty the mower bag so often it seemed like she dumped more grass into the waiting wheelbarrow than she mowed. I’d push it out to the Park where I’d weeded and spread those luscious clippings over the bare earth. When I’d return, the second wheelbarrow would be filled up. And I’d race back out to the Park with that. This went on for well over an hour. I felt tired from hustling to get the next wheelbarrow back to her, but she barely broke sweat. Youth. Blessed youth.

Honeysuckle flava

 When she left, she thanked me profusely for the car load of plants. I looked at her with surprise, “Shouldn’t I be thanking you?!” But she doesn’t see it that way. She sees the opportunity to move about the gardens as a gift even though I tell her repeatedly that she’s the gift. No doubt a win-win relationship.

 Agnes drove back to Rolla, 35 miles away, set out plants until she had to meet with a student, then went home and set out the rest of the plants, put paving stones in the new garden, mowed all her grass and put the grass clippings on THAT garden!! She finished at 8:15 that evening.

Iris virginica

While Agnes was doing her evening gardening, I was sitting quietly, watching the hummingbirds do their incessant feeding and dancing, getting up now and then to look at one beautiful scene after another. Grateful to watch spring unfold, to devote time to spring viewing. To know that because of Agnes, I could dedicate tomorrow to tomato planting and during breaks, walk around and admire what springs forth after a long winter’s nap.

Gladys’ peony

There’s Gladys’ peony, really her mother’s, well over 100 years old. I can see Gladys downing a cold beer after we picked cherries so many years ago, she was 85 at that time. And Elmer, our incorrigible neighbor who telephoned for fish as a young man. Even though blind and crippled, he still told the best stories and gave me this iris, the Wabash. I hear his stories every spring. Like so many who have gone to their reward, they come back to me when spring reminds me of their moment. Glorious spring.

Wabash iris from Elmer

Peanut Butter Cookies

Gelato 2003 Charcoal on paper, 40 x 30 inches

As the chief cook around here, I get (have) to decide what we eat.  Bud rarely asks for a particular dish but might say, “How about pizza?  Or pasta?” Not a lot of help with my planning, but I’m lucky to have such an accommodating audience for my cooking.

I can’t imagine not deciding what we will eat for each meal.  I’m able to indulge my sudden desire for scrambled eggs or a smoked turkey sandwich.  Or cauliflower salad with olives or a shrimp risotto.   And Bud is happy with whatever I make.

I plan our meals like I’m orchestrating a symphony. I think about taste and texture notes ─ is there something savory, spicy, cold, hot, smooth, chunky, crisp or soft ─ on the menu.  I might toss toasted pepitas or almonds into a butter lettuce salad for a little contrasting crunch.  Or add a handful of dried currants to a quinoa salad for a burst of sweetness against a savory, citrus dressing. 

When it comes to dessert I use the same strategy.  What was the main meal and do we need a little extra protein, something cool and creamy after a spicy dish, or a buttery slice of pie after a simple, light supper? 

Our lunches are usually comprised of a salad with a variety of veggies, nuts, beans and perhaps salmon, tuna or chicken.  If I feel I’ve skimped on the protein I’ll include these cookies for dessert.  What a good excuse for a favorite treat! 

Peanut Butter Butter Cookies

Slightly adapted from Marion Cunningham in The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. This recipe varies from the traditional one I have used and I’ve come to prefer it. These are crisp and flavorful. 

Cream together ½ cup unsalted butter and 1 packed cup of brown sugar.  Add a large egg, ½ cup peanut butter, (smooth or chunky), and ½ teaspoon vanilla.  Stir in 1 ½ cups unbleached flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda and ½ teaspoon salt.

Form dough into walnut sized balls, (¾ – 1 inch), and place on a greased or parchment lined baking sheet a couple inches apart as they do spread.  With a fork, flatten each ball twice, at right angles, to make the traditional markings of a peanut butter cookie.  The pressed dough ball will be about 1 ½ inches wide. Sprinkle each with a good pinch of flaky Maldon sea salt or other coarse salt.

Bake at 350° for 10 -12 minutes until set and a little brown. Cool on a rack. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

I make another peanut butter cookie, one similar to the fabulous large peanut butter domes at the City Bakery in New York (now closed).  On our trips to the Print Fair, we would try to squeeze in time for coffee or lunch at the Bakery.  And we would always choose a peanut butter cookie for dessert.  The baker didn’t like to share his recipes so I was pleased to find that Julia Moskin, (in the New York Times), had devised one to replicate the wonderful cookies. I make them smaller than the originals.

I mix these in my Cuisinart.  You may use a stand mixer or combine by hand.  The ingredients are similar to the ones in the previous recipe.  Interesting how just a few changes make for a different texture and taste.  These are very more-ish so watch out.

Sweet-Salty Peanut Butter Sandies

Cream together ½ cup unsalted butter, 3/8 cup (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) brown sugar, 3/8 cup white sugar.  Stir in 1 cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky), 1 large egg and ½ teaspoon vanilla.  Add 1 cup unbleached flour and ½ teaspoon salt.

Scoop rough balls of dough, about 2 teaspoonfuls, onto a parchment lined baking sheet.  Don’t smooth them as you want the crags.  Use a cookie scoop if you have one. They don’t spread much so you can place them an inch apart. Sprinkle each with a pinch of turbinado sugar and one of flaky or coarse sea salt.

Bake at 350° for 12-15 minutes, until set and slightly browned.  They are fragile after baking so carefully slide the parchment on to a rack.  They firm up after cooling and are tender and succulent.

Makes about 3 dozen.

April Squalls

by Mimi Hedl

I’d been eyeing Our Lady’s winter garb on warm April days and kept saying, “I need to change her clothes, give her the lightness and airiness spring suggests”. Every time I walked by her, she had her head down and seemed absorbed in some kind of reverie. So I let her be even though the 60° nights suggested spring indeed was in full flower. In fact, the cavalcade of redbuds, wild plums, golden currant, Dolgo crabapple, daffodils of every category, blue bells, celandine poppies and so many more early flowering plants made me dizzy visiting them, showing my appreciation for old friends returning, smelling, touching, all that we need to do after a long, dark winter.

Most days I’d sneak away for a brief period, hiding from the head gardener so I could sit on the earth, in protected spots, those private cubby-hole kinds of spots I sought out as a child. Cocoons, wombs, nests, however you think of those secret places you too treasured and would go for comfort when someone had hurt your feelings or you just didn’t feel like playing with anyone.

Maybe I should count these treasured spots but that would cheapen them as they feel as sacred to the child in me as a church does to the faithful. I can simply disappear from the scene and indulge in quiet thoughts and now, with my acquaintance of so many of the wayside herbs that grow in these grassy coves, I’ll touch and smell each addition to the grasses, say their name, and try to remember some use of the plant, what the root looks like, or maybe one of the many names local people, the world over, will call this plant.

Honeysuckle ready for the hummingbirds

As a child, I remember a large field near Lou Ann’s house, my best friend from kindergarten through 5th grade, in Superior, Wisconsin, and the huge trees that lined the far side of the field where I’d play. I had a tree stump with a deep indentation that became my mortar. I used a rock to pound berries, probably from a honeysuckle shrub, and sing a song that Sacajawea sang in a play put on at our elementary school, “I am brave. I am not afraid.”

Back then I was afraid of everything so singing this song, quietly, so no one could hear me, made me feel brave and like the girl I wanted to be. There were grasses and weeds and briars and leaves and sticks of every kind. It felt like paradise. Why didn’t I recognize my passion? Who knows what paths we have to take to find our way in this world. It can seem like a lonely journey when no one acknowledges the possibilities of our dream.

So there I sit on the grassy patch behind the Medicinal garden, concealed, investigating the dandelions, chickweeds, scarlet pimpernel, sheep sorrel living happily together. I nibble on them, like a rabbit sampling the garden. In spring I wear a carpenter’s apron with a large pocket. I pop the new dandelion flowers in, so I can make a tisane, a light tea, later. The leaves I’ll collect at another time for a stronger tea, a decoction, in which I’ll boil the leaves for a potent brew. My daughter gags at the thought. “That looks like the cocklebur syrup you used to give me for a cough!” she said when I sent her a photo of my cocktail. I laughed. How wonderful that she still remembers.

Cemetery Ladies or Twin Sisters

Of course I lie on the grass and look up. It’s amazing how different the world looks from a prone position, under a tree, watching the clouds drift by, the sun flitting in and out. It reminds me of when I look through binoculars and enter another world. This seems good to remember when we need to rest our troubled minds. The solution’s so simple, so accessible, maybe even the head gardener indulges when she doesn’t see me. Wouldn’t it be funny if when we both got up from our quiet time, we saw each other! I would love that. Maybe then she’d get off my case…

Wayside herbs

In my fantasies, when I’m teaching young gardeners, I bring them to spots like this, where the wayside herbs have filtered into the grasses, creating a rich network of plant life. Each gardener, in their own spot, would list all the plants they find. This would be part one of the final test. The second place for identification would be the compost pile, part two of the final test. After working for months and seeing the multitude of life, to be able to say what genus, what family and maybe the use of the plant, would demonstrate a familiarity with the life in that micro-environment.

I remember seeing lamb’s quarters, epazote and nettles in New York City. Simple wayside herbs that populate so much of North America, and all worthy of knowing, all old friends I cultivate and honor. I make sure to keep dock close by so when I accidentally touch nettles I can rub a dock leaf on my skin. “Nettles in, dock out. Dock takes the nettles out.” Amen and hallelujah. It truly works!

Lamb’s quarters or quelites

Now I’m getting carried away, thinking of all the wonderful plants I use, like our ancestors, for food and medicine. Roots shoots and leaves. (I had to include a play on that wonderful book title that makes me giggle every time I think of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves.) Spring does this to me, makes me get carried away, unmindful of so much as I indulge in utter joy at being alive in a world filled with wonder.

And then, boom! the frost came. It was predicted. We had forewarning, but still. The lilacs had bloomed as well as the dogwoods. I picked all the asparagus, no matter how small. It would freeze. I called Tϋlin. She’d put out her lemon tree and bougainvillea, a fig tree too. She could cover the fig tree, but the lemon and bougainvillea would suffer. She had other house plants she and Clayton had hauled out. Oh dear!

On the 20th of April and for the next two days, we had below freezing temps. I kept a fire in the heating stove day and night. Ice and snow came. It was five days past our average date of the last frost. It was miserable for man and beast. Our Lady was grateful for her warm hat, her winter clothes. And what a relief I had respected her silence, her quietness when I thought of letting spring into her. That will come soon enough. Maybe I’ll pick her a May Day bouquet and give her lightness, her airiness, that provides the grace with which she embraces all of spring.

Dogwood