Friday, October 17, 2003

first frost

old graveyard in autumn

So much has happened since spring. Small seeds have sprouted into luxuriant plants, laden with fruits, and now death is a common event, but it always makes us pause, at the very very least. Overnight, the few thin tomato vines that still reached for the sky, the young ones that were unscathed by the munching of fungi and other critters, have now succumbed to the deadly frost. The pepper plants were oblivious til the last moment--looking lush and stouter than ever up to that last day, pumping out yet more flowers. It is bittersweet to go out in the garden in the soft muted light of a misty October day, which only intensifies the colors contrasting and there is the feeling of impending doom and then the next day all is covered with a thin layer of frost and a mild sense of relief as soon the labors of canning will turn into pride on the basement shelves. Another year is lost and gained. Virginia creeper leaves are dark red, showing up against the still green wild grapevines on the fence. Every day is a new change in color. Dead marigolds and sunflower stalks pulled out of the garden gain new respect and renewed charm laid hapless on the walls of the bird's nest bin.

The drought did not do good for the pumpkins this year, but the color of fall still shows up in the bowls of tomatoes in various stages of ripeness/unripeness on the coffee table in the living room. Green, pink blush, yellow and red. Potted plants that were outside are crowding for space at the windows.

In the garden, the fall crops come to the fore. Dark-green spinach; lettuces in hues from light green to streaked with the seriousness of dark red. White cauliflowers sparkle amidst the rows of every shade of green: brussels' sprouts, cabbages, kales, collards, and broccoli too. Tuscan kale adds a note of blue to the green, and I am again back in Italy, where I have never been. I squat to pull carrots from the still-yielding earth.

Today is the day to plant garlic.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

The harvest is coming on hot...

purple coneflowers (Echinecea purpurea) and bee balm (Monarda)[butterfly (center), purple coneflower (Echinecea purpurea) and bee balm (Monarda) on left]
The harvest is coming on hot and heavy. The weather is almost too hot to cook other than barbecue, but the vegetables are beckoning. The salads are wonderful.
Oh, to go out in the morning and pick snow peas dripping from vines almost as tall as me. The perfect basis for a stir-fry. Delicate salad greens that could never survive shipping, but are a work of art on a salad or even placed on a sandwich for that moment before the top bread goes on. And the asparagus is still coming! Lightly steamed, they just hardly need anything--maybe a bit of butter, a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.
Soon it's time to let the asparagus grow up its hairy ferns to build strength for next year. The peas, and then the snow peas start to decline, and the lettuce begins to bolt. Pick quickly and enjoy big salads! Let some plants go to flower to collect seed later.
Now the attention is drawn to the fava beans. Even the august Sundays at Moosewood cookbook says that fresh fava beans are not available in Ithaca so they only used dried. I bet they're available at the Farmers' Market now. Beloved by Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines, they are a cinch to grow. Hardy plants, the seeds may be started in late March when there was a lull in the weather and all the early crops (carrots, radishes, spinach, lettuces...) may be sown. The big fat seeds are perfect to give to a child to sow an inch deep; nine seeds per square foot. The youngest ones are ready in June and just need to be shucked and briefly cooked, but with the abundance of vegetables available at the same time, I wait til July to use the favas when they are bigger. To cook these, pluck the beans from the big plush pods. After a few minutes in boiling water, cool them down under cold water, and then squeeze the light bright inner green bean out of its skin. Dress it up as you will. Good in stir-fries and even burritos.
The Chinese cabbages that I started indoors in April, and transplanted out in May, are big now. I've been picking the outer leaves as needed and they keep growing. Spinach, mustard greens, garden cress, and arugula have bolted in late June, but small leaves of a second sowing of arugula, sown just one month ago, are already available. The wild form of arugula, Rucola selvatica, has been slower growing and slower to bolt, so the finely-indented, flavorful leaves from the March sowing are still available. When there is the time to deal with it, collect the purslane, amaranth and lambsquarters that are now growing all over the garden and need to be weeded anyway, and clean and cook them up. (See June.)
One of my favorite meals for this time of year is some kind of variation on peanut sauce with noodles. It's flexible for the warm weather days, when appetites diminish. You can make a big batch of it and refrigerate it and serve it later for days afterwards. It's actually most ideal to eat at room temperature in the summer. I was first acquainted with peanut sauce from the Moosewood Cookbook at a time I lived with about eight people (it fluctuated regularly, of course) in the early eighties. I had to cook once a week or so and was always looking for recipes. I became hooked on Indoneasian gado-gado after the first time I tried that recipe. Since then I've seen it and eaten variations of the same in other Asian cuisines. I'm big on vegetables, and like meat, more or less, as a condiment, so I feel a certain kinship with Asian cuisines. Almost everyone seems to like it, once they taste it, even kids. The nice thing about serving it to kids is that you can sneak in a few vegetables and they hardly notice.

Here's the basic recipe: Lightly saute some fresh vegetables, like greens or well-chopped broccoli, with some minced garlic. work best. Thin natural peanut butter with liquids (like vinegar [balsamic is my favorite], lemon juice, toasted sesame oil, tamari or soy sauce, a little bit of honey, and water) in a good-sized bowl. Get it to a saucy consistency. Add minced ginger, garlic, and some kind of hot pepper to taste. Cook up some thin spaghetti or Asian-type noodle--and mix well in the bowl with the peanut sauce. If you break the spaghetti in half before cooking, it makes it much easier to mix. Add green onions, garlic chives, or what-have you. Mix it all together. When available, chopped cucumber is the perfect refreshing addition. The cucumbers should be along around here later this month. Experiment!
So many of the perennials are starting to bloom. The delicate purple hyssop spikes look fine next to the soon-to-be magnificent golden yarrow. White yarrow brightens up the red bee balm. Bright yellow coreopsis and heliopsis show that it is really summer. Catnip is blooming all over the place. One plant is about six foot high and three wide. Why can't I get myself to tear it down? Valerian is done blooming. Still some coral bells. Poison hemlock is lovely in bloom--another volunteer--it must like that wet weather we had for a while. The purple spots on the stem give it away--beware! Queen Anne's lace is another from the same family--umbelliferae---as the poison hemlock, and another which I allow to volunteer in certain spots for its beauty and the beneficial wasps it attracts that eat the not-so-nice insects that would like to eat the other plants in the garden. Beloved parsley is a domesticated plant from the same family, a biennial, blooming in its second year. Its flowers which are also just starting to open have the same attractive qualities to both wasps and humans. Although mullein is so tough it grows in the gravel by railroad tracks, I love the tall yellow spikes and it has found its way into my garden somehow and one is starting to open its lower blossoms.
What a pleasure to pull back the hay mulch from the potato plants and reach my hands into that dry soil to find a bunch of new potatoes for dinner!

Sunday, June 22, 2003

binless composting

What method of composting is:

--uses only natural materials that you have around?*
--blends into the environment most harmoniously?*

* The Bird's Nest Bin!

Tompkins County Cooperative Extension Demo Site: Compost Fair May 2002

The bird's nest bin, also known as the binless bin, is a naturally constructed compost bin that you build out of the large, coarse plant materials that you have around the yard. Instead of throwing the big stalky stuff, like broccoli and kale plants, prunings from bushes, sunflower stalks, etc., into one pile together with the small, easy-to-degrade stuff like young weeds and kitchen food waste, they are separated so that the heavy-duty materials make up the walls and the finer materials are in the center. What a simple concept and how beautifully it works!

Without so much bulky material mixed in, the finer materials get to break down faster. The bin looks much neater than if everything is thrown together. Reminiscent of a bird's nest, the binless bin blends naturally into the landscape with charm and character. No need to buy plastic bins or build other structures.

It's easy to make a bird's nest bin. Pound four stakes into the ground to make a square four to six feet wide. These will provide all the structural support you need. Within the square, lay a few stalks crisscross on top of each other on the ground. This will allow some air to come through the bottom of the pile and be drawn upward through the pile to enhance breakdown. Around the perimeter, lay down your coarse materials to make walls eight to ten inches thick: big weeds, spent vegetable plants and flowers, prunings from shrub or trees, edges of sod you've dug up, old hay if you've got an excess of it--whatever you've got around, that you want to get rid of.

The center of the pile is reserved for the small stuff and the rotten stuff. Add food waste from the kitchen, the little weeds from the garden, the rotten fruit found under the trees. Always remember to cover up any food waste so as not to invite animals. Try to have a supply on hand at all times of something, like weeds, leaves, wood chips, or straw, to layer in with your food scraps and cover it up. If you don't have enough leaves of your own, there's a plentiful supply every fall, when people kindly leave these bags full of the precious compost ingredient (and excellent mulching material, but that's another story) on the curb.

Keep the walls higher than the center at all times, so nothing falls out. Once the bin is a few feet high, after a garden season, you can let it sit and start another. After a year or so the interior of the bin left sitting will become dark compost, unrecognizable in origin, ready to enrich your garden. The wall material will have only partially broken down and can be re-used for a new bin.

Eventually you might want to expand to a three-bin unit. The bin in the middle shares a wall with the other two. This way you can always have one bin sitting and ripening; another to add to, and the third for harvesting finished compost.

Try it and see the magic of composting for yourself!

With thanks to the Master Composter Program of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County with funding from the Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

peas and volunteers

Peas and snow peas are coming on thick. All of a sudden, just as the asparagus are starting to wane.

The most meticulous gardener may not reap as much as the watchful gardener. Though leisurely, the watchful gardener is not exactly lazy. The watchful gardener observes and thinks as well as works. Some efforts are made to plant favorites, but he or she often takes a step back and pays attention to what nature is providing for free.

If you have had occasion to grow dill or cilantro in your garden and if you are not a very fastidious sort of gardener, who tills everything up each year, you may have noticed that the plants have re-seeded themselves here and there around the garden. Many annual flowers, such as sweet alyssum and calendula, do the same thing. Although arugula (also called rocket or as the French say roquette and to the Italians and Spanish it's rugula or ricola) is gone from the scene all too soon, sending up flowers like white stars in early June, it just might show up later in the summer in a nearby spot.

To be on the safe side, I try to re-sow little patches of arugula and cilantro during the summer, as they are such essential ingredients. They are best eaten fresh. Observing and making room for the volunteers saves work. Yet gardening involves ruthlessness too. A plant in the wrong place really belongs on the compost pile--there will be plenty more. Or you can take the trouble to transplant it.

Little walnut trees are popping up here and there in the garden and the lawn from part of the stash that the squirrels left behind. There are plenty of walnut trees around the West End to keep the squirrels busy in the fall and well-fed in winter. Looking at the finely ordered leaves of the mini walnut tree, I envision letting it grow big, but the impact of its great shade is too hard to take for a gardener with a small yard, and I pull it out. Now the frisky squirrels are going for the walnut-sized peaches that are hanging in the trees, but most of what they grab seems to end up on the ground.

Cilantro comes on slowly, and there are only a few leaves to pick, and then suddenly there is such an abundance that you can't use it all fresh, Very quickly it goes to flower and is gone. I leave some to spread its seed and for the sake of its airy white flowers, which make you faint in bouquets.. I serve as much as possible fresh, chopped and thrown on anything from Mexican burritos to Thai-inspired stir-fries, but can't use it all. Have been trying to think of the best ways to preserve it to add that special flavor on the days when it is no longer freshly available. Chopped fine and blended with mashed garlic and lime juice and salt, it can hang out for a while in a jar in the cool part of the refrigerator and be ready for jazzing up salsa and all the same things for which it was good fresh.

The dill is out of control--it volunteers all over the garden and I hate to pull it out unless I have to, like if it's crowding other favored plants. I just don't have enough uses for it. I will have more use for it when the cucumbers are ready for pickle-making, but that's a ways off. I froze a bunch of it for winter soups, and I made a sauce for asparagus of snipped dill, yogurt, homemade hot honey mustard and minced and mashed fresh garlic. And for the Fourth of July it will go minced into the potato salad.

The peas are coming on in early June as I write this, climbing high the trellis netting and dripping pea pods from white blossoms. By the end of June all will have been shucked and eaten. Lambsquarters are growing lush where the soil is good. Often a weed in rich fertilized crop fields, they also pop up thickly in spots in my well-composted garden. Pull the biggest ones by the roots to take to the kitchen. After observing former housemates use lambsquarters, I was inspired to try them in the as a substitute for spinach in the spinach-rice casserole recipe found in the  The New Moosewood Cookbook. Although lambsquarters don't hold a match to raw spinach in salads, they definitely rival it cooked. Stoop-sitting or porch-sitting on a beautiful day when you want to get out of the kitchen, out of the house, is a good time for pulling the leaves, whether alone in contemplation, listening to the birds and the traffic, or talking with whomever is around. Like Huck Finn, you may get volunteers to help you, but I wouldn't count on it, better just try to do outside and enjoy. Have a bowl for the good leaves and another for the pods or stems and roots that will end up in the compost. Then take the good leaves into the kitchen and swish them in a basin of cold water. Drain and they're ready to cook.

It's good to leave some lambsquarters around to go to seed. The birds feed on them in the wintertime, and some are left behind for next year.

Monday, May 12, 2003

watching the weeds grow

We are fortunate to live in a land where water pours from the sky often and unpredictably, where the water flows through the veins of the city into a long lake. They call them the Finger Lakes. Going outside in late afternoon after a rain to pick the asparagus is a chance to see the world in a different light. Drenched leaves soak up the sunlight coming low through drifts of pastel clouds. Green fungus growing on dark brown bark brightens in contrast. The world is refreshed, washed clean and dripping.

May is a worldwind of intense activity and intoxicating smells. Planted by the early settlers as a medicinal herb, now ground ivy or gill-over-the-ground threads its purple flowers through the lawn. Dead nettles sprang up everywhere in April and early May, like a crowd opening purple umbrellas in a sudden downpour. Now they've faded away and have been added to the compost pile. Yellow mustard flowers are still brightening abandoned lots. Dainty celandine flowers grow effortlessly along the foundations of houses. These weeds, many of them of foreign origin, follow us everywhere. We may disdain the common, but are the poorer for it. Blossoms of the cherry trees fall; the lilacs and native dogwoods, honeysuckles and viburnums take their turns coming into bloom. Many of the trees planted along our city streets are from foreign lands as well, like the ancient gingko tree from China, which is planted, or the tree-of-heaven, which, though beautiful when it blooms (not yet), is a weed tree, able to survive in a crack in the sidewalk; it even grows in Brooklyn.

Weeds are no longer weeds when we come to love them. There are some very useful weeds, attractive weeds, edible and medicinal, weeds that attract the beneficial insects who patrol the garden, and eat the trouble-makers. The Queen Annes lace or wild carrot can be invasive in a meadow, but in the garden they are lovely and attract the beneficial wasps, just as other members of the parsley family. The Virginia creeper and the wild grapevines, when not allowed to strangle every other plant in reach, provide food for birds and cover for other creatures, as well as a natural covering for a fence and color in the fall.

The best kind of gardening involves plenty of observation and contemplation. Weeding or thinning can be a most absorbing task when the eyeballs and fingers are down on the level of the soil and plants, and the ego takes a vacation. Observing what was there first and working with an understanding of nature is a different attitude than seizing control with roto-tiller and weed whacker. So many plants grow up unbidden, and instead of learning who they are and why they grow there, we tear them out armed with our plans; we try to tyrannize the whole terrain.

One by one I'm getting to know every sprout I see, whether I sowed it, or it volunteered, so that I can then decide whether to let it grow or not, and how much of it to let grow. Any kinds of airborne seeds, like the ubiquitous dandelion, can blow in; or be carried in through the guts of birds. I am open to gifts. When I see an unrecognized sprout, I often let grow to see what it will become (so long as the spot is not terribly wrong, and I'm not too angry/aggessive that day.) It could be something wonderful, like the columbines that migrated from a neigbor's yard, or it could be something potentially noxious like garlic mustard. When I first noticed the patch of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) taking a stand under the apple tree, I let it stay and flower and re-seed itself for a couple years. It's good to eat. Poor people used to call it it sauce-alone. The delicate white flowers above symmetric leaves in May is a welcome sight to the naive observer as myself, but I've learned, to my regret, that it is a menace in woodlands, where it manages to form dense colonies unlike other less agressive species, like ginseng and the spring ephemerals whose existence it threatens.. I figured I'd keep it in bounds in my yard in a city block in the West End of Ithaca. It is growing like crazy along the Cayuga Inlet, where they have cleared land for a powerline. But that's only a block away from my house, so last year I pulled it out of my yard, starting to feel guilty as I see it popping up now around the neighborhood. The little strip of land between the sidewalk and the street in front of my neighbor's house hasn't been mown lately and the garlic mustard is now flowering there--a foot taller than any of the other weeds or grasses.

Wild columbine purple, pink and yellow blossoms are bursting open. Though they're native from Saskatchewan to Florida and Texas, I just know mine came from my neighbor's yard. I always admired the abundant pastel blossoms at this time of year, when not much else is blooming, other than trees. The daffodils and tulips, the forsythia are faded. The neighbors gave us some branches full of columbine seeds one summer, and even though I kept them in a brown paper bag down in the basement for a year, finally I threw the seeds around in back of the yard around the apple tree where previously I had broadcast seeds of wild asters and queen anne's lace that I found growing along the railroad track. The following year in spring I noticed a new weed popping up in different spots all over the garden, and wondered what it was and where it came from, or whether it was something I was familiar with in flower but just had never recognized the small plant before. In a sudden ephiphany I remembered that it was the columbine. One of the benefits of getting older is that you start to recognize the details of each season. It becomes newer every year because you see more each year.

The young leaves of the wild asters and the goldenrod have appeared, and though I yank out some of them, I let others grow near the fence and in the little wild part in the back because they provide such beauty in the fall. Dames rocket looks much like the goldenrod at this stage, but eventually I'll sort it out. First you notice the flowers and then work your way back so that you can recognize what the leaves look like earlier in the season, so you can decide what to pull and what to keep where. Why plant mums when these wildflowers are for free? With a little considered weeding, the volunteers are encouraged to grow in certain areas, and rooted out in other places where there are other plans. The compost pile and the exercise of the body benefits. When a weed is given a little space in the yard--when a weed is weeded--freed from the competition of the plants around it, it can look quite a bit better than those struggling specimens in the parking lots, and rival the exotic bedding plants from the nursery with a more subtle beauty.

The work of the past bears fruit. The asparagus is abundant; neighbors who rent houses with old asparagus patches don't know any better, or they don't have the time or inclination to go out there and cut it and it grows tall. Another small patch grows near the railroad tracks and an aspiring guerrilla gardener tends the patch with water and compost, and in the night cuts down a few of the neighbor's asparagus which would otherwise fern out.

This year 2002 is the spring that followed the mildest winter on record. Of course it's only a little over 100 years ago that they started keeping records. This year was my best year for over-wintered spinach. The seed were sown last August. Ate the biggest leaves in the fall. All winter long and into the spring, Steve was good about covering the over-wintered spinach with leaves during the cold spells and uncovering them on the mild sunny days. We had spinach salad on Christmas eve, along with fresh kale. In a mild spell in January we had another fresh salad and again in late March. For Easter with the ham, we had brussels sprouts from the garden. New at brussels sprouts, I hadn't started the seeds early enough and the plant weren't budding out too well by Thanksgiving when I wanted to have them.

Now the lettuce, spinach and arugula sowed in late March are ready to thin. A few little plants pulled out from their roots give more space for their neighbors to grow bigger, and provide a fine, delicate salad, with the addition of garlic mustard, violets, sorrel and garlic chives. Last year the arugula was laced with the holes left by hungry flea beetles. Later in the year this is not usually a problem. But what seemed like a problem before no longer is. The leaves are still delicious. In the new light of late day, they have carefree look of a freckle-faced child. This year, for some reason, the flea beetles have not found them. Though the winter was mild, the spring is not exceptional, except in the way spring is always exceptional. The birds are going nuts with their singing, and what can you do but open the windows and turn off the radio!

Lambsquarter has shot up in clumps here and there in the garden an inch or two high, attesting to the fertile high nitrogen soil. Some I will let grow to eat later in the summer, and freeze some too because it is one of the best greens. Look for harvestable lambsquarters in late June or so.

The volunteers too are appearing in the garden. Sowed in previous years, now I don't have to sow them again. I see some cilantro, not yet dill. Some of the chervil is not only up but already flowering. It must have remembered the year I pulled a bunch of it up. It didn't know perhaps that I regreted I pulled it up, so now I am grateful that it is still coming up in a few spots. I'm not a big fan of such licorice flavors like the mild chervil, but in cooking as well as in the garden, everything has its place.. I hope to see again soon sweet alyssum, calendulas and sunflowers coming back. They're not always in a good spot, and sometimes gardeners must be a little ruthless, so that what does grow, grows well.

The next project I'm planning is to sheet compost around the viburnum bushes in front of the house. As an urban gardener I have an obligation to have a nice garden on my teeny strip of land next to the sidewalk. This gives people a hint that there is more in the back.

Sunday, March 9, 2003

It's been a real winter this year--consistently cold and snow-covered--taking us by surprise after last year, when a hot, dry summer was followed by the warmest winter on record, and we thought that global warming had kicked in even sooner than expected. It's March at last! Winter is slowing despite evidence to the contrary. Spring is beginning its wild dance of fluctuating temperatures and subtle signs.

A break in the weather brought me outside to check the garden. There's already a lot to do. The early surprise onslaught of winter with no break prevented me from completing fall clean-up. So it turns into spring clean-up. The ground is still frozen, so I can't yet yank out the fall plants-- broccoli, kale, collards, and cauliflower. I am casting about for plants to pull for more reason than tidying up. The bird's nest bin is in need of more wall material. Every week or two throughout the winter, I've come out to dump the contents of the 5-gallon kitchen compost bucket, so the interior of the bin is getting as high as the sides. Not much decomposition is taking place in the cold, so the compost doesn't shrink as it does in the warm times. Fortunately there's asparagus stalks, asters, and goldenrod all beaten down, that can be cut down, and added to build up the walls. Some dead sweet alyssum is available for more bulk, and then, oh yes, it's time to prune the fruit trees, and the agressively-spreading forsythia can always withstand the loss of a number of branches.

Circling around each fruit tree--peach, plum, cherry, serviceberry, and crabapple--eyeing the individual branches, their placement on the tree, how they intersect, envisioning the branches covered with leaves and heavy with fruit, I cut off the branches that were crowding each other, and the dead and withered ones. A few I bring inside, along with long branches of forsythia, to try to force into bloom for some early spring cheer. I hammer the ends of each branch so they take up water better, immerse them in lukewarm water in the bathtub for a while, then put into a 5-gallon bucket with a few inches of water on the bottom and a cotton ball soaked in ammonia. Other times I've just added bleach and a teaspoon of sugar to the water. Cover the whole thing with a big plastic garbage bag and leave in a cool room til the buds swell and open. It usually happens in six days to two weeks for the forsythia. I've haven't had as much luck with the fruit trees branches in the past, but the effort is minimal and the possible rewards are great.

Inside, preparations for the garden are beginning as well. Cilantro and sweet onion seedlings started in late January are already up and running down in the cool basement under flourescent shop lights. Geraniums in big pots accompany them. They like it cool and bright in the winter and don't do so well even by the south-facing window in the winter because the heater vent is too nearby.

Upstairs where it's a bit warmer, coleus, lobelia, impatiens, tobacco, and a small-leafed basil are thriving. When those little teeny plants first sprout, you have to be very careful watering them. They probably need water every day as they don't have the root system to survive much drought. But carelessly poured water could easily knock one of these babies over. I find a water bottle with a nozzle, like those that bicyclists carry, work really well to drip the water in around the precious seedlings without disturbing them.

Early in March is the time to start eggplants and peppers inside. They are slow-growing and do require a lot of warmth. Later in March, I will start tomatoes, tomatillos, broccoli, cauliflower, and some flowers indoors.

It remains to be seen if spring is on schedule this year. Every year for the past 15 years that I've been keeping records, there's been a mild spell here in Ithaca, New York (Zone 6 in the flats), later in March or early in April, when the ground has thawed and is dry enough to work, and that is when I sow seeds of peas, carrots, green onions, parsley, lettuces, spinach, carrots, radishes, mustard greens, fava beans, and arugula. Will this year be different?