The Good Life

I’m growing strawberries this year.  Here’s the entire crop thus far. 

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BAM!   I used one for a pie and made jam out of the other.  Don’t be jealous.

What it lacks in fruit, the garden has been making up for in terms of greens:  kale, spinach, chard, beet tops, lettuce and arugula.  I’ve been picking them and making this stunningly simple dish a few times a week:  saute your greens in olive oil and/or butter, then use the corner of your spatula to make two or three “nests”.  Crack an egg into each nest and cook until set.  Salt and pepper, some toasted bread.  Ten minutes to awesomeness. It’s my new favorite lunch, which I have given the temporary name of “Daffodils Peeking Through Winter’s Melting Snows.”  I am open to other suggestions.

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So that was the spring lineup.  Now we’re cruising into summer and I can tell it’s going to be a unique year because I got TWO crops of peas.  AND I was here to eat both of them!  Usually I have massive garden-depression because the peapods are at their peak right around the week when we are down at the Jersey Shore, and my neighbors end up eating them for me.  But this year’s sullen, late spring and her persistent chilliness paid off in my favor.  The evening of the day we got back, I was out in the garden with a colander, pulling pods hand over fist.  Jeeps and I shelled them over the sink (eating every third or fourth one) until we each had a green thumbnail.  Blanched and served up as part of a Cobb Salad, it was the perfect summer kickoff meal.  The next night I picked another colander full of pods, which I blanched and served with some candy-striped pasta that Panda had picked out at the store, along with a mongrel pesto I made from basil, argula and parsley.  I didn’t have a good amount of spinach, otherwise I would have made Amy’s Pesto Pea Salad.

Then I made a blueberry pie, because I felt like it.

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I was particularly proud of the Cobb salad because everything was local.  The lettuce and peas were mine; the tomatoes, eggs, chicken and bacon all came from Harvest Moon Farm and Orchard in North Salem.  I joined their CSA this year, both to support local business and to take the edge off my crops being not always reliable.  Plus the program goes into October; my garden tends to die a sudden death in August and my late-sown crops never seem to take off.

Anyway, our first CSA pickup is tomorrow and we’ve already gotten advanced notice of what’ll be in the bushel basket:

  • Red beets
  • Baby carrots
  • Kale
  • 2 heads of lettuce
  • Fresh garlic
  • Spring onions
  • Swiss Chard
  • EGGS!  (Their emphasis because eggs are not usually included in the CSA shares, but apparently this year their hens are out of control.  Goody for us!)

I’m so excited and I’ve already devised mental menus through the weekend using all this booty and supplemented by my own garden beds.

Naturally with the eggs, kale and chard one can make Daffodils Peeking Through Winter’s Melting Snows.  One can also pick up the supplemental ingredients and repeat the Cobb salad with lettuce and spring onions.

I confess I’ve never made a frittata, but I bet you anything a very nice one could be made from eggs, garlic and chard.  Or with eggs, kale and onions.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

mybeetsCarrots and beets:  endless possibilities.  You can grate them both raw, and toss with parsley and vinaigrette for a crunchy and colorful slaw.  Or if raw isn’t your thing, you can toss them with lemon thyme sprigs, olive oil, salt and pepper, then slow-roast them – together or separately – in the oven, wrapped in foil.  Serve as a side dish or in greens as a roasted beet salad.

Of course there’s roasted beets and fava beans, but I’m a little anxious about my favas – they all set flowers, but I don’t see any pods developing yet.  Of course, this is my first time growing them so maybe I just don’t know what I’m looking for.

Needless to say, knowing that all this produce is going to be available on a weekly basis makes food shopping a lot easier.  It was nice to walk out of the grocery store for once with just four bags, and those containing just dry goods and pantry items.  And I like the idea of letting vegetables dictate what’s going to be for dinner.  It shall be the summer of eating seasonally!

(Ish)

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Circles of Life

Our yard is full of circles:  circular garden beds, free-standing gravel circles with our big blue planters from Dean’s.  A circle beneath the Japanese maple in the front lawn, and another circle, more of an oval, in the lower yard underneath two giant elm trees.  These latter tree circles were on my List this year and since the elm tree garden didn’t involve moving a ton of sod, it won the lottery and so felt the wrath of my ruthless attention.

Jeeps ringed the trees with stones and filled in with mulch about ten years ago.  I ambitiously put in about a thousand Siberian squill bulbs, which did beautifully and probably would have continued to do beautifully had we given the slightest damn about the area.  We didn’t.  Total blow-off to the point where it became a dumping ground for sticks, dead soil from flower pots, decapitated Barbie dolls, a dozen Littlest Pet Shop figures, and a few magic markers.  Bittersweet, the crack dealer of the garden world, knew a good neighborhood when it saw one, and moved in, followed shortly by its two favorite whores, Virginia Creeper and Lamium.  “I gotta do something about that bed” I’d think every year, and then just turn to something else.  So here it is in all its weedy glory:

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Can’t quite get the effect?  Move in closer:

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Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.  And dig the wagon wheel:  Utah or bust.

Bust.

So I moved in on it with the sole intent of cleaning it up.  Yank out the bittersweet, the creeper and the clumps of grass.  The lamium could stay as far as I was concerned because it does have pretty purple flowers and is a dependable ground cover for this kind of area.  My mom had always talked about her friend Gail’s under-tree garden which boasted a dozen varieties of hosta plants and was the most gorgeous thing.  I have no doubt it is the most gorgeous thing, I also have no doubt it would be an open buffet for the deer.  No hostas.  At most I would move over whatever hellebore seedlings I could find.  Maybe.  I wasn’t getting emotionally invested in this project.  Hell it wasn’t even a project, for crying out loud, it was just cleaning up.

(Cough)

Prudently I divided the oblong bed into sections so I could pace myself.  Do this much today, do this much tomorrow.  Surprisingly, the weeding out took less time than I expected and over the course of a couple lunch hours raking, and a few evenings after work pulling by hand, it was mostly clear.

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As I stepped back and looked at the clean space, the big roots of the elms started to define pathways and places.  The elm closest to the house was clearly asking for someone to sit under it.  How about a stump seat?  I’m always incorporating stumps into my beds and borders, and thanks to Hurricane Sandy, there’s no shortage of them in the woods and along the roads that border my property.  And the really lovely thing about them is that they roll.  I walked up the road a ways, found a good one, and rolled it on down.  Once situated in a flat space between two large roots, I took a seat with my back up against the trunk.  This is great!  Was there room for another seat?  I looked on the other side of the tree.  Of course there was!  Another large stump got rolled down, and then a smaller one, making three seats in all under the tree.

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This curious-looking, half-rotted stump wouldn’t make a good seat, but it was so cool-looking, like a little woodland creature’s house.  I put it down at the front edge by the stone ring just to hold onto it, maybe I’d use it in another bed.

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IMG_6298I figured that was it, my work here was done.  I gathered up the shovels and rakes and loppers.  The broken-down wagon wheel I had propped up against the second tree to get it out of the way.  Half the spokes were rotted away completely, but the other half plus the hub of the wheel looked intact, and sort of evoked a rising sun.  Maybe I could weatherproof and do something with it.  Wrestling to move this half-wheel to a safer place, the rusted iron hoop fell down on the ground, right by two of the stump seats.  I looked at it.  Wait a minute.  That’s interesting.  A circle inside the circle.  It kind of looks like a…a…pool, or something.  A pool.  Yes.  What if I filled it with stones?  White marble stones?  Would that look weird or would it be cool?

You can see where all this is going.  Yes I did fill the hoop with stones and sea glass, and since I was making a focal point, I might as well bring over a few hostas, and since I’m bringing hostas, well, there may as well be painted ferns, too.  Next thing you know I’m mugging every other shade garden bed, stealing shamelessly:  lily-of-the-valley, hellebore seedlings, forget-me-nots, ferns, sweet woodruff.  One trip to a garden center and I came back with variegated Solomon’s Seal and a hosta with bright chartreuse leaves.  Another trip to another garden center and I found white bleeding hearts and white foxgloves.  In the course of five days, it went from cleanup to a project, and went from being the yard’s eyesore to one of my favorite places.

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Small, Snobby Miracles…

It’s that time of year when small miracles come out of the garden.

It’s that time of year when I’m a total snob in the grocery store, self-righteously pushing my cart past the greens, carrots and peas because (sniff) I have my own thank you very much.

    

    

I gave peas a chance and as usual I’m glad I did.  There’s nothing like them.  True, it’s a lot of work for a small yield, but shelling peas is almost as satisfying as eating them.  And as for eating, I’ve been observing and I noticed that as a side dish, you really don’t consume more than a serving spoon of peas at a dinner sitting.  A little is enough.  And when you picked them twenty minutes ago, blanched them for 30 seconds and served them with a pat of butter and a little salt and pepper, it’s plenty.

Now you know what else is awesome?  Swiss chard.  I’ve never grown it before and frankly, where the hell have I been?  I picked yellow and pink because hey, if vegetables come in yellow and pink, you should grow them.  And it is a snap.  Sow.  Grow.  Pick.  Wash.  Chop or don’t chop.  Saute in a bunch of garlic cloves, olive oil, butter, salt and pepper until wilted.  Add a little chicken broth, cover and braise.  Flush proudly when your husband drinks the pot liquor and demands, “grow more.”

Oh, by the way, these turkey-veggie meatballs are a knock-off the famous Martha Stewart meat loaf recipe.  It’s a great way to get rid of any leftover steamed broccoli or cauliflower, or both.  Carrots, celery, onion, garlic…throw it all in there.

  

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Panda’s Pot Pourri

Another from the Department of I’ve Been Wanting to Do This for Years.

Panda, as I may have mentioned, has a rather keen sense of smell.  There cannot be enough perfume, body spray, hand lotion and so forth for her to sniff out.  Give this kid a gift card to Bath & Body Works and she’s in Heaven.

Lavender is high on her list of favorite scents, and I planted quite a lot of it this year.  With the roses in full swing, I thought we could try making some pot pourri.

The technique of drying flowers runs the gamut from hanging them upside down and air-drying, to using the dehydration setting of one’s oven, if one’s oven has such a setting.  Mine does (smug smile).  But in high-80’s heat with humidity, I don’t relish running the oven if I don’t have to.  Can you dry flowers in the microwave?

Quick consult of the Oracle.  Yes, you can.

Come, child, into the garden so that we may collect items of sweet scent.  Here’s what we came back with:

Clockwise from top:  rosebuds (Zepherine Drouhin, as they have the most scent) to keep as buds; lavender; lemon verbena leaves; carnations; roses to dry as petals only, and hiding behind them is a pile of geranium leaves.

Put some paper towels on a plate.  Working in batches, spread the petals in a single layer:

Microwave a minute, to a minute and a half.  Just keep checking on them, you’ll know when it’s right.  Repeat with all the petals and leaves.  We even nuked the rosebuds a couple minutes, but we left the lavender buds and leaves as they were.

Get a small, clean jar with a lid (I emptied out one of my button jars), and start building layers:  some petals, some leaves, some lavender, a bud.  Petals, leaves, lavender, buds.  Until all is used.  For fun we added one clove and one cardamom pod. You could also add pieces of cinnamon stick, a vanilla bean, or a drop or two of essential oil.  Store the jar in a dark place with the lid just resting on, and every day open the jar and give the contents a shake until completely dry.  Then use as desired.  Panda wants to fill little bags and put them in her drawers.

Make sure you photograph the jar of pot pourri with a bouquet of roses and a lemon, because that’s what all the cool people do.

Visions

It’s looking just the way I thought it would.

Jeeps broke his back building the wall, I broke my back removing the sod.  We used all the rocks out of the old wall, and then scavenged the yard for every single rock we could find.  We even considered the many crumbling stone walls in the acres of woods around our house that used to be farmland.  We lacked a mule to haul them.  We toiled on, stacked and dug, dug and stacked.

Jeeps stacked in unseasonable heat.  I dug in the rain.  He lost the nail on his pinky because a dropped a rock on it.  I swear did something bad to my right tricep.  We couldn’t move by 6PM every night; the kids ate cold cereal or pizza while we fell into bed like death, primed with 50 Advil each.

 

One thing about our marriage:  when we have a shared vision of something, we make it happen.

  

  

We wanted an arbor for the gap in the wall.  Jeeps is very particular about keeping hardscape in line with the mission/prairie style of our house.  Translation:  no white, frou-frou pickets or curved arches.  I stepped back and let him find something, I’m usually fine with whatever he picks out anyway.  And he found this sort of Japanese-style one:

I love it and I can totally picture a Sweet Autumn clematis clambering over it.  Then we looked high and low for a bench that would go with the plan as well.  We fell in love with this one, it’s gorgeous but way too expensive:

This one is smaller but more reasonably-priced and we dig the rising sun motif on the back:

So the idea is to walk in through the arbor, then there will be that circular, gravel path with the bench at the top, in the corner of the triangle.  Apart from a few standing perennials that survived the construction, I get to build the beds up from scratch.

I’m starting with the circle bed in the center.   I have about a $230 budget which is comprised of birthday money from my mother-in-law (she always gives a check for your age plus $100), and whatever cash I squirrel away or find in the laundry.  And where else do you go to squander the stash but to Claire’s Garden Center?

(Cue Hallelujia chorus)

I love this place.  This place is the bomb.  I could spend $1,000 here in half an hour.  Easily.  But I only had $230 and after nights in bed with my garden books, pencil and paper, and the Claire’s catalog, I had a very definite plan and did not deviate.  When I was tempted by other plants, I took pictures, took note of the price, and sternly told myself, “Another time.  I said, ANOTHER TIME!  PUT THAT DOWN!”

So here’s my vision for the circle:

It all started with the iris and the geum, because I discovered, sort of by accident, that they look really cool growing together.  It’s not that their flowers look good together, in fact they bloom at different times; rather it’s the tall, spiky leaves of the iris and how the stems of the geum sort of disappear, leaving the bright red pom-poms floating in and around the spikes.  I love how it looks and wanted to duplicate it in the new circle bed, but since it was the iris foliage I was interested in, I decided to get this really cool variegated kind.  The red flowers against that green and yellow are going to be awesome.

I picked the rest of the plants to get a good stretch of flowers from spring to fall.  The Brazilian buttonflowers will be the last to bloom; I actually started them from seed and technically they are annuals, but supposedly they self-sow really easily.  If they don’t come back next year I can fill the space with asters or mums.

So that’s the vision.  Here’s what I came home from Claire’s with:

And here’s where it all will go:

(Sigh)….Yeah, I know, the iris is tiny right now and I have to transplant the susans and echinacea from my other beds, and the buttons are still in the nursery pots.  Besides some yarrow ‘Coronation Gold’, these are all the plants I’m buying.  Maybe.  [Editor’s note – PUT THAT DOWN!!]  I’m going to establish the circle bed, divide or move some other existing perennials, and fill in the gaps with a lot of zinnias and sunflowers.  I think I’ll put some supplemental squash plants down here too.  Herbs, too.  But it’s not going to look complete this year, I accept that.  Eye on the vision, people, eye on the vision.  To garden, you have to have vision and patience.

(And by the way, I fucking hate patience).

Spring Flings

A great weekend of friends, family, fun, gardening and candy.

Daffodils and muscari are thriving.  The tulips are starting to bloom.  Bleeding hearts are bleeding their little hearts out.  The crows are molting.

   

   

   

The seedlings are doing well.  All the tomatoes have been moved into 4″ pots and I set out the broccoli this afternoon.  To help keep the cutworms away, I read about this trick of cutting paper towel rolls into rings and putting them around the seedlings.

   

Behind the veggie garden was always this eyesore of weeds, rocks, burning bush seedlings and whatever cuttings and crap I would lob over the fence.  I got sick of looking at it so last weekend I thought up, cut in, planted, mulched…and now it’s one of my favorite places.  It’s also the home of Redman’s little pine tree; his teacher owns a Christmas tree farm and she gave each kid in the class one to take home and plant.  And name, if they so wished.  Redman named his Gasol.  As in Pau Gasol.

   

Over on the other side of the yard, Jeeps has started to move the stone wall to create the new triangle bed under the living room windows.  I don’t know what happened but my weeping cherry tree standard totally croaked over the winter, such a bummer (for me, that is; Jeeps always hated that thing).  But the Andromeda looks terrific.  I love Andromeda…when I was little I called it a “popcorn bush” and would strip off all the little white blossoms into a bowl to serve my stuffed animals.

   

Saturday was our annual Egg Hunt.  Last year it poured rain but this year it was picture-perfect gorgeous.  Jeeps broke out the bunny suit and cavorted with our neighbor Elizabeth, who not only owns a chicken suit, but dons it and crosses the road.  I always wanted the kids to wear hats or butterfly wings, and I always put it on the invite, but it never happened.  However, my friend Brandy stepped up and brought the baby in his bear suit, to which she stapled some long ears and added a pom-pom tail.  Too bad he can’t eat chocolate yet, I would’ve totally given him a Cadbury egg.

   

   

And then it was Easter Sunday.  We got up and had candy for breakfast; I worked outside, the boys watched the Knick game, Panda was…somewhere, I don’t know where she was but she came back for dinner which was roasted turkey breast with potatoes, carrots, red onions, brussels sprouts, and green beans.  Followed by more candy.

Happy Easter and Passover to all.

Faith in Germination

Usually I’m a very trusting person, but when it comes to bulbs and seedlings, I just have no faith.

It’s an awed kind of faithlessness…after all these years of gardening, I guess I still can’t believe the miracle of it.  That from tiny seeds grow such beautiful things.  My friend Marie said pretty much the same thing on Facebook the other day:  “After almost 40 years of life I am still astonished and thrilled each spring when the forsythia bloom…”  You can imagine I couldn’t hit “like” enough on that one.  Every spring I start my seedlings in my Bio-Domes (available at Park Seed, a very worthwhile investment, mine have lasted for years) and put them in the window.  I swear, an hour later, I am peering down into the cells.  Anything yet?  No?  With the direct-sown crops, I’m even more of a wreck, down on my knees searching the soil where I broadcasted lettuce seeds and peas.  They’re not coming up.  They won’t come up.  It’s been a week.  This is the year when they’re not going to sprout.

But they do.

You’ll notice I gave peas a chance.  Not only that, but I mixed the garden peas in with flowering sweet peas.  This should be interesting…

My bulb fear is a little more justified.  Three years ago I planted over two hundred daffodils along the lower stone wall.  The show that spring was spectacular.  But the following year, there was no show.  Not one.  I’m not kidding – NOT ONE CAME BACK!  If I hadn’t taken pictures of the blooms, I would swear I had hallucinated the whole thing.  To this day, I don’t know what became of them.  I assume something ate them.  But ate all of them?  From underground??  It’s bizarre.  So you can imagine my angst this year, trying to recall the exact location of all the daffodils and alliums I dropped in October.  Every day, poking around the beds for the telltale shoots.  I put some here.  I think.  Maybe here?  Surely here.  I know I put them here.  Where are they?  They’re not coming up.  They have to come up.  Everyone else’s are coming up.  Some people’s are in bloom.  Where are mine?  I’m a failure.  Where are they?  They’re not coming up.  I’ve been burgled!!

But they do.  They did.

So my seedlings are started, and thanks to this unusual spring I have been busy busy busy outside.  The cool weather crops are sown, the beds are raked out, and I’ve been occupied with the usual rearranging of plants based on what was successful last year, and what was a failure.  I’m waiting on a shipment of plants as well, which brings up an interesting topic:  mail-order nurseries.

It seems January 1st brings a free-for-all of soft porn garden catalogs in the mail, and a lot of people ask me if I ever do order plants online.  I do, but not as much as I used to.  When we moved to this house there was not one flower in the whole 1 1/4-acre lot.  I ordered a lot of plants online and learned a few valuable lessons the most valuable being this:  if you buy cheap, you get cheap.  Sure, maybe you can get 10 plants for $10.99, but they will arrive in a miniscule state, possibly damaged from the shipment, possibly bareroot with no viable life, and it will be 2-3 years before they really establish themselves.  Is it worth it?  Well, when you’re kind of broke with over an acre to fill, it has to be.  Gardening requires extraordinary patience.

These days when the garden catalogs come, I peruse for pleasure and ideas.  I tear out pages and take them with me to local nurseries (Claire’s Garden Center in Patterson usually has everything, and last year I discovered Rudolph Gardens whose plants are, pardon the expression, dirt cheap). I’m at the stage now where I don’t start many perennials from seed any more, it’s mostly veggies and annuals.

Heliopsis helianthoides scabra 'Sunburst'

This year I am starting a ton of lupines because I love them so much, and there’s this breed of variegated heliopsis called ‘Sunburst’ – I’m trying it out because I like the foliage a lot.  I started some orange and yellow Butterfly Weed, too, because the kind I have is pink and I don’t like it much.  Also, last summer in North Creek, I took some Baptisia seeds from the Tombs to see if I could get them to germinate for our yard.  Baptisia is just a gorgeous thing but it takes a long time to establish.  It would have major, added sentimental value if I could get this particular strain going.

However, here are two online nurseries that I do regularly buy from:

Graceful Gardens in Mecklenburg, NY, run by Amanda and Mark Shenstone.  They have an interesting operation where they sell their plants in 4-packs, and you buy trays of 8 packs for around $80.  That comes out to $2.50 per plant, which is virtually unheard of in the online nursery world, and you’d think for that price you’d be getting crap.  But let me tell you:  these are good plants.  The first time I opened a box from Graceful Gardens, I nearly passed out.  The packs were gorgeous – lush, healthy, definitely not crap.  So every year I order from GG those small-seeded things I have such trouble germinating myself:  foxgloves, poppies, etc.  They don’t carry a huge selection, you won’t get the latest breeds or exotic varieties or the hard-to-finds.  They have the tried-and-true foundation plants, the ol’ reliables, and their quality is first-rate.  So is their customer service, Amanda is a total doll.

Bluestone Perennials in Madison, OH.  They have a larger selection, and are a wee bit pricier, but their plants arrive in excellent shape and I’ve never lost one – whatever I ordered from Bluestone remains a star.  Now that I think about it, all my current Baptisia plants come from Bluestone.

Once upon a time I did order a lot of hellebores through catalogs.  Grown hellebore plants are extremely pricey and I always felt I could just afford one.  And one hellebore just doesn’t cut it.  So I went with the option to buy five or six online every year.  Sure enough they arrived with maybe two leaves, and it has taken about four years for them all to mature, but well worth the wait.  Here they are…all growns up! By the way, the best way to photograph hellebores is to practically lie on the ground and point your camera up at them.

They are so gorgeous, and they have the most wonderful timing, blooming right when you think you’re going to go out of your mind with winter fever.  And check this out – they made babies!!!!  As soon as they grow some true leaves I will transplant some, and pot the rest up and give away as gifts.  Let me know if you want one.  Or three.