Saturday, December 27, 2008

Belated Christmas Cheer

Holiday greetings to my faithful readers. I've been down for the count for about a week with a dastardly cold that I understand is making the rounds and is tough to kick. I've classified it as the worst cold I've ever had, requiring no fewer than 5 solid days on the couch in jammies complete with low rent TV like Oprah and Jeopardy to keep me from going mad.

Shuffling around the house with a box of Kleenex in one hand and a cup of lemon ginger tea in the other, trailing piles of damp tissue wasn't exactly the way I had planned to spend my Solstice through Christmas eve's, but that is exactly what happened.

We had voted not to have a tree this year, as when we do it's a fairly grandiose production involving walking around the land to find and cut just the right cedar tree and then a couple of days of getting the furniture rearranged so we can fit the tree in the house and slowly getting all the lights and decorations on it. But without the tree, the whole spirit of the season is missing.
Of course since we lean more toward pagan than Christian, the whole Christmas thing feels pretty hypocritical to us, and since I was too deep under blankets on the solstice to even ponder making a fire in celebration I was afraid the whole holiday was going to slip past without recognition.
But David came to the rescue, around about the 23rd he decided we could not have a cheerless holiday and he started to bake. And he baked, and he baked and he baked. Rocks, Mexican chocolate shortbread, oatmeal cranberry chocolate chip, rugelach fingers, bourbon balls and chocolate crinkles. Right up into Christmas morning the oven was going and he was working on one last batch of almond nut brittle.
And then I got into the act, as I was finally feeling that I could rejoin the living. We broke out the craft supplies and spent several hours clipping and snipping and gluing to paper bags to create our own one of a kind- Martha Stewart inspired- cookie gift bags.

The center of the action

The resulting bounty

Once we had everything packed up, we bathed and put on festive garb and headed out to spread a bit of cheer visiting all the neighbors around the hood' and ended up at my brother Chris's for an outstanding Christmas dinner that would have made Charles Dickens proud. From the medium rare standing rib roast down to the Brussels sprouts (grown by bro & sis A&B) and Yorkshire pudding and the plates of cookies from us and pies baked by mama Elaine the feast was enjoyed by all.

I'm slowly recovering and each day feel a bit more like getting into real clothes and even ventured out for a long walk today. I'm hoping to do some true celebrating on the calendar New Year after having missed the solar one. I hope everyone reading this is healthy, has had a happy holiday and I bid you all good tidings and great cheer!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Exploring Up Stream

It's been a weird week weather wise with lots of warmish damp days. Today lots of fog in the morning and then a fabulous breeze that was just delicious. It felt fresh and bright and cool as it blew past. We walked upstream on the little creek that runs through the bottom below our house and down into the pond. I've only ever walked that way once or twice before, but its lovely as the creek moves towards its headwaters and the bottom narrows and gets a bit steeper. More rocky with little water falls and big beech trees growing along the edge.

There were also 3 or 4 old dumps sites peeking out from the leaves. One had a rusty car and a refrigerator, others bottles, cans, barrels. They had been there a very long time, left from the days when there was no dump, so you just hauled your junk out back. We also found some places that seemed like hunting practice areas. On one side of the creek was a deer blind in another spot a wooden platform. Wooden pallets were set-up across the creek, leaned up against trees like possible target posts, but they didn't have any bullet holes in them. We do hear gunshots fairly often ringing out from that way.

Right below the wooden platform, was a big swing. The seat was made from 2 pieces of 2x6, cut 2 feet long and screwed together. It hung from bright yellow, heavy duty nylon rope. A metal pole had been braced with chains high up in two tall, straight trees. It seemed secure.
We got on together and backed up the hill and had a pretty good swing but it was too heavy to really pump it up very high even with both of us working, still fun and nobody tried to shoot us and we didn't fall. A couple of dogs did come out from the next house up stream and escort us off their property.

It's good to see our little creek perking along so well; it's often dry in the summer and fall, this has been its best year in a while. Could be the fact that the forest was clear cut a few years ago, just above the headwaters, and now they've widened the road up there too, so there is more run-off into the creek making the water a bit cloudy.
I felt compelled to be outside after so many rainy days, it was good to walk the woods and see the sky and a bit of sunshine for a change.

Now D is cooking up some turkey mole that smells divine. It's got ground almonds and chile paste and loads of onions and garlic, a little cocoa and who knows what else. But I can tell its going to be damn good loaded into a tortilla for a juicy taco or two.
I'm on salad detail. The salads this time of year bite back. I cut a collection of radish greens- pink stems and tender but peppery leaves; mizuna- feathery purple and green tinged leaves, arugula and dill.

I'll cook them up with some radish and celeriac that I julienned and the tops of a couple of Brussels sprouts plants that I snipped off- they say it helps the sprouts to form if you remove the tops. I discovered last year they're like cabbage. Wilting it all in the olive oil softens the spicy flavors and makes a warm salad with lots of zing.

I'm off to finish my part and eat supper. Happy Day

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sustainability and Sustenance

As I prepare dinner here on a Friday evening, I'm once again amazed at the food that I am able to pull together mostly from our pantry. I confess the boneless beef short ribs were purchased at one of our local chain groceries so there is no telling where the meat came from or how the cows were treated. All the same, I've cooked the meat together with onions and garlic harvested last summer, two fat carrots pulled tonight, some tomato sauce from the freezer, dried boletes and cooked frozen boletes that we picked last July (see post 7/16/08 )and dried tomatoes. I deglazed the pan with a splash of red wine and it's all been simmering away until tender while we cooked a pot of polenta and a skillet of greens; kale, collards and purple mustard, all harvested this afternoon from the garden.

As I sip a decent Chianti I can't help but feel phenomenally fortunate in the face of all the hard times that are hitting people all over the country. I am truly grateful for all that I have, and it isn't really that much compared to lots of people but I know it's way more than many and especially those around the world that are suffering from famines and war and displacement.

I'm reading A 1,000 Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner. It's about the lives of two women in Afghanistan over the course of the last 30 years and it's so sad it's hard to go on sometimes, but so well written that I am compelled to keep turning the pages. It describes the plight of women as second class citizens and the problems of the country of Afghanistan as a whole as it has dealt with wars, invasions and sectarian violence and it's pretty dark.

I've been worrying, like everyone, about the economy. It's hard not to so I just have to turn off the radio, TV and not read the paper and think of other things sometimes, like how lucky I am to have a garden still making food on Dec 12th.

David and I started dance classes, East Coast swing in November and Blues in December. The dancing is so wonderfully sexy and fun to do together, I'm tickled he wanted to give it a go. We've been digging out all sorts of things from the music collection we hadn't listened to in a while like John Lee Hooker and Elmore James. While the dinner was simmering tonight we enjoyed a few turns on the floor, trying to remember all the moves we've learned and get smoother doing them together.

It's all about frame and reading one another. Good exercise for me to practice following and D. leading and beginning to understand each other on another level. We ate the amazing dinner and now I'm ready to curl back up and read some more and hope that the situation for my two heroines, Laila and Mariam, gets better somehow.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Birdy Morning

The day started with a pair of hermit thrushes outside the bedroom window, flitting and posturing, tail bobbing at each other, seemed like a "who can hold the highest branch" kind of contest.

In the kitchen making coffee we watched a huge flock of pine siskins and goldfinches eating the seeds from the round and prickly orange pods filling the tops of the tall sweet gum trees behind the garden shed.

A bit later D spotted three yellow-bellied sapsuckers, a female and two males, cruising around the trunk of a dogwood tree and in and out of the hollies eating berries.

Bluebirds hopped about in the cedar trees behind the studio, also eating berries. While we ate breakfast so did the birds, all the usual suspects; red belly WP, juncos, chipping sparrows, white-breasted nuthatch, titmice, and chickadees were visiting the feeders and searching the garden for bugs.

I love birdwatching in winter!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

New Neighbors

We've got new neighbors in the hood. These two are Polka and Dot! Here you see them being "walked" on a chilly afternoon. I think they are spectacular, the mom, a draft horse, is so gigantic she is positively majestic. When I see her in the pasture on a foggy morning she looks like she stepped right out of a fairy tale, I expect to see Queen Guinevere mounted on her back, holding that creamy mane in her soft white hand.

Next door to us now are the bassets, five of them! I haven't gotten all their names straight yet. Their moms are worried that they make too much noise but I think they are great. The only time I hear them is when I walk by the house and they start up the basset alarm to let everyone know something is up, as soon as I've gone on, they quiet down again.

It's good to have new folks and new animals around. When D and I moved out here 11 years ago we were the only ones on all this land. It was quiet but it was also isolated. Now we have a dairy farm and cheese operation next door with about 45 cows, and eight other houses with lots of good neighbors in them.

We still don't see folks very often, only on the roads in passing, or walking to get the mail, but its good to know there are people around when we need something, or they need something or we just don't want to feel alone.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


It's been a week hanging deep in the family bosom. Brother Jon came in from Missouri and spent five days at our house, we stayed up late every night and rose in the morning for hot coffee to continue talking, talking. The sounds of his strumming on the guitar or the banjo, serenaded us while we cooked or as we drifted off to sleep at night. Long walks in the woods, kicking up dry leaves and breathing in the crisp air. What a pleasure to have him close.

The young ones came to town as well, Mizz J home from college in the frosty north, Mr. C on his way to a new beginning in New York, such an exciting time for the young ones. It's great to see them too- coming along so fine.

Ate ourselves into oblivion out at brothe & sis A&B's house on Thanksgiving day. I had to slap Jon and Davey around to convince them four pies for 9 people would be sufficient, pecan, pumpkin, coconut buttermilk and shaker lemon. Every slice devoured by Saturday night. They wanted peach and apple too, but I refused to make any more crusts.

Put J on the plane last night to head on home and came back glad for some quiet and solitude. Spent the day today sleeping, reading, went to yoga and ate turkey soup. Tomorrow it'll be back to the routine.

I realize its been one year since I started this blog, it's cool to go back and see what I was doing this time last year, pretty much the same things I'm doing now.
And still so thankful for so many things.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chapel Hill News Columns

I keep forgetting to mention that I now have a sidebar on this page where you can click on and link to my monthly "In Season" columns in the Chapel Hill News. So if you haven't noticed that, please check it out. I've just added the link for my November column Autumn Colors Include Greens.

Baby it's COLD outside

It's been feeling more like January than November lately. Hat, scarf and gloves weather. Tonight is to get down close to 20 degrees, I've got a quadruple layer of remay pulled over the fall veggies and hoping for the best, things looked pretty good after a night in the mid-20's with just one layer so I think it will be OK but we'll see. We ate two small heads of broccoli last night and boy were they sweet.

Keeping the wood stove cranking and it got so warm in here yesterday I thought I was going to pass out, the thermometer read 76 when I finally gave in and went to bed. I picked these gorgeous nasturtiums a few days ago, they were the last, the plants a mushy pile after the night in the 20's, but they sure looked spectacular up until then.

Out walking late yesterday and the low winter sun could not make me warm. It's time to start carrying my binoculars with me again now that the leaves are down and winter residents are active all day looking for food. Lots of sparrows by the pond, woodpeckers everywhere, been seeing pileateds pretty regularly too, I can hear them loudly thunking their giant beaks against the tree trunks, pulling out chunks of bark in search of grubs.

Walking along the road coming home the sweet gum saplings were still a luscious shade of purple and juncos and sparrows were skulking around under the little pine trees looking for a place to hunker down for the night. If you are reading this- I hope you are some place warm.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sign the petition for a "First Garden"

A few weeks ago I read an article by Michael Pollen in the NY Times, an open letter to the next president "Farmer in Chief" encouraging lots of ways to improve the national food system including the idea of turning the White House lawn into a vegetable garden. I loved this idea and today I came across another website called Eat The View that expands on the concept and has a petition you can sign that they are going to send to President-elect Obama to encourage a First Garden. So click on Eat the View above if you want to sign the petition and while you are there watch the short video, This Lawn if Your Lawn it's great.

I can't speak highly enough of the idea of people having their own gardens as the best way to reduce the cost and transit of food and to really know where your food is coming from. And it takes very little space to grow a significant amount of food. Granted our veg garden is ridiculously large for 2 people and my friends are constantly trying to get us to start a CSA, but really you don't need that much space to have a good variety of vegetables and plenty of them.

In just the past week we have eaten fresh from our garden: lettuce, radishes, collards, kale, radish greens, mizuna, arugula, nasturtiums, celeriac, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, green onions, dill, parsley, cilantro, swiss chard, bok choy, tatsoi, purple mustard, peppers, and shitake mushrooms , plus onions and garlic dug and stored in the summer and stuff we froze last summer like tomato sauce, minestrone soup and whole tomatoes. I kid you not when I say we haven't bought a vegetable in months.

So if you aren't convinced yet, seriously consider getting some ground ready this winter and next spring PLANT A GARDEN!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On Turning Fifty

It was my fiftieth birthday on Saturday. I believe I won't live to 100 so I'm shooting for 75 as a ripe old age to wind up at. That means I've only got 25 years left to finish what I've started and everything I try to do seems to take longer than it once did. Oh well, we can only accomplish as much as we possibly can.

In honor of the day I took a long walk around the land, visiting all my favorite power spots and thinking about what I wanted from this year and the next third of my life. It was a phenomenal day which I took as a good sign, sunny and clear, blue blue skies, the trees still turning. Dogwoods flame with the lower leaves yellow and upper leaves red.

The Ginko Biloba on its' way from deep green to lime green to yellow to gold. We are placing bets on which day this week all the leaves will drop off, they tend to fall almost simultaneously.
On my walk down to the creek I drank in the gorgeous day. Dry leaves were swirling around and down, making a crinkling sound as they fluttered out of the trees, through the air and landed crisply on the ground. A giant oak fell across the creek in the hurricane Hannah flood making a perfect bridge, so I scaled it and crossed to walk with a new perspective from the other side. Over there the bottom land is broad and flat with tall trees, on our side are steep mossy bluffs, rocky and veined with ropey beech roots.
I wandered on down to the big rock bluff, getting there is treacherous, the path now so narrow that you can only put one foot in front of the other, 6 feet above the water on one side, a steep bluff on the other offering no reprieve, nothing to hold on to. But I precariously made my way along the ledge and then scrabbled up the steep slope to sit on top of the big rocks and study the way the big beech branches wrap around them at the top and the roots of the sycamores across the creek grow around the rocks below.

The water was flowing beneath the rocks at the bend at a level that created an echo and reverberation amplifying the burbling, gurgling creek, sending that music up to me as I sat on top, watching the leaves fall, feeling the air on my face, the sun on me and feeling pretty damn good about the place I am in my life right now. A pileated woodpecker called and flew across the sky, a portent of good things I'm sure.

The day progressed into a clear and starry night filled with friends and laughter, champagne and good food, fire and fireworks to send me into a festive new year and new beginnings. The 40's were my best decade of life so far and I think the 50's are going to be even more miraculous.

Celebrations continued into the week, between the fabulous election results- Go Obama!- and my B'day, I've drunk more bubbly in the past week than in the past two or three years, I'm drying out now and moving forward to bright days ahead.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Golden Tunnel

I think the leaves are going to peak this week in our yard, I wish I had a picture but its really hard to capture the overall feeling, so I'll just have to try and describe it. There is one path that leads from the back door to the vegetable garden and around to the shed, right now it is a golden tunnel.

High above on the left are a winged elm, hickories and maples, all turning a bright yellow, lower down dogwoods are burgundy red, to the right a coral barked maple, that stands by the gate to the veg garden, combines the two colors in one. The ground is speckled with the same reds and yellows and on both sides of the path, the leaves of the hostas have also chosen this moment to go gold.

More than once yesterday I had to stop right there on my way to something else and just drink it in for a moment, frozen by the warm golden light as I stepped under the coral bark, stopping to look up into the underside of those brilliant yellow leaves veined in red, the bright blue sky behind them, setting them off perfectly.

On the edges of the lawn the tallest maples are now turning lime green, edges tipped with orange, in the next week the color will spread all the way down them and will be spectacular. The whole forest is casting an ochre light now, but there is still much green in the understory.

We've been playing musical plants again. This weekend it was the bed to the west of the house, one of the very first that we planted over 10 years ago. We had been ignoring it, even avoiding it, just barely keeping the weeds at bay and had let mums take over almost the entire space waiting to paint the house and design and build the rose trellis that was finally finished in May (see blog post from May 14th).

Yesterday we tackled it. Pulling out vinca- never plant this plant, it came in here on irises and day lilies we got from my father and now we'll never get rid of it- The whole time I was ripping it out, intermingled with mint- another thing to never plant- I was imagining the plants laughing at my foolish attempts, I know it will all be right back before I can blink.

We went through the mums and pulled out the more boring pale pinks and almost whites and saved the darker pure salmon and salmony-pink hybrids and a few that had a perfect white ring around the yellow button center, surrounded by dark pink petals. We dug a tall aster from under my window and will move those under the kitchen window, dug cannas from under the rose trellis to move under my window.

I dug a Siberian iris that we planted 10 years ago and split it into 12 pieces, put 4 back- anyone want some iris? I dug a peony, also there 10 years and split it into 6 pieces, put 2 back? Then we planted the new raspberry sundae peonies, rearranged the mums that were left and now it looks pretty war torn but it will be great in a couple of years.

Today David will figure out what to do with all the extra plants, they are currently tucked into the leaf pile awaiting a decision. I still have bulbs and more peonies to go in the ground. But after some rain tomorrow, there will be more golden days and I plan to spend them all outside working in the yard, as these are the last few weeks to get these chores completed.

When I was working full-time I bemoaned the fact that I had to go to the office when I all I really wanted was to be outside on these glorious fall days. I feel incredibly fortunate now to be able to do just that, of course I've bitten off a huge bite of stuff to do, but that's typical, I might actually have a prayer of getting it all done this year before the weather turns cold in December, but I'll have to keep at it, I don't work as hard or as long as I once did.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

First Freeze

Finally we had a real frost and are expecting a true freeze tonight. So we've been running around picking peppers, cutting a last bouquet of zinnias and mums, putting floating row cover over the lettuce and other tender greens, hoping to extend their harvest a few more weeks.

I was online ordering a few paper whites for the winter, and a few more crocus, they are small and easy to plant- right? I succumbed to 9 new peonies, what can I say, I'm a sucker for a peony, the queen of the spring garden. How could one resist Raspberry Sundae or Do Tell
The weather is supposed to be warming up for the weekend so I know what I'll be doing, planting peonies and I still have more camellias and trees to put in the ground as well, it's the time of year when there is no end to planting if I'm not careful, and who wants to be careful when there are so many amazing plants out there?
The fall/winter veggie bed in all its glory, 10 kinds of greens and broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbages, with luck -and the use of row cover- we'll be picking off this bed till spring!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Glorious October Days!

It's been a major week in the garden, 5 entire person days, 3 for me and 2 for Dave, spent digging, weeding and moving plants. The weather was absolutely perfect, cool and sunny, just right for digging holes and moving plants around.

I cleaned up more in the veggie garden, pulled out the tomato trellis and the eggplants and sowed a cover crop of clover and rye on the empty beds. Threat of frost -that did not come -had me pick all the basil and make 6 cups of pesto for the freezer, the first I had made to store, so we'll be glad for that rich taste of summer some cold winter night. We also dug the sweet potatoes, some were huge, others small, but they were well worth having stuck in the ground and I will definitely plant some next year. These came from only 6 or 7 plants.
We had the first wood fire in the stove as well, with several nights in the 30's it was time.

I've been planting some of the many shrubs I've collected with my plant credits earned at Camellia Forest over the summer. Camellias, azaleas, and other evergreens are getting tucked in and around the place.

We plan ahead when going to the nursery. "Want a tree for that spot, a camellia for there" then we get to the nursery and still choose things on impulse, get back home and things we thought were right for one spot are not, lots of mind changing and decision making goes on, as much time is spent in consultation as in actual planting!

Poor D spent hours removing a campanula from one of the perennial beds. It's a beautiful flower that we've encouraged for several years, only to discover it's becoming invasive and taking over and crowding out other plants. Typical problem with a good perennial. So he was digging and teasing the tuberous roots of the campanula out from the roots of columbines, foxgloves, geraniums and other things we still want to have around. His plan is to put some edging in between the remaining campanula and everything else to hopefully contain it as I love the tall stalks of purple-blue bells that are a perfect companion to the pale yellow, small flowered foxglove that we grow.
Today its rainy, so I'm taking a much needed break from the outdoor work to try and find the surface of my desk and put down a few words, I'm supposed to be writing, but can't bare to stay inside when the days are as spectacular as they have been this past week. Maybe in November I'll settle down and get some real writing done?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Mums and Asters and Garlic Time

I can't get enough of the mums and asters that are absolutely pouring out of the flower beds right now. This combination of blue and pink is particularly nice don't you think?

I planted the garlic this week. My friend Martine says plant it on Columbus Day and harvest on Memorial Day and I think that's about right. I broke six of the very best heads that we harvested last summer into cloves, prepped a bed with lots of nice compost and some Plantone fertilizer and in they went. Covered with some leaf mulch and now we wait 8 months for the next crop.

I've still got about 15 heads left, I don't think that will last until early June but it should take us close. Some of the onions are beginning to sprout, especially the purple ones so I'm putting them in everything, the yellows are holding up better but I'm thinking French Onion Soup might be on the menu very soon.

Here's another close up shot of those mums and asters with amazing late season zinnias, wow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Haw River Learning Celebration

Last week I was up at Camp Guilrock north of Greensboro for several days volunteering with the Haw River Learning Celebration. What an amazing feat of human energy. Over 100 volunteers work together over the course of three weeks to bring more than 1,000 fourth graders out to the Haw River to have a day in the woods, learn about ecology and the environment and get a much needed break from the classroom.

It's so apparent that children today do not get enough time outside, for all kinds of reasons including busy lives, TV, computer and video time, fear of the world, and traveling constantly in cars. The end result are children that don't know about the natural world and many who are overweight and unhealthy.

The Learning Celebration was conceived more than 15 years ago by Louise Kessel who got the idea from a group on the Hudson River who did something similar. It has evolved from 7 sites and two groups of kids per day to a more manageable 3 sites and one group of kids per day. One week in Bynum, one in Saxapahaw and one at Guilrock.

Some volunteers camp out at the sites and others come for the day. They lead small groups of 10 year old kids through the woods to a series of stations where they learn about the watershed and what lives in the creek, clay and nature art, animals of the Haw and they get to do a river walk where they simply walk along the river and explore to see what they can find and learn about the trees, plants and wildlife.

It is a fairly cosmic undertaking and I was glad to be a part of it. The Haw River at that point is close to its source and not much bigger than Morgan Creek here in my backyard. But there is also a big beaver dam and marsh that is home to woodpeckers and herons and kingfishers.

At the stream watch station we found lots of interesting water beetles I had never seen before and some fantastic feathery gilled mayflies among other things. At night the staff had a big fire and played games, the last night we held a talent show that was a riot. It was so peaceful and I loved sleeping alone in my little tent, listening to the sound of the rain dripping out of the trees. It never rained us out during the day which was a real blessing and only rained a little at night.

My hat is off to the folks of the Haw River Assembly and all the crew that make this learning celebration a reality year after year. At the end of each day they stage a puppet show with puppets from Paperhand Puppet Intervention and a concert where the kids get entertained while eating their lunches and get the messages of taking care of the planet reinforced a little more.

Then the kids take their trash through a recycling line and learn how to separate it all, its sad to see how many boxes of nasty prefab Lunchables and really unhealthy foods in lots of little packages come out to the river everyday with each group of kids. We've got a long way to go to educate this world about how to be better stewards, but the HRA keeps making an effort and I am glad I could help just a small bit.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Little Lizards

It seems our place is loaded with little lizards lately, they are scuttling and scurrying across the walkways, the garden paths, everywhere I look they are looking for a warm spot to sun themselves or a bug to eat. They are mostly fence lizards, really quite precious, only about 1.5 inches long. You can see the one below is next to some rebar which is about a half inch wide. I have to watch out to keep from stepping on them. At one point yesterday I could see eight of them at once in a 10- square foot area! Sometimes they go into a little trance and I can pick them up.
I've also been seeing a multitude of baby toads everywhere, red, black, brown, I think they are all American Toads from looking at the knobs on their heads and believe they change colors based on their surroundings. I don't ever remember seeing so many baby toads. Perhaps the amphibians are trying to make up for time lost during our drought of the past two years, once the rains came on, so did the egg laying and hatching.
We also have these swallowtail caterpillars eating up the dill but I will let them because there were fewer butterflies this summer than ever and I think that must also be linked to the drought. But who knows- could be some other environmental factor that's got their numbers down. Whatever- I'm hoping these last ones will have enough time to form a butterfly before cold weather sets in.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fall Has Arrived

I was wrong in my last post when I said sweater weather wouldn't be here till November. It's been in the 50's every morning this week and I just went in to put on socks and a sweatshirt because I was chilly sitting here at the desk. Of course it doesn't help that I keep leaving the windows open at night and they are open now, the cool breeze rippling the curtains and sounding the wind chimes in the yard.

I can't help it- I want to feel that cool dry air. All I can really say about it is Woo Hoo!!

I love fall almost as much as I love spring. The changing angle of the light, shortening of the days, slow shutting down of plants and trees. Soon all will be a blaze of color as the trees begin to turn and then the light will change again and as it drops to the southern horizon it will beam through the house in the morning- tempting me to relax on the couch with a book and another cup of coffee.


We did our quarterly streamwatch snap shot last Sunday. Our contribution to citizen science for the Haw River Assembly. The water levels are back down after the big flood but the debris left behind shows just how high the water went.

The stream bed was literally scoured, I haven't seen it so clean in years. And so there were fewer critters in the rocks and riffles. We still scored an excellent water quality rating for the diversity of macro invertebrates that we found. Translucent crawdads just a half an inch long, tiny brown salamanders with their gills still on, damselflies, the most delicate of all the critters we see in the creek, long legs hiked up to their sides like war of the world spiders and long feathery triple tails that float up in the water behind them like a scorpions' stinger.

The skeeters were ferocious and took a bit of the pleasure out of being down there. The water was 64 degrees, the air 68. My feet were numb after standing in it for a couple of hours and when I got home, I went straight to the shower where I let the warm water run over my puppies to thaw them out before slipping into some long pants and cozy socks.

In a bit I'll head out to water the fall seedlings, things sprouted well and are growing slowly, with the cool weather we might not get the long fall growing season that we've grown accustomed to. But I gotta say, the tender salads of mixed lettuces and arugula we've been eating are making me pretty glad to be alive.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Last Days of the Hummers

The first official day of fall is next week and though I long for sweater weather, I know it won’t be here until November. Yet today we have the first real taste of autumn, cool and rainy, the windows are opened up, AC turned off, maybe for the rest of the season? The week promises cooler drier air once this front moves through and I'm ready.

Every morning for months as I've stood at the sink to get water or wash dishes I've been greeted by the hummingbirds visiting the crimson flowers on a cluster of 8 foot tall purple leaved cannas that are growing outside the kitchen window. On still mornings the breeze generated by the blur of their wings actually moves the surrounding foliage of plants they are visiting.

The hummingbirds are now busy dipping their bills into the last of the salvia, zinnias and cannas, looking for any drop of nectar they can find. They need to get as fat as possible for their miraculous journey south. The young hummers buzz about the yard testing their fighting and flying skills. Swooping up and down and strafing one another -- and us if we are sitting in the yard near the feeder. Sometimes they fly right up to the window and just hover there, seeing their reflections, but it feels like they are checking me out. One day soon it will dawn on me sadly that they’re gone.

Our flowerbeds are overgrown and need deadheading, but goldfinches busily eating seeds from the spent coneflowers and sunflowers give me an excuse to postpone that task. Once this rain has passed, I'll get out there to tackle the late weeds and tidy up a bit. D. pulled down the last of the summer tomato vines yesterday, what a wonderful surprise to come home to, I've done that onerous task the last few years and wasn't looking forward to facing the soupy tomatoes hanging on dying brown vines.

We pulled out the rotting squash, snap beans and okra and got the fall vegetables planted just before the big rain from Hurricane Hannah came through. Young plants of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards and cabbage are nestled in and the seeds for a myriad of fall greens are all sprouting thanks to the wet warm days of the past couple of weeks. Beets and carrots planted in July are getting some size on them now and lettuce and arugula planted in early August are ready to harvest, the fall veggie season has begun and my mouth is ready.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Full O'Beans

Have I mentioned that we are growing 9 kinds of beans this year?

This is just part of the selection. Center row from left to right: Borlotto beans (also shelled in the bowl at top left), Flageolet, Purple Hull Black Eyed peas (also shelled in freezer bag at top right), Garden of Eden, and at the bottom, Yard Long beans which are really more like 12-16 inches.

I always plant a trio of bush snap beans. Blue Lake because for some reason I ordered a pound of seeds about 15 years ago- they still germinate every time, I'm looking forward to using them up and ordering something new, D wants to try try the french filet beans next year. Roc D'Or, a heavy producing long yellow wax bean, and Romanette a flat, meaty one that I can no longer get seed for so will have to try something new.

We finally pulled up all the snap beans last week to make way for fall crops, they had lots of big beans on them which are on a newspaper in my office drying to see if we can make shell beans out of them. We ate a ton, gave lots away, canned dilly beans and froze a bunch to toss in winter veggie soups and still there were more on the vines that got huge while we were away.

Now we are shelling beans too. Borlotto has a flashy pod with red flames and fat beans that are also red and white, I shell and freeze these, they're great in soups and we cooked a big pot the other day and they were reminiscent of pinto beans.

Flageolet are just starting to come in, never grew these before, they are small, I guess that is one of the reasons they are special and expensive, more shelling for fewer beans, they are a minty green color and I look forward to tasting them.

An heirloom variety, Garden of Eden, are also new this year, a broad green bean that looks like its going to be tough and stringy but cooks quickly and is tender yet meaty and no strings!

What are not really beans, are purple hulls, a black-eyed pea that freeze really well and make a fabulous soup with greens and some pork product come winter. The perfect dish to dip some cornbread into.

The yard long bean, also truly in the pea family is from southeast Asia. They are bodacious in stir fries and udon noodle dishes.

Last but not least are the Turkey Craw. Somebody gave D these seeds with the story that they were discovered in the craw of a turkey someone butchered. They've got a vine like Jack's that grows to the top of the 8 foot trellis and then all over itself until it makes a big gnarly mop on top and then it starts to set the beans. They are brown when dried, darker on one end of the bean than the other. They have set good fruit this year, better than previous attempts and we are awaiting their maturation so we can harvest and shell them.

The trick with these shell beans is to get them when their shells are starting to dry and feel a bit leathery but before they start to get moldy, a challenge with all the wet weather we've been having. If you aren't planting beans in your garden then you are missing out.

Shelling them is pretty easy, gives you something to do while watching mindless TV, like the Republican National Convention.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hurricane Hannah

We woke to rain and high winds that continued through the early morning, the edge of Hurricane Hannah as it passed through North Carolina. We had 5 inches of rain in that many hours. We managed to make coffee just before the power went out and sat in the shadowy house watching the rain and wind whipping through the trees. By 9:30 the power was back on and we made blueberry pancakes from the last handful of berries off our bushes.

The rain stopped so we headed down to check out how high the water was. Wow. We considered the idea of pumping up the inner tubes and taking a ride, the water was so high it was clearing all known rocks and obstacles but we came to our senses and decided the creek side view was exciting enough.

We were lucky here, to get only 5 inches of rain and only have the power out for about an hour. As I waded into the water to see how close to the edge of the raging creek I could get, I thought of an image of a woman in Haiti- standing in front of a tiny shack, the water up to her knees, with her few belongings in a plastic bag. That whole poor island is going to wash into the sea as they have cut down all the trees. As water swirled all around me, I had one brief moment of thinking I could feel what that woman might have felt. I can only imagine the devastation and the frightening prospect of having no idea what might happen next.

We are so lucky to have a high and dry safe house to live in.
Some scenes from here today.
A path disappearing into the water
Morgan Creek raging
The bridge floating over the pond creek, good thing it's tied to a tree
Me "surfing" on the bridge, Morgan Creek ripping along to my left.
The sun is out here now and the waters are subsiding, hope folks faired all right closer to the eye of the storm.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

New England Travelogue

We're back from the big adventure and glad to be home. It was as we had imagined, cool, dry and clear, I felt like I was walking into a postcard most of the time we were gone. From Rickett's Glen in Pennsylvania where we hiked a loop that follows 2 streams that flow through two gorges to form a Y. You pass more than 20 waterfalls ranging from 15- 90 feet high. It was a Saturday and packed, one of PA's most popular parks but I could see why, breathtaking. I didn't even mind seeing so many people there- it was good to see old and young taking on the challenging 3 mile, up and down rock stairs trail that was required.

From there on to Vermont where I sprained my ankle stepping out of the lean-to in the early morning and was forced to spend a day with my foot up reading a book- message from the universe to slow down for sure. It was one of the best days of the whole trip, breezy cool air made the green leaves dance and dapple the campsite where I took a couple of naps, finished a book and wrote in my journal.

Meanwhile D. built this Andy Goldsworthy-esque sculpture of the juicy, sappy pine they sold us at inflated prices at the Park. If split into small pieces it would actually burn and burn well. He took a walk with his camera around the glacial stream fed lake and was back in time to help me fix supper and get all this wood up into the lean-to before a big rain came in. We were high and dry in the shelter and enjoyed our supper with a nice bottle of red. Once the rain had passed D. got the fire rolling and we were able to sit out by it and toast a marshmallow or two.
From there we drove through New Hampshire to Maine where we stayed with our friend B Lou, ate lobster, went kayaking, visited a fascinating Georgia O'Keefe exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art, a very hip town, great bakeries and coffee shops, stunning ocean views such as these.

On to Cape Cod for giant sand dunes, more kayaking, more great fish and lobster and wine to drink, more time with good friends. We paddled our boats among seals and sea birds, swam in the chilly water and basked in the phenomenal weather. I completely understand why millions of people flock to New England in the summer, the climate is perfection, at least it was the two weeks that we were there.

The rain from Hurricane Fay forced us home in 2 days without any campouts. Now we're home; cleaning, gardening and unpacking. Yesterday back to work. Writing for me and art making for D. Hot weather and hurricanes. Bean shelling, pulling out summer veggies and planting for fall. Waiting to see what Hurricane Hannah will deliver later this week.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Vacation Time

Look Out- It's Fennel Man!
After weeks of being beaten down by vegetable production and preservation, we are out of here! Heading to points north for vacation from the sunny south and the constant demands of the homestead.

We'll be visiting Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, Cape Cod and points in between. Camping, kayaking and hanging with friends, eating lobsters, swimming in icy waters and hopefully having a bang-up time.

I'm trying not to let the fact that I am currently experiencing major stomach upset get me down, hoping its just a passing virus? It isn't helping me get packed and D is off to the store for a couple of last minute items including Pepto-Bismol. This medicine should be called Pepto-Abysmal- but if it helps, I'm all for it.

I was initially blaming my indigestion on too many tomatoes having eaten gazpacho 8 days in a row, but I'm thinking its not just that. Ah well. In the past couple of months we have dried and stored about 100 pounds of onions, 60 heads of garlic, I've made 3 batches of tomato sauce, 2 batches of ratatouille, one of minestrone, one of gumbo, pickled beans, pickled okra, frozen green beans, 2 batches of zucchini bread, oven dried tomatoes to pack in oil, frozen about 6 dozen whole tomatoes and last week I just started giving the damn things away in huge bagfuls to anyone that would take them and they are still coming in.
Note to self, 26 tomato plants is too many.
So as I said before, I am looking forward to actually getting away from the garden for a while, I did plant some lettuce, beets and carrots in the past couple of weeks, wouldn't want to come home to no veggies...
Batman will ride as our protector on our trip- I found him in the Current River on my vacation last summer and he's been riding the rear view mirror of my car ever since, warding off evil as I speed down the road. See you in September.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Beach Bliss

Bodie Island Lighthouse, Outer Banks, NC

I'm just back from a short trip to Cape Hatteras with my brother. He went on a couple of pelagic trips- out to sea searching for birds that never come to land-only for the most hard core of bird watchers. I've gone on a couple of these boat trips before, powering far out into the ocean in search of deep water, the gulf stream and hope that the birds fly past close enough for you to see them. I opted out to spend the days on the beach, swimming in the silky ocean, watching the waves roll in and taking in the activity of all the other beach goers.

I love nothing more than sitting under my umbrella and watching other people enjoying the beach around me, everyone is wrapped in a beach bliss blanket, happy to be right where they are. Little ones play in the sand and surf, adults dive into books, teens dive into the ocean. I got a little too much sun and wind on my face but other than that, I managed to get back unscathed.

We ate tons of seafood; shrimp, clams and softshell crabs. I feel justified eating almost anything I want after schlepping my stuff out to the beach, swimming about 6 times and taking a couple of walks up and down the beach, I think I've earned a good dinner and an ice cream too thank you very much. We even played a little putt putt golf. It was pretty much a perfect trip to the beach and I'm psyched to know that I have another brief jaunt coming up in another week.
Must be summer.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Summer Berry Pie

Look what I made :-)

In my opinion, pie is one of the all time greatest desserts and a real showcase for good fruits. The calories are exorbitant but I thought the fight for the berries made a pie worthwhile. The squirrels were tearing up the plants and stealing the berries but through diligent picking morning and evening, I gleaned 3 pints over 5 days, as I collected them I kept telling myself, If I get enough, I'm treating us to a pie.

I haven't cut into it yet but I know it's going to be delicious. Flavored with cinnamon and orange, it will be juicy and tart and sweet and have that amazing blackberry flavor that I can't describe but love.

I finished cleaning up the garlic this week which means I removed most of the brown tops, cut off the roots and scraped off the outside layer of skin that was a little dirty and musty. The yield was 60 heads, I made one long braid with 25 of the biggest prettiest heads and then put the smaller ones in a basket. I hope it will be enough garlic to last all year but it could be close considering how tasty this fresh garlic is and how much we like it in cooking. I am eager to learn if the onions and garlic we've grown will keep well or will rot or mildew? Hopefully keeping them in the house will keep them dry enough. (If you've experience storing onions and garlic in the south drop me a comment about that please.)

There are now about 100 tomatoes on the counter so I'm going to have to make sauce this week, no way around it. We eat them in and with everything-- like along side the fried eggs this morning. No other veggie/fruit can really compare to a good old tomato fresh and warm from the garden.
I don't even want to talk about the squash situation. It seems we are lucky, lots of folks tell us they've lost their squash to borers and bugs, not the case here so far, picked about 8 more squash today. HELP!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mushrooms, Onions and Bunnies. Oh My!

So remember the bit about mushrooms everywhere? Check these out.

I've been calling D. "Mr Mushroom" this week as he brought about a bushel of boletes to the house over the course of several days and spent hours poring over his mushroom books to try and decide if they are edible. He finally called a mycologist at the UNC Department of Biology who referred him to a local expert on boletus. D. hauled a cooler full of mushrooms to Owens' house and they sat around the kitchen table looking at books to determine species, chatting about stem qualities, spores and coloration. The upshot is we now have two trays of sliced boletes drying in the back of my car for Porcini and D. cooked up a skillet full that rendered a couple of cups to go into pasta for dinner and extras to the freezer.
Yesterday I braided these onions up for storage, this is only about a quarter of the onions that we grew. I'm thrilled, they are big and delicious and we have been eating them in everything. I hope they will store well into the winter.
I also put up 6 pints of dilly beans, my new favorite pickle as of last summer, hot peppers, garlic and fresh dill heads and seed make them extra tasty. They are crisp and the ultimate addition to tuna, egg or potato salad.
Took a couple of shots at the squirrels yesterday but missed, of course the minute we decided we might try and exterminate them they disappeared from view, though they're still marauding in the tomato patch. Given the fact that the kitchen counter is already covered with tomatoes I'm not sure why we care, but we do.
Now this little guy is one of a pair that are entirely too cute and the chicken wire that we added around the inside base of the veggie patch fence seems to be keeping them out of there for the time being so they live on. I admit we've been discussing how good they would be grilled if they are still hanging around this fall and a bit plumper.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Missing in Action, Vegetable Manuevers Underway

Part of the mornings' haul.

So I've been a slacker about posting lately- sorry about that. Summer slump I guess and I've been gone a bit and also busy in the garden too. Big harvest this morning including 4 giant zucchinis, 2 yellow squashes, 2 eggplants, 5 cukes, a big bag of beans, some okra and the tomatoes are finally starting to ripen up. We also dug the potatoes and that yielded a big bowl full.

I've started picking the 'mates a little green because Shorty McSnitch and his squirrel kin have been snatching them off the vines early and chowing down. They have also been eating all of the blueberries and tearing up the blackberries too. I went over to my brothers and borrowed his 22, though I've yet to aim it at one of those pesky squirrels, I'm definitely contemplating it.

The yard is full of young birds, I woke this morning and watched 2 adolescent hummers buzzing about in the Sourwood tree outside my window, at one point they stopped and sat perfectly still, I had to blink to make sure I was really seeing them and watch the spot and then just as suddenly, they zipped into action again. Juvenile red-bellied woodpeckers come to the suet feeder, titmice, chickadees and wrens squawk and carry-on from the tree tops.

Goldfinches frequent the Verbena Bonariensis, a clown-like flower with tall leafless stems topped by small clusters of purple flowers. Goldfinch, the color of lemons, swaying in the tops of the purple flowers is quite a sight. If you scare them into the air- it's like fireworks going off.

How about all the rain we've been having? I read we've had more rain in July than in all of last summer!? The creeks are back up and flowing and mushrooms are sprouting everywhere. Still no sign of our purposefully sown mushrooms, it's too soon, but lots of Chantrelles and Amanitas and all manner of other shrooms are popping up in the woods.

The daylilies have been putting on a big show for weeks now and are the highlight of the flower garden at this point. Our turtle Gertrude has been making regular appearances and enjoys eating the remnants of the tomatoes that the squirrels leave around the yard.

So today I defrosted the freezer in preparation for the tomato onslaught to come. It wasn't too bad and I only had to toss a few peppers from 2006 and a couple of bags of green beans from 2007, we've done pretty good on eating everything up. I made a big pot of borscht using beets and cabbage from the garden, also a batch of curried beets to eat fresh. I plan to make some dilly beans this afternoon and get the fridge cleaned out, its just overflowing. I picked lots of stuff when it got hot; beets, carrots, turnips, cabbage, and much of it is still in there and needs using, but the new stuff coming in is overwhelming us.

If you are anywhere near my house please come get some squash- I know better and I still planted too much. I admit grinning to D this morning when I spotted squash bugs on the plants. People often complain about squash bugs, I always figure about the time they show up and kill the plants I'm sick of squash anyway, it won't be long now before they go down.
OK- so I'm off to make dilly beans and I'll try to post more frequently.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Summer Solstice

Happy Solstice! Its great to have so much light around isn't it? Wake up early and stay up late, at least that seems to be whats been happening around our house. Seems like we are constantly eating dinner at 8:30 or 9 at night, just can't seem to stop and come inside before then.

Ah well. We celebrated today by getting up early and heading out to Jordan Lake for some time in the kayaks, I knew it had been way too long since we had paddled when I had to dust off the boat before I could get in.

It was lovely as always, we saw red-headed woodpeckers, prothonotary warblers, eastern kingbirds, bald eagles, osprey, a yellow-billed cuckoo and cliff swallows under the bridge- though not nearly as many as there were last year. As always dozens of great blue herons fished along the shores and croaked and honked as we scared them up into the air, flapping their wide gray wings to fly off to the next cove.

We saw tracks in the sand on the shore when we stopped to stretch our legs that David was sure were bear, but checking the book when I got home I think they were a big dog or maybe a coyote. We got excited about them anyway. Button Bush; cephalanthus occidentalis, was blooming all along the shore line. It is a small shrub with flowers that are the size of a golf ball, perfectly round and covered with white spiky flowers sticking out. The wildflower books' crazy description is "globose inflorescence...made up of many small flowers with exserted anthers" you can see a picture if you click above, I think they are really cool.

The lake was pretty skanky up towards the Morgan Creek arm as it often is, as soon as we pass back under the bridge it seems to clear up a bit, I guess the Fearrington Road bridge forms a bottle neck through which the waters are slow to pass. After all the horror stories I've heard about the water quality at Jordan Lake I've gotten to where I 'm afraid to go swimming which is too bad- it would have felt petty good about the time we got back to the boat ramp to jump in there, but we didn't.

What a marvelous break we've had from the terrible heat these past few days with cool nights in the 50's and low, low humidity. Summer's coming back now though and I feel that we might have to turn the AC back on. My latest Chapel Hill News column June Comes Blazing In is all about the bad heat we had early in the month and heading to the creek for comfort.

Last week we were in Kentucky up in the coal mining section of the mountains between Harlan and Hazard in a little town called Hindman at the forks of Troublesome Creek. We spent 6 days at the Hindman Settlement Schools'-Appalachian Family Folk Week; singing, dancing and playing traditional Appalachian music with old acquaintances and family and new friends too. It's an action packed week that fills me up with spirit in a way that I can't explain or describe, but the way I feel when I'm there is the closest thing to a religious experience I've probably ever had. It doesn't hurt that my brother Jon and his wife Candy, who are very near and dear to me, are there as well and we get to spend lots of quality time together at meals, walking the steep hillsides that surround the school, on the dance floor and at the after party that happens nightly at the wood shop.

Getting back home was made easier by the break in the hot weather. The garden is perking along despite the hot and dry, been watering the veggies and fruits regularly, the flowers just have to manage. If I'm thinking about it I capture gray water as I'm working in the kitchen and carry that around to things that look particularly parched. There is rain in the forecast for tomorrow so we've got our fingers crossed. I hope we aren't heading for another hot dry summer like what we had last year, it's too depressing to consider.

I've started picking squash and expect cukes and beans in another week or so, chard continues unfazed, dug a few taters the other day but they still need more time I think. The onions are filling out nicely and starting to fall over so we'll be harvesting them soon and I pulled about 50 heads of garlic and have those drying in the shed. I guess I'll braid them and the onions and hang them in the kitchen and hope they keep.

I've still got a ton of leeks in the fridge but planning a leek and carrot soup for this weekend to use a bunch of them up as they are not looking as good as they were three weeks ago when I harvested them! It will be a good thing to cook as I pulled 5 pounds of carrots the other day because they were starting to split under ground from being in too long, so everything needs to be cooked up into something yummy- as usual.

It's a good problem to have-too many veggies-as everyone is complaining about the price of gas and food as a result, I'm glad I planted a big garden this year and we are enjoying the fruits.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Too Hot for June

Well- Its too darn HOT. Not fair in my opinion for the first two weeks of June to be near 100 degrees, pure T criminal if you ask me.

I worked until 10 this morning and thought I would die, I was gasping for air it was so warm and humid. My clothes and hair were completely soaked. All I could ponder was finding some cool water to jump in somewhere, but the idea of actually getting myself to such a body of water was too overwhelming, the creek or the quarry would require a hike, it was easier to retreat to the AC where I stayed all afternoon.

The forecast is for this heat to last almost 2 weeks! Yikes. Good thing I picked almost all of the lettuce because it would be shooting up and going bitter for sure. The peas are brown and I need to pull them up and replace them with some pole beans on the fence. Some of the cabbage was trying to flower so I cut the largest heads. I begin to imagine having a back-up fridge to put all this stuff in, between the leeks, lettuce and cabbage there is no more room.

The okra and melons should take off now and join the cukes and squash in fast growing lushness. The blueberries are very fat and I await the first ripe one, D is afraid the squirrels will eat them all, and I'm afraid he could be right. It's that time of year when the varmints start to be a real nuisance. Saw the first groundhog of the season yesterday scamper off into the woods, so its only a matter of time before it figures out a way through the fence and starts to really piss us off to the point we borrow a gun and try to shoot it.

We had a bodacious party the other night with almost 50 friends and kids. Played croquet and bocce, ate phenomenal and fresh potluck dishes that people brought to share. The thunderstorms stayed to our North and did not rain on our parade and a good time was had by all. We even finished off the night with a small fire circle under the stars. Sweet.

Games on the lawn are for me the real sign that summer has arrived, especially when accompanied by a nice tall gin and tonic. If its going to be hot you have to take advantage of the long evenings that bring a small bit of relief from the heat of the day and give you a chance to get out in the air under the sky.

Hope you can find a way to keep cool over the next couple of weeks. I've been reading about places in the mountains with waterfalls....

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Leek Harvest

Leeks pulled from the dirt and waiting to be cleaned up.

All those leeks I was so excited about a few months ago decided to bolt to flower and had to be dug. I got half the bed out about 10 days ago and the second half out last week. I had to loosen them with a spading fork first and then gently pull them out of the ground. D. had done an excellent job of planting them in a furrow and then hilling the soil up around them so they were about 6-8 inches under the ground and had nice long sections of blanched white, the part you want to eat.

Once I had lifted them from the dirt and laid them in piles along the row, I sat on a stool and cut the long green tops and roots off with a knife and tossed them in a pile. My overwhelming thought was that I could never be a migrant worker and that most of us probably never think about the people that do back breaking work in the fields from dawn to dusk to bring food to the American table and for a pittance. I was only at it for an hour each time and my back hurt.

Cleaning the leeks was challenging, their roots were like thick brushes and held lots of dirt that I had to pull free before cutting/ripping the roots down to the bottom of the leek, being careful not to actually cut into the fleshy part. I understand why leeks are so expensive. For one thing their growing season is something like 300 days. We started the seeds for these in July of 2007, planted the young plants into the ground in September, dutifully weeded, and hilled the soil around them for good blanching and mulched and watered them through the winter. The reward:
We harvested quite a few through the early spring and now have about 100 in the fridge.

Leeks are also kind of a hassle to clean, all that hilling makes them collect dirt in the places where the layers turn to green, so they must be carefully washed to keep them from being gritty- if they are real bad I just rinse and then slice them and put them in a big bowl of water to let all the grit settle out and then lift them into a strainer to drain before I cook them. So why bother you might ask?

THE FLAVOR. They are sweeter and more tender than other onions. Cooked slowly in butter or olive oil in a covered skillet that allows them to sweat a bit and get very tender, they are creamy and like no other onion. A favorite dish of late is to brown lumps of Italian sausage in olive oil, add a big pile of chopped leeks and cook till tender. In another pot cook pasta- orechiette or penne are nice- just before the pasta is done, add a couple of big handfuls of cleaned greens- your choice at this time of year, chard, spinach, or kale are good - add a ladle or two of the pasta water to the skillet and then strain out the pasta and greens and toss into the skillet with the sausage and the leeks. Add salt and fresh black pepper and top with a nice grating cheese and yumm is the word.

Now maybe because the leeks were trying to flower, they had all these baby leeks around the base of the plants. They reminded me of the lower register keys on a clarinet or possibly a wood golf club. Some had long green tops and I stuck them back in the ground, others were tiny pearls and I'm suspicious that if we put them back in the ground they might make a fall leek crop and set up a beautiful leek regeneration cycle. We'll find out.

With some of these leeks I fixed one of the most delicious soups I have ever made, EVER.

Here is the recipe, I call it Cream of Spring Green Soup

Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large stock pot

Rinse and chop 8-10 leeks and saute in the butter, put a lid on, lower heat and cook till tender

Add a quart of chicken broth and a quart of water and bring to a simmer.

Add a 1/4 t of cayenne and a 1/4 t of white pepper and 1 t of salt


The tender stems from two bunches of asparagus -about 6 cups (reserve tops for garnish)

2 cups of chard, stemmed and washed

1 cup of Italian parsley, stemmed and washed

Add more water or broth if you need to cover the veggies

Cook just until asparagus stems start to get tender

Add three cups of sugar snap peas and cook for about two minutes, just until the peas turn bright green.

Remove whole pot from the stove and put into a sink full of ice water and stir to cool quickly and preserve the bright green color.

When cool, puree in batches in a blender and then put through a food mill.

Cook the asparagus tips and another cup of snap peas, till bright green, refresh in ice water, chop and add to soup along with salt and pepper to taste and a little heavy cream. Can be served hot or cold. Also I think a little chopped ham, or crab or cooked shrimp added at the end would be good. You could make a smaller batch- I froze a lot of it to enjoy a cool taste of spring on a hot July night. DELISH!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tour de Coops, Henside the Beltline

So last Saturday- which feels like about a month ago- I went to Raleigh with my friend Susie to check out the Parade of Combs. For the third year running, Urban Ministries has sponsored a tour of inner city hen houses and chicken coops to raise money for their programs.

We were surprised how many people have chickens in their suburban backyards and saw more than 20 different breeds along the way. We visited 8 different coops; they ranged from simple chicken wire and recycled wood enclosures, to a mobile house that got moved around a shady backyard, to what I termed the Taj Majal of coops. This last one was built to match the 50's bungalow of the home where two gentlemen were keeping their 4 hens.

My favorite quote of the day was from our first stop, a little sunshine yellow house with chicken art on the fence posts. A mid-forties mom who, when asked why she got the chickens said, "It was a mid-life thing, first I started the vegetable beds, then the compost, got a rain barrel and I was reading this book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and around about Chapter 5 they got chickens and that was it, I just had to have some."
She went on to say her husband was a CPA and thought it was a crazy idea but finally agreed. They screened in the area under their high back deck for the birds, I wonder if she'll think better of that location when the weather starts to heat up?
It was a fun time and we also learned a lot about keeping chickens including the spiritual benefits. One owner, the professor of a workshop called Chickens 101, said it's really about watching the birds, he claims that chickens are grounded like nothing else.
All the chickens had names and the owners were quite attached. It felt like the new "in thing" for yuppies to have a coop in their backyards. I was pretty inspired but not enough to run out and get a little flock, something that I imagine I would like to do. With vacations coming up- I don't want to tie myself down to a hen house that needs daily attention, and luckily, we get all the excellent fresh eggs we can really eat from the farm next door so their isn't major incentive to start my own flock, other than I think it would be a cool adventure. Eventually it will probably happen, but not quite yet.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Strawberries for Gertrude

Meet Gertrude. She's our resident turtle. We've been seeing her around the place for at least five years.

We know its Gertie by the light areas on the back edge of her shell. We've watched her lay eggs in our garden three different times and Mr. D once saw the hatchlings. It's a long slow process as she digs the hole, getting it just right, feeling with her hind legs to determine if the hole is the proper depth and size. Then in a turtle labor trance she jerks her head a few times and slowly pops a long white rubbery egg out into the hole and feels again with her hind legs that it is properly positioned before squeezing another one out.

It's hard to believe she could have more than one in her little body, they are about an inch and a half long and half an inch wide. We've gotten tired of watching as its so slow, so we aren't sure how many she actually lays. When we've witnessed the egg laying, we mark the spot so as not to disturb it until the eggs have hatched. Supposedly the incubation lasts about 3 months, so we mark the calendar, but we've only seen the babies one time.

We feel a little guilty since we put up our groundhog/rabbit fence because now Gertrude can't get into the vegetable garden to snack on some of her favorite foods. So we've been feeding her strawberries whenever we've seen her around in the last few weeks. She turned up her nose at some out of season cantaloupe that D tried to feed her from the fridge the other day. Discerning locavore that she is, she would have none of it.

The strawberries are about done so we'll have to find something else for her until the tomatoes start coming in, her other favorite food.

Isn't the skin on her neck amazing as she reaches out for another juicy bite?

Check out my May Chapel Hill News Column which sports a super photo taken by Mr. D. of a male Rose- Breasted Grosbeak at our feeder.