Tuesday, June 30, 2009

With a little help from my friends

by Birch

Sometimes you just can't get it done all by yourself. On a recent Saturday, I put my weekend "To-Do List" aside and spent the day helping a friend start a new life in a new city. There was a rental truck to maneuver through urban streets and dock at the front door of an apartment building. We worked all afternoon unloading the truck with some impromptu help from a couple of college students who were moving out of the building. It was one of those city barters born out of expediency--heavy-lifting (there was a piano involved) in exchange for cargo space in our truck and a ride to their new digs nearby.

Belongings mingled on the busy sidewalk. We kept watch as we lifted. The elevator neared overload, but chugged upward every time without complaint. The rain held off until every last box was inside.

Little did I know that Fern and Blossom were back at home working to surprise me by dispatching a major item on my "To-Do" list. I had started a project the weekend before to set up a short run of stockade fencing to wall off a utility area. After the posts were set, the fence needed to be painted. I had finished one section with two coats of white and set it in place. It looked good, but there was more to do. While I was away, Fern and Blossom got to work on the second section which was propped up out of the rain. June reported that she painted some of the top of the fence that was out-of-reach, but that the girls mostly stretched on tippy-toes to do it themselves.

When I arrived home late that night, it was a happy sight when my headlights alighted on that freshly painted fence. Cross one off the list thanks to Fern and Blossom!

Monday, June 29, 2009

On the bright side

by June

At the farmers' market this weekend, we were gabbing about the only topic worth gabbing about, which I will not mention by name as I do not want to dignify the situation with any more public hand-wringing (and because I do understand that other parts of the globe are suffering in other ways, dire ways). But one of the hardier farmers remarked with a wry grin, "Great year to be a gardener, huh?"

No, it's not a great year. But then again, yes, it is. The sun played peekaboo that day, and as I walked around the garden, the thrill was there. If we can't have abundant sunshine, at least we can have sundrops...

and lady's-mantle bejeweled with rain...

and roses too...

and peas coming on strong...

and the first little green tomatoes, pretty as pearls and much more dear.

There's nourishment in gardening that sustains us long before the harvest.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lonely Little Petunia sandwiches

by June

It's a lonely-little-petunia day around here. The sun is peeking through the clouds, but Birch is away. To cheer ourselves, we made our favorite summer-day lunch: Deborah Madison's Fried Eggs with Sizzling Vinegar (from a gardener's and market-goer's must-have cookbook, Local Flavors). We always make the fried egg into a sandwich and somehow got started calling it the Lonely Little Petunia.

Here's how we do it (and you can too):

We fry an egg in butter, then shuffle it to a slice of Birch's country Italian loaf.

Next, we add two teaspoons of butter to the frying pan. When it bubbles, we toss in minced shallots. (Today we used baby leeks, yummmm.)

Next comes a quick swirl of red-wine vinegar or homemade tarragon vinegar, about a tablespoon.

This sizzling sauce gets poured right onto the egg.

To serve ourselves, we piled on pea shoots and Tom Thumb lettuce. Fern looked at it in satisfaction, and proclaimed, "It's all our own!" And so it was, with many thanks to Birch for baking and the hens for laying and the greens for loving the rain.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tick Yoga

by June

something pretty to look at because our topic is so ugly

If it weren't raining so much, we would be getting a lot more exercise this time of year. As it is, our page-turning fingers are lithe, and the muscles that adjust our heads on our pillows are in fine form. But the muscles required to do our nightly tick yoga are getting a little flabby.

If it weren't raining so much, we would be spending our days, sunup to sundown, out in the air. We would tromp through the garden to see what June flowers were blooming (as it is, they are battered to the ground by all the downpours). Birch would be circling the pizza oven daily, one ring of firebricks going up at a time (as it is, the mortar can't cure, and things crumble if he so much as looks at a brick). I would be hauling soil to the new rain garden I'm making outside my garden window (as it is, everything is mud, nothing but). All of this outdoorsy activity would put us in constant reach of the ever-waiting ticks.

With all the rain, we don't have that much exposure. Still, on one of the two of fifteen days when it did not rain, Blossom got a tick. She missed it during tick yoga that night. Tick yoga is when you bend and reach in all directions, trying to see and feel parts of your body that have never been seen or felt (at least by you yourself). Ticks like to go right to the place you yourself have never seen or felt before. That is why we all practice tick yoga with great vigilance. Sometimes we do double or triple tick yoga, which looks a lot like a game of Twister.

Because we were all sun-addled on one of the two days it hasn't rained in the last fifteen, we didn't spot a tick on Blossom. And we didn't know how long it had been attached to her. Since we live in Lyme-disease territory, we removed the tick and immediately called the pediatrician. (If you want more information on the gruesome details of removing ticks, do go see the entertaining Bug Girl, who is not squeamish about these things. One note though: Everybody says to use tweezers. But have you ever come at a kid with tweezers? "They're all pointy!" At Portland's annual garden show, we scored this little tick scoop. Birch tried it out on Blossom's tick, and everybody was happy -- except the tick.) Anyway, here's the public service announcement and purported point of this post: The pediatrician sent us not for antibiotics (as with Birch's last run-in with a tick) but to a local hospital's tick tester. Using a microscope the tick tester determined the tick had been attached for less than the thirty-six hours required to transmit Lyme Disease. So, if your tick yoga turns up a wretched bloodsucker, scoop (or tweeze) it off, save it on a piece of tape, and check to see if your hospital has a tick tester.

These days, because of the rain, we only go outside sheathed in rain slickers and our boots. The ticks can't even smell our warm blood through all that rubber. As our summer-fun muscles atrophy, at least our fingers still get a daily workout: It's a lot of work chopsticking all the slugs out of our floating garden.

Have we mentioned that it's been raining here?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ten reasons we love our daddy so so so dearly...

By Blossom and Fern

Us with Daddy when we were little

...because he has a strong back!

...because he built a chicken coop for our chickens.

...because, when we are craving chicken tikka masala, he makes it.

...because he always comes to Chinese School and helps out.

...because sometimes, just for fun, he lets us drive the tractor.

...because he makes the BEST bagels.

...because he admits he is freaked out by cockroaches.

...because he can fix anything on the computer.

...because he worries about when we are old ladies, and he is not around to help us.

...because he is going to cry when he reads this.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy!

Friday, June 19, 2009


by June

Exploring North Haven, we came upon a beautiful garden in the village. Its touching beauty was in its wild abandon but also in the souvenirs that remained of the gardener who had once tended it.

Nature reasserts itself.

Only the hardiest self-seeding plants remained to whisper about the gardener's old dream of the place. The lupine and columbine and forget-me-nots competed with whimsy against the whip-strong sprouts of maple that had sprung up around the yard. The flowers shouldered up through the grass.

I thought of my grandmother's garden gone to clover. I thought of my own lost garden beds under the pines at the lakeside cottage Birch and I coaxed into being but relinquished finally for the sunshine and potential of four green acres. Do my flowers still eke out an existence in that warm spot where the sun made it through the treetops? Does anybody bring them compost, pull the weeds, water them through dry spells? If not, they may exist only in my memory.

Gardening is merely participating in nature. I have to learn this again and again. I was reminded of it when we came home from North Haven. It had rained and rained here while we were away; the slugs had eaten and eaten. The cabbage looked like lace. The beans had been lopped off as they sprouted. The pumpkins were half what they should have been.

Nature reasserts itself.

Long winters teach me this, and groundhogs do too. Cold seasons or wet or dry, these all have their reminders about what is in control and who is not. Last year it was a hailstorm that battered a bounty of tiny green tomatoes to the ground. This year it is the cold spring that won't quit. My tomato plants look defensive. They know this has not been their season so far, maybe won't be. But all this confronts me with the greater truth I learn by gardening: Embrace it. Be grateful that nature has its own ways. Protect it, protect it, protect it. All I can do -- the starting of seeds, the turning of compost, the spritzing of fish emulsion -- all this is nothing to what nature can do. And that is the glory of nature truly: Without us, seeds still sprout, and vines climb, and it all goes on and on. May it ever.

There is peace in the garden that the island gardener left behind. There are reminders that she got down on her hands and knees and planted seeds and watched them grow and took pleasure in them. Forget-me-nots weave through the weeds. Perhaps that's where they got their name. Those blue flowers are the tiniest little spark of a gardener's imagination, still alive in the wild of it all.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Postcard from North Haven Island, Maine

A walk to Ames Knob

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Pizza Oven: Step Two

by Birch

I knew nothing of concrete, except that it came in an eighty-pound paper bag that was sure to give me the hernia my grandmother had always warned me about. It was high summer, and I had just finished digging a hole in our heavy clay soil the size and depth of a kiddie pool and it needed to be filled with a whole lot of those eighty-pound sacks. Or I could just call up a concrete company for a delivery. Wasn't pouring concrete slabs a job best left for professionals and organized crime hit-men? To the Yellow Pages!

The foundation work specified in Forno Bravo's plans for the Pompeii pizza oven seemed like serious overkill. But then again, there's no doubt that a solid base is needed to keep the oven stand and the cooking dome from shifting, which would cause the pizza oven's masonry to crack. Several tons of firebricks and refractory mortar need to be supported by something equally solid! So I decided not to improvise this time and follow the plans precisely.

Meanwhile, my calls to local concrete companies were not being returned. Everyone was running full out in the summer construction season and didn't have time for a piddly bit of work. (This was last summer, before the economy cratered.) But I got lucky when a neighbor who had just finished digging the foundation for his new garage came to the rescue when I shared my concrete dilemma with him. The weekend before the crew he had hired was ready to pour, he sent them over to me for an estimate.

Two guys with Popeye forearms swung by to survey my site. They shrugged. I hoped to move negotiations along by suggesting that maybe they could add a bit more concrete to the neighbor's order and take care of my project. The boss nodded without commitment and sucked on a toothpick. Finally they hit on an excuse for their reluctance, explaining that they would have to move the concrete across the lawn by wheelbarrow since they couldn't get the truck close enough for the boom to reach my site. Fair enough, I thought, and I agreed to cover their time for the heavy-lifting. They took my number without commitment. They'd call after they poured the concrete for the neighbor's garage on Monday morning.

Convinced their visit (and word) was golden, I finished the preliminary work over the weekend: spreading a two foot base of crushed stone to level the hole and provide some drainage. Then I built a form from 2 X 6 lumber to hold the concrete in place at the top of the excavation. I covered the stone underneath the form with a plastic moisture barrier, using old shower curtain liners that I had been saving for a good purpose. Then I used a masonry blade on my power saw to cut lengths of iron reinforcing rod, also known in the trade as "rebar." (Note to fellow amateurs: Throwing around the lingo doesn't impress anyone.) I lay the rebar onto plastic spacers that would hold each length four inches into the concrete, criss-crossing the bars into a grid that would add support and strength to the concrete. When I was done my hole looked ready for the pour.

Monday morning brought the threat of thunderstorms, but no phone calls from the concrete guys. That's okay, I thought, they'd come over when they were done. The crew was working across the river, and I could hear their truck's diesel engine rev as the concrete tumbled in the huge barrel. They worked for awhile and by lunch-time, they were gone. Lunch break, right? Nope, they were on to the next big job, and I still had a hole in the backyard.

I could do this, I decided. Two trips to Home Depot with a thousand pounds of Quikcrete dragging bottom in the family car. I stowed the thirty-five bags in the garage on an old wooden pallet. About this time the summer rains hit. Day-after-day of heavy showers made it impossible to mix and pour the concrete. And I wanted to be done.

For years, early August has delivered June's Dad, Hickory, cross-country for his annual visit. He's always quick to help out, especially when there's a hard-to-hide hole in the backyard. Hickory is a super-hero of a father-in-law, and he never fails to help us out of a jam. And as always, he was full-in for helping me out. So I attempted to rent a cement mixer from our local tool rental, but the ground was too muddy to drag it across the yard, so back went the mixer. We set to work by hand with a wobbly wheel-barrow and mixed all thirty-five bags by hand.

Fern and Blossom marked each corner with their footprints and names. And by evening, the whole thing was done. Oh, and then Grandpa Hickory went back home and saw a chiropractor to straighten out his back, and he couldn't sleep for two weeks, but that's a whole other story for a whole different sort of blog.

Coming up in Step Three: A crushing blow with concrete blocks on a rented truck!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Our favorite gardening tool: Chopsticks!

by June

We bee-lined out to the garden after a rain. The Chinese Blues cabbage was riddled with holes. And the wretched slugs were still there gnawing, the nerve. Never fear! The girls and I were armed with...chopsticks!

We pinched up the gooey invaders and hurled them off into the meadow.

Fern: "Look, they're on the kale too!"

Blossom: "Why do they only go for the good stuff? It would actually help if they'd eat the weeds."

Ever since I stumbled onto the Japanese Gardener's post about using chopsticks to perk up his violas, we've been using them for everything. We fish edamame beans out of the inoculant slurry and poke them into the soil with one deft motion. Same with nasturtium and morning glory seeds, oh glory! We scratch the soil before broadcasting tiny seeds and pluck tiny weed sprouts out from among the radishes.

Once in New York City, I saw a woman using chopsticks in a way so clever I thought it could never be topped. She was obeying the "pooper scooper" laws meant to keep the sidewalks clear of dog doo: pickin' up the poopoo, puttin' it in the baggie. But, I have to say, I feel almost as clever clearing the cabbage of pests -- without having to scour slug slime off my fingers afterward. Just wait until tomato horn worm season...

Monday, June 8, 2009

Last-Chance Asparagus

by Birch

Cooking asparagus can be brutally unforgiving, like our cat after a trip to the vet. Asparagus is a vegetable that demands precise timing--a moment too long in a steam bath reduces its delicate flavor and texture to inedible mush. Fortunately warmer weather has brought us outside and back to our barbecue grill, and that is where asparagus is at its best.

There is a nice trick I've always used to prepare asparagus for cooking: The ends, which are too tough to eat, magically snap off at just the right spot where the stem turns tender. Then I coat the spears lightly in a good olive oil to keep them from drying out. When the grill is preheated (we use gas, though charcoal is probably better flavor-wise), I turn the flame down to medium and carefully fan the oiled asparagus across the grill. I try to lay the spears perpendicular to the grate so they won't fall through it. After three or four minutes, I'll give the asparagus a half-turn with a pair of tongs. Another three minutes or so and they will be a deep, dark green dotted with lovely caramelized spots. They are ready to remove. A sprinkle with some flaky Malden salt and a few grinds of black pepper is all that's needed. It's utterly simple and worth the extra time at the grill: There's a sweet, faintly nutty taste that can't be achieved any other way. Fern and Blossom eat them up!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Back-porch local

By June

These long, sweet evenings, we collapse into the dinner hour. Days are full, and we get very, very empty, but who feels like cooking? We go out to eat...out the screen door. Thank goodness for the salad boxes on the back porch. With their abundance and some homemade bread and eggs fresh from the hens, we can feed ourselves simply and well.  We dine in splendor out there on the porch, among our greens (and reds and speckleds), leaning back in the Adirondacks and watching the birds flit back and forth across the meadow.

We over-wintered one four-by-four salad box, and the mache that burst onto the spring scene gave us the early greens we craved. Next came arugula and some beautiful mixed lettuce. I have no idea what variety of romaine we made into a Caesar salad this week, but it was romaine fit for Caesar himself.

The wrinkled, crinkled cress is wild out there now. After we finish our meal, Fern and Blossom graze around for more salad. They nab a little bubbly lettuce in foam green, then go for a ruby leaf. They love the cress most of all, crave it for its wasabi spike up the back of the nose, yowza! I admit it, I love that sensation too.

Often, on my way out to the big vegetable patch, I pinch a little nibble from the back porch. It reminds me why I'm off to shovel yet more compost: because nothing tastes better than something you can have seconds of -- straight from where it grows.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Here at last!

by Blossom and Fern

Aren't they so so SO cute? Introducing our six puffball Silver-Laced Wyandottes:




Rosemary (mostly known as Rosie)