Sunday, May 31, 2009

A time to plant -- and a time to wait

by June

Last year, we could probably have planted tomatoes on May 1 and reaped a fine, early harvest. It was a warm spring that eased steadily into summer. This year not so much. We thought it was bad last Monday night when it hit 33 degrees. But, tonight, sixty-mile gusts are blowing in a deep chill. Frost alerts are out. All in all, it may turn out to be the coldest spring since 1945.

And somehow our black locust trees know this.

Gardeners watch the weather and talk about it. At the farmers' market last week, I ran into the gardener who handed down her beautiful spot to me and of course asked her when she was planning to put out the tomatoes this year. She said she uses a chart based on the phases of the moon. One of my farmer buddies at the market this week said he too was waiting until after the full moon on June 7 -- more than a week after our frost-free date. And then, intriguingly, I read on one of my gardening blog stops that the black locust tree is an indicator of when to plant. When they bloom, the time is right.

I took one look at my black locusts and decided that this year I'm going with them, especially since they concur with all my lunar-watching mentors. The girls and I have been walking around in the garden with our hands tucked in our pockets, and frankly the black locusts look as though they've still got their fingers curled into their pockets. Just look at the contrast between this black locust and its oh-so-leafy neighbors.

So I'm waiting and encouraging my leggy seedlings to bide some more time in the window. What signs do you watch as you garden?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Great Sunflower Project: join us!

by June


Photo: From the Greek phos or phot. Light; radiant energy.

-tropic: From the Greek tropos. Turning in response to a stimulus.

When practicing our Greek roots, one of the easiest ways is to find good examples (especially ones with actual roots in the garden). The best example we know of phototropic is the sunflower. We grow them as tall as we can with as many blooms. There they stand, living souvenirs of being lost with friends in rows of sunflowers in France or of driving by Lawrence Welk's prairie birthplace, where whole choirs of petal faces turn in unison toward the afternoon sky. Long stretches of the Dakotas go by in my mind -- a beautiful blur of yellow.

We don't grow sunflowers just for the memories, but also for the pleasure of having huge Van Gogh bunches in the house, and this year, for science. We are excited to be participating in the Great Sunflower Project. It's a nationwide science project, but don't let any middle-school frog-dissection flashbacks dissuade you from joining us in the effort. How many science projects do you know that involve a cup of coffee (or jasmine tea) in the garden?

Here's how it works: Plant sunflowers now. Then, when the sunflowers are in bloom, go find a comfy place to sit where you have a good view of a particular blossom. You just sip your morning drink and watch the sunflower watch the sun, and every time a bee visits, you jot down the time. You sit there with your sunflower for a half-hour or five bees, whichever comes first.

It's a beautiful and simple way to help some California scientists who are studying our poor embattled pollinators. As the project organizers point out: Bees are responsible for every third bite of food. Being part of the Great Sunflower Project is the least we can do to return the vital favor they do us. If enough of us (homeschoolers and Girl Scouts and garden clubs and...) get involved, together we will provide important information about where bees are thriving and where they are not. Plus, it's a fun opportunity to learn the difference between a bumble bee and a diadasia or another of the 35,000 species worldwide (if you want to take it that far, and apparently, Fern and Blossom do because they spent the afternoon comparing one bee to another on the project's excellent website).

It is raining here today, and since we cannot turn our own faces toward the sun, we will turn our anticipation toward the August day when the sunflowers will be tracking the light across the sky, and we will be tracking the bees who come for the pollen (and for the phototropic ride, wheeee!).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

HOW do we get chicks around here? HOW?

by June

Okay, we do have two Rhode Island Red chicks and are babysitting four more little puffballs. But we cannot, for love or money or begging or crying or stomping our feet, get our order of six Silver-Laced Wyandottes. We are now three weeks overdue, and the list of baby names is just hanging there on the refrigerator with no babies to attach them to.

But the bigger question is WHY are we ordering chicks when we have one fine randy rooster out there with four obliging lady friends? Daisy Roo is always doing what roosters do (besides crowing). "There he goes again," Blossom says, to which Fern adds, "Marmalade." Or "Dottie." Or "fill-in-the-blank" for whichever hen is currently getting loved up by Daisy Roo.

So it's not as if nature isn't working in our barnyard -- but only up to a point. It's the hens who lack the instinct. They don't get broody for more than ten minutes, then they are up and about and fluffing in the dust as though the continuation of the species does not depend on them. Which luckily it does not.

We were amazed this weekend when Grandpa Hickory told us that when he was little and master of his own coop, all he had to do was toss a hen over the fence to Johnny Hill's rooster. She'd come home in a family way, lay her eggs, and sit on them until they hatched.

Anybody who's read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle knows that natural instinct has all but been bred out of fowl here in corporate-farm America. Daisy and his ladies came from an incubator. And I guess they suppose we should just resort to a machine too.

But we fancy a more natural way. We like to think of dear Marmalade out there sitting cozily on her eggs.

There has to be a better way than waiting for the U.S. mail to be delivered to the farm store. We're desperate for little peeps around here. So if anybody out there with more chicken experience knows how to teach a hen to brood, please let us know. Please.

Because we are not going to try what Gramma Sunny's little brother did when he wanted more: He planted his chicks in the garden, feet up. That didn't work either.

Best we can hope from the garden is the likes of our favorite garden sculpture from last summer. At least he was good eating...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Summer food: Spicy crackers

by June

Summer blew in on a hot wind yesterday. It came through the screen door with such bluster that it peeled the rag rug off the floor and pushed it into a pile against the girls' reading couch. (The girls didn't mind; they were outside swinging into the new season.) Now, the coming of Memorial Day weekend makes it official that we are in the time of year when we need picnic food at hand.

Whether we are too busy gardening to feed ourselves or we are in a sweaty scramble to get to the swimming hole now, we rely on some staples. First and foremost is the Blue Ginger cracker. Chef Ming Tsai is one of our idols around here, and two of us have eaten at his Blue Ginger restaurant and two of us are living for the day.

Until that day comes, we are more than content to keep ourselves supplied with the best crackers we know. I've adapted our version from Tsai's Simply Ming. I always freeze half the batch of dough, so we can bake crackers on the odd rainy day -- or transform it into a pizza crust that will lift any topping into the stratosphere.

First I grind the spices with a mortar and pestle:

1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Half of this mixture, I store away for the next batch (or, and I'm just telling you this and nobody else, but sometimes I stir this spice mix into homemade hummus and, may I say, those chickpeas swoon).

Next, in the bowl of my trusty Kitchen Aid mixer, I combine:

1 teaspoon of dry yeast
About 4 cups of bread flour (enough to bring out a sticky-pizza dough consistency)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Using my dough hook, I mix the dough until the dough has what an old college buddy used to call "glitchiness:" it stretches and springs and just feels right. In this case, it also still feels tacky. It takes about fifteen minutes.

Next, I haul the dough out of the mixing bowl and blend in half the spices, then knead the whole mass by hand just to get fully acquainted with it.

Now, half the dough gets wrapped for the freezer and zipped into a plastic bag. The other half rises until it is twice its original size. About a half-hour before it's ready, the oven gets upped to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

While the oven is preheating, I whisk together...

1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 egg white

I toast 1/4 cup of sesame seeds in a hot cast-iron skillet being sure to keep those seeds moving.

Next, I flour a work surface and pat the dough down into a 1-inch-thick rectangle, then fold it over onto itself, flatten it out into another rectangle.  Now I let it rest for  a quarter-hour.

This next is easy-as-Playdough: Brush baking sheets with olive oil. Quarter the dough. Roll it out to about 1/4 inch thick then swing it onto a baking sheet and press it out toward the perimeter as much as possible.  Using a pizza cutter, cut the dough into the shape cracker you want. (Mine are never very uniform.)

Brush the dough with the oil-and-egg-white wash. Sprinkle liberally with sesame seeds and with more kosher salt to taste. Bake for about 20 minutes. Let cool on racks.

The idea is to always have some in the cookie jar for the quick drop into the picnic basket. Unfortunately, we sometimes find these crackers an irresistible snack with any dip or a heap of egg salad or any cheese or any pickled onion or chutney or... But, if we do resist, come picnic time, our food is fast. And delicious.

What's in your picnic basket? There's always room in ours for something new to love. And where is summer taking you?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Fox at Dusk

by June

Precious few sunsets have been ours this spring. Raindrops, we've had those by the bucket. But last evening, the light was so golden and sweet it seemed to cling to the edges of every leaf and blade. Our shadows stretched long behind us as we waved sapling maples above our heads like blazing torches that signaled, "spring at last, spring at last."

We played in the light as we sometimes play in the river.

The chickens were out and about -- but under shelter of the chicken-wire dome that was built to protect one of the raised beds. (Instead it was protecting the raised beds from the chickens.) The wire dome is easy to move, even if someone is nine years old. The girls hopscotch the dome around the yard, and the chickens dine on grubs and grass in one patch then another. It'll do until we get the heavy-duty chicken tractor ready.

But it seemed scant protection as dusk fell. We were finishing supper, and Blossom saw a rusty flash past the window: "Fox!" The hens too cried alarm using what the girls call their "goose-honking." Daisy Roo puffed out his feathers and crowed. The four of us spilled out of the house with arms wheeling.

What a brazen (and beautiful) creature, that fox. He looked at us. We looked at him. Daisy Roo looked from him to us, from him to us again as if to say, "Well, so? What're you gonna do about that?"

Monday, May 18, 2009

Introducing...Maple and Sugar!

by Blossom and Fern

We had to show our chicks to Grandpa Hickory on iChat

We have been feeling really sad about Tuesday. And we thought it was going to be better because last Thursday we were going to get our next batch of Silver-Laced Wyandotte chicks. But our farm store called and said that the chicks were delayed for a week. We were really disappointed. We already had the food and the box and the light and the water ready for them.  And we were really looking forward to holding them and playing with them. After art class, we kept thinking about how we should have our chicks right now. But we didn't.

Mommy suggested we look at the farm store and see if they had extras. That didn't work either. All the chicks were ready to be picked up by other people who pre-ordered them. There were little puff balls all huddled up in a little circle, but we had to leave without a single one. The sign said that on Saturday they would sell leftovers who nobody picked up. Mommy promised could we go back then.

Saturday finally came. Six chicks were left: three Rhode Island Reds and three Golden Comets. At first, we wanted two Rhode Island Reds, but the owner said that we had to buy them in groups of six. So...what to do? We had six Silver-Laced Wyandottes coming, but we really really really really really wanted to scoop up a little puffie and listen to it peep. But we couldn't even touch the ones in the pen.

We decided to buy all six. We will keep two Rhode Island Reds and give away the other four to friends who live in the next town over (so we'll still get to see them).

Here are our new babies...
Maple has a stripe on her head.

Sugar has a constant dingleberry.
 (Daddy is really embarrassed that we said that, but it's true.)

We were so excited that we tried to sleep with them in our room, but they were too peep-y. We couldn't even think to read. Now they sleep in the basement. But we play with them outside all day long. And when they need a little cozy time, guess where they go? Up our sleeves!

Friday, May 15, 2009

We tweet!

by June

Twittering is big around here. Our kind
requires (almost) no computer -- though we have become enthralled with the birding  app on my iPhone. It plays the calls of Northeastern birds, and the girls used it recently to call down a starling trapped in an O'Hare airport waiting room (like us!). Of course it turned out the bird was not nearly as interested in our digital birdsong as in the French fries being eaten by our fellow travelers.

We don't just resort to bird watching when we are stuck in airports. It's one of the things that makes home feel most like home: I realized this year that I don't so much open the first window of spring to welcome in the freshening breeze -- but to welcome in the birdsong. No matter the season, we scan the sky, stare into the treetops, sip something warm and watch the comings and goings at the feeder. Friends got us through the winter with the gift of For the Birds, a guide to bird watching in sync with the calendar. All winter, the kitchen window gives us a view of the feeder, and it brims with activity even on the snowiest days. One of the earliest harbingers of spring is when the bright yellow comes feather by feather onto the breast of the goldfinches.

Please don't think we do it just for the pleasure (though is there a greater pleasure than watching the zig-zig-zag flight of a chickadee toward the sunflower seeds?). We also help track migrations through Journey North, one of our absolute favorite websites ever. Not only do we get to observe our tucked-away bit of the world, we get to share what we notice with scientists who plug our information into the grander scheme of data about the wider natural world (and what's happening to it, natural or otherwise). One of our biggest thrills came after studying robins on Journey North. We had been listening to different calls and trying to learn to distinguish a robin's come-hither song from its yikes-that's-a-hawk-up-there call. One day, I was weeding and heard a shrill whistle pinched so tight it was almost a wheeze. Sounded familiar. I looked up: There was the hawk!

It's been a rainy stretch here, but once the sun finally blazed through the clouds, we headed out to cut apple boughs for the house. We heard a Baltimore oriole's rackety call. Several pairs nest close to the river (though we have yet to pinpoint exactly where). They like to sip at the half-oranges we poke onto twigs in the honeysuckle hedge; they criss-cross the yard with their flashing-orange flight. We spotted this morning's male high in a gone-wild apple tree.

Later, oh glory, we saw our first-ever backyard scarlet tanager. It flitted from tree to tree, higher and higher, then away.

But the highlight came from tracking our dear, familiar tree swallows. They've been doing a graceful mating ballet in the sky over our meadow: flitting arabesques and synchronized spirals and fancy loop-de-loops. Now, they are down to work, bringing straw to one of our garden-post birdhouses: nesting.  We know from experience that this nesting pair of swallows will now be watching us as much as we're watching them. And when it's time for their little ones to fly, we had better stay low as we pick our peas. Seems peas plump up just as fledgling swallows try out their flight engineering. The parent swallows will dive-bomb us that day. Which is nothing I wouldn't do for Blossom and Fern. If I had wings.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A good read: Lucky Girl

By June

art of my Mother's Day pampering was time to read. I stretched out in the lap of Ruby Comfort (my big red chair). The girls tucked themselves around me with their own books. Ah...

As serendipity would have it, I was reading the perfect book, Lucky Girl, by Mei-Ling Hopgood. Mother's Day is one of the occasions when I think especially of the mother on the other side of the world who made my motherhood possible. Her loss has been the great blessing of my life, yet I know nothing of her. And so I read, trying to create for myself at least the texture of her existence. I read Chinese history, fiction and memoirs. I read fairy tales and poems, websites and blogs. Rarely, though, have I read anything as enlightening as Mei-Ling Hopgood's memoir.

Mei-Ling Hopgood grew up knowing precious little about her birth parents in Taiwan. And she didn't much feel the urge to know more. "As soon as I was poured into the arms of Chris and Rollie Hopgood one April afternoon in 1974, these two midwestern teachers became my real family. They read me bedtime stories, attended my recitals, helped me build homecoming floats, and took me on vacations to Florida," she writes. Mei-Ling doted on her two younger brothers, both adopted from South Korea. She had a crush on Fonzie as a preschooler, became a pom-pom girl and rushed a sorority at the University of Missouri. She did not dwell on questions about her origins. She writes, "Some people spend their whole lives trying to uncover, understand, or escape from their pasts. Mine rose up like a dragon..."

Mei-Ling's Taiwanese birth family found her. And, at age 23, she was enthusiastically swept into an acquaintance, then intimacy with her birth mother and father, with her sisters and brother, and also with the complexities of male superiority in Chinese culture. She had grown up "feeling appropriately infuriated when I read the books and heard the sayings: No sons, no happiness. A family with daughters is only a dead end. Geese are more profitable than girls. Girls are maggots in rice.... I had every right to feel personally aggrieved by this belief, but thanks to the careful nurturing of my American parents, I
thought I had risen above the whole Chinese male superiority thing. It did not come to life for me until the day I met my sisters." One of her seven sisters has a Taiwanese nickname that means "no more girls."

It is the sisters who help translate the complicated circumstances of the family Mei-Ling left as an infant. Her father showers her with gifts but comes to disturb her more and more as time goes on; her birth mother tugs at her heart yet remains an enigma. But her sisters gather her in: "The enchantment...of sisterhood seduced me, made me stay when otherwise I might have fled." Her sisters teach her to make dumplings. They take her shopping for wedding jewelry and lingerie. They compare bra sizes and giggle over the fact that they all have the same split toenail. They lie in bed and talk in simple English late into the night. Through her sisters, through the years, Mei-Ling confronts some truly terrible truths.

She realizes she has been given a gift usually reserved for movies or fiction: the gift of exploring "what if?" She knows what her life is like. She can compare it against her sisters'. With warmth and generosity, she observes it all, braids all the strands into a new, deeper sense of self. With beautiful, clean prose, Mei-Ling Hopgood manages to evoke her experience for all of us who have reason to wonder, What if?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eating the Weeds: Dandelion Soup

by June


What better way for little girls to learn a new word than the gorgeous proliferation of springtime dandelions? Oh, those sudden sunbursts of color after the gray of winter. And that puffy bubble of flyaway seeds that delight anyone with a pucker and strong lungs. Even the dandelion's tenacity is admirable; I have one that grows out of a rock in my rose garden.

Before Birch roared around the place on his little red tractor, the dandelions were spattered over our grass in yellow abandon. And lucky for us! My souvenir from our April visit to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Rocky Ridge Farm (more on that later) was a cookbook. Paging through it on the long drive home, my curiosity immediately landed on a recipe for dandelion soup.

Blossom and Fern eagerly obliged by crawling about in all the shiny spring grass and pinching off tender leaves. I gave a handful of the spiky greens a good rinse and a shake, then I chopped them up.

Here's my adaptation of Laura's farm-hardier version:

Dandelion Soup
2 tablespoons of melted butter
1 cup finely chopped dandelion leaves
1 clove of minced garlic
5 sprigs of minced chives
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons of flour
2 cups of milk

Melt the butter; add the greens, herbs and seasonings. Saute until the leaves shrink and soften.
Sprinkle in the flour to coat the greens evenly. Cook just until the flour smells like toasted nuts.
Slowly stir in the milk and cook over low heat until smooth.  Simmer to thicken it a bit.
Serve hot in dainty portions.

We sipped ours, still steaming, from ramekins. The pungent creaminess was perfect with grilled fish and our first salad from the (over-wintered) garden boxes.

The soup fortified me for my next task: rooting out the dandelions in my front flower gardens. And this week, we've had the perfect weather for that: wet. The long root comes slithering out of the moist soil, gone once and for all. I've learned the hard way that dandelions won't be dispatched from dry ground; a bit of root breaks off to grow again.

When I'm not rushed, pulling dandelions is one of my finest ways to think. Around here, I have plenty of food for thought because the dandelions are...ubiquitous. Or as Blossom puts it, with a plainspokenness Laura Ingalls Wilder would approve, "They are everywhere."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Eulogy for Tuesday: She was a sweet chicken

by June

Tuesday was just a chicken. And we love people who lately have lost dear people, and we have lost dear people too. We don't equate the loss of our hen with the loss of someone who has laughed across the breakfast table or tucked a child into bed. But, forgive us, we do grieve.

She was a chicken who loved to be held by two little girls. And those two little girls loved to hold her. They had a blanket just for her. She was the littlest chick and needed them more and, so, got all they had to give. She was a chicken who rode in a green wagon and went flying down the hill on a sled. She didn't flap or squawk. She nestled into the girls' arms and flew. Chickens don't fly, but on that sled, in their arms, Tuesday did.

We were away last week. When we got home the dandelions were blooming yellow all over the lawn, and Tuesday came out to play. She fluffed in the dust. She followed the girls wherever they went. She ate good grubs. And the next morning, we don't know why, she was dead. As Fern puts it in disbelief, "actually dead."

There was a funeral involving her favorite blanket and violets and a lot of tears. Birch said it best, "She was a sweet chicken."

I'm back out in the garden. Birch has mowed for the first time this year. The girls are pushing each other on the big swing in the silver maple. But there's a hole in our world shaped like Tuesday. And we see that little hen everywhere.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Pizza Oven: the first step

by Birch

When we left New York City in a rented Jeep and headed cross country, the round pizza stone we used in our apartment's tiny oven ended up not in a box at Manhattan Mini-Storage with our other stuff, but in the back of our Jeep. We were that serious about our pizza.

So when our road trip landed us in Maine, we slid the pizza stone in our very own oven and we were home. But our homemade pizza still wasn't right. We were pizza-spoiled by our pizza-hero, Patsy, who was three-hundred miles away under the Brooklyn Bridge at Grimaldi's. The crust there is crisp--not too thin and not too thick, and they use only homemade ingredients. Pizza perfection only happens above 700 degrees in Grimaldi's coal-fired oven, which is not home oven territory.

We decided we needed an outdoor wood-burning oven and ordered plans from Alan Scott at Ovencrafters, who for thirty years built brick bread ovens in backyards around Berkeley, California. Alan Scott retired to his native Australia a few years ago and, sadly, died there earlier this year. His plans were beautiful and brilliant, but I hadn't the vaguest idea of where to begin. I needed hand-holding and lots of it.

Along came Forno Bravo and its step-by-step plans to build an Italian-style brick pizza oven called the "Pompeii." The plans are based on an ancient domed design, which heats up quickly for pizza and can be built for a reasonable cost. There was an on-line forum for newbies where I could get lots of help planning my oven.

I began last July with the first step: The oven needed a solid foundation so there would be no shifting and heaving to crack the brick dome. That required excavating a six-by-seven foot foundation deep enough to provide a stable footing. In our heavy clay soil, I dug by hand until water began to leach from the clay at about thirty inches. More than one local expert I asked said I should go down to forty-eight inches, the
frost-line here in Maine. But an equal number of amateur backyard diggers advised a shallower "floating-foundation." There was no consensus and Forno Bravo plans suggested I yield to local custom, so I split the difference.

After the hole was dug (and all that extra dirt was used to level holes around the yard), I filled up the foundation with crushed stone, leaving about six inches at the top. This was where the wood forms would go to hold the concrete for the foundation. Stay tuned for my adventures, ahem, pouring cement...