Thursday, November 30, 2006

A book review

Carol of May Dreams Gardens came up with the wonderful idea of doing an on-line book club with a bunch of us gardening bloggers. Great idea, sign me up! Then I heard about the first book selected. Oh no, I thought.

The ancient Romans had an expression that I re-remembered when I reread this book. (In point of fact, I thought of it when I bought the book, too, but more about that later.) It goes like this: "De gustibus non est disputandum." This translates to "In matters of taste, there is no argument." And I had to keep that in mind when the very particular Mr. Mitchell would tee off on one or another of my favorite growing things, or elevate one of my least-favorite.

About the book: Henry Mitchell was the beloved garden writer for the Washington Post for a time during the 70s-80s. His style was a bit revolutionary, and his yarns about his city and country gardens actually do travel very well. He's something of a curmudgeon, his humor is dry, his opinions (like I mentioned) are legion. In other words, he (normally) would be someone I would love. This book is a collection of his essays, and therein lies my problem with the book. As far as narrative structure, the book is something easily picked up, read, and put down is the gardening dilettante's dream. Great for the bedside table, great for reading on the train to work.

One of my other favorite garden bloggers has this theory of her blog that I truly admire. She basically avoids giving advice because gardening advice is...boring! "Snoozy voice of God stuff," she says. And honestly? Henry Mitchell's voice is quite in my head, thank you; and yes, he, to my ears, is prone to sermons, and tendentious, even when (especially when) I agree with him. I frankly think this is ONLY because this book is structured the way it is, i.e., as a series of narrowly-connected articles. Quite fun to read in the newspaper, yes; as a whole book? no.

Considering Henry Mitchell is something of a sacred cow in gardening circles, I do feel bad that my review of this book is so harsh. My review of him? He's great. In small doses.

But remember the Romans. In matters of taste, there is no argument.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Seed catalogs

Collards in the morning

Has anyone else noticed how early the seed catalogs are rolling into our mailboxes this year? I'd always considered these things to be a post-Christmas scourge, but I believe I got my first catalog around Halloween. So their arrival, like Christmas music in stores in September, has me kind of anxious, like: Hey. Time is slipping by. What the HELL am I going to plant next year?

Now, marketing-wise, there's nothing smarter than getting to those gardeners when their minds are still fresh with the garden's last production. But really. What about crop failures and the like? These catalogs went to print and ship before the last of the seeds were harvested. Maybe I'm just too detail-oriented, but it seems like a bad plan on their part.

That, and I don't like being rushed.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The warm weather continues

Bees in the broccoli

I have been reluctant to uproot the broccoli because of the continued bee visits to the blooms. I can still nab a sprout or two for myself, and boy are they sweet after all these frosts. But bees! This corner of the garden is quite noisy with them.

Last night we noticed that the front porch light was positively swarmed by insects.

This weather should continue until Thursday or so. It sure is nice to wake up to 55 degree temperatures, and not having to bundle up the kid to go to school. This will end soon, certainly. Won't it?

I read this article yesterday morning and thus spent my lunch hour forking up a few beds to aid in frost curing. It does help to turn under all that leaf and grass mulch at this time of year to the top 6" or so; it's too wet to do it in spring, and the ground (should be) too hard to do it in winter.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A productive weekend

This was one of the things we did during this extra-warm, extra-long weekend. FIRE.

Hope your weekend was fun, too.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

On the lenghth of seasons

Not asleep yet

It has been warm here the last few days: highs in the upper 50s or lower 60s. I have spent the last two puttering in the garden.

I'm reading a gardening book now by an author whose climate was even milder than mine, and it of course set my thoughts toward the innate possibilities of starting a garden in March, or even February. Hmm. In any case, I am ever thankful I now live where I do, because I have added probably 7 weeks to the window of greenery we all call "gardening season." I cannot help but compare my new zone 6B to the old 4B of Minneapolis! And it's warm weather like this that rams it home.

It's like the weather here in SW Michigan is something of a double-acting door. Yes, we had snow, some three incidences of it, in October, but November has been glorious, swinging back to the balms of early autumn. The bees are still worrying the overblown broccoli in the garden, the snapdragons are still spitting out blooms, the ground is still soft underfoot, the grass still green...none of these things would still be happening in my city lot. No. The door between winter and fall slams shut there, deadbolt thrown behind it, about October 1st.

Not that that's a bad thing. I just like this better.

I wound up a sweaty day in the garden by sitting on its bench, glass of wine at my side, shelling beans in the sun in a t-shirt.

Friday, November 24, 2006

100-Mile Thanksgiving

pot full o' spuds

Here's the menu. Even though these big family meals take a lot of time, nothing on the menu is hard to make. Really. With D-average cooking skills, you can easily put together a fabulous Thanksgiving meal. Things in italics were not local; things in bold are grown here in our gardens. Of the whole meal, I would say that 95% of the items were grown within 30 miles of our house.

Salad: arugula, pak choy, garlic greens, tatsoi, some mixed greens and romaine with shallot/balsamic dressing
Soup: cauliflower with tarragon, leeks and carrots
Turkey stuffed with wheat bread stuffing
parsnips in brown butter and thyme
Brussels sprouts with shallot/mustard butter
garlic turnips with horseradish
Hubbard squash
roasted garlic mashed potatoes with yogurt cheese
cornbread dressing with apples, onions and carrots
wheat bread dressing with leeks, onions, parsley and celery
giblet gravy in pan drippings
mushroom gravy with homegrown porcini
raspberry applesauce
pumpkin pie
apple pie
cider from local mill
Tabor Hill classic demi-red, chardonnay and classic demi-sec
coffee from Guatemala via Minnesota

So, our flour came from Michigan, slightly outside the 100-mile radius. The butter which figured so highly in all dishes but especially the piecrusts came from Wisconsin. The milk was from Iowa. Honey was used to sweeten things, and it was local, too. I will try growing sweet potatoes next year. I made all the bread and cornbread, as well as the yogurt cheese, from scratch. We have entirely too much food here now, and the carcass is stinking up the kitchen making some fine soup stock.

Especially noted was the raspberry applesauce. My brother made it from fruit from his home.

The turkey, which I had such hopes for, was really good, but not excellent. I had hoped that it, like its free-range organic chicken farm mates, would be over the top (the chickens we get from our milk lady are otherworldly according to the carnivores in my family). SO I asked my mom this morning about the turkey. She said, "Oh honey, turkeys are always a let-down. All that work, and how wonderful they smell? It's the reason why we have all those side dishes."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

And then there were three...

So we went to Chicago yesterday for an educational junket (King Tut, aquarium) but the chickens weren't alone: the hawk came back and nabbed Phyllis.

I am so not good at this farmer thing. I am far too attached. I either need 100 chickens, or I need to really step way the hell back, emotionally. Fortunately, I don't have to work much today and don't have to work on Friday, so I am going to construct them a pen. They'll be so sad, but it beats the alternative, certainly.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Gratuitous cat photo

One of my best friends says that she'd like to come back in her next life as a house cat. She also has always said "Or a gospel singer," so go figure.

This is the new kitten (the white one), and as you can see, she has charmed the old cat, too. Which is a relief; the black cat, Echo, is something of a head case (she has even been on Prozac).

The new cat's name is Nyxie Knox. (Nyx = old goddess of night in Greek mythology; Nixie Knox is from Dr. Seuss' ABCs "X is very useful if your name is Nixie Knox, it is also good for spelling Ax and Extra Fox.") I like saying Nyx the Cat, personally.

Thanksgiving preparations have really begun. Last night I baked 6 loaves of bread, of which 5 are destined for stuffing. Lots more cooking happening tonight, too. Yum.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

On pessimism

I confess that I am a glass-half-empty kind of person. I mean, I do actively try to do positive things, like this fava bean plant that I planted in September, but my tendency is to think something will go wrong. Either this makes every success in my life a delightful surprise and I am insulated from the real downfalls in life or...I don't know. I am only myself.

So. I retrieved our organic free-range turkey yesterday from our milk lady. I had intended to get milk and cream for the 100-Mile-Thanksgiving, but I guess she had run afowl (bad pun) of the law by moving raw milk across the state line from Indiana. (The dairy is an Amish one.) So, no milk, no cream for butter. Likewise, my connection for corn and wheat flour has not come through. I have a bit of both of these left, but it'll be a stretch to use what I have for the whole meal. I will spend the rest of today trying to find the rest of these necessary ingredients. Wish me luck.

The one thing I did find out, though, is that a 100-mile radius from my house includes Chicago, Grand Rapids, and South Bend. So when I thought I had to get things from close by, I was mostly mistaken! Not that there are any raw-milk dairies in Chicago...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Woe the timechange

Okay, it's getting entirely too dark entirely too early. After two weeks, you'd think I'd'a gotten used to the timechange by now, but no. I harvested some greens by flashlight last night! (Sheesh!) Quite tasty, quite chilly, and growing too slowly to replenish themselves rapidly after my nighttime nabbings are three types of arugula, some pak choy, some radicchio, and lovely little spoons of tatsoi. Yum.

I am still getting potatoes, leeks, two types of kale, swiss chard and collards out of the garden. That's some fine soup-making stuff, certainly. And as ever, my plans for "next year" are legion. But I REALLY need to do a lot more season-extending exercises (like my political sign liberation) to really avoid grocery-store greens next year.

(Why is it I always do my best gardening in the future tense?)

Friday, November 17, 2006

On outdoor animals

Come here, Maudie!

It rained a cold, wind-driven rain yesterday, and I couldn't help feeling a sympathetic chill for those poor chickens. I fully understand that the poor things are barnyard beasts and that they, like the sheep, prefer grass between their toes and a clear sky overhead. But as I sat there in my wool socks and under my drywalled ceiling, ostensibly working, I still felt a twinge of something.

I think what it is is that my birds are still fairly young. They were hatched out at the end of March. So this is their first winter, and even though they've already experienced a snowcover, they've, like me, been lulled back to comfort by a long series of warm days. Now? The poor things just look confused, huddling in their deck condo. If I could only explain to them that the worst is yet to come and buck up, your grass is still green...well, at least that'd make ME feel better.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sheep stories

Midnight, munching

Snowy, seeking an escape route

More on the sheep: Every morning, after I drop M off, I drive over to take care of the school's sheep. Sometimes I retrieve a few kids to help me, most times I do not, mainly because I am not the best morning person and am usually running late...and it is so much quicker to go solo. They see my car and they get quite excitied, running back and forth in their pen, bleating loudly! I greet them (it's about a 200' walk from my car to their pen) and unlock their gate.

One should learn from one's mistakes. I have learned it is very important to latch the gate behind me. All day, they look at the beautiful green grass in the playground outside their gate, and they are eager to get to it. And they have gotten out. THAT is fun: me, chasing sheep around, trying to encourage them to go back in to their pen.

So I dump out their water, turn on the pump to fill it, and then go to get the hay. They're usually jostling me at this point: wooly, usually damp, through my jeans I can't quite tell what is sheep and what is wool: are they really large, or do they just need a trim? I retrieve about a third of a bale of hay from the food shed, and throw a bit out into their run, and take the majority into their shelter. They're quite happy, and ignore me. I check them out (are they lame? anemic?) and then I walk the pen (any sheep-sized holes?) and then I shut off the water, lock their gate and go home.

On Saturdays, I clean out their pen and their shelter. Up until last Saturday, I had been retrieving their droppings and bedding and bringing them home for the compost heap and the gardens. But now I am putting the mess just into the school's compost bins to heat up and break down over the winter. I use a rake and a wheelbarrow and my flexible tub trugs to clean things up. In their yard, though, I have to pick up their poop with my gloved hands, ever thankful that sheep are vegetarians. It is not particularly stinky; in fact, it smells rather sweet. I wouldn't say their pen or shelter (or me, afterward) reeks of Eau de Barnyard; I am quite sure if we had more than just two, things'd be quite different.

I can never look at nicoise olives, though, the same way.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Timely food in the NYTimes

I am not alone on my soapbox, it appears. This article is in the Business (!!) section of The New York Times this morning.

Now, I take most articles, especially food-related ones, with a grain of salt when they come from this paper because it has, well, an urban, Eastern (and when it comes to food-production, Californian) slant. But there's something there. The spinach fiasco earlier this fall has really alarmed some folks, and rightly so. If you can source your spinach from a guy down the street or a girl two towns over, you should do so.

I will say that homegrown, like that broccoli above, is infinitely better. The cool weather has made it so sweet! We paired it last night with some potato/kale soup and this fabulous (also NYTimes) bread recipe...I changed the flour mix to 1.5c unbleached white/1c spelt/.5c whole wheat. Crackly crust that shatters, incredible soft "tooth" for better butter holding...bon appetit, everyone.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

More food talk

When the average North American sits down to eat, each ingredient has typically traveled 1500 miles. Call it the Diesel Diet or simply "the way things are," but facts are facts. Your carrots are better traveled than you are.

The one thing I have tried hard to avoid in all this blogging is a Holier-Than-Thou attitude, and I really feel like my last post was laden with a large dollop of holiness. The 100-Mile-Thanksgiving, like its predecessor the 100-Mile-Diet, is an exercise in both restraint and in reach. It is HARD. It is NOT FOR EVERYONE. But not everyone pauses to consider the consequences of one's daily choices, especially in terms of diet. I am trying to pause, and to consider. The people at my Thanksgiving table are not converts. They're mostly family, and mostly, they indulge me my peculiarities. They all (we all) like to eat. That each item of food they'll eat is local will be mostly immaterial to them. They'll mostly care if the food is good. That I can share it with them is a joy to me; that they'll enjoy it is my reward.

I guess all I am saying is it is really important to stop and consider. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to do just that. If you can bring just one dish to your own celebration that is made from locally produced ingredients, you are doing a lot to help your local farmers, and your global community.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Let's talk turkey day

The primary source of our Thanksgiving meal

This year, we're participating in the 100-Mile Thanksgiving.

Our reasons for moving to a farm are many, but the primary reason is that we could produce some of our own food. Those of you who know me know I have a thrifty streak, and obviously, if I can spend $.10 on a pound of homegrown leeks versus the $5 I pay for organic ones, I am liable to do it. Knowing how the food was produced and having a very short commute to the table also means this is the freshest, most nutritious, most personally gratifying produce possible. Our weekly boxes from the CSA when we lived in the city were great; this is even better.

But we are having 8 people and one small person to our table this Thanksgiving. So I have been hoarding, trying to keep all foods within a hundred miles from our table...and that means I am cooking (and freezing) that cauliflower soup now, baking that bread for stuffing now, while I can still get that fresh cauliflower and those freshly ground grains. The turkey has been ordered. I need to make butter from our raw milk cream. Oil and spices will somewhat come from far away. Other irreplacable things like celery in the stuffing will be substituted (lovage and lots more onions, I think). It is all a grand experiment. But it is also something I can do, and in so doing, hopefully I can teach others the importance of local food.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Outdoor work is done...

Kale nestled in its leaf bed

Yesterday I was amazed at how much work I was able to accomplish INSIDE the house. I confess folding laundry and the like are not high priority in the gardening months.

I also stopped hoarding leaves last week. Tom's last mow/leaf pickup definitely gave us enough green matter to cover every garden and raised bed for the winter, and a little extra to add to the compost heap. So now everything is tucked away, waiting for the cold winds and the snow.

I feel a bit at a loss now for what to do with my time. Hmmm...clean the house?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Signs like these

Pond, asleep

Last night we had a howler of a storm. It swept away the last of the warm weather, certainly; my hand is still trying to thaw after taking some pictures. The resurgence of 60-degree days brought the frogs back out on the pond. We could also hear treefrogs again. Such hopeful things! So I trotted out to the pond to see if I could see anyone scurrying/hopping away, and no, it was quiet but for the fish.

I also got my first seed catalog yesterday. That certainly seems a tad early, but perhaps it's decent marketing as the last season is still fresh in our minds. This catalog is geared toward "roadside, U-pick and bedding" folks (Twilley). It's fairly pedestrian in terms of choices, in other words. I mean, burpless cucumbers? Wha? So even if it isn't something I would order from, it is fun to start thinking...

Friday, November 10, 2006

Down the rabbit hole

This picture is apropos of nothing; I just felt like posting it.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

New construction

With the recent loss of Margie, the rest of the girls have been hanging around the house, venturing only to the veg garden (gate's open now that it's mostly empty) occasionally to raid the compost heap. It was a hawk that got her, and now the chickens are understandably spooked by all flying things. So I told Tom we ought to leave some of the back deck's furniture out for the winter so they have something to hide under.

Tom took it a step further and made them a mini-coop on Monday. He has since added hinges to the two side panels to help us get to the eggs they sometimes lay in there. This'll be there for the colder months. I also removed some of the lattice that covered up the access to the front and back porches and back decks. You can see a bit of it in the bottom picture. It looks extrememly tacky without it, but at least the chickens have a safe place to go. And as Tom says, we'll do anything to keep them happy and laying those beautiful eggs.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Indian summer

Gaillardia, still hanging on

We seem to be having the weather in November that we should have had in October. It should be 65* today and it'll remain warm through the weekend. An all-around pleasant thought, and coupled with the election results of yesterday, I am pleased, and hopeful, for the first time in a very long while.

How many of you garden for the pure therapy of it? I swear to you, I have often "retreated" to the yard with tools in hand because it consistently gives me a feeling of accomplishment. As in, "Crap, the economy is a mess and the deficit has quadrupled in the last 4 years and we are enmired in our own Vietnamese war in Iraq and we have draft-dodging idiots running our country, but wow, doesn't that row of chard look terrific?"

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Is there anything more hopeful...

...than blooms in November? Especially after three snows and maybe 8, 9 frosts?

Please VOTE today.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Oh, the horror!

On the hunt
Okay, a bit too late for Halloween, but YUCK I was reminded again yesterday how Chickens Are Omnivores. Yep. Just like people! They'll eat anything they can get their beaks on.

Our girls are free-range, and because I usually have something better to do than chase them around all day, I am not particularly on top of their habits, gustatory or otherwise. But yesterday I was doing Round Two of bulb planting, so I was nose-to-beak with the girls for a good part of the day. Since they were small, they have realized that if I have a digging tool and my kneepad, it is definitely chow time. All four take turns kind of "helping" me liberate the worms when I dig up the earth. Okay, no big deal. There're plenty of worms and other earth critters around.

This summer, however, I had noticed the chickens had a particular affinity for the fishpond. Was it the water? The deep cover? No, it was the FROGS. Once one particular amphibian was stupid enough to just sit there while they came by, it was lunch. After that, it was carte blanche, until those frogs got wise and would dive in at a sparrow flying overhead.

Okay. Back to yesterday. I was planting what I thought was the last of the crocus (there seemed to always be another bag) in the herb garden by the kitchen door, and I heard a rather pathetic squeaking. Ah, what do they have NOW? I looked over and Beatrice (Bloody Beatrice) had a vole. A VOLE! I mean, those things are BIG! Bigger than mice, smaller than chipmunks, but BIG.

So if you ever see eggs at the grocery store that say "vegetarian-fed hens," realize that those are some sad chickens that, left to their own devices, would happily find and devour anything smaller than they are. Vegetarian? There's no choice there: they're spending their lives in cages indoors.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

My knuckles are raw...

...and it is not because I started in on some fight club. Nope. They're raw from planting some 300 of the 400 bulbs we got. Even with gloves, it's chap-o-rama here.

I also dug up the last of the dahlias. Like planting bulbs in this clay soil, digging something up is tough. Tougher, actually. It was like I was on an archaeological dig, the care which I was taking to delicately lift the fingered bulb from its muddy hole. It'd have been worth it if they put out half the show they did this year.

Ah. The payoff better be beautiful next spring, is all I can say.

(I'll post a photo later today.)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

It's really the end (and I am still in denial)

Well, I guess the growing season is over. When we woke up this morning, there was ice on the fishpond and the castor bean plant that towers over it looked pretty sad: its leaves hanging like rags from drooping stems. It was pretty cold last night, cold enough for the leaves to crunch underfoot, cold enough for all things to be white with frost.

Mentally, of course, I haven't quite embraced the new season. I need to do a review of the veg garden to see what will work better for us next year. The short answer is This was the Year of Beans. (My first year was the Year of Crucifers.) Next year? Who knows. I always seem to run out of onions, potatoes and carrots, so maybe it will be a year of underground surprises.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Political gardening

Like most places at this time of an election season, there're tons of campaign signs around us. Well, it bugs me when signs--Republican signs, of course--end up showing up where they shouldn't. So it got me thinking.

Why not liberate the signs? You know, put them to better use?

So here are a few, set to good use in my garden. I had some Asian greens, rapini and radicchio that could use some help during these cold days and colder nights.

Step One:

Step Two:

Step Three:

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


For a short period of time yesterday, we had five chickens again.