Garlic & Gooseberries: Flowers, Flowers, Everywhere

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The calendula has arrived!

IMG_2250I planted seeds early on, but never knew if they had taken hold, not quite sure how to distinguish their green sprouts from weeds. Suddenly though, there are beautiful orange and yellow flowers everywhere. It makes me happy to see them, bright and cheerful spots of color. Soon I will be turning them into oils and tincture, harnessing their wonderful healing properties.IMG_2722 IMG_2719

I finally gave in to the seductive charm of the morning glories, allowing them to have their way with the garden. They have wound their grasping vines up and down the fences, and onto every plant, but oh, my little garden looks like a Monet painting now. Monet painting

IMG_2246 IMG_2247The heart shaped green leaves and the vibrant purple flowers are everywhere, and the colors are accented by the little white flowers of the cilantro, chives, arugula and mint. I am letting them all flower and go to seed, allowing nature to do what it is meant to do. I hope some of them will reseed and come back next year. Even if that is not how it works, I love watching the bees go from flower to flower, knowing my plants are contributing to some luscious honey somewhere.IMG_2187 IMG_2191 IMG_2203

I am letting the broccoli plants flower too, as the florets are covered in tiny little bugs and bug eggs. IMG_2168When I first discovered the sesame seed-like eggs under every leaf I thought of a friend of mine who rescues butterflies. I swallowed my squeamishness in the hopes that perhaps these eggs were the beginning of something beautiful. My kind and gentle friend hunts for eggs and caterpillars on wild milkweed, feeding them and keeping them in safe enclosures until they become adult butterflies. Then she sets them free.  She told me she and her friend started to do the three R’s of Monarch work (rescue, raise and release) when they learned that only 1 Monarch in 100 survives to become an adult butterfly in the wild.  What a beautiful gift to offer the world: saving butterflies.

My bug eggs turned out to be aphids that ruined my broccoli.

I am ok with that. Aphids must be beautiful to someone in the natural world. Perhaps the lady bugs who love to eat them?IMG_2712

Garlic and Gooseberries: Benign Neglect

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A month or so ago, I was already feeling the melancholy of fall approaching but my garden ignored my dark cloud and just continued growing. I visited a bit less often as I was out of town and other tasks were calling for my attention. Somehow I felt the garden was winding down but it seems there was plenty to keep my little patch of nature busy while I was otherwise engaged. In fact it seems there was quite a ruckus going on!

The battle between the overcrowded squash, pumpkin and zucchini plants was won by the zucchini, leaving most of the squash vines withered and defeated. However, one triumphant, renegade pumpkin vine leaped over the brick pathway taking over the barren failed spinach area. It looks quite happy there, canoodling with the kale and cilantro and I have high hopes for a baby pumpkin I spotted nestled under the leaves.

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It looks like that section is getting all kinds of new life. The stalk left over after I harvested the kohlrabi has sprouted three new bulbs. A second harvest – such luck!IMG_2249

A mutant purple eggplant specimen appeared recently, along with a couple of massive zucchinis. Undaunted by stories of woody, tasteless giant zucchinis, I promptly stuffed those monsters with a delicious mixture of veggies and smoked sausage, turning them into an awesome dinner.

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In its quiet corner, the trusty Swiss chard grows and grows, shiny, healthy and colorful. I cut leaves every time I visit and add them to whatever is cooking, along with the ever-present herbs.

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And the transplanted garlic has finally taken root. Just look at those tender shoots.

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Lastly, there was great excitement when I confirmed that the jagged, slightly bug-eaten leaves under the sage plant are indeed the turnips I planted back in June. Lovely purple bulbs are peaking out from the dirt, and I will wait till cooler weather to pull them up.

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Red Sox and Black Quilts

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I was at a Red Sox game this summer, thinking about quilting.

It wasn’t my fault. I was trying very hard to concentrate. I like baseball, in theory. I have been a Red Sox fan for almost 30 years since my husband brought home a Red Sox T-shirt for me from a business trip. Now, of course, we live here which makes me doubly happy to root for them, but the details of the game have never been my strong suit.

That night it was very confusing. They were playing the Yankees, and one of the players who had been on the Red Sox earlier that week was suddenly playing for the Yankees, due to a rash of last minute trades. A player I liked from Oregon, my home state, who had once been on our team, was also now a Yankee along with an old Mariners favorite. I didn’t know who to cheer for. As someone who is vague on the details of sports rules – did you know you can’t strike out on a foul? – I often follow the lead of the crowd to know when to cheer, but this crowd had a higher than usual density of loud Yankees fans. So, for someone who likes things to be black or white, it was requiring a lot of attention to keep track of who was on first, so to speak. I thanked my husband for answering all my questions, and he made some comment about how many questions he would be asking if we were at a quilting convention, and well, the next thing I knew, I was thinking about quilting.

My yearning for black and white brought to mind the quilt I am making for my son, who is in his twenties. Back when he left for college, I decided to make him a quilt. Not wanting to offend me, but also not being partial to traditional quilts, he asked if it could be black. Undaunted, I bought fabrics in black, grey and white and began to design an appropriately male quilt. I love the process of planning a quilt. I live with it in my head, I daydream, and sketch and scribble ideas on graph paper for a long time before I cut and sew. Quilting is an unusual craft in that whole fabrics must be cut up and then put back together in a completely new way. It is unclear how the small pieces will end up looking in their new configuration and sometimes designs have to be reworked. The entire process is one of discovery. Since my son left for college, the black quilt has taken on a life of its own and I tinker with it endlessly. We have moved across country, my son has graduated, moved home and left again, and still the quilt lingers. It has morphed in size and design to something that fits who he is now far better. The pieces have been cut and placed and are ready to be sewn together. Yet it has been so long in the making, I hardly know how to sew up the edges and hand it over.

The fans at the game became steadily drunker, louder, happier, and I thought how dangerous it would be to quilt drunk, how easily I could hurt myself and ruin the quilt. I started to see how draining that intense concentration has been. Perhaps it is time to relax. I am sure my son has no idea how much effort I have put into that quilt. Once it is done, only I will see the missed stitches, and the crooked seams, and they won’t really matter. It will be beautiful. It will be just the way it is supposed to be.

Sitting there in an historic ballpark on a balmy night I wondered, does it really matter who got traded, who retired, who is playing for which team? It is time to sit back and enjoy the game. It is time to finish the quilt.
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Garlic and Gooseberries: Melancholy

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When I came home from the garden the other day and started to make dinner, I found myself overcome with sadness. I stopped washing the zucchini – from Trader Joe’s, not the garden, since only one has been harvested from my enthusiastic plants – and let the melancholy wash over me. Why was I sad? After a week away I had found that much of the squash and pumpkin plants had withered away, taking the promise of a fall harvest with them. One of the green eggplants had turned bright yellow, which I believe means it is over ripe and bitter, only good for seeds now. Not remembering which variety of eggplants I planted, I realize now that those sweet little green orbs are not supposed to get much bigger than they already are, and I should have picked that yellow one long ago.IMG_2073

But really, what were those waves of sadness about? My husband gave me a hug, and I felt a little silly. Was it a sense of failure that I have not turned out to be a very good plant mama after all? Should I have fertilized more, or planted less? Was it the dirt, the sun exposure, the bugs and powdery mildew, or was it, as my daughter said, just the cycle of life?

My husband reminded me that it has never been about the end result, but only about the process. This little garden gave me hope and purpose and a giddy sense of joy when I was shaky in all those areas. I am so grateful. So perhaps those withered squash vines scared me a little with their reminder of the end of the growing season. Yes, the chard is still gorgeous, and the broccoli and turnips are just beginning their moment of glory, but let’s not fool ourselves: the summer is waning. IMG_2062I have always deeply loved the warmth and light of summer, so letting it go is hard. But this summer has had its ups and downs, no question about it. Sitting with my sadness is a good way to recognize that, and then to let it go. Isn’t it better that life does not unfold exactly as planned? If it all went smoothly we would not know what to appreciate, and what to value, how to be flexible or how to seek out answers and get help. We would not know how strong we are or when it is okay to fall apart. Hidden gifts. IMG_2068

I woke up the next morning forgiving the garden its less than perfect outcomes. I will take my cue from the leeks and turnips that dig down deep as fall comes, gathering strength and substance in the quiet and darkness of the cooler seasons.

Food Friday/Garlic and Gooseberries: Italian Zucchini and Leek Omelet

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In honor of my daughter’s upcoming semester in Italy, I made what I call an Italian omelet for brunch the other day. Actually, I am not sure if this is how they make omelets in Italy, but somewhere along the way I learned this technique and have always called it that. Using our first zucchini from the garden, this light and puffy breakfast was a great way to celebrate her new adventure. We got to use some fresh chives and the last of the cilantro from our garden to garnish our creation. One of the things I love about this recipe is that you can use whatever you have on hand: asparagus, spinach with garlic and yellow summer squash are a few ideas of what can be cooked up and used instead of the zucchini, and you can add your favorite herbs on top. Dill, thyme, oregano all add their own flavor. IMG_1889

Even if you have no plans to jet off to Italy, this omelet is easy and delicious and will add a little zest to your morning.

This recipe makes 3-4 portions, but it is very adaptable. If you have more mouths to feed, use two frying pans and increase the amounts proportionately.  You can make it smaller, with fewer eggs and it will just be flatter, but no less delicious.

Italian Zucchini and Leek Omelet

1 medium zucchini, sliced into ¼ inch wide rounds, or half rounds if the zucchini is very wide (about 1 cup)

½ large, or one small leek, well washed to get out all the hidden dirt, sliced finely (mostly the white part, but some of the green is ok) (about 1 cup)

6 eggs

salt

fresh chives and cilantro

olive oil, butter or bacon grease

Optional: 2 TBSP parmesan cheese, grated

Heat 2 TBSP of oil, butter or grease in a 9-inch frying pan on medium heat. Use a pan that can go into the broiler, not one with a plastic handle. (I use stainless steel or cast iron). Add leeks and toss to cover with the oil. Cook gently about 5 minutes until they start to soften. Add zucchini slices and cook on medium high heat, tossing occasionally for about another 5-10 minutes. You want them to turn slightly golden on both sides and for some of the water to cook out of them. Sprinkle with some salt.

In the meantime, whisk together the eggs until frothy with some big bubbles.

Turn the broiler on.

When the vegetables look golden and glistening, add last TBSP of fat and spread the zucchini and leeks evenly over the bottom of the pan. Pour the eggs over them evenly. Tip the pan a bit to make sure the eggs cover the bottom of the pan. Allow to cook a minute or two until they start to firm on the bottom and sides of pan. Then take a spatula and tuck it under one edge, lifting the omelet up a bit, at the same time tipping the pan in that direction so some of the runny egg on top runs down into the space you have made. Move the spatula around the pan repeating that so that the runny egg goes from the middle of the omelet to the pan underneath the edges all the way around the pan. This makes delicate layers of puffy cooked egg around the edges, and the middle will look a bit deflated and still a bit wet. At this point put the whole pan into the broiler for about 1-2 minutes, adding the grated parmesan cheese before you do, if you like. Take it out when the middle has puffed up and turned a lovely golden brown.

Sprinkle with about ½ tsp of coarse sea salt and chopped chives and cilantro. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature.IMG_2079

 

Garlic and Gooseberries: Everyone Needs Space to Grow

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The milk spray was a success! It seems to have gotten rid of the powdery mildew and the zucchini are robust again. That is a bit of a mixed blessing, however, as they are now taking over that part of the garden. They have crowded out the eggplants which had been the strongest and most prolific I had ever managed to grow. IMG_1887Now those plants aren’t getting enough sun and the many eggplants that had started to grow have stalled. Why, oh why did I plant them so close together? They were so tiny I never imagined they would get so big. This is a phenomenon I should have learned already: I have two children who are young adults, a stage I could only imagine in a theoretical way when they were babies.

Everyone needs space in the world to grow, even eggplant. When my children were young I remember they were always within arm’s reach, on the floor by my feet, in my arms, on my lap. Now it is a bit crowded when everyone is home, on top of each other, needing air and room to spread out. This summer they are both in different cities where they have plenty of room to grow.

I think of this as I clear the weeds away from the plants, pruning away leaves, making room for air to circulate and sun to come through, training the growth of the zucchini away from the eggplants to give them both the space they need. They will do their growing on their own, but some maintenance and support is still helpful.

While the eggplants have stalled, the first zucchini and more yellow squashes are showing up. I am thrilled and wondering what I will make when the overabundance starts.

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Wednesday Wandering: Downtown Chicago

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On a recent quick trip to Chicago we were faced with a challenge: how do we capture the essence of this city with only one day set aside for sightseeing? True to form, we had already planned a few meals to capture the flavors: deep dish pizza on arrival, reservations at a famous steak and seafood place, and peirogis and cabbage slaw from a deli in Ukrainian Village, all of which richly satisfied our taste buds.

In order to similarly satisfy our tourist curiosity we decided to focus on downtown: The Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park and a walk down the Magnificent Mile. Click on the links in this post to learn more about some of the places we enjoyed. Exploring the Art Institute was pure joy – almost as good as the deep dish pizza. IMG_1652_2We covered Impressionism and Modern American painting, seeing some classics and personal favorites. IMG_1647_2I got the audio tour, something I have started doing recently when I go to museums, allowing me to choose which paintings to hear about and which don’t interest me as much. Two special exhibits enriched our afternoon. I personally found the exhibit on Ethel Stein, Master Weaver to be tremendously inspiring. This 96 year-old artist began her body of work in her 60s. It is never to late to follow your passion. A huge exhibit on René Magritte’s mind-bending work was also wonderful. We left behind several other collections as the museum is too big to cover in one day.IMG_1655_2

Right outside the Art Institute is the beautiful and lively Millennium Park. Teaming with people but still offering the special pleasure of nature and fresh air, the park was brimming with wild flowers and meandering paths. There is something thrilling to me about a park in the heart of the city. I love the view of skyscrapers framing a landscape of greenery and flowers. Millennium Park plays with those two contrasts particularly well.

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IMG_1686_2As we came out of the paths, a live band was playing in a concert area, and where the park met Michigan Ave, a huge mirrored sculpture called the Bean drew crowds of fun loving tourists checking out their distorted reflections.

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Chicago is known for its exceptional architecture, and on the sunshiny mild summer day we were there the sky scrapers sparkled.

 

 

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We were struck by the grace and beauty of the wide range of styles, including the Wrigley building. Wrigley, of Doublemint and Juicy Fruit gum fame, and Wrigley Field, was a name we saw everywhere.

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The neo-gothic Tribune Tower is imposing and intriguing. It has stones and bricks from historic sites brought from around the world by journalists, embedded in its stone facing, with plaques stating which ones. IMG_1713The 60s era round buildings called Marina City caught our attention with several floors of an open parking garage, causing us to wonder how many cars had done a swan dive from there, ending up in the river. Apparently it has been in several movies, at least one of which did have a scene with a car flying out of the garage into the river. Ugh.

A friend suggested I visit the lovely Driehaus Museum, a well-kept secret that I am sharing with you as it is a special treat. It is a well-preserved palatial 19th century home, furnished as it would have looked in its heyday.  Lavish and brimming with marble and extravagance, the Driehaus Museum houses a spectacular collection of Tiffany glass lamps and other stained glass.IMG_1721

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My favorite part of our whirlwind day? Stumbling upon the Fannie May chocolate store with its world famous Mint Meltaways. Sublime.

 

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Food Friday/Garlic & Gooseberries: Swiss Chard and Bacon Soufflé

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Soufflés seem to have gone out of fashion. Why is that? I think maybe they seem intimidating, and yes, they do have a lot of steps that might seem complicated at first. Then there is that persistent possibility that they may not rise, or that they will rise and then fall before getting to the table. Well, okay. I see why they may have fallen out of favor. However, when I harvested my first big armful of rainbow swiss chard leaves from my garden, I wanted to do something special with them, and I knew it had to be a soufflé.IMG_1780_2

It has been a long time since I made one (see factors above) and since I had failed soufflé-dish-buttering in cooking school – yes, you read that right- I was a little nervous. I decided to return to the source: I studied Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking recipe for Spinach Soufflé and then adapted it to make the dish I had in mind. As I worked my way through the many steps I kept thinking, “This can’t possibly be worth it. I won’t do this again.” After the dish was in the oven, however, and the many pans and bowls were washed, the house started to smell truly delicious. IMG_1790My stomach began to growl. When I pulled it out of the oven, the soufflé had risen 2-3 inches above the dish, bacon and cheese crispy on the top: a thing of beauty. I was so excited. From the first flavorful bite that evening to the cold leftovers for lunch the next day, all I can tell you is this:

It IS worth it. I will make it again and you need to try this. You will love it. It is THAT good.

There are a few steps you can prepare in advance, which is what I will do next time, and that will make it a lot easier.

I served this soufflé with a simple tomato and cucumber salad and crispy French bread. It makes a perfect light dinner.IMG_0876

 

Swiss Chard and Bacon Soufflé (serves 4 or 2 with leftovers to eat cold the next day)

 

Ingredients:

 

Dish:

You will need a six cup soufflé dish

1 tsp butter

2 TBSP grated parmesan cheese

 

Greens:

2 slices bacon

1 lb swiss chard, cleaned & finely chopped – should be about 8 cups (or enough frozen spinach, thawed and drained, to make 1 cup)

¼ tsp salt

2 small or 1 large garlic clove, finely minced

 

Sauce base:

3 TBSP butter

1 TBSP chopped shallot or green onion

3 TBSP flour (gluten free option: 2 TBSP almond flour and 1 TBSP tapioca flour)

1 cup milk

½ tsp salt

grinding of pepper

¼ tsp nutmeg

 

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

 

5 eggs

pinch of salt

¼ tsp cream of tartar

 

To start:

 

Butter the bottom and all the way up the sides of the soufflé dish as evenly as possible with 1 tsp butter. Distribute the parmesan as evenly as possible on all surfaces by shaking the dish, tipping it on its side and rotating it. Turn upside down over the sink and tap lightly to remove excess. To avoid my humiliating cooking school mistake of accidentally leaving a thumbprint inside the buttered dish, don’t be tempted to touch up the coverage with your finger.IMG_1785

 

The greens: (you can do this earlier in the day, or a day or two before. Warm up slightly as you continue)

 

Chop up the bacon in very small pieces and fry in a large frying pan until very crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Leave a couple of TBSP of bacon grease in the pan. Set aside.

In another pan with a lid, cook the greens down with about ½ cup water on medium heat, until very soft (about 10 minutes, but watch that they don’t burn. Add more water if not soft). You should end up with about a cup. You can use frozen spinach if you prefer, thawed and drained, ending up with 1 cup. Press as much water out of the greens as possible.

Sautée the finely chopped garlic and the greens in the bacon grease with ¼ tsp salt until warmed through and thoroughly mixed. I puréed them with an immersion blender at this stage, but if they are finely chopped and mashed up, that can work too.

 

The sauce base: (this can also be done earlier and set aside with some pats of butter on top. Warm slightly when you start preparing the rest)

 

Melt 3 TBSP butter in saucepan and add in 1 TBSP chopped shallot or green onion. After a minute mix in flour (or almond flour and tapioca), stirring into a paste, and cooking over medium heat 2-3 minutes without browning. Remove from heat. Bring 1 cup milk to a boil in a small pan or in the microwave and pour into butter mixture, whisking quickly until blended. Whisk in salt, pepper and nutmeg. Return to heat and boil, whisking 1 minute. Sauce will be thick. Remove from heat.

Immediately begin to separate 4 eggs, putting whites into a large mixing bowl to beat later. Put yolks into sauce, whisking after each one.IMG_1781_2

IMG_1782_2IMG_1784_2Stir in the greens. Combine thoroughly.

 

Egg whites: (this must be done right before you want to put the soufflé in the oven, about 40-45 minutes from dinner time!)

 

Add one more egg white to the mixing bowl (total of 5 egg whites) and save the last yolk to add to an omelet or scrambled eggs another day. Beat egg whites with a mixer, starting on a slow speed until they are frothy, then gradually increasing the speed. After about 1 minute when they are foaming, add a pinch of salt and ¼ tsp cream of tartar. Beat another minute or two. When whites start to stiffen up and turn shiny, test to see if they hold a peak when beaters are lifted up. If they droop, beat a bit more until they stand up in peaks. They should look shiny and smooth. Do not overbeat! (If you do, and they get granular and dull, beat in another egg white…)IMG_1786_2

 

Put it all together:

 

With a rubber spatula, stir ¼ of the beaten egg whites into the pan with the lovely green sauce base, along with ½ the crispy bacon and all but 1 TBSP of the grated parmesan cheese.IMG_1787_2

Now put the rest of the beaten egg whites into the pan and gently but quickly fold them into the green mixture with the rubber spatula, cutting down through the whites and scooping some of the sauce up from the bottom onto the whites on top. Repeat until most of the whites have been gently incorporated. It should take about a minute, and don’t worry if there are some areas where the whites are not quite mixed in.IMG_1788_2

Pour the fluffy mixture lightly into prepared soufflé dish and sprinkle top with remaining cheese and bacon.IMG_1789

Place dish on rack in middle of preheated 400 degree oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 375 degrees. Do not make any loud noises – like dropping things or slamming cabinets! Bake 25-35 minutes. When it is done, the soufflé will have risen 2-3 inches above the rim of the dish. It will be brown on top and firm to the touch.IMG_0878

The soufflé will start to sink almost as soon as it comes out of the oven but will still remain a bit higher than the rim of the dish, so take it right to the table. (The accompanying photo was taken about 5 minutes after coming out of the oven.) Oooh and aaaah, and then serve it up. Poke the tip of a sharp knife straight down in the middle and then slice into quarters. Scoop it out like you would a slice of pie. Serve with a light salad with vinaigrette dressing and some French bread.

Pat yourself on the back and be proud: you just made a soufflé!

 

 

 

 

Garlic & Gooseberries: Midsummer Report

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Progress: The garden has been busy growing and the first eggplant has been harvested along with our first and only yellow summer squash so far. There are lots of zucchini and yellow squash blossoms but only one actual squash. I had never heard of anyone’s zucchini plant not producing until I met my neighbor, who has never had any luck growing zucchini. We will see if I follow in her footsteps or eventually find myself offering her our excess. Stay tuned.IMG_1636IMG_1633IMG_1815

A large kohlrabi has now been harvested and is awaiting being turned into Smoked Paprika Kohlrabi Fries, a recipe I love on the inspiring Inspiralized website. There are also some sweet little green eggplants starting to show up, and our first leaves of Russian Red Kale. The swiss chard is vibrant and plentiful.IMG_1881

IMG_1889Chives and cilantro have been gracing many meals recently. I love keeping them in glasses of water on the counter and snipping them onto our food. They added some great zip to the yellow squash and red kale I sautéed in butter the other night.IMG_1819

Problems: In the meantime, some of the squash leaves have developed powdery mildew. After a bit of research I started spraying them with diluted milk, as suggested by Marie Iannotti in her book Vegetable Gardening in the Northeast. I will watch them carefully to see if it works.IMG_1635_2

A lesson in never giving up: I am happy to report that there are a few new garlic shoots where all the transplanted garlic died off earlier. Perhaps they will produce some bulbs in the fall or next spring. The leeks too are coming along slowly. They can take their time. I will have a soup pot and a few potatoes ready whenever they get big enough. While the basil and lemon balm are struggling, the lemon verbena has finally taken hold and I am happily harvesting and drying leaves along with lots of oregano, sage and mint. IMG_1643_2

Reported missing: the turnip seeds I planted may or many not be coming up. I can’t tell if what I am seeing are weeds or not. The pot marigolds/calendula are also nowhere to be found. I hope I didn’t accidentally pull them up in a fit of garden housekeeping. Still no sign of spinach. I will plant some more in a couple of weeks.

Unwelcome visitor: the beautiful morning glory that I was excited to find popping up has turned into an unwelcome guest. It is a vine that wraps itself around all the other plants, growing aggressively, putting out the occasional flirtatious purple flower to distract me from the damage it is causing. (See its deceptive heart shaped leaves threatening the lemon verbena above?) Out it went the other day, evil temptress, before it could do any more harm.

Community news: Our fearless community garden coordinator called a meeting recently and 6 or 7 people out of 24 showed up. It was a friendly, civilized group and together we solved a thorny issue about placement of hoses, conjured up a set of rules and decided we should all be responsible for weeding the paths around our plots. Social hour and a work party may be organized at some point in the future. Meeting adjourned.

 

Swiss Chard:

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Happy eggplant:

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Garlic and Gooseberries: Bolting

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Browsing in a small bookstore recently, I came across this treasure: Vegetable Gardening in the Northeast by Marie Iannotti.

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Even in today’s world where it seems every question can be answered by a Google search, there is something very comforting about holding a book of instructions in my hands. It feels like everything I need, including answers to the questions I don’t know to ask, are right here between its covers. It is here that I confirmed what one of my friends suggested in the blog comments: it really was too warm to plant spinach at the end of June, which explains why none is growing. But the author also says to just hold onto those seeds and plant again towards the end of summer for a fall harvest in cooler weather. A second chance.

I have also been learning about BOLTING in the last week or so. When plants feel stressed, because the weather is too warm or the days are too long, they make a break for it, a sprint to the finish. “The seasons are changing! Quick! Save yourself!”

They shoot into reproductive mode, sending up tall stalks and putting their energy into making seeds. The leaves get bitter and will soon die off.

I can relate to this reaction in plants: I feel like bolting when under stress too, and let’s face it, I probably get a little bitter too!

With plants we need to snip off those runaway stalks quickly, give them lots of water and trick the plants into producing tender new leaves to extend the harvest season.

I have been trying to learn those kinds of tricks to keep myself from bolting under stress, but there is no handy book of instructions. Without a friendly gardener to do it for me, I am learning how to take better care of myself, and when running away really isn’t an option, a walk to the garden can definitely help.IMG_1589

Food Friday: Island Creek Oyster Bar and Farm

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toddler oysters editedBack in May, my husband participated in a team building exercise at Island Creek Oyster Farm, out in Duxbury Bay with some colleagues. He approached it with mixed feelings: while a change of pace is always enjoyable he was busy with work and travel, and oysters were not at the top of his priority list. Imagine my surprise that day when I started receiving texts and photos showing oysters at each stage of their growth.

“Look at these toddler oysters!”

“There are teenagers growing out here in these beds”IMG_1611

OK. Who knew it would be such a fun and interesting day?

He came home full of information, enthusiasm and naturally, oysters. The team ended the day with a cooking class and dinner at the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square, a restaurant opened in partnership with the Farm to highlight the magnificent locally harvested oysters. Proud of his newly acquired ability to shuck oysters and excited about the taste and quality of the dinner, including the legendary buttermilk biscuits, he vowed to take me to dinner there soon.

Getting reservations at the ICOB is no easy feat, as word has spread about this great place. The location right at Kenmore Square near Fenway Park gives baseball fans a perfect way to mix sports with culinary decadence during the long Red Sox season. Luckily for us we were able to book a table for our 29th anniversary a couple of weekends ago, after extracting a promise from my husband that he would not pick up a shucking knife and join in once we got there.

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The restaurant is airy, open and beautiful, with one whole wall made up of cages full of oyster shells, illuminated from below. The star ingredient is evident everywhere and a long bar full of a huge variety of oysters on ice is manned by many shuckers.

We had our own Mad Men moment, pairing a martini with a huge platter of Island Creek oysters from Duxbury, perhaps the very ones my husband had met as young adults in the bay. The menu detailed a multitude of choices of local shellfish and where they are all grown, including lobster caught by the chef’s cousin Mark in Maine. This is a very personal experience!IMG_1595

The shellfish is complemented by many appetizing choices: cooked appetizers, salads, several fish entrees and even some great sounding meat and chicken dishes, along with a full selection of sides to share. The night we were there the salmon tartare with a touch of sesame oil, which we ordered after seeing it arrive at a neighboring table, was delectable. IMG_1592We both enjoyed the monkfish and bluefish entrees, and the famous buttermilk biscuit was so perfectly light, crispy, flakey and ever so slightly sweet that we didn’t even need dessert.IMG_1597

The beautifully designed space offered something many restaurants can’t seem to pull off: decent acoustics. Despite the size of the open area we could hear each other relatively easily and actually carry on a conversation while enjoying the great oldies soundtrack playing in the background. While we savored every bite and reminisced about 29 years together, we kept noticing a charming mother-daughter pair sitting next to us. The young mom and her 10 year old daughter worked their way through oysters, salmon tartar, clam chowder and lobster rolls with admirable gusto. We struck up a conversation with them, remarking on the daughter’s sophisticated palate, and learned she was about to go off to camp in Maine where she would be eating sloppy joe’s for a month. This was her farewell dinner. Hailing from San Francisco, a city we would love to live in again some day, this was a yearly tradition for them. They in turn enjoyed a moment’s conversation with their neighbors on their other side. Certainly you don’t need to meet and greet the other diners if you aren’t in the mood, but there was something so open, friendly and personal about the atmosphere, something almost celebratory as if everyone was there for a special event, that we left feeling like we had dined with good friends.

We are eager to go back again – my husband is still hoping to get a few oysters to shuck himself.

 

For more information, here is a link to the Farm, the Island Creek Oyster Bar, and an article about both in Boston magazine.

Garlic and Gooseberries: Gooseberry Demise

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I imagine you all waiting with bated breath for news of the unripe gooseberries I brought home the first day, the very berries that inspired the name of this series, along with the now dead garlic. Well, I have a story for you.IMG_1402

My fruit allergy did not stop me from wanting to make jelly, knowing there would be willing consumers amongst my friends, and family, and so I picked a recipe for Gooseberry-Lemon Verbena Jelly from Preserving For All Seasons by Anne Gardon. IMG_1569

I was particularly excited because lemon verbena was one of the herbs I had just planted. I eagerly waited for the berries to ripen and for the herb plant to grow enough leaves to fill a cup measure.

Timing is everything, right? By the time the berries ripened there were about 6 leaves on the little lemon verbena plant. 1 cup of leaves is a whole lot more than six. Undeterred, I boiled the fruit and strained it in a bag hanging over a bowl, which made the kitchen look like a mad scientist had taken over. IMG_1407I poured the beautiful juice into a glass container and froze it until the lemon verbena could catch up.

Yes, there was a little voice that told me this was an awful lot of effort for 4 tiny jars of jelly I would not be able to eat, at a time when I had many other things demanding my attention, but I didn’t listen. Sometimes a louder, bolder sign is needed to get my attention. One day, as I was struggling with some stubborn item in my freezer, I knocked the container of berry juice and out it flew, crashing into a million shards of glass and chips of frozen gooseberry juice. I am still finding sticky reminders everywhere.

Seriously, I may have to change the name of this blog series.

There is a happy ending to this story though. The armful of rhubarb I brought home the other day quickly went through a similar science experiment process and became a refreshing summer drink, mixed with maple syrup and a sprig of mint. Ahh, summer is a lovely season, isn’t it?IMG_1414

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Wednesday Wandering: Walking the Labyrinth

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When a good friend of mine asked recently if I knew anything about labyrinths I had to pause. If I had thought about them at all, I guess I had always thought of a labyrinth as some sort of dark scary maze from which one might never emerge. My friend is someone who is drawn to healing, meditation and spiritual paths, and she told me she had been looking into them and was amazed at what she found.

A look at Wikipedia informed me that most labyrinths, which have been around since the ancient Greek times, have one definitive path from beginning to end, as opposed to a maze that has dead-ends and multiple options, but what my friend was intrigued by was their use by many people as a ritual or meditative tool. They have been used in many cultures and belief systems and can be found in cathedrals the world over, the most famous being Chartres in France. On doing a little searching she found several in the Boston area: Boston College, Harvard Divinity School, a couple churches in Concord, to name just a few. She sent me the link to a video of Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn talking about the labyrinth she put in her own garden and her experiences walking it. I was hooked.

It turns out there is a beautiful labyrinth on the Rose Kennedy Greenway across from Faneuil Hall in the Armenian Heritage Park. That is a short T ride from our house and very close to the North End. What better way to spend a warm summer evening than to peacefully walk a labyrinth, and then feast on good Italian food?

The labyrinth we went to is a concrete path with grass on either side that winds back and forth and in and out, eventually reaching the center where there is a little fountain. Apparently you are supposed to walk the path slowly and meditatively, keeping a problem, issue, person or prayer in mind as you walk.IMG_1574

My husband gamely agreed to go with me, but as with so many things in life, the path is too narrow to walk side by side, so although we were both there, we each needed to do it alone, at our own pace, on different parts of the path at different times.IMG_1576

And so we walked. I found I had to concentrate on my feet to follow the winding path, step by step, as I went around and around, back and forth, in and out of what was on my mind. Sometimes it seemed like I was close to the center, almost touching the truth, but then the path would move me back out to the edge of the circle giving me more musing, more weaving, more winding. As I walked my focus would wander and then refocus. As with all that life hands out, I tried to trust that the process itself, the journey would lead to clarity even as it meanders.IMG_1573

The labyrinth seemed to offer whatever one needed from it, and people around us were all experiencing it differently.

Some kids were there, running, jumping across the grass, going straight to the fountain at the center, not knowing what the ground was under their feet. They were distracting but I kept focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. IMG_1575Others were walking the path purposefully, exchanging nods with those of us who were passing next to them, continuing on the journey, and yet others took it lightly, laughing and racing through it to get to the middle and back. My husband enjoyed the walk to the center, but rather than return on the path, he went right to a bench and relaxed in the summer evening.

When I reached the center I took off my shoes and reveled in the cool water, walking a circle around the fountain a few times, before walking calmly, a bit more quickly back. Ever notice how trips always seem shorter going home from a new place?

Dusk fell and calm spread through me as I walked barefoot on the warm concrete, anticipating dinner. I will be looking for other labyrinths to walk wherever I can find them.IMG_1572

Garlic and Gooseberries: New Life

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A very exciting day at the garden! I visited a few days after the rains from hurricane Arthur had passed, followed by temperatures in the 80s and 90s, and I could practically hear the plants growing. First of all, it had become obvious which of those new shoots were weeds, and which were not. Hallelujah for clarity. A helpful couple harvesting green beans and lettuce from their lush plot across from mine gave me a general rule of thumb: if it’s growing really fast, it is probably a weed! Good to know.

As I pulled up the new vines and clover covering the ground I made definite cilantro and red kale sightings. The spinach is still a bit of a question so I will wait and see. It may just be too warm for that cool weather crop.

My joy at welcoming the first zucchini, eggplant and squash flowers was actually a bit embarrassing and my weed consultant neighbors smiled indulgently as I photographed these beautiful signs of new life. I got excited too by the re-growth of lettuce leaves on the stalks from which I had harvested the heads of romaine we found growing when we first started: beautiful, tender, tiny light green leaves rising amongst the wilted remains left behind. A miracle.

In pulling up weeds I knocked over a piece of wood used as a path between the spinach and the kale, and I yelped. In fact, I used language that would be inappropriate in a family blog. There were thousands of black ants scurrying about, suddenly exposed to the sunlight. I had known there was an anthill there, but what shocked me was a huge pile of what looked like perfectly formed grains of rice being moved with amazing speed deep into the bowels of the earth by dexterous and industrious ants. I have since learned those grains of rice are pupae, from which will eventually emerge a huge new populations of black ants. The thought makes me queasy.

I covered them back up with the board and scurried off myself as thunder and lightning informed me Mother Nature would be doing the watering that day. Those cohabitants of my plot and their own celebration of new life are not entirely welcome, as they give me the heebie-jeebies, but I will do my best to live and let live.

cilantroCilantro

 

IMG_1527 Zucchini blossoms

 

IMG_1529Eggplant blossom

 

new lettuce leaves

New lettuce leaves

 

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Yikes!

 

Garlic and Gooseberries: A Bit of Bartering

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On a recent weekend day, my husband decided it was time to be proactive in the bunny wars. We had not yet experienced any attacks on our young sprouts, but chicken wire seemed to be a good idea. So he unrolled fencing and hammered posts into the ground to anchor it, and our little plot took on a more tucked-in, cared-for look. In the meantime, I dug out the brick path that had been buried in dirt and cleaned it off, giving us mud free access to all parts of the garden.

There were several gardeners there that day and we met a friend of the woman who used to work our plot. The friend confirmed what we knew had to be true, that the woman was a wonderful gardener and we had inherited some mighty fine dirt. She identified a mysterious plant as the herb lovage, and I learned that a “weed” I had pulled had in fact been sorrel, an herb I love on fish. How sad!

The previous “owner” had moved to a sunnier spot several plots down, and the results of her green thumb there are impressive. But it turns out there is something she misses: my gooseberries! Her friend initiated a negotiation on her behalf: would I be willing to trade the gooseberries for a jar of her jam? Of course, I said, she can have as many of them as she likes. And then I took a closer look at her current garden. A massive rhubarb plant sprawled, pink stalks peaking out from beneath huge poisonous leaves. I am unfortunately allergic to most fruits but rhubarb, oh rhubarb! I can eat rhubarb and it is one of my favorites. A deal was struck, and I left that day with an armful of luscious stalks, recipes dancing in my head.

chicken wire and brick path

 

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Wednesday Wanderings: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House

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A few steps past the bustling urban center of Harvard Square, Brattle Street leads into a quiet, leafy tree-lined neighborhood. The beautiful old stately mansions put one in mind of another era, a more genteel time, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see a horse and buggy come down the street, or to hear the swish of a long skirt around a corner. Just past St. John’s Memorial Chapel and the warm stone buildings of Lesley University and the Episcopal Divinity School, an elegant sign alerts passersby that they have reached the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one time headquarters of George Washington’s army.Longfellow House sign

I first discovered Longfellow’s House, a National Historic site managed by the National Park Service, last summer when a literature-loving friend and her history-studying daughter came to visit. They had added the house to their list of “must-sees” in Boston, but I admit I was lukewarm about going at first. Longfellow? A familiar name, but one firmly stuck in the background of my memory.

“The Song of Hiawatha? The Courtship of Miles Standish? Paul Revere’s Ride?” my friend prompted, her voice rising with each title. “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere?”

Oh, THAT Longfellow! So ingrained are those poems in my elementary school memories that I took them for granted, but here was the house of the man who had penned those words. Here lived the man who, along with his friends Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau, created a new genre of writing: American literature. Together they told truly American stories, which differed greatly from British literature. They told the stories of the birth of a new nation, while political figures created new American forms of democratic governance, and painters forged American art. What a heady and exciting time that was, and Boston and the surrounding areas are full of reminders of that early history. The Longfellow House is indeed a “must-see” when in Boston.

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The house and grounds are meticulously maintained, having stayed in the Longfellow family continuously until they were given to the National Park Service. Henry’s daughter Alice had kept the original furnishings, and everything except the carpets and draperies are as they were when the family lived there. The formal garden has been recreated, complete with rare heirloom plants, exactly as Henry had designed it. This beautiful garden is open to the public and a table of art supplies and small stools invite visitors to sit and draw awhile.

There are tours of the grounds, some of which are expertly lead by that very same history-studying young friend who now volunteers there, and hourly tours of the house. The Rangers provide wonderful descriptions and information about the history of the house and the family. I found myself lingering over every story as this famous writer came alive for me. Our tour guide, Rob, peppered his commentary with poetry recitations, making his visitors sigh just a little. Spoken out loud, poetry really does reach right into the heart.

The tour is free, as are the weekly poetry reading and concerts. The schedule for this summer is HERE and more information can be found HERE. Their Facebook page posts historical tidbits and other information throughout the year.

I went back this Wednesday with a friend for the garden tour and another walk through the house, and it was just as engaging the second time around. Afterwards, we wandered the streets nearby, marveling at the beauty of each house.

Finding ourselves back at Harvard Square, back in the 21st century,

hungry after our long trip through history,IMG_1565 we decided to indulge in a more modern American tradition: hamburgers and fries at the Shake Shack. Also highly recommended!

 

Longfellow House, North End, Labrinth. June 9 2014 065Longfellow House

Longfellow House, North End, Labrinth. June 9 2014 052Our excellent tour guides, Rob and Steve, and Mr. Longfellow himself.

IMG_1546The house seen through the gardens.

 

Longfellow House, North End, Labrinth. June 9 2014 032The entry hall and bust of George Washington.

 

IMG_1553View of the formal garden and gazebo

 

IMG_1551Art supplies for those who want to linger in the garden

 

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Garlic and Gooseberries: Little Sprouts, Little Critters

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There is something going on in my garden and I am feeling a bit uneasy. There are tiny green sprouts everywhere on the rich dark soul. At first it seemed obvious that the seeds I had planted were starting to grow, but now after the first big rain they are coming up even where I didn’t plant anything. So they must be weeds. Or other plants that used to grow here which might be edible. I thought the weeds would look different from the vegetables. How do I know what to pull and what to leave?

Deep breaths, Ellen, deep breaths. This is where patience comes in. I need to leave everything alone until it grows more and then it should become clear. This is sounding suspiciously like life: no matter how much you want clarity and resolution, sometimes you just have to wait. Sometimes only the passage of time will give you the information you need. And so I will wait, before I weed.

I am also worried that the light green leaves of my arugula starts are covered in tiny little holes. They look like they are made of green lace. Little bitty critters are chowing down on my arugula! I wouldn’t mind if they left some for me but there wasn’t that much to start with. I believe plants, like people, are most vulnerable when they are adjusting to new circumstances. My only hope is that the transplants will get good strong roots before the bugs weaken them, growing into robust plants with leaves big enough to share. I have considered spraying them with something like lemon juice to discourage the bugs, but I can’t help laughing at myself: add a little olive oil and the bugs will enjoy a perfect salad!

Lastly, sadly the garlic I transplanted looks quite dead. I won’t give up completely, but it is not looking good. I may have to rename this blog series.
Hole-y arugula

Garlic and Gooseberries: Meeting the Neighbors

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We have slowly been meeting the other gardeners, and they seem to eye us with caution. I don’t blame them. This community garden is sort of off the map, having been grandfathered into the city’s program, and the gardeners are all very happy to be left to do their own thing.  The only two rules seem to be:

  1. Turn off the faucet and put away the hose,
  2. Be considerate of your abutters. That is a word I had never heard before but now I can’t think of a better way to describe the plots with whom one shares a border.

The mild anarchy feels good to me and I have no intention of rocking the boat. Most of the members have gardened here for a long time, at least one for as long as 25 years. They tell me stories of when the nearby trees were saplings and how those trees now shade formerly sunny spots. I am sure irritations must arise but I can see no sign of discord here.

I wander among the plots and make up stories about the gardeners, imaging a lady sitting reading in the wicker chair nestled into one plot, and wondering how much pesto will come from the entire plot planted with basil. Perhaps there will be a meeting in the kitchen with the person who grows only tomatoes? Some of the plots have lovingly-created stone landscaping and brick enclosures, one a beautiful handcrafted wooden fence. The use of chicken wire has been explained to me: in recent years a rabbit or two have been eating the baby plants. I know we should put up some fencing but it is low on our list. I hope we won’t learn the hard way.

One day I came upon two young people laying on the ground, picnicking in a little clearing by gate. No, they are not members, they tell me. They know someone who is a member… well, not exactly a member… Ummm.

Uh huh.

I didn’t tell them to leave. A community garden belongs to the community, after all, and why not share the gentle serenity with those who appreciate it?

 

 

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Garlic and Gooseberries: Sowing the Seeds

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I hurried back to my garden the next day to plant the seeds, putting the finishing touches on our masterpiece. In the greens quadrant I added 2 rows of spinach, different varieties, and a few turnips, a new experiment for me. In the squash quadrant I added delicata squash and little pie pumpkins. Yes, I know I am over-planting. I just can’t help myself. The seeds are so small.

In the herb garden I added a patch of cilantro, and then next to it prepared the ground to plant red kale. But here is where a minor disaster struck: I accidentally planted MORE cilantro seeds! Ack! Ok, ok, I can fix this. I very gently moved the top layer of soil, presumable full of seeds, over on top of the cilantro patch, and then planted the red kale where it is supposed to go. I have no idea what will happen there.

As a final touch I planted calendula seeds, a kind of yellow marigold, throughout the garden. The flowers will keep away insects, I hope, and I want to try to make a soothing balm from them eventually.

Now we are done with all we can do. We have gotten things started and it is up to the plants and Mother Nature to take it from here.

After I had watered and prepared to leave, some locals dropped in to check out my handiwork: two birds flew in and took a look around. They seemed to approve, but, probably out of politeness since I was standing right there, didn’t help themselves to the newly planted seeds. Off they went to bathe in a nearby birdbath. When they come back to sample the goods, I hope they like cilantro seeds.bird bath

Garlic and Gooseberries: Digging In

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After deep knee bends in yoga and a 5-mile run for my husband, spending the day prepping the garden was perhaps not the best idea. We could barely move the next day, but it was the satisfying kind of soreness that comes from having accomplished something exciting.

For the actual planting that week I called on my young friend who is a graduate student here in town, the daughter of very dear Portland friends. We have eaten delicious vegetables from her father’s stellar garden for years and I was hoping she had inherited her dad’s green thumb. Who knows if she does indeed have his gardening genes, but her enthusiasm and the easy conversation and bonding that comes from digging in the dirt together must certainly have given our plants a good start.

Together we decided where the plants should go, grouping similar types of vegetables together. We discovered a brick path, which I will excavate later, that divides the plot into 4 quadrants, and we used that as our guide. One quadrant, where some lettuce and onions were already happily growing, got filled up with arugula and swiss chard starts, and the kohlrabi plants. The garlic I had transplanted the day before is there, but not looking too happy: we will see what happens to it. We left space for me to plant spinach seeds another day.IMG_1378

Another square, where the oregano plant held court, we filled with herbs, planted in a U-shape so I can easily step in and snip off what I need. Thyme, basil and tarragon join the sage, oregano, chives and mint, and I am experimenting with lemon balm, lemon verbena and chamomile to dry for teas.

The Herb Garden

In the sunniest quadrant we planted 3 rows of leeks, 6 eggplant starts, 2 zucchini and 2 yellow squash starts. I am a bit nervous about those zucchini. They look so small and innocent now, but I know how large and, hmmmm, generous, they can be once they get going. I may be sharing a lot later this summer.IMG_1373

The last quadrant will be interesting. I thought I had bought Brussel sprouts, which I had loved growing in Oregon. Finding the sprouts hidden under the leaves of the tall stalks just tickled me every time. But oh no! The tag in the little pot says these plants are broccoli! More green worms on our plates? But we planted them anyway and I will soak the florets in salt water to lure the little bugs out. Similarly, what I thought were spaghetti squash starts might in fact be acorn squash. We will see what grows! I am not sure there is really room for any squash: in Portland our squash and melons and pumpkins grew riotously over a huge area. We have a much smaller space here, but that has not stopped my enthusiastic over planting.

This garden is most definitely becoming a metaphor for life: you plant the seeds in good faith with the help of good friends, and then you really just have to wait to see what grows. Patience, care, tolerance, adaption and acceptance: we will see if I have what it takes.Plants planted!