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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hoop Houses

There is no celebrity chef at my house - although any are most welcome to visit - but I have one thing in common with Sam Kass at the White House - we've both tried hoop houses around the same time of year. Mine gained me an extra month or so of crops, but they didn't give me the "year round gardening" that is hyped by the USDA. But then again,I didn't put strong sides on mine as they are doing in the White House/USDA video -

So I will try again this spring and this fall. When I started my current vegetable garden 17 years ago, I tried to stagger my harvests, and had complicated planting charts. Somewhere in the rush of life, the garden disintegrated into a plant-it-all-at-once, single harvest vegetable patch. My annual soil enrichment program turned into a bi-annual enrichment. My 27 varieties turned into Big Boy tomato plants from Wal-Mart. But the surge in vegetable gardening interest is inspirational, and once again, I have big plans.

This year I will start all my seeds on time (except those that I just learned should have already been planted). I will start the peas outside at the correct time so they aren't trying to bloom in July. I will put all the compost on each bed, lovingly, before planting, adding my kelp meal and cottonseed meal as I go, along with other composted goodies. I will test my PH. I will stagger my planting dates for continual harvests. I will have hierlooms, open pollinated, organic seeds, and deal with minor infestations the moment they begin. My garden will be beautiful, worthy of its own You Tube stardom.

Yeah, right. Late January dreams.  But I think I'll check if tht old video camera works...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My Melaluca Link

A friend of mine left me a voice mail today. She's found a new product, and knowing how green I am, thought I might want to attend a party to learn about it.

She's right - they are right up my alley. I have been using Melaluca products for years! I've often thought about sharing them with my friends, but I am not comfortable with the selling at home parties type of thing. No one thinks you actually like the products; they think you just want to make money. So I continue to use the products and keep the secret to myself.

I started using them because I wanted to rid my house of at least some of the toxic chemincals in my house, and cleaning supplies seemed like a good place to start. There is no good reason to use a cleaner that burns your eyes or makes your skin itch. There are a few things I will still use a harsh chemical for - a mold outbreak, maybe. But for the most part, it seems safer and smarter to use something more gentle and natural. What was I thinking before when I put stickers on cleaners to show my chid they were icky and not to be swallowed? Isn't it wasier to get rid of them?

I also use some of the supplements, and after finding out I was allergic to parabens in makeup, I started using some of the makeup line.

I am just the kind of customer that should be talking to other customers. But I am a bit jealous - my friend has taken the initiative I should have taken. But at least I can testify for her customers that yes, she is selling a great product!

Copyright 2010,

Friday, January 22, 2010

Working Out

I am surfing the net for the best price for a Wii and WiiFit. My birthday is coming up, and I thought it might be a nice gift. I am choking on the price. Do I really need something like this to make me exercise? Why is it such work to exercise?

Come spring, every muscle will be worked to exhaustion. I will go outside at 6 am, and return 6 pm, filthy, sore, and oh-so-content. Turning beds, digging holes, moving rock and mulch and compost - that's my kind of fitness. I like work. Inside, I can paint and fix and work quite contently for hours on end. It has purpose, and it creates beauty.

But as a gift? "Oh, honey, I'd really like some hard work for my birthday". I don't think so. So I am surfing again.    

Copyright 2010,

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The White House Vegetable Garden

OK, I'll admit it - I love Michelle Obama. I am not easily star struck, but I am a true fan. I love her intelligence, her ability and willingness to hug people, especially children. I admire the way she is raising her children, how she maintains a healthy relationship with her husband. And I am envious of her toned arms shown off in sleeveless dresses.

But it is her vegetable garden that makes me smile the most. The idea if turning the lawn into veggies was inpsired, and even if it wasn't orginally her idea, she is the one championing it and causing Americans all over the country to take up veggie gardening. I don't hink that we need to all become gardeners, but I know from experience that growing your own food - even lettuce on a deck - gets us connected to the earth again. It reminds us to eat real food, not simply overprocessed and overmarketed goods.

Every child should get the chance to shell peas. When my son was little, I used to put fresh peas in his lunch bag, but he would only eat them if they were still in the pod! Involving the local schoolchildren in the White House vegetable garden is such a life changing experience for them, and I admire her taking the time to get her hands dirty with them. When I was a naturalist for a summer at a Girl Scout camp in Ohio, one girl was traumatized to learn that carrots were actually roots living in dirt.  Too sad - and preventable.

My friends think of me as a gardener, but I'm basically a vegetable gardener that has discovered the joy of perennial borders. My heart lies in the tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and green beans of the raised beds. The rise in popularity of my hobby has had its drawbacks - some of my supply vendors were sold out or backed up so that the season was nearly over by the time I got supplies - but I welcome new hobbyists to find the same joy I do in planting seeds, watching them grow, nuturing the plants, harvesting the food, and composting the remains to begin the year again.

And maybe, just maybe, digging new beds will help my arms to look a little bit more like the First Lady's.

Copyright 2010,

Friday, January 15, 2010


I am guessing it hit 60 degrees today. People were walking outside with coats open, visibly lighter. Fewer scowls. A more leisurely pace. It is still winter, of course, but the break in the frigid gives us a chance to wash our cars, walk outside in the sunshine without bracing ourselves, bring in things that should have be in months ago. And breathe.

I saw some green shoots peeking up, probably crocus; too early to tell. I wanted to tell it "no, no little ones, stop peeking!", but of course I'd feel too silly. There are bird flocks stripping the trees of the last of the berries. Some wrens were scoping out houses already. Has global warming changed the calendar that much? No, it is the same every year.

One thaw to break the monotony of cold and blustery. Like a long breath.. but the type that ends in a sharp cough. Winter rains are moving in. 

Copyright 2010,

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I saw a friend today who is undergoing a heck of a lot of stress. In talking about stress and health, she asked if I had read a particular book on meat production. Hadn't. She said she and her husband are now vegetarians.

I was a vegetarian in college, but not since then. I didn't become a vegetarian because of animal cruelty; I was simply trying to balance out my dad. I had read Diet for a Small Planet, and figured that less meat eating was a good thing. As an environmental science major, I thought I should take action. Since my father is a the-more-red-meat-the-better kind of guy, I figured my vegetarianism balanced out his meat eating so that combined we ate in a more sustainable, healthy way. But I am his daughter, after all, and I missed hot dogs. Seriously. I got tired of trying to eat out with no choices (there are lots and lots of choices now). So eventually I went back to being an omnivore.

At first, it was hard to eat meat because I didn't know how to buy it or cook it. I had been a vegetarian since living under my mother's roof, and although she taught me to cook, I didn't know that much. I would stare at the meat packages at the grocery store, pick something, and come home and call my mom and read Joy of Cooking.

It isn't a simple decision, but like Michael Pallin and Barbara Kingsolver, I've given it a lot of thought, and am comfortable eating meats. But I try not to lose sight of what it means. I say grace at dinner, always thanking God for the animal's life. It's the least I can do.

  Copyright 2010,

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tea Time

I am a coffee lover. Hot, black, plentiful. Although I have a cupboard full of teas, mainly herbal, which descriptions that sounded great when I bought them, I've never been much of a tea drinker.

Until now. I was dieting pretty steadily last spring and summer, and felt the deprivation accutely. My solution was to have a cup of tea whenever I wanted a sweet. I had lots and lots and lots of cups of teas. My sister gave me an electric tea kettle, and it has gotten a steady workout this year. I have breakfast tea, mid-morning tea, the-house-is-freezing tea, need a work break tea, afternoon tea, dinner tea, and bedtime tea. Everything but high tea. Not that I would mind that - I love the scones and clotted cream at a tea room, but that does tend to blow one's diet.

I have green teas, black teas, red teas, and white teas. Citrus and floral, lots of chai. Tea that I don't dare try (why did I buy Tea for Tension? It makes me tense wondering what is in there; that and the sinus tea are no doubt foul).

Now we are contemplating going the next step: making whole pots of tea. Just like most of the world. Like real adults with gracious dining habits. But it is hard to go from endless tea bags on the counter to actual tea making rituals, putting the pot on the table during dinner. So formal. So proper. So two generations ago.

I would need a decent teapot, of course, not that gift that is functional but not our style. Do I want to commit to being a teadrinker that much? Yes. Yes, because the cast iron Japanese style teapots are such works of art. Yes, because we need more graciousness in our meals. Yes, because this diet has no end in sight.

And even Starbucks has tea.
Copyright 2010,

Monday, January 11, 2010


No matter how pure I try to make my food, not matter how local, organic, how original the taste, my palate will always want Kisses. Lots and lots of Kisses. Like Pavlov's dog, I salivate the moment I see the shiny foil hugging the teardrop-plop of chocolate. At a meeting today, every table had a bowl of them. Never mind that they weren't my favorite dark chocolate. I can resist most other milk chocolate, but a kiss - forget about it. I put them in my mouth, and later in my pocket. Where they certainly did not have have time to melt.

Copyright 2010,

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Red Peppers

Weekends have a rythmn and a routine, and it always includes looking ahead to the work week and making the menu and grrocery list. I am more compulsive about this than most people. Each day has the evening activities noted that would compete with cooking time so I know whether it is a slow food day or a 15 minute dinner. The cookbook name and page number is noted in the margin each day, if used. The category is next to the day - meat, meatless, fish, poultry - so that I keep our diet balanced.

In the summer, there is always the line "harvest" so I know what is coming out of the garden, not the market. This time of year, that line item becomes "thaw". This week, I am thawing famer's market beef, and from my garden, basil pesto and red peppers.

This is the last of the peppers in the freezer. This wasn't a good pepper year. It was a wonderful year for virtually everything else in the garden, but the peppers suffered in the rain. They were leafy and healthy, but slow. We ran out of summer before most of them ripened, so red was a rare color in the pepper bed.

So now I will pay the high price for fresh peppeers at the supermarket until mid summer. But I hope I will be smarter this year. For years, I never knew that peppers froze so well, so I didn't keep the harvest. For the past few years, I have sliced and frozen green, yellow, red, and an occasional purple bell pepper (my husband's diet doesn't include hot peppers). But I continued to pay high prices for roasted red peppers. Dummy! For less than $2, I can get a pack of seeds that will give me more peppers than I can pick. Throw them on the grill, and Bam! (thanks, Emeril), roasted red peppers for the year.

When the rythymn of the winter weekends turns to long, frenetic summer days spent outside, I'm hoping I will make the time to make next winter's grocery list a little easier, cheaper, and more organic by saving my peppers, roasting them, and capturing the warmth of the summer to be released in the cold of winter.  That can't be captured on any list.    

Copyright 2010,

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Hankies and Bandannas

Pat Hecker makes makes beautiful art works (check out her tatoodreams blog), many of which reside in my sister's home. Among my favorites are the Kleenex cover in her bathroom. Which got me to thinking - what was life like before paper tissues ruled? When I went unprepared to a touching memorial service for a friend this week, another friend gave me four tissues. One generation ago, it would have been a hankie.

My mom always had each purse stocked with a hankie, a pen, a comb, and a pillbox. She simply moved her wallet and lipstick so that she was always prepared. Me, I have to transfer the wallet, the cell phone, three pairs of glasses (sun, distance, reading), three checkbooks (2 personal, one business), 2 sets of business cards, the cellphone extra battery since I am forever forgetting to charge it, the flashdrive, a pen, and the mini Kleenex pack, which is always open and getting cruddy from the bottom-of-the-purse litter. Comb? Lost it two decades ago.

At my mom's memorial service, I tried my best to get through my prepared remarks without bawling, but the tears came near the end anyway. So my dad hauls out his trusty (huge) red bandanna to wipe my tears away, turning my tears to laughter. The big guy's hankie.

If I was as green as I like to think I am, I would wash and iron the hankies and go stock my purse. I would pile up the bandannas for home use (instead of reserving them for napkins that look oh-so-cute with the blue speckle ware on the picnic table). I would look at my body's extra fluids as washable, not disposable. I would stop thinking of hankies as delicate reminders of a more gentle age, and think of them as the hardworking but lace covered necessities.

But then I would not need handrafted tissue box covers. Art always suffers.      

Copyright 2010,

Friday, January 8, 2010

Organic, Open Pollinated, Local, and Biodynamic Confusion

Like millions of other gardeners buried in snow, I am furiously pouring over seed catalogs as I bundle under the comforter and sip tea. I have page corners carefully turned down, post-it flags sticking out the sides and tops, and pages are marked with not one, but two colors of highlighters. I am amazed how complicated I can make this simple annual task of choosing seeds for the kitchen garden.

Last year, many of my seeds were labled "biodynamic", chosen because that sounded good and mighty. I would get around to figuring out why "biodynamic" seeds were better later. They performed marveously; I had one of my best gardens in many years, although I'm fairly certain it had more to do with rainfall and weather patterns than the seeds. So this year went back to that seed company's website to find out the definition. Nothing!! I have searched and searched, and the best I can tell, they reveal nothing. Googling the terms brings reams of inrformation abotu biodynmaic farming and all of its benefits, but that does not tell me a darned thing about the seeds and how they are different. This year, I'm not paying for the hype unless it is clear what they mean. It's like putting "natural" on a food label - marketing hooey unless there is real information and different production practices behind it.

Since I garden organically (perhaps because it is easier), I gravitate toward organic seed. It makes logical sense to me that we should lessen the load of pesticides in our bodies; it can't be a bad thing. But I am no purist. If a plant description is good enough, I'll bite even if it isn't organic if an organic alternative is not available.

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden seed catalog gives an excellent summary of the difference between hybrid and open pollinated seeds in the first page of the catalog, which I was very pleased to see. I am making an effort to use as many non-hybrid "OP" seeds as I can this year, since I have read an awful lot about the concentration of plant types by the near complete domination in farming by only a few seed companies with hyrid seeds (if you haven't watched the documentary Food, Inc., please do so!). I want the ability to save my seeds if I choose; I want to encourage plant divesity and keep heirloom varieties. My veggies aren't going to the market.

My pile of seed catalogs is towering, but I cannot yet buy. I am waiting for the catalog from a small seed company fairly local to me - I expect their seeds to work well in my climate of oh-so-sticky summers - and frankly, I like supporting samll businesses. A lot.

So I wait by the mailbox, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the last, most perfect descriptions of the epitome of seeds: the organically grown, open pollinated, heirloom seeds for my (very mini) biodynamic farm (bed). Only then will I plunk down my hard-earned $3.95.

Copyright 2010,

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Vitamin D

I popped a Vitamin D pill this morning. To some, this seems like a reasonable and healthy thing to do. To me, it felt like defeat. If I am not getting enough Vitamin D, I am not getting outside enough. It means I've given in to the winter winds. It means I don't want to walk outside, instead walking on the elipitcal machine in the basement. It is not the same. Being outside calms me. It reminds me of the world that is bigger than myself. There is always something remarkable or beautiful. That can't be found in a supplement or an exercise machine.

But as I write this, I see a robin on the branch outside my office window. In January! He is either too late or too early, but the sight of him reminds me that after January is February, when seeds are planted, and March, ready for peas. I'll get my sunshine again soon, and put away the supplements for next winter.

Copyright 2010,

Monday, January 4, 2010

Hellebores vs. Kiwis

I've put my family on a post-Christmas fiscal diet, although the only one it really affects is me, the spender. No where will it be tougher than in the garden. Spring without an unlimited checkbook will doubtless cause wailing. But after all the gifts were given, I ended up with an extra American Express giftcard, and I figure that it is OK to spend it on seeds or plants (funny how I can always find a way....).

So here is the dilmmea. The new Heronswood catalog has a picture of a compelling, beutiful hellebore on its cover, and I want it. Bad. It appears black, although it is a deep purple, as are all the so-called "black" flowers. I have just the place in my garden - in fact, two places. I love hellebores. In my Zone 6 garden, they don't bloom in the winter as all the books and catalogs claim, but in early spring, along with bloodroot. They both cause my heart to race, my eyes to widen, and giggles to fall out of my mouth. Early spring flowers are unadlterated joy. Every year, it is as if spring has never come before, a miracle just unfolding for the first time. Hellebores are the first sign of the beauty to come, proof that life renews, and that it is good. Better yet, the herds of deer that roam my yard seem to be content eating every living thing except my hellebores. And Heronswood's hellebore would complement my existing patches perfectly.

Except then I can't get the kiwi.

Locust Books in Westminster, Maryland, always highlights books I simply must read. A visit last spring resulted in the purchase of The Backyard Homestead. It is just my type of fantasy read: how to make your little suburban lot into an (almost) self-sufficient mini farm. I already wanted chickens and bees; now there was more to do! A couple a weeks before purchasing the book, I tore an article out of the local paper about local fruits - some of which I did not know were native or hardy. The book confirmed it - my little yard was native fruit deficient.

Enter the hardy kiwi. According to the garden catalogs, it is not like the tropicl kiwi we all put in our fruit salads, but is smaller and not fuzzy. Full of vitamin C, and tasty. But it was the picture that captivated me. The leaves are incredible - green and pink! Like a coleus in the sunshine, a decorative vine that bears fruit. Plant a male and a female on a trellis. OK, I said to my self, I am adding that to the yard next year!

But then we have to buy or build a trellis or arbor. And there is just one little gift card.
Hmmm. A great flower or healthy fruit?

Copyright 2010,

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bird Tree

We are just about "de-Christmased", so the Christmas tree is now bare and installed on the back deck -tied to the railing against the persistent winds - ready for its next phase. Later today, it becomes the Bird Tree for the rest of January. We do this every year, but I readily admit that there are years that the tree makes it outside, but it never gets decorated!

My good friend Sue made me a beautiful pine cone wreath with each cone smeared with peanut butter and seeds, so that will become the highlight of the tree. Decorations are usually more humble! I will add lots of individual pine cones with a mixture of peanut butter and bread crumbs, rolled in seeds. I use dental floss to hang them; it is strong enough that the birds can't carry the cone off, though the squirrels will decimate them in a matter of days. I usually make about 20 cones, although with the wreath I may be able to cut the number down this time.

Here are the other things I normally put on the Bird Tree:

  • Orange halves, with vegetable shortening and seeds on top, and/or orange slices
  • Lots of millet sprays (I've tried growing them, but usually buy)
  • Dried sunflower heads (from the garden, but the crows got them all this year!)
  • cups made of egg carton cups, filled with peanut butter and seeds or suet and seeds
  • suet circles or squares, hanging from floss
  • swags of popcorn, sometimes with cranberries
  • seed heads from the garden
  • This year, I'm filling old sugar ice cream cones since I have a bunch left from summer
  • wheat - the decorative type at Wal-Mart works great - and grasses with heads
  • Cheerios (more likely a generic unsweetened) - I string them on floss into ovals
  • ears of dried corn, though they will be carried off right away
  • lots of seeds randomly thrown in the branches
  • whole peanuts, either strings (with dental floss) or individually hanging like ornaments
  • any nuts we have left over from things; I ground too many almonds for baking, so I kept the leftovers to mix into bird tree ornaments; some years it has been nuts in the shell
  • any "leftover" garden seeds I won't be using this year- where there were only a few left in a seed pack, or a variety I thought I'd grow but didn't
  • When we cleaned out the kitchen cupboards for painting this fall, there was an abundance of raisins, so they will be incorporated as well
The bird tree does a lot. It gives small birds refuge within its branches, so they can dart across the yard into the lilac bush, then from the lilac to the Christmas tree. It adds warmth and protection from the resident hawk that hunts our feeders. It feeds virtually every kind of bird we attract in our yard. It gives extra protein to the squirrels, so they can entertain us in the dark days of winter. While I have never seen other mammals at the tree, it is likely that some of the treats end up in the stomachs of raccoons. Certainly mice will benefit from the seeds dropping from the second story deck to the yard below. If I hang enough treats, all can be fed, and the gang of crows can't carry it all away.
The bird tree used to be a project with my son, but at 15, he doesn't find it entertaining. I continue. For me, it is pure joy to watch the birds flit in and out. I feel like I am nurturing "my" flock. It is a warm feeling in a cold month, worth all the stickiness of peanut butter coated fingers.

Copyright 2010,

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Oh, drat, another demise. My favorite daily e-newsletter hasn't been coming lately, so I did a search and my eco-savvy daily tips - Ideal Bite - has been bought out by Disney for $15 million. Apparently it was small but favored by the "red wine after yoga" crowd, and we are a desired demographic. Sorry, Disney, I'm not going to follow. On the other hand, good going Heather and the Biters!

Copyright 2010,

The End of Abundance

It had to come, this first day after the end of the feasting season. I am happy it arrived; I've spent all day cooking again and again from Thanksgiving through New Year's, and I am tired. I need a winter's rest. My husband is cleaning and reorganizing the cold, cold garage - our extra cold storage area during feasting season - so that it can become an automobile home again. I am defrocking the Christmas tree, getting myself tangled in the wires of the lights. In a few days, my gardening year will begin with the annual inventory of seeds. But for now, we finish the last leftover rich foods and prepare for a winter's digestive rest and recovery. As we take down the exterior lights and retreat into darkness, it seems right to practice austerity in money, food, and personal habits. The garden rests; the kitchen rests; and so do we.

Copyright 2010,

Friday, January 1, 2010


A couple of weeks ago we rented Julie and Julia on DVD. I laughed, cried, and loved it. My mother was one of the legions of women who followed Julia and were fearless in the kitchen. I never knew marshmallow fluff; I did, however, eat all kinds of weird stuff I couldn't pronounce, and to this day love a good souffle (made by others). When I was old enough, my present to my mom on her birthday was to make a nice dinner all by myself. I took a picture of her beaming over the roast chicken. Julia inspired her cooking; she inspired mine; and Meryl Streep brought it all back.

My mother passed away 2 years ago. I called my dad, told him about the movie, and asked him if my mom's copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was still around. It was, and he gave it to me for Christmas. Today I made the Almond Lemon Tart, and it was fabulous. Took hours. Made a mess. But the taste was just perfect - Julia still rocks.

Copyright 2010,