Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fruits and roots

Last weekend I harvested Jerusalem artichokes with friends at their community garden. These are generous plants, each stalk producing about five pounds of crunchy tubers. With eight pounds of chokes in my possession, I decided to plant a couple at the farm, store some in the crisper for later use—perhaps in a creamy gratin—, and pickle most in brine in the basement. The chokes have been burping like frogs in their crock now for about five days and are nearly ready to eat.

On the farm mom and I have been swimming in quince. My room at the farm doubles as the produce pantry, and while quince’s perfume is lovely when emitted by one or two set on the kitchen counter, I’m here to tell you that sleeping in the company of 20 pounds of quince is overwhelming. Its perfume gobbles up every particle of air much like bacon does on a slow Sunday morning. We’ve turned the fruit into quince paste and lemongrass/ginger/quince jam. 

Our apple orchard offered meager fruit this year, but we managed to harvest a few handfuls of Pink Lady apples and have benefited from the generosity of my little sister’s in-laws who dropped off a box of Red Delicious from their backyard tree. The abundance of quince (and this is only its first year in production) has more than made up for the lack of apples. Last week, we found ourselves with just enough apples to pair with the quince to make a large dish of hearty brown sugar and oat topped crisp. 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A new season for sure

This dark, wet, and cool season has slowed the pace of the garden. On Saturday we will have a work party at the community garden to get all of the gardens and shared spaces cleaned up for the season. For the most part my plot is in cover crop.  A couple of peppers, a tomatillo, several tomatoes under cover, and a few shell beans remain.  The refrigerator now fills with beans and cheese, while the crisper holds but a few carrots, beets and peppers. It is time to start shopping at markets again, and that is a strange thing to face after months of not purchasing produce.

On the farm,  I’m experiencing the change in weather acutely. The scale of the rural landscape is so different than the city where the flaming color of turning leaves is interrupted by the built environment, and where the sound of rain drops isn’t heard so much as the sound of car tires sloshing through the water filled streets. On the farm, I see acres and acres of yellow as the grape vines turn on the gentle hillside across the valley.  I see bands of bright green where fresh weeds shoot up from recently tilled fields. There are giant patches of dusty air where the filbert orchardist has begun the harvest. At night, I think I may actually be able to hear rain fall through a silent dark sky; nothing more than the sound of drops hitting tree leaves and the soft dirt of the land. 

Saturday, October 10, 2009


It was with great pessimism that I sunk a shovel in the ground last week and began to gingerly poke around for any evidence that my sweet potato experiment which started so many months ago was worth the time, effort, and space I devoted to it. A few weeks ago, I’d begun checking on them, moving the soil away from the base of the plants, poking a finger or two into the earth, revealing nothing save a pinky size tuber or two. So, I was quite surprised to dig up the bed and find that I actually have a crop of potatoes. They are now curing for a couple of months to convert starches to sugar. We ate a few straight out the ground, and confirmed what our friends at Ayers Creek Farm had told me, and that is that they taste like nothing really, but starch, until they’ve been cured. So, we wait.

It has been a month of mustering the courage to pull plants: the cucumbers, some peppers, some tomatoes, some beans. Even after gardening for many years, it is still hard for me to pull a plant when it has life in it, even if it is no longer fruiting or giving anything edible. But, it is necessary in a small garden like mine. It is the only way to make room for the next crop and ensure future harvests. Death makes way for life as the saying goes. So, out with the spent and in with garlic and shallots and cover crops and daikon radish and chicories and favas. The key is to plant something new right after pulling something out. It helps you get over the fact that you just terminated something.

This week I also dug up summer’s endive to bring indoors, blanch, and hopefully eat in the middle of winter. Here’s how to blanch endive (this is my first time, so take this advice with a grain of salt).

1. Dig up the roots, chopping off and discarding the greens to about an inch of the top of the root.

2. Put some sawdust in a bucket. Wedge roots into the sawdust, putting as many roots into the bucket as will comfortably fit.

3. Put more sawdust around the roots to cover them to the top of the roots. 

4. Put the bucket in the basement for a couple of months. 

5. In late November or December, bring the bucket to the kitchen sink and fill with water to saturate up to the shoulder of the roots. Cover the bucket with another bucket or tarp to keep light out and put in a dark place (perhaps under the kitchen sink). Within a few weeks new growth will have sprouted. Cut the chicons off just above the root and enjoy blanched endive in the middle of winter! 

Friday, September 25, 2009

Homemaker blues

A few days ago I went to the basement to put something in the chest freezer; an ordinary day, a typical walk down the basement steps. The green and red lights indicating that the freezer had power, were on. Everything appeared fine from the outside. I had no way of knowing that I was moments and a few footsteps away from discovering disaster. I opened the freezer and found it a  balmy 65 degrees inside. Our food was bloated, stinky and moldy.

Though it could have been much worse (last year our freezer held half a hog), we lost all of our summer U-pick berries, salmon caught by a friend in Alaska (thankfully it was vacuum sealed so the smell wasn’t what it might have been), soup stocks, and corn. We are left now only with our fleeting memories of picking and preparing these things. In the dead of winter, there will be no juicy fruit-filled cobblers and pies to remind us that summer exists, and no creamy corn chowder on a cool, damp day. 

I felt betrayed by the modern world, and so thankful that I’d challenged myself to can more this year.  My brain immediately began to search for someone or thing to blame, from the wiring in our old house to the manufacturer of the freezer to the store that sold it to us. I searched for great meaning in the act; perhaps it was a sign from the universe that I’d taken a wrong step somewhere and was heading down a terrible, dark path. 

Tom did the dirty work of cleaning up the juices that festered in the bottom of the cheaply constructed hunk of plastic and metal. He filled a garbage bag with our food. I wheeled over the trash can, and averting my eyes and head (in sadness and because of the smell), dumped our memories, work, and nourishment into the can, letting the lid drop hard. I wrestled with anger for a day or so, and then resigned myself to the fact that I just needed to accept this. For about a day I thought maybe I had. But then I thought, what if I choose to not swallow this? What if I don’t accept the fact that an appliance lasts a mere year and a half? What if I do hold someone accountable? I decided to fight.

In the mean time, these slow roasted tomatoes from my mom’s garden, and these grapes from her vines that we steamed into delicious concord grape juice, remind me that the earth continues in its abundance. I’ll not starve because of the freezer loss, but I can still be heartbroken.

On another note, I have a correction and update on my last post regarding stratifying cherry seed. I said that the seed is being kept cold and moist for cold stratification, when in fact, it is being kept warm and moist for warm stratification. The bags of seed and sawdust have been moved outside and are completely covered by a substantial mound of sawdust. They will live there, nestled in the sawdust for about 30-60 days, after which time they will be planted in the ground where winter’s wet, cold temperatures will induce cold stratification. 

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Big pants farming

Tuesday was Day One on my parents’ farm, where I’m now working a couple of days a week. These are the ducks. Last spring, Dad got four ducks, which quickly became but one. I’ll spare the details and just say that this is a farm and one must get accustomed to seeing dead things on occasion. There are predators here, both the wild (owls and coyotes) and the tamed-wild (the family dog). So, Dad headed back to Gaston Feed where he bought 13 more ducks for good measure. He beefed up the pen and constructed a refuge island in the middle of the pond; he crossed his fingers. Four months later, and sans one that "failed to thrive" according to my mom, the ducks are going strong. They are quite a pack of talkers and eaters. Their favorite activity (if one can read enjoyment on a duck) is following me to the apple orchard, where they cajole me with insistent quacks into smashing apples into bite size pieces with the bottom of my shoe.

My first task on the farm was to propagate cherries by way of stratifying seed–Prunus Mahaleb (for sweet and sour cherry root stock) and Prunus Mazzard (for sweet cherry root stock)–to be exact, which this business is. 

My job was to expedite the sprouting process by fooling the seeds into behaving as though they’d experienced a couple of seasons. First, I took six 50 pound bags of cherry seed (pits) and divided each of them in half to make twelve 25 pound bags. Next, I tied the bags shut and meticulously labeled them with their variety, source, date and weight. I then lifted them into a giant water-filled trough where they soaked for 24 hours (a bit like soaking beans overnight). The next day, out of the water they came. I opened the bags and filled them with equal parts sawdust which I fully incorporated so that each seed was surrounded by sawdust (thus the term stratify); this keeps the seeds moist and cool for a period of time. Phase One in the process of cherry making. Stay tuned for the next step.

Back in the city plot things are beginning to look a lot like fall. I’ve scattered a cover crop of vetch, peas and rye grass in one bed; a fresh round of brassica starts are settling into another; shelling beans swell in their pods; and I have covered the tomatoes and peppers in plastic to prolong ripening. Soon, I’ll remove the bush beans that do little more than leak beans like a faucet that has just been turned off but still drips a bit for a minute or two. Thankfully, there is an inverse relationship between the garden and the pantry; as one empties, the other fills. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Short on words, long on produce

The produce photos are piling up. At the same time, I find that I’m a little short on words, which is perhaps entirely normal when a life becomes utterly saturated with produce: the fridge, the freezer, the pantry, the garden, table tops, the basement, and the back porch. For a while we considered displaying our home-made canned pears, tomato sauce, salsa, jams and pickles throughout the house in the same way that others might thoughtfully place flower arrangements, family photos or trinkets. But after careful consideration, we realized the absurdity of this idea (seemed too much like something we’d see on the pages of Martha Stewart) and went with convention, placing them on some shelves in the kitchen. 

Here is the pictorial evidence of how things are shaping up around here.

Here are our beautiful shelling beans just days before the entire poorly built trellis came crashing down onto an out-of-control, land-hungry tomatillo (greed doesn’t pay). A simple case of poor construction on my part, heavy beans and strong winds. Tom came to the garden yesterday and helped prop the bean stalks back up so that they can continue their lives upright, and so that the tomatillo can continue its Manifest Destiny.

Last Sunday we went to GM Farm on Sauvie Island to pick peaches. But the peaches were done for the season, and as soon as we got out of the truck, rain drenched the fields. We took cover under the tented fruit stand. Tom looked away for a second and by the time he turned back around I’d managed to buy about 15 pounds of canning-ready pears and two heads of cabbage for kraut. It goes without saying that the rest of the day was spent in the kitchen doting on pears and cabbage. In the end we had about eight quarts of pears, and now one week later, we are beginning to make our way through our 1/2 gallon of delicious, tangy kraut.

Then there are the cucumbers. I don’t know that I’ve sufficiently expressed the role cucumbers now play in our lives. I believe I’ve now made almost every pickle imaginable from half sour to full, bread and butter, quick, spicy, mustard, kimchi, and sweet. Right now, I’m enjoying some I made with a friend last week; they’ve been in the basement fermenting in a crock since Tuesday. When most people are enjoying a cup of warm coffee first thing in the morning, I’m making my way down our decrepit stairs to the basement to check on (taste) a pickle and a pinch of kraut. This is what happens to you when you hand over the wheel of your ship to mother nature and a few seeds you planted last spring. You just aren’t in control anymore. 

I guess I had a few things to say after all.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


I woke up this morning to a dark house and to the sound that car tires make on the street only when it has been, and still is, raining. I stayed in bed,  listening to the sound of the return of a season. 

It is no surprise. The angle of the light changed some time ago, and the sun inches its set up a bit each day. I burn bees-wax church candles in the evenings now to extend the light. And last night, Tom and I made plans that are only made when one has accepted the end of summer; we spoke of visiting pumpkin patches and stuffing pumpkins with warm wine-scented fondue. 

Summer is leaving me, and with it go balmy nights spent on the porch after dark, vegetables racing to outgrow each other in the garden, picnics, summer vacations, and the heady scent of a cantaloupe ripening on the counter. I’m a bit sad.

Tom staged these photos last week when things seemed to be at their peak. I have a feeling I’m going to savor them.