STARTING FRESH

I have always appreciated a fresh start. I like mornings. The first of the month. I even like Mondays – although I’ve never been a nine-to-fiver, which I’m sure helps with that. Did you have “do over”s when you were a kid? I like those too. And here we are in the New Year, the biggest fresh start of all. 

So I’m calling this blog post a fresh start. I’m sorry I’ve neglected it for so long. I know how frustrating it can be to follow a blog and look forward to a new post and not get one. First it’s disappointing. Then it’s annoying. Then it makes you angry. Eventually you give up. I can’t blame you. I’ve done it too. I won’t make any promises, but I missed you and I hope you’ll come back and see what’s happening in the garden from time to time.

We’ve had a pretty mild winter so far, and I’ve been able to continue to eat out of my garden, which is really gratifying. We had our first hard freeze only a few nights ago, I think it got down to 16º. We’ll see how it looks out there tomorrow when it warms up a bit, but last I checked I still had

Swiss chard,

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kale,

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collard greens,

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broccoli raab, which went crazy and tried to escape the hoop –

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fortunately I found a really cute weight to hold down the floating row cover – 

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and leeks.

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We’ll see how much longer everything lasts.

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I’ve been pretty busy out there even so. It has long been a personal goal of mine to create enough compost to be able to give all my beds a layer of homemade organic matter at the end of the season. I’ve been working towards closing that loop since I started my garden three years ago and I got much closer this year. I was able to put a 2″ layer of mulch on 237 ft² of a total 410 ft² of gardening space. I am determined to do the entire garden next year.

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I even sifted it! The empty beds got a nice helping of this black gold.

Then I got a cool leaf blower that also sucks.

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Ok, it doesn’t suck, it rocks, because it sucks up leaves and shreds them which reduces them about ten fold and makes a great (free!) mulch with which to put a bed to sleep for the winter. This will reduce spring weeding and encourage earthworms.

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Then, come spring, I’ll dig everything in and be good to go.

I also got the important fall planting done. On October 22, I planted French grey shallots.

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They are said to be the cremé de le crop of shallots and I mean to find out. (We’ll talk more about them later.)

On November 20th I planted three kinds of garlic, about 40 cloves in total. Two softnecks, Tochliavri and Broadleaf Czech and a hardneck, German Red.

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All were from the garlic I planted last year and harvested on June 24th. I used the largest, healthiest cloves I could find. Another loop closed.

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I still have garlic in storage in the garage, but a lot of it is starting to sprout. We’ll see if it lasts me through the winter. Here’s an interesting article on storing garlic from Rodale’s Organic Life website (http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/food/6-ways-make-garlic-last-longer). I must experiment with all those great methods next season.

Because it’s been so mild and there’s not much left to do in the garden proper, I’ve also been playing with rocks in the dirt. I’m expanding the perennial bed and making a border between it and the lawn.

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I don’t know what it says about me, but this is honestly one of my favorite things to do. If you live in the Ozarks, you probably have a pile of rocks somewhere on your property. If not, rest assured, they are there, just under the surface, daring you to dig a hole.

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That’s a hole I dug to plant a tree for a client and the pile of rocks that I excavated during the process.

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Indeed.

So that’s the lowdown. The seed catalogs are rolling in and we’ll be starting seeds here in a few short weeks. I’m determined to grow some nice cabbages this year, as well as Brussels sprouts, and I’m going to give artichokes and celery a go. I’m going to be diligent about the cucumber beetles and teach you how to make the best homemade cornichons. And I plan to turn more of my yard into a dedicated herb garden. I also have some fun projects to share with you. So please come back and visit.

Circling back to fresh starts, the only official New Year’s Resolution I made this year was to meditate daily. I know that learning to sit quietly with my thoughts is at the foundation of any sort of relationship I have with myself – and therefore anyone and anything else. And so far so good. I’ve missed a day or two in there and wondered why I was feeling antsy and more scattered than usual. But I forgave myself and did it the next morning. And while I realize that actual do overs are the stuff of school yards. That once life begins often the best we can do is stumble blindly through the underbrush, trying to keep up and not lose an eye. And that any wisdom we gain along the way is mostly through chances we didn’t take, mistakes we can’t take back, and betrayals we will always regret. I also realize that no one is immune from those experiences. If meditation is teaching me anything, it’s that every breath, every moment, is an opportunity to start fresh

I wish you all the fresh starts you can manage.

Happy New Year.

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LATE-SUMMER LETHARGY AND AN ELDERBERRY SHRUB

There’s always something to contend with as a gardener (and as any kind of living creature, I suppose) – bugs, weather, disease, timing, pathogens – but the one that’s been plaguing me lately is my own lethargy.

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I googled lethargy to make sure that was the particular word I wanted and here is a list of its synonyms: sluggishness, inertia, inactivity, inaction, slowness, torpor, torpidity, lifelessness, listlessness, languor, laziness, idleness, indolence, shiftlessness, sloth, apathy, passivity, weariness, tiredness, lassitude, fatigue, inanition, hebetude. That about sums it up. All I’ve want to do is be inside, in the A/C with my dog, lost in a book. Or at the lake. Which is why my blog is weeks behind.

(By the way, I’m completely obsessed with the book I’m currently reading, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s about a post-apocalyptic traveling performance group who roam the area around the Great Lakes twenty years after a flu pandemic has killed 99% of the population. They perform Shakespeare. It’s incredible. I can’t wait to finish it and I never want it to end. It was very deservedly nominated for the National Book Award. I’m in love with it.) More about the flu a little later…

Back to my inanition. It seems silly to blame it on the heat. It gets hot in Arkansas in August. And humid. And deafening. That incessant ratchety acceleration of cicadas makes it seem that much hotter. Pulsing. Electric. Alive. I know this. I accept it. I have been known to relish it. But this summer, it has indeed induced hebetude.

Meanwhile, the tomatoes, peppers, and okra are in their prime and ripening faster than we can keep up with them. Some like it hot.

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There’s a mantra I adopt about this time every year, it goes like this. Next year….

Next year I will stake my sauce tomatoes. Next year I will plant fewer shishito pepper. Next year I may skip zucchini entirely.

In the spirit of staying inside and making use of the bounty that is August, I’ve been in the kitchen.

I pickled radish seed pods.

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If you neglect to harvest your radishes, by choice or dereliction of duties, they will flower and then eventually those flowers become seed pods. They are a delicious treat, like a mild radish in a different form.

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I made salsa verde.

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In an attempt to use up an overlooked zucchini that consequently grew to the size of my forearm, I made zucchini bread.

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Although when all was said and done, it made use of less than half of it.

I spent the better part of two days making and painstakingly documenting homemade ketchup, which was, very disappointingly, an epic fail. I suppose I’ll find a use for it, but you won’t be getting it for Christmas.

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I made chile verde.

I made heirloom tomato sauce. Twice. 

I made a simple and delicious carrot soup (http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/a-simple-carrot-soup-recipe.html). Do you know this site? Heidi Swanson’s blog 101 Cookbooks is a beautiful, elegant, site with unique, healthy recipes. There is something very soothing about it. All that clean white marble, those sumptuous photos of that virtuous food, very inspiring.

And then I fried okra.

Oh, and… I made an elderberry shrub! Remember elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) from the Hedgerow post? (https://thecultivator.net/?s=hedgerow) Well it bloomed. This is May 21st.

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And by August 8th, we had berries.

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Some of which I managed to get to before the birds did.

The berries are beautiful, glossy purple-black with vibrant magenta stems. As a plant it is a gangly, unruly thing. The eminent horticulturalist Michael Dirr says it is “only suitable for rough areas of the garden.” But it suffuses those rough areas with a rich history of mystery and medicine.IMG_8990

In most of Europe the elder was so closely connected with magic that permission had to be asked for its use of the dryad, Hylde-Moer (or Elder-tree mother) who resided in it. If treated well, the goddess was benevolent, thus elders were often planted around houses for protection. It was also believed that they repelled lightning strikes – one more reason to plant one near your house. The rise of Christianity suppressed nature worship and the elder became the tree of witches, and as the site of Judas’ hanging, an emblem of sorrow. It’s mentioned in several of Shakespeare’s plays. It was also believed to mark the entrance to the Underworld. If you fell asleep under one you might end up there and never return. Good thing I’ve been taking my naps inside.

Medicinally, elders were considered ‘the medicine chest of the country people’. In 1633, a Dr. Blochwich published a comprehensive book titled The Anatomie of Elder that spends 230 pages listing its virtues and uses. And as recently as 1995, it was used to treat a flu epidemic in Peru.

Our North American elder is Sambucus canadensis, while the Europeans have Sambucus nigra. They are very similar in terms of physical properties and how they are used, although ours is more heat tolerant and shrub like, whereas S. nigra can grow into a small tree. They have been used extensively – bark, leaves, flowers, berries, and even a fungus that grows on the tree – since the Romans for ailments from toothaches to the plague. Another North American sambucus, red elder (S. racemosa) is extremely toxic. Incidentally, the bark, stems, leaves, unripe berries, and even the tiny stems on the berries of all sambucus contain cyanide producing glycocides, which can be poisonous, so stick with the flowers themselves and the ripe purple berries, and to be on the safe side, heat both of those as well.

The flowers make an relaxing, restorative tea whose properties change if they are used fresh or dried, hot or cold. Fresh flowers have a mildly laxative effect and can help with constipation, while a tea made with dried flowers is used to drive out fever. This quality, along with its anti-inflammatory traits, a slew of antioxidants, and more Vitamin C than oranges make it a highly effective treatment during cold and flu season, it’s also used for asthma and hay fever.

Or try the flowers lightly battered and fried for a delicate spring fritter.

An infusion of the leaves can be used for a variety of skin ailments including sunburn, and to ward off mosquitoes.

The berries can be used to make jams, jellies, cordials, syrups, or, in my case, a shrub.

A shrub, or drinking vinegar, was the first carbonated soft drink. It originated in 17th century England and was brought to America by the early colonists as a way to preserve the essence of fresh produce. Shrubs fell out of favor when we got home refrigeration, but are having a renaissance in the craft cocktail movement of our moment. Today’s mixologists use them as a novel way to add complexity, acidity, and even nutrition to cocktails, but they’re also great simply mixed with carbonated water as a new old-fashioned soda.

Shrubs at their most basic are fruit, sugar, and vinegar, but the process for combining them can differ. In one method, the fruit is macerated with sugar for several days, then the resulting syrup is strained and mixed with vinegar. Alternately, the fruit can be crushed and mixed with vinegar, this can be strained, and the resulting fruit-infused vinegar can be mixed with sugar. It can be heated or not. You can get creative by experimenting with different vinegars and sweeteners, as well as adding aromatics. Culinate has some great ideas (http://www.culinate.com/articles/features/shrub_love) that I can’t wait to try.

For my first elderberry shrub, I placed one cup of clean berries in a pint jar and mashed them up with a fork.

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Then I added a cup of apple cider vinegar, shook it up and put it in the refrigerator overnight, shaking it a few times for good measure.

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The next day I strained it

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and put the strained liquid in a saucepan with a cup of cane sugar. This would be the time to add aromatics. For my next elderberry shrub I’ll add ginger and some cloves at this point.

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Once the sugar was melted, I let it cool, poured it into a jar, and voila, a cocktail enhancement that can ward off the flu! Elderberry gin and tonics for everyone!

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I’ve also done some work out there trying to get a fall garden planted. The planting is not the hard part, it’s keeping it alive – see above – bugs, weather, timing, pathogens, torpidity…

So far I’ve got arugula, broccoli raab, spinach, collard greens, kale, calypso beans, fennel, and cucumbers coming along. 

I hope you’re all staying cool and collected and if you’re not getting anything done, I hope you’re not beating yourselves up about it.

Thanks for stopping by!

SHARPEN YOUR KNIVES, TOMATOES ARE HERE!

As a gardener, going out of town for a week in July is like living through a time-warp. Is there a better word for that? For the gap between your last experience of a thing and the change that thing endures in the meantime? For instance seeing someone you haven’t seen in a while who has gained or lost a lot of weight. Or cut their hair. Or aged. Children who were this tall the last time you saw them. Something that has endured so much change that you are taken aback. Sucked into the now from wherever you were like Christopher Reeves in Somewhere in Time when he pulls the penny out of his pocket and love is lost forever. That passage of time and change needs a name. A poetic name!

“Life” is not quite what I had in mind.

Well my garden did that while I was away. I ran out of time to mow my yard and then it poured the night before I left. I circled it on my list, code for: to be dealt with later.  

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Dealt with indeed. While I was gone, summer in Arkansas happened. By the time I got home, it was a foot high and covered with seed heads. I’m surprised there wasn’t a code compliance sign in my yard!

Now, I have a lawn mower. And for that I am grateful. It is not the mower of my dreams, but we know each other well enough that by working together we can get the job done. Which does not mean I have not yelled expletives about my mother at it.

Sorry mom.

Sorry neighbors.

Or wanted to take this cool sledge hammer to it.

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Talk about missed opportunities for a zen moment.

But, if I can get it started without dislocating my shoulder, and if I lift the hatch on the back at the end of every row to allow the grass to shoot out onto my sweaty sunscreen covered leg, making me look like a female Sasquatch, and if I buck it up onto its back wheels every twenty seconds or so when it starts to sputter out, together we can get the job done.

This, however, was more than we had ever dealt with together.

So when it, very vocally, said “Forget you, I’m taking a break”, I took that opportunity to rake up the extra grass and dump it on my compost heap. Only to start the whole process all over again.

In this manner I cussed and sputtered and bucked and raked my sweat-drenched, grass-covered Sasquatch way through my foot-high grass for all the neighborhood to witness. And over the course of two days the yard that I can usually mow in twenty minutes was finally tamed. 

And now a week later it needs it again!

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Talk about the importance of keeping up with things!

I also came back to a mountain of tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, tomatillos, peppers, onions, hard-neck garlic, beets, carrots, zucchini as big as my forearm, and kale covered with harlequin beetles.

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Do you know these guys? Murgantia histrionica. Whenever I see these beautiful beetles, I feel like King Lear, “Oh, I have ta’en too little care of this!” Rebuked, as they tend to show up when things are outside their window of seasonality and therefore stressed. The compost heap for you!

Eventually though, we managed to get things a little more under control.

We harvested potatoes.

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And dismantled the potato box.

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These are a variety called Yellow Finn that we grew for the first time this year.

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We threw some on the grill wrapped in tin foil and they were astoundingly good. Creamy and buttery and rich and delicious. Truly stellar and highly recommended.

We also harvested green beans, onions, and tomatillos. Salsa verde, and soon!

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So now that the garden is a bit more manageable – although there’s still plenty of cleaning up and fall planting to be done – the overwhelm has moved indoors. What to do with all this bounty!?

First things first. Sharpen your knives!

Because we are in the sweet spot. Where a luscious summer meal can be made of a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato sprinkled with salt. But to unleash that goodness you need a really sharp knife.

And to get a really sharp knife you need a whetstone. I got mine in New York, but I chose it because it was made in Arkansas and I was homesick. I have since discovered that the finest natural whetstones are made out of novaculite, which is sedimentary rock composed of microcrystalline quartz. Novacula means razor stone. And the purest novaculite is found in the Ouachita Mountains near Hot Springs, Arkansas. Arkansas sharpening stones are the benchmark for oil stones and have been since native Americans used them on their arrowheads. Pretty cool, huh? There are several grades of sharpening stones, and many whetstones have two sides. Start with the coarse one and finish with the finer one, kind of like an emory board. Many sources I referenced recommended using a honing oil with your whetstone, but I’ve always used water and it has worked just fine.

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It’s important to soak your whetstone before you use it. I try to soak mine for at least fifteen minutes.

Once it’s soaked, get yourself set up with a towel and your knife.

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It’s good to have some water nearby to keep everything lubricated. If you google knife sharpening, people are all over the place with it and I think they make it seem much more challenging than it really is – people on the internet can be like that. I’ll refer you to this short video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAmxc_U2dGs), which demonstrates it quite concisely – if you find the music annoying, just turn off the volume. The important factor is consistency. A consistent 20º angle, consistent pressure, and being consistent on both sides of your knife. You could certainly have it done professionally, but it’s your knife and it’s not difficult. I believe in you. And as you know, a dull knife in the kitchen is far more dangerous than a sharp one. Buy a good quality chef’s knife and take good care of it. Don’t put it in the dishwasher, keep it honed. and it should last your whole life.

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And the livin’ is easy!

GONE FISHIN’

Okay, I haven’t really gone fishin’. But I am going on a trip! I’m going to New York for the first time since I left in late 2011 and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, plus getting out of town can be challenging for me, because I have a garden and a dog. Both are hard to leave behind, but both are in good hands. Plus it’s been pouring for two days, so that helps the garden part.

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And then there’s New York. I was so infatuated with New York for so long, and when we finally got together I was happy. Really happy. I was so full of the possibility of us. Our future together. The things we would do. That lasted for a while, but eventually it all became too much – too much drama, too much energy, too much money. I couldn’t remember why we were together anymore and I felt lonely all the time. I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t getting what I needed out of our relationship. I had to cut my losses and let it go, regardless of what I had invested in it. Our break up was drawn out and exhausting and it took its toll on me, but I don’t think New York has thought about me once. And that’s okay. I’m cool with that. I can honestly say I have moved on. I can be grateful for the experience without feeling stupid and used.

Except now I’m returning…

I had that ↑ talk with my dear friend Kenneth and when we realized that it really was like a break up, I could laugh at it, and now I’m just so excited to see my friends that I don’t even need to see New York. I don’t care what it thinks of me. Because we are never ever getting back together.

Oh, and while I’m there I’m also going to see Taylor Swift with my seven-year old niece, five-year old nephew, both of my sisters, my brother-in-law, and one of my very best friends, so how can I not shake it off?!

In the meantime I’ll give you an update of things around the garden and when I get back we can talk about New York and Taylor Swift and the carrot seed tape I recently made, and who know what else?

We are currently harvesting potatoes

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and green beans

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and we’re very close to tomatillos.

I am enraptured by tomatillos. The way those floating lanterns catch the light and glow is entirely mesmerizing. Granted, there hasn’t been a lot of light for them to catch lately, but when they do it’s hypnotizing.

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We’re also getting very close to an onslaught of ripe tomatoes.

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What we don’t have are cucumbers. After going out every night for a week with my camping headlamp on to intercept slugs, they were finally coming into their own and starting to climb…

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…only to be laid low by bacterial wilt. Major bummer. We can talk about that when I get back too.

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I started some new seeds and they have already sprouted, so hopefully all is not lost and I’ll get to tell you all about the joys of homemade cornichons a little later in the season.

We also have a mystery guest. I have no idea who this is.

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I know it’s a squash of some ilk, but that’s all I’ve got. David found it as a seedling in the onion bed and moved it outside the fence. I thought it was a yellow crookneck originally because that’s what was there last year. Whatever it is it’s growing like gangbusters in all directions.

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I don’t know if I should harvest it small, or let it get big, or what! Maybe it’s a cross breed? I’ll try to figure that out when I get home. The wheelbarrow back there is my feeble attempt to barricade deer from the okra. And that neon green thing is a mesh bag of Irish spring for the same reason.

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They’ve been helping themselves to my roses too! Those bags of soap remind me of girl scout camp. Good times!

So that’s about that. I hope everyone is having an awesome summer so far!

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HARVESTING GARLIC

I recently harvested my first crop of softneck garlic. (The hardneck is still out in the garden.)IMG_8504

I expected this to happen in July, but I’d been keeping an eye on it because the leaves were starting to turn brown and I knew that knowing when to harvest garlic was a matter of observation. A reading of the leaves as it were. When more of the leaves are brown than green the time is nigh. This is also the time to cut back on watering, so as to begin the curing process.

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We’ve had a lot of rain lately, and I didn’t want them to rot, or plump up and split their skins, so I had been keeping an eye on the weather as well. I waited until we’d had a pretty dry run and then on June 24th, I did a test. I used my trusted hori-hori (Japanese soil knife) and gently loosened the soil around a bulb before pulling it out. I know what garlic looks like, but it was still exciting to pull up a fat head of perfectly formed garlic – it’s funny how easily I’ll take nature’s triumphs as my own.

I carefully pulled up the rest of them, gently brushing off some of the soil. They seem tough, but if they end up being stored for months, I didn’t want any damage to end up as an entry place for rot or disease – I’ll make sure to use any compromised heads first. I spread them out on a soil screen and placed them on bricks in my garage to complete their cure. A shady spot with good air flow is what they need. This should take 3-4 weeks. I’ll turn them every few days and when all the leaves are brown, they’ll be ready to clean and braid.

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Garlic couldn’t be easier to plant and it’s a lovely way to end (or start) the gardening year. The last entry in my 2014 garden journal is from November 21st, the day I planted garlic. When everything in your garden is brown and crunchy it’s good for the soul to be planting anything. It closes the circle. Garlic gives you a great return on your investment and is yet one more reason to look forward to spring.

Most sources will tell you that it’s important to start with organic cloves, as those that come from the grocery store come from who knows where and are treated with who knows what (probably a sprout and root inhibitor). I ordered mine from Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org) in early September. I chose Broadleaf Czech, and Tochliavri both softneck artichoke types, and German Red a large rocambole hardneck. I also picked some up at our farmer’s market and promptly forgot what kind they were. Music? I planted them anyway. A little mystery never hurt anyone. They’re hardneck, I’ve figured that much out.

There are basically two kinds of garlic – hardneck (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) and softneck (Allium sativum var. sativum). Sativum means cultivated in Latin.

Hardnecks send up a stiff flower stalk or “scape”, around which are circled a single row of cloves. They have fewer, larger cloves with a more complex, stronger flavor. There are three groups within the ophioscorodons; rocambole, porcelain, and purple stripes. The outer wrapper is looser, so they don’t store as long as softnecks.

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Many growers remove the scapes to make sure the garlic channels its energy into making bulbs, not flowers. I haven’t done that yet, and I suppose I should. But I love the scapes! They seem so inquisitive, like a flock of boisterous birds. If you harvest them, or see some at the farmer’s market, they have lots of uses in the kitchen. You can chop them like a scallion and add them to scrambled eggs or stir-fries, you could make pesto with them, or pickle them.

Okay, I did an experiment, I cut off some scapes and left others, we’ll see if it makes a difference, or if I waited too long.

Softnecks don’t really have a stem. What they have is a pliable bundle of strappy leaves which can be braided together decoratively for storing. They are composed of several rows of smaller cloves all wrapped up in a tight outer wrapper. Softnecks store longer and travel better than hardnecks, thus they are the kind we most often encounter in grocery stores. There are two main groups of softnecks; artichoke and silverskin. The most common domestic variety is California silverskin.

Last November I prepared to plant garlic by digging compost and bonemeal into 2014’s fruit bed, knowing it would be this years root bed. 

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I separated each head into cloves.

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And then pushed each one into the soil pointy-end up. I spaced them about 6″ apart.

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And voila! Nothing to show for myself. That’s the thing about planting bulbs. Delayed gratification.

I mulched them pretty heavily with pine straw and then went inside for several months.

When spring sprung, so did they.

Here’s Wilson inspecting my work on March 16th.

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April 15, 2015
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May 25, 2015

Garlic is a true wonder food the history of which has been traced back at least 10,000 years to the mountainous regions of Central Asia. And unlike many of our highly manipulated modern foods with ancient antecedents, garlic has not been changed all that much from its wild form and therefore maintains most of its wild nutrients.

Notably, since the fall of the Berlin wall, hundreds of Russian varieties have been introduced which is why we are starting to see so many new cultivars. It’s fascinating how far political change can reach.

Garlic has antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, anticlotting, and anticancer properties. From the slaves who built the great pyramids, to ancient Olympian athletes, from Roman armies to French priests during the Black Death of the Middle Ages (English priests, who turned up their noses at it, didn’t fare as well) garlic has been used to improve strength, increase stamina, and for disease resistance. In WWI it was used to treat gunshot wounds and fight infection and during WWII it was dubbed “Russian penicillin”. Those Russians were on to something as common bacteria are one thousand times more likely to become resistant to our modern antibiotics than to garlic.

And while garlic is a good source of manganese, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, copper, selenium, and phosphorus, what makes it the anti-everything King are its sulfur compounds, the most important of which is Allicin. Interestingly, allicin is not present in whole garlic but is created when garlic is cut or chewed. When this happens a protein fragment called alliin and a heat-sensitive enzyme called alliinase react with each other to form allicin. AND, if you immediately add heat to the equation most of that all-important sulfur compound and the benefits thereof are negated. So if you learn anything from this post, learn what I recently did. Once you slice, chop, or press your garlic, let it sit for ten to fifteen minutes before you heat it. This will allow the maximum amount of allicin to be created and you can reap all those lifesaving benefits.

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Vive la Garlic!

NEPETA FAASSENII ‘WALKER’S LOW’ aka CATMINT

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Like a movie director working with a particular troupe of actors, garden designers often work with a palate of favorite plants. I know I do. It only makes sense to work with plants that you know and trust. Luckily I have a garden to experiment in, so while I am willing to put up temporarily with the occasional diva or thug in my own workshop, I can do my best not to subject anyone else to any high maintenance actors.

There are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part I appreciate plants that are low-maintenance, subtle in color, have a long bloom time, attract insects, and are drought- and deer-tolerant. “Walker’s Low’ catmint satisfies every one of those criteria.

Nepeta is a flowering perennial from the mint family, Lamiaceae, a large family with cosmopolitan distribution – meaning mints are found just about everywhere. Remember the spring weeds Lamium purpureum and Lamium amplexicaule? Cousins, I suppose. Other familiar plants in the in the mint family include; basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, lavender, hyssop, bee balm, and salvia. You can usually identify mints by their square stems, their opposite, decussate leaves (a fancy botanical word which means each pair of opposite leaves is at a right angle to the next pair, making an X), and distinctive aroma.

Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ is a cross between Nepeta racemosa and Nepeta nepetella. It gets its genus name, Nepeta, from an ancient Etruscan city, Nepete. Today the city is known as Nepi. It is located at right about the knee cap of the boot that is Italy and is known for its mineral springs. Its species name faassenii refers to J. H. Faassen, the Dutch nurseryman in whose nursery it was first found and it’s varietal name-Walker’s Low-refers to a Irish garden, not its height. It was named the 2007 Perennial Plant of the year by the Perennial Plant Association.

It has a nice round mounding habit, which I really appreciate.

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                                 APRIL 8                                            APRIL 15                                        APRIL 23

I find mounding plants very calming. I love plants with fireworks too, but they wouldn’t work as well for me without the contrast of nice round mounds to set them off. Here they make a nice green foundation for the purple alliums to erupt out of.

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Those mounds can eventually reach 48″ wide by about 30″ tall. They make a nice, albeit tall, ground cover as well. The foliage is a powdery grey-green, and it’s flowers a subtle periwinkle blue. They smell good too. I especially love them with lamb’s ear, another mint family relative, whose big fuzzy grey-green leaves echo their own smaller ones, although it’s tricky to get the spacing just right so the catmint doesn’t smother the lamb’s ear as has happened in portions of my chorus line.

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Nepeta’s common name is catmint. Many catmints, including Nepeta cattaria – what we know as catnip, contain a compound called nepetalactone that has a euphoric effect on cats. Fortunately, Finnegan, the cat I have attracted, does not seem to be attracted to mine. And neither are deer – thank goodness! What is attracted to it is every flying insect around. In full flower they are positively thrumming with bees and butterflies. I’ve even seen hummingbirds taking a sip, or perhaps they’re after the insects… It’s a beautiful thing regardless, even if the cabbage white butterflies who feed on my brassicas are among their company.

‘Walker’s Low’ blooms from May to about mid-June and if you give them a nice shearing right about now,

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they will bloom again in late summer. It can be hard to cut back something that so many insects are enjoying, but this is a good time of the year to do it as other plants fill in to provide sustenance for our crucial pollinators.

Plants like Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’ – talk about fireworks, like a purple candelabra.  IMG_8354

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Can you see all those bees?!

Another insect favorite is Echinacea purpureum or Eastern purple coneflower, see here with a white variety called ‘White Swan’. Behind them is Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Dark Knight’, yet another of the family Lamiaceae, just coming into its own fuzzy blue prowess, they love that too.

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‘Walker’s Low’ is a sterile hybrid, so they won’t reseed like some other nepeta species. I’m hoping to expand my perennial bed another few feet on the other end and repeating my nepeta moment there. I’ve read that when you need more plants you can cut off a piece of the existing plant and move it to where you want it, filling in the hole left behind with compost. I don’t doubt that would work, as this is a really hardy, highly recommended plant.

Fava bean and pea crostini

I don’t know when it started, but in the past few years, my good friend Jennifer has become obsessed with horse racing. Her unbridled enthusiasm has gotten our entire group of friends interested as well. Such is the beauty of a well-tended obsession. She recently had a Belmont-watching party, and I must say, watching American Pharoah win the Triple Crown – the first horse to do so in 37 years – was surprisingly emotional and stupendously thrilling. 

I wanted to take an appetizer capitalizing on what was ready to harvest in my garden and an adaptation of Jaime Oliver’s “Incredible smashed peas and fava beans on toast” was just the thing. I love Jaime Oliver. He’s so enthusiastic and accessible. Not to mention adorable. I love all his cookbooks, but I especially love Jaime at Home. It’s seasonally based around his amazing kitchen garden and is full of beautiful photos and growing information. There’s a show too. It’s like the cookbook come to life. I can’t get enough.

I bought a baguette, some lemons, and some parmesan. And while I was at the farmer’s market, I picked up some gorgeous fromage blanc from White River Creamery (http://www.whiterivercreamery.com).

Then I harvested peas and fava beans. 

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I would be lost without those little scissors. I use them to harvest almost everything. Favas, peas, beans, peppers, tomatoes, herbs. There are few things more frustrating than ripping off an entire stem when you only meant to get a pepper. Plus a clean cut is important because it leaves less of an entrance for diseases to enter. I also just like scissors in general. I find them the perfect embodiment of form and function. I think these babies are particularly attractive. Photogenic too. I picked them up at Pearl River Mart in New York (http://www.pearlriver.com) with no idea they would serve such a purpose in my life. I also like this basket for harvesting. When it’s cooler I use a big stainless steel bowl, but once it starts to get hot, they heat up so quickly that they’re no friend to tender legumes and leaves.

Watch your back. This guy is notorious.

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I also harvested some radishes and mint.

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There’s always an opportunity for a moment of zen when you’re shelling legumes. So even though time was ticking to make it to the party, and I was documenting, I tried to take it.

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Once your beans and peas are shucked, put some of the raw peas, a few mint leaves, and some salt in a mortar and pestle.

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And, as Jaime would say, bash ’em up!

I must admit, I don’t have the right mortar and pestle. I tried both of mine. And while I love them both as objects, what I really need is one of those molcajetes that they make quacamole in. Something with a little more grit. It all worked out eventually, but I did break a sweat.

When you get a nice mash working, start to add your fava beans. Jaime used his raw, but I blanched and peeled mine. Once everything is good and pulverized, add some olive oil to make it creamy, plus some parmesan to ground all that freshness. And then kick it into gear with some lemon juice. Keep tasting until you have the perfect balance of bright creamy salty freshness.

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Now you may not have fava beans hanging out in your garden waiting for you to fulfill their destiny, but this next bit is a keeper. Crostini. “Little toasts.” They are a cinch to make and are the perfect vector for truly endless numbers of toppings. Slice a baguette thinly, brush with olive oil (a little brush for olive oil is a really handy tool to have around), sprinkle with salt and pepper, and pop in a 350º oven for 15-20 mins. Voila! They only challenging part is getting them golden brown without burning them. I was feeling fancy, so I smashed a garlic clove and gently rubbed it on mine. I broke a couple, so I had to be extra gentle. But then I had testers.

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I made a little salad with julienned radishes, pea shoots, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt.

Then, to assemble, I spread a little fromage blanc on each crostini, put some of my lovely green mash on, and topped them with the radish salad.

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I needed something for the middle of the plate, so I tossed arugula, pea shoots, a bit of mint, and some fava bean shoots with olive oil and lemon juice, tossed on the few remaining radishes, grated some parmesan and lemon zest on top, grabbed a bottle of wine out of the fridge and raced to Jennifer’s. Luckily she lives about two minutes away, so I just took the platters as they were.

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Thanks for the party Jennifer! And Congratulations American Pharoah!!!!!!!