Midsummer Nurture

Keeping Plants And People Well Fed

After spring’s first burst of garden glory, the summer garden settles in to serious production. Or it should; maritime mornings continue to be grey and cool, while afternoons are warm and sunnier. Even for the experts, it’s still hard to know what the summer will bring in terms of temperatures. Though the El Nino warming effect officially ended in May, the expected La Nina cycle seems to be stalled out. In my garden, this flip-flop weather is keeping some plants back while others leap joyfully forward.

Such summers favor cool season crops, which produce with enthusiasm. This year, there were plump peas galore. Raspberries and strawberries cropped like crazy, packing freezers and filling pantries with jam. The heat lovers were more hesitant, since cold nights and overcast days set them back repeatedly. We maritimers have learned that for us, summer really ramps up around here in mid July. Finally, we can gather baskets full of tomatoes and tomatillos, basil and beans.

A Midsummer Snack

Because ongoing temperature swings are the norm here, I’ve switched almost entirely over to growing grafted tomatoes. After years of disappointment, I can now rely on harvesting enough tomatoes to enjoy them in a dozen ways. I freeze roasted tomatoes as well as sauce to enliven winter meals. I make fresh chutneys and salsas and countless salads, experimenting with dressings to find new ways to enhance that natural tomato spunkiness.

Over the years, I’ve found that a midsummer snack can keep my plants productive and boost flavor at the same time. I mix up my favorite plant elixir by the gallon and offer it to food crops as well as any garden ornamentals that seem to need a little help. It’s especially helpful for heat lovers, greening up their foliage while stimulating more productivity. The combination of liquid kelp, humic acid, and fish fertilizer offers gentle encouragement to pretty much everything. I spray it on tomato and pepper foliage and also use it as a root drench after watering my pots. Here’s the recipe:

Midsummer Plant Elixir

1 tablespoon liquid kelp concentrate
1 tablespoon humic acid concentrate
1/4 cup liquid fish fertilizer
1 gallon water

Combine in a gallon jug and let stand overnight. Store in a cool, dark place. Give each tomato plant (or hanging flower basket) 1 cup and each basil plant 1/2 cup of mixture every 2 weeks. Plants in 1 gallon containers get 1/4 cup each on same schedule.

Summery Yums

This spritely salad is my new go-to when serving tacos or enchiladas. It sounds too simple to be good, yet it is extremely more-ish. It’s also lovely tucked into split pitas with smoked tofu or grilled salmon and shredded Romaine.

Tomato Salsa Salad

2 tablespoons avocado oil
1-2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes (use several kinds)
2 ears sweet corn, kernels cut off
1 cup chopped sweet red peppers
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup stemmed cilantro
1 head Romaine lettuce, sliced in thin ribbons

In a serving bowl, whisk oil and vinegar together to taste. Add all but lettuce, toss gently and let stand for 10 minutes. Add lettuce, toss gently and serve. Serves 4.

A Chilly Appetizer

Creamy, spunky, and bright with sea salt, this simple sorbet makes an amazing amuse bouche. Use a melon ball scoop to give gazpacho a fantastic garnish. You can use cilantro or lemon thyme instead of basil for cilantro to change it up.

Tomato Basil Sorbet

1 cup pureed fresh tomatoes
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups heavy organic cream

Combine all ingredients and chill overnight or up to 2 days. Freeze in an ice cream maker, pack into containers and freeze for at least an hour. Makes about 3 pints.

Summer Chutney

Fragrant and lightly spicy, chutney is equally delicious in salad dressings or offered as an appetizer dip for sliced apples and pears. Spoon a bit over grilled fish or chicken as well as basmati or nutty-tasting Bhutanese red rice. It keeps a long time in the refrigerator and makes a very welcome gift.

Tomato Paprika Chutney

1 teaspoon safflower oil
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon mustard seed
6 green cardamom pods
2 white or yellow onions, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 quart ripe tomatoes, sliced in wedges
2 tart apples, cored and chopped
1/4 cup chopped paprika peppers
2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup coconut sugar or cane sugar

In a deep pan, heat oil, seeds, and pods over medium high heat to the fragrance point (1-2 minutes).  Add onions and salt and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and apples, cover and cook until soft (10-15 minutes). Add vinegar and sugar and cook for 20 minutes, stirring often. Remove green cardamom pods, pour chutney into sterilized jars and seal. Makes about 6 cups.

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Growing Tomorrow’s Gardeners

Welcoming Children In The Garden

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about involving children in the garden. While the youngest may work willingly side by side with a parent or older sibling, tweens and teens seem harder to engage. Well, yes. Those are some complicated years, with a lot going on in pretty much every way. It certainly seems easier to capture them young, but it’s never too late. When a local nature preserve began accepting high school kids into an intern program, nearly all of the participants were transformed by the experience of working directly with plants. Some, including several who had never willingly wielded a shovel before, have gone on to pursue careers in horticulture.

Most avid gardeners have a story about a parent, grandparent, or neighbor who made them welcome in the garden as a child or as a tween or teen. Lifelong gardeners also credit their love of growing, cooking, and eating their own food crops to the encouragement of that older generation. It’s well established that food-fussy children who are invited to help plant and pick edible crops are more likely to eat things they grow themselves.

Room For Exploratory Play

By the same token, children who are free to play and explore in a garden setting are likely to become lifelong gardeners themselves. Perhaps the best way to engage children in gardening is to begin not with chores but with pleasurable projects. Small children love to help and they delight in working closely with adults. To promote these simple pleasures, set aside an area where enthusiastic but unskilled garden activities won’t wreak havoc with your main crops. A low picket fence can delineate ‘kid space’ and keep the joyful activity safely contained.

If more than one child will be in the garden with you, find a spot for each child to make their own. Toddlers will love a space that combines a sandbox and digging tools with a bit of planting ground. My grandson’s sandbox, which can double as a fire pit with the addition of a large metal fire bowl, is full of dinosaurs and dump trucks, with kale and carrots on the side. A short hose (drinking-quality) with an easy-to-use spray nozzle provides endless pleasure in watering plants, filling buckets, and occasionally soaking an unsuspecting granny. In a tiny garden, give each child a huge tree pot filled with sand (for playing) or soil (for growing). Tiered strawberry and lettuce planters can fit on the smallest deck or terrace, and many edibles can be grown in vertical gardening structures and containers designed to hang over fence railings.

Each One Teach One

My own boys, when very young,  delighted in creating a ‘truck garden’ filled with both toy trucks and easily grown, delicious crops like strawberries and baby carrots. The oldest, then aged four, loved working alongside me, and after a lengthy bulb planting session, I was enchanted to overhear him patiently instructing his little brother, then going on two. They had a bucket of compost and a box of bulbs and were industriously digging little holes, working in some compost, and tucking in bulbs together. Peter watched as Andrew plunked in a bulb, then gently tweaked its position saying, “Remember, Andrew; pointy side up!”

Similarly, there were usually a few peer leaders in each of the groups of children who planted together at Owen’s Playground, but the planting process was entirely collaborative. As the sensory gardens came into being, we could hear happy chatter as kids decided together how to arrange each bed. One group decided to make a magic forest of tall amaranth, and another proudly showed me a bright ribbon of calendulas weaving around a spiraling path.

When Work Meets Play

Just last week, my grandson, who just turned three, joined me for an early morning planting session at Owen’s Playground. After some discussion, he decided to plant some of his favorite foods, notably strawberries and several kinds of kale. After we planted a few together, he eagerly dug the holes himself, easily done in the newly shaped beds. We tipped out each plant one by one, then I showed him how to gently loosen the roots before planting. After that, he worked merrily along, singing a little song that went,”Dig dig dig, wake up, roots, tickle tickle tickle! Soil soil soil, pat pat pat.”

After tucking a strawberry plant on the edge of a bed, he said, “Let’s plant some more strawberries over here, so they can be friends.” I was enchanted by his companionable feeling for these little plants, with the instinctive recognition of the colonizing nature of plants. I’ve noticed that many children begin planting with a preference for things they enjoy eating. Even older kids usually enjoy choosing and growing particularly tasty varieties of a few favorite foods, such as raspberries and sweet corn. They may also be delighted by compact fruit trees, perhaps grafted with several choice kinds of apples or pears, and low-pruned for easy picking. As their skills improve, young people may proudly serve their very own produce, fresh or canned or made into jam or pies, at family meals and holiday feasts.

Gimme Shelter

Youngsters of all ages will appreciate the shelter of a garden shed that offers shade and a place to sit and shell peas, play quietly, or even take a nap. Make sure that sharp tools and any fertilizers and sprays (even safe, organic ones) are kept on high shelves, out of reach of the curious. Have water available for rinsing off small hands and yummy edibles. Water play is always fun for small children, so keep a few unbreakable bowls or pans on hand for rinsing produce or sailing pea pod boats. A tall, sturdy fence around the garden as a whole keeps deer and other critters out of the garden and wandering toddlers safely in.

Impromptu structures such as a bean teepee can be a fun first project for children, since little fingers can easily grasp plump bean seeds. Use tall branches, bamboo poles, or even pvc pipe to create the frame. Make your teepee tall enough that small people can stand up inside, and wide enough to accommodate several children at a time. As the beans clamber up the supports, the teepee becomes a leafy green hideout where imaginative play is sparked. Keep the area immediately around the teepee clear of precious plants, so children don’t have to worry about harming important crops. Mulch the interior and surrounding paths with soft, forgiving materials such as straw, sawdust or wood shavings rather than wood chips, which tend to be splintery.

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A Grand Year For Cherries

Fresh Ideas For A Refreshing Fruit

When ripe cherries hit the market, my family eats them by the pound. My toddler grandson and I sit at the table and he gobbles them down as fast as I can pit them for him. Before long, we both get covered in the sticky, dark red juice and so do all my table linens (not to mention my clothing). I find that ripe cherries last longer and keep better if I soak them in cool water for an hour or so. Though nothing can beat sun-warmed, just-picked cherries, a day or two of refrigeration can leave them slightly less delightful, but the cool soak helps them stay in tip top shape a little longer.

Once we’ve eaten our fill, it’s time to get inventive. This morning, I enjoyed cherry popovers, crisp on top and creamy inside, with delicious bits of cherry coming as a lovely surprise. We enjoy cherries in savory green salads as well, especially when paired with arugula and sweet peppers and tossed with a light basil pesto dressing. My favorite way to revel in an excess of cherries is to roast them. Lightly caramelized, cherries develop a glazed, slightly crunchy skin with a melting middle. Tossed with a high-temperature oil and hot or sweet spices before roasting, they make a splendid side for grilled chicken or fish. For an unforgettable dessert, roast some with maple syrup and nutmeg, then spoon the result over homemade ice cream. Next you might try caramelized cherry scones, add some to morning granola, stir them into cakes or use them to garnish a sizzling hot curry.

Advanced Cherry Pitting

I have tried several mechanical cherry pitters and find them quite frustrating. One friend pits her cherries by poking out the pit with a sturdy straw, but I work fastest by cutting the cherries in half, rotating the two halves in opposite directions to loosen the pit, then flicking it out with the knife or my fingertip. It’s quick and very messy, so I always keep some Bac-Out (made by Bioclean) on hand. This natural degrader removes odors as well as horrible stains of many kinds, from red wine to baby puke and even worse…

Cherry Popovers

2 tablespoons soft butter
1 cup finely chopped cherries
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 cup unbleached flour

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F and generously butter a muffin tin with half the butter and add some cherries to each cup. In a mixing bowl, combine remaining butter with remaining ingredients and blend for 30 seconds with a hand mixer (don’t over-mix). Fill muffin cups about 1/3 full and bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees F, then without opening the oven, reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake 10-15 minutes longer. (Longer time for extra crispy tops.) Serve immediately with butter and raspberry jam. Makes 12.

Gilding The Lily

All these caramelized cherry recipes can be made with sweet or tart cherries and all can be frozen for up to 3 months if you can hide them successfully.

Caramelized Spicy Cherries

2 cups halved sweet cherries
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon hot smoked paprika or chili pepper flakes
1 organic lime, quartered

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Toss cherries, oil, sea salt and spice of choice, then spread cherries in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, cut-side down. Roast until edges are browned (15-20 minutes). Spritz with lime juice and serve with fish or chicken or sweet corn, or just wolf them down. Serves 1-4.

Caramelized Curried Cherries

2 cups halved tart pie cherries
1 tablespoon coconut oil, melted
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon curry powder

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Toss cherries, coconut oil, sea salt and curry powder, then spread cherries in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, cut-side down. Roast until edges are browned (15-20 minutes). Serve over basmati rice with fish or chicken or any vegetable. Serves 1-4.

Sweet Caramelized Cherries

2 cups halved sweet cherries
1 tablespoon avocado or safflower oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Toss cherries, oil, lemon rind, and spices with half the lemon juice, then spread cherries in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, cut-side down, reserving extra juice. Roast until edges are browned (15-20 minutes). Toss with remaining juices and serve over ice cream, bread pudding, rice pudding, or whatever you fancy. Serves 1-4.

This salad is also good with chopped fresh cherries if you’re in a hurry.

Caramelized Cherry & Chicken Salad

1/4 cup walnuts or hazelnuts
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 cup fresh basil with some stems
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 head Romaine, sliced in ribbons
1 cup arugula, shredded
2 cups cooked chicken, in bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup red onion, chopped
1 cup sugar snap peas, in 1-inch pieces
1 Italian sweet pepper (or any sweet pepper), chopped
1/2 cup caramelized cherries (any kind)

In a food processor, grind the nuts coarsely, then add the oil, vinegar, basil and salt to taste, set aside. In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients except cherries, toss with dressing, divide between 4 plates and serve, topped with cherries. Serves 4.


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Growing The Gardeners of Tomorrow

Enchantment, Not Weeds

I’ve recently been privileged to spend garden time with many groups of children. Some gathered at our local library for our annual Fairy House program, in which kids create all manner of fanciful constructions using natural materials, from flowers and petals and leaved and buds to shells and feathers, moss and bark. The other groups were delightedly planting edibles and ornamentals they grew from seed. In both cases, many of their parents commented curiously on their child’s level of interest, usually saying that these kids were not particularly interested in gardening at home. What made them so engaged?

I think several factors played a part: for one thing, no weeding was involved (!). Also, the Fairy House program excludes parents except as passive onlookers and actively discourages adult interference. There is supervision and oversight, of course, but the childrens’ own creativity is allowed full rein and they are also allowed the luxury of constructive failure. They are offered a wide range of materials to experiment with and given encouragement as needed, but they get to experience a little frustration as well as the soaring triumph of success when their own ideas become workable.

Hands On Ownership

In the other case, we were planting at Owen’s Playground, an accessible play space that’s rich with marvelous climbing boulders as well as swings and slides and so forth. Most of the kids took occasional breaks to play between plantings, but nearly all of them returned quickly to their work, which they took quite seriously. After all, all humans seek some kind of meaningful activity, and home chores don’t always stack up favorably against a community project that combines good works and good fun.

In both settings, the hands-on aspect was a significant factor. Whether from a home school group or a regular school program, the children had raised their plants from seed. They had watered and tended them for several months as we all waited for planting time to arrive. Once it did, each group came in turn to plant their own offerings as well as a plentiful supply of other colorful things, from Pink Flamingo chard and alpine strawberries to purple perilla and gorgeous amaranths.

Nurturing And Gentle Guidance

Nurturing their own seedlings seemed to give the kids a deeper respect and even fondness for other plants as well. Having cared for the seedlings, they fully realized that plants can live or die and that each of us can influence their fate.  That sense of responsibility led them to (largely) treat plants more like kittens or puppies than like inanimate objects. The communal aspect certainly played a part as well, since in each setting kids teamed up and worked together very happily, finding support and affirmation in a shared creative process. Just as the Fairy House participants were free to try out new ideas, the playground planters were told what each plant would look like when full grown and encouraged to place them where they could look wonderful.

When it comes to instructing kids, I am a huge fan of gentle guidance rather than over-controlling. I feel fortunate (usually) to have grown up in the 50s, when parenting was horrifyingly hands-off by today’s standards. The kids in our middle class neighborhood were encouraged to play outside all day, as long as we showed up for meals and went to bed on time. My brothers and I experienced this as mostly benign neglect, taking full advantage of our freedom to ride bikes to the library daily, play in the nearby woods, climb trees, build forts, and mess about with boats on the local river. Back then, nobody seemed worried about possible dangers and I don’t recall anything awful happening to any of us until the 60s crashed over us, bringing Viet Nam, an ocean of drugs, and some rather less savory freedoms in their wake.

Kid Gardening Is Different

For the past century or so, gardening has ranked high among America’s favorite hobbies. Most folks grew at least a few tomatoes and flowers, and many raised much of their own food. Sadly, things are changing fast. A fascinating government report issued in 2013 shows that on average, we now enjoy about 5 hours a day of free time, most of which is spent watching tv, playing computer games, and socializing on line or in real life. We spend 20 minutes reading, 19 minutes exercising, and 17 minutes relaxing and thinking. Gardening isn’t even on the list.

Gardening conferences these days are attended by a greying, largely female audience. If horticulture is losing ground, growing food is gaining somewhat, largely thanks to renewed interest in food quality and safety. However, gardening is no longer a common family activity (especially when weeding is required). What’s more, children spend far more time indoors than past generations did. When they are outside, it’s apt to be as part of a team, involved in a sport or game. That’s fine, yet team sports don’t teach us how to enjoy nature. Unstructured outdoor play is sadly rare, and many children are not even sure how to interact with the natural world.

Hands On, Hands Off

Thus, I am enchanted to  gently guide children in hands-on outdoor activities, whether it involves creating imaginative habitats to delight themselves or planting public places for hundreds of people to enjoy. It’s heartening to watch children find such joy in playing with garden gleanings that would otherwise end up in our compost, or in devising a magical forest of annuals for a playground. Even without (or especially without) adult suggestions, the range and scope of their imaginative makings is impressive and often unexpected.

If this sounds like fun to you as well, please pick up the torch. To get started, find a spot or two where such activities can be enjoyed by your children, grandchildren, or neighborhood children. Create appropriate safety guidelines, then stand back as the youngsters make a fairy house or plant a P-Patch or decorate a public space for everyone to enjoy. If we’re lucky, they’ll become tomorrow’s gardeners, alive to the living world. It’s hugely important, because when we encourage children to play creatively in the garden, we offer a bridge to the natural world that can last a lifetime.

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