Welcoming The Rains

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Rosemary garlic salt makes a welcome gift

Autumn Is A Good Time For Slow Living

After the long summer drought, what bliss to wake in the night to hear rain pattering on the roof and to walk out in the morning to a refreshing drizzle. With Seattle calling for water restrictions and asking people to cut showers short, I feel especially grateful for this lovely rain that has plants perking up and birds chirping merrily as they explore the wet tangle of the autumn garden. With so much care needed at home this summer, the garden has been pretty much on its own yet is holding up quite well. Hardy fuchsias are feeding hummingbirds as well as bees galore. Catnip is throwing out its third set of flowering stems and charming small birds have been enjoying the tiny seeds on the untrimmed older stalks. The Russian sage is still going strong, as are the many kinds of oregano throughout the garden. Runaway mint that lurks under the big troughs is blooming too, providing plenty of nourishment for all sorts of pollinators, as are the occasional tufts of lemon balm, a delicious yet weedy herb that seeds itself around with abandon.

Though most of the annuals are fading, a late crop of sweetpeas is still blooming generously, despite being blown about but gusting wind and rain. Their sweet scent comes through the window as I write, combining pleasantly with the distinctive fragrance of fallen leaves, reminding me that it’s time to get out the sweaters and vests. On the Equinox eve, a group of neighbors gathered to sing in the season over a truly crackling fire (safely held in a metal fire bowl, as the modified burn ban now allows). We sang from our musical memories, sometimes humming as words escaped, making spontaneous mashups. I thought about how so many other countries have traditional seasonal songs, stories, food, and activities and all we could come up with was a medley of random tunes that were popular in our distant youths.

Cultural Gaps

Back then, most schools offered music classes at least weekly and we all learned a lot of Americana that many, perhaps most children today don’t know, from Sweet Betsy From Pike and Home On The Range to Working On The Railway and Oh Suzannah. I’ve been singing with a vocal trio for about 17 years now and we like to include a lot of those old timey songs when we play at farmers markets and anywhere with an older audience. It’s fun to see people’s ears prick up and watch them start to sing along as the words come wandering back to memory. I sing a lot of these songs to my grandkids, who seem only to learn trendy pop songs at school these days. Maybe that’s fine but it does feel like it might be time for another great folk song revival (last one was in the 1950s, after all). Songs carry cultural history, colonialism included; think about the songs about pioneer life, about immigrants, about waves of social upheaval, about hoe downs and play parties before radio and tv took over. Keeping music alive takes time too, another part of slow living.

I’ve been thinking a lot about lost arts, from singing to story telling because our local senior center is hosting a book group that’s reading Braiding Sweetgrass together over several months. In the second section, Tending Sweetgrass, the author brings up many instances of slow living that are part of very few American lives these days. While discussing traditional stories that pass along wisdom through the generations, the author (Robin Wall Kimmerer) tells stories of her own life experiences that have expanded her world view. Many, like making maple syrup, learning lore from an elderly neighbor, or restoring a plant-choked pond, are processes that take time, sometimes lots of it. In today’s busy-busy world, it feels more important than ever to make the time to nurture sturdy, positive connections throughout our community. Let’s keep growing fruits and vegetables to share, making bread and soup to share, keep finding ways to make friends with lonely neighbors. And let’s keep on singing and telling valuable stories. Onward, right?

About That Rosemary Salt

Recently several people have asked for the recipe for various kinds of herbed salts, from rosemary or basil to garlic salt. All are pretty similar and once you have the basic method down, you can experiment freely and make your own combinations. I started doing this years ago by filling a 2-cup measure with sprigs of all kinds of garden herbs, from thyme and oregano to savory and sage, then grinding it with kosher salt. When that batch got funky too soon, I learned to stabilize it by baking the mixture at 225 degrees F until it forms a light crust (10-20 minutes, depending on batch size and moisture content of add-ins). Cool it a bit, then grind it again (don’t wash the food processor too soon or you have to dry it before doing this step, which is a pain). This is a good time to make salt with the last of the basil, while rosemary and garlic can be used pretty much any time you think of it.

Rosemary Salt

2 cups stemmed rosemary
2 cups coarse kosher salt

Grind together to a coarse paste that still has flecks of green. Spread evenly in a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 225 degrees F until crust forms (usually 15-20 minutes). Cool slightly, break up the pieces, and grind again briefly (a few seconds is usually enough). Store in tightly sealed glass containers out of direct light for up to 6 months. Pour through a small funnel to fill smaller glass shaker jars (I get mine from the bulk department of my local grocery store) to give as very welcome gifts.

Rosemary Garlic Salt

As above, adding 4-6 cloves garlic before the first grinding. Mixture will look a bit more yellow and that’s fine.

Garlic Salt

1 large head garlic, cloves peeled
2 cups coarse kosher salt

Same direction as above, mixture gets quite yellow.

Basil Salt

Use 2 cups shredded basil to 2 cups salt and proceed as above. Same for any herbs, really.

Posted in Birds In The Garden, Care & Feeding, fall/winter crops, Hardy Herbs, Health & Wellbeing, Pollination Gardens, Pollinators, Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Vegan Recipes | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Celebrating The Autumn Equinox

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Nature’s autumnal love offering to the world

Nature’s Paintbrush At Work

This year’s autumn equinox (Saturday, September 23) is almost here, marking summer’s exit and fall’s entrance. Since every part of the globe experiences some form of seasonal shift, solstices and equinoxes are celebrated everywhere in various ways. Pretty much all of these celebrations feature special food as well as (surprise!) intoxicating beverages. In the Northern hemisphere, where autumn ushers in the dimmer, shorter days of winter, traditional festivals often focus on light in the coming darkness. One of my favorites is the Chinese Moon Festival, featuring lovely, round, paper lanterns to light and delectable round moon cakes stuffed with chopped nuts to share with family and friends. A nearby neighbor’s balcony is illuminated with large round lanterns that glow like many moons in soft pastel shades through the dark nights. Now I’m inspired to hang some smaller globes in my own little covered porch as a gentle way to light up the night and spark a little happiness.

Last week marked farewell to light-filled evenings here-the Seattle area won’t see twilight after 8:00 pm again until mid March. Morning light is shrinking as well, prompting plants to begin to shut down for winter slumber. After a very dry summer such as we had here, it’s wise to continue at least minimal watering of new plants and transplants well into winter, as in some places deeper soil never got saturated at all last year. It’s also important if you want your garden to be as bold in autumn as it is in summer. Moderately moist soil makes for more vivid and longer lasting foliage color displays in the garden as well as in the woods and fields. Though rain is still scanty and rare here, the heavy autumn dews help to boost plant health as well as fall color.

Moisture Matters

Soil moisture affects both the timing and potency of leaf color; warm and wet summers followed by warm, sunny fall days and cooler nights make for the most dramatic displays. Cold, late springs and hot, dry summers can delay or diminish fall color as will autumn heat, which encourages rapid leaf fall before potent colors can develop. In such a disappointing year, leaves turn brown and drop without their time of glory. This year, local trees and shrubs have been showing a little color for a few weeks, and as the nights grow cooler, the colors are intensifying beautifully.

In gardens, compost mulch can boost blazing color in everything from maples and ginkgos to spireas and hydrangeas to Blue Stars (amsonia) and peonies. That’s because compost helps plants build up brix, natural sugars that contribute reds, coppers, oranges, golds and purples to the foliage fiesta. Though the loss of chlorophyll stored away summery sugars, cooler autumn nights shrink leaf veins so newly produced sugars can’t escape to the twigs. Instead, they become brilliant colors; anthocyanins (which put the blue in blueberries) create reds, purples, and burgundy, while carotenoids (which make carrots orange) create yellow, gold and orange tints. Beneficial bionutrients for all!

A Legacy of Lovely Leaves

Wherever they flourish, deciduous trees (especially hardwoods like beech, maples, and oaks) can be almost shockingly beautiful in a good leaf color year. While soil nutrients and moisture are important keys to color, briefer days trigger the reduction in chlorophyll production that allows the hidden sugars and minerals to shine. As photosynthesis slows down with the dwindling daylight, leaves loose their greenness, changing the chlorophyll into nutrient compounds that get stored in twigs for the winter, ready to feed baby buds as winter wanes.

When the leaves fall off, you can often see the tiny nubs that are next year’s leaves in the making. The leaves themselves are also packed with nutrients that help feed the soil which in turn feeds the tree roots. This beautiful cycle continues unbroken unless somebody gets into a fit of tidiness and removes the leaves. If the look of loose fallen leaves is too messy for anyone, the simple ecologically sound solution is to shred those leaves and put them right back where they belong. Just saying…

There’s An App For That (Of Course There Is)

If you’re seeking a great place to enjoy fabulous fall color, there is now an app for tracking the progress of leaf changing color peaks across the country (see below). Slide the bar below the map image to track projected color changes by date and region. The map is updated often to help promote tourism for rural areas where leaf lookers can boost local economies that often drop after summer vacationers leave. Onward, right?


Posted in Annual Color, Climate Change, composting, Health & Wellbeing, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Plenitude Of Pears & Perplexity Of Carers

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Perfect pears celebrate autumn’s approach

Of Happy Bees & Fruitful Trees

Our little neighborhood is kind of a hidden gem, surprisingly peaceful and sunny despite being tucked away behind tall apartments. Small as our lots are, quite a few boast dwarf fruit trees that produce a remarkable amount in a good year. This has been a bit mixed in terms of fruit; some trees are loaded, others hardly have any fruit. Depending on when they bloomed, the cold winds may have blown away the blossoms before the bees could get to them. In some cases, icy sleet kept sensible bees in their snug nests and fertilization never occurred. Wherever happy bees found nectar and pollen last spring, we are now harvesting fruit. The ever-changing odds make it even more delightful when our little local trees have a bumper crop, especially because sharing the bounty is part of the neighborhood ethos, so we all benefit from the good fortune.

Our usually heavy bearing local plum tree wasn’t especially fruitful this year, but because nobody else was picking them, I was able to gather and distribute the best of them before the raccoons moved in to clean up. In my kitchen, a dozen turned into plum vinegar and another dozen, split and stoned, went into the freezer for a holiday plum tart. Now it’s time for pears, and that’s cause for rejoicing, since our neighbor’s Clapp’s Favorite pears are just plain fabulous. A heritage variety dating back to the 1800s, this is a succulent variety I remember fondly from my Massachusetts childhood, when local farm stands sold them each fall, along with apples and pumpkins and winter squash. Each luscious yellow pear has one rosy cheek and offers crisp yet juicy sweet-tart fruit that’s perfect for eating fresh. Like most pears, they’re best harvested before they ripen fully, which they readily do in my kitchen.

Perfect Pear Treats

Fresh, ripe pears are so delicious that we usually enjoy them as is, but a few recipes are part of welcoming autumn around here, among them this simple pear clafoutis. Though the ingredients are similar to a crispy Dutch baby, clafoutis has a tender, almost custardy texture that cradles fresh fruit like a warm, soft blanket. Clafoutis will slowly puff up and get golden brown but don’t up the heat if it’s not browning quickly, and don’t overcook it or it can get a little rubbery; 35-40 minutes tops!

Pear Clafoutis

3 large eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract (or 1/2 almond if you prefer)
1 cup milk (whole or 2% but not skim)
2 tbsp melted butter OR avocado oil
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 ripe pear, halved, cored and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped candied ginger (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 F. Blend eggs, sugar and vanilla well, then stir in milk and butter or oil, then add flour and mix well. Pour into a cast iron frying pan (my favorite) or a glass pie pan and arrange pear slices on top, scattering ginger bits if using. Bake at 325 F for 35-40 minutes. Enjoy it while it’s hot. Serves at least one.

On The Home Front

As the weeks whirl by (or crawl, depending), I’m remembering how lonely long term caregiving can be. Initially there’s often a rush of kind and sincere offers to help, some vague, some specific, but as time rolls on, people get busy and move on. As your personal situation gets displaced by so many others, there can be what feels like a kind of impatience from some early supporters if you continue to reply that things are rough, as if you’ve had your turn and now it’s time to get over it (whatever your ‘it’ may be). That’s very understandable, especially given the rate at which dire things are happening these days, particularly to those in my age cohort and older. However, with fewer and fewer folks willing to listen to what must sound like the same old same old, it can feel like there’s nowhere to go with our ongoing sorrow and weariness, and that’s the part that can feel lonely. I’m even hearing the same experience from caregiving friends involved in traditionally supportive faith communities; seems like everyone’s so stressed out that there’s little extra empathy left.

I have to chuckle and shake my head when I remember my mom telling me it was time to get over it two weeks after my husband died suddenly, because she wanted me to take her to the grocery store instead of the pleasant and kind volunteer I’d lined up for her. It’s only kinda-sorta funny, but I think much of her generation (she’d have turned 100 this summer) was brought up to button it up and march on, pretty much no matter what. I can understand that too, as it eventually gets tiresome both to hear about other’s travails and to recite our own. But after two weeks? That’s a pretty brief allowance for a pretty major grief. However, the deeper lesson may be that externalizing our comfort source and looking to others to provide it isn’t ultimately as effective as learning to find lasting and ever-present comfort from our own inner teacher or guiding light.

Listening To The Light

Call it what you will, I believe that everyone has what the Quakers call ‘the still, small voice within’; a calm knowing that may present in words or images or feelings or all or none of the above. For me at least, the key is shutting up long enough to hear it. In her beautiful, powerful book, Sacred Instructions, Penobscot Elder Sherri Mitchell tells a great story about bringing a spiritual teacher to tears of helpless laughter as Sherri described her own increasingly desperate, passionate pleas to hear that inner voice to the teacher. She says, “When she was done laughing, she told me, ‘You have to stop asking and be quiet if you want an answer’.” That still makes me smile because it’s so close to home for me. Surely it’s all about finding just the right words, right? Or maybe it’s about finding just the right silence? Onward, right?

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Dazzling Dahlias

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Dahlias that match my cat and my dinner

Easy Beauty For Weary Gardeners

After a cold dry spring, the warm summery weather we’ve been getting is very welcome. Sunny day after sunny day, it definitely has that endless summer quality, and the kids are thrilled to be able to go to the beach and swim in our cool coastal waters and not turn blue. However, without those cool, grey marine layer mornings to keep things damp, many of our English Border perennials are drying out fast, despite daily watering. In contrast, the sun lovers, annuals and perennials, are basking happily, drinking in sunlight as if it were water. My zinnias just keep producing bud after bud, and the charming little Lemon Drop Evening Primroses tumble in silvery-green cascades studded with endless golden blossoms. There’s a charming pink one too, from Mexico, but it rarely returns to my garden after a cold winter.

Among the best of the sun lovers are dahlias, tough, enduring and gorgeous. Dahlias come in so many tints and tones these days that you can choose them in almost any color but blue. Last week I visited a nearby dahlia farm with a Senior Center group and we explored fields of flowers in full, triumphant bloom. The farmer told us she had started out with 100 different varieties and now grows at least twice that many, in every size and shade and hue imaginable, from lacy white to deepest red-black. I picked an assortment that called my name and was tickled to find when I got home that I had created an arrangement that perfectly blended with both my cat and the beautiful ripe nectarine I was getting ready to chop up (add a little yogurt and some nut-rich homemade granola and you have the perfect summer no-cook meal).

Grow Your Own, The Lazy Way

Like tomatoes, dahlias like full sun and adequate water but not soggy feet or drenched foliage. My farmer friend dutifully digs up several fields full of tubers each year because they regularly flood in winter, when water tables are high. The largest field stands higher and never gets sodden, and there they only lift the plants every other year, and mostly because they sell tubers in spring as well as flowers in summer. At the local library, where I’ve been gardening with the Friday Tidies for nearly 30 years, we’ve got dahlias that have never been lifted in years, and they bloom as strongly as ever, providing plenty of cut flowers for our beloved librarians as well as casual passersby. People just can’t resist helping themselves and that’s fine with us, since the more you pick, the more buds the plants produce.

Similarly, at the Senior Center, half a dozen dahlia plants have braved freezing winter temperatures as well as sweltering sun and reflected heat off the parking lot for several years and they, too, bloom abundantly all summer. This year, they really stood up to the test, as I’ve been too busy (and overwhelmed) to do much watering and my most faithful (and fun) helper has been traveling (and broke her hand on her last trip), so the dahlias have had to manage on their own. They’ve done amazingly well with only a handful of organic fertilizer scratched in in May and a few inches of wood chips for mulch to lock in whatever moisture the dew might offer. You’ve got to love a plant that’s so giving and needs so little in return.

Granny Granola

1/4 cup avocado oil
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup honey or maple syrup
1 teaspoon each cinnamon, coriander, and ginger
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup each walnuts, pecans and peanuts
6-7 cups rolled oats

Combine oils, sweetener and spices in a bowl and blend well. Stir in vanilla and nuts, then add oats, stirring often to coat generously. Spread the mixture into a rimmed baking sheet and smooth it out to the edges. Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes and cool if you like softer granola, or stir the mixture and bake for another 10 minutes if you prefer crunchy granola. Cool and store in a glass container. Makes about 2-1/2 quarts.

Posted in Annual Color, Care & Feeding, Climate Change, Drainage, Easy Care Perennials, Planting & Transplanting, Recipes, Vegan Recipes | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments