A Seasonal Offering

Celebrating The Dying Year

As a kid, I felt the powerful pull of autumn as a call to adventure. Hearing honking geese overhead, watching their tidy Vs arrowing through the sky, I yearned to join their purposeful travels into distant lands and lonely places. New England’s luxurious heaps and sweeps of tumbling leaves were also enchanting, as transforming of the local landscape as snowfall and intoxicatingly colorful. I tried to save the brightest ones, flaming maple or golden birch, only to find them faded and curling overnight. The very evanescence of those extraordinary colors was part of the charm, like fairy gold that vanishes overnight.

Having read and re-read Mary Norton’s Borrowers books, I also loved making little houses for little people, indoors and out. In summer, I’d weave small rugs and blankets of soft grasses and long, slender leaves, make cradles from cracked nutshells, and model tiny dishes from the raw clay along the riverbank. In more recent years, I’ve invited children to create similar fantasy homes for littles at our local library, where I’ve been gardening with the Friday Tidy volunteers for over 20 years now. This fall, I’ve fallen in love with the idea of creating a nature-based ofrenda and spent many happy hours arranging leaves in patchwork and path edgings. The activity is deeply soothing and the result is both lovely and cheerful.

A Natural Offering

As autumn slides toward winter, many cultures celebrate seasonal change. While some countries mark All Saints and All Souls days with Halloween, a Mexican tradition instead offers artful, beautifully decorated displays that commemorate family and friends who have passed away. Many are created with natural materials, including flowers and foliage as well as candles, photographs, paintings and other memorabilia to joyfully recall dear ones to mind. This year, the Friday Tidy is decorating the library gardens with an outdoor ofrenda that celebrates the passing of all that has been left behind this year. We’re being assisted by Araceli Cruz, the artist who assembles the spectacular ofrenda at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art each year. Using natural materials from the gardens, we’re making our homage to the passing seasons. We hope when visitors pass through the garden, they might be moved to add a flower, a leaf, or a seedpod as well.

We began along a secondary garden path, where empty bays between shrubs seem to invite decoration. We set the stage with a pair of large branches an arborist had trimmed from a lovely but terminally diseased Japanese maple. Covered with lichens and mosses, the branches could not be not allowed into the art museum (where insects are not encouraged), but their very communal liveliness makes them perfectly at home in the garden. Sheltering under tall firs, the stout branches rise like the wings of a stage, framing our main display. Our initial offering was an array of oyster shells, gift of a wanderer who enjoyed a meal and left the remains beneath a tree. We added bundles of crocosmia stalks, bound with long leaves or knots of spangled seedhead stalks from my favorite pheasant tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana).

Nature Accepts The Offer

When I stopped by a few days later to add bunches of oregano blossoms, I found the crocosmia bundles untied and scattered. At first I suspected human agency until I noticed a grey squirrel racing through the garden. It had what looked like bright yellow ribbons dangling from its mouth, but they were actually ripe daylily foliage that had held several bundles together. I’m sure they’ll make a lovely, soft blanket for a winter hideaway; though grey squirrels don’t actually hibernate, they do spend a lot of time snuggling in their nests during the coldest months.

This week we added a delightful garland of leaves that Ariceli gathered when she walked her dog in the morning. She took a bright bagful home and sewed them together with a sharp needle and coarse thread (very fine twine would work too), taking one wide stitch through each leaf so they lie flat against the string. The cool, rainy weather has kept the colors vivid so far, but I’m also experimenting with an old technique I recalled from childhood. I’m pressing colorful leaves dry between newspapers, then ironing them between two sheets of waxed paper. I’m pretty sure I wrecked an iron or two with something similar involving melted crayons way back when, so this time I’m using a sheet of packing paper on top to keep from getting wax all over the bottom of the iron. Right?

Pathway To Heaven

I’ll try cutting out the leaves and stringing them on fine wire or maybe fishing line to dangle from nearby branches. Hopefully the waxy coating will keep the colors bold for a few weeks, but even if they fade, that seems suitable in view of the theme of decay and decline. I’m also entertaining myself mightily by weaving a tapestry of foliage along the display area. This week, I’ll extend the foliage to follow the path in both directions. I can imagine this as an annual event involving kids and others who might enjoy weaving bright ribbons of leaves throughout the entire garden on both sides of every path.

It also seems like a lovely way for kids to learn to recognize the various shapes and sizes of leaves from all sorts of plants. Plant ID can be tedious as book learning but endlessly fascinating in a natural context. I imagine kids would enjoy gathering lovely leaves, seeking out the brightest in an autumnal version of an Easter egg hunt. Using them to decorate their own garden paths might be equally entertaining and very beautiful to boot. If we only protect what we love, immersing kids in nature and encouraging them to see beauty everywhere seems like a good way to ensure ongoing love for the natural and a lifelong commitment to ecological protection as a visceral rather than intellectual cause.


Posted in fall/winter crops, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Self Soothing With Bread

When Times Are Tough, The Wise Start Baking

I’ve always loved the smell of bread; bread rising, bread baking, bread freshly sliced, bread toasting… Few things are as soothing to me as making bread, so it makes perfect sense that as I’m packing up my house for the second move in six months (!?!) I’m also making bread. I recently heard a friend comment that there is no such thing as good rye bread and remembered the sourdough rye I used to make when Bud and my mom were still on the planet. I especially love sourdough because it’s amazingly forgiving, which makes total sense when you think about those old ‘49ers with their favorite sourdough starters. I’ve even read about pioneers sleeping with their starters to keep them alive in freezing weather.

I don’t sleep with my starter (not that that’s anybody’s business) but I’ve had one for many years, sometimes active on the counter, sometimes slumbering in the fridge. I’ve often thought that if I could only eat a few things, bread would top the list of first choices, along with the cole family, the onion family, and apples…

Get Your Starter On

As a single person, I tend to share and freeze much of what I make since I can cook faster than I can (or should) eat. Sourdough breads are especially welcome since they’re not only tangy, chewy, and toothsome, but they also remain fresh far longer than most yeast breads. If an aging loaf starts to get a tad tough, a few moments in the toaster restores its texture. Even truly stale sourdough makes fabulous French toast and bread pudding. Sourdough is also the simplest and most forgiving form of artisan baking. If those goldrush miners kept sourdough productive in primitive wilderness camps, you can easily do it in a modern kitchen.

Many sourdough starters are passed along between neighbors but can be made anytime at home. There are lots of myths about starters out there, but no matter what starter you use, if you keep it for any length of time, it will be yours and yours alone, capturing the essence of your kitchen. If you don’t know any bakers who might share with you, here are my favorite recipes for wheat and rye starters as well as some excellent sourdough breads.

Simple Sourdough Starter

1 cup water
1 cup flour (any)
1-1/4 teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast

In a bowl, vigorously combine all ingredients, cover with cheesecloth or a fine sieve and let stand for 8-12 hours until bubbly and tangy-smelling.

Kitchen (Wild) Sourdough Starter

1 cup water
1 cup whole wheat flour

In a bowl, vigorously combine flour and water, cover with cheesecloth or a fine sieve and let stand for 3-4 days until bubbly and tangy-smelling.

Old Fashioned Rye Starter

1 cup rye flour
1 cup water
1 small (2-3 inch) organic onion, outer skin intact

In a small, deep bowl, vigorously combine flour and water, add onion and cover completely with flour mixture. Cover bowl with cheesecloth or a fine sieve and let stand for 3-4 days. When bubbly and tangy-smelling, discard onion (!).

Starter Care And Feeding:

Once your starter is ready (bubbly and tangy-smelling), you can use it right away and/or refrigerate it in a glass jar for later use. To keep your starter going, feed it weekly and always replace what you use.

Feeding schedule: Each week, pour starter into a bowl *, add 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup flour, and stir vigorously. Repeat 8-12 hours later and leave on the counter overnight. The next day, feed again and wait 30-60 minutes before using. If you aren’t planning to use the starter, add smaller amounts of flour and water (1/4 cup each time). Always feed and let stand an hour or so before replacing starter in the refrigerator.

Usually there will be some liquid on top of the starter after being refrigerated. You can pour this off or stir it in; both ways work fine.

Back To Basics

This recipe has the integrity to shape into a Rustic Round or it can be baked in a loaf pan if you prefer.

Basic Rustic Round

1-1/2 cups recently fed sourdough starter
2 cups flour (unbleached and/or whole wheat)
1 teaspoon sea salt

If you have an electric mixer with a dough hook, combine all ingredients and process until dough forms a ball (add water or flour by the tablespoon if mixture seems dry or too soft). Otherwise, knead by hand until smooth and elastic (5-8 minutes). Place dough in an oiled bowl and cover with a plate. Place in a warm (70 degrees F) place until doubled in bulk. (1-1/2 hours). Form into a round and let rise again on a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal, covered with a damp towel, until doubled (about 1 hour). Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Bake loaf at 400 for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and cook until done (internal temperature of 180 degrees F, 20-25 minutes more). Let cool before slicing. Makes 1 loaf.

Best Ever Rye Bread

Ann’s All Rye produces a light, tender wheat-free loaf that’s fabulous for sandwiches or toast. Substitute half unbleached white flour for an even lighter loaf.

Ann’s All Rye Sourdough Bread

4-5 cups rye flour
1-1/2 cups recently fed rye sourdough starter
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon sea salt

In a large bowl, combine 3 cups rye flour and 1 cup water and let stand overnight or at least an hour (this autolyses or tenderizes the rye gluten). Add refreshed rye starter, ginger (helps rye rise) and salt, blend well, then add 1+ cups rye flour to make a sticky dough. Put in an oiled bowl and let rise, covered with a cloth, in a warm spot for 1-1/2 hours (will not quite double in size). Gently knead for 1-2 minutes (rye is delicate) and put in an oiled loaf pan and let rise until nearly doubled (60-75 minutes). Preheat oven to 400 and bake for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350 and bake until done (internal temperature of 180 degrees, about 20-25 minutes more). Cool before slicing. Makes 1 loaf.


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Battling Weeds With Rodents And Beetles

Cover Crops Reduce Weed Seeds

Once summer harvesting ends, cool season cover crops can restore soil health in the veggie patch. Deep mulches of compost or aged manure can nourish tired beds, but cover crops can do even more. Where new beds or lawns are planned, cover crops can eliminate the need for destructive tilling, acting as living mulch to restore soil fertility and reduce winter erosion. Recent research shows that cover crops can also reduce weed seed numbers by providing cover for seed-eating beetles and rodents.

Ick? Not really; both critters consume significantly more weed seeds when cover crops provide shelter and protection from predators. Purdue researchers found that when beetles and rodents had cover crop protection, the weed seed burden was reduced by as much as 400% compared to fields without cover crops. Surprisingly, the soil cleaning effect continues even when rodents eat high numbers of the beetles.

More Moon, Fewer Critters

Ian Kaplan, a Purdue University associate professor of entomology, and Carmen Blubaugh, who earned her doctorate at Purdue and is now a postdoctoral research associate at Washington State University, have been using field experiments to discover the effects of fear and habitat change on both the food chain and seed burden reduction through critter predation. Like most small mammals, rodents and beetles forage more extensively when night are dark, since moonlight makes them more visible to their own predators.

To figure out how this might affect soil seed burdens, they altered night lighting to mimic full moon levels. Surprisingly, they learned that seed counts still went down. Brighter nights reduce beetle action and make them more visible to rodents, yet beetles balance their reduced numbers and foraging range by eating up to 50% more seeds when there’s more moonlight.

Cover Crop Blends

Fortunately, beyond planting cover crops on fallow ground, we don’t need to go to any special efforts to bring seed eaters into our gardens. Whether you want a pioneer planting to open tight clay soil, a nitrogen fixer to bolster soil quality, or bird friendly cover that combines shelter and food, there are plenty of good cover crop choices to suit your need. Many farmers create their own cover crop seed blends, picking fast growers that will leave the soil richer than they found it. For instance, winter rye has sturdy roots that keep soil from washing away in winter rains. Its tall stems shade out weeds and provide cover for game birds like quail as well as play space for backyard chickens. Chopped up and left to rot in early spring, rye provides abundant “green manure” to enrich bed soil. Rye is often blended with vetch, an efficient nitrogen fixer that’s also a fine soil conditioner once it’s chopped up in late winter. A combination of winter rye and vetch is a classic pre-turf blend used to prepare heavy clay soils for lawn use.

The maritime Northwest is a marvelous place to garden, but constant harvesting can leave veggie patch soils nutrient depleted without annual amendment. As beds empty out, replace crops with annual crimson clover, Trifolium incarnatum (NOT perennial red clover!). A summer crop in cold winter regions, here in the maritime Northwest, it can be sown from September through October, growing through our mild winters. Clovers are nitrogen fixers, capturing nitrogen from the air and storing it in little white-ish nodules in their roots. When we chop or turn under red clover in spring, the stored nitrogen will nourish the soil. Nitrogen-fixing legumes like fava beans and Austrian field peas are traditional cover crops for vegetable beds. Field peas are also grown as hog feed, but favas are a delicacy in Europe (I’d personally give my share to the pigs, though). Both grow well in clay soils though fava beans tolerate wet feet better than field peas.

Preparing The Ground

If you’re planning new beds or a new lawn, prep the area with mulch and sow cover crop seed at 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet. You can use half that amount in established veggie beds, after turning under summer crop residues and raking out the soil. Sow your cover crop with a whirlybird or by hand, making two passes (north-south, then east-west) over each bed to get even coverage. Rake a little soil (about 1/4 inch) over the seed, water it in and keep it fairly moist.

In warm, dry weather, cover seed with woven row cover cloth. Sprouts should appear in week or so and beds will be fairly well covered in about a month. Instead of tilling in the residues, which can damage soil life, use a weed trimmer to chop plants down come spring, then let them rot in place. Wait a week or so for the cover crop to break down, then rake out your beds and plant right over any remains. If clumps of rye or peas persist, chop them with a hoe or turn them over to expose the roots, then plant as usual. The result will be healthier soil with fewer weed seeds, thanks to those helpful beetles and rodents. Who knew?

Posted in fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Weed Control | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Homemade Biscuits And Standby Soup

Comfort Food For Challenging Times

My brother recently blogged about perfect biscuits, which I’ve been thinking about for several weeks. Autumn is definitely soup and hot biscuit time for me, but more than that, the combination reminds me of my mom, who spent her last months in my home. As she faded (fairly) gently into forgetfulness, she lost many of her lifelong pleasures. One pleasure that actually increased for her was an appreciation for good food. In her younger years, she was a bit of a food Calvinist, constantly worried about preserving her health and believing that utterly delicious food was “indulgent” and almost certainly indicated Total Depravity.

As she floated further down the river of forgetfulness, she began to forget her rigid restrictions about many things. This meant she allowed herself to eat pretty much whatever she wanted, which quite often, this turned out to mean microwave mac and cheese dinners (!). Once the filters of courtesy and cultural correctness wore off, she clearly preferred the orange stuff to my homemade Italian version, which I found pretty funny. I suspect that for her generation, such store-bought food seemed like a treat, whereas to me, it’s often a travesty. I have to wonder though; what might I prefer in my own dotage? (And is dotage sneaking up on me even now?)

Celebrating The Living And The Dead

Autumn has always been my favorite season, a time of change, of the soft Chinook blowing through morning fog, of colorful foliage and bright berries. Over the years, a series of losses has made the fall feel more melancholy and less adventuresome. My husband died on Halloween, coming on for seven years ago now. Mom died a few days after my November birthday, on the same day my dad had died 12 years earlier. Nearly a dozen other friends have made their journey in autumn as well. The enticing autumn wind still warms my heart but its call feels different now, as does the possible/probable future.

Last week I had a request for tall, curving branches needed for an art project. It turned out to be an annual Day Of The Dead display at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Each year, a remarkable artist, Araceli Cruz, weaves magical displays combining memorabilia with leaves and flowers under arching branches. This year, Araceli will work with the Friday Tidy to create an outdoor version at the library, which we’ll decorate with garden gleanings, from empty bird nests and fallen foliage to seedpods and bundled twigs. I think this charming, loving tradition will become part of my own gardening style, combining as it does the natural and ephemeral, the spiritual and the down-to-earth in the deepest way.


Light And Crispy Biscuits

Indoors, it’s still time for soul-stirring soup and biscuits. After playing with several recipes, I’ve settled on this one, which uses less butter than many yet results in high-rise biscuits that are light and crisp on the outside and tender and almost creamy on the inside. That little bit of cream of tartar makes them rise so well; it’s a fast-acting leavening agent that works during the mixing/kneading stage, making for very light, crisp biscuits. Don’t let them sit around, though; for perfection, they need to be baked off as soon as you get them on the baking sheet, and eaten as soon as you get them off it! A quick blitz in the food processor mixes the butter fast, so it stays nice and cold, and fast, light handling keeps these biscuits tender and tall.

High Rise Biscuits

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (optional)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, frozen, chopped
2/3 cup whole milk or half and half

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Sift dry ingredients together, then put them in a food processor with the cold butter and blitz for a few seconds; mixture should be like coarse corn meal. Put in a bowl, add preferred liquid quickly and stir just until a soft ball forms. Knead gently for a few seconds, then pat into a square an inch thick (about 6 x 6 inches). Cut into 2-inch squares and put on a baking sheet, spaced well apart. Bake until golden brown (12-14 minutes) and serve at once. Makes about 9, serves at least one.

Mom’s Favorite Chicken Soup

When anyone is sick or when a little culinary comfort is indicated, this is my go-to recipe. The self-broth is made with the chicken skin and bones as well as the vegetable peelings and trimmings, giving this soup a hearty, satisfying broth that tastes light and fresh (I hate the heavy, stale taste of boxed broth). Lemon gives it extra zing but you can leave it out if you prefer the softer flavor of traditional broth. You don’t have to use any seeds, either, but varying them offers a simple twist that keeps this delicious soup enticing. I use corn in season for the sweetness and slight crunch, but again, optional!

Standby Chicken Soup

1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon fennel, celery, or cumin seeds
1 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
1 teaspoon stemmed thyme
1 cup chopped sweet peppers (a mix of colors is nice)
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
2 Yukon Gold or any potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 pound organic chicken thighs (including skin and bones)
1/4 cup stemmed Italian parsley
1 ear of corn, kernels cut (optional)
freshly ground pepper

Make broth: In a medium saucepan, combine onion and garlic skins and trimmings with carrot and potato peelings and celery trimmings and chicken pieces. Add 6 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, bring to a simmer over low heat and simmer, covered, for an hour. Strain into a bowl, return strained broth to pan and bring to a boil. Cook until reduced by about a third, tasting several times until it reaches your preferred flavor, keep hot over low heat. Chop boned, skinned chicken meat, set aside.

Make soup: In a soup pot, heat oil with onion, garlic, 1/4 tsp salt, celery or whatever seeds, lemon zest and thyme over medium high heat until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Add peppers, celery, carrots, and potatoes, cover pan and sweat vegetables for 10 minutes. Add chopped chicken and half the parsley, add water to cover and simmer until vegetables are barely tender. Add hot broth and corn if using and simmer over lowest heat for 10 minutes. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and serve, garnished with parsley. Serves 4-6.


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