Beyond The Comfort Zone

Stretching Our World

Every year, I’m asked by many people what new plants I’ll be growing, or which I’m most excited about. It’s a favorite topic of mine, too; I mentioned a few such enticing plants last week, but there are definitely lots more I’d love to find room for. Lately, I’ve been thinking about where we are intrigued by novelty and where new ideas feel uncomfortable, perhaps even threatening. I’ve been noticing that even my most conservative friends enjoy trying something new in the garden, if not necessarily in other areas of daily life. Though many folks with a very limited range of acceptable foods will try almost anything involving chocolate or cheese or bacon…

Lately I’ve found myself wondering what my world might look like if I put as much time and thought and energy into widening my circle of human acquaintance as I do into expanding my plant lists and lusts. Last week, a lovely woman mentioned that she really doesn’t know anyone whose political views differs from hers. We talked briefly about both the comfort and the dangers of living in such a supportive, like-minded community, and it’s a conversation I’m looking forward to having with more people. While I love my island community, where I have many and deep connections, I’m also very aware that it’s providing me with a bubble of affirmation, a rounded place with most of the hard edges rubbed off. After living most of my life as a misfit, I’ve at last achieved a kind of cultural comfort. Whew! Yet now I’m wondering how I can cultivate my own curiosity about otherness.

Diversity Discomfort

Saturday saw millions of people marching in peaceful protest over the state of our country and the world, in cities across the country and around the world. Most reports talked in terms of hundreds of thousands rather than millions, and the crowds probably were smaller than last year’s, yet there were even more marches in more places this year and that gives me hope. For one thing, only when movements come from the grassroots level does society actually change. Many smaller marches indicate that more communities held their own events where people with limited mobility or means could participate. By some reports, this year’s marches saw more men and more children, which some felt was a dilution and others saw as strengthening. By many reports, this year’s marches were attended by fewer women of color, despite efforts by organizers to be more inclusive. If it felt exclusionary not to be invited and patronizing to be invited, how should such events be developed? Is it possible that such events will always be most satisfying and comforting to groups of similar and like-minded people? Now I’m wondering even more about how to honor diversity as well as unity.

Like many other Women’s March participants, I live in a mostly white community; Bainbridge Island currently has about a 9.2% non-white population, a pretty big shift from a century ago and an even bigger shift from two centuries ago, when the regional population was well over 90% non-white. Today, the island tends heavily to the blue, rich in well-heeled professionals who reliably vote for liberal candidates and support progressive agendas. However, that was less true decades back as well; these days, most of the folks who work in service positions here are commuting daily over the bridge that connects us to the Kitsap Peninsula. As house prices and property taxes have risen, a steady stream of service and care providers, teachers and nurses, police and fire fighters have moved off-island to find affordable homes.

Ask And Listen, Listen And Ask

My projects often involve working closely with people who do hands-on work as well as desk work. While many people in blue-collar jobs vote blue, lots don’t. Thus, we bubble dwellers are floating in a sea of often largely unseen people who may or may not share our political values. If we are truly curious about how others think, once we recognize that they have ideas and beliefs we don’t share, the best way to find out is to ask and listen. Talking with people is rarely difficult, as long as we are genuinely interested in them. The listening part can be the most challenging, especially for those of us who enjoy a rousing argument (also known in some circles as ‘conversation’).

Connecting in more meaningful ways with people we don’t know well provides a great opportunity to listen for our own filters as well as whatever views are being expressed by others. Many layers of privilege can divide us from people whose life experiences and cultures are unlike ours, but the better we listen, the more it becomes obvious that most people really do value and want the same things; safety, food and shelter, family, home, community. Safety is high on the list for immigrants, for people of color, for transgender folks, for the elderly, for the poor and the dispossessed. People in every one of these categories live on this island, so I don’t need to make an inner city journey to find them, only to open my eyes and ears. And listen.

Filtering Filters

Listening is hard work for many of us, especially when our opinions are passionate. I’m finding that it’s every bit as important to listen to myself as to whomever I’m in discourse with. I’m learning to listen carefully to my inner thoughts as well as monitoring what I end up saying, recognizing where I’m holding judgements or making shaky assumptions. As I practice deeper listening, I try to be curious about the unspoken thoughts that reveal my own biases and beliefs. Where did these ideas originate? Have I ever really thought deeply about them? Do I still believe them?

My trans daughter has been a kind and gentle but implacable teacher in this work. She’s never judgmental about my attempts to learn, but she always lets me know when I’m making what she calls “assumptions from a privileged position.” Admittedly, it can be tough and painful work to deliberately uncover our own filters and flaws and brokenness, but it’s also amazingly freeing and spacious. Encouraged by this new freedom, I’m trying to examine my hidden and unconscious prejudices and assumptions with as much kindness and compassion as my daughter shows me. Listen and learn. Listen and love.


Posted in Health & Wellbeing, Sustainable Living, Weed Control | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

New Plants To Lust After

Crazy For Love

Winter’s still lurking but spring is definitely in the air and pretty much every gardener I know is obsessively poring over plant catalogs and making extremely ambitious seed lists. Even I, renting and sharing a very small garden, can’t help but make a few notes. As page follows page of notable and must-have offerings, it starts to become all too clear that some editing needs to occur. As we all know, list pruning is not an easy task. Because who can resist, for example, the idea of draping a smoldering purple passionflower, Passiflora ‘Aphrodite’s Purple Nightie’, over a fence or up a trellis? It’s a vigorous climber, making up to 12 feet of growth in a season, a tender perennial in most of the maritime Northwest, but who knows? With a mild winter, we might get lucky…

I’m also fascinated by ‘Haskap Taka’ and ‘Haskap Pirika’, some of the recently introduced forms of shrubby honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea) that were patiently hybridized over 35 years by Maxine Thompson of Oregon State University. She spent those long years gradually adjusting the dormancy and pollinating periods of these tasty berry plants so West Coast gardeners can grow them. The best selected forms of Haskap taste like a combination of raspberries and wild blueberries, the sweetness balanced by an enticing, fruity tartness. (The worst ones supposedly suggest dirty socks.) Haskap is the traditional Japanese name for this circumpolar honeysuckle, which has been extensively bred for fruiting in Siberia and other extreme northern climates. The fruit look like stretched out blueberries (or ripe fuchsia berries) and start to ripen just before the earliest strawberries. For best fruiting, they need pollinator pals so plant a few fairly close together. Good thing I have a finger in so many other people’s gardens!

Non Stop Sunflowers

A bright light among the newer annuals, the Sunfinity sunflowers are incredibly productive. The compact plants are multi-branching, each stem bearing several blooms that keep on coming all summer and deep into fall. At times, these crazy cool bloomers can bear as many as a hundred blossoms at once, all eagerly visited by bees and other pollinators. The clean yellow flowers are not huge and are airy rather than hefty, lasting long enough to make desirable cut flowers. These bountiful beauties are great for smaller gardens, where a couple of plants can provide color for a whole season, and absolutely knock-out in larger swathes, which sill be alive with busy bees and fluttering butterflies for extra interest.

I’m a fool for zinnias, too, from the stalwart, strapping belles of the classic State Fair Mix to the frilled, delectable confections found in the Cupcake series. While I admire the chartreuse buttons of Zinnia Envy, I can’t stop looking at pictures of ‘Queeny Lime Orange’, with layer after layer of petals that shade from the lime green throat to peach and coral and tangerine. If it’s cuts you’re after (florists take note), the Zinnia Yoga series is definitely amazing, with densely doubled blooms on long, strong stems on plants that can stretch to 3 feet. I also love the shaggy Cactus zinnias with their long, slender petals on ruffled, multi-layered flowers in desert sunset colors. Yes but all of them? Oh, why not!

Beautiful Food

Last summer I got to try out a new sauce tomato called ‘Saucy Lady’, a cuore di bue type that “melts” into robust sauces when cooked, skins and all. The flavor is just about perfect for a sauce tomato; full bodied and rich with just enough tartness to keep it tasting lively even when cooked and canned. A rather amazing tomato called ‘Get Stuffed!’ has no guts; the stippled red-and-tawny-gold skin covers a sturdy, cup-shaped container for your favorite stuffing mixtures. Slice the top off, fill ‘em up with what have you and bake them until bubbly, or stuff them with salad (pasta or chickpea) for a very pretty brunch dish. As an ardent gardener with very little space these days, I’m especially intrigued by a new category of tomato, the 3-4 foot dwarf indeterminates. Any of this new Super Dwarf series will thrive even in large containers and as we saw last year, they really do continue fruiting well into autumn.

The Grey Lady Of Shallot

A few years ago, an American specialty garlic company, Garlicana, imported what the French call “true shallots”, not the usual Allium cepa but A. oschaninii. Unlike nearly all other kinds of shallots, the French Greys won’t bolt when cold stressed and the ripening seedheads can produce little heads of cloves as multiplying onions do. They are not the longest of keepers, but bulbs dug in July or August will last into the winter holidays if carefully stored. they will definitely enliven winter meals

The flavor is remarkable, making these uncommon shallots highly valued by chefs and fine food fans. The thick skin is hard to clean and can be challenging to peel, but if you slice the pinky-purple fleshed cloves lengthwise, the tough beige skins pop off freely. Saute thin slices or rings in a little oil as the base of a subtle sauce, or let them caramelize in butter until crisp for a memorable garnish for soup or pasta. Freshly harvested cloves have a bright, brisk flavor that accents salads and raw dishes. As the cloves mature, their increasingly bold flavor is enhanced by gentle heat, a mild olive or avocado oil, and a little sea salt.

Sigh. Room! I need more garden room!


Posted in Annual Color, Early Crops, Easy Care Perennials, fall/winter crops, Growing Berry Crops, Pollinators, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Tomatoes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Working With Family Relationships

Musical Garden Beds Make For Higher Yields

It’s a bit early for actual planting, but January is the traditional time to work on our paper gardens. With the veggie beds emptied, replenished with mature compost, and mulched to protect them from the winter rains, we can dream into crops for the coming year. Naturally, we begin with wish lists, supplementing our must-have old favorites with new and tempting plants, edible and ornamental. Then we sadly hone the list to comply with the reality of the allotted space. There’s never enough room for everything, and in vegetable plots, it’s important to remember that each plant family has its own nutritional needs and demands, so practicing crop rotation helps to keep your soil in good heart.

Indeed, numerous studies show that continually planting the same crops in the same place will steadily reduce both plant health and harvest. This crop-related nutritional drain can even hold true for same-family plants. Recent research projects at Cornell found that beans yielded twice as much when planted in a bed that had held corn than when they were planted where peas had last grown. Several studies found that growing the same kinds of crops in the same patch of soil year after year can markedly increase the likelihood of crop-specific diseases. Instead of using pesticides to battle those diseases, many organic growers prefer to use crop rotation to keep soil and plants healthy.

Family Planning

Keeping track of crops and making sure they alternate frequently may sound daunting, but it isn’t truly all that complicated. Even in small gardens with raised beds, it’s usually possible to work out a three- or four-year rotation. In simple terms, this involves recognizing the eight major food crop families and recording where you grow clan members each season. This requires some kind of charting so you can keep track easily. Garden bed charts don’t have to be art works but they do need to clearly show where you grew what. Date each chart and hang on to it for at least three years. Why? It will help you avoid situations like following tomato crops with peppers or potatoes, all nightshade cousins that are heavy users of a lot of the same nutrients.

To make it super easy, draw a basic layout of your garden, showing each bed. (Use graph paper if you really can’t draw.) Make a bunch of copies, then record each season’s plantings. When you change out one crop for another, don’t erase the earlier ones. Instead, number them so you remember the order in which they grew. That way, you can flip through your 2016 charts before deciding where your 2017 crops will end up. If you can, create charts for recent years as well. In a few seasons, you’ll have a clear record to consult when planning and healthier crops to boot.

Family Synergy

It’s also useful to know that some family cycles are particularly beneficial. For instance, both legumes and nightshades do particularly well when planted where sweet corn recently grew. Conversely, it’s less productive for squash family members to follow tomatoes and vice versa, probably because both need lots of calcium. (Our Northwestern soils tend to be calcium poor anyway, so both these crops will benefit when you spray the foliage with diluted skim milk. A 10% solution of 1 part skim milk powder mixed with water works well and won’t clog most sprayers.)

In any case, basic crop rotation is not hugely complex as long as we remember those eight main families. Nightshades are a big one, as mentioned above. The coles include cabbage, kale, broccoli, turnips, wasabi and Brussels sprouts and many leafy greens. Peas, beans, lentils and alfalfa are all nitrogen-fixing legumes, which can leave soil better than they found it. The squash family includes cucumbers and melons as well as zucchini and pumpkins. The beet family includes spinach, quinoa and chard, while the onion clan runs from garlic, leeks, and shallots to chives. Celery, parsnips, and parsley are carrot cousins, as are dill and fennel, both of which do best planted alone. Lettuce, artichokes, chamomile, chicory, and tuberous yacon belong to the sunflower crew. Corn is actually a kind of grass, kin to oats, barley, wheat, and rye.

Charting An Ever Changing Course

If it’s hard to recall offhand, it might help to make a chart of these families, perhaps using color keys to help you remember. One classic rotation cycle runs pretty much like this: tomatoes; peas or beans; cabbage family; carrot family; sweet corn or grain; potatoes; squash family; beet family. When you look at the garden plan this way, it starts to makes sense; alternate root crops with leafy greens, or gross feeders like squash with nitrogen fixers like peas. By keeping your charts for several years, you avoid repeating sequences too soon. And again, don’t erase an entry when a summer crop follows early ones; you want as complete a record as possible, so make the bed spaces on your drawing large enough to indicate as many crops per year as needed.

Always replenish the soil between crops, and use cover crops over the winter or whenever a bed will lie fallow for a few months. This is especially important in small spaces where there really aren’t many good choices for certain crops and some repetition is unavoidable. Buckwheat (rhubarb family) is a fast growing soil builder, as is winter rye. Fava beans and field peas are excellent conditioners that add their captured nitrogen to the soil. Annual clovers are good for soil but can be hard to get rid of, while garden cover blends offer regionally appropriate mixtures, often combining crimson clover, vetch, triticale, rye, and field peas. Happy New Year!


Posted in Early Crops, fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, Nutrition, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Inviting A New Year

Of Joy And Germs

Tonight, the first night of the newest year, will be embellished with a super moon. The first full moon in January has many names; ice moon, snow moon, wolf moon, old moon. Why old moon when it’s the first in a new year? Maybe because it’s the same old moon, just as we are the same old people. Sadly, learning to be new people requires a little more of us than picking a few resolutions to try out. To become a new people, we have to learn to recognize and disarm the triggers for old habits, old ways of thinking and acting, and old ideas about who we are in the world.

Many of us are greeting this new year with hopes and longings for a better one. To get there, we might also invite ourselves to become new/old people who can participate in shaping a world view that’s less about having and holding and more about helping and healing. Gandhi has often been quoted as saying we must be the change we want to see, but what he actually said was a little more complicated (surprise!):
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Who Are We Really?

It seems to me the need is less about changing our nature and more a matter of recognizing that our true nature has become distorted and betrayed. For decades now, social media has been used and manipulated to create a polarized world view, yet by nature, children rarely even recognize all sorts of “differences” in various people unless they are taught to. Despite tantrums and hissy fits, toddlers naturally display compassion and they love to feel themselves to be helpful. I believe our deep nature tends toward unity and compassion, just as the human body strives always to heal itself.

I recently joined a study group in reading Active Hope; How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. Written in 2012 by Joanna Macy and Christopher Johnstone, it’s a practical primer that lays out a four step process they call the Work That Reconnects. The process is set up as a spiral that gets stronger and more effective with each repetition. The path can begin at any of the stages and keep on keeping on indefinitely. Going Forth leads both to and from Coming With Gratitude, Honoring Our Pain For the World, and Seeing With New Eyes. So here I am, Going Forth. Want to come along, or take it your own way? Both are good. Very good. So let’s go. Let’s go now.

Any Day Deserves A Wreath

I celebrated most of the holidays alone, in the comforting company of my cat and the discomfort of a stomach flu, the gift of an unknown carrier. Before I realized that I was getting ill, I made several holiday wreaths, one of cinnamon rolls and one stuffed with a savory mixture of feta and spinach. Sadly, I didn’t get to try either of them, but I did hear they were delicious. The wreaths are also very handsome and quite easy to make so I decided I don’t need to wait for another year to roll around before making them again. Any day can be a celebration of goodness, and a little playfulness can turn pretty much any yeast bread recipe into a wreath fit for a feast. To make them vegan, use oil instead of butter and replace the cheese with chopped nuts.

Basic Bread For Wreaths

2 cups hot water
2 tablespoons butter or avocado oil
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons sugar or honey
2-1/4 teaspoons dry yeast (1 packet)
4-5 cups unbleached all purpose flour
(or whatever kind/combiination you want)

In a large bowl, combine hot water and butter. When melted, add salt, sugar and yeast and let stand in a warm spot until yeast blooms (about 15 minutes). Stir in enough flour to make a ball, cover bowl with a plate and let dough rise until doubled (about 35-40 minutes). Divide in two and press or roll each half out on a lightly floured surface, making rectangles about 30 inches long and 6-8 inches wide. If holes develop, pinch a bit of an end and patch it. Spread with filling of choice, leaving bare about an inch along one long side. Roll up starting from the long side covered with filling. Transfer the rolled tube to a piece of parchment paper on a rimmed baking sheet, pinch the ends together and shape into a circle. Snip the outer edge every inch or so with kitchen scissors, not cutting all the way through so inner edge is intact. Gently push the inner edge outward to open up the circle a little and let rise until doubled in bulk (about 30 minutes). Bake at 400 degrees F until golden (about 15 minutes). Brush top with butter or oil while hot. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. If made ahead, warm in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes before serving. Serves many!

Savory Feta And Spinach Filling

1 tablespoon butter or avocado oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 pound young spinach (or 1 box frozen, thawed)
2-3 teaspoons lemon juice
4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
OR 1 cup roasted, salted nuts

In a heavy frying pan, melt butter over medium heat, add onion and salt and cook until soft and slightly golden (8-10 minutes). Add spinach (drained and pressed dry of using thawed) and cook, stirring often, until mixture is almost dry. Remove from heat, add feta and lemon juice to taste (should be pretty lively). Cool mixture and spread evenly over rolled out dough, leaving bottom inch of one long side bare. Roll up and proceed as above.

Cinnamon Roll Filling

2 tablespoons soft butter or avocado oil
1 cup brown sugar, not packed
2-3 teaspoons cinnamon (to taste)
pinch salt
1 cup mixed raisins or any dried fruit
1 cup walnuts or any nuts

Spread rolled out dough with butter or oil. Combine brown sugar, cinnamon and salt and sprinkle evenly over dough, leaving bottom inch of one long side bare. Do the same with the fruit and nuts. Roll up and proceed as above.





Posted in Health & Wellbeing, Recipes, Sustainable Living, Vegan Recipes | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment