Solstice Snow & Holiday Baking

Hummingbirds are still feeding on the Fatsia

The Joys Of Discovery

As a child, I found snow enchanting. Overnight, everyday landscapes transformed into mysterious lumps and bumps, tree branches laden with a blanket of frosting, smooth and glossy. Walking in the hushed woods, the only sounds were the scrunching of my feet and the song and scrabble of busy birds and squirrels hunting for a meal. These days, snow is still beautiful to me, especially when it falls in fluffy, feathery clumps. The cats are mesmerized, staring out the windows and muttering ‘mrrt mrrt’ as the fat flakes fall. The neighborhood children are delighted too, especially our newest neighbors, 8 year old twin boys. They grew up in Venezuela, then the family was granted political asylum in the US and sent to Florida, where they found the rampant racism discouraging. Moving here this summer, the children never saw snow before. The chilly air is ringing with their delighted shouts and shrieks as they learn to make snowballs and sled down our icy (closed to traffic) street.

Since the power is still on, it’s the perfect day to do some holiday baking, especially since my family poll turned up five different requests for favorites. Shortbread rounds (plain for my daughter-in-love and double chocolate for my son), oatmeal chocolate chip for my grandson, soft molasses chewies for my granddaughter, and gingerbread cake with lemon glaze for my daughter. After years of making lumpy shortbreads, I discovered that thick cardboard towel tubes, cut to about 15 inches long and split lengthwise, keep the rolled and wrapped dough logs perfectly cylindrical. Just keep the tubes tightly closed with a couple of fat rubber bands and once chilled, the logs will slice easily. However, I still struggled to slice them precisely so they cook evenly until this morning, when I had a brain wave and stuck my knitting guide under the transparent cutting sheet. Thank you Susan Bates!

Making Holidays When We Can

I’m loving this bounteous bout of holiday baking, even though it’s doubtful that our family will be able to join us for our Solstice bonfire. This is the third year in a row that our holiday plans have been disrupted by weather and disease and it probably won’t be the last. Rather than pin hopes on a certain day or time, I’m learning to celebrate when we’re together, regardless of the date. For now, I’m filling the freezer with cookies, making space by finding all sorts of things that can be moved on by the transformational experience of composting. I’ve been hoarding wood for our Solstice bonfire, which offers another, emotional kind of transformation. Birch branches dropped by local trees and blown-down fir boughs have been drying in our little sunporch all summer, and I even shelled out a ridiculous amount of cash for a small bundle or actual chunks of wood, just to make sure the fire persists long enough to work its magic.

Now that we’re living in a mobile home park with tiny house lots, our usual grand bonfire is reduced to a little fire bowl, but fire is fire. The flames, of whatever size, can carry our hopes and wishes to the stars and consign anything we want to be done with to ashes. We will write or draw or paint our petitions on something flammable, paper or sheets of birch bark, usually, adding fragrant stalks, dried herbs, and flower petals to sweeten the deal and scent the flames. Watching a year of hope and worry go up in smoke is always satisfying, even if I don’t see much immediate evidence of efficacy. As a gardener, I think about the mystery of seeds, how some sprout quickly and others may take months or even years to appear, waiting until their required conditions are met and the time is right. We don’t always know what we sow or if or when it might sprout, but Gaia Mom never wastes anything. Onward, right?


Posted in Birds In The Garden, Care & Feeding, composting, Health & Wellbeing, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , | 10 Comments

Backyard Compostables & Greenwashing

Some truly backyard-compostable containers

Really Compostable Cutlery

This afternoon I participated in a city-sponsored Backyard Composting Fair with my friend John Barutt, a Master Composter and research scientist who teaches composting classes all over Puget Sound. John and I have worked together managing the gardening and composting at the Bainbridge library for many years and it’s always fun to bounce ideas off one another. Today, we had a blast answering questions and retailing some of our craziest composting experiences. John captured (or maybe astounded) the audience by responding to a question about how to keep critters out of the compost by explaining that if there are mama rats nesting in your compost heap, that’s all natural and good. He says the droppings of small animals will break down very quickly and thoroughly in a good hot compost pile, and the rat burrows will aerate the heap as well. Umm.

I suggested using closed systems like tumblers and aerated bins with covers if pests are a problem. I also made my usual suggestion that few critters are seeking slurry, so if you puree kitchen scraps before adding them to your compost, nobody will be much interested in digging in after them. For some reason, this idea always makes people grimace and say they don’t want to put garbage in their food processor, but if you just scraped those scraps off your kitchen prep area or your plate, why not?

Brilliant Reuse of Coated Cups

So far, my top favorite recycling/composting idea of all time came from some of John’s composting friends who punch 1-inch holes in the bottom of hard-to-compost coated cups, then stack the cups into long tubes. These become air tubes for larger compost piles or bins that work until the pile heats up enough to degrade the tubes, at which point their job is done anyway. Adding air is always important for heating up and speeding up the composting process, and these cup-stack air tubes bring ample air deep into a pile. It’s just as easy to punch out the bottom of the cups before stacking, and cups can be reclaimed by the score at coffee shops, meetings, public events, parties, etc. Brilliant, right?

The fair was intended to introduce local businesses to a range of truly compostable products, from hot cups to takeout containers to birch forks and spoons. Local regulations will soon require businesses to charge 25 cents for the use of a paper or ceramic cup as well as takeout containers and some business owners are not happy at having to find new suppliers aand add another cost to food service. Some customers are not happy about carrying a cup everywhere either but are those really such big burdens? If we really want to reduce the amount of plastic waste we create, individually and collectively, food service supplies are a good place to start.

Better Backyard Compostables

Over the years, John and his scientist/composter buddies have experimented with how well or poorly commercial items that are marketed as compostable really fare in backyard systems, scientific research composting systems, and commercial composting facilities.Not too surprisingly, even among commercial composting facilities there’s a lot of variation in how successful they are at breaking down things like rigid forks and coated cups. Turns out that many supposedly compostable food cups, plates and utensils really aren’t, except in very specific, ideal circumstances.

I’ve also experimented quite a bit with my very ordinary backyard systems, which include a deep bin, a small tumbler, and a little passive brush pile. In my experience, coated cups and plates can go through at least a few seasons looking relatively unchanged, as do most plastic-like utensils. However, there are some kinds of each product that really do break down fairly quickly, especially utensils made of birch and other soft woods, and plates and containers made from puffy cardboard.

Soak & Shred

One key to quick backyard composting of such materials is to soak them before adding them to the compost heap. I stick soiled to-go boxes and used compostable bowls and plates in the sink when I’m doing dishes to give them a head start on breaking down. When they’re soggy, you can easily tear them into smaller pieces that offer microbes plenty of places to latch on and do their degrading work. Both faux-plastic and wooden utensils break down best if I toss them in a pan of hot, soapy water after a party event, just as you would soak reusable utensils. Even some of the wax coated products will break down fairly fast if you soak them first, then shred them. And the wooden ones? They basically break down just like sticks (right?). Onward!

Here are the makers of the best products we saw today:

Green Paper Products

Eco Products Compostable Cutlery Kit With Compostable Wrapper

Foodstiks Compostable Wood Cutlery





Posted in Care & Feeding, composting, Health & Wellbeing, Social Justice, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Epigenetics and The Garden Diet

Kale, cilantro, sharp cheese, apple, pumpkin seeds and tart dried cherries, oh my

Holiday Greens On The Plate

For me, the phrase ‘gathering holiday greens’ always meant harvesting fir and pine, sequoia and cedar, as well as lots of garden gleanings to weave into wreaths and swags. After facilitating a recent program about epigenetics and diet, my December green gathering now includes raw ingredients for a daily dose of leafy greens. The study of epigenetics has been around for a while, but it’s been in the news lately as research on the benefits of dietary improvements accumulates. In extremely basic terms, epigenetics is the study of the way genes get expressed in humans when influenced by various behavioral and environmental factors (the genes themselves aren’t changed but the way they function can be).

That’s kind of a bad-news-good-news idea, since it makes it clear that some of our daily choices may underlie mental health symptoms/effects such as depression and anxiety. Since my family shares the genetic predisposition for both, I’m interested in anything I can do to help me keep my emotional and mental balance in these troubling times. While it’s challenging to do much about factors like our exposure to wildfire smoke and various kinds of pollution, we do have control over some important factors, notably what we choose to eat and how much we are able to exercise. That’s part of the good news, since the unhelpful gene expression effects are reversible, sometimes fairly quickly, when we change our habits and behaviors to more beneficial ones. That daily walk turns out to be a biggie, but even getting outside to breathe fresh air and have a change of scene can be helpful.

Getting Greens Back On The Plate

While I always assumed my daily diet was pretty healthy, listening to that epigenetics program inspired me to re-examine it. The presenter was an RN who’s been working with patients for years, helping them recraft their daily diets to promote mental and physical health. That’s especially valuable as many of us slip easily into poor eating habits, especially during the holidays. Over the pandemic, many of us began eating what used to be occasional comfort foods on a more regular basis. While supply chain issues made some healthy ingredients hard to find, inexpensive, low quality junk food was mysteriously still in great supply and somehow more tempting than usual. I was shocked to recognize that over the hot, dry summer, when my garden was less productive and more disease prone, my diet shifted away from fresh produce.

Want to watch this fascinating program on how our lives can be altered by epigenetics (the way gene expression can be modified by food and other factors)? Here’s the link:

I’m not alone in this: a recent USDA study found that the average American eats only three vegetables on a regular basis: potatoes, tomatoes, and lettuce, and mostly in the form of French fries and ketchup, with lettuce represented in tiny side salads or tucked in a sandwich. Kids’ lunches may still include carrots and cucumbers, and family dinners may offer broccoli, corn and peas, as well as very simple salads, but a lot of people don’t really cook anymore. The good news is that takeout from local food trucks or restaurants may well include onions, garlic, and sweet peppers, as well as beans, all considered ‘super foods’ for their beneficial phytonutrients. Even the ketchup isn’t all bad; after a couple minutes of heat, tomatoes start losing Vitamin C but double down on cancer-fighting lycopene, reaching over 160% more in half an hour of simmering.

Love Those Leaves

Happily for me, a key ingredient in the epigenetic-adjusting healthy diet is the cole family, especially leafy greens. I tend to eat raw salads in warm weather and lean into cooked vegetables in cool seasons, roasting everything from kale and Brussels sprouts to squash and chunks of red cabbage. Any leftovers can be added to soups or casseroles, used as omelet filling, or added to fresh salads for contrast. Contrast is the key to a truly delicious salad, along with a dressing that sets off other flavors rather than drowning them. A good mix of tender and crunchy ingredients make a good base for all kinds of additions that give those daily greens a different twist.

After a recent birthday party, I was left with a huge bowlful of dressed salad that remained delicious for several days. I stored 4 cups in each of 4 containers and the salad still tasted amazingly good every day. One reason was the lack of limper lettuces and spinach, which tend to get soggy and slimy once dressed. Another reason was the dressing my son makes, which includes fruity vinegar (nectarine-vanilla bean this time) and a splash of maple syrup. Ever since, I’ve been enjoying a delicious base salad mix, boosting it with additions like fresh fruit, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, and fresh herbs for variety. Washed and spun, bagged and tucked in the crisper drawer, a big batch of base salad stays fresh for up to a week, so it’s easy to pull out a bowlful and gussy it up.

Bases Loaded

The fresh apple bits in that birthday also held or even improved their quality over several days, but seeds and nuts tend to lose their crispness once exposed to dressing and are best added at meal time. Other pleasant additions include tuna or smoked salmon, or really any meaty leftovers you might have on hand (teriyaki chicken is a fantastic addition). Sharp cheese and roasted squash add warmth and depth, while a little leftover cranberry-orange sauce adds a refreshing zip. In just a few weeks, these hearty salads leave me feeling more energetic, more positive and less fuzzy headed, which makes me crave salad over sweets (I know, I’m amazed too).

Leafy Greens Base Salad

1 bunch Scots or any curly/frilly kale
1 bunch Black Tuscan kale
1 bunch cilantro, stemmed

Tear the kale in pieces, rinse, spin dry and toss with the cilantro (if you like it). Stored in a bag, this keeps up to 5 days or longer.



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A Different Way To Celebrate

Redwall mousefest in action

Creating An Alternative Holiday

My grandkids are very fond of a book series called Redwall, in which heroic mice protect their land from various threats while eating an enormous amount of delicious food. As the characters are all mostly rather small critters, their food is entirely ovo-lacto vegetarian (and very heavy on the whipped cream). While they’re still steeped in the lore of the series, we decided to turn thanksgiving into a Redwall Feast. The kids have a Redwall cookbook and spent a long time going over the various recipes and voting for their favorites. After much debate, they settled on a bean and vegetable soup, a potato casserole, spiced cider and mint tea, and 16 desserts.

They also made simple costumes, including mouse ears for everyone, and face paint. A cardboard tube became a shining silver sword (thanks to plenty of duct tape) for Martin and finger knitting provided the special Gull Whacker used by Mariel, both heroic warrior mice featured in many stories. We even found some special Redwall music and songs, jaunty English neo-folksongs that made an appropriate soundtrack for the feast. We managed to hone the mighty dessert list down to a fabulous few, including Cherry Pudding and Banana Oatmeal Cake with (of course) whipped cream. My grandson carefully made a batch of his special not-too-sweet whipped cream with mascarpone which made the feast special indeed. (Recipe below if you want to give it a try.)

Thankfulness and Gratitude

Though we haven’t celebrated thanksgiving traditionally for quite a while, we do make it a day of gratitude as well as atonement. Over the years, so many voices have raised prickly points about the appropriateness of creating a national holiday around the displacement and genocide of indigenous people by white colonizers that it’s impossible to carry on in the same way. One way we can atone is by starting our gatherings with a land acknowledgement, stating (in our case) that the land we are living on is the ancestral home of the Suquamish people. This helps both adults and children realize that Island history, like national history (and ok, really ALL history) is complicated and often uncomfortable. That said, something I’m very grateful for are the lessons in deep hospitality and loving kindness demonstrated by the Suquamish Tribe, Bainbridge Island’s nearest neighbors.

Sadly, Bainbridge Islanders have not always been particularly respectful or interested in building a positive relationship with the Tribe. In recent years, as a nearby town has made very serious missteps, gravely damaging their own Tribal relationship, many Islanders are realizing that it’s past time to work for better understanding ourselves. One thing that eases the process is the fact that generosity and hospitality are deep traditional values in the Suquamish culture. Given all that’s happened, long ago and into the present days, the Tribe is an amazingly generous neighbor, sharing knowledge and skills with students and visitors as well as donating significantly to many local nonprofits that feed the hungry and house the homeless.

Meeting Trouble With Integrity

Instead of reacting to thoughtless acts and insensitive comments with well deserved anger, Tribal elders demonstrate the kind of moral strength Dr. Martin Luther King lived into. They certainly feel the anger, but rather than responding in kind, strong Tribal traditions help shape thoughtful, reasoned responses that are both impressive and far more effective. Having just experienced a very difficult event that felt like a personal attack on a group of us who have been working very hard for years on a complex and difficult project, my own first response was shock, outrage and pure anger. It’s taken me a week to realize that the act wasn’t really personal for most participants, anyway, many of whom were as shocked as I was at the way things played out.

It’s very easy to take difficult situations personally and quite challenging to step back and use the time and space to do some breathing and some pondering. Both those tools create a change of perspective, letting me think more deeply about who and how I want to be, in myself, in the community and the world. As I cooled down over the next few days, I realized that if I truly believe all voices should be welcome at the discussion table, then I should work on responding thoughtfully rather than reacting in anger (as I admit I initially wanted to). So that’s what I’m doing, and it’s very clear that being thoughtful feels both emotionally and physically so much healthier than being furious. Onward, right?

Mighty Mice Make Great Whipped Cream

When any situation needs to be sweetened, a little cream and maple syrup can be soothing indeed. Here’s my grandson’s special recipe, give it a try and let me know what you think!

Whipped Cream With Mascarpone & Maple

2 cups heavy cream
4 ounces Mascarpone cheese
2-3 Tablespoons maple syrup
1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract

With an immersion blender or electric mixer, whip cream to soft peaks, then add mascarpone and whip to stiffer peaks. Add maple syrup and vanilla to taste and spoon liberally over any dessert you may have on hand. Serves at least one.

Granny Mouse loves her big ears




Posted in Cooking With Kids, Crafting With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Social Justice, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 4 Comments