The Various Virtues of Potatoes

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A plethora of potatoes is a wonderful thing

Soil Building & Seasonal Satisfaction

A kind farmer friend recently gifted us with a glorious bag of potatoes, combining German Butterballs with red skinned and purple varieties. All are delicious in their own way and experimenting to learn which does what best is a delightful exercise. In my experience, those heritage German Butterballs do everything well; whether boiled, roasted, pan fried, baked, scalloped, mashed, you name it, they’re fabulous. They also contribute greatly to hearty seasonal soups, and as freezing nights bring frosty mornings, my soup pot is often simmering on the stove.

In the garden or on the farm, potatoes are valued as one of the most nutrient-dense subsistence crops, right along with beans and peas. Anyone hoping to provide much of their food from the land knows that potatoes are a generous crop in several ways; not only do they offer strong nutritional gifts, but they also are a gift that keeps on giving. As all potato growers know, you never quite manage to harvest them all, so each spring, any little escapees will push up leaves and create a new potato colony to feed your family for free. When making those enormous rolling manor lawns, English estate owners traditionally used potatoes as a cleansing crop. Planted thickly, potato plants rapidly out-compete weeds and their deep-delving roots open heavy soils like living shovels.

Potatoes On The Table

In recent years, low-carb diets have been a popular fad, causing potatoes to fall from favor (except for during certain holidays!). It’s true that potatoes are starchy vegetables, with less fiber than many others. Like corn, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and beans, peas and lentils, potatoes are usually considered a side dish, yet all around the world, people have lived and worked hard while eating largely of these stalwart veggies. After all, our bodies convert starches (carbs) to glucose, which fuels our bodies (especially our brains). Even as a side, potatoes bring more to the table than white rice and pasta, from various minerals (depending on your soil) to potassium (an important electrolyte) and enough Vitamin C (an antioxidant) to prevent scurvy. If you don’t peel them, potato skins contribute fiber as well. What’s not to love?

Satisfying Seasonal Soups

Since my soup pot is already on the stovetop, it’s super easy to stir together a tasty melange and create some sort of soup. My soups often feature leftovers, from raw or roasted vegetables to post-holiday turkey and caramelized onions. That makes the recipes hard to duplicate but half the charm of inventive cooking is that very evanescence. Today, my soup pot filled up with the usual starters; a splash of avocado oil (though any kind will do), some chopped up onion, garlic, and celery and a sprinkle of my current favorite herb salt. (Right now it’s the rosemary and garlic blend, both from the garden.)

Next came a lonely carrot, some kale stems (I add the greens later) and some of those plump potatoes (Today it’s the red skin’s turn). All that sizzled gently in the covered pot until the vegetables sweated a bit, which concentrates their flavors nicely. At that point in the process, I’ll add enough water or broth to cover everything, by an inch or so if I want a thicker soup and by several inches if the goal is a brothier verson. Browsing the fridge, I found several things I could add, such as the caramelized onions, some smoked salmon, and a chunk of ham.

Time To Choose

In the soup making process, this is a decision point: When cooking for myself, the soups often turn out to be vegetarian or pescatarian if not vegan, but when family is here, I often add carnivore food, such as ham or Italian sausages. Since my son is now with us half the week, today’s soup was enriched with split peas and ham. I cooked the dried split peas with more garlic, a little rosemary and thyme, and some of the fattier ham, which I fished out before pureeing the soup with my favorite stick blender. (What a great invention!) Now a taste test provides another decision point; a little black pepper? Some smoked paprika? A tad more salt, or a little splash of cider vinegar?

When experimenting, start with small amounts and give them a little time for the effects to develop. If anyone else is around, I offer a spoonful and ask for opinions and ideas. If not, I wing it, being mindful that my sensitivity to saltiness and sweetness is gradually becoming less acute, so I tend to under-season until I get a second opinion. This is especially wise with soup, which matures in complexity and deepens in flavor as it mellows. I like to make soup a day ahead of when I plan to serve it, leaving it in the fridge overnight. Since there are usually several kinds in that crowded fridge, I’ve learned to label and date the lids (blue painters tape makes a very distinctive marker). Some of each soup goes in the freezer as well, similarly labeled and dated to avoid fishing out anonymous packages or elderly yogurt containers and trying to decide what buried treasures they contain… Onward, right?

Posted in Care & Feeding, fall/winter crops, Health & Wellbeing, Nutrition, Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Vegan Recipes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Creating Welcoming Shared Spaces

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Natural order is hospitable

Planting Yesterday For Tomorrow

As I wander about on my daily walks, I often find myself dreaming into the past. Within living memory, often not long ago at all, our Maritime Northwestern back yards looked much like the magnificent forests that draw zillions of visitors to our region. Tall firs and bushy cedars rose above thickets of flower-and-fruit bearing shrubs; huckleberry and snowberry, salmon berry and thimbleberry, currants and wild cranberry, wild apple and wild cherry. Foamy ocean spray frothed above wild roses and hazelnuts, teaberry and salal, mock orange and honeysuckle. Rhododendrons and maples throve under the high canopy, interlaced with annuals and perennials, ferns and mosses. The woodlands supported huge numbers of birds and other wild creatures, including several hundred species of native bees and other pollinators. They also supported Tribal people who knew how to coexist with the natural environment that provided everything they needed.

Today, these same places often look pretty much like a yard in Anywhere, USA; some lawn (often mossy), a few classic (ie non-native) shrubs, maybe some perennials. Oh, and lots of bare earth (so tidy!). How did this rather bleak model become a standard of “proper” landscaping? There are many factors, including conformity, the urge to control and tame nature, and favoring a simple yardscape that doesn’t require much thought to maintain, all understandable. For people moving here from other regions, whether a century or a year ago, those wild woods may have seemed intimidating. If so, then and now, it might feel comforting to be surrounded by the same kind of yard they knew back wherever.

Inhospitable Or Welcoming

Unfortunately, such bare bones simple landscapes are not hospitable places for wildlife or people. As the world is changing, fewer places are hospitable and most are getting less so each year. Though we can’t control corporate destruction-for-profit or half hearted pollution solutions, everyone with a patch of land (or even a patio) can make a home for the living things we share space with. Many native pollinators have a very limited range and even a small patch of native plants can become a haven for them, and for birds and frogs and other critters as well. I’m often asked if we have to give up all our beloved garden plants and grow only natives. Not at all, as many non-invasive garden plants, from kale to crepe myrtles, provide food and shelter for wildlife. However, one practical way to make our landscapes more hospitable is to remove any plants on weed watch lists and replace them with natives. Like what? The Kitsap County noxious weed list includes butterfly bush (buddleia, aka lilac, though it is not related), ivy, purple loosetrife, and tansy ragwort. Since these plants are sadly common, many people don’t realize that they can outcompete natives and infiltrate wild areas.

Among the most invasive are English laurel, English holly, Scotch broom, Scotch thistle, European daphne, European hawthorne, European mountain ash, European viburnum, Norway maple. Do you detect a theme? Plants brought by early colonists came across country with them, seeding themselves freely along the way. When invasives are removed, we can replace them with a native version; vine maple, Western hawthorne, Western mountain ash, Western viburnum, and many more. This isn’t a site-specific solution: wherever you live, you can use this same strategy, exchanging local take-over weeds and unhappy exotics for displaced natives along with non-invasive, people and pollinator-pleasing plants.

Learning The Territory

That’s a fairly straight forward approach for those who are already familiar with native plants. If you aren’t, this is a wonderful moment on time to begin that study by observing the plants and critters you see when hiking in meadows or mountains or along inland lakes or coastal beaches. Take pictures and make notes of plants that catch your eye and seek them out in nurseries when you get back home. If you’ve started a pollinator patch in your yard, you may not recognize plants that appear there as youngsters. To learn whether seedlings are native or not, check out a wonderful guide, Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. This illustrated handbook also includes lore about how native plants have been used by Native people for millennia, making for fascinating reading. As we ease into a more natural way of landscaping, we may be tickled to learn that native plants need less water, no pruning or shaping and no fertilizers or pesticides. Talk about easy care! Onward, right?


Posted in Birds In The Garden, Butterfly Gardens, Climate Change, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Books, Garden Design, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Plant Diversity, Pollination Gardens, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Ofrenda For The Death Of Summer

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Making peace with beauty in death may require fresh eyes

Honoring The Fallen

Autumn leaves in all their astonishing colors, from vivid brilliance to subfusk murk, make my heart sing. My grandkids and I love to gather them up and make patchwork edges to garden paths and entryways. On my daily walks, I feel like I’m treading on a tapestry richer than anything human arts can devise. I still love to kick my way through the heaps of leaves that gather along sidewalks and curbs, enjoying the satisfying crunch as much as the visual glory. You don’t even need to look up to know what you’re walking near; golden coins of poplar scatter in a glowing carpet, first joined then overtaken by burning stars of sweetgum which give way to toast tinted elm leaves and gilded sparks of birch. The pavement becomes the canvas for a natural artwork that changes with the wind.

As October shifts into November, I love to create leafy ofrendas, both in the garden and in public places. For years now, I’ve been making them at our local art museum, whose annual ofrenda event spans the last gasp of October and the birth of November. It marks the Day Of The Dead, honoring All Saints and All Souls in a joyful, sorrowful celebration full of offerings and memories, feasts and music, and many, many flowers. Since our climate isn’t able to produce marigolds (the traditional ofrenda flower) in autumn, people make do with flowers of all kinds for the ofrenda altar itself. Outside, friends and I’ve been making great sweeping wings of foliage and flowers that welcome visitors like open arms.

Wings Of Welcome

These wings have a base of cedar and sequoia which hold less weighty plants in place. We blend brown bracken and deep green sword fern fronds, fresh fall flowers with fading summer blooms, crisp brown oak leaves with dazzling maple leaves. This year, frosty mornings nipped the dahlias and local growers sent us armloads of still-lovely blossoms as well as browning, battered ones. Gardeners brought masses of hydrangeas which shifted the palette from browns and golds to soft blues and rosy pinks.

This year, we had an arch to work with which we imagined as a gateway to the Day Of The Dead and an honoring of the Death of Summer. Tall sheafs of spent flowers made a tracery against the sky like the bare branches of trees in winter. Below them, we wove summery remnants into mosaics with flowers and foliage, berries and moss, lichens and curls of peeling bark. Made to last just a few days, these vignettes are poignant reminders of seasonal change, the more lovely for being vulnerable to wind and rain. Like sand mandelas that are finished, observed, then swept away, these temporary artworks don’t need longevity to make them valuable. For me, both making and seeing these assemblages brings joy, reminding me to be grateful for the glory. In these dark days, it feels healthy and healing and important for the culture and the planet for us all to take joy wherever possible. Not to grab it grimly and hold tight as long a possible, but to appreciate joy and beauty and gratefulness for even a few fleeting moments. Onward, right?


Posted in Annual Color, Care & Feeding, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Plant Diversity, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged | 1 Comment

Fogs and Frogs

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Tiny tree frogs love to live in flowers

(Please) Do Not Disturb

Despite prognostications about a dry year, the autumn rains have arrived with vigor, sometimes in glorious storms alive with lightning and rumbling thunder along with sudden torrential downpours. Many morning, the island is smothered in heavy fog that lies like a thick grey blanket, hushing sounds and muting the still-brilliant fall foliage. The rains also woke up dormant tree frogs who serenade me with a lusty croaking chorus as I putter in the garden. A friend shared this image from her garden a few days ago, reminding me of all the times I’ve found these beautiful little creatures snuggled up in a blossom bed. For several years, a large clump of daylilies was rarely without a tiny green companion, who moved from a fading flower to a fresh one each morning.

These clever critters estivate during our dry summers, waking up with the returning rains and spending the winters dozing fitfully, sleeping during a freeze and reawakening to forage for food through the long thaws. Once while tidying up a border I disturbed a larger frog, carefully wrapped in what looked like a bundle of dried leaves caught in a cleft between hydrangea stems. I rewrapped it carefully, hoping that it would make it through the winter despite my bumbling but ever since, I’ve been more cautious about clearing up the beds and borders. Most of the hundreds of bee species native to the northwest coast are ground dwellers so instead of doing comprehensive border renovations, I try to minimize ground disturbance when tucking in bulbs and dividing overgrown perennials.

Mushrooms Of Hope

It’s been a bleak and difficult month around here, with devastating world news overlapping painful family news and heartbreaking anniversaries. I’m subject to news creep, which can be debilitating, so in self defense I’ve retreated once again from drinking the toxin of daily news and am keeping my focus local for now. Even the science news briefs and blogs I follow are really hard reading sometimes as it becomes every more obvious that we humans are apparently fatally incapable of self restraint. One thing that gives me hope is the resurgence of mushrooms, which are popping up everywhere as the rains soak into summer-dry soil. Pioneer Paul Stametz has opened our eyes to the truly astonishing ability of fungi to heal soil and heal diseases in both plants and people. As I ramble around on my daily walks, it’s heartening to see mushrooms, slime molds, and other fungi emerging from dormancy and know that they are doing deep healing work underneath the surface. If we succeed in destroying life giving aspects of our planet, fungi will (eventually) reinvent a new way of living on Earth.

For now, I’m feeling grateful for the free exchange of life supporting oxygen and carbon dioxide between trees and many living things. Walking in the neighborhoods or strolling in the woods, sharing breath with trees keeps us all alive. Gratitude can be hard work in dire times like these dark days, yet there’s no refreshment in depression, no strength and no renewal in despair. A dear friend used to talk about “yes and” situations in which something dreadful is definitely true AND there is also always something to be grateful for. Finding that something can feel like a stretch but as we know, it’s good for minds and bodies both to get out of our ruts and stretch. It’s also good to take a big lung filling breath and thank the trees for their generosity. Onward, right?

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