waiting for Godot and good dirt

P3170089.JPG

I was 18, fueled daily by remarkable impatience, when I read Beckett's masterful play. The professor, a kind woman with dark red hair and a great deal of patience, recommended only this about the presentation I was to give to class: make it original.

Critical commentary on the play tended in one main direction—toward the absurd,  meaningless life shared by these the two men, which is then torn open by the ferocious and pathetic howl of Lucky, man on a leash. Then life subsides back into, well, waiting. Accurate, all of that, but missing a certain point. For me, it was all about the the staging of the bare tree, the main prop in the original set design; its one remaining leaf may symbolize, as much as any other interpretation, what cannot be overlooked—the friendship of Vladimir and Estragon.

This is an admittedly far fetched interpretation of the play (that thumping you hear is Beckett's forehead banging the casket). So what does it have to do with good dirt? Not much, I admit, except for the barest associative leap. I make compost. Yards of the stuff. The three-bin system I built many years ago still efficiently provides great heaps of loose, nutrient rich organic hummus that smells remarkably sweet.

The plants love it. You'll see.

I am engaged in making good dirt every day. Daily, I use the familiar guidelines and set aside chopped veggie material, coffee grounds, etc. I regularly add thin layers of grass clippings (summer), leaves (fall and spring), chopped garden refuse, and more kitchen trimmings. Every month I add high nitrogen chicken droppings and in early spring, I turn it all together with horse manure. Moisten, wait, turn; repeat every 5 days while the heap gets hotter, every 2 weeks after the heat slows down. Done right in a 5'x'5' mesh enclosure and you can make good dirt within 6-8 weeks.

P3170096.JPG

This is how you burn your way to good dirt. It requires daily attentiveness, resources, and some heavy lifting, which includes a willingness to occasionally shovel horseshit. That's a kind of fidelity, and it is richly rewarded. I enjoy the process itself as demonstrative and significant sustainability. I enjoy, on a more physical and sensuous level, the great flavors and nutrition of the garden. This is healthy food. Organic vegetable gardens make sense in every way.

All those years ago, I gave my presentation on Waiting for Godot  and argued for the play's veiled optimism. Now that was original. Let's just say I went out on a limb—and in fact I did, insisting that the remaining leaf on the tree represents aliveness. As long as it's there, we can see these two wretches beneath it as having at least  their friendship while they wait.

So they wait, and so do we. Meanwhile, I make good dirt, which is where the leaf begins. I've been waiting for spring.

P3170091.JPG

persephone's song

PB250101.JPG

It's a dark and elegant tale. The mythic Kore—a maiden—is tricked into plucking the "cosmic flower" from a field, opening a rift into which she falls. In this way, she is stolen by Hades and made Persephone, wife and Queen of the Underworld.

Her mother Demeter searches for her, accompanied by torch-bearing Hekate, and ultimately refuses to allow the Earth to fruit again until Persephone is released. Zeus, partly responsible for her abduction, agrees on the condition that Persephone, who has now tasted of Hades' special pomegranate (well, well) can stay in the green world above for but half the year and must return to her role as Queen of the Underworld for the other half.

November always reminds me of the tale, and never more than when I'm clearing out the last of my summer garden. Yes, it often takes me this long. Fall is a busy time for teachers. So I commonly find myself just before winter gets serious, outside stripping away old vines and uprooting woody stalks of basil, dessicated but still intensely fragrant. And I ask myself, what song would Persephone have sung on her way back to the Underworld?

PB250084.JPG

Well, it's a myth, so let it be whatever song you please. Garden cleanup makes a song of hollow stems breaking, dry leaves rattling on bent stalks. Roots pop and the rake has its rhythms. A crow in the Ash runs through three different verses, over and over, until another across the way replies, a reluctant and lugubrious caw from the throat of the dark queen herself.

Cleanup is never quick but I find things to appreciate in the process. This fall, the warm days and drought have turned everything crisp and easy to handle—I cut the ties on the huge tomato plants and they slough away from the trellises in great sheets. I cut the French tarragon, still green and two feet tall, right to its nubs, along with the anise hyssop, and  pepper-licorice spices the whole garden.

Ultimately, I get one last look at which plants thrived, and how. Of course, also, those that did not thrive, and one more guess about why. I disturb more than a few worms where I dig out the last weeds—numb with cold, blind as ever, mute about the whole situation. And I was definitely buzzed by a bee on its way to oblivion, Persephone's song.

Our kitchen window overlooks the beds, this being the quintessential Kitchen Garden. There have been winters, when I was fathering and working and coaching and working and . . . that I didn't get to the cleanup before snows got heavy. In those cases, when soft drifts rose over heaped trellises and slumped herbs, topped angled fenceposts and crowned the downcast sunflower, it was rather thrilling, especially in moonlight. But a couple days of Colorado sun later everything turned soggy and I presiding over decay for many a breakfast, witness to the necessary and natural, the many shapes of Persephone on her throne.

PB250102.JPG

Myth emerges from culture—certainly, agriculture—as consensual song. It's a story we agree to tell one another, purposeful and relevant in the telling. The narrative is colored in its reds and browns and greens, with things the long dead wanted us to notice and remember.

If that song is outside our culture, or far enough outside our time, we may not know its language and may find it bewildering—in the original sense of the word, to be left in an unfamiliar forest. Persephone originates in ancient Greek culture, then phases through classical to contemporary permutations. Here in the 21st century, as the northern ice cap melts and the seas spin great storms and rainy places flood and the farmlands parch, I work to clear my garden and I think about this old tale. I wonder if Zeus will keep his deal with Demeter. I play with the metaphor while I do the work, and that animates the myth.

And this may be the point—that crucially, myth has to be made alive and made alive again. it dies when it stops developing, when it doesn't come back new. To keep such a great story alive sounds like a monumental challenge but it's actually always going on around us, and specifically within those living mythologically (in contemplation and study of myth). Men and women tell stories—many, many stories—and they build them from all the stories told before. They integrate them into their lives, their work, the celebrations of the year.

PB250085.JPG

Early winter is its own kingdom, and needs a sturdy myth to justify its deprivations and chill, the harshness of bright sun on a snowfield, the pressing dark that makes days so short. Gardeners in this region have cleaned out their beds, or not, but they all agree on what's coming. That Persephone is also associated with music in her myth argues for the origin of the tale in the long winter nights where playing music was a way to celebrate the season.

And it should be celebrated, for what it brings. The inner journey of Persephone resonates with all the work we do internally, the surprises we find there. Those "insights' are crucial to our ongoing growth—fuel for being fully alive whether we're children or elders. We need epiphanies, and winter is a time to find them. We might as well use this season, since it's upon us. Persephone has definitely fled.

Here's your proof on this handsome brown hop flower, a parting gift, resinous and yellow beads of lupulin—an herbal sedative. The garden will sleep well this winter.

PB250095.JPG

know your process

Transient

Morning sun on a steamer full of freshly-cut pumpkin chunks—it's a beautiful thing. Not only does it please the eyes in this moment, this batch of steaming squash represents a real accomplishment worth appreciating at a much deeper level.

Now there's an assertion you won't hear every day. Let me explain.

Today is Nov. 11, which brings a perfect symmetry into play. Exactly six months ago to the day, and a fine May day it was, I planted a small plot of Amish pie pumpkins in my garden. Then, spring was ascendent and daytime temps were beginning to tease with heat. Even more importantly, night temps were staying in the high 40s. Into a low mound of compost about two feet across I plunged a dozen seeds.  I adjusted the drip watering tubes around the mound and I walked away. 

Pumpkins are so easy to grow it's ridiculous. As long as they get adequate water, they're likely to thrive, and mine did. I trained the vines to a fence and let them climb and meander. When they fruited, I was initially concerned that only four pumpkins came in, but when I saw how large they were growing, I stopped worrying and slung supports underneath the burgeoning, pale orange globes. OK, I admit it; I used old pairs of my boxers. Picture a huge pumpkin bulging out of those. Talk about plumber's crack! But It was a good thing I did it; the largest of the pumpkins hanging off the chainlink fence came in at 33 lbs. and without support, these would have torn the vines from their perches.

But this is hardly the end of the story.

Transient

Riley wrote of the time "When the frost is on the punkin"; I followed his advice and let the first light frost dust the pumpkins before harvesting, which helps set them for curing and, so I'm told, it sweetens them a bit. I sawed through the tough stalks, hauled them into the house, wiped off the dirt, and stored them in the basement for a few weeks. 

I had plans for these monsters. The flesh of the Amish pie pumpkin is particularly delicious. They cut fairly easily, which is no small matter when you face them down on your counter. This morning I began by snapping off the stems nearly thick as my wrist and then with my sharpest, largest-bladed chef's knife, I hacked the rinds into fat slices. No fingers were lost, though there was one close call. Then, using a paring knife, I cut away the soft threads and seeds (rinsed and drying for storage), peeled away the outer skin, and cut everything into chunks.

I've been steaming pumpkin for 6 hours now, one batch at a time. This is better than boiling, as it preserves more of the vitamin content and flavor. I puree the softened chunks in a food processor, ladle it into freezer baggies (alternating the most commonly used amounts of 1 cup and 3 cups), and then carry it all down to the floor freezer in my basement.

The yield: about 50 cups of pumpkin. That could be 50 pumpkin pies, 50 loaves of pumpkin beer bread (I make it with Guinness), or a dozen large pots of Southwestern Pumpkin Soup (tonight's supper). Let's just say those four whopping pumpkins will feed us all winter and spring. Here's a look at the kind of thing I like to make—a classic pie recipe from an old English cookbook, but tweaked with my own additions: some coffee liqueur (homemade, of course) in the custard and the infamous, flaky vodka crust.

Transient

Is it worth it? I think so. The relative ease of growing the pumpkins is matched only by the ease of processing them—there's the time spent, but it's not particularly difficult labor. I'll be able to pull a package of pureed pumpkin from my freezer any time to start a meal for family and friends. It's chock full of vitamins A, C, and E, plus a range of other vitamins, minerals, and nutritious compounds.

The key to this kind of garden-to-table success is to know your process. I paid nothing for these seeds—they're heirloom, and I've cultivated and saved them for years. My garden is set up and I know how to make pumpkins grow. I coached these plants through a severe hailstorm (they got macerated but rebounded), as well as through record high heat in July. I knew how to support the vines, when to harvest the fruits, and how to cut, steam, puree, and freeze the pumpkin. 

And I know how to use it in baking and cooking.

No one showed me how to do this. I learned it all the hard way, through trial and error. Now  the work is largely behind me, and it's a good thing because winter is setting in on the Front Range of Colorado. It's been a good day putting up all this food, and it will carry me and mine through some chilly nights ahead. I'll enjoy the break, but already, spring planting is on my mind.

And that's why I can say I honestly feel a deep joy when I see the first tendril springing out of the stalk of a new pumpkin plant—because that's another signifier of the process that goes on and on.

Transient

black wings & imagination

dry.jpg

I pay some attention, as is necessary, to calendar pages turning. I pay more attention when unique and valuable phenomena happen before my eyes. So I give you the Black Swallowtail—or possibly, the Spicebush Swallowtail. I'm no lepidopterist so I can't quite be sure which exact kind it was that buzzed me repeatedly before circling to land on a parsley flower. I didn't care what it was called. I felt something turn.

This is physical, not metaphysical. I was aware of time moving, of summer advancing, because of this experience. Phenomena are what we perceive with our senses. They are distinct from imagined things, though I can't stress enough how phenomena catalyze imagination, if you teach yourself a certain attention to them. 

I've been in the garden almost every day for five weeks. Sometimes I spend 20 minutes; more often I spend hours, even half a day. June on the Front Range has been rough—early hailstorms pulverized young gardens, then a scorching heat wave set the waiting drought aflame. Literally. Five days of temps over 100F, cresting twice at 105F, marked Denver's worst heat wave on record. Then scattered storms flicked a few lightning bolts into dry forests and the state caught fire—huge, hungry, capricious fires that tens thousands of people have fled and fought—and are still fighting as I write.

Unlike some Coloradans, I've escaped the worst of this disaster. My challenge has been to tolerate the smoky air and relentless heat that stress both garden and gardener. Judicious drip irrigation and supplemental watering by hand have given the garden a fighting chance to recover from hailstorms and thrive in the heat. Mulched beds conserve soil moisture and along with regular weeding, eliminate the need for herbicides. Beneficial bugs clean out the pests. So it is this well established organic garden is a mini-ecosystem supporting overall biodiversity, and at high summer, it virtually shimmers with activity at every level—soil, stalk, and blossom. That's the best response I can muster to the harsh climate and conditions.

Organic gardening necessarily suggests delicious produce. And it should. But there are other layers to the experience, and some of them fly. 

I was tying up tomatoes vines this morning when a new butterfly wandered in. The calendar has turned to July, so I reminded myself, and here was a new arrival. I had my camera in my pocket so I quickly took a few shots and stepped back—and at that very moment felt a second large butterfly, a Swallowtail, whiffle by my ear and then dart past my face. 

Transient

Exhilarating. That's the only word for the sensation as the counter-movements of the two large butterflies focused my attention. The Swallowtail alighted for only brief moments, then was off again, vigorously circling the garden round several times, finishing with a long, great glide over the beds to land on a tall stalk of parsley at the very center of it all. There was attitude in this amazing aerial display, brilliant in light, color, and motion.

These phenomena—the heat on my skin and in my lungs, the sensation of the Swallowtail flying so close, the vision of its flight against the green and flowering plants—are utterly and entirely available in the realm of physical. I had to create the environment in which they occur. That includes my attention, which I must bring to focus, something I'd call a discipline of many years' practice. So part of this is receptivity, cultivated and present for the phenomenon.

The payoff for me is creativity and imagination. So, first, create the garden.

Imagine its very physical elements into being by planning, working, cultivating. Engage imagination with the real, and then enjoy the results. For the gardener and foodie, the literal fruits of labor are certainly tangible, but I am easily as pleased by those moments of utter surprise, when clarity opens and I experience phenomena intensely, in amazement.

sunflwr'12.jpg

Imagine its very physical elements into being by planning, working, cultivating. Engage imagination with the real, and then enjoy the results. For the gardener and foodie, the literal fruits of labor are certainly tangible, but I am easily as pleased by those moments of utter surprise, when clarity opens and I experience phenomena intensely, in amazement.

For example, look very closely here and you can see the eyes peering down toward the lower right corner of the image. Then, see the whole body like a leaf, scalloped sunlight on its high edge.

It takes vast stretches of time for a creature like this to evolve and perfect its camouflage. For a sense of scale, the bug's leafy body is about the circumference of a grape. I've never seen one in my garden before, and wouldn't have seen this one had it not caught my eye is it flew into the shady middle of a bushy Feverfew plant.

greenbug'12.jpg

It takes vast stretches of time for a creature like this to evolve and perfect its camouflage. For a sense of scale, the bug's leafy body is about the circumference of a grape. I've never seen one in my garden before, and wouldn't have seen this one had it not caught my eye is it flew into the shady middle of a bushy Feverfew plant.

Chaucer famously wrote, "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne," but this insect comes readily adapted to its craft. So we come again to words; our bodies don't resemble leaves but in a trade-off I'm willing to accept, they are adapted to using language for expression—the brain makes sense of what the larynx utters. Teach a child to speak, as many of us do, and you come to new understandings of all this. Consider how thousands of years of speech gave rise to pictographs and finally text.

If you're reading this, and you're a writer, know yourself. Cultivate your body's receptivity to phenomena because you are fully wired for words in response.

Language allows us something more than observation, even as it requires it. The green of a sweat bee, metallic and beautiful in bright sun, dazzles us and in that instant we come to our senses—we come to our senses—and we go further to write about it.  The scientist creates by observation and testing. The dancer translates and recreates through movement. The poet and writer has words, their sounds, shapes, and meanings, as a most marvelous response to phenomena.

sweatbee'12.jpg

blue spuds, spiral scapes, & golden dragonflies

scapes12a.jpg

Scape: from the Greek for scepter; the shaft of a column; the tongue of a balance. In garden usage, scapes are the graceful stalks of garlic plants that rise directly from the bulb. In old English usage as a verb, it can mean anything from a mistake of no consequence to a grave error, from "breaking wind" to a "breach of chastity." So be clear, please, that we're talking here about garlic because it's coming up for harvest in my garden—more on that later.

Words are fascinating to some of us because of their fluidity over time. It's not the meaning of a word, alone, that captivates. Rather, it's the way a word means different things over time and space. A word's dynamism is something that must be sought after and studied to grasp its story. Most of the time the world works to denote a word; our very ability to communicate congruently with others depends on a shared ability to recognize a fixed meaning for a word. So fixing a word's meaning lasts a while, but not forever and never completely. Words keep changing because they are used, and only stop changing when they are discarded or forgotten.

As language moves it also spirals off into art. The poets of any era come to depend on its connotations and sound, working the alchemical ambiguity of words embedded into a larger text, all of it correlative, all of it marking the moment of its composition.

But to the lexicographer, or at least a person intrigued by language's dynamism, a word's travels comprise a unique and fluid graph of meaning. Take wing, for example. In fact, do take wing if you get the chance but otherwise, just consider the word. In Middle English, it first appears as wenge, pronounced WENG-a. The Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary, from which I am drawing my references today, goes on to provide 38 different spellings, including the elegant hwingen, plus nearly four pages of variant definitions and uses for the word. There is also a note that it replaced the Old English fepre, which flicks an aural echo toward feather and therefore may have Greek roots. How much time have you got?

gold dragon1.jpg

Don't answer that because all you need is an instant to fully experience wings, as I did when I saw this gold & black dragonfly alight on a garden post this morning and once it had a grip, throw forward a flight of four gossamer wings to dry in the sun and light breeze.

Having placed yourself here, consider this question. Who was the first person to breathe the word wing? Was he or she standing in awe of a creature like this, witnessing the intricate structure of the appendages that give it that power of flight? In the moment of apprehension, that human being was fully present in the now, in a pre-lingual instant where the object had no name. Then came the word as utterance, and who can say how many years, how many millennia passed, before it was ever codified in symbols and written down as these shapes: wing. Or wenge. Or hwingen.

I find words terribly interesting, but there are moments where they are inadequate, an understanding that is not news. If I get close enough to the blossom of a borage plant, above, there is no adequate language for what's happening—and it is happening. This photo merely gives the illusion that this bloom is a thing thus fixed while in reality, we are seeing a moment in a process. The beautiful, finely-haired, pendulant blossoms yet to open reveal the dynamic process happening here. Words come later—I'm reflecting hours later—and as we've noted already, language is dynamic and so are gardens.

borage1.jpg

I find words terribly interesting, but there are moments where they are inadequate, an understanding that is not news. If I get close enough to the blossom of a borage plant, above, there is no adequate language for what's happening—and it is happening. This photo merely gives the illusion that this bloom is a thing thus fixed while in reality, we are seeing a moment in a process. The beautiful, finely-haired, pendulant blossoms yet to open reveal the dynamic process happening here. Words come later—I'm reflecting hours later—and as we've noted already, language is dynamic and so are gardens.

The gardener who slows down enough, quiets and refines the senses enough to witness the dynamism all around, is sharing something with the poet—the working of a process that begins with understanding how the process works.

And anyway, what good does it do to observe that stunning architecture of the bloom and call the parts by their Latin names, to say purple claw as a metaphor, to describe the petals as pink-ribbed fading to blue and lavender? I, for one, go into my garden to forget words for a while, so that I might better remember them and wield when I return.

Yarrow blossoms. Yellow. The words aren't adequate, but they are what we have to work with, the language that is given us, having been invented by other, long-gone gardeners—to strain the point, people who no longer work the soil because they are themselves soil. The language of dead gardeners, if you like. And what did they call this particular bee, gorging on fleabane nectar?

yarrow.jpg

Yarrow blossoms. Yellow. The words aren't adequate, but they are what we have to work with, the language that is given us, having been invented by other, long-gone gardeners—to strain the point, people who no longer work the soil because they are themselves soil. The language of dead gardeners, if you like. And what did they call this particular bee, gorging on fleabane nectar?

Whatever the answer to that, the bee will never know or care. Most people won't care, either, but the few who do care because it's language that gives them a marker in the moment, a communication to the future. The word spud, of obscure origin, first shows up in text in 1440 to describe a short and poor knife, which leads then to use by 1667 to describe a specific digging instrument used in fields. Now, in 2012, we use it for the very thing dug up—spuds, such as these Adirondack Blue potatoes, which I served as hash browns this morning to my wife and daughter.

orangebee.jpg

Whatever the answer to that, the bee will never know or care. Most people won't care, either, but the few who do care because it's language that gives them a marker in the moment, a communication to the future. The word spud, of obscure origin, first shows up in text in 1440 to describe a short and poor knife, which leads then to use by 1667 to describe a specific digging instrument used in fields. Now, in 2012, we use it for the very thing dug up—spuds, such as these Adirondack Blue potatoes, which I served as hash browns this morning to my wife and daughter.

bluespuds.jpg

And so we come full circle, back to scape. After years of misunderstanding garlic (not a phrase you are likely to hear often), I've learned the key to a good patch: when the scapes emerge, snap most of them off, since they can inhibit the formation of good garlic bulbs underground. Leave just a few scapes, such as those first pictured above, and wait for them to uncoil—and they do, straightenting their stems until they stand out, perpendicular to the soil. These are your indicator scapes, and they're telling you the right moment to harvest. Grab a hand-spade or fork and being careful not to puncture the bulb, dig down beneath it and pry it easily forth.

Don't bruise the bulb; gently brush or shake off the biggest dirt clods but don't worry about really cleaning it. Just braid the whole plant with others, 8-10 in a bundle, and hang it in a shaded, dry, well-ventilated place for 5 weeks or so to cure. At that point, you will have another experience for which there are no words— pungent flavors that defy description.

And that's enough to make anybody smile.

gold dragon2.jpg

ruin & resilience

I woke in the dark to curtain whipping at my bedside, rain and wind spraying in through the open window beside the bed. It was strangely refreshing—the cool moisture on my face, the scent of rain in a year of severe drought. But then came the noise of hail, not merely pinging on the glass but thrashing it. My dream-soaked mind wandered a moment longer and I remember thinking this must be what it's like at the base of a great waterfall where elements collide, icy water on stone.

7.jpg

I woke in the dark to curtain whipping at my bedside, rain and wind spraying in through the open window beside the bed. It was strangely refreshing—the cool moisture on my face, the scent of rain in a year of severe drought. But then came the noise of hail, not merely pinging on the glass but thrashing it. My dream-soaked mind wandered a moment longer and I remember thinking this must be what it's like at the base of a great waterfall where elements collide, icy water on stone.

Then the window slammed shut—and I must thank my wife for doing that because if left to me, I'd have lain there while the endtable and everything on it got drenched.

A fierce high plains hailstorm was shredding everything green and delicate in my garden, a thought so damned depressing that I knew I'd never fall back to sleep unless I put it utterly out of my mind, immediately. Which I did. I was sleeping again within moments, and when I woke in the morning, I had not one but two cups of coffee before I got up the nerve to survey the damage. The first peek through the blinds revealed pools of still frozen hail, pea-sized and piled 6 inches deep, all over the lawn. I'd learn later of reports from neighborhoods nearby of people shoveling off a foot or more of accumulated hailstones.

June is ascendant; the days are growing longer still toward a peak two weeks away and plants absolutely lock into that, putting on heavy foliage to take advantage of the abundant sun-into-nutrient opportunity. They are typically at the point of transition from tender to tough, rooting more deeply, branching vigorously, and setting first blooms for the fruiting phase. Two days ago, my garden was absolutely rocking. I had visions of a forest of fruiting plants taller than me, because that's what this patch does by mid-July.

6.jpg

June is ascendant; the days are growing longer still toward a peak two weeks away and plants absolutely lock into that, putting on heavy foliage to take advantage of the abundant sun-into-nutrient opportunity. They are typically at the point of transition from tender to tough, rooting more deeply, branching vigorously, and setting first blooms for the fruiting phase. Two days ago, my garden was absolutely rocking. I had visions of a forest of fruiting plants taller than me, because that's what this patch does by mid-July.

There is no good time for a massive hailstorm but this phase of growth is a particularly bad time for it. As the photos above prove, the wind-driven ice macerated leaves and snapped off what had been good sized branches from peppers, tomatoes, pole beans, and squash. The most ruined of all were the Japanese cucumber plants, barely two inches high and just lifting crenellated leaves toward the waiting trellis; after the deluge, they were bare, bruised stems, pulped, unsalvageable. 

Or not. A friend said to me, "Maybe it won't be so bad. Plants are resilient." In that moment, I realized I was in for a lesson in how a garden recovers from being pummeled. I've certainly seen it before—my garden journal from 2011 notes that on June 13, almost exactly a year previous to this date, hail the size of grapes hit the garden, though it did not fall as thickly nor for as long (7-8 minutes) as it did this time around. Since I can't rewind and skip the hailstorm, and since there isn't a thing a gardener can do when one comes, my only option remains to give the garden what care I can and see how it comes back.

Just 48 hours after the storm came through I already see things improving. Two sunny days have started healing many plants, set as they are in now deeply soaked loam. New growth is springing from the bent limbs of tomato plants and the squash is looking like it may bounce back well. The pole beans are chewed up, but their tough tendrils are gripping and climbing again. The cukes . . . well, I still think those babies are goners, but I'm letting them go a while to see if they can pull through.

All this was running through my mind as I was preparing a meal this afternoon when my visitor arrived.

I caught movement just above the valerian blooms, a bright flash of color, and I knew. I ran for my camera, nearly tumbling over my giant dog who had leaped up in front of me, startled by my dashing around. I hustled out to the patch where I grow larkspur, or what I call swallowtail bait. And there it was, in all its glory—a beautiful, 5-inch wide butterfly, proboscis buried in the open throat of a purple bloom.

4.jpg

I caught movement just above the valerian blooms, a bright flash of color, and I knew. I ran for my camera, nearly tumbling over my giant dog who had leaped up in front of me, startled by my dashing around. I hustled out to the patch where I grow larkspur, or what I call swallowtail bait. And there it was, in all its glory—a beautiful, 5-inch wide butterfly, proboscis buried in the open throat of a purple bloom.

Last year was the first time I ever saw one of these creatures. It's a long story but let me boil it down: I carelessly tossed a handful of larkspur seeds into my garden about 15 years ago and every year since, I've had to pull out the free-seeding plants each spring to keep them from inundating the beds. Last year, I let some grow to maturity again because they are, after all, very attractive wildflowers and pollinators find them tasty and productive of nectar. I also put in a water fountain, solar powered, and that, too, has seemed to attract many more pollinators to the patch.

5.jpg

Last year was the first time I ever saw one of these creatures. It's a long story but let me boil it down: I carelessly tossed a handful of larkspur seeds into my garden about 15 years ago and every year since, I've had to pull out the free-seeding plants each spring to keep them from inundating the beds. Last year, I let some grow to maturity again because they are, after all, very attractive wildflowers and pollinators find them tasty and productive of nectar. I also put in a water fountain, solar powered, and that, too, has seemed to attract many more pollinators to the patch.

My hunch was correct—let the larkspur grow and the swallowtails will come back. I like these photos, but they don't fully communicate the brilliance of the colors, the size of the butterfly, and the experience of getting close to one as it feeds, close enough to hear its wings move the air. I might not have been too surprised if it spoke, and I'm pretty sure it would not have said, "Poor garden." Most likely, at some level inaudible to my ears, there was the sound of slurping pleasure because this bad boy was going at it with abandon, and that was its only commentary.

The hail sucked, but so did the butterfly, except in a good way. Clearly, this insect was alive and protected during the storm, and as far as I know, without memory of or regret over what transpired. It is getting on with business, attracted to what is alive and well. I have indeed learned a lesson, and will follow suit.

1.jpg

of pucks & chili peppers

koho.jpg

About ten years ago, I broke the blade off this hockey stick—I don't recall the specific shot, just the feel in my hands of the blade giving way against the ice. In fact, that was the last time I stepped on the ice, at the end of my last coaching stint. When the blade broke at the season's final practice, I suspected I might not be replacing it any time soon. 

But I have repurposed it. All these years it has served as an excellent support stake for a series of chili pepper plants in my garden. It's in place again this summer and I expect it will be back to perform that function for a long time to come.

How many broken hockey sticks did I see in ice arena garbage cans and dumpsters through all my years of playing and coaching? Many, and it's a pity more gardeners didn't show up to pull them out, take them home, and put them to good use. This one displaces a plastic stake, wire cage, or other item from the garden center—that's a savings of the odd dollars, but more importantly, no new resources were consumed.

Around my garden, there are a great many repurposed items like this. The raised beds are bordered with bricks from my neighbor, who ordered far too many for his home addition and offered them to me. I stripped last year's tall cornstalks and made trellises of them for morning glories to climb.

cornstalktrellis.jpg

I even found a use, albeit an aesthetic one, for the busted water pump from my old Toyota.

waterpump1.jpg

While I'm careful not to turn my yard into a salvage yard, I do tend to keep old items that offer the slightest whiff of potential. I store this hodgepodge in a back corner—old lamp poles, odd wedges of wood and composite board, old windows in frames, swatches of netting, and all other nature of durable stuff. If it's otherwise headed for the landfill, I keep it a while and see whether it can be put to work. Quite often, I'll be at some task or other in the garden and find my mind's eye engineering a solution. Off I go to the utility pile to see what gear may find its new expression of usefulness.

Establishing a garden space takes time and if one isn't careful, it can draw off a steady stream of cash. I'm often asked if my large plot saves my family money on food and honestly, I can't say with any surety. I suspect it does, especially since it's been around now in some form for almost a quarter century and I've managed to focus on and succeed at growing the right quantities of things we like to eat, much of it heirloom (and hence, I don't have to buy many seeds). But the enterprise is even more economical since I've learned to re-use items rather than hurrying out to the store to buy plastic things.

aliumbloom.jpg

A garden has so many components to it, and I've placed economics near the bottom in my hierarchy of reasons for tending one. But it is a consideration, as are my ongoing efforts to reduce my consumption of materials in the process. I'm satisfied I'm doing my best at this, and will continue to do so in the future. That allows me to relax and enjoy, quite literally, the fruits of my labor.

Peach, May.jpg

wasteland & garden

basiltrans.jpg

“In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been put upon them as inescapable laws.”

Joseph Campbell

Years ago—more than a quarter of a century ago—I walked into a classroom at the University of Montana on a sunny September morning. I was there not to study but for the first time ever to teach a class.

Last week I walked out of a classroom in Littleton, Colorado, closing the door on a long and fulfilling academic year that involved guiding a couple hundred students toward knowledge, potential, empowerment. I did my very best, and am pleased to say it again: this is good work and I am privileged to do it.

Any good teacher of adults knows the work is mainly to motivate people, and once they are motivated, to open the gate into a garden of ideas—and I must insist that is not a strained metaphor at all.

Will anyone deny the world can at times resemble a wasteland, at least by Campbell's definition, above? Which of us can claim to be entirely free of serving purposes other than those we know to be most authentic, most independent and gratifying? I see it in the eyes of many of my students, year after year—that their efforts to learn and improve their lives is an assertive response to the recognition of living in the wasteland. Those who are aware of the deal, who understand themselves and their circumstance fairly clearly, those are the ones I can help. The others, not so much. They need more time to stumble and sweat in the wasteland, to be made humble and motivated so they're ready to strive.

butterflygarden.jpg

Will anyone deny the world can at times resemble a wasteland, at least by Campbell's definition, above? Which of us can claim to be entirely free of serving purposes other than those we know to be most authentic, most independent and gratifying? I see it in the eyes of many of my students, year after year—that their efforts to learn and improve their lives is an assertive response to the recognition of living in the wasteland. Those who are aware of the deal, who understand themselves and their circumstance fairly clearly, those are the ones I can help. The others, not so much. They need more time to stumble and sweat in the wasteland, to be made humble and motivated so they're ready to strive.

Writing saturates my classes—artistic, informative, rhetorical. I teach by teasing out and developing metacognitive activity in my classroom. That is to say, I teach my students to think about thinking, or in our case, to think about writing. I ask them to make one of the great leaps so necessary to writing well: examine not just what you write but how you write it, its effects beyond rather than within you, the originator. Expression in language is not the goal, it is the raw material with which a writer begins his or her real work. Refinement of that material requires metacognitive skill, the ability to see the text as a master gardener sees a garden—the potential, the problems, and the occasionally surprising brilliance.

And I'll carry the comparison further. As a gardener, I must finally make some deals with myself about what can and cannot be done with the ground entrusted to me. I can't make the entire wasteland bloom. I can't make anything bloom at all if I don't learn to read things well—the health of the soil, the way the weather really works, the best location for a particular plant. Plants do not do what you tell them to do; rather, they do what they will, but only after you do what they tell you to do. By getting down on my knees, by getting dirt under my nails and the smell of the greenery in my nose, I can begin to assemble a true sense of what's possible.

chiveblossom.jpg

And I'll carry the comparison further. As a gardener, I must finally make some deals with myself about what can and cannot be done with the ground entrusted to me. I can't make the entire wasteland bloom. I can't make anything bloom at all if I don't learn to read things well—the health of the soil, the way the weather really works, the best location for a particular plant. Plants do not do what you tell them to do; rather, they do what they will, but only after you do what they tell you to do. By getting down on my knees, by getting dirt under my nails and the smell of the greenery in my nose, I can begin to assemble a true sense of what's possible.

Every learner has to make those acknowledgements, too. Learning is not and never will be about a grade on a transcript. Real, usable knowledge is about absorbing information, developing skills and abilities, and being effectively metacognitive. For writers, it's moving from illusion through confusion to clarity. To put it another way, the most successful students I have often start out falsely confident in their writing, only to reach an epiphany that it's going to take a lifetime to actually master the art. Once there, they can begin the real work.

Look, you can see it here: those tendrils are thin as pins, at once delicate and tough, unfailingly persistent. Just take a minute and look again—see how they've found purchase on the bamboo support, wrapped round it, used it to climb. This is a greenhouse vine, a balsam apple. Like a student in my classroom, it needs a protected start. I know that given the right conditions, I can transplant this vine in a few weeks and it will grow profusely—taller and broader than me, heavy with fruit, remarkably beautiful in August light.

balasamsprout.jpg

Look, you can see it here: those tendrils are thin as pins, at once delicate and tough, unfailingly persistent. Just take a minute and look again—see how they've found purchase on the bamboo support, wrapped round it, used it to climb. This is a greenhouse vine, a balsam apple. Like a student in my classroom, it needs a protected start. I know that given the right conditions, I can transplant this vine in a few weeks and it will grow profusely—taller and broader than me, heavy with fruit, remarkably beautiful in August light.

I like this work—teaching and gardening—and not a single day passes that I don't see these activities as interconnected, echoing each other in shape and substance. The good news for me is that I'm on a turning wheel, and I've just clicked over from the academic year to several months where my main activity will be with green things. Spring is spilling into summer, and I get a necessary break from teaching so I can rest and recharge. Who knows, I may even coax blooms out of the bricks, a garden from a wasteland.

valeriancat.jpg

early season delights

Flavor can be elusive. Many is the time I've ordered a green salad at a restaurant only to be disappointed by wilted or bland greens and veggies that are mere variations on spongy and weak tasting. I've even filled a basket with organic salad fixings at the market, only to get home and find them the same, leaving me to wonder how many days had passed since they were harvested, days during which both the taste and nutritive value have leached away.

spring greens.jpg

Flavor can be elusive. Many is the time I've ordered a green salad at a restaurant only to be disappointed by wilted or bland greens and veggies that are mere variations on spongy and weak tasting. I've even filled a basket with organic salad fixings at the market, only to get home and find them the same, leaving me to wonder how many days had passed since they were harvested, days during which both the taste and nutritive value have leached away.

Clearly, that is not the case with the array of early season items above, picked just moments before this photo was taken, rinsed and assembled into a simple salad whose flavors popped in the mouth. Clockwise from left (add the word "fresh" before each item that follows): chives, flat-leaf parsley, mixed baby greens, radishes, cilantro, and ruby mustard greens.

radishes.jpg

It's been a strange spring on the Front Range of Colorado. Winter was mild here, as elsewhere in so much of the U.S., and finished by leaving drought conditions and early spring surges of heat. Last year we had significant rain, which gave early plantings a boost; this year, perennials have struggled in the parching heat and wind, even though the blossoms on the forsythia were stunning. As we turn to May, I'm hoping for at least the occasional drenching rain—hoping but not expecting it.

Our last frost usually occurs within the next ten days and just this morning, a very light rime lay on the grass at dawn, courtesy of the skies clearing late yesterday, allowing heat to escape. It's going to be a tricky call in coming days: plant delicate things early for the boost in growing days or hold back a while longer and be safe? Having a greenhouse allows me to take the latter course and not lose much but for those who have rushed forward with planting, this could be a difficult season.

Fortunately, early season greens thrive in the cool high plains weather of April. We've been making forays into the herb patch, sometimes pre-dawn, to snag herbs to add to the oh-so-fresh eggs from our six chickens, all laying like pros these days. Even as the chives go to seed the cilantro is coming in fast, alongside healthy contributors like French tarragon, Italian parsley, and lemon thyme.

Intense, pungent, savory—it's a good day when these fresh flavors grace a dish. Winter, the season of flavors preserved and dried, is giving way to a run of weeks stretching into October, where we'll draw directly from the source, losing none of the textures, tastes, vitamins, and minerals of our produce. A salad garden is one of the easiest things to grow for a beginning gardener or a person with little space with which to work. An area just a couple feet square can yield a bounty of greens like those above, all before the first of May. You don't need a lot to make it happen—just a bit of work to prepare the soil in a patch (or even a large container or two) that gets sun for a good portion of the day.

For more seasoned gardeners, especially those working an established garden, there is the knowledge that while one cultivates these early season delights, there is the promise others everywhere, as in this tiny peach just breaking out of its blossom coat, intent on swelling full of peach flavor and sweetness for a midsummer harvest. 

peach1.jpg

rhubarb healing

rhubarb.jpg

Cutting fresh rhubarb stalks just after dawn on an April morning is a simple pleasure—for all the senses. There was a chill in the air when I went out yesterday, courtesy of a warm and cloudless spring day that gave way to night and dropping temperatures, cold enough to lay a skin of ice on the water in the steel garden bucket. I took my Chinese knife, the one with the razor-sharp, curved blade perfect for the task at hand—to snap off the stems from the two main plants and then trim two pounds of stalks of their broad leaves.

Cutting fresh rhubarb stalks just after dawn on an April morning is a simple pleasure—for all the senses. There was a chill in the air when I went out yesterday, courtesy of a warm and cloudless spring day that gave way to night and dropping temperatures, cold enough to lay a skin of ice on the water in the steel garden bucket. I took my Chinese knife, the one with the razor-sharp, curved blade perfect for the task at hand—to snap off the stems from the two main plants and then trim two pounds of stalks of their broad leaves.

Just the act of trimming was a sensuous treat. Sweet and tangy, fresh rhubarb delights the senses, similar to the way a citrus scent rises when you peel an orange. There's something remarkable about the aroma of cut rhubarb that I love. I've heard people say they don't like rhubarb and I just don't understand.

Now, for perspective: this all began 22 years ago when I and my family moved into a rented house on Colorado's Front Range. I was starting a new teaching job and we needed a place to stay for a while, until we could buy a house in what was then a very affordable market south of Denver. I had done some gardening in different places I'd lived—New York, California, Montana—but I had a lot to learn about the particular patterns of gardens in this region. One thing I did not understand at all then was that if you want to know what to grow in a new garden, your best bet is to look around at other gardens right near you—literally. Neighborhoods are microclimates, and as I would later learn, even a patch of yard has its own "nanoclimates."

I was intent on putting in a salad garden that first year and saw an existing but overgrown bed out by our back fence, so I did what seemed right at the time: starting way too early in the season, I cleared the patch. This meant prising grass roots out of the bed, and then digging deeply to turn over the soil, which to my surprise was decent stuff—rich, friable, and full of earthworms. But I also found something else: a half-dozen large, woody, orange-colored roots, roughly the size of footballs. I had no idea what they were, and presuming these were undesirables, I dug them out and disposed of them. Idiot move.

Those were a row of well established rhubarb plants, and had I left them be, they soon would have yielded a plethora of delicious stalks, among the first things any Front Range gardener gets to enjoy in early spring. Too late, I realized my mistake. A small root mass had survived my destructive shovel and sent up a few troubled stalks and when I saw it was rhubarb and checked out the roots, I knew what I'd done. This was reinforced when my neighbor's patch, adjacent to mine and left utterly neglected, gave rise to a row of huge, glossy rhubarb leaves on stalks tinted that telltale crimson on bright green.

We moved shortly afterwards and I set to work putting in what would be the garden I still keep. Among my first goals was to make recompense by putting in a few rhubarb plants. My attempts were not successful. At one point I managed to get some going from seed, which is challenging enough, but I'd picked the wrong location and my multi-year effort to coax them to robust health finally failed. I was cursed. Eventually, I gave up on the idea.

But a few years ago, I came upon some very nice rhubarb starts at a local nursery and having learned from experience, I found a good garden location for them. They were leggy and weak looking that first year but did make it through the winter. However, the yield was not good in that second year, and I had not expected it would be. I was patient, and that patience has finally paid off.

rhubarb2.jpg

But a few years ago, I came upon some very nice rhubarb starts at a local nursery and having learned from experience, I found a good garden location for them. They were leggy and weak looking that first year but did make it through the winter. However, the yield was not good in that second year, and I had not expected it would be. I was patient, and that patience has finally paid off.

This year's early spring has brought the rhubarb bursting through the soil. I've been watching carefully, out among a garden still mostly bare soil at this point. So it was that this week, I determined that there were enough heavy stalks on the plants to make for a good harvest.

Another bit of learning came my way during this time that is so obvious, I have to wonder why it took so long to arrive. Some of our favorite food combinations exist as they do because the different produce needed ripens concurrently. Of course. For example, gardens typically deliver delicious rhubarb and plump strawberries at about the same time.

pie1.jpg

Another bit of learning came my way during this time that is so obvious, I have to wonder why it took so long to arrive. Some of our favorite food combinations exist as they do because the different produce needed ripens concurrently. Of course. For example, gardens typically deliver delicious rhubarb and plump strawberries at about the same time.

In my region, this timing is not exact. Rhubarb is ready April-May and my strawberry patch fruits best May-June. But I usually find good, early-season strawberries available at the market, so I can live with that. All that's needed for a fantastic pie is on hand and the recipe is simple enough—sliced rhubarb, sliced strawberries, sugar and spices, and a homemade crust. I love the way these basic things look in early preparation—each main component bursting with flavor, color, and texture that will not truly yield its magic until combined the right way. I rolled out the crusts, mixed the fruit, and chilled it all for a couple hours—enough time for juices to gather—and then assembled the pies while the oven preheated.

If you're looking at this post, and are seized with the desire to do as I have done, promise yourself that you will not use a bland, pre-processed pie crust. Ever. Again. Find a good, basic crust recipe and take the time, which isn't much. A good strawberry-rhubarb pie deserves that much, and as some will attest, the right crust can be the star, not the supporting cast, in this endeavor.

pie2.jpg

If you're looking at this post, and are seized with the desire to do as I have done, promise yourself that you will not use a bland, pre-processed pie crust. Ever. Again. Find a good, basic crust recipe and take the time, which isn't much. A good strawberry-rhubarb pie deserves that much, and as some will attest, the right crust can be the star, not the supporting cast, in this endeavor.

The rest is easy—a short run at high temp to get the crust established, then 80 minutes at a reduced temp to let the flavors blend, set the juices to thicken and bubble, and the crust to turn golden. Can I just say the whole house smelled like heaven?

This pie had work to do. I heard this week from a good friend that there was trouble on her horizon and like anyone might, I was fighting the feeling of being helpless to do anything about it. And it dawned on me that I could deliver this pie to her door, still warm, on a Saturday afternoon, and that would be the right kind of healing.

pie3.jpg

This pie had work to do. I heard this week from a good friend that there was trouble on her horizon and like anyone might, I was fighting the feeling of being helpless to do anything about it. And it dawned on me that I could deliver this pie to her door, still warm, on a Saturday afternoon, and that would be the right kind of healing.

Eventually, she and I will sit down and talk through the difficult news. But for now, the pie has made a point. Trouble is a given in this world. A good strawberry rhubarb pie is not a given, which makes it a powerful affirmation of life. A dollop of good vanilla ice cream on top turns this into a meal unto itself. If you manage to save some for the morning, you can start out your day with another slice, alongside a cup of steaming coffee—and if that doesn't make the day blossom for you, what could?

So today's garden-to-kitchen episode was more than two decades in the making. If I go back to my mistake in uprooting those rhubarb plants, and carry forward through the false starts and eventual success with establishing new plants in my garden, I can see today's culmination as worth all the effort. I hope all that goes into the flavors, and also into the healing.

snowmelt, seeds, and sun

mesclun2.jpg

Ten days. During that time, I was distracted—and I say it like that because work is a distraction from real life, unless you're one of the unfortunate ones who see it the other way round. In the midst of a working day, I often find myself thinking about my garden, fully aware that's where I'm most fully alive this time of year.

While I was looking away, the salad garden seeds I planted ten days ago broke through the soil. Think time lapse photography . . . ground bulging, light and dark passing over, a seam splitting in the soil to reveal bent seedlings laboring up, popping through into more light and dark, extending tender leaves.

Unseasonable warmth has washed over the Front Range of the Rockies for two weeks, and while that also means drought conditions, a tended patch of garden can be coaxed to life. A gardener in this part of the globe never knows what will be coming, though in the 22 years I've gardened here, I do know to expect surprises. Up ahead lie possibilities of scorching early heat, heavy rains in May, hailstorms small and large, hard frosts, snow, or all of the above.

Constructing a small greenhouse is something I should have done a long time ago, but I finally managed it, precisely a year ago this week. There was a learning curve—I'm still on it—but I did find out through trial and error that I have to open it up, door, vent, and window, every morning; I have to close it down in the evening, and run a small space heater that allows me to keep the night temps at about 60 degrees. If I'm diligent about this—and I plan to be—seeds will germinate and grow very well in this space.

seedtrays.jpg

Constructing a small greenhouse is something I should have done a long time ago, but I finally managed it, precisely a year ago this week. There was a learning curve—I'm still on it—but I did find out through trial and error that I have to open it up, door, vent, and window, every morning; I have to close it down in the evening, and run a small space heater that allows me to keep the night temps at about 60 degrees. If I'm diligent about this—and I plan to be—seeds will germinate and grow very well in this space.

Careful, sequential transplanting into larger and larger pots over the next eight weeks will allow me to select the healthiest seedlings and work on establishing their root systems. They'll be pampered, and they'll respond by putting on prodigious growth. Eventually, when conditions are right for each plant, I've move them out into the garden.

seeds.jpg

Careful, sequential transplanting into larger and larger pots over the next eight weeks will allow me to select the healthiest seedlings and work on establishing their root systems. They'll be pampered, and they'll respond by putting on prodigious growth. Eventually, when conditions are right for each plant, I've move them out into the garden.

This is in part a story about investment. Some money is involved, but the real investment comes in the form of time and energy, resources and knowledge. I've spent most of my adult life learning about growing things, and while this has mainly led me to understand how little I really know, I have managed to master fundamentals. I invest all of that again on these spring days and the payoff comes rolling in, now through October, and on into the autumn and winter months when we eat fresh and preserved garden produce at our table every week.

Planning and organizing seeds gives me a great deal of pleasure precisely because it represents this investment. There was a time when I was shooting in the dark, not really aware of how to grow things right, ignorant of everything from microclimates to seed saving. Now, I have a much greater sense of when and how to do things correctly, and while I'm always experimenting, I make fewer mistakes and generally get better, more reliable results.

pottingbench.jpg

Planning and organizing seeds gives me a great deal of pleasure precisely because it represents this investment. There was a time when I was shooting in the dark, not really aware of how to grow things right, ignorant of everything from microclimates to seed saving. Now, I have a much greater sense of when and how to do things correctly, and while I'm always experimenting, I make fewer mistakes and generally get better, more reliable results.

This year we got relatively little snow in the Denver area. Still, I put out a basic catchment system to collect snowmelt and have been rewarded with about 20 gallons. I could use any water to initially irrigate my seed starts but I took special enjoyment in using the melted snow to kick things off.

There's no chlorine in this water. That should help gentle the seeds out of their coats and into growth. My plan is to put in a more elaborate catchment system eventually so that at the start of spring I'll have much more water to work with, and can hope to collect still more from the rare rainfall we get here. Another idea I've been toying with is installing a basic solar system to charge a bank of batteries, for use to power the heater in the greenhouse and also for running basic electrical tools in the garage and shed.

snowmelt.jpg

There's no chlorine in this water. That should help gentle the seeds out of their coats and into growth. My plan is to put in a more elaborate catchment system eventually so that at the start of spring I'll have much more water to work with, and can hope to collect still more from the rare rainfall we get here. Another idea I've been toying with is installing a basic solar system to charge a bank of batteries, for use to power the heater in the greenhouse and also for running basic electrical tools in the garage and shed.

In short, I live in an old suburb—post-WWII war housing constructed south of Denver to house the families that sprung up at the start of the Baby Boom generation. We came forty years later and raised our kids here, and now a whole new batch of families have taken up residence. Our house is surrounded on three sides by people raising young children, and their laughter and cries filled the neighborhood today as I was planting. That's a garden, too.

I wish more people would turn their yards into gardens. It's good for the kids, good for the gardener & family, and everyone benefits from the reduced reliance on the food machinery that fills our supermarkets. We keep chickens here and work the 900 square feet of soil that gives us plenty of fine food. This ought to be the future. Maybe it will be.

shed1.jpg

garlic joy

P3150025.JPG

The year's circle begins with dirt—under your nails, in your boots, on your shirt and pants. It's good work, if you can get into a rhythm. The year may start humbly, with dirt, but trust me—it peaks with a burst of summer flavors in your mouth.

A warm spell has run through the second week of March here on the Front Range of the Rockies. Only fools fall for this--La Niña may give us a warm, dry spring but there will be frost yet. Still, it's worth a gamble to put in a salad garden in cases like this. Cool weather crops can handle, and may even benefit from, a chilly start.

The garlic above was planted mid-October and is breaking through nicely. It includes three delicious varieties, seen here furthest to nearest: white hot Georgian Fire, pungent Broadleaf Czech, and smooth & buttery Georgian Crystal. I noticed the first sprouts about five days ago, so they are definitely coming on strong.

For the urban or suburban gardener, or for anyone wanting to use space conservatively in a kitchen garden, companion planting is key. I've learned over time that if I have spaced my garlic rows well, I can lay in a variety of leafy plants and other root crops to create a full salad garden. The garlic will grow tall, the leafy plants will shade its bulbs, and the plot will thrive.

I space my rows—laugh if you wish—as far apart as the length of my index finger. We'll call that about four inches.

P3150026.JPG

Into these rows I run shallots, French red scallions, a couple varieties each of lettuce and spinach, mustard greens, and radishes. These leafy veggies and alliums will come up and in about six weeks provide us with baskets of delicious greens for everything from salads to sauces to omelettes—eggs from our chickens, baby. Add to all those a fistful of the nearby and indefatigable chives, a perennial which is characteristically bursting out already. It's weeks of feasting.

The spring garden is a challenge. One has to read the season and know the microclimate of the garden well, and then hope to synchronize inside their pattern, which is never precisely the same, year-to-year. I've learned to use successive plantings, which in short means I plant the same seeds at 2-week intervals as needed, in case some seeds don't germinate or unpredictable weather intervenes. If there are no such incidents, the early seeds germinate and grow well, and that translates to a booming salad garden available for meals in April.

P5100008.JPG

The bounty of leafy greens runs well through April-May, a season of salads and fresh food that is so welcome after a long winter. But June heat spells the end for the salad garden, pushing the plants to seed even as the strawberries start to peak in the nearby bed. But the ace is up the sleeve—remember that this all started with garlic, many months previous.

As the salad garden finishes, the garlic ripens. I cut away all but a few of the beautiful scapes as they begin their graceful curves. Those I leave behind make in the sunlight a kind of poem for the garlic patch. Before long, I'll knock down all the stems and after a few days of that I'll pull the garlic, braiding it into ropes and hanging it in a the shed for a week or so to cure. Then, and only then, will I do one of my favorite things: make bruschetta.

scape1.jpg

Full disclosure—I am in no way of Italian heritage. I grew up in New York and was surrounded by Italian American families, and that's where I get my love of the food. Bruschetta is such a simple food, and also so exotic in flavor when made from fresh, organic garden ingredients, that very few food pleasures compare.

In high summer, if you have as I will a full list of the fresh vegetables listed below, it's easy to make a stunning platter of bruschetta in about a half hour, as an accompaniment to any main dish Italian.

Cut a baguette in 1/2" slices and toast lightly. Meanwhile, seed and coarsely chop several large, fresh tomatoes. Select a few large cloves from one of your delicious heads of just-cured garlic—smash those with the flat side of a chef's knife and peel—chop—add to the tomatoes. Stir in a TBS of good olive oil, a teaspoon of good balsamic vinegar, and 8 chopped basil leaves—ideally, also from the garden. Stir and let sit a half hour or so to blend flavors.

We aren't done with the garlic yet. Select a few good cloves—peel and slice in half. Now, for the garlic joy: rub those halves over the surface of the toast slices. Your fingers will smell great—in fact the whole room will smell remarkable. Instant aphrodisiac. Pile on the tomato mixture and serve immediately. If you aren't intimidated, just eat these out of one hand while you sip a good Chianti from a glass in the other hand.

Happy bruschetta to you, and garlic joy to all.

ride the wild capsiacin, part 2: demon chili

The name is deceptive: Red Cap Mushroom Chili. It’s a mixed metaphor conjuring associations with a jaunty chapeau and mellow, savory fungi.

Ha. Pity the foolish and no doubt hungry mortal who first plucked the demon chili from its stem and popped it in his mouth. Meet the dragon, buster.

My Red Cap seeds arrived in the mail last March from my favorite source, Seed Savers Exchange out of Decorah, IA. Shortly thereafter they began their transformation alongside their less fierce friends in my greenhouse.

There is nothing here to suggest the vicious capsiacin factory they harbor. Like the other eight varieties of chili pepper I was growing, they sprouted well—a compact plant, deep green and glossy, robust.

I put a few test plants in the ground once the nighttime temps were cresting 55 degrees, which happened last year on the Front Range in mid May. In previous years I’d rushed this process, impatient to get the peppers transplanted. The result was that cooler nights, even one dipping down to 50 degrees, would stunt the plants. They eventually would recover, but not fully, remaining stubby and less productive when the high heat of July and August would have otherwise coaxed forth prodigious blossoms.

Not last year, though. I had built a small greenhouse, and gained a key advantage. I could sprout and successively transplant the seedlings in larger containers, keeping them warm enough to put on strong growth until the temps were just right. I had a surplus of seedlings and so, as noted, tested a few chili pepper plants in mid-May, but chill nights did indeed stun them. I’d kept in reserve my best ones, and those went in two weeks later.

For those who care to know, I marked down in my garden journal these dates: March 25—seed starting, followed by regular transplants into larger pots; May 16—first garden transplants, soon stunted by cool nights and battered by a hailstorm; May 30—second transplant (et voila!). Night temps were balmy at that point and the plants never missed a step, launching into the kind of growth that only June’s ascendancy can stimulate, the kind for which gardeners live.

Colorado’s Front Range climate is very good for growing many varieties of chili pepper, though of course much depends on the conditions in a given year. I’d never grown the Red Cap Mushroom Chili before. All summer long I marveled at how heavily the plants were hung with blooms, and how consistently those blooms produced hard, knotted, dark green fruits about the size of a squashed ping-pong ball. In the past, my efforts at super-hot chilies got this far but no farther; I hadn’t had a long enough growing season to let them ripen. Not so in 2011. The greenhouse, and the extra two weeks either side of frost that dastardly climate change seems to have engendered, were enough.

Note at the top, sitting like a crown on the pile, is a diminutive demon chili, its size all out of proportion to its punch.

I ultimately harvested about 70 healthy chilies from the several plants I grew. Some I gave to friends, hand in hand with a warning to beware. Others I used fresh in cooking—a sliver or two minced and added to scrambled eggs, a minced whole chili in a pot of soup or pinto beans, which was enough to light every spoonful with a pleasant flame. The rest I put in a basket and set it to dry in a cool, dark basement corner.

This morning, it was time. The chilies were uniformly crisp. So I got out my food processor, an empty spice jar, some latex gloves, and a bandana, and took all the gear out to the back porch. My dog and cat were curious, and for their own safety, I chased them off; they paced at a distance, looking hurt, but even more curious. Then I put the bandana over my mouth and nose, donned the gloves, and set to twisting off the stems and emptying the chili seeds, separating out the dried casings in a bowl.

Then, those went into the food processor and I turned on the machine, stepping a safe distance away. I let it run until the husks had been reduced to a relatively uniform consistency and after turning it off, I carefully removed the lid. Try as I might, I still got a snoutful of the fine dust. Immediately, my eyes watered, my nose and throat started burning, and my bronchioles seized. I moved as quickly as possible between sneezes and coughs to transfer the powder and flakes into a spice jar and screwed on the lid.

Then I stood aside and let my various membranes exude their mucous, as there was really nothing else to do. Within a few minutes I was back to functional and so I cleaned up and set my little bottle of hellfire in a snowbank, a perfect image of contrasts.
How will I use this chili powder? Carefully, and in small doses. My more daring friends may sprinkle a little on their pizza or over a bowl of buffalo chili con carne. I’ll pinch small amounts into a variety of stews and soups in place of ground black pepper—a little trick I’m surprised more people don’t know since it spills a subtle but assertive, almost liquid heat through things without a hint of the unfortunate, boorish tang of black peppercorn.

Here in late February, I’ve basically rounded the year of my experiment with the demon chili. I have seeds ready to start next month, and so will begin again. This is gardening and preserving, a slow food nexus that has been the norm for the 10,000 or so years that humans have cultivated and preserved agricultural products. I understand how we got to the point that so many Americans know ground chili pepper only as something that appears on a supermarket shelf in a small jar. I’m glad that some of us are working our way back to the source, and along the way, gaining so much that is good in the process.