Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Fine Spring Day

Hello sour grass, my old friend! Welcome back again. Here you are with one, lone, bright-faced bloom lighting up a neglected corner of the yard. Can spring be far behind?

It was such a splendid, dirt-under the fingernails day I ended up spending the whole morning in the garden. The usual inspection tour -- lately just a quick look around our damp, cold, scraggly, uninviting backyard patch -- turned into a flower photo op.

The first oxalis blossom opened nearly a month earlier than last year -- mid-January as opposed to the week of February 10. (One of the great features of a garden blog is the gradual accumulation of exact data from year to year.) Spring does seem to be running early. There are golden fields of wild mustard blooming already out by the coast and our neighborhood is sporting the first gorgeous tulip magnolias.

The volunteer arugula has put forth its trademark four-petaled blossom, delicately veined like the wings of some kind of exotic helicopter insect. I've seen the hummingbirds buzzing these blooms.

Here is borage -- not a very good photo. I'm sure it looks at lot better than this to the bees who gather here.

The pea plants are blooming again, unfurling like the Japanese folded paper flowers that "bloom" when you put them in water.

More flower origami: elegant black-trimmed fava bean blossoms are opening on three-foot tall stalks.

These hot pink rosettes aren't flowers at all, just some garden art that resulted from the thinning out of an overgrown clump of volunteer chard. Lots of the leaves had been so thoroughly mined by leaf miners that they had rotted into slime during the rainy spells. Yuk!

Undaunted, and energized by the unexpected spring day (I know, I know, it won't last), I weeded and trimmed until the plants could breath and soak up the sun. The lipstick chard pictured above is growing back from a venerable gnarled stump, all that's left of a plant that grew six or seven feet tall last season.

There are several varieties of chard in the patch, some growing from over-wintered stumps, some springing up for the first time.

Here's a shot of the north half of the winter garden. The oxalis and the borage are in the back corner where the fences meet; the arugula is to their right, the peas are in the foreground twining up the wooden stakes, the favas and the patch of chard are out of view to the right. In the foreground you can also see spinach, lacinato kale, and a bed of sponsored arugula. In the background are a couple of beds of lettuce. Out of view are broccoli and leeks. The paths are covered mostly with miner's lettuce. And that's about it.

We are harvesting lettuce, miner's lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, and chard. We are waiting for broccoli, leeks, another round of peas, and favas.

Ready to pick or not, edible or not, everything looks beautiful on this fine spring day.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Give Peas a Chance

Here's the harvest from the experimental patch of Caseload Shelling Peas planted way back in mid-September, last fall. They have soldiered through wintry winds, pounding rains, and freezing nights, made the most of some unseasonable warmth lately, and bravely put forth these plump, albeit bedraggled pods.

According to The Natural Gardening Company, source of the seeds, these peas grow to two and a half feet in height and don't need staking. That has not been my experience! These babies are pushing five feet and the stakes are getting higher, so to speak.

The experiment last fall was to see whether my gathered seeds, more adapted to this yard, would perform better than the leftover seeds in the original packet from Natural Gardening. At first it looked like the gathered seeds were doing better; but now it's hard to see much difference between the two rows, and the small differences could be accounted for by more sunlight falling on the row in front. Nonetheless, I count the experiment a great success because it has resulted in a harvest.

My previous efforts to grow many different varieties of peas have been routinely unsuccessful. Mostly, they never came up at all or got chomped as soon as the first tender shoots appeared. I kept planting them anyway because it's so easy and fun to poke the pretty little green baubles into the ground and because they are a marvelous plant at all stages.

The small harvest of Caseload Shelling Peas last August was a breakthrough. And here we have a second one! So now I'm really hooked.

This January harvest yielded a scant half cup and some of the peas were scarred with traces of frost burn. But who's complaining? It was enough to build a dinner on.

Admittedly, the peas are mere tokens in this serving of Peas Alfredo, kind of like the stone in stone soup. But the meal was delicious. Maybe it's not the peas I'm so fond of but the noodles in cream sauce that the peas are an excuse for making! Anyway, it's time to start thinking about the next crop. Should it be this tried and true, field-tested variety or something new and different?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Case for Narcissism

The pale translucent beauty of these indoor Narcissus blooms (the cultivar is Paperwhite, 'Ziva') does indeed invoke their mythic namesake: the youth Narcissus, so entranced with his own image reflected in a stream that he literally fell in love with it, toppled into the water, and perished. A cautionary tale of self-absorbed infatuation. He gave his name to a psychological disorder of extreme preoccupation with oneself, Narcissism, but these delicate flowers, also namesakes, make the case for a more inspiring legacy. Anything so lovely has to be admired.

We've been gazing, entranced, at their slow unfolding for the past month. Every year my sweet sister sends a Christmas gift that grows.

The bulbs arrived mid-December, along with planting rocks, vase, and instructions on how to force them for maximum effect. At first, there wasn't much to look at, just the papery bulbs with pale growths emerging like the long, curved fingernails of a sloth.

Following the instructions, I filled the bottom of the vase with the planting rocks, pushed several bulbs into the rocks so they stayed upright with growing ends on top, and added water within an inch of the bulbs so they weren't sitting in it but the roots could grow down towards it. This was all new to me so every step was fascinating.

When everything was in place, I set the vase in a cool, dark corner. And waited.

It took a few weeks for the roots to twine downwards into the labyrinth of rocks. When the bulbs were anchored and green shoots were heading hopefully upward, it was time to bring them forth into the light.

By early January the tall slender stalks were tipped with swelling buds.

And the roots had woven themselves into a tangled, shiny, white mat at the bottom of the vase.

Here they are at peak beauty, blossoms leaning into the light, or, perhaps, bending toward their reflections in the window glass.

Thanks, Sis! It's been a great show.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Our Daily Loaf

Was this the first loaf of the new year? I'm not sure. It has become so routine now to have a new one coming out of the oven that it's hard to keep track. This is our daily bread, with only occasional supplementation from the grocery store. We can pretty much count on fresh green salads from the back yard and fresh warm bread from the oven.

We have moved on from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day to the advanced version: Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. The process is the same but is adapted for whole grain flours.

B. has mastered the process to the point where it is a normal part of daily life to mix up a new batch of dough, let it rise a while and stick it in the fridge, or pull the container of dough out of the fridge, shape a loaf, let it rise, and bake it. One batch of dough will serve for four or five loaves, which get tastier and more tender the longer the dough sits. It seems like the hardest part of the process is to find room in the fridge. (That's my job.)

I really like the feeling of having a productive homestead, even if it's only on the very small scale of our whimsical two-person operation plus dog and occasional son. Years ago I saw a magazine article (Time or Newsweek, I think) about the shift over the centuries in the American household from a center of production to a center of consumption. It was the illustrations that were memorable.

On one side of the page was a drawing of a colonial family gathered around the huge hearth in their cozy kitchen. The whole family was there, three generations worth, staying warm by the fire. Everybody was doing something: winding yarn into a ball, shelling peas, mending a rake, stirring the pot hanging over the fire. The scene was alive with activity and interaction.

On the other side of the page was a photograph of a modern family circle. There were only two generations and the hearth had been replaced by a TV set whose wan glow lit up the faces of the silent, unmoving group.

This is not to say, of course, that we don't spend time clustered around the electronic fireplace, passively consuming mass-produced entertainment. In fact, we each have our own little screen to look at, more often than not, happily surfing, streaming, gaming, blogging, to our heart's content. But that's why it's especially satisfying to have the tangible daily projects of garden tending and bread making to confer about. Every day we produce something useful and enjoy every part of the production process.

Except perhaps trying to cram that bread bucket into the fridge.

Friday, January 7, 2011

2010 Eat the Yard Recap: It Was Mostly Salad

Last January I made a New Year's resolution that we would eat something from the yard every day, even if only a spring of parsley or a twig of thyme. Despite some eye-rolling from one who shall not be named, we did a better job of living up to this self-imposed challenge than I would have expected.

I stopped keeping daily records within a month or two -- about the length of time most New Year's resolutions last. But looking back over the past twelve months it's clear that the 2010 Eat the Yard Challenge made a difference in our lives. Laying down a formal goal turned out to be consistently motivating and inspired the little bit of extra daily effort that made it possible to rise to the occasion: dashing out at the last minute for the qualifying sprig or twig, for instance, or taking a flashlight out into a dark winter yard to gather a handful of lettuce.

We ate dinner at home just about every day during 2010. Not eating at home now seems like the very rare special event that happens when far-away friends come to town or some emergency comes up. Restaurant food or take out food simply can't compare with our own home-grown and home-cooked bounty.

Out of 365 days, I think we were at our own table all but about ten of them -- a wedding, a couple of unexpected trips to the hospital, some excursions with friends and family, and one day last February when we got stuck in traffic coming back from San Francisco so stayed in Sausalito watching rainbows over the Golden Gate bridge and having dinner with an old friend who always responds to a last minute phone call.

Apart from the peak-of-the-season feasting in the summer and fall, it was mostly salads that got us through the full twelve months of eating from the yard. One of the realizations this year was how easy it is to keep the salad greens going continuously. We had to buy salad makings a few times to get us through the occasional Lettuce Gap, but I don't think there was ever a time when the backyard did not provide something that could supplement the nightly bowl of tossed greens -- tomatoes or arugula or edible weeds like miner's lettuce.

So now it's time to keep moving forward with the 2011 Eat the Yard Challenge and our own personal tournament of champions (chompions?), the Salad Bowl. Let the games begin!