Saturday, July 31, 2010

Elderberry ripening

The drupes on the elderberry bush are starting to redden. The reddish purple color extends right up the stems. A marvel to behold. It'll be a few more weeks for that harvest. I plan on making fruit jelly mostly. Maybe some elderberry wine, but I admit, I'm a little nervous about eating any jam with crushed seeds. I had a couple of spoonfuls of jam (filled with mashed seeds) at a Mennonite farmer's market two months ago and experienced a week from hell afterwards. Either the jam wasn't processed correctly, or I'm just super sensitive to the gritty seeds that were in it.

Research on the web revealed dozens of stories of people getting sick on elderberry. There were equal amounts of people with no reactions at all. The seeds are poisonous if not processed correctly and contain a "cyanide-producing glycoside." So I'll be straining all of that out! The flavor, however, was unrivaled by anything I've tasted before, save for loganberry jam. Elderberry has so many medicinal properties, the least of which is a cold remedy, that I can't forsake the harvest. Making jelly is a tremendous amount of work. The straining! Ugh. But I'm looking forward to it. A good book on tape playing in the background makes the task easier. 

I'm also happy to report that my container carrots are finally showing promise. 

The ones I planted in the beds weren't happy at all, so I sowed new seeds in the containers. I have three containers full. I'm going to plant more.

The work on the pond installation is also progressing, but it's put on hold for today. 

I'm off to help my sister-in-law install "the sanctuary" as she's referring to it. She has a small patio space that is rife with possibilities. Can't wait! 

Friday, July 30, 2010

An Embarrassment of Riches

How I love potatoes, let me count the ways. Fried, boiled, roasted, baked, pickled, grilled, stuffed, sliced, diced, scalloped, julienned, au gratin and of course, mashed -- with cream and butter, goat cheese, garlic or sauerkraut (something I discovered in Europe.) Potatoes are super nutritious, loaded with fibre, low in calories, and full of potassium, vitamin C, B, folic acid, magnesium, iron, a good source of antioxidants and best of all... they have no cholesterol (until you add the butter.) It's just a plain good ole healthy vegetable, and so comforting.

So the potato harvest is complete and I have plenty to go into storage. We've been eating potatoes for three weeks now. Crisp, juicy, buttery Yukon Golds. Next year I'm planting a greater variety, I've already decided. Sweet potatoes, russets, reds, fingerlings and whatever else I can get my hands on. Land, land! I need more land.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Sustainable Life

Creating a sustainable life means providing for yourself and your family in a way that is balanced, without the steadily impending doom of your resources. The garden is useful for this.

It's enlivening to be in nature and watch plants you've cultivated grow. Your efforts increase your resources instead of depleting them. I'd much rather spend time in the garden digging and growing food than sifting through a sale rack for an outfit designed to impress others. But then, maybe I'm just the outdoors type.

A couple of years ago I was writing a magazine article and was sent on a press junket to Alisal Guest Ranch near Santa Barbara. Down at the lake, the activities director gestured to the rippling waters surrounded by rolling hills. "This is my office," he said. " I love coming to work every day." A twinge shot through my system. I wanted it to be my office too. I'd spent countless years staring at a computer writing scripts or cooped up inside a studio.

Fortunately I enjoy my work... and admit, there've been perks. I've been flown first class around the world. Walked down the red carpet at the Academy Awards. Danced next to Robert Duvall at the Governor's Ball and listened to Barbara Streisand sing at her Malibu home.

George Burns performed an impromptu soft shoe in front of me at a party. Clint Eastwood teased me in a green room. I've worked with Betty White, John Ritter, and Bob Hope. Met Oprah, Ellen, Natalie Maines and Whoopi Goldberg. Interviewed celebrities like Paula Abdul and Glenn Close and rode TV's Black Stallion through the tree-lined trails of Paris.

I've sat in a dressing room backstage at the Hollywood Bowl opposite the iconic Liza Minelli. Watched Chuck Norris work out in his home gym in Texas, talked editing schedules with Quentin Tarantino at a Hollywood screening, chatted on the phone with Carol Burnett and pitched Lily Tomlin a series from the backseat of her Prius. I've written dialogue for the likes of Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy, Shannon Tweed and Adrian Pasdar. And a live tiger strode past me on a chain while on location in Australia. In my career there have been thrills and chills. But as I look back on my highlight reel, nothing compares to the halcyon days of my youth, where I was truly at one with nature. Tubing carefree in a lake at the cottage, lying on dewy grass at midnight watching the aurora borealis roil overhead, or assisting a heifer into the world at my uncle's farm.

Those days were filled with corn roasts, hay rides and skating parties. We picked wild blueberries in the bush at Muskoka. Sang around blazing campfires and smeared clay dug out of quarries on our faces for spa masks. The simple. The easy going. The authentic.

Creativity is rewarding, but the pursuit of a glamorous life without substance is worthless. Most celebrities will attest to that. Why else is Brad Pitt building homes in the gulf, Sean Penn working in Haiti, Oprah erecting schools in Africa. They need more. This economic crisis has been a wake-up call for everyone. Priorities are shifting. We're getting real now. More than a few are starting to shun the drone of "what's in" and "what's out" to decide for themselves. Realizing that the "red carpet" is really just a smelly old wad of rug that is a publicity tool. It's not something to aspire to, in and of itself.

The clever are making strides toward sustainable lifestyles. The foolhardy continue down the consumer nightmare path: swiping credit cards and dodging calls from collection agencies. When I check in with myself, I realize I've experienced more thrills unearthing newborn potatoes from the soil than counting A-listers at a Hollywood party.

Something happens when you hit the mid-century mark. You deepen. If you're worth your salt, you cast aside the noise of the material and reconnect with the essential. What do you truly love? What's important? Who do you care about? What's it all mean? These are the questions. Meanwhile, gardening helps.

Sitting here at my desk now, I look down at the garden beckoning below. I should get back to that script, but--

Location, location, location

Besides the honey bunch cherry tomatoes, this was the first tomato to ripen on the vine this summer... and it's a Big Beef heirloom. They usually arrive last. My Early Girls are still green. But this guy was planted with a southern exposure. Location, location, location.

My plan was for an all heirloom tomato section this year, but it was hard to find starters and I had no seeds.  I searched everywhere for Cherokee Purples (my absolute favorite--such a hearty, vinegary flavor) but none were to be found. I have Brandywine and Green Zebra in the garden, and this Big Beef heirloom, but the rest are hybrids. Still, better than store bought, and by the looks of things it's going to be a bumper crop.

I put up pizza and spaghetti sauce, peeled tomatoes and gazpacho every fall and sun dry a batch. I've also made tomato paste once or twice. That really uses up the extras.

Today I also moved my peppers from the bed they were doing poorly in, into the sunnier former lettuce patch. Seems to be an earwig problem developing there, so their survival is in jeopardy.

I've been told to set out jars of bacon grease to kill the earwigs. They climb in, but cannot climb out. This seems cruel to me. Can't quite bring myself do it. I have to face the fact that I have a double standard. I can't kill things, but I can eat livestock killed by others. This is something to chew on some more.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Getting a Head

Gardeners come in all stripes from Prince Charles to Appalachian homesteaders. We all speak the same lingo and tend to find each other. People are part of your harvest. You grow your community. 

It was a lucky day for me when Louise here asked to see my vegetable plot.

She surveyed the sad state of affairs in the cabbage patch, "Water from the top," she commanded, "The leaves will close up."

I obeyed and so did they.

Look at this monster! A full fat head of cabbage. This is the first time I've planted cabbage and it is delicious. So sweet and flavorful. Entirely different than the store bought variety. Thank you, Louise! Now I can make sauerkraut.

I have a spanking new Harsch fermenting crock I've been dying to use.

Nutritionists are reporting that there are physiological benefits to eating fermenting foods. They contain the good bacteria we need in our gut for digestion. I already make my own yoghurt and sourdough starter for bread, so fermented cabbage is a next step. 

I actually abhor the Korean version, Kimchi, (and reconfirm this annually) but I came to love sauerkraut after living in Germany for a year.

Sauerkraut is fairly easy to make... with a little elbow grease. Cutting the cabbage is no picnic but punching it down in the crock was a good tension reliever. You sprinkle each layer with a little sea salt.

Sauerkraut needs three things: cabbage, sea salt and time.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Rhubarb was a slow starter this year. (Sutton Seedless variety) But the minute my neighbor cut down his tree, it shot right up in the sun.  Pie!

My grandmother made the best pie crust in the world. One day I asked her secret. "I use lard," she confided.

Years later, when I came for Sunday dinner, the pie on the table was a sorry thing to behold. Flat and characterless. It tasted positively like cardboard. "You can buy these in the freezer section now," she proclaimed. "I'll never make a crust from scratch again." She was thrilled. I was miserable. Truth was, my beloved grandmother had just cooked too many meals for her six children and the countless grandchildren they gave her. She was hanging up her rolling pin.

The torch had passed. It was up to the eldest female grandchild, me, to keep the tradition alive. Lard, flour, salt, pinch of sugar, ice water and a little love. That's all it takes.

The filling is simply fresh rhubarb, sugar, a few tablespoons of tapioca to set, squirt of fresh lemon juice and dabs of sweet butter. I prefer to use red rhubarb - sweeter - but a fellow gardener brought some green rhubarb by and I mixed the two together. This pie had a lovely sweet tartness to it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Adventures with Ponds

How many times can you fall in the hole when digging a new pond?

Answer: Four.

The large unmanageable pond in my yard is being reduced to two smaller ones. It's been quite a project. A lot of repetitive do-overs. I'm thinking of getting new business cards made up. "I move dirt."

First, the slimy old dirt, plant roots and algae gunk had to be shoveled out and the enormous rubber pond liner removed. Then... that huge hole had to be filled back in. 

Next two new smaller holes needed to be dug out for the preformed liners. And the dirt around those liners filled back in. The ponds were lopsided, like me, so... dug out again, filled in again. Still lopsided. Dug out, filled in. Dug out, filled in. I feel like I'm in a Preston Sturges movie. Working on a chain gang doing mindless repetitive work. Careening into the holes periodically with acrobatic hilarity. Freshly dug earth just does not behave and stay up on the walls.

This is solely a beautification project yet very important to me because I need a water feature where I live. It also provides a drinking source for the raccoons who eat my garden.

Last night at 9 pm while surveying the land a skunk dashed through and chased me out of the beds. I think I only know half of what is going on out there in the night.

Unidentified mushrooms

Wild mushrooms are growing around the wood in my raised beds. It's everything I can do, to not harvest them.

Of course, were they inedible, that meal would be my last. I'd like to learn more about wild mushrooms. Can anyone identify these?

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Herbs, glorious herbs!  It's amazing what a little aromatic can do for a dish. I always keep rosemary in my herb section. It's a wild fella, so you have to tame it or it'll take over your garden. I know this from experience, having struggled with a rosemary bush that grew to the size of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade float. 

Rosemary is wonderful as a rub for lamb roast, but it really rocks as an aromatic in oil. One dish I always use rosemary for is a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato spread.

I ate this dish at the Kings Road Cafe in Los Angeles. A quaint, rustic eatery I used to frequent over a decade ago. I loved the flavor so much I made a mental note of what was in it and began preparing it at home as an appetizer at parties. At the Kings Road they served it with a beautiful carrot ginger soup.

Chevre and sun-dried tomato spread on crostini

Use a relatively shallow bowl, add a good 1/4 - 1/2 inch of your best olive oil. Soak several peeled garlic gloves and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary in the oil to flavor it. Add strips of sun-dried tomato and squeeze out chunks of cheese from a log of unflavored chevre (goat cheese.)

Invite your guests to smear the chevre and sun-dried tomatoes on crostini (toasted baguette.) Divine! The flavor of the oil gets better as the chevre soaks. Everyone seems to balk initially at trying it, but once bitten, they become ravenous beasts, and inevitably ask for the recipe. At the end of parties my guests are always just sopping up the oil with chunks of bread.  

From the garden: Fresh rosemary. Sun-dried tomatoes. Garlic.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Taking Things in Stride

This week a neighbor removed a tree that shaded my happy lettuce patch.  Sudden direct sunlight, along with a week of soaring heat sent my lettuce bolting.  The leaves turned tough, bitter and unpalatable.

You have to take these developments in stride.  Your garden will get hit with weather incidents, drought, blight or insect invasions.  Roll with punches.  The upside of all this was... free seeds!

The timing wasn't bad either, because my potato bed had finally waned. I can harvest all the potatoes for storage, and replant new lettuces in that bed, which is now shaded by an overgrown elderberry and rose bush.

The lettuce bed will be cleaned out, composted and prepared for a fresh crop that better thrives in full sun.  Squash, broccoli, peas, leeks, radishes and parsnips are all candidates.  Can't wait to plant a mid-July crop!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Echinacea: Attractive and Medicinal

This beauty has been standing proud in the garden for a month, and I want to enjoy it for many more.  

I'm making a tincture of the herb as an immune booster to use come cold season.  First, I harvest some of the flowers.  (I much prefer the earthy root mixture but can't bear to dig it up right now - so I'll settle for the blossoms, leaves and stem.)  

I crush it down in a Mason jar and cover it in 80 proof alcohol (Vodka was the only 80 proof in my liquor store.  It'll do.) 

It's important that the flower is dunked completely.  Leaving half an inch or more of extra fluid on top will ensure that the plant remains submerged if the blossoms swell.  

Fini!  My work is done.  Now it's all alchemy.  The alcohol macerates the echinacea, extracting the herb's medicinal properties.

I'll shake the bottle from time to time and keep an eye that everything floral in nature remains submerged.  In four to six weeks, I'll strain it through cheesecloth and transfer the mixture to little dropper bottles.  The alcohol will preserve the echinacea, so there's no rush to use it up... this vintage can age as long as needed.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

From plot to plate

Once the harvest starts coming fast and furious, I challenge myself to see how many ingredients I can use from the garden in every dish. The aim is 100% sustainability.

This basic tomato salad has three ingredients. Honey bunch tomatoes, scallions and cilantro in a red wine vinaigrette.

Inevitably the sauce drops my score. But if I could grow and press my own olives, I would.



My vitamin rich rapini dish has two ingredients from the garden. Rapini and garlic. I also add sliced fresh ginger from the pantry. Parboil rapini for 3-5 minutes. Plunge into an icy water bath to retain the vegetable's color. 

Add to a hot pan with olive oil, sliced garlic and ginger. Dash of tamari sauce. Yum.

I noticed that my ginger had sprouted a horn in one spot, so I rushed out to the garden and planted it!

Skitter Control

We are having a bit of a mosquito invasion this summer so I headed off to the local nursery to get a Citronella plant, rumored to fend off the little devils. There I was informed that it was really the Geranium Citrosa plant that I wanted.  Pelargonium x citrosum 'Van Leenil.'  I bought six. According to the label on the plant: "Great claims have been made for this plant as a natural mosquito repellant. Scientists have not proven this. Try for yourself. A bushy, rigorous plant. Full sun."

I scattered them all around the seating areas, hoping for the best. I can't vouch for the effectiveness of this plant to repel mosquitos. I can only report that while planting one, a mosquito landed on my cheek and bit me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Currant Affair

Every day is like Christmas when you keep a garden. Black currants are today's gift.

An excellent crop for one small bush.  Juice and jam are on the menu.

Making jam. Cooking up a head of steam.

Adding jam sugar and fresh squeezed lemon juice.

The finished product.  This will last me right through the winter.

Delicious and packed full of antioxidants.