jump to navigation

Monarch butterflies: The next passenger pigeon? August 31, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

Our friend Rudy sent us a wonderful article about passenger pigeons (this year marks the 100th anniversary of their extinction). It was packed with fascinating facts about these once-plentiful birds, such as that they once numbered in the billions, comprising as much as 25 to 40% of America’s total bird population, and that their flocks, numbering millions of birds, could blot out the sun for hours. (People who’d never seen a passenger pigeon flock before, hearing the thunder of millions of wings and watching darkness blot out the sun, feared that the End Times were upon them, or at least that a tornado was bearing down on them and making their personal end time imminent.)

Another thing our friend Ben learned from the article was that, unlike something like, say, the ivory-billed woodpecker, people knew exactly when the passenger pigeon became extinct. Martha, the last living passenger pigeon, died at a Cincinnati zoo in 1914 and was shipped to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for preservation and study. Poor Martha! From billions to just one. Then none.

Human behavior drove the passenger pigeon extinction. People had always eaten the abundant birds, a cheap (or free, if you were a good shot) source of protein. But Dan Greenberg, one of the experts quoted in the article, blamed their extinction on two inventions that would appear to have nothing to do with birds: the telegraph and the railroad. The two had to come together to make the extinction happen: the telegraph, because its miles of wires gave the birds a convenient place to roost, which they would do in huge flocks. On the wires, they were easy to find, and they perched so close together that a single shot could down multiple birds. And the railroad, because the birds could be packed on ice and shipped to major urban areas, guaranteeing an insatiable market of poor urban laborers desperate for some cheap meat.

The extinction of the passenger pigeon, and the awareness and acknowledgment that human actions were responsible, helped launch the conservation movement, and probably saved the buffalo (hunted for their tongues, considered a delicacy on the East Coast) and the beaver (whose fur was used for fashionable top hats) from a similar fate. So at least the pigeon didn’t die in vain.

But the aspect of the article that really snagged our friend Ben’s attention was when the interviewer asked another expert, Steve Sullivan, what he’d consider to be today’s passenger pigeon. And he answered, “the monarch butterfly.”

You probably used to see monarchs all over the place, floating through your yard, drifting along roadsides. I’ve even seen them migrating south at nearby Hawk Mountain alongside the hawks and other raptors. You might even have been lucky enough to see one of their beautiful sea-green chrysalises, in which the monarch caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. But in recent years, I’ve seen fewer and fewer monarchs, and I’ll bet you have, too. (Unless, like our friend Mark, you mistake the brown-and-orange admiral for a monarch.)

The catastrophic decline of the monarchs is also directly related to human activity, and also to a one-two punch like the one that brought down the passenger pigeon. Every year, more and more herbicides are dumped on farm fields, lawns, and gardens. GMO crops are specifically bred to withstand the ever-increasing use of these poisons, so vast acreages of corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, and the like can take even stronger herbicide applications. What can’t withstand the herbicides are the “weeds,” which is to say, the diversity of plant life. And some of the weeds that herbicides kill are milkweeds, the only source of food for monarch butterfly larvae.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood make room for plenty of milkweeds here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But even so, our monarch populations have dwindled to the point where I think I saw one so far this year. (We also have pawpaws for the zebra swallowtail larvae, which are totally dependent on them.)

I urge everyone to have a butterfly garden in their backyards, or in containers on their deck or apartment balcony, to try to save our beautiful butterflies from the onslaught of herbicides. Milkweeds have gorgeous flower clusters that last a long time (Asclepias tuberosa, the very popular “butterfly weed” that brightens sunny, well-drained gardens and wildflower meadows with clusters of yellow, orange, and red flowers, is a milkweed). Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) sport beautiful plumes of blooms in colors from white through mauve and purple to maroon, and during their summer bloom season, there’s lots of added color from visiting butterflies. (We planted one called “Miss Molly” on our beloved golden retriever Molly’s grave.) And there are many, many more.

But monarchs aren’t just threatened by America’s obsession with herbicides. As you doubtless know, they migrate south for the winter and cluster by the thousands on the trunks of trees in pine and fir forests in their wintering grounds near Mexico City—trees that are being decimated by illegal logging. The monarchs depend on their winter habitat being there. After all, they’ve just flown thousands of miles to get there, and they have a collective memory of the forest where they overwinter and return to it. What if it isn’t there?

Monarch populations have crashed in recent years due to this combination of herbicides and loss of winter habitat. In 1995, they covered 44.5 acres of trees in their wintering grounds in Mexico. Last winter, their population was so reduced that they only covered 1.65 acres. How much more will they have to decline before the last “Martha” is on display in some zoo’s butterfly conservatory?

Please plant butterfly-friendly plants, refrain from herbicide use, and try to urge your neighbors and your community to do the same, to create corridors where butterflies can move and eat freely, as safe from herbicides as any of us can be in this day. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

Greens: Cooked or raw? August 30, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Silence Dogood here. I’m mostly an equal-opportunity greens fan; I love them raw (in salads and sandwiches), semi-cooked (in hot sandwiches like cheese panini with tomatoes and arugula), and cooked (in pasta, soups, dal, sauteed, or steamed). Pretty much the only greens I won’t eat are the ones that taste like dirt (beet greens, Swiss chard), the ones that are prickly (radish greens, turnip greens), and the ones that come from cans. (Just give me the beets and radishes and Japanese turnips and let me enjoy the colorful chard as an ornamental.) If I knew how to grill, I’d doubtless love the grilled halved Romaine lettuces and halved radicchio that have become popular.

I love to make a big pot of greens, including the “supergreens” kale and collards, along with spinach, arugula, and methi (fenugreek greens), cooking them down with a tiny bit of water clinging to the leaves, and then make saag paneer, the delicious, Indian dish that uses their equivalent of farmer’s cheese/fresh mozzarella, paneer, with a simply luscious mix of sauteed onion, spices, and cream. Served over basmati rice, which soaks up the sauce, it’s pure heaven.

Greens prepared this way are also a great base for soups and a great filling layer for lasagna. (You can tuck them in between the lasagna pasta and the ricotta or Greek yogurt, then top with sauce and shredded cheese.) So are greens that are added to dishes like pastas at the last moment. I love sauteing diced sweet onions and minced garlic in extra-virgin olive oil, perhaps with sliced mushrooms and diced red, orange or yellow bell pepper, a dash of crushed red pepper, Italian herbs (a mix of basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme), salt (we love RealSalt and Trocomare, hot herbed salt), and fresh-cracked black pepper. Then I add arugula when everything else has cooked down, use pasta tongs to immediately add cooked spaghetti to the sauteed veggies, and toss the pasta with the veggies and my choice of shredded cheese before serving it up. Yum!

But I’d still want to serve my pasta with a crunchy green salad. I really love salad, from a Caesar (yes to hard-boiled eggs, no to croutons and anchovies) to the famous iceberg wedge (I like mine with chopped sweet or purple onion, diced tomato, crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, and an olive oil-lemon dressing, with plenty of salt and fresh-cracked black pepper).

There are so many salad variations that I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t love salad. One of my favorites has a crunchy Romaine base with arugula, radicchio, Boston (Bibb, butter) lettuce, watercress and frisee giving texture, flavor and color, with shredded carrots, diced bell pepper (red, yellow, and/or orange), diced red onion, cherry tomatoes (my favorites are the orange Sungold tomatoes), cucumbers, red cabbage, shredded white sharp Cheddar and/or blue or Gorgonzola cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, black olives, scallions (green onions), and pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds) for nutritional value and crunch. I’ll add avocado and/or jarred artichoke hearts in oil for an especially decadent salad. With so much going on in the salad—especially if I mix in fresh basil, mint, cilantro, or another fresh herb—I like to keep the dressing simple: good olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

But not all is well in the raw greens world. I had a very sad revelation a few months ago when I read that eating raw kale was damaging to people with thyroid issues. I love raw kale in salads, but I guess I’ll be eating all my kale cooked from now on. A dear friend reminded me that the oxalic acid in spinach is bad for people with arthritis, and can not just accumulate in the joints but contribute to the formation of kidney stones. And if, like my father, you’re on blood thinners to prevent heart attack or stroke, your doctor will probably tell you to avoid all greens and salads, since leafy greens are rich in vitamin K, a natural blood thinner. Bummer!!! Not to mention that you need to eat some oil with your greens to release their nutrients in the body, preferably a healthy oil like olive oil.

The real divider in our household, though, is spinach. Our friend Ben likes it raw in salads, I like it cooked. I find the texture of raw spinach both limp and dusty—no crunch, and this dreadful musty, felted texture. (I feel the same way about raw mushrooms, and won’t eat them in a salad, either, although I love cooked mushrooms.) I, on the other hand, love cooked spinach (again, cooked down with just a few drops of water) with balsamic vinegar. OFB hates it. His exception is spanakopita, the Greek phyllo pockets filled with spinach and feta. We’ve finally found common ground with spinach sauteed in olive oil with minced garlic or onion. OFB will eat it if I add crushed red pepper, and I can discreetly add a splash of balsamic vinegar to my serving. And yes, I do buy baby spinach for his salads when I remember!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Naturalizing bulbs. August 24, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Following on my previous post, “Why are tulips so short-lived?”, our friend Ben would like to talk about an interesting way to naturalize bulbs and perennials. “Naturalizing” basically means encouraging plants to come up all over the place in random arrangements, rather than planting them singly or in ordered groups. It works best for plants that tend to spread and multiply on their own, like daffodils, many of the little bulbs, and wildflowers.

The usual advice for naturalizing daffodils is to simply toss the bulbs into the area where you want to plant them and planting them where they fall. That way, you don’t unconsciously space or arrange them. But who wants to bruise the poor bulbs?! Not our friend Ben.

So I was quite intrigued to read a technique in an e-mail from Peony’s Envy, a wonderful peony nursery in New Jersey, about how they naturalized their woodland peonies (Paeonia japonica), which are the first peonies to bloom and thrive in the woodland garden settings that support ferns and other shade-loving wildflowers. (Peony’s Envy sells their plants online and on-site, and hosts open garden days throughout peony bloom season.)

The Peony’s Envy folks suggested taking as many tennis balls as you had plants and tossing them in the general area where you wanted the plants to go, then planting where the balls fell. That way, you’re not tossing plants or bulbs around, but are still getting random planting patterns. Mind you, this technique works better if you’re planting six woodland peonies or autumn ferns or hostas or Virginia bluebells than if you’re planting 100 daffodil bulbs (er, golf balls, anyone?). But the general idea is still intriguing. And if you had more plants than tennis (or golf) balls, you could always plant in cohorts: Toss the balls, plant; turn to the next area, toss the balls again, plant; and so on until you were done.

Thank you, Peony’s Envy! Great tip.

Why are tulips so short-lived? August 22, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

The thing about bulbs is that most of them are so long-lived. Plant them once, and they either come back reliably year after year, or come back and multiply year after year. They’re one of the easiest and most dependable flowering plants, something you can plant once and look forward to every spring thereafter. This is true of daffodils, grape hyacinths, hyacinths, crocuses, glory-of-the-snow (chionodoxa), star of Bethlehem, snowdrops, Siberian squill, and numerous others.

Planting them is ridiculously easy, too: If you’re planting a sizable group of bulbs, dig a trench deep enough to cover the bulbs (shallow for small bulbs, deeper for daffs) and long and wide enough to contain the number of bulbs you’re planting, set the bulbs in root-side down, put the soil back over the bulbs, firm the soil by walking over it, the end. If you’re just planting a few bulbs in an existing bed, tucking in some grape hyacinths, snowdrops, crocuses, and/or daffodils, a narrow trowel will open a V-shaped slit in the soil (again to the appropriate depth) and you can just drop the bulb in (making sure the root end is facing down) and step on the slit to firm the soil over it. This avoids the big holes that “official” bulb planters gouge out of the soil, potentially damaging the roots of nearby perennials, and saves the steps of inverting the bulb planter after each bulb, knocking out the soil, and then replacing it in the hole.

So, our friend Ben wondered, what’s the deal with tulips? Once planted, daffodils grow and multiply for decades without further effort from you. But tulips? Apparently, most tulip hybrids bloom for one or at most two seasons. So-called “perennial” tulips, such as the Darwin hybrids, bloom for at most five years, typically blooming for three before declining. Yet they’re at least as expensive and as much trouble to plant as daffodils. Many gardeners simply treat them as annuals, planting them every fall, then digging them up after they bloom and discarding them.

This wanton waste didn’t sit well with me, and besides, I wondered why they behaved so differently from the rest of the spring bulbs. I consulted my good friend Google and found an answer from ornamental horticultural expert Rob Proctor. He pointed out that in their native land, tulips endured poor, rocky soil, cold winters, wet springs, and hot, dry summers. In these conditions, they were true perennials, just like daffodils, returning to bloom every year. He compared the climate to Colorado’s.

Apparently, our problem is that we cosset our tulips to death. We water their beds all summer, encouraging bulb rot; we feed them or plant them in rich soil (or both); our climate isn’t cold enough in winter or hot enough in summer. Our friend Ben read a fascinating tip, that in Britain, where summers aren’t known for being hot and dry, gardeners dig up the tulips when their bloom cycle has ended and their foliage is starting to decline and bring them inside hot, dry greenhouses to “cure,” then replant them in fall, thus encouraging many years of bloom.

Of course, this still sounds like a lot of work, and you’d need a greenhouse to pull it off. Is it worth it? Er. Our problem would be trying to remember where we’d planted the tulip bulbs, what they looked like versus the daffodil bulbs they were interplanted with, and how on earth we could dig them up without exposing our entire bulb border, a major undertaking. We had such a gorgeous display of daffs and tulips interplanted in our border last year it was breathtaking. But Silence Dogood and I have agreed that we’d better leave everything as is for next spring and see what happens. Maybe we won’t get a single tulip, or a single blooming tulip, but at least our daffodils can stretch out. And if we do get a few more tulip blooms, that will be great.

Perfect peach crisp, plus salad. August 17, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

Silence Dogood here. It’s peach season here in scenic PA. Our friend Rudy just gave us a whole bag of fresh-picked peaches. Thing is, ripe peaches aren’t great keepers. Like heirloom tomatoes, you’d better eat them in a couple of days or else. And there are only two of us. What to do?

Well, there are plenty of ways to eat ripe peaches. Salads are one of my favorites. You can toss peach chunks, blueberries, diced red onion, and slivered almonds on a bed of arugula, add some extra-virgin olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon or lime juice, and some salt and fresh-cracked pepper, and enjoy a luscious salad. Or mix things up by subbing avocado and pistachios for the blueberries and almonds. Fresh mint leaves pair perfectly with peaches on a bed of Bibb lettuce with crumbled blue, gorgonzola, or feta cheese. Or make a cocktail in your salad bowl with Bibb or Boston lettuce, peaches, raspberries, crumbled pecans, and an olive oil and champagne vinegar dressing.

But when gifted with an abundance of ripe peaches, one of the most delicious ways to use them all is to make a peach crisp. Sure, save a few for eating fresh and adding to salads. But crisps are so luscious, flavorful, and easy to make, it would be a shame if you didn’t at least try one. Unlike pies and cobblers, crisps don’t require a pie crust, so you need no technical piecrust-rolling skills, no ability to create a piecrust lattice on top, no horrendously messy counter.

Here’s all it takes to make the best fruit dessert since fresh blueberry tart:

For the filling:

Butter a round 8-inch glass cake pan and add a touch of water to the bottom. Slice enough fresh yellow peaches into chunks or slices to fill at least 2/3 of the pan. If you wish, add blueberries, red raspberries, or pitted sour cherries on top. (We like the rich gold of the peaches with the blue and red of blueberries and red raspberries or sour cherries, but any one of the three makes a lovely add-in, as do, improbably, seedless green grapes.) Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon or cardamom over the fruit.

For the topping:

Combine 2/3 cup unbleached flour, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/4 stick butter softened at room temperature. Work the butter in with your fingers to make panko-like crumbs. Next, work in 1/2 to 2/3 cup rolled oats and spread the mixture over the fruit in your glass pan.

To make:

Bake at 350 degrees F. for an hour, covering the top with aluminum foil for the first half-hour, until the fruit is cooked and bubbly and the topping is crisp. Serve warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, or dished up in bowls with cream poured over the crisp. Yum!!!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Morning rituals. July 31, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

Do you find yourself beginning every morning the same way, with some soothing activity that brings you a little calm, peace of mind, and feeling of security before you plunge into your day? Maybe it’s as simple as picking up a cup of your favorite coffee from Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts on the way in to work. Or maybe a walk or bike ride every morning sets you up for the day. Sometimes a hot shower or a soothing rub of body lotion is enough to make you feel pampered and centered.

We have a friend whose morning would be a disaster if he couldn’t pore over the baseball box scores, and another who begins every single day by reading the comics, convinced that a good laugh is the right start to a good day. Another rises early every day to meditate. For yet another, it’s worth getting up an hour early to go to the local diner and indulge in the “farmer’s breakfast”—pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, homefries, and toast, with plenty of coffee to wash it all down. (Gulp. But it’s heaven to him.) One relative couldn’t imagine a morning beginning without attending morning Mass.

Of course, we have our own morning rituals here at Hawk’s Haven, too. Silence Dogood is not what you’d call a morning person, yet she wakes with the light. In the interval between daylight and the return of consciousness, she likes to keep things calm and absolutely quiet. She sits at her computer and reads Yahoo news and her e-mail, then visits a few favorite sites, and then will write a blog post or two to kick the day off. Our friend Ben, meanwhile, will put on some coffee, take our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, out for her morning walk, feed the chickens, water the garden, and get the papers, which he (and, eventually, Silence) will read. OFB enjoys hot toast or croissants or English muffins and marmalade or hot pepper jelly and lots of butter along with that morning coffee and the papers. Silence can’t even look at food before 10 a.m., and then she’s more likely to opt for fruit and cottage cheese or a quinoa salad.

It doesn’t really matter what you do in the morning, as long as it makes you feel good and sets you up for the day. But we do think that morning rituals, whatever they are—doing the same things at the same time every morning—will get your day off to a healthier, more empowered start. We even think that applies to the eye-popping diner breakfast, morning walk, and meditation equally.

That’s because so much of the modern workday is about powerlessness—you do this for this many hours in this exact place and you’d better do it just the way we say and produce these results, even if that’s impossible, or else. Your time, your life, your mind are not your own, your talents are unappreciated, you’re just another faceless cog on the wheel, a “worker bee,” as a heartless boss at one old company described his employees.

But before work, you’re in charge. You have the power. No one can tell you what to do, can make you keep up with 50 social media sites while also doing your job for the same pay but ever-increasing hours, can put you on call after you’ve already put in a full day’s work. The difference between morning ritual and the lack of it can be the difference between feeling in control and out of control. So don’t feel ashamed of that Mickey D’s Egg McMuffin you pick up every single morning. Think of it as an empowering ritual.

The CSA conundrum. July 21, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
Tags: , , ,
2 comments

Silence Dogood here. Last night, my brother and sister-in-law stopped by en route to pick up our nephew from summer camp, and our friend Ben and I took them to a lovely old country inn for supper. Rather than talking about anything most people would talk about, we got into a discussion about the problem with CSAs (technically “consumer-supported agriculture,” typically organic vegetable operations that are supported by advance subscriptions and provide “shares” of vegetables each week during the growing season).

Here in scenic PA, we have a marvelous CSA just five minutes from our house. It not only provides a diverse selection of organic produce throughout the growing season, but it has a fantastic U-Pick garden where members can pick strawberries and raspberries, flowers, green and yellow wax beans, hot peppers, cherry and paste tomatoes, and a wide assortment of herbs. The farmers also partner with local organic farms to offer fruit shares, cheese shares, bread shares, pizza shares, mushroom shares, and free-range, grass-fed meat shares, as well as wild-caught salmon.

It sounds like a dream come true, and we enthusiastically joined up and belonged for several years before finally giving up on it. Why would we do such a thing, when it was so conveniently located and the produce was so well grown (and we really loved the U-Pick garden)?! We could get things at our CSA that we could find nowhere else: garlic scapes, tender Japanese turnips that were great sliced thin in salads, French breakfast radishes that we ate as the French do on buttered slices of baguette. And the fruit share was full of incredible varieties you’d never find in a store. I drool every time I read about the mushroom shares, which weren’t available in our day.

But we had to stop. It cost a great deal to sign up for a full share, and what you got depended on what the farmers planted and which crops flourished, not what you wanted or would actually eat. So, on a given week, you might get one ear of corn, one tomato, and what seemed like 50,000 pounds of Swiss chard or turnip greens or radish tops or the like. Now, I love radishes, beets, and those Japanese turnips, but I do NOT love bitter turnip greens, prickly radish greens, or Swiss chard and beet greens, which both taste like dirt. (And don’t dare tell me that sauteing radish greens makes them taste good, unless you’re also fond of stuffing fiberglass down your throat.) Plus, how are you supposed to feed two people with one ear of corn or one tomato?!! And sure, if we got a half-share, we’d only have gotten 25,000 pounds of Swiss chard and etc. But then we wouldn’t have even gotten our one tomato and ear of corn.

We wanted to support our CSA. We loved our CSA. But we really needed to buy food we would eat, in quantities we could use. So we finally gave up and now rely on the farmers’ markets near us and on our own veggie beds. (You can’t get any of the other shares, like fruit and mushroom, if you don’t belong to the CSA, sob.)

I felt like a total failure because we stopped supporting our CSA. I was too ashamed to mention it to anyone. So you can imagine how surprised I was to hear my brother and sister-in-law start talking about their CSA subscription and how challenging it was for them. Now mind you, they live in a city—Washington, DC—not farm country like me and our friend Ben. And they only subscribe for a quarter-share (not an option here, we’d get a handful of stuff, but apparently they’re still overrun, lucky them). But their experience was still like ours. Their kids don’t eat vegetables, unless you consider French fries vegetables, so they need to consume the CSA produce each week by themselves. And they too are overwhelmed by things like beet greens and, in my brother’s words, “vegetables we’ve never even heard of.”

Like us, they hate to waste food, and since they get so much in their week’s share, they end up eating whatever it is frantically every night of the week. Okay, so let’s hypothesize that you get a gargantuan bag of spinach in your share. (Would that we’d ever been so lucky.) You can add fresh spinach to your salad, cook some into an omelette or frittata, saute it with minced garlic and olive oil as a side, cook it down in a tiny bit of water and serve it up with salt and balsamic vinegar, or add it to saag or palaak paneer, lasagna, pasta, or you name it. But what if you’ve gotten a gargantuan bag of amaranth greens or Jerusalem artichokes or amaranth seed heads?

Oh, dear. There’s no question that supporting our local organic farmers via CSAs is the right thing to do. Perhaps OFB and I are just suffering from a breakdown of the imagination. But until further notice, we’ll be patronizing the local Mennonite farm stands, farmers’ markets, and growing our own.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Boston ferns as outdoor accents. July 11, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

Silence Dogood here. This year, I’ve noticed a lot of big, beautiful Boston ferns for sale outside local groceries. I’ve been very tempted to buy one, too, but worried about where I’d put it, since to me, Boston ferns are Victorian-era houseplants, and there’s only so much room in the cottage home our friend Ben and I share for houseplants. What a shame to pass such fabulously healthy-looking ferns by!

Then, last weekend, OFB and I went down to Annapolis, MD, where the plantings in general were restrained and gorgeous, but Boston ferns of all things took the spotlight. Outside the Annapolis Visitors’ Center, containers of Boston fern, a purple-leaved coleus, and a red-flowered begonia stole the show. Such a simple grouping, but the impact was perfect. I couldn’t imagine Boston ferns surviving hot, humid summer weather (I could barely survive it myself), but there they were, looking like the top contenders on The World’s Healthiest Plants.

Seeing Boston ferns in such an unlikely setting taught me a few useful lessons: First, never assume a houseplant has to stay inside. Second, less is more when it comes to impact. And third, consider your placement and pots carefully and remember the importance of echoing.

Now I want to rush off to the grocery and make sure I can get some of those Boston ferns before they’re gone.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Trading time. June 25, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , ,
2 comments

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have always loved our handymen. Neither of us is the least bit handy—screwing in a lightbulb and flipping the switch is a major accomplishment for us—and this trait runs in both our families, so it must be genetic. Our handymen (and our parents’ handymen, and presumably their parents’ handymen), by contrast, can do pretty much anything, professionally and affordably. From building a deck to repairing a leaky roof to replacing a faulty electric circuit to making a stone firepit to getting the clothes dryer back up and running, handymen are the best. We salute you!

But hey, what if your handyman worked for free? Most of us choose handymen rather than pros because we can’t afford professional service fees. A free handyman would be a huge boost to our tiny budget. So would a free tree pruner, petsitter, and auto mechanic. So you can imagine what a shock our friend Ben had this morning when I happened upon an online article from All You Magazine called ‘We Make Ends Meet Without Money’.

The trend to supply time-valued services for free in exchange for free services is apparently nationwide, but the article focused on five Vermonters who were connecting through a local time/service exchange, the Brattleboro Time Trade. Residents who sign up for the Time Trade can ask for services, such as lawn mowing and stacking wood, in exchange for babysitting, homecooked meals, dog walking, and clothing repair. Or, say, financial advice, massages, elder care, weeding, and music lessons. The possibilities are endless.

The article suggests checking out two websites, timebanks.org and hourworld.org, to see if there are already time banks, as they’re called, in your area, and if not, how to set one up. They suggest starting with at least 10 members and appointing a paid coordinator/administrator to take care of the online and phone work. They recommend that the members have clearly defined skills, post them on the site, and have the exchanges put in writing so both parties are clear on what’s expected and when.

In our case, that would mean exchanging our own highly honed writing, editing, vegetarian, cooking, gardening/horticultural/herbal, archaeological, paleontological, historical, collecting, art, chicken-raising, and in-depth knowledge of literature skills for some hands-on work. It would be so great!

But our friend Ben has a question: When will Big Brother, in the form of the IRS, show up and tax this classic form of barter?! Barter has always been popular with the underclasses, who are just trying to get by, and hated by the upper classes, who feel robbed of additional income, through taxation, of the goods/services being exchanged. Our friend Ben fears that this initiative will find itself taxed in a Hunger Games scenario, with The Capitol pouncing on the impoverished and helpless Districts and forcing them to give every last drop of blood in exchange for a crumb of food or a rag of clothing.

Barter is a time-honored means of exchanging goods and services the world over, from the earliest human history to the present. It enables those who couldn’t otherwise afford goods and services to have them. (Another Hunger Games reference: Those who know the books and films may recall the heroine, Katniss, exchanging a squirrel, destined for the stewpot, for a ball of yarn and the mockingjay pin on the black market.) Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood wholeheartedly approve of the barter system, and especially since it’s a great way to get to know your neighbors and make new friends.

Fast and easy strawberry-rhubarb pie. June 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

Silence Dogood here. It’s the end of local strawberry and rhubarb season here, which makes me want to cry. The local strawberries are so much more delicious than those store-bought, hard, tongue-curdling whitish berries you get in the store. You can smell the homegrown berries the minute you enter one of the Old Order Mennonite farm stands in our area. (They’re horse-and-buggy people like the Amish.) And the rhubarb is slender-stalked and tender.

Do our friend Ben and I grow strawberries and rhubarb here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA? You betcha. But we have a little problem. Every year, the birds—who apparently know to the second when our strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and elderberries will be ripe—beat us to the crop. In the case of the strawberries, chipmunks (who invariably eat half a berry and leave the rest in plain sight just to torment us) and slugs also eat their fill. As for the rhubarb, ours grows into such huge, gorgeous ornamental plants that I can’t bear to harvest the stalks. Thus, on to the Mennonite stands.

I’m going to guess that rhubarb plants don’t flourish in hot, humid climates, since I’d never encountered rhubarb in any form while growing up in Nashville. But up here in scenic PA, it’s one of the first fresh treats of spring, along with strawberries, asparagus and young dandelion greens (unsprayed, please). I quickly fell in love with rhubarb’s distinctive flavor, stewed and spooned over vanilla ice cream or stirred into yogurt, made into pies (I actually prefer an all-rhubarb pie to the famous strawberry-rhubarb pie), or made into rhubarb jam.*

We’d had such luscious strawberries from a nearby Mennonite farm stand that we ate the entire box plain, then rushed back for more. But this time, the girl who took our order dumped the box of ripe berries into a plastic bag. By the time we got home, the berries were mushed and pouring out juice. I quickly put the bag in the fridge. We returned for more berries (in the box this time), and I saw the slender, tender rhubarb stalks on sale, so I bought a bunch of them as well.

To make the most of that luscious but mushy bag of strawberries, before they got moldy, I decided to try my hand at making strawberry-rhubarb pie. It was my first try at making any pie but pecan pie. You see, in the South of my childhood, pies were a lot different than they are in the North. There were pecan pies, chess pies, banana cream pies, chocolate icebox pies, and for super-special occasions, rum pies. Fruit (with the exception of bananas) was baked into cobblers, not made into pies as it is up here. Cobblers are so easy, so delicious, and so accommodating that it seemed ridiculous to put a blueberry-peach, raspberry-peach, blackberry, cherry, peach, or [your favorite fruit here] filling in a piecrust.

At this point, I wish I’d made strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. (In case anyone reading doesn’t know, a cobbler tops a jammy fruit filling with a crumbly, crunchy mix of flour, oatmeal, salted butter, and often spices like cinnamon, cloves, or cardamom.) We’ll get to why in a minute (I have to take the blame for actually asking OFB to do something without supervision, but that’s another matter).

To get started, I consulted my good friend Google to check out strawberry-rhubarb pie recipes. Yuck! Every one of them had you make a piecrust, and either a second piecrust for topping the pie or enough extra dough to make a lattice top. Making a piecrust involves cutting very cold, chopped-up butter (or lard or Crisco) into flour until it’s totally incorporated, then rolling it out on a chilled marble slab or your counter. Eeewww!!! If you hate touching greasy things like I do, much less cleaning up a floury, greasy counter, making piecrust is not for you. (This is also why I don’t buy delicious, locally made rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pies: I’m a vegetarian, and the crusts are all made with lard.)

Then, the recipes all had you cut up the rhubarb and strawberries, mix them with a cup of sugar, dump in flour or cornstarch to thicken the filling, and dump it raw into the piecrust before topping it with the second piecrust or latticing and baking it. Everyone warned that, without the thickening flour or cornstarch, the juices would destroy the bottom crust.

At this point, I decided that I was going to create my own recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a household that considered the addition of flour or cornstarch as a thickener was simply blasphemy. Either one drastically degraded the flavor and texture of any food—soup, gravy, sauce, macaroni and cheese, you name it—to which it was added. No flour-or cornstarch-enhanced recipe ever passed our lips. Instead, our home rule was to use top-quality ingredients like cream and butter and simply take the time to cook them to the proper consistency.

So we stopped at the grocery and I asked OFB if he’d prefer a standard, Graham-cracker, or shortbread crust (all ready-made and pressed into their aluminum pans in the baking aisle). OFB chose a Keebler shortbread crust. Sounded good to me.

Once home, I chopped the rhubarb stalks (rhubarb leaves and roots are poisonous, only the stalks are safe to eat) and put them in a heavy Dutch oven (I love my LeCreuset enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens) with a little water to keep them from sticking and burning as they cooked. Then I got out that bag of runny, yucky strawberries and totally grossed myself out by pulling off the stems and then chopping them and adding them to the rhubarb. When I’d finally chopped them all, I poured the juice into the pot as well. I also chopped some of the fresh strawberries we’d bought and added them.

As the rhubarb and strawberries cooked down, I added a ten-ounce jar of rhubarb jam to both intensify the flavor and thicken the filling. You could add strawberry jam if you wanted, but then you’d totally overwhelm the rhubarb flavor. Or you could add apricot preserves or apple jelly or even marmalade or what have you, but you’d definitely be changing the flavor.

Everything cooked down perfectly into a rich, thick, jammy pie filling, full of fresh fruit and with no yucky thickeners. I was very happy, but by that point, I was also very tired. So I asked OFB if he would spoon the filling into the shortbread crust and put it in the fridge while I got ready for bed. HUGE mistake, as I found out the next morning. OFB admitted that he’d put the filling in the crust, then attempted to pick up the aluminum-foil pan, at which point it had apparently folded in on itself and distributed a supernova of shortbread crumbs into the filling.

I still can’t imagine why this could have happened. That the crust might have broken in half is one thing; that it imploded all over the filling is implausible to me, yet, in the immortal words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The results of my wonderful pie now looked like vomit. I was devastated. I can’t eat something this gross, so I’ve made OFB swear that he’ll eat it with ice cream and whipped cream.

Before writing this post, I stuck a finger into the filling to make sure it actually tasted good and wasn’t gummy. And yes, make this and you’ll be so very, very happy: It’s delicious, fruity, fresh, and just the right texture, juicy but not runny. But if you make it, do what I’ll do next time: Put the crust and aluminum base on a plate before filling the crust, and put the plate into the fridge along with the plate so it can all set.

Fans of rhubarb, rejoice! And don’t forget that Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream.

‘Til next time,

Silence

* I’ve only found one source of rhubarb jam, Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse, PA. Fortunately, you can order it online at http://www.kitchenkettle.com or call to order at 1-800-717-6198.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 173 other followers