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The zen of goat herding. March 31, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading.
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1 comment so far

Hi all! I just had to add a second short post today after reading Jackie Clay’s post on her blog at Backwoods Home magazine. Jackie’s posted about her goat, Velvet, who delivered triplets last week. If you love goats, it’s a must-read (or rather, must-see: check out the pics of the adorable goat babies)!

You can click on the Backwoods Home link here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, then look for the link on their site to the “Ask Jackie Clay” blog. Don’t forget to read the comments section where Jackie talks about taking her goats for walks! Being our friend Ben, I of course think she should have a “Name Those Goats” contest. But she and son David probably want to do the honors themselves.

Anyway, it’s a fun read and I know you’ll enjoy it. And you’ll be in awe of how much Jackie knows about gardening and homesteading, and how generous she is about sharing that knowledge. (Can you tell, I’m a Jackie fan from way back?) And please feel free to share your own goat stories with our friend Ben!


When life hands you pink lemons, make pink lemonade. March 31, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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A plant is threatening to outcompete the orchids as star of the greenhouse this week. Our friend Ben’s variegated lemon (Citrus limon ‘Eureka Variegated Pink’) is sending up scads of new leaves and flower buds in a show of spring fever worthy of my own.

Now, this is a handsome plant at any time, with its white-edged glossy green foliage. But the new leaves are amazing: white, green, and pink. Borne in clusters at the ends of the stems, they look like exotic blooms themselves. And the flower buds are pink as well! Hopefully, they’ll open with that heavenly orange-blossom scent that can carry across the cavernous interior of a commercial greenhouse; our friend Ben is looking forward to the effect in the much more modest 10-by-16-foot Hawk’s Haven greenhouse.

This plant’s biggest show is still to come: the fruit. The lemons have variegated peels, yellow with green stripes. And the flesh is pink! Just think: natural pink lemonade, no yucky dyes. But our friend Ben thinks the effect would be even greater if you added pink lemon slices to regular lemonade, water, or any clear beverage for contrast. I look forward to finding out.

Starting to think you’d like a variegated lemon tree of your own? We got ours from one of our friend Ben’s favorite nurseries, Edible Landscaping in Afton, Virginia (www.eat-it.com). Our friend Ben has followed the career of Edible Landscaping’s owner, Michael McConkey, since he was a teenager writing articles for Organic Gardening magazine about filling his family’s backyard with all sorts of fruits and nuts. Like Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Michael was lucky enough to make his teenage passion his adult vocation.

If you’re in the Afton area and able to visit the nursery, you’ll find that the whole staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Our friend Ben got a wonderful tour a couple of years ago when visiting friends in Charlottesville. I learned a great deal about rare and exotic fruits, and was even given a sample or two to taste. If you can’t make the trek to the nursery, the catalogue is the next best thing. You’ll quickly see that Edible Landscaping is a big believer in shipping plants in containers—big containers—rather than bare-root. The plants themselves are sizeable and robust. If you’re used to receiving wimpy plants in the mail, you’re in for a very pleasant surprise!

Speaking of pleasant surprises, our friend Ben was surprised at how well the variegated lemon did over the past growing season on the deck and in the greenhouse over winter; container citrus can be a bit tricky here. But then I read that this particular lemon prefers to be kept on the dry side. Aha!

When the only way to water the greenhouse is to haul water the length of your property in gallon milk jugs like our friend Ben does, watering is not a favorite activity. It tends to be, shall we say, put off. So any plant that can thrive on neglect is that much more appealing. And when it’s a stunner to start with and has a cast-iron constitution, it’s earned its gold star status with me!   

Amish friendship “bread” gone wild March 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I informed our friend Ben (over howls of protest) that it was time to take a break from the One-Ben Awards and give the rest of us a chance to get a word in edgewise. Besides, as I delicately pointed out, our friend Ben is on deadline, and it’s rather important to at least occasionally devote one’s self to something that could pay a few bills. So, our friend Ben, in the words of Plutarch the Parrot, “To work!”

Needless to say, we did not teach our yellow-naped Amazon parrot to order us around in this manner. We suspect that he spent too much time listening to the pet-store manager yelling at his staff before we found him. But whatever the case, even umpteen years later, we’re often greeted, inevitably after a particularly long and grueling day, with shrieks of “To work! To work! Get back to work!!!” followed by an assessing look and the pronouncement, “You look green.” Why thanks, Plu. You really know how to make a girl feel good.

Moving on from parrot-related insults, it’s time for an update on Amish friendship “bread” (in quotes because it’s actually a rich, delicious cake). You may recall from my earlier post, “Amish friendship ‘bread’,” that a couple of weeks ago our friend Ben and I allowed nostalgia to overwhelm what little sense we jointly possess, and accepted a bag of yeasted batter and directions for eventually turning it into the dreaded Amish friendship cake.

The directions instruct you to place the bag on the kitchen counter and squeeze it for five days to give the yeast a chance to do its work. But our friend Ben and I were about to depart for a week’s vacation in North Carolina, so I stashed the bag in the refrigerator instead. Admittedly, I felt few qualms about this, since Amish friendship bread’s reputation for replication is such that I felt that nothing short of a direct nuclear strike would shut it down for good.

When we returned from a lovely week off, I retrieved the bag of batter and placed it on the kitchen counter. Our friend Ben and I watched and squeezed it dutifully for five days, looking for signs of life. (Actually, our friend Ben insisted on doing most of the squeezing, a bit more enthusiastically than I thought was strictly necessary.) Finally, yesterday I was able to do something a bit more rewarding. Following instructions, I added a cup each of flour, sugar, and milk, to give the yeast something to work with. Our friend Ben squeezed the bag a few more times to mix the new additions into the existing batter, and we put the bag at the back of the kitchen counter.

After this excitement, our friend Ben trundled off to the greenhouse to do some puttering and muttering. I came in to the home office to write awhile on the computer. The dog and cats positioned themselves around me and promptly went to sleep. The bag of Amish friendship batter was forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until some time later when I heard a strange plopping, thumping noise coming from the direction of the kitchen. “Plurp!”

I headed off to investigate. Sure enough, the bag of Amish friendship batter had somehow dragged itself clear across the counter and leapt onto the floor. (Mercifully, the bag was unbroken.) Bemused, I replaced it on the back of the counter and went back to writing.


Oh my God. It’s ALIIIIVE!!!!!!!!!

Now, it’s true that Amish friendship batter technically is alive, since it contains live yeast. But no one I know of has ever suggested that it’s also mobile. As of this writing, I have the bag of batter barricaded behind two packages of cornmeal. So far, it hasn’t managed to escape. I’ll keep you posted.

                             ‘Til next time,


Ben Picks Ten: Fantasy March 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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[First, the disclaimer: If you’ve seen the title of this post and wandered over looking for anything more X-rated than The Lord of the Rings, it’s time to go on home now. Besides, I hear your mother calling… ]

Now that we’ve cleared that up, our friend Ben would like to continue handing out One-Ben Awards, this time in the rich and rewarding realm of fantasy fiction and film. (What are One-Ben Awards, you ask? Check out “Ben Picks Ten: Music” to find out all about ’em.) Here at Hawk’s Haven, we love fantasy and reading, so please feel free to chime in with your own favorites—I’m sure there are many I’m missing, besides the ones I’m snubbing.

But let’s get back to the awards. Without more ado:

1. All-Time Favorite Fantasy: JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Our friend Ben first encountered The Hobbit in sixth grade, and read it pretty much in one sitting. Lighter, brighter, and a lot more fun than the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit remains the beloved favorite to this day. I hear a movie version’s in the works, and hope to God it does the story and characters more justice than the “first there was this battle, then there was that battle, guess what happened next—you’re right! another battle” films that turned LotR into a wizard-ridden version of “Braveheart.” At least they had the decency to cast Christopher Lee and Sean Bean, two of our friend Ben’s favorites, but they forgot about the “fantasy” and “complexity” parts in their excitement over the computer-generated special effects.

2. Best Pseudo-Historical Fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne. Imagine that you’re in a parallel universe that looks a lot like mediaeval France. You’re in the sunny South, the land of the troubadours, but despite the cloudless skies, a storm of epic proportions is brewing that will pit force and intolerance against civilization and culture. Guy Gavriel Kay’s beautiful writing and sound historical background make A Song for Arbonne one of the greatest fantasy works of all time.

3. Best Anti-Hunting Fantasy Set on Another Planet: Sheri Tepper’s Grass. Tepper’s an excellent writer, but sometimes her pro-environment stance (a stance of which our friend Ben heartily approves) gets in the way of her stories. In Grass, it works with the plot to create a beautifully realized condemnation of upper-class rigidity and celebration of diversity and open-mindedness, both cultural and ecological. Plus, it’s a page-turning thriller—once the mystery starts, you can’t stop reading.

4. Best “Save the Whales” Fantasies Set on Another Planet: Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen. Here’s a different and perhaps even more fabulous take on the “let’s stop exploiting our planet in the name of greed/extinction is inexcusable and really, really stupid” theme. On a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away, two rival clans, the Summers and Winters, alternate as planetary rulers. The Summers are peaceful agrarians who distrust technology and close the planet to offworlders during their rule; the Winters are tech and luxury lovers who welcome the offworlders and their high-tech conveniences when it’s their turn in power. Offworlders make the long trek to the unprepossessing planet because they want what it has: the secret of eternal youth. As The Snow Queen opens, Winter’s reign is about to give way to Summer’s, but this time, the ruling Snow Queen has other ideas…

5. Best “Oh, Geez! Now I’m on Another Planet” Fantasies: Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light. In these paired novels, Lynne DeLisle Christie is sent as Earth ambassador to the strange and hostile planet of Orthe, and not only has to figure out the elaborate, ancient, corrupt, and somehow menacing system of the court, but ends up having all kinds of interesting, terrifying, and revealing misadventures in the outback. It’s as though you and our friend Ben had found ourselves marooned in the courts of Pharaonic Egypt or Imperial China, with the uncomfortable feeling that no one was exactly pleased to see us. Beautifully realized, beautifully written.

6. Best Lizard King Fantasies: Steven Brust’s Jhereg series, featuring Vlad Taltos. What if humans weren’t the dominant species on Earth (or, well, a planet very much like Earth), but instead were under the thumbs of a ruling class of highly intelligent, ultra-strong, humanoid lizards with superpowers? Lizards who furthermore were living in a feudal society with all the trappings of chivalry and a rigid class structure where humans were the Untouchables? If you were an enterprising human with a lot of smarts, a cool witch for a grandpa, and an absolutely wicked sense of humor, could you break the mold and hold your own in the lizards’ world? This is the premise of Brust’s books, and I defy you to read them and not cheer their human hero, Vlad Taltos, on. Our friend Ben’s own sense of humor is unextinguishable (just ask Silence), and I really appreciate Brust’s strong infusion of wit into a genre that tends to take itself far too seriously.

7. Best Fantasies about King Arthur and All That: Mary Stewart’s quadrology about Merlin, beginning with The Crystal Cave and working its way through The Hollow Hills, The Wicked Day, and The Last Enchantment, remains for our friend Ben the best in the genre, and I’ve read most of ’em. Stewart’s wonderful writing skills serve her well in this series, and she had the good sense to realize that it was Merlin who was the truly romantic hero of the Camelot stories, not Arthur or Lancelot. I’ll never forgive her for tying Merlin’s powers to his virginity (Hey, Mary! Wizards just wanna have fun!), but apart from that, it’s still a great read. Somebody should be turning these books into a movie series!

8. Weird but Wonderful Fantasy Films. These post-apocalyptic fantasy films ironically star actors who would later make headlines by marrying, divorcing, and remarrying and divorcing: Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. Do not, repeat, do not watch “A Boy and His Dog” unless you have a cast-iron sense of humor (and irony, for that matter); but if you can appreciate “The Far Side,” you’ll love it. And don’t watch “Cherry 2000” if you’re a chauvinist at heart. Otherwise, you’ll enjoy this feel-good film where a flawed, real-life woman wins out over a perfect “Stepford Wives”-type techno-doll.    

9. Favorite Character in a Fantasy Movie: Darth Vader, who else? Thank you, James Earl Jones! (Also starring as the immortal Thulsa Doom in “Conan the Barbarian;” see One-Ben Award #10.) “The Empire Strikes Back” showcases Vader and is definitely worth owning. Our friend Ben also enjoyed Harrison Ford’s performance in the series, but generally speaking, the wimpy Luke Skywalker wrecked the series for me. (That’s the savior of the Universe?! I don’t think so.)

10. Best Movie Fantasies: “Conan the Barbarian” and “Conan the Destroyer,” hands down (or thumbs up). Hugely entertaining, vividly realized, and generally a ton of fun, rising infinitely above both the generally ludicrous acting and the original books. Great music, too. Our friend Ben deeply regrets that John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger only made two of them. Watch them, and repeat after our friend Ben: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger!”

And the bonus:

11. Best Fantasy TV Series: “The Prisoner.” Our friend Ben really should watch this as an adult, since I never did figure out what it was about or what that weird beach-ball thingy was. But it was interesting and fun! For some reason, it brings to mind the novel Never Let Me Go, which was disturbing (and frustrating) in the same way. (Geez, why were they all so passive? Why didn’t they fight back?!!)                    

Ben Picks Ten: Music March 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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From American Idol to the Mouse & Trowels, it seems like everyone loves a competition. Our friend Ben is no exception. Unfortunately, I’m too new to the garden blogosphere to feel comfortable nominating best garden blogs in various categories, since it seems like every day I discover several wonderful gardening blogs that are truly humbling to one of our friend Ben’s writerly nature. However, as friends of our friend Ben are all too aware (shut up, Silence), humility is not a hallmark of our friend Ben’s character. Plus, to be frank, all this nominating is making me feel a bit left out. 

So our friend Ben has decided to write a series of themed posts featuring my own nominations for One-Ben Awards in various categories. This not only has the advantage of letting me nominate people for awards, it also dispenses with even the slightest pretence of a need for consensus. However, you can comment and let our friend Ben know if you agree or disagree in increasingly violent increments. As long as you remain civil, our friend Ben promises to post your remarks.

Without more ado, our friend Ben presents the One-Ben Awards for Music:

1. Favorite Musician: Mark Knopfler, hands down. Our friend Ben even owns one of Martin Guitars’ custom Mark Knopfler acoustic guitars. (And no, I’m not giving out my address, so don’t even think about it!) Did you know that a dinosaur was named after Mark Knopfler? (Our friend Ben is a fossil-lover from way back; see my earlier post, “Treasures in the earth,” if you are, too.) Great music and dinosaurs? All right!!!

2. Favorite Feel-Good Music: Bob Marley, who else? Jimmy Buffett gets honorable mention. 

3. Favorite Rock Guitarists: (Our friend Ben isn’t educated enough to judge Classical guitar. Sorry!) Steve Vai first, then Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, and George Harrison. Alex DiGrassi is marvelous, too, if you can find him. Mark Knopfler gets his own category (see above).

4. Favorite Celtic Music: Dougie Maclean. Oh, yeah! The one and only musician our friend Ben has ever heard who sounds exactly the same live as recorded. Wow.

5. Favorite Nostalgia Rock:  Jethro Tull and Alice Cooper have to split this one. If you’ve never heard Tull, our friend Ben suggests that you start with “Songs from the Wood;” for Alice, try “Trash.”

6. Favorite Songs That Make You Drive Too Fast: Knopfler’s “Speedway at Nazareth;” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama;” and the whole Waterbone “Tibet” CD, except for the last awful song.

7. Favorite Song: Led Zep’s “Stairway to Heaven,” greatest of all time. Honorable mention to Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind,” Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and Crash Test Dummies’ “The Superman Song.” Our friend Ben has a sort of romantic nostalgia for Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” too, but could not take repeated hearings.

8. Weirdest Enjoyable Voice: Boy, there are some close candidates for this one! Our friend Ben loves Tony Bird, Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies, Joan Armatrading, and The Roches, among others. But in this category, Kurt Elling, jazz vocalist extraordinaire, ultimately gets top honors from our friend Ben.

9. Best Native American Music: Bill Miller is our friend Ben’s all-time fave. Start with his “Ghostdance” CD if you don’t already know him. (The guy can paint, too!) Our friend Ben loves “Ghost Dance” and “Skinwalker” on the “Music for The Native Americans” CD by Robbie Robertson and The Red Road Ensemble, too.

10. Best Beautiful Music That You May Find Depressing: This is a crowded category, stretching from Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, and Sting through Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin to Loreena McKennitt and Al Stewart. Our friend Ben loves all of these, and many more in this category, including previous category winners Bill Miller and Dougie Maclean. Hard to choose a winner, but our One-Ben Award in this category ultimately goes to  Al Stewart in a very hotly contested contest, because he’s the only musician our friend Ben knows who consistently blends history and music. Fascinating and fantastic!

Naturally, our friend Ben can’t stop at just ten. So here’s the bonus:

11. Greatest Composer of All Time: Johann Sebastian Bach. It would have been, could have been, should have been Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but Wolfie died way too soon for his full and fulsome genius to have been fully expressed. Our friend Ben feels an enduring connection to Mozart, though, since he apparently heard his music in his head before committing it to paper, and that’s just the way our friend Ben receives novels, essays, and poems. It’s too easy to be talent, so our friend Ben recognizes it for the gift it is and can take no credit; I’d bet any number of One-Ben Awards that Mozart felt the same way.   

Everyday miracles March 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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With birth and rebirth all around us, no one needs to tell gardeners and homesteaders that the air of spring is thick with miracles. Just yesterday, as I patrolled the yard looking for signs of garden life, our friend Ben saw that the rhubarb leaves were just starting to emerge in the perennial vegetable bed. The thick leaf clusters were startling against the bare soil: wrinkled, red, and rayed, sea stars drifting in a chocolate tide.

And there was more: the first ‘Tete-a-Tete’ daffodils in bloom. In the root-choked soil under the great maple, the blooms barely cleared the ground, looking like clutches of yellow M&Ms scattered by a child whose solitary play had been suddenly interrupted. Then there is my Speckled Sussex hen, Roxanne, whose rich red and green plumage is spangled with white, a preview of the white spots flung like galaxies across her old-rose eggs.

These miracles are ephemeral, delighting us when we encounter them, the memories dissipating as others take their place. But some are more enduring.

Watching the hawks at play yesterday reminded our friend Ben of one such miracle that took place last fall. I had gone to Hawk Mountain, which is something of a miracle itself, to watch the great autumn raptor migration. Unfortunately, our friend Ben wasn’t the only one who had this bright idea. Were it not for all the pro-environment bumper stickers, I’d have thought I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in a Wal-Mart parking lot during peak shopping hours.

Our friend Ben finally found a space for the battered red VW Golf and began hiking, not up the mountain, but across what looked like miles of parking lot towards the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Center and Gift Shop. (Our friend Ben is a big believer in bathroom first, mountain second.) Suddenly, I became aware of a tiny child, a dark-haired girl no more than three or four years old. How I became aware of her in the press of bodies I’ll never know, but I somehow saw her detach her hand from her father’s and begin running the great length of the parking lot directly toward me.

I of course assumed that she had spotted someone she knew, and vaguely wondered why her father wasn’t coming after her or at least calling for her to come back, tiny as she was and easily lost in the obstacle course of moving arms and legs. But as I continued my progress towards the building, it dawned on me that we were on a collision course. I finally stopped just before the moment of impact, and so did the child. Then she leaned forward, very deliberately kissed my elbow, turned without a word, and ran back to her father.

Now our friend Ben may not know much, but even I have enough sense to know when I’ve been touched by an angel. That is one memory I’ll carry to my grave.   

Everyday miracles. Which ones will you find today? Which ones will find you?

What’s the deal with the peel? March 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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Our friend Ben got an e-mail reminder yesterday that it’s time to pay the second installment of our CSA subscription fee. Now, in case you don’t know, CSA stands for “Consumer-Supported Agriculture,” and a CSA is a farm that grows produce in shares for its members, who pay in advance, which supports the farmers and pays their costs during the growing season, while letting them know in advance how much they should plant based on the number of members. Altogether, it’s a tidy little system: The farmer has guaranteed income, and the members get a wide assortment of local, farm-fresh produce.

Our particular CSA is Quiet Creek Farm, operated by farmers John and Aimee Good on land leased from the Rodale Institute, which is located in beautiful Pennsylvania farm country outside the tiny hamlet of Maxatawny. As you might guess if you know Rodale, Quiet Creek is an organic operation. In addition to supplying a fantastic selection of veggies and melons from June through November, Quiet Creek has a huge pick-your-own plot with an assortment of cutting flowers, herbs (including two our friend Ben can never get enough of, basil and cilantro), paste and cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, snap peas, green peas, edamame, and bush beans. And they offer local, organic honey, raw-milk cheese and yogurt (thank God, raw milk is still legal in PA), eggs, meats, handmade soaps, even wild-caught salmon. Talk about a deal!

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we have three vegetable beds, and one of them is given over to perennial crops like asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, and comfrey. Even bringing the in-ground bed in the greenhouse into play once the greenhouse plants go out on the deck for the season, we can never grow all the fresh produce we want. So the CSA is a lifesaver.

But of course, with an abundance of pick-your-own tomatoes at our disposal last summer, as well as organic apples from the Rodale orchards, we felt it was time to drag out the huge water-bath canner and get serious about putting up some food. So our friend Ben and Silence Dogood attended a home food preservation workshop given by one of our farmers, Aimee Good. Then we went home and made several kinds of salsas, chutneys, tomato sauces, and applesauces, as well as pickled hot peppers. We were cookin’! Our friend Ben’s father got us an Excalibur dehydrator for Christmas (along with, bless his heart, an Orvis folding car ramp for our golden retriever, Molly, who’ll turn ten this year and isn’t as spry as she used to be), so we plan to add dehydrating to our food-preservation techniques this season.

All of which brings me finally to the peel-deal issue. Pretty much every cookbook and food preservation guide in the vast Hawk’s Haven cookbook archives insists that you peel tomatoes—and virtually every other fruit and vegetable known to man—before you cook or preserve them. Our friend Ben has long wondered why. Here at Hawk’s Haven, we grow organic, buy organic, and eat organic, so we don’t have to worry about pesticides in the skins of our fruits and veggies. But then, many of our cookbooks and preserving guides were written in the pre-World War II era, when all the world was organic, and that didn’t stop them from insisting that everything be peeled.

We, however, have found that our carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and etc. taste perfectly delicious with their skins left on. (Our friend Ben recently went into label shock after reading instructions on a bunch of asparagus that you should peel the stalks before cooking them. What are they thinking?!) Not to mention the time, trouble, and extra steps saved by not peeling.

Our friend Ben has spent years pondering this burning issue, and finally, I’ve arrived at a hypothesis. I have noted that heirloom varieties as a whole tend to have thicker, tougher skins than modern cultivars. Doubtless a tough skin provided useful protection for the fruit, root, or shoot concerned. This is especially true of tomatoes, where the skins of many heirlooms put up a good fight before succumbing to the knife or teeth. There is also the issue of older beans, which earned the name “string beans” because of a tough, fibrous thread along the side that had to be pulled off before the beans could be snapped (thus, “snap beans”) in half and cooked.

Plant breeders have, over the years, gotten rid of time-consuming impediments like strings and tough skins. But our friend Ben wonders if the directive to peel, peel, peel is a holdover from the days when it was a necessity, and has simply been passed down as gospel, part of the arcana of food preparation and preservation, without being questioned and reevaluated.

What do you think?       


Don’t stop feeding the birds! March 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here to remind all you gardeners and homesteaders that it’s not yet time to put away the birdfeeders. It may look like spring, with the robins returning and the bulbs in bloom, but until the soil is warm and insect life is abundant, the birds still need your help. In fact, experts say that now is the most important time to feed the birds. After all, they’ve just completed a grueling return migration and they’re preparing for courtship, nest-building, and egglaying. All these activities require a lot of energy—and there are few bugs and pretty much no seed- or nectar-bearing plants out there to feed them.

I do realize that you may not want a litter of feeders—not to mention seed hulls and other detritus—spoiling your lovely spring landscape. And I don’t blame you! One of my primary winter feeders is a big, rustic hopper feeder that’s on a tree over one of my prettiest garden beds. In spring, the bed is full of beautiful blooming bulbs. So when I see the first sign of shoots emerging, I simply stop filling that feeder. But I keep the tube feeders going until it’s warm enough to set plants out on the deck. You might want to keep one or two tube feeders filled, and clean and store the rest. And you can always move the feeders to a less conspicuous part of the yard.

Of course, lots of folks enjoy feeding the birds year-round and think that their colorful antics enhance the garden. (If you’re one of them and you don’t know Birds & Blooms magazine, check it out—I think you’d enjoy it.) I set out feeders at the end of summer last year just to see what would happen, and loved seeing the goldfinches clustering round with their bold yellow plumage (in fall, they moult and become a much less conspicuous yellow-olive). So I think this year I’ll keep a tube feeder up for them year-round, filled with their favorite Nyjer seed. There are always goldfinches back in the meadow garden, but the tube feeder will bring them closer so I can enjoy the show!  

Don’t forget the water, either. It’s even more important than food. Luckily, birdbaths come in so many styles that it’s easy to find one that will be an asset in your landscape rather than an eyesore. And you can always tuck one discreetly among plants at ground level—they don’t have to be on pedestals (unless, of course, you have outdoor cats in your neighborhood!). Keep in mind that birds like shallow water—no more than an inch or two deep—so if your birdbath is too deep, add some pebbles so the birds can perch safely while they drink or bathe. And please hose it out every day or two so the water stays fresh and mosquito-free.

So keep a feeder or two going and add a birdbath to your yard. Just these two simple steps are all it takes for your backyard birds to enjoy spring as much as you do.

What about hummingbirds, you ask? When you’re choosing plants for the garden, remember to add a few nectar-bearers like columbines, monarda (bee balm), and trumpetvine for the hummers. If you plant them near the deck, patio, porch, or wherever you enjoy relaxing, you can bring hummingbirds up close and enjoy their antics without having to worry about filling nectar feeders. 

Getting your goat. March 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Just this morning, our friend Ben finished reading The Year of the Goat, a new book by Margaret Hathaway that chronicles a yearlong journey across the U.S. (with occasional ventures abroad) in search of all things goat. Margaret and her then-fiance, now-husband Karl left their big-city lives to see if their real vocation was goat farming and goat cheese-making. After a year’s worth of colorful adventures, they found that the answer was yes.

Now, our friend Ben has always wanted a pair of milking goats. The hands-down best yogurt I ever had was made (by me) from goat milk, and then, of course, there is the cheese. It seems as if milking one goat (I would “freshen” them by turns so one would be producing milk while the other one rested up and kept the milking goat company) would not be too overwhelming, and how much space would they need?

More, most likely, than our friend Ben’s one-acre Eden, Hawk’s Haven, could provide, bisected as it is by Hawk Run and with the greenhouse, Pullet Palace, studio, fruit trees, and veggie beds, as well as the cultivated wild meadow, already in place. Still, the fantasy refuses to die. Our friend Ben’s copy of Your Goats* is dogeared from numerous readings; any homesteading or farming magazine with a goat on the cover will instantly get our friend Ben’s goat—I mean, attention—and subsequent purchase. (Our friend Ben is probably the only person who goes to Tractor Supply to buy magazines, but really, where else can you find Mother Earth News, Back Home, Hobby Farms, Backyard Poultry, Taste of Home, Acres USA, and numerous other specialty garden- and homestead-related publications in one place? Including, of course, several goat specialty magazines.)

Perhaps it has something to do with our friend Ben having been born in the Chinese Year of the Goat, like Margaret Hathaway’s husband. (This is also translated as the Year of the Sheep; apparently separating the sheep from the goats is not a Chinese priority.) Our friend Ben was not initially enamored of the idea of being a goat, or especially a sheep, instead of, say, a tiger or dragon. But after reading that “the sheep is elegant and artistic,” our friend Ben became insufferable for quite some time and had to be frequently suppressed. And anyway, at least it wasn’t the Year of the Rat.

Our friend Ben still wants a pair of milking goats. Perhaps Nigerian Dwarfs would be a good choice? (If anyone out there is raising these diminutive but reputedly excellent milkers, please tell our friend Ben what it really takes.) And I highly recommend The Year of the Goat to anyone who’s ever longed to break away and follow their dream. Maybe it will inspire you to go for it!

* Your Goats is part of an excellent series from Storey Publishing. Ostensibly for kids (pardon the pun in this case), these books are excellent overviews of livestock care. I have pretty much every book on raising chickens known to man, and Your Chickens gets my one-Ben award as best overall chicken-raising guide. If you raise or want to raise animals and don’t know this series, or have dismissed it because it’s aimed at kids, you owe it to yourself to check it out.      

Potatoes for planting and eating March 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes.
Tags: , , ,

Silence Dogood here. As potato-planting season approaches, our friend Ben and I are expecting the arrival of seed potatoes from Wood Prairie Farm, a small but phenomenal organic potato-growing operation in Bridgewater, Maine. (Prairies in Maine?! Go figure.) We first stumbled on Wood Prairie this winter while reading an article on ‘King Harry’, a new pest-resistant potato from Cornell’s breeding program. (Ack—I can’t remember which magazine featured the article, but I think it was Mother Earth News.) There weren’t many sources for ‘King Harry’, but Wood Prairie Farm was one of them.

One quick look online (www.woodprairie.com) and we were hooked. Wood Prairie Farm is definitely our kind of place—small and passionate about what they’re doing and offering. For those who’d rather cook than garden, they offer an incredible selection of gourmet organic potato varieties, special types of organic wheat, spelt, corn, rye, and oats, numerous healthful bread and pancake mixes, organic sprouting seeds and equipment, organic cheeses from Neighborly Farms in Vermont, organic nuts, organic dried fruits, Maine maple syrup, and much, much more. For those who, like me and our friend Ben, love to garden and cook, they offer organic wheat and oat seed, carefully chosen organic veggie and herb seeds, certified organic seed potatoes, organic supplies, and on and on. Their colorful, personable catalogue offers descriptions, recipes, tips, and lots of hard-won, first-hand experience, and should be on every gardener’s shelf.  You even get $5 off your first order! Thank you, Jim and Megan Gerritsen.

As you might imagine, our friend Ben and I didn’t leave our Wood Prairie adventure empty-handed. In addition to ‘King Harry’, we purchased seed potatoes (despite its name, this is not actual potato seed, but small potatoes that you cut up to plant, leaving several sprouts or “eyes” on each piece, or plant whole) of ‘RoseGold’, ‘Rose Finn Apple Fingerling’, and ‘Russian Banana Fingerling’ as part of Wood Prairie’s “Experimenter’s Special.” And we couldn’t resist their “Organic Potato Blossom Festival” pack, with “exceptional blossom beauty and fragrance.” It includes ‘Red Cloud’, ‘Carola’, ‘Cranberry Red’, ‘All-Blue’, ‘Onaway’, and ‘Butte’ seed potatoes, enough, according to the catalog, to plant a 4-by-4-foot bed. 

We also succumbed to some of the more unusual veggie seeds—‘Latah’ tomato, Wild Garden Mix fall and winter salad, ‘Cardinale’ lettuce, ‘Plum Purple’ radish, ‘Yukon Chief’ corn, and ‘Cosmic Red’ hot peppers. Wood Prairie sent the (beautiful) seed packs promptly, and will send us our seed potatoes when it’s time to plant them in our Zone 6 garden. We’re like two kids at Christmas waiting for the box to arrive!

Potatoes played a starring role in our recent vacation in North Carolina, too. We were staying with family, and the octogenarian patriarch is the family chef. He’s always a bit bemused by my vegetarianism, but gamely tries to come up with veggie-friendly recipes when I’m down there. This time, he struck gold with a main-dish potato salad. Mind you, our friend Ben and I are generally not fans of potato salad. Why eat a cold, mayonnaise-laden conglomeration of potentially bacteria-laden (and definitely calorie-laden) glop when you could eat luscious hot potatoes?

However. This particular potato salad would make a convert of anyone. It’s not only not gooey and gloppy, it has a special character thanks to using russet (aka baking) potatoes instead of the waxy-textured potatoes that are staples of potato salad. Think baking potatoes would make a gross, crumbly potato salad? I did, too. But it simply ain’t so. This salad is so good it flew off the table—even in March, not traditional potato-salad season—and into the mouths of friends and relations who kept trying to discreetly leave the table but made themselves conspicuous by returning with mountainous platters of second and third helpings. (What little was left of the enormous amount Mr. Hays had made mysteriously disappeared during the night, much to everyone’s chagrin. The culprit failed to come forward, but I have my suspicions. Are you reading this, Ben?!)

Of course, I begged for the recipe. Mind you, when I make it, I think I’ll try some hot just for the hell of it—I really do love hot potatoes. But trust me, it’s just fabulous cold. Served with a simple side salad of beautiful lettuces—maybe with arugula, scallions, sliced almonds, and orange segments in a light balsamic vinaigrette—and a dry Riesling, you have a perfect meal. So without more ado, here’s the recipe. Enjoy it!

Mr. Hays’s “Baked Potato” Salad

3 pounds russet potatoes

1/4 cup cider vinegar

2 T chopped parsley leaves

1 t salt, or to taste

1/2 t fresh-ground pepper, or to taste

1 cup chopped celery

4 large eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and chopped

1 cup diced red bell pepper

1 cup diced sweet onion (Walla Walla, Vidalia, or red Spanish type)

1/4 cup each diced sweet and dill pickles

3/4 cup mayonnaise

Cook the potatoes 25 to 30 minutes in boiling water, until easily pierced with a fork. Drain potatoes and remove skins by rubbing them off with a paper towel while still warm. (Note from Silence: If using a thin-skinned potato like ‘Yukon Gold’, I’d try this with the skins on.) Cut the potatoes into 1-inch pieces and toss with the cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and parsley. Stir in the celery, red bell pepper, pickles, and onion. Fold in the eggs and mayonnaise. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight. Serves 10. (Note from Silence: Yeah, right! Serves 5 is more like it, especially once everyone’s had a taste.)