Ready, Set, Grow!

I don’t know if my seeds are as anxious as I am to start the growing season, but I sense that they are. After all, sitting in a freezer for months could test the patience of even a dormant seed – there must be a tiny hope of growth within. Then again, reading this verse from Rumi gave me another thought:

“Again our green-gowned ones have gaily arrived from beyond the world swift as the wind, drunken and stalking and joyous.”  (From the poem What the Flowers  Said)

Maybe they haven’t been locked in the chamber of the seed coat after all – maybe their spirits slipped out  through the tiniest of passages, learning the lessons of joyousness the whole time. And now, water and warmth calls them back. Whatever the mystery of their travels, I’m looking forward to some drunken, stalking, joyous new sprouts.

The most drunken new plants are definitely the young tomatoes. I tried to select varieties that are beautiful and practical. This is my lineup for 2010:

1. Pruden’s Purple – a great grower last year with a rich taste

2. Sungold – fantastic taste in an orange cherry tomato

3. Black Cherry – a new trial for a red cherry tomato

4. Green Zebra – curiosity took over for this new try

5. Striped Cavern – more curiosity

6. Principe Borghese – Italian! Its got to be good!

I also start peppers in late March. We don’t eat that many, but I grow them anyway, in the event that I suddenly find lots of fantastic recipes. The garden is hard pressed to outdo peppers for sheer beauty and ease of growth. Here’s the pepper list:

1. Joe’s Long Cayenne – for drying and making flakes

2. Round of Hungary – pimento type – we love them fresh

3. NuMex Joe E. Parker – thick skin slips off easily after roasting, freezes well

4. Lantern – very hot, saved seed from last years crop

5. Ancho Poblano – great rich flavor when dried

6. Red Cherry – new to me – sweet, small, round, red (they say)

I’m also planting my standby eggplant, Orient Express hybrid. I’ve learned not to stray too far afield with eggplant in Michigan. This one is very reliable.

Hollyhock flower seeds are going in too. They seemed good in January. And lemon grass -for tea maybe – an experiment.

All these seeds are started in small 4 or 6 pack trays filled with a potting soil I make consisting of 1/3 spaghnum peat (moistened), 1/3 compost, and 1/3 expanded shale (like coarse sand). Perlite could be used instead of the expanded shale. (More about expanded shale later.) I toss in nutrients from the assortment I keep on hand:  alfalfa meal, greensand, kelp, a 9-6-0 bonemeal put out by Miracle Gro (Organic Choice), and guano if I’m lucky. I add a little dolomite lime/gypsum combination for calcium. I like the fact that gypsum has sulphur.

I am planning to get all these seeds planted before we leave for Houston on Thursday (thru next Tuesday). They, along with our four cats will be Home Alone.  I’m hoping most of the seeds will be up by the time we get back.  I like the thought of things happening while I’m gone – like making money while you sleep – but I’d rather make plants…….

Still There, Leeks

Leeks on display

When all of our snow melted, thanks to several days of warm rain, I noticed the small bed of leeks was still there.  Not quite the way they were, tall and perfect, still carrying memories of growth and fearlessness, but now bent and remembering snow.

I thought I’d dig some up to see how the edible underground white part looked and lay them out in a simple arrangement to make up for the winter they had just been through. The subterranean roots looked fresh and white and crisp, suitable for a potato leek soup or any other leek recipe. There is an unusual Leek “Noodles” with Creme Fraiche and Hazelnut Oil recipe on the Splendid Table site I think  I’ll try. Only the hazelnut oil sounds hard to find.

I am always amazed at the ability of leeks to survive our winters. With only a straw mulch and our usual snow cover, they always emerge victorious in spring. Maybe it’s because leeks are one of the world’s most ancient vegetables. A 4,000 year old Babylonian tablet suggests using crushed leeks in a stew. Their strong life force also provides them with healing qualities. The mucilage they contain provides a soothing coating for the throat, helpful for public speaking. It’s also a Welsh emblem from the sixteenth century  and was highly regarded enough to be considered a cure for the common cold, a protection against wounds in battle, a means of foretelling the future, a protection from evil spirits – oh, and an ingredient in broth. And what better than a leek under a marriagable woman’s pillow to provide an apparition of her future husband? I say why not? Maybe there are few limits to what a leek can do.

I think I’ll go out and dig the rest of those leeks…..

                 Constancy

              Though it be broken-
                 broken again - its still there:
                     the moon on the water.

                    Choshu

Survival of the Onions

This a sampling of our onions and shallots which have been stored together in a small bushel basket all winter. The only place available to store them was on our basement cement floor which is at least a little cool. Most survived very well , onions being a very practical vegetable, dazzling only with taste and storability. I tried dangling one with green shoots in a glass vase, but it insisted on being practical only. It remained a green stalk, never destined for a spectacular flower, only interested in producing more seed in its down to earth way.

Of the three kinds I grew, only the flattened cipollini type called Gold Coin didn’t make it to March, going soft already in January. The two varieties which did endure were New York Early from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Rossa Di Milano from Seeds of Change. Both of these are non-hybrid and are listed as hard storage onions. They are especially to be congratulated since my storage conditions are so far from the ideal near freezing and 65-70% humidity that is recommended. Our conditions are closer to 60 degrees and 50% humidity.

But the blue ribbon for storage goes to the Matador hybrid shallots that I grew from seed, from Cook’s Garden (online store only for some reason). They are still perfectly hard and crisp – not one has gone soft or put out a shoot . They are the ones in the photo with no green shoots. At this rate, I expect another month or two of storage, but I now have room to put the rest in the refrigerator to improve their life extension. This leads me to my plan of growing more shallots this year – I’ll plant more Matador and add Johnny’s Ambition hybrid with red skin – which should be a colorful addition. If you have ever checked out the price per pound of shallots, especially organic, you will want to try growing and storing them. At my health store, they are over six dollars per pound! I also bought seeds for the onion Ailsa Craig Exhibition which is only for short term storage. Its virtue is that it is supposed to be sweet for fresh eating. And I love fresh onion on everything from salsa to salad to roll ups.

Onions may not be glamorous, but I could never leave them out of the garden…..

How Snow is Supposed to Melt

Snow is supposed to form delicate traceries juxtaposed with grass and pushed up tunnels leading the eye around and through new thought itineraries. Ragged disintegrating thoughts take on new shapes, colors and melodies. An hour later the brief instruction is gone, its pattern watering the grass with new warmth. This is spring: delicate, warm, and communicative. [continued below]

Snowbank

This is also spring – with a long memory of winter. The snow on the roof of our garage slipped and slid down the slope of the metal roof, first forming a dramatic overhang, then collapsing to the ground – ground that contains perennial roots waiting to grow. This narrow bed facing north houses a large clump of solomonseal, the lovely Japanese grass Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, a charming primrose, and a clematis companion to the ivy.

How much better if the snow had remained on the roof, evaporating when called upon, rather than forced to exit off its metal landing with a harsh thud. A green roof would have been beautiful, but even a shingled roof would have prevented our snow pack. If anyone wants to build an igloo, I have just the ingredient – I will likely be evaporating it with a shovel.

Since this week suddenly warmed up to the high forties, I ordered a few plants for the expansion of the fruit garden: 4 Triple Crown thornless blackberries and 2  Swenson Red grapes. They quickly arrived in two days from Edible Landscaping.  Since I have never grown grapes (deliberately) before, I am eying the book, The Grape Grower: A Guide To Organic Viticulture by Lon Rombough. I’m planning to put them between two fat clothesline poles; I’ll have to dodge them when I hang sheets……..

                Winter
          A mountain village:
              under the piled up snow
                  the sound of water.

My Curious Shrine

In the winter I am prone to pondering conundrums such as:  is it better to be curious or reverent toward nature? This perplexity came about after I happened upon an old dark brown cabinet at a local thrift shop. It was in dire need of sanding, painting, and other repair wizardry – where my husband gracefully steps in. But it was the perfect cabinet of curiosity for our kitchen. Since our kitchen was in desperate need of displaying the curious, I stepped up to the counter with my forty bucks. Soon I had plenty of time to ponder the curious as I plied sandpaper and brush.

Wintertime in Michigan  is very cold and it is sometimes only a little less so in our kitchen. Growing things such as sprouts, fermenting drinks like rejuvelac, or making the delicate crème fraiche , had proven impossible. Even ripening bananas was taking far too long. When recipe writers suggest “room temperature” they overlook my winter kitchen of 60-65 degrees. To  have a warm cabinet to hold such curiosities while they grew and fermented seemed ideal. Indonesian tempeh requires 88 degrees for its 24 hours of incubation – now another possibility. For in winter I still crave the absolute – freshly harvested crops of the tiny, the curious, the super quick growers:  sprouts, microbes, and fungi (rizopus oligosporus for tempeh).

Of course the old European cabinets of curiosity were much more –  well curious – tending toward the macabre. They featured the dead rather than the living:  butterflies pinned to fabric, skeletons of fish, frogs in jars. But they showed imagination and a fascination with life, even if their life was made inaccessible, near and distant at the same time.

One of my favorite life forms is the buckwheat sprout. It is what I pile into a bowl every morning along with shredded coconut, nuts, raisins, hemp seeds, and sometimes cacao nibs. With this “new” cabinet, outfitted with a 200 watt light bulb turning on and off, maintaining a 75-80 degree temperature, I can grow them to edible size in a day and a half, just like in high summer. And it seems the quick optimum growth makes them sweeter.

buckwheat cereal

Other objects also find this cabinet home:  more classic objects of curiosity such as a Japanese viewing stone or suiseki I found many years ago. But the Japanese created shrines for their objects rather than cabinets. Their Shinto shrines housed yorishiros  – objects which can attract kami or spirit –  such as stone. To them, all nature was charged with spiritual power, and special forms were used as heightened links to this higher nature.

This cabinet appears to be a hybrid, but I really prefer to select out the best from the ancient seed of Shinto animism, and create life.

            A Shinto Shrine

          A shrine:  here, keeping
            Far from the garden lights,
              Float wild birds, sleeping.

                              --Shiki

My Brain on Schizandra Berries

My brain off schizandra berries ignored my four schizandra vines. Would a resident boa constrictor help as an excuse? It seems many other life forms also admire schizandra habitat:  moist, half shady, lush, and well drained. I didn’t think I created a tropical rain forest here in lower Michigan, though I did see a neon green snake in the schizandra one day. It was several years with several below zero non tropical winters before I ventured back to that garden again. And what effects was schizandra supposed to have again? “This herb develops the primary energies of life…..generates vitality and radiant beauty when used regularly for some time. This herb is considered to be one of the premium mind tonics of herbalism. It is used to sharpen concentration, improve memory, and increase alertness. Yet, unlike caffeine-like stimulants….schizandra is mildly calming while producing wakefulness and improved focus.”  Ron Teeguarden from his book Radiant Health.

And there is much more.

But my brain off schizandra forgot all that, maybe even didn’t quite believe in what stood before me. The schizandra vines had lots of blossoms last spring. I covered them with floating fabric one night when frost hit. I believed a little. All summer, timely rains helped out my neglect till beautiful berries were visible in August. I had seen schizandra shrivel on the vine, but this year, they were gathered. Encroaching civilization must claim a few rewards. This January I remembered the bags of schizandra in the  freezer and brewed the tea I had made a few times before. It was powerful and overwhelming – not bad tasting, just in need of balance. I tried adding deeper tastes I had on hand, to tether the galloping, rollicking schizandra – cinnamon, ginger, hawthorn berries, and horsetail (mostly taste-free and for silica) – and emerged on the other side with a great tasting tea. I drank this once a day or threw a tablespoon of frozen berries into my morning shake. Even though each berry has a seed, my blender (Vitamix) made no mention of them.

At Home With Schizandra

100 Days………Ron Teeguarden:  “If used for one hundred days successively, schizandra is said to purify the blood, sharpen the mind, improve memory, rejuvenate the kidney energy, and cause the skin to become radiantly beautiful.” The halfway point was late February  when I was half awake at 11 PM and At Home With Friends with Joshua Bell, violinist, appeared on PBS. First Sting sang the Elizabethan song “Come Again” by the great John Dowland, then Kristin Chenoweth sang an incredible arrangement of “My Funny Valentine”, Carel Kraayenhof on the bandoneon (historic accordion) played the meditative tango, “Oblivion”, and Joshua Bell played with a dead Rachmaninoff on piano through the miracles of recording technology. I have a music background of flute and piano – but for over 30 years have heard music and not heard music, as if a wall were there keeping music from penetrating to the nucleii of my cells – the center where electrons dance with passing sparks. This hearing made it past that wall – and music revealed itself as music, not plodding notes. To be sure, immense credit goes to Joshua Bell – schizandra doesn’t dance with just any musician. But I had heard excellent musicians before, including Joshua Bell, my husband being a music enthusiast, with little reaction. Even the memory of this music is so vivid, it plays in my mind “in stereo” with such accuracy, it sometimes interferes with meditation attempts.

Now I scheme and plot to hear Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk (pianist) in person along with other music performers. Let’s hope I am not neglecting my garden chasing around classical stars all over this summer…..though wouldn’t there be a nursery on the way?  Thanks schizandra!

                     by  Rumi

                     All day and night, music,
                     a quiet, bright
                     reedsong. If it
                     fades, we fade.

This Spade is a Spade

I only say this because some spades, many of which I have used, are mere sticks with a hunk of brute metal loosely attached at one end. Loosely because you can feel the wiggle when you apply the slightest weight. Brute because there is no form, thought, or poetry in this working extension of one’s arm and hand.

I bought this Poacher’s Spade from the old Smith and Hawken (they are no longer in business) around 1988. Even then it was rather expensive, around $65, I think; but I believed gardening was both art and alchemy – creating gold (plants) from base metal (soil particles) with the highest forms and colors, and so worthy of a venerable tool. And this shovel has been venerable (that’s the only word I can think of to describe it), a constant companion for over 21 years, never far from my side. It is the perfect size for transplanting, with a long blade, dished like a scoop, the metal gently tapered at the tip. It has dug probably acres of quack grass and formed the perfect hole for a new azalea. Its “D” shaped wood handle is comfortable enough to lean on after a stint of digging and it extends down seamlessly to its metal attachment. It is of a piece. I have never felt the slightest movement in handle or blade, ever.

For its first portrait, I oiled it with linseed oil for the first time. It needed it a bit, after all these years, though the oil from my sweaty hands probably tided it over till now.  It was made by the old English company of Spear and Jackson, by hand. I believe they are still making garden tools the way they began making them in 1760. Not much later William Wordsworth wrote this poem about a spade, in 1804:

The very spade

TO THE SPADE OF A FRIEND_, (AN AGRICULTURIST.)
     Composed while we were labouring together
     in his Pleasure-Ground.

  Spade! with which Wilkinson hath till'd his Lands,
  And shap'd these pleasant walks by Emont's side,
  Thou art a tool of honour in my hands;
  I press thee through the yielding soil with pride.

  Rare Master has it been thy lot to know;
  Long hast Thou serv'd a Man to reason true;
  Whose life combines the best of high and low,
  The toiling many and the resting few;

  Health, quiet, meekness, ardour, hope secure,
  And industry of body and of mind;
  And elegant enjoyments, that are pure
  As Nature is; too pure to be refined.

  Here often hast Thou heard the Poet sing
  In concord with his River murmuring by;
  Or in some silent field, while timid Spring
  Is yet uncheer'd by other minstrelsy.

  Who shall inherit Thee when Death hath laid
  Low in the darksome Cell thine own dear Lord?
  That Man will have a trophy, humble, Spade!
  More noble than the noblest Warrior's sword.             

  If he be One that feels, with skill to part
  False praise from true, or greater from the less,
  Thee will he welcome to his hand and heart,
  Thou monument of peaceful happiness!

  With Thee he will not dread a toilsome day,
  His powerful Servant, his inspiring Mate!
  And, when thou art past service, worn away,
  Thee a surviving soul shall consecrate.

  His thrift thy uselessness will never scorn;
  An _Heir-loom_ in his cottage wilt thou be:--
  High will he hang thee up, and will adorn
 His rustic chimney with the last of Thee!