Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bringing The Garden Inside

It's a bad time for many of my friends right now.  Some have lost jobs and are worried about the future, some are suffering from horrible diseases and can't get treatment, some have lost lifelong friends and close family members.  Even The Poppit is unhappy, as grey, wet, cold days follow more grey wet cold days, leaving her gazing longingly at the sliding glass door.

An unhappy Poppit

  So, to avoid slipping into my own gnarly depression this fall and winter, I gave in to my craving for Nature's beauty to keep my center and expand my focus. 

In September and October, clippers in hand, I ravaged my beautiful summer pots filled with fuchsias, kalanchoe and coleus for cuttings.  I prowled the garden sections of The ReStore for small pots and The Salvation Army for tiny glass vases.  With virtuous glee, I  realized that recycling Trader Joe's Kalamata Olives and Ginger Chutney Jars to hold cuttings made perfect sense, and filled all the vases and jars with a plant yummy mixture of water and compost tea.

And today, December 7th, my garden lives again:

Even my five year old kalanchoe, outraged by being left out too long in the cold and then mercilessly buzz cut, has produced a flower.

My blooming flowers do not change what I know about friends and family.  They are like the New Testament's lilies:

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin:
and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory
                  was not arrayed like one of these."                                                
And just to see this array in my kitchen and around the house inspires me and leaves me smiling with fondness at my niece's annual contribution to our table.
Beauty doesn't need recognition to be beautiful.  But I need to recognize beauty to keep me keyed to all of life.  Hence, the cuttings , the pots of fragrant herbs, and my four beautiful fur babies.
May you find comfort in the beauty around you during this holiday season!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thankful for "I Can"

Tiny Tim demonstrating his idea of a perfect holiday

How were your Thanksgiving holidays?  Did you travel, or did you have visitors?  Or did you curl up at home for quiet, happy days inside and out?

We were headed towards a joyous holiday with my sister and her friend, staying over two nights and leaving our great neighbor Dorcie in charge of feeding The Poppit, N'yala Kate Garbo, and of course, Tiny Tim.  With that important detail covered, we piled enough stuff in the car for two weeks, let alone two days (can you tell we are infrequent travelers?). Along with clothes, camera, gifts and knitting, I had made unbaked cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls, ready for Thursday's feast:

What the well-packed Taurus trunk looks like
And what Thanksgiving feast would be complete without homemade Cranberry, Pear and Orange Relish?

Also known as Powerful Women Relish
Anyway, this holiday proved to be full of love, rich with meaning, and included three days of eating wonderful food prepared by everyone during non-stop conversation and reconnection.

And as older people are want to do, I drove home thinking about other Thanksgivings, other lifetimes, feeling pretty overwhelmed with gratitude:

For the love of a good man
For an amazing family and extended family
For the gift of good health my family enjoys
For good people as our good neighbors
For the good people who honor us with their friendship
For the amazing grace, love and personality each of our cats possess and share

For learning how to grow food from the garden, being able to give to friends and family healthy food and contribute to the Food Bank
to bake delicious bread from scratch,

yada, yada, yada

This is not an ode to my innate wonderfulness or capacity to write long and sappily.  Far from it, because this year, I have been privileged to meet an amazing group of people whose daily courage, honesty, love and compassion inspire me to keep going, keep trying, and keep understanding what is really important in life.

Team Inspire

This amazing website is a clearinghouse of on-line support groups for chronic illnesses, health and behavioral health, too.  People from around the world join for free, choose the support group(s) that meet their needs, and start reading and writing posts and journals.  Since I live very successfully with chronic depression now, and gave a lot of time to my local National Alliance on Mental Illness, I started with

Mental Health America

Quickly, I saw that an on-line support group was the 21st century bomb.  You didn't need to get dressed, put on make up (or not, then feel bad that you were too depressed to put make up on), warm up the car, or any of the reasons people give for not going to something that generally feels good if you do it.  The support group wasn't a specific time--it was all the time, whenever you needed it or you thought an Inspire friend could use some company.  And the people, oh my goodness, how incredible these strong, smart, funny, tender, seasoned, vulnerable, acerbic, likeable, compassionate, heartworn, brave, brave, brave people are!

They are old and young, men, women, people from this continent and at least two others, and from every walk of life.   Being in their company, walking in their shoes, humbles me and unlocks more room in my heart.  Because of Team Inspire and my friends there, my motto and credo has become "I Can."  I can for me and I will "I can" for my Inspire friends and the people I love and care for.

And that's a promise.

Don't forget to have a sane holiday season, one that focuses on making memories with people you care about, not getting the best deal.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

From The Kitchen The Staff of Life

As promised, wind gusts arrived in Tiny Tim's Garden, swirling the leaves like wild rice circling the strainer.  Emulating fireworks and comets fallen to earth, they lie, defiantly brilliant against grey, blowing days.

Every day, the garden unfolds new color combinations, pinning me to Bruce's custom garden window for long incredulous minutes.  Inside my head, I hear a song:  "I got sunshine, on a cloudy day."

Oh, yeah, I got sunshine, all right, and an unfathomable Landscape Artist outside my kitchen window.  Turning back to Beanie's Baking Cart, I consider my latest contribution to art.

Some people may say this looks like cement.   Others, probably from nice San Fernando Valley suburban elementary schools like me, may recognize the paste we used to create fantastic paper mache pinatas.  Others may think I can't cook oatmeal.

What I'm learning to do is to create an exceptional artisan loaf of "God, this is the best bread I ever had!"  sour dough bread.  

Which brings us to Lucille Halop, my indomitable, mostly wise Nana, who, though Russian was her first language, rattled off English nursery rhymes and aphorisms, such as, "Bread is the staff of life."  The kitchen was her home's epicenter, and since she cooked "by hand" her fabulous food was redolent with fresh vegetables, lovingly hand cut, and kosher meats and chicken braised to melting tenderness.  And if you were her grandchild, you were inevitably treated to the most fresh, delicious breads and bagels, smeared with ...wait for it ...sweet cream butter.

In the San Fernando Valley, there were as many good Jewish bakeries then as there are Subways now, so kids in the 50's and 60's knew good bread:  challah and poppy seed and rye (dark, light) and pumpernickel.  And if they were lucky, like me, to have family in San Francisco, then they learned to love hot fresh, sourdoughs and baguettes.

Skipping up to the present day, there is very good bread where I live.  Two companies in particular, have spectacular bread:  Avenue Bread and Bread Farm.  I've bought and enjoyed bread from both companies, and believe we should support our local businesses.  My budget with one of us not working full-time dictates that given a choice, we should eat well and yet stay fiscally sound.  Thus began my personal search for my own "Staff of Life"

Gerta's Incredible Cinnamon Rolls (thanks for the great lesson, Wing Commander)

Not Sour Dough, but a gorgeous King Arthur Flour Recipe
In the last two months, I've tried and tried to make a good crusty rustic Italian bread, learning to put a metal pan in the oven to preheat.  Once the oven comes to temperature, you put in your bread and then pour two cups of boiling water into the metal pan set below your bread rack.   The results were and are amazing, much more important than an eggwhite or water and cornstarch wash.

But always at my back of my mind was the Ultimate Sour Dough Artisan "God, This is SOOOOO Good" challenge, and that kind of curiosity cannot be squelched down into normal life forever.  So, I combined ingredients and started a sour dough starter on November 7th, and Sunday, November 13th, I put it in its new ceramic crock, covered it lightly with saran wrap, and put it in the fridge.  With great aplomb, I removed it from the fridge the next day, combined a cup of starter with bread ingredients and delivered very tasty sour dough flat bread snowboards to Bruce for dinner. I'm not kidding, you could wax them and take them to Mt. Baker this Friday!

Again, they were pretty tasty and the steamer pan helped.  But, like Jack Nicholson says after kissing Helen Hunt in "As Good As it Gets:'  "I KNOW I can do better than that!"  So, Monday night I take out the crock of starter again, giving it 18 hours to come to room temperature. On Tuesday around 3:00, new recipe in hand, I mix flour, water, a little yeast and salt with the starter, cover it, and put it and the starter back in the fridge.

This morning, I take the bowl out, wince at what I see, cover it again and leave it on the counter.  Three hours later I stare at this creature again:

Now, I will have to touch it, flour it, encourage it with kneading and soft words, oil another bowl and place this . . . thing in it.  It grows, and I make certain arrangements with the oven, cookware, cornmeal and pot holders.  The treasures are bestowed into the oven, time passes, and this is the final result.

Chock that one off the bucket list--God, that was so GOOD!  Nana, I can make the staff of life!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Falling for Fall

I need a support group.  To date, my fabulous new Panasonic Lumix and I have taken over 200 pictures in a week.  How could we not?  Fall is intoxicating, full of surprises peeping out between branches, shouting along streams, and overwhelming me with wonder overhead.

Fall actualizes Carrie Newcomer's song, "Holy as the Day is Spent" where she sings, 

I’m letting go of all I fear
Like autumn leaves of earth and air
For summer came and summer went
As holy as a day is spent

For me, holy is time spent recognizing and living in fall's beauty.  It's bittersweet now, definitely not the excitement I felt as a girl, when fall meant Halloween, or the anticipation of two months full of holidays when I lived in Nevada as an adult.

Now, my experience of fall includes appreciation of neighbor's landscaping:

cold nights, warm homes, and cooking "comfort food" for Bruce and me.

Speaking of comfort food, I wandered around the wonderful huge sporting goods store yesterday.  Their downstairs area, far away from rifles, camouflage clothing and snowboards, is completely given over to toys and fabulous kitchen items.  What fun it was to wander past scrapers and spatulas in lovely colors and sizes, past cookie cutters, timers, honey drippers, to be "bowled over" by bowls that have a pour spout, to giggle at the ceramic toucan's beak open wide for a scrubbie pad.

And then, I saw the sun:

This gorgeous sun is actually a tortilla warmer!  Put your tortillas of any size or composition inside the sun (the lining is food grade safe) and put it in the microwave for 45 seconds.   Presto!  Warm and soft tortillas that stay that way for an hour.  Naturally, we had to have carnitas last night, and the tortillas were amazing, especially because they weren't fried.   Note to family and friends:  do not be surprised if you receive one over the holidays--this is a keeper, and I tell you it's washable??

I'm going to try canning some of Dorcie's pears in a chutney this afternoon.  There's a big storm going to hit our corner of the Pacific Northwest over the next couple of days.  Leaves will fly through the air like comets, and glorious fall will transition to early winter's grays and browns.  I don't really mind my photo addiction because it helps extend my memory, where every leaf is an act of courage and beauty.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Disappearence of a Feathered Friend

The Big Red

Yesterday, my wonderful neighbor Dorcie came by for an impromptu gift swap; my freshly baked cinnamon rolls for pears from her tree.

"I don't think I told you the news," she said.  "Four of the chickens didn't come back to the coop two nights ago, and one was the big red."

We looked at each other, making the sad face and noises friends do when there's trouble.  Dorcie and Todd are two years into keeping hens, and have been wonderful, conscientious guardians of their flock.  Todd, a building designer by trade and a skilled carpenter, had built a practical, spacious, lovely hen house that accommodates a hen's every need, and every chicken farmer's need, too.  Both Dorcie and Todd studied chicken lore and keeping, and spent time talking to people who had kept chickens .  Even before their first chicks came home in spring, 2010, they warned us to "never name a chicken--it gets too hard."

But from the very beginning, there was something about the big red.  Dorcie and Todd let all of us hold and cuddle their six fluffy, Easter basket cute chicks, but the big red actually seemed to enjoy not only being held, but having her neck and back scratched.  When she was about six months old, just prior to laying, Dorcie called me over to where she stood surrounded by pecking, burbling almost hens.

"Watch this," she said, and bending down, spread her hand over the big red's back.  And the chicken actually stopped and squatted down, allowing anyone who knew her to stroke her, and pick her up.  Who knew that a chicken would do that, knowing that touch felt good, and her humans would never hurt her?  I was hooked.

Over the last two years, I've petted the big red many times, and held her soft, plump warm featheriness.  Each time, I would think how special this was, how unique.   This bird was choosing to transcend normal chicken behaviors out of kindness, understanding, and mutual delight.  

In Dorcie and Todd's flock, she was also the bellwhether:  the first to rush up to a visitor, the first to push to the front of the flock for scratch, bread, corncobs, and God help me, worms I dug out from my composter as a special treat for her and the other "girls."  She was also the first to peck at my green garden clogs, sure there must be something edible there.  She also talked incessantly; if I was on the other side of the fence in my garden, she would be the first to poke her head through the fence slats, looking for a handout of crocosmia leaves, old Swiss chard, or just a little companionship.

Since we live on top of a creek where there are daily sightings of raccoons, and coyote have been known to take down deer near our tiny woods, none of us believe in forever pets and animals--that's just not realistic.  And so the news of the big red's disappearance is very sad, because this uber chicken taught us wonder, respect and love. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fall in the garden

It has been awhile, and many things have happened in Tiny Tim's Garden.  We have harvested tomatoes, Swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, beans, carrots, potatoes, summer squash, zucchini, broccoli, kombucha squash, herbs and green onions, as Timmy and the other kitties played hide and pounce.

We also learned about friendship, family, love and boundaries.  We harvested what we sowed; where we planted dependence and practiced enabling, we pulled up ugly, painful weeds that we couldn't keep in our loving family garden.  We thought we had planted support around the people we loved, but the truth is that they need their to grow their own gardens.  Tears sometimes watered our plants this year, but in the end, we have much healthier plants.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Marching On

March is a miracle in the garden.  Wet frozen earth covered with brown, lifeless leaves and twigs, eventually give way to joyous signs of spring.

My forgiving hellebore, now established in her third site in the garden

My wonderful sister's fall pansies perking up

Happy that the cold wet days are gone, neighbors emerge with big smiles and arms full:

My great neighbor Dorcie with one of her "Girls"
And Dorcie's fine husband Todd, who designed and built "The Girls'" sumptous henhouse
And even Tiny Tim is emerging from his newly found hiding place to frolic in the pale sunlight:

In Tiny Tim's Garden, however, March is all about digging, pulling, pruning, wheelbarrowing, dumping, raking and getting back in touch with our bit of Nature.  This happens to be our 18th spring in our house.  For both of us, we treasure the fact that we've both lived here longer than anywhere else in our lives.  We are grateful for the opportunities, friends, and family members that have kept us here, something I know is not always economically or emotionally feasible in the 21st. century.  Living here in Bellingham, WA, we honestly appreciate the beautiful landscape around us, our town's great energy, and yes, even the damp, rainy weather!

In Bellingham, I've learned that a few raindrops mean chickweed, white prairie clover (I know, it's good for fixing nitrate, but . . . ), wild carrot, wild forgetmenot, wild rose campion, wild sorrel and that %!^$# crocosmia are actually easier to pull out when the ground is wet.  What a blessing--and much easier with appropriate gear like my great yellow "Paddington Bear" rain hat, silk long johns (feels great on the skin) under jeans and my always slightly soppy, very dirty celery green gloves, bless their hearts.  

This year, I hurried (for me) to weed the front bed facing the street and our driveway.  For the third year, Bruce and I, our neighbors, Dorcie, and James on the other side, agreed on our annual joint purchase of mushroom compost and "other stuff" to save the cost of delivery.  We are all drifting happily towards sustainable gardening, creating an edible landscape without giving up the flowers we adore.  Dorcie and I don't have lawns at all, and each summer, James digs up more grass:  to create a beautiful rhodie garden, a little creek and pond, and an arc of blueberry bushes. Dorcie laid out a very orderly, well-nourished vegetable garden and also has a gorgous cutting garden and pond.

In any case, this year we ordered 7 yards of the m.c.+:  4 yards for us, 2 for Dorcie and Todd, and 1 yard for James, to be delivered to the spot between Dorcie and me near the mailboxes.  Ladies and Gentlemen, may I now introduce you to:

Mt. Doom!! (and a few weeds)
Yessiree, the gardening aficionados absolutely believe in amending our rocky, somewhat clay-ey soil annually, and look forward to the day we get to dig in, shovel, dump and rake in the amendment.  It keeps the soil light and fluffy, adds nutrients our fast-growing herbs, veggies, berries and flowers will need to be their best.  It's even going to help prevent weeds.

I'm also going to use it to start a new design in the front bed, suggested by my friend, Jaime:  send out rows from the apple tree, like the rays from the sun.  So, on Saturday and Sunday, I won the battle of Mt. Doom:

North view of the new beds

South View
and of course, the kitties just loved coming by and supervising.  That, in turn, sent our lovely staff photographer, Miss R., out of her swing and running for the camera.
Tiny Tim is getting so big!
She also thought that Dorcie's crocuses were just beautiful:

They absolutely are! 

Hope everyone is enjoying daylight savings and the chance to breathe spring air!
Happy First Day of Spring!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Meet Tiny Tim and Our Staff Photographer, Miss R.

Meet Tiny Tim!

I'd also like you to meet my very smart nine year old friend, Ms. R, who has graciously offered to take pictures of Tiny Tim, the 5 other garden kitties (N'yala, The Poppit, Toothless, Boo and Scout), and the the garden as it grows.  Today, Ms. R. has agreed to a short interview about Tiny Tim, the other kitties and the garden.

Q.  Tell everyone about Tiny Tim

A.  Tiny Tim likes to play alot with me and the other cats, especially the boys, Boo and Scout.  He's a happy little cat since he's less than six months old and pretty small.  He is growing as fast as the garden!

Q.  Can we see the pictures you took of Tiny Tim and the other kitties yesterday?

A.  Sure:  here they are:

Here's Toothless on the deck.  She was a tiny kitten last year, but not now!

This is The Poppit Child.  She's going to be nine, so I'm older than she is!

Benita just started letting Tiny Tim, Boo and Scout outside.  They like playing and investigating everything!

For example, Tiny had never seen tomato cages, so he had to investigate.

Boo is checking out the porch swing.  I like to swing in it, too.

This is Scout.  He always looks a little worried, but he loves to play with the other kitties, except ...

N'yala Kate Garbo.  She is beautiful, but she definitely is not a "play girl," especially with the boys.

Q.  You're a very good photographer, Miss R.  How do you know how to take a good picture?

A.  The digital camera I use has a button that I can push so you can see what you're photographing even bigger.  It gives you a better view of what you're taking a picture of.

Q.  How hard is it to take pictures of cats?

A. I think it is kind of hard because the cats like to move around, and they don't like the flash when you take the picture.   So they can run off just when you're going to take the picture.  You have to sneak up on them.  That's why that bigger screen helps you see whether they're running away or not.  It's very easy to take pictures of them when they're asleep, like N'yala, or these pictures.
Can you tell that Scout and Boo are brothers?

The boys love to "play" with the fish (note:  the fish don't like it so much

Q.  Miss R, thank you for taking these great pictures.  I hope you'll take more pictues of the cats and the garden this year.

A.  I will take more pictues this year for you.

Q.  You are pretty wonderful and I love you!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

First Saturday in March: Starting seeds

If you're a gardener, a newbie or a gardening diva like the ladies at Garden Rant or Margaret at A Way to Garden, don't deny yourself the pleasure and reduced costs of seed starting.  Once you start, it becomes highly addictive and extremely annoying to your family, friends, and co-workers.  They will view you, a formerly sane, friendly and interesting person, much like my adorable 9 year old friend Rory with her first musical instrument.  Just as she can't stop proudly demonstrating how to "play" her recorder, I can't stop talking about choosing the seeds, planting the seeds, and sharing how the germination process is going to anyone who doesn't care.

The thing about starting seeds is that it's so amazingly easy that anyone in any space can start seeds successfully.  All you need is:

  • sterile potting mix (try one from your local independent nursery--you'll get all kinds of local appropriate advice and meet nice people),
  • water
  • plastic kitchen  film
  • great seeds (see my next post)
  • styrofoam cups
Gasp.  What am I thinking?  STYROFOAM?  Among the world's least sustainable products?  The new cup de jour of the Republican majority in Congress that is also intent on gutting the EPA?

To be honest, my goal is re-use:  I will use these seed cups for at least a decade, and consider them an investment.  I also am trying to watch costs since I got laid off from my well-paid, benefits-filled job as an HR Director.  My new gig is part-time, no benefits, half my old salary--and I love it.  Life is good.

Back to the job at hand. In March, you can start geminating tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and the "cool weather" vegetables like cabbage, spinach, peas, chard, and lettuce., a fabulous resource for germinating hardy seedlings, has great information on what to start when.  The process I'm going to show you is adapted from this website.

Get your ingredients together (note how blogging is fueled by freshly ground French Roast) :

Make a drainage hole in the suspect cup:

Add enough water to the seed starting mixture so that it's very moist:

Plant your seeds:

Cover with film, secure with rubber band, and label with seed type and date:

Admire handsome assistants:
(Tiny Tim is in the foreground and Mr. Boo sits behind him)

Place your "cup o' seeds" in a warm, well-lighted room.  You'll notice that the film is beading up with moisture-a good sign that your cup is now a greenhouse.

I find that seeds actually germinate earlier, using this method, so do check the cups often.  After they germinate, pull off the film and water gently but thoroughly, adding a tiny bit of diluted compost tea or liquid plant fertilizer to add nutrients.

It's just that easy, and you will savor the pleasure as the tiny seedlings pop up.   By the way, you can start annual and perennial flowers this way.  Imagine not investing huge amounts in flowers for your borders, pots and hanging baskets, and getting exactly the colors and species you want.

Happy planting:  next time, another way to start seeds and why ordering seeds can be worth the carbon footprint.