Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The city has nature too

I've been reading Wendell Berry's The Art of the Commonplace, which I picked up (okay, downloaded) because I figured you can't really call yourself an environmentalist or sustainability activist if you haven't read Wendell Berry. He has the most marvelous way of evoking the land that he loves, but as often happens with me with these paeans to wilderness and countryside, I've started getting that niggling, impatient little voice saying, "so what."

Eighty percentage of Americans live in large cities, "urbanized areas," or "urban clusters." While I am somewhat unusual in having urban roots going back 5 generations, I'll bet there are plenty whose closest relatives still on the farm were great-grandparents.

And yet we persist in lionizing the rural-- as though you cannot be, as the internet joke goes, a "rill Merkin" without a hick accent and a dirt road. We sigh over the president who clears brush to relax, and excoriate the one who learns Spanish, or puts in a garden at his urban home.

Cities are also a natural way to live. They are, as the language attests, what civilized us. There might be gold in them thar hills, but there's also nature in them thar backyards. In my own small patch, I've counted a dozen bird species, 9 different bees, 3 different wasps, 5 different worms, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, possums and, once, a coyote. As any urban gardener knows, green will grow from any crack. I take walks not just to people watch and window shop, but also to see what's growing-- in both gardens and cracks.

Wendell Berry's world is gone, if it ever existed. If we want to reconnect with the art of the commonplace, we don't need the Virginia mountains. It's right in our own backyards.

Stuffed roasted salmon
1 (2-pound) center-cut boneless, skinless salmon fillet
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup mayo
chopped fresh spinach
small onion, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil

ground sage, sea salt, green pepper, about 2 teaspoons

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Saute the onion in butter until it just starts to get transparent. Add the spinach and saute just about a minute, until it just starts to cook. Toss this with the mayo.

Butterfly salmon fillet through the centers and lay the pieces out so the gray underside is facing up; arrange on a clean work surface. Season with salt and pepper then spread fillet with the spinach/onion mixture. Gently fold over the salmon and place in a greased baking dish. Dribble with olive oil, then pat with the seasoning mixture (you can also use dill, thyme, oregano or any of your favorite savories).

Roast until just cooked through, about 20 minutes. Set aside to let rest for 5 minutes then carefully transfer to a serving platter, remove and discard twine and serve.

Serve with couscous or wild rice.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Rainy, muddy and happy

Is there any other way for a gardener to feel after a day of gardening?

Fantastic time at Peterson Garden today, selling plants, talking to gardeners and wearing my Master Gardener (trainee) hat. Okay, it was a Chicago Botanic Garden hat, actually. Planted a Three Sisters bed, communed with good gardening friends and got very wet and muddy since, as usual it started to rain.

Here's a nice chicken salad from leftovers:

Chicken Salad
1/2 chicken, roasted (in other words, leftovers)
4 hard boiled eggs, diced
pickles, to taste (sweet, kosher or dill)
2-3 small roasted potatoes (again, I used the leftovers from our chicken dinner)

1/2-2/3 cup seasoned mayo (depending on how goopy you like your chicken salad)

2 T ground rosemary
1 tsp black pepper
1-2T crushed or ground sea salt

Cut up and mix the chicken, eggs, potatoes and pickles. Mix the seasonings into the mayo, and then mix it all together. Serve on lettuce or in a sandwich. If it hadn't been so damned cold for the last 6 weeks, I'd have some lettuce in the garden right now.

I used my own homemade crushed rosemary, mayo and pickles, but I'll relent and let you use store-bought as long as it's local and organic.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday Tomato update

I'll be tracking all my tomatoes on Sundays through the summer.

I've grown the following tomatoes from, and have about 70 starts, 22 of which will go into my garden, 15-20 to various friends and community projects, and the remainder to the plant sale at Peterson Garden.

All plants were started March 20 from seed on grow mats. I used plastic shoeboxes with drainage holes drilled in the bottoms, and set with sterilized TP rolls filled with organic seed starting mix. All trays were covered with cellophane wrap until the seeds sprouted, then kept under grow lights until the first ones were set out on May 1. Lights are kept on for 16 hours per day, within 5" of the top of the sprouts, and a fan is kept blowing on them at all times. I used canister clamp lamps with 150 and 200 watt CFLs.

Growing projects:
Seed saving for Populuxe
Ferris Wheel
Unfortunately, of my 70 or so tomato starts, 9 lost their tags, among them the Blondkopfchens. The unknowns are going to the Peterson Garden plant sale to some adventurous gardener willing to buy an untagged tom! The Bramki are the sturdiest starts I've ever grown, and had a 100% germination rate as well. Ferris Wheels had only 30% germination, but are also very good looking starts.

Web community: One Heirloom Chicago
German Pink
This start was much smaller than I'd hoped (still on its cotyledons, no true leaves), so I put it back under grow lights, even though Green Home mentioned it was already hardened. It's now got its first set of leaves, but won't go out until it has at least four sets of leaves (my personal marker for "ready.")

Growing for me and Hipster Supported Agriculture:
San Marzano from saved seeds, original plant from Chicago Botanic Garden, 2010
I have 27 of these, and will plant 5 here. These yielded 70 fruits (you read that right) per plant last year, so this will be the backbone of my winter tomato preserving.

Black Krim from saved seeds, 8th generation, original plant from Gethsemane Garden, 2000. This was the first heirloom I ever planted as well as being the first seed I ever saved. Because I've been saving it from my own yard for nearly a decade, these have more or less adapted to a hyper-local condition and give me amazing yields (up to 12 fruits) from a single plant each season, very high for an heirloom not bred specifically for yield. Again, really nice, sturdy starts.

Goldman's Italian American from saved seeds, original plant from Chicago Botanic Garden, 2010. A fluted paste tomato, large, but small yield. However, I loved the flavor and look.

Unknown gold heirloom, from saved seeds, grown last year at Peterson Garden from a start by The Yarden. A beautiful deep gold, meaty, flavorful tomato. Wish I knew what kind it was!

Pictures of all of these on flickr.

This should probably be a tomato recipe, but I'm too tired to come up with one.

Chicken Salad
1/2 chicken, roasted (in other words, leftovers)
4 hard boiled eggs, diced
pickles, to taste (sweet, kosher or dill)
2-3 small roasted potatoes (again, I used the leftovers from our chicken dinner)

1/2-2/3 cup seasoned mayo (depending on how goopy you like your chicken salad)

2 T ground rosemary
1 tsp black pepper
1-2T crushed or ground sea salt

Cut up and mix the chicken, eggs, potatoes and pickles. Mix the seasonings into the mayo, and then mix it all together. Serve on lettuce or in a sandwich. If it hadn't been so damned cold for the last 6 weeks, I'd have some lettuce in the garden right now.

I used my own homemade crushed rosemary, mayo and pickles, but I'll relent and let you use store-bought as long as it's local and organic.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I'm hunting wabbits

I don't really like this blog to be a gardening blog; there are plenty of gardening blogs around, plus I like the web to be a friendly place, and man those gardeners get into it on line. Latest dust-up seems to be over whether accepting advertising and giving endorsements is equivalent to selling your soul to the devil. Do these people understand how the entire magazine publishing industry works?

I can't be pure anyway, as long as I'm harboring murderous thoughts regarding the local wildlife. Last year, they decimated my bean crop-- 200 baby plants down the gullet of rabbits. Part of the problem is that I love the way my garden looks-- it's all swoopy and artsy, and putting up chicken wire just destroys the aesthetic.

But this year I bit the bullet and put it up around the most vulnerable crops. Of course, you can't make it pretty very easily (because of the curves), and you don't want it too sturdy, because then the OTHER evil furfaces, namely the squirrels, climb over it. I think they view it as a challenge.

In the meantime, we're working our way down the 70 foot long cyclone fence on one side of the yard, and cinching hardware cloth to it-- 1/2" grid. Not even mice are getting through that puppy. We've got the bottom buried and garden-stapled into the ground so that they can't dig under it. Right now 3 of the 12 sections are done, and the rest of the fencing is tied temporarily the rest of the way, with some bricks and logs blocking the bottom. I have a temporary barrier at the sideyard that seems to be working. Daddy Wabbit can't get into the yard anymore, although I'm still seeing the baby.

Well, it isn't pretty, but I do seem to have peas this year.

In the meantime, the raccoons are unstoppable. For one thing, they're the size of small cows and they travel in packs. I'm not getting between them and their desire. One of the things they desire is our fish. We cover the lower pond, where the fish are, at night with corrugated plastic sheets, so they've taken to displaying their wrath by flinging the plants out of the upper pond, and last night also actually got INTO the pond and dug up a lotus-- took it right out of the pot. Then for good measure, they knocked over a bird bath, the malicious little bastards.

Maybe these guys can stop them:
Walnut-wheat crackers
1 1/3 cup wheat flour
3 T corn meal
1/3 cup finely ground walnuts
1 teaspoon sea salt (ground or whole, depending on personal preference)
1 teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons softened butter

1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup honey

walnut oil as needed

Combine the dry ingredients, cutting in the butter until it's completely mixed. Because of the butter and the walnut meal, this will be slightly damp and crumbly. Whisk the milk, sour cream, and honey together to form a little more than a cup of thick liquid. Slowly mix in the liquid to form a soft, but not sticky, dough.

Divide the dough into three to four portions and roll out one at a time, until paper thin. Some people recommend a pasta press, but I did it fine with a rolling pin. Keep turning the dough over, and lightly coating it with flour so it doesn't stick to the pin or the board.

Lightly brush the sheet with oil, then grind sea salt onto it. Using a sharp knife or pizza roller, cut the dough into 1" square crackers. You can do this directly on a parchment-lined cookie sheet or on a cutting board, and transfer the crackers to the sheet.

Bake at 300 for 20 to 25 minutes, until lightly browned and crisp. Allow to cool on the tray and then store in an air tight container for up to a week. This recipe made about 200 1" square crackers.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Growing for the community

I'm participating in three growing projects this year:
  • I'm saving 3 kinds of tomato seeds for the Populuxe seed bank- Bramki (a paste? hard to find info), Ferris Wheel (slicers) and Blondkopfchen (a golden cherry)
  • I'm growing chard with One Seed Chicago
  • I'm growing German Pink tomatoes for the One Heirloom Project
Populuxe Seed Bank
This is my second year growing seeds for Populuxe. This is serious seed saving, with isolation bags to make sure they don't get cross polinated. Last year I grew Roma VF, a tomato which I didn't really like very much, but Kelly has her seeds now!

This year's toms were started indoors on March 20, and they're looking gorgeous. The Bramki in particular are a marvelously sturdy, hardy seedling. They've been outside in cold boxes for about 2 weeks, through some very low nighttime temps, and are thriving. I have nine of these, so in addition to the 3 I'm planning to plant, I'll be donating a couple to a Plant a Row project, and to a homeschool group, as well as selling some at the Peterson Plant sale. It's impossible to find information on this tomato. Hilariously, nearly the entire first page of Google hits are either me or Populuxe.

The Ferris Wheels did not germinate as brilliantly as the Bramkis, but I have three strong seedlings. These are liking the cold less, even in the cold boxes, but are still healthy. All of these will go into my own garden.

The Blondkopchens were fine last I found them, but it was freezing cold and pouring rain when I looked for them in the cold box just now, so we'll have to take this on faith.

Find Populuxe on Twitter as @seed_bank and @xitomatl and on Facebook.

One Heirloom
A new project this year, modeled on the One Seed Chicago (itself modeled on One Book Chicago), I got involved in this through my friend Gina at My Skinny Garden (which was also the very first garden blog I ever followed--if you want to b̶l̶a̶m̶e̶ thank someone for all this crazy blogging I do, blame, um thank her). Green Home Experts is supplying everyone with inexpensive 4" seedlings; they'll go into the cold box next week. (I never plant out my toms until the first week of June, because you just never know in northern Illinois. Today, for instance, the low was 44°F/7C.)

One Seed Chicago
Kinda of the local granddaddy of growing projects, this is the brainchild of Neighbor Space and MrBrownThumb (you can blame him for the blogging too). My choice of eggplant didn't win, but I love chard too, so this will go in this week (since the rabbits ate all my early chard).
Find the project on Facebook, and on Twitter (@oneseedchicago), and join all of us on Mondays and Wednesdays on Twitter for #gardenchat and #seedchat.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bloom Day May

After a lovely warm start to the month, it's back in the 40s today. Thank goodness for flowers.

Check out all the Garden Bloggers Bloom Day posts over at May Dreams!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Toasting eggshells

This is going to have to be the title of my gardening memoir, as a metaphor for some of the crazy things I do. Not that I think they're crazy. My garden friend Jen knew exactly why I was toasting eggshells the other day. My husband, on the other hand, gave me one of those "there's probably a good reason for this that does not involve an adjustment to her medication" looks.

Anyway, in case you haven't figured it out I was toasting eggshells to dry them out, so that I could grind them fine and put them around my broccoli. Well, for heaven's sake, so the slugs will leave them alone!

Just looking around from where I'm sitting I see the following slightly odd bits of evidence that a gardener lives here:
• hot peppers soaking in oil (anti-rabbit spray)
• pop bottles cut in half (for wintersowing, duh)
• saved broken pieces of ceramic pots (plant labels)
• seed heads in the blender (It's pretty much all I use the blender for)
• frozen used coffee grounds
• cut up mini-blinds
• boxes of drier lint
This does not even begin to cover the things that anyone could figure out-- windowsills devoted to seedlings, grow lights clamped to every available location, bags full of unidentified green things in the freezer, piles of rocks on the porch to throw at the rabbits.

What do you have in your house that a non-gardener just wouldn't understand?

Blueberry thumbprint cookies

1 1/2 sticks butter, room temperature
1 (8 oz) pkg cream cheese, softened
1 c granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/3 c blueberry syrup
zest from 2 limes
3 c flour
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 salt

Whisk dry ingredients together, In another bowl cream butter and cream cheese until smooth. Gradually beat in sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Stir in juice and zest. Add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined (over mixing will make this dough tough). Cover and chill until dough is firm.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Roll into balls using about a tablespoon of dough for each. Place on cookie sheet. Make indent with thumb in center of each cookie and fill with blueberry jam. (Yes, make your own)

Bake 12 to 15 minutes or till edges are just turning a light golden brown.

I accidentally made these with 1 1/2 CUPS of butter. They're okay, but a little rich, and they don't have the buttery shortbread texture that makes these cookies so wonderful. Also, the blueberry syrup makes the dough a lovely blue, but it "bakes out" leaving the cookies slightly gray looking. I'm thinking food dye.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Early spring garden eating

This is the cruelest time of the year in the garden-- everything is really green, but nothing is big enough to eat yet.

Or is it?

Here's what I've got growing, that's large enough to harvest:

This celery-like perennial is already 18" tall and lush. I can get a couple of quarts of greens and tender stems from this per week, enough to add fresh greens to stir fry, stew or soup.

It's green, and small, but I've got 90 bulbs going, enough to sacrifice one every now and then to eat before it's mature enough to store.

Parsley and oregano
My perennial herbs can also be trimmed up to about a cup a week, again to use not just as a garnish, but as a green in soups, stir fries and stews

Reseeded spinach and lettuce
Let some of your spinach go to seed each year, and you'll get early tender shoots. Pull and eat the whole plant, and plant new at the same time.

Stuff I missed
Carrots, turnips, parsnips are coming up where I missed last year's harvest.

Wild forage
Green onions, lamb's quarters, sorrel are all mature enough to harvest.

Monday, May 2, 2011


I think weeding is probably the garden task I spend the least amount of time on.

For annuals and veggies, I always mark where I’ve put seeds. With large seeds like beans or squash I mark each seed individually, smaller seeds I mark out the area. Tiny seeds like lettuce and carrot are going to be immediately obvious as desirables because you’ll have tons of tiny identical seedlings, all the same size coming up at exactly the same time. The “weeds” in these squares, beds or rows are the ones that look different.

The thing with weeds is that they won’t grow where they aren’t welcome. In a mature vegetable garden, one that’s been weeded, planted and amended for years, you simply won’t have much of a problem with extraneous plants, because you’ll never have let the undesirables go to seed in these beds. In perennial/ornamental beds, your plants should provide enough ground coverage and shade that the opportunistic weeds will just have too much trouble grabbing hold. Even lawn will need only minimal weeding, without chemicals, if you properly aerate, mow and reseed.

If you are amending your soil and avoiding compaction, weeds are easy to remove, because you’re not fighting the texture. You can let them get large enough to ID (a few inches) and still have time to pull them before they either develop a monster taproot, or go to seed. I have accidentally pulled plants that I thought were weeds, later realizing that they were cultivars, but you know what? No biggie, shit happens. You’re unlikely to accidentally pull something really mature, because first, you’ll remember it, and second, it’ll look big and important so you’re unlikely to pull it without thinking twice.

Not all weeds are undesirable, just as not all cultivars are good. I happily let the wild onions go crazy, and the lambs quarters, but I’d give anything to be able to get rid of the ground phlox, Queen Annes Lace and Knotweed that some idiot planted in our neighborhood on purpose.

Lemon-lavender syrup
3 lemons
1/4 cup dried lavendar flowers
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar

Ream the lemons-- get as much of the juice and pulp as you can-- into a small sauce pan. Dump everything else in there too and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to a simmer, and reduce to 2 cups, about 10-15 minutes.