Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End of the Hoophouse and the Garden

We took the hoophouse down today. Heavy snows coupled with high winds wreaked absolute havoc. The plastic ripped in a number of places along the sides, the doors tore off the ends, and the pipe forming the ridge pole snapped leaving a jagged end flailing about the interior of the remains. The makeshift cold frame we created inside collapsed as well in the wind, rain and snow.

Miraculously, the kale from the summer carries on despite all, and even some of the little sproutings from the fall remain standing and brilliantly green. Even some of the swiss chard wags a brilliant stem and leaf in a last glimmer of fresh, homegrown goodness. We'll be happily sharing them this evening with family and friends in for the holidays.

As unsurprising as this moment is, it is still a bit sad. I had hoped to eat from our garden until the day we left for Japan, and that my neighbor would share in the bounty of it after we had left. And in some ways that will still be true. Our larder, despite overflowing gift bags to family and friends in Michigan and Wisconsin, is still quite full. The pickled beets we enjoyed last night with our soup and salad were a delight, and I confess the jar in the refrigerator is still on my mind. As a friend once told me, that pop as you open the jar is one of the most satisfying sounds. I immediately harken back to the moment they were canned - the heat, the sun, the smell of the spicy brine, and sometimes even the field where they were picked - and relish the thought of their sweet and sour taste.

We will, of course, resurrect the hoophouse and cold frame when we return from Japan. The design will be tweaked for a stronger structure, and the use of plastic will be reviewed. We have been giving some thought to an A-frame. And the cold frame, at the very least, will not have cardboard sides. Both were a joy to us and made sense in many ways for how we wish to eat and therefore live. It has been a good learning experience.

This marks, as well, the near final farewell to the garden. Whatever kale we receive now is bonus material, and our primary focus will be on redoing the paths and priming the beds for a good rest. I see truckloads of manure in my future along with landscape cloth and newspapers. That, along with whatever agrarian and vegetable adventures I have in Japan are something to look forward to in the new year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More Hoophouse Blues

When it rains, it pours. Or in our case, it snows a ton.

Right on the hoophouse. Causing it to cave in.


And then temperatures drop to Arctic-like levels.

So, we've decided that the hoophouse is coming down after the holidays. It's been great, but the design is not ideal for snowy weather. It would be better if the the ridge pole along the center had supporting poles - two on either side of the center of the arch - to help keep it up during a snow. The doors need some refining as well, as do the clamps. The clamps are painful to work with, and it makes opening and closing the doors an unwelcome proposition. Under consideration for the next time around are hard sides with actual doors and actual windows at the top. The seal would be better and the overall integrity of the structure would also be improved.

On a happier note, the cold frame inside the hoophouse did well. (And it wasn't crushed in the collapsing!) This will carry on in future structures, but most likely with a more organized approach. I'd like more frames and not made out of cardboard at the last minute. There's no shame in such things, but it is still less than ideal.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sybil's Cabbage Soup

My friend Sybil bills herself as a science geek, but she's one of the best story tellers I've ever met and incredibly creative. She's brought more than one plant or tree to vivid life for me as we've walked in the woods or simply sat talking, and shared with me many a tale of her plant and garden adventures. Both she and her husband are terrific cooks - his focus is Lebanese and hers more traditional American and Polish with Lebanese influence - and a dinner invitation to their home is simply never declined.

We were at her house the other night, and she casually brought over a small cup of soup. "Oh, I just made this cabbage soup, and thought you might like to try it," she said in an off-hand manner. We took the cup and took our dutiful spoonfuls, and then fought over who got to eat the remainder. I don't even like cooked cabbage, for heaven's sake. This soup, though, is changing my mind.

A little zippy and full of seasonal foods it was hearty, warming, and heart-warming. And it tasted good the same day she made it from some leftover cabbage from cabbage rolls. (We didn't get any of those this time, but I'm hopeful for the next round.)

Sybil's Inspired Cabbage Soup
8 cups of cabbage, sliced up somewhat thinly
10 cups of water
2 teaspoons salt
3 bay leaves
3 medium carrots or 1.5 cups
1 medium onion
4 large cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 (or more) teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons dried mustard
1.5 (or more) teaspoons dried spearmint
2 cans Northern beans
3 shakes Tobasco

My adjustments based on current availability in my pantry:
- I used a leek instead of an onion.
- I used mustard seed instead of dried mustard.
- I cut open a bag of peppermint tea and used that instead of dried spearmint. Two very different flavors I now realize, and that minty flavor isn't floating by in each mouthful as it was in Sybil's original version.
- I used dry beans not canned.
- I shook out some chipotle in place of the Tobasco.
- I threw in a couple potatoes for extra fun.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rescuing the Swiss Chard

The Swiss Chard needed help. A little bit of frostbite turned parts of the stems brown and some of the leaves looked more than a little wilted. These now short plants still manage to push out some brilliant leaves that I gratefully harvest every so many days. But this situation could not last much longer.

We tackled the long talked of cold frame idea this past Saturday. We looked up a few different diagrams and plans, and settled on two possibilities. (There were tons more but these seemed the most helpful to us.) This cold frame description is helpful and describes what to watch out for and how a cold frame can be used. By far the simplest and most straight-forward explanation, this is the one we eventually decided to follow.

The Savvy Gardener offers a very nice description of cold frames and hot beds along with an assortment of building plans from the electric to the old window kind. I'd never heard the term hot bed before, but now I know that's what we were aiming for somewhat when we hauled in the horse manure. The site does a nice job explaining the wide variety of ways plants can be protected from the cold and how great a job each device does.

The cold frame is meant to go inside the hoophouse to add an additional layer of protection for the Swiss Chard. Eliot Coleman, author of The Four Season Harvest, inspired this idea. (His cold frames and hoophouses are near works of art, whereas ours are a bit more equivalent to cheap knock-offs of name brands. They may not last as long, but for now they get the job done.) By having a cold frame inside the hoophouse the growing season for things like swiss chard, parsley, and other semi-sensitive greens is extended in some cases right through the coldest weather.

We fashioned our cold frame from an old window a neighbor was throwing out, some old pipe insulation, and a cardboard box. We cut the cardboard to fit the window dimensions, angled the sides to drop and allow sunshine in, and used the insulation to offer a tighter seal between the window and the cardboard. We used cardboard because we were in a hurry, and we wanted a relatively safe test run before committing to wood. Plus, inside the hoophouse the cardboard won't break down very quickly at all.

We chose a spot where we could fit in the most Swiss Chard, and snuggled the frame into the dirt. I scooped in some of the horse manure to help seal the base further and offer a little additional warmth. The insulation went around the top, and the window went on top of that. Ta-dah! Cold frame in a hoophouse. Now we just need to rescue the Dinosaur kale, and the seedlings...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Stone Jar Molasses Cookies: A Vegan Classic

My cousin Gail celebrated her twentieth birthday yesterday, and this post is in her honor. For if Gail (also known in some circles as Holly) had not gone vegan, I would never have made these cookies. Well, I might have made them since they contain molasses, a personal favorite, but she was a greater motivation than my own sweet tooth.

These cookies are part of the Heritage Cookie section of The Betty Crocker Cooky Book, 1963. A book I remember fondly from childhood, it contains some of my personal favorites. This section focuses on hearty cookies made by our foremothers, and offers some tasty options of which Stone Jar Molasses Cookies are one. These make excellent cutouts, especially for fall. I sometimes make them in the shape of leaves or whatever cutout suits my fancy. They are unbelievably tasty, and to make them vegan just use an alternative for the shortening. The dough does need to chill, so a little extra time is needed.

Stone Jar Molasses Cookies from The Betty Crocker Cooky Book, 1963.
1 cup light molasses
1/2 cup shortening
1 teaspoon soda
2 1/4 cups flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger

Heat molasses to boiling point. Remove from heat and stir in the shortening and soda. (This can be a messy point, so do it near a sink or easily washable surface.) Blend remaining ingredients together; stir in. Chill dough.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll dough out very thing (1/16") on lightly floured board. Cut in desired shapes and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake 5 to 7 minutes or until set.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hoophouse Harvest

The plants are still small in the hoophouse, and it does get a bit chillier in there than I would like; however, it is so satisfying to still be able to go down to the garden and gather some greens for dinner.

I picked this pot full as I wasn't sure how things would fare during a cold spell and we hadn't built our cold frame yet. Since then we've also tightened and tidied the sides and I think the temperature is holding better. I whipped them up into a salad that evening; threw them raw into wild rice "casserole" with olive oil, cumin, canned tomato sauce, and a little soy sauce for the neighbors; and then sauteed the rest with olive oil and garlic for our usual favorite dinner.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ginger Cookies with a Well-Worth-It Tummy-Ache

Now that the garden is essentially done I've got a little bit of time on my hands. The canning is basically done (except for a little bit of sauerkraut), the garden is mostly tucked away (except for the hoophouse), and the bulbs are planted (except for a few stray garlic bulbs that I still think I'm going to put in). What better time to bake?

As I perused my grandmother's Settlement Cookbook, I took down three recipes. One was for Chocolate Toffee Bars, and a second was for Ginger Cookies. My Grandma Wegner had an x by these, which means she used this recipe. My mother had no particular memory of them, but since I'm a big fan of molasses anything - cookies, gingerbread (nothing better with vanilla ice cream, oh my!) - I forged ahead.

These cookies did not disappoint. (The plate pictured above is the first of a few, and I don't want to discuss how many I really ate. Let's just say the voice of my Grandma Lambert saying "You're going to to get a tummy-ache." rang in my ears.) I don't actually like making cookies - too much work and I get a bit bored by the last tray meant for the oven which then burns - but I sometimes find a recipe I can't resist. And my efforts - actually paying attention to how long I left them in and keeping true to the recommended size - paid off. They are almost all gone now, but they were so lovely that snowy afternoon.

Ginger Cookies from The Settlement Cookbook, 1951.
3/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark molasses (generous)
1 whole egg
2 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cloves

Cream butter and sugar, add egg, molasses, and the remaining dry ingredients, sifted together. Form into balls the size of a small walnut, roll in granulated sugar, place far apart on greased cookie sheet to allow for spreading. Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Gardening Book Recommendations

The New York Times Book Review ran this review of an assortment of gardening books. Well-written (as one would certainly expect) by Dominique Brown and entertaining in itself, this review is quite useful. I confess I'm getting ready to see if my library can scrounge up a couple of these.

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison (University of Chicago Press) sounds particularly good, and Open Spaces Sacred Places: Stories of How Nature Heals and Unifies (TKF Foundation) by Tom Stoner and Carolyn Rapp sounds inspiring.

Monday, December 8, 2008

In Praise of Michigan Holly

Organic Gardening sent out this great little article in their latest e-newsletter, and I couldn't help but think of Michigan Holly Ilex verticillata. Also known as Winterberry, this deciduous shrub offers delicious fruits help tide birds over until spring. Its leaves turn and drop off shortly after the first frost, and those berries keep the show going all winter.

A nice addition to any yard or garden, Michigan Holly would make an excellent living fence or replacement for non-native shrubs. Keep in mind to get the berries a male and a female plant are needed, so you'll have to purchase at least two. At home in a wetland it will also settle nicely in drier sites and create a lovely spot for nesting birds in the summer. It can grow to as much as ten feet tall while keeping a nice upright shape.

It's a wee bit late to plant now, of course, but in the spring visit one of the Michigan Native Plant Nurseries and see what you can find!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Another Useful Link

I swear I'll get back to the hoophouse with the camera and more information on our repairs, but I got an email recently letting me know that The Stewardship Network podcasted their monthly Webcasts.

These monthly webcasts are just full of great information and ideas relevant to anyone interested in restoration, native plants, or simple ways to control invasives (or overly friendly natives like deer!), and a bundle of other topics, too. Experts from around Michigan and the Midwest get together to discuss strategies and how to recognize problems as well as successes. It's good stuff! Check out the new podcasts and see what you can learn!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Victory Garden Posters

The Library of Congress offers a treasure trove of information and images in their By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA 1936-1943 collection. These beautiful posters encourage participation in bond efforts, advertise WPA funded plays, and so much more. They are fascinating to explore. The poster at left is one of a handful you can see about gardening.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided jobs for the millions of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. It also funded arts and literary programs across the country. A separate program from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the WPA did a great deal of infrastructure development such as building highways and offered adult education courses. Both programs were integral parts of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My Mother's Garden

I'm digressing a wee bit here again, but I feel it's well worth it. Today is my mom's birthday. I won't say her exact age as I think she wouldn't appreciate that much, but she's in her early seventies and doesn't look a day over 60. She's one of those super spry older women - out doing her own yardwork, gardening and canning, chairing committees at church, fixing random things around the house - that we all hope to be.

It is in my mother's garden that I got my first taste of caring for the land. I remember planting corn with her using a rusty old hand plow, and being firmly told that I could NOT eat those seeds. (I must have tried or had that look on my face of wanting to try.) It was there I saw my first tomato hornworm, and watched while my mother threw it out of the garden to fend for itself. (I still practice this unless a really hungry looking chicken is walking by.) Here I met zinnias and cosmos and immediately fell in love. She introduced me to rhubarb, squash, potato plants, sweet peppers, marigolds, cucumbers, green beans, and homegrown tomatoes.

She served thick slices of tomato, which we then sprkinkled with a bit of sugar to enhance the flavor. Cucumbers came out not just as some of the best pickles ever - dill and sweet slicers - but in little dishes with a touch of onion and either vinegar or cream. Green peppers got stuffed or sliced to be eaten like candy. (I don't actually like green peppers much, but I still eat them and immediately taste summer.) Corn came in on the cob, and turned into one of my most favorite things ever - corn relish. New potatoes bathed in butter disappeared so quickly they almost seemd a figment of our imagination. Larger potatoes with some of the creamy cucumber went down pretty easy, too.

I won't say I was her best helper in the garden. I'm pretty sure I was the worst. I hated gardening then - hot, dirty, gross bugs, boring - but love it now. I wish I had paid more attention and been more patient while working with her. She might not admit it to me, but I'm pretty sure I got to go back inside because I was better at whining than assisting. It was not for a lack of effort on her part, and I give her due credit for trying.

I believe that much of what is best about me is from her. As we all are, I was raised and influenced by a number of people - family and friends - but it is my mother who instilled in me a firm belief in helping others, to be kind and civil in the face of adversity, to believe in myself, and that homemade is best. These all sound rather trite, but I have found them sound guiding principles as I move through life.

You could say she planted those seeds in me (and my brothers) long ago, and has tended them ever since with patience and love. It is her example I try to live up to and learn from to this day. I'm not there yet, but I'm so very glad to celebrate her today and the gift she is to us. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kitchen Gardeners International

A recent stroll around the internet led me to Kitchen Gardeners International. Chock full of great information, articles, recipes, ideas I could be here for hours. A great way to pass a snowy winter day (or at least part of one) and learn loads.

Gnomebody Home

I'm not sure how or why I found this little fella, but I have to say I would ALMOST be tempted to get this for inclusion in my garden. In fact, you could get a whole bundle of them and set up a series of dioramas in your yard for the super observant passerby to enjoy...UM gnome vs. Michigan State gnome. The dreaded Buckeye Gnome sneaks up on the Michigan gnome!

Oh, the possibilities...

Hoophouse Minor Catastrophe - Details

I finally went down to the hoophouse with a camera to document some of what's going on in there. The close-up of the bent pole is quite impressive in its way, and effectively illustrates why it's a good idea to get the snow off the roof as soon as you can. (You can see the roof sagging with the weight of even a small amount of snow.) I also noticed a hole in the roof from where it must have landed on something.

A positive note is that the little Russian Kales are coming up nicely and looking strong, and the corn salad is, too. I harvested a goodly handful of swiss chard, kale, and some beets, too, for dinner. We're slacking on the cold frame, but hope to get that and the roof squared away soon.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Hoophouse Blues

I just investigated our hoophouse for the first time after our return from Wisconsin. We got a fair amount of snow while we were away, and the weight of it caused one of the "ribs" to bend and the roof to collapse. Our friends at Ambry Farms stopped by to check out our dilapidated barn, and quickly moved to remedy the situation. They propped up the bent rib with a board, but we'll have to fix things up a bit.

All seems well inside, but I can tell folks are chilly in there. I think I'm going to have to harvest the bulk of the Swiss Chard tomorrow unless we build a cold frame over it. The seedlings, strangely enough, don't seem to be suffering much. Perhaps I can't tell because they are so small, but they look good. The chives and parsely? They look like they could use a hug and a warm cup of tea - compost tea, that is!

Photos tomorrow after I clear off tonight's snow. Fingers crossed for the folks in the hoophouse.

Old Recipes, New Memories

We traveled to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving this past week to celebrate with my family. This year we gathered at my oldest brother's home. It was the first time my mother did not host and therefore first time in many years that she did not have to do everything. Three generations of us gathered around two tables (and in one baby jumpy thing) to eat, talk, and catch up. The past two years have been a bit rocky for us all, and it was nice to simply be together. Dessert even brought in my father and his wife to round us out. Odds had it that a few were missing and missed, but we carried on.

Since my mother wasn't running about like mad trying to make pies, mashed potatoes, stuff the turkey, remember the pickles from the basement, find the inserts for the dining room table, and sort out appetizers she and I had time to sit down and talk. I asked about her past traditions (they always had goose or duck - never turkey), the garden at the farm (they had one by the marsh and one by the woods), and dishes her mother used to make.

The last one is where we really got down to it. She pulled out two old cookbooks that were my grandmothers. One was The Settlement Cookbook, 1951, compiled by Mrs. Simon Kander. The title page states that these are "tested recipes from The Milwaukee Public School Kitchens Girls Trades and Technical High School, Authoritative Dieticians and Experienced Housewives." This is apparently the thirtieth edition, enlarged and revised. The first came out in 1901.

My grandmother's handwriting is peppered throughout making notes on what she added, increased, or left out. Recipes she tried and liked got a nice x next to them, and the inside cover is littered with notes of full meals. I spent about an hour or so simply paging through and letting it all wash over me. I was immediately transported back to the kitchen at Cold Spring Farm, and tried to imagine what it was like with my grandmother there cooking and feeding the crews that came to work. My mother says the farm had a reputation for good food, and I believe it based on her notes.

The most surprising outcome of all of this is the discovery of a long-lost, much-beloved recipe that my other grandmother made each hunting season. The family believed this recipe to be lost after her death, and at least once a year an inquiry goes out to each household to see if anyone found it after all. I made them Thanksgiving morning and took them to the dinner. I forced my overstuffed family to try them and see if they were indeed the ones. I still feel weepy when I think of their faces and how excited they were to taste them again. Corny as it sounds I felt like both of my grandmothers - one I never knew and one who was like a best friend - were with us again. That was something to celebrate.

Chocolate Toffee Bars from The Settlement Cookbook, 1951.
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
2 bars milk chocolate (I think dark chocolate is what my grandmother really used.)
1/2 cup ground nut meats (Totally fine without these, as you can imagine.)

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add flavoring, well-beaten egg and flour sifted with salt. Stir well. Spread on oblong shallow pan. (I used a cake pan but next time I'm going for a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan.) Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes. Remove from oven, cover with melted chocolate. Sprinkle with nuts. Cut at once into bars.