Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Louise Erdrich Planted My Geraniums

While checking out a post at Red, White and Grew (RW&G) about garden update photos (the idea is that readers and bloggers will share pictures of current happenings in their little patch) I quick scanned the comments. One reader asked if RW&G grew marigolds for their rabbit repelling abilities, and her response struck a chord:

"Bunnies aren’t an issue for us. Marigolds are in part an homage to a passage in “Places Left Unfinished at The Time of Creation,” a non-fiction book by a San Antonio author. =)"

People grow things for many different reasons. I grow fennel because it attracts pollinators, and because each time that licorice-y flavor fills my mouth I think of Frog Holler Farm's salad mix and all the wonderful days I spent working and playing there. I grow zinnias and cosmos because they're pretty and attract pollinators, but also because the sight of them transports me to my mother's garden in Wisconsin. (And when I was a fussy non-gardening child there, but that's another story.) I grow kale because it's so tasty and good for me, but also in honor of my first ever CSA membership at Henry's Farm. There I also met another now old friend, Swiss Chard. The immigrants in The Earth Knows My Name fill their gardens with tastes, sights, and sounds of home, and RW&G plants in part because of a book.

Louise Erdrich brought me geraniums. Before her gift, I dismissed them as a flower old people planted in cemeteries. I avoided them in nurseries. I thought they were "common." Their unattractive selves came only in a bad shade of lipstick red or a neon that hurt my eyes. They smelled funny, too. I wanted no part of them until Louise Erdrich with one turn of a sentence transformed them into a flower I had to have.

"Clouds flew across the sun. Light shuddered in and out of the room, and the red mouths of the geraniums on the windowsill yawned." (page 81, The Master Butcher's Singing Club by Louise Erdrich. Harper Collins, 2003)

My library book club read The Master Butcher's Singing Club one winter when we still lived in Michigan. I didn't like it that much, but I could never forget this image from Delphine and Fidelis' first meeting. There, in a kitchen I imagined to be just like the one in the farmhouse where my mother grew up, something fantastical happened in the everyday world. Geraniums yawned not with fatigue, but because the power of this meeting was enough to ripple space and time. That spring I bought my first geranium. Red, of course.

Geraniums in Japan can be very expensive. Running anywhere from 300 to nearly 1,000 yen ($4 to nearly $12, give or take), they represent something of an investment. They overwinter well in Tokyo, sometimes standing three feet high with stems that ought to be in all fairness referred to as trunks. I resisted until I spotted a sickly one on sale for a mere 100 yen. A little nursing along, a pretty pot in a sunny spot, and two years later it yawns winter away on my windowsill and summer on the balcony. I feel certain I can never be without them again.

Ever decided to grow something because of a book? I'd love to hear the story!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Watashi no Kotoba: Wordle on My Blog

The final theme day for the Blogathon is to create a Wordle image of our blogs . It's a lovely thing, but I'm rather shocked to see that apparently I use 'get' a little too often. And 'little'. And 'just'. At least words like 'yuzu', 'nematodes', and thank heavens, 'farmers' are relatively large. A writer's work is never done, eh?

Other theme days focused on our favorite places to write, a haiku, our favorite books on writing, and a guest blog post. Theme days are optional, but they represent good fun, as well. I tend to focus more on farming and gardening than writing, so the themes this year made me play with as well as reflect some on the tool I love to use to talk about the other work I so love to do.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday Reading

Since the rainy season has officially begun, it seems like a good moment to try incorporating a little more reading into my life. Granted, we can work inside the greenhouses at the farm, but there's more rain these days than work. In support of that notion, I'm trying my hand at a new feature: a weekly round-up of nifty articles, websites, reviews, and more. When I do get a chance to spend some time with my Reader, I find massive numbers of things I think would be of interest to others. I share them on Twitter or Facebook, but offering them here is an opportunity to dig out the best of the best as well as develop a longer listing of resources and learning. (Another Blogathoner also suggested reading and research as a means to get my Muse back, and so this seemed like a way to get that ball rolling, too.)

Pure Chemistry by Laura Wright Treadway at OnEarth covers a new way that universities are beginning to think about and study chemistry from the chemist to the product to the user to it's impact on the environment.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Small Farmers are the Answer Challenge is looking for people to submit ideas that encourage investment in small farmers for the future of our world. Deadline: Tuesday, May 31st.

Chock full of good reading, Grist can be hard to keep up with unless one only reads their site exclusively (I'm sure they wouldn't complain) or did nothing else all day. This story went up on Grist in April and while I've tweeted and Facebooked it's worth one more mention. Laskaway's article about Ali Partovi's thoughts on investing in sustainable agriculture point out that the sustainable production of food is integral for our futures not just as eaters but as people living on a healthy (or healthier, perhaps) planet.

Finally, here are two books I'd like to see on my shelf. Eliot Coleman's Organic Agriculture: Deeply Rooted in Science and Ecology should offer sound thoughts on the science of organic growing from one of the movement's gurus. The other, Garden Your City by Barbara Holdens Feldt, sounds full to the brim with practical information for urban gardeners. both sound about right for the farmer-gardener working any size plot or pot.

Got some recommended reading - a favorite blog, book, article, website or video - to share? I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Yuzuhachimitsu: The Taste Test

Last year, I experimented quite a bit with yuzu: yuzushu; straight-up yuzu marmalade; yuzu-ginger apple ginger marmalade; yuzu-ginger marmalade; yuzu-blueberry conserve; and finally, yuzuhachimitsu. All turned out fairly well, but one remained in the jar until just the other day.

The yuzuhachimitsu, a combination of yuzu, honey, and vinegar, echoes the recipe for the umehachimitsu. We adored the latter, and so I figured there could be no harm in trying this combination.

But it looked a little scary, I must admit, as it sat in the laundry room. The fruit gradually turned brown and I sometimes mistook the yuzu seeds for mold. Afraid to look closer, I just left it be. However, with the advent of rainy season (officially declared yesterday and two weeks early) I knew the jar would be needed for this year's round of umeboshi.

The smell emanating from the open jar was not inspiring, I confess, but I charged forward regardless. Distinctly yuzu with a sort of sickly sweet undertone, I felt a little nervous. Could this be a failure? Flashbacks to a recent bout of food poisoning made me cautious to try it, but risks must be taken. I made my husband drink it first.

More sweet than sour, especially compared to the umehachimitsu's pucker inducing flavor, but with a distinct yuzu flavor he declared it a success. (He's drinking another glass now, as I type, and shows no signs of illness while continuing to rave about this new beverage.) My little sips have me thinking it would be nice mixed with sparkling water and maybe even with some mint or other herb to brighten it up a bit.

Got a favorite homemade fruit brew? Let's hear it! I'm always up for a new recipe to try.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Tokyo's Farmers Markets: May 28-29 Weekend

The last weekend in May promises some good marketing opportunities for Tokyo vegetable otaku like me. While the weather may not be perfect, just don that raincoat and hit the road. Worst case scenario? You'll have a great excuse to get a hot treat at the market and if it rains hard enough your vegetables will be extra clean by the time you get home!

Sunday, May 29th
10am to 4pm Rain or shine!*
*I'm planning to be there regardless of the weather, and would be glad to get folks over there to see what the farmers have on offer. Personally, I'm hoping to find a strawberry or two for jam!

Saturday and Sunday
10am to 4pm
United Nations Plaza

Saturday and Sunday
10am to 4pm
Yurakucho Station, exit left side

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sabatoging Nematodes with Flowers and Grass

The knobby looking squash roots I discovered last fall when cleaning up the beds for winter vegetables signified the presence of root-chomping nematodes. While not all nematodes are bad by any means, this particular member of the family is the least favorite for gardeners and farmers. (It goes to show there's always a black sheep, eh?) While it happily sucks on the roots, the plants, of course, tend to produce less and become easy targets for disease and pests. The farmers noticed a similar problem in the adjacent field, and so this spring the remedies are underway.

I've decided to implement three remedies: a grass crop, marigolds, and compost. Marigolds planted en masse (and for about 90 days) act as a trap crop. The roots secrete a chemical toxic to the little fellows. The nematode that ventures over to the marigold root for a snack will find it can't leave or reproduce. A grass crop, like my popcorn, will provide welcome compost material at the end of the season that will attract beneficial nematodes and others who feast on these little root bothering meanies. Compost, of course, brings in all the little hero creatures: bacteria, good nematodes, worms, etc., to eat, battle, and work at outnumbering the bad nematodes. (This all sounds quite unscientific, I must admit, but you get the general idea.)

The farmers seeded the entire field next to my garden with marigolds now just putting on their true leaves. I imagine it will be quite a riot of color once they get underway, and I imagine the pollinators will be thrilled, too. I've done this in one section, but plan to add them throughout the garden, too. They won't be as effective scattered, but I remain hopeful they will have an impact.

Who's your favorite garden pest and remedy? I'm all ears!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Good Hands and Green Vegetables: How Farming Saved One Man

This past weekend I met a fellow farmer at a party. It's not too unusual these days, but it's always a pleasure, nonetheless. A neighbor of our hosts, Fuji-san* pulled up on his bicycle (a fantasy farm bike if ever there was one!) to drop off a handful of greens from his garden. Thick-leaved mizuna, frilly lettuce, and some pak choi that looked crunchy even from where I stood got a bevy of well-deserved 'oohs and aaah's' from the crowd, and an offer of a beer. Slipping off his shoes, he stepped into the party with his five-toed work socks (we all aptly admired them), and we started talking dirt.

Fuji-san works a community garden plot not too far from where our friends live. A neighborhood dotted with more farms than ours, the area feels a bit more open and green. The majority of them are working farms with vegetable stands attached and outdoor work spaces strategically placed to take advantage of shade and cool breezes. Great towers of pea vines, knee-high sweet corn, fat green cabbages, joined by thick stemmed eggplants and tomatoes showing off their first flowers to great advantage basked in the noonday sun washing the fields. It's no wonder we gave in finally to buckets of rainbow hued snapdragon bouquets as a hostess gift. One can only resist for so long.

It's not unusual as farmers age and find themselves putting the word 'urban' in front of their job title, that they turn their land into community garden space. As Tokyo's population grows and spreads west, the demand for a little patch of land to garden increases. It's a nice way for farm families to keep the land in production and to share it with the neighborhood. It also, I'm sure, provides a nice bit of income on the side.

Fuji-san's plot runs him about 7,000-yen a year (about $80, give or take), and my understanding is that he can work it as long he wants. As long he pays the annual fee and follows whatever rules there are, he can grow on his four meter square plot until he's 95 years old. Interested applicants need to put in an application at the beginning of the season, and then it's nail-biting for a couple weeks to see how the selection process turns out. Fuji-san reported the office he turned his application into was overwhelmed with applications, and so they resorted to a lottery process. (Extra nail biting then that I remember all too well.)

Munching on assorted bits of grilled meat, salads, and potluck goodies, we shared our frustration with aphids (abura mushi), cabbage worms (midori mushi), and the challenge of gardening organically. At one point, he pulled a water and dirt stained notebook from his rucksack. Page after page of notes, diagrams, sketches, and lists it was his gardenjournal, and it was beautiful. Asparagus, potatoes (one of his favorites), tomatoes, shiso, eggplants, pak choi (another of his favorites), and lettuce fill the available space. We marvelled at the fact that asparagus needs three years just to settle in before harvest can begin, but it's worth the wait he says.

Fuji-san embarked on his farming adventure only this past April, and so is a green thumb in every respect. Reading everything he can get his hands on, he studies vegetables and soil in a quest to unlock their secrets. (I can totally relate. There is nothing more mysterious than a growing plant.) Quite wisely he asked some of the neighboring farmers to teach him, and by the looks of the produce he brought along that day and had in the back of his bike he's making them proud.

When I asked him why he began farming, Fuji-san replied that he's not working right now and didn't want to waste his time. Laid off from his job as a delivery truck driver two years ago, he's applied for everything and anything but to no avail. He worked for a short time as a cook, but that eventually fell through. (A shame, as the sweet omelet he whipped up for us later in the party was extraordinary.) At 43, he's aged out of the majority of jobs. Most companies, friends later said, won't even look at the resume of someone over 34 years old. His wife is also unemployed, and the oldest of their three children works to pay their way through university. (The latter is nearly unheard of in Japan. Most kids live at home during their university years while parents cover tuition. Student jobs tend to pay for the extra amenities, such as shopping, going out with friends, etc.) They receive food stamps and get by on what comes in from the garden.

At some point, Fuji-san became depressed enough to give thought to desperate measures. He got some much needed help and began looking around for positive ways to use his time. Now, his days are filled with sun and dirt with marvelous results. Farming, even on this four meter square scale, seems to have unleashed Fuji-san's creative side. His bike, a homemade fixie with a cell phone holder on the front, push-button directionals, and a cart that I'd give my eye-teeth for is evidence of a kind of skill that can't be taught. While the vocation might be a new one for him, Fuji-san seems to have slipped into it as easily as his toe socks. "You just spread your toes, and you can see where they need to go," he said with a smile.

*Not his real name. I'm not sure he'd care, since I'm publishing his photo, but I thought I'd give some semblance of privacy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Meeting the Muse

Today's theme for the Blogathon (five places I like to write) is one I'm really struggling with as it touches on a rather sensitive topic for me just now. Three nearby coffee shops offer cozy tables, great pastry, and strong brew all made to foster creativity. The desk in our apartment affords a great view over the street we live on and the neighboring gardens. Our kitchen table, though, is perhaps my favorite. It is where, more often than not, the Muse and I sit down over coffee to catch up on the latest news and ideas. It is there with notebook and pen in the silence of early morning that we meet.

Well, where we used to meet, I guess. Like any long-term relationship, the Muse and I are going through one of those rough spots. I regularly visit our old hangouts, but she's not there. The coffee tastes bland, and I tell myself as I nibble on the cinnamon and raisin bun we both love that maybe the rain is keeping her away. Or it's the sunshine and she's forgot we planned to meet that day. It's hard to say. Blaming doesn't help in the long run, but I can only make so many excuses before I need to face the fact that I'm working alone again.

We meet occasionally at the kitchen table these days, but it feels awkward. I'm there every morning, but she's not. Or if she is, she's distracted, and then my pen always seems to run out of ink just as the conversation gets really good. Then I'm out of coffee or one of us needs to step away to the restroom, and the thread of conversation breaks. Back at the table, we fumble for words and inevitably the Day can be heard just outside the door not so subtly rummaging through its sack of chores. The notebook closes with the pen clipped to the side. Our eyes don't meet as we mumble about meeting again tomorrow morning.

How long can this go on? It's hard to say. We're in one of those spots that feel horrible, and I know she probably gets as upset as I do about it all. While I'm sure she sees others, I did think we had something special together. I look at my calendar to see how to pencil her in, but the weeks fly by without a good chat. Maybe a long weekend, just the two of us. Or just sneaking off for the day or even a morning. A sort of "date night" thing to help us get some of the magic back, to reignite that spark, to remind us of what brought us together in the first place. Meanwhile, I'll set my alarm to meet her at the table with fresh coffee and extra pens.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nioibanmatsuri: Heady Scent and Fading Flowers

I swear I do more than walk around taking pictures of flowers. Something about this spring, though, has me pursuing blossoms with a vengeance. More often than not I find myself pausing to set down my bags, pull out my camera, and begin searching for the best angle. Just beginning our third year here, I think I'm trying to capture all the things I've missed photographing the past two.

Located in the maze of small streets and near alleys between larger avenues, this little tree caught my eye as well as my nose. The purple and white blossoms stand in lovely contrast to the deep green of the leaves, and as I leaned in for a closer look the jasmine-like scent nearly knocked me over. Two women passing by stopped to admire it with me and told me the Japanese name: Nioibanmatsuri. They also pointed out it's other unique trait: flowering purple first the impatiens shaped flowers gradually fade with age to white. (Hence, it's common name of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. The Latin name, for good measure, is Brunfelsia australis.)

Like the yellow flag iris, Nioibanmatsuri is not native to Japan although it's clearly a favorite. An ornamental shrub native to South America, it seems quite happy in its new digs. Since sniffing this one last Friday evening they've been spotted large and small in tubs and planted free-range in gardens or in front of homes.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Green Curtain: Variations on a Theme

Even before Japan's current energy concerns due to the earthquake, green curtains could be spotted everywhere. Usually constructed from goya (Okinawan bitter gourd), the vines twine their way up netting to provide an extra bit of shade during the summer months. (The most famous of these is the one clamoring over the Suginami Ward Office.)

This year, of course, as a result of the problems at the Daiichi Plant and the closing of Hamaoka for precautionary reasons, the summer may be hotter yet. Word on the street has it that people are advised to set their thermostats at 28-degrees Celsius (82.4 Fahrenheit) if they feel a need to run their air conditioners. Companies and households are asked to strive for a 15-percent drop in overall energy consumption, with large users facing a fine of up to 1 million yen if they fail to comply.

As they have since the March 11th quake, Japan is responding with extraordinary resolve. The university where we teach switched to Cool Biz wear (i.e. short-sleeve shirts with the optional tie) policy a month early. They've also put reflective material on the west facing windows of many of the buildings to keep the interiors a bit cooler. People are talking about purchasing ice pillows (pillows popped in the freezer and then slept on for a cooler night), eating more ice cream (maybe that's just me), and hanging bamboo shades over windows and to protect walls from direct sun exposure. Many of my adult students also mentioned growing a green curtain for the first time ever, too, and I've seen more and more of them going up around the neighborhood.

Our green curtain is also underway, but with a few changes this year. The goya vine is sending tendrils out already, but I mixed in morning glory, cucumber, and on a whim: scarlet runner beans. The last should add some terrific foliage, lovely red flowers, and some tasty beans, to boot. I'm also betting they'll add a nice bit of nitrogen to the pot, which the other plants will appreciate as they season goes along. (FYI, the seeds are still lying in wait in the top photo. Meanwhile, the other plants are working on climbing higher to enjoy their sunny view of the neighborhood.) Since I mix edible and ornamental in the garden it seemed only logical to bring that same philosophy to my balcony garden.

Use plants for shade or energy conservation techniques? If so, do tell! This summer promises to be a hot one, so I'm looking for all the ideas I can find.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ki Shoubu or Yellow Flag Iris: Another Beautiful Invasive

The landscape of Tokyo is laced with waterways large and small. Built to bring water to the city for drinking, irrigation, and sewage purposes many of them still exist as green ways of one sort or another. They also serve as precious wildlife havens where the city's wildlife - civets, snakes large and small, salamanders, ducks, herons, fish, along with an assortment of smaller birds - can move about, feed, nest, and generally enjoy life. (People enjoy them, too, as bike or walking paths.)*

One such small canal near the university where I teach is in magnificent bloom at the moment. I snapped these photos of Ki Shoubu (Yellow Flag Iris) on the way to class as their show of color is nothing short of brilliant. Like fleabane daisy, this iris is technically an invasive here. There are native varieties of iris about as well, but the yellow flag seems to be dominating the scene at the moment with their three elongated petal heads. Again according to Kevin Short's Nature in Tokyo, the yellow flag's favorite place is along the shores of ponds or waterways, and they can grow to be a meter tall. These fit the bill perfectly, nearly filling the channel in their enthusiasm.

*Thanks to Tokyo Architours for opening up a whole new world of waterways! We hope to see you here again someday.

What's your favorite invasive in bloom at the moment?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tokyo's Farmer's Markets: May 20-22 Weekend

The weather promises to be good for the majority of this weekend, which makes it a perfect opportunity to head out to visit some of the city's farmer's markets. This month has had no shortage of great markets to visit, and that carries on right through to the end. As always, the markets are a great way to meet growers (like the utterly charming and fun staff of BioFarm in Fujinomiya City, Shizuoka pictured at left!), find out exactly where your food comes from, find a new recipe or two, practice your Japanese, and perhaps explore a new part of the city!

Saturday, May 21st and Sunday, May 22nd
11am to 5pm
Kichijoji Station, South Exit in front of Marui
*A new one for me that I'm planning to check out. Kichijoji is a rather hip place with beautiful Inokashira Park, a great selection of restaurants, and loads of stuff to do. Well worth a trip over to see what vegetables the cool (and other people like me!) are eating.

Every Saturday and Sunday in May
10am to 4pm
*Another great market with a mix of organic and conventional vegetables and products a stone's throw from Shibuya.

Every Saturday and Sunday in May
10am to 4pm
Another great market brought to you by Marche Japon, the Yurakucho one is good fun and chock full of great vendors from near and far. And don't worry if it's raining. Tucked under the overhang of the Tokyo Kouku Kaikan mere steps from the station, you and your newly found vegetables will be safe and dry.

Looking ahead
And finally, of course, there is the Earth Day Market in Yoyogi Park on Sunday, May 29th from 10am to 4pm. Held rain or shine, this market offers everything organic and fair trade that you could ask for and then some.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On the Verge of Ume Season

I know, I know. Another photo of blossoms. I can't seem to help myself these days. Spring in Japan is truly a tremendous time of year. Sakura (cherry blossoms) aside, there are flowers waiting in the wings, on center stage, or just exiting all in a show of color that is utterly breathtaking. From trees to weeds to the garden, everything seems to have something to show off these days.

This latest is, perhaps, a bit of a change. It is the actual fruit rather than the bloom. Ume (Japanese plum) blooms in February (perhaps when we most need something to do so) and March, and then promptly gets down to the business of making fruit. I spotted these little beauties flaunting themselves on a branch at the farm yesterday just after discovering the kaki blossoms and baby fruit. Soon I'll be whipping up a fresh round of umeshu, umehachimitsu, and maybe even umeboshi again!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Kaki Blooms and Baby Fruit

The farm I work on here in Tokyo still holds a few remnants of the traditional farmstead: mikan, biwa, ume, and chestnut trees along with a few traditional flowering shrubs dot the landscape around the house and fields. One of these is a massive kaki tree. It provides welcome shade in the summer months, and plenty of shelter opportunities for local birds. It's fruit is also bountiful come autumn, although the kind of kaki (persimmon) it bears is the drying kind, not the eat-right-off-the-branch-wipe-your-chin kind.

This morning during a lull in activity, I wandered over to get a quick drink of water. Looking up at the kaki's branches, I noticed some small white blossoms surrounded by green leaves that resembled nothing so much as lips. A closer inspection of other branches revealed tiny, tiny kaki just beginning to form. I'd noticed the mini-fruit before, but never spotted them quite so young. Somehow I'm amazed every time.

What about Spring surprises you each time?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Oversized Takenoko and Tots

We spotted this little group on Sunday morning bright and early. Clearly, they'd made their way to a farm just down the Tamagawa Jousui (Tama River Canal) that runs along north of where we live. It's a corridor of wilderness with a bike path on either side, and heaven knows if I was a kid I'd be roaming about there with my friends, too.

One farm along the way has not only a killer vegetable stall - stunning seasonal bouquets, tasty pickled vegetables as well as a nice selection of fruits and vegetables, too - but an absolutely magnificent bamboo forest. I've sat on the path next to it for a time just to hear the wind move the leaves and clunk the trunks together occasionally. It's a delight, and always makes me wonder how the loss of such green spaces (bamboo forests would have been de rigeur for a Japanese farm, much like the American woodlot) impacts the country today.

The shoots in early spring poke up out of the ground to have a look around them, and by this time of year they're nearly as tall as I am (about 5'10 inches) with no intention of slowing. The smaller, earlier versions can be harvested with a good deal of digging and served up in rice or as a quick pickle. Like strawberries or rhubarb or snow peas, bamboo shoots (takenoko) are a first taste of a new season. But for these whipper-snappers, I'd say it's a new toy!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Guest Post: No Gardening Experience Required

As part of the 2011 Blogathon we're asked to partner with another blogger and swap posts. This year Jackie Dishner of BIKE (a great blog I recommend perusing after reading her post here) shared her thoughts on vicarious gardening.

If you don't garden, I've learned you can still enjoy plants and nature by living vicariously through others' handiwork. That's what I do and have lived to tell about it.

Unlike Joan here, I'm not a green thumb. Not because I haven't tried, but because it's not a priority in my life. My priority has been to enjoy flowers and gardens and fresh mowed grass, but not to get too involved in the maintenance of them. Why? Because I give up too easily. I've lost more plants to under-watering than you'd care to know about. If you're a gardening pro, you'd be mortified with the actual numbers.

Suffice it to say it's like I've totally misinterpreted the word: xeriscape. A popular term in Arizona where I'm from, xeriscaping involves planting trees, shrubs and flowers native to the desert environment; they don't require a lot of water. But "a lot of" is a key phrase. It doesn't mean "none." But that's what I eventually wind up doing. I forget or get sidetracked or just don't water my plants at all.

Even though I have an automatic sprinkling system, I'm still not very good at watering my plants. When that thing broke last year, it took me till this year to call in the expert to fix it. When he arrived a month ago, I was embarrassed to discover the problem was a simple 10-minute fix. I paid him $150 to slap on a new timer and re-set it. That was it! My water was back on. And whatever vegetation was left in my yard could now be salvaged. Maybe. To be honest, only the freebies were left. My grass was now dead. The flowering shrubs were no longer blooming. And the vine that used to crawl up the side of my house by my front door was on her last leaf. The ones that were doing well enough were the plants that came to my yard by seed, carried here by birds, wind, and maybe rain.

Even the six terracotta pots I have lined neatly in a row on top of my front patio wall are empty. I had great intention when I bought them, planting red geraniums inside that bloomed during the latter part of the spring one year. But when they dried out that following summer, I never refilled the pots. It's been four years. So you can see that's why I have to go to my neighbor's house to enjoy the vegetation.

A few doors down lives a woman who lives for gardening. She's outside every day, planting, pruning, potting. Her stuff actually grows and blooms. I step up to her front door to see rosemary off to the side - and I can smell it, too. Her backyard patio is full of iris plants and cacti of all kinds. Tomato vines and chili peppers line the back of her house, and below her fence sit day lilies and an herb garden. The woman grows her own garlic, for goodness sakes. I get mine at the Safeway. In the spring, her front yard is lined with wild daisies. Even her bougainvillea (which you don't do much with at all) looks better than mine. As in, the leaves actually turn pink.

I love to go sit with her in the evening. She'll pour me a glass of red wine and tell me all about the new plants she just bought and where she'll add them. Her patio has nice furniture, fun garden art, and cats. It's a lively place, full of color and conversation. If I were able to garden, if I would take the time, I'd want to model mine after hers.

Alas, that is not my skill. It is not my passionate interest. But I enjoy flowers and gardens and nature enough to know that I can still revel in the beauty. Just not at my house. I live the garden lifestyle vicariously through my neighbor. Luckily for me, she's more than willing to share.

Would you let someone like me come into your garden? If so, what would I see?

Jackie lives in Phoenix, Arizona, writes about art, travel and design and is the author of an Arizona guidebook called Backroads & Byways of Arizona. She blogs at BIKE with Jackie, a self-development site that focuses on helping others turn obstacles into opportunities. For the blogathon this month she's focusing on a theme: joy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rhubarb Shu: An Experiment in Spring

I'm about to write a dangerous sentence, but here goes.

After the tasty success of my first umeshu and yuzushu batches, I have decided to experiment a bit. I've just put up my first batch of rhubarb shu. Rhubarb sauce, butter, and jam are all very nice, but living in Japan called for a new twist on an old favorite. So, just before last week's rains arrived in full force I pulled a few stems. Soon cut into chunks and paired with the usual accomplices - rock sugar and shochu - the work is underway.

As far as I know, it's never been done before (in Japan), and the batch is smaller than usual. (I didn't want to give a whole kilogram of rhubarb to something that, frankly, might taste horrible.) Taste-testing should begin within a week to see how it's progressing. Our concern, of course, is the sugar to alcohol ratio. Syrupy sweet isn't appealing, but shochu with just an essence of rhubarb isn't, either. Fingers crossed we get something worth tipping a glass to come November. Meanwhile, without more ado, here's the recipe brewing in our laundry area.

Rhubarb Shu
3 cups chopped rhubarb
1 3/4 cup rock sugar
700 ml shochu

Wash the rhubarb and nip off any dodgy looking bits. Cut into chunks (roughly an inch or so in size) and measure out.* Sterilize the container with boiling water or a bit of the shochu. Plunk the ingredients in in layers - sugar, rhubarb, sugar - and then pour on the shochu. Put on the lid, and set in a corner somewhere for six months.**

*My cups, for what it's worth, were a bit heaping. I tend to do that when I'm dealing with large chunks of things as I always imagine the way they jumble together means it's not really filling the space effectively. This could be an error in judgement.
**As I mentioned above, I'll be trying to test it regularly to see how the flavor goes.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sage in Bloom

Like any gardener does in spring, I tend to buy too many plants when I go to the nursery. I really don't know a cure for this. I've tried to limit the amount of money I bring. I try to make sure my bike baskets are already a little full. I write a list and swear that I will stick to it. But, there always seems to be one (OK, make that about three) extra plants that come home with me. There's always a sale or there's always something on my list that the nursery is out of so I simply have to get something else.

Such is the case with the sage in my garden. Thinking I would only pick up one thing - not even a plant, mind you - I came home with a series of herbs, including two sage plants two years ago. One didn't make it as the leaves seemed tasty to some little critter other than myself. This plant has survived, although it struggles with a nibbler still. I harvest a bit now and again, but leave most of the plant in tact so that it carry on unimpeded to health. And perhaps as a positive sign, it is blooming. Sweet little blue flowers emerged in pleasant contrast to the yellow edible chrysanthemum blooms of a winter leftover I plopped in just behind it three weeks or so ago.

Weekend Farmer's Markets in Tokyo: May 14-May 15

After a few days of dousing with rain, the weekend promises some sun. So shake off that umbrella and raincoat, and head on out to the handful of May farmer's markets happening around the city!
(Pictured here is Kamakura Leaf Farm with their coolest looking ever salad mix in a bag!)

Sunday, May 15th
Ebisu Garden Square
11am to 5pm

Every Saturday and Sunday
United Nations Plaza
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday and Sunday
Yurakucho Station, exit the left side
10am to 4pm
(And an article offering a description of the market as well as the recent inclusion of farmers from Fukushima and other parts of Tohoku affected by the March 11th earthquake.)

Saturday, May 14th
Ark Hills Karajan Plaza
10am to 2pm

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Azalea Blooms Make Jewel Toned Streets

Starting with ume (Japanese plum) in February, Mother Nature starts unrolling a carpet of texture and color that Japan follows madly along until collapsing with exhaustion in the heat and humidity of summer. Ume are followed by the beloved sakura, and then the scene rapidly becomes more crowded with blooms of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Roses, wisteria, and hydrangea are but a few, but at this moment it is the native azalea that holds center stage with its bright pink or white flowers. Usually arrayed along streets and sidewalks here in Tokyo they migrated down from the mountainsides over the centuries to participate in festivals and weave themselves into a series of complex traditions. Trimmed up boxy they make a fantastic hedge that remains green throughout the year as well as a nice little hideout for urban wildlife.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Suspect's Name: Hakuunboku

A bike path near our apartment is lined with citrus, evergreens, hydrangea, roses, as well as an assortment of grasses and plants. I presume that underneath runs an old canal now covered over by the path and nearby road. The path crosses the Tamagawa Josui, a larger canalway that in its day brought much-needed water down from the mountains west of Tokyo to the center of the city. Something is always in bloom or leafing out or fading from view, and benches and little tables dot the sides for pedestrians to loiter as they wish. It's also home to a few favorite vegetable stands, so I traverse it a fair amount.

I spotted this tree while out walking the other evening, and I suspect it's hakuunboku a.k.a Styrax obassia or Fragrant styrax. The silvery gray bark slides smoothly over the musculature of the trunk like a tight fitting sleeve, and tucked under it's veined oval leaves were these lovely white blossoms. If it is indeed hakuunboku, it is a tree native to Japan as well as Korea and China. (It's in the same family as Japanese snowbell (ego-no-ki) or Styrax japonicus.) I'd never noticed it in bloom before although I've always found the bark quite eye-catching. It reminds me of Ironwood, a.k.a. American Hornbeam Carpinus caroliniana, another smooth barked tree that I know from long walks on the family land in Michigan.

The blossoms pictured here should also be quite fragrant, although I confess I did not pause to sniff, only photograph. If they are indeed as delightfully smelly as they are purported to be I would suspect they are a pollinator favorite. I'd also like to think that the ever-increasing number of butterflies I see floating about the city find the tree a good home complete with a pleasant drink bar. Any ideas?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ode to an Ornamental Peach

One of the prettiest things going at the farm in early spring is himomo, an ornamental peach tree, that grows just near the gate. It's frilly fuchsia blossoms have no scent, but they attract passersby like bees to flower. The farmers laughed one day as we planted this year's sweetcorn that at it's peak of bloom an average of twenty people stop to take a photo and ask the name of the tree.

Sakura or cherry dominate the season with their soft pink, nearly white flowers, so these seem almost bawdy in comparison. Seen from the far corner of the farm the tree veritably glows. And just like the sakura, the petals carpet the ground below a heady shade. Now dominated by green leaves, I thought I'd write a haiku, today's theme for the 2011 Blogathon, in honor of this lovely member of the farm family.

Himomo at the Gate
Himomo blooms shout
the joy of a new season
in quiet spring.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Yuzu Shu Confession

Way back in the wilds of December I set my first batch of yuzushu to steep. A similar process to umeshu, one simply sets the fruit in shochu (essentially straight alcohol) with lots of sugar. A classic recipe in many regards, and one of the easiest ways to make your own liquor. After a week I fished out the rinds and made a batch of marmalade with them (mottainai and all that), and then set the jar back in its corner for further brewing.

Time passed. I think I was meant to take the fruit out before we left for America, but that didn't happen. I thought about taking it out when we returned in March, but other things occurred that distracted me.

So on a rainy afternoon in nearly early May just after finishing a batch of rhubarb butter I decided it was time to extract the fruit. Yuzu is notoriously strong-flavored, and so I was rather worried that it might taste like...crap.

The amount fits rather nicely into four quart jars, and the fruit looks more than ready to be turned into some kind of jam-like substance that I haven't dreamed up just yet. (I'm imagining it with mint and maybe apples.) As I got closer to the bottom the yuzushu came out cloudier, and the final jar resembles a wheat beer in color and texture.

For purely scientific purposes we sampled each jar to determine whether or not there was a difference in flavor. The pure gold jar had a bit of a fiery kick, while the opaque yuzushu was slightly sweeter. The aroma distinctly reminded me of my marmalade, which also has me wondering about tossing in some ginger next time around, too. Meanwhile, back to the sampling...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fleabane Daisy: My Kind of Volunteer

Garden volunteers are one of the most wonderful surprises nature can offer up. Sometimes they come in the form of escaped seed sprouting between the rows or one that made it through the composting process somehow or another to sprout in odd nooks and crannies of the bed. Purslane is a favorite volunteer that also happens to be edible as well as a very nice, light feeder that also helps keep soil in place.

Volunteers also arrive because for one reason or another I choose to ignore them when I'm weeding. Sometimes it's because I can't remember exactly where I put in a perennial or I can't remember exactly what that perennial is supposed to look like. (This is where keeping up on my garden journal would be a good idea...ahem.) And sometimes I just think it might be interesting to see what happens.

Such was the case with a set of fleabane daisy erigeron speciosus plants that currently reside in my west wall bed. Introduced to them by a good friend when I was first learning about native plants, I've delighted in spotting them almost everywhere. It was an especially pleasant surprise then to see them here in Japan attracting pollinators as madly as they do at home. (Despite the fact that I should not be pleased given that they're an invasive.) Members of the aster family, the plants sport long stems topped with small bristly looking flowers that come in white, pink, and purple.

According to author Kevin Short in his most fantastic tome, Nature in Tokyo: A Guide to Plants and Animals in and around Tokyo, the fleabane daisy I see growing in my garden as well as along the nearby Tamagawa Jyousui (Tamagawa Canal) is an escapee version (a.k.a. an invasive plant) of the American variety. The spring variety haru jo-on has a hollow stem, and the summer variety, hime jo-on has a solid stem. I don't know which I have as it would mean plucking a flower, and I'm not quite ready to do that. Since the necessary demise of my flowering komatsuna and mizuna plants, I fear the bees have been thirsty. My goal is to give them all I can until I've got a few other plants going in the garden, and keep them coming back for more.

While Tokyo is surely one of the greenest ginormous metropolis' I've ever lived in (and the only one I've lived in, truth be told), I worry a great deal about our little pollinators. Since the demise of the majority of the farmhouse's original landscape in a family debacle and the subsequent loss of the chestnut orchard in a move for more growing space, I feel a personal responsibility to give those little critters a place to call home. And I want them to pollinate my Brandywines again, so I'm not entirely altruistic, of course. (Douglas Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home haunts me still, so I'm doing all I can to support my local wildlife and food chain.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tokyo Tomato Planting

The tomatoes are all in at the farm. The first round of them went in about ten days ago - 200 plants of red and yellow cherry tomatoes as well as a red grape sized variety - and the second round went in last weekend. Another 200 plants, the large variety, all snugly settled for the growing season. This time, though, the planting went forward despite heavy winds and a rainy forecast. The first crop to go in one of the three new greenhouses recently built at the farm, these tomatoes are part of a larger experiment happening on this urban farm.

Greenhouses are nothing new to farming, not even this small family farm here on the west side of the city. We have four others - much, much smaller - used for starting seedlings, processing the harvest in cold or inclement weather, or growing a temperature sensitive crop under protection. These three new ones though, mark a new slightly more industrial direction for the farm. About 15 meters tall, these three possess thermostats that automatically open vents and run fans depending on the indoor and outdoor temperatures. A sprinkler system makes watering a piece of cake. Side doors will let pollinators in and netting (yet to be hung) will keep birds out.

Planting indoors, in some ways, proved similar to planting outdoors. We prepared the soil in essentially the same way about a week ahead of planting. We'll still place basil at the base of each plant, and the plants will still be trained, trimmed, and clamped to their climbing poles. The young seedlings, though, were set in the ground with flowers facing to the center of the rows to make for easy blossom trimming and harvesting as the time comes. If no blossom was visible, it became an exercise in pattern recognition. Tomato plants always grow in the same way - one branch facing the planter, two swung out to the side, and one off to the left just below the blossom crux - so it was a simple matter of finding the pattern and setting it in the ground correctly. (I have a strong suspicion that some of my plants will need to be harvested on the opposite side, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.)

Growing in such a controlled environment has obvious advantages: fewer worries about sudden changes in temperature that can slow or hasten growth; sudden influxes of water that can cause the tomato skin to split and subsequently make the fruit unsellable; protection from wind damage; and the ability to extend the growing season on either end. (Word has it we're thinking of planting new seedlings in the fall to harvest well into the off season.)

And there are a few disadvantages. It can be difficult to maneuver the rototiller/tractor (a mini-version of the American variety) in there, and it's going to be really freakin' hot in there in the summer. (Since I'm not a tomato, I'm not so excited about that prospect.) The reliance on electricity (especially in light of summer's coming blackouts) feels a bit sketchy, and I do worry about how the pollinators will flit in and out. I also have my concerns about a contained monoculture, just as I did at Ikumi Tomato Farm, but again I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Little Tiny Kiwi

Now that I'm off crutches, we're able to toodle about on our bikes a bit more. I still have to be careful - not too far and no hard peddling - but it is wonderful to be able to do together one of our favorite things: urban bike safaris!

This last weekend took us a bit west in search of a local farm selling eggs (sadly, we discovered they retired themselves and their chickens), and then south to one of the many canals that skitter across Tokyo's landscape. Around since forever ago, they traditionally served as sources of fresh water for many parts of the city, as well as irrigation for what used to be the many farms here on the west side. Now, they work as green corridors running through neighborhoods, cutting through parks, and making a pleasant bike or walk to disparate parts of the city.

Along our route we passed a number of orchards - usually nashi (Japanese pear) and kiwi - trimmed up in preparation for this year's crop. The vines are trained up and along a heavy wire grid that supports the branches that will eventually fill with enough leaves and fruit to effectively shade the ground below. Pictured here are the baby kiwi waiting for their soaking in summer sun and heat. I'm waiting to turn them into kiwi-ginger jam!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Garlic Still Going Great Guns

My pleasure in the compost bin turning is nearly matched by my delight in my little plot of garlic. Despite the occasional trodding-on by unwitting visitors, the garlic seems pathetically happy in its lasagna bed location. I suspected it would be, but gardening does nothing if not turn many an assumption on its head on a regular basis. (A fact that keeps me humble or at least regularly reminds me to be so.) Since photos taken in mid-March, the leaves have more than tripled in size and remain brilliantly green. A quick comparison with last year's crop, shows plants already starting to yellow on the bottom and some general unhappiness. A lackluster harvest nearly put me off the idea of growing it entirely, but the allure of its heady aroma proved irresistible. (As did the decidedly beautiful bulbs found at the Earth Day Market last fall that looked like perfect seed stock as well as good eating.)

The biggest difference, other than being planted in the lasagna bed, was the lack of plastic mulch. The soil I created here is loamier by far than the sandy soil that dominates the farm. The black plastic mulch perhaps kept the bulbs too warm during the cold months, and too wet during the warmer months.

If all goes well, I plan to save back a few of the best bulbs from this crop for planting in fall. My gardening partner and I have decided to dedicate a full bed to these bulbs as we both use it extensively in cooking. I also see it as an opportunity to really build up the soil in the beds. I'm almost thinking of doing two beds of garlic, but I think that might be going overboard. The obvious benefit (other than the garlic harvest) would be building up even more soil in the same period of time. The only trick will be holding the materials down on such a large space for the duration of a season. Netting laid directly on the beds, perhaps?