Archives for posts with tag: friends

When you’re a gardener, it’s reassuring to know that you have friends.

Friends such as earthworms (the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout…).

Not to mention the pollinators, by which I mean mainly the bees.

Also nice—and quite beautiful—are the butterflies and hummingbirds.

Frogs are friends of the garden as well; they eat plenty of harmful insects.

And then there are dragonflies. I’m not sure if they are beneficial or merely benign but they’re not harmful, definitely. Also, they are curious and always seem genuinely interested in whatever I am doing.

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I’m doing some work for my former company and was chatting with a friend and co-worker while in the office today. We talked about several topics (I haven’t seen her in some time), including our garden (she has been following this blog; thanks!). She was impressed by the 640 pounds of compost that we added to the raised beds a month ago (see April 12, 2014).

Yes, that’s a lot of manure. Bringing it home from the garden center taxed the suspension system of our old car and schlepping it from the road to the planters taxed my poor aching back (fortunately, the staff at the garden center take care of loading it into the car). Gardening can be an intensely physical activity.

But once the compost was placed (along with an equal volume of peat moss) in the raised beds, it didn’t amount to as much as one might think. Spread out over almost a hundred square feet, that load of compost only raised the soil level by a couple of inches. It would take another three times that amount of material—almost a ton—to bring the soil level up to the top of the planters.

And while two years ago, when I was only just building the second planter, one hundred square feet seemed like an immense area in which to plant vegetables, it soon became crowded and insufficient. That’s why last year we expanded the garden outside the confines of the planters. We now plant the entire yard to one side of the swimming pool, an area of about 360 square feet (admittedly, some of that is aisle space).

We’ll be headed to the garden center shortly for another load of soil in which to plant the squashes and cucumbers. Six hundred forty pounds of compost will become 1280 pounds or maybe even a ton. Taken all together—including what is already there—it is truly a staggering quantity.

And it will increase even more when we figure out where to put the asparagus and rhubarb…

After potting up the herbs and deadly nightshades (see April 25, 2014) and before leaving on our road trip (to visit friends and their Belgian Tervuren at the ABTC National Specialty event in Huron, Ohio), I sowed seeds for two varieties of summer squash and two of cucumbers. Optimistically (hope springs eternal, my father always said), I also planted a third batch of orange bell pepper seeds. I left them all (along with the rest of the seedlings and outdoor garden) in the very capable hands of Rachel’s mother.

Well, it would seem that she has a very green thumb (thanks!). I hardly expected the seeds to germinate by the time we returned two days ago—only six days after planting. Well, they germinated all right (probably after three or four days) and the seedlings have also surged to a height of over four inches. When I went downstairs to check on them Thursday, they were pushing up on the seed tray’s clear plastic cover.

On closer inspection, I found that not everything had sprouted. There was no sign of the Orange Sun bell peppers. The third time is not a charm for these seeds which must be past their pull date (contrary to what is printed on the seed packet). It would appear that not even the greenest thumb can resurrect them.

Further (or lesser, in this case), only one zucchini and only one pickling cucumber seed have germinated, in contrast to the six crookneck squash and five slicing cucumber seeds that sprang forth. Again, there is not much we can do about older seeds except to resolve not to plant them. Next year, we’ll be buying everything fresh.

I wasted no time moving the squash and cucumber seedlings into the tallest plastic pots I have. After placing them back on a shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, I hitched up the fluorescent light fixture to its highest position. At the rate the cucurbits are growing, they will be brushing against the bulbs well before we set them out on Memorial Day weekend.

While we were visiting a friend in his home (lucky us, he had invited us for one of his fantastic brunches), he asked about the purple string beans:  Do they, he wondered, taste any different from the green ones?

It is a good question.  Purple is an unusual color in the vegetable garden, second only to blue in rarity (is there any blue comestible other than blueberries?).  And while color is not always an indicator of flavor—the taste of red and green apples is not that different, for instance—it can be, especially when the color difference is due to ripeness, or lack thereof.

The answer to our friend’s question, though, is:  No; the purple string beans taste more or less the same as do the green ones.  In fact, as the beans cook, the purple fades away, leaving only the familiar green tint.  This is because heat and loss of acidity (due to dilution in neutral water) break down the anthocyanins that produce the color purple.  Chlorophyll, the green pigment (and component of photosynthesis), is apparently more stable.  (If we grow the purple string beans again next year—which is likely—I might try cooking a batch in vinegar or lemon juice to see whether that preserves the purple color.)

That matter resolved, I’ll ask my own follow-up questions:  What about the other vegetables growing in our garden?  Does their color dictate the flavor?

Well, as an indicator of ripeness, sure.  An unripe green tomato has a vastly different taste compared to a ripe red one.  We don’t grow them here, but apples (and most other fruits) exhibit this property.  It should be noted, however, that not all vegetables change color as they ripen.  Eggplant, for instance, starts purple and stays purple throughout its growth (and even its blossoms are tinged with purple).

But what about different colors of ripe tomato?  Do the yellow and orange varieties have a different flavor from the traditional red ones?  How about tomatoes that are green when ripe?  Furthermore, are the differences in flavor, if any, due to the color or is the color just an indicator of the difference?

Answering the last question first, I think the color is merely an indicator of a difference in flavor and not the cause of it.  The various colors of tomato do have varying flavors but the variations are due to different levels of sugar and acidity.  And as noted above, pigments react very differently to acidity.  Typical red tomatoes are relatively high in acidity so acid-resistant pigments like carotenoids (of which lycopene is the most common in tomatoes) will dominate their color.

At the other end of the spectrum (in both flavor and color), orange, yellow, green and purple (sometimes referred to as black) tomatoes are sweeter in flavor, a result of their being lower in acid.  Another consequence of higher pH is that pigments less resistant to acid, such as the anthocyanins, can survive in their colored state and contribute to the tomatoes their distinctive hues.  In other words, the pigments act as a natural litmus test to visually signify flavor.

This is only a quasi-scientific analysis but it makes sense, at least for the tomatoes.  In addition to the tomatoes, we also planted different colors of carrots, radishes, beets and bell peppers this year.  To my taste buds, the red and white-striped Chioggia beets tasted the same as the Touchstone Gold and neither tasted any different from the typical all-red variety.

Similarly, there was only one significant difference between the taste of our Quadrato d’Asti Rosso (red) and Orange Sun (guess) bell peppers and the common green variety.  The peppers we grew tasted less grassy, a flavor component that I can only call “green”.  This is a good thing because that grassiness usually puts me off bell peppers.

Our radish crop was not sufficiently successful to make an assessment of their flavors but the carrots, which flourished a wide rainbow of colors, also yielded an array of flavors.  The orange were the most typical (no surprise there) while the yellow and white were woodier and the purple were sweeter.  The range in flavor was not quite as great as in color or as stark as with the tomatoes but there was definitely a correlation.

We’ve never done much to celebrate Easter.  Growing up, the focus was on a family get-together with a spotlight on the food:  lots of candy, of course, and ham for dinner.  But now I live on the opposite side of the country from my family and few of my friends observe Easter rituals (or those of Passover, either).  We rarely do a social gathering anymore or anything, in fact, that might be considered traditional.

One year, we spent the afternoon helping friends move furniture.  I don’t recall why they decided to do this chore on a holiday but once we got their vehicle loaded up, they headed off to deliver the cargo (somewhere, presumably, not closed for Easter).  That left us hungry for dinner but too tired to cook.

We decided to swing by one of the restaurants in town and because we didn’t have a reservation, we ordered a couple of pizzas to go.  While waiting for them to bake, we sat at the bar and I had a glass of wine.  The proprietress thought I might like one of the Pinot Noirs that is not usually sold by the glass but opened a bottle for me anyway.  That’s hospitality!  It was a delightful—if unconventional—way to observe the holiday.

Another year, we decided to go to a movie.  When we got to the theater (co-located at a shopping mall), we found it and all of the other stores shuttered.  Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Easter seems to be the holiday when everything closes.  We ended up back home.

So instead of planning a formal gathering or going out, we’ve made Easter weekend a celebration of spring and the rebirth of the garden.

One of the must-see attractions on Maui is Haleakala National Park, the site of a dormant volcano at the center of the island.  A popular itinerary involves driving to the summit before dawn, catching the first rays of the rising sun (well before it reaches sea level, 10,000 feet below) and then cycling down the narrow, windy park road to a well-earned breakfast.

We wanted to see the park again this trip but even the idea of getting up in the dark held no appeal.  After consulting with our friends, we decided to go there for sunset instead.  This allowed them to spend the morning on the beach (while we were exploring the Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth; see February 26, 2013) before we met in the early afternoon to drive up to the park.  On the way, we planned to stop by the Surfing Goat Dairy and the Alii Kula Lavender Farm.

To make part of a long story short (unusual for me, I know), the goat farm was less than exciting (to be fair, we did not take the tour) and the lavender farm was just closing when we arrived there at 4:00 pm.  But the weather was beautiful and because our friends had rented a convertible, we were able to enjoy the drive with the top down.  Getting there was at least half the fun.

It was late in the afternoon as we started up Highway 378 towards the park entrance.  As we climbed in elevation, the air grew cooler and, eventually, we had to put the top back up (convertibles work well for the driver and front-seat passenger; for those in the back seat, the effects of weather are amplified by the fast-moving air).  When we were still a few miles away, we entered the clouds that seem always to cling to the upper slopes of the mountain.

The entrance to the park is at about 7000 feet of elevation (for reference, this is the same as Donner Pass and Echo Summit, the two main highway crossings through the Sierra Nevada).  When we finally arrived, we were deep into the clouds; it was rainy and dark with passing squalls.  In this weather, sunset would not be visible and we weren’t sure we wanted to go on.  But the informational signage kindly provided by the National Park Service reminded us that conditions at the top are often different from those at lower elevations.  Encouraged, we paid our fee ($10) and proceeded.

We had forgotten two things from our previous visit to Haleakala (for sunrise) in 1989.  First, the summit is a long way from the park entrance:  about 10 miles of narrow, windy road and another 3000 feet of elevation.  Reaching the park entrance gave me the feeling of having arrived but we still had another half-hour of traveling ahead of us.  Getting there might turn out to be more than half the fun.

At about 9000 feet of elevation, we popped out of the clouds—like an airplane reaching cruising altitude after taking off on an overcast day—and into the sunshine.  It was an exhilarating experience.  The summit is above the tree line (in truth, not much else grows up here) and the terrain is otherworldly.  The rocky terrain and absence of vegetation makes me think of photos of Mars and being above the clouds adds to the sense of being in a place not exactly of the earth.  It felt more like being on the edge of an adjacent planet, looking down over the clouds at the ocean and low-lying lands of Earth below.

The second thing we had forgotten about the summit is that it is cold up there!  The ambient temperature was a brisk 40 degrees and with wind chill taken into account, the effective temperature was well below freezing.  It made taking photographs difficult.  None of us had brought appropriate gear and so, with an hour left until sunset, we opted to head back down the mountain and enjoy it from a lower—and warmer—elevation.

In an article in this month’s (i.e., November’s) Bon Appétit, the writer Michael Chabon describes his family’s Thanksgivings as having never been bound by geography (“Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is”).  His clan has no permanent host or default cook and each year they do something different (and non-traditional in the strictest descendents-of-the-Mayflower sense).  That got me thinking about the nature of the Thanksgiving holiday and the roles of Guest versus Host in its celebration.

Lately, I consider Thanksgiving to be a stay-at-home holiday, a day when I would need a very good reason to go someplace else.  For many years now, we have been hosts to a small number of guests and we cook a fairly traditional meal.  After much trial and error, we’ve gotten to a point where we can get several dishes on the table, most of them still hot (sliced turkey, for instance, cools off very quickly), at more-or-less the appointed hour.  It is heartwarming to be able to say that for a few of our friends and family, when they travel over the river and through the woods (quite literally), it is to our house that they go.

But this has not always been the case.  When I was a kid, hosting the Thanksgiving get-together was shared primarily by my parents and by my maternal aunt and uncle.  The venue would alternate between our house and theirs but the guest list remained fairly constant and large:  my family’s six, my aunt and uncle’s seven, and my maternal grandparents.  As my siblings and cousins got older, the crowd swelled with the addition of new spouses and—a few years afterwards—nieces, nephews and cousins once removed.

When I left home for college, I continued to be a guest at the Thanksgiving meal although when it was located at my parents’ house, I would assist in its preparation.  This remained true after I met Rachel (being at Cal at the right place and time is something I am eternally thankful for!) with each of us visiting our own family for the holiday.  (One year, Rachel celebrated with the family of her then-boyfriend, but let’s speak no more of that!).

My last year as an undergrad, though, my two roommates and I took our first stab at hosting and cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  We scheduled it for about a week before the actual holiday—when most of us would be traveling elsewhere—and planned a menu based on our collective family traditions (there was a good deal of overlap).  We gathered our recipes, made several shopping trips (we probably never had so much food in that apartment) and spent the entire day cooking.

I don’t remember where we got tables and chairs we needed to seat the eight people who joined us that night (all of whom brought a dish to add to the menu) but we managed to fit everyone in a diagonal arrangement crossing the kitchen and living room.  The meal was a huge success, everybody ate and drank until filled and all were happy they came.  We were thankful to have them.  We all ended up guests at our respective families’ formal dinners but we got a healthy taste of what hosting the event felt like.

I didn’t try hosting Thanksgiving again until a few years later when Rachel and I were living in Oberlin, Ohio (Rachel was a professor at Oberlin College).  The first year we were there, we spent Thanksgiving with her parents (it was a welcome dose of the familiar during a period that was marked for us by tremendous change, both cultural and personal).  But the next year, Rachel’s parents and brother came to us—a road trip of at least eight hours duration—and we spent the holiday and most of the weekend together.  Once again, we planned, shopped for and cooked a traditional dinner.  It was a very satisfying—even if stressful—experience.

When we moved to New York City, the following year, we spent the first few Thanksgivings with Rachel’s parents.  At first, we assisted with the meal preparation—making us both host and guest—but soon, we had commandeered the kitchen and were cooking the entire meal.  We were on our way to becoming the traditional Thanksgiving hosts even if the meal was not always completely traditional (for the several years that we ate vegetarian, our menu included everything you’d expect except a turkey).  The only thing we needed was our own home in which to do the hosting and that followed after a few years (the story of which is fodder for separate posts).

And so, fast-forwarding several years, we have become one of the more constant elements of the Thanksgiving holiday.  But we have no delusions that this is any indication of stability or a resistance to change as Michael Chabon might fear.  For one thing, while our menu is usually based on a traditional template (turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and something green), it is different every year.  And although we usually act as hosts, we can be enticed to experience the holiday as guests and to partake of—and be enriched by—what constitutes tradition in other families’ homes.

The only thing that is truly constant and will never change is that we are thankful for our wonderful families and friends and grateful for every opportunity we have to share a meal and a few moments of togetherness with them.

With a visiting friend in tow, we took another hike in Fahnestock.  We consider this state park an extension of our back yard and we have several favorite routes.  Today, we chose the Dennytown Road trailhead (which I love for the name, if nothing else) and another Three Lakes/Appalachian Trail loop (see January 1, 2012 for the other).

The last time we hiked this trail, we missed the turnoff for the Appalachian Trail and ended up at the turnaround point for the loop that starts at Canopus Lake.  That essentially doubled the length of our hike and left us exhausted when we finally got back to the car just before sunset.  This time, we were sure we would stay on track and get back to where we started after an hour or so.

Well, we paid close attention to the blazes and other trail markers (including some pretty blue metal diamonds with a red cattle-brand-like HT blaze, for the Hudson Trail) and did not stray from our chosen path.  But this time it was our memory that failed us.  The loop was much longer than we remembered and took us almost two hours to complete (albeit at a leisurely pace).  We returned home tired, hungry and ready for homemade waffles.

This evening, we had dinner with some new friends at their home across the river.  Their house is charming and it is old, with all of the lovely idiosyncrasies that come with age.  I love old houses (I live in one) and their (usual) lack of level floors or square corners.  They emit a different aura and aroma, the products of the many years of life and experience that they have hosted.

I also enjoy trying to figure out just what, exactly, a former owner was thinking when he or she framed an addition a certain way or wired an electrical circuit so uniquely.  When we first moved in to our house, we found a door in the foyer that opened not into the next room but into the wall cavity.  Similarly, our new friends discovered that the switch for the porch light was located inside a closet.  In both cases, the condition was “corrected” (door removed; switch relocated) but who knows what crucial details we overlooked.  There were probably very good reasons for each condition at the time.

In their front and side yards, our friends have planted two large gardens.  The one in front, which they call the stockade for the tall cast iron fence that encloses it, is devoted to flowers and other ornamental plants.  Paths meander through it and there is a central clearing with a café table and chairs.  It looks like a very pleasant spot to sip morning coffee and read the paper.

As beautiful as the flower garden is, my attention was more keenly piqued by the vegetable garden in their side yard.This plot, planted at ground level, is also enclosed but in a more utilitarian—and potentially shocking—manner.  In addition to the chicken wire, there is a single strand of electric fence that loops around the garden a few inches above the ground.  It is at just the right height to deter the groundhogs that had been making off with the cabbages and tomatoes before the electric fence was installed.

The fence is not the only technology that our friends have deployed in their garden.  To keep an eye on the veggies when they are not at home, they access a webcam from their laptop computer (this is how they established the guilt of the groundhog) and if they observe (via webcam) that the garden is looking a bit parched, they can activate their drip irrigation system with a few strokes of the keyboard or clicks of the mouse.  I may be consulting with them to set up a motion-activated infrared camera (which they also have installed) to see who’s been digging in my garden at night.

We spent most of the evening on the back deck, eating perfectly-grilled salmon, chicken, ribs and vegetables while drinking Hummingbird Cocktails (which were very refreshing) and Côtes de Provence (dry rosés are perfect summer wines).  As the night wore on and the sounds of the crickets and cicadas swelled, we discussed what future technologies they might introduce.

The most promising idea was an internet-controlled robot that could patrol the garden and chase away whatever critters successfully bypass the electric fence.  It may seem a bit far-fetched but gardeners will do what it takes to protect their vegetables.