shifting focus

My favorite yoga teacher encourages us to remain steadfast in challenging asana, to shift the focus from what we can’t do to what we can do.

That’s what I’m trying to do with my gardening. Focus on what I can grow. Lettuce in the rail planter boxes yielded one big salad for Jesse and I, and has not made an effort to re-leaf. The greens in the backyard withered within two weeks. The tomatoes in the back have grown and are sprouting fruit… but I remember last November pulling a pound or more of green tomatoes that never ripened off the vines the previous homeowners had planted. I think it’s just not sunny enough back there.

But! Look at Cuban oregano.

Check out Thai basil. I grew him from seed. (Oh man, I gotta start thinning him.)

This little early jalapeno plant is going great guns on the front walk in the sun.

Even the herbs in the back are happy. So happy, the oregano ended up going to seed faster than I could use it.

As Jesse reminds me, we don’t need to grow our own. In fact, a green-minded homeowner’s best efforts should likely be focused on regular attendance of a farmers market to support local foodsystems than on a less-than-sustainable homegrowing practice.

Unless it’s FUN.

And peeps? I’m thinking not so much. The herbs have been fun for me. The peppers in the sun are pretty great. Tomatoes out in the sunny front yard would be pretty cool too. But the radishes, the lettuce, the beets, even the carrots have me anxious and for some reason I’ve attached a fair amount of my worth as a domestic onto their success.

So guess what? I’m not gonna do it again next year! I’m gonna focus on what I can grow, and what’s fun. Because really, I’m privileged to say that where I’m coming from, that’s the point.

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hosta worship

I’ve never quite understood the appeal of the hosta. It’s a big leafy green thing that just sits there. You can’t eat it, and it doesn’t produce colorful flowers. For the longest time, I thought of the hosta as dull landscape filler.

My dad, on the other hand, is a hosta devotee. A few years ago, I called him on a Saturday late in fall. He answered the phone with a very reverent, dreamy quality to his voice. I immediately became suspicious and asked him what he had been up to. He proceeded to explain that as the first frost was nearly upon his central Wisconsin garden, he had just come inside after cutting leaves from each of his numerous hosta plants and was in the process of placing every single one in its own pretty stoneware bowl throughout the house. So that he could worship the leaves just a little longer. Because he loves hostas so much.

I know, Scout. I know.

Anyway. I’m here to say that perhaps I too am becoming a hosta-worshipper. Here’s my story.

Back in March, I bought a low-maintenance, no-turn compost bin at Metro–the big Enviroworld thing you see there. Our yard is small and I was concerned it would be a dominating presence (and not in a good way), but there appeared to be an empty spot along our south fence between a couple larger bushes. I grabbed a shovel and jumped on it a few times to make sure I wouldn’t be covering anything up. I encountered no root structures, and there was no surface evidence to suggest that anything had ever grown or been planted there.

So there it went.

Towards the end of May, Jesse was in the yard mowing grass and noticed a leaf sticking out from underneath the bin. Ever curious, he investigated–and found this sad (and probably angry) specimen beneath:

FORGIVE ME HOSTA! I BESEECH YOU! I checked. I checked! With a shovel! There he sat, all white and slimy, with a few leaves poking out from underneath the bin shouldering the entire photosynthetic effort for that big plant. The compost bin was immediately relocated (thank heavens it had a bottom panel) and within just two weeks,

I was forgiven! I even made an offering of Sluggo to him, sprinkling the organic molluscicide at his hosta-feet, and now his leaves need not fear becoming slug lunch.

I’ve seen the light, as it pertains to the hosta. These resilient plants can stay, and it seems that they wouldn’t care if I said they couldn’t.

These days, I’m filled with the hosta spirit.

and we’re rolling

While the rest of the country burns, either literally or figuratively, we have glory.

LOOK AT THAT WEATHER.

I have responded by actually relaxing a little bit (don’t laugh) and regrouping for another garden experiment. In my last post I expounded upon all the reasons why nothing has grown in the back yard, and why things may grow in the front. I have done the research, imagined an intervention (or fifteen), and am ready to implement.

So, in the back planter boxes: it’s all a game, baby. Trial and error. This playful iteration will involve the following adorable little plants that Portland Nursery gave me in exchange for 9 bucks: Bright Lights rainbow chard, Flashy Troutback romaine (how could I not?!), Joi Choi bok choy, and Gourmet Mix lettuce. These puppies are going in the heretofore  fallow raised beds in the back, and we’ll just see. They’re happy and robust and have a lot of potential energy built up in those little bodies. If they don’t make it, well, that’ll speak volumes about my soil. Or something.

In the front: rail planter boxes! On the front porch rail! I’m going to hold off on details in the hopes that we’ll get the first-hand account of their installation from a very special guest blogger.

In the meantime, I also grabbed some big (16″ and 20″)  fake terra cotta pots and plopped them in front of the steps up to our porch.  These containers are sitting in full-ass sun for most of the day. I transplanted one of the pepper plants from the back beds into the 16-incher as a very unscientific experiment. My hypothesis: this potted pepper in the front will go bananas, and the guy sitting in the back yard will remain all runty. Nevermind that they’re two different pepper varieties (padron in the back, jalapeno in the front), are in two different kinds of soil (Miracle Gro Organic Choice outdoor potting soil in the front, endogenous dirt and Black Forest Soil Amending Compost in the back), and that one is in a pot and the other isn’t. Anyway. I also put some of that Organic Choice crap in a big pot and went nuts with carrot seeds. And LOOK!!!!!

CARROT SPROUTS!!!!

I felt a lovely cool breeze of relief when I peeked into that pot this morning and found those guys standing at attention. Like, I almost cried. I put them in that pot 15 days ago and have had a little worry in the back of my mind about them ever since. I’m not sure why this whole gardening thing tickles my anxiety, or propels me towards globalizing–as our dear android Data would say, “making an unwarranted extrapolation” from one minuscule ‘failure’ in the garden to the broader landscape of my life and choices. I have ‘failure’ in quotes because this is a fucking experiment, and in research, results which do not confirm your initial hypothesis ARE STILL IMPORTANT AS HELL and worthy of report.

So here we are.

I’ve got posts coming up on the rail planter experiments in the front, the amazing food we ate and fun times we had when Rachel and Tracy came to visit, and how hostas will outlive the nuclear armageddon and maybe even the zombie apocalypse.

Expect more semicolon overuse and rampant run-on sentences.

garden bitch

I did everything right, I think, and nothing grew.

Remember this post? Well, take a look at that to-do list. I did it. I did it GOOD. I had to wait until the end of April to do it all, thanks to our record-breaking rains in March, but I did it. I planted my seeds according to Mel Bartholomew‘s directions after prepping my soil according to Steve Solomon and Portland Nursery‘s suggestions. May rains and I watered them in. It was cool, but according to my books, warm enough.

And nothing grew. Even the weeds haven’t been particularly enthusiastic.

I bought two tomato plants and two pepper plants at the Oregon City Farmer’s Market to ease the pain. They’ve begun to show flowers, but even they haven’t been particularly enthusiastic about being here. They haven’t grown much. And I’m seeing pictures from friends back in MN who have actual little green tomatoes popping on their similarly-early-varietal vines. What gives?

I have a few theories, but that’s just what they are–theories. I haven’t knowledge enough to definitively say YES, THIS was my PROBLEM, and NO, it WON’T HAPPEN AGAIN if I do x, y, and z. This is uncomfortable. I find myself in yet another face-off with uncertainty. Please, post in the comments if you have earthy wisdom to share.

In the meantime, here’s what I think. I think that I’ve only been in this house since November, when the trees were lean and it seemed like these raised beds would get sun. Well, the trees in my north neighbor’s yard are filling out and reaching over a little to shade my beds. My east neighbor’s trees are doing the same. And my own trees to the south of these beds are fattening up, too, leading to a mostly shady back yard. Oops. Seems like a no-brainer, but I didn’t see it back in December. The trees that were sparse in December will fill out and provide a canopy in June.

The tree-shade is one thing. How about the shrub-shade? The raised beds are dotted with large shrubs. Larger now that the weather’s warmed and the sun peeks out more frequently. Jesse insists, rightly of course, that we are the boss of them and can prune them down or take them out entirely. Removing them feels inherently wrong to me, somehow; they’re so mature and round, and I like round things. We’ve pruned and trimmed, but I wonder if their large roots are sucking up all the goodness I mixed into the existing soil. And they do cast shadows. And even if we did nix them, that would still leave the problem of the shady trees.

I’m not so sure about my seed-planting technique, either. The square-foot method of planting involved placing no more than 2 seeds in a spot; this seems to leave no margin for error. I trust Mel here, but have you ever seen a carrot seed? Tiny! The size of a comma on this page, maybe. I’m second-guessing.

And finally, drainage. These beds are made of cinder blocks and bricks that are mortared together. We’re talking minimal drainage. And since we’re on a south-sloping hill, any runoff from my north neighbor’s backyard collects in the beds and stays. Practically up until June, this soil has been cool and damp despite the warmer weather.

Hm. Perhaps this was not the best place to plant sun-loving veggies after all. Kale, you’re up.

This leaves me hunting for sun on our property. It seems most reliable, actually, in our south-facing and south-sloping front yard. In fact, it seems most reliable right off the front porch. I’m thinking rail planters. And a big giant pot of carrots. This isn’t quite scientific–instead of changing one variable and observing for a different outcome, I might CHANGE ALL THE VARIABLES and see what happens.

There’s something cheeky about the idea of having heirloom beet leaves, rather than impatiens and violas, peeking out over my suburban front porch rail.

Stay tuned.

this could get dangerous.

Yesterday, I made a grocery list. Then I went out into the world to get acupuncture for the first time ever (figured it was my duty, as I’m starting massage school in about a week). Then after that I sat down in my car and looked at my list and saw “nut butter” scrawled at the bottom. And I was feeling all creative and open and shit after the acupuncturist pulled tiny needles out of my feet and I thought, “I could just make my own.”

So I went to Bob’s Red Mill and hit the bulk section and picked up roasted Oregon hazelnuts and whole raw almonds and dry roasted cashews with salt and some flax seeds. I didn’t measure the quantities. I was feeling too free. I already threw away the receipt, but I remember looking at the total and feeling clever that the cost of ingredients was about the same as a jar of the stuff at the store, but would make a larger quantity. Here’s a before picture:

So I plugged in my VitaMix (I could have used my food processor, I think, but I feel like using the VitaMix gives me more crunchy hippie cred) and whirred the flax seeds around on high for 30 seconds. I don’t know this for sure, but it seems like somehow busting open the seeds would make their healthy goodness easier to absorb. People eat flax seed meal for the omega 3s and fiber, right?

Anyway, then I poured the rest of the nuts in there, turned the machine on, turned the speed up to 10, and then flipped the switch on the far left to HIGH and pushed the mixed nutty goodness around with the tamper to make sure they all made friends with the blades at the bottom. And then the machine made the sound of a jet engine backfiring and the cats jumped off the couch and ran upstairs and I was afraid I was destroying this lovely and expensive Christmas present from my man and then all of a sudden it looked like nut butter. I turned everything off and tasted a spoonful. It was warm from the friction of the blades and the power of the VitaMix. Thicker than store-bought natural nut butters, and not as oily. Not as salty, either, but that’s actually OK. The cashews lend a mild creaminess to the mix, and the hazelnuts add a lovely roasty sweet flavor. It’s truly almond butter, though, which is good because that means I won’t eat it all in one sitting.

I used to buy peanut butter. I don’t believe in completely eliminating certain foods from my diet (BWAHAHA except gluten)–I think that can be a slippery slope towards disordered eating in this culture. But I really can’t keep peanut butter in the house anymore. I used to buy the Whole Foods brand natural creamy peanut butter. I would kill a jar in, like, three days. This started to get to a ridiculous place. I remember walking to Whole Foods from the Veggie Co-op when the roads were too nasty to drive my little Chevy Metro there. I just checked: that was a mile. I would walk a mile in the snow/ice/wintry mix to get my damn peanut butter. It was probably below freezing, too. And then I would walk back. The Co-op bought giant 5-gallon tubs of some other (often crunchy) peanut butter, but it wasn’t the same.

And now I have the power to make my own. At home. As long as I can refrain from buying peanuts next time, we’re safe.

I can still write a blog post if I have no idea what I’m doing.

The title says it all. Or, at least, quite a bit.

what the hell is this?

Since moving into our lovely lovely home, I’ve had to work a bit to change my mindset on my living space. In the past, it’s been apartments or stepping stones–you move in, you think “I better get this shit up on the walls and enjoy it before I move out in 6 (8, 11, 12, 20) months.”  And, significantly, you often don’t have any of your own dirt.

Dirt in the ground, I mean. Containers be damned. I kill things in containers.

We moved in November and have a smattering of things up on the walls. Every few weekends Jesse will get a burst of ambition and hang things or reconnoiter the office (or the closet, or the garage–bless him). Every few weekends I’ll get a burst of inspiration–or is it indignation?–and say EFF IT and paint the living room purple (“plum swirl”, actually) or the half bath a crazy mango and Caribbean blue. Or start a garden.

Woah there. Like I said, I’ve never had my own dirt. Like, in the ground. I remember the MULCH garden back at Mac, where I never helped out or had time or interest in learning anything from my green-thumbed neighbors. I succumbed to my  (false) perception of futility of growing things in Minnesota. Whatever. I’d like to think I’d have changed and would be doing the same thing if we’d stayed in Minneapolis, despite the relatively infinitesimal growing season.

That said, the Northwest has its own set of challenges too. We had sun and 50 degree weather a week and a half ago–couldn’t imagine another frost–and on Tuesday it snowed a few inches. It’s been raining for the last couple days, and turning over our clay soil while it’s this wet would make for a raised bed full of bricks. I learned this stuff from the good people at Portland Nursery on Division, who don’t care that I know nothing and was in fact a garden cynic a few years ago. I did my own research, too, and picked up Square Foot Gardening and Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades at the Powell’s Books for Home and Garden store on Hawthorne.

The Portland Nursery people seemed pleased that I’d picked those two to be my main guides after a brief and caffeinated Internet search for help. I like these books–if you can get past both authors’ “my way is better than any other way and let me tell you why a million times before I tell you how to fucking do it” tones, you actually will encounter a wealth of valuable instruction. I’m relying on it.

Well. So far, I’ve:

  • pulled back the leaf cover over the raised beds we have against our south-facing fence in the back yard
  • transplanted a giant fern because I own this place and put my ferns wherever I damn well please
  • lay down 1 bale of Black Forest Soil Amending Compost to help break up the clay and improve the soil’s nutrients
  • bought and assembled a compost bin (that Enviro World guy–perfect for our smaller space, my lack of motivation for turning the pile, and because we don’t need 15 cubic feet of amazing compost every 2 weeks)
  • bought seeds and started planning my little square foot plots (I plan on picking up tomato, pepper, and lavender plants at the OC Farmer’s Market when it comes time)

To do, still:

  • lay another bale of compost when the rain lets up enough for me to go outside without melting
  • turn the compost under when it’s been dry enough
  • pick up large garden labels and nylon cord or string to keep myself honest about how big a square foot really is
  • …and, according to the Almanac‘s projected date of last frost, start planting in about a week!

Apparently, keeping soil healthy is a year-round task. We’re jumping into the cycle now, but not entirely from scratch–it’s clear that the previous owners cared about their dirt, at least a bit. The Portland Nursery info chick started waxing poetic about overwinter crops and I went cross-eyed. One step at a damn time. I’m under no illusions that I’m, like, a new hipster homesteader or anything.

But I do have some bitchin’ Carhartt overalls in my dresser.

ah, sweet-tart roasted freedom

We moved!

Into a house we own. One we bought. It’s ours. I’m thinking it’s about time I change my cell number to one with a local area code.

I have some complex feelings about the whole home ownership thing, but most of all I simply effing LOVE MY HOUSE, and I’m swimming in ideas and excitement and crap in boxes. And until recently, mostly-green tomatoes picked off plants tended by the previous owners.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them, but I figured I had to do something before they turned to yuck. When in doubt, slow-roast. Well, I actually sort of  medium-roasted them. Here’s my method:

1. Quarter the tomatoes.

2. Plop cut side up on a baking sheet lined in foil.

3. Sprinkle liberally with salt and black pepper.

4. Drizzle a mix of grapeseed and olive oils over tomatoes. Well, I didn’t drizzle so much as sling. I had some oil slurpage to clean off the counters when I was done.

5. Pop into preheated 250 degree F oven for about 3.5 hours. I ended up using 1 baking sheet and a small shallow pie pan to fit all the tomatoes without crowding them too much, and after a couple hours I let the pans trade places in the oven. I find that this oven tends to brown things like CRAZY on the top rack towards the back, so I wanted both pans to get equal exposure to that spot.

Now I have these tart and sweet little umami bombs, and I have no idea what to do with them.

That’s kind of how it feels to be in a new house, too. There’s a lot of freedom, I sense, in a plateful of slow-roasted green tomatoes.