It may be off-season for the kids, but the school garden is still a-growing. Above is the last of the sugar snap peas. Below, bee balm is in bloom, lilies in the distance.
One of many pumpkin plants sown by the second graders.
I just realized I haven't shown you any pictures of our school garden this year.
Bet you thought I killed it.
I did not! It is alive and well!
Volunteers built three new raised beds over the summer, and a few artistic students painted some signs and stakes for labeling things. There's a pizza garden with cherry tomatoes and herbs, a lush bed full of leafy greens like lettuce and chard and kale, and another bed full of pole beans, the radishes along the perimeter having long been harvested. The rabbit population in the area has exploded, so fencing is a new requirement. They really seem to love gnawing the strawberry and cucumber plants down to the ground, as well as the beautiful sweet potato vines I planted myself from slips. Curse those adorable cotton-tailed creatures!
There's a brand new butterfly garden this year with bee balm, milkweed, and butterfly bushes to encourage pollinators, as well as some gorgeous sunflowers planted by little hands.
I was watering the garden today when I came across this guy climbing up the building's foundation?
A giant praying mantis. He was about as long as my hand, wrist to fingertip. I didn't have my good camera with me, but the sun was so bright that it etched out some of the details in shadow. You don't see this kind of visitor every day, so I got him onto a stick and brought him over to the cafeteria window, which overlooks the garden. It was just about noon, so I knew the place would be packed with kids. I nudged the mantis onto the window screen and let it climb around for a little while in plain view of the children sitting on the other side of the glass. This caused a minor riot in the lunchroom as dozens of kids came running over to see. A scant 30 seconds of smiling observation passed before one of the lunch monitors attempted to draw the curtains and, when that didn't work, put her hand over the window in front of the insect to block anyone's view except mine. I already know what a praying mantis looks like, Lady! A part of my soul died a little, but then I tried reaching back into my substitute teaching days, which weren't so long ago, to remember what it's like to wrangle a room full of kids when you're totally outnumbered. Distractions—even educational ones—are not always appreciated. I took that as my cue to remove the regal insect and return him to his comfort zone in the weeds growing wild by the leaky hose. This put me on better terms with the mantis as well!
Next up for the garden: I'd like to see some cross-pollinating apple trees back there. Maybe even some pear trees. Also, we need more cherry tomato plants. More! I gave a garden tour to my son's second grade class last week, and all of the tomatoes were stripped in two minutes flat. One little girl had never tried one before. She loved it. Nature's candy!
I've spent a fair bit of time over the past few weeks helping to get the kids' school garden cleaned up and productive. A lot of the weeding involved removing mint bent on world domination. I thought of saving it to make pesto, but it was the wrong kind of mint. This tasted more like peppermint. While peppermint pasta doesn't appeal, I couldn't see throwing all of that perfectly good mint into the compost. Plus all that weeding makes you hot and sweaty. Soon I was craving something cool and refreshing. And minty.
Mint chocolate chip was always a favorite flavor of mine growing up, but I'd never made it at home. Turns out, there's nothing to it. Tear up the mint leaves and steep them in hot milk until cool, strain out the greenery, and proceed with the usual steps. Drizzling some melted chocolate over the churned mixture as you pack it into a container to freeze gives you instant chocolate chips (you get to use your favorite chocolate, too). It's a nice reward for an honest partial-day's work.
I make my ice cream the old-fashioned way: with organic raw eggs. You are not required to do the same. If you're worried about salmonella, your options are many: Use pasteurized eggs instead. Or leave out the eggs entirely for a very serviceable Philadelphia-style ice cream. Or pull out your favorite cooked custard-style ice cream cookbook (like David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, for example) and modify this recipe using egg yolks and a thermometer. Or pull out your favorite cornstarch-based, egg-free, gelato-style ice cream cookbook (like Jeni Britton Bauer's Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream at Home) and modify, modify, modify. It's your kitchen after all.
1 cup mint leaves (or more), packed
1-1/2 cups milk
2 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Tear up the mint leaves and add them to a small saucepan with the milk. Heat the milk until little bubbles form around the edges. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit until cool. Refrigerate until ready to use (the longer it sits, the more flavor becomes infused). Strain the mixture into a medium bowl, pressing on the leaves to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the leaves.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs for 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in the sugar a little at a time, then whisk for 1 minute more. Pour in the cream and minty milk, and whisk for another minute until the sugar is dissolved. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions (usually spin for 25 minutes).
While the ice cream is churning, heat the chopped chocolate on top of a double boiler (if you don't have one, improvise your own by setting a metal bowl atop a smallish saucepan with an inch of simmering water; the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water). Stir the chocolate until melted and smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.
Transfer the churned ice cream mixture into a freezer-safe container in layers, messily alternating big spoonfuls of soft ice cream with drizzlings of melted chocolate. Freeze until firm, at least 8 hours.
Much of this glorious Memorial Day weekend was spent outside: eating ribs on the porch, sleeping in tents in the backyard, and catching frogs at Great Meadows.
I call my oldest son the frog whisperer. I mean, sure, there's a lot of commotion during the actual catching process, but then look:
The frog's just sitting on his arm. He was there for a while, too. Why isn't he jumping off? It's a wild frog!
Usually you can't get your hands on a frog, never mind ask them to pose for you. And even if you do catch one, they're slippery little guys that wiggle free and execute all of these hoppy evasive maneuvers until they're safely entrenched back in the murky shallows. I thought it was a fluke, but then it happened again later with a different frog. And here he is again with a toad:
(The amphibians couldn't stand the rest of us for even one second.)
Anyway, this post isn't about frogs and toads. It's about our other Memorial Day weekend activity: trying to rein in the wild kingdom that is our backyard. It's a jungle back there! A poison-ivy-canopied, possibly-tick-infested jungle. I'd like to say it's all under control now, but the truth is, it will never be under control, and therefore my willingness to exert myself wanes before it even waxes. As long as the boys can retrieve their wiffle balls without contracting hideous, weeping rashes, I feel my landscaping responsibilities are complete.
But there were a few pleasant surprises in the yard mixed in with the unpleasant ones:
Wild black raspberries! They're not ripe, yet, but they will be in a few weeks. What started as one cane a few years ago has turned into a veritable bramble with hundreds of potential berries. The plants are aggressive and thorny, but they're better than some of the other aggressive, thorny plants I fight with every year. The compact berries are delicious for snacking, as well as in cakes, jams, and salads. We may lose a few wiffle balls in the process, but I like to think it's worth it!
I think these are wild blackberry blossoms. I know I sampled a few blackberries one year on the steepest part of the slope, and they seem to have spread. They must like the poor soil and constant erosion we have. The problem is that they're in an inconvenient spot, so I always forget to check on them at the right time, which is later on in the summer. I'm pretty sure the birds remember, though!
My first blueberries! About eight years ago, I planted three blueberry bushes. Not once have I seen a single blueberry on any of them. I checked! Well, feast your eyes on that cluster of six berries in progress! Yeah, okay, so they're the only berries on the whole bush. So what? It's better than the other two bushes, which don't have any at all.
The long-standing principle in my yard is Survival of the Fittest/Most Delicious. Let the hardiest, tastiest plants win!!
Healthy Waltham and the parent volunteers did a great job with the school garden this year. Come see what we grew:
My kids helped plant the cucumber patch with the school librarian one July evening. Many thanks to Mrs. L for donating the plants and cucurbit expertise. They absolutely thrived.
Last year's first graders planted these pumpkin seeds. This year's second graders should be pleased to see how much their plants have grown, and how big the pumpkins have become (including one GIANT plant sprawling out of the compost, like Jack and the Beanstalk but horizontal.) A wheelbarrow was left right-side-up during Tropical Storm Irene and collected at least 6 inches of water. We sloshed it over to the pumpkin patch and the kids filled up their watering cans from there.
We didn't have as many cherry tomato plants as in years past in order to make room for other crops like fairy tale eggplant and peppers.
There was also a good showing from the Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, and green beans.
I can't take the credit for most of this. You know my gardening skills are flimsy at best. Parent volunteers and their pint-sized helpers came through all summer long to weed, water, and stake tomatoes. But I think it's fair for me to take a little bit of the credit for not killing everything!
Last week, I harvested about 20 enormous cucumbers, an armful of tiny eggplants, some green peppers, a bunch of kale, and a ton of green beans.
I brought the loot to the school cafeteria and the lunch ladies took what they would use. This in addition to all the great zucchini, summer squash, and salad greens donated to the school by my CSA, Waltham Fields Community Farm.
Now all we need in the school garden are a couple of apple trees, and perhaps some fall raspberries!
Lest you think that all this mushroom-growing and involvement in the school garden has miraculously turned my black thumbs green, I’m here to tell you that it’s business as usual on the plant-killing front. My sage plant died almost instantly upon transfer of ownership. My two heirloom tomato plants were dead by August. The oregano isn’t far behind. And while the rest of the herbs are hanging on, they’re clearly not thriving. Even the mint has no intention of trying to outgrow its tiny pot.
I know you’re going to ask me if I’ve been watering my plants and the answer is no. Of course I haven’t. I can barely keep my own self hydrated on a daily basis. I count on a little rain falling once in a while, but so far this summer I think it’s only rained twice in two months. Not a good situation when your so-called caretaker will only drag the hose out once a week to soak her mushroom logs.
Luckily, there are eight other families involved in the school garden, so the plants over there have been getting plenty of water and good care. The proof is in the sungold tomatoes, which did not disappoint again this year. So sweet and so many! Everyone was buzzing about the bright orange sun-candy. I have a feeling there won’t be any trouble getting garden volunteers next year. I just hope none of them ever bear witness to the secret shame that is my own garden!
Maybe it’s just the mushrooms talking, but that’s a lot of mushrooms!
I harvested nearly a pound of shiitakes from one of my logs last week. There was a little bit of slug damage, but they were remarkably bug-free. Because the weather has been so dry lately, I had to trick my logs into thinking it was the rainy season by giving them a 24-hour soak in the kiddie pool (after the kids were done using it, of course). Only one of the logs fell for the ruse with any enthusiasm. Meanwhile, one of the other logs seems to have developed some kind of green mold on one side. Which isn’t a good thing unless I’m planning on growing my own penicillin. Apparently there’s a fine line between fungus and mold, and I’ll keep you posted on where exactly that line is.
Isn’t it weird how mushrooms grow out of logs like that? They just grow right out of the logs!!
As I was slicing the shiitakes from the log, I accidentally dropped one of them into a pile of rotting leaves. I quickly picked it up, fretting and wiping it off like an overprotective parent, until I realized my ridiculousness. Protecting my precious fungal outgrowth, the fruit of boreal decomposition, from a little dirt and detritus? There were slugs crawling all over it a minute ago! It’ll be okay.
Speaking of slugs, I’ve never considered myself to be particularly fleet of foot, but I always fancied myself faster than a slug. Apparently not. I had to break up a mid-morning, slow-motion feeding frenzy by nudging a group of them off the logs with a stick and slingshotting them across the yard. They may not be particularly fast, but they’re very determined. As a secondary line of defense, I tried sprinkling a ring of salt around the log on the paver it was resting on. That seemed to solve the problem, but maybe there's a more humane way to deal with slugs?
Anyway, these shiitakes went into a nice mushroom barley soup over the weekend. I chopped shallots, carrots, and garlic from Waltham Fields (as well as some limp celery I found) and sautéed them in a few tablespoons of Cabot butter until soft. Then I added a bit more butter and my sliced shiitake caps, and cooked for five more minutes. In went 6 cups of beef stock made from bones from Chestnut Farms last winter along with a few extra cups of water (but you could easily substitute vegetable broth and/or the tea left over from soaking dried mushrooms). When it all came to a boil, I added ½ cup barley from Moraine Farm and let it simmer for about an hour. I finished it off with a couple of tablespoons of cognac and a tablespoon of chopped fresh thyme. Not exactly summer food, but think about it for the fall!
My mushroom garden is coming along. Slowly. In addition to the four shiitake logs from last year, I've inoculated three logs with oyster mushroom spawn and three more with maitake spawn (aka hen of the woods). But then I ran out of logs. Perhaps I was overly ambitious when I ordered 300 mushroom plugs. Remind me not to buy my mushroom spawn on an empty stomach.
Since I still had 100 shiitake plugs left and I didn’t want to take down any trees unnecessarily, I’ve been trolling the mean streets of Waltham for additional logs. I spotted some in the driveway of a house en route to the park. One of the guys who lives there could often be seen making modifications to what looked to be a souped-up monster-truck-type vehicle. Frequently, he could be found washing caked-on mud off of it after what I can only imagine was extreme off-roading. He seemed like a nice enough guy, though, and who am I to judge other people’s hobbies. I mean, I write stories about my food. So, I decided to bite the bullet and knock on his door.
Monster Truck Dude answered. I asked if he, perchance, had any plans for those logs. He indicated they were slated for firewood. I scowled as I looked over at the gigantic barricade of firewood he had already amassed between his house and his neighbor’s yard. I mentioned my penchant for mushrooms and how those logs could probably grow some good ones. Edible ones, I clarified. He indicated that he liked mushrooms. How many did I need? I low-balled it at three. Take four, he said, and you can bring mushrooms in exchange. I explained that it takes a whole year for mushrooms to establish, but he said that was fine. Then, I happily hauled four logs into my car and promised to return someday.
Wow, it’s like this bartering thing actually works! See, this is where having that extra boob comes in handy. Perhaps this is the beginning of a high-risk, low yield mushroom CSA! I imagine getting a permit for that is no problem at all!
I know I pissed some of you off with the tomato theft story. With so many garden-oriented readers, I can’t help but think I half-hoped to stir up a little controversy with my presentation. And you have a valid point. Stealing is wrong, regardless of the scale, regardless of the circumstance. But let me give you the rest of the story, not to excuse it, but to put it in a larger context.
The garden in question turned out to be in back of my older son’s elementary school. That there was a garden back there was news to me. No one had ever mentioned anything about a school garden before. My son had never laid eyes on it. The woman who had told me about the tomatoes was affiliated with the community farm through which we have a CSA share, but I didn’t know much more than that. All I knew was there were unblighted tomatoes behind the school, possibly the only local tomatoes I would see all year, and I needed to figure out a way to get some. And, yes, I realize that stealing from children only worsens my case for clemency, but let me finish. Sheesh!
When I showed up at the building, boldly holding two pint containers in my hands, it was a week or so before school was starting. Teachers were preparing for the new school year and so there was some activity inside the building. I headed for the office to ask the school secretary about the garden. She said, what garden? I said, the garden in back of the school. She said, we have a garden in back of the school? I said, don’t you? Nobody else in the office seemed to know. This is when I started to doubt the veracity of the woman at the farm. Where did she get this information? I asked if I could go out back and look. The secretary said, go ahead. I asked if she wanted me to pick her a pint of tomatoes while I was back there. She didn’t seem to care.
If you missed the tomato story, what happened next is here. The plants were big and beautiful and yielded tons of ripe little sungolds. Tons. I took two pints and change, and barely made a dent. It was clear that somebody was taking good care of that garden, but who? Then, when the janitors started banging trashcans against the windows, I figured it was probably them. I resolved to get to the bottom of this mystery as soon as possible. As soon as possible after I got those tomatoes into a salad.
Once school began, I started volunteering at the school library. The library has a long bank of sunny windows in the back that happen to overlook the garden and its woody surroundings. I asked the librarian about the garden and, as it happened, she knew the e-mail addresses of the two people who planted it. I contacted them and one of them wrote back to say that the garden was part of a pilot program at the public schools designed to teach kids about where their food comes from and the growing cycle. One of the grades had planted pumpkin seeds before summer vacation and would be harvesting them that fall. She said they were looking to expand the garden and get more kids, and perhaps the parents, involved. Can you guess who the person in charge of the garden was?
The woman who told me about the tomatoes in the first place!
Damnit! I hadn’t been stealing after all! She had practically given me her blessing. (sigh)
Well, that garden left such an indelible impression on me that I immediately volunteered to be the parent liaison. Now I help Healthy Waltham, a city-run organization that aims to improve health and quality of life, in organizing parent volunteers to help maintain the garden over the summer (weeding, watering, and, yes, harvesting) so it’s in good shape for lessons in the fall. They’re hoping that, with more parent involvement, the garden can grow, become more integrated in the curriculum, and serve as an example for other schools around the country.
Nine families signed up to take care of the garden for a week this summer. During our week, the kids and I watered the plants, weeded, and mulched the pumpkin patch with straw. And by “the kids and I,” I mean me. They sat under a shady tree and read books. That’s fine, too.
I’m not sure the end always justifies the means, but, in this case, it didn’t turn out too badly.
Here’s a story for you. Last summer amid my health woes, my teenaged niece came to visit from Hawaii. Her stay was pretty much the only ray of sunshine that whole summer. She babysat the kids, helped out around the house, and generally entertained us with her perky self for two weeks.
While the summer as a whole is a big black hole in my memory, I remember lots of things about her visit: watching food TV and enjoying her wisecracks during that paper-thin window of time between when the kids went to bed and my own eyes involuntarily clamped shut. Fishing at Spy Pond (mostly fishing lures out of trees at Spy Pond). Me setting a good example for said niece by getting pulled over by the cops for a traffic violation. And then there was the tomato-picking.
You may recall last year’s widespread tomato blight. Every farm in the area was hit and even people’s backyard plants were doomed to the same terrible fate. I didn’t see a ripe local heirloom tomato all summer, which was very depressing indeed. Until. Somebody snuck me some classified information. Apparently there was a stand of sungold cherry tomatoes on public property within the Waltham city limits that was entirely free of blight and ready to be harvested. The woman who told me this said it so casually, I almost didn’t believe her. Didn’t she realize this was THE BEST NEWS EVER?
I didn’t ask any questions. With no time to lose, I took another hit of my anti-nausea meds and pointed my niece and kids in the appropriate direction. My niece, who spent most of her formative years on an organic garden bursting forth from fertile, volcanic island soil, patiently indulged me. When we got to the building in question and walked around back, I didn’t see the garden anywhere. I’d been tricked! What kind of a person lies about tomatoes to a cancer patient? As we turned around to trudge back, my niece noticed what looked to be a patch of kale. Yes, that was definitely kale. Well done, adolescent human! What more dost thou youthful eyes behold?
And there they were. High up on a terrace of a south-facing slope were the tomato plants, golden orbs shining like treasure. No wonder nobody had found them—they were growing ten feet above our heads. You had to pass underneath several retaining walls, then walk up the far side of the hill to access them or even see them. The garden was completely encircled by a sprawling edifice on one side and conservation land on the other, and, beyond that, train tracks, a cemetery, and the Charles River. A more protected tomato fortress I cannot imagine.
I felt exhilarated—thrilled to encounter this pristine patch of perfect tomatoes, completely disease-free against all odds. We got to work filling up two pint-sized containers with the taut, sun-burnished fruits, popping some into our mouths as we went. Finally, the janitors in the building overlooking the garden started banging trashcans against the windows to put a stop to our small-scale looting. It worked! We scuttled away giggling, mouths full, tomato juice dribbling down our chins.
I bring this up for three reasons: 1) I miss my niece; 2) I’ve developed a relationship with this particular garden (a healthy one—more on this later); and 3) Sometimes beautiful little acts of disobedience are the best medicine.
Today, I have a special guest blogger for you: author Novella Carpenter. She’s an urban farmer based in Oakland, CA, where she raises vegetables, fruit, chickens, honey bees, rabbits, and dairy goats in the middle of the city. Novella will be reading from her book, Farm City (now out in paperback), at Porter Square Books in Cambridge this coming Monday, June 7 at 7 p.m., so be sure to stop by for some funny farm stories and a seed give away. Take it away, Novella…I can’t help it, I like weird stuff. Like boyfriends who lie in the middle of the floor at a dinner party. Like cats with white paw pads. Like weird fruits and vegetables not available in fine stores. I’ve made it a point to collect strange fruit. I have a Seville orange tree (it’s small and I’ve still yet to get a nary a sour orange off of it). I have a sour cherry tree (we got enough cherries last year for one mind-blowing pie). Every year I graft some antique apple variety to my poor overburdened apple tree (this year it was a Winter Banana).
Vegetables are no different; I will often wander around ethnic farmers markets with my tongue hanging out. “What is this?” I’ll ask the old ladies nearby, and they will patiently explain about taro root or chayote tendrils. A friend from Los Angeles came to visit and brought seeds for the famous giant radish of Oaxaca. I was so excited, it was as if she had brought me a suitcase full of money. This spring has been a busy one, and I’ve planted some weird vegetables that I wanted to share with you.
Crapaudine beets (Beta vulgaris)My sister, who lives in France, was laughing her ass off about this one when she sent me some seeds. We’re into that kind of toilet humor, and she thought maybe the etymological roots signaled that these beets were a, um, stool causer. My sister is always sending me some ancient Roman vegetable information, and these beets were apparently the original beet back in those days, before they became all rounded or striped inside.
Of course, I planted a whole bed of them. After 60 days, the leaves were looking amazing and strong so I went to harvest some for my little farm stand. This is what came out.
So that’s where the name comes from: crappy. No one bought the beets at the farm stand, and so I was left to deal with them. Being thrifty, I recognized the value of those leaves. So I made some beet chips out of them. It was easy, I just tossed the leaves in olive oil, put them in an oven at 350 degrees and cooked them for 7 minutes. They get all green and flat, perfect for tossing with salt and nutritional yeast.
Next, I had to deal with the pathetic beetroot. I just dropped them into boiling water for a few minutes. I had very low expectations. Turned out, the thin-yucky skin slipped off to reveal a gorgeous mini-carrot-like thing.
The crapaudine beets actually tasted great! Very sweet, more like a carrot than a beet. They had a velvety texture and were lovely in a green salad tossed with boiled eggs. Thanks, Sister! I’ll never grow them for market, though.
Bleu de Solaise leeks (Allium porrum)
Someone dumped two flats of leeks on my boyfriend. He fixed her truck, and the truck had the leeks inside—and she asked, “Does Novella want them?” Yes, Novella does. She likes free things, especially when they are heirloom leeks. These leeks, true to their name, are blue. Like that violet-y blue that is almost hallucinatory next to the dark earth. Two trays of leeks is a lot of leek. I had enough to sell at my farm stand—and enough to make leek confit.
Confit always sounds so fancy. But in the leek confit case, it just meant that I braised the leeks in butter in a low oven for an hour. The leeks just fall apart and become gooey and caramel-y sweet. I like to use them to make leek soup (just add stock) or a leek tart (make a crust). Baby! What’s great about heirlooms like the Bleu de Solaise, is you can save the seeds and you’ll get the same beautiful blue leeks year after year.
Rampicante zucchini (Cucurbita moschata)
There’s a seed company called Baker Creek that is perfect for novelty freaks like myself. The catalog did lead me astray with a couple orders—like the Southeast Chinese cucumbers or the Thai Tigger melons that are never going to grow in foggy Northern California. Still, I love Baker Creek’s line-up. So far, I have one freak that is thriving: the rampicante zucchini.
I was drawn to it because the ad copy promised that I could eat the young squash like zucchini, and if it got older, I could eat it like winter squash. This would really solve the problem of too-far-gone zucchini, right? I also liked the name, but later heard rampicante is synonymous with the more well-known tromboncino, which I think I grew four years ago. It was just okay. Fooled again.
Alrighty, I’m off to scan the nurseries for weird heirlooms like white tomatoes, padrone peppers, and some freaky perennial spinach.You can read more from Novella on her blog, Ghost Town Farm.
So, while all of this medical shit was going down, there were mushrooms. There was the first flush of oyster mushrooms back in May, as you might recall. Then, there was a second flush. And then a third. But, as always, things didn’t quite go according to plan.
The plan, of course, was to eat the mushrooms. But when the second flush appeared, as discovered by the 3YO, who seems to be developing a greenish- brown tinge to his thumbs, we were in the middle of making our getaway to the Cape for Memorial Day weekend and mushrooms were the furthest thing from our minds. Still, I was delighted to note that there were four times as many mushrooms as before.
A long weekend, however, was too long. Upon our return, all of these mushrooms had curled up into sad little husks. Damnit! I went off and sulked. The mushroom instructions mentioned nothing of a third flush, so I reluctantly moved on to other distractions. A few days later, I noticed that these disgusting little wormy things were crawling all over the mushroom remains. Whatever. I figured they’d compost themselves and we’d try again next year.
Then came June and the rain. And the rain and the rain and the rain. The sun may have come out once in three weeks and, on that day, the 3YO checked on what he was now referring to as “his” mushrooms since he was doing all the work. Look what he found among the shriveled remains of the last crop:
Whoa! “His” mushrooms were HUGE, and instead of presenting as little individual umbrellas, as mine had, they were stacked and layered, seemingly clinging to the side of the bucket for dear life as the floods subsided. Maybe two or three pounds worth, they were exactly what oyster mushrooms should look like (except for maybe the ass-shaped one).
Wow, I thought to myself, this is my kind of crop! The more you ignore it, the better the yields. My mouth was watering. I conjured up a mushroom risotto in my mind, something with brandy, beef stock, and thyme. It would be the last meal I would prepare before my surgery, and it would be spectacular.
I could hardly wait to harvest them. I got a paring knife and a paper bag at the ready and cut the top one off at its stem. Right away, something didn’t look right. Instead of the smooth, ivory texture I associate with mushrooms, the stem where I had cut it looked spongy inside, like bread. I waved away a small cloud of bugs in annoyance. And then some more bugs. God, what’s with all the little flies, I thought? Slowly, I turned the palm-sized mushroom cap over in my hand and saw it. Every single one of the ribs housed at least one adult fly and large cluster of eggs. On closer inspection, tiny mushroom-colored larvae were crawling out of every orifice. What I held in my hand, I realized, wasn’t actually a mushroom at all but a mushroom-shaped conglomeration of squirming, miniature maggot-like worms. I flung it to the ground. It crawled away. I passed out.
That picture doesn’t even do it justice. In my semi-conscious state, I dreamt I got Monsanto corporate headquarters on the line: “Hello, Monsanto? I take back what I said. I need a case of Roundup, stat.”
At some point, Husband came around with the watering can to revive me. Then, I faced the bucket once again, hand clamped over my mouth to contain the vomit. I harvested the rest, one by one, to see if anything could be salvaged. Not a single thing. Total infestation.
God, this kind of thing can break your heart. I wonder how farmers deal with the emotional effects of crop loss on a large scale?
I was never much for dolls growing up. The only doll I remember having was when I was maybe 3. It was an ethnically ambiguous Afro-Inuit doll with dreadlocks named Mukluk. My maternal instinct was…how do I put this delicately: underdeveloped. Mukluk’s disappearance still remains a mystery to me. There were no other dolls after her aside from a short-lived and unexplained Barbie fetish in my tween years. Maybe there were some paper dolls at some point. I had this bucket of small wooden blocks that I’d build houses and stuff with, and sometimes I’d draw a person onto a block with magic marker. Does that count?
Husband would say that my lack of dolls explains a lot about my nurturing side. Husband would do well to fuck off. But it’s become clear I could use a female alliance around the house, even if it is mostly symbolic. I’m hideously outnumbered by males and my remaining cat, a female, hates me because, in her minuscule cat brain, I’m the one who came between her and Husband in their very one-sided, cross-species love affair. Don’t ask. But I’m not kidding.
This is where the logs come in. I know. Finally. The best way to grow shiitakes is in logs. My preferred doll medium seems to be log-derived. Why not cross-purpose my shiitake logs and relive my lost youth? Ren and Stimpy know how much fun logs can be.
First I had to find some logs. Not dead, rotting logs you find in the woods, as I had planned, because they’re already inhabited by competing fungi. No, you need recently cut logs. Except I didn’t want to cut down any trees. So, I asked myself, what would Barbie do? Barbie was useless. She was too busy admiring her boobs in the mirror, as usual, so I asked Ken. Ken suggested trolling the neighborhood for wood in his convertible. Ken always got a bad rap. He’s actually very smart for plastic.
Sure enough, there was a big pile of logs on the curb down the street. Turns out everyone cuts down trees in the spring. Yay, deforestation! But, boy, those logs are heavier than they look. I cradled them lovingly in my arms one by one and deposited them in the trunk. And that’s where they stayed for about two weeks to let the wood’s anti-fungal compounds wear off and to protect them from rogue spores. (Or because I forgot about them.) Then I got my drill and punched holes two inches deep about four inches apart, staggered all around the four logs.
This took much longer than expected because, apparently, I have Black & Decker’s Strawberry Shortcake Purple Pie Man edition of a cordless drill, which has no power even when I recharge the spare battery pack and swap it out and put my full weight on top of it, and then have to wait around for an hour while the other one recharges, and repeat six times. (Stupid piece of shit.) (But it smells like strawberries!!)
Anyway, with the 100 or so holes drilled, I banged in the plug spawn with a hammer.
See? My doll has implants, too. Then I brushed the holes with melted beeswax to protect them from insects (messy and a pain to clean up, but at least I made use of all those beeswax sheets I meant to turn into candles for wedding favors but then never did). With the logs inoculated, you water them once in a while and store them in the shade. After enough time has passed (about a year, I hear) and the right conditions present themselves (whatever those might be), fungus will start to emerge in ruffles all around the log like an ill-conceived, earth-tone flamenco dress. If you’re lucky, you can strip down the logs and dress them up again for a good seven years! My logs are going to be sooooooo pretty. I can’t wait to have a tea party!
So, if you see me talking to my logs, that’s why.
It has begun. My mushroom-growing experiment, that is. Do you have any idea how fascinating fungus is? Do you? I don’t think you do. Sometime, I’ll have to devote an entire post to the wonder that is the earth’s natural recycling process, as it will just about blow your mind, but right now I have to unburden myself of the pile of neglected posts accumulating on my desktop before they start self-composting.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucky gardener. However, growing mushrooms is the opposite of gardening, and so I’m optimistic that I’ll have tremendous success. If I’ve learned anything from my past failures, it’s this: diversify. That way, you can have double (even triple!) the fun, while containing your losses somewhat. So I’m trying three different strategies in the hopes that one of these will actually grow:
1. Oyster mushrooms in used coffee grounds;
2. Shiitakes out of felled logs; and
3. Morels in my former garden spot with plenty of fireplace and BBQ ash.
Of the three, the third one is absolutely doomed to fail. Everyone (apparently) knows that morels are impossible to grow and, yet, you can always count on someone like me plopping down a hard-earned twenty to test the odds. But somebody eventually wins the lottery, right? You just have to be foolish enough to play.
The oyster mushrooms have the best chance of working. Why? Because the patch I bought, which is basically a block of established oyster mushroom spawn in packed sawdust, was already producing mushrooms right inside the package it came in. I ordered it from Fungi Perfecti, the company run by mushroom guru Paul Stamets who wrote that book I mentioned. Basically, I just went to the children’s section of his site and bought whatever mushrooms were deemed easy enough for kids to grow. Because that’s about the level of expertise I bring to the table. I also got a Mushrooms of the World coloring book. For myself.
Here’s what I did to prepare the growing medium for my oyster mushrooms. Dug a 5-gallon bucket out of the basement and washed it out. Drilled five or six holes in the bottom. Ripped up some old pizza boxes and soaked the cardboard in a sink full of water. Placed the soggy cardboard in the bottom of the bucket. Dumped Husband’s accumulated coffee grounds on top. Realized I would need a LOT more than that. Begged my neighbors for their coffee grounds. Got a little bit more. Realized I would have to take drastic action if I hoped to fill up the bucket by spring’s end. Went to a local coffee shop and asked if they would dump their coffee grounds into my bucket. They agreed. (Thanks to Café on the Common on the corner of Main St. and Moody St. in Waltham). It took about two days to get enough.
Worried that the coffee filters would degrade at a different rate than the grounds, I pulled them out and composted them separately. I poured water onto the grounds and drained off the excess. Then, I opened the oyster mushroom spawn.
See? Mushrooms already. They look leggy because they had no access to light in the box they came in. The instructions said to cut off these mushrooms before proceeding. Then, I broke up the spawn with my hands and mixed it into the coffee grounds, like so.
Now the mushrooms have all kinds of new material to decompose. Then you compress the whole thing, mist it twice a day with a water sprayer, cover with the humidity tent it came with, and store it outside somewhere with indirect light.
And now we wait. It should take about two or three weeks for mushrooms to appear. Let the betting pool begin.
Next up, shiitakes. The logs should be ready for action in just a few weeks.
I picked the first tomato from my own plants today, and it was a beauty (in its own ugly way). I admit, I have no idea when you’re supposed to pick tomatoes. This one turned red about a week ago, or, rather, a strange shade of pink (it’s a Caspian pink, after all). Still, I kept arguing with myself. Maybe it would get redder? Would another day make it even more delicious? Are the woodland creatures closing in? How high can a woodchuck jump, anyway?
But, nothing ends my internal debates quite so abruptly as a faint twinge of hunger. So, off it came. I sliced it up with fresh mozzarella and ribbons of local basil and drizzled it with the usual non-local stuff (olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper). There really wasn’t any need to reinvent the wheel.
Is there anything better than this?
Well, maybe the corn. Oh Lordy…the corn. Drumlin Farm, I hereby declare your cobs to be worth every worm.
My tomato plants are out of control. They have long since dwarfed me (not saying much), and are now towering over my husband (saying much, much more). At this rate, I’ll be able to climb my tomato stalks and bribe my way into heaven by August. Or is God cracking down on illegals, too?
See my little tomatoes? They’re Caspian pinks, a Russian heirloom. Look how cute and misshapen one of them is. It’s all I can do not to eat it up this second.
All of the gardening books I skimmed said that the best plants for novice gardeners to start with are radishes. Even children can grow radishes, they assured me. Based on my experience, however, they were talking about expensively preschooled, genius children. My radishes have no radish attached to them. Just a skinny, radish-colored root. They suck.
Better candidates, I think, would be tomato plants. From the looks of it, even a stem cell can grow them. Or, at least, a stem cell that stumbled upon the perfect tomato-growing conditions completely by accident. (Take that, stem cells. You think you’re so smart.)
Are tomato plants supposed to be this gigantic?
Also, check out the roses (middle front row, and middle back row). They totally rebounded, no thanks to me. The brown leaves all fell off and by the time I got back from vacation, they had all new green leaves and some buds. I guess the only one the roses had a problem with was me.
Look at my tomato plants! The one in the pot is even bigger. I planted most of them in with the roses because I heard they had some sort of mutually beneficial relationship. Judging by this picture, it appears that tomatoes really, really like roses. But, the roses? They’re not full of love for the tomatoes. Here’s the before picture. The tomato plants are now towering over the roses, which have completely deteriorated. I hereby declare their relationship to be dysfunctional.
But, maybe it’s not the tomatoes that are to blame for the roses’ dismal performance. I know the roses don’t like the powdery mildew that plagues their leaves every spring. Usually, I just spray them with whatever chemicals the garden people tell me to, but I’m not so much with the chemicals this year. It’s going to have to be survival of the fittest. So far, the tomatoes are winning.
In other news, here’s the most pathetic garden ever.
And these are the best performers in the bed, aside from the weeds along the border that appear to be really enjoying the water drainage. Apparently, the plants don’t like the shady spot I picked out for them. What a bunch of crybabies. Also, groundhogs really, really like radishes, but the feeling isn’t mutual. I wouldn’t plant your radishes and your groundhogs too close together.
Now, let’s take a look at the stuff that grows all by itself, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass what’s around it or whether or not I’m going to water it. I wonder how these would taste in a salad?
The tomato plants went in last week. They’re growing at a ridiculous rate with little corresponding effort on my part. Granted, I didn’t start them from seed, but I swear the plants doubled in size since I took that picture. Now, they need cages and everything. This is very good for the ego of a novice gardener.
This is what I planted: one Brandywine, one Cherokee Purple, and one San Marzano, which I mixed in with the roses that were here when we moved in. They say roses and tomatoes get along real nice. We’ll see about that. I also have a Caspian Pink, which I put in a pot by itself just in case things get ugly.
I focused mainly on heirloom tomatoes because I might have mentioned that I have a tomato seed problem. And a raw tomato flavor problem. So, if I’m going to eat any of these tomatoes raw (and I want to eat all of them raw except for the San Marzanos that are destined for sauce), they need to be beyond delicious. Luckily, I’ve learned that the best-tasting tomatoes are the ugliest ones. Misshapen, cracked, in weird shades of red with tinges of green – that’s my ideal tomato.
(Oh, and once I had a big, cream-colored tomato that knocked my socks off, but I have no idea what it was called. It was big. And cream-colored. Anyone?)
As for the vegetable garden, the radishes look the best, followed by the arugula. Not bad considering the spot I so lovingly chose for the garden only gets two hours of direct sunlight per day. Good one. The carrots look pretty pathetic, but they’re carrots so who cares. I think one zucchini seed out of 16 germinated. Also, the squirrels have taken it upon themselves to rearrange the seed rows while digging for buried treasure, so it’s going to be a mystery what things are until I pull them up.
I love this whole thinning deal, though. I had no idea what a perk it would be. We had arugula sprouts on tuna salad sandwiches last week, courtesy of Husband who has a way with a can of tuna. Today, I had a little salad of baby lettuce and Swiss chard sprouts. Why are they so good?
Right now, I’m stationed by the window on red alert for the terrorist threat posed by one or more scheming groundhogs. No matter what happens, at least I had the sprouts.
I did some thinning of my sprouts over the weekend. For those of you who don’t garden and/or participate in genocides, thinning means you remove some sprouts in favor of others so that the stronger (and presumably tastier) plants might have more room to grow.
I hadn’t really planned on killing my newborn radish children so soon (on Mother’s Day, no less), but it turns out that I was overzealous in my planting. There were septuplets crowded together all over the place, elbowing each other in the ribs and competing for precious water and cow poop. It was clear that some of them had to go. Plus, that’s what the seed packets said to do, and what the hell do I know?
In some cases, it was easy to choose. I mercilessly plucked out the gnarly-looking ones and the pale ones. But, then, I started to feel guilty. After all, some pale, gnarly-looking babies turn out to be perfectly functional and happy citizens (as well as avid bloggers), and shouldn’t they be allowed to carry on?
I continued this ethical conversation with myself while I went inside to wash off a few sprouts and see if they might be at all tasty. Indeed, they were. Very, very tasty. (I think I might have finally figured out what “micro-greens” are). I rushed back outside and just started yanking out sprouts indiscriminately.
I hope there are still some left.
We finally got our seeds planted this week, only a month or two behind everyone else. I didn’t take a picture of the garden because it looks just like this, but with dirt in it. The seeds are under the dirt. At least, that’s where they were before the squirrels started digging around in there. They can outsmart the most cunning squirrel-proof bird feeders, even gnaw their way through sheets of metal to get into our walls, but they can’t remember if they buried nuts in the dirt pile that’s only been around for a week.
Here’s what we planted: carrots, lettuce, radishes, Swiss chard, and arugula (we’re waiting on the zucchini because I’m trying my mom’s seed germination trick). As you can see, I picked the easiest things to grow to ensure a high probability of success. If I’m lucky, I’ll end up with a bountiful supply of the most boring vegetables in the supermarket. Then, I suppose, my salad intake will have to increase by 3,000 percent. I really didn’t think this through.
Anyway, it’s been two days since the seeds went in. What the hell is taking so long?
Some of you probably assume that I gave up on this gardening project before I even started. But, I didn’t. And here’s the proof.
One raised garden bed constructed by yours truly. Okay, fine, I had to ask my neighbor to saw the boards. But, the rest of it was all me. Well, except that the four-year-old feels he should be recognized for diligently carrying each screw over to me, one at a time, without dropping most of them. Also, Husband thinks that the sandbox he later constructed to the left of the bed deserves a shout out. What is this? The Oscars?
The raised bed is now nearly filled with a 2-2-1-1 mixture of sand, topsoil, peat moss, and composted cow manure. This recipe courtesy of the 20-Minute Vegetable Gardener by Tom Christopher and Marty Asher, which I dubbed my gardening bible after reading the title. I was disappointed to discover that they meant 20 minutes of work per day, not 20 minutes total for the season. And that, sometimes, you have to do a week’s worth of work all in one day. So, I think, in all fairness, the title should be revised to read, 20-Minute Vegetable Gardening for Suckers, or, more accurately, the $200 Vegetable Gardener.
As expected, four-year-olds are really intrigued by the concept of “cow poop” in a garden, and like to say it over and over again while digging in the dirt. This gave him tremendous focus. I highly recommend renting one or two small children instead of a rototiller. They are remarkably efficient and usually much cheaper.
Seeds are supposedly on the way. Hurry up, little seeds. The novelty started to wear off after I hoisted the 15th bag of cow poop up the 20 stairs to my yard.