Nuts!

Can a tree be a hero? My answer is a resounding YES!

Now, I hear the chorus of your skepticism, indeed I do. Many of you will be quick to point out the faults of trees. The list begins.

One. Trees regularly get in the way of cars, and isn’t it silly of them to grow at curves in the roads. Totally the tree’s fault if a driver misses the bend.

Two. Trees haven’t the good sense not to fall over in high winds. Bad enough when they ruin the perfection of a park or forest by collapsing, but they are altogether too quick to fall on houses, innocently-parked automobiles, and power lines. Clearly the tree just lives to inconvenience humans.

Three. A tree, to use legal jargon, is an attractive nuisance. Cats can’t resist them. They are lured into a tree’s heights, there to become paralysed with acrophobia, thus requiring hazardous rescue. Claw marks on exposed skin are the usual result. Ouch.

Four. Trees produce leaves, which would be lovely if they didn’t insist on dropping them at regular intervals. Clogged drains, clogged gutters, and smothered lawns are the victims. The beleaguered humans must, of course, unclog and rake. Endlessly rake. Ugh.

Five. Trees grow. And grow. And grow. That sweet little sapling that was oh-so-decorative for its first ten years turns into a botanical Godzilla with the further passage of time. It blankets sun-loving flower beds with shade, chafes its branches against overhead wires, and attracts crow riffraff from the wrong side of town.

Six. One word – roots. Roots pretend to be docile, but they are a conniving lot. They slither under the sidewalk and expand upwards until the concrete cracks and buckles, the better to trip passersby. Underground pipes are powerless to resist the tree’s ever-thirsty roots. Leaf-clogged drains are child’s play compared to a root-choked water pipe.

But, please, let me interrupt you here and explain the heroism of a tree. Specifically, I will tell you about the hazelnut tree in my backyard and what it gave me despite what it endured this year. What did it endure?

Drought. The most obvious insult to the tree came gradually, but inexorably. We had a drought that began at level two, lingered a while at level three, and culminated in a parching level four. Such an extended arid spell was unheard of for our area and all the trees suffered. Placing a water sprinkler under the hazelnut tree was forbidden, and it had to subsist on its small share of the buckets of kitchen grey water, laced with soap and grease, that I toted out to the garden.

A plague of squirrels. Squirrels cannot keep their bony little paws off hazelnuts. They start their assault as soon as the nut begins to form, green and unready in the spring. With all the mental intellect of a clod of earth, the squirrel can’t understand that it is too early to harvest them. It takes a nut, bites open the shell, discovers nothing inside, drops it to the ground, takes another nut, bites open the shell, discovers nothing inside, drops it to the ground, and repeats this process endlessly. The ground below the tree is soon carpeted with these rejects. When the nuts finally do ripen, the fecund squirrels bring all their relatives and assault the remaining nuts on the tree, eating many, burying the rest.

Blight. Only today, I looked up into the tree and wondered, “Why is that small branch dead?” A bit of research revealed the horrifying answer. The tree is infested with Eastern filbert blight, a fungal disease that has worked its way north from Oregon and has arrived, most unwelcome, on my doorstep. With newly opened eyes, I now see that my hazelnut has struggled with this sickness since spring. The prognosis is grim.

But despite all this, despite the drought, the plague, and the blight, my hazelnut tree has given of itself to my benefit. My hero.

HazelnutsBucket

Such heroism must not languish unacknowledged. I hereby resolve that I will not mutter curses when I pull its cold, sodden leaves out of the gutters this autumn, nor will I grind my teeth when I scrape up leaves plastered glue-like to the patio. Further, I resolve not to sigh with martyrdom when I trudge out, dragging the grass rake behind me, for the umpteenth time to clean up yet another dump of fallen leaves.

Am I nuts to make such resolutions? Well, obviously!

HazelnutsClose

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Rice is Nice

Verdant, vibrant, vigorous – thus grows my vegetable garden this year. Its productivity is almost alarming. With plenty of growing season left, I’m running low on storage space in the freezer for all those blanched and bagged vegetables for the winter. Already snug in one corner are twenty big sacs of green beans. Twenty! That’s not to mention the chard, the zucchini, the broccoli, and the impending corn, pumpkin puree, and more. Let’s not forget the six big bags of frozen raspberries, either. Space hogs, all of them.

And I’m happy about it. Really I am. No sarcasm implied or intended. I shall feast through the winter. verdantGarden But after 30 years of cultivating crops tolerant of zone 8b conditions, oh how I pine to grow something new. By new, I don’t mean another variety of green bean or a different cultivar of potato. I mean something exotic, something impossible to grow in my climate.

Something like…well, let’s get crazy and think about growing rice. The climate here is iffy for rice, but apart from that little detail, it’s not such a wild idea. My garden is situated on a river delta and is as flat as one of today’s computer screens, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to dike and flood part of it with river water.

Imagine the mental zing of learning a whole new set of criteria for growing a crop. I don’t have to think twice about my technique for getting potatoes to grow well in my soil. Every year it’s the same. I dig a trench, snuggle each seed potato into a nest of peat moss, add mature compost, and hill up as the plants grow. As the season progresses, there’s nothing to think about. I do some mindless weeding, and make sure it gets either rain or tap water every week. Yawn. No brain teaser, this.

But rice would demand a whole new skill set. The more I read about it, the more I admire farmers who grow rice. They have to decide on the right timing as they flood, maintain, and drain their rice fields. Complicated formulae calculate rate of flow and timing. Do it right and you get a bumper crop, do it wrong and the rice plants get stunted or even die. It sounds like a challenge, and I’d like a challenge.

The tradition and significance of rice appeals to me, too. Humans have been using it for at least 4,500 years, and these days the world grows more than half a billion tons of it every year. Oof!

With all those tons of rice out there, some people might think rice is boring. Such people would be wrong. Such people clearly have never tried this Japanese rice creation:

With just a bit more global warming in my neighbourhood, I could make these for myself – from scratch – all the way from seed to crop to ingredient to plump little delicacy. It’s only a fantasy for now, but what a fantasy!

A Garden for Global Warming

Wow, but the times are changing! No measurable rain has touched the soil of my garden for weeks and weeks. The sun bakes down, its light glinting off upturned leaves and even sneaking into the hidden corners. While the lawn withers to a pale gold, the vegetables stay green only by the grace of regular watering by hand and by sprinkler.

All this sunshine and heat has the corn in an ecstasy of growth. I look out over the land and wonder if it’s too soon in this cycle of Climate Change to plant some tropical delicacies. Of course, it is. Winter, when it comes, will freeze the vulnerable. Still, the heat has brought on hallucinations, and I imagine an orange tree next to my blueberry bush. Watermelon vines might like the area near the pumpkins. Thus I dream of my globally-warmed garden of the future.

Then I think, “OK, oranges and watermelons are good, but what about something more exotic? Surely there are amazing fruits and vegetables out there that I’ve never hear of. Would I like them?”

Some investigation is needed. I begin by questioning the edibility of the tamamoro:

 Weird Food Taste Test

Winding Down

Autumn is upon us. The harvest moon came and went on September 9 in this year of 2014, and the equinox passed on the 23rd of the same month. Now it’s October, and the season of the vegetable garden is dwindling to an end. It’s winding down.

That expression – winding down – brings to mind a gradual tapering off, a gentle decline, or a peaceful amble into the sunset. Do I wish!

That’s not the way my vegetable garden comes to a close. No. It demands attention. It stamps its withering feet and insists. I never realized how much time and effort the harvest involved until I kept track of my garden hours one year. Back in 2009, I discovered that only forty percent of my time went to preparing the ground in the spring, then planting, tending, and weeding through the summer, and finally clearing the ground at the end of the season. Sixty percent of my time (120 hours) went to the picking and processing of crops for off-season use. A full 86 of those harvest hours were crammed into September and October.

The day to celebrate the harvest – Thanksgiving Day – arrives on October 13th this year in Canada. I’d love to be able to put up my feet and joyfully contemplate its rapid approach, but I’m too busy grubbing, scrubbing, chopping, blanching, chilling, layering, freezing, canning, and NOT panicking.

Happily, the zucchinis and vegetable marrows will produce fresh delights for my table until the first frost kills them. They make no special demands on my time. Even better, I can ignore the beets, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and chard, for now. They will fend for themselves even as the temperatures drop. They laugh at a simple frost.

But, on the heels of taking down the corn patch, I must store the potatoes. Then the onions need to be readied for the winter. I’ve barely finished canning the last of the plums, and the late-ripening apples nag at me to pick them and turn them into applesauce. The picking and saucing of apples will be hours and hours and hours of work.

And that’s not all. We’ve enjoyed a warm, dry September and into October, so the bush beans are still producing edible beans. They need to be picked. Again. Looming in the centre section of the garden, the scarlet runners continue to mature. I will strip the beans and take the vines down at the last moment, hopefully on a dry day, and definitely before the first frost.

I’ve already brought in the pumpkins – all 42 of them. I rinsed, dried, and set them out in sunlight to mature their flavour for two weeks before converting them to purée. That two week deadline gallops ever nearer. Do I need to mention that it will take many hours to convert 42 pumpkins to dried seeds and frozen purée? I thought not.

Who, me? Worry? Poised to pounce, the cold, drenching monsoons of autumn hover off the coast, and I’ve still got the apples, pumpkins, scarlet runners, and bush beans getting all up in my face needing to be harvested, processed, and bedded down for the winter. Pshaw, I say. Piffle!

I am NOT panicking.

Pumpkins

A Beginning

The main harvest is underway. It has begun. Non-gardeners may be surprised by this. They won’t associate July with major harvest and storage of garden produce. Isn’t that for the fall of the year, they wonder. After all, that’s when Thanksgiving Day happens.

Thanksgiving, that notorious celebration of eating too much despite knowing better, marks the end of all the reaping and storing of crops. We rejoice as the final crops – late-ripeners like pumpkins and corn – come to their conclusions. However, through the summer, there are many earlier crops that must be picked, processed and hoarded for winter feasting. For example, here’s how I deal with the bush beans as they come ready.

BeansLoose

Bush beans, as their name implies, grow low to the ground, and the harvester (that’s me) must scrunch down, ooch along between the rows, scoop aside foliage, and try not to break off any delicate stems or leaves. Royal Burgundy, the variety of beans I grow, are dark purple, and they love to hide under leaves and behind stems. The trick is to find all the beans that are ready to pick. That’s all the beans that are ready to pick. Good luck. There’s often at least one that plays hide-and-seek better than I and escapes detection, for now. Later, much later, I will stumble across it during another bout of picking. By then, it will be smugly mature, fibrous, seedy, and entirely undesirable.

Once I have found all the findable beans, I carry my bucket o’beans to the kitchen, dump the beans into a cleaned sink, fill it with water, and rinse them. I snap the stem end off of each bean – each of the zillion-trillion-bazillion beans it takes to fill the bucket. If you were to stop by my kitchen at this point, dear reader, we might chat.

 

Too bad you have to work, you say.
Work? Maybe it’s work, maybe it isn’t, I answer. It suits me fine.
What? You can’t possibly like doing such a tedious job.
And why not? It’s not every day a fellow can snap the stem ends off a jolly lot of beans.
Gosh, you do make it look interesting. Why don’t you let me snap a few?
Mm, I’d like to, I really would. Honest. But it has to be done in a particular way. Not everyone has the knack – not one in a thousand, maybe not one in two thousand can do it right.
I’ll be careful. Just let me try. Here, I’ll give you half my apple.
Oh, all ri… No. No, I can’t. It won’t do.
All my apple. You can have all of it.
Well, I hate to, but seeing as you want it so much…

 

Yes, you really should stop by for a chat.

Once the stems are off, I gather the beans into bundles, and cut them into inch lengths.

Half-way there… Next step is the blanching of the beans.

Using my biggest pot, 2/3 filled with water brought to a boil, I put a modest layer of cut beans into the bottom of the pot’s liner basket, and plunge the beans into the roiling water. They will turn green, as is the nature of these ephemerally-purple beans. On goes the lid, the water re-establishes its boil, and I set the timer for three minutes.

BeansBlanched

Getting closer. While the beans blanch, I fill a well-scrubbed sink with clean, cold water. When the timer sounds, I whip the basket out of the boiling water – taking care not to drip any of the scalding liquid on any exposed skin – and plunge the beans into the cold water. While this first batch of beans cools, I re-use the basket to give the next layer of beans the spa treatment.

Not done yet. I scoop the beans out of the cold water, drain them on a well-cleaned draining board, and lay them out on cookie sheets. Next, I place these laden trays in the freezer compartment of my refrigerator to fast-freeze.

Hours later, I take out the trays of frozen beans, scoop them loose, and bundle them into freezer bags. With a short length of straw, I suck out excess air before notching the last of the seal on each bag. Now they will take up residence in the big chest freezer downstairs.

BeansBaggedVictory!

But only the beginning. So far, I have frozen 4 bags of beans. Last year, I put up 18½ bags, and there were none left over when the garden began to produce this season. As the title says, it’s a beginning. That means there will be many opportunities for you and your friends to make trades for turns snapping beans. Bring something to barter – a kite, a few tadpoles, drawing chalk, coloured glass, an apple, or whatever is your favourite treasure. I’ll hate to concede my place at the sink, but, if you bargain well, the result will surely be a triumph.

Raspberry Empire

The new raspberry patch in my yard is rising to great heights this year. Literally. The tallest of the canes stand as high as my upstretched arm can reach. This pleases me. I am also pleased by the density of the many canes in the row and the profusion of fruit now ripening at a generous pace.

RaspberryDuo

Luckily for me, raspberries don’t leave telltale stains on hands and lips. If they did, I would wear constant evidence of how many times I wander – innocently, of course – over to that corner of the yard. After all, an attentive gardener must check whether the plants need help in any way. Some among us have the courage to take on such a task, and I modestly admit to being one of that number.

Several years ago, this corner of my yard hosted only lawn and a solid board fence. Then my friend, too tender-hearted to rip out and compost some errant canes in her garden, convinced me to adopt half a dozen. Her raspberries had decided to expand their territory. Instead of being content with the sunny back corner, they charged forward into the vegetable garden, thrusting up canes at whim and with complete disregard for the rhubarb and the chard already holding claim to the area. Their behaviour reminded me of the Roman Empire in its day – “Hmm, there’s some land I don’t command yet. Time to invade and take over.”

To give these eager raspberry canes a new home, I peeled off a section of turf along the fence line, dug a trench, and filled it with a rich mix of soil and compost. Then I transplanted the six raspberry canes and watered them in.

They needed no further encouragement to explode into possession of the new land, and unlike the Gauls and Britons, I welcome the invasion. Now the raspberry canes form a verdant jungle dotted with plump fruit. I pluck and freeze the berries for winter use when they reach the pinnacle of ripeness.

Curious about the slang use of the word, raspberry, as a sound of derision, I did some investigating. Why, I wondered, would the noble and innocent raspberry be associated with such a sound. My research revealed that it comes from the phrase, raspberry tart, and raspberry tart was used in Cockney rhyming slang to represent a certain word that starts with f and rhymes with tart. In their way of creating a language within a language, the Cockney dropped the second word, tart, to further hide their meaning from outsiders. Ever since, the innocent raspberry has carried this slang meaning like a nasty nickname acquired in the schoolyard at a tender age. Unfair? Unfair!

To counter this often-heard slander, I am creating a new rhyming slang in honour of the raspberry. Ship. That’s short for ship ahoy, the end of which rhymes with joy, which is what I feel when I’m communing with the ruby-red raspberries on the canes by the eastern fence in my yard.

Ship.

And whatever in life brings you ship, I wish you a fleet of it.

My Food Garden & Other Freaks of Nature

This year, I can feel it, I will be perfect. No, I won’t be polite without fail to the idiots of the world. Neither will I swear that not one morsel of junk food will pass my lips. Seriously! Indeed, I can pretty much guarantee that dirty dishes will pile up on occasion. As for keeping the clutter off the top of my desk…don’t make me laugh.

But I will be perfect. This year I will do everything my food garden needs, even before it needs doing. I feel keen, motivated, and lucky. What could go wrong?

Image

I’m already getting a great start on the season. I’ve been hoeing down early weeds before they have the chance to get out of control. I’ve fed the rhubarb and the raspberries, and I’ve checked my stock of seeds, making note of those that are in good supply, namely, Silverado chard, Ruby Queen beets, scarlet runner beans, Lebanese zucchini, and vegetable marrow, and those that need topping up, not surprisingly, a longer list.

My biggest struggle at the moment is to hold myself back. There’s still the risk of frost in my area, hardiness zone 8B, according to the experts. It’s definitely not time to be hurling tender seedlings into cold, waterlogged soil. That would not be the act of a perfect steward of the garden. I can only imagine the horror and agony of a bedding plant set out too soon.

“What? Really? How am I supposed to photosynthesize when there’s no hint of sunlight showing through all those roiling grey clouds? It’s so dark I can’t tell night from day. Ur, wait a minute, I think the clouds are parting. Those dots of light are stars, right? OMG! The temperature is plummeting. That leftover raindrop is freezing on my leaf. Aaaiiiieeeee!”

You might be thinking that I’ve had this delusion before, this dream of having a year when I’m the perfect food gardener. You’d be right, of course, but my previous failures were never my fault. The Universe itself conspired against me.

This year, though, I will put the Universe in a headlock and make it beg for mercy. It’s just a matter of adjusting my priorities. My best friend’s car broke down and he needs a ride to the hospital for some urgent medical tests? Sorry, my scarlet runners are due to be staked. Your daughter’s kitten went missing and you want me to join in the search? I’d love to help, but the corn needs to be side-dressed.

After all, nothing should stand in the way of a perfect garden. Right?