Archives for category: gardening

Summer of 2015 was all about tomatoes for me: the forty-some volunteer tomato plants sprang from seeds of fallen tomatoes I planted last spring. They grew, blossomed, played host to myriad aphids and, in spite of that, produced more tomatoes than I have ever had to work with, mostly cherry tomatoes and a drying variety called Principe Borghese. All July and August I picked them, washed them, dried them, put up vats of pasta sauce in the freezer. I made experimental tomato sugar plums. I considered making tomato caramel. We ate them in Greek salad and BLTs. I developed two versions of a pasta using pan-roasted cherry tomatoes and fresh corn with either andouille or chicken chorizo (The Mexican version is my favorite).

The only thing I didn’t do is can them — we don’t have a dishwasher and I don’t have a canning kettle or a living grandmother to show me all of the old-fashioned tricks for canning in a simple kitchen.

The summer ended with a week-long heat wave. I watered the plants on the first day and then they were on their own because it was too hot to venture into our unshaded yard.

Last weekend I cut the abundant dry weeds from the side yard, probably twelve or sixteen grocery bags of them. Some of them were taller than I was. That felt like a fall chore. Then, yesterday, I sang at the Farmers’ Market in Berkeley. It was a fall market all of a sudden. There were strawberries, but not enough for everyone who wanted to take them home. There were a few peaches left, but more pears. And there were apples everywhere — I bought fifteen pounds of mixed varieties for ten dollars and cut down a cardboard box so that I could shove them in my refrigerator to join the bowl of Gravensteins I bought for pies a few weeks ago (It has been too hot to turn on the oven). I do not know the names of all of the apples I got, or the flavors and textures: lunch today may be a hunk of bread, pieces of cheese and slices of different apples. My new favorite, identified by the farmer who sold me the mix, is a Royal Empire, a mid-season apple: they taste exotic, spicy, and have plenty of juice and crunch.

The tomatoes are still producing fruit and blossoms. I begin to think of drying more of them, running the dehydrator at night. I also begin to think of soup, perhaps a corn chowder with the last of the sweet corn, or a butternut squash soup from last year’s squash — I still have a few in the garage. Perhaps I will cook them all and store the puree in the freezer for easy fall and winter soups. I freeze the seeds and skins, too, for stock.

I am not assured of cool weather. The weather is the wild card in California. Four years of drought. Record heat. There are clouds in the sky this morning, which means it will not get as hot as it otherwise could, but it has been a crap shoot whether to turn on the oven for months — as soon as I make pie crust, it turns too hot to bake. Make iced tea and we will have a cool day and I will get out the tea pot and drink hot tea instead. I have taken to watching the news on TV just to hear what they are saying about the weather.

It is dark later in the mornings: soon I will begin my walk to BART in the dark. It is dark when I get up now and the light fades early. I don’t remember dark mornings coming in early September, but I guess they do every year.

I do remember the food transitions. Right now I have lemons, peaches, Armenian cucumbers and red bell peppers, plus all of those apples.  I did not cook last week, living on milkshakes, smoothies, the occasional Greek salad and canned re-fried beans. Yes, I stock those for emergencies, hot weather and days when I am too tired to make my own from dried pintos. I think I should make some roasted strawberries for Johnny for the winter if I see strawberries next week.

When I was writing this post last, it was becoming fall 2015. Now it is spring 2016 and volunteer tomatoes are up in the yard, along with lots and lots of chard and kale that re-seeded themselves (I don’t mind at all — they compete with the weeds). I have three butternut squash plants — I threw a rotting squash from 2014 into a heavily mulched area and, voila, new squash plants.

We are eating fresh strawberries again and lots of fresh salads, which helps us both in our efforts to lose pounds we accumulated over 2015. I am baking sourdough bread once more. My latest quest is to eat “clean food” — i.e. food not touched by the industrial food system. For now we have given up white sugar and most white flour. We use maple syrup and dried fruit in our oats. We eat polenta. I use commercial whole wheat and rye flours in bread, with just a little bread flour, but I am on the track of a freshly-milled whole wheat flour. Although I miss cheese and pasta, I do buy some organic milk and yogurt from a dairy farmer. We eat a lot of legumes, too, and wild-caught shrimp and fish.

Eating less sugar was the big surprise. My skin improved. My gums improved. I still daydream about good desserts, but fresh fruit tastes really good when it is ripe, local and seasonal, whether it is strawberries or blood oranges. Dried fruit offers other options. Sometimes I will have yogurt with fruit and honey. Right now I am enjoying the freshness of a lot of things we eat: today my lunch was a salad of watercress, lettuce, cilantro, roasted beets, raw carrots, walnuts, feta and blood oranges in a balsamic vinaigrette.

I have had a left knee injury since December 2015, which is slowing me down and keeping me from things I like to do, but I found this draft post and thought I would send it out to all my patient readers to say that I am alive, still feeding us and growing things, still playing music, not painting much or writing much, watching the seasons turn through the plants in the yard and the food on our plates.

Last time I posted here I was admiring the volunteer forest of tomatoes that had sprung up in the backyard. I even sat out there one day and tried to capture what it felt like to sit in the tomato forest. I treated it as a forest, too, left the understory on the ground. I did clip out non-bearing branches quite often, and the plants produced new shoots as soon as I could clip them off. I tended the chard, giving what water I could save from boiling pasta and washing vegetables. I watched the kale flower — I don’t care much about this kale, a gray-green variety that a friend gave me, so I was not overly concerned.

I should have been concerned. I did notice when I went out to dole out water to the chard that the kale was alive, shimmering with pests, but I didn’t care if the pests took down the kale plant. My chard was healthy and kept making new chard plants. One section of tomatoes had beautiful crowns of blossoms three feet above the ground. I began to think we might eat our first ripe tomato by the last day of May. We did. We cut it in half and had a little ceremony for the first fruits of the summer.

Later, after a rare rain and some cloudy days I noticed white specks in the tallest section of tomatoes. I thought it was mildew brought on by the damp. I hoped for sunny weather to dry it out and was not concerned.

I should have been concerned. The white specks turned out to be aphids and I am now battling to save what I can of the tomato plants. I prune them savagely, losing unripe tomatoes and blossoms with every cut of my shears. I save bath water, impregnate it with organic lemongrass soap and blast away for hours at the besieged plants. I toss the prunings into an old pot with waste water, submerging them to kill aphids and eggs. I pluck every yellow or brown or decayed leaf from the ground, clearing the understory of aphid hiding places. I was out there many hours Monday and yesterday afternoon. And then I had to take a break. I was exhausting myself and the aphids were continuing to spread and reproduce.

I looked up various remedies. I knew lady bugs ate aphids. I found out that it takes 1500 lady bugs to clean the aphids off one plant, that they usually fly away within forty-eight hours and you usually need two batches just to be sure. Lady bugs were out, unless I could buy them by the truckload.

Hard sprays of water from a hose are supposed to blast aphids off the plants. We are in a major drought here and only water with waste water. We do not have a gray water system. Using a hose is out. It’s up to me and my clippers and spray bottle. Sigh.

But then today I woke up to steady rain! Rain! Not only would it strengthen and nourish the plants and soil, but aphids hate it. After a late breakfast I found myself out in the garden with my clips and sprayer, dressed in a shift and a pair of old sandals, enjoying the rain on my skin. I worked for nearly three hours, worked until my back could take no more. I came into the house, thinking I would have lunch. Instead, I drank two quarts of water and headed back into the rain to treat more branches.

I worked again until I could work no more. I hung my soaked shift in the bathroom and put on a robe. I had a belated snack of leftover cornbread, a few tomatoes and two cups of tea. I had promised Johnny an early dinner, so I could not linger out in the garden.

Now the rain has stopped, but the battle will continue.

My mistake was in not seeing that everything is connected. The aphids that were destroying the kale would move to the tomatoes, or the conditions that were producing a banner crop of aphids that feed on kale could produce tomato-eating aphids, too. My second mistake was not investigating the first white specks more thoroughly, not turning leaves over to look. By the time I realized what was there, the infestation was in full swing.

My yard gave me the tomato plants, more than I would have ever planted on my own. I envisioned a bigger crop than I have ever had. with tomatoes for drying. for pasta sauce, for eating raw, tomatoes for my friends and family. So far, I have delivered half a basket of green tomatoes to my friend Elaine and we have half a basket of ripe cherry tomatoes on our kitchen table. There are many green tomatoes still on the vine and many months left in tomato season. There are only so many hours a day to devote to aphid warfare, however, and I don’t know what I will save.

I think of my friend Celi, a full-time farmer. She has lost animals and bees and, undoubtedly, plants as well. She is growing her own food. I am trying to grow some of mine, tomatoes and chard. I’m still using last year’s butternut squash from this very garden. I admire anyone who grows organic food successfully. I read about plants aphids hate and think perhaps I will plant mint everywhere (I have one small pot of it). Maybe I can learn to propagate mint plants from stem cuttings.

Just two weeks ago I was admiring the indefatigable tomato plants, producing shoot after shoot. I was thinking that they were teaching me how to continue in all circumstances. I could just as well admire the indefatigable aphids, who only want to live and reproduce, but I’d rather have tomatoes than aphids.

Hello. It is the last day of March and I have moved again: on March 21 I moved out of my mother’s house and back to San Leandro. I am still unpacking things and rearranging them — I can’t remember where everything went last time around, although I remembered the locations of all of the pieces of furniture. As I settle into the house and take up routines of cleaning and cooking I find myself thinking a lot.

These are the kinds of things I think. “I want to make some bread. I don’t have any whole wheat flour. I have oats and cornmeal and molasses and white flour. I can make anadama bread. If I make double amounts of the cornmeal mush we can have cornmeal pancakes for breakfast tomorrow. If the oven is on to bake bread, I should roast a butternut squash from the cache that I grew last year. We can have that tonight with baked beans and fresh bread.” Then I bake bread and roast squash, saving the squash innards in the freezer for some future batch of butternut squash soup. Using the oven to prepare more than one dish at a time is something I learned from my mother in her kitchen.

I think about the garden. Because I am going on a short trip to New Mexico in late April I do not want to start seedlings or plant anything new outside until I get back. The garden, however, had plans of its own. Forty tomato plants have started themselves from the smushed remains of last year’s tomatoes, tomatoes that fell off the huge Sun Gold vine. Many of them decided to grow between the tiles of the only paved area in the yard, although some have reasserted themselves in the soil by the fence where I planted them last year. The largest of the patio tomatoes is now in flower. We will have to wait to see what we get because Sun Gold tomatoes are hybrid tomatoes. I had also planted Amish paste tomatoes and Principe Borghese. It remains to be seen if any of them have come up in the tomato forest. The chard asserted itself as well and formed two healthy clumps in a boggy area near the shed. So far my gardening activities have been limited to weeding, cutting down dandelions and thistles and teasing out oxalis from the stems of the chard. I cut chard everyday to eat, adding it to pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives and feta or scrambling it into eggs with scallions. I think, eating from the garden, that I would like to plant some lettuce soon, maybe some radishes for variety, and then I remember that I am going away in less than a month and it would be better not to plant anything until I can be here to tend the garden.

I think about what I need and what I don’t need. At certain points in unpacking I declare “I don’t need any more stuff.” Then I realize I haven’t seen my set of biscuit cutters (“Maybe they are in the cookie-cutter tins by the kitchen bookshelf”) or my dough cutter. Because two of my bookshelves sit in the kitchen as a makeshift pantry and china cabinet respectively I have to edit the books that I display on the bedroom shelves. Last time around I consigned the short story collections to the shed. This time I have them out, but I am thinking they will be boxed up once again so that I have room for music books and volumes of poetry. Another strategy is to place books I have bought but have not yet read on a high shelf and to ask Johnny, who is tall, to get them down as I need them. Tomorrow, my “day off” I will face the book-sorting issue: last time I rearranged the books three times before I was satisfied.

When I spill water on the floor I am full of desire for a new, more effective mop and a large batch of cotton rags. When I think of making soup I covet an immersion blender, or, at least, a working regular blender. When I bake bread in conjoined loaf pans I remember the nice set of bread pans I saw at a thrift store in Berkeley and wonder if they are rust-proof and if they are still there. I make mental lists of groceries: whole wheat flour, lemons, sour cream, cinnamon sticks. Whenever I put something away in some inconvenient place I think, “Is there a better place for that in the kitchen?” (or the bedroom, or the bathroom).

As per the last time I moved I cannot find my camera battery on the evening that I write this blog post. If I find it soon I will perhaps add some pictures of the tomato forest.

Anadama Bread

In a saucepan combine:

1 and 1/2 cups water

1 tsp salt

1/3 cup cornmeal

Stir constantly until cornmeal thickens and bubbles. Pour into mixing bowl.

In a glass measuring cup, measure 1 and 1/2 Tbsp of corn oil or soft shortening. Add to cornmeal mixture.

In that same greasy measuring cup, pour 1/3 cup molasses. Add molasses to cornmeal.

DO NOT WASH THAT CUP YET. Into that molasses-smeared cup, put 1/4 cup water. Pop it in the microwave for a few seconds until lukewarm and add 4 and 1/2 tsp yeast. Stir with a fork until the yeast dissolves.

In another bowl measure 4 cups sifted flour.

Either go away and leave cornmeal mixture to cool to lukewarm and then add dissolved yeast OR start adding flour to the cornmeal mixture, which will help cool it. When the mixture is lukewarm add the rest of the flour and the dissolved yeast and begin to knead the dough. You may have to add more flour to overcome the stickiness of the molasses. I like to turn the dough out of the bowl and knead it on a lightly-floured  wooden surface.

When the bread is smooth and no longer sticky, add 1 Tbsp butter or oil or shortening to the mixing bowl and place the dough in it again. Cover with a dampened and warmed linen or cotton towel and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled (over an hour). Punch down. Let rise again (about half an hour).

Grease a bread pan or pans and shape dough. This recipe makes a good-sized round loaf or four small loaves. Preheat oven to 375 Bake for forty to forty-five minutes until nicely browned. Remove loaves from pans and let cool before slicing.

Sharyn Dimmick with Guitar.

Sharyn Dimmick with Guitar.

January 2015 got off to a slow start. I got sick around the twentieth of December and could not recover. I spent a lot of time in bed, sleeping and sipping fluids. After three weeks I got around to seeing a doctor and received a short course of antibiotics. Just as those began to take effect I had a minor incident with a guitar stand and was ordered to another five days of bed rest. Heavens! My sweetheart supplied me with a copy of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen to read while I elevated my bruised but not broken right foot. He also made me cups of tea, heated up food for me and took me to the movies to see “Selma.” Pretty good deal, I say (and no, he is not available and does not make house calls).

After the guitar stand incident and before the bed rest Johnny and I managed to make my first video, a recording of my song “Clueless,” to enter in N.P.R.’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest. You can watch it here. And, of course, I’ll be happy to sell you a copy of the “Clueless” CD or my earlier recording “Paris.” The “Clueless” CD is particularly nice for Valentine’s Day gifts because it consists of three love songs, one about the exultant, swooning feeling of falling in love, one about doubts and fears and family history, and one about the mishaps and misunderstandings inherent in courtship.

Short and sweet this month. I am clearing away the detritus from my San Leandro garden and anticipating what to plant in February or March. Enjoy the video. And thanks for reading.

Formerly green tomato.

Formerly green tomato.

I began writing this month’s Kale Chronicles on an October afternoon, following a morning of rain showers. The rain is a major blessing in drought-stricken California. My thirsty vegetable and mint plants drink in the rain, as they have drunk in the abundant sunshine of October. The two-tone green tomatoes have unexpectedly turned orange and are on their way to red. The poblano peppers on one plant continue to grow, while the other plant is forming fruit as its blossoms die. A few tomatoes that fell before they were fully ripe are ripening on a windowsill in the breakfast room. I will have a small harvest from my seed-grown vegetables.

With the return of damp weather to punctuate a bright autumn, my thoughts turn to butternut squash soup. I originally published this recipe for kabocha squash soup in 2011, an adaptation of the soup I usually make from butternut squash, my absolute favorite of the winter squashes. I start making this soup each year when the weather gets cool and continue to make it until spring warmth returns. Butternut squash keep a long time on the counter or in a cool garage or cellar and one large or two small ones will make a lot of soup. All you need else is water, onions, fresh ginger, tamari, a bit of thyme and dairy or non-dairy milk to suit.

Poblano and flower.

Poblano and flower.

My personal lesson for the summer and fall parallels the experience my friend Saundra wrote about in her Wonder Woman blog post: that in times of trouble I must make self-care a priority, whatever form it takes. In my case, I must meditate, seek conversations with friends, practice music, attend 12-step meetings, do spiritual reading, attempt to get reasonable amounts of exercise and sleep. A surprising outcome of taking better care of myself is that I draw all kinds of gifts into my orbit: a friend offers to make a performance video that I can put up on YouTube (Stay tuned! I’ll tell you when it is done). Another friend sends me a music CD that I want in exchange for feedback on the CD. Even the passers-by at my busking gigs buy more CDs and increase their tips to me. And I hatch an idea for a new short-term music project: next month I will go into the studio to make a three-song E.P. (short CD), recording the songs I wrote in 2012. It will be called “Clueless” and I hope to have it for sale by the end of next month. I am only manufacturing three hundred copies to start so be sure to let me know in the comments field if you would like one for yourself or for a Christmas or Chanukah gift (Manufacturing a small run makes it possible for me to make new music available without incurring the large costs of a full-length project). I continue to busk and offer full-length “Paris” CDs for sale at CDBaby, Down Home Music and via email.

My daily experience continues to be that people are kind to me and supportive of my projects and of my efforts to improve my life and relationships. Oh, sometimes there is push-back, but there is often a way to step out of the conflict by focusing on what I need and not what the other person is doing.

I am continuing to seek what Buddhists call “right livelihood,” ways to earn money that are consistent with my gifts and ethical stance. For inspiration I am currently taking an expanded version of Maia Duerr’s course, Fall in Love with Your Work. In the spirit of generosity, I have created a new page on The Kale Chronicles called “Writing Prompts.” Look for the page link up in the left-hand corner at the top of the blog post. Each month I will feature some of the prompts or writing topics I learned to use in fifteen years of work with Natalie, plus prompts inspired by the current season (sort of like your serving of writing fruits and vegetables for basic nutrition). I will be glad to answer questions about writing practice and grateful to have referrals to students in the East Bay who desire to learn Natalie’s deep teachings.

 

This September there have been a couple of sightings of my old vegetable garden in San Leandro. First I heard that butternut squash had taken over the entire yard. I asked about the beans, but my informant hadn’t seen any beans. Then I got an email from someone else, explaining that my garden had fed her all summer, that she had eaten green beans and tomatoes and butternut squash and given beans and squash away to neighbors of hers. I am happy that people were able to eat the produce I grew since I could not eat it myself. I still longed for some of those butternut squash and put in a call to my former landlord to ask if I could pick some squash (Johnny is away for the time being).

Poblano peppers.

Poblano peppers.

Meanwhile in my new container garden here in foggy Kensington one of the poblano pepper plants has finally fruited and a single principe borghese tomato is slowly turning red in the sunny days of September. The other tomato plants are full of pale pink and green Amish paste tomatoes and more borgheses and a mystery tomato from my sister-in-law’s Vallejo garden, currently a two-tone green job. Will the tomatoes ripen before the plants die? Before it rains? Will I bring the green tomatoes inside to ripen? Will I make a green tomato chutney? Stay tuned for the October tomato and pepper report.

The landlord called back. He said, “I know who planted that garden” and granted me access to pick produce there. When my friend M. and I drove out we found the wildest of gardens: all of the hard surfaces had been obscured by foliage. Squash vines snaked everywhere: from where I had planted them along the back fence line they had crossed the entire yard and begun to climb up the back stair. All paths and spaces between rows had vanished and I had to step carefully through unripe squash to remove ripe squash from the vines that also bore squash blossoms, tiny green squash and full-sized green squash.

Buried beneath green leaves ripe principe borghese tomatoes crept along the ground close to the house while ripe Sun Gold cherry tomatoes lurked in the understory and green ones grew through the side fence. Some of the weeds I had worked to eradicate found new openings where the green beans had been. I cut the three small heads of purple cabbage that I had planted in February, but left chard and kale growing by the back fence. I did not find any Amish paste tomatoes or basil or pepper plants in the tangle, but I could not reach large portions of the yard in the amount of time I had. I did find some dried bean and pea pods, picked what I could and shelled about half a cup of mixed black-eyed peas and pinto beans while I waited on the BART platform to go home. M. hauled most of the butternut squash we picked in the trunk of her car, but I carried a token specimen in my backpack. along with a Tupperware container of tomatoes and the shelling beans.

Butternut squash.

Butternut squash.

As I write this, I am roasting principe borghese tomatoes in the oven with olive oil and a little garden mint*. Pinto beans and black-eyed peas are soaking together in a big pot. Small slices of peeled butternut squash share the oven with the tomatoes. I propose to make a soup to honor my gardens, here and there, the honorable labor I did, the lovely San Leandro sun and fertile soil, the strong heirloom seeds that survived my inexpert care and the lack of rain,  the compost of coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags and the occasional chicken head. I will flavor the soup with chiles to honor the poblano plant and its late-borne fruit.

The local library has recently yielded up treasures, including The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart and The Heart of Zen: Enlightenment, Emotional Maturity, and What It Really Takes for Spiritual Liberation. I read them and write about them and work at becoming aware of my habits and my reactive emotional patterns, watering my life with sitting meditation and compassion meditation in the hope of bearing sweeter fruits from new seeds while extracting learning from the old bitter ones. I begin to advertise writing practice classes again — perhaps this time I will find more students. I continue to practice music and to busk in the BART station and Farmers’ Market, practicing gratitude and patience, saying with Leonard Cohen each day, “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before The Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah.'” I wish you all a fine fall.

Principe Borghese tomatoes.

Principe Borghese tomatoes.

* This is the first year I have raised this variety: they are very pretty, about the size of cherry peppers, but I don’t especially care for their flavor, either eaten raw or oven roasted — they are not sweet enough to suit me, but they are a drying tomato so I will dry some and report back about that next month. It may be that I just have not discovered their secret(s). I had wanted a paste tomato, a drying tomato and tomatoes to eat raw and chose accordingly from recommended heirlooms. Plus, I had to have the Sun Gold hybrid cherry, the most delicious tomato I have ever tasted (Those I grow every year).

One Thursday evening and Friday afternoon this month two different neighbors dropped by with gifts of pears from their trees. I said thank you and put them on the sideboard. Pears do not keep long unless they are picked green, so Sunday morning after breakfast I started peeling them and cutting them open, cutting out bad spots. Some of them had rotted from the inside out and went directly into the compost can.

On Friday I had pulled a few recipes from the pear section of the huge recipe binder on my bookshelf. Depending on the state of the pears, I could make clafouti or pear tart tatin, but I had my eye on some pear pecan muffins, which would also use the last of the pecans in the shell I had sitting around. I have been eating said pecans at the rate of two a day, cracked and broken and stirred into my favorite summer breakfast of polenta with fresh peaches, mostly because of the time it takes to crack them and pick the meats from the shell and cartilage. Making the muffins gave me the excuse I needed to cover the breakfast room table with newspaper and crack all of the remaining pecans.

I had researched methods of shelling pecans on the internet. Some people boil them. Some people take the to other people who shell them. Some people use side cutters and pliers or build machines to crack the shells. What I learned was that I had been using a nut cracker incorrectly my entire life: I always put the nut in and squeezed as hard as possible —  generally, hard enough to break nuts in half. Instead, a couple of online sources suggested rotating the nut several times and applying just enough pressure to crack the outer shell without damaging the nut. Oh. I was intrigued.

I tried the new method, concentrating on cracking the ends of the nuts — one YouTube video presented removing the ends as the key to easy shelling. I had limited success with this maneuver, usually ending up with the ends of the nuts breaking in the shell. What did happen, though, is that I got absorbed in the task of shelling the pecans, forgetting about time as I turned the nuts, cracked off pieces of shell, pried nutmeat from shell with a curved pick. I forgot my coffee. I forgot my thoughts.

When I finished shelling the nuts and had moved on to another kitchen task — measuring flour, perhaps — I had the thought that if I would take the care in dealing with people that I took in shelling pecans, my relationships would go better — if I retained an open, curious attitude about what would work best and tried to do things gently so as not to hurt anyone. I heard my teacher’s voice, or her teacher’s voice, reminding me that anything you do can take you deep.

Naturally, this insight was fleeting. As I looked for the millet that I wanted to add to the muffins I came upon difficulties: I had to look in a cardboard box that was balanced precariously on some glass jars. The box itself contained other glass jars. Trying to keep it balanced while sorting through its contents, while standing on a step ladder, proved impossible. My mother informed me that the glass jars in the box only contained beans and suggested another location in the cabinet. I looked there with no success and then moved the ladder across the kitchen to look in a bin in another high cupboard. Because I could not see into the bin I had written a list of the contents on a post-it and stuck it on the side, but, when I climbed up, the post-it was gone and I had no alternative but to reach over my head to lift the heavy bin down to see what was in it. I found this irritating in extreme, that my contents label was gone. And, of course, the millet was not there. I said a few words about how I had tried to find a solution and someone else had undone my efforts.

This happens everyday, of course. Someone undoes my efforts and I undo someone’s efforts, each of us not knowing what we are doing that is messing with someone’s solution or desires or plans.

Eventually, I found the millet and put a half cup of it into the muffins. I have never cooked with millet before and it provides a satisfying crunch.

A few days ago, after two months of searching, I found some guitar lessons on YouTube that will help me improve my guitar playing. After nearly two years of busking I am bored by the sameness of my arrangements: because I play many of the same songs everyday I have started to hear what I am doing and to long for other options. Anyway, I finally found lessons and exercises from three different teachers that feature Travis picking, a style that I never studied formally or extensively. When I first found them and played through the exercises as best I could I was ecstatic: the exercises were challenging for me, I had to take them slowly and work to get them right. In my initial enthusiasm I researched tips for successful music practicing and learned that it was more effective to practice twice or three times a day for a shorter amount of time than to use the long sessions I had been using. I also learned that it was good to practice every single day, even for only ten minutes.

Following this advice, I divided my practice sessions. The first time I tried this I was late getting home from work and had to jam one practice session in shortly after arriving home so as to get it in before dinner and have a break before session number two. That evening I worked rigorously on the exercises in session one. What I noticed when I began session two is that I wanted to play, but I did not want to practice the exercises, that, in fact, I wanted to play anything at all as long as I did not have to play by any rules. Hmm.

Today, I was back at rigorous practice in session one. And during session one I noticed the comments of voices in my head. The loudest one wants to tell everyone I know how hard this practice is for me. She wants someone to listen to her. Another one calmly reminds me that I chose this set of exercises and this practice routine to improve my playing and relieve my boredom and give me more choices of how to play. The third voice gently suggests that I take breaks. The last one cautions me to be patient and to pay attention to what I am doing so that I do not practice mistakes.

All during this period from June to now as I transition into a new life back in my old location I have been nursing a few tomato plants and three pepper plants that I started from seed back in March, April and May. I have transplanted seedlings to buckets, staked them, watered them, watched them. They have grown taller, but the tomato plants have a tendency to wilt here in the fog. As of this afternoon I have small green tomatoes, both Principe Borghese and Amish Paste varieties and, miraculously, at least one flower on each of the pepper plants. Let us hope that September will provide enough heat and clear days to ripen them all. I’ll let you know at the end of the month — perhaps I’ll even find my camera by then and add a photo or two.

Those of you who are kind enough to follow The Kale Chronicles as it morphs from a twice weekly blog to a monthly blog will have noticed that it did not make its May deadline. It was inevitable, given some things that are going on and it may be rocky here for awhile. I have not had time to take pictures, much less paint them in the last week or so — I have barely been able to attend to the garden (I just spent an hour on my hands and knees, pulling out burr clover).

But I harvested at least half a basket of Sun Gold cherry tomatoes tonight from the plant that has dynastic ambitions — having taken over as much of the fence line as possible (I think), it has shifted its focus to growing out over the patio. Johnny said it had to be cut back, but I am not going to do that. Perhaps I should have put in more stakes or a tomato cage, but it is too late for that now. It swallows up and shades everything in its path with abundant foliage and hundreds of yellow blossoms. It is the biggest tomato plant I have ever seen and I fear to think of what my Amish paste tomatoes and my Principe Borghese plants are going to look like — both of them have larger tomatoes than the Sun Gold.

I have pepper plants hardening off and chard that is bolting. We can eat lettuce from the garden now, as well as chard and kale and tomatoes. I set out some new Thai basil seeds because the Thai basil I planted before is underneath the giant tomato. In the process of digging to enrich the soil for the basil I discovered concrete about a foot down at the end of one of the bean rows. Uh-oh. I have not yet determined how far the concrete extends (I’m not that fond of digging).

My green bean plants have little tiny green beans and the Scarlet Runners do too. My pinto beans and black-eyed peas seem to have hybridized in a giant tangle: when they started out they looked like bush beans, but then the bush beans grew tangled vines that refuse to take to the supports I gave them. Meanwhile some of the butternut squash plants are growing through a row of green beans and I can no longer walk on what was a path in that part of the garden. I think that I saw some tiny butternut squash tonight, although I have seen no squash blossoms, which makes no sense — the only things in blossom are the tomatoes and various beans.

I need to know a lot of things. I need to know how to confine indeterminate tomatoes (and perhaps how to prune the non-bearing branches). I need to know how to encourage the butternut squash to fruit and how to protect the squash as they grow. I need an advanced placement course in staking and supporting plants because muddling through it on my own was not adequate (I have raised indeterminate tomatoes before, thank you very much, but only in ten gallon buckets, where they stay put, where, in fact, they were spindly and only produced a few handfuls of tomatoes. I love the abundance, but I am afraid we will not be able to walk in our yard by August and I feel sorry for the other plants that have no chance and no space to grow. I need to know what particular horrible garden pests or diseases have been plaguing my red cabbage plants, which may not be long for this world, although I have not had a single cabbage.

I sort it out as best I can. The garden is my refuge from other difficulties and I love going out and picking or cutting things to eat. Last night I made a chicken salad that incorporated cherry tomatoes and lettuce from the garden. I also used plain Greek yogurt, Madras curry powder, lemon juice (lime is better), celery and golden raisins.

May highlights included a visit from my best friend and her husband on the day that twenty-six mph winds blew the tomato trellis down and ripped stakes through the ground and my guest appearance with Johnny’s band, Johnny Harper and Carnival, in Sebastopol. I sang “Evangeline” by Robbie Robertson, which Emmy Lou Harris sang in “The Last Waltz.” The band has been doing a special series of shows featuring the music of The Band, while incorporating some of Johnny’s original compositions. Johnny is hard at work on a CD, to be released in October if all goes according to plan.

I hope you all are enjoying your late spring/early summer.

Sharyn (aka The Kale Chronicler)

Manzanita. Ink and watercolor. 8" by 12". Sharyn Dimmick.

Manzanita. Ink and watercolor. 8″ by 12″. Sharyn Dimmick.

I am obsessed with the garden. Johnny has taken to calling me “Farm Girl” (I have never lived on a farm although I had great uncles and grandparents who farmed). Since I last wrote I have planted both Teddy Bear Sunflowers and Mexican sunflowers, plus the blue sweet peas. The first sunflower leaves are just breaking through the soil and the sweet peas are what I call “invisible plants” — that means “I know they are there even if you can’t see them. Please water them, honey.”

The monstrous Sun Gold tomato plant is gargantuan now and full of blossoms and small green tomatoes: I do not know when they will begin to turn orange, but the heat wave we are having now might help them along. Soon they will have sibling tomato plants, which are hardening off in the garden as I write. I planted Amish paste tomato seeds and Principe Borghese seeds, but I did not label them, so I will not be able to tell the plants apart until they fruit. The leaves, however, are different colors, so I can be assured I have two different kinds.

So far I have been unable to produce peppers or Russian tarragon from seed in three tries and one of my varieties of basil failed to germinate. When the  basil plants get bigger I’ll be able to tell which one I have and I will plant some more somewhere. I will also plant more lettuce in the shade of other plants.

The scarlet runner beans have begun to climb up their improvised tepee, but nothing is in flower yet except the tomato plant. The butternut squash have their first real leaves. The cabbages are much larger, beginning to crowd one another, but there is no sign of heads forming. I have not grown cabbage before.

One of these days I will have an herb-planting day and put in dill, oregano and chives. I will also add some green beans to fill in the gaps in the bean rows. I want to plant more and more, but I am watering by hand and it already takes almost an hour to get around the garden with my tea kettles and milk bottles.

MK's Breakfast Strata. 12" x 12" gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

MK’s Breakfast Strata. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

When I am not in the garden (I don’t sleep there!) or fussing over seedlings I still busk, cook, sketch, etc. I recently left the plants to Johnny’s care and some fortuitously-timed rain and went for a long weekend in the lower elevations of the Sierra Nevada. The event was called Ballads on the Mountain, hosted by a friend who likes to call herself “Mary Kingsley.” Twelve women assembled to sing traditional ballads from the Francis James Child collection and to eat up a storm. Kingsley’s red kitchen produced meal after meal. One of my favorites was new to me: breakfast strata, a savory concoction of eggs, cheese, sourdough bread cubes, meat and vegetables. We had a wonderful one with chicken apple sausage and mushrooms, which I’m going to share with you here and then cook for Johnny when the weather cools off again. I don’t have any problem with eating this dish for lunch, brunch or supper either, believing in breakfast served all day.

Mary Kingsley’s Breakfast Strata (adapted)

12 slices dry sourdough bread, cubed

8 eggs, beaten

3 cups shredded cheese

2 cups sliced mushrooms

12 oz sliced chicken apple sausage

3 Tbsp prepared mustard

1/2 tsp salt (optional)

1/4 tsp cayenne

olive oil for greasing pan

Toast your bread cubes in a 250 oven until dry and perhaps a little golden in spots. While the bread toasts you can saute your mushrooms. Set aside bread, then bump your oven up to 325. Lightly oil or butter a 3 quart rectangular baking dish. Place half of bread cubes in baking dish. Top with half of the mushrooms and half of the cheese. Top with half the sliced sausage. Repeat layers of bread, mushrooms, cheese and sausage.

Whisk cayenne, mustard and salt into beaten eggs. Pour eggs over other ingredients. Press down with the back of a wooden spoon to make sure all bread gets moistened.

Bake uncovered for 50 to 60 minutes until puffed and set. Enjoy.

Food notes: The recipe MK sent me included variations, one with sun-dried tomatoes and asparagus. When I saw this, I immediately wanted to incorporate sun-dried tomatoes into my own strata. I would also like it with peppers. MK actually made one with mushrooms and leftover broccoli for a vegetarian. The original recipe also calls for 3 cups of milk, which MK eliminated. Since I didn’t miss it, I have eliminated it, too. If you add it, you’ll probably get a more custardy texture, rather than the firm, dry, one that I enjoyed, with crunch from the bread crumbs.

Painting notes: When I wasn’t eating, sleeping, or singing, I was staring out the window at a manzanita. Hence the painting. The other painting attempts to capture the strata and some of the many reds in MK’s kitchen.

Spring crops are in! Fresh Batavia lettuce rosettes at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Last Saturday I stood in line for a three-pack of strawberries and a couple of large artichokes, food that hardly needs preparing: I sliced the strawberries over homemade waffles made with spelt flour and sour half and half and steamed the artichokes to eat with lemon butter. This easy cooking joins the long-cooked stews on the cooler days and keeps me from heating up the kitchen on the warmer days. We have had some of each in March, eighty-degree afternoons, fifty-one degree sunrises. Sheeting rain yesterday morning kept me from singing at the Berkeley market but allowed me to walk through the Bay Fair market with Johnny instead. I bought more artichokes, some sugar snap peas, cilantro, new potatoes. Johnny bought onions, scallions, red peppers (where did they come from?). The other day a man walked down our street with strawberries from Salinas and I bought half a flat for two dollars a basket. Johnny says they aren’t as good as the farmers’ market strawberries, but it was an impulsive buy to cheer up my sweetie who has been working hard on his first album.

I have been working hard, too. I played a private St. Patrick’s Day party on Saturday March 15, in addition to my usual busking. For that I had to practice up several Turlough O’Carolan tunes on the Celtic harp and refresh my memory of some “Irish” standards of the type that one only sings on St. Patrick’s Day (I was heard to grumble through the house, “I never will play ‘The Wild Rover’ no more”).

Photo of seed packets

Heirloom seed packets.

The day after the gig I whisked myself off to Santa Rosa to visit my friends Suzanne and Scott. Suzanne and I had a date with the Seed Bank in Petaluma, a haven for heirloom seeds. Suzanne staked me to a portion of them as a late birthday present and I quickly doubled the stake to get an English trowel and more seeds. It’s hard to describe the bounty of seed packets at the Seed Bank, over 1200 possibilities. I carefully chose varieties of basil and tarragon, snapped up some black garbanzo beans from Afghanistan, bought Blue Lake green bean seeds and Scarlet Runner beans. I deliberated over kinds of sunflowers and bought a blue and white sweet pea mix. I chose a French variety of lettuce and an Amish paste tomato. I could not get sugar snap peas or Genovese basil — apparently everyone in Northern California is planting those at the moment. But the peppers were nearly my undoing: an entire rack of peppers stood before me and I wanted them all, habaneros and jalapenos, cherry peppers, Thai peppers. I limited myself to poblano seeds and a packet with a beautiful illustration of a red bell pepper.

Much of this bounty is still sitting in packets in the breakfast nook because every time I have had time to plant things outdoors I have needed stakes or there has been rain. I lie awake nights thinking where to put things. I did manage to plant a couple of half rows of black-eyed peas and pinto beans and put together a small A-frame of scavenged pine boughs and bamboo for the scarlet runner beans. I planted some runner beans today, plus Blue Lake green beans, butternut squash and two varieties of basil (Thai and Ararat).

Tomato and tarragon seedlings

First seedlings

Last week I started seeds of two kinds of tomatoes and Russian tarragon in cardboard egg cartons. I started a second set when anything failed to germinate after six days and was jubilant an hour later when the sun came out and the first green bits poked up out my potting soil in tray number one. I have never started seeds indoors before and this small victory feels like magic. This morning I squeezed three new egg cups into my tray, each containing a poblano pepper seed.

The in-ground crops look good. We cut a few leaves of chard one night to go with a dinner of sweet potatoes and sour milk cornbread. The kale and two of the red cabbages are growing large. The Sun Gold tomato is a leggy green monster now with four sets of yellow blossoms already — perhaps we will have home-grown tomatoes by May. I am anxious to have tomatoes, tarragon and pepper plants to add to the garden, to plant lettuce and herbs and flowers, but I have to wait for drier weather. Not that we don’t need the rain in California. We do.  I wait impatiently for the intersection of a free day and a dry day and I hack a three-foot high sheaf of flowering weeds out of the side yard so that they do not invade my vegetable patch.

It excites me to grow some of our food. I prepared the ground of my mind for this by subscribing to a farm box and converting myself to seasonal eating several years ago. Then I managed a small organic garden in an after school recreation program where we successfully grew beans, peas and tomatoes. We planted cleome and borage and lemon verbena, a true geranium, pumpkins: I watched a visiting child snap the one small pumpkin off its vine during a Hallowe’en party and I was let go before everything bloomed.

Hills and trees from Bay Fair platform.

Bay Fair Landscape #1. 5″ x 7″ ink and watercolor. Sharyn Dimmick.

I started some garden sketches for this post but the rain has interrupted my garden sketching as well. Instead I sketch strangers on BART trains and the view of hills and trees from the bench on the platform. The sketching exercises come from the new edition of Natalie Goldberg’s Living Color, a beautiful book with a gallery of paintings as well as lots of fun things to do. I feel happy with my life when the days contain music and sketching and cooking and gardening and writing. Sketching calms me and engages me, a meditation of the moving hand and eye, tethering my restless mind to the paper and the scene in front of me, just as busking tethers my mind to chords and lyrics, my hands to the fingerboard, my feet to the floor, while my voice rides the breath. In kitchen work, the anchor is my chopping knife, my whisk, the spoon in my hand, in gardening it is the trowel or fingers twisting weed stems as I thank them for breaking up the soil.