Archives for posts with tag: vegetable 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.

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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.

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).

In February I started a garden in bare, neglected ground. Over five months I dug out green plastic netting, dog shit, pieces of asphalt, mallows, too many weeds to count. I added compost, coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable scraps. I carted home pine boughs and pine needles, sticks and leaves I found in the gutters. I bought plants, I was given plants. I raised tomatoes and peppers from seed. I planted squash and beans, basil and tomatoes. The Sun Gold tomato took over almost an entire fence line. I added sunflowers and blue sweet peas.

With the miracle of sun and water, things grew. Two-inch squash appeared on the butternut vines, more than one, more than two, as the vines reached out into the yard for more sun. The beans and tomatoes were awash in blossoms, the green beans too tiny to pick yet, the shelling beans swelling. I was so happy and proud of my first home vegetable garden in sunny San Leandro. I fed friends chard and kale and gave away extra tomato seedlings.

And then I had to leave, not an easy decision. A situation arose that I could not live with and we could not come to an agreement about it. There is plenty of love left, but nothing to do with it at present, just as there were plenty of vegetables in the garden when I left and no one to tend them. Unless my ex-landlord or someone Johnny knows steps in to take care of it, the garden will die. In its death as in its life the bean roots will nourish the soil, fixing nitrogen. The plants will go back to the soil which gave them part of their life. I had custody of the garden for a brief time, enough time to grow things, but not enough time to gather in the entire harvest.

June finds me back at my mother’s house, sleeping on a sofa, my belongings in the capacious living room in boxes and bins and garbage bags. My mother and brother have been working on the never-refinished hardwood floor of my old bedroom and I can’t move my stuff in there yet. I brought with me several tomato seedlings and three pepper plants. One of the pepper plants appears to have a broken stem and may die soon. The other two are sitting outside in a copper bowl, waiting for me to find somewhere to plant them. My sister-in-law brought a large, healthy-looking tomato seedling from her house and we must find a place for that, too. We put three tomato plants in cages in two large buckets. I have many seeds left, but nowhere to plant them: I’ll find a pot for some Thai basil and perhaps some other herbs, but I will be beginning again in the foggy land in the path of the Golden Gate.

Meanwhile, I blanch and scrape citrus peel — I had saved peel for five months in the freezer and there is no room for it here. To save it, I have been working for three days, blanching and scraping lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit rinds. As I write, the orange peel is done and beginning to dry, the lemon and lime simmers on the stove and the grapefruit in the refrigerator awaits its hour-long sugar bath. The methodical scraping of pith with a steak knife was meditative, the long hours of labor calming the mind: it was good to have something simple to do, although after twelve hours or so I would be glad to see the labor ended. I thought I might be canning tomatoes and beans this summer — instead I am harvesting citrus peel for baked goods. As I blanch and scrape, perhaps I will leach any bitterness from my soul and let my heart rest in the sweetness of life, the sweetness of each tiny blessing. I am grateful to be able to read and write, to smell the clean, sharp citrus in the air. I am grateful for my readers, friends and family and grateful for a sweet life that I had for nearly two years.

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.

Birthday greeting

Birthday card.

My fifty-sixth birthday finds me at home, taking a rare day off the day job (busking in the Berkeley BART station and the Berkeley Farmers’ Market), spreading sheets of newspaper around parts of the backyard, weighting it down with rocks and bricks and whatever I can find. My friend Celi at thekitchensgarden recommended this method of composting after we determined that I could neither keep chickens nor build and turn a compost bin. Underneath the newspaper are used coffee filters and eggshells. The other vegetable and fruit scraps get buried in big pits. My birthday present requests have included bales of straw, seeds, plants and child-sized garden tools — I garden on my knees or sitting on the ground: I am slightly obsessed with the garden and the possibility of growing some of our own food.

I ate oatmeal for breakfast, graced with dried cherries and maple syrup: our kind friend Mary Katherine treated us with a gift certificate to Trader Joe’s as a housewarming present and we bought ourselves a hoard of delicious cheeses, salmon steaks, grass-fed beef steaks and lamb tips as well as the breakfast goods. We are not eating our meat and fish bounty yet because I am still on a soup or stew kick: this week we ate curried yellow split pea soup with spiced yogurt, taken from the Green’s cookbook, along with loaves of Mark Miller’s Cumin Orange Bread and some Asian cucumber salad provided by my friend Elaine. We also went out to Angeline’s in Berkeley for Johnny’s birthday, where we ate voodoo shrimp (me), crawfish etouffee (him) and banana bread pudding with caramel sauce and whipped cream (we split it). Also, on Valentine’s Day we ate a very spiffy dinner at Zatar, featuring lamb and crab salad and a fish tagine, cardamom ice cream and red wine-poached pears. I know, I know: we are a celebrating couple of people in February — it’s a good month to be us. But when I am not dining finely, out or at home, I am grubbing in the dirt,  or putting containers out in the yard to catch water. I have planted my first Sun Gold tomato plant, plus three red cabbages, three chard plants, one kale and one parsley. The parsley did not survive, soaked by the copious rain of the last few days, but the other things are doing fine: my mint plant is glorious and green, thanks to the local abundance of sun, followed by the welcome rain in my drought-stricken state. It was supposed to pour all day, they said. We did have showers in the morning, but I haven’t seen any real rain today yet.

detail from watercolor garden painting.

Detail from “Garden 101” painting.

My covetousness knows no bounds: I want to put in a Meyer lemon tree and a Bearss lime, a Gravenstein apple, maybe a green fig and a persimmon. Apricots and walnuts are supposed to grow well here, too: the neighbor’s have an old walnut — maybe one will grow itself! Fortunately, my thrift is intact: I cart home bags of leaves from parking lots and gutters to enrich our soil and I bought a mixed bean soup mix to plant in the backyard: legumes are good for the soil, breaking up hard dirt with their roots and fixing nitrogen to nuture future plants. If we get some shelling beans, so much the better. I plan to broadcast black-eyed peas as well, which are delicious fresh from the pod, particularly when prepared an Indian way.

It’s getting onto lunch time: I will probably have some more homemade bread and some cheese, a pear and a pot of tea. Johnny is taking me out for dinner, to Ajanta, my favorite Indian spot, where we will taste the new tasting menu. A garden, a blog, a painting, a nice meal with my true love. What else could I want? (Don’t get me started…)

painting depicts backyard garden.

Garden 101. Sharyn Dimmick 12″ x 12″ Gouache and watercolor pencil