Also True

It’s true that ten minutes ago I set down a bucket of mulch to admire a spider web stretched between two sturdy raspberry canes just beginning to leaf out. Now, the setting sun is making the grass beyond our fence glow neon green, the birds are singing and a train whistles. I have my laptop positioned perfectly so I can look at the zinnias and the bed of cucumbers I just planted while I write this. When Stan comes out of the shop he asks me what I’m doing. “Indulging myself,” I answer.

It’s also true that I wonder what my friends are up to. It’s Friday night. Are people getting together without us? Do we even have friends anymore? Will we remember how to find each other when Covid-19 is over?

It’s true that my compost pile is starting to heat. After a year of storing leaves and piling kitchen scraps on top of last year’s garden plants, I finally worked up the courage to face the mess yesterday. “What are you doing?” asked Saron when she came out of the house.

“Making soil,” I said. She perched on the fence beside me and I gave her the hose to water the pile while I stirred and jabbed and pushed and pulled and heaved the ingredients into place.

“Will you smell bad when you are finished?”

“Yes. Most definitely,” I said.

“Is this it? Did we make it already?” Saron asked when she saw me shovel some compost from the bottom of the other bin and work it into the new pile.

“Nope. It is magical but it doesn’t work quite that fast.”

It’s also true that gardening has distracted me from nagging, checking and guiding school work. Don’t want to do those novel study questions? Neither would I. Science looks boring? Come, help me plant these apple trees. Want to play in the basement all day? Great, just don’t bother me. Fiddling is more up your alley than math? Have at ‘er.

It’s true that we went to the beach this week, jumped off sand dunes and called it gym class. I took pictures and was overcome by smiling eyes, peach-coloured sweatshirts, blue sky and the taste of potato chips.

It’s also true that I’ve dropped into bed every night this week, nauseous with exhaustion, before 8:30 pm. Yesterday I had a headache and wondered if I was dehydrated. I got out of bed for a drink and had 3 scoops of peanut butter, just in case I needed more calories, while I was at it. Then I remembered why my head hurt. I had gotten mad earlier in the day, so mad that I had probably burned up some important neurological pathways.

Two children, who shall remain unnamed, had been going from room to room, intentionally farting behind closed doors to contaminate the space. When I found this out, I stormed into the bedroom (the one with white walls, white sheets, and a white loft that’s always pristine) where they were hard at work. Seeing the shysters’ sweaty little bodies and garden-dirty feet tangled in the duvet ignited me.

“How dare you fart in other people’s beds?” I yelled, trembling. While I heard myself railing against them I realized how ridiculous it all sounded, but I didn’t let myself give in to the comedy of the moment. I just wanted to be good and mad. Because really, there are so many things to be angry about on any given day, so many straws to break all of our backs.

It’s also true that I left shortly after to accompany Susanna on her paper route. When we returned an hour-and-a-half later, we were greeted with profuse apologies, multiple cards and a penitent light-up sign. I wondered, then, why I had been so fierce.

It’s true that I would like to be alone this evening, maybe in a little writing cabin at the edge of some woods, with a fern on the windowsill and a simple desk where I would think long, deep thoughts in silence.

It’s also true that I’m hungry, it’s 7:42 pm and I didn’t make supper but Susanna is pulling a saskatoon crisp out of the oven that will count for at least 2 servings of fruits and veggies for each of us. Vivian is plunking spoons into bowls she set around the table. And so I close my laptop with my mouth watering.

We had lots of help planting our plot at the community garden, though we all agree that straight rows aren’t nearly as fun as the curvy beds in our backyard garden

A DIY with pallets that has replaced some other academics
Water + dry leaves + lawn clippings + a year of kitchen waste + last year’s garden plants

Ready to cook for about 3 weeks. I’ll turn it into the empty bin and it will need another 3 weeks after that. Compost should be ready to top-dress my plants in July.
I let my asparagus creep into my rhubarb patch. They seem to get along well.
snap peas
Did you know it takes 3 years to row a large head of garlic from seed?
Tiny shoots from bulbils in the first year of garlic production from seed

Today’s Top Ten

Golden leaves litter the grass; wind whips at pony tails; nerves wait for the gun; calf muscles tighten; hundreds of shoes pound the ground; parents whoop, holler and even jump over fences–in suit pants and dress shoes–to keep up with their children and cheer them on. Yep, it’s cross-country season. I’m always mystified why it’s such a big deal here (three different meets for young elementary students) but I’m not complaining. Running is more accessible than many other sports; you don’t need special equipment or hand-eye coordination, only a pair of legs that work and a bit of spirit. In honour of the season I’m handing out ribbons, in the shape of sentences, to the ideas racing around my brain. They aren’t necessarily my favourite things in the whole world, rather, the top ten things I feel like noting today.

Eleven-year-olds… This is the bi-lingual age; of picking up the accent of adulthood while still fluent with childhood, of friends with cell phones and tree forts, of babysitting jobs and bedtime hugs, of sarcasm and silly dances, of looking adults in the eye and tag with two-year-olds. I don’t find myself coaching Belén on how to “look at people” when they speak anymore, as much as I watch her talking with adults and children alike and act the proud-mama part in secret. Inside my head I’m shouting, “See her over there? That one who stands tall with the wide smile? She’s my child! That’s my girl!”

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One moment, during Belén’s birthday party, I’m having a serious and meaningful conversation with the girls, the next moment they’re all off playing tag.

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Salsa verde… Made from tomatillos, this green sauce for enchiladas fits my favourite cooking category: the one where you don’t need a recipe. Of course, there are plenty on-line to follow but as long as you have tomatillos, peppers, onion, garlic and salt, it will turn out fine. I don’t add any extra water, but let it all simmer slowly before liquefying with my immersion blender.

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I’ve never cooked with tomatillos before growing them this summer but will definitely plant them again next year.

Neighbours with garbage… Thank you Rebecca for sharing your wealth. The rotting broccoli, over-ripe tomatoes and wilted lettuce is much appreciated. When I see you coming up the walk with a full bucket I get excited just thinking about the nitrogen, carbon and microbes that will work together to make the most precious of gifts. Dirt. Now that’s neighbourliness.

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I have 2 compost bins; one for collecting and one for curing. (It takes about 2 months once I start turning/watering/tending it.) The one on the right is finished and I am shoveling it out here.

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Instead of pulling my bean plants I piled fresh compost right on top (and spread it out later). The nitrogen-rich plants should decompose in place and be ready to host tomatoes next spring.

Wild goose meat… “You’ll need your knives for this kids,” Stan announces as he brings the grilled meat to the table. “Just pretend it’s jerky and you’ll be okay.” It’s true, the leg meat is chewy and tough but the breasts are different. Juicy and barely pink on the inside, they resemble steak and taste just as good. “It’s the rib-eye of the sky,” he tells us. We all agree, chiming in with compliments for the hunter.

Watermelon packages… I tell her it won’t grow; she doesn’t listen. I tell her it’s too late, too shady; she plants it anyway. I tell her the vine is too spindly; she calls her grandma to tell her there’s a blossom. I tell her the fruit will never ripen; she takes every visitor back to the garden to see it. If watermelon could grow on faith and loyalty alone, this one would be a prize winner. When her cousins from Ontario come she gives them the tour and leaves the best ’til last. Her dear watermelon, no bigger than a tennis ball and mostly white with a greenish hue, elicits sufficient praise. Matteus even asks for a taste.

A week later we scramble to bring in the garden before the first frost and Susanna picks her precious fruit. She slices it up and gently places one half on a square of plastic wrap while informing her father she is sending it in the mail to her cousin. He shoots her idea down; she hums and keeps working. The next day I ask about the piece of rind wrapped up on the counter.

“It’s going in the mail,” she responds.

“No, it’s not,” I say. “You can’t send a drippy, moldy package of watermelon.”

Susanna looks at me, smiles sweetly, and continues on.

It’s still there, awaiting its final destiny: compost or Canada post. Who will win?

This book… If you share my reading taste you will love Tattoos on the Heart written by a Jesuit priest who lives in gang territory in L.A.

And this one: Good God, Lousy World, and Me. It’s another spiritual memoir written by a human rights activist who comes to understand God is present even in in the filthiest, darkest, and most violent of places.

Deception in the name of cleanliness… We have a house cleaner. She comes once a week. We don’t know her full name because of her company’s privacy policy, but we know we all have to tidy up the night before so she can deep clean without the clutter. Everyone is very impressed with her work. I don’t think we pay her enough.

Orca beans… Dry beans are the middle child of the garden; they get on quite well with almost no attention. I planted a tiny corner of my garden with these and basically forgot about them until today, when I harvested enough for a few meals and next year’s seed cache.

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Sunsets during supper

The rice is cooking, so are the beans
My kitchen window glows neon
No time to cook
Pull Vivi from her highchair, buckle up, squish in, head out of town
Find a prairie,
a gravel road,
a place to smell the harvest dust
The sky blossoms purple and orange and makes this field a ballroom
This stubble our dance floor

Different

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Lamb’s quarters

If you have jumpy little black bugs in your garden, and if the arugula you planted has holes in it one day, is shriveled the next, and totally gone the third day, you might have flea beetles. I love arugula, especially with feta cheese, toasted pecans and cranberries, so I plant it every year. This year I planted it twice–both times the seedlings succumbed to flea beetles resulting in my sixth consecutive arugula crop failure. Which of course doesn’t matter one whit when I consider real crop failure and livelihoods on the line, but in my little world it is something to take note of. Don’t plant arugula…will not survive flea beetle.

Besides the arugula fiasco, I’ve taken note of something else. Just about the same time my second planting of arugula went down, lamb’s quarters started elbowing out the Orca beans. I always have these weeds in my garden, and I often munch on them before pulling them, but today I had an idea. Why don’t I let a few of these silver-powdered plants reach maturity, harvest their seed, and dedicate a whole plot to them next season? It’s a nutritional powerhouse, doesn’t cower to the flea beetle, and best of all, grows like a weed!

Once upon a time, lamb’s quarters greens received more respect. Their ancient name was “all good,” and all good they are. They contain more iron and protein than raw cabbage or spinach, more calcium and vitamin B1 than raw cabbage, and more vitamin B2 than cabbage or spinach.  According to Joan Richardson’s Wild Edible Plants of New England, lamb’s quarters “even outclasses spinach as a storehouse of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin C, and great amounts of vitamin A, not to mention all the minerals pulled out of the earth by its strong taproot.” (from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association)

What makes arugula so much better than lamb’s quarters anyway? I did a taste test with the greens I harvested from my garden today (butter crunch lettuce, red leaf lettuce, spinach, and lamb’s quarters) and enjoyed the young lamb’s quarters as much as the rest, if not more. The nutty flavour is not as bitter as the lettuce and will go fine with pecans and a balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve read the seeds are also edible and can be ground into flour or cooked whole (like quinoa), but will update you further when I have some more first-hand information!

***

Our annual skip-school day is a sacred tradition the girls talk about months beforehand. This year I send them ahead with Shelly while I stay home for Vivian’s first nap, hoping she will be well-rested and ready for the dunes just like her big sisters. While she sleeps, I ready the back-pack carrier and envision walking for miles along the shore, like always. I grab wieners and anticipate roasting a perfectly salty hot dog. Like always. I fold my towel and look forward to laying in the sun, water evaporating off my freshly cooled skin. Like always.

When we arrive at the dunes the sun is high. It’s just past noon and Vivian is starting to get hungry. Should I feed her now or put sunscreen on her or try to build a lean-to shelter for shade? I set her down to look for baby food–which I forgot to bring, while she cries and eats sand. There are tent caterpillars everywhere; on our blankets, our water bottles, our sandals, and our legs. I flick one out of Vivi’s hand and try to cover her up from the sun with my long-sleeve cotton shirt. It doesn’t work. She crawls forward and bungles her knees in the fabric, the sun beats hard, and I’m wondering if it’s okay for her to eat chips all day. I’m also wondering how long we can last.

This isn’t like I planned and doesn’t match my memories of visiting with the other moms, laughing while kids vault off sandy cliffs, and joking with them about what “all the children in school are doing”. I haven’t taken one picture of the girls jumping off the dunes or heard any of the conversation around me, much less contributed to it. I am too worried about Vivi, the worms, the wind, getting her to sleep again and why this feels so different than last year. After nursing her awhile with her fleshy white legs jutting out from my sweaty belly, I know we need shade. I walk down the beach while the wind pushes hard against me and dig my heels into the sand. Towel whipping in the wind and cooler tugging on my shoulder, I yell back to my mom trudging behind, “The ambiance isn’t quite like I’d hoped!”

It’s true, the ambiance is different with a ten-month-old. My mom and I whisper about it while Vivi snoozes on the blanket beside us; how this summer will be hard and so will the next, and then maybe, by the time she’s three, things will go back to normal. How relaxing at the beach really means multitasking: conversations that ebb and flow while chasing a little one, filling up buckets of sand, monitoring liquid intake and readjusting sun hats.

When I worked as a liaison with high school exchange students, their orientation manual included a section on making judgements and how things don’t have to be “better” or “worse”.  Sometimes they are just different. Now, like the exchange students, I am learning about my new landscape; calibrating expectations so my internal gauge reads different instead of worse. Instead of leisurely roasting my own hotdog like I imagined, I go without until Belén finds us in our new spot. She comes back shortly, kicking up sand and running with a sizzling wiener at the end of her stick, cooked just for me. Later, Susanna and I count to three and dive under the water. It feels like freedom and I manage a few strokes before my Vivi radar turns on. I look back to see her with my mom at the water’s edge. They are just fine.

Back on shore, the day stretches into its finest hours–the wind dies down and the sunshine sweetens into a gentle heat. Belén is dangling her feet from the dinghy and Ainsly floats beside while they make up terrible jokes in a secret language. Susanna is throwing a football with Jack, and Shelly sits nearby in the sun. I watch water droplets disappear from her tanned shoulders, instead of my own, while sitting with Vivi under the shade of a poplar. Vivian is bare-bummed (sure to pee any minute), her mouth is mustached with grit, and I just gave her another potato chip, but she is quiet. Perfectly still. This is when I decide we can stay just a few minutes longer. Everything is going to be okay.

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My mom and Vivian

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Tricia

PS. Here’s a quote I forgot to add to my last post. It’s one of many I highlighted in Ueland’s book:

“Art is infection. The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too. When I read this in Tolstoy it seemed like a great flashing discovery. But perhaps I would not have been so struck by it if it had not been for my class. I saw in their writing how whenever a sentence came from the true self and was felt, it was good, alive, it infected one no matter what the words were, no matter how ungrammatical or badly arranged they were. But when the sentence was not felt by the writer, it was dead. No infection.”

 

 

Puddles

The leaves on our birch have unfurled themselves (on May 6–I won the bet) and the tomato seedlings we started so many weeks ago are now in the garden. The evening sun warms our yard until about eight o’clock and we hear disc-golf players in the park long after. Last night, looking past my patch of dirt and into the green space beyond drenched with evening light and shadows I asked Stan, “Doesn’t it feel like we’re on a Hollywood set?” The temperature was perfect and there were no mosquitoes. Feet planted firmly on the scaffolding, arms stuffing insulation in the attic, and head hidden by rafters, he didn’t answer. Underneath where he worked, long grass smothered ripped up soffit and fascia, rusty nails, and construction debris. Maybe he didn’t feel like much of a celebrity, having gotten up for work at 4:30 am then returning home to spend his last waking hours with our roof.

Last Sunday felt a bit Hollywood-ish too. Not in a glitzy way exactly, but in a mud-between-the-toes, walleye-sizzling-over-the-fire way. Being in the middle of nowhere with friends, lake-swimming, and piling fishing poles, chips, and kids into a jeep is just about as perfect as Beverly Hills…

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All cleaned up after the mud (mostly) with a stomach full of pickerel.

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Vivi is getting bigger each day. Literally. I know this because she waits for the girls to get off the bus at the living room window where the changes can be measured easily. One day just her eyes peeked over; the next, it was her nose; now Belén and Susanna can see her huge four-tooth grin while she clings to the sill with her stubby fingers. As she grows she’s becoming more of a force to reckon with. I’m not sure if it’s all the touching, tickling and cuddling she gets at home, but she seems to intimidate other children with her intensity. I tried to explain to the two-year-old, who cowered behind her mom’s leg yesterday, that Vivian was more like a puppy than a baby, but it didn’t help. Vivi clambered closer, unleashing her zeal, while the toddler broke down in tears (which wasn’t the first time this has happened). Afterward, I reported on her social skills at the dinner table and her sisters lectured her on “how to get people to like you” and personal space. We’ll see if she learned her lesson.

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I didn’t think I’d plant a garden this year. The weeds that grew up some time between my 38th week of pregnancy and Vivi’s umbilical cord drying up, puffing their seedy heads into the wind, seemed unbeatable last year. But the month of May brings hope. Like a mother who can’t quite remember what labour is really like, I’ve decided to try again. It can’t be that bad, right? Only I’m not birthing a new crop, I’m just the midwife; transplanting calendula so it can buddy up with tomatoes, thinning fall-seeded butterhead lettuce in hopes of crunchy heads, scavenging branches to trellis sugar snap peas, and forcing everyone to eat asparagus. Every year I like to try something new. Last year it was the beautiful orca beans Bonnie gave me. This year it’s anise, a feathery herb grown for its seed that looks like cilantro. While living in Bolivia my neighbours encouraged me to drink anise tea to fix my broken stomach. It didn’t help, since I was eating bread along with the tea, but I am looking forward to trying it again–this time without the wheat.

The midwifery image is accurate but perhaps more poetic than reality. In truth, the garden is one more thing on my to-do list that doesn’t ever seem to get shorter. With Vivi crawling everywhere, house renovations, and stomachs that need to get filled three times a day–yes, that’s three times a day!–I feel as if I’m drowning. I really start thrashing when I look at the lemon balm drying up in their plastic greenhouse containers, the cucumber seeds on the counter, the dandelions overtaking our lawn, the plywood I said I would cut for Stan, the sawdust we drag through our house, the sticky mess in the fridge drawer, the pile of clothes on my nightstand mixed with bills, receipts and mother’s day cards, and the list of people to whom I casually mentioned coming over for a drink or a meal. Then, something catches my attention and I quit splashing. Some call this gaining perspective, I call it the work of the Holy Spirit.

I talk to my mom and she tells me the flea beetle is damaging Tim’s canola. I also remember the lady from church whose daughter committed suicide. But it’s not only the bad things, it’s also bigger things. Beyond-my-doorstep things. Like Joey and Anissa preparing to take their family to Africa for the summer, instead of booking campsites. It’s Alden and Aida moving back from Nicaragua and finding new jobs in Canada. It’s Janelle and Ryan adopting the baby boy they’ve waited for for so many years. Remembering these things doesn’t shorten my to-do list; I still feel like I’m drowning, only now I know it’s a puddle. To breathe all I need to do is lift my head up from time to time.

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my helper

Looking up, if only for a quick breath,

Tricia

 

Betting and Bat Houses

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I believe Spring and April have crossed the threshold and it’s time to start the party. The winter clothes are stashed (though we always keep toques out, just in case) and the geese are coming home. We’ve eaten our first offering from the garden–green onions, and there are weeds to dig. A sunny seven-thirty means baseball and bike-rides instead of pajamas and feather duvets. Yep, it’s finally here.

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Well, almost. The trees aren’t green yet, but we’re betting it’s going to happen this weekend. Literally. The gamble between us and nature is on; each of us have picked a day we think the birch tree in our front yard will leaf out. The winner will choose from a list of prizes we all contributed to (a brand new beach towel, $10 shopping spree, choice of meat on the barbeque, or ice cream). When I suggested the idea to my girls, Belén’s first response was, “Can I google it?” And the answer that, of course, was no. Two weeks ago, not a single website or search engine held the secret of spring. Even with technology, it’s still unpredictable and out of our control. All we can do is sit back and watch the miracle happen. Or bet on it.

Besides betting, we’re also into bat houses. Stan and Susanna fashioned this cozy home in hopes of attracting hundreds of nesting bats to our yard this summer. We’re courting them because of their appetite for mosquitoes, but if I get some bat poop out of the deal (for my compost) I’ll be even happier. We don’t know much about these flying mammals so the whole process feels a bit mysterious. Does build it and they will come apply to bats?

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Happy Spring to you all! You made it through another winter. That’s something worth jumping up and down for!

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Herbal Salt Recipe and Marriage-bolstering Potatoes

Well, it came. Yep. The ground is dusted with snow and both girls have already downed at least one icicle “lollipop”. This means the garden season is officially over for me, as I harvested the last of my herbs this weekend to make herbal salt. Though I haven’t collected any scientific data on this, I think combining fresh herbs with salt preserves flavour better than drying them alone.

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rescued rosemary

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After removing the rosemary leaves from their stalks, I chopped them in my food processor. Knives work too.

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I think I’ll add more salt to this pan of rosemary salt–it looks a little green,

One day I’d like to make an un-recipe book filled with dishes that are too flexible to fit the recipe format. Herbal salts would definitely fit the criteria; you can use any combination of fresh herbs, with almost any ratio of salt. If you prefer, you can substitute salt with sugar (with lemon balm, lavender, etc)–I haven’t done this because I don’t use sugar in the same quantity I do salt.

To Make Herbal Salt:

  • finely chop fresh herbs (I do this with my food processor and add a little bit of salt to help with the grinding)
  • mix herbs with coarse salt
  • spread on a cookie sheet to dry, cover with tea towel, and stir every day or two
  • after a couple days? weeks? (when it’s dry!) store salt in your cupboard. I like to use jars with wide mouths so I can get my fingers inside them. You definitely want to touch this salt as you apply it.

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I made this batch earlier this summer. It contains sage, oregano, thyme, and as an after-thought, a few dried nasturtium petals to give it zip and colour.

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You can use the salt with fresh veggies, meat, or pasta, but it really shines on oven-roasted potatoes. (Toss cubed potatoes with plenty of olive oil and salt. Roast in a hot oven until crispy.)

Thankfully, it looks like we’ll have enough potatoes around here, to eat with our salt, for quite awhile. Stan stepped out this weekend to buy some spuds and came back with eighty pounds! Fortunately for me, I think Stan feels some sort of responsibility for preparing them since he shouldered them into our basement. He made French fries for about ten people on Friday, and scalloped potatoes for thirty-five, on Sunday. Both days he served four. Our little family. Of four.

I’m not complaining about the potatoes though. I’m actually grateful because they helped us through a slump of sorts. It wasn’t a food shortage–thank God for that–but a shortage of warmth and patience between Stan and myself. Last week was one of those weeks where we started off on the wrong foot and then hobbled our way through every day, a little more defensive and irritated than the last. Don’t you hate those kind of slumps? It wasn’t terrible, violent, or dramatic, but more like wearing a sweater with an itchy tag, all week long. By Saturday I’d almost lost track of what, precisely, was the main issue, because I was too busy noticing all the other little things that were wrong with Stan.

*Enter the potatoes*

Just as I was finishing with a Saturday-afternoon project, Stan started slicing up potatoes. At 7 o’clock he lit the barbeque. I looked out the window and saw it was sleeting. He came back in for the potatoes and carried them to a pot heating on the side element of the bbq. I watched him as he dumped the raw potatoes into the sizzling oil while slushy snow collected on the rim of his bowl and on his hair. The girls jumped around him, hopping with the excitement of cooking french fries in the damp, snowy dark. And then, something slid out from under my tenacious mental grip. Maybe it was the how I’m hard done by card I’d been holding on to all week.

Stan came in the house to hand me a bucket of crispy fries and went out to cook another batch. And another. And another. The fries were hot and salty and gluten free and better than all the McDonald’s fries I’ve ever had.

Life is not an Amelia Bedelia story; food does not always solve the problem, but honestly, it really helped this time. Or maybe it was just the tipping point that led me to a healthier perspective. (Yes, I think I’ll go with that, it sounds more sophisticated than the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach.) It probably didn’t hurt, either, that I’d picked up a book with a chapter titled “Incompatibility is Grounds for Marriage” earlier in the day. And let’s not forget I’m talking about Stan, here; he’s one of the most penitent people I’ve ever met, even if he doesn’t have anything to be penitent about.

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By the end of the evening, with our bellies full of simple carbs, we were ready to face another week together. This time, with our best foot forward.

How do you get through slumpy, bumpy, itchy weeks?

What’s your favourite potato dish?

Tricia

PS. IMPORTANT! YOU DON”T WANT TO MISS THIS!

Announcing…. my first ever blog give-away contest. Instead of leaving a comment, all you have to do is show up at my backdoor to claim your prize (a hearty serving of scalloped potatoes ready to go!) …This is not a joke.

Fermented Sauce and Sundried Tomatoes

I can’t get over how cheap food is at the grocery store.

A couple weeks ago I canned tomatoes, and ladies and gentlemen, it took me ALL day to produce 8 measly quarts of sauce. By 9 pm, when the popping seals interrupted my inner mantra (never can sauce again, never can sauce again, never can sauce again) all I could think about was the incredible amount of labour and energy invested into the food we eat. I thought of raking last year’s leaves, battling with my pitchfork in the compost, digging holes in my clay soil, filling them with compost, transplanting tomato seedlings,  watering, and weeding, weeding, weeding… Well, the last bit isn’t true but it sounds good–and would be true for many of you. (I let my garden defend itself, after July 1. There are too many lakes to swim in, cousins to see, and roads to travel, to be pulling weeds.)

Food is costly. It requires energy to grow, harvest, prepare and preserve. In fact, just when I think the hardest part is over as I survey my garden at its prime, the real work of harvest begins. Unfortunately, this year it coincided with the start of school, music lessons, gymnastics, a new job for me, and birthday parties. Of course, the harvest is at the same time every year, but it always feels unexpected and requires more work than I anticipate. Like a needy house guest who stays a few nights too many. The first few bowls of tomatoes were were all fun and games when they showed up, but now I want them to go preserve themselves… which is what this post is about.

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roma tomatoes and thyme, ready to meet their new best friends, lactobacilli bacteria

So far, I’ve used three methods to preserve my tomatoes: conventional canning, fermentation, and drying. Canning results in the taste we are used to and makes nice holiday gifts for people we don’t really know, (only my favourite people get my ferments), but it takes too much work to belong to this post. I highly recommend fermenting your tomato sauce as long as you don’t do what I did:

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tomato sauce fermenting on my counter–don’t do it this way–

When I read about making sauce, I decided the part about “stirring your tomatoes everyday while they ferment” seemed cumbersome.*  Instead, I poured my sauce into jars and covered it with olive oil on Day 1. Why make unnecessary steps, I’d wondered. I’ll let it ferment in small jars, capped with olive oil, and save myself a dirty dish. Well, by Day 5 my sauce had fermented so beautifully, the extra CO2 (a normal byproduct of the process) pushed the tomatoes out of the olive oil barrier where they met with oxygen, creating the perfect conditions for mold. Fortunately, I realized my mistake and froze all the sauce before it went bad. For my next batch I will:

1. Chop or process any ingredients I want for the sauce (tomatoes, celery, garlic, onions, peppers, herbs, etc). Fermentation is freedom; you don’t have to worry about acidity or ingredient ratios.

2. Add whey–2 or 3 tablespoons per quart (this is optional but it contains lactobacilli and gives the ferment a kick-start)

3. Add salt to taste–make it on the salty side (helps keep sauce good before fermentation takes over)

4. Pour sauce into a wide-mouthed, gallon jar and let sit on my counter for about 5 days, STIRRING EVERY DAY to make sure none of the sauce spends too much time at the surface.

6. Pour sauce into smaller, glass bottles, or jars, and cap with a layer of olive oil (about 3/4 inch thick) to prevent spoilage

7. Store in my basement**

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Brown rice pasta with fermented tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. The taste is slightly different than canned tomato sauce–lighter, fresher and a little wine-y, but delicious.

Sun-dried tomatoes are my current craze. They top the charts in ease and taste, although they still require a commitment to get them into the sun.

The other day my principal approached me in the hallway to discuss staff parking.

I interrupted him, “Are you talking about the blue Mazda parked at a weird angle in the parking lot?”

He wasn’t. Then I had to explain why I thought he might be concerned: I had trays of tomatoes drying on my dash and I wanted optimum sunlight exposure for them.

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sun-dried tomatoes–this batch is crispier because I sliced the tomatoes a little too thin.

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Some of my paste tomatoes are small enough to slice in half or thirds. It’s best to slice them consistently  (3/4 to an inch thick) so they dry at the same rate but I never manage to do it.

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My mom, putting tomato slices on an old window screen that will hit the roof.

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I start my tomatoes on the garage roof for 2 or 3 days (taking them down at night) then finish them up on the dashboard of the car when they’ve shrunk in size.

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I always be sure to park in the sun, and if I get hungry while running errands, I have a snack handy. (Once they’ve been on the roof, they only need a day or so in the car.)

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Last-minute sushi made with sun-dried tomatoes, cream cheese, cucumber and carrots.

How are you preserving your tomatoes? Do you have any suggestions, or fermentation stories, to share with the rest of us?

Happy Wednesday,

Tricia

*There are lots of books available on the art of fermentation. One of my favourites is this one from France.

**Remember the fermented salsa sitting in my basement? It’s still good!

Green

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Belén and Susanna… where the pavement turns to gravel on the way to my brother’s farm (also my childhood home). Belén wore her “bindi” (the sticker you see in the middle of her forehead) for two days.

I think we might have found the Emerald City; it’s summer in the prairies.

Stan went to Cincinnati, Ohio for a work conference in April, a couple of years ago. Our yard was covered in snow when he left and the trees were as dark and leafless as wrought iron. When he came back he said he’d discovered his favourite colour: green. He couldn’t stop talking about the parks, the grass, and the growth he’d seen. That’s how I feel today. Only it’s July, and I haven’t made a trip to Ohio; just our backyard garden…

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Front: Arikara yellow bush bean
Back: Snap peas just about to set pods

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Ever-bearing strawberry blossoms… we eat the berries just a little under-ripe so we can get them before the slugs do…

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The garlic scapes are ready! (with parsnips-and weeds–growing nearby)

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Broccoli bed with snap peas in the middle: the broccoli heads are looking small and timid–nothing like the huge florets you see in the store, but they’ll keep on giving throughout the season once I start harvesting them.

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Sage, starting to flower. It over-wintered beautifully this year… it’s a pity I don’t find more things to use it in.

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Nasturtium, blue corn flower, tomatoes, lettuce, rogue chamomile, green beans and tiger lilies are starting to fill up the beds.

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flowers, tomatoes and beans…the cherry tomatoes are starting to climb the sticks propped against the garage.

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Arugula (the third planting survived the attack of the beetles!), basil and rosemary.

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Our asparagus patch is vibrating with bees. We are not sure what species this is as there are many native species here. (Stan took this photo.)

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What’s your favourite colour?

Tricia

Homemade Pest Repellent Spray and Salsa Dancing

I wish my yard were buzzing with wasps.* Yes, wasps. Some species are predatory and feed on harmful garden insects. Others are parasitic, laying their eggs on aphids, caterpillars and other bugs. When the larvae hatch, they destroy their host–hopefully a cabbage moth caterpillar or an aphid! I haven’t seen any wasps in my garden yet (many parasitic wasp species are quite small) but unfortunately, I have spotted aphids, cabbage moths, flea beetles, and asparagus beetles. I try to keep calm when I see huge chunks missing from my broccoli transplants, or notice how pock-marked and scabby my arugula seedlings are getting. I remind myself everything’s gotta eat; I try to respect the delicate balance of the food chain; and admit some plants will simply get sacrificed, but many will pull through… blah, blah, blah…

And then I concoct a pesticide.

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herbal tea base (in the jar), repellent spray (in the spray bottle), vegetable oil, dish soap

This spray will suffocate bugs upon contact, but I use it mostly to keep them from landing on plants in the first place.

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I’m not sure who’s eating my broccoli? Slugs? I know the cabbage worms aren’t out yet…

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Arugula seedlings attacked by flea beetles. This is my THIRD planting–they decimated the other two. Small brassicas (like arugula) are esp. susceptible to flea beetle. Once the plants get bigger the beetles are less likely to affect the plant.

Now then, let’s get on to business… Here’s my recipe for Homemade Pest Repellent Spray

  • 8-10 cups water
  • combination lovage, oregano, thyme (This is what I use because I have an abundance of it in my garden. I think rosemary and sage would also work.)
  • 3 tablespoons, or more, of freshly minced garlic
  • 1 tsp. oil
  • 1 drop dish soap
  • Submerge as many herbs as you can in the water (to make it as strong as possible). Bring tea to a boil, add fresh minced garlic, cover pot and remove from heat. Let steep for 24 to 48 hours. Strain solids from the tea and add oil and dish soap. Pour into spray bottle and spray all over broccoli leaves and stems, taking care to cover the undersides of leaves (if you want to keep moths from laying their eggs there).  Reapply after rain.

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lovage

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oregano

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cutting up lovage, thyme, and oregano for the tea

homemade spray with broccoli

homemade spray with broccoli

*** These asterisks make segues so much easier***

My parents offered to take our girls last weekend, so I thought Stan and I might tackle the garage and get it cleaned out. Maybe even plant beans or turn our compost pile. Stan had different plans. At 5:30, Friday afternoon, he called to ask if I’d paid the Mastercard bill. When I said yes, he told me not to plan anything for the weekend. The next morning we were on the dance floor at a salsa workshop in Saskatoon. I found out he’d registered us for a full day at an International Salsa Congress–including workshops, a show, and social.

Can you see us? We're the couple on your right.

Can you see us? We’re the couple on your right.

While studying the schedule posted outside the ballroom, I wondered aloud if we should start at the intermediate level. Maybe we’d be bored in the beginner’s class? Stan didn’t think so. After we found a spot at the very back of the room, a man standing on the stage said something about getting loosened up, in a thick Spanish accent. The music started and electrified the sea of hips around us. For the next two hours, I kept checking in on Stan with my eyes (our instructors insisted we change partners every few minutes). From across the room I tried telepathy: I promise I will go down every single aisle of Princess Auto with you after this.

In the middle of the second workshop, we reached a tipping point. Cross-body leads we could barely handle, but not lifts. While the instructor explained, “The lady wraps her leg around the man’s thigh and then he picks her up and spins her like this…” we were quietly picking up our water bottles and heading towards the exit. In twenty minutes we were stroking shiny canoes in an outdoor adventure store. Thirty minutes later, we bought one.** The owner happened to notice our matching registration bracelets while he helped us secure the canoe to our car rack.

“What have you two escaped from?” he asked

Stan grunted, while pulling the ratchet straps, and I answered the question.

“An International Salsa Congress. You know… dancing…”

It seemed so out of context in that parking lot, and with our lives, in general. I wear rubber boots; not stilettos. Stan turns wrenches; not lycra-clad strangers. But that’s what I love about him–he’s adventurous enough to paddle the backcountry and show up at a Salsa Congress!

Oops, I made a mistake labeling the last picture. Those are just some world cup champions who tried to teach us. Here we are, looking slightly apprehensive before our first workshop.

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Have a great weekend, whether you’re a dancer, gardener, or neither!

Waiting for wasps,

Tricia

*Beneficial wasps are attracted to tiny, nectar-rich flowers like chamomile, sweet alyssum, lovage, and thyme.  Certain species are also available for purchase (to control pests) but I’m hoping they find my little plot on their own.

**This sounds a lot quicker than the process really was. Stan has been researching canoes for months? years? as we’ve outgrown our cedar-strip one. I guess it took a Salsa workshop to push him over the edge.

My less-than-show-piece garden

I used to be so hopeful when planting my garden. I’d think about all the seeds ready to burst forth and imagine my plot carpeted with showy foliage. Every May I’d wonder if I should contact the local horticultural society to register my garden for the annual tour. It’d be a pity not to show this off, I’d think to myself. Then June would come. And the weeds. And the slugs. And the blight. And who knows what else. These days, as I seed my garden, I’m more pessimistic (realistic?) about the whole thing. When something actually surfaces–and stays alive despite ragged holes crunched out of leaves–I’m blown away. Flourishing, heck, even surviving, plants are a miracle.

Perennial violets are edible and medicinal. I tell my girls they can only pick them if they promise they'll eat them.

I tell my girls they can pick these violets (edible and medicinal) only if they promise they’ll eat them.

Someone asked me recently if I’d planted my garden already, after telling me she’d planted hers on Saturday. I looked at her hard and realized she meant something totally different than what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks. I clued in when she said she’d finished seeding hers in a day. I imagined her drawing the hoe through deeply tilled soil, getting crumbly black dirt in the heels of her shoes as she dropped seeds into neatly spaced rows.

Rosemary that over-wintered--a total surprise for our climate!  I surround my rosemary with rocks for heat retention. (Not that this helped during the winter.)

Rosemary that over-wintered–a total surprise for our climate! I surround my rosemary with rocks for heat retention. (Not that this helped during the winter.)

My way of planting is a back-breaking, multi-day procedure. First, I yank out all the sunflower stalks and other woody material I didn’t clean up before the snowfall. Then there’s the seed bed preparation: I hack at the clay with my pitch fork (no tiller for me, no siree, that would be too easy) and then rub the hard lumps of clay into mini lumps of clay until my hands are raw. I plant wild, row-ish looking things that wind around scattered perennials and fall-planted vegetables.

Sometimes this works. Other times it turns out like the arugula bed I seeded a few weeks ago. The seedlings managed to bust through the crusty soil, and before they even developed their first set of true leaves something devoured every green speckle, in just two nights. My friend, Bonnie, says the deer are noshing on her new raspberry canes and special-ordered fruit trees. No, this gardening thing is not for the faint of heart.

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Lovage–a celery replacement great for soup bases. I know I’ve said chamomile is the hardiest thing I grow, but I was wrong. It’s lovage. Too bad we can’t survive on it.

Perennial green onions. They produce green onions all summer long and can be harvested multiple times. They are also shade tolerant.

Perennial green onions. They are one of my first edibles and can be harvested multiple times, producing all summer long. They are also shade tolerant.

When Belén saw the title of this post she wasn’t impressed.  “Why do you write just bad things?” she asked. I told her it’s not fun to read about perfection all the time. She responded, “I think you need a little good and a little bad.”

So here’s the little good: hardy perennials and wild finds. My perennials are mostly berries, herbs, and edible flowers and every spring I wish I had more. (All the above pictures are perennials.) When I’m sweating over my lumpy soil, the rhubarb, mint, and raspberries are already unfurling leaves, all on their own. Too bad there isn’t a winter-hardy tomato perennial! As for wild finds, we ate our first harvest of wild asparagus this week. I located the greenery last fall (see picture here to scope out your own) and marked the spot: third spruce tree along railroad tracks. We found it last Wednesday and we’ll go back for our third cutting today. So, if you see me walking around town with a knife, you’ll know what I’m up to.

wild asparagus

Wild asparagus–I leave the thin stalks to support root growth and only harvest ones thicker than a pencil.

Belén collected dandelions on the way and termed the whole excursion a "real success". I think this was mostly due to the dandelions.

Belén collected dandelions on the way to the asparagus and termed the whole excursion a “real success”. I think this was mostly due to the dandelions.

Belén and me

Belén and me.

So, all I can say is best of luck with your gardening endeavors! If you can nudge a piece of land towards production you’ve got my admiration. (Dirty) Hands down.

Tricia