Keep Calm and Chew On

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violets

This week we had a meal largely based around wild asparagus and violets.

“If you’re really good, I’ll let you sprinkle violets on your asparagus,” I say to the girls, trying to bait them.

But Susanna doesn’t fall for it. “Um, can we have crackers instead?” she barters, because any boxed or packaged product is innately superior to something fresh mom might have picked just before dinner.

Belén doesn’t balk at the violets, and even comments on their sweet fragrance, but is starting to get sick of the asparagus that shows up daily. Staring bleakly at her plate of buttered spears she mutters, “Keep calm and chew on.”

Foraging may not be the way to my family’s heart, or very practical, but it does make me notice a lot more than I used to. Keeping an eye out for wild edibles is like writing; it helps me pay attention. I’ve always been interested in wild-crafting, even as a kid, but I’ve learned much more about the plants around me in the last several years. Who knew spruce had tips? I didn’t. And violets? I thought they were a pretty little flower with a nice name but I don’t think I’d ever seen one before. I mean, really seen one. Now it’s hard not to see them–on people’s yards, boulevards, school playgrounds, and parks—because they’re everywhere. Going for a walk along an over-grown ditch in summer can be as overstimulating as a shopping mall on a busy day. My eyes rove over the foliage looking for feathery fronds (indicating a meal of asparagus next spring), rose bushes, plantain, or any other species I’m looking for. Elderberry is currently at the top of my list.

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asparagus and apple blossom bouquet

Foraging is most exciting in spring though, when gardens are a muddy promise and the air is redolent with wild growth. When frothy green poplar leaves are still unfurling, it’s time to head out with a sharp knife. (I always feel less self-conscious on the return trip when I have something to explain the weapon in my hands.) Come July, beans, tomatoes and berries will outshine spruce tips and cattails, but for now that’s what’s on tap and after a long winter, I’m parched.

Speaking of gardens, mine is still not entirely planted. Fortunately, we’ve significantly decreased the amount of space I’ll seed next year by adding more perennial edibles (a hazelnut, grapes, saskatoons, and more raspberries and strawberries). We don’t have a huge garden to start with, but I’m alright giving up some of my vegetable space for fruit. At least I know I won’t be the only one eating the end result, pretending my hours of digging, seeding, planting, weeding, watering and picking are NO BIG DEAL while certain people choke their way through a harvest meal. But it’ll be a while before we can fill baskets with fruit from our yard. At this point we’re counting every single blossom on our plum and cherry trees. Last year our blueberries didn’t grow at all; in fact, I think they shrank. The season before we harvested two blueberries. Two. And split them in half so all four of us could have a nibble.

So for now, we’re mostly dependent on annual crops. Thank goodness for fall seeding and transplants or we wouldn’t have anything fresh at all. The flea beetles have devoured my spring-planted arugula and radishes and I’m beginning to see damage from cutworm and slugs. Everything I seeded in fall is soldering on ahead of the pests…

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The lettuce patches remind me of chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream, except in red and green.

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Chamomile is the feathery seedling on the lower left. Calendula is the long, oval-leafed one in the rest of the photo.

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garlic (with cilantro and chamomile that need to be thinned/weeded)

And lastly, something totally unrelated to the rest of this post: a picture for the those of you who asked. My apologies to those who didn’t.

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Not a very artistic photo but at least my shirt matches the mess on the cabinet. Seven weeks to go.

Have a beautiful weekend.

Tricia

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.

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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