Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The garden itself

A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has his mind precisely against what is wrong with us. . . . What I am saying is that if we apply our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth, then we will have begun to make fundamental and necessary changes in our minds. We will begin to understand and to mistrust and to change our wasteful economy, which markets not just the produce of the earth, but also the earth's ability to produce.

Wendell Berry

dens are not work. They are friends.

In the era of deadly spinach and tomatoes and green onions from thousands of miles away, I'm pleased that it's becoming more clear to people that gardening is not difficult, overly time-consuming or out of reach. What's the tradeoff for a few glorious hours in the sun over the course of a season? Delicious, healthy food, a marvelous tilth for the future, new habitat for some exciting residents, lessons in life, reproduction and responsibility . . . etc., etc., etc. Work?? More like a big ol' playground!

Yesterday, I encountered the first praying mantis of the season--a little brown thing in my laundry basket, actually. So it immediately got a new home in the tomatoes, hopefully to do something about the Mexican bean beetle larvae we pick of day in and day out. I've spotted a toad a couple of times, too; I hope there are more among the mints by the "pond." A pair of harlequin cabbage bugs undertook a bit of risqué activity on some tender young kale, but the fritillaries haven't taken up on the passionflower vines yet. There's a healthy understory of purslane among all the planted plants, because I don't have it in me to remove them--they were Ghandi's favorite vegetable, and make a fantastic gardening snack. And such an intrepid, hardy plant deserves a place in my garden, I think. It takes a lot of work to be that prolific! They're familiar and reassuring in their abundance.

So far, the harvest has been collards, French sorrel, romaine, rosemary, basil, tarragon, chives, thyme and nibbles of purslane. Soon will come yellow squash, green tomatoes, serrano and habanero peppers, cucumbers a
nd maybe a pinch of celery. The okra is about to burst its buds, a volunteer roma is jammin' by the fence, and there are marble-sized watermelons nestled under the vines. This year marked the first planting of heirloom-type strawberry popping corn, which is up to my waist, and it almost goes without saying that there's spearmint in overabundance. Three seasons of horse manure (now chicken manure! W00t!) kitchen scraps, shredded paper and love have turned our loamy sand into sandy loam, and the plant family is shouting its gratitude.

Thank you in return, my lil' green buddies!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Phallacaea Lysurus mokusin, anyone?

After a rain last week, both the mycologist and the 15-year-old boy in me were tickled to see that our lawn sprouted with lantern stinkhorns, which look exactly like . . . ok, a dog who's really happy to see you. A male dog. Who's really happy to see you.

So after I got done making penis jokes to myself, I thought a little about biodiversity in the state known for Jimmy Hoffa, the turnpike and being an extension of NYC, and how it's a shame that more people don't just take a sec to look down at their feet more often. Apparently, stinkhorns are notorious for popping up in urban spaces, flowerpots, windowboxes and the like. And if I were an apartment dweller noticing one of these (or any of the other dozens of species of North American stinkhorn) rearing its head--and odor! They're called stinkhorns for a reason!!--at me, I'd sure want to learn about them.

Take a peek at the Stinkhorn Hall of Fame for some awesome examples of these fellas. You've totally got to look at the Phallus hadriani, the sixth one down--priceless! Life imitates life, y'know.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Pesto is the Best-o!

I've said it before--if I were stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat but pesto, that'd be OK by me. Bathtubs and barrels and pools full of it wouldn't be enough--it's ambrosia and joy and just plain perfect.

In an ideal world, the stuff would be everywhere. And there would be fields of basil all over the place, and everyone would know about companion planting, because everyone and their mom plants tomatoes. And tomatoes <3 basil.

Our jungly garden includes a tangle of tomatoes, each with their little basil buddy, and a few extra basils just hangin' out, doing their "I'm so money" thing. So It's looking like a harvest of several pounds of basil won't be out of the question, as long as I don't get guilty about deflowering (heh) them. Because though the dainty little flowers are beautiful and bees love 'em, they develop at the expense of more fragrant foliage. Must . . . be . . . ruthless . . . .

Today was the first-pesto-batch-of-the-season day, and that will all be eaten fresh soon. Later in the summer, when production really ramps up, will be time for dollops frozen on cookie sheets, ready to be plopped into hot pasta, stirred in with veggies and black rice, who knows. Or . . . maybe on a dark night, a furtive shape will crouch in front of the freezer, slowly letting them thaw in her mouth . . . So you can taste the love too:


2 c packed basil leaves (any type works, purple is especially vivid and wonderful)
3 cloves fresh garlic
1/2 c. walnuts or pine nuts
1/4 c. good cold-pressed olive or grapeseed oil
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Put it all in a food processor and make a paste out of it. If you'd rather use a mortar and pestle, start with the garlic and walnuts, add a little oil, then alternate the oil and the basil in parts until you're done. Add more or less of anything to taste (except the basil--just add more). Be sure to run your finger around the inside of your mixing vessel when you're done, and don't let a molecule go unenjoyed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sights and sounds of a Greenback summer

Few days bring with them the fullness of this one.

After a (wonderful, rich, overwhelming) long, hectic time at Bonnaroo (posts to come), I spent most of today in the hamlet of Greenback on Cherry Corner Farm. After a full night's sleep, I woke up to a sunshiny yard and eager chickens ready to forage--one of life's most meaningful pleasures is watching a flock of chickens fan out over a stretch of green, fluffing their feathers like their lives depend on it, and getting their breakfast of clover, plantain and grasshoppers. Hardly a cursory glance at their liberator, though, but they show gratitude with scandalously orange-yolked eggs. Heaven.

In the weeks I've been gone, the tomatoes, peppers and okra have skyrocketed, and the black-eyed peas have asserted themselves--I've never seen such deep green foliage on such small sprouts! Over the last couple of years, we've gradually fed our red-clay plot with a feast of chicken manure, mushroom compost and kitchen scraps, and the bricklike soil is beginning to give way to something nurturing. The terraced strawberry bed next to it is all played out, but its horse manure-and-mushroom compost substrate coaxed an overabundance of the most delicious berries this year--the ones we didn't freeze or eat fresh ended up in some wonderful pies, though it took herculean self-restraint to not just scarf the sun-warmed morsels right there among the plants.

So today, after a necessary trip to Knoxville, Dad and I went on a mission to gather creek cane/bamboo poles for the garden beans. During Mother's Day weekend, when my sister and I snuck our brothers back into TN to surprise Mom, we had all gone on a hike and found a canebreak about a half-mile from the house. Of course, then there was much less underbrush and an exponentially less significant carpet of poison ivy, so today's little jaunt turned into rather a war of nature and human fortitude. Dad had his machete, and I my watchful eye (snakes, beaver stumps, muskrat holes--treacherous stuff!) and together we wove our way through the woods. We came upon a couple of patches of wild monarda, and some jewelweed growing, inexplicably, in a cedar bald. We sidestepped a patch of mayapple, found a small stand of horse-chestnut trees, and admired a fallen sycamore before we finally found the patch across the creek and got to work. Dad cut canes while I stripped them (mostly) of their leaves, and we each took a big underarmful and negotiated our way back over the water. We cut a hilarious picture coming back--completely inelegantly tromping our way through the woods, dragging these piles of bamboo, trying not to drop anything or kill ourselves falling. But we made it to his truck with everything, much to the beans' pleasure, I'm sure.

After a quick shower--damn that poison ivy--I went down the road to visit my friend Janet and her boys, Devon and Rowan, both of whom I babysat for years after their births. Janet and I sat and talked on the side of Lake Leech (really a beautiful place!) as they played in their inflatable raft, and I'm not sure if I felt more awe or pride. So intelligent and kind and considerate and fun--wonderful boys, and so old and autonomous. I feel guilty for having spent so little time with them, and they were falling over each other to tell me everything I've missed during all the time I've been gone. Back at their house, Janet and I sipped some fantastic ginger ale on the porch while the boys and their pack of dogs played in the yard. Their home is a 13-acre forested hill called Woodthrush Ridge, and while we sat and rocked, a male thrush made an unusually bold move to perch in the wide-open crown of a dead tree about 50 yards away; Janet grabbed her scope and zeroed in, and the way that bird sang was i.n.c.r.e.d.i.b.l.e! Their song is a disjointed series of different rhythms, pitches, tones and percussives, and they actually DANCE when they sing--he hunched his little shoulders, threw his head back, did a little shimmy and a shake. Amazing! By then, the sun was almost down, and the moon was up and full and pink, and we turned the scope on that too, to see all the crevices and craters shimmering with the heat of our atmosphere.

Earlier, on the way to meet Dad in the woods, I had run down a grassy path on the eastern side of the the pond; the sun was closing in on the west, and the path was warm and all the sweet piney grassy scent around me rose up and swept me on my way. In the moment, I laughed. It was perfect.