Leaping into Autumn

How’d that happen? It seemed like it was all summer all the time, and then I turned around and it was fall. I think it was the freeze warning a couple of days ago. We didn’t frost in Minneapolis, but lots of other parts of Minnesota did.

The frost put me in mind of the herbs that I want to harvest before freeze—rosemary, feverfew, catnip, lemongrass. I went to grab a basket for the fresh-cut herbs, but all my baskets seemed to be full with pretty much already dried herbs. Yikes! I needed to take care of these herbs before harvesting yet more.

First, I had to gather things together. The cat seemed to have had a bit of a heyday in there swatting at the herbs (he is particularly fond of the lemongrass, for some reason—much more so than catnip, interestingly enough). He also seems to have squashed my drying calendula (which I realized was pretty much completely dried since most of it was decimated into wee bits). Sigh. Luckily, I still have some left from last year and as well as plenty from my herbal friend in California.

I sorted yarrow, lemongrass, sage, rosemary, catnip, and lemon balm. For cleaning, I started with the lemon balm and then did the catnap. These two got combined, and I poured organic vodka over them. In six weeks, I will have a wonderfully effective mild sleep aid (just a small sip before bed). Also good for anxiety and upset stomach.

Next I cleaned the yarrow. Then I sat and looked at my list and thought for awhile about what I wanted to do with the yarrow. I usually tincture it, but I have plenty of yarrow tincture on hand. So I cleaned the rosemary and added it to the yarrow (used the pestle to ground it up pretty well, especially the rosemary), and covered them with olive oil. This is a new combo I’ve not tried before, but it should be good for arthritis. And it should smell good (rosemary has many medicinal properties, but I think its sharp, happy-making aroma might be the most powerful).

Sage and lemongrass didn’t seem like a good combination to me, so they remain. I think I will keep the lemongrass to use in salves (it imparts a nice lemony scent), and perhaps use the sage primarily in its customary culinary role. (Sage dressing for Thanksgiving, anyone?)

When I saw all the clean-up I needed to do before harvest, I checked the weather for the next few days. The lowest prediction is 38 degrees, and then next week we climb back up to toy with the 70s. I decided that if the lemongrass, catnip, and rosemary had survived this far, they could wait until next week. But I did harvest the feverfew, because I have none in back-up (which really surprised me when I moved into almost panic mode while going through the pharmacopeia and coming up feverfewless).

Lots of autumnal signals outside my herbal obsessions: Last week I saw white-throated sparrows in the backyard, migrating south for the winter (not very far south—they overwinter in Iowa and the southern United States; one year I had a white-throated sparrow at my feeder throughout most of the winter, very exciting for a Minnesota birder). I also spotted a Tennessee warbler in my backyard a few days ago. Definitely migration season.

And of course the trees, the plants, the colors, the leaves. The trees closest to the Mississippi are starting to get serious color. A lot of trees in Minneapolis are still green, but the sugar maples are already fiery orange and bright red. Beautiful contrast to neighboring trees just starting to mosey into yellow.

No crunchy leaves underfoot yet. The best part of autumn is still to come.

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Small Miracles

Yesterday when I was walking the yard, I noted a huge number of tiny red bugs (only slightly larger than pinheads) hanging around in clumps on the ground around the cactus and milkweed. I’m pretty sure they’re tiny box elder bugs. I am not particularly fond of box elder bugs and thought of spraying them with vinegar, but decided to let it go. They don’t bite or sting, and so far the numbers have been manageable, so I decided to wait and see.

Today when I went to check, they were gone. But I noticed that only for a moment, because my attention was captured by a yellow flower. Flowers. My prickly pear cactus is blooming! There are four flowers. But I think there might be a lot more (maybe 20!) to come—holy guacamole, the cactus is really taking off! The transplants from last year have all taken hold, and the transplants from this year are holding their own.

These are the things we do in Minnesota for entertainment. (Okay, maybe just a few of us. A lot of Minnesotans don’t even know that Minnesota is home to three kinds of cactus.) It gets so melty droopy in the winter, I am certain it won’t come back, but then it does.

June seems to be full of little miracles like this. Before I had any expectations or had even done a trimming, the rosebush produced a brilliant flame, stopping me in my tracks on the way out the door.

The lemon balm is flourishing (excellent with catnip as a sleep aid) and I must pick soon so I will get a second crop. The lemongrass that I got from a neighbor is also taking hold nicely (another good sleep aid). In fact, all of the plants that I either potted or planted seem to be doing quite well.

Yesterday I got a package in the mail. Several weeks ago, I asked my California friend if she had any fresh sage on hand. I had used up my winter store, and my sage plants were barely starting to come back. She did indeed have sage, but had just sent off a package (which included eucalyptus, which is even better than sage since I can’t grow it here) but she said she would include it next time.

A bit of time goes by and my sage plants are growing and turning green. But then they aren’t. They have been decimated by tiny bugs. I am heartbroken (perhaps an overstatement; annoyed might be more accurate). And then I get a package from my friend, and it is filled with sage. An abundance of sage. An embarrassment of sage. Baskets of sage. She is wise, my friend. Good timing.

Merely another June miracle.

The butterfly weed is coming up in the front yard (it will attract both monarch and swallowtail butterflies when it flowers). But the swamp milkweed in that same plot shows no sign of return (it was pretty weak last year after two years of attacks by swamp milkweed beetles; yes, there is a beetle specifically targeted to the swamp milkweed—nature is amazing, no?). But on the other hand, I noticed today five common milkweed plants in the side yard that I swear weren’t there yesterday (of course they must have been). A pleasant surprise.

I’ve found two odd plants growing in the side yard—they are about to flower, and I’ve no idea what they are. Flowers? Weeds? Or, perhaps, medicinal herbs (which could be in either of the aforementioned categories)? I need to wait a few more days to find out.

The currants are just starting to turn red. The peonies are done—done in by a rainstorm that came through just as they were peaking. This is the risk with peonies. Happily, a mere day or two before the storm, I asked a friend if she wanted to take some home with her (I can’t have them in the house because they are poisonous to cats), and she was happy to take a few. I like to think that maybe they’re still blooming.

End of Birding Frenzy; On to the Garden

May has turned into June, and my attention finally turns to gardening. While I was in the throes of birding in May, I thought perhaps I wouldn’t get any plants this year and merely tend the perennials. But then I remembered rosemary, and how much rosemary I use in so many things (cooking, of course, and I also add rosemary to many of my herbal concoctions—primarily for its taste and smell, but it also has some fine medicinal properties).

And my feverfew didn’t come back this year, which surprised me mightily. It was growing like a weed last year, even in the sidewalk cracks. This year, both the front and back are missing their feverfew. Rabbits? I do have (at least) two rabbits that spend a goodly amount of time in the yard. Mostly they seem to eat grass, dandelion, plantain, and clover. I wonder if they also favor feverfew.

So yesterday I went to the neighborhood plant store, and I got the rosemary (3) and feverfew (2—hoping it spreads like a weed again). And then I ran across the chamomile. I had decided not to grow chamomile this year—a lot of harvesting of those tiny flowers in the end didn’t even fill a pint jar. But I saw it on the shelf and I did the dangerous thing; I picked it up and smelled it. I smelled it and was back to the wonderful feeling I had while I was harvesting the chamomile last year. Also, homegrown chamomile even dried—no, especially dried—smells so much better than any I’ve found at a co-op or herb store.

So I bought the chamomile. And then I ran across parsley, and parsley (especially curly parsley) is one of my favorite things to eat right from the garden. It has always tasted like bright freshness to me and I believe it has the power to completely change one’s mood or viewpoint around.

So I got two parsley plants (one curly, one traditional—for research on my mood/viewpoint hypothesis).

And then I realized I really needed thyme. Not a lot, but especially for cooking, it’s nice to have a thyme plant. A thyme plant is added to the cart.

I had not planned to buy calendula. I had specifically decided not to buy calendula, as I still have a goodly amount left from last year, plus my herbal friend in California sent me even more. But then I saw the plants, and they have such bright orangey flowers, and they are so happy-making in the backyard. (Also very good for soothing the skin.) I thought getting only two was a good compromise.

I also got a bright red geranium to sit by the back door (this was in my original plan, even before the rosemary was added to the list). There is something about a geranium that makes me smile. I’m not sure if it’s the color, the smell, or its splashy sassiness. But really, now I think about it, I think I love the red geranium because it’s my mom’s favorite flower. So add a bit of love and tradition to that splashy sassiness.

I’m happy to report that nearly all of the plants have been planted, with just three left for tomorrow. I’m even happier to report that I’m ever-so-glad I changed my mind about the plants. Getting my hands in the dirt, working with the plants, the smells, the textures—oh yes. Why did I think I didn’t want to do this? I get to water and harvest and talk to my plants all summer.

I haven’t given up birding, just to be clear. I still have the binoculars on the table beside me. It’s just that now, a few other things can take up more room inside my brain. And June is for the garden.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

Garden Update with Cactus

We’re still having an early spring. Today I was in the back yard without a jacket, sometimes reading, sometimes watching birds, and sometimes poking at the garden.

I KNOW you are not supposed to do anything gardening related in March in Minnesota, but I did take the piled-up leaves off the rhubarb again (I had covered it back up a few days ago when we got a bit of a snowstorm). And I cut back the dead catnip from last year to clear it out, the better to let this year’s crop come in. And coming in it is—several little clumps already a couple of inches high. With a few more sunny days, they could double in size. This would make my cat very happy, my catnip-loving cat who doesn’t understand why I don’t have fresh catnip for him every time I walk in the door.

The other thing I did was an experimental cactus transplant. Parts of my (prickly pear) cactus are getting a bit overlappy with the sidewalk, never a good thing where a cactus is involved. I clipped two pads off, and set them down in the rocky soil a few feet away. Nothing I could find online indicated that this would work, but I wanted to try it since I had seen the cactus itself doing this (though it was still attached to the plant, which is kind of a major caveat). We will see. I’m not even sure why I’m propagating this cactus. I think it’s mostly just that I so much love the idea of a cactus that is native to Minnesota.

But wait. This cactus is edible. Both the flowers and the pads. Since I’ve never seen mine flower, I don’t think I’ll wait for that. But I do think I will try eating the pads. Even on the one plant I have, the pads can get quite large—a substantial contribution to a meal. They are supposed to taste like mild lemon. They have a sort of gel-like consistency (perhaps like aloe vera?). How would you use that in cooking? With potatoes? Carrots? Asparagus? Deep fried on a stick?

At any rate, there are very few year-round edibles in Minnesota (though these cacti do look quite puny and melted in winter), so the fact that they are edible, in addition to providing a potential barrier to the raccoons that seem to love that south wall as a latrine (plus the fact that I can’t get anything else to grow in this space) has convinced me to work towards a prickly pear cactus garden on the south side of the house.

Other garden notes: The dogwoods are just starting to bud and I think the lilacs are nearly leafing. The currant bush has buds, as does the rosebush. Tiny buds. The feverfew is back, and I was happy to see the bit I transplanted to the front (can’t allow the feverfew to encroach on the rhubarb!) has taken hold quite nicely. The coming weeks will tell if the transplanted comfrey is doing as well.

Is there anything to be heard outdoors these days over the singing of the cardinals? They are so loud and so numerous sometimes I’m surrounded by chorus (in a happy singing way, not in an Alfred Hitchcock The Birds way). But I did hear something other than the cardinals after all: the first mourning dove of the season. I haven’t seen one yet, but I know they’re here.

This is one of the most magical times of the year. You never know what will show up next.

October Reprise

October was about reading, presidential debates, repairing, and replacing. It was also a much more social month than is usual for me. But first, the books.

I read a lot in October—24 books. Half were fiction (and three of those were graphic novels, two of which were Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I read 5 poetry books which was nice after last month’s drought, and 7 works of nonfiction. The reading theme for October was scary/Halloween. Some sample titles:

  • Ghostwritten (David Mitchell)
  • Boo (Neil Smith)
  • Goest (Cole Swensen)
  • Night With Its Owl (Anne Love Woodhull)
  • Talking to the Dead (Helen Dunmore)
  • A Man Lay Dead (Ngaio Marsh)
  • The Boggart and the Monster (Susan Cooper)
  • Ghosts in the Garden (Beth Kephart)
  • Ghost World (Daniel Clowes)
  • Murderer’s Day (E.M. Schorb)

FC9781844673315The best book I read last month was The Food Wars, by Walden Bello. I learned so much about agriculture and world trade (scary things, depressing things and yes, some hopeful things)—too much to get into here. That will have to be a separate post. My other favorite book of the month was fiction, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. I read this in one day. If you have a friend who loves books (I’m not just talking loves to read, but loves the books 9781616204518in and of themselves), hie thee to the nearest independent bookstore and purchase The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry for the next gift opportunity (a sunny day will do).

Also in bookworld, we attended the Twin Cities Book Festival at the state fairgrounds. This is always a fun event with lots of authors and speakers and books for sale. I got 6 poetry books for $3 (total, not apiece), which was amazing.

As for the repairs and replacements, we have a new computer (which I’m slowly getting used to) but still a less than perfect (am I becoming too impatient?) internet connection. Also, the dryer vent fell away from the wall/vent hole and I could no longer fix it with duct tape, so that was replaced. And then the sewer backed up (doing laundry, always more pleasant than other indicators) so we called Ron the Sewer Rat and that problem was resolved. Whew.

And such a social month. One of the highlights was my mom’s 95th birthday. We went out for a birthday lunch to her place of choice, thinking it would just be a few of us, and imagine how fun when all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren showed up. They found a table big enough for all of us and Mom just glowed.

Also in the social world were the presidential debates. We prevailed upon our TV-owning friend Kathleen, who kindly invited us over for the first Democratic and the second Republican debate. Go Bernie!

Plus visiting the apple orchards with my friend in Hastings, making more dishwasher soap with my neighbor (love it—cheap and works well!), a reception and lecture at the University of Minnesota, happy hour with some former coworkers, and sundry lunches and other engagements conspired to fill so many days, I see a couple notations of “blessed day alone” in my journal.

I also turned up the stove in October and did more cooking. Nice to be back in cooler weather where I actually want to turn on the oven. Mostly the basics: beef stew, Cuban beans, applesauce, chicken adobo, spaghetti. I want to make a soufflé. Maybe in November.

October is a lovely month in Minnesota. We had our first hard freeze so I picked all the tomatoes and took in some herbs for hopeful overwintering. Then it warmed up again, and I took advantage to immerse myself in reading on the front porch while I can. They are rare days now and to be savored.

The Zen of Cooking

A couple of decades ago, probably around January or February, I found a drawer full of apples that I had forgotten, needing to be used quickly. It was mid-afternoon Sunday; back to the work grind on Monday. I was already stressed about work the next day, and now had to deal with these apples.

I hadn’t baked in years. No mind. I jumped right in and made—apple turnovers? Apple dumplings? I don’t remember exactly, but it was something requiring a crust of sorts, and it was small putzy work, and they turned out looking horrible but they tasted just fine. I had diced more apples than I needed for the tiny turnovers, so I made something else (I can’t recall what this was either, although I think it, too, was something I had never made before). It turned out okay, as I recall.

What I recall most poignantly about the whole thing is how I felt afterwards. Absolutely zero stress about work the next day. Also kind of on top of the world. Perhaps the kitchen equivalent of the runner’s high. I went to bed after midnight, but had one of the best night’s sleep I’d had in months. I made it a bit of a ritual, baking on Sunday evening. In baking, attention to detail matters—the exact measurement—leveling off the teaspoon; fluffing the flour before meting it out; firmly packing the brown sugar. Focus. Blocking out everything else, totally in the moment.

I got pretty good at baking.

I always thought that it was the attention to detail in baking that made it so meditative and relaxing. I also knew that cooking wasn’t like that. Cooking is more creative, more intuitive, less by the book. I did not think there was a zen of cooking. I only thought there was an anxiety of cooking. And certainly intuition wasn’t my strong suit.

However, I did want to start eating healthier, and healthy eating mostly starts with eating at home. Also, being as I was no longer working, I wanted to cut down on food costs and eating at home is one of the best ways to do that, too. And plus, really—I just wanted to learn how to cook. I used to love to cook when I was in high school. I even threw dinner parties for my friends! (Just lasagna, but still.) But then I was in a long-term relationship with someone who derided my cooking, and I gradually just stopped cooking pretty much altogether.

But life moves on, and with more time on my hands and a renewed interest in cooking, I decided to develop a relationship with my kitchen (a small and awkwardly shaped kitchen that I am finding very useful in terms of minimal steps from counter to refrigerator to stove—basically, just pivot). And joy of joys, I have discovered the zen in cooking. Much like baking, it requires attention. Chop chop chop chop chop. So methodical, so meditative. But it also involves a knife and you must pay attention.

And even without one iota of intuition, I can learn. Much of the joy of cooking is in the doing; even failures are fun. This is the one area of my life where I embrace failure because I learn so much from it. And I’m also learning that most disasters can be salvaged in some way.

But what I enjoy most is the varied nature of the attention required. It’s in the stirring and the watching, the checking and the tasting. It’s in the herbs: harvesting, grinding, measuring, mixing. And always the tasting. Sometimes constant attention is required; more often I can read on the porch with occasional checking in.

So I have indeed found my zen of cooking. And surprising me to the max, I am finding that I like cooking at least as much as baking. No more cooking anxiety. Failures? Sure. But who cares? Exult in your failure, learn and move on.

Possibly this approach would work in areas beyond cooking.