Tag Archives: garden

Time to Eat

In the past week or two the sheer volume and scope of food rising out of the earth has exploded. One can literally make a meal standing in the middle of the garden, picking, and eating.

Lots of what is ready in my garden never makes it into the house (the strawberries especially), but I did manage to get enough basil into my basket to makethe first batch of pesto of the season on Monday, tossing some into some cappelini and fresh sugar snap peas and freezing the rest. On Wednesday I harvested kale, cilantro, more sugar snaps, and mushrooms for a stir-fry with ginger and tofu. I have also picked six pints of strawberries this week; two went into the freezer for ice cream I’m planning to make for a special party the week after next, and the rest will go into some jam.

The mulberries are starting to come in, too, and a lot of folks have been picking them off the trees that hang heavy over the streets in my neighborhood and making pies. I picked about three cups today during my long morning walk with Caleb, and when I got home I decided I wanted to try making some scones. I modified a recipe I found for oatmeal scones, adding a touch of orange extract and using the mulberries instead of currants, and here is the result. In a few minutes I will  take a few of these next door to my neighbors.

The sugar snaps are copious and remarkably sweet this year. I love them in the pasta and stir fry, but I also love them fresh and crunchy, right off the vine.  That’s the experience I had in mind when I took a platter of them to a little farewell gathering this week for a friend who is moving away. I mounded some hummus in the middle of them, tossed on some kalamata olives and feta cheese, drizzled it all with olive oil, and sprinkled salt. Here’s what the platter looked like.

Enjoy this lovely day! I’m going to pick more sugar snaps.

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Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree . . . Yet

When a big ole oak has an enormous gash in its side and is oozing black goo, you might suspect that it’s time for the tree to go. Since the tree in question was in the easement between the sidewalk and street in front of my house, the city sent over a service to remove it. It made me a little sad to see it leave in chunks the big truck, but it was also an opportunity.

A neighbor a few streets over has two apple trees in her front yard, right on the road, that are usually loaded with fruit every late summer/early fall. She sends out a friendly note over the neighborhood listserv inviting folks to help themselves.

I love the idea of sharing this kind of gift with one’s neighbors, so when I saw that the oak had left a nice, sunny spot rich with ground up stump matter, I ordered two dwarf apple trees to go into that little strip of earth. Three weeks before the trees were scheduled to ship, I went to work on the spot, testing the soil pH, mixing in some lime to neutralize the acid, adding in heaps of some marvelous chicken poo compost I’d been saving just for this sort of thing.

The trees arrived the week before Thanksgiving: one Gala and one Fuji — you need two trees of different varieties in order to achieve fruit. Pre-pruned (so that the newly planted tree will focus its energy in the root system), they looked like little more than twigs, about four feet high, with tiny stubs of branches off the main stem.

I followed the planting directions carefully, digging two generous holes to allow the bare roots plenty of space. I planted them about twelve feet apart. I gave  them deep waterings and piled up about eight inches of wood mulch at the base of each, taking care not to mound the mulch around the trunk, which might cause rot.

There’s little else to do now but wait a few years. Planting a fruit tree is a long-range investment. Next year, after the trees have grown a few inches and new growth has emerged, I might train the new branches to grow upward by clothes-pinning them to the main stem. In another year, I’ll do a little pruning. After a few more years of training and pruning and feeding, maybe I’ll start to see flower buds for my first crop of fruit. And maybe by the time I retire there will be enough to invite neighbors to share in.

Because that is a long time to wait, and because the trees are so little now that there is still plenty of sun between them on all that good soil the oak tree left behind, I gathered up some leftover seeds from my fall gardening and cultivated a little patch for radishes, winter salad greens, Swiss chard, and cilantro. The seeds came right up the following week, and maybe in early spring they will have wintered over and started to mature, and I will be able to invite my neighbors to pick a few greens and radishes for a salad.

Waiting for the apple trees, those few months don’t seem nearly so long.

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Starting With What You Have: Stir-Fry with Udon Noodles

This week I collected the last bits of broccoli from my fall plants and then pulled them out of the ground for compost. It wasn’t enough for a major broccoli project (a broject?), but combined with some other ingredients I had on hand, plus some particularly good garden bounty, they wound up in a delightful lunch today.

I’ve had a spectacular cilantro crop this spring—a result of my late summer planting. I’ve had harvest after harvest this month (and if anyone has any ideas for preserving cilantro, let’s hear it!). Also have been pulling quite a few carrots lately.

There are some ingredients I just like to have around because they keep well and are easily combined with other things. These include some that I used today:

  • Pasta (in this case, udon noodles)
  • Extra-firm tofu
  • Raw cashews
  • Onions
  • Sesame oil
  • Peanut butter (in the sauce)
  • Limes

So here’s what I ended up doing today. I sliced a half an onion, the broccoli,  a carrot, and a cake of tofu. I also chopped up a massive quantity of cilantro.

I scrounged in the fridge until I found the leftover spicy peanut sauce I had made last week for another dish (this sauce was so easy and delicious and versatile that it wound up on a grilled pork chop a few days ago, too. I substituted chives for the scallions called for here because I have tons of chives growing right now).

While the udon noodles cooked for about eight minutes, I heated some sesame oil in my wok on very high heat and stir-fried the tofu until golden brown.

Gradually I added in the other veggies, starting with the onions, then the carrots, then the broccoli, then finally the cashews. I stir fried everything until just cooked through. Then I poured in the peanut sauce (it was just enough!).

That’s when things got crazy.

Instead of draining the pasta and just topping it with the vegetables in a bowl, I decided to stop the pasta al dente, drain but reserve about 1/4 cup of the liquid, and then mix the pasta into the veggies and sauce in the wok, along with the reserved pasta liquid. Everything simmered and sizzled for about 45 seconds, then I turned off the heat, threw in the cilantro,  squeezed 1/4 of a lime on top of everything, and pronounced it done.

I call it “A Wok Through the Garden with a Couple of Nuts.”

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The Land of Ooze

Mud pie, mud in your eye;
Mud on a snake bite, don’t you die;
Take a little rain, take a little dirt,
Make a little mud, get it on your shirt.
We’re all just slogging through the mud.

—Guy Clark, “Mud”

Songwriter and truth-teller Guy Clark was never so right — after a year of record rainfalls following years of dusty drought, we are all just slogging through the mud. It has rained here for most of the week. Most of the month, maybe even. The cats don’t like it, the dog doesn’t like it, the chickens don’t like it. Everyone’s getting a little crazy from it. And Georgia’s small farmers have been devastated by flooded fields and lost topsoil and fertilizer (to contribute to the Georgia Farmer Flood Relief Fund, please click here).

Me, I just pull on my big yellow galoshes and get out there. I miss my garden, and I want to watch the broccoli grow. There is only one way to get scraps out of the kitchen, and that is to slop through the mud to the compost bin at the back of my lot. We try to keep the floor of the coop dry with a box fan mounted overhead, but this much water seeps in under the foundation, and the mucky mess needs to be scraped and shoveled out. The hens stay inside or up on roosts as much as they can, but they can’t help but get some of the ooze on their feet and feathers.

"Please dry my feet."

Yesterday I dragged Caleb out into it for a brisk evening trot around the neighborhood. He protested at first, but we both resigned ourselves to getting wet, and I am quite sure it was glee I was seeing on his face as he shook all that mud onto my kitchen floor and cabinets when we got home.

You have to get out there. You have to get a little mud on you. It helps if you remember that we came from mud — the primordial ooze. We all just crawled out of the mud, Guy sings.

But we enjoyed coming in from the rain and mud, too. Caleb loves a good toweling off. For me, it was dry socks and the braised cabbage, roasted sweet potato wedges, and biscuits I had made earlier in the week.

Maybe I’ll make a mud pie for dessert.


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“Even girls can be farmers?”

One morning this past week, at the request of a friend who teaches at the elementary school near my home, I hosted a visit of the school’s kindergarten class. According to our state’s department of education, as a southern urban homesteader, I apparently count as a “community helper.”

Kinder in the garten

The first thing the kids saw when they arrived was the garden. I explained that some plants like lots of hot weather to grow, and some plants like cool weather. And since this was November, what was growing right now was broccoli and salad greens and beets and Swiss chard, because they like it cool. (I also explained about the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent, and that squirrels eat more than just acorns. I tried not to use bad words, but it was not easy.)

Tasting vinegar and salt in homemade dill pickles

We then moved on to the canning and preserving demonstration. We talked about what happens if you pick some green beans in the summer and then leave them in a bowl in your kitchen, thinking you’ll eat them in November–you get rotten green beans. Then we talked about how salt and vinegar helps keep food from going bad so quickly. Finally, everybody got to taste some homemade dill pickles made with homegrown cucumbers: salt and vinegar.

Mutual curiosity

After the taste test came the highlight of the visit—the chickens. There was lots of chicken talk and good questions (“What do the chickens eat?” “Are there baby chicks in those eggs?” “Why do they peck?” “Do you have any roosters? Why not?”). The chickens were just as curious about their visitors as the visitors were about the chickens. We looked at how different colored chickens lay different colored eggs. We also talked about how the eggs weren’t the only benefit from the chickens, but that their poop is great for fertilizer for the garden, so the chickens help the vegetables grow, and then they get to eat some of the vegetables. We cracked an egg open so they could see that it looks just like the ones they eat, only better!

We got the guitar out (apparently this fulfills another state requirement) and all sang a chicken song together. This is a little tune I wrote for my adorable niece. It has many verses, but here’s the one we sang:

Bok bok baaack!

What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
They peck outside, they peck indoors
Take a little break then they peck some more
They’re happy and they never get bored
Peck and peck and peck and peck!

Then we sang a verse with the chickens, in their own language:

Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok baaaahk, bok bok baaaahk!
bokiebokiebok, bokie bok bok bok!
Bok bokie bok bok bok bok bok,
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!

It was quite the rousing chorus. Some even threw in a few funky chicken moves.

As they were leaving, one little girl asked, “So this is a farm?” I said, “Well, it has gardens and animals that are living and growing and giving us food, so I think it counts as a farm, even in the city.” Then she asked, “Even girls can be farmers?”

Here’s hoping that’s a seed sown.

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Starting with what you have: homemade pizza

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I had some sweet peppers, some tomatoes that had ripened on my kitchen counter, and garlic. In the bowl are the tomatoes, the garlic, some pesto I had made from my basil crop last summer and frozen in ice cube trays, plus a little olive oil and salt and pepper. Great bruschetta or pizza topping.

Sunday night, and once again I want to take something yummy to my weekly gathering with musical friends. The rest of those green tomatoes have turned a lovely red, and I have lots of garlic from the CSA. I also have some sweet peppers that I picked last week.

Pizza, anyone?

I have a simple and delicious recipe for pizza dough from the Everyday Greens cookbook: yeast, sugar, salt, flour, olive oil, a little cornmeal if you have it (and I do). Once I have gotten that started, I turn to the toppings. I decide to make two different pizzas.

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Roasted sweet peppers

The first is a kind of bruschetta mix: the tomatoes chopped and mixed with minced garlic, plus some pesto I had made and frozen in cubes back during the summer from my garden basil. I mix that with a little extra olive oil and salt.

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Picked and minced some oregano from the garden

For pizza number two, I roast, peel, and slice into strips the the sweet peppers. I caramelize some onion and add that to the peppers, along with a balsamic vinegar reduction. I run out into the garden and pick some fresh oregano and mince and add about a tablespoon. Then I open a can of black olives and chop them in.

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The pepper/olive/onion/balsamic/oregano mixture for one pizza

The pizza dough goes down on parchment paper sitting on a wooden pizza paddle. I add the topping, then throw some shredded mozzarella, parmesan, and asiago cheese over both pizzas. Each takes about 15 minutes at 400 degrees in the oven on a pizza stone (preheated in the oven).

And the reviews are in: one Sunday jammer said, “It was so deliciously beyond mere pizza . . . mmmmm.”

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Voila!

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Starting with what you have

Tonight I’m getting together with some friends to play music. We do this weekly, and usually we try to bring a bit of something to munch on as we socialize before we sit down with our instruments.

tomatillos, tomatos, and cilantro

tomatillos, tomatoes, and cilantro

This afternoon, with the evening in mind, I did a study of those tomatillos in the bottom drawer of my fridge (if you’ve been following the harvest, then you know they’ve been collecting for some time now). I also have a number of green tomatoes on my countertop, collected from the vines before I yanked them up a couple of weeks ago. Some of them—surprise!—turned red before I could bread them and fry them.

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Roasted tomatoes and tomatillos

Then I recalled the cilantro seeds I’d tossed into the dirt back in September. They’ve sprouted and are coming along nicely in this cool weather, so I pinched a few leaves. Add to that a couple of the jalapeño peppers I picked a few days ago,  and what do you have? The start of a mighty fine salsa.

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Jalapeños and garlic roasting

So I roasted the tomatillos and tomatoes under a broiler, and I skillet-roasted the jalapeños along with some garlic (from my CSA) on top of the stove. Chopped a bit of white onion and the cilantro.

I scraped the tomatillos and tomatoes—juice, skins and all—plus the peppers and garlic into the food processor and pulsed until it was chunky. Added in the onion (which I had minced and rinsed), cilantro, a pinch of sugar, a generous teaspoon of salt, and a squeeze of lime juice. Darn tasty, and took about 20  minutes.

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Voila!

Instead of thinking, Now, what do I want to take to the Sunday jam tonight?, I started with what I had: tomatillos that were going to rot if I didn’t use them, the last red tomatoes of the year, jalapeños, garlic, onion. Add to that stuff I keep around anyway (salt, sugar, limes), and it’s not too difficult to get creative and come up with something delicious in about the same amount of time it would have taken me to drive to the store and pick up something for tonight. It was cheaper, too.

Of course, it’s just luck that I happen to have a bag of tortilla chips in the pantry to go with it!

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The sun and the rain and the salad greens

Welcome to my Southern Urban Homestead, a long, narrow lot in a beautiful neighborhood of Decatur, Georgia, a small town situated fifteen easy minutes east of downtown Atlanta. Over the past fifteen-plus years this little slice of urban earth and I have had quite the partnership. We have rejoiced together. We have exchanged magnificent gifts. We have argued, even fought (I usually lose). But I have come to understand myself and my homestead better. I have, I like to think, become more awake, more patient, and more respectful of the nuances and cycles of my immediate natural surroundings.

I grew up in Rabun County, Georgia, in the southern tip of the Appalachians, and for most of my adult life, I have searched for ways to link my rural roots to my more recently established city self. So it made sense that I would have a garden. My mother and grandmothers kept gardens.

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

They also “put up”–that is, they canned and froze the produce from the garden. My dad planted an orchard–another lesson in patience–and decades later, we are still harvesting apples and pears and blueberries from the trees and bushes he planted when I was a teenager. And the offspring of his blueberry bushes now thrive in my yard here in the city.

Blueberry bushes, a fig tree, and a small garden–that is how it started, when I moved here in April 1994. Soon I had expanded the garden, added a second one, and was cramming vegetable beds into every sunny nook I could find. I improved soil and began starting all my seedlings indoors each winter, as soon as the catalogs started arriving. I started canning like my mother and grandmothers had done. I composted obsessively.

Then in 2004, my neighbors and I acquired our first batch of baby chicks–fulfilling a dream I’d had for several years. We all wanted the eggs, of course, but my garden wanted the chicken poop. Thus launched an exploration of what community can really mean in a huge metropolitan area. Our little poultry project unexpectedly tapped into an exciting local movement of folks who wanted to model a certain kind of ethical living and to connect with one another in an often isolating and artificial urban world.

Our latest spring chicks

Our latest spring chicks

This blog will tell stories of how we connect and interconnect around food–where it comes from, how it circulates, brings us together, shapes our identities both as individuals and as communities. There will also be stories of how we struggle with food–how it challenges us, disappoints us, forces us to work hard and get creative, even alter our understanding of what food is. There will be tales of my war (well, not war exactly; more a kind of gunboat diplomacy) with the squirrels. Chronicles of my close encounters with other beasties great and small. Legends of my ongoing quest for free water. Shocking revelations of unimagined thrift. Inspiring accounts of efforts to establish a local barter economy. And culinary adventures that will, I hope, drive you to the garden yourself.

My intention here is not to live “impact free”–no extremes, no gimmicks. Rather, I aim to share my daily search for ways to live effectively, efficiently, and responsibly in an urban landscape. Growing numbers of city dwellers are becoming more thoughtful and creative about their own environmental impact as it relates to quality of life. I can think of no better reason in this world to be optimistic.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

For me, it all begins with the act of providing–of feeding ourselves and those we care for. This goes to the core of how we live on the earth and with one another. It’s a daily invitation to be mindful of labor, consumption, and reward. Even here, in the heart of the urban South, we can be aware and grateful.

Grateful for the things I need–the sun and the rain and the salad greens.

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