Monday, July 20, 2015

Blueberry Picking

          Blueberry picking….the ultimate July experience in the Willamette Valley.  Our valley is packed with farms—berry, vegetable, fruit, nuts, wheat and oats, mint—and many have farm stands and u-pick sections, but, everyone agrees, blueberries are the best. They are tasty, there are lots of subtle variations in the flavor, they have a long season, and, best of all, there are no thorns to dodge while you pick.  I went out to pick earlier this week, armed with two large Nancy’s yogurt containers (just enough for a pie, with some table nibbles left over) and a bucket.
            In was a warm, sunny morning and the place was hopping. Everyone picks early here, to avoid the mid-day sun. A little breeze blew across the fields.  I wandered  to the far corner, searching for the perfect combination of ripe berries, loaded bushes, and quiet.  I started to pick.
 Plonk, plonk, plonk. The berries landed in the bucket as I stripped them from the laden branch. Nearby, two college kids discussed the relative merits of small, but flavorful, berries versus large, easy to harvest berries.
              Plonk, plonk, plonk. My bucket began to fill. In the distance, I could hear a small family picking. Two women  discussed the merits of various elementary schools in Corvallis (a preferred topic in our town), while their kids ran around eating and picking. As always, one small boy was on the constant look-out for the biggest, ripest patch and called everyone over every time he found a new one. “Look at these!” echoed over the fields.  “Don’t eat them all,” his mother admonished.
               Plonk, plonk, plonk. My mind drifted from the deeply philosophical to the pragmatic. Picking berries is one of those perfect occupations that require just enough of your brain so that you can think. A pie. Dried berries. A bowl for eating…is there enough to can as well?

        Plonk, plonk, plonk. The big bucket was filled. Onto the pie and traveling containers…I tucked the bucket into the shade of a bush. Cars hummed by on the secondary highway near the farm, creating a quiet background sound. The family left. It was only me and a few other serious pickers left, the people who pick fifty pounds for the freezer and eat our local berries all winter long on their cereal.  I could hear their berries hit the bottom of the bucket as well. “Good picking this year,” someone comments. “But early,” someone else replied. Climate change hung in the air for a moment, but we all brushed it aside. It was warm, and sunny, and the blueberries were ripe.

Blueberry Pie

Make a double crust.

Six cups of blueberries
1/2 cup of sugar
peel of one lemon
3 T flour
pinch of cinnamon

Mix it all together and pour into crust. Either weave a lattice top or use a small cookie cutter to create an attractive top. (Stars or hearts work well.) Back in 350 oven until bubbly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Planning forSolar Panels/greenhouse, Part Two

The garden bed before construction
The greenhouse/solar panels project is progressing. We have determined that we will need eight solar panels to cover our energy use for the year, and they will be laid, in two rows, landscape, over the greenhouse, about twelve feet in the air. This will minimize the visual impact and raise them well above any local shrubs and foliage, thus increasing efficiency.  The greenhouse itself will tuck underneath, with an asymmetrical bay window in the front, projecting a little beyond the edge of the old flower bed and the raised beds of the vegetable garden.  It is already creating more of a room around the dining table, which is tucked into the ell of the house and ties in nicely to the flourishing gardens in the back. There’s been considerable geometry used in the back yard this week.

Once the frames are all constructed, the green house will have a clear plastic roof and walls made from old double paned windows from a farm shop, then framed simply in fir. There will be a narrow green metal band around the bottom to mimic the garden shed, and a red wooden door on one end. Inside, we’ll set a claw foot tube, Mark’s tea plant, and all of the starts for next year (along with a folding chair and probably a high up cat perch). Although the solar panels will have a much greater impact on our energy use, we are far more excited about the greenhouse!
Cleared ground

Two days in

four days in

Sunday, July 5, 2015

     It is hot—mid to high 90s every day by 4 in the afternoon. In some parts of the country, this is normal, but in the Willamette Valley, it is not. The only other heat spells like this we have had have been tied to the three times I’ve rented power sanders to refinish floors, and they only lasted a few days (until I returned the sander, each time). It is, too be fair, a dry heat, but still, we lack strategies  to deal with heat.

  1. Dress appropriately. I am always amazed by people who deny the weather, wearing nylons and suit jackets on hot days, flip-flops through the snow, and sweatshirts in the rain. As a well-prepared hiker, I have mastered the art of the layer and dress for the weather. When we are in the South, the Land of Frigid Air Conditioning, this becomes a bit of a problem, but as long as I am here, it makes a huge difference.  Loose shorts and cotton tank tops are my preferred style when the temperature rises.
  2. Open, then shut, the doors and windows. When we are home, we play games with the front door and the side windows. In the early morning, we open the house up wide. When it is hotter outside than in, we close down the house, especially in the west-facing front. We draw the curtains and shut up the windows and doors during the hottest part of the day. When the temperature flips again, we open everything back up.  We also have a fan that can bring air up from the basement, which is always cooler than the air outside.
  3. Sleep outside. We have rediscovered this lovely lifestyle this summer. On the first hot night, we hauled the air mattress out, made the bed with several layers of light blankets, hung up a sheet to block the bed from the eyes on the back alley, and settled in. By ten-thirty, the air was cool enough for one blanket; by morning, we had several. Our bodies start the day cooler and that lasts for several hours. We are much better rested than we would be tossing around inside. The cats love it, too.
  4. Timing is everything. Because we are outside, we wake up around six thirty. I like to start on the physical projects early in the day, baking bread, canning pickles, cleaning house, digging up plants, well before the heat rises. Then, when the day is too warm for labor, I can take to the hammock with a book or do some work on-line. In the evening, I complete tasks.  Everyone in the back yard lays low by three thirty. The cats and rabbit sprawl on the ground, pressing their tummies into the cool earth. The chickens perch in the shade and nap. Even the bees are quiet, fanning the entrance to the hive.
  5. Just deal. In 1988, I was a baker during a very hot summer. Looking back at the records, the day time temperature did not drop below ninety for six weeks. Add East Coast humidity to the picture, and it was muggy. We had all sorts of cooling tricks as we worked in front of the huge black ovens. We froze wet towels and wrapped them around our necks. We had cooling mint and orange blossom sprays in the refrigerator.  We drank lots of water and mixed all sorts of juices with seltzer on ice. We pinned our hair up off of our necks and occasionally thrust our heads under the cooling spray of the sink. Occasionally, you would find someone sitting in the walk in for a minute. But, mostly, we worked. And we nodded patiently when a customer leaned over the counter to ask “Hot enough for you?”  Yeah, it was hot, but people still have to eat, so we kept on. And we had a rule—no complaining. 

Macaroni Salad, Aunty Marilyn’s style

So, this was my first discovery that not everyone made their macaroni salad the same way. I went to my first “adult” potluck while I was in college. It was late May, and warm, so I made this salad. When we arrived, three other people had also made macaroni salad and all three were different.  We were all astounded and spent the rest of the dinner comparing notes. I still think mine is the best.

Cook a box of elbow macaroni. Don’t get the fancy imported stuff, this is not that kind of dish.

While the macaroni cooks, chop up a medium sized red onion. Strive for a fine chop. When you have finished, open a small jar of sweet gerkin pickles and chop them the same size. Toss in a big bowl, along with about 2/3 of the pickle juice. Add a can of tuna fish.

Drain the macaroni and add to the bowl. Stir it all up. Then take out the mayonnaise jar and toss in a good sized glop. Stir. Consider. Add some celery seed if you are feeling fancy. Add some more mayo. Remember, this is a mid-sixties dish. This is not health food. Stir.

Refrigerate. It really is best made a day ahead.  Eat at a cook-out with charred hamburgers. Eat the remains for breakfast the next day.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Progressive East Tennesseee

          Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center, run by Bill Nickle, is located near Knoxville Tennessee, tucked back along narrow windy roads that follow the rhythm of the hollows and ridges of the state. It is a beautiful quiet place where deep things happen slowly. Six years ago, when we visited, Bill showed us the straw bale house he was building. It was tiny, but lovely, with warm plaster walls, radiant floor heating that ran off of the wood stove, and a peep hole behind the plaster to show off the straw construction. The walls were thick and kept the building cool even on a hot summer day.  The entire building was powered by three solar panels and a small wind turbine.  This year, more things are happening.
            Bill took us on a tour of the entire place.  We saw a cozy new cabin for interns, a beautiful round house built totally from recycled materials, a vegetable garden that was about to send cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash tumbling down hill to local kitchens, and the high field where people gather for equinox and solstice celebrations. Several new homes were under construction. One was straw bale, another would be cob. A young couple was raising bees and queens, and their hives were stacked on the edge of the field, painted in vibrant colors and swarming with activity. Bill described the coming vision quest, where eight people were coming to sit alone in silence up on Narrow Ridge for three days, searching for answers to their lives questions.
            The most serious new addition to the center was the natural burial place, high on the side of a hill. Bill saw a need to return to a simpler—and less expensive—method of burial and the group has worked with that state to open the first natural burial spot in Tennessee. People are buried in plain wooden boxes, without embalming. A flat marker is placed at the head of the grave and when the entire area is full, it will return to the forest so that generations to come will, as suggested in “Thanatopis”, be walking on the bones of those who have come before. It was a beautiful, peaceful spot, surrounded by lush second growth. Several graves were already there, covered in wildflowers. This small place  was inspiring and made us feel connected to a wider circle of people all working to change the world where they are.

        Another bright spot of the trip, oddly enough, was in the city of Knoxville. Downtown Knoxville is blessed with some stunning old buildings (with some 1970s towers mixed in) that have been left alone since the energy drained from the inner city to the sprawling strip malls of the outer limits in the 1960s. But downtown is reviving. Market Square, a bulge in the grid plan surrounded by three and four story buildings, has been rediscovered and small shops and cafes are moving in. There is a small park full of sculpture, seating around fountains, and people walking through, looking for lunch or a place to people watch. We ate outdoors at Tomato Head, and the food was excellent—lively and fresh. More importantly, the city is encouraging housing downtown and tall apartment buildings are going up in the strip of blocks between downtown and the river. As more young people decide to live in the city and not buy a car, putting housing, shopping, and entertainment all within walking distance is an excellent idea. We liked Knoxville—and Chattanooga, where we were the day before to visit the aquarium—and now I am wondering what else is happening in the mid-west that I need to know about.

Greens and Beans on Toast: AKA dinner in fifteen minutes

Slice an  onion and start is cooking on the cast iron pan. Use olive oil Add a couple of cloves of chopped garlic.
Chop a large bunch of greens-- any kind, but collards or kale, something stiff, works better. Mix them up inf need be. Add to the onion. Add some salt and pepper.

Slice some whole wheat toast and put it in the toaster.

Go downstairs and fetch a can, or, if you are lucky, a jar of home canned beans from the shelf. Open and add to the greens.

Grate some Parmesan cheese.

Layer the whole thing-- toast, greens and beans, cheese. Eat.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Canning Season has Begun

  Some years, the preserving season comes on quickly. This was one. It has been a warm, dry spring, so I should not have been surprised when my friend Maureen, who has two lovely cherry trees, casually informed me that the cherries were ready. Cherries wait for no man; they must be picked and preserved within twenty four hours, unlike later fruits and veg, which can sit in the larder for a few days until there is time in the schedule book. I dug out the two picking buckets, scrubbed out some dirt from last season, and headed over.
            Her trees are beautiful. Green healthy leaves with the deep red fruit hidden underneath in dense clusters, the center pruned out so a tree climber can hoist herself up to the highest point for the ripest fruit, and a convenient branch to rest the bucket on while picking high. We picked for forty five minutes and filled our two buckets with glistening fruit. But it was already beginning the downward slide; some were bird pecked and others beginning to rot. Just in time.
            At home, we set up the pitting assembly line with the food dryer between us. I pit, Mark splits and arranges on a tray. It took an episode of This American Life  to complete the task in the cool evening. While Mark set up the dryer in the dining room, where it would hum into the night, I pitted six more pints for canning. As always, we had lids left over from last year. You never know, really, when the season will end and exactly how many lids you will need. The steam canner made quick work of the six jars and by bedtime, we had processed two thirds of the fruit. This morning, I ran another, smaller, load through the dryer and tossed some into the freezer for a pie. We are, after all, leaving for vacation in the morning.

            So the season has begun. I have tucked raspberries and cherries into the freezer, washed off the canning equipment, and stashed the canner in the larder half way down the cellar stairs, where it will spend the summer.  Next week, I will inventory what we have left and what we need to set aside for this summer, but we will always jump on an offer of free fruit. 

Cherry Pie

Make and roll out two crusts. Lay one in the pie pan and set the other aside to turn into lattice work.

5-6 cups of cherries
2T of tapioca
.5 c of sugar 
.5 t salt

Mix fruit, sugar, etc together and spread into pie shell. Using a knife or pastry wheel (much cooler looking!), cut strips of dough. Lay across the fruit and weave together.

Bake in 350 oven until bubbly. Eat with vanilla ice cream in the back yard.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Summer Water


potato bed with hoses
      The Pacific Northwest is defined by our relationship with water; we have two seasons—cool and wet and warm and dry. Settlement is along rivers and our summers are cooled by the sea breeze that sweeps inward in the late afternoons. During wet winters, we may not see the sun or moon for months, but we enjoy hunkering down under the sheltering clouds, walking home in the misty dark. Then, one day, somewhere between Memorial Day and the Forth of July, the rains stop. The clouds break. The sun comes out and stays out until the fall equinox storms move in late in September. The change in weather marks a significant shift in water use and distribution in our house. Let’s just say not much leaves the property during the dry season.
            The shift happened this weekend. After a nice rain, a dramatic midnight thunderstorm, and a power outage at school (hope springs eternal for being sent home early…) early in the week, the clouds parted. Saturday morning, I went downstairs to find the dish pan and scoured it out to catch all of the sink water. Then I rummaged through the stack of five gallon buckets for the short, wide one with the decent handle to transport the dish water to the various wine barrels holding fruit trees and bushes around the house. Finally, I made the watering chart and placed the pink flamingo magnet on the kiwi vines.
shower stall
      That evening, after a warm day at the Mother Earth News Fair, we set up the outdoor shower. Mark attached the hose to the basement sink; it was an easy task because we had already threaded the hose through the unused drier vent last summer. Meanwhile, I found the towels, soap, and shampoo, and cleaned out the tub. Leaves swept out quickly, then I scrubbed it down with an old cloth and flushed the system onto the ground, right where the bunny had dug a burrow. After our first shower washed out the tub, I hitched up the hose to redirect the water into the flowerbeds. From now on, we shower outside.
            When we come back from vacation in two weeks, I will hitch up the laundry system. We have a 55 gallon drum in the basement which catches three loads of laundry water. When it is full, after a week’s worth of washing, I hook up the same pump and move the water out to the flowerbeds that the shower does not reach. Tuesday mornings, as the clothes dry and the barrel drains, are unusually humid times. 
            Because we cannot water the vegetable gardens with greywater, I also spent some time messing around with garden hoses. One side of the garden is on an irrigation line that allows me to shut off the water to each bed separately, which is very handy as the summer winds down or a soaker hose springs a leak.  This week, I replaced an ancient sweat hose and mended a few leaks, then covered all of the lines with straw mulch.  The other side of the garden is one strung together system—old soaker hoses cut in half and attached to pieces of garden hose— which is fine for this year, as the entire three beds is planted t in potatoes and will all need to be shut off at the same time. When we rebuild those beds, we will replace the one long hose with the same system of hoses and valves that works so well on the other side. Once the whole system is mulched in, it works quite well, keeping water right where I want it. I know I have succeeded when the grass dries out between the beds.

watering chart
            Summer, the dry season, has begun. We are all collectively worried about the lack of snowpack in our mountains and the impact of the warm dry spring on our fruit crops. Here, we save whatever water we can, hauling it out to return to the earth.

Chard or beet greens and ricotta pie:

Make a pie shell.

Saute a large bunch of chopped greens with onion, thyme, and garlic.

Mix 4 oz of ricotta with 2 eggs and 3/4 cup of milk or cream. Add cooked greens and pour into the pie shell.

Bake in 350 oven until firm, abot 45 minutes.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Annotated Homesteading Bibliography

   For the past week, I have been reading Nick Hornsby’s collection of essays   Ten Years in the Tub, where he lists the books he purchased for the month, and then comments upon the books he actually read that same month. Any serious reader knows that the two lists are not the same, but tracking the books that actually caught his interest, and how they wove into his life, makes for lively reading. I can recommend it. It also got me thinking about our significant books, the ones I head back to, over and over again. This bibliography is for homesteading—The Best Books ever will wait for a slow, hot summer afternoon, after I finish reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder one more time.


 Betty Crocker Cookbook, 1958 edition
 My mother believed that this was a wedding present, but the dates do not line up. However, it was my first cookbook. It taught me to make bread and cookies, how to set a formal table, to look cheery when my husband came home from a long day’s work, and to have “something special” at every meal.  I still love reading the little biographies of the women who sent in recipes for publication.

 The Enchanted Broccoli Forest
Molly Katzen taught me how to cut vegetables, consider how a different seasoning changed the entire feel of the rice from Italian to Middle Eastern, to Chinese, and to talk to the yeasties.  It was my first vegetarian cookbook where the food tasted good. I have followed both Molly Katzen and the Moosewood Collective for thirty years; their food is easy and tasty.

Diet for a Small Planet

I bought this book when I was living by myself as a college senior. Meat was just expensive for one person and, after a summer as a meat wrapper, did not appeal. It revolutionized the way I viewed food. She was, however, a bad cook.

Chez Panisse Fruits and Vegetables and The Greens Cookbook

When we shifted over to eating mostly local produce, the beauty of these books was clear. The Chez Panisse books are just beautiful, but they also talk about what to do with cardoons (cook with cream!). The Greens recipes are sorted  subtly by seasonally available produce, starting in February (probably January in the Bay area) and working through the year.


Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades and Gardening when it Counts are the two best volumes on growing food in my bioregion, which is not the same as any other.  Steve Solomon is a clear and frisky writer and I have spent many winter hours reading over his work. The Territorial Seed Catalog is an excellent annual resource.

American Gardens of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Ann Leighton

This is a series of meticulously researched books examining the evolution of garden style which I used for research purposes throughout college and grad school.

Permaculture Handbook by Bill Mollison and The Earthcare Manual by Patrick Whitehead are my primary source materials for garden design and deep planning. There have been many, lightly written books extolling the beauties of permaculture design but I prefer the original works.

Design and Philosophy:

The Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
This changes everything. After reading the Pattern Language, our entire view of the built environment shifted. Six foot porches—that explained why those balconies were never used.  Nine percent for parking?—that would transform our neighborhood. Site repair?

Walden by Thoreau
Our backpacking read for years, it is still relevant today, once you dig through the convoluted nineteenth century language.

One Man’s Meat  by E.B. White
White moved to the coast of Maine in the early 1930s but continued to write for The New Yorker. These essays capture his life on his saltwater farm. If I could write like anyone, I would want to write like White.

A Beekeeper’s Year by Sue Hubbell
I first read Hubbell in  The New Yorker years before I considered owning bees. I was reading her work in our hammock the day we had our first wild swarm. Her prose mixes science and philosophy beautifully, even if you do not love bees.

Chicken Tractors, Worms Eat My Garbage, The Humanuare Handbook, Greywater Design and The Home Energy Handbook  have all been useful and inspiring reference works.

 Ful-- Fava Bean "soup"
Fava beans are a little early this year, so we were able to eat ful after weeding onions at Sunbow on Memorial Day.

Start with about five pounds of fresh favas in the shell. Shell the beans, parboil for about three minutes, and peel. There will be a huge reduction in volume and a lot of fiddly work....

Saute three chopped cloves of garlic in about four tablespoons of olive oil. Juice a lemon. Chop a handful of parsley. Mix the favas into these seasonings, add salt and pepper, and warm up. Eat with fresh, warm flatbread and a huge salad for dinner.