Monday, June 27, 2011

NPSO meeting

The Native Plant Society of Oregon had its annual meeting 35 miles outside of John Day, up in Logan Valley, last weekend. Mark is a botany geek—he wrestles with Latin names and family relationships and laughs at their jokes—and I go along for the ride and keep the plant lists. There are usually other spousal types at the meeting who are willing to chat about gardens or books on the hikes, so it’s all good. This was a pretty good meeting in a gorgeous setting, even if many of the hikes were still inaccessible because of snow and potholes and the bloom had not yet reached its peak.

There are three distinct levels of Native Planters. The first are the “Gods” of plant identification. They can name a plant, in Latin 85% of the time—although they will engage in endless discussions over minute details—it could be a Gray’s Lomatium but it doesn’t stink, so maybe It’s a fennel leafed lomatium—but do they grow here? I thought there were only in the northern Cascades…. Many of these attendees are paid to go out in the field and identify species and, sometimes, they discover a new one, which is quite cool. They present their findings in the evenings, usually with endless slides of plants. Everyone wants to travel with these folks on Saturday, when the entire camp heads out on botany tours.

Then there are the accomplished amateurs, like the elementary school teacher in Tualatin who is a member of the Penstemon Society (yes, there is such a thing) and acts as Botanist in Residence for several preserves in her town, because they cannot afford a paid position. She actually has discovered an new Penstemon in the past year and is worried that they will become extinct before they are identified in the books, so she recruited for local Penstemon spotters at the conference. They will be out for the next month searching for a tall blue plant. Citizen Scientists, Mark called them, and they do a huge amount of the data collection work, turning in plant lists, photographs, and locations to the Oregon Flora Project, an attempt to map all of the plants in the state. They can give the Latin names about 70% of the time and understand the obscure language of plant keys. I’m impressed.

However, most of the people at the annual meeting don’t remember the Latin names, but they are very good at the excited squeal when a new plant is introduced. They like to travel and camp. They like to eat and chat over a bottle of wine. They are retired folk who want to keep their minds active. They like wandering through fields, looking at plants. They also like to look at birds, but plants stay still, so that is where they focus their energy. Mark is in this category-- he is interested and recognizes family traits, but mixes Latin and common names, botanical and “good to eat” lore. He is really good at the educated “harrumph” when the head botanist points out a small distinguishing feature and learns three or four new plants on every trip. Me, I’m along for the walk. I like common names, not Latin. Hot Rock Penstemon—a lovely cream colored plant—and Tidy Tips—a small white one—are far easier to remember than whatever their official names may be.

Next year, they are meeting in the Siksiyous, an exciting region of great biological diversity—and not far from Ashland, home of the Shakespeare Festival and excellent restaurants. I think we’re going…which play shall we see before we come home?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alfred's Long Johns

It is the day before the Summer Solstice and I am baking Alfred’s Long Johns….

In Oregon, summer comes slowly…we have spring from Candlemas to the Fourth of July, especially during el Nina years—and we are in the midst of the most Nina of years on record. It has been raining forever. There have been nice days. Yesterday, I trimmed the entire vegetable garden and Mark mowed it and it looks quite snazzy, but, this morning was overcast and drizzling. When I went to let the chickens out, only the Boss Chicken, Gertrude, came striding out. George was lurking under the shelter and the Peepsters just stayed in bed for another couple of hours. My bare feet were covered in grass clippings when I came in. I resigned myself to the weather, gathered up a couple of books, a small pot of tea, and the cats, and settled into the nook for an hour or so. When the caffeine hit, I decided to make the Long Johns.

Alfred’s Long Johns come from an early summer vacation on Cape Breton I took years ago. My friend Sher, whose partner owned a bit of land and a transformed chicken coop, took me with her to the edge of the land, a small cabin at the end of the road, literally. An elderly couple—Alfred—owned the adjoining piece of land and allowed access to their shower and conversation. It is a beautiful spot, right on the ocean, high up on a cliff, green and grey and stunning. I gather it is exceptionally fine in sunny weather, but I would not know. The day we arrived, clouds settled in and did not move for the week we were there. So, we hibernated. It had been a rough year of part time graduate school and full time baking and I brought a pile of books for my thesis along. Sher had a book of Native American History. We both had novels as well. We climbed into the big bed, rigged the candle lanterns above our heads, and read. And slept. Read and slept. Alfred would come down in the late afternoon, worried that he had not seen us all day, and offer us fresh baked cookies and strong Canadian tea. Lured by the offer, we would emerge into the damp world for a little while before retreating to sleeping and reading once more. On the last day, the sun came out, bright in the world. In our good-bye photograph, we are squinting in the unaccustomed light. “It figures,” we muttered as we climbing into the car for the long drive back to work and writing and not enough sleep. But, even then, we knew that the Weather Gods had given us a huge gift—a reason to stay inside, drink tea, eat cookies, and dream, waking and sleeping, for an entire week.

So, when it is late Spring here in Corvallis, when the clouds have settled over our heads again, when I am, once more, feeling like retreating into a week of sleep and read, I make the same cookies. They are an old-fashioned variety—no chocolate, not too sweet—but they are perfect with a strong cup of tea, a book, and some quiet conversation. I have four dozen sitting on my counter….wipe your feet before you come in.

Alfred’s Long Johns
½ c. butter
1/2c. margarine
1c white sugar
1c molasses
1 egg
1T soda, ¾ c water
1T vanilla
4 ¾ c flour
1t tartar
1t salt
1t cinnamon
½ t ginger and clove
Cream butter and shortening, add sugar and molasses. Dissolve soda into the water and add with the egg and vanilla. Mix dry ingredients together and add. Mix well. Add a little flour if things seem wet. Drop in funky shaped balls onto the cookie sheet and bake in 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Crockpot

Three weeks ago, Mark and I were walking downtown on Saturday morning, headed to the Farmer’s Market and the library, discussing whether or not to buy a pretzel (leaning towards yes), when he spotted a cheery orange object sitting on a stump next to a dumpster. This particular dumpster had been fruitful in the past, so we stopped. It was a pristine pumpkin orange crockpot with sketches of dancing veggies around the bottom. A vintage crockpot, complete with plastic lid. “Beef stew,” Mark muttered. “If it’s still there on the way home, I’m grabbing it.” It was and he did.

My family had a crockpot—ours was white and had a glass lid and dancing veggies—back in the mid-seventies when they were all the rage. The economy was tanking, oil prices were skyrocketing, and people were looking for cheap ways to eat hearty, comforting food. The crockpot was perfect—put the cheap stew beef and carrots in before you leave for work in the morning and have dinner waiting when you come home. My mother made stew and I made gallons of baked beans in it through one winter. Then things looked up, I went off to college, and it went to the back of the cabinet, hauled out once or twice a year for Swedish Meatballs at one of my mother’s parties. She left it in New Hampshire when she moved south. I didn’t want it.

So I was not as excited as Mark when he hauled this one home. He put it on the counter. The orange clashes with the red trim paint, I thought. It really needs some Harvest Gold appliances (which we had, in the same kitchen as the crockpot) to set it off. Then I remembered that I hated Avocado Green so much—the last of the triumvirate of colors—that I refused for fifteen years to try an actual avocado, because the color was so awful. Avocados did not exist in small town New Hampshire …All of this came back when I looked at that little crockpot. That and some really bad music…”Billy Don’t be a Hero,” “Seasons in the Sun,” and Neal Diamond singing “hands, touching hands, touching you, touching me”… and visions of my mother in a bar with friends, all of them touching hands and swaying to the piano man’s song.

But it was also kind of cheery…perky…pristine…and I remembered the time last winter we accidently left the lentils on the stove and went downtown, coming back hours later to amazingly yummy lentil soup because, really, lentils and split peas need to cook for three or four hours to taste good, not forty five minutes... I reached for the locally grown lentils sitting on the shelf, poured them in, chopped an onion, peeled a couple of garlic cloves from Sunbow, nipped two bay leaves off of my own bush, still damp from the rain, added some water…and turned it on. Soon, the house smelled amazing…onion and garlic and bay and beans in a warm, enveloping scent that promised security and lunch for days. After a few hours, I chopped carrots and celery and dumped in a can of tomatoes from last summer and some red wine…then left it on until dinnertime and ladled three quarts of soup into jars for the week. And, with that, the crockpot was established in the kitchen.

It does not live on the counter—the color and lack of room prevent it—but it lives nearby, in the larder, waiting to be hauled out on Saturday afternoon, filled with beans and veggies, and plugged in. And I think it is happy to be back, doing its designated job in the appliance universe, making hearty, comforting food in Hard Times…and I’ve caught myself humming a few old songs while I chop the carrots—although Neil Diamond is still banished from the house.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Living in town presents its unique challenges to veggie gardening. True, I do not have—at least, not yet—deer roaming through my yard eating the tops of tomato plants and, so far, I have not had raccoon issues, but there is still one nasty animal that loves the back yard—the cat. It’s not really the cats (four or five on them claim parts of our yard) that are the problem, it is their poop. I am always hunting for new ways to keep cats out of the garden… I used to create a barrier of sticks placed in complex patterns over the beds, some pointing up to spear a squatting cat in the behind at a delicate moment, but it was a bother. I moved to chicken wire, which was also annoying; I found myself muttering “patience is a virtue” over and over as I unrolled it, and then, if I did not get it off in time, it decapitated the green beans. Such a pain. Then I tried remay covered hoops, which worked fine with an old and lazy cat, but not the young ones. Lucy loved to walk on it and tear through, then Kayli slid inside where it was warm, squashed a few kale plants, and takes a nap.

I’ve had a few successes. The cold frame works well in the early parts of the year—pop the plants into the ground and cover them with glass. Lucy walks all over it but never lays a paw on the soil. Kayli cannot slide in for a nap, although she tries. Planting out seedlings, rather than seeds, establishes a certain amount of garden turf early on. Straw mulch is quite effective in cutting back the poop—but really encourages the naps. Right now, I have a new experiment—black planting paper. I don’t like the plastic mulch—we don’t need any more plastic in the world and the bio-degradable stuff, I’m not so sure about. But the paper looks pretty nice. I lay down the soaker hose, spread the paper on the bed, and cut through to plant the squash vines. The paper heats the soil and keeps down the weeds (this was the potato bed last year, and they just keep coming…) and keeps the cats from digging. It was not very expensive, either. I’ll see how it does, but I think I may have outsmarted the cats….