Sleep, my sweet, my lovely one,
From dusk until the rising sun
Paints morning roses blushed with dew;
Let comfort bless the night, and you,
Awaking, bless with joy the ray
It’s certainly a fine time to be in the old familiar places of the northwest. The Evergreen State is at its lush floral best, the cool-weather walks already impossible in Texas by mid-June are still a fine evening pleasure for scoping out the neighborhood sculptures and specimen plantings in their cottage-garden settings, ferries ply the waters of Puget Sound, and even Mt. Rainier comes out of hiding behind various veils of cloud from time to time.
Maybe I should buy myself a big tall red conical hat (possibly made of concrete). Because I am not exactly the most useful object, not the most decorative, nor even perhaps the most whimsically amusing, in a garden. But I give it my best from time to time, really I do. And generally, the earth is pretty forgiving and responsive to my fumbling efforts.
For once, I paid attention to the promises of today’s rain; it’s not been terribly impressive thus far, but it has rained a teeny bit, so it was good to get things a little better in order out there and ready for some watering the day before the rain arrived. Not that I didn’t water it all thoroughly myself, at the end of my stint, since even if the plants hadn’t been so thirsty after all of my brash ministrations on a toasty afternoon, I needed a bit of rinsing too. Besides turning into a human saltwater fountain and being bespeckled by the colorful bite-marks of a seething mass of varied insect pests, I also collected plenty of bits and bobs of garden detritus in my hair, a nice thorough coating of fresh brown dirt all down the front of my clothes (with special emphasis on my mud-capped knees), and the handsome assortment of plant stains reaching up to my elbows, not to mention the weird black stain my cheap metal watchband makes on my wrist when its gets all slippery with sweat. I considered just turning the garden hose on myself full blast but opted for the slightly less neighbor-frightening method of going indoors and showering, after all. They’d suffered enough if they’d just seen me transforming myself into a living blob of nature-gone-bad while gardening.
Meanwhile, I did enjoy discovering that besides the blizzards of unlovable bugs gone rampaging on the heels of a warm winter, there are the lovely sorts as well: I was almost constantly surrounded by clouds of butterflies that were attracted to the plants I was tending and the nice little drinking fountains I was making with my sprinkler for them. It was as though the flowers woke up and took wing around me. The birds around here are certainly loving the feast of fresh insects, so at least I can tolerate the biting brats if I know that they may soon, in their turn, be Cardinal Chow. Which reminds me, I’ve heard tell that the hummingbirds are back in town, so the feeders should go back up today. How quickly things change in Spring!
Both the ornamental and the edible is swiftly springing up, and thankfully, many of the latter sort of plants are very much the former too. Along with their other benefits of beauty and entertainment and insect-control, the birds have evidently gotten involved in the garden design work around here, planting a number of sunflowers in serendipitously amusing and even rather unexpectedly apropos spots. I’ll leave them all in place and see what seem to be propitious locations for next year’s crop of sunflowers. Meanwhile, I’ve got lots of other things beginning to come fully into bloom that need deadheading and trimming and fertilizing and watering.
The roses have–not too surprisingly, given the kindly weather–been great show-offs already this season. The little old-fashioned straggler that I dug up from its hidden spot by the back fence last fall and tucked into a pail is thriving and throwing off a fair number of its small but deeply velvety dark red blooms. The coral colored rose that I moved to a more visible place in the raised bed by the patio has probably already fired up close to a hundred of its bold blossoms, bringing its own dazzling light to the little ‘courtyard’ enclosed by the house’s wings.
That holly tree that I intended to kill, or at least cruelly constrain (someone planted it much too close to the house’s foundation for either’s good) was stripped to its trunk not much more than a year ago but is not only covered with those charmingly soft new leaves that have their pointy edges but no bite yet but is simply a mass of bloom as well, and now that I’ve seen how adored it is by the bees I know I won’t kill the tree but will just keep it as a sort of vertical bonsai, pruning it vigorously but leaving it to stand as a bee haven, a vine post–I loved having my cobalt-blue morning glory glowing from it last summer and have planted that and other colors this year–and a berry farm for birds and winter decor.
The herb-and-vegetable planters are well underway, and there’s not only plenty of borage leaf, despite the marauding munching bugs who try to turn them to lace, for a nice tisane long before they will be tall enough to bloom. The marigolds have opened their brilliant eyes to have a look around, and the carrots and beets are shooting upward (and, I hope, downward). The parsley and other, daintier herbs will have to fight their way up through the jungle a little more slowly, perhaps, but should be strong enough by the time they do that they will outlast the root veg and the annual flowers.
The peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos and red cabbages are all quite happy and healthy looking right now, and as long as the garden pests can’t get ahead of the birds and me, there may be a nice little bit of produce before too long. In the meantime, it’s sweet just to look at the plants and measure their growth by the day, if not by the hour. One of the perpetual delights of gardening, of course, is the unplanned element that invites itself into the flowerbeds and borders. I was elated to find, among the dozens of baby oak and elm tree sprouts volunteering on the property (and many of which I will transplant, when they’re big enough, to other parts of the yard), a seedling which I quickly identified as a mulberry tree. This, too, will have to relocate eventually, but I thank the bird or squirrel that kindly donated it, as it will also become a great wildlife feeder on the back-forty one day. In the right-hand photo, it is balanced on the left by a seedling soapberry that I’ve been nursing along for just such a purpose, and together they frame a wonderful volunteer that apparently forgot it was supposed to be a tender annual plant, a brilliant orange Gerbera daisy from last year.
Along with the Survivor Daisy there are hints of the wildflower seed I threw nearby beginning to assert themselves. The first tiny cosmos has peeped out from the pathway, and there are promising leaves and stems among the sunflowers and cosmos that say we’ll soon enough be seeing nasturtiums, corn (sweet and ornamental), blanketflower and Echinacea and a whole host of other charmers. If you want to know more specifics of what we’re, ahem, expecting, check back to my plant-list post.
I was certainly not confining my attentions to the back yard, and am pleased to say that both the surprises given to me by the garden and the things I’ve done myself and with goodness aforethought out front are also paying off in lovely dividends. The area in front of my beloved’s office window was particularly shabby and is not so easy to suss out, as it’s victimized by bad drainage because of the contours and conditions of our property and also is quite heavily shaded by one of our big beautiful post oaks out there. So if you set these characteristics up in combination with naturally hot and over-dry Texan weather, there are what might charitably be called Conflicts of Interest. I’m experimenting, to say the least. But I’m getting a fair return at the moment and will enjoy it while I can. Among the humorous and pleasant surprises I would count that of having celery in bloom there. Yes, celery. I had a very ancient bottle of culinary celery seed sitting in my kitchen for so long that I was quite sure it had no flavor left at all, but being a thrifty mad scientist, I tossed the contents out in the front flowerbed and behold, a year later I have flowering celery. If it’s biennial like some of its cousins, who knows what next year may bring!
Between the front walkway and the porch, the flowerbed is cut into yet another poorly drained (but sunnier) spot and is too narrow for its own good. But I’m getting a number of things, mostly perennial, to pop up there and even had a happy re-visitation from last year’s annual sweet potato vine (the fluorescent-green leafed sort) that will probably now give me yet another year of excellent fill-in wherever I haven’t yet solved the bed’s Issues. I’ve tucked in a few herbs besides the front door rosemary that’s thriving–far more than expected–and am working to have a broad mix of textures and colors and seasonal change-ups that I hope will continue to mature and fill in the naked spots until any non-flowery weeds will just feel unwelcome to even visit.
Along with the porch-side plantings there is also another shady stretch, this one less plagued by poor drainage but still overshadowed by one of our big flowering pear trees, so that too is getting an experimental blend of trial-and-error plantings to withstand the vagaries of seemingly opposing growth needs. One of the particular pleasures of yesterday was finding a Bonus Plant tucked into the pot like some sort of vegetal conjoined twin with one of the agaves I laid in yesterday, so now I have this vigorous ‘baby’ to choose a good home for as well. These specific agaves are a variety (Agave parryi) I’ve long admired for their good looks and was thrilled simply to locate, let alone in a size I could afford, but doubly so on learning that they are supposed to be relatively hardy plants–and then on top of all that, I got a big, handsome extra among them. Surely the garden gods were smiling on me yesterday. Or at least the garden gnomes.
One of the particularly attractive things about learning of a new cuisine or recipe is the way that it can introduce unexpected ingredients to mind and palate. Things that seemed commonplace or familiar are suddenly tinged with mystery, filled with puzzles and questions never before imagined. So much recombinant mischief can be made when a new ingredient–or a new use for one I thought I’d known–comes into play.
I’ve long known the delights of tomatillos. Salsa verde is a pleasurable variant of that endlessly flexible family of Mexican sauces best known in their tomato form, hot or cold. Usually made with chopped or pureed tomatillos in combination with onion, jalapeños, chiles, cilantro and whatever additional spices or lime juice the maker uses for her trademark blend, salsa verde brings a slightly lemony brightness of flavor and a zing of lively green to the plating of whatever magnificent assemblage of Mexican cuisine is in hand. As I love putting fruits of various kinds into my salsa cruda (or pico de gallo, the rough-cut raw and chunky form of salsa) for the bright, colorful, juicy and distinctive twists they can introduce to the party. Fruits are such glorious foils for spicy and savory foods that their addition has been popular for far too long for even a venerable geezer like me to credibly claim credit for pretty much any such combination. This is certainly a great reason to love tomatillos in spicy salsas.
The big surprise, for me (again, blame it on my innocence; blame it on my lack of smarts; blame it on the bossa nova) is that it turns out green is not the only color in which tomatillos ripen. So I bought these seeds for purple tomatillos, too, in high hopes of having an eventual opportunity for making some groovy purple salsa cruda. So cool! Unfortunately, the weather fairies of Texas had a little different slant, this summer, on the whole project and the poor little tomatillo plants, purple and green, couldn’t quite make it to full ripeness while being simultaneously strangled by drought. Pity. But one day I will make it happen. Then you can look for me to side my grilled salmon with a nice salsa cruda compounded of purple tomatillo, fresh peach, jalapeño, cilantro, lime juice and jots of salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon. Fingers crossed!
There are so many other magical goodies around in the meantime, things not so seasonally sensitive perhaps, that there’s no worry about going hungry while waiting. Flours, for one. Asian, Native American and other foodies have already known for eons that acorns can be a source of jellies, cooking and baking, not to mention much-needed nutrition in times of scarcity. Me, I had no idea that acorn flour is useful for so much in the non-squirrel kitchen. But now I’ve acquired a small stash of the stuff so I can remedy my ignorance soon. Yes, acquired–bought–I have no intention of being so marvelously industrious as is required for the long and involved process of soaking out the tannins and preparing the acorns for consumption when I don’t even know how successfully I’ll use the flour, let alone how compellingly palatable the results will be. Time and experimentation will tell. Promise I’ll keep you posted!
On the heels of that particular discovery, of course, I went off on an alternative-flour tangent and hunted for others of interest. I’ve done a bit of baking with almond flour before (almonds ground up, but not so far as to be turning into almond butter, a whole other sort of ingredient altogether and tasty and useful in its own right) and coconut flour as well, and both are godsend finds for one who’s wanting to reduce or eliminate grain-based flours for any reason in cooking and baking. I certainly like that they’re both mild enough in flavor to work for innumerable purposes and are able to be adapted to a large number of functions in different recipes. The next surprise flour that popped up on my radar was mesquite. Say, what??? Making flour from the leguminous seeds of the nearly unkillable weed tree that drives ranchers ’round the bend with its tire-puncturing spines and water-hogging monster tap-root? Well, proponents say mesquite meal has a nutty, “sweet, earthy taste with notes of cinnamon, molasses, and caramel”–hard to argue with the allure of that. Needless to say, I look forward to seeing what can come of such a distinctive sounding ingredient.
Consider the rose: what has long been one of the most favored flowers, universally admired for its varied beauty, perfume, and rather astonishing adaptability to climate and environs is being celebrated as the herb of the year this very year. Rose water, candied rose petals, rose hip tea, rose petal preserves, classic Turkish Delight–the list of rose-based foods has been building over centuries and only adds to the popularity of this queen of flowers. But most of that sort of thing was far outside the ken of a girl growing up in modest middle-class America, and didn’t really attract my attention until I was well into adulthood. Even then, I learned that as delicious as the rose is, a little can go a long way. So as I was contemplating my angle for this post and thinking about how fascinating it could be to yet discover previously unimagined ways to invite the rose to the dining table and began to contemplate what numinous form that idea might take. What did I do? Like any culinary detective-wannabe of the modern age, I Googled, of course. I typed in “rose as herb” and there before my very eyes appeared a handy page trumpeting the rose as Herb of the Year 2012. You call it lazy detective work, I call it kismet. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. –Say, wouldn’t sweet potatoes be interesting prepared with a faint infusion of rosewater, some white pepper and a bit of fresh goat cheese whipped in? Or is that all old hat and I’m just showing off my ignorant bumpkin-osity once again? Never mind, I’m going to get me some of that Herb of the Year and have some fun. Ladies and gentlemen, spoons up . . .