Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Reason

It's been quiet here on A Thinking Stomach, and there's a reason for it:

This summer, we learned that E may win a great job; in September, he won it; last week, he moved north to start it.

Ever since the possibility of the move came up I was certain it would happen, so I stopped planning for a fall or winter garden, and started planning on shutting things down. Every step outside to work in the yard now is an effort to clean up, clear out, erase. I'll be here in Southern California for two more months, shutting the ranchito down and selling it, cleaning up our rental property and selling that, closing up my chapter at my school, and in general, transitioning. It's a lot. But, I am enough. 

I'm not ready to write about what the ranchito has taught me in our years here, or to reflect on two decades at my school, but I did want to give you a glimpse of what's going on so you know the reason for the silence. 

It's not an unhappy silence—I'm so excited for the new possibilities the Bay Area will provide the two of us, the new growing climate to learn, the new places to explore—and it's only a temporary silence. A Thinking Stomach is not a place, but a part of me, and it goes where I go. 

This morning, a quiet fog settled over the garden and the canyon. I worked cleaning out a vegetable bed, and dug up the ginger that had grown from the single piece I planted this spring. After pulling it up and handling it's pearly newest shoots, my fingers smelled like candy. This life, even in the midst of change and anxiety, sleeplessness and hard, hard work, is sweet.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Portraits in a Garden: Christopher Lee

Loretta Allison, Spade and Seeds, and Christina Wenger, A Thinking Stomach, have set out to find gardeners who can teach us how to live better in our outdoor spaces. Home gardeners who have designed their own spaces—large or small—in ways that feed their homes and their spirits draw us to them. We figure we’re hungry to learn from them, so you might be also. Join us in our occasional series as we explore their spaces.

Text by Christina Wenger
Photography by David Kiang
Art Direction by Loretta Allison

A peaceful man with an easy smile, Christopher Lee has been playing with plants since he was a kid. Somewhere along the way, he got distracted and ended up earning his masters in health administration. After just a few months in an office, he realized he had made a mistake, and left to return to plants. He’s been working as a freelance flower designer ever since, and in the past five years, he’s also been piecing together his own personal paradise.

Christopher has turned blank apartmentlandia into a beautiful, food-producing, fish- and chicken-inhabited, manicured jungle. Before visiting Christopher’s home, I didn’t know jungles could be manicured. I learned the beautiful way.

From the street, the apartment complex does not look like anything could be hiding behind it. But, as I walk into the center parking area, I notice concrete cut out of the parking spots, replaced with trees and spider plants. Between two young trees sits an old bathtub, planted with trailing herbs. And then, wait a minute, in front of the door of the bottom floor apartment is a large colony of dendrobium orchids in peak bloom, an Asian ceramic crock housing a mini-pond and water lettuce, pots of elegant succulents. The deeper into the complex, the more interesting it becomes. 

Christopher leads me through a gate and into his side yard, where spider plants never looked so good. They grow thick and lush under newly planted shade trees acquired from LA’s free tree giveaway. One tree will grow to shade a seating area Christopher has built out of a succulent wall garden and mid-century modern chairs his neighbor discarded. The turquoise caning of the chairs plays off the glaucous grays, lavenders, and lime greens of the succulents. Behind us, cuttings of succulents Christopher salvages from jobs, neighbors, and friends relax on a table, waiting for him to arrange them into the living sculptures that populate his garden. I hear the sound of water running.

Just beyond us is another bathtub, this one full of small koi and water plants. I laugh. I didn’t expect a koi pond here, and certainly not one built out of an 80s-era bathtub, but it’s beautiful, and it works. The fishes’ tails write loopy poems of peace along the surface of the water. Beyond the koi tub, the garden opens up into a small backyard, where foliage creates layers of texture and color. The far edge is a carefully maintained bamboo forest, where Christopher cuts out any unwanted stalks and trims off the lower branches. He has tied the stalks with transparent fishing line to keep them at their most balanced angles. Below the lacey canopy of bamboo leaves are ferns, elephant ears, cymbidium orchids, and variegated spider plants. Green, green, green. Quiet.

A gray wooden fence surrounds the yard, and Christopher built a slightly raised deck—painted the same color—out of big-box store fencing; he painted both from brown to gray. The gray softens the space, greening the greens and playing with the muted palette of potted succulents. He has more of his turquoise-caned chairs and a small table on the deck. Strings of white Christmas lights create a transparent ceiling that must provide a lightning bug glow in the evenings. Nearby, another large Asian ceramic pot houses a still pond of duckweed and guppies.

But amidst the calm, there are more surprises. While I’m squatting to check out the bed closest to the back of the building, a shady, damp place full of food plants that I’m just beginning to parse out, Christopher, who has stepped away for a moment, returns carrying a bantam Brahma hen with a corresponding rooster scurrying behind him. The chickens live inside, but relax outside with Christopher in the backyard, where they scratch in the herb bed. He sets them down, and they walk confidently past me, right into the greens. The hen chuckles; the rooster looks alert.

While I watch them dig and peck, Christopher explains what’s in the bed. He shows me the Asian greens he’s grown from a seed mix, and the mint, Vietnamese coriander, and Vietnamese fish mint that trail throughout, all grown easily from cuttings. These herbs are all very invasive, but as they live in this bed, surrounded by concrete, they can sprawl without becoming a threat. Large-leafed oxalis sends up its trios of emerald hearts. Red-stemmed chard quilts with color. Bronze fennel and an overwintered tomato provide floppy, filigreed height. The bed is a beautiful mess.

Overall, hard work, discards, freebies, and a distinct and careful design sense have created this space. Christopher rescued many of his plants from his work and received cuttings of many others from friends. The bathtubs in the front and back are discards from the apartment building’s remodel; the outdoor furniture, the neighbor’s trash with a new slick of paint. Yet, there’s nothing cheap here—it’s all elegance.

I could stay here in this peaceful place for hours, but I have other commitments, so go I must. My heart rate has slowed here; I’m refreshed. I’ve been graced by the calm of green, the presence of a joyful, generous gardener, and surprise.

On that sunny, breezy day, I leave Christopher’s house with ideas and Vietnamese coriander cuttings.

Takeaways From Christopher’s Garden:
Ask your gardener friends for pass-along plants: Succulents, spider plants, Vietnamese coriander, mint, and fish mint grow easily from cuttings. Watch out though—mint and fish mint are invasive and unless they’ll be very contained, you may want to grow them only in a pot.
Use what others won’t or can’t: Rescue from the side of the street objects that could be beautiful with a little elbow grease—tubs, pots, furniture.
 Gray is good: Have you ever noticed how green everything looks on a rainy day? It isn’t just because of the water, but also the color. A backdrop of soft gray opens the space and plays well with both lush greens and glaucous succulents.
Get your water fix by building a pond in a pot. Set water lettuce in it and a few guppies or mosquito fish; keep it in a shady spot so it doesn’t overheat, and monitor water levels.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Eggplant Love: Saving Seeds

My favorite eggplant is Rosita. It's gorgeous. I'll show you pictures when my fruit that are currently swelling and coloring are harvested. But despite how special it is and how well it grows in my yard's climate, some years, it's nearly impossible to find commercial sources of seed for it. That's just one of the many reasons it's important for me to save my own seed.

My friend Loretta at Spade and Seeds gave me a Thai Long Green eggplant seedling this year, now growing in the same bed as my Rositas. It's a nice eggplant, too: productive, pretty, and mild. The seedling she gave me blossomed well before my Rositas, the only other eggplant variety in my yard (or on the block, for that matter), so I knew the first fruit it set was isolated and would produce true-to-type seed. I decided to save seed from that fruit to give to her as a thank you for the seedling.

So, I let it grow. And grow. And then it became firm and turned from its lovely soft green to a vibrant gold. The mature fruit means that the seed is now mature as well.

Once I picked it, I brought it inside my shed to work. Though you could do it this way, it'd likely be very tedious to dissect an eggplant, using tweezers to dig out every small seed. So, I tried to be more efficient. Using a box grater, I grated the bottom third of the fruit into a large bowl. Grating the flesh loosens it up enough for the flesh to separate from the seeds. Checking to make sure I had grated all the flesh that held seeds, I poked around in the flesh above the bottom third of the fruit, but the only seeds to be found were in the bottom.

I added some water the bowl to help separate the flesh and the seeds even more. The flesh floats in water, while healthy seeds sink, so the two fall away from each other. Here, my summer intern is holding the bowl up to the shed's ceiling so you can see how the seeds have settled on the bottom of the bowl.

We used our bare hands and scooped up most of the floating flesh. Some still remained, so I added water, swirled the mixture together, and while swirling, carefully poured off the water and the floating flesh. That left us with almost-clean seeds.

After another couple swirl-and-pours, the seeds were completely free of residual flesh.

We plopped the seeds on a labeled sheet of parchment paper (the seeds won't stick to it as they dry). 

When they're completely dry, I'll package them up and give them to Loretta. She'll be able to grow quite a few children of her gift to me next year. Later this summer, I'll repeat the process for an isolated Rosita fruit. Never will I be unable to find seed for my favorite eggplant.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tomato Love: Saving Seeds

When you find a tomato variety you just have to grow again because it is so delicious, or when you find an individual tomato plant that stands out above its sisters in health and productivity, you can save seeds to keep this plant's true-to-type children in your garden for years to come.

Here's how you do it:

Early in the season, when the flower buds are strong but not yet blooming, place a poly "wedding favor bag" around a flower bunch prevent any cross pollination. If a flower sets fruit inside the bag—remember, tomatoes are perfect flowers and can fertilize themselves—remove the bag and place a twist tie or similar on the stem. That is the fruit you'll save seeds from, as you know it will be pure, without any crossing with any other variety.

Once the fruit ripens to dead-, soft-, almost-exploding-all-over-itself-ripe, remove it from the plant and bring it somewhere you can work. Cut the fruit open and slip the pockets of seed and gel into a small bowl or mug, scooping out as many seeds as you can. Feel free to slurp up any remaining tongues of flesh you have left over after scooping out seeds.

Add a splash of water to the small bowl of seeds and gel so you have at least a quarter cup of liquid. Set the bowl somewhere warm but not in the sun—in an unused part of your kitchen (yeah, right), or perhaps in a shed or shady, protected place. Let the bowl set and grow mold. Depending on the temperature and time of year, that floating layer of mold can take anywhere from a day to three. If it's hot, like it is here in the summers, add water if it looks like the bowl is drying out before mold forms. Why the heck do you need to do this? Each seed in a fresh tomato sits in a tiny purse of its own gel that contains a hormone preventing the tomato from germinating inside the warm, wet fruit while it's still on the plant. However, after falling to the ground, a tomato rots, and that rotting process frees the seed from it's protective pillow, allowing it to germinate when the weather, moisture, and warmth are right. When we save seeds ourselves, we've got to emulate the rotting process by using very ripe fruit, collecting seed, and letting it mold over.

Once a thin layer of mold forms over the surface of the tomato-seed liquid, add a little more water to make it easier to work with, then carefully pour off most of the liquid. You'll have a collection of healthy seeds on the bottom of the bowl, where they've sunk. Add some more water to the bowl and swirl it around, then dump the contents of the bowl into a small, fine mesh strainer. Rinse the seeds under running water, agitating the seeds as necessary to free any clinging clumps of flesh. After the seeds are free of debris and drained, gently dump them on a piece of parchment paper.

Use pencil to label the variety name on the parchment paper, and place the paper somewhere inside your house to dry. A couple times a day, stir and break apart any clumps of seeds that form. The seeds are like velcro, and they'll want to stick to each other.

If you live somewhere warm and dry, like we do, the seeds will be thoroughly dry in a week or ten days; somewhere else, you may need to wait longer for the seeds to completely dry.

Once dry, place them in a labeled container that works for you (small sealing ziplock bags, little snapping boxes screws come in, tiny jars), and place that container somewhere even-temperatured and dark, where the seeds can survive with decent viability for seven years.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Gone Missing

I'm here.

I'm having a busy, exciting, delicious summer.

I'll be back soon.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Planting Calendar

On several occasions, people have asked what to plant when. But here's the thing—what to plant when is very dependent upon the climate of an individual garden. I can plant my onions out in January when people in other parts of the world are wondering if they'll ever see the soil under the snow again. That's an extreme example, so here's one closer to home. I pass gardens on my way to work all the time during the schoolyear. My school is about 25 miles away and 850 feet in elevation lower than where I live. One my favorite gardens I see on the way to work has corn sprouting each year in February. February! At my house, in the beginning of February, we still get light frosts. Other people nearby may have more shade than I do, or heavier soil, or be tucked between two hills.

The essential lesson of gardening is experimentation. That demands rule-breaking, curiosity, and a willingness to occasionally bet on the wrong horse. Every seed packet and book in the world will tell you that direct seeding in mounds ("hills") is the best option for cucurbits (melons, squash, etc), but I struggle to keep mounded soil moist enough in the warm months I plant them. This year, I planted in used six packs, and as soon as the little buggers had true leaves, planted them out in even, not mounded soil. My cucurbits had a better start this year than ever. (Of course, now, they're suffering because I haven't been watering enough. Shame on me. Note to self, melons and squash need lots and lots of water.) I'm sharing what usually works for me based on lots of failures. If your climate is identical in every way to mine—which, come on, you know it isn't—this may work for you. If not, please note that this calendar doesn't look like others you'd find in a book. In other words, throw the rules out, think about your soil, your sun, your water, and other factors, and take chances on when to plant. Keep in mind, the difference between year to year can through a wrench in garden planning, too. Be ready to fail; winning will be all the sweeter.

Chitting: Letting potatoes develop sprouts by exposing them to light.
Direct seed: Plant by seed directly into the garden soil.
Heat and light: Plant in either a makeshift or actual greenhouse that is powered by the sun or electricity.
Plant out: Plant seedlings into the garden soil.
Six packs: Small six-cell plastic containers used to sell six seedlings at a time; I wash used six packs and reuse them over and over.
Slips: Shoots that grow off of sweet potatoes that will eventually become the plants you plant out in the garden.

Direct seed:
Salad greens (arugula, mache, lettuces)

With heat and light:

Plant out:
Onion seedlings (I purchase these)

Start sweet potatoes with a toes in glasses of water on windowsills

Direct seed:
Salad greens (arugula, mache, lettuces, endives, and chicories)
Cooking greens (chard and mustard)
Pole beans

With heat and light:

Direct seed:
Pole beans
Cooking greens (amaranth, chard, mustard)

In six packs:
Squash, melons, and cucumbers

Plant out:

Direct seed:

In six packs:
Squash and melons

Plant out:
Sweet potato slips
Tomato seedlings
Eggplant seedlings
Pepper seedlings
Tomatillo seedlings
Squash, melon, and cucumber seedlings

Direct seed:
Asian long beans
Lima beans

Plant out:
Sweet potato slips
Squash and melon seedlings

Direct seed:
Asian long beans
Lima beans

There's a lot to eat this month, but not much to plant. Planting, for me, starts next month again.

In six packs:

Direct seed:
Pole beans
Endives and chicories

In six packs:

Place planting potatoes somewhere bright to begin chitting

Direct seed:
Endives and chicories
Salad greens
Fava beans

Plant out:
Broccoli seedlings
Rutabaga seedlings
Kale seedlings
Cabbage seedlings

Plant out:
Broccoli seedlings
Cabbage seedlings

Sit back and enjoy the harvests. This, for me at least, is the easiest garden month.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Walnuts and Time

This is the third year I've made nocino, and as long as I have access to my friend's tree full of green—immature—walnuts, I imagine I'll make it every year. The first year I made it, I followed to a T the directions a friend gave me. Months later, when I tasted the result, first I fell in love, and second I realized it had more citrus than necessary and it didn't need the cinnamon (blasphemy according to some Italians). So, last year, I tweaked the recipe a bit, cutting back the citrus, removing the cinnamon entirely, deepening with a few coffee beans and a whole vanilla bean. I was happy with the result and am making it the same way this year. But, who knows? Maybe next year I'll replace some of the vodka with brandy and the cloves with allspice. The tannic solidity of a green walnut invites curiosity.

My friend who says to me, "Name your price for nocino," also says, "It tastes like Christmas." Another friend made a double batch last year to use in his version of Black Manhattans—his double batch didn't make it through a year.

Nocino fits in the category of Italian digestifs called Amaro, which means "bitter." And it is bitter, but it's also silky, and rich, sweet, and oaky. It tastes like what Ents would drink at a party. I love it.

To make nocino the way I did this year, you will need:

6 coffee beans
7 whole cloves
1 whole vanilla bean
3 1"x2" strips of orange or Meyer lemon rind, colored part only (use a peeler)
2 1/2 cups organic sugar
1 liter vodka
30 green, smaller than golf-ball walnuts

Additionally, you'll need a very large jar, gloves, a sharp knife, and a cutting board you can stain without feeling bad about it.

In your large jar, swirl together the first six ingredients.

Wear those gloves, and working on the old cutting board, quarter the green skinned walnuts. You'll find the nutmeat inside is completely translucent, like an invisible, watery brain, and what will become the shell is pale and chalk-like. As you cut the walnuts, drop them into the vodka mixture. Once finished, swirl the ingredients together one more time, then seal the jar.

Place the jar in your "experiment closet," which you probably have, because you're making this recipe in the first place. (Mine is a closet in our bedroom that contains many things for its small size, but mostly large jars in various stages of steeping sweet, aromatic, or both sweet and aromatic ingredients in alcohol bases.) Leave the jar there for eight or ten weeks, swirling it when you remember to do so. Over time, the sugar will dissolve and the tannins in the green walnuts will stain the liqueur deep brown-black.

After the eight or ten weeks have passed, carefully strain the liqueur, first through a colander for the big chunks, then through clean fabric or a coffee filter to remove any other grit. Pour the strained mixture into a clean jar or bottle, and let it age in the "experiment closet" for another few months. Try it around Thanksgiving. Keep trying it at different ages.

My goal is to keep a small bottle of each year for as long as I can, so when I sample the year's batch in the late fall, I can taste it in a flight of years, to see how age changes the product. I'm sure from year to year, I'll play with various aromatic ingredients, yet none of those tinkerings will weaken the dark, mysterious soul of this liqueur, a soul that centers on only two ingredients: green walnuts and time.