Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Garden is my Calendar

School starts tomorrow, which means it is time for the Peruvian Apple Cactus (Cereus repandus, Peruvian pitaya) to begin its nightly bloom.

The afternoon before blossom.

The dawn of blossom.

After sunrise.

By midmorning.

The afternoon after blossom.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

This Summer's Intern Speaks

It's that time again: my summer garden intern writes a post about her time working in the yard. I was very lucky to have my friend Sarah help me in the garden this summer, and I asked her to write about what she experienced. Here are her words.

Text and Photos by Sarah Emery Bunn

My immediate and gut reaction response to the call for an intern with A Thinking Stomach was an immediate "Yes, ME! I wanna do that!" and I had no hesitation whatsoever in contacting Christina to see if she'd accept me even though I wasn't going to be around for the entire summer. Happily, she did, and here I am to write about my five-week experience this summer in her fabulous garden.

I got extremely polar responses when I talked about doing this garden internship and explained what it was about. It was either an enthusiastic "Wow, how COOL!" or a slightly blank look followed by, "Um, so you're giving this person free labor? Wanna come weed my garden for free too?" I think you could tell a lot about a person by their response. I guess I can see why people might be puzzled by the idea, but for me it was a positive and certain YES, I want to do that!

Some reasons why I applied for the job:
  • to change up my routine a bit
  • to be outdoors in the sunshine
  • to do physical work and burn some calories
  • to spend time around dirt, plants, food, friend, not necessarily in that order
  • to have exposure to and gain knowledge from someone who knows more than I do about something
  • to take advantage of my early-riser habit
  • ...and omg have you tasted her nectarines??
I do have my own garden space I could rather have spent this time in, but I know I won't do it at home, I just know this about myself. I have the space and enough knowledge to get by, but for some reason I've never gotten the kick out of doing it myself that I thought I "should". The vegetable garden I have is populated with zero care or volunteer plants entirely, hello summer basil and tomatoes. But being in the garden with a friend, it turns out, is a different story.

While we worked we talked—a lot—but it was also nice that sometimes we just worked side by side in companionable silence. I have learned many things about vegetable growing, orchard care, ornamental gardening, and seed saving—but I have also gotten to know a friend much better, and I feel that the connection was mutual. Our chat was easy and balanced, and our topics ranging both wide and deep. In the weeks since the internship ended, I have missed our mornings together.

I have enjoyed putting myself at the service of someone else. She told me what to do, I did it, she checked to make sure I was doing it correctly, and it was all done in a mutually respectful and trustful manner. Most of us spend our leisure time with complete autonomy regarding what we do at any moment; we are in charge of our own selves and what we do next. Allowing someone else to know better sometimes is a smart and healthy way to learn, and I also think it is emotionally and spiritually beneficial to give over that control of the moment to someone you trust. I am a big advocate of volunteerism in your community as well, and know from experience in other parts of my life that giving your time, your talents, and yourself to a cause is a very rewarding activity.

One of the other things I enjoyed about the internship is the newness and anti-routine of it. I loved waking up and having absolutely no idea what I'd be doing that morning. It's so fun, it's one of the things I like about having a personal trainer at the gym—I know I'll be working out tomorrow morning, but I don't know exactly what exercises I will do. I don't know if I will like it, I don't know if I will be good at it, or if it will be hard or easy or if I will feel or look silly. It makes a nice change from knowing pretty much exactly what you'll spend most of your day doing, and knowing you know how to do it—which can be much of life when you get to be a grown-up. 

Practically speaking, here are some of my favorite projects that we did:

Turning over the compost pile. No fancy wire bins or wooden containers, it is just a big pile of stuff at the back of the yard. It is kept watered and every so often it is time to turn it over with a pitchfork to find all the good dirt underneath. It was super entertaining to watch, like a real live Nature program - as we turned it over, the pile was teeming, squirming, creeping with life. Worms, roly-poly bugs, spiders, albino beetles, lizards, mice. All the mockingbirds in the neighborhood came over to watch hungrily and take their turn at the buffet. Every so often we'd just stop and squat down and watch the critters with fascination, all different kinds busybodying around in shock at the bright light, trying to find their way over to the turned over pile of compost next door.

Sorting Garlic/Beans/Shallots for Eating/Storing/Seed. That was nice because we got to sit in the shade and chat while we did it. I never knew beans could be so beautiful.

Digging up the front lawn for the bearded iris bed. This was probably the hardest work physically. Dig, dig, squat, pull off layer of grass, shake out and heave away, dig around with your fingers in the remaining dirt to get all the roots out. All in all some of my favorite parts of this summer in the garden were the most difficult in terms of physical labor. Raking and squatting and digging and bending and sweating in the sun. I hurt all the time, in a good way, and joked frequently to anyone that would listen that if I didn't have a fantastic booty by the end of the summer I was going to ask for my money back!

Cycling the worm bin. Kitchen scraps are thrown into a layered plastic bin contraption acquired from the County, which was seeded with a few "starter" worms, but is now abundant with squirmies of all kinds. The worms breed and poop and make this rich, amazing soil that falls down into the bottom bin. It was like magic. We soaked peat and made a environment for the next floor of wormy tenants. That was fun, a real get-your-hands-dirty project, as the soaked peat required kneading and rubbing to make sure all the dried chunks of it were saturated, like rubbing butter and flour into pastry dough.

Thank you, Christina and your Thinking Stomach, for the opportunity to work with you in your garden and to learn from you, and especially for sharing your self and time with me. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Hot, Buzzed, and Pickled

This is what the melon and squash bed looks like in the morning.

It's hot. On days like these, it feels like the only thing moving is bees.

Once the morning ends and the day heats, I'm inside planning, planning, planning for the almost-here-school-year, but the trees and plants keep producing, so I have to find ways to keep the goodies. I developed this recipe for pickled figs almost exactly this same time last year, and now have made it again this summer with figs from my young Kadota and Black Jack trees, as well as some additions from a friend's tree. Like last year, it is too hot for me to want to hot-water-bath can them, so I tuck them unsealed into the refrigerator, where they last for a long time.

These pickles are delicious: sweet and spicy, winey and herbal. This past winter, I cracked open my last jar to go with cheeses and cocktail nibbles, and it felt like we were eating the concentrated flavors and scents that happen around here in August. In other words, these pickled figs aren't shy.

Spicy Pickled Figs
My own recipe.

You will need:
1 pound of fresh, unblemished figs
1 quart water
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
about 3 inches of orange zest, peeled off the orange in a long strip with a vegetable peeler
1 small head of fresh fennel seed (or, a scant half teaspoon of seed)
1 ripe jalapeno type chile, split, seeds removed, and sliced into long strips.

To make the figs:
Rinse the summer dust off the figs and place them in a medium sized pot. Pour the water and the salt into the pot, and bring the water to a high simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes to remove some of the natural latex in the fruit. Remove from heat, pour out the fruit into a colander, and drain, leaving the fruit in the colander while you move on to the next step.

Place the brown sugar, white sugar, and vinegar in the pot and stir over medium heat until the sugars have dissolved. Add the figs from the colander, the orange zest, fennel seed, and as many of the chile strips as you like (based on your level of spice-pleasure). Bring the mixture to a simmer, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for an hour. Remove from heat.

Using a slotted spoon, scoop the fruit out and into three half pint jars, spreading the fruit and flavorings evenly between them. Carefully pour the syrup over the fruit into the jars, making sure each piece of fruit is covered.

If you would like to hot water bath can the figs so they'll be shelf stable, you may do so by following the directions the USDA provides for home preservation here. Otherwise, since the mixture is high in acetic acid (the vinegar) and sugar, the jars will last, lidded tightly, indefinitely in the refrigerator. Do not leave unsealed (non-water bath treated) jars at room temperature.