Friday, April 25, 2014

Portraits in a Garden: Rosa Leon and Blaise Delacroix

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 Paul Delmont
Art Direction by Loretta Allison

Slender Blaise leans back, correcting Rosa. “No, I didn’t think I liked eggplant back then. But, I was trying to impress you, and when you asked me if I wanted us to start seeing more of each other, I told you, ‘I already planted the eggplant.’” Rosa grins. That version of their story works for her. Their garden is their story; their garden is the two of them.

It’s hidden behind an unkempt hedge, their garden. From the street, a passerby can see the pointed corners of an old house spying over the bushes, but not much else. Blaise Delacroix and Rosa Leon have a magical world behind that hedge.

The house itself was built in 1904, but even before the house, the original owners of the quarter acre property built in 1895 a foundation-less cabin to live in while the house went up. The old buildings carry a presence with them that old buildings everywhere do—a whisper of stories, a creak of wisdom. Being there feels like being somewhere I’ve read about in a place far away. Little snippets of Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms echo in the pecan tree branches; the sloping views down the hills evoke descriptions of Rome from James’s Portrait of a Lady. But this isn’t a garden built solely for beauty, in which it is rich, but it is the source of scent, of flavor, of food, of income.

“It all started with an attempt to recycle,” Rosa tells me. She had lost her job as a chemist at a large, local scientific company, and was looking for something to do to earn money. Blaise had come home from working on a special effects film project with gallons of almost pristine soybean oil that he had used to create a moody, darkly reflective set. Yet, now this oil had lost its use for film, and no one wanted to eat huge vats of used soybean oil; the waste inspired Rosa—soap! Her first soaps used up that oil, along with scents, colors, and textures from her extensive herb gardens. Nowadays, Rosa avoids soy oil, and bases her soaps on more local ingredients—goat milk and beer, to name a few—but still relies on her garden to provide much of what makes her products special. She also blends homegrown herbal teas and various other cosmetics. At local farmers markets and soon online, Rosa and Blaise sell what they grow and create under the name Pine Street Products.

Skirting around the front steps of the old house are winter-bare rose canes, fluffed up with crinolines of herbs of all sorts: thymes, Syrian oregano, Egyptian walking onions, nettles. There’s rosemary everywhere. Later in the spring, the yard must buzz with flowers and bees. Throughout the front yard, in no recognizable pattern, grow citrus trees and vegetables in raised beds. Along the side of the house lives a cast of plant-characters: the too-tall pecan tree, fava beans falling drunkenly all over themselves, sharp-elbowed peach trees, and silver-shouldered Calimyrna figs.

In the back are more raised vegetable beds. The couple’s two small dogs mill around our feet and between the beds. One of them, a veggie lover, will crawl into a bed when the carrots mature and start snacking away, if Rosa and Blaise aren’t vigilant. Planted among the vegetables are more herbs for the soaps and teas: feverfew, woad, nasturtiums, and lots of calendulas. Blaise says he’s started seeds for a special variety of calendula, “High either in the calen or in the dula, whatever it is that makes calendula do its thing.” When the flowers bloom, Rosa collects the petals, dries them, and steeps them in olive or almond oil to create massage oils.

While we stand in the sunny backyard, several monarchs flutter through, reflecting the orange of the loaded Minneola tree. We talk about gardens and food. Blaise tells me about the chayote—which he calls mirliton—that grew in his hometown New Orleans. “If someone grows a mirliton on either end of the block and you live in the middle, you don’t need your
own vines—they’ll come to you.” He grew up eating them steamed and sliced sideways, the inside scooped out and mixed with onion, garlic, green peppers, crab meat, and shrimp, the mixture of which was then stuffed back into the shell. Rosa tries to keep to a vegan diet though, so now they’ll stuff them with saffron rice. Or, they’ll substitute young fruit for green papaya in a Thai salad, a recipe they both love. Their current vine grows in the summer over a patio, through a bay leaf tree, and in the peak of its growing season, along an elevated trellis across the yard.

“Every season has a joy,” says Rosa, when I ask what their garden favorites are. Blaise adds, “The star of the season is never what you plan on. It’s always a surprise.” But, then both get specific. “Tomatoes,” says Blaise; “Artichokes,” Rosa. Evidence of her love for artichokes is all over the yard, for the seafoam ballgowns of the thistle relative tower in various corners, ready to make moues at each other behind silver-leafed fans later in the spring. Rosa divides suckers—clones of the parent plant—off the artichoke plants that perform best, and plants them wherever there’s space.  

The couple invites me inside for a slice of Blaise’s king cake, spattered the traditional Mardi Gras colors with berry puree, candied orange peels, and mint leaves. One slice becomes two as we talk at the dining table. Behind me, a large cabinet is full of jars stuffed with herbs, dried chayote leaves, dried citrus rounds, calendula petals, all the homegrown ingredients of soaps, oils, and teas. If a laptop weren’t sitting in a nearby corner, I could be sitting in the house a hundred years ago.

Rosa tells me that Blaise has changed his mind about eggplant. Now, she serves it stuffed with equal amounts of white miso paste and minced fresh ginger, with an added touch of sesame oil, then broiled until a little caramelized. Says Blaise, “It’s really good.”

Takeaways From Rosa and Blaise’s Garden:
  • Pay attention to your irrigation and plan it thoughtfully. Mistakes in your irrigation can cost money and lost plants. Additionally, consider what you can and should spend on water and don’t plant what will require more than you can afford.
  • Use creeping edible herbs as groundcovers among your ornamentals. Tangle up your food and beauty.
  • Don’t bite off more work than you can chew; think carefully about how much time you really have and are willing to spend on maintaining the garden. The garden isn’t a one-shot deal, but needs constant work.
  • Plant by seed—it’s more cost efficient and allows for interesting diversity—but choose local seeds or seeds from climates similar to our own.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Let's Play Make Believe

Adults are as bad as teenagers in judging each other. Recently, the following phrases have crossed my ears:
"When people bring Trader Joe's wine, we make fun of them. Not in front of their faces of course, but after they leave."
"I can't believe she wore that to this."
And the perpetual, "Well I guess it's okay if you like that sort of thing."
Weren't we all beat up enough by high school to not perpetuate this pretention? Don't we all know that for everything we think we are better at, someone else thinks we're worse at? Can't we just get over ourselves? As badly as I wish it weren't true, I'm guilty of pretentions, and am weighted by the judgements I pass on others, prejudices that sit heavy on my shoulders, holding me back from swirling, free, joy-filled appreciation of these miracles that live on this planet with me.

And that is why I love the Renaissance Faire. So rarely in life do adults get an opportunity to play make-believe, especially in a safe place without judging. This year, I dressed up for the first time ever, as about the least authentic gypsy one could imagine, and no one mocked my lack of authenticity; in fact, I received compliments on my wrong-culture, wrong-era skirt. I felt amazing.

I go once every year to revel in people being whoever or whatever they want to be for the day. This year I saw Waldo ("found him!") and a silvery-princessy-looking creature sitting together in the shade. I've seen fairies, beasts, all sorts of animals, knights, a knight in a cow costume complete with udders, Puritans, witches, witchy-Puritans, pirates, time travellers. At the fair, people get to tell the story of who they want to be at that moment, with no need for permanance, no need to feel embarrassed for wanting to be that person, and so little threat of judgement. It's seriously joyful.

Come with me—right now—and see if you can keep from smiling.

It's hard work not thinking you're better than someone else. My yearly dose of renfairing is one way I remind myself of how freeing lack of pretention is.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Smidge Obsessed

They are drought tolerant, in love with my sandy-gritty-alkaline soil, and easy with a major caveat: the gophers love them too.

White Hot and others.

Cosmic Celebration

Cosmic Celebration from above.

Miles Ahead.

Navajo Velvet.

Mad World.



Private Eye.

Thornbird again.

Safari Sunset.
I want more.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Saving Beans

Tonight, I'll be teaching a group of home gardeners how to keep bean varieties pure. These gardeners are helping me grow out and maintain the bean collection I inherited last week. As I was putting materials together to share tonight, I realized I should share the same information here so the information is public, available to any who'd like it.

Basic rules of seed saving:
1.     Do everything you can to ensure the plants are healthy. They’re the mothers of your seeds!
2.     Collect seeds from early flowers rather than later. The younger plant is less likely to experience mutations that may negatively affect your seed stock. I like to keep seed from the second or third sets of flowers on bean plants.
3.     Mark fruit you’re keeping for seed with twist ties or other tools. This is particularly important if you’re using mechanical isolation (see below).
4.     Do not keep seeds from malformed fruits or sick plants. Always, you are trying to preserve the ideal.

How to isolate:
Beans are perfect flowers and usually pollinate themselves; therefore, many people do not worry about protecting them from cross-pollination. However, we live in an area with lots of bumblebees who often tear open flowers to reach food. I have had little success maintaining bean purity without some form of isolation. Each of the following forms of isolation has proven successful for me.

Physical: This is the easiest form of isolation. If you’re the only person growing beans on the block, and you grow only one variety of bean, you’ve already isolated your variety so that the seed will be pure.

Mechanical: Since I grow lots of beans at one time, this is the strategy I most frequently use. It’s fiddly, but it works. I gently bag flower stems with organza drawstring bags before the flowers open. If a flower on the blossom spray has already opened, I snap that flower off and cover the rest. This guarantees that whatever beans develop on a flower stem will be isolated from cross-pollination and will have pure seed. Try to collect seed from as many plants of your variety as possible—the more the better to help maintain varietal genetic health. Once the pods have set, remove the bag to allow the pods to grow normally and mark the flower stem with a twist-tie or similar.

Temporal: Use time to help you isolate beans. You might try growing your variety in the fall instead of having it share a yard this spring with another variety. With temporal isolation, your goal is to make sure the variety blooms at a time no other bean nearby is blooming.

Wait until the pods are dry and crackly before removing pods from the vine. After you shuck the seed, let the seed dry further on a plate until they are dry enough to “crack” rather than “smash.” Once seed stock is thoroughly dry, place in a ziplock bag or other airtight container, and freeze for three days to kill any bean seed maggot larvae. After you remove the bag from the freezer, let it defrost completely before unsealing it. This helps keep the moisture balanced so there aren’t extreme shifts in moisture, which greatly limit the seeds’ viability.

I keep all my dry beans in lidded jars in a dark cabinet. Keep them away from shifts in temperature and light. You can also keep your seed beans in the freezer—that helps keep in them viable for longer.

Bean Vocabulary:
Bush: Low-growing variety with no twining stems.
Cornfield: Pole variety suitable for growing in a cornfield, up corn stalks.
Common: Phaseolus vulgaris, snap and dry beans.
Cutshort: Descriptor for varieties whose seeds are packed so tightly inside the pod that the ends are “cut short.”
Dry: syn. “Eating,” descriptor for beans are grown for their dried seeds, not their green pods.
Greasy: Descriptor for varieties that lack the normal super-short, fine hairs on the pods that make them appear velvety—these pods appear “greasy” because they are naturally hairless.
Half-runner: Medium-height variety that has some twining stems. (This is confusing terminology, as a runner bean is a different species, Phaseolus coccineus, but a half runner is still the same species as a common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris.)
Lima: Phaseolus lunatus, a different species than common bean. Limas grow better in heat than common beans do.
Pole: Tall, twining variety that needs trellises and support.
Runner: Phaseolus coccineus, a different species than common bean that won’t set pods in heat, but does grow beautiful, tall plants with red, white, or orange flowers.
Shelly: A stage between snap and dry when the pods are mostly dry and the seeds inside full-size; remove the beans from the dry pods, and eat them this stage after braising them in butter and stock. Mmmmm.
Snap: syn. “String,” descriptor for varieties grown for their fresh pods. Many dry beans make decent snaps, too.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

One Fruit, Two Marmalades

Let's start with the marmalade that's a sonofabitch. How could that be?

Think of it this way: A Spaniard, a Basque, and a Scot walk into a bar and plays drinking games until she hits the floor, because she's only one but she's been drinking for three.

That's this marmalade.

It's very assertive in flavor and dark in color, but when spread on toast, it snaps and sparkles. The smoke from the scotch and the heat from the peppers add to the fiery effect. Though I haven't tried it this way yet, I think it would work really well as a glaze for pork or chicken.

Seville Orange Marmalade with Chiles and Scotch
You will need:
2 1/4 pounds Seville (bitter) oranges
juice of one lemon
1 cup muscovado sugar
1 cup brown sugar
7 cups sugar
3 piment d'espelette dried peppers (or similar, medium-heat peppers), split, seeds removed, and minced
3 ounces smoky, peaty scotch
(Cooking directions are below the ingredients for the second marmalade.)

The second marmalade is more refined but still pleasantly drawly. Without making the marmalade any more alcoholic, the brown sugar and vanilla bean amplify the bourbon.  Slather this on whole wheat cream scones or tender, fluffy biscuits. Use it as sweetener in a modified Old Fashioned.

Seville Orange Marmalade with Vanilla and Bourbon
You will need:
2 1/4 pounds Seville (bitter) oranges
juice of one lemon
1 cup brown sugar
8 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
3 ounces bourbon

To make either marmalade:
Wash oranges well, cut them in half, and juice them. Don't discard the seeds or the juice; you'll need both. Pull off any membranes that still hang on the insides of the peels, and slice each peel cup in half, then crosswise into strips as thin or wide as you like. Place the rinds, juice, and 10 cups of cold filtered water in a large bowl. Tie the seeds in cheesecloth or a tea bag and drop the package in the bowl. Let sit overnight.

Pour the mixture into a large pot, bring to a boil, then simmer until the peel is very tender and the contents have reduced by 1/3. This takes a while: over an hour, maybe up to two. With a slotted spoon, fish out the bag of seeds and press it against the side of the pot to release any remaining pectin. Discard the seed bag.

Stir in lemon juice, the chile or vanilla bean, and the sugars. Raise the heat and stir until you've dissolved the sugar. Boil for 20 minutes or so, until the marmalade reaches setting point. Let cool for a minute or two, stir in the scotch or bourbon, and can according to USDA directions.

Both recipes make approximately 6 1/2 pints of marmalade.