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Blueberry Season Opens – and Closes 4 Days Later

How harsh was last winter in Northwest Indiana? It killed off half the blueberries. Monday the season opened; it usually lasts a month. This year it ends on Friday.

Both of my cherry trees blossomed this spring, but one tree didn’t produce. I only got to pick two or three times and now they’re gone.

This is terrible news for fans of the Muffin King™. (I am both the king and the only fan – but look at these pretty babies.)

Royal Blueberry Muffins

I’ve always used frozen berries for my muffins; they work perfectly well. But on Monday I headed up to Little Holland (DeMotte, Indiana) where all the blueberry farms are, for Opening Day. I chose Eenigenburg’s Blueberries, the original blueberry farm in the area since 1943, because they have a website and are easy to get to. I couldn’t have been happier with the experience. The owners are very friendly and helpful, they know their berries and their customers, and their prices are good, $3 a pound for fresh-picked, $1.90 for U-pick. Since it was Opening Day the only option was U-pick, but they sent out a granddaughter to help me and we got five pounds in 20 minutes, gabbing the whole time. They tied a small plastic bucket around my waist so I could pick with both hands; that’s definitely the way to do it. (I should try it for cherries, too.)

Her mother told me it would be a short season this year because of the hard winter, but by Wednesday she had to post a message on their website, “Closing Friday.” I was lucky I got there in time! Now I kind of wish I hadn’t sold three of my five pounds to Scott’s family; I had no idea what five pounds of blueberries look like or how fast I’d use them.

Monday night Scott came over for dinner, so I made my mother’s fruit salad – though I’ve only kept two ingredients of hers, bananas and mini-marshmallows. She used canned fruit, but all mine is fresh. I grilled some Italian sausage, threw together a marinara sauce with my own garden herbs, and we feasted.

Tuesday I baked some muffins. Now I have about a pound of berries left and the season is almost over!

I’d thought I’d buy an extra five pounds and freeze them to tide me over this winter, but no such luck. I’d better freeze what I have left and hope next year will be better.

We’ve all heard of global warming, but when it starts killing off Indiana blueberries, that there’s serious! Sheesh already.

Today, Thursday, the Eenigenburgs called everyone on their customer list and gave us the news, “come ‘n’ get ’em or forever hold your peace.” That was nice; it’s why I wanted to buy from local farmers in the first place. Who wants to give all their money to Con-Agra? I will go back next season.

Turns out blueberries don’t grow just anywhere. I asked the owners why DeMotte and Wheatfield have so many blueberry farms and we talked about the sand that blows south off Lake Michigan. (The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is just 30 miles away.)

Indiana Dunes, on the south shore of Lake Michigan.

Indiana Dunes, on the south shore of Lake Michigan.

It has the right pH for blueberries, she said, though some years they have to apply lime (ground natural limestone) to reduce the alkalinity. I told her my Unca Deed, who lives about 15 miles south, used to sell and spread lime for his neighbors. Maybe he sold some to them back in the day – all the more reason to buy from Eenigenburg’s.

South of DeMotte, the sandy soil quickly changes to black loam – river muck from ancient flooding of the Kankakee and Iroquois Rivers – so Unca Deed grows the corn and soybeans most people think of as typical Indiana crops. Farmers grow what their soil is suited for, and it’s quite a science to match the soil type with the best genetic strain of beans or corn; the exact soil composition varies from one field to the next, and even within a field, because the dirt was there before the property lines were drawn.

On my way home I drove past Unca Deed’s farm and reminisced, but I couldn’t stop because a thunderstorm was coming and my dog Luke was in the backyard. Later that night we got the summer version of last winter’s polar vortex; temps went down to 50º and haven’t really warmed up yet.

All this climate change doesn’t seem to be discouraging the weeds in my garden one bit. They don’t need science to tell them where to plant themselves, right in my back yard.

On the other hand, my tomato plants are going great guns and I’m expecting a bumper crop; they have dozens of green fruits on their branches, but they’re waiting for warmer weather before they ripen. Tomatoes like sun and temperatures up to 85º. We’ll get back there in a few days, and I’ll get to bite into my all-time favorite food, a big juicy tomato from the garden.

Summertime and the livin’ is easy – except for the polar vortex, thunderstorms and tornadoes. I would rather spend the warm months here than anywhere else on earth. Indiana isn’t a glamorous place, but to me it’s all about the soil – which comes from the water – which first attracted the Dutch (and my British forebears) to these river plains.++

The Iroquois River in my home county; photo by the United States Geological Survey, 2000.

The Iroquois River in my home county; photo by the U.S. Geological Survey, 2000.

The Simplest Garden Can Be a Joy

The lilies are getting ready to pop. They don't last long, but they are glorious. (Josh Thomas)

The lilies are getting ready to pop. They don’t last long, but they are glorious. (Josh Thomas)

A few weeks ago I went to Indianapolis to see my bishop for our first official visitation, and she asked me a question I’ve been pondering ever since. “What do you do for recreation?”

I didn’t have an answer at first, but finally I said, “I garden.”

A bishop does not like to hear that her ministers have no recreations. Working all the time does not make a person healthy, but the clergy are prone to be consumed by their jobs, so they must have ways to relax and do something completely different, or they’ll probably develop burnout. Their job is demanding; people get sick, have emergencies, they die, and priests and deacons are apt to get calls at all hours of the day and night. I am only a lay minister without parish responsibilities, but dailyoffice.org is my full-time job, and I too receive pastoral demands in various forms. Bishop Cate was glad when I could tell her I go outside and do something physical, even just weeding my garden. It’s remarkably therapeutic.

So we talked for a few minutes about gardening. She doesn’t have much light where she lives, though it’s next to a forest and probably beautiful. I have good light in places and not so good in others.

I cannot say my yard is beautiful. But I can say it gives me joy.

Humble home. Annuals grow well in their sunny concrete pots, but the spaces on either side of the porch don't get enough light. (Josh Thomas)

Humble home. Annuals grow well in their sunny concrete pots, but the spaces on either side of the porch don’t get enough light. (Josh Thomas)

Of course I love planting, and enjoy the results of my labors – the rebirth in early spring of perennials (oregano, dill, chives), the progress of flowers, the blossoming of cherry trees, the first strawberries of the year. But it isn’t all about the harvest, it’s all about the process.

Some weeks it’s all about the weeds! And mowing the grass, which I do not enjoy. I’ve developed plant allergies in the past few years and have to remember to take a pill a half hour before I go out. I got all my planting done on time this year, then in mid-May I took off for eight days to visit friends in Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana. We didn’t get any rain here the entire trip, and I was a little worried for my plants. When I got home, most things had survived, the all-important impatiens on my covered side porch and the tomatoes back by the alley. I lost a few marigolds and petunias, but I felt relieved when I got home.

Since then (a little over two weeks) I’ve been out every day but yesterday, when we finally got an inch of rain. Today it was time to start mowing again. I only have a quarter of an acre, but I have to take two days to finish cutting the grass because my nose takes off for the races and I sneeze a lot. The weeds are mostly under control now; I’ve finally gotten around to working in the front yard with its problematic northern exposure. Much of what I planted there years ago needs more sunshine, and maybe I will do some transplanting after the peonies are done. Thus I doubt my front yard will ever be picture-perfect – but oh, I do enjoy the back. That’s where I live in the summertime, on my covered side porch and in the back.

My favorite place in this house. I have hanging baskets of impatiens all around, the same every year since I bought this place. I found what I wanted the first time out, so I stick with them. (Josh Thomas)

My favorite place in this house. I have hanging baskets of impatiens all around, the same every year since I bought this place. I found what I wanted the first time out, so I stick with them. (Josh Thomas)

It’s late but I will plant some gladiolus bulbs again this year. I cut back my lone surviving rosebush; it has a couple dozen blooms on it right now. I will trim it some more and make my first attempt at starting new bushes from cuttings. I’ve seen online that you can stick a fresh cutting in a potato and start it that way, or use growth hormone, which sounds creepy to me – or even dip the cut end in honey and plant that. So I will try the latter, and see if it fills in the dead space where I wasted $40 on rosebushes that didn’t survive. It will be exciting if the honey trick works; I will be proud of myself.

Today I took a notion to saw off the lower limbs on a pine tree planted on the west side; it’s probably too close to the house and I worry that the roots will crack my foundation, which already seeps water every time there’s a heavy rain. But I didn’t chop the whole thing down today, I started with eight or nine lower limbs that are in the way when I mow. Then I was shocked by how fast that tree has grown in the ten years I have lived here; it’s taller than my two-story house now, as is the blue spruce in the front yard, which I have never trimmed.

My little pruning made me realize I have cut back every tree I own except that blue spruce. There are only eight trees, but I am nobody’s idea of a lumberjack. And I don’t really know what I’m doing; I bought this house with no idea of how to take care of the greenery or how much work it would be. A decade later I am still learning. But surprisingly, I enjoy the work.

There is no one to tell me which limbs to cut, which bushes to try where or how to arrange things. It’s all learning by doing, trial and error. But oh, how delicious homegrown tomatoes are! And oh, what I’ve learned to bake with sour cherries.

Cherry cheese danish, before applying the top crust, 2012. (Josh Thomas)

Cherry cheese danish, before applying the top crust, 2012. My cherries start ripening about the 4th of July. (Josh Thomas)

So you will never see my place in House Beautiful. It’s just one more old home in smalltown Indiana. But it is mine, I’m not trying to impress anyone with it, and I probably get more enjoyment from it than a CEO with a $50 million mansion and a crew of landscapers. My failures are mine, and so are my successes. The chives on that baked potato I grew myself, and Lord, they taste good. I grew the basil in this pesto; that’s my dill in the chicken salad.

Those are my peonies, sickly though they are, planted in memory of my brother Dick; my lilies-of-the-valley in remembrance of my Grandma. My mother grew strawberries; my other brother loved azaleas. I bought that little foot-high concrete angel perched under my beloved maple, guarding another patch of impatiens. These are my onions, radishes, carrots and broccoli – my chrysanthemum that’s actually coming back.

Our Lady of the Maple Tree. (Josh Thomas)

Our Lady of the Maple Tree, with her $2 plastic border. The tree’s canopy is so full, grass can’t grow under it, but impatiens and groundcovers are happy. (Josh Thomas)

Grandma had lilies-of-the-valley. They need shade, so I planted mine under the maple tree. Martha Washington used to wear those hats, you know.

Grandma had lilies-of-the-valley. They need shade, so I planted mine under the maple tree. Martha Washington used to wear those hats, you know.

I hate yardwork, but I love gardening. That, God and friends are all I need. Oh – plus my dog!++

Luke loves summer in the backyard. (Josh Thomas)

Luke loves lounging in the summer; we like being outside together. (Josh Thomas)

An Abundance of Cherries: 5 Recipes

Cherries ripening 10 days ago. (Josh Thomas)

Cherries ripening 10 days ago. (All photos by Josh Thomas)

I am just indoors after picking three quarts of cherries in about ten minutes.

I have two trees laden with them. To me they’re fun to pick, because my fingers don’t know where to reach next; here here here here? They’re everywhere, the very definition of abundance.

These are sour cherries, planted by a previous homeowner for their springtime blossoms. But the fruit is good to eat.

Last year a late frost killed off the fruit after the trees had bloomed. The birds and I went hungry. Not this year; I’m baking up a storm. And I have so many, most will go into the freezer to enjoy the rest of the year. (Wash ’em, bag ’em, throw ’em in there.)

Free food!

Now the minute you start telling yourself there’s nothing more tedious than pitting a bunch of cherries, I’ll get in your face: it’s easy when you know how, and it’s relaxing, a mindless, hypnotic activity with fabulous results. Wear an old shirt (or none), grab yourself some iced tea or a cocktail, take your cherries and a couple of bowls to the side porch out of the sun, and enjoy yourself, dreaming about all the great food you’ll make.

There are lots of old wives’ tales about how to pit cherries; I’ve tried them all – a plastic straw, a Chinese chopstick, a paring knife. Old wives say the pits are easier to get when you pierce the fruit from the bottom.

Nonsense: use your thumb, it’s why God gave you fingernails. Pierce the top, because the seed grows right underneath it.

Put on some beach music, you’ll be done in ten minutes – so you might as well have another cocktail!

And if this puts you in mind of how much your life is like your Grandma’s, because you remember sitting out in her back yard as a kid peeling strings off green beans, well, good for you – because you loved your Grandma, her green beans were great – and they tasted better since she grew them herself and you helped.

City people think they’re hot stuff when they go to the farmers’ market and buy green beans for $2.50 a pound – “So fresh!” they exclaim – but I secretly pity them. Produce from your own yard is fresher than the farmers’ market. Grandma grew a mess of beans from a 19¢ packet of seeds and a few sticks, then silently congratulated herself for roping the kids into helping her on a summer day.

Yes, we have the internet now, 200 TV channels, smartphones and stringless beans, but life is still better in the country. I don’t need to get in the car or hop a bus to find a farmers’ market, I just walk outside and start picking.++

Cherry muffins, June 15, 2013 (Josh Thomas)

Cherry muffins, June 15, 2013

Josh’s Cherry Muffins

2 C flour
1 C pitted cherries
1 egg
3/4 C sugar
1 C milk
2 t baking powder
1/4 C oil
1/2 t salt
2 t flour for cherries
1/2 t almond extract (can substitute vanilla)

Oven to 375 degrees F. Oil muffin pan or use paper liners. In medium bowl mix 2 C flour, egg, milk, oil, sugar, baking powder, salt and extract just until flour is moistened; don’t overstir, batter should be lumpy. Put cherries in a jar with a lid; add 2 t flour and shake to coat. Fold cherries into batter, just until cherries are covered; spoon into muffin cups. Bake 20-25 minutes until golden brown; test with toothpick inserted into center. Makes 6 jumbo or 12 regular muffins.

Cherries ripening, 2013 (Josh Thomas)

Cherries ripening, 2013

Cherries are ready to pick when they’re red all over – but at their ripest, they’re a little darker than the brightest color; cherry red, not fire engine. The riper, the sweeter – but the longer you let them go, the more likely the birds are to beat you to them. The good news, as this photo illustrates, is that they don’t all ripen the same day. The best strategy is to pick what you can get every day, just like homegrown strawberries.

Cherry Sauce

3/4 C sugar
2⁄3 C cornstarch
Dash of salt
2 C pitted sour cherries, fresh or frozen
1⁄16 t almond extract or pinch of cinnamon

In medium saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch and salt. Add cherries and almond flavoring or cinnamon if desired. Slowly bring to a simmer, and continue simmering until the filling is clear.

– Rosemary Perry-Hessong
Journal and Courier

Josh’s Cherry Cheese Coffeecake

2 cans refrigerated crescent rolls
1-2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
1 C sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 egg
1 egg white
~ 2 C cherries

1/2 C confectioner’s sugar
1 T milk
1/2 t vanilla extract

Oven to 350 degrees F. Oil 13×9 baking pan. Spread a pack of crescent rolls in the pan – the package consists of two rectangles cut into triangles, so lay the two rectangles end to end – and pinch all creases together so the pastry is smooth.

With electric mixer, beat cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and whole egg together until smooth. Spread over crescent rolls evenly, top completely with cherries, then lay the second pack of crescent rolls on top and brush with egg white. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the top is golden brown. Cool 20 minutes, then drizzle on glaze.

NOTES: Rich to the point of decadence. Save money and calories by using 1 eight ounce and 1 three ounce package of cream cheese (lite is fine) or just 1 eight ounce package; it still tastes great. If using less cream cheese, cut sugar to 1/2 C for 8 ounces of cheese or 3/4 C sugar to 11 ounces. The cherries themselves don’t need added sugar; you want the contrast between a sweet ingredient and the tart cherries.

Josh’s Cherry Cobbler

Oven to 400 degrees F.

1st layer: melt 2 T butter in 9×9 pan.

2nd layer: 2 C pitted cherries or pie filling

3rd layer: Mix 3/4 C sugar, 3/4 C flour, 1/2 C milk, 1 t baking powder, pinch of salt; pour over cherries. Bake 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm with milk (Grandma’s way) or ice cream.

Cherry Cheese Bars

1/2 C butter-flavored shortening
2 C pitted cherries or pie filling
1 1/4 C flour
2 8-ounce packages lite cream cheese
1/2 C brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
2 t vanilla extract
2/3 C sugar
(1/2 C chopped almonds or walnuts)

Oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 13×9 pan with butter-flavored shortening.

Mix flour and brown sugar; cut in shortening. (Add nuts.) Reserve 1/2 C of crumbs; press remainder into bottom of pan and bake 12 minutes.

Beat cream cheese, white sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Spread on crust and bake 15 minutes.

Spread cherries over cheese; top with reserved crumbs and bake 15 minutes.

Refrigerate; cut into 2″x1″ bars. Makes 36.

Almost ripe (Josh Thomas)

This year the birds seem to be waiting for all the fruit to ripen, then they’ll gorge themselves and strip my trees bare. The fact that the fruits ripen at different rates gives me an advantage, as long as I don’t put off my picking. As soon as I decide “I’ll get to them next week,” the birds set their watches and finish off my cherries an hour before.

Garden Wrapup, and I’ve Got Broccoli!

To harvest, you need a sharp knife.

The forecast low temperature for tomorrow night is 27º, so I was outside this afternoon doing the last harvesting of my garden – and lo and behold, I’ve finally got two heads of broccoli!

I couldn’t believe it, but they’re beautiful things. One is as big as you’d see in a store, one is smaller – and there’s a little bitty floret all on its own, cute as the dickens.

Took ’em long enough; I planted them months ago, and they didn’t seem to do anything. My cabbage never did form a head, and though I only planted it for decoraton, I yanked it out today and put it in the compost pile. But I have broccoli, plus three whole shopping bags full of produce.

I ended up with two dozen bell peppers, three dozen tomatoes (some green, but they’ll ripen indoors), a dozen or so onions (which didn’t grow as big as I’d hoped) and a whole huge mess of leeks.

I ran into my friend Jayne this evening at Murphy’s grocery, and she’s coming by tomorrow after school to get some leeks, peppers, fresh oregano and green tomatoes. I love her, but I’m not giving up my broccoli!

[Sidebar: Until now I’d have said I am “almost never” a selfish person. I know a lot of others like me, including my best friend Stephen; indeed, none of my friends is the least bit selfish. They’re kind, loving people, which is pretty much my criterion for who gets admitted into my circle of real friends. I have a lot of them.

[But when it comes to my own produce, I am both generous and self-interested. I’ve only got 2.1 heads of broccoli and dammit, them’s goin’ into my soup!

[So come to find out that regarding food, I am as greedy and protective as my dog Luke. He’s developed a habit lately at breakfast. He’ll go and look at his pellets, but he doesn’t start eating until I leave the kitchen and start opening up the blinds to let in the morning. At suppertime he’s entirely different; he knows that meat and veggies are his, and he races to dig in. But in the morning I have to prove that I’m not interested in his stuff.

[The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are very concerned about human selfishness; “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” That constant refrain and warning have never really made total sense to me; I was already brainwashed/in love with Jesus at a very young age, I got the message the first time. I’m a social worker, a Gay activist, a commissioned evangelist; I chose voluntary poverty when I was 14 and I’m glad I did. I also have the tremendous blessing I call the Shared Gay Personality™, which in my experience is wonderfully altruistic. But here I am guarding a dollar’s worth of broccoli. “That’s mine, dammit!”]

This evening I made my friend John’s recipe for potato-leek soup. It’s perfect in terms of technique, though naturally I tweaked it a bit. Mind you, as a smalltown Hoosier I’ve never eaten leeks before, much less grown them. First the recipe, plus my additions in parentheses, and then my reaction.

Puréeing is good, but leave some lumps in, I say.

John’s Potato-Leek Soup

5 leeks, sliced (mine were less than an inch in diameter)
1 onion, chopped coarsely
2 T oil (1 T butter, 1 T olive oil)
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
14 oz can of chicken broth
4 C water
S&P to taste
(1 C whole milk)
(chopped parsley to taste)

Heat butter and oil; add leeks and onion and cook to opaque but not brown. Add broth, water and potatoes; bring to boil, then simmer 10-15 minutes until cooked through. Purée in blender (but only two-thirds; I want some lumps so you know I made this by hand). (Add milk, return to low heat; add parsley.) Serves 8 maybe.

The result? It’s very good and technically perfect, since you also get the flavor of the potato broth. And it’s very, very easy.

But the leeks are too mild for this to be as good a potato soup as you can make. For that you need onions, not leeks.

Mind you, I regard onions as a kitchen miracle; they add so much to so many things I cook. Stir-frys, meat loaf, spaghetti sauce, pot roast, omelets, pizza; when I’m chopping onions I know I’m cooking.

Yet I would never describe myself as an onion-lover, as if I can’t get enough of that taste. I use them in proportion, they’re seldom the stars in my cookery, any more than garlic is, another onion relative that adds depth and flavor.

But I guess I do love onions, and my Grandmother made a fabulous potato soup with them, better than this potato-and-leek version. Potato soup was one of the first dishes I mastered, when I was maybe 13.

Leeks are wonderful (and the leaves are so pretty), but so far to me they’re bland. Why would anyone eat this soup when they could eat Grandma’s?

Leeks are described as sweet and mild. But the pungency of an onion adds so much more flavor. Considering that potatoes themselves are bland, why add mild to bland? I did find out to add more black pepper than usual, a dozen twists on my little mill at least, when ordinarily I’m cautious with the peppercorns; I’m a Hoosier, we don’t do spicy food.

My big satisfaction this evening was, as it’s been all summer, growing some of my own food. And you can’t get fresher than just picked today. No fertilizer, no herbicides, just good old Indiana loam, some of the richest soil on earth.

This land is so fertile that my tomato plants bent their cages double. I’m used to the vines growing a yard tall and five feet wide, producing scores of fruits per plant, but this year they just went nuts. Tomatoes are my favorite food, but I let some of them rot on the vine after I’d put up all I thought I could use.

Still, as the season wanes, the last few tomatoes become ever dearer; when winter comes the ones for sale in the stores are pretty much worthless. So even though I had bags and bags of produce to clean and make decisions about, I had to eat one of my ripe tomatoes fresh over the sink with a salt shaker in my hand. You ain’t Hoosier till the tomato juice drips off your chin.

At season’s end I feel like I made great progress as a gardener this year; I had an actual vegetable garden for the first time, instead of my previous haphazard experiments. I cleared out and marked off a good large space with a southern exposure, instead of planting things in flowerbeds next to the house and seeing what worked. I grew several new species; it’s not good to just grow the same old things year after year. I had strawberries and broccoli and leeks, as well as the usual herbs, tomatoes and peppers. I tried new things; I don’t know why the cabbage didn’t work – or maybe I do.

Some people love to eat cabbage; I mostly like to look at it.

The biggest learnings come from failures, including that cabbage. I should have enclosed it, and the broccoli and peppers, in chickenwire to keep the rabbits out. I’m so unmechanical I don’t know how to build things, but I think next year I’ll try driving some sticks in the ground and wrapping plastic fencing around. This won’t entirely deter rabbits, who are happy to dig underground for free rabbit food, but it will slow them down and maybe give me a cabbage or two to look at. I have nothing against eating cabbage, it’s good for you, but I’m a single guy who can’t possibly eat the whole thing before it goes bad.

My other big failure was not watering the garden when I should have. From spring to midsummer we had plenty of rain here, but by mid-August we went into a mild drought, and I should have been faster on the uptake; tomatoes are nothing but sunshine and water. Instead of huge and perfect juicy fruits as I had in early summer, in time they started to split, which invites bugs and then it’s all over. A good gardener keeps track of the rain.

I am not a good gardener yet, but I’m getting there. Most of my strawberry plants survived, but a few of them died, probably because I neglected to water them. That’s okay; instead of planting the ever-bearing variety as I did this year, I’ll plant the spring-bearing “ohmygod it’s a strawberry festival” ones next year, and make jam with the surplus like I used to for my mother.

I doubt I plant leeks. I don’t dislike them but I wasn’t that impressed, and I think I’ll put down onions instead, and maybe some radishes again. Planting leeks as seedlings, which is how Murphy’s offers them, is a pain in the ass. They are tiny little things, 400 to a four-compartment plastic container, and I didn’t find any good advice online about how to deal with them; all the articles from state extension services discuss planting from seed only. I separated my seedlings as seemed best at the time, planting 20 or 30 of them in a hole instead of one by one, but what that gave me was a clump of 30 ingrown leeks. Why would I want 400, especially when they’re “sweet and mild?”

Nope, I want onions instead.

This year I tried out a new type of triangular tomato cage made of plastic, where you can put the crossbars where the plant needs them, instead of where the stamped-out wire happens to go. That plastic cage is the only one still standing; the wire ones I’ve had for some years proved worthless in this rich and juicy rivermuck. In very fertile soil it’s much better to build a modular structure as needed, knowing the vine’s going to grow five feet wide and spill all over everywhere if you don’t control it.

Tomatoes supported on a cage don’t get down in the dirt where they can be attacked by bugs. I’m tellin’ ya, I had a tomato jungle again this year. Leonardo thinks Guatemala’s wild; he should see what grows in my loam.

One last thing: a very old woman who’s an expert gardener lives four doors down at the end of my block. I’m told she’s a farmer’s wife who moved into town with her husband when they retired; that’s common here, because life in town is more convenient. When old age stops tying you to the land, you move to town.

I’ve never met her, a widow now, though I’ve seen her hobbling along on occasional walks, a little old lady in Reeboks. Her home, lawn and vegetable garden are impeccable. She already has her garden cleared for next year; has had for a couple of weeks.

Today I learned that there has to come a time when you say about a garden, “That’s it, I’m done for the year, this is the best I can do.” She gets a head start on next spring by preparing her land this fall. For the first time I emulated her today, as I finished my harvest and started ripping things out.

Every year she builds her own rabbit fence; does her weeding in the morning before it gets hot. Doubtless she measures the rain day by day and waters her garden as needed; it’s always lush. I envy her for knowing so much more than I do, and doing her work instead of getting lazy once the thrill of planting fades away. Anyone can get excited about growing things in the springtime; the key to a garden is regular maintenance.

I did a better job of weeding this year than ever before, and I cleared that land, marked it off and planted new species. My marigold terrace is still half-fabulous, at least until tomorrow night; I had chives and oregano and parsley and tomatoes and tarragon to beat the band. My impatiens and dill, lilies and peonies gave me enormous pleasure. I grilled out on the side porch all summer, and taught my dog to stay there with me.

But there’s no substitute for experience; for trying and failing, for learning by doing. Grow some leeks, see what they’re like; switch to onions next year if you like, or petunias or pumpkins. Keep the water steady and the weeds under control.

The rules are pretty basic but you have to pay attention.

I hope I get to meet Mrs. Voglund someday; maybe we’ll talk about leeks, and why onions are really much better. Maybe we’ll talk about controlling rabbits.

Maybe I’ll tell her how fabulous Grandma’s potato soup was; how she chopped and cooked everything by hand, and never puréed.++

The only image on the internet of a simple potato soup, without garnishes, toppings, machinery or fanciness.

Everybody’s Favorite Vegetable

There are people who don’t like sweet corn; I think they’re nuts, but there’s no accounting for taste.

There are people who don’t like tomatoes; I encourage them in their hatred, because that leaves more ‘maters for me.

There are people who do like Brussels sprouts; I contend there is nothing you can do to them to make them edible.

But there’s no one I know who doesn’t like green beans. People who never eat vegetables at all eat green beans. They’re abundant, inexpensive, they taste good and yes, they’re good for you (vitamin C, beta carotene, fiber).

Up to now I’ve had three or four ways to prepare them, but as of last night, I now have another method.

Man, are they good in a stir-fry!

I’ve been on a stir-fry kick for over a week now. Bob, Marcia and Ote were here last week; Bob’s an Episcopal priest, Marcia’s a Presbyterian minister and my spiritual director. Ote (short for Otis; pronounced Oatey) is Marcia’s hubby and maybe the most interesting of all of us. I invited everyone for a house Mass, followed by an agapé meal as the early Church used to do it.

It was very important to me, with these two clergy here, that we celebrate the Eucharist. I don’t get to go to it often enough, and one should always take advantage of the chance; plus this was a way for me to recognize Marcia’s ordination – her right to celebrate. That’s a real breakthrough for me theologically; I’ve never known a Presbyterian before, and my tendency is to consider Communion said by someone outside the Apostolic Succession as of doubtful validity. If I were present at a Presbyterian service and they said, “Take, eat,” I would, but I wouldn’t be sure what I was eating.

But it’s been nearly two years since I’ve been working with Marcia; she’s been a godsend, and I’m really clear that we are sister and brother in the faith. With Bob here concelebrating with her, there couldn’t be any doubt about the validity of the sacrament, and I wanted Marcia front and center.

It turned out great, and I was very, very pleased – spiritually happy, even though we were all so busy doing our parts and trying to follow the rubrics, which Marcia and Ote had never dealt with before, that the service was probably a little out of focus.

But no matter; we know what we did, and it meant a lot to all of us. Episcopal mass, celebrated right at my house, maybe the first time it’s ever been said in town history!

We got through it, then it was time to feed the hungry people, and for that I was ready with the stir-fry, which is all preparation and chopping beforehand, then the food’s done in ten minutes. (Bob did most of the chopping, then while I was cooking, they all stayed in the dining room and I missed out on the entire conversation! That’s never happened before; usually people congregate in my kitchen, since I have seating there. Next time I’ll say, “Won’t you bring your glasses into the kitchen so we can be together?”)

I made my standard chicken cashew, which they all raved about; Ote had three helpings and Bob had two. Ote’s a marathoner and I was glad to see him eat.

I may have written about this recipe before; I’ll reproduce it in a minute, but meanwhile here’s the news. Bob stayed another day and a half; the next night at his suggestion we did something different with the chicken breasts, grilled them outdoors with my scandalously simple lemon juice and Worcestershire marinade. He kind of hacked away at making twice-baked potatoes but they turned out good and we had a fine conversation. He left early the next morning, and when I got up (at 8:30, I’ll have you know), I couldn’t wait to eat the leftover stir-fry.

I never wake up with food on the brain, but I did that day. I ate those leftovers for the rest of the week, and then I made the whole dish again slightly differently.

That’s when I discovered how fabulous green beans are when you stir-fry them. I didn’t include them the first time around.

Until last night, these were my ways of making green beans: boil them frozen out of a poly bag and add some butter; steam them 5-8 minutes with fresh rosemary; simmer the crap out of them for an hour with some bacon (Southren Indiana Style); or cook them the standard way and throw them in with sauteéd mushrooms, a can of soup and French-fried onions, also out of a can, in Thanksgiving Cliché #1. They’re popular because they’re good.

But oh, honey, stir-fried, them babies is fabulous!

The key to stir-frying, of course, is using high heat and not overcooking anything, so veggies still have all their color and the crunch.

I would never eat a raw carrot; I just don’t like the taste. But two or three minutes in my wok, with some onion, red pepper, celery, mushrooms and whatever else I’ve got, and carrots are definitely in business.

But I never tried green beans before last night; not Chinese, any more than I am.

But when we imagine how Chinese mothers came to develop their national and regional cuisines, we can certainly visualize a cook surveying what she’s got, using rice as a staple protein, figuring out how to make a little bit of meat go a long way, then seasoning everything so the poor kids don’t know any better.

It’s an old culture and they’re brilliant about their food.

I think from now on, when I need to make a vegetable side dish, whatever it’s going with, I’ll probably just stir-fry whatever’s in my crisper. The sauce in the recipe below works with everything.

(With a roast, throw your vegetables in a pan, drizzle with olive oil, stick in the oven with the meat and forget about it.)

Josh’s Chicken Cashew

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 C rice, 2 C water, 1 T butter, 1 t salt
1-2 stalks celery, sliced diagnoally
1-2 carrots, the same
1 bell pepper, any color, chopped
1/2 can water chestnuts, sliced
1 large onion, sliced haphazardly
1 head of broccoli, cut in florets OR
1/2 head of bok choy, chopped rough
2 T sesame oil (tolerates high heat)
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1/3 C roasted cashews
1/3 C chicken broth
1 T cornstarch
2 1/2 T soy sauce
1/2 t hot sauce, or more to taste
1 1/2 t fresh chopped gingerroot
(or 1/2 t ground ginger)
2 scallions, white part sliced, tops julienned

Cook rice. Chop vegetables. Chop chicken bite-sized. Heat wok to medium-high; add 1 T sesame oil and cover sides. In covered jar, mix broth, cornstarch, soy sauce and hot sauce; shake well.

Stir-fry chicken until cooked through, 5-7 minutes; remove and keep warm. Re-oil wok and let it heat up. Stir-fry veggies 3-5 minutes, just past raw. Add brown sauce and stir to thicken. Return chicken to wok, add cashews and heat through. Serve over rice; garnish with scallion.

With Ote, Marcia and Bob, I did something unusual for me; I spread the rice on a platter and served family-style; this keeps the rice hotter than using separate bowls. They ate it up.

And the best moment of the night: Ote reaching for more. Then Bob. Then Ote. Then Bob, just a little more. When you put the food in front of people they get themselves some more.

I think the next time I serve Joshua’s Patented Spaghetti, it’s also going to be family-style, one platter, not separate plates I bring in from the kitchen. We are not a restaurant.

A week ago Monday, when we had our Mass, we were family.++

The Verdict Is In on My Leeks

Are they gorgeous? Are they delicious?

Guilty as charged!

Were they somewhat mishandled during their upbringing? Um, yes, the judge has decided. “What we have here,” he said today in an opinion being released right here and now, “is a woefully ignorant gardener.”

The jurist kind of went on and on from there, detailing just how woeful and how ignorant, but I’ll spare you the gory details. He did not accept the gardener’s excuse that there were “too many seedlings.”

The defendant told how it all began. “I spent 97¢ on the smallest container Murphy’s sells. I’ve never even eaten a leek before, Your Honor. But people say they’re good so I bought some.”

“What happened next?” the judge inquired.

“Well, the little plastic marker didn’t really give much information, so I looked up how to grow leeks on the internet,” the defendant claimed.

“Oh,” harumphed the judge. “You looked it up on the intranet.”

“But the information there wasn’t that helpful either. It was all about starting them from seeds, but I was trying to transplant them as seedlings.”

In a harbinger of the final decision, the judge declared, “This is what you get when you try to look things up on the intranet.”

“When I went to plant them, there were dozens of these little bitty seedlings,” the defendant testified. “Hundreds maybe.”

Actually, mine were even smaller than these guys.

The judge looked down at him over half-moon glasses. “Hundreds. For 97¢.”

“At Murphy’s,” the defendant nodded.

“Retail malpractice,” the judge wrote in a note to himself. Then he added a question mark, since no foundation had been laid for this conclusion. “What exactly did you do?”

“Well, I separated them into 9 or 10 little bunches. I only had so much space in my garden, Your Honor, and this is the first year I’ve had a proper vegetable garden. I mean, with planks and everything.”

“I see. Could we pick up the pace now? Only the information that’s relevant to this case.”

“Sure. I planted them in bunches.”

“Did you get that?” the judge asked the court reporter. “He planted them in bunches.”

She nodded, an experienced hand in the courtroom. The judge returned to the witness. “Then what happened?”

“Well, judge, they kind of took off. They started growing, and where I’d thought before that after a few weeks I should thin them a little maybe, I never got around to it. But I kept them weeded.”

“Gardener malpractice,” the judge wrote, and this time he left off the question mark. “So, did you set out to abuse these poor seedlings deliberately? Or is this more a case of neglect of a dependent?”

The defense attorney finally spoke up, “Objection, Judge. These things were like vegetables the day he got them.”

The defendant answered, “Actually, Your Lordship, I had a theory I was testing. A scientific experiment, you might say. After all, these seedlings were my own personal property.”

Ooh, a clever defendant invoked his Constitutional right to dispose of his property however he saw fit. If the judge wasn’t careful, soon Tea Partiers, Libertarians and Mad Hatters would be wanting his scalp. “What experiment?”

“I believed, and wanted to test the thesis, that even a person inexperienced with leeks, but who was otherwise somewhat knowledgable in the garden, could figure out how to grow them next year, by monitoring how they acted this year.”

“And what did you learn, young man?” the judge scowled.

“Well, they really should be planted more thinly, in rows, in a trench. But even when you handle them like I did, you get some nice ones. And they taste good.”

The defense lawyer approached the bench. “Exhibit A, judge.” She handed him some specimens.

“They look like fancy onions,” the judge frowned. He’d never eaten one either; no one in Kentland has. They’re a foreign food, from Europe or somewhere.

“Pretty tops, don’t you think?” the defendant asked. “Especially when they’re trimmed.”

“Silence in the court,” the judge ordered. He picked up a leek and smelled it; vaguely oniony. “What were the results of your experiment?”

“I first tried picking one in July,” the defendant testified. “It wasn’t much bigger than a scallion, not at all like the leeks one finds on the internet.”

“Ah,” the judge muttered, “again with the intranet.”

“So I let them grow awhile longer,” the defendant stated. “By August they were getting to be a decent size, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. In September, though, they really start coming on.”

“Can you cook with them?”

The defense lawyer motioned to an assistant, who disappeared momentarily outside the courtroom, then carried in a foil-covered baking dish.

“What have we here?” the judge inquired, suddenly interested. The clock on the wall said it was getting toward lunchtime.

“Exhibit B,” said the lawyer. She personally placed the glass loaf pan on the bench and removed the foil. Steam rose.

The judge sniffed, “Baked beans?”

“Yes, Your Worship,” the defendant replied. “Made them myself this morning.”

The attorney handed the judge a spoon. The judge looked at his reflection in it, then wiped it off on his robe and dug into the beans.

He ate a bite, savoring, or maybe judging.

“Mustard,” he said finally; “a bit of Worcestershire, I think.”

“Oh yes,” the defendant agreed, “a tablespoon each.”

“Brown sugar, judge,” the defense lawyer asserted, glancing at her notes.

“I love brown sugar,” the judge said. “A bit of vinegar, perhaps? For a little sweet-and-sour action?”

The defendant nodded eagerly, “Just a teaspoon, Your Excellency. I measured carefully, too.”

The judge ate another bite, tasting, pondering. After a third spoonful he said, “Aha!”

“What’s that?” the attorney asked worriedly.

“You left something out,” the judge thundered at the defendant. “No hot sauce!”

The defendant collapsed momentarily in the witness box. He didn’t want to make any incriminating statements in open court, but yes, he had indeed forgotten the hot sauce. Besides, his recipe only called for a quarter-teaspoon.

He asked, “What about the leeks, Your Honor?”

“No objection,” the jurist pronounced. “The leeks are fine.”

“Judge, the defense moves for an acquittal on all charges,” the attorney said confidently.

The judge moved the whole pan of baked beans in front of himself and began eating. “Denied,” he said. “This defendant’s guilty as hell.”

“Of what?” the attorney asked.

“Mistreating leeks. And a second count of neglecting them. Claims he weeded but forgot to thin.” The judge banged his gavel. “Guilty!” he shouted. “Now let me think of a suitable punishment.”

He wiped his lips with the hem of his robe and asked the defendant, “What else can you make?”

“I was thinking of potato-leek soup, Your Worshipfulness,” the defendant said sorrowfully.

“You’re hereby sentenced to make a big pot of potato-leek soup. On my desk one week from now – at lunchtime. Court adjourned!” Bang bang bang.

Then the judge made off with the baked beans. Before the defense attorney could say anything, the judge told her, “Evidence.”

The attorney then wanted $500 from the defendant. “I thought you took my case on contingency,” the miscreant exclaimed.

“That was assuming I got the baked beans,” she answered.

But the defendant was quick; “Trade you for your own batch of potato-leek soup.”

“Deal!” she cried. Everyone went home happy, and the defendant made plans to sell his own leeks next year at Murphy’s – for 97¢ a half-dozen, planted carefully in trenches and rows.++

Good at twice the price.

Once She Started, She Couldn’t Stop

Purple echinacea stand tall in the backyard garden of Janice Becker. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Every now and then the Chicago Tribune reminds me that it’s still a great newspaper. It doesn’t happen often anymore — the talent level has dropped dramatically from the glory days — but occasionally I’ll run across an article so well written, so thoughtful, so obviously made of love for the languages of communication, that I think, “Well, the Trib’s still got it a little.” Today is one of those times; read the whole thing by Barbara Mahany here.

It’s about gardening. Years ago a woman and her husband went looking to buy a townhouse so they wouldn’t have any yard to deal with. They ended up with a house in the suburbs instead, with a yard that was a mess. She ignored it until one day, after her children were born, she took a notion to try and straighten up a little. Once she got started, she couldn’t stop. Now she’s a master gardener.

I do want you to read the whole piece, but I’m going to quote and comment on some of her tips. I found them helpful; maybe you will too.

Here are her sure-fire suggestions for the finest garden you can fit in any size plot:

Mulch, mulch and more mulch. Becker has 5 cubic yards of organic leaf mulch dumped on her driveway every spring. She hauls it by the wheelbarrow to every breathing inch of her garden. It’s all about amending.

Who says Chicago’s growing season is too short?: Extend your season, says Becker, whose beds are in bloom from March to November, beginning with thousands of bulbs in early spring. (“Pick any area you can see from the house, not next to house,” she advises, to provide an emotional pickup after the long dark winter.) Then wind up with the last of the asters, fall-blooming crocus and a host of colorful berries.

There are two ideas here really, and I want to separate out the one that struck me the hardest: Don’t just make beds next to the house; plant in the yard so you can see your flowers from inside.

When I bought my house, one of the things I liked best was that the entire perimeter of the building had already been made into beds. There were bushes in front and along the sides, most of them planted decades ago, perhaps by the original owner. But there weren’t many flowers, just a few crocuses here and there. Aha, I thought; I will put in flowers, and over the years I have, tulips from Amsterdam as well as Holland, Michigan; irises, mums, petunias, marigolds, pansies, peonies, whatever I could get my hands on. I didn’t have a plan; I didn’t know what I was doing, but I enjoyed myself. Spring planting is my favorite time of year.

I screwed in hooks on the ceiling of my covered side porch and hung baskets of impatiens; I learned over time not to buy plastic pots. I turned my porch into an outdoor room, with a tree and plant stands, table and chairs, lights and a charcoal grill. Everyone who’s ever visited knows I love that porch.

But when I look out my front windows I don’t see flowers, except for my cherry trees when they blossom; otherwise it’s just green trees and green grass. I have to go outside to see my flowers, and I don’t do that often.

What Ms. Becker is teaching me is to plant colors I can see when I wake up in the morning. My first thought is to dig up some of the grass along the sidewalk leading to my front door and plant tulips and daffodils there; when they start to fade, I can put in begonias. (I have begonias in planters on the back deck, and oh, are they gorgeous this year.)

Then I thought, however nice that idea might be, why not create a similar path along the public right of way, the sidewalk that crosses my lot? What would a person walking up the street feel if she suddenly encountered flowers at her feet? Wouldn’t that be a joy?

My dog Luke and I take walks every night, and one of the things I get out of it is seeing my neighbors’ landscaping. Last night we took a new route on less-familiar blocks and I saw the most amazing stand of zinnias (I think); multiple colors planted in bunches, 50 yellows, then 50 reds, a whole rainbow, 20 feet or more. When Luke and I walk and I find beautiful flowers in yards, I always want to get closer to see and maybe smell; but I respect the homeowner’s private property, so I have to enjoy from a distance. Last night at this particular house on 2nd Street, a woman was watching TV in her living room, with the windows open; I wanted to call out, “Your flowers are beautiful!” But I turned shy instead.

People in my hometown are pretty good gardeners and landscapers. I’m envious, in awe; I wish I encountered people in their yards more often so I could tell them how much I love what they’ve done. But alas, Luke and I take our walks in the cool of the evening, and by that time most people are indoors watching the boob tube.

It’s fashionable lately when pseudo-sophisticates write about landscape gardening to decry the “airport runway” look with outdoor lights; but they’re just snobs with deadlines and 750 words overdue. These are the same kinds of people as those who write about food trends, invariably nasty, stuff you’d never want to eat — because they have to write about something and they’re totally completely bored. The New York Times is full of that crap, because New Yorkers can’t stop competing long enough to have a good meal. Here’s my point: anything you do, including landscape lights down the sidewalk, that you can see from indoors, is good. A flowered walk is a great idea, especially one built with the neighbors in mind.

I have a friend Chris who used to walk her little dog past my house all the time. Her husband’s since had a privacy fence built, and Chris and her dog have stopped coming by; I miss them. But if they had a sidewalk landscaped just for them to enjoy, I bet they’d always come this way; wouldn’t you?

My next-door neighbor Debbie has built an amazing garden spot on the corner; it’s got a boulder or two, figurines and wonderful plants. But there’s no reason I can’t do more with my space, even though I’m not on the corner. Some homeowners in town have built flowered areas under their hardwood trees, full of hostas or impatiens or other beauties. It takes time and money, but I think I’d like to do something similar.

And all this is suggested by Janice Becker’s little comment. Here’s more of what she told the Trib.

Sun, yes, but water moreso. Sure, you need to pay attention to shade versus sun, but drainage is too often overlooked. Becker contends it’s more important than sun, and she urges you to pay attention to what the label says — and take it to heart. “The label might say, ‘Will survive dry conditions,’ but what they really are saying is ‘We won’t tolerate standing in water.’ And with so much clay in the soil around here, that’s key.”

I don’t have clay in my yard; that’s Chicago, this is Northwest Indiana, a long-drained swamp. I’ve got 99% black loam from the last time the Iroquois River flooded five miles away. This is the richest soil on earth, according to Purdue University. We’re even the home of the high school soil-judging National Champions 2005!

Shop nonstop.”Don’t stop shopping for plants or planting just because it is July and abysmally hot. If succession of bloom is the objective (and it is), you will miss some great late summer and fall blooming perennials if you don’t frequent the nurseries. For example, chelone (also known as turtlehead) is an absolutely great late summer bloomer that you will never see unless you shop later in the season. And everything is usually on sale then.”

Be ever on the lookout. “Visit gardens all the time. There is practically nothing in my garden that I did not see someplace else and copy. Take notes; take pictures; and ask questions, particularly why that plant is growing successfully here when you haven’t had any success with it.”

That’s good advice too. Don’t get so enthusiastic with spring planting that you fail to keep at it when the weather gets hot, or much of your work will go for nothing. I weed and tend my gardens every day, pick tomatoes and peppers, strawberries and leeks. As Jamie says in The Centurion’s Boy, my novel in progress, “Every day is a new opportunity to excel.”

That’s true whatever your occupation, pastimes and pursuits. Every day is new; no matter how much you screwed up yesterday, today is a new opportunity. Maybe you don’t like digging in the dirt; maybe music or art or furniture-making is your thing. Do it better than ever, because it’s today. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a CEO, a monk in Mississippi or a gardener in Deerfield, today is a new chance. Build something; touch your loved ones gently; take your dog on an outing. Write, cook, plan, build, take a risk, pull out the deadwood, get dirty so you can get clean; let yourself be fully alive.

And who knows, maybe once you get started, you won’t be able to stop.++

Asters, from gardenersnet.com.