On Motherhood and Gardens

Sithean May 11 2019

This morning I woke up early  to cook for the Mother’s Day brunch we are hosting at noon today.  I probably could have opted to do nothing instead of making Butternut Squash Lasagna, Asparagus Tart, Deviled Eggs, and some other treats, but I take a lot of joy in feeding people, and work though it is, it’s pleasurable work to have the people I love around me.

After everyone leaves, I’ll turn my attention to the garden if the weather holds. After weeks of nearly nonstop rain,  I was able to spend some time cleaning up and working on it yesterday.  Of course, now finishing it is going to be a mad rush before I have to plant, but this is a permanent structure, with finishing it being a one-time job.  It needs a final fence section, a gate, some last bits of compost spread, and only 4 of the 11 garden beds got built before giant squash plants ran amok last summer.  I need to be done by the beginning of June, but I’m not worried this year – I’ve got some help, and the work isn’t that daunting.  And even if it is, I’ll get done what I get done.  This place is the work of a lifetime.

Spring is in full bloom here, and the rain has made everything green and lush and blossoming.  The school year is winding down with concerts and events absorbing our time, and summer planning is in full swing. Eli and I have some inside projects to do too – painting the downstairs hall, sanding and re-staining the front porch, and some work on the downstairs bathroom.  Between that and both of our jobs, we’re likely to have a very busy and exhausting summer.

But also a lush and beautiful one.  The seedlings, which are in the process of hardening off, will grow into vegetables, and herbs.  Several fruit trees will be planted, new ones and a replacement for my cold-hardy cherry that didn’t survive the winter.  More trees will need to come down, some of them because they are dying, others because they pose a threat to the house.  Pine trees are great for wildlife but their root systems are shallow, and I’ve already had one fall on the house after a windstorm.  I’m working on reducing the risk.

That’s how summer works on a farmlet.  We do our share of relaxing, and there’s few things I like better than to just go out and weed in the sunshine, but from May 1st on, it’s pretty high-energy until we put the garden to bed in November.

Being a gardener is much like being a mother.  You add food, water, attention and love and a home, and you hope that you aren’t too tired and flawed to muck up the growing process.  Sometimes you screw up, run out of time and energy, or just wish for a break.  But in the end, you hope that your children, like your garden, bloom.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the amazing mothers out there.  May you, and your children grow and thrive.

K & C May 9

 

 

 

Asparagus Day

First Asparagus 2019

 

I love waking up before anyone else is stirring on the weekends. It gives me time to think and write.  I feed the bunnies and the ever-growing chicks, water my seedlings, and take a look at the yard and garden.  I was gone for 3 days this time, and it felt like a lifetime.  I left with a few things in bud.  I returned yesterday morning in a chilly rain, to spring having exploded around me.  The peach and apple trees are in bud, the raspberry bushes are starting to once again take over the yard, and the daffodils are out.

I’m lucky enough to have a thriving career, and I love what I do, even if it means time spent away from home.  The surprise and joy of seeing how Sithean changes from day to day next never ceases to impress me- the setting here means there’s always something new on show.

Last year, just as the garden and yard started to produce, I got about as busy as a human can get at work.  I put up less than an eighth of what I had planned to, and a lot of the garden went to waste.  This year, with Eli’s help, the big garden will get finished, and we will preserve more of our food. The seedlings are growing quite large, and it’s almost time to start hardening them off, and planting some early cold-weather crops like Edamame and Lettuce.

Seedlings April 2019

But nothing, nothing is more exciting than when the asparagus bed starts to produce.

Starting in early April, I check the asparagus bed every opportunity I have.  Usually starting way too early in the season.  But it’s hard to wait –  fresh asparagus tastes nothing like it’s grocery-store counterpart.  It is sugary sweet and ideally picked about 2 minutes before it is cooked.

This morning while it was still dripping,  I went out to feed the animals and wandered over.  And lo and behold, it was there.  I couldn’t resist picking it on the spot, even though it’s too early in the day to eat it.  This year we seem to be getting an actual spring, if a slightly soggy one, and I think that means we’ll get a bumper crop.

Asparagus can be boiled and then salted and served, or, my favorite, broiled with olive oil, salt and lemon.  Grilled.  Wrapped in bacon or prosciutto and baked.  The simple possibilities are endless.

But if you want to get really fancy, as I will for our annual Mother’s Day brunch here, you make Carolyn Roehm’s Asparagus Fontina Tart.  It is simple, and beautiful enough to replace flowers as a centerpiece.  I sometimes add tomato slices in a spiral under the asparagus, which adds flavor and beauty, but you could just as easily top it with a few edible pansies and serve as-is.

8 ounces frozen puff pastry thawed overnight in the refrigerator
1/2 cup Fontina cheese
16-20 stalks of asparagus, cut to about 4 inches long

  1. Preheat the oven to 375
  2. Roll out the puff pastry on a floured surface until about 1/4 inch thick or slightly thinner than that.  Use a saucepan to cut an 8-10″ round and return to the fridge to chill for 20 minutes
  3. Remove the pastry and place on a greased baking sheet – I like olive oil for this.  Pierce the pastry with a fork all over
  4. Arrange the asparagus in a spoke with a few asparagus tips in the center, upright
  5. Cover with the cheese to about 1/2 inch from the edges
  6. Bake for 20 minutes until puffed and golden and you can pierce the asparagus with a fork.
  7. Serve warm or cool

You’ll look like Martha Stewart for about 10 minutes of your effort .

If you want to be really fancy for dinner too, take the leftover puff pastry, some prosciutto and cut into rectangles about 4″ long.  Lay in a slice of prosciutto and 3-4 asparagus spears and bake as described above.  When it’s out of the oven melt a little butter with lemon juice, salt and pepper and glaze the asparagus puffs in the lemon butter sauce.

Happy Asparagus Day!

Leaves with Purpose

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“There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

 – Hamlet 

The town where Sithean stands is an old one, by American standards.  It was incorporated in 1650, and the miles of old stone walls and the ability to trip over history everywhere you go bears that out.

Prior to incorporation, the Annisquam Indians called it something that translates to ‘the pleasant place by the flowing waters’, and that still holds true today – it is a pleasant place to be, with meandering country roads, wildflowers everywhere, and gardens of blossoms and vegetable gardens.  

We reside in a spot called ‘Witch Hill’.  The Salem Witch trials were not confined to what is now Salem, Massachusetts.  In fact, Salem Village is now named Danvers, in one of the earliest efforts at image rebranding ever to occur – Salem was anathema after the Witch Trials, for good reason.

Witch Hill got it’s name because Mary Eastey, sister to Rebecca Nurse, came here to her son’s home after being released from the Salem Witch trials.  She and Nurse were both upstanding citizens, and married to landholders.  Even Judge John Hathorne, who presided over the trials, and an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, went so far as to ask if the girls accusing her if they were certain she was a witch.

It’s hard to visualize what it might have been like.  Suspicion, and not a little bit of vengeance, reigned.  Women were dragged from their beds in the night and put in irons.  They didn’t eat unless their families brought food, and then it might be stolen by their jailers.  They didn’t bathe.  They were housed in places where it was cold, dark, and bug-infested, on the words of a bunch of pre-teens and teenagers.  If you ever doubt the need for due process but also the ability to challenge it by citizens, the transcripts are worth a read.  The originals are in Salem, but the University of Virginia keeps a copy online. 

After all, the Witch trials were perfectly legal.  Moral – not so much.

For Mary Eastey, she is released after 2 months in prison, on May 18th.  She came here to Topsfield, but not for long.  2 days later, Mercy Lewis accuses her again.  She was dragged from her son’s home in the night and brought back to prison.  She was hanged on September 22nd, 1692.  Her death, along with others, was the tipping point in bringing Witch Fever to an end.  On the gallows she begged for the murders – for they were that, trial or no – to stop.

Superstition seems to be part and parcel of the human spirit.  Here on Witch Hill, the real story of Mary Eastey has long faded, and she is spoken about most typically in order to establish the historical bona fides of this place.  In some ways, the peace and beauty force that forgetting.  There is no time of year that I don’t believe I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Making it more so is one of my greatest goals.

One of the interests in the back of my mind as I have gardened over the years is herbs.  Herbs have very real benefits – let’s be clear here, there’s no magical food, essential oil, or herb that is going to change your life.  Herbs, oils and supplements have become intertwined with the idea that if we just consume cleaner, healthier and purer, we will be safe from disease, early death, etc.  It’s true that the healthier we eat, the healthier we live, sure and some exercise is necessary.  Herbs are helpers when used correctly.  They can relieve anxiety, calm a stomach, make a headache go away, and even restart a heart or kill you.  That these things can just grow by the side of the road, in nature, can feel a lot like a gift of magic, and maybe they are.  There’s much that still defies human understanding in the natural world.

Herb lore is intricately tied up in superstition and magic.  So while I diligently plant flowers to attract pollinators and vegetables and fruit to feed us, I’ll also be adding Witch Hazel, Dittany, Rue, Valerian, Yarrow, Lavender and others.  Sure, they are (mostly) edible, have medicinal benefits, and they are all lovely.  But they are also the herbs of protection.  From what?  I don’t know.  Maybe nothing.  It doesn’t matter.  But here at Sithean history incorporates both the beautiful and the not-so-much, intertwined together, and sometimes, like with magic and herb lore, the beautiful and the not are one and the same. As I grow them, I’ll post about what they do and how I use them.

Next year we will plant both a fig tree and a Rowan tree. The former will feed us, but of the two, I tend to think the latter will be more important.

Trefoil, John’s Wort, Vervain, Dill
Hinder Witches of Their Will
Betony, Dittany, Yarrow, Rue
Deprive Witches of Their Due

 

Spring Forward

House with new roof

The first day of spring arrived, and with it almost 50-degree temperatures here in Massachusetts.  After two years of almost nonexistent (read: frigid) springtime weather, this year feels like we might get something resembling the real deal.  It’s hard to tell, but it might be time time to start packing the winter gear away.

Still, it’s March in New England, so I’m not doing anything about that feeling quite yet.  The adage of ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes’ is truly applicable here at Sithean.  Despite the unpredictability of the season here though, it’s definitely time to start making ready for the warmer weather.

The chicks are now almost 2 weeks old, and their fluff is starting to slough off and reveal feathers.  We lost two babies, including our beloved Peep, who just didn’t eat or drink enough to survive.  We buried her and her unnamed friend next to Aquarius the duck.  Losing animals is part and parcel of having them, but it never gets easier.  The other 26 are thriving though, and their mad cheeping fills the house.

I’ve been starting garden seeds.  So far, cool-weather crops and those that need a long time to germinate take priority – kale, broccoli raab, tomatoes, peppers and Brussels sprouts along with cucumber seeds are tucked into the dirt.  My goal is to plant at least one thing a day through May, and harvest one thing a day through October.

This year we’re going to add to our small orchard as well – we lost 2 baby apricot trees last year, so we’re trying again, and a dwarf Seckel Pear will be espaliered in the center of the new garden.  I was going to put a fig tree in there, but this land grew pears when it was first farmed, so it seems right to put one in a place of honor.  A fig can be added somewhere else next year.   I’m also looking for a spot for a few cranberry bushes in the hopes we can add ‘zero food miles’ to parts of Thanksgiving dinner.  I mull over raising a few turkeys every year, but it won’t be this year.  Biting off more than one can chew is endemic to gardening and raising food.  “Just one more thing!  How hard can it be?” is the gardener’s battle cry, there always – in my head – being space for just a few more flowers or vegetables or herbs or one more chicken, and of course, infinite time to tend and harvest.

Delusional, but in the best of ways.

“Where is this all going?”, you might well ask, and to that I say “Oh, valid question.”

If you assume that climate change is coming for all of us, which it is, you also have to assume that the limitless variety, packaging and options at the grocery stores will alter too.  In my lifetime probably, in my children’s for certain.  Making home for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, as well as building in egg, fruit and vegetable options for the future is our way of trying to create that ‘ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure’ here.  Sithean is meant to be a haven for all the generations that require it – and not just human generations.  I can’t control what the future brings, but I can certainly try to hedge our bets.

Climate change is not for one political party or another.  Denying science because we can’t imagine another way of life will not make it go away, nor make it not be true.  I can’t predict what the world will look like when my children are having children.  All I can do is hope that their world is full of apples, pears, asparagus and fresh eggs like my own is, and do everything in my power to make it so.  I can teach them how to plant seeds, pull weeds, tend chickens and cook from scratch.  I can teach them to want fewer things.  I’m still working through my feelings about travel – mine for work and ours for pleasure.  I’m a study in inconsistent application of my beliefs, and I know that.  I’m a work in progress, which doesn’t exculpate me from my own impacts on the environment, but it does give me room to figure out how to apply them.

Sithean has stood for 169 years on this land or the land nearby.  I hope what we build here outlasts us.  Spring, to originate or arise from – the perfect definition for renewal of this place, of the land and our approach to it.   This place, the garden, fruit trees and landscape around it is my version of church.  I thank the universe that my baby cherry tree survived winter and plows.  I rake knowing my life is a gift, this place is a gift, and I am it’s caretaker, as it is ours.

Spring leaves me feeling renewed, year after year, my hope and joy rising like the seedlings in the dirt.

I wish you the greenest of springs, this year and every one after.

 

Background Music

peep

Our babies arrived yesterday, all 27 of them.  After several springs of co-chickening with the neighbors, and losing just about all of them to predators, this year we chose a different course, and ordered a large chicken coop with an enclosed run.  We could have given up on chickens altogether, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to that decision.  Sithean is a place for fruit trees and gardening and chickens.

Still, this is a leap of faith for us, after burying as many chickens as we have to date.

We waited on tenterhooks for them to arrive, having never gotten chickens in the mail before.  Eli spent hours on Tuesday preparing their bin and food.  The local post office was alerted, and at 7:42 am they called us, long before they opened for the day, and we rushed to get pick them up.  Our babies are here, and the endless peeping is the background music to my day.  My children have taken to even eating breakfast in front of their bin, endlessly fascinated by their ‘chickle babies’.

Baby chicks can survive up to 48 hours in transit after birth, but we worried from the moment the shipment notification kicked off our waiting period.  Our babies were cold and alone and what if something happened to them?  There was more anxiety in our household for the 36 hours from that shipment notification to their arrival than perhaps in the history of our little family.

When we picked them up, safe and sound, the relief was palpable and the excitement was for all 4 of us.

We do have one little runt named Peep, who is smaller and not as energetic as the rest.  All we can do is watch out for her and make sure food and water are available.  ‘Failure to thrive’ is real in the animal kingdom, just as it can be in the human one.  We’re hopeful and watchful.  If she makes it, she is almost certain to be the most petted and cosseted chicken in history.

In 6 months, there will be eggs, lots and lots of them. Before that we will be able to use the chickens as the disposal point for most leftover food.  Between compost and the chickens, our food waste should drop to almost nothing.  This summer, they will be allowed out of their coop to roam a few hours a day to eat ticks and garden bugs.  Chickens are curious creatures, and I look forward to them tromping around behind me this spring as I garden and weed.

This is Eli’s first experience with baby chicks, and I’m enjoying his relative awe and wonder at it too.  Two years ago our first batch of chicks grounded us here at Sithean, turning it from a place we had just landed to a home, weaving itself around us.   It’s happening again, this time for the four of us, one little ‘peep-peep’ at a time.

Gregory Peck March 13 2019

Springtime in Winter

Sithean March 2019

It’s been bloody cold lately, with snow coming at regular intervals.  Winter, as it always does at this time of year, is hanging on, not quite ready to let go.  There’s signs of hope though – forecasts for 50ish degrees later this week, the local Co-Op is advertising mulch rather than shovels, and tomorrow marks the beginning of seed-starting.  I rearranged the living room to accommodate the potting bench, and as soon as it stops sleeting we will bring it in.  The clocks changed last night, which is disorienting, but another sign that soon the white stuff will dissipate, and the earth will be closer to the sun.

It was icky today, with the weather changing from snow to sleet to rain and then cycling back through all three at intervals, so I postponed my long run for 2 days to avoid slipping on ice, and instead Eli and I went for a long walk.  A long wet walk, but a good one.  I’ve been thinking about goals a lot lately.  Setting them, working towards them, adjusting them.

Every year on New Year’s Day, we list out goals for 2019.  This is an all-in family endeavor and this year’s list included ‘finishing the garden’, ‘a new coop’, and ‘make new memories for the 4 of us’ among other things.  We’ve made steady progress on some, others not yet started, but as we head towards 1/4 of the year complete, I think we’re doing all right.  There is, of course, limitless things still to do, on our goals list or just on the to-do list.  So I did a lot of them, and then, after our walk and more things, I perched myself on the couch to watch the birds, write a little, and allow myself to ignore the endless things to clean, sort, iron and organize for a bit.  The kids are with Dad tonight, so the house is quiet.  Eli and I are going to make another batch of Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen tonight, because this weather calls for comfort food for a little longer.

The big news here is the imminent arrival of 27 baby chicks – 26 girls and 1 rooster –  from Murray McMurray Hatchery, a combination of beautiful varieties, such as the Pheonix chicken and the Crevacoeurs.  I have wanted to place an order with them for as long as I have had chickens, or longer.  We got some good layers, but we also got chickens for their looks and cool factor.

McMurrayHatchery_RareBreed_Crevecoeurs

But the real news is the impending arrival of our new chicken coop.  After years of free range co-chickening with the neighbors,  and losing them all to the large variety of predators that abound here, we decided that we needed to provide better protection, and invested in a coop with an enclosed run, complete with wire underneath the run, predator-proof latches on the nesting boxes, insulation for winter, solar lighting and automatic chicken door, and last but not least, epoxy floors, nesting boxes, and removable trays for easy cleaning.  This is, to be honest, the Tesla of chicken coops, and if I have to make a plug for a vendor, I’ll do it for this one – Lancaster Chicken Coops was helpful, friendly and some of the best customer service I’ve ever had.  They even offered to bundle delivery with other area customers to make it cheaper.  The coop isn’t even here yet and I’m already in love.

Chicken Coop

It’s dark and cold tonight, but spring is coming, and with it the tiny peeps of baby chicks to our little farmlet.

Winter Nights

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I got back from our vacation to Orlando on Wednesday night, and after a day of rest – amusement parks are fun but exhausting – I took a look through the kitchen and decided it was past time to do some stocking up.  Our pantry eat-down has had mixed results – we’ve gone through a lot of food, but we haven’t stopped grocery shopping completely – with 2 small children and 2 people working from home on the regular, running out of milk, eggs, fruit, Goldfish and the like just isn’t an option.

Still, our grocery bill dropped a bit, and our pantry and freezer got a good bit emptier.  Which is good on a few levels, as we’re slowly beginning our steps towards springtime, despite the snow on the ground.  My garden seeds arrived, and are waiting for early March to start planting under the living room window.  The baby chicks – 27 of them, gulp – arrive in just a few weeks, and we’re almost ready to order the new coop for mid-April delivery.   Add to that our CSA payment for the season has been made, this time to include a fruit share, and I’m feeling good about the quality of our diet for the coming year.  It will be healthy, varied, and in large part, local.

Despite that, we are tied to the grocery store, and today we needed quite a bit.  Because I’m traveling quite a bit the next two weeks, I bought enough to cover meals at the ready for the days I will be here.  I don’t have a menu at the ready, per se, but I always try to have the ingredients for meals at the ready. This time on my list is:

Macaroni Medley, a family specialty (recipe to come)
Homemade Potstickers, Paleo Scallion Pancakes and Thai Basil Stir-fry
Chicken Parmesan with zucchini and regular noodles
Simple Lentil Sausage Soup
Butternut Squash Soup (using the last of our CSA squash from the fall)
French Onion Soup

All of these meals make enough for us to eat dinner, plus leftovers for lunches and additional servings.  Because it’s cold out, we’re heavy on the soup, as we always are at this time of year.  It’s simple, filling, and can almost always be cooked early in the day and left to simmer until dinnertime.  It’s warmer than it has been but the chill is still with us for a few more months, and last night, after 6 days in the Summerlands, an extra level of warm food was necessary.

Cooking for me is not just necessity, it is also pleasure.  When it’s just Eli and I, I tend to be able to experiment and try new recipes.  Lately I’ve been trying a lot of recipes from HalfBakedHarvest.com, and yesterday’s crib, while my children were in Maine with their grandparents for a couple nights, was her Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen.  I didn’t have the good kind of ramen on hand, so we improvised with my favorite buckwheat noodles, which I prefer anyway.  I doubled the chicken and added a little Sambal Olek for heat, and it was absolutely delicious.

In total, this is about a 45 minute recipe if you include chopping the mushrooms and the peppers, ransacking the fridge for wherever the heck I had stashed the Ginger Garlic Paste and getting the instant pot up to pressure.

One prep tip I highly recommend is to take a freezer-safe baggie, and whenever you are prepping onions or mushrooms, take the stubs or the peels and put them in the baggie in the freezer.  You can add to it freely as you cook, and when you are ready to make chicken or turkey stock, just dump the contents in with the carcass, water, a dollop of vinegar, some bay leaves and thyme, and cook for 7 or 8 hours.  You will end up with the best broth ever. In preparing one meal, you also lay the foundation for another.20190222_170142

Dinner was ready in no time, and this has now become one of our favorite new meals.  Spring will be here soon enough, and with it fresh greens and salads.  But for now, coconut milk, chicken, peanut butter, honey, and noodles fill our bowls.