Summer Bounty

chicken summer 2019

I woke up this morning a little too early, with morning rain rolling in.  The kids have been with their grandparents this week, but they are finally due home later today.  It’s a mellow week – I work for a few days, then we’re off to the mountains for a bit.

The combination of rain every few days combined with sun means the gardens are growing and everything is lush and beautiful.  The chickens are let out most days to perform one of the most critical jobs on the farmlet – eating ticks and other bugs.  Deer ticks are a huge problem here in Massachusetts, and chickens are one of the best defenses for our little space.  They view them as nothing so much as tasty snacks.

Our CSA started up a few weeks ago, and is supplying us with lots of greens.  We are enjoying salads almost nonstop.  My current favorite is a little feta, some lettuce and tomatoes, a sliced-up mango, avocado, and toasted pumpkin seeds.  It’s a really great combination of savory, sweet and sour,  but really any type of salad this time of year will do.

We’ve mostly jettisoned pre-made salad dressing for the simplest and most delicious kind – squeeze one lemon over the salad, add salt, pepper, and olive oil, and toss.  I’m never going back to a bottle of dressing.  Ever.

We’ve also been getting broccoli and kale in enough volume that it’s time to start blanching and freezing it for the cooler weather.  It seems almost ridiculous in June to be planning for winter, but it always comes, and the more food I preserve now, the less we will need then.

The Honey Locust tree is in bloom, dropping waterfalls of  beautiful white flowers all over the driveway.  The blooms last only a few days, but create the sense that driving up to the house is a Hollywood dream sequence, with flowers wafting over you in slow motion.

The garden is growing beautifully, and other than the rabbits that tunnel under the fence a la Peter in Mr. McGregor’s garden to compete for the bounty, we should have an amazing harvest this year.  It’s a late-summer garden, mostly tomatoes and peppers because of the effort to build and finish it, but it’s almost time to add fall greens, and finish the fence and gate.  In the middle sits a small fig tree, planted just a few weeks ago, but starting to leaf.

All in all, we planted 5 fruit trees this year – a Cinnamon Spice apple to replace the one that is dying and needs to be removed (it tastes just like it sounds), a Seckel pear, 2 apricots, one an Iranian variety, and one a Japanese Ume type, and the fig tree in the middle of the garden.  My dwarf cherry didn’t survive the winter, but I will wait until next year to try again on that.  I bought my trees from Trees of Antiquity, started by a preservationist in order to save some of the older, less planted species.  Since preservation is part of what is so important to me here, paying a teensy big extra to know that I’m continuing a line of trees that has grown for hundreds of years makes me smile every time I see the tiny leaves growing on what amounted to little more than sticks with roots when they arrived.

One thing that has been critical in building and preserving this land is amending the soil.  Last year nearly 16 yards of organic compost went into the new garden, and this year I’m adding more everywhere I plant.  The mostly ignored front of the house got some newly-divided daylilies from the Moms, but when I started digging I realized the soil was mostly dust.  A few buckets of compost later, the daylilies are preparing to bloom.

I never grow tired of listening to the rain, especially when I can just sit and enjoy it.  All too often, I sit on Saturday mornings and make a to-do list.  But this morning I decided that despite all the important things that must be done, so too is it important for me to reflect on how far we’ve come since that cold December night when the children and I first arrived.  Not even 3 years yet, and we’ve added so much to this place.  And it keeps adding to us.

I hope your home brings you as much joy as ours does.

In Celebration Of Fathers

Summer’s bounty has started to arrive.  Our CSA started this week, with lettuce, scallions, broccoli and some other goodies, plus a quart of fresh-picked strawberries.  Not much other than the dill that quietly naturalized in the garden is ready to eat yet here at Sithean, but in a few weeks I expect that to change.

Eli and I had an unexpected evening alone last night, and pulled out all the stops on dinner at home to make Half-baked Harvest’s Chicken Souvlaki Bowls, which were pretty delicious, and fun to eat on the weekend that we’ve finished up Whole30.

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I don’t plan to make Whole30 a lifestyle – cheese and wine are far too important to me – but we did feel healthy and lost some weight, so I suspect we’ll be having some periodic stretches of it in our future.

Today we’re celebrating Father’s Day at a bluegrass festival – us, the kids, and my ex-husband, headed off to picnic, listen to music and eat from food trucks.  That’s not probably typical, and it does occasionally feel pretty awkward to all of the adults involved, but I don’t think I would change it for the world.  As a matter of fact, when I look back on my life in old age, I think I will value that combining of us together not just as 3, and hopefully someday 4,  co-parents but as friends and as a mutual support system.  It’s intentional, and it’s actually pretty great.

And fathers – in all their forms – are hugely important.

My father had – has – a lot of mental health issues that impacted our relationship over the years.  I spent a very good deal of my childhood years wishing for a ‘normal’ childhood.  It wasn’t all bad, and I still often treasure memories of tromping around Boston on Saturdays with him and my sisters, but there’s a good deal I would rather not have happened as well.

Having a parent who isn’t a good parent is a tough thing and all too real for too many kids.  In my adult years, I’ve realized that as a parent, one of the greatest gifts he gave me is a long list of what not to do with my own children.  One of those not-things?  Ensuring that their Dad, I and Eli fully align on the really important stuff and avoid conflict about the small things.  We put the kids at the center, and every decision is a result of that.

My ex and I have carefully crafted a friendship out of the end of our marriage. We still irritate one another, but we also trust one another 100%.  We’re not always in agreement, but we always align, and we still enjoy one another’s company.   He’s helped around the house endlessly, especially in the early days, and we’re completely committed to helping one another out when it’s needed.  He’s a great Dad and a great human.  I’m lucky.

To enter as a stepfather and a partner into a situation that is as complex as that is requires a special kind of patience and thoughtfulness.  Enter Eli, who handles it with immense grace.   In some ways, I’m sure it would be easier for him if my ex and I weren’t quite such good friends.  But he makes it work, and better than that.

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I’m not sure there’s anyone on earth who could have stepped into the stepfathering role quite as wonderfully and generously as he has.  Great with kids, committed to learning both them and great parenting, always up for a game or an art project or a Nerf battle outside, he brings not just love and support to me, but light and fun into our house in a way it wasn’t there before.  He loves us all, and shows it all day, every day, in endless ways.  He bears kid moods and meltdowns, relentlessly adapts to our traditions, and brings his own flavor of joy to everything we do – making even dinner time fun and interesting.

He was the thing we didn’t know we were missing until we found him.

Life with him is so, so much better than it was before, and if I thought I was lucky always, I didn’t know it like I do now.  It’s not perfect, and everyone is still adjusting, but even so – this is the best life has ever been, and it keeps getting better.

Add to that my children’s wonderful grandfather, Angus – whose limitless patience, candy jar and love of them is a joy to behold, someone who I adore and admire as a person and I am lucky to know, my amazing and adored brothers-in-law, who are  truly great fathers as well as visibly loving and adoring my children , and I’d say my kids are doing pretty good in the father, uncle and grandfather category.

Today as we sit on a blanket and listen to bluegrass, I won’t be wishing a thing was different – even if it rains, or there are mosquitoes, or the kids eat too much sugar and get overtired.  That’s the small stuff.  The big stuff is the 3 central adults in their lives surrounding them to give them experiences and time and teach them what it means to take a less-than-ideal situation and make it something great.

Happy Father’s Day to all of you.  May your day be filled with love.

Love

How Does My Garden Grow – June 2019

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It’s foggy this morning, but finally back to being warm, after a week of weather chilly enough that we caved and put the heat on at one point.  The outcome of the rain and chill is a landscape that is even more impossibly lovely and magical than before.  Living here in this fairy-tale landscape is a gift.

I’m giving up a day in the garden today for a milestone with my daughter – after 2.5 years of dedicated work, she’s off to her first horse show.  All week we’ve been madly prepping – an extra lesson, shopping for all the attire she needs, polishing boots and packing snacks and extra clothes for the day.  It’s not the kind of thing we can budget for frequently, but it’s worth every dime.  My daughter, who generally asks for nothing, wanted this more than anything.

We’re deep in getting the garden together, but we also took a little time out to introduce the chickens to the yard.  It’s time for them to start earning their keep by eating ticks and other garden pests.  Statler the chicken, one of our adored Polish breed, took a bit of time to explore whether tree-climbing was also a ‘chicken thing’.  We’re not sure what she

Kiera and Statler

thinks but she seemed more interested than distressed.  Her sister, Waldorf, and their other companions seemed to find the earth more interesting.

Eli and I have been hard at work on the garden.  It’s a combination of building, weeding and planting at the same time.  We need to finish up in the next couple weeks so we can turn our attention to projects on the house itself.  This is some hard work, but it’s also a labor of love.   We’ve managed to plant tomatoes of all sorts, peppers, both the sweet and spicy kind, cauliflower, spinach, Brussels sprouts, lots of herbs, rhubarb, carrots, a couple sugar pumpkin plants, and a Japanese cucumber we are trying out this year.   So far, so good.   The Thai basil is looking a bit sad, but I think a little heat will perk it up.

We’ve mostly gotten the flowers planted as well, with the only holdouts being the two climbing rose bushes that we got to train up the butterfly gate.

Still to go are more tomatoes, more greens, butternut squash, and a few other things.  In August I’ll plant some more kale and greens.  I didn’t get to tomatillos or beans this year, but 4 new fruit trees are set to arrive any day – Japanese and Iranian varieties of apricots, a Seckel pear, and a fig tree.  This year, we’ll take extra caution with protecting the new trees for winter, since the bitter cold has devastated the ones I have planted to date.

Eli has taken on most of the construction tasks while I weed, move dirt and plant.  We’ve gotten a 5th garden bed built and planted already, and next weekend at least 6th should get done, if not more.

The garden with 5 beds planted

It’s looking beautiful, and I find it nearly impossible to describe how it feels to dream of a potager garden and then see it come to life.   The old bricks I used for the first few beds will eventually need to be replaced, and there’s still a full half of the garden to build, but it’s transforming before my eyes into the paths and beds of my daydreams, complete with Hollyhocks along the front edge.

This was the beginning.  This was the daydream that became a sketched plan over tea with my neighbor, that became an almost-finished fence and brick beds that became the place where I go to play in the sunshine.  So much labor and time went into it.  Sweat equity that I treasure as much as the finished product.  When I look back over my life, it is the things that I’ve built and grown and tended that matter the most.

My children.  Eli.  And this place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Managing Food Waste

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It’s cold and soggy out tonight, despite it being nearly June.  We had a lovely, summer-like Memorial Day weekend, but the weather turned this morning, and it’s cold enough that the heat is back on.  Still, I got tons of time in the garden – more on that later – and the soaking rain means I don’t have to water plants any time soon.  I’m excited for the season – our garden is partially planted, and the CSA starts up next week.

Our life at Sithean creates a little too much waste, like most of us first-world folks.  Despite the fact that we use cloth napkins, try to buy in bulk and garden/have a CSA, the amount of waste still astounds me, and we’re working on it.  We can’t reduce in all ways, but we’re going to try.

One thing we do manage pretty well is food waste.  Our food-waste management program has 7 distinct areas, and together they serve to help minimize our load on the environment, at least in this one way.   None of them work perfectly, mind you, but it is something I feel pretty proud of generally.

  1. Kids create a lot of leftovers.  Eli and I are midway through Whole30, so we’re not eating a lot of the kids’ food. Under normal circumstances he finishes a lot of what they don’t eat.  I do occasionally, but significantly less.  This is simple and doesn’t require a farmlet or any special equipment.  He simply waits until they are done with breakfast or lunch before figuring out what he’s eating.  Dinner we eat together, but we still have been known to polish off what they don’t. 
  2. Compost.  We have 2 compost bins and we compost peelings, icky fruit, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags etc.  This eventually becomes soil for my garden.  Coffee grounds in the summer also directly fertilize my rose bushes about once a week – roses love leftover coffee.  I keep a small compost container on the kitchen counter, and we empty it as we fill it, every few days.  I know we’re eating healthiest when we have to empty it every day or so.
  3. Bunnies.  Apple cores, broccoli stems, zucchini ends, lettuce leaves and other vegetable pieces supplement their bunny pellets, hay and 2-carrot-a-day habit. In kale season, they can give my blanch-and-freeze process a run for it’s money in their kale consumption alone.
  4. Chickens.  Chickens are omnivores, and ours, at 3 months old, are just starting their scrap-consumption.  There are a few things that aren’t good for them, and I don’t ever feed them chicken (eww) but otherwise all the scraps go to them.  They love their extra treats, we love not tossing food, and in a few more months there will be eggs galore.
  5. Reuse.  Leftovers from dinner are often lunch.  Roasted chickens become soup.  Mushroom stumps and onion peels add flavor and complexity to the broth.  Parmesan rinds flavor soups and stews.  So many things can be transformed into another in the kitchen.  Fruits that are starting to get soft or slightly less appealing go into our smoothies.
  6. Refrigerator and pantry management.  This is the most labor-intensive one, and requires constant monitoring to ensure that nothing is going bad, and adaptation to recipes to ensure that things get used up on time.  It’s the one we are the least skilled at remembering to do, of course.
  7. Eating less and preserving more.  This too, is hard.  But it’s good for our health and our waistlines, as well as Mother Earth.  The less food we buy, the less there is to go to waste.  In the summer, when the CSA and the garden are producing food we preserve for the winter months.  I reuse my canning jars over and over, and every jar of salsa or sauce I make is one less I buy later.

I’ve still got so much more to do to reduce our footprint.  But food waste management is a skill I have been perfecting, and it’s not much effort.  Need help in managing your food waste?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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