Monday, October 20, 2014

Summer Garden

I always feel sad when it comes time to say goodbye to summer. Living in Minnesota we don't get a sufficient dose of heat to make me grateful for the cooler weather when it arrives. Yes, there is much to look forward to in fall. And with the stunning blaze of reds, oranges and yellows coloring my world this past week I am finally greeting her with open arms. But first, one last look back at summer before we are fully immersed in the celebrations and birthdays that fall brings for our family.

We harvested 46 heads of garlic this year. I'll go right ahead and declare that a raging success. Undoubtedly, garlic was our biggest triumph of the season. And no matter what else happened in the garden this year I feel a sense of accomplishment when, in need of a few cloves for dinner, I go down to fetch a head from the hefty bagful in our basement. 

The blue jade was just as cute and child-size perfect as last year . Still we only got one ear per stem of corn - quite a bit of real estate for not much return. I'm considering growing full size stalks next year, though I may not be able to resist those little blue ears staring at me from their seed packets come spring.

This cookbook, which is as much art as it is a compendium of veggie recipes, offered a delicious way to use my green zebras and late broccoli crop. We grew many tomatoes this year - 13 plants in all - including old favorites and some new varieties like gold medal, which was true to its description as one of the sweetest tomatoes I've ever eaten. Again our crop suffered from a fungus. The tomatoes are picking up their roots and relocating to a new bed next year. More sun, more heat. 

I was right about those peppers. Decidedly not habaneros. We concluded they were probably yellow wax peppers or banana peppers. I found a nice recipe to combine them with our neighbors' cucumbers that arrived en masse mid season and enjoyed them grilled with potatoes and other veggies. But I realized I am lacking in ideas for what to do with an onslaught of peppers. Ideas?

After a slow start I was pretty thrilled to have eggplants, which we devoured grilled with salt roasted tomatoes and ricotta, another recipe found in Vegetable Literacy. The kale has been abundant this year and grows stronger and sweeter with the cooling air. We grew dragon's tongue and yellow wax beans, bell peppers, a couple types of basil, carrots, raspberries, pumpkins and tomatillos that sprawled dramatically across their raised bed. We even harvested one single precious apple from our tree (the rest didn't make it or were snatched by the sneaky snacky squirrels) which we dipped in honey for a Rosh Hashana treat.

Among the vegetables we often spotted a resident fairy in rain boots who flitted around collecting berries, baby carrots, jack-be-little pumpkins and chamomile flowers for gnomie, who lives by a tiny pond among the zinnias. 

All in all, this was a successful year for the garden. And one that brought many changes for future growing seasons. Our neighbors erected the fence pictured above along the back of our yard. Two trees on the perimeter were removed to make way for the fence, extending the sunlight on our garden through the afternoon and increasing our growing space. Next year we will be able to expand into the other half of the back of our yard - having that much blank space to work with is mind boggling. I am grateful for the fall and winter months during which we will dream about this future garden before we dig in and start planting all over again next spring.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Pizza Night at Two Pony Gardens

As we begin our fourth year here in Minnesota we have nestled into a familiar rhythm of traditions that demarcate the passage of time, the seasons, and move us along the year. Our annual visit to Two Pony Gardens has taken on that significance for me -- it has become more than just a place we enjoy, but reminds me of our growth here in Minnesota, where we were when we arrived and how far we have come in the years since then. Things have changed there, as things inevitably do. But, to me at least, the essence is of what makes Two Pony Gardens special and unique is still there.

Bigger crowds at Two Pony necessitate more horse power. This year Mickey and Pete were joined by Abby and Sven. I was lucky to get a spot behind the coachman on our wagon ride. He held four reigns in his hands sandwiched between different fingers and try as I might to understand the logic of how he shifted them from finger to finger, hand to hand it seemed like a complex puzzle to me. I was in awe. The four horses led us through a trail in the woods around the property. I was reminded of Little House in the Big Woods and wondered what it must have been like to travel everywhere by horse drawn carriage along roads just like the one we traveled on. Bumpy. That's how it must have been.

Another new addition to the Two Pony experience was a puppet show by Open Eye Theater. Not exaggerating, this was one of the best puppet shows I have ever seen. The puppeteers performed The Amazing Cow Boat, which was part of their driveway tour this summer. They tour around performing four different puppet shows in peoples' backyards, front yards, parks and driveways all spring and summer long. We are still singing the catchy refrain around our house -- "part cow, part boat, part…ama-a-zing."

And then, of course, there is the garden...

Mostly dahlias of all shapes and hues with a smattering of echinacea, joe pye weed, tansy, anemone and many other lovelies towering in rows that beg you to run and hide among the colors.

And the long-awaited pizza...

We've learned that patience is of the essence when it comes to dinner at Two Pony Gardens. It is slow food after all. After 3 years of visits we've finally got our system down and brought just enough snacks to tie us over until finally the pizza arrived fresh from the oven. Undoubtedly, the hours of anticipation only make it more delicious.

Isn't this the thing about undiscovered gems -- pretty much the moment they are discovered they lose some of their "geminess." Once the word got out about how lovely and unique and secluded and delicious and quirky Two Pony Garden pizza nights are, they became busier, more expensive, more structured and populated by what felt like a less community-oriented crowd. But does success necessarily imply ultimate corruption? Change is inevitable, but I think Two Pony Gardens is trying to retain the essence of what makes it so magical. And as far as I'm concerned we will continue to return.

In this last picture Eli is sitting in the back of the horse-drawn sleigh that Mickey and Pete take out over snow covered trails in the winter time. I imagine throwing the Minnesota winter and cold into the mix will rekindle some of the essence of Two Pony that may be sacrificed when the crowds descend on summertime pizza nights. A quieter, more intimate escape to the woods with creative people who cherish the Earth and appreciate locally sourced, delicious food. What do you say we meet up there in January, okay?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Yellow Boots

I've had a helper in the garden this week. If you'd been hanging around our backyard you might recognize him by his yellow puddle boots, which he often insists on wearing even in the thick heat of summer, and that hose he wields indiscriminately. 

I finally snipped off the scapes and made my once-a-year favorite double garlic soup. Really, I should have done this weeks ago, but let's just be glad that I eventually got around to it. I almost felt badly cutting them off -- they really are so lovely swooping here and there.

Things are growing fast. This pepper (which is supposed to be a habanero, but I am having doubts) is literally twice the size since I took this photo a few days ago.

Tomatoes are approaching ripeness. I'm looking forward to abundance. We seem to be dealing with septoria leaf spot again this year. Sigh. I suppose I really will have to move the tomatoes to another bed for a few years.

The flowers are providing us with fresh color straight from the garden - one of my favorite summertime things. Herbs are filling in the little corner I've allotted them. Sunflowers are growing tall. And that malabar spinach is a doozy.

Our big harvest this week was an enormous head of broccoli that went straight from the garden to the grill. Sweet and crisp with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon. You haven't really tasted broccoli until you've tried it fresh, still warm from the sun.

I expect those yellow boots will be clomping around a whole lot in the coming days and weeks as the garden comes into her full glory.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Walk in the Garden

Heading into year two of our garden I felt the satisfaction of building on last year's work and had high hopes for this year's progress. Now at the start of summer we are just over one month into the growing season here. Looking back to where we were a year ago I recognize how much of a head start we already have over last year. The third raised bed was prepared and planted with garlic last fall. We had already dug out about half of the kids' garden last year and it was quick spring time work preparing the rest of the bed. Some perennials were already in place and I had my system for starting seeds down this year. 

I've started heirloom tomatoes for the past several years after realizing it was hard to find seedlings for my favorites (green zebras), and in an effort to keep costs down decided to give flowers a go this year too.  I started morning glories, pumpkins, cosmos, zulu prince daisies, poppies, lots of zinnias (because they make such wonderful cut flowers), along with my usual heirloom tomatoes. Will gets a bit annoyed when so much of our counter space is invaded by my trays of plants, but he is a good sport and doesn't huff and puff too much when I repeatedly request his help hauling the trays in and out the backdoor in the weeks when I'm hardening off the plants. Aside from saving money, growing these little plants from seed provides hope and that delicious smell of wet soil in the early days of spring when snow stubbornly clings to the ground inspiring woe in our sorely vitamin D deprived Minnesotan selves.

This year I've discovered a secret to successful gardening for and with kids - garden paths. Kids love running on paths through the garden. It keeps the garden fun and interactive and mostly keeps them from running through beds that have recently been planted. I have been hearing about the Friend's School Mother's Day plant sale for years and was excited to check it out this year. Along with a wagon full of happy little plants I brought home this stepping stone to adorn one of the prominent pathways. I surrounded it with irish moss and hope it will be a magical, cushy path by the end of the summer.

I ended up adopting a malabar spinach plant this year - and though I never intended for it to be a permanent resident of our garden I am happy it is here (thank you, Darcy!) It is a vigorous climber and, while not a true spinach plant, it supposedly tastes like spinach when cooked. Unlike spinach, it also loves the heat and will grow through the summer. The lovely malabar spinach sits alongside a patch of sunflowers (because nothing speaks summer like sunflowers towering overhead), snapdragons (Ava loves them) and a patch of several herbs (roman chamomile, oregano, sage and peppermint.) I've learned my lesson and will keep those sunflowers caged until they are no longer so deliciously appealing to the bunnies that hop around our yard like they own the place. 

With our recent discovery that Will is likely allergic to eggs my dream of backyard chickens is even more unrealistic than ever. Luckily Terracotta Chicken is hypoallergenic, low maintenance and, though she doesn't provide nitrogen-rich poop for the garden, she does a fine job guarding the jack-be-little pumpkins. I've never grown pumpkins before, but the idea of them is irresistible for a kids' garden. Along with the jack-be-littles (the tiny ones that fit in the palm of your hand) I planted lumina, those ghostly white pumpkins. I welcome any advice on how to keep the squirrels and other critters from eating them as they grow.

I planted broccoli and lots more kale this year because we eat so much of it - lacinato for sautéing and curly kale for making kale chips. I planted a collection of lettuces and we've been savoring our home grown salads. Even Ava and Eli get excited about the lettuce when they discover it's from our garden. I'm foregoing growing pole beans this year - I just don't end up getting excited about them come harvest time - and we're sticking to our favorite bush beans, yellow wax and dragon's tongue.

The third bed is filled mostly with the garlic I planted last fall. It is so glorious standing majestic and tall when other plants in the garden are only getting started. It is almost time for our annual garlic scape soup. Along with the garlic I am growing bell peppers, habaneros, eggplant and tomatillos. I have an excellent recipe for tomatillo salsa, which I look forward to making with these cuties.

And look at these beauties. Dare I get my hopes up? No apples grew on our tree last year. The previous owners of our house planted three apple trees, two of which have mostly perished after harsh winters and attack of hungry bunnies. But this one seems to be doing okay. And this year it appears we may actually have some apples come fall. I will be jumping for joy if we get a few - even one, really. And I can't wait to find out what kind they are!

I thought I overdid it with tomatoes last year. So naturally I'm growing even more of them this year. Twelve in the bed, one in a pot and one other in the kids' garden that Ava planted in her summer class at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. I started my favorites - green zebras - and am trying a new kind this year - gold medal. We were gifted our other tomato plants from Will's colleague who has his seed starting down to a science. I hope to have a wide array of tomatoes for my daily omelets, Sunday morning bagels lox and cream cheese, caprese salads, tomato soup and last year's favorite, garlicky oven dried tomatoes. You can never have too many tomatoes. 

I hope you enjoyed this stroll through part of our garden. With all of the rain we've been having (more than in any other spring in recorded history) things are growing fast and are already looking quite different from when I took these photos. I hope your gardens have gotten off to a great start and I wish you a very happy beginning of summer!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Spring Sugar

It's that time of year again. Spring is shy. Such a tease. With plenty of snow and ice still on the ground and temperatures that make your fingertips ache, it is easy to dismiss the fact that it is indeed spring. I try not to think about it too much, otherwise spring becomes a roller coaster of alternating hope and disappointment for me every year. But really, there is no denying it; the signs are all around us and becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Those birds are singing with fervor. Patches of earth peek up from between mounds of snow here and there. There's an occasional drip drip of ice melting from the roof. The squirrels are noticeably friskier. And there's this:

We had a slow start to sugaring season this year. The local maple syruping festivals came and went without any sap to show. Things have been a bit start and stop. But we've already collected a fair amount of sap from a couple good days and conditions are looking favorable for the next week.

Last year was our first year making syrup. And it was such a good syruping year that our syrup lasted through half a year of alternating pancake and waffle Saturday morning breakfasts. We have two box elder trees tapped in our yard. A third that is supposedly a box elder never produced much last year. We're giving it one more try. The box elder is a species of maple and its syrup is similar but distinct from traditional maple syrup. Undeniably yummy. From what I understand, the box elder is not typically a 'desirable' tree in landscaping. But the sweet sap they offer us so generously makes them among the most treasured trees in our yard. 

Here's to appreciating the undeniable signs of spring even as winter persists with its blizzards and frigidness. And hoping for another bountiful (but maybe a tad shorter than last year!) syruping season. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Kitchen Renovation

Hi friends. It's been a while. It always seems when there is the most to share, there is little time to actually sit down and write it out. Now that our busy time of the year has passed - anniversary, holidays, all of our birthdays (including a big one for Will), family visits, and the persistent cold that made me wish I was a hibernating bear this winter - and we've had some time to breathe again, I feel ready to return to this space.

These days, when we know spring must be on the horizon somewhere, remind me of where we were this time one year ago. Just two weeks ago we had closed on our house. And thus began one of the busiest, most stressful periods of our lives together. For the following two months we worked tirelessly, through colds, fevers and upper respiratory distress, to get our house ready for move in day. I remember the Ikea delivery people lugging the many boxes that contained our kitchen up our driveway. It was mostly obstructed by a huge dumpster and covered in at least several inches of ice (because apparently our sidewalks and driveway hadn't been shoveled the entire winter before we moved in.) Will and I took turns each night going over to the house to get as much work done before we had no choice but to drag our tired bodies to bed. And most of the time, I took care of the kiddos while Will was doing all of the work I couldn't do. We were doubtful that we'd get it done in time. And without help, we wouldn't have.

Now the idea of "done" is laughable, of course. Because while thinking back to that time a year ago reminds me of how far we have come since those first days, I look around me and see unfinished projects literally everywhere. In fact, I'm not sure I would call any of our projects "done." But rather than wait for completion before a big reveal, I figure it's time to just show it like it is for our one year anniversary.

In the summer I showed you Will's amazing work on our three-season porch. The next stop on our home tour is the biggie - the kitchen. I hesitated to show you before pictures when we first moved into the house because I thought they might terrify you (or perhaps it was I who was terrified). Well, here it is in it's glory.

Does it give you an eerie feeling like you're back in your high school science lab? Cause that's the effect it had on me. The stainless steel countertops and backsplash were actually custom made for this kitchen, so I'm guessing someone really appreciated them. The black marble floor spanned the entire kitchen and powder room. I know some of you who have visited our house say you actually like the black marble - it is just not my cup of tea. When we bought the house the previous owners offered to sell us more of the tiles in case we wanted to cover more of our house in black marble. Apparently they had several hundred extra tiles. No thank you.

So out it all came. Will bought his grad students pizza and served them some of his home brew in exchange for their help ripping everything out from floor to ceiling. I am amazed by how quickly things can be ripped out compared with how long it actually takes to put them back together again. 

What you don't see in these pictures, besides all of the work of course, is all of the planning of (agonizing over) the design of the kitchen. We designed several incarnations of the kitchen and actually were about to head over to Ikea to purchase a completely different kitchen design before realizing that it wasn't going to work due to the placement of/space for plumbing and gas lines in the walls. In retrospect, I am so grateful that the initial plan didn't work, because the plan we went with is so much better - though a bit more expensive. And thanks to all of you who pushed us to go for the more complex, but ultimately superior plan (Papa, Aunt Debbie, that's you). 

At first we were going to keep the layout of the kitchen sort of similar to what it had been, since the window (as you'll note in the pictures above) was too low to put a counter in front of it. But get the Northrop men together and they inspire a brazen sense of confidence in each other and their ability to complete home renovation projects. Apparently it runs in the family. I have been told several times over the years of how Will's grandfather sent his grandmother out on a short errand one day. When she returned she was surprised to find he had completely ripped out a staircase in their home with plans to relocate it elsewhere in the house. (see my comment above about the time it takes to rip things out versus the times it takes to rebuild them. ahem.) If you, like I, were under the impression that windows, walls and stairwells are static, apparently you were wrong.

So they decided that they would just reframe and put in a new, smaller, window with enough room for a counter underneath it. It turns out this is not only possible, but not so hard as long as you have two people to set the new window in its frame.

This is where the fun began for me. While Will and his father turned their attentions on getting Eli's room ready for him, I put together all of the cabinets, installed the drawers, shelves, doors and handles. I can now say with confidence that there is nothing Ikea can make that I cannot put together. Perhaps not much of an accomplishment, but it feels good to have contributed at least this to our kitchen. Will mounted them to the walls (because I will not touch that job with a 10 foot pole -- I have a possibly irrational fear that things hung on walls are bound to fall down on me. Perhaps a psychological remnant of the time the wall shelves in my childhood room did exactly that.)

Eventually all the appliances arrived (after my dad somehow convinced the appliance store that our young children were going to starve if they did not deliver our stove within a couple days of us moving in) and the kitchen came together enough for us to use it very comfortably.

You may notice the delicious green peeking through the kitchen window. These pictures were not taken recently, though I assure you the kitchen looks almost identical today. After our initial burst of work on this space we took a step back and have gotten quite used to the primer on the walls, holes in the baseboards, and general lack of trim. It's funny how that happens. You forget about that hole in the doorway with exposed electrical wiring where the pocket door used to be until your toddler reaches her hand into the hole inquiring, "what's this in here?" (That hole has since been covered.) 

It's nice to take a trip back and see how far we've come. And it's also a nice reminder that it's about time to pick out those backsplash tiles, hang the light fixtures that have been sitting in a box in the basement for months, and finish framing out the window. Perhaps one day we'll even get to painting the walls! Maybe we'll have some "done" pictures to show you by our two year anniversary.