Creating a New Garden

Zinnia and peonies next to the kitchen walkway

We have a little stone walkway that leads to our kitchen door; it ends, or begins, at our driveway. Next to the walkway I’ve planted herbs—many of which I brought with me from my last little house — to cook with. Also, they make my house a home.

Pathway to herbs and grassy hill from garden

Each of these plants has it’s own energy and, I believe, sentience. For years I’ve had thyme, sage, peppermint, rosemary, and oregano growing. There’s also lavender, tulsi (holy basil), basil, parsley, lady’s mantle, lemon balm, lemon verbena … I know these plants; the perennials have been split, moved around, and taken root in more than one place around the property. The self seeding plants have reappeared, magically, near to their original spots. They have been in my cooking, giving flavor and brightness to our meals, been tea, food for butterflies, hummingbirds, yellow finch.

This spring I decided that I wanted to create a proper kitchen garden and add to this group, but I felt stuck as I tried to imagine a design that I could create.

The spot I had in mind next to the kitchen has a slope. It used to be a barn, actually, which is a bit mysterious to me since I would expect the spot the barn stood on to be flat. The barn, now gone, was blown over by a hurricane in 1933. Since the barn’s demise, the spot acquired grass to become a grassy hill next to the house with a few well-established foundation plantings.

Grassy hillside between kitchen and driveway

I hired enchanted gardens, Jana Millbocker, to create a design for me since I was having trouble imagining my little hillside transformed. She did, measuring and photographing the hillside, and drawing on traditional designs.

It’s autumn in New England and so creating the structure is what I can do, along with relocating existing plants to their new homes. I’ve been at it for weeks, constructing a stone retaining wall, removing turf, moving plants, laying pea stone:

New herb garden. Bones!

Next year, some of these will mature and grow and there will be a host of new residents added. Borage, bronze fennel, basil, tarragon, others.

So, with winter about to descend I’ve paused construction to enjoy the flaming autumn colors all around us and to give extra love to my relocated friends …

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Being a Witch …

What a year we are having.

Over recent years I’ve kept my witchcraft mostly in the closet. Quietly monitoring moon phases, celebrating the high holidays, a spot of sympathetic magic here and there. A few friends I consider simpatico know I practice witchcraft. And every once in a while I lift my skirt enough to reveal a striped stocking with a nod to the equinox or Imbolg but I am sensitive to how controversial witchcraft is – the word alone gets people going – and I can’t take myself seriously enough to call myself Wiccan. The truth is that even though I find spirit, goddess, And the infinite divine in my connection with nature and the cycles of the planet my persistent and long standing affinity for witchcraft has more to do with its practical application.

So here we are in 2020. Covid all around us, a president that signifies, represents, and in every way actualizes the self-absorbed society we’ve become, and climate change standing on the doorstep like an unwelcome but expected spectre that some people can’t see.

It’s surreal, even for me.

So I awoke today on the heels of the blood moon, during a blue moon month, with the waning moon in Aries, thinking about apple pie, the cool air of autumn, and whether doing a group spell with a group of magically oriented people would be a good idea, even if we’re all masked.

*heavy sigh*

My girlfriend, another witch more given to group gatherings, has decided on a group spell that I’m on board for. The question is how best to carry it out amid current circumstances. It’s not as if we can’t be inventive, but when energy flows, it flows. And it carries whatever is in the air right along with it. My sense is that virus’ aren’t an exception, so we’re talking about an outdoor activity with masks. And we always like a good fire.

So now we come to it. Witchcraft is a practice of tuning in to the energy of the planet, healing, and exploring and releasing intention. You can keep it light or it can be intense, just like anything else. And for years it’s been in my closet since the notion that some of us work with subtle energies makes people nervous. But we all work with subtle energy whether we mean to or not.

So we can pretend that’s not the case, just like some people pretend climate change isn’t happening, or we can recognize it, own it, and name it.

For my part, a healthy connection to the planet, it’s phases, it’s astral neighbors, it’s flying, rooted, four-legged, and two-legged inhabitants is where I land, the space I inhabit. The moon and the planet’s cycles are the energies I tune into.

And this month is a nice time to let it flow.

So with this growing season winding down, this presidency winding down, and change riding the autumn wind, it’s time to cast a circle, call the elements to join, and invite a clear vision of the reality we are creating for ourselves as individuals and spinning and weaving all around us. After all, it’s a season for witchcraft and there’s no better time than Halloween to don a witch’s hat and cast a spell of your own.

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Slowing Down.

Autumn light from the vegetable garden

The trees have just begun to turn here in Massachusetts – we are at the moment just before everything bursts into color – and everywhere all the eye sees in this moment is the promise and potential of autumn in New England.

It’s nothing short of magical.

My squash are the weeks-long prelude to this and I’ve put lettuce and radish in (weeks ago, actually) since the nights have become cooler. Now, an outdoor fire actually feels good against the mild chill that’s settling in at night.

And the raspberries–a giant, out of control tangle of bushes in our west field– are starting a smaller-than-summertime fall fruiting. I got a small handful from the bushes the other day. Sweet and yummy.

raspberries fruiting in September

The late summer blooms are fading. Our hydrangea are a muted violet, the black-eyed susans and echinacea are done, and our hold-out beauties are the zinnia, which remain brilliant and colorful. The hummingbirds love them. I put them by the window to enjoy them when I work, but this year I’ll be installing a traditional herb garden next to the kitchen…

zinnia still blooming at the end of September

… so I will have to find them a new spot for next year.

This autumn has a different feeling than others — I know I’m in good company with that feeling–the world feels a little (or maybe a lot) crazy. Fewer flights have provided a welcome relief from the continual noise and criss-cross of commercial planes in the sky and somehow I’m finally conceding that it’s okay to slow down. Years of working, commuting, and raising kids has turned me into a whizzing, whirling dervish of activity. Tightly wound, always in motion, barely fending off the anxiety that has threatened to swallow me.

Yesterday my daughter had soccer try-outs. I’m so grateful she has soccer this year, after months of being in her room and on social media. It’s not great for 15 year olds to be isolated. After dropping her at the high school I went out to do some work in the yard and lost track of time. When I thought to check, I saw that her tryouts had ended 10 minutes earlier — I saw she’d tried to call, and my phone had been in the kitchen. My heart sank and the familiar anxiety rose in me and took hold. We exchanged texts; but by then she had secured a ride home with one of her team mates and arrived angry, stalking past me, eyes stony. She was embarrassed at having been left at the field. I felt awful. Apologizing, I promised to do better, to set a timer on my phone. I’ve always been diligent, maintained a constant juggling act between meetings at work and the kids’ activities. But COVID has thrown me off.

Medicating my anxiety every night with a glass (or 3) of wine after a long day at work and a commute while I made dinner has stopped – there’s no commute and I recently left my job (more on that another time). Which means that in the pause I’m forced to see the patterns–no, the ruts– I created over years of going so fast and pushing so hard.

And today, standing in the vegetable garden and looking at the light on the trees I’m asking myself if it’s okay to just slow down now. Can I just pick the ripe peppers and beans, cook them, and sweep the floor? Set a timer to remember appointments rather than go from one task to another in a planned sequence all day long? Allow myself some focus and flow? Can I give myself permission to do that? The answer I’m hearing: It’s not just okay to slow down– it’s time to slow down. The planet is demanding it.

So with that thought anchoring everything else, I’m working on slowing down. On noticing the feeling of the weather changing, the colors emerging. Setting a timer for soccer pickups.

2020 is a turning point. Not accidentally, the whole world is at a turning point because we got ourselves into this mess together.

Now we have an opportunity to slow down long enough to see ourselves, each other, and the planet, to stop whirling around like crazy, out of control tops. And to take care of ourselves, each other, and the planet. It’s not just okay to slow down. It’s time.

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Autumnal Equinox

Equinox altar

The Autumn Equinox—-today in the northern hemisphere—brings balance. Pause and feel the shift as day and night are equal.

It’s a magical day to set an intention related to balance in your life.

If you are harnessing this short tide keep in mind that the moon is in Sagittarius – it’s an active, adventurous lunar mood.

Believe in yourself today, in your own happiness, And in the things that bring you joy.

Release judgement of yourself and others and breathe.

Make room in your energy field for something new by releasing something that no longer serves you.

Some other thoughts on the Autumn Equinox and capturing the energy of new beginnings: https://crediblemind.com/articles/finding-renewal-under-autumn-skies

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The Big Red

The “Big Red” inside cover herb pairings for all sorts of dishes

At some point my mother decided this book was old and unnecessary and she handed it down to me. Betty Crocker’s Cookbook – published first in 1969, the year I was born, and then revised in 1978.

The best kick-ass brownie recipe ever is in this book. Other recipes … not so much. Toasty tuna casserole (yes, I tried it) calls for sliced sandwich bread, mayonnaise, processed American cheese (yes, processed, please), frozen vegetables and canned, condensed cream of celery soup. It does ask for a fresh onion, but alas, was not a success.

Despite the failed tuna casserole, there’s a nice table of herbal correspondences on the inside cover of the book (photo above). And so tonight, when I was making chicken soup with a left over roasting carcass I noticed that I could add marjoram – which can be substituted with a bit less oregano- since the flavors are similar; oregano being stronger –or sage. Both oregano and sage are growing next to the kitchen and are in the soup. It smells great.

I can’t help feeling that this style of marketing – asserting to the audience who they are – couldn’t have been entirely successful, but 75 million copies sold so who am I to say? I was a generation behind the buyers of “Big Red.” My copy *still* sells for $18.25.

Regardless of social, cultural, or feminist commentary, this book has a few gems, not the least of which is the table of herbal correlations. Yay, Betty!

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Basil – pesto, cocktails. And personal scent?

There are many kinds of basil available to grow and enjoy, but I’ve stuck with genovese basil, which is an old stand-by for us generation x’ers. It has been my faithful companion for many years, seeing me through every recipe, especially pesto, and more recently in herbarium cocktails.

What’s an herbarium, you say? You can find it online several places, but a fun tutorial can be found at The Drunken Botanist’s site.

Along with being a great flavor in cocktails, basil is rich in vitamin K, is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and delivers other vitamins and health benefits. Yay! Something that tastes good and is good for you!

It’s getting cooler at night here in New England, so it’s time to harvest planted basil. I cut about 7 or 8 good size branches for dinner – it will make enough pesto for a box of rigatoni plus two servings. You don’t need much basil to make pesto, drinks, and anything else you’d like to make – it’s easy to grow and it is fragrant and delicious.

Basil harvest in September

In years past I’ve bought seeds, grown many basil plants, and spent hours upon hours making it into basil. Having a freezer full of basil pesto was great during the winter, particularly since my son is nut allergic and we can’t use the ones they sell in stores. This year, though, I bought a single plant and it has given me cuttings for every recipe, every salad, every drink, and tonight, for pesto. It has been a faithful garden tenant and asks for little. Just a little water, it’s happy.

A brief detour. I made dinner for our friend Dean one night recently and we started our evening with cocktails. On being offered a small selection of choices, Dean chose the Herbarium. This one calls for a few things: St Germain (elderflower liquour – delicious), lime, cucumber, and basil. He sat at our kitchen island as I prepared them and remarked on the scent of the basil – he loved it. Rubbing it between his fingers, he asked could I make a bespoke fragrance that incorporates it? I’m still working on that (basil is best fresh but I’m sure there’s a way to capture it); it has a rich, fresh, peppery scent, so I understand his request.

And now back to the pesto. It’s easy to make with or without nuts. For that matter, the french make something very similar, Pistou, that omits the cheese and the nuts and focuses on the garlic and the basil. So you can make this sauce in whatever way you please. Here’s a variation recipe:

  • fresh basil
  • 2-4 bulbs of garlic, roasted.
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • parmesan or romano cheese
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper.
  • optional – pine nuts

Roast garlic by putting unpeeled bulbs in a toaster oven or toaster and toasting at 350 until the peels are starting to brown. Roasting the garlic really adds a warm, nutty flavor to the pesto that I love.

Roasted garlic, a blender of basil leaves

Peel and combine the garlic, basil, and olive oil in a blender or food processor and process until chopped. Adjust the olive oil for the thickness you’d like the pesto to have (you can always add more olive oil later).

Add salt and pepper to taste, cheese, lemon juice, and pine nuts, and blend again. You can add olive oil if the pesto is too thick. This will swirl right onto cooked pasta or chicken (or whatever you like to eat with pesto).

If you decide to make an herbarium, pesto, or other basil-focused recipe and want to share it, please do! I’d be happy to post comments with links!

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Peppermint: Easy to Grow, Makes Great Drinks.

peppermint in my garden

A brightening, caffeine-free tea that settles the stomach? Or an exciting mojito (recipes below)? It’s up to you.

Peppermint is so easy to grow it’s actually considered invasive. If you don’t have an outdoor space you can grow it in a pot.

When I first planted a peppermint plant it was on impulse: I noticed it in passing at a garden shop, small and manageable, minty smelling with adorable little tear-shaped leaves–and for less than $5. A steal! I added it to my shopping cart and planted it next to my porch – a spot that got limited sun.

I was a young working mother with no free time, perpetually exhausted and chasing my toddler, who I knew would not collect thorns or be poisoned by my selection, close as it was to the walkway from driveway to back door. After planting it and giving it the first and only water it ever got from me, I forgot about it.

Not minding my neglect, the peppermint thrived. One day I noticed it had begun to spread and was growing tallish – reaching about 12 inches off the ground. I reached to touch the leaves and they released a beautiful, minty aroma, popping back into their leggy rambling habit. I felt a rush of gratitude at the gift of a sweet smelling plant next to my stoop, and my love for herbs was born.

Autumn came, and I couldn’t bear to watch it die back unused so I went out with scissors and cut the long stems, bunched and wrapped them with string, and hung them to dry for tea.

A note – peppermint and spearmint are different. They can both be used to mix these drinks but having done a comparison I like peppermint better than spearmint.

Different kinds of mint. Chocolate mint on the left, peppermint on the right. Both are delicious.

To make peppermint tea you can simply hang the stems in an airy place to dry. When they are ready, strip the leaves by holding the stem in one hand and running two fingers along the remainder of the stem; they come away easily. Or you can dry them on a cookie sheet with the heat set to a low temp for 2-3 hours. Crush the leaves between your fingers or with a mortar and pestle to release the oil before pouring boiling water over them and allowing the tea to steep for 5 minutes. Peppermint tea is settling to the stomach, can be given in a dropper for colic, and is brightening and refreshing to drink. Delicious with honey, lemon, and milk or cream.

For a mojito:

  • 10 fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 lime, cut into 4 wedges
  • 1/2 cup club soda
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 1/2 ounces of rum (or as much as you like)

Muddle the leaves and one lime wedge together in a glass to release the oil and juice. Add 2 more lime wedges and the sugar and muddle more to release the lime juice into the sugar. Add ice to the glass, pour the rum over the ice, add the club soda or carbonated water and stir. Garnish with the 4th lime wedge and you’re in business.

Now that’s versatility!

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Easy, luxurious tomato sauce – good on pizza.

backyard botanics – Thomas’ beautiful cherry tomatoes from last year’s summer garden

Last year at the end of April we invited our friends Thomas and Lisa Mikkelsen for dinner. They arrived with a bottle of wine and a four pack of seedlings that Thomas had grown.

I had some tomatoes of my own started, heirloom brandywine (I know, very snobby) but Thomas’ were different – more robust looking – so I added them to the garden.

By August I had gigantic non-determinate cherry tomato plants overtaking the entire north end of the garden. I had cherry tomatoes coming out of my ears. Jon was saying “more tomatoes? really? when will they stop? what will we do with all these tomatoes?” Mind you, four plants. (Thank you Thomas.)

We were getting the brandywine tomatoes, too, which I was in a battle to harvest ahead of the rabbits getting them. But we had plenty of cherry tomatoes to satisfy the rabbits and still fill our bowls to overflowing.

During a later summer pick up from our nearby CSA, we complained to the farmer that we didn’t need his tomatoes – we had too many of our own. On hearing this, he exclaimed “Too many cherry tomatoes! What a luxury! Throw them in a pan and make sauce! That’s what I’d do if I had too many cherry tomatoes!

We did. I sautéed some onions and added basil and oregano, halved the tomatoes, added salt and pepper and crushed the tomatoes while they cooked with tip of my spoon. No peeling. No processing. Just sautéing in a pan of oil. So easy. And absolutely delicious.

Tomato sauce: great on pasta or pizza

This year, I got some free seeds from the Holliston Garden Club seed bank to try– little golden pear tomatoes.

Again, a forest of tomato plants appeared. Thankfully, they were determinate this time; they got to around 6 feet, which still is about 2 feet higher than my tomato stakes.

I’d like to pause here for a short rant on tomato stakes. Because–really? The hoops and stakes you can buy, even the ones in reputable gardening magazines, while made of a nice plastic-coated durable metal, are always WAY shorter than even the determinate plants. They are a complete rip off, leaving tomato plants to climb all over the garden, falling over into walkways and breaking their tender stalks while fruit is till ripening on them. You’d think one of these garden supply companies could create an affordable stake that actually accommodates the height on such a common garden vegetable. But I digress.

yellow pear tomatoes with a few volunteer cherry tomatoes from last year’s plants

We’ve collected a half a dozen gigantic bowls with more coming… cherry tomatoes are prolific. Time to make tomato sauce. This year I have too many green peppers so I’m cutting up and sautéing onions, green peppers, adding salt pepper and oregano and basil from the garden or rosemary (or whatever I have around). The fact is this sauce doesn’t even need the herbs because the tomatoes are so fresh and sweet.

tomatoes, green peppers, onions in some olive oil

This is delicious on pizza dough, too — we all like it better than the traditional thicker red tomato sauce — with cheese over it.

finished tomato sauce

This year I’m freezing the sauce. I even gave mason jars a try, having read in Treehugger.com that they are a reasonable choice for freezing liquids.

Tomatoes keep coming almost to the frost date here in Massachusetts. I figure by then I’ll have filled the downstairs freezer with sauce.

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Adopting a Barn Cat: Not as Easy as it Sounds.

Barn cat NOT in the barn

Last winter, mice ate through the gas line in my car. They built a gigantic nest in it, causing the man at the service station to sternly reprimand me, right before charging me hundreds for clean out and repairs. They chewed threw wires in Jon’s Acadia – costing us close to $3000. Something had to be done.

So, not excited about poisons and after setting many mouse traps, we decided to adopt a barn cat.

The MSPCA adopts out feral cats that don’t have a home as barn cats. The idea is that at least this way they have a roof over their heads and food daily. That said, they make every effort to first domesticate every cat they get, so would-be adopters have to wait.

We have the perfect setting — an old stable and outbuildings, and gardens and fields full of mice.

We filled out the application and waited for them to call, which they did, months later, in April.

Gray is beautiful. She has beautiful swirls of white in her gray fur and striking yellow eyes. She was fierce, not allowing us close. The shelter gave us instructions for her acclimation, which we followed, settling her in a potting shed with a carpet structure, water, food, and toys.

Potting Shed

We fed her daily and waited the period they recommended before releasing her. When the day came, we opened the potting shed door and stood aside for Gray to leave her little world for the fields and gardens of the farm. I noticed she’d become quite fat in the weeks I’d been (over)feeding her.

She strolled out and disappeared into a field to the east of the house. I crossed my fingers she’d remember how to get back to her potting shed and that she’d figure out there is a great supply of mice in the garage right near the potting shed.

Everything seemed to be going well; Gray came and went, was spotted around the property —miraculously — too good to be true! — coming and going from the garage, which we took to leaving open for her.

In July we went on vacation, setting sprinklers on the gardens and hiring a woman to care for the chickens and to feed Gray.

On returning home, Gray was gone.

During our week away she had wandered off – we were heartbroken, having gotten attached to seeing her around. I kept feeding her for weeks, thinking she might return, but she didn’t. Winter came, and we assumed the worst.

In June of this year–11 months later! –the Medfield Animal Shelter, two towns away from us, called me to say they had my cat and would I please come collect her?

Amazed and thrilled we drove the 9.5 miles to retrieve her – how could she have travelled so far? And why? we asked. We brought gloves and a biggish metal animal carrying cage, expecting our fierce barn cat with her ample personal space to be in form. But on arriving, the woman who runs the shelter informed us she was very friendly and very interested in being fed. Amazing. Apparently, the man who had been feeding her in his shed during the winter had domesticated her. The cat whisperer had been taking care of our barn cat.

Homecoming- no longer a barn cat.

So this time we situated Gray in the house.

Gray – now in the house.

What about the mice? We have mice in the house, too, so all was not lost. There as so much purring, rubbing against us and needy demands for attention that if not for the chip that identifies her I would not have believed this was our cat.

That very same night at 11 pm we were in bed reading and heard a crash at the front of the house. Agreeing the cat had knocked something over and that it would be there in the morning we went to sleep.

The following morning … we found the dining room screen laying in the front yard- at least 6 feet from the house – the seedlings I’d placed on the windowsill knocked to the ground, and the cat gone. Again. This. Cat. Oi.

We wandered the property with cat food, calling for her but of course we didn’t find her.

We did find what was left of a bird next to the window.

Since birds don’t hang out in bushes at 11 pm (they go home to their nests at dark) we knew she’d been in the yard all night, but she wasn’t there by the time we’d woken to find the screen out. So we went back to gardening and wondered whether we would be driving to Medfield in 11 months to collect her.

As I write this, Gray is sleeping at the end of the bed. My son Tristan spotted her hiding out in some bushes later the day she threw herself out a window and coaxed her back in with … food. Food! Her first love.

Since that day she is careful about window screens, preferring that they remain in the window casement.

Gray’s dining room window

She is rather fat, coming and going through doors, having learned to communicate when she wants us to open one for her, and last night she emerged from the field with a mouse dangling from her mouth. Wonderful! Even fat cats can catch mice.

I have yet to see a single dead mouse from our house or garage – I’ve found only bird bits around the property – an unintended consequence of adopting her; we love our birds. But no mouse carcasses. Maybe she eats the whole mouse?

Or maybe I’m feeding her too much.

Anyway, this fall we are back to wondering what to do about the mice.

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The Cost of Doing Business

Cabbage – regarded in modern kitchens as humble – has reached the requisite 71-ish days (the seed packet says that’s how long) in my garden and is ready to harvest. On going out do that – exciting! This is my first time growing cabbage! – I found I was not the first to the patch.

I’ve known about the rabbit for weeks. Whether I’m too lazy, don’t have the time, or just plain old don’t feel the imperative to somehow keep him out I can’t say – but he ate the tops off of my carrots, shared in the tomato harvest, and there he was when I arrived in the cabbage patch.

He’s not the only one:

critters and bugs

I don’t use any insecticide, I didn’t bury my fence into the ground, and the truth is I don’t mind sharing (much). I figure it’s the cost of doing business and sharing the land with the creatures that live here and give this place it’s character, who are part of the ecosystem; it’s all right with me.

I wish he hadn’t eaten all of the tops of the carrots, though.

Back to the cabbage: the rabbit doesn’t seem to have eaten much. It looks like there were some caterpillars having their way with it – I’d noticed them chewing holes in the outer leaves over the weeks the plants grew but I decided to keep taking care of the plants and watch what happens. So I picked the cabbage yesterday:

a bit caterpillar-eaten

and cut it open to see what the story was:

looks good!

Beautiful. Sweet, firm, cabbage once I peeled off the outside worm eaten leaves.

I’m not psyched about losing the decorative pumpkin photographed at top to whatever ate it – a woodchuck? But I am harvesting others that were left untouched, which feels like a kind of fair sharing deal.

So there it is – bugs, critters, and all.

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