The early snow storm we had before Halloween was the end of the zinnia, the portulaca and other annual flowers, and remaining peppers, lettuce and radish. The montauk daisy’s glorious spray of blooms – now wilted, browned, bruised. On that morning I left the house to substitute at the local middle school, imaging a dusting or perhaps an inch of snow. But the snow fell and fell, making a 4-inch thick blanket on everything.
I returned to a garden on its way to winter dormancy.
Happily, I had already cut most of the herbs I wanted to save for winter before the snow came.
There’s more to this than having herbs to cook with and make tea with. For me, bringing my friends in and enjoying them after they’ve gone underground is a joy and a comfort. There’s brightening peppermint tea from my cheeky, robust plants that only weeks ago were covered with bumblebees. And velvety, sun-loving oregano that had grown large enough to divide. Like gifts left by visiting friends.
The snow has receded for now, leaving auburn trees and sending flowering perennials into hibernation. Seeing them die back brings up a hopeful tug of anticipation for next year. Bittersweet hangs on some of my trees – a glorious murderer; beautiful, and choking the trees it hangs on. I resolve to cut some to bring indoors for decoration.
The last of the vegetable plants were cut and thrown into the compost last week. Hardier perennials, now mulched in, reach faded leaves toward gray skies.
Modern medicines have their deepest roots in ancient history. It’s said that an herbal compendium was created in the 28th century BC by the mythological chinese emperor Shennong (1). And interestingly, scholars say that intuition and trial and error led humans to believe that plants, animals, and minerals have medicinal properties. So humans have understood the value of connecting to and working with plants from our earliest days.
Food taken fresh from the garden has a quality of sweetness and plumpness that makes you feel good on its own — you can taste and smell the difference from food that’s been grown and shipped a long distance. But aside from the difference in freshness, the experience of seeing, smelling, and touching the plants that produce our food is nurturing and reassuring, as well.
Vines, plants, and trees all have their own energies and personalities, their own habits of growth and characteristics that, experienced alongside the fruits and vegetables themselves, allow one to connect much more fully and consciously with the food we eat. Also, getting to know what conditions they thrive in (and the ones they don’t thrive in) serves to deepen one’s sense of “knowing” the plants that provide us our food.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, though. This year I decided to try a new variety of tomato (yellow pear minis) that I’ve never grown before. With limited space in my garden, I planted leeks in the same bed, thinking I’d given both enough space. There were some plants that were crowded, though; the tomatoes grew tall and leggy and became a towering bed of beautiful smelling tomato plants, dripping with yellow fruit – and some of the leeks that sat in the shadow of my towering tomatoes didn’t get enough sun to grow big – they ended up being the size of scallions. 🙂
All the same, I started the year with not a shred of experience growing leeks and though I’ve bought many a leek in the grocery store I had no idea what I could expect the experience of growing them to be like (aside from my handy gardening book’s instructions). There’s no substitute for experience, as they say, and so I started with planting them, as instructed, in small seedling pots before the final frost and keeping them on a heated seedling mat with grow lamps/sunlight on them. New England springs can be pretty rainy so on gray days they were under the lamp. On sunny days they sat in a south window or on our patio.
They started out teeny tiny. Like little green hairs growing out of the potting soil. And they weren’t much bigger than that when I put them in the ground. I wasn’t sure they would survive, they seemed so small when I transplanted them that I worried they would wash away with a good rain. But they took off — and the ones that had enough sun grew into proper, good sized leeks. Now I understand why mounding dirt around their bases is important – you get much more useable white leek if you do that. So much for my adventure with leeks!
The experience of growing these little plants gave me a sense of connectedness and belonging that’s hard to describe and even harder to overstate. It was like making a new group of friends and now, when I think of vichyssoise (potato leek soup) I think of their tiny little seeds, and of the investment of time, love, and light required to grow them in the northeast. I think of how darling they are until they become towering allium – fresh, strong, and all grown up by the end of the growing season. In a word, I feel connected to them.
After harvesting the leeks I did precisely what I’d intended to do when I planted them: I cooked with them. Vichyssoise (recipe in The Joy of Cooking) and a beautiful braised chicken dish from GardenintheKitchen.com.
The leeks felt like a gift given graciously by the planet, and cleaning and slicing them for our dinners bestowed warmth and a sense of connection and familiarity that I relished–like the satisfaction and pleasure of having carnal knowledge of a love interest. Magical, indeed.
I’ve always regarded Halloween as the last harvest, and the time to welcome visiting ancestors who journey back to check in for the night. Some years I set extra spaces at the table and set out some old photos. This year was nice for me, because usually I have to delay my Samhain supper and/or ritual work for after the trick-or-treaters have come and gone but since Covid made putting a bowl of candy with lights and decorations the expected norm here in suburbia this year, I was off the hook! I put out my bowl, lit up my little witch, and was free to observe my holiday.
Along with my traditional Halloween activities, this year we had a pile of pumpkins and squash, radish, final peppers and tomatoes to collect.
We had so many pumpkins volunteer this year – so many colors and designs on them – that I have spent the past couple of days cutting, peeling and cooking to make mash for cookies, breads, and pies. It turns out that if you throw your pumpkins and squash seeds in your compost you don’t need to plant them in a garden bed – they pop up all over the place. The difficulty was choosing which plants to keep since we weren’t sure what kind of squash each plant was – so we selected for the location they chose to grow in and got a mix.
This might seem like a lot of work but I have a recipe for bourbon pumpkin pie that I kept firmly in mind as I peeled. And since the seeds are the most nutrient-rich part of the pumpkin…
… we are drying them to roast later. I found that a bread board was a good way to dry them since they stick to paper towels, parchment, even plastic.
There may have been a small amount of halloween candy consumed to keep my strength up as part of this exercise. 🙂
We’ve made a few big pots of squash soup, which is a favorite around here, and some of what’s still waiting to be cooked is headed for the root cellar.
In all we’ve had a good harvest for the little plot of earth we grew vegetables in this year and I’m ready to eat squash and pie. Maybe I’ll add a little bourbon to keep warm!
October in New England is all about transition: from brilliant flaming leaves all around to subdued russets and bare limbs; from verdant final zinnia, verbena, squash, peppers, tomatoes, leeks, and potatoes to frost and empty garden beds. Right around now I start reading to remind myself how to put everything to bed for the winter.
The change-over inspires me to pause and think about what I can do with a winter’s rest. What dreams light me up? October– which ends with the Celtic New Year Samhain, better known in the states as Halloween –is a time to set intentions that will carry you through another growth cycle.
This year I was inspired to create garden structures. I wanted to expand my vegetable garden and to create a traditional kitchen garden. Both of my garden spaces felt disorganized; to me the appearance of my garden is as important as the health of the plants and what they produce. So I wanted to spend time this year creating beautiful structures for my vegetables, flowers, and herbs.
The vegetable garden is an area that was once a horse’s pen, adjacent to our stable. It had an irregular shape and was too small for the rows I wanted to plant. So we started there, drawing a plan – actually we made several drawings, debating the merits of each, before settling on one and on the size of the garden. We measured it, looked online for fence posts, settled on 9 foot posts at lowe’s since we have deer that jump through that space, and installed them using a small sledgehammer. We put wildlife netting on the top portion and a heavier gauge wire fence on the bottom for deer and rabbits/woodchucks, which had mixed effectiveness since a rabbit got to my carrots.
I used some old boards and pavers I had collected to help managed weeds between the rows, and Jon moved our compost pile to the back north corner. We created a box to house strawberries and created new beds for squash, pictured here in the forefront of the picture. Beds of cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, radish, asparagus, and green beans are seen here further away.
This project started with a feeling early last winter that I wanted an installation to garden in. It will carry on for a few years as I buy pavers and lug them out back to level the ground and seat them. I do this myself and it’s time consuming but it gives me a feeling of satisfaction to construct the space with my own hands.
Below, a photo of a few weeks later — the structure was hard to see from outside the garden but the walking paths all made getting around easy and pleasant:
The vegetable garden produced a ton of food this year. It’s not exactly what I want it to be, yet: the walkway between the asparagus and what was green beans and peppers this year is too narrow. I’ll figure out how best to fix that for next year and I’ll tune the design and lay walkways and more trellising to support tall tomatoes and peppers.
Long winter nights bring a kind of mystery and magic that lends itself to connecting with hidden, heart felt desires and creative urges. There’s time to imagine how projects and ideas will come to life when the days lengthen and warm and the asparagus, bulbs, and forsythia are emerging and blooming…
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.
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.
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:
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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…
… 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.
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!
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.
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:
2-4 bulbs of garlic, roasted.
1 Tbsp lemon juice
parmesan or romano cheese
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.
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!