the little garden that could

I’m very proud and pleased to present my first guest post: The Little Garden That Could, Guerrilla Gardening in the East Village, written and photographed by my dear friend,  Raquel Shapira, artist and neighborhood royalty.

1_SunflowerWBee

End of the summer, 2010

The city just completed their new traffic design along lower First Avenue introducing a new bike lane and crosswalk islands featuring a young tree on every corner of the crossing street.

Early September, 2010

A few sunflowers plants appear around the tree on the corner of First Avenue and 7th Street, which has 5 X 5 feet of soil surrounding it (the tree on this corner is Zelkova serrata or Japanese zelkova). A young woman, whose name I cannot remember, plants those, and disappears. It’s a dry month and the plants need water.

The obvious thing to do is to water the plants. However, there’s no hose or anything to connect a hose to. I buy a watering can from Saifee’s, a hardware and gardening store right across the street from the island. The Tile Bar, which is the closest establishment to the island, allows me to keep the can there and use their water. By the end of October the sunflowers bloom, changing the face of the block.

2_SunflowerWHeartSpring, 2011

Small sunflower sprouts begin to appear (all from seeds of last year’s sunflowers—the sunflower is an annual flower). A resident from the neighborhood plants an iris, a yucca, and a few other flowers. I notice he’s also been “weeding” the sprouts. I need a solution for protecting the sprouts. Here it is. Thank you Tile Bar for providing the cocktail straws.

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August, 2011

The sunflowers are growing 7 feet high and are ready to bloom.

One plant, on the south side of the garden, is nearing a full bloom, but on a weekend night some drunken idiot beheads it and breaks my heart. Fuck.

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A lesson learned. Having flowers in an open space, without high fence, a gate with a key is beyond challenging. As Amy Stewart eloquently said in her blog Garden Rant.

“Anyone who thinks that gardeners are naturally generous people, eager to share their bounty and always glad to see the neighbors enjoying the beauty and tranquility that their garden has brought to the neighborhood, has never been around my place in early spring. Sometimes having a garden can be so aggravating that I don’t know why I even bother. I am referring, of course, to the problem of flower theft.”

As the lower plants are flourishing, the sunflowers—one by one—are ripped off.

Summer, 2012

This summer is more of the same, although this year I do not include sunflowers. I plant a few coneflowers. The garden is pretty, but hardly lush.

Early summer, 2013

Wow. Finally after 3 years the yucca plant is flowering. What an amazing chandelier of white flowers. The Iris is looking pretty but the mini rose bush is sad-looking. A friend buys Celosia—some are doing great, others not as good. The garden is beginning to look lush. With the help of Tile Bar, we pay someone to build a fence. It’s a wooden white fence, which makes the garden somewhat more formal yet sweet.

Late summer, 2013

Arriving one Friday afternoon the garden is upside down. After 3 years, the city decides the cement that was used to build the islands was not strong enough. Millions of dollars are spent to re-do the islands. This is what I see.

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A week later

The workers are done. Island is re-built, and to my astonishment the workers erect the fence back, but most of the plants are gone. My friend Rose and I decide to get 40 mixed bulbs of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth and stick them in the ground. The show must go on.

Spring, 2014

After the coldest winter of my life living in NY, spring finally arrives bringing with it new, colorful life.

6_Tulips

Summer, 2014

I get busy planting new plants. A friend gives me “mammoth” sunflower seeds. The package says they should grow up to 10 to 13 feet high. Who would bother with those? I sow the seeds. You already know how that story ends . . . sadly.

I get an idea to experiment with growing vines around the tree. Saifee’s Gardening store only has Cypress vine seeds so I buy them and sow them around tree. Within a few months they begin to attach themselves to other plants so I buy a yard of chicken wire, place it around the tree and direct the vines to the wire.

Success.

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And that’s how it’s done in a nutshell. It’s all been a wonderful experiment. All you need is a watering can and good intentions.

Next year it may be a mix of wildflower seeds. We shall see.

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summer’s end 2014

It was a good summer. The best summer in a long time because I was at the trailer in the country working from home for most of it and my daughters were close. There is nothing better than to be around your family and your dogs. Being in the country allows a slower pace that is that is good for observation. In the city you miss things because you have to move at a certain pace or you will be the one blocking foot traffic. You can’t look up at the sky for too long or you could step in dog shit. In the country your eye and your mind have the freedom to wander.

hayfieldrev

This summer I saw how the deep green of the mid-summer vegetation changed. Now everything has a yellowish cast to it. The fields are lime green from the goldenrod in bloom. There are tiny flowers blooming making splotches that look like pink smoke. Over anxious maples that are turning red and russet colored bushes signal the wan of summer and the start of autumn. Everywhere you smell the sweet smell of the last of the hay being cut. The nights are heavy with the song of black crickets.

Here are some things that I learned this summer:

I enjoy seeing livestock when I look out the window.

I like to doze off to sleep and wake in the morning to the sound of softly tinkling goat bells.

I write more when I’m alone

Water boils faster on the mountain

Jersey cow milk makes the best butter

We went through a lot of sugar due to the hummingbird feeder, the brewing of Kombucha and the canning of peaches

It sure is nice to have lights on in more than one room (first full summer with solar powered electricity)

There are more women farmers than I imagined

If you leave your hair loose when you walk in the woods, deer fly get caught in it and it’s easy to kill them that way

Blue jays have a beautiful way of swooping down when they fly and they really love wild blueberries

In the country you experience sudden unexpected fragrances depending on the direction of the wind and which plants it is blowing through at the time

Hummingbirds chitter

Cowbella Farm's Jersey cows and a woman farmer

Cowbella Farm’s Jersey cows and a woman farmer

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Lolo, a Toy Fox Terrier sun bathing

Lolo, a Toy Fox Terrier sun bathing

First sighting of Fall

First sighting of Fall

the honor system vegetable stand

In New York City you must be ever vigilant for thieves. You’d better chain up your bike just so and don’t even think about slinging your handbag over a chair in a restaurant.

I am enjoying letting my guard down in the country where you don’t even have to lock your car in the shopping center parking lot. There are many vegetable stands that still use the old fashioned “honor system”. The stands are unmanned and the produce is set out with pricing on hand-written signs. Sometimes they don’t even have the pricing, they expect you to leave what is fair. There is a metal cash box for you to leave the payment in.

I get my corn from a dairy farm where they set out piles of just picked sweet corn and the metal cash box on a wooden wagon in the driveway. I like to buy vegetables and eggs from my friends and neighbors Martha and Richard’s stand. When you chop their kale, it smells as strong as wheat grass juice and your fingers are stained green. Martha says that sometimes she thinks the cash is a bit low when she goes to pick it up, but then the next day there is more money than expected. It is because the day before someone didn’t have small bills. That’s the honor system.

the roadside sign

the roadside sign

the mountaintop garden

the mountaintop garden

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the honor system vegetable stand

the honor system vegetable stand

can – can

I suddenly got the urge to start canning while spending the summer in the country. The most food preserving I’d ever done was to freeze some herbs. We live in a metropolis where you can buy produce from all over the world anytime you want. Its not in the culture to think about “putting things by” to get you through the winter. But living in such close proximity to farms and eating their bounty all summer has put me in another frame of mind. It’s a different story when you slice a zucchini and it is so fresh that you can see it sweat little beads of plant juice and down the road you see beef cattle eating grass in sunny pastures. Oona said “Mom, think about how much better your tomato sauce would be if you made it with farm tomatoes and basil from your garden”. I thought about cooking comfort foods in the deep winter. I thought about opening a mason jar of August tomatoes and how its essence would return me to this summer and how the smell of hay and rainstorms and the sound of goat bells would come back to me on a cold dark night.

I thought about Frank’s penchant for eating slimy canned peaches as a midnight snack and that made me think about canning some more. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead he spooned out fragrant slices of summer peaches packed by my hand when he was sitting at his computer late at night? It would be love in a dish.

Our dear friends Beth and her daughter Nipu invited me and Oona to go peach picking at Fix Brothers Farm in Hudson, New York. The peach orchard was at the top of a mountain with spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and the day was hot and sunny. It smelled good and I didn’t want to leave. The danger in those “you pick ems” scenarios is that it is so much fun and you pick so fast that you pick too much and you get sticker shock when they weigh your bag (this happens when you are picking with kids and you don’t want to spoil their fun). Unlike the time we went apple picking when the girls were younger, this time we paced ourselves. We picked only what we could reasonably pay for and preserve and enjoyed the day on peach mountain. We set our peaches on the kitchen table to fully ripen and the trailer was redolent of peaches for days.

Fix Brothers Orchard in Hudson, NY

Fix Brothers Orchard in Hudson, NY

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I bought a canning kit by Ball that had the canner and all of the handy accessories I would need. I found a book on canning at the library but the author wrote so extensively about the dangers of bacteria and food poisioning that I returned the book and instead bought the Ball book on canning. It was in a magazine format and more optimistic and user friendly for the beginning canner. A chef I know told me that many people are put off by canning because they fear killing their families. I think of course the warnings must be made, but probably a lot of that is lawyers talking. I canned in a small kitchen in our off-grid trailer with no running water and my friend Martha who is a canning fiend, proclaimed my vacuum seals as good to go.

Here are full instructions on how to can food

I processed the peaches according to the instructions in the Ball Book. The peaches were packed raw and instead of a plain simple sugar syrup or water, I canned them in a basil syrup. Here is the recipe with the adaptation of the basil syrup.

2 to 3 pound peaches per quart
lemon juice (or powdered citric acid which is vitamin C)
Basil infused simple syrup

Make the basil simple syrup by boiling 5 1/2 cups of water and adding a fistful of fresh basil leaves. Turn off the water and steep the leaves for about 20 minutes. Remove the basil leaves, re-heat the water and dissolve 2 1/2 cups of sugar in the basil water and keep it hot. This was enough syrup for 10 quarts of peaches.

Peel the peaches and toss the slices in lemon juice (or something that has a lot of vitamin C) to prevent their discoloration.Pack peaches into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Ladle hot basil syrup over the peaches leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Adjust two piece caps. Process quarts for 30 minutes in a boiling water canner.

I also made a plum jam from plums harvested by Paulina and Nico, local farmers who sell produce at their roadside stand.

The plum jam was easy and filled the kitchen with a marvelous scent. You do not have to peel the plums, only chop them up. I used the recipe for Dawson Plum Jam from the Ball Book. I don’t know what kind of plums we had, all I know is that they were dark red inside and beautiful. I added lavender from my herb garden to this. I do not normally like flowery food, but this combination was a good idea. Here is my adaptation of the plum jam recipe to include the lavender.

5 cups coarsely chopped plums (about 2 pounds)
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
a few springs of fresh lavender

Combine the plums, sugar, lavender sprigs and water in a large pot. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. I removed the lavender sprigs after about 15 minutes of boiling. Cook rapidly and stir constantly as the water will cook down and the plums will thicken. You don’t want the plums to stick and burn. Once it is thick and jammy, remove from heat. Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Adjust two-piece caps. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water canner.

There will be scones with lavender plum jam for brunch this winter.

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a country flea market

I love yard sales and country flea markets. The possibility of finding treasure and a good deal is irresistible. In the northern Catskills, yard sales seem to be an art form. Towns even hold community-wide yard sales that are like rural block parties with live music and the volunteer firemen barbecuing chickens on Main Street.

Every Sunday there is a Flea Market in the Town of Broome in Schoharie County. I am spoiled by this flea market. I don’t ever bother to go to any of the flea markets in New York City because I consider them to be overpriced and yuppified. The country flea market has a great mix of stuff. Real antiques and tools, handmade garden ornaments and old lace, garlic and tomatoes from someone’s garden. I find good stuff here.

Some of my favorite treasures found here are:

- A bright yellow garden hose for the day we have running water
– A garden tool that is shaped like a hoe but has spikes that is perfect for mixing compost into flower beds
– Old cast iron skillets that are smooth as glass inside so that you can fry an egg in it without sticking.
– Hand embroidered cotton pillowcases and linen dishtowels from the 50’s.
– A hand forged meat cleaver

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BlackSmithSignFleaMarket

FrillyGlasswareFleaMarketRollingStoneAlbumFleaMarket

OldtoolsFleaMarket

PiesFleaMarket

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heather ridge farm – good food, good friends

I met Carol in April of 2011. It was the start of the college search for Oona in the spring of her junior year of High School. We had scheduled time for an interview for a summer internship at Heather Ridge Farm where animals are lovingly raised on pastures and they operate the Bees Knees Cafe which serves “fiercely local” and delicious food. A tall woman with beautiful curly hair cut in a pert bob and a wide smile welcomed us at the door of the old farmhouse that serves as the café and farm store. All the while smiling, she sat Oona down at one of the tables in the Bees Knees Café for her interview while I made myself scarce in the farm store. After the interview Carol invited us to visit the barn where the spring lambing season was underway. Farmer John (why are there so many farmers named John?) showed us around the maternity ward where we saw a newly born lamb still wet from birth.

Heather Ridge Farm and the Bee's Knee's Cafe

Heather Ridge Farm and the Bee’s Knee’s Cafe

Carol and John feed us with both the food they grow and their friendship. They give us advice about things that city folk don’t know about such as goat fencing. When Hurricane Irene devastated the area in August of 2011 and the roads off the mountain were washed away and the town was flooded, we ate their beef and chicken. They serve seasonal food, everything has its time and place. The following spring, again in April, I stopped by after driving up from the city on a Saturday afternoon for lunch. It was a week after the funeral of my only brother and I’d driven up to the trailer by myself just to get away and dig in the dirt. Carol served me up a bowl of Nettle soup. I’d never seen anything like it. It was an intense green and creamy, thick and very hot. On a small plate was a slice of homemade Irish bread smeared with the yellowest butter I’d ever seen. It was a grey day and I looked out of the farmhouse window to the view of the mountains shrouded in mist. The green soup warmed me to my toes. Its warmth was as soothing as a mother’s fingertips on your brow. The green soup was spring itself.

Morning farm chores, feeding the pigs

Morning farm chores, farm intern feeding the pigs

farm solar power

farm solar power

Devon beef cattle

Devon beef cattle

The Bees Knees Cafe's Chef Rob with his file cabinet smoker

The Bees Knees Cafe’s Chef Rob with his file cabinet smoker

the county fair

County fairs and summer go together. Lemonade and funnel cakes. Cotton candy and roller coasters. Here are some photos of our visit to the Sunshine Fair in Schoharie County in New York.

Sunshine Fair

Sunshine Fair

In the show ring - the dairy goats

In the show ring – the dairy goats

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An old grain thrasher from the late 1800's on display

An old grain thrasher from the late 1800’s on display

The cow beauty parlor

The cow beauty parlor

New York State's Agriculture Commissioner, Schoharie County's own Richard Ball

New York State’s Agriculture Commissioner, Schoharie County’s own Richard Ball

A pretty Brown Swiss cow

A pretty Brown Swiss cow