Far, Far Away

flag

I rounded the southwest corner of the house on my way to some chore but screeched to a halt when this caught my eye. Last week I wrote about how certain plants in my garden connect me to friends and family, and I’m going to do it again this week.

This is Iris tenax, or wild flag as my Gramma Davis called it. My trusty but disintegrating copy of Washington Wildflowers (Seattle Audubon Society, 1974) has this to say:”Flowers lavender, purple, or blue; rarely white, pinkish or yellowish. West. Wash.; open sunny areas, such as pastures, roadsides, meadows, logged land, and forest clearings; entirely in lowlands. Spring to early summer.”

I remember walking along the gravel driveway with Gramma Davis–we were headed to the mailbox out on Brown Road. To our right was a hayfield, and to our left were towering Douglas-firs. Couldn’t see very far into the trees through a tangle of salal and rotting high stumps. That chunk of forest was a big dark presence on the left-hand side of the driveway. Not Davis land, so we didn’t poke around in there. But on the margin of the trees, in the open sunny areas, clumps of these irises bloomed. I couldn’t help myself from going for a closer look, kneeling down to sniff and admire the colors and fine dark lines leading to the center. They were perfect.

Year pass. Gramma and Grampa Davis are gone. My dad is gone. With deep regret, my siblings and I sold the homestead where we spent so many days as children. What could else could we do, having inherited a crumbling farm at the beginning of our adult lives?

More years pass. I still have grandparents, my mom’s folks. They also have a farm in southwest Washington, where my sibs and cousins and I did a bunch of growing up. Nearly every inch of the place is as familiar as the smiles on my grandparents’ aging faces. Grampa Mueller died in 2001. Gramma held on for eleven more years. It was another crumbling farm, and every time I visited she urged me to dig something up–for each plant she could tell a story of origin. She was a great digger-up and could coax a slip of something green into flowering. The honeysuckle she got from Mrs. Henry up the road. The peonies and Lenten rose came from the Benthien Brothers nursery in Puyallup. She also transplanted wild things into her garden–yellow stream violets that she called johnny-jump-ups; bleeding hearts, trilliums. The trilliums and stream violets in my garden came from her.

And the wild flag…when Gramma could no longer walk back across the creek with me, even clinging to my arm going slow, I would go on my own and report back to her. “The spring beauties by the cedar patch are blooming. The trilliums will be along soon…” On one of these solo trips I took a shovel and a bag and collected a sword fern and clump of wild iris to plant in my current garden.

The sword fern is happy on the north side of the house in the shade, but the iris had nothing to say for a long time. Every spring I expect to look for it and not find it. But it surprises me with a few sharp blades poking from the earth. These grow into grass-like leaves and merge with the only partially-tamed jumble of geraniums and polemoniums. And then I round the corner of the house to find

flowers of my childhood. Delicate, cheery, open to the sun, impervious to the wind that bashes from the west. I hear Gramma Davis’ voice, telling me the names of things as someone once told her. I feel the warmth of a long-ago sun, the benevolent air, the absolute security of being in a grandparent’s company. Wonder and beauty flood into me–the world is there to be discovered.

Today is Father’s Day, and of course I think of my dad. I think of the Davis place, which I have never gone back to. In my mind, Dad is stuck at 46 years old and I’m 20, the two of us just beginning to get reacquainted after years of estrangement. We recognize ourselves in each other–it’s awkward, but it feels possible to become friends given enough time.

We were not given time. My brother and sister and I have been fatherless for 34 years. I’m not sure we have ever recovered from the suddenness of his going. Over the years, I suppose we have learned to father ourselves with the remnants of himself that he was able to give us. Dad feels far far away. Childhood feels far far away.

Yet I stop in my tracks to kneel by the wild irises that decided to bloom this year, just as I kneeled 45 years ago. Here’s a little piece of the far far away world that I came from. I see how swiftly they unfurled, and shone for a couple days before the edges of the petals begin to shrivel and curl. Oh, please stay awhile longer, I want to tell them. But they are on their own schedule, not mine.

That’s the thing with flowers: so transient, so beautiful. Life is always changing, never holding still. Sprout, grow, bloom, set seed, die, rest, sprout again. Children grow into adults and maybe become grandparents themselves.

Maybe we are all flowers–so transient, so beautiful, able to touch the far far away and still be here.

Midsummer

broc

There is a moment in the late afternoon–before it slips into evening–when the sun slants in from the northwest and illuminates my garden. All the plants glow, lit from behind and within. For a few minutes I dwell in a stained glass window of amethyst irises, golden flecks of bees returning to the hive, flickering and dappled green leaves. Sun ruffles the edge of lettuce leaves and brings a rich depth to humble broccoli.

Twilight lingers long after I have eaten my salad of sunlight, melted snow and crumbled mountains. The sky is clear and bright in the north when I go to bed. The garden rests till the sun returns in a few hours. The solstice is still a couple weeks away, but these hours of light and growing are to be savored now.

Back to the Garden

kale2

Today I drove to the edge of the city on personal business. Issaquah is not Seattle, but it is still busy all the time. The town is set up for driving and consuming. More shopping, activity, and eating options in that place than in all of Kittitas County (also more parking spaces). A bit overwhelming for someone who prefers to walk as much as possible and live frugally. Too many choices!

After my meeting, I browsed in a bookstore. A lifelong bibliophile, I have an irrational weakness for reading and books. My collection has outgrown its current storage space in the house, and books spill over onto every surface. I’ve been culling a few, and have drawn plans for new bookshelves. I wonder about using an e-reader, but haven’t made the leap yet. So I am reluctant to buy more books, but I came home with two today: When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, and Wabi Sabi by Diane Durston. I also stocked up on food items that are not available locally.

Crossing back over to the east side of the mountains always brings relief from the hustle-bustle lifestyle of the urban wilderness. My senses felt singed around the edges by the pace and all that stuff. The truck came to a stop in the driveway and I gratefully got out. Here’s my cat, the beehive, blooming crocuses! I made a cup of tea to carry outside and reconnected to home by tinkering in the garden. Cut some kale to bring inside, and also the overwintered brussels sprouts.

I love the ‘Wild Garden Kale’ mixture from Territorial Seed. The seeds produce a variety of shapes and colors, and the plants are robust enough to survive the winter under the plastic tunnel. When the days start to get longer and warmer, the plants revive and I enjoy fresh kale again. Brussels sprouts require a long growing season, so my plants didn’t get very big before winter arrived. But they held on through snowstorms and weeks of below-freezing weather to grow again this spring. They’re not large, but I expect they will be sweet and tender. Also coming back to life are spinach, lettuce and mustard greens I planted last fall. In another week I can harvest small leaves. And I’ve started new seeds too–cress, radishes, lettuce, and microgreens. I’ve never grown the latter, so this is an experiment. Salad and greens have been favorites of mine for years, and recently I’ve increased my intake of all sorts of greens. I avoided illness this past winter, and I attribute that at least partially to spinach, kale, etc. The stuff is just plain healthy.

The tension of my busy day drained out my fingertips as I dug into the damp soil. Sprinkled a few more lettuce seeds and watered them in. Plucked some dandelions and chickweed. Observed earthworms and other invertebrates in the raised beds, glad to see that the addition of compost over the years has built good ground for them to live in. Soil is the foundation for growing food, and the mindful gardener tends it lovingly.

I came in to wash the kale and make some supper. Looked at the wabi sabi book. The concept originated in Japan and is difficult to capture in English. It has to do with simplicity, imperfection, rusticity, impermanence, and the patina of age. It is the art of the every day. The author quotes Leonard Koren: wabi sabi is the “beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete..a beauty of things modest and humble…a beauty of things unconventional.”

Of course this appeals to me very much, and I expect to return to this small book of quotes and short prose again and again. There is joy in the handmade and homegrown, and also the paying of attention. After being out of my element much of the day, to return to the garden was just right. This bit from Rachel Carson fits:

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties know wonder and humility.”

Making Raisins, Slowing Down

I was baffled for awhile, wondering how it is that grapes grow well for me but raspberries do not. After some consideration, I concluded that the grapes can manage the partial sun and random summer watering I provide. The raspberries are more particular. The two grow in the same part of the garden, so it’s some combination of sun, soil, and water that permits one to thrive and the other to sulk.

The grapevine was here when I moved in, and I’ve encouraged it to climb and spread. Found an old ladder behind the shed and planted it for the vines to sprawl on. It scrambled into the pear tree.  I had to string heavy wire along the fence.  Most autumns, I am rewarded with a tub of small green seedless grapes.

Raisins have been around since grapes were first cultivated, going back to at least 6000 BC. Phoenicians and Egyptians raised grapes (also figs, plums, and prunes) in Mesopotamia, Southern Europe, and the lower Caucasian Mountains. Grapes left on the vine would dry, and these stored and traveled well. I can imagine a Roman soldier marching along with a handful of raisins in a pouch to nibble on. Raisins are mentioned in the old Testament. In the Middle Ages, they were a source of sugar in cooking.

Because this is not a Mediterranean climate, I make raisins in my fruit dryer. In the past, I have taken the grapes off the stems to spread on the trays. As they dry, juice leaks out and makes a fructose crust. So this time I’m laying whole clusters on the trays. It takes time for them to become leathery and I check a couple times during the process to sort the dry ones from the ones needing more drying time. Compared to store-bought raisins, these are plumper, juicier and tastier.

Frost has put an end to green grape leaves–they are dry and curled, clattering in the breeze. The garden is slowing to a stop. I can dig spuds, pull carrots, bring the squash inside, construct tunnels and cold frames for the overwintering kale and other greens. Time to sift compost and spread on the raised beds, and chop up vegetation for next year’s compost. Nothing like a garden to make a person mindful of seasonal cycles that speed up and slow down. And mindful of the time spent digging, planning, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, preserving. As I peel pears and snap beans, my perception of time is different than when I am driving on the freeway to go to the grocery store. Although I am sometimes cranky (tired! overwhelmed!) about it, food is a valuable investment of my time. As the preserving season winds down, I look at the jewel-toned glass jars on my shelves and at the bags and containers in my freezer, and I’m grateful. Not only am I carrying on a family tradition, I am assured of a wholesome food supply. I know where it came from. All the crops I’ve put up were watered by some tributary of the Yakima River in whose headwaters I work.

My current read is World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen. Of course I’m reading it slowly, to savor the prose and ideas. The author is a poet and teacher, and the book is full of juicy literary references as well as stories of creative people. The first chapter is titled “Hurry Sickness”, and describes the malady of the 21st century. She quotes sociologist Juliet Schor that Americans “work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time.” As I make my way through this book, I feel better about the way I choose to live life. I’ve decided to take my time. Certainly I feel the pressure to squeeze more activity into my days. There’s always more I could be doing, and an inner critic ready to judge me when I don’t accomplish everything on my list. Like everybody else, I feel time ticking away. The past weights my feet, the future drags me forward. But it’s my choice to let dusk herd me inside when the evening grows dark. I sit with a book and cup of tea before bed. And I lie under my quilt with the cat a little longer these chilly mornings. There’s no need to rush through my days and nights. Life is in the details, the little moments and small noticings.

So I’ll paint my house by hand, one brushstroke at a time to take in the way thirsty old wood drinks in the creamy latex. I’ll make soup to smell celery and curry, dry raisins to feel the leathery stickiness and taste the concentrated summer inside. Slowing down is a form of waking up.

Diva

You may call me “Domestic Diva” today. I’ve harvested the garlic I planted last fall, and it’s curing outside. And I’m thinking about which variety to plant this year–it’s good to order seed garlic early, since it tends to sell out. I’m leaning toward a softneck variety like ‘Inchelium Red’ or ‘Siskiyou Purple’. The hardnecks have the greatest range of flavor, but softnecks store well.

It’s time to store the flavors of summer. Besides garlic, I’ve harvested the first cutting of basil for pesto. While I have fresh basil in the kitchen, I tried making my own herb salt–heard about it on a radio program. On a wooden cutting board, I spread a tablespoon of sea salt then one cup of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, sage) and sprinkled another tablespoon of sea salt. Chopped and mixed with a chef’s knife, along with four cloves of fresh garlic. It turns into a gritty green mass and smells good. When the herbs seemed fine enough, I spread it all on a plastic tray and took it out to my warm front porch to dry. Imagine the possibilities…you could do this with any combination of herbs. Maybe lemon zest too…

Also drying are cherries, apricots, peaches, and blueberries. From now till the end of September, I will dry fruits and vegetables every weekend. Whatever is fresh and local now will keep me nourished for the next whole year. Having dried produce on hand gives me options as I pack for backcountry trips, as I am doing today. Tomorrow we hike to Waptus Lake to stay the week, and I’ll be nibbling on dried cherries. We are planning a pesto dinner, and there will be home-baked desserts every night. Living nine miles from the road for a few days does not mean meager rations. Food is fuel for our work, and anticipation of meals keeps the spirits up.

Speaking of anticipation, my favorite summer holiday is coming up. That’s right: Sneak Some Zucchini onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Day is August 8th. I’ve been checking my plants daily and giving them plenty of water. They got planted late and languished during June. They are quite perky now, and I will harvest some small fruits when I get home from Waptus.

A true Domestic Diva would never flinch from zucchini. She would transform them into something delicious, and pop the excess into the freezer to enjoy next winter.

Happy Summer Eating!

Mud Pies

My studio is unfinished and unheated, but I went out there today and made a place to fool around with seeds. I’m a kid, using discarded kitchen stuff to make mud pies–oh boy! That old dish drainer is perfect for catching gobs of potting mix. How many years have I been starting seeds in the house? More than ten years. For some crops, it’s the best way to get a jump on gardening. Spring is unpredictable here, and the weather may not settle down till July.

So I gather up all my recycled plastic pots, bags of seed starting mix (peat moss, perlite, vermiculite), an old enamel bowl, a spoon, jug of warm water, seeds, labels, and old towel to wipe hands. First step is to mix up some mud in the bowl. Seedling mix is easier to handle when it’s been moistened with warm water, and I think it’s better for the seeds. Pack it loosely into the pot, smooth out, and place seeds on soil. I planted peppers and tomatoes and poked them into the dirt with the end of a bamboo skewer. Every pot gets a label with the date and seed variety, then it goes into the high-top propagator on top of the heat mat. The other task was to transplant already germinated tomato seedlings into 4″ pots. I do this when they have their first set of real leaves. Planting them deep with just the tops sticking out means that the root system will be more robust. I find it impossible to limit myself to the eight tomato plants that will go into my garden. Before it’s all over, I will have started about fifty. They will all find homes. It’s my way of subverting the dominant ‘Early Girl’ paradigm.

I planted more peppers, and started some clary sage and broadleaf cress. And brussels sprouts. These are all staying on the enclosed porch for now. Henry and I have started our daily routine of outdoor garden tours. He checks the compost and climbs the tree while I poke around in soggy leaves. There are a few snowdrops, and today I found yellow primrose buds. Out in the tunnel, lettuce seeds are germinating.

Speaking of the tunnel, I have started drawing a diagram of my raised beds and plastic tunnel. As soon as I’m finished I’ll post it here so that interested gardening readers can see what I keep talking about.

What’s growing where you are?

Circling Around

Hearing the call of the dirt, tromping through snow to the garden tunnel. The soil has thawed and I clawed up some carrots that had wintered over. I’ll clean them and cook a few to see how sweet they are. For fun, I scattered some lettuce, kale, and asian green seeds, as well as a few radishes. Just curious to see what happens as the strengthening sun hits the plastic of the tunnel. Soon I’ll be able to plant this year’s carrot crop.

This afternoon I ordered seeds from Irish Eyes Garden Seeds. In the spirit of experimentation, I like to try new seeds every year along with the old standbys. I am unable to resist tomatoes with odd names, or varieties developed for subarctic regions. The quest for bumper tomato crops in upper Kittitas County continues (I know I’m dreaming). Lettuce does grow well here, and I am just as susceptible to the names. The variety of shapes, colors and names is a wonder and delight, not to mention the daily salads I enjoy from April to October.

Most of the flowers in my garden are perennials, but I enjoy growing annuals too. I’m sending for zinnias, nasturtiums, four o’clocks, and sunflowers. The more the merrier. If only I had a bigger garden, I could really overextend myself! I’ve been poking around the yard, exploring for sprouts. One snowdrop sprig is climbing up out of decaying daylily leaves, and there are lots of larkspur seedlings along the south side of the house.

Snow remains in the yards of Cle Elum, but pussywillows emerge and robins fly around. March will be here in a week.

What will you grow this year? Try one new thing–for me it will be Brussels sprouts.