Garlic Harvest 2010

My dad took this picture.

It took six hours to pick and clean 350+ heads of garlic (grown at my parents' house in the country, not our little city backyard). We're growing about 15 different kinds of hardneck bulbs. I've gotten to know them over the past nine years (they are the crop I have been the most serious about for the longest) - Romanian red is early, California is huge, German red is bumpy and storied and gorgeous.

Earlier in the season

Garlic is my favorite. Except for lilies. And meadow voles. And some other things. Garlic is good for you, and when you add it to any of the other foods, they become delicious.

Garlic poached in olive oil, in a baking dish made by artist Nannette Burti.

The best garlic is uncured garlic, and it's not around for long. You pick it and you cook it. If you could squeeze it in a satisfying way, which you can't, it would burst. It is full of water that is garlic. It is white, silky, and hard to peel, because the peel is more plant than paper. It sizzles in the pan forever, and you can't burn it, and it doesn't get bitter. It just gets better.

If you are interested in the "how to grow garlic" part, here it is: We plant sometime in the first half of October (in Pennsylvania). I select the best bulbs - not the largest, not the smallest, but the shapeliest. They say your garlic adapts to your garden over the years, so we always use our own stock. We plant in a patch where garlic has not grown in a year or so, and add compost first. Cloves are spaced a spread-hand-width, two inches down. Mulch is oat straw, about six inches thick, which protects cloves from heaving in the winter, keeps out most weeds, and conserves moisture.

Then I sit on my butt and do absolutely NOTHING but drink and eat and watch movies for the next nine months. This, I understand, is better than being pregnant, because I get to drink.

Sometime in May-June, if we get around to it, we snap off the scapes (flower stalks), which supposedly forces the plant to put its energy into sizing up a respectable bulb instead of producing seed. We eat the scapes. They are okay, but not great. Or we forget about them, because we are so busy sitting on the couch, and they grow, form bulbils, and get all woody. And bulb size really doesn't seem to suffer. Our garlic the past two years has been on the rather large side, which I attribute to it being happy where it grows.

Picking happens in July when some leaves (half?) have turned brown, but not all! This is the only critical point. If all the leaves, or even almost all of the leaves, turn brown and die, that means the peel has lost its integrity and the garlic is naked! Not good for storage. Pick, wash in a bucket of water to remove soil from roots, and lay out or hang in a dry, dark, not too hot place with plenty of air movement. After a few weeks, the stalks and roots can be cut off with pruners (they have done their job of wicking out excess moisture, and the garlic is cured and ready for storage).


"That's no woodchuck - that's a walrus!"

View from the back porch

My friend Rosie and I spent last evening sitting on the glider and sipping margaritas. Entertainment was provided by Baby Woodchuck, who scampered to and fro, hither and thither, nibbling, munching, and stuffing wads of comfrey into his mouth. (He is a pulp-grinding machine.) Occasionally I would liven things up by chasing little 'chuck under his shed, but for the most part, me and my defeatist attitude stayed on the back porch with our sorrow-drowning drink.

The title of this post is what Rosie exclaimed when she first spotted him. He has doubled in size over the past few days, by turning vegetable matter into animal fat. Just one of nature's marvels.

For the record, I deserved to take a load off last night. I don't know how many assorted vermin I've shuttled off this property and out to the State Forest over the past three months, but it's getting old. The Others keep getting caught in my woodchuck trap. We'll just call them Others because everyone is so horrified when I say Rats. Oops.

Anyway, I dressed myself like a sane person this morning, and went out to check my trap, slowly, without running, because I have matured over the past week and I am now accustomed to disappointment. Guess who? Well good morning, Baby Woodchuck - so pleased to see you.

I did not dawdle. I loaded trap and 'chuck into the 6am bus service to Somewhere Else, and off we went. Baby Woodchuck bared his teeth at me in parting. I told him not to let the trap door hit him on the way out.

For now, I'm drinking my coffee on the back porch, and it's pretty quiet. No crazy woman hollering and throwing potholders into the sunflower patch. Just me and the stray cats, who have never, not once, eaten any of my brassicas.

Baby Woodchuck, taken into custody sometime in the night


Rest in Peace, South Irving Street

This month marks two years since a triple homicide happened around the corner and down the alley. Our daily dog walk passes this lot, and in July, I wish the family that lived here could witness this calm after their storm: since the house burned and was demolished, a meadow has grown up, encouraged by a fertile birth of apples - a great weight of them that heaps up under the trees and melts into cidery September puddles.


Spawn of Cupcake (or Cupcake is Ruining My Life, Part II)

Baby Woodchuck, posing behind his designer galvanized salad bar

There's this time in the early morning when it's not quite light, but it's not quite dark. And I wonder: might I get away with a quick dash out the backdoor to the garden shed, wearing nothing but my skivvies? It would only be just a moment.

In the time it takes to think that, the sun rises a little higher. It becomes most decidedly clear that streaking in my own urban neighborhood would not be prudent. So, bothersome as it may be, I take the time to throw on sweats and a tanktop - a hampering process, when I'm really champing at the bit to see who (anybody?) is in the woodchuck trap.

Lo and behold, it's Cupcake's Baby! Good God, I've got him!

High on victory, I rush into the downstairs bakery to do a little dance in front of the baker, and announce: Guess who won the smackdown? Me, me, me! There will be no rematch - I've caught that fat little vegetable vacuum, and he's totally outta here.

As Matt, the baker, will point out now, I was gloating. I made coffee and a frittata, I ate on the backporch (basking), I grabbed my keys and went out to collect my 'chuck for transport to the State Game Lands.

Oddly, from a distance of ten feet, it appeared my trap was empty. Hard to believe. He's practicing the wild animal art of camouflage... surely?

Good God, he's gone. That little motherf&%$er.

I was terribly deflated. I was grumpy pretty much all morning, grumpy enough to tell Matt to make his own damn change during bread sales at the farmers market. I wasn't sure how that chubby Baby (who is the size of a cantaloupe) made his escape until this evening, when I witnessed a reenactment after having reset the trap. Remarkably, he's able to flatten himself into a jellyfish-like 3/4-inch pancake and bolt - not slither - out from under the (sloppy) door.

What a crappy freakin' trap.

As I type on the back porch (where I am drowning my garden sorrows in Chardonnay), that little bugger is gobbling clovers. He is welcome to all of those that he can stuff in, as well as the dried out old opium poppy stems he's sampling. But please have mercy on my cauliflowers, okay?

So. I need someone to build a better 'chucktrap, because this one sucks. If you revisit my blog and find a final post featuring a photo of a burnt out old lot littered with smashed forty-ouncers and smoking tires, it's because there's nothing left of my garden, after Baby has had his way.

Cupcake is Ruining My Life, Part I


A real stinker of a day

Would you think, after finding a dead skunk sprawled out under your hedgerow in the am, that your day could get any stinkier? Well folks, it can, and it did.

Whilst wrastling a diseased crabapple out of the bed of my pickup truck, which is a messy tumble of plastic pots and all my handtools strung together in some sort of horrendous garden-twine-charm-bracelet, I hooked my shirtsleeve under the Liquid Fence trigger and squirted myself in the shoulder. For those unfamiliar with anti-deer spray, it contains putrescent egg solids, among other lovelies. And it's designed to stick reeeeal good.

Next, a sack of potatoes - also putrescent - was discovered in the pantry during dinner prep. This managed to overpower the smell of my fantastic herby-garlicky tomato sauce simmering on the stove.

And finally, on a late garden tour after waving goodbye to the dinner guests from the front walk, I stepped smack dab in the middle of a molten dog poop IN MY BARE FEET.


And so, I shall leave you with this thought (which has nothing to do with this particular stinking day):

White admiral butterfly on coyote scat


Whiskey-mint-hibiscus and Triple-sec-lemon-fennel drinks

I received an email from Ellen of the wonderful blog Down & Dirty asking: "Any chance you'd share the recipe for whiskey-mint-hibiscus drinks? Sounds delicious and intriguing."

I would love to! Here it is.

Mint and hibiscus

  • Whiskey: whatever you like best. Ten High bourbon is Matt's family's old faithful, so that's what we usually have on hand.
  • Mint: a simple syrup, which is 1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water. Matt made a pot of it on the stove with a big bundle of mint steeped in it.
  • Hibiscus: we get bags of the flowers from the Mexican market, where it's called Jamaica, and make iced tea with it. It's tart.
  • Plus club soda and some ice cubes.
Proportions: Since our method of mixing is to add a splash until each drinker is happy with his or her ratio of alcohol to herbal elixir, I'm going to guess at roughly 2 ounces of whiskey, 1 ounce of simple syrup, 1 ounce of hibiscus, 3 ounces of club soda.

Triple-sec-lemon-fennel drink

The 5th of July, which unbeknownst to me turned out to be a holiday, presented the unfortunate situation of nothing in the house to drink and no liquor store open in the state of Pennsylvania. But then I found a dusty old bottle of triple sec in the pantry. So...
  • Triple sec (2 ounces)
  • Bronze fennel (4 large feathers)
  • Lemon wedges (2)
  • Club soda (4 ounces)
  • Ice cubes
Muddle the bronze fennel in the triple sec, and add the other ingredients. I will hope to have my very own Meyer lemon off my potted tree for the next round of these.

As far as the art of mixology goes, I'm betting both of these formulas could be improved and changed pretty dramatically (and I'd love to hear your suggestions if you try these!). I think the real recipe is: grab whatever is pungent and fresh and within running-out-the-back-door-in-bare-feet reach, and steep-muddle-mix with whatever happens to be in the liquor cabinet.


My July

Bronze fennel tentacles

Lilium 'Conca d'Or'

Crimson gala apple

Hemerocallis 'Hot Toddy'

Dianthus 'Chianti'


Insta Garden

A client requests a modest vegetable garden at the height of the busy season and the end of veggie-plot planting time... What is the harried gardener to do? This, accomplished in about 3 hours (including supply shopping).

The roll of poultry netting is 25 feet long, so measure a square with 6 foot sides and pound four wooden stakes in the ground.

Forget the shovel; sheet mulch! As luck would have it, the lawn mower man has been shredding leaves and chipping brush for the past few years and piling it at the back of the client's lot. The piles are at varying degrees of composted-ness. The least rotted leaves are the first layer, because they'll slick down into a nice greasy barrier against the grass and weeds below.

Add a few inches of semi-rotted leaf compost.

Third layer is purchased - four 40-pound bags of a nice black peat-and-compost mix. Heavy on the compost, yes, but since not all of it is entirely broken down, not all of it is accessible to the roots. It will feed them over the season as it settles and is processed by earthworms, who are cordially invited by the slimy leaves to enter and eat.

Time to plant - and densely, because if Mother Nature doesn't thin 'em, I will.

Fencing up. Wood chip path added. Because I can't count, extra stakes had to be harvested from the hedgerow, sharpened, and pounded in for the gate opening. One more stake for the gate latch, which I am particularly tickled with. Here's how it works...

Lift up the wire loop...

...and then lift the gate post over the peg. It might take a human only a moment to figure this out, but I am quite sure it would take a Tiny Bunny a lifetime. However... can he squeeze through the space between gate post and stake? Of course! After gorging on parsley and young cucumber leaves, will he be expanded and trapped inside like Winnie the Pooh? Surely.

Finally, a ring of wood chips is added around the outside to make things easier on my friend the lawn mower man. The end.


Visit my mother's garden

In the early morning, each poppy - frilled, crinkled, doubled - holds a cupful of honeybees. Their buzzing is broadcast outward and upward by the flowers, like little petal-walled amphitheaters.

Rodrica Tilley, my mom, is a professional plein air pastel painter. If you are within driving distance of northeast PA, you can visit her garden, now through July 11. And if you fall in love with the living composition, you can take home a piece of it in the form of a painting!

You'll find details here (click on "Summer Show at Studio").