Missing a sense of Home; A Dirge.

What is home? People? Place? Memory? Do we actually adapt? Maybe the real question is What is loss? What is identity? How is our own individual identity connected with those whom we have lost ? I cannot articulate how deeply I miss my people that are gone. My brother Richard, my stepson, Scott, my friend and patron, Alice Bloom, my friend and mentor, Ivan Kats, and his troubled yet remarkable son, Tuckerman Kats, my father-in-law Ernest Pighills….gone; past, leaving nothing but unreliable memories of intimacies and connectedness that seem to be as transitory as the ashes that we throw into the garden. I don’t like to feel this sense of mortality and futility but I do and it crushes me.

I can’t call my dead  brother Richard and talk politics and film and nonsense and see his face as the sound of his voice made clear. Nor can I knock on Ivan Kats’ door, and be welcomed in with a glass of wine and witticism or a reading of Frederico Garcia Lorca- or a review of last night’s Longwharf Theater presentation.

I can think of Scott Pighills, his sweet, considerate nature and his gentlemanilness and remember (bitterly) the exceedingly brief time I had to share in his life but I cannot learn more about his interests and passions and disappointments and aspirations as a 21 year old.

Similarly, as much as I would like, I cannot speak with Ernest Pighills, my father-in-law, and try to understand what made him tick and what his opinions were on raising his sons.

Painfully, sadly,  I can re-live the precious moments that I shared in the company of Alice Bloom, a Chaucer scholar, but so much more, embraced in her warm and sassy style of erudition, enthusiasm, criticism and inspiration and I know in my heart that she, more than anyone, understood my work and encouraged it and embraced it, but I cannot talk with her; a loss that defies articulation.

Thoughts of these people who have had such a profound impact on my life are the things that keep me questioning the direction I move in.  May the gods bless them all and may we find our own way through the thickets.

Cabin Fever and Preparing for Spring


Cabin Fever

After an unseasonably warm winter it seems that Spring might arrive earlier than usual, but then again, I suppose we must always “beware the ides of March”. This English style weather we’ve been having doesn’t do much to lift us out of the ‘cabin fever’ doldrums; raw, penetratingly damp and greyish in hue. Glints of sunlight and moderate temperatures do penetrate our cage, but the moment we step outside and take the initiative to move a bit of mud around Mother Nature raps us on the knuckles to remind us of our place.  Well, okay, but she didn’t invent tools and To-Do lists so, there’s plenty to do while we wait for her to give us the nod on Spring activity, especially if, like us, you didn’t get around to doing all the things on the list last Fall.

Check Tools, Equipment and Supplies:

  • Sharpen pruners, loppers and shears; oil hinges
  • Clean and check functionality of spray bottles
  • Check supply of potting soil
  • Check supply of organic fertlizers (we use Espoma products, such as Bulbtone, Rose-tone, Holly-tone, etc…)
  • Prepare gardening calender
  • Check condition of watering devices (hoses, nozzles, spray heads, watering cans, etc…)
  • Check spades, trowels, rakes, hoes, etc..
  • Assuming that your garden seeds are well in order by this time, prepare a planting schedule and mark it on the calender. I’m going to be adventurous this year and plant lettuces before the last frost date. (I’ll keep you posted on how that goes).

Till the next post, Good Luck and really make an effort to enjoy the few pleasures that the winter season dictates; reading, cooking, organizing files, correspondance, etc…

Letter to my husband ( who is in the UK for a month)

Lala and Lalita


A most shocking and upsetting thing happened this evening. Lala and Lalita disappeared at bedtime. They were nowhere to be found. Curly, alone, and in the usual place, where the stream cascades over the log and flows into the wetlands, looked stressed and upset. Where were the girls? Nevertheless, through habit or self-preservation, I cannot say, he followed protocol and (dutifully?) went into the henhouse on his own without his girls, squeaking more loudly than usual. I called and called forever and  ever and searched high and low (even beneath the boxwoods, where Lala used to lay her eggs, thinking that maybe she was conducting some kind of training program for Lalita regarding family traditions ) but no sign of them and it was now dark at 6:00pm. I gave up and was about to e-mail you about their demise when I heard the familiar, usually irritating, but now, longed for, quacking about 20 minutes later. In the pitch dark, illuminated by your little flashlight (one of the more useful purchases you’ve made) I followed the panicky noise. Lala and Lalita were stood at the base of the peach tree, disoriented and trying to get into the henhouse through the chicken wire. Weirdly enough, considering their pea sized brains, I herded them, shining the torch across the Herb Garden down Rhubarb Alley, and they actually scurried along, with agility, speed, and a sense of direction that would put Mapquest to shame, directly into the pen. Moreover, contrary to the usual cajoling and herding efforts required, they couldn’t wait for me to open the door to let them in, and, when I did, there was Curly; waiting and as  eager and agitated as a nervous bridegroom. He did the head bobbing thing and ushered them to what I suppose to be their favorite corner. I felt great relief and satisfaction that all was was as it ought to be and, I believe, that even the Senator ( the giant ‘boss-man’ Muscovy alpha male) seemed to express satisfaction over their reappearance and gave a  very wide berth to Curly & Company. I shall sleep easier tonight.

Leeks and Eeks!

Lately I’ve noticed that, for the culinarily sophisticated, there are only two socially acceptable ways to consume vegetables, without appearing ‘outré’; Raw or Roasted. Palatability notwithstanding, I’ve found that if one chooses the latter, and carefully follows the trendiest recipes, they will achieve both. The vegetables will be sufficiently firm, toothsome and of an adequately neutral temperature on the inside to satisfy the vitality enthusiastic, raw food contingency, while the outside, blackened, crispy and redolently carboniferous, will fulfill the roasters is all of us.

Recently, and at the encouragement of the hostess for a Thanksgiving meal, I prepared a leek dish, the recipe for which I was directed to by the hostess at finecooking.com website. Reading it through and looking at the photograph of the completed dish I was struck asunder by the painful and humiliating realization that I was hopelessly out of food trend fashion. What to do? Follow the recipe to the letter and bear the dish to the gathering with the pride of knowing that I was ‘au courant’ in the eyes of the professionals, or, change the recipe, for the sake of my outlandishly old-fashioned tastes regarding palatability, and risk that humiliation? I chose humility. Dental challenges asides, I find raw vegetables delectable when they are really raw, and I truly enjoy cooked vegetables, no matter the method, when they are, in fact, cooked, but I can’t seem to warm to the idea of the hybrids. I feel similarly about pasta.  It’s either cooked or its not. (Of course, there’s overcooked, but that comes under different headings entirely; DIY Home Improvement, subcategory: Wallcovering Adhesive, or Hobby Farm as Chicken Fodder). If I had the time, I would be game to argue about ‘al dente’ until the  proverbial cows come back to their proverbial home, however, with limited time,and patience at a premium, I settle with two categories; cooked or uncooked. Many shades of subtlety pertain but these I leave to professional gastronomes, not churls, like me, who like to judge a dish by its digestibility.

Back to Thanksgiving. I ventured into the garden and dug the leeks. Cleaned them, sliced them into uncouth, miserably out-of-fashion, dowdy, mouth-sized one inch sections, if you can believe it, blanched them (yes, I’m almost ashamed to admit it, I did, and didn’t even bother to plunge them into cold water, which I’m sure a sophisticated professional would do for the sake of the written word, or, at least under the gastronomic auspices of ‘retaining color’), (white!?) and then went on my merry, bombastic way of recipe bastardization by adding more cream than was called for ( by gastronomes and cardiologists combined), adding salt (quelle horreur!) and mincing garlic to such a fine mash as is generally reserved for political debates.

A few, very kind and obviously old-fashioned, friends have asked for the recipe (out of compassion or sympathy, no doubt) and so I include it here. But, be warned! The result is nothing like the culinary standards that are described in the first paragraph. These are more comfort than current; soft, creamy, calorie rich leeks that accompany mashed potatoes and are to be washed down with plenty of good, dry red or white bordeaux.

Continue reading

Don’t throw away last year’s seeds!

The seed catalogs are rolling in and piling up fast and as I surveyed my index card files crammed with seed packets I began to wonder about seed viability from year to year. I went to the library and got a few books and while I was checking them out, I mentioned to the volunteer what I was after; namely seed viability information. She said, “oh, I think they’re like over the counter medication…they say that they’ll expire but really, I think they last forever.” Hmmm, rather dubious, if you ask me but she’s got a point. Seed packets usually state the year in which they were packed or, misleadingly phrased as “Packed for 2009”, which leads one to think that they might have a shelf-life of a year or so. I wanted to get to the bottom of this.

I realize that this may not be important to non-organic gardeners who purchase their seeds at their local garden center. If the seed doesn’t germinate, they can always go and get a new packet. For gardeners who are concerned about GMO’s (genetically modified seed) and want to use organic seed, or those who want to grow unusual or heirloom varieties, this isn’t a reliable option. If the seed doesn’t germinate, you’ll need to place another mail order and that will involve valuable time (as well as the possibility that your choice has been Sold Out).

I may not store my seeds under optimal conditions (dark and cold) but I come pretty close and I wanted to get to the bottom of this.  I prepared an inventory of the seeds I have, including variety name and date packed (this is 8 pages long). I then did my research and prepared a list of the plants I grow and the length of time, in years, in which the seed will be viable if stored under perfect conditions. Wow! I was shocked to learn how much money I had potentially wasted over the years ordering fresh seed when I had plenty of year old seed in stock. I share the fruits of my labors below: Continue reading

The Mystery Breadman

Several months ago a very kind, thoughtful, senior fellow showed up at our door encumbered with a massive bag of Italian bread. He seemed shy, embarrassed, awkward, and in a bit of a rush and mentioned that he used to have chickens and that his friend, the commercial breadbaker, who’s name appeared on the paper sleeves protecting the loaves, used to give him the day old bread to feed to his chickens. Now chickenless, he somehow came to know of us, and wanting to do his part in the ‘waste-not-want-not’, recycling thing, decided to pass-on the abundance in a neighborly and nostalgic way. We thanked him, profusely, insisting that he take a dozen eggs, but he declined. This then created a bit of  a quandary for us. We feed our chickens and ducks organic feed and this ‘supplement’ of white bread was not exactly ‘organic’. (But then, neither were the FEMA baloney and cheese sandwiches on Wonder bread that were ‘donated’ to our birds after Hurricane Irene. I swear that they never developed mold, even after a week or more in the feed-shed!!!!  The chickens weren’t crazy about them either.) Furthermore, the chickens can’t quite manage them. They ignore the bread, unless it’s broken up into very small pieces,which is laborious and conflict-inducing if you’re doing this in the presence of the birds. The Cuisinart can be put into service to render the loaves into crumbs, but this just seems like a lot of work for free,stale white bread. This ritual of the anonymous bread supply left on the doorstep continues with monthly, or bi-monthly regularity. The turkeys and ducks can manage larger pieces and, now, seeing this flinging about of bread as a sort of game, seem to enjoy the sport of dashing around and winning the prized offerings. I know that what I’m about to say will sound hugely ungrateful and callous, but, the distribution of these massive quantities of stale Italian bread that are left with us in a spirit of generosity and cooperation have become a responsibility that I feel burdened by.

So, tonight, running out of ideas, tired of the pressure of entertaining the birds with valuable time, and, in a spirit of effective time management as well as perpetuating the ‘waste-not-want-not’ approach to rural living, I prepared bread pudding for Andrew, with chocolate chips, dried cherries, cinnamon, nutmeg, eggs and skim milk. I also threw a few of the loaves into the freezer for future culinary or avian adventures; croutons, bread crumbs, winter poultry entertainment, etc… (We, ourselves, are not so particular about what we ingest, although we should be). The mystery breadman remains a mystery. He is kind, thoughtful, considerate and generous with his gifts. The birds appreciate the entertainment, and we thank the gentleman for his efforts. I’m hoping that the next time he shows up I will have a nicely prepared bread pudding or a flavorful bag of croutons to offer him.

Bulb Planting Time!

Fall is often the best time for planting many hardy plants, including most bulbs, and this includes dividing and replanting. Lately we’ve been busy planting spring and summer flowering bulbs, daffodils, squill, snowdrops, grape hyacinth, fritillaria, flowering onions, lilies, tulips, crocus, camassia, and the like. In my opinion, the biggest mistake one can make when planting bulbs is pussy-footing around and dabbling with them. Ten daffodils won’t make much of a statement (unless they’re in a pot) and in March and April, when winter blight has us thinking about a little stroll on the third rail, what we need is a big, splashy, exuberant visual statement. When you read garden books and they advise planting bulbs in drifts, they mean 150 or more daffodils in a 4′ x 10′ space, or 300 squill in a similarly sized area. I have no idea what a prescription of Prozac costs or how many dosages are included in the vial but I do know that 300 squill (scilla) bulbs cost about $80. and when in flower, create an ethereal, inspiring, vibrant, blue carpet that is indescribably stimulating (thus, all the previous adjectives) with almost no side effects, if you plan the plantings right. (Yes, you’ll want something to follow behind the squill to create another visual event. That’s easily done and likely the subject for a future post). Meanwhile, back at the ranch, for those of us sado-masochistic gardeners who treat dahlias and gladiolas and cannas as if they were members of the family, no matter how many of them there are or how unexceptional that may have turned out to be, we dig them up, now, and store them in a frost free place, nestled  in sawdust or peat moss or some other neutral and dryish and softish packing material (not marshmallows or Lucky Charms) to spend the winter, albeit, in the basement.  There’s still time to order bulbs and get them in the ground but don’t dawdle. Do it now, quick as a bunny, if you want the rewards that spring will give you.

Fall Planting

Right now we’re planting the ‘dessert’ garden. Yes, we’re recommitting the Liberty Garden from an additional kitchen / cutting garden to one dedicated to fruits and berries. This garden, enclosed by espaliered apples and a pear fan,  will be dedicated to strawberries, currants (red and black), blueberries, grapes, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries (there you see Andrew’s British heritage coming through). Yes, there is the asparagus patch, a recent perennial installation that we coddle and therefore will leave be, but the rest, the annuals; the zinnias, cosmos, calendulas, sunflowers, larkspur, Bells of Ireland, cutting marigolds, morning glories, dahlias, gladiolas, artichokes, cardoons, leeks, florence fennel, kale…, all will be deported and we’ll have to find a new home for them.

The “dessert” garden isn’t happening in a vacuum.  We are trialing a number of plants for the USDA. and we’re interested in finding out if these are suitable candidates for broader, commercial cultivation in the State of Connecticut than they presently are. With cuttings provided by the USDA, we have rooted and nurtured 15 currant bushes, all of which are varieties that date as far back as 1850, one gooseberry (most of the gooseberry cuttings failed) and 56 willows ( of which, the latter address an entirely different environmental and artistic objective and a subject on which I’ve previously posted).

Meanwhile, Andrew Pighills, horticulturist , has struck roughly 15 cuttings of ‘vitis vinifera’, grapes from stock provided by the Killingworth Lion’s Club,presumably ‘Marechal”(as I remember). We shall see.

Finding a mate for Mr. Big

Mr. Big is a very large Muscovy duck that lives on Falls River in Essex , Connecticut. We have had the pleasure of transforming a clients’ property there for much of the summer and, admiring the river views, noticed that, despite the ample companionship of a dozen or so Canada geese, he was a single white male with beautiful black carruncles, but no love interest. Over cocktails with our clients, now friends, we inquired about his winter status. Sad news. The Canadian companions fly south leaving him all alone.  We just happen to have a lot of Muscovy ducks and, after conferring, we all decided that Mr. Big needed a mate. Out of a fairly large pool of candidates, Mochachina, a brown and cream colored female, seemed like the most well-suited. She is independant, energetic, and likes the great outdoors more than most of the ducks who prefer to go into the henhouse/shelter at night.

Today was the big event. We brought Mochachina to Falls River for her date with fate. Mr Big, desultory, bored, and perhaps, even, depressed was sharing his throne, a large, broad, smooth rock that juts out of the current, with Mr. Tortoise. Ms. Mocha, traumatized, no doubt, by the forced disenfranchisement from her clan and the fear of the unknown that Falls River is (am I anthropomorphizing? yes, of course), leaped from Andrew’s arms into the drink and paddled off upstream, definitely not in the direction of Mr. Big. Hours went by. Andrew beat a trail upstream through the brush, hugging the riverbank, watching her closely and attempting to cajole her into moving in the other direction. Perched on the bank with a pair of binoculars, I observed, waiting, expecting for Mr. Big to make a move or, at least, show an interest. Nothing doing. We began to really worry. This doesn’t look like its in the cards.

Amazingly, surprisingly, Mochachina paddled towards the center of the river. Clearly Mr. Big could see her. Why is he stone still, or worse, seemingly uninterested? Mocha paddled back to her safe haven, alone, frightened, disenfranchised; 20 minutes passed. Andrew trailed her and more cajoling ensued. What happened next is magic. I don’t know how it happened or what changed but Mochachina boldly swan across the river to make her presence known. Mr. Big had left the rock and ambled up onto the grassy lawn of the “neighbor who feeds him’. Assuming a sort of petrified stance for a long time, he watched her.  She flirted a bit, paddling back and forth and , when that didn’t get his attention in a way that satisfied her, she flew up on the embankment and introduced herself, face to face. They were tentative and awkward with one another. It was strange, but then, Mr. Big started wagging his tail (Muscovies are like dogs in this way, they wag their tails to express satisfaction). Mocha approached and stood near him. We all watched in amazement. Mission accomplished. There will be more to post about this. We will need to see how they get along with one another but Bette, our client, called me to say that Mochachina was comfortably sitting and preening herself, ( a sure sign of feeling safe) six feet behind Mr. Big, where he faced the river in a protective stance. That sounds pretty good to me. May they be well  together. More later.