Red River Valley

wheat field Fisher NDI have been driving around North Dakota the last few days. It is something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while. North Dakota was one of three remaining states of the contiguous 48 that I had not been to (only Idaho and Rhode Island left!) and it’s only three hours away. But there isn’t much reason to go to North Dakota, I’ve found.

cemetery mountain ndLast winter I heard a story that I have been working on in my head, and sometimes on paper, ever since. It is a story about a guy who delivers burial vaults and does funerals in small cemeteries all over northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, about a 150 mile radius of Grand Forks.

The Red River Valley is somewhat mythic territory. The Red River runs north and in the spring, when the ice melts and the river starts flowing up to Canada, where the ice has not melted, it tends to back up and flood. The kids get out of school to help sandbag in Grand Forks and Fargo.

downtown walhallaThey’re far enough east not to feel the effects of the booming fracking industry, which has brought wealth and destruction and a lot of degradation to not just the land but also quality of life for the people of western North Dakota. On the radio, the story is that the state has a lot of money– and why isn’t it lowering taxes and also putting the money into education and infrastructure? Especially education.

In Fargo and in Grand Forks, I saw groups of young men, college and high school age, running through the streets. They were wearing shorts and sometimes shirts, sometimes not. Cross country season is upon us, and they were running right through downtown Fargo and along the edge of the UND campus in Grand Forks. There is nothing more optimistic and encouraging than a group of young men out for a run.

Once out of the two cities, I didn’t see many people at all. I saw a lot of trucks. I saw FedEx and UPS in really far off places. I saw combines in the wheat fields and a surprising number of crop dusters. One went right over my head, very “North by Northwest.”

sunflower field grasston ndThe wheat fields are gorgeous this time of year, and so are the sunflower fields. Otherwise it is all sugar beet and soybean fields, one after another. The crop dusters are spraying the beans so they will die and can be harvested (I know). About every ten miles, there is a grain elevator and a town of 200-400 people. About every thirty miles there is a town of 600 or more, with a gas station and grocery store and a beautiful old cinema. And at least two churches, Lutheran and Catholic.

walhalla martyrs 1857Along the road or at the edge of each town, there is a field set aside and rimmed with trees that serves as a cemetery. Sometimes they’re gated but most of the time not. The gravestones go back to the late 19th century.

In Walhalla (pop 996 on 1 square mile of hilly land), less than 10 miles from the Canadian border, there are a few cafes,  several churches and a history museum. There are two cemeteries. The first is hilly and full of trees, predominantly protestant and including the graves of the Walhalla Martyrs, missionaries killed by Indians in the 1850s. If you continue up to the top of the hill you find St. Boniface cemetery, dotted with statues of Mary and fully exposed to the sun.

sugar beet field

sugar beet field

While I was in the Lutheran cemetery on the edge of Fisher, ND, population 432 on 780 acres, three men in their twenties drove up with a box and a shovel. Three brothers, no doubt. They walked over in single file to one of the graves. One of them dug a hole, put the box in it, and covered it up. They stood around a bit, to formalize the moment.

When I interviewed my friend’s brother, who does the burials, I asked him about stories. He said they’re all “sad stories about young people.” Car accidents, drugs, suicides, accidental shootings. Last week a toddler on the reservation run over by her father’s car.

combine wheat near fisher

I suppose people will think it is morbid of me, driving around looking at cemeteries, taking photos. I am interested in communities, religion, life and death. I’m interested in ways of life coming to an end. I’m interested in America. In this particular part of the country, there are large farms, thanks to the invention of anhydrous ammonia, fertilizer, made even more profitable by hybrids and pesticides. Along the road you see the big operations: Johnson’s Farm, Narloch’s Farm. Family names, but big business. The American Crystal Sugar plant in Crookston, a truly desperate place, has signs all over looking for workers for the sugar beet harvest. The sugar plant workers were out on strike for 20 months between 2011-2013, finally signing a contract that resembled the initial ones, with fewer benefits. I can’t help but think I was there at the absolute best time of year.

cavalier cinemaI will make another trip sometime, to see the place in a different weather. I have to say, it was a great two days, even though I saw almost nothing and talked to almost no one way out in the middle of nowhere, USA.

 

 

granary train ardoch nd

sunflower with bee

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The Season

august counterIt’s been a strange season in the garden. No two years have been alike, it’s true, but this season has been like a series of mini-explosions. I think I can still stand by my statement that it’s the best season I’ve had. I had peas, but I didn’t have cauliflower. Still, who cares about cauliflower? I’d much rather have peas!

I’ve also clearly learned some things, which masks the success/failure equation in the garden. The arrival of produce hasn’t overwhelmed me as much as in past years. I kind of know what to do with it, and so am able to shift from one thing to another.

Yes, there are fruit flies on my counter, and I wish the tomatoes would get ripe at the same time so I could go ahead and do a big bunch of canning, instead of a few jars here and there.

I’ve been surprised already by some large leeks. By the quality of the garlic. By the peppers, which look fantastic and hang heavily on their healthy stems despite the lack of hot weather.

But my refrigerator is not stuffed to the gills. I am not opening drawers wondering what I have to eat NOW to save it from the compost pile. I have a bucket of damp sand and carrots in the cool garage. I have a pail of potatoes. And the onions are small but working great in the canning recipes.

rabbit fenceStill, this is the year that the animals arrived. Some very good ones– there are frogs in the garden! Some bad ones. I’ve seen rabbits, voles, field mice and 13-striped ground squirrels at various times in the raised beds.  We killed the gophers, but they gave us a run for our money. I finally relented and today put up some rabbit fencing around two beds just to get some fall lettuce, spinach, radishes and beets. (We’ll be stapling it to the sides of the beds tomorrow.)

beans in jarsThere are lots of beneficial insects, including bees everywhere doing their pollinating duty. But there have also been cucumber beetles, which slowed or did in some things. After the collapse of the cucumber trellis and what looked like it would be a banner year there, squash bugs and powdery mildew set in and I was lucky to get enough to make the pickles for Christmas. And though I’ve been “sharing” the bean plants with critters, they have moved from the vines to the bean pods themselves.

The bean pods, which are legion, aren’t drying in this cool, misty weather, but also look to be molding and some have been chewed open just enough to ruin the beans. So I’m starting to harvest them once they’ve plumped the pods but before they’ve dried out.

august mealSTILL… let’s make no mistake. We’ve been eating like kings all summer. I mean for real. Even the saddest tomato plants in the world are producing these fantastic jeune flamme orange tomatoes and gorgeous saladette red tomatoes. I have enough salsa now, too, for Christmas. With a little hot, dry weather, I’ll get my usual 10 quarts, or more, of canned tomatoes. And I’ve already got 1 quart and 1 pint of those shell beans, as much as I harvested in total last year, and I’m about 1/4 the way into the harvest…

Which is to say, it’s been a kick ass summer. Despite the critters and my total loss of control of the weed situation in the bean/potato bed, and the cool, damp weather.

I think I’m getting the hang of it.

sad tomato plants

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Daily Harvests

1502899_10203743642145314_8491411570701596963_oI’m thinking next year I might do a little photo project and during June-October take photos of what I harvest every day. Or, you know, maybe just for August and September. Because every day I fill as many pails as I take out to the garden. My counter is covered with produce.10518701_10203750313552095_529257481961673295_n

People ask me if I spend a lot of time in the garden, ore more often they ask how much time I spend in they garden. I really don’t spend more than 3-5 hours/week out there at any time except the spring when I’m getting things set up. But I do spend a lot of time in the kitchen. A lot of time.

10583069_10203743644225366_1076494706471512664_oOf course, I bring it upon myself. I want to do something with these veggies. I want to save them, sure, but I also want to treat them well in my dinners. I read a lot of online recipes, and until recently I was on FB groups for gardeners, CSA subscribers and food preservers. I also get recipes in my e-mail inbox. I’ve hopped off a couple of the groups because, well, I just can’t take it anymore!

I’ve got enough on my hands right here in the kitchen.

And, of course, I’ve got this year of ferment going on. So last night I harvested two of my four cabbages and began my first ever sauerkraut. I’m so excited.

photo-10All you do is chop up the cabbage, mix in a few teaspoons of salt, mix it with your hands until there’s enough liquid to cover the cabbage, then put it into a crock or, in my case, my handy gallon size Fermented Vegetable Master (which is much cheaper than a crock kit and has the great airlock to eliminate airborne bacteria getting into the crock). I will leave it on the counter to ferment for 14-30 days (I’ll start tasting after 14 days) and then it goes in the fridge in jars. Even though my cabbages aren’t napa style, I’m thinking I’ll use the other two for kimchi after this ferment is done.

 

photo-8

photo-6All I can say is, I’m so happy when tomato season comes. Oh, sure, they fill the counters and I have to start figuring out the salsa production and canning.

But also, they make for super easy dinners. It’s the official beginning of pasta season, where a few tomatoes, garlic, onion and a pepper in a pan make a delicious sauce, topped with basil and parmesan.

photo-11

 

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Simple Pleasures

10557336_10203702978208741_1218976641574570394_nI’m thinking about seriously curtailing my social media participation. It is making me anxious. It has always made me anxious, but I realize it feeds certain kinds of pressure… particularly my competitive nature when it comes to the garden and food.

I’m having seven women over to my house on Saturday. I’m already mad at the prairie for not maintaining it’s peak glory into mid-August. Why can’t they be coming when it’s all purple cone flowers and bergamot and rudbeckia and lead plant and and and?? Will they really just get to see some droopy yellow coneflowers and the incoming goldenrod?

IMG_8583And what about my pantry? The pickles aren’t ready! There’s only the single jar of salsa? Will I be OK if I start making the sauces on Friday afternoon?

The cucumbers seem to be slowing down… and the beans. Will I have enough for the salads I have planned? The dill is dying– will there be enough?

We are talking about 7 people here. Completely non-judgy, happy-to-be-here women. You do realize that I host Easter for 24-30, right? And in fact, even when it is just Steve’s daughters and the farm families, 10497515_10203725569213502_2968719847431240719_oit is 12 people… Why am I freaking out?

 

 

I am blaming this self-imposed pressure on our glorious meal last night. Truly the apex of the summer cooking. I had some poblano peppers, beauties, that I wanted to stuff and grill. I ended up putting a little dab of goat cheese in each one and grilling them until blistered. Over the top I put a mixture of local sweet corn, rice, garlic, shallot, and local ground lamb. I used the rest of the pound of lamb to make lamb burgers a la kofta from the Jerusalem cookbook. With shallot, garlic, red pepper, herbs… Over the top of both of these things I put a smittenkitchn.com salsa verde made of garden herbs and lemon juice with the addition of two tomatillos.

I know. I’ve lost my mind. It was Monday night. Steve stumbled in from work in a daze and ate this stuff. I worked hard on this dish, and it did not disappoint. For good measure, and because some tomatoes were really about to go over the edge, I made a caprese salad. Seriously. Losing my mind.

Tonight, I pulled it all back. Somewhat sullen, I just went out to the garden to see what was there. I hauled in some more beans, and took advantage of “testing” some of the plumped shell beans, including some nicely developing scarlet runner beans. I cut up the various pole beans, simmered them in water with the shell beans. Then added the kernels from the remaining corn from last night. Oh, and a few small tomatoes. Blistered another poblano and chopped that up, too. And made a simple vinaigrette of balsamic, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice. Poured it over the so-called salad.

And OMG, it was delicious. I didn’t bother to take a photo because it didn’t really count in the pantheon of garden dishes.

And so I decided not to sweat the August gathering on Saturday. Whatever we have in the garden, I will make it. And it will be sooooo good.

I’m pretty sure there’s going to be stuff in the garden on Saturday.

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10499529_10203715962173332_8441032252052122805_o1077345_10203715959053254_2339335694509888051_o

 

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Collapse!

bean-to 8-6-14We’ve had really the best summer possible. The wet spring meant great germination (and even enough cool weather for peas!) and although it’s been dry since June, it’s also been hot enough for the tomatoes, peppers and winter squash to do their thing. So far (knock on wood) we’ve had no hail or major storms to wreak havoc with the crops.

In fact, the garden has completely overflowed its banks and the aisles between the raised beds are so full of vines it is hard to get in there and see, let alone harvest, the produce.

Yesterday when I went cuke trellis collapseout to hunt for cucumbers, I found that the jute netting I’d put over the trellis collapsed. Collapsed from the weight of cucumber vines! It’s unprecedented in my garden. This has been my favorite trellis, and I was sad to see that the online supply store is no longer carrying this great boxy jute netting that you can put on it to hold the vines and keep the cukes off the ground. Now I know why! The netting completely collapsed, and when I tried to attach it on different rungs, it just kept breaking! It was a mess. But hey, cucumbers do fine vining along the ground. It was three years before I even started trellising them. And now I understand why Gardener’s Supply has replaced this item with sturdier biodegradable netting that looks like plastic (but is made of plant fibers).

On the other side of the garden, the bean wall has also fallen. I set up some stakes on ropes to support the wall in the wind, but the wind seems to have shifted, or something. The bean wall now lies on the three stakes quite nicely. In fact, the beans often point down away from the vines for easier harvesting! It’s less a wall and more a lean-to. Or a bean-to.

cool old squash early augustEvery day I gasp at the size of the winter squash. Seriously, the words “State Fair” come to mind whenever I’m out there. The Cool Old Squash has several fruits, and one of them was growing so large so fast that it started swelling over a corner of the raised bed. I lifted it up so it could swell more freely and to avoid the nasty corner scar. That thing could be putting on weight for another three weeks before harvest!

The Tahitian squash are also turning out to be these enormous ropy things. And the delicata is not at all delicate. I have squash bugs, which I think have dissuaded the watermelons from producing, but even they cannot stop these squash plants.

tomatoes 8-6-14Still, if I were a betting woman, I’d put my money for the next collapse on the tomato and tomatillo forest. Despite pruning and blight, these plants are setting all kinds of fruit.

It’s a wilderness out there. I wish you could come hike it with me.

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August: Preparing for Round Two

IMG_8516

Thursday was a cleaning day in the garden. I pulled out the pea vines and the last of the beets (they really weren’t going to get any bigger) and turned over the beet and garlic beds to prepare them for fall planting. A childhood friend was visiting this week and when we were at the pea fence, she wondered why we weren’t picking the oversized snow peas.

I explained that I was leaving them so the poor snow pea plants would think they were able to have babies. I figure each plant is driven by one thing only: making and leaving seed. This is why they start over-producing if you keep picking the fruit. Shell peas don’t do this as much. They aren’t motivated, because you let their peas/seeds plump out fully before picking. But snow peas get grabbed up the second they’re an edible length. The poor vines start putting out tons of snow peas– as fast as they can– until they get giant in a day, pale and often misshapen. Anything to make peas. I feel for them and so just stop picking, even though a snow pea pod can be chopped and thrown in a stir fry long after it’s prime material.

from the bag of La Ratte

from the bag of La Ratte

While I was out there, I got tempted to empty out two seriously underperforming potato bags as well. Proving, once again, that even a bad year for potatoes is a good year.

This year looks to be a very, very good year for potatoes out in the potato bed. The La Ratte potatoes have vined like crazy and the plants are just now starting to die back. The potato bags have not fared as well, except for the Elmer’s Blue. I planted four special varieties in bags this year that I purchased from Curzio Caravati of the Kenosha Potato Project. They have struggled in the bags with a variety of pests and some dry periods (inconsistent watering by the gardener), but all of them put out vines.

cups rose potatoesI emptied out two bags, one of the Cups pink variety of potatoes in a homemade bag and the other a larger blue bag that had some La Ratte tubers in it. And guess what– potatoes! Not a lot of potatoes, and yes, kinda small (the vines were dying but not completely died back; the photo above is from two weeks ago. I just was very curious to see if there was anything in there). When you think about the size and quantity of the potato seed I put in the bag (think the three tiniest potatoes above), even these paltry plants quadrupled their yield. In the case of the La Rattes, maybe eight-ten times the yield. If this is a glimpse of the future (i.e., late August), we’re going to have many, many potatoes.

IMG_8510I’m not sure about the potato bag experiment. We’ll see when all the potatoes are harvested. It is very nice to have that extended growing space. It is a pain to have to keep them watered. But, you know, potatoes!

I think what we’re going to discover is that after three years of amending the clay bed where I’ve been growing beans, potatoes and onions, rotating them back and forth, that large area is quite productive and probably all I need. I also think in the future I won’t pay the big bucks for fancy seed potatoes. They are, after all, potatoes.

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Getting All Foodie

IMG_8592It is the year of beans. The wall o’ beans has been putting out copious amounts of purple, yellow, and striated beans, and there have been green bush beans, too. Even with the deer or rabbits nibbling the tops, I am gonna have a ton of beans.

IMG_8579Right now they’re skinny and tender and gorgeous, so I’m just starting with the canning. I’m not a HUGE fan of dilly beans, so I went looking for a few different recipes. I now am part of two Facebook groups that are very foodie, making all sorts of concoctions, and it’s pushing me a bit.

I made three jars (I love the 1 1/2 pint tall jars) of straight up dilly beans: garlic, dill head,  piece of red pepper in a brine of vinegar/water/pickling salt.

I made another three jars of a spicy version: allspice, mustard seeds, peppercorn, dill head, garlic, red pepper. I was kind of intrigued by the allspice.

IMG_8583This morning I made a third kind, definitely of the foodie variety. I got it from Emeril’s site, so I figure it is safe and not too out there. I also replaced the white wine vinegar with apple cider, and I don’t know why. Otherwise I followed his recipe: a sprig of rosemary, a 3″ piece of lemon peel, a clove of garlic, and a brine of vinegar (2 cups white, 1/2 cup apple cider in my case… he calls for 2 1/2 cups white wine vinegar), 2 1/2 cups water, 2 Tbs sugar and 2 Tbs canning salt. Rosemary-lemon seems like a winning combination to me!

nasturtium hot sauce in jar

 

And, in an even more foodie move, here is my jar of nasturtium hot sauce. This was posted to one of the pages and comes from here. I love nasturtiums as a flower and especially since they are edible. Usually I just put them on the side of the plate and eat them after the meal!

I had so many flowers on my plant this year (it’s supposed to share a container with a thai pepper plant but it has sort of taken over), that this seemed a possibility.

 

 

nasturtium hot sauceI kept the nasturtiums in the vinegar with the pepper and garlic and gave it a little shake every morning for a week. I did add a few more flowers mid-week, and so I let it go longer. Then I made another batch the following week. Enough to get this jar. I only had yellow flowers so the liquid looks, well, a little “specimeny.” (I do have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow.)  That did make me laugh. And I have no idea what to do with it, but maybe if I get a fancy jar and work on my labeling skills it will look even better!

And hey. Aren’t I all gourmet.

nasturtium

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