Thursday, April 26, 2012

No Rain!

It's spring. Why haven't I been writing about gardening?

Because I can't bear to think about it. We have had no significant rain since mid-March – more than five weeks. Weather fluctuates between days of abnormal heat and nights when a light frost burns the young potato plants.

The garden isn't thriving, but so far the broccoli, peas, onions, kale and other spring vegetables are hanging on to life and growing slowly. We water but it's no substitute for rain. We sowed grass seed this spring to fill patches devastated by last summer's heat and drought. I'm determined to keep the grass seedlings alive, so they get most of my attention.

The most interesting things in the garden and cold frames are plants that are making seeds. Two turnip plants that survived the winter have countless seed pods and are still blooming. Plants, like humans, produce an abundance of seeds to insure progeny. These two plants will make enough seeds to supply hundreds of gardens.

Similarly, in the cold frames, spinach has put up seed stalks and will soon burst into bloom.

Lettuce is a bit slower and just beginning to put up seed stalks. This one is Buttercrunch, a bibb lettuce. Observe the cracked soil. I haven't watered the cold frames this week. Eventually this plant will be two and a half feet tall and resemble a weed.

When these plants and their seeds have dried completely, probably in July, I will harvest the seeds for planting in August. Some I will keep in the basement for planting next spring.

Yesterday the temperature rose to 91º. Annie dug a hole under the oak leaf hydranga so she could lie in cool earth. In the process she dug up a Japanese fern, but I can't blame her for wanting to chill out on an unseasonably hot day.

Not all is bleak. The hosta bed in front of our house is thriving, along with variegated Solomon's seal. Here's a small sample.

This morning Dennis and I went to Wohletz Farm to pick strawberries. The Wohletz family has a big operation, growing strawberries and vegetables for the Lawrence Farmers' Market. They also allow people to pick their own strawberries. The huge strawberry patch is irrigated from a nearby pond. These are the largest, sweetest, juiciest strawberries I have ever seen or tasted! We picked 23 pounds in 30 minutes.

The kitchen god is pleased.

Tomorrow I'll make strawberry jam and maybe, just maybe, there'll be a thunderstorm tonight.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Difference between Blue and Red

Kansas, as you know, is a terribly Red state. Currently an ultra-conservative governor presides in nearby Topeka, our capital. Republicans outnumber Democrats everywhere in the state except in the state university town, Lawrence. Although Dennis and I live in the country, Blue Lawrence is our main and frequent destination for work, shopping and friendship. Many people, including Sandy, who cleans our house, think of us as part of Lawrence.

Today I was telling Sandy that we have two large trash barrels in the garage, one for paper recycling and the other for non-recyclables. Sandy said, "It's funny, none of my Topeka clients recycle, but all the ones in Lawrence do."

"That's the difference between Republicans and Democrats," I replied.

I didn't know how she would take my comment. Sandy roared. Then we both did.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Today The New York Times business section has a long story titled "When a Sugar High Isn't Enough." It's about the Kellogg company buying Pringles, the potato chip brand. An odd acquisition for a company that built its name on sugary prepared cereals, isn't it? The Times article says that Kellogg wants to expand its presence in the "snack food market." This seems necessary because – get this – people no longer have time even to sit down and eat a bowl of prepared cereal for breakfast. Instead they need something they can grab to eat on the way to wherever they're going.

This article seems strange to me because at our house breakfast is an important meal, one we sit down to eat every morning. During the week the menu is quick and simple: a slice of whole wheat toast, a soft-boiled egg and a glass of milk or orange juice with some homemade jam to finish off the last bites of toast. Alternatively I cook multigrain cereal with raisins or other dried fruit or use the stick blender to whirl up a fruit and yogurt smoothie. Any of these breakfasts take just ten minutes to prepare.

On weekends it's a different story. These leisurely breakfasts take a little more time. Sometimes I make morning glory muffins or fried potatoes and scrambled eggs. Lately on Sunday mornings I've been making whole wheat buttermilk pancakes with blueberries and chopped pecans. Sometimes the meal includes bacon (the candy of meat) or scrambled eggs.

Nutritionists tell us that to function at our best we need to eat some protein within the first hour after waking. I'm a lucky woman to have ten or twenty minutes every morning to prepare a good breakfast that fills the bill.

If you're lucky in that way, too, you might want to try the pancake recipe.

Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt, or less
1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen*
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Beat the egg, then whisk in the buttermilk. Add the oil and dry ingredients, stirring to mix. Stir in the blueberries and chopped pecans. Bake on a preheated griddle or large skillet, lightly oiled.

Makes 8 5-inch pancakes.

*When blueberries are in season I freeze them in quart plastic bags. I add some, still frozen, to smoothies. For the pancakes, I slightly thaw the berries in a little water while I'm mixing the batter, then drain them to add at the end.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cinnamon Bread

I'm on a binge of learning about heart health. First I was surprised to learn about the connection between calcium supplements and increased heart attacks in older women. I wrote "Bad Advice, Well-Intended" about that one.

Now I'm surprised to learn that my favorite spice is good for one's heart! Cinnamon also reduces blood sugar, is anti-microbial and anti-fungal, and improves circulation. It contains calcium, manganese, fiber and iron. It also is anti-clotting and can reduce arthritis pain.

One cardiologist recommends eating 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon every day. I'm happy to oblige. I've loved cinnamon toast since I was a little girl. Mother made sugar pies with cinnamon sprinkled on top; I loved those, too.*

Yesterday I celebrated this good news by making a loaf of cinnamon bread with raisins. It is nutritious and tasty. I had a slice toasted for breakfast this morning along with my soft-boiled egg. It will be delicious spread with peanut butter, too, I bet.

Cinnamon Raisin Bread

1 tablespoon dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1-1/4 cups buttermilk at room temperature
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unbleached flour
2-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2/3 cup raisins

Pour the water into a large bowl and sprinkle on the yeast. Let this stand until it becomes foamy.

Add the buttermilk, honey, salt and unbleached flour. Stir together and gradually stir in the whole wheat flour. When the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, turn it out onto a floured surface. (I use a pastry cloth.) Knead the dough until it becomes elastic, about ten minutes. Or, mix and knead the dough in an electric mixer with dough hook(s). Put the kneaded dough in an oiled bowl, cover and let it rise for about an hour and a half.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and use a rolling pin to form it into a 10x14" rectangle. Sprinkle with cinnamon and raisins, then roll up tightly starting from a short side. Pinch the dough to join edges. Place in a 9-inch loaf pan, cover and let rise until the dough rises above the top of the pan. 

Bake at 375º F. for 35-40 minutes. Turn out and cool completely on a rack before slicing.

Alternatively one can mix the cinnamon into the dough along with the flour and stir in the raisins just before kneading. Then form a simple loaf after the first rising. It just won't look as interesting when sliced. Or omit the raisins and cinnamon for a plain loaf of good bread.

*When Mother made a pie she always turned the pie crust trimmings into sugar pies. She arranged the scraps in a flat baking pan, dusted them with sugar and cinnamon and baked them at 375º for about 12 minutes. Sugar pies still warm from the over are the good child's reward.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Earlier today I wrote about the structures and plant life that define our yard and the woods that surround us on three sides. There are hard definitions – a stone wall,  heaps of deadfall from trees, for example. And there are soft, permeable definitions where cultivars and native plants meet and mingle, co-exist peacefully and beautifully.

Not until this evening did I realize that I had been writing about boundaries and how similar the physical boundaries between our home and the woods are to the boundaries between nations, religions, communities and individual human beings.

Some of these boundaries are hard, some are soft and permeable. The hard ones are mistrustful, guarded and sometimes aggressive. The soft ones are gentle and trusting. It isn't all black and white, of course. Both exist in various degrees.

Both kinds of boundaries, I regret to say, are necessary in human relationships, in the lines we draw between ourselves and others. One cannot trust people who are bent on some sort of evil, nor nations who are warlike. Still, I hope for more soft boundaries between all of us. I hope we can live peaceably with respect for one another. I hope we can trust one another and work for our common good.

At The Woods' Edge

Here in Paradise we live at the woods' edge. When we first came here we weren't sure where our yard ended and the woods began, especially at the south and west sides of the house.

Dennis solved that conundrum by Tom Sawyer-ing the building of a stone wall. Our friend Barry knew the dry stone wall art, his father having been a stone mason. Several architecture students as well as our friend Pam were interesting in learning to build a wall. It all came together one Saturday when the team built this wall, as seen thirty years later from the deck of our house, facing west. It is made of stones from the ground around the house.

Barry's father taught him well, for not one stone in this wall has moved in all this time. Virginia creeper tries to invade the yard, but is held back by the wall. We like it and let it grow, but have to cut it back every few years.

Gradual transition from yard to woods also works well. Many native plants that thrive at the edge of our woods are as attractive as shrubs from a nursery. One of those plants is buckbrush, a ubiquitous part of our woods' undergrowth. Here it is as a transition plant, co-existing happily with vinca minor and garlic chives.

When we first moved here I brought a dozen sprigs of vinca from my parents' home in Missouri. I can't remember where I first planted them, but they have spread to form great patches all around the house and into the woods. Vinca is in the first photo in this post. You can see it on the lower right-hand side. I suspect it will eventually jump Chicken Creek and keep going to the Franklin County line. A great advantage to vinca is that it covers the entire rocky hillside below our house. It's evergreen and is covered in blue blossoms in the early spring.

The photo above looks to the west of our house into what we used to call the Vanessa Redgrave Memorial Park. (I don't know why, we just did. I could envision her dancing barefoot there wearing a gauzy white dress.) A few years ago Dennis designed and built an actual memorial there.

We have planted iris, hostas, epimedium and daffodils along along with woodland native phlox and Solomon's seal in beds around the stone work. The columns are broken concrete drainage tubes from under our driveway. To me they symbolize inurnment. The white limestone came from a quarry in St. Mary's, Kansas. Most of our own limestone is too knobby to serve as paving.

Here, too, the existing understory native plants are the transit from yard to woods. About two feet from the edge of the memorial is a natural bed of May apple and buckbrush.

Finally, at the west end of the memorial, is a transition zone made of heaps of deadwood and rocks piled into a shallow gully. The gully marks the end of what we consider to be yard and Dennis doesn't mow beyond it. It isn't pretty, but it is made of natural materials almost in situ, stops erosion and is slowly decaying. Someday it, too, will no doubt be covered by vinca.

A great advantage to aging homeowners is that none of these transition zones requires much attention. All we need to do is pull out any poison ivy that shows up and cut back tree seedlings every year or so. One might call this lazy landscaping, and I wouldn't disagree. It wouldn't work everywhere, but it's perfectly suited to a house at the edge of the woods.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tax Day Is Near

The deadline for filing income taxes is just three days away. As usual, the super-rich will be taxed at a lower rate than any other citizens except the poorest of poor. That's because long-term capital gains (money earned from investment of money) are taxed at a minimum of 15 percent. The argument for this policy is that the rich must have incentive to invest their money, thus bolstering the economy. What else would they do with their money – stuff it in cans and bury it in their back yards?

This discriminatory policy penalizes people who actually work for a living and helps insure that they never will be able to accumulate capital of their own.

Warren Buffett and some other super-rich people have publicly announced their willingness to be taxed at a more equitable rate. In 2011 President Obama proposed what he called "The Buffett Rule," which would have leveled the playing field, but our Congress rejected that idea. Its opponents say that if this rule were adopted it would have a negligible effect on our deficit budget. So what? Fair is fair.

All of this leaves me, and probably other ordinary citizens, with a sense of injustice. To me, income is income regardless of how it is earned and should be taxed at the same rate. No fair giving the capitalists an advantage over the poor working stiff.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bad Advice, Well-Intended

My daughters used to call me "Birdie Legs" because I have tiny bones and long legs. These slender bones make me a prime candidate for osteoporosis. Sure enough, bone scans show that mine are becoming more porous, more likely to break.

The first thing doctors recommend for women past menopause is calcium supplements, 1200 International Units per day. After my doctor determined that I had virtually no Vitamin D in my blood, he also ordered me to swallow a D3 supplement every day.

I tend to do what doctors order, even knowing that they are human and as prone to err as anyone else. I've been swallowing my calcium tablets faithfully for at least ten years, maybe more. The last two years or so my blood pressure has been inching up and finally, when the top number hit 158, my doctor prescribed blood pressure medication. I've been puzzled by this increase; my top blood pressure number has always been about 100.

Here's the good part: A couple of days ago the daily mail included the Spring 2012 issue of a publication called From The Heart, a newsletter from Saint Luke's Cardiovascular Consultants. St. Luke's is reputed to be one of the best heart treatment centers in our area.

This issue has an article titled, "Is Your Calcium Supplement Hardening Your Arteries Rather Than Your Bones?" This cardiologist reviews thousands of Cardioscans and often sees some people with 'hardening of the arteries' "who have more calcium in their arteries than in the bones of their spine." Recent studies, not cited, "suggest that calcium supplements might increase risk of heart attack in women, probably by accelerating calcified plaque build-up in your coronary arteries."

Well, well, well. Without knowing it, doctors have been ordering me to slowly kill myself.

The author goes on, "On the other hand, meeting your calcium requirement by getting it from your food and beverages appears to be perfectly safe, both for your bones and your heart."

After reading this, I threw my calcium tablets in the trash. I'm making sure to include lots of natural sources of calcium in my daily diet. I had neglected that because I thought the calcium supplements would cover any deficiencies in my diet.

Now I have to find out if there's a way to dissolve and flush away that plaque. Maybe it isn't too late.

One cannot be too cautious or place too much trust in medical professionals. They try to do the best things for their patients, but in this case they've recommended a supplement whose true efficacy had not been proven.  Just yesterday a nurse recommended that I eat Tums three times a day to insure that my calcium intake is adequate. She had just taken my blood pressure but had no clue that the two issues might be causally connected. She meant well, but she should have talked to me about nutrition.

Monday, April 9, 2012

All Thumbs

A couple of years ago Nancy said, "Mother, you should start a blog."  I can't remember why she said that, but it hit a chord in me. I've kept journals off and on over the years, but I tended to write only when I was blue, perplexed, confused, frustrated or in another negative state. Nancy's suggestion appealed to me because I wanted a chronicle of our life here in Paradise, because I could use a keyboard instead of a snail-paced pen, and because I could include photographs.

For the most part my blob has been pretty upbeat, I think, but I want to say there are down times, too. Like lately. Seems like everything I undertake turns into a mess. Quiche filling overflowed its pan, then ran all over the counter and floor as I carried it to the oven, where it dripped some more. That mess took half a day to clean up, including cleaning the oven, which needed cleaning anyway.

Another example is the wall hanging I've been working on for several weeks. It just doesn't flow. Just as I solve one problem, another one crops up and I walk away in disgust.

Today I tried to make jelly from some wild plum juice I'd stored in the freezer for about 25 years. It boiled over and cooked onto the stove. After that I was so flustered I didn't cook it long enough and it's more like syrup than jelly.

So there you have it. I'm in an all-thumbs period. Truthfully, it's all because I have not been mindful in my undertakings. "Be here now," was our mantra back in the seventies, but it's easier said than done.

On the up side, something interesting is going on with the poinsettia Barb rescued from the St. Lawrence Catholic Center's compost and gave to me. She and a couple of co-conspirators rescued at least a dozen more and has distributed them to good homes.

Months later, my share of the loot is producing some strange growths out of last winter's blooms.

Looks like it's growing a little cabbage, doesn't it? The next photo shows what it will become – a new branch.

Actually, the whole plant is covered with these offspring. Barb says that's because it's a Catholic poinsettia, but actually not many Catholic families reproduce at this rate any more.

If you have had an all-thumbs day, I hope yours ends on a happy note, too. Let's try to remember to be mindful as we go about our tasks.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Rites of Spring

Today is Easter Sunday, the day Christians celebrate Jesus' triumph over death. Not by accident Easter always occurs in the spring, around the time of the vernal equinox. This is the time when those of us in the northern hemisphere are assured that life (spring) will overcome death (winter) and return anew. Trees leaf out, flowers bloom, garden seeds germinate and, as Tennyson observed, "a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."

Here in Paradise we observe the spring ritual of getting baby chicks. Yesterday Laurie, our neighbor who wants to learn chicken husbandry, and I went to Orchelin's to select a dozen future egg-layers. Dennis stayed home to prepare a stock tank in the chicken house for the babies to live in. He set up a heat lamp, washed and filled the water and food dispensers, and taped a thermometer to the inside of the tank. Newspapers and pine chips cover the tank bottom as litter.

Laurie and I chose chicks from a cage labeled "Assorted Layers." We don't know what breeds they are but they settled right into their new home as a little motherless family.

Annie seemed to want to be their mother, but we had to say, "No," because she can't read the thermometer, which is essential to keeping the chicks warm but not too warm.

If Jesus were to return to earth today I'm not sure he would participate in the pomp and ceremony going on in churches and cathedrals. I think he would visit a homeless shelter, a nursing home and a refugee camp. I hope he would also find a moment to stop by Paradise to help nurture the baby chicks and celebrate with us this ritual of spring.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Spring at Last

March 21, the first day of spring, was more like the first day of summer. Temperatures were in the eighties (F.) and every spring flowering plant was in flower. It seemed we were skipping spring and launching straight into summer. The temperatures stayed high for two weeks, but last night a strong cold front came through, dropping an inch and a half of much-needed rain.

This morning was cool and lovely, just the way spring should be. Kale is up and a few potatoes are breaking through the soil. The eight little broccoli plants seem to have survived the heat and taken hold. Next to them is a row of garlic and shallots racing toward July maturity.

While things in the garden are just getting started, lettuce in the cold frame is beginning to form heads.

The hens know that during a good rain earthworms crawl close to the earth surface to keep from drowning. All five of the old girls were busy scratching up worms and feasting most of the day. I took this photo in the late afternoon when they were scrambling for possession of some stale whole wheat bread Dennis gave them.

Why is the chicken yard bare? Because chickens love to eat greens so much that no plant can survive in their purview. In the wild, greens comprise thirty percent of chickens' diet. We try to feed the hens some greens every day. In the winter we can get boxes of lettuce and cabbage trimmings from Checker's produce department. Right now we're giving them dandelions and spinach that's bolting.

Raccoon raids late last winter left us with just five hens but the survivors are keeping us well-supplied with eggs. Several days a week each one of them lays an egg.

We're thankful to have some spring weather at last and we hope it holds on until June, when the heat and the chiggers inevitably return.