Monday, April 29, 2013

A Moral Dilemma

My kitchen window looks down on a large shrub. I think it’s a cardinal bush. It was here when we bought this place in 1976 so I’m not sure about that. If that is the right name it certainly is appropriate because many years cardinals choose to build a nest in it.

Inevitably this choice ends in disaster. Seen from the outside one wouldn’t spot the nest.

But from the window I look down into the nest. While washing dishes I have witnessed both squirrels and the neighbor’s cats steal baby birds from it while the parents shriek and flutter about. Not one baby bird has survived there.

Over this past weekend we watched another cardinal couple construct a nest in the cardinal bush. It is beautifully made with a strong foundation of sticks, topped with increasingly smaller ones and a final layer of soft leaves. The mother hasn’t yet deposited eggs in it.

Shortly after the nest was finished, a cowbird discovered it. No doubt the cowbird has plans to destroy the cardinals’ eggs and replace them with her own. Cowbirds are too damn lazy to raise their own kids, so they dupe other birds into doing all the work. The cardinals wouldn’t know the difference and would be excellent foster parents. Of course the cowbird babies would be eaten by squirrels and cats, so all would come to naught.

Here’s my dilemma: should I destroy the nest before eggs are laid, thus saving the cardinals (and myself) the anguish of another disaster, or should I mind my own business and let nature take its course? How I dread watching this familiar drama unfold!

Postscript: Two days later the nest is still empty of eggs. Maybe the cardinals caught on to the cowbird's game. Maybe they made the nest as a second home. No matter the cause, I'm relieved to look down on an empty nest.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Doing Things The Hard Way

This afternoon Dennis crawled around the patio removing weeds from the cracks between the limestone pavers.

Sure, he could have sprayed weed killer and saved his knees, but we don’t use herbicides except in extreme circumstances, such as poison ivy that is too large to pull or dig. Our yard is populated by dandelions, chickweed and other plants most people deem undesirable. We don’t care.

We don’t use pesticides either, in the garden or in the house. We use biological remedies such as bacillus thuringienesis for green worms on broccoli and other cole crops. We get rid of aphids by spraying them with water. If potato bugs show up, which has happened only once in thirty-five years, I hand pick them and drop them into a jar of oil.

We refuse to poison the soil, our food, ourselves and the water that runs off into Chicken Creek. We are rewarded by peace of mind and by little benefits such as the moss growing between the patio stones.

I wish no one would poison the earth, but we can’t control other folks’ choices. Recent news of the health effects – cancer and more – of using Round-Up may give them pause. I hope so.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Lucy Award for Courage

A few weeks ago, during raccoon mating season, juvenile coons formed bloodthirsty gangs and roamed our neighborhood killing chickens. The devils don’t kill the chickens for food. They kill out of frustration because they’d really like to kill the older male raccoons, who deny the juvies access to the females who are in heat. The birds’ throats are torn out. That’s all.

When mating season is over, gang hormonally-activated  subsides. At least that seems to be the case because, although Dennis recently forgot to close up the henhouse one night, no murders occurred.

This has become a familiar occurrence. The gangs got seven of our twelve hens in the early spring last year. This year they killed only a total of four in two raids, but that constituted half the flock.

Something remarkable happened in this year’s second raid: although two were murdered, a third intended victim, Lucy, survived. Apparently Lucy escaped a coon’s clutches, but she was badly wounded. Her comb and head were torn, but the deepest wound was to her throat, which was torn and bloody

Her head hung to the left, resting on her neck. There was blood on her feathers. She sat in a corner of the henhouse facing the wall. She didn’t seem to eat or even drink water. During the day Lucy moved to a far corner of the chicken yard and spent the day there alone. We thought she would die.

But she didn’t die. One morning Dennis came to the kitchen and announced that Lucy had died. He took a garbage bag to the henhouse to collect her body, but when he reached for her she jumped up and ran away.

As days went on, she still hung out in the corners, but began to show a little interest in food. She was afraid of the other hens, though, and they ran her off when she approached the food. I started throwing scratch and greens into the corners of the chicken yard for her.

After the second raccoon raid, which left two hens dead, including Olive, an Auracana, Lucy’s behavior changed. She rejoined the flock, which has been supplemented with eight new hens, and no one picked on her. She eats right along with them and now seems a restored bird. She still holds her head a bit to the right, but that and a misshapen comb seem to be the only aftereffects of her brush with death.

I admire Lucy greatly. Not many chickens can live to tell about being attacked by a raccoon’s sharp teeth and grasping hands. I wonder how she managed to excape the coon’s clutches. Did she manage to fly away? Did she peck his eye?

Lucy is, I think, a brave and courageous bird. That’s why, in her honor, I am establishing The Lucy Award for Courage. The award will be given to living creatures who have endured and persisted in the face of adversity, pain or great difficulty. It will be given whenever I feel moved to do so. (Nobody said this was fair or dispassionate.)

The award will consist of a certificate with a picture of Lucy.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Self-Centered Acquaintence

I’m willing to bet that everyone knows at least one person who talks endlessly about herself or himself. When this person phones, she never asks, “How are you,” but starts in on a report on her day’s activities or accident or conflict in every detail. “She said,” and “I said” on and on.

Or, the friend who calls to invite you to meet him for lunch, but when you meet he launches into an hour’s account of his recent activities, injuries and plans without ever asking what you’ve been up to.

At a dinner party this person turns every topic of conversation to herself through whatever circuitous means she can devise. Strange silences ensue.

I could give dozens of examples, but you know at least one such person. My question is this: what is one to do with these folks? Maybe most of us tolerate them, but at my age I’m losing patience with this behavior. How much of the remainder of my life am I willing to devote to these monologues?

I have a fantasy of inviting all such people in my circle of acquaintances to a dinner party, serving the food and sitting back to see who prevails.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Back To Soup

Dennis says he remembers snow on April 20 once when he was a boy. I, personally, don’t recall any April snow until today. The dragon of the north has lashed its tail for what we hope is the last time before its summer hibernation.

The snow doesn't amount to much, but today’s temperature won’t get above the low thirties and tonight will bring a hard freeze. While broccoli and cauliflower plants slumber under a blanket of straw in the garden, I’ve been making soup.

This time I’m using the last frozen broccoli from last year’s garden to make a recipe I tinkered with for years until it reached what I consider to be perfection. (I posted the recipe two years ago, but it has changed since then.)

Broccoli Soup*

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
½ cup diced onion
3 cups chicken broth or 3 cups water and 3 teaspoons chicken base
2 medium-size Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and diced
1 quart-sized bag home frozen broccoli or 4 cups fresh broccoli
½ cup half and half or milk
¼ to ½ teaspoon nutmeg

Melt butter in a 2-quart saucepan. Stir in chopped onion and cook over low heat until the onion is translucent. Increase heat to medium-high. Add the diced potato and broth. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat, cover, and cook until potato is fork-tender.

Increase heat, add the broccoli, and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes, until broccoli is fork-tender.

Puree the soup in the pan using an immersion blender. Stir in the half and half or milk and nutmeg and heat to desired temperature. Do not allow the soup to boil.

Yesterday I harvested a beautiful head of lettuce from the cold frame.

Along with the soup we’re having a salad made from that lettuce, feta cheese and dried cranberries.

Let the north wind blow. We’re toasty with a fire in the woodstove and a pot of soup on the stove.

  • It isn’t necessary to use the exact amounts of ingredients so long as their ratio remains about the same. Today I used the equivalent of two 10-ounce packages of commercial frozen broccoli and increased the other ingredients proportionately.
Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Saturday, April 20, 2013

This and That

This and that actually is the stuff of life. Little things sometimes add up to a good day in spite of nothing important having happened. Yesterday was such a day in my life.

Checkers, my two-store grocery chain, had beautiful red peppers for 39¢ each. I bought some to roast. Their color alone was enough to make me happy.

Egg gathering, too, produced a smile. The chicken yard is muddy from recent rains. When a hen is ready to lay an egg, she settles into the nest atop any previously-laid eggs. Consequently, it is easy to see which egg was laid last.

After two weeks’ dormancy, my home-saved pimento pepper seeds started germinating. I love the way each seedling emerges from the soil bent in half, then straightens and opens its two leaves. The pimentos are in the pot on the left. In spite of having been stored in the basement for four years they are out-performing the Corno di Toro (bull’s horn) Italian pepper seeds I purchased this spring.

Finally, I made a favorite dish for supper: fried potatoes and onions. Leftover baked potatoes make the best pan-fried potatoes. After the potatoes browned I shoved them to one side and added sliced onions, which cooked very quickly. It was delicious with ketchup on the side.

Wouldn’t it be great if every day’s this and that added up to happiness?

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Form Follows Function

The famous architect Louis Sullivan said:

"It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,

Of all things physical and metaphysical,

Of all things human and all things super-human,

Of all true manifestations of the head,

Of the heart, of the soul,

That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function.
This is the law."

The people who built our house certainly had an idea of how this house would function. At the front of the house was the front door and at the back of the house was a sliding door leading to a deck overlooking Chicken Creek valley. It is a house designed for a leisurely life, not a life based on even a modicum of self-sufficiency.

I wish that the builders had instead chosen the old farmhouse model, which had a front door for company and a back porch leading into the kitchen. That back porch was a work area. That’s where the garden produce came into the house. The back porch gave easy access to the barn, the chicken house and all the working parts of the farm.

Living as we do, our front door and entry-way have to fulfill both functions. Everything comes in the front door. The entry is filled with egg baskets and garden produce baskets. The floor is always muddy in the spring and littered with firewood detritus in the winter.

Over time we have worn a path from the front door through the yard to the chicken house. The path was bare of grass and muddy in rainy weather. Finally this spring, accepting reality, we mulched the path with wood chips.

It may not be a landscape architect’s dream, but it works. Form ever follows function.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Here’s the definition that best fits what I have to say on this subject: "gradual decline into disorder.” That’s old age.

Dick recently sent me a link about Phillip Roth, who has been obsessed with the subject of death for many years. His obsession apparently is growing. In his last book, Sabbath’s Theater, he quotes Kafka, “The meaning of life is death.”

That’s entropy for you. Every living thing is headed there by degrees. For humans, it always comes as a surprise because we have an in-born sense that we’re immortal. Then comes the moment when we realize we aren’t what we used to be.

For me, that realization came when I was teaching at Baker University and decided to participate in the women’s basketball class for fun and exercise. I was forty years old but had always been active, riding a bike and playing racquetball. I was ready. The first practice wasn’t bad, nor the second, but in the third practice we started actually playing a game. Those college girls moved fast and trying to keep up with them I pulled a thigh muscle. It was my “Ah-ha” moment.

In the thirty-seven ensuing years I’ve lost far more than the ability to run with 20-year olds. The trunk of my body has shrunk by 2¾ inches, while my long legs have stayed the same, making it difficult for me to reach my feet. My hands, feet and shoulders are wrecked by arthritis and my wrists are fused. I’ll probably never recover fully from the fall I took into the chicken yard last May; backaches plague me.

But here’s the thing: I’m not as far gone as the leaves in the photo above. I’m still capable of walking some and gardening a little and cooking a lot. So, like many other old people, I’ll keep doing what I can and testing my limits and maybe not hurting myself in the process. The specter of nursing home care is a strong motivator.

As Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over until it’s over.”

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Cold Frame Gardening, Again

Cold frame gardening, again? Yes, but we’re approaching the end of the winter cold frame season, so I won’t be writing about this subject much longer.

The spinach is putting up stalks that will develop seed head, so we’re taking most of it out. We keep the best for our salads and the chickens get the rest.

When I took some of the spinach out last week I discovered amongst the spinach plants lettuces struggling to get some light. After only a few days they have had a growth spurt. Today we found more. Where we pulled out spinach, we stuck in some onion sets. By the time the lettuces are mature, the onions will be ready to take off.

Romaine lettuce on the other side of the frame was planted much too thickly. The plants have aged, but not achieved their potential. The least crowded plant at the back of the frame is the most robust.

We have been eating lettuce thinnings for weeks now, but today we thinned ruthlessly so the remaining plants can put on some substantial growth. We also pulled out the invasive henbit.

After a good watering we will stand back and watch things grow.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Indoor Gardening on A Rainy Day

Early this morning yesterday’s balmy 75º weather gave way to a massive cold front, whose arrival was announced at 3:00 A.M. by a crashing thunderstorm. That dramatic event has settled into a slow, steady rain, for which we are thankful. Spinach and lettuce in the cold frame are getting a good drink, and in the garden the newly-planted potatoes, onions, arugula, spinach and kale are soaking up the moisture, preparing to spring to life.

It’s not a day to work outside, but indoors there’s garden action. A week ago I planted tomato, pepper, parsley and basil seeds in 4-inch pots in an old baking pan. I set the pan on the heated bathroom floor and have kept them well-watered. Yesterday the Roma tomatoes popped up and today the Old German and Abraham Lincoln tomatoes are emerging. Basil also appeared overnight. Now they need light, so they've moved to the kitchen counter where they sit under a fluorescent light. The peppers will need a few more days to emerge and the parsley seeds won’t germinate for another two weeks.

Every time I pass by the seedling tray I stroke the tiny tomato plants to simulate the breeze they would experience if they had germinated outdoors. This will strengthen their stems and help prepare them for moving outdoors.

Each 4-inch pot contains at least nine seeds. The pots are filled with special seed starting mix. When the seedlings develop their first true leaves, I will transplant them into individual pots filled with regular potting soil.

Meanwhile my sweet potato experiment is going great guns. This morning I pulled four more large slips from their mother potatoes and put them in water to root. To separate a slip from its mother, I grasp the base of its stem and gently pull down. The slip comes off with just a tiny bit of the mother potato attached.

The two slips I pulled off last week already are developing healthy root systems. That they manage to develop roots and grow new leaves without soil or fertilizer seems like a miracle.

Even the recalcitrant Japanese yam is showing signs of developing a couple of sprouts. The Garnet yam has a dozen little sprouts with new ones showing up almost every day. By the time this experiment ends I expect to have at least three dozen sweet potato slips. That’s more than we will need, so I’ll have some to give away.

Now, since this lovely rain continues to fall, I’m going outside to throw some grass seed around.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mamaw's Asparagus Casserole

When asparagus spears poked their heads up in the back yard, my mother snapped them off and headed for the kitchen to make her famous asparagus casserole. Mother has been gone for many years, but her asparagus casserole is recreated in her granddaughter’s kitchen and mine every spring. This dish is so tasty there’s never any left over.

Here’s the recipe, in case you want to try it.

3 hard-boiled eggs
2 cups of thin white sauce
1 bunch of asparagus
cracker crumbs or bread crumbs

First, make the white sauce, using 3 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of flour. Melt the butter in a 1-quart saucepan. Add the flour and let the butter and flour bubble together for a minute or two. (I think of this as “marrying the butter and flour.") Meanwhile heat 2 cups of milk in a pan or in the microwave. Stir the heated milk into the butter-flour mixture and continue cooking and stirring over medium heat. The sauce should come to a slow boil and begin to thicken. Then it’s done. Add salt and pepper as you desire.

Set the sauce aside and prepare the asparagus for steaming. Snap off and discard the tough end of each spear, then snap each spear in half. I like to steam the lower halves separately for 10 minutes. Then I steam the tip ends for 6 or 7 minutes.

Peel the hard-boiled eggs.

Now it’s time to assemble the layers in an 8-inch baking pan. First spread a bit of white sauce in the bottom of the pan and arrange the bottom ends of asparagus on top.

Next, slice the eggs, arrange the slices on top.

Add another layer of white sauce, the asparagus tips and then the last of the white sauce.

Finally, crush some saltines.

Now, scatter the cracker crumbs over the top and dot with butter.

Bake in a 370º oven for about 20 minutes.

While enjoying this dish be sure to remember your mamaw.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sweet Potato Experiment

 In the garden sweet potatoes are started from “slips.” Slips are long sprouts that come out of a sweet potato and that have been pulled off the sweet potato mother and put in water until they have developed a good root system. Then the slips are ready to go into the garden, where they vine off in every direction and, subterraneously, develop new sweet potatoes.

Sweet potato slips cost $8 per dozen at our local nursery. Last summer we replanted sweet potatoes twice, spending altogether $24 for a crop that failed to produce. Being a frugal soul, I decided to start my own slips this year.

I’m learning a lot about sweet potatoes and about different methods of starting them. I’d only seen people start them by sticking them in a jar of water where they put out roots and slips. I thought I was being inventive when I laid one already-sprouting sweet potato on its side supported by pebbles in a dish of water. Then I watched a YouTube video and saw a fellow put sweet potatoes on their sides in an aluminum pan with potting soil. Another guy cut a sweet potato in half and stuck the two cut ends in water to root.

My own experiment is going pretty well.

The two Beauregards (back row left and center), saved from previous crops are doing the best of any. They were already beginning to sprout when I put them in water. This morning I pulled off two slips (front row right) and put them in water to root.

Second best is the Garnet Yam (front row left) that I bought at the Merc. I believe I put the wrong end in water. (I’ve since learned that the stem end should be at the top and the root end in the water.) I had it in a narrow-mouthed quart jar until I discovered that all the sprouts were developing below the jar opening. Now it’s in a bowl wide enough to allow the sprouts to grow up.

Finally there’s the poor old Japanese Yam (back row right), which has just two tiny roots and no sprouts at all. I’m not giving up on it yet, though. Potatoes that have been in cold storage are slower to sprout.

Isn’t it great that a simple horticultural experiment can make a simple person happy?

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Monday, April 1, 2013


Suddenly today daffodils opened and my winter lethargy vanished. This is a bit odd because a big old cold front was pushing its way south, dropping temperature into the forties. Still, I found myself working energetically all day, finishing tasks that just yesterday seemed too difficult even to contemplate.

What is it about Spring, anyway, that she can so invigorate us?  There are places on this earth where Spring never visits. How do people who live there manage to keep going? They don’t experience winter either, so every day would seem the same.

Oh, yes, Spring is fickle, here today and gone tomorrow. She sometimes nips things in the bud, dashing our hopes for a crop of fruit or an early harvest of potatoes.

I’m glad I live where Spring comes to visit. For all her faults, Spring raises our spirits and gives us hope. She is fresh and new, she is the earth reborn. We feel reborn ourselves and we thank Goddess for spring!

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer