Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Profile of a volunteer

The best "volunteer" I've found this spring! I believe this is allium schubertii, which I planted a few years ago about 6 feet away from where it is now. It has never made it along this far. A late freeze has always prevented me from seeing the gorgeous allium that this is to become.

I'd like the shake the hand of the sunny woman or man who first coined the term "volunteer" in reference to weeds. A Mother Earth News article described some of the benefits of "volunteers" in the garden: They hold top-soil, pull up water and nutrients, provide food, help control insects and more. Human volunteers (now I'm talking in classic terms) do many of the same things - essentially providing fuel to keep an organization going. Who are these volunteers? Where do they come from? Why? What is the profile of a volunteer as YOU imagine it?

Subject A: Alison was/is my friend of the same age. She and her husband were here from England for a short period of time. While he had a work visa, she was not able to work legally in the US. Being a teacher by profession, and an intelligent, capable, and sociable person, she decided to volunteer at the Smithsonian in the Discovery Room, a hands-on learning center for children. Staying at home, knowing no one, and being idle was not her cup of Earl Grey.

Subject G: Though Grace has earned her right to sip lemonade on her sunny porch enjoying the leisure of retirement, she continues to work as a professional organizer. Despite an active social life and busy schedule balancing the lives of 5 grown sons and their large families, Grace still finds time to volunteer with two organizations - one in which she pays a weekly "friendly visit" to an elderly woman, and one in which she tutors English to speakers of other languages. Why? Because she's always felt she had something to give...that it's her responsibility to reach out.

I don't know what this is. It came up in the fall on my slope and looked too neat to be a typical weed. I've got an eyeball on this...

Subject I: I met a young woman in my Master Gardener class who mentioned that she spends her summers at the beach. When I asked which beach she vacationed at, I learned that she owns an ice cream shop that she runs from May to October. I asked what she did during the other months, and she said she mostly did volunteer stuff. Well, I didn't ask why, but my assumption is that she is accustomed to a full schedule and enjoys being productive - the ice-cream off-season, being no exception.

Subject P: I met another young woman (maybe in her late 20s?) during my first weekend volunteering at the National Arboretum. We chatted as we sat in a strawberry bed casually pulling weeds for 2 hours. Her motivation? Well, she has a Ph.D. in Nutrition, and has spent the first few years of her young career conducting research. She and her husband, another Ph.D., are waiting for a call from the Peace Corps telling them where in Southeast Asia or Africa they will be shipped off to. There, they will be able to fulfill their dream of giving back in a way that utilizes their knowledge and training. And in the meantime? Giving back in small ways right here is a great way to keep from pacing.

My other eyeball is on this. I saw several of these last year in this spot too, but pulled them all because I thought they were weeds. BUT, I vaguely recall planting some Chinese Lanterns here a few years ago that I thought just rotted away. Hmmm, flower or weed? Only time will tell.

Subject GT: I can't really pinpoint why I volunteer. I work in a high school, have a kid in preschool, and a kid in middle school. There are volunteer opportunities galore and I have been very active. A couple weeks ago, I volunteered to drive a large truck back to my work/school for the mulch sale (never mind that I'm not a truck driver). A co-worker said I had something on my forehead. When I went to wipe it off, she said it was a sign across the top that said, "sucker". Maybe I volunteer because I'm a sucker? I think I probably am a sucker to a certain extent, but ultimately, it's simply because I like to help. I'm in a helping profession, and always have been. When I hear of a need, I like to help fill it. Perhaps it's out of a genuine desire to help others, perhaps it feeds my ego, who knows. Either way, I see that similar to the flora volunteers in this post, I am stronger on my own turf due to my volunteering. I only hope that the organizations I volunteer for appreciate my contributions - it would not feel good to end up in the compost pile!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Salads now, pie later

If anyone has a legitimate reason why he/she is not able to grow and harvest fresh lettuce, I'd really like to hear it!! Potager tenders, people in partial shade, and balcony gardeners alike are all beginning to enjoy spring lettuce right about now. Store-bought simply does not compare to walking out back with scissors and mixing bowl in hand, and dinner ready in minutes.

My favorite salad involves a grilled steak and blue cheese, but since I'm still (barely) in the running for the office Biggest Loser contest, tonight I'll just have some greens, chicken, and a light and citrusy salad dressing my sister made once that is to die for. It comes (simplified) from The Joy of Cooking.

Tangerine Shallot Dressing

1 clove garlic, finely minced
2-3 pinches of salt
1/4 cup fresh tangerine or clementine juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 small shallots, minced
2/3 cup vegetable oil

...And if I eat a bunch of salads now, come end of May, I will have won the Biggest Loser contest, and will have earned at least a little bit of pie. Can you guess what kind??!!!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

GBBD - April 2010

My Garden Blogger's Bloom Day post involves lots of photos - springtime is not a gradual, gentle transition in the Greenish Thumb garden. Be sure to see May Dreams blog for posts from bloggers around the world (but check out what's going on here first!).

First, in the vegetable garden: carrots, raspberries, beets, Swiss chard, rhubarb, oregano, and thyme are growing, as well as the strawberries and other edibles below...

Lingonberries newly planted and blooming below...

One of 3 new highbush blueberries below...

In the shade garden, hellebores are still going strong, hostas are mostly up, astilbe, ferns, bleeding hearts, geranium, clematis are all greening...
An heirloom daff...

Checkered lily...

Moss phlox that the kids have decorated...

In the sunny perennial garden: fothergilla (beaver creek),

Fox's grape...

a young pillar shrub with unexpected tiny blooms...

Alliums taking their sweet time...

My 5 year old's flower...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Growing, Buying, Cooking: Water Chestnuts

Lucky is the gardener with a long season and established water garden, for the water chestnut is a tender perennial that not only produces edibles at the end of the season, but anchors any water garden with its spiky grass-like foliage. The water chestnut is not a nut at all, but an edible corm grown in a light, sandy soil under the water. The plant won’t tolerate frost and during the corm producing season, thrives in hot climates. In China, water chestnuts are typically grown in rotation with rice in the wet fields, as it takes a good 6 months for a sizable corm to form. Those with full sun, a long season and large pond can try planting corms directly in a shallow shelf created at pond’s edge. The key point is to plant the corm about 4 inches deep, and about 18 inches apart. The water level must always be at about 2 inches above the soil line. It’s important to keep the water level as consistent as possible.

Those of us without the benefit of enjoying a natural water garden can still grow water chestnuts successfully. In zones 6 and below, sprouting the corms before the weather warms would help extend the season. Fill any container to about 2 -3 inches from the top with a rich, sandy soil. As far as containers, try dollar store buckets, bins, and tubs. Many people use small, plastic, kiddy wading pools to grow water chestnuts. Plant corms about 4 inches deep and thoroughly soak the soil. When the corms sprout their reed-like hollow leaves and grow to about 8 inches tall, bring the whole operation outside after any chance of frost has passed. Flood the container with water to cover the soil line by about 2 inches. Keep the water filled to the top throughout the season.

Alternatively, it’s possible to grow a smaller bucket of water chestnuts by setting the corm-planted bucket in your existing backyard water garden. Keep the water level about 2 inches above the soil line by boosting the bucket up with bricks or stones if necessary. If you’re planting, it’s best to buy water chestnut corms from a source that sells them specifically for growing. If you’re lucky enough to find them in an Asian supermarket, they will taste delicious but often won’t sprout.

To Harvest

It’s simple to know when it’s time to harvest. When the leaves die back, remove the container from the water, or drain the water from the container/tub/pool. Carefully remove the corms and gently rinse off the mud. Be sure to save some of the largest corms to replant next season (or immediately if you’re in a hot clime). Water chestnut plants cannot survive the freeze of a cold Northern winter. To save corms for replanting, bury them in damp soil or sand and store in a cool, dark place. Be sure they don’t dry out during storage.

Fun Fact

* Some people use goldfish as a natural form of mosquito control in water gardens or water chestnut growing containers. My friend Grace talked every morning to her little piscine friend “Goldie” who lived happily in her rain barrel. Unfortunately, Goldie did not survive the trip through the overflow spout. If you’re going to try adding goldfish to your water feature, but sure to have some provision for a heavy rain that will create an overflow!

Buying Water Chestnuts

Canned water chestnuts are available in most supermarkets. Asian supermarkets may have fresh water chestnuts. If you can buy them fresh, do not even bother trying the packed in water, canned in tin, and shipped on a truck who knows how many months ago type. It will not compare to a fresh water chestnut.

Cooking with Water Chestnuts

I was not prepared to fall in love with the water chestnut. I’m not a fan of eating a spoonful of chicken and veggies in a brown sauce with steamed rice and then in mid-chew, discovering a sliced water chestnut hidden within, spoiling my bite. I don’t enjoy the conspicuously canned, yet still semi-crunchy texture and almost sweet flavor in an otherwise savory dish that leaves no room for the juicy, nutty chunks. But, this was before I tasted a fresh water chestnut – rinsed off, patted dry, peeled, sliced by myself, right before eating.

My daughter and I had both been turned off by prior experience, but as the good sports we are, reluctantly tasted the fresh water chestnuts. We were both in awe of the exotic little treats and agreed that they tasted a cross between a crisp apple and a fresh young coconut. We proceeded to peel, slice and eat a small bowlful. After this experience, I’m convinced that playing up the slightly sweet flavor in a dessert would restore the once poorly-regarded (at least by me!) water chestnut to a place of culinary respect.

Rubies in Coconut milk is a treat enjoyed in Thailand. The sweet coconut milk is a perfect base for the little crisp, juicy, and nutty water chestnuts. The chopped pieces are often thought to resemble rubies or mock pomegranates. Coated with ultrafine tapioca flour, each ruby becomes enveloped with a sort of gelatinous shine, both tasty and beautiful.

Rubies in Coconut Milk (makes 6 servings)

5 drops red food coloring
1 ¾ cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 ¾ cup water
1 cup sugar
12 fresh water chestnuts peeled and diced
½ cup tapioca flour
Crushed ice


1) Boil water and sugar until sugar melts to create a syrup. Allow to cool.
2) Add about 5 drops of red food coloring to large bowl containing diced water chestnuts. Stir quickly to color all pieces evenly. Boil medium-sized pot of water. While waiting, add tapioca flour to water chestnuts and stir to completely coat pieces. Gently sift through sieve to remove excess flour. While water is almost boiled, rinse out large bowl and fill halfway with ice water.
3) Add coated pieces of water chestnuts to boiling water. Cook for just couple of minutes until rubies float to the top. Remove rubies with a slotted spoon and add to ice water to cool.
4) Add coconut milk to syrup. Whisk if necessary.
5) To serve, remove rubies from ice water with slotted spoon and divide evenly in small bowls. Top with coconut milk and crushed ice. Close your eyes and pretend you’re in Pattaya. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Spring Break 2010: farms, fires, eggs, and eggs

Our Spring Break trip this year took us through the Pennsylvania countryside with stops in Gettysburg (confirmed that Abe Lincoln really is the hero I've always known him to be), Hershey (confirmed that one CAN have too much chocolate), and the Amish country (confirmed it IS that beautiful). Here are some photos and facts I thought you might enjoy...

These first few photos were taken at Rocky Acre B&B in Mt. Joy, PA. A couple days on the farm replenishes the soul of a wannabe farmer... - and the kids who did everything from gather eggs, feed a goat, ride a horse, learn how to milk cows, and play with about 20 cats enjoying just about the cushiest life I've ever seen. In front of my daughter wearing the Cafe Chocolate shirt (an awesome cafe with the nicest staff in the adorable little town of Lititz), is Oreo the goat (you can't see Oreo). Oreo follows his miniature pony friend Cookie where ever he goes.

We learned that silos are pretty much obsolete. These silos are empty as farmers tend to use a system of trenches now. The trenches make it easier and faster for farmers to store and access their grain. This B&B is a working dairy farm.

For those with natural fertilizer envy - check out the blue tank. A working dairy farm produces much manure - into the tank it goes for storage until ready for use in the fields.

In Lititz, we twisted pretzels at Julius Sturgis, the oldest pretzel bakery in America. After this, we visited the Ephrata Cloister just about 20 minutes away - worth the visit if you're in the area. It was fascinating - and one of the lessons is this - celibacy among an entire community, sort of dooms your community to failure...

One of our day trips brought us to a coal mine tour in Ashland, PA. The neighboring town of Centralia is home to literally a handful of residents. An underground mine fire has been burning since 1962, and all buildings have been condemned. This photo below is pretty interesting for many reasons. If you look to the right of the center of the photo, you'll see smoke from the burning underbelly of the ghost town. A little creepy if you ask me!

On to things more pleasant - salty, fried, addictive goodness. This super cool tour of the Herr's factory was a feast for all the senses. Can you imagine snacking on a handful of warm potato chips just 8 minutes out of the kettle? I was very impressed with the cleanliness of the factory, and quality control is pretty tight. I was also pleased to know that there is very little waste. The cardboard shipping boxes are reused until they fall apart, and drivers are paid an incentive to bring the cardboard boxes back. There is a system that captures the heat and energy produced by the cooking process which is then used to heat the building. Oh, the coolest part - there is a very high-tech scanning process that the potato chips pass over, and when the sensors detect any green or brown chips, a very accurate puff of air shoots the reject out of the mix - it's literally ejected, and then fed to the nearby farm animals.

Are these babies cute or what? They're about 10 days old, and living happily in Bird-in-Hand, PA.

I am so fascinated by the lifestyle and culture of the Amish people. Though I tried not to ogle them and take photos of the Amish people like they're some sort of spectacle, I did take this photo of an Amish home as we passed by on our buggy. The neat row of seedlings in the window caught my eye. Many homes had perfect-sized gardens newly planted for spring or with milk jug cloches out. Our driver said that most Old Order Amish use these dark shades rather than curtains or blinds. I have mixed feelings about the tourism in this area. Apparently the Amish and Mennonites in this area have similar mixed feelings.

Happy Easter if you're celebrating! Here's a little project we did in Hershey. You make this by dipping a small balloon in chocolate. Add color to the bowl of chocolate for a second coat to make this artful little tulip-shaped bowl. Pop your balloon after chilling in the fridge and voila!

And because I've taught my child well, as she's playing on the swing, "Mom, I'm weeding"!

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