Soil-sense Intervention

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Meager morning harvest. Was this really it? I was already on the path of knowing I needed to improve my soil, but this was a total eye-opener. Even these few offerings from the veggie garden aren’t as healthy looking as they should be. I realized recently that I’ve been gardening the same backyard for ten years now and somewhere along the way I forgot that soil upkeep doesn’t happen with an application of leaf mulch twice a year.

I’ve always known that the soil is where it matters most in the garden. Regardless of the quality of plant or seed or the amount of sun and rain, if you don’t stay on top of building and maintaining the health of the soil, you’re losing.

At some point, I got lazy. That’s the truth of it. I could give the typical excuse of “life” getting in the way and all that bull, but really it was pure laziness. And then last week a book that has been on my shelf for two years finally caught my attention—The Third Plate by Dan Barber.

Just 100 pages in and there have already been so many poignant quotes that have made me say, “DUH, Jenn. DUH.” Gah.

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It’s embarrassing, really, to acknowledge here that at some point I lost all sense when it came to the soil of my gardens. After that pitiful morning harvest, I started thinking back to just a few years ago when I would go out on a similar morning and come back with my big ol’ antique colander and shirt full of tomatoes, peppers of all sorts and sizes, piles of herbs, eggplants with depths of purples so beautiful it became my favorite color. I would make sauces and salsas, cook and freeze, share with friends, coworkers, and family, and still have more.

It wasn’t just the abundance either. You could taste the difference in each variety of tomato, pepper, and eggplant. There were flavor and textural variations, as intended. I think I first noticed two years ago a drop off of not only production but quality. Did I do anything? Put out six inches of leaf mulch twice a year and hoped for the best. Stupid.

Today, I started the fix. With a weather forecasting rain for the next few days, I figured it was a good time to get some nutrients into that soil. By the way, this is what the skies looked like even with a 90% chance of rain for the day…

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But anywaaay, I know weather prediction will never be perfect or spot on, so I got out there to work. First thing, I put out a big bag of mushroom compost. Pulled what was left of the leaf mulch and some of the scrappy, dry dirt away from around the trunks of my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and herbs, and filled in with a hearty moat of the compost. I know it’s not ideal to apply the compost in this way, but the hope is that the rain will work it in and the worms I know are still down there will come up to pull it down.

After doing this around all of them and going through the mushroom compost and a bag of cow manure I forgot I had, I put down a fresh layer of leaf mulch and watered it all in. This is my idea of a patch in hopes of salvaging some flavors and production. I also started more long term repairs.

Finally got a compost bucket going again. I used to always have one and it was easy and obviously rewarding. Again, laziness took over. No more. I set up the bucket right down off the back deck, which is right where the kitchen is, so all kitchen scraps will now go into the compost pot. Luckily, I found a 30 gallon black plastic pot under the front deck that still had some previous composting attempt in it. Already rich with worms, I added some leaves and grass clippings and will start to add those veggie bits. Getting back on the right path seems doable now.

I know that there are the fancy-schmancy compost bins you can buy, but an elevated bucket that drains has always worked for me. It’s big enough to make good compost, but not so big that I won’t want to work it correctly.

My other longer term plan is to plant clover or beans or some other nitrogen-fixing cover crop. That will make a big impact for the next growing cycle. I am also doing more research into crop rotations that will improve the soil in a specific area for the planting following it.

I’ve had a soil-sense awakening because of a book. It’s overdue, but I’m relieved that it happened. My gardening practices needed an intervention, and as I get back on track to improving my garden soil, I’ve found a renewed interest in learning as much as I can about soil and the microbial life that is right below our feet. It truly fascinates me. For some people, it’s the galaxies above. For me, it’s the intricate universes below.

 

 

 

Earth Day Faith

Last week, a new friend asked me if I had any spiritual beliefs. Without hesitation, I replied, “I can’t wait to become compost.”

I realize this may sound a bit grim, but as a gardener, I’m a witness to death giving rise to life.

Soil. Dirt. Earth. Whatever you call it, it’s the starter of the garden. There’s nothing quite like burying bare hands into healthy dirt and lifting it free. The heft and scent of it. The hyphae strands like highways for worms. It’s a world of its own and to hold that cradled in my palms is the closest I come to communion with a higher being.

It was years ago now when I first learned of the mycelium networks in soil that my scattered thoughts on spirituality became cohesive. Everything is just energy in different forms. From spongy fungus to screeching hawks, tomato blossoms to cirrus clouds, box turtles to magnolias, dung beetles to humans–all energy.

When I say I can’t wait to become compost, what I really mean is that though I’m content in my current form, I know through the natural breakdown of my body, I could become so much more. In the words of Bill Callahan in his song titled Say Valley Maker:

“So bury me in wood
And I will splinter
Bury me in stone
And I will quake
Bury me in water
And I will geyser
Bury me in fire
And I’m gonna phoenix

I’m gonna phoenix.”

 

Earth Day garden pics

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Pi(e) Day: the most wonderful day of the month.

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Today was an obvious choice of a day for me to make a pie. I don’t math, but I do know what pi means and since I’m pretty all right with letters, I knew that adding an ‘e’ would really level up this day. *insert Link opening a treasure chest music here* Also, I can’t remember the last time I made one, which is true sadness.

When discussing what kind to make, Yvonne, who knows I always bring them into work for taste testing, said any kind but blueberry because that would turn her teeth blue. So to me that meant it was definitely going to be blueberry. Luckily for her, blueberries weren’t quite in season yet, so they were still ridiculously priced. The strawberries and raspberries were on sale and to add in a color and texture variant, I threw a pack of blackberries into the cart. A lemon for fresh juice and I was ready.20170314_192753.jpg

Shockingly, I actually planned ahead for this day and made my dough the night before. I’ve seriously mastered that pie dough, yo. As seasoned bakers already know, the quality of butter makes ALL the difference in it coming together. When I got home from the store, I rolled out half of the dough and pressed it into the plate.

The dough went back into the fridge while I prepped the filling. Sweet, sweet berries, come to momma. I cut the strawberries into 20170314_193128.jpgdifferent sizes and left the blackberries and raspberries whole. A bowl of beauty. The recipe I loosely followed called for adding granulated sugar, lemon juice, and salt to the berries. I cut the sugar by about a quater cup and added in an overflowing tablespoon of good quality maple syrup. Once that was mixed, add in the thickener, flour, and then it was time to get the other half of the 20170314_192702.jpgdough out of the fridge to roll out for the top crust. I knew I wanted to do something to represent pi, so I stared at the rolled out dough and contemplated how to do it without just doing the pi symbol. The problem is that I’m still an amateur with creative pie lattice tops. The brainstorming resulted in an idea I thought I could handle, so I filled the plate with the berry delicious filling and got at it. After some serious finangling, I finished my top and popped that heavy baby into the oven.

About an hour later, my gooftastic Pi Day pie was done. As usual, it was juicier than I’d like it to be. I think this happens because I usually add more fruit than the recipes call for, I can’t abide a sunken belly, and then forget to compensate with more thickening agent.

Do you see my pi representation?

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The taste testers were pleased—the pi pie disappeared with a quickness. I did get a slice and I have to admit that regardless of the slightly pooling liquid, the taste was spot on. Not too sweet or too tart. I’ll mark it as a success and make yet another note to watch the thickener when making fruit pies.

I didn’t get a “pretty” picture of a cut piece, but here’s a jank one with sliding crust on a Target brand generic paper plate because we can’t care about everything…

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Pie Dough:

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar (I used slightly less)

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2-1 tablespoon pieces (I used Kerry Gold)

1 1/2 cups cold water

Put the cold water into a 2 cup liquid measuring cup with a spout and handle. Set into the freezer. Measure out the flour into a mixing bowl, add the sugar and salt, then the butter pieces. Lightly toss them until they are coated and then take handfuls of the mixture into your hands, pressing the butter into the flour between your fingers until it’s incorporated and the butter pieces are pea to walnut size.

Next, get the water from the freezer and drizzle it in for a count of about five seconds. Then toss it like you’re tossing a salad. Don’t knead. Keep doing that with the water until you can put together a small ball of dough, toss it in the air, and when it lands in your hand it stays together. At this point, make two thick discs of dough, wrap in plastic wrap and keep in the fridge for up to three days.

Pie Filling:

5-5 1/2 cups of mixed berries of your choice

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 heaping tablespoon maple syrup

2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

pinch of salt

1/4 cup flour (or more if you add extra fruit)

2 tablespoon chilled, unsalted butter cut into small chunks

1 egg white for wash

Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 425.

Mix the berries, sugar, syrup, lemon juice, and salt together. Taste and adjust to your preference. Stir in the flour and set aside while you roll out the top crust. Pile the fruit mix into the dough, dot with butter, and then add your version of the top. Brush on the egg white wash and heavily sprinkle with the demerara sugar.

Middle rack for 15-20 minutes, with an edge protector. Then turn oven down to 375, rotate pie, and bake for another 35-45 minutes. Take the pie edge protector off for the last 10-15 minutes.

Cool on wire rack for at least an hour and then devour.

 

 

Dark and Dog-tired, Take Two

I’m still up in the air with my feelings about Facebook’s “On this day…” feature. Some days it causes a baritone belly laugh and others it brings forth a saltwater flood from my eyeballs. It has reminded my hermit self of events I had forgotten about attending, and it’s brought back words spoken that had been pushed out of my mind.

But today, today… . Today, that bastard feature showed me a blog post of a poem I wrote last year when I had once again relapsed. It was titled Dark and Dog-tiredReading over it again today took me back to that drive to the mountains—my place for recovery of all kinds. The poem was unedited when I posted (too full of emotion to care), but finding it again, I will definitely be working it over and over until it’s in better shape.

Not only was I reminded of this forgotten poem dealing with relapse, but another poetic influence may have been my savior today. Earlier this year, a dear friend sent me the memoir The Best Day, the Worst Day, written by Donald Hall about his marriage to Jane Kenyon. Two writers/poets and their difficult path traveled together through the fury of cancer. It is an absolutely devastating but beautiful story of love. I’m not a huge fan of his poetry, but his words in this memoir…oh, my. Theirs was a love that, I am not ashamed to say, I envy.

I may have connected with the story a bit more than I normally would have because of some of the drugs she had to take being the same ones I have also been on and off and on again over the last three years. His descriptions of her levels of pain and the side effects were spot on—things I have never been able to express to friends and family. The rage. The moonface. The depression. The joint pain that you lie about and say is a 6 when really it’s closer to a 12 on a scale from one to ten. The hair that embarrassingly covers your entire body, including your cheeks and chin. The clumps that fall from your head.

And the one that rang out in my mind recently and wouldn’t leave—the rash. A few days ago, it broke out across my chest and collarbones and felt like thousands of tiny bonfires raging under my skin. At first I thought allergies, but my brain said, Pay more attention! Remember, woman! And I did. I remembered Hall’s description of Kenyon’s cyclosporine rashes and how they’d have to rush her to the emergency room, so I called my doctor. His words were, “Stop taking it IMMEDIATELY.” Those are scary words to hear about a drug that is keeping me in remission.

What if there is already too much in my system? What if I called too late? What if stopping now isn’t soon enough? What if stopping now makes me relapse?

I can’t go through all this again.

I can. And I will if that’s what comes. Every time I feel like we’re getting a leg up on this syndrome, another hurdle is thrown on the track and the reasons to keep me jumping are already dwindling—dark. And I’m exhausted—dog-tired.

So I’m going to focus on the fact that poetry got me through this day a year ago and it helped save me today. Instead of worrying about what is next, I will work with my words and lines and keep leaping.

A Conversation with the Neighbor

His name is Victor and he’s ageless. Well, neither of my parents seem to know exactly how old he is, only that he’s retired from military service and work as a physiologist. Victor is their neighbor in the mountains and the day my mom introduced us he was working on building a car engine, wearing what appeared to be a cut off shirt sleeve on his head to hold back his shoulder length, mousey hair, and some sort of mock prison jumpsuit with a penitentiary name on the back that I can’t remember now, but he laughed with a boyish snicker as he turned to show it to us. I could see why people were unsure of his exact age.

He’s what I imagine my brother might be like when he gets older. They can both talk about anything and seem to know a lot about many different things, but you’re not quite sure how much to believe. Obviously very intelligent with the tendency for hyper-focus. At the beginning of the new year, my mom mentioned that she liked the look of the yellow FJ Cruiser–it reminded her of Costa Rica for whatever reason. Being a lover of all things car, Victor pounced on the opportunity to do the research and find her one. By February, there was a yellow FJ Cruiser in my parents’ driveway. He’s that guy.

After cursory introductions, Victor wasted no time in asking about my health. My mom had apparently mentioned my condition and being that he’s a retired physiologist that still spends time working with doctors and students doing cardiac research at a nearby med school, he wanted all the details of my syndrome.

I’m on vacation, Victor.

I’m okay. I’m good with not knowing too much. I’ve purposely avoided Google for the past three years because I don’t want to become so focused on this that I lose sight of the beauty in small moments of daily life. This syndrome doesn’t define me and I refuse to allow it to even try.

My mom, on the other hand, has done all the research and still can’t understand it. Hell, I’ve even confused my specialist on numerous occasions. So when Victor asked exactly what I had, the flood gates opened.

She has Nephrotic Syndrome.

Oh, god. That’s not good at all.

In my research, I found that it mostly happens to kids. Boys.

Leave it to me to end up with something that typically affects the exact opposite of myself.

Yes. What do they have her on?

Prednisone.

Did she puff up to look like a Chinese girl?

The first time she got moon face pretty badly. This is the third time she’s had to do a course of it in three years.

That’s not good. Prednisone is terrible on the system.

Hi. I’m right here. I’m standing right between you two witnessing this volley of words like a mute ref at a tennis match. I don’t need a reminder that Prednisone is hard on the body. I live with the effects every day. Hello? Is this thing on?

What was the trigger?

We don’t know. They tested her for all hereditary triggers and she doesn’t have any of those.

So it’s metabolic.

Don’t know. They even did a kidney biopsy and couldn’t find an exact cause.

Well, if it’s not one, it’s the other, so it’s likely metabolic.

Am I here? Do we only exist because others believe us to be real? Does that mean in this moment they don’t believe in me? Am I already gone?

So you’re acidic.

What? I’m over here not existing, so I’m a bit caught off guard with the sudden question directed at me.

Your doctor is treating the symptoms, not the problem.

Okay.

Do your hips hurt?

No.

Just your hands and elbows?

How did you know that?

That’s good. That’s a good thing.

I’m confused as to how any chronic pain is a good thing.

Any sight problems?

Not that I can tell.

Good. How about your hair and nails?

My hair thinned out pretty badly after the first round of steroids, but came back and has stayed thicker than it was before. And my hair dresser says it is quite healthy, so I think I’m all good there.

No laughter. Everyone is suddenly so serious. I hold my hand up to look at my nails myself and he grabs my hand while asking if he can look. Don’t touch me. Why do you think you can touch me? We just met six and half minutes ago. Yes, I’m counting, but my memory is bad and I’m no good with numbers. I don’t like to be touched.

How about her thyroid? Did they check that?

I’m not sure, but I think they did.

I’m invisible again. All I can do is stand here and listen to every single word bounce back and forth and let the heft of them sink in too deep.

We need labs for her T1, T2, T3, T4, and D levels. They tested for Lupus?

Yes, I was so worried it would be Lupus. No diabetes, hepatitis, or HIV either.

Imagine having to tell your mom you had HIV!

What the hell is that supposed to mean and why are they chuckling? I find none of this humorous. In fact, I’m starting to regress to the days before all this when I would faint at any mention of something possibly being wrong with my health. I was well-known at doctor’s offices for having to lay down before they started going over results. Back then, nothing was ever wrong.

I’m seeing small dots of light filtering across my vision. The edges of this scene are getting dark and closing in. I refuse. I will not faint because of this. I’m stronger than this. I don’t feel faint. I don’t feel the staring as I yawn to regulate my breathing and mess with my shirt sleeve to distract my brain. I don’t feel my mom touch my shoulder lightly, letting me know she’s there.

I don’t feel a goddamn thing.

It was time we all walk away. He tells us to get him my records and he’ll pass them on to the doctors he works with. “We’ll put some research students on it. They love complicated cases.” Am I complicated? I always thought I was just Jenn.

Back at the house, I head straight to my room and flatten myself on the floor, looking up at the popcorn ceiling through salt water filled wells. Ruby Joon is all butt wiggles, tail wags, and love nuzzles. She knows when momma has the feels.

My parents are in the living room. From under the door, I hear my dad turn down the television. I hear my mom start to whisper something to him. I hear random words. “Victor said…” “metabolic” “more tests” “research students”. They’re whispering about me.

What hides in parents’ whispers? Fear.

But I’m here. I’m right the fuck here. This thing you whisper about isn’t me. It will never be me. I’m right here in the next room. Come and talk to me. I’m strong enough.

I’m your 38 year old daughter, not a child.

I’m your daughter, no longer a child.

I’m your daughter child.

I’m your child.

I’m yours.

Believe in me, dammit. I want to keep existing.

 

Meatless Monday in a Book

The past few months have flown by in a confetti tornado of many more activities than my introvert-self typically likes, but I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed myself…most of the time. In true hermit fashion however, I’m settling back in at home for the winter–if it ever actually arrives–and thinking about all the comforting meals I’d like to create.

Tonight’s meatless Monday meal was simple and delicious, yet unnoteworthy. But one of my Christmas 20151228_212206-1.jpgpresents is absolutely worth talking about. The beautiful book by Hugh Acheson, The Broad Fork. It’s an entire collection of recipes for fruits and vegetables broken down by season. I try to eat seasonally as much as I can, so I instantly appreciated the set up of this book.

Apparently, the idea all started with his neighbor asking him, “What the hell do with kohlrabi?” Great question. Although I know what kohlrabi is, I’ve wondered before what I would do with it were I to bring some home. In the contents lists, kohlrabi was among a few others I was drawn to learning about such as salsify, sunchokes, fiddleheads, and yacon.

20151228_213904-1.jpgI will delve into those “oddities” later, but what caught my attention most immediately were the recipes for Brussels sprouts. Being that we are in the season for them, and I adore them, I went straight to that section. My eye quickly found the fried Brussels with a lime vinaigrette recipe, and I plan on making that as a side for my New Year’s eve meal.

It’s hard not to sit here and read through this entire book tonight. The photographs are20151228_214204-1.jpg gorgeous and the recipes are the perfect instructional length. Look at that radicchio! I don’t even like this stuff, but I want to tear this page out and chomp it. The pictures throughout bring on the uncontrolled drool factor. I love vegetables, so I don’t need help with eating and preparing them in all the ways, but I can see how someone who is leary about what to do with them would find this book inspiring.

I’ll be starting with the Brussels recipe, but I’m sure that I will be trying many more throughout the seasons.