Food and Drink Feed

Success Tastes Sweet

I have a calendar, one of those cheap ones that insurance agencies send out around Thanksgiving, that I started using way back in January 2014 to help me build healthier habits.  I'm a list maker.  I love that shot of excitement that comes from crossing an item off a list, even if that feeling is all too brief.  This calendar works like a list in reverse.  Any time I do one of the habits I'm trying to build, I get to write it into that day's square. 


A year ago, the goals were to exercise, write and craft more. Not too different from a million other people's new year's resolutions.  I color coded these goals to make it easy to see patterns on the calendar: exercise is underlined in yellow, writing in green and crafting in purple.  The colors made it easy to see what I was doing a lot and what I wasn't.  They all look strong for about two, maybe two and a half weeks, then more and more blank squares appear on the scene.  It's the classic resolution fade out.

Mid February I made an effort to get back on track.  A quick look tells me I did a good job of meeting my goals on the weekends.  Midweek.  Let's not talk about midweek. The exception being shoveling, which I appear to have done quite a bit of midweek and weekend all month long.  Thank you mother nature for helping me get more exercise.

And so it goes.  By March I'd given up on the color coding.  I jotted down any time I exercised, wrote or fiddled.  Yes, I'd swapped fiddle practice for crafting.  Like writing and exercise, I enjoyed it once I got started but what is it about getting started that's so tough?  

My calendar pages May through September are seas of white, with only the word "fiddle" to break the monotony. I'm sure I was doing other things, but they weren't making it to the calendar.  Maybe I didn't want to see their (in)frequency.IMG_0227

Then the fall came in all its beauty and the night crept ever farther into the day.  I started tracking how long I sat in front of my fake-sunlight lamp; "it's medecine" my doctor had reminded me,  "take the recommended dose, no more, no less".    Exercise shifted in my mind from "good for me" to "weapon against depression", so it went back on the calendar.  I started taking pre-work walks again, since outdoor exercise as early as possible has been shown to help as well. 

I'd like to say that I knew all these things were good for me, so I did them day in and day out.  But you know that's not true.  I'd do it a while, then stop.  I'd see the white space on the calendar and start up again; "Just keep starting" is a twelve step maxim that I firmly believe in.  And then in November, I read a blog post by my friend Kristina.  She had undergone serious surgery and was making big life changes as part of her recovery process.  In the post she talked about giving herself a sticker whenever she reached a daily goal.  I smiled and thought "I don't need to go that far".  But when I saw a pack of multicolored sparkling star stickers at the store, they were in my basket in an instant. Who didn't love getting a star on their homework back in school?


How do I earn a star?  Gold - sat in front of my light 1st thing in the morning.  Green - exercise.  Orange - fed the soul (fiddle, crafting, baking, extended reading).  And blue - drank water and ate fruit with my breakfast.  This last one, the blue star is the reason for this post.  I know most people love fruit, but I see eating fruit a lot like I see shaving.  I do it because I don't like what will happen if I don't. 

Apples 10122014

Yes, fruit can be delicious (have you ever read William Carlos Williams' poems about eating plums?),  but it is so fickle and unpleasant too.  Fruit are sticky, they have really strong smells and you never know what you're going to get when you take a bite.  One day you're rewarded with sweet, jucy pleasure.  Another day and the fruit's gone sour or worse yet, squishes with the first stages of rot.  Add in the fact that sometimes my body goes on allergen overload and gives me an allergic reaction to fruit I'm not allergic to.  Fruit and I aren't friends. 


But I've been doing it.  Pears.  Grapes.  Bananas.  When I have trouble sticking to it, I grab a beloved, reliable veggie instead.  I don't think it's a coincidence that brocolli and breakfast both start with "b". 

So what's this success I  mentioned in the title?  Have I lost 10 pounds?   Am I a fiddle master? Did I finish my holiday knitting on time?  No,  no, and no.  But yesterday when I went to the kitchen hungry for a mid morning snack - I grabbed a pear.  Just as natural as can be.  No reaching for a muffin and telling myself I ought to eat fruit instead.  No staring at the choices in the fridge and making a deal with myself that if I ate the fruit I could have something good afterward.  Nope.  I just saw the pear and grabbed it. 

I think that's the first time in 40 years that I've chosen to eat fruit as a snack. 

Now that's some sweet success.


Yankee Thrift Bread

I thought about calling this post "Refrigerator Bread" because the recipe is  great for using up fruit that has outstayed it's welcome, but the more I thought about it, the less appealing that name sounded.  "Ice box" sounds homey and fresh.  "Refrigerator" conjures up a big humming machine which has an open box of baking soda in it for a reason. 

Refrigerator bread cut 033014

Therefore, let me introduce Yankee Thrift Bread.  The center is moist, rich with cinnamon and chock-a-block with baked fruit.  The crust is slightly sweet and crunchy.  And best of all the recipe is easy (one bowl, no mixer needed) and incredibly forgiving.  How forgiving?  The recipe started out as zucchini bread (from and was very good.  The next time I made it I didn't have enough zucchini, so it became summer squash bread (mixing green and yellow).  No one noticed the difference. 

For several years I've made it as zucchini carrot bread.  This version I always associate with camping trip breakfasts and early morning walks.  The bread freezes well, which is great for that stretch in August where the world becomes overrun by zucchini.   I did try zucchini, carrot and parsnips in one batch, thinking if one root vegetable works, another should too.  Not quite.  That batch was eaten, though I think it was by the squirrels. 

So it's not that surprising that today when I realized I had an overripe pear, a bruised apple and dried figs from 2013 in my fridge, I considered throwing them in the compost bin, then thought better of it.  What would be better on a gray, rainy day than cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar and fruit?

Foggy fence tree 022214

Yankee Thrift Bread


2 eggs, beaten

3/4 cup sugar - The recipe started out as 1 1/3 cups of sugar.  I keep reducing the sugar each time I make it.

2 tsp vanilla

3-4 cups fruit or veggies - For a smoother texture grate them.  Dicing also works, though it makes the bread more likely to crumble.  Whether to peal or not is a personal preference.

1/3 cup (or 6 tbs) melted butter

1/3 cup (or 6 tbs) apple sauce - If you don't have apple sauce on hand, you can double the amount of melted butter. 

2 tsp baking soda

pinch of salt

3 cups all purpose flour - if you use a heavier flour you'll need to add more moisture

1/2 tsp nutmeg

2 tsp cinnamon

1 cup nuts (optional)


  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (175 C).
  • Grease two 5 x 9 inch loaf pans.  A smaller size will also work, but the timing will need to be adjusted. 
  • In a large bowl mix eggs, sugar, vanilla.
  • Mix in the fruit/veggies, butter, apple sauce. 
  • Sprinkle baking soda and salt over the mixture.
  • One cup at a time, add the flour and stir.  If you do it all at once it will be very hard to incorporate.  This is a thick, sticky dough. 
  • Mix in the cinnamon, nutmeg and nuts (if using).
  • Divide the batter between the two pans.
  • Bake for 45 minutes to an hour.  I find the zuchini version takes longer to cook.  You'll know they're done when the tops are golden and a fork stuck into the center comes out clean. 
  • Cool in pans for 10 minutes.

Refrigerator bread 033014


Peas Glorious Peas

We're expecting single digit temps overnight.  My partner Z is wrapped up in not one, but three blankets on the couch, and I have turned on the heat in my office for the first time in a month.  The weather may not realize that winter is over, but in my mind it's a thing of the past. 

Back in February I dusted off the grow lights, poured some potting soil and planted some seeds.  This was admittedly early, but I had two good reasons.  One, was that I wanted to know if the seeds I had left over from last year were still any good.  Many of them weren't.  The second reason was less practical; I was ready to see growth!  Life!  Green! 

Snap peas soak 031014

Turns out I wasn't the only one.  Jenna Woginrich over at the ColdAntlerFarm blog was eager for green too.  She announced The Cold Antler Farm Snap Pea Challenge (click the link to see her great graphic).   The challenge is simple.  Anyone who wanted to join just had leave a comment on her blog and plant some peas on the 12th.  The benefit (aside from the excitement of seeing that first millimeter of green emerge from the earth) is that you get to compare progress and methods with everyone else who joined in. 

So here goes:

Planted: Amish Snap Peas from Seed Saver's Exchange.  SSE and Annie's Heirloom Seeds are my favorite sources for seeds since they keep the old non-patented seed varieties going.  I've read that the West Concord library branch has a seed library for patrons.  Isn't that a great idea?  When I make it over there I'll tell you all about it.

Soil: Commercial potting soil.  I would have added compost, but mine is still frozen.

Light: Grow light.  I have it on roughly 12 hours a day, but I'm not precise about it.

First Signs of Life:roughly a week after planting

Today roughly half the seeds I sewed have sprouted.   The package didn't give any information about peas' preference in terms of moisture, so I've been watering daily.  I have a spay bottle and I also pour water into the tray under the seed pots. 

Peas 032314

Those are the facts.  Those are what I capture in my gardening log, with an aim of having something to look back on in the future.  Those have nothing to do with what I love about gardening.  Each year I take notes on what I do and what happens as a result, but whether it's the way I take these notes or simply that I'm not all that interested in the science behind gardening, I haven't managed to turn those notes into anything useful.  Instead, I take photo after photo of each plant's progress, like the proud parent of a newborn.  No one else sees anything worth grinning so widely about, but I smile at the way all plant chutes start out the same verdant chartreuse, the way peas come up looking like question marks that slowly unfurl into certainty as they reach for the sky, and the way tomato plants fill the room with scent as strong as any rose. 

Unless I learn to delight in the soil and light needs of my various plants, I will never really progress as a gardener and get the vegetable yields I hope for; but for now I'm happy playing the part of proud plant mama. 

Pea closeup 032314

Thanksgiving Miles

Ever since getting a pedometer, I've had the urge to measure how many steps (or even better miles) go into everyday events.  Last week, as I eagerly anticipated a marathon night of Thanksgiving baking, I wondered just how many steps it takes to make challah, two pies, a cake and braised cabbage.  A tiny part of me wondered if the distance would be enough to counteract all the pie dough and chocolate I was sure to sample in the process. 

It seemed unlikely that the math would come out in my favor, but I liked the idea.  Now I was conducting an experiment, testing a hypothesis to be exact, not just being nerdy with my pedometer. No, no, no.  No nerdy number crunching here.  What made it even better is that I won either way.    If my hypothesis was accurate and I would ingest more calories than I burned while baking, then I'd be right.  And that's winning.  Just ask any five year old.  And if my hypothesis was wrong and I burned more calories than I ate, well then my body would win, ergo I win again.  I liked my odds.

Egg shells 030612

The Data

Walk to store for ingredients.  Wander store looking for candied yams = 770 steps, 0.25 mile, 90 calories

Walk back and forth from refrigerator, to cutting board on counter, to stove, to cook book and back again for several hours = 1510 steps, 0.58 miles, 738 calories

That's 2,280 steps, 0.83 miles, and 828 calories burned. 

Now to compare that to the tasty nibbles I enjoyed along the way. 

What?  I didn't keep track? 

I guess it's a good thing I'm not a scientist. 

 If you would like to conduct this experiment at home, you can replicate it using the recipes listed below.  All have been thoroughly taste tested and approved.

Braised Cabbage with Apples and Caraway Seeds from Spilled Milk podcast

G√Ęteau au chocolat fondant de Nathalie,or, Kate's Winning-Hearts-and-Minds Cake from the Orangette blog

Fig Olive Oil and Sea Salt Challah from the Smitten Kitchen blog

Silky Smooth Pumpkin Pie from the Smitten Kitchen blog

Apple Pie from The Joy of Cooking



Foraging Makes It Taste Better

Smitten KitchenOrangetteDinner: A Love StoryRemedial EatingThe Wednesday Chef. Eating from the Ground Up. These are food blogs that I read as much for the back stories, as I do for recipe ideas.   So when I sat down to write about a salad and how a walk made it so much better, I automatically tried to write in a collective version of my favorite food bloggers' styles.  I remember doing this rather well in college French when given the assignment to write in the style of Emile Zola, but then I was only immitating one author.  And more importantly, today I prefer to sound like myself.

So I set that version aside and asked myself, what do I want to say about this salad?Scissors food project 072611
A couple weeks ago, my partner Z and I invited friends over to break in a new game that he'd received for his birthday.  Our friends took care of drinks and dessert, Z picked up an assortment of sushi and I made the Corn + Avocado + Cilantro salad from Real Simple magazine. 

Sort of. 

Through the "magic" of modern food shipment, you could make this salad any time of year, but right now, in the heat of the summer is when it truly should be made. Local and in-season make a difference in the flavor, especially when a recipe only has six ingredients, and two are givens (salt and olive oil).  

You start with the corn.  Grab a cloth sac and get ye to your local farm or farmer's market for summer's gold.  I'm lucky enough to live within walking distance of a farm stand where tomorrow's corn harvest can be seen over the shoulder of the cashier as you pay today.  With its wrapper of green and jaunty tassles, corn is the only food that nature wraps like a present.

On the way back from the farm, stop at a grocery store and pick up avocados and limes, unless of course you live somewhere that grows these foods.  One nice thing about avocados, is even though they do not grow in the northeast, and therefore have to be shipped long distances for our enjoyment (a "sometimes" food rather than an every day staple), there is no loss in flavor.  Avocados do not ripen until removed from the tree, so unlike many other fruits and vegetables which are picked early to benefit the shipping process, but arrive with just a shadow of their potential flavor, avocados taste great several thousand miles later.

The final ingredient in the salad, as published, is cilantro.  I neither like nor dislike cilantro, which means it's not growing in my herb garden, and I don't want to pay for a bundle and end up with a pile of leftovers.  I was walking back from Wilson Farm when I bent down to nibble on some lamb's quarters growing by the side of the trail.  The first bite is nearly tasteless, but then there's a wave of green, much like the taste of a cucumber with the peel left on.  I decided to replace the cilantro in the recipe with wild lamb's quarters

Lambs quarters 060312
The walk home became a scavenger hunt.  Whenever I saw a sprig I plucked it and added it to my sac of corn, feeling quite triumphant.  Though lamb's quarters grow abundantly along the edges of farm fields, they are harder to find in wooded areas (like the one I was walking through).  What does grow there, in abundance, is wood sorrel.  This slightly vinegary herb is often mistaken for clover, but wood sorrel's leaves are tiny hearts, in that yellow sort of green associated with spring.  I tried a bit of lamb's quarters with a sprig of wood sorrel and smiled.  This tasted world's better than cilantro.  In no time I had enough greens to complete the salad.

Wood sorrel 080412
 When I got home I gave the greens a careful wash and whirl through my salad spinner.  I'd been careful to gather plants several feet away from the path, since it's a popular dog walking spot, but you never know. I ripped off the leaves and set the stems aside to add to my garbage pail vinegar (but that's a story for another post).

Corn + Avocado Salad

  • Shuck 4 ears of corn.  Either boil them briefly or cook them on the grill, turning them frequently.
  • Once the corn is cooked and cooled, place an ear in a bowl and carefully cut off the kernels.   Repeat with remaining ears of corn.
  • Chop one avocado and add to the corn.
  • Add lamb's quarters and wood sorrel leaves.
  • Pour in lime juice to taste (a tablespoon or two).
  • Pour in a tablespoon of olive oil.  
  • Add a pinch of coarse salt.
  • Mix gently and serve

  Corn avocado salad 072113

 If you'd like to learn more about cooking with wild foods, I recommend Didi Emmons book Wild Flavor's: One Chefs Transformative Year Cooking from Eva's Farm.  She has a whole section on lamb's quarters (also known as goosefoot).  Russ Cohen's Wild Plants I Have Known...and Eaten is a great introduction to foraging in New England.


Berry Picking - A Walk for the Nonwalker

I'm suspicious of people who say they've changed their boyfriend, girlfriend, life partner...  This ability to mold the other person is usually claimed by the woman in the relationship. For my own peace of mind I have to suspect they're overstating their achievements, because the only other option is to accept that I am seriously lacking in this important skill.   I'm not quite ready to concede that.

Exhibit A.  For more years than I'd like to admit, I tried to convince my partner that going for a walk is a fun activity.  I wasn't trying to create a daily walk-buddy.  I didn't expect him to take up walking as his preferred form of exercise; my goal was reasonable (in my mind at least).  Let's just go for a walk together every now and then.  It didn't take. You won't see us taking an after dinner stroll.



You may, however,  see us using ambulatory power to reach our local frozen yogurt vendor.  The outing is all about the goal.  The walking is a means to an end, barely worth mention or notice, at least to half our party.   Yet we both come home smiling (and that's only partly due to the joy of mocha chip melting into a pretzel cone). 

 If you too have found yourself in the position of trying to coax a nonwalker to join you, or maybe you think you ought to take up walking but your heart's not in it, may I suggest berry picking?

I mean it.   A trip to the berry fields isn't going to bestow any sort of aerobic benefit, but a walk with another person is often more about the socializing than the exercising, so that's OK.  Here in the northeast the distance between the barn/farm stand where you pick up your bucket and the actual field can be anywhere from a quarter to a full mile.  The longer the distance the more chance that some sort of hayride or golf cart will be offered to you.  Decline the ride and you have your walk. 

Russel orchards path
And once you've reached your destination, wander the rows, see which ones have the most easily accessible fruit.  This is especially important if you're picking something with thorns.  You don't want to risk a thorn to the underarm as you reach, tippy toed for perfect berries just beyond your reach.  Trust me.  I know what I'm talking about.  


A trip to the berry fields may not make you (or anyone you bring with you) take up walking on a regular basis, but you're sure to smile as you ride home, fingers stained, teeth full of seeds and a bucket of berries at your feet.

***In case you're local and curious, the berry photos were taken at Russell Orchards Farm Store & Winery in Ipswich, MA and  Parlee Farms in Tyngsboro, MA***


Have Snacks, Will Walk

I've printed my donation page, charged up the iPod, checked the weather, and now all that I have left to do before tomorrow's Walk for Hunger is pack a couple snacks.  There will be plenty of food available along tomorrow's route, both at tents set up for the event and in shops we'll pass along the way, but I'm trying to be smarter about what I eat, so bringing something from home is the way to go.

Last summer, in the middle of a discussion about fences (we were on a walk at the time) Z, my partner, asked if I'd like a dehydrator.   I gave him a confused smile and said I had no idea what I would do with one.  "OK.  They sell dried pears at my work, and it seemed like something you'd like to make" he replied.  I was intrigued, but still resistant to adding another gadget to our kitchen.  Not long afterward I read Didi Emmons' book Wild Flavors, saw what she does with a dehydrator and knew I wanted one.

I've done a lot of experimenting with my dehydrator, but my current favorite things to make are dried pears (yes, Z knows me well) and fruit leather.  To me, biting into a piece of fruit is a gamble.  Will it be mealy, rubbery, squoosh like a worm or or make my eyes water?  It's hard to know until it's actually on my tongue, exactly where I don't want something on its way to rotten to be.  So, I tend to buy fruit, think about eating it, then feed it to my compost bin.  I don't feel good about it, but it's what I do.  The dehydrator solves this because it lets me take fruit that is over ripe (which I won't eat) and turn it into something sweet, healthy and consistently firm.  My idea of the perfect fruit.


Died Pears

  • Wash the pears.  I usually do 6-8 at a time to fill my dehydrator.  The number will vary depending on your dehydrator's size.
  • Chop into slices roughly 1/4" thick.  Some people peel them first since the skin will turn slightly brown, but then you lose fiber and probably some vitamins as well, so I leave the peel on.
  • (Optional) Toss slices in a bowl with lemon or lime juice.  This keeps the pears from turning brown, but I often skip it since it adds a slight citrus flavor to the finished product.
  • Place in the dehydrator  with room around each slice for the air to move. 
Pears dehydrator 123012
  • "Cook" until dry to the touch with just a little bit of give.  I like to put them in before going to bed.  They're usually just right when I get up in the morning.
  • If you leave them in too long, don't worry.  Just call them fruit chips and enjoy the crunch.

 Fruit Leather

There appears to be no end to the possible variations of fruit leather.  And unlike my childhood memories of failed sun-dried fruit leather, using the dehydrator the process is nearly fail proof. 

  • In a medium size pot pour 1/4 cup water or juice.  Heat on medium.
  • Add fruit (see below)
  • Stir occasionally.  Cook roughly 15 minutes or until fruit is soft.
  • Puree the fruit.  This is easier with an immersion blender, but a regular blender will do the trick.
  • Spray Pam (or similar product) on fruit leather tray - these came with my dehydrator
  • Pour the puree onto the trays.  Spread to make an even layer roughly 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick
  • "Cook" until dry to the touch.  I find it takes about 6 hours.
  • Rip or cut into pieces and store in an air tight container.  On the rare occasion it isn't gobbled up in a day, I've had it stay good for several weeks.

Flavor combos:

  • Mixed frozen berries
  • Grapes (1 bunch) and apples (3)
  • Pears (6) with a dash of cinnamon and cardamom
  • I'm experimenting with fruit/vegetable mixes.  I'll let you know if I find one I like

Grapes apples 042113
For my final snack tomorrow, I'm bringing something I've never tried before.  Amanda Blake-Soule, author of several books and the SouleMama blog is making this the year of popcorn.  Each month she posts a different topping recipe.  Creating a new popcorn topping is actually on my To Do list for life (I'm serious), so I've read Amanda's posts with a big smile on my face.  I finally found the nutritional yeast necessary for her Cheesy Herb Popcorn recipe, so I'll cook that up tomorrow morning, just before the walk.  I have a feeling the results will be messy, so the great outdoors seems like the perfect place to give it a try.  

Here are links to other walk friendly foods I've posted in the past: 

The Food Project + Starbucks = ?

It's funny how you can make a decision, thinking you know where it will lead, and then find the result is something totally unexpected.  I had one of those moments this spring, where the results were nothing less than serendipitous. See...

Sunflower with seed 051612
No?  Let me explain.

I was at Starbucks, waiting to get my chai fix, when I saw a poster on the community board inviting patrons to join the crew in volunteering at The Food Project. The Food Project is a Boston area CSA and so much more.  The Food Project is not certified organic (too expensive and time consuming) but they raisie their crops without chemicals; they have programs to teach school children where their food comes from, sell fairly priced vegetables in parts of the city where vegetables are hard to buy, support foodbanks, and offer an assortment of agricultural and leadership programs with teens.  It's impressive just how many programs for the betterment of the community have had their start on a couple Boston area farms. 

Sign 042012
So of course I wanted to join a work day at the farm.  My own tiny container garden was just started and wouldn't need any more help from me for a while, but I still had an urge to dig, to plant, to help spring turn the world from gray to green.  In short, a morning outside, getting dirty, helping out on a farm with other people who think that sounds fun was right where I wanted to be.

The morning started off cool and misty, nothing like the freezing rain the Starbucks crew said they'd worked in the year before.  One manager remembered her hands were so frozen when she was done that she had to put her fingers in her armpit so they'd warm up enough to be able to handle her car keys.   Fortunately we had nothing like that.  By the time we finished, 15,000 (or was it 150,000?) planted onions later, the sun was out and coffees had been replaced by  water bottles.   We were dirty, smiling and no one was in a hurry to go home, even those with tired toddlers in tow.  The morning had been just what I hoped for, and more.

Volunteers and woods 042012
I leared so much about gardening that morning, not from the experience of planting onions, but through conversation with the Starbucks folks planting alongside me.  Of course I also learned plenty of Starbucks gossip...

Back to the plants.  For much of the morning I worked along side Stephen, a true gardener.  Last year he had over 100 tomato plants in his garden!  Thinking of the four plastic tubs that held my garden, I couldn't begin to imagine the size of his.  I asked Stephen about some of the plants I was considering adding.  He taught me a book full as we worked.  Among other things,  he explained that cucumbers don't grow the shape we're accustomed to unless they're lifted off the ground.  Fast forward a couple months and here's my DIY cucumber trellis. 

Cucumber trellis 072812


Cukes for pickling 080412
My 1st two cucumbers. I still can't believe I grew them from seed.

Remember that photo of a tiny spout at the beginning of this post?  Do you want to see what it looks like today?

Green giants 081112

It towers over my head and has just started to grow its famous flower.  What intrigues me is that the head of the plant has been following the path of the sun for the last month, long before there were any signs of an actual flower.  Each day the whole line of green giants performs a silent, synchronized dance as they turn to the dawn, face heavenward at midday, and bow toward the trees as the sun slips away for the night. 

I wouldn't have had the fun of experiencing all this, if it hadn't been for Adam talking about being a flower gardener at home, with sunflowers a specialty.  I had it in my head that such a large plant must need special care, so even though I wanted them, I'd already ruled them out as an option for a beginner like me.  Adam set me straight saying once sunflowers get past the early weak stemmed stage (Starbucks cold cups make great planters/supports for young plants) they're incredibly resilient, even growing horizontally before starting their ascent if it means finding more light. 

I went to the hardware store on my way home and picked up a pack of seeds.  In my excitement I didn't read the package carefully.  I thought I'd picked up a 12" (inch) variety and only later realized it said 12' (feet)!  I never would have purposefuly chosen the grandaddy of all sunflowers on my first attempt at growing them, but I'm so glad I did.   Just another serendipitous step in my first season as a gardener.

Planting onions 042012




Learn Something Every Day

If you're out on a walk and encounter a farm stand, think carefully before you buy.  How far are you from home?  How heavy is the produce?  Will those velvety apricots, so full of juice they'll weep if jostled sneezed near, survive the walk home... in a bag full of local corn...and zucchini...and a camera? 

These are things that should be considered.  

Don't ask me how I know. 

I just do.

Watermellon 2009

Busa Farm's Bird Songs

Could you see a bird, just a black silhouette against slate gray sky and identify it as a chimney swift?  Could you then see another bird (similar in size and flight), and be just as certain it's a barn swallow?  Nope, me neither, but Herb Pearce can and did for the small group of bird enthusiasts who joined him for a bird song walk through Busa Farm and the Arlington Resevoir.  The walk was sponsored by the Lexington Community Farm Coalition, a.k.a. LexFarm.

Busa sign 060312

I wasn't sure quite what to expect when I arrived.  I tend to avoid group walks, probably due to too many elementary school field trips where we were herded, bovine like, from place to place without any chance to explore what interested us.  I decided to take a chance on this one, however; because I've always wanted to recognize birds by their song.  I get a little better at it every year,  but there are still so many to learn.  It turned out that bird songs played a rather small role in our walk.  Herb simply used them to help point us in the direction of interesting birds, but I learned so much about bird behavior and the plants I walk by every day, that I was anything but disapointed.

We started off with a look inside one of the buildings at Busa Farm, where both house sparrows and barn swallows make their nests. 

Back of beyond 060312
Barn Swallow 060312

Barn swallow tails 060312You can just picture the two little birds snuggled together in the nest.

Swallow eye 060312"I've got an eye on you..."

I was amazed at how unperturbed the birds were by our presence.  As a kid my friends and I would race fearfully across the field that separated our houses, as swallows swooped and dove menacingly at our heads.  Now here we were just feet from their nests, and though they arced and spun among the rafters, they took no notice of us.  I now suspect those swallows of my youth weren't interested in us either.  They were probably diving to catch insects, too small for us to note. 

Here and there on the floor of the building lay evidence of the less idyllic side of bird life.  Eggs had fallen from their clay cradles, either from an accidental push or during an attack from the neighboring house sparrows.  These tiny brown creatures are surprisingly visious. 

House Sparrow 060312
House Sparrow back 060312I'm not sure why this fellow looks so downy.  Maybe he's a juvenile?

From there we made our way along the edge of the vegatable fields (where their pea plants were four times as tall as mine) to a spot where Herb had recently seen a family of robins

Walkers 060312
Following the chirps of the juveniles, he lead us to where two siblings were following their mother and persistantly begging.  As soon as a baby gulped down the worm the mama offered, it immediately began to beg again.  I think all of us with experience around little ones of the human variety, felt for the mama bird and thanked heaven that kids' needs aren't so incessant.

Robbin family 060312
The juveniles are paler than adults.  The mother has her back to the camera.

A little further on one walker discovered a snapping turtle who appeared to have made her way from a nearby river to lay her eggs.  She'd chosen the shadow of a hulking John Deer tractor as a secure site.  Outside an aquarium, the only turtles I'd ever seen were tiny, adorable painted turtles.  Aside from the shell, they look nothing alike.  The snapping turtle was roughly a foot long, and at first glance resembled a rather flat boulder.  Her tail looked lethal, all spikes and muscle like an aligator and her face came to a beak-like point.  This creature appeared prehistoric.  She was the image of latent strength. 

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Snapping turtle 060312
Stumbling on that turtle was the start of something neat.  The walk became less of a guided tour and more of a pooling of knowledge.   One walker pointed out a nearby patch of pineapple weed.  We all stopped to bend down and roll its golden flowers in our hands, breathing in its sweet citrusy scent.  It smelled like sunshine and pina coladas, a world apart from the wet gray field where we stood.   I've read that pineapple weed can be used to make tea, but I haven't tried it yet.

Pineapple BUSA 060312
We nibbled on the rosy flowers of Lady's Thumb plants (named for the dirty "thumb print" on their leaves), and  

munched heartily on the succulent tops of lamb's quarters.  This plant has a pleasant al dente feel as you bite into it, with a taste similar to spinach, only milder. 

Lambs quarters 060312

And then there was jewel weed.  I was completely unfamiliar with it, so one of the walkers offered to demonstrate how it got its name. 


This effect is caused by the interaction of the tiny hairs on the back of the leaf and the water in the puddle.  Aside from being entertaining, the plant can also be used to combat the itch of poison ivy.   A quick internet search later lead me to pictures of the plant's flowers and the realization that I've seen this plant all my life and had known nothing about it!

At the edge of the field farthest from the farm buildings, we encountered a pair of killdeer.  These shore birds can often be found around farms.  The two we met clearly had a nest nearby and were intent on drawing us away from it.  One ran back the way we'd come, stopping to look at us now and again like, "Hey guys, what's the hold up? Come on!"  The other moved toward us hobbling, its wings held out at an awkward angle as if broken.  I'd seen this sort of behavior on documentaries, but never in real life.  It was a fascinating act of bravery on the parents' part, serving as decoys.  As much as we wanted to stay and watch, we moved on to save the birds from uneccesary distress.

Killdeer 060312

Killdeer wing displacy 060312

Killdeer distracting 060312
A quick scramble over a rock wall, and we were on the trail that surrounds the Arlington Resevoir.  I'd been to the Res about a year earlier, in the fall, and had found it a bit depressing.  It was still in the center of town, with houses always visible, but this visit was entirely different.  Herb showed us Jack in the Pulpits, the largest Poison Ivy plants I'd ever seen, and an entirely safe-to-the-touch plant that is nearly identical to Posion Ivy. 

IMG_5187Poison Ivy

Do you see the differece?  On this plant the center leaf starts really close to the other two.  On poison ivy that middle leaf has a longer stem than the other two do.  Please DON'T take my word for it.  I'm just passing along what I was told, and it's always possible I misheard the explanation.  

As we continued our route, Herb suddenly broke off from telling us about a plant and cocked his head.  "Did you hear that?  That's an orchard oriole!"  With that he was racing toward the sound, his eyes raking the leaves overhead.  Above us a bird, all rusty red and black sat singing among the leaves.  A moment later it had taken flight and though we continued to look for some time, we never caught another glimpse.  Herb explained that the orchard oriole is quite rare in this region.  We probably would have missed it entirely if it weren't for its song, and most importantly Herb's recognition of it.

We continued on around the resevoir and back to the farm, but for me the walk ended with  sighting that rusty minstrel.  I was mentally overflowing with all that I'd seen and learned.  What a great way to start a Sunday.