Friday, August 22, 2014

Summer Doldrums

Last night when Miss Chef came home from work, I confessed that I have been feeling uninspired and unproductive for the past three weeks.  I’ve felt a slide into (mild) depression, with a side of disinterest in all things writing, local food or gardening.  I wondered if this whole “writing thing” was a ridiculously short-lived phase that had petered out already.

Miss Chef responded “I know exactly what you mean.  I’ve been feeling the same way.”

Misery loves company.  This revelation didn’t make my mojo jump up and come flowing out my fingertips, but it was comforting.  Maybe it’s the disinterest that’s a phase, and not the “writing thing.”  Depressions often do that to me, robbing me of a larger perspective while I get lost in the panic of the moment.  I did manage to finish up my weekly paid blog post last night, which felt like a minor victory.

All of which is to say, I’m going to wander in an uninspired way through this post, because I need to get my writing muscles back into shape. 

So, I’ve been mooching around feeling sad, and spending most of my time at home with these two mooks.


Yes, that is the bathroom door.  I posted this photo to Facebook with the caption “…and she never peed alone again.”  Still, I am grateful to have them around, as spending most of my time alone with the radio or tv for company would be much less entertaining.  Every day around 1:00, Mckenna wakes up and trills her way into the office, to see if she wants my attention.  This naturally wakes up the dog, who has to follow her to make sure I’m not about to go outside or eat something without her. This inevitably results in a tiny parade of two upright tails and four curious eyes, and who can ignore a parade?

In between pretending to work on various articles and keeping the menagerie assuaged, I’ve managed to keep the garden looking nice, if oddly unproductive.  Only one bean plant has grown to its full potential, and they’ve all provided a desultory harvest.  Cucumber production has been averaging 1.5 a week; one of my three plants gave up entirely a week or two ago, and the others aren’t far behind.  I’m looking at only my second squash ready to harvest this season.  My plans had been to have all of these plants overwhelm me with food by now.  But thus goes the gardening life.

Still, there is hope.  My previously barren Mortgage Lifter tomato has put on two additional fruits (only $1 each at this rate!), and the first two are looking more attractive every day.


Since I took this photo, the one in front has finally turned pink, and may be only a day or two from harvest (God and the rabbits willing).  Miss Chef’s Cherokee Purple plant has also set quite a bit of fruit, so while we may be late to the party, we may eventually get enough ‘maters to make it worthwhile.

Of course, the cherry tomatoes are producing constantly, to the point that I ignore them until I’m ready to make a trip to Friendship Trays with my little basket of donations.


(Oh, yes, my pepper plants have been doing pretty well.)  Things have changed a bit with Friendship Gardens.  The short story is that they aren’t interested in expanding the Backyard Gardener program the way my co-coordinator and I had been planning on, so he’s stepped back quite a bit in his leadership role.  We’ll keep up with the communications we already had in place, but aren’t going to make much effort to recruit new gardeners.  It’s been kind of odd trying to figure out how much I want to take on myself during this period of general disinterest, but I trust that my passion will rekindle sometime, at least by the time this summer heat abates a bit.

In anticipation of that time, I took the time to put in a little bit of a fall garden.  This is a new concept to me, having grown up in the snow belt.  But here, fall is so long and winter often so mild that it’s like a second spring.  One farmer told me fall is the easiest time to grow a garden, because the early heat gives young plants a jump start, but the pests and diseases have mostly run their course.  The trick is all in the timing.

Well, that, and remembering how dang hot it is!  After planting all kinds of onion and broccoli seeds three weeks ago, I watched in amazement as not one seed germinated.  They were brand-new seed packs—which I blithely gave away the extras of—so I knew the fault was mine.  After chatting with a helpful fellow at our local old-timey hardware store, I realized that I hadn’t bothered to make sure the seeds stayed moist long enough to germinate.  Duh.  When I plant in the spring, a good watering can last several days.  When it’s 95 degrees, that top inch or two of soil dries out fast.

So I’m trying again.  I brought home another pack of onion seeds, but it’s too late for seeding broccoli, so I bought six plants instead and stuck them where the lettuce and peas used to be.


I’d rather have not planted them all together, but with most of the bed still full, I had to disregard my companion planting principals.  Sort of.  I did seed onions in among them, as well as in patches along the central pathway.  Like garlic, they will sprout, winter over, and finish up next summer.  I left the outer periphery for the garlic, which will go in a couple of months down the road.

I also got a little bit excited when I saw the nursery had Brussels sprouts.  I grew them several springs ago, and they were a lot of fun to watch develop.

July 015b

That picture was taken in July, and I’m very happy to say that the weed situation is much better this year!  With my current plants, I did find spots in the bed to scatter them in among the peppers and tomatoes, where they look a little lost among their looming brethren.


At least they’ll have some shady protection from the blazing August sun.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll get to harvest some by Thanksgiving, as sautéed sprouts with brown butter sauce is one of our traditional side dishes.

One benefit of this whole Writing Thing is that I’ve gotten to expand my friendships with a lot more of the folks who do this Food Thing for a living.  Last weekend I had an appointment with one of them at the end of market hours, to interview him for an upcoming article.  I’m working on a story about what it takes to get local produce out of the field and into customers’ hands, so I got to learn about the nuts and bolts of Daryl Simpson’s day at Walnut Ridge Farm. I also got to hang out at his booth for awhile.  (You know what I love about this particular market?  I just realized I know four of the five people in the background of this photo.)


Like many local farmers, Daryl has a part-time job (in his case, for the benefits), so he doesn’t get to start harvesting for Saturday’s market until about 10:30 Friday morning.  His wife works off-farm that day, so he’s on his own in the fields until about 6:30, at which point he can head home to wash and package everything.  It’s exactly this kind of detail I’ve been wondering about every since I got to know some farmers.

And the biggest question I was curious about?  He gets up at 4 am on Saturday mornings.  His wife Tonya gets up an hour earlier, to pack the CSA baskets.  And yet, he was willing to hang out an extra hour with me after the market to share his story.  I have so much respect for the people who grow my food.

Tomorrow I have another interview set up with Lee at Wild Turkey Farms, and then I’ll have three days to whack together a 1,000-word story to intrigue, amuse and hopefully inspire local readership.  I have faith that my mojo will show up by then.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing and Growing

Over the past eight years, one of the reasons I kept resisting Miss Chef’s pleas to find another job was that I didn’t want to turn a pleasure into a chore.  When I was laid off this spring, I spent a month or two looking for another comfortable corporate position, where I could trade my time for a paycheck.  But now I am focusing on this freelance writing gig, learning to sell myself and juggle multiple deadlines.

A few days ago, I began to wonder if I had the dedication to see this through.  At least one afternoon I found myself saying “I don’t want to THINK about food, and I don’t want to WRITE anything!”  I was afraid I’d already hit the point where pushing myself to write had sucked all the fun out of it.  I never imagined I’d be tired of food!

Today, however, I felt like my mojo was coming back.  A few emails from an editor, a few new deadlines, and oh, did I mention there’s a cover story in my future….well, that has gotten me back in my rickety old office chair, typing away.  It feels a lot like my relationship with gardening.  At some point every year, I despair at the thought of forcing myself outside to dig up the bed, figure out a planting scheme and start the whole weed ‘n’ water cycle over.  And every year, without fail, something clicks and I’m running out the door in March, trowel in my gloved hands.

I just hope I can depend on my writing mojo to be so reliable.

On the other hand, this “I’m a food writer” thing has already made me a more interesting person.  Last week Miss Chef and I went to a “Make your own bi bam bap” party at a friend’s house.  The crowd was half chefs and foodies, a few writers, and the rest plain ol’ interesting folk.  The perfect combination of people I knew, some I’d met once or twice before, and fascinating strangers.

One of those fascinating strangers was the bi bam bap (bee bam bop), a Korean comfort food.  You put some rice in a bowl, load up from a selection of seasoned vegetable dishes, a little delicious stir-fried beef if you’re lucky, a fried egg and some gochujang sauce, which is sweet and tart and smoky and a bit spicy…

Bi bam bap (2)

Then you mix that whole mess up and stuff it in your face with chopsticks.

Bi bam bap (3)

And it’s delicious.  My experience would suggest that a glass or two of wine helps enormously with iffy chopstick skills, though it apparently doesn’t do much for your photography skills.

I was feeling good that week, having finished up a freelance writing course I took through our local community college.  The instructor was just what I needed—an experienced freelance writer with a ready if cynical sense of humor, lots of insight into the publishing world, and a very encouraging approach to editing our work.  I learned a lot about constructing stories, communicating with editors and pitching ideas, and I think my writing has improved.  (You might not notice a difference, because I probably will ignore lots of rules here.)  Most of all, it made me more confident about selling my work to some bigger magazines.

Last week was also the first time I had several deadlines for different editors.  Besides my usual weekly blog post, I had two longer stories due for Edible Charlotte, the local edition of a nationwide franchise.  Charlotte’s edition comes out quarterly, and I’ll have two pieces in the September issue.  One of them is a profile of Peter Reinhart, which will impress you no end if you happen to really be into baking.  If you aren’t, well, I’ll just say I leapt at the chance to interview a national figure in the food world.

I’m also moving into doing more print with the local independent paper I’ve been blogging for, including that cover story I mentioned above.  I’ve got the recipe one coming out this week or next, another farmer-centric one in September, and that cover story I mentioned above will be in October.  I won’t say more about that until I’ve got some interviews lined up, but it should be a lot of fun.  So much fun, I’ve already written a draft of the lede (see what I learned there?).

In the meantime, I’m still working a little at a farmers market, putting in some volunteer hours with Friendship Gardens, and of course trying to keep up with my own garden.  Yesterday, after a few weeks of benevolent negligence, I spent an hour or two staking and tying some overenthusiastic growers.

This is an “after” shot, still in the morning shade.

Garden 08 (1)

Right in the middle, you can see the invasive colony of volunteer tomatoes.  The first ones grew up fast enough to cover the arrival of the next batch, and before you know it, I’ve got about ten unasked for tomato plants.  Most of them are cherry tomatoes, but one has surprised me with a couple of regular beefsteak-type fruits.

Garden 08 (4)

That’s oregano in the planter in front, and a marigold on the right.  Once again, I’ve got marigolds overgrowing some of my vegetables, though not as badly as last year.  I did have to pull one up and tie it to a trellis though, which I’ve never heard of before.

By the time I’d finished all my chores, the sunlight was getting harsh, so the rest of these photos are a little hard to see.  But…my squash plant has (knock wood) yet to succumb to last year’s squash vine borers, and though it’s only given me a single (if gorgeous) squash, it continues to flower and grow. 

Garden 08 (7)

I’m not sure if those two little guys in the back will mature or not, but I’ll take whatever it wants to give me.

My mortgage lifter tomato is still hanging on, still ripening. 

Garden 08 (6)

They seem to take forever, but on the plus side, that second one means my $4 tomato might only cost me $2!

I planted cucumbers mostly to donate, and they are my most interesting crop right now.  They’ll be an inch long for a little bit, then grow to two or three inches, and the next thing you know, they’re these whopping big monsters ready to pick.  If I could get more than two at a time, they’d probably make awesome kosher-style pickles.

Garden 08 (2)


Over on the patio, the beautiful planter Miss Chef and I built this spring has been a partial success.  The harsh lighting makes it hard to see, but there’s a cherry tomato plant in the back.

Garden 08 (9)

I got a little overenthusiastic about adding lime, which the hot peppers in front don’t seem to appreciate.  The Sungold cherry tomato, however, is doing well.  Like last year, it’s grown long and lanky all the way to the top of its four-foot high stakes and doubled back down again.  Now it’s growing into the jasmine behind it.  You can see lots of ripe orange fruits on it (thus the name “sungold”), but the dang things keep splitting before I can harvest them.  Rosie’s enjoyed quite a few.

The one plant that’s really been happy here this year is that basil bush right in front of the tomato.  I took that photo a day or two after I’d harvested a ton to make pesto.  And below is the part I’d cut off.

Garden 08

Yeah, imagine that plopped on top of the basil bush in the previous picture.  This is at least the third time we’ve gotten a sizeable harvest off of it.  This time I made 2 1/2 cups of pesto, and I expect I’ll be able to do it again in a couple of weeks.  What’s even better is that I’ve been able to keep the plant from flowering, so the stalks aren’t woody, and the leaves are big and tender.  I feel doubly lucky, since apparently there’s some kind of mildew decimating basil crops all over North Carolina.

Finishing up in the garden, I stooped down to pet McKenna, who’d been following my every move…

Garden 08 (8)

…and I noticed that I could now see all the way down my rocky little path through the garden.

Garden 08 (12)


I thought it was charming.  McKenna thought it was time to go inside for dinner already.

McKenna 08 (4)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

If I Say So Myself

Every day compulsion drives me outside to gaze upon my garden.

Garden 07 (11)

A large part of its charm arises from the minute daily changes, whether it’s green beans one day closer to harvest, or a previously undiscovered cucumber suddenly revealed beneath the foliage.  Today I decided to pull out the last straggling radishes, and make a point to check for weeds.  That’s when I realized I’ve taken an enormous step in garden management.

Here’s a shot from last July’s garden.

garden 07 (3)

Yes, the squash plant has collapsed, but aside from that, the lemon balm has overgrown half the garden, and grass is invading everywhere.

garden 07 (12)


Whereas this year…

Garden 07 (2)

This is the spot from which I just pulled the radishes, and where I’ll be putting something in for fall (not sure yet what…).  Here’s another picture near the middle of the bed.

Garden 07 (7)

I can see one or two unwelcome sprouts, but mostly I see beans, carrots, tomatoes, herbs and marigolds (and a bonus McKenna).  I give a lot of credit to that layer of crushed leaves I mulched with, one of the big lessons I learned this year.  This picture also illustrates some of the head scratching that goes on in the garden.  The bean plant on this side of the path sprouted at least a week before the one behind the path.  Part of the problem was that the front one was overgrown by radishes, but not that much.

Perhaps these guys have something to do with it.

Garden 07 (4)

These are about a half-dozen volunteer tomato plants that I let grow, thinking they were marigolds--the young leaves are similar, and I tried to spread the flowers throughout the bed.  Though these are mostly cherry tomatoes, I’m just as happy to have them, since my one beefsteak tomato plant looks like this.

Garden 07 (5)

Skinny, gangly, with a single fruit.  This will be one of those classic $5 tomatoes we gardeners have all grown at some point.  Wrong place for tomatoes, I guess.

I’ve tentatively concluded that I’m more of a spring gardener.  My peas, broccoli and root crops do well every year.  I just pulled up most of the remaining carrots to donate to Friendship Gardens.  I got four pounds, not a bad haul.  And they were pretty, too.


I’ve donated almost 15 pounds of produce this year, from herbs and radishes to cucumbers and cherry tomatoes.

Now, besides keeping up with the weeds, I have been busy keeping up with deadlines, too.  My writing career is still more of a hobby, but it has been growing steadily.  I’ve had 10 stories published online with a local independent paper, one actually in print (which pays significantly better), and another coming out next month in a special dining section.  That one involved a visit with a photographer to a local farm.  As happens often, the space limits made me chop the experience down to just a few hundred words, so I wrote up a more complete story here, on my other blog.  (If you’re tired of reading about my garden, I strongly suggest you click on over for something much more interesting.) 

I’ve also just been assigned two stories in the local Edible magazine—which pays even better yet.  It’s nowhere near enough to even pay the mortgage, but I’m happy with this progress.  I have two or three more weeks of a journalism class, which will finish up with some pointers about how to pitch a story, after which I plan to start submitting to more publications.  I’ll be in a good position then, with so many published articles to point to.

In the meantime, I’ve got a very part-time, probably temporary job managing a donation station at a local market.  And of course, I’m filling lots of time with volunteer work for Friendship Gardens.  So although I’m mostly unemployed still, I am not bored or lonely.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What I’ve Learned in the Garden This Year


Spring this year heralded the beginning of a surprisingly steep learning curve for me.  We’re only halfway through the main growing season, and yet it’s been such a different experience out there, I feel like I should get it down now.

The first lesson I’ve learned has actually taken a couple of years to sink in.  That is, prepare your garden bed in the fall.  In the late summer, when the bed was getting overgrown with grass, and the harvest was coming to a stuttering halt, I used to neglect my garden out of sheer guilt and leave it to its own devices all winter.  As a result, I’d start out my spring gardening season with such a weedy mess that I often considered quitting the hobby.  Then there was the magic year of the goat poop.  It didn’t take me too long to notice that cleaning and mulching the bed in the fall made for an easier, much more enjoyable planting season in the spring.

Which is closely related to lesson number two: take care of your dirt, and it will take care of you.  I’m a bit ashamed I ignored this for the first 3 or 4 years of gardening.  Even that first addition of goat poop didn’t solve all my problems, but after a second year of adding compost, I have much healthier plants and much prettier, disease- and pest-free harvests.

Along with that good soil, I’ve benefitted this year from a third happy lesson: a little mulch makes a big difference.  Last fall I got very serious about saving fall leaves.  Not only did I mulch the bed for overwintering, but I also stashed away three contractor bags’ worth of crushed, sweet smelling flakes of fall to use during the growing season.  I mulched once when I prepared and planted the bed, a second time after the seedlings had emerged, and again a few weeks ago when the hot, dry weather hit and I could see patches of naked dirt peeking through.  Nature does not like bare soil, and by keeping it covered, I’ve minimized the need to water.  I’ve also had a lot fewer weeds coming up from seeds blowing around the yard.

The newest lesson, and the one I bring up in every gardening conversation this year, is that of companion planting.  I completely changed my planting design, and I like how it’s worked.  I can’t be sure if the drop in pests on my broccoli, or my great crops of carrots and onions were a direct result, but I do know that I’m making better use of my limited space.  Last year I’d guess at least a third of my garden bed went unused after I pulled my spring crops.  This year almost all the gaps I see are being slowly filled by summer plants growing in.

I’m hoping the learning curve continues in the coming months, as I’m planning on trying out a fall garden for the first time.  Now that July is here, it’s time for me to start making decisions about what, when and where I want to plant.  I was going to start with just the planter Miss Chef and I built, but after receiving 50’ of row cover material for my birthday, I might expand my plans into the main bed.  Ambitious!

In conclusion, I’d like to present this year’s garden champion:


That’s a 14 oz onion bulb (397 g for my metric-minded friends), which was donated to Friendship Gardens.  Also, there’s a cat, just for “scale.”

In spite of my best intentions, my new writing “career” and course homework have been stealing time from this blog.  On the other hand, you can see what became of that time by reading my articles here, including my first one in print, an interview with a new local baker. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Excuse My French…

…but I’ve turned into a lazy little shit these days.

Maybe it’s the weather, but I tend to believe it’s my true nature showing through.  Give me essentially unlimited free time, and I will happy fill it with pointless, time-wasting distractions.  For quite a while, I kept myself busy with volunteering, twice-a-week delivery gigs with a local farm, meetings, gardening, errands, and of course lots of internet time.  All of this neatly kept me from serious job hunting.  “Hey, at least I’m bringing some money in,” I told myself as I cashed the small checks from my delivery job.

But, as I knew it would, that job has dried up, and the postponed guilt for wasting time is starting to sneak in.  Have I mentioned that job hunting is my least favorite activity in the world?  At least a visit to the dentist has a definite ending, and it doesn’t usually make you question your worth as a human being.  And, of course, you know where and when to do find your dentist, and you are (hopefully) not only expected, but welcomed.  Not like waving your virtual resume in a stranger’s face, saying “Could you please read this and appreciate how my odd job history has actually given me a unique set of skills I can use to help your business?  Hello?  Was my wording too passive?  Did I use the wrong salutation?  Or is it that my cover letter is trite and meaningless?  Did you even see my cover letter?  Hello?”

All of this is to say, I’ve really been enjoying my summer vacation a bit too much. And while I’ve spent most of today procrastinating on the activities I use to procrastinate with, I did get inspired this afternoon to take a few pictures.  For some reason, I was possessed with the urge to go outside in the ridiculous heat and humidity and wander around the garden in the hottest part of the day.  Surprisingly, it seems mostly unaffected by our weeks-long spell of 90+ degree weather.

Garden 06 (6)

I did water yesterday morning, and I mulched well this spring, so the soil is retaining moisture pretty well.  Still, you can see on the the left where I pulled out a broccoli plant, the top is pretty dry.  I think it may be time to put down the rest of the crushed-leaf mulch I saved from last fall.

I’ve still got plenty of radishes in the ground, but they get so spicy in this heat that I’m letting them flower to attract pollinators.  Besides, they’re quite pretty, in a messy sort of way.

Garden 06 (7b)

The plentiful pollinators wouldn’t hold still long enough to get a decent picture.

Garden 06 (10b)


This cute little visitor did, though!

Garden 06 (21b)


Honestly, I don’t worry too much about pollinators this time of year, because the rose of sharon tree next to the garden is abuzz with insects while it’s in bloom.  The dramatic hibiscus-like flowers draw me in, too.

Garden 06 (13)

Garden 06 (15)


There are other flowers that I find more passionately about, though…like this cheery little cucumber blossom.

Garden 06 (22)


The brown-eyed susans are rocking their annual extravaganza, though my sad little mortgage lifter tomato on the right is mostly stem and sterile flowers.

Garden 06 (19)

Not to fear, Miss Chef’s Cherokee purple is working on some pretty fruits…

Garden 06 (18)


…and the first Sungold cherry tomatoes may well find their way onto a salad tonight!

Garden 06 (3)


And, with that, it’s time to head inside, and let the plants do their whole baking-in-the-sun routine.  I’m gonna go suck in some air conditioning!

Garden 06 (1)