Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rock: The Good, The Bad and The Heavy


Rock is something we have lot of! I remember in Connecticut we used to call them Connecticut potatoes, but here in Maine, well, it probably is something more akin to Giant Dill Atlantic pumpkins. Don't get discouraged.  Though the frost brings a new crop to the surface each year, you can use them to advantage (sometimes.)

Years ago we took advantage of the past 200 years of farmers in our yard who piled and stacked rock in loosely arranged stone walls. When we put in the medieval herb garden, we dragged rock from the woods and decayed walls. Only the flattest and largest for the pathways, only rock with lichen for the uprights were used. It is amazing what two people and a lever can achieve!

But now I must use what is around for building additional retaining walls. It made me look around our neighborhood and see how others have used the local rock. Sometimes flat, but more than not, roundish and awkward, it is not easy to make a wall. Like a puzzle, but with heavier trials and errors.

I like to vary the color and shape when possible. Some rock is grey granite, and some has a pinker tone. This wall took a surprisingly long time, and is far from great. You can make a great section and then realize you used all the flat ones, and then have only round left, or you used all the pretty lichen covered grey ones in the same section and have only pink left. Sometimes you need to walk away and get some distance- mentally and physically.

At the end of our driveway is a clump of mossy, lichen covered rocks. I swear it was one of the things that sold me on this house. It looked Japanese...beautiful rocks artfully placed in a sea of pea gravel.

To see really beautiful stone, I walked back to our neighbors house (our house was part of that property more than 3/4 of the 150 years they have been standing.) They sit on the same geological formation, but they saved some of the choicest granite blocks for the front wall. I love the toadstool cap on the granite hitching post. Lovely, without being cutesy. The ash tree is also a most spectacular specimen.

Here around the barn foundation, someone with heavy machinery, has stacked some gorgeous granite specimens. This looks stunning but will be out of the question for our walls. It does amaze me that our foundation though has 4 x 6ft granite blocks holding up the house. How did they move those then?

 More humbly, and much more perplexing is our front rock wall. It has been frost heaving and collapsing for many decades,with people just throwing the fallen member back on top...not a well thought out design! I think I will start on the ends of each driveway and try and make something of the chaos..but someday might need more attention.

But I remember what a great friend said to me when I was in my 30's and frantically trying to develop the garden at our house in Redding, CT. She was from Taiwan and had a different frame of reference - she said "you know a garden takes 30 years to make, a lifetime to mature" -which reminds me of when we visited the gardens in Suzhou, China. This garden, Lion's Gate, was only about rock.... it took several generations of owners, over 100's of years, to collect the rock and place it. The rock came from all over Asia.  This helps me get new perspective  when I think things aren't coming along as they should. I will do it one rock wall at a time.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

David Beneman: Garden-to-Table


Here is another post about friends and their gardens. David and Chris Beneman have cultivated their land on the Scarborough marsh for close to 25 years. When he is not being Federal Public Defender for the District of Maine, or on his bike, David is out in the garden. Both Chris and David are great cooks and take vegetable cultivation seriously!


 Here is what he grows: 

"My vegetable gardening dates back about 30 years. I have consistently used raised beds. Our current garden is in Scarborough, near the marsh and so the surrounding soils are wet and heavy.  When I dug the beds I removed all of the soil and put about 2" of coarse sand in the bottom of each bed, then back filled them entirely with organic compost.  The rows are lined with landscape fabric covered with wood chips, designed to minimize weeding. I utilize black plastic mulch for the heat loving plants. The entire garden is surrounded by a 6' fence which has deterred most critters except racoons, who come the night before I plan to pick corn. My solution has been to stop planting corn.

Our choice of vegetables and quantity varies depending on who is living at home. For many years we canned, particularly tomato sauce, salsas, pickles and jams. In the last few years with fewer people at home we have not been canning and have reduced the number of tomato plants considerably. We have dedicated one full bed to asparagus, half green, half purple. We love carrots and grow a full bed, which normally lasts us until sometime in January. Another bed is potatoes, all blue or Adirondack blue, Adirondack red or Red Gold, Yukon Gold and Banana fingerlings. Cole crops seem to attract too many cabbage lopers and I now limit them to Brussel sprouts (one green and one purple, usually from the farmer’s market) and green and purple cabbage.

I buy my tomatoes seedlings at the farmers market so I can easily have a multitude of varieties. We have had great success in recent years with grape and cherry tomatoes in red, orange and yellow. I like Celebrity as a main crop medium slicer and also Jetstar. We have much better success with medium size, rather than “beefstake” varieties. I add a yellow slicer such as Taxi, and several heirlooms like
Brandywine. Roma has consistently been our best cooking tomato, along with Tiptop which can be used fresh or cooked. I buy most of my seeds from Pinetree in New Gloucester.  I like that they are a small Maine company, I get good service, and they sell small packets that are perfect for the home size garden at very reasonable prices, most less than $2 per package. I appreciate Johnny’s and especially their pelleted seeds for carrots and lettuces which improves spacing, but the cost is measurably higher.  Other seeds companies I like are High Mowing in Vermont who have all organic seed, Territorial Seeds in Oregon and locally at Allen Sterling and Lothrop store in Falmouth, a good spot for seed potatoes, onion sets, and bulk peas, as well as tools, wooden plant labels and related supplies.  Cooks looking for specialty seed and willing to pay a small premium should consider John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.

Here are David's favorites for their Maine garden:
-I tend toward bush beans, green, yellow and purple. I am partial to slender “haricots verts” and plant Maxibel (59 days and strong germination). A smaller but early variety is Lynx (53 days). There are now both purple and yellow French beans but I find the purple turn a “camo green” color when cooked and are less appealing. I may try Soleil, a yellow this year (60 days).

Recipe: Saute a medium chopped shallot until translucent, add some chopped chives (including flowers if available), add beans and a touch of white wine to steam, salt and pepper. Remove from heat as soon as beans get a bright green, only a minute or two is steaming is needed, keep them crisp. Garnish with nasturtium flowers.

-Beets are one of our garden favorites. I am particularly fond of Chioggia which feature a red and white pinwheel pattern, and Golden. Both have tops that make nice greens and the beets themselves are flavorful and add wonderful color to an dish. Unlike the more common red beets, neither of these “bleed” so the dish is not dominated by red beet juice.

Favorite way to cook beets: I try and pull the beets at golf ball or smaller size. Peel, slice and saute alone or in any vegetable combination. Saute a small onion or shallot with a diced strip of smoked bacon, add sliced beets, cook until they soften but are still al dente, then add the chopped stems and leaves, wilt and finish with a splash of maple syrup.

-Okra is not a common vegetable in Maine and frozen varieties or poor cooking have given it a bad reputation. Try Red Burgundy (55 days from seed once the soil is warm). The plants and flowers are stunning and the pods are a great color and should be picked at about the size of your pinkie or smaller so they are not woody. Clemson Spineless grow well for green okra.
How to cook okra: I use okra in two primary ways, grilled and chopped in stir fry. We have a stainless steel square “wok” type basket made by Webber for the grill. About $20 at most hardware stores that carry Webber grills. Slice two onions into rings, toss lightly in a bowl with olive oil, seasoning, trimmed okra pods along with cubed eggplant and peppers. Preheat the wok on the grill and then dump the vegetables in, stirring occasionally with tongs. Cook until onions and eggplant are tender, generally about 5-7 minutes on medium heat.

-I plant 6 to 8 types of carrots. I sort the seed packets by maturity date and plant in rows
from earliest to latest to expedite harvest. Early season thinings come from all varieties. Beyond the traditional deep orange, (Napoli, Mokum, Nelson, Sugarsnax, I like to include Cosmic Purple, and Rainbow to give us a range of colors.

Carrots with Ginger: Slice carrots into rounds, steam and finish with grated fresh ginger and curry powder, or with ginger syrup. Keep the carrots crisp by taking them off the heat before they are soft. Ginger syrup is available at specialty stores or can be made at home. To two cups of water add two cups of sugar and about a 6 inch piece of ginger peeled and finely diced. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about an hour. Strain the finished liquid for a clearer syrup. Use half brown sugar for a deeper color and fuller flavor.

-Another garden favorite is Edamame. These are grown very similarly to bush beans. We have good results with Envy (75 days) planting the same as beans once the soil is warm. We steam the pods and toss with just a touch of butter, salt and pepper serving them right in the pods."

Important note: All the wonderful photography in this post taken by the Beneman Family.