Irish Cheddar-Stout Soup & Brown Bread

•January 29, 2013 • 8 Comments

IMG_6166Even though I’ve not yet had the chance (or funds) to visit Ireland, and though my Irish roots — shrouded in family legend and the murky veils of time and retelling — are at least four generations before me, there’s just something about this time of year that stirs the Irishman in me.

I look out on the bare forest with clumps of snow clinging to the trees, hear the hollowness of the wind sweeping over the hills and suddenly I hear a low whistle and uilleann pipes joining the chorus to mourn the loss of daylight and the desolation of winter. It’s not long, though, before the fiddle breaks in with a swift jig reminding me that spring is just around the corner and nothing good ever came of feeling sorry for yourself.

Today’s simple meal came to me in just that kind of moment — somewhere between the hollow lament of single-digit temperatures and the sizzling rapidity of bow-against-strings that accompanies garden planning in the dead of winter. It so happened to be Wednesday night — our vegetarian night — and I chose to make it Irish: a creamy cheese soup spiked with the rich, tangy flavors of Guinness Extra Stout accompanied by slices of warm, wholesome, oaty brown bread.

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Let’s Talk Ingredients

Mace — Most supermarket spice sections offer at least one or two bottles of mace (the ground, lacy outer coating of nutmeg). While nutmeg is immediately recognizable for its unmistakable scent and color, mace is not as widely used in North America even though they’re from the same plant source. Mace’s flavor is more delicate than nutmeg but I think they make an excellent pair in savory dishes. If you aren’t able to find mace, you can omit it and maybe add just a pinch more nutmeg.

Guinness Extra Stout — While I don’t IMG_6303prefer it as a beverage (sacrilege, I know), Ireland’s heritage brew that’s been around since 1759 is right at home when paired with sharp, Irish cheddar. It adds a sweetness, a roasted flavor, and maybe even a little “bite” that sends this creamy soup over the top. If you can’t find Extra Stout, you could substitute Guinness Draught which will be tasty with a little less hoppy kick.

Dubliner Cheese — A sharp cheddar made in Ireland by Kerrygold, Dubliner is without a doubt one of my favorite cheeses. Apparently I’m not alone in my adoration since many supermarkets now carry it in the fine cheeses case. If you can’t find Dubliner, a sharp white cheddar will substitute just fine, albeit with a lot less Irishness.

Whole Wheat Pastry Flour — When you want the nutrition boost and nutty flavor of whole wheat flour but don’t want to weigh down your soda-leavened breads, Whole Wheat Pastry Flour is a good choice. It’s IMG_6306whole wheat flour that’s been ground extra-fine so your bread can plump right up in the pan. If you can’t find it, you can use regular whole wheat flour or (a new item on store shelves) white whole wheat flour. King Arthur is my favorite flour brand by far.

Steel-Cut Oats — Opening up a can of McCann’s Steel-Cut oats and taking a sniff can actually transport you — a sweet, nutty smell that’s far removed from what’s typically referred to as oatmeal. Steel cut oats — rather being rolled flat for quicker cooking time — are simply the oat grain cut in half, leaving all the oaty goodness (bran, germ, etc.) intact. They’ll give your brown bread a rich nutty flavor plus a little bit of texture. If you can’t find McCann’s brand, Bob’s Red Mill is another common supermarket brand.

Irish Cheddar-Stout Soup
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Serves 6

    1 teaspoon dried thyme
    1 teaspoon dried tarragon
    1 teaspoon dried parsley
    1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    1/8 teaspoon ground mace
    1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
    1 large onion, finely chopped
    1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt – divided
    12 ounces Guinness Extra Stout
    2 3/4 cup vegetable broth
    2 1/4 pounds russet potatoes – peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    2 1/2 cups 2% milk
    1/4 cup all-purpose flour
    5 1/4 ounces Dubliner cheese (or sharp white cheddar)

    In a small bowl or mortar and pestle, combine the thyme, tarragon, parsley, nutmeg and mace; crush with your fingers or grind until thoroughly mixed and no large flakes remain. Set aside.

    Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onions and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened (about 3 minutes). Add the stout, broth, potatoes and half of the dried herb mixture and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer; cook until the potatoes are tender (about 15 minutes). Remove from heat and mash the potatoes using a potato masher until soup is thickened and fairly smooth, but some potato lumps remain.

    In a large measuring cup, whisk together the milk and flour; add to the soup. Stir and bring to a low boil; cook until soup has thickened (3-5 minutes). Remove from heat and add the shredded cheese, stirring until melted. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with additional cheese and the remaining dried herb mixture.

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A rich and creamy cheese soup to warm you on the coldest of winter nights. What could brighten your spirits more? How about a slice of honey-sweetened, oaty Brown Bread? Recipes for brown bread abound — I have several favorite recipes, myself — but this one is by far the easiest to put together. It hails from County Cavan in the north-central part of the Emerald Isle.

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County Cavan Brown Bread
Adapted from The Irish Heritage Cookbook
Serves 12-14

    1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
    1/2 cup quick oats
    1/4 cup steel-cut oats
    1 teaspoon Kosher salt
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1/4 teaspoon baking powder
    2 1/2 tablespoons honey
    1 1/2 cups buttermilk

    Preheat oven to 400-degrees. Lightly oil or butter a 9×5 loaf pan.

    In a large bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, whole wheat pastry flour, quick oats, steel-cut oats, salt, baking soda, and baking powder; whisk together until uniformly combined.

    In a medium bowl, add the honey and gradually stir in the buttermilk to dissolve the honey. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture, pour the milk mixture into the flour mixture; mix just until thoroughly combined. Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan.

    Bake at 400-degrees for 40-45 minutes or until loaf top is a dark golden-brown. Allow to cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes before turning out onto rack to cool.

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After enjoying the soup and a buttered slice of brown bread, we usually have a slice or two more of this bread with some homemade apple butter or pear preserves. This bread can serve double duty: dinner and dessert! As a bonus, it also goes well with breakfast served alongside your eggs.

Winter marches on just outside the window, but gathered around the fire with a bowl of soup and a slice of homemade brown bread, you can’t help but feel that rhythmic undercurrent of the approach of spring stirring in your soul. Sláinte!

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Winter’s Slow-Moving Tale

•January 7, 2013 • 22 Comments

Just before Christmas, 2012, we received quite a helping of snow. Depending on how you feel about snow, news of an approaching storm can affect you in myriad ways. For me, I was delighted. Even though I’ve been a Midwesterner for over seven years, now, snow still excites me. But, my delight was halted once I heard the storm had been given a name (Draco). It was poised to drop not only snow, but wet, heavy snow — the kind which brought our whole world to a screeching halt in March 2012 when snow was falling more than two inches per hour.

Draco arrived in the morning and gathered strength throughout the day. By night, the world became a swirling mass of trees bending to the ground while the ground reached to the sky — wintry vertigo. Draco did bring snow, but he didn’t bring nearly as much as his unnamed predecessor. However, as he was so willing to point out, quality is just as important as quantity. As trees bowed and swayed in the vortex of wind and heavy snow, some eventually snapped, effectively throwing us back into the Dark Ages. Shortly afterward, while sitting in the dark reading by lamplight, it occurred to me that our Christmas Lunch — the one I’d been planning and looking forward to for quite some time — may not happen, this year.

Looking back, I’m ashamed to admit how depressed this made me. Goodness knows, we’re blessed to have electricity — that it’s something we can truly miss when it’s taken away — unlike so many people around the world who have never had it enough to miss it. Besides, as I noted back in March while under the thumb of a blizzard, being temporarily without electricity is oddly peaceful and liberating.

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Still, now that I’m an adult, Christmas is a completely different kind of celebration than it was to me as a child. Now, rather than presents and decorations, the most treasured and enjoyable parts of the holiday season revolve around preparing food and sharing it with the people closest to me. My oven — though not as sparkly as the Christmas tree — is practically the heart of all Christmas celebrations and does not operate without electricity!

In late December, still heading toward the solstice, daylight was fleeting enough as it was. We missed the comfort and glow of electricity perhaps more than usual. On one of those cloudy days during the power outage, James and I took a walk just before evening, to look at the snow and get away from the darkened house for a little while.

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Though I was sulking and a bit angry at winter, I was soon distracted from my funk by the all-encompassing beauty of winter’s mess. There’s a hush that falls over everything when it’s covered with more than a foot of snow — and yet sound travels faster in the cold air. Nature seems fast asleep and yet the slightest color or sound is that much sharper and poignant in winter.

In the few moments of wintry twilight, before night took hold, we were surrounded not by white but periwinkle. The sun was setting over the distant hills and the sky — still full of heavy clouds — was a study in blues and violets rather than grey. The surrounding forest with its shadows and bare limbs holding up heavy loads of snow, the snow-covered hillsides… even the air itself — all was colored in a bluish glow.

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Though I’d like to be able say the joy of being surrounded by all of those colors was enough to completely lift me out of my sunken mood, even my love of all things blue and silvery wasn’t enough to completely elevate my spirits. I was grateful for our little walk that day, and for the brief moment of periwinkle skies, all the same. By the time I’d taken three photos, the colors were gone with hardly a trace left behind, and night had set in. You’ve got to be fast to catch wonder, sometimes.

Holding onto hope that power would be restored, I was not willing to call off our Christmas Lunch. Happily, just before it would’ve been too late and all the grocery stores would’ve been closed for the holiday, the lights suddenly came back on and bathed the house with light. I didn’t jump up and down, but I know my eyes were probably beaming.

Each year, my biggest Christmas wish is to spend the holiday with my beloved and be able to surround us with a festive menu. I was getting my wish, this year, after all.

French-Style Country Bread


Baked Ham with Spiced Cranberry-Orange Glaze



Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Onions & Bacon



Carrot Puree with Hazelnut Tapenade



Zuccotto Cake

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If I’m not mistaken, this might’ve been the very first time I’ve prepared a holiday meal and have been 100% satisfied with the results. An unexpected Christmas gift! In particular, the Zuccotto Cake was tremendously fun to put together and was a mouthful of different, delicious tastes — like a party in every single bite. Raspberries, hazelnuts, toffee bits, whipped cream, chocolate, creme anglaise… soo much to love about this dessert!

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And so, it’s January once again and the holidays are behind us. Much to the chagrin of the ancient Mayans and countless other naysayers, we’ve been granted another fresh, clean year — another chance. What better way to start the year than in sheer gratitude?

Recently, I was awakened from sleep in the middle of the night by moonlight beaming into the bedroom. The moon was not full, in fact it was waning toward its last quarter. Clear nights are a rarity in these parts during winter, so to my eyes it was as though a small sun had traveled across the sky. The deep, white snow all around echoed and amplified the dulcet light of a silver moon shining down from an endless sky of blue and twinkling stars. The shadows of naked trees ran on for miles with no foliage to stop them. In a startling moment of lucidity, I thought to myself, “If only we could all be like snow — reflecting the light all around us so that even in times of darkness it can be like daytime.”

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Winter and its slow-moving tale are only with us for a brief time. Darkness and cold may keep us indoors more than we’d like, but that’s a mere blessing in disguise. While the sun peeks through and turns the sky into a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes and the wind howls just outside the window, what better time to make sketches of what we hope to shape this new year into? Under the snow lies a garden yet to be planted, fruits yet to ripen and amaze us.

Autumn’s Migration

•December 11, 2012 • 4 Comments

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Autumn in Northern Michigan is typically a time of migrations. The summer tourists have all fled for warmer climes by the the end of August, of course, but those who come to marvel briefly at the leaves in October find themselves ushered away by November’s northerly winds following those last remnants of color. Meanwhile, those of us who call this place home have the unique honor of quietly witnessing these migrations and some even grander ones.

The chipper birds of spring and summer pack up their bags and head south while the hardier birds dig in their heels and huddle together in the forest, finding in themselves a willingness to cooperate they sorely lack in times of warmth and plenty. The sun changes its path across the sky — it, too, migrating more toward south. The daylight becomes more fleeting and yet — due to its scarcity — more beautiful.

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The sound of wind rushing over the lake, the calmest of whispers in summertime, becomes a moan of longing… occasionally a shout of might cutting through the layers of your winter clothing, unhindered, right to your soul. All that is great, terrible and beautiful is contained in the singularity of that voice. You can’t help but shiver!

I guess that’s one of the things I love about winter: its harshness, its reality. Before the snow sets in, blanketing the world in white and silver, November gives you a chance to reminisce in autumn while exploring among the ruins of summer.

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We were fortunate enough to be able to host my mom for the month of November. Just before first light on a warm November morning in the Deep South, we stole her away, carrying her back north with us. It was a lovely time to share with her all of these transitions and migrations.

While she was here, we dragged her up and down the dunes — hurrying to stay with the daylight to catch the often fleeting glimpses of winter blue dappled across the silver and grey sky. On one of our excursions, we traveled to the northernmost point of the peninsula at Leelanau State Park and toured the Grand Traverse Lighthouse.

Standing there where the peninsula narrows and gradually sinks beneath the immense blue of the lake was a special treat on such a clear day, the blue of the water and the blue of the sky mingling so closely together.

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The Grand Traverse Lighthouse sits at the tip of Leelanau County where Grand Traverse IMG_5922Bay opens out into the vastness of Lake Michigan. Touring the lighthouse and climbing the tower was a fun adventure. I’m glad mom shook off her fear of heights and followed closely at our heels so she could enjoy the view as much as we were able to.

Inside the lighthouse is an interesting museum which guides you through the living quarters of the light keeper and his family. There was a lovely Christmas Tree in the living room, candle-making supplies at the ready in the kitchen, and a book of Christmas carols sitting open on the stand of the old pump organ.

Later that same day, we also took a walk through the woods in the state park. Being surrounded by the woods in late November’s stark display of wooden sculpture is such a contrast to being shrouded by summer’s cloak of green. With the leaves gone and the sun shining through the forest, the evergreens in the undergrowth and the blue skies above were a beautiful counterpoint to the study in grey and brown before us.

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The trail was carpeted by countless fallen leaves warmed by the sun, sending up the sweet smell of late autumn. Winding up and around the dunes of the Leelanau coastline, the trail beckoned us further through the quiet woods until at last we could hear the voice of the lake again. We sat on the overlook platform for a while, just taking it all in.

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And now, somehow, it’s December already. November passed as swiftly as the ever elusive daylight. Snow has fluttered down until every stark, outstretched branch is softened and brightened by its arrival.IMG_4731 The carpet of brown in the forest is now a puffy blanket of white. Though she left before winter was officially settled in, Mom was able to frolic about in a bit of snow for a short while before heading back south.

Autumn gathered up its belongings as winter was politely unpacking and settling in. In the darkness of early evening, mom was able to relish a few of those quiet evenings by the fire as snow swirled past the windows, muffling out the sounds of a world that resists silence much as a child who is beyond tired fights sleep.

Winter’s first gift is quiet, followed closely (if we’re lucky) by peace. Hopefully, while lost in that quiet peacefulness, we’ll soon find energy to ponder daydreams of a bright and green spring to come.

Gathering Up the Leaves

•October 29, 2012 • 6 Comments

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Staring out the window, this morning, I’m greeted by trees that are nearly bare set against a crisp morning sky of blue and silver. Though it was bursting with color and motion just two weeks ago — the emerald canopy transformed into countless shards of stained glass by the sun — the forest now looks hollow, brittle, and dormant, wearing the face of winter already.

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As promised, autumn has come and gone with great speed, this year. The temperature will flirt with Indian Summer here and there, prompting you to shed that sweater as you gather up the leaves and fling them away to the forest floor. The dried leaves, baking in the golden afternoon sun send IMG_5698up a faint, sweet aroma of tea and spice mixed with earth and decay, sending the mind reeling into the past where autumn tends to take us. And yet, autumn can already be referred to in the past tense.

Amidst all our busyness and travel, James and I were able to get out and enjoy a bit of autumn’s grandeur. Earlier in October, we traveled up to the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula for a fall color tour in Emmet County.

We headed north on Michigan’s famed Tunnel of Trees — a road scarcely larger than a sidewalk — where M-119 traces the coastline heading northward from Harbor Springs, MI. Stopping here and there to take in the scenery, we also stopped in at Pond Hill Farm to admire their massive pumpkin field and beautiful farmland.

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Just inside Emmet County, sitting snugly within Little Traverse Bay, Petoskey boasts scenery to rival New England — especially in autumn. It has a delightful downtown area for leisurely window shopping and a beautiful lakefront park where you can see all the way across the bay to Harbor Springs.

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For a large portion of our trip, the weather was not fully cooperative. In fact, during our brief hike down the Bear River Trail, we witnessed sun, overcast skies, rain, and sleet! Needless to say, when I stopped to snap a photo of a beautiful scene, the light would sometimes change before I could get the photo.

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Autumn has been so fleeting that we’ve had to chase after it, driving near and far to try and outrun the wind and rain that seems determined to blur and wash away the colors like a cold downpour on colorful sidewalk drawings. Thankfully, there were several moments when we found ourselves surrounded by autumn rather clinging to its shirttails.

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On our way home, enduring yet more rain and dreary skies, we took a chance and stopped off in Antrim County to see Deadman’s Hill Overlook. In another of those moments of autumnal serendipity, we reached the overlook just in time for the clouds to briefly part and let in just enough sunlight to illuminate the beautiful colors.

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The immense scale of the overlook, which offers a dramatic, sweeping view of the Jordan River Valley, was nearly impossible for me to capture in photographs. We stood there as long as the weather would allow, taking it in… the quiet of the forest below with more storms moving in from the west.

As sad as I am to see the leaves depart and a swirling eddy of gold and brown dwindling with each passing day the last remnants of autumn, I know that this mystical time between autumn and winter holds a beauty all its own. I hope you’re able to get out and enjoy it while it lasts.

Where September Ends…

•October 1, 2012 • 19 Comments

It began to happen a few weeks before the equinox. The leaves began to change almost over night — changing from green to indescribable colors and combinations. The sunlight changed color, too — and the sky, a different shade of blue. If you never stopped to look, maybe these changes wouldn’t be so striking — the difference between green and gold, aqua and azure. Still, not noticing them doesn’t make them any less real. Autumn is here!

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Ordinarily I’d apologize for making only one post for an entire month. But, seeing as how September was unceremoniously dubbed Canning Month, I will make no apologies! I was not absent for laziness or carelessness. I was busy in the kitchen simmering down summer and ladling it into jars to glisten in the pantry.

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Now that most of the jars have been filled (only apples and pumpkins remaining) and an entire season of heat, sun, soil, and vigor is past, I stare out the kitchen window to see the maples beckoning me to wander outside and just stare for a while.

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The shadows from the early autumn sunlight draw you from your house and into the woods on days like these, as if in a trance. The days are shorter and shorter and you find yourself cherishing them maybe more than usual because of it. Work can wait, autumn won’t! Let’s hit the trail and see it!

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A very dry August (little more than a half inch of rain) we’re told means that fall colors, this year, won’t be quite as vibrant or as lasting. In agreement, some of the aspens and beeches already shed their leaves without so much as a peep of color, tired and worn from the long, dry summer. Better luck next year, I hope. But, we still have the maples and a few other hardwoods to admire in this abbreviated autumn.

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Autumn from top to bottom — the sky, the trees, the leaves… the flowers. I sometimes stare at knapweed and marvel at its tenacity. Its seeds are so inconsequential you might never notice them as they explode and tumble while you tromp through on your way from point A to B and yet each one produces a plant so stubborn and determined that controlling them is more like holding back an invading army.

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Determined and resourceful, knapweed can also taint the soil around its roots so that the seeds of other plants will not IMG_5268germinate so easily while its own seeds will have a sure advantage. Botanists call this sneakiness allelopathy, but I think of it more as over-protective mothering — one plant reaching into the soil to help the plants soon to come. Of course, this isn’t so charitable if you’re any plant other than knapweed!

And so, September has ended, and with it summer. The flowers are fading, busying themselves with making seeds for next year. The fruits are ripening, ushering in one last bit of harvesting. The songbirds are gathering and discussing their journey. The leaves are changing and falling as the forest yawns and sighs in the crisp breeze, preparing for its annual hibernation where its sleep will be as full of dreams as any wakefulness of summer.

Sampling Summer At Last

•September 5, 2012 • 14 Comments

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During those days in mid spring when James and I were toiling away in a wide-eyed rush trying to get the garden ready for planting something — anything — and we were running so depressingly behind schedule, I did not have the fortitude to imagine scenes like the one below (or the one above if I’m honest). The past two weeks have meant a lot of harvesting and canning for us and I’m beginning to struggle to keep up! What you see below is just a typical morning’s haul from the garden — a particularly invigorating one since we finally got an ounce or two of rain after going more than two weeks with nary a drop! I’d like to point out how irritating it is for me, as a gardener, when I hear people going on at length about how weeks without a drop of rain is “such great weather”. Makes me want to tape a “kick me” sign to their back! I went out to the garden, optimistically, with a large bowl to gather what I thought would be a few more tomatoes to add to the batch awaiting the canning pot. Instead, I found myself making two trips to get it all in!

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It wound up being veritable who’s who of the summer garden! In the back row (left to right): pumpkin-shaped Rosso Sicilian Tomatoes, Cream Sausage Tomatoes (the yellow plums), and a few heavy Italian Heirloom Tomatoes. In the middle row (left to right): Opalka Tomatoes (the red plums), yellow-white and green striped Fish Peppers, plump Amish Paste Tomatoes, and some red-ripened Black Hungarian Peppers. Finally, in front (left to right): red-and-green King of the North Peppers, bright and sunny Garden Sunshine Peppers, some cheery Banana Peppers, and a handful of Jalapeno Peppers.

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That Italian Heirloom tomato, above, weighed in at 1.63 pounds — not a world record, but definitely the heaviest tomato I’ve ever grown. And those pictures of chili peppers? Those are two different harvests! We are swimming in chiles, right IMG_5519about now, and I’ve learned the hard way that I should always wear gloves when processing spicy or even “medium” spicy peppers. It’s a long story involving two separate evenings when — for hours after I’d finished in the kitchen — my fingers felt like they were on fire. Trust me, put on some gloves and you won’t be sorry!

I’m not complaining by any means, but I’ve spent many hours already canning up immense batches of tomatoes, tomato sauces, salsa, and pickles of mind-boggling varieties. So, when I keep carrying all of this garden loot into the kitchen, I do so with mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m so happy our garden has had some success even in its first season. On the other hand, each bucketful of tomatoes means a commitment of time and effort in the kitchen to carefully preserve them for later when we’ll need all these tasty, cheerful reminders of summer’s bounty. I’m finding myself looking forward to autumn when my time in the kitchen will be more voluntary and leisurely!

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The garden is a wild place, these days — a mess of vines, tendrils, blossoms, fruits, good bugs, bad bugs, spiders, moles… I am but a visitor there, observing and tending when I’m able. Summer’s pace is not sustainable for us and, thankfully, not for nature either! In its frenzied way, summer can sometimes exhaust me, laughing off my futile efforts to bring a sense of order to even this small bit of square footage. When I finally stop trying, I realize it is an awfully beautiful time to be outside.

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Zinnias are guardians of garden inspiration, I believe — if not for everyone, at least for us. Their blooms last for more than a week in some cases, changing colors, changing shape, never letting on that they’re fading at all. Effortlessly, they make you feel like a master grower when all you really did was plant a seed and stand back. They’re excellent as cut flowers, too, as James (our budding amateur florist) can attest. He made a cutesy, low-profile arrangement to brighten up the table for some recent special guests we were hosting. The zinnias and sunflowers really put on a show!

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I’ve also been delighted to finally see some blooms from the Bachelor’s Buttons and Sea Shell Cosmos popping up around the garden. I’ve been dazzled, as usual, by the cosmos (one of my all-time favorite flowers). This particular variety has a unique shape with tubular petals that thrill the visiting hummingbirds. Meanwhile, we’ve got more than just the common blue Bachelor’s Buttons in the center garden. These are some very exciting colors! So far, I’ve only managed to get pictures of the interesting white ones with colored centers, but there have also been some solid, jewel-like blooms that were cobalt, magenta, and even maroon!

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And, of course, when I’m not busy staring at these cherished flowers or stirring a steaming, simmering cauldron of tomatoes, I’m usually trying to come up with quick and impromptu ways of tasting bits and pieces of summer in the here and now. We had two particularly tasty meals, recently: 1) Garden-Fresh Chicken & Rice (recipe from Cook’s Country) which featured some of our Golden Zucchini, Blue Jade Sweet Corn, and Yellow of Parma Onions; 2) a summery lunch of Whole Wheat Pita Pizzas and a bowl of Corn & Fingerling Potato Chowder (recipe from Cooking Light) featuring our fresh basil, thyme, and Cream Sausage and Opalka tomatoes (we’re still waiting for the first of our Golden Bantam Sweet Corn).

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With the Autumn Beauty sunflowers nearing their peak — delighting goldfinches and starring in table arrangements — we’re now seeing blooms from the giant Mammoth Grey sunflowers. Some of the plants are at least ten feet tall and their blooms are at least twice the diameter of the Autumn Beauties. Even though they don’t have interesting color variations, I love gazing into these blossoms and trying to soak in all of summer’s warmth and light beaming from their cheerful faces.

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IMG_5593We’re officially in that part of summer when it would be easy to believe that summer never ends, that winter is just some distant memory or legend. Yet, even as I stare into the face of a sunflower framed by a sapphire sky and feel the sun beaming down onto my shoulders, I can already see that autumn is on its way. The bees are buzzing about it, the garden is readying itself. If you listen closely, you can hear it approaching in the rustle of leaves high above in the trees. There’s a faint smell of it in the air and I have to admit a secret longing for it even now as summer has taken up residence in the kitchen. Sample summer while you may!

Sunsets on Good Harbor Bay

•August 28, 2012 • 11 Comments

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Summer holds a different meaning for me now than it once did. Living in the Deep South, I very openly dreaded its arrival even though it meant being out of school for over two months. That, of course, was the part of the year that was labeled summer. In truth, summer begins long before June in South Louisiana — arguably sometime around late April, depending on who you ask.

For me, summertime meant intense sunlight that would quickly scorch you back into the shade. It meant mowing grass when the air was heavy with heated moisture — like breathing with a hot, wet blanket over your head while huddled around a vat of boiling water. It meant the ever-present threat of tremendous afternoon thunderstorms when the sky would darken to surprising shades of evening just before ripping apart and drenching everything in a sudden downpour. It meant an onslaught of blood-sucking insects and arachnids to rival Old Testament times. Sometimes just stepping out of the front door and heading to the car meant running while simultaneously slapping your neck and shins alternately (it is a skill I acquired, though I’m glad there is no film footage). In short, summer was a mixed bag of possibilities to be both enjoyed and feared.

When you’re as big a fan of chilly weather as I am, summer will always remain a mixed bag. But, here on the peninsula, surrounded by the waters of Lake Michigan and its many bays, escaping the perils of summer is much easier.

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Not far from home is one of my favorite summer escapes: Good Harbor Bay. There’s nothing like enduring a long, hot day working in the garden or simmering in your own juices in the kitchen and then piling into the car for a quick jaunt to stick your feet into the icy waters of the bay and watch the colorful sunsets and cinematic cloudscapes.

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Walking along the shoreline, your bare feet among the sand, rocks, and thrilling chilly surf… a day, a week — a whole list of worries and troubles are washed away almost instantly. From here, you can see the jagged coast of the peninsula as it meanders on northeastward into the advancing darkness or — glancing across the glassy blue into the northwest — you can see North Manitou Island shrouded in mist, looking as serene and isolated as ever, illuminated by the last few moments of daylight.

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And, best of all, though you may return to the same spot on the sand evening after evening, you’ll never see the same show twice! The sky will have a different story to tell each time. The setting sun and the glistening lake will dance to a different tune.

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On our most recent sunset, the clouds were particularly interesting to me. As we sat on the beach with our feet in the water, the clouds moved in and out of one another, moving ever northward, catching pink and golden rays, making the waters of the lake glow beneath them even though the sun had already disappeared over the dunes to the west. “That one looks like a dove taking flight… and now it looks like a ship…”

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Before you know it, the sun is completely gone and you likely have the beach entirely to yourself. The moon has risen over the sleepy forest behind you and another day of summer has come and gone.

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Summer does mean more to me now than it used to — admittedly it’s because I have winter to compare it to! Daylight is such a fleeting thing in winter that the long, summer days — when evening waltzes in around 10pm — are a welcome bliss.

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A Garden In Motion

•August 21, 2012 • 3 Comments

IMG_5440I think I may have finally figured out why gardening astounds me season after season. Aside from the almost everyday amazing things — pondering how tiny seeds sprout into giant plants, witnessing the life cycles of various creepy insects, observing the slow but methodical progression of spring into summer into autumn — I think gardening surprises me every year because my mind is so limited when it comes to planning and envisioning the microcosm that is a garden. It’s as if — when I’m drawing out the plans and calculating the hard figures — I’m only able to see the garden as a stationary thing. So, when summer arrives and these stick figures on my graphing paper roar into life, I never cease to be surprised by the drama and suspense that unfolds.

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To be honest, since we got such a late start, this year, I was expecting to get few if any flowers of any sort. I’m glad that nature has decided to permanently label me a hopeless pessimist… at least this way I get to be surprised by the colorful bounty! Just look at all these zinnias popping open like fireworks in the summer daylight…

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While the Mammoth Grey sunflowers are still reaching higher and higher into the stratosphere building suspense before opening their immense flower buds, the Autumn Beauty sunflowers have unleashed tons of cheery, sunny blooms for us to enjoy (and for the goldfinches to covet).

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What started as a small trickle of blooms became a steady stream — so many that I allowed James to harvest some blossoms for a few table arrangements when we recently had some very special dinner guests. He gathered the flowers we’d nurtured so carefully in the garden while I went into the wilds to pick a few hardier blooms that had street smarts (Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace, Knapweed). We both had the idea to use some of the persistent Bracken Ferns and Spreading Dogbane as greenery in the arrangements.

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And the poppies! Walking near their row, now, it looks as though a Mardi Gras parade has passed through. The ground is littered with jewel-toned, spent petals while the plants continue to put forth more and more flowers. So far, we’ve had orange, butter, mahogany, gold, and an almost violet-red color I don’t quite know how to describe and have yet to get into a photo!

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Aside from the just plain beautiful surprises in the garden, there’s also the always surprising transition from anticipation mode to harvest mode that always comes of growing things like cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers. You get so accustomed to seeing these infant-like fruits on the vines that when you stumble onto a full grown specimen, it’s IMG_5486almost as though you’d forgotten what the original goal was!

The cucumbers are such work horses that I’ve been frightfully busy making batches of pickles for the past several weeks… yes, even so busy that I’ve not had a free moment to make a single blog entry for the month of August (sorry!). One of our dearest friends happened to be here for the first cucumber wave to arrive and was able to cart several pints of long-awaited Refrigerator Dill Pickles back to Illinois with her — especially fitting because they’re her favorite kind. The vines show no sign of stopping, however, so we’ve also made Bread ‘n Butter Pickles and Dill Pickles. This year, there’s also a new concoction we have yet to name that I created from our cucumbers married with a melange of our spicy chile peppers — they’re our new in-house favorite!

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Another bit of harvesting that recently had me on my feet for the better part of a day was our beloved Red Russian Kale. James and I got up early one morning just before a much-needed rain and harvested every last bit of the kale (you have to harvest greens early in the morning to avoid wilting them). Then, while the thunder crashed and the rain mercifully poured outside the kitchen window, I turned the kitchen into a tumultuous mess of giant pots and bowls, transforming the mounds and mounds of stems and leaves into very orderly 10oz packages of chopped, blanched kale for the freezer — 11 packages in all, not bad for less than a row of kale!

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What do you do with all that kale?! Make mind-blowingly tasty dinners like this Tennessee Pork & Greens recipe from a recent issue of Cook’s Country. The kale is wilted with some garlic and two or three slices of smoky bacon while the pork tenderloin is very lightly seasoned and topped with a sweet and yet savory bourbon sauce. If this were the only recipe I knew for kale, it would still be reason enough to grow kale every year! We’re looking forward to making this again — I might even share the recipe in a later entry, this fall!

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We’re watching as more cantaloupes than we would’ve ever imagined are popping up along the vines. Growing melons is a science we’re fairly new to and the gardening world is full of conflicting advice on the surest path to success. So, we’re especially eager to pick one of these the moment it fully ripens to see if our method (letting the vines do as they wish, not culling any melons, and placing each melon on its own little pedestal for protection) yields tasty fruits. Here are some pictures from the earlier stages of their progress before we put the terra cotta platforms underneath. We have at least a dozen melons, now… some are almost ready!

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As for the rest of the garden, things are progressing at their own pace. We’re hoping against hope that we’ll have mature pumpkins before the frosts begin, but we definitely have some acorn squashes in the bag. The beans are beaning IMG_5444and I’ve decided to harvest them all as dried beans rather than experiment with canning them as green beans, this year. Knowing that the large waves of tomatoes are likely on their way, there’s only so much canning I’m willing to commit myself to at this point! At least as dried beans, I can cook them up in large batches and can them as ready-to-use beans this fall… or even winter at my leisure.

The Golden Zucchini plants have cranked out enough zucchinis that I’ve begun to think of zucchini as a thinly-veiled IMG_5429excuse to bake treats. Throughout the season we’ve been harvesting them as faithfully as we can and using them in various ways. My favorite way, though, is to bake them into clever disguises and freeze the treats for later. So far this summer I’ve made Whole Wheat Zucchini Tea Bread, Zucchini Nut Bread, Zucchini Cookies, Coconut-Zucchini Muffins, and Double-Chocolate Zucchini Bundts.

Lastly, this morning’s harvest was a very exciting one as we harvested from our little patch of Blue Jade Sweet Corn! The plants — most of them not more than two or three feet tall — produce ears that are seldom more than five inches long. The color of the kernels, though, is so striking you don’t mind that the ears are so small. I’ll be sure to let you know how it tastes.

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Weekend Roving: Empire Bluffs Trail (summer)

•August 1, 2012 • 8 Comments

IMG_5176Summertime is, quite possibly, the most magical time to experience Northwest Michigan. The weather’s pleasant if not downright balmy, at times. The fields and meadows are awash in wildflowers of all sorts. The farms and gardens fill up with produce and the summertime table abounds with spectacular colors and flavors. The woods are dark and inviting, beckoning your feet to wander and explore. The bright summer sky turns Lake Michigan into a brilliant sapphire gem.

We enjoy summer for all these reasons, of course, but also because it gives us an even greater excuse to host friends and family passing through on vacation. Anyone who visits us for any length of time will invariably be taken to the Empire Bluffs Trail. In my opinion, if you see no other part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you should hike this short trail and also take a driving tour of the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive — all less than 20 minutes from our house! The National Park Service could not have made it more convenient and nature could not have made it more beautiful!

After hiking only a very short distance, the forest canopy briefly parts to reveal a spectacular view of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. We love taking visitors to this trail, as I said, and it’s usually here that they assume we’ve reached the pinnacle of the sights. But, the trail holds so much more!

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The trail — a jaunting hike of a mere 1.5 miles, roundtrip — is reasonably accessible, though fairly steep and hilly in a few spots. I love the trail’s deceptive way of luring you into the woods and — after only a few twists and turns — launches you up the wooded side of a massive sand dune. Suddenly, the woods retreat, and you’re standing hundreds of feet above the lakeshore — sunbathers and waders, below, appear the size of ants!

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The trail ends with a boardwalk that guides you along the sometimes precarious ledge of the Empire Bluffs. High above the lake on a clear day, it’s beyond words to describe the feeling that comes over you, the hush of the lake whispering below, the winds climbing and descending the surrounding dunes.

Next, we usually pile our guests into the car and take them to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Though my favorite way to see the park is definitely not from inside a vehicle, the scenic drive has an undeniable “one-stop shopping” element that’s handy for guests who are short on time or for visitors to the park who are physically challenged.

While on the drive, one gets the sensation of being on a hike through the woods — especially if you turn off the radio, roll down the windows, and drive slowly. The various stops and points of interest along the drive are interesting and educational, but my favorite stop along the route is the Lake Michigan Overlook.

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Standing there, you feel you’re at the edge of the world with only these grains of sand holding you in place in a universe of blue. Off in the distance you see the meandering peninsula coastline articulating the massive blue expanse and the Manitou Islands beckoning you further still. (Read of our exploration of South Manitou Island here.)

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From a distance, the overlook itself seems to be floating inexplicably above the lake like the Isle of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels. Thank goodness we’re not afraid of heights!

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Just past the Lake Michigan Overlook is the equally magnificent Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook. You are literally surrounded by a panorama of inspiring landscapes! Farms and orchards in the distance, the lakeshore, the dunes, countless inland lakes… sigh. I’ve stood here several times and yet every time it’s as if I’m experiencing it anew.

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In truth, we say we take this tour for the benefit of our guests, but I think James and I merely look for any excuse to be there amongst the dunes. Nature and all its reminders of simplicity, solitude, and silence is something beyond a mere tourist attraction — an experience photographs and words cannot fully encapsulate. Experiencing it requires all of your senses working in concert, gradually clearing out all but what is most essential, leaving space for all of life that is real and yet to be imagined.

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Watching and Waiting in the Garden

•July 25, 2012 • 10 Comments

IMG_5229Nearing the end of July, I’m beginning to notice all sorts of “signs and wonders” in the garden — changes in the plants, signs of their maturity, the ripening of fruits. Admittedly, these changes would be more readily noticeable if I weren’t out there amongst the plants every single morning giving them their necessary drink (anytime you’re ready to take over, Mother Nature, we’re waiting… it’s allll yours!).

When you stare at the same plants day in and day out, you’re able to see the changes so gradually you might forget the beginning of the story — how tiny the seeds were, how quickly or slowly they germinated, their struggles in getting established. If you were to ask me “How’s the garden doing?” I would probably sound less than enthusiastic. In my eyes, the plants have hardly grown and the season is already nearing half over. But reality tells a different story (thankfully).

Even looking at a comparison shot of the garden from a distance is telling! The first photo is a shot from April — early one morning after we’d had quite a bit of frost. Next, our garden just a few days ago.

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So, from bare dirt — filled with rocks, quackgrass rhizomes, and creepy grubs — we’ve now arrived mid-season to a real live garden. I remember walking away from the garden in late May and suddenly turning around to face the plot — my face smeared with mud, my arms covered in no-see-um bites — and saying to James, “I can’t wait to see what this looks like filled with plants. That will make it all worth it.” At that moment, believing there would ever be such a sight — let alone imagining any sort of harvest — took a great deal of faith. What does it say about me as a human being that we’ve obviously arrived at that point and I’m practically blinded to even that slightest bit of success?

We’ve already had the first of a few small harvests…

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These radishes (seeds I received free from Jung’s Seeds) were very quick to germinate and cover their beds producing lots of lush greens and huge roots. Unfortunately, they’re so zesty and spicy we can barely stand to eat them! I guess we’re used to those bland, practically tasteless ones from the grocery store? Whatever the case may be, these will bring tears to your eyes! I’m not sure what we’re going to do with the roots, but the greens I’m planning to add to one of my favorite soup recipes. I’d better hurry, too, because some of the radishes are beginning to bolt in the summer heat.

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Here’s James holding the latest output from our single hill of golden zucchini plants. Is there a difference in taste between green zucchini and golden zucchini? Not really, actually — but aren’t they a pretty color? They do taste like zucchini and are not at all like yellow squashes (even though they do resemble them a bit). We turned the four large ones James is holding here into a very summery pureed soup — a recipe I’ll probably share later this summer. Our first harvest of zucchini, though (a lone, giant zucchini that hid from us) I turned into a batch of our Whole Wheat Zucchini Tea Bread.

Marty’s Garden (our center garden with herbs and flowers) continues to grow and change. We’ve made several cuttings of herbs so far, this season, and some of the slower growing varieties are finally beginning to pay off as well. Meanwhile, the flowers continue to fill in and make for a peaceful space in the center of the busy garden.

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I’m taken by surprise every time a breeze blows through and fills the whole garden with the smell of chamomile. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to grow it in such quantity — and boy is it getting out of hand! We’ve harvested it several times and it just keeps putting out blooms! I’m currently working on a recipe to incorporate some of these sweet-smelling flowers… more on that to come.

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Our tomatoes and peppers are loving this summer heat in spite of the dry weather (thanks in no small part to my daily watering… did I already mention that?). In addition to tons of cheery yellow blossoms, we’re now seeing lots of wee green tomatoes (and some not-so-wee ones too).

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Of course, no garden would be complete without challenges from pests. Our tomatoes and peppers are now being explored by ravenous hornworms. I didn’t notice we’d been invaded until I one day did a double take and saw a giant caterpillar nearly twice the circumference of a tomato stalk just hanging out on a defoliated branch.

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I don’t mind telling you we’ve been quickly smashing these underfoot each time we find one. So far, we’ve found and executed over a dozen… and the carnage continues! Left in the garden, a single hornworm can completely devour a tomato plant in a matter of a few days… unless, of course, he decides to spread the damage out onto several different plants. Fortunately, we enjoy this “Where’s Waldo” like game of “find the hornworm” and our tomato and pepper plants seem to be shrugging off the damage thus far.

How’s the sweet corn coming? In a stunning show of fortitude, the miniature Blue Jade corn is already busy putting out pollen tassels even though the plants (as promised) are only 2-3 feet tall at this point. How heroic!

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As for the big, golden bantam sweet corn, it’s definitely bigger than it was about a month ago, and is thoroughly enjoying the company of the mammoth grey and autumn beauty sunflowers.

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To help with pollination, I planted the corn in staggered rows within the beds and ran the plantings along the northerly side of the garden from east to west in four adjacent beds. I’m hoping this will mean ears full of kernels rather than the spotty cobs you can get from incomplete pollination.

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Our beans are marching along faithfully. The lima beans and cranberry pole beans are taking to their teepees as planned while the bumble bee and bird egg bush beans are growing stocky stems and already putting out blossoms.

Pumpkins, cucumbers, cantaloupes and our squashes are progressing nicely, performing their typical forceful but peaceful invasion of nearby territories. The pumpkins show promise of lots of male and female blossoms to come and we’re eagerly awaiting the baby pumpkins.

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And could it be? Have I finally grown cabbage that forms a head the way I politely ask it to?! If the summer heat and dry weather don’t put a stop to it, this beauty will be soon be tasty colcannon!

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Finally — finally — we’re getting our first poppy blooms. I’ve been eagerly awaiting their arrival. Now, suddenly there are buds everywhere and each day brings a new bloom. Such simple little flowers. I love the color of our first bloom! In another week or so, there should be tons of cosmos and zinnia blossoms to admire, too. Maybe I’ll finally get up the nerve to cut some of blooms and bring them inside to enjoy?

Well, that should have you caught up on how things are going in the garden. I think writing it all down has helped me to come to terms with it too! Each trip to the garden is like a soap opera, action movie, and romance all rolled into one. Is it any wonder so many people get an inexplicable joy from growing their own food?

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