Archive for ‘Barbara’s Posts’

March 10, 2011

The artichokes are up!

by Barbara
seedlings

Calendula, zaatar and onions under the growlight

Every morning in March I head first thing into the basement to turn on the “sun” for the flats of seedlings and newly planted seeds. As  I flip on the tiers of grow lights, I say good morning (yes, I do) and ask how they are doing after the long, dark night.  I look closely to see which seedlings have popped through the soil, which have grown a leaf, which look dry, which haven’t germinated well, which need transplanting.  I relish participating in the full life cycle of a plant, from these first tentative days until the plants have gone to seed.

artichoke-emerges

Sicilian artichoke emerges

I must admit, though, that I am especially excited this morning because the artichokes have pushed their rather large leaftips–even at this stage–through the soil. These are the seeds brought to me by my daughter’s boyfriend, all the way from his mother in a small town in Sicily.  We trade seeds and send one another our jams and dried herbs–her oregano is a revelation. I’m eager to taste the artichokes, the same variety she grows halfway around the world.

But that makes me nervous, too.  Last year I somehow forgot that up here in the north, if you want to grow artichokes from seed in a single season, you have to trick these perennials into thinking that they’re in their second year and thus ready to flower.  Because that’s what we’re after–the flower bud (though Kate lets some of hers go to flower every year because they are dramatically beautiful with their fuzzy chokes turning to sensational purple fuzz).

one gets it right

Artichokes go to flower

To trick them , you must vernalize them–give them six weeks of indoor warmth followed by six weeks of outdoor cold–that’s why I plant them so early.  Otherwise you’ll get what I got last year–fabulously healthy, bushy plants with nary a flower.  Sure they were pretty, but they took up a great deal of room.  Of course, you could just buy year-old plants from the nursery and not have to worry about the vernalizing process.

Once they’re ready for the garden, I’ll choose a sunny spot with rich, well-drained soil.  They will grow tall and bushy, and with any luck, those flower buds will appear in July. We pick them young to eat raw, grated in salads, and grilled, sauteed, used in soups and stews, stuffed, sliced on top of pizza–you name it!  See Eating Well’s Guide to Cooking 20 Vegetables for details on simple tips for baby artichokes. They are not to be missed–and what a thrill to pick your own!

artichoke

Artichoke in the garden

So this year, I’m being careful, and making an entry in my calendar for when they need to move to the cool outdoors: April 14.  I’ll let you know how they turn out!

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March 9, 2011

The Onions Are Growing Fast

by Barbara
early morning onion

Early Season Onion

You can never grow too many onions. No matter how many I grow–and I grow a lot–I always start running out of them by now.  Indeed, I can mark the growing calendar by the number of onions hanging from my rafters, and now it’s telling me to plant some, a lot, many more than last year’s couple hundred!

After all, I use onions in just about every meal I make, from soup to stew to roasted vegetables and meats to the condiments (chutneys, relishes, pickles and jams)–I probably use two-three onions a day on average just for family meals, so 200 hundred onions do not last from final fall harvest to first spring picking.   Eating Well’s Onions -Healthy Food Guide explains why we should be eating onions, and lots of them! I like how they play both the background, foundational note in a sauce or braise, but also how they can play a starring role.  I want to try Eating Well‘s   spicy onion jam recipe and the caramelized onion lasagna and the sweet onion-rhubarb sauce this year–oops, I better plant a few more seeds!

Already they are everywhere in the garden, and through the season in all stages of growth; I stagger the plantings to make sure I have fresh green onions all summer as well as storage varieties to hold us through to spring. They grow in long rows along the edges of raised beds, and tucked by the threes and fours into empty slots of the garden beds.  I grow the little Italian cipollini– both yellow and red varieties–sweet Walla Wallas, white onions, red slicers, Egyptian onions and Welsh.

So far I’ve planted about 100 onions. The four flats of sweet onions seeded on February 22 for early transplanting–onions do fine in cold soil–are growing so fast down under the grow lights that in another couple of weeks they’ll outgrow their space.

That means out through the deep snow I go to shovel off another garden bed and put up another tunnel.  I don’t mind–it’s great exercise and besides, I’ll be chopping tender spring onions into my salads and soups when most people are just planting their gardens!

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March 8, 2011

The Kale Question

by Barbara

frosty kale

I just planted them in unmarked flats under the far, low grow-light, way out of the way. In another few weeks I’ll transplant the hardy, cool-loving seedlings into unobtrusive garden corners, keeping them undercover for as long as possible.  It’s for their own good.

But it’s inevitable.  Sooner or later the kale will be discovered.

busy corner of the garden

kale tucked in between the carrots and collards

This goes on every year. As soon as my husband spots the long, crinkled deep-green leaves, he protests–loudly–claiming he can smell them from the house.  Super-healthy, and to my palate, delicious kale. I particularly love the lacinato variety in Italian dishes, many of which Eating Well shares through its treasure trove of recipes.   He claims that its cabbage-y sharpness offends his very sensibilities; there’s no way he’s going to eat it even if it is among the healthiest foods on earth. Indeed, I could swear that the night before I’m going to pick some, he sneaks into the garden and directs deer and rabbit traffic directly to the innocent plants.

But I’m not giving up.   Kale is incredibly easy to grow, provides visual interest and produces more super-healthy food per plant than almost anything else coming out of a northern garden.  Eating Well gives us all kinds of good reasons to eat kale.

kale patch, early morning

kale patch, early morning

So this year, I’ve got plans for him, to shift his experience of kale: first, I’m sending him the Eating Well article “Retrain Your Taste Buds.” And second, I’m making him some roasted kale chips, which my daughter swears he will love. And then I’m going to tell him that all winter I’ve been lacing his beloved green super juice with kale, and he has not complained once.

With a food this healthy for the spring and fall when few other vegetables are available, I’ll get creative.  And this year, I think I’ve finally found the formula for success, so don’t tell him, but I’ve doubled the number of seedlings growing away in the basement!

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March 8, 2011

It’s Too Early to Hanker After Tomatoes

by Barbara
tomato

Perfection

Blame it on Eating Well Magazine that I just ordered seeds for five more varieties of heirloom tomatoes. That’s on top of the four I already have–and considering that only two of us live here anymore, we’re in danger of serious tomato overload.

at long last summer

Summer Beauties

At this point in the early-yet-but-heading-into planting season I can’t be trusted with  seed catalogs or gardening magazines–my itchy planting fingers, my eyes-bigger-than-my garden appetite are easily seduced into buying more seeds than I need.  Even Kate rolled her eyes yesterday when she saw my seed box.  Mindful of my tendencies, I did my ordering a good month ago and then hid the catalogs. Who knew that an innocent evening curled up with a great cooking magazine would land me in this kind of trouble?  Blame it on the new staff gardens and the “First Harvest” article in the April issue. In the SEED SOURCES box, Tomato Fest lists over 600 varieties of organic and heirloom tomatoes.  Six hundred?!  Just a peek won’t hurt.

I love growing tomatoes — few gardening pleasures compete with harvesting (and then eating) fresh tomatoes from my own plants.  The plants are lovely deep green entanglements dotted by red as the tomatoes ripen.  The plants even smell good, sending out an earthy green scent. They grow well almost anywhere in my garden, though I am careful not to plant them in the same spot in successive years, to give the soil a rest. They grow well (and prettily) in patio pots or in small raised beds. Last summer’s Eating Well article on Amy Goldman and her 500 varieties of heirloom tomatoes sings the considerable gifts of this fruit.  But 500 varieties?!

Every year I grow San Marzano for sundried tomatoes (for pesto and sprinkling in many, many dishes) and tomato sauces, both raw and cooked;  Brandywine for luscious fresh-off-the-vine eating and incredible chutney from fruit that doesn’t ripen; Cherokee Purple for its color and citrusy flavor, plus this year, a few of the Sicilian heart-shaped varietal my daughter’s Sicilian boyfriend brought me from his mother.

into the story

oven-dried tomatoes in olive oil

And of course a single cherry tomato plant. Now that my daughters have left home we can barely keep up with the bounty of one productive plant.  By midsummer those little cherry tomato orbs appear in almost everything we eat, plus small bowls overflowing with them dot empty tables, beckoning snackers at every turn. Sliced tomatoes or caprese salad accompany most dinners.  I have a dehydrator to dry them, and I put up jars of tomato-basil jam as well as chutney. Luckily I have bookmarked recipes to help me get the most out of this year’s harvest, such as  Roasted Tomato-Bread Soup and  Tomato Phyllo Tart–I can use several varieties in both of these preparations–hurrah!

Okay, so I probably shouldn’t have ordered those Black Cherry and Camp Joy cherry tomato seeds this morning.  But at this point in the late winter, when the sun shines bright and warm, but the snow holds on tight to its blanket, I don’t care.  Come summer I will need Italian Heirloom and Italian Tree tomatoes to infuse my Mediterranean-dominated cooking (am I a sucker for anything with Italian in the name?), and Dagma’s Perfection,  a yellow tomato I usually spend far too much on at the farmer’s market when I crave golden gazpacho. And in a couple of weeks, I will get the pleasure of planting those seeds and seeing them pop up and grow tall and full beneath the warm grow-lights.

garden refugees

At the end of the season

But I’ll be good and plant only a couple of each of the new varieties as test runs this summer; share seeds with friends and family, grow extra plants to give away.  If these varieties take to the soil, the sun, the ecosystem here, and we like their flavor,  texture, cooking and storing qualities, I’ll plant them again next year and vow to stay off the Tomato Fest website, and perhaps even out of the April issue of Eating Well if they keep on tempting me like that!

March 8, 2011

Growing Lemongrass in Vermont

by Barbara

Lemongrass tucked behind hot peppers

 

I’m heading down into the basement today to plant lemongrass. Yes, here in Vermont. A dozen plants or so.  And then I’ll come back up to the kitchen and make some delicious lemongrass-coconut chicken soup using broth I made and froze last fall.

I’m never without lemongrass in my kitchen. Although I’m primarily inspired by Mediterranean cuisine, I do need a Southeast Asian fix at least once a week.  As an essential flavor of that region, lemongrass makes its way through many of our meals. I use the light lemony herb  in soups, chicken, fish dishes; in marinades and pastes like Eating Well’s Thai lime and Lemongrass Marinade;  as grilling skewers; in desserts such as lemongrass pots de crème; in tisanes and syrups.  People think I am adventurous in the kitchen; I think I’m sensible by planting my favorite flavors.

When I spot pale stalks in the market going for nearly $20 a pound, I feel rather pleased with myself.  I don’t need to buy lemongrass.  Nope, not even here, halfway across the world from where it originates.  Perhaps it seems all upside down to grow it in Vermont, but then again I also happily grow lavender, eggplants, tomatillos, artichokes, figs  and all manner of vegetables, fruits and herbs not associated with these cold climes. I’m determined to use them,  I want them fresh, and there’s such satisfaction in pulling a stalk of lemongrass out of its grassy clump right before I need it in the kitchen. I’m sure it tastes different from the same plant grown in a Thai garden–our soil and climate conditions make that inevitable–even so, I’ve never tasted store-bought lemongrass that can rival what comes straight from the garden.

Young lemongrass

Lemongrass grows easily as an annual herb, started from seed right about now, or as transplants found at garden centers.  There are two varieties, East Indian and  West Indian; the first is what you get in seed packets, and the second what you buy at the nursery.  Supremely grassy, the Eastern cultivar sends out lots of thin leaf blades.  The stalks do not, in my experience, swell into fat bulbs.  The Western variety seems to grow faster, taller, with much thicker bulbs, the kind you see on green grocers’ shelves.  I grow both kinds–Eastern for infusions and broths, Western for recipes calling for the chopped tender core of the stalk. I love the herb so much that I grow it in patio pots, tuck it into empty corners of the garden beds and all through the grass garden.  It provides visual as well as culinary interest–a double winner!

So here I go to dream of light summer curries and iced lemongrass teas as I plant the seeds and wait a couple of weeks for them to surface.  They take their time, all through the season, but I’ll wait for them, gladly.

March 8, 2011

Planting Juice & Smoothie Beds

by Barbara

Snow piles up and drifts, drifts and piles up–welcome to March in Vermont.  But the thick white blanket doesn’t reveal what’s happening beneath the skin of earth and tree, bush and branch. Sap runs in fits and bursts, buds stir in their pre-swelling-almost-out-of-dormancy state. Kate’s maple syrup pan steams happily away on her woodstove. My grow-lights shelter and warm new seedlings.  My cold storage room and freezer stock dwindles– I’m completely out of some jams and frozen pestos; the chutneys and pickles, the mostardo and mulled fruits are thinning out.  That means I can soon stop eating out of jars and find dinner in the garden.

-garden-after-snow

The Kitchen Garden Before Spring

While I wait for things to come to life, I’ll check the fruit trees for branches to prune, canes in the raspberry beds that need removing. I’ll  set out for the orchard on snowshoes, shovel in tow. In the center of a ring of young fruit trees we have four 16′ X 10′ raised beds–now under a good three feet of snow. I’ll remove the snow over one bed  and put up a grow-tunnel to warm up the soil.

gardendinner

Garden Dinner

I’m planning a “green super-healthy juice” bed, where cucumbers, kale, spinach, broccoli, greens, cilantro and parsley will grow. I’ll be able to go out with my basket and gather the makings for our morning  green juice without moving from one spot!  And nearby is Smoothie Row — red and black currants, gooseberries, raspberries and blackberries; and  apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots and cherries–the making of many an Eating Well healthy smoothie!

It’s amazing what we can grow ourselves–most of us– if we have access to even the smallest bit of land or some patio pots.  I love how Kate has transformed almost her entire small yard into a stunning garden packed with vegetables and herbs, and how urbanites are transforming yards into gardens and saving money. I have friends in the city who grow pots of herbs and salads, peppers and tomatoes on their windowsills much as Eating Well suggests.

When we grow our own food, we invest in our own health, our family’s health and the health of this planet–at least this has been my experience. We connect to the earth’s rhythms and our role caring for its well-being; we participate actively in promoting our family’s health; and we find new pleasure in kitchen creativity.  We can save money.  And hey, we can make up any kind of healthy smoothie flavor combination that stirs our fancy! I can’t wait to try new juice pairings this year–spinach and pear? Kale and apple?  Carrot and black currant? Cilantro and cucumber?

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March 8, 2011

Celebrating Radicchio

by Barbara

radicchio red

In the depths of winter, I’ll succumb to temptation and buy a small burgundy head of chioggia radicchio at our local natural foods cooperative.  I’m shocked at the price of a green that in my experience couldn’t be easier to grow.  Perhaps people think that because of its high price it must be challenging to grow.  Or perhaps they don’t think they like its slightly bitter note when served raw.  Perhaps they’ve never tasted how delicious it is when picked young and grilled or roasted or sautéed.  It asks to be paired with the dark sweetness of balsamic vinegar, and is a revelation grilled and wrapped around fresh mozzarella. What’s more, radicchio adds a lovely bit of color to whatever dish you make.

When I visit Italy, I am wowed by the varieties of radicchio in the green markets: the tall treviso, the nearly scarlet varieties, the chubby balls of maroon chioggia.  The Italians are passionate about this variety of chicory; according to Wikipedia, even back in 77AD Pliny the Elder extolled its virtues.

radicchio

Radicchio newly transplanted

Well, I can’t get enough of the stuff in my kitchen, and so I grow a lot of it.  Radicchio’s a cool weather plant, which ordinarily would mean planting it in late summer here in Vermont and harvesting it in deep fall, but I grow and harvest it from April until November.  Indeed, it’s already growing away down in my basement under grow-lights next to its cousin endive.  By late March it will be about four inches high and ready to go outside under a tunnel if it’s a bitterly cold spring, or out in the open garden if no deep freeze is predicted.  Radicchio doesn’t mind a light frost, and it likes to mature in cool conditions, so I don’t worry about it shivering..  If the temperatures threaten to dip into the low 20s, I’ll slip an old plastic milk jug over each plant to give it just a bit of protection.

On the other hand, during a hot summer it can grow bitter and tough, and so I throw shade netting over it in high heat. Its shallow root system makes it thirsty, so when it’s dry, I’ll give it a drink to prevent it from getting bitter.

To get the most out of a head, I don’t dig up the whole thing at once until it is quite mature–about three months after I plant the seeds. But early on, I start taking a few leaves from several plants at a time, without harming the plant which will continue to tighten its head as it matures.

And so, yes, I treat myself to outrageously expensive radicchio in the winter once or twice in that short period when it is not growing in my house or in the garden.  But now that it’s March I cheer it on when I head down to my basement growing station.  Soon, soon, it will play a starring role on our table.

March 8, 2011

Building Tunnels for Your Garden Beds

by Barbara
tunnels in the orchard

Garden Tunnels in the Orchard

This article first appeared in The Addison Independent, in the fall of 2010. Here’s my husband’s recipe for inexpensive garden tunnels, inspired by Eliot Coleman’s book, Four Season Harvest.

Ingredients

*10-foot-long, half-inch gray electrical conduit
*10-foot-long, 1-inch gray or white electrical conduit
*Rolls of Garden Fabric 12 feet wide minimum (choose the desired weight/transparency)
*Wide-mouth clamps, sledge hammer, saw

Directions (assuming your garden bed is 8 feet wide)

For hoops that are 3 feet tall at the center (typically all you need for the spring):

Cut the 1-inch conduit into one-foot lengths with one end cut at a diagonal to make it easier to pound into the ground. These will be the sleeves into which you slip the half-inch conduit (my secret).

Pound one-foot long sleeves into the ground every 2 feet along both sides of your garden bed.

Cut off the female end of the half-inch conduit and then slip into sleeves so the hoops run perpendicular to your garden bed.

Pull the fabric paper over the hoops and clamp it to the conduit being careful not to tear.

Pepper transplants in spring tunnels

It’s that easy.

For the fall, when you need more height to cover your mature plants, you’ll have to buy some additional 10-foot, half-inch conduit and cut into 5-foot lengths, leaving the female end on this time. Join the 5-foot length to your existing 10-foot length and when you insert this longer piece into the sleeves, you’ll achieve 5 feet of height (you may need to adjust full length of conduit to make sure the fabric paper can cover the new span). Consider changing to a heavier weight garden cover. The remaining 5-foot lengths of conduit will come in handy as posts for lightweight rabbit fencing next year.

March 8, 2011

It Might Be Snowing, But the Garden Stirs

by Barbara
greens

Baby Mesclun in Last Spring's Garden

It has something to do with the light, the quality of it, the height of the sun at midday, the edging toward the  equinox, the headiness of spring-just-around-the-corner. Painters like Kate can finally work deep into the afternoon.  Cyclists start tuning up their bicycles.  Gardeners get itchy. They order their seeds; they prowl the local garden centers, perusing the new varieties and bringing home those lovely seed packets that will stare at them for a couple of months.

But me?  I did that ages ago.  When the seed catalogs fill my snow-covered mailbox in early January, I am so hungry for green that I spend a week planning the gardens.  I order seeds, berry bushes, fruit and nut trees–whatever I need for the coming year.  And so now?  In March?  Do I stare at all those seeds?  Not a chance.

I can’t help myself.  I turn from all that beautiful daylight and head down into the basement to the glow and hum of artificial light- to plant the first seeds of the year: all manner of greens for windowsills and eventually for under the two tunnels out over raised beds that I’ve readied for early inhabitants. Planting while the snow still flies means I can get my hands dirty, smell the sweet soil, and dream of those early salads and spring combinations filled with the bright flavors and rich nutrients of mesclun and lettuces and other early greens right from my own garden.  There’s really no better way to greet spring than with the first baby greens–the variety is amazing these days, as Eating Well points out in the Salad Greens Buyer’s Guide.

Radicchio (Treviso) seedling

The first plants are up and growing steadily; they have their first real leaves–a sign that soon it will be time to transplant them to larger vessels.  Some will live in fat pots in our big bank of south-facing windows, and some will go in small pots under the grow lights for a couple of weeks or so before moving to the garden tunnels as soon as I can be pretty certain the temperatures will not plunge below about 20º.

Early lettuces keep giving for weeks.  By harvesting just the outer leaves, or by snipping all but the bottom inch of the plants, you encourage them to send up new leaves–more salads to come.

Tomorrow, I’ll plant fennel, onions and lavender, lemongrass, parsley, and artichoke seeds sent to me all the way from Sicily.  Who cares if it snows all the way through March–I’ve got plenty of green to keep me heading into deep spring.

March 8, 2011

Seventy Acres of Scrub Farmland

by Barbara

Coyote on the lawn

Some people think my experiment in ecosystem gardening is on the verge of getting out of hand. First it was coyotes on the lawn, bears at the feeder. Then it was turkeys through the garden. Pretty soon the house will become the fields and woods. Heck, I’ve already brought in grapevines, grasses, and wildflowers to decorate the spaces. Next I’ll be inviting the animals in.

Oops—apparently that’s what the wildlife think, too.

Bobcat in the near field

These almost seventy acres are known around here as pretty worthless farmland–for many decades, young heifers were put out here to pasture occasionally, but that’s about it.  We’ve got ledge outcrops and an old quarry, swampy sections and copses threatening to turn entire fields into entanglements of buckthorn.  The neighboring farmer scratches his head in wonderment over our delight in this scruffy overgrown spot. But it’s perfect for practicing ecological gardening and wildlife habitat restoration. Bobcats, fox, coyotes and raptors keep the rabbits and rodent populations in check.  The ponds teem with muskrat, turtles, snakes and the odd beaver plus migrating ducks.  Plenty of deer, field birds, songbirds and wild turkeys.  Ermine and even an opossum that fell asleep on a bale of hay in our barn. Butterflies and bees and insects massing at the wildflowers.

caught

Deep in the garden

Short of throwing out the wildlife, how is it possible to weave an orchard, a nut grove, berry rows and extensive vegetable gardens through this parade of wildlife? By balancing, trying to participate as one inhabitant of a complex, rich ecosystem. I choose varieties of plants that support the wildlife as well as the humans. I make sure almost all the vegetables and herbs–at least some of each crop–go to flower for the bees–our ace pollinators, and to seed for the birds and critters as well.

I do not forage for wild foods–I leave the wild apples, pears, berries, herbs and greens to them–way out in the fields. I can grow my own, close to the house. I plant knowing who is likely to make inroads on what. Sure, the rabbits take off the carrot tops near the end of summer–but that’s okay, I could throw the greens into the juicer, but usually they go into the compost. All I really want are the lovely roots; all the rabbits want are the tops. Brilliant partnership–everything is eaten.

The first season trying out a crop new to me, especially something green and tender, I know I’m taking my chances with the bunnies and deer and insects. I always lose something. Last year it was fenugreek–in a single night, of course the night before I was going to pick it. Who knew that rabbits would develop a passion for something they had never before encountered? It must be their ice cream, their chocolate, their food fantasy. So, I’ll plant it with the lettuces and the chard this coming spring, inside rings of mint which rabbits loathe (read my article on growing mint). Or maybe I’ll make a little netting fence to keep them out. And as for the deer nibbling the kale and Brussel sprouts, the young raspberry canes, the bud ends of young fruits trees, I’ll also be fencing these areas in with a bit of netting during the vulnerable periods.

a-little-big-for-this...

Tukeys at the songbird feeder

The coyote, the bobcat, the owl, the hawks, the snakes all keep tabs on the voles and mice and rabbits that frequent the garden beds. They watch me carefully, stay out of my way, but let me know they’re about. The deer–much shyer than in many places, probably due to our hunting season–haven’t been a big problem close to the house though the wild turkeys find their way to the bird feeders on a daily basis during hard winters. And all that’s okay by me–it’s as it should be: they adapt to my encroachment and I adapt to theirs. They stay as wild as they can considering the proximity of humans, and I give them a wide berth. I do not try to interact with them except through the plantings. This isn’t becoming a petting farm.

I want an effective garden that belongs in this landscape, this ecosystem. That works for it. I don’t need or want a tidy garden with the wildlife kept out. All the inhabitants play a crucial role in the health of this place, of this planet.

But I also don’t want wildlife in the house.

surprise visitor

Ermine in the house

This winter, things got a little out of hand, I’ve got to say. Not only do the animals make their way through the fields and gardens, now some of them are making their way through the house! I expect bees and bats to find their way in by mistake, and mice and mosquitoes, not by mistake–but an ermine?! Yup, that’s right. An ermine got into the house, presumably chasing a mouse, and I found him calmly looking out the window. He left calmly, too, when I opened the door, without waking the two cats asleep on nearby chairs.

Restoring the health of this bit of land is a partnered dance, really, and sometimes we don’t quite know the steps, or get out of sync with one another. I step on the land’s toes (leaving the barn door open and then trapping a phoebe by mistake in the upstairs) and it steps on mine (letting the late blight blow in two years ago). But I’m figuring it out, how to be a good, though not perfect, partner. I’m looking forward to this season’s adventures, the new dance moves–I’ll be practicing my stay-out-of-the-house shuffle for sure.