25 March, 2007

A Bibliography for Soils - An Introduction

The following books were used in the development of a recent lecture on soils. And where else should one find a list of books on soil than in a blog called "Earth and Life?" Makes sense to me!

I'll publish an essay on soil soon. I promise.

Dirt, The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, Logan, William Bryant, 1995, Riverhead Books; A series of passionate essays pleading to respect the earth and to rethink how we define ‘dirty.’ I'm not done reading it so I might want to delete it later on, but as of page 53, I love it.

Elements of the Nature and Properties of Soils, Brady, Nyle et al, 2000, Prentice Hall; This is the simple version of the text I had in my soil class. It is really dense and a good reference when you settle in to teach soils, but unless you have a lot of organic chemistry under your belt, it will probably serve you as a door stop more than a book. Still, it is the go-to authority for me when I have to find a less than obvious soil factoid.

Out Of The Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil, Hillel, Daniel. 1991 Free Press; The paperback is published by University of California Press. Not strictly a soils text, I recommend this book very highly. It is a grand overview of how soils shape civilization and how failure to understand and conserve them has resulted in the fall of civilizations – much more than even losing battles! Worth every second you invest in it! Highly Recommended!

Soil Science Simplified, 4th Edition, Dohnke, Helmut et al, 1995, Waveland Press; Just like the title says it is very much a simplification of the concepts and scientific principles of soil. A lot of big scientific words, and not light reading, but still highly recommended.

Teaming with Microbes, A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Lowenfels, Jeff et al, 2006 Timber Press; Look up all the titles in the Timber Press catalog – one of the more important horticultural publishing houses in business today! I wish I had this book when I started gardening – this book presents the latest research on the ecology of the soil. A must read.

The Gardeners’ Guide to Better Soil, Logsdon, Gene, 1975, Rodale Press; The first book to turn me on to soils and a real page turner, although it’s out of print and a real bear to find. Gene Logsdon is brash, outspoken, political and opinionated. He goes on tangential tirades about the price of gas (in 1975!), but, in part because he is brash, outspoken and opinionated, still he pulls off a book that is informative and easily read and digested.

The Soul of Soil; A Guide to Ecological Soil Management, Gershuny, Grace et al, 1986 Gaia Services; This is a small book, only 109 pages including back notes, but is chock full of information about how to care for your soil. The ‘ecological’ in the title cues you to know that it’s a total organic approach. A great text and easy to read. It is, however, mostly directed at farmers and not at gardeners.

14 March, 2007

WHAT TO DO AND WHEN TO DO IT: A Southern California gardening primer

Any of these actions might well be the wrong action if you do not understand your own soil and the microclimate of your garden. My own actions are predicated on the fact that I have a sandy soil, practically devoid of nutrition, on the coast in Sunset’s Zone 24. The first information you must gather on your garden is your soil composition and your Sunset Zone, adjust these recommendations accordingly. Also, I have confined my focus mostly to a vegetable garden. Ornamental and herb plants may not neatly conform to this schedule, but it can be used as a guideline to begin to work with them. Gardeners in pots may also use it as a guideline for Southern California, being especially vigilant about watering when we have warm and windy weather – the Santa Ana winds we experience here, for example, are tough on plants – especially if you are in a canyon.

By the way, this is copyrighted, 2002 by David L. KIng. Please ask for permission before using it.

If you have fruit trees, you need to begin to contemplate their pruning needs. Order a pruning handbook from University of California’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Division (ANR) or purchase a pruning book from a reputable source. This is the dormant season to purchase deciduous fruit trees, apples, apricots, grapes and ornamentals such as roses and wisteria, to name a couple of my favorites. If you are putting perennial herbs in the ground (sage, rosemary and thyme – parsley is a biennial, sorry to say…), this is the best time to put them in the ground – even though you may plant them here year round.) Buy them from a good local nursery to insure you are getting plants that will produce in your neighborhood.

When I prune the deciduous stone fruit trees (including peaches, apricots, plums and apples, on the other hand, citrus, which are evergreen, can be pruned at any time of the year, but they are best pruned when there is nothing better to do and the day is not too warm, so the person doing the work doesn’t overheat), I finish the job by spraying the trees with dormant oil. Of all the pesticides, this pesticide, with it’s low toxicity to mammals and its 100% effectiveness on pests is even listed for organic gardens. There is no reason to miss the opportunity to use it while the tree is dormant. It is a valuable addition to controlling many pests of these kinds of trees. You can even search out an oil made for this purpose that is not a petroleum product being distilled from a vegetable oil. I’ve not used it, but it’s rated as effective. These oils, diluted further than for dormant spraying, can be used on evergreen trees – like citrus – as well with the same benefits. Truly, they are your best bet for insect control on trees and many shrubs, food plants and ornamentals anytime you feel you must use a pesticide.

We have to keep our eyes out for Santa Ana winds – sometimes hot and sometimes cool, but always dry and desiccating to garden plants, and plants in pots suffer all the more. If your skin is crawling, it’s best to get out there with a hose and help your irrigation system keep up – you’ll enjoy your garden more – the “best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow.” Still.

Are you ready to think about summer yet? You mean you never stopped thinking about summer? You mean broccoli and cabbage aren’t your thrill a minute? Now is the time the new seed catalogs come rolling in by the truckload and they all have wonderful photos and mouth-watering, irresistible new varieties that I must try, some call it "vegetable porn" and it's an apt description… and all I have is a 10’ square bed. If you aren’t getting these free catalogs, a quick jaunt through any gardening magazine will net you half a dozen 800 numbers or you can get web addresses from which to order - the catalogs are free (even though a lot of them have a price on the cover, I've never paid for one, and I'd suggest you follow the same thought - I'll post a list of my favorite catalogs one fine day when I've run out of things to do... don't hold your breath though, that shade of blue won't suit you -unless you're a smurf...)

What will it be this year? Eight different sweet peas, half a dozen different lettuce plants? Look at all those tomatoes for sale and how about the dozen different violas from Thompson and Morgan? And if I knock down the neighbor’s garage, I think I could grow some squash and pumpkins….

Valentines Day is my traditional weekend for starting my tomato crop for the coming year. One method is to use fluorescent tubes about 6 inches above the pots for the beginnings of tomatoes – I have also started them outside with a heating mat to keep the soil warm; with enough sun that works well enough. Peppers and eggplant are started about 2 weeks later.

Basil. We must plant more basil. Is there such a thing as enough basil?

And then I think “baseball”. (“Wait until next year”, is the universal call among gardeners and baseball players everywhere.) Spring training in Florida and Arizona starts next month. Win or lose, I’ll be out in my garden soon, radio in hand. Something about that baseball optimism that dovetails nicely with my gardening optimism. You don’t have to “think baseball”, but I do and it lifts my spirit.

With any amount of luck, this is our rainiest month. Hopefully, that means I won’t need to be watering too much. I have permanent built up beds with paths between them, so walking through a wet garden isn’t that big of a deal. If your garden isn’t laid out like that, take care not to walk through your garden when it’s thoroughly soaked. Your footprints will compact the soil and cause needless grief later when the soil has dried out. Especially in clay soil.

February is positively the last month to dormant-prune fruit trees. One cannot plan that they won’t have broken dormancy any later than this. See flowers? That’s “broken dormancy” in a nutshell, the sap is running inside the tree and pruning after that literally drains more of the vitality of the tree – mind you pruning late won’t kill your tree, some folks do this kind of pruning regularly – it’s my preference to do my pruning with the least harm to the tree and for me, that means before the sap begins to run, that means December or January in my climate.

Don’t forget to snail bait. If you have vegetables, make certain you buy only snail bait rated for food plants – Corey’s Snail and Slug Death (sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it?) and a new product only available by mail order called Escar-go! Never underestimate the power of a gardener to be corny beyond all measure and to buy products with names cornier than anything a sane or normal person can come up with. For many years, Corey’s was the only product available for vegetable gardens. It is not safe with children or pets, whereas the Escar-go stuff is. The primary ingredient in Escar-go is a naturally occurring mineral that is, better than just ‘not harmful,’ actually beneficial to most soils.

This is the last reliable month to get winter vegetables (see my carefully prepared list for which ones are “winter” and which veggies are “summer”) in. Although leeks are usually considered a winter vegetable, I have had good luck with them year round – as I have had with fennel. And, for me, those are two vegetables that deserve to be year round.

If I can’t wait for a taste of summer, I can plant a couple of my short rows of Royal Purple Pod beans – this is the only bean variety that will germinate in cooler weather and >>poof<<>
I have been known to set out tomatoes and basil and other summer heat lovers into the garden as early as March. It is, at best, a crap shoot. Some years, luck will side with a gardener and a heat wave will hit settling these plants in nicely – other years it isn’t so. Do you feel lucky today? Or do you have an insider report from the Weather maker, Himself? Herself? If yes, give me a call!

The summer garden is in the little starter pots right now (vaguely reminiscent of training wheels on a bicycle) really begging to be transplanted up to larger pots. The main bean crop can be sown in about now and ambitious gardeners – especially those inland from me – will want to get their tomatoes and cucumbers in. Better time for cucumbers in my book than tomatoes, but, some lucky gardener will beat Mother Nature. After all, isn’t that a big part of what it’s all about?

If you have any fallow beds (any spot where you are not growing an actual crop or plants you want – fallow means “left unplanted”) from now until warmer weather, put in a stand of buckwheat for a couple of weeks. Buckwheat grows quickly and adds lots of good organic matter to your soil when you spade it back into the ground. Sown thickly enough, it smothers weeds. It’s cheap and adds a good deal in the way of tilth (“state of suitability of land to grow crops” – straight from Webster’s to you) to your garden. It is important to keep a high rate of biological activity in the soil. The very critters breaking down this buckwheat will die and their bodies become part of the nutrition your plants will use for their growth. The decomposition of the buckwheat also helps loosen compacted soil by putting larger pieces of material between the minute particles of clay that compose a compacted soil.

How about growing buckwheat or any of the small grains in pots? You can get conversations like this: “What’s that?” “Oh, a pot of Durham wheat – when I harvest it, I’m going to make a macaroni…” If someone actually did that – one would have a whole new appreciation for life before Kraft and automation brought this stuff to our tables by the wheelbarrow full. I have threshed wheat. It’s work of the most grueling order, but, boy, what an experience! Threshing wheat is a good task for hyperactive children. Or teenage boys with overactive hormones.

I am planting from seed, corn, cucumbers (you can set out cucumber plants, but I have learned they dislike being transplanted so much it is faster and more certain to directly sow them, just keep the snails at bay), squash of all kinds – summer, winter, zucchini, acorn, all of them! - (in fact, you could have planted most of them last month, but you are reading ahead aren’t you?) and beans, and setting out plants of basil, tomatoes, and peppers. I am setting out lettuce seedlings and sowing short rows of carrots, beets, radishes and spinach, with an old screen standing by to shield them from too much sun. (It is easier to grow cool season crops in the Summer on the coast than it is to do the reverse and my major goal in life is to grow a complete salad – tomatoes with my lettuce and vice versa! I have an annual tradition of the First BLT of the season, wherein, I’ve grown the T and the L and usually baked my own bread.) It is also effective to plant them in a shadier part of the garden.

Grow any of these in pots as long as you get smaller versions – most nurseries and all the seed companies will help you find plants that will grow in pots – you can even buy tomatoes and cucumbers bred to be in a hanging basket. And while you can grow smaller varieties of sweet corn, it is a wind pollinated crop and it is usually considered important for a gardener to grow a substantial number of plants to get a viable crop. Still, it sure makes a statement – even a small corn stalk is pretty impressive – one could do a Native American theme pot with a couple stalks of corn, a sunflower and pole beans climbing up them. But don’t plan on it for a dinner party!

In addition, you might want to try melons, eggplant and okra, if you have room for melons; and actually like okra and eggplant. Okra needs the most heat of any vegetable under discussion here, put it the hottest corner of your garden. In addition, if your eating plans include borage, chervil, chives, lavender, lemon grass, lovage, marjoram, mint (be certain to get a good culinary one, there are many that are not) Greek oregano (Origanum heracleoticum NOT O. vulgare, big difference in taste and snob appeal), parsley, rosemary, sage and tarragon, you could set these plants out into a border convenient to your kitchen. Or in pots.

This is the 2nd big season for planting perennial crops. And while Fall is better, many people with East Coast or Midwest “roots” simply cannot prune from themselves this “Spring = planting time” mentality. It can be so pervasive that even nurseries themselves often evidence a better selection of some things at this time of year. We live in a part of the country so divorced from manual labor and the soil that such things are not the strangest occurrences that happen horticulturally here. Just to add confusion, a good number of the chain stores have their plant selections made somewhere back east by someone who has no clue that fall is the better season here.
You may also put out deciduous fruit trees and fruiting vines, but they are best planted in Fall (in fact, look there for planting instructions). This however is a good time for citrus to go in as well as kiwi and sapote because they are more tropical and will love the coming heat while they get established. (Even though I am coastal, I wouldn’t plant deciduous fruit trees now because they would be happier planted when cooler weather comes upon us. But then, I can be somewhat fanatical about this stuff too.)

If you are on the Coast, the weather will forgive you for most of your transgressions, if you are more inland, you are cutting your production seriously if you do not have the bulk of your summer plants in the ground. On the coast, if we have a typical summer, you have until the end of the month to get any of the cool season items out of the soil. You should wait until September before you take another crack at cool season. This is the warm season vegetable’s finest hour.

Do all that is listed for May if you haven’t done so yet, but do so with the thought that you’ll need to be more attentive to your plants’ water needs, and if you are inland, the later in the month it gets, the more stress your plants will be under to get their roots established in the ground before really hot weather hits. If you haven’t gotten your slower growing heat lovers in by now, it would serve you better to wait until next year. I’m thinking of some squashes and pumpkins – the big ones. The bigger the squash or pumpkin the longer it takes for them to get ripe; some of these take 100 days to harvest time, check it out, that’s over three whole months!, and will not ripen under anything but the hottest of conditions.

And speaking of hot weather, now is the time to welcome it to our Southern California gardens. This is not the month to do a lot of planting, if you can help it at all. Water is what your garden wants and water is what you should be giving it. Don’t just pour water on your garden without exercising your noggin though! Monitor your soil moisture and apply water as needed – but before plants begin to wilt. Try to water when less will be lost to evaporation – early in the day or late in the day… At night under the full moon…

Check the mulch level this month – making certain it is deep enough to keep roots cool. I might also sow beans and corn and, I might also sow another planting of summer squash if my initial plants have succumbed to mildew, which they often do. I might also set out more pepper or tomato plants. If you desire that foul taste of eggplant, one might set out another plant at this time. But these guys will need extra water (try to plant them in the late afternoon – and try very hard to minimize root damage). The problem with planting now is that the leaves can easily transpirate much more water than the small root system can take up. If these plants have been growing in the same amount of sunlight that they will get in the ground into which they have been transplanted, they stand a much better chance of survival. But wilted leaves the following afternoon suggest the root system is not keeping pace with the lost moisture and unless your little darlings put on enough roots quickly, or you can do some judicious, temporary shading, your crop might not make it to a thriving adulthood.

Side dress those Solanaceae plants at this time with a tomato fertilizer according the package instructions. A “tomato” fertilizer, besides saying so on the label, will have less nitrogen (the first of the three numbers on the package).

Isn’t it nap time? Yes, I’m sure of it…

Anything sown in August is an act of desperation. Those who didn’t get in the ground back in June, now, are the frantic gardeners with the hardest work – and the hottest.

If I am caught up August for me is the time to contemplate the fall and winter garden; I’m in the catalogs already dreaming of my next great adventure in the garden. Under lights – out of the sun – I’ll be starting seeds of broccoli, cabbage, kale, leeks and onions. I’ll plant several different heirloom varieties of sweet peas – maybe some blends of antique varieties, two seeds per pot. I’ll pour boiling water over the seeds the night before and leave them to soak until I actually stick them in their pots. It is amazing to see how much they have swollen from absorbing water because of that treatment. Don’t worry, pouring boiling water on them won’t kill them, the seed coat is too hard. In fact, the seed coat is so impermeable, that’s the reason to use the boiling water. In addition perhaps I’ll plant seeds to grow some new artichokes for the coming year.

This is the time to harvest your produce. Keep the beans picked or they’ll stop producing. Keep using the basil and tomatoes; keeping up with that side of the garden at this point is the big challenge. Pinch the basil’s flowers to keep the plants producing. Try drying some of your produce as well. This can be the hardest work of gardening: finding a home for all the produce before it goes to waste. Share the abundance with friends, relatives or a food bank. Nature isn’t stingy, carry on that grand tradition and share too. We all need a fresh homegrown tomato now and then to remind us how blessed we can really be.

As the Summer crops begin to decline, begin to clear them away and spade their mulch into the ground, this becomes the organic matter (OM ) for the coming crops. In areas where heavy feeders have been planted, I like the luxury of sowing a cover crop. At this time of the year, I like to use the cover crop mix from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. I would sow it with some sort of nitrogen fertilizer – or an all purpose fertilizer – and some of the rock dust, maybe some greensand.

About half-way into the month, hopefully, it becomes cool enough to sow arugula, beets, carrots, lettuce, peas and turnips. My leek and fennel seedlings ought to be ready to transplant out, as should broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, chard, endive, kohlrabi. As September wanes, probably the most productive time in the Southern California potager begins. If you are eating from your garden, now begins the time you can really feast for awhile.

Don’t overlook fava beans which grow best in our cooler winters. Fava beans were the only bean in the Old World before the Americas were discovered; all the other beans are American in origin. (As are tomatoes, most peppers, potatoes and peanuts, among others – one wonders how in the world the Italians and French survived long enough to arrive at a culinary tradition!) The plants make a marvelous addition to any soil building program and the beans, when combined with artichokes, make a Mediterranean stew so delicious that my taste buds flutter just to remember.

To have sweet pea flowers for Christmas, they must be in the ground by the first weekend of September. AND the weather must coooperate by giving us a warm fall, easing us slowly into winter. Otherwise - and this happens frequently - the sweet peas grow with fantastic reserve and lack of enthusiasm and won't flower until sometime in March no matter how hard you plead and implore.

Things for the winter garden are in full swing. Later this month, I might spade my green manure cover crops under after sprinkling in cottonseed meal, about 1 ½ cups per 10 foot square area. It would be my intention to allow this to “mellow” (meaning I want to allow this material to begin to break down into nutrients the plants can use) for about 2 weeks before placing the next crop in. This area could well become home to my heirloom garlic crop, or to onions, leeks, later broccoli or cabbage. The one chard plant set out last month will provide me with enough chard to regret, so there is no succession sowing lined up for that, but everything else benefits by being sowed at intervals; seeds are sown in a bed with a finer soil.

One of the good points about putting in many little plantings of crops is the ability to harvest your vegetables at a smaller size, besides being just the ticket for a garden in pots. Don’t get into the “bigger is better” routine. A huge cauliflower might serve as a great subject in a “look what I grew” contest photo, but the cauliflower you pick at half the size will be the one your tastebuds remember.

A mark of the good gardener is one who has his/her succession sowing down to the science that allows them to place fresh vegetables on the table without lag time or a concentration of over-abundance fluctuating wildly with nothing to eat for intervening weeks. I’m still shooting for it. But at least I know what I’m shooting for!

If I have not done so already, I will make certain I have a good stock of alliums laid in – my garlic, onions, leeks and shallots all have a place in my heart – and stomach – so I plant a lot of them. I put shallots and garlic in pots and I crowd all my roses with garlic. Garlic is a good companion plant because, according to folklore at least, it is good at discouraging insects. I’m not sure this is proven yet, but I think the garlic plant itself is worthy of note and I love having that upright element in pots as well as in ornamental beds.

Water becomes less of a challenge, although a Santa Ana might come flying through and send me scrambling to keep the soil moist around my plants. Mulch. The more the mulch, the less the work. You can mulch pots too – in permanent (more or less) plantings like a rose, caper bush or bay leaf tree, the mulch might be some small decorative stones, but usually, planters mix, fallen leaves, shredded bark, or something along that line is the mulch you’ll want to use.

I’ll be planting more winter crops. If it is a warmer winter, I might side dress my broccoli and cabbage with some cottonseed meal, if cooler, I might side dress with some fish meal, alfalfa meal or an all round vegetable fertilizer. If it is really a cold and rainy winter, I might just skip it altogether. Whatever fertilizing I do, I will do it lightly and more frequently than is done in the summer. Plants that look desperate for nutrients will get fish emulsion, making certain to get liberal amounts of the smelly stuff over the leaves as plants can absorb nutrients that way as well – in fact, in colder conditions, this can be the only alternative to get essential elements into the plant quickly.

Who has time to garden? The days are so short, it’s hard to get out to the garden (although I admit, I have done more gardening by flashlight than I want my mental health provider to know) and the cooler temperatures (we hope), keep plants from growing too fast. I do try to keep up with successive sowings, especially of salad greens, radishes and carrots. I try to sow 3 foot rows frequently rather than longer rows less frequently, unless I am planning on putting a crop up. Pickled beets and pickled beans are among some of my favorite home canned vegetables. And things you don’t readily find in a super market – well, at least not as good as the one’s I do at home.

Besides, there are holiday parties to attend to and a fireplace with a good book is calling my name.


10 March, 2007

The Garden Dog

(This is copyrighted by GreenPrints magazine (http://greenprints.com/), Spring, 2006 - it ran in the edition of that date. It is reproduced here by permission.)

Garden cats get a lot of attention; they’re worth it. Nevertheless, heeding the cats’ contribution to our gardens, should not overshadow the often unmentioned Garden Dog.

I guess having a dog be your garden animal, does depend somewhat on the breed – Old English Sheepdogs, for example, could squash an entire row of lettuce just by laying down for a nap. The Garden Dog has to be considerably smaller.

On the other hand, those yappy little puff balls of fur! Not in my garden! I’m not a fan of a lot of barking. And I’m really not fond of the flighty and nervous. No. A Garden dog would have to be more steady – somewhat just this side of sedate.

And then there’s color. A white garden dog? That’s like a gardener with white carpet – only this would be a carpet that would go to the dirt instead of passively lying in wait for the garden to come to it. A Garden Dog must be dark – the closer to the color of mud, the better. I suppose for folks with red soil, a miniature Irish Setter would be THE very ticket – if it existed.

So… you have “small, steady, dark colored…” Hmm… I’ve got just the specimen. My choice for a Garden Dog is a Scottish Terrier. I just happen to have one right here. Sleeping, of course, because there’s no food nearby at this very moment. Casey, my Garden Dog, isn’t quite black – he’s what they call ‘brindle’ which, to my lexicon, means ‘compost-colored.’ Perfect! And because he can’t seem to stay properly coifed, he invariably strikes me as looking very much like a freshly turned compost pile on legs. They are very short legs, which I suppose serves to support the image as well as the dog.
He keeps snakes away, I say. “In Los Angeles?” I am asked with incredulity. “There are no snakes in LA!” He’s doing a pretty good job, then, if you ask me.

I wish we could arrive at the same kind of security with squirrels or rather, one of that species. There is one who is convinced that this garden is his garden and he would just as soon not share with us. Any way that this squirrel can, he is out to disrupt the quiet of our day. His favorite tactic is to stir up trouble. This means, going for the shortest denominator: Casey.

The squirrel will run down a tree near the patio and entice Casey into barking at him. I don’t like a lot of barking and both animals know it. To Casey I say, “This is a no barking zone!” Casey tries his best to ignore the provocateur, but the squirrel comes closer, finally onto the patio, raising its furry tail and slashing the air with it, like a matador with his red cape in front of a bull. Casey, swallows his barks, whines a little. The squirrel comes closer. Finally in a burst, instinct wins all and Casey charges – the squirrel jumps almost nonchalantly back on the tree just out of Casey’s reach, waving his impressive tail/cape with defiant bravado. Casey, of course, now is barking uncontrollably, until I can figure out some way to divert his attention. I can pick him up and walk to the far end of the garden, but without a distraction, once I set him down, you get the same effect as letting go of a bungee cord – you can almost hear the boy-yoing as Casey heads back to the scene of the crime.

One memorable day last fall, the squirrel was relentless. Maybe rodents get some sort of autumn fever, this one did seem to me to have collected a few too many nuts, I think he might have even gotten into some mushrooms. Time after time, I had gotten the Garden Dog calmed down enough only to have that rabble rouser traipse down the tree to restart the chain of events bringing us back to "animal confrontation-- take six!" kind of a Ground Hog Day movie phenomena. I know, I know. Wrong rodent, but that’s the film’s mistake, not mine. Finally, frayed at all ends, I located my “squirrel gun” – a pistol-shaped hose nozzle with a long range, hard-stream-of-water capacity.

The next bushwhack was the final “one ambush too many” and I let loose, drenching the instigator with one long beautifully executed stream of cold water. I was so relieved that we would soon have calm as I watched the miscreant bound away.

With the ruckus finally abated, I settled down to finish off some work with a nearing deadline. In addition to the one acre garden adjacent to a public school that Casey helps me manage, I occasionally break from garden tasks to attend to my other passion, the writing for which I hope to one day be famous. Or perhaps, at least solvent. In the garden, under the shade of an old pepper tree, there is a patio where I fold out a desk and place my laptop, inhaling the breezes from the Pacific Ocean wafting scents of sweet peas and compost my way. It’s idyllic, bucolic. On most days.

KA-WHACK!!! Right smack dab middle of the forehead, a thing – out of nowhere – hit my pith helmet and rolled away across the patio. “Wow!” exclaimed a neighbor, who had just approached to ask a garden question, “Those high schoolers must have it in for you! And I thought that safari hat was just an affectation!”

With Sherlock Holme’s power of observation, I had already figured out it wasn’t a ‘someone’ and had turned my gaze up into the pepper tree. Three branches up stood the squirrel with what I perceived to be a rather smug and self-satisfied look in his little piercing rodent eyes – humans aren’t the only garden pest we have to fear. He had fastballed a pine cone directly onto my head! Talk about your payback pitch!

Casey sprang into guard dog form and I grabbed the hose again, spraying that uppity varmint good while he took off for parts unknown. Now it wasn’t just the dog who needed to be calmed – I was a little unhinged too. In about 15 minutes, we both had settled, my fearless Garden Dog sitting in my lap while I pounded away on the keyboard, concentrating on my deadline at hand.

Deadline. Oh, what a horrible word! It comes from a prison setting where guards immediately shot the person who wanders over a painted line on the ground. Seeing how many of these I’ve wandered across in my writing career, I can metaphorically, and only metaphorically, thank goodness, present myself as a human equivalent of cheese cloth. There are those editors that fall asleep with a smile when they dream about bringing back the old meaning of the word, I’ve worked with more than a few of them and they deserve more caution than any four-legged, tail waving, pine cone throwing rodent. Surely, by now the little devil had gotten his comeuppance and with order restored, once again the deadline had all my attention as I strove to break my procrastination pattern and beat the this problem once and for all.

Suddenly, Casey jumped up and started barking, so animatedly he fell out of my lap. Looking up, toward the branch of infamy, there was our querulous contender, poised, his right paw in a perfect follow through and a pine cone whistling my way. Ducking the missile, tucking and rolling, wondering how I had come to be up against a squirrel with a better aimed fastball than entire the Dodger relief pitching corps, I came up near the hose again. With the dexterity of a seasoned warrior, I caught my foe mid-rump in mid-jump between the pepper tree and the neighboring pine tree. High in the branches of the pine tree, just beyond range, he whirled about and gave me a parting lecture, the specifics of which were more than literally over my head, but the general import was plenty clear enough for all within earshot.

He’s not been back for a few weeks, but I haven’t stopped marveling at the Shootout at Pine Cone Gulch, as I now call that corner of the patio. And yes, I muse, maybe a Rottweiler could also make a nice garden companion. If they only came in miniature… For now, I'll keep my fearless, if somewhat overmatched, Scottie. Forgive me if I don’t take off my hat. Life here can be dangerous. Even with a Garden Dog.

01 March, 2007

Thanksgiving Potatoes

(This is copyrighted by GreenPrints magazine (http://greenprints.com/), October, 2005 - it ran in their Fall edition. It is reproduced here by permission.)

On Thanksgiving morning, I set to work to fulfill my promise of arriving with mashed potatoes and baked yams for 16. The previous week, my sister had delegated to family members different culinary tasks and when asked to do potatoes and yams, I blithely said, “sure”, even though I had never in my life mashed potatoes for more than two. I was at work and fresh off the phone, I turned to my co-worker and said, “so how many potatoes is that?” and, without ever looking up from her desk, she said, “three potatoes for every 2 guests”. Quickly – and rather intelligently, I might add - I instantly leapt the boundaries of time and space and quantified my family’s Irish heritage and our inherent magnetic attraction to carbohydrates and anything that serves, even remotely, as a platform for butter and concluded I needed 4 potatoes for each person for dinner.

I live in a small house. Maybe I should say a “very” small house. Kitchens, placed as they usually are on the inside of a house, are smaller than the house. I have a very small kitchen. Maybe I should say a “very, very” small kitchen. This was brought forcibly to my attention about two years ago when my sister graciously bought me a pasta/stew pot for Christmas. I had asked for a three quart (+/-) soup pot “just like the one you have”, cute little stainless steel soup pot absolutely perfect to prepare soups and whatnot for two or three people. It’s just me and, sometimes, a girlfriend. One, two or, very rarely, thank God, three people – and I like leftovers only once in a while, somewhere around semi-annually. Using a mathematical equation that seems to have a genetic link, for Christmas I received a 12 quart “Swiss Army Knife” soup pot. Pasta insert, steamer basket, etc. I did not have room for the pot; I didn’t have room for the accessories. It just didn’t fit, and besides, what army was going to come over and help me finish the meal?

OK. So where was I? Oh yes. 4 times 16. That's 64 potatoes to mash. The day before Thanksgiving, carefully weighed, that amounted to almost 18 pounds of potatoes. I dug a few more good looking spuds until I had something that looked very much like a 25 pound sack of potatoes and wondered if I had enough. I've grown potatoes since I was a boy at the side of my beloved grandfather, “Jacob Shannon.” The fork sinking into the earth near each withered plant, hoping not to spear a precious spud underground and yet not getting too much extra soil, is a cellular part of my being. Even at best in a sandy soil, which is not my soil, that qualifies as hard work. However, in anticipation of the coming celebration and my triumphant feats of culinary and horticultural perspicacity, that fork slipped with a tad less effort into the soil and those gorgeous potatoes, with their little mud buttons rose like magic from the cool earth. I was thinking this looked like my ticket to a pretty impressive entrance.

I was going to mash them by hand. I recalled this talent of mine, applied when I used to date a woman who liked mashed potatoes. Imagine my surprise when I found out – early on Thanksgiving morning, - that I don’t even own a potato masher. Then I realized, I was the mashed potato masher; having deemed that making mashed potatoes for two individuals on a rare occasion did not warrant a genuine manufactured potato masher. I had thought to buy one, but had remained satisfied with two knifes held parallel to do the deed. As I began to come to grips with the task at hand, I began to feel my dauntless spirit daunting. Twenty-five pounds of uncooked, unmashed, unbuttered potatoes stared sullenly from the bag. Suddenly I brightened, I could do this task incrementally: I would start with the sweet potatoes!

There were fewer yams to deal with. In the first place, it was a smaller recipe and in the second place sweet potatoes don’t carry the same emotional baggage for my family as do white potatoes, which are often, point of fact, called “Irish potatoes”. The yam recipe called for 8 yams for 6 people, I multiplied that out to 32 yams for 24 people. But in my minds eye, when I saw 32 yams, it took my breath away and I sat staring into space, numbed by the task at hand. I decided whatever gene it took to make folks consume that many yams wasn’t present in our family and I cut the recipe down to 20 yams with another magical mathematical twinkle. Which worked out because when I counted my sweet potato harvest, I only had 24 of them.

So, all those sweet potatoes got scrubbed and offed into a canning pot (the largest of all my pots, reserved for special occasions – it lives in the garage), the heat turned up and I got myself another cup of coffee. The recipe called to cook the sweet potatoes for 20 minutes or so, but I realized that the author had thought I was cooking 8 sweet potatoes and as a consequence, mathematics, such as I understand mathematics, had to be applied to the cooking time as well. Judging by the amount of water in the pot and those huge sweet potatoes peeking out from that water, I figured in 20 minutes the water would just be almost warm, so I hit the timer for an hour and went off to indulge in some overdue reading.

An hour and change later, while the yams cooled, I had come to grips with the operation I was about to undertake on the white spuds, so I started scrubbing the potatoes from the 25 pound stack and putting them into cold water for their turn at the heat. It was a glorious morning and I was getting grateful while I peeled the potatoes – remembering the potatoes I grew in Jacob’s enormous garden in my earlier years. I began to reflect that, compared to those, these were literally pretty small potatoes and I began to have further doubts about whether or not I had enough potatoes, the poundage issue entirely aside. Suddenly, I was reassured by the fact that not everyone invited to dinner was from my family, but that consideration struck me with terror that I hadn’t allowed enough yams. I decided, after several somewhat lengthy, and vaguely convoluted mathematical formulations, to let things fall where they might: I had my 25 pounds of Irish spuds and I had my 20 or so yams – I had drawn my line in the gravy. As it were.

The peeled potatoes were dropped into cold water and Martha Stewart, via her authoritative recipe book, had told me to boil them on high heat for 30 minutes – I know Martha didn’t realize I was doing many, many, more potatoes than the amount in her recipe that I was rather loosely following, so, it was a perfectly rational consideration that I had to add more to her allotted time. Like most rational men, I’m deathly afraid of pissing Martha off. I’ve mentioned it to my therapist several times and, while he doesn’t necessarily say anything, he’s never once called me crazy so I think I’m onto something.

I decided that I couldn’t double the cooking time even though I had doubled the potatoes and water. And since I was going to be in the kitchen working with the sweet potatoes, I simply set the timer for 20% additional time. Lets see: thirty minutes, 10% of which would be 3, double that and you have 6, round up a tad and that’s 40 minutes of potatoes on to boil.

Now back to the yams. I got really good at peeling them quickly if I didn’t really peel them at all. I found that scooping the contents out of the skins worked best--facilitated by my clever, if slightly over done, cooking time formulation. But when I consulted the recipe for the next step I was chagrined to see that I was supposed to layer slices of yam with the sugar and butter. Obviously a change in the recipe was called for and I, as I had been all morning, was up to the moment.

In the back of my mind, my Kitchen Aid mixer had been weaving its way to the forelobes of my brain. The coffee had taken hold and I was, in a word, and possibly the wrong word, inspired. I recalled there was a whisker attachment with which I could use my 5½ quart Kitchen Aid, super amp, indestructible mixer, which, while we’re on the subject, didn’t fit into my little kitchen either – it occupies a rather lonely spot in the wash room until duty called. And now, duty had called: I needed it to mash my potatoes and what a better way to start than by trying it out on the yams?

The recipe called for a quarter cup of brown sugar to be layered with a quarter cup of butter between two rows of half the sweet potatoes. I glopped half my sweet potato mush into the casserole baker and broke in pieces of butter that approximated a little more than quarter cup and sprinkled in something that just slightly exceeded the quarter cup measure of brown sugar. When I glopped the second half of the orange goop into the dish, I intuitively realized that the butter and sugar would melt and simply pool in between the yam mixture, so I scooped part of the yam goop back into the mixer where I added another equal portion of butter and sugar and pulled on the mixer’s motor lever.

Lord only knows if it was a sudden, unfathomable caffeine rush spurting into my brain, or was a very localized earthquake? Was I hit by lightening from a clear blue sky or was there an unconscious, subtle death wish? Does the leaping mathematical gene that blesses/curses my family apply to more of life than simple mathematics? Whatever it was, I don’t understand why my hand yanked that lever all the way forward with one well-buttered move. Somewhere in this mashing process, I had marveled at the glue-like consistency of mashed sweet potatoes and now, as they began to cover the entire, if rather smallish, kitchen, this glue-like consistency suddenly became the absolute focal point of my existence – my finger slipped off the lever, it had to be the butter combined with sheer terror. It was taking longer to shut the machine off than I could stand: I was hitting “fight or flight” mode, now. Mind you, I know the Kitchen Aid comes with a splatter guard, but I never use it because, honestly now, it’s never proven necessary; therefore there was nothing between me, the walls, the floor, Nick, a formerly black Scotty dog, or any other part of the western coastline and that bowl of mashed orange glop. There was nothing but my shear determination to stand there and take it, until I could shut that forsaken machine off; I knew at that moment, I was the only thing blocking these sweet potatoes from world dominance. Fortunately, I found that lever and at last the kitchen became as still as Normandy on November 26.

“Still” being a relative term, you know. Nick, looking out from underneath a layer of butter, brown sugar and orange goo was frozen in kind of a stunned stance, unsure if he was going to run or sit down and eat. Predictably, with the courage for which he is famous, he chose flight. To exit the kitchen, which he proceeded to do with abandon, he had to pass through the biggest mound of mashed yam, most of which, of course adhered to him with remarkable cohesion as he fled for his favorite hiding place, under the bed. The bedroom has white carpet. I leapt into pursuit. “Leapt”, in this case, is a relative term, as well.

All things buttered are slippery. Try it sometime. Find any surface you can conjure. Slather it in butter. Double the recipe and add a tablespoon. Or more. Freely use my understanding of mathematics. Slap that butter on your chosen surface. Now leap. Or try to… Which is what I did, I tried.

As to what happened next, I’m a little fuzzy on the details. I do remember this eerie sense of air rushing by my head, but the thing I really remember is the “yammisized” floor, so my arrival wasn’t a dull thud as it would have been on common days. On this glorious Thanksgiving morning, it was more like sound of a spatula hitting a thick batter. Kind of a mushy thud. Through spattered glasses I could see yam glop in my hair, on my hands and arms.

I sat up. This was one huge mess. Not only was yam glop on me and the floor, it was on the ceiling and the walls, cabinets, the stove – everything within a five foot radius of that mixer. How in God’s name could I show up at Thanksgiving dinner without the promised yams. Despair loomed large on the horizon. I sat on the floor contemplating the humiliation I would suffer at the hands of the folks who arrived with their appointed food projects while I stood on my sister’s stoop with a package of yams from the deli of a supermarket chain. There would be remarks about how guys couldn’t cook and being a bachelor, this could turn into a female field day. The resolve to see this thing through to the end, the bitter end, if need be, rose up from deep in my chest, for the fellowship of manhoodliness, or something like that. Down the hall, Nick burped. He had recovered his senses, and apparently immediately afterwards, his interest in food. He was starting to eat his way back to the kitchen.

If there was no going back, there was no going back. There wasn’t another harvest of potatoes – of either variety – in the garden to dig. I grabbed a spatula. I began to scrape the yam mixture off the counters and the cleaner parts of the floor, after all, my housekeeper had just been here yesterday, how dirty could it possibly be? I put a pie tin under the largest glop on the ceiling, hoping it would just fall down of its own accord. Realizing, of course, – I’m not completely irresponsible--that there might be a slight bit of dust or a hair or something like that in what I was scrapping up, it occurred to me to strain it. I set up the mixing bowl in the sink with the chinois and began to collect the various puddles of yam therein. There was going to be a massive clean up issue later, but that would have to wait – and, yes I did realize the yam mixture was going to dry and harden into an impervious coating that would probably stick better than paint. Yes, quite possibly, I was going to have to try to pass my kitchen walls off as a new faux painting style. The chinois would have fine enough holes to separate any errant grit in the sweet potatoes and I could get on with the potatoes – that is to say the IRISH potatoes. All twenty five well-boiled pounds of them.

The timer had gone off on the potatoes at some point in the yam/mixer adventure. Looking at 25 pounds of boiled white potatoes was more difficult than trying to stare down the judge at my last traffic conviction.

Next time, I thought, I’m signing on for the cranberry sauce or the rolls. Looking at those potatoes, I felt even the turkey must be a better assignment. But, I’m a gamer, which is probably a synonym for ‘slow’ – or as my baseball coach in high school often remarked about my natural baseball talent, “Son, you may not be very good, but you sure are slow…” and made it sound like a compliment, so I rolled up my sleeves.

Here again, Martha’s directions, though quite clear, obviously couldn’t have been written to cover the nuances of my situation. I’m here in the trenches, Ms. Stewart, and not only is my kitchen 14 thousand times smaller than yours, I’ve quadrupled your recipe to account for an army of hungry Irish descendents on a day dedicated, for God’s sakes, to eating more in one meal than a person consumes in the entire summer of the same year. I know for a fact that some obsessive people start diets in August to lose the weight they know they will unavoidably gain in Thanksgiving season.

You recall, probably better than I could at this point, that the recipe had to be altered. And, after my faux pas with the sweet potatoes, which were doing nicely going through the straining process on their own, I was determined to get these alterations right. The problem now apparent was that 25 pounds of boiled potatoes wouldn’t fit into my mixer. So, the recipe had to be divided, probably into thirds, to be able to fit. I decided right off that I was better with four’s than three’s, so I split the recipe into fourths. Fourths work best with cups, however, thirds work best with tablespoons. However, I solved all that quite some time ago by using weight measurements. I put a teaspoon of salt in my hand and carefully considered how much it weighed. Then I added another teaspoon of salt and took note of that. And, after feeling the weight of three teaspoons of salt, which made a tablespoon, I knew then how much weight to deduct, approximately to get fourths out of whatever instructions I might have to follow. In fact, every once in a while, it’s good to refresh that sort of genetic memory – just don’t do it with someone else in the room – if they look at you too wide eyed, it can screw up your kinetic aesthetics.

Potatoes into the mixer. Butter. Much to my disappointment, I had used all the butter I hadn’t taken out of the freezer for the yam episode. I guessed it was just moments like this for which microwaves were invented. Mine is an older one, doesn’t work too well, so I put it on high, and knowing that I’d need several whole packages of butter, I threw the first one in and cranked it up for four minutes. Just wanted to soften it up a bit…

Next on the list was – whoa, Nellie, cream cheese? Who was this Martha woman thinking she was fooling? I honestly didn’t remember seeing “cream cheese” in the instructions when I started and I honestly didn’t see how cream cheese could possibly enhance a potato – with butter, no less. But right there, having fought the yams to a standstill, and having made all these executive types of decisions all day long, I was coming close to the end of my tether. Damn Martha and her cream cheese – after all, the next line was “Crème Fraîche” and what the hell was that anyway? Some sort of French brandy? The recipe called for a quarter pound of butter – which had to be multiplied out by four, how many pounds of butter does that become?, because she was using only 2½ pounds of spuds and I was using 25… and then there’s this 8 ounces of cream cheese followed by a quarter cup of this Crème Fraîche stuff.

I don’t think of myself as anything more than a simple man, with simple tastes and simple desires and I like everything kind of straight forward. This recipe business had begun to weigh on me and as I slumped in the corner of my kitchen wondering what the hell I needed to really – I mean, REALLY – do here, I came down hard on the side of, of, well, I don’t know really which side it was, but I made a decision. Damn the directions: Full speed ahead! I think Admiral Poindexter said that or something very much like that. I closed the recipe book and took into the living room – I didn’t want Martha to see what was going to happen next. Not that I was sure exactly what was going to happen next, but I was absolutely certain that I didn’t want Martha to see it.

First of all, one has to think, what was the result I was trying to achieve? Mashed potatoes. Had anyone in my family ever used Crame Franch? I think not; I doubt any one could have picked it out from a plate of other berries. What had Mom used? Mom used milk. We came from a proud, if somewhat odiferous, heritage of dairy farmers and nothing beats milk like real milk. And so, I was using milk. I could feel Grandpa in heaven looking up from the milking stool, smiling.

Now about the cream cheese: In potatoes? Give me a break! I bet Martha’d dress up the Green Bay Packers in tutus just to make life a little harder than it needed to be. Actually, now that I think about it, I might truly pay to see that. But no cream cheese in my spuds. No sir. Obviously, though, when she had put the cream cheese in, Martha had expected that consistency to be there when the potatoes were mashed. I had to allow for that. What to do? Easy! Add more butter and I jumped to the freezer to get the next package. The bell had just gone off on the microwave and before I opened the door I noticed a somewhat obvious dripping of what looked like butter from the front of the microwave. This was cause to pause. If I was using butter to replace the cream cheese. lets see, 8 ounces is half a pound, which meant 2½ more pounds of butter than the original however many, I was going to need every stick of butter in the house to squeeze by. After all, I had used more butter with the yams than I had planned. The butter dripped down the front of the counter, and I instinctively got a paper towel to wipe it up, but suddenly, there this word again, inspiration struck and I grabbed the sponge.

Worried that the butter might be too hot, I was standing on one foot while trying to fend off Nick, who can smell butter coming his way as good as most dogs can smell a steak dinner and trying to rinse out the sponge. I needed this sponge without any trace of soap and after a few hard squeezes, I figured I had it. Starting with the counter, I mopped up all the butter that sponge would hold and squeezed it free into the mixing bowl. I did this on the front of the cabinets until I had it enough under control to insure Nick wouldn’t get scalded by hot butter, and as I continued to de-butterify my counter top, I began to contemplate the yellow butter pooling in among the potatoes. How many cups was this? Was there going to be anyway to tell? Finally, I had salvaged enough of the butter, to venture at actually opening the microwave door. I thought very hard about holding the microwave over the mixer as I opened the door, but finally decided a saucer would handle the butter.

It didn’t. Nick jumped back as the rolling wave of butter splashed down the cabinet towards him. This time, however, much more astutely, he only pulled back far enough to watch events unfold. He looked, I thought, as though he was pulling on a lobster-eating bib. My sponge went furiously after every drop of butter I could get before finally having to succumb to the inevitable and let Nick have his way.

I arrived at Thanksgiving dinner – my sister allowed how they were a little worried because I was so late. I brought my mashed potatoes, whipped up nice and fluffy, a little yellow looking I thought, but that could have been the effects of my concussion as well, I suppose. I had put them in my camping cooler because I had no bowl large enough to hold 25 pounds of mashed potatoes, about eight pounds of butter, because with all I and they had been through, I wasn’t quite sure how much more I should have added and, as I have unmistakably proven, had tried to error on the side of more rather than less, and milk, the quantity of which totally escapes me – suffice it to say I poured milk in until the bowl of the mixer overflowed, a sure indication in my book, if there ever was one, that I had poured at least enough milk. Packing the potatoes into the camping cooler had the added bonus of having kept the potatoes warm for the drive over. I’ve always been grateful for that two-wheeled dolly that helped me get them into the house.

Yams. Right. The yams. After the straining, I had almost a cereal bowl of yam glop. “Essence of yam” I think my niece called it. But, with all that butter and brown sugar, everyone was overjoyed to put a tablespoon or so on their plate and we all sat down to as fine a Thanksgiving dinner as our family has ever enjoyed. In the month that followed, I had the opportunity to learn 32 new ways to prepare leftover mashed potatoes.

About half way through pumpkin pie though, my nephew looked at me quizzically, and asked, “What’s that in your ear – looks a lot like some sort of yam stuff?” And glory aside, I admit I can’t even look a sweet potato in the eye to this day.