Wednesday, May 25, 2011

97 (Potential) Strawberries!

This weekend is it! The seedlings are going in the garden! In order to get things ready, I have been slaving away erecting a fence. After all, just yesterday morning, Gladys the puppy saw her first deer -- two doe grazing not 75 feet from the garden. The point of all the work getting these starters going for the last two months is not to feed a bunch of animals! (You could, in fact, rename this garden "Operation Feed Mark and Ali.") Also, some animal -- maybe a raccoon or fox -- has been trespassing in the raised bed where I planted lettuce, spinach, and mesclun. Most of those, I fear, aren't coming up as a result. So we will have a fence by the weekend -- that's a promise.

In the meantime, there are a few plants already going -- the garlic (planted last fall), peas (planted in April -- same as the greens), and strawberries (perennials). I am most excited right now about the strawberries -- my favorite fruit. At last counting, there are 97 flowers in our strawberry patch (see photo) -- a patch which started as about 10 plants installed just last year. Last year's harvest -- about 10 berries a day for most of the summer -- was a pleasant surprise, and summer 2011 is shaping up to blow last 2010 out of the water. Let's hope so.

In the meantime, if you are looking for me, I'll probably be outside working on the fence.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Every now and then my father brings up the time I mowed his pear tree. When I was about 8 years-old, he, my Uncle John, my sister, and I planted a small orchard -- about 20 apple, plum, cherry, and pear trees -- next to our camp in North Hero. 30 years later, it is a beautiful orchard, but one of the trees didn't make it.

In an unrelated story, I recently received an email from an old friend. Out of touch since we were teenagers, Phillip came across my website and gave me a shout-out to see if I remembered. He wrote, "Do you have a sister named Lisa and a father named Howard? Is your birthday in March? If yes, my birthday is the day before yours, and I used to spend several weeks with you each summer when we were 9, 10, or 11."

Of course I remember. We met Phillip when his father built the North Hero camp, and our families remained good friends ever since -- they even joined us at holidays. Well, until we sort of lost touch -- probably 20 years ago. But good friends remain friends, and it has been great catching up with Phillip via email -- we have talked about our times spent together and filled each other in about where we've been since and where we are now. He lives in Chicago, is divorced with two kids, and has a beautiful red-haired girlfriend. I can't wait to see him in person sometime.

His memories of the times spent with us are fond. And his recall of details is amazing: the double sinks in our old house, the Air Supply song my sister and I loved on the radio one summer, and the time he used all seven Scrabble tiles on one word and got the 50-point bonus. He had one more memory that wasn't as fond. He recalled our ride-on mower and 2-acre lawn. "Once I mowed the grass," he writes, "and accidentally rode over some newly planted tree and destroyed it." He kept it a secret (something he regrets now) because he loved visiting us and was afraid he wouldn't be invited back. I can understand his fear. It's been 30 years that my dad has accused me of mowing that tree!

Well, I want the world to know two things. One, it is great to be back in touch with my friend Phillip. And, two, I didn't mow that tree. It's been 30 years, and I am innocent!

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Right Tool for the Job

When I was 20, I never would have believed that I'd be blogging about planting grass in my backyard. One, they didn't have blogs 20 years ago, and two, why would I have believed that I'd have sunk to writing about such mundane topics?

Well, 20-year-old Mark, the backyard needed grass seed, but have no fear: I'm not blogging about it. Rather, this is a write-up about the tools I used. It's a subtle but important difference.

We already seeded the yard twice. First, using 5-year-old grass seed, we put the seed down and watched 4 straight days of driving rain wash it all away. Later, using the same 5-year-old grass seed, we sprinkled it on the areas in need, covered them with straw, and watched absolutely nothing happen. Clearly, the seed was past its usefulness. So I went to the store for more, and the guy recommended breaking up the soil in addition to covering it up with straw. So I raked up the straw and went about breaking up the hard-pack topsoil.

With a shovel -- which made for slow, tedious work. What I really needed, I realized, was an aerator -- one of those spiked rollers that would really break things up with much less effort. For some reason, I poked my head inside our tool shed... and low and behold, hanging on the wall was an aerator (pictured above)!

Where did it come from? I certainly never had one. Could it be that when I married the lovely Alison two and a half years ago I unknowingly married a girl who owned an aerator? However it came to being, it made the job much more pleasant -- and quicker. The soil is broken up, the seed spread, and the hay scattered. And Alison informed me that when her neighbor moved away 5 years ago, her roommate at the time pulled the aerator -- along with our clothes-drying rack -- out of his dumpster.

Really? The neighbor's dumpster? We use the drying rack all the time, but I never knew it came as the result of dumpster-diving. And, as for the aerator, it only took 5 years, but we finally used it too.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Small Town Government

Wanting to be involved in my town, I attended a Richmond selectboard meeting last night. It was government in action, a slice of Americana, citizens and residents looking out for their home. It was also pretty darn entertaining.

Most of the entertainment value came from one disgruntled resident who was sitting behind me. I have experienced her in town before -- she has always been exceedingly rude -- and I am very pleased to discover that it wasn't just me she doesn't like. She doesn't much care for the members of the Select Board either! The chairman of the board had to interrupt her during her 4 or 5 outbursts. She used to be on the board, but was removed in the last election. She has definitely taken on the role of "Member at Large" since her ouster.

During the meeting, I watched them listen to a report from the school board, take away my favorite parking spot in front of our grocery store (they're worried, apparently that I might run over a kid walking by -- probably a legitimate concern given the unsafety of the spot), delay a decision on a private canoe rental company, and outlaw the tasting of wine samples at our community farmers market. Doesn't sound very interesting? I assure you that the human interactions, outbursts from the angry lady, side conversations, and the back-and-forth discussions were better than anything that was on TV last night (bear in mind that the Celtics have been eliminated and the Bruins weren't on till tonight).

Besides, it's my town -- and that made everything that happened at the meeting very interesting to me.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Letter to April Frost

Dear April,

Thank you for the “Think Like a Dog” program you held at your home on May 7. Even though you started right out by telling me that my dog’s misbehavior was my fault not his, I didn’t take this the wrong way. I feel I deserve some credit for taking this the right way and not being offended; on the other hand, you did explain exactly why this is the truth -- and you are right.

Your demos were expert, but you taught me what I need to know to train my dogs. And you didn’t just “tell”; throughout the program, the practice sessions were helpful and confidence-building. I want you to know that we have taken what we learned on Saturday, and we have been practicing and training all week.

And we have already noticed changes – not the least of which is that we are a happier family. Our dogs want to behave, and they have just been waiting for us to learn how to communicate to them how they are supposed to act.

Thank you for teaching us!

April Frost owns Animal Visions Holistic Center for Animals and Humans

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Rock Star...

...I'm not, but what I am is playing at the Open Mike at On the Rise Bakery in Richmond. This Thursday, 7:30PM. The pizza's good, the music fun... and everyone who's anyone in Richmond will be there. Don't miss out!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ahh, Spring Rolls!

Spring is here, which means the April issue of EatingWell magazine has been out for weeks and weeks. And besides the usual interesting articles, the well-researched features, and the scores of great original recipes, this April’s issue had something else: a contribution by me! That's right -- I did some photo captions and a small write-up about everyone’s favorite spring vegetable, asparagus.

EW is a funny place, because they always have to think seasons ahead. The magazine is focused on fresh food in-season, but if you ever visit their headquarters, there’s something amiss. You don’t put your finger on it immediately, but eventually you figure it out. In order to get season-specific recipes in each issues, they are barbecuing in February and March, they’re slow-cooking stews in June, and they are testing holiday cookies in September. So we did this asparagus project back in January.

When I first saw the layout for the asparagus piece, the photos of the salmon-and-asparagus spring rolls really jumped out at me. In fact, I made a mental note that I would make them as soon as the asparagus came up. Of course, that was months ago, and I almost forgot. Until, shopping the other day, I came across shelves of asparagus. Instantly everything came back.

The rice paper was a little difficult to handle (which is why my rolls in the photo look like they do and not like the ones in the photo that came out of the test kitchen -- well, that and the fact that this is ME we're talking about and not the experts in the test kitchen!); I actually found lukewarm water to be more effective than the “very” hot that the magazine recommends . Maybe, since they tested in the dead of winter, they just wanted everything hot. Also, I substituted sweet potatoes (which I needed to use up) for carrots (which I didn’t have.) Besides, since they’re the same color, who would know the difference?

My favorite things about the spring rolls were the dipping sauce (soy sauce, orange juice, lemon juice, and crushed red pepper) and the asparagus that had just the right crunch, and wasn’t all chewy from being overcooked like the way I usually do it. These spring rolls were just a riot of different flavors -- that all went together well. Besides, I always like colorful food -- and this one had the bright green of asparagus in spring, pink, orange, and red. As I wrote for the EW blurb, Ahh, spring rolls!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Raspberry Patch

"Although I have at different times grown, with more or less success, nearly all species of hardy bush fruits, I have always been partial to the red raspberry."
-- George Aiken

Two years ago, my uncle David Aiken dropped 7 or 8 raspberry plants on my porch. "For your garden," he said. At the time, we didn't have much of a garden; just a 10x20 foot plot over which I had run the tiller and constructed three cedar beds. Along the western edge, we sunk the berry bushes in the clay.

Since then, the garden has grown, and so have the berries. Each year, we have reclaimed more of the field of goldenrod that surrounds our garden, so that it is twice the size we started with. And, not wanting a berry patch right in the dead center of a vegetable garden, last weekend we dug them up and moved them -- about 25 bushes in all.

A few things to note. First, Uncle David warns me that we will be forever digging up raspberries from the original patch location. "Unless you think you got all the runners," he says, meaning "there's no way you got all the runners." Okay, I can live with that. When it comes to gardening, I generally don't like to do things right the first time anyway. Second, the new patch location is near the edge of our lawn. Another life goal nearer to accomplished: to minimize my time spent cutting grass! If David, as he promised, shows up with blackberry bushes, we'll dig up even more of the lawn and insert them.

Finally, my great grandfather George wrote that history does repeat itself. I'm not saying I'm nearly the farmer he was, but I will say that these plants descend from his berry patch in Putney, Vermont.** I don't have his green thumb, but we are, in fact, growing food at my home and putting it on the table to eat. And it's not just rewarding to keep that legacy alive; it's a lot of fun too.

**Important note: when the original berry patch was planted, one of the plants came from Sue McKain's yard in Connecticut. Does this mean the Aiken strain in my patch isn't completely pure? If yes, that's fine by me; in fact, I prefer a hybrid anyway.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Utah Where Have You Been?

This post is quite delayed; the goings-on that follow occurred a month ago! But I just can't change seasons without mentioning the past winter's crowning runs. We arrived in Utah for the 600th inch of their record-breaking year.

The suspects were the usual: David, Jill, Howard, Chris, Bob, Sue, me, John, Lisa, Ali, Em, and Jack (I believe these are in order by age). Also making appearances throughout the week were Glenn, Michelle, Kurt, and Kurt (no order here). Not much was happening weather-wise when we arrived, but the next morning, the "Stay-inside-or-else" chain was across the condo door so they could do control work on 14-20 new inches of snow. The first few days continued that way as we took turns skiing Alta and Snowbird. I took a day off in there somewhere to run 19 miles in Salt Lake City and on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail at the foot of the Wasatch. (And no, I can not explain how running 19 miles constitutes a "day off.")

The snow hit again towards the end, and Johnny and I met Colchester native Kurt Sowles for a backcountry day in Big Cottonwood Canyon and my best (and snowiest) turns of the year. What runs!

The week was full of great snow, great company, great food, hotly contested Jenga and Spot It games, and plenty of beer-(and wine)-drinking.

I couldn't believe it when the week was up. One thing is certain, though: I could live in Utah. (Wait a minute, I have lived in Utah!) Well, put it this way then: I feel the same way as Emily. From her note to Jill and Howard: "I can't wait to do it again next year!"