November 5, 2006
Sorry this message is so very overdue. First of all, thank you all, so much, for the emails, cards, letters and love and prayers you sent me after I wrote about my Lyme disease in August. Knowing that so many people were thinking of me and sending me healing wishes, thoughts, and vibrations really helped me during the dark days. I did get worse before I got better, and I didn't want to write about being sick.
Today is one of those golden November days. The angle of the sun is so low it seems that you could dance in its rays. This morning as I sipped my tea by the woodstove with Auggie, the fluffy kitty, on my lap, I could see out into the gardens and orchard beyond where Ralph and the dogs were playing. The sun was coming over the hills to the east and backlighting them so that they all appeared to wear halos. Even the poor, porcupine-pruned plum trees looked energized and the frosted flowers and meadow grasses shimmered in the light.
The four-legged family
Barley the new pup (five months old) is now bigger than Rosie, and the two play endlessly! Rosie clearly believes that we got Barley just for her and is bringing him up with occasional help from us. Usually she's Mary Poppins, gently guiding him, but once in a while, we see the East German drill sargent come out. On Halloween morning she caught three mice, played with each for a bit, then tossed them over to him. We've expanded our walks in the woods nearby and have taken him to our favorite trails in Northfield and Amherst. She loves showing him the brooks and streams, the dead trees where other animals have made their homes for the winter, and the best spots for gamboling and frolicking and for full out running.
I'm convinced that getting such a young pup was the best way to successfully integrate him into our family. Not only is Rosie overjoyed by his arrival, but Auggie loves Barley too and has no compunctions about sharing food and bedding with him. Indeed, Auggie was larger than Barley when he arrived and he has shown her complete respect from the start. He already joins Rosie in protecting Auggie when other dogs visit. Every morning he wakes up sooo happy and full of joy it's impossible not to waken with a laugh ourselves. On top of it all, he loves fruit of every kind - raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, melon, apples, even tomatoes and peppers.
In the woods, the beavers are once again working like, well, beavers, felling new trees every night and flooding the brook in new places. It's so exciting to see their work, and Barley, especially, loves splashing through our old paths. The pond is large enough now to welcome many of the migrating ducks that pass by. We've never had so many and their sounds and splashes delight us all.
There were times during my illness when I felt saddened that I could no longer run through the woods - the places that I loved so well now seemed dangerous - but I've overcome that fear. The edge habitat of the fields is even more dangerous than the woods, and my gardens are probably as dangerous as the fields. I can't stop farming - it's more than my life's work; it's my life - and running through the woods is also part of who I am and what makes my life fulfilling. I'll be vigilantly looking for signs of Lyme on all of us and will seek treatment immediately if any of us becomes infected, but I can't stop being who I am or restricting the dogs to a more sanitized life.
Here's a rundown of news from the gardens (that I began more than a week ago.....!)
October 28, 2006
Greetings on a rainy October morning!
Most of the leaves of the hardwood trees have fallen here in Southwestern New Hampshire, with only the oaks and the apple trees still holding on. The blueberry planting is a ribbon of brilliant flame in the center of the garden beds, and the raspberries and blackberries have turned a deep wine color along the perimeter. Ralph has filled the bird feeders on the cherry tree and the cardinals, titmouses, chickadees and nuthatches fill the tree.
.....and I thought 04 was an avalanche year! The heirloom tomatoes that I grew from Dancing Bear Tom represented sauce varieties from Italy, Poland and Ukraine as well as varieties saved from Amish farmers and Jersey gardeners. They started coming in mid-August and never let up until frost and we literally picked a ton from about 150 plants, including our own beloved "Enchantment." Of the assortment, new favorites are "Italian pear" which we grew in honor of Ralph's grandmother because it sounded like the variety she had grown during his boyhood - it's heart-shaped with bright red skin that eclipses the deep, deep red hue of the flesh; and "Red Devil" and "Polish Linguisa," two sausage-shaped varieties which produced abundant large, long fruits with firm, sweet flesh and very few seeds.
Our tomato crop also led to this year's gardening epiphany - the best method we've yet found for trellising the plants. I've been growing tomatoes all my life and have tried everything from rigidly staking and pruning to the free-form sprawling style (and everything in-between) using cages, stakes, trellises, twine, ribbon, pantyhose, and so forth. Several years ago we tried a friend's method of staking between plants and using twine to weave a makeshift netting for the row. We learned that using cages around the plants can promote diseases like early blight because the lower leaves get cramped by the cages, limiting air circulation.
I was glad to be rid of the cages because trying to stick their three-pronged legs into our rocky soil was always an exercise in frustration and we often worried that we were stabbing the tomato roots as we tried and tried to set the cage into the ground. However, we do own a couple hundred of the things.....It was Ralph, of course, who saw the new solution. We set the plants at two feet apart, then set a cage between each plant. Since the cages were far from the plants' roots, we could shove them deeply into the ground to set them securely. The cages have three rings parallel to the ground which gave us three levels to secure the twine. We ran the twine along each side of the plants. The method was a great success since it held the tomatoes securely off the ground. Because I became ill in early July I never got a chance to prune the plants but it wasn't really necessary. The plants yielded, literally tons of tomatoes that stayed cleanly off the straw mulch until ready to pick.
Our newest product is a refinement of our old "Herb and Garlic Pizza Sauce." We simmered our heirloom tomatoes into a rich, thick, red sauce (with our true, old-world bay leaves), then added lots of our fresh garlic, basil and parsley to produce a sauce that's bursting with flavor. It's ideal for spreading on crostini, French bread, crackers, boboli or pizza dough, or for topping dishes like ravioli, tortellini, or eggplant parmesean. We even add it to soups to give them another layer of flavor.
Peppers, Sweet and Hot
The global warming phenomenon that has helped spread the nasty Lyme spirochete north also helped give us a tremendous pepper year. I remember years when we couldn't get a single pepper to turn red before killing frosts set in....this year seemed more like summer in Virginia. We probably didn't pick a whole ton of peppers, as we did with tomatoes, but we had the best yields I've seen in my lifetime. Outstanding varieties included the new Italian pepper named "Carmen" and a bell called "Socrates" and our old favorites Italia and Giant Marconi. The jalapeno from Tom called "El Jeffe" out performed "Grande" and his Kung Pao chilies out performed the standard cayennes. As soon as we had the first bushel picked, Lara and Ralph put up our wildly popular "Mad Hatter's Pepper Preserve." We hope that this year we've made enough to fill the demand!
Although I got to pick only about 20% of my summer crop myself, Ralph and the girls got most of it in. The rain early in the season meant that the fruit was large, and the hot sun during ripening assured that they were very sweet. By the time that the Autumn berries began to ripen in mid-September I was again able to pick my share and relished every minute in the beautiful berry beds. The long season without frost meant that we were picking right up to last week - we didn't even need to cover the long heritage bed with plastic to protect them. It's not a banner year for my favorite berry, but a good solid harvest none-the-less.
After last year's amazing yield, I wasn't surprised at the paltry performance by the blues this year. We have enough to get through the holidays, but will probably run out by the first of next year. Blueberry lovers take note!
The TeddyBerries were tremendous! Huge, beautiful berries bigger than Ralph's thumb - these richly hued black beauties have many layers of flavor when allowed to completely ripen. A single berry can be at once sweet and spicy, tart and peppery. They are the most intensely flavored blackberries we have ever tasted, and our preserve captures all of these flavors. (I prefer the regular preserves with berries bursting with each bite; Ralph prefers the smooth glide of the seedless preserve on his toast.) Ralph picked hundreds of baskets of blackberries this year with lots of help from Joe. Dana, Lara, Johnny and even I helped too.
Peaches, Pears and Plums
Alas, the porcupine really did destroy the Damson Plum trees for this season. He chewed branches off and tossed them to the ground and the poor trees look more like toothbrushes than fruit trees. Some did fare better than others, and the two closest to the house are fine, giving me hope that we might see some fruit next year (and I hope the porcupine forgets all about us in the meantime). After neglecting the pears for most of the season, porcy did some damage to the pears at the end of the season but avoided the peaches entirely. They were much young to bear this year anyway, but Tom had a great harvest so we will have plenty of Dancing Bear Peach Preserve for the holiday season and beyond.
Herbs and Garlic
My illness prevented me from putting up much at all in the way of herbal vinegars. We did get a good garlic crop.....just enough for Tomatoes Rustica and Farmhouse Garlic Mustard! I have made some the three herbal-infused honeys (Lavender, Lemon Verbena and Chocolate Mint) and will get more put up this month.
Currants and Elderberries
Ralph picked our red currants just before heavy rains in mid-July and we've now put up our very limited Rosie's Red Currant Preserve. The trial planting of 16 Elderberry bushes was a tremendous success! They've all grown tall and broad in a semicircle by the lower pond - one even produced a couple handfuls of berries which Ralph, of course, experimented with preserving. The color was beautiful and the unique flavor was delightful. We can't wait to pick more!
Coming up in the gardens
Ralph is out there now turning the soil so we can plant our winter rye. (Yes, I know it's late, but the forecast is for temperatures in the 50's all week long so we think it's worth a try.) As soon as I finish this letter, I'm heading out to plant the garlic. The bed is prepared and I've divided the cloves. All that remains is to pop them in, then cover with straw after Thanksgiving, when we also mulch the strawberries.
On the last Tuesday of September, I was finally able to return to Newton, the market I've gone to for more than 25 seasons. My emotions soared with my return - hugging so many old friends, seeing so many dear people, was incredibly moving. I couldn't have done it, though, without my old friend Fana. I've known Fana since he was four and his beautiful mother, my friend Cecilia, brought him with her to pick strawberries at my first farm in Leyden in 1979. Since his real job as a title researcher gives him flexibility, he was able to rearrange his schedule to share his Tuesdays with me. He did all the driving and set up the tent and tables for me and helped me in so many ways! And as long as I'm thanking people, I must once again sing Lara's praises. This year she helped more than ever, first with planting because of my bum knee, then she took over the raspberry picking when I was sickest, and finally helped rescue me in the kitchen when I was too tired even to stir the preserves.
Several friends sent me great books during my illness. Amy Tan's new memoir offered me a a look at what can happen when Lyme disease goes untreated. "Healing Lyme" gave me insight into the disease and its history and herbal approaches to healing. "Leaving Mother Lake" transported me to an area in western China and a totally different, female-centered culture where I sought refuge during some of the scariest days of my illness.
One of the finest books I've ever read was Sy Montgomery's memoir, "The Good, Good Pig" which tells of the deep love between Sy and her dear pig Christopher Hogwood. I kept a couple of pigs (for breeding) at my first farm in Leyden and particularly loved my dear Prudence, but Sy's relationship with Christopher was extraordinary. This may be one of the finest homages to any creature ever written. The writing is beautiful; the lessons in animal behaviour illuminating; the tale of love, overpowering. I wish everyone in the world could read this amazing book.
Ralph's dad, John Legrande, was a warm, funny man with a heart of gold. His big old heart finally gave out this summer after nearly 86 years. Thanks to the tender loving care of Ralph's brother Johnny, Dad got to live his whole life in his own home. We're grateful for all his care, and also that Ralph was able to visit his father several times this spring, then in August in the hospital while he was still pretty well, and then to be with him during his final days.
Yesterday I planted the garlic - the first planting of the 2007 harvest - hooray! It's a very good feeling. I'm now running out to vote to help change congress, then put up four kettles of raspberries I have readied in the kitchen. Then I'll start planting the winter rye......got to get back to the garden........