Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A taste of Paris

What can one write about food in Paris that hasn't been written a thousand times before? I arrived in France steeped in a lifetime of cookbooks, memoirs, and novels about French food. Thanks to a voracious reading habit, I have dined many times over with Liebling, cooked in a pre-war kitchen with M.F.K. Fisher and parsed the finer points of egg dishes with Escoffier. Thanks to Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, among others, two whole generations of Americans before me have calibrated their taste to Francophile standards. Julie and Julia was an uneven movie, but must be watched for the parts with Meryl Streep as Julia Child, especially in her early years in Paris. One of the more charming scenes in the movie -- and in Child's memoirs -- was her first taste of French food and the utter epiphany she experiences in what food should be. Her whole life is transformed -- it is as if she is tasting fish and butter and cheese for the first time. I envy her this epiphany.

I have already tasted artisanal charcuterie and eaten seasonal greens dressed in the lightest of vinaigrettes. Much of what I prepare for my family is informed by French methods. I did not arrive in Paris with a lifetime of only meatloaf and ranch dressing and overcooked vegetables behind me. I was skeptical about having any true culinary epiphanies, and a little bit sad. I looked forward to Paris for the architecture and art, and I looked forward to good food. But would it be new food? Would the good food even live up to the memory of my rich literary experiences?

I was surprised by a general lack of seasonality in the menus of the many restaurants we tried over the course of our stay....and yes, we did eat mostly outside of the usual tourist haunts and ate across a wide price range. Partly, this lack of seasonality can be blamed on the season itself. It was too early even for asparagus and artichokes, so there was hardly a seasonal abundance of produce. Morels were scattered throughout a few of the higher-end places, with the best dish being a simple poached egg swimming in a puree of morels and cream, accompanied by thick garlicky croutons. I do suspect, however, that the lack of seasonality has to do more with the dilemma I discussed above. Tourists --and perhaps French people themselves -- arrive in Paris with a set expectation of what they are to eat. They have been informed by guidebooks, cookbooks, and decades of television shows to expect a rigid set of dishes. Duck confit, steak tartare, escargot, onion soup....the list of expected classics goes on. Is experimentation and seasonality rewarding to brasseries that thrive on their ability to provide an "authentic" Parisian experience?

On the shopping front, things were more inspiring. The butchers and cheese mongers were stunning....incredibly high quality food and well informed employees. The bakeries -- even the chains -- were of the highest quality and the bread almost invariably delicious. I also had to love a city that charges 4 Euro for a can of diet coke, but where you can buy a loaf of bread or a glass of wine for half that price. These folks have their priorities straight. The produce markets were dispiritingly similar to our own....mostly imported produce, much from the Americas. Many a cheese plate in the restaurants was garnished with a physalis fruit....ground cherry or cape gooseberry, I am unsure (picture above). I hadn't tasted any before this trip and they were delicious, but when I inspected the boxes in the street markets, they were all from Chile! Who knows if this is par for the course or if, again, we were just too early to see French agriculture in all its glory. The few locally grown lettuces and radishes I found were beautifully displayed. I have never seen a white lettuce with red speckles like this one:

But did I experience anything transformative? Did I have any epiphanies a la Julia Child? Perhaps it is a little over dramatic, but I did have two culinary moments when I was perfectly, absolutely satisfied. In those moments, I knew that I would have never understood these experiences by just reading about them or trying the American equivalent. The first was in the restaurant supply store, E. Dehillerin. Old, and a bit musty, it is a dark shop crammed with all the pots, pans and utensils any budding French chef would need to build her batterie de cuisine. Oh, to have such a quaint, ancient store on these shores! The closest I have found is Broadway Panhandler in New York City. I could have poked around Dehillerin for hours, and had I more money and larger suitcases, I would have left with more than a knife and some brioche molds.

The second moment is hard to admit. I have been generally sneering at the macaron craze sweeping the food scene here in the U.S. for the past few years. And yes, it is Passover, and no, I am not talking about the coconut lumps served at many a Seder this week called macaroons. I am talking about the meringue-like sandwich cookie -- one "o" only -- and I am tired of reading articles and blog posts that worship it. The photos of the precious pastel-hued confections bored me, reminding me of the insufferable cupcake cult I witnessed in New York City in the early 2000's (aughts? 00's? how am I to refer to this time period?). Yet in the course of my wanderings through Paris one afternoon, I happened upon Laduree, one of the world-renowned pinnacles of macaron craft. It looked more like Tiffany than a confectioner, with employees dressed to the nines and pastel containers more akin to jewelry boxes than bakery cardboard. The prices were heart stopping. The woman ahead of me in line spent over 70 Euro on a cake -- a small cake. I selected a few macarons, the two more interesting-colored ones being cassis-violet (lavender purple) and pistachio (bilious green). The cassis-violet had unfortunate flavor references to soap, but the pistachio one! Oh, the pistachio one! It was light and dense at the same time, with an intense but fleeting flavor...I am failing with my adjectives. Writing about this confection is like trying to write about wine. Even good writers can barely make it tolerable. So I will stop, but just know that it was an amazing cookie. Just know that it is now what I will ask for as the dessert at my last meal. It was so good that I don't even want to try to recreate it at home, because I would fear tarnishing the memory. I concede to the macaron-crazed foodie elite. This is a food deserving of worship.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bonjour, Chicago

Well, I am back and with a bit of a foie gras myself....daily croissants and chausson aux pommes can do that to you. But let's talk plants. I arrived in Paris a few weeks too early for true spring blossoms. Overall it was cool and bit wet, much like here in Chicago. The buds on the trees and shrubs at the Luxembourg Gardens were teetering right on the edge of blooming:

Nevertheless, one could appreciate how the park would look in a month. Imagine this tree-lined walk in late April!

There was less green space in Paris than I had anticipated, though I suspect that there is many a lush courtyard hidden behind the imposing facades that line the streets. Someone must be gardening: the flower market on the Ile de la Cite had stall upon stall of shrubs, perennials and edibles. The variety of strawberry plants on display was staggering, as were the large pots of lavender. The only edible garden I stumbled upon was a kitchen potager behind one restaurant. Given the climate, I was unsurprised to find it was pretty close to mine, meaning all they had was chives:

The parks we did walk through were strictly formal affairs, with flat expanses of gravel and lawn, punctuated by severely trimmed hedges and carefully placed trees. I am not a huge fan of formal gardening, but my husband loves the look of geometrically shaped hedges:

God help me if we ever get a bigger lawn or he gets more time on his hands. I fear he will want to turn our property into a vast expanse of cones and hedge labyrinths, a style more suited to a late-18th century Parisian mansion than a rickety Midwest farmhouse.

I'm off to inspect the state of my fledgling garden....this was a tough week to leave my tender baby plants. Amid the rush to get to the airport, I was able to throw some reemay over my outdoor seedlings to protect them from the slush and snow. Looks like they survived so far. Next I'll post on my culinary explorations of Paris...stay tuned.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spring has sprung!

Chicago is cruel in early Spring. We usually get a brief, honeyed taste of summer followed by the return of winter weather. This year is no exception: my city is currently basking in run of beautifully warm days. We are, however, facing some dips into the 20's this weekend, as well as possible snow and freezing rain. Today I could garden barefoot, wearing just a T-shirt, though the breezes still have a bit of a chill in them. The crocus bulbs came up in my lawn - could there be a sweeter harbinger of the coming season?

My plucky radishes are up, as is the wintersown mizuna.

Hopefully the seedlings will make it through the weekend chill. I will be out of town for the next week, so I won't be able to helicopter-parent them. If they all die, I have plenty of seeds to resow. My husband's parents will be babysitting and house sitting for us, and my father-in-law has more than once battled the elements in his own garden. Though he is not a vegetable gardener, he has coddled many a flower and shrub. I likely leave my seedlings in more careful hands than mine.

I take leave of the homestead with a sigh of satisfaction for, despite endless delays and permit dramas, the porch project has been completed. It was not without casualties -- the March mud combined with a week of weight from the demolition debris wrought havoc on my front bed.

The peonies had started to break through the soil prior to the project's start. They look worse for the wear, but peonies are tough old plants, so I am hopeful about their long-term prognosis.

The roses are through, but they were straggly and diseased, so I bid them adieu with a light heart. Upon my return, I will face the rebuilding of the bed. I am going to put in some perennials, start training vines and perhaps purchase a shrub or two. I will then fill in the gaping holes of this rebuilding season with annual cottage garden flowers. But who knows? I am going to Paris, so maybe I will find some garden inspiration there....perhaps I will find a small city garden or two that I can replicate on the west side of Chicago. Until then, I wish you happy gardening and a few more days like this one to get you outside and digging.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Seed experiments

One of the pleasures of tending a very small garden space is the surplus of seeds I face each season. Even half of one packet of tomato or carrot seeds could likely cover most of my garden real estate. There are a few companies I've found who sell small "sampler" amounts of seeds, meaning ten to twenty, rather than hundreds. But my favorite companies -- Seed Savers, Baker Creek, Renee's, Pinetree, Territorial -- all send generous amounts for but a few dollars. I have given away at least half of my volume of seeds and swapped others, though with a swap comes more seeds. Right now I estimate I have more than 50 seed packets, but most have been depleted to a third of their original volume. This still leaves me with too many seeds for my what to do? Some of the cool weather crops will be doubly used -- this spring and on the tail end of the summer, so I likely have a good amount for that. The thrifty person in me tells me to save, save, save for 2011 and I likely will. But I love to buy new seeds, it is one of my few winter pleasures! I can't be super thrifty and save everything -- I refuse to sacrifice the small cold weather happiness of repleting my stores.

I have decided to run some seed experiments instead, which feels like profligate seed-spending, until I realize they would likely just get stashed in a ziploc for a year, losing viability. I am hoping the experiments will not only build my skills, but also give insight in to new ways that I can stretch the garden season. Here are some of the projects I am trying for the first time:

  • Earlier starts: As soon as the chives came up, I put radish, carrots and beets into the ground. I am not sure they will germinate or survive in this cold, dank weather. If they germinate, added bonus. If not, I will just sow them again in a few weeks as I normally would.

  • Cold frame sowing: I sowed lettuce, sorrel, chard and kale under the cold frame, after letting it warm up the soil beneath the glass for a few days. As an added experiment, I sowed the same seed outside of the cold frame. So far, just the lettuce has germinated, and the cold-frame seed beat the outdoor sown seed by one day. The difference may come not in germination, but in survival, especially as we are facing nightly low 30's this week.

  • Greenhouse protection: I started kale, lettuce and and scallion flats indoors 4 weeks ago. I put half of each flat outside in my new mini-greenhouse and kept half the flats in my sunniest window. I didn't harden off the seedlings at all -- I probably should have brought them in overnight for the first week, but I got lazy. Despite the cold, gray days and frosty nights, the outdoor seedlings are doing much better than the indoor ones -- they are sturdier and less leggy. I have no more space under my grow light, so it might be unfair to compare legginess given that the indoor seedlings get just a window.
  • Wintersowing: I've posted about this before...I wintersowed flowers, greens and tomatoes. So far the mizuna and the rose mallow have popped up. I think I may see signs of life with the red columbine as well. The tomatoes are just sitting there...I am most skeptical about them, but the wintersowing website is pretty enthusiastic about this practice, so I will prepare to be amazed when they pop up.

  • Wall-o-water vs. soda bottles: I started three tomato seedlings very early, February 28th to be exact. On April 1st, one will go into a wall-o-water, one will go into a fort made of 2L pop bottles (DIY wall-o-water), and one I will just stick in the ground. I based the start and transplant dates on recommendations from a Wicker Park seed guru who hosted a seed starting workshop in his home. He claimed those dates (actually, February 28th and March 28th, respectively) gave him the earliest tomatoes on the block. I fully expect the exposed plant to tank, but that's part of the experiment. I am starting a later round to replace the early plants if they don't survive.
  • Chitting: I'm chitting peas, spinach and carrots for the first time - pictured above. To chit, you basically you germinate the seeds indoors on paper towels and just as soon as they pop open you stick them in the ground. Not only does this help seeds with touchy germination needs (i.e. carrots), but also it lets you get peas and spinach in the ground early. John Seymour, in his book The New Self-Sufficient Gardener, points out that chitting helps cut the time that tasty little pea seeds lie in the ground, available as a bird snack. What's stopping a bird from eating a tasty sprouted pea? Anyway, he swears by it.
I will post updates of these projects as they progress, if even one works, all this fussing will be a rousing success! Here's to a seed surplus! Why not spend down some of your garden wealth in the name of science?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Homegrown mushrooms

I awoke this morning to find that the lettuce has emerged in the cold frame. The first spring harvest is near! Well, the first spring garden harvest. We did eat homegrown food this week -- fresh food, that didn't come from a jar or my dried stores. Pictured above are specimens from my second crop of shiitake mushrooms. I grew them from one of those kits that you can buy in the many seed catalogs that besiege the hibernating gardener.

Pound for pound, this is not a cost-effective way to put mushrooms on the table. For a third of the price of the kit, I could buy a nice big bag of mushrooms from the farmer's market. I do like to grow my own food and it has been interesting to see the whole growth process, start to finish. Yet if I want to eat mushrooms in a financially sustainable way, the farmer's market is the clear choice. It seems like a more cost-effective way to grow at home would be to buy a big bag of plugs and innoculate a hardwood log in my yard, or scatter spawn in a large compost box...all more of an investment of time and money than I am ready to make at present. Just the care and feeding of the small mushroom kit was a little fussy for my taste -- it needs a humidity tent and regular misting, which proves challenging if we are out of the house for a few days. I am not ready to deal with a big box or log.

The shiitakes I have grown are bigger than the kind I see at the grocery store and, since they are newly harvested, quite moist and delicate. Clearly, they haven't been desiccating on a grocery store shelf for over a week. My shiitakes stood up well to stir-frying, but truth be told, I like dried shiitakes better for this kind of dish. I get a big bag of dried shiitakes from the Asian market and a few of these caps -- rehydrated in boiling water -- add a tasty, chewy bite to my stir-fries. Of course, who knows what type of farm the store mushrooms come from? The bag in my pantry reads "made in China". Now, I know there are likely some pockets of environmentally responsible agriculture in China, but whenever I read about Chinese farming and exports, I get a bit nervous about what's on my plate. I recently read Fuschia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, and her reports of agricultural pollution and environmental destruction was a bleak moment in an otherwise warm memoir of the Chinese culinary scene.

Wild mushroom hunting has always fascinated me, but I am too chicken to really get into it. This book, Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States, may change my mind, especially since it features many color photographs (black and white field guide drawings just ain't gonna cut it for me!). I would love to forage my own morels. Considering my husband was skittish about eating my shiitakes, I'm not sure I'll have an enthusiastic partner on this one. But, given the pollution issues of large-scale agricultural production, why do we feel safer with something packaged on our shelf? Shouldn't the dried shiitakes give more pause?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Urban Composting

Tonight I attended an urban composting lecture at the City of Chicago's Center for Green Technology. For years, I have passed this center and I have always wondered what it looked like inside, and what programs they offered. When I recently I picked up a brochure at the library advertising spring educational programs -- including the one tonight on urban composting -- and decided to sign myself up. I wish I could attend some of the talks at the Family Farmed Expo going on at UIC, but my work schedule prevents it -- all I could squeeze in this week was a nighttime lecture. The Center itself is located on Sacramento in what appears to be a former industrial site near the train tracks. It has a killer view of downtown from the rear and is a green living oasis: rain barrels, solar panels, native plantings, the list goes on! Definitely worth a stop if you are over in these parts visiting the Garfield Park Conservatory.

The speaker for tonight's lecture was Bill Shores of Shores Garden Consulting. He had a long, well-designed power point presentation that covered nearly the entire spectrum of composting. I especially enjoyed his emphasis on "passive systems". So often, I feel like composting experts promote only complicated, labor-intensive methods, or else discuss specific bins that come at hefty price tags. Mr. Shores reassured the audience that just keeping leaves in plastic bags for 9 months would yield great compost. He lingered on the ease and benefits of sheet mulching (re-branded of late as "lasagna gardening"). On the topic of turning piles, he shrugged and called it "optional". He argued that microfauna, like pill bugs, do sufficient "turning" of the pile. I love an expert who makes their topic simple and accessible!

Shores did suggest multiple times that shredding was key to a well-maintained and efficiently decomposing pile. He showed some cheap options (a leaf vacuum, an electric mower) but then showed his shredder of choice: a big motor-driven shredder/chipper built in Wisconsin. It comes with a hefty price tag (upwards of $800) and he suggested going in on it with some neighbors...if only I had like-minded folks living on my block! Maybe I can find a big-box or hardware store that rents a similar device for a low hourly price. As it stands now, I'll just continue to run over my debris with the push mower before adding it to my piles. It made me wistful for places like Berkeley, CA where the public libraries also loan out household tools. I wish we had an urban garden tool library, where Chicagoans could borrow shredders, rototillers, electric and push mowers, etc. It is silly, when you think about it, that house after house, block after block, owns the same expensive equipment that is used only for a few hours every week, if that often.

Shores is a big fan of worm bins, and he had a lot of interesting pictures of the way he has integrated them into the urban garden he helps to run. I was interested that he has started trying to winter over some bins outside. I wish he had more time to discuss how he insulated the bins, and how well his worm population survived. The best tip he gave -- and one I haven't heard anywhere else-- was to "pre-digest" food scraps for the worms, by leaving them to anaerobic bacteria in a covered plastic bucket for a few weeks. Then you feed those softened scraps to the worms. This makes sense to me, since I have been noticing that some foods linger in the bin for quite sometime, no matter how finely I chop them. He spent a lot of time discussing fruit-fly control -- from my research, seems like beneficial nematodes are the best option, and he mentioned these too. I did check up on this and it seems like the fruit flies are a nuisance to humans, but do no harm to the worms themselves. Currently, he is spraying weekly Bt for control -- I am skittish of additional maintenance activities and additional cost. If I need to, I'll use a homemade fruit fly trap, but so far, so good (knock on wood).

I was able to bring up my concern to him that a family who cooks a vegetable-heavy diet at home most nights of the week simply can't rely on a single worm bin for all of their composting needs. He conceded that "probably six" bins would be needed in that case, and when I brought up the issue of space efficiency and apartment dwellers, he countered that the bins could be placed in otherwise neglected areas like crawl spaces. I appreciated his honesty -- I am beginning to bristle a bit at all of the brochures that present one bin as the answer to all composting needs. You either must have an outdoor system too, or you need to be ready to ramp up the bins as the worm population grows. Either way, it is more work than one single 30-gallon container, especially if it is going to be a genuine effort at composting and not just a fun science project.

The lecture was a survey of most of the methods I already use -- I have three different styles of outdoor bins, a vermiculture set-up and I have started sheet mulching (my first bed is pictured above - I am trying to "cook" it down with black plastic). I still felt like it was useful to hear tips from an expert, and I loved all of the pictures he showed of the various gardens and composting systems he maintains. Some of his salvaged wood bins are quite attractive, more so than my black plastic tumbler or my giant mesh "playpen". If I have any leftover leaves this season, maybe I will try the "leave it in the plastic bag" method. How to convince my neighbor -- who already shudders at my bins -- that a stack of plastic bags isn't an eyesore?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Early Spring

The chives are up! They are always my first edible sign of spring, cheerily growing despite frozen ground and wet, chilly air. This year they even beat out my earliest crocus. I have two large chive clumps, both of which need dividing. The soil is still too wet for me to start digging. I want to pot up one of the divisions, so that I can try to winter them over indoors next year. Right now I have only rosemary inside, and I am weary of working it into my weekly menus. Once I can harvest the chives, I will be posting my favorite recipes for my first spring herb. The other chive divisions will be given away or else scattered throughout my perennial beds, as I love the purple flowers. The only caution is their propensity to self-seed, and if you don't deadhead you will end up with many baby chives the next year.

Somehow, I don't mind pulling weeds when they are chives (maybe I can even use them for a "microgreen" garnish). My number one weed nemesis is quack grass. Along with the chives, quack grass is springing up in my perennial bed. I have been aggressively hand-pulling the rhizomes for three seasons, and I have effectively decimated the population. When we first moved in, the whole bed was an overgrown quack-grassy knoll with a dense mat of rhizomes. Thanks to heavy mulching, the rhizomes are now long and easy to grab, and I rip them out with abandon. I think of it as "aerating" the soil in my bed. To hope for complete eradication is folly, mainly because rhizomes lurk on the other side of the fence in my neighbor's yard and also under my two well established spirea shrubs. I would need to uproot my shrubs and maul the edge of my neighbors yard to really get the rhizomes out, and if I leave behind but a few snippets of rhizomes, they will inevitably pop up the next year.

I pulled the mulch off the alpine strawberries, and they look no worse for the wear. At first, I thought one had winter-heaved out of the soil, but it is actually just a dense underbelly of last year's leaf stems. I still can't tell if I needed to mulch them -- they are "alpine" after all -- but it didn't do any damage. The little baby plant that sprung up from fallen seed last fall is still doing well, so I plan to move it elsewhere. If I was nice, I would pot it up and give it away along with my chive divisions, but the berries are so delicious and small that I need every plant I can get. Even if I divide aggressively and the plants seed their little babies every season, I don't think I'll ever have enough for a bowl full of berries!

Finally, I had a longing look at my asparagus bed. Sometimes I get spears by Easter, but nothing is pushing through the earth quite yet. It is always a minor miracle the way the spears rocket out of the apparently dormant ground. There is a thick layer of composted manure blanketing the whole bed, and I have noticed that my habit of heavily layering the compost and manure in this area has raised it noticeably above the adjacent beds. All this care for a plate or two of asparagus, but what delicious plates! And who am I kidding? It rarely even gets cooked and onto a plate, as fresh-cut asparagus is a delicious raw snack. In a plot as small as mine, I focus on quality not quantity, and I would rather my son know the taste of the real stuff in small amounts, rather than enjoy weekly plates of imported spears. The asparagus has the added bonus of being quite ornamental once the harvest is over and the plants fern out. This year I am interplanting sweet peas -- Cupani's original -- to wind up the ferns. Not sure if it will work, but another garden writer wrote about this project enthusiastically. Given that this is the richest soil in my garden, it is a shame not to use it more. So the sweet peas will go in soon, but not before I relish the green snappiness of new-grown asparagus spears.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I'd rather be gardening

I attended the Chicago Flower and Garden show this weekend, looking for some inspiration and a gardening fix to get me through these wet, chilly weeks of March. A better name for the event would be the Chicago "hardscape" was heavy on the fountains, paving stones, and other expensive trappings of suburban landscaping. Ho-hum. My two favorite specimens on display were a houseplant, a sea onion, and a Covey redbud. Here's the sea onion, which further stoked my lust for rare succulents:

Here's the redbud in close-up:

Generally, I left underwhelmed. I expected more DIY and urban gardening projects on display...did I miss the composting area, or was it just non-existent? The window box section seemed to be the only projects within reach of city folk. People interested in city gardening might be better served by the lectures, several of which deal with containers and small spaces. I appreciated the chicken coop on display...even my reluctant husband admitted the coops looked do-able for our yard. Finally, the checkerboard "lawn" was pretty cool -- I would like to try a mini-version of this in my own yard, but it looks a little too anal retentive for my skills and time.

I really wish there had been more vegetables, beyond the standard ornamental brassicas. It's early spring, so I understand the displays can't be heavy on the edibles, but so many of the planted areas reminded me of over-manicured subdivisions in the far hinterlands of the Chicago area.

Right before I checked out the show, I participated in a seed swap. It is late in the seed-accumulation season, so no one really had the energy for actual swapping....mostly it was folks trying to give away what they had. The packets were just kind of placed in the middle of the table. I picked up a few flowers that I can scatter around in the bare pockets of my beds, as well as some more greens to try early in the season. I swore up and down to myself I wouldn't get sucked into any pumpkins or winter squash, for the space reasons that I've previously discussed. But Garden Girl brought red kuri seed! I love this variety; it has become my absolute favorite for cooking squash recipes. So, I guiltily snagged a packet. Sigh. It may take one more squash failure to convince me that there is no space for such plants in my garden.

The show has demonstrated to me quite effectively that, even for a small space like mine, there are plenty of people ready to sell me a multitude of expensive landscaping "necessities". If I wanted, my faux-brick retaining wall could match the soles of my designer garden clogs. I'll leave the show to the ladies who lunch. You can find me in my own messy, ugly garden where the hardscaping consists of some mismatched bricks and old railroad ties.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

My new cold frame

The ground is still frozen solid and the snow is just now starting to melt away. Despite the frozen breaths, I smelled spring in the air as I worked outside this morning. I decided this was as good a time as any to bring my new cold frame out of the basement. I had been planning on painting it white on the inside and dark on the outside, to maximize reflection and absorption respectively. Then I got lazy and also a bit skittish about the safety of the paints so close to edibles. Finally, I'm trying to keep the cost of the project under 10 bucks, and I didn't have any deck or exterior paint lying around. Is this all to justify my lazy reluctance to paint? Perhaps. But this whole thing is built from scrap, except for the irregularly-sized plexiglass that I picked up cheap at Menard's. The frame is rickety enough to not last more than a few seasons. So, if this works out, I will likely build a more long-lasting structure with real woodworking effort. That then may justify the preservative power of paint and I would be willing to spend more time finding soil safe formulas. Then again, I may just move to straw bale or cinder block framing. We'll see.

The snow melt pattern in my garden demonstrates the microclimates in a narrow lot such as mine:

I located the cold frame site in the warmest area of my plot, keeping a sharp eye for the past few weeks on where the snow first began to disappear. The ground is still icy...I'm a hoping a week under the cold frame will warm things up a bit. I'll add in some compost once things get "workable" and then put in some spring seeds. This is more experimental than anything else this year, so I'm going to try a few of each vegetable, and see which one takes. The other thought would be to grow things in pots under the cold frame, treating it as a mini-green house rather than an in-ground season extender. This will be my plan B if my initial seed germination fails.

Had I but world enough and time, I would have built a much more aesthetically pleasing frame. I may be particularly vulnerable to the homeliness of my garden this weekend, since I am about to set off for the Chicago Flower and Garden Show. All of the gorgeous plants, containers and photographs are inevitably going to make me regret -- just a wee bit -- the DIY look of my home landscape. I wish all of my containers were arts-and-crafts-style cement urns -- the kind that grace the bungalows of Oak Park. Unfortunately, scavenged laundry tubs and buckets work just as well and cost nothing. I know my husband wishes that I would at least get rid of the buckets, but even he concedes that our house and garden is functional, and not meant to be a showpiece. We certainly aren't decreasing property prices in the neighborhood with our choices: at least our plants are REAL! Anyway, I will report back on the progress of the cold-frame and all of the luscious displays at the garden show. I will approach the show as I do a fine patisserie...I admire the gorgeous pastries for what they are: professionally-designed commercial products. But I go home to my free-form tarts and muffins with lopsided tops and eat happily, satisfying my own tastes.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Pruning grapes

The abundant and still-falling snow has lulled me into winter complacency, so much so that I was startled to be facing the first day of March this morning. I probably should have pruned my grapevine in February. The grapevine must be pruned while still dormant, before early spring when the sap rises. One must find the ephemeral pruning window between the last of the bitter cold and the first hint of spring in the air. Here is the state of the concord grapevine pre-pruning, and admittedly I did some gentle debulking earlier in the winter:

As with most garden projects, I am forced to rely on books, the Internet and youtube videos for instructions on how to complete the task of pruning. So many books advise the new gardener to find an experienced person and watch them, learn from them. Unfortunately, I don't know a lot of wise old gardeners, and those I do know live far away. I could pay for the classes and workshops that pop up around the Chicago area, and I've done so before, but I have found I dislike the group learning scenario for garden topics. These workshops are usually packed with many people with even more beginning questions then me, or who are just *thinking* about gardening and haven't tried yet. I find it puzzling that some of these folks haven't done their homework beforehand (seriously, who pays $15 bucks for a seed starting workshop and then shows up not knowing that seeds come in different sizes?). Most irritatingly, I sign up for classes to watch a master at work, and it is usually hard to see the instructor. This is where I think belonging to a garden club would be a good idea -- I could easily find some willing mentors in the group. The problem for me with this, as with any club, is time: I work a very demanding job and have a small kid. The midweek daytime club gatherings just ain't gonna work, and weekends are for my own family and garden, not driving to yet another meeting.

Anyway, youtube is probably the best teacher for pruning grapes, outside of a real, living human being. Most of the book diagrams are designed for a more traditional wire trellis set-up, and I find many of the drawings quite difficult to decipher. I found the Dave's Nursery videos to be of particular use on youtube. Again, it did make me feel guilty about the flimsiness of my grape arbor...I should really have built a much sturdier structure along the side of my garage. I have compensated by keeping it tightly pruned to a few canes. At my next home, or if we wind up staying here past next summer, I will build a good strong arbor 5 or 6 feet deep, one ready to be well-laden with heavy bunches of fruit.

I read that Concord grape-type vines like long canes rather than short spurs, so I cut back to a few long canes, with 10 or 15 buds on each. This is the concord grape vine post pruning:

I should have been even harsher than this, but I left an extra branch of the central trunk, mostly because it served a structural purpose by tethering down my lightweight arbor. I pruned off all the canes though, so it should not tax the fruit growth on the other branches.

Finally, I realized I had a second forgotten grapevine stuck about four feet away from the concord. I am always startled to find that I have forgotten anything in my garden, since it is so small. There are days when I swear I know the contours of every leaf on every plant, since I have such a small space. When I put in the concord grapevine, I also bought another grapevine -- if memory serves, this was a buy-one-get-one bargain deal. I think it was a Niagara green grape; I can't be sure, since I lost the label. I stuck it in a suboptimal spot on the other side of the arbor and forgot about it while my concord took off like gangbusters. Last year, this three-year-old mystery vine took some serious damage in a windstorm, and I cut it back severely. I forgot I left it in-ground, and was surprised to see today that it had actually come back nicely. It didn't produce any grapes last season -- it didn't even prior to the damage -- so we'll see what happens this year. I decided to lean it back away from the arbor and train it along the neighboring fence, as the arbor can barely support the concord. This redirection again risked trunk damage -- looks okay for now, we'll see how it holds up. Per Martha Stewart's website, I pruned the branches of this one more severely, to only 3-4 buds.

If the Niagara grapes grow this season, it will be a nice bonus to have some table grapes in addition to the concords, which I use for jelly. A few sites state that it is commonly used for wines...maybe I can produce a bottle or two from my mini-vineyard!