Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Critter Wars--Solstice Episode

This berry season, we would finally outsmart Chip. 

That was the idea anyway. In the Foothills, the summer solstice means the strawberries are ripening and ready to start picking! Robins have always been the main perps when it comes to strawberry-stealing. But after a few years of berry-growing, we've discovered birds are the least of our problems. The biggest, most pernicious thieves have turned out to be chipmunks. They can get through 1-inch poultry fencing, wriggle under nets, even slide under nets weighed down with rocks! Trapping them has proved futile—somehow they’ve figured out how to eat the bait without tripping the trap.

So when it came time to net the strawberry beds recently, I decided to create a high-security berry-protection system that even Tricky Chip couldn’t crack. John helped me pound metal stakes into the ground and surround our beds with about $75.00 worth of hardware cloth, which has ½ inch wire mesh. Over the top went the nets. The whole operation took us about three hours. “We’re finally going to foil that little bugger,” I told John.

Wrong. I went out the next day to see if we had any ripe berries. We did… Smashed, half-eaten berries, more whole unripe ones scattered about. Chip had gotten to them first.

Okay. He’d obviously snuck under the hardware cloth. I dragged more of our bird netting out of the shop, and rolled it lengthwise to create a sort of thick rope. After stuffing it all around the bottom of the hardware cloth, I weighed it down with rocks. Two hours of bending over, my back ached, but I surveyed the creation with satisfaction. Perfecto! Let Chip just try to get through this!

Well, he did. He even had the cheekiness to eat his loot on our back steps, in full view! “Look at this!” I told John indignantly when I got outside and saw more damaged berries. “He’s ruined the biggest, reddest ones.”

High-security fence--that failed
John takes a very philosophical view of these things. “You’ve got to expect a few losses,” he said. “He’s just being a chipmunk."

Second round of fencing with one bed unprotected
I narrowed my eyes. No. It was the principle of the thing. I had to prove I was smarter than a chipmunk, if only to myself. I took more rocks, packed them all around the nets. And the next day, found more destroyed berries. Chip had won this round. So feeling stupid—having indubitable proof that Chip was indeed smarter than I was—I dismantled the hardware cloth and dragged it back to the shop. Then I did what we’ve done every other year: drape a net over the beds all the way down to the ground, and weigh that down with rocks. I left one bed of marginal berries unprotected, to hopefully slow down the stealing.

It took me another day to realize Chip had gotten inside again. My vow: if it took every stinkin’ rock in the yard, I was going to keep him out. So I packed more rocks around the beds. And I think it worked!

Of course, it’s probably helped that I’ve taken the attitude, “If you can’t beat, ‘em, join ‘em.” I have strategically left strawberries topped with peanut butter around the woodsheds, Chip’s favorite lair. Hopefully he’s been so stuffed with nut-buttered berries he’ll be much less motivated to try to get 
past the nets. I realize this could be a really bad move—all his aunts, uncles and cousins will be drawn into the yard to steal our berries.

All the rich food may have given Chip a bellyache too—I saw him eating greens (buttercup) out in the yard after he’d eaten the 8 peanut butter treats I'd set out. Well, too bad...whatever happens, I’m going to dial down chipmunk snacking or die trying!

Our other strawberry patch--and yep, every rock in the yard!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Compost: Secret to Food Growing Success!

Mother Earth News confirms what I’ve suspected since I started composting around 10 years ago: When it comes to fertilizer, compost is at the top of the list!  In “Best Organic Fertilizers” (April/May 2017 issue), the magazine discusses all kinds of fertilizers and soil amendments, and the pros and cons...but Mother Nature does it best. For a fertile, productive garden, you don’t need to buy anything; you can make compost at home, for free, with material right from your own kitchen and backyard.

Now that spring is officially here, and your ground is either starting to thaw or already workable, it’s a great time to start a compost pile. There are lots of different ways to go about it. Some gardeners go at the process scientifically; in the book, Gardening When it Counts, author Steve Solomon outlines the precise ratio of carbon to nitrogen-containing materials for optimal compost. Upon reading Solomon’s discussion, I got kinda intimidated—you know that feeling of You’re Doing it Wrong. (A sidebar: I did learn from him that sawdust isn’t the best component—too much carbon. Once I stopped putting sawdust in my pile, my garden’s fertility improved.)

Anyway, you can create your compost in a bin, a hole, a trench, or buy a fancy compost container at your local gardening supply store. I keep my process super basic and not terribly scientific. I dig a wide, shallow hole, about 3-4 feet by 3-4 feet and about 18 inches deep—it’s sort of more like a wide trench. Into the trench goes a bucket of soil, as weed-free and rock-free as you can make it, a bucket of kitchen scraps like raw veggie peelings, apple cores, eggshells and coffee grounds, which provides the nitrogen, and a bucket of dead leaves or other dry leafy material, which provides the carbon. Mix/turn well, keep moist, and let nature do its magic. Every time I add food scraps to the pile, I also add dead leaves or other dry foliage from around the yard.

The secret is in a couple of things: keep your scraps and peelings fairly small, and turn your pile often and well! If you don’t turn it, you won’t get enough oxygen into the pile, and it will soon get a very sour smell, and the scraps take longer to decompose. Turning frequently to speed the breakdown of the scraps also deters rodents and neighbor dogs!

In terms of kitchen scraps and other high-nitrogen materials beyond fruit and veggie material, some gardeners might add grass clippings (as long as you don’t use Weed n’ Feed on your lawn). Others hold the everything and the kitchen sink and beyond philosophy, tossing in stuff like hair clippings, weeds, and newspaper. 

Not me. For one thing, hair’s just gross. And human hair might contain sulfate residues from shampoo. Newspaper? Well, there’s all the ink. I don’t know what’s in it and what I don’t know might hurt my pile. Weeds? Weeds are survivors that can grow through the cruelest winter, through drought,  and basically through thick and thin. I don’t trust the deadest of weeds not to germinate their seeds in my compost. Watch the leftovers you put in too. Maybe some dry toast or something, but material with fat/oil/meat or dairy in your pile messes up the decomposition process. And bits of cooked food will be an open invitation to rats, raccoons, and other critters!  

When we had chickens, I kept a separate chicken manure compost pile, because manure takes longer to break down to safely use on a garden bed. I mixed the manure with sawdust—it’s so high in nitrogen that sawdust is more than equal to the carbon-supplying job. After letting the manure/sawdust sit for 6 months, I would spread it on our asparagus beds in late fall…plenty of time for the manure to decompose before the spring harvest.

Next month, on Earth Day, I'll be teaching "Grow a Homestead-Style Food Garden" at Whatcom Community College. In the class, we'll be discussing compost, sustainable gardening, and much more! 

And if you have any secrets to great compost, please share them here!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

St. Patrick's Mountain High

If you’re looking for a taste of the “real” Ireland, you just might find it in a lovely little corner of County Mayo, on St. Patrick’s mountain. Near the small town of Westport, Croagh Patrick, as the mountain is called in Ireland—also known locally as the Reek—is a far cry from the tourist-crowded streets or shops full of tacky Irish souvenirs in Dublin or Killarney. Instead, there's lovely scenery—the mountain overlooks island-dotted Clew Bay—brisk sea breezes, and quiet.

Traditionally, if you were a sinner, the priest might tell you to make your journey up the mountain as penance. Now, it’s still a place of pilgrimage—there’s even a sign that spells out all the steps to do it properly—with a chapel at the summit. Some of your tougher or penitent trekkers even make the hike barefoot.

Famine Ship Memorial
The June morning John and I visited Croagh Patrick, we took a look at the Famine memorial at the foot of the mountain. It’s a sad, even macabre sculpture, hard to look at, but harder still to look away from. I gazed at it for a long time, thinking of my own Irish ancestors who’d left their homeland. My mother once shared that her grandmother Anne, a McCormack from Cork, was told by her emigrant grandmother, “Don’t let them take you to the poorhouse.” It seemed likely that my great-great grandmother had gone hungry.

We left the memorial to experience the mountain. At 2,500 feet, it’s not immense—there are lots of foothills around where we live of similar elevation. But as I gazed up at Croagh Patrick, bare of trees, with a mist drifting along the upper reaches, I sensed a different, almost mystical vibe. And the summit seemed far too distant to make the journey in a few hours, as I’d heard people did. Still, I figured I’d hike up as far as I could before it was time to leave—and since I was wearing sturdy sneakers, it would be no problem.

St. Patrick's shrine
I began the short climb on a reasonably maintained pathway to the statue of St. Patrick. (Like most other religious sites and shrines in Ireland, there’s a sign asking for a donation, for maintenance.) I was game to climb higher, but the path became treacherous. Instead of gravel,  you had to negotiate either smooth wet stone, or clamber over humps of rock, every surface littered with loose rocks of all sizes. I hiked up about 50 yards further, but found my sneakers and my sense of self-preservation were no match for that trail. Amazed that some people did it without shoes, back I turned—preferring to stay in one piece instead of being able to say I climbed even partway up Croagh Patrick!

If you're looking for Ireland-related entertainment for St. Patrick's Day, you'll find a great selection of Irish books and movies at www.susancolleenbrowne.com Whatever your celebrations, may they be happy ones!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hygge = Comfort Living, Foothills-Style

Winter doldrums got you down? A cold or even the flu has you under the weather? The Danish notion of “Hygge,” which many Danes think of as a feeling of coziness, togetherness and contentment, may be just what you need to get through the dark, cold days of February. I’ve just started The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking. It’s an whimsically illustrated book that shows how you can embrace “Hygge”—a Danish term that looks like it could be pronounced “Huggee” or with a stretch of the imagination, “Hug Me,” but it’s apparently pronounced “Hoo-ga.” However you say it, now is the perfect time to treat yourself to fresh air, extra light, and comforting food and surroundings. And yes, lots of hugs.

It would be great if “Hygge” happened magically or spontaneously, but it does take some prior planning. Maybe fit some outdoor time into your day—a lunchtime walk, or after work, a ramble in the park with a friend in the dusk. Next time you’re at the store, you might lay in a supply of soup-making ingredients. And of course, some quality chocolate. 

Once you’re home, get out the soup pot, and into your jammies and fuzzy socks. Live flames of some kind (preferably not coming from your stove!) will really lift the spirits—if you don’t have a fireplace, how about candlelight? Have beeswax or soy candles on hand (they don’t emit chemically fumes like paraffin). Instead of lolling on the couch in front of the news, read a fun book or watch a PBS mystery. (Try to steer clear of The Walking Dead or anything similar—the Hygge vibe doesn’t really go with blood and gore.)

Here at Berryridge Farm, you’ve always got an excuse to (or a reason to make yourself) get outside, even in winter. I’ll chop a little firewood, and turn the compost pile to keep it from freezing. In the evenings, John will have a fire going in the woodstove. While I like candlelight as well as the next person, lit candles just remind me of having a power outage. Instead, we turn on a string of holiday lights we keep in the living room window until Daylight Savings Time. For entertainment, John loves nothing better than a Japanese Samurai film...lots of swords, angst, and everyone dies at the end--but with a Zen-like acceptance.

I just finished Marian Keyes' latest Irish comedy-drama, The Woman Who Stole my Life, so for me, it's back to TV. This week, I'm re-watching The Forsythe Saga (Masterpiece Theatre). It’s not Downtown Abbey (sigh…6 seasons just weren’t enough) but a beautifully acted historical drama with Downton-worthy gowns!

Back to soup: a few days ago, John and I were down with the flu, and not up for the 65-mile round trip to the supermarket. The fridge was looking pretty empty—I was down to 3 carrots, a chunk of onion, a potato and no fresh meat. My garden kale was a wreck due to several weeks of bitter cold, and I’d used all but one of the parsnips I’d managed to harvest before the ground froze in December. But thanks to forethought and a bountiful garlic harvest, we had enough staples on hand for what I call:

Cupboards Are Bare Flu Soup:
1 quart chicken broth
½ onion
3 big cloves garlic
2 carrots
1 medium potato
1 large parsnip
½ cup dried green lentils
1 6 oz. can tomato paste

Peel and chop the veggies, and saute in a generous amount of olive oil. If you like a brothy soup (I do), in a separate pot, cook the lentils in a couple of inches of water for 20 minutes or so. After both the lentils and veggies are soft, combine in your soup pot and add the broth and tomato paste. Some garlic powder and herbs from the garden are nice—I used some freshly picked thyme, which grows all winter here in the Foothills. Stir well, and while it’s simmering for 30 minutes or so, give your partner, child, or pet a hug!

The Sunday afternoon before I got sick I made some walnut chocolate cookies (see recipe in my November 2016 post) and still had a half dozen in the freezer. That evening, we had soup with whole grain bread and homemade cookies, and voila—nourishing Hygge food! 

What's your version of Hygge?  I hope you'll share it here!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

J.K. Rowling Quote and Resolutions Resolved

The New Year is one week old…do you know where your Resolutions are?

You’ve hardly gotten around to sweeping up your New Year’s eve confetti, and self-help experts are on Resolution-making like a pair of skinny jeans—most of them implying that if you’re not trying to improve your life in some way (with not just one Resolution but several) your future as a functioning human being is in doubt. If that’s not enough pressure, there's all kinds of advice about what to do when you can’t stick to your Resolutions (there’s no “if”—you’re only human, right?) so failure is already built into the system!

Most of what’s out there we’ve all seen before. Like, instead of setting an intention to stop a behavior, you should make it positive. Example: don't say to yourself, I will stop eating so many Lindt milk chocolate bars, you think, I will improve my health. Still other goal-setting gurus suggestions: make your goals realistic and specific; partner with someone who shares your resolution; when you slip up, just keep going. All good advice…but not so inspiring.

Seeking more pizzazz when it comes to making resolutions, I found a sampling from the Seattle chefs' community: "To eat not standing up at least four times a week." "Exercise more so I can drink more Champagne," And, "Practice doing cartwheels more with my 8 year old daughter so I don't hurt my back every time I try one." (Thanks to "New Year's resolutions from 17 Seattle chefs," by Bethany Jean Clement, Seattle Times, January 1, 2017.) Fun resolutions, even if they won't quite set the world on fire. 

Hoping for an epiphany, I kept looking for some Resolution advice I could really get excited about. O Magazine columnist Martha Beck focuses on what you might call "Non-Resolutions" (January 2017 issue). Her approach includes a few nuggets: Resolve not to lose weight but to gain "weight" by adding more meaning to your life. Instead of vowing to declutter your house, embrace the chaos. Rather than saving money, "spend" more positive attention. Definitely a new twist.

Gigantic garlic from the garden!
I was all set to make my new Non-Resolutions, then I found some even better advice: give yourself a theme for the New Year. After many years of making, then breaking my Resolutions, I’m going with this one. Out of the many self-improvement goals/themes I could undertake, and there are many, I came up with one that covers everything: Take More Chances.  

If you’re a risk-averse, creature-of-habit homebody like me, you know an intention to go for the gusto is a major stretch. Just this week, however, I “lived dangerously” by taking two completely new risks. One wasn’t all that successful; still, I’m glad I tried it and I’m going to give it another go and see what happens. The other risk paid off. Emboldened by my most successful garlic harvest ever, I lined up a "backyard farming" teaching gig for this spring! 

Teeny-weeny covered wagon
The morning after I made my Resolution, I reached into the new package of tea for my wake-up hot beverage. If you drink Red Rose tea, you know each package includes a miniature ceramic figurine, part of a collection with such themes as the circus, nautical items, wild animals, and so forth. Interestingly, I found a small orange covered wagon! The serendipity of making my "Take More Chances" resolution, and coming across the symbol of those ultimate risk-takers, pioneers, hinted that I was onto something.

I knew I was on track for sure when today, I came across more words of wisdom for anyone ready to take more risks: "Anything's possible if you've got enough nerve." J.K. Rowling

Here's to more nerve for us all! Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Holiday Magic: Yule Lads, St. Lucia, and 2 Goodreads Giveaways!

Ah, the December holidays…Catalogs jamming your mailbox…overpriced gift suggestions filling your favorite magazines…your Visa card screaming for mercy… Where is the magic, I ask you?

If you need a break from Christmas commercialism, go no further than checking out the holiday rituals of other countries—most of which involve lots of yummy food and no trips to the mall. In Sweden, the Christmas season begins today, December 13, when Swedes celebrate the feast day of Saint Lucia. Traditionally, young girls wear an evergreen wreath with seven lighted candles upon their heads, and serve their families coffee and buns. The magic seems to be that not many girls’ hair has caught on fire or else someone would have come up with a new way to celebrate!

You might also like the Christmas rituals of Switzerland--lots of bell ringing and huge homemade doughnuts called ringli. The Danish seem to embody the holiday spirit—giving each other baskets made from paper hearts filled with candy. And the French custom of le réveillon, a big family meal that takes place after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, must be really splendid (or magical), since everyone seems to have the energy to stay awake for the big celebration.

When it comes to holiday magic and whimsy, however, the traditions of Iceland rule! Instead of Santa, Icelandic people celebrate with the legend of the "Yule Lads." The Lads are the 13 sons of mountain trolls who visit the towns and villages across Iceland to make mischief, beginning on the 13 days before Christmas. Each of the 13 trolls has a name that relates to his own brand of prank—think “Bowl Licker” or “Sausage Swiper,” and he gets his own night to made trouble. If you’ve been good, the Yule Lad will leave a sweet or gift in your shoe. If you haven’t, you don’t get a lump of coal…you get a rotten potato. Now there’s an incentive to behave yourself!
Country holiday love story

To celebrate the season closer to home, I'm currently running Goodreads Giveaways of my 2 holiday books! The Hopeful Romantic, Book 3 of my Irish Village of Ballydara series, will be a Goodreads Giveaway until just after Christmas. You can also enter to win a signed copy of Morgan Carey and The Mystery of the Christmas Fairies, the 2nd book of my Morgan Carey fantasy-adventure series for tweens, until December 29...  You'll find more about my books at www.susancolleenbrowne.com!

And may your holidays be filled with wonder and magic!

Fantasy Adventure for Tweens
PS--Thank you to Believe: Christmas Treasury, by Mary Engelbreit, and "Not Home for the Holidays" by Brian J. Cantwell (Seattle Times, December 11, 2016) for inspiring this post!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Thanksgiving Countdown and The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe...Ever!

Sure, a roast turkey feast with all the trimmings happens only once or twice a year…but if you’ve got the same kind of sweet tooth I do, you know that pie on Thanksgiving is the real draw. With a couple weeks to go before sinking my teeth into pumpkin pie with a butter crust and local whipped cream, I was jonesing for some homemade cookies to keep me going until then. Naturally, I wanted the best cookies I could get, so I made some earlier this week.

A bit of background: ever since I was a kid just learning to bake, I swore by the Toll House cookie recipe on the package of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate chips. A classic recipe you could count on, tasty cookies, and everyone loves them! However, for me, the cookies weren't quite perfect: a little too salty, and they fell apart too easily. (I like my cookies really underdone. John likes his really overdone. It’s the secret to a happy marriage, because we’ll never steal each other’s cookies!)
Well, I said I liked big cookies!
Despite its limitations, I kept going with the classic Nestle cookies. Then a couple of years ago, I came upon a recipe on the back of a five-pound sack of Gold Medal flour…and life got better! And here is The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Ever recipe, with my embellishments:

Dry ingredients: Sift or stir together:
2 cups flour (I use about 1 1/3 white and 2/3 whole wheat pastry flour)
1 teaspoon soda
½ teaspoon salt (I use sea salt)
¼ to ½ teaspoon cinnamon  

Cream together:
1 stick + 6 tablespoons softened butter (1 and ¾ sticks)
1 1/3 cups sugar or brown sugar (I use organic cane sugar with about a tablespoon of molasses)
1 large egg
2 generous teaspoons of vanilla
Mix in about ½ the flour mixture. Then comes the secret to this amazing richness of this cookie:
Chop or process 1 cup walnuts until they’re small crumbs, almost like walnut “flour.” I chop by hand with a chef’s knife for about 15 minutes to get the right “crumbliness.” Add the walnuts and mix in, as you also add the rest of the flour.

When you’ve got the butter mixture and the flour mixture pretty well combined, add your chocolate chips. I’ve never used 2 cups of chocolate chips per the Nestle recipe, and for this one, I suggest about 1 cup of chips. Along with the chocolate chips, add about 1/3 cup of rolled oats or barley flakes and mix until combined.

Drop your preferred amount of dough on a prepared sheet and bake at 350 degrees. I make big cookies, probably about 2 tablespoons of dough for each one. For nicely underdone cookies, I bake for 7 minutes, then rotate the cookie sheet and bake for 2 and a half minutes more. Cool the sheet on a rack to let the cookies set up before you remove them. Then prepare to be amazed!

If you'd like some pie inspiration, check out my post, "A Simpler, Greener Holiday" from 2010!