Monday, November 30, 2009

Rain, rain, please stay

We've been blessed by a couple of days of rain - good news for the garden - and even cooler weather - good news for knitters (I'll be wearing a sweater and hot pink hand-knitted socks to work today).
     The first planting of vegetables is doing very well, though the fennel, snow peas, and second planting of mesclun have yet to show their heads.  The yarrow that I transplanted in the spring and that struggled through the summer seems to be looking more lively.  It was big and beautiful and totally out of control in its previous location at the four corners of the medicine wheel garden.  Here's a picture of Cosmo with a bouquet that I picked back then.
     The medicine wheel garden is looking much better.  It was very sad, with a number of things looking ragged and weedy after the summer, and then it looked pretty empty after I cleaned those plants out.  Now the nasturtiums are doing well (though no blossoms yet), as are the chrysanthemums, which are proving to be perennial mainstays, and new plantings of petunias and pansies, as well as the alyssum that I waited a bit too long to plant so it's having a harder time getting established.  The garden column in yesterday's newspaper tells us that since November was excessively warm (we already knew that), there's still plenty of planting time left, and that's good news, I guess, though bedding plants like alyssum have pretty much disappeared from the bigger home and garden stores.  I'll trust Saint Fiacre, shown here in last spring's glory days in the medicine wheel garden, to keep everything growing and, I hope, thriving.  That white mum is much bigger now and the red flowers are all gone, replaced with a deep red mum, the aforementioned Cherry Belle nasturtiums, and a border of dianthus in the front of the red section.  Eventually I'll get it all into perennials, as soon as I decide which ones they'll be.  In the meantime, the medicine wheel evolves as the seasons change. And I suppose that's as it should be.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gardens Yesterday and Today

Yesterday was the kind of winter day that makes snowbirds flock to Arizona, and makes those of us who live here year-round (almost) forget the blazing summers.  It was a perfect day for gardening, and for harvesting the last of the tepary beans, a traditional crop of the native Tohono O'odham people, who have lived here for centuries and whose vast reservation stretches from a few miles below Tucson south to the Mexican border and even farther west, a total of 4,453.307 square miles.  Long before development sucked away much of the water and global warming made it so much harder to live off the land, they farmed here. The tepary beans they've raised for centuries (and still raise on the tribe's cooperative farm) have been shown to be useful against diabetes, a gift of Western culture that came along with white flour, white sugar and sugary soft drinks and other foods that have replaced much of the traditional diet, especially since World War II. The beans are higher in protein than most other legumes and their complex carbohydrates help maintain steady, healthy blood sugar levels.

     Tepary beans are an ideal desert crop.  They need very little water; the manager of the tribe's cooperative farm told me a few years ago that they only irrigated them twice during the summer, though that may have changed since then, as the last few summers have gotten progressively hotter and drier.  They thrive in the heat; in fact, they're a traditional monsoon crop, planted with the first of the summer storms.  They also come in a number of different varieties: this picture shows brown, speckled blue, and black, all of which I've grown in my own garden.  For a couple of years I let them trail over the ground in masses of  tough, wiry vines, much tougher than those of any other bean or pea I've encountered.  This year Joe built a splendid trellis that may outlive us both, which made the beans much easier to harvest. It's important to keep them picked so the pods don't split and release them into the mulch where they'll be lost (but not forever, since next year they'll be back--they're still quite close to their hardy wild ancestors, I suspect).
       I'm sure the tribe has at least one bean combine, but for the small-scale home gardener, this is a very labor-intensive crop, and that's why I've decided this summer's was my last planting of teparies.  I can buy them from the tribe at local farmers' markets (along with amazing melons during the season) or from Native Seed Search (, a locally based organization dedicated to maintaining traditional seed varieties of many kinds that are adapted to the southwest. NSS has a special diabetes project to promote the use of tepary beans and other native crops among the tribes.
      The last teparies I bought (some to eat and some for this year's planting) were $4 a pound and well worth it, considering the work of raising and picking them and cleaning them of the dried pods, etc., as well as their superior nutritional value.  Although they are smaller than, for example, pinto or black beans, they take longer to cook, but once cooked you can use them as you would those other beans in pretty much any recipe calling for plain cooked beans, and you'll have the satisfactions of taste, a healthy meal, and knowing you've done your bit to help preserve another traditional (and environmentally friendly and organically raised, since insect pests don't seem to be a problem) crop against the onslaught of the so-called progress of monoculture agribusiness.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Art and Nature

Today we visited just a few of the artists on the Tucson-Pima Arts Council's free open studio tour, which continues tomorrow from 11-5 (go to for more information, list of artists, and maps of where the studios are).  It was wonderful to see the spaces where other artists work, to visit with them, and to be inspired by their art to spend more time on my own.  But I didn't take my camera, so I'll post a picture of some of Nature's art instead:

These are the last of the caladium leaves for this year (that's one of Joe's paintings behind them). I'd wanted to try this amazingly gorgeous plant for a long time and found them at a local nursery early in the summer.  This one thrived in a gorgeous Talavera pot in the shaded entryway outside our front door, but now it's finally cooled off, so I'll do what the books say and take out the tubers and store them for next spring.  No matter how difficult the day might have been, coming home to find these amazing leaves on their  2-3 foot tall stems waiting outside the front door made me smile.  Maybe next spring I'll try more in different colors.
     In the meantime, it's back to the easel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


These are the first radishes from our winter garden, with a sprig of epazote in front.  Like the old gardeners recommend, I planted radishes and carrots in the same row, to mark the row since carrots take so much longer to come up, and they are coming up, their fern-like leaves so small and delicate next to the rowdy radishes.  These are d'Avignon (French breakfast) radishes, which have charmed me since I saw a picture in a French cookbook, years and years ago, of a slice of baguette spread with butter and topped with a layer of sliced radishes (maybe with a little coarse sea salt sprinkled on?).  They're so delicious, I'll have to plant more this weekend.  Even if I didn't like to eat them, I think I'd plant them just because they're so pretty!
      You can cook radish greens, too, just like any other green, or with another green.  They don't need to cook long and they have a mildly sharp, peppery flavor, not surprisingly.  I learned that from an old Adele Davis cookbook.  Wonder if her books are still in print?  I've tossed thinly sliced radish leaves into the water I was boiling for couscous, or into a stir-fry in the last couple of minutes.  Like all greens they cook down to much, much less than their original volume, but they add some vitamins and flavor, even if a bunch of radishes doesn't furnish enough greens for a real side dish.
     The epazote's gotten completely out of hand - again.  Even if I pulled it all up, there'd soon be more, since it reseeds itself so enthusiastically.  I'll cook some beans this weekend and use up some of it, though the conventional wisdom seems to be true, that if you eat beans fairly often, there's less of a problem with the, ah, anti-social qualities some people fear, and that a bit of epazote significantly reduces.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Wildlife Encounters

The weather's back down in the 80s, closer to where it belongs (though still unseasonably warm), and it's a gorgeous day - bright blue sky and a few wispy clouds just for textural interest.  On our walk Sunday morning Joe and I saw something unusual, at least in our limited experience.  At first I thought it was a smaller bird chasing a hawk away from its nest or young, something we've often seen.  But on a closer look, it wasn't that at all, but rather a red-tailed hawk and a significantly smaller Cooper's hawk, apparently just hanging out together, riding the air currents in that glorious sky.  We stopped and watched for about 5 minutes, until they drifted up and westward out of sight.

A few days earlier, in that magical lavender pre-dawn light that lasts only a short time each morning, we came upon a bobcat watching a rabbit that had just crossed the road (why does a rabbit cross the road? I have no idea).  Again, we paused to see what would happen.  The bobcat was utterly still yet we could sense its focused attention on the rabbit, its muscles like tightly coiled springs, and then it leapt, almost crossing the road in one bound and flushing the rabbit from a thick clump of red-blossoming oleander.  The bobcat was right behind it, less than a foot away, when the rabbit wheeled into a tight right turn and was off down the road (the rabbit stopped half a block or so away and looked back before ducking into the brush).  Apparently bobcats, perhaps because they're bigger, can't turn as tightly as rabbits.  In any event, this one knew when it had lost its prey - predators, after all, miss more often than they hit.  I didn't necessarily want to see a bloody spectacle enacted just 20 feet in front of me, but I do hope the bobcat eventually found some breakfast.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Settling in for Winter

As winter (or what passes for it here in the desert) gets closer, I feel more domestic, more concerned with the small things that make a house feel like a home.  These are a few of the prickly plants that live on my kitchen windowsill.  The one on the left is some kind of euphorbia - there are so many members of that vast family! I've collected a few of its kin, including a couple of firestick plants, a very large crown of thorns, and the wild Mexican ancestor of the big-blossomed poinsettias we'll soon be seeing in the stores (and yes, I know the red "blossoms" really aren't blossoms).  The wild ones have reseeded themselves at various points in the yard, no doubt with some bird accomplices.
       But I'm not really posting to talk about plants, but rather dishcloths, like the one underneath these these pots.  Several years ago, when I was in grad school, a group of us liked to gather weekly for a "wine and whine" session, to which we brought our knitting or other projects.  My friend Laurie suggested that dishcloths were a good way to begin knitting, but it wasn't until a few years later that I actually knitted my first dishcloths.  They're good small projects for driving trips (as long as the knitter isn't also driving) and for trying out new stitch patterns.
     I like my dishcloths to have a nubbly texture which helps get things cleaner.  I tend to be a relaxed or loose knitter as opposed to a tight knitter (which means I really have to check my gauge, or things can come out 2 sizes too big), so if the pattern calls for a size 7 needle, for example, I drop down to a 6 to get the right gauge.  But gauge doesn't matter so much with this kind of project.  The best yarn is worsted-weight cotton, like Lion Brand Kitchen Cotton or Lily Sugar and Cream.  Here's the pattern for this particular dishcloth:

Chevron Rib Dishcloth, to be knit on size 6 or 7 needles in worsted weight cotton;
Cast on 41 stitches.  Knit 2 rows in garter stitch, then change to pattern, keeping 2 stitches in garter stitch at each edge of every row, in addition to the pattern stitches shown below, so that your pattern stitch is framed on all four sides by a narrow band of garter stitch.
Row 1: (right side) P1, *K1, P2, K2, P2, K1, P1; rep from * to end.
Row 2: *K3, P2, K2, P2, K1, (P2, K2) twice; rep from  *  to last st,  K1.
Row 3: *(P2, K2) twice, P3, K2, P2, K2, P1; rep from * to last st, P1.
Row 4: *K1, P2, K2, P2, K5, P2, K2, P2; rep from * to last st, K1.
Repeat these four rows until the dishcloth is only 1/4" to 1/2" shorter than it is wide. Knit 2 rows in garter stitch, then bind off.

When I first heard of knitting dishcloths, it seemed a bit silly to me.  After all, I was a "real" knitter who was capable of making more important things like sweaters, socks, etc., etc.  Now I'm a convert.  They actually do make doing dishes more pleasant, they're an easy pick-up project when I don't feel like anything more complex.  Oh, and you  can use them in the bath as well as the kitchen, and they make lovely gifts.  How about a couple of these washcloths (as opposed to "dishcloths" in a basket with a bar of soap and a bottle of lotion, for example, or for a smaller token gift or stocking stuffer, perhaps just one, rolled up and tied with a bit of ribbon?  I've also given a couple of rolled up dishcloths along with 3 wooden spoons, all tied together with raffia or twine.  There are all kinds of possibilities.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fruits of Autumn

I have a friend who was recently waxing eloquent on the joys of persimmons, which have just appeared in our markets.  So sweet, so delicate, with flesh like a quivering orange jewel, they are a transitory pleasure; like the fresh figs of a month or two ago, they won't be around for long, so in my opinion it's all right to make gluttons of ourselves.  I didn't taste persimmons until I was a grown-up but I remember a photograph I saw in a book, of Japanese children in the snow, shaking a leafless persimmon tree loaded with bright fruit.  I don't know if they would have been a viable crop in Idaho, where I grew up, but certainly no one grew them, at least no one that I know of.
     It's also prime season for fresh pears, which I  didn't fully appreciate until a few years ago, having grown up eating the canned variety.   But look at these!  The  red, like the princess in a fairy tale, more easily bruised than some,  so  we'll eat those first,  then the more common but still noble Bartlett,  which  sometimes  blushes  a bit,  and  the  sturdy  brown  Bosc, wonderful for poaching, but we'll probably eat these raw with a nice pungent cheese.  Though pears are more common than some fruits, they are a sensual delight, and prices are low--'tis the season. Let's treat ourselves!