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Orchard Dreaming

Imagine an apple tree...

Imagine an apple tree…

I had a couple minutes before work and instead of strolling through the garden, I took steps toward our new orchard. Quite literally.

Janice and I dreamed about filling the “back lot” of the property with fruit trees even before we purchased it. Various obstacles impeded this dream, including several scrub trees and a rather formidable pile of slate left from the path and patio put in by the previous owner. We’ve had many other tasks around the garden but whenever we had a chance, we’d work to make our orchard just a bit more real.

We chopped down the undesirable trees during the first fall — a FAR bigger task than we first imagined. We then spent much of the next year, chopping up the branches and burning them in the rocket stove. This summer, I challenged our son to help remove the stumps… and before I knew it, he’d removed two of them. He also made short work of relocating the pile of stone. I mowed down the weeds and trimmed back the overhanging branches.

This September marks the second fall we’ve been in the “new house,” and the “back lot” finally started to resemble the vision we’d had of it in our dreams. Except for the trees.

But I took steps this morning to make those trees feel a bit more real. The “steps” I took were to pace off the distances appropriate for the size trees we’re planting. Right where the trunk of each dream tree will go, I sunk a fence post. Now we have a visual reminder of where each tree will be. I “knew” that three trees would fit along the back row but it’s gratifying to see them, not too close to the fence and not too close to each other.

When the weather cools off and the constant tasks of harvest subside, I hope to dig a 3′ hole for each intended location and to fill it with compost in anticipation of planting next spring. But even in the meantime, that row of stakes will also allow us to walk around our temporary “dream trunks” to see if we can imagine having a tree there for the rest of our lives.

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The Little Heartbreaks of Harvest Time

20 Minutes of harvesting yielded two buckets of tomatoes and half a bucket of heartache

20 Minutes of harvesting yielded two buckets of tomatoes and half a bucket of heartache

The heartbreaks of harvest time started in mid-August this year, with cool nights prompting the tomatoes to ripen in earnest. Barely ten days separated the pleasure of that first, vine-ripened Brandywine, still warm from the sun, from the brutal onslaught. Perhaps I overstate the “brutality” of such bounty, but this time of year there are days when even twenty minutes of dedicated harvesting focused only on tomatoes still leaves many fruit on the vine.

And therein lies the heartbreak.

Every morning, we find the wreckage of what we’ve left behind: pecked apart by birds, burrowed by worms, the elusive over-ripe and overlooked beauties grown soft and watery with decay. The squirrels — a superstitious species, I think — regularly deposit vegetables in stray locations as if making offerings to stave off some night-time terror. We often find a partially gnawed tomato, propped atop a 7-foot tall trellis that is a popular squirrel run.

Of course, I mock the trauma caused by these losses, but I’ve heard new gardeners sorely vexed by such “waste.” Some cite it as a reason to give up gardening. We prefer to view it more as generosity to the other creatures who abide in our garden. Like every phase of the gardening season, harvest work reminds us that we are not alone.

Be not deceived: harvest is work too, perhaps not as physically demanding as other chores, but gathering the produce, sorting, washing, and storing or preserving all adds up to work.

Today, twenty minutes of diligent effort filled two big buckets with tomatoes. And it nearly filled our slightly smaller compost bucket with specimens too far gone to save. We usually make the most of slightly imperfect tomatoes, that is at least 50% in good shape. Our home-grown standards are different than grocery store ones: these are the fruits of our labors, so we are going to use whatever we can. I often pare away damaged areas and use the salvaged parts in tomato sauce. There’s a big pot of tomatoes simmering on the stove at least one or two times a week.

The bounty is partially our own fault for planting so many tomato plants, I admit, but the wide range of varieties available is seductive. We intentionally are generous with our planting, for ourselves and for the creatures big and small who make up the local ecosystem. We might whine a little about their appetites, but we enjoy the antics of the squirrels. We also appreciate knowing that our crops bring pollinators into the area as well as other insects who consider our garden “good”.

We plant enough to share, even if we view the vegetables and fruits as ours. We live with a little heartbreak, maybe even embrace it, because the good news is there’s more than enough harvest to go around.

Home Grown Tomatoes!

Home Grown Tomatoes!

Posted in • Growing, • Sitting Still.

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Watermelon Pickles Recipe


Last week, we made our first-ever watermelon pickles. I used a watermelon pickles recipe that my sister gave me some years ago, and I also consulted our Ball Blue Book, keeping in mind the principles of safe canning and our adventurous palates.

As 20 Minute Jim previously noted, our inspiration in part was the several small non-mature watermelons we harvested from our vines. Yes, the squirrels got there first, but we don’t let a small inconvenience like that slow us down; I simply cut off the offended portions and used the rest.


As you can see in the picture, the insides of the watermelons did not have a chance to ripen and get pink. I sampled the interiors and the flesh was fairly sweet– alas! Nonetheless, I used the rind only for the recipe, scraping out the soft interior and peeling off the dark green skin.

Watermelon pickles are a multi-step process, so be sure to read through the whole recipe before you begin and allow time for the various stages.

Watermelon Pickles

5 cups of watermelon rind (white parts only)
1 medium lemon sliced thinly
1 tablespoon of whole allspice
1 tablespoon of grated ginger root
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups of sugar
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup of water

Step 1:
Cut watermelon rind into 1 inch square pieces. Measure to equal 5 cups. Blanch 8-10 minutes. Cool in ice water. Drain well.


Place rind and lemon in 8 quart non-metalic container. Tie spices in cheesecloth. Bring the rest of the ingredients to a boil. Simmer 5 minutes. Pour syrup over watermelon, stir. Cover and let set for 12-18 hours, stirring 2 or 3 times.

Step 2:
Remove lemon. Into 6 to 8 quart saucepan, bring mixture to bil. Reduce heat and simmer 40-50 minutes. Remove spice bag.

Step 3:
Fill hot 1/2 pint jars with mixture, leaving 1/2″ inch space. Remove trapped air bubbles. Wipe jar tops and threads clean. Process in boiling water canner 15 minutes. Makes 6 – 7 jars of 1/2 pint size.

If you don’t know how to can, learn! It’s not that hard, but it’s a task where a clear understanding of the equipment and methods is necessary for producing safe and delicious foods.

You can always make a recipe in a small portion and store in the refrigerator, rather than processing, but what you gain in convenience and speed you lose in the ability to brighten a winter’s day by opening a jar of your very own Watermelon Pickles!

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Poetry, Old Lovers, and Watermelon Pickles


Janice and I were married at an age so young we should barely have been granted a driver’s license let alone a marriage license. But even at that obscenely young age, we found when we merged our belongings that we had duplicates. In addition to a couple embarrassingly naive records, we both owned a copy of Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, a poetry anthology published by Scholastic Books and assembled by Stephen Dunning.

The title poem of the collection was about nostalgia, as I recall, about the memories of summer preserved like a jar of watermelon pickle… whatever that was. I grew up around canning jars, around the involved late summer ritual of steaming pots and quart jars, the gentle “ping” as the lids sealed when they cooled. My relatives canned just about everything – tomatoes, cucumbers, even corn and beans– Everything except watermelon pickle. When I first read the poem, I suspected this “pickle” was a literary convention, a fabulation concocted because it fit the conceit.

Years later, Janice was able to take several classes with Stephen Dunning, the anthologist, who was a professor at the University of Michigan. Dunning was a kind and encouraging man, just as I’d suspected from the book I knew as an adolescent. Back in the 60’s, he was also responsible for creating a series of record albums where he got the rising stars of the poetry world to read their own poems. We have a couple of these vinyl treasures. Janice considered it a marvel — how could Dunning have known which poets would become important 10 to twenty years earlier.

There is a football quotation popular in these parts that I suspect relates: “If you stay, you will be champions.” The famous, “successful” poets are the ones who have kept at it, perhaps, though honestly that sounds a bit too Protestant-work-ethic. Keep at it; keep failing. Keep trying.

Earlier this summer Janice and I were in Atlanta for a writers’ convention, and we both had our first taste of actual, honest to goodness watermelon pickle. It did not taste like watermelon and did not, really, taste much like a pickle. This cube of skinless rind, translucent, a color near yellow as I recall with perhaps a blush of pink, was sweet, nearly candied with a hint of spice. It was indeed an experience to remember, worthy of encoding into a poem.

I have never, ever successfully grown a watermelon. Some years, they come off with all vine and no blossom, or they’ll blossom and not set fruit. Most years, I haven’t even bothered trying but this season apparently was set to break my streak. Our watermelon vines were healthy and took to a trellis with zeal. They got plenty of sunshine and the rains this year made sure they were well-watered. A month ago, Janice lifted a leaf to show me a small watermelon, the size of a baby’s fist. We were so excited we hugged each other but then, as the weeks wore on, these vines too withered and crumpled as if responding to some curse. The story was not over. Janice dug out a recipe and made our own watermelon pickles from the rinds of those failed melons. She supplemented them with rinds from a couple larger examples procured from the farmers’ market too.

Last weekend, Janice and celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary, which is a wonder and somewhat a miracle. We fight, viciously at times. We bore each other at other times. We are not the role models, I suspect, for a “happily married couple” whatever that insipid phrase might mean. How did we ever stay together so long? We just didn’t split up.

“Those who stay…”

A half dozen precious jars. Thirty three precious years together.

Posted in • Cooking, • Sitting Still.

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Before and After: What 20 Minutes Looks Like (8) – Weeding the Wedge

Weeding the Wedge (Before)

Weeding the Wedge (Before)

It rained this week. At least, inclement weather is my excuse for waiting until today to head outside. I was glad to see the plants were not waiting for the weekend. The tomatoes that Jan placed in the “Wedge” bed were nice and stocky, signs that the soil is approaching the temperature of a comfortable bath water which is what these nightshades prefer. Just as diligent, however were the weeds, some felicitous. There were several volunteer dill plants, for instance, appearing along the edge of the flagstone patio. Yellow wood sorrel, that deliciously tart native plant, poked up here and there. I confess I chewed on them while I worked. Gardener’s treat, I declare. Of course there was bindweed (“We have always been at war with Oceania, er, I mean, Bindweed”) as well as pigweed, witch grass and several other less useful types of foliage. I snapped a photo, set the timer and got to work.

The beds were still moist, a rich damp black. Luckily, only a few droplets clung to the leaves. Any high level organic gardener will note that weeding shouldn’t take place under these conditions. The rationale is that weeding will disturb the soil, stirring up microbial beasties, and if the leaves are wet, these monsters might stick to the plants. Sure, yes. Yet I will quote a deeper wisdom: Make Hay when the Sun Shines. Not all of us have the luxury of weeding ONLY when the beds are most opportune. This is my day off. It’s not pouring down. I am weeding. In my defense, we’ve put down the start of mulch which minimizes soil to leaf contact.

I confess the results of my 20 minutes are not too impressive visually, but I was able to clear the weeds around all these tomatoes, as well as around the basil plants in the raised bed just off to the south. I also pulled a few of the larger weeds in the path.

Weeding the Wedge (after weeding)

Weeding the Wedge (after weeding)

I tacked on a little un-accounted time by mowing the back lawn. I figure it’s most effective to mulch right after weeding. If there are already weeds in a bed, there’s a chance they’ll weasel their way through the mulch. If there are only weed seeds, the mulch will have a better chance of smothering them. Plus, the soil was damp and a mulch would help keep that moisture from evaporating. I don’t time how long it takes to harvest grass clippings, mostly because it’s not a task I’m about to stop halfway. It costs what it costs in terms of time. I was able to gather enough clippings to blanket most of the tomatoes. Next time, maybe there’ll be enough for the basil, too. On the positive side, the amount of mulch on the wedge bed proper looks to be optimal. I’ll just supplement it a bit as it decomposes throughout the season.

Well, that’s it for today. Now I get to sit on the back porch and admire my handiwork at least until tomorrow.

Weeding the Wedge (after mulching with grass clippings)

Weeding the Wedge (after mulching with grass clippings)

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