Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The garden as antidote

The Gowanus Garden. Unofficial name. I have admired it for very many of my Brooklyn years. Nearly ten years ago Anne Raver wrote a wonderful piece about this tenacious garden on Union Street and she quoted me - I used big words: insurrection! Juxtaposition! I had been smitten by the riot of recent flowers. It was my first conversation with The New York Times. Later she wrote about our Harlem garden, and inbetween there was - notoriously - the Litter Mob article (remember the Litter Mob?) and also the flattering and lovely Cobble Hill terrace (and really the Frenchman-and-Marie) story, by Penelope Green.

The wheels turn. Some of them squeak. A lot.

Kirstin, the garden's creatrix, and I, became friends. I wrote another story about the Gowanus Garden, for Gardenista (visit the link for very nice pictures through the seasons). She and her husband David live just a few blocks from us. David is the source of unexpected and inspiring edible gifts. He'll arrive at the door with some acorn flour. Or a brace of grouse. Plucked woodcock.

Today, I began my day with a garden design - also for a neighborhood garden, and later a break in my afternoon laundry chore (the washing machines were churning and I had 25 minutes to spare), I charged to Whole Foods on my bicycle. I chose Union Street. The Gowanus Canal was misty, the tide high, and the bubbling white water spewing out anonymously at one poisoned end very sudsy, like our clothes. And just after the drawbridge, Kirstin's garden made me late. I stopped, and had a good look. Its edges were newly and neatly roped off, perennials cut back, daffodils in bloom, dianthus in bud.

The two lilacs are just thinking about opening.

The night's rain had cleaned the clever wine bottle retaining walls.

The daffodils are perhaps Mt. Hood. I must ask.

There is so much bad stuff going on; in the big world, in the world of family and friends' lives, in our own personal lives, that these small pauses in the ugliness are like a counter measure. A not-insignificant wall being held up to the evils of illness, or malice, or toxic indifference. These acts of beauty are the eloquent and botanical fuck you to the behavior or circumstances that can make life feel unbearable.

Inhale them while you can. Then pedal on.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Bowl of sunshine

I spent some hours in the woods of Brooklyn. Trees, buds, birds. Forest bathing is a new term for an old thing: immersing yourself in nature to heal.

In New York, with all its steel and concrete, it is always possible to find a quiet and wild spot where you see few humans, more birds, and lots of plants. The trees are thinking about leafing out, but are still bare. Buds are breaking. Early cherries are in bloom. So are lovely Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). And lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) is rioting across woodland floors. It is very pretty but destructively invasive, making life impossible for less aggressive native plants. So I picked a huge bunch with a conveniently clear conscience.

The presence of hermit thrushes and flycatchers, warblers and robins, and ever-present chattering blue jays and cardinals was constant and companionable.

I cycled home much happier than I had left.

Some of the lesser celandine flowers will become bright ice cubes for our Backyard Cocktails gathering this Tuesday, and others will help fill rice wrappered summer rolls for this Sunday's fully booked walk in Inwood, which I am looking forward to very much. There will be new people to meet, as well as returning friends, and we will all share a green New York adventure.

Thank you spring, for arriving. You took your time.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The sound of spring - a song of life and death

March 2018

Eeeeeeeeeeeee, wheeeeeee, whrrrrrrrrrr, vvvvvvvvvv, ghghghgh, merde!

Ah, the sound of a metal drill bit meeting heart of oak. Performance by Frenchman. Along with the song of the American robin, newly returned and caroling from the rooftops well past dusk, it is a true sign of spring.

This is the late winter, early spring garden. It is drab. It looks sad. Without distracting foliage the poured concrete slab dominates. And the legs of the townhouse's fire escape always get in the way of pictures from the kitchen door. But that is a year-round problem.

July 2017

Our garden table is used often in nice weather - mid spring to late fall. We eat outside every night. It's hard to remember that, after months of winter, when we live indoors with the warm light of lamps.

I bought the table on Etsy soon after we moved into our new apartment, two-and-a-half years ago. It was made to order from reclaimed oak and shipped from the hinterland. I had fallen in love with the advertised pictures, but when a progress-picture of the new table was sent it revealed six legs. Six legs! Not four. Apparently the advertised table also had six but they were successfully hidden by surrounding chairs. I hated it. The proportions were all wrong. It looked like a long low animal, or an amputated centipede. I squeaked. The very responsive Etsy vendor replied at once that it could be fixed and the offending middle legs were removed and the middle reinforced. He said it would be fine as long as I did not stand on it. I have not stood on it. And actually that aspect has held up fairly well. What has not done well is the planks on top, which have been warping and lifting up, the wood levitating from the slender nails.

March 2018

The table is out in all weathers, of course - sun, rain, snow. But that was made clear before I placed my order. The same vendor sent us replacement planks at no cost. I am sure this table cost them more than they made, in the end. But I also think this might have been a work in progress for them and a costly lesson in...something. Don't deal with New Yorkers? I absolutely cannot fault their customer service. Their tables would be best protected from weather.

Anyway. So it was time to replace the middle two planks, and this the Frenchman did, killing a drill bit in the process. The wood is truly hard. He has been using screws that hold the wood better than nails.

So, spring. On its way. Even though it snowed on April 2nd and will snow again on April 7th!

Also on their way to our door are a finger lime from California and myoga (Zingiber mioga - Japanese ginger) I ordered from Oregon. I have loved growing ginger as an annual crop and am hopeful that myoga will be winter hardy in a large pot. I am after its flower buds, a delicacy. A person can dream... But a girl who came on one of my foraging walks told me she grows myoga on a Manhattan terrace. So.

Last year's edible Asian experiment (also from Oregon, maybe that should tell me something) crashed and burned, or sank and sogged: my wasabi plants are toast (mush). I decided to leave them in their pot outdoors, covered by mulch and protected near the house. But they succumbed. I knew the risk was very high but had to take it for the sake of accurate reporting. Oh, dear.

RIP - August 2017

Also toast-mush? My pineapple lilies (Eucomis) that I left in pots, mulched and covered with clear plastic to stop snow from slowly rotting them. They rotted anyway. Allegedly hardy to USDA Zone 7. That's us. But they are not hardy for me in pots. Would they have fared better in-ground? We had killer low temperatures (below 0'F) in January. Fortunately I lifted some and they are fine in the fridge's crisper drawer. Another lesson learned. Call me your Horticultural Guinea Pig.

Along with the robin, yesterday I spotted a wood thrush in the garden - very exciting. First time. Rooting around near a pile of brush I have created to attract insects. It's a backpackers' version of an insect hotel (has anyone ever seen an insect in an insect hotel?). And after a brief return, Gordita the eastern towhee has disappeared again. Damn. She was funny - fat and unafraid, unlike the stupid sparrows who still fly away as though I was an axe murderer. I feed you, you idiots. Untrainable.

What is the sound of your spring?


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Forage, Harvest, Feast

Forage, Harvest, Feast, has a cover! And you may now pre-order it on Amazon. It is wonderful to have a visual reference at last for the reams and reams of pages, and the very long and intense process that is the making of a real book on real paper. And the publish date is August 26th, with pre-ordering beginning some weeks, earlier.

The cover features one of the simplest recipes in the pages of Forage, Harvest, Feast - a spicy couscous salad with mid-spring fixings: sweet, crunchy black locust blossoms (Robinia pseudoacacia - native to North America and abundant in Europe, where it is called acacia; I have even seen it in bloom in Cape Town) and tart greenbriar (Smilax rotundifolia) shoots. Both plants occur all over New York (we will spot greenbriar on April 22nd's Inwood Hill Park walk - there are a few spots left).

You can read more about the book and what to expect from its 485-ish recipes on the Forage, Harvest, Feast website (a work in progress that will soon be a fully fledged wild foods site).

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Follow the red bird

Someone is ready for spring. I think he is telling me that I better take the lily bulbs out of the fridge's crisper drawer and plant them, already.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Life, indoors

The current bedroom situation: trees. Small, but subtropical, and all looking forward to being outdoors, again. They will have to wait for May, and nights above 50'F.

The Thai limes (windowsills) are doing well - the smaller one on the right is packed with flowers and tiny fruit. The one on the left sheds most of its fruit. Don't know why. They each receive eight cups of water a week, at the moment. In midwinter it was every two weeks - things change. The curry leaf trees (table) have settled after feeling unhappy for a while and are no longer dropping leaves. The new Meyer lemon (bottom left) is hanging in there. The cardamon (floor below table) is fine and I cut its leaves often to perfume supper. Seeds under grow lights are thinking about it, hard. The lamps are cheap Ikea, the grow light bulbs are Amazon-ordered.

Above the disco-pink lights? My friend Willemien de Villier's amazing work (prints of her embroidery) at last framed and hung. You can find her on Instagram.

I am waiting for a finger lime to arrive in the mail (isn't Internet tree shopping incredible?), and must check on its progress. The shippers were waiting for temperatures to climb above freezing before sending it.

Soon, it will be April, and spring will shift into a serious working gear.  If I am not here (mostly, I am not, just because of time - I'd like more!), I am @66squarefeet on Instagram. A tiny daily post shows what is happening in this neck of the botanical-edible-foraging woods...


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

March is holding its breath

March is doing its usual thing. On again, off again. Snow, warm spell, slush, freeze, sun, rain. I like it.

And when there is a sale on daffodils, you jump on it. Buy them in tight bud. They do not last long.

Behind the daffodils, now very scented,  is my multi-stage, work-in-progress lemon syrup. Meyer lemons and sugar in equal weight. No water. The sugar draws the juice out. And then I added fir twigs, still green and fresh and fragrant, and after that, foraged juniper berries and juniper flowers. When it seems right I will strain it and bottle it.

The juniper in question is Juniperus virginiana, commonly known as eastern red cedar, and I found these trees along the Hudson, on a drive upstate. Some carried last year's fruit, some were in bud, with pollen about to burst - it is very aromatic.

Update: You can see the bubbly fermentation a few days later on Instagram.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Old Fashioned Raisin Bars

There are some very good cookies next door at 66 Square Feet (the Food).

In spring forage news, there are still spots left on my Inwood wild plant walk (April 15th). Pelham Bay is filling up fast (April 28th). Backyard Cocktails are sold out, but May's Spring Fling (May 16th) and wild soda workshop still has plenty of spots. Book in link below.


Monday, February 19, 2018

What is brewing?

Quiet on the blogging front. It's all about time.

Busy on the vinegar-making front. Although, with vinegar, a lot of waiting is involved. The busy part simply means cutting up fruit to combine with sugar, water and an aromatic (or not) in a wide mouthed jar. This sits for a while, 7 - 10 days, infusing and fizzing steadily. Then, after the solids are strained, the liquid goes back in the jar, protected by some cheesecloth (for dust or fruit flies), for some weeks. Three to six. Ish. Acetobacter are everywhere and they convert sugars into acetic acid. Voilá, vinegar.

This winter vinegar session began in December, inspired  by my friend Sarah Owens (whose latest, lovely book is Toast and Jam), who was making apple vinegar. To date I had only made vinegar from floral fermentations (elderflower, common milkweed), and waking up to the fermenting potential of winter fruit has been a wonderful adventure. My vinegars over the last couple of months have used apples and pears, dried jujubes (from Chinatown) with orange, pine buds, fir needles or spicebush as aromatics. Only one was a spectacular failure (durian!) - the rest taste very, very good. I think. There is really no need to ever buy vinegar, again.

I cook with it a lot. Plenty of Phillipine-inspired adobos. And lots of quick-pickled vegetables. These vinegars are also wonderful in drinks, with or without alcohol. Fruity, complex, sour.

Brooklyn Vinegar Recipe

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew, [Ugh. Then again, he did write Merchant of Venice]
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble

- Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1

Otherwise, I am reviewing copy edits (from a sterling copy editor) to the manuscript of Forage, Harvest, Feast; will then be working on a few other projects; gearing up for exciting spring forages and walks; and, all the while, and in between, figuring out - big picture - with the Frenchman what the long term future holds, and where.

So who needs vinegar?

(Seriously, I use no newts.)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Spring Forages

My spring list of walks and talks has been updated.

We're ranging farther afield for our walks: Inwood Hill Park and Pelham Bay Park - two of the wildest spots within New York City.

And staying - very - close to home, I am also offering two mid-week cocktail evenings in our garden, with botanical cocktails and mocktails and snacks to fuel us while we talk about unusual wild edibles that can be grown at home.

Please visit the Forage and Plant Walks and Talk page to book.

Saturday, February 3, 2018


January knocked it out of the park, in terms of extremes. Bobbing in the calmer but untrustworthy waters of February I am not sure how to proceed, but am massively grateful for Friends and Frenchman - my chosen family.

There are sparks of brightness. Maybe Amazon's take over of Whole Foods was good in this dose: Irish daffodils at just $2 a bunch. brightening an evolving weekend ritual -  bites of celebratory seafood in smoked or pickled form. Today's at-home brunch featured pickled herring (Blue Hill Bay, from Brooklyn's Acme Smoked Fish) on dense brown bread, with fresh dill and lashings of cucumber (sprinkle the slices with salt and sugar 5 minutes before you want them) and radish, and modest dollops of wild salmon and whitefish caviar - yup, essentially smørrebrød. Complete with a tiny shot of vodka, each. Bring on the Vikings.

Then came a five-mile run for the Frenchman, and five-mile walk for me (a humblingly painful back injury of almost four weeks ago has healed to the point of walking easily, but there is still a way to go; X-rays show promise, MRI still to come).

More brightness was a sneak peak at the layout of my new book, in the form of a sample chapter sent to me by my publisher (Chelsea Green) yesterday. I liked it very much, an intense moment of relief. The manuscript is still being copy edited, then comes back to me for checking; goes back for layout, comes back; goes back out for proof reading and indexing, then...print, print, print. So much work, by many humans. It will be ready for readers in early autumn.

And spring is just six weeks away.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Squirrel Appreciation Day?

You're kidding, right? Nope. It is a thing. And Squirrel Appreciation Day was yesterday, as I discovered by chance, hours after putting this wheatgrass on the table in the garden, hoping to attract my favorite bird, Gordita, who was MIA... I was worried a cat might have got her.

So the squirrel showed up, instead, and nibbled the grass very neatly and quite adorably. I hate the squirrels. Most of the time. They eat my bulbs and mess with my seedlings. Tourists from squirrel-free countries love them, and stalk them in Central Park.

Back to Gordita. She is an eastern towhee, above (on the Unattractive Gray Concrete), and might be a juvenile he, but I've decided she's a she. We have gender neutral bird bathrooms, so it's not really an issue. She is a genuine American sparrow, unlike the imported and rowdy brown bunch that frequents our feeding area and throws tantrums in the wisteria vine. Compared with those trim house sparrows, the eastern Towhee is fat. Hence, Gordita. I adore her. She never flies away in a panic, like the stupid sparrows - just hops confidentially about, looking for food. She has an ascending, inquisitive, cheeeeap? And she is all alone. She has been here since December.

In the coldest days of January when we entered the realms of deep freeze, I gave the birds a daily warm bath. First, I melted the frozen bath in the kitchen sink, then topped it up. I know. Crazy bird lady. I like to watch. Even if they are boring sparrows and starlings. They loved it.

The Frenchman would worry about them. That their feathers would get wet and that they would freeze in mid flight. I researched bird circulation. Their feet are complicated.

The blue jays and cardinals visit, too. I am so used to them that I take them for granted. So Gordita, the first of her kind I have seen in the city, remains special.

But happy Squirrel Appreciation Day.

Come spring, I will want to kill them, again. I am always threatening to turn them into pâté...

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Join a Flower Tour to South Africa

Have you always wanted to visit South Africa, but been nervous about finding your way, or overwhelmed by the choices available, once on the ground?

Do you love flowers and plants, and floral design? How about food?

If you have been squirreling away funds for a special holiday - this could be it.

Fellow South African and New Yorker Sylvia Clow-Wilson has created an extremely well curated flora-forward tour to South Africa from March 12 - 21.

Sylvia is the proprietrix of Cape Lily, a floral design studio in Manhattan. Her tour partner is renowned floral designer Susan McLeary.

The flower focused itinerary kicks off after touchdown in Johannesburg with game viewing and accommodation at Black Rhino Game Lodge (above) in the Pilanesberg National Park, before moving south to gorgeous Cape Town for three nights.

Here you will meet local gin brewers and mixologists, and join Roushanna Gray for a Veld and Sea forage (see my Gardenista post about her immersive classes) and meal.

You will visit one of my favorite places in the world - Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden (above), and hike on Table Mountain, which is one of the natural wonders of the world - a wilderness within a city of millions, where you will encounter fynbos at foot level. Fynbos is a storied biome within the Cape Floristic Region, one of the six plant kingdoms on the planet. It is the smallest,  but the most diverse.

You travel to the stunning farm Babylonstoren (above) with its famed kitchen garden and restaurant.

You will enjoy lunch at Babel (above) before submerging yourselves in two full days indigenous floral design workshops with Susan.

The tour culminates in a Veld to Vase dinner hosted on Langkloof Rose Farm outside Wellington, under the beautiful southern African night sky

The tour cost is $5,875.00 and Sylvia is offering to include airfare (details when you get in touch with her). For a 20% discount enter the code FORAGE when booking.

South African Airlines currently has flights hovering in the $1,100.00 range, and Sylvia can also connect you to partner airlines. Everyone meets at OR Tambo International on March 21st before 2pm.

For more information, to talk to Sylvia directly (you will have questions), and to book, visit Cape Lily. Remember your FORAGE code!

(If you are concerned about the water crisis in Cape Town, you will be there for three nights and will follow the guidelines at your accommodation. Following them you will not be thirsty or dirty. The farms you will be staying at rely on borehole water, drawn from an aquifer, rather than the dams and reservoirs supplying city water.)

Monday, January 8, 2018

Mokala - thornveld, sunlight and space

I took remarkably few pictures while we stayed at Mokala, the newest in the collection South African National Parks (known as SAN Parks). Located fewer than 100 km southwest of Kimberly in the Northern Cape, visiting it felt like a gamble. The drive from the Eastern Cape and its green coastal thickets, through the wide and dry Karoo, was lengthy, there would be no exciting large predators (although I hoped to see the elusive black footed African cat, a little sweetie that looks just like a tabby house cat), we only had my cousin Andrea's well informed say-so for visiting, and I was nervous that it might not be worth the effort. The Frenchman has two weeks of vacation a year. They have to be good.

But my first impression of the suddenly changed landscape, which was about the time I snapped Picture No. 1, above, through the Landcruiser's window, was intense. "This is good," I thought. In the driver's seat, Vince was smiling. Praise the Cousin.

Every since we camped beneath the grand old camel thorns (Vachellia erioloba) of Namibia we have loved them. And Mokala was littered with these slow growing trees, acacia lookalikes whose dignified silhouettes sing Africa. Mokala is the Tswana word for camel thorn. Many southern Africans know the tree mostly as the best firewood - its hard wood burns long, hot, and beautifully, and our Namibian trips also yielded bags of camel thorn braaiwood, usually labeled kameeldoring - its Afrikaans name -  at every stop. I learned subsequently that the tree is protected. While you are allowed to collect and sell the wood with a permit, it is sometimes collected unscrupulously or illegally.

The last hour of our drive had been rough. After being snarled in consecutive Stop-Go's on the arterial N12, we left the tar road per my directions, deviating from Google's route suggestion, and choosing secondary dirt roads that were technically shorter, but whose corrugations were the worst we have ever encountered. If I had any fillings in my teeth they would have rattled right out. But at the very end we were rewarded with sand tracks like red velvet carpets. We had arrived.

We checked in at the main rest camp, a discretely designed collection of thatched buildings with impressive lightning conducting poles rising high above its rooves. This is thunderstorm country, but at the very tail end of winter the summer rains had not arrived, yet, and the veld was still brittle and blond. The warm and unaffectedly friendly greeting at reception was in stark contrast to the utter apathy we received all round at Addo Elephant National Park. It was such a relief.

From the main camp we drove slowly to our isolated cottage (also Cousin Recommended) several kilometers away, passing through a fascinating landscape pattern en route. Some of the national park is comprised of former farmland that had been over grazed. I assume this mysterious series of excavations is about soil rehabilitation. Make a hole, pile in brush, wait for rain, rain falls and gathers, collected seeds germinate, covering the exposed and vulnerable soil?

And then, late at the end of a long day, we were at our new home for three nights. Haak en Steek is a refurbished former hunting cabin overlooking a waterhole. No fencing, a warning about roaming rhino (they charge when upset), and a steenbokkie quietly grazing under the surrounding camel thorns. (Haak-en-steek is the Afrikaans common name for another tree, Acacia tortilis, with long white thorns.)

We unpacked the Landcruiser, made ourselves at home, poured the ritual gin and tonic, and took deep breathes of clean air. We kept our eyes peeled for buffalo (not an animal you want to surprise in the bush).

At Mokala you do the traditional park drive every day, choosing your route and stopping to look at the animals on the way. It is always like a treasure hunt. I left all the critter photography to Vince, content to drive or just look. There were many giraffes, and we saw rare antelope like tsessebe, roan and sable. My favorite animals were the little mongooses that lived near the house, and one evening an enormous hare with backlit pink ears sat tamely eating a blade of scarce green grass beside our porch. A sweet scent late one afternoon led me to the flowers above, belonging to a black thorn tree (Senegalia mellifera).

While Haak en Steek's location is stunning, the cottage itself needed - needs - some improvement.  I made the very simple move on day one of carrying outside two comfortable chairs (we took them in every evening to protect them from dew, and vervet monkeys). The only other seating outside was a trio of incongruous and very ugly picnic tables which would be better suited to a rest stop, rather than not-inexpensive accommodation, as well as a stack of even uglier cheap white plastic chairs. A place like this invites repose and contemplation, neither of which can be done from bad seating. Good outdoor furniture is essential, for practical as well as aesthetic reasons.

So there we sat under the camel thorns and their opening buds, and said and did very little.

Giraffes feed voraciously on these thorny branches. They must have interesting tongues and lips.

At the end of each day we sipped our drinks, resting on a borrowed riempie bench from inside. A herd of black wildebeest galloped into the dam one evening, stopped abruptly, dropped to its knees, drank from the trough of fresh borehole water that is provided in dry times, and galloped back out, like cowboys in a Western. We both burst out laughing. Another time we saw a male kudu drinking, once a trotting and thirsty jackal, often a lonely springbok, and every evening the bokkie eating fallen camel thorn blossoms under the trees.

I made roosterkoek one night, cooking the dough over the coals. 

While it baked I caught some cell signal on a high branch. How else was I supposed to post to Instagram?

The best way to eat hot roosterkoek is with butter and green fig preserve -thornveld hors d'oeuvres.

And while the next course of chops and boerewors grilled, its deliciously scented smoke wafting through the trees, we watched the sun go down, three nights in a row, and wished quietly for more.

So that is my Mokala post. Its brevity belies the place's special appeal. We loved every minute, despite some idiosyncracies. The cottage needs TLC, but the things that mattered were there: snow white linen, clean towels, a place to braai, friendly voices when you needed them, endless space, and the deep silence and crystal night sky that I will always, always associate with South Africa.

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