Thursday, January 26, 2017

Grow Journey - gardeners in arms

Waiting for me when I stepped through the winter-dark Brooklyn doorway recently, fresh from the South African sunshine, was a packet of Grow Journey seeds. It has been a year since I received my first seeds from them, and I have come a long way in terms of how I garden.

While the 'Little Bells' heirloom peppers in the December package seem like a dream in late January, their backstory on my Grow Journey dashboard when I log on, is cheering. I don't think of my garden as pepper country because it receives full sun only in the midsummer days, but, says their story, these "cute, delicious miniatures need less sun and nutrients than bigger peppers do to develop their sugars...and if you have an exceptionally short season, cut the entire dwarf, densely fruiting plant at the base & hang to ripen the last peppers indoors." Huh!

November 2015 soil test

Grow Journey co-founder Aaron von Frank got in touch with me at a time when  I was very despondent about my edible gardening prospects in our new garden. To recap: I discovered, via a late 2015 soil test (above) that our soil had high lead levels and a low pH. It took a few hours of bug-eyed reading for me to appreciate the significance of that relationship. I learned that if I raised the pH of the soil, the lead would not be available for absorption by plants. I also learned that - with exceptions - little lead is absorbed, anyway; the real issue is lead dust sticking to leaves, or hands and feet, then being ingested. But I was still verskrik, as we say in Afrikaans, and preferred to be as safe as possible. Mission Raise pH was launched in late December of that year. And my first Grow Journey seeds arrived in the mail.

While the Cornell lab that tested the soil provided instructive guidelines for correcting problems, I learned specifically about egg and oyster shells for sweetening soil (raising pH) from Steve Masley's website Grow it Organically (garden lime was no good because it also contains magnesium and my levels were borderline high). He was generous with his time in emails (his Instagram is @growitorganically).

 From late December 2015 through early summer 2016 I applied 12 lbs of powdered oyster shells (Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, in California) in two 6 lb batches, and about 3 lbs of egg shells, digging the powder in about 5" deep. And I planted seeds.

Fava beans, cover crop, nitrogen fixers, green manure

There were other issues with the soil in this central plot (I did not test or amend the soil on the garden's edges at all): our Phosphorus was too high, the Aggregate Stability was very low. So I planted cover crops and green manure (plants dug back into the soil), mulched with crop thinnings and leaves, and did not fertilize at all. What I think of as Grow Journey's onboard flight navigation system (for the garden pilot) taught me many of these healthy growing and management techniques. As a member of Grow Journey's seeds of the month club, you are not just paying for monthly seeds; you have digital access to all the wealth of information that accompanies your physical seed packets. Well researched and referenced techniques for improving your soil organically and using concepts such as polyculture plant guilds are Grow Journey mainstays.

December 2016 soil test

And, as my dad would say (if he could remember), results count.

Recently my second soil test results were sent to me by Cornell. The pH has risen from 5.4 to 6.6. From acidic to optimum, and near-neutral. This is pretty dramatic. My overall soil quality score went from 54 and Low to a score of 75 and Excellent. It seemed like the best news of the year. And I felt like I'd aced my exams after a dodgy start.

But this garden turnaround was not my own - I had help, from people who see the bigger environmental picture, and who use time-tested, science-supported methods. And that is my lesson for 2017. If we are going to survive under a crazed president, or in any of our personal troubles to come, we all need the right kind of help. Choose your community wisely, accept help, and be there for them when they need you.

January garlic

This winter has been disconcertingly mild, so far, and some of the crops in the vegetable plot are still green and growing. It is a temptation to sow cold hardy seed, like the pretty purple Indian mustard that was also in my December package. But things will change.

You can access Grow Journey's behind-the-scenes support and info with a free 30-day trial (you pay a $3.99 shipping and handling fee). I recommend it highly.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Pop up mushrooms

My friends Karen Bekker (a caterer who whips up delicacies for private cocktail parties) and mushroom forager Justin Williams met at that Tweede Nuwe Jaar lunch under the tree, although perhaps they had known each other peripherally on Instagram, I can't remember. So when Karen's Interesting Mushrooms popped up again in her pin oak leaf pile, she set up the G and T station in her garden and invited us over. 

Justin leads mushroom walks in Cape Town, and forages for local restaurants. The foraging scene in Cape Town has woken up. Mushrooms were one of the first wild foods I foraged there, sticking to easily identifiable pine rings (known in the States as milk caps  - Lactarius deliciosus) - they were a breeze to find, then, but now you have to wake up really early to beat the pack. Justin is delighted by fungi and along with his fiancĂ©e Beverley Klein, has launched a food start up called First Light Foods, producing forage-inspired treats like porcini powder and pickled waterblommetjies. They sell these at the popular and trend-setting OZCF market every week, and at other venues.

Justin and Bev had already met and identified these mushrooms the previous day and were back for the second flush. The edible Agaricus augustus, known as the prince, had eluded the mushroom hunter until now, and he was delighted to make its acquaintance. .

Karen and Justin

Justin vibrates when he talks about mushrooms. And, very kindly, he donated this prize edible to me. This is a big thing. Mushroom people don't let go of their loot easily at all. Very acquisitive. But the man's nature is very generous. He and Bev described its almondy and "sweet" flavor, and after the requisite, "no, I couldn't possibly," and, "yes, but you must," we drank up our delicious Six Dogs gin and parted.

At home the next day, the mushroom's gills had already darkened from blond to pale brown, and I cut the big cap into cubes. I cooked it simply, sauteing the pieces in some avocado oil, without seasoning, then tasted. Mushroom. Then I added a dash of dark soy sauce, which I thought would complement the sweet flavour I had expected.

The result was very interesting. While the thinner pieces of mushroom still tasted like mushrooms (it's amazing how many mushrooms do!), the larger, more succulent chunks were juicily almondy. Quite like marzipan without its actual sweetness.

New year, new mushroom.

What new flavour would you like to experience in 2017?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden. Over 1 million visitors were logged here in 2014, but I can't find current figures. I do not imagine they have dropped. That puts this garden on a par with the botanic gardens of much more populous New York City. Plus, unlike at the NYBG and BBG, you may picnic anywhere on the grounds (this should be a democratic right). There are no trash cans, and I have never seen any trash.

Having the most beautiful garden in Africa on your Cape Town doorstep is not something I could ever take for granted.

I renewed my Botanical Society membership a few weeks ago and purchased a late Christmas present membership for Tipsy (plus guest, for a little more - and it also grants additional free access to a scholar between the ages of 6 and 18), when we visited last week. Membership fees gain you entrance to this garden - its stunning grounds, displays and exhibitions; give you access to all national botanic gardens across South Africa; and - most importantly - support the mission and work of the Botanical Society of South Africa, including projects like CREW

At the nursery we also bought some Artemisia afra and Mentha longifolia for Tipsy's garden in Langa. Both plants are well known herbal remedies and if they survive the sandy soil and water restrictions, will be useful in her backyard medicine chest.

An hour at Kirstenbosch - watching birds, lying on the lawn, walking up the steep slopes, counting ericas, paddling in spring water, is an hour you do not need to spend on a therapist's couch. It may save some doctors' bills, too.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Disturbed ground

On a recent walk in Cape Town I stumbled - as I do - on a whole pantry of edible weeds growing in recently disturbed ground. Weeds are opportunists and pioneers and love them some disturbance. 

I went straight back home and brought Tipsy back to see them, because I know she loves one of them in particular: black nightshade in English, nastergal in Afrikaans, umsobo in Xhosa, and there I will stop; this plant seems to have a name and use in almost every language and every culture. Solanum nigrum (to get botanical about it) is considered a complex rather than one genus and species because it hybridizes so readily. Tipsy grew up eating it, and she is pretty healthy at 72 years old.

It is possible that both local conditions and its tendency to hybridize have led to some cultures viewing every part of black nightshade other than the ripe black fruit as poisonous, while others consider it food. Academic literature harps on the toxin solanine, present in the green parts of the plant. (Most people who suffer from solanine poisoning have eaten green potatoes). But Indonesians eat the raw green berries - calling them green nightshade in English and leunca in Sundanese - and cook them as part of warm dishes, saying that they are similar to tiny green eggplants. Don't take my word for it: search Instagram for #leunca and see what you find. [Update: an informant tells me that leunca may be Solanum torvum, but that the waters are very muddy, with a great deal of misappropriation of names.]

At home Tipsy showed me how she makes potele (Sotho), mixing cooked black nightshade leaves with a little mealie meal (cornmeal). It makes a hearty and filling bowlful.

Friends who have tasted black nightshade greens remark that they are bitter. These were not, and I am guessing it is because they grow in an area that is mostly shaded. (My reference point is dandelions - bitter in sun, mild in shade.) I am using more leaves for experimental dishes, but am blanching them in boiling water, as solanine is water soluble, to be on the safe side. I would love to try the raw fruit, but am still asking a lot of questions, and watching from the sidelines.

And if you are wondering about deadly nightshade, read this post. And this one. Different plant.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Natural pools and crazy neighbours

I visited my cousin Andy (Andrea) recently for a lamb-dinner in the elevated Cape Town suburb of Vredehoek. Andy is the Media Manager for the WWF in South Africa. Also, she's a really nice cousin.

We ate outside on a deck overlooking the city bowl, Lion's Head, and their mad Swiss neighbour's barren cement backyard next door. Below us, the exuberant greenery in Andy and her husband Jonathan's natural pool beckoned, and I had to go down for a better look.

Andy says they made the conversion from a conventional to a natural swimming pool several years ago, "after we got sick of having to deal with the pool going green during hot spells." Aquatic plants growing on floating pads keep the water clear, and a skimmer circulates the water. The pads on either long side of the pool leave a clear lane of water in the middle, for laps.

The pool was converted by Jerome Davis (who has a PhD in aquatic bio-engineering) and his company Eco Pools "He used our pool to test a floating island system using shade netting cushions impregnated with indigenous plants inspired by the Okavango's islands of vegetation," says Andy.

If I could afford to go back to Okavango (my one, deeply memorable visit was when I was 17, with my parents), I'd be there in a heartbeat. It's a series of islands and water edges in the inland delta formed by the strangeness of the Okavango River choosing to empty into the arid northlands of Botswana rather than conventionally flowing into the sea, one country to the west. It is now mainly an exclusive retreat for people who can afford the exorbitant prices of the local lodges, although do-it-yourself overland travel is possible, if you have the time and the use of a 4 x 4. (We have one of those.)

Back to the pool. Some of the vegetation includes exotic taro (elephants' ears), papyrus (an icon of the Okavango) and the African mint pictured above - Mentha longifolia. This chlorine-free and clean habitat attracts two species of frog: clicking stream frogs and the Cape river frog, currently dominant, "but the former is the one that sparked the war with our Swiss Italian neighbour," says Andy, adding, "I don't mind if you mention the war."

Listen to a click frog: Click (pun!) this link. In wet weather I have heard them outside my Constantia bedroom window, and it is delightful - a wild sound of home. We have also often heard them while hiking on the mountain - hard to spot, they syncopate from behind a curtain of moss, or from the vegetation masking a tannin-brown mountain stream.

First, the Swiss neighbour - who is only in residence in the summer - complained. The frogs were driving him mad and must be silenced. They clicked on. Then he sic'd the City on the frogs. For a noise complaint (as a New Yorker, calling nature noise seems both blasphemous and insane). When the city lost interest (after actually inspecting the property), the mysterious plant deaths began, oddly in line with how a bucket of bleach might be thrown over a wall, and into the pool. Then a large (twenty foot) and healthy karee (Searsea) tree died. It grows right beside the dividing wall.

So that is the war, to date. The man is unhinged.

In March last year the pool developed a leak, and Jonathan hacked all the vegetation back so that the pool mats could be lifted to expose the bottom. "Amazingly," says Andy, "it all grew back really quickly and the frogs, which decamped to the garden, returned too." The leak was just due to wear and tear and was fixed by a local pool company.

Eco-Pools also designs and builds grey water recycling systems, very pertinent in water-restricted Cape Town, where only grey water is now allowed for watering gardens (unless you have a borehole tapping into the Table Mountain aquifer, as my parents do).

Would you convert your pool?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Ocean View Fire

As I was driving today a plume of smoke above the mountains between Kommetjie (Atlantic Ocean side of the peninsula) and False Bay kept growing. Fire in fynbos is neither new nor necessarily a bad thing. Fynbos requires fire for regeneration and germination, but repeat burns can be harmful. 

The real problem is people: our vulnerable homes and bodies, our tossed cigarette butts, our braai fires, and our invasive alien vegetation, in some cases; trees like pines burn hotter and longer than fynbos, making fires harder to control or fight.

Close to the  residential area of Glencairn the fire was fierce. 

Now loaded down with some crates of water bottles for firefighters - many of whom are volunteers - I drove up Glen Road looking for an assembly point to drop them off before getting out of the way. I found a Disaster Management team, asked them where they wanted the water, and they helped off-load, sending some up the hill, and the rest down. From them, big smiles and polite words. The air was crackling, and they were very cool and organized. Then I left.

Flats housing military personnel (there is a naval base at Simonstown) are in the middle of the picture.

In the five minutes it had taken me to do this drop off the smoke had thickened. Local residents were wearing cloths around their faces. Streets were being closed.

Once out, at the foot again of Glen Road, this new plume was dominating the blue Cape sky.

The turquoise waves of the little Glencairn Beach beneath the increasing smoke.

Heading home up the M6 again, the spot where I had stopped 15 minutes before was now filled with cars and photographers, watching. The fire was bigger and hotter.

It did not look good. The valiant waterbombers, scooping sea water from Kommetjie (away to the right) were now bombing this nearest line. The wind had picked up. The summers are dry.

Current reports say that the fire has headed towards well-populated Simonstown and the Volunteer Wildlife Service says that Da Gama Park is safe again.*

How to help:

- You can drop off water, energy drinks and power bars at the VWS station in Newlands. Individual size bottles preferred
- You can donate directly to them via EFT:

Volunteer Wildfire Services
Branch: Foreshore
Branch Code: 108309
Account Number: 1083321226

- You can sign up for a MySchool MyPlanet card. every swipe will benefit them if they are your designated beneficiary.

Other fire news and information:

City Activates Disaster Ops Centre

- My friend Rupert Koopman, who is Cape Nature's resident botanist, interviewed on fynbos and fire (not discussing this fire)

- Volunteer Wildfire Services Facebook page - updates

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Lunch Under the Tree: Tweede Nuwe Jaar

A new deck was recently built under the London plane tree (a hybrid, apparently, of Platanus occidentalis - sycamore, and Platanus orientalis) in my mother's Cape Town garden. The tree - above - was a wispy sapling when we moved into No. 9.

The original deck was installed by a fly-by-night outfit, and died before its time. The new deck, completed just a couple of weeks ago, was beautifully built by Billie Boucher, who bills himself as a handyman, but who is clearly more (get in touch if you'd like Billie to build you a deck).

So. New deck. Party?

But also: I do not know when or if this deck under this tree in this garden, the place I have called home for so long, will see another big lunch for friends. There have been so many. The most recent one was in April 2015. Now, it is the cool green venue for small lunches - lunches for two (and three, when I am here, and four, if the Frenchman is too). I am afraid of losing it, the place, the center of myself. And so you whistle a happy tune, and hope no one suspects...

I invited some friends. From long ago and from just a few week ago.

Tipsy (also known as Selina), helped. Digression, apropos of a recent conversation with friends: Tipsy's given name is Nomatiptip, but her family calls her Tipsy, and so do I. She does not, for the record, drink a drop. Not that kind of tipsy. 'Selina' was the name her mother chose for her after the little girl was told at school by the teacher to come back the next day with an Afrikaans name. Those were the days. End of digression. She was assisted by her cousin Nonceba, who left a corporate life and is studying to become a traditional healer. They made a formidable team behind the scenes, and I could not have done this without them.

Tweede Nuwe Jaar ('Second New Year') in Cape Town is a traditional holiday-after-the-holiday, when Cape Minstrels gather and parade and play, and kick off a weeks-long competition to decide the best troop for the year. Think Mardi Gras under an African sun. I prefer this holiday to the desperate good cheer of New Year's Eve. That one has always felt sombre, to me.

Tweede Nuwe Jaar, conversely, is a day for setting the pace of the next year. And for this lunch it was in the company of talented people with good brains, big hearts, and inquiring minds. I have never wanted to be the brightest person in a room (or under the tree). I can't imagine anything more boring. I love what happens when a dining table unites diverse but wired minds.

As well as peeling a gazillion quail eggs - served with confetti bush-chile-lime salt and brown sage salt - my mother picked a lot of flowers from her garden and arranged them (I requested "shabby enamel vases").

After I set up the trestles and chairs the table was laid by Tipsy and Nonceba while I scurried around in the kitchen, tending the five-hour porchetta and straining watermelon juice for a Cape Town version of the Silver Lake, an improvised cocktail first sipped in late summer, on a floating dock on a lake in upstate New York.  

All ready.

Photo: Karen Bekker

Lunch on one table, people at another. Lots and lots of fresh-pickled vegetables (the overnight kind and the even-quicker kind), pickled cherries and pickled shrimp. (What can I say? It's a phase.) Plus some hams (recipe in 66 Square Feet - A Delicious Life) - with sauces, and that porchetta, with sauces.

When I sat down to eat I started with some pickles and the shrimps, and by the time I got back to this table for round two That Porchetta was...whoosh. Gone. As if it had never been. I guess it was good. I must make it again. Low, slow, and bursting with chopped fennel fronds, lemon zest and garlic.

I made two ginger ale hams. That seems to be the secret. 

And one gigantic tiramisu. 

And a bowl of basil ice cream.

At 6pm the last friends left. We had talked good talks and laughed good laughs. Musicians and editors and writers and artists and photographers and a marine biologist and a botanist and a conservationist and a recovering ecologist and even a lawyer and a mushroom forager and a pesto princess, and my parents at opposite ends of the langtafel.

I gathered and carried in the used glasses, and then sat on a shaded corner of lawn, near the tree, with a friendly corgi who came to look at me, and watched early evening birds in the shrubs and on the grass - the robin and thrushes, the bulbuls and white eyes, the little rooibekkies and the swee. the prinnias, the swooping amethyst sunbird and the little sunbirds, the Cape canaries and the dusky flycatcher.

There was still a lot to do, but I did not want it to end.

"How will we know it's us without our past?

...How'll it be not to know what land's outside the door? How if you wake up in the night and know - and know the willow tree's not there? Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can't. The willow tree is you."

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

First, peel your eggs

Before the party you have to peel the quails eggs. My mother offered to help me and do them all. There were a lot of eggs. 18 x 3. Whatever that is. So she boiled and peeled the day before, while I whisked and cooked and steamed and pickled. Then my dad offered to help, too.

Turns out peelings quails eggs is not his cup of tea. He quit.

 My mother soldiered on, neatly. 

Occasionally a waiting corgi swallowed a defective egg.