Thursday, December 31, 2020

The terrace year, in brief

January 2020. Still blissfully ignorant of what was coming.

And in February? Nothing, because for the whole month I was visiting my mom in Cape Town. And thank goodness, because lockdown was imminent. 

As the new reality slowly seeped in (there was denial - "it's like flu, everyone underestimates flu!"), the March pots began to wake up and offered the plant therapy that never fails. Shoots began to shoot. Pansies were planted.

In April we rattled and beat our pots and bowls for essential workers every evening with the rest of the neighborhood. And then sat out at the stone table, well wrapped, for a drink. Pansies and South African nemesias bloomed in the window boxes, beside new-sown arugula. I learned that Sq. Irrel is deterred by chicken wire, so I covered the terra cotta pots where I had planted lily bulbs. I bought a new black raspberry from the Gowanus Nursery (bottom right).

May saw the citrus and the bay tree back on the terrace, after their long winter indoors. Pots were shuffled around. Braais were lit and I cooked over coals while it was light. (The green pillows are by Skinny LaMinx - they ship Stateside from Cape Town for a flat fee of $15). 

By June the terrace had fluffed out. Petunias and portulaca replaced cool-weather pansies. Echinacea opened. Basil began to basil. Lilies formed buds. Days were long and we dined outdoors every bright evening. 

In July it was jungle-lush and our living space shrank as plants broadened and greened. Agastache began to flower at last, inviting bees, and lavender was squeezed into the windowboxes for the nostalgic Frenchman. (These cushion covers are also South African, by A Love Supreme. Yes, we did a lot of online shopping...)

The windowboxes of August spilled onto the terrace with fragrant petunias. The neighborhood's trees were plush, and sometimes filled with green monk parrots, visiting from Green-Wood Cemetery, where they nest.

By September new moonflowers were opening every evening. The balloon plant (Gomphocarpus physocarpus) made balloons.

                                  In October the fingerlimes began to ripen. 

In November the leaves of the black raspberry turned yellow. The myoga ginger stayed green until the middle of the month, then died back for its winter rest.

And December gave us an early gift of snow.

May your 2021 be happier than the year behind. Plants help. 



In closing

From the winter terrace, where the daily parade of small things is our entertainment.

Some of us have had a better year than others. Many have been stretched thin, or crushed by events and personal loss. If I remember one positive quality from 2020 it will be the generosity of others - kind words, cards, messages and money: Through donations here we have been able to help two families far away, suffering from the effects of COVID - loss of work, and the loss of a mother - without the means to tide them over in hard times. 

Thank you.

Wishing for you that 2021's peanut-filled pine cones are within reach. Even if you are not quite sure how to get back to where you began. 


Find me daily on Instagram @66squarefeet

Sunday, December 20, 2020


South African rusks are in my blood. In the houses of my childhood and teenagehood rusks lived in big metal cake tins that gradually collected dry layers of loose crumbs. Rusks were served in little baskets when tea was made. 11am and 4pm. And you dunked. If you went on a long road trip and stopped beside the road for a break, you had rusks and instant coffee. 

When the Frenchman and I have gone camping rusks were breakfast, easily packed into the breakfast box with the Bialetti, the ground coffee, the sugar jar, and the enamel cups. My Canadian-born, French-blooded husband took to rusks the way he took to South African boerewors. He fell in love, hard. 

They are hard, yet brittle, dry through and through. They travel well. They are sweet. They suck up hot liquid and turn just soft enough to bite. If you dip too long they calve into the cup like a global warming glacier and send a tsunami of brown liquid across your pajamas (you can study rusk splatter the way experts study blood spatter to piece together prior events). 

There are many styles of rusk, from delicate mosbolletjie flavored with caraway, to knobbly bran-and-raisin, to the classic buttermilk, cut into neat rectangles. The ones I grew up with had loads of butter and warm milk, and cream of tartar. 

In Brooklyn, that warm, sweet smell of drying rusks, baked for the first time late in this year of pandemic, whooshes me back to my mother's Bloemfontein and Cape Town kitchens, where she mixed enormous batches in a huge cast iron Dutch oven covered in chipped, pale yellow enamel. On Sundays it held a roast leg of lamb. I would beg for a still-soft rusk hot from the oven, split it, and cover it in butter and Marmite. Then, they are like American biscuits (or English scones). After, they are split and dried slowly. If kept dry, they last approximately forever.

I made rusks recently for the Frenchman, to whom rusks mean an unspooling road to the horizon, a car's nose pointed towards adventure, and freedom from desks and meetings and deadlines and targets. Because he has found that a low-carb diet works for him, I also worked out the carb count for each half-rusk. Because you eat rusks in halves. Now, if he wakes and worries in the night, he says he thinks of his morning cup of coffee, and the first dunk. It is his Om.

I based the rusks on my mom's recipe, and added yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) whose honey-like, fresh-mown hay scent is wonderful in baking. Collect its flowers in summer and dry them for use through the year. But the rusks are authentic without it. Go next door for the rusk recipe, residing at 66 Square Feet (the Food). 


Friday, December 11, 2020

Fefe's Fund

This is the Eastern Cape, in South Africa. I took this picture when the Frenchman and I drove through that beautiful region years ago. 

If you follow me on Instagram you may know this, already, but the brief explanation is for anyone who does not. Last week Fefe passed away suddenly after what seemed like a brief illness. The details are still unclear. 

Fefe was Nolufefe (which means Grace in isiXhosa) Tatoba, and she worked with Tipsi, my mom's housekeeper and companion, in my mother's Cape Town home. She was a kind woman, and pretty, and young. Her death is a shock. Then last weekend Tipsi fell very ill, and tested positive for COVID. She is in bed, not out of the woods, but receiving care and stable. My mom has tested negative. 

I am raising funds to help towards funeral costs for Fefe's laying-to-rest near her mother's ancestral home in the Eastern Cape. Her mom, Lillian Tatoba, looks after Fefe's three children. 

Once donations have been received I will send them via Xoom, a PayPal subsidiary, directly into Ms. Tatoba's bank account, to disperse as she sees fit. (When you access the Donate button below you will see Wild Edibles - that's me.)

Thank you so much to those of you who have already expressed an interest in donating. You are making a difference.

Update: Donations are Closed - Thank you for your Generosity!

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Saffron in the house?

What's going on here? Confined crocus? 

It's just me, gardening by the seat of my pants. 

I planted saffron crocus corms in the last week of September. Unlike their cousins, the sweet harbingers of spring, saffron crocuses bloom in late fall slash early winter (when exactly does winter begin, anyway?). 

I last grew them at 1st Place, in-ground, in the last row of the vegetable plot, where I hoped they'd suck up the last inch of diminishing autumn sunlight. Those crocuses flowered (in early December), even though they lost the sun altogether. And I harvested their lady-parts. The famous red saffron is the pistil and style of Crocus sativus

But these pots are an experiment, like so much in my gardening life. More of a what-if than an I-know, although it often turns into an ah-ha. 

At first, the pots lived on the terrace all day and night, covered with some wire against the dastardly, digging squirrel. Then the leaves filled out and the squirrel gave up. Wire came off. Then the sun dipped, as it does, and swung south of its eastern summer rising, as it also does, and the terrace now sees only an hour of post-dawn sunshine. And the squirrel returned. 

So first the wire enclosure happened, and then the carrying indoors during the day to bask in the bedroom's sunlight. At night out they go to get a good nip of cold. Since Sq. Irrel wakes up earlier than I do I did not want him/they/her digging before the pots could be moved. Angry start to day.

So! I have no idea if this will work. Warm, bright days, dark, cold nights. Just like their Eurasian homeland, I keep telling them.

We shall see. 


Thursday, November 12, 2020

Just leave (s)...

The leaves all fell overnight. I had a funny feeling they might. But I have never noticed this phenomenon, before. Is that what they do, after an initial, exploratory flutter? 

Look at those oak leaves, up there. I wear a size 11 boot (if I didn't, the nearly six feet of me would fall over). Those are 14-inch leaves.

I may be walking more than before, too. Every day. So you see every little, interesting change. Your neighborhood is overflowing with surprises. The more you see, the more often you see, the more you...well, see.

If we thought the week before the votes were counted was bad. If we thought the last four years were bad. How about these days? 

So we walk.

These - above - are cherry leaves. The native Prunus serotina.

Ginkgo biloba. Ancient tree of the dinosaurs.

Japanese cutleaf maple. Acer palmatum var. dissectum, and probably a cultivar called 'Something' in single, inverted commas, as cultivars are. Cutleaf maple was one of the first trees whose botanical I name I learned, long ago, working at a Manhattan nursery while I recovered from whooping cough. It is a knee-jerk nursery staple. The trees at Green-Wood are mature and gorgeous, and have won me over. 

Sweetgum leaves. Liquidamber styraciflua. Native to North America.

                            Magnolia leaves. But I don't know what kind.

And more oak. Quercus. Pointy tips, so in the red oak group (white oaks have rounded lobes). Dozens of oaks are native to North America and I still have a lot to learn about them.

I am planning  a picnic menu for a very rare forage walk this Saturday. It's the first picnic since March. And before we are locked down again. We will walk in shoreline dunes with fresh breezes. The walk sold out in hours. Everyone wants out.

It looks like this:

Quails eggs with fresh field garlic salt


Persimmon and mugwort focaccia

Field garlic goat cheese spread 

Beach plum and autumn olive drizzles


Ginkgo sticks


Roasted carrot hand pies with pine honey, juniper, elderflower vinegar, and sweet white clover


Pine honey madeleines


My Book

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Forage Walk this Saturday

Forage On - Fort Tilden
14 November 2020, 
11.30am - 2pm

It's the one - it's the only - forage walk of the season. Thank you, virus. But here on the breezy beaches and backroads the sea air will blow it away.

"Forage on" has become something of a battle cry for me, this year. It means persist. Keep going. Keep paying attention. And find the foraging fun wherever it may be. 

This late in the season we will be meeting and identifying the weedy (like autumn olives and mugwort) and native (like bayberry and juniper and pine) edibles in their late autumn clothes. Knowing what plants look like at every phase of their growth and death is key to knowing where to find them when they are in their prime.

There will be some nice surprises, too. And there will be a picnic, with hot toddies! 

Masks are mandatory and please bring your own hand sanitizer to use before we lift a hot toddy to toast the good things and dispel the bad.


Saturday, November 7, 2020

This day

On Saturday near midday I cycled to the market at Grand Army Plaza. I needed fish. I rode fast, feet flying. Sky was blue. Sun shone. The lockdown pots and pans were rattling and banging again (see my Instagram @66squarefeet to hear) and car and truck and horns were honking. Bus drivers waved out their windows. Strangers whooped at each other. Everyone was laughing. You couldn't see them smile, because...masks. 

My bicycle bell rang all the way.

I needed to cross to the middle for the fish. But it was partiness all the way. Pure joy. 

My bicycle was dressed with flags I found at a dollar store. The proprietor had to fetch them from the basement. He asked why I wanted so many. It's a good day, I said. This is everybody's flag.

 I rode home in the autumn light. My third historic election witnessed and voted in. Mandela, Obama, and Not-Trump. Yes, I am old. Very old. 

And very happy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The tourist

On the day after the election, while the votes were being counted, I played hooky, escaping in the afternoon to see the Battery Conservancy Garden at the southern tip of Manhattan. I wanted to visit the gardens, salute the Statue of Liberty, and sit in the sun under a perfect blue sky.

Then I walked. North, and then east across the island from the Hudson, tracking Google maps on my phone to Eataly, determined on a whim to buy an escapist dinner. At the foot of the soaring One World Trade Center a new building's skeleton was being pieced together. It seemed beautiful. I took a photo. Google maps buzzed and told me to walk south. So I did.

                                          When I looked up again I saw this. 

One World Trade Center Station. A rail hub, essentially. 

I knew about it. I had read about it. But I hadn't seen it in person. I drive on the nearby West Side Highway quite often, but this is nestled at the foot of the new bright glass buildings that are scattered like fresh glitter at the feet of the shattered towers of 9-11. I avoid the place. It is usually jammed with tourists, like sightseers at a battlefield.

In the middle of the empty street I stood and stared, the only tourist in New York.

The grace of it. The lines. The light. 

Whalebone, backbone, shell. 

Earthbound, free. 

Such a thing. An immense presence. The Oculus, by Santiago Calatrava. It is exquisite.

On this day, in this light, at this time, it was the most beautiful thing I have seen.

I could hardly bear to leave.


Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Blewit feast

In the last wet weeks I have been lucky to find huge fairy rings of blewit mushrooms. Their wide circles in the grass are quite perfect. 

These beautiful and edible mushrooms are violet when young and slowly turn cream as they widen and grow. 

Many of their caps are cinched by a root of grass. 

They have come up in response to weeks of foggy nights and days, and a lot of rain. They are very good to eat.

My basket overflows fast.

After spore printing every mushroom overnight (their spore pints are a very pale creamy-pink), I cook. 

And the first thing to make is mushrooms-on-toast. Good bread, good butter, salt.

So that even when the world is falling apart, lunch seems certain.


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Kahili ginger - botanical mugger in disguise

Late fireworks on the terrace. This beautiful flowering ginger-cousin is a species of Hedychium, and was a very kind and unexpected gift earlier this year from a garden design client, who knew how excited I was to hear that his ginger relative had actually bloomed.

When the giant plant was delivered to our door in early September, beautifully wrapped in burlap, I hefted it up and out to the terrace and then did some reading. 

Don't judge a plant by its spectacular cover. Hedychiums, native to Asia, are known collectively as flowering gingers. They are apparently popular in the nursery trade. (I had no idea.) Bought and planted by loving plant owners the gingers have escaped, and this has led their becoming some of the most invasive plants on the planet. In mild parts of the world where they are not native they take over. Even in Cape Town I have seen a similar ginger clogging a stream near my mother's house. In Hawaii Kahili ginger - as this species (H. gardenerianum) is known, there - has a price on its head. In Florida it is running rampant. 

In New York's cold winter climate it doesn't stand much chance of becoming a thug, of course. If left out doors it would succumb. But in Hawaii my friend Sunny Savage is devising ways of dealing with the habitat-altering invasive creatively: by eating it. (You can download her Savage Kitchen app to learn more.)

We will talk more about native and invasive edible plants this Saturday, October 31st, at the New York Botanical Garden; and there are now some tickets available! Click on the date links to book. My second fall class was shifted from Thursday because of predicted torrential rain, and not every student could make the rain date. (Apologies if you are one of them.)


NYBG Class, 31 October 2020