Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Chasing Rabbits

I entered the hoophouse the other day to inspect the heirloom tomatoes. Sue (a 12-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever) joined me and immediately began nosing around the edges. Though she’s getting a little too slow to chase down a groundhog, her taste for wild game is as strong as ever. She snorted and, in quick succession, lapped up five single-sized portions of tender baby bunny flesh and soft baby bunny bones—her version of chocolate truffles. One, two, three, four, five bunnies gone in as many seconds. 
Cottontails love sudangrass. Sue loves cottontails.

Hard-hearted gardener that I am, my first thought was: Maybe now my pole beans will make it to climbing size.

Carrot tops=bunny lunch.
I occasionally find soft nests of grass and fur here and there in the garden. Usually they are empty. Most often they are hidden in carrot beds (which I always plant too thickly). One day I marvel at the soft ferny carrot tops standing straight and tall; the next I notice a carefully concealed gap somewhere in the center of the bed. There is something comical, and not very bright, about a mother rabbit hiding her newborns in a bed of carrots. Despite the picture we all have of Bugs Bunny chomping on carrots, the roots are not what the rabbit is after. The tall green forest of tops is a perfect hideout—or so mama thinks. It takes a week for the babies to open their eyes, and another for them to hop out and develop a taste for carrot greens and bean seedlings. If a dog or raccoon doesn’t sniff them out in that time, I will.

But if you give birth to 20 or more young in a single year, maybe you’re not all that concerned about the well-being of every last one. Mama cottontail visits her newborns a couple of times a day for a quick nursing session, each one getting a few minutes of her time. Other than that, the defenseless balls of flesh and fur are on their own. Best not to get too attached when the odds of your babies hopping out on their own are slim … and made slimmer by ill-considered nesting choices. 

In my attempts to catch the groundhog that eats every winter squash leaf that manages to shoulder aside its floating cover, I have caught several rabbits. On one occasion, Sue tormented a trapped bunny so persistently that I (uncharacteristically) took pity on it. I carried it off, opened the Havahart, and watch the cottony tail bounce into the brush. Was this the mother of Sue’s delectable meal? Did she come back? I can imagine her rabbit mind thinking, “Oops, lost another litter … guess I’d better go urinate on a buck.”

I’ve never observed the cottontail mating behavior, which mostly happens at night. Bob (my own mate) talks of the time he watched dozens of rabbits cavorting on the Cedar Crest College lawn. It must have been a sight! Besides the mutual urination ritual, the process involves male competition, male-female “boxing,” and leaping up and down. The male fights the female in order to impress her. When she is suitably awed, she will allow copulation, which takes only seconds. A month later, four or five (or six or seven) babies are placed in their cozy fur-lined bed.
A climbing bean, thwarted again.

I invite Sue into the garden frequently. I’ll go check the beans, I tell her. You check the carrots.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Eat More (free) Kale

Versatile kale. Emblematic kale.
Puzzling kale. 

Beedy's Camden kale in the heat of summer

In my home garden, my four plants of ‘Beedy’s Camden’ are thriving. I put the vitamin-rich green on pizza, and in stir-fries. I invite friends to cut the big wavy leaves.

At the inn where I grow vegetables, the flea beetles uglified what the cabbageworms missed. I pulled it out by the roots and replaced it with a bed of beautiful buckwheat. In a couple of weeks I will gamble on lettuce. 

What is it with kale?

At Morven, in Princeton, the virgin kitchen garden sports beautiful ‘Red Russian.’ It is too beautiful to uproot, even though everyone knows kale is a cool weather vegetable … and it has been anything BUT cool. And I need the space for summer squash.

What is it with kale?

Now that “kale chips” comes up number 2 on a Google search for kale (and they get 5 STARS from foodnetwork.com) “Eat More Kale” t-shirts are losing a little of their counterculture authenticity. (“Eat Kale Not Cow” tees sport the trigger word “Woodstock” and sell for $23; “Kale is the New Beef” can be had at a bargain price of $19.95) One kale-lover’s blog states, “In the past week there has been an exciting accumulation of kale sightings.”

What does that mean?

Beedy's Camden for the taking
Why kale? 

Go to eatmorekale.com and you can read about the “eat more kale philosophy.” Go to the “Eat More Kale Princeton” facebook page to read about a month-long celebration of kale.

Why not beet greens (which, I’ve read, are less dominant in a smoothie)? Broccoli? Bok choy? Is it too late for “Eat Bok Not Beef” t-shirts? Or is bok choy too mild, too appealing? Kale is “of the earth,” strong in taste and real in texture. It is not my mother’s frozen peas.

Those who live by the “eat more kale philosophy” gained great publicity when their slogan was attacked by the “Eat Mor Chikin” folks (“Eat More” being Chick-fil-A’s intellectual property, according to their lawyers). Chick-fil-A should have known better. The cease-and-desist order gave “Eat More Kale” t-shirt designer Bo Muller-Moore the opportunity to say, “I am one man with one squeegee and that's how I like it.” People (not chickens) flocked to his side – no surprise.

So here, in my humble opinion, is what it is about kale:
1. There are not many people who really like it. That’s not to say kale isn’t very very tasty sautéed with garlic and olive oil. But what isn’t?
2. Therefore supermarkets do not devote a lot of space to it, and the dinosaur kale they do carry tends to be limp and not worth buying. Curly kale is perkier on the shelf but, as all kale (with garlic and olive oil) lovers know, it is more bitter and less tender. It gives kale a bad name.
3. It’s safe to say that kale is a gardener’s vegetable. It grows in the spring, persists through the fall, and sometimes, if the flea beetles and cabbageworms don’t get to it, endures the heat of summer. I offer everyone who comes to my house a bag of kale … and my four plants of Beedy’s Camden (named for Beedy Parker of Camden, Maine) still carry more green than I can spend. 

And so, 

4. “Eat More Kale” isn’t about kale. It’s about the “kale lifestyle”—fighting the good fight with muddy knees and dirty fingernails, being one with the flea beetles and cabbageworms. Sending friends home with bags of zucchini and kale whether they want them or not. It’s a revolution that refuses to be pigeonholed. It has beta-carotene on its side, and vitamin K, and calcium! It conjures mental aromas of thick soups with white beans and carrots, and plenty of garlic. Bo Muller-Moore fueled the fire with his squeegeed shirts and his dreams of changing Manhattan into Vermont (and making a little money in the process). Chick-fil-A played right into the plot.

And now, with kale chips “processed at low temperatures to maintain the living enzymes and nutritional values”—and sold for upwards of $2.50 an ounce—it is actually possible that people will eat more kale. In the words of Don McLean, “the more you pay the more it’s worth.” So much for the revolution.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Forest Art

Whimsy is not my style. But, after visiting Bruce Munro's light installation at Longwood Gardens, I’m thinking more and more about garden art. You know, everyday stuff cleverly remade into objects of beauty. 

I can do that.

My relationship with art began in the 5th grade, when I learned that I could draw people. I drew pictures of little girls with big eyes. 
The bond took a turn toward weird when I entered art school at 18, and learned that my ideas about art were hopelessly outdated. Chasing “meaningful” concepts, I got lost in mental mazes. Secretly, I still liked things that hung on walls, although peer pressure had some influence (big-eyed girls were now sources of extreme embarrassment, for instance). 

But over the years, framed art has lost much of its allure. First I stopped making it. Then the pieces that held me in their power became increasingly rare.  

And yet, in my heart, art remained a valued friend. I saw pattern in the land, rhythm in the garden.
I discovered Andy Goldsworthy—arrangements of leaves and patterns of sticks that last for days or minutes. Moments of wonder that bring together the earth and sky. 

I began to appreciate the artist as medium, offering up powerful new ways of seeing what is before our eyes.

Lately … and fortunately, landscape art has gone beyond gnomes on rocks, and beyond Christo’s wrapped coast installations. The measure of its success is its power to hold one transfixed before a scene.

A suspended ball makes the reflection as real as the object itself. 
Jenkins Arboretum, 2011

A field of lights twinkles and sways like sunlit grasses in the wind.
Longwood Gardens, 2012

Bent spokes on a fence compel you to pause and see what lies beyond.
Chanticleer, 2010

Flower-lights meander dreamily through a field. 
Longwood Gardens, 2012

Magical birches underscore the hugeness of a forest of oaks.
Jenkins Arboretum, 2011

There are framed prints, photos, and drawings on my walls. Most carry valued associations.

But experiences of open-air art now hold greater power. Who knows … maybe, in time, I’ll appreciate whimsy.