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Monday, October 29, 2012

Awww, Nuts…

homeplace walnut treeWhen I was a kid growing up in the frontier town of Wenatchee, there was a wilderness right across the road from the little house at 16 Wilson Street. Well…not exactly a wilderness but a city park, Washington Park. In those pre-video game/t.v. days the park was a delightful playground. There was a merry-go-round to spin us dizzy and a wading pool to cool us on summer days. A few things I remember: the park’s summer crafts program to keep little hands busy (away from matches, perhaps?) and little children from being bored. For a nominal materials fee we could buy multi-colored plastic braid by the yard. Soon our nimble little fingers were weaving braid novelties: key chain holders, lanyards, bracelets…. We learned the flat braid, the diamond braid, the square braid. And our parents learned that a quarter or two was well worth the investment just to keep us out of their hair for an hour or two.

The wading pool I remember not so much for its cooling splish-splash but for my eager anticipation that Judy Burowski who lived in the house at the end of our block would be among the waders that day. If she were, wearing that stunning pink bathing suit I loved and which so complimented her deep summer tan, taking a dip that afternoon would be a joy. But enough of that….

Washington Park, too, was an arboretum of sorts: pine trees (one fall I found a hibernating colony of lady bugs in the crevices of one’s trunk—shiny black beetles with red spots!), spruce and other evergreens, and black walnut trees. In the fall we would shuffle through the fallen leaves beneath the black walnuts looking for their mast (mast? an interesting word I learned from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling: the term for fallen nuts from a nut bearing tree). An hour’s effort foraging among the leaves would yield us a paper bag half full of nuts and black-stained hands and fingers. 

There are those, I’m sure, who think the phrase “a tough nut to crack” pertains to Brazil nuts. To that camp I’d say, “You’ve never tried to split open a black walnut, then.” Mostly shell and little meat, that’s the black walnut. It takes a heavy hammer swing to sunder a a black walnut and to extract its meat is like separating gold from a chunk of ore. Perhaps the unique flavor of the black walnut comes in part from the considerable labor that goes into freeing the meat from its shell.

Black walnut trees. We have them in the Valley. One I noticed for the first time just a few weeks ago. It towers above the west bank of the slough adjacent to the cornfield on Fish and Game land. When you stop at the stop sign where the upper and lower loop roads intersect, gaze southwest across the water, and you’ll see the tree. Just look for the “No Trespassing” sign nailed to the trunk; you can’t miss it.

Two ancient black walnuts shade Riley Slough next to the old Victorian home (the late residence of the Aldens). With Stately walnut treestheir massive trunks and leaders these giants are stately and impressive trees. In fact the tree closest the road has such a thick and lengthy leader it is experiencing, in arborist jargon, “mechanical failure”: the branch is too long and heavy to support its own weight and has begun to split.Black walnut tree

And there’s Jeff Miller’s grove of black walnuts on the north side of Riley Slough. A few years back I ran into Jeff and his young daughter at a local Starbucks. We chatted for a while, and I’m not quite sure how the topic came up, but we found ourselves talking about college, the high cost of tuition, and the difficulty parents have paying their children’s education bills these days. Jeff then informed me of his unique way to send his kids through college. A walnut scholarship, I guess you could call it: that grove of black walnuts is not destined for mast, cookies or black walnut ice cream. As a woodworking/furniture medium, black walnut is a highly sought after hardwood and for nice, straight logs, commands a premium price per thousand board feet. By the time his kids are college age, Jeff told me, he hopes the timber from that grove of walnuts will pay their way through college. If there’s a more creative way of funding a child’s higher education, I have yet to discover fund

Now if it’s walnuts you’re after, good, old English walnuts, it’s the Barrell Man you want to contact. In late August I just happened to glance at the tree in Martys’ front yard. I’ve never seen such a crop of walnuts! The green orbs were roped on the tree like clusters of grapes.  A few years back the Martys cut their walnut crop in half by felling a second tree in the yard. Marty nut cropIf both trees still stood this year, they would have to scoop their driveway and rake the lawn just to leave their house. The Barrell Man had placed a stepladder by a low hanging nut-laden branch so he wouldn’t bump into the obstruction when he mowed the lawn.

By now the tree has shed most of its crop and a few days ago the Barrell Man was on his hands and knees in the midst of a humongous litter of mast. He had already gathered a plastic garbage can full of nuts, he told me. Mrs. Marty had three dehydrators going full time in the house drying nuts gathered earlier. “This must be the biggest crop of walnuts you’ve ever had!” I remarked. squirrel heavenApparently not. A few years back, I’m told, the Martys shelled out over one hundred pounds of meat from the season’s crop. The Barrell Man takes orders for his walnuts. One lady, he told me, has already requested twenty pounds of shelled nuts. If he charged as much for his walnuts as do the stores for bags of shelled nuts, he could go into the nut business and allow his barrell enterprise to roll its separate way.

I thought it would be nice having a resident walnut tree here on the place, and when our old dairy farming neighbor Herman Zylstra told me he was going to add a walnut tree to his arboretum and would I like one one, too, I said certainly. That walnut tree is now eighty feet tall (Herman’s, unfortunately was shaded out by a number of taller trees), I’d estimate, and in addition to its wonderful summer shade, provides us enough nuts to do our holiday baking. Some years I’ve even had a surplus to take to the Sky Valley Food Bank. Our tree, however, is some species other than English walnut; the nuts are more oblong than round and for some reason don’t seem to develop properly. A pollination problem, perhaps (I’ve heard black walnuts are excellent pollinators for other species)? Or does our species of walnut require a longer growing season?

I enjoy shuffling around under the tree these days looking for nuts just as much as I did in Washington Park those years long ago. Of course, I’m never alone as I circle the tree. Its canopy is usually hopping with squawking blue jays and a squirrel or two (one season I counted five). They knock loose the husks and the occasional walnut which clatter down on me as I hunt below.

Once a bucket is full, I bring it to the house, fill it with water and stir the walnuts vigorously to wash them. Then into the garden cart they go to dry on the south side of the house. From the cart to the hearth behind the woodstove for a final curing. On days the woodstove is purring away I like to shell the walnuts: the shells make a nice crackle when you toss them on the fire.nut wagon

If one were to play word association and I said “squirrel,” what would you say? “Nuts,” would be my answer. Lunchtime and I’m sitting at the table gazing out at the walnut tree. One branch appears to be having a seizure, like a wet dog shaking itself. Otherwise not a leaf stirs. A squirrel, of course, cruising the canopy of the tree  for nuts.  The way a squirrel moves about a tree makes me think it must have been a monkey in another life (or vice versa).

I wonder about the ratio between the number of nuts a squirrel actually consumes and the amount it buries somewhere. Jays and squirrels alike are genetically programmed to be nut gardeners; burying their plunder is a sort of Darwinian foresight—a nut gravy train, if you will, for years’ bounty on down the line. I watched one of the furry little fellows bury a nut in the backyard the other day. Careful to note where the nut was buried, I went out to unearth it. Even though it was only a matter of seconds for the nut’s internment and I was most certain of its “grave,” I couldn’t find the nut anywhere! Come next August I’m sure to find it though when a miniature tree sprouts in the middle of the backyard somewhere.

Because it’s “all in one basket” (or wagon) until it dries, I’ve learned to keep a watchful eye on my nut crop. A couple years ago when half a wagon full of nuts was drying, I was sitting at the computer and noticed a squirrel rush by the window--nothing unusual during nut season. They sashay back and forth along the property line, a nut clenched between their teeth, which they bury in the hedge, lawn, mole mound…somewhere… anywhere…and then it’s back to the walnut tree again for more plunder. This squirrel, however, seemed to be exceptionally fast, a distracting gray blur zipping back and forth like a tennis ball in play.frisky fellow More than one squirrel, I thought…has to be…three, four, a half dozen perhaps? And that walnut tree is a long ways away. How could a squirrel make the round trip so quickly? The answer was obvious: “it” wasn’t covering the distance at all. I rushed outside to find the wagon nearly emptied; the squirrel (yes, just a solitary bushy tail) had nearly cleaned me out. Now during nut season I closely monitor squirrel activity in the driveway. I guess that’s what folks mean by “squirreling things away.”

The nut harvest continues. Blustery day aside, the Barrell Man is underneath his walnut tree today when I walk by. Bucket in one hand, cane in the other, he’s gathering the nuts loosened by last night’s windstorm. “How goes the harvest?” I ask. “We’ve shelled out one hundred fifty pounds so far,” the Barrell Man replies. He plunks a couple walnuts in his bucket, laughs and says, “The wife gives me hell whenever I come in with more.” And that’s a direct quote.harvest continues

Monday, October 22, 2012

Fall in the Valley…Or is it?

The Valley, mid Oct.The autumnal equinox has come and gone by a month. A week or so ago the Valley breezes seemed balmy, the breath of Indian Summer filling my nostrils as Gladys and I glided along. Today, however, as I do my constitutional walk, the wind has teeth, a bite of chill as if to say, “Let’s get on with the program: it’s mid October and you can kiss summer goodbye. Pin your Christmas list to the fridge and keep the credit card handy.” The western sky, gauzy with rain, screes the horizon.

This year’s corn is chopped, packed, and fermenting into silage for the Valley’s hungry cows. I can see across the Valley now. A short month ago the view was walled out by rows of corn. Memory of this year’s crop litters the roadside, chips of chaff strewn by silage  trucks. The cornfields are bare, shed of their stalks. Once again I can see the dairy barns, the farmhouses, the cottonwoods that line the river. Valley dairymen have taken advantage of the recent stretch of good weather, harvested and stored the corn, tilled and planted the fields with spring hay.

The cackle of geese and ducks fills the sky. Skeins of Canadians vee their way above the Valley in military precision; flocks of ducks pulse about the clouds like amoebas (whatever military training ducks receive is quickly forgotten), and in the pre-dawn murk I hear the percussion of shotguns—Valley duck hunters thinning out the incoming.

Doorsteps bulge with pumpkins, the hallmark seasonal orange, mouths agape in ghoulish smiles. (Little kiddos at Freddies frolic among the golden globes as if they were presents under the tree; there’s nothing like a plump pumpkin to bring out the kid in a kid.) pumpkin goblinWooly bear caterpillars huffle across the road. Many won’t, don’t, reach the other side and become grease spots on the pavement. Yesterday as we pedaled by, Gladys ting-a-linged Song, the Cambodian flower farmer. He was working among his dahlias. Nearly every day last  month I saw him gathering armloads of flowers destined for the Pike Place Market. Four or five nights of frost a week ago blackened the patch. No flower gathering yesterday; Song was cutting the stalks and digging tubers before a hard freeze settled on the Valley and destroyed his cash crop.

On my return I approach Ed and Ginnifer Broers’ place and note the two ancient apple trees in their yard. Windfall apples litter the lawn. The branches, like the cornfields, are barren, bereft of leaves and fruit. I am closer now and notice something strangely out of place in the old King apple tree closest the road, some sort of seasonal anomaly. Sprinkled among the lower branches I note freshly opened apple blossoms, perhaps a dozen or so--pink and white polka-dots of spring. Off to the east the clouds choke the Cascades and new snow seeps like bare feet from beneath a nightgown. The season’s first snowfall has dusted the nearby foothills. Here it is, mid-October, and I’m seeing apple blossoms! It’s either an early April Fool’s joke or the ancient apple has entered its dotage, a sad, senile, confusion of the equinoxes.False spring

Friday, October 19, 2012

Don’t Garden in Your Short Pants…

hornets ready to launch“…and books that told me everything about wasps, except why.”

Dylan Thomas, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”

A warm afternoon in the garden. These days won’t last much longer, I think, as I bask for a moment in the sunshine. My brief reverie is interrupted when I notice a buzz of activity in the dahlia patch. Insects are jetting skyward as if they’re shot out of the ground, their launch area the base of a favorite dahlia, a nice blossom, a blend of yellow and white pastels. I saunter over to investigate and discover ground hornets exploding from a nest next to the dahlia stalk. Their launch pattern reminds me of those rocket pods on navy warships that fire one missile after another until nothing is left but smoke. They rise from the ground and dart off business-like to visit their villainy on whatever they can.

The nest has been there how long, I wonder? Unaware that Mother Nature has planted a hornet minefield in the patch, have I unsuspectingly plucked a few blossoms from that particular dahlia while straddling that venomous hole in the ground? If that’s the case, then I’ve averted disaster. If my private space had violated their airspace, I could have been in for some excitement. My short pants would have been a box canyon for those adrenalin-powered missiles; they’d have had to sting their way to freedom. As that hypothetical scenario played out in my head, I was reminded of a Mark Twain remark about a distant uncle who while attending a Fourth of July celebration had the misfortune to open his mouth at the same time a sky rocket flew his way. In Twain’s inimitable understatement, the humorist remarked: “A man couldn’t have an experience like that and remain entirely cheerful about it.” Nor could a man whose short pants were full of angry hornets. We marked the dahlia, tied a conspicuous blue ribbon to the stake, a reminder for us to tread carefully in the hornet zone.

ground to air missiles

Ground hornets. Bane of the deep woods lumberjack, backwoods hiker, picnicker. Carnivores.  Cannibals. The striped pest that insinuates itself  at your picnic table, dive bombs your plate of fried chicken or barnstorms the barbecued rib you can’t bite into because you’re too busy waving it in the air to shoo off the uninvited guest. This is not the first nest I’ve encountered on the place. One evening years ago I was mowing out back. The sun was low in the west and on a return pass, I noticed a mirage of insect wings glinting in the sun. I had mowed over a ground hornets’ nest! The lawnmower sped along in fifth gear whenever I mowed that strip, and I continued to speed mow that patch of ground until the mower was retired for the season.

This time of year hornets are everywhere, into everything, the pests of the season. sipping sweetnessThe first few weeks of fall the honeybees trim their hives of the excess drones; these ever hungry loafers could take their toll of the winter stores if their population was too great. Evicted by the workers, out they go, never to be allowed back in. These homeless drones are not long for the world; no sooner are they booted out than a hornet zooms in to pick them off and pack its prize  home to the dinner table. And if it can, a hornet will invade the beehive itself. Hornets will destroy a weak colony, especially one whose hive has points of ingress other than the entrance—too many openings for a small population to defend.  Hornets attacked my bee yard in Winthrop one fall and were picking off the hives one by one. I lost two colonies to the voracious little carnivores: all the honey, larvae, and bees themselves gone. The hives were licked clean, light as thistledown when I loaded them on the truck. I pulled one of the bottom boards and found an inch or so of dead insects, a goulash of hornet and honeybee carcasses. The bees had fiercely defended their home  but succumbed to sheer numbers and aggressiveness. When a hornet would alight on a hive lid, I’d smash it with my gloved hand. As soon as I’d lift my fist, there would be two or three of its fellows vying for their deceased relative. To a hornet, meat is meat regardless if the flesh is that of your own species. Carnivore and cannibal, that’s the hornet for you.

One of beekeeping’s  fall maintenance duties here in the Valley involves hornet prevention, and to this end I install entrance reducers on each hive, thus limiting the hornets’ means of access while giving the bees a greater chance to defend themselves from invasion. Even then an especially bold hornet will enter the reduced entrance, disappear inside, and back out almost instantly with three or four guard bees in its face.hornet intruders

Even this safeguard doesn’t provide one hundred percent prevention. Hornets fly in colder weather than honeybees and on a cool, rainy fall day it is usual to see several buzzing about a hive’s entrance. Honeybees cluster for warmth on cold days and hornets take advantage of the bees’ semi hibernation, enter the hive with little resistance and help themselves to the unprotected winter stores.

While I don’t want to invite trouble by flaunting my short pants in their airspace, I have to say I’ve yet to be stung by a hornet here on the place in all the years we’ve lived here. My wife can’t make such a claim. When we were preparing our yard for a lawn years ago, she was unaware that a hornet had settled on her underarm. When she dropped her arm, the hornet took offense at being pinched and raised both a welt on her side and a howl of pain from the victim. Hornets always invade my honey shed during the annual honey extraction. One at a time somehow they filter in and immediately hover around the nearest honey drip. Periodically I’d vacuum them up with an old vacuum cleaner I kept handy for that purpose. While they were batting their heads against the fluorescent lights, I’d suck them one by one from the glowing  tubes. Every hour or so I’d have to fire up the vacuum again and “sanitize” the surroundings…but not once did I receive a single sting.Watch your step

I showed our resident hornets’ nest to my environmentally sensitive friend Nancy L.  As far as hornets (and squirrels and jays and moles and voles…) are concerned Nancy L. is environmentally insensitive. “Why don’t you pour a pot of boiling water down that hole?” she asked indignantly. Sure, Nancy L., that’s one environmentally-conscious way to eradicate a nest of hornets: no arsenic, no toxic pesticides, hornet bombs, RAID, or other pollutants…no argument there. But then there’s boiling the water, carrying the pot to the nest in the dark (yes, they all have to be home snug in the nest…and what if the water cools in transit?). No, Nancy L,  Mother Nature will take care of those striped varmints. The fall rains will drown them out. They always have. In fact it’s raining now. It’s really pouring down out there….

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Nasturtium Caper…

nasturtium patchWe had a problem area in the garden, just a little patch around the birdhouse pole that couldn’t be accessed by the tiller and consequently the area required constant weeding. The solution, we found, was to plant the area in nasturtiums. This second season the plants, which throw an abundance of seed, volunteered so profusely the weeds were crowded and shaded out. This summer the nasturtium bed was our garden hotspot, flickering flames of flowers—fiery shades of oranges and reds—as if the birdhouse had a brush fire at its feet. What an amazing return from a couple packets of seed!

The weekend before Christmas each year our extended family congregates at the designated home in the rotation where we consume copious amounts of food and commune with family. Before the party breaks up and we head out the door for our respective homes, my brothers and I exchange the personal gifts we’ve prepared especially for each other.  It’s become a holiday tradition for the brothers and me. The gifts usually come in a canning jar, something from our gardens or backyards. (A word about my family: I am one of six children, four boys and two girls. Of the six, only my brothers and I are canners and food preservers. The sisters for whatever strange reason have neglected the art themselves…don’t ask me why). I’ve been gifted pickled eggs (brothers’ backyard chickens), jams, spicy pickles…last year a jar of smoked salmon (one brother has a cabin on one of the islands). They in return: pickled jalapeno slices, pepper and quince jelly, pickled watermelon rind…and sauerkraut (two brothers have adopted my habit and we now have a “’kraut off” each Christmas from each other’s annual batch). For my birthday a year ago the brothers gave me a book on pickling: The Joy of Pickling (Linda Zierdrich). On the inside cover my brother Kevin wrote: “Enjoy the book. Might come in handy if you decide to venture off the beaten path….” This year I wandered off the beaten path and where did I end up? Well, at the nasturtium patch.sunburst nasturtiums

On one of Cisco Morris’s (“OO la la!”) Saturday broadcasts, the master gardener of local renown brought up the topic of nasturtiums. “Do you know,” Cisco’s chirpy voice announced, “every part of the nasturtium is edible: leaves to spice up your salad. Flowers for colorful presentation?” Cisco continued on. “During WWII the English couldn’t get capers because of the war.” (Apparentlyin those war torn days Italy was the caper capital of the world.) “And so they used nasturtium seed pods instead.”

I’m standing at the end of the beaten path peering into the mass of nasturtium vines. Sure enough there are seed pods galore, usually a cluster of three at the end of the curly-cue flower stems. nasturtium budsI stooped, plucked a trio of plump pods, popped one in my mouth, and crunched it. Instantly a zesty tang exploded on my tongue followed by a peppery aftertaste that set my nostrils a’ tingle. Definitely a unique taste. Most certainly an unusual species of garden produce. And thus the inspiration for this year’s canned goods and my brothers’ Christmas surprise.

On page 155 of  The Joy of Pickling I find a recipe for “Pickled Nasturtium Pods.” Reading through the introduction I come across a quote by Euell Gibbons, the natural foods guru: “Nasturtium buds make better capers than capers do. My family likes them in pasta sauces; they are also good in salads.” If nasturtium pods are good enough for the Gibbons, my brothers should certainly have some.

faux capersI read the recipe which was taken from a 1739 cookbook, The Compleat Housewife, by Eliza Smith. Pickling the buds is a bit time-intensive: first, you have to pick a pint of them (half an hour to forty-five minutes). After the buds are washed, they must be brined for twenty-four hours in salt. The buds are drained and rinsed and rebrined two more times (three sessions total) before they are pickled. On the chance you yourself have tired of the well-worn path and want a new pickling adventure, use the recipe below:

4 1/2 Tbsp pickling salt

3 cups water

4 whole cloves

1 pinch mace

1/4 whole nutmeg

1 slice horseradish (about 1 1/2” in diameter by 3/16” thick) cut into thin strips

1 shallot, peeled

approx. 1 cup white vinegar

1. Dissolve 1 1/2 Tbsp salt in 1 cup water and pour this brine over nasturtium pods. Let stand one day.

2. Drain the pods. Make a fresh brine the same way as before. Drain pods as earlier. Make fresh brine. Let stand a second day.

3. Repeat steps one and two for a third day

4. On the fourth day, drain the pods, put them into a sterile pint jar with the cloves, mace, nutmeg,  horseradish and shallot and cover contents well with the vinegar. Seal jar with a nonreactive cap and let stand at room temperature for one week.

After one week, store the jar in the refrigerator or a cool, dry, dark place. The pickled pods will keep well for a year or more.

Now I’m sure this post might cause the more perspicacious reader to exclaim: “Wait a minute! He’s gone and given away his brothers’ Christmas surprise, hasn’t he!” No need for concern. This secret is as well-preserved as the pickled nasturtium pods. My brothers never read The Ripple. They’ve much better things to do with their time.pickled pods