The Big Bomb Cyclone of 2018

Doesn’t the land look beautiful? Pristine, frozen in place, blue shadows long, yellow sun wan as it drops to the horizon.

In all the newscasts I’ve heard, however, nobody seems to point out how effectively a Bomb Cyclone can spiffy up a garden. Pretty much instantaneous – and all the while you are comfy in the house, watching out the window, playing guilt-free hooky.

(Aside: I could use the free time to clean closets, like my neighbor, and heaven knows, our closets need cleaning, they’re like Fibber McGee’s. Bob would be good at cleaning closets but he would find a home for everything (just not ours) and then we would start arguing because I am a collector. Now I’m so glad I didn’t give my twenty-year-old hiking boots away, waterproof with great treads. I can certainly use them in this weather. Of course, I’m not going out in this weather, but if I did. . .just sayin’ . . . Anyway, I can’t let anyone see me because my hair is standing up like some punk rocker, only on me it looks like I am a bag lady.)

Even gardens have really bad hair days

Usually, in January, I am hacking away at last summer’s rogues still left on the street slope. Not that I am impelled by any particular sense of order, but beneath the forest of stalks the daffodils are trying to break out, and I want to give them their place in the sun.

Maybe I should hire some deer to do the work

Try as hard as I might, I can’t help stepping on them as I work.

I spend more time apologizing and setting their broken nubbins to rights than clipping the holdovers.

Do you suppose the daffodils are actually sprouting in this weather?

(Darn, I should have included the “Bomb” in my last post, Whizz Bang Ideas to Tidy up the Garden. Gardeners should be aware, however, that you can’t always count on a “Bomb” to come in at the right time.)

This particular Bomb Cyclone was followed by a Polar Vortex, so the pristine beauty is probably lasting a few days longer than most of us would like.

At least we don’t have a foot of snow on top of 4 previous storms. Birds hang out and feed on seed thrown under the table.  Susan in New Hampshire

So what are a Bomb Cyclone and a Polar Vortex? And what is Bombogenesis, and Explosive Bombogenesis?

At first I thought they were titles of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it movies advertised on television.

Then I thought the media was hyperventilating again. What do they smoke to dream up this drama?

Do they think we are gullible enough to be taken in? (Well, yeah.)

Nor do we have ice floes crashing onto land as wild seas rise, as they did on the Mass coast. Photo by Charles Orloff

Turns out the terms were coined by a couple of MIT professors back in 1980 who had a way with words.

They had spent a decade studying the development of storms in the Northern Hemisphere.

Bombogenesis  means a Big Storm is growing.

Explosive Bombogenesis means an Even Bigger Storm is growing.

Our gazing globe isn’t quite so impressive as that table but it does have a rakish quality

Bomb Cyclone is the term used by scientists to describe a Mighty Clash between Very Cold Air from Somewhere Up North and Nice Warm Air from Gulfstream Currents.

Small clashes happen pretty regularly, and we call them plain old Cyclones.

For a Cyclone to become a Bomb, however, barometric pressure must drop 24 millibars in 24 hours, which is a lot.

Cotton balls, anyone?

Only on rare occasions do hurricanes register such speedy descent.

Pressure dropped 53 millibars in 24 hours during the Bomb Cyclone of 2018, which means this was some sort of Titanic Event.

Polar Vortex, as you already know, is a shaft of Very Cold Air from Somewhere Up North that has decided the South is worth a visit.

And that is why we are now stuck in our cabins looking out at lovely, pristine roads and wishing that Polar Vortex and Bomb Cyclone were the latest apocalyptic movies.

News Bulletin from The Snow Shovel Daily:
Southerners….. it’s snowy and cold outside.  Please do not leave home or drive.
Northerners…….it’s snowy and cold outside. You’ll need your heavy coat.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Blizzard, snow storm, Uncategorized, Winter | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Whizz-bang Ideas for Garden Clean-up, a Self-Help Manual

You, too, Can Have That Sleek Magazine-Garden Look in Your Garden

Visitors are coming and they like to garden and they want to see what new plants are growing in your garden. You haven’t been paying much attention lately, so you decide you’d better take a look around to see what you can show off. You find so many surprises! You can’t count ‘em all!

Never in my garden!

Dead stalks, dead leaves, half-dead plants, all-dead plants, seed heads with dropsy, vines that own the place, weeds that challenge vines for ownership, and a downed tree limb. (When did that happen?) And where is that path, you know, the one that was there last month?

After the shock, you bolt into a frenzy of activity in the vain hope that you can whip your garden into one of those sleek “magazine-gardens” you have always coveted but thought unattainable because you do not have an army of gardeners equal to workers in an ant colony.

Help is On the Way

Trust me, here is a simple, step-by step, three-part plan of action that is guaranteed to bring results.

Disclaimer: All discussion here is based on meticulous long-term studies and bears no similarity to the author’s gardening techniques. Don’t pay attention to our neighbor when she says she sees me pushing wheel barrows piled-high with “stuff” the day before visitors are coming. Ditto for Bob, in muddied jeans, dutifully digging out soggy, renegade vegetation.

Part I: The Fine Art of Distraction

If you only have a day or so to clean up, go for Distraction.

MAJOR DISTRACTION: If you are fortunate enough to have a mess like this, be sure to steer people right to it. The “wow” factor will distract them from anything else, and they will be thankful that THEY do not have to deal with it.

Or, you could stand a shovel or shovels into a bed or beds and say that certain areas are Under Construction.

A rather attractive distraction, don’t you think? Hoses always add a nice touch, shows you are really working

Randomly placed piles of topsoil, sand, mulch, clods of clay, piles of bricks, tree limbs, even chunks of concrete, anything you happen to have lying around that you haven’t got to yet can be a distraction and add a convincing touch.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. For one thing, you probably don’t have enough shovels.

A post hole digger can be substituted for a shovel. This implies even more ambition, that a fence is going in soon. (Actually, Bob simply forgot to put it away after planting.) But this example shows why it’s important to choose a site for a post hole digger, carefully. Some alert visitor would be bound to ask why you are putting a fence in front of a window

It is possible that your visitors, though polite, would privately think that you have gone bonkers over one too many garden projects. The trick is to limit what is considered Under Construction to the number of shovels you actually own. Then you can spend time creating Great Garden Art.

Never minimize the impact of Great Garden Art. It is the Distractor of Choice.

We planned ahead and purchased this Distractor of Choice, a rusty “heron with an attitude” for use in emergency clean-ups

Rusty is in these days. Hunt up some rusty rakes or long-handled cultivators. (Shovels not available; they are needed for sites Under Construction.)

Balance the tools upside down on a jumble of broken bricks, and you will have created an award-winning piece of Garden Sculpture.

Even chunks of concrete can become Great Garden Art, but you should be clever in your interpretation. Then again, what polite person would risk challenging you and still expect to get a dinner invite by saying no, that really doesn’t look like a box turtle with a cracked shell, or half an alligator.

Here is a sample of our clever garden art we call Neo-prene Primitive-Industrial Musk Ox. Kind of Picasso-ish, with the crazy eyes. Don’t you think?

Once somebody (seriously) asked me if my Irish Spring soap bars neatly set about on sticks to deter deer were a new kind of garden decor. I was thrilled by the question. What new possibilities were suddenly opened up to me! (Sorry, no pictures available, that’s proprietary.)

Oops, pay no attention to those last remarks, this treatise is based only on scientific studies.

Part II: The Fine Art of Decluttering

Your next step to a sleek “magazine-garden” is to de-clutter your property.

(Note: designated Distractors of Choice such as garden tools and piles of debris that are now elevated to Great Garden Art should not be mistaken for clutter.)

You should prioritize tasks. Pay particular attention to entry paths and beds around the house first.

You have, of course, already cleared the buggy spider webs around the lights near the front door that make decorating for Halloween so unnecessary in the South.

Now, take a good look at those tall half-dead plants with stringy stems and two leaves that you’ve been nursing for five years. They do not contribute to an uncluttered vista.

They would look far better chopped down, though then they would look like short, all-dead plants which, however, are less noticeable than tall, half-dead plants because short, half-dead plants that look like short all-dead plants tend to fade into the background.

Chances are, they’ll recover in a year or two, maybe even grow four leaves. Anyway, if they don’t, by that time you will have forgotten that you ever planted them.

Exception: Do not cut down dead plants if they are covered with vines. Green lumps can contribute to an artistic vista.

The point is, you don’t want anyone asking what is wrong with that plant with the two leaves, or, did you actually pay ten dollars for that stick! (Well, it wasn’t a stick when I bought it. Oh, I forget, I know, I know, this should all be based on scientific research, no personal anecdotes.)

Next, you need to consider bumpy stuff on the ground. Yes, I mean weeds and those sickly patches of groundcover you saw growing so thick in your neighbor’s yard you just had to have some, but that turned out to be weed-bullied wimps in your garden.

Note: If you are truly panicked about de-cluttering, you can always fall back on this Distractor of Choice, a strategically placed pickle pail

You should remove as much of the bumpy stuff as possible in order to  establish a proper base for your mulch. (See Part III: The Fine Art of Mulching.)  This is very important, since properly de-lumped flower beds can quickly give your garden that sleek, “magazine-garden” look, so you can spend the rest of your time planning your elegant “magazine-garden” wardrobe (she in flowing white sundress, he in spanking white tennis togs) to go with your unforgettable “magazine-garden” extravaganza.

We are happy to report that a new series of toning exercises consisting of crouch-walking, elbow-crunches and finger-curls, will, in no time, get you to that garden-perfection you seek.

(Caution: We recommend that you consult a physician before beginning any physical exercise program. Participants are warned that this activity may cause permanent bent-knees-bent-back-bent-elbows, otherwise known in scientific circles as the tin-man syndrome, and may prevent your showcasing those magazine-garden outfits to full advantage.)

Or, you could just use a pick axe to get at the weeds .

Adventurous and agile gardeners can find great refreshment in this activity that requires stooped-over power-walking and two-handed tugging, while deftly avoiding the trampling or pulling of favorite plants that happen to look dead.

Happily, there is no pause to roto-root roots, grapple with vines, or wrestle with grasses. Shears can be used effectively on hold-outs, provided no fingers get involved.

Part III: The Fine Art of Mulching

You are now ready to mulch your garden.

Those who seek the super-smooth look and have an extra moment or two, and can find the heirloom newspapers they have saved from the past twenty years or so, should now admit, painfully, that the great recipes, decorating ideas or garden tips hidden therein will never be read.

These yellowed, musty, papers should be spread over garden beds using a minimum of eight sheets of thickness. (Years of meticulous research have shown that this particular number  can actually smother unroto-rooted weeds.)

Invariably, as soon as sheets are spread, a stiff breeze will come up that will scatter the papers, creating great panic because now the gardener must figure out how scattered newspapers can become Great Garden Art. So keep a hose handy and wet the papers down immediately. And don’t even think about stopping to read any of those out-dated garden articles.

Do not feel guilty about omitting any of the above activities. Properly placed Pickle Pails can do double duty as Great Garden Art and Distractors of Choice. In this composition, pail in background draws the eye up and over the half-dead plant in foreground at the same time distracting from weeds in rock

Next pile on the mulch. You should know by now if you are a Dribbler or a Dumper. Dribblers carefully sift the mulch from their hands until it reaches a precise thickness, kind of like DaVinci adding oil glazes to Mona Lisa’s cheeks. The Dribbler Method is guaranteed to give you that enviable “magazine-garden” photo op, though it may take you a month to mulch a bed. Then you will have no time to prepare your “magazine-garden” outfits.

Dumpers, on the other hand, drop a bundle of mulch, the biggest they can grab, then kick the pile around and hope some of it lands where it’s needed. Dumpers are not artists but they do have an advantage over Dribblers. Newspapers will never poke through the mess that a Dumper has dumped and a Dumper can always claim the squirrels did it.

However, Dribblers have an advantage over Dumpers if fresh pine straw is used. Fresh pine straw has a mind of its own. If it is not applied with at least some finesse, it will give your plants a bad hair day, not easily explained away. Dumpers who are lucky enough to own a chipper-shredder, and know a person who is brave enough to use one, are in their glory because ground-up pine straw is easily tossed and kicked into place and will fall off plants on its own.

Simpler, of course, is purchasing pine bark mulch and hiring a person to spread it. That, or the ever popular dyed-red mulch, though you need to hope it doesn’t rain soon after application, unless you like your sidewalks tie-dyed red.

Easier still, is steering people away from the messes. Or inviting people for a romantic viewing of the garden at night by flashlight.

And then there was the evening dinner party planned for twelve. The New Hampshire gardener had strategically placed two-to-three-foot high colorful dummy boards of a Victorian family — mother, father, three kids and a dog – all cheerfully lighted, to guide guests to the house. After hours of sawing, sanding and painting, she was expecting raves.

NOBODY NOTICED!

Next year she brought the family inside

So, maybe you should just forget about the sleek magazine-garden look and put the magazine-garden outfits into storage and bake a great lasagna.

With special affection for those Master Gardeners who have visited over the years and been so enthusiastic and have never seemed to notice the weeds or the half-dead plants or the “bad hair” mulch.

Posted in Garden Humor, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

New York Frolics: A New Series

Gardens and Green Spaces in New York City

Every so often we invade New York City. We crash at my sister’s apartment. (She owns the refrigerator you might have read about in a previous post. Or, you can pick up the refrigerator thread in the Union Square Green Market entry below).

Flower booth at Union Square Green Market. Too bad we can’t carry some goodies home

There might be five or six of us – there might only be two of us. Each day is a marathon of museums and theatres, dining, gabbing and gardens.

One day we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for pizza. One evening we had a late dinner on McDougal Street followed by a stroll through Washington Square.

If we’ve been to the theatre, we’ll meander back to our digs, or swing down to Little Italy for late pastry and coffee before we catch a cab or bus back.

We’re usually in by midnight, but sometimes the clock threatens to turn us into pumpkins.

Stone by stone, parts of the Cloisters were shipped from France and reconstructed

Whatever we plan, there is always a visit to a garden. It might be the High Line, or the Cloisters, or a lovely neighborhood park, or a Farmer’s Market. Going further afield, romantic Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the dazzling Bronx Botanical Garden are in the works, along with visits to “pocket parks,” or neighborhood green spaces.

When we want a mid-day rest or light lunch, we head for the Museum of the City of New York opposite the Central Park Conservatory Garden on Fifth Avenue and spend some quiet time viewing its excellent permanent exhibit, New York at it Core: Money, Density, Diversity, from Henry Hudson to the present.

A view of Central Park from the Conservatory Garden

We try not to miss Central Park. My sisters and I grew up loving Central Park. Our parents would ferry us from Queens to Manhattan and we would spend the day climbing the rocks, feeding the pigeons, skipping stones into the lake, riding the carousel.

We laughed at the seals when they clapped and barked (for us, of course) and munched on peanuts and crackerjacks to find the prize in the box. We would come home very tired but very happy.

Chrysanthemums coming into bloom at the Conservatory Garden

We didn’t know at the time (nor would we have cared) that Central Park was one of the finest parks in the world. Nor did we know that its designer, Frederick Law Olmstead was a visionary who created landscapes that beckon people to shed their street-lives and come and play.

Back in the 1970’s our casual rambles around the city would not have been comfortable.

Graffiti and garbage, drugs and crime had smudged a city that couldn’t pay its bills because its finances were in such disarray.

Late afternoon in lovely Gramercy Park, tucked among brownstones and high rise hotels

Parks and gardens, once oases from brick and mortar, became low priority, turned seedy, and, sadly, enhanced the decay of the city.

(On a personal note, tanked NYC credit ratings allowed us to purchase deeply discounted municipal bonds with generous interest payout that helped put our children through college.)

Today, the city and its gardens have a new look, a new, creative atmosphere.

Alliums on the High Line, the latest venture in New York City parks

It took a combination of public and private funding and can-do New York City gumption and talent to get the gardens growing again. And growing they are. Spectacularly! We are racing to take full advantage of these lovingly tended gifts.

New York Frolics is dedicated to the green spaces in New York City that we have already explored and hope to explore in the future. Here are our first entries.

Central Park Conservatory Garden Part I

Central Park Conservatory Garden Part II

The Cloisters and their Gardens

The High Line Part I    The High Line Part II

Union Square Green Market

Banner on a booth at the Union Square Green Market

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Gardener’s Dictionary

Any discussion of gardens should focus on using correct terminology. This Gardeners’ Dictionary is presented as a handy guide for novice and seasoned gardeners alike with the hope that it will clarify currently used vocabulary.

(Note 1: Since this is a scholarly piece, pictures do not accompany text.)

Annual – plant that dies as soon as you plant it, as opposed to Perennial, which is a plant that had it lived, would have come back next year

Catalog Offerings, first choice – For plants used in cottage gardens look for Code MESS

Catalog Offerings, second choice – For plants used in formal gardens look for Code STIF

Chemical – product used to eradicate undesirable plants but works best on desirable plants

Deadheading – time-consuming chore of removing spent blooms, but can be avoided with the usual life cycle of Annuals or Perennials

Deer – adorable large creature that destroys your favorite daylily

Eradication – the act of chemically removing plants that are growing well

Hedge – a series of heavily pruned shrubs in a row that create a striking visual effect, especially if one or two shrubs in the middle die out

Meatballs – usually a food; in gardening a shrub pruned to this shape. For example, some home landscape designs feature many meatballs of varying sizes lined up in a row. Also known as lollipops.

Mulch – organic or inorganic material used for decorative purposes and/or conserving water that provides optimum conditions for colonization by weeds

Perennial – plant that had it lived, it would have come back next year, as opposed to an Annual which dies soon after you plant it

Planting in Threes – aesthetic landscape design technique that insures at least one plant in the group will remain alive long enough for you to enjoy it

Pruning – the act of chopping off undesirable growth, chainsaw most efficient and preferred tool

Rabbit – adorable small creature that destroys your favorite hosta

Seeding In – what weeds do best (see definition of Weeds)

Shrub – woody plant susceptible to disease, drought, poor drainage, bugs, rabbits and deer

Soil, clay – type of soil that causes plants to drown and die

Soil, sand – type of soil that causes plants to dry up and die

Soil, superior – type of soil that causes plants to grow. Nobody has this soil

Thug – plant that grows so well it pushes out Annuals and Perennials and has to be eradicated (see definition). Especially nasty because thugs are often so attractive they are desired by uninitiated gardeners

Tidy Garden – garden that is best viewed at night

Tool Belt – if worn and used properly, effective for keeping track of trowels, pruners, etc.

Tree – tall, grown-up thug with heavy roots and deep shade with no consideration for smaller plants

Trowel – small hand tool usually buried in the last place it was used

Weed – happy plant

Weeding – the act of removing happy plants to uncover dying Annuals or Perennials

(Note 2: Please feel free to notify the editor about any errors or omissions in this Dictionary.)

Posted in Garden Humor | Tagged | 4 Comments

September Frolic in a Southern Garden

It’s playtime in our garden in September. Happy recess between hot and cold seasons. Plants are putting a finish on blooms and berries.

A spectacular year for a pyracantha that has struggled for about 20 years

Bees and butterflies follow the sun, attend progressive end-of-the-season nectar parties. Birds buzz, chirp, chip, while they scour the duff down below or commandeer berries from above.

Bees love Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) sister to Cardinal flower

The livin’ is easy, a time for fattening beneath a kindly sun: Gather your necessaries, but play a little, too.

Silver spotted skipper is not the only butterfly that frequents lantana ‘Miss Huff’

In the early days of spring, a long time back now, plants were in a frantic hurry-rush-hurry. Make an entrance, stand tall, strut your stuff, look beautiful, bask in oohs and aahs. Seize the day. Be a star.

Surprise lilies, Lycors radiata, are a fall bloomer but their strappy foliage pops up in spring to fill bare beds before a gardener can grab a shovel

Brush off insects, hide from rabbits, shrink from deer. Minor annoyances, these last, as the vaudeville act goes on. Life in spring is one glorious fast track.

Even this young box turtle is in a hurry!

Come summer, enthusiasm dribbles. The marvelous spring show is gone. Bugs invade. Heat and humidity smother. Fawns and rabbits seem ravenous. Plants in tatters, or prostrate, or weeding in like bullies, this was not supposed to happen.

Canyon Creek abelia manages to keep its cool in summer, though it really shines in fall

Now it’s not look at me, but leave me alone so I can droop and snooze. A drink of water is the highlight on droughty days. Let those warm-weather, molly-coddled, johnny-come-lately annuals do their stand-up routines and bask in oohs and aahs.

A closer look at Canyon Creek abelia, bees and butterflies methodically forage the white flowers surrounded by bright pink sepals

And what of the gardener? Rush-hurry-rush to clean up in spring. A chivalrous white knight in the garden makes sure star charges are displayed to perfection, basks in reflected glory. Doesn’t it look wonderful! And boy o boy, this is the best spring ever!

We don’t see the Palomedes Swallowtails (this one tired, missing its “tails”) until  summer and fall but larvae are just as busy as a gardener in spring, munching on our swamp red bay

Until bugs, heat, and humidity brandish their blades. Chivalry takes a back seat. The all-conquering white knight becomes a wimpy white potato reading magazines on a couch. The partially (only partially) guilt-ridden, fair-weather gardener says, Nature Must Take its Course Without Me.

Do ya’ think you could pay a little attention to us?

Maybe if I don’t look. . .Rainy days doubly bless the gardener: Less hose-work and legal, guilt-free couch days. There should be more of them.

Cooler weather, a little rain, happier now

Come play time in September, the gardener smiles along with the plants. Time to catch up and pick up and cut down and prune off in an ambling sort of way. Time to enjoy the garden without being a white knight.

The last of the ginger lily still has a sweet smell but is fast giving way to the heady scent of osmanthus fragrans

Time to savor rogue fragrances, delicate, carried by scant breezes that would barely register on any  man-made scale. Time to take pictures of a bright landscape under a bright afternoon sun before it all fades away.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Posted in fall bloom, garden maintenance, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

My Favorite Summer Garden

By the time August arrives here in the south the fresh-faced blooms of early summer are gone.

A long-tailed skipper looks for a last sip from a fading hydrangea bloom

Hydrangea blossoms begin to look like old lace and daylily scapes turn to disposable, dried-up stalks (unless a gardener refuses to deprive dragonflies of loafing pinnacles).

The landscape takes on a different look. Bold crepe myrtles hang over lawns and lanes. Lanky green-eyed coneflowers sway in light breezes. Ginger lily flashes white beacon-flowers with heady scent. Canna blooms on and on, taller and taller.

Crepe myrtle limbs droop gracefully from heavy blooms, will hang low after storms

But then heavy rains blast them all. Crepe myrtle detritus litters paths, and ginger lily and coneflowers lay about, too beat down to stand up tall in the heat.

Now is the time for me to become a time traveler. I turn the clock back to early summer. It’s easy. No hocus pocus. I hop a plane and go north to watch a brilliant summer come to life in New Hampshire, where, incidentally, I can enjoy clear skies, low humidity, and cool nights.

Canna stretches tall, exuberant coneflower behind, but just wait till the next storm

My destination is daughter Susan’s garden. It’s quintessential New England: white picket fence and arbor set off by storm-blue clapboard siding on a two-story colonial with farmer’s porch.

There’s a cottage garden with lovely peonies whose blooms in June number in the dozens on each bush.

There’s a Japanese red maple unfurled over Solomon’s seal and trillium and epimedium.

There’s a shade garden and a long mixed border of shrubs, small trees and perennials across the back.

And climbing the hill beyond, enclosing it all, is a forest of tall oaks where the deer and the chipmunks play.

I have yet to mention the summer show. It’s fresh and flamboyant, a pastiche of phlox, rudbeckia, red hot poker, pristine white bobo hydrangea, blue salvia and daylilies, daylilies, daylilies, and more that I can’t remember. A delight to wander in and occasionally pull a weed or two — if I can find any in the luscious growth.

Susan in her garden

I thought it was about time for me to share my joy at visiting, so here are some more pictures. This truly is my favorite summer garden, and I can say that without being even remotely biased.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Posted in summer bloom, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

(Edible) Food Does not Grow in Refrigerators

Or, Are You Sure that Tomato You are eating is Organic?

Part I:  The Fridge and the Market

I stand in awe of my sister’s refrigerator. It’s a Sears Kenmore, 14 cubic feet. Once I asked her how old it was and she said “very old.” We’ve been visiting for forty-plus years, so I guess it is “very old.”

My sister Elsie and her daughter Linda

My sister lives in a lovely garden apartment in New York City, but the kitchen is so tiny and overhead cabinets hang so low, that contemplating change is like figuring out how to stuff a sow’s ear into a silk change purse.

What awes me is the strategy my sister has developed to pack food away, the finesse with which a random conglomeration of wrapped packages, glass jars, plastic containers and what-nots are deftly layered, pigeonholed, balanced with laser-like precision.

Being quick of mind, you may immediately conclude that, aha, my sister has to play musical crocks every time she needs to get something out of the fridge.

Norwich Meadows Farm booth at Union Square Green Market in New York City

Sorry, but you would be mistaken. On a recent visit, she fed me like a queen. Smoked salmon? Magically, a tray of salmon appeared.

Cream cheese, too? Out came a plate with slabs of cheese. Try some tomatoes, they’re excellent, and sliced onions.

Here’s some mesclun, and romaine, a few varieties of fresh lettuce slipped on the table before I realized it. Oh, I hard-boiled some eggs for us, too.

Butter for the rye bread? And there’s cream for your coffee. Do you mind bottled coffee? It’s so hot out, I thought I’d skip brewing. A large bottle of (good-tasting) strong coffee came out, along with cream and ice.

Handmade Farmstead Cheeses from CT, in high demand at the market

Now you are probably assuming, quite naturally, that there must have been lots of clunking and clanking in the kitchen, that my sister was continually fluttering back and forth like that battery-bunny.

Trust me, we are not a family of flutterers. Our batteries are the other brand.

Further, I am so cowed by the fine-tuning of these edible geologic layers that I rarely do more than move platters to way stations before they disappear seamlessly into that 14-cubic-foot mini-cavern.

Fresh Araucana eggs from Winfall Farms

But storage is only part of the story. Where does my sister find these delectables? At my request she and her daughter took me on a walk to her favorite place to shop, the Union Square Green Market on 17th Street.

Every Wednesday and Saturday (Mondays and Fridays on a smaller scale) an astounding farmers’ market rises from blank pavement, like a full-up movie set with a cast of thousands.

And a phalanx of trucks whose carrying capacity would dwarf a convoy of semis. Like a mirage, it all vanishes by evening.

Imagine the packing up, unpacking, packing for home, and unpacking yet again

The magnitude of the affair boggles the mind, but then, don’t forget, this is New York City, where everything is out-sized.

Surely, this has to be one of the top ten tourist attractions here.

Growers and producers arise before dawn to truck goods in from farms in outlying counties.

They set up canopies, unload equipment, arrange products, post signs (whew!) and put on smiles to land early-bird shoppers.

I’ll take one of everything on the table, thank you very much

The goal, of course, is buying and selling. Marketing produce, most of it organic, is what sustains these energetic entrepreneurs, keeps them coming week after week, year after year to this urban outpost.

Shoppers are serious in their pursuit of fine products, as are chefs who regularly pick up special orders.

But there is an air of holiday, too. Friends meet friends for coffee, families come for a taste of the outdoors, casual strollers bump into neighbors. My sister is a regular, hence her delectable refrigerator.

Keith’s produce stand is a favorite stop for visitors to the Green Market. Lots of variety and it’s all fresh and tasty

One of my sister’s favorite vendors is Keith. His last name is Stewart but she has only ever called him by his given name.

For more than two decades he has been selling organic produce that he grows on his farm in Orange County, New York. He is famous for his garlic, but he also offers about a hundred varieties of herbs, fruits and vegetables.

My sister has known Keith a long time, though probably not as long as she has known her refrigerator. One Christmas she gave me his book, It’s a Long Road to a Tomato, Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life. It’s available from Amazon paperback new or on Kindle for about $15; used copies cost less.

Some pointed humor for urbanites

It’s a must-read for people like me who grew up in suburbia and chafe at standing in line at the super market or (in season) speed-stop for cantaloupe from the Melon Man. (Our Rocky Hock melons are second-to-none.)

But if you grew up in a rural area you will recognize the combination of romance and true grit Keith puts into his reflections on all things farming, from weeds to porcupines and dogs.

He is earnest when he talks about the nuts and bolts of running an organic farm, but good humor and deep love of nature are co-partners. Chores are never finished, yet there’s always time to marvel at the swallows nesting in his barn.

Part II: About that Tomato

Variety is key to success here. Fresh garlic and asparagus in the foreground but a healthy mix of products can help a farmer get by if a crop fails or prices tank

Truly, this kind of farming is not a simple life. Across the country there are about 25,000 organic growers competing with a megalopoly of Big Food.

These farmers follow strict federal standards to be certified organic. They must keep scrupulous records and pass annual inspections.

The other part of not-so-simple is figuring out what will work each year, making a hundred decisions before getting to the bottom line: How do costs balance against income?

An unexpected drop in prices — or bad weather — can wipe a farmer out. Small growers constantly teeter on the brink of a bad year. There are no subsidies.

Hey, I like what they have here

A quarter century ago, organic farming was a grass roots effort, loosely organized.

Enter the USDA to bring order to the meaning of organic. Enter Big Food to give its blessings to irradiation, GMOs and sewage sludge.

No way, said the newly born Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Their energetic campaign for high standards produced 200,000 letters opposing Big Food.

And they won. In 2000 Congress passed a pretty good law, the Organic Foods Products Act that called for a National Organic Standards Board to oversee compliance.

Who of us, unless we grow it, has seen fresh baby’s breath straight from the field?

But the challenges are daunting. All three presidents — Clinton, Bush and Obama – pushed to weaken standards. Today’s political climate is even more treacherous.

Big Food buzz-words like natural, all natural, and 100% natural are meant to confuse shoppers, create billions in profits that cut into sales of organic produce.

There’s also the matter of equity. On the face of it, organic food may seem to be more expensive than Big Food offerings, but is it really?

Tender and new, dug fresh from the field

A study done in 2005 by David Pimmentel on the hidden costs of using pesticides came up with an annual price tag of $10 billion.

Public health costs; livestock and crop losses; destruction of natural insect enemies; pesticide resistance; poor crop pollination; honeybee losses; bird, fish and wildlife losses.

All these costs need to be figured in to the growing of chemicalized food.

No. Big Food is not a bargain in the long run.

Wholesome ingredients whose names we could pronounce on tags labeling bake goods from eastern European recipes

And lately, Big Food has been buying up organic brands so it can gridlock federal oversight and kick the organic label down the road by introducing concepts like Factory Farm Organic and ingredients like GMOs.

Consider the tonnage of GMO corn and soybeans that are fed to cows and chickens every day.

Wouldn’t it be much more lucrative if Big Food could stamp the organic seal on GMOs? Ironically, a recent scam brings home the point.

Truly delectable!

The US regularly imports tons of non-organic GMO corn and soybeans from Romania and the Ukraine via Turkey. (What about pesticide oversight in those countries? Yet another issue.)

Mysteriously, some of those shipments came to be labeled organic.

Somebody made a tidy profit on the value-added organic label before the scam was discovered – too late for those producers who had unknowingly fed GMOs to their livestock.

Could I resist buying? A mini peace lily found its way into my luggage on the trip home

The Organic Consumers Association remains a David in this world of food Goliaths.

They’re the only US organization that focuses solely on concerns of consumers.

They’ve got a following of 850,000 people and 3,000 co-ops, natural food stores, and farmers markets.

They are a vibrant national grassroots network with a solid organization.

They’re strong on education and activism and follow through with lawsuits when appropriate. Recently they’ve published reports on glyphosate (Roundup) residues found in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. They are following this up with press events and protests in seven US cities.

Organic apples, anyone?

“Buy Local, Organic, and Fair Made” is their mantra. Check out their web site, www.organicconsumers.org . It’s impressive.

You can find news about what’s happening in your state and sign up for their newsletter and donate to a worthy cause.

I am grateful that they are there to advocate for us.

And I’m glad my sister keeps her old fridge and shops at Union Square.

I know her (Keith’s) tomatoes are organic – and tasty.

Photo by Keith Stewart shows mowing of cover crops, or green manure, planted in April to nourish the soil for planting in summer

Posted in farmers' markets, organic | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment