food : exciting blueberry pie

The finished product straight from the oven.

A couple of weeks ago, upon our return from vacation in the Great White North, I made a blueberry pie. The pie was exciting for a few reasons: it had a gluten-free crust (I’d say the best one so far, but the most recent always seems like the best); it was made with blueberries both from the ancestral homestead and from our CSA; and it used lemon verbena from our garden (the first use I’ve found for it, since “muddle it into a fruity drink containing hard alcohol” is great advice but only works when you are actually consuming fruity drinks containing hard alcohol). I combined the filling from this recipe with the gluten-free crust from The Allergen-Free Baker’s Handbook that I’ve previously used for apple pies, and it was not a bad pie at all. (I don’t even feel the need to qualify that with “for a dairy-free gluten-free one.”)

The assembly of the pie was pretty standard, now that I’m used to working with the sticky tart-like dough that results when you are using starches held together by egg to make a crust. The filling smelled very lemony, as I just tossed the berries with the juice and zest, not seeing any instructions otherwise in the recipe. I remembered the shortening inside the pie (which I often don’t) but did forget the rice milk wash for the top. That turned out to be a lucky mistake, as I preferred the flakier drier crust and it didn’t have the overly-ricey taste that some of the other versions have had. When I took the pie out of the oven curiosity got the better of me and I spooned up a taste of the filling that had overflowed onto the cookie sheet. I then became very nervous as the filling tasted like nothing more than a blueberry Lemon Drop, a “martini” that I hadn’t had in years because of the cloying sweetness. In the end—where the end is the next day after the pie had cooled completely overnight—the lemon was not overbearing and the pie was quite good. I will definitely chop the verbena more finely next time, but I’d make it again. Blueberry is a good combination with the gluten-free crust, too, as the color and flavor permeate the lower crust and the tart berries stand out against the bland backdrop.

The filled shell. Mmm, blueberries.

After blueberry, the next seasonal pie is usually sour cherry. Well, sour cherry is usually first (here in DC) and blueberry usually follows (after we return from our summer trip in early August). This year we missed sour cherry season entirely and the blueberries were a few weeks early so we had barely cleared Canada Day when we had blueberry pie. Which means that next up is most likely peach, as those are already rolling in to our CSA. After a banner year of plums two summers ago I suspect that the one little bag I have in the fridge might be all I have to work with, so a peach-plum (dairy-free gluten-free) crisp might be in the making. What could possibly go wrong?

food : exciting blueberry pie

garden : where oh where will the little shrubs go?

Red hot poker in front of the pyramid trellis.

Lamb’s ear from a neighbor, planted just ahead of a rare rain.

An unforeseen benefit of having a toddler who likes to be outdoors has been an increase in evening gardening. In the past I’ve been pretty much fed up with working in the yard by this time of year; once it gets hot I like to hang out inside and look at my flowers through the window. Hanging out inside is not a recipe for relaxation with the sprout, though, so we head outside after nap time. Lately we’ve been staying in the yard rather than going to the park, because the porch now stores such enticements as chalk, balls, bubbles, and the extremely popular trowel, all of which makes it difficult to get very far away from the front door. And, as soon as we get outside I am exhorted to “Dig, dig, dig!” Having already moved and planted nearly everything that needs to be moved and planted this spring I am left with weeding. So, all of the front beds are edged and mulched (and look quite nice, if I do say so myself) and we have progressed to weeding the backyard beds. Usually the weeding of the backyard is an annual Herculean task that I delegate to my partner and a very kind friend and which they typically tackle on one very long Saturday round about September or October. Since we don’t have much of anything planted in the backyard (due to the fence that needs to be replaced and my determination to minimize the plants that will need to be relocated when that happens) “weeding” really means digging out the annual encroachment of liriope, ivy, and violets from the sides of the yard that have been successfully cleared in previous years and now languish under a variably thick layer of leaves.

Our new side garden.

The enormous sage, before it got a fungus and then the axe.

This year, however, the presence of my miniature task-master has led me to seek out opportunities for digging and pruning lest the desire to “Dig, dig, dig!” lead to the uprooting of all the herbs, bulbs, and perennials I’ve worked so hard to establish over the past few years. As a result, the peony “bed” (aka strip along the back fence where I plunked them for lack of a better spot at the time) has been weeded and mulched (this last for the first time ever). The area around one of the roses has also been weeded and mulched, the encroaching dwarf almond has been cut back, and the ornamental quince around the corner of the house has been pruned (that was very exciting for the sprout, I fielded requests for “more cut!” for days after that one). After all this I find myself in the odd position of having a fairly well-maintained garden early in the season, leaving me with very little choice except to proceed with digging out the liriope in the back side yard to clear space to plant my new shrubs, a task I would have sworn would be left for partner and friend to undertake sometime in September or October.

Some of my hesitation around this project is due to the fact that I still don’t know exactly which shrubs are going to go where. I have four shrubs that need homes (spicebush, ninebark, beautyberry, and inkberry), and juggling the sun/shade needs is proving a bit tricky. Mostly, though, the tricky part is that I want to be able to see all the shrubs from inside the house because they have been carefully selected to attract wildlife. Oh, and the small complicating detail that two of the spots for the new shrubs are occupied by old shrubs that I want to get rid of and my partner wants to keep. There is that. However, we both agree that regardless of the precise shrub placement, the liriope and other weeds need to be dug out of the side yard so that it can be turned into a mulched area with a path (or just a few stepping stones) which will not have to be mown or weeded very much at all in future years. That alone will require hours of work before we’re even close to needing to resolve our shrub location dispute. My proposal is: get rid of the dwarf almond on the back corner of the house and replace it with the beautyberry (or better yet the ninebark, given how big that one gets); get rid of the forsythia (to which I am incredibly allergic) on the other back corner of the house and replace it with a rain barrel (already purchased and waiting in the garage); get rid of the white lilac (already offered to a friend) and replace it with the spicebush; get rid of the sassafrass sprouts (already slated to be donated to the town park) and replace them with the inkberry; and fit the fourth shrub in somewhere once I see how the rest of this is coming along.

Really, if I’m honest, the dispute is not so much about where all these shrubs will go but more about how exactly we arrived at the current backlog of shrubs waiting to be planted somewhere in the yard. On that point, I got nuthin.

garden : where oh where will the little shrubs go?

beautiful year for a spring garden

Our hand-me-down tulips in full bloom.

This spring has been an amazing one for the garden! I’m trying to put aside concerns about extreme weather, greater pests and allergies, and a brutally hot summer and just enjoy having all the spring flowers in bloom at once. Even the flowers in our shady foundation bed benefited from the unseasonably warm week we had last month: the bleeding heart is putting out new shoots and the epimedium that’s getting the most sun is showing lovely variegation on its leaves. I already have irises and the tulips are blooming at the same time as the dogwood. This is all wreaking havoc on my sinuses but it’s making for an incredibly cheery display of color at the front of the house.

Celandine poppy bursting with color.

First blooms on the cranesbill geranium, with woodruff.

I’m most excited to see how the new side garden turns out this year. It looks like we lost about half of the end-of-season bargain plants from Behnke’s, which is a shame (and yes, I know that they have a warranty but that would require me to have a receipt and an actual dead plant in hand). We also lost the thyme and marjoram plants, but the lemon verbena is putting out new shoots, so that’s a pleasant surprise. All of the semi-shady plants I received from our neighbors have returned: two geraniums, epimedium, celandine poppy, and bleeding heart. Inspired by the new oakleaf hydrangea (which is also growing like mad), I also placed a second bleeding heart and a couple clumps of epimedium over in the shady foundation bed to the right of the front porch. Along with the columbine, those should nice fill in the space behind the azalea and pieris and still be amenable to a nice easy leaf mulch each winter.

First blooms on the new bleeding heart.

Variegation on the epimedium.

Getting back to the side garden, I plan to replace the shrubby herbs and add a few more filler plants like yarrow and lamb’s ear, assuming I can scavenge some from neighbors. I would still like to add a dwarf oakleaf hydrangea to that side of the house, although I’m probably going to wait another year to see what kind of space I have for it. For now, the sprout and I are enjoying making daily inspections of the garden, pulling out weeds and smelling flowers as they emerge. Any pinecones we find on our walks get deposited there and we’re working on making clear the difference between plants you can walk on (grass) and plants you cannot (everything else).

Bee enjoying the volunteer patch of blue bugle flower under the maple.

beautiful year for a spring garden

is it spring yet?

First bloom of the year, on the new hellebore.

Since I’m now a parent and find myself saying dorky things like “Lead on, MacDuff!” and “it’s a doggie-dog world” on a regular basis, I am going to just come out with it: is this thing on? I think I may have hit a record length for blogging silence, at least for a blog that I still consider active. But yes, I do still consider it active and I do plan to return, dust in the corners, and charge ahead into spring. My biggest challenge remains a lack of anything in my life suitable for blogging. Or at least, nothing suitable for a garden/home/cooking blog; since I remain resolved to only refer to the sprout obliquely and without photos or specific amusing anecdotes, there isn’t much left. Yes, I could (and probably will) wax on about the conundrums of being an old-school feminist in an anti-feminist reclaiming-high-heels-for-the-masses era, but that’s only interesting for so long and hardly at all once it’s actually outside of my head. What I would prefer is to organize my actual life to allow for cooking, gardening, art, and home projects so that I will have more material to work with. We’re not quite there yet.

We are, however, making painfully slow but steady progress toward having space, time, and energy to make these things happen. The garden has the most potential since it’s outside and therefore exempt from being entirely covered with stacks of paper to be dealt with, which is the fate of all other available workspace inside the house. Last spring’s hard work is already paying off, as there are buds and sprouts and even blooms coming up all over in the new side garden. I finally have a hellebore, and it’s a lovely deep burgundy color; having bought it half off well after its bloom season, it could have been anything. One of these days, when there is money to spare for specific garden plants, I’d like to add a green-flowering one and a medicinally valuable one. (Because I’m a geek who likes unusual things, and green flowers are certainly that.) I remind myself that there is a whole backyard just waiting to be landscaped post-new-fence and there’s no need to cram every flowering plant I covet into one small patch. At any rate, the hellebore is flowering! The dicentra is also sending up shoots, which is reassuring since I feared I’d killed that one. I may yet have killed the second of the two; I’m not entirely sure as I am trying not to inspect the ground for shoots every single day (a watched pot and all that).

The shrubs seem to have all weathered the (unseasonably mild) winter well, as they all now have buds and new shoots. I did manage to get the second winterberry into the ground during one warm stretch, so that leaves just the spicebush, inkberry, and beautyberry in pots waiting to be planted. They are destined for the liriope-riddled side yard at the back of the house, near the stairs to the basement, just as soon as we remove all the liriope and the two sassafras saplings that we’re donating to the town park. That area is bounded by our neighbor’s fence, the rear addition, the sassafrass trees in the front and the holly tree in the back. So it’s the next reasonable place to garden, as it could use some cleaning up, pruning, and rearranging. It’s already a sheltered corner that the birds and squirrels love, and I think it will be lovely once the new shrubs are in place. It’s also visible from the two windows in the rear addition, and between the flowers, foliage, and autumn/winter berries it’s looking really fantastic in my imagination.

is it spring yet?

spring birds in the park

This has been a good spring for seeing birds in our local park. In addition to the pair of Yellow-crowned Night Herons that returns each year, we have two and possibly three pairs of Mallards nesting along the stream. During my morning walks with the sprout, I’ve seen the usual suspects (Northern Flickers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Eastern Phoebes, Northern Cardinals, Northern Mockingbirds, Catbirds, Blue Jays, American Crows, Grackles, Carolina Wrens, Song Sparrows, House Sparrows, Starlings, American Robins, Carolina Chickadees, Downy/Hairy Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, and American Goldfinches) as well as some fun surprises. We’ve come across Brown Thrashers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Common Yellowthroat, and Wood Thrushes foraging in the brush along the stream banks. There was a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks hanging around for long enough that we thought they might be nesting, but we haven’t seen or heard much of them lately. One day we walked along behind a Pileated Woodpecker going from tree to tree; now that the woods north of town have been demolished, I doubt it will be able to find suitable habitat nearby.

While I’m always happy to see birds, I’ve been thrilled to find frogs in the stream! So far I’ve only been able to spot bullfrogs, but I have high hopes for more diversity in years to come. We’ve also startled several bunnies (making the sprout cackle with glee) and seen one or two groundhogs in our travels. No luck yet with our nocturnal friends, although I’m pretty sure something (possum? raccoon? fox? skunk?) is visiting the side yard to chow down on the mulberries.

Now that summer is kicking into gear, I need to think about incorporating a bird bath into my plans for the garden. It’s getting hot out there and the little fluffballs of sparrow, cardinal, blue jay, and robin that we’re starting to see are going to need a place to cool off.

spring birds in the park