Margaret Roach on Garden Writing and The Backyard Parables, plus Inkitchen’s First Contest

As garden blogger, I owe Margaret Roach a lot, and have already thanked her for being such an ongoing inspiration.

But it’s more than time to thank her again, and not just for A Way to Garden, blog extraordinaire.  Although she’s working more than full time to build A Way into what I’m sure will soon be a horticultural empire (look out P.W.; there are people as enterprising as you are who can actually write, to say nothing of taking better photographs), she has continued to be a generous friend to all her fellow members of  the plant-besotted community.

That being the case, it’s no surprise that dozens of us who’ve  been given the chance have joined the “ blog book tour” for her latest book, The Backyard Parables.

the backyard parables, margaret roach, cover

Seldom have I seen a book’s cover more in tune with its content: One part ephemeral, beautiful, slightly funny gift from nature; two or more parts eternal, beautiful, serious-but-non-judgmental more or less Buddhist philosophy.

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Sweet Basil: Choosing, Growing, Storing and Recipes

basil 'Green Ruffles' (Ocimum basilicum

‘Green Ruffles’ makes a good bouquet filler after it’s gone to flower. Leaves are a bit larger than this at what might be called best edible stage.


“Write more about growing basil” has been on the do list for some time – years, actually, ever since the  basil harvest tips post that appeared back in 2006. (Nothing hasty, that’s my motto.)

But filling out this year’s seed orders has finally given me the requisite nudge. In catalogue after catalogue, Occimum basilicum and its close relatives are available in a far wider assortment than any other culinary herb (at least among annuals; thyme is another matter). This year we’ll be planting eight varieties and that’s just a small sampling.

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Lois Dodd – Catching the Light

lois dodd in Maine studio

I see Lois Dodd’s back a lot. Light comes into her barn studio through the same door I do, so she’s very seldom facing it.

Portland, Maine: Last evening was almost balmy, this morning, not so much and tomorrow here comes the snow, more of it back down in the Hudson Valley than up here right by the coast, if the forecast proves accurate.

What am I doing in Maine in the winter, after so many years away? I’m taking a small part in the opening festivities for my neighbor Lois’ retrospective at the Portland Museum of Art.

The show’s title, Catching the Light, is a good description of her skill, or perhaps more accurately her very raison d’etre. But years of watching her at work, preparing to work, knocking off for the day and otherwise living the daily life of a painter have me firmly convinced that she wouldn’t be interested in catching it if it hadn’t caught her first.

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Starting Seeds

tashkent marigold

Tashkent Marigold, from one of my favorite seed companies, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Well, I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour, as the Car Guys would say, going through the umpty-millionth seed catalog, marking every tempting vegetable, herb and flower.

Have I checked which seeds I’ve already ordered? No. Have I checked which seeds I already have? Also no. Were any of these markings made with an eye to the limits of the garden, or for that matter the limits of me?

Of course not, because the truth is the hour wasn’t wasted, it was used as a tranquilizer. Locally, it’s too cold to work in the garden; globally, it’s too hot for the world as we know it to endure. Both of these facts have the potential to be depressing, but just thinking about planting seeds pushes all gloom away.

No matter what else is happening, a seed would rather grow. What could be more wonderful than that?

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Pistachio Piezadas, My New Favorite Cookie – Unless That’s Black Walnut Honey Drops

cookies pistachio, lime cornmeal, honey black walnut

Left to right: Pistachio Piezadas, Lime Cornmeal Biscotti, Black Walnut Honey Drops.

Around here, it’s not too late to be trottin’ out the recipes. Holiday cookie season isn’t officially over until 12th Night and I still have plenty to go.

The assortment is always a mixture of old favorites and new thrills and ideally there would be about half of each. But now that this has gone on for years and years (and years), I feel like a long-running hit restaurant: there isn’t much room for anything new because the menu is already crowded with dishes that cannot be removed or the customers will rebel.

This year, I’ve again made most of our classics – everybody’s classics, like gingerbread persons and butter cookies,  and our personal classics, like chocolate rum balls (recipes for those and more here).  Also some equally must-have Universal Suit Yourself Fruit and Nut Bars.

Also, thank goodness, three new ones, all of them cookies that should come in useful whenever cookies are needed, regardless of the season:  Pistachio Piezadas, Lime Cornmeal Biscotti and Black Walnut Honey Drops.

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Securing Special Seeds (Martian Jewels Corn, for instance)

martian jewels corn

An ear of Martian Jewels on the stalk – note the rich color of the stem and husk. (See end of post for useful tips on choosing and ordering vegetable seeds).

As far as I’m concerned, this time of year is already plenty busy enough. Had I my druthers, I’d just let the seed catalogs pile up until that lovely lull between Christmas and New Years when most of the baking is safely done but it’s not yet time to go see the accountant.

However. Thanks to the ballooning assortment of esoteric goodies for which not even the largest company has sufficient room, waiting is not an option. Between “last chance” and “limited supply” something unique is going to get sold out soon, and she who hesitates is going to be

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Eric’s Pet Plant: Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)

Parrotia persica (persian ironwood)

Classic Eric caption: “When all others have disrobed, the Parrotia, whether through shyness or due to acumen at strip poker, still hangs on to its leaves. Yes, it is somewhat in need of a shaping up by way of pruning, but spring is the time to best tackle that task.”

When I first asked my friend Eric to post some of his pet plant reviews here, I did it for two reasons:

1. His taste is somewhat different from mine, and because he’s in charge of a good-sized public greenhouse complex and research garden (Marsh Botanical Garden, at Yale University) his brief is very different indeed.

2. He has an endearing tendency to wander far from horticulture on his way to discussing things like  exposure and soil pH. That  aspect of his writing has been somewhat in abeyance lately, but on this occasion he has beyond outdone himself. Those who want to (metaphorically) skip directly to the recipe are encouraged to scroll down to the headline: On the Parrotia Itself.

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The Leftover Turkey List – Lucky Thirteen

Dr. Huey rose

This is rosa ‘Dr. Huey.’ He has absolutely nothing to do with turkey, leftover or otherwise. I’ve just had it with looking at food for a while.

These suggestions are offered just in case you are like me and turn out to still have some left. Eternity is famously “two people and a ham,” but turkey is even more so, in my opinion. This may have something to do with the fact that Bill is strictly a ham sandwich man, so I can’t count on lunch for help. (A bit about Dr. Huey follows.)

Thirteen Things to do with Leftover Turkey

shortcuts included

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Maple Pecan Pumpkin Pie – a Recipe from a Friend

maple pecan pumpkin pie

Maple Pecan Pumpkin Pie – what is there to say but read on?

As I was saying only a moment ago, here comes Thanksgiving. Time for the Turkey Roundup. Time also for the pumpkin pie – but the Squash Roundup, while rich in recipes (see end of post) does not contain this necessary part of the finale.

Enter my dear friend Sandy Oliver, food writer, culinary historian and vegetable grower supreme, who just happens to have a great recipe for pumpkin pie in her new book, Maine Home Cooking, published, fittingly, by Downeast Books

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After the Storm(s): Choosing – and Cooking – the Holiday Turkey

roast turkey

The turkey gets transferred to a cookie sheet and put in a VERY low oven to rest while I make the gravy. (Not wise to put it on the antique ironstone serving platter until the last minute.)

Ok, not right away for the cooking part. But Thanksgiving is coming at us at an alarming rate, earlier this year than ever, and it’s none too soon to be ordering a suitable turkey.

I am of course extremely grateful to be worrying about things like “what kind of turkey?” rather than things like “ will I have a home to cook the turkey in?” But no amount of gratitude solves the question of the hour: do I want a heritage turkey or just a plain old organic free range turkey?

While I’m making up my mind:

* My not very scientific comparison of heritage vs. (semi) conventional birds, along with a detailed explanation of why heritage costs so much, is here.

* Advice on special cooking techniques for heritage birds is in the second section of Wild Turkeys, Thanks but no Thanks.

* My detailed guide to size selection, brining, roasting, and gravy making, along with a recipe for wild mushroom and chestnut stuffing, is here.

* Local Harvest is the place to search a national database for (duh) a local bird.

and of course – VERY important, as far as my family is concerned –  there’s

* Fresh Chestnuts: Roasting them, Peeling them, Putting them in the Stuffing. (Especially useful for vegetarians and vegans, who may wish to move the chestnuts into a starring role).