Monday, July 23, 2012


There’s something happening here
What is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time to stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

For What It’s Worth by Stephen Stills

            It’s not good.  

            Media’s unrelenting onslaught of “reality” TV programming and the fascination du jour with vampires, zombies, comic-book superheroes, and bow-wielding young ladies—they’re all bad enough. Throw in the insularity caused by machine-filtered quotidian human interactions, the NRA’s rantings that what this country really needs is a citizenry armed to the teeth and prepared to stand its ground (can you say “George Zimmerman”?), and a baleful sense of one’s rightful place at the center of the universe being denied, and what do you get? Mayhem. This time at a movie theatre.

            A character in an episode of the BBC series “Lewis” says, “All fantasy is infantile until it turns sinister, which it does if you don’t outgrow it. Arrested development is a dangerous thing. Nasty and dangerous.”

Even Al Franken—not someone I usually turn to for bon mots of wisdom—said, “When anything goes, everything goes.”

The Right Honourable Edmund Burke
            Edmund Burke tells us, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” He also notes that "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites." And chew on this, you NRA types: “The use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again.” Too bad Burke’s not required reading, especially for politicos and firearms aficionados.  

A student of history, I have long maintained that the United States is but the latest in a long line of reruns of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The demise of integrity in our leaders; the overweening thirst for money and power at the uppermost echelons; the contracting of the middle class; and the mob's slack-jawed, insatiable, prurient hunger for spectacle echoes that of ancient Rome around 385 AD. “Barbarians” overran the citadel in 421. Right about now, I can’t wait for our comeuppance: in fact, I’m thinking it might be a good idea to learn some rudimentary Chinese.

For what it’s worth, it took us several hundred years less to blow through our nation’s time at the global center stage than Rome did. Let’s hear it for the lickety-split lifestyle.


No, I haven’t moved into a survivalist camp yet. It wouldn’t be a good fit anyway because I’m afraid of guns, and the people who love them. What did ol’ Charlton Heston say? “Guns don’t kill people; people do”? Yeah, that may be so, but I imagine it’s a lot harder to kill somebody with a knife or Aunt Millie’s brass candlestick or your bare hands than with a bullet. Seems like the former methods require some thought, however skewed. Not to mention that up-close-and-personal contact. Sorry, cowboys.

(Click on picture to read caption)

 It can’t be denied that we live in a worrisome era. Last night, PBS started promoting Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “The Dust Bowl” (airing in September on your local PBS station: talk about must-see TV!). What with so much of the country’s farmland suffering severe drought, all those acres of genetically modified crops sown in chemical-drenched soils withering away, I wonder if we aren’t setting up for another one.

Really, it’s not good.

Tomatoes galore!
In reaction to this spate of scary news, I turn to my garden for solace. Nothing unusual with that, of course. Toadflax Farm is producing away—no home-grown tomato shortage chez Fitz this year! I spend so much time cosseting the front yard, the remodeling of the rear garden has received short shrift. The plants wait in their pots on the south side for me to get around to putting them in the ground. I’ve taken to using the north side to traverse between front and back to avoid the guilt pangs the sight of them engenders. Between the heat and other projects, time is at such a premium these days.

It’s those “other projects” that are the actual subject of this post, now that I’ve vented (some of) my spleen.

Water-bath canner & equipment
People who know me express astonishment at the latest bizarre turn my personality is manifesting. Long famous for avoiding kitchen-related activities of any sort, I am currently obsessively turning out canned and frozen jams, salsas, pickles and sauces. I scour the grocery ads for locally grown produce and haul bags of it home to process with my new water-bath canner and Victorio food strainer. I’m also baking bread again, after a 30-year hiatus. Merciful heavens, what happened?
I think it may a control thing. I don’t want to ingest genetically modified organisms any more. Monsanto and the industrial-ag boys’ lobby has pressed long and hard to not have their Frankenfood ingredients labeled as such on the processed things they predominate in. What? You didn’t know that for the past decade or so your breakfast cereal contains GMO corn and that the sweetness in your sodas and cookies comes from genetically engineered high fructose corn syrup? And if that four-pound bag of sugar doesn’t say “pure cane sugar” prominently on the package, it’s likely from GMO beets? Even your tofu’s not safe—commercial soybeans have been GMO for a long while now. (Need to know more? Go to LabelGMO’s website, linked here, and click on “Just the Science” on the left menu.)

Homemade freezer jams
 Anyway, I’m taking active steps to reduce my exposure. Preserving food, I’ve learned, doesn’t have to be the horrible ordeal I remember from childhood. (See “Raising Cain… and Beds.”) Jams can be made by stirring together crushed fruit, sugar and instant pectin for three minutes, decanting into jars and popping in the freezer. Who knew? Small-batch water-bath canning isn’t such an ordeal either, I’ve learned: Having the right tools (especially air-conditioning) makes all the difference.

Pickles, pickles, pickles!

There’s a picture of my home-grown salsa above, and here are the bread-and-butter pickles I put up yesterday afternoon.

 Ball's instant pectin & mixes

These endeavors were streamlined by the Ball Company’s line of salsa and pickle mixes, which I don't consider cheating. (But then, I wouldn't.)

The labor-saving Victorio strainer

Today—maybe tomorrow—will see the inaugural run of the strainer as I teach myself how to put up spaghetti sauce without the necessity of first peeling, coring and seeding 30 pounds of tomatoes. I am soooo psyched.

Kitchen DIY guides
 Intrigued? Check out these books: Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving, edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine; and Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François. The latter was a real eye-opener for one who invested the time and energy of youth baking her own breads for a year or so, back in the day before children and regular gainful employment put the kibosh on lazy days spent proofing yeast and kneading. I plan to suggest to Tim we make the six-hour drive to the Asheville Food and Wine Fest in late August for the sole purpose of obtaining a stash of locally sourced and milled Carolina Grown flours. 

In case you’re interested just how far I plan to immerse myself in self-sufficiency, I’ve also signed up for weaving lessons. I want to learn how to make my own denim. It’s gonna be a trip.

Oh, and I’m seriously considering returning to weekly yoga classes too. It’s like a very healthy sickness.

Thanks for dropping by. Ommm…


Sunday, July 15, 2012


My famous brother-in-law,
Preston Jones
            Sorry about the hiatus. The Fitzes hit the road on July 5 to visit relatives in Maryland and Virginia, having grand times with my Boonsboro cousins, and mom, sister Donna and her husband Preston in Williamsburg. Preston’s the number two craftsman at the silver shop in the restored area, by the way; if you’re planning a visit to the vicinity, stop by and say hey. He’s waiting patiently for the big job as master silversmith. My brother-in-law’s also famous as the cover-guy for National Geographic’s 1776: A New Look at Revolutionary Williamsburg by K.M. Kostyal. He wears colonial garb well, doesn't he?

            Anyway. Surviving the trip back down always-harrowing I-95, Tim and I got home the middle of last week, kissed the cats and the carpet (after a quick pass with the vacuum cleaner), hugged our pillows, and settled onto the world’s most comfortable mattress for an extended lie-in. Since then, we’ve only moved to go to the kitchen for periodic infusions of Tim’s really good coffee. I’ve ventured outside three or four times to perform absolutely mandatory gardening chores. (Hooray for irrigation systems!) I harvested another phase of our bumper crop of ripe tomatoes, trellised the pole beans, and spot-watered any particularly wilted specimens, but that's all. I can’t even imagine having to get up and go to work for the foreseeable future. (Hooray for self-employment!)   

             Yup, it’s official. Needing two weeks to recover from a six-day vacation makes it impossible to deny: Tim and I are Old Farts.

While motoring around in the stultifying July heat, I couldn’t help noticing the number and variety of wildflowers edging our route, especially along the back roads. Thanks to Tim’s infinite good humor and situational awareness, we didn’t get killed any of the times I screeched, “Back up! Back up! Isn’t that purple fleabane?” (It wasn’t.) He also handled traffic control and first aid as I scrambled barefoot up hillsides and down into ditches, or crouched in the breakdown lane or on the verges of medians to capture the perfect shot.

And here’s what we got for all our (actually Tim's, if I'm completely honest) pains. I call your attention to the high-summer denizens of Mother Nature’s hell-strips in the country surrounding Boonsboro, Hagerstown, Funkstown and Sharpsburg, MD and Martinsburg, WV.

Hedge bindweed

Our first photo is of hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium). It’s a morning-glory-like wildflower of cultivation, only living where people do. We found this particular specimen in the hedge of Carissa hollies bordering a McDonald’s just east of Hagerstown.

Maryland's state flower

The wild black-eyed Susan, plain ol’ species Rudbeckia hirta, is Maryland’s state flower for good reason: it grows everywhere. This particular batch adorned the byway above Burnside’s Bridge on Antietam National Battlefield Park.

Cerulean blue chicory

One of the things I miss about upstate New York is chicory (the flower, not the poor-man’s coffee substitute), probably because of my thing for blue blooms. I tried growing it from seeds I brought to North Carolina with me, but they wouldn't grow. I think Chicorium intybus is more of an upland plant.

Queen Anne's lace
Wherever there’s chicory, there’s Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), blooming at the same time and nearby. The flowers are frequently confused with those of bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podogrania), but Queen Anne’s foliage looks like ferny carrot tops where the bishop has trifoliate broad leaves.

Blue & white border,
au naturel

Looking for garden design help? Take a page from Mother Nature’s book of companion plantings, like this one of white Queen Anne's lace punctuated by blue, blue chicory.

Adding a touch of yellow to the blue and white composition, common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) blends right in in its shorter incarnations, or towers above the crowd.

...& statuesque mullein
Stubby mullein...

The scent of clover (Trifolium spp.) revives childhood summers for me. I grew up next door to an old dairy farm, and my dad didn’t suffer from the epidemic of perfect-lawn-itis many of his generation of new-to-the-suburbs men did. Killing stands of clover in the yard is a mistake, as it turns out:  clovers are leguminous, fixing nitrogen in the soil to the benefit of everything else growing in it.

White clover (Trifolium repens)
Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Wild spearmint
Another blast-from-the-past field flower is spicy-smelling and –tasting wild spearmint (Mentha spicata), or horsemint, as we called it back in the day. Chewing a leaf refreshed the palate after a lengthy foray into the blackberry bramble patch. Dontcha feel sorry for kids today, whose memories will feature cold, textureless, scentless electronica and summer days spent inside pecking at tiny keyboards below LCD displays?


Never did find the purple variety, but white Eastern daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) abounded on roadsides and in wildflower meadows, there as here.

I've always loved thistle flowers—if not their prickly stems and leaves—probably another legacy of being a kid playing in cow pastures. There are at least three genera and about a gazillion species of them (thistles, not kids in cow pastures) out there. This particular one is a bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), photographed behind a couple of the monuments scattered over the killing fields of Antietam.

...but, ooh, those prickers
Lovely thistle flowers...

Cool-looking teasel

A resident of low places, teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris) resembles thistles on steroids; but teasel leaves are kinder and gentler, even if their stems and calyxes are not.

Common milkweed

Got milkweed? Host plant to monarch butterfly larvae, it’s another wildflower that grows, well, wild in uplands but gives coastal North Carolina a pass. We can grow lots of the other butterfly weeds—Asclepias (pronounced as-CLEE-pee-us) incarnata, A. tuberosa, A. curassavica—but not Asclepias syriaca.

You wouldn’t guess it from the war I used wage on the common vetch that invaded our lawn (back when we had a lawn), but I adore the sight of the banks of Interstate drainage ditches covered with blooming crown vetch (Coronilla varia), sown to prevent erosion of said banks. Great stretches of large (for vetches) globose flowers atop dainty compound foliage make for a welcome distraction from the blinkered idiot vehicle operators who seem to set the tone on our nation’s highways.

A swath of crown vetch
Crown vetch, close up

It’s good to be home. Thanks for dropping by.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012


The Big Green Weather
Observations Book
            I admit to having obsessive/compulsive tendencies in some areas of my life. At least three weather observations a day (four is better) must be duly noted in the Big Green Weather Book, for example. Towels must be folded in thirds, for another. We flip or rotate the mattress the first weekend of every other month. The sink must be empty by bedtime, the dish drainer before morning coffee. Tim regales audiences at informal gatherings with stories about my list-making, which extends to making lists of the various lists I have running at any given time.

            Okay. Maybe I suffer from more than mild OCD. Whatever gets you through the day, right?

While grooming the nasturtium baskets this morning—which will soon be only nasturtium, since pickleworms have discovered the cucumbers I’d interplanted with them—I realized I’d snipped off some seed heads before they’d ripened. Oh, bugger, I thought. Blew that seed-saving opportunity. (My OCD manifests when it comes to saving seeds. Our refrigerator’s vegetable crisper teems with them.  The disorder does not extend to planting the saved seeds, however.) The oversight inspired me to take a really close look at the flowers, though.

Monoecious nasturtium flowers
Seems nasturtium (Tropaeolum spp.) are monoecious, a botanical term deriving from the Greek for “one house”; it refers to both male and female flowers being borne on the same plant. The female blooms evolve into seedcases while the males just die. (Other species, like hollies, are dioecious—Greek for “two houses”—with male flowers on one plant and female on another. Male hollies never produce babies/berries. Neither do females if there is no male within cross-pollination distance. While we’re on the subject, the quality of dioeciousness applies to pampas grass as well. If yours never erupts into spectacular bloom, you’ve got yourself a boy plant.)   

Gregor Mendel

I find the secret lives of flora endlessly fascinating, and as I pulled off dead leaves and (male) flowers, I found myself thinking about Gregor Mendel, the Austrian Augustinian monk whose obsession with peas in his monastery’s garden resulted in the science of genetics.

George Washington Carver
(photo taken by Frances
Benjamin Johnston in 1906)
Gardening obsessions are quite common. Take George Washington Carver. He saw small farmers struggling to make their livings growing cotton, which not only depletes the soil but doesn't fill the family's stomachs either. He promoted diversification into marketable crops that also offer nutritional value, such as soybeans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. Over a long career at Tuskegee Institute, he wrote dozens of farm bulletins containing some 105 recipes using peanuts. He also developed more than 300 products for farm and home use from the lowly goober, including cosmetics, dyes, gasoline (biofuel!), nitroglycerin, paints and plastics. When it comes to obsessive/compulsiveness, Carver makes me look like a rank amateur.

Other siren-like plants send people into the clutches of a persistent notion that defies rationality. The rosarians are one such group. Even the word “rosarian” conjures up religion. In Otherwise Normal People: Inside the Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening, Aurelia C. Scott captures the insanity overtaking seekers of the title “Queen of Show” at the biannual National Rose Show.  

 Orchid-fanciers suffer from similar obsessive/compulsions, a condition the Victorians called “orchedelirium.” So compelling is this particular form of plantmania, Spike Jonze adapted Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession –the story of the discovery and break-up of a Florida orchid-smuggling ring—into the 2002 movie “Adaptation,” starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. Not bad for an epiphyte. 

            More mundane but just as all-consuming to aficionados, pumpkins claim their own coterie of the unbalanced. The subtitle of Susan Warren’s 2007 book, Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, pretty much says it all.

Growing edibles inspires others to craziness, a sickness I can empathize with. If you struggle with your vegetable plot; if your significant other occasionally remarks that you could have purchased bushels of whatever with the money, resources and time you lavish on your garden; if you wonder if you’re all alone in this unequal struggle against nature, you must read The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander. You’ll feel better about yourself when you finish it.

Of course, Mr. Alexander’s $64 tomato pales in comparison to my own $200 potato patch. After three seasons of dismal yields, this year’s test harvest looked promising. The 12 pounds of four species of seed tubers I planted may actually produce at least that weight in edible spuds, for a happy change. Tomorrow’s the day I’m hauling them in, so fingers crossed, y’all. As a sort of voodoo insurance, I haven’t yet cleared out the closet where I propose to store the bounty until the weather cools down. Just in case.

Test harvest of 'Purple Majesty'
weighed three whole pounds!!
Test harvest of 'Red Caribe'
weighed two-and-a-half pounds!!

Whether for beauty, rareness, usefulness, and/or nutritional value, the quest for that perfect plant is an obsession that lurks in all dedicated gardeners, whether we express it to the point of madness or not.  A little bit of OCD might be all that’s needed to push a weekend putterer into nutcase territory. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Thanks for dropping by.