First, Do No Harm: Go Native to Support the Monarch Population

According to a Jan. 17 article published by The Xerces Society, monarch butterfly populations plummeted precipitously in 2018.  The numbers counted were scary-low, the estimated declines, scary-high: possibly more than 90%.
 
Planting milkweed to restore lost habitat is one important way that concerned citizens can go out and make a difference ASAP.  However, gardeners wishing to help butterflies may actually be compounding the problem by unwittingly planting non-natives. Non-native milkweeds, such as the popular Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), and others which are native somewhere within the U.S. but not in one’s particular climate / region, may actually be interfering in the butterflies’ natural migration patterns.
 
The following photos are taken from the Xerces Society website. Can you spot the U.S. native?
 
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On the left you see Tropical milkweed, A. curassavica.  It is NOT native and as such can harbor overwintering parasites and disrupt monarch migration patterns.  On the right, Butterfly Weed, A. tuberosa, is native to most of the U.S. (but not to the Pacific Northwest).  The milkweeds look quite alike; they both attract monarchs; but they are not to be planted interchangeably.
 
If you have Tropical milkweed in your backyard , then you know monarchs love it.  A monarch loves this plant so much it’ll migrate all the way down from Portland or Toronto to Mexico to get its little proboscis on it!  But despite its seeming success in your butterfly garden; despite what the “Gardening Expert” at your local garden center says, or what the bold print on the seed packet might claim, A. curassavica is not native to the United States. It simply doesn’t belong here.
 
I’m not going to go down the path of telling you you’re only supposed to plant California natives in your California garden.  The garden, and I think the planet, welcomes a little multiculturalism; Japanese maples in Seattle, Dutch tulips in Central Park, and the like!  But, for the sake of our international guests the monarch butterflies, it may be true that only one kind of gardening will do — and that’s to preserve and plant native milkweeds for their benefit.
 
I believe I’ve witnessed some of the negative aspects of butterfly gardening with non-native milkweed firsthand. When I first purchased and planted Tropical milkweed five-or-so years ago, respectable manager-types at two local garden stores (plus a cursory dip into the Internet) reassured me that it was either “native” or “just fine”.   We had nothing but success with these plants, and the butterflies they hosted, for the first few years.  Strong, beautiful butterflies; fantastic photos; cherished memories.
 
 

 

But as time has passed, even as the plant has spread throughout our backyard, we began to experience diminishing returns, with far fewer monarchs making it past the chrysalis stage.  I suspected a parasite or fungus at work, a hunch which sent me deep into the Internet in search of research, and finally landed on this piece by the Xerces Society.  If you have Tropical milkweed growing in your garden, please take a moment to read the most cogent, comprehensive, compelling words I’ve seen on the topic:
 
 
By the time I got to the last paragraph, having recognized the OE parasite condition pictured and described, I’d taken the decision to pull out all our Tropical milkweed and to start again, after last chance of frost, using native plants specifically suited to our Southern California Coastal Climate.
 
A search for milkweed seeds vis-a-vis the Xerces Society led me to the Theodore Payne Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to educating “Southern Californians about the beauty and ecological benefits of California native plant landscapes”.  Thanks to the guidance of Genny, who graciously took the time to continue to educate me — navigating the native milkweed universe is trickier than one might expect! — I’ve ordered two truly native So Cal milkweeds: Narrow-leaved milkweed, (A. fascicularis) and Kotolo (aka Woolly or Woolly-pod milkweed (A. eriocarpa). 
 
 
These seeds required a little more effort to track down, and they’re not free (as opposed to the A. curassavica which would be more than happy to continue self-sowing in my backyard), but they’re the real deal. I’m happy to share them, too, so message me if you’d like seeds.
 
More on the monarch situation, and more steps we, the people, can take to support them.  But first: let’s do no harm.  I’ll be taking this mid-winter opportunity, while my Tropical milkweed plants leafless and monarch-free, to pull ’em.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Ugly Gardens Grow Great Grub

All winter long, my garden is just ugly.

There’s no excuse for it, really.  We’re in Encinitas, just north of San Diego, where the sun shines pretty much year ’round.

But the truth is, I need a break from gardening in the winter.  There’s other stuff to do.  And then, when the garden starts getting winter-ugly, I really don’t want to go there.  There are weeds — every year more weeds!  (I swear the garden was weed-free when we first planted it five years ago; that sure ended!)  There are towering stalks of kale, bearing ever-diminishing returns; overblown Brussels sprouts too.  The skeletal remains of holy basil, and blueberry bushes, slow to rebound after a soggy, direct-sun-deprived winter stint.  These garden remnants, leftovers from warmer, sunnier times, repel me all winter long.  Too ugly.  Looks like work.  I’m out.

But then on some sunny day, February 25 or thereabouts (I really should make a note on my calendar — I bet it’s the same day every year), the tide changes.  I look outside and see something I really ought to just quickly take care of… then another thing… as long as I’m picking weeds, might as well do something about that leggy loopy vine over there… and I’m BACK, baby!!  Back in the garden — back in love with the garden.  Clawing, spading and weeding, pulling and picking, until surprisingly quickly what had looked irredeemably seedy is once again respectable.  A place where magic could and does happen.  Ripe, if not with fruit, then with possibilities.

Working in an ugly garden is not without immediate rewards.  The patch of earth I’d snubbed all winter had some surprises in store.  Tiny Brussels sprouts, up near the ends of the stalks; some of them wrapped in deceptively brown skins, which peel off quickly to reveal pretty green, eminently edible clusters.  A dozen perfect, if smallish, Yukon Gold potatoes were a complete surprise.  I’d tossed them into the garden after they sprouted in the pantry last year, gave up on them when the plants died back after not doing very much; now, those 3 or 4 bits of spud had grown into twelve delicious little meals.  I admit, I’ve eaten four of them today, and they were the creamiest, smoothest, richest potatoes ever, with a super thin and satisfying skin, enhanced with Kerrygold butter and nothing but.

But of course the pièce de résistance of the late winter / spring garden is the asparagus.  It’s here —  a few new stalks of it every day, each growing up so quickly that I wish I had a time-lapse photography set-up to record the sheer determination of it.  Seeing asparagus popping up in mid-February is a bit concerning — we could certainly use a bit more winter around here!  Nevertheless, it’s always such a pleasure, never a given, to see those asparagus coming back up again out of that plain old ugly brown dirt.

A gardener never forgets the capacity of plain old ugly brown dirt.

And if she does, the garden reminds her.

Jen.

Blood Oranges & Cinnamon

Slices of local blood orange + a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon = one outstanding snack (not to mention a world-class tequila-shot chaser!)

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Have you tried this combination before?  If not, I invite you to try it.  Apples and cinnamon are the classic combination, but oranges and cinnamon unexpectedly elevate each other, too!

When Good Mint Goes Too Far

You may have heard that mint is best planted in containers; that if left uncontained, it goes invasive.  Let me show you what mint will do when left to its own minty devices!

This is the flagstone pathway I built, OK placed, a few years back.  I love it because it lets me walk barefoot into the garden 20 times a day.  There’s no cement underlay, just fabric underneath that’s supposed to keep weeds at bay.  As you can see, that fabric is no match for mint.

the path overtaken... by mint. and black eyed susan vine. and even some chives.
the path overtaken by mint. and black-eyed susan vine. and chives…

The greenery here is “apple” mint — a sweetish, slightly fruity-tasting, fuzzy variety — a wonderful mint, but one which I never meant to plant anywhere near this area — yet here it is, doing it’s best to take the place over.  There’s some black-eyed susan vine in there too — see the pretty pink flowers?  Also invasive!  Plant one vine, and each of the many lovely flowers it drops will produce very viable seeds.  Perfect if you’re looking to cover a back fence, but a real pain in the middle of the garden.

So what prompted this mint situation?  A few years ago, the grapevine now gracing our trellis shared a half-barrel container with a variety of herbs, among them — you guessed it — my favorite apple mint.  When the grapevine failed to thrive in its container, I replanted it at the base of the trellis, taking great care (ha!) to remove any tiny bits of mint roots that were intertwined in the grape roots.  So much for “great care”, because some tiny bit of root did in fact get planted, and though I did make some (fairly feeble) efforts to pull out the mint as it grew and multiplied, eventually those roots found their way into the fertile soil under the flagstones (probably the best soil in the whole garden, since that’s where the earthworms hang out).  The march of the mint was on!

one little, two little, three little mint tips... leads to four little, five little, six little mint tips!
one little, two little, three little mint sprouts… leads to four little, five little, six little mint sprouts!

So, we’ve got a case of invasive mint.  It’s growing fast; but since I’m the one who has to deal with it, it’s not going anywhere fast.  Having a mint forest underfoot kind of annoys my accountant husband, who like to see his flagstones-and-pebbles neatly in rows.  I’m more willing to accept, and want to work with, a garden that’s a bit out-of-control.  It’s boring being in control all the time, and frustrating trying to be in control all the time.  So, I just pull out mint that is growing too far (it will NOT be allowed into the garden beds!), and cut off the sprouts when they get too tall.

The absolute upside of growing mint over a sizable distance is the proliferation of mint “tips”.  They’re the best part of the mint; the newest, prettiest leaves, perfect for eating or as garnish.

Our Pippa is a mint-tip connoisseur. Only the freshest and finest of leaves will do.
Our Pippa is a mint-tip connoisseur. Only the freshest and finest of leaves will do.

lemonade
lemonade “with benefits”!

A glass of delicious homegrown mint-enhanced lemonade is just the thing after a morning spent managing mint!  Find my (extremely locally) famous recipe for Apple-Mint Lemonade here.

Take a leaf out of mint’s book, and

Grow Where You Are Planted.

: )     Jen.

Caesar Salad {GF}: A Love Story

Of the 9 hens we bought this spring, only 1 has begun to lay. Since my neighbor and I share the hens and eggs, this means one egg per family every other day.

Come on, the rest of you girls, time to earn your keep!!!

Luckily I know a delightful way of feeding one’s family using just one homegrown egg: turn it into dressing for a Caesar salad.  My family’s been eating and making this salad forever — I’ve had the recipe memorized for at least 30 years.  To make it now with our own beautiful backyard eggs is a joy.

First though, I must share a little Caesar salad love story.  While living and working in Switzerland, I met a man I suspected was through-and-through wonderful; possibly even The One.  It was ridiculously bad timing, of course — I’d just quit my banking job and all systems were “go” for a return to the States.  Plus I hadn’t traveled all the way to Switzerland to fall in love with a guy from — dear Lord — New Jersey?!?!  But the attraction persisted and appeared to be mutual and finally one night he invited me to his (crappy bachelor pad) apartment to cook dinner. (It was not a good apartment.  A 20 minute walk — uphill both ways — from anything!  Surrounded by grumpy old Swiss neighbors with impeccable hearing; heaven forbid someone flush a toilet after 9pm!  Little did I know, that night, that this would be my crappy apartment, too, in just about 2 months’ time.)

Anyway, back to dinner: I’d decided to go bold and was starting with my mom’s Caesar salad.  We ate the salad — he said he loved it, but who knew, was he just being polite?  I went back into the kitchen to get the next course.  And then, glancing back into the dining room, a magical sight to be seen — my guy, salad bowl tipped to his mouth, drinking up every last drop of pungent, potent dressing.

At that moment, watching Bob pay our family’s favorite salad dressing the ultimate in respect, I knew: this was my person.

(It freaks him out a little when I tell this story.  He was just drinking good salad dressing.  The rocking of my world was unintended.)

So here it is, my recipe for a classic Caesar salad, adapted slightly from the way mom used to make it.  Mine’s garlickier; she takes the more refined (and classic Caesar) approach of rubbing the garlic around the bowl, then tossing it away, rather than mincing and adding it. If, post-Caesar, you plan on kissing a person that is not already in a committed relationship with you, you may omit the minced garlic.  You’d be silly though.  And misguided.  : )

Caesar Salad

1 tsp. freshly chopped garlic

2 2-inch long strips anchovy paste (available in most grocery stores, though you might have to look for it.  Can substitute 2 anchovy filets (or more.  yum.)

1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

2 tbsp. red wine vinegar (sherry or champagne vinegars work too)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

the juice of 1/2 lemon

1 egg yolk (Coddling the egg helps separate the white from the yolk.  Gently drop a whole raw egg into a mug of very hot but not boiling water for 2-4 minutes.  Remove egg, rinsing under cool water to cool the shell quicker; then crack it, using fingers to catch the yolk while allowing the whites to slip through.)

1 large head Romaine lettuce, rinsed and dried, thick (tasteless) stems and ribs removed, hand-torn into bite-sized pieces (hand-torn lettuce shows 64x more love than knife-chopped lettuce.)

Parmesan cheese, to taste

Black pepper, to taste

In the bottom of a large salad bowl, combine garlic; anchovy paste; Worcestershire and vinegar.

Add olive oil and lemon juice, whisking until mixture is emulsified.

Just before serving, whisk in 1 egg yolk.  Finish dressing with a tsp. or so Parmesan cheese.

Before adding the lettuce, taste the dressing.  No two Caesar dressings are ever quite the same. It should be tart and pungent, but balanced.  Too tart?  Add more Worcestershire and/or olive oil.  A little bland?  Maybe squeeze that 1/2 lemon 1 more time; add a touch more vinegar; a few drops more Worcestershire.  Add in lettuce and toss the salad well.

Serve immediately with additional Parmesan and fresh-ground black pepper.  Makes enough for 4 regular people, or the 2 of us.

And don’t be surprised if someone — a special someone — wants to lick the bowl.

Summer Salad with Peaches, Prosciutto, Burrata & Candied Pecans {GF}

This salad matches perfectly ripe, sweet-tart peaches to peppery greens; rich, creamy burrata (a cream-filled ball of fresh mozzarella cheese); tasty, salty prosciutto; and the pure decadence of candied pecans.  It’s a perfect start to a Labor Day barbecue, or a super-satisfying meal on its own.

This photo is not my best work, but it does tell the story — there wasn’t time to go get the “good” camera, or try to get the “perfect picture”, because we just couldn’t wait to start eating!  And even the kids had seconds — incorporating fresh fruit into salad is a fine way to get kids eating unfamiliar greens.

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Don’t you just love “cooking” that simply combines gorgeous ingredients, to maximum effect?  There’s really no room for error when everything that goes into a dish starts out delicious.  Here’s the recipe, if you can call it that:

Summer Salad with Peaches, Prosciutto, Burrata & Candied Pecans

6 cups fresh salad greens; peppery varieties like arugula, mustard greens, etc. work well

3 ripe peaches, cut into bite-sized wedges

3 pieces prosciutto di Parma, torn into bite-sized pieces

1 mound burrata, cut into bite sized pieces

drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil

drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar (can substitute regular balsamic vinegar)

handful of candied pecans (toasted almonds would be delicious, too)

Place fresh rinsed greens on a platter.  Drizzle with a good quality olive oil.  Place peach slices, prosciutto, and burrata over greens.  Drizzle reduced balsamic over salad, then top with candied pecans.

Sources:  The greens and peaches are from my garden and from the grocery store (Jimbo’s to be precise). The prosciutto comes from Costco, where it is very reasonably priced; and the burrata, olive oil, reduced balsamic, and candied pecans are all from Trader Joe’s.  Which makes it so easy; and cooking on Labor Day should be easy!

Enjoy the holiday weekend!  Eat well & be safe.

Jen.

Bacon-Boosted Brussels Sprouts {GF, DF}

You know you’re finally, officially an adult when Brussels Sprouts are what you REALLY, REALLY want to eat.

I’m so adult, I’ve been known to order just a side of Brussels Sprouts for dinner.  This is not a dieting thing, I just love them that much.  (Cucina Enoteca in Del Mar, California makes heavenly sprouts.  Everything else there is good too!)

It’s true, I’ve kind of grown up.   But it’s also true that Brussels Sprouts have come a long, long way in the last few years, evolving from yesteryear’s tough little balls of undercooked cabbage-y yuckiness; to the roasty, savory morsels of yumminess our whole family currently craves regularly!

After much trial, error, and tasting, here’s my favorite (super-simple) way to cook Brussels Sprouts here at home:


Bacon-Boosted Brussels Sprouts

15-20 Brussels sprouts (depending on size), roughly sliced into slivers and shards

5 tsp.-sized dollops of rendered pork drippings (for the whys and how-to’s, see below)

1 tsp. garlic, finely minced

1 tbsp. Mediterranean capers (optional)

splash (1 tsp.) sherry vinegar (optional)

kosher salt for sprinkling


Preheat oven to 375.  Cover a rimmed baking tray with a Silpat liner (or you can skip this step).  Scatter slivered sprouts on baking tray. Place dollops of rendered pork fat on sprouts (fat will melt and spread and cover sprouts as they begin to cook). Toss on garlic. Place sprouts in oven to begin roasting.

After 15 mins., use kitchen tongs to stir the Brussels sprouts, pushing the browner outside bits to the inside so that all may cook evenly.  Add the capers and just a splash of sherry vinegar, if using. Roast another 10 minutes, stirring again.  At this point, depending on how well-done you like your Brussels sprouts, check them every few minutes, removing from the oven at the moment they have the right color for you. (We like ours verging into dark brown — crispy!)

Ideal done-ness: a mix of crispy brown and tender green.

Sprinkle cooling sprouts with kosher salt — they will benefit from a mildly generous sprinkling — and let them cool for a few minutes; this will also help them crisp up.  Serve immediately.

Rendered pork fat, you say?  Yes, I say — just like your (great-?) grandma probably used, before the sugar-cereal lobby told us bacon was bad for us and we should be eating sugar-cereal instead.  When cooking bacon (ideally no nitrates/nitrites added, organically and humanely raised — just like great-grandma would have eaten), I save the panful of rendered grease by carefully pouring it into a glass jar.  It keeps in the fridge for a long time, and is indispensable for cooking up crispy, bacon-boosted (but not bacon-overpowered) Brussels sprouts.  My little jars of rendered bacon grease have been passed all around the neighborhood, and we’re a pretty healthy bunch.  Bacon-boosted, in fact.  But if you must, or even if you like, by all means substitute olive oil for the bacon fat!

Here’s my crisp-tender, super-flavorful, nutrient-packed lunch:

Sprouts: they’re what’s for lunch!

For more on Brussels Sprouts, and how we grow them in our garden (hint — effortlessly), check out my article on www.windowbox.com http://www.windowbox.com/blog/2015/08/22/bacon-and-brussels-sprouts-are-the-best/

Thanks, and happy sprouting —

Jen.

Going back for thirds!

Lemonade “With Benefits”: Mint, Kale and Spinach

We just got back from a HOT weekend in the desert — easily 110 degrees in the shade.  Such weather calls for lemonade, and lots of it!  I’m calling this twist on a hot-weather classic “Lemonade With Benefits” because it brings a healthy dose of garden-fresh greens to a classic summer treat.  No one has to know this lemonade is spiked with kale, spinach, etc. — they’ll see the bright and beautiful green color, but all they’ll taste is lemon, bright sugar, and a hint of mint!  Here’s how it’s (quickly and easily) done:

Lemonade “With Benefits”

Toss into high speed blender (i.e. Vitamix):

6 tbsp. lemon juice (approximately 1/3 cup)

1/2 cup young, tender leaves of kale, spinach, or chard

1/2 cup sugar (or to taste)

Handful of mint leaves

Fill blender to 4 cups line with ice.  Add water until level reaches 5 cups.

Blend on high speed until all ingredients are thoroughly blended, and enjoy.  Makes 5 cups of ice cold, sweet/tart, green lemonade!

A few notes.  The ice is crucial in this recipe.  It provides grit to help break down the greenery into drinkable, not-the-least-bit noticeable bits.  Also, a powerful blender (I use a Vitamix) is key.  It breaks the sugar down so thoroughly, there’s no need to make a simple syrup, as would be required in a standard lemonade recipe.  Finally, don’t skip the mint, unless you want to taste the vegetables in your lemonade.  Which would be pretty hard-core.

You can try other sweeteners in place of the sugar.  For me, the clean, bright, old-fashioned flavor of sugar is unbeatable.  Stevia would be an interesting substitute (homegrown stevia would be a dream!)  Also, feel free to reduce or increase the amount of sugar to suit your taste.

Lemonade with benefits!  Enjoy!  (Oh and enjoying watching even vegetable-averse kids drink up kale, spinach and chard with green-tinged smiles on their face — I know I do!)

— Jen.