Sunday, July 31, 2011

Local Tomatoes, Bread and Homemade Beebalm Tea

Summers in North Carolina bring both laments and blessings. This week, the main topic of conversation was the extreme heat (104 degrees on Friday). But the heat didn't stop the cherry tomatoes from continuing to produce, or keep the farmers from the market Saturday. With pleasure this evening, we realized our entire meal was made of locally produced food. 

The salad includes cherry tomatoes we grew, plus tomatoes, green beans, eggplant, cucumber and red onion from the farmer's market. The tomatoes, beans and onion were so full of flavor that we didn't need a salad dressing. The bread was made by a man who buys organic whole wheat from local farmers. He bakes the bread in a wood-fired oven in his dining room and even splits his own wood. He hauls his loaves of bread to market on a cart towed behind his bike. The bread not only has a low carbon footprint, but is delicious. (Some day I'll write a post on the Carrboro Farmer's Market. It's one of the treats of living in this community, having access to tasty local produce, all grown within 50 miles of Carrboro.)

I am proud of the iced tea, my first attempt ever at homemade tea. I've read many times that the Indians used to make tea from beebalm leaves, but never got around to making any until this year. Since the beebalm patch is outgrowing its bounds, I was able to combine harvesting with weeding. A brief Google search turned up a recipe that was ridiculously easy.
  • Strip leaves from monarda right before or right after bloom.
  • Lay leaves flat to dry for three days.
  • Crumble leaves.
Here is how the leaves looked after three days.

Since our summers are so humid, the leaves didn't dry completely, so I put them in the oven on low temperature for about 10 minutes. It was fun to crumble them. It's hard to describe the taste of the tea - it's fragrant with a mild, refreshing taste.

I'd love to hear about teas you've made from plants in your garden. Now that I know how easy it is, I'm inspired to make more herbal teas. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sea and Sound

My husband and I spent three days this week in Salter Path, NC, on a spiritual retreat. Salter Path is on a long barrier island that runs west to east, looking south into the Atlantic Ocean. The surf was rough enough to be fun without being scary. Strong sea breezes ripple the sea oats that create dunes along the shore. Walking and swimming here is a prayer.

A great egret flies across the pond at the retreat center.

A short walk to the south leads to the ocean. The sandy path is shaded by the twisting branches of live oaks that interweave to form a dense canopy.

To the north the path to the sound winds past a pond and through a maritime forest that includes bald cypresses, hollies, live oaks and the occasional Atlantic white cedar, ending up at a salt marsh glowing yellow-green in the sun. Ibises feed along the edges of the salt marsh. Oysters grow in clusters in the shallows.

Seashore mallow, a relative of the hibiscus, grows near the edges of the pond. It's also known as marsh mallow :)

The balls of bald cypress are textured and a striking shade of pale blue-green. 

It's been a privilege within the last three weeks to experience the vastly different natural communities of the mountains and coast. We live about a three hours drive from each. I thought the beach was hot, but as we drove away from the coast, the thermometer in the car climbed relentlessly from 93 degrees to 106 as we neared Raleigh. Sadly, it's the part of the Southern summer that might as well be winter for all the time we spend indoors. So I will dream of cool-warm salty water and the embrace of the waves. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

July: What's in Bloom

One of these months, I will manage to put together a post on what's blooming in my garden in time for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. This time, I was distracted by fawns. Also, July is not a particularly good month for blooms in the South, especially in a shady garden. But I do have a few plants to show you. Pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa 'Sparkling Burgundy') is one of the more exotic plants in my garden, with large purplish-green, sword-shaped leaves.

The bloom is just emerging - I don't think it looks like a pineapple, but it is interesting. The plant takes no special care, despite its exotic looks.

The cherry tomatoes are getting close to ripening. I didn't get them in the ground until mid-May this year, so it's been a struggle to resist temptation to buy them at the farmer's market. But I know that soon will come the time when we have bowls overflowing with yellow (Sun Gold) and red (Sweet Million) cherry tomatoes. 

If I had to choose a favorite annual for pots, it might be torenia. It grows well in part shade and has inviting tubular flowers. A local nursery was kind enough to order six-packs of torenia after I inquired about it. Ruby-throated hummingbirds visit it.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds also like Salvia guaranitica. When I was photographing the salvia yesterday evening, I heard the familiar whir as one came to dine, then zipped off, perhaps startled by my presence at its one of its favorite hangouts. (As far as I can tell, ruby-throated hummingbirds could care less about the myth that they are particularly attracted to scarlet flowers. In my garden, they visit white phlox, pink impatiens, purple and pink torenia, and blue salvia as well as red monarda.)

Here is a rudbeckia hirta that seeded itself in the vegetable garden. I'm glad I didn't pull it out.

Here is something else seated in the vegetable garden. The little rabbit is getting bold.  After he ate all the beans off the bush plants while we were in the mountains, I made a deal. The bunny can have the rest of the bush beans. I get the pole beans. However, the next day, the bunny violated the peace accord by biting off several of the pole bean vines. And today, here he is, caught in the act of blithely munching on the bush beans. He kept right on munching though I was only two feet away. Clearly, he knows I have a soft heart.

Some garden surprises, like finding wilting pole beans irrevocably severed from their roots, are not so good. But I usually find more pleasant surprises in the garden. This year, a favorite surprise has been this patch of zinnias (Lilliput) that self-seeded themselves after I didn't deadhead last year's planting. (Why do so many garden writers recommend deadheading?!) I like the smaller flower heads of these zinnias.

Butterflies usually flock to Joe Pye weed, which is just starting to bloom in the sunny bed along the street. This is a dwarf variety that grew to 7 feet tall last year, ignoring the write-up that said it was supposed to be 4 feet tall. This year it's about 4 feet tall. Plants have minds of their own.

If you live in the South, please excuse the next photo. Crape myrtles are overplanted by commercial landscapers in mono-color rows along most roads and shopping centers, which has the unfortunate effect of numbing me to their beauty. But I think this specimen looks lovely in our wooded back garden. It has been blooming well the last couple of years, ever since I removed the black landscaping plastic that I discovered a previous "gardener" had placed around its base (and most everywhere else in the yard). That's a subject for another post!

Finally, a gardenia that looked earlier this spring like it was yellowing and dying has now greened up and is showing occasional blooms. I believe it's August Beauty. 

I hope you enjoyed the tour. I am dreaming of cooler weather and non-baked out cottage gardens! I hope to get to Maine in August.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Deer and Fawns

Last night I dreamed that a herd of starving deer jumped over the deer fence and devoured nearly all the plants in the garden.  I was relieved when I looked out the window this morning and saw that the redbud tree was still there, innocently spreading limbs displaying heart-shaped leaves at deer's eye level. I used to regularly have nightmares about hungry deer until we finally broke down two years ago and had a deer fence installed around the back garden. Deer are rampant in the neighborhood - as I write this, I hear a tell-tale crunching in the leaves outside the dining room window as two does pass through the yard. 

But like most gardeners, I have my contradictions. I enjoy having wildlife and native plants in my backyard, but not the deer that eat the native plants. And every summer in July, I contradict all my railings against deer and once again find that fawns are just too darn cute. Today my husband called me down from the office when he saw two fawns and a doe outside the kitchen window. 

I stayed behind the glass door and took a few photos. Then I got bolder and slowly opened the door. The doe and fawns moved a few feet further away, but then stopped and looked back at me with their big liquid eyes. I moved very slowly down the steps, stopping often, so the deer wouldn't startle. This would not normally be necessary. The does in our neighborhood are so tame that  I can run toward them full speed, shouting and with arms waving, and get no response but a calm stare until I'm practically close enough to tackle them. But I figured the doe would startle more easily now that she has fawns. 

After a few minutes, the fawn in the foreground in the photo above became curious about the human who was standing frozen in the leaves with a black box held to her face. She started moving toward me. It warmed my heart to have this adorable fawn show such trust and curiosity in me. I have been reading about St. Francis and his conviction that all creatures are our brothers and sisters. As I watched the fawn slowly walk toward me, I felt a sense of kinship.

Still, I don't regret the deer fence. Deer are much more of a joy to watch in the neighbor's yard!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Blue Ridge Mountains

We spent a weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains, going for hikes and enjoying the beautiful surroundings and cooler temperatures (70s!). Now I'm stunned by the 100-degree heat, having lost my heat tolerance while away. I am indulging fantasies of moving there. Here is the view from the front porch of our B&B in Valle Crucis, NC.

The first day we hiked on Grandfather Mountain, starting at Mile 302.8 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was enchanted with the lush forest from the start of the walk.  

Ten-to-fifteen foot high rhododendrons, in full bloom, bordered much of the path until we got to higher elevations. Unfortunately, the rhodies with their pinkish-white blooms are difficult to photograph with a point-and-shoot camera. But the effect was magical.

I later learned that the rhododendrons are Rhododendron maximum, a variety that alternates a growth year with a bloom year. I am grateful that we got to experience them in bloom - an unexpected treat.

Here is a tree with a will to live. 

The trail was narrow but well-maintained. It's part of the Tanawha Trail. The hike we did was recommended by the Appalachian Treks blog, a random Internet find with great information about (and lovely photos of) different hikes. 

We come to the first of two overlooks. Can you see why the mountains are known as the Blue Ridge? Although the view is stunning, there is nothing stark about it, as the mountains are clothed in forests. Even the high ledges, known as heath balds, are green with azaleas and blueberry bushes growing in crevices. 

The light breaking through the clouds creates lovely patchwork effects. 

A view toward the Linn Cove viaduct.

Coming down from the ridge, we soon came to the most magical meadow I have ever seen. It was an opening on a sloping mountainside filled with wild phlox, bee balm and a few yellow composites. 

Michaux's saxifrage grows in a crevice.

On our way back, clouds were blowing across the rocks high on the mountain.

A hiker sits and looks down into a valley hidden by clouds. 

Valle Crucis has a lovely community park where we walked in the evenings. It has views of mountains in every direction. Here, we look across farmland to the high hills. 

The Watauga River runs through Valle Crucis. We waded into the cool waters. The river used to be known for its pristine water. But a controversial shopping mall built at the headwaters of the river resulted in silt overflows into the river for 20 miles downstream. The water still looks clear by the standards of the rivers and creeks I frequent. 

This is the largest sycamore tree I've ever seen. 

Another view from upper Valle Crucis. 

View from the Beacon Heights overlook. We sat here for awhile to absorb it. Mountaintops make me feel small, in a good way. I get the sense of being part of something much greater. 

This is the glorious, loud, rushing falls at Crab Orchard Creek. I sat here and tried to let the sound of the water carry me away ... 

I'm already wondering when I can get back to the Blue Ridge Mountains.