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The Garden of Eating — Niagara Blog
Monday, 24 June 2013
The cherry harvest that wasn't

 


 

 

Strange, I always thought 'for the birds' was an idiom lacking positive connotations.

To me, it meant paltry, not good - at least not for human consumption. But after tonight, I'm convinced that whoever coined the phrase was no ornithologist. The poor misled soul probably figured birds ate nothing more than dry, hard seed and no human with at least one functioning taste bud would want partake in such fare.

So the saying was born, to be said about something undesirable, that no one would want.

What about the birds who eat cherries, though? Entire trees loaded with cherries?

Clearly, 'for the birds' means getting the best, sweetest, reddest fruit before any human can because that's exactly what happened tonight.

It was going to be a Garden of Eating - Niagara first. Our first cherry harvest. I was feeling just peachy after an email landed in my inbox late last week telling me to come quick. There were cherries to be had in Niagara Falls and the owner of the tree wanted to donate them to a good cause.

I was skeptical at first. It seemed so early for the bulbous berries that are the delicious segue between strawberries and peaches. Another fruit whose season is altogether too short, just like tonight's harvest proved to be.Indeed, there were cherries ripe for the picking. And it was a rather large tree. I felt confident saying on Thursday we'd be there Monday for our first cherry harvest as an organization. But birds wait for no one. Birds have no sense of philanthropy.

Birds like cherries. They eat cherries. Huge trees full of them. They invite their friends and have a party. Why not? There were enough there to host an all-you-can-eat buffet for at least 72 hours.

And just to get their point across that 'for the birds' is a saying we bipeds with big brains and opposable thumbs coined in ignorance and one we continue using in the same manner, they left two under-ripe cherries hanging just out of reach.

You know, for the humans.

But all was not lost. We were shown two lovely apple trees, hard at work on their crop, which we can harvest this fall and by then, they will be too big for birds to devour.

We've also already harvested about 30 pounds of strawberries for Pelham Cares.

And we're in the throes of another mulberry harvest. Purple-stained hands for all, I say. For the next few weeks, any sight of my hands by strangers - and maybe even those who know me - will conjure questions about my personal hygiene. But rest assured, it's just mulberry juice that holds fast against even the best soapy scrub.

Speaking of mulberry juice, some of those berries could be appearing in food truck fare near you as part of our fundraising efforts to cover our annual insurance costs. Perhaps even in mulberry iced tea. Whatever the case, it will be something quaffable.

And most importantly, it won't be for the birds.

 


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 10:01 PM EDT
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Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Swapping Affair poster

Register for A Swapping Affair canning swap

 


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 11:52 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 20 January 2013 11:55 AM EST
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Wednesday, 12 December 2012
Penning a community cookbook for a cause

photo of old family cookbook


 

 

 

School fundraisers usually aren't that memorable.

Chocolate bars, subscriptions to magazines no one reads, some really bad chocolate chip cookies - I hawked them all in the name of supporting my alma maters.

Thank goodness for parents and neighbours who couldn't say no, even to the brightly coloured plastic placemats I peddled one year that clashed with everything.

The one fundraiser I really remember, though, was the school cookbook. With an orange embossed cover, 'Smithson Public School' written with the most steady hand atop the school crest, and its black coil binding, that book is as clear to me in my memory, 29 years on, as it was the day I first held a copy in my small, six-year-old hands.

You know the kind of cookbook I'm talking about: a community cookbook. A collection of recipes that, bound together, reflect who its contributors are as a collective and how they ate as individuals.

For weeks, students were reminded during the morning announcements to bring their recipes from home so they could be part of Smithson cookbook. I remember being lucky enough one day to deliver that day's contributions from my Grade 2 class to our school secretary, Mrs. Reagan, who would type out each handwritten offering of an appetizer, main or dessert.

My mom gave me her Dutch apple pie recipe while my sister got a rouladen how-to, both of which played starring roles on our dinner table, especially for special occasions, during my childhood.

No one could make a better apple pie than my mom and her rouladen, those beefy German meat rolls filled with diced onion, bacon, mustard and chopped pickle, were one of my favourite meals growing up. Those recipes were like an invitation to dinner at the Mayer home.

When we got our copy of the book, I riffled through the pictureless pages, scouring the typed words for my name. I couldn't take my eyes off it when I found it, I was so proud. My name in print. My first byline. What a thrill.

After admiring the typeface long enough, I sought out all my classmates' contributions. I found their names on the likes of pineapple upside down cake, tuna casserole, shepherd's pie and jelly salad. With each recipe, I was allowed into their kitchens to see what they were eating for dinner in 1983 and how different it was from the German food that sustained me growing up.

For years, we hung on to that book, it's pages yellowing over time, becoming stained from use and the sticky fingers that hastily turned the pages to the one with their name on it. (Yes, I really was that excited about it). It wasn't the most-used cookbook we ever had, but it held prime real estate on my mom's shelf because we contributed to it and so did our friends. It had meaning and significance - a symbol of how food brings people together - in ways other titles in my mom's culinary collection didn't.

And that's why I want to do it again. I want to create another community cookbook but this time with a different community and a different purpose. I want to create this collection of meals with you and I want to do it as fundraiser for the Garden of Eating - Niagara. So instead of buying utility balls to play Foursquare at recess or covering the cost of a class trip to Storybook Gardens, money raised will buy harvesting equipment for this registered non-profit, such as ladders and harvesters, and pay for operational costs, including insurance to keep the program going.

This is your cue to dig up your favourite recipe and if it has fruit in it, all the better (though not necessary), given the Garden of Eating - Niagara's purpose of harvesting unwanted fruit and donating it to local social organizations. Keep Niagara in mind, too. Anything with easily sourced local ingredients also has the makings of a superstar recipe.

Snapped a photo of it? Great. Send that along, too. I'll always give credit where it's due and recipes that a chosen with the help of the Garden of Eating - Niagara board will have contributors' names attached to them.

Think of it as a glimpse of what Niagara is eating now. It's our community reflected in food, a compelling story, and you can be a central character in it while helping out a cause that puts fresh local food on the plates of others who may not always have the easiest access to it.

To be part of the Garden of Eating - Niagara cookbook, send your original recipe to eatingniagara@gmail.com with your full name, your city/town/hamlet and a few lines about why you chose the particular recipe you did, and your contact information.

Looking forward to writing with you the story of how we eat.


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 10:46 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 12 December 2012 10:48 PM EST
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Monday, 8 October 2012
The Kieffer pear — Niagara's other street food

photo of a pear tree


 It is my safe haven. A place of calm, escape and acceptance.

The Kieffer pear tree at the end of my street offers unconditional friendship, year after year, sharing its bounty with me, welcoming me into its midst with open branches. When I climb up a ladder to get lost in them and the fruit they're bearing, I feel like a child pressing herself into a warm, loving hug from her favourite aunt.

I must sound nutty anthropomorphising a tree but when it comes time to pick the pears on this tree with a shape like a chubby grandmother and about the same age, too, I feel like I'm reunited with an old, loyal friend.

I talk to it. Say hello and tell it that it's crop is looking a little thinner again this year. The frost-ridden spring must have been tough on its old, arthritic limbs that look so stiff and yet seem to bend so easily, when I'm among them, allowing me reach some of the best fruit safely.

In need of peace and solitude, I picked my favourite tree in the city nearly clean this week. I didn't put the call out for helpers like I usually do. I just needed it to be me and the tree. To clear my head after a day of constant chaos at the office. To do the most simple rather than cerebral of tasks. To just get lost in its leafy crown and have the hectic demands of the hours before our get-together drowned out by the soft beat of pears landing in a wooden basket. Or the deeper thud of some of the biggest but unreachable fruit dropping to ground, pushed by a passing breeze, keeping time like a bass drum for the cacophony of my rattling ladder making its way around a solid trunk.

 For the past three falls, this tree and its owner have shared the pear harvest, donated to canning projects in turn donated to local food banks. I would probably cry if it ever got cut down and no other tree in my usual and growing harvest rounds would ever be able to fully fill the void.

  

photo of a large and small Kieffer pear

It's ironic, too, given that it's not just a pear tree, but a Kieffer pear tree at that, loaded with hard, green, gritty fruit that so many people let fall to the ground to become fertilizer for their lawn, a haven for wasps and a sign of a society with too much.

It doesn't have the allure of a fuzzy, sun-warmed peach with its funny bell figure, speckled skin and cool-weather harvests. It lacks the popularity of that quintessential fall fruit that cans stave off white coats, the apple.

It doesn't even have the cachet of its cousins, the bosc, bartlett or sugar pear.

It is a fruit that was meant to be canned, a storage pear. A heritage variety that remains steadfast in the face of disease, harsh weather and being shunned by fans of the household names of fruit.

Even I have wrinkled my nose at the mighty Kieffer, a reflex reaction from having tried to sink my teeth into them before it was time.

Today, while trying to lose myself in another tree, I found a flawless Kieffer laying on the ground, waiting to be rescued. It's skin had turned from pale green to butter yellow, its flesh still crisp but not jaw-aching hard. The sandy texture had mellowed but the flavour had been amped up.

It was sweet with a lemony kick, light, but unmistakably pear. It wasn't delicious, but it was good. Solidly good.

Which had me wondering, with so many around, with all the boulevard trees in St. Catharines, it could be this city's official street food. Why aren't more people eating was once one of the backbones of our local canning industry?

Consider this my effort to resurrect the once mighty Kieffer not only to the king of canned fruit but even worthy of being eaten out of hand. We harvested 500 pounds this weekend that culinary students will once again can for local food banks.

But before they do, I'm going to make sure they try eating one first with the hope of recruiting more to the Kieffer fan club. It's the least I can do for trees that have given so much, so unconditionally.

 


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 1:19 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 8 October 2012 1:21 PM EDT
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Monday, 10 September 2012
Giving crabapples their dues (and a home)


 

 

 

Its branches drooped, dragged down by the weight of plentiful clusters of diminutive fruit that looked like unripened cherries.

With their smooth, yellow-green complexions and red cheeks, they blushed like polite, proper souls that had just been told on off-colour joke.

But below that sweet exterior, tonight's Garden of Eating - Niagara harvest packed a cheek-clenching, mouth-puckering, face-contorting punch that only crabapples do.

It was our first crabapple harvest and so one met with excitement, curiosity and, as always, gratitude.

The tree, a Japanese crabapple, was offered up by a former co-worker of mine, who had previously donated the haul of this very giving, very prolific tree, to the neighbourhood birds. Not that she had much choice by the sounds of it. The fruit would ripen and they would come, plucking the marble-sized (I'm talking crocks!) orbs and undoubtedly enjoying themselves immensely.

They'll still have a few. The uppermost branches - always with the ripest, most perfect fruit - are out of reach for me, but no challenge for the winged crew, I'm sure.

This harvest will go to Start Me Up Niagara - we got a bushel tonight, with at least another one still waiting for us on those branches - which will turn them into chutney and roast the rest with cinnamon to be enjoyed by the people their kitchen feeds.

The next batch will go to this year's crop of culinary students with the Niagara Catholic District School Board, those good (poor?) souls who signed up to can the hundreds of pounds of Kieffer pears for the Garden of Eating again this year. I'll be curious to see what they make.

Perhaps pickled crabapples? A quick search and the Google gods show that this fruit, usually left to rot or become bird feed, is actually pretty versatile. It's a wonder it doesn't have more cheerleaders or, at least, more vocal ones.

I'll be keeping a few of these beauties, too. I think jelly is in order. I love crabapple jelly, even though it will probably take me an entire sugar plantation to make a batch.

To make the fruit taste as sweet as it looks.

Still, much better than going to the birds.

 


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 10:13 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 10 September 2012 10:14 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 4 September 2012
Bosc-ing in the glory of a successful harvest

close up photo of bosc pears

 

Pear puns never get old for me.

My apologies, though, to those for whom they do because there will likely be more in the coming weeks. The Garden of Eating - Niagara is full pear harvest mode, with our pick yesterday resulting in 263 lbs of big bosc beauties that will be divided between Project Share in Niagara Falls and the Ozanam Centre in St. Catharines.

And there are at least three more bosc harvests planned before we take on the cornerstone of Garden of Eating operations, the mighty Kieffer.

Thanks to those who have helped pick so far this season and here's to more willing volunteers in the weeks to come - volunteers like Erin Wilson, who had this to say about lending a hand with harvest:

Yesterday I found myself along side a rural road in the middle of Niagara's fruit belt. The sun was hot, the breeze was cooling, and the sky was the kind of blue you dream about all winter. I spent part of that afternoon filling bushel baskets with beautiful bosc pears, destined for a local organization that feeds our hungry neighbours. It was, in short, a perfect afternoon.

I've had the chance to join the Garden of Eating Niagara on a couple of picks. In fact, I've been eager for the "volunteer season" to start this year! The issue of food justice is important to me, and I love that GOEN gets neglected, healthy food into the hands of people who need it. I've met interesting, kind, community-minded people on picks. I've enjoyed the outdoors during my favourite time of year. And there is an undeniable satisfaction that comes with knowing I had a role in saving beautiful food from being wasted.

Every pick ends with hearty thanks. It's a bit ironic, as I'm so thankful to take part.

And I'm so thankful for the help because the harvests couldn't be done without it, Erin.

If you're free Friday night and want to help harvest bosc pears in Niagara-on-the-Lake, drop me a line. Volunteers get a share of the harvest - and my gratitude - as a token of thanks.

 


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 9:53 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 4 September 2012 9:56 PM EDT
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Friday, 24 August 2012
Sugar pears kick off a sweet harvest for a cause

 

photo of a bushel of sugar pears
 

 

 I feel like I won in the lottery this week.

The Garden of Eating - Niagara's pear harvest has begun and while I approach the mass picking of the bell-shaped fruit with glee - hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of them go to local soup kitchens and food banks - my delight is even greater this year.

Why? Because we've gotten donations of super sweet sugar pears and some beautiful
Boscs. No offence to the workhorse Kieffer pears that come our way. We always appreciate them for their ability to be stored for extended periods of time and those qualities that make them perfect for cooking and canning, rather than eating fresh from the tree.

But with sugar pears and Boscs, we have fruit that recipients can sink their teeth into immediately. (Sorry Kieffer pear fans, you are a special kind, but we've found these apples of your eyes really are best cooked instead).

Our first pear harvest happened Monday with a 100-pound haul of sugar pears in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Last fall, I drove by the stand of trees and saw the fruit rotting on the ground. After making a mental note, I stuck a sticky note into the mailbox of the property owner last week, after noticing a few fallen pears again, asking if the Garden of Eating - Niagara could harvest them.

He said yes, we broke out the ladders and bushel baskets and some of the best pears I've ever tasted headed to the Ozanam Centre, a soup kitchen on Queenston Street in St. Catharines that feeds 70 and 100 people every day for lunch.

I had never had a sugar pear before pulling up to this stand of trees last week. Also known as the Seckel pear, these nearly round fruits have a light green skin that turns yellow as the fruit morphs from its crisp, off-the-tree texture to buttery, slurpy bliss. It's perfectly sweet and really, the kind of pear that I think could make this unsung hero of fruit the star it deserves to be.

I'm not sure why we harvest more pears than anything else. I just don't think pears get their props. Still, I know they're appreciated wherever we take them, which are often places suffering from a dearth of fresh food donations.

Good news is, there are lots more fresh eating pears ripening for the picking as I type. We have about 10 Bosc trees that have been donated, followed, of course, by our tried and true Kieffers, which we plan to can again and donate to Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold.

Fingers are crossed for a crab apple harvest in the days ahead. Those cheek-puckering babies will be destined for jelly to be donated. And I'm hopeful we'll have some quince in our future.

Our bushel baskets begin to runneth over.

Got a tree to donate? Visit The Garden of Eating - Niagara and let us know.


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 8:41 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 4 September 2012 10:03 PM EDT
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Thursday, 14 June 2012
Purple prose and praise: The mulberry harvest begins

This is a photo of mulberries


 

 

My hands look like a child's.

Stained purple from the bounty of mulberries that come with this time of year. Like I played with my food or gorged messily on the juicy purple berries that so easily make their mark on anyone who comes in contact with them.

It's a sure sign of June, a sure sign that another season of harvesting fruit has begun for The Garden of Eating - Niagara.

I must admit - and with a bit of guilt - I've had the easy job so far, not that harvesting mulberries is ever hard work. Lay down a tarp and let the tree rain down its harvest upon it. If need be, gently jostle the branches with a rake and get a monsoon of mulberries. Funnel the delicate royal purple fruit into a container and you're set.

But I haven't even had to do that. Normally, I love getting lost in my thoughts as I rifle through the dumping of mulberries. It's a job I usually do myself, saving all the volunteer credit the Garden of Eating racks up for harvesting pears in the fall. This time, though, the homeowners have scooped up the berries for me and as luck would have it, have brought them to work to give to me there. Easiest harvests ever.

That's where the guilt comes in but also the gratitude. I have a nasty bug kicking my butt - nothing is worse than being sick in the summer - and if it weren't for their kindness, there would be no Garden of Eating - Niagara mulberry harvest at all. They answered my call when I found out the usually reliable tree that had been harvested for the past three years had been hacked and they've helped out when I've been down for the count. The world needs more people like them, really.

So why the purple stained hands? The first haul of berries netted about five pounds of fruit; fruit that I have cleaned and frozen so the entire harvest can be delivered in one shot to Community House in Welland. That's where assistant director Carly Bowden said they will be used in cooking classes with children in one of the Rose City's poorest neighbourhoods. They can come to learn a new recipe and enjoy breakfast together.

My freezer is a paradise for mulberry fans right now, a bastion of future healthy meals for children who need them, and my dreams of being a hand model are dashed once again.

Nothing could make me happier.


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 8:54 PM EDT
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Sunday, 27 May 2012
Here we don't go round the mulberry bush: In search of fruit trees

photo of mulberries

 

It's usually about this time of year that I start planning which pair of shoes I will sacrifice for the start of the Garden of Eating - Niagara harvesting season

 That's because in a few short weeks, we should start harvesting mulberries. For the last three years, we've been offered a stately, generous tree on Geneva Street that drops the dark purple berries like a cloud drops rain. Each time, our visits have marked the unofficial kick-off to our season of picking unwanted fruit growing in people's yards and donating it to local shelters, soup kitchens and food banks on their behalf.

Without fail, no matter how careful I've been in my mulberry gathering process, my shoes and clothes come out looking like I've been attacked by an angry version of Grimace, Ronald McDonald's googly-eyed purple pal. With much scrubbing and elbow grease, the mauve marks sometimes come out. Mostly, they just become faded remnants of a good deed done clumsily.

But something much more irreparable has happened since I last accidentally smooshed and squished fallen mulberries that I tried so hard to tiptoe around. The tree, a decades old beast whose branches seemed to reach into the sky and yet dip low enough for me reach, has been chopped down. I can only surmise that others weren't as appreciative of all it had to give --  maybe even saw it as a messy nuisance instead of a provider of healthy, versatile, fresh food.

This lovely, fruit bearing beauty technically wasn't in the yard where we harvested. Instead, it was rooted next door with its branches spreading its goodwill over four backyards. The people who live where Garden of Eating volunteers set to work loved how many mulberries it gave every June, laying down bedsheets on the grass to soften the fall from great heights of berries that look like mini bunches of grapes.

They juiced them, baked with them and gave what they couldn't use themselves. And it was a lot.

Now, this ritual that signalled the start of another season of ruined shoes -- OK, drastically altered because I still wear them -- and with it that feeling of being well on our way to another successful year is no more. Add to that the late frost this spring, which I fear has knocked down our usual pear crops a few sizes and I can't help but feel a little concerned for this little group that recently spent the money to become a bona fide non-profit, with a board of directors willing to give their time to make the Garden of Eating truly great.

It kind of feels like kindness interruptus.

So, if you have a mulberry tree, or any fruit tree, that usually goes unfulfilled come harvest time, please let us know. Drop us a line at eatingniagara@gmail.com or visit us on Facebook. We'd be truly grateful as would the countless people in need who will benefit from your generosity.

 


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 8:57 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 27 May 2012 9:00 PM EDT
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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Of YIMBYs and Spring: Dreams of Gardening Glory Take Root

Seeds I have started in preparation of the garden I will grow in a

borrowed backyard.

The white-blue glow of grow lights tucked into a corner of my kitchen casts a harsh and eerie glare that clashes with the yellow warmth thrown by fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

Their cool appearance is a bit of an irony, given the comfortable heat they throw on the dirt filled containers beneath them. The brightness that my two grow lamps radiate is a beacon for me, inviting me over to inspect what they're shining down upon, to watch nature forced into action.

But I should know, a watched seed never grows.

 

Still, those rays of light pouring into the heated indoor greenhouse beneath them are symbolic of the release I feel of energy pent up over the winter. It has waited impatiently to be expended on another season's promise in the garden, starting with seeding the plants that will become my company in the yard this summer, my meals in the fall.

This week, I broke out my early gardening season supplies — lights, pods, seeds, soils, and heated bed — and broke free of the cold weather season that was, not that it felt like much of a winter this year anyway, though the calendar deemed it so.

I set about seeding 60 red Wethersfield and yellow Borettana onions, 20 Spigiarelli broccoli seeds, Lacinato kale and Georgia southern collards. Ten Corno di Toro Giallo — sweet, mildly spicy yellow peppers  — joined them in a warm, moist earth bed, catching that fluorescent glow that will spur them along.

There are cucumbers at the ready, oh so sweet melons, scarlet Nantes carrots and Sutton's harbinger peas, too.  And, of course, there will be a long list of tomato plants that will eventually join them.

It's not as though my postage stamp-sized yard has grown over the winter — the one in which garlic, chard and bloody dock are the only edibles that seem to really thrive. Instead, I will be borrowing someone else's backyard to reap what I've just sown.

You can call this generous homeowner a YIMBY because she invited me to take over her unused sunny swath on Scott Street in St. Catharines after letting me scale her towering Kieffer pear tree last fall for The Garden of Eating - Niagara.

 

Red wethersfield onion seeds.

It's not a huge backyard by any stretch but one whose space has been maximized by her greenthumb parents who lived there before her, divvying the square lot into beds for vegetables and flowers that see the sun morning to night while basking in the added warmth of light bouncing off a white brick wall nearby.

Sorry if I seem like I'm waxing poetic about something as pragmatic as vegetable gardening but truth is, I can't wait to starting digging in the earth again, getting dirt under my nails.

 

My impatience is helped along by the knowledge that I'll have a garden where everything really does seem to be in the proverbial cards — space, sunlight and soil that has been nurtured through its years of use and protected in its dormancy of late.

My attempts at using what I have at my condo, where the sun's presence and room to grow is scant, have given me a complex about my gardening (in)abilities and this summer will be the true test, provided Mother Nature is in a good mood, of that green thumb of mine with its seemingly unshakable brown tinge.

I will be embarking upon my latest gardening adventure with my friend Rowan, a fellow proponent of local food security who is  working to bring a food store to downtown St. Catharines. 

All we have to do is clean up a tiny corner of the borrowed yard that has grown into a mish-mash of weeds and fuzzy lamb's ears in exchange for use of a swath brimming with what seems like guaranteed gardening glory.

Those remnants of landscaping gone wrong will be replaced with bee friendly flowers. Yes, I want my garden teeming with those hard-done-by pollinators or at least make whoever shows up feel welcome.

It's a small fee for a summer's access to land and water and the bounty at the end of it all.

Spring starts officially in less than a week. But in that corner of my kitchen where that acerbic grow-light glare and gentler luminosity spilling from frosted lampshades collide, it has already begun.


Posted by thegardenofeating-niagara at 11:16 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 15 March 2012 11:23 PM EDT
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