Winter is hanging on here, with a vengeance. We have about a foot of snow on the Red Oak House gardens. Although we are weary of winter, we do view this as critical moisture — moisture that we were lacking last summer and fall.
This is what the first day of spring looked like out our windows.
Tuesday, there was more snow in the forecast. Our social media feeds are filled with the whining of friends who are equally as weary of the winter weather. My aunt near Birmingham, Ala., tells me her daffodils are blooming as are her cherry trees. I resort to buying daffodils at the store, a dose of sunshine at our table.
I happen to love the winter, the fallow time in which we both catch up on indoor projects. I know that the thaw will reveal much outdoor work and I’m not quite ready to tackle these chores.
A survey of the yard revealed that the dag-nabbit rabbits have wreaked havoc, severing my bittersweet vine at the ground level, a vine that had just taken hold. I cursed them and considered taking my husband’s shotgun to them, but wisdom prevailed and I did not — not to mention that it is not legal within city limits, and I’m nothing if not a follower of laws.
On one warm day last week, we took Lizzie on a walk through the nearby coulee and found several waterfalls.
Tuesday, Jim was busy setting up the indoor greenhouse racks and bringing his seedlings up from the basement.
March 15 is “plant the tiny tomato seeds” day at Red Oak House.
When I wandered into the kitchen this morning, Jim asked me, with great delight in his voice, if I knew what the significance of this day was. I had not yet had coffee and was stumped (I’ll admit that I didn’t try very hard).
This project is tedious joy for Jim, if I may use an oxymoron to describe this. You can see in the photo below that he has to use a tweezer (below).
Yes, he saves his seeds from the previous harvest, as shown here (above).
Wednesday he transplanted the pepper sprouts into small pots. Next week, we will celebrate the vernal equinox, the arrival of spring. We chose this date for our wedding date, after much thought. The days ahead will be busy with joyful tasks.
Note: I am reprinting (reposting?) below a story I first ran three years ago this week. It’s about tomatoes. I was thinking about it because today I am preparing my basement “greenhouse” for spring.
I’m getting ready to plant peppers, which need to be started indoors really early because they take a long time to ripen on the bush. We harvested about three dozen last fall, but last fall was an exception because we never got a hard frost in all of September, so we were able to leave them on the plants to ripen until Oct. 8, the day before the Weather Service warned us it was going to freeze.
Most of them still hadn’t turned from green to red or yellow or orange, like they are supposed to, at that time, so we put them in tightly closed big paper grocery bags (they’ll give you some at Dan’s Supermarket if you don’t have any) with a banana and an apple, and sat them in a warm place inside, and in about 10 days they had turned beautiful colors and were pretty much all ripe. Apples and bananas give off ethylene gas, which helps ripen other fruits, like peppers. And you can make banana bread or apple crisp when you’re done.
But this year, I’m going to try to avoid the need to do that, by starting my peppers indoors next week, on Feb. 15, a month ahead of my tomatoes. The plants will be pretty big by the time I put them outside about May 15, but I have plenty of room inside, so it will be a grand experiment.
By the way, in case you’re wondering what I did with more than 30 sweet bell peppers last October, let me share a tip. I cut the tops off, scooped out the seeds and the membranes, and blanched them in boiling water for 5 minutes. Then after cooling them in ice water, I drained them and dried them with a dish towel and put them on cookie sheets and put them in the freezer. When they were frozen, I transferred them to big Ziploc bags. We’ve been eating stuffed peppers, which we love, all winter. This year, I’m going to try roasting some before I freeze them. I think they’ll be good in salads, soups and on pizza.
Anyway, this started out to be a reprint of my story about Golden Bison tomatoes, which, by the way, turned out to be a big hit, not just at our house but with lots of friends to whom I have given plants. I’ve been saving my own seeds every year since 2015, and I’ll start a bunch this year, too. If you want a plant or two, come by the house about May 15. Here’s the Golden Bison story. Oh, and Happy Belated Birthday, Clay.
It started last March when Lillian and I attended a presentation by Robert Hanna of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation at the former North Dakota Governor’s Mansion.
Robert’s Foundation has taken over the interpretation of the Oscar H. Will Seed Co., and has a display of the company’s early products at their Interpretive Center in Washburn, N.D. That cold March night, Robert spent about an hour telling us about the Will company, complete with displays of seed packets sold by the company more than 100 years ago. (For a brief history of the company, founded here in the 1880s, go here.)
What caught our attention was a handout Robert gave us at the end of the session, listing the various places you still could purchase seeds once sold by the Will Co. We read that a company in Oregon had preserved one of Will’s heirloom tomato varieties called Golden Bison. We ordered some of the seeds last spring, planted them, and they were our best-producing tomato last summer. And early. We were eating them Aug. 12. And they kept producing right up until freeze-up.
Fast forward to Jan. 21 when I got a call from my friend, Sheila (pronounced Shy-la), inviting me to a birthday party — a small, intimate dinner she and our friend, Valerie, were hosting on Feb. 4 for our friend Clay. Clay was going to turn 60 that day, so she said that, for a present, we should bring 60 of something. That’s Sheila.
We puzzled over it for a bit. Clay likes wine and books, but 60 bottles of wine or six 10-year-old bottles of wine were a bit out of our price range, even if we could find them, and 60 books would be insignificant in that house of his with thousands of books, even if we could find 60 he hadn’t read, which is unlikely, unless there are 57 more books in the “50 Shades of Grey” series.
But almost simultaneously, Lillian and I hit on the perfect solution: Seeds. And not just any seeds. 60 Golden Bison heirloom tomato seeds. Golden Bison tomatoes were bred in North Dakota in 1932 by horticulturist A. F. Yeager at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University, winner of four straight national football championships — sorry, couldn’t resist). Yeager was a pioneer in developing tomato strains for the northern tier of states, with short growing seasons. He did much of his research in Bottineau County, North Dakota, which is about as “northern” as you can get and still be in the U.S. He is credited with developing 14 varieties of tomatoes. I don’t know what happened to the other 13, but the identity of Golden Bison has been preserved all these 80-plus years, and they are great tomato plants, as I mentioned earlier. You can read about them by going here.
You should know that you can’t just buy any old ordinary seeds for Clay. He is a devout North Dakotan and personifies all things Dakota. The Golden Bison would be perfect for him. The problem was, we didn’t have any, and time was short. We thought we could just write up a card saying they had been ordered and were on their way, and give it to him, which would have been fine, but not great.
So, Jan. 24, I went to the website of Adaptive Seeds and pulled up the order form for Golden Bison, and ordered three packets, each of which had 30 seeds — two for Clay (60 total) and one for us. When I clicked on “checkout,” there was a message that said they were really busy this time of the year, and we should allow a few weeks for delivery. That was OK because we were just going to give him the card with the note anyway.
But down at the bottom of the order form was a box that said “Comments welcome.” So I thought, what the heck, I’ll send them a note. I wrote that the seeds were for a birthday present for a friend having a 60th birthday on Feb. 4 and that their Golden Bison seeds would be special for him because they were bred in North Dakota, and he was a true North Dakotan, and if there was any way they could get the seeds to us before Feb. 4, that would be appreciated, but if not, that was OK, too. I pushed “send” about 6 p.m. Saturday evening, Jan. 24.
On Jan. 27, the mailman brought us a manila envelope full of seeds from Adaptive Seeds, postmarked on their end Jan. 25. Sunday. The day after I had ordered them at 6 o’clock in the evening.
Inside were three packets of Golden Bison tomato seeds. Along with most of our other garden seeds for the year — I had liked their website so well — it was so friendly — that I decided to just forget the other 32 or so seed catalogs we had on the shelf and get most of this year’s stuff from them.
So there were carrot seeds, beans, mesclun, basil, lettuce, sugar snap peas, radishes and three other varieties of tomatoes. The whole order, most of what we would need for this summer’s garden, was just a shade over $50.
At the bottom of the receipt, it said the order was processed at 5:13 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015. Just 23 hours after I had ordered.
But the best thing was the handwritten note at the bottom of the receipt. It said “Thanks for your order! I hope your friend has a Happy Birthday. Happy sowing. Sarah” Accompanied by a drawing of a happy face.
Seeds ordered from Oregon on Saturday night. Seeds delivered to Bismarck on Tuesday afternoon. That is incredible customer service. Generally, when you buy things online, there is little or no human contact. One computer talking to another. Not with Adaptive Seeds. They have real people there. Real friendly people.
Better yet, to paraphrase, the proof of the tomatoes is in the eating. We ate them last year, and they were great. Even better than that, they are North Dakota bred, identity preserved, heirloom tomatoes.
When we gave them to Clay on Wednesday night, we offered to start some for him when we start ours in March because we know he is on the road a lot. We’re going to start a whole bunch anyway. So, if you are in Bismarck, or close by, and you want a couple plants, let me know, and come by May 15 to pick them up. That’s the day we plant outside. We’ll have plenty.
Or, you can just go to the Adaptive Seed website, order some, along with your other garden seeds, and start your own. As Sarah would say, “Happy Sowing.”
These past two days back home at Red Oak House found us back to fall chores, and Jim catching walleye on the Missouri River, supper tonight.
Wednesday night, with the gorgeous tiger’s-eye beans we’d brought home from Seed Savers Exchange and grass-fed beef from the Striefels, I cooked up a huge pot of chili, making enough so that Jim and Jeff can eat it later this winter in the ice-fishing house.
Today, I put away all of the lawn furniture, and between the two of us, we have most of the leaves picked up. The strawberries are now nicely mulched for the winter. We agreed that the brussel sprouts were an epic fail this season, probably due to being planted in too much shade.Thus it is that today was the last of the growing season here. The only growing thing we will still harvest is the pot of rosemary that survives under the eaves on the back patio.
The daylilies, irises and mums are all cut back, however, I’ve left the seed heads of the coneflowers for the birds to feed upon all winter.
Wednesday, Jim cooked up the very last of the tomatoes that had ripened wrapped in newspaper while we were traveling, making a rich red sauce that he will use all winter for stuffed peppers.
The temperature has dropped enough now that I put the first block of my homemade suet in the feeder just outside my kitchen office window.
And I brought in a stack of wood for the living room stove. The World Series is over, and soon it will be time for cozy fires.
The only major outdoor chore we now have to do is to clean the leaves out of the gutters since the trees in our neighborhood are mostly bare. There is snow in the forecast, and we are gradually hunkering down for winter and indoor life.
Well, on Thursday I said it to Jim. That statement that comes around every year:
“I don’t want to see another tomato again for quite awhile.”
By this point, we’ve converted thousands of tomatoes (Jim says over 1,700, plus my sister gave us some of hers) into salsa, juice, marinara — and Thursday, I canned 14 quarts of tomato basil soup. Oh, and all of those BLTs we ate for several months.
Peeling all of these takes hours, on my feet, nine gallon bags worth this morning. I started to whine that I feel like a canning factory worker rather than a retiree. But … but … but …
This will all be mighty tasty all the long North Dakota winterlong, and I finished in time to take in this afternoon’s Cinema 100 matinee. It was, in my humble opinion, a boring movie, and I wish I had instead gone for a bike ride on such a beautiful day.
On Wednesday, I converted all the bacon fat we’d accumulated for the last year into suet for our feeder. Thank heavens for this beast, my trusty KitchenAid mixer.
It had been our plan to have tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for supper, but we got a better offer, a night out with some of the best friends we could hope for in our revolutions around the sun. We are richly blessed.
Tuesday morning, I worked in the cool autumn sunshine on yard chores, getting things done before the snow flies. First, I tackled the pile of limbs we had accumulated over the summer in our trailer, breaking and sawing up the branches to add to our kindling pile. Lizzie the springer spaniel happily nosed around in the fallen leaves and disappeared somewhere in the back returning with some strange thing she had found to eat.
Next, while admiring the colorful leaves on the trees and shrubs in our yard, I finished the garden cleanup and spread the straw on the garlic bed.
Liz found this somewhat interesting. I’m looking forward to fewer muddy paw prints in the house.
The leaves on the juneberry bushes are striking as are the red-osier dogwoods. We need rain. Loads of snow would be acceptable. Yes, I did say that.
The red oak tree is looking glorious today, as are the hosta. The tree is a champion.
The quaking aspen have begun to turn in the past few days. Frost has killed the impatiens, but the butterflies continue to visit the asters and the ladybugs are present here and there, with an occasional renegade in the house. The late-blooming clematis also persists.
The slate-covered juncos have made their appearance in the yard, Junco hyemalis, hyemalis being New Latin for “wintery.” According to my book, “Words for Birds,” “the Latin comes from the Greek cheimon, ‘winter’, which is related to Sanskrit hima, ‘snow.’ The Junco is often called the ‘snow bird,’ as its arrival foretells the coming of winter to its southern range. Slate-colored refers to the sooty black upper-parts and the central part of the tail.”
Last up for outdoor chores was to pick raspberries. We are completely delighted that we are still picking raspberries — in North Dakota! I converted some of these to raspberry crisp, and Jim loves raspberry pancakes above all breakfast foods.
Here’s an interesting autumn development: the arrival of dozens of mayflies on our kitchen window. I notice oddities such as these.
A big bonus to the day was the arrival of Jim’s sister, Jill, with a batch of her freshly made lefse, converted from the potatoes Jim gave to her. If you are interested, she takes orders and ships this Norwegian delicacy. Get in touch, I’ll connect you with her.
Meanwhile, this is the soundtrack of our lives this time of year.
“A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.” — “Finding Beauty in a Broken World,” a book by Terry Tempest Williams
In what has been described by many as a “soul-crushing week” in the United States, I’m trying my damnest to focus on the blessings and gifts in my life.
One of the finest gifts of friendship in my life has been that with the writer and deep thinker, Terry Tempest Williams. In the years since I first discovered her books, I have absorbed so much of her wisdom. My own aging, I hope, has brought on my own wisdom, through pain and joy and sorrow and mistakes, and that wisdom includes embracing the cycle of seasons here on the northern Plains and simplifying my life inasmuch as is possible.
I’m also deeply committed to learning something new every day. It is my hope that in the upcoming year or so, I can learn the creation of mosaics from my friend Molly McLain. Every day I can listen online or to Prairie Public Radio and choose carefully what I watch on television or read, to achieve that goal of enlightenment.
In the afternoon sunshine of Saturday, we walked over to a friend’s house, for treats and delightful conversation. Our path took us by one of the best trees in our Highland Acres neighborhood.
As I write this, I’m munching on a homemade apricot kolache baked by our friend, Tasha Carvell, who sent home with us. Yummy!
I strive to pay attention to the tiny joys in life, such as the perfect red oak leaf I found on my front patio yesterday. Rather than feel frustrated that I will have to pick up all of these fallen leaves, I try to see the beauty in the leaf and approach these leaves as a substance that will enrich our soil and protect our strawberries and garlic from the upcoming harsh winter.
In another example of finding a silver lining, earlier this week I dropped and lost an earring and could not find it anywhere on the floor or bed. As a last resort, this morning, I tore that room apart and completely cleaned it, on hands and knees. I did not find the earring and had given up but looked in one last place, and there it was. It was a trifle, but a triumph nonetheless, and the room is now clean for the winter.
On Saturday, I attended the North Dakota Yoga Conference, learning new things from masters, a blessing. I told Jim he’d be surprised by how many people in North Dakota have a yoga business.
The rooms bustled with people (yes, mostly women) who were eager to deepen their practices. My friend, Debi, experienced a wonderful epiphany at a session we attended together, Yoga Nidra and she generously shared those insights with me after the class.
I’ve also incorporated essential oils into my daily routine.Although we open wide our windows during the temperate months and live in the glory of fresh air in our house, there are many months in which the windows must be closed (although we have many large windows that we have left uncovered in order to bath the interior in light year-round). Now that autumn has arrived, in our bedroom, I use an infuser and apply three fragrant oils that enhance sleep: lavender, geranium, and sweet marjoram.
In my landscaping of our yard, I have striven to create beauty for every stage of the year. It has taken years to achieve this goal, helped by the fact that I started with a good palette, a large and private backyard bordered by mature trees.
Today, the firewood is stacked, the kindling box is full, the garlic is planted, and a hard frost is in the forecast. Jim brought in the last of the bell peppers, and these are now in brown paper bags for a final ripening.
In the night sky this week, the harvest moon has been bright. Jim has been busy in the kitchen today making 11 pints of salsa, from my sister Beckie’s recipe, with the last of the tomatoes and jalapenos. I took Lizzie for an afternoon walk through the coulee and while she went swimming, I stood completely still and watched a flock of the sandhill cranes migrating over the Missouri River Valley, the first I’ve seen this fall. I did not move until the flock had disappeared on the horizon, into the blue.
From the book “Words for Birds ,” crane is an English word derived from the bird’s cry, which has its origins in the root for “calling” or “crying out.” The sandhill crane is grus canadensis. Grus refers to the bird’s call and canadensis is a Latinism for “of Canada.”
The coup de grace for the day will be my homemade apple crisp.
Rather than bemoaning that summer is over, I try to focus on all of the projects I will be able to tackle inside during the winter. Bring it on!
It was inevitable and is an integral part of the life cycle. On this chilly and breezy Tuesday morning, Jim and I harvested the last of the vegetables — that is everything but the Brussels sprouts, which are left out until they produce. We’ll see.
Together we dug the parsnips, the leeks and the meager sweet potato crop. On his own, he picked the jalapenos, the peppers and the last of the green tomatoes. On Monday, he tilled the garlic bed, and it is now ready for planting, as soon as our order from The Garlic Store arrives.
In the afternoon he tilled much of the rest of the vegetable beds. He has tested the soil, and all is in good shape after years of countless wheelbarrow loads of compost from a huge pile at the city landfill. Jim’s rototiller is a prized possession, purchased by his father at the Hettinger (N.D.) Coast to Coast store many decades ago.
All I will have left to do outside is pick up the fallen leaves. These we will use to cover the garlic and strawberry bed before deep winter arrives.
Our larders and freezers are full. All we have to go to the store for is milk, eggs, butter, seafood and fruit — oh and chocolate!