A Thanksgiving Letter from the Neighborhood Squirrels

I am grateful for my friend, Carol Fike, who sent me an anonymous (at the time) Thanksgiving letter from the neighborhood squirrels who reside in my backyard. The squirrels ate every tomato (24 plants worth) in my garden while they were all still green. My frustration was well-documented on Instagram. When they finished with the tomatoes, they got started on and ate the starchy, green, cotton bolls.

Trying to figure out who sent this lovely, funny, thoughtful, letter, with a gift attached (from the squirrels), was the highlight of my week. Everyone needs a Carol in their life. Thanks and love you, Carol.

The squirrels were well-mannered; they carried their food to various tabletops around the yard before eating them.

Wishing all my readers a Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Thanksgiving Day Grace
Bless the food between us,
The home around us,
The family beside us,
and the love between us.

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

How to Make Gorgeous Birdhouse Gourds

A few years ago, my Maker friend, Mary Stone, grew climbing squash vines loaded with pear-shaped gourds in her backyard vegetable garden. An idea was percolating in her head. She wanted to use the gourds to make birdhouses to give as hostess gifts to her friends.

Birdhouse, swan, and wide-bottle gourds, collectively known as bottle gourds, are all members of the squash family (Lagenaria siceraria) and were originally cultivated for their container shapes. Once dried, or cured, their shells became hard and were used as bowls, vases, rattles, pipes, and birdhouses. The first time I saw birdhouse gourds, they were strung across a Mennonite farm in Cerulean, Kentucky. Cured and painted by children, the white “martin houses” were used to attract purple martins, a small, darting bird known for its penchant for insects.

Mary’s version of the birdhouse gourd was quite different. The coloration of hers was GORGEOUS. There was no way this birdhouse, with a finish that looked like spalted wood, was going outside!

After her first batch of cured and varnished gourds, Mary made many more, sans holes, for decorative purposes. I have used my collection to grace the fireplace mantle on Thanksgiving Day for years.

One summer, inspired by Mary, I grew bottle gourds in my backyard. I thought I had purchased seeds for pear-shaped gourds, but instead got this lovely bottle-shaped squash.

As instructed by Mary, I harvested the gourds before the first frost and allowed them to dry on a baker’s rack in my screened-in porch. Surprisingly none of them collapsed from rot. Mary dried her crop, over a six-month period, on a rack in her garage. You will know they are fully cured when you can hear the seeds inside rattle when shaken. Think maracas. They will mottle as they dry creating beautiful and desirable markings on the outside.

One afternoon, Mary came over to show me how to prep and varnish them. She used a steel wool pad to lightly sand off the few rough spots on the surface. Then she sanded off some of the black mottlings, but not all of them. With her artist’s eye, she determined how much mottling to preserve and how much to erase.

She then rinsed them with water. We allowed them to dry for about thirty minutes before varnishing.

We tied strings on the stems of each and set up a drying rack.

Mary brushed on the varnish,

and hung them outside to dry. After about an hour, I applied a second layer of varnish.

Here is a before and after photo of the varnished gourds. I love how the varnish brings out the mottling.

Here is my collection of bottle gourds. They are a pleasure to own and behold.

To make a birdhouse, Mary drilled a 1.5-inch entrance hole into the base of the gourd’s neck, two drainage holes on the bottom, and two tiny holes at the top used to run a wire for hanging purposes.

Meanwhile, the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us!

Here are some tried and true recipes to cook for your guests while they visit. The desserts, named for family and friends, are heavenly.  May I suggest a Seventies breakfast favorite, Mom’s Monkey Bread, for a crowd-pleasing sweet treat?

 

 

 

If you are feeding people dinner on the evenings before and after Thanksgiving, consider these crowd pleasers. The Buffalo Chicken Chili is the most popular entrée on the blog and is a quick and easy one-pot meal to make. Bruce’s Gumbo is the most deliciously flavored “stew” you will ever eat. Yes, I speak in superlatives. Be sure to save the turkey carcass to make broth for the gumbo. If you want to sit around the dinner table and listen to people say, “This is good,” try this Italian favorite, Baked Ziti with Eggplant. Some people eliminate the eggplant and add ground beef. Either way, I love the way it drips with mozzarella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Roasted Rosemary Sweet Potatoes

Every Saturday morning, my husband, the dog and I head over to Richland Farmers Market, a happening and energetic place to shop in Nashville for organic vegetables and locally made food products. I am drawn to this market by both the variety of vegetables offered and the enthusiastic farmers, bakers, butchers, beekeepers, and fromagers who show up every weekend.

Last week, while visiting Corner Spring Farm’s booth, owner Marianne Cameron suggested I try the Japanese sweet potatoes she and her husband had grown. She told me they had a creamy and moist interior when cooked. The potatoes are oblong and have smudgy-red skin and white flesh.

I roasted them with an equal amount of regular sweet potatoes, chopped rosemary, salt, garlic pepper, and olive oil. Marianne was right, the interior of the Japanese potatoes was soooo creamy and delicious. I couldn’t get over the texture. I served them for dinner with Mom’s Meatloaf and blanched thick and meaty green beans — my favorite kind of dinner.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Ingredients
1 pound sweet potatoes, unpeeled
1 pound Japanese sweet potatoes, unpeeled
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon McCormick’s California Style Garlic Pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions
Preheat oven to 425º

Scrub potatoes. Do not peel. Cut into 1½-in chunks. Arrange on a parchment-lined rimmed, sheet pan. Strip rosemary leaves from stems and chop. Sprinkle over potatoes. Add olive oil, salt, and garlic pepper. Toss ingredients together until well blended. Roast for 45 minutes on the middle rack of oven.

The Japanese sweet potatoes were so yummy, I went to Whole Foods to look for another popular variety I had been reading about, Stokes Purple Sweet Potatoes. I thought, together, the color combo would be exciting. Stokes Purples look like Japanese sweet potatoes on the outside, but the interior is solid purple. I cooked them using the same recipe as above. The colors were beautiful.

Sadly, I wasn’t as wild about the flavor of the roasted Stokes Purples. With the remaining three pounds of purple potatoes I had bought, I had another idea: make mashed purple sweet potatoes!

They were delicious. I used my recipe for Old-Fashioned Mashed Potatoes, substituting the Stokes Purples for the all-purpose potatoes. The mashed sweet potatoes were sweet, buttery, creamy, and eye-poppingly colorful and would sure look different on the Thanksgiving Day table! Speaking of which, Thanksgiving is eleven days away. Take a look at the list of recipes I’ve put together here!

Today is the fourth anniversary of Judy’s Chickens! It all started here!

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Putting Your Garden to Bed with a Blanket of Cover Crops

The number one gardening question I’ve been asked lately by Instagram followers is, What cover crops are you growing? The short answer is buckwheat, crimson clover, and a brassica such as daikon radishes or turnips. The buckwheat will die off with the first frost, the brassica will wither away in the winter, and the crimson clover can be cut down in the spring.

The next question is, Why plant cover crops? Cover crops take up elements from the dirt, air, and rain and use them to nourish microorganisms in the soil. In the process, they prevent topsoil erosion, suppress weeds, and improve the availability of water in the soil. Vegetable garden soil should never be naked.

Look how pretty this cover crop, crimson clover, looks in the spring. The red flowers have the added bonus of attracting pollinators to the garden when there is not much else around to draw them in. This is especially important if you plan to plant peas on Valentine’s Day (Patriot’s Day if you live in the North). You will want pollinators around when the pea plants start to flower. Same goes for strawberries which flower around the same time.

A few weeks ago my husband and I attended the Southeast Biodynamic Regional Conference at Jeff Poppen’s farm in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. (Jeff is the host of Nashville Public Television’s The Barefoot Farmer.) It was a memorable weekend of education, community, and delicious field-to-table-meals. It was the kind of conference where twelve people officially register to attend and 150 show up … and it’s not a problem. The food, prepared by Chef Paulino Solorzano, never quit coming. The pulled pork, made from a pig that was raised on a farm that practiced biodynamic farming was divine. I am almost positive I can get my husband to attend again next year. [My husband just edited this post and mumbled, “Definitely going back.”]

This is a photo of Jeff Poppen, our leader and host, doing Jeff things like inoculating a compost heap with one of the biodynamic preparations he created on his farm. Farmers who practice biodynamic farming do so to bring health to the land and vitality to the food system or as Jeff puts it: to grow food of the highest quality.

Jeff has one of the oldest and largest organic farms in Tennessee. I read that on his website. If you asked Jeff, he would humbly say he “works with Nature instead of being at war with it.”

This is a photo of one of Jeff’s vegetable fields where he grows food for his CSA customers. He does not irrigate, add fertilizers, or use herbicides (“herbicides kill enzymes so biological processes can’t happen”). He also says things like, “insects are nature’s house cleaners and are our teachers — they tell us what issues we need to address in the soil.” The types of weeds that grow in our gardens also tell us about soil deficiencies.

Jeff grows produce that looks like this without irrigation or chemicals.

His soil is so rich and airy, it crumbles in your fingers like pie dough when you first mix the flour and fat together. It is so loose, even his weeds have long, flowing roots.

This is one of Jeff’s fields that have been put to bed for the winter. Guess what is growing? Buckwheat, crimson clover, and daikon radish. Jeff is the one who inspired me to start planting cover crops this fall when he repeatedly said, “your spring and summer crops are made before you ever plant them.” 

My biggest take away from Jeff, the one thing I could start doing in my small backyard farm right away, was to plant cover crops and never leave vegetable beds naked between harvestable crops again. With that in mind, I got busy.

My husband helped me clean up this summer vegetable bed the afternoon we returned home.

We cut the plants down and put them in the compost pile. We left their roots in the ground. We used a broad fork to jiggle the soil so air could get into the ground. Note to readers: my husband is wearing shoes:-)

I mixed clover, buckwheat, and daikon radish seeds and broadcast them in the beds. This is buckwheat. When you use buckwheat as a cover crop during the summer, be sure to cut it back before it goes to seed, unless you want lots of seedlings. I heard a great tip at an Herb Society of Nashville meeting: plant buckwheat between tomato plants. It attracts beneficial insects that eat aphids off of tomato leaves.

Here is an “after” picture of the garden.

This is the garden one week later. The buckwheat seeds sprouted in three days.

Here is a photo from yesterday. So much prettier than naked raised beds. The chickens love it, too.

Related Posts
Family Dirt
Morning Rounds in the Garden, April
Eulogy for a Chicken
Winter Floral Arrangements Using Greenery from the Yard
The Volunteer Gardener An episode of Nashville Public Television filmed in my yard

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Remember to always check this website for updated versions of a recipe.  

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.