Year of Grace, Day 207. The garden at mid-autumn

The harvest moon was so bright, even hours before dawn, that it seemed more like eight than half past four.

It’s 4ºC at eight a.m., but no frost, brilliantly sunny — a gorgeous autumn day! I hadn’t realized the temperature was going down so low, but the calamondin, or the Philippine citrus also called calamansi, doesn’t seem to have suffered from the overnight chilling. It does need to go indoors though as it won’t stand prolonged exposure at that temperature and below.

One of the artichokes in the front garden — the best-flavoured one with purple-flushed tips — has two new buds. I have dubbed this part of the garden the Mediterranean area as it’s exposed to sun all day and its downward slope ensures good drainage for the herbs, despite the clay soil. The artichokes seem to love it here. The ones at the back — a northeastern exposure — don’t get as much sun nor drainage and are thus not as floriferous.

Nearby, the herbs are looking good: the filigreed leaves of Lad’s Love jostling the silvery oval leaves of sage, the serrated edges of catnip, and the almost white spikey lavender. This is a planting combination that I shall definitely try to recreate in my next garden. Below, on the left is sage, to the back is Lad’s Love, and on the right is catnip. Curiously, German cats don’t seem to respond to catnip, unlike our English cats who rubbed themselves silly on the newly emerging leaves in spring, purring with abandon and looking totally blissful. At any rate, Findus, the neighbour’s cat, doesn’t seem to. I don’t know why but I always think of him as Fergus.

The photo below gives you a better idea of them all together. The catnip is just beginning to flower — rather late: it is normally in bloom in England from early summer onwards.

Other herbs still looking good are the Japanese purple-leaf mitsuba (trefoil) and myoga, flanking a sedum planted with a baby parsley (I know – they love totally different conditions but seem to be keeping each other good company in the same pot nevertheless). Please click on the photos for a larger view.

Adding colour are Geranium Rozanne, Verbena bonariensis, and Agapanthus.

Also brightening up the garden are nasturtiums, blooming rather late, and Hydrangea Preziosa (not sure this is her) with its leaves turning fantastic colours, and the aptly named Sedum Autumn Joy (Herbstfreude).

Year of Grace, Day 206. Possessions

Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are, the noted gastronome Brillat-Savarin once said. Well, after having packed our stuff, I can now revise this to say, tell me what you have, and I’ll tell you what you are. In our case, with over 60% of our belongings being books, then can we be other than bookworms? Most certainly not fashionistas, to judge from the amount of clothing we’ve got left after sorting. After three huge packing boxes of clothes destined for charity, we are now left with 1 suitcase, medium size <20 kilos, each. How’s that for downsizing?

I’ve been going around photographing what’s still blooming and looking good this closing week of September. Surprisingly quite a lot.

First to leaf out in spring and first to don autumn garb — Amelanchier, also known as Saskatoonberry in Canada or Juneberry. Its small blue fruits taste like blueberries.  But since the tree branches are so high up, we’ve decided that the birds can have all of them.

Here’s a closer look.

Amelanchier autumn lvs vvg_1467

The delicately scented floribunda roses below have lovely apricot buds that open to white petals with a yellow-suffused centre. They sulk during the hot summer, but are now back to blooming with the autumn rains.

The pink floribunda roses are also providing a repeat performance. Neither these nor the white ones above — modern hybrid roses — are a match for the old-fashioned rose with its heavenly scent that I featured back in midsummer. But whereas the old-fashioned one blooms only once, these modern ones get a second wind after summer and go on until winter. Even on Christmas, there have been a couple of trusses on the pink floribundas.

Another plant providing a second round of bloom is the creeping campanula.

Another blue-flowered plant, blooming rather late this year, is the borage, self-sown from plants sown in our first spring here. The lack of vigour on these seems to warrant sowing anew again after two years.

Borage is one of my favourite herbs, and I love using its flowers to decorate salads and to eat too — they have a mild cucumber-like taste, in other words, taste rather watery. But nice — I love being able to eat blue flowers!!! The black centres have to be taken out before eating though.

Just a few days away from leaving my three-year-old garden, my heart is heavy. Nevertheless I am thankful that I had these wonderful three years developing this cottage garden from its weed- and bramble-covered, unpromising beginning. It has been a time of learning, not least how to deal with moles and voles: plant valuable plants only in large tubs; humane vole traps don’t work — the voles just eat the cucumber or apple bait and then roll the trap over and escape (we hoped they would stay in the traps to be released at least a km away); and alliums do not drive moles and voles away. Alliums, especially spring onions, do wonders, however, planted around roses. The roses were spectacular and free of mildew this year. They have never looked so good.

More on the last week of the garden in my next post.

Year of Grace Day 205. Emptying the pantry, part 2: rice flour and lemons

Here’s the challenge: a half packet of rice flour, Indian rice flour to be exact. What’s the fastest way to use it up? I’d bought it to make Philippine steamed rice cakes called puto. Note that the name on the packet is puttu podi, which to me sounds remarkably close to the Tagalog putong puti. I’ve never eaten this Indian rice flour-based steamed delicacy, but recipes for it read as if it would be a savoury version of the rice cakes steamed in bamboo tubes, called puto bumbong in Manila. And that is why I’d bought it a few months ago at the Indian food shop downtown. But steaming sounded like a very fiddly operation for one in the midst of packing and moving.

For some days now I’ve been hankering for a tart lemon cake. One with a crunchy crystalline drizzly top. Somewhat like that mainstay of British church or Women’s Institute cake sales — lemon drizzle cake — but made with rice flour. With a recipe for lemon polenta cake that had not worked for me before, I decided to experiment. I also had 3 and a half lemons, a bottle of lemon juice, and some desiccated coconut to use up. I must say the result was not bad at all. In fact it was remarkably close to what I’d had in mind.

Now if only I could think of something as easy to make to use up the banana and pandan leaves sitting in my freezer.

If you’d like to try it, here’s my recipe. Such a breeze to make. No need for a mixer.

Lemon-Coconut Rice Cake

This makes a moist tart-sweet cake. Our threshold for tartness is higher than most people’s, so I used ½ cup of lemon juice where the recipe below calls for 1/3 cup, altogether a cup of lemon juice for the cake. Quite puckery sour for most. The resulting texture is crumbly but moist, as you can see from the photo. Rather like moist lemony coconut macaroons. The original recipe called for almond flour and polenta, for which I substituted desiccated coconut and rice flour, respectively.

Prepare a tart pan or round cake pan (~25 cm /10 inches) for baking: butter it and dredge with 1 tablespoon flour, tapping the pan to cover it evenly. Preheat oven to 175 C /325 F.

In a large bowl, mix well:
250g (~ 1 cup packed) rice flour
125g (~ ½ cup) desiccated coconut
¼ teaspoon salt
180g (~2/3 cup) sugar
grated zest and juice of 3 lemons (there should be ~1/3 cup juice)

Let this mixture stand for about 30 – 45 minutes for the coconut to become hydrated.

Melt and cool, then mix thoroughly into the flour-coconut-lemon mixture:
½ cup / 125g butter

Mix in:
3 large eggs, well beaten
Stir in thoroughly (this may not be necessary, but the two times I made the original recipe with polenta and almond flour which did not call for leavening, the results were stodgy):
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda

Transfer mixture to the prepared pan and bake in the middle shelf of the oven for 30 minutes or until done. The cake should be golden and just turning brown at the edges. A toothpick inserted in the middle should come out dry.

Take out the cake from the oven.
Prepare the lemon drizzle.

In a small bowl, mix thoroughly:
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
2/3 – ¾ cup confectioners’ (powdered) sugar (use the larger amount if you have a sweet tooth)
1/4 cup granulated (regular) sugar

You may wish to add a couple of tablespoons of orange liqueur to the drizzle.
Poke holes all over the still-warm cake, and brush or pour the drizzle all over.
Allow to cool thoroughly before eating.

Let me know how it turned out for you.

Year of Grace, Day 204. Emptying the garden, and the pantry too

Today is a typical autumn day, grey and rainy, and the blustery winds keep rocking the bamboos rather roughly. The garden truly looks bereft and forlorn without the hydrangeas. I bid them goodbye yesterday, as off they went to their new home with our dear friends D and A. I’m glad they’re being welcomed by a lovely and loving family though, and I know they’ll be happy there. D, in particular, has always admired them and appreciated them from the first moment she saw them.

Before the hydrangeas left, I took a few photos, not that I lack images of them, as I’ve been avidly photographing them throughout the past three years, but I thought I had better, to mark the occasion.

Bless them – these three shrubs, though actually one qualifies as a tree, it is almost three meters tall.  M and A laboured to take them and the huge tubs they were planted in to the van. When I’d brought the plants here, they were no taller than 30 cm tall. And in the span of just three years, they have lent their grace and character and presence to the back garden. Now that they are gone, the scope of their contribution is very much felt.

Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora becomes pink-tinged in the autumn.

Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora becomes pink-tinged in the autumn.

A freshly blooming blue hydrangea next to one wearing its autumnal garb.

A freshly blooming blue hydrangea next to one wearing its autumnal garb.

Just three plants – how they have made such an enormous difference to this space.

The side and lower branches had to be trimmed so as not to damage them during transport and to better fit into the van. I now have a few vases full of hydrangeas gracing the kitchen and dining room to console me until we leave.

And yes, my heart was torn as the van left, but I busied myself quickly to stifle threatening tears. I am also emptying the pantry, as it happens.

What did I have to play with? A punnet of fresh fat champignons, leftover chunks of Stilton and Pecorino, tuna, garlic, a third of a tiny jar of sambal oelek washed out with red wine, and tomato paste. Into the oven everything went to slowly bake topped with bits of butter and some rosemary and chives that I’d stepped out quickly into the garden to snip, as a last minute decision. By the time M came back, we were so hungry I didn’t have time to photograph the final result. It was meant to have been a late lunch that turned out to be an early supper. For a consolation meal, it was satisfyingly good, especially with a glass of robust red Cretan Daskalaki, organically produced — we are also finishing up the wine.

Year of Grace, Day 203. Visualizing sounds

As part of clearing and sorting stuff accumulated over the past years living in Bonn, I’m going through my books, deciding which ones bear re-reading and which not. The rejected ones are going off into Bonn’s outdoor free libraries – these are small glass-covered shelves scattered about the city, one is just by Poppelsdorfer Allee, see below. Another, in the shape of a British red telephone box donated by Bonn’s sister city Oxford, stands 2 or 3 blocks away between the main campus of Bonn University downtown and the University’s main library, on the street parallel to the Rhine. People are free to help themselves to a book or two there, and can return them if they wish to or donate something in return. I have benefitted from a few interesting books, one of them being Hazlitt’s essays. And now it is my turn to bring back a few as well, for others to enjoy. English books are in the minority, naturally.

One of the books I had consigned to my “donate” pile was bought a year or so ago, and had thought then a promising one to read: At the Edge of Art, by Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito. But for some reason or other, whether because of the text design (too small for my senior eyes) or something else, I could not engage with it.

For some time now, since our decision to move, I haven’t bought any new books to read, not wishing to add more to already burgeoning shelves until we are resettled somewhere else. So just to give it another chance, back out of the donate pile and now as my bedtime companion, is At the Edge of Art.

And the amazing thing I have just come across is this work by Martin Wattenberg on The Shape of Song. And I could not resist sharing it with you. A long time ago, I had once considered for a paper on semiotics and art how artists give form to the content of their creations. Painters and other visual artists do it with colour and shape and writers and poets do it with text and sound, as do sculptors with their three-dimensional creations. But I was stumped when it came to music. But here it is: music in tangible form.

Wattenberg is a physicist and what he has done is connect recurring patterns with arcs. Fab!

It teaches me a lesson — never to give up on a book once thought promising, as it can reveal a thing or two worth knowing about. And At the Edge of Art certainly has.

Year of Grace, Day 202. Parting kisses

Or bites rather, and such itchy ones too, from the grass mites (Grasmilben), the one thing I shall not miss at all when I leave my garden in Bonn. These are microscopic insects that live in the grass and the soil, and latch onto warm-bodied passersby – dogs, cats, most likely moles and voles and birds as well, and of course gardeners. And since I don’t have any pets at the moment, and I’m the only gardener around, guess who gets the mites’ undivided attention?

Grass mites, Neotrombicula autumnalis, are also known as harvest mites, berry mites, or hay mites, being most prevalent from late summer to early autumn – harvest time, when the blackberries are ripening in the hedgerows and when farmers are busy harvesting crops and making hay.

Grass mite, Neotrombicula autumnalis, larval stage

Grass mite, Neotrombicula autumnalis, larval stage

Normally I make sure to rub my ankles, wrists, and other exposed body parts with a plant-based preparation before venturing out into the garden. Somehow with the colder temperatures brought on by the rains, I had assumed, ill-advisedly, that these soil denizens would have gone into hibernation. No such luck, and I have several parting gifts from them – hives and welts about 2 cm long. Terribly itchy, and likely to continue being so for the next 10 to 14 days. Hot showers and rubbing alcohol seem to allay the itching, but only somewhat. Vinegar has also been suggested, but that I have yet to try. I have heard of other people in Bonn who have it even worse – the bites balloon into golf-ball size or even larger! The best thing is not to scratch, as then infection or dermatitis is bound to set in.

What has puzzled me about grass mites, and none of the sites I’ve checked online has enlightened me, is: what happens to them when they drop off indoors after feeding on a host?

Apparently it is the larval stage of the grass mite that sticks its fangs into a soft, moist, thin-skinned part of its host, usually a hair follicle, to create a feeding tube (stylostome), rather like a drinking straw through which it sucks up liquefied skin cells. Ew.

The larval grass mite has enzymes that turn its host’s skin cells into its favourite liquid protein drink. It’s the enzymes that cause the itching.

Once it’s had its fill, it falls off. And this is where the details become rather scant. My online sources (including a dissertation from Bonn University by A. Schöler, 2003) say the larva, after falling off its host, then burrows underground, i.e., into the soil, to undergo two more intermediate changes as a nymph before morphing into adulthood.

What if, as is usually the case, they fall off indoors, in a house? Especially one with wooden floors? Can they find a welcoming niche in the warm interstices in the flooring? And although most of the literature note that these Neotrombicula mites themselves are not vectors for known illnesses, unlike the Japanese tsutsugamushi, which carries Rickettsia bacteria, I have to wonder why I have been so often ill with flu-like symptoms extended over many weeks since living in this house. I used to consider myself fairly robust and not prone to getting the flu, leastwise not every year.

So yes, I am happily bidding farewell to these tiny creatures, no doubt they too have a role to play in the greater design of the world and life. And I bid the moles and the voles goodbye as well, who’ve created so many tunnels under the lawn with exits popping up here and there, hidden by the grass, making the ground beneath take on a rolling, undulating aspect. And if you’re not careful walking, you are likely to twist an ankle if you chance to sink a foot into one of these portals.

I can only hope this is my last encounter with the Neotrombicula autumnalis or any of its kin. In North America, they are better known as chiggers. Though, as a keen gardener, perhaps not. I shall just have to experiment with rosemary and other herbs, steeped in vodka, to make my own grass mite repellent. I don’t fancy using DEET.

Year of Grace, Day 201. The garden in early September

I’ve just been photographing the last of the hazelnuts – I hadn’t realized the squirrels had left us some. In previous years, there hadn’t been any for us to taste at all. These hazelnuts taste remarkably like almonds – fresh off the tree, they are full of creamy milk.

The contorted hazel in particular has never had any fruit before. I now realize why. While digging up beneath it to put in some wild species tulips and other bulbs last autumn, my spade kept hitting concrete. And just when I thought I’d gotten it all, there was more. The whole area beneath the tree had been encircled with paving! I took out as much of it as I could and used the large fragments, as much as 30 – 45 cm long, as stepping stones elsewhere. And perhaps thankful for the influx of rain, the contorted hazel tree has finally put forth fruits.

I’ve been keeping my eye on the grapes as well. There’s no fruit on the main trunk itself, but a stray vine has clambered up among the Euonymus bushes at the northern edge of the garden. And now three years later, we have fruit that has ripened, also for the first time. They are quite tasty and sweet. And although a few have been pecked at, by birds no doubt, most of the bunches are unscathed. They could probably have done with another day of sun, but I thought I’d rather they were just on the tart-sweet side than all eaten up by the magpies.

One of the blue hydrangea bushes is soldiering on, with a few bunches of late flowers. The earlier flowers are now sporting autumnal colours.

Geranium “Rozanne” seems to have gotten its second wind with a new flush of flowers.

The artichokes in the back garden are putting out new leaves, after enjoying the rains we’ve been having. One of them is in bloom – and glimpsed from afar, the blue-mauve spikes are strikingly fluorescent.

Amazingly I haven’t seen any bees buzzing around it at all. The bees seem to prefer the yellow Helenium flowers on my experimental “prairie patch,” at the back in the photo below. To the right is Verbena bonariensis, one of my favourites, and in the foreground is geranium “Rozanne,” a most prolific bloomer.

While I was photographing the garden, a woman on a bike on the path outside stopped, got off, and said hello when she saw me. “What a lovely garden.” she said. “I always admire it, whenever I pass by. There’s always something new coming up.”

“My little bit of wilderness, “I said deprecatingly.

“Not at all. I love it! A cottage garden. Very English,” said she.

It turns out that although she lives up the road, they have a holiday home in Kent. No wonder she knows about English cottage gardens.

On a lovely, sunny autumn day like this, it is simply wonderful to indulge in a chat with a passerby who appreciates my kind of higgledy-piggledy gardening style, and who recognizes it as an English cottage garden.

And when she learned I was leaving at the end of the month, she said, “Oh, what a shame. Just when I’d finally gotten to meet and talk to the maker of this cottage garden that I pass through and admire everyday.”

“Ja, das ist das Lebens!” said I. That is so like life indeed. Just when I meet a kindred spirit who loves cottage gardens as much as I do, it is time to say farewell. It is a good way to leave a place, I think.

The best way actually. It’s best to leave, wanting to have stayed just a bit longer.

Year of Grace, Day 200. More garden exotica

As a student, I used to admire the sprouted taro corm that would occasionally grace the reception desk of our department office at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. I found such water arrangements charmingly quaint. After all, it is usually flowers or green indoor plants that are used for interior decor. But having a vegetable such as taro or water chestnut, sprouting in water indoors was rather unusual. And I loved it.

It occurred to me to try sprouting one of my own, some decades later, here in Bonn. I bought some taro corms from the Vietnamese food shop on Rosendal street in Altstadt (Old Town Bonn). I kept one in water, and then waited patiently until it began to shoot. I wasn’t altogether sure that it would, aware that some of these imported produce are subjected to all sorts of chemicals and treatments. So it was with great excitement that I greeted its first sign of life. Here is its first baby leaf. My taro looks almost like a baby dinosaur.

What’s interesting is that there was a never-ending influx of water drops that would pool on the leaf, forming gem-like cabochons, and then roll off.

Fascinating! And it was a challenge for M and I to catch the water droplet on camera before it flowed off the leaf and back into the water below.

Once my taro plant had three leaves, I figured it was time to give it more nourishment than just water. Here it is set in potting compost.

My taro plant stays outside from spring till the beginning of autumn, and it then spends the winter indoors in a bright spot. I noticed though that the leaves naturally die down. When they do, I decrease watering, only adding a bit from time to time just to prevent the soil from completely drying up. The leaves start shooting up again in spring, and that’s when regular watering can begin. Taro plants love lots of water, and don’t even mind being submerged totally in it.

This year, its third, my plant has made lots of side shoots.  I probably ought to cover it up with some more potting compost.

I began with just the one corm, and now three years later there are 2 plants in the pot. At some point, I may have to harvest some corms, just to see what my exotic taro, now quite acclimatized to Bonn, tastes like. A few small corms, no larger than quail’s eggs, would be lovely in a rich broth with an assortment of wild mushrooms and aromatic mountain greens, otherwise known as imonoko jiru (taro corm soup), an autumn specialty of Yuzawa, Akita, in northeastern Japan.

Taro and imonoko jiru call to mind my friend Okuyama-san from Yuzawa. I can see in my mind’s eye his face full of glee as he tells stories. Okuyama-san, M, and I, and our first son, then just two, sit around the irori (firepit) set into the tatami floor of our ancient wooden Japanese house, sipping hot sake (our son is having juice) while waiting for the pot of imonoko jiru to come to the boil. The tiny corms have just been dug that very afternoon from Okuyama-san’s vegetable garden at the edge of town. I can almost sense the green herbal scent of seri (Oenanthe javanica, please note this is the only Oenanthe species that is not toxic), also from Okuyama-san’s garden, and the earthiness of wild mushrooms, bought that morning from the elderly women who gather these delights from deep in the mountains, and go around from house to house peddling their freshly-collected wares. One of those, called maidake (dancing mushroom) is a hallucinogen, and Okuyama-san loved to recount the story of one of his ancestors who was somewhat of a dandy. After having rather more than a bit of maidake, Okuyama-san’s Ur-forefather takes a running leap over the bubbling taro broth (this is all happening outdoors, by the way). And having made it safely without overturning the pot on the fire, he pats himself and his kimono rather exaggeratedly, saying meanwhile, “Does anyone else detect the smell of singed silk?” Sumptuary laws of the times forbade silk to non-aristocrats you see, and those who could afford it, took care to only wear it as undergarments inside outer kimonos of cotton or linen or hemp.

On this my 200th day of posting in my grace journal, I am grateful for the continued blessing of health, without which daily life can become somewhat challenging. I am thankful too for having made it this far in writing this journal, and what’s more, that many continue to read and enjoy my posts. A heartfelt thanks and blessings of health and grace to all my readers!

Year of Grace, Day 199. Exotica in the garden

I’ve been looking forward to having myoga flower buds from my plant that I had bought at the Bonn Botanical Garden spring sale last year. Myoga, Zingiber mioga, is a relative of the ginger, and is highly esteemed in Japanese cuisine. Its pinky purple buds are sliced very very finely and used to accompany and adorn all kinds of dishes, from soups to salads and sashimi, and as well on its own as tempura. It is crisp and tastes more flower-like and citrusy than ginger and not sharp at all.

Since the spring when I almost lost the entire plant to ravenous slugs, I’ve been keeping a watchful eye on it. It’s also been confined to a large pot, all the better to keep it away from the marauding moles and voles. Despite the initial damage to the leaves and a few chewed up stems, the remaining stalks of my myoga have romped away, and their tender green leaves have filled the pot. I believe they loved being close to the blue hydrangeas, sheltered by the yew branches overhead from the sun.

I’ve gotten into the habit of peering inside the pot, wondering when I was going to witness the emergence of myoga no ko (myoga children). But in all these months since spring, there has been nothing.

Imagine then my surprise when not really expecting to see anything this afternoon, I detected several pointy shoots sticking out of the soil.  The straw is there to deter slugs and keep the surface of the soil cool, by the way.

Here are my first ever harvest of myoga. I am so thrilled!

They are actually flower buds, and I might let the others bloom, just to see what they look like, as I’ve never seen a myoga flower before.

Year of Grace, Day 198. Blessings

Blessings come into our lives in the most unexpected ways.

I’ve been putting together a multidisciplinary team for a community development project, and needed a local connection. On an inspired moment, rather desperate as communications had not gone through with initial potential partners, and the deadline for submission of project applications was imminent, I thought of a friend whose professional expertise was along the same lines, and sent her an SOS. She immediately replied that the project suited her to a T. And from her enclosed CV, it was apparent that her breadth of expertise did indeed cover everything the project needed. So much more than I could have hoped for! What a fortuitous turn of events, and one that would not have happened had I not reached out to her.

The one thing that stands out from this recent blessing to grace my life is that this friendship has held true from secondary school. And despite decades of not seeing each other, with our recent communications via the occasional email and Facebook, our personal connection has held and has led to what promises to be a fruitful professional collaboration. Bless you, dearest P, and many, many, many thanks indeed! Here’s a cuckoo lily (hototogisu)  in bloom now in the garden for you!

Nachtigal Tricyrtis zoom_1324