Year of Grace, Day 156. Yesterday’s Grace

The honking of geese overhead at first light — a frightful cacophony to be roused by, but though muddled with sleep I manage a faint smile as I recognize the sound. They’re flying back home, I say to myself — winter is truly, definitely past.

The day turns out to be warmer than predicted – it is 20ºC and sunny. We take a slow stroll along the Rhine, relishing the unobstructed view of Petersburg up on the mountain and the castle on Drachenfels. I wish I’d brought my camera along.

There is a bikers’ path, and on this early summer’s day, flocks of cyclists make for unceasing traffic. An occasional rollerblader glides by, crouched low, almost as if skating on ice. I am glad to be out of their way on a separate path for walkers and hikers, higher up the bank.

Afterwards resting on a bench, we watch barges laden with containers headed downstream to Cologne and leisure cruisers bound upstream with daytrippers to Koblenz or Linz and the quaint green train to Bad Honnef on the track parallel to the Rhine. A couple in a boat energetically sculls as they chat, rather loudly as they cannot hear too well, being seated one behind the other; a cabin cruiser with a young family churns the water. Away from the river traffic, a cormorant dives repeatedly, surfacing further along. I try to catch a glimpse of fish in its mouth. How much fish does a cormorant eat? It doesn’t seem to stop. A lot, says M.

A goose, which we at first take for a duck because of its strikingly coloured feathers, is on its own on the edge of the water, calling out in that startling goose honk, like a donkey braying. Its feathers are a warm mix of amber and butterscotch, orange, and brown, with black edging. And its eyes are surrounded by a dark brown patch. Perhaps it’s looking for a mate? Or else it has lost its way, got left behind by its mates who’d flown by earlier? As we make our way back, the goose is on the bank, waddling back towards the river. Could it have a nest then somewhere in the thickets? Later I find out it is an Egyptian goose (click on link for images).

I am ever on the lookout for wildflowers or fungi on these walks. Little white daisies cover the grassy verges like galaxies of stars, and on one spot close to the outdoor swimming pool, already filled with water but no swimmers yet, there are wild geraniums with tiny pink flowers, a bit larger than Robert’s Geranium (also known as Herb Robert), and near them, some blooming white bladder campion.

Back home, I leisurely peel, core, and score apples for an apple cake from the book Backen Macht Freude (Baking Makes Joy). I adore cakes (and pies as well of course) made with fresh fruit, and my fanciful thoughts turn to Eve – our proverbial ancestress — as I prepare the apples. Would she have made cakes with this symbol of downfall – hers, Adam’s, ours? (Yes, I do have rather whimsical ideas. Often!)

Apple cake (Apfelkuchen)

Apple cake (Apfelkuchen)

A perfect tempura lunch is made by M – not classic prawn and little fish called kisu (pronounced ‘kiss’), but squid heads and tentacles, one large carrot cut into rings, and one Florence fennel bulb in vertical slices. We do have some authentic Japanese ingredients: mitsuba leaves that I’ve been growing since last spring — wide as shiso and that lend themselves to being fried to perfect crispness; Kikkoman soy sauce and the dashi for the dipping sauce. Tiny round red radishes sub for grated daikon: the red flecks of skin quite festive, even if not authentic and not as pungent as daikon, but the grated Thai ginger’s zing make up for it. The squid heads are ready to cook from a frozen pack bought at the Thai-Viet food shop in Old Town Bonn – certainly beats cleaning them from fresh. (I am glad to be spared the task as I cannot think of anything more unpleasant – I have done it countless times because I love cooking and eating squid.  Afterwards, replete (and no more room for rice), we have slices of our first watermelon this season: it is perfectly crisp and sweet.

At the close of day, as the sun makes its descent — swallows and swifts in pairs and alone, wheel and swoop with unfettered joy, soaring and gliding high up in the sky and then abruptly diving low and then back up again. It is definitely summer when the swallows and swifts are back.

That was my day yesterday — certainly a perfect day of grace. A heartfelt and deep thank You.

Year of Grace, Day 123. The tenacity of plants

While clearing out the dried leaves and other winter debris in the garden yesterday, I noticed that certain plants that I thought wouldn’t have a chance over the winter have survived. I am in awe of some plants’ resilience to freezing temperatures.

One in particular, a purple variant of mitsuba — one of my favourite Japanese herbs and often called Japanese parsley, though it is not a parsley relative – is full of new shoots. It is heartening to see how robust this fragile-seeming herb is. I had planted it in a pot together with some chives, instead of in the ground, as I did not wish to lose it to the voles and moles who have free run of the garden. And even without any winter protection for the pot (fleece or burlap sheets wrapped around the pots), both mitsuba and chives are now sending forth new leaves. I shall position the mitsuba in the shade this year, so that the leaves and stems stay tender. Last year they were a bit tough and stringy. I am looking forward to the delicate scent of its leaves floating ever so gracefully in suimono (clear soups) or adorning the quivery silken surface of chawan mushi (steamed custard soups).

Purple mitsuba leafing out

Purple mitsuba leafing out

Another plant that has not suffered too much is an Argentinian plant – Verbena bonariensis – whose tall stalks are tipped with clusters of tiny lilac flowers. These have a delicate perfume that carries well on a light breeze. I was surprised by its scent while working in my garden in England, as I had not expected it to be perfumed. To hedge its chances here, I planted some in the front garden which has a southern exposure and in the west-facing back garden, close to the protection of the house walls. But even those in planters out in the open have done well.

The tiny sedums have also come through. I am acquainted with the robustness of the larger sedums, but this is the first time that I have planted these smaller ones, and with the good drainage in the tall herb pots, they have survived.



On the other hand, the clary sage did not fare well. I thought I had provided enough drainage for this Mediterranean native, but apparently not. As with all else in life, in the garden there are always gains and losses. And unless it is a tree that takes years to mature, I am not too bothered about annual or biennial plants that fail to thrive or survive the winter. It takes a while to become familiar with a garden’s micro-climate, and 2.5 years is nothing at all in the life of a garden.

Today I am thankful that there are more survivors in the garden than I had expected. The tulips are leafing out, and so are the narcissus. Primroses are blooming too. It’s another sunny day today – perfect for gardening!

On another note, I have this irrational and rather whimsical hope every time I pass by my jewelry box, that my turquoise earrings and necklace lost to those odious Barcelona bandits, will miraculously appear. I realise a miracle like this would be rather far-fetched. It just occurred to me that the last time we were in Spain, we had been robbed as well. It was the 28th of December, Día de los Innocentes, or Spanish April Fools, and someone had helped themselves to No. 2 son’s clothes. Ay, ladrones!!

Year of Grace, Day 83. It’s not too early to think of sowing seeds

Overnight we’ve had a bit of snow and the bare branches look rather festive in their white overgarments. It even looks as though some are in full blossom. But that’s just wishful thinking on my part, as it’s only midwinter, with greater cold still to come in February. And in previous years, Bonn has seen snow as late as mid-May.

Still… I’m already thinking of what veggies I may be able to sow indoors. There’s no point in me growing ordinary vegs that are available in the shops. With limited time, I plan on growing those I cannot buy or that are overpriced and more often of dubious quality.

I’ve just had a look at organic vegetable grower Charles Dowding’s sowing timetable for Somerset, UK, which has its last frost in mid-May and first frost in mid-October. Quite similar to Bonn, in terms of frost dates. However, he puts Somerset at hardiness zone 9 (minimum -1 to -7°C, 20 to 30° F). Bonn is hardiness zone 7, similar to the coldest area noted for the UK — in the middle of Scotland, the Cairngorms — with minimums of  -12 to -18°C or 0 – 10°F. We had a cold snap here in Bonn down to -30°C for a week some years ago but that was unusual.

For the past two years I’ve been sowing outdoors around mid-May, and this year, I’m attempting to begin much earlier indoors to have more established plants to set out once frosts are over.  On my list are peas for shoots; wild Turkish rocket, which has broader leaves than the usual rucola and which are not sold here; and rainbow chard with their brilliant orange, pink, and red stems, which are prohibitively priced in the organic shops. I hope to sow green shiso and mitsuba as well – these two are not commercially available at all. Once I saw green shiso at the Korean food shop on Bonner Talweg, but they never had it again.

Time to check out what seeds I’ve stored in the fridge and what else needs to be bought. I found some green mitsuba seeds and there are purple mitsuba plants overwintering outside (hopefully they and the myoga will survive the winter). So I just need to track down some shiso – both green and purple – seeds.

I haven’t grown peas for shoots ever, and I’m looking forward to adding them to stirfries. How about you? What  unusual crops are you considering this year?

I’m grateful that eventually the sun came out in the afternoon. This morning was too dreary for the birds — they were nowhere to be seen.

Forsythia in snow

Forsythia in snow