Monday, March 21, 2011

The First Full Day of Spring-Celebrate the Sun

As promised in yesterday’s blog posting, I want to focus on the vernal equinox (also known as Ostara and portrayed in the picture above). Specifically I want to talk about the sun. I have posted “tributes” to the moon, the rain, and the earth—now it is time to give sunlight its due—and what better time than the first full day of Spring.

Sustainable agriculture has a number of rock stars or celebrities—one of whom is Maine’s four season farmer, Eliot Coleman. There is not a sustainable farmer around that does not own his now classic The New Organic Grower. There was a year or two during my earlier farming career that I felt like an Eliot Coleman groupie-he was a keynote speaker at the PASA Farming for the Future Conference, at the Hershey Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers conference, and even a “dessert” lecturer at Longwood Gardens—I went to them all. The crux of his lecture was about being able to extend the season well into the winter months, no easy feat for someone farming in Maine. His thesis, so to speak, was that we had ample sunlight here in the Northeast; we just had to provide a little protection (high tunnels) to cold tolerant vegetables from the worst of the winter cold, no outside heat was necessary. Coleman lives near the 44th parallel, and if you follow that latitude across to Europe, you can see that he enjoys the same amount of sunlight as the south of France. Here in southeast Pennsylvania we are closer to the 40th parallel, our latitude runs through the middle of Spain and the very southern tip of Italy. Pretty heartening when you think about; in sun quality, it is as if we are living on the Mediterranean.

Coleman’s original inspiration came from the historic (mid-late 1800s) maraicher of Paris (market gardeners) with their early forms of cold frames, straw mulching and glass cloches. Another early proponent of covered gardening was Philadelphia seed house founder and florist Henry Dreer in his book Dreers Vegetables Under Glass Handbook written over a hundred years ago. In a timely related story NPR ran this piece today and my favorite source of all things tool and seed related, Johnny’s Seed posted this blog.

Coleman sites the “magic” number of sunlight hours needed to sustain or start growth as 10 hours, usual occurring around the beginning of February depending on your location (thought to be the reason behind celebrations like Imbolc and Groundhog Day). Once again the Johnny’s Seed blog has some great links to this fact-Johnny’s works hand and hand with Eliot Coleman. The equinox indicates that day and night are more or less equal; hence we should be enjoying about 12 hours of daylight at this time, plenty of sunshine to get your plants growing. To find out the day length for your location on any particular day check out this handy Solar Calculator from NOAA.

So there you have it, lots of reasons to celebrate the sun (no matter the weather outside). I leave you with a video set to the great new recording from Spinning Leaves and Hezekiah Jones-You Are The Sun. I actually got the inspiration for blogging about the moon and then the sun from local music lover Steve Brun’s posting of this video on Facebook. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Signs of Spring-the Worm or Sap Moon and the Vernal Equinox

This week's signs of spring are celestial in nature; that amazing full ("super") moon last night and the fast approaching Vernal Equinox. I hope you were able to witness the extra large and extra bright moon, it was truly a beautiful site. The moon that proceeds the vernal equinox is known as the Sap or Worm moon. Sap simply refers to the time when the sap produced by trees starts "running" or moving up from the roots toward the soon to form buds , its most admired incarnation taking the form of maple syrup. The worm moon name refers to the fact that worms become active in the soil again; hence the robins you find on your lawn or the castings that suddenly appear on little bare patches of exposed soil.

For more information about the vital role that worms can play in the health of garden soil, read this great article from Mother Earth News about encouraging worm activity in your garden (the picture above is from this article).

I will post more on the vernal equinox and the start of spring in the very near future. For now, I want to honor last night's moon with a poem by Mary Oliver from her Twelve Moons collection and a recipe from Culinate featuring maple syrup.

Worm Moon (by Mary Oliver)


In March the earth remembers its own name.
Everywhere the plates of snow are cracking.
The rivers begin to sing. In the sky
the winter stars are sliding away; new stars
appear as, later, small blades of grain
will shine in the dark fields.

And the name of every place
is joyful.


The season of curiosity is everlasting
and the hour for adventure never ends,
but tonight
even the men who walked upon the moon
are lying content
by open windows
where the winds are sweeping over the fields,
over water,
over the naked earth,
into villages, and lonely country houses, and the vast cities


because it is spring;
because once more the moon and the earth are eloping --
a love match that will bring forth fantastic children
who will learn to stand, walk, and finally run over the surface of earth;
who will believe, for years,
that everything is possible.


Born of clay,
how shall a man be holy;
born of water,
how shall a man visit the stars;
born of the seasons,
how shall a man live forever?


the child of the red-spotted newt, the eft,
will enter his life from the tiny egg.
On his delicate legs
he will run through the valleys of moss
down to the leaf mold by the streams,
where lately white snow lay upon the earth
like a deep and lustrous blanket
of moon-fire,


and probably
is possible.

Lemon Maple Cake
From the recipe box spring, spring by Sarah Gilbert
Yield 2 layers or one bundt cake

I’ve been off processed sugar of all types for over a year; though it’s hard to avoid, especially when it comes to baked goods, which my kids and I love. I made this cake after altogether too many requests for $3 slices of (delicious, but sugar-packed) lemon pound cake from the farmer’s market. And even though maple syrup is very expensive; it’s $8.99 a pound for organic maple syrup at People’s Co-op; this cake ends up far cheaper than one from a bakery. If you don’t have lemon, you’ll want to replace at least 1/4 cup of the milk with plain yogurt, sour cream, creme fraiche, or buttermilk to provide an acidic element to react with the baking soda. (Or you can use baking powder, but it’s more fun my way, and you never have to buy baking powder.)

5 egg yolks
½ cup milk
1 Tbsp. vanilla
~ zest of one lemon
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
8 oz. maple syrup (about 1¼ cup)
12 oz. flour (about 3 cups; I use ⅔ whole wheat pastry flour and ⅓ brown rice flour)
2 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
¾ cup softened butter (really soft, even almost melty)

1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2.Butter (and flour, if that’s your thing) either two 9” cake pans or a nice-sized bundt pan. I’ve also used an assortment of smaller cake pans (some of the ones that came in a child’s baking set from IKEA, for instance), and the kids are big fans.
3.In a medium bowl, mix egg yolks, ¼ cup milk, lemon zest and lemon juice.
4.In a separate large bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt and mix well.
5.Add butter, remaining ¼ cup milk, and maple syrup, and mix using a stand mixer or a nice big whisk for a few minutes.
6.Add egg/lemon mixture in 2-3 batches, mixing after each addition.
7.Scrape batter into pans (you’ll want them ½ full) and bake until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 20-40 minutes depending on the size of your pans.
This content is from the spring, spring collection.
Copyright © 2006–2010 Culinate, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fermentation Mother--Happy Birthday Cintra

Long before it was trendy or hip, my mother was a practitioner of home fermentation. I have lots of childhood memories of some sort of bubbling, brewing, living culture tucked away in the corner of the kitchen, under the woodstove, or adding a sour odor to her own special brand of refrigerator ecology. I remember the frothy fizzy gallons of cider that used adorn our counter tops-looking like something from a mad scientist's lab, all expanded and occasionally blowing their lids. Her bread made out of the left over porridge would rival that of any European bakery. Her yogurt cheese added a gourmet element to many a meal. We were lucky children and I did not even know it, it was like growing up with the female version of Sandor Katz (wild fermentation expert).

Fast forward some 25 years, and Cintra is back in full swing fermentation mode (during our early teenage years Cintra went back to work, and with less time to tend to these living cultures, abandoned much of her home fermenting projects). When the kombucha craze hit the East coast, Cintra was one of the first to order a little mother a.k.a SCOBY. She quickly turned that tiny jelly fish-looking "mushroom" into a thick large pancake-like mass, remenisent of a creature out of a horror movie. Her special fermentation powers have produced many a healthy SCOBY baby, which she has passed on to friends and family. Pictured below is her old school yogurt maker, a scoby baby that she is about to give away, and some raw cider she is "hardening."

Today is my mother's birthday. Its a big one (I won't say which). I thought on this day all about celebrating her life, it would be appropriate to share some of her fermentation favorites, bringing culture and life to the food around us. As amazing as Cintra is at all these creative and delicious forms of ferments, she has a hard time explaining the "what" or "the how to". It is almost as if she has some sort of fermentation sixth sense. Lucky for the rest of us, there are some great resources online. Enjoy the links below.

Great Food in Jars posting on Creme Fraiche

How to Make Yogurt website (recommended on the Wild Fermentation site)

The Fresh Loaf--An online community for amateur artisan bakers and bread enthusiasts.

Wiki-how on Kombucha

Happy fermenting and Happy Birthday Cintra!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Signs of Spring--The Sound of Peepers

The second "sign" in my new blog series on the harbingers of spring is more a sound than a site, especially since I have never actually seen one of these creatures. The sign is the "voice" of the Spring Peeper. It has been about a week now since Mr. Happy Cat Tim Mountz called a bunch of us outside to listen to what he affectionately calls nert nerts. With all the recent rain the peepers seem particularly loud this year; or maybe its just my enthusiastic anticipation of a nice warm day out in the garden that makes their vernal call all the more vociferous. Enjoy the audio on the video above, it was taken in the late afternoon today down in our "swamp" that separates the lawn from the stream.
I enter a swamp as a scared place
Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.
-Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Women in Agriculture--Tools for Change

On the 100 year anniversary of International Women's Day , I thought it was important to focus on the role of women in agriculture. Although women produce most of the food worldwide, there has been an unfortunate lack of acknowledgement of this vital and nourishing role that woman play in feeding the population of the plant. Oxfam America has started a new campaign to address this problem-Sisters on the Planet. Oxfam has great programs worth supporting any day of the year, I encourage you to check out the links.

There has been a marked increase in the number of women farming in the United States over the last decade or so, which might explain why I have had the pleasure of being surrounded and supported by a fantastic network of women farmers throughout my farming career. Activist turned author Terma Costa sounds like she has had a very similar experience, which inspired her wonderful book Farmer Jane. Temra writes on her fantastic website (filled with great links, a blog, and other useful resources):

As farmers, moms, businesswomen, chefs, and activists, women are changing the way we eat and farm. They are the fastest growing demographic to own and operate sustainable farms, comprise the largest percentage of sustainable agriculture nonprofit employees, own sustainable food businesses, cook the majority of household meals, and control household budgets. “Farmer Janes” are creating a more healthful, sane, and sustainable food system for present and future generations.

The book profiles a diverse group of women farmers and food activists, a couple of whom are friends, colleagues, and personal inspirations-like Jess Greenblatt Seeley director of Buy Fresh, Buy Local (and recent mother).

Within the state of Pennsylvania there is another great resource-Pennsylvania Women in Ag Network. The Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network (PA-WAgN) supports women in agriculture by providing positive learning environments, networking, and empowerment. I have to say that as a women farmer within this active and supportive network, I feel blessed and lucky, especially considering the plight of my counterparts across the world. I have felt few real injustices. My only complaint is when it comes to finding tools, clothes, and equipment. The simple act of buying work pants really brings to light the disconnect--paper thin low rise jeans adorned with rhinestones simply don't cut it in the field (and for some odd reason this type of jean seems to be a staple at farm supply stores, along with pink john deere baby doll t-shirts). Lucky for all the women farmers and gardeners out there, a wonderful new tool company geared just for women has been started right here in southeast Pennsylvania-Green Heron Tools.
Not only is their website filled with great shopping opportunities for farm and gardening tools specifically designed for women's bodies, it is also a great resource. Check out this link filled with warm up exercises for staying healthy out in the field. If you are serious about farming and gardening without injury I suggest you explore the website in its entirety.

Green Heron Tools was featured in a recent Mother Earth news article, click here to read. Their story is really quite an inspiration on its own. Happy International Women's Day!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sunday House Concert-Spinning Leaves and Lost Leaders

This Sunday March 6th we are hosting a house concert with two wonderful folk duos-the Spinning Leaves and their friends from New York the Lost Leaders. The concert will start at 8PM and will be proceeded by a potluck dinner at 6PM.

Space is limited--in order to reserve a spot please email

I could go on and on about the amazing talent and magic embodied in the Spinning Leaves (Michael Baker and Barbara Gettes) and the wonderful group of musicians with whom they collaborate. Instead, I encourage you to read two past postings I have written about these artists and the entity known as the Philadelphia Folk Parade. I am new to the Lost Leaders, but totally trust Michael and Barbara, when they say our community is going to love them.

The Spinning Leaves are in the middle of a kickstarter campaign to procure the funding necessary to record their next batch of songs. If you watch the video below you will get a sense of the community spirit that follows this duo where ever they perform (I apologize about the video not "fitting" into the blogger template correctly--if you click on blue "spinning leaves are making a record" type, you can view the video as it was meant to be seen). If you can make it to the concert you are in for a treat.

Below are two posts I have written about shows that have involved the collaborative and performance magic of the Spinning Leaves:

-Fermentation Festival Concert

-Mugs and Music: Community Connections

Once again, if you would like to attend the show on Sunday please email at Thank you!