Compost revisions

In today’s Chez Howard garden: general cleanup; working end-of-season leaves & grass clippings into the compost pile. That pile, incidentally, is still cooking. After all these years of composting, we now have a really good mower that picks up and delivers all the grass and leaves. So for the first time, I’ve worked the pile all the way up to this point in IMG_0011November. Always before, I’d stop working the current season’s pile in August, when I’d begin building next year’s pile. But “building” just meant dumping stuff—watermelon rinds, winter squash shells, biodegradable kitchen debris, and raked-up whole leaves—onto it.

This year, in contrast, all those leaves went into the pile all chopped up and mixed with late-season grass clippings. So this year as I built the new pile, I worked it, using my four-tine manure fork and a tilling fork with 6″ tines to turn, mix, unearth, break up, rebury garden and kitchen waste. (Yes, a half hour of this counts as my day’s workout!) And friends, I’m here to testify it’s worth it. We’ve had a very cold November here in the CNY featuring some single-digit overnight lows. Yet today, as I worked the pile, earthworms and maggots wiggled in some spots while pockets of steam drifted up from others. That compost pile is very much alive, actively decomposing, promising good contributions to the 2016 garden. Tomorrow the remaining grass and leaves will be dumped on it, and on top of that, the remaining holiday pumpkins. And there they will sit until compost-turning begins when the ground thaws again, in April of another year.

Coldframe miracles

The snow is melted off most of the surface of the yard. The sun is shining and the coldframe is warming up enough that I’m having to vent it during the day. And! miraculously, some of the seeds I started in it have sprouted—apparently the lettuce from the February 28 and March 9 plantings are both busy sprouting, despite nights in the single digits since their plantings. Clearly I have much to learn about coldframe gardening. 


Enthused by these apparitions, today I planted lettuce (benito), spinach (corvair), chard (prima rosa), maché (vit), and arugula. 


How to start seeds indoors

  • Bring the sack of seed starter mix in from the garage so it will reach room temperature.
  • Find the seeds.
  • Cut up the slats of an old window miniblind to make plant tags
  • Clean off enough of the kitchen counter that a whole new mess can be made on it.
  • Open up Gchat and gab with Krista about everything under the sun (including seed-starting)
  • Find the plastic gallon milk jugs that have been stashed over the past year.
  • Cut same into nice square seed-starting flats.
  • Ladle seed-starting mix into flats, adding water to the layers and spraying the surface of each layer so that the mix really does get wet
  • Carry on even when Krista ditches to tend to her dinner
  • Don’t water the top layer yet. Use an index card to smooth out the top layer of dry mix
  • Use the index card to make furrows for the seeds
  • Fold the index card; put seeds in the fold; and shake them carefully, one by one, into the furrows
  • Cover the seeds
  • Use a spray bottle to give the top layer of mix a good soaking
  • Pull a Baggie (or any brand of clear plastic bag that doesn’t have a zip top) up around the container. Twist it a bit, and then blow into it as if it were a balloon
  • Twist the Baggie closed, and seal with a twist tie
  • Put the containers where they won’t get any sun until the seeds have sprouted. Below they’re on the potting table in the second floor of the garage (which is heated).
  • Check the containers every day to make sure the Baggie mini-greenhouse hasn’t collapsed. Blow up any that have.
  • Pray that you still have any clue how to do this after a multi-year hiatus from gardening.

Started today: Wrinkled Crinkled cress seeds from Pinetree; Flashy Trout Back red romaine from Johnny’s—last year’s seeds, so who knows; English thyme from Seeds of Change.


P.S. The second planting in the coldframe failed, too. When the nighttime temps dip down into single digits, any germination is doomed. Undaunted, I’ll plant again on March 23, assuming that the 10-day at that time shows nothing colder than 20°. Hey, I can dream.

First for-reals coldframe planting

Chez Howard coldframe, 3/9/2013
Chez Howard coldframe, 3/9/2013

Actually, I planted to the coldframe 10 days ago. But it was a really long shot, and yeah, the 10° nights that followed whacked the liddle bit of lettuce seeds that I stuck in the ground.

Today was quite another matter. There’s still a lot of chanciness involved—we’re zone 4B, and wintry weather isn’t done with us yet. But today I stuck my gunboats in my pink (hells yeah) barn boots, tucked seed packets in my shirt pocket, and put in a half-row each of maché (though using last year’s seed—is that a mistake?) and lettuce (Burpee’s Green Ice).

To the garden!

The good news: When the back porch thermometer said it was 52° outdoors, the thermometer in the closed coldframe said it was 72°. Scott, the coldframe builder, has been tinkering with it to get it truly windproof, and I think he just may have succeeded. We’re not having a sunny winter (we did last winter! I swear!), and that’s not helpful. The coldframe needs sun to get really warmed up. Still, when it’s holding heat that well, it just might make it through the nights in the the teens that await us here in Squirrelyville. This second planting has a much better chance than the first did.

Devil’s food cake with Bigmother’s icing

Today I get to make tacos for friends who are coming to dinner. The perfect finish to spicy tacos is chocolate. And for me, the perfect chocolate is cake. I bake a recipe adapted from the 1972 Joy of Cooking, and I frost it with my grandmother’s recipe. Here we go. This is a complicated yet straightforward recipe, and the result will ruin you for Hostess and Sara Lee for life:

This recipe is adapted from the 1972 Joy of Cooking


  • Bring the butter, eggs, water, and milk to room temperature before beginning to cook.
  • For this recipe, you’ll make several different mixtures: a custard, a flour mixture, sugar, a butter mixture, and whipped egg whites. These all get combined into the cake batter.
  • Equipment needed: measuring cups and spoons; a big mixmaster; a small hand mixer; 5 small bowls; a big mixer bowl; a spatula and a wooden spoon; a double boiler; and a flour sifter.
  • Grease two 8” round cake pans.
  • Oven 350°

Custard: Add the following ingredients in this order and stir in a double boiler:

4 oz. unsweetened chocolate

½ c milk

1 c light brown sugar, firmly packed

Stir those together; then add:

1 egg yolk

Remove from heat when thickened.

Flour mixture: Sift twice before measuring:

2 c flour

Resift into a small bowl with:

1 t soda

½ t salt

Liquid mixture: Combine in a separate small bowl:

¼ c water

½ c milk

1 t vanilla

Sugar: Sift into a separate small bowl:

1 c sugar

Butter mixture: In the big mixer bowl, beat until soft:

½ c butter

Add the sugar gradually. Blend until very light and creamy.
Beat in, one at a time:

2 egg yolks

Cake batter: Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in 4 parts, alternating with thirds of the liquid mixture. With any cake, always start with the flour and end with the flour.
Stir in the chocolate custard.

Whipped egg whites: Using the small hand mixer, whip until stiff, but not dry:

2 egg whites

Using the wooden spoon, fold them lightly into the cake batter.

Pour the batter into prepared pans.
Bake at 350° for 40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool on a wire rack before removing from the pan.

Bigmother’s icing:

1/2 c. brown sugar
2 sq. bitter chocolate
pinch of salt
1 box confectioners sugar (in contemporary terms, this comes to about 3/4 bag)
1/3 to 1/2 stick butter
1/2 c. sweet or sour cream
Melt brown sugar, butter, & chocolate together. Add cream. Boil 1 min. Cool a little; add pinch of salt. Beat in confectioners sugar. If too stiff, add a little liquid—cream or water will work, but coffee is best!

Inventing bread

I love to bake. I pride myself on my biscuits and French bread, both oven-baked from scratch. Real Southern biscuits, the kind that soothe your soul and raise your cholesterol. Perfect French bread, stellar with spaghetti and lasagne. I also mastered (though for many years haven’t practiced) the art of salt risin bread, the kind you start with potatoes as yeast. Smells like hell, tastes like heaven. (I do think I need to resurrect that art!) 

So why, for cryin out loud, haven’t I transferred that gift and that love to the breadmaker? Why have I treated breadmaker bread like an invitation to mechanics rather than art? Why have I resigned myself to the breadmaker crapshoot, never knowing how the loaf will turn out or whether it will actually taste good?

Yesterday it finally came through to me that I didn’t have to use mixes, didn’t have to follow recipes. The result is quite wonderful. Here’s my recipe for breadmaker spelt bread:

Crust setting: dark

1 c minus 1 T lukewarm water (err on the cool side if you’re not sure)
2 T canola oil
2 T maple syrup
½ t liquid lethicin
2 c spelt flour
1 c white bread flour
3 T whey
1-½ t sea salt
2 t yeast

As the loaf begins to knead, have a spatula, some lukewarm water, and some white bread flour on hand to adjust the dough as needed. It should pull away from the pan as it kneads, but it shouldn’t be lumpy.

Enjoy. We are.