Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday of the year. For most of my adult life I have spent the day with close friends, playing Yahtzee in front of a roaring fire in my living room, sipping good wine listening to good music (Neil Young’s Harvest for starters), cooking (I’m quite fond of Ina Garten’s Sagaponack Corn Pudding and Mehta Given’s Pumpkin Pie) and taking my good dogs on an extra long, brisk walk. I’ve been saving a case of wine (half 2014 Celebrate Muller-Thurgau and half 2012 Pinot Noir Estate from Kramer Vineyards in Gaston, Oregon) just for this occasion. I did most of my shopping over the weekend, but I still need to pick up an 18-pound fresh turkey and bread from the bakery for dressing. I noticed this morning that there’s still fresh oregano and thyme and parsley spilling from the windowboxes that line my drive. Of all of the qualities of Thanksgiving, the power to draw people together is among its most sustaining. Whether friends sharing a meal or scattered relatives gathering together, here’s to Thanksgiving and its lasting message of peace and togetherness.

Could not let today pass without celebrating my good dog Scout’s 16th birthday. She has been by my side, through thick and thin, for longer than I could have ever hoped. And she’s the best friend I’ve ever had in my life. She is a registered rough-coated Jack Russell Terrier (from Medford, New Jersey). A few facts about Scout: She LOVES water. She jumped into the frigid Atlantic at four months old and she has even jumped off a boat into the Hudson River. Once, when I took her in the car with me to the grocery store, she got out of the car (the shoulder strap had kept the door from shutting securely), made her way through the busy parking lot, through two sets of automatic doors, and walked up and down the aisles of the store until she—tail wagging—found me. Scout turned 11 on 11/11/11. She used to love to chase rocks. Not just any rocks. She would meticulously find just the right rock from our next-door-neighbor’s driveway and bring it to me, excited for me to throw it right back into the driveway, where she would search and smell until she found the exact same rock. This would repeat itself endlessly. Sometimes she brought her favorite rocks into the house. I still have her collection of rocks. She has kissed many famous folks, including Ricki Lake, Kyle MacLachlan, Sandra Bernhard, and Isaac Mizrahi. Once on a flight to St. Louis, she escaped her carrier and had to sit in my lap (in first class!) for the rest of the flight. We were seated across from Bob Costas, and at one point, he asked me if he could hold her for a while. She loves most things that begin with the letter “p”: pepperoni, potato chips, peas, pretzels, peanuts, pistachios, you get the idea. When she could hear better, Noras Jones’ song “Don’t Know Why” would make Scout howl. And, yes, she was named in honor of the famous tomboy in To Kill a Mockingbird (and my other terrier is appropriately named Finch). So this evening, we’ll take an extra-long walk. Then she’ll be having fresh rotisserie chicken and roasted sweet potatoes for supper. And I’ll let her give me one more stinky kiss before we go to bed.

Here in central Iowa we’ve had an especially long and luxurious autumn. It’s Election Day (have you been practicing saying Madam President Clinton?) and there are still plenty of colorful leaves on the trees that haven’t yet fallen. While walking my good dogs Scout and Finch yesterday, I started picking up colorful leaves that caught my eye and by the time I made it home I’d accumulated a kaleidoscopic collection. Here’s what I found, including sugar maple, redbud, hickory, tulip, viburnum (trilobum and nudum), Japanese maple, spirea, ginkgo, and white oak. My very own fireworks celebration!

Drove with my good dog Finch to St. Louis last weekend to visit my family and to explore one of my favorite museums, the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, which is spitting distance from my folks’ house and is located in the historic 1853 Greek Revival Jarville House in Queeny Park (named after Edgar Monsanto Queeny, who, in 1928 became the president of the Monsanto Company and in 1931 moved with his wife into the Jarville House). The inception of the museum was a meeting held in 1971 by members of the Westminster Kennel Club with the intention to “improve the life of the dog through humane education, to gather and add knowledge on the care and history of the dog, and to develop and support a museum of art and books focusing on the dog.” The Museum’s first home was AKC Headquarters in the New York Life Building on Madison Avenue in New York City. By 1985, the Museum had enough acquisitions that it had outgrown its space and moved into the Jarville House in 1987. Of course, I took Finch with me to the Museum (dogs are always welcome) to indulge my love of all things dog.

Here’s me and Finch with a sculpture of an English Setter by Walter T. Matia.

One of the many spectacular oil paintings: Paying the Bills by Horatio H. Couldery (1832–1893).

Besides oil painting and porcelains, the Museums also displays needlework.

And what, you may ask, is planted around the Dog Museum? Dogwoods!


From ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ and ‘Red Savina’ to ‘Elephant’s Trunk and ‘The Turtle’s Claw’, chile peppers come in dozens of shapes, colors, and degrees of spiciness—from sweet and succulent to blow-your-top off hot. A colleague here at work mistakenly planted a few ‘Scotch Bonnet’ peppers this spring and found the ‘Scotch Bonnet’s 445,000 Scoville Heat Units beyond their capabilities. So I asked her to pass the peppers along to me and I’ve been having a blast preserving their heat for warm winter dishes. One batch I dehydrated and then ground up in a spice grinder—the red-hot powder looks so pretty and innocent in its spice jar. Another batch I pickled whole, following a recipe shared with my by my friend Hali Ramdene, Food Editor of The Kitchn. I first poked a hole through each of the peppers with a skewer, then in a pint jar I added 1 clove of garlic, ½ teaspoon of black peppercorns before packing the jar with the peppers. Next, I brought to a boil 1 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of sugar, then poured the brine over the peppers, filling the jar almost to the top. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for a few months. I’ll keep you posted on how I put the peppers to work. In the meantime, here are three new books you should check out if you are at all chile pepper inclined (please note the various spellings of chile):

101 Chilies to Try Before You Die (Firefly Books) by David Floyd is an all-in-one guide to the tastiest, most unique and interesting chili varieties from around the world and is the essential guide for lovers of chilies and those looking to learn more about these ancient and widely consumed vegetables.

Red Hot Chili Grower: The Complete Guide to Planting, Picking, and Preserving Chilis (Mitchell Beazley) by Kay Maguire provides everything you need to grow your own chiles from scratch, with step-by-step instructions for planting, growing, harvesting—plus plenty of history, a guide to Scoville heat units, and more.

The Chile Pepper Bible: From Sweet to Fiery and Everything In Between (Robert Rose) by Judith Finlayson is quite comprehensive, including profiles of dozens of chiles, absorbing information on the historical and geographic origins of chiles, the health benefits of chiles and—finally—250 delicious and inventive recipes.

My 11-year-old friend and neighbor Leo likes learning about birds as much as I do. Sometimes his enthusiasm is greater than my armchair knowledge of our local feathered friends. So last weekend we set off together on a field trip to the Hitchcock Nature Area (in the heart of the Loess Hills) near Council Bluffs, Iowa, with a great group called Iowa Young Birders run by an enthusiastic young ornithologist named Tyler Harms.

It was a beautiful fall morning and 24 young birders, parents, grandparents, and friends enjoyed spending time in the hawk watch tower and raptor banding blind. “Some of us started the morning with Bethany Thornton in the hawk watch tower,” explains Tyler. “Bethany shared with us the importance of counting migrating raptors and some tips for identifying raptors in flight. The birds were slow to get started, but we soon spotted a distant Great Blue Heron, some Turkey Vultures starting to lift off, and an occasional Osprey riding the winds with their “m-shaped” wings. In between bouts of scanning the horizon, we were able to pick out some good birds in the trees below including a Wilson’s Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and we even heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Several other birds spotted included Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, and Broad-winged Hawks, a Peregrine Falcon, and even an adult Sabine’s Gull!”

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