Forum Holitorium

Category: Garden

The Summer of Unexpected Events

This summer has been marked by a number of unexpected events. A particularly momentous one was this week’s delivery of three monster zucchini that may have crossed with other squash in the vicinity: 7.25 kg / nearly 16 lbs. I sense that August’s menu will be green.

The Paul Robeson tomato plant I bought on a whim in April has produced exactly the same variety of tasty heirloom tomato that I normally buy at the market. I am not adept at matching name with appearance because most full grown tomatoes are not identified by variety at the market where I do my shopping. This surprise is a pleasant and tasty one.

There has been a severe drought in knitting this summer. The only project I have finished is a linen purse that matches everything and brings me joy whenever I look at its simple form. I wish I were skilled enough to put in a lining to help it keep its shape better. Maybe it’s not so bad after all – I am putting fewer things inside so as not to stretch it out, which is ultimately better for my shoulders!

If you had told me in May or June that this would be the summer that I finally started seriously reading poetry, I don’t think I would have believed you. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to devote more time to the lyric literary genre – this wish goes back to my teenage years. I just never seem to be able to break out of the mindset of prose and make time for poems.

There is a receipt in my copy of the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke dated May 30, 2009. It reminds me of what I had forgotten: I bought it at Libreria Minerva in Trieste, less than an hour away from Duino Castle where Rilke was inspired to write the ten elegies. How fitting. While walking along the cliffs above the Adriatic Sea, he heard a voice say what became the first line of the poem: Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Who, if I cried out, would hear me from the orders of angels? Ten years, one world war, and several bouts of depression later, Rilke finished the work in 1922.

There have been moments when I wanted to cry out in frustration at the challenge of moving back and forth between the literal meaning of the words and the images Rilke uses in the hope of coming up with an interpretation of the verse. Poetry is truly another mode of using language to describe the world that is radically different from everyday speech and prose. As I learn to read poetry, I am practicing another way of deciphering the world.

Rose Ausländer, another poet I am reading intensively this summer, wrote the poem below that features the following insect spotted in my flowering savory. I had thought this would be the summer of feasting on all the herbs growing on my patio, but I have rarely taken the time to pick anything but a few leaves of mint here and there to put on top of bowls of strawberries. At least the bees are happy.

May the unexpected events you encounter be pleasant ones!

Dienen II

Ich habe Flügel und

viele Gestalten


bin Biene und Mensch

suche Blumen und Worte


Ich diene meiner Königin

der zärtlichen raubstarken

im fleißigen Spiel


Ich kann liebkosen

und stechen




Service II

I have wings and

many guises


am bee and human

seek flowers and words


I serve my queen

tender strong as a robber

in a busy game


I can caress

and sting

dew fresh heavenly

creature of earth


Giving Words Away

My American history teacher in high school was one of my favorites. He was a small-framed Greek-American man who rode his bike to work every day (very odd in my hometown) and wore short sleeve button-down shirts and a bow tie. He taught us as if we were college students already and refused to set the bar lower. The history of our country was important and you were expected to learn it. I can still remember my two term paper topics. The first was the Chicago race riot of 1919. At the time, I was incredibly disappointed that I had been assigned that topic, but in retrospect I am happy because it taught me something about an important event that had happened close to home. The second topic I chose myself: the Peace Corps. I interviewed my high school principal, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, and my mother, who had served in Thailand. I remember my history teacher telling my class how important poetry is and that he always read poetry before he went to sleep at night. I have always been more of a prose person, but a part of me has always thought it would be good for me to devote more times to the lyric literary form.

Another of my favorite teachers in high school was my English composition teacher. One of his favorite quotes was by Kafka: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (…ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns.) This weekend I heard an axe of a poem by Rose Ausländer. Instead of violently chopping through the ice, it rapidly warmed up and melted something frozen within me. Here is the poem, first the original German and then my English translation.


Noch bist du da


Wirf deine Angst

in die Luft



ist deine Zeit um


wächst der Himmel

unter dem Gras

fallen deine Träume

ins Nirgends



duftet die Nelke

singt die Drossel

noch darfst du lieben

Worte verschenken

Noch bist du da


Sei was du bist

Gib was du hast


You are still here


Throw your fear

into the air


Soon your time will be up


the heavens will grow

under the grass

your dreams will fall

into nowhere



the carnation gives off its scent

the thrush is singing

You may still love

give words away

You are still here


Be who you are

Give what you have


The next step is to make more time for poetry, a type of writing I have always found challenging because it isn’t as linear and logical as prose. You can’t go directly from point A to point B; like an onion, you have to keep peeling away the layers to get at the meaning. You can’t gulp down poetry, you really have to savor it as it melts on your tongue like a piece of bitter dark chocolate. Since the pace is more relaxed, summer seems like a good time to get into the habit of reading poetry. This summer a friend and I are attempting to read through Rilke’s The Duino Elegies at a rate of one elegy per week. We are up to the third of ten elegies and I am confident we will finish by fall – unless I get too distracted by the two volumes of poetry by Rose Ausländer that I found at the public library.

Hope you find a good poem or give away some words of your own!

Zucchini Season is Open

To my surprise, the friend whose garden is hosting our two zucchini plants informed us that one zucchini was ready to be picked. Though I had already marveled at the variety of local vegetables and fruit already available at the farmer’s market last Saturday, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind that our plants might also have reached that point. We have planted very little this year, trying to use up our stockpile of seeds and limiting ourselves to what we eat the most. None of the carrots and only one of the radishes we planted from seed grew. Two bean plants survived a slug attack and are now finally working their way towards the sky. We bought two young zucchini plants at the annual plant market at the end of April, and there were three others going to town when we picked the first Cocozelle von Tripolis (Cucurbita peop var. garomontiina), an Italian heirloom variety. The striped fruit keeps with the color scheme of the week: greens of varying shades in a scarf I just completed. The lace pattern is called old shale, a Shetland pattern reminiscent of shells (shale = Shetland dialect pronunciation of the word shell).

There has been much going on lately with unexpected and troubling news arriving from many directions. In the end, all you can do is enjoy what you have and try to reduce suffering and share happiness. Beautiful sunny weather was undercut by a few dismal grey rainy days. Good for zucchini, but poor for our spirits. In the midst of one of the downpours, I spotted a bee on its back on the patio. Frantically waving its legs, it couldn’t get out of a pool of water. TC is an incorrigible insect rescuer. He brought it to a dry place next to the door and got it back on its feet. Unfortunately, when we checked back on it a few hours later, the bee had stopped moving. Even though it didn’t save the bee, I feel the gesture was important. We did what we could.

The cycle of life goes on. Our agapanthus is channeling its energy into a lone bud that will blossom in the near future, reminding us of Portugal and our honeymoon, which will soon be three years ago. I hope that buds are appearing all around you, ones that produce blossoms that are a balm to your eyes and bear delicious fruit that bring delight to your palate.


I am dreaming of the day that I have a house of my own, one where I can step outside into my yard and not be seen by my neighbors if I so choose, where I don’t have to repeatedly clean up plant material falling from the neighbor’s patio above onto my own, where the cell phone conversations of others do not rouse me from the delicious indulgence of an afternoon nap, and where the stink of perfume does not invade my bedroom when I want to open my window to start my day listening to the birds singing. Edible bushes of savory, raspberries, and blackberries will array the perimeter of this delicious space of my own, and a wind chime will hum in harmony with the wind. Someday.

The multiple strawberry plants in pots and the large planter are now yielding fruit. The Mara des Bois, a smaller French variety, is my favorite kind of strawberry, a concise burst of flavor. During my absence of nearly a month, the herbs and berries continued to grow. The only vegetable I am trying in pots this year is Swiss chard, and the three tiny plants I left in mid-May are now ready for larger pots of their own.

The second brood of tit birds (Parus major) nesting in the pine tree next door are growing too. We can hear their excited chatter each time mom or dad returns to the birdhouse with a juicy green caterpillar hanging from its beak. The first brood left the nest mid-May. Flying for the first time is tough, calling for good coordination as well as good navigation skills. One tit was baffled when it flew onto our patio, falling between the strawberries and the rue. After hopping around and chirping for help which never came, it managed to find its way to the bushes into which its siblings had already flown.

Besides listening to birds and watching the plants grow, I am reading the book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. Williams recounts the experience of watching her mother die of cancer and the waters of Great Salt Lake rise and flood a wildlife refuge dear to her over the same period of time. One question she asks herself in the book struck me to the quick: why do we distract and excuse ourselves from our own creativity? Why indeed? Why such a long season of silence with this blog? It is not from a lack of ideas or inspiration.

The needles keep flying, nonetheless, and I continue to gain ground on meeting the knitting goals for 2015 I made in a post earlier this year. Of the six sweaters I set out to knit, two are finished and one simply needs to be stitched together. Of the twelve pairs of socks, four are finished and a fifth is nearly half done. The Lake Michigan jacket below kept me warm along its shores over the past few weeks. Now it’s time to turn to projects of cotton and linen more suited to the burgeoning summer here in Graz.

Take refuge in your creativity and enjoy the company of considerate neighbors!

Why Go against the Grain?

TC’s latest loaf made my mouth water. The joy of anticipating the taste of the first slice of bread from a freshly baked loaf has been commonplace for the past 10,000 years since the the ancestors of the wheat and spelt in this loaf were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. I recently finished reading the book Am Anfang war das Korn (In the Beginning was the Grain) by geobotanist Hansjörg Küster. It tells the story of how the domestication of plants changed the course of human history. According to Küster, agriculture (a word that comes from Latin and means the cultivation of fields) is the central innovation of human history. The choice to cultivate certain plants with qualities we found desirable (including being able to be stored for longer periods of time) radically altered our whole way of life. Previously hunters and gatherers that moved around constantly in search of food, we decided to stay in one place and devote our efforts to tending a few special crops. Over time, we developed trade routes to obtain tasty things that didn’t grow where we lived. Our numbers grew with this stable source of food.

Since we need a combination of carbohydrates, fats, and protein to meet our nutritional needs, it should come as no surprise to learn that our ancestors in Southwest Asia who domesticated the founder crops, as they are called, chose plants that provide these three fundamental macronutrients: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, and barley for carbohydrates; lentils, peas, and chickpeas for protein; flax for oil. With time, other plants joined the roster, diversifying our food portfolio: fruit-bearing trees such as olive, fig, and walnut; poppy seed, which was used not only as a spice but also for oil; grapes for wine. The list goes on and on, and at some point I stopped taking notes and realized that when this book comes out in paperback, I want to buy a copy to have as a reference because there is so much in it worth knowing. It boggles my mind how many people today demonize grains because they are full of carbohydrates (which we need to live). Knowing the history of our relationship to grains, it seems a bit uncivilized, this rejection.

Despite being a staunch supporter of a grain-based diet, I am not growing any on my balcony, which is full of herbs, fruit, flowers, and vegetables. All the perennials are thriving with the warm spring temperatures. As it is wont to do, the savory above has just exploded, and I am happy to see that the sage I transplanted into the big planter feels good in its new spot. My camomile, thyme, lemon verbena, lemon balm, mallow, mint, and rue are all doing well. It looks like the parsley seeds I sowed a few weeks back have started to germinate. The only loss has been my marjoram – and that was a case of neglect on my part, I’m sad to say.

As for our garden, the strategy this year is to make one big bed (2 by 6 meters), enclose it with a slug fence, divide it into three sections, take good care of that, and not feel guilty about what happens outside that fence. The big bed is nearly ready to go, and after a round of weeding I started planting orach or mountain spinach (Atriplex hortensis) and kale in the two sections that have already been cleared. Outside the garden gate was a box with free sage plants, so I took one and planted it outside the bed in a spot that gets lots of sun. TC has already planted a bunch of Jerusalem artichokes along the edge of the raspberry bushes. If you plant by the moon or are a biodynamic gardener, this week is a good time to sow seeds as the moon is waxing. We hope to get peas, radishes, carrots, beets, red onions, and turnips in the ground soon. It’s also time to start zucchini and squash inside. After all that work, I can hardly wait to taste the first ripe strawberry of the year. I have never seen as many blossoms on the strawberry plants as there are this year.

I hope your gardening plans for 2014 are coming along. Enjoy the longer days and savor the grain of your choice!

Da leid ich’s net länger zu Haus

What a better way to welcome the spring than with chives and Georg Kreisler? As the title of this entry states, I can’t stand staying at home any longer. It is so beautiful outside, and I have been taking many walks, listening to the birds warble with joy. TC and I are keeping our fingers crossed that there will soon be new neighbors in the birdhouse hung up on a nearby pine tree – safely out of reach of the neighborhood cats, of course. I have seen a few birds peeking in and checking it out, but there are no takers yet.

With all the warm weather and direct sunlight, the chives have shot up over the past week. I gave this plant a haircut, sprinkling its allium tresses on my walnut pasta lunch. Yum. I have been doing a lot of research on nutrition lately. There are so many do’s and don’ts, but one recommendation seemed pretty undogmatic and sensible: eat something green at lunch and dinner. That was easy to do yesterday, with chives for lunch and brussels sprouts with mâche salad for dinner.

Enjoy whatever green passes your way – and happy spring!

Harvesttide, or Saved by the Squash

Next Nachwuchs

Thursday was the Harvest Moon, the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox, a time when before the advent of electricity farmers took advantage of the light to keep on working in their fields. Saturday was the harvest festival party at the local farm that keeps us supplied with kale, melon, and other vegetable goodies. We followed a path of quotes laid out between the rows of vegetables, enjoying the view of the heart-shaped leaves of green manure buckwheat and of the bleating Krainer Steinschafe, a heritage breed of sheep. Then Sunday, the first day of fall, we cooked and ate our own harvest:

Butternut portrait
This is as local as it gets, from balcony to plate. Yes, I recently discovered a butternut squash growing between the wooden bench and the railing. This was my pet project of the gardening year: growing squash in containers. I had spent most of the summer fretting over our two squash plants. One was flourishing in its large IKEA-style plastic bag accommodation, while the other in the large concrete planter looked tired, faded, wilted, unable to summon up the necessary energy to blossom. Since it takes two squash to tango, I had given up hope of anything beyond beautiful blossoms on one plant. With the change in weather from incredibly hot and dry to cooler and rainy, fortune’s wheel turned, and blossoms started to appear on the plant in the concrete planter. It started to catch up to its companion. And then during a balcony clean-up action a little over a week ago, I discovered this:


Squash Pockets

For the crust:

200 g spelt flour

100 g chickpea flour

1 tsp salt

50 ml olive oil

125 ml cold water

Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the olive oil and incorporate into the dough. Add the water and stir/knead until you have a smooth dough. Let it rest in a covered bowl for at least 30 minutes.

For the filling:

Olive oil

1 onion, diced

One half of a butternut squash, grated

1 tsp cumin seeds

Freshly ground black pepper

Cayenne pepper

Sheep’s cheese, goat cheese, feta, ricotta (whatever kind and amount you prefer)

Sauté the onion in olive oil. Add the squash and cook until it is tender. Add the cumin, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Remove from heat and add the cheese.

Separate the dough into six pieces. Roll each out into an oval. Place one sixth of the filling on half of the oval, leaving a space as wide as your thumb between the edge and the filling. With a wet finger, moisten this space (in theory this will help the two halves of the dough stick together and avoid filling spilling out and creating a mess on your baking sheet). Fold the other half of the oval over the filling. Roll up the sides and press down on them with a fork to seal the two halves of the dough together. With the fork tines, prick the top of the pocket a few times to make an escape route for steam.

Bake at 200°C for 20 minutes or until golden. Serve with the chutney of your choosing (we dug out a tiny jar medlar chutney left over from last year’s harvest) or a mixture of sour cream or yogurt and chives or another fresh herb.


There are many things that I am thankful for this harvesttide, but it’s the squash that best symbolizes the irrepressible life force that moves forward and flourishes given the opportunity. There are at least three more small squash growing on the two plants now. Even if it cools down before they fully mature, I’m content. What have you harvested this year that is worthy of celebration?


May Flowers

Sleepy rock rose

A surprise was waiting for me this morning when I went outside to greet the plants and sunshine on my balcony. A sleepy rock rose had catapulted herself into the light, leaving bud-dom behind and taking her place among the flowers. Good morning! Welcome! The pollen-dusted leaves had started emitting an aroma that I’m still undecided about, a little too peppy floral for my taste, but that vibrant pink has won me over. There are more buds waiting in the wings.

strawberry chives

There’s quite a lot happening on the balcony – as in my life, which is why there has been over a month of silence. The chives are also in bloom, their subtle lithe lilac blossoms offering a contrast to the explosion of color above. It’s going to be a good year for strawberries – lots are forming, and there are even some Rügen that are starting to go red.

Reddening Rügen

In the next week I anticipate I’ll discover what color sage flowers are: despite the cramped quarters, my toddler sage is reaching up towards the sky in a manner I’ve never seen before. Does she feel growing pains?


The last flowers to share are Roman chamomile. In the planter to the left is borage with its sidekick, New Zealand spinach.


The Forum Holitorium has been silent but not inactive – more adventures and recipes are to come. I hope your gardens and flower boxes and pots of herbs are flourishing and your meals are nourishing, wherever you may be.

Plan Beta

I have a confession to make: I have temporarily abandoned the garden. I feel incredibly guilty, especially when TC tells me that the rue wants to know where I’ve been. Things are growing; TC has brought back offerings of tomatoes, raspberries, and apples. There are still 4 fennel bulbs to eat, the leeks are coming along, the mint is begging to be picked and dried. But I feel overwhelmed whenever I think of the garden, a place where I no longer feel safe.

To explain: first, the loss of our peaches. They were nearly ripe the last time I was there, probably ten days ago, and we looked forward to savoring them in a way we couldn’t last year because we left on vacation precisely when the peaches became ripe. TC came back from the garden last Friday and said they had vanished. Nary a trace to be found underneath. Someone had taken them. He presented me with the 10 remaining. We should have had at least seven times that amount. A neighbor’s tree had also been picked clean.

This was just the latest in a series of attacks on our fruit. We lost most of our raspberries this year because the head of the garden association mistakenly told one of our neighbors that our red raspberry bushes belonged to his plot. One day we found to our astonishment that he had cut them all down. Thankfully they are a wild and ragged bunch that have since grown back, but there went the first raspberry harvest. In March we found out that our walnut tree was slated to be cut down because our neighbors (on the side opposite the raspberry bushes) didn’t want it there. It was mistakenly identified as being on their plot. Over the course of a nerve-wracking afternoon, we managed to save our tree.

Though I love the idea of growing my own and the act of tending the garden, I am retreating. What might happen next? I don’t feel able to protect the plants up there. They are too far away. Perhaps my expectations are too high for the garden, or maybe I have spread myself too thin. For now, TC is caring for them, which he enjoys doing. As for me, I have started lavishing the balcony plants with attention, to which they are responding in kind. I am reimagining the layout of the balcony and want to set up a new planter that will replace many of the motley crew of small pots that we regularly trip over.

Even though we buy most of our vegetables at the market, I had hoped that we would have enough growing in the garden to stop buying veggies for the month of August. No way. Unrealistic. A shattered dream. The silver lining is once I admitted this to myself, I felt OK with the idea of buying food from a kind of modified CSA. The Gemüsewerkstatt (hereafter Vegetable Workshop) allows you to order food online by Wednesday at noon and pick it up Friday afternoon. Everything is organic and produced roughly within an hour’s drive from my home. You select what you want à l carte, which means I won’t have to process green cabbage, celery root, or green beans, three examples of veggies currently in season that I don’t enjoy eating. Besides fruits and veggies, they also offer cow’s milk products, eggs, cereals, vinegars, oils – just about everything we buy that is produced locally except sheep and goat milk products. After our favorite sheep and goat farmer disappears for the winter in late October, this will also save us a trip into town Saturday morning, when we normally go to the market for our once-a-week shopping run. Besides the potential for saving fuel, buying groceries this way also means we don’t have to leave home when it’s cold outside.

Last week was our trial run of the Vegetable Workshop. A hands down success! Part of our first order were two huge beets. Like cabbage, beets were initially a leafy green plant growing wild by the sea (this ancestor, the sea beet or Beta vulgaris. var. maritimais still up to the same tricks today). Chard came about from the domestication of the sea beet and is still a leafy vegetable, but at some point beets parted company with chard and were selected for their sweet roots. It was the Romans who brought the cultivated beta north of the Alps, but the Celts and Germanic peoples were more interested in their turnips. Beets are thought to purify the blood and aid the liver. Containing betalain, an antioxidant, they are an excellent source of folic acid.

Betalicious Betalain Pie

This recipe is my modification of a recipe at the Vegetable Workshop website.

700 g / 1 1/2 lb. cooked beets, cubed or diced

2 shallots, minced

1 Tbs olive oil

4 eggs, beaten

200 g sour cream

100 ml / 1/2 cup water

100 g / 3 1/2 ounces semolina

nutmeg, salt, pepper to taste

Sauté the shallots in the olive oil until brown. Add the beets and sauté for 5-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the eggs, sour cream, and water together. Add the semolina. Season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

Spread the shallot and beet mixture across the pie. Pour the egg and semolina batter over it.

Bake 30 minutes at 180° C/350° F.

Serve with a yogurt-chive dip. Simply add chopped chives to the yogurt.

So, dear reader, how do you enjoy preparing and eating beets?

June Blooms Mostly Yellow and White

The calendula seed had hid herself well. The gardener had no idea that she was so hardy, had such endurance. Last year she did not sprout and grow but lay in wait as the other plants reach toward the heavens. Gathering her strength, she let others hog the limelight, waiting patiently for her time in the sun.

We’re enjoying the direct sunlight and soundtrack of birds as best we can because our days of freedom are numbered. Soon enough we’ll be dried on a rack in the warm oven then deposited in a glass jar in the dark pantry. Some dreary winter day, we’ll be scalded by boiling water and our essence will leach out. But what can you do? Such is the lot of chamomile.

Such juicy, tender chili blossoms. This is a great place for an aphid to be fruitful and multiply. Oh no, here comes a finger! The party’s over…

Ground cherries galore, ground cherries galore, we want more, we want more!

Yellow will give way to a green that brightens to orange then cherry Roma red.

Ruta, my rue: this is the first time you’ve bloomed!

Not everything blooms yellow and white, but my timing was poor and I missed capturing the dramatic red of the poppies.

Enjoy the ephemeral in the green near you!