what happened next…

The cat nursing set-up.


If you find descriptions of surgery and treatments upsetting, please read no further. I am not graphic in the story that follows, but there is some general detail some readers might find disturbing. The bottom line is that the little Jasper cat is recovering with us and doing well.

We wrote in to our regular vet’s email over the weekend, telling her that we were sufficiently concerned about Jasper that we had called the emergency clinics. However the emergency staff were so overwhelmed that they told me unless the case was life-threatening we shouldn’t bring in the cat. Given this, we emailed our own vet that we would be bringing in Jasper on Monday morning with the plan of leaving him there until our vet could see him. This is an arrangement our vet offers and we are very grateful for it!

What had us so worried? Jasper was seriously limping since his kicking the screen sliding door off its tracks into the yard, and the limb while not odd-looking in any way, clearly would not bear weight without causing him considerable pain. I palpated his paws– all had the same cool temperature and this action did not seem to cause him any pain when he was lying down, so it might not be time to panic—still, we felt the limb was impaired. More important, the young beast wasn’t eating or drinking. On Sunday I gave Jasper some water by mouth using a plastic syringe given to me years ago by the doctor for this purpose when we had an ailing cat. This was popular with none of us!

We had managed by tempting him with treats to get him to eat a few mouthfuls now and again, but while normally a cat obtains enough water from consuming any ‘wet’ food, be it raw or from a can, when cats aren’t eating, dehydration can follow. They are not meant to fast for long. If any of you have tried to keep a cat hydrated by mouth, it’s daunting because an adult needs over 100 ml (or cc) of water in a twenty-four hour period. You can only administer about five ml or less at a time, because you don’t want to risk them inhaling the water. So this is a taxing job. I think I managed to give him about seventy ml during Sunday. This probably was enough to make do, since he did eat a scant amount of wet food that day.

How did I persuade a cat to eat? By finding an exotic and tempting canned kitten food, and dipping my finger in it for him to lick off. I think my finger warmed the food and made it smell more interesting, and I would lightly bump his muzzle with it so he had to lick his chops to clean his face and thus he would get a taste of the delights in store. There is also an appetite enhancer called Fortiflora, and I mixed some of this into the canned kitten food to up the ante.

I’m giving you this much detail because I hope it may be of use to any of you cat people who may face a similar circumstance. But remember I am no professional, I only report what worked on our own particular cat, and hope it may give you your own ideas that may work for yours.

On Monday some hours after we’d dropped Jasper off at the vet’s, our vet called us and said she’d x-rayed the limb and Jasper had broken the growth plate off the head of his femur. If left untreated his pain would become a chronic state that would not only make him suffer but lead to arthritis and the kind of pain that destroys a cat’s ability to socialize with people or other cats.

 To my wonderment she explained that this was actually not an uncommon accident for a young neutered male cat. The solution most commonly applied, is surgery to remove the broken cap and ball of the femur and the short neck behind the head of the femur as well. Then you close up the incision and let the cat heal. This removes the grinding bone pain.

You look at me in horror, wondering how can the cat get on, missing part of a major bone and its nesting joint. Well, it’s fascinating. Apparently the body sets to work infilling the missing bone with what I imagine is a cartilaginous tissue that makes a false joint to carry the remaining shortened femur. The mighty gluteal muscles hold everything in place. After the first two weeks of no running or jumping and holding the cat confined in a crate, the vet surgeon gives you exercises to do with your cat to build up the necessary area. Why not continue leaving it alone? Because Nature mends what is needed, and bed rest tells Nature that there’s no need for swift healing. Works for people in recovery too—physical therapy can be uncomfortable, exhausting, but it informs the body that these parts must work, that they are necessary to life. Also, left unchallenged, unworked, the cat body’s infilling material can set too tight, resulting in a restricted range of motion. Recovery will not be as successful and there may be future arthritic issues that will cause chronic pain. So in about three weeks you may imagine us dancing with our Jasper by holding up his forepaws and encouraging him to step about slowly. He’s a very people-oriented animal so I have hopes we will do well enough.

We do hip replacements in humans, so you may wonder why we bother. Why not just remove the head of the femur when Grandfather breaks his hip? Unfortunately for us, the process I just roughly described for the cat doesn’t work in us humans. Apparently before hip replacement was devised for humans, surgeons did indeed remove the ball and neck of the femur, hoping to rid the patient of the bone-on-bone grinding pain, and left nature to infill. But we are bipedal, not quadrupedal, and the stresses of our structure made healing always go awry. (There were many World War I veterans who remained crippled and with chronic pain for life because of this. Apparently it is simply not possible to create a good false joint in a bipedal creature.)

The next question is of course, why didn’t we do a hip replacement for Jasper? First of all it is notably expensive. Second, the nearest surgical center we would have had to reach is a good distance away, and would have meant a considerable delay in treatment. Third, a hip replacement does mean a more challenging and risky surgery, with increased chances of complications. All in all, we didn’t believe it was the right choice—our Jasper had already had to wait long enough. But here’s where we had superb luck. The surgeon our vet recommended had an opening Tuesday for the consult, and a surgery spot for Jasper on Thursday.

 The surgery was out of town, (about an hour away from our home when traffic is good,) and we took Jasper down for the consult. Liked the surgeon and his team when we met them, had a clear and reassuring discussion, and we took Jasper down on Thursday in the dark of dawn and brought him back home Friday. All reports say that despite his feral origins he was an excellent gentleman cat about the proceedings.

I am hoping, as I said, to share some small bits of useful information with other cat owners who may be reading this. For Jasper’s first two weeks of recovery we set up two dog crates zip-tied together with the door between tied open and the fourth side of the smaller crate left flat to its floor. This we covered with a thick bath mat, not too fluffy but soft and comforting. The picture at the beginning of this post shows what I mean. For the catbox, we put one in the far end of the larger crate. To make this catbox we took the bottom of an old deep catbox and cut a smooth curve that would allow him to enter the box without effort or catching his Elizabethan collar (it’s huge, but must be in order to keep him from licking his incision.) So the catbox on its in-facing side is no more than an inch high as you can see in the photo below. I recommend Feline Pine or pelleted horse bedding for the litter. We made the mistake of starting out with a clumping litter and of course the poor Jasper stepped with each foot in his water bowl, dragged his tail through the bowl, and then got clumping litter setting up like concrete in his toes and fur. That has led to a long slow grooming of our little cat that I suspect has been good for his healing, because it gently encouraged circulation and makes him feel tended, since he can’t do any licking of his fur with his head in that Elizabethan cone.

Last bit of practical information for fellow cat carers. If you have an NSAID to be given to your cat, it usually necessitates that the cat eat, so the stomach isn’t damaged by this anti-inflammatory. If your cat has no appetite, try giving his anti-anxiety pills or Gabapentin prescribed by the vet surgeon, then wait about forty minutes. (I’m sorry if you have to force the pills down his throat—I certainly had to do so in the beginning with Jasper.) With Jasper his appetite woke once the Gabapentin and Tramadol took some effect, and after waiting those forty minutes I was able to feed him several tablespoons of kitten food before giving him the NSAID anti-inflammatory.

My last piece of information—the patient is doing well, I believe. His ears are generally cool, his nose wet and cool, he purrs in greeting and also while you gently wipe him down with a lightly moistened paper towel followed by a dry one (trying to mimic mother cat tongue.) He is finally showing a decent appetite.

Onwards we go! But I’ll tell you what I told the vet surgeon.

No more karate lessons for our cats.



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Four Cats is sometimes…

Watson, Jynx and Hopkins

Last night seemed pretty quiet until I decided we were so overdue to play with the cats that I really had to step up. So I did and brought out one of those wand toys you can purchase on-line. A nice fishing rod type with a tuft of feathers and bell dangling from a fishing line. Well, everyone was disporting themselves in a grand fashion with cats spinning in the air and running and jumping, when suddenly our gigantic Hopkins caught the toy. But he didn’t just catch the toy– it caught him. The entire thing ripped from my hands and followed him, feathery belled bit attached to his paw, the fishing line following, and the rod after.

I cornered Hopkins in the old bedroom and scruffed him to hold him still, because clearly the toy was firmly fastened to him in some manner I could not parse. I knew it could be dangerous if he kept running with the line and rod following him to cause further terror. He is a big boy, you know, over fifteen pounds of lithe and extremely healthy cat. 

Husband came to help and shut us into the bedroom, (step one,) cut off the line to the rod, (step two,) then got a big fluffy towel to wrap Hopkins in, (step three.) Hopkins was very upset and growled at us, but I kept him scruffed. I knew husband didn’t have the close vision/focus to see what part of the toy was caught, and how it was fastened to the paw, and I knew my angle was all wrong, so I didn’t dare let go of the big beast. I sat down with Hopkins struggling in my lap and told him to calm down and praised and petted him while scruffing him and holding him firmly in his towel (with the one paw sticking out,) until he did. Bless him, he settled.

Jynx and Jasper

In the meantime the little black ferals, Jynx and Jasper, were ricocheting. Flinging themselves from corner to corner of the room in a frenzy. Leaping and bounding off the walls as though the gravity had been turned off in parts of the room! Peeing in panic! Pee spattering in the air and on the floor! Bottlebrush tails! Growls! Yowls! Jasper hit the full size screen sliding door and kicked it right from its tracks out into the yard, but fortunately husband instantly slid the glass door closed so we didn’t lose any cats outdoors in the dark.

“Call Jim!” I said to husband. (Jim is our next door neighbor and a good cat person.) He did, and Jim showed up in a jiffy. Husband wrangled the ferals out of the room at the cost of some blood. He had to catch and grab Jasper to remove him. Jasper was sirening and leaping, so that was less than ideal.

“Never saw cats do that before,” said Jim, watching a cat zing past his face.

 Jim’s near vision could see the exact problem with the toy, and he got this little snap fastener part of the feather and bell arrangement loose from the inter-web of Hopkins’ paw while I held our gigantic cat still. 

Just like that. 


It felt like magic.

Hopkins growled at Jim and hissed, but nothing more– maybe my firm mother cat grip on his nape was important here too. We thanked Jim profoundly, and he went off home to bed, while we talked to our cats, and soothed them. The fourth cat, Watson, sauntered up belatedly to check if there were any treats involved in our conversations.

Hopkins, relaxed.

 But our little black feral Jasper was not willing to have dinner, and limps on his right rear paw. He can move about, but is definitely unhappy, and while he will let me handle the paw and leg, he has a sprained or pulled muscle, I believe. All four of his paws have fairly identical cool normal pads, and he doesn’t seem to mind my firm touch even on the leg he’s limping with, so I think it’s a weight bearing question. Husband worries that he grabbed Jasper’s leg too hard, though there wasn’t much choice– I was literally ducking my head as the little black guys bounced off the walls while I was holding Hopkins still. I myself wonder if Jasper strained a muscle kicking that screen door out into the night. Later in the evening though, Jasper did join us on the bed and purred to be stroked and petted.

This morning we talked with the vet and our Jasper has had his morning meal, is on a dose of Gabapentin to deal with trauma and pain, and we will observe him for a couple of days to see if he improves promptly.

Sometimes four cats is a circus.


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A new painting

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June 13, 2022 · 4:37 pm

A bit of education (part two)

(continued from last week)

I won’t march you through all the other episodes and disappointments elementary school brought. I will say that I had always been a believer in public schools and the importance of the company of peers, so we went on, year after year, trying to see a better outcome. Yet by fifth grade I had to admit the circumstances of this form of learning had come perilously close to closing down our kid’s curiosity and wish to learn. Perilously close also, to losing me my patience, my sympathy with over-burdened teachers facing bulging classrooms and too many conflicting directives.

I had concerns also with the bullying environment at the school, where most bullying passed under the radar.  Some teachers stepped up to the responsibility of being in loco parentis, but I remember one nice young teacher explaining earnestly that he wasn’t comfortable imposing his personal ethics on other people’s children. That declaration left me speechless. As the adult in the room, who would share his or her ethics if he, the adult, refused? Children don’t wait to ask their parents at home before they learn what works on the grounds of the school.

In response I went back to the distance learning program, Calvert, that my family had used when in Nigeria and no school available within commuting distance. I called Calvert, we went through the standardized test required for admission, and discovered that compared to national standards, the kid was over three years behind in mathematics, and one and a half years ahead in reading and writing skills.

Thus,  we engaged in part-time home-school using the Calvert School materials.  Part-time because as an only child I figured she still needed the company of other children. Further, most school districts allow this if the child attends the standard classroom a certain number of hours each day.

I kept thinking, asking myself– we are by ancient inheritance hunter-gatherers. Is that an inheritance we might tap?

I believe engaging with Calvert helped. But it wasn’t enough. We finally turned away from the local public schools to finding a middle school that allowed adventures, in fact required them, and that was a turning point for us all. I will never claim it was easy, but it was definitely wonderful. Literally, full of wonder. A private school, worth every penny because it opened back up the idea of joy in learning. What our kid got was the company of engaged caring adults on her hero’s journey to become an independent world-oriented human being.

So I asked the question above about using our inheritance, and maybe I answered part of it, that human engagement is necessary to the person we want to become. Wherever we find it– behind the school sneaking some vaping time with friends, or bicycling up a mountain road that feels impossible, with your aunt ahead looking like she doesn’t know what it is to sweat, and your sandwich toasting in your backpack.

We learn, and one of the things we must learn if we are to keep on learning and gaining skills, is that at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if the book is at your reading level if you can understand what it says. We learn that learning is for ourselves, not so we can check a box and be done with it.  And what are the ‘its’ that matter at the end? Only we define them. Especially when we do things that are not in our easy reach, not in our wheelhouse, not at our reading level.

I know a woman who took third year college French language without any preparation, not even a high school course. At midterm she had a hard-won ‘D’, and after that her grade scraped upwards until her professor called her into the office.

            “I don’t know what’s been wrong with you,” he said, not knowing the paucity of her background, and you can bet she didn’t let out a squeak lest he pitch her out on her ear, “but your improvement is admirable. Let’s say I throw out all your previous grades and you can have whatever grade you get on my final.”

            Yes, she aced it.

            She had a place in the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, some decades ago. A school with the cap off, literally, in terms of credit limits. A graduate school for undergraduates, where it’s likely to have your original research published or presented in a professional journal before you graduate. It might sound narrow, but it’s powered by a kind of thinking and wanting that breaks boxes.  For example, CCS had a student who graduated having fulfilled all the requirements for three disparate majors. He finished in four years like all the others, though by his own admission–“It was a little crazy. I guess I should have taken another quarter.”

            What’s the common thread to find an education? Be hungry for what interests you. Master the skills you will need to possess it all. Feed the courage that faces the chance to fail, a will to try the difficult. Seek opportunity and hard sweaty work. Find people who care to help you. No boxes. Just like real life.

            Now I need to catch up….


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A bit of education (part one)

I know I have written on this subject before, but I am going to say a bit more, perhaps add more specifics, so I think it’s worth the exercise, or at least I hope so.

My supposedly mainstream child barely fit into school. Think of a box of expectations, then think of cutting pieces off, bending bits to stuff them in. She arrived at the kindergarten door asking “Can you teach me how internal combustion engines work?” A totally obnoxious question, I know, and I promise you, that having been a teacher myself, I did not coach her to say that.

Instead, the teachers taught her to color inside the lines of some really poorly drawn pictures with huge coarse areas to cover. The idea was to have even color spread all over every section. As an artist I can give an opinion here that these designs were not going to be better for even color. To assume a kid doesn’t care what a product looks like is a huge mistake. To bestow a bad grade on the project when the kid tries to re-draw the objects is not encouraging of better effort. Whatever better may be.

This classroom introduced the kid to the stop watch. The notion was to teach the kids numbers, and how to do simple addition and subtraction equations, fifty of them, in under sixty seconds. Not once a day, but repeatedly. Then they sent home a sheaf of these as assignments, mixed in with more coloring assignments to sweeten the task with more tasks. Tedium rarely helps any learning process that I have witnessed.

The classroom also taught the alphabet and phonics. Phonics are a super construct that works brilliantly, I think, for most kids. But there are forms of dyslexia that make phonics impossible. Our kid turned out to have one of these, she was willing, but unable. Did they have an alternative method? No, the school said she was a poor student, suggested better discipline, less TV (which she didn’t watch anyway,) and more homework, so her aunt and I taught her reading at home, and the kid did what I had done in my own young years– memorized the spellings.

When she received for the school the highest score in her second-grade standardized test for spelling, the front office at the school accused her of cheating. Fortunately this made her second-grade teacher laugh instead of following up on the scandal, so all was well, but I felt the sting of being beholden to one person’s opinion to get us out of trouble. After all, we expected our kid to go quite a few grades further than second grade, so why cheat? How would you cheat? What good would it have done her?

Beginning in early second grade I ran a homework group for a disparate group of six kids (actually the number varied up to eight) from the same grade, ranging from academic overachievers to learning-disabled and ESL. It helped socialize all of us, but this also let me see a range of experience with struggles and successes.

At the end of our days in elementary school, I felt that the school system failed nearly all the children around my table, no matter their gifts, by making work punishment instead of joy. Everything became about rushing to check a box. Hurrying to get it over with.

For example, reading…starting in second grade we had to report weekly on reading at home. Trying to quantify every book read into a daily number count of pages — that too, became a penalty rather than a pleasure. For a kid who read several books a night but was so literal about honesty she had to record every page for this report, it felt punitive. Some of the other kids around my table simply made up page counts and titles. The teachers were too over-burdened to check. I could look disappointed at them and try to gently object when the kids confessed and giggled about it, but I don’t think that changed what they did.

 We as a society apparently don’t understand learning well. We don’t know how to institutionalize and mass-produce the experience without damaging it.

I think the one thing that got our group through with good memories was hours of reading aloud to that table of kids after school (even though some could read far faster than ever a human can voice.) Main stream children?  I felt so often we were preparing them for obedience, not for thinking, not analyzing, but box checking, and what does that suggest? But reading aloud, especially, reading far above the supposedly appropriate reading level for each, stretches minds and fills them with questions. And it shows that we are all here together and we care.

We read Berton Rouche’s Annals of Epidemiology, and The Fellowship of the Ring, by Tolkien. Random pieces from adult history books, and the records of the Supreme Court, to give light to laws. We talked about ideas and batted questions back and forth. How a heart works, why does manure make plants grow, what’s a lute, where do you find cassava and is it toxic? We looked at maps and the magazine Science News. When 9/11 brought them home to me from school early, all worried puzzled and tense, we talked about world religions and their impact on politics and history, and the power geography had upon both. We went to look at the wall map because only one kid knew where Afghanistan was located. In what we read, in what we discussed, we ran together before we could walk.

I also baked a lot of cookies, hot rolls, and cakes, because learning tastes sweeter when you’re eating a treat. All the milk or water they could drink, and home-made food, with breaks to run around the garden or play at sword fighting with wooden swords. I told them that was fine, but they mustn’t do any damage that required a doctor. They listened, though I probably watched them a lot more closely than they knew. And since I made the swords, I knew the wood was light and the swords were blunt.

(to be continued)

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I want peace in the world

Cooking Without Limits

It has been a few crazy days in my area. We are close to the border of Ukraine and since the war started we have had refugees coming our way. Some of them are staying for good, some until the war is over and some just go to other countries.

I did not have time to post anything about food or photography. I will try to post it when I have time. I am a volunteer together with my friends for an ONG that helps the person in need. These days we are helping lots of refugees to run from the war, start a new life, or survive the new world.

So, please forgive the lack of recipes or tips about food photography.

If you want to donate you can find the details here:

Asociația Donează Gura Humorului



PayPal: doneazagh21@gmail.com

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R’s Pecan Squares

Laugh at me all you like, but it has been nippy here in Southern California, with temperatures dipping below freezing at night and an almost constant wind coming cold all day. This sense of chill makes me want to bake. So here’s the latest invention. Very like little pecan pie squares, but no eggs and no karo syrup.


Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.

Mix 1/2 pound (two sticks) of butter at room temperature with

            1 teaspoon grape seed oil

            2/3 cup confectioner’s sugar

            1/2 tsp sea salt

            2 cups unbleached flour (I like to add a heaping tablespoon of psyllium husk, or use half whole wheat flour)

            When well-mixed, press mixture evenly into the bottom of a 9″ x 14″ baking pan. Bake in the 350 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Mix 3 Tablespoons heavy cream with

            1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

            1/2 cup honey

            1/3 cup melted butter

            1/2 cup brown sugar

            and 3 1/2 cups shelled pecans toasted (without salt) (You can toast them for yourself at 250 -300 Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes in oven on an ungreased metal pan.)


I melt the butter for the pecan filling in a pyrex cup in the microwave, and after emptying the butter into my mixing bowl I use the same cup unwashed to measure the honey. This ensures that the honey will slide right out of the cup.


Spread the pecan mixture over the baked crust– this is easiest if the crust is still hot from the oven. Bake the whole for about 20 to 25 minutes more. Cuts most neatly if the cookies are cool when you try.

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Pavlova for Valentine’s Dessert

Pavlova, a different sort of meringue that’s pillowy rather than crisp, due to the cornstarch/vinegar mixture folded in at the last stage before baking. Remember that even though it’s February, you can use good quality frozen fruit on top of the billows of whipped cream on this extravagant dessert. Can I think of anything better than this for Valentine’s dessert? Hardly, though if you start to talk about chocolate you might get my attention. For a moment.

Here’s my favorite simple version of the classic.

Separate four eggs, keeping the whites out to warm to room temperature, and putting the yolks in the fridge for some other recipe. Be sure you don’t get any yolk in your egg whites! Preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Butter and flour a flat cookie sheet and trace an eight-inch circle on it with your finger. You can make two four-inch ones if you prefer, but note that they will spread and become quite a lot larger than the eight inches suggests, so allow for the increase.

Cut up the fruit you plan to use, kiwifruit, raspberries, strawberries, seedless grapes, chopped seeded oranges, or you can go for frozen raspberries and frozen dark cherries. Be generous, and don’t chop your fruit small– good mouthfuls are best. Put in the fridge, covered,  to stay until serving time.

Place your room temperature egg whites in a standing mixer bowl. Add 1/2 tsp salt. Beat at medium high with the standing mixer whisk attachment until the whites begin to form soft peaks. Beat in 1 cup of superfine sugar, one teaspoon at a time, beating one minute after each addition. This will seem to take forever, but what you are trying to do is fully dissolve the sugar in the whites. I admit that after the first half cup of sugar is beaten in, I speed up on this process, raising the speed to high and putting in a teaspoon every half minute. Now you will have a fine bowl of raw meringue. Resist the urge to eat any raw, eggs can be contaminated with various bacteria.

When all the sugar is beaten in, take a cup or small bowl and mix well 2 teaspoons white vinegar with 2 teaspoons cornstarch. Fold this mixture thoroughly into the meringue.

Mound the meringue in your circle shape on the cookie sheet and if you like, you can create a shallow depression one inch in from the edge of your mound so that you have a shallow flat area in the center of your Pavlova. Some people like this so that there’s a receiving area for the loads of cream and fruit you will put in the middle. I never have seen this depression survive baking. Maybe it’s because I’m too impatient to beat the whites as carefully as I should.

Put in the oven and immediately reduce the heat setting to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake approximately an hour and fifteen minutes, until pale tan all over and firm to the finger. Cool fifteen minutes than loosen carefully from the cookie sheet and place on your serving plate. It can be held for three hours at this stage. If it has split, don’t worry. All defects can be extravagantly covered with the next final two additions.

When preparing to serve, beat one and a half cups of very cold whipping cream until peaked and stiff. You can add about two teaspoons of sugar to the cream before beating, but it isn’t necessary. Cover your Pavlova with the cream and place, scatter, or arrange your fruit to your pleasure. Serve immediately.  I have known four people to consume the entire thing, but in theory this is a recipe for eight.


4 egg whites, room temperature and 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup superfine sugar

2 teaspoons vinegar and two teaspoons cornstarch

1 and 1/2 cups cold heavy whipping cream

2 to 3 cups berries or other fruit


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Winter gardening and cooking

Here I am in apricot tree reaching to clip a twig that I am sure does not belong.

Made a chicken dinner with my home-made pickled jalapenos and long cooked onions– everything full of flavor and the chicken falling off the bone. Yes, I know many people are bored with chicken, but I am not. I can think of so many wonderful ways to make it taste, as though it were fifteen or more meats in one! And a fine load of big fat asparagus gently turned in a bit of butter after being steamed. How often have I seen people mistakenly pick out the slender little stems of asparagus, not realizing that they are the stringy ones. The fattest asparagus are the best. We used to prowl the pear orchards of Gowen Farms in Stratham New Hampshire and pick the wild asparagus that grew there, and some were like broomsticks, standing taller than me (No jokes here, please, about my height). The same species, too as the asparagus you are familiar with from the stores. Over a yard of each stem would be good for the pot. Really old plants make for huge and incredibly succulent tender stems. 

Alas, they bulldozed those orchards away and put in a housing development. What fools these greedy mortals can be!

So I didn’t prune today because age has taught me that the same work repeated too many days leads to bad tendon and muscle complaints. I was very good today and all the garden work was quite different in the sets of motions required. 


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On the Subject of Apples, Varieties for Southern California, and Pruning….

These are my Golden Dorsets, as you see, erratic in type, but cheerful and prolific. This is one summer’s day worth from one mid-sized tree.

Don’t let anyone tell you that if you live in Coastal Southern California you are doomed to never grow a great apple. Don’t let them force Annas and Beverly Hills apples into your yard and call it an orchard. Aim higher. The chill required for certain apples may be a daunting figure, but at least I can suggest some that produce heavily here within a few miles of the coast where the ocean lies to our south, not our west. Check your chill hours, knowing that as climate change progresses, some of this will always be a gamble, and what we expect for chill may be changing. But go for apples you truly want to eat, not the varieties simply labelled easy. Easy is no good if it tastes like wet cardboard, or worse yet, styrofoam. (All right, I’m exaggerating– I have never knowingly consumed styrofoam.)

Take what land you have and make a place for a few good apple trees. Dig deep and wide before you even set out to purchase your trees, and do set in a gopher basket to protect your young trees’ tender roots for at least the first year.

I have the great good fortune of living in what Sunset Magazine calls Zone 24, where I start harvesting Golden Dorsets at intervals all year, sometimes starting in April. They need to be taken before they are golden ripe or they are tasteless mushy things, but picked on the green side and put in a pie, they are real competitors. I harvest Pettingills and Gordons between September and December– each of these comes in a short prolific burst and are excellent for raw or cooked purposes. Then in October, we begin the long Granny Smith season that often goes well into February.

Bananas from our plants and a basket of Granny Smiths.

I have a Red Delicious type– a variety known as Harrold Red originating from a limb sport, or point mutation of Starking,, productive from late September into November, but while I may fill out a pie with a green one or two I fear I think they give apples a bad name. I am sorry to say such a harsh thing about so consistent and willing a producer but it’s true. They are clearly not true Red Delicious, being squarer and shorter than the proper type, with a lot of streakiness in color and over all an erratic shape, but they share characters of Red Delicious, exhibiting the poor trait of water core, and the same basic characteristics of Red Delicious raw. I have neighbors who like it, appreciating the juiciness and low acid, and the firm crisp texture. For my part, I want stronger flavor and high acid. By the way, my comment about the origination of Harrold Red illustrates a caution about buying fruit trees– sometimes scions get mixed up in the field, or there’s a point mutation on an individual scion, and you end up with a tree labeled what it is not. The only way to find out is to invest the time to raise it into its productive years, so any apple tree might surprise you, even if clearly labeled at the nursery.

Harrolds in a wooden bowl with a pick of plumcots (Dandy).

My Fuji is another disappointment for flavor, though I have one friend who waits anxiously for notification that they are in, then gladly rushes over to pick when I give the word. They are a pain because they require assiduous thinning, tending to fertilize four to eight fruit on each spur. If you don’t practice good cultivation and leave these overburdened spurs to do as they please, ripening is uneven, development worse, and rot easily occurs between the crowded cheeks. The quality of fruit is degraded, and losses in tree resources high. Worst of all, you will have branch breakage, which is hard on the tree. The product is a very juicy item with pale green, almost celadon skin, and a white flesh. But fairly low acid and short keeping.

Winter Banana with its light fragrance, yellowish skin with a green cast, was a decent apple, with good intentions, but when the old tree, which had been poorly pruned, finally died a few years back, I put in a Gordon instead, because Winter Banana never truly excelled for me. It was more an applesauce apple than a pie or raw eating apple in my experience.

But Pettingill! Recommended by my father who was raised by a family of apple orchardists, it has a yellow skin blushed cheerfully with red, a tart sweet crisp and substantive flesh, suitable for eating out of hand or cooking. This year after last winter’s fine rains, we have picked hundreds of good fruit off the tree, even after I did a bit of thinning twice in the summer. It makes excellent pies as I’ve noted in my blog post on my best apple peeler. Gordon is a truly high quality fruit also, but low on production, with a greenish flesh; a good keeper. For my back-up apple, my long-keeping Granny Smith is a favorite for raw or cooked usage. That tree will steadily produce at a few apples in to February, after a start in early October. Yet I was firmly told not to try this variety in Southern California…. Hah!

Here are my Pettingills, basketed (top) and bowled. Organically raised– I have not had to spray at all so far.

Now if you have the space in your fridge, you can take the most perfect of your apples, wrap them in plain brown paper and store them for a few weeks in your vegetable drawer. I have the luxury of a second refrigerator where I store apples in some quantity. I have a pan of water to keep the humidity at a good level. I have thus extended my apple season so that by the time I eat the last Pettingill pie, the Golden Dorsets are starting to blush on the tree by my studio.

Pruning has a few simple rules. The best one is to have a friend come and talk to you while you are working so you don’t get bored. When to prune? Major pruning in the dormant season, usually December or January. But the truth is that pruning is necessary all year round.

Try to decide from the start what will be your leader, the strongest top center bough of the tree which reaches upwards. No other tip of branch should be higher than this leader. Fruit loses quality when it hits the ground, so don’t let the tree reach so high you can’t pick it, or reach to thin the excess set fruit. (some trees try to produce way too many fruit and they will break themselves doing it unless you twist off about a third of the tiny fruit before they grow.)

When you worry about taking off too much of the branches, remember that the tree will start to regrow as soon as you turn your back. Take out any crossing branches because they will fight with each other, try to lighten the branching so that air can circulate. You’ll hear that your tree should have a vase shape– a “V” in profile, for this gives the greatest resistance to breakage and helps with air movement as well as letting more light feed each leaf. You want each branch that you leave on the tree to have a good chance to have light and air. Cut flush to the branch or bough so that you don’t leave any short stub which will rot and introduce bacteria or fungi into the conductive tissues of the main branch. Let nature heal the cut, don’t use any of those petroleum based black goos that are sold for this– I have seen them damage the cut tissues, not save them.

 Crop or cut off the ‘water sprouts’ that spear straight up, often off of the more horizontal branches. Flush cut the twigs and branches that point downwards or point into the center of the tree. Down-pointing branches will tear out when they have heavy fruit on them, doing real damage to conductive tissues and giving an entry to disease. Inward pointing branches will crowd the tree’s air space. Remember that every leaf needs light, at least indirect light, not deep shade, to produce energy for the whole tree.

If you are still uncertain about your cuts, think of it this way. Consider the sap that carries nutrients and water up and down the tree, like a river. The fewer deep bends or tangles it travels along, the better.

 The last rule of pruning, is that it is never done. You can do a serious January prune, followed by light prunings all the year long, and still not be finished– you just begin again in the new year!


Filed under blog, food, food processing, gardening