Absentee Gardening

Gardeners at work

Gardeners at work

I hesitate to call myself a gardener. I think I need some more triumphs under my belt before I will accept that grand moniker.

Especially considering my recent rookie mistake: I was so excited to assemble my balcony planters that I put them together (looking adorable full of double impatiens in a warm, regal red, trailing ivy, bright orange gazania and deep burgundy coleus I might add) and promptly left them outside overnight during the only frost warning of the last 2 months.

I had some logical explanation for this. Believe it or not I did think it through. I just made the wrong decision and I fear my coleus may not recover.

In that I’m not fully ready to claim to be a gardener it’s at least safe to call myself an absentee gardener of some description. Most of the large-scale gardening work I do takes place at a farm house in a rural setting that I visit frequently but don’t live.

The rest of the time I live in the city and eke out a garden via containers on my balcony and indoor house plants vying for the relatively small amount of sun I get each day. Currently my apartment also doubles as a potting shed and greenhouse (to varying degrees of success).

So it’s kind of an odd patchwork garden kind of scenario. The last time we were in Lodi we planted some bigtime stuff: 2 different varieties of potato, two different varieties of onion, in addition to the rhubarb, garlic and various assorted herbs we’d planted in the fall. But I won’t see their progress first-hand for another two weeks.

Mum and Dad are ensconced in Lodi for the season and when I talked to them yesterday they gave me the exciting news that the garlic is really growing. I am thrilled and yet have no idea what that means–I’m only relying on a description and the promise of a photo. How high are the shoots? Are they flowering? How far are we from harvesting?! How can I learn how to make a garlic braid in time!? (ok… getting a bit carried away there)

I guess that really I have the best of all possible worlds: I get the bustle of the city and the triumph of greenery growing around so much concrete, traffic and exhaust fumes as well as the serenity of the rural garden with the expanding horizon of farmers fields and nature blooming all around.

Each has their benefits and each their detractions, but really when it comes right down to it I’m awfully lucky to have both!


Grandma’s Cooking in the Lodi Kitchen

Now that I’m concentrating more on cooking these days I am reminded of the great food that I grew up with. My mum is an excellent cook and I have always learned a lot from her about cooking and continue to do so. But the food that your grandma cooks is always a bit special–probably a bit more indulgent because she’s cooking for her grandchildren. I have so many memories of wonderful food that Grandma cooked in the Lodi Home Farm kitchen.

Now the kitchen in the Home Farm in Lodi leaves a bit to be desired by today’s standards. There is very little counter space and the storage space is cramped and fractured. Cooking or baking in the kitchen can be frustrating when you’re used to more modern kitchens–you don’t have enough room to spread out, things can’t be found easily and if there are more of two of you in there you will knock into each other so many times you want to throw everyone out of there so you can finish cooking.

One of the features of the kitchen is the huge old fashioned enamel double sink that greets you when you come in the back door. I think this sink is the same one as was installed when the house first got running water. It’s old, it’s rusty, it’s chipped but the water runs out of the tap and drains out the bottom so at least it’s doing its job.

Grandma was a great cook. I remember so many of her delicious meals, especially her scalloped potatoes that we would often have at the holidays. Grandma almost always served a side salad with all meals, and that would often be a lettuce leaf with a dollop of cottage cheese on it topped with canned fruit–heaven!

My dad was always a big fan of my Grandma’s cake and jello–a winning combo to be sure. The cake was often a single layer of cake baked in a rectangular pan and iced on top. The jello often contained delicious items within like canned fruit, raisins or shredded carrot. The art of really great jello-making I fear is lost on the current generation. Sigh.

One of my absolute all-time Grandma faves were these special cookies that I just loved. They were chocolate cookies with white icing on top and though it’s a pretty straightforward recipe, the fact that these were cookies with ICING on them pretty much blew my little mind.

But the very best of all was that when we visited Grandma we would have cookies for breakfast. How great is that?! I’m not sure if this was a grandchildren special event or if she always had cookies for breakfast, but I’m inclined to think it was the former. Now these were definitely nutritious cookies–they had raisins and nuts in them, which makes them like muffins or something, right? I’m not sure many current nutritionists would endorse this, but I guess that’s what Grandmas are for.

What I Know About my Grandpa

My Grandpa, painting by Floyd Covert

My Grandpa, painting by Floyd Covert

Sadly I never got a chance to meet my Grandpa Covert, my Dad’s father and owner of the Home Farm in Lodi that we still have in the family today. He died a long time ago, when my Dad was 18. From what I’ve been told, he was a real character and I would have really liked him.

Because I never met him we have some collected stories that we tell and re-tell, questions that we ask and re-ask and lots of photos that we look at again and again.

Here’s what I know about my Grandpa Covert:
-he was a farmer and had several hired men that worked the farm with him
-he was in the First World War
-he walked with a crutch because of the lingering effects of an illness he had suffered as a young man
-he was named Floyd Darwin Covert, Darwin being his father’s first name: Darwin Claudius Covert (what a great name, eh?)
-my uncle Floyd, his first-born son, was named after him
-he was from Ovid originally which makes us Ovid Coverts, not Lodi Coverts (which makes perfect sense, right?)
-he and my Grandma built the cottage that my brother and now own on Lodi Point which contains materials (like windows) from the military base in Sampson that was decommissioned in the 1950s
-though my Grandma was firm in her commitment to the Temperance movement, my Grandpa… ahem.. well… didn’t have such strict beliefs, shall we say?
-he had a great sense of humour and was a real practical joker. There’s a story I remember about wrapping up a Christmas dinner guest’s scarf that she’d come in with and giving it back to her as a gift later in the evening without her realizing it.

Though I’ve never met him his presence is felt everywhere in our property in Lodi: in the house, the barns, the fields, the garage, the ancient Model A Ford in the back corner of the barn–everywhere. I wish I’d had a chance to meet him but in a way I feel like I do know him.

A Local Thanksgiving and Garden News



Two weeks ago my family celebrated an early U.S. Thanksgiving during a long weekend in Lodi. We indulged in the usual Thanksgiving activities (eating too much and shopping too much) and we also made some significant progress on next year’s garden plans.

Of course turkey and Thanksgiving are a perfect pairing but this year we were determined to go local with our Thanksgiving dinner. Our summer garden triumphs put local food at the forefront of our eating habits and Thanksgiving was no reason to stray from this philosophy.

[Ok in fairness I have to admit that it was mainly my brother Andrew leading the local turkey charge. I thought it might be a bit of an expensive wild goose chase, if you’ll pardon the pun.]

We grudgingly headed off to the Green Star Co-op in Ithaca– I say grudgingly because I was certain that we would be dropping a princely sum for this local turkey. Come to find out that Green Star was selling their supply of local turkeys at the wholesale price. We assumed that this was a good faith gesture intended to promote local farmers and the philosophy of eating locally produced food, especially meats. We were thrilled and acquired a 12-lb bird from a farm in nearby Interlaken, NY called Oink and Gobble Farms.

The local turkey tasted… great! Was is significantly different than an industrial farming food chain turkey? I hate to admit that I couldn’t taste a huge difference. But it was moist, delicious, reasonably priced and grew up just about 15 minutes down the road from the dinner table at which we were enjoying it!

The Garden News is very big, very exciting and hopefully very sunny. One of the (ahem, many) problems with the garden plots we chose last year for our first ever garden was the shadiness of the spot. It looked great in the late winter when the trees surrounding it had no leaves, but we quickly learned that it was awfully shady.

So our new spots include a couple of different areas right at the end of the property where it abuts the farmed acreage. We figure that it must be good soil being that close to the farmland and it is in a much (hopefully!) sunnier area. Of course the trees have no leaves now either, but with our skillful plotting of the sun’s trajectory we think we’ve avoided the major shade issues.

Oh, and the other news? More walnuts. Yup, being a glutton for punishment, I said yes when Dad offered to collect more walnuts on his clean-up of the roof and the grounds. We sat and removed the mostly rotten husks (an extraordinarily gross job) and then laid them out on a board in the basement in the manner we believe that Grandma would have done. We’ll see in the spring how this method compares to the oven-roasting method.

The Great Walnut Experiment

The 150- year-old property that our home farm sits on is shaded by many lovely old trees that keep the house nice and cool and provide a gorgeous setting. One of the most prevalent trees on the property is the Black Walnut–there are several including one very big prominent one.

Raw black walnuts

Raw black walnuts

In the Fall the black walnut drops its seed pods in an attempt to proliferate. This strategy has clearly worked well for the walnut over the years, but it doesn’t work as well for the humans that co-habitate with these stately trees. The seed pods are large tennis-ball like things that drop from the sky at quite a velocity and pose a threat both from above and below: watch out you don’t get beaned by one of these things and watch you don’t turn over your ankle stepping on one of these things.

In the midst of trying to manage our safety around these dangerous things I had a thought: but wait! These are actual walnuts! Why don’t we try to harvest them and eat them? This is a potential goldmine!

So, I set about collecting as many decent looking and not-too-rotten walnuts as I could gather. Stoop labour: not super fun, but then as I was soon to discover, just about everything in this Great Walnut Experiment was hard labour.

I collected intelligence from folks in Lodi about what the heck to do with walnuts and one theme consistently emerged: drive over them. Yup. These suckers are so hard that you can DRIVE OVER THEM. And that’s just to get the outer skin off.

And a caveat: as every source I consulted confirmed, handling the nuts in any way will stain your hands for weeks. I can attest to the veracity of this statement and would add for posterity: even through gloves.

So while our friend Linda kindly obliged by backing over my crop of walnuts a few times I tried to determine the next steps. According to my dad, my grandma used to dry the nuts in the basement on an old screen door all winter. The ancient copy of the Rodale Organic Gardening handbook that I picked up at the Ithaca Book Sale said to dry them for a week and then roast them in a low over for one day. Given my lack of attention span, I chose this method and set about drying the nuts on every possible flat surface in my apartment once back in Ottawa.

Black Walnut

Black Walnut

After several hours in the oven I decided it was time for a taste test. Several violent hammer strikes later and with some diligent digging I was able to pry enough of the nut meat to consider this whole back-breaking experiment a success.

The all-important question of the flavour? It’s a strong and hearty nuttiness with none of the bitterness I was worried about. And the taste instantly transports me to my childhood and the raisin cookies my grandma used to make which she must have flavoured with these nuts that she harvested every year.

Ok, so, anyone want some? Seriously. I’m too exhausted to keep hacking at these suckers.

Keeping up with The Coverts

No more weeds

Originally uploaded by j-co

One of my major accomplishments during my recent Lodi stay (a working holiday, if you will) was clearing out many of the weeds surrounding the home farm. The clear ground that you see in the photo was covered in weeds, all about 3 feet high. There were a few different kinds but they were all very easy to pull up, thank goodness.

Dad says that this area hasn’t seen the sunlight in about 30 years. Grandma used to have lilly of the valley in this area, until, as the story goes, Stony Covert dumped a load of coal on them. Not sure what vintage we’re talking here, but old enough that people were called Stony (no relation to us Coverts). I have a shaky understanding of how the whole coal-burning scenario would have worked, but I think it’s fair to say ole Stony overshot the delivery by about 50 feet.

So we’re trying to restore the grounds to the way that my Grandma used to have them with lovely vegetation that enlivens the property, not chokes it. This is the aspiration, and a pretty lofty one. I have a feeling (which may be completely untrue) that things like gardening were second nature to people (women?) of my Grandma’s generation. It was a neccessity in some cases: a person needs to grow vegetables to feed yourself and their family in leaner times. These are not things that come second nature to me, but I’m learning as I go.

In addition to clearing the weeds we’ve planted a few new flowers and ground cover: lilly of the valley, myrtle, hollyhock, campanula, hydrangea and some flower seeds that I’m holding out hope will survive–blue salvia, poppy, shasta daisy and dahlia.

Grandma reportedly kept roses as well, but I feel like I should mangae my own expectations here. If we can keep the weeds away and keep some control of the vegetation I will be happy. If my flower seeds make it, there will be a higher power at work.Now, if I can grow something from seed then maybe I’ll be ready to move on to roses.

The Barn Star

The Barn Star

Originally uploaded by j-co

A few years ago our friend gave us the lovely gift of a decorative star for our barn. It had been sitting in the parlour in the house in town for a long time not fulfilling its duty (it wasn’t a desk star, after all) and along with a number of other improvement projects around the Home Farm we installed the barn star in its rightful place a few weeks ago.

The tradition of barn stars is specific to the North Eastern US states and you see them often on country drives. Each colour of star represents a different set of attributes and our red one, as it turns out, stands for emotions, passion and creativty. The barn stars in general are meant to be a symbol of good luck and to ward of nasty spirits that might try and mess things up.

Our barn is a sturdy but aged thing and perked right up with this little bit of decoration (and added good luck). The barn dates back to the 1900s and has an upper hay loft, which is where we installed the star. The barn is still in pretty good shape and mostly serves as a storage facility at this point in its lifespan. In addition to masses of lumber and building supplies that are frequently used there is an ancient wooden speedboat, a doodlebug of a similar vintage and an even older tractor in many parts.

It wasn’t too much trouble to install the star, even though it’s made of heavy-duty wood. Dad insisted that it be screwed in on two sides to ensure stability. The extra-long ladder was procured and Dad clamboured up while I remained on the ground as the alignment consultant. It was quite a cinch to get it secured in place, the only tense moments coming when Dad moved the ladder WHILE STILL ON IT based on my comments on the placement. Yes, he scooched the ladder by little shuffling hops to get it in the right place so it was correctly lined up. Is this another one of those country things? Crazy behaviour involving power tools? Sheesh.

In any case, the star is up and the good luck is flowing, the evil spirits have been leaving us alone and our emotions and creativity are off the charts. Now all we need is some kind of a talisman to ward off the woodchucks that are causing all sorts of havoc in our garden.

Country Living

Dad on the Ride-on Mower

Dad on the Ride-on Mower

I have never actually live in Lodi for more than the summer months. If I add up all the months I’ve been in Lodi over the years it would total many years. But those months have never been consecutive other than July to August. I know that living in Lodi full time would be a very different kettle of fish than being there just in the summers.

It is my goal to live in Lodi for one full year at some point in my life, if not for longer than just one year. I’d love to experience living in a town of about 350 people more than just when the population swells during the summer months with wine trail visitors, boaters and cottagers.

I would definitely need to adjust a lot of things about my life and lifestyle if I were to commit to country living for more than just summer months. It sounds cliche, but things really are different in the country. Things just don’t work the same way as they do in the city.

One major adjustment would be how much driving is neccessary in the country, for obvious reasons. Lodi is located abot 10 miles from a town with amenities like a grocery store, gas station etc. So for the very basic needs of life, you have to get in the car and drive. In the city I am used to walking to work, to get groceries generally getting around with ease. I think it would be tough to have that added layer of complexity for your basic needs.

There are fewer people around, but everyone knows you in a small town. Would I feel isolated because I’m not surrounded by people packed in apartment buildings, cars and motorcycles whizzing past all day long and the ambient noise of city living? On the other hand people in Lodi have known my family for decades, so even though there are fewer people, they would know a lot more about me and therefore be more friendly to me than the strangers that surround me here.

Things do move a bit differently in the country when dealing with people as well. My dad is the king of how to get things done in this context. When he heads out to talk to someone about something we roll our eyes and know that he’ll be back 45 minutes later. The key seems to be that things take a lot longer and that you rarely ask a direct question. I know that I would need some adjustment in this area if I were to take on country living.

One thing is for sure, living in the country is an experiment I’d love to try at least once in my lifetime. I’ve lived in a few different small, medium and large cities, but never in a town the size of Lodi.

The Home Farm House

A Painting of our House on Main St., Lodi by Floyd Covert

A Painting of our House on Main St., Lodi by Floyd Covert

Our house on Main Street in Lodi dates back from about 1850. This is the house that my grandmother grew up in from the time she was little, though not the first house she lived in. This is the house that my dad and my uncle grew up in and the house that my grandmother lived in until she died at 94 years old.

My uncle lived in this house when he retired from his job as an art professor in Boston. Certainly he had to make some adjustments to his lifestlye when he moved from Boston to Lodi. He lived there for about 10 years before he passed away. The house has had many inhabitants over the years going back through three generations of my family. It’s pretty cool that we’re still enjoying this beautiful house that’s seen so much of my family history.

I’ve grown up in this house as well, though only through visiting at Christmas and during the summers. I have hundreds of memories from the house, like the great meals my grandmother used to make, many Christmas mornings and dressing up in her fancy clothes.

The house is quite big and clearly not laid out the way contemporary houses are. There are 6 bedrooms and three living rooms, in addition to a kitchen and dining room, large screened in porch and, to top it all off (pardon the pun) a cupola on the top of the house. What’s a bit funny about the house is the fact that many of the bedrooms lead into each other without a central hallway. For example, to get to the bathroom you have to go through someone else’s bedroom. This is not the kind of layout that would fly these days, but there’s not a whole lot we can do about it now.

The formal living room

The formal living room

My grandmother used to rent out a portion of the house for many years. Because the house is so big, whole sections can be blocked off and seperated out. There is actually a small kitchen on second floor which allowed my grandmother to rent out a kind of an apartment up there, with 2 bedrooms and access to the bathroom, in addition to the small kitchen. My dad remembers a time that the front portion of the house on the main floor where there is a living room, bedroom and bathroom was rented out as well.

The house has gone through a lot of changes over the years, as witnessed by the numbers of doors that are no longer in use. There are at least two on the main floor that are not used anymore, one in the front and one in the back. However there haven’t been too many significant upgrades to modern amenities, so it still feels like a very old house, the one I remember from my childhood.

The Barn Cats

Barn Kittens, photo A. Covert

Barn Kittens, photo A. Covert

Like any good barn, our barn has barn cats. Lots of them.

My uncle made a practice of feeding the barn cats event though they’re feral and not domestic cats but as an animal lover can see why he risked his life to care for them. They’re cute little, sweet little kitty cats living in that big drafty barn! Wouldn’t they prefer to come and stay with us in the house and be warm and snugly and eat processed cat food and keep us company and look adorable when chasing string and the like?

We dare not start trying to feed the barn cats, but my uncle got to the point where he was feeding many of these cats and bringing certain of his favourites into the house. One of my uncle’s best-loved barn cats he named Harry and let him into the house to stay warm and keep him company. Harry had a sweet disposition and was a long haired barn cat, hence the name.

My uncle took care of six or eight of the feral barn cats at once, providing food, litter boxes and woolly covered places for them to seek shelter from the elements. He did this faithfully for a long while until one of them scratched him quite seriously and he became ill as a result. It was difficult, but after that we convinced him to give up the practice and the barn cats went back to the drafty barn and had to get used to fending for themselves again.

My uncle’s been gone for about three years, but the barn cats are still alive and well out there in the big drafty barn. We saw them out there in the barn on our recent trip to Lodi a week ago. I spotted two different cats–one long-haired, mangy white one, probably the mama barn cat, and a smaller, short-haired white one as well.  Dad saw a couple as well, a different black one and the mama.They seemed to be eyeing us in the house as their potential meal ticket, but each of us was equally wary as the other. We all seemed to recognize that much as we’d like to reconcile it would be better to keep to our separate spheres of existence.

Lodi Kittens, photo A. Covert

Lodi Kittens, photo A. Covert

These are probably the same cats that used to visit my uncle for their regular meals, though some have certainly come and gone by now. It’s hard to resist their sweet little furry faces, but we know from experience that it’s not wise to attempt to domesticate these feral barn cats and so we let them stay out in the barn. All things considered, they’re probably completely content without human companionship.

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