Taking stock at home

A Vineyard garden in winter repose. — File photo by Susan Safford

The sun slows, dims, and hangs at hiatus, low in the December sky. The old year comes to a close and the age-old holy days of winter solstice engulf us. Introspection, rituals, music and poetry arrive with the season. They are the parts of us where we truly live, the things that are enduring, which make life rich and precious. While our year contains fifty-two weeks, these few, the holidays, are when we really think about things, our direction, “our hopes and fears of all the years….”

Many perceive upon reflection that everything that is necessary for life to succeed (indeed our very lives themselves) is a gift from the universe we now inhabit. The rest, as a famous personage (Gianni Agnelli, Italian industrialist and jet setter) once said of his material good fortune — youth, looks, health, fame, money — “It’s all on loan, all of it.”

Act locally

In this column I have a small platform from which I am able to reach many more in our community than those I know personally. I am able to share my views on gardening and similar aspects of living on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Today I ask all of us to cultivate our Island “garden” and work to practice the idea that “charity begins at home.” Why should the Heifer International model (“teach a man to fish” philosophy) apply only overseas, when there are families and many children on Martha’s Vineyard whose nutrition is inadequate?

In 2014 Island town governments could develop a comprehensive allotment garden plan to make vegetable garden space available to town dwellers and renters.

We could develop a food pantry model that enabled fresh or local foods to be incorporated into the groceries offered, instead of only shelf-life foodstuffs.

We could work more effectively and consistently to bring real Island-wide recycling and composting here.

We could act protectively for the world we inhabit and locally restrict the use of herbicides and pesticides that have a detrimental effect on our wild-grown meats, seafoods and plants, and eventually, on ourselves.

While basic necessities are in short supply, right here, there is a kind of willful blindness in donating to faraway places and institutions. Please take this time of year and look around you, at your town, at your various communities of shared interests, and at your local charities. Turn these “coulds” into “cans” to strengthen our Island into the model of a vibrant community.

In the garden

Beds and foundation plantings adjacent to walks and driveways will appreciate a substance other than salt for ice control. It is not only the disfiguring burns on the foliage that are problematic but also the persistent soil contamination, which is more long-term and harder to fix. Alternatives to sodium products include sawdust, sand, and fireplace ashes.

Keep deer spray current, or erect netting. Deer are coming closer to houses in search of forage such as yew, rhododendron and azalea, and even English ivy and bare twigs of hydrangea. Three “unpaid pruners” were working away at yew bushes not 15 feet from where my husband and I watched yesterday morning. The intermittent mild days that occur at this time of year are good opportunities for deer spraying, and also for horticultural oil application against insects such as scale on hollies or hemlock woolly adelgid.

The usual cautions pertain to indoor Christmas trees, both living and cut, and to holiday plants. Houses are dry and leach the moisture right out of living tissues. Check water level in the tree stand reservoir daily (pets seem to prefer tree-stand water to other sources). Keep live root balls damp; plan to plant outside ASAP into a pre-dug planting hole. Water cyclamen and amaryllis from the bottom and then empty saucers. Check paperwhites’ water levels daily, too. Keep citrus well-watered but do not over-water. As with cyclamen and amaryllis, do not let citrus stand in water.

More on beans

Having pre-soaked, cooked beans (their cooking liquid stored separately) in the fridge is convenient for many dishes at this busy time. An antidote to eggnog and rich desserts is a tasty bean stew: make lots and have it to pull out and heat up for unexpected entertaining. Most of the ingredients come from the home garden.

Christmas Bean Stew

1 pound cannellini or dried lima beans (or the equivalent cooked)

16 Tbsp. high quality olive oil

2 large heads of celery plus leaves, sliced into 3/4″ pieces

12 scallions, green part included, sliced 1/3″.

8 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced

2 tsp. caraway seed, lightly crushed

2-4 tsp. celery salt

1 qt canned tomatoes, or 1 28 oz can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

5 1/2 cup broth or water, or some of each

oily black olives, pitted and chopped

1 lemon, cut into 1/8ths

If you haven’t already cooked the beans, do so.

Heat 12 Tbsp. (scant 2/3 cup) of the olive oil in a large pot over medium hot heat. When the oil is hot, add celery and stir until coated with olive oil. Cook for ten minutes, stirring. Add 2/3 of the scallions, the garlic, caraway, and a couple of big pinches of salt. Cook 10-15 minutes more, until everything softens and begins to caramelize slightly.

Add the tomatoes and 2 tsp. of the celery salt and cook for another few minutes. Add the beans along with 5 1/2 cups liquid and remaining 4 Tbsp. of olive oil. Bring to a simmer and taste for seasoning. Add more celery salt if needed. Let sit for a couple of minutes and serve each bowl topped with chopped olives, remaining scallions, and a squeeze of lemon. Serves 8-10.

Adapted from Hassan’s Celery and White Bean Soup with Tomato and Caraway in “Moro East,” by Sam and Sam Clark.