A Year in Photos

FullSizeRenderEvery picture I’ve taken to date in 2014.  From spring tulips to massive spiders hanging from the fence, it’s all here:  Cats, kids, food, even a rare blond raccoon found dead[fourth row from bottom, five shots in] on the street— and all the flowers fit to print.

This quilt of many colors was organized for me by my new iPhone, and I liked it so much I thought I’d share.

Kinda cool, huh?

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photoAwhile back, I was really craving pumpkin bars.  I rarely make desserts with cream cheese frosting, though.  I find heavy, thick frosting overwhelms a tender cake crumb. Still, cream cheese is a good contrast to pumpkin and spice, so I decided to create a lighter version that has more the texture of a marshmallow cream.  It succeeded beyond my expectations.

In fact, I was barely was able to save a piece to photograph.  Even my picky middle child liked this cake.

As you can see, this is more a cake than bars.  And the ratio of frosting to cake is much better this way. Traditional pumpkin bar recipes call for a jelly roll pan and result in a bar that is barely an inch and a half tall.  I used a 9×13 baking dish instead.

The other substitution was the spices.  I used a good Vietnamese cinnamon and Chinese 5 spice together and increased the suggested amount by about a third.  A quality ground ginger with allspice would be another great variation on this theme, but I wanted to avoid the boring pumpkin pie spice flavoring here, and I also wanted to create a cleaner, warmer taste, which Chinese 5 spice delivers in spades.  Chinese 5 spice, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is a combination of star anise, anise seed, cloves, ginger, and Chinese cassia cinnamon. I like the Penzey’s brand, but whatever you use, make sure it’s fresh! Old spices ruin far too many dishes, and as we move into the holiday season (at least here in zone 4b) fresh spices are a must. For spices I use infrequently, I’ll write the date purchased on the container so I can’t kid myself about how old the stuff is.                       photoHere’s the recipe, if you’re interested. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

4 eggs

1 1/2 cups white sugar

1 cup vegetable oil

1 15oz can of cooked pumpkin

Combine above in electric mixer until smooth.  Then add the following dry ingredients:

2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour(Whole wheat pastry flour could be substituted here, if you wish.)

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 1/2 tsp Vietnamese Cinnamon

2tsp Chinese 5 Spice

1 tsp salt

Pour into greased 9×13 pan. Bake 40-50 minutes.  Check with wooden skewer for desired doneness. Cool thoroughly.

Frost with the following:

8 oz cream cheese, soften

2/3 cup unsalted butter

pinch of salt,

3 1/2 cups of confectioners sugar

1 tsp Penzey’s double strength vanilla or 2 tsp regular strength vanilla

Whip until light and fluffy.  You may have a bit of frosting left over.  Freeze in an airtight container for later use if small children are unavailable to help you dispose of leftovers. Conventional wisdom dictates refrigerating cake with cream cheese frostings.  Mine never last longer than 2 days, so I leave them on the counter.

Your choice. Either way, enjoy!



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Last Stand

photoYesterday was the first snowfall of the season here in zone 4b.  Just a few miles to the north, they had over a foot of snow.

Here in Minneapolis, though, only around five inches fell. Schools remained open and life shuffled onward, albeit at a slow pace.

Trees that had yet to fully drop their leaves have done so overnight. Golden brown leaves flutter over a fresh bed of white earth as the winds whistled down from the north and sends them dancing across the lawns. Although the landscape still has the feel of fall, winter’s snowy hand has been raised.  A warning.

It’s coming.

Garden regrets and triumphs alike will sleep beneath their winter blankets of white.

Next year, every northern gardener must be muttering now.

There’s always next year!

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More Glorious Grasses

photoStrangely, this rosy grass is actually called Little Bluestem,”The Blues.”  The stems of this cultivar are bluish during the growing season but now have turned shades of rose and pink that glow on a sunny day like today.

One of the best things about ornamental grasses is the way they catch the fall light. They often seem almost electrified, lit from within.

Another example is this Purple Moor Grass, “Skyracer.” Its joyously deep yellow fall color grabs your eye and won’t let go. I highly recommend Moor Grass because it’s so undemanding.  This specimen is around 5 years old.  Like most of the bigger grasses, Moor Grass need room to look its best, but on the plus side, Moor Grasses aren’t thuggish or overpowering.photophotoThe blooms, at eight to nine feet tall, sway and move in the slightest breeze. The whole plant is very graceful and attractive all season long, but fall is when this ornamental grass really shines.

Do give ornamental grasses a try in your garden.  There are grasses to fit any size space.  Then, next fall you’ll be so happy with with yourself!

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Staying Power

photoAlthough November is here, my boulevard beds retain most of their late summer beauty. The messy blond tussocks of Prairie Dropseed grab the drab fall light and don’t let go.

I love the elegantly gaunt silhouette of the blackened coneflowers rising above the grasses. The sedum Matrona also holds its own. Its bloom are like a red beacon shouting look at me!

Often, in the spring I regret having planted so many grasses.  The boulevard bed remains stubbly and nearly bare into June. And I mutter darkly about more perennials and fewer grasses. . . .

Yeah, the Miscanthus and Prairie Dropseeds do take a long to show up, but boy, when they do they have staying power.

Gotta love that.

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Queen of the Slipstream . . .

Dreamy, fine art photo of seductive woman in fairy garden, romanHow much time do you spend in dreams?

Too much according to stern teachers, worried parents, or most of the self-help crowd constantly urging us to act, to do something productive that can be seen or counted.

Pay attention.  Stop daydreaming. Make something of yourself.

We’ve all heard that.

But what if it isn’t true?  What if it’s through our dreams that we truly make ourselves?

Each year, usually around this time, I begin to spend more time in dreamland. The days have grown shorter, the nights colder, and my dreams for next year’s garden begin to be more intense and immediate than the world around me.

The gardening catalogs have started to trickle in and I pull out my terse notes about what worked and what didn’t this season. I grab a cup of tea and settle by the windows,  awash in possibility and lost in dreamland.

This is a good thing, a ritual that enriches my life. I might even say rituals like this are something we all need.

To paraphrase the very poetic singer/songwriter Van Morrison, from whom I borrowed the title of this post, I venture into the slipstream through the viaducts of my dreams where I am born again.

Yeah, it’s not just about the flowers.

It’s about taking time to connect with the deepest part of yourself.  Maybe gardening isn’t your passion, but something is.  And that passion is nurtured by dreaming every bit as much as by actions taken in “real” life.

So take a breath and venture into the slipstream. Something absolutely wonderful is waiting for you  . . .  your true self.

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The Stalwarts

photoFierce pansy is no doubt an oxymoron to most.

The word pansy, like gay, has been so mowed down by its slang meaning that it can’t be used without evoking sniggering−at least among most American listeners.

But take a closer look. These “pansies” survived a cold snap that felled much bigger blooms in my garden and came out looking fresh, lovely .  .  . and yes, fierce.                                                  photo

Another stalwart who shakes off cold snaps is the lovely, but oddly named Hairy Toad Lily. These beauties aren’t bothered by cold or even light snow. Their demeanor is much more shy than pansies and you must seek them dilgently in the garden because they tend to keep their heads down instead of boldly facing the world the way pansies do.  But they’re worth the effort, don’t you think?                                                                                      photo

Cimicifuga racemosa, or bugbane as they are commonly called, is another great, tough, late fall bloomer in my garden.  Bugbane’s habit is to spear the sky with its grape-drenched blooms. No hiding for these bold beauties.photo

Some gardeners don’t like their scent, which is said to repel bugs, hence the common name.  I love it.  On a cool morning to bend down and smell their intense fruity essence is, to me, a true delight.                                                                                                           photoBugbanes are also a plant where I can’t chose between bud and bloom.  Which is prettier?  Luckily, this stalk has both.

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photoThe lion watches and waits.

A joyful knot of blooms surrounds him now,

yet he knows what lies just around the corner.

Too soon a cold claw will smash such pink frivolity to the ground.

Too soon this battered protector will stand alone against the coming darkness.


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In Bud and Bloom

photophoto                           Which is more attractive, the bud or the bloom?

That is the question I ponder when the Japanese Anemones are beginning to bloom each fall. The buds are so delightfully fuzzy you must touch them.  But then again, the blooms are so airy, so confiding as they beg to have their moment in the slanting fall light.

My heart is torn.

I must refuse.

Both aspects are beautiful,  both arrest my churning thoughts and make me glad to be alive in this brief moment.

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Tangled Skeins

photo       Yesterday this bowl of Haralson apples became the first apple pie of the season at Casa Renfield.                          photo         Sampling a crisp slice of this ultra tart apple, followed by the homey smells of butter and cinnamon curling through my kitchen and the happy shouts of my kids, “You made pie!” tugs on a dense skein of memories.

My mother loved Haralson apples, so they always remind me of her. Even when my parents retired to Florida, I would send them a bag from Minnesota every year.

While my mother normally wasn’t much for desserts, she nevertheless made apple pie several times each fall, and I loved walking into our house after school and smelling that. She always served apple pie flanked by a chunk of extra sharp cheddar cheese. Mmm, so good! And she never minded if you went back and “cleaned up the edges” of the pie pan.

I  feel a twinge of sadness that she’s no longer alive to share those memories with me.   Yet when my seventeen year old son unexpectedly offered to take the leftover pie back to the kitchen after dinner last night, I hid my smile and said, “Sure, go ahead.”  Because I realize I’m caring for my family the way my mother cared for me. Thus do memories, old and new, become hopelessly tangled together.

And now, this is all that remains. Of both memories and apple pie.                                                                         photoGuess I’ll just have to create more.

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