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The Winter Blues

It is a hazy day, one of those calm, icy days where our souls can take a deep sigh of relief. Today is a needed respite from the frigid climes we have endured this winter. In the past few weeks, we have seen many twelve degrees below zero double wool sock days. Today, one pair of wool socks will do.

The ice on the sidewalks has been so thick and hard that the ice cleats attached to my winter boots have had a hard time poking through the ice to provide the grip I need when out walking the dog. I end up walking in the soft snow along the edge of side streets rather than chugging through snow banks.

It is mid-winter in the north country. Storms plow through with magnificent force. Snow. Ice. Wind. Cold temps. Blizzard conditions. 

Blue Food

My best defense against this frigid situation is to counter all the dreariness with the winter blues. Using every blue arrow in my quiver, I am replacing what could potentially be a blue season with a blue menu. I am stocked up. Stashed in every nook and cranny of my kitchen is blueberry basil kombucha, huckleberry beer, blueberry açaí ale, lavender melon kombucha, blueberries and deep blue grapes, blue cheese,  grape jam, even blue potatoes. Blueberry pomegranate smoothies are a daily breakfast fare. Bluefin tuna, Blue Diamond almonds, Blue Mission figs. We’ll celebrate with savory and sweet blueberry pizzas. Just to make sure all my bases are covered, I have a blue and white can of Snowstorm beer on hand. 

A Time of Clarity

You ask why I’m fighting white fury with blue bounty? I say why not? For many, this post holiday season can be cold, lonely, depressing, and filled with discarded New Year’s resolutions. Why not do something bold and intentional to make it both fun and interesting? Or use the extra time in your schedule to whittle down the flotsam in your closets? Or do both.

For me, this is a clarifying season. A time to clean, to organize. This is the opportune time to do all those indoor projects I was too busy to do during the gardening or holiday seasons. When my schedule clears, so does my mind. So I take advantage of this to do projects that perhaps take more focus. 

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Blue foods

Winter Bounty

Let’s get back to food, shall we? The new year tends to be a time of new beginnings for our personal health and well being. We come off a December of feasting and want to corral the beast we call diet. This is actually a great time to start this endeavor. The grocery stores are replete with nutritious winter fruits and vegetables. Ruby grapefruit and blue potatoes, mangoes and kumquats, figs, pears, persimmons, pomegranates, mushrooms of all kinds, microgreens, and sprouts, beets, Brussels sprouts, onions, and carrots. The list goes on. 

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Roasted blue fingerling potatoes with Maitake mushrooms

All these foods contain nutrients such as antioxidants and phytochemicals. From anthocyanins in blueberries to plenolics and carotenoids found in citrus fruit, winter fruits and vegetables do not play second fiddle to their summer counterparts in the nutrition department. You can walk into the produce section of your grocery store and choose with abandon, knowing that as you choose and eat the rainbow, you are benefiting your health. 

Researchers have studied pockets of centenarians around the globe and examined the practices and circumstances surrounding this phenomenon. Several commonalities have been noticed, including but not limited to a vegetable based diet, stress management, regular exercise, and a priority placed on family and elders. These population pockets have been fittingly dubbed Blue Zones.

Cooking a Blue Meal

Here is my blues interpretation. I am roasting blue fingerlings, sautéing Maitake mushrooms in butter and garlic. Then I toss mushrooms with the crusty potatoes and sprinkle it all with truffle salt and freshly ground black pepper. A fluffy tousle of microgreens makes me wonder if the meal is having a bad hair day. A tapenade of Kalamata olives served on seedy crackers and topped with grape jam and Gorgonzola cheese adds another dimension to the meal. 

Earlier I threw together some pizza dough, and now the creativity flies as I roll out small rounds and dress them up with blueberries, prosciutto, crème fraîche, heirloom tomatoes, pears, shallots, pea sprouts, wild mushrooms, basil, red onions, truffle salt, black pepper, fresh mozzarella pearls, and parmigiano reggiano. Each combination of ingredients piques the palate in a unique way. Once you know the basics of a perfect crust, the art of delicious pizza is just a matter of building flavor with great ingredients.

A Sweet Finale

For a sweet capstone, I’ve assembled personal galettes filled with crème fraîche, pear slivers or plump blueberries, and blue cheese. These freeform tarts start with a buttery, flaky crust rolled out paper thin. I cut these out using a small bowl as a template. After spreading the crème fraîche, I scatter fruit and cheese over top and then sprinkle on vanilla-scented raw sugar to add a little crunch and sweetness. These tarts are always a great option because the ingredients that top them are flexible based on your pantry, the season of the year, and the rest of your menu. The two versions I have chosen are a sweet-savory counter and will be the perfect finish to a celebratory meal. 

To complete the picture, favorite Blues tunes are the musical backdrop. This is turning out to be quite the party after all. So, while the weather outside is frightful, my escapade into fending off the winter blues with the winter blues is delightful. And delicious.

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Tokens of Christmas Warmth

Spoon Cookies

The night is waning; dawn has not yet arrived. Pats of unsalted butter melt in the saucepan. With a silicone scraper, I stir back and forth across the bottom, watching the butter carefully. First the surface bubbles, and then a thick foam forms. Finally, I smell it, the nutty aroma of beurre noisette or brown butter. I quickly transfer the pan to a sink of cold water to stop the cooking. I am in the kitchen making my favorite and most time-consuming Christmas cookie, spoon cookies. 

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Beurre noisette or brown butter

Spoon cookies are so named for the spoon that forms their shape. It must be an old silver spoon. These ancient beauties have deep bowls, so they work perfectly for filling with cookie dough. This morning, the favored teaspoon came from my Aunt Ada. Its smooth surface aids in helping the pressed cookie easily slide onto the cookie sheet. As I fill, press, and slide the cookie dough, my mind drifts back to memories of the generation that went before mine. They were children of immigrants, their lives steeped in traditions from the old country. These are traditions I have come to cherish, traditions I try to teach to those in my life.

After placing the tray into the oven to bake, I warm raspberry jam on the stove. Once strained, a smear of this jam will serve as a delicious glue between two baked cookies, forming what in the end looks a bit like a little egg. Each Christmas season, I look forward to the complex taste of the nutty beurre noisette against the sweet jam.

Caramels

Next on the agenda are caramels. Creamy and sweet, these are another labor intensive favorite. Between you, me, and the fence post, they have proved a challenge for me to perfect. Each time I make them, I seem to discover another idiosyncrasy of these delicious candies. This year’s batch, while a delicious and rich confection of sugar, butter, and cream, is a touch on the chewy side, which I of course blame on my ancient candy thermometer. 

Yulekage: Christmas Bread

Next up, Yulekage. A favorite Scandinavian spice, cardamom, enlivens this tender sweet Christmas bread. To amp up the flavor, I always freshly grind my cardamom for this recipe. This distinctive spice together with the mix of golden and red raisins and topped with a crest of luscious frosting makes for a festive bread indeed. Thanks to the magnitude of the recipe, eighteen loaves have already left my kitchen to date, and this bread is my go-to baked Christmas gift. 

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Lefse

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the ubiquitous Norwegian delicacy, lefse. This potato-based flatbread defines December menus in the north country. It has to be paper thin, soft with light brown spots scattered across its surface, and with tiny dots of Russet potatoes. Lefse-making is a two-day affair that should be embarked on just before your kitchen needs a deep cleaning. Trust me, I know whereof I speak…  

Cookies Et Alia

Other gems that might make their appearance in my comestible gifting include my Aunt Joyce’s thin sugary ginger snaps, my brother-in-law Bill’s butter balls, nutmeg-laden Kranse Kake, and crisp, frosted sugar cookies. The list could go on, but the variety and supply of goodies depends on how much the schedule expands in early December.

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A Modicum of Our Christmas Joy

Why do we go through these tasks in the holiday season? What is the reason we shop and wrap, cook and bake, and assemble trays and tins to pass out to family, friends, and neighbors? Why do we put in the additional effort to make things extra special? The Christmas season is already a busy time of year, yet we add to it by making such effortful goodies to give to others.

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There are many people in my life who hold a special place. Some are family, some are friends. It just seems that in this unlikeliest of seasons, the coldest, darkest days of winter, when we grace others with an act of kindness, a small array of culinary delights, we offer them a modicum of our joy. We are saying the world is better because of their presence in it. We are saying you are important to me. In giving something of ourselves to others, whether it’s our time, our talents, created gifts, or purchased items, we are telling them they are significant and special. 

I will always get up before dawn or stay up into the wee hours to create tokens of my affection for those I hold dear.  

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Taking Stock, Making Stock

It is a new year, the height, or should I say depth of winter. As such, it is the time for both new beginnings and comfort foods. This two-sided seasonal coin seems to serve disparate agendas. On one hand we seek change in the form of resolutions, and on the other we yearn for the trusty, classic dishes like a hearty soup that define winter in the North.  

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Pot of New Orleans style chicken stew

Starting Fresh

At the start of every year, we give ourselves permission to analyze, to look over our past year and reflect upon successes and failures. Our society does this from the very personal up to the large-scale corporate and even governmental level. We aim to improve our lives, communities, businesses, country, and world.

We come down from the busy high of the holidays into the calm of a new year, and we yearn to take this time to reset ourselves. This practice stems thousands of years and numerous cultures, and it is perhaps driven by an innate need for redemption and a fresh start. So this is the time. Is there something you have been thinking about transforming in your life? Use this season as an opportunity for yourself.

The Coziness Factor

The other side of this winter coin is the fact that it is just plain cold outside. Really cold. This brings us into our homes. We crave warm and cozy foods, blankets, and sweaters.

My oven is always on for roasting meats or finishing a braise. The soup pot has taken up permanent residence on my stove. It seems that delicious beefy stews, bisques, and chowders have become a daily food. I roast bones and then create rich stocks that take hours of simmering to come into their own. The always classic French onion soup rises to new heights when made from this homemade beef stock. I really do tend to eat in a seasonal pattern. Soups like French onion, borscht, or ham and bean happen only in the chilly climes of winter.

Comfort Cooking

Even though hot foods do not in actuality heat us up from the inside out (our body works very hard to maintain its constant temperature), the act of cooking warms us. As we hover over a simmering pot of soup or hold a piping hot bowl to inhale the steamy aroma, we become warm. Whether the warming effect is literal or psychological, to me it makes no difference. I love hot foods on a cold day. They warm my soul. They tell my loved ones that I care for them, that I want to warm them up as well. There is nothing that says “I love you” more than a bowl full of chili on a chilly day.   

The word restaurant in French means “something restoring.” In the 16th century in France, restaurant was the word commonly used to describe an inexpensive soup that was sold on the streets of Paris. When an enterprising Parisian opened a shop where he made and sold soup, it was called restaurant. This is the origin of the current use of the word restaurants today.

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French onion soup with homemade beef stock

The parallel between restoring and soup holds forth in our mother’s chicken noodle soup served to us when fighting the flu or a cold. The funny thing is the rehydrating nature of the ingredients did help us mend.

These subzero temperatures are definitely good for something. Whether we are taking this time to improve a facet of our lives or simply to slow down and savor a cozy meal, the cold awakens a strength within us and reminds us what it means to be human.

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Coffee Brewed

All we want to do these cool, winter days is curl up with a hot mug of freshly brewed coffee. With the morning news. In a Yeti mug as we go out the door to work. Meeting friends at a coffee shop. Weak church brew in the narthex on Sunday mornings. Espresso and chocolate truffles after dinner. When is it not a good time for coffee?

The Many Faces of Coffee

It can be made as simply as the “dirty stick coffee” we would make when hiking in the mountains. With this method, we mix water and grounds and place them in a pot over a campfire and stirred with a stick (hopefully not a dirty one) from the nearby forest. Coffee also takes on an artform created by a master barista such as the sage latte made by Avery Burke of the Temporarium in San Francisco. In this drink deemed by many to be the world’s most complicated, he starts by frosting the rim of the cup in pomegranate molasses, curry powder, and cayenne pepper. This drink then involves cream steeped in blackened (a blowtorch is involved here) sage leaves and cream, anise, and brown sugar then poured over espresso. Coffee can include ingredients from all the food groups, from brown butter to pumpkin to hazelnut to cinnamon.

Straight Coffee

So whatever happened to plain ol’ coffee? Straight up, hot, and black? Well, that’s out there too. Sometimes as a pour over, other times a cold brew, French press, or Chemex, only a few of the many methods of brewing pure, black coffee. Last year I attended a series of coffee tasting events called cuppings. These are much like a wine tasting.

Single origin beans from a specific country, region, and/or farm are brewed at an ideal temperature and for a specific length of time to show off the coffee’s best traits. Cuppings include smelling, swishing the drink across the taste buds, and then spitting it out (which, of course, I could never bring myself to do). In places such as these, you can appreciate the taste of beans from Guatemala versus Ethiopia and how fermentation, rainfall, or elevation affect the flavor of the drink. Furthermore, you can hear stories of the hard working farmers who toil in all sorts of conditions to bring us the most delicious beans possible.

At its Finest

My many rich experiences with this drink have inspired me to slow down and smell the process. To appreciate what goes into a great cup. The aroma of the freshly ground beans or the steaming richness of the elixir poured from my French press to my tall pottery mug. As with so many other things in life, we can drink coffee, or we can savor it. I first dipped my toes into this proverbial coffee stew by drinking conventionally percolated grocery store brew.

As time progressed so did my palate. Mostly this happened gradually as the coffee culture in our society developed. I do, however, have some hallmark memories of firsts. For example, the first time I walked into the original Dunn Bros. on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Minn., and smelled beans roasting in their massive Probat roaster. Or the time I sipped my first perfectly crafted espresso, crested with just the right amount of crema. I was standing at a espresso bar just feet from the Duomo in Florence, Italy. Those Italians…and their coffee…

The Cup

One can’t leave the topic of coffee without also discussing mugs. Everyone has their favorite size and shape. Mine tend to be tall, narrow at the top to keep the drink hot, and hand crafted. On the other hand, I’m also drawn to ones that carry poignant messages such as the simple heavy white ones with “call your mother” inscripted on the side. Maybe you use vintage cups given to you by your grandmother or ones collected on a particularly memorable trip. Whether it’s squat and wide to show off a talented barista’s design in the froth or sturdy with a tight lid to bring on a car trip, we all seem to have a preference.

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For me, as much as I love my coffee brewed in just the right way and as much as I like drinking it out of a mug of my choosing, the most important thing about this drink is who we drink it with. As interesting as the history and the story, coffee is simply the vehicle, or rather the impetus that brings people together. Family, loved ones, friends. In your kitchen, on your front porch, or on the patio of your local coffee shop. It’s the conversation over the drink that’s the memory created. Enjoying coffee you love with people you love. That is the good life.

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Savoring our sweet hygge

The snap and pop of a fire in the hearth, the twinkle of lights on the mantle, a steaming mug of cocoa, Wynton Marsalis playing a jazz version of “Winter Wonderland,” candles burning; these are the sights and sounds of hygge in December in the north. Cinnamon, cardamom, pine, nutmeg, apple, ginger, bread baking; these are the aromas that linger.

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A Scandinavian Christmas

In our house Nordic traditions include round after round of tender lefse coming off the grill, savory Swedish meatballs with lingonberries providing a sweet counter, a delicately carved rosewood crèche on the side table, the rich scent of Yulekake and cardamom buns baking in the oven, gingersnaps cooling on the counter. Smoked salmon, Jarlsburg cheese, and pâté made of goat cheese and dill served on thin crisps of rye bread. Glasses of eggnog or hot buttered rum are raised in toast.

Tis the season to be cozy and warm, to create hygge in our homes and lifestyle. Hygge is the Scandinavian (particularly Danish) way of simplifying to create a cozy sense of well being. Choosing the essential and eliminating the unnecessary. Sometimes the build up of to-do lists, parties, and the tasks that we take on to make the season that much more special actually detract from its beauty.

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Charming simplicity

The seasonal starkness has a beauty all its own. As I sit writing in the dusky dawn gazing out at the grey outdoor light and then at the flickering amber candle, I cannot help but think of my ancestors who hailed from above the Arctic Circle. Did they love this diminished daylight as much as I do? Cloudy skies the color of Tahitian pearls. Our ornament-laden Christmas tree virtually glows in this milky light.

What is it about the wintry north, where absence has a reverse effect of heightening our appreciation of what we do have? This is nature’s version of hygge. When the sun emerges on those crystalline December mornings, the crunch of snow beneath our steps is louder, the song of the ruby cardinal on a far off branch is music we dance to, the diamond-like sparkle of frost takes our breath away. I’ve often thought necessity inspires creativity. The need for warmth became the beautiful and intricate Norwegian sweater, where the more involved the Fair Isle design, the more layers of yarn used, resulting in an almost opulent but necessary coziness.

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Subtraction becomes resplendent multiplication. Friendships seem to matter more. We linger longer over coffee and conversation. Friends gather and sip from hot cups of soup. We roast and bake and share with others. The gratefulness on the faces of needy neighbors when presented with a loaf of bread fresh from the oven warms our souls more than any down jacket could.

Treasured tradition

The dark cold months focus our priorities. It seems that in the lush green of other seasons we venture into the unknown. We try new activities, taste new foods, travel to new places, establish new goals, or start new habits. But at the holidays, we treasure the tried, the true, the traditions that we hold dear. For me this means remembering the Christ Child’s birth, singing favorite carols, preparing time-honored foods, hearing the crackle of Ponderosa Pine logs burning in the fireplace, smelling the heady aroma of roasting meats, listening to Handel’s Messiah, or hearing the ringing sound of handbell choirs.

Music runs along the season as a common thread. Christmas tunes play everywhere. When walking down Main Street or in the grocery aisle, we are constantly serenaded. We are cheered. I find myself flitting from inspirational John Rutter choral pieces to the nostalgic Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, then on to the husky voice of Louis Armstrong or the peaceful sound of Laurance Jube playing his guitar.

Embracing the season 

Apart from the other times of the year, the cold winter tranquility stirs passion and a strong sense of fearlessness in our souls. We venture out into the brisk nights bundled up in our coats and boots, the biting winds and looming darkness unable to dampen our spirits. Then after a long, full day, we nestle into the warmth of our homes to soak in the sounds, smells, and beautiful sights that define the serenity of the season.

Winter, December, waiting, Christmas, laughter, darkness, stockings on the mantle, Advent candles, baby Jesus, cold, joy, warm sweaters, ice skating, Christmas concerts, red velvet, snow, white fur, Kransekake, light, bells, icicles, kindness, gingerbread houses, shearling slippers, cedar and holly garland. So many indispensable words, these words of the season.

This year I have whittled and parsed all the while clarifying. The essence of my own Christmas season becomes a marriage of the most unsuspecting companions. The pairings of cold and family leads to memories created. Elimination of the unnecessary makes for times all the more treasured thanks to their poignant simplicity. This is my holiday hygge.

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Celebrate with a Thankful Heart

Tradition

It seems that everyone has stories to tell about their Thanksgiving traditions. The preparation for this meal usually involves several days. Turkeys are bought days ahead. They fill our refrigerators as they thaw. The aromas begin to fill our homes: cranberry sauce cooking on the stove, pies baking in the oven. These are the reminiscent smells that welcome family as they gather.

The actual day of Thanksgiving arises early as the final rubs and fillings are applied to the big bird before we slide it into the oven to roast. If you are like most cooks, you breathe a sigh of relief once this step is done. The day is still early, and the house is quiet. It is the perfect time to sit for a minute and sip some coffee.

Next up, think about the side dishes, the hors d’oeuvres, and last but certainly not least, the desserts. Vegetables need scrubbing, potatoes need peeling, green beans need trimming. Time to start mixing up the dinner rolls. We must always include favorite foods. Is your pie of choice pumpkin, apple, or pecan? Do you eat marshmallows on your sweet potatoes?

Our culinary traditions bring us together as friends and families, but also together as a country. This is the time we remember to give thanks. We give thanks for loved ones, food, warm houses, freedom, friendships. We also think about and give in record amounts to those who do not have loved ones, who are going hungry this November, and who lack a warm house to call their own. This is a time for thankfulness, and out of this full heart comes generosity.

Our Past

The tradition of a harvest festival grew up with our country, starting in the early 1600s. This celebration took many forms in fits and starts before it finally settled in to what it is today. George Washington declared a national day of Thanksgiving on September 25, 1789. This was sporadically observed for a number of years following his declaration.

The idea of a designated Thanksgiving Day, however, was championed by a most unlikely suspect. Sarah Josepha Hale, a poor young widow who then rose to become the editor of the most popular magazine of its time, Godey’s Lady Book, talked about this idea for many years, presenting it to multiple presidents. Finally Abraham Lincoln listened and declared in his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 that the last Thursday of November should be set aside. It wasn’t until 1941, thanks to President Roosevelt, that Congress officially established that day as a national holiday.

New Twists

In our home, Thanksgiving tends to be tradition with a twist. While the basic food items such as turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, etc, are present at the Thanksgiving table, their form and what dish they show up in is constantly changing. One year cranberries are in the stuffing, the next year they appear in the beverage, the next, in a dessert. Likewise with apples or pecans.

Our turkey may appear green thanks to the herb paste stuffed under the skin or have copper sheen due to being glazed with sweet mix of pomegranate molasses and orange juice. Sometimes we roast it upside down, other times on high heat. Some years we stuff it with apples, onions, lemon, garlic, and sage leaves, other times with cornbread sausage stuffing. Every year is an opportunity to try new versions of the trusty old ingredients.

Trio of cranberry sauces: cranberry pear, cranberry jalapeño, and cranberry fig.

This year the cranberries are going to have some added kick, sauteed with shallots and jalapeno peppers. A second sweet variation will include Bosc pears, quince paste, and ginger root. A butternut squash will be pan-roasted with sage leaves, tossed with fresh mozzarella cheese, and then drizzled all over with pistachio pesto. Our stuffing will be gluten-free by using a base of wild rice.

Roasted butternut squash with fresh mozzarella, sage, and pistachio pesto.

With so much change, does anything stay the same? Yes, the tender, fresh from the oven dinner rolls. These never change. They must show up every year. They are so pristinely baked that a goodly number of them never make it to the dinner table.

Find your own recipe for melding tradition with change. We are a blessed people, so this Thanksgiving, both give and give thanks.

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Garden Planning on a Cold Winter’s Day

Thinking of Spring

We are in the midst of a blizzard. Mother nature is dumping heavy, wet snow, yet inside my cozy house the growing stack of seed catalogs is whetting my appetite for summer. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has introduced “the first-ever red-colored Chinese cabbage with full-sized heads.” Park Seed has just introduced a bi-colored Echinacea where “yellow petal tips give way to magenta-red on these large, very abundant blooms.” I once again have zone 5 envy as I read about Spark Bros’ new variety of Honeycrisp/Gala apple cross.

My garden is buried, and the branches of my mulberry tree stark. However, I am starting to think, plan, and drool at the promise of a new variety of tomato. The juicy, sweet German Pink variety ensures greater disease resistance and heavier yields.

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Creating a Garden Plan

These cold, winter months give me time to reflect. What worked last summer? What do I want to do differently? Should I plant more pollinator-friendly plantings? How about more climbing vegetables? I love using my fence for vining peas, beans, cucumbers, and melons. Unfortunately it seems the most interesting seed varieties tend to sell out quickly. For that reason, if there is something I particularly want to try, I need to order soon. These deep, cold temps are essential for many of our native trees and plants, so I do not wish for a warm winter.

The variety of seasons offers a change of pace in our schedules. For me, on this wintry day, I am curled up with a mug of Chai tea with the strains of violin music in the background. A pine-scented candle burns as I nestle up with my garden planning book and seed catalogs.

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