Sunday, March 28, 2010

Broccoli is the beneficial harvest of March

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 29, 2010)

Think of harvest time and autumn comes to mind. But if you live in Florida, and if you grow broccoli, March can also be a bountiful month.

In our family, broccoli dominates. We devour green florets with the voracious appetite others reserve for sweet treats, salty foods or chunks of red meat. Seldom does a day go by without one or more servings of broccoli on the menu. Light steaming is our most common method of cooking, but the green tops also find their way into stir-fries, roasted vegetable concoctions, quiches, souffl├ęs and sandwiches.

When broccoli is not growing in the garden, we buy it at the store, but fresh-picked vegetables are more flavorful than anything found in the produce aisle. Fresh-picked, however, is not always available. We planted our current harvest from seeds sown in early January. Broccoli is one of many edibles that do best when planted successively. Seeds can be sown every week from mid-August through early March. Follow that schedule and you will have broccoli ready to pick from early October through May. That's eight months of healthful eating. It's a wonderful plan if you can manage to follow it. Unfortunately, we never have.

Most years, we get off to a good start. We think about planting in August when the weather is too hot for anything other than thinking. Sometimes, like this year, we actually go a step beyond the thought process and plant seeds in the fertile ground. The problem is, we don't continue. One planting, maybe two, and our momentum is lost. Seeds germinate. Young plants develop. Flower heads form. But instead of putting more seeds into the ground as we know we should, we become sidetracked with other projects. We often don't put in another planting until several months later — as we did this year — when we realize we've fallen behind.

A member of the Brassicacae family, broccoli shares its heritage with such "love them or hate them" vegetables as cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, kohlrabi and horseradish. When cooked, broccoli emits a strong sulfuric odor, a smell strong enough to discourage many people before the first bite. And that first bite can be disappointing. Too often broccoli is overcooked, mushy and dark green instead of being fork-tender, crisp and brightly colored. A light steaming is all that's needed to provide nutritious eating. Broccoli is an excellent source of vitamin C and minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and copper. Research has shown that broccoli also contains several important cancer-prevention elements.

I'm sure that the plant's potential health benefits influence our family's eating habits. But even if broccoli wasn't a nutrition powerhouse, we'd still be growing and eating it. We eat broccoli because we like the way it tastes, and we have it in our garden because it is such an easy, productive plant to grow. A single mature broccoli plant requires about two square feet of space and takes about 60 days to go from transplant to cooking pot.

Although broccoli leaves and stems are also edible, the portion of the plant most commonly consumed is the flower head, which forms — quite beautifully — in the center of the leafy surround. Once the flower head has reached an acceptably large size, it is "beheaded" and eaten. But that's not the end of the plant's life. Small side shoots soon appear, extending the plant's productivity for several more weeks. A single round seed or a young transplant purchased at the garden center provides months of edible goodness.

I wonder if we'll ever manage to plant our favorite vegetable at successive intervals. Ever the optimist, I'm hopeful we will, but even if we don't, I won't despair. It's hard to feel disappointed when you can walk out your front door at the end of March and return moments later with an armful of nutrient-rich veggies. Autumn may still be months away, but I have no reason to wait for September. I'm cooking up a batch of fresh broccoli for dinner and celebrating harvest time today.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Vintage baby gear stands test of time

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 22, 2010)

Shhh! My eight-month-old grandson is asleep in the Gerry Pack.

I love the Gerry Pack, an ingeniously designed baby carrier for kids up to 40 pounds. Ralph and I depended on the lightweight, aluminum-frame backpack when our four children were little. Now, as grandparents, we find ourselves depending upon it again.

Thirty years may have flown by since we first slipped Atom's mother, our oldest child, into the carrier's padded pouch, but the backpack works just as well now as it ever did at soothing fussy babies, lulling overtired toddlers to sleep and providing alert little ones with a secure and cozy perspective from which to observe the world.

The beauty of the backpack's design is that while the contented tot is toted about, the grownup upon whose back he is being carried is granted a rare and precious gift — hands-free mobility. When I use the Gerry Pack, my fingers are free to dance upon the keyboard, stir food on the stove, pick toys up off the floor or push the vacuum around the room. I realized shortly after our grandchild was born that while many things change over the years, certain pieces of essential child-rearing equipment remain constant.

Consider the table at which Atom sits when he visits. My husband first used the simple wooden table with adjustable seat, movable tray and wheeled legs when he was a baby. My mother-in-law, who recently passed away, not only saved much of the child-rearing equipment she used for her own three children, she somehow managed to keep everything in excellent condition. She gave us the table when our kids were babies, and it was in constant use from 1979 until the mid-1990s.

Recently, Ralph reclaimed it from the attic and cleaned it up so that when Atom visits, we have a comfortable, practical place for him to sit while eating.

During those visits, Atom plays with some of the many wooden toys his great-grandmother passed down to us. The same colorful playthings that entertained my husband and our children are now working their wonder on a third generation's inquisitive mind. Stackable wooden blocks that fit over a dowel have an ageless quality.

Atom is still more interested in eating books than reading them, but one day he'll realize how much pleasure is contained between the covers of books. When that day comes, I'll be ready with dozens of well-worn classics. I look forward to taking out the Harold and the Purple Crayon series, sharing with Atom the story of Ferdinand the Bull and introducing him to Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings. So many books now gathering dust on our bookshelves will soon provide Atom with portals into new and fascinating worlds.

Grandparenting may be a new phase in my life, but it came preloaded with memories and familiarities. When my grandson sits on the floor and plays with a basket of bottle lids, I remember his mother doing the same thing when she was a baby. When Atom is tired and nods off in the Gerry Pack, I flash back upon an earlier period of my life. I may not be able to carry a baby's weight for as long as I remember doing when I was in my 30s, but I can still support and soothe a fretful child.

Child-rearing trends come and go, but certain things never change. A child's need to be held will never stop, and expensive playthings will forever be tossed aside in favor of everyday objects. Toys may become fancier and more mechanically advanced, but that doesn't make them better. Wooden blocks and household items have an enduring quality that trumps technology And when it comes to books, well, as amazing as computers are, nothing can take the place of an illustrated hardback.

Right now my grandson is asleep in the Gerry Pack, but soon he'll awaken. When he does, my husband and I will be there to attend to his needs. The years may have taken a toll on my endurance, but my ability to love is as strong as ever. Love is another quality that doesn't diminish over time. It just grows stronger.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

This red wagon is for the birds

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 14, 2010)

The birds are enjoying their newest feeding station — an old Radio Flyer wagon filled with birdseed. My children used the wagon when they were little, but that was a long time ago. Since then it has been in the junk pile, exposed to all the abuse that wind and rain can muster.

The old wagon is a sorry-looking thing. Its color has faded, and rust has pockmarked the handle, hubs and bed. Although its wheels still turn, the wagon's swift-moving days are gone forever.

When I rescued the abandoned toy from the junk pile, my intention was to use it as a planter, but that was before winter temperatures plunged into the teens and my wildlife concerns skyrocketed. I fretted over the birds – the cardinals, goldfinches, doves and occasional jays that frequent the feeders. I wanted to give them more food to help them along during the coldest months.

The wagon was my solution. Its long, flat, edged bed holds quantities of birdseed. An old piece of screening laid over the bed prevents smaller seeds from disappearing through the corroded metal, and the wagon's flat surface enables many birds to feed simultaneously.

Rarely does an hour go by without some birds or squirrels approaching the feeder. Squirrels love the easy access I've provided to a seed-based smorgasbord, and while I'd rather feed birds than supplement the diet of hungry rodents, I accept the fact that squirrels are an inevitable component of all bird-feeding operations.

The mix I use is millet, flax, sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, corn and thistle. Pretty little goldfinches come for the tiny thistle seeds while cardinals prefer the plumper sunflower seeds. Because the wagon's bed is roomy, even ground-feeding birds such as doves are willing to make use of my improvised feeder.

The converted Radio Flyer is the latest in a series of feeders made from reclaimed material. Over the years I have fed my feathered friends out of recycled milk cartons (both the plastic and boxy, wax-coated types), empty tofu containers, shallow cake pans, the hollowed-out shells of coconuts and half-round pieces of bamboo. It doesn't take much inventiveness to fashion an effective feeding station from items found around the home and yard.

I love finding new purposes for old items. There is so much stuff sitting in the back of closets and cabinets, filling up garages and overflowing onto yards. With a little imagination, chipped dishes, outgrown apparel, unwanted furniture and an abundance of other ordinary items can be refashioned in practical and attractive ways. I have turned old chairs into plant holders, retrofitted holey boots and conch shells into flowerpots, repurposed rusted-out wheelbarrows and converted a wood stove into an outdoor plant stand. When you begin creating garden art out of castaway items, you enter a new world of possibilities.

There are many Web sites that showcase the work of creative recyclers. The GardenWeb ( is a popular online community that covers a wide range of gardening topics. It has an excellent forum called Garden Junk dedicated to creative uses of everyday items.

Similar to GardenWeb is GardenStew, another online community for plant lovers. Also called Garden Junk, the forum on GardenStew ( calls itself a "discussion about creating interesting decorations and items of interest for your garden using everyday objects." Both sites provide ideas and instructions on how to convert bowling balls into gazing globes and teacups into bird feeders and how to create windchimes out of, well, just about everything.

I don't have a lot of time to spend browsing Web sites for ideas, but I do find myself frequently thinking about new ways to use old items. My most recent project — the refashioned Radio Flyer wagon — met all my personal requirements. It was extremely easy to convert. The conversion did not require any output of money. It looks attractive, works wonderfully and has the potential to last a long time.

Even more important, it brings me joy. Watching the birds — and, I admit, even the squirrels — flock to the red-wagon feeder makes me smile even when I'm feeling overwhelmed and down. I may be feeding thistles and millet to the birds, but they're providing me with a steady diet of hopefulness, happiness and amusement. That's what I call a recycling project that keeps on giving.

Monday, March 8, 2010

An exceptional mother-in-law beat the ‘meddling’ stereotype

Mary Boas last March on her 92nd birthday

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 7, 2010)

Mothers-in-law are often the subject of derogatory humor. They are frequently characterized as interfering, overbearing, meddling members of the family tree. My mother-in-law, Mary Boas, who died Feb. 17, was not like that at all. If anything, she epitomized the opposite of those traits.

Born March 10, 1917, in Prosser, Wash., as the only child of older parents, Mary spent most of her childhood on her parents' chicken farm in Monroe, Wash., where, among other skills, she learned how to slaughter, pluck and cook chickens. Some of my favorite memories revolve around my mother-in-law's cooking. Her fried chicken, homemade fudge and beach plum jelly were some of the tasty treats she prepared for special occasions.

Mary's idyllic youth — living on a beautiful, rural property where she was the much-loved, pampered daughter of two devoted parents — gave her a sense of independence and a strong belief in her ability to achieve whatever goals she set. Although she grew up on a farm, Mary was raised in a family that emphasized education. Her mother, Anne Goff, was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, the same school that Mary attended throughout her youth. Although she had no siblings, she was close to her older cousin, Rachel, who went to college when the thought of higher education didn't even enter most women's minds.

Mary knew at an early age that she wanted to pursue an academic career. And she did. In 1940, she graduated from the University of Washington after earning bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics. To further her education and teach, Mary left her beloved Washington and moved to North Carolina to attend Duke University.

Although leaving her family probably made the move difficult, it was at Duke that she met her future husband, Ralph Philip Boas Jr., a mathematics instructor. Mary and Ralph were married on Cape Cod in 1941, and Mary spent the early years of her marriage working toward her Ph.D. in physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She earned that degree in 1948, the same year that my husband, the first of her three children, was born.

My husband and his siblings grew up in Evanston, Ill., with two parents whose lives were immersed in academia. For three decades, Mary taught physics at DePaul University in Chicago while her husband taught math at Northwestern. Mary was the author of the textbook Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences. The third edition of her book, which she revised at age 88, is still used in college classrooms today.

I met my husband's parents in 1970, about a week after I met their son. Ralph – my Ralph – and I drove from Boston to Evanston to spend Christmas with his family. Before venturing west, we stopped first at the home of my parents in Pennsylvania, where their reaction to our plans was anything but cordial. My mother and father took an immediate dislike to the man who was to become my husband and, after experiencing their reaction, I was afraid of how Ralph's parents would receive us. I needn't have worried. Ralph's parents were loving, kind and non-judgmental — traits, I was to learn, that remained constant throughout their lifetimes.

It is never easy when someone you love dies, and it is always difficult to lose a parent. I'm glad knowing that my mother-in-law, Mary Boas, lived a long and full life. I'm proud of her accomplishments, appreciative for the unconditional love she bestowed on her family and grateful for the many years we all had together.

Two years ago, my then 25-year-old son, Timothy, agreed to leave Florida and move in with his grandmother to be her companion and caretaker. Together they attended garden club meetings, went to concerts, fixed meals and, in general, enjoyed each other's company. I'm so glad the two of them were able to spend that precious time together, and I'm glad, too, that Mary remained in her own home — as she so fervently wished to do — until she died.

People can make all the jokes they want about meddling mothers-in-law. My mother-in-law was the exception. Even more than that, she was exceptional in so many ways.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Elusive bluebird joins property’s wildlife

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 28, 2010)

I understand what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, "The bluebird carries the sky on his back."

I had just walked past the line of mulberry trees into an open field between the woods and the house when a flash of blue — sky blue — caught my eye.

"My goodness," I thought, "it's a bluebird!"

For many years, I've lived in fairly remote, wildlife-friendly settings. Although I've enjoyed watching a wide range of feathered fliers, until now I had never seen a bluebird. Perhaps I had missed the birds, or maybe they were always there and I just hadn't looked hard enough. It could also be that until recently the habitat on our property did not meet a bluebird's requirements.

The Eastern bluebird is a member of the Turdidae or thrush family, the same family as wood thrushes and robins. Bluebirds and robins even look somewhat similar. Both have reddish-brown breasts, although a bluebird's belly has white plumage as well. At 7 inches, bluebirds are much smaller and more delicate-looking birds than either robins or wood thrushes. As its name implies, the bluebird has a predominantly sky-blue coloration — a beautiful, brilliant eye-catching color.

The habitat bluebirds prefer is a combination of fields and woods. Bluebirds like to live on the edge of woods — especially pinewoods — in which there is not much undergrowth. In addition to a small percentage of fruits and berries, these bug-eating beauties consume quantities of grasshoppers, caterpillars, crickets and beetles. Because insects make up almost 70 percent of their diet, they gravitate toward open farmland, fields and fence lines where food sources are plentiful.

The more I learned about these sweet little songbirds, the more I realized that the land I live on has many of the attributes bluebirds appreciate. We have woods, we have fields, we have many sources of wild berries and we don't use pesticides. The lake provides the shallow water that bluebirds like for bathing, we mow regularly to limit undergrowth and, when trees die, we generally leave them alone.

Bluebirds are cavity-dwelling birds that like to build their pine-needle-lined nests in the cavities of dead trees. Sometimes they take over an abandoned woodpecker nest, and often they perch on a dead tree's bare branches while searching for food.

I've always liked leaving dead trees in place. Some people think a tree struck by a lightning, felled in a storm or killed by disease is an eyesore, but to me each dead tree is alive with possibilities. If it is tall enough, ospreys and eagles will perch on snags and uppermost branches, while owls and smaller birds will drill holes in the decaying wood. In North America, 55 bird species — including bluebirds — nest in tree cavities.

But birds are not the only beneficiaries of a tree's demise. Mammals, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates all reap benefits when trees stop living. Some find refuge in natural cavities and dens, while others seek security beneath rotting logs. Small mammals get relief from the heat in dead limbs and downed wood, while a tree's decaying matter provides a feast for spiders, beetles, worms and microbes.

It's those invertebrates that bluebirds are after. The birds I watched were busy flitting about from tree to ground in search of their insect prey. I followed them as they flew about and was rewarded by their cheery song.

Seeing bluebirds was yet another thrilling experience in a year that has so far been full of wildlife encounters. I'd like to think that our mindful management and nurturing of the land have helped secure a wide range of wildlife habitats, and maybe they have. It also may be that time alone is responsible for the abundance of recent animal and bird sightings.

As plants have matured, more wildlife is attracted. Whatever the reason that bluebirds have suddenly begun to appear, I welcome their arrival. Thoreau imagined bluebirds to be transporters of sky, but to my eye, these blue-feathered fliers are signs of the Earth's good health. When the land is in balance, life will flourish and pretty bluebirds will continue to carry the sky on their backs.