Leaning Tower of Potatoes

Okay, so when most people say (write, text, etc.) “potato tower,” they’re referring to some variation on that time-honored tower-of-tires method, in which one continues to heap earth or straw around a growing spud, using a mounting stack of tires to hold said earth or straw in place, thus allowing more and more new spuds to form along the original’s ever-lengthening stem.

That method is not the subject of this post.

It isn’t that I have nothing to say about the tire-tower; I do, oh, I do. In fact, I have a rant building on the near-ubiquitous nature of this method and its variations (involving wire mesh, newspaper, cardboard boxes, tomato cages, reed mesh, and assorted combinations and permutations of the above), but that rant not having yet reached its finely honed apex, will have to wait. Or we must wait for it. Or something.

In the meantime, I shall try to subdue my rage, curb the temptation to rant, and discuss the other type of potato tower that is the subject of this post. I stumbled on it while mucking about on the web a few weeks back, first on, of all places, Popular Mechanics, and then elsewhere, including Mother Earth News and a blog that’s new to me, Mavis Butterfield’s One Hundred Dollars a Month.

In this version of the tower, you don’t rely on a few potatoes to fill the entire bin. Instead, you put in several layers of potatoes which then grow out the sides of the tower. Having had minimal success in the past with getting potatoes to sprout along a stem as it grows, and having in hand more seed potatoes than made sense, I decided to try this.

Aside from finding enough earth to fill the cylinder (mine must be almost a yard in diameter) this is an easy enough project, largely because I didn’t do it right. Everyone says to line the wire cylinder with straw. Not having any, I didn’t. Instead, I mixed the soil with generous amounts of coconut coir and spruce duff (the layer of decaying needles beneath the tree.) Both hold water beautifully, so I’m hoping the spuds within don’t suffer for lack of straw.

It has taken on a distinct tilt, as you see:leaning tower of potatoes

But there at the bottom—yes—a sprout!

first sprout

That was actually five days ago. The day after this one appeared, I saw another, and two days later a third. Then they started to appear at the top of the tower. So far those three are the only ones poking their leafy heads through the wire into the light, but I have my fingers crossed.


Return of the Shaggy Parasols

Chlorophyllum rachodes

IMyoung boletes

Last year, when I was at first too sick, then too discouraged, to do much in the garden, something magical happened: a second variety of edible mushrooms joined my dependable fairy ring crop, the Marasmius oreadesI wrote about four (four!) years ago in “Back Yard Mushrooms” (July 6, 2014).

The Marasmius oreades come up in two places in the yard, each in a wide curve that follows the arch of a tree root, each year that curve a bit wider, a few inches displaced from where it was the year before. They’re a small mushroom, delicate in appearance, in color, in flavor, excellent in an omelette.

But there’s nothing delicate about the newcomers, which appeared at both shaded, eastern corners of the garage, bulbus and flaky and dark, big even when small, if you know what I mean. Actually, they weren’t newcomers, having put in an appearance in force, ten years ago or so, but at that point I considered them merely a novelty, not having yet learned that an edible mushroom might grace my garden.

Last summer, however, I took steps, which of course consisted primarily of inviting over Sarah, the same friend who’d helped me I.D. the fairy ring mushrooms as an edible variety. This time, she looked at the lunkers bulging out of the dirt by the garage and said,

“They look—oh my gosh, they look like Shaggy Parasols.”

And so they proved to be. I got a number early summer, and through assiduous watering, was able to bring on a fall crop as well.

This year, as the spring rains dropped off, I watered the yard areas where all my mushroom crops have appeared. One of my fairy rings showed up the next day. The other I’d nearly despaired of, but it finally appeared just a week ago.

As for the parasols—no sign. Not a hint. Nothing. Nada. Until today, when I saw one—no, two—four—half a dozen or more—in fact, an even dozen—cropping up in a new area very near the trunk of one of our big pines. I’ve fenced off the area, sent thanks to the mushroom gods, and started tuning up my taste buds.

Buried in the Garden

Well, if this year in the garden doesn’t kill me, it will probably cripple me. I’m trying to come back after multiple surgeries and other medical anomaly (I’m beginning to feel like a medical anomaly myself) and bring the garden(s) back after years of neglect, and oy, but it’s a lot of work. Especially since the whole project (multiple projects, really) seemed so overwhelming that I couldn’t face it (them) and therefore got a late start in an early spring.

However, progress is being made. An important point to remember, as I gaze at the mountain of incomplete and unstarted tasks, the unmulched beds, the unplanted beds (!) the compost piles to be built, weed barriers to be installed, beds whose soil has compacted or been invaded by weeds or both—Yes, in the face of all that’s undone, it’s essential to bear in mind what’s done.

So here’s the rundown, minus before and after pictures because photography was not at the top of my priority list when I started. Besides, having no faith that I’d get even this far, I hardly wanted “before” pictures, lest there be no “afters” to trump them.

— New compost bin built (thanks to S.O.), and winter’s compostables moved.
— Major compost pile built and brought to cooking temp. (This involves me trolling the alley for weeds, which I rely on for the nitrogen necessary to bring my piles up to speed.)
— Strawberry beds next door weeded, no small undertaking, believe me.
— home beds composted and at least partially planted; sprouts sighted!
— peas, both pod and snap, soaked and planted.
— greenhouse paths “finished”—at least, walkable.
— greenhouse vent installed (again thanks to S.O.)
— Strenuous attack on bindweed undertaken in beds next door.
— corner area next door dug out; new bed created!
— Patio baskets planted (all but three largest)—something not done these two years past.
— Raspberries clipped back, staked, and mulched.
— Several batches of dandelion/mustard pesto packed into the freezer for winter delectation.

So–it’s a start. I remind myself: all finished tasks start at the beginning.

Dandelion Pesto

It’s amazing what you can make from the garden, even before it gets going.

Yes, I know, pesto is made from basil. (Also pine nuts, butter, parmesan, garlic, and sometimes parsley.) But years ago an Italian friend confided to me that only Americans were so hidebound as to think that it had to be made from those ingredients and nothing else. In Italy, she told me, pesto was made from all sorts of things.

At the time, I looked at her askance. She and pesto might both be Italian, and I might pride myself on being openminded, but there were limits.

Over time, however, I’ve gradually abandoned one of those key ingredients after the other, until only the garlic remains a constant. First, in the absence of pine nuts (or perhaps in a fit of fury over their preposterous price), I tried walnuts instead. Then butter gave way to olive oil. And a couple of years ago, I tried using other greens: arugula, sometimes leavened with dandelion greens, kale, even lettuce. Pesto, after all, comes from a word meaning to pound, as in “mortar and pestle;” it doesn’t say anything about what gets pounded.

So this spring, when I found myself with—well, lots and lots (and lots) of young mustard greens, way too many chives, and of course, the usual springtime onslaught of dandelions, I bethought me to try a new combination. The result, which I inflicted on four friends and my SO (i.e. Significant Other, a.k.a. husband, spouse, partner) was well received all round.

I’ve make three or four batches since, each slightly different, all of them delicious. Tonight I’ll be taking some to a potluck where not everyone is acquainted with my peculiar culinary inclinations. Wish me luck.

Here’s the process, followed by the recipe.

The key ingredients come from the garden (and alleyway):

Home ingredients

That’s some slightly fuzzy mustard (in which the garden abounds)—mustard is a bit fuzzy, so I guess it’s apt that the picture’s slightly out of focus. (I could pretend I did it on purpose. Hmm…) In the lower left you find your chopped chives, another abundant ingredient, and on the right, yes, dandelion flowers. They look a bit bedraggled, after immersion in water and the trauma of being spun, but so would you after such treatment.

The non-garden ingredients were olive oil, toasted almonds, garlic and salt.

We commenced by depositing the garlic, the dandelion flowers, and about half the nuts in the food processor.

in the cuisinart

And here’s what it looked like after we gave it a whirl:

As you can see, the bowl’s already pretty full. We actually had to remove some of that first round in order to get all the chives and mustard incorporated, but once that was done, we were able to mix it all.

Here’s the yield—about 3½ cups worth, most of what went into the freezer.

end product


In the meantime, the weather was doing its thing outside in the back yard–sun and rain, and somewhere, a rainbow.

The rain outside

Dandelion Mustard Pesto

1-2 c. dandelion flowers
1 c. toasted almonds
1-2 c. chives
3 c. young mustard or dandelion greens
6 medium cloves garlic
1 T. salt
2/3 c. olive oil
(1 c. grated parmesan cheese—optional)


Grind everything into a paste using a blender or food processor. (I’d recommend the latter for this big a batch; getting it out of the blender–or even into it–would be a job and a half.)

Spread it on freshly boiled pasta and top with parmesan cheese.

It will keep in the freezer for months. Just hack off enough for your meal and return the rest of the block to the freezer.

To ensure that the dandelion heads and garlic are thoroughly ground up, I started with them. Toss in some of the olive oil at the same time, and you’ll probably be able to add all the other ingredients, bit by bit, to the mix.

We like a bit of nutty texture to our pesto, so I ground half the nuts with the flowers and garlic, then added half as the last ingredient, grinding until the mixture had the desired consistency.

It will taste too salty in this form, but not on something bland like pasta.



The blog breathes again…

Gasps, at least.

The Manic was hacked and re-hacked; down for almost two years, it’s been only recently revived. There are multiple issues, I know, including a plethora of broken links. I’ll get to them, but it’ll take a while, so I depend on your patience. Thanks!