Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Walk in the Park

A friend and I went for a " tree walk" yesterday morning at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. We walked the length of Azalea Way, which, within a few weeks, will feature wave after wave of azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom. Right now, however, the cherries and magnolias are putting on the show.

It was cloudy yesterday, but the pale blossoms of this weeping cherry brightened up the landscape.

This stunning magnolia stopped us in our tracks.

Spotting this patch of skunk cabbage was a surprise. The best part of the surprise was that there was no odor! At first, I wasn't sure it was really skunk cabbage. I can usually smell this plant a long time before I see it.

Cloudiness seems to heighten the contrast between light and shadow, making the canopy of this cherry tree appear to float.

Here's another ghostly tree.

I was at the adjacent Japanese Garden a week ago and noticed that the cherry trees had not yet bloomed. The buds were still pretty tight. I expect them to be showing color in the next week or so, if the weather remains mild.

In the meantime, if you are in the Seattle area, there's lots to enjoy at the Arboretum, and a big show to look forward to on Azalea Way when the rhodies bloom.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spaghetti Squash and the Blood Type Diet

I've been fascinated by the subject of nutrition ever since I was in nurse's training, ages ago. As part of our basic nutrition class, we were required to keep food and activity diaries. Everyone else complained about having to do that, but I thought it was interesting. I guess that's when I got hooked on the science of food and metabolism. (But please don't ask me to explain the Krebs cycle...)

For all that, my main interest in food during my 20s and 30s was mostly confined to how it tasted. I was interested in learning cooking techniques, using fresh ingredients - to the point of growing most of my family's food for a short time - and trying new things. I didn't think too much about how certain foods, regardless of quality or taste, could affect my metabolism for better or worse.

That changed in my early 40s when I discovered that I have an allergy to eggs. This bit of information explained a lot of things, like why it was that after a couple of bites of an omelet, I had trouble swallowing, and why I had frequent bouts with symptoms that seemed like violent cases of food poisoning.

The process of adapting to this allergy, and working with a naturopathic physician, brought me back to my former interest in food as it relates to metabolism. That, in turn, brought up a lot of questions. For example, if a vegetarian diet is so good for people, why do some people gain weight when they become vegetarians? Why is it that some people can live on bread, tofu and fruit and look and feel great, yet, why is it that after two days without meat, I have no energy? Why is it that soy and lentils, two protein sources that are highly touted as meat replacements, leave me feeling like my head is in a fog and my feet are in concrete boots? And why is it that eating a hamburger makes me feel so good?

I found answers to these questions several years ago in a book called "Eat Right 4 Your Type," by Dr. Peter D'Adamo. In it, he explains that blood type determines how food is metabolized. He describes how blood types evolved, beginning with the earliest humans who were hunter-gatherers. Their diet was largely animal protein and fat, with small amounts of carbohydrate. This diet provided the huge amounts of energy needed to survive harsh conditions. People like me with Type O blood, the oldest blood type, retain those ancient metabolic characteristics. Grains and dairy, which were not part of the early human diet, are not well tolerated by our systems.

Thousands of years later, when humans began to settle down and create permanent communities, they started cultivating crops. This is when grains were introduced to the human diet. With this addition to the food supply, human metabolism began to adapt and a new blood type, Type A, began to appear. People with Type A blood do very well on a diet of grains, vegetable-based proteins and carbohydrates. Meat and dairy, not so much.

Further along the evolutionary trail, humans domesticated animals and added dairy products to their diet. And again, blood type adapted. Type Bs have many more choices for dinner because they can enjoy a range of meats, dairy, vegetables and certain grains. The newest and rarest blood type, AB, is the most idiosyncratic of all blood types, combining metabolic characteristics of both Type A and B, with a few of it's own eccentricities.

I revisited this information recently as I was thinking that it's past time for me to shed a few pounds. I know that I do best when I stick to meat, fish and vegetables, but I do love those "white" carbs, especially bread and pasta. I had a taste for spaghetti with a rich, thick Bolognese sauce, but I was trying to talk myself out of it. Pasta really sticks with me and not in a good way.

And then I remembered - spaghetti squash! 

Now, I'm not going to lie to you. It doesn't taste like pasta. But it doesn't taste bad, either. It's easy to fix. The strands of the cooked squash hold their shape and look very much like spaghetti, hence the name. The flavor complements the sauce nicely. And after dinner, I don't have that stuffed feeling I usually get from eating pasta.

If you are unfamiliar with spaghetti squash, here are a few photos.

This is what to look for at the grocery store or farmer's market. Oval, pale yellow, smooth skin.

To cook, cut in half, scoop out seeds, and place, cut side down, in a baking dish with about 3/4" water. Bake at 325- 350 for about 20-25 minutes depending on the size of the squash. To check for doneness, turn over a piece and use a fork to see if the strands separate easily.

When the squash has finished baking, scoop out the strands of "spaghetti." Season with a little sea salt, butter if desired, and top with your favorite sauce.

Spaghetti squash is delicious and nutritious, no matter what your blood type is. If you've never tried it before, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

See related post: Eat Right 4 Your Type

Monday, March 22, 2010

We Still Need Health Care Reform

An historic health care bill is close to being passed by both houses of Congress. If the Senate approves it later this week, President Obama is expected to sign it into law just over a week from today.

Some believe this is a tremendous step forward for Americans. Others believe it is a disaster. I believe it misses the point.

Here's why. This legislation, commonly referred to as "health care reform," does nothing to reform health care. It only reforms health insurance.

And who needs health insurance? When you think about it, no one does. Having insurance doesn't keep you healthy or cure you when you're ill. If you have a headache, do you take out your insurance policy and rub it on your head to feel better? Of course not, it's just a stack of paper.

We don't need health insurance. What everyone needs is health CARE. Insurance is merely a scheme devised to pay for the care. 

To me, it seems that health care reform should address the quality of the care, not the payment system. Real health care reform would offer incentives for better health outcomes. Better outcomes would mean lower costs. But I don't see anything like that in this legislation.

As it is, Americans have mediocre health care and we spend more than any other country on earth for what we get. Why is that? Why is it that health care consumers in the US fail to demand a better product? In every other aspect of our lives we seem to think it is OK to expect more and pay less. It is high time that attitude applied to health care as well. When that happens, and only then, will meaningful health care reform become a reality.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Screamin' Deal on Cookware

I've been cooking a long time and have owned a wide array of pots and pans. For many years, Revere Ware was my favorite. I added cast iron skillets to my collection in the late 60s, when I married into a family with Southern roots. They taught me to "season" those skillets so nothing stuck to them. I had one iron skillet for chicken and one for cornbread (and nary a drop of dish soap touched either one.) They were marvelous. Heavy, but marvelous.

Years passed - the marriage ended. Fried chicken and cornbread left my regular menu rotation and along with them, the cast iron pans. I was working full time and raising kids and wanted quick cooking and clean up. I flirted briefly with non-stick cookware, which was OK until I noticed scratches in the bottom of the pans and wondered where that plastic coating had gone. I figured that it had probably ended up in our dinner and that couldn't be good for us. So - back to the Revere Ware.

Now there's a lot to like about Revere Ware. It cooks evenly, cleans up without much fuss and the handles stay cool so you don't need to use pot holders. But the downside is that those handles are not oven-proof. So about 15 years ago, I started buying pieces of a popular brand of heavy aluminum cookware hoping to have, at last, found the perfect cookware. But alas, about the only good thing I can say about those expensive pots and pans is that their handles are oven-proof. In every other way, they have been unsatisfactory. Food sticks, they discolor in the dishwasher, handles get too hot on the stove top to be handled without a pot holder, etc. And then there is the issue of food reactivity with aluminum. Is it safe? I don't know.

For a long time, I've wanted a new set of stainless cookware, but I wasn't willing to spend $350 - $450 to do it. Then a few months ago on Amazon, I saw a great price on Cuisinart pots and pans. The price is so low, I was skeptical. But the reviews were great and I thought, hey for far less than I spent on a heavy aluminum stock pot alone, I could have a whole new set! So I bought myself the set for Christmas.

After using this cookware just about every day for three months, I have to say that I could not be more pleased! It looks good, is heavy enough to hold heat, but not so heavy that I need two hands to lift the bigger pans. It cleans up easily, the handles are oven-proof and they stay cool on the stove top unless I've been simmering something for quite a while. This cookware has pretty much everything I want.

To round out my set, my son, Ryan, bought me the 12" pan with a domed lid. You have to see this pan to fully appreciate it. Beyond being good cookware, it is a beautiful vessel. It is elegant enough for serving and the price is unbelievable!

So there you have it - good quality at great prices. There may be a recession going on, but you can still enjoy good cookware and/or give good cookware as gifts. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea." - Isak Dinesen

Yin and Yang of the Seasons

As we end the Yin (Feminine) seasons of fall and winter, and move into the Yang (Masculine) seasons of spring and summer, it seems like a good time to reflect on the traits and symbols associated with Yin and Yang, Feminine and Masculine. Here are some of them:

Yin - Feminine            Yang - Masculine
Rest                               Work
Cold                              Hot
Wet                                Dry
Dark                              Light
Spontaneous                 Disciplined
Passive                           Aggressive
Receiving                      Giving
Restoring                       Depleting
Night                             Day
Lunar                             Solar
Inner life                        Outer life
Intuition                         Analysis
Curved                           Linear
Water                             Stone
Cooperative                   Competitive
Body                               Mind
Beautiful                         Functional
Sperm                             Egg (yes, really!)
Slow food                       Fast food
Creativity                        Productivity
Natural world                 Built world (civilization)
Nurturing                        Protective

I am endlessly fascinated by the way each of us, regardless of gender, embodies these traits, at different times and in different circumstances. This movement from yin to yang and back again is where life happens. It is irresistible, insistent, and never still. It is in the motion of the tides and the cycles of the seasons. It is in the peaks and valleys of a sine wave. It is in the ones and zeroes that make up the alphabet of the machine language that runs our digital devices. It is in the exuberant embrace of new experience at the beginning of the day and in the peaceful slumber at the end of it. It is the "hum" in human. And in everything else.

So here we are - at that time of the year when we move from the quiet, gestational Feminine into the active, outwardly focused Masculine. It is a good time to pause, take a deep breath, and look forward. As we prepare to turn our clocks ahead tonight, and "spring forward" into yang-time, I leave you with this unusual, and delightful, perspective on the change of seasons from Vivian Swift: 
"There is a long standing rumor that spring is the time of renewal, but that's only if you ignore the depressing clutter and din of the season. All that flowering and budding and birthing - the messy youthfulness of Spring actually verges on SQUALOR. Spring is too busy, too full of itself, too much like a 20-year-old to be the best time for reflection, re-grouping, and starting fresh. For that, you need December."

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Daffodils, Lingerie and Snow Geese

According to the calendar, it is still winter, but here in the Seattle area, yesterday sure felt like spring. It was sunny, temperatures close to 60 degrees, trees in bloom everywhere. It was the perfect day for a little road trip and, lucky for me, I had a destination - the Style Show at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Washington. My friend, Kelly Lyles, was an exhibitor, and she and another friend involved with the event had invited me to attend. 

So I tossed my trusty little Canon PowerShot into my purse, loaded Songs in the Key of Life into my CD player and headed north on I-5. La Conner is located in Skagit County, about 75 miles from Seattle. When you exit the freeway up there, you drive at least 10 more miles to the west, along picturesque roads that wind through farm fields to reach the town. As I rounded a bend on one of these roads, I saw a field covered in white to my right. 

If we hadn't had so much warm weather lately, I would have assumed it was a late winter snow. But whatever snow we had in the lowlands this year has long since melted. As I got closer, I realized what it was - the field was covered in birds, hundreds and hundreds of them.
I had forgotten that this area is part of the migration path for many birds, in this case, snow geese. These birds overwinter in the Skagit Valley, foraging and building their strength before the journey to their nesting grounds in the tundra of northernmost Canada. For more details on these amazing birds go here. I pulled over to take photos, fascinated by all the activity: birds milling about feeding on insects, seeds, whatever, while others flew overhead. What a sight! A road trip bonus, for sure. 

Then it was on to the MoNA Style Show. The museum, upstairs and down, was filled with artist's booths, each featuring some kind of wearable art or items for the home - jewelry, jackets, sweaters, dresses, hats, pillows, ceramics, and Kelly's matchbox car necklaces and humorous paintings. Beautiful items everywhere. Great color and design. A visual treat. 

One section consisted of art pieces created with the theme: Lingerie. (Unfortunately, photography was not allowed in the show, so you will have to rely on my memory of some of these, plus your own imagination.) There were some great interpretations on this theme, including a sort of long-line corset made of basketry. There were a couple of diaphanous gowns, one trimmed in vintage lace and tatting, that looked as though they had come from a dream. There was a classic, black bra with gold embroidery, that I thought kind of went with my shoes. And a painting called "Sky Slip," which was the image used for the show publicity posters. All of these items, and more, were offered in a silent auction, so there were lists of bidders and bids posted by each one. Next to a bra and panty set, studded with scary looking spikes, someone had written in the names of "bidders:" Madonna and Lady Gaga. That got a laugh. 

After a late lunch, it was time to head back toward Seattle. I took my time, though. It was too pretty a day to be in any hurry. This area is home to the annual Skagit Tulip Festival, which usually takes place throughout the month of April. There are several spring bulb producers here, including Washington Blub Company, the largest in the US. With spring arriving early this year, I wondered if I might find a field or two already in bloom. And I was not disappointed.
Just a few miles from La Conner, heading toward Mt. Vernon, I spied this sea of yellow daffodils. (That's the snowy peak of Mt. Baker barely showing above the coastal mountains in this photo.)

Daffodils always make me happy. Partly because of their sunny disposition. But mostly because they remind me of my son, Mike. His birthday is in a few days and no matter where I live, it seems that daffodils are always blooming on that day. (He is in the Navy and underway at the moment, so I emailed him some daffodils via digital photography this morning.)

On the way home, I missed the worst of the southbound traffic on I-5 by skipping over to Highway 99 at the north end of Seattle. This route comes south alongside downtown with great views of the city on the left, of Elliott Bay and Olympic Mountains on the right and, on a clear day as yesterday was, straight ahead you see majestic Mt. Rainier rising above it all. What a view! It was the perfect ending to a perfect little road trip. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cut It Out!

OK, the beginning of this post is going to involve ranting. So just be warned.

The photo at left does not show you how to PRUNE a tree. This shows you how to MUTILATE a tree. First of all, chopping off the branches like this ruins the natural shape of the tree. The tree is going to react to this torture by sending up dozens of spindly stems, called water sprouts, from each of these stubs, which will make it look even worse. Secondly, each of these cuts opens the tree up to insect and disease problems. Third, bad pruning ultimately kills trees.

Seriously, if you're going to do this to a tree, why not just cut it down and get it over with?

All right, I just want to make the point that pruning is not simple and it is not intuitive. It takes some education to do it right. The way you prune a fruit tree is not the way you prune a Japanese lace leaf maple. The way you prune roses is different from the way you prune flowering shrubs. You don't prune everything at the same time of the year. You don't even use the same procedures for plants in the same species. For example, there are three types of clematis and there is a different way to prune each type.

In other words, pruning is not a job that you can give to the lowest bidder and expect a good result.

So how should you approach the business of pruning? If you don't want to do the work yourself, hire a professional. For tree work, you'll want a certified arborist. For everything else, shrubs, roses, ground covers, perennials, etc., look for landscape gardeners and ask about their training. Have they taken a pruning class? (Don't expect the guys who mow your lawn to know what to do. They usually don't.) Ask for referrals at your local nursery. Community colleges with horticulture programs may also be a good source of referrals.

If you want to do your own pruning, I encourage you to do that, provided that you do a little reading first. One of the best books I've come across is the American Horticultural Society's Pruning and Training. It is well illustrated, easy to understand and well organized. It will take you step-by-step through the process of pruning hundreds of types of plants. You don't have to read the entire book, just go to the section that covers the types of plants you are interested in.

I also recommend Cass Turnbull's Guide to Pruning: What, When, and Where. Cass is a Northwest author, landscape gardener and the founder of Plant Amnesty. She has made it her mission in life to educate people about proper pruning and she does it with wit and wisdom. Whatever book you use, pay attention to the information on how and where to make proper pruning cuts.

Once you have acquired a bit of knowledge, you will want some proper tools. You don't need many. In fact, I would say that 90% of the pruning I have done in my life (which is quite a lot) has been done using only two things: a pair of pruners and a folding saw. It is worth the money to buy good tools. Cheap ones wear out quickly and break easily. By the time you're on your second pair of bargain pruners, you could have had a good pair all along. The brand I recommend is Felco.

I have used the same pair of Felco pruners for almost 20 years. Every so often I have them sharpened, and I think I lubricated them once with a shot of silicone spray, and that's about it. Felco makes several different styles of pruners which is a big advantage if you do much pruning.

For example, I have small hands. Regular sized pruners don't fit well in my hand and I quickly develop cramps. So I have a pair of F-6 pruners which feel like they were made for me. I can, and have, spent all day pruning using them without any problem. A friend of mine has problems with her wrist, something like carpal tunnel syndrome, so she bought a pair of F-7 pruners with a rotating handle. She says she had pretty much given up pruning until she found these. Now she can work comfortably. Felco also makes a left handed pruner with a rotating handle and several other styles to suit special needs. Having good tools can make all the difference in how much work you can do and how well you can do it.

Felco also makes great little folding saws. For big jobs, you will want a bow saw, but it isn't really practical in most situations because you can't fit the saw into tight places. The folding saw is small, light weight and amazingly sharp. Replacement blades are available.

Other tools you might need at some point include the bow saw mentioned earlier and a long handled pruner, also called a lopper. Loppers aren't precision tools and are best used to quickly chop away underbrush. For that reason, and because I rarely use them, I don't spend much on loppers.

Good pruning isn't really difficult, but there is a lot to know before taking sharp tools out into the garden. It is worth taking a little time to learn how to do it correctly. If you don't want to do it yourself, that's fine. Just don't turn the job over to someone just because he was the lowest bidder. You can't put the branches back on a tree once they've been cut off.

Glorious Roses!

The weather in the Pacific Northwest has been surprisingly mild this winter, which means that our spring gardening season has started a full month early. I'm already behind on some of my chores, which include early season rose care. Since I have roses on my mind, I thought I'd share some information about them with you.

If you love roses but hate dealing with aphids, black spot and chemicals, consider planting varieties that are disease and pest resistant. The rose you see above is one of those. It is called 'Mutabilis' - a China rose that has been in cultivation for thousands of years. It's flowers are the simple, old-fashioned variety, with flat, open faces. The flower color changes from hot pink when it first opens to a peachy-yellow as it fades. The flowers and stems emit a pleasant, spicy fragrance not typical of roses, but delightful nonetheless. I've had one of these in my garden for years and found it to be prolific, beautiful and easy to take care of.

Regardless of the type of rose you plant, it is important to remember that roses are heavy feeders. One of the reasons that many of them have severe disease and pest problems is because they are under-nourished. Stressed out plants, just like stressed out people, are more susceptible to health problems.

Here is a 4-Step feeding program for roses that was given to me years ago by a rosarian with a passion for both beautiful roses and keeping hazardous chemical use to a minimum. He has long since sold his nursery and moved out of the area. Thanks, Robert, wherever you are!

  1. In February, March or April, apply 1 cup of superphosphate to each rose in your garden. Superphosphate works better than bone meal because it breaks down faster. It builds strong root systems and improves the rose's ability to flower repeatedly over the summer. It also costs less. Use it only once a year.
  2. Apply 1 cup of alfalfa meal of 2 cups of alfalfa pellets to each rose in March or April. Some rosarians repeat this application in June. Alfalfa releases nitrogen slowly and releases an enzyme that dramatically increases the rose's feeder root system. This means that the plant can make better use of available nutrients in the soil, as well as the fertilizers you give it.
  3. Starting in April, as the soil begins to warm, apply 1/2 cup of granular 16-16-16 fertilizer, and re-apply every 4-6 weeks. Your last application should be in August. (As with all granular fertilizers, water well after application unless you have adequate rainfall to dissolve them.) This step is the core of your feeding program.
  4. Apply Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) to your roses to stimulate new, larger canes and to enhance flower color. Use 3/8 to 1/2 cup per rose in May or June. Magnesium sulphate, combined with a complete feeding program, does a good job of rejuvenating old, tired roses. 
Along with a good feeding program, be sure that your roses get plenty of water during dry spells. They aren't as thirsty as lawns, but still - they aren't drought tolerant. Also, roses need lots of sun. There are a few, rare cultivars that will grow in shade, but most will be leggy, buggy and fail to bloom unless they are in full sun.

Be aware that even under the best circumstances, there are some rose varieties that are hopelessly susceptible to problems. If you have them in your garden, you might be better off replacing them with hardier cultivars. Ask at your local nursery for suggestions. There are lots to choose from. Enjoy!