Through the Windowpane

“For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part;
but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.”
1 Corinthians 13:12

Apple Blossom Time

An apple tree bloomed near the hedgerow last week. “Mom, you have to go up and see the apple tree!” Elizabeth exclaimed.  “It’s all full of blossoms.” This same tree didn’t produce apples last year (a late frost nipped the life out of it), but this year the dark pink buds grew pale and slowly opened into paper-thin petals of white. As their light, sweet scent filled the air, I became spellbound. Sitting under the white and green branches, I pondered the short life of apple blossoms, only to realize that I cannot fully comprehend their fleeting beauty or the hand of the One who created such an exquisite tree. Some thoughts are too big for me.

If it remains cool and the blossoms linger, I will take my children to visit our apple tree friend often, to sit under its fragrant bower and contemplate the wonder of spring. We will memorize its splendor and revel in the sight and smell of hundreds of tender apple blossoms lifted to the sky. We will celebrate with cups of apple cinnamon spice tea and old-fashioned sour cream apple cake – our humble offering for the intrinsic loveliness we find there. We will read After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost and laugh at the poet’s ability to weave a yarn about two-pointed ladders, aching feet, and restless sleep. We’ll sigh because we know our words could never compare with his. Still, we will try to capture the memory of apple blossom time in our own verse.

And when at last the paper-thin petals lie scattered upon the ground, we will gratefully remember the fellowship we shared with the tree and each other at the meadow’s edge. A place where words bloom like delicate pink buds – full of promise, heady and fragrant, reminding us that apple blossom time is not a mere dream, but comes only once, for a short time…in the spring.

Gifts From the Garden – Part Two

I couldn’t bring myself to write about the end of the gardening season this year. How could I say goodbye? Who can find words to express the way you feel when you are separated from someone – or something – you’ve held so dear, even for just a season? It was hard to bring closure to all the experiences I had, nurturing seedlings to maturity to reaping a harvest-full of memories with my husband and children.

Harriette Jacobs from South of the Gnat Line asked me if I “winter garden.” I chuckled at the thought. I would if I could, but frigid Illinois winters prevent us from planting cold weather crops. Even though our imaginations remain alive   with dreams and plans for next year’s garden, the ground must rest.

This year, most of the vegetables were harvested long before the frost came. Due to too much rain in August, the tomato plants shriveled and turned brown by September, a good month before the chilling temperatures arrived. Unlike most years, when my fingers – numb with cold – fumble under broad green leaves for the last home-grown tomatoes, the children and I picked the vines clean in 70-degree weather with the sun beating down upon our backs.

Finally, October 12th, dawned. A surprise blizzard barreled down on us from the North, mocking our attempts to keep the garden permanently fixed in our affections. I donned a pair of gloves, boots, and my warm winter parka. In-between squalls I sloshed up to the garden to take pictures of the remaining snow-covered vegetables. Anna joined me, and as we walked the garden path, we recited the opening line from James Whitcomb Riley’s poem, “When the Frost is on the Punkin’.” The weather radio forecasted a hard frost that night and sure enough, by the next morning, Jack Frost had stole ruthlessly across the fields, scaling the garden fence, icy sword in hand to slay my heart.

I knew this day would come, and even though I made a conscious effort to spend more time up in the garden than I did last year, I still couldn’t believe the growing season was over. Gone were all the joy-filled mornings of sitting under the young walnut tree, watching the American gold finches flit from one sunflower to another. Gone was the hallowed spot of earth next to the bean trellises, where from my chair I surveyed my garden with delight. Sitting there, shaded from the hot sun with my Bible, journal and cup of coffee, I listened intently to the words and phrases that God brought to mind. Pictures and analogies formed, causing my heart to understand the truths that He was teaching me – lessons that could only be learned from observing young pole beans inch their way to the sky or heavy cucumbers  hang from thin tender vines. The time spent walking the garden paths brought deep contentment as I drank in the heavenly fragrance of milkweed in July and the spicy odor of tomato perfume in August. And here it was December…and no words came.

As much as I like to be prepared, I ran out of time to put together a present for our dear neighbor, Mrs. Kraft. Sarah, as she likes to be called, is 90 and there isn’t much she needs or wants any more and there isn’t much you can surprise her with unless you give her a one-of-a-kind homemade gift. Over the last few years I have given her a lot of nature-related gifts because the land we live on belongs to her.

One year, we gave her a DVD filled with nature photography and drawings that we had captured of specimens that she and her family just take for granted. Another year I gave her a series of watercolors, painted from wildflowers that grow on her two hundred acre farm. Another year I gave her a book full of journal entries recounting the stories and comments she had said to us over the year’s time. This year I found myself wondering what kind of gift would really bless her – something that I hadn’t done before.

I looked at my canned goods shelf. I had already given her several different jars of pickles at harvest time. And then I thought about my garden journal. She hadn’t heard these stories yet. I got my binder out and thumbed through the entries. This would make a wonderful gift along with a jar of crabapple sauce from her favorite little crabapple tree. There was one more thing. Our pet goose Peep-Peep (also one of Sarah’s favorites)just started laying again. We had a large white egg we could give her. I carefully wrapped it inside a vintage Christmas hankie with red embroidered poinsettias that my sister had sent from Maine.

When Sarah opened her presents she was so thrilled. She thanked me over and over again for the “priceless” gifts. I knew once again that we had given her a gift of gratitude from our hearts to hers, and that’s when the words came – the story of how my garden journal found its way to Sarah’s hands on Christmas Day. It was the perfect ending to a joy-filled gardening season…and “priceless!”

Gifts from the Garden – Part One

I remember a gift my husband’s sister gave us 28 years ago as we celebrated our first Christmas together. It was a large box of home-made canned goods and preserves from her garden, nestled among red and green tissue paper. I don’t think I appreciated it that much because I had never canned before, but over the years I have come to be grateful for the hard work it takes to fill just one Ball jar.

Near the end of the summer I found a canning recipe in my Ball Blue Book of Preserving called “end of the garden pickle.” I loved the name and the idea of putting up as many different kinds of vegetables in one jar as you possibly could. Waves of melancholy swept over me as I strolled through the garden, red wagon and baskets in tow, gathering the last of the vegetables. I filled a basket with the Spanish onions that Elizabeth had planted. I picked sweet red peppers off of the green pepper plants and green peppers off of what was supposed to be the yellow pepper plants. I reached in-between trellis rungs and pulled out handfuls of string beans off of twisty vines. I loaded the last of the zucchini and yellow summer squash in to the bed of the wagon,and rolled it down the hill to the house.

For the last time, I filled the blue speckled quart jar canner with water from the kitchen tap. After washing, scrubbing, peeling, and slicing the vegetables, I measured 4 cups of vinegar and 4 cups of sugar into a large white enamel pot that I use for cooking large batches. Instead of following the recipe exactly, I stirred in a whole jar of McCormick’s pickling spices into the simmering mixture. The recipe yielded about six quarts and after the vegetables “cured” for a couple of weeks, I opened the jar and sampled a crisp string bean. The texture was excellent, but the vinegar was way too spicy for my taste buds. I realized I had made a mistake by adding a whole jar of pickling spices and found that I could only tolerate a little of the pickle at a time, just as Iong as I ate it with something like a sandwich. I was disappointed and sure that I had ruined the whole batch.

The week before Christmas I boxed up eight jars of home-made canned goods from our garden and sent them across the miles to my sister June in Maine. I bubbled wrapped each jar individually and carefully packed them into a holiday gift box with a New England covered bridge on the lid. It was a tight fit, and soon the box was filled with bread and butter pickles, sweet and sour pickles, piccalilli, apple sauce, crab apple sauce, tomato apple chutney, pesto, and a quart-sized jar of “end of the garden pickle.” Even if it didn’t taste good, it sure looked good.

I called June and told her to open the box right away because there was something perishable in it. I hoped the small jar of thawing pesto would keep as it traveled across the country in cold post office trucks. I also wanted to warn her about a certain item with a rather strong bite.

I wasn’t home when the box arrived at her house and by the time I did talk with her that day, it was too late. She had opened the “end of the garden pickle” first and absolutely loved it – all by itself! I was tickled to no end as she raved on and on about the flavor, calling it “scrumpdillyumptious!” When I asked her later what she thought about her Christmas present she said, “Well, needless to say I was ecstatic to receive the bounty of your harvest. After unpacking each and every bottle and reading their names, my mouth began to water.”

June knew from previous experience what a real treat home-made preserves are. Last year she visited at harvest time and taste-tested each recipe as it was being canned. She especially loved my tomato apple chutney and I didn’t think I could outdo myself, but the “end of the garden pickle” is definitely at the top of her list this year.

If you happen to get a home-made jar of piccalilli or dill pickles, or maybe even a jar of “end of the garden pickle” for Christmas next year, consider yourself honored. You won’t just be getting a jar of vegetables, but a labor of love.


Bread and Butter Pickles


Yesterday we picked 60 pounds of cucumbers from Robert’s Cucumber Haus. We’re going to make Bread and Butter Pickles, so I had him pick up the necessary ingredients form the store: ground turmeric, ground ginger, canning salt, vinegar and yellow onions. I already had mustard seed and whole peppercorns (from last year’s batch), and sugar. Of course we have plenty of cucumbers. Yes, it’s time to get out the Ball jars, lids, and canning equipment. Why is it always 90 degrees out when you want to can?

It‘s been an incredible year for growing vegetables. I’ve never seen the garden look so lush. We’ve had hothouse temperatures and just the right amount of rain – enough to make the garden look like one of those sci-fi movies with 40 foot tall plants (I exaggerate a wee bit). Actually, the sunflowers are the tallest I’ve ever seen them – I’m guessing they’re about eight feet (tomorrow we must measure them). We’ve harvested some grape tomatoes, but we’re still waiting for those big and juicy “home grown tomatoes.”

Lest I paint too idyllic a picture, we’ve had our share of pests, too. Today Anna and I took duck tape, turned sticky side out, and dabbed up a multi-generational family of squash bugs sipping the life out of one of our zucchini plants. I really haven’t been paying attention and I’m afraid we’ve lost most of our acorn squash. For some reason you don’t see squash bugs until it’s almost too late. As you lift a leaf to see if a plant is infected, they stealthily move to the underside or hide under the stalks close to the ground.

We’ve been staying away from toxic bug killers this year, hence the duct tape method. I did read that imitation vanilla repels them, but I don’t have any. We’ll go on patrol again tomorrow and see if we can spot any more and apply a little friendly pressure as we escort them off the premises. I might draw a squash bug for you, but only if I’m inclined. They make me so mad; I hardly feel a desire to record their likeness for posterity.

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Content Copyright Jill Novak 2009-2015