Reclaiming Marginal Ground

I’ve written quite a bit on our efforts to restore the back yard, which, isn’t really a yard.  As a recap, starting about 5 feet from the back door our property rises nearly 20 feet over a run of about 20 to 30 feet.  You can see in the picture below the view across the first set of retaining walls that sit atop the rock outcropping.


This outcropping of the Salem Gabbro-Diorite creates a low ridge that emerges suddenly from otherwise level ground and runs about 500 feet or so parallel to our street before dipping back down.   The formation is evident in a few of my neighbor’s yards, but is most pronounced in mine.  Turning this outcropping into accessible ground has been a lot of work: removal of invasive species, replanting with native plants, terracing, building steps, etc.  Challenging yet rewarding, and the work is ongoing.

Last year we terraced off a small section along the right hand edge of our property in order to put in a vegetable garden. The area had previously been overrun with invasive like multiflora rose and shaded by a Norway maple.  After removing these invasive we were left with an area of marginal ground.  The soil was relatively shallow (little more than a foot in spots), rocky, and lacking in substantial organic material.  The terracing helped increase the soil depth a bit and I was able to introduce some organic material into the soil.

Our first year’s garden was moderately successful.  Truth be told, I didn’t have very high expectations for year one, knowing how poor the conditions were.  Our tomatoes did O.K., as did the squash.  The beets really struggled, as did the eggplant.  I suspect soil PH and nutrients were at issue.  The soil was also pretty compacted in spots.  Despite those struggles I was happy that anything grew given how poor the conditions were before we constructed the low retaining wall and started the process of reclaiming that small bit of land.

Nearly a year later, we were ready to move on to step two which was to construct raised beds.  The goal was to buy ourselves a little more soil depth, increase soil fertility, and  ameliorate the problem of soil compaction.  In the early 2000s, I managed a community gardening program in Wilmington, DE run by the Delaware Center for Horticulture. The problems faced by the community gardeners I worked with in that urban environment were similar to what I am dealing with here: nutrient poor, highly compacted soils.  In Wilmington we had bricks and concrete in soil whereas here I have rock.  About the only thing I’m not dealing with–thankfully–is soil pollution (Wilmington had elevated levels of lead and arsenic).  Our solution there was also to build raised beds.

There is nothing complex about building raised beds.  The only real question is the type of material you want to use.  Obviously the fact that there is soil contact means that natural materials will eventually decompose and need to be periodically replaced.  Pressure treated lumber is less toxic than it used to be since it no longer contains arsenic–nevertheless, I didn’t want to use PT lumber in my veggie garden.  Cedar is rot resistant as is cypress but both were cost prohibitive.  I also considered Douglass fir, though that ain’t cheap either.  As this is a project on a budget (I have a Disney vacation to pay for) I simply used pine 2 x 8.  I expect I’ll get no more than three or four years out of it before I need to rebuild.  In the meantime. I am going to work on sourcing recycled plastic timbers like I used in Wilmington or perhaps I’ll find a source for cypress.


The beds were assembled with simple butt joints fastened with decking screw.  I drove some stakes into the ground to stabilize the frames.  I filled the beds with compost, peat , and a bit of vermiculite.  That’s it.  Easy. We are going to use square foot gardening  to maximize out limited space–another technique that I learned doing community gardening.


We are approaching mid spring and have already planted carrots, radishes, spinach, lettuce, and onions.  Elsie was if course in on the action.

Elsie’s smaller and more nimble fingers make her better at sowing tiny seeds.



As she planted she was humming and singing this great old song. I’ll post more as the gardening season progresses.

Food Memories: Varenyky (AKA Pirogi)

Atop the dry sink in our dining room is one of my favorite photographs. It is my maternal grandmother  and grandfather’s wedding photo from 1928 or 1929. All of the grandchildren called them “Babu” and “Didu,” which were shortened versions of the Ukrainian words for grandmother and grandfather “babusya” and “didus”

Babu and Didu in the late 1920s.  They called my grandfather “Big John”–look at the size of his hands for god’s sake. After a stint in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Detroit in the early 1920s he spent the bulk of his career working at the Sun Oil refinery in Marcus Hook, PA. On the weekends he tended bar at the Ukrainian Club in Chester, PA.

My grandparent’s were Ukrainian.  Babu was born in Galicia (an area that straddled the border region between modern day Poland and Ukraine) as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Didu was born in the U.S. to parents who were also ethnic Ukrainians from Galicia; as a boy his family returned to what is now Ukraine but shortly thereafter returned to the U.S.  Babu and Didu spoke Ukrainian, attended the Ukrainian Catholic church in Chester, PA, and they ate Ukrainian food.  I was very close to them both and there are few people I respect or admire more. They exemplified the American immigrant experience, and their hard work, self sacrifice, and thrift laid the foundation for their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ success.   They were also deeply involved in their church and community.  Babu died in 1992, and Didu died just a few years later.  I absolutely adored them and all these years later I still think about them frequently.

Apart from the virtues and values they passed along, I also learned from Babu how to make varenyky (know to many people as the pirogi). Foods from our childhood are often filled with great memories.  Proust puts it better than I ever could:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” —Swann’s Way

That is the inextricable link between food and memory.  So when our daughter Elsie had a world cultures themed meeting for her Girl Scout troop I took a trip down memory lane and made some varenyky.  Memories for me, and a chance for her to share her Ukrainian heritage with her fellow scouts.

It is a simple dish; at their most basic, varenyky is just potato filling wrapped in  pasta dough, sort of like an Eastern European ravioli.  There are several variations on the filling including sauerkraut, mushrooms, and fruit filling.  I opted to make an North American adaptation of the original Ukrainian varenyky using a filling of potato and cheddar (though I believe Babu used American cheese in hers).  I had forgotten how much work they were, but I was helped along by three prized possessions: I have the bowl, rolling pin, and biscuit cutter Babu used and that I would have used as a kid. I’m not sure how old they are, but I’m guessing they date to the 1930s.


It appears that at some point the handle on Babu’s biscuit cutter came off or broke off.  Ever thrifty, Didu repaired it with a bit of metal and a couple of screws rather than spend what at the time was probably 25¢ for a new one.  Didu certainly lived by the mantra “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  He was a spirited man. He fixed or built almost everything himself; I remember him building his own electric lawnmower from a discarded mower deck and a washing machine motor.  He never wasted and rarely threw things away.  He was green before people knew what that was.

Not many people other than Didu would spend the effort in repairing an inexpensive biscuit cutter.

The Filling

You always make the filling first.  In fact, I make it the day before so it has ample time to cool in the refrigerator before use.  There are many variations on the filling, but here is a basic one to get you started.

1 small onion

1 tablespoon butter

2 1/2 cups cold mashed potatoes (I use Yukon gold)

1 cup shredded cheddar, farmer, or American cheese

Salt and black pepper

Saute the onion in the butter for 5 to 10 minutes until soft and translucent.  Add the onion to the mashed potato and allow to cool.  Stir in the cheese and season with salt and pepper.  Cover and chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or, ideally, overnight.  If you have some leftover sauerkraut from your winter provisioning, chill some of that and use it in place of the potato filling on a couple, just to try it out.

The Dough

The dough is also a relatively simple affair.

2 cups all purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

2 extra large egg yolks, beaten

1 tablespoon melted butter

You can use a mixer or food processor to make the dough, or you can mix by hand which is what I do.  Combine the salt and flour in a bowl or in your mixer or food processor.


To the mixture add the egg yolks and 7 to 8 tablespoons of cool water a few tablespoons at a time.  To do it by hand I make a well in the middle of the flour where I start by adding the yolks and 3 or 4 tablespoons of water.  I then gather the flour to the center and begin mixing, adding more water as needed until the dough comes together and I have the consistency I want.  If you are using a mixer or food processor, start by adding the egg while the machine is running then slowly add water until the dough binds around the paddle, hook, or blade.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth.  Place the dough in a bowl and cover with a towel.  Allow to rest for 20 minutes.

Making the varenyky

Before you start rolling out the dough, put a large pot of salted water on the stove and turn it on high heat so that it will come to a boil as you are assembling your varenyky.

I have a secret weapon that Babu did not: pasta rollers for my kitchen aid mixer.  The dough tends to be fairy springy and I find it much easier to use pasta rollers.  Babu never used anything but a rolling pin.  I like to divide the dough into thirds or quarters and work in small batches.  I roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch before putting it through the pasta roller.  I run it through on the widest setting to start working the dough before setting the rollers to give me a dough with a final thickness of about  1/16th of an inch.  After it is rolled out, lay the dough on a floured surface and use a cutter to cut circles.  I use Babu’s biscuit cutter which is about 2 or 2 1/2 inches in diameter; many contemporary recipes use a 3 or 4 inch cutter.  Your call, just adjust the amount of filling accordingly.

Dough circles in the front, stuffed varenyky in the back

After you have cut out a bunch of dough circles you can assemble the varenyky.  Depending on the size of the circles you have cut, you will take 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of the filling and roll it into a ball.  Place the ball in the middle of the circle and while holding the verenyky with your thumbs and middle fingers (like you are rolling a cigarette…or something else) press the filling lightly into the dough while folding up and stretching the dough over the filling.


Be careful not to allow the filling to touch the edges of the dough or it will not seal properly.  Seal the edge by pinching it closed or, as I do it, pressing the edges together with the tines of a fork.

Working in batches, drop the varenyky into the boiling water and cook for 4 to 5 minutes.  Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain thoroughly before placing them in a bowl or dish and drizzling with a bit of melted butter or oil to keep from sticking.  To serve, saute the varenyky in butter and onions.  Plate them along with plenty of onions and a dollop of sour cream. No, it is not the healthiest meal, but varenyky are a nice treat now and again. Then again, perhaps it isn’t the caloric and fat content of the food as much as the quantity and attitude toward foods that matter most. Babu and Didu lived on a steady diet of varenyky, kielbasa, and stuffed cabbage but they were not gluttonous people; neither of them were obese and both lived into their late 80s. An anecdote I know, but something worth thinking about.

I made a couple of dozen for the girl scout meeting and they were gone in no time.  It takes some time and effort but the varenyky aren’t too hard to make and they are always a huge hit.  It was also a chance to think about my Babu and Didu while I puttered away in the kitchen.  All these decades later I could still hear her leaning over my shoulder saying “oh, you make them soooo pretty.”  She was an endless fount of pride and love and encouragement.  Thanks, Babu!


Teach Your Children Well

I often hear people say that “kids these days don’t know where their food comes from” or that “kids think food comes from the grocery store.”  That’s hyperbole. I’m pretty sure most kids beyond the toddler years understand that there are places call farms where food is grown and livestock are raised.  But, I understand the concerns implicit in these somewhat exaggerated claims: we are ever further removed from food production as fewer and fewer people make their living from agriculture and fewer people live in proximity to active farms. So, I’d like to amend the above claims to say that “kids these days don’t understand the work, energy, and sacrifice that go into raising food.”

It is not the knowledge of what a farm is, but rather, what a farm demands and what a farm means that we lose sight of.  It is the loss of the culture of agriculture that Wendell Berry has warned us about for almost half a century now.  My friend Jay (who works on the land) recently sent me an article about the need for a “chore culture”as a means for cultivating the virtues of hard work, commitment, and responsibility. It really struck home. These virtues have always been integral to the agricultural narrative, but of course translate into success in any sphere: family, community, and career.  This is part of what we lose as fewer and fewer people make a living from the land and mix their labor with the soil in order to meet the basic needs of the community; we have ever fewer people whose lives exemplify those core virtues of work and thrift and sacrifice and commitment.  No wonder we throw away so much food in this country–it is cheap not only in price, but also in the values we once affixed to its production. Our food is no longer set against a larger horizon of significant people, places, practices, and values.

We don’t all need to move onto a farm to revive the culture of agriculture.  Gardening is a great way to introduce kids to the connection between the soil, labor, and the food we consume. It also teaches care and patience.

New raised beds awaiting soil, compost, and plants of course.  Over the next several months Elsie will be helping to plant, weed, water, and harvest.

I am also grateful for having the opportunity to include my daughter in the volunteer work I do at Appleton Farms where she learns about the effort that goes into the gallon of milk in our refrigerator.

Chores need not be drudgery.  Helping me feed the Jerseys and the White Parks is also a chance for joy and discovery
In my experience, kids like being given a task that they can take charge of and complete; it helps to follow up with recognition for a job well done.  In this case, putting out hay before the dairy herd is brought in for milking.
Jersey calves are cute and curious.  They also need to have the poo brushed from their fur from time to time. Give a kid a job and show her that you trust her to do it and do it right and she will often reward you by exceeding your expectations.

When we visit my friend Jay, she understands the daily chores that go into the carton of eggs we use for breakfast.  She also learns what it means to be respectful toward and show gratitude for animals, even those that are being raised for food.

Elsie has learned from Jay and his family that chickens don’t work for free.  If you want eggs, you need to provide for the hens. Chores at Jay’s farm are more fun because she is often joined by Jays kids Emma and Liam.

The point of all of this?  If we wish to cleave to the virtues of thrift, commitment, hard work, and sacrifice that we claim are the foundation for our welfare and prosperity, we must seek out the places where we can transmit those values to our children.  Those places are fewer and farther between, but they are there if you go looking for them, perhaps even in your own back yard.