Farewell, cicadas

I flew out of town Friday morning–my first post-vaccination travel!–and returned Tuesday afternoon. Those four days and change spent visiting my mom, my brother and his family in the Boston area were enough to come home to a Washington area that no longer sounded as it did before I left.

By which I mean, the high-pitched call of millions of cicadas buzzing for each other’s attention no longer greeted me the moment I stepped outside the house. Instead, it was the standard soundtrack of birds chirping that I’d heard most of the previous 17 years. Walking around the neighborhood was different too, without red- or orange-eyed bugs crawling underfoot, flying about, or occasionally landing on me.

Barely a month after Brood X emerged in volume in my neighborhood, the cicadas seem to be vanishing as quickly as they appeared. I now see remarkably few signs of their having been here at all; the weeping cherry tree I planted last spring had one small branch die off and show scars from female cicadas depositing their eggs there, but that seems to be the extent of the plant damage. And so far, the yard does not smell from an excess of decomposing cicadas, something I would very much like not to change.

I do have all the pictures I took of Brood X to remind me, plus a video or two. But as weirdly amusing as I found these harmless bugs and their lifecycle from nymph to adult (maybe seeing their mass emergence for a second time in my life reduced the freakout factor?), that was nothing compared to the interest my daughter developed in them. After more than a year of the pandemic penning in her horizons and, for most of that time, reducing school to a series of boxes on a screen, a fascinating spectacle of nature arrived in our backyard and around our neighborhood that she’d never seen before and wanted to learn more about.

As crazy as it may sound, I will miss the insect word’s answer to short-period comets just because of that. But these little alien-looking arthropods haven’t really gone; their offspring are now beginning a 17-year subterranean sojourn that will lead to them emerging en masse to surprise the children of 2038, and hopefully fascinate some of them.

Waiting for the cicadas

The neighborhood is about to get a lot more crowded for the next month or so. The mid-Atlantic’s 17-year cicadas are now emerging–first as holes they make in the ground while crawling out as nymphs, then as exoskeletons left on branches and leaves after molting, and soon as hordes of bugs with beady red eyes.

Around my neighborhood, the local ambassadors of Brood X haven’t yet reached that third stage. Every day I see more of their cast-off exoskeletons (exuviae, if you didn’t know) clinging to foliage like little beige bug bookmarks, but until tonight I hadn’t seen any of this year’s cicadas alive. That’s when I learned that you can hear them molting–a sort of quiet, slow and moist clicking–then spot them slowly tugging their pale selves out of their old shells.

Yes, that is slightly alarming to witness.

But it’s nowhere close to the freakout potential of having thousands of cicadas within a block–meaning you have to watch where you step, and that going for a jog or a bike ride ensures some will bounce off of you. Plus, there is the vaguely extraterrestrial racket generated by their mating calls.

I am fairly tolerant of insects overall (except for mosquitoes, which should be genetically engineered into extinction), but gardening may lose much of its charms until the middle of June.

I learned this in 2004, the previous emergence of Brood X and my own introduction to the evolutionary freakshow that is the periodical cicadas’ survival strategy. Instead of trying to hide or escape from predators, cicadas arrive in such massive numbers that other animals get full and have to take a break from this free buffet. The surviving cicadas can then make millions of cicada eggs that the females deposit in trees–from which larvae will drop to the ground, burrow underground and wait 17 years before emerging to fascinate or frighten the children of 2038.

People have been writing about this ritual of life in the mid-Atlantic for centuries, but this year’s cicada onslaught will be different from previous emergences because of a different plague: social media. If you suffer from any sort of arthropod anxiety, you’re not going to enjoy all the cicada Facebook status updates, cicada tweets, cicada Instagram pics and stories, cicada TikToks, and other social testimony that will soon be swarming screens. This could be a really good time to give those apps a rest and instead start reading an intimidatingly long book.

A yard once again in bloom, and in new need of work

This morning, the weeping cherry tree that I planted last spring to try to keep myself occupied as the world shut down showed its first blossoms. By this evening, that little tree was well on its way to surrounding itself with a cloud of white flowers.

After years of being a cherry blossom spectator, I feel like I’m being a good local citizen by making my own tiny contribution to one of the D.C. area’s signature spring sights. What also feels good: seeing the work of a previous year come back to life. It’s one of the most satisfying things in all of gardening.

Photo of cherry blossoms, showing base of the tree and my lawn velow

My yard also features a growing collection of daffodils, with lilies making their way out of the ground to bloom again. The redbud trees and a lilac out front are rapidly budding, and the small raised bed outside the back patio has a crop of arugula seedlings planted two weeks ago that should be providing sandwich fixings in another couple of weeks.

And all the time I’ve put in over the last few springs to root out bittercress and chickweed seems to have resulted in far fewer of those pests to twist out of the ground with a weeding fork.

On the downside, an unusually damp February has left large, low-lying swaths of lawn reduced to shoe-grabbing, clay-dense dirt. I would like to think that the grass will make a springtime recovery, but realistically, I need to regrade those parts. And after so many years of low-maintenance lawn care–including 16 years and counting with the same electric lawnmower–it bothers to me think that I’ll have to pay for dirt. But if I do my job right now and them remember to reseed in the fall, next spring I won’t be looking at caked clay in those parts of the lawn. Right? Please tell me I’m right?

2020 gardening report card: a very small hill of beans

This year has given me more time to garden than any other in my adult life. Now that the gardening season is officially over, courtesy of multiple below-freezing days and the season’s first snowfall, I’m once again grading myself on how well I did at growing some of my own food–and I’m left wondering how I didn’t make better use of that extra time to play with plants.

(For your reference: my 20192018201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Beans: A-

The pandemic arrived in the middle of both planting season and my realization that we had a lot of leftover bean seed packages lying around. So we went a little crazy–in addition to planting seeds in the usual spots in the shabbier raised bed in the side yard, my wife and I repurposed a few random pots we had laying around for bean-growing purposes. For a while, we had more beans than we could eat; although the bean plants in the raised bed didn’t make it past summer, most of the others kept growing through fall, if at a slower pace.

Arugula: B+

I can usually count on two growing seasons for this salad green, but most of the seeds I planted in September got washed out by heavy rains, and then the survivors failed to yield more than a few tiny plants. So I wound up spending more on lettuce at the farmers’ market than I’d hoped, which was somewhat frustrating.

Herbs: B

Flat-leaf parsley once again grew like crazy all spring and summer, enabling me to make multiple batches of parsley-walnut pesto, but then it failed to resume growing in the fall. Rosemary made a comeback: After last year’s rosemary died, I planted a fresh batch in a new pot, and those plants are still going strong. Mint was also its usual reliable self. But the sage plants died sometime in late summer, and basil underperformed, if not as badly as last year. I did finally get thyme to grow–indoors, in a pot in a sunny corner of the dining room.

Spinach: B-

I enjoyed modest success with this in the spring–by which I mean, some of last year’s plants hung on until then, and not all of the seeds I planted this year vanished into the dirt.

Lettuce: C+

See the above entry for spinach, but make everything 20 percent worse.

Tomatoes: C-

Unlike last year, I was able to treat myself to the sublime pleasure of a BLT sandwich made with a just-plucked-off-the-vine tomato. Well, once or twice.

Home cooking when you don’t leave home

When I used to say “I love to cook,” I was saying that with the understanding that I’d only be cooking half the dinners in the week. Work events and social outings would have me out of the house most of the rest of the time, so I would never feel stuck in a rut.

Well, I’ve now gone three and a half months in which I’ve had every single dinner at home. And while we have treated ourselves to takeout or delivery once a week or so, I’ve cooked most of the other dinners.

What have I learned, aside from profound respect for my mom who did that work for far longer and for a larger family?

The importance of leftover-friendly recipes–soups, stews, chili, stir-fries, risotto, quesadillas–is even more obvious. But cooking a main course that can become a side (risotto, again) helps a lot, and so does making sides that I can use up later on.

It’s also important to have one extra-easy-but-still-homemade option, which for somebody of Italian ancestry like me means pasta. This time of year, that becomes a canvas for whatever herbs I can grab out of the garden and throw into a garlic and olive oil sauce.

But the one thing I didn’t quite expect was how much I would still want to try something more challenging once a week–in terms of ingredients I haven’t used, a cooking technique that’s new to me, or a particularly challenging set of directions. So I’ve tried my hand at deep-dish pizza, hollandaise sauce, and chicken parmesan, among other recipes from which I’d shied away in the Before Times.

And I still look forward to that challenge, which suggests I’m not burned out on home cooking. That would be good, because a return to my old lifestyle seems farther off than it did three and a half months ago.

After the jump: Some recipes from the Post’s Food section that I’ve found particularly useful since March.

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Gardening as pandemic therapy

The only way I’m being more productive than usual this spring involves dirt under my fingernails. The added housework from having everybody home all the time and the cognitive load imposed by trying to keep a nine-year-old on track with remote schoolwork may have blown up my settled work-from-home lifestyle–but at least I can still garden.

Planting, weeding, and transplanting are always a distraction at this time of year, but they’re worse when the novel-coronavirus pandemic has scoured my schedule of work events around D.C. or away from it. This ongoing public-health crisis has also left little else in my life that offers any sense of control.

So I don’t step outside too often without taking at least a few minutes to find and rip out bittercress, chickweed, and deadnettles as if they were rogue viruses. I have sunk more time than seems practical into moving lilies and ground cover from overgrown plantings into patchy areas of the lawn that I should have given up on already, then tilling other parts of the lawn before scattering grass seed there just before a night of rain.

And I picked up a few new plants last Monday to dress up the yard, the most important being a weeping cherry for the front lawn. Because I can’t leave enough well alone, I couldn’t just plant that and adjourn for a nap; I also had to yank out an overgrown laurel from one side of the front porch and and move it to a back corner of the yard. Then I moved a smaller shrub into the laurel’s old spot; it will probably grow too big in a few years. I also shifted a few yucca plants around before finishing up with a dessert course of still more weeding.

Two hours later, my clothes were caked with dirt and my joints ached. But today, the new cherry tree looks great. And neighbors who are left with few forms of outdoor recreation beyond walking around the neighborhood have something pleasant to distract them. Giving them that seems like the least I could do under the circumstances.

Housework when nobody leaves the house: The dishes are never done

We’re now wrapping up two weeks of staying at home together as a family. It feels more like a month, and I mostly blame the dishwasher for that.

I’m no stranger to housework after almost nine years of working from home full-time. But having everybody else in the family cooped up at home to avoid the coronavirus is a different thing. The biggest surprise, as I suppose many of you have been learning, is how often you run the dishes when everybody eats every meal at home.

For the three of us, that’s at least nine sets of utensils, glasses and plates or bowls each day. Running the dishwasher that we’d idly thought of replacing because of how long it takes has become an every-three-days proposition at best. And now I really hope this appliance that conveyed with the house almost 16 years ago does not pick this season to break on us.

Laundry, meanwhile, has become surprisingly easier. Why? When I rarely leave the house and never do so to meet anybody for professional reasons, I might as well wear the same pair of pants at least twice before washing them. I’m also finding myself okay with getting two days out of a shirt while the temperatures stay below the 70s.

And as long as I don’t work too hard gardening during what are supposed to be brief breaks from work. Fortunately or unfortunately, my seasonal outdoor distraction from my occupation is even stronger this spring. Because removing some plants and moving others around to make our house look better seems like one of the few things I can control in my life right now. 

2019 gardening report card: the persistence of parsley

Winter has yet to bring more than decorative amounts of snow to the D.C. area, but it’s already inflicted enough hard frosts to put a period on my kitchen-gardening efforts. So it’s once again time to evaluate how my attempts to grown my own food have worked out.

(For reference: my 2018, 201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Arugula: A

This most reliable vegetable once again came through with spring and fall crops, although the latter didn’t measure up to the former. As I’ve written in earlier posts here: This is what you should try to grow before lettuce or spinach–the most fault-tolerant vegetable outside of parsley.

Parsley harvestHerbs: A-

So about that: Flat-leaf parsley remains my flagship herb, yielding so much in the spring and fall that I was able to make repeated batches of parsley-walnut pesto. Sage came in second, even before getting extra credit for flourishing in a garden bed I basically ignored after half of the wood framing was well into rotting apart.

The other herbs I attempted to cultivate, however, dragged down this category score. Basil did better than last year, in that I got one great batch of pesto sauce out of it, but it would have lasted longer had I put in more effort. Mint was fine and dill grew adequately, but everything else evaporated.

Lettuce: B

Even getting two months’ worth of lettuce from one packet of seeds beats buying the same amount in a grocery store or at a farmers’ market.

Spinach: B-

This was great in the spring, but my attempt at a fall crop petered out before I could pluck any leaves to throw in a sandwich or an omelette.

Tomatoes: F

The plants I bought got as far as flowering but never showed a single tomato. You can imagine my frustration as a native New Jerseyan, especially after last year’s moderately impressive harvest.

Green beans: F

I planted seeds that yielded nothing in the neglected garden bed that I should rebuild in the spring. At least I tried, which I can’t say for cucumbers or bell peppers.

 

Another year of battle with the Tree of Hell

The correct weeding implement to remove a finger-sized “Tree of Heaven” sapling is a shovel.

I thought I’d learned that lesson two summers ago, when I foolishly bragged here that I hadn’t seen any new ailanthus altissima seedlings poking above my lawn. But by this June, I had a new crop of these trash-tree growths invading the front yard and part of the side yard.

This time around, I dug deeper, literally. Just yanking out the massed roots below each sapling wasn’t enough; I had to drive the shovel a few inches deeper to find the thicker, trunk-like root running below my lawn. And then work backwards and forwards to rip that out of the earth.

The upside of this dirt-under-fingernails work is, I hope, a more lasting end to this weed of a tree. And so far, that’s worked–in the sense that I haven’t seen new growths in the front yard two and a half weeks after this surgery. (The side yard is another story, but at least that’s not obvious from the street.)

The downside is that unless you do this root removal right before a torrential downpour, the grass you’ve removed probably won’t survive the disruption. In my case, I now have streaks of dead grass, that outline where this invasive tree’s roots had taken up residence in my yard.

You could say I had to destroy the lawn in order to save it. But I’m not going to state that conclusively until this time next summer, when I’m past the spring’s usual foolish lawncare optimism.

An easy fix for being overrun by parsley: parsley-walnut pesto

This is the time of the year that makes gardening look easy, which also means I have a serious surplus-parsley problem. The plants that had shriveled down to nothing over winter are now straining against the netting covered the raised bed in which they grow, and if I only use parsley as a garnish I’ll never get through more than a tiny fraction of this edible foliage.

You can attack this scenario by making tabbouleh–I’m partial to the NYT’s recipe for Lebanese tabbouleh–but you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time finely chopping parsley and other veggies. And then the results only last a few days in the fridge.

Instead, my go-to recipe is a simple one for parsley and walnut pesto that a farmers-market vendor handed out years ago, which itself was cribbed from a 2008 issue of Cooking Light magazine.

(Note that I’m only talking Italian flat-leaf parsley here. If you somehow talked yourself into growing that much curly parsley, you’re on your own.)

Parsley and walnut pesto

  • 3 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (about 2.5 ozs.)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine everything in a food processor, then process until smooth.

You can use the results as you would basil pesto–so not just as a pasta sauce, but as a dressing or condiment for just about anything else. But parsley-walnut pesto has a fridge half-life measured in days instead of the hours of basil pesto. And it freezes exceptionally well, so you can continue enjoying it months later.

And that’s definitely something I’ll be reminding myself of should this year’s basil crop prove as disappointing as last year’s.