The Elder’s Garden


Some time ago I mentioned I was working on some aging in place strategies for an elder’s garden. The blog’s been a bit quiet for a while for a variety of reasons, most recently because Ye Elder Blogger had an ear infection that left me with vestibular neuritis. Vestibular neuritis is a catchy term for an inflammation of the eighth cranial nerve. The nerve runs from the brain to the inner ear. The acute phase lasted about a week and left me pretty much flat on my back with my eyes closed. I lived on ginger ale to help subdue the nausea and vomiting. The world revolved in a very nasty fashion every time I opened my eyes or moved. Once I was vertical again, I couldn’t walk without hanging onto things. Movement brought back the symptoms in milder form. I couldn’t read or use the computer at all initially and then had to limit my time. Any kind of nerve injury typically takes a long time to heal. At this point I’m almost six weeks out and my primary problem is my balance. So when I’m outside, I use a walker. The side benefit to this experience was what I learned about creating the elder’s garden.

Garden Changes

I have been making changes in my garden for some time with an eye to being able to keep gardening as I get older. Aging in place when you live on a ranch is a very different kettle of fish when compared to living in an apartment or suburban home. An elder’s garden has to be designed around your physical limitations, with the idea that as time goes by you will have more of them. Among other things, I have switched almost entirely from beds to containers. I still grow flowers in beds, but the veggies, summer fruits and grains are now container-grown. The mainstay of this system is 30-gallon barrels cut in half with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. They were plentiful and free. Ditto almost 200 3-gallon heavy duty plastic pots. I have about 60 5-gallon pots collected over the years and a couple of dozen 20-gallon tubs which once contained the supplements we use for our cows. I also have several medium to large metal water tanks. They were retired from the pastures because they leak. Finally, I have a couple of salvaged cast iron bathtubs. A motley collection, but it works.

Slopes, Rocks and Wood Chips

I considered removing the garden beds in the old garden entirely. It was much more work than we wanted to put in, so I elected to leave them in place and put the pots on the surface of the beds. The garden – which encompasses both the old kitchen garden and the much larger garden next to it – is roughly 7,500 square feet. Not all of that is usable space, however. I have one area in the old garden with several car-sized rocks. The northwest side of the old garden was planted with shrubs and flowers and has a largish cedar tree in the old fence-line. Both gardens slope to the south for maximum light. Like all the soil on this place, both are littered with multiple rocks. Hubby took out as many of the really big rocks as he could. We smoothed the slope and covered it with wood chips. The local PG&E and vegetation management crews appreciate having a place to dump their wood chippers. When they’re working up here, we have a steady stream of free wood chips coming in.

Soil, Water and Worms

Among the benefits of the new system:

  • I use less water and spend less time watering. I already hand water daily. The spring that feeds my well has a limited recharge rate, so I can’t use sprinklers.
  • I can custom-build the container soil. Hubby has a big pile on the flat outside of the garden, right next to the road. He can bring up good soil when he does some excavating or cleans out the ponds. We add the chicken litter, sheep pen cleanings, horse manure etc. to the pile. He uses the backhoe to stir it all together.
  • I can add things like compost, kelp, minerals, lime or blood meal to the individual pots. Growing a heavy feeder like corn? Extra blood meal in those pots but not in the ones where I put the pole beans. With the beds, I pretty much had to add everything everywhere.
  • I was a little worried about earthworms, as the beds were teeming with them. Turns out they climb up into the containers through the drainage holes, so each container has its own colony.
  • Less bending to weed and plant, since the pot surface is much higher, especially those on the beds. I have a trick knee and can no longer spend long hours kneeling as I did when younger.

Strategies for The Elder’s Garden

My illness and subsequent instability reinforced that these changes will be A Good Thing as I grow increasingly more decrepit and infirm. In addition, I learned some things about mobility with a walker.

  • You must clean out the paths – fist-sized and smaller rocks tend to roll when you step on them. Your ability to carry things is limited. Although it’s surprising how much you can get in a gallon zip-lock bag that you can clamp in your teeth).
  • Your ability to carry things that need two hands is nil. You can hang a bag on the front of the walker but you can’t carry heavy things. The bag will swing when you walk and may upset your balance. Didn’t try a backpack but a smallish one might be an option. I was able to carry an empty pot by holding it with two fingers and using the others to grip the walker handle.
  • I found that I needed to have several trowels in strategic spots so I didn’t have to carry one. Ditto rakes and shovels.
  • A heavy-duty plastic lawn chair can be pressed to service as a walker. This is handy for weeding. You just walk, plant the chair in a nice flat spot and sit down to weed. Given the size of the garden, I think I’ll get two or three more so I don’t have to carry one too far.

Ill winds and silver linings aside, I do hope that I will eventually be able to get around outside without the walker. Vestibular neuritis can last for months, though, and there is no way I’m going to give up gardening for the duration.

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Old-Fashioned Cooking: Chicken Fricassee


In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.

Types of Chicken

Back in the days before you could get broasted, full-breasted chicken on every street corner, chicken tended to be available at two primary times of the year. The first was late spring and early summer, when so-called spring chickens were available. The second was in the fall, after culling old hens and roosters so they wouldn’t have to be fed through the winter. Fall was also when the capons were ready. Capons are castrated roosters; a capon remains tender and gains weight readily. These chickens all looked very different from the Cornish Cross so prevalent today. Only the youngest were really what we would call tender – birds that could be fried or broiled. The old-fashioned definitions of the various size/ages of chickens are as follows:

  • Broiler: 2-3 months old, 1½-2½ pounds
  • Fryer: 3-5 months old, 2½-3½ pounds
  • Roaster: 5½-9 months old, 4-7 pounds
  • Capon: 7-10 months old, 8 pounds
  • Stewing fowl: up to 12 months old
  • Old Hen: older than 12 months

Cooking Old-Fashioned Chicken

Recipes for each differed. Cooks broiled, fried, braised or used broilers and fryers in chicken fricassee (a fancy version of braising). Roasters and capons were roasted in the oven. Stewing fowl became chicken pot pie, chicken and dumplings, and – depending on your ethnic and cultural background – enchiladas, chicken tetrazzini (despite the Italian-sounding name, it’s an American dish, created in honor of Italian opera star Luisa Tetrazzini), coq au vin or chicken fried rice. An old hen or rooster is good for broth and chicken soup – in fact, many old-timers will tell you that two- or three-year old roosters are best. The meat of an old hen or rooster is pretty tasteless once it’s been turned into soup, but our thrifty fore-mothers made the soup so tasty people ate it anyway.

Here’s an old-fashioned recipe for chicken fricassee, which has been around at least since 1300. The amounts listed are approximate (it’s a stew, not a cake). Cook this dish in a cast-iron skillet, which is the traditional cooking vessel. Fricassee variations include chicken sauteed or completely browned with various vegetables, then finished in either a white sauce or a tomato/wine sauce. The former was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorites, while the latter, known as fricasé de pollo in the Caribbean, came by way of immigrants from France and Spain. Fricassee can also be made with other kinds of meat and vegetables or vegetables alone.

Chicken Fricassee

  • 2-3 pound chicken (heritage chicken if you can find it)
  • One each: medium onion, carrot, celery stalk – all sliced
  • 8 Tbs. butter
  • 3 Tbs flour
  • Chicken stock, hot (about 4-6 cups, but may need more)
  • White wine (about 2 cups)
  • One sprig each of parsley and thyme, and ½ bay leaf in a bundle or cheesecloth bag
  • 1 ½ cups pearl onions
  • 1 ½ cups baby button mushrooms
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Nutmeg

Saute the vegetables in 4 Tbs butter over medium-low heat for about five minutes, until softened but not browned. Push them to the side and add chicken. Raise heat to medium and cook until the chicken is slightly stiff and a light golden color – about three to four minutes – turning frequently. Lower heat, cover and cook about 10 minutes, turning once. Don’t let the chicken brown. Sprinkle chicken with flour, salt and pepper; turn pieces to coat flour with butter. Cook about four minutes, turning once. Pour in enough chicken stock to almost cover pieces, then add enough white wine to cover. Add herbs. Cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes.

While the chicken is simmering, cook the onions and mushrooms. Cook uncovered, in butter and chicken stock, until soft. They should still hold their shape but the liquid will be nearly evaporated.When the chicken is done, remove the pieces and keep warm. Remove and discard the herb bundle. Let the sauce simmer while you skim off the fat. Raise the heat to medium and allow sauce to cook until it will coat a spoon. Add more salt and pepper if desired. Whisk the egg yolks and half the cream in a heat-proof bowl. Keep whisking and add the hot sauce by tablespoonfuls. Once you’ve added about a cup, you can slowly pour in the rest. Return the sauce to the pan and boil for about a minute; add the cooking juices from the mushrooms and pearl onions.

If you want to be fancy, you can pour the sauce through a sieve. I figure why waste the delicious veggie bits in the sauce? Grate in a bit of nutmeg or add 1/8 to ¼ tsp powdered nutmeg. Arrange chicken, onions and mushrooms in the skillet. Bring to a simmer, take off the heat and add one or two more tablespoons of butter to enrich the sauce. Stir in the butter so it melts completely. Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley and serve. You can also serve over mashed potatoes, rice or pasta.

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Old-Fashioned Cooking: Devil’s Food Cake


In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.

Chocolate History

You can thank the Olmecs and Aztecs for chocolate. Cacao trees are native to Mesomerica, and when the Cortez and his Spaniards got there in 1519, the natives had been drinking the stuff for better than 2,000 years. It was unsweetened, which was probably why they called it “bitter water.” Chocolate remained primarily a drink, especially once sugar and milk were added to make hot cocoa. It wasn’t until the process of grinding the cacao beans was perfected in 1764 that the powder could be used for other foods. Once the mechanical extraction method was perfected in 1828, chocolate as we know it today became more widely available. Then, in 1879, Rodolphe Lindt came up with a process called conching that meant chocolate could be smoothly almagamated with cake batters.

Chocolate Cakes

Chocolate cake became the rage in the late 1880s and Devil’s Food Cake showed up in a recipe book in 1902. Nobody seems to know where the name came from. Since Angel Food Cake predated it and is the antithesis in texture, color and flavor, it may have been a play on the first name. Or it could be because it’s sinfully delicious. It is distinguished from “regular” chocolate cake by its deeper color (more chocolate in the batter). The liquid is coffee, water or a mix, rather than milk. Additional baking soda may be added, which deepens the color. There are two versions; one is made with melted chocolate and one with cocoa. While the original recipe with cocoa called for vegetable oil, I prefer melted butter in both cakes. Hubby and I differ in opinion as to whether to use nuts in cake or frosting – he likes them in both, I don’t like them in either. If you choose to put them in the cake, chop fine and add them just before you put the batter in the pans.

Devil’s Food Cake (1902)

  • 1 cup of milk
  • 4 ounces of chocolate
  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 3 cups of pastry flour
  • 1 1/2 cups of sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoonfuls of baking powder

Put in a double boiler four ounces of chocolate and a half pint of milk; cook until smooth and thick. Set aside to cool. Beat a half cup of butter to a cream; add gradually one and a half cups of sugar and the yolks of four eggs; beat until light and smooth. Then add the cool chocolate mixture and three cups of pastry flour, with which you have sifted two teaspoonfuls of baking powder. Beat thoroughly for at least five minutes; then stir in the well-beaten whites of the eggs. Bake in three or four layers. Put the layers together with soft icing, to which you have added a cup of chopped nuts. The success of this cake depends upon the flour used. — Sarah Tyson Rorer. “Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book”. 1902. Page 619. The original recipe has a typo and was published that way, calling for ½ cup milk. Don’t try it – makes the cake dry and heavy.

Devil’s Food Cake (1905)

  • 3/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 1/3 boiling water, coffee or a mixture
  • 2 1/3 c. sugar
  • 3/4 c. oil
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 T. vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 2 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. salt

Preheat oven to 325°F. Coat 2 (8 or 9x 2 inch) cake pans with butter. Flour buttered pans or line bottoms with waxed paper. Put cocoa powder and boiling water in a medium bowl and stir until smooth. When cool, add the next 4 ingredients. Beat with mixer on medium speed until blended. On low speed, add flour, baking soda and salt. Beat until smooth (batter will be thin). Divide between the pans. Bake 45-55 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes. Run knife around edges of cake, invert onto rack, remove paper and cool completely. Turn the cakes right-side-up and trim tops if necessary. Place 1 layer (top-side-down) on a plate. Spread with 1 cup of frosting. Cover the cake with second layer (top-side-down) and cover top and sides with remaining frosting.

Devil’s Food Frosting

  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 11/2 t. vanilla extract
  • 3 c. confectioner’s sugar
  • 6 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 1/2c. heavy whipping cream

Beat butter and vanilla in a large bowl with mixer on medium speed until creamy. Reduce to low and beat in 1/2 c. sugar, then melted chocolate. Alternate beating in remaining sugar and 1/2 c. cream. Increase speed to medium and beat, adding more cream if necessary, until spreadable.

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