Ditch Bank Ladies

There they stood. Mere inches in height, poking through low-hanging, scruffy looking ditch bank grasses. Spirals of white blossoms, circling around a thickened dark green stem. My very first view of the native orchid, the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes cernua).

“These,” said naturalist Gary Lentz, “is a true barometer of the start of fall.”

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My original viewing and image of the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, hidden in the scruffy grasses of a roadside ditch bank in Renville County.

Minnesota is home to a vast variety of native orchids, many of which I would not have known nor seen if not for true naturalists like Lentz. One cannot have enough naturalists in your life, and although I’m a Minnesota Master Naturalist, I’m far from the real thing. All that means is that I’ve completed the 40-hour course and have done a fair amount of volunteering for the past several years. Indeed, a kindly forestry professor at the University of Missouri sat me down one day after class with these words: “If you continue with a study of the sciences you will become the most frustrated of scientists, for you don’t have the mind for it. You should be a writer. Someone who observes and appreciates, not someone who delves into the analytics. Let me introduce you to my friend, Dick Lee, in the journalism department.” A huge weight had been lifted.

About a week or so before my brief visit with Lentz, he had posted a photo on social media saying the “ladies” were close to his mailbox near his hideaway farm nestled along Cottonwood Creek between Granite Falls and Echo. It turned out to be a convenient stop on the way home from dropping a friend off at the airport.

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Delicate blossoms that spiral up the stem. The Ladies’ are apparently more common in Eastern Minnesota although apparently more rare in the western prairie region.

Lentz is one of the naturalists I’m fortunate to know. He, like the others, have a nose for the prairie and an eye for spying the natural nuances of life in the wild. Among the others are Kylene Olson, a walking encyclopedia of Latin names and native species recognition; Dave Jungst, of Morris, who seemingly is in the fields of Polk, Swift and other nearby counties almost daily observing and recording the changes in native prairie life; and of course, Lentz. Amy Rager, Terri Dennison and Chris Ingrebretsen also come to mind. There may be more, for the worst part about making a list is leaving off deserving people, which I’m sure I’ve done.

One of my first river valley naturalists was Ed Stone, whose small house just up the slope from Vicksburg County Park, was tucked in the woods against some of the most beautiful Minnesota River gneiss outcrops. Stone’s living room was basically a naturalist’s office, with a huge, centering table where he sat to record his daily observations of the natural life around him. Every January he would pass along his copious notes to various country newspaper editors like myself to print if we wished. I was fortunate to visit with Stone several times, including my favorite venture when we climbed into the outcrops that were as sheer and flat as they were angled to “hunt” for a rare skink he promised lived in the crevices. We spied two, but in no way were we close to catching either for closer observation.

This summer at a “pop up” arts festival where I was showing my impressionistic prairie photography, a woman asked if I had known Ed Stone. After some shared remembrance, she said, “You know he passed about two years ago?” I didn’t, for I had lost contact after moving to Listening Stones Farm almost three hours away. Ed Stone was a gentle man, someone you could picture as a modern day Aldo Leopold, author of the classic “Sand County Almanac.”

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Some were in clusters like these, but more often singular plants.

So here we were, stepping carefully around the “ditch bank ladies” taking pictures. I told Lentz that I had swerved a time or two while seeking what he had shown on the site of the white blossomed plant while driving down the main highway toward his gravel turnoff. My surprise was their delicate stature, for I realized you would require more minute observation than that from a windshield to see them.

“We were able to convince the county to not disturb this particular road bank when they wanted to widen the road. As orchids, they won’t grow just anywhere. Whether that is because of certain microbes in the soil, or what, I don’t know. I’ve tried collecting the seeds to propagate them without much luck,” he said. “You’re seeing them at their peek. In a few days they’ll be gone.”

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A view from the top of the plant.

He was right, for I did drive back once I realized that in my excitement and efforts to capture the incredible spirals of blossoms that I had not made a defining, overall “ecology” image — my curse observed years ago by the forestry professor.

As I walked along the now barren seeking even one of the delicate orchids, Lentz was right. This was another fleeting moment in the natural world. Ah, the knowledge of true naturalists. I then remembered that moments before we climbed into his pickup to drive to this obscure roadside site Lentz had positioned a couple of seeds under his microscope to show me. It was a moment straight out of Ed Stone’s “naturalist handbook” and cause for another smile. And further proof that someone like me can’t have enough naturalists in their life.

Sweet Goodness

Several years ago a wonderful friend, Jill Bruns, shared what turned out to be an incredible recipe for a tomato sauce. We were working together at the time for an exchange student organization matching host families with teenagers from around the world and monitoring those sometimes tenuous, often-time beautiful relationships. For us, August and September were quite stressful times, and Jill’s recipe was nearly as hands-off as it was delicious.

Her recipe was one of the cherished items packed on our move to Listening Stones Farm more than four years ago. Along the way it has been altered somewhat depending on the year and creative muse. For a couple of years back when I was married we started smoking my ex’s beautiful eggplant to include in the simmer. In no way can I garden as well as she could, so last year after making the first batch “naked” … without the smoke … I made a second batch where the offset smoker was once again put in play. This time to smoke the skin-on tomatoes.

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Heirloom tomatoes are used, smoked on the offset using apple wood. When moisture rises into the opened core, they’re ready to add to the roaster.

This created a sweet and lovely aroma that seemed to encompass not just the kitchen, but the entire house, creating such a sweet goodness.

Our method then was to let it simmer overnight in the roaster, which allowed the sauce to thicken quite well. Since I have begun to can the sauce the same day because it seems to hold the flavors better. The delicate flavors are captured for winter joys rather than lost in the overcooking.

Last week I made my first batch of Jill’s Sweet Goodness. In my recipe I continued to use garlic and onions.


From my first batch, with the basil leaves on top. 

As is typical, my garden has more tomato plants than should have been planted, and more fruit is coming off the vine daily. I have more than enough for my own needs, and a really good salsa has since been canned. One that is decidedly less vinegary than the one I made last year … which tasted just fine before being canned but was much too vinegary come winter. This one has more lime and much less vinegar, and is just what I like in a salsa.

Yet, I love Jill’s Sweet Goodness and have eyed making another batch, this time with two people in mind. My sister, Ann Roeder, and a dear friend, Mo Stores. Both suffer from an onion and garlic allergy. While it seems almost sacrilegious to make a tomato sauce without either ingredient I was curious if it was doable and if the flavor would hold.

So once again I smoked the tomatoes. All the various ingredients from the recipe were added along with about three quarters of a cup of chopped herbs. Included was a healthy sprig of rosemary, and about half and half of fresh basil and sage. A knife was used to chop the herbs finely before being added to the roaster. I had used fresh basil and rosemary in my original batch, though not the sage. My idea came from Ann, who sometimes uses sage as a substitute in her cooking. Indeed, this may be the best batch of the bunch!


After the vegetables have been pureed, add three 12 oz. cans of tomato paste, and use the emulsifier again.

This is truly a simple sauce to make. My only change is that I peel the carrots and cut up the celery. Those tomatoes are cored before going onto the smoker. An emulsifier is used to puree the sauce, and to blend in the paste afterwards. Two of my friends wouldn’t can this without a pressure cooker, and two others, including Jill who is a county health nurse, stick with hot baths. I prefer the hot bath method and did it this way for years with no problems whatsoever.

The sauce is excellent for spaghetti and pizzas, and sometimes I add some pesto that I have frozen. All the vegetables are organic, including those I grow here on the farm. Here is Jill’s recipe, so please, enjoy!

Jill’s Spaghetti Sauce

(Makes 8-12 quarts)

50 tomatoes (enough to fill a large electric roaster. I smoke in an offset smoker with apple wood.)

1 batch celery — chopped

8 green peppers

8 onions

8 cloves of garlic

8 carrots

1/2 c salt

1 c sugar

1/4 t cloves

1/2 t allspice

1/2 t paprika

1/2 t oregano

1/4 t pepper

1 bay leaf

Several sweet basil leaves

3 12 oz cans tomato paste

Put cut up vegetables into roaster. Add all ingredients except tomato paste. Simmer for 4 hours at 225 F degrees or so, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. You can simmer overnight to puree in the morning, or all through the day. Use a blender or emulsifier to puree. Add paste and simmer for at least two hours. Put in jars and hot bath for 40 minutes. Rebecca used a pressure cooker at #10 for 40 minutes. Great for spaghetti, chili, lasagna and most anything using a tomato sauce. I use pint jars for more convenience of single living.


I’m not an “organized” canner, using a variety of jar types and sizes. It’s what is inside that counts!