Gestating and Germinating

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I am very excited to start the official planting season this month, along with the fun and exciting challenge of also preparing for a new family member (this time the human variety). CFO and I are busy making preparations for our little sprout to arrive early August, which means all my other preparations have to be done in less time and with significantly less energy. Pregnancy and preparing for a baby are two things of which I have no knowledge, and no matter what anyone tells, you there is no amount of book learning that can get you there. I know because I have read ALL the books. I am still confounded as to what I really need to do. And yes I have had every man, woman and child TELL me what I need to do and every single one of them has contradicted the other. The only thing I know about having a baby is how to accumulate things. Somewhere in this picture is a crib, I swear.

Where my skill set lies is in how to ready a garden and grow some food. At least, I have had relative success in the past. My garden planning is fairly immaculate, if I do say so myself. I have charts, and more charts, and schedules, and timers. Planning is one of my top attributes; I once planned a seven-day trip to Paris all in 15-minute increments. It was a phenomenal experience. The problem is, I can’t plan the unknown, and everything has been an unknown since Thanksgiving. Here is how my schedule is working out so far:

  • February 18 – Start celery and leek seeds indoors. ON TIME.
  • March 4 – Start kale and cabbage indoors. DELAYED.
  • March 25 – Seed outdoors arugula, fava beans, colish greens, peas and spinach. DELAYED. Start tomatoes and peppers indoors. ON TIME!!…DIED…DELAYED.
  • April 1 – Seed outdoors lettuces, endive and radicchio and harden kale and cabbage transplants. DELAYED.
  • April 8 – Seed outdoors beets, carrots, parsley, chard; transplant cabbage and kale; start eggplant and celery root indoors. DELAYED.

My list is starting to resemble a United Airlines departure board at O’Hare International Airport. The new plan is, April 15 do all of the tasks above. I am about halfway there. I finished seeding the spring raised bed this morning, and will hopefully sneak an hour to do the rest tomorrow, followed by the transplants this weekend and finally get those eggplants going.

On top of my own garden chores, I have the community to think about. In the fall, I started the Master Gardener program here in SE Wisconsin, which requires me to complete 24 hours of educational outreach in the county by September. This amount of time, 24 hours, seems reasonable, but considering that its garden outreach and most of the work is…well, WORK, and done during the growing season, AKA 7 and 8 months preggo season, this has proved to be a bit more challenging. I’m trying to volunteer at every home show, garden show, and potting event I can while my shoes still fit and I can see my own feet.

How is your garden growing?

February, Quite Contrary, How does your Garden Grow?

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My Google calendar recently alarmed me to the official start of the gardening season, this past weekend of February 17. After a brief, but restful, garden dormancy over the past 2.5 months, it is time to begin it all again. Apparently, nature had some other plans and time traveled ahead by 3 months to spring time highs of 65°F and sunshine, complete with scampering animals and chirping birdsong. This, friends, is 30°F over the average blistering February temps. But please…global warming is a hoax.

While I have enjoyed the unseasonable weather for dog walks and weekend outdoor excursions, its worrisome if any of my dormant perennials get too excited and wake up from hibernation, just to be killed off by a surely expected March freeze. I shall keep an eye out for any early risers and smother them with straw mulch. The silver lining in all of this, of course, is a much more hospitable environment to begin some late winter tasks, such as pruning and trimming. February is a great time to give a hair cut to the fruit trees, and a great opportunity to clean out any vegetation I left in the beds over the winter.

Though I am enjoying the respite from the cold, the major garden work is done in the basement under grow lights. The weekend kicks of the business of seed starting, with some celery and leeks, and a through review of the weeks and months ahead.

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Always up for new adventures, I added some new fun items this year based on my culinary preferences. New this year for produce I am adding leeks, an assortment of fresh herbs, and strawberries to the garden. I am expanding the varieties of everything else from asparagus to tomatoes. I have also made the executive decision to move certain plants strictly to a fall-harvest cycle. Broccoli, cauliflower, celeriac, rutabaga and turnips have proved too challenging with the unreliability of spring weather. All in all there will be 136 varieties of fruits and vegetables on our one-acre homestead. If I can pull this off, it will be quite a boon for this four-mammal household.

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March/April plotted plan for the early spring garden. 

As is in my nature, I have plotted and planned the timing of starting, transplanting and sowing based around my travel schedule. With a little assistance in watering from CFO, we should be enjoying fresh salads by late April. Having a little OCD in gardening does make a difference in success rates. By first identifying realistic times when I can tend to my little spouting babies, I don’t overwhelm myself and make tasks unreasonable. Yes, garden upkeep is no different than maintaining anything else like clothing and upholstery, but organization makes anything possible. I also really like binders.

This year I am taking a different rotation approach. Yes, you should rotate beds by type of vegetable. Yes, you should not overcrowd your plants. But, given limited space, I have limited rotation and spacing capabilities. Instead of proper form, this year I am rotating by garden “season.” I will have one bed for spring produce, which will be ready to replant for the fall garden. Three beds will be summer produce (which often lasts well into fall). One bed for blueberries, one for strawberries, and an assortment of other planters for items that need a bit more separation and attention. I also to work in as much companion planting as I can within each bed. In such a small space, companion planting has been beneficial in my short experience. While I see plenty of the bad bugs, they have yet to demolish entire sections. Attracting the good bugs and very aggressive birds helps as well. While I do not like the birds hovering about my cherry tree, I audibly cheer when I see them circling the garden. For new plantings I will use row covers, but after that its open season on caterpillars.

Well, I better get to work before old man winter returns this upcoming weekend. I hope your garden planning is off to a great start!

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Mr. Jack prepares for the return of winter.

A Year of Backyard Food: A Study

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INTRODUCTION

Its that day once more, that day the ends the annual cycle of time, also known as my sister’s birthday. Happy birthday sis! It’s a pretty popular event; people all around the world celebrate by drinking profusely, declaring how the next year will be the one, and making out at midnight. I prefer to celebrate by eating dinner around 6pm and falling asleep promptly at 9pm once again disappointing CFO. He’s a party animal.

I’m not one for making these so-called resolutions, because I feel that it is a system of preplanned failure. If you ever bought a gym membership in January, you are not my people. But I respect your choices. I prefer to think upon the last year and note what worked, and what didn’t, and make some informed decisions of how I might make better decisions going forward. For example, last year I evaluated how much I have zero interest in cleaning my house, and how I have lots of interest in paying people to do it instead. That’s a “resolution” I am happy to keep going in 2017.

When it comes to the garden, I think about what worked, and didn’t work a lot in January. Mainly because its time to order seeds and get planning. One of my goals from last year was to keep track of what I grew and what I harvested. I was sure that growing food in the backyard is a financially stable way to eat better, but I have no evidence to support the statement. I wanted to do a season-long very unscientific study to prove my point, mainly to CFO, but also to the 22 people that might read this post. I am happy to say that not only did I complete my project, but also I am here, on December 31 to report the results.

HYPOTHESIS

Growing vegetables in one’s own backyard provides a cost savings over purchasing the same food in a grocery store. I know this might seem obvious, but food in this country is shockingly cheap. I felt as if my work was cut out for me.

METHODOLOGY

In order to report the findings as accurately as possible, I had to consider the costs to grow said food, as well as the market value of the food I harvested. I factored in all of the things I use to grow food: cedar for beds, compost, seeds, transplants, fertilizer, mulch, water, and also the grow light system I purchased to start my own. The only thing I did not include was labor. I mean, let’s face it. If I weren’t willing to donate my time this whole adventure would be pointless. I also think that the time I spent in the garden probably equals the amount of time I would otherwise navigate the produce aisle at my local store, which is about as easy to shop as a new IKEA during the grand opening.

For the harvest itself, I had to find a way to quantify the value of what I had, and the only way I could think was to compare it to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service produce commodity averages. This is an average of the countries produce costs at retail, and is published weekly. It worked pretty well for the common items, but for those odd duck veggies I grow (parsley root anyone?), I had to get more creative. I found an online co-op that published produced prices daily, and used that for a reference. Also, because I practice the general “organic” growing system, meaning I do not use anything on my crops that requires a gas mask, I opted to compare the produce to the organic rates. I know, I know…kind of unfair because I don’t normally buy organic produce, but I grow it and this is my study.

DATA ANALYSIS

The grand total of my garden expenses was…. $1284. Yikes. Last year had some expensive costs to be fair: CFO finished building the remaining garden beds and I invested in a growing system for the basement. Ideally, those two purchases will not be on-going costs. Using cedar, the beds should last 10 years, and since I received 3 shipments of broken growing lights, the supplier sent me about 12 bulbs at no cost in order to maintain his positive EBay rating. I should be good for a while. Based on annual expenses like seeds, compost, mulch, etc. I realistically spend about $250 a year, which seems much more reasonable. Maybe this wasn’t the best year for my study. Meh.

In 2016, I grew a total of 87 varieties of 54 different fruits and vegetables. I began the harvest the week of April 17 with asparagus, and ended the harvest the week of Thanksgiving with sage, kale, and Brussels sprouts. That’s 8 months of food! That’s a win in my book. I had some winners and some losers. I was giving away tomatoes, squash, basil and berries, but the melons and eggplants eluded me due to my unpreparedness with the late cabbage and unwieldy tomatillos. My peppers were a flop again for the third year. But I won’t be giving up on them just yet. Overall, I think this year was my most successful garden year. I figured out the watering system and my rotation and spacing scheme worked out very well. I didn’t have any problems with transplants because I grew them self. In order to properly assess the produce harvest, I used a kitchen scale, and weighed 470 lbs of vegetables for a grand total cost of….

Drum roll please…

$1250!!!!!

And yes. I know that is $34 in the red.

RESULTS

So okay, I technically didn’t make money on the garden, but if you consider I “spent” $34 for 470 lbs of vegetables, many of which are still stored in my freezer or canned and in the pantry in various forms, I think I did pretty darn good. And what a fun project. At its height, the garden was astounding, and received comments and questions from the neighbors (possibly some grumbling and complaints that I tuned out) and also kept me outside for a good chunk of the summer. I got to make farm dinners for family and friends that visited, we grilled vegetables I didn’t know could be grilled, and reduced our grocery expenses to the point where I could justify buying lobster for dinner. I even liked keeping track of all the produce; my charts and files have provided me solid information to make better planning for next year. I think I will keep this going if I can.

CONCLUSION

I conclude that 2016 was a good year in garden for me. I have already started plotting the changes and new vegetables and varieties to try, and making my informed decisions to better myself.

Next year will be…the Year of the Salad (because I have 10,000 lettuce seeds to start).

I hope you have a wonderful New Year and have grand adventures in gardening!

The Life Changing Magic of Squash Soup

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There are a few things that were introduced during my lifetime that can be considered truly life-changing…the internet, smart phones, fourth generation antihstamines, and some others. These are really great and all, but today I am reminded of a two other “discoveries” that have significantly changed my life, specifically in regards to the autumn season: no-peel winter squash and the immersion blender.

The pureed squash soup is like the elixir of fall. There is something about that warm, slightly sweet orange silky squash liquor served in a big bowl or just a mug. Its something I look forward to every year when I see the piles of butternut squash and pumpkins at every store in town. Every season, I make up batch to kick off the shorter days and cooler temps. I have tried many a recipe, and have come up with an adaptation that works for whatever I have on hand. The only real requirement is that you have squash, and a preheated oven at 425°F.

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See that pretty dumpling above? This is the ultimate of winter squash (in my opinion). This little nugget is the French heirloom potimarron squash. The name is a combination of two words: potiron (pumpkin) and chestnut (marron), and the flavor is a delightful marriage of the two as well. It is by far not only my favorite winter squash but also my favorite pumpkin, hands down. This squash is also called red kuri or hokaiddo or onion squash, depending on where it is grown. Beyond the flavor, the best part is that this is a thin-skinned squash which means…NO PEELING (enter sounds of crowds cheering! alarms blaring! fireworks exploding!)

If you have never experienced the wonder of not peeling a winter squash, I implore you to get on this. My first no-peel squash was a delicata I received in a CSA box many moons ago, and it was an eye-opening culinary experience to be sure. I looked for that squash for years in two different cities, and nary a grocery stocked it. I knew the solution: grow my own. While I intended to grow delicata squash my first year of the garden, the seed company I was using only had it available in their membership program, which I was not a part of. Instead, I found their potimarron in the seed catalogue which said no peeling was required so I took a chance. I have never looked back since. Granted, these do not store well because of the peel (two weeks at best; probably why there is no commercial presence), but two weeks is about all I can hold out for anyways.

So let’s get started on this special soup journey. To start, take the little squash and just cut of the top and bottom, scoop out the seeds and strings (save for the broth later), cut into chunks and mix with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Easy like Sunday Morning.

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To flavor our soup, I like to use this combination of pear, tomato, garlic, and leek. But you can also use apples, onions, ginger, peppers, anything. I happen to not have any leeks on hand, but I do have sweet onion. The combination of sweet and savory really enhances the sweetness of the squash but not in an over the top way.

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Cut the vegetables in half so they are all roughly the same size, removing seeds and stems. You can peel anything that requires peeling, but I tend to be a no-peel advocate if I can get away with it.

 

Just like with the squash, toss in a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

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Lay everything out onto a large roasting pan, and stick in the oven for a good 30 minutes at 425°F, or until the squash is nice and tender.

While that is roasting, heat up 6 cups of broth (chicken or vegetable or whatever you have) to boil. I am woefully out of my homemade broth, I have some bullion cubes that will do fine in a pinch. To enhance the flavor, you can add the squash seeds and guts to the broth, reduce to a simmer, and let it mellow until its time to add the vegetables and then remove.

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The thing about a squash soup is that it needs to be pureed. Chunks of squash and other vegetables in a bowl of loose broth would just not translate the same way, nor be as beautiful or delicious. The flavors have to marry to make it truly enticing. Typically, this is done by using a blender in batches and you see directions that suggest at any time the hot soup and chunks will explode in a furry of chunky orange projectile blender vomit if not done properly. I have no intentions to clean squash off my ceilings, thank you very much.

Enter the greatest kitchen utensil since the slow cooker: the immersion blender. This bad boy is not just a God-send, it’s a life-changing soup instrument. It also reduces post-soup making cleanup by 5 dishes, which in and of itself, is a gadget worthy of an extra trip to Bed Bath and Beyond.

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Once your veggies are roasted up, just pop them into the simmering broth (after removing seeds/guts). Hook up that immersion blender, and BLEND BABY BLEND.

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Look at that…

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Golden colored…

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Lovely silky and smooth…

At this point, you could just add a big straw and be done with it. Or you could add a few enhancements. I like to top each bowl with a handful of crumbled gorgonzola and some chopped hazelnuts. You could also do a dollop of whole milk Greek yogurt and a drizzle of maple syrup. You could also do a sprinkle of fried sage and prosciutto. You could also do sharp cheddar and apple chips. Whatever floats your boat.

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How every you top it off, you won’t regret it. Simple, sweet and savory, no-peel immersion blended winter squash soup. If only every day could be like today.

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…and Repeat.

Life-Changing Squash Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 potimarron squash, about 3-4 lb., stemmed and seeds and strings removed and set aside (can also substitute butternut, pumpkin or acorn but peel these first!)
  • 2 medium pears (or 4 small), stemmed and cored
  • 2 medium tomatoes, halved
  • 1 medium onion (or half large), chopped into wedges
  • 3-4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp pepper
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 oz. Gorgonzola or blue stilton cheese, crumbled
  • 2 oz. chopped hazelnuts

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Cut squash into small wedges, toss with half the olive oil, and half the salt and pepper. Arrange squash, skin-side down, on a baking sheet.
  3. Toss prepped pears, tomatos and onion in remaining olive oil, salt and pepper. Arrange on a second baking sheet skin-side down.
  4. Put both sheets into the oven for 30 min. to roast.
  5. Heat broth in a large pot to boil. Add reserved pulp and seeds to broth, and reduce to simmer. Let simmer until vegetables are done, then remove pulp and seeds and discard.
  6. Add roasted vegetables to broth. Use immersion blender to puree entire batch to a consistent texture so that there are no lumps or large pieces. If you want a thinner soup, add water as needed.
  7. Serve immediately, and top with scant crumbled cheese and scant chopped hazelnuts to taste.

How to Determinate the Indeterminate (Tomato)

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I have Instagram. I love Instagram. If you keep up with my Instagram, you know that my Instagram lately has been a collection of tomato pics, because my garden is a collection of real life tomatoes, to date 50 pounds of tomatoes. Because it’s August. And that’s what happens in August. But…let me rewind a little.

I didn’t always have 50 pounds of August tomatoes. I once had 2 pounds of August tomatoes, and lots of frustration and determined reflection. That was three years ago. Here is a summary:

Year One: I planted four tomatoes and used those inverted conical hoop cages that seem all the rage. Thought I could plant one tomato plant per square foot LIKE A MORON. Tomatoes quickly filled the cages, and then some, lifting the cages out of the soil and wrapped tomatoey vines in and out of the wire, soon around each other, giving the appearance that one gargantuan tomato plant ate four tomato cages. If I was lucky, I think I got 3 tomatoes.

Year Two: I planted four kinds of tomatoes but I knew something now. No cages. I staked them! Using wire, I tied the stems to 6-foot bamboo poles. I kept tying to the poles as they grew. And grew. And grew past 6 feet so I had nothing to tie them to. Then they went all psycho tomato like the previous year. I did manage to wrangle a decent haul around 10 pounds, enough to eat fresh.

Clearly, my first two years of tomatoes were not what I thought they would be. I remember listening to acquaintances and neighbors go on about their tomato harvests like “ohhh there are soooo MANY I just don’t know what to do” and thinking, “ohhhh well I HATE you. And I will take your extra tomatoes, please.” Why were my tomatoes not working? Tomatoes are supposed to be the friendliest of the garden vegetables, that’s why everyone grows them.

I did a little reading and quickly learned that you can’t just tie them to the poles, you need to actively prune them. Good lord, more work. So I set about this year determined to plant, stake and prune my ten tomato plants. And plant, stake, prune I did.

To prune a tomato plant there are a couple things you want to do:

  1. Always prune out any leafs/stems that grow in the crotch of the main stem and a leaf branch. The stems that grow in the crotch will are called “suckers” but I call them parasites.
  2. Prune away all leaf branches below the first foot of the plant. One the plant starts blossoming and setting fruit, these lower leaves might just yellow and drop off anyways.
  3. Don’t just take my word for it, photo google “tomato pruning” and the diagrams will come forth.

These are the basic pruning methods I use for my indeterminate tomatoes. Most of my tomatoes are indeterminate. All that this means is that they will continuously set fruit until their tomato life has ended, whether by frost, deer, or overwhelmed gardeners. If a tomato plant is determinate, it means it will produce fruit all at one time. These guys usually stay manageable and small, but there are much fewer tomato options for determinate types. I grow tomatoes in a very tight space, about a 6’ x 4’ square, so I should grow determinate types. But I don’t. What can I say? I bring on my own demise.

Something crazy happened this year, year three. I set about planting, staking, tying pruning my ten plants and one night, not wholly unexpectedly, one of my tomato plants lost his head! I mean this literally. A deer (I feel safe in assuming this) made off with the very top of one of my Pink Brandywine tomato plants, when it was a mere 4 feet high. I thought for sure it was a goner. It had already blossomed and had 4 small green tomatoes, so I was upset at the prospect of losing the fruit. Quickly, I made a dash to get a temporary fence in place to prevent further damage to the rest of the vines.

Writing off this one plant, I thought “this is why you always have a backup” and I focused my attention on the rest of the tomatoes. But…something happened. The deer-mangled tomato plant did not die. It did not grow. But, it did keep plumping up those tomatoes. I harvested all four 1.5 pounder Pink Brandywines from that 4-foot tomato and was really impressed with the little-tomato-that-could attitude. I thought to myself…what if I topped off all my tomatoes? (Imagine me with a cocked eye brow and slightly evil smirk.)

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Young Pink Brandywines from a deer-mangled vine.

You know what I did? I deer-mangled my tomatoes my own self! I waited until the remaining plants were at or above 7 feet (at which point I have trouble reaching), and lopped off the growing tips. Just like that! I will admit, I was a little scared, but each plant had a good amount of fruit coming in. Worst case scenario, I would get a good crop of green tomatoes. Fortunately, my risk paid off…in 50 pounds and counting. Not only did my tomatoes stop growing at whatever point I cut, but they put their focus on setting fruit, and setting fruit they did.

For all intents and purposes, I determinated my indeterminate tomatoes. Once I finish harvesting all the fruit, the plants will be done because I stopped any further growth. I am okay with this, seeing as how I spent a full 10-hour day making frozen roasted tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, fresh marinara sauce, tomato soup, and zesty tomato salsa. I feel that I have lived a true tomato August and I am ready for an overwhelming harvest of something else. Come at me tomatillos.

If you prefer to let your tomatoes sprawl, this process is not for you. I have heard it said that when you pole stake your tomatoes, you get a small yield. To that I say, how many more tomatoes can a person use? Pole staking, tying and pruning works well in a small garden space as I have, and topping the tomatoes off after they have a good set of blossoms affords a little more sanity during the bumper crop season.

How are you handling the August tomato rush?

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The Mystery of the Green Cucumber

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Poona Kheera cucumbers start out white, turn yellow, and finally brown when mature. They are edible at every stage.

For the last few years I have been growing a variety of cucumber called Poona Kheera, which is an Indian variety that looks more like an elongated potato than a cucumber. They don’t look so delicious, but they have a really crisp, refreshing flavor that is great for slicing and eating. I have been using the same seed packet since 2014, so you can imagine my surprise when this summer, some of my cucumbers popped up green.

I have no idea how this happened. I tried to do a little research on the well-regarded internet, thinking cross-pollination may be at fault, but from what I gather cucumbers will only present mutt-like fruit during the second generation of breeding, not the first. Weird. I guess it is possible a stray seed fell into my seed packet during the packing stage. Or, this plant is a natural cross that happened on the farm and made it all the way to Wisconsin just to be discovered by me! These are heirloom, open pollinated varieties after all. Truthfully, I will never know, but none the less I am taking credit as the Discoverer-on-Record. I present to you….

Green Mystery Cucumber

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The fun bonus part in all of this is I now have two varieties of cucumbers to experiment with, and since my Indian variety are for fresh eating, my mystery cucumber is for…PICKLES! Which are my absolute favorite way to strip the cucumber of nutrients, pack them full of delicious salt, and top every sandwich-like food.

I tasted these very traditional-looking cucumbers, and their flavor was bland, to be nice about it. They were crispy, yes, but nothing special. This quality makes them a great candidate for a boiling water bath canner. Cucumbers did well this year, so I have a quite a few pounds of these green mysteries. I experimented with two recipes I found a recipe in the Ball Preservation Book that requires, a dill fermented pickle and one that is described as making phenomenal grilled cheese sandwiches. Umm….SOLD. IMG_20160723_202112

I don’t have reprinting rights, but you can look it up: Cucumber Sandwich Pickles. These are a sweet pickles, and I made 5 pints from 3 pounds of cukes. Because I have little patience for holding out on tasty things, I popped a jar the same day, and we enjoyed a delicious, if not unique, gouda and pickle grilled cheese dinner.

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My fermented dills are a true experiment, in that I have never done this before. It didn’t seem too complicated. It called for something called “pickling spice,” which was $4.23 at the grocery store, but the ingredients were all spices I have in my pantry so I whipped together my own mix.

  • 2 Tbsp whole mustard seedsIMG_20160731_111308
  • 1 Tbsp whole black peppercorns
  • 2 tsp whole caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp whole dill seed
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 2 cinnamon sticks, broken
  • 6 whole cloves

I combined this with fresh dill and 2 garlic cloves, and packed a jar with pickles and topped with a salt solution: 4 quarts water, 1 cup 5% vinegar, 0.75 cups iodine-free pickling salt. To keep the good stuff below the liquid level, I topped it with a brine-filled freezer bag and its now hanging out in my basement.

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To be continued…

How to Manage 25 Pints of Raspberries, In Photos

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I used to think April was my busiest month in gardening. Then I experienced May. Then June. And now, July. Let’s face it, this “hobby” of mine has really taken precedence over a lot of things in my life, like, umm, clean floors and bed sheets. My goal in all of this is to demonstrate by action the benefits of urban vegetable gardening, and fortunately one of those goals is not a magazine-cover-worthy kept house. One of my goals is, however, manageability of the work involved. July, and my little 10 ft x 5 ft patch of summer-bearing raspberries, threatened to bring down my noble charge. This month, I harvested 25 pints of raspberries, or 50 cups, or 12.5 quarts, or just over 3 gallons, which adds up to somewhere in the realm of 10 billion berries. Growing perennial cane berries is a great investment, especially if you want to be so overwhelmed in one short period of time, that within two weeks you can’t even look at anything berry-flavored without screaming obscenities and punching through drywall, and then you swear off that fruit for the next 11 months. Which is great, because that’s when the next crop is ready.

Fortunately, fresh-picked raspberries at the peak of ripeness are beyond amazing, and purchasing off-season raspberries after you taste these beauties will leave you disappointed and let down, so you will never do it again (in my experience). Even my rabbit won’t eat store bought raspberries anymore, but to be fair she is highly spoiled and very snooty for a prey animal. If this is something that interests you, and I do suggest it, I’ve added a new feature on this blog, Produce Primer, which will include features of various fruits and vegetables that I have grown, and the first one up is the luscious red raspberry.

If you are concerned about how to manage all those raspberries, take it from me, there are ways. Check out the photos below for some sweet red rasp-iration.

Raspberry Chip Ice Cream

Raspberry Chip Ice Cream

Raspberry White Wine Popsicle

Raspberry White Wine Popsicle

Raspberry Jam

Raspberry Jam

Raspberry Balsamic Vinaigrette

Raspberry Balsamic Vinaigrette

Raspberry Swirl Cupcakes

Raspberry Swirl Cupcakes

Fresh Raspberries and Yogurt Dip

Fresh Raspberries and Yogurt Dip

Raspberry Macarons

Raspberry French Macarons

Raspberries and Cream

Raspberries and Cream

aspbery Creme Brûlée

Raspbery Creme Brûlée

Raspberry Pecan Coffee Cake

Raspberry Pecan Coffee Cake

Enjoy!

Fall Gardening, Take Two

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I’m gearing up for the fall garden. Gearing up means 1) figuring out what to plant, and 2) taking special precautions against the wildlife, to avoid a situation like last year. For item two, CFO and I installed a temporary barrier around the garden until we find a permanent fence style that is the trifecta: effective, inexpensive, and not hideous. In the meantime, I am hoping that the one-two punch of invisible mesh and roaming coyotes will keep the deer at bay long enough to get some Brussels sprouts. IMG_20160619_115628

To address item one, you want to consider that fall garden planning can really start when all the other spring and summer garden planning happens. For me, the planning doesn’t really have a start or stop date, its just an amorphous thought bubble constantly hovering over me. For normal people, maybe in February. At the very least you want to identify your expected first frost date for your zone, so you can determine when to start with the planting.

Generally speaking, the fall garden will look a lot like the spring garden but in reverse. Peas, lettuces, radishes, beets, etc. can all be sown in late summer and will produce as the weather starts to cool. In some cases, it is almost easier than dealing with the spring because you are less likely to have random 90 deg days like you do in the May (I am talking to YOU Milwaukee Spring 2016!).

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Chiogga Beets.

We like think of “fall vegetables” as rootstock like carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, etc. and for good reason. Soil is a great storage method, and the tasty root will hold up through some very cold temps. In fact, I have read via the highly regarded and scientifically supported internet that you can fabricate your own make-shift root cellar with a bucket full of sand. (Disclaimer: if you try this and end up with a weird food-borne infection from sand-bug contaminated turnips, please send all legal inquiries to aforesaid internet).

One bonus of the fall garden is that, in my climate (zone 5B), many of the spring veggies I had to transplant in May, can be directly sown in August, and will be ready to harvest come fall. One exception to this, of course, is the wildly underappreciated Belgian brassica, the Brussels sprout. My coworker once traveled to Brussels and upon her return raved about the fantastic sprouts that looked like little cabbages, and were unlike anything she had ever seen. They sounded amazing. But, I digress. I recommend starting this one indoors in spring, and transplanting out late July. They usually take anywhere from 100-120 days from transplant and taste best after having experienced some character-building freezes in November. If you haven’t got your tiny cabbages started, you may be out of luck in the north this year and you will just have to meander around the village looking the steal the Brussels sprouts of better prepared neighbors.

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Brussels Sprouts.

By mid-August, I will have seeds sown for broccoli, cauliflower, mizuna, carrots, parlsey root, parsnip, turnip, and rutabaga, and in September the short season lettuces and leafy greens and radishes that can handle a cooler germination period will be sown.

What are you growing this fall?

Fancy Food for the Rest of Us / Chive Blossom Vinegar

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“Shitake ragout,” “huckleberry gastrique,”freso chili coulis,” “fennel-tomato confit”… these are fancy ways to describe trumped up stews and sauces. I know this, I know this a million ways, yet shitake ragout sounds delightful, whereas mushroom stew sounds like I forgot to make it to the grocery store again. I find the marketing of food astounding, and absolutely fascinating. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I understand why this is done, and if I ran a fancy locally-harvested restaurant I would make my menu descriptions sound as if you were consuming liquid diamonds. And I would charge $3,575 per ruby-crusted plate. But, I do not have a fancy restaurant and probably never will but I do know how to make some fancy-sounding sh*t.

A few weeks ago I was swimming in chives. I read somewhere once that chives repelled certain fungus that attached fruit trees, and in my nascent garden wisdom I planted twelve (12!) chive transplants. Ha! What a garden rube I was. Anyways, three years later I am a little over my head with chives come May. In the fall I may dig them up and set up a $1/plant sale with a manila envelope and an “honor system” placard. I am always googling things like “how to use a million pounds of [insert todays vegetable here]”, because as we all know a backyard garden is bank or bust. A few weeks ago, not surprisingly, it was for chives. Chive biscuits, chive egg soufflés, frozen chives, chive pesto, etc. etc. etc. all the usual suspects…and then…chive blossom vinegar. Now that is something that piqued my interest and used a part of the chive I had been using as table flowers or compost color. Chive blossom vinegar sounds like something I could pay $6.99 for at the pricey grocery store, but never would on principle. So, if you have a veritable chive forest as I do, you may want to give this a try and bring your lettuce to the next level. I have used already it to make lots of dressings for salads, otherwise known as “mesclun greens with spring pea tendril, yellow radish and chive blossom vinaigrette, $7.”

Chive Blossom Vinegar

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Materials:

  • Fresh cut chive blossoms, 2-4 cups
  • Vinegar (5% acetic acid), about 1/2 gal or less
  • Large glass jar (I used a 32 oz mason jar); cleaned, sanitized, dry

Directions:

  1. Wash and rinse chive blossoms, drain. Make sure the blossoms are fresh and still fragrant. If they are sad looking, mushy or otherwise not absolutely delightful looking, throw into the compost bin. IMG_20160602_082344
  2. Put chive blossoms in jar. This is pretty self explanatory.
  3. Fill jar with vinegar. You can go even fancier by using rice vinegar, white wine or champagne vinegar, but I get get 1 gal. of the basic stuff for $0.99, and really who will know the difference? IMG_20160602_082550
  4. Close jar and set in the fridge for the first 24 hours, and then you can leave on the counter (out of direct light) or in the pantry for 1-2 weeks. IMG_20160602_082737
  5. Open jar, drain over a colander to remove the spent blossoms, and smell the amazing shalloty goodness and take in the lavender hue. IMG_20160612_170144
  6. You just made something that nobody sells, but they probably should.

 

 

Ben Franklin and Raised Beds (Have Mostly Nothing In Common)

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Benjamin Franklin, founding father, genius inventor, French speaker, and all-around smart guy, is credited with the oft-quoted (and oft-misquoted) “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” I mean, if any one knows about proper planning and preparation, surely Ben is the guy.

This quote, and its frequent re-imaginations of it, is my personal mantra that I use constantly. Work, home, play…it always applies. Maybe it is because of my inherent laziness, and without a focused, single-minded organizational goal, my life would literally be buried in piles of take-out and weeks of laundry. I learned early in college that if I was going to accomplish anything other than day drinking and waiting for meal times, I would need to set goals in writing and work a process. (This would seem an appropriate time for an AA joke…but I am not always sure where my audience sits.)

Anyways, my whole point here is that if Ben were a passionate urban farmer, I feel like he would have a plan. Probably a genius, world-changing plan. I, on the other hand, have purchased tools. One of the best investments I have made is a subscription to an online garden planning software. There are a lot of them out there, and I use GrowVeg.com, which is $45 for two years. It makes it super easy to plot out your plan, with locations, equipment, plants, etc., and even has the ability to do succession planning and year-to-year crop rotations. Full disclosure, they are NOT offering me any money for supporting them (but I am very open to it). I just happen to like the program. With it, I created a three-year plan to expand my garden, so it would grow as my skill in managing the garden improved. Eventually it would look like this:

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As is typical of my finely-tuned, well-developed and thoroughly-researched home plans, it did not meet CFO’s expectations, as he was not interested in spending the next three years involved in garden construction. So…he bumped up the timelines a little…to now. In 72 hours, we went from modest suburban veggie garden, to raised bed city. Fortunately, one of the great benefits of a good plan, is the ability to adapt and modify. CFO did a few trips to the lumber yard, and over the course of a weekend built me an additional 4 raised beds, ready to install.

Raised beds are my preferred gardening style. We live in heavy clay, with poor drainage, and lots of water in the spring. It would take years to get our soil to the plant-friendly loam I need. Raised beds allow me the benefit of top notch soil (because I choose it), and also put up walls to the unrelenting weeds. Another great benefit, is the lack of tilling needed. Each spring I can rake in some fresh compost, and be good to go. When I first began this garden-adventure three years ago, I broke my back installing the first beds by ripping up the sod to install the first bed. What a waste of a good back. This method is super easy to do.

Step One: Build the Bed.

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A good blueprint to follow is at this website: http://www.sunset.com/garden/backyard-projects/ultimate-raised-bed-how-to. Pretty straight forward and I don’t think I could describe it any simpler for basic construction. You do need access to a saw (12” is ideal, but I have made less work) and drill. For these you can beg, borrow, or steal (with permission) from friends or family. My standard size of garden bed is 4 ft x 8 ft, and I use 2×6 rough sawn cedar stacked to make the edges 12” high. Rough sawn wood is not planed as many times, the corners are not rounded, the measurements are more true-to-size and you will get one million wood slivers when you touch it. Because of this you can purchase it at a slight cost savings. I use cedar because I like the smell and it has more natural rot-resistance than some other woods. Cedar should last around 10 years. Pine is a much less expensive alternative, won’t last as long, and you should be cautious about the old green treated lumber. It’s not for food-stuffs.

Step Two: Install Bed.

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If you were a smart cookie, you would have a plan for where you want your bed to go. Someplace with at least 6 hours of sun, preferably 10. Also, someplace on your property. I used to spend a lot of time removing vegetation, leveling, making things look neat and tidy…no more. Place the bed where you want it to end up, mark where the corner posts will sit with something, I use landscape staples. Move the bed (actually, try to have someone move it for you because its heavy, while you enjoy a cold beverage), and dig up some holes for the corners. My corner posts are about 4” high, so I dig an area roughly 5” x 5” x 5” to be safe. Set the bed in place, stand on each corner and jumpjumpjump to let it settle

Step Three: Smother the Grass.

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I know what you are thinking…its pretty, but its full of grass and weeds! Stick with me young grasshopper. Its important you read this little how-to so you can prepare this step in advance. I used to line my beds with black landscaping cloth, but that adds some more costs to the project and its really unnecessary. If you are like me, you insist on ordering the Sunday newspaper for the coupons and as a result have stacks and stacks of unwanted papers lying around. Newsprint is completely biodegradable and even the ink is made out of soy. Take that stack and completely cover the grass/weeds in the bottom of your bed. This will smother the unwanted green stuff, and will eventually break down into your soil. You can take a hose and wet the paper down, but I didn’t do that because I am always in a hurry and it seemed like an unnecessary step and also my outdoor water was not hooked up yet.

Step Four: Protect your Crop

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You might think all you have to do is add some dirt, but this step is kind of important if you want to see any carrots at all. Line the inside of the bed (on top of that newsprint) with 1/2” hardware cloth. Hardware cloth is not cloth, but a metal netting, similar to chicken wire. I am sure it has uses outside of garden beds but who cares. It is perfect to keep moles, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. from tunneling under the frames and stealing your root veggies just as they become ready. This step is kind of putzy, as it does involve sharp scissors or wire cutters. I try to find a roll that is the same width as my bed. Roll it out, cut to size, and use landscape staples to tack it down around the inside edge. If a little critter was desperate, he could make it inside your raised bed. But, if the little guy was that hard up for food he probably needs it more than you anyways. Most won’t bother because getting stuck makes them very open to becoming food themselves. If you neglect this step, thats cool too, but you could regret it some day.

Step Five: Fill ‘er Up!

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This is the fun/backbreaking part. I recommend tricking asking someone else to do the heavy lifting in this step also. You need to fill up your new garden bed with some good quality black gold. My preferred medium is a half-and-half mixture of top soil and compost. I have always purchased this mix from a local compost facility at a great steal at $25/yard, but some other gardeners caught on, leading the composter to advertise their “organic-ness” and rebrand themselves. Same good stuff, and now even more cost! But, I digress. About 1 yard of material (give or take 32 cubic feet) will be enough for a 4x8x1 ft bed.

Step Six: Go nuts, Get Planting.

Hey look! You have a garden! Not so bad for an afternoons work. Now you can fill it with veggies and fruits to your hearts desire. Here are some baby tomato plants I started in my basement.

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The total cost for this style of garden can vary depending on materials. Where I live, I can make a 4×8 cedar raised bed for about $100 a piece, including the soil, but not including the vegetables. At a 10-year investment, that is not so bad. And once you make one, it’s really hard to stop. A garden after Ben Franklin’s own heart.

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