Saturday, August 31, 2013

Strange Bedfellows

Once upon a time, on a three-acre plot which was lovingly – though not expertly - tended by the family who lived on it, there lived a lovely, but somewhat wild and disheveled vegetable garden.  This garden - which was full of strawberries, blackberries, carrots, onions, beans, melons, passion fruit and many other  herbs and vegetables - was full of life and each of the garden’s occupants had its own personality and temperament.
One cool crisp Saturday morning, the family came out to tend the garden and to put the finishing touches on a very special bed which they had been working on since early spring.  All of the garden’s occupants curiously watched the family’s diligent work. 
“What are they up to?” the tender broccoli seedlings asked the nearby tomato vines.
“We couldn’t care less,” replied the tomatoes.  “We have been growing and ripening tomatoes for months now.  Our vines are dying from the ground up and we have our hands full just struggling to ripen our remaining fruit before the late blight or the first frost finishes us off.  We are exhausted and simply too worn out to care.  Go ask the strawberries, maybe they can be of help.”
So the young, innocent broccoli seedlings shouted across the aisle to the strawberry patch.  “What do you think the family is up to?”
“We couldn’t say,” replied the strawberries.  “However, our family has grown so well over the summer that our bed has become more than just a little crowded.  Regardless of what they are working on, we could use just a little of their time and attention.  If they truly loved us, they would pull some of the weeds which threaten us, remove some of our “spent” relatives, and perhaps give us just a taste of that yummy fertilizer they hide over there in the shed.”
Like most youngsters, unanswered questions just made the broccoli children “curiouser” and “curiouser.”  Turning to the teenage bush beans which shared the far end of the broccoli’s space, the broccoli inquired as to whether the bush beans had any idea what sort of project had absorbed so much of the family’s time and attention this fine summer morn.
“Huh?” replied the adolescent legumes.  “We are very grown up now and are quite busy with our own interests.  Can’t you see we have just started to bloom?  While Mom was weeding us this morning, we may have heard her say something to the boys about how the new bed had to be free of clods before it could be planted.  But, honestly, we are teenagers and we never really listen to what others have to say.  Can’t you see our beautiful flowers – they are the only thing that really matters.  Everything else is trivial in comparison to the cool things that are happening on our end of the bed.”
“Coming through!” chirped something brown and speckled as it skittered across the broccoli bed and hid itself within the tall, green bed of asparagus fern. 
“I don’t know why Mom chose this morning to let those flighty, scratching quail run free in our garden,” complained the blackberry vines.  “This neighborhood is going to hell in a hand cart.  All of our ripe, juicy fruit has been picked and we are just looking for a little peace and quiet so we can grow our young tender vines for next year’s crop.  Is that too much to ask?”
“Don’t be so grumpy,” replied the wise old asparagus ferns as their lacy green foliage swayed from side to side with the tickle of the merry summer breezes.    Every bug and grub these tiny birds eat is one less that will survive the winter and return to plague us next year.  Besides, now that the robins and bluebirds have flown south, these little birds are our only defense.  Show a little gratitude, please.”
From a distant garden corner, the tall, lanky pole beans - which had grown so tall that their tops now hung over the sides of their six foot trellis and were so heavy laden with their crop that the weight of the world was literally on their shoulders - rushed to the little quails’ defense.  ‘Why don’t you blackberries pick on somebody your own size?  Why this little golden quail has been running up and down my row all morning doing quite a number on these pesky white flies and beetles. Don’t you worry little Goldie, I’ve got your back.”  And, feeling reassured, the little golden quail settled down to rest in the hole he had dug for himself.
Distracted for only a moment by the boisterous quail and the ensuing bickering, the broccoli babies quickly returned to their task of solving The Mystery of the New Garden Bed.  “It seems we are getting some new neighbors,” they called to the golden raspberries who were lazily basking in the sun while ripening their heavy clusters of honey sweet fruit.
“Indeed,” replied the raspberry plants who, coincidentally, were all named Anne.  “Since the new bed is right next to ours, we have been watching all summer long as the bed was excavated two feet down and filled with a mixture of soil and compost.  This morning they dressed it with a delicious layer of horse manure – yum.  We suspect that someone very special is about to move in.  Of course, our golden fruit is the most delectable treat in the garden, so naturally only the best and brightest would be moved in right next door.”
Artichoke Plants from
Sweetheart Artichokes
Newly Plant Artichoke Plant
But to the dismay of all the onlookers, Mom and her son began to unwrap three of the ugliest plants the garden dwellers had ever seen.  Even the tuckered out, disinterested tomatoes rose from their stupor and intently watched as three shriveled, greenish-gray, long rooted aliens were carefully tucked into the massive 4’ x 16’ bed.  “They each must have five feet of space,” Mother was heard to say.  “They have traveled here all the way from their mother's house in California.  Their Sweetheart of a Mom's name is Gail.  These plants are very special and delicate.  We must shade the little darlings from the sun for at least 10 days.” 
The garden dwellers could not believe their eyes as they watched Mother and Son carefully erect a screen out of landscape fabric which would shield the ugly ducklings from the harsh rays of the son.  Then the entire bed was watered deeply.  “They must be thoroughly soaked,” Mom cautioned her son.  And, as if once wasn’t enough, everyone once again heard her say, “they are very delicate.”  The bush beans rolled their eyes.
What’s happening?” called the tiny fall carrots who were sharing a bed with the recently decapitated parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano and basil.  “The tomatoes are blocking our view and we can’t see a thing!”
“Oh, es muy malo,” the spicy Jalapenos replied.  “Be happy you can’t see it.  We have grown so tall this year that we can see over the tomatoes.  Ugh, what a horrible sight.  The ugliest, queerest plants you have ever seen have moved in right next to the raspberries!  The two-inch tall, carrots gasped and quivered in fear.
It’s not fair!” the petulant bush beans exclaimed.  “We are crowded into the tail end of this second-hand broccoli bed with only three inches of space between us, while those ugly newcomers get an entire sixteen foot bed to themselves?  To make things worse, I heard Mom say this morning that she might stick a few more carrot seeds into the empty spaces between us.  It’s not fair!”
“I told you the neighborhood was going to hell in a handcart,” the blackberries spat at the asparagus ferns.
The baby broccoli were speechless.
“What kind of plants did you say these were?” the son asked his mother.
“They are artichoke plants – my favorite vegetable,” the mother replied.
“How big will they get?” he asked.
“If we care for them well, water them twice a day until they get settled into their new home, and nurse them through the winter, they should be four feet tall and five feet wide by this time next year.”
The strawberry plants could stand no more.  “Four feet tall, five feet wide, ugly as sin, and de – li - cate.  Now we never will get the attention we deserve,”
The raspberry plants were seriously considering moving to a new neighborhood.
“Next year, we can hide under their large leaves,” the tiny quail whispered conspiratorially to each other.
Artichoke Blossom
Mother continued her soliloquy.  “Next year they will be covered with large flower buds, which we will harvest and cook into one delicious dish after another.  Also, we might leave a few buds on each plant just so we can watch them burst open into the most stunningly beautiful, giant, purply blue flowers that this garden has ever seen.”
“Hey!” the passion flower vine protested.  “That really hurt.”
“Hmm,” the golden raspberries named Anne stopped a moment to consider this.  “The ugly duckling plant will, by this time next year, become a beautiful swan.  We might just have to stick around to see the show.”
The baby artichoke plants were feeling shy and uncertain.   Realizing that they were different from their neighbors and not entirely welcome, they snuggled tight into their new bed and decided to rest awhile.  There would be plenty of time to get acquainted - no need to rush things.

The strawberries giggled as they were weeded, fed and watered.  The tiny lettuce and spinaches drank thirstily from the watering wand.  Everyone got a little attention from Mom and, at the end of the day, all but the bush beans were in good humor.  What can I say -  they're teenagers.

Quail Eggs in the Incubator

Our Incubating Quail Eggs
We lost a few quail - courtesy of a hungry black snake - so we are trying to expand our flock by hatching a few eggs.  I've successfully hatched chicken eggs before, but never quail eggs.  If all goes well, in 15 days the eggs in the incubator will explode into a new flock of beautiful, bouncing, cheeping quail babies.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nature Abhors a Vacuum - Fall Approaches

Normally, when I get out of my car at the Mennonite farm where I pick up produce and eggs, I am greeted by the lively, staccato songs of the Purple Martins.  However, yesterday was different.

The boisterous and entertaining little birds who spent their spring and summer months careening over the vast, produce-laden fields, gathering insects, raising their families, and chirping their little hearts out have flown south for the winter leaving behind an almost eerie stillness.

Viburnum Beginning the Fall Change

However, Aristotle was right when he claimed that nature abhors a vacuum. 

In the stark, still void left behind by the Purple Martins' departure, nature has intervened.

I noticed yesterday that my Viburnums have begun the transition which will gradually change their bright green leaves to a deep, rusty maroon.

Viburnum Berries

The viburnum berry  clusters have also begun their change from purple to bright, fire-engine red.  Soon the blue jays, cardinals and other non-migrating birds will be entertaining us as they feast on the juicy sweet berries. 

In my garden, things are no different.  In the void left behind by the already-harvested broccoli, the recently-planted lettuce, spinach and cilantro seeds have begun to push through the soil.

Where the dried bean crop was pulled, 45 fall broccoli seedlings are now growing nicely and I'm eagerly awaiting the kale which was planted last weekend.
Fall Broccoli Seedlings

Strawberry Blossoms Promise a Fall Crop

Our everbearing strawberry plants,  previously tired and heat stressed, have been revived by the cooler temperatures and are blooming their hearts out - promising a nice fall crops of sweet berries.

Garlic Ready for Planting

Once the bush beans are killed by the first fall frost, they will be pulled up and garlic will be planted.

Potato & Squash in Storage

In addition to all the crops that are still growing and producing -  it is satisfying to know that there are several butternut squash and a basket full of yummy, chemical free potatoes stored in the basement just waiting to be turned into a hearty, winter meal.

Yes, the Purple Martin houses stand quiet and empty.  Yes, I will miss these industrious little birds.  However, the coming fall season will fill the void and bring with it a beauty and bounty all its own.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Three Acres and Liberty

I just finished reading Three Acres and Liberty, by Bolton Hall.  This little book was first published in 1907.  The folks at Kindle were kind enough to republish the 1917 revised version.  It was a fun and interesting read, chock full of great advice on how to make the most of a little piece of land.  However, I was surprised to find so much philosophy intertwined with practicality.

Here are the quotes which touched me most:

We are not tied to a desk or to a bench; we stay there only because we think we are tied.  In Montana I had a horse, which was hobbled every night to keep him from wandering; that is, straps joined by a short chain were put around his forefeet, so that he could only hop. The hobbles were taken off in the morning, but he would still hop until he saw his mate trotting off. This book is intended to show how any one can trot off if he will. 

A sower went out to sow and he sowed that which was in his heart - for what can a man sow else.  (From the Game of Life).
To cultivate is to watch the soil as you watch your cooking and tend your crop as you would tend your animals.  The crop is as alive as the stock....
If you have a backyard, you can help the world and yourself by raising some of the food you eat. 
..think of the cleansing influence of all this.  Light and air and labor - these are the medicines not of the body only, but of the soul.  It is not ponderable things alone that are found in the gardens, but the great wonder of life, the face of nature, the influences of sunsets and seasons and of all the intangible things to which we can give no name, not because they are small, but because they are outside the compass of our speech. 



A Busy Day - Now Time for Fun

It has been a long day here in our garden.  Everything was weeded and fertilized with organic fertilizer.  The blackberries were trimmed and next years vines were tied to the trellis (yesterday we trellised the raspberries).  The viburnums were cut back and hubby sandblasted the rust from basement railings so they can be repainted.  The boys helped with everything and they mowed our expansive lawn. Over 36 broccoli plants were planted, along with 30 or so spinach seeds.

Then I came in and put a green bean/potato casserole in the oven, made a pie crust and (using our frozen strawberries) threw together a strawberry pie-which I managed to overcook - ugh.

Despite the overcooked pie, it has been an altogether busy, but highly satisfying day.

After dinner, the "menfolk" are off to a Bluecrabs game while I indulge in a long soak and a good book - then I'll watch the Redskins game (which I recorded just for this purpose)!  Ahhhh.

P.S. - Even overcooked strawberry pie is yummy!

Finally Figs!

Despite losing all of its leaves a few weeks ago, our valiant little tree managed to ripen some figs.  We picked them this morning.  Since we have never before tasted fresh figs, we were a little nervous about sampling them.  Fear, however, was unnecessary.  The little fruits were very mild with a slightly sweet, grape-like flavor.  I still have no idea why the tree lost its leaves, but I am grateful that they are growing back.  We definitely need more figs!

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Tiny Little Orchard

Since last Friday was our last furlough day, we worked most of both Friday and Saturday to plant a cute little orchard out in the backyard.  We started with an existing cherry tree (which the birds absolutely love), added another cherry, two peaches, and two little apples.  Then we dug up the little apricot (which had only a handful of blooms this year) and transplanted it into the new orchard.  There is one empty spot into which I plan to grow a second apricot.  It is so satisfying to look out and see the trees growing side by side - so full of potential.

We plan to prune the trees to keep them small so they were each planted 10 feet apart.  Since we have not been able to grow fruit without spraying, we plan to use a dormant oil spray followed by the organic spray called Surround.

Of course, I'll keep you posted on the progress of  our little orchard.  Now that furloughs are over, we'll have to re-adjust to a five-day work week.  It has been wonderful for hubby to have this extra time off.  Nevertheless, his work is suffering and it is time to get back to reality.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Garlic - The Divine Essence of Cookery

Garlic used as it should be used 
is the soul, the divine essence, of cookery. 
The cook who can employ it successfully will be found to possess 
the delicacy of perception, the accuracy of judgment, and the dexterity of hand 
which go to the formation of a great artist.
Mrs. W. G. Waters in The Cook's Decameron,1920

I've been using large quantities of garlic in my homemade pasta sauce, chili sauce, and salsa.  Having just harvested a large quantity of basil, I think I should take a stab at making homemade pesto sauce.  That will require even more garlic. 

I'm not sure why I've never grown garlic, but after having to buy so much of it, I've decided to give it a try.  From what I've read, garlic is planted in the fall, harvested in the summer, dried for a few weeks, and then stored for use and future planting.  It sounds easy enough.

After having a nice conversation with the very helpful folks at Greir's Gourmet Garlic, I placed an order for a 1.5 pound assortment of heirloom garlic varieties - selected for growing in the hot, humid Maryland climate and perfect for making delicious sauces, salsa and pesto.

The people at Grier's recommended we plant the garlic where potatoes have just grown, so after the beans, which we planted after digging the potatoes, are harvested in October, the garlic will go in.

These heirloom varieties are supposed to be far more flavorful that the typical Californian variety which is stocked in supermarkets everywhere.  Only time will tell if I can acquire the delicate perception, accurate judgment, and dexterity of hand necessary to do this superfood justice.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Chili Sauce

Yesterday I put up 8 quarts of what I'm now calling "Chili Sauce."  It was supposed to be another batch of salsa.  However, it was blisteringly hot and not quite salsa it has been dubbed Chili Sauce and will be used this winter when making hot, spicy chili.   If, and only if, I can keep my hubby from using it up before winter arrives.

To make the sauce, 40 lbs. of tomatoes were peeled, seeded, and cooked for several hours along with 2 lbs. of jalapenos, 6 chopped onions, 3 tablespoons of garlic, 3 tablespoons of cayenne pepper, and big bunch of herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano and basil), 2 tablespoons of salt.

We have harvested 98 pounds of tomatoes from our little 25 foot row and the plants are still laden with ripening fruit.  The next big batch will be used to make more pasta sauce.

Not everything in our 2013 garden has been a success, but the tomatoes have not let us down.

Wow - 62 degrees this morning...

Woke up to a brisk 62 degrees this morning....who needs air conditioning.  This is so amazing.  Thanks be to God for this gift of a mild summer.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Finally...We Have Green Beans!

The First Green Beans of Our 2013 Season
Well it took a long, long time for our green beans to start blooming and bearing, but our efforts finally paid off.  This morning we harvested nearly a pound of our second favorite green vegetable - broccoli is our favorite.  We will have this batch for dinner; however, I do plan to freeze enough to last until next summer.  To do this, they will have to keep bearing until frost.  Keeping my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Oatmeal and Garden-Fresh Berries for Breakfast!

Hot Steamy Oatmeal with Garden-Fresh Berries
It's a cool 65 degrees here this morning and a light rain is falling.  This weather makes it a perfect morning for a breakfast of hot, steaming oatmeal and garden-fresh raspberries and blackberries.  Delicious!

We are so lucky to be getting these golden raspberries and there are many more coming on.  I can hardly believe that these plants were mere sticks when planted this spring.

Berries, fresh from the vine, are so much more yummy than those available in the stores.

Thinking about growing a few berries in your backyard?  Do it!

My Naked Fig

My Naked Fig Tree - Lost It's Leaves
Each garden season brings success and failure.  Unfortunately my little fig tree has plunged headlong into failure.  Over the last week, every leaf turned yellow and fell off.  I have no idea why - maybe some kind of fungus.  All that's left are the figs which I think will fall prey to the same blight which struck the leaves.  Good grief Charlie Brown, that's one ugly tree!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Salsa Success!

27 Pounds of Tomatoes Cored and Ready to be Skinned
Today was salsa making day.  What a job.  First 27 lbs of tomatoes were cored, plunged into boiling water for about 30 seconds and then plunged into ice water.  They were then skinned and seeded.  This took me two hours and I felt like I was stuck in some sort of tomato Twilight Zone from which I would never escape.  But escape I did and the task continued.
Cored Tomatoes Were Plunged,
First Into Boiling Water and Then Into Ice Water 
The tomatoes were placed in a large stock pot along with eight finely-chopped onions, two pounds of finely-chopped, seeded (very mild) jalapenos, 1/4 cup ground cumin, 1/4 cup ground garlic, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, three tablespoons of salt, three tablespoons of ground cayenne pepper, and the juice of seven fresh limes.  A hand blender was used to adjust the texture to the desired consistency - just slightly chunky.   Then the  salsa was simmered on the stove for about three hours, ladled into sterilized, pint-sized canning jars and processed in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes.  All the jars sealed themselves immediately.  Hooray!
Twelve Pints of Picture Perfect Salsa
We had just shy of eight cups of salsa left.  This means that 27 pounds of tomatoes equaled 16 pints of salsa.  I am going to freeze a quart of it just to see how it tastes after being frozen for a few months.  Everything I have read on the subject indicates that the texture of the salsa goes downhill after being frozen.  Being who I am, I will have to prove it to myself in order to believe it.
Almost Eight Cups of Salsa Leftover to Enjoy
Now it's time for dinner.  I'm thinking tacos and refried beans...and, since I've worked up a fierce thirst - maybe a Cuba Libra - yes!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Summering in New England? Nope...Try Maryland!

For the next week, daytime temps will be in the 80's and nighttime temps will be in the 60's!  In the 30 years I have lived here, I've never experienced such pleasant weather during the dog days of August.  We may yet get our August heat wave, but the closer it gets to September, the more hopeful I become.  This morning it is 73 degrees.  The Crepe Myrtle blossoms are swaying back and forth in the gentle breeze and the beautiful blue skies are ever so slightly brushed with white puffy clouds!

If this is climate change, I say "bring it on."

Meanwhile, out in the garden, the tomatoes, raspberries, and blackberries continue to ripen and our everbearing strawberries are once again in bloom.  Our fall broccoli seeds were planted just in time for yesterdays gentle, soaking rain and the green beans, carrots, lettuce, and spinach will go in this week.

[Insert contented "sigh" here.]

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Buy a Sprinkler and Make it Rain

ContourMaster Customizable Sprinkler
Waters an Area Up to 86' in Diameter
We haven't had any measurable rainfall in over a week and the garden was looking a bit wilted.  The old sprinkler gave up the ghost, so yesterday afternoon I made the trip to Home Depot and came home with a fancy new sprinkler that, if the advertising is correct, should be able to water the entire garden at one time.  The plan was to set it up first thing in the morning.

Guess what?  It started raining last night and has been raining on and off ever since.  The sprinkler will have to wait.

It is just like taking your child to the doctor - nine times out of ten the fever is gone by the time you get there and you've made the trip for nothing.

Oh well, the garden seems to get more benefit from rain than well water.  Thank you Lord for the lovely, gentle rain.