Straight Lines and On Time

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For a short period of time, my garden grew exponentially. It started with one raised bed, then two, then four…and at some point I had to slow down at six raised beds, nine half barrels, three in-ground beds, and three reclaimed tree planter boxes. Okay, those reclaimed planter boxes I took over this year, so maybe its still growing.

I had a point to this. Something about taking on more work that one can handle? I don’t remember.

Here is the thing, I do work full time and have a non-napping toddler, so I do find my time to be limited. The toddler is less helpful than you would imagine with specific instructions, like “plant these seeds 1.5″ in inches deep and 6″ inches apart in the south-east facing bed.” As a tactic to handle it all, I do “year-round” gardening, meaning I plan the crap out of the garden in the winter, including a week-by-week chore list to break up work into manageable 30-minute daily tasks. God I love a good plan.

I have always been a proponent of the square foot gardening (SQF) method by Mel Bartholomew. It is advertised as easy, in my experience it can be intense, but I can maximize my space in a very productive way. Over the years, I have experimented with various alterations of the standard process. Sometimes successful, more often much failure. For this year, I am sticking with the tried and true SQF rules about a spacing and grid-use. One of the main components of the SQF method is you must divide your garden into squares, and I do that, sort of. I usually eyeball it with moderate success, but this year I upped the ante by marking the square foot sections with exterior house paint.

The pièce de résistance though, was the acquisition of a fancy planting tool…a PLANTING SQUARE. Made specifically for this purpose. It is extremely time consuming to get accurate planting spacing consistently, when planting in so many spaces. Seeding fatigue, if you will.

Square Foot Seeding Tool

No measuring needed!

This little doohickey I got from Amazon…er…I mean Santa Claus if anyone in my family asks, worked out really great. Seeding went significantly faster and I’m confident my spacing accuracy went up as well. The best part is that so far this year I am planing ON TIME which is a miracle unto itself.

So far I’ve used it with just seeds, but the markings will become useful for transplants too. For example, this week I will plant out the onion seedlings, which I will space anywhere from 4-16 plants per square foot. I could use to the tool to mark where the plants should go.

This year I am also trying to mark what I plant. How ingenious is that?

What new tools or tricks are you trying out this year?

Here’s the Dirt

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A friend of mine asked me to help her plan a new vegetable garden in Texas, something I clearly have an interest in. Said friend asked questions like, what do I need, what do I buy, what tools do I get, what do I plant? All good questions.

Here is the thing. I feel like I have some kind of garden credentials. I have a garden, I’ve been successful, I carry a Master Gardener badge. All this adds up, but so often I think…do I really know what I am talking about? What, really, have I done other than try something and fail a lot? Maybe failure is the key to unlocking expertise?

This past week I have been doing some spring clean-up work around the property, and headed into the berry patch to tackle the unmanageable thornless blackberries. A prime example of what not to do: buy a bunch of plants without knowing anything about them. Boom. Blackberries. Without constant patrol (and control) we would have blackberry vines growing through our walls. I do have a lot of guilt sending transplants to my aunt and uncle in Minnesota years ago. I hope there is minimal resentment, or the plants died.

I also used glyphosate once a few years back on a mulch path when I was so overwhelmed with weed frustration. I hope this is a safe place to admit this. It has haunted me ever since.

My point here is, I do not know all the answers and I mess up a lot. I guess that makes me human, so they say?

There are a handful of decisions that I know were solid choices, and I’ve been thinking about one in particular: compost. High quality, local compost has been a life saver in so many ways. One of the questions my friend asked was “what soil do I use?” seemingly after she bought a single bag of potting soil for a raised bed.

To fill my beds initially, I purchased a 50-50 mix of top soil and compost. This is important, the compost should be good quality. Each year, I order 1-2 yards more to top each growing area to replenish organics in the soil (which does deplete each year). That’s it! That’s all! Rarely have I had to use any additional fertilizer on the garden (only the year I did not top dress the beds). Well-rotted compost is a perfectly balanced fertilizer, chemical free, and cost effective. It is very important to purchase HOT composted materials. While I am a big advocate of home composting/lazy composting, cold composting will not kill any pathogens or jumping worm eggs (yes those are a real scary thing…go to the internets!), so you do need some caution with use.

Black Gold

Fresh compost delivery with a rain blanket.

This one, friends, you can take to the bank.

In other news, four years ago I was duped into buying those fancy mushroom spawn-filled logs that you just toss in the back woods and 3 months later you have a veritable mushroom farm. Guess what? Blue Oyster mushroom popped up this spring out of NOWHERE. What a fun surprise! (Note: I’m going to assume from a safe distance these are blue oysters. I’m no mushroom expert.)

Blue Oyster Log

Surprise mushrooms!

 

What are you doing this early spring to ready the garden?

Quarantine Garden (aka I’m bAAaaack!)

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What a time to be alive! Amiright?? Seriously, though, who would have guessed we would be trying to make it through a real life PANDEMIC? Pandemic is also a fan-favorite party game, great for isolation. Full disclosure: CFO, myself and the family ALWAYS LOST when we played up at the lake. I try not to dwell on that too much.

In these social distancing times, I am turning towards the garden. I realize my social media presence has been choppy, so I will do my best to stay on top of things. But please don’t put too much faith in that. After all, Monkey is 2 years old now, which is prime time for him to jump off a ledge into a pile of leaves or something. All eyes on the wild child.

I do have a very ambitious garden planned this year, with a priority on preserving the harvest. We invested in a CSA box through Village Farmstead, located just down the street from us, in an effort to ensure fresh, local produce in the trying times of raising a child, and we will continue that this summer.

We begin the year with seeding three varieties of onions (Flat of Italy red, Yellow of Parma, Minnesota Winter bunching), Blue Solaise leeks and Zebrune shallots. I started these little ones in January under grow lights. As they grew, I maintained their manes at ~4 inches, continuously clipping them back. This caused them to produce thicker stems from what I could tell. They are out in the greenhouse now (as long as we stay above freezing), and I will plant out in early April after we top the beds with compost. Additionally, I’ve been feeding these guys fish fertilizer once a month, which is the smelliest, most vile concoction that permeates the whole house with dead fish for about 3 days. Lovely.

Onion seedlings in trays

A New Plan

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Well well well old friend, its been a while. Since we last spoke, I grew a small human. In fact, he is still growing and growing…and growing. I, meanwhile, have shrunk considerably since last summer, which is good news considering its Girl Scout cookie season. It’s hard to fathom that it is already March, and today is the first day I have even begun thinking about the garden. Don’t misunderstand, I think constantly about what an utter MESS the garden was left in because I was too slow and tired to waddle around and do any yard work last July, and I don’t even remember what happened between August and December (apart from childbirth), but I have not thought about the fun stuff, like plant varieties, organization, list making, and getting dirty. True to form, I have decide to grow a full vegetable garden once again even though I literally have no time not even seconds to spare in any given day. What can I say? I wouldn’t be me without ridiculous unobtainable goals. CFO reminds me of this constantly.

Even though I am cheap, and prefer the DIY rugged toddler craft look, this year even I acknowledge that I will have to make some exceptions to my garden plan. No matter how I manipulate my time, seed starting is just not going to be in the cards. Instead, we will give our money to my favorite locally owned and operated garden store (Plant Land!) and buy some beautifully grown heirloom vegetable starts. Because I cannot be reasoned with, I am looking into making seed tapes for some of the veggies that may prove a bit more challenging to sow with an infant in tow (I’m looking at you tiny carrot seeds!). Making seed tapes will probably be a complete failure, because of said infant who insists on crawling towards danger every change he gets. But if I can pull it off, it will make planting a breeze. More to come on that.

I have to say, I am really looking forward to including my little AG (apprentice gardener) in the work this year. I don’t know what skills he will have (eating dirt?) but I do want him to grow up knowing what an eggplant is, and that a tomato comes from a vine in the ground, not a box in the store. True story, my sister-in-law told me just the other day that she cut up a fresh pineapple for the first time in her 40+ year life, and asked if I had ever done that. I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was a few weeks shy of the peak season, because I mean GET ON THAT GIRL, and while you’re at it go get yourself a watermelon.

AG has already shown a substantial interest in his plant foods and has tried all your standard baby purees as well as some fun ones like lemony kale, carrots and coconut, and curried peas. Making his food is probably more fun for me, but I figure the most exposure he has, the better eater he will be someday because there is nothing on earth or heaven or hell that will get me to make chicken nuggets every day for the next 16 years…at best once a week.

So, my plan for this year is simple: we will have our standard perennials (asparagus, blueberries (maybe?), strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, pears and sour cherries), four boxes of your standard spring/summer vegetables from May through October, winter squash and radishes come late summer, potatoes, and lots of herbs through the end of the growing season.

Wish me luck!

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…