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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Oh Internet! Lest We Forget

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There was a time once, back before free two-day shipping and cat videos, back when a high-speed connection allowed for ten minute coffee breaks during page loads, and back when surfing mandated a prior notice to family members in case they tried to make a phone call while you were chatting on AIM. Those days are gone, but not forgotten, because some things don’t change. While the internet was somewhat of a major sensation in the first decade of the millennium, my mother, a very dedicated physical therapist, thought to use it to find a larger patient a mobility walker and entered “obese walker” into an internet search bar.

Take a minute.

Ponder what else “obese walker” could drum up in an early 2000 Internet search.

It wasn’t a medical device.

Porn. It was pornography. See, some things never change. Can you believe the Internet is STILL full of porn? It’s just more expensive and probably more vulgar (I assume).

I thought of this story as I was searching for light fixtures to begin my new challenge for the year: indoor seed starting. How do you find the best options and types for grow lights? Simple. You Google search “best grow lights.”

Take a minute.

Ponder what comes to mind when a non-vegetable gardener someone says “grow lights.”

Weed. It was marijuana growing supplies. The funny thing about modern day internet, is that nothing is lost and now my poor husband will probably have to contend with unwanted pop-up “recommended” items on his Amazon page until I can dilute the search history. Woe is the life of a gardener! He did ask, “What did you think you would find if you searched for “grow lights”? Errmm…as a smart woman I struggle to answer that.

Please friends, save your self the trouble and search for this “T5 fluorescent lights, 6400K.” T5’s are supposedly the closest to actual sunlight, and that’s all we really want: you, me, our seeds, and the friendly neighborhood dealer.

I am starting out small, and purchased two Hydrofarm fixtures, each containing a single tube. These were about $50 a piece on EBay from a third-party seller. I like them, they are easy, but truthfully all of these are made in China so please don’t have high expectations. Upon arrival, one of the light tubes was broken. I contacted the seller, he had the manufacturer ship me a replacement. I got two fluorescent tubes. Both broken. I again contacted the seller, but by this time, I needed more light. My broccoli starts had gone to sprout stage. The only one happy about this was the rabbit. While waiting for the replacement of the replacement, I decided to order a set of T5 tubes from a different company, one with a stellar shipping reputation and promptly received 5 unbroken T5 tubes. Four days later I received four replacement tubes form the original supplier, all unbroken. And now I have ten grow lights. Some folks may think there is more going on in my basement than tomatoes.

Because everything looks the same at this stage, you will have to take my word for it. In the little trays I have broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, celeriac, and asparagus to add to my asparagus bed, and just started are my tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos. All heirloom varieties, specifics located in the 2016 Garden Plan page. I found a boatload of these little coconut coir pellets on closeout over the winter, and bought them out. In total I got 200, at about $0.06 a piece. That beats the going heirloom transplant rate of $5/plant in this area. I used coconut coir pots last year, and had the best kale harvest yet, so I am curious to see how my little green family will do. I started about twice the number that I want to plant out, in case there are any poor performers or seedlings that just don’t make it in this world. Ironically, this is how real farmers did family planning back in the day. Take a look!

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DIY Guide to Trimming Trees with Questionable Results

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They say the best way to learn how to do something is to try it out. I don’t know who “they” is, but I certainly hope they are experienced fruit tree-trimming professionals in this particular case. CFO has been asking me for four years now to trim back my unruly pear and cherry trees. For four years now, I have had very convincing reasons to leave the dwarf-turn-giant trees untouched, most of them sounding like “I can’t because its damaging to trim the trees in [insert current season], but I will definitely do it next season.” I managed to get away with this excuse for four years only because he rarely commits my excuses to long-term memory.

Why have I been so resistant to tame the wild timbers? Trust me, it is not because of some deep-seated belief that the trees are of nature and nature shall run its course. This is what I use to explain why I refuse to weed my lawn. No, the truth is that I am terrified of trimming those trees. The discovery that we had fruit trees, long before the garden was installed, was like a beautiful amazing gift. It wasn’t mentioned in the home sale, in fact, none of the landscaping was mentioned in the home sale. (Home buying tip: if landscaping is not described as a selling point, that generally means it is the opposite of a selling point). What if I did it wrong? What if instead of cutting the dead wood, I cut off all the blossoming wood? Our neighbors had a peach tree when they moved in, that had a booming crop one year, and three years later, that tree is but a shadow of its former self, and has never had a single fruit since. Our neighbor is an aggressive tree trimmer. So while I have no evidence he trimmed the tree to death, in my mind that is the cause of his peach-less summers.

Alas, CFO is no fool, and this past summer he did a little of his own research and told me that winter was the best time to trim trees and those trees NEEDED a haircut. I had my “its way to cold” excuse all lined up to go, when behold, we had a freak warm-up weekend mid-February and temps rose to a balmy. Excuses out the window.

I headed out to take a look. I had armed myself with tree reading, and printed off a cheat sheet, and my tools. These trees are approximately 18 feet at this point, which means there will be a lot of looking up.

The three step approach I read about includes:

  1. Trim dead, diseased or dying branches, watersprouts, and any limbs below the grafted point.
  2. Thin out the branches so that there is 6-12” of air space around each branch, making sure that branches do not cross each other. Trim the least healthy branches.
  3. Cut back 30% of all new growth from the previous year.

Sounds simple enough right? Well…the thing is, READING about something is much different than DOING something. Here is a more realistic DIY tree-trimming primer:

  1. Does it snap off when you bend it? Its probably dead or dying, or you’re really strong. Either way you have accomplished step 1. For higher up branches, hope for the best.

Would it surprise you to know, that ALL tree parts look the same? The only way to tell a dead from dying branch is to either have x-ray vision or speak native tree language and ask the damn thing. Wood looks like wood. You know how I know a dead branch from a live branch? Because one is on the ground and one is on the tree.

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Dead or Alive? Look closely. 

  1. Keep the prettiest looking limbs and branches, and cut everything else off.

I mean, how do I know what is the “healthiest” branch in a jumble of branches? How is that even advice? I went for aesthetics, and also thought about where fruit would be the easiest to pick. I did make sure to trim back any crossed limbs, that at least was easy enough.

  1. Cut back 30% of new growth…oh hell, skip this part because that is a $#!+ ton of trimming to do.

New growth?!? If I can’t tell dead wood from live wood, how can I possibly be expected to know what “new growth” looks like? What a ridiculous proposition. I think the tree-trimming community has really over-estimated the general population’s detailed attention to trees. For the record, this is what new growth looks like.

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Do you see that tiny little wrinkle, and the subtle color change on the bark (this has been color enhanced)? That is what you are supposed to look for, and then trim 30% of each of these little branches…and they are 10 ft above your head. Let’s just stop here.

Check out the before…

 

Follow my steps and…

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After!

Ta-da! Fully trimmed trees. There is approximately equal chance that I killed these little guys as I helped them, and I am hoping for the latter.

As one step below a tree-trimming novice, I can’t in good faith recommend following my advice, but I can safely say I know the proper way to trim trees: hire someone.

Stay tuned for pear and cherry photos (or lack there of ) later this year…

A Year in Review

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It’s been three months. THREE MONTHS since I last wrote about my beloved, now departed, food crops. Three months sure seems like a long time, but truth be told, not much has changed. El Niño has made for a weird winter experience. My chives actually started to flower in November, after dying back, like little green and purple allium zombies. Its now December, temps still above 40°F, and I swear my dwarf pea plants were just a hair taller. I don’t like to think about what this will mean for spring, but I suspect we will get some late frosts, so I may plan conservatively.

Speaking of spring, and plans, two of my favorite things, its time to start the garden planning for next year! Right on schedule, now that the 2015 garden has wrapped up (though I won’t put it past the arugula to keep it up for another month), seed catalogs arrived. With my highlighter, and excel spreadsheet open, I spend a good 2-3 hours salivating over the photos and started crafting the next unobtainable garden expansion. The big out door project for 2016: a fence. This is not necessarily a project that CFO has high on his list, but if I have learned anything over the last three years of marriage, its that if I haphazardly start a project that is way over my head and skill ability and has the potential to do bodily harm, he will generously donate his time and skills to get it done. I am really looking forward to my new fence.

I am also looking forward to trying out some new veggies this year and some new methods. In 2015, I spent approximately $170 on seeds and starts, which is quite a bit. About $100 of that alone was just tomato, eggplant and pepper transplants because the first round were sun-blasted to death, and I had to buy doubles. I am not going to lie, being frugal chic, that hurt. A lot. For 2016, I have decided to take that $100 and invest in a set of grow lights and a heating pad and try to see if I can make a go at it. I have started broccoli and kale in the plastic greenhouse with great success, but that just won’t work for the tropical plants, and in the long run paying $2 for a packet of tomato seeds that will last 4-5 years, versus $5 for a single transplant just makes more sense, even with the added set up and electricity costs. Plus, starting seeds in February will give me way more to blog about than the not-surprising observation that nothing is going on.

I will be trying a few new things this coming year, specifically some new vegetables to supplement the fall diet: rutabagas, turnips, root parsley, and celeriac. I am going to expand my summer squash repertoire to beyond zucchini, hopefully get a few melons growing, and try out some fava and lima bush beans. With my new fence, the sky is the limit!

As for the 2015 garden, it was a great success overall. To break it down, here are the year’s Top 7 BEST AND WORST from the garden. Why 7? Because that’s how many I came up with.

2015 BEST OF THE GARDEN

  1. Basil – I planted 3 types: Genovese, Thai and Mrs. Meyer’s Lemon. The Genovese was OUTSTANDING with leaves the size of my hand. It was the kind of basil you dream about, if you dream about those things. Delicioso! The Thai basil was my second favorite, and I generously added it to every stir-fry made, and it took the meal beyond all expectations with its spicy flavor. The lemon basil was a small-leaf variety and had a nice subtle lemony hint and made a great summery addition to grilled vegetables and fruits. All varieties grew like gangbusters and I had fresh basil right up through the end of September.

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  1. Lacinato Kale – I planted 2014 seed, and surprisingly, these did better this year than the year I bought the seed. I had three plants, started in the greenhouse in coconut coir and they got huge by October when I harvested the rest. Lacinato kale is one of those cut-and-come-again plants, and is a great fall performer.
  2. Beets – Planted varieties of Chioggia and Golden Beets and both grew superbly and tasted divine. Even CFO, who tells people he doesn’t like beets, was a fan of both varieties. The fact that they are so astoundingly beautiful doesn’t hurt either.

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  1. French Breakfast Radish – Seeing as how I wrote an entire blog post about these little gems, I think its safe to say these were one of the standout picks for 2015. I will definitely be growing these guys again, and may be I will only speak français while eating them as we prepare for a Paris visit in spring of 2016…oh la la!
  2. Carrot – The mighty, mighty carrot. I STILL have carrots in the fridge from the last harvest. These little guys store great! I had three varieties in 2015: my standard, Scarlet Nantes, the fun purple Dragon, and the white Jaune du Doubs. All three grew large and relatively straight, with minimal pest issues. The Jaune du Doubs was nice and sweet, but I didn’t mound the tops so the ends were slightly green and bitter, but overall a great variety.
  3. Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard – always a knockout, I don’t even know if this should be a “success” when I am convinced there is no way to mess this one up. I had 12 plants, and daily had 24” leaves to pick. I made some great stuffed chard this year.

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  1. Lettuce – Talk about overkill. I guess I decided that CFO and I were going to eat three salads a day, because that’s how much of the stuff I grew. In total there were twelve (12!!) varieties over six square feet, but I couldn’t tell you which was which if my life depended on it. Most of it was in a mixed bed, and I just cut as I needed, not giving mind to what it was. It was all good and tasty. I will say that I am not going to be ordering any new lettuce seed any time soon. The favorite still remains the Mantilia butterhead.

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2015 WORST OF THE GARDEN

  1. The White Walkers, AKA Devil Deer, AKA Thieves in the Night, AKA Bringers of Sadness, AKA Hungry Hungry Hippos, AKA Starving Family of Eight…you know, the deer that ate everything. While technically they are not a vegetable, they prevented me from growing vegetables so I included them.
  2. Pepper problems – After a rocky start with killing my pepper starts from too much heat, the plants grew and gave me exactly 2 hot Black Hungarian peppers, and 4 small King of the North sweet peppers that promptly dropped off the plants. Seems I have still not solved the pepper plant mystery.
  3. Blue Jade Corn – I bought seeds for a rare blue miniature sweet corn, but had poor pollination due to wind and predators. I had about 8 small ears at one point, and then no ears. I wonder what it would have tasted like…
  4. Rapini (Broccoli Raab) – My first attempt at growing this was not so successful. I didn’t do my research, started too early, and allowed it to be crowded out by big brother De Cicco broccoli. But, I am not giving up on this guy just yet.
  5. Purple of Sicily Cauliflower – The plants did well, but I just never got any heads. I think I started these ones a bit too early, and the temperatures were a little too chilly for the temperamental cauliflower. Ms. Jessica tells me the leaves were tasty.
  6. Tendercrisp Celery – My first (failed and uninformed) attempt at celery. Actually, I shouldn’t say “uninformed” because I knew that celery was a picky plant and I ignored intelligent advice. My bad. Lesson learned. Next year I will do right by you, Tendercrisp.
  7. Prize Pac Choy – This was the second year I tried this one out, and while technically not a failure, I have always been unimpressed by this plant. There is one invisible insect that just loves this green, and the plants always seem to grow a little leggy and don’t form great heads as described. Once the seed is gone, I may start to research a new variety.

So there it is, some old, some new, and more adventure to come. The other fun part of next year’s garden is that I have acquired a new helper. While we are still debating whether his form of fertilizer is really what is needed in the garden, he is showing promise in the squirrel and chipmunk control department.

This is Jack, our little discount puppy we got from the shelter. He and big sister Jessica share a love of carrots, and each other.

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Happy Holidays and May 2016 bring lots of love, fun, friends, and gardening!

Live to Eat, Eat to Live

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It has been a while, dear garden blog friends, and so much has been happening. This summer has been a little nutty and rather busy and now its over, dead, gone and my lawn is strewn with brown decaying leaves. Ah, autumn and its beauty.

The garden, this year, has been productive in many ways, and less successful in others. For example, my irrigation system worked better than I could have imagined and took all the guesswork out of watering. I set up a timer, which was just supposed to last for the month I was traveling in July, but it was so darn handy I never took the thing off. Sure it has its flaws, like it leaked a bit and the water-encroachment caused it to reset every once in a while, but the time-savings and reduced stress while traveling was worth it. Another success was my insect management program this year. I inter-planted the crops in order to “trick” the bad bugs, and generously spread marigold seeds around the garden border, specifically to manage the fiendish Cabbage Moth and friends. I also opened the garden up to the 4700 wild birds in the yard. The moths were able to find the brassicas after a month of searching, but barely a kale leaf was sacrificed. I loved watching the robins and bluejays and sparrows and chickadees and warblers dive-bomb the bushy plants. Hell hath no fury like a hungry birdy.

What didn’t work so well this year? Well, I opened up the garden to the 4700 wild birds in the yard, and doing so, opened it up to other hungry critters. After a year of not seeing any deer on the property, they have returned, and they returned with empty bellies. Without the bird-tight netting, the garden offered a 24-hour Vegas-style buffet without the two-hour time limit. The deer, sight-unseen, feasted and left the garden in shambles in the course of one night in late August. It was official, the white (tailed) walkers were back, and winter was coming. Would you like to know the damage tally?

  • Corn: gone
  • Tomatoes: gone
  • Swiss chard: gone
  • Pole beans: interestingly, leaves were gone, but the beans remained.
  • Winter squash: leaves gone, too early for fruit
  • Peppers: gone
  • Fall seedlings (cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, broccoli): trampled

What they didn’t take: kale, carrots, basil, fennel, eggplant, parsley. This leaves the score, Deer: 7, Me: devastated.

The only saving grace was the eggplant, which is needed to fulfill one of my New Years resolutions, to eat as much eggplant as possible. They left me the five plants untouched, undamaged, maybe because they know they are toxic, or maybe because they got too full on the tender greens. The tomatoes were hurtful. Seeing my four ready-for-the-picking, full-fruited, prized tomatoes gone in the course of one night was like being stabbed in the shoulder and thigh. It doesn’t kill you, but it is really f-ing painful.

I am not going to lie; it was hard to not be thoroughly angry at the deer. I put a lot of time and thought into that garden, and a lot of sweat and blood. No, that’s not a metaphor. There were a few times I bled into that garden. But, in the end, what was I going to do about it? The deer were doing what deer do: survive the Hunger Games that is their life. The truth is, their entire species has had a tough go at it in Wisconsin. Cronic Wasting Disease is no fun, and neither is the reintroduction of the gray wolf and the coyote. Seeing as how many deer starve to death in the winter, I have to meditate this away, and find acceptance. The garden will continue to grow, and they will continue to feast, and maybe we can find a happy medium.

Swiss Chard after the deer.

Swiss Chard after the deer.

Leaf-stripped pole beans. Makes the bean picking easier.

Leaf-stripped pole beans. Makes the bean picking easier.

In other news, after an embarrassingly unhealthy summer of travel eating, I am reaffirming my commitment to vegetablism. What is that you ask? Who knows, I just made it up. I love all things nutrition, and I love reading books on new diet fads, and trends. Can’t get enough! I mean, all fad diets are absolutely, completely ridiculous, but as a student of life-knowledge I want to know about them all. It is my personal belief that any “diet” that requires a person to take handfuls of vitamin supplements is just not cutting it. Neither is any diet that tries to mimic the diet of our Neanderthal ancestors. We all know that Neanderthals went extinct right?

I used to try these diets a lot in my twenties and the only change they caused was the onset of food-anxiety. I have accepted that I will never be the 120 lbs I was on my wedding day, but that’s okay because the papers were signed and half of CFOs money and property is mine whether I later go on to star on TLC’s 600-lb Life or not. I remind him of this routinely.

But in all seriousness, part of my love of gardening is that I have learned over my life that I feel best when my diet consists of mostly vegetables and fruits and other plant foods. I do love meat too, and would find it challenging (and a little sad) to be fully vegetarian. (Being vegan is not remotely possible because I live in Wisconsin, and if I don’t meat the minimum criteria of 250 lbs of cheese consumption a year I will lose my benefits card.) I don’t need to eat meat all the time, or even every day and I also think the American obsession with protein is a little wackadoo, when clearly the people that can afford to eat only bacon and steak are not the sub-group at risk of protein deficiency. But I digress…

I recently read the China Study by T. Colin Campbell and found its premise fascinating: all diets that are not vegan will give you cancer and kill you. Okay, maybe that’s a broad generalization, but I think that some of the info presented has merit. An animal-free diet was found to significantly reduce the risk of many cancers, heart disease and diabetes and other acquired health diseases. Now, because of the aforementioned Wisconsin benefit card, I will not shun all animal products quite yet. The study does provide me with some merit for my pro-vegetable lifestyle, and validation always feels good. If you were not aware, the China Study is the basis for the book and documentary Forks Over Knives, which advocates not using olive oil or drinking wine. To that I say, I don’t need to live forever.

Now that the garden is heading to its close for the year, keeping seasonal produce the foundation of my diet will get challenging, but for health and personal satisfaction its important to me. So, I am reaffirming my commitment to this semi-vegetarian vegetablism, right after I use up the 245 lbs of venison meat in the freezer.

Sucessful Absentee Parenting: A How-To Guide

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This summer has been a whirlwind of activity, so much so that all the activities have pulled me away from the garden during a critical time in my garden’s life: adolescence. This year, CFO and I elected to take a summer vacation which is a rarity for us. We are more in favor of enjoying the 12 weeks of decent weather in southeastern Wisconsin, and saving big trips for the less desirable months. This month, however, we could not pass up the chance to head to Hawaii. My presence was required in Honolulu for work (yep, you read that right, my job is amazing and pays me too), and CFO was able to sneak away from his job to join me afterwards to prance about and see amazing things that I had previously only seen on movies like Jurassic Park (not surprisingly, filmed in Hawaii). Thus, I was away for most of July.

July, not surprisingly, is arguably one of the more crucial months in a young plant’s life. The once small seedlings grow up so fast and if you blink, or spend the month in Hawaii, you will miss it. While I am a self-proclaimed lazy gardener, I do tend to dote on my beds probably more than what is healthy. I like to visit every day, talk to them, brush their leaves, check for soil dampness, encourage them when they look wilted and depressed, pick out any weeds that are being bullies. You know, all the typical helicopter-parenting stuff.

When I left for my work assignment, I arranged for a babysitter via a watering timer on the drip irrigation system. I had been watering for 6 hours every 4 days, but the timer can only handle 4 hours, so I scheduled it for 4 hours every 3 days. I thought that would be appropriate given an unknown rain schedule. I tested this in the week leading up the the trip, and apart from putting our house drinking water supply at risk due to improper water backflow protection, everything was looking good.

I left for my trip on a Saturday, and I am going to be honest here, as soon as I touched down on the island of Oahu, my mind rarely went back to the garden. I was more focused on things like this:

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Sunset in Waikiki

and this…

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Sparkling waters of Hanauma Bay

and this…

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Waipio Valley on the Big Island

and probably this…

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Hiking across a lava lake, new life growing out of the hardened lava.

oh, yeah, and the work too.

I completely put my babies out of my mind, until the day to fly home arrived, and I touched ground in Milwaukee. Naturally, I assumed that much of the garden would have suffered, and I was willing to make that sacrifice. I mean, traditionally farmers had lots of kids crops in case a few disappeared, right? To be quite honest, any sacrifice in the garden I think was worth it, and I would probably make the same sacrifice again if pressed (or asked, or hinted, or…I would go back literally this second, sell my house, and live in a van selling pineapples and coffee beans).

So, you can imagine my surprise when I was greeted home by a bounty of food in the garden, so large and overwhelming, that I questioned if the secret to a successful garden was to just stay away. I spent a good portion of a day after my return bagging the edibles that were bursting out of the beds.

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From top left, clockwise: Giant from Italy Parsley, Amish Snap and Golden Peas, Genovese Basil, Lemon Basil, Dill, Cilantro

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Front left, clockwise: Mizuna, Mantilia lettuce, Winter Density lettuce, Five-Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard, Chiogga and Golden Beets, Pak Choi, Sage, De Cicco Broccoli Florets

Most of this didn’t fit in the refrigerator, so much is destined for freezer storage, like the shopping bag full of chard and the raspberries (not shown). CFO was very concerned about the raspberries, which are his favorite in the garden, and also a favorite of the birds. Fortunately for him, we have so many berries that even the birds cannot handle the task of eating them all. Unfortunately for me, I have to spend days in the raspberry patch picking them all by hand, enduring thorns in my skin. Granted, I would have done this anyways.

I get asked somewhat often, what my secret is, what is the magic, to my garden. My little absentee experiment has solidified the fact in my mind that, clearly, I am not a secret underground master gardener and the concept of a “green thumb” or a “black thumb” is utter nonsense. I doubt very much that my singing or brushing does anything for the plants, and quite possibly annoys them. What I do know is you can’t do much damage when you stick to the winning trifecta of compost, sun and water. All together. All the time. No exceptions. You may send me the $50 consulting fee at your convenience.

Here are some photos that I snapped in the days after my arrival to demonstrate the results of my absence/compost/sun/water experiment and Hawaiian escapade. What were immature leafy plants when I left, are grown-up vegetables when I got back.

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Black Satin Blackberries beginning to ripen

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Gorgeous, juice raspberries ready to be piled onto Angel food cake, topped with fresh whipped cream.

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Black Hungarian hot pepper. When I left, blossoms in the double digits were on this little plant. Alas, only one pepper came through.

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Chocolate Beauty bells coming right along.

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Beautiful Empress of India Nasturtium. Edible flowers, and tasty, per Ms. Jessica Rabbit.

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Whoops! I forgot to thin these Hollow Crown Parsnips before my trip. Looks like bunny food to me.

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Large-sized Chadwick Cherry Tomatoes. Still green, but full of possibilities.

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Not surprisingly, the Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard is hanging in there just fine. Chard everyday.

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Lovely Little Fingers Eggplant blossom. I have five eggplant plants, various heirloom varieties, all with lavender blossoms right now.

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Tough to see, but Black Beauty Zucchini are growing in numbers. Still small, but I suspect not for long.

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Lots of Poona Kerna Cucumber blossoms on the vine.

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One of the best parts of summer! Climbing French pole beans ready to pick, I also have Sultan’s Golden Crescent pole beans on the trellis.

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Looking forward to this one! Blue Jade Sweet Corn silks have started. I hand-pollinated these to be safe, as we have a large corn field a block away.

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Luscious Lemon Basil, bring on the cocktails!

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Fragrant Thai Basil, with lovely purple blossoms.

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The cream of the crop: large-leafed, bold, Genovese Basil. This will make some badass pesto and Caprese salads.

*Sigh* Time to let them go, and plant my fall seeds before it gets too late in the year.

The Delicate and Complex Intricacies of the Dinner Salad

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As of today, June 17, 2015 7:10 PM CST, there is enough lettuce in the garden to feed me and CFO dinner salad for 37 meals. I have lettuce growing out of lettuce. Lettuce birthing more lettuce. Lettuce is mating with other lettuce, creating new genetic strains of lettuce, and the baby lettuce is reproducing by binary fission. As fast as I can harvest, the remaining lettuce expands and fills the empty space. Its like the vegetable garden version of the Big Bang. Or the Book of Genesis. On the 6th day: LETTUCE. 

And, it’s not just lettuce, but all of my leafy greens are really making something of themselves. We had a bit of a cold, rainy spell for the past 2 weeks. It dipped down into the 50’s and low 60’s for so long I was worried I made a rookie mistake planting out in April. Well the rains stopped and the clouds parted, and now I have Swiss chard, spinach, and beet greens taking over like they own the place. (But they don’t; that would be the lettuce.) In truth, I tripled my Swiss chard planting because it is one of my top 5 plant foods, along with eggplant, tomatoes, basil, fennel, sweet corn, summer squash, winter squash, fresh peas, pole beans, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, beets, kale, peppers, and…wait, is that more than 5? Well, maybe I have never met a vegetable I didn’t like (except for iceberg lettuce. not even on tacos.), but I do really like chard. Not only because it is beautiful and delicious, but its a cut-and-come-again kind of vegetable and will keep giving you food every. single. day. But, I digress.

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Chard leaves the size of my head.

Now back to lettuce. What to do with so much lettuce? I think of myself as a vegetable maverick, a wild card, I like it all and will try anything if its edible and won’t kill me. I once make an entire stir fry with just lovage. Seriously. It was disgusting and I learned something. But my brain just can’t go beyond the simple SALAD with lettuce. Yes, you can wilt it, yes you can roll things into it, but really it all comes down to salad. In the end its all salad. Because, cooked lettuces are just not appetizing. Nor should they be. Fresh lettuce is something to savor and dream about, because it will never get better than it is in June. So, how do we make the dinner salad exciting?

There are a quadrillion salad recipes out there. Maybe even 10 times that. I know, because I have tried every single one. They all have the same formula. They all have the same formula to the point that now cook books just give you these formulas.

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BAM! Makes you feel like you have solved the mystery of the sphinx! But we know the salad formula, don’t we? Its not quantum physics, its food. All you need are these five things:

1. Lettuce.

2. Other stuff.

3. Dressing.

4. Open-mindedness

5. Alcohol (in case you are too open minded).

I have found over the years that the more I try to follow any set recipe, the less successful I am. The best dinner salads are those where I collect my lettuce, look around the kitchen/pantry/garden to see what I can add, and top with the most basic dressing possible.

Take tonight for example. Start with a healthy mix of greens (which happens to be a combination of at least 6 varieties tonight). I had radishes (tail end of my month in radishes), corn, grape tomatoes, Italian farro, and garbanzo beans.

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I whipped up some dressing using this recipe:

The Only Dressing You’ll Every Need To Make:

  • 1 part Vegetable oil (I like the extra virgin olive variety)
  • 1 part Vinegar (red wine, white wine, rice wine, balsamic, whatever)
  • Squeeze of emulsifier (dijon mustard is good, you could use mayonnaise)
  • Salt and pepper and any other seasonings you like (spices, herbs, tabasco, go crazy)

Mix well and done. I shake up in reused jam jars. Add or adjust any flavor components as needed and taste before you serve.

Top the salad with the dressing, and add anything else you may want. I cooked up some shrimp, and voila! Dinner is served.

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I only talk about dinner salad because not only is it what we have eaten every day for dinner in June, but there is usually a point when CFO asks me “What’s for Dinner?” and the “salad” response results in a downtrodden, disappointed “oh,” to which I correctly, and justifiably respond with “Oh I am sorry, did the KING want his WOMAN SERVANT to make something ELSE FOR DINNER!?!?!?” Again, I digress.

There is a point when salad is just not exciting, so we gotta try to make it exciting. Keep it simple, keep it tasty, and order wine in bulk.