Friday, June 28, 2013

Howdy, Ranters!

I didn't anticipate that my guest rant on Garden Rant would mean an exponential increase in visits to my blog--wow! I'm pretty excited to know there are so many new eyeballs checking the Potato Queen. I hope at least some of you will like what you see and decide to stick around. It's nice to know there are folks out there with like minds regarding the garden.

If you want to see just what kind of gardener I am, you can literally start at the beginning here, and follow our progress from lowly amateurs making it up as we go along to...  well, lowly amateurs with a little more experience still making it up as we go along.

But who are we? The Potato Queen was born in the DC area and has lived most of her life here in Northern Virginia, with some intervening years in West Virginia (where all her fambly is from) and Ohio (go Bucks!). Mulch Boy was a lifetime resident of Massachusetts who was tricked into flying to DC for a party where he was secretly set up to meet the Potato Queen (also secretly set up). The rest, as they say, is history: a year and a half later, Mulch was transplanted to Northern Virginia, the next year the Queen and Mulch got married up and moved into the Little Blue House, and thus began their joint adventures in gardening and life. And dogs.

As far as garden philosophy? I'm always trying to learn more, and I'm really proud of what I have learned and accomplished since I started gardening. I admire the friends and bloggers I know who can rattle off the Latin names of everything growing in their yard, whereas I'm not even sure of the common names of most of my plants. I'm constantly amazed by those who seem to know just how to combine their perennials and bulbs for beautiful four-season displays. I'm in awe of those whose yards boast different gardens for specific conditions--rain garden here, rock garden there. Shoot, I'm impressed with anyone who has the discipline to plant their flowers the recommended distance from each other (no matter how often I've been proved wrong, there's part of me that never is convinced those little seedlings will ever grow big enough to fill that space in between).

In a nutshell, our garden "design" is based on impulse rather than planning. This used to bother me in my earlier gardening days. I've since accepted and embraced the reality that my garden--like myself--is disorganized, a little chaotic, and a bit (ha!) weedy. Yet it has its own beauty, and it gives generously of its fruits (and vegetables) and scents and flowers. And as long as it pleases us, I deem it a success.

Again, welcome!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How does my garden grow?

No doubt some of you have wondered whether Potato Queen and Mulch Boy was morphing into the Cornbread and Canning channel and abandoning its gardening origins. The answer, in a word, is NO.

But I did say early this year that I was broadening the scope of the blog beyond just the garden, so no doubt there will be more cornbread and canning. Frankly, I'm thinking every post should be about cornbread, as my cornbread post got more attention and love than anything I'd ever written about before.

Still, there's only so much cornbread one can bake or eat or wax philosophical about. So today, it's back to the garden and an update on what's going on there--in pictures!

Stoopid Airstream!
Big Bed by the street, and our old friend Stoopid Airstream.

Pretty lillies
Asiatic lilies. These guys came with the house and originally were lined up against the
backyard shed in the shade. They're happier here in the Big Bed. Also, the climbing
hydrangea in the back (also came with the house) has grown exponentially.

I love that little barberry.
My pretty little barberry (I think) at right, plus rocks and lilies, and coneflowers
getting ready to bloom.

Thanks, JElly!
Oak-leaf hydrangea: a gift from beloved friends JElly. After six years
(and the removal of the dumb maple tree, it's finally thriving!

Someday I'll replace the top on that birdbath.
Little view of the Big Bed and crape myrtle. close to the Little Blue House.

Blueberry bush purchased this year at Greensprings, covered in blueberries!

And they are delicious!
My old blueberry bush, with more blueberries!

Hands off, birds.
The blackberries, also from Greensprings this year, are coloring up.

The vegetable garden, going strong! Clockwise from top left, peas (still), taters galore,
volunteer taters galore, parsnips, carrots, beets, sweet bell and hot peppers, basil,
and four different tomatoes.

I don't care what Madonna says, I love hydrangeas.
Hydrangea in the back yard. This one is sometimes pink, sometimes
blue. This year, apparently it's pink.

Please don't die in our yard, little baby birds!
These guys, however, are always blue (although they are pretending
to be pink in this photo; how odd). Also, birds build nests in the
birdhouse every year.

Benign neglect succeeds again.
St. John's Wort, also conveyed with the house. Someone told me you're supposed to cut
this back every year, but six years in ours has thrived without a single trim.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Canning for Stoopidheads

As I mentioned previously, I've always wanted to can, but have always harbored a secret fear of it. All the jar-boiling and processing became terribly intimidating in my head and scared me away from attempting it. Finally, this past Thursday I overcame my fears and gave it a shot.

Thanks to a pile of books and a host of resources open on my Internet browser, I managed to can two cars of jam successfully, albeit not without some hairy scary moments involving hot water and glass jars. But now that I'm no longer a canning virgin, I have new-found confidence. Plus I learned a lot from all my various resources, and now I'm going to record them here so I can refer to them easily whenever I can (and there will be more times).

If you've ever contemplated canning, I hope this comes in handy for you, too. It turns out that canning is not as scary and mysterious as you might think,

Four Steps

Based on my one experience, I plan to approach my next canning adventure via these four steps:
  1. Preparing the ingredients for the stuff.
  2. Preparing the canning tools and sterilizing the jars and lids.
  3. Making stuff to go in the jars (in my case, delicious jam).
  4. Processing the stuff in the jars.

There are timing issues involved, which was one of my anxiety points, but in retrospect those timing issues are not difficult to handle. So, the steps.

Step 1: Prepping Ingredients for the Stuff

It may be your recipe is easy-peasy to throw together. OR you might need to pit a million billion cherries. Especially in the latter case, it is a good idea to gather your ingredients and prep them (pit them, chop them, measure them) so that they are ready to go when you are ready to make your stuff.

Step 2: The Canning Prep

A. Gather all your handly tools and wash them.

  • Jar tongs. These will make it possible to manuever your jars in and out of hot water with safety and ease.
  • Jar lifter. This little wand with a magnet on the end allows you to lift and move the jar lids in and out of hot water and onto your jars without touching them and possibly contaminating the finished product.
  • Canning funnel. Lets you fill your jars without spilling stuff on the hot jars and most importantly on the rims, which could interfere with sealing.
  • Ladle. Any old ladle, for filling up your jars.
  • Rack or other something to rest jars on when you can. Resting the jars on the bottom of the pot you use to can exposes the jars to direct heat from the stove and increases the chances of EXPLOSIONS! However, you don't have to buy a special canning rack; any rack (like a cake cooling rack) that fits your pot will do. I've also read of folks using dishtowels folded over several times, or silverware, or (in the case of someone's grandma) little pieces of kindling.

B. Sterilize your jars.

This is where I started getting shaky, what with the hot boiling water and glass. It's not that bad.
  1. Wash all your jars and lids and bands in hot soapy water.
  2. Dry bands and set aside; they do not require sterilization.
  3. Get a pot large enough to hold all the jars you want to sterilize. This does NOT have to be a canner; you can use the same pot later to process your jars of stuff.
  4. Put your rack or rack substitute in the pot.
  5. Put your jars in the pot on top of the rack or rack substitute, then completely fill and cover with water.
  6. Bring pot to a boil on the stove. When the water reaches a rolling boil, THEN start the timer for 15 minutes and let the jars boil. (My recipe said 10 minutes, but I'll err on the side of caution.)
  7. After the time is up, turn off the heat. If your stuff isn't ready to go in the jars yet, leave the jars in the hot water to stay hot. (You need your jars to be hot when you put hot stuff into them or you risk the jars 'sploding,) The jars can be held for up to an hour in the hot water; beyond that, they must be resterilized.
  8. The lids... I'm getting conflicting information. My instructions (which I followed) had you boil them for 10 minutes and hold in hot water. I've seen others that said not to boil them. I'll stick with boiling them for now.
  9. Have a clean dishcloth spread on the counter; when you remove the jars, put them here, right side up.
  10. When you are ready to use a jar, use the amazing jar tongs to carefully lift it from the hot water, empty, and put on the clean dishcloth.

Step 3: Make the Stuff

Now you have your prep work done, and you can can as soon as you have made some stuff. In fact, once you get the jars in the hot water, you could go ahead and start making your stuff. Be sure to think about how long it will take your jars to boil and how long it will take to make your stuff, remembering that the jars can rest in the hot water for up to an hour if everything (as is likely) isn't ready at exactly the same time.

Important things to note in your recipe:
  • Required processing time.
  • Required headspace in jar. Headspace is the mimimun amount of space you should leave at the top of the jar when you put your stuff in it. The purpose of headspace is to leave extra room for your stuff to expand during processing. Thus, it's okay to leave a little more headspace, but not less. Notice I said "little": you don't want to double the headspace or have half a jar full; that's inviting bacteria growth, according to the Interwebs.

Step 4: Can the Stuff

You've got stuff and you've got hot jars. Time to can!
  1. Put canning funnel in canning jar.
  2. Ladle your stuff into the funnel and fill the jar.
  3. Ensure the jar is filled to leave the proper minimum headspace (for my jam, 1/4 inch).
  4. Using your nifty lid lifter, transfer a hot lid from the hot water onto the top of the filled jar.
  5. Put a band onto the jar and screw on, but not too tight--"finger-tight" was a term I read that I found useful. (I left the magnetic lid lifter on the jar lid until I'd screwed on the band.)
  6. Use the jar tongs to carefully lower the filled jars into the already hot water bath on top of the rack or rack substitute, turn up the heat, and put the lid on the canner.
  7. When the water reaches the boiling point, let the jars boil (process) for the amount of time specified in your recipe.
  8. When the time is up, turn off the heat, carefully remove the jars using the jar tongs, and set them back on the clean dishcloth to cool for 24 hours.
  9. Did you hear any "pops"? That the sound of your jars sealing--yay! You can check by pressing your finger on top of the lid: if it can be pressed down and then pops back up, the jar has not sealed. You should probably just eat all the jam in that jar right now. Or you could put in the fridge and share it with your family for the next few weeks. But whatever you do, don't put it on the shelf with the sealed jars or it will spoil. Yuck!

Pop, pop, pop

As I mentioned a while back, I was originally planning to make my first attempt at canning this past weekend by making strawberry jam. That plan was superseded by the Sour Cherry Emergency last Thursday, which forced my hand and had me making sour cherry jam instead.

Since that endeavor was such a rousing success, I decided to follow through with my original plan on Saturday, and so bought five quarts of local strawberries at the local farmers' market. Too bad I only needed three quarts for the jam.

Anyway, yesterday I confidently jumped right into the Strawberry Jam Affair, and by the evening I had ten little half-pint jars of pretty, pretty strawberry jam. This canning episode was much less stressful, and I was way more confident. Still, I admit I was thrilled every time I pulled a full jar from the canner to rest on the counter and heard that little "pop" that means the jar has just sealed almost immediately.

I do have to admit: two jars failed to seal (noooo!!). I think I may have filled them a wee bit too much, as I found jam all over the rims when I opened them. EH. We'll eat those first, so I'm not too distressed.

I had a lot of fun on my second canning adventure, but I confess I was tired afterwards from standing over that hot stove on a muggy day (I was doing laundry at the same time, too), so I asked Mulch Boy if he'd mind grilling steaks for dinner. Why, he didn't mind at all, and so the day ended well with steak and red potatoes and delicious peas from the garden and "Moneyball" on DVD.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Mulch Boy is alive and did not leave me for a dancing girl

Just in case anyone reading the blog is squirming uncomfortably at the last post, let me assure you that all is well at the Little Blue House. Mulch Boy happens to be a Stephen King fan, and was inspired by the bloody-looking mess left by my canning experiment to write a creepy story.

Don't worry, though: Mulch Boy isn't running away to Vegas, and I have no desire to take him out with a hammer.

By the way, did you guess where the story was going before the last line? I didn't, and nearly sprayed my monitor at work when I got to the end. ("Human food," eeeeww!)

Friday, June 14, 2013


A short story by Mulch Boy.

Why had I been afraid of this, she asked herself. Canning was not the nightmare she had made it out to be in her head at all.

Oh, it was messy, and tedious, and she had to keep the dogs out of the kitchen while she worked. Didn’t want them to get a taste for human food. Once they got a real taste for it, she knew, they might never go back to regular dog food.

She looked out the kitchen window, and smiled as she watched the dogs romp and play, taking turns chasing each other around the yard, racing around the cherry trees, the dogwoods and the rhododendrons. She decided she’d have to prune the cherries. They were getting a little tall, and she wouldn’t be able to reach the top branches much longer. After a few moments she went back to cleaning up the red splatters on the wall, and the dark pools on the counter, humming contentedly to herself as she did so.

For months she had had the equipment, but left it gathering dust in the basement. But now there were 48 full mason jars, like the ones her father used to drink his beer from, saying it always tasted better from a jar. Filling them had been tiring work, but very satisfying indeed.

She supposed she owed it to her husband. For months he had been occasionally pestering her about the jars and the giant pot. He wouldn’t be pestering her any more. Not about that. Not about anything. They’d always had a joke between them that whenever one of them (mostly him) got upset over some little thing that wasn’t working out, they should “just walk away.”

She never imagined he would consider their marriage some little thing that just wasn’t working out though, until he’d told her he was leaving. There was a dancing girl or something in Vegas he was going to go move in with, he’d said. She’d find the girl’s address eventually and send her a few jars. Just thinking about it made her smile again as she picked up the hammer from the sink and began to clean it.

The cherries are saved and I can CAN!

Yesterday evening started out bad: I left my office only to find that my trucky-truck was gone. Turns out it was moved to make way for some emergency road construction, and I swear there was NOT a notice on the meters when I parked at 7 a.m. Luckily, after 20 minutes of phone tree hell with the DC DMV, I learned that the car had not been towed to some remote lot in Mordor, but was in fact right around the corner. Along with parking tickets for $150. Awesome.

Racing to outrun the derecho and its predicted mayhem, I made it home a bit later than anticipated and started immediately on my quest to preserve The Cherries.

Five pounds!
Save us!

I spent my free moments yesterday trying to decide what the most expedient way would be to preserve the cherries before they started moldering. Between my research and the good advice of friends like Cherry Lane, I decided to freeze a bunch and make sour cherry jam. And can that jam.

Freezing cherries turns out to be a really simple, straightforward process: wash and pit the cherries, layer them on parchment on a cookie sheet, put them in the freezer till they're solid, then toss in a freezer bag. It seemed too easy to work, but lo and behold, I've now got a gallon bag of frozen sour cherries in my freezer. Neat!

Well, except for the pitting part. "Neat" is not a word you could use to describe that process. Nor is "speedy."

Also amazingly tedious.
Pitting is a bloody affair.
 What I was most excited and trepidatious about, however, was making jam--not the jam-making per se, but the canning part. Like quilting, canning is a skill I've long wanted to master. Like quilting, I bought the requisite tools and instructions an embarrassing number of years ago. And as with quilting, the canning tools and books have been examined and read many times... and never used. (My quilting is a running joke with my mother.)

This time I was determined, though. And inspired not a little bit by Jorge Garcia's (Hurley from Lost) recent first canning experience described on his blog. So I got out the canner Mom gave me, and the jars I bought last year, and my tongs and canning funnel and lid lifter I bought mumble mumble years ago, and got to work.

After exhaustive searching in books and the Internet, I chose this recipe for its simplicity (just cherries and sugar) and detail (plus the blogger had a nice Canning 101 page). It was a good choice, because the jam behaved just as the recipe described, right down to the successful wrinkle test that lets you know your jam is setting.

Look out, it boils up fast!
Wish you could have smelled this; oh so good.
Making the jam itself, however, wasn't the stressful part of this process. No, the mysteries of canning were what kept me on edge until the end of the show. Now I've been through it, though, and I can report I survived, learned, and will definitely do this again. Sterilizing the jars, the processing: not the big fright I feared, although I confess I was pretty anxious this first time, all the way through). I will probably post about what I learned, if only to have notes for myself to refer to the next time--possibly tomorrow if there are still local strawberries at the farmers' market.

The end result: I admit it doesn't look that impressive. A pint and a half of jam, one and a half little jars. But they both sealed within minutes of processing, and those little POPS made all the effort and worry worthwhile. This morning, I'm still pretty excited and proud of myself. Maybe I should be getting out that quilting book next.

Six cups of cherries equals three cups of jam.
Ta da!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sometimes you speak rashly and end up with 5 pounds of sour cherries

In yesterday's comments, I mused that we would have to prune the top half of our remaining cherry tree if we ever expected to harvest the majority of the cherries. A little Internet research revealed that our poor cherry was never properly pruned, and that in addition to making most of the cherries inaccessible, the tall middle stem of the tree was considered unhealthy for a cherry (don't ask me why, I don't remember).

Anyway, Mulch Boy came home last night, and after making his own comment about Mr. Fantastic picking our cherries (we share a brain), offered to prune the tree right there and then.

Dilemma! All the pruning advice said that late winter or spring is the time to prune. Not that folks don't do it at other times, but winter or spring is more ideal. Pruning at this time apparently causes the tree to use a lot of its energy to put forth new growth that may not actually be desirable, and that you'll spend the summer, well, pruning. Mulch Boy and I spent the next five minutes debating the merits of pruning now versus pruning later. The hard-hitting discussion went something like this:

PQ: "What do you think?"
MB:  "I don't know, what do you think?"
PQ: "Should we do it now?"
MB: "If you want me to, I'll do it now."
PQ: "I don't know, what do you think?"

The result of this intense debate: let's prune it now. Or more accurately, seven minutes from now when the cornbread comes out of the oven. (Yes, more cornbread. This time I cut the kernels of a leftover ear of corn and mixed that in. Oh boy!)

Out came the hand saw, and the next thing we knew, seemingly (probably) half the cherry tree was on the ground. I hope we did the right thing. In any case, the pickins' was pretty easy then. And that how we ended up with five pounds of sour cherries.

Now what?
Five pounds.
Sandy Queen of Ants keeps her minions at bay, sometimes.
Cherries shown next to cornbread and Sandy Queen of Ants for scale.

After the momentary euphoria ("We picked all the cherries!") came cold, cold reality. We have five pounds of sour cherries. Now what?

Whatever we do, it needs to happen fast before these ruby beauties deteriorate. Thanks to cookbooks and the Internet, I have a tentative scheme. Several sources say you can freeze cherries very easily just by washing them, pitting them, and then spreading them on a cookie sheet in the freezer until they're solid and packing them in freezer bags. I like that, and I'm gonna try that for some.

I also found several recipes for sour cherry jam. It appears I may be dragged into canning even a little faster than I was anticipating, and I was anticipating my maiden voyage in canning this Saturday with farmers' market strawberries. This would be even better, as it wouldn't entail spending piles of cash on local strawberries (although I'm not counting that out yet). Perhaps sour cherry jam will be the initial trial that helps me make the go/no-go decision on the strawberries.

Finally, I feel like I need to bake at least one thing with these guys, whether it's a pie or cobbler or cake. I'm leaning toward cobbler because it's easy, although pie isn't much of a challenge if you use those delightful refrigerated lard crusts that Pillsbury and every supermarket keep in their dairy section.

Whatever I choose, though, I've got to choose NOW. Those cherries are too fra-gee-lay to last long, and I do not want to see them go to waste like every other year we've picked them. Not. This. Time.

Thus, I beg you to share any good sour cherry recipes you may have up your sleeve--quickly. The Potato Queen needs your help!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Finally I did something with our cherries!

A long long time ago, I posted about our two sour cherry trees and their wonderful bounty that we didn't know what to do with. Alas, I think we will not have this problem for much longer.

This spring Mulch had to take down one of the cherries as it succumbed to some cherry tree disease we were helpless to stop. Now we watch the remaining tree nervously, as several branches have died off. Maybe that's normal; we don't know. Mulch thought the bloom this spring was much less than normal. I'm not sure; these trees have never been big fancy bloomers like the ornamental cherries.

Still, there is fruit this summer. Unfortunately, the remaining cherry tree has grown rather a lot... up.  And the majority of the fruit is 15 feet up where we can't reach it. No, we don't have a ladder, and even if we did, we're both afraid of ladders, at least on uneven ground.

I was determined to do something with the cherries we could reach, though, and night before last found my inspiration while perusing a canning magazine from Better Homes and Gardens that I bought on impulse at the supermarket checkout last year. In the magazine, I found this recipe (the magazine is no longer available, but the identical recipe is available in the Better Homes and Garden Can It! cookbook, from which I copied the image below):

It should also mention you need to wear an apron or at least a shirt that is already red.
Did you see that caption? It says this goes good with CORNBREAD.
I determined I would secretly make this jam for Mulch Boy, essentially killing two birds with one stone: using the precious cherries FINALLY, and coming one step closer to actual canning (this is a goal of mine for which I've endured some mocking from Mulch Boy, as I bought canning jars last summer and never actually did anything with them).

Yesterday I arrived home from work, intent upon my scheme. Except I forgot I had no blueberries or pectin. Luckily, Mulch called to see if I needed anything from the store, and since it turns out he had no idea what pectin was, he was none the wiser for my grocery list.

The pups and I went to the backyard to gather the harvest. I picked every cherry I could reach, then took them inside to weigh and encountered hitch #2: I had only a half pound (exactly!) of cherries, and the recipe called for a pound. Well.

I hate cutting recipes in half, as I almost always forget to halve at least one ingredient. But unless Mr. Fantastic showed up at my doorstep looking for garden work, halving the recipe was my only option. Ah well, a pint and a half of homemade jam is still pretty exciting, right?

After pitting my cherries and permanently staining one of my good work shirts (why didn't I change clothes when I got home?) Mulch Boy arrived with the rest of my ingredients. He wasn't as thrilled by the project as I had hoped, but by this time I was excited enough for us both. (Side effect, no doubt, of my out of control cornbread enthusiasm.)

With all the ingredients at hand, it was simply a matter of mooshing the blueberries with the precious potato masher (I'll write about Mulch Boy's potato masher sometime), boiling the pectin, then mixing it all together. I ladled the jam into two canning jars--one filled and one only halfway filled--and there they sit on the kitchen counter now, hopefully jelling. Tonight I'll see if they set and put the full jar in the freezer.

Of course, I couldn't wait for it to set to try it, so I made a slice of buttery toast for dessert last night and slathered it with the still drippy jam from the half-filled jar. How was it? Let's just say I'm trying to figure out how to harvest the rest of those cherries without ending up in the ER.

Monday, June 10, 2013

I updated my garden on Father's Day, only it wasn't Father's Day, and my mom cannot be trusted

So as everybody but Mulch Boy has been too polite to mention, yesterday was in fact NOT Father's Day. I was misinformed. By my own mother.

The sad thing is that I just the week before confirmed that Father's Day was not until the 16th. But when Mom reminds you every time you talk that "Father's Day is this weekend," "Don't forget to call Dad for Father's Day this Sunday," "Here are my plans for Father's Day this weekend"...  Well, perhaps I can be forgiven for my confusion.

I celebrated Not Father's Day by working in the garden for the first time in a while. Saturday Mulch and I stopped at the garden center and picked up pepper plants (sweet and hot), thyme, basil, tarragon, and four different tomatoes.

Now it had been my intention to start my tomatoes outside from seed once the peas had finished up, taking over the pea spot. Thanks to the long cold spring, though, the peas are only now blooming and producing, leaving no place to sow. Thus, I made an executive decision to just buy tomato plants on Saturday.

I ended up with four different varieties: Brandywine, Old German (I think), Mr. Stripey, and... some other guy. My thinking was to grow a sampler platter and find out whether I had any preferences.

What I forgot was to note whether they were determinate or indeterminate. As my gardening space is limited, I try to stick to determinate.

They're all indeterminate. Whoops.

Well, they're all in the ground now. After a final harvest, I dug out the mesclun from the front of the bed (still producing, but messing up my schedule, and I have more in pots on the back porch) and installed the peppers and basil.

For the tomatoes, I had to improvise. The positive about buying the plants was that I limited myself to four, which (hopefully) will require less space than the rows I would have planted if the peas had germinated on time. I did still have to make room, though, and I managed by weeding around the existing veg. This included pulling out the tiny forest of volunteer cherry tomatoes that surrounded the peas.

I never realized that cherry tomatoes could be an invasive! I literally pulled several dozen little plants in order to clear spots for planting and staking my new maters. And while I recognized the need, I hated it. It always smarts to kill a healthy, desirable plant. It feels so wasteful.

At least I saved a few, I hope.  I picked three of the strongest-looking specimens and transplanted them next to the chain link fence in the Big Bed. They were looking pretty droopy when I put them in, but I'm hoping today's rain revives them.

Yes, I've decided to put some veg in the Big Bed. In addition to the cherry maters, I planted a little patch of green bean seed and a little patch of wax bean seed, plus three cantaloupe seeds. We'll see whether they take to the uncultivated terrain. In addition, I bought one little watermelon vine at the garden center, and she went in the Big Bed, too. What the heck!

While I was digging and planting, Mulch Boy came out to break the news to me about Father's Day. When I finally finished, I had to phone my mom and give her a bad time about it. We both giggled over it (apparently there was a lot of advertising for Father's Day where they are, and she just assumed it must be now), and then I talked to Dad and filled him in on my garden adventures.

All in all, it was a very nice Not Father's Day.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Father's Day

This is my Sunday mug.

The kettle plays the harmonica instead of whistling.

On Sundays, this is what I drink my morning cuppa out of. Only this mug. Others are allowed to use it, but I must have it on Sunday. It's from my Dad.

Years ago one Christmas (I think I was a very young teen or nearly so) Dad gave Mom and me both this mug (it also has a matching lid). At the time, it was simply one of the most elegant things I'd ever seen, and drinking my tea out of it seemed somehow more special. I felt very sophisticated and grown up using it, especially when I was brewing real (read loose) tea.

Move ahead a few years, post-college graduation and my entrance to full-time work. As a last-minute riser on workdays, I reverted back to the use of tea bags on the weekdays for expediency. (Also, the morning rush meant no time to really savor the good stuff.)

Weekends, though, were and are a different story. Weekends I look forward to putting the kettle on, getting out the tea basket, and making a REAL cup of tea, one to sip slowly and really enjoy. And along the way, part of this ritual became using this Chinese mug from Dad on Sunday. I do not remember exactly when this started, but it's safe to say I've been sipping my Sunday tea out of my Sunday mug for at least 20 years.

I woke up this morning thinking about that and about Dad. I'm sure you think your dad is the best, and you should because, after all, he's your dad. However, in actuality, my dad is the best dad. After all, who but The Best Dad would:
  • Endure his six-year-old repeatedly shaking her Lazy Daisy baby doll in his face while singing "I'm the greatest, the greatest, I'm the greeeeeaaatest"?
  • Drag his reluctant daughter with him to the hardware store, but then make it fun by swinging her as they walked, and then played hide and seek in the aisles at Hechinger?
  • Eat college-aged me's triumphant first spaghetti dinner, consisting of jarred sauce with some fresh mushrooms added, and act like it was a culinary masterpiece?
  • On my parents first visit to me after I bought my first home, a 60-year-old townhouse with a postage stamp-sized yard, surprise me by bringing me a bag of flower bilbs and tubers from his garden so that I could start my own?
  • Be there, always, to save the day or just provide the support needed so that I could save myself?
  • Set an example of true manhood so that I would know better than to settle for a man who was not good, generous, funny, caring, and loving, and would know immediately when I met the right one?

I could write pages more about him, but instead I will simply raise my Sunday mug and toast the best dad a girl could ever have. Happy Father's Day, Daddy!



Friday, June 7, 2013

Rethinking the Garden

The peas got me thinking: I need more room for vegetable gardening.

This is not a new thought, of course. Every time I buy my seeds in the spring, I end up with a surfeit and no place to plant them. After several expansions, the vegetable garden is as big as it is possible to make it. And we've learned from experience that, between the twin challenges of limited sunlight and two--shall we say--boisterous dogs, the back yard simply isn't well suited to growing food.

Behold the violence inherent in the system.

Then I remembered this.

Big bed. Is that a chain link fence OR a support for garden peas?

One of the things I love about our neighborhood is it's old and settled. Best of all, there is no home owners' association and nobody telling you what you can or cannot grow in your front yard.

In the past, it never would have occurred to me that the Big Bed in front contained potential farmland. In fact, it didn't; the maple tree in the middle made sure of that with its dry shade.

It's been sitting on all flats for the 6 years we've lived here. DUMB AIRSTREAM.
Dumb tree. Dumb Airstream.

But then last year, this happened.

I admit it, I hated that tree.
And now the Big Bed is a sunny oasis, as you saw above.

The original scheme was to replace the giant, over-shady, over-seeding maple with another tree--a little tree, a decorative tree, one that knew its place and wouldn't send the front yard into darkness every summer, or double my weeding chores every spring by planting a trillion little maple seedlings in my flower beds. The new plantings I've done this spring were placed according to my expectation that a new little tree would soon appear and cast a (much smaller) shadow on part of the Big Bed.

Now I'm having second thoughts. I'm realizing I now have a lot more sunny real estate available to me. It's not as much as it appears to be above; the summer perennials have come in and there's a lot less free space. But there IS space, and I'm considering using it to expand our vegetable and fruit growing options as opposed to putting in that new tree.

I'm encouraged in this possible endeavor by Cristina Santiestevan, one of my favorite bloggers who lives at the Outlaw Garden. Christina, in defiance of her home owners' association's restrictions, grows all kinds of food in her front yard, and her front yard is spectacularly beautiful (check out her blog and see if her edible landscape doesn't put yours to shame like it does mine). The HOA's rules no doubt are intended to ensure that front yards are aesthetically pleasing and don't look like tilled farmland. Christina proves that you can grow edibles in a way that's beautiful and even fits with the flower garden aesthetic.

I love my fowees (flowers) too much to turn the Big Bed into a giant veg bed, but it seems to me there's room for everyone. The ugly chain link fence: a support for garden peas, cucumbers, and pole beans? The less-developed back of the bed: room for a blackberry patch (I have one cane I planted this spring). Bush beans and strawberries used as ground cover? Maybe, finally, a successful and permanent bed of asparagus? I'm becoming more and more interested in the possibilities.

(Speaking of asparagus, I've managed to not grow it two years in a row, despite planting the crowns in the spring. What am I doing wrong?)

One challenge to this plan is that dumb maple tree's root system, which makes digging in the Big Bed somewhat challenging. But if I'm growing from seed, that should be as big an issues, should it? (I wouldn't grow root veg in there for that reason.)

Who's growing food in their flower beds? What's your experience been? Any advice for the hair-brained?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Look at me, I grew some peas!

One of our new crops this year is English peas. Behold, our first harvest!

They are few but mighty.
I didn't say it was a BIG harvest.
  There are a lot of pods on the vines, but only a few were fat enough to pick. Perhaps I should have waited until we had enough for an actual full serving, but I was anxious to find out if fresh peas from the garden were Really All That, as I had heard.

Thus in the spirit of research, I boiled these little beauties for about an entire minute, then drained them, then added a wee bit of butter and salt, then handed Mulch Boy a spoon. We each got three bites.

And boy are we ever going to double the pea planting next year.  Good gravy, people, those little peas were sweet like candy! Actually, Mulch Boy declared they tasted like sweet corn, and we both made yummy sounds and rolled our eyes back in our heads in ecstasy. They were the best peas I ever had in my whole entire life. Mulch has hated peas all his life and now he loves them. We will be anxiously monitoring the pea plants as we wait for the rest of the pods (and there are a good many) to mature.

Meantime, I'm scheming about where I can plant more next year (that chainlink fence in the front yard would make a terrific support for peas, yes?). Is a fall planting feasible? I want to eat these every day!

Monday, June 3, 2013

The garden lives!

Every spring we plant our vegetable garden with great optimism that this year, finally, we will tend it well throughout the summer and our bounty will be great and this will be the best garden EVER. Then some crisis arises or someone gets sick, and the poor garden ends up a giant weed patch graced by a few tomatoes and beans.

This spring was no exception: we've had several hospital adventures, and then both Mulch Boy and I endured several weeks of various respiratory illnesses, resulting in--once again--the complete neglect of the garden.

HOWEVER, under the watchful eye of Mulch Boy, I was allowed to sit in the dirt and weed for a half hour Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. And as a result, the garden is not completely ruined. As a matter of fact, it's doing quite well, thank you.

Ta da!
Clockwise from bottom left: volunteer cherry tomatoes, English peas, potatoes potatoes
potatoes, mesclun (just harvested), garlic, and kale. Hidden behind the potatoes:
more potatoes (volunteers), carrots, and parsnips.
Next to cornbread, the garden has been the most comforting thing to me lately, and I think this may actually be the summer where we really DO keep up with it. For the first time ever, I actually had a multi-season plan for the garden, starting with some cold-weather crops (the peas, kale, lettuce) that would be replaced with summer crops like tomatoes and peppers. The prolonged cold this spring has thrown off the timing for this plan, but it's still within reach and I plan to follow through. Basil and peppers will be going where the just-harvested mesclun  was, and then tomatoes and more peppers will take over the kale and pea spots once they're harvested.

We have had disappointment, though. Bush beans have always, ALWAYS, been our most successful crop, but this year, they didn't even germinate.  I believe I sowed the bean seeds too soon, and the long-lasting cold killed them. Instead, we ended up with a second patch of potatoes, all volunteers.

However, there must be beans. So I've decided that as soon as the volunteer taters blossom, we're just going to harvest that entire patch as new potatoes, and then I'll resow with more bean seeds. Adrian Higgins said it was time to put beans in the ground a few weeks ago, so I don't think it's too late.

Back to those cold-weather crops, though. The peas plants are covered in blossoms and pods, and I'm hoping we'll be able to have at least one nice mess of peas before the heat kills them. Then there's the kale. We've decided we like kale and plan to make it a garden staple.

Mighty in vitamins?
The mighty kale.
We harvested our first kale this weekend, and I made a really terrific bean and kale salad out of it, which went great with cornbread. In fact, it was so good, I'm going to share it here. It's ridiculously easy, and surprisingly fabulous, and it's going on regular meal rotation at our house. This is adapted from this recipe on Dinner: A Love Story, one of my favorite websites.

White Bean and Kale Salad

small bunch of kale
two garlic cloves, minced
red pepper flakes to taste
2 cans of cannelini beans, drained
2 tablespoons chopped red onion OR 2 scallions, finely sliced, including the greens
a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil
juice of half a lemon,
salt and pepper to taste

In a pan, saute the garlic and kale in a little oil for 2-3 minutes, or until the kale is slightly wilted. Turn off the heat, then add the beans, onion, olive oil,  and lemon juice. Mix, salt and pepper to taste, and serve it up smugly because it's delicious and healthy, too, and tastes way more amazing than you would ever expect.