Saturday, November 22, 2008

garden activity

Facing reality, I brought the large brighly flowering geraniums, as well as the noble evergreen rosemary plant into the potting shed and cut them all back. The geraniums are simple and clear to cut. Look at the branches and save the bright green new stems; go for the darkened old brown stems and cut them down to the base, in the process mercilessly cutting off flowers right and left. The plant looks rather small, but green and healthy at the end; by spring it will be rebounding strong and beautiful. I'm never quite sure where to cut the rosemary - I've heard to cut them back by one-third, so I kind of trim it all around after taking out a a few particularly straggly branches from the base. Also brought in a Penny Lane viola that bloomed sweetly in the speckled shade off the patio all spring and summer and again has a couple of sprightly blossoms.

Working on the garden clean-up gradually. Early in the month was another great sunny day for it, so it was a wonderful excuse to linger. Took down another trellis-netting. This one had been for the tomatillos. The vines shrivelled to dry brown leaves and slippery rotten stems here and there, but there were still some solid tomatillos to harvest. Despite the light frosts we had they're still good for salsa verde. The trellis-netting is always a bit of a pain to reuse, but I try. There was also twine to untie as Steve had tied up some of the abundant side branches. Sure I could cut the knots with a knife, but then I couldn't save the short pieces, and besides, I can get totally mesmerized untying a knot. I’ve been drawn to that activity since a child, untangling my aunt Sis’ rosary beads during church. At that time, it distracted me from the boredom of church. Untangling the trellis netting gave me a chance to be still and look up once in a while and see the bees visiting the four-petaled yellow wild arugula flowers which are the only bright color around, and time slows down. And then a little pale yellow butterfly drifted by and I followed its meandering path with my eyes until it landed in the grass. I walked over to see where it alighted and found a dandelion flower tight in the low grass, previously inconspicuous. Later when working in the potting shed, I saw four dead ones of this same kind of butterfly on the windowsill. On one side the wing is more white with a yellow border and two black smudgy spots. Maybe it's a sulphur butterfly - I'm not sure.

Towards the middle of the month, it turned much colder and has stayed that way. But even though the winter has come early, with an early snow coating the ground at Six Mile Creek, still getting some fresh greens every morning that I’m willing to venture out. The snow has still been covering the east bed where there’s some arugula, lettuce and radicchio, and I figure hopefully that I can let that go as the snow might be insulating it a bit, and I pick the other barer plants on the west side where they get a bit more sun due to the configuration of the trees. Still picking garden cress, lettuce, mustard, swiss chard, spinach, arugula, radicchio, sorrel, and winter cress, as well as sideshoots on the two Dividend broccoli plants which were set out in June. The late-planted broccoli got too late a start and is only just putting out small heads. Eventually I’ll have to face reality and pick the small immature heads before they freeze into mush.

I pick almost every morning now – as much as I can before my fingers freeze. The leaves are small now but still so healthy. All the little bits add up – it’s amazing. If I don’t get them now they might be gone tomorrow or next week. Pretty soon my only fresh greens will be the alfalfa sprouts I sprouted myself or something I buy at the store.

Steve planted the garlic a couple weeks ago and I planted a few shallot bulbs a few days ago. He covered the garlic with leaves, but they're now sprouting through the leaves! I clipped the tops and chopped them into salads etc.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Summer is still lingering on despite the evidence of school buses and college tuition bills. There is some hope for the fall garden: sprouts of mustard and arugula are strong - starting to eat thinnings. Radicchio transplants are also putting out some growth but it will be a little while yet before they can shoulder the bulk of a salad. Lettuce and spinach are quite small but coming up so long as I remember to water religiously during the hot dry days we've been having. The cooler nights are forgiving. All the abundant greens of spring are long gone. The masses of dandelions and garlic mustard, which I had packed into little jars and into the freezer back in April have since been found and eaten, as summer greens became sparse.

The best green this year to carry through the summer, when lettuce has already bolted, is Swiss chard. It's pleasant when cooked like any other green, and the young leaves can passably substitute for lettuce, when lettuce is scarce. In past years, I grew the venerable old Fordhook variety. Since I don't grow that much at a time, that seed packet lasted over several years in the refrigerator. When I ran out this year, I decided to try for some visual excitement and obtained Charlotte and Sea Foam chard from Pinetree Seeds. Charlotte is a red-ribbed variety and Sea Foam is a lighter bright almost limey shade of green. Grown together they make a striking contrast. Sowed in April, they are still going strong in September. Sea Foam is crinkly and more delicate so more suited to salad. But either one can be used for either cooking or eating raw.

Canning has been going on steadily since the first batch of pickles in early August. Bread-and-butter pickles, dill pickles, salsa, tomato juice, plums, chutneys. Although my favorite is dill pickles, most of my family favors the sweet bread-and-butter pickles, so I make a lot of them for gift-giving. Ever since I discovered the recipe in Putting Food By, I've never bothered to try a different one for the sweet pickles since everyone loves them. Actually the authors of Putting Food By credit Isabelle Downey's Food Preservation in Alabama for the source of the recipe. My old Bantam paperback edition of Putting Food By has gotten pretty tattered and falling apart over the years, so my daughter recently found a higher quality trade paperback edition of the book from the Stephen Greene Press in a used bookstore. But lo! It doesn't have the best recipe ever for bread-and-butter pickles, so I will reproduce it here before it turns to dust:

Bread-and-Butter Pickles

  • 6 lbs medium cucumber
  • 1 1/2 cups sliced onion
  • 2 large garlic cloves, left whole
  • 1/3 cup salt
  • 2 trays ice cubes or crushed ice
  • 4 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 1/2 tsp celery seed
  • 2 T mustard seed
  • 3 cups white vinegar

Slice unpeeled washed cucumbers into 1/4" slices . Add to large bowl, along with sliced onions, garlic and salt. Cover with ice; mix well and let sit at least three hours. (When I leave it up to 24 hours, I put in in the refrigerator.)

Drain off the liquid and remove the garlic. Combine sugar, spices and vinegar and heat just to a boil. Add the cucumber and onions; simmer 10 minutes. Pack loosley in clean, hot pint jars, leaving 1/2" of headroom. Adjust lids; process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. Makes 7 pints.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

late May

One of the delights of early spring is finding unexpected edibles in the garden. Each year, at least if the winter is not too severe (and it has not been so lately), some vegetable plants, normally considered annuals, survive over the winter and put out new growth in spring. It's not predictable, although I often try to over-winter things, like spinach, by covering them with leaves in the fall, I'm not always successful. I've had good luck on occasion with the spinach in the past, but not reliably. Last fall we haphazardly covered a lot of things with the abundance of leaves - including spinach, lettuce, and some kale which was still small in the fall. This spring no spinach survived, but a bunch of radicchio plants surprised me with new growth since uncovered in March. I've been picking leaves regularly in the past weeks. Several little kale plants also survived the winter to grow again, and I will keep an eye on them to see if they get big enough to pick before flowering. They were planted on the late side last year and never got too big. The radicchio and kale had both been started indoors last June and transplanted into the garden in July.

Then there are the re-seeders. I've already mentioned the dill which has been re-appearing for years without benefit of re-seeding (June). Sprouting pockets of feathery growth in numerous spots around the garden, dill consequently ends up cut and scattered over all kinds of dishes. I'm getting in the habit of picking a bunch up by the in the mornings and sticking them in water like a small bouquet to keep fresh for using later in the day. The little plants go into a shot glass and as they get bigger and bigger they move up to a quart jar. There's a ridiculous abundance now, but it's always a challenge to still have enough around by the time the cucumbers are ready for pickling.

Deepening my love affair with arugula, I started some wild arugula (Rucola selvatica) seed a few years ago. A little more bitter than domesticated arugula, it's still a great wake-up call for the taste buds alone or mixed in with other greens. In the last couple of years I haven't needed to seed it again, as it has re-seeded thickly in some spots, and is scattered just about everywhere else in small bunches or single plants. It's slow to grow when first seeded, but after a while it seems almost invasive. Garlic chives is another delicious treat in spring and early summer, which has been spreading a little too promiscuously. This year I'm being more aggressive about picking the garlic chives and wild arugula, so as to make more use of them and make more room for other things! The garlic chives are solidly rooted and so I go around with a hand shovel and pull out bunches of plants to thin them out. Often I bring them into the house and put them in a big bowl with a little water in it to keep them fresh for a day or two while cutting off the tops and using them here and there. Other times I clip the tops off right in the garden after digging out the roots, carrying the compost bucket (to throw the roots) and scissors, along with the harvest basket.

It's amazing how many foods can absorb a quantity of garlic chives, especially stews and soups. Since it's good as an ingredient in pesto, sometimes I make a pesto with it as the major ingredient, and then later in the summer, when basil is available, the pestos can be mixed together.

The wild arugula can be cooked up like dandelions, garlic mustard and other greens, and saved in small containers in the freezer for use throughout the year. From early spring til late fall, it's one kind of leafy greens after the other. They each have their special qualities, but when there is an abundance they often get mixed up together in the pot as cooked greens. Dandelions and wild arugula are on the bitter side so they benefit from more liquid in the cooking. Garlic mustard can be awfully chewy, but if chopped fine or even pureed after cooking, it makes a fine deeply flavored sauce. Radicchio is already wonderful raw - a deep smoky taste, so only makes it into the cooked greens at times of most abundance when we can't use all of it fresh. Mustard greens can vary as for their sharpness of taste. In recent years I've been growing Tendergreen mustard (from Gurney's seeds) which is a milder and prolific form. After sowing seeds in early April, thinnings are ready to eat in a month and by early June plants are starting to send up flowers and it's time to pick them all.

Thanks to Golden Temple Vegetarian Cookbook, here's a lovely recipe for mung bean-mustard greens soup:

Cook 1/2 cup mung beans with a few bunches chopped mustard greens and plenty of water. Puree after it's cooked.

When that's almost done, sautee onion, garlic, and gingeroot. Add a teaspoon or two caraway seeds and curry powder (or garam masala), salt and pepper. Add the pureed beans and greens and heat slowly.

A surprise this spring was shallots. It shouldn't have been a surprise if I had been paying attention. I planted seeds for them last spring and didn't get around to harvesting them until so late that I didn't find them all. If I was thinking I might have done what I did by accident anyway, as people often plant shallots in fall for next year's harvest, just as we do with garlic. So we've been eating some of them as green onions, and now I'm going to let the rest mature into shallot bulbs, and maybe will plant a few in the fall! They are sending up a lot of shoots with seed tops, so I'm picking those for fresh-eating and to divert the energy back into the bulbs.

I had started epazote by seed a few years back and to my delight it re-seeded itself in subsequent years, so that I started to depend on it. It's good to throw in epazote leaves with the black beans. Besides adding authentic flavor, it is purported to neutralize the flatulent effect of eating the beans. Alas it stopped coming back last year, so I had to start seeds again. C'est la vie! But they didn't germinate! Then I discovered they were growing thickly in the pot where I had been growing cilantro, which was now dying off. In fact they're showing up in several potted plants that are using my recycled potting soil. What luck! Now I just have to rememer to use them when cooking black beans. The fragrance clears the head.