Saturday, December 25, 2010

Better than Christmas - 2011 Fedco Seed Catalog

I picked up my Christmas turkey at the Lebanon Food Co-op on Wednesday. I must say that I felt a little smug about planning ahead and pre-ordering my turkey, as the woman next to me at the meat counter asked "Do you have any turkeys left?" and was told no. Then, I realized that she was just being opportunistic - as in, "oh, maybe I'll pick up a turkey just for fun..." That sort of took the wind out of my smug sails... but I was secretly glad that I wouldn't have to hustle my turkey out of the store with a wild woman chasing me down in the parking lot. I realize that this story doesn't have anything to do with gardening, but thought a little holiday anecdote would be apropos.

More exciting than the turkey - which is pretty exciting because we honey-brined and smoked it - is the 2011 Fedco seed catalog that I picked up at the Co-op!! The Co-op does a bulk order for its members, and this year, the deadline is January 16th, up a few weeks from last year. So, I need to get planning for next year's garden now.

The Fedco catalog is great because they have an enormous variety of vegetables and flower seeds (including plants used for dyeing like indigo - how cool is that?!) This is not a pretty color pictures catalog - it's black and white on newsprint - but the descriptions are just awesome. The layout is a throwback to the old Sears and Roebuck catalog, where you try to fit as many goods on the page as possible. How many catalogs come in a size 8 font size with line drawing illustrations any more?

I'm not completely consumed by perusing seed catalogs in winter. I just do the Fedco catalog because I have a tiny garden and Co-op members get a discount. But I do have hours of entertainment reading through the Fedco catalog, and circling everything that strikes my fancy. Then I cull that list harshly to what is actually practical to grow in my garden. I will probably not be growing any indigo this year... and probably only one variety of sunflower, not five. I can already see myself opening the paper seed packets and starting them next to the chimney on the second floor in March...

I have been really pleased with the Fedco seeds I bought last year and I'm looking to expand some of the species that I'm growing this year. They are continuously expanding their selection of organic seeds, which is a plus. Fedco is based in Waterville, Maine, so I like to think that plants that do well in Maine should also do well in New Hampshire. I haven't tested this hypothesis rigorously, but it does follow common sense. Fedco is online - so if you don't happen to have your own copy sitting on your coffee table, you can see what I'm talking about.

I'll post again soon with my picks for the 2011 garden! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Winter Sunshine

The weather forecast had predicted snow for this weekend, but it turned out to be largely a beautiful sunny weekend. Cold - it was 56 in the kitchen at noon today and stayed below freezing outside all weekend - but still partly to mostly sunny! Wonderful!

While New Hampshire is a far sunnier location in winter than other places I have lived (Ohio, Syracuse, Oregon, the Czech Republic), it can sort of drag you down when it gets dark out at 4:30 in the afternoon. It becomes extremely enticing to go to bed early and cocoon yourself with blankets on the couch.

It's this time of year when I become immensely grateful for summer. Grateful for summer in December - huh? Because of the vegetable garden, I can conjure up the colors and tastes of summer even when it's cold and dark outside. As I have written before, it was a prolific year for squash, and I can take a walk to the pantry in the garage, pull out a butternut squash from the squash basket, roast it in the oven, scoop out of the inside and puree it - and voila, instant winter sunshine!

Besides its lovely cheery color, butternut squash is high in vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber. This squash was exceptional - so sweet and creamy - that Adam didn't even have to add maple syrup or butter, our standard squash flavorings. (Also good are sage, browned butter, blue cheese, or brown sugar.) I took some more puree for lunch and then need to turn the rest into creamy butternut squash soup.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Oh, to live in Zone 7!

We are travelling for an extended Thanksgiving holiday by visiting friends and family in the Mid-Atlantic. Late November is a wonderful time to wander down to this area from New Hampshire, because it's like travelling back in time - suddenly it feels like October again. True, the days are shorter and the foliage is past peak, but it's staying well above freezing at night and on sunny days, which we've enjoyed so far, it's getting into the 60's.

On Sunday, we went to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which is a large marshland complex on the Chesapeake Bay on the eastern shore of Maryland. Large may not be the proper word to describe this marsh - it's truly impressive, this refuge covers 27,000 acres, much of it marsh.

View Larger Map

We saw bald eagles, Canada geese, snow geese and ducks and also encountered the infamous marsh denizen, the mosquito. It was really interesting to see where the geese go after their V's fly southward from New Hampshire in October - the DelMarVa peninsula (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) is a main wintering grounds for the Atlantic population of Canada geese.

We saw the most vibrant and luscious rows of kale and cabbage in someone's yard on Sunday driving back from the refuge. And I realized how much more hospitable southern climes are to growing vegetables. Instead of this mad rush to try to get plants in the ground in the spring so that they have a chance of maturing before the frost comes, you might take a more leisurely pace here. Or... you might work just as hard in the garden but for longer. As it is, in New Hampshire, I'm actively gardening from March (sowing seeds indoors) through November (with arugula) even though the frost-free "growing" season is only 121 days, according to Old Yankee Magazine. It's sort of nice to have a few months off to pursue other endeavors. But how tempting to have a growing season with 200 frost-free days!!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Experiments in Benign Neglect

On the morning of November 3rd, I went out to my carefully covered "fall salad" garden bed and, to my horror, the sheet was stiff with frost and the arugula was positively crispy with frost. I had a sad drive into work that day, believing that the arugula would turn black and slimy from being frozen to death. Despite my conscientious efforts to cover the bed each night with an old sheet, even when it meant running outside in my pajamas at 11 o'clock because I suddenly was clutched by a feeling of dread that I had forgotten to cover the bed. The looming spectre of frost-killed salad was enough to get me out of bed every time, but my efforts had been futile! I was so downhearted that I didn't even bother to put the sheet back out on Wednesday night, or to look at the damage done on Thursday morning.

I have never thought myself to be a drama queen, that role has always been filled by another member of my family (hmm, wonder who that might be?), but I must admit that I completely over-reacted in this case. Imagine my surprise when on Thursday afternoon, I came home and the arugula looked chipper and green and completely unscathed by the frost. Arugula - 1; Jack Frost - 0.

I should say that I do not just have arugula in the fall salad garden, but it's the only thing worth looking forward to eating. (Plus, I have a love affair with arugula.) The spinach looks anemic (oh, the irony) and the scallions, carrots and lettuce haven't done much at all.

Since I discovered the resilience of fall salad plants to frost, I've been much less concerned with their overnight tuck-in. I'm trying an experiment of how long I can go before a really hard killer frost (or snow! or ice!) does these tough little plants in for good. It's wonderful because I have turned my attentions toward the hordes of green tomatoes that require substantially more attention lately ("ew, this moldy tomato just collapsed in my hand" and "how many more times do I have to make tomato sauce before this is over?")

I am going to go pay some attention to my lovely little arugula right now, because we're making quiche tonight with farm eggs, caramelized onions, ricotta and Jarlsberg. (And many many thanks to the drama queen for providing the eggs!)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

You say tomato, I say enough already

If I were a model of the "conscientious gardener" I would be able to look back at my minutely detailed, comprehensive garden journal entries and tell you exactly when our first killing frost hit. Garden records are incredibly interesting and also provide a good source of information on interannual climate variation. I think that records of this type have been used to document certain aspects of climate change, such as changes in first and last frost dates. However, science will not gain much from my garden journal as consistency in my records is sorely lacking... sorry to let you down, Michael Mann.

So I can't really say when our first killing frost hit. Sometime after Columbus Day because I remember wrapping the tomatoes in white sheets and thinking that I wish it were closer to Halloween, so that we could have garden ghosties! At any rate, it's been almost a month since the tomatoes and other hot-weather-loving plants retired for the season.

However, I took care to pick all the green tomatoes before the first hard frost, and then I also gleaned green tomatoes from our friends' garden. I pulled enough green tomatoes to make 6 pints of green tomato relish (somewhat like pickle relish that you put on burgers.) That still left me with scads of green tomatoes, which are slowly slowly turning red. I've been foisting them off on my neighbor every week, and making small batches of tomato puree every week or so. I'm really impressed because I've never had good luck ripening tomatoes indoors before - some tomatoes get moldy or develop scary rotten spots, but overall, the tomatoes are ripening quite nicely.

I feel that this is a success story and it's all thanks to our good friend, ethylene! Ethylene is a very fascinating plant hormone - unlike other hormones, it is gaseous and is released from ripening fruits to accelerate the ripening process.

But I must say that these tomatoes do not taste summer-fresh, they taste like grocery-store tomatoes. I would not recommend the large tomatoes for eating fresh, but they cook down really nicely. The cherry tomatoes are still tasty enough to eat fresh on salads, and also make a lovely flavorful sauce.

As successful as this year's indoor tomato ripening may be, I'm sort of looking forward to a time when I won't have trays of tomatoes covering numerous horizontal spaces (I've already been kicked out of the kitchen, except for one small tray). I anticipate that the tomatoes will be completely ripened by the end of November, and then it's just a short while until it's time to place my order for next year's seeds.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What I do for fun on a Thursday night...

I had a hot date on Thursday night! With boiling chunks of apples - it was truly HOT.

I got home late from an information session about a land conservation campaign in our town, and then futzed around the house for a while, cleaning the kitchen and putting clutter away, and then...

I got this great idea that I would make applesauce! At 10:45 at night! After I had just cleaned up the kitchen! (I know I'm using a lot of exclamation points, but I must say I was positively giddy to make applesauce.)

Considering I usually try to go to bed by 10 and I hate getting the kitchen dirty immediately after cleaning it, this was a surprising inclination, but I decided that you're only 27 years and 11 and 3/4 months old once, so I sorted through a bag of windfall apples from Norway Hill Orchards that my parents picked last weekend.

I washed them, chopped them in halves or quarters, and filled up a heavy 10-quart stockpot.I added about a cup and a half of water, put the lid on, and stuck the pot on the stove for 25 minutes or so.

During this time, I wandered around the house some more and watched a bit of the documentary of "Guns, Germs and Steel"... it's like the CliffNotes version of the book. I also periodically wandered over to the stove to smell if the apples were cooking down.

When apples are cooking down, they release this amazing sweet flowery perfumey scent, completely unlike the tart flavor of raw apples. The stronger the scent becomes, the closer the apples are to becoming saucy. I think that the heady fragrance of apples cooking is really what enticed me to make applesauce so late in the evening, rather than the smooth sweetness of the applesauce.

Up to this point, I had used only your everyday ordinary cooking tools, but for the sauce-making, I pulled out my special cooking tool, a chinois sieve. It's basically a metal perforated cone that sits on a wire frame; you put the soft apples in it and use the wooden paddle that comes with it to force the applesauce through the holes. The stems, skin and seeds all stay on the inside of the sieve. Cool, eh? You betcha.

(Magalloway did not actually help with the applesauce straining; he couldn't quite figure out how to push the paddle around... He might have been more interested if it were salmon sauce.)

This applesauce went straight into the refrigerator, as I love warm applesauce with granola for breakfast this time of year.

** If you don't have a chinois sieve, you can peel, core and slice the apples and then just cook them down. No straining necessary, although you may want to use a potato masher. You can make chunky applesauce this way, but your applesauce will be yellow.

**Another option - if you want to keep the beautiful pink color (which comes from the skins), you can just chop and core the apples, cook them down with the skins, and then pour the whole mess through a colander. You'll probably need a wooden spoon or your fingers to help separate the skins from the flesh.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Summer Harvest Wrap-Up

I'm amazed at how nice our autumn has been thus far. It's rained some, helping to refresh the water table and our drinking water wells. But mostly it's been a lot of really beautiful days with pretty fall colors. At our house, we haven't yet had a frost as we're in a sheltered spot, but we did wrap the cherry tomatoes two nights ago with sheets. I almost wanted to keep them up as ghostly Halloween decorations, but that would defeat the purpose of keeping the tomato plants producing.

I've been a bit remiss in keeping my online harvest log up-to-date, but I did just catch up - so please navigate to My 2010 Harvest Log. The season isn't completely over, but it's certainly winding down. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I will still be harvesting some spinach, arugula and carrots from the garden well into November.

So - I've learned a couple things this year -
1) Squash plants grow like kudzu. Interestingly, I had great success with the winter squashes (butternut and acorn) and only a very few zucchini and summer squash. Somehow my friends and family members are much more enthused about taking home free hard squash than summer squash... so maybe this was a good thing.

2) I do not need 12 tomato plants. Without doing the math, I know that I've harvested over 40 pounds of tomatoes from my garden this year. The vines kept overwhelming their supports and threatening to topple completely, even with fairly routine sucker-removal.

3) Peppers do well with a little spa treatment. Some nice farmers who sold us pepper starts told us to sprinkle Epsom salt around the base of the plant. Apparently the magnesium is in high demand for peppers.

4) Even though I measured out my plant spacing this year, I still crowded my plants. My nasturtiums barely grew at all until I tore out the cucumber vines, and then they just flourished late summer and into the fall.

5) I also just learned a new trick - you can use sawdust as mulch. I'm really quite excited to learn this because we have a lot of sawdust from woodworking and I need to mulch a lot of garden space. We planted raspberries, grapes, strawberries and blueberries late this summer, which all need some sort of bed mulch. The key is to put down some nitrogen fertilizer (compost or other type) before the sawdust.

6) Ran into trouble with bitter lettuce and early bolting of greens during the summer. Part of this may have been attributable to the droughty conditions and my lackluster watering habits in August.

Stay tuned for my big dreams for next year's garden and to see how the late harvests turn out!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Lazy Days of September

It's mid-September now, which is a really lovely time for gardeners who don't want to work too much. It's not too hot, not frosty at night, and we're getting intermittent rain, which keeps weed growth down, gives the fall-planted greens a chance to thrive, and reduces the need for watering. This change in the weather allows the gradual ripening of summer season vegetables, which means I can actually keep on top of eating the tomatoes coming out of the garden before they start to get over-ripe. And the fall vegetables have wonderfully long shelf lives - I don't have to worry about cooking down my sweet little pie pumpkin from Musterfield Farm because it's not going to get moldy in a few days.

Okay, so maybe my kitchen table is covered with squash and pears and the windowsill is lined with ripening tomatoes and drying hot peppers and the cute little pumpkin (I don't have a camera until Tuesday, but let me assure you that it is indeed covered with said produce), but I've got a good amount of time before I have to get on with canning the pears and figuring out what to do with the tomatoes. It is SO nice to have a breather from constant harvesting and preserving.

Mid-September is also an ideal time for taking a bit of a respite from gardening and the food processing that comes with gardening. The weather is great for many outdoor pursuits and I've recently managed to go for walks around the lake, bike riding, hiking, looking at the early fall colors, and enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate while sitting outdoors at a picnic table with only a fleece jacket. The outdoor hot chocolate part is a truly special event that can only be enjoyed on certain crisp fall days and then those really sunny ski days in late winter.

Of course, there are fall garden chores that I should be doing, you know, weeding out the grass that has become seriously established around the daisies, turning the compost, mulching the perennial beds, cutting back flower stalks... but really none of that demands my immediate attention. A lot has been written about the lazy days of summer but maybe we should start promoting the lazy days of September. This should certainly include the promotion of outdoor hot chocolate consumption. Sure, there's wood to split and stack, pears and apples to preserve, grass to cut, trees to prune... but most of those things can be put off until October... or November... or even next spring?

Monday, September 6, 2010

In Praise of Long Summers

In my mind, I think of September as autumn - back to school traffic, waking up before the sun is fully up, rapid sunsets transitioning to cool nights, pumpkins sitting on the stone wall at the local farm, the first of the fall apples and the end of the peaches.

But September is really a summer month - just as June is really a spring month. We've got another 3 weeks of summer after August passes us by, which is really a pleasant prospect. First, it means that I can still wear sandals even though it's now after Labor Day because it's STILL SUMMER!! I have an unwritten but oft-spoken rule that sandal season is from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but I think I'd like to amend the time period to Memorial Day to the Autumnal Equinox on a trial basis.

Secondly, more summertime means more vegetable-growing weather, more baskets full of basil, and more time for my tomatoes to ripen and red bell peppers to turn red. In New Hampshire, sweet red peppers are difficult to come by; the past few years, I've picked them as green peppers. This year it's been nice and warm and I'm hoping that the green will start turning to red this week.

I've been pulling a few pounds of tomatoes from the vine every other day for the past 2-3 weeks, but the number of green tomatoes still overshadow the red ones picked so far. Green tomato chow-chow is all piquant and thrifty and good, but it's just not as good as the fresh-picked tomatoes that exude redness or any of the many products that can be created from red tomatoes.

I remember 2 years ago, the first year I had a garden at our house, the red tomato harvest was decent, however, I had dozens of green tomatoes that I picked before the first frost and gamely packed them in paper to wait for them to ripen... let's just say that indoor ripening didn't really work out. The majority of those tomatoes went into the compost pile as soggy greenish-yellowish half-rotten orbs. Then, last year, the late blight hit our region and I lost all my tomatoes in mid-August; I think I harvested 3 tomatoes. It was a sad time for home gardeners and a really tough year for market gardeners and farmers.

However, optimism is a requisite trait for a gardener - hope must spring eternal, as a pessimistic gardener is likely to throw in the trowel and take up a more predictable hobby, like cross-stitch or sky-diving. At least for the tomatoes, my optimism had paid off - I'm happy to report that this year's tomato harvest has been great and there's still a rather long time before the end of summer and autumn's killing frosts. Here's a photo of Friday's harvest; the basil basket is also from Friday. Happy summer!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Chlorophyll - definitely not bore-ophyll

Adam Sandler may be a funny guy from the great state of New Hampshire - but I must say that he got it totally wrong in the high school biology class scene in the movie Billy Madison.

Chlorophyll is cool!

I have been neglecting photo-posting lately, an error that I will begin to fix today. Looking through photos taken on July 31, I came to the above realization - call it an "epiphany of botanical revelation."

It's simply amazing. Go away for two weeks in the summer and, provided that your garden doesn't suffer a searing drought, brush fire, plague of locusts or golfball-sized hail, you will return to find a jungle. A lush, green profusion of plant life and all because of a funky little molecule called chlorophyll.

Our raised beds are on either side of the driveway and receive an abundance of sunlight. Our green plants utilize the chlorophyll in their leaves to capture the sun's energy and convert it into sugars to make more plant matter. For several weeks in mid-summer, it's a positive feedback loop - make bigger leaves to catch more sunlight to make bigger leaves. (Note the size of the butternut squash leaves!) However, some of the energy ends up elsewhere, directed to flowering and setting fruit, which makes the wonderful vegetables that make gardening so rewarding. And it's all thanks to chlorophyll.

The butternut squash completely overwhelmed the upper raised bed on the far side of the driveway (in the first photo), but the acorn squash vines were more orderly and stretched out in lovely straight lines across the grass (in the back of the second photo.) The garden looks remarkably different today, but the photos from August will have to wait until another day...

Bonus quiz for the General Botany club - if I had planted corn in my garden, would it photosynthesize more efficiently, less efficiently, or with the same efficiency as the other plants shown in the photos? Leave your answer below.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August - the noble month

In the New England garden, August reigns supreme. Like its Roman emperor namesake, the eighth month of the year bestows upon its lowly subjects a great but infrequent largesse. This August, the largesse is in butternut squash and cucumbers. The squash are far from their harvest date, but the vines are spreading like kudzu over the woodpiles, driveway and stepping area in front of the garden beds.

August is sort of the botanical version of Tax Day, where you find out how much you will receive for your tax return, except that you are paid in zucchini and cucumbers instead of greenbacks. Filing tax returns always involves some.suspense and anticipation, as you never really know what the final balance will be. Similarly, August will produce a bumper crop of green beans one year and volleyball-sized melons the next. There's often no prediicting which plants will produce like crazy and which will shrivel up and die or limp along barely surviving the Japanese beetles. Before we left for vacation in the second half ofJuly, the squash was underperforming,but what a change when we returned two weeks later!

I'll post photos soon -you won't believe it!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Pickles are more nutritious than fresh cucumbers" - really?

The Internet is full of astounding information, some of which is true, some completely unfactual, and some that seems just a little odd.

Take NC State University's cucumber profile, for example. As quoted in the title of this post, this article includes a statement that pickles have more nutritional value than fresh cucumbers. Really?? Doesn't this fly in the face of raw foods being more healthful than processed ones?? This certainly deserves further examination.

I've always thought of pickles as a sort of junk food condiment - like ketchup, it's made from vegetables, but it isn't actually "good for you." I delved into some literature and online databases to find out more; perhaps my assumptions about fresh produce would be turned on its head.

The USDA has a very cool searchable online nutritional value database. I used this to compare the nutritional content of cucumbers to pickles, as well as the cucumber profile from NC State.

Since I'm not a nutritionist, I can't really interpret precisely how much better or worse pickles are than fresh cucumbers. I'd love to know if the brine makes pickle nutrients more readily absorbed into the bloodstream. But anyway, what I've found from my quick research project is that cucumbers are 95% water and have very few calories, and that pickles are 94% water, have very few calories and a lot of salt. There are some differences in the amounts of vitamins and minerals, but neither have high concentrations (except with sodium in the pickles.) Therefore, as a non-expert, I would conclude that they are about the same nutritionally speaking, except for the salt.

The American Heart Association recommends that we consume less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. According to the USDA database, one 4-oz dill pickle contains over 1,100 milligrams of sodium. That's almost your whole daily allotment - wow!

Why is salt bad?? - Excess sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease and stroke, two of the top three leading causes of death in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The bottom line: I intend to eat fresh cucumbers and also make pickles. The salt content of pickles will keep them as a tasty condiment to be enjoyed in small quantities, and the watery crunch of fresh cucumbers makes them perfect for main dishes and salads.

This really started off as a post about making pickles, but somehow I found myself in the middle of a huge digression.

Anyway, I made four different kinds of pickles on Sunday night, using up about 10 pounds of cucumbers. Half were from my garden and half from Musterfield Farm (we rode our bikes to the farmstand.) I'll let you know what I think of the results of this recipes as soon as I try them...

Here are the recipes:
Audrey's Refrigerator Pickles
Refrigerator Dill Pickles
Marisa's Garlic Dill Pickles - this is a truly great blog on canning!!

Bread and Butter Pickles (adapted from the Ball Blue Book)
-makes 4 quarts-
4 lbs cucumbers, run through the food processor into 1/8-in slices
2 lbs onions, run through the food processor into 1/8-in slices
1/3 cup salt (non-iodized)
-- Combine cucumber and onion slices in a large kettle, layering with the salt. Cover the top with ice and let stand 1.5 hrs. Drain, rinse, drain again.

2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp mustard seed
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp celery seed
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp allspice berries (at Adam's request - may add an interesting flavor, we'll see)
3 cups vinegar (I used white vinegar this time, but would normally use apple cider vinegar.)
-- Combine ingredients in a medium saucepan to make the brine, bring to a boil.
-- Pour brine on top of cucumbers and onions in the kettle. Bring to a boil.

Boiling water in a canning kettle
Sterilized quart jars with lids and rings
Chopstick, spatula or other wooden or plastic stick
-- Pack hot pickles and liquid into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace.
-- Run a chopstick around the outside of the jar, removing any bubbles.
-- Put on lids and screw on rings.
-- Process quarts in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
-- After the jars have sealed and cooled, put them in a storage area and wait 4-6 weeks for the flavor to develop.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Garden Runaways

I cannot post any new photos or tell any stories of my garden this week because I am out exploring the American West. We've been camping on federal lands, enjoying tall trees, clear aquamarine rivers and now the Pacific coast. July in the western mountains is wildflower season, and I have been surprised to find some garden flowers out staking a claim along the highways and riversides.

On the drier east side of the Cascades, I found yarrow growing tall and exuberant, just the white flowering kind. On the east side, pink sweet peas clamber up road cuts, along gravel banks and in open blackberry meadows. Less pervasive but also present are blue and purple bachelor's button, something I never would have expected to see outside a garden bed.

I don't know if it was just happenstance that these garden seeds escaped the garden, or if the sweet peas were deliberately introduced, but the effect is truly interesting. I know that when people come visit the Northeast in the summer, they often ooh and aah over the beautiful spiky purple flowers in the marshes, not knowing that purple loosestrife is a serious invasive plant. I hope I'm not falling prey to complimenting a nuisance species also, but I must admit the bright colors of these garden escapees are indeed beautiful.

Friday, July 9, 2010

My Antidote to 90-Degree Days

It's been hot here... I know that rural northern New England has it easy compared to urbanites in NYC, Philadelphia and DC. But still it's darn hot out.

It's been great for the weeds, most of the garden plants, but definitely hard on the peas. I've been working hard at doing very little, especially when it comes to moving around outside. But I've had to do a little bit of gardening...

Just to keep up with the cucumbers. In the first 9 days of July, I've picked over 2 pounds of cucumbers. It's even been too hot to do any pickling (and we didn't have any dill), so I took a cue from my childhood and made cucumber salad, very similar to how my mom makes it. This is a nice simple way to prepare cucumbers without needing to make a trip to the store. At some point, I'll have to try pureeing cukes up into a cold soup, but our blender has been dedicated to smoothie production.

The Cucumber Salad I grew up eating:
Cucumbers (1 lb makes enough for 3-4 servings)
Miracle Whip (for true childhood authenticity)

My version (for adults - kids may prefer the less tangy version.)
Substitute olive oil mayonnaise for Miracle Whip. (could also use yogurt)
Splash of white wine vinegar (I couldn't find the sherry vinegar)
Dried dill weed (use liberally)
Black pepper
(Salt, if you think you need it - taste it plain first)

Peel and thinly slice the cucumbers. In a bowl, scoop and plop two large forkfuls of mayo and pour in a small amount of milk and vinegar (1 Tbsp or so of eaach.) With the fork, mix together until smooth. Shake in 1-2 Tbsp dill and 1/2 tsp pepper, adjusting to taste - I prefer a lot of dill. Make sure the dressing tastes good now, as it's easy to distribute the flavors before putting in the cucumbers. Add the sliced cukes and stir together. I usually have to pull apart the cucumber slices by hand as they tend to stick together.

If you haven't already eaten the whole thing immediately, store this covered in the fridge for a day or two. It doesn't last terribly long as the cucumber will get soggy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Peas, Please

It's the height of pea season in New Hampshire, which is a very good time. I have been enjoying my own snow peas as well as Vanessa's sugar snap peas this past week. You can plant peas in late April or early May here. The seed guides indicate "as soon as the ground can be worked" but I tend to plant whenever the spirit moves me; this year I planted mid-May. For having gone to science "do things by the book" school for four years, my gardening ethic is rather lackadaisical.

Peas are fantastically tasty, raw or cooked. I especially like sugar snap peas straight from the vine, as they've got a great crunch raw. Adam is not a fan of raw peas, so I put snow peas in with some potstickers for a picnic dinner. I also tried doing a quick 90-second steam in the microwave and then rinsing the snow peas in cold water before chopping them for a green salad. I was surprised at the difference in flavor with that short amount of cooking - it definitely mellows out the flavor.

I have experimented with several types of pea fences, although I did not follow the scientific method. (That would be a great science fair project - which pea fence provides best support?) Peas naturally vine and trellis themselves, wrapping thin yet strong tendrils around anything they come in contact with. (Botany Quiz - What's the name for this differential growth habit stimulated by plants "feeling" a surface? - the answer is at the bottom of this post. Bonus points if you can remember which plant hormones are responsible for this!!)

I've tried two different trellis systems this year. One is a line of vertical tree saplings with twine running between the saplings. The other is a wattle made out of crisscrossed branches. There are pros and cons to both, but both are now too short! I've had to re-purpose part of my pole bean trellis for the pea plants. The peas are rapidly maturing, and I'll probably pull them out this weekend - peas do not take well to 90-degree heat. For the second planting this fall and the years to come, I may need to follow my some "by-the-book" advice and set up a regularly-spaced wide mesh netting for the peas that's at least 4 ft tall.

Quiz answers: this growth habit is called thigmotropism - and the hormones responsible are our dear old friends, the auxins.

Monday, June 28, 2010

If vegetables were race horses...

We have been watching Planet Earth again (I love David Attenborough) and I'm always so amazed by the time-lapse footage of plants and fungi and corals growing. If I were a nature videographer, I might skip the mountain of cockroach-infested bat guano in Indonesia and instead set my sights on more mundane subjects, like my garden plants. I would love to see the ever-so-slight circular movement of plants as they angle for the best light and the speedy coiling of pea and cucumber tendrils.

I go and look at my garden every day, partly because I am trying to stay ahead of the weeds and partly because the garden is on either side of the driveway where I park my car. So, I see that my peppers are getting longer, the tomatoes keep putting out new suckers, and all of a sudden, the eggplants are twice the size they were the day before. Or at least, they seem twice as big. It would be SO cool to actually track and document the daily progress of my garden plants and correlate growth rates with weather, microsite conditions, and other factors (heirloom vs. hybrid.)

Then I would know who to put my money on... in the great Belmont Stakes of mid-summer garden growth. Is it the snow peas who keep outgrowing their fence? Is it the arugula that sprouted in a day and a half? Is it the Sweet 100 tomatoes from my mom that put out new flower stalks on an almost daily basis? This is a very happenin' time in the garden, with the front-runners showing a lot of potential and the stragglers (like the tomatoes in the non-raised bed with regular soil) are falling way behind.

So, who would you bet on? It's still early for most vegetables - I'm harvesting lettuce, arugula and snowpeas this week, but haven't even seen a baby green tomato yet. What plants will make it through to the harvest, retaining their penchant for productivity?

Cast your vote by leaving a comment below.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Food I never ate growing up - Swiss Chard

When I was a kid, I was not a particularly picky eater and we had dinner table rules about eating vegetables, so I definitely grew up eating leafy greens, beans, peas, corn, tomatoes and a lot of other garden veggies. But when I got to college, all of a sudden the world of vegetables expanded and my new friends introduced me to artichokes, avocados, eggplant, mixed greens (the kind with bitter-tasting mustard greens), and olives that did not come from a jar labeled "Black Olives" or "Green Olives with Pimientos." Somewhere along the way I was introduced to Swiss chard, which is really one of the strangest veggies.

1. Its wildly colored stalks seem completely improbable, from a Mendelian genetics perspective.
2. You cook the leaves and the stalks separately and they both taste different.
3. How can something look so similar to rhubarb but instead be chard?
4. The Swiss are known for many things (cheese, the Alps, neutrality, anonymous bank accounts), but vegetable farming is not one of them. Turns out it's really from the Mediterranean.
5. Ever look at the seeds? Even these are strange.
6. Swiss chard is a beet. Seriously. (Cooperative Extension doesn't lie.)

After 2 years of planting chard seeds with zero success and the plants never surviving past the 2-inch stage, I have actually got 5-6 thriving chard this year. I started the seeds inside which may have contributed to their continued existence. I did just plant some golden chard seeds, so maybe those will survive as well. And while I still think chard is strange, I also find it strikingly beautiful.

I'll share my favorite recipe for swiss chard.

Steamed Swiss Chard Salad
Cut the leaves off the chard stems and cut the leaves into pieces.
Steam leaves until soft (about 3-5 minutes.)
Toss with olive oil, red pepper flakes, and a handful of pine nuts/walnuts.
Squeeze a lemon over the whole dish - I like it when some of the pulp falls into the salad.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

If you give a mouse a strawberry...

It's raining today, but lately, it's been really nice. Spring came early this year and everyone I talk to seems to mention that their lilacs bloomed early, the black flies came AND went (thankfully) early, and the strawberries are now in - two weeks ahead of schedule!

I did plant some runner-type strawberries this year, thanks to the generosity of the McM's and Starky-starks, but I don't expect much from those until next year. Last year, I read up on and then purchased some alpine strawberries, which do not produce runners and are less likely to run rampant over the lawn. They actually produced a few strawberries in the early fall, but it's absolutely incredible what they are up to this year!! They started blooming in April and have been prolific in both fruit and flower - the first berries ripened almost 2 weeks ago.

Aren't they gorgeous (even if a little out of focus)?? These are fruit straight out of a fairy tale. I remember a book I read as a child that involved a cute little grey mouse and in the story, he eats a cute little red strawberry... just like the ones I have growing in my yard.

Alpine or woodland strawberries are actually native plants of North America. Their Latin name is Fragaria vesca. These strawberries are also known by their more alluring French name, fraises des bois. (This translates to strawberries of the wood - oh my, how poetic.)

My three plants in the front garden are substantially more prolific than the wild woodland strawberries in the back yard, but I also coddle them by putting them in a location with full sun, giving them water, pulling weeds, and piling leaves around them in the winter. The wild berries have to tough it out on their own.

These are not the kind of berries you would care to turn into jam. For one, they are tiny - compare to the size of the basil leaves in the picture above. You would have to pick and pick and pick and pick until your fingers couldn't move. The second reason is that these strawberries are too irresistible to wait to bring back into the kitchen. They have a subtle perfumey flavor layered on top of the sweet strawberry taste - they really do deserve their fancy French name because they are far more sophisticated than their strawberry farm cousins. Considering the Latin genus Fragaria, it should be no surprise that the fragrance of strawberries stands out. Barbara Damrosch is much more eloquent in describing the flavor profile in her Washington Post article on this special fruit.

Our cats have been controlling the rodent population for the neighborhood this spring, so I'm hoping that the cute little grey mice won't eat all my fairy-tale strawberries.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

First, select a sunny spot...

I'm pretty sure that I've checked out every book on gardening from the Lebanon library (except the ones from the 1970s with the garish photos on the cover because I never want a garden that looks like a psychedelic tropical jungle hemmed in by brick work.) You think I would have taken the authors' cumulative advice to heart on how to establish a garden, but I managed to ignore all of it and to pick the worst sites for vegetables last year. Too dark, terrible soil, and I reaped a very poor harvest accordingly. Very sad but of course COMPLETELY AVOIDABLE!

Had I heeded the advice of Chapter One of every gardening book, I would have picked the sunniest spot for my garden, but the only sunny spot is in the front yard and on top of our septic leach field. Roadblock #1. But this spring we had a big frankenpine taken down and amazingly, our yard near the driveway now gets sunlight - yay! Roadblock circumvented.

Adam built several raised garden beds out of Douglas fir planks and these cool metal corner brackets, which he filled with a mixture of aged manure and loam. I'm using a modified version of Mel Bartholomew's square-foot gardening method, what I like to call the "yeah, that's probably about a foot" gardening method. I don't own a 12-inch ruler and didn't want to get dirt in the tape measure, so I just eyeballed it. Which is why some of the tomatoes are a little more tightly bunched at one end of the bed.

So now I've got my vegetables in the right spot so let's see how this season goes! The weather has been surprisingly warm and the plants are loving it.