Archive for August, 2009

Garden blahs

I forced myself to go out once again this morning and grudgingly pick my almost free food. The broccoli is still producing side shoots. The tomatoes have recovered from the mite infestation and are picking size again (well, the Romas, anyway). The peppers are so loaded from neglect that some are flat on the ground.

But am I grateful? Do I care?

Meh. The cool mornings and honking of geese overhead have me longing, instead, for the end of the growing season.

There’s no getting around it. I have the garden blahs.

We put superhuman effort and gallons of diluted insecticidal soap into staving off the bugs that threatened to destroy the tomatoes. The Brandywines and Romas (unlike their hybrid cousin Celebrities) thank us by growing new fruit. Oh, yay. I’ve already canned 9 gallons.

The fall beans I planted have begun bearing and–oh–it’s now a pain to remember to get them in shape for the freezer. Sweet potatoes look robust as always. Bet there are plenty under those vines. Ho-hum.

The butternut squash vines say, “Look at us. We have powdery mildew! What are you going to do about it?” Eh…I’ve got 16 mature squash already, do I really need more?

And as I’m looking at the gray fuzz on the leaves, I notice the plastic owl we put out to scare away the critters. Something, perhaps an insolent squirrel, has knocked the owl’s bobbing head into the mass of struggling vines.

They know.

This agricultural ennui strikes every year, just about now. There’s still plenty of work to be done, and plenty of produce to pick. But I’m tired of summer clothes and summer chores. I don’t want any more vegetable pizzas on the grill. I want corduroys and fall food. Has it ever frosted this early in Kansas City? What are the chances?

Ah, well. I’ll go take another look at the mildewed vines. There’s a tiny pumpkin started on one. Maybe if I get back to business, it will make it to Halloween.

Posted by: Roxie


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Today’s New York Times gives me hope for the future of farming.

It seems some people–city people, mostly–are willing to pay $300 a night to camp out in a tent on a real farm and help with the chores. And get this: They might even pay extra to do some vegetable digging and goat milking. (Here’s a link to the story, by Kim Severson)farm_garden_main

Of course we all know about farmers who supplement their incomes with mazes, country stores, pumpkin patches, etc. But this idea of a “vacation” spent gathering eggs and hefting hay bales is relatively new and may be catching on. (Well, with per-night fees like that, I would think so.)

The farmers doing this are not the big operators so prevalent in the Midwest. Not the gigantic feed lots or the vast chicken confinement buildings. I doubt they’re even much like my grandparents’ farm, though their cash grain and Landrace hog breeding operation was small and diversified by today’s standards.

These sound like farmers who have smaller set-ups, are less experienced and more interested in sustainability. “Boutique farms” is what my Iowa relatives might have called them, once upon a time.

I can’t decide which is the more hopeful sign: That the farmers so committed to sustainability have the imagination to come up with this genius plan, or that there are people in the city who are that interested in re-connecting with the food they eat.

the_omnivores_dilemma_a_natural_history_of_four_meals-largeMuch of this, I suspect, has to do with a book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals,  by Michael Pollan. This book has been out for a couple of years, but I am embarrassed to say I only just read it this summer. It begins with a look at the farm bill, the big grain operations (in fact, the example farm is just a few miles away from my old childhood home in Jefferson, Iowa) and cattle feedlots (like those in Garden City, KS). He then spends the middle section of the book at an intensive pastureland operation in the southeast that is so idyllic I found myself getting weepy. The last section is about hunting and gathering. The movie Food, Inc., covered some of the same issues, as did Supersize Me and the book, Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.

The premise is that we (especially Americans) have become so removed from our food that we have essentially a dysfunctional relationship with it. We don’t cook it. We don’t grow it. And in many cases, we don’t know where it comes from. So we end up in constant panic about what food is or isn’t good for us, how much we should eat and whether it is safe.

All so true, of course. When you put it that way, I feel pretty lucky that we’ve always been able to have our vegetable plot. Even with the weeding, the worrying about  weather and the sweating over the canner, it’s always been a pleasure to have a garden. Unlike some of the things going on in the economy and in Washington, DC, nature follows a course that’s always logical, if sometimes unexpected. You plant the seed, you water, weed and take care of the bugs and you can pretty much expect a tomato later on. Try saying that about your tax dollars.

So even though the Iowa girl in me wants to scoff at the city sissies who spend big bucks to do all the chores I spent my childhood avoiding, I’m all for these farm-cations. We’ll all be better off.

Just one question: How can we get a little piece of this ourselves? We have a garden, chores and the added value of a nearby railroad track. Our visitors could learn about gardening and trains. (“See that “W” on a post just over there by the tracks, kids? That tells the engineer to start blowing his horn.”)


Posted by: Roxie

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Shallots1Some call this the dog days of summer.  For me, it’s the dodge days of summer.

It’s in August that I tend to dodge my rather meager responsibilities in the garden. Roxie is harvesting and processing tomatoes, making salsa, mooning over her bountiful crop of butternut squash.

And me? Well, I’m not all that concerned with the weeds anymore, except the giant ones. And I’ve already harvested most of the crops that I’m solely responsible for: ones you dig like potatoes, onions and  garlic.

As Roxie would tell you, it’s almost as if I’m willing to abdicate all my gardening responsibilities until the freeze comes and brings the growing year to a close.

Except, then I remember how great it is during the winter to come across a recipe that calls for shallots. Yet rather than have to take the time to peel a few of these members of the onion family that may or may not still be hanging around (literally) in bags in the basement,  I have it lots easier.

Why, I need only reach into our freezer where I’m likely to find a plastic bag full of chopped shallots ready for use.

That is, as long as someone in the summer took the time to process our crop of shallots. Someone who, grudgingly,  went to the trouble of peeling the brown skin off the lavender bulbs, which he then minced and stuffed in those bags.

And that someone is me.

So today, a month after yanking the mature shallots from the garden and letting them cure(dry) on the front porch, it’s time to  perform that chore. And it is sort of a pain, if you don’t know the secret.

Here it is:  before peeling, dump the shallots into boiling water for a minute, then pour off the hot water and submerge them in cold water for 30 seconds or so.

Just long enough to bring them back to room temperature. We’re not trying to cook them. We’re trying to loosen the skin.

Some say the skin pops right off with this method. I say it  still takes a little effort. But it’s sure easier than if you leave out the step and start in with your knife.

That’s fine if you have only a couple to peel.  But for bulk processing, you’re foolish to go all  John Wayne and forgo the boiling water method.

Another thing I’ve been dodging lately is posting to this blog. What would I write about, after all, since I have been doing so little in the garden?

Oh, yeah.  What about the  shallots?

Posted by: Mike

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Crisis averted

Last time I mentioned tomatoes, it was with a note of concern. When we returned from a short trip, we found that something bad had taken hold of a section of the plants and was spreading into other areas.

Time for an update. I’m happy and relieved to see a cessation of the leaf discoloration and some healthy new growth coming back to the tops. This more or less confirms my suspicion that some kind of mite was the culprit.

There were some tense moments, though. Playing plant doctor is always the hardest thing about gardening because there are so many ways to go wrong. The droopy look of the tomatoes as they first took sick made me immediately fear some kind of bacterial wilt. On many bacterial and viral diseases, the expert advice is to pull the plant out and destroy it right away, before it infects its neighbors.

So right away I have a choice to make: Leave the plants in while I search for other, less-serious causes or risk putting disease into other plants as well as the soil for next season.

No pressure.

During initial scare, I almost forgot my number one rule of doctoring: Check for bugs first. So it wasn’t until a couple of days had passed that I noticed  noticed the backs of the leaves had some kind of small, white dusty spots.  I really became convinced of spider mites when I saw one leaf with a little webbing. Spider mites and I go way back. During one of the big drought years of the ’80s, spider mites destroyed two rows of green beans. I was inexperienced enough then that I thought it was a watering problem right up until I noticed the webbing that had broken out all over, seemingly overnight. Of course, it was too late to bring them back.

So out came the insecticidal soap. A few days later, though, the problem was still spreading. Could our tomatoes have bugs and a wilt?

We put on a second application of the soap. And in the meantime, I looked up every Internet picture I could find of wilt and fungal disease.  The problem was, after I looked long enough, I could see elements of every disease pictured in those leaves.

But only the leaves. The fruits and most of the stems were just fine. Most of the sites said wilts also cause damage to the stems and fruit. So we held on and waited a few more days.

And that seemed to do the trick. We now have new growth, including flowers and fruit set, on previously sick-looking plants. Even the one plant I thought was completely gone seems to be pulling out of it.

We’re still picking tomatoes, but the plants stopped setting fruit during the crisis. So there will be a break until the newer fruit and the top can mature. Then it will be back to canning and freezing.

Unless something new takes hold.

Poster by: Roxie

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Whenever I need to distract myself from worrying about the problems in the tomato patch (which have progressed), I turn to the vining plants. This has been, without a doubt, the best year ever for everything that grows by vine.

We have not yet counted the butternut squash, but there are many and they all are huge, compared to last year. They’ve been marauding through all nearby territory like angry Huns, with no sign of squash vine borer.  Our single zucchini has already produced more than I’ve been able to deal with (and folks, that ain’t much) and the melons and pumpkin, though late, also seem healthy.

But none have outdone the cucumbers. I’m confident I’ll look back on this as our banner cucumber year, the gold standard by which all other good years are measured. The cukes this year have more than made up for the many, many years I scrambled to get together enough for one batch of pickles or  sheepishly given up and taken my cash to a farmer’s market.

My usual routine, in a normal year, is to hover anxiously over the patch until I’ve got enough to do one batch each of dills and Wisconsin sweet/salty pickles, and maybe a batch of limed bread and butters. If I can get that many cucumbers before the inevitable wilt, I’m happy.

But this year, when I got to that point, I still had plenty of cucumbers left and no sign of a slow down. So I went ahead and did a limed version of some sweet and spicy pickles by Emeril Lagasse, some tarragon dill chips from the New York Times, another batch of dills–spears this time, and a second batch of the sweet/salties.

But they were still producing! So I did something I haven’t done in years. I started picking baby cukes, only the size of my pinkie, and putting them up as the sour French cornichons. You really have a good year when you can pick cornichon sizes.

We now have two quart jars filled with cornichons. There’s no more room in the overflow refrigerator in the basement for any more pickle jars.

The vines are slowing down now. Some are drying up and I’m allowing the butternuts to overrun them at the edges. The problem is, we still have bags of full-sized cucumbers we need to use.

So this week I found another way to use them. Cucumber popsicles.

The particular cuke pop I did came from the LA Times and used cucumber juice, lime juice, sugar and dried ground chilis. Mike pronounced it “interesting” after trying an ice-cube sized sample. He promised to eat more later. Our daughter declared it the worst new flavor idea for a popsicle and has yet to try any.

Oh well, more for me. Because I like them. I really, really like them.

We still have more cukes to use. But the paleta gave me an idea. Why not use the juicer for cucumber cocktails? Let’s see…cukes, apple juice, ginger? Vodka? I’ll let you know how it turns out.

In the meantime, you can go here to see the paleta recipe. The cornichon recipe is  based on one I found in Fancy Pantry, by Helen Witty (1986) It requires no canning.

Small cucumbers, less than 2 inches long

kosher or pickling salt

several sprigs of fresh tarragon, to taste

one or two fresh shallots, peeled and diced

1 tablespoon mustard seed

1 tablespoon peppercorns

1 teaspoon whole allspice

3 or 4 whole cloves

enough white wine vinegar to cover. This is more expensive, but please don’t substitute.

First, wash and lightly dry a bunch of tiny cucumbers, wiping off the prickly spines. Try to have at least two cups. Put them in a bowl and pour in about half as much salt as there are cucumbers. Toss, cover and let stand overnight.

The next day, drain off the liquid and rinse the cukes, then swirl them for a second in a bowl of cold water. Drain again.

Wash and rinse a wide-mouth quart jar. (I like to sterilize mine by boiling it in water to cover for 15 minutes.)

Put the cukes into the jar, layered with the tarragon and spices. Then pour in enough vinegar to cover. You can repeat the salting process and add to the jar as you pick more cucumbers. Each time you add them to the jar, cover with vinegar.

Keep the jar in the refrigerator for about a month to mellow before consuming.

Posted by: Roxie

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