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Archive for May, 2010

One day you’re wondering if it’s ever going to warm up and quit raining. The next, you’re sitting behind a backlog of spinach and strawberries, wondering if you can get it all done.

A little update from vegetable town

Let’s deal with the bad first. Spinach and Sugar Snap peas have so far been the most disappointing. The spinach grew so slowly during the cold, wet weather that it wasn’t very big by the time the high 80s surprised us last week. As a result, I have lots of  tiny plants that must be picked before they bolt, which usually happens right about now. In fact, they’re showing the telltale, raised leaf signs of bolting as I write. So I now have a grocery bag of spinach in the basement refrig, awaiting my decision on what to do with it.

The peas look much better now than a week ago. The flat, edible-podded ones have begun to fill in and bloom. The row of Maestros have pods that are fattening up and will be ready soon.

It’s the Sugar Snaps that have let me down. A few more are up and climbing the fence Mike put in, but still, where are the rest I planted and replanted? The first round got a lot of moisture and cold weather, so they could have rotted. But that doesn’t explain the ones I replanted later that still didn’t come up. Maybe, like some super sweet corn hybrids, their germination rate is just poor.

A few squash didn’t come up either. I know for a fact they rotted because I discovered their little corpses when I dug to put in the replacement seeds. The soil is nice and warm now, so they shouldn’t have a problem catching up.

Thanks to the suddenly summery weather, we’re now staring into a mountain of work, as every early crop begins to come in. Strawberries have already begun and cherries and currants are about to be at prime picking stage.

I’ve been having a few problems with the strawberry bed that I hope we’re solving this year. Three or four years ago, a lot of plants got sickly. It looked like a rot or fungus, even though they’re in a raised bed. I attributed it to the leaves we used for winter mulch (which are very hard to get rid of in spring). So we switched to a straw mulch and I pulled out a bunch of plants to allow for more air circulation.

The plants surviving look a lot better. But now the problem is that the runners are not resulting in many new plants. So yesterday, Mike got some dirt from where the fall “leaf corral” was and put it in the bald spots. When the runners come, I intend to train them to the new dirt, weighting them down if necessary. We’ll see if it works.

Even so, I’ve picked enough berries to make some strawberry-rhubarb toaster pastries (I’ll file a recipe later). And, I did  my first batch of jam today!

I love making jam second only to making pickles. Usually, though, I only have to make it every other year. I don’t like keeping jams and jellies more than two years so every spring means a little pantry clean-out, which is sad, but also exciting.

Bye-bye old

Hello new

Ahead: Apricot jam (sorry, no tree. I actually buy apricots for this–that’s how much I love it). Cherry and currant jelly.

Posted by: Roxie

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Every July, our neighborhood is dotted with cardboard signs and driveway stands. Fresh tomatoes. Homegrown. Vine ripened. The occasional car pulls up, its occupants get out and make a quick transaction and they’re gone. If there’s one thing people want in the summer, it’s home-grown tomatoes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone being against this tiny bit of free-market Americana, especially in these tough economic times. But apparently some people are. They are the ones arguing against proposed new regulations in Kansas City for “urban agriculture.” Those rules, clarifying whether you can have volunteers to help tend your plot, or where, when and if you’re allowed to sell your produce on site, have been debated and revised again and again.

My better half reported on this in yesterday’s Star. On one side are people who want to convert  unused or unsightly urban areas into gardens, which would in turn bring more fresh produce to areas where grocery stores are sparse.

On the other are people, real estate agents among them, who say gardens are unsightly themselves and would bring in traffic and perhaps riff-raff. Their position is that urban agriculture would bring down everyone’s property values.

As a gardener, I’m always a little perplexed when I find that there are actually garden opponents out there. I get the impression that usually, they’re against the looks of vegetable gardens. The additional fear of robberies and traffic  is new, though. I think it has to do with the growing popularity of Community Supported Agriculture and the backlash against the kind of farming I grew up with in Iowa (commercial agriculture).

[Wondering why there’s a backlash? Check out today’s New York Times story on rare strains of e Coli.]

So yes, people want clean food, free from chemicals and dangerous bacteria. They also want food that doesn’t drain the topsoil and aquifers and pollute the air because of the way it’s produced. It’s a big, big trend.

And the people on the other side are having a hard time trying to pigeonhole us. Are we low-lifes who will trash up nice neighborhoods with our compost bins and tacky driveway stands?

Or are we, as Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts says,  “small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.”

Roberts, along with Sen. John McCain and Saxby Chambliss, turned on the culture wars last week in a letter complaining about the $65 million the USDA spent on the Know Your Farmer program, aimed at small producers according to another Star story. (In contrast to the billions commercial farmers receive every year.)

There has  been other push-back from the food industry against the humble goal of encouraging backyard gardens and healthy eating. First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden was the target of a letter-writing campaign by advocates of pesticides and synthetic chemical makers.

Expect more. Before long, someone will no doubt try to equate backyard gardens with a lack of manliness. Or they’ll say real Americans don’t like vegetables.

Elitists? Low brows? Hobbyists? I don’t think those are labels that will stick. Whenever we’re at a book event, the people most interested in starting gardens seem to be about as middle of the road as you can get. They have been hard hit by the recession and are angry about the endless food safety recalls, just like us. All they want is to take back some of the control over what they eat.

Is that so much to ask?

Posted by: Roxie

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Yow. Temperatures in the mid to high 80s, muggy and windy. We’ve pole-vaulted straight over the usually mild month of May into the sweaty stickiness of mid-summer.

The result is a violent mood swing for our garden. Poky and cranky for weeks because of the wet and cold, it’s become a full-on mania of positivity, showing us just how much can be accomplished with a can-do attitude and favorable climate.

We managed to get the weeds pulled (most of them) in the cold and mud, and the sweet potatoes planted in the cold and mud and the cilantro planted in the cold and mud. (We decided to wait a couple more days on the basil, though.) And we now see the first seed leaves finally popping up on squash I planted two weeks ago.

Squash seed leaf

But no time to stop for a breath. The quick onset of hot weather means we’re about to have picking to do–stat.

Make no mistake. I’m as happy as the next person to be able to wear shorts and turn off the furnace. But I’ll venture to say that most gardeners do not welcome any kind of weather that is freakishly out of character for the season–either too cold or too hot.

Too cold–as it has been for the past several weeks–and your vegs are slow to grow and blossom. But too hot can also stop you from getting the maximum out of a garden.

Take spinach for example. Ours has been coming very slowly, with most plants well behind where they should be by now. Once temperatures decide to hit the 80s, though, they’re likely to stop growing leaves and bolt.

In other words, they put up a central spire for a bloom, and the leaves become smaller, pointier and bitter. If you want decent spinach, you have to get it before it bolts.

Ours, small though it is, shows signs of bolting. (Warning sign: The plant heaves its leaves straight up, Hallelujah style.) So out I went this morning to pull out decent sized spinach. I usually twist out the roots and leave them right in the garden, to save a mess later at the sink.

Same thing for the spring green salad mix and arugula, which has the same bolting tendencies. Didn’t have time to deal with them today (Wizards game) so they went into the refrig in a loosely-tied plastic grocery sack.

Then, it was on to the strawberries, where I picked another plastic grocery sack to await processing in that same refrigerator (the one in the basement, where produce and pickles go). Maybe I’ll combine some of them with rhubarb (also ready) for toaster pastries for the freezer.

I looked around some more and saw that we’re facing a big picking workout in the next week or two. The cherries and currants have that first blush of red, which means they’ll be ripe in probably a week and they are loaded this year.

And the rainbow Swiss chard, which I’ve never planted before, was not at all unhappy with the cold spring. It’s beautiful, shiny leaves with colored stalks are ready for picking right now, looking about as appetizing as anything we’ve grown to date.

So I guess it’s time to get cooking. Despite the economy, we’re going to be eating like kings.

Posted by: Roxie

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The day that Roxie and I gave up on growing sweet corn was like a scene out of “Gone With the Wind.”

Only where Scarlett O’Hara swore  she’d “never go hungry again,” we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d never grow sweet corn again – even though we were hungry for it.

It just wasn’t worth the trouble, we decided. What with the squirrels and the birds robbing us of our harvest and my failed attempts to keep them at bay, we gave up on corn and started buying our roasting ears from the farmer’s market like everyone else.

Besides, our current garden simply wasn’t big enough to grow a nice stand of corn that would provide a sufficient harvest for us and the varmints.

But whaddya know, fate intervened. We’re going to give it another try this year.

Critters, beware:  Mike casts long shadow over  new cornfield

In an earlier post, Roxie wrote about how an elementary school near us was starting a community garden this year in partnership with the nearby Methodist church. We went to the organizational meeting one night in April, in part to provide information and, also, to try selling a book or two.

Shameless promoters, yes we are.

Anyway, I kept track of the garden’s progress, making it part of my regular dog walking route. Things were looking good, except there was no activity on one end of the plot.

Was it possible that not everyone in the neighborhood relished the chance to grow veggies alongside their neighbors on school property?

So after getting it in my head that we might give corn one more  try —  only somewhere else — I called one of the organizers. Turned out there was some unclaimed space.

Therefore, Sunday and Monday found me out in the mud planting seven rows of silver queen hybrid sweet corn in the new, 20’ x 20’ satellite plot of Mike and Roxie’s vegetable paradise.

Nothing else. Just corn.

The soil temp and the calendar are just about right for planting sweet corn. We’re going with a normal sweetness variety, rather than one of the candy-corn hybrids.  As recommended, I soaked the seeds in water before planting. Another term for this is “priming the seed,” as I learned somewhere on the internet.

Roxie has been soaking corn seeds many a year, but I never knew why she did it, exactly. Now I do because this corn field is all my responsibility.

Besides speeding germination (which I’d guessed), the soaked seeds are less likely to rot in the ground and won’t tend to rise to the surface, should a heavy rain fall soon after planting.

I under-bought on the seeds. Two regular sized packets of Burpee silver queen only filled three furrows, spaced at one seed every 4 or 5 inches. (After sprouting, I’ll thin them to one plant every foot.)

But when I went back to the garden store, they only had one packet left. Since that wouldn’t do, I ended up at the hardware store, which did have an ample supply.

No Burpee seeds, though. But figuring that one brand of silver queen is as good as another (we’ll find out), I filled the other four furrows with the seed from two larger packs of Ferry Morse silver queen.

Think of it as a test plot. One other difference is that I didn’t soak the Ferry Morse seeds as long, 4 hours as opposed to 12 or so.

Either way, we’re bound to get at least a few ears to eat this year.

Maybe.

And while we’re at it, we’ll get a chance to be part of a community garden for the first time since the ’80s.

I know some of the folks. Others I hope to meet. And the best thing of all, besides making new friends?

The community water spigot is right next to our plot.

Posted by: Mike

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Pea ennui

Here we sit, on hold.

A couple of weeks ago, Mother’s Day I think it was, we had a brief warm up and a few days’ dry spell. At that time, Mike and I did a marathon weeding session, to catch up for all the wet, cold days before. Then I planted most of the warm weather vegetables–cukes, squash, pumpkins, etc.

That brought us to about 90 percent complete on the planting. I didn’t expect my sweet potato plant order to arrive until mid May, and I knew from experience that it would be useless to plant basil, because of below-normal cool nights have not permitted the soil to warm enough.

Horace, our scarecrow, just can't seem to stay alert in all this dismal cold and rain.

And here we sit. The weather turned rainy and raw again. The house temperature got below 68 and the furnace turned on. The weeds grew back. I’m still waiting to see the first sprouts of vining plants. The sweet potato plants came early and  sit in a glass of water in the window (considerably perkier from when the arrived in the mail). And the basil? Still too cold.

I’m not complaining about the rain, mind you. I’ve lived through enough dry weather here to know one should never carp about precipitation. But could we get out of the 60s? Please? Swimming season is (supposedly) just a couple of weeks away and I’ve barely worn any shorts. We still have the winter blankets out, for crying out loud.

And what’s with my peas? This   going to be the big year of sugary edible-podded peas. I cut way back on my regular Maestros to make room for the newest iteration of Sugar Snaps. We put up the trellis in high expectations.

And…wow. Where are they? Just a scraggly few germinated after the first couple of weeks, so I poked in some extras to fill in all that blank space. I carefully weeded, so I could see any signs of life. And still, not much to show. The Maestros and the Oregon Sugar Pod (Chinese pea pod type) seem to be doing okay, though. What gives?

On the bright side…We have ripe strawberries! The cold weather has lulled me into forgetting to check the strawberry bed, but there they were, making up for the dismal weather. In fact, all the fruit seems to be doing nicely (except the grapes. One whole vine is trying to grow back from being eaten by the dog this winter). The cherry tree and currant bush are loaded. Even the apples, which get more shade than they should, have a few more fruit set than usual.

So there’s hope.

Posted by: Roxie

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Need more evidence that vegetable gardening is one of the biggest trends to come out of the Great Recession? Corporations are now getting involved, by offering their employees a new kind of perk–space to grow their own food in an on-site vegetable garden.

The New York Times had this story in its Dining section this morning–with none other than PepsiCo as its lead example. Apparently bosses at some cash-strapped companies that can’t offer much in the way of raises or bonuses are trying to make it up to their workers with a plot of dirt to grow a few vegetables. For some companies this is a small appeasement in a difficult year. For others, like Google or Bon Appetit, it fits with their corporate image.

As a gardener and promoter of home food growing, I should be all over this. After all, gardening is what we’re all about here at M&RVP. But the truth is, I’m a little conflicted.

There is a lot good to be said about it. Besides all the usual things about reconnecting with the land and nature and healthy eating, there’s the fact that the garden plots would cut down–ever so slightly–on land that would have been sprayed for weeds, fertilized to death and then tended by cadres of men with small, gasoline guzzling engines. And, at least in PepsiCo’s case, you would hope the employee garden would tweak some consciences about their products.

But there’s a big flip side to this. When employees have their job evaluations each year, they hope the rating will result in a little more lettuce in their pockets. I doubt this is exactly what they had in mind.

“Sorry, Simpson, no raise again this year. But you can eat as many green peppers as you can grow on your lunch hour, how about that? Oh, by the way, you now get just 30 minutes for lunch break. And hey, you’re doing a great job.”

Well, maybe it’s not so cynical as all that. You have to hope that some companies, at least, are earnest in their desire to do better for morale-sapped employees, and will return to the raises when times get better.

In the meantime, here’s hoping a lot of people take them up on the offer of free plots. Once you know what a really fresh tomato tastes like, there’s no going back.

Are there Kansas City area employers who are offering this perk? We’d like to hear about them and how it’s working out.

Posted by: Roxie

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Waste not…

Last night we tried a new recipe for cauliflower. It was a curry, with a lot of south Asian spices and it was vegetarian. It was also bland, colorless and, to be honest, not all that good. Just so-so.

Mike, the cook of the evening, announced he would probably throw the rest away.

“How much is left?” I asked.

“Not very much.”

But when I walked by the skillet, I was horrified to find more than two cups left. “Oh, no. You’re not throwing that out! I’ll find some way to use it.”

You see, I still have a very clear memory of myself tending that cauliflower all summer–tying it up with string to keep out the sun, worrying when the heads were late to form. I can still see myself in the kitchen, cutting it up into pieces, blanching it and putting the cooled-off pieces into freezer bags.

That’s the thing about gardening. It completely changes your attitude about food.

If you buy all your food at the store, you care about how much you spend, sure. I feel bad about wasting money on something I bought that did not turn out well. But I feel worse about wasting garden produce because it cost me my time. And I value my time more than the money I spend at Hen House, Price Chopper or Hy-Vee.

Gardening raises the bar much higher on new recipes, for instance. We work hard all summer and fall. What a shame it would be to have the end result be a bland and watery curry. How bitter the disappointment.

Wasting food we process ourselves is also just something that will not stand. Basil pesto, for instance, is not hard to make, but it’s painstaking. You pick and wash the leaves, blend them up with olive oil, nuts and cheese and then freeze them in ice-cube trays. It’s a huge savings, especially if you like your pesto like we do. So the sight of a forgotten lump of the stuff blackening in the refrigerator has, well, repercussions.

As to the cauliflower curry…Well, it was an unfortunate event, to be sure. But it’s nothing the addition of a few cooked chickpeas and maybe some green peas won’t help. And maybe we’ll throw in a little tomato puree or coconut milk, too…

Posted by: Roxie

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