In the world of gardening, you can definitely have too much of a good thing. A few years back, it was a plethora of green beans. A year or two further in the past and it was abundance of tomatoes. But here’s the thing about tomatoes and beans: in addition to being delicious fresh, they can be canned, blanched and frozen, pickled, dehydrated and otherwise stored for later use in a number of interesting and creative ways.
That’s not the case with cucumbers.
Late this spring, some damn fool gardening fairy whispered in my ear that one cucumber plant would not be enough. “The cucumber beetles always get them,” the fairy whispered. “You’ve been lucky to harvest a dozen. If you planted three cucumber plants, that would be nice. Then you’d have plenty.”
Stupid fairy. Stupid me. I listened. I planted three cuke seedlings. And here’s the even dumber thing: I planted three SLICING cucumber varieties. I didn’t even have the sense to plant some Kirbys for pickling. Nope, I planted three Straight Eights. And then, when one of them died back early on, I didn’t just shrug and say, “oh, well – that’s gardening” or even “wow, now I can plant a pickling variety.” I bought another slicing variety and planted it in the vacant spot. Can’t even remember now what kind, but it took hold like a champ.
I went off to the beach for a week in early July, leaving my garden to fend for itself. Most of the plants were fine; just kind of doing their thing at the usual pace, but the cuke vines were growing vigorously and were full of little babies when I left. When I came back, I had more than a dozen full-sized cukes ready to pick. So I picked ’em. My husband and I dined on beautiful fresh sliced cukes in lieu of tossed salad. I made tzatziki. I made cukes and onions with a vinegar dressing. Everything was delicious. But the cucumber plants were still producing, at the rate of a half-dozen every two days.
I started researching new recipes. I wondered if cukes could be cooked, and discovered that they can be sauteed. I enjoyed sauteed cucumbers for breakfast several times. A friend told me they can be stir-fried with chicken. John and I tried that one night and decided it wasn’t half bad – on the bland side, but comforting.
The cucumbers kept on coming. I ate a lot of cucumber sandwiches. I drank gallons of cucumber water. I made a jar of hot-sweet refrigerator pickles. I made two jars of freezer pickles. The tomatoes were beginning to bear fruit, but in spite of my barrier of fencing and deer netting, my neighborhood grey squirrels were making off with the the tomatoes before they even turned green. They strolled right past the cukes without giving them so much as a sniff. The cukes kept on coming. I gave away several dozen. My neighbors started to duck inside if they saw me headed their way with cukes in my hands.
Then I had a brain wave. Since so many vegetables can be dried, why not cucumbers? I got out my trusty dehydrator and got to work, peeling, seeding and slicing cukes. I sliced some thick, some thin, some into strips, some into half-moons. I used up all the cukes I had on hand, and actually went out and picked more. Some I salted, some I sprinkled with herbs, some I dipped in lime juice or vinegar before starting the dehydration process.
And you know – they weren’t half bad. It took approximately five hours at 135 degrees to dry them. The flavor was kind of bland, and while they were fairly crisp when they first came out of the dehydrator, the crispness faded after they’d been stored in plastic bags and the resulting chewiness wasn’t terribly appetizing. I chalked up the dehydrating as a failure, but at least I’d used up all the cukes in the house.
For a while. The vines kept producing. I made pickle relish. I made cucumber and apple chutney. I made cucumber juice: coarsely chop the cukes – peel, seeds and all – and whirl them in a blender until they’re pureed. Put a mesh colander over a bowl, line with cheesecloth, pour in the puree and let it drain – you can put a plate on top and weight that down to speed the process. After a couple of hours, gather up the cheesecloth into a bag and press and wring it until all the liquid is squeezed into the bowl. Discard the solids and use the juice to flavor water, seltzer, cocktails, etc. The juice is quite pretty – a light green – and freezes just dandy.
And still the cukes kept coming. I made more tzatziki. I ate more cucumber sandwiches. I drank cucumber water and seltzer flavored with cuke and lime juice until I couldn’t stand it any more. My cantaloupes started producing and damned if the squirrels didn’t go after those, too, but they continued to turn their little gray noses up at the cukes, even when I cut up a few and tossed them into the yard, hoping to entice them away from the tomatoes and ‘loupes. No good. I made a cuke, cantaloupe and lemon smoothie. It was only okay. In desperation I threw three whole cukes right into the freezer as an experiment. (I’ll check them out in the depths of winter and see what kinds of results I get.)
And now, as we move into the final weeks of August, the cuke vines finally seem to be slowing down. I only got a half-dozen cukes in the past week, and some of them don’t look so hot. The plants themselves are turning kind of yellow-y and limp. I feel kind of limp myself – limp with gratitude.
Will I plant cucumbers next year? Probably. I do love a crisp, fresh cucumber. And some of the recipes I tried this year were pretty good. But I think I’ll just put in one vine next year – a Kirby or some other pickling variety. For now, the thought of eating one more cucumber ANYTHING makes me shudder.
I’m sorry to report that the vegetable garden this year has been almost a total bust.
Right after John and I got the garden planted, I had to go to Tennessee to help my mom get re-situated in her house after several months in rehab recovering from a broken hip. I was away from the garden the entire month of June, and when I got back it just didn’t look as vigorous as I’d hoped. It may have been the weather, which was cool and pleasant for the first part of the month and then soggy with rain in the second. It may have been that I wasn’t there to keep an eye out for stressed plants or bugs or whatever. More than likely, it was just the Will of the Garden Gods.
But I’m blaming the deer.
I’m accustomed to losing part of my garden to gray squirrels and chipmunks. There’s no way I can keep the little buggers out of my yard – I have oak trees, after all, and oak trees mean acorns, which scream “BUFFET!” to my rodent neighbors. But this was the first time I had to deal with deer.
We’ve had ’em in the yard this past fall – pretty things, but they kept eating the hosta and our baby fruit trees. Then we had a long spell of not seeing them, and I assumed they’d moved out of the neighborhood. Silly me. I first realized my error when the fifteen lovely Italian green bean plants I’d put in were about four inches tall. I had come home from my show on a moonlit night and had stood for some time looking at the plants, thinking it was time to stake them. The very next morning I walked out the back door and discovered all but five of them had been bitten off short, with a lovely clear deer hoofprint to show just who the defiler was.
They moved in on my tomatoes next, elbow to elbow with the squirrels and the chipmunks. Even my beloved birds got in on the act – I looked out my kitchen window one morning to see a Northern Flicker clinging to my Black Cherry, pecking one of the beautiful, just-short-of-ripe fruits. I scared it off and picked what I could (delicious – the bird had good taste), but it was a foreshadowing of things to come. I think I’ve gotten less than a dozen tomatoes off seven plants this year.
Every morning I’d come out to find plants uprooted, bitten off and broken. I had a brief rush of lovely little cucumbers and baby patty-pan squash, and several big spaghetti squash ripening on the vine, but then the deer moved in on those, knocking the fruit down and taking big bites before rejecting the rest. Then some kind of wilt carried off all three plants, and that was that.
The one bright spot in all this misery have been the collards. This was my first year planting collards, and I guess the deer don’t like them because they’ve left them alone, along with the brussels sprouts (which may change now that those plants are starting to put out buds). I finally got around to harvesting some collards a couple weeks ago. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat them all, so I cast around on the interwebs for how to freeze ’em, and now I pass that on to you.
First, go out and pick your collards. You can just snap off the leaves and leave the plant in the ground; it’ll keep producing well into the fall (I have a friend who says he’s harvested collards he had to shake snow off of). Pick a LOT of leaves, because they cook down a lot. I probably got about a peck from my three plants without stripping them. Then you’ll want to give the leaves a good wash, because there WILL be dirt and outriders on them. I filled one of my sinks with cold water and gave the harvest a good soak, then ran each leaf under running water before stripping out the center stem.
Some people use a knife to cut out the stems; I don’t see the need. Just fold your leaf in half, grab the stem and strip it out, like so:
The process goes fast, and in no time you’ll have a pile of stems and another of leaves ready to process. I tossed the stems in the compost bin , then piled the leaves up on a cutting board and chopped them into biggish pieces – about palm-sized, because I like big pieces, but you can cut them as small as you like. Some people cut the leaves up after they’ve blanched them, but to each his/her own.
Set a big pot of salted water to boil. Make a place for your blanched greens to dry; I covered a couple of baking sheets with clean dish towels and then placed a layer of paper towels on top of that (to keep the greens from staining them). Have more paper towels ready to lay on top of the processed greens.
Once the water’s at a brisk boil, drop in your greens, a handful at a time, then set a timer for three minutes. (Other greens take only two minutes, but collards are tougher and need that extra minute.) Once the three minutes are up, take the greens out of the boiling water and spread them on your drying surface. I used tongs for this, along with a flat mesh strainer to catch the smaller bits.
Cover the blanched greens with a layer of paper towels and pat them down to blot up the excess moisture. Leave them for a bit so the water will soak into the towels and the leaves will cool down. I let mine sit for about thirty minutes.
Once the leaves have cooled and the excess water absorbed into the towels (the leaves won’t be completely dry), put them into freezer bags, press the air out of the bags, seal, label and freeze. I got four quart-sized bags of blanched collards out of this harvest – enough for several servings, although I’m perfectly capable of eating the entire bag myself. I do love collards.
I love them so much that I kept back a handful of fresh greens to cook for a quick snack. I sauteed some garlic and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes in some olive oil, added a little chicken broth and brought it to a simmer, then put in the fresh greens and tossed them in the cooking liquid until they were limp, about four minutes. I put them in a bowl, hit it with a shot of vinegar and then enjoyed a bowlful.
Those deer don’t know what they’re missing.
So Beaches is closed and I had a week of overlap between that and the start of rehearsals for The Threepenny Opera, both at Signature Theatre. Being as 3P is emotionally and theatrically kind of the anti-Beaches, it’s been an interesting adjustment as well as making for some long-ass days.
I’ve been doing a lot of auditioning and have got myself booked through the end of the year now (announcements to come), have a couple of rapidly-approaching one-night gigs (announcements to come) and if that wasn’t enough, decided rather foolishly that I needed to participate in Camp NaNo and gave myself just an easy 20k word goal for the month of April. I’ve written a grand total of 600 words in the first week, accomplished in two 300-word spurts. Pathetic. What was I thinking?
Someone on one of my writers’ forums asked the question in what order do you do these things: writing, editing, research? Here’s my answer:
Tweak/write write writey write write.
Tweak/write write writey…wait.
Realize I need to know more to finish the scene.
Research research research.
Write the scene. Only use a fraction of the research.
Write writey write write.
Backspace backspace o crap just highlight it all and delete.
Realize I shouldn’t have deleted what I deleted.
Tweak/write write writey write write…
Repeat as needed.
Meanwhile all around me spring has sprung and the daffodils are budding and the garden needs to be tilled and I at least remembered to take the cover off the fig tree so the poor thing can bud, unless the one-two punch of deer munching on it in the fall and all the wintery precip of the past few months hasn’t killed it. Same with the freakin’ cherry trees. Both the rosemary and the eucalyptus look like they’re winter-killed, too. At least the ornamental cherry we planted last year is showing signs of life.
Off to rehearsal now. More later.
::doggy paddles into the sunset::
For the big Fruit Experiment, I decided to start easy, with apples and bananas. I did more reading on the topic and realized I’d need some kind of anti-browning agent for the apples. I knew I could use lemon juice, and some recipes called for dipping the apple slices into a combination of honey and water, but I decided to use a powdered ascorbic acid mixture, which, I was assured by my online research, was readily available in supermarkets. Off I went to the local mega-grocery, only to discover that canning supplies, so plentiful two weeks ago, had been shunted aside to make way for Halloween candy and were nowhere to be found. I finally asked at the desk; a clerk was dispatched and turned up a few minutes later with what he assured me was the one and only jar of ascorbic acid mixture left in the store. With it, two bright yellow bananas and a pair of lovely organic Gala apples, I went back home and started the second experiment.
I read over the section on fruit dehydrating in my Nesco manual and then set to work. First order of business was to make the ascorbic acid dip for the apples; there was nothing in the manual about the proportion of water to acid mix in the manual, and indeed, nothing on the acid container itself, but I found the info online and wrote it on the jar so I’d always have it.
I made my anti-browning bath and set it aside, then peeled the apples. According to the Nesco’s manual, the optimum width for apple slices is 3/8 of an inch, hence the ruler. (Lest you think I am so anal that I measured each and every slice, let me assure you that the ruler was only to check the width of that first cut.) I sliced up the apples and tossed them into their little bath. While they had a little soak (about 5 minutes), I peeled and sliced the bananas. Two large bananas filled two racks; two large apples filled three racks, so the Nesco was at full capacity when I started it up.
The apples were done in roughly five hours; the bananas took an hour or two more. Because the pieces were so uniform, it was a little less painstaking than drying the tomatoes, which can vary widely in moisture content and shape. The dried fruit makes a fairly dull snack, though. All I did was dry them – I didn’t add any sweetening or seasoning or oil or anything – and while they were tasty enough, there’s a certain lingering chewiness to the dried fruit that is okay in small doses, but not conducive to cries of delight. I haven’t tried rehydrating them yet; I want to do more research into other drying recipes.
Next up was kale. I like kale chips (but for their tendency to leave tiny green bits clinging to one’s teeth, they’d be a perfect snack) and I’ve made them in the oven, so I was eager to try them out. I found a recipe that called for mixing a bunch of washed, dried and torn kale with two tablespoons of olive oil, half a teaspoon of sea salt and a quarter teaspoon of smoked paprika. It didn’t seem like a lot of seasoning for so much kale. The kale was done in about four hours and I was glad I’d resisted the urge to add more seasoning; some leaves were overly salty. I wasn’t really happy with the results of that recipe – the dried kale has a sort of dull, metallic tang and after storage, it lost some of its crispness. I used red kale for the recipe and am wondering if curly kale might be a better choice. I’m not ready to give up on kale in the dehydrator, but I’m definitely going to look for other recipes.
Yesterday I dehydrated a second batch of tomatoes, this time using only a little kosher salt, oregano and basil. The results were really nice: beautiful color and a nice, bright flavor. John is lobbying for me to try making jerky next, but I’m feeling a little less bold about that, as I know there are more steps involved and a greater possibility of food poisoning. There are still other fruits and vegetables to dry, as well as herbs; I planted a eucalyptus this summer and the plant is nearly five feet tall, so I may try drying that as well. I’ll keep you posted!
It’s been a banner year for tomatoes in my vegetable garden this year. I’ve made tomato sauce, tomato jam, tomato chutney and tomato soup, and still the tomatoes keep on coming. Even the squirrels and chipmunks seem to have reached the point of satiety and are no longer robbing me of my crop. At this writing (early October 2013) my remaining plants are producing about a half-dozen tomatoes a week.
Since I only have a small freezer, and since it’s just my husband and me to eat all this bounty (and he really only likes tomatoes as sauce), I was running out of ideas to use up and/or preserve so much goodness. As an experiment, I made a batch of oven-dried tomatoes, but while they tasted good, they turned somewhat brown and unattractive and I didn’t like running my oven all day long, either. I started to wonder about dehydrators.
I spent several days researching recipes and looking up reviews on various models, and eventually ordered a Nesco 600-watt dehydrator. According to Amazon, it would ship within a week, so I began to stow away tomatoes like a squirrel hoarding nuts. For some reason shipping occurred later than anticipated, so by the time the Nesco arrived, on a Friday afternoon, I had a refrigerator bin full of lovely ‘maters ready to go.
I tore into the box, eager to get going. Amused, John cautioned me to test the equipment first and retired to his basement workshop to tinker. I read the instructions carefully (pretty simple), assembled the dehydrator (even simpler) and set to work cutting up tomatoes. I had mostly Beefmasters, Lemon Boys and one or two Old Germans (an heirloom that produces lovely yellow and orange- striped beauties), and I quickly filled two of the dehydrator’s five racks with tomato slices about a quarter-inch thick. I gave each a shot of vegetable spray and a scattering of Penzey’s Sandwich Sprinkle, then stacked the racks into the unit and plugged it in.
The dehydrator let out a racheting whine that sounded like someone running a power saw. John hollered up from the basement: “Is that the dehydrator?” “Yes,” I yelled back. “Is something stuck in it?” “No, I don’t think so.” “Unplug it and bring it here.”
So I trotted the top of the unit (that’s where the heating coils and the fan live) down to the workshop. John examined it, and I guess he could tell from my expression how disappointed I was. “Some of the reviews said it was noisy, but that seems really excessive,” I said. “I guess I’ll have to send it back.” John said nothing, but he got out a screwdriver and began to take the top of the Nesco apart. “Something is rubbing in here,” he said, but the innards of the machine revealed only a little plastic fan and the heating coils. After examining everything, he determined that a piece of metal shielding the wiring was slightly bent, throwing everything out of true. “Bring down the rest of it,” he said, bending the metal back into place, and I brought down the base, the three empty racks and the two full ones. John eyeballed the prepped racks and shook his head. “I thought you were going to test it first,” he said. “This IS a test,” I answered. “Yellow tomatoes and red tomatoes.” (I really am a bit of a dullard at times.)
We reassembled the stack and turned the dehydrator on. It whirred breathily, like a box fan – a rather pleasant sound. I took everything back upstairs, filled the other three racks, set the temperature on the unit for 135 degrees and plugged it in. I set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes and went off to do something else. When the timer buzzed, I reversed the order of the racks in the unit, set the timer for an hour and left the Nesco to do its thing.
I knew it was going to take anywhere from 6-12 hours to dehydrate the tomatoes completely. Every hour or so I’d unplug the Nesco and rearrange the racks, so they all got a turn being nearest the fan and heat. By bedtime, the tomatoes smelled wonderful, but most of them were still moist to the touch – which meant they still had a ways to go. A few of the smaller slices were nearly dry, though, and I sacrificed them to the God of Testing – delicious. I’m not comfortable running appliances through the night, so I turned the Nesco off and put the racks in the refrigerator for the night.
John had to leave quite early the next morning and was gone by the time I rolled out of bed, but when I went into the kitchen to make my morning tea I discovered that he’d gotten the racks out of the refrigerator and started the Nesco for me. Within two hours about half of the tomatoes were dry; I took those out, set them aside and continued the dehydration process with the remainder. One or two of the newly dried tomatoes had moist patches, so I ate them. Did I mention that they were delicious? Dried tomatoes have a wonderful tang, and the little bit of seasoning made them even more delightful. Every time I checked on the dehydrator, I’d have myself a little taste. It’s a wonder any of them made it into storage, but eventually I had a sandwich-sized baggie full of yummy treats. They were really pretty, too – none of the browning I’d experienced with the oven-dried version.
I still had plenty of tomatoes, so I decided to slice up another batch. By the time John came home, they were nearly done, and I was quite smug about my accomplishment and was already planning Phase Two of the Great Dehydrator Experiment: fruit.
There is usually at least one week in the tomato-growing season in which reticent plants, chock full of hard green fruit, will suddenly decide that they’ve dallied long enough. When that happens, you’re overwhelmed – nay, inundated – with ripe fruit, and you’d better decide what to do with it quick.
What you see on the left is what happened when my nine tomato plants pulled this trick on me. I have four Roma plants and one each of Lemon Boy, Beefsteak, Brandywine, Old German and Sweet 100s Cherry. The cherry tomatoes aren’t represented in the photo, as I usually devour them as an amuse-bouche while I’m working in the garden.
Now, I don’t like to refrigerate my tomatoes, and I didn’t have room in the chiller for all this bounty, anyway. So I decided to devote a Sunday afternoon and evening to converting the raw tomatoes into delicious home-grown, home-cooked comestibles.
I decided to start with tomato sauce. I make fresh tomato sauce a lot; there’s really nothing to it. You wash the tomatoes, pick off any visible stems, throw them in a big stockpot with some peeled garlic cloves, fresh herbs (I grow my own basil, oregano and parsley) and some olive oil, cover the pot and let them stew down. Give them the occasional stir and poke, to break up any stubborn fruit. Nope, I don’t seed or core them; the next step takes care of that. And no, I don’t add peppers or onions or any of that. I wait to salt until I’ve reduced the sauce – the last step in the cooking process.
While the sauce tomatoes were stewing down, I got out my food mill. It is, shall we say, primitive, but it does the job and it has no moving parts to break. Its legs straddle my big high-sided mixing bowl nicely, and there’s something contemplative about rolling the wooden pestle around the strainer, sieving the hot cooked tomato mix into the bowl. It doesn’t take any great strength or agility to use – you just roll the pestle around and around. The tough tomato skins, leafy greens and all but the tiniest seeds are trapped in the mill, while all the flavored tomato juices and pulpy goodness go into your bowl. And cleaning everything is a snap – nothing to disassemble, no tricky areas to wash. I oil the pestle once in a while, but that’s about as complex as it gets.
I let the tomato mix bubble away, occasionally fishing out a piece of garlic to press against the pot side with the back of a spoon. (I don’t mill the mix until the garlic has gone mushy.) Meanwhile, I contemplated the Lemon Boy tomatoes. For a single plant, the Lemon Boy has been extraordinarily productive, but I didn’t really want to its yellow fruit into my tomato sauce – I figured they’d make the sauce lighter in color than I like. Instead, I decided to use it in two new recipes: tomato chutney and tomato jam.
The tomato chutney recipe I used is from a BBC website, which entailed a certain amount of converting British measures to American, but that’s what the interwebs are for, right? Here’s my translation, along with my tweaks:
HOMEMADE TOMATO CHUTNEY
2 cups red onions, finely sliced (I just used regular ol’ cooking onions)
2.5 pounds of tomatoes (I used Lemon Boys)
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 red chili, peeled and chopped – optional (I like hot chutney so I used half of one of my Hot Sweet peppers – you can see it lurking in the lower right corner of the first photo in the blog. I did not peel it; I seeded it and cut it into small narrow strips)
1.5 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
2 cups brown sugar (I used light brown)
5 oz red wine vinegar (because I was using yellow tomatoes, I substituted champagne vinegar)
5 cardamom pods
1/2 tsp paprika
Tip all ingredients into a large heavy-based pan and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently. Simmer for one hour, then bring to a gentle boil so that the mixture turns dark, jammy and shiny. Place into sterilized jars and allow to cool before covering. Will keep for six weeks.
The chutney had a strong vinegar smell as it cooked down, but eventually that backed off and it mostly smelled like onions cooking – not unpleasant at all. While it cooked, I milled my first batch of tomato sauce and set it aside to cool for a bit, then got ready for the second batch of sauce. I washed the mill, the stockpot, my big chef’s knife and my cutting board, ran out into a light rain to pick my fresh herbs (which made me feel like a romance heroine, for some reason), peeled another round of garlic and got the big stockpot going again. Then I eyeballed my recipe for tomato jam, which came from noshmyway.com. Since the tomatoes had to be peeled, I got out my second-biggest stockpot, filled it halfway with water and while that came to a boil, I cut a shallow X into the stem-end of each tomato. A 30-second plunge in the boiling water made the skins come away nice and easy.
GOLDEN YELLOW TOMATO JAM
1 pound golden yellow tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup turbinado sugar (once again, I used light brown)
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1/2 tbsp. candied ginger, minced
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. sweet paprika
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. salt
Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Watch carefully so the jam doesn’t burn. Remove from heat, cool and refrigerate. Will keep for two weeks. Makes approximately one cup of jam.
I got the jam going, rinsed out the second-biggest stockpot and started reducing the first batch of sauce in that. It’s rare that I have all four burners of my elderly Tappan stove going at once, but this was one of those times:
Everything smelled yummy and I realized that I had worked through the dinner hour, so I made myself a snack with a little reserved Beefsteak tomato. Martin’s potato roll, a slather of low-fat mayo, a little Penzey’s sandwich sprinkle, and I was good to go.
The chutney was just about finished so I had a little taste of it. It was flavorful, but a little lacking in punch, so I added a pinch of red pepper flakes during the final reducing boil. I let it cool a bit, tasted again and added a touch more red pepper. It’s pretty good; next time I would definitely increase the raw pepper and maybe include some of the seeds, and I might also add some golden raisins, just for the look of it and some additional depth of flavor. The recipe says nothing about fishing the cardamom pods out when the cooking is done, but I did. I got about a cup and a half of chutney out of the recipe.
I milled the second batch of tomato sauce, combined it with the first batch in the big stockpot to continue the reducing process and started to clean up the kitchen. By the time I was finished, the jam was just about done. I gave it a taste and danced around the kitchen making yummy sounds – it was that good. I had enough Lemon Boys left to make a second batch, so I got that going and then hovered over the sauce as it reduced. I tasted and tested, gradually adding salt. When it was flavored and thick enough for my liking, I pronounced it done and put it aside to cool. The finished chutney went into the refrigerator in a chubby mason jar. I got about a gallon of tomato sauce from my efforts, and that was decanted into three different containers and went into the freezer. The jam was separated into two containers: one for the freezer, one for the refrigerator. I bet that jam will be nice with Brie, or maybe cream cheese and crackers.
So that was my big tomato day. I don’t know if that’s going to be the Big Harvest for the season; it’s early yet, and lord knows what the late summer will bring. But it felt good to get so much cooked and stowed away for later eating.
I’m between gigs and have been spending most of my time digging in the dirt.
John tilled my veggie patch about two weeks ago; he did a fine job of it, too. Last year, due to my schedule, the garden went in too late, and the day John tilled it the soil was waterlogged after several weeks of rainy weather. It was a heavy, muddy mess that resisted raking and dried into great clods – not the most welcoming environment for tender seedlings. This year we got to it earlier; we hadn’t had rain for a week and the soil turned beautifully. I emptied the contents of my compost bin into it and John tilled that in as well, then raked everything smooth. The soil looked like crumbled chocolate cake, lovely and rich.
Most years I don’t get the vegetable garden in until May, but the earlier prep gave me the opportunity to put in cooler-weather crops: lettuce, spinach and peas. In a burst of optimism, and encouraged by the wide variety of seedlings available at local garden centers, I also decided to try my hand at celery, carrots and radishes. These prefer an earlier start as well.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a lazy gardener, but what I really mean is that I hate weeding. So every year, once the soil is tilled and prepped, I cover the entire plot with water-permeable weed block. The stuff I use is a very thin plastic; determined weeds will eventually bore through it, but it’s a hard go for them. To plant seedlings, I cut an X into the fabric and dig the seedlings into the exposed earth; if I’m going to grow directly from seed, I’ll slash the fabric open and sow the seeds, then pin back the slash with pegs so the area gets sunlight. This is what I did with my radishes and peas. You can see this method in the photo at right. I’ve planted French Breakfast Radishes, which are more elongated that the typical round ones you see in grocery stores. I confess to being intrigued by the name.
So – here is a photo of my first plantings, done about two weeks ago. From back to front, in the first section, there’s three each of Romaine lettuce, Buttercrunch lettuce, Imperial Giant spinach and Bistro Salad blend. Second section is Tendersweet carrots at the rear, and celery ranging toward the front. When I took this photo, I hadn’t planted the radishes yet.
And, for contrast, here is a photo I took today, just so you can see how the garden is doing thus far. We’ve only had one major rain and the weather went from oddly warm to more seasonal, so my worries about the tender greens bolting to seed have been allayed. The radishes have sprouted, been thinned and are coming along nicely. In the upper right-hand corner you can just see the end of my row of Super Snappy peas. They are also sprouting vigorously, and probably just need a few more days of sunshine before they really take off.
As soon as I think I have enough lettuce for a good salad (without stripping the plants bare), I will start harvesting them. I confess to snacking on the odd leaf while working in the garden. Lettuce that’s just been harvested is so tender and its flavor so delicate that you don’t even need dressing. I think as a nation we do salad all wrong: serving it stone-cold and drowned in dressing. I’ll accept cold iceberg (it’s almost flavorless anyway, so it’s all about the crunch), but I prefer my salads at room temperature, and I keep the dressing to a minimum so it complements the greens instead of overwhelming them. Greens still warm from the garden are a special treat.
I have a couple of Grand Experiments in the vegetable patch this year. The first is with garden beans. I usually plant green beans and yellow wax beans, but I’ve never found the best way to support the growing plants. They’re not twiners, and staking them is fussy work. I’ve planted them against fencing and they do okay, but inevitably they get knocked down by the weather or pulled down by the weight of the beans themselves. Ideally, each plant would be supported all the way around as it grows. I pulled out all the various plant supports I’ve used in the past and gave serious thought to how I’d like the beans to grow. I had a piece of metal grid from a cucumber trellis, and I laid that flat on the ground and thought about it. What if I used the grid as a template, and planted one bean in each square of the grid? What if I was able to raise the grid as the plants grew so they’d be supported? After a consultation with my husband, who sketched out a plan for support legs, I pinned the grid into the veggie patch with yard staples, snipped a one-inch slash into the weedblock beneath each square, and then poked the seed beans down into the earth. Here’s a picture of the results:
I planted six rows of Tenderbush green beans (to the rear) and six rows of Goldrush yellow beans (to the fore). I did this about a week ago; it’s a little too soon for the beans to be germinating but I do check them every day to see if I have any sprout action. I’m feeling rather hopeful about this experiment.
The upright grid behind the Bean Experiment is the support system for the Super Snappy peas. I also repurposed a cucumber trellis for this, so what, you may ask, am I using to support my cukes this year? The answer is: “A tomato cage, what else?” This is Grand Experiment #2. I usually have pretty good luck with my cukes, to the point of them nearly running rampant. The slanted cucumber trellises I’ve used in the past have worked fine, but they take up a lot of space. I wondered if a cuke might twine just as happily up a vertical support as it does up a support at a 45 degree (or more) angle. So I’m giving that a whirl this year. I argued with myself that the weight of the fruit might be too much for the vining plant and pull it down, but the cuke vines I’ve dealt with in the past have been pretty strong. So we’ll see.
The final Grand Experiment is with a vegetable I’ve never grown before: the artichoke. I was visiting DePaul’s Urban Farm last week and darned if they didn’t have artichoke seedlings. I didn’t know anything about growing artichokes, but I quickly Googled the topic on my smart phone and found out that one can, indeed, grow them in USDA Hardiness Zone 6B (where I live). So I bought two Imperial Star plants and put them in the very end of the garden. Apparently if the plants do well they spread a good bit, so that will give them room to do their thing – and if they don’t thrive, I can pull them out without leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the patch.
I plant tomatoes every year, but I like to try different varieties. This year I planted a Beefmaster, a Lemon Boy, a Brandywine, a Sweet 100 and something called an Old Johnson, in addition to my usual three Romas (to make tomato sauce). I put in three kinds of pepper: Jalapeno, Orange Blaze and something called Sweet Heat. I also planted a single Limelight zucchini. John won’t eat peppers or squash, so knowing that I will have full responsibility for eating them makes me curb my natural urge to overdo it (I’m still eating pickled okra from the year I put in too many of those plants – John doesn’t like okra, either). The remaining space in the veggie patch went to basil and Italian parsley.
I indulged myself in a few strawberry plants and potted them up, as well as three varieties of mint. I won’t put them in the ground because they’ll take over. They’re living on the Bunny Bench on my deck, along with a Sweet Annie. This is a plant that I bought simply because it smells so nice. My herb garden was neglected last year (along with my ornamental garden, which will be the subject of my next post). My big rosemary bush died and only my chives, tarragon and sage wintered over, so I pulled the rosemary out (a fragrant job) and put in a couple of new plants. I also planted dill, cilantro, marjoram, eucalyptus and stevia (!). Yes, you can now grow your own no-calorie sweetener. All I lack now is a lemon verbena, but I haven’t found any in the garden shops yet.
So that’s the edible part of my spring gardening, and I’m glad that I was able to get everything finished early. I start work on a week-long gig at the Kennedy Center tomorrow, which will limit my gardening time. I have a week between that gig and my next one, and that free week will happily coincide with the delivery of an early birthday gift from my mother: plants for my flower garden. That bed was such a disaster that John and I pulled almost everything out of it and will be starting afresh. I am eagerly awaiting my gift of hollyhocks, coneflowers, Shasta daisies, red Penstamon, balloon flowers and Snow Queen hydrangea, and am looking forward to creating a beautiful new garden out of two years of neglect.