Daydreaming about Gardens (repost)

The weather has turned cold and the leaves have turned crunchy and I’m thinking, as the last of my tomato vines shiver out in their boxes, about next year.

I think that daydreaming about the garden next year may be a substantial part of how I get through the winter, now that I’ve seen gardening for a season and know what I like about it. Some thoughts that are with me now include:

  • How to be smart about space? I have a whole box now that really gets only enough light to be a patch for greens, and a strawberry bed that sustains tomatoes beautifully, if crazily. Our potato barrel yielded some potatoes and would probably yield more, with better drainage and fewer potatoes crowding around. I want to add another box, if Husband will agree, and add small, thin window boxes on our front porch for herbs, to take advantage of all the sun we get up there. He also wants to put in some blueberry bushes up there, where we already get a ton of bees.
  • How to grow in a timely way? I need to make sure I start mostly greens early next year, not all my seeds at once, and then start my summer peppers and tomatoes at last frost. I want to grow greens early and late, not just early this time, and I would like to choose a spot for some winter squash plants and some sugar snap peas so that my Fall harvest can be a little new and not just more of the spring crops. Mid-summer was a grand bounty this year, but I want to make sure I focus on the book-end seasons in 2017.
  • What new plants to grow, and what to give up? I wish my strawberries were more bountiful, but they were a small harvest this year. I want to keep potatoes, tomatoes, butternut squash, carrots, and green peppers… I want a more robust planting of cilantro, dill, basil, and chives this coming year, and add some oregano, which we eat by the handful anyway. While we planted onions and they sprouted, they didn’t grow, so I’d love to find a place in the yard where they thrive. Now that I list it all… we really grew many of the things I wanted to grow. It feels good, actually, to know that I mostly want to boost production, not change it.

What other veggies or fruits would you recommend adding? I need fresh produce to daydream about as the days get short and cold and I spend most of my time indoors.

Preparing the Ground

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We have talked and talked about how we’re going to make our garden bigger this year; even with all the missteps last year, we still yielded a lot of pounds of food and this year promises to be just as exciting. Yesterday was an unseasonably warm day, making it perfect for digging out some old grasses and bushes along our back fence line and preparing the ground for a new raised bed garden box.

We first had to root out as many of the persistent roots and grasses that we could find, and then we laid out large amounts of garden fabric and staked it down. The hope is that, even with this crazy warm weather we’re having, going ahead with this process will help keep the weeds down when we put the boxes in on top. It’s going to be long, perhaps 12 feet, and about 2 feet deep, so there’s going to be a ton of space for plants. It’s the most full-sun  box we have, so it’s going to get our squash plants, our tomatoes and peppers, as well as newcomer cucumbers.

I sometimes see metaphors for life in the gardening process, and one of the biggest ones is this idea of preparing the ground – our minds cannot change on a dime, and when we want better habits or stronger muscles or anything new, we have to start getting ourselves ready ahead of time. It’s not just the training for the race, but the recognition of what foods make us feel crummy when we run and which ones make us feel energized. Preparing the ground isn’t always possible; I’d say last year we pretty much leaped before we looked, but when life gives you the opportunity to really get ready for a new change, it’s wise not to bury your head and pretend the change isn’t coming. Things go so much better with prepared soil.

Making Garden Plans: Reading Homegrown Harvest

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I’ve been reading a new book! This gardening book, as opposed to a lot of others I’ve looked at, seems geared to be a reference guide for a home gardener, not something to be read cover-to-cover. Using the seasonal sections and the guidelines for each kind of plant, kind of gardening space, and kind of climate, you can isolate small pockets of advice on your particular goals and start planning!

For instance, my area of the country is right at the edge of USDA Hardiness Zones 5 and 6, so I look for the advice that the book offers to mid-temperate and cold-winter areas, often splitting the difference since I’m so close to being in cold-winter but not quite. I know I want tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, strawberries, squash, basil, cilantro, and a mess of other things in my garden, so I look for those foods or the families in which they are grown (herbs, rather than basil and cilantro specifically) and get advice on when to plant, how to plant, how hardily they will grow, cautions about thinning them out or hardening them off in the new warm days of May and June, etc. It’s making planning much easier, because when I tried to “plan” last year, I just got overwhelmed by the individual needs of each kind of plant.

This way, I’m creating some week-by-week checklists, which will make my time commitment to gardening much less haphazard but also will hopefully yield better crops! Reading about them now, I am lucky that as many of my plants survived last year as they did; I didn’t follow almost any of the guidelines! What’s nice is that I can take what I learned from experience and the advice given here to make less work for myself but hopefully yield better results, with more delicious fruits and veggies for the rest of the year. I recommend this book!

 

Pumpkins and Togetherness

This weekend, I joined Husband, his grandmother, and his grandmother’s next door neighbors for a pumpkin preparation extravaganza. We scooped and scraped, with my role being to pick out pumpkin seeds from within the slimy orange mess so that we could rinse them, season them, and cook them up for a light snack. Husband made a lovely pumpkin with an upside down bat carved into it. Makes me think of the bats that we think have taken up residence in our attic… sigh, new neighbors.

I enjoy the tradition of pumpkin carving less because it has to do with my family – we never did it growing up – but because it really has so many nice components. It celebrates produce, it really isn’t a very expensive activity, it yields (at least sometimes) a snack, it includes creativity and artistic expression but has a low barrier for entry (I’m a terrible artist and I can still poke the holes necessary for a grin or a spooky cat). Pumpkin carving often takes advantage of the nice autumn weather; it was a beautiful, unseasonably warm day and we did everything outdoors. However, we’ve had just as many delightful carving nights with the dining room table covered in newspapers and the whole place reeking of squash smell. It’s a joyful feeling.

As I envision what my family might be like in a world where there is so much screen time and isolated activity, I enjoy the dependent but autonomous fun of a pumpkin carving night. I think that it’d be fun to get neighborhood kids over, have their own pumpkins to carve, but with older kids helping younger kids and everyone contributing to clean-up and brainstorming and of course to eating the pumpkin seeds. I don’t have kids, but it seems wise to keep a thought to the kinds of wonderful ways to celebrate harvest season with kids that brings them together and lets them express themselves.

Daydreaming about Gardens

The weather has turned cold and the leaves have turned crunchy and I’m thinking, as the last of my tomato vines shiver out in their boxes, about next year.

I think that daydreaming about the garden next year may be a substantial part of how I get through the winter, now that I’ve seen gardening for a season and know what I like about it. Some thoughts that are with me now include:

  • How to be smart about space? I have a whole box now that really gets only enough light to be a patch for greens, and a strawberry bed that sustains tomatoes beautifully, if crazily. Our potato barrel yielded some potatoes and would probably yield more, with better drainage and fewer potatoes crowding around. I want to add another box, if Husband will agree, and add small, thin window boxes on our front porch for herbs, to take advantage of all the sun we get up there. He also wants to put in some blueberry bushes up there, where we already get a ton of bees.
  • How to grow in a timely way? I need to make sure I start mostly greens early next year, not all my seeds at once, and then start my summer peppers and tomatoes at last frost. I want to grow greens early and late, not just early this time, and I would like to choose a spot for some winter squash plants and some sugar snap peas so that my Fall harvest can be a little new and not just more of the spring crops. Mid-summer was a grand bounty this year, but I want to make sure I focus on the book-end seasons in 2017.
  • What new plants to grow, and what to give up? I wish my strawberries were more bountiful, but they were a small harvest this year. I want to keep potatoes, tomatoes, butternut squash, carrots, and green peppers… I want a more robust planting of cilantro, dill, basil, and chives this coming year, and add some oregano, which we eat by the handful anyway. While we planted onions and they sprouted, they didn’t grow, so I’d love to find a place in the yard where they thrive. Now that I list it all… we really grew many of the things I wanted to grow. It feels good, actually, to know that I mostly want to boost production, not change it.

What other veggies or fruits would you recommend adding? I need fresh produce to daydream about as the days get short and cold and I spend most of my time indoors.

The Comeback Kids of the September Garden

I really thought that getting 20ish pounds of tomatoes out of the garden by late August was wonderful – I was excited to have tried canning and to have harvested and processed 6 butternut squash. We’d had a decent crop of potatoes and basil, and we’d harvested one bell pepper and a tiny pile of carrots.

September, thus, has been a bit of an unexpected bounty – I just cut the three squash in the squash tree down, and there are two little bitty ones still growing. The tomatoes didn’t let up at all and even expanded; I’m having to actively trim them just to keep them inside the garden box; we’re probably nearing 30 pounds total for the year. The bell pepper finally has multiple blooms and a few germinated, tiny peppers growing, and the transplanted basil seems to finally be making a comeback.

Interestingly enough, we have a few new potato feelers growing around. They look like nothing much, so I would be totally unsurprised if we pull them up and there’s nothing there, but I’m holding out for first frost and pulling them up at that point – maybe we’ll have a few more of the delicate little 1-inch potatoes we ate up a month and a half ago.

I thought about trying to replant lettuces for the cooler season, but I think I’m all gardened out for this season – it’s been so wonderful that the chance to add some cooler weather crops didn’t appeal, and thank goodness: we’ve yet to hit consistent cool weather, and first frost might be only 6 weeks away! Next year, one of my goals is to more intentionally get 3 plantings in – salad greens as early as I can, summer crops in early june, and a crop of late-season veggies. For now though, I’m content to trim back my tomatoes, speak kindly to the tiny peppers, and pull basil for every pasta dish I can come up with.

Uexpected Garden Delight: The Squash in a Tree

Today, I share with you the silly story of the butternut squash vine that crawled 20 feet along our fence line and then weaseled its way 7 feet up a tree. The best part? That, of all places, was where it decided to  deposit a new, plump butternut squash. Gardening is full of surprises like this, more unhappy than happy, so I’m pretty thrilled this morning to have squash gently swaying from the branches of the tree in our yard.

How has gardening surprised you lately? I’m intrigued to know if other plants climb trees. 🙂

Growing Food versus Solar Cells… Investing in Sustainable Living

This year’s produce isn’t all in, but it’s really not too shabby:

  • a huge pile of basil, thrown into every pasta dish this season.
  • sprigs of cilantro here and there
  • enough strawberries for a cobbler and one tiny pot of jam
  • a big bag of potatoes (maybe 8 or 9 pounds?)
  • 7 butternut squash of between 2 and 5 pounds each (and some tiny ones that might yet beef up)
  • 15 or 20 pounds of tomatoes, eaten by us constantly while also being given away and frozen for canning experiment.
  • a dozen salads worth of greens.
  • One lonely green bell pepper (we’ve still got green plants, though, so maybe they’ll flower in September. We had some great pepper plants last year in September, the only 2015 crops at the house).

While quite wonderful for my brown-thumb, this isn’t much compared to the total food that I eat, or that Husband and I eat combined. However, I saw a comment the other day on a blog that basically pointed out that the impact of growing your own food, even a little, is much higher than getting solar cells or other alternative fuels for your house. I have often been seduced by the thought of solar cells, wondering if we’d ever have sunny enough days that we’d be “selling back” energy to the grid. But thousands and thousands of dollars have always made me forget that idea, no matter now much subsidy the government might give for such cells.

On the other hand, if I think about how much energy goes into planting, fertilizing, growing, harvesting, and transporting my produce, how much effort and care goes into making sure it isn’t bruised (and how many peppers are bruised and thrown away, or thrown away for not being pretty), I realize that gardening does make a difference: while there was fossil fuel energy to transport the bags of compost that we use to enrich the soil, the lone pepper to emerge from my garden didn’t require nearly as much fossil fuel, total, as the ones in the grocery store. I can’t calculate the difference (and we’re probably talking pennies of worth, really), but every bite is something.

I’m also heartened as I look to a future season, where I’ll learn from my mistakes, and maybe grow more food or be able to harvest it better. It’s an effort to do something fun with my hands and something kind of magical with my backyard, but it’s also just a little more sustainable than buying elsewhere… (or at least it is trying to be!) It’s only little impacts, but those can be really good for one’s mind and heart.

The Little Blogger who Can… Can.

This weekend was when we hit a lot of milestones – I had three ripe butternut squash sitting on the counter and more than 11 pounds of tomatoes in the freezer, so I decided to take the kitchen that Husband so lovingly cleaned and cover it in canning equipment and tomato guts. I also did some cooking and roasting of butternut squash, but I’ll save that for another day.

I knew I was starting at a disadvantage with the whole canning process, because I had too large jars and too small a pot, but I managed to fit 3 jars into my pot at a time, which was good. I cooked down the tomatoes with a little water for hours, maybe 3? because I hadn’t taken the skins off or cut them up much to begin with. I figure, when I want to use the sauce, I can chop up the sauce a little in the food processor if I don’t want it chunky. Then it was the old standby: clean jars and lids, sanitize jars and lids, add sauce, put lids on to finger tight, and process for whatever amount of time multiple blogs say is right (45 minutes was the consensus for mine).

For my first batch, I forgot the lemon juice until I realized they were already processing with the lids on, so I decided those would get used in the next couple of weeks and could live in the fridge. No one said your first canning experiment is perfect. But for the second batch, I mixed in tablespoons of lemon juice to get the acidity up and I think that will be enough. I really recommend following some old-school directions (from a box of mason jars, or from a canning cookbook) on this – there are so many steps in the process that could introduce germs/bacteria/something else into your tomatoes that it’s good to follow to the letter. I would prefer to throw more tomatoes into my next few meals than to save them all winter and find them moldy or full of poisonous substances.

Overall, I see the accomplishment people get from canning, but I also understand the impulse to just give away ripe tomatoes if you have too many, so that others can enjoy the garden flavors. It really isn’t a money saver, at least not this first year, but I liked the sense of accomplishment on what was otherwise a pretty lazy Sunday for me.

 

Food that Feels Like Freedom: Tomato and Olive Oil Toast

No lie, I’ve eaten a lot of tomatoes, greens, potatoes, and squash this season – you’d think I’d get sick of it, but I feel like I cannot get enough. And yesterday afternoon I got home from work so ready to be done for a couple days, I was jonesing for a snack that made me feel free and easy. 

I turned to pan tomate, the Spanish snack I loved so much when I lived in Madrid. Two pieces of toasted bread, slices of garden tomatoes, a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt (sea salt for crunch if you have it!). The result is fresh but rich; I ate mine while chatting with Husband about our weekend plans.

What food makes you feel carefree and like you are unburdened? What do you cook when facing a weekend or just a couple luxurious free hours?