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.

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.

Relaxation: the final product of continual potlucks

I had my third potluck of the year last night; while a couple of new friends and N’s boyfriend came for the first time, the core of the group had all been to my house before and new the drill: we fill our giant dining room table with food, you help yourself to drinks and pile plates high, and we mingle between rooms and the back porch all evening. Nearly everyone knew where the bathroom was, and no one seemed shy about raiding the fridge.

I had anticipated, as I moved from crockpot to oven to stove with the various foods I was cooking, some nerves or butterflies or just general anxiety about the party. However, it really never arrived; around 7 I put on some background music and people began arriving. It felt comfortable: a couple of my more shy friends sat on the back porch where it was quieter, and Husband started a fire in our firepit and talked heat transfer with a couple coworkers. We played one silly party game, but it was mostly to make each other laugh, not because there was nothing to talk about.

As for food… soup and bread turned out to be a wonderful theme! We had tomato soup, butternut squash soup, Indian mulligatawny, chili, gumbo, a sweet red bean soup from China, golden curry, and potato leek soup. For breads, we had roti, naan, fluffy peasant bread, crusty artisan bread, sesame seed bread from the farmer’s market, cornbread casserole, and smores bites for dessert! I also made some gingerbread cookies, which I’m happy to see have survived to the second day. 🙂

I include this picture of N putting away a pile of spilled toothpicks because she is grinning, and because it makes me smile too; parties aren’t perfect, just like spilled toothpicks are no fun to pick up, but if you get to know people and spend time eating with them and sharing life stories with them, you will eventually find a comfy rhythm that can actually look like being relaxed, not like being a stressed host.

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.

Basil/Oregano Mashed Butternut Squash

I’ve become a big fan of dips – give me a variety pack of hummus flavors, or a savory baba ganoush, or a pile of guacamole any day and I’ll lay into it. I wasn’t expecting that butternut squash would make such a fantastic dip, though; rather than a recipe, today I present something I affectionately call a “mess-cipe” – something that easily could have turned out terribly as an experiment in the kitchen but which instead turned out delicious!

I was eager to roast up the butternut squash, so I added basil, oregano, and some last sprigs of rosemary that I had handy but after it finished cooking I kinda… left it in the oven to cool? I went about my afternoon, busy, and then came back to cooled-off, gooey squash. It was easy to separate the chunks from their skin, but then I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. My thought was “Pasta sauce,” along the lines of some you might have seen used on “butternut squash mac and cheese.”

I didn’t have a lot of cheese available, but I added cheese and milk, and used the food processor to mix it up. I made Husband a bowl of pasta and covered it in the sauce, which he vouched was sweet but flavorful, a perfectly fine dinner. What I noticed, though, was that since it was all fairly cool, it was really firmer than a sauce… more like a dip.

Instead of serving myself pasta, I dug a tortilla chip into the mixture, and crunched into it… PERFECT. While not a normal dip for tortilla chips, the mixture was too smooth for me to want it on something else soft like pasta, so I got the satisfying crunch and also the yummy flavor of butternut squash. I cannot give you exact measurements, but I definitely recommend that you try something like “mashed butternut squash” and have chips or crackers with it – the flavor is unusual but the texture is perfect for a dip.

A Day of Plenty: Harvesting Squash and Tomatoes

Husband has been pushing patience at me, because online I read that for butternut squash to be ready to harvest, you have to wait until the stem had died a little; that’s the only time when it’s truly done with nutrients. He said to wait to harvest ours until that ripeness level.

However… they’ve been that creamy orange color that indicates ripeness for more than a week now! I harvested our first two, one that weighed 2 pounds and one that topped out at almost 5, and I set about preparing the first for roasting. As soon as I cut into it, a sweet smell and a bunch of water came out – it was the juiciest butternut squash ever! I was quite sticky-fingered by the time I finished cleaning it out, cutting it up and getting it into the oven, but so happy. And glad that, this time anyway, my haste was alright. I’ll wait longer for the other, because it will take me a while to process the 5 pound squash.

Also, our tomato jungle is so dense that it’s hard to reach the back rows, which are up against the neighbor’s fence. Yesterday, I braved the spiders and the mosquitos to get in and get all the hard-t0-reach tomatoes, yielding me about 25 cherry tomatoes and 15 of the San Marzanos. I’ve found that my friends J, S, and B love cherry tomatoes so I’m not freezing any more of those, but for now, my plan is to keep freezing San Marzanos until I have enough pounds to merit a day of canning. I know I don’t need to try canning, but I think it’ll be fun. I’ll bug a friend or two to help me, and we’ll make sure we have the tools we need, and everyone will go home with jars of tomato sauce (simple sauce, with plenty of lemon juice to keep it acidified against botulism!). I’m rather excited.

Finally, I had given up entirely on our pepper plants, but two lovely things happened: the only pepper plant I knew of now has 3 teeny tiny peppers on it, so I’m hoping for lots of sun and rain to get those swelled up and beautiful, and there are at least another 10 flowers that I can dream about turning into bell peppers. Also, I noticed a very small plant with the same kind of leaves as the pepper, which I hope means we’ve got another, late-bloomer pepper emerging. Last year, Husband moved into the house in September and was pulling peppers into early October, so I am hopeful that we’ll have a long, luxurious harvest. It’s not orderly and perfect, but just dragging in the bowl of tomatoes every day gives me more joy than I ever thought raising a little bit of food could.

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S’s Kale Chips

I grew up with a fusion of two cuisines: my mother’s family travelled around but was dominated by Southern cooking, with a little German tradition, but my father’s favorite foods were from South Korea, where he grew up. I did not anticipate ever finding a popular food that approximates the salty-crisp nothingness of dried seaweed, but the other day, I did. S was hosting me in her home, and she mentioned she had kale chips she’d made, fresh from the garden. I joked that I wasn’t hippie enough to appreciate them, but I tried one grudgingly. Granted, they are not chips, so don’t be disappointed that it is, in fact, no a Dorito, but they do have a delightful crunch to them, not unlike the dried green sheets that I ate as a child, unaware that usually people just use them to hold sushi together.

So, in my fervor to support our local community gardeners, I ordered not one, but two varieties of greens this week: butterhead lettuce and russian kale. The lettuce works great in salad, but the kale is, understandably, a little bitter. In an attempt to turn the kale into something other than salad, I read on the internet about how kale chips are formed. The general theme is: toss kale with a splash of olive oil, just enough to coat a little. Spread out on a tray, season with salt, and bake for 12 minutes in a 350 degree oven. This worked for me: some of the pieces were browned and some were still green, but none of them were blackened.

The tastiness was familiar, crisp and light but also with a bitter, green flavor. What did surprise me was that, sitting in their bowl right next to me, they became a bit of a “movie snack” – I grabbed leaf after leaf as we watched our favorite shows. I marveled to Husband that I was “addicted” to a food that was healthy! Usually, eating healthy is such a deliberate aspect of my life, never casual or done while also watching a show to relax. It’s great to realize that I actually appreciate this food that I thought was too “hippie” for me!

Mindful Moments in Kitchen and Garden

A few grateful moments lately, in no particular order:

  • I take a moment, after the kettle has boiled and I’ve filled the french press to make coffee, to go outside. I pick 3 cherry tomatoes, I pull the squash vines back through the fence where they are sneakily attempting to get into the neighbor’s yard, I pull other vines out of the driveway and off the alley so that they are trained in directions that keep them out of harms way. I pick a leaf of mint, rub it between my fingers, sniff. I go inside before the mosquitos find me so I can make breakfast.
  • I cut up celery, 3 or 4 stalks at a time, with a sharp knife. Some of the celery goes into a new batch of chicken salad, because I now seem to crave chicken salad whenever life feels overwhelming. I chop up the rest of the celery and a few carrots and package them together in a plastic bag to be frozen, for a future soup; not that I need to make frozen veggies, but mostly for the pleasure of continuing to chop.
  • When watering in the garden, I take extra care with the fledgeling pepper plant, the lone survivor in a bed that was laid waste by marauding nasturtiums. I yank those terrible sneaky vine weeds off it, carefully disentangling before viciously yanking.
  • The local community garden delivers a cardboard box full of zucchini and squash to my door, and the older couple who run it recognize me from the time I interviewed them about their work. Husband and I bask in the bounty, wondering why such lovely produce is so inexpensive for us, and with free delivery. Why isn’t it treasured?
  • I take a break from cooking to go pick basil or cilantro; cilantro gets thrown in with the black beans for a taco night; basil gets shredded to top the pasta on another night. Husband talks about making a little balcony garden just for herbs next year. We sit outside with a citronella candle burning, surveying our yard and dreaming up next steps.
  • Husband made a bar-height table out of an enormous butcher block a year ago; now, my last step to really clean up the kitchen is to take a scrubby sponge to the surface, removing coffee grounds, a stray onion shaving, all the creeping detritus left after days of cooking. I turn out the light, and go upstairs to sleep under the summer stars.

Results of Potato Barrel Experiment

We started the spring with half a whiskey barrel that we found on sale at a home improvement store; we wanted to do something like this experiment to grow potatoes in it. While I pulled out two pounds of potatoes for a recipe 10 days ago, this weekend we finally dumped the whole barrel and sorted through the dirt on a tarp, finding even the tiniest of potatoes and adding them to our loot.

The experience of layering in potato plants was somewhat good – the problem, I think, at the end was that we’d just put too many slips into the barrel and certain varieties crowded out others, resulting in sad, sickly looking yellow stalks. Because of this, we probably harvested earlier than needed, especially since some of the potatoes were the size of a quarter. Still, we got multiple pounds of potatoes and spent only a couple dollars on slips, so I count it as a success in spite of the fact that I’ll do it differently next year.

We also grew multiple varieties of potatoes, which might not have been a necessary thing. I think that I am happy with red potatoes usually so hopefully next year we can stick with just those and not confuse our poor plants by penning them in with a ton of root systems from various kinds of potatoes.

I think that this evening I’m going to take some of the tiniest potatoes and make up a GoSun recipe to get them nice and toasty, perhaps covered in herbs and butter. That, alongside the pesto quinoa I’m hoping to make with some roasted walnuts and our herb-garden basil, will make for a perfectly delectable dinner. I have recently read a lot of good recipes for pesto, and I’m intrigued to see if it goes well with our potatoes or if it’s better just on the quinoa.

Value in Gardens: A Tiny Pile of Carrots

Want a great way to make yourself feel crazy? Grow a home garden and expect the returns to pay for themselves the first year. “We’ll grow things from seeds,” I thought. “We’ll only need dirt and sun and water, so surely enough will grow to make THAT worth it.”

In my recent post, The Jungle in the Garden, I may have sounded very optimistic about the yield of my garden. Surely, it’s going to be more than the dry desert of wizened weeds I was originally expecting, but let’s get serious here. A bag of carrots cost 1.49 at the grocery store. I expected grocery-store-like carrots, not that weird little-man carrot I featured in a recent entry. and I definitely didn’t expect this pile of small, shrimpy, twisty carrots.

This pile, while far better than the sad carrot yields of my childhood gardens, shows that home gardening is HARD. I was so excited to pull my root veggies out, feeling them hesitate like reluctant children having to get up for school. But every single one of them was smaller than I expected, having fought for sunlight with the recently mushrooming tomato plants.

I will write later about the delicious, warming chili I made with that pile of small carrots, but basically, I am learning and truly enjoying how much gardening is humbling. The things that farmers do, no matter how you feel about big-scale farming, ARE AMAZING. Consistent, huge carrots are an amazing thing, even if you want sustainable practices in that big scale process.

The other thing it teaches me is hope and patience: I’m leaving some of my carrots in the ground because it turns out carrots are biennial – they’ll grow and flower next year, yielding me carrot seeds! While I know I cannot recuperate time, energy, or even the money it takes to grow a garden, I’m so thrilled to continue using the “children” of this year’s small carrots as I grow as a gardener.