Progress and plants

It’s been three weeks since the last garden update, and my how things have grown! I find myself grumbling about the heat, but when I am doing that I must remind myself that the heat is making my garden flourish.

Here’s June 19:

Here’s July 6:

And here’s July 30:

Some things have already started to flower/go to seed, like the dill and cilantro in the photo above. Pulled up the spinach last week, and will turn under the lettuces next week (they’re starting to get bitter, which means they’re about done).

The plant I can’t wait to check on every day is one of my pumpkins. Here’s the beauty:

Cannot wait to eat that sucker. Seriously. Can. Not. Wait. It’s a pie pumpkin and I’m having delicious visions of that pumpkin for Thanksgiving dessert. Below is a photo of my foot for scale:

So it clearly has a ways to go yet, but it’s getting there! And it’s bigger every day.

Here’s a photo of yours truly with the sunflowers for scale. I’m 5 foot 7 inches.

Remember that tiny little carnival squash plant? Here’s what it looked like in early June. It’s the first squash at the bottom of the photo between the corn:

And here’s yesterday:

Has a few male flowers on it, but no ladies yet. They’ll come. And with them, squash! Squash is probably my favorite vegetable. Acorn in particular.

The peas finally have pods on them (I planted these about a month late), and we’ve been enjoying some in our salads for a few days. They’re really great. Crunchy and sweet.

Oh hey there, little guy.

Now if only the weeds weren’t keeping pace with the vegetables…

Rainbows for dinner

My rainbow and ruby red chard is really going to town (as is my romaine lettuce) even after repeated cuttings.

So much so that when I’ve been offered lettuce the last few weeks at the farms I volunteer at, I’ve turned them down. I’ve given away a lot of it, too. Must be doing something right out there.

In addition to making salads with the chard leaves and stems, my husband and I also enjoy sauteing it in a skillet with olive oil, just until it’s a vibrant green. We add some garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and pierogis (which we have to make ourselves since we can’t find them in groceries stores around here… it’s just mashed potato and onion in a dough shell… sort of like ravioli). It’s a delicious meal.

 

I hope your gardens are bountiful!

 

Creepy crawlers

Not only is the garden a place for plant growth, it’s a gathering place for insects and animals eager to enjoy nature’s bounty. Sometimes those animals and insects are what we consider pests, such as gophers (the war for the backyard continues!) and caterpillars in my cabbages. But many insects are beneficial in the garden. Bees have been headlining the list lately with the issues over hive collapse disorder, but other bugs are important, too. Ladybugs are a good example, because they eat aphids.

Anyway, here’s a sample of what’s creeping and crawling in my garden lately:

Here is a bee (it only looks green… it’s not a fly) gathering pollen from a male pumpkin blossom (the pumpkin is one of many plants that is considered “bisexual,” having both male and female flowers… more on that in a minute). Can you see the pollen on the bee’s legs?

A ladybug/ladybird beetle chillin’ in the dill. Hopefully protecting it from aphids and other pests!

Joining the ladybug beetle in the dill is a wasp. Humans definitely value bees over wasps for their pollen spreading services, but wasps are predators and are helpful in their own right. In the lower righthand side of the picture, there is an ant. There’s another in the middle bottom of the photo. I hope the wasp was hunting ants!

Here’s a crab spider (not sure exact kind) in the marigolds!

Oh, and since I mentioned the pumpkin flowers earlier, here’s a brief biology lesson: Many plants are considered bisexual or “perfect,” which means they have both male and female flowering parts.

Pictured above is the male pumpkin flower with its slender, pollen-containing stamen. Male pumpkin flowers usually come onto the scene before the female flowers, but eventually there are both at the same time. Pollen from the stamen will be carried by bees (or you can be your own bee: pick the make flower and rub the stamen on the female flower) to the female flower’s multi-segmented stigma, shown in the photo below. The pollenated female flower will go on to become a pumpkin!

I have to say I find it endlessly amusing that while some humans seem to consider anything but heterosexuality peculiar,
bisexuality in flowering plants (“angiosperms”) is considered perfect. Oh, the irony.

Anyway, that concludes today’s bug lesson! I hope you’ve enjoyed the up-close-and-personal view of the bug world in my garden. All this talk about bugs has me wanting to re-watch “Ants.” Remember that movie? It was the more adult version of “A Bug’s Life,” and the better of the two in my opinion. Think they’ve got it on Netflix?

Unusual bouquets

I like roses as much as the next girl. Lilies, too. And sunflowers. Sunflowers were the main flower in my wedding bouquet. But the traditional flowers you can buy at the florist aren’t the only flowers you can use for beautiful bouquets. I’ve been enjoying some more wild-looking, nontraditional blooms lately. Before we turned the buckwheat under, I picked some of the stems for their lovely white flowers. I’ve added some stems from my flowering dill and cilantro plants, too.

Isn’t this bouquet lovely? And it smells great, too! Like dill and cilantro. Can’t decide if I want some pickles or some Mexican food when I take a whiff of it.

 

Dill is part of the Umbelliferae family. This name describes the way the flower grow. Their umbrella-like blooms are called umbels. Carrots are also part of this family.

Isn’t it pretty on the windowsill? And hey, there’s our first two tomatoes! Those two are about to be lunch!

 

 

Why buy it when you can make it? Peach Chutney

Just as I’ve introduced a series about gardening (view the first post here), I’m going to introduce another series called “Why buy it when you can make it?” that will include information about making things at home. For example, a few months back I made a makeup bag instead of buying one, and I am SO glad I made it myself. This post is about making peach chutney, which is delicious on pork chops and chicken. This will also be an occasional series, but I hope readers find it inspiring. Isn’t it so true that we value that which we make ourselves over that which we buy?

So, I spent some time the past week canning peaches. Of course they’re not local peaches, since peaches don’t really grow where I live. But I think that sometimes it’s better to buy organically grown peaches from California while they are in season, can them, and then enjoy them in the winter, than to buy peaches out of season. I know I could buy them frozen, but they just don’t taste great. We so rarely buy food that we can get from right where we live, we consider things like peaches, bananas, and bell peppers a treat.

I’ve always loved peaches, ever since I was little kid. The first time I remember eating a peach is when I was probably five or six years old. We had spent the weekend at a cousin’s cabin in the mountains in Colorado and we were driving back to Denver. My mom handed me a peach. I remember watching the pine trees outside the window, the winding drive down mountain roads, and the fuzzy peach in my hands. I remember taking a bite of that luscious, succulent fruit, the juice spilling down my chin and onto my fingers. What a wonderful memory that is, that first peach.

So last week, my husband and I bought something like 10 pounds of peaches on a couple separate occasions. I canned some into peach preserves first. Then I made chutney. I could buy both peach preserves and chutney at my local grocery store for about $5 a jar. Or I could enjoy jars I canned myself, without all the weird unpronounceable preservatives! I’m going to go through the process of making chutney here.

First, wash and peel the peaches. Then slice into small chunks, like the photo shown:

The peach chunks toward the righthand side of the photo are obviously much riper than the other chunks. That’s OK. When you’re canning, the ripeness doesn’t matter as much. Less ripe is actually better. Some of the chunks will cook down, so that’s why it’s better to have small, inch-sized bits. They cook down faster.

The peaches go in a pot on the stove and simmer down some, mixed with brown sugar, raisins, chopped onion, a hot pepper (I used a Serrano and used the seeds too, which makes it even more spicy), mustard seed, ginger, salt, garlic, and vinegar. I use the Ball Blue Book for the recipe.

20 medium peaches
2 to 3 cups brown sugar (I used 2)
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped onion (I recommend a yellow onion – did you know red and yellow onions are higher in antioxidants than white onions?)
1/4 cup mustard seed
2 tablespoons ginger
2 tablespoons salt
1 clove garlic (or 1 teaspoon jarred minced)
1 hot red pepper, finely chopped
5 cups vinegar

I like the Blue Book because it is cheap, something of a canning authority (lots of information about methods and such), and easy to follow. I do have to note that many of the recipes I’ve tried often recommend the use of WAY more sugar than I use. When I canned peaches, I put in one and a half cups of sugar and the preserves were quite sweet. The book recommended SEVEN. So, sugar to taste is my recommendation.

Making chutney is actually pickling, did you know that? Anything you can in vinegar is pickling.

The above photo shows the consistency you’re striving for with the chutney. Lots of peach chunks left, but some cooked down into a syrup of sorts.

While you’ve been making the chutney (from starting to peel the peaches to when the chutney is ready to can took us about an hour to an hour and a half), start your water bath boiling. It will take quite a while to heat the water bath to a rolling boil, so make sure you get that going in advance. As the chutney is cooking, you will boil the lids and the jars (their openings face-down in the water) for 10 minutes or so in a skillet with about an inch or two of water in it. This heats the jars so they don’t explode when you put them in the water bath, and it also sanitizes the jars and lids (you should have washed the jars and lids already, though). Cleanliness is absolutely essential in canning. While there are only a few cases of botulism reported annually (MANY more people come down with food poisoning because of dirty food from factories) in the U.S., that’s not something you want to mess with because it will kill you! You suffocate. Nasty. Make sure your equipment and workspace is clean! It’s also a good idea to check the lips of the jars for cracks or chips because this will interfere with the seal.

Once the chutney has cooked to the point where you like the consistency, transfer it to the jars that have been boiling. You want to leave about 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe the rims down carefully with a clean washcloth dipped in the boiling water of the skillet. Be careful not to burn yourself! Make sure there is no residue on the rims or lips of the jar. Put the lid (Side note: the flat lids are the only piece of canning equipment you CANNOT reuse. One use only!) on, then tighten the screw top around the lid to as tight as you can with your hands.

Carefully lower the jars into the water bath with canning tongs. Boil for 10 minutes (I go for 15, but I always go past the recommended time just to be safe).

Here is the chutney as I pulling it out of the water bath. I used some pint-size jars and some of the smaller quilted glass jars as well. I like to give the quilted glass jars away as presents. Just as you appreciate something you made by hand more than something you bought, so others appreciate handmade gifts!

Set the VERY HOT jars on a towel. Listen for the pops of the jars as they seal. You know they’ve sealed when the raised bump in the center of the lid is no longer there. If you have a can that didn’t seal, it’s OK to eat, but you must refrigerate it from the get-go.

Once the jars are completely cool, remove the screw-tops. It is possible for bacteria to live in between the screw-tops and the jar. You don’t need the screw-tops when the jars are in storage if the jar is sealed. Once you open the jar to eat the chutney, you will obviously need the screw-tops. And you should always refrigerate canned goods once they are opened.

Canning supplies can be found at many grocery stores. If you find canning jars in your grandma’s cellar, make sure the jars don’t have any cracks or chips; if they’re intact, they’re OK to use! Once you’ve made the initial investment in purchasing jars, lids, screw-tops, a water bath vat, canning tongs, pectin, and a funnel, everything (except the lids) can be used again and again.

Canning is a fun way to preserve food. There’s nothing like peach chutney or applesauce in the depths of winter. And those jars always look so nice on the shelf!

A few more things to keep in mind:
• Canning is not the best way to preserve nutrients in your food. The boiling breaks down some of the nutrients. The absolute best way to preserve food to maximize nutrients is to freeze. However, canning doesn’t require refrigeration.
• The water bath method is only used for foods that have acid. Green beans, meat, fish, and the like must be canned using a pressure canner.
• Read all canning instructions before canning. Canning is easy, but you must follow directions and make sure everything is very clean! I am not responsible if you give yourself botulism. But you shouldn’t have to worry about that at all if you have a clean working environment. Canning is a safe way to preserve food, but you need to follow the directions!
• I have heard that ceramic/glass-top stoves do not get hot enough for canning. Not sure if this is true or not, but perhaps using a coil or gas stove is best.

Green Thumbs: Buckwheat

Starting now, and in the future, I plan to write occasional informational posts about growing food/living self-sufficiently/homesteading. I’m going to call this series Green Thumbs. I’m hoping to build a bigger readership in the homesteading/farming/gardening set as my goal in the next few years is to start my own CSA. I have a serious, SERIOUS desire to have my own farm. Barnheart, it’s called. That term was coined by Jenna Woginrich, one of my farming idols. Barnheart is an incurable longing for a farm of one’s own. Oh, does that describe me. And having something of a following will help me gain customers, too, when I am finally able to achieve my dream. There’s a lot standing in my way, the chief concern being how the heck I am going to afford land where I live. I will have to compete with people selling out their land for development into subdivisions (cows not condos, people!). Retiring farmers/landowners can get a lot more money for those subdivisions than they can from a young family who wants to farm, even with the crappy economy. We need to find someone who wants to see their land remain a working farm, and who is committed to that end. I’m looking into land link programs, which help aspiring farmers find folks selling land. I figure it can’t hurt to join now, since it will probably take years to get linked up, if ever. We plan to let our local extension agent know our desire, to see if she can help us find land. There are USDA loans, and other such funds out there. We WILL buy land in the next few years. It just feels so far off now, unfortunately. I’m trying to find comfort in my garden, which is doing very well, and considering it practice for the future farm.

So anyway, the first Green Thumbs post is about buckwheat. Buckwheat is such a neat crop, I thought it would be a good starting point. Buckwheat is a cereal grain, but has an amino acid composition nutritionally superior to ALL cereal grains. It has a lots of lysine. Did you know the amino acid lysine helps get rid of cold sores?

In addition to buckwheat’s use in flour (buckwheat pancakes are awesome!), buckwheat is also a great smother and green manure crop. Because buckwheat germinates and grows so rapidly and because its canopy is quite dense, it can be used to smother weeds. These include the horrible quackgrass, Canada thistle, sowthistle, creeping jenny, leafy spurge, and Russian knapweed. In Montana, quackgrass, knapweed, and leafy spurge are common invasive weeds. In my garden, I am using buckwheat to smother grass, lambs quarters (which is actually quite tasty and great in salads!), and thistles.

As you can see in the above photo from my garden, buckwheat’s understory shades the ground below and crowds out weeds.

Buckwheat is also a green manure, as I’ve mentioned before. A green manure is a crop that one turns under once it flowers to add nutrients to the soil. The plant material of buckwheat decays rapidly and the resulting humus improves the soil, the soil’s ability to hold moisture, and the nutrient availability to succeeding crops.

Buckwheat thrives in poor soil. Later in the summer, when many flowers have expired, buckwheat’s flowers are a crucial source of nectar for bees. It is an indeterminate plant, which means its continues to grow until killed by frost. In the northwest, it’s typical to get three crops of buckwheat during a short growing season, as long as it’s tilled under at flowering. I’m planning to leave my current crop in flower for a few days, maybe a week, for the bees. Then I will turn it under for the green manure and plant another crop of buckwheat.

At the back of the garden, one of my beds is really struggling with grass. I’m planning to plant the entire bed to buckwheat next summer, to beat back the grass. It is partially planted to buckwheat now.

Here is a photo of buckwheat that was seeded about a little more than a week ago (buckwheat typically takes 3-5 day after planting to emerge from the soil):

And here is the buckwheat I planted a month ago:

As you can see, there are plenty of weeds around the buckwheat, but there are few in the buckwheat stand.

And this taller stand is about to flower, too!

Here are buckwheat seeds:

To seed, broadcast by hand in the area you want your buckwheat. Cover at 1.5 times the depth of the size of the seed (which makes raking a light cover over, about half an inch in depth). Pat firmly, as buckwheat has a small root system and prefers firm soil. Water daily. When the buckwheat comes in, it can be patchy, but fills in quickly. Below is an example of the buckwheat I planted more recently:

We haven’t decided yet if we’ll try to get some buckwheat from our last crop of the season to use for flour, but I think we’re going to try. We’ll pick it by hand and mill it ourselves, if so.

EDIT: To turn over your buckwheat, cut it if it’s pretty wooly, as mine is, like you would grass (I’ll be using scissors or a pruner), so that there isn’t so much leggy biomass. Then using a shovel, push the biomass into the ground to a depth of 3-6 inches. Follow with another crop of buckwheat, or if it’s the end of the season, cover the bed in mulch or straw until spring to preserve your topsoil.

I hope this has been helpful and informative. Please let me know in the comments if there is a way to improve upon this post, and if there’s something you’d like to learn about in the future. UP NEXT: Composting.

Special thanks to Purdue University’s horticulture department for this fantastic article about buckwheat.

A little beauty

Gardens are beautiful places, and that’s one of the many reasons I enjoy spending a lot of time in mine. I love my stroll across the lawn every day to the garden. I like watching the growing things, and smelling the unique and instantly recognizable scent of soil and plants working together to feed me. A few days ago, I found a toad chillin’ under the broad leaves of one of the strawberry plants. Birds perch on the fenceposts. Butterflies and bees flit about. When we turn over the compost pile weekly, worms twist about before burrowing back into the pile (doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing in there!).

Here are a couple of photos of the beauty in my garden:

Drops of morning dew on cabbage leaves.
Lavender in bloom.
Can you hear the ears a-growing?
Johnny Jump Ups, planted around the perimeter of the garden.