One year later in August

I just got notice of a new follower to this blog, and though I’d let it lapse in favor of my other one, I got a hankering to write on the garden blog again. It’s the start of those golden days of late summer again–irresistible, to be savored and turned to various accounts–photography, art, and words, as well as memory. Anticipation/angst about the new school year gives a poignancy to these last days of weather- and choice-based living.

Last night we had the first rain in about forty days. Not much, but it washed away the wildfire haze that had been drifting from the interior of BC and the eastern part of Washington. “Look–real clouds,” I said to my husband when I got up. Normal yellow sun, a fresh breeze and blue sky. It looks like another dry spell is coming, and doubtless more smoke haze along with it.

I hung the berry bucket–a cutaway milk jug on a shoelace–around my neck, and went on my morning ritual to pick the various berries that have ripened since yesterday. Thornless blackberries (popped a few of these taste explosions into my mouth), one or two raspberries (the Stellar jays have beat me to most of these, a problem I am working on), and blueberries, protected by netting which has, after a few bold, terrifying forays involving our excitable Siberian husky, discouraged, if not eliminated, depredation by robins, jays, and juncos. As I squatted and contorted my limbs to avoid the netting structure, I wondered if the reason my blueberries ripen so gradually, as compared to those on commercial bushes, is because of the dappled shade and a generally less coddled existence that forces the stems to take turns to draw upon what they need to complete their work filling out and coloring the fruit. Works for me, since I can only use so many a day, especially while I have all these cucumbers and beans to deal with. Also, I’m content to pick some berries that aren’t quite ripe, for the tartness and variety of flavor. I find fully ripe blueberries rather bland, though others call that sweet.

Yesterday I spent the whole day canning. It was a perfect day–cool enough to stay comfortable in the kitchen, and the beginning of peak bean, tomato, and cucumber season. I went early to the produce market and got peaches–Fancy Lady–a name to remember, as they were the perfect combination of sweet and strong, bell peppers (I have some, but would rather eat them in a different form), and milk for the family’s lattes. I saw some lovely Italian plums by the box, but decided to get those next week for drying and freezing. I think they make better blueberry muffins than blueberries do–more flavor (though they have to be chopped; notice how the interior is just like that of blueberries). I have been missing the fruit of our increasingly ailing, badly located plum tree, which we cut down last year. I love dried plum quarters, which I pass off as dried slugs when I offer them to my students. I can get a pretty quick read on adventurousness that way. I plan to plant another tree when I can find the space. I have no use for most plum varieties–too bland–but Italian are worth the effort.

I located all my canning equipment, ran jars through the dishwasher, found a relish recipe, and started heating water in the big pot. I cut some dill and the rest of the ripe cucumbers, including the inevitable hidden ones whose growth got out of hand. Chopped the ingredients in the food processor and left the mass, mixed with Kosher salt, to leak out its moisture in the big crock. This is the first year I’ve done okay with dill–planting in succession and not expecting so much height before harvest helped. Mine looks nothing like the towering bundles I can get at the market, but at  least there’s enough to get the pickles started, and dry some for winter.

While the relish sat, I pulled last week’s harvest of green beans out of the fridge and snapped off stems. The jars were ready, so I made even-length handfuls of beans and stuffed them into the pints, filling in with shorter segments. Heated up the brine meanwhile and put the right number of lids in boiling water to sterilize.

I used to get more intense about the order and timing of these tasks, thinking that everything had to be just so, and not wanting to waste any water or electricity. Now I try to tie it all together, but focus on the essentials. No need to rinse every single thing in boiling water, for example, or worry about the jars cooling while I’m packing. I also now use pots of boiling water for several purposes–the canner to dip clean but not recently sterilized jars or a funnel into, for example, and the hot water from the lids pot to top up the canner once the jars are in. I throw in extra tasks to take advantage of all the boiling water, if I have the energy.

Dilly bean jars were all packed with garlic, dill, mustard seeds and hot pepper, brine poured over, bubbles chased out, lids screwed on. Five pints used up all the nicest filet beans. While they boiled in the canner, I started skinning peaches in boiling water, then setting them in cold water with a little acetic acid powder. These would go in the quart jars, sharing the canner with some pureed tomato sauce I’d made previously and stored in the fridge.

Time to rinse and drain the relish. I wished the greens were a little more vivid in there, but it still looked pretty, with the red peppers and chunky texture. I mixed in the vinegar and spices, heated up the mixture and canned seven 12 oz jars, and set them to cool.

I looked at the large pot of last year’s raspberries thawing on the other counter. My feet were tired, but I decided to whip up some jam with my pectin leftovers. I did some quick calculations to see how many cups of berries would use the remaining five tablespoons of pectin, mixed up the result and made a bunch of jars small enough to prevent wasteful moldering due to infrequent use once opened (my kids say they love raspberry jam, but often can’t see it at the back of the fridge), and started cleaning up. The rest of the berries went into a cheesecloth-lined colander to drip for juice. I sealed the whole thing off with plastic wrap, in the ongoing battle to prevent fruit fly breeding, then took all my other peelings out to the compost pile.

I still had several bags of slicing cucumbers, and my two plants were just cranking them out. Besides the relish, another of our favorite preparations for cucumbers is Middle Eastern salad. I chop up peppers, onions, garlic, cucumbers, and lots of cilantro, and mix in feta and mozzarella (in the balls form), salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Even my husband will eat this, despite being a sworn enemy of cucumbers since his picking days (he never developed enmity with strawberries, however). I don’t like cucumbers or bell peppers plain, but this salad is nothing like. I sometimes add chopped tomatoes just before serving, since they don’t keep their texture well is allowed to sit. We all developed a taste for these flavor when we lived in Jerusalem a few years back.

Next I’ll make a day of preserving Italian plums and making dill pickles. I have to solicit free grape leaves in my neighborhood, as ours were removed when the fence was rebuilt and only a small sprout has returned. If I feel ambitious, I’ll do mushrooms too. I want to try traditional fermented pickles, but am not sure if this is the year. I’d like to have a porch for that, since there may be smells.







The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon, with Erica Reinheimer

Star in the Wind

As described in my gardening blog, this spring my husband and I built some nice, tidy raised beds and put up a greenhouse (see post here). I supplemented the clay with sandy soil for better drainage and amended with partially composted horse manure/sawdust from the local riding arena, and figured that with the addition of the right compost and some rotation, the beds would be good for the duration. The garden grew great into the summer, then my dad gave me a copy of Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts (2006). I learned that I had set up an unnecessarily water-hungry system that would give me more individual vegetables but of less health and quality for the same biomass than if I had everything more spaced out, and that I needed way more land since seasons of fallow were essential for soil regeneration. I also got advice on…

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First tomatoes!

I planted about a dozen tomato plants in the ground inside the greenhouse, mulched with a bit of horse manure-sawdust mix and then dried grass clippings. The two most advanced I bought from the local truck farm–a Sun Gold and a cherry whose tag I lost–these are as tall as I, and the plants I started are catching up quickly. Lots of Sheboyan plums, a few Grande Marzano plums, a Stupice, some Manitoba heirlooms, Sweetie cherries, and a Fantastic hybrid. All are gently tied to twine attached to roof cross pieces and the tops hoisted up as they grow. The Sun Gold just ripened two golden fruit. I also have two spicy pepper plants in there.

I put all the rest of the tomatoes outside, tied to cedar poles (simpler and prettier than cages) as soon as space was available. I expect they’ll be later to produce because of the cool night air, but last year was a good, hot, tomato summer, and I expect this will be also.

In other news, we’ve been enjoying quantities of butter and green head lettuce, onions, beets, spinach (bolting in the heat now), broccoli, cauliflower, blue- and raspberries, and of course rhubarb. I’m trying to use more rhubarb–thinking of juicing to make a substitute for juice from California lemons. I’ve seen the dried-up citrus orchards there and know it’s only a matter of time. Anyway, I don’t want to support unsustainable farm practices if I can help it.

I’m drying some of my peas for next year’s seed. Blackberries have just started to bear, and green beans, started a little late, are coming on soon. Last night I discovered that they and the brassicas and onions were being munched by numerous slugs, so I got out my scissors and snipped exactly one hundred, my only regret being that I haven’t advanced to the point of knowing how to make these into dinner also.

Garden well underway

Once I saw how my sweetheart constructed the first few raised beds, it was easy for me to pick up where he left off and build the rest. I have more time these days, and derive a childlike pleasure in such projects. The final bed is L-shaped and located at the lowest spot on the slope and last to dry out in the spring, so I used two stacked 2’x6’s instead of one layer of 2’x4’s atop one of 2’x6’s. It’s filled and coming up in carrots, parsnips, radishes and cucumbers. Most of the paths have been covered with landscape fabric and that with wood chips. I got one load of chips for $10 from a local tree cutter and another for free from a crew disposing of dead wood at the pool down the block. My compost system is still a loose pile which I turn and rebuilt when the lower layers seem to be ripe. I’m not sure if I even want to confine it to bins, though they’d look tidier.

As my seedlings become large enough to plant out, I find locations according to how fast they mature, how long they produce, and their space and sunlight requirements. The radishes will be done in three or four weeks, so they can go almost anywhere next to crops not yet full sized. Peas are nice and tall down the center of two rows of potatoes-both like to be hilled up, so that works out, and by the time the potatoes can start being harvested the peas will be done and pulled. Another row of peas shades the broccoli and cauliflow3er on either side in the hottest part of the day, which meets their needs. Bush peas and beans are growing in the areas around the new fruit trees, and I decided to tuck a row of broccoli alongside the new asparagus, since it’s not substantial enough yet to compete.

The greenhouse is up and its still unsealed polycarbonate cell glazing panels are drying out.. I’ll caulk with silicone this when all the excess moisture is gone, then install the top vents, one of which will have a temperature sensing opener so nothing will get cooked. I plan to get as many tomatoes in the ground inside the greenhouse, and seed some cantaloupe if I have room.

We’ve been eating salad every day. My goal is to keep it going non-stop, even through the hot part of summer when it tends to bolt–I’ll have to seed small amounts often through June and July. But I might take a break when the other vegetables kick in.

I’ve finally got some of those areas back by the fence under control–the soil there is heavy there, and was further compacted, and clay subsoil and rocks upended, when we had the sewer line repaired a few years ago. I’m leaving the worst in a pile to stick somewhere out of the way, and mixing the rest (broken up by rake and hand) with sand and a mixture of sawdust and horse manure, raking out and seeding with buckwheat and crimson clover. Otherwise all it grows is roving buttercup, dandelion, fireweed, horse tail, plantain, and grasses. When the soil gets more tilth I’ll hill up and add some raspberries back there.

Greenhouse, raised beds almost done!

My husband and I built a concrete foundation a few weeks ago, not very deep below ground level since the ground rarely freezes here. Laid out concrete blocks, the 16″ two hole ones, to match the outside dimensions plus an extra 1/8″ just in case–just over 8′ x 10′ overall. Then we added rebar across the top for a bit of extra strength and wired on the foundation bolts to they’d stick up enough to bolt on two 2′ x 4’s. Mixed and poured concrete; after it set bolted on the sill (chiseled a bit around the bolts; they were recessed so greenhouse base would lie flat.) Whn the weather dried out we Then laid greenhouse base over foam gasket strips (instead of caulking as suggested in directions), and followed directions to put up the frame.

The directions were well written, good diagrams, though I really had to pay attention to all the various shapes of metal bars and special instructions, and keep going to recheck details. I put the glazing (double wall polycarbonate) on the sides today. Looks like one of the pieces cut for the front end will have to be tweaked with a utility knife to fit, but I’ll double check before I do that, since everything else I had a problem with was resolved by rechecking directions.

Tomorrow I’ll finish the glazing, install the door and vents and seal all the gaps. Might take me two days, with the errands I also have to run–driving kids here and there, grocery shopping and such. Then I’ll set up a path down the middle, loosen soil on the sides, and plant cantaloupe seeds. My tomatoes are so tiny, I’ll probably get some big ones from the local garden/nursery to get ahead, and set them into the greenhouse soil.

The rest of the garden looks good–paths covered with wood chips, all but one raised bed have been built, only one of those not planted yet. I plan to set up drip irrigation in each, before our water use gets metered, I hope (we’re the last neighborhood in town to get that done). I plan to have a drain shunt from my kitchen sink for clean and safe gray water to go toward irrigation (no through the drip lines–might clog them). Also rain barrel to gather what comes off the roof. All the tasks for which I didn’t have time when the kids were younger and I was homeschooling.

I still seem to be short on garden space! Still no ideal spot for carrots, which I will have to cover to prevent carrot worm infestation. One idea is to build simple mesh-covered boxes to put here and there outside the fence, to utilize the soil between the apple trees while they’re still small. Should keep the dogs from trampling whatever I plant there. I’ll need space for the broccoli, dill, and cilantro I started, and some pole beans.

The sod we piled a few months ago and covered with a tarp is breaking down, so I’ll work at shaking out the soil and filling the low spots in the raised beds and rest of the garden. Lots of worms in the pile, too. The soil is heavy, like all the soil around here, so I’m amending with sand (what passes for “topsoil here”) that my late neighbor left across the street at the back of his property. Pretty soon I’ll have some compost ready, too.

The apple and cherry trees have leafed our nicely, but I’ve picked off the apple blossoms to help them get established. Same with strawberry blossoms. I planted the the blackberries behind the house and will trellis them when I get the chance–they’re only a foot or so high still. I planted a cover crop mix around them, since they are all of our feet apart, per instructions. Snuck some garlic sets in along the edge, too.

The shady spot under the trees at the south side of the yard will soon be home to a twelve foot trampoline. It’ll be a good place from which to admire the garden from all those different positions.

April garden update

The new greenhouse arrives tomorrow, and I am decidedly not ready. It’s an 8’x10′ polycarbonate cell-covered metal frame from Charley’s Greenhouse in Mount Vernon, WA. A simple foundation of concrete and wood needs to be built, as well as a pipe trench to connect the tap to be installed inside. We’ll be putting a faucet outside too–quite the luxurious arrangement compared to dragging hoses and watering cans as before. I’ll put my seed starting station in the greenhouse as well as planting  my tomatoes and possibly some melons in the ground inside. Hope to do some hanging flower pots in there, too.

The new fruit trees are all in: dwarf cherries–one for pies and one sweet; six apples–semi-dwarf Honeycrisp and Gravenstein, and dwarf Kingston Black, Fuji, Idared, and Tsugaru. Also one bush each of red currant, black currant (already chewed by the dog due to inadequate fencing), and aronia. I hope to add kiwi vines on an arbor over the gate once that’s built. It will be a trial for me to pick off the blossoms to direct energy to the tree’s growth and establishment, but I’ll do it.

The forsythia, cherries and plums are in blossom, the hummingbirds busy rain or shine, daffodils, tulips and other flowering bulbs are open, and a bees and a few butterflies are active when it’s warm. I filled a side bed with everbearing strawberries (we’ll go to the county U-picks for the main crops) and added a half dozen canes to my raspberry row. The new ones show no sign of life, though–maybe they dried out while waiting to be planted. I stuck the blackberry canes in pots until their bed are ready, and they are leafing out. Also two currant prunings I put in a vase a few weeks ago have grown roots (the blueberry and apple prunings did not), so I plugged them into potting mix too. My husband and I moved the blueberries to a new spot where we can see them from the house, and I pruned them pretty hard to help them transition, and watered them with root-stimulating mix.

My seeded lettuces, beets, bush peas, spinach and other greens are up under row cover supported by PVC hoops, and I filled a second bed with brassica and onion starts from the store as well as my own pole peas, some started from saved seed. I have no room for potatoes yet–the now uninhabited chicken house is covering that spot, but there’s no hurry–my soil is still a bit waterlogged at that end. I’m chitting (allowing eyes to spout) my last years’ small potatoes and store-bought ones in preparation.

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