Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fall Harvest Meal - Lentil Soup and Pumpkin Pie

Happy Halloween!

When I first posted this entry I didn't have a picture. Makes me think of a George Carlin skit where he asks, "Did you make this? Did you get this from a recipe book? Is there a picture that goes with it?" And he's saying it with a not so happy look on his face. My husband always says that when I make something new and it doesn't come out looking so good, which unfortunately is quite often. So I tell him what our neighbor growing up, Mrs. Michelli, always said, "All good ingredients went into it so it's got to taste good!" I love that logic.

Well, this meal was a winner. Phew! My son, Kyle, and I made Garden Harvest Lentil Soup and Pumpkin/Cream Cheese Pie. The guys loved them both.

Garden Harvest Lentil Soup -
Saute: In a few tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 large onion - I used 2 small leeks and 2 shallots since they were still in the garden
1 large carrot - waiting until ground is cold the carrot will taste sweeter
2 large cloves garlic minced
Saute them for a few minutes until softened and the onions are golden.
Add a few sprigs of thyme, marjoram, celery leaf if you have it, parsley (about 1/2 tsp of dried if that's what you use)

Add 4 cups of broth ( I used vegetable)
A pint of tomatoes (or a can of tomatoes such as diced)
1 Cup of rinsed lentils

Simmer covered for about 45-60 minutes until lentils are tender. Add a good dash of white wine and Parmesan cheese about 10 minutes before done.

This is a basic recipe that I got (and changed a bit) from Moosewood years ago. It can be altered in many, many ways. Such as adding veggies such as zucchini, mushrooms, celery...etc.

Now for the Pumpkin Pie; it's really more like pumpkin pie/cheesecake.
(I think this comes from an old Cooking Light magazine)

Pumpkin-Walnut Pumpkin Pie
2 pie crusts
1 large egg lightly beaten
1 and 1/4 cups light brown sugar (next time I make this I'm going to try 1/2 brown sugar and 1/2 maple syrup)
1 Cup walnuts finely chopped and carefully toasted
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
3 TBSP butter, softened
2 Cups of cooked and pureed pumpkin (or 1- 16 oz can).
NOTE: To cook pumpkin I put a whole pumpkin in the oven and bake for 60 minutes at 450 degrees. When I take it out I cut it open and let it cool (I usually do this in the AM and just let it sit till I'm ready to work with it) Then scoop out the seeds and gooey stuff. Save seeds for later to make baked pumpkin seeds but rinsing in water and baking at about 250 till dried; then sprinkle with salt. Scoop out the pumpkin and puree in a food processor until silky smooth, like the canned pumpkin texture. Throw skin and gooey stuff that the seeds were stuck to into the compost.
Also:
1 8 oz package of softened cream cheese
2 large eggs
2 TBSP flour (I use white whole wheat flour)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp each of ground ginger, allspice, nutmeg
Homemade whipped cream

Roll out 1 pie crust and put in greased pie plate. And if you have a cookie cutter,
roll out the other pie crust and use cookie cutters such as leaves to make thin little shaped crusts to decorate the cake. (I know this is way Martha Stewardish but it did look really nice and was worth the extra effort). Put them on a cookie sheet and brush with the 1 beaten egg.
Bake 350 for about 10 minutes until golden brown. Let cool and put the leaves aside for later.

Combine 1/2 cup brown sugar, chopped toasted walnuts, butter, and vanilla; spread onto the cooked, cooled pie crust.

Beat pumpkin, cream cheese, 2 eggs, and remaining 3/4 cup of brown sugar at medium speed with electric mixer. Add flour, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg, beating until blended. Spoon pumpkin mixture over the walnut mixture.

Bake 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake 30 more minutes ( I baked for 35 more minutes) or until pie is set. Remove from oven and decorate edges of the pie with the leaves. Serve warm or cool with a dollop of whipped cream on top.

To make whipped cream I use either whipping cream or heavy cream. I add a generous tablespoon of sugar and a dash of vanilla and beat with electric mixer until whipped. It's way better than prepackaged whipped cream.

Hope you get to make and enjoy this delicious harvest dinner!



Monday, October 19, 2009

Sage Fish

Sage Fish

This is a quick post. Before the killing frost comes I thought you might like to harvest a good batch of sage and try some elegantly simple sauted Italian Sage Fish. If you grow sage and eat fish this is a wonderful dish.

We've had a few frosts that have put an end to all my annuals and even many perennials. But the sage (and mint) keeps on giving! So I picked another big bunch of sage tonight to make some Sage Fish. A friend of mine who is also our state science specialist, Anita, told me about this dish. She and her husband had this when they were in Italy. To be honest I'm not even sure which area of Italy this dish comes from but I will find out. She said it is one of her family's favorites. Since I still had a ton of sage in the garden and I LOVE Italian food I thought I'd give it a try. Sage is not an herb that I normally use. I have found it to be strong and we use to use it only on poultry, which it is delicious on. But since I don't eat or cook meat (but do eat some fish) I was enticed by this recipe.

Here's how you cook it. Gather at least 35 good sized leaves of fresh garden sage. Rinse the sage leaves. Pour some extra virgin olive oil into a skillet. Gently rub the fish with a few sage leaves.
Use a mild white fish like Tilapia or Haddock. Turn on the skillet, generously line the skillet with lots of sage leaves, lay the fish on top, and top with another generous amount of sage leaves. Saute fish until starting to flake and then flip. I use a spatula to flip the fish. Cook until flaky. Only takes like 15 minutes or so. Serve with steamed veggies like green beans, squash, asparagus, whatever is available, local, and in season. I start the veggies when I put the fish on. This would also be good with rice or couscous. Tonight we had leeks with this and that added another lovely flavor. I just added leeks to the fish while it was sauteing. So it was garden leeks, sage, and fish. Serve with some wine or local brew and voila, a simple yet elegant meal. And fast too. I always know if the meal I cook is any good by the amount of initial conversation while we eat. My husband and son were silent as they savored this dish for the first time. A sure "thumbs up"! You can remove the leaves before eating if you just want a hint of sage flavor. Or if you want more of the flavor eat the leaves with the fish. We like it both ways.

Here's a tip on what to consider when purchasing fish.
According to Seafood WATCH Northeast Seafood Guide consumers in the Northeast should choose Tilapia that is US farmed as our best choice. When choosing between Tilapia and Haddock the next best choice is hook and line Haddock. To be honest I'm not sure how you know the Haddock you buy is hook and line. This Seafood Guide is available and designed to help consumers purchace fish that is abundant, well managed, and caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. It also notes any mercury concerns. It lists the above Tilapia as the "Best Choice". And the above Haddock as a "Good Alternative". Good Alternatives are considered options but there are concerns with how they are caught or farmed - or with the health of their habitat due to human impacts. Some other "Best Choices" on the list are: farmed Arctic Char, US farmed Catfish, Pacific Halibut, Alaska wild Pollock and Salmon, farmed Rainbow Trout. I would think any of the above would taste fine in this dish also. Certainly worth experimenting with. For a copy of this guide, visit: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_regional.aspx?region_id=2

To download and print a small and portable reference card visit: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/download.aspx
Here you can also view guides for other parts of the country.

Enjoy whatever you still have in your garden. Mine happens to include leeks and sage.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pumpkins, Pumpkins, Pumpkins Everywhere!


Pie Pumpkins Still on the Vine

October is definitely pumpkin month. The Boston Globe has had several articles about the shortage of pumpkins in the northeast due to all the wet weather we had this summer. I'm realizing that having a garden on land with a slight incline is a very good thing indeed. Much of my garden did fantastic this summer. And I can only assume it's due to the drainage of my slightly inclined garden. There was some fungal disease but not much more than normal. Except for my entire tomato crop which I lost. I had one harvest of tomatoes before the fungus hit but every one of those tomatoes went to a friend who moved a piano to our home for us. A small price to pay to get a piano for my son.

Like most people I love pumpkins and so always plant a lot of them. They do take up a ton of room but I feel they are worth it. I've tried planting them in with corn and beans (that 3 sisters approach to gardening) but stepping on/over pumpkin plants was really difficult when harvesting corn so I don't do that anymore. If you have a way to do that so it works for you please share!

I like to grow big "field" pumpkins for decorating and carving into Jack-o-Lanterns and small "pie" pumpkins for cooking. The small pie pumpkins are a much deeper orange than field pumpkins and have more sugar in them. Gosh knows we humans love sugar.

When cooking with pie pumpkins 1 1/2 cup of cooked pumpkin equals 1 can of pumpkin. That's a good tid bit to know if you want to cook with your homegrown and hopefully organic pumpkins. To cook pumpkin I put the whole pumpkin (minus the stem part) into the oven on a cake pan and bake at @ 400 F for a good half hour (until it starts to lose it's shape and knife slides in real easy). Then I cut open into 4ths and let it cool a bit. Once cooled scoop out the gooey stuff full of seeds. Pull out as much seeds as you can and put gooey stuff in compost. Rinse seeds in a colander, spread on cookie sheet and bake at low heat @ 200 F until crispy. Sprinkle with a little bit of salt (or not) and enjoy your homemade, nutritious treat.

While the seeds are baking remove the soft pumpkin "meat" and blend in a food processor, blender, or by hand so it's mushy like when you buy it in a can. Now your wonderful pumpkin is ready for soups, pies, cookies, breads...whatever you want to put it in. I will share a soup recipe here and if I get a chance I'll add a cookie one later. Pumpkin cookies will definitely be part of our math and snack at school the week of Halloween.

Spicy Pumpkin and Maine Shrimp Soup: (from Quick Simmering Soups)
Only takes 30 minutes start to finish! :)

2 medium onions (organic and from your garden or local farmers market if you can)
2 medium carrots (ditto) Note: Wait until after the soil has cooled before harvesting carrots; I believe it makes them sweeter. I harvested mine early October here in central Maine.
1 TBSP fresh snipped Cilantro
2 tsp fresh grated (or minced) giner root
2 Cloves garlic
1/2 tsp ground allspice
2 TBSP butter (I use extra virgin olive oil instead)
1 - 14 oz can veggie broth
1 1/2 cups cooked pumpkin (or 1 15 oz can pumpkin)
1 Cup milk
1 8oz package frozen Maine shrimp (or more)
Plain Low-fat yogurt or sour cream (optional)
Snipped fresh chives

In large saucepan cook sliced onions, carrots, cilantro, gingerroot, garlic, and allspice, covered in the olive oil or butter for 10-12 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor, add 1/2 cup of veggie broth. Cover and blend until nearly smooth.

In same saucepan combine pumpkin, milk, remaining broth. Stir in blended veggie mixture and shrimp. Heat throught. If desired, thread additional cooked shrimp on small skewers (not an easy task to do with small Maine shrimp).
Here's a note on shrimp and why I specified Maine shrimp. If you love shrimp like I do this is going to be tough to read but read it you must. Shrimp that comes from Asian areas such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam etc are do enormous environmental damage to those areas. Mangrove swamps are destroyed to farm raise these shrimp that feed so much of the world. Please read the package of where your shrimp comes from or ask the person behind the fish counter. Most of the shrimp available at grocery stores are from these areas. Avoid them at all costs. There are 2 options that I am aware of. 1st one is to support local food and buy shrimp from Maine:) 2nd choice is to look for shrimp from Louisiana which is harvested in a more sustainable way. But I have to be honest and say that I do wonder about food harvested from the mouth of the notoriously dirty Mississippi River. Anyone know about that?

Now top each serving of soup with a spoonful of yogurt, snipped chives, and optional skewered cooked shrimp.

Serve with warm hearty bread. I'm thinking some Maine's own Shipyard Pumpkin Ale might be good with this too!

Enjoy!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Closing Time

Maple Leaves Dancing in an Autumn Breeze

Yesterday I was having a cup of coffee looking at the sugar maple tree outside our kitchen window and I was instantly transported back in time almost 28 years ago. The leaves were just twittering (there's an old meaning for that word!) and I could see my now 28 year old daughter bundled up in her bouncy chair under the most amazing natural mobile, fall leaves blowing in the wind. Gosh that was a wonderful time. What I would do to go back to that time, even if just for a day. Sigh.

Ok, back to today. Today the garlic bed gets dug up, composted, and the garlic bulbs(cloves) put in. To do this I pull out all the plants from one of my beds. Then I put a 2" cover of compost on top of the bed. I use a pitch fork to dig the soil up and to dig the compost in. I then rake the bed and plant the garlic. When you get garlic from a seed supplier like Johnny's (I actually get mine from FEDCO in Waterville) it comes the same way you buy it in the grocery store, a bulb. You pull the bulb apart to seperate the cloves. You plant the cloves individually about 6" down in the soil and about a foot apart. Cover up with soil and voila the garlic is planted. I won't mulch the garlic bed with hay or straw until the soil begins to freeze hard. Otherwise mice will move in under the hay and do damage in the soft soil.

Finished Compost for Garlic - Wonderful Garden Gold!

Perennial flowers that still have seed heads attach and that self sow profusely will have seed heads all cut off today as well. Even though I actually began cutting the seed heads off the purple coneflowers yesterday. (Note: It's actually good to cut seed heads as they form throughout late summer). Seed heads of annuals such as sunflowers, dill, calendula, coriander, chervil I allow to stay so birds can eat them. While doing this I was suddenly bombed by several irritated gold finches. They were literally swarming me and yelling at me. It was wild. I stopped when I realized what I think they were so upset about and decided to leave the remaining seed heads for the birds to nibble on. But then I'll have a zillion coneflowers in the spring....ah such dilemmas! I will also begin to pull out dead plants and throw them into the compost pile. Tomatoes were pulled a while back and carted off to the dump due to them having that Late Blight fungus. So today I'll pull things like old lettace, basil, squash plants, annual flowers etc. So it'll be a long day but a beautiful day to do it.

Late Season Calendula

Plants such as parsley, leeks, chard will all be spared the yanking up of today since they are still producing. The parsley looks just beautiful. I may make a big harvest to dry. If I get to it.

Rhubarb Chard - As pretty as it is delicious

Well, off to the great outdoors I go. If I finish early enough I'll help Ger stack wood. We've got 3 chords to stack before next Sat. when we get another truck load. Now how's that for an optimistic and fairly delusional thought? Maybe I should just call now and make that massage appointment for tomorrow.

Garden clean up went well. Didn't stack any wood th
ough. I wound up just cleaning out dead plants and adding them to the compost pile. I was surprised by how many weeds there were. I also harvested the rest of my beets, carrots, and parsley. I put pumpkins out front around the mailbox and lamp post. Corn stalks will come down tomorrow and I'll add them to the lamp post. One last chore of the season is to clean those garden tools and get the soil off of them. If I was a good little gardener I would take the time to clean my garden tools. Yeah right.

Pie Pumpkins before harvest

As I reread this I realized that I should post something about pumpkins. This is the month of pumpkin celebreations after all! As Halloween approaches and I think about how to use pumpkins in my 4th grade classroom I also thought about how to use pumpkins at home. I think I'll start another "Pumpkin" post. So stay tuned for Pumpkins for fun, eating, and decorating.

Enjoy the fall weather! And if you're from northern New England be sure to take some time to peep some spectacular leaves!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Blue with Indigo

Japanese Indigo in bloom

My gardening season is winding down. I have to be honest and say that when I pulled all 23 of my tomato plants (actually Kyle, my son did this awful task) my desire for my garden died with those plants. That bloody Irish Famine Late Blight that took all my tomatoes was just too much to bear. No Bruchetta; ouch! How awful is that? I finally got up the nerve and went out last weekend and began cleaning the garden beds up by pulling up fungal infested squashes, beat beans, weeds, weeds, and more weeds.

Yesterday I harvested quite a few carrots and they were delicious. I read that harvesting carrots after a frost, meaning cooler soil temps, makes sweeter carrots. I have found this to be true. I don't know if it makes a difference but whenever I have a choice to buy carrots from New England vs. a southern area I always choose the cooler climate.

This is the first year in many years that I am not going to Common Ground Fair :( I love to go on Fridays but couldn't go this year. What amazing weather for the fair! Oh well; maybe next year.

So instead of spending a glorious day at the fair I will be spending the day harvesting all my Japanese Indigo to dye alpaca yarn that I've been spinning all summer. So while this posting isn't food related I'm sharing because I do plant indigo in the garden. And the indigo this year is spectacular! Each of the 9 plants looks like a small bush and is in full flower. I covered them last night with sheets to protect them from the predicted frost and it's a good thing I did. The middle plant of the row didn't get covered and its leaves are black as are all the pie pumpkin plant leaves.

Off to gather indigo and begin the long but fun process of extracting the color from the plant.

Enjoy the beautiful autumn weather.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

September - The Wild Garden

Harvested onions drying on a screen for storage

Several weeks have gone by since I've posted. Reason? Got a job; a great new job teaching fourth graders. This is a huge switch for me since I use to teach middle schoolers science and I absolutely loved that. To say this is an adjustment is an understatement. We've been in school for two weeks and I'm slowly getting use to the youngness of these wonderful children. I say wonderful and I mean it. They are so open and honest. You don't get that in middle school and I forgot how wonderfully refreshing this can feel. But it's also been wicked hard. Their behavior is raw and they are... young. Getting the room ready took weeks. So much thanks to Ger and Kyle for building a reading loft, helping put up blinds and curtains, and so much more. Then school began and becoming familiar and comfortable with the kids and the curriculum and how to deliver it was and continues to be overwhelming. How do young teachers out of college handle all of this?! Well as the saying goes, "A splendid time is guaranteed for all."

Back to the garden. Well to be blunt, it's gone to hell. I wrote weeks ago about the importance of weeding and maintenance and I didn't follow my own advice. Between the new job and the intense August heat and humidity it just got by me. The weeds have taken over and the Late Blight has wiped out all 26 of my tomato plants! Just awful. I was so looking forward to fresh Bruchetta and canning lots of salsa and tomato sauce as well as dehydrating the cherry tomatoes. Not going to happen. If you have Late Blight (Links over on the right which show the browning of leaves, splotches on tomatoes, and/or inconspicuous brown lesions on the stems) bag up your plants and discard in the garbage. Do not put on your compost pile. Late Blight, the same fungal disease that caused the great Irish Famine, is a disease in which the fungal spores travel by air and they travel fast and far. I've read that they can travel 40 miles! No wonder tomatoes from NY to Maine have been affected by this gosh awful disease. It's wiping out tomato crops and I can only assume the cost of local tomatoes will be high. If you've been spared consider yourself extremely lucky.

On a positive note the onions, garlic, leeks, chard, beans, beets, lettuce are doing very well. I'll have tons of pumpkins too. Other squashes haven't done so well though. Weird. Got some cukes but not enough to do anything with except eat raw. We love garden cukes with dill vinegar. So that's what we've been eating. We've been enjoying lots of iced tea made with spearmint and lemon balm.

The picture above shows onions drying on a screen in the sun. Once the tops of the onions fall down I harvest them. Then I place them on a homemade screen that I've put over a wheelbarrow. This allows air to circulate under them and it allows me to move them easily. Drying onions like this is done to prepare onions to store indoors for winter use. If you don't dry them and remove the water they will rot. I usually dry them for quite a few days in the sun. I do it until I'm sick of doing it. Usually a good week or more. When I dry garlic I dry it in the shade. Potatoes you don't dry; you just store in cool, dry, dark place.

Today my son harvested the rest of my potatoes since I threw my back out this morning! OMG! I've never done this before and let me tell you it hurts like heck. Since every time I move spasms shoot across my back I'm not moving much. So Kyle is doing the garden chores such as harvesting potatoes and digging up, bagging, and throwing out all my tomato plants since they have Late Blight :(

Something else happened that I should share. I've made herbal oils for years and never had a problem but this year I did. I was making tarragon olive oil for Erin and it kept spoiling. I'd open the jar to strain and there would be mold (whitish fuzz) on the top. Tiny patches of it and not obvious at first glance but there it was. It all had to be thrown away in the garbage. Bummer. Maybe with all the moisture of the summer the plants had lots of moisture in them? I don't know. But I thought I was going to give up making herbal oils for the season. Well, now that it's been dry for a solid week maybe I'll try again using a lot less herbs and checking daily. Maybe I'll be able to get a batch. A note of caution about making herbal oils. Oil and herbs are high/alkaline pH. They are the opposite of acidic. Remember that pH scale you used in high school chemistry? Lemon juice is very low pH (acidic and so cans safely) whereas herbs and oil are high pH (alkaline and are trickier to can). Here's a pH scale from wikipidea...Herbs just don't take great to preserving well. Let me rephrase that. Most of them dry wonderfully or freeze well but saving in oil, that's trickier. Lots of caution needs to be used here. But it's possible. Just take it slow and be very observant. A few dry sprigs in a meticulously clean jar of good grade virgin olive oil. Be sure no plant material is above the oil. Let sit a day or two out of sun, strain, and do again with a sprig or 2 of new dry plant material. I've read that garlic is the usual culprit of botulism so don't use garlic unless you are braver than me. I won't use garlic and I'm pretty adventurous.

Tomorrow is a garden work day so I can give a better update then. Some photos will come tomorrow as well. Enjoy the waning days of summer and the new crispness in the air. I love autumn in Maine!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hot weather, garlic, and blueberries; Oh yeah, and Sweet Peas!

Sweet Peas, Lathyrus odoratus - Oh that fragrance!

I just had to add something to my garlic post below. I was out harvesting the rest of my garlic this afternoon in 90+ heat and the sweet peas were leaning over the garlic. The sweet peas are just going wild! Anyway, the fragrance was intoxicating. So wonderful in fact, that I just finally gave in and sat down in the heat in the middle of those flowers and just smelled their lovely scent. According to Wikipedia, Sweet Peas are native to the Mediterranean area and are in the legumes family. That would be amazing to see and smell wild Sweet Peas! If you've never planted Sweet Peas, you must try some next year. They are easy to grow climbing annuals that come in a variety of bright colors and they need some support. They are pretty to look at and the smell is just heavenly. When we were in Seattle WA a few years ago there were just tons of bunches of these flowers for sale at the farmers' market. So now when I see them I think of that great trip and place.

garlicharvesttiming071907.jpg

Garlic photos and garlic harvesting information from: http://www.kitchengardeners.org/

I have learned something this summer; garden plants love water. My garden is doing amazing! It struggled during our wet, wet July but it hung on. Then the rain stopped, the sun shone, the heat came, and my garden exploded. This week I was lucky enough to harvest tons of beans, beets, herbs,lettace, chard, spinach, yellow squash, and thinned lots of leeks. Cherry tomatoes finally came! As did basil. Onion tops are falling over, telling me they will be ready to harvest soon. But I've been using them fresh in some cooking and they are wonderful.

Had a great brunch this morning for Ger's last day of his vacation. Made some excellent home fries with Yukon Gold and red potatoes (I forget which ones they are), onions, leeks, garlic, and a hot pepper. Yummy! Also made spinach, tomato, shallot, and basil omelets and had some wild blueberries in milk. Now I have to mention that with the heat and humidity of the past few days cooking and baking would not have been enjoyable if it wasn't for an invention that we tend to take for granted, air conditioning. 3 years ago we put in a few window air conditioners during a long and excruciating heat wave. And every time we use them I am so very thankful for them. But we use them very rarely. Air conditioning is very energy intensive using a lot more electricity than ceiling fans and portable fans. So they should be used very sparingly. For us when we are having temps of 90 F or above for more than a day than that's when we turn the AC on. Here is a website with some interesting information about air conditioning and energy: http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/cooling.html I hope you take a minute to look it over as it may give you some alternatives to air conditioning that you may be comfortable trying.

It's blueberry season here in Maine and Maine is the nation's producer of wild blueberries. There is nothing like pancakes, muffins, and pie made with wild blueberries. And of course they are delicious to just eat as they are and on cereal. High bush blueberries are delicious and they are the type of blueberries that home gardeners grow but they are not tiny wild blueberries. Like other berries they are so easy to freeze. Just layer a single layer of fresh blueberries on a cookie sheet and pop in the freezer for a few hours. Then pop them into a freezer bag and you've got blueberries for winter use.

Today it became clear that it's time to begin major harvesting of garlic, onions, and potatoes. But how do we know when it's time to harvest these plants? Below is a posting that I read today about the controversy over the timing of garlic harvest. Yes, you read that correctly; garlic harvesting can be controversial! Now that's controversy that I like! Basically when the tops of some root plants such as garlic, onions, and potatoes are falling over and/or turning brown it's time to get them out of the ground. I begin harvesting onions when the tops fall over, garlic when the tops are turning brown and are shriveling up, and potatoes when the leaves are browning and looking like they are dying. Harvesting is different than picking. I pick, or dig, throughout the summer. Grabbing an onion or garlic as I need it, or digging up a potato plant when I want some potatoes.

From kitchengardens.org: Plants tell us a lot with their leaves. In the case of garlic, they tell us when the bulb is ready for harvest. Or do they?

Scanning some of the literature written by expert growers, we saw differing opinions on what harvest signs we should be looking for:

Garlic is mature when the tops fall over (mid July to early August).
-Eliot Coleman, Author of the Four Season Harvest

When half to three-quarters of the leaves turn yellow-brown, it's harvest time.
-Organic Gardening Magazine

Each green leaf above ground represents a papery sheath around the cloves. Once the leaf tips begin to yellow and die back, its time to dig the garlic. The lower six to eight leaves still being fully green indicate optimal harvest timing: This allots 5 to 7 protective wrappers around the bulb after curing. Our harvest here in northern New Hampshire begins the latter part of July and gets completed by the first week of August.
-Michael Phillips, Heartsong Farm

It's time to harvest garlic in the late summer when the bottom two or three leaves have turned yellow or the tops fall over.
-Ed Smith, author of the Vegetable Gardener's Bible

Harvest in summer when the bottom leaves are beginning to yellow and before more than one or two leaves turn brown (July through August).
-University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension

Fully green, yellow, or brown: so who's right? Well, in a way, you could say that all of them are. It depends on what your garlic goal is. The longer you wait, the larger the bulb. The danger in waiting too long is that the bulb will start to split apart into individual cloves. If Michael Phillips urges an earlier harvest when the plant is still upright and showing a lot of green, it's because he has a different goal: long term storage. An earlier harvest helps insure that the garlic cloves are "well-wrapped" for fall and winter feasts.

One surefire way of knowing whether your garlic is ready is to dig up a test bulb. If it's a decent size and seems well formed, then you can harvest the rest of your crop with confidence.

On a slightly different note: I had some good news about my tomato plants that I thought had Late Blight. I sent photos of of them to the county extension service and found out that they didn't have Late Blight after all! So I didn't need to rip the plants up. Which is great since they are producing a ton of cherry tomatoes. They do have a fungus which is a problem but at least it's not Late Blight.

Well, I wanted to post a recipe but haven't decided which one I want to put here. When I decide I'll post it. I'm thinking I'm going to use some potatoes to make gnocchi this week and if it goes well I'll post that. Because it's pretty tough to have something more delicious than well made gnocchi.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Power of Flowers

A simple arrangement of nasturtiums

The Power of Flowers.... I was going to write about my week weeding, replanting, Late Blight, and canning but I came across a wonderful article that I'd like to share. I decided that all that weeding etc. can wait. But the Power of Flowers needed to be discussed. So that's the focus of this week - flowers.

Years ago when I was a new and young mom and living in a not so nice city in Massachusetts I began a small vegetable garden. But I didn't include any flowers. I felt that the flowers would take up precious vegetable space. Much has changed since that small garden. And thankfully now there are flowers throughout all my gardens.

The article that I came across today was about a tiny little urban garden oasis in NYC. Here's the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/06/garden/06garden.html
A garden oasis in NYC- click on the picture to enlarge

This article solidified my thoughts that flowers are indeed powerful and necessary in any garden. If flowers must have a purpose then let's look at one important purpose being that flowers are necessary for bees and bees are necessary for our gardens. If for no other reason than providing necessary habitat and nectar for bees; flowers are a down right necessity in each and every garden. Without bees we wouldn't have the food options that we do. Just think about when you're working in your garden and all the bees buzzing around. Where are they buzzing to? The flowers, whether they are in squash flowers or sunflowers. Bees love and need flowers. And when bees buzz from flower to flower and from plant to plant they are working hard pollinating your plants. Bees are a vital link in our food chain and since bees need flowers, so do we. Bees are another perfect reason why using chemicals in our gardens is just not a good idea. Ultimately what we do to the bees we do to ourselves. So we were right way back when, when the motto of the day was, "Flower Power!" Flowers and bees play a crucial role in what we call the ecology of our gardens and food supply. Ecology is a very important branch of science that deals with interrelationships of organisms and their environments. Looks like we've just been talking about the ecology of our gardens - flowers, bees, people... Because of this not only do I plant lots of flowers but I also let some vegetable plants purposefully go to flower. Radish flowers are a great vegetable to let flower; their flowers are just wonderful!

Pink yarrow and mallow

But flowers are much more than bee havens. They provide much needed beauty for us. Whether we plant a few marigolds as companion plants to repel yucky bugs, flowering herbs for drying, or a full fledged perennial flower garden, flowers serve a very important role in our gardens by enriching our lives. They are beautiful and often have heavenly scents. Humans are sensory organisms. We live by using our senses. We taste, smell, look, touch, and hear; and flowers provide stimulation for all these senses.

Purple coneflower; Echinacea purpurea

My flowers are doing fantastic this year with all the rain water they've been getting. The Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are the most brilliant that I've ever seen; just gorgeous! As I was picking some to put into a vase for our table I was thoroughly enjoying watching busy bumble bees and hovering humming birds. I was also thinking about how nice it is to have flowers to cut for placing around the house. For the past few years my gardens have given me enough flowers to have vases full but to be honest I use to be reluctant to cut them. Partly due to the fact that I didn't want to take them from the garden and also in part because it was hard to get that "perfect" arrangement. This year I've taken a different approach to cutting flowers. No more "perfect" arrangements. Instead when cutting flowers I'm keeping it very simple. My goal is to cut from one type of flower and put those into a vase or jar. That simplicity not only makes a lovely addition to a room it's very freeing and allows me to enjoy the act of cutting flowers for bringing indoors. We need and deserve beauty in our gardens and in our homes and flowers are just the ticket for both.
Another simple arrangement; Black Eyed Susans and Purple Coneflowers

I've included a few photos of jars of simply arranged flowers that I think does the trick of bringing flowers indoors rather nicely. Don't bother about trying to be fancy or creative with your flower arrangements. Just choose one type of flower to fill a jar with and go with that. Include full flowers, buds, and leaves. This will allow you to get a feel for the flower in water which is very different than flowers in your garden. Then after time you may notice another flower near by that you think would add another dimension or color and give them a try together. When cutting flowers it is best to cut mid to late morning (but really any time will do!) and to bring your water jars out to the garden with you. The faster the flowers are in water the better they will last. Well, when it comes to simply cut flowers and arrangements follow the thoughts of the Shakers. They were right about something...simplicity is best. (But we all know they were wrong about something else- even flowers have a vivacious sex life!)

Enjoy the NY Times article and be sure to include flowers in your garden and then take the time to smell them and of course cut some to bring inside for your kitchen table or night stand.

A sunflower (with some Anise hyssop for smell)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bee Balm and Dilly Beans!

2 Bumble bees on Bee Balm

Central Maine finally had summer this week! Temps hit high 80's F and we had a few days of sun. And so my garden just exploded and looks like a jungle; holy cow! Amazing what a little heat and sun will do. So I finally got to pick a good harvest of beans to make dilly beans. I also picked our first summer squash and sweet basil. I guess the cucumber beetles got the best of my zucchini plants because they look just awful. I picked a lot of beets, garlic, lettuce, radishes (although they were tough), Swiss chard, and thinned leeks and fennel. Also made lots of herbal teas :) My son loves herbal ice teas so I like to make it for him.

Some flowers near my house

I didn't weed the gardens this week like I should have since we had some pretty humid weather and tons of mosquitoes. I am also starting a new teaching position and spent quite a bit of time in my classroom getting ready. Between the warmth, sun, and lack of weeding the garden looks pretty unkempt and needs some major attention. But on a good note I made my first batch of dilly beans and plan to make pickled beets next.

One way to put food up from your garden, such as making dilly beans, is to can them. Canning is pretty simple but is a bit time consuming and you do need some special equipment. There are also some basic safety tips that are important. The goal of canning is to kill any microbes that may be present. To can you need to use what's called a hot water bath method or a pressure cooker method. I don't have a pressure cooker because to be honest they scare the heck out of me. But I may try to overcome that fear this year (or next;). So for now I use the hot water bath method; it's basically boiling the heck out of everything. Hot water bath limits what types of produce you can safely put up. You should only can high acid foods (foods below 4.6 on the pH scale; tomatoes fall at 4.2 so they are considered borderline) or foods that you alter to have high acidity, usually by adding vinegar which is very acidic. Tomatoes and most fruits are fine, that's good! Although I just learned that since there are lots of different types of tomatoes with different acidity levels the county extension service strongly recommends adding bottled lemon juice to your jars of tomatoes. And pickled veggies are fine. Corn with a pH of around 6 cannot be processed this way; it is too alkaline. But fresh creamed corn frozen is like no corn you have ever eaten! OMG! OK, back to canning; I usually can tomatoes (stewed, salsa, and sauce), dilly beans, pickled beets, relishes, and apple sauce. I can't seem to get pickles right but may try again this year. How do you get a crispy pickle anyway?! So I don't can a ton of food but enough to feel like I put some food up. I must admit it is fun and rewarding to open a can of food during the year and know it came from our garden. It impresses people too!

It is very important to be very clean when canning. Jars, lids, utensils need to be washed in soapy hot water or in a dish washer and then sterilized by boiling. I boil my jars for 10 minutes and my lids and utensils for 5. Boiling jars etc is the first step of killing any microbes that may be present. Even though most microbes on Earth are very important and beneficial there are a few that are very dangerous. Molds can be dangerous and some molds provide the proper environment for the deadly Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which causes the lethal botulism, to grow. So mold is never a good thing on/in canned food! So just in case those nasty little buggers are present we do all we can to get rid of them. Very clean counter tops, very clean hands, very clean dish cloths, sterile jars and washed, ripe, and freshly picked, top quality produce are musts. Do not use old or bruised produce or produce that is over ripe or rotten. Seems logical but worth mentioning here. All fresh produce contains bacteria that cause the natural process of decomposition. Processing ensures that enough of those bacteria are killed to make the food safe to eat. So sterilizing equipment, using fresh, ripe produce, and processing the food ensures that the food is safe and yummy! A properly processed jar of food has a sealed vacuum and is sealed from outside contamination. It can keep for a year (sometimes more) in a cool, dry place. Now these bacteria can be stopped in their tracks upon canning and freezing but they revive when thawed so you need to treat such food like you would fresh produce.

Something else worth knowing is that while it's fine to reuse canning jars (jars specifically made for canning) you cannot reuse the lids (the flat parts of the tops); those must be new each time you can food. You can reuse the screw top rings though. As a matter of fact, once the jars are processed and cooled I take the screw rings off until I open the jar for use. To be sure that the jars are processed properly you should hear a "ping" sound when the jars are cooling. Another way to tell if the seal is correct is to press on the lids once the jars are cool (next day) . If the lids don't "pop" or spring back than they are sealed properly. If the lids spring back when you press on them they are not properly sealed and need to be reprocessed or eaten right away or stored in the refrigerator and eaten within a few days.

Beans, garlic, and dill seed heads ready for processing

Since food can spoil very quickly in the heat of the summer (bacteria counts can double every 20 minutes on the counter top!) you need to work quickly. The food in the picture above won't be on the counter more than 15-20 minutes. If you can't process the food immediately after you pick it, you should refrigerate the food until ready to process (not more than a day). Something to notice is how I've got my beans divided in the picture above. Beans all the way on the left are perfect dilly bean size. Beans all the way to the right are, what I consider, too large. Beans in the middle are a bit small and so are my favorite to eat fresh. The reason I divide up my beans is so that I use the perfect beans first. Then in case I don't have enough "perfect" beans I pull from my other piles. Usually the small beans go next and those large beans are only if I don't have enough from the other two piles.

Once the beans are trimmed, jars and tops are boiled, and vinegar solution is boiling, the jars can be filled with beans, garlic, dill heads, and vinegar solution. Jars are sealed then boiled and... voila, you've got finished canned jars of delicious dilly beans.

Here's my dilly bean recipe to make 7 pints:
3 lbs of green beans (or wax beans) enough to make 7 pints
In each jar put 1 clove of garlic, fill with beans, 1 dill seed head, and vinegar solution - leave 1/4" head space.
Optional - can add pinch of red pepper flakes
Vinegar solution:
5 cups white vinegar and 5 cups water and 6 TBSP canning salt

Combine vinegar, water, and canning salt in a large sauce pot. Bring to boil and then turn off heat. Pack beans lengthwise into hot sterile jars leaving 1/4" headspace. To each pint, add 1-2 cloves garlic and 1 head of dill. Pour hot vinegar solution into jars leaving 1/4" headspace. Remove air bubbles. Put on lids and screw on caps. Process pints and/or quarts for 10 minutes in hot water bath.

Finished dilly beans!

Just so you have more in depth information on home canning, here is one of many websites that will guide you safely through the canning process step by step: http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/can_home.html and here is a nifty "what went wrong and how do I fix it?" sheet from the University of Maine's County Extension Service: http://www.umext.maine.edu/onlinepubs/htmpubs/4277.htm I believe every state university has a county extension office and free publications to guide you through this process. So take advantage of their offerings!

Well, that's it for now. I will try to come back and go over the science of composting; I promise!
Enjoy your gardens and do try your hand at putting food by!


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Herbal Iced Teas

German Chamomile

Well, it's another rainy, gray day in central Maine! This has been the rainiest summer I ever remember. And to be honest work in the garden this week has been...well, nonexistent. It's so darn wet out there; I haven't even harvested most of my raspberries. I've picked enough to make some muffins and freeze a few. But not only did I get soaked picking because the foliage is soaking wet but the mosquitoes are unreal! There is a great Maine product that works amazingly well, Buzz-Off. It is DEET free and as the label says, it is "The natural cure for a natural nuisance". It works like a charm but I still hate putting repellent on because you smell like it. Granted this smells way better than something dreadful like "OFF". As a matter of fact the first ingredient of Buzz-Off is Lemongrass Oil. So that brings me back to herbal iced teas.

Lemon Balm,Melissa officinalis

My favorite garden teas (aka herbal iced teas) are made from lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, (which is a spreading perennial in the mint family and has a beautiful deep green color and the most wonderful lemon fragrance. It is considered the "soothing" herb), spearmint (my favorite mint), and chamomile (any plant that is light hearted to look at and soothing to the soul has got to be good! No wonder Peter Rabbit's mother gave it to him:) Be sure you grow the annual, German chamomile variety. It is the tea vareity and it self sows and is very easy to grow. When you crush the flower it releases the most wonderful apple like scent. It is another of my favorite, must have garden plants. (Note: I have read that some folks are allergic to chamomile. That is something to consider if making herbal tea for friends. So ask first before including this herb. I have never experienced a negative side effect from Chamomile but I put that info here just in case.) I also enjoy a little anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, also known as licorice mint. It has a wonderful anise fragrance and the prettiest violet,blue flowers. It's also in the mint family although it doesn't spread like a true mint does.

Anise hyssop - picture taken from: http://weblog.clagettfarm.org/2005/08/anise_hyssop.html

I usually combine a variety of herbs together but sometimes just make a single herb tea. It's fun to add things like johnny-jump-up flowers and lavender flowers too. Other herbs that are delicious to add and are also medicinal are things like a little sage, thyme, and bee balm. Bee balm is the local plant that tea was made of when the Bostonians (maybe other areas too?) were boycotting the imported English tea during the Boston Tea Party times. Bee balm, Monarda didyma, is also known as oswego tea. Red bee balm is one of my favorite flowers. The red color and the wild nature of the flower are just so beautiful and unique. And humming birds just go nuts for this flower. It is a perennial and so easy to grow and it multiplies nicely. In my mind it's the Goldilocks plant, doesn't spread too much or too little but just right. It's native and has been used for many medicinal reasons.Here's a link on growing bee balm: http://www.garden.org/plantguide/?q=show&id=2037 My plants receive filtered shade and are on on a spot with a slight incline. Red Bee balm, Monarda didyma

To make herbal iced tea is so easy. Pick or cut your herbs. Rinse them just to get off any garden soil, bugs, or whatever. Find a big glass jar (Not plastic please! Eating and drinking out of heated plastic is a major health threat. Sure hope you don't heat your food in plastic containers or with plastic wrap in the microwave! Try using bowls, plates, or glass instead. And cover with wax paper not plastic wrap! There have been many well documented studies linking the heating of food in plastic to cancer. ) OK...back to that nicer activity....making wonderful garden variety herbal iced teas. Get your big glass jar. Stuff it full of the herb(s) of choice. Fill it with water. Put on the lid and put it in the sun for a few hours. I usually do this first thing in the morning and then forget about it until early to mid afternoon. You could certainly boil some water in a pan and then put your herbs in the hot water and let steep for a while. I just like the idea of making sun tea and using the powers of the unfiltered sun. Take the herbs out and here's the important part. When you bring your tea back inside, or take it off the stove that is when you add your sweetener, if you want sweetener. If it's for me I don't add sweetener but if it's for my family or guests I usually add a very small dash of honey. Then put it in the refrig to chill. I often put a fresh piece of each herb into that now cooling iced tea just so I know what's in it and because it looks pretty. Serve over ice,or not. Serve with a sprig of mint or lemon balm or a floating johnny-jump-up, or not. And enjoy. I've heard of putting a johnny-jump-up in each ice cube section of an ice cube tray before you fill with water so you have little floral ice cubes. To be honest that's way to Martha Steward for me but I bet it does look nice.

Of course you can serve your herbal tea hot if it's a rainy or cool day.

It is also fun to experiment with using herbal teas with other drinks. I love to make lemonade with 1/2 plain tap water and 1/2 mint tea. Serve with a sprig of mint as well as a slice of lemon.

Want organic herbal teas in winter? Easy to do! Just harvest your herbs on a dry day (yeah right! easier said than done this year) when the morning dew has dried and before the heat of the sun kicks in, usually by 10 or 11:00. Cut the top third to half of your plant and dry. To dry I just hang in small bunches from kitchen shelves. You can also dry on clean screens that you use only for food drying. Or if you have a dehydrator you could use that too. I don't because it requires electricity so I save my dehydrator for things that wouldn't dry by this old tried and true hanging method. Once the leaves are crispy dry, store in a dry, clean glass jar out of sunlight, label the herb it is, and you have herbs for winter teas. It is worth the time to strip the leaves from the stems but you don't have to.

I can't end this posting of making herbal ice tea without discussing the subtle influences of herbs. The joy of drinking your own herb teas starts way before you take your first sip. Certainly planting is fun so I don't want to skip that over. But when you go outside, clippers and jar in hand and begin picking your herbs you have stepped into heaven. The aromas are just wonderful as is watching the bees moving from flower to flower. Just the act of connecting with your garden and all that entails on a leisurely visit such as this is well...the best and downright therapeutic.

Next week...who knows! Let's hope for some sun this week and maybe I'll feel like posting about the science of composting like I promised last week.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Raspberries and compost

Day lilies

You know summer is really here in Maine when the yards, fields, and roadsides are lined with these wonderful day lilies! I just love these plants! They are hardy, spread nicely, require little if any care, have nice green foliage before and after flowering, and they always look so beautiful.

Lavender in full bloom

I didn't want to forget to get a picture of lavender in this blog. It's been blooming for a few weeks now and is just spectacular this year! Must love the combination of compost I gave it and all the rain we've had. This lavender is a Munstead lavender plant, Lavandula angustifolia. Munstead lavender is hardy here in Maine so it's a great choice to grow. The leaves and flowers are edible. You can add 2 TBSP of minced leaf (and flowers too if you'd like) to a simple cake recipe to add a nice flavoring. You can also add it to a simple confectioneries sugar and water topping that is easily drizzled over that simple cake. It's also delicious in lemonade and iced tea. How about we discuss herbal iced tea and lemonade in our next post?

Raspberries are in full swing!

The other day I picked the last of my strawberries and went over to pick the first of our raspberries! We will have tons again this year. I've read how you are suppose to prune out dead branches in the fall but to be honest I can never tell which ones to prune then. They look the same to me. But in the spring you can tell the dead ones because they don't have green leaves growing on them so I prune them out in the spring.

I freeze a lot of raspberries. The secret to freezing berries is to freeze them in a thin layer on a cookie sheet until hard - a few hours. I've even left them on a cookie sheet over night and they are OK. After they are hard you then gently pop them off the cookie sheet, put them in freezer bags, suck out the air, seal and voila! your raspberries are ready for the freezer. I will try my hand at raspberry jam this year. Or I may try jelly. I don't really like the little seeds.

Raspberry Shortcake: But for now we are making strawberry biscuits (see an older strawberry posting for the recipe) and instead of putting strawberries on top we are putting warmed raspberries on top. Of course you can add whipped cream but I won't.

Raspberries and Yogurt: Another thing I love with raspberries (frozen raspberries is almost just as good in this as fresh) is to go to the local farmers' market and get some local goat milk yogurt. Add a ton of raspberries, a good dash of maple syrup, and some vanilla and we have a mouth watering and healthy treat. Delicious! If you have a farmers' market near you, go visit them. Bring your reusable bags (insulated ones are even better for this trip) and see what your local farmers have. For a while I didn't go. I figured I had a garden I didn't need to go to the farmers market. Boy was I wrong! The best bread in the world is there, as is the best yogurt! I can even buy goats milk soaps....all home made of course. If you haven't tried goats milk soap, it's a luxury that you must indulge in! If you eat meat you can also get humanely raised, antibiotic free, local meat. I hear it's delicious and is certainly way better than supporting those gosh awful factory farms that all of our grocery store meat comes from. Another thing I usually look for while at the market is an unusual vegetable that I'm not familiar with to try. As a matter of fact, that's where I learned about garlic scapes.

OK...now onto the practical side of gardening....compost!

What can you make out of several wood pallets?

A rustic compost bin of course!

Compost - what comes to mind when you think of compost? You may think of the fertilizer you can buy in a bag from a large box store or local garden center. Or maybe you think of the stuff a farmer delivers in a pick up truck. Some municipalities also collect composting materials and either sell it for a very reasonable price or give it away. Check your town for more information and/or to request they provide that service.

But do you know that compost, aka gardeners' gold, is a mixture of decomposed green plants and food from plants that you can use to make compost yourself! Composting is not only easy, it's fun and a heck of a lot cheaper than buying the stuff.

Now for the dirt on composting or Compost 101: (taken from composting101.com)

There are many ways to make compost. For more details go to Google and just type in "making compost". I got the above site that way. I have a large enough back yard so I can be fairly lazy about making compost. If you live in a suburban neighborhood or have neighbors close by you need to consider the look of your bin or pile and the fact that you don't want to attract critters.
With that said, in the past I have just had a pile way out back that I threw stuff in. One issue with that is it takes longer, looks awful to most people who look at it, and can get moldy which can cause harm to your dogs if they eat it. So maybe that's not the best way to go. This year we made a bin out of wood pallets. I read somewhere that a large amount of trees that are cut down are used to make wood pallets. Something we just don't think about! So why not recycle those pallets for a good purpose. I have to be up front and say that this is not the prettiest compost bin I've ever laid my eyes on. It's good if it's out of sight a bit. We also made ours really large - 4 pallets wide. That is because we have a ton of maple trees on our yard that we rake leaves from in the fall and I want a place to house all those leaves. We'll see. If we don't fill it all we may remove a pallet section. But for now, the above picture lets you see what our pallet bin looks like.

Now to make compost, like I said, there are lots of ways. The best way is to have a proper mixture of brown and green plant material. The goal is to get the pile hot enough to kill any seeds, spores, weeds, etc. I have never been successful at getting my pile hot enough. When I was volunteering at MOFGA one day I put my arm into the compost pile and couldn't believe how hot it was in there!! I guess if I ever got lost in a snowstorm and came across a well made compost pile I'd take cover in it! I know; gross.

A great compost recipe and method is available here: http://www.cityfarmer.org/recipe.html Rather than repeat that information, just go to that site. It's easy to read and explains how to layer nitrogen rich material (green plant matter such as grass, garden trimmings, and food stuffs - no meat, oil, cheese!) with carbon rich material (brown plant matter like leaves, hay, straw, shredded paper).

Here's a great composting site geared to kids but the visuals are just great. Easy to read, understand, and follow. And fun!
http://www.gardenmosaics.cornell.edu/pgs/science/english/compost.aspx

When do you know you've got compost? When compost is finished it should look, feel and smell like rich, dark soil. You should not be able to recognize any of the items you put in there. Then it is ready to spread into your garden.

Below is another homemade compost bin. A friend of ours dog got sick from eating from her compost pile. So we decided not to put food into our open compost bin. Also we are fairly lazy when it comes to compost making. I hardly ever turn a pile. So this is where we put food scrapes. We just got a big Rubbermaid type garbage can. Drilled holes all over it and in the bottom too. and the food goes in there. Every once in a while I'll put in a layer of leaves or hay .

Compost bin from garbage can

Next is another link with pictures and information on other types of compost bins that are good if you are worried about space or what a compost bin in your yard looks like: http://www.gnb.ca/0009/0372/0003/0006-e.asp

Compost Aerator

I also use the compost aerator tool there in the above picture to stir up the compost in my garbage can compost bin. It works great and is very easy to use. It mixes up the composting stuff in the can. They are available at http://www.johnnyseeds.com or http://www.gardeners.com.

Also available at these and other places are compost pails to have near your kitchen sink. You need to have something handy to put your veggie and fruit peelings, egg shells, coffee grounds, bread, pasta (remember no meat or dairy or oil). Once your compost pail is full empty it into your compost bin. If you don't want to spend money on a compost pail just use an old coffee can or a large Tupperware type plastic container. Just be sure whatever you use has a lid! Or else you'll have fruit fly mania! Be sure to keep the lid shut securely.

Compost Sink Side Pail

Well, it's a beautiful day outside and I'm done my mid-day break so I'm going to end here. Next week I'll post about the science behind compost as well as compost tea for plants and iced herbal teas for us humans, and whatever else that may be coming up in the garden. So until then happy gardening, cooking with your garden produce, and I hope you make it to your local farmers' market!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

New Potatoes, Thinning, and Tomato Pruning

1st Raspberry!
Raspberry picking is just days away!

This week brought the first real summer sun of the season! Finally summer has come to Maine. 3 days of beautiful blue skies and plenty of warmth and sunshine. Some rain tonight and then hopefully more sunshine is coming! So it was a busy few days in the garden.

A few carrots from 1st thinning

These carrots and a few more went to Boston to my daughter Erin. Carrots have always been what she most anticipates from the garden. They are her favorite garden treat. As a little girl with beautiful blond curly hair she would sit in the garden and literally eat my entire planting. She would yank those orange beauties right out of the soil and eat them! I just couldn't stand watching her eat them without first cleaning them so I just had to give her a bowl of water to rinse them off!

Something that needs to be done as tomato plants begin to take off is to remove "suckers." Below are two photos of the same tomato plant. I went through a week ago and pruned suckers from all my tomatoes and forgot to take photos. But today I found another good example to photograph for you to see. In this first photo notice the tiny stem coming up from the middle of that "V". That's a sucker. You break that off. The reason these need to be removed is that they, the suckers, take energy from the plant and tomato plants need lots of energy for making those lovely tomatoes! So yank that puppy right off! Gently of course. I pinch them off.

Tomato Sucker

Now in this next picture you can see the same "V" but the sucker is gone. I picked it off. You want to keep an eye on tomato plants and do that at every "V" you find that has one growing out of it. BUT....if you've missed a sucker and it's grown to the point that it has flowers on it or even tomatoes on it then leave it. After all you want flowers and tomatoes!

Tomato with sucker removed

NEW POTATOES! YUMMY! As much as I love digging potatoes later in the summer and fall I love to dig the season's first "New Potatoes" even more. New Potatoes are just that, new to the year; they haven't been stored. They are dug and eaten. Usually they are quite a bit smaller than the ones dug later in the season or the ones you buy at the grocery store. I love the marble sized ones but you can see by these photos I waited too long and they are a big bigger than marbles. But they will still be wonderful. I love them boiled, with skins left on, and served with a dab of butter and fresh peas! Add some mint or chives if you like. Absolute heaven! I usually just grow some red potatoes and some Yukon Gold potatoes. I've grown fingerlings and purples too but my family seems to enjoy these best so that's what I've stuck with.

Newly dug Yukon Gold potatoes

Red Potato Plants, Newly Dug New Potatoes, and Pitchfork for Digging

You need to be careful digging potatoes. You follow the stem to the ground level. Which can be a challenge since you have tons of hay piled up around each plant. You pull the hay back and I usually stick my pitchfork in about a foot or more away from the plant and turn up the soil. If you dig closer you may fork a potato and you don't want to pierce a potato. If you do that's OK, just be sure to clean it well and eat it soon. You can't store pierced potatoes. Anyway, once you overturn the soil you can gently but firmly tug the plant up out of the soil. Some tiny potatoes will cling to the plant's roots. Some will fall off and you have to use your hands to dig through the soil looking for the hidden gems. Then the plant, if it's healthy (disease free) and not infested can just go into the compost pile.

Leeks that need to be thinned

Above is a photo of a row of leeks that is in dire need of thinning. The great thing about thinning is if you wait just long enough you can get some that are large enough to use for eating and small enough to still be very tender and delicate tasting. By thinning things like carrots, beets, and onions such as leeks you make more room for the remaining plants to make nice big roots. Since we eat the roots of carrots, beets, and onions we want to give the roots plenty of room to develop the roots that we are going to harvest. Below is a photo of the first thinning of leeks. As you can see they will need another thinning but this is a good start. I used the beets and leeks that I thinned for a stir fry. I would have also used the carrots but you know where they went to!


That's it for now. Off to make another batch of strawberry jam and a strawberry shortcake. We are still getting a ton of strawberries!

Next week....compost tea and building a wood pallet compost bin. Have a great week and remember to take time to smell the flowers and spend time in your garden or at your local farmers' market. Support local, organic agriculture!