Sunday, June 28, 2009

Strawberries and the Benefits of a Garden

We just harvested our first batch of strawberries and made our first strawberry pie. By "we" I mean my niece, Sarah and I. She's from Delaware, my sister's girl, and she is going into 8th grade. Her long and finely manicured fingernails are the exact same color as the strawberries. She started her first garden this year down in Delaware; tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, basil, and parsley.

Gardens... they are the elixir of our soul as well as our body. I don't know what I'd do without a garden. I've been gardening since high school. I don't even remember what got me to plant my first garden, which by the way didn't grow one single plant due to the fact that I put fresh cow manure on the soil and planted right into it! How funny and how smelly! As you can see, my family didn't garden. But I'm forever indebted to whatever/whoever inspired me to do that. The past two months have been a rough stretch. I've never been laid off before and coming off a position I never really liked and/or felt I did well at, well it just made this doubly hard. My luck is that it occurred at the beginning of gardening season. My gardens have been what have gotten me out of bed each day and inspired me to get outside and see life though a positive lens. Without a garden I don't know if that would have occurred so successfully. There's something about playing in dirt (aka soil) and planting seeds and watching them grow. Looking at blue skies, white clouds, listening to birds and bees humming, and feeling the increasing warmth on our skin. While this may sound so cliche it's oh so true. Just imagine. If this is so powerful for an adult imagine what it can do for a child or even someone with a damaged soul.

My niece is a rather special child. She lives with a brother with autism and even though she is the younger, she is his "watcher". She carries so much weight on her shoulders and she does so with such grace. So to watch her in the garden was truly magical and downright spiritual. And to visualize her with her own tomato and basil plants puts a smile on my face each and every time I think about it.

So now I'm inside on another rainy day, reflecting on my sister's visit (she has 4 kids!) and writing about strawberries. And I get to do this as I listen to James Taylor sing Sweet Baby James...."Now the first of december was covered with snow. And so was the turnpike from stockbridge to boston. Lord, the berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting. With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go". I love that song; it's my favorite of his. If you've ever spent any time in the Berkshires you would understand why. They are a place that fills you with awe and wonder.

Well back to strawberries. I planted them last year and it was painful to pick all the flowers off when they first arrived. The first year you grow strawberries you pick off all the flowers so the energy gets sent down to the roots to make the roots nice and strong. I had to do that to the blueberries I planted last year too. So this year it was great to watch the strawberries flower and then bear fruit. (I picked the flowers off the blueberry plants again this year. I'll harvest blueberries next year) And it was even better to get to pick our first batch of strawberries with Sarah and watch her shove those huge sweet red berries in her mouth as she did! I think more went into her mouth than into the basket.
I do not spray any of my plants so it's quite ok for her to eat right from the plants. But if you go strawberry picking to a strawberry farm, do not eat the strawberries without rinsing them first. Unless you have asked if they are raised organically and without any sprays. Once we picked every last red berry we came in and she rinsed them off and looked for those god awful slugs! Ugh! Slugfest '09 is still in full swing out there! Blasted rain! We are into what I think is week 4 of rain. I use to think I'd enjoy living in the northwest but this past month has cured me of any such thoughts. I miss the sunshine. Sarah then rinsed the berries off just to get any soil or straw that may be clinging on them off. Anyway, once the berries were rinsed off Sarah cut them up and we began to make our pie. See the recipe below for what I believe to be the best strawberry pie ever! And my sister and nieces and nephews agree. But...the secret is to use local, fresh strawberries that ripen on the plant.

Sarah's Strawberry Pie:
1 pie crust - baked at 425 degrees F for 10-12 minutes until slightly browned...Cool

1 quart - @ 4 cups
(or more!) - of fresh strawberries, rinsed, caps cut off, and sliced
Mash 1 cup of these up and set aside
**Be sure to eat some as you make this pie so I guess you will need more than 1 quart!
3 TBSP corn starch or arrowroot
2/3 cups honey....try to use local honey
1/2 cup boiling water

In a small saucepan mix the cornstarch and honey and add the boiling water to it. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with whisk, until thick and clear. Add the 1 cup of mashed berries. *Be sure there are no corn starch globbies.

Pour the sliced berries into the cooled pie crust
Pour the honey mixture over top
Chill completely in the refrigerator

Serve with whip cream over top. (See whip cream recipe from Father's Day chocolate pudding post below)

And here's another favorite strawberry recipe - Old Fashioned Strawberry Shortcake:
This recipe comes from Fanny Farmer. It says that old fashioned shortcake is made with biscuit dough, not cake and is served with unsweetened heavy cream not whipped cream. Perfect for a leisurely Sunday breakfast as well as dessert.

Wash and drain 1 quart of berries (I use more)
Remove stems. Set aside a few perfect berries to garnish the cake. Crush the rest slightly and sweeten to taste. (I warm the smashed berries in a pot over low heat until warm but the recipe doesn't call for that)

Butter a 9-inch round cake pan (I also flour it)

Sift together:
2 Cups flour ( I use 1 Cup whole wheat pastry or 1 Cup of white whole wheat)
1 TBSP baking powder
1 TBSP sugar (I use 2)
Few grains of fresh nutmeg (I use more than a few)

With a blending fork or fingers work in 1/4 cup of room temperature butter

Set oven to 425 degrees F.

Stir in, a little at a time, 2/3 cups milk until the dough holds together but is still soft. Turn out on floured board and divide into two parts. Pat or roll out into 9-inch rounds. Put one round in the pan. Spread lightly with 2 TBSP melted butter. Place the other half on top.

Bake 12-15 minutes. Split the two layers apart carefully with a fork.

Spread warm crushed berries between the layers and on top. Garnish with whole berries. Serve with warm heavy cream. (What I do is cut a piece of the shortcake and split in 1/2. I serve each of the halves covered with warm crushed berries. If it's a special occasion I serve with whipped cream on top. See Father's Day post for homemade whipped cream. But for ordinary use I skip the whipped cream. I top with sliced berries.) We like a lot of berries on top.


Coming next.....peas! And giving some of your garden's produce to those less fortunate.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Fathers' Day and Happy Summer Solstice!

A Wiki Mint pic

Nothing says Fathers' Day or Summer Solstice quite like strawberries! Well we all know what Fathers' Day is but do we know what is meant by the Summer Solstice? (Sol=Sun) There are two solstices each year. The winter and the summer. The Summer Solstice, which is sometimes referred to as Midsummer Day, occurs at the end of June,usually around the 21st and it is the longest day of the year (and the shortest night). The Winter Solstice, on the other hand, is the shortest day of the year and thus the longest night (hence the candles) and occurs the end of December, usually around the 21st. Do you know when the days and nights are of equal lengths? That happens twice a year too.

Now on to our strawberries; they are so almost ready! But not quite, so no Strawberry Pie for Father's Day this year. So instead how about harvesting some spearmint and making a simple but delicious Chocolate-Mint Pudding with Whip Cream? Granted it's not Strawberry Pie but it'll be delicious all the same.

Now I don't know about you but my absolute favorite mint is Spearmint,
Mentha spicata L. Up here in central Maine, at least for me, I have to treat this plant as an annual. If someone else gets theirs to come back every year please let me know how you do it! I also grow applemint because it's just so pretty and tall and the bees love it. It is however quite invasive so plant it well away from any other beds. As for peppermint, I do not like peppermint at all.

Chocolate-Mint Pudding and Whip Cream (from Cooking Light magazine)
3 Cups fat free milk
1/2 cup packed fresh mint leaves ( I prefer Spearmint but probably any mint will do)
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
3 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1/8 tsp salt
3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten (get your eggs locally or at least from humane cage free chickens)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
Mint sprigs

Heat milk over medium-high heat until tiny bubbles form around the edge of the pan (@ 180 F) - Do not let boil
Remove from heat and add mint leaves - let steep 15 minutes.
Strain and remove all plant pieces
Return milk to pan stir in sugar, cornstarch, cocoa, and salt.
Return pan to medium heat; bring to a boil - gently! stirring constantly with a whisk until mixture thickens.

Place egg yolks in a medium bowl, gradually add half of hot milk mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Add egg mixture to pan; bring to boil, stirring constantly. Cook 1 minute or until thick. Remove from heat; add vanilla and chocolate, stirring until chocolate melts. Pour pudding into a bowl; cover surface of pudding with plastic wrap to keep a skin from forming. Chill

Whip Cream:
Whip heavy cream or whipping cream with dash of vanilla and good heaping soup spoon of confectioners sugar (or regular table sugar). Taste to be sure it's the sweetness you like. Whip until peaks form.

Serve chocolate pudding in individual bowls with dollop of whip cream and sprig of fresh mint.

An optional idea - if you do have some strawberries I wonder how they would taste cut up in the chocolate pudding? I may mix some frozen raspberries from last year in a small bowls worth just to see how it tastes.

Enjoy! And again Happy Fathers' Day and Summer Solstice!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Enough Rain Already and Online Gardening Fun

Rain pouring off our roof -past time to get the rain barrel up!

Is it possible that only 2 weeks ago I wrote that it was dry here in Central Maine!? It feels like it has been raining for weeks! My garden is having a hard time. Cucumbers and peppers will probably need to be replanted. The slugs are just decimating them as well as my broccoli plants. A friend of mine has ducks and she said to get ducks because ducks love slugs. Now there's an idea! I finally tried the coffee spray and surrounded the broccoli plants with the coffee grounds but then it rained, again. Squashes, carrots, beans, beets, basil, and chard are taking forever to grow. But they are beginning to look like what they are! Well all but the green beans. My shell beans look fine but the green beans just look awful. Darn slugs! The shell beans are in the new upper garden and I don't see any slugs there. Green beans are all in the older lower garden; where slugfest '09 is occuring. Even the spinach just doesn't look so good which is really odd. The tomatoes, potatoes, onions, coriander, lettuce look fantastic. The first planting of corn is about 2" high. Definitely won't be "knee high by the 4th of July!". Second planting isn't even up yet. Now I'm not one to complain about rain. I know how much our gardens need and depend on water but this is a bit much. Here's a picture of my pool. The cover is still on and it's June 19th! We usually take the cover off and open the pool on Memorial Day weekend. That was a month ago. It's just been so cold and rainy that we haven't had a chance to open the pool up! Is it possible that we'll go the whole summer without opening up the pool!?

This weekend we are going to get a spigot to put on a large barrel I have so we can turn it into a rain barrel. It's hard to imagine that lack of water could turn into an issue this summer but you always need to be ready. Just wish I had the barrel up and collecting water now. Goal is to have it collecting roof rain water by the end of the weekend.

So stay tuned to the hows and whys of rain barrels or as they call them in England, Rain Butts!

But for now, it's pouring. And if it's pouring where you are you may enjoy two of my favorite online gardening sites, complete with lively video clips and podcasts. They are:

The Alternative Kitchen Garden by Emma from England (how I learned about the term rain butt). This is also available through i-tunes and is a great podcast -

And The Urban Garden Girl TV with Patti Moreno from Roxbury. This is an amazing site! -

So grab a cup of tea, turn your computer speakers up, and enjoy learning some new gardening tricks from these talented and entertaining women.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rose Petal Jelly - Take 1

How can you think of roses without thinking of Shakespeare? I have loved reading Shakespeare since high school. Ah the power of a dynamic teacher! I took a year of Shakespeare my senior year and had a teacher, Mrs. Williams. She brought Shakespeare to life and turned everyone of us onto his wild tales of life and love! Yes, it is possible; so thank you Mrs. Williams wherever you are!

This one is from Romeo and Juliet -

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.'

So today was a funny kind of day. Cleaning and rearranging upstairs in preparation for my sister's visit. She comes from Delaware (I know, where the heck is Delaware?!). Anyway, she comes with 4 kids in tow. And they are great kids! I just love when they come to visit. Usually we go to a camp on a lake. But Aunt Mary can't treat to that this year. Unemployment will do that. So we'll just stay home this year (lucky Uncle Gerry!) So as I was washing bed linens and hanging them out to dry on our new solar dryer (aka clothes line) I was also picking rose petals and trying my hand at rose petal jelly. The reason I decided to try rose petal jelly is because a friend of mine who lived in Iran and Bahrain when she was little was over the other day and marveling at my rose bushes. I grow old fashioned pink roses, the ones that smell heavenly! They are not the type you buy on Valentine's Day. While those are beautiful these have a smell that is to die for. She said she use to love to eat Rose Petal Jelly. Well, I've never heard of rose petal jelly but sure enough there were several recipes in the Internet. It was a dry day, finally! And perfect for picking rose petals.

So here's how I did it:

Gather rose petals on a lovely day, sunny and dry before the heat of the day- pick insects out. Be sure to use only petals from the old fashioned or wild roses, the ones with the wonderful fragrance. Also make sure your petals only come from roses that have not been sprayed with any kind of chemicals.

You will need:
3 cups rose petals
3 cups water
2 lemons
7 - yes you read that right - 7 cups of white sugar! Eee gads! I had a friend in college who use to refer to white sugar as "white death". There were other recipes that called for less sugar and using pectin but I didn't have pectin. So this stuff is to be used sparingly!

Gather your canning jars, clean them very well, and sterilize them. I sterilize jars by boiling in water for 15 minutes. You can also run them through your dishwasher. I then throw the never used before lids in the water for the last 5 minutes. Then turn off heat and let just sit as you prepare your jelly.

Gather the 3 cups of rose petals

I know, if you are looking at the picture you are saying that I didn't measure those rose petals very well!

Save any remaining rose petals to make another batch or to dry for potpourri. There's probably a bunch of things you can do with rose petals. I guess I'll have to research this a bit more. Jelly recipes say not to double a batch.

Bring the 3 cups of water to a boil

Add the rose petals - they will turn brownish and the water may also. That's OK.

Cover and let sit for 15 minutes or so until cooled.

Strain and discard petals. The liquid may look brown and yucky but watch what happens when you add the lemon juice!
Squeeze the 2 lemons, discard pulp and seeds and add the juice to the rose petal liquid. Magic! The liquid turns a beautiful rose color. (it reminds me of the magic color change when dying with indigo) What did you learn in high school chemistry? Color change usually =.....???? Could it be a chemical reaction?
Put the rose liquid back on the stove and add your sugar. Let the sugar dissolve. Slowly bring the sweetened lemon-rose liquid back to a boil and boil for 10 minutes until it reaches settling point. Now here's the thing; the recipe says "settling point" but I'm not really a jelly maker so I was wondering what exactly is "settling point"? Several sources online say that when the "jelly" has reached this settling point that when it is poured onto a cold dish it will wrinkle. Well, I never saw a wrinkle when I poured it onto a cold dish (that I kept in the freezer). So I boiled a little longer and still no wrinkle. So I stopped boiling.

When you feel the jelly is done pour into the hot, sterilized jars and cap. Cover with a dry towel until you hear that magic "ping" sound which means the jars are sealed.

Let jars cool covered with the towel and share or enjoy!

Well...several hours have gone by and I just tasted this stuff. Pours more like a syrup than spreads like a jelly. Also a bit too lemony. And way too sweet for my liking. So next time....get pectin to try so I can use only 3 Cups of sugar (I know..."only" 3 cups!). Will also only use 1 lemon. If I get to that this season I'll post how Rose Jelly Take 2 comes out.

A rose by any other name..........

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Welcome to Slugfest '09!


Welcome to the land of slugfest or should I ask, "Got slugs?" Holy cow are there a lot of slugs in our garden. I've never seen anything like this before.

"Slugs look like snails that have misplaced their shells. They grow between ½ to 3 inches long (.5 to 6 cm) and have soft, slimy bodies of grey, black or brown. Slugs will chew everything, shoots, buds, leaves, flowers and ripe fruit to pieces. Nothing is safe from them if it touches the ground. Their ‘eyes’ are at the tips of their antennae with which they also smell.

The soft, slimy bodies of slugs are prone to drying out so land-living slugs are confined to moist environments and are forced to retreat to damp hiding places when the weather is dry. Slugs eat by using their "radula" which is a rough, tongue-like organ to soften their food." (Taken from various Internet pages)

So now that we know what slugs are, where they like to live, and how they eat; how do we get rid of them because they are doing a number on my garden? And the weather says rain for the next week! So much moisture = so many more slugs.

One website says to sprinkle ground ginger around the plants after rain. But that sounds like an awful lot of ginger. It also says toads eat slugs so shallow trays of 2" of water placed in shady spots will attract toads. Time to get the water trays out! Another good reason to not use pesticides in the garden. Don't want to hurt the toads! The last time I had a problem like this my kids were little and I put out shallow saucers of beer. I guess they like beer because the next morning the saucers were full of dead slugs. Remember to use cheap but fresh beer not something like expensive local microbrews! Another site says to use coffee. "New research has found caffeine to be very effective at dispatching slugs. Save the dregs of old coffee and spray them full strength directly on the beasts in the evening. Surround plants under attack with a mulch of used coffee grounds to deter slugs and feed the plants." That's easy enough to do. So beer and coffee it is.

Toads, and beer, and coffee..oh my!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere...or Is It?

Some photos of my garden today. Chervil in bloom; squashes, pumpkins, and beans coming up! We continue to eat lettuce, spinach, radishes, rhubarb, chives, and chervil.

Roses are just beginning to bloom and do they smell wonderful!

But let's spend some time talking about water.......

Water clear, water bright,
Is a friend that's worth the having;
Water clear, water bright,
Serves us all from morn 'til night.

A kiddles song

The human body is approximately 70% water! Can you believe that we are made up of so much water!? The Earth is considered a water planet. About 70% of planet Earth is covered in ocean. Maybe that is why healthy oceans are so important! Only about 2% of the Earth's water is fresh. Some is locked up in Polar ice caps and glaciers; some is underground in aquifers and wells; some is in rivers, lakes, and streams; and some water is in the air and in the bodies of living organisms like you and me and our garden plants!

Clean water is our most important natural resource. Our bodies, our cells, would not work well without access to clean water. We would not last very long without water. With the changing climate, water shortages and droughts are becoming more common and causing large populations of people to have limited or no access to drinkable water. Yet we take this very important resource for granted. Have you ever seen someone shave, brush their teeth, or wash dishes or their hands and leave the water running? Or have you ever done this? How simple an act it is to turn the water off rather than leave it running. The amount of water on our planet is very limited so it is very important to treat it with respect and conserve it whenever possible and that includes watering our gardens. Many people believe that clean water and our access to it is what will be the largest issue of our time. I know energy is THE issue of today but water will become just as much a central issue as energy is. As well it should.

Well speaking of water, it's been dry here in central Maine and watering the garden has become a mission. I shamefully admit that in the past I have used a sprinkler to water my gardens. In a typical summer I'd use it once, maybe twice, so I didn't take the time to work out a better way to water my garden. Until now. I finally bought a soaker hose to see if I could work through this watering dilemma.

Soaker Hose

It worked great! But there are some issues. The hose I got didn't "weep" like I thought it would. The hose I got from Home Depot for $10 squirts water out of many tiny holes that are throughout the entire length of the hose. That surprised me. I quickly realized that the water pressure needed to be very low. When I turned the water to very low the soaker hose worked better. The squirting water wasn't shooting over the tops of the plants like it was before I turned the pressure down. Yet not all the plants looked like they were getting water but I decided to just leave it and see what happens. When I returned 30 minutes later to look, the entire asparagus bed was thoroughly wet and the moisture went down the soil several inches. That was nice to see. Advice online says that many folks who water their gardens this way have a soaker hose in each garden bed (or row) and leave them there the entire season. The "traditional" main hose is then moved from soaker hose to soaker hose to irrigate the garden. I must admit this sounds easier than moving the soaker hose from bed to bed or row to row.

Here is a series of video clips to show how to set up a soaker hose:
But there are other sites that explain this as well.

What I found is that when I opened up the hose it needed a bit of stretching and pulling to get it to uncoil. As I laid the hose down I realized I needed something to hold it in place so I used a rock here and there to hold it down with holes facing the direction I wanted. And I positioned a few sticks to guide the hose. The second time I used it (in my strawberry bed) I didn't need to do either of these things as the hose didn't keep coiling up. It worked just as well in the strawberry bed as it did in the asparagus bed. But to be honest I want to try one of the hoses that the man mentioned in the above video clip.

Here's a picture of the hose in the asparagus bed after the soaker hose had been on for 30 minutes. The soil was fully saturated. Another thing is that when you use a sprinkler you tend to have the sprinkler on full blast but with this hose I barely had it on a trickle. The label of the hose says that it saves water by 70%.

When I came in from setting up the soaker hose I had my typical Sunday cup of coffee and read the Boston Globe. Look at the article, Concerns are rising on water overuse, that was on the front page today!
Available at:
Can you believe that many Americans use between 65-170 gallons of water per person per day! Doesn't that just seem obscene to you!? It sure does to me.

I will address water and water conservation useful for gardening throughout this blog all summer long. So stay tuned to more about water importance, usage, and gardening watering conservation tips.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rhubarb and garlic

A few posts back I posted a photo of my rhubarb patch and a recipe for Rhubarb bread. As I was harvesting some more rhubarb this morning I got to thinking that for some folks the world of rhubarb may be new. If you are one of those I'd like to welcome you to this wonderful plant. Rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum, is an herbaceous perennial. The word herbaceous refers to plants that have stems and leaves that die back to the ground in winter, or the end of the growing season. Here's an interesting tidbit I just read from Wikipedia (love that site!); rhubarb first came to the states through Maine and Massachusetts during the 1820's. Being from Maine I think that would be interesting to research a bit more (Mike you out there!?). Rhubarb's stems are harvested by pulling them so that they break off at the soil level. Here's a photo of harvested rhubarb that shows what the bottom of rhubarb (white tips) looks like if pulled off the plant properly.

Rhubarb newly pulled from the plant

The leaves are toxic so those must be discarded into the compost pile or left along side of the rhubarb plant to decompose right there into the soil.

There are several ways to use rhubarb. There's rhubarb breads and pies. As I mentioned, I posted a recipe for Rhubarb Bread a while back. For Strawberry/Rhubarb Pie there are many recipes for available online. We like it served warm with vanilla ice cream. If you wait until local strawberries are ready then you are getting the rhubarb at the end of its season. Another way to use up your rhubarb is to just boil it with a sweetener. This makes a basic rhubarb sauce and is so good over ice cream. It's also delicious to just eat it warm like that. Rhubarb is tart and needs quite a bit of sweetener. I usually use a combination of raw sugar and maple syrup because we usually have lots of maple syrup on hand (see my maple syrup blog if you would like to see how that is made). Taste the sauce as it's cooking to adjust sweetness to your liking. As the rhubarb boils it gets very mushy.

Rhubarb Sauce:

Sweetener such as sugar, maple syrup, honey

Pull rhubarb from plants
Rinse well
Cut off top green parts (some people use these but I don't like them; they are too tart and to me they aren't worth the extra sweetener)
Trim off the tips of the white bottom parts that come from the plant - you may notice they feel a bit slimy, that is normal and should rinse off when rinsed
Cut rhubarb into 1" pieces
Put rhubarb and sweetener in a tiny bit of water in a sauce pan
Bring to a gentle boil and boil until a sauce forms
Check sweetness and adjust to taste - the red parts aren't as tart as the green parts


Also, some folks just pull a piece of rhubarb off the plant and chew on it. Kids in particular like to do that. Just remember to tell them not to eat the leaves!

Early Spring Garlic

Early garlic that sprung up throughout the garden

For several weeks now I have been harvesting tiny garlic plants that have sprouted up throughout the garden. As I dug up beds I would find bunches of these tiny garlic plants that came up from garlic bulbils from last year. Bulbils are seed like structures that develop from the flower of garlic plants. Rather than throw these tiny garlic plants into the compost, why not eat them? They taste great cooked and used like regular garlic. These plants are not the garlic I planted last fall to harvest this year. These are "weeds" that I didn't plant. It is not time to harvest garlic that were planted from garlic bulbs in the fall. More on that later.

Coming next....spinach and lettuce!