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.


Garlic photos and garlic harvesting information from:

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: 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 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:
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: and here is a nifty "what went wrong and how do I fix it?" sheet from the University of Maine's County Extension Service: 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!