latest news from the garden

IMG_7534We have been hard at work building our new garden.  Actually, we have been engaged in a war with bermuda grass and right now, we are barely hanging on to the lead in this battle!  Despite using lots of cardboard and wood chips, this stuff finds a way to break out and sprout up everywhere.  Luckily, there is no shortage of cardboard or wood chips as well as my stubborn determination!

Because of the density of the grass layer, we have turned to a favorite method of building beds and have begun layering materials on top of it rather than break our backs and knees with digging and sifting.  The blue tubs each have a sweet potato plant and we are hoping that we will have good luck with this method.  In the empty beds, I have layered horse manure, leaves and grass clippings and I will cover the area with cardboard and use purchased organic soil to grow in.  Eventually, the layers will compost and the cardboard will disintegrate leaving us with a nutrient rich layer of soil to garden in.  Patience is key here because this will take at least a year to accomplish and if all goes well, it will also smother out the bermuda grass in the beds.  Otherwise, I will have to dig it out because using something like glyphosate is not an option-read this to see just how bad the stuff is!

IMG_7536In late winter, I started a few beds by broadcasting a bunch of seeds over them.  In this bed, the Chinese Cabbages are doing really well and we should be harvesting them soon!

IMG_7539These Tokyo Market turnips are a favorite of ours and we are harvesting them about once a week.  They are wonderful when roasted and the greens are tender enough that you just have to saute them, no boiling necessary!

IMG_7541In a nearby bed, I threw in lettuce seeds, obviously too many but, we have had tons of lettuce to eat and to share.

IMG_7545We purchased about a dozen broccoli plants and we have been eating it roasted and in salads.  Did you know that you can harvest those large leaves and eat them too?  We have done this on many occasions making the individual plants twice as productive.  Use the heads and some of the stems raw in salads and slaws or roast the florets with a little oil and your favorite spice blend.  The leaves should be blanched first to soften them, then saute them with a little garlic, you won’t regret it.

IMG_7554Who doesn’t love surprises?  Especially if it is a raspberry bush-we have found two so far!

IMG_7556Of course, we learned of the muscadines from a neighbor and earlier this spring, we gave them a hard pruning to alleviate some of the weight and shading on the vines.  New vines have erupted and we are starting to see the promise of fruits.

IMG_7557Beyond the garden is an area where I am hoping to develop a meadow for bees and butterflies.  Right now, it is a tangle of weeds and in the middle, is what looks like a dandelion on steroids.  Goatsbeard, trogopogon dubius, is a type of salsify and is considered a weed.

IMG_7560It was disappointing to learn that it is an introduced species and not considered a beneficial addition to the landscape. But that seed head!

IMG_7550Then there is this guy, Hunky Dory the Americauna rooster we got in the latest brood.  He is a handsome fellow but a noisy one as well.  We gave him that name because he will crow to let us know that something is not up to his standards.  Not enough pellets; crow.  No water; crow.  Roosting bar fell down; crow.  Clock strikes 3am; crow…

IMG_7553Not only is it against the law, we do not want fertilized eggs or more chickens so the handsome fellow will be rehomed as soon as we can find a suitable situation.

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building garden beds from the soil up

img_7420Although the space we have fenced in was once the site of a very successful garden, it hasn’t been maintained in years.  Then as if to add insult to injury,  some thoughtful person seeded it heavily with Bermuda Grass.  Really heavily-inches thick on top with roots half a foot deep.  What a nightmare!!!  We started the process of building the beds today and in 4 hours time, we only finished 3 (4’x4′) beds.  This is going to take a while to do and we may not have much of a garden this spring.

The first thing we did was to outline the beds with string.  Using shovels, Darry flipped the top 8 inches of soil and we spent a lot of time shaking out the roots to save the soil and remove the Bermuda Grass roots and rhizomes.  Along the way, we threw many larvae, worms and beetles at the chickens who were watching our every move! img_7426My good friend and fellow Master Gardener Shirley always tells me that Bermuda Grass is meaner than a snake and if you try to rip it out, it gets even meaner.  She is absolutely right about that!  Each jointed area is a node and it has the potential to become a complete plant.  It isn’t enough to just pull it out, you must remove all of the little pieces or you will have lots of new little plants!  We spent at least an hour sifting the soil as we turned it to remove as many little pieces as we could.

img_7428Once the soil was prepped, we spread the contents of a bag of Black Cow Composted Manure over the surface.  We didn’t have much to work with and bit the bullet and purchased a bunch of bags to use.  As far as purchased compost goes, this stuff works pretty well.  We then cut used leaf bags to cover the surface of the bed.  Our hope is that the paper will help cut back on the weeds and Bermuda Grass from sprouting in the beds.

img_7429Since we haven’t found an arborist to supply us with wood chips yet, we are using a combination of cardboard and leaves to control the Bermuda Grass in the walkways.  Free leaves and cardboard make this project a lot more affordable and keep stuff from going to landfills.

img_7431We purchased a dozen broccoli starts to test our method.  To plant each start, I cut an “X” in the paper and folded the pieces underneath to create a hole.  Then I used my hands to make a hole and plant each start.

img_7432It isn’t the prettiest bed I have ever seen but it should work!

img_7433We are also without rain barrels which means using city water and decided to top each square with straw.  If all goes well, this layer of straw will help conserve the water so that we do not have to pay Metro for tap water.  The added bonus, the paper and straw will also break down over time and help improve the soil.

Be sure to visit the blog regularly to see the progress of our new garden.

just another sunday in the chicken coop

img_7335About a month ago, our chickens came home from their temporary location.  We decided to put the coop within the garden so that they can help us with insect control and composting and more importantly, to keep the dog away from their droppings-we won’t discuss her disgusting taste in snacks…

Although they are fairly safe in the garden since it is fenced in, hawks are still a threat and we knew we would have to spend some time building a large pen and tunnels.  Neither of us is particularly handy in a construction manner, but despite this, we were able to build the structures from PVC pipe, poultry netting, 2×3 wire fencing, lawn staples and cable ties.

img_7336The garden itself is approximately 38 feet wide by 94 feet long, which makes it about 3500 square feet.  That gave us plenty of room for the coop and pen as well as the tunnels.  The first thing I did out there was dedicate an area for composting and it is just behind the wheel barrow.

While we worked on things, the chickens explored the entire garden.  After being confined to the coop for two months, they wandered all over, pecking and scratching and searching for bugs.

 

They also discovered my compost pile.  Those feet move fast-they scattered the compost all over and after raking it back in place half a dozen times, we had to build a barricade.

img_7367It took us an entire weekend to paint the PVC, build the hoop frame and cover it with the poultry netting.  Knowing that we can leave them outside during the day without worrying about hawks.  The large pen has another purpose; we will store leaves in there and the chickens will help us compost them.  They constantly dig in the leaves which helps break them up and because the leave droppings as they go, the nitrogen in them will also help with the composting process.  It takes at least six months to break them down so we will have to be patient.

img_7385The hoops are attached to the coop so that we can leave their door open to give them access to the pen.

img_7369If the chickens are going to help with insect control in the garden, they need to be able to walk through it but unfortunately, they could run into hawks and more importantly, they would make a mess of the beds.  The  solution; tunnels.  We built them in Williamsburg so that they would have more space to roam and when we moved, we took them apart and moved them with us.

img_7375Starting at the far end of the pen, we are running the tunnels down the fence line and around the exterior edge of the garden.  We may still let them out into the garden occasionally but not with out supervision.

img_7371We attached the fence hoops to the wire fencing with cable ties.

img_7373To keep them in place on the ground, we used lawn staples.

It didn’t take them long to figure it out-they spent the afternoon in the tunnels eating as much of the green grass and weeds as they could find.

Rainy with a chance of mushrooms

img_7202We have grown mushrooms on many occasions.  The kits available make it easy to grow shiitake, oyster and buttons but for serious hobbyists, purchasing innoculated plugs and loose spawn are the preferred methods.  Last year in the spring, Darry innoculated some oak logs with shiitake plugs and 16 months later, we are harvesting mushrooms for the first time here in Virginia.  It takes a long time for the mycelium to spread out within the log and when conditions are right, it produces fruit; mushrooms are the fruit of the mycelium.

img_7204Fresh shiitake look very different from the ones commonly found in the supermarket.  Notice the shaggy appearance of the cap?  It was surprising to me as well-I forgot about that!

img_7207While many mycelium grow in wood, many more grow in the ground.  The mycelium for a web that spreads out under the soil surface and when the conditions are right, mushrooms pop up.  Right now, stink horns are popping up all over the ground under our crape myrtle and in areas of our former vegetable garden.  They are bright orange and are the subject of more than a few less than “tasteful” jokes in our yard.  The greenish-brown top has a strong odor which attracts flies who in turn, spread the spores of the fruit.  Without flies, these stink horns would not be able to reproduce.

img_7212Stink horns are very fragile and do not last long.  They come up early in the morning and by late afternoon, this is what they look like.  The good news, mushrooms growing in the garden is not a bad thing.  Not only are they good at helping to compost things like wood, they can also improve the soil in the garden and increase the yields of vegetable plants.  When you see them growing in the garden, leave them there and enjoy the benefits of the mycorrhizae-the symbiotic association of the mushroom mycelium and the roots of plants as they grow in the same space.

img_7218Along with the stink horns, our former garden is full of these fragile mushrooms.  They are rather small, notice the blades of grass?  And just like the stink horns, they do not last long and are generally gone by late afternoon.  The mycelium for this mushroom is all over the garden area.  They came up in beds and walkways and all over the front yard.  We let them do their thing and left them to break down in the beds.  This spread the spores and allowed them to spread and it also helped to improve the soil.  If you are looking for good, organic garden soil, be sure to grab a bag with mycorrhizae in it and see the difference it makes when you have active and living soil in your garden!

img_7222

baking from the garden; cucumber bread

IMG_6786Gardeners have preferences when it comes to the plants chosen each season and I am no different than most.  In my flower beds, I always include a mix of herbs and edible flowers as well as those that will attract beneficial insects and help repel the destructive ones.  My vegetable garden follows the same plan and tucked in between the crops are many of those same herbs and flowers.  Companion planting is another of my strategies in the garden but honestly, I haven’t seen a huge improvement by following the does and the don’ts of plant location.

This year, like every other year, I have planted cucumbers in my garden.  The selection of varieties chosen include Marketmore (both #70 and #76), Homemade Pickles, Charming White, Lemon and Tendergreen.  The weather pattern this summer has been challenging and while none of my squash plants survived and produced fruits, the cucumbers have done well, at least, two varieties have.  Homemade Pickle plants produced enough cukes that I have completely stocked my pantry with pickles and relish and I have enough gathered now to make one last batch of relish.

Making salads with cucumbers is another one of my favorite summer activities.  While I enjoy adding slices to green salads or just mixing the slices with a little rice wine vinegar, honey and chili flakes, I decided to try something different.  With more Tendergreen Cukes than I could eat, I thought about a loaf of bread and what it might be like with cucumber puree in it.

IMG_6790The previous photo is a Homemade Pickle and this one is Marketmore #76.  In the past, Marketmore #76 has been a great producer, this year, not so much.  My thoughts are that the weather has affected the yield but more importantly, I think the soil is still lacking.  If you have been following this blog, you are aware that we started this garden from the ground up two years ago and this is the first year that we are planting in the ground.  Lots of layering with materials such as compost, leaves, coffee, chicken litter from our hens and eggshells has greatly improved the structure but I think it needs to be amended further and turned as well as given a season off to let the nitrogen levels fix.

IMG_6792The tendrils are amazingly strong and these plants would sprawl out all over if I give them a chance.

IMG_6769For my first batch, I peeled, seeded and pureed some cukes.  The pale green liquid was added to a hard roll recipe and the dough was shaped into batards.  My thought was to keep it simple and I added a few dill seeds to the mix.

IMG_6775Once baked, it was nearly impossible to see that the cucumbers had an effect on the dough.  The interior of the loaf is nearly white and the crumb is a tiny bit compact.  Not the results I was hoping for but still a good loaf of bread.

IMG_6780After giving it some thought. I started a second batch of dough using a different recipe.  For this batch, I left the skin on the cukes but removed the seeds before pureeing.  The liquid was a much darker shade of green and had little flecks of skin in it.  For the dough itself, I settled on a recipe that used a Poolish style starter to develop more flavor in the dough.  After letting the flour, water and yeast mixture age overnight, I mixed the dough using a method that does not include kneading the dough.

There are several good books out there that use this method but I chose to follow the Country Loaf recipe found in Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson and found here in this New York Times Recipe.  To clarify, I did not use his recipe, just his method for mixing, shaping and baking the dough.

IMG_6781As you can see, the inclusion of skin gave the dough a good amount of green color.  The little flecks of skin provide some visual interest and a little texture, as well.

IMG_6799Using a lovely little banneton mold that my husband gave me, I was able to give the loaf a nice spiral pattern on the surface.

IMG_6806As you can see, the interior has a tint of green to it and a few green specks here and there.  The crust baked up crisply and it tasted wonderful while still a little warm.  The problem, it just didn’t taste like cucumber, at least not while it was warm.  Once the loaf cooled and sat for several hours, the flavor of caramelized flour and dough from the crust of the bread was no longer the predominant flavor.  The subtle, earthy and almost sweet, flavor of the cucumbers was fairly obvious.

This loaf recipe is a work in progress and if all goes well, it will be part of my next book.  Until then, I will have to make more bread and test it for flavor and color, and you will have to forgive me for not including a recipe that is only half done!

latest news from the garden

IMG_6810In the beginning of the spring, I was so hopeful that the garden would be producing enough vegetables to feed us for the year.  Quite a few of the results are in and thanks to a cool, wet spring and a hot, humid summer (all above the norm), we would go hungry if the garden was our main source of vegetables.  So many plants did not come close to expectations.  Just about all of my squash plants rotted away from the moisture and the sole survivor has yet to produce a single squash that did not rot.  Eggplants are struggling, barely producing and so are the peppers.

Having no choice but to remove my tacky string fence to keep out the deer, I have had to watch my 20 tomato plants get munched away.  While they are still trying to set fruit, almost none of them have except for a few.  The Gold Berries are one of the only plants producing fruit.

IMG_6811These are small cherry tomatoes, about an inch in diameter and they are a little on the tart side.  The color is what I really love; that brown blush at the top, so unusual and so pretty!

IMG_6815The color develops as the fruit grows rather than as it ripens.  In technical terms, the color is on the “shoulders” of the fruit.  Whatever you prefer to call that area, the seeds are available from my favorite source of heirloom seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

IMG_6816One of the only other plants with fruit is the Chocolate Pear.  What happened to these fruits is a mystery.

IMG_6830Garlic chive blossoms are so delicate but beware, if you let them flower, they will reseed and you will have chives everywhere.  Honeybees like them so I am leaving these flowers in place, yes, I like to live dangerously and I ain’t afraid of plucking plants…

IMG_6823While wandering the garden, I was surprised to find a Charentais melon.  Unlike the squash plants, the melons in my front bed have been sprawling out.  With any luck, we will get more than one.

IMG_6824Near the Charentais is another variety called Golden Crispy.  Having never had one, I cannot tell you anything about it but we have several fruits on the vine and I will have to wait patiently for them to mature.

IMG_6820If you take a moment to look in all of the carrots and parsley, you will find swallowtail caterpillars.  Lots of them actually, probably about two dozen or so out there now.  We have a variety of swallowtail butterflies that visit the garden; zebra, tiger and spicebush swallowtails are abundant but these are zebra swallowtail caterpillars.

IMG_6827The biggest surprise of the day was spotting this monarch caterpillar on a swamp milkweed plant.  In the two years we have been gardening out front and with all of the butterfly plants we have added, we have seen so few monarchs.  Finding this caterpillar was like winning the lottery!

IMG_6829The abundant milkweed plants have also attracted this milkweed leaf beetle.  They look a little like a monster sized ladybug and mainly eat the leaves of the plant.

IMG_6825This butterfly weed, which is a native variety of milkweed, has set seeds and will soon explode and release them into the wind.

IMG_6826One of my favorite plants, Ironweed.  It too is a butterfly magnet, and I just love the color of the flowers.  When we had our home in Nashville, I planted Ironweed on a slope in the yard and it spread by reseeding.  With some luck, this will spread as well.

IMG_6828And another one of my favorites for attracting butterflies, Joe Pye Weed.  If you have an area that gets a lot of moisture and would like to try a rain garden, Joe Pye Weed can tolerate moist soil, a win-win!

As the season progresses, I will be sure to share more from the garden, stay tuned!

if the garden gives you cukes, make pickles, lots and lots of pickles

IMG_6646When I was plotting the garden earlier this year, I planned on using a large amount of space for cucumbers because I think nothing beats a freshly picked cucumber when making a salad.  Whether it is a bowl of lettuce topped with tomatoes and cucumbers or a bowl of slices in a hot-sweet, vinegar marinade, cucumbers are one of my favorite guilt-free pleasures.  This year, I made sure to plant plenty of them so that I could have them all summer long.

In the past, I have tried to grow pickling cukes too but haven’t had much luck with them.  While at the feed store stocking up on chicken scratch, I came across a package of pickling cucumbers from Livingston Seeds and appropriately titled, Homemade Pickles.  According to the website, the vines only grow 2-3/4 feet, mine grew vertically on a trellis and I can assure you, they went at least 6 feet a piece!  Allow them plenty of space and if you go vertically, give them a sturdy structure with plenty of surface space to grab onto.  Since I pick them regularly, almost daily, they have continued to produce a pretty good amount for over a month now and my pantry is beginning to look like a pickle shop!

When I am going to can pickles, I like to boil the jars and lids to sanitize them.  My canning pot holds a lot of water and can seal about a dozen jars at once.

IMG_6661The light in the kitchen is beautiful in the morning.  It is one of the things I like most about our home.  The windows allow a lot of light in and in the summer, we can go most of the day and into evening without turning on lights in the kitchen.

IMG_6665These cucumbers have good flavor, soft skin and did not get bitter even when left on the vine too long-a few got missed in the leaves, swelled up and still did not turn bitter.  These have been soaked overnight in a brine and are draining while the jars boil and the vinegar mixture is prepared.

IMG_6669When I make dill pickles, I like to add a few mustard seeds and a pinch of dill seeds.  Fresh garlic, crushed red pepper, black peppercorns, dill from the garden are added to a boiled mixture of cider vinegar , water and salt.

IMG_6671If you like to can, I highly recommend picking up a pot that comes with a basket.  It makes putting the jars into the pot and removing them so much easier and safer.

IMG_6672The other tool I recommend, a pair of canning tongs, seriously, if you do not have them, buy them.  Too many times I have tried to use regular kitchen tongs and have scalded my hands on more occasions than I can count!

IMG_6673The pickles are packed into the jars with the spices and herbs and then the boiled vinegar mix is poured over them leaving about half an inch of space.

IMG_6677When the tops are put on, be sure not to screw the bands too tightly.  Nothing is worse than removing the jars from the water bath only to see that they have crimped and buckled because the bands were too tight!  Load them into the basket and then lower it into the boiling water.

IMG_6689After a boil of 10 minutes, raise the basket and remove the jars to a rack to cool.  Listen for the lids to pop as they cool.  If you find that some haven’t popped and appear sunken in the middle, put those in the fridge and use them first.

IMG_6690The recipe I used recommended allowing the jars to sit for 3 weeks to age and allow the flavors to develop.  Since I have been making these pickles a few jars at a time, I decided to open one today and taste them.  They did not disappoint!  One thing about this recipe, no alum was used and despite that, they were pretty crispy, for a pickle anyway.

IMG_6692The color has changed dramatically over the weeks.  These will be enjoyed with many sandwiches…

IMG_6678Sandwich-Sliced Dill Pickles

(not sliced, speared)

adapted from The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich

makes 6 -8 pints

5 pounds pickles with blossom ends removed-I only had 3.5 pounds but used the full recipe and yielded 5 pints plus one half pint

6 tablespoons sea salt, divided

2 quarts plus 3 cups cold water

2 cloves garlic jar each jar

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes per jar

4-8 peppercorns per jar

1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds per jar

pinch of dill seed per jar

1-2 sprigs fresh dill per jar

2 3/4 cups cider vinegar

Quarter the pickles into spears or cut into 3/16 inch slices, make sure to cut the blossom ends off and remove the stem end as well.  Place into a large non-reactive bowl.  Dissolve 3 tablespoons of the salt in 2 quarts of cold water.  Pour over the cut pickles, cover loosely with plastic and place a plate on top to weight them down.  Allow them to sit at room temperature for 12 hours.  When ready to can, dump the pickles into a colander in the sink and allow them to drain completely.

Place the canning jars and lids into the basket and lower it into the canning pot.  Fill the jars with water and then fill the entire pot so that the jars are covered by 2-3 inches of water.  Over high heat, bring the water to a boil and allow the jars and lids to boil for a few minutes.  Raise the basket and using canning tongs, carefully lift and drain the jars one at a time.  Place them upside down on a rack to drain and dry.  Do this for the lids as well.  Keep the water at the boil, adding hot water if much has evaporated.

In another smaller, nonreactive pot, bring the vinegar to a boil with the remaining 3 cups of water and 3 tablespoons of salt.  Stir to dissolve the salt and then turn off the heat and keep it on the stove while you pack the jars.

Place the spices and herbs into each jar.  Fill the jars so that the spears are snug but not so tight that they are crushed against each other.  Pour the hot vinegar mix over the pickles, leaving about a half inch of space.  Wipe the rims, place the lids on and screw the bands so that they are secure but not tight.  Make sure the water in the pot is at the boil.  Load the jars into the basket and carefully lower it into the pot.  Boil for 10 minutes, raise the basket and remove the jars with the tongs.  Place them on a rack and allow them to cool completely before storing in a dark, dry place.  Check the lids, if any have not popped and inverted, place them in the fridge, allow them to age for a couple weeks and use them first.  The remaining jars should be ready to use in three weeks.