Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Veggie gardening - what worked in 2009

A good number of things worked for me in 2009. Here are a few quick thoughts on what I liked, what I will do again, what I'm happy with...

  • The bucket organizer was extremely helpful. This simple bucket of tools stands at the ready by the back door whenever I head outside. In the bucket: different types of tying items (green Velcro, cable ties, stretchy plastic ties, twine), cutting items (floral snips, regular scissors, pruners), identification items (permanent marker, pencil, wooden popsicle sticks, plastic knives - and in this case, plastic forks b/c I ran out of plastic knives), liquid items (bug spray, castile oil soap, seaweed/fish emulsion), gloves, and my Planter's Buddy 7 in 1 tool.
  • This year, I realized that seed is cheap, and not something to hoard. It is easier for me to thin carrots if need be, than to realize weeks later that I didn't plant enough.
  • I was more creative this year in my use of harvested vegetables. I ended up with a lot of chili peppers that I dried or made sauce out of. I also tried canning this year, which as a first-timer, I found very cool but tedious. Hopefully with the right materials, next year will be easier. There's nothing like the winter season to reset the perseverance switch. Next year, I will hope for abundance and won't be afraid that I won't be able to use everything fresh, because there are many ways to use vegetables both at the time of harvest and by saving to use later.
  • The new stone potager worked out very well for me. The size of my backyard kitchen garden is limited due to the amount of sun I have, but the look of the new potager is great, and the space is as maximized as it's going to be. More on the potager in a later post.
  • Though I am drawn to all the neat seed starting systems in the catalogs I've been getting daily, I must forgo any new system as I have found that my seed starting system works extremely well for me. My system involves 2 1/4" peat pots, seed starting mix, a heating pad, a square tray from IKEA, plastic rectangular carry-out food containers (which hold 6 square pots perfectly), Glad press-and-seal, grow lights, and lots of books to raise the containers to the correct heights. More on this later as well.
  • This year, I noted significant dates on the big family calendar and that has helped me be less neglectful and forgetful. For example, I jotted down a target "planting out" date, and also made notes about hardening off the week prior to that date. I also include dates such as: garlic planting day, fall veggie planting day, and mark the calendar for every 2 weeks to use a foliar spray. These are all dates I would surely forget if they were not on the calendar. More on this later as well (possibly).

What trick has worked well really for you this year?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

38 random questions...

...to answer as the snow is melting, and while it's still too cold to do much thinking about spring's garden. These were posted by Janie, who calls for YOU to copy and paste your answers on your blog as well!
This is my husband and I sledding. The bones creaked, but no one was hurt.

1. Do you like bleu cheese? Yes - with chicken wings, on burgers, on salad, etc.
2. Have you ever been bitten by a dog? only my own as I was feeding him. How ironic is that.

3. Do you own a gun? broken water guns only.
4. Favorite Kool Aid: cherry
5. Do you get nervous before a doctor appointment? Only dental, but I have MUCH experience and I'm good at talking myself down.
6. What do you think of hot dogs? grilled Hebrew National every summer Sunday. Yum. Also, NY System hot weiners are the best - but I'm willing to bet most of you don't know what I'm talking about (it's a Rhode Island thing).
7. Do you give money or other things to panhandlers? Only a guy who was a patient at the psychiatric hospital I worked at. He is mentally ill, a Vietnam vet, the most peaceful Beatles-loving guy, and has been screwed by the "system" in so many ways it's very, very sad. When the hospital was run into the ground, he was once again on the streets - I doubt his medical/mental needs are being addressed. When I see him around, I give him whatever's in my wallet, whether it's a dollar or twenty. I worked with him for 5 years. He's using the money for cigarettes, Taco Bell, coffee, or bibles from the Christian store.

8. What do you prefer to drink in the morning? Grande skim latte.
9. Can you do push ups? Yes, I can do lots, thanks to a 5:30am boot camp class I go to!
10. What's your favorite piece of jewelry? I love earrings and necklaces.

11. What is your favorite hobby? Gardening, reading, eating with friends.
12. Do you have A. D. D.? Only in the garden!

13. Do you wear glasses/contacts? yes
14. Middle name: none
15. Name 3 thoughts at this exact moment: Can this ever be used against me? Is my 4 year old going to come up and interrupt me? Should I go to Starbucks now even though I've already had 2 cups of coffee at home?

16. Name 3 drinks you regularly drink? coffee: gingerbread latte, pumpkin spice latte, and my new fave - iced caramel brulee (and I just figured out the answer to my last question in number 15).
17. Current worry: will I finish the book before Tuesday's book group meeting?

18. Current hate right now: none - it's all peace and love. (edited to add: I hate the formatting on this post and I give up on trying to fix it!)

19. Favorite place to be? Seabrook Island, South Carolina.
20. How did you bring in the New Year? writing resolutions, and eating something decadent I've ordered out for.
21. Where would you like to go? somewhere expensive, preferably by plane.
22. Name people who will complete this: ???
23. Do you own slippers? no, I wear Christmas socks from October through April.
24. What color shirt are you wearing? Beige, but it does have paint splatters on it.

25. Do you like sleeping on satin sheets? Maybe for a minute.

26. Can you whistle? Yes, I love to whistle and can whistle really well!

27. Where are you now? Home, where I've been snowed in for many days now.
28. Would you be a pirate? Perhaps, I like to say booty.

29. What do you sing in the shower? Whatever is currently stuck in my head.
30. What is your favorite girl's name? I really like names like: Isabelle, Claire, Chole, and other stately and feminine sounding names. For my kids, I have chosen names that are somewhat masculine in sound (one ends in -er, one ends in -c). I also like girl names that sound like surnames.
31. Favorite boy's name? If our last child had been a boy, we would have named him Finn.

32. What's in your pocket right now? lint.
33. Thing that made you laugh today? my husband threatening to "tell on me" to the financial planner because of the money I want to spend on my 4 year old's birthday party.
34. What vehicle do you drive? Toyota Highlander. Look, I sacrifice in many ways, but I will always drive an SUV. Once you drive an SUV, you'll never go back.
35. Worst injury you've ever had? Luckily, nothing too serious, but when I worked at a bakery in high school, a falling bagette hit my arm on the way to the ground, and its split top had a few jagged points that totally sliced my arm. There was a lot of blood, and I still have a faint scar.
36. Do you love where you live? yes, I love this house, in this city, in this county, in this state, in this country.

37. How many TV's do you have in your house? one

38. Do you have any tattoos? No. I did plan to have a couple when I was a teenager (before it became "acceptable") but I'm glad I didn't because I would not be happy with the design I thought was PERFECT at the time.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

May your stocking be filled!

Friends: Have you been good this year? Here's hoping your stocking will be filled with the $60 pruners you've always wanted, seed catalogs with gift certificates attached, a bag of heirloom tulip bulbs, new garden clogs, a container of worm castings, a bottle of Sluggo, and the most gigantic flowering amaryllis bulb you've ever seen. Happy holidays to all, and to all a good night!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oh Christmas Tree: the non-sentimental redux

Here are some fun facts I learned from The Washington Post's The Mini Pages, the brilliant kids pullout section that's been running since forever - or at least since I was a kid.

I'm focusing today on the non-religious aspects of the Christmas tree that I found interesting in The Mini Pages.

  • For ancient people, winter was a difficult time. Crops were done and people had food for the cold season, but days were short and skies were gray. To liven their spirits, they would bring evergreen plants or leaves indoors. These reminded them that spring and new growth would come again.
  • Romans had a holiday called Saturnalia. This festival honored the god of agriculture. They decorated their homes with greens for this holiday.
  • The tradition of displaying a Christmas tree probably came to the United States with German immigrants. In fact, Tannenbaum is the German word for fir tree.
  • Some people today choose a live tree to bring inside if they want to plant it outside later. This requires some advance planning. If the ground may be frozen by Christmas, people will need to dig a hole before the freeze. The tree needs to be kept cool while it's indoors. If it gets too warm, the tree will begin to bud, and when it's taken outside, the buds will fall off. Also, root balls are very heavy. A 5-foot tree might have a root ball that weighs 200 pounds!
  • Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states.
  • Christmas trees grow about 1 foot per year.
  • To tell if a tree is fresh: the bottom of trunk is sticky with sap, the needles bend but don't break, and the tree doesn't lose many needles when you shake it.
  • Tree farmers harvest 30 to 35 million trees every year. After the holiday, many are recycled as mulch or sunk in ponds to make homes and feeding areas for fish!

And now I leave you with a few jokes also from this issue of The Mini Pages (answers are in the comments)...

What is a tree's favorite beverage?

What does a maple tree like to watch on TV?

How far is it from one tree to the next in a dense forest?

Monday, December 14, 2009

It might LOOK like a cheap plastic ornament...

...but it's actually one of the very few surviving ornaments from my childhood. Growing up in the late 70's, early 80's there was no shortage of cheap plastic ornaments on our artificial Christmas tree. See my post from a few days ago if you want to relive some of my childhood tree memories with me. The box of crappy ornaments are not so special until your parents decide to sell their house, and your father throws out the box with most of your childhood ornaments in them. My mother was heartbroken and yelled at him for days. Actually, she still yells at him every year around this time. I did not know what I really missed until I saw this most precious plastic candy cane and instantly gripped it to my heart. Since then, it has been packed in tissue every year and put away with the expensive ornaments...

...expensive, like the one below. This is a large, heavy, glass ornament that my older daughter bought a few years ago. Every year, we each get to choose a new special ornament to put on the tree. This makes putting up ornaments fun since the unpacking of each ornament brings back tons of memories...

...memories, such as those this jolly little Santa is keeping. What looks like a silly little candy tube topper, is actually...just that. However,

Underneath, there are about 1-5 needles from every single tree we've had in the past probably...10 years or so. A little piece of scotch tape is all that is required for Santa to hold the evidence of these fun memories.

...fun memories that can actually be bittersweet. My mother-in-law Deana made this cross-stitched Little Drummer Boy for my husband close to 20 years ago. She knew that The Little Drummer Boy was my husband's favorite story. When we unwrap the ornaments each year, my husband tells the kids about Nana (whom my little one did not get to know) who is now an angel...

...much like the pretty angel Nana made that sits in its special place at the top of the tree every year.

...speaking of sitting, here sits Captain Kirk, who must have had his leg gnawed off by a tribble. My sister used to work at a Christmas ornament store when she was a teenager and would collect and bring home all the broken ornaments. She gave us bags of them. In the lean years just after college, all the ornaments on our tree were broken in some way. We had toy soldiers marching on one leg, reindeer missing antlers, Santa minus his bag of goodies, horses with three legs, sleighs without the bells.

So if you were to come and see my motley tree, what might look like a bunch of cheap, plastic, broken down ornaments, are actually cheap, plastic, broken down, extremely meaningful symbols in our family. :)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

homemade holiday gift idea

A few of my friends and family members will be receiving this holiday gift above. The feature of course, is the small jar of bruschetta I canned late this summer. The note attached mentions the combination of Cherokee purple and other heirloom tomatoes, and ajo rojo garlic from my garden used to make the delicious snack, but also explains that it is a very limited edition bruschetta as I will not be laboring over boiling pots of water for hours on end again. Read about my first (and perhaps last) experience canning here. I hope the recipients of this gift will feel special after my several hour ordeal! Along with the tomatoes are a package of mini-toasts, a small bottle of olive oil, and a large and festive star-shaped lollipop with tiny star-shaped flecks in it. All the accessories including the cute container are from World Market.

What other homemade gifts are going to be shared out there this year?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

How to make it snow

This is what you see first thing in the morning if you're a kid who has 1) worn your pajamas inside out, 2) flushed multiple ice cubes down the toilet, and 3) yelled outside at night, "Let it snow"!

Then, you call all your friends and make sure they've done the same.

Below, the collection of kids' and their friends' wet gear after an afternoon's fun at the hill. If you're lucky, your mom makes hot cocoa and has snacks for everyone as you all watch holiday movies downstairs. Winter is grand when you're young!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

To cut or not to cut?

This photo was taken 4 years ago. It must have been my turn to choose the theme because I vaguely remember that everything had to be green, red, or white, - or - had to be a wooden toy or old timey thing.

The title of this post is stolen from the survey posted on Rosey's blog Dung Hoe. Be sure to visit her blog and take the quick vote. The question she poses is simple - real tree or artificial (or neither)?

Because I prefer not to enter treacherous territory by discussing the religious aspect of Christmas or the sustainability/waste aspect of cutting trees, I think I'll just reflect on the simple matter at hand. Real or artificial - as it has pertained to my life.

I grew up with artificial Christmas trees. I don't think I really knew that people cut real trees, (especially since I grew up in a predominantly Jewish area). Each year, my mother would lug the big box from the basement and would have the tree decorated and ready to surprise my sister and I upon coming home from school. When I got older, I remember helping my mother match up the colored base of each branch with the colored hole on the tree "trunk". After this step, we'd bend each branch just so to try to fluff up the tree as much as possible. I guess as a kid, it was just important to have some colorful thing towering over the REAL focus of the season - presents!! Ironically, another artificial thing was the wrapped empty boxes my mom would put under the tree to make it look like we had more presents! Not cool when you think there are 5 presents left and you find out they're just the fake presents to make the tree look nice! Come to think of it, another aspect from my childhood was a little troubling. Santa used to leave cool things in our stockings on Christmas morning (hung on our bedposts) - hello kitty stationary sets, good candy, etc. One year, there were more clementines and fewer goodies. The next year, there was crap in the stocking that my mom must have scavenged the house for - like toys that were ours but we hadn't seen in a long time, Chinese candies that we'd have packed in our lunches, etc. Come on, Santa doesn't give kids Chinese candies! Anyway, fortunately I'm not too scarred by these transgressions made by my mother.
(Photo below: Scott dragging in the tree, the excited screams of kids behind me jumping up and down)

When I moved out of my parents' house, I would always use artificial trees because the thought of cutting down a real tree for my own superficial needs seemed not right. Scott had always made the case for a real tree, as growing up (in Florida of all places!), he always had real trees. The first year we had a REAL tree was when my first child was a toddler. I remember Winter had woken from a nap and a gigantic tree (literally touching the ceiling) was awaiting her as she ran out. There's no way any artificial tree could be fluffed to make it look so full. We probably commented several times a day about how amazing that tree smelled. We constantly obsessed and fussed over that tree. We watered and touched and smelled that tree daily. That year forward, it has become a tradition for my husband to go to his favorite tree guy, bring the biggest and fullest tree home, and for all of us to decorate it together, x-mas music in the background.
It's really a full day affair as each ornament carries a story that must be told every year. Now that our kids are older, we are each taking turns choosing a theme for the year, and we each buy one new "special" ornament a year. There's the pickle ornament that is supposed to be hidden and searched for on x-mas day. We always say, "This year we HAVE to remember to put it in the tree", as we set it on the bookcase waiting to be hidden when kids are not around. Each year, it remains on the bookcase until we're packing everything back up and discover it! There seem to be a million inside jokes and special memories in the gigantic plastic Christmas boxes. All these memories tucked away for 11 months just pour out on tree day each year. It's a joy to revisit each memory each year at this time.
(Photo below: Lyric is 10 months and helping)
(This photo below was taken 4 years ago. Kids taking a break from decorating)

For the first couple of years, I had a problem with the practice of cutting down a tree, hanging balls on it, and throwing it on the curb a few weeks later. Every year, I still feel sad seeing tree upon tree on the curb, dry, on its side, tinsel blowing with the wind.

I do think my family has created lots of traditions that involve having a real Christmas tree. An artificial tree would lack the fragrance that takes you back in an instant. It wouldn't have the sheer number of boughs to hang the dozens of special ornaments. Waiting for dad to bring the box up from the basement wouldn't hold the same sort of anticipatory excitement as waiting for dad to come back from the tree guy - tree tied to the top of the car. The kids literally sit by the window and wait for his car to drive in. I still haven't fully reconciled my unease about chopping down a tree, but I can tell you that the tree that is sacrificed for my family each year is fully worshipped and a foundation for memories new and distant.
Kids in this photo are a year older than in the previous photos. Lyric is walking and talking here and has become fully involved in the decorating!
This is how an almost-2 year old decorates

Found this in the vault along with the others - this is Lyric finding a very clever way to hide herself in the coat rack!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Buttermilk-brined turkey

Now if you know me, you know that I tend to be humble, but I make this statement with assurance and pride. I can make the best damn turkey. I've perfected this turkey after several years of modification and experimentation. Most importantly, each morning after Thanksgiving, I'm missing the 4am early bird sales because I am at home taking copious notes on what went well, what went wrong, and what should be tried to make the following year's turkey even better. With a cup of coffee in hand, I'm sure I annoy everyone as I conduct in-depth analyses, interviewing each family member on the intricacies of the turkey I just cooked the night before.

Here are my top three successful-turkey-cooking tips, followed by what is really what I've found to be THE recipe for the most tasty, succulent turkey. The recipe began as a Williams-Sonoma recipe for buttermilk-brined turkey, but has been modified a great deal. I'm also going to include my own time table for feeding about 10 guests on Thanksgiving. I ask my guests to arrive at 4pm, and we're usually ready to eat by about 4:30 or 4:45 pm. We usually eat on the early side because for all the years I've been cooking, kids and early bedtimes have been a factor.

OK, unless you can already cook a great turkey, you REALLY want to print this out and file it for next year! (I usually am fairly humble, right?)

Top three musts:

  1. Must use a fresh organic turkey (not frozen!).

  2. Buttermilk brine is the way to go. The combination of the buttermilk and the salty solution helps create a tender and juicy turkey.

  3. An instant-read thermometer is the most important part of cooking any meat, but especially a turkey (any cheap one will do).


1 14-16 pound turkey (for my table of about 10 guests with enough for leftovers)

2 cups turkey brine (usually a kosher salt and herb mixture. I've tried different brands, and any seems to work - you could make your own if you really wanted to)

4 quarts buttermilk

1 handful (total) of celery, carrot, onion cut in large pieces

1 stick of butter at room temperature

Large brining bag

6 tablespoons flour (for gravy)

About 1/3 cup Williams-Sonoma Turkey Paste (it's basically a thick mixture of grapeseed oil and dried herbs - you could easily make your own - and next year, I may try)


Wednesday Morning - the day before Thanksgiving:

In a small saucepan over high heat, combine the 2 cups turkey brine and 1 quart water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often, until the brine dissolves, about 5-10 minutes. Let the brine mixture cool to room temperature. While cooling, start the giblet stock.

For the giblet stock, use everything (including neck) except the liver. Simmer in a pot with 12 cups of water and the handful of veggies for 1 hour. Strain (unless you like the giblets in your gravy - I personally don't). Cool, then put away safely in the fridge for tomorrow.

While the stock is cooking and the brine is cooling, rinse the turkey inside and out and place in a large brining bag inside a pot (make sure you put in a pot or you could end up with a big mess if the bag breaks!). Be sure your pot will fit in the fridge.

Now that the brine is cool, add the brine liquid with all it's herbs, and the 4 quarts buttermilk to the bag with turkey. Zip it carefully, pressing out air, and shake it around a bit to completely coat the turkey. Refrigerate for 24-36 hours, turning occasionally (I do this by just taking the pot out and shaking it around a bit).


Thursday (Thanksgiving Day)

  • 12pm: discard buttermilk-brine. I do this by taking the bag out of the pot, putting it in the sink and clipping a corner of the bag. I drain the liquid first because this avoids any potential mess. Take the turkey out of the bag and rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water and pat dry. Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a large roasting pan. Carefully slide your hand between the breast meat and the skin and add a generous amount of turkey paste (or oil/herb mixture). Let the turkey stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Also, take the turkey stock and butter out of the refrigerator.
  • 1:30pm: position a rack in the lower third of oven and preheat to 400 degrees F. Set aside 2 cups of stock to make gravy later on, and add the rest of the turkey stock to the bottom of the roasting pan. Rub butter on the outside of the turkey and then plop the stick right into the bottom of the roasting pan as well, right into the stock. Roast the turkey for 30 minutes, watching carefully that the skin does not brown too quickly. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F, and continue roasting, basting every 30 minutes or so with the pan juices. If the breast begins to brown too quickly, tent it loosely with aluminum foil. After about 2 hours of total roasting time, begin testing for doneness by inserting the instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, away from the bone. The breast should register 165 degrees, and the thigh, 175 degrees. Here's the important trick - if the breast is not at 165, set your timer for 10 minutes and check again. Relying on the right temperature and not overcooking is KEY. Using the timer so you don't forget to check often is KEY. The turkey will be done around 4pm or so. If you have never cooked an fresh and organic turkey, you'll notice they often cook a little faster than frozen turkeys.
  • When the turkey breast registers 165, remove from oven, transfer to a carving board, cover loosely with foil and let rest for 20-30 minutes.
  • To make the gravy: pour all the pan drippings into a gravy separator (not imperative, but a worthwhile tool to have - even if you use it once a year!). Add about 6 tablespoons of fat to a medium saucepan. Add 6 tablespoons flour, whisking constantly and cook till brown. Add the remaining 2 cups turkey stock and drippings (the pan juices only - no more fat). You may need to play around with the gravy adding water/stock to thin or more of a flour/water (slurry) mixture to thicken. The pan juices will be very salty, so if you choose to add salt, taste first.

Last thoughts - This is the recipe that has worked for me consistently for a few years and was probably as close to perfected this year as it's going to get. I realize there are all sorts of prized recipes (and I'd love to hear them!) whether they involve basting with a soaked cheese cloth, the philosophy of no basting, or being deep fried in gallons of oil. If you don't already have a great recipe - the buttermilk brine is the method to try next year!

Oh, and don't forget - in the words of Moose from Nick Jr. "When everyone's together, everyone is happy, we're thankful that we have so much to share".

Friday, November 27, 2009

...why someone would consider this blog "best"

... is totally beyond me!

Nonetheless, I have to thank Avis from CityDiggity.com (who shares mouth watering recipes and stories from her urban garden) and Deborah from Green Theatre (who provides non-stop inspiration for the outdoors and indoors) for this Best Blog Award!

I take this award very seriously and am not sure I can pass it along to any number of people fairly. For all the blogs I would vote "best" - see the blogs I've listed to the right under Gardening Blogs, and also below that under Other Sites To Visit. I read each blog regularly for motivation, education, laughs, and understanding.

To play along a bit, I will give an extra special "best blog" shout out to Rosey Pollen (Dung Hoe), Julie (The Little Things), and Grace Peterson who all make me laugh out loud. Lynn (Best in Bloom Today) is also the sweetest someone who I know I would like to friends with in real life. Autumn Belle (My Nice Garden) in Malaysia, is such an interesting person who will occasionally share cultural aspects that are sometimes very different, but sometimes remotely similar to my own.

To rebel a bit from this, I would also like to revert back to the Honest Scrap Award and tag Kathy Jentz from Washington Gardener magazine. Kathy is a crazy busy person, assuring that Washington DC area gardeners are kept abreast of garden happenings, best practices, trends, methods, etc. What we DON'T know though...who is the lady behind the publication, blog, enewsletter, and everything else she does???

Monday, November 23, 2009

Having a baking friend means...

...surprise gifts of cake!

After discovering the lovely arrangement on my doorstep from Grace yesterday, I received this delicious cake today from Anissa!

Anissa is my very sweet and thoughtful neighbor who found me in working in the garden last weekend as she was strolling with her husband. Lucky for her - and more for me - she stopped because after my generous sweet potato harvest from the side yard garden, I remembered I tucked a few plants in my backyard potager as well. I had just dug a bag's worth and passed them all along to Anissa. Sweet potatoes must be the "pay it forward" food. I can't tell you what is in the cake, but what I CAN tell you is that it's delicious with my glass of milk. A delightful late night treat!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Having a gardening friend means...

... surprise gifts of simple and very special arrangements!

I gave my friend Grace (photos of her gorgeous late summer garden here) a mini sweet potato casserole last week and on my doorstep yesterday was not just the empty dish, but a vase with one of her lovely reblooming irises, surrounded with sage. I can't believe her irises are still blooming and we're right up to Thanksgiving!

Perhaps I'll look around my garden and see what I can fill the vase with when I go to return it to Grace! Why ever give anything back empty? :)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Most invaluable tool: bird netting (with a tangent on Brood X cicada)

One of the most invaluable tools in my garden is bird netting. I bought this large roll of bird netting a few years ago to protect my young magnolia from the Brood X Cicada that invades my area only every 17 years.

A quick tangent... The Brood X Cicada was horrendous! For a period of several weeks, the cicadas were everywhere. If you're not a bug lover, all you need to know is this - they are large, loud, and horrible. There were soooooo many everywhere that I would hesitate before walking out because inevitably, several would drop upon opening the front door. Before going out to my car, I would seal the neckline of my shirt, seal my purse, cover my head, and then run so that they would not land on me. They are slow fliers, like to dive right at you, and like to land on you. At one point, it was impossible to walk outdoors without having a cicada land on you. Click here , scroll down and play the video to hear what I heard constantly for weeks. It was deafening outdoors. Towards the end of the season, the cicadas were beginning to die and could be found EVERYWHERE. Along the street curbs were pulsating mounds and mounds of dead and dying cicadas. Once, I was driving (with a pile of dead cicadas collected under the windshield/hood area) and a headless cicada began crawling up my windshield. It would not blow away and I resisted the urge to turn on my windshield wiper (cause we know what happens when we try to windshield wipe bugs - it's not pretty). But I digress...

Stores were out of bug netting so I purchased a large roll of bird netting and wrapped my tree two or three times. When cicada season was thankfully over, I began to find many uses for this netting:

  • In the photo above, my sweet potatoes were drying outside. To protect them from my thieving backyard enemies (squirrels, raccoons, who knows what else), I brought them to the front yard and protected them with netting. One time I watched someone on a walk steal my Sunday paper right from my driveway. Over my sweet potatoes, the netting would also serve as a "this is not yours to take" message.

  • The netting successfully protected my butternut squash all season. See my squash here.

  • This is an obvious choice for protecting berries from birds. My new strawberry patch was protected this spring with a layer of this netting while berries were forming. I use this with some fantastic stakes I may show you in a later post.

  • I use this netting in the garden after sowing any kind of seed (like lettuce, carrots, etc.) to prevent my cat from using it as a litter box - this is the most frequent reason for using the netting in my garden. After the seedlings begin to grow, I'll remove the netting. At this point, my cat will not dig around, and the garden will have been protected.

  • For fall bulb planting, I will often lay this netting down to prevent squirrels from digging up what I've just planted.

  • After patching up some bald spots in my backyard, I used some stakes and the netting as a simple temporary fence so no one would trample the area.

This bird netting goes way beyond its intended purpose in my garden. It will probably last forever and I have many pieces cut to size for a variety of uses. Perhaps it will be of use to you as well!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Crocus Sativus - producer of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world

Crocus Sativus - this delicate little autumn bloom is the producer of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.

Sure the bright orange-red stigma is striking against the lavender petals of the crocus, but why all the fuss? Consider the many uses:
  • Cooking - candies, liquors, breads, desserts, Spanish paella, and other food from practically every culture. Personally, I love saffron because it is used in many of my favorite Indian dishes.
  • Medicinal - cancer suppressant properties, antioxidant, antidepressant, mutation suppressant properties, protects the eyes, and general healing. Saffron has been linked to the healing of over 90 illnesses!
  • Other purposes - fabric dye, perfumery, general food coloring.

Believe it...

  • Saffron's history reaches back 4000 years.
  • One pound of saffron requires 50,000 to 75,000 flowers - the growing area equivalent to a football field.
  • One pound of saffron would cost between 500-5000 US dollars depending on the grade (color, taste, and fragrance).

Growing information:

  • Plant new bulbs in the very early autumn for bloom around October. To begin with, try planting about 2 dozen.
  • Crocus sativus will thrive in full sun, with loose well-watered and well-drained soil (what wouldn't??).
  • Bloom period is about 1-2 weeks.

To harvest the precious little threads:

  • Be sure to catch the blossoms when they open. Most blooms will last one day and will wilt as the day passes.
  • Pluck the 3 orange-red stigmas in the center of the crocus sometime in the mid-morning on a sunny day when the bloom is fully opened.
  • Let air dry then store in an air-tight container.

To use the most expensive spice in the world:

  • Steep about 1 teaspoon saffron in about 3 teaspoons of hot water or broth for about 2 hours.
  • Add both threads and steeping liquid early in the cooking or baking process.

IF, and this is a big IF, a cute little lavender flower doesn't appeal to you, IF you don't have a tiny patch of garden to plant some unassuming bulbs, IF you can't use a little extra color in October, and IF the process of harvesting your own very expensive spice from a very cheap bulb doesn't appeal to you, you could think about buying saffron at the store to try. Here are some tips:

  • Buy threads, not powdered saffron. The powder could be cut with turmeric, a cheap spice that imparts a similar color. It may be cheaper, but will require more to be used for the same flavor impact.
  • Sometimes saffron is dyed to give that red color cooks want. This is not good. You want to look for the real thing - the saffron thread should be red, but the tips should be slightly lighter in color.

Enjoy the color and fragrance of saffron in your favorite food tonight...

Monday, November 16, 2009

GBBD November: more blooms than before

I would not have thought that November would bring even more blooms than before. Lots of summer perennials are still going strong. Everything I posted in Not Quite Kaput (just a few posts down) is still going. In addition, you'll see below what is new or has changed. First, my favorite two shrubs. Sinocalycalycanthus is the tall yellow shrub. Remember I mentioned this shrub in the spring when I'll no doubt showcase it's beautiful maroon flowers. In the foreground is the fothergilla beaver creek. In an earlier post, you'll see the leaves green and red. This little shrub is gorgeous for a full 3 seasons.

New chrysanthemums in bloom below...

This one below has been in bloom for a while (and I'm sure is in an earlier post), but I had not taken a close up appreciation of the tips of each tendril.

Benikaze - maroon/green in the summer.

Diamond grass. I have 6 of these dotted on the slope in my backyard.

Below, a white knock out rose I just put in the ground, giving a nice preview of what's to come next year!

My favorite site of the season - new hellebores growth! (what's NOT my favorite site? Slug damage on new leaves)

Visit May Dream's to see what else is blooming on November 15th all over the world!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Merry Christmas (cactus) !

Christmas cactus greetings!

These two merry flowers may seem insignificant to the houseplant enthusiast, but they carry with them 18 years of history.

  • Purchased in a Stop and Shop in North Kingstown, Rhode Island in 1992, the Christmas cactus in full bloom enjoyed it's sunny window in a third floor apartment. Despite being the lean college years, the plant enjoyed a decadent life. The Christmas cactus was treated to a few drops of Miracle-Gro every once in a while, and was watered religiously. There is nothing that makes an 18 year old person feel more like an adult than meticulously caring for a houseplant.
  • In 1996, the Christmas cactus traveled in a Budget moving van 400 miles south to Maryland. Its next home was in front of a sunny window in another lovely third floor apartment in a horrendously horrible apartment complex. The moment the lease was up, we moved again.
  • From 1997 to 2001, the Christmas cactus enjoyed a sunny spot on the windowsill of a rented basement apartment in a charming yellow Victorian house. In the beginning, it enjoyed its new neighbors - many African violets and my sister's houseplants we inherited when she left for graduate school. When the baby came along, the houseplants that couldn't take care of themselves were tossed and the Christmas cactus remained.
  • In 2001, the charming yellow Victorian house was sold by the owners, leaving us without a home. Off with hubby, baby, 2 cats, dog, 1 houseplant to my parents' basement for the next 8 months. The Christmas cactus is now suffering not only neglect, but lack of any sunlight at all.
  • Spring 2002 to present - the people, animals, and 1 houseplant all move into the house we bought under the tall maple trees. The Christmas cactus is joined by a couple other houseplants, but goes through cycles of being the sole survivor of severe neglect as the number of people increase and the number of chores increase, preventing the Christmas cactus from receiving any care at all save for a watering every now and then.
  • From it's humble first home in Rhode Island 18 years ago, to it's only slightly-better situation today, this merry little Christmas cactus bids you a good day!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

sweet GEORGIA jets!

It was a muddy day, and I merely wanted to check on these sweet potatoes. If you grow anything that needs to be dug up, you know the excitement can be likened to a pirate finding booty. I found Gold (or red-orange to be more accurate)!!

To fully appreciate my bounty, one has to remember that I'm just a humble little backyard gardener. The first year, I got a few fingerlings. To be honest, they were really more like fat roots than actual sweet potatoes - another crop that my daughter would yell, "Mom! You're wasting it" upon catching me peeling the tiny potatoes. Not this time though. I think there were a few factors that made this year's harvest successful:

  • I didn't play around with different varieties and just focused on a variety of sweet potato that has proven to do well in my area (Georgia Jet).
  • I dug in lots of compost prior to planting and planted in hills about 18 inches high.
  • I kept the area mulched and weeded.
  • They were planted in a sunnier location than usual.
  • They were planted in my "magic garden". I can't go into the details here, mainly because it's still a mystery to me, but the little side yard garden has special powers and grows perfect lettuce, large garlic bulbs, many luffa gourds, edemame, whatever I put in it.

I really should have dug these sweet potatoes on a drier day. Perhaps I wouldn't have experienced this casualty.

Off to research some recipes!

And speaking of buried treasure, check out this root a farmer in China found...


Friday, November 6, 2009

Not quite kaput...

Alstroemeria 'sweet laura'

Salvia 'east friesland' started from seed, and blooming since June in its neglected container.

Marigolds in the vegetable garden will no doubt go on blooming forever!

Hiding under the Northern Sea Oats, a cyclamen (or should I say cyclaman?)...

This cane rose produces gorgeous red roses all summer...

This rose is my favorite. It's a tea rose and the fragrance knocks you out.

Lavender still going... I bought these and planted them just about a month ago.

Morning glory, the beautiful bane of my existence, still blooming and setting seed for all kinds of fun come spring time.

Crocus sativus - more on this wonderful little fall-blooming crocus in a future post.

Gaillardia - this tough perennial has been blooming for most of the summer. It was planted last fall. After it was in bud in the late spring, the deer leveled it. A few weeks later, it was in bud again when the deer came back for seconds. It finally had a chance to bloom, just before I moved it. After a little shock, it bounced back and made a fresh flush of leaves and blooms. I think this perennial deserves a space in every garden!

Some of my chrysanthemums...

The gorgeous "saga nashiki" chrysanthemum.

A little spotlight on one of my favorite shrubs, fothergilla 'beaver creek'. What else can beat the white bottlebrush blooms in the spring, lush green textured leaves in the summer, and beautiful autumn color?

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