Friday, November 13, 2009

Tribute to Fall

I took these pictures a few weeks ago when the colors were at their peak.  One shot from the backyard and the rest are from the Morton Arboreteum in Lisle, Il.  I try and hike there a few times a week. 


Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Leaves. Beginning mid-October and until mid-November, leaves occupy every weekend. If I am not at the arboreteum, hitting the trails, I'm in the yard, dealing with the endless leaves.

Once upon a time we used to bag them whole and put them by the curb and pay to have someone take them away. That got pricey. We have 35+ trees on our lot and we were spending big bucks having them hauled away. That practice morphed into leaf chopping. We would spend the entire weekend blowing all the leaves into the driveway into a huge mound and then spend a couple of hours going over them with a lawn mower to chop them into fine particles. This created a new problem, ridiculously heavy bags. The picker upper people refused to pick them up. The light bulb moment came when a woman at my husband's work offered to take them all off our hands every year forever...for her garden.

Before this time, my relationship with leave clean-up was not positive. Once we blew it off, got a week straight of rain and went out to find an completely dead and rotting lawn. I resented having to spend the last great weather weekends with this chore. That was before I knew the magic of leaf mold.

Now things are very different. I have kids that are old enough to really help and young enough to still respond to bribes. Judicious pruning has reduced the overall amount of leaves we have to deal with, but most importantly, I have tasted the magic that leaf mold does for the soil. We are probably 3/4 done with it for this year. This was the easiest year yet. Instead of blowing 100% of them into the driveway, I blew a bunch of them into the beds and just chopped them to smithereens there. From the driveway I still have 14 full bags of very fine mulch to spread around but I'm not giving any away. This stuff is gold!

Friday, October 2, 2009

San Marzano's Last Hurrah

I have been harvesting San Marzano tomato's all summer. They are a highly productive sauce tomato. Some say they make the best sauce in the world. My experience with them has been that they make great sauce! They grow in clusters of fruit that ranges in size from three to six inches long. They are definitely a sun loving tomato. While they seemed to be equally productive in different areas of the garden, those that got the most sun, got the most size.

Many of my tomatoes are done now. I had another huge harvest of 30+# of tomatoes a couple of days ago, before the storm and have continued to average 5-10 fruit a day. Really remarkable year. I definitely am putting down the composted horse poop again. I'm not sure if it is what has made such a huge difference for me with the peppers and tomatoes this year or if was just a better choice of heirloms but I'm not taking chances. Poop hauling is not fun, but it's so worth it.

Disease has come with the cool rains that started this week and Sungold, Dr. Carolyn, Cherokee Purple, and Amish Paste are all toast. It happened overnight but it's OK, they were declining anyway. Cosmonaut Volkov is still healthy but production is waning. San Marzano and Carbon are still blooming their little hearts out. They were all knocked down to half their height in a major storm we had this week though. They bent and didn't break, so I've propped them up in the hope the remaining fruits will ripen. I probably have another 30 tomatoes still out there. If not, that's OK. It's been a great year. I don't wanna be greed.

Monday, September 7, 2009

No Fall Changes Yet

The summer of weirdness continues. I'm sorry I've been slacking on the blog. We got busy with school starting and oddly, there was not that much to report. Typically by this time of year I've started to see some decline in the plants by now. Not this year, things are looking as green and lush as they did a month ago. The tomatoes are even still throwing more blooms which his weird. I'm starting to get a little antsy for some change here. While I love all the produce, I really need to start prepping some of the beds soon. Once the manure pile at the stables freeze, I can't do anything and we can go from balmy to badness overnight here.

I've been reading it has not been a good year for tomatoes all over forum land. I'm a bit bewildered why I am having such a different year. I had all the same ridiculous rain, cool temps and cloudy skies as other areas are reporting, yet I seem to have dodged not only the majority of the diseases that people have seen but also the low productivity.

This is one day's tomato harvest. I've been averaging 20-25 of these a day plus about a pint of cherries. I have tomatoes coming out of my ears and they are healthy. August has been fairly dry so the flavor of these guys is really becoming something special. I'm still eating a cereal size bowl of salsa every couple of days too. I'm not tired of them yet!

The one item in the garden that is starting to wane is the cukes. Here is today's harvest but lemon cuke as well as the other novelty cukes is fading fast. I'll be growing lemon again. It was a really productive plant and once you rub off the scratchys you can eat it skin and all. Very tasty and pretty in a salad.

The pears are starting to ripen now. Mine are never great beauties because I don't spray. It's often an adventure trying to get a few in the house too. The black wasps really like these things and once a couple are on the ground, good luck getting any for yourself. These five cost me one sting in the neck. : (

This is the best year I have ever had for peppers. Not only did mine finally get some size to them but the chocolates are starting to ripen up nicely. Belgium red has been a bit more productive than chocolate but so far not red beauties from any of those plants. I think the key to my success with these this year has been two-fold. Much richer, better quality soil and staking. While we didn't get the massive wind storms this summer that we usually do, I lost nothing to breakage, which makes a difference.
This weekend in the garden, I finally got around to planting some stuff for fall. The broccoli, cabbage and lettuce are in. I'm tossing around the idea with experimenting with the bin containers to put in even more but first I need stuff to die! LOL
I hope everyone is enjoying this gorgeous weather. I'm off for a walk to the arboreteum.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Prettiest Tomato of Them All

In my garden, there is no contest as to the most attractive tomato. Sure Sungold looks like little orange jewels, the push-up orange color or persimmon is an attention getter and Black Krim is pretty in a dark sort of way. The queen of the garden, however is Chocolate Stripes.

Chocolate Stripes has mannerisms consistent with royalty. She makes you wait, being the latest to ripen of my varieties. She is strong and has resisted all of the bits of illness that have touched other varieties this year. Her taste is something special, sweet rich and complex. She was not a sure thing, she needed some coddling to get her off and running. She, like Persimmon are definitely fans of warmth. The cool, wet weather we had for the most of the summer made her sulk. I'm saving the seeds from this big girl in the photo as well as regrowing some of my seeds from this year, next year. This late in the year when I'm hauling in 15-20 slicers a day, pretty little girls like this are wonderful for keeping my interest up.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Verdict on the Sack'o Potatoes

Earlier this year, I read about the ability to grow potatoes in relatively smallish containers. There were special ones that could be bought for this in Britain, but I decided to try and make one of my own. I made it out of landscape fabic in about 15 minutes via sewing machine.

This was my first attempt at growing potatoes. I selected a variety that went with this year's garden theme of weird veggies. The purple potato. Planting was nothing fancy. Four little purple potatoes seedlings planted in potting soil and a bit of straw. As summer progressed, and the potato vines grew I added more dirt to the container and slowly unrolled the sides to their full height. The container after that was essentially maintenance free. No water demands to speak of other than the rain. (Though we did have a very wet spring/summer).

My initial plan was to cut slits in the side of the sack and plant annuals in it to make the whole thing more attractive. I never got around to it, but it wasn't needed. The plant for this variety of potato was quite pretty and lush enough to cover the bag almost completely until last week. Last week, half the plant died without ever blooming.

I decided to empty it all out today to see what I got. Potatoes! Not a ton of them but considering what a small space they grew in, I'd say not too bad. They look kind of weird here because I just washed them and they are still half wet. We're going to grill them tomorrow.

My verdict on this experiment? A success! Pretty plant, small space, no cost, no maintenance and a meal of potatoes once foliage dies. Yep, I'll take it. Plus there was not one bit of bug damage to a single spud despite a big family of little ants that moved in.

The live portion of the plant still had a bunch of baby spuds on them so I replanted it to see if I can get a few more out of it. I'll do this again next year. I'm tempted to see what happens with one of the highly productive varieties, but the kids love the purple ones so much, we'll see.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Heat Is On

My plant/garden sitter when I vacation is a brilliant 83 year old gentleman that knows nothing about gardening and isn't particularly interested in learning. He likes to water, his way, period. That means there will be no discussion about keeping leaves dry or being consistent with tomato moisture or avoiding flooding the melon patch. You take it as it is delivered or you don't. I took it, and it worked out just fine.

I'm back from vacation and things are in pretty decent shape. I picked every single remotely blushed tomato before I left and took it with me up north. Fresh salsa every day, now that's a vacation!
When I got back it was time to harvest again and the harvest was a decent size. The only tomato that hasn't ripened so far is Chocolate stripes, but that is a later tomato and it's getting close. The flavor of all of the harvest was good, not too watery and the only cracking I had was in a few sungolds, which is expected. My plant sitter did good!
One small blip with the self-watering apparatus thing I set up for the balcony tomatoes. It was working fine for a week before I left but failed while I was gone. Two of the Dr. Carolyns are pretty fried but they were so healthy to begin with, they're going to make it and are still blooming.

There were a couple of nice surprises when I returned. For one thing, the rain finally slowed down so we didn't immediately have to start the task of mowing a foot of lawn. It can wait until the weekend! Another surprise was in the cuke/melon bed. Lemon cuke exploded in both growth of vines and number of cukes. I harvested one for a picture and can go out any time and pick about four more, there are easily two dozen cukes on this plant right now. I'll definitely grow this again.

The next surprise had the kids excited. The Dragon's Egg cucumber gave us our first cuke. It's cute! This plant is much less healthy than Lemon cuke but it has the kiddo's chomping veggies with enthusiasm so it will be back next year.

In the same area I have my first ever baby watermelon! It is about the size of a half dollar and doesn't have much chance of reaching maturity but I'm going to try. I put black plastic under it today to help with heat.

The remaining surprises were completely unexpected. I was not happy when I saw the state of the purple potatoes in their sack because they were half dead and had not yet bloomed. I did a quick search in the first couple of inches of soil under the dead section and pulled out a very satisfactory purple spud! That means there should be more where that came from! The final surprise was with persimmon the prima donna. She had nine pretty orange tomatoes ready for me to pick and a boat load more to come.

Other than the damage to the balcony tomatoes, the only other loss was most of the leaves from the stupid beans that had finally at long last started to climb the teepee. It looks to be the work of bambis. The plants are still alive and climbing but the vision of a lush hideout for munchkins has gone bye bye. Oh well, you win some you lose some and if that's the only irritation I have to trade for ten days of awesome quiet sunsets, I'll take it!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Update on Vines That Hate Cold Climes

Yeah yeah I know. Poetry is not a strength of mine. Neither is growing vining vegetables (Please refer to multiple past references to "stupid beans") They say it has been a record cold summer here. That sounds horrid, but the reality is that it has been quite pleasant. Record cold here means, not hot. We've had upper seventies, low eighties and no nineties. Really perfect weather for all things but growing stuff that likes it hot, aka watermelon. Nevertheless, I'm going to put my watermelon in the positive column this year because I've done better with it this year. Last year it spent the entire summer the size of my shoe before eventually becoming an ant appetizer. This year I have actually seen a couple of male blossoms on my two little plants. This late there isn't much hope for any edible fruit, but who knows, if the freakish weather continues, anything could happen!

Lemon yellow cucumber is doing a little bit better. It's in the same bed, my hottest bed, and it is loaded with blossoms. I think I may even see the beginnings of some baby cukes, but I'm not sure yet.

Dragon's Egg cucumber is a smaller plant than Lemon Yellow which is possibly related to being in less sun. Regardless, it is a bit farther along. Definite baby dragon's eggs on this one. It had some help in the pollination department. It's looking a little pale here. Looks like it's getting some worm tea for dinner tomorrow.

Chinese Yellow is my other cuke I am growing this year. It is struggling which is not surprising as it is growing in the wilds. The wilds is an area of my garden that is typically neglected, partially because the hose doesn't reach there and partially because of the skunk that lives in the woodpile.

The wilds used to be mostly shade as well. Then last week, Com Ed came in and lopped a massive limb off the apple tree for no apparent reason. It was nowhere near the vicinity of their power lines. Anyway, the end result was less apples and more light, enough now to allow several of varieties of vegetables to either show their stuff or suffer a slow, neglected death. Chinese yellow cuke is losing the battle. I think it's potato bugs chomping on it. They are completely ignoring the lemon cuke next to it which is interesting. Something to note for next year.

White squash is also growing in the wilds. It seems to be doing OK, despite being in shade a lot of the day. It has had a couple of male blossoms this week which were big and healthy looking. I'll try some hand fertilization if a girl blossom shows up.

I've never tried honeydew melons before but my daughter really wanted to try them this year. I forgot which variety this is, but after doing nothing for weeks, it seems to have figured out, the heat isn't coming. It has finally started to grow and blossom. It has fencing around it to keep the dog out of it. The toads like to hang out around it and the dog likes to harass the toads.

I had extra melon seed so I stuck one in the hanging tomato planters. It grew and has also blossomed. There are several problems with this arrangement which I'm sure you don't need me to explain. I'll just let you gaze in awe at the silly mistakes that can occur in the garden when one is bored.

Finally, the thread wouldn't be complete without a picture of a zuke. I am not fond of zucchini. I think I can trace it back to the zucchini pancakes my evil sister used to request of my grandma. It could also be the propensity for this plant to be one day from perfect on Monday and on Tuesday to be bloated past all hope of tastiness.
This is the only zuke in my garden. I planted it in the farthest corner of the wilds directly in front of the skunk's woodpile. It already has zucchini on it. Figures.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tuesday Treats! Salsa!

Short on time and big on tomatoes? The obvious treat is salsa! I've made it the last two days to have with chips and taco's and chicken. I forgot to take a picture of the ingredients before I snarfed them all down today so you get a picture of the remaining tomatoes. I've been using Carbon, Matina, Dr. Carolyn, Cherokee Purple, Cosmonaut Volkov and Amish paste tomatoes. For a variety of flavors.

My first recipe comes from Jen, a forum friend. It's simple! Chop a bowl of tomatoes, sprinkle with a decent amount of kosher salt and let it sit for 5-10 minutes. Drain the bowl most of the way and add chopped cilantro, lime juice, a seeded chopped jalapeno, and chopped red onion. It's fantastically fresh tasting and
can be whipped together in minutes.

This afternoon I roasted the tomatoes under the broiler, a jalapeno, a vidalia onion, a sweet red pepper and a couple of gloves of garlic. Then I chopped it all up, drained the excess juice and seasoned it with bit of cumin, kosher salt, pepper, a handful of cilantro and the juice of a whole lime. Also delicious. I may have some again for breakfast!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Beans Moved! And Other Updates!

It has been a good week. Loads of luscious tomatoes, a bit of warmth and sun, Japanese beetles that visited only briefly and alleluia the beans moved!

My pole beans which have been in the ground three+ months now have done something. Now there is nothing robust or rambunctious about the tiny little tendril they sent up to wind around the poles. It is quite pathetic actually. Perhaps I should be calling them petite haricot vertsto be more accurate with the way they are behaving. Nevertheless a bit of wimpy growth is better than stagnation, so I at this point I will take it and rejoice!

Progress in the circle garden has been more substantial. I had Spazzy McDrool do a bit of posing here for scale. This mass of green stuff is as follows: Basil , chives, and annuals in the foreground, peppers behind that, zinnia and perennials behind that, tomatoes next and then behind that eggplant, more basil and annuals again. At this point any symmetry has been lost by the not so attractive staking and clotheslines between the trees hold up the tomato plants. Not caring at this point, just eating. A lot!
The back corner is still looking pretty good. A Bambi flattened all the onions and beheaded a few chard but so far no depressing damage from varmints or pests. This bed has required next to zero attention the last couple of weeks other than tomato picking and yanking a rare weed. I'm kicking myself that I never used cocoa bean mulch back here before. What a huge difference in weeding. It's great!
Here's a closer look at the same bed. The geraniums are looking kind of tired and I should have squished the dead allium stems down a bit better in the back before taking a picture, but all in all things aren't looking too bad for this time of year!

Finally an update on this years problem child. On June 13, I granted the refusing to grow Persimmon tomato a stay of execution and gave it one more chance in a container on that patio. Here's a pic. Persimmon responds well to threats. It's growing all over the place and is now loaded with tomatoes that are sizing up very quickly. The peppers in this container are doing well too. Their peppers are twice the size of those in the circle garden on half the size plants. This container averages temperatures of about 90 degrees on most days and it seems that was just what the doctor ordered for Ms. Persimmon.
Have a good weekend everyone. Wishing you good gardening, pleasant hammock swinging or at least no hail!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Don't Let Them See Red

It's used to get the attention of bulls, We use it to draw in hummingbirds. It's designed into the most important signs so we notice them.
RED. Whether two legged, four legged or six legged, red gets attention. That's why this time of year, I take measures to minimize how much of it is visible. My tomatoes are ripening by the droves now. However, I don't allow them to become fully red on the vine.

It's been my experience that the fruits on my vines tend to remain untouched while they are green, peachy, or orange. The day they turn red though, you can expect chunks out of them from squirrels, holes in them from bugs and total disappearance of them from the neighbor's landscapers who spot them and respond to the call of their juicy goodness.

It is said that the best tasting tomato is one that is allowed to become fully ripe on the vine. Thankfully, my palate is not refined enough to notice any difference in the slicers from one that is allowed to ripen on the vine and one that ripens on the safety of the kitchen counter. Cherries are different for me. I do let them get fully ripe on the vine because I notice a difference in those that don't . I am also less sad if I loose one of them to a bug or a chipmunk.

When I pick the slicers is dependent on a few variables. Typically, I like to pick them when they are starting to orange up. If it is a treasured variety that is not that productive and I only have a few of, I might pick it a bit sooner to assure at least a one makes it in my belly. Something like Matina that is loaded and being picked at the rate of six or seven a day is allowed to go longer. I pick a bit earlier if I will be out of town for a week and not able to keep on top of it. I pick a bit later if they seem to be ripening up slower on the counter. It varies.

Avoiding big balls of red in the garden this time of year allows me to have tomatoes without worm holes and I avoid the feeling of dismay that comes from arriving home and seeing a six inch cherokee purple laying on the ground half eaten with flies on it. The slight flavor trade-off isn't for some, but it sure works great for me!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tuesday Treats! Shrimp with Garden Vegetables

This week's treat is shrimp and garden veggies over linguine. The ingredients coming from the garden are a couple kinds of basil, cilantro, onion, celery, tomatoes, green sweet and poblano peppers. I purchased the red and orange peppers as well as a can of organic diced tomatoes to make sure I had enough to double the recipe. This one has a lot of chopping so I wanted to make enough for two days. You can make most of it on the grill if you like or all of it on the stove top.
The first thing I did was oil the poblano and throw it on the grill which had some hickory chips smoking to develop it's flavor. Then I started rough chopping the veggies and started the water for the noodles.
The shrimp came next. I got them started on the grill to develop some smokiness to them. I didn't cook them all the way though, because I didn't want them tough. Once the shrimp were about 3/4 done, I took them off to cool and peel and started sauting the celery, pepper, and onion until soft. The last minute a good amount of garlic got added as well. Once they were soft, they got moved to the stovetop into a deep pan with the shrimp, and tomatoes. Seasoning next, salt, pepper and worchester sauce to taste. I let all this cook for just a couple of minutes, I wanted to retain the bright colors and tastes. The last minute of cooking I added some cilantro, basil and parsley. I used linguine from the refrigerator section and even though its whole wheat it only takes 2-3 minutes to cook so you have to be ready for it.
I served the whole thing with fresh pineapple, honey sunflower bread and s'mores for dessert. This concoction takes a bit of time to chop and clean and shell the shrimp but it tastes even better on day two so it works for weekday meals well.
Family Rating: 8.5 on average. Range 7-9.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I Don't Bait Beetles

Visiting gardening forums and blogs can be so helpful, particularly this time of year when my most dreaded garden pest is due to hatch. I was alerted on Friday to start watching for Japanese beetles when my forum friends in Missouri and Indiana started posting about them. Sure enough, two days later, they hatched.

There are as many suggestions for dealing with this pest as there are weeds in the garden. One that is particularly popular is baiting. Homemade or store bought baits are placed in the garden to catch and kill the beetles. Photos show some pretty impressive (and disgusting) numbers of beetles in these traps. I have no doubt, they are an effective means to catch beetles. Still, I don't bait.

My theory is that beetle traps can actually make the situation much worse by luring even more beetles onto your property. Instead, my method is simple. Catch em. The kiddos can be enlisted for this task. Current going price on a beetle head is a dime. They were a nickle on the first day they hatched due to large quantity. When we catch them, we stick them in a bug hotel with stuff to munch on, because we are dorks and feel bad squishing them. OK sometimes we also feed them to the toads. Most of them go in the bug hotel though.

Japanese beetles don't bite, but they feel creepy when you catch them. They have claws on their feet that don't hurt at all, but you definitely know you have a beetle in your hand. There are a couple of tricks to catching them. Early morning or late evening are the easiest, because when they are cold, they are less likely to fly. These beetles have a trick where they roll on their side and off whatever they are hanging onto. If they are on a huge tomato, good luck finding them once they roll off. That's why when I go to nab on, I place one hand under the leaf and then go to grab it. Most of the time they roll right into my hands. It's handy to have your container right there because once they unfurl their legs from the rolling, it feels ICK!

This seems like a lot of work, but am/pm beetle scanning after the first day only takes a few minutes. They seem to pick a few favorite plants and you'll find 90% of them hanging out there. There year for me, they have been on the peppers, the fugly bush and one tomato plant on the patio (Persimmon-of course). They only seem to be eating the peppers and whoo boy a few missed beetles can do a LOT of damage!
Catching them early is the key. We made a huge dent in the numbers the first day they appeared. Tonight I only plucked three. There have been less and less everyday. Beetle feet are creepy but I'll take them over a stinky beetle trap any day, especially if I only have to deal with the feet for a few days.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Time to Order Garlic! Yes you can grow it in the North

When you read about what is needed to grow garlic, it doesn't sound like something that would do well in Illinois. Winters here are wild variations of freezes, thaws and dumps of large quantities of snow. Garlic they say likes sandy loam and warm conditions. Pfffft. Garlic does just fine in compost amended Illinois clay. It's just more work to harvest!

Anyone can grow garlic and if you want to try it now is the time to order it. You plant it around October for a harvest next year. If you live in the north like me, I recommend ordering your bulbettes from a northern company. Your yield next year will be bigger than if you get your starter bulbs from the south. I don't really know why. I guess those that have been raised in our conditions are less likely to freak out when they see them again. I recommend this small, family company: They have 100+ varieties of garlic ranging from the sweet and mild to the hot and spicey. Their prices are reasonable and they grow without chemicals. Their website is a fun read. They firmly declare themselves to not be farmers or green thumbs and their misadventures related to learning how to grow garlic are documented on their site. Their step by step instructions are all you need to have great garlic success. I just placed my order and was bummed to see that a few varieties are already sold out. Give garlic a shot, and Good luck!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Heirlom Tomato Progress: Fruit Size

Today I am documenting the size of the different heirlom tomatoes so far this year.

First Persimmon: Got a late start, loaded with fat healthy buds in the container, just beginning to fruit.

Matina: Beginning to ripen. Has an open habit. Has some blossom end rot off and on, likely related to high temperatures on the patio. Loaded with fruit, non-buggy and very symetrical.

Chocolate Stripes: Big healthy plants but not a ton of buds or fruit so far. What's there is without blemish.
Cosmonaut Volkov: Plant is on the shorter side, about four feet, but it is really loaded down with fruit, several appear to be close to pinking up.

Dr. Carolyn: Not as much fruit or height as Sungold, but still has lots of clusters. Individual tomatoes are larger than Sungold, no ripening yet. Loaded with blossoms now. Had some BER when it dried out during vacation.

Cherokee Purple : Big healthy fruit both in the container and in the ground. Had BER the worst of all the plants. Recovering now but there will likely be a couple of weeks when there is no harvest from this plant.
Carbon: Not a ton of fruit or blossoms. Has a bit of bacterial leafspot in the leaves. This is my only fruit so far that appears to have something nipping at it.
Amish Paste: Multiple plants at various stages of growth. These are the largest fruit so far. Lots of buds, growth has been massive the last week of foliage.
San Marzano: Each plant is loaded with these clusters of fruit. Still lots of blossoms. I should be harvesting this for weeks to come. Plants are huge.
Sungold: Ripening and still making buds. Stint of BER was only a couple of days. These tomatoes taste way better if allowed to get very ripe on the vine. The plant is loaded with clusters of fruit. I counted one cluster with 15 tomatoes on it! None of these tomatoes have made it into the house yet. They are getting eaten like candy by us in the garden.