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A lazy June garden update

Been a while since my last post!!

I’ve managed to find a postdoc position that I love (using “systems immunology” approaches to research the role of CD4+ T cells in Lupus disease pathology), am getting to some teaching, and we have an adorable new kitten who has become Inka’s BFF.  The commute to my new job is shorter- bikeable, even!- so I can spend more time at home with the the hubster and critters, but still, it’s hard to keep up with the garden and all the projects I would love to do.

The garden is coming along, at times very slowly.  The veggie garden is entering its second year and we are losing the battle to massive quantities of uber-vigorous weeds and slugs. I learned the other day that many of the weeds probably came from the garden mulch we brought in- from now on I’ll stick to buying Cedar Grove compost, which is largely weed-free and helps close the city waste loop.  And the slugs…  hilariously, some nocturnal critter keeps slurping up the contents of my slug traps- beer-soaked slugs… like vodka soaked gummy bears at a college party?  We are excited to get ducks next spring- I’m confident they’ll solve the slug problem within an hour.

Our permaculture garden is largely now in place (David says, “We have a permaculture garden?”).  By that I mean we have planted most of the perennial fruit trees, bushes, and vines that will mature into our low-maintenance permanent garden:

–  Three apples, one of which is a grafted combination tree
–  Two plums – one Asian combo and one European combo
–  Two pears – one Asian combo and one European combo
–  A combination peach with four varieties that are supposed to do alright in Seattle… we’ll see
–  A mulberry tree for our future ducks
–  A male and a female kiwi vine
–  Three hops vines, which will provide shade for our BBQ area, and which my brother will use in his delicious home brew
–  Several varieties of currant and gooseberry
–  Many kinnikinnick and lingonberry bushes
–  And the two figs, table grape, raspberries, blueberries, rhubarb, and blackberry crosses we planted last year are doing well.  –  The asparagus is doing ok…

In our annual veggie garden this year we have:

–  Overwintered kale, leeks, and garlic.  The overwintered cabbage froze to death, and the parsnips became woody.
–  Spring peas and radishes got mowed down by the slugs.  The beets might make it.   Looking forward to those ducks!
–  Just transplanted the summer veggies: Tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, squash and cukes, basil, corn, runner beans.
–  In late July, I’ll plant the fall and overwintering crops: more kale, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts and “kalettes“- a brussels sprout/kale cross that I’m very excited about, carrots, beets, radish, more leeks and garlic.

This morning I moseyed around the garden with my morning tea, scarfed a few ripe berries, and snapped a few photos:

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The first few years we grew tomatoes in Seattle, we went to great lengths to ripen the loads and loads of green fruit still on the vines when the season was over. Come the October rains, the tomatoes begin to split and rot, the vines fall apart, and it’s impossible to find an unspoilt, red tomato still in the garden.

We tried harvesting all of them in their various states of ripeness and setting them out in the basement to ripen over the winter. We tried covering the vines with plastic cloche to protect them from the rain. We tried pulling up entire vines with green tomatoes still dangling, and hanging them upside down in the garage. Very few made it with any of these methods. Perhaps the most successful was stripping each vine of it’s flowers and leaves late in the summer- forcing them to pour all they had into their fruit (like Leslie Knope’s “going out of business sale”), but that still required foresight and willingness to admit the summer was nearly over.

Then, two years ago- and I can’t remember why- we used our green tomatoes green instead of struggling to ripen them. We made pickled green tomatoes (based on a combo of the basic pickle and garlic dill pickle recipes here), and they were the best thing ever. I loved them. David loved them. We barely had enough to give away over the holidays, and friends and family immediately demanded more. Thus we entered a new era and solved two problems: no more stressing out over un-ripe tomatoes, and no more need to to grow cucumbers (another thing we’d not had much success with, but after seeing Beth and Aaron’s huge, sweet cukes this summer I’m willing to try again!!).

Then, of course, we made things more complicated, and experienced near-total failure of all things green tomato over the next couple years.

The very next year, we actually selected a specific variety to leave green- a big, long roma type that could be sliced into spears like cucumbers. The first problem was that lots of them ripened before I could pick them green- they need to be totally green lest they get soft in the pickle jar. So I couldn’t keep up. Why not use them ripe? Because I was, at that point in time, opposed to saucing- something felt wrong about processing ripe tomatoes, even though these romas were pretty terrible slicing tomatoes. (I remember bringing my boss a quart of cherry and slicing tomatoes a few summers ago and being horrified the next day when he mentioned he and his wife had cooked them (GAH!) to have with pasta.) This year I discovered the glory that is homemade fresh tomato bloody Marys, so I can deal with ripe romas now.

The second problem is that, in our ever-tightening spiral toward Portlandia, we feel a need to live-ferment everything. In giant batches. Our first live-fermented green tomato batch went well- it produced delightfully savory pickles, the last few jars of which have managed to stay crisp and tasty in the fridge for a year now. The second batch turned out terribly, with white mold and a rotten taste that could not be washed off. This year I went back to vinegar pickling cherry tomatoes, but somehow they got squishy when processed in the water bath, perhaps because I used fruit from the volunteer plants. Very disappointing.

We’ve also attempted green tomato chutney two years in a row, both failures. The first batch was ruined by using brown instead of golden raisins, and my unwillingness to use as much sugar as called for. We canned it anyway, and it sits in our cupboard. The second batch, this year, I ruined by putting in lots of half-ripe tomatoes. It ended up tasting like ass-ketchup and didn’t even make it into jars.

This year in our new garden, I picked 5 huge mixing bowls of green tomatoes at the end of the season, stashed them in the basement, and was super excited to make all sorts of things. And then…. life and laziness happened…. and much to my surprise, half the tomatoes had started to get ripe in the basement. Shoot!! I managed to make just 3 jars of fridge pickles out of the remaining green fruit, and the half-ripe fruit gets eaten when ripe or thrown out if it rots first. Sigh.

Lessons learned:
1) Triage tomatoes into ripe saucing (freezer), ripe slicing (eat), and totally green (pickle immediately). Do not, under any circumstances, negotiate with half-ripe tomatoes.
2) Be prepared for massive failures, which could possibly be reduced in scale by not growing so many damn tomatoes in the first place.
3) If we do happen upon a good batch of pickles/chutney/anything, brag about it but don’t give so much of it away.

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A blank canvas

Though a normal-sized lot for our neighborhood (7500 square feet), our yard appears to be huge because the footprint of our house is only 600 square feet. Amazingly, the entire yard was lawn when we moved in- I can’t wrap my head around why someone would have such a huge yard and no garden, but whatevs- just means we have a blank canvas to shape into whatever we desire!

Weeks before we closed on the deal, I had drawn up a garden plan and our first order of business upon moving in was to tear up half the lawn in the back to put in a veggie garden. We cut sod, we brought load after load of sand and compost to fix up the clay-heavy soil, we rototilled (which we won’t do ever again- now that the grass is out and compost is in, we’ll let the soil structure repair itself and switch to no-till gardening), and then raked up raised (but unframed) garden beds. With half the lawn removed, we still have a green space bigger than our whole yard at our old house in Phinney. …and my commute is much longer… oh well.

Initially we piled the sod up on the hill to serve as fill dirt for the fruit tree terraces we’ll build over the summer. However, when my parents came to visit, my dad suggested we use some sod strips to outline where the retaining walls would go- just to see where we’d want them. Somehow that exercise turned into us actually building three whole walls out of sod, behind which fill dirt from the dry well went, and now we have terraces. Just like that. Currently they are gawd-awful ugly, but I sprinkled them with nasturtium and california poppy seed and soon they’ll be draped with yellow and orange. We may put stone walls in front of the sod for aesthetic reasons, but the sod itself is quite strong and has weathered several rainstorms already.

Now to plant seeds, seedlings, shrubs, vines, trees, flowers, cat poop! Wait, is that what happens when you have a giant, uncovered patch of fluffy dirt in your back yard, cat poop? Yes, yes indeedy.

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A really long post about digging a hole in the backyard.

This past weekend David and I had a few people over for a yard work BBQ party. It was really fun, and we got a lot accomplished!! David and I started working around 9am on Saturday (well, mostly preparing to have people over to help- filling up water pitchers, mixing up lemonade, setting out sunscreen and work gloves, picking up a load of compost from Pacific Topsoil). Friends and family trickled in all day to join in the work, starting with my brother, who is always on time whether you want him to be or not. Dave and Kate brought baked goods for mid-morning snack, we had a sandwich bar for lunch, then around 6pm grilled up some sausage and bratwurst to eat with the carrot-cabbage-radish-broccoli stem sauerkraut I had been tending over he last two weeks, and a fantastic salad made by Chris. It was a great day. Pictures at the end.

We were working on a couple different tasks. We had already removed the sod from the area that will become the garden and now needed to empty several loads of compost there to mix in with the soil. The major project, however, was digging a big hole for a dry well, then moving the garden shed on top of said dry well so that the area where the shed was could become part of the garden, it being the sunny SW corner of the yard. Beth busied herself painting our old wood-frame couches to waterproof them- just in time- and kept me company while David went to load up on gravel and Dave, Eric, and Aaron went to Dave’s mill yard to pick out timbers to make the foundation of the shed. She and I came to two conclusions: that our respective men-folk were wonderful, and that we should hang out together without them more often.

But, back to the dry well- why did we need one? In conjunction with it’s lovely southwesterly slope, our lot is situated such that most of the rain water from our half of the block runs off the street and right between our and our neighbors’ houses (the Italians with the pizza oven who handed us fresh-baked bread over the fence during our work party. Rock.) Our street has no gutter and no storm water drain to prevent this, and when I wrote the city to inquire about possible solutions, I was informed that the city doesn’t have money to rebuild the street and we’d have to take care of it ourselves (which is about what I was expecting).

So, a dry well is essentially the opposite of a regular well- it is a hole filled with rocks or gravel that you channel water into so that it will seep slowly into the ground and disappear. Generally people build them as a way to draw rain water away from their foundations or to improve drainage in swampy low areas of their yard. Usually there is a gravel-lined trench (aka French drain) with or without a drainage pipe leading from the soggy area to the dry well, and the dry well itself may either be a gravel pit or an actual trash can-sized container with holes in it that is half-filled with rocks and then covered with soil and sod. The spaces between the pieces of gravel provide ample room for the water to collect and flow (unlike clay soil) and eventually the water will seep out of the dry well into the surrounding dirt, ideally keeping the whole yard well watered but not soggy.

For our dry well, we dug an 8×10 foot hole, one foot deep and a deeper, trash-can sized hole in the downhill corner. The 8×10 hole served as a level foundation on which to put the shed and the floor of this square hole was graded (magnificently by Dave and Aaron) toward the deeper hole. Amazingly, we hit sand at the bottom of the deep hole after three feet of clay-rich soil- I’m hoping that leading the rain water to this layer of sand will solve all our problems!! We lined the hole with landscape fabric- this prevents dirt from moving in and clogging the gravel- and filled the deep hole with big rocks and the rest with “drain gravel” from Pacific Topsoil. We needed more than we expected- 4 cubic yards was barely enough, plus a few wheelbarrows-full of rocks scavenged from the yard. We dug a short channel from the uphill side of the hole to capture the little stream that forms between our and our neighbors’ house when it rains, then noticed a couple days later that the downspout from our neighbors’ roof is only one foot away on the other side of the fence. We will ask if we can hook their downspout up to our dry well. With street runoff and roof runoff going into this gravel pit instead of the back corner of our yard, and because we have built raised beds, I’m hoping that next spring our SW corner will de-soggify quickly and our veggie garden plantings won’t be delayed. We shall see. If that corner is still swampy next year, we will talk to our two back fence neighbors down the hill (who also have swamp problems) and see if we can jointly dig a French drain (aka gravel trench) through the border of their properties to empty into the storm drain on their street. Except today I walked along their street and there was not a storm drain in sight. Huh.

I had the superb chance to observe our dry well in action (and failing miserably at first) this evening when I got home from work. It was raining quite hard and sure enough, water was racing down between the houses and surging out of the neighbor’s downspout. The backside of the shed/gravel pit quickly became a river, and I realized that the landscape fabric, though water permeable, couldn’t handle this much water at once and was keeping most of it out of the dry well. I dunked my arms into foot-deep water at the shed foundation and cut two holes in the fabric- one under the uphill corner at the base of the channel we had dug leading to the pit- I propped the fabric open with a hollowed yogurt container and the pooled water drained instantly- and one midway down the shed where the neighbor’s downspout stream was hitting- which also drained the stream instantly. Needless to say I felt like an action hero while doing this. Sadly, by this time the paths in the garden past the shed had already filled with water. I noticed that water was actually flowing out from under the shed on the downhill side as if the well had already filled and wasn’t draining quickly enough. I was a bit dismayed… but it was raining awfully hard. Were I to build this over again, I wouldn’t have lined the very bottom of the deep hole with landscape fabric, just the walls and floor of the bigger 8×10 hole. I don’t quite have a plan for limiting the amount of sediment that flows in at the entry points… but Aaron, a trained geologist, swears it will take a long time to clog that big gravel pit with sediment. Amazingly, 15 minutes after the rain stopped, the puddle in the gravel had disappeared- the water had drained. The true test will be whether the raised beds dry out quickly.

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Stringing up the tomatoes

On the Seattle Urban Farm and Coop Tour last weekend we visited a house over near Madison Ave that had quite an impressive garden and produced meat and held farm to table dinners and everything. Very cool- 41 Legs Farm. They manage to make enough money selling extra plant starts and garlic to fund their gardening hobby, and take donations for their farm dinners to cover those costs. Very, very cool. Kinda want to be like them when I grow up.

In addition to being impressed with and jealous of their huge city lot and nice set up, I learned a new technique for growing tomatoes. They had their tomatoes trimmed down to one or two leaders and strung up vertically on tall supports (which I’ve seen before- I think most commercial tomatoes are grown this way) but they had also trimmed the lower leaves off the vine to allow more air circulation between the plants and prevent disease. They had some rule of thumb like for every foot above four feet the plant reaches, trim off one foot of leaves from the bottom, or for every 2 feet of growth, trim off 1 foot of branches below… Can’t quite remember.

This weekend I did the same for my tomatoes… Kind of. I don’t follow the trim to two leaders rule, but I do trim out suckers, especially on indeterminant (sprawling) plants so mine end up with 4-5 leaders each. I tied closeline-like cords from the garage to the tree across the top of the garden bed (stronger than tying individual plants to individual posts) and hoisted long floppy vines up off of the tomato cages. Then David helped me remove the wall o’ waters that have been around the plants since transplant.

Side note: Last year we left the wall o’ waters on all season because they’re hard to get off once the plants are so big, but the fruits that grow within the wall o’ waters invariably get eaten by snails who think it’s cozy in there. This year we slit the wall o’ waters open- linearized them like a plasmid, if you will- and slinked them out from under the bushes. Next time we use them we’ll have to circularize them with clips, but they’ll be easier to put on the plants that way too!

Next I clipped off all of the leafy branches growing within the tomato cages- up to about a foot and a half off the ground. I left the fallen leaves on the soil under the plants (apparently tomatoes like to eat the composted bodies of their fallen comrades) and then spread a layer of hay on top to insulate the soil even more from water loss.

The bed looks good now- the vines will get more light because they’re not piled on top of each other, the plants will get more air between them and hopefully we’ll have fewer losses to snails and rot, and we can actually see where the fruits are to pick them!

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Garlic!

Just harvested my first ever crop of garlic this morning! The bulbs aren’t gargantuan, like the garlic David grew on the farm in Olympia (pictures coming soon), but they are reasonably sized considering the amount of effort i put into them.

Sara’s garlic growing method:
1. Shove garlic cloves pointy side up into the ground, about 2 inches deep and 6 inches away from each other. Do this in early fall.
2. Cover soil in between with hay, fallen leaves, or other mulch. The garlic will send up shoots through even a thick layer of mulch.
3. Totally neglect your garlic all winter and spring. No water, no pruning, no weeding because the mulch keeps the weeds down. Also, forget what variety you have planted. Maybe you wrote it down somewhere? Nope… Damn.
4. In the summer, when a good portion of the leaves have turned brown and the stalks start to fall over (falling over may or may not be caused by chickens breasting them over as they search for bugs, as it was in my case), loosen the soil with a digging fork and pull the garlic heads out!
5. Save the best looking ones to plant this coming fall, even though you want to eat them. Curse yourself for not writing down what variety these were, because they turned out pretty well!
6. Tie all the garlic up in small bunches of 10 or so (or braid it!), and hang in a coolish dry place that gets some air circulation, like the open garage. I’m going to let mine dry in loose bunches for a bit then braid it tightly.
7. Eat, share with friends, use for pickling over the next year.

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Kefir buzz

Trying to get back into blogging slowly. Have been in the garden and kitchen and pantry plenty, making jams and real fermented pickles, and even butchering our pig, but haven’t been writing. But, I have so many other things that distract me from finishing my PhD, this may as well be one of them!

A while back I wrote about flavoring kefir with jam to make a delicious and nutritious drink. Usually I just stir it in with a spoon. This evening in a fit of “get me away from my computer!!” I decided I’d blend the kefir and jam with the beat stick. (Clever name I just came up with for the hand-held stick blender). The result is glorious! Blending makes it frothy like a pisco sour or… something else that’s sour and frothy. Mango lassi?

The kefir: home cultured with grains and whole milk, past it’s normal drinking stage and super sour, super chunky.

The jam: a blackberry-rhubarb concoction that’s more like syrup that I made from berries picked down on the Olympia farm and fresh rhubarb from the market.

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