Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Waiting for Big Red Tomatoes

So I just wandered around the garden to kill time.

I love photos of green plants, detailed green leaves, and pretty much anything green, but sometimes it's fun to play with the colors, or go back to black and white (my first love in photography).

One of my broadleaf water garden plants, casting a shadow in the background, on a limestone gravel background.

I love sepia-tone photos of any kind, vintage historical or modern. In this case, this is my brilliant yellow water canna, at it's flowering peak, with three blooms and numerous buds ready to pop. The sepia brings out its graceful lines.

Same broadleaf that was bright purple in the top photo - the sepia really shows off the texture of the leave, and the iris blades that come up to meet it.

Broadleaves from above, in a lighter sepia, showing the one iris blade that curled over and around it.

But nothing beats the brillant deep green of the iris plants -sometimes they almost seem to glow.

But this sepia-toned, high-contrast photo of the water garden pretty much sums up the entire garden this time of year: totally out of control.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thirteen Gallons and Whaddya Get?

Out here in rural America, there exists such a thing as a "pick-your-own _____" (fill in the blank with the crop of your choice: strawberries, corn, blackberries, peaches, plums, or in this case, blueberries).

Yes, I needed more blueberries and the grocery store's prices had rebounded back to $3.99 for a pint.

So today my mother took me to her favorite "pick your own". This is what a blueberry farm looks like. I could pan the camera 360 degrees, all the views would look the same.

This is early morning -about 8:30 - and the mist is still coming up off the ground.

Mom digs right in - these bushes are taller than she is but they never stood a chance.

There were plenty of other people there and more than a few that obviously had never been to an orchard before, or perhaps even outside a city.

These are old established blueberry bushes, standing approximately 5-6' tall. Some of the trunks have lichens and moss growing on them. The light-colored berries are not ripe yet.

But you can see the deep purple ripe berries in the corners here. I started out picking whatever berries I saw, but then I developed my personal technique: reach for the top branches and pull them gently down - they are covered in clusters of huge, ripe berries. Cup the cluster in one hand and roll the berries off into the bucket. Repeat until bucket is full.

After a minute or so (each bucket holds about 6 gallons).

The final total: slightly over 13 gallons. I finally ate my fill of blueberries.

And this is the world's worst photo of individual 1/2 cup servings of blueberries, each in it's own little snack-size bag, then bagged again in a plastic gallon zip loc. After this they went immediately into the freezer.

I would have frozen them on cookie sheets again, but it would have taken forever, and the faster the fresh berries are frozen, the better they keep.

For anyone in the Bedford County area of Virginia, you can't go wrong visiting TLC Orchards, 1153 Capital Hill Rd, Moneta,VA. They are open Monday thru Sunday, from 7 am to 1 pm. Phone #540-297-1168. As of today, 7-24-09, blueberries are $2.50 per gallon. Bring your own bucket.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Heavenly Blueberries

My life mantra: One can never, ever, eat too many blueberries....

Therefore, one must think of a way to preserve them, 'cause those canned blueberries don't cut it. Not even in January, when I'm desperate. Frozen berries are pricey, unless I buy the frozen wild blueberries, which are affordable, and 10 times as healthy as the cultivated blueberries, but the wild ones just don't taste the same.

Even as I speak, blueberries are on sale and very affordable in our area, so I loaded up on the little suckers, and decided to freeze enough for this winter. Or at least as many as I can fit in the freezer.

First: lay a sheet of wax paper or plastic wrap on a cookie sheet. Cover the pan with a single layer of the best berries (unwashed). Set the entire cookie sheet in the freezer for a couple hours.

It doesn't take the berries long to freeze, so multiple batches can be made in a single day. In my case, I froze a gallon's worth in a day. Did I mention I LOVE blueberries?

Note: When the berries come out of the freezer, they sound like marbles rolling around on the cookie sheet and are hard as rocks. It will very tempting for your children to use them as BB's or mini-balls. They will hurt if launched out of any sort of propelling device.

Probably best to keep them all for yourself, just for safety's sake.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Basil Updates and A Couple New Ideas

One thing I may have forgotten to mention is that the basil ice cubes we made a few days ago take a long time to freeze.

Today they are finally done and here's the photos to prove it.

The cubes even smell like fresh basil, and they are all dark green and have that "frozen in time" look. Now I'm wanting cold weather, so I can get the soup pot out, and toss in a couple of these in for seasoning.

Meanwhile, three ice cube trays of basil cubes is just enough to fill a gallon size zip loc bag. Then they went right back into the freezer.

Also - damselindisdress posted a comment on the previous basil post -and asked about putting whole basil leaves in the freezer-by themselves -in a ziploc. I've never tried it, but I certainly will - as soon as my basil plants grown back a bit.

That led me to wondering what about using those snack size ziplocs, and putting whole leaves in them, and adding water -somewhat like herbal popsicles? I'll be trying that too.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Poems From the Chinese

From a book I'm listing tonight, mostly because it seemed to fit:


I have had asthma for a
Long time. It seems to improve
Here in this house by the river.
It is quiet too. No crowds
Bother me. I am brighter
And more rested. I am happy here.
When someone calls at my thatched hut
My son brings me my straw hat
And I go out and gather
A handful of fresh vegetables.
It isn't much to offer.
But it is given in friendship.

Tu Fu, Tang Dynasty, 713-770

Gardeners never change.

Basil Basics

Try saying that 10 times, really fast....

The sweet basil that I cut and sold earlier this summer (maybe a month ago?) has grown back, and it's time to save some for our personal use this winter.

Always cut herbs in the morning -the flavor and fragrance are at their strongest levels.

I enjoy using baskets to gather herbs and produce in, with regular kitchen shears to trim off the stalks. The baskets make me feel all 18th-century-ish.

By cutting just the top 6" off each stalk I was able to gather a full basket, and leave the plant more than ready to replenish itself.

A month from now, this little pot will be rounded and full again.

Remember these ice cube trays I found at a rummage sale a month or so ago?
Time to put them to use.

First, strip off the leaves and toss the stems. If you are short on basil, the stems can be used, but I'm in no danger of running out of this herb anytime soon.
Today I'm trying two ways of preserving this harvest, both freezing the chopped leaves in water as well as dehydrating a batch. This is my second attempt at dehydrating - the first time involved strawberries and one of the round dehydrators. It was a total failure and the house smelled odd for days.

Last winter I bought this toaster oven specifically because it had a dehydrate feature. This is it's maiden voyage. Of course, the owners manual explains how to use the dehydrate feature in the simplest terms: use a mesh rack (not included with oven -of course), put food product on mesh rack, press "Dehydrate" button. That's it. No clue as to what temperature the oven is running at when it's drying, or how long to leave various foods in.

That makes this an experiment, versus a recipe.

The metal rack was found at a rummage sale, and DH trimmed it with a SawsAll to fit the toaster oven. I think it was originally a grill rack.

According to The Dehydrator Bible (over on the shelf to the right), the basil needs to dry at 110 degrees for 16-18 hours. Again, no clue as to the temperature the oven is using, and the timer will only set to 90 minutes.

I'll start with that -I can always reset it as needed. The largest and best leaves are laid out in a single layer, with room for the air to circulate. While they're drying, let's go back to the ice cube trays.

Using a very sharp knife, mince and chop the remainder of the leaves. (If you want to dry the entire harvest, only pick the leaves when they will be dried immediately. The fresher they are, the stronger and more flavorful the dried product will be).

After chopping the leaves, pack each compartment full, then fill with cold water.

That amount of chopped leaves was enough to fill three of the ice cube trays. Keep in mind, this method is good not only for single herbs, but for combinations as well. It's just as easy to harvest basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and sage (Italian Seasoning),chop them up and blend - then freeze. Each compartment should equal approx one tablespoon of spice - perfect for dropping into a simmering pot of soup in deep December.

When the trays are packed full of spice and water,freeze. After the cubes are completely frozen they can be popped out and stored in a ziploc bag until needed.

Meanwhile, back at the toaster oven it turns out that whatever temperature this oven is drying at, it's more than sufficient.

The basil leaves are dry and crunchy after 50 minutes. So much for 16-18 hours.
(The color in this photo is a little off - the actual leaves are dark green).

All that's left to do is put the dried leaves into a labeled air-tight container. If it's possible, the leaves should be left as whole as possible to retain their flavor.

One last reminder: whether frozen or dried, fresh herbs are much stronger than the stuff you buy at the grocer's, so use a little less at first.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Great new gardening site (and nice pictures too)

In real life I am an online bookseller (shameless plug: Ebay ID Chewyboo, and Chewybooks on Amazon), so for the last couple days I have been tied up sorting books, and then setting up a local library book sale instead of working out in my garden.

So I thought I'd make a quick post today and mention an incredible gardening site I've found:

It offers online groups to join for everything gardening related from compost to vegetables to gardening with moon to naming flowers to square foot gardening, and just about every other topic you can think of - plus a place to post your own garden pics, a blog to post to, and like-minded people to help with questions.

Meanwhile, my blueberry crop is done for this year, I've picked 3 Golden Jubilee tomatos, 4 cherry tomatos, and 2 small cukes. In about 2 weeks, the first wave of produce should arrive and I will be busy chopping and freezing.
Meanwhile, the hollyhocks.....

morning glory....

and more morning glories, are out in full force.

Still no rain, although a fall weather forecast was released today saying that El Nino will bring lots of rain this fall and winter to our area. A lot of help that will be.....

Sunday, July 5, 2009


The only word to describe that very first tomato off the vine. This time it was a Golden Jubilee (last year Mr. Stripey took first place). An absolutely perfect tomato, still warm from the sun.

In spite of all the mistakes and problems this season, a few plants are cooperating. The gourds have finally kicked in (for awhile I thought this would be one of those years they just didn't come up. Ever). I love gourds - the leaves are the size of dinner plates, soft and fuzzy, and smell like baking bread.

Although the hollyhock flowerbed has peaked (it needs to be re-seeded), and significantly fewer plants come up each year, there are still stunning blooms appearing. Originally, the bed colors were pink and dark black, but over the years they have morphed and in-bred to this dark pink bordering on maroon.

Finally, it wouldn't be summer without my favorite flower -morning glories. I've planted and replanted so many times that the colors have inter-mixed and now appear in blue, purple, white, pink, and petals with stripes of every possible combination.

Fortunately, something goes right in the garden each week. Otherwise, after last week I'd have been tempted to pave it all and paint it green.

Of course, the wiregrass would still come up through the concrete.

Friday, July 3, 2009

What Was I Thinking?

One thing I've noticed about gardening magazines: they're all beautiful. The gardens are pristine, the paths are wide enough, the plants are flourishing, and the pests are few.

I'd like to inject a little reality here.

Unless you have the income to hire a staff, buy all the "right stuff", and devote yourself to your garden 24/7, it will not be pristine, plants will die, weeds will flourish, and you will have plenty of pests. Oh -and the soil will more than likely not be balanced.

These are some of the gardening mistakes (or just problems I haven't the energy to deal with and have let go) I find daily in my own backyard.

Top photo: witness my love of all things liquid. I love water. Probably a result of growing up on the Gulf shores. Unfortunately, just because I have built a 500 gallon rain collection system does not mean I should dump all of it on the tomatos. This poor tomato plant has yellow leaves because I simply cannot seem to quit watering it (it's 90 degrees, hot and sunny -it must need water,right? No. Put the bucket down and step away from the plant.)

These poor transplanted cauliflower are victims of a preventative medical tragedy. They were
absolutely heart-stopping gorgeous plants I raised in the greenhouse. Then I transplanted them, and as a precautionary measure to ward off beetles and other nasty insects, I mixed up a batch of my usual Dawn detergent-hot sauce-water mixture, and sprayed the little darlings. Since I was in a hurry, I didn't pay attention, and I added too much detergent - burnt their delicate leaves. Really, really bad. I've left them in the bed for the moment as a reminded to me to think before I spray.

Wiregrass. Not really my fault - more like a curse upon my head. I've tried everything - read endless forums on it - no one has a solution for getting rid of it. Apparently they actually plant the stuff in South Carolina and call it a lawn. Ideas so far for its termination: Pulling it up, blocking it with edging, burying it under mulch, burying it under carpet, changing chemical balance of the soil, adding salt to soil, planting a thick green manure crop over winter, and finally, but certainly not least, using a flamethrower.
Nothing works. It spreads, it grows through and around, it adapts to soil changes, it grows amidst other innocent plants and converts them, and it thinks flamethrowers are foot-warmers.
Wiregrass is the Devil. And it is invading every corner of my garden.

This bed just got away from me but at least it's pretty. These are actually volunteer potato plants, with horseradish mixed in, all being covered by morning glories. It looks like an overgrown weed patch but in reality, the potato plants are perfectly happy being shaded by the horseradish and the morning glory. It only looks like a disaster.

Back in the greenhouse, this is what bok choy looks like when you forget to repot it outside in the big boy garden. Beautiful flowers, but no longer edible, and actually pretty bitter at this point.
And of course, it has wiregrass in its pot - I have no idea how it made it through the screen door into the greenhouse, and up into the pot - I told you it is the Devil.

On the other bench in the greenhouse is a box of sad remains of what was a beautiful tray of lettuce. Between extreme heat (100 degrees plus) and my forgetting to transplant/water it, it gave up the ghost. There are simply not enough hours in the day. And in hot summery Virginia, to work in the garden, any hours you have need to be before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m.

And, my finally entry in the hall of gardening shame - my soaker hoses, all needing to be re-laid in the garden to replace ones that are worn out - instead hidden beneath potato plants and morning glories. And since we found that black snake, I'm very nervous about pulling through the pile to find whatever length of hose I need.

Welcome to a garden that is not pristine, not ready for a magazine cover, and where things do not always turn out like the picture on the seed package - all for lack of energy on the part of the gardener.

I do however have the best of intentions for next year....