Saturday, July 17, 2010

Broccoli: Nature's most strangely satisfying vegetable

Ladies and gentlemen, we have liftoff. And by liftoff, I mean broccoli. I don't know why, but of all the things I planted this spring I wanted broccoli most of all. Does that make me lame? Don't answer that.

Maybe it was how tiny the seeds are, or how puny the seedlings were when I moved them to the ground several weeks after germination. Perhaps it was the assault of cabbage worms that, at one point, was destroying the leaves seemingly as fast as the plants could grow them. But a little water here, a little organic insecticide there and - voila! - that head up there just appeared. I was so enthralled that I couldn't bring myself to cut it on this day, which would have, it turned out, been the exact day TO cut it. I waited about a week, at which point the head started getting bushy and ended up being a wee bit bitter. That's OK. Live and learn. Here's what else I learned about broccoli in a flurry of panicked Googleing (I never thought I'd actually reach this point with broccoli, and, no, I just could not figure out how to make a joke combining the words head, appeared, bushy and bitter. I'm off my game today):
  • Harvest when the outside florets get to be about the size of a match head.
  • The slightest hint of yellow means the vegetable is about to turn into an inedible flower.
  • And, the best part: Broccoli isn't a one-shot deal. Cut the initial head with a sharp knife about five inches down the stalk, and the plant will continue to try to bloom in the form of side shoots provided ...
  • You keep the roots cool. Hot weather shuts broccoli down, but it's not the heat on the plant above the ground that's the problem, it's the head in the soil. So one tip I got was mulch the roots and keep the soil moist. Those few degrees should keep the plant producing. We'll see.
Here are some harvested florets. The don't look quite as tidy as what I'm used to seeing in the store, which probably means I'm not using some chemical I should be. I'll live with it.

Here's an itty, bitty floret on a different plant.

Oh, something else I learned about broccoli: They weren't kidding when they said one plant per square foot. I squeezed five into three, and they have pretty much taken over as you can see in the next two pictures. That's them on the second row below, and my onions (second picture) were completely overpowered by the three-foot tall monsters and died. Whoops.

In other gardening news, I also harvested bush beans and snap peas since we last spoke. Here's the evidence (that would be beans on the left and peas on the right for all you city-folk out there):

We ate the beans and peas in stir fries, primarily, though I have to admit I was disappointed in what I got from my eight pea plants. What you see is pretty much it, which wasn't terrible except for the fact that you get one harvest from peas and that's it. Above is the difference in about a week. The pod on the left has gotten too big to eat, meaning we had to open it to get the peas themselves, while the one on the right was still tender enough to toss in a wok.

Peas, too, are a cool-weather vegetable, and when it gets hot the plants simply die. I probably planted these too late in the spring, which I'll avoid in the future. I have also learned that it's possible to have a fall pea crop by planting seeds in August. Oh, don't worry - I'll keep you in the loop. Here's a shot of the pods on the vine:

The bean plants, meanwhile, looked pretty done when I picked these, but my mom assured me that the plants would bloom again and by George she was right. I'd go take a picture of the new flowers and post them, but I'm too lazy. Good news, though.

In still more gardening news, guess what this is:

If you said a cheap plastic ball, close. In fact, it's a watermelon - one of two that are sneakily expanding every day. This one is finally big enough for me to almost not step on it.

And last, but not least for today, we also have plums. Lots and lots of plums. At first I felt bad taking them from the birds, but that was before we watched a cowbird sit on a branch and just mangle the shit out of what was once a nice piece of friend with its beak before flying away after having actually eaten only about a quarter of it. So to hell with the birds (which is becoming a theme when it comes to birds and my garden).

And, finally, I threatened to put borage in my gin-and-tonics. I did. It was delicious.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Greens with envy. And everything else

I embarked on this gardening project ready to learn. Boy, am I. I'm learning that the grocery store has given me a seriously skewed vision of produce. Take greens, for instance - the focus of today's post before I head to Raleigh to see Silversun Pickups. And if you don't know who that is, I'm not going to tell you. But you should know, if there's even the slightest sliver in there wanting to be cool.

Unlike many people, I like greens. Always have. So I planted four kinds in my two gardens: Kale, swiss chard (above), spinach and collards (I have lettuce in a planter on the back deck that I noticed has been stuck at about an inch tall since April. Might be time to move it out of the shade). Rumor has it you can also eat beet and radish greens, but I'm pretending that's not possible in light of the leafy inundation I'm currently under.

The good thing about greens is that unlike, say, radishes (bet you thought I could go a post without talking about radishes. You thought wrong), they produce constantly so you can enjoy them at your leisure. The bad news is that greens produce constantly so you'd damn well better enjoy them, at leisure or not.

Once that spinach got going, it GOT GOING. As did the kale and swiss chard. Four squares of greens is more than enough for two people, as I'm discovering, especially in light of two really key facts: If you don't continually harvest the leaves, they get big, tough and yucky tasting while also bossing all the other plants around them. And when you harvest the leaves, you have to eat them, preferably that day and certainly within two or three. I have no idea what chemical they use to keep greens viable for so long in the produce section, but without it the clock's a tickin'.

I'm cool with that, though. First of all, it keeps me on top of the garden and keeps me from wasting food, as I tend to do when I think I have weeks to eat those veggies I bought that often end up a foul-smelling goo in the bag. Plus, they just taste better this way. To that, I can now vouch personally.

Over the past two weeks, I've perfected crispy kale. I also did it with collards. Here's a link to the recipe, not that you need it. Just tear the leaves into manageable bites, toss them in olive oil, spread them on a baking sheet, bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes, salt and pepper, and chow down like they're potato chips. Seriously. You can't stop eating them.

Kale is also fantastic in stir fry. Kristy buys kits with all the spices in a little pouch (you know, to keep the landfills from getting lonely), but you could easily spice it up yourself however you like. The kale flavor just shines through, like it did for Woody when Frasier hypnotized him into liking "Veggie Boy." Here's a picture of pre-cooked, twice-washed kale. The discolorations on the leaves? Remnants of the flour-cayenne pepper mix I use to blow up the cabbage worms. More on that later.

I've also found a really good vegetarian recipe for the collards, used the swiss card ribs in a pasta dish and sauteed the swiss chard leaves with garlic and oil. Kristy is still baffled at my sudden interest in cooking, but it's quite motivating when it's your own food.

Here are a few more shots of the greens in questions:

The first multi-veggie harvest, radishes on the left and spinach on the right. Did I have to tell you that? Probably, if you don't know who Silversun Pickups are or haven't memorized the Cheers-Veggie Boy episode. This spinach ended up in a salad, as did as many of the radishes as we could stomach. A couple of days later we sat in the living room and ate the rest of the radishes with grim determination. Getting ripe simultaneously? Not one of the strong suits of radishes.

Kale, all oiled up and ready for baking. Geez, I hope I didn't just encourage Google to make this page appear on porn/drugs searches. Then again, what better way to increase page hits? Angry, disappointed page hits.

Chopped swiss chard, about to be sauteed.

Kale and collards at the start of my kale-collards crispy baking experiment. They tasted a lot the same. That's right, delicious.

Garden 2, in all of its crazy-growing glory. On the left is an accidental cucumber that appears to be on HGH. To its right, a cherry tomato with its first blooms. Towering over everything in the back is an accidental sunflower. I moved two others, but this was right in the middle and I just wanted to leave it. At the far right is the swiss chard square, and directly to its left is the spinach. The clustered growth at the top are blooms that I must snip if the plants are going to continue to grow edible leaves.

Collards. As I alluded to earlier, I've had the most trouble with collards because of those damn cabbage worms (see this post). The flour-cayenne pepper mix works, I think, but you have to apply it constantly. Also, turns our that flour doesn't rinse off in the rain. Quite the opposite, in fact: It forms some kind of horrific paste that eventually kills the leaves itself and is nearly impossible to remove before cooking. I've been encouraged to try Bt as well as well as DE, which I'm particularly excited about. How can you not be about something that shreds bugs with a microscopic powder made of fossilized water plants? Damn, we're clever.

I'll leave you, as usual, with a random shot of the yard. That azure flower is borage. That's right. I said azure, because this is a snooty herb we paid way too much for at an herb festival a couple of years ago so it can't possibly be just light blue. We had no idea how to eat it but we were of course wooed by its rarity and ridiculous price tag. Yes, I said a couple of years ago. That's why I was somewhat surprised to see it growing in a different part of the garden this spring. Turns out, this snooty herb spreads easily by seed (sort of like, gasp!, a weed). The flowers and leaves are used to spice up summer drinks (hello, gin-and-tonics with borage), and its presence is supposed to improve the flavor of tomatoes nearby. Guess what? There's a tomato nearby. Everything's coming up Millhouse.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Gardening is making me weird

Some of my organically grown radishes. That sounds pretty high-falootin' until you realize that it serves no purpose whatsoever to use chemicals on radishes.

Yesterday, I went - intentionally - to Dirty Jack's (where this beer is brewed) in Asheville to watch soccer, specifically the U.S. against England in the World Cup. As stunning as it was for the game; errr, match, to end in a tie, that unexpected turn of events paled in comparison to fact that I, a lifelong soccer mocker, was there.

Why would I do such a thing? Well, there are a myriad of potential explanations that I won't delve into because, you know, this is a gardening blog. But my erratic behavior can't be blamed on the chemicals in my garden. 'Cause I ain't usin' any.

It would be easy to deduce if you watch a lot of Fox news that my plants aren't drenched in the world's finest poisons simply because I've devolved into a soccer-lovin', cumbaya-singin' ideologue. Perhaps. I've tried, however, to justify this decision to myself more thoroughly.

When I moved into my house and found myself taking care of a yard for the first time, one of the first things I did was run out and buy one chemical to kill the bugs and another to kill the weeds (I also bought traditional lawn fertilizer, which I have also decided to eschew. More on that later). I was vaguely troubled by all the warnings to not let myself have any contact whatsoever with the strange-smelling stuff I was gleefully spraying and spreading everywhere, but that was how you were supposed to do it.

As the years went by, though, and my reading evolved past Sports Illustrated, I was no longer so gung-ho about raining death on the world around me. On a practical level, it was expensive. On a logical level, killing every single insect in order to get rid of a couple you don't like was an ignorant way, at best, to manage an ecosystem that I'm a part of whether I want to admit it or not. On a gut-feeling level, handling things that come in skull-and-crossbone adorned jugs seemed like something to be avoided. And on a moral level, I didn't like the idea of starving or even fatally poisoning higher animals on the food chain so one kind of grass could have a competitive advantage over another.

There had to be a better way, which there was. Guess what? My grass (and some other stuff) grows just fine fed by its own clippings and the occasional autumn overseeding, surviving even Boone and Chloe's relentless pee-bombing campaign. Fleas, ticks, roaches and ants have not left me pinned in the closet with a flashlight, a revolver and a nearly empty can of Raid. Oh yeah, I've also saved hundreds of dollars by weaning myself off of that entire aisle at Lowe's.

So naturally I brought this philosophy of living-in-instead-of-being-constantly-at-war-with-the-world-around-me to my garden - but not before I asked why. Why not use chemicals? Common consensus among environmental types is that pesticides will be bad for you if you eat the food on which they were used, but the truth is I haven't been able to find any hard science to back that up (here's a good link). A major caveat is that the population hasn't been exposed these poisons for very long, and there's a long list of things - generally man-made - that, surprise!, turned out to be bad for us after all. Still, the facts are the facts right now: Scientists say I won't die or even get sick if I use a few of their modern miracles to help my veggies grow. But you know what? I still don't want to. Part of it is the challenge, but the bigger motivation is that it goes against my world view.

Humans managed to feed themselves for hundreds of thousands of years without bullying and destroying everything else. All other animals do it every day still. Evidence continues to mount that at its current scale our new way ain't gonna work forever, maybe even not for long. "Traditional" farming destroys the soil. It eliminates genetic diversity, which has sort of been the key to survival for about a billion years. Even if pesticides aren't hurting me, they're hurting a lot of other living things through indiscriminate direct killing or tons - literally - of pollution, creating a cascading effect on the ecosystem that is felt by people and animals alike hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

That makes me feel icky, and I don't want to do it that way. So I won't.

On that note, I'll leave you with a fairly ironic picture of our cherry tree's first crop last month. Only four feet tall, it surprised us with about 25 berries. The irony arrives in the form of all of those cherries being eaten by birds before we could have even one. Isn't nature cute?

Monday, June 7, 2010

And so it begins

See that guy up there, on the end of my freakishly huge finger? That's what's known to people with too much time on their hands as Pieris rapae. To me, it's a cabbage worm. I would have taken a better picture, but this is the best I could do with my Samsung Reclaim (our camera's in the shop. Could have something to do with it being dropped while being, ahem, tossed to someone else on a BEACH in Carmel, Calif., but we won't name any names. Tanja). And, if at any point during this paragraph, you made a booger joke, grow up and congratulations - you're at the right gardening column.

Anyway, cabbage worms suck, and the term can be used for any number of little green caterpillars that devour just about anything in the cabbage family, which includes cabbage (duh), broccoli, cauliflower, kale and collard greens - all of which I'm growing and all of which are falling prey to this nasty little bastard (here's a better picture). I'm fairly certain that what I'm dealing with are "Imported Cabbageworms," because I've noticed dozens of those pretty little white butterflies landing on my crops. "Nature!" I whispered in awe to myself until I learned that their sole purpose in life is to lay eggs on the underside of the leaves, which then hatch (not the leaves, the eggs, all you English dorks out there) and produce larvae that live for THEIR sole purpose: To devour as much green stuff as possible before cocooning and starting the whole process over again.

Now, you'd think that I'd have an advantage. I'm almost as much smarter as I am bigger. I know what they look like (that dude up there? Ground into green goo seconds after the picture was taken). But it's disturbing how difficult it is to deal with single-minded focus. Those little monsters do nothing but eat. Nothing. How can I be expected to have that kind of dedication to them? I'm human. I have important, person stuff to deal with like DVR, Netflix, wine and the Braves. Next thing you know, I've taken a nap - and a plant is gone. To wit, a sad cauliflower seedling that has been munched to the stalk again and again:

So what to do? I've concluded I'm not giving up TV for 24-hour-a-day kale-leaf duty, but I don't want to use poisons (more on that later). So I tried this: Flour and cayenne pepper. Supposedly, the worms eat the flour and explode, while the pepper discourages other insects. I think that has worked, but either I'm not applying it often enough or it's not working well enough. Example of a healthy cauliflower that is also being chewed vigorously:

As a result, I'm about to turn to Bt, a bacteria that is worshiped by hippies for its natural ability to destroy insects. I've heard good things. I'll keep you posted.

This grim post aside, I've actually eaten more of my greens than the worms have, as I'll talk about tomorrow. Or the next day. Until then, I'll leave you with this over-ambitious nest-building by a wren in the rose garden. And Kristy painted that house. Pretty awesome, isn't it? Except for the fact that it's a bluebird house. Stupid birds.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Garden 2: Wow, oh wow!

OMG. I just realized that I forgot to talk about Garden 2, and if I wait much longer all those pictures I took will be outdated because it's growing so gosh-darned fast. We can't have that. Still, if you're not ready for another installment, feel free to entertain yourself with the link I provided to Usher's new video. I never knew how much gardening and clubbing had in common until I heard the lyrics "Honey got a booty like pow, pow, pow. Honey got some boobies like wow, oh wow. " Call me crazy, but I'm feeling a strong need to tend to some melons.

I am sorry, deeply, for that terrible joke.

If anybody's still here, let's get to it. By the way, those are strawberries up there. Don't actually have anything to do with the square-foot garden, but they are in the yard and they are edible.

Watermelon. Three, to be exact. The one on the right I thinned from putting two seeds in one planter and stuck in the ground assuming it would die from lack of roots and because the cantaloupe seed that supposed to be growing there isn't. If it does, we might be having some cantamelon when all is said and done. They're so cute. A few months from now, they should be about 10 feet long. I'll believe it when I see it. Yes, I'm finished with melons for this installment.

Here were have two bush beans and a marigold. First, there are supposed to be six bush beans. The other four are either lazy or dead. Part of the problem could be Bonnie's love of peeing on them and then digging them up. The second picture is an unfortunate casualty of this disgusting fastidiousness.

Snap peas. All seem to have come up and are growing robustly. I love snap peas.

Onions. My previous attempt to grow onions in the shade was an unmitigated disaster, but I'm tentatively optimistic here despite the fact it appears that at least half haven't come up.

Carrots. They're doing as well as the radishes so far. After 2 1/2 weeks in the ground, almost every seed seems to have germinated.

Beets. They're doing great. Looks like I stuck with my irrational insistence of putting more than one seed in each hole, which means I'm blessed with extra beets. I know I should be happy, but I don't know if I really want to eat beets. It was more of a challenge to see if they'd grow. I know people in Buffalo who like beets. This could be their Christmas present.

Collards. The big ones on the left are seedlings I started inside, while the little ones on the right I put straight in the ground to replace the duds. I love collards, though I've had to grudgingly accept that it's hard to make them taste right without some part of a pig in the cooking pot.

Broccoli, again from seeds I started inside. They've been outside in the dirt for about two weeks and have nearly tripled in size. Oh, and remember my angst over having to pull one of the seedlings when two came up in the same hole? I got around that by gently extracting the extra and replanting it. I did that twice, and even though they weren't supposed to live they did. You should only have one broccoli plant per square foot, meaning I have two too many here. Maybe that will cause a crowding problem, but at least I'm not a murderer!

Taters. I cut my seed potato in thirds and planted it, which in no way explains why there appear to be about 12 plants here. Hmmm. I'll be darned.

Spinach, a couple of sunflowers and an unidentified plant. This is actually Garden 1, but I forgot to mention them in my last post. The spinach seeds are easily my biggest disappointment so far, as fewer than half came up the first time and it looks like only one or two replacements have actually gotten around to replacing anything. Perhaps it was a dud seed pack.

Tomato. This guy, a transplanted seedling, is coming along smashingly in the garden in front of the house.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sorry, I've been busy scarfing down my food

It has been more than two week since my last post. Sorry, but I couldn't resist going to Louisiana to mock some oil-soaked wildlife. Stupid birds. "Scrub me! I can't fly with all of this crude on my feathers! I'm going to die!" Like somebody made them go all swimming in the water and stuff. They're lucky we have so many hippies. I say we charge 'em both for the labor and the lost gas revenue. Who's with me? High five ...

OK, I'm kidding. I didn't go to Louisiana, and I actually feel really bad and somewhat angry at unfolding environmental disaster in the gulf. I might even write a blog about it. Today, however, I'm here to brag. I have officially produced food, and it's only mid-May. We might have to go to the grocery store once or twice more, but that's probably it.

Over the weekend, I harvested a radish. And by harvest, I mean pulled it out of the soil. I did not use this video, but I post it here because it's just hilarious to me that somebody actually would take the time to film a how-to on removing a radish from the dirt - with tools. If you can't figure out how to harvest a radish, there's a pretty good chance you're better off anyway. After all, should you neglect to watch the next installment in the series - "Be Sure Not to Swallow the Radish Whole" - it could be the first and only radish you ever harvest. That's right, I'm taunting. I'm a farmer.

My radish was red, round and appeared to be perfectly edible. Check it out:

I was momentarily befuddled because the ones at Ingles don't come with dirt on them, but then I remembered I could wash it off with the running water in the kitchen. So I did. Then I ate it. It was crispy and juicy with just the right amount of spiciness. I encouraged Kristy to try one of her own, and she agreed - this was food. We both remembered not to eat the greens, even though I think you can. Hot damn.

They've been in the ground six weeks so they should be ready, though I'm having a hard time believing that little black speck of seed managed to do all of this in barely more than a month. Talk about getting busy. In fact, if they aren't eaten soon they'll start to get mushy and bitter. We'll have about three dozen when all is said and done, counting the doubles (two seeds in one hole - they seemed to do just fine) and the four seeds I planted about 10 days ago to replace the duds. I wonder if you can get radish poisoning?

I'll have two free squares when that's done, and I have to decide: Plant more radishes or put in my pepper seedlings that are getting large enough to transplant? We might have enough time for another batch of radishes, but maybe not: They're a cool-weather vegetable, and six weeks from now is early summer. Hmmm. Decisions, decisions. For now, I'll just enjoy the endless variety of cooking options that come with radishes. We can eat them raw, or we can eat them raw. We can put them in a salad, or eat them individually. They can be consumed whole, halved, quartered or - if you've had a few too many gin-and-tonics - sliced. Really, it's mind-boggling.

Now for a photographic rundown of the other veggies that are, if I do say so myself, also kicking some ass. Organic gardening is fun when the summer pests haven't come out yet! We'll stick with Garden 1 for today, which had about a two-week head start on Garden 2:

Swiss chard. How the hell do you eat Swiss chard? I guess we're going to have to find out. Oh, and I just got a message that the image couldn't be uploaded because of "an internal error." Huh, huh, huh - the computer said "internal."

Kale. A perfect performance - all 10 seeds came up. How the hell do you eat kale? I guess we're going to find out.

Green onions. A few things stand out. One, they're getting their asses kicked by the radishes to their right. Two, this looks more like the fairway at a cheap 9-hole course than food. And, three, right now they are indistinguishable from regular onion seedlings. I'm sure, when the time is right, the mystery of their uniqueness will be revealed to me.

Basil and a marigold. I planted more basil than this, but if these guys get as big as they should this should be plenty for this square. The marigold is there to repel garden pests, though, honestly, I can't find anything on the internet that actually substantiates this. Personal experience tells me the marigold will be devoured by slugs while other insects continue to devour my vegetables. So I'll believe the whole repelling thing when I see it.

Cherry tomato and a sunflower. The little guy is the cherry tomato I planted six weeks ago and has finally decided to grace us with his/her presence. Isn't he/she cute? The sunflower to the left came up through no fault of mine. Can they co-exist in one square? Tune in all summer! It's like "Heroes."

Artichoke. Another plant I have little idea how to consume, but I have managed to get the seed to germinate and transplant said seed from planter to the ground. That counts for something, right?

Cauliflower. These guys, unlike their neighbors the radishes, clearly aren't on the juice. But they seem to finally be getting their footing. Speaking of footing, I was going to leave the toes on my right foot in the frame but decided against it. You're welcome.

Cucumbers. This cucumber, top photo, wasn't supposed to be here. Neither were the 12 others, second photo, I transplanted over the weekend that have, amazingly, not died. Apparently we left a cucumber in the old garden and it spread its seed everywhere when I moved the growing mix. Fairly amazing. Anybody want a cucumber plant? In the third photo we have some type of grass that also came up everywhere and was threatening to take over until I pulled it. No point, really. Just wanted to share.

We also have strawberries. Good luck getting these on the counter, birds. You can keep flying into the windows all you want.

Later this week: Garden 2.