Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sustainable Gardening?

I was almost home from my morning walk with the dog before I realized what today is: my last day of summer vacation. I love my work at the library, but it's awfully hard to leave the homefront each year, where I've gotten into the rhythm of gardening, homemaking, and cooking -- really cooking. I know that most Americans work year-round, with only a couple of weeks of vacation plus holidays, and that I am really fortunate to have the 6 weeks I have each summer, but is doesn't make it any easier when the end of July rolls around. And I always wonder: can I sustain the gardens this year?

Frankly, the answer is usually "no." It's just not possible to keep up the same level of gardening when I spend 9 hours of my day off The Realm. And lots of things hit this time of year: back to school stuff (for both me as a teacher and Skye as a student), Skye's birthday, then soccer season, then Halloween (which I love!). Before I can turn around twice, it's November.

I've been trying to make my gardens more sustainable: piling on more mulch, adding landscape fabric under the paths, promising Love "no new gardens," laying out soaker hoses early in the season. And the Berry Patch is a success story -- this summer I've pulled only a weed here and there and hooked on the garden hose to the soaker hose once each week that we haven't gotten an inch of rain. Easy peasy. The Kitchen Garden (which is getting topsoil hauled in as I write this -- more on that later!) is planned for minimum maintenance. Now if I can just get the Cottage Garden in hand!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Just How Old Is This Hibiscus?

According to our estimates, at least 17 years old. I got rid of the houseplants 11 years ago – traded all those pots for a baby. I rooted this hibiscus for Sister two houses ago – sometime between 1989 and 1991. All my hibiscus plants are long gone, but they never looked like this one anyway! Sometimes Sister’s pot plants are so big that they’re scary!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Planting for the Future

My mother is 84 years old and feeling every year of it these days. Between the arthritis and the Louisiana heat, she’s feeling pretty whipped this summer. But not too whipped to water her plants. She’s tending this little sawtooth oak that she planted three years ago from an acorn from a friend’s yard. I hope I’m still planting trees in my 80’s!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Elderberry Envy

I am so jealous! Skye and I made the trek to Louisiana last week, and we saw thousands of elderberry bushes along the roadsides in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. I have dreams of making elderberry jelly this fall, but I just don’t know if they will become reality. Last spring I set out two named elderberry bushes in The Woodlot, Adams and Johns. One is growing but did not bloom this year; the other has turned up its toenails and died this summer. While I plan to replace it, that will delay my elderberry crop another year.

This summer I have made note of a few wild elderberry bushes in our area. I plan to go back and harvest when the fruit is ripe. But will I have enough to make jelly?

Future elderberry plans? Well, I plan to replace the dead one. This spring, I plan to take cuttings of the wild bushes I have noted. Perhaps the woodlot will one day produce enough elderberries for jelly and even elderberry wine.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sister’s Satsumas

Skye and I visited my sister in Monroe, Louisiana, during our trek southward. My sister has an absolutely incredible backyard, much of it in pots that she overwinters in a shelter that she and my brother-in-law build for the plants each fall. She has fabulous ferns, beautiful bougainvilleas, and luscious lantana. But I think my favorite of all her plants is the Satsuma. A transplant from my uncle’s yard in north Florida, the Satsuma bears a yearly crop of 3-10 fruits which Sister guards ferociously. Don’t mess with Sister’s Satsumas!!!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pesto Project

I'm never happier than when I have a new project. That is not necessarily a good thing, as it often leads to entirely too many projects to juggle. But still, I love a new project.

And this one just fell in my lap. When I was watering a couple of days ago, I looked at the basil and wondered what to do with it. (You may remember that my basil was a freebie this year.) Then, as I was eating lunch today, I opened Margaret's newest post over at A Way to Garden and learned all about Pesto Fest. Tonight I'll be harvesting pesto, and tomorrow I'll be making my first pesto. Yes, really, my first pesto.

Peppers, Peppers, Peppers

Last week, I threw out a partial bag of frozen bell peppers and another of jalapenos. Salmonella scare? Freezer meltdown? Sudden development of pepper allergies? Nope. Once again, I have enough peppers in my garden to keep us in peppers for three or four years. At least. And we haven’t even hit the second crop yet.
I’ve already made pepper jelly. Love no longer eats pickled jalapenos, so there’s no point in that. I’ve begun freezing and will freeze enough to keep us through the year, although I always overestimate – must start keeping better notes. I have uncovered a pepper relish recipe that I’m hoping will use up part of the glut. Perhaps I can unload some on my brother when he visits Labor Day weekend.
Why do I do this every year? Those plants are so pretty in the spring, and one just doesn’t seem like enough. And honestly, I have gotten better. This year, I have only jalapenos, orange bells, chocolate bells, and green bells. There was a year when I had 24 pepper plants – jalapenos, a rainbow of bells, habaneras, bananas, chilies, pablanos. I pickled. I jellied. I froze. I dried. I made pepper sauce and pepper oil and pepper vinegar. A friend’s daughter won her elementary school’s jack-o-lantern decorating contest after I gave her a Wal-Mart bag full of peppers in my desperate attempts to get rid of them. Frost came with peppers still on the bushes. Never again, I swore.
But then there is that neat wreath design I found this summer in a library book -- perhaps just a few more chili pepper plants next year might be just the ticket.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Gourd Seeds

Last week as Skye and I were packing our farmers’ market purchases into the ice chest in our van before heading off on foot for other errands, my phone rang. My friend Dee, the gourd artist, was calling to report a gourd growing in her employer’s garden. You may remember that Dee took some gourds from my house last spring to paint and return. One of the gourds had sat on a shelf in my laundry room for years after I hauled it home from my mother’s Louisiana home, where it had been in her “storeroom” (a.k.a. pantry) for even more years. When Dee had started working on it, she cut into it and removed the seeds. This spring, she planted them in the garden she helps tend. And they came up.
Later that day, my phone let out the little beep it makes to announce a message. It was Dee, sending pictures of the gourd plant and even a tiny gourd among the many blooms.
I called my mother that evening to ask how old the gourd was. She thinks it was 20-25 years old. Of course, her first words were, “Well, I hope she didn’t plant them all!” That is one of the guiding principles of Mother’s life: “Never plant all your seeds at once.” Wise words. Dee reports that she didn’t plant all the seeds; she saved some for another year, as any good gardener does. And she promises to share seeds if she produces any gourds. And I promise to share them with my mother.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pepper Relish

I just put by 7 pints of pepper relish and am watching Skye swim. Here's the recipe:

7 1/2 cups chopped sweet pepper (bell)
2 1/2 cups chopped hot pepper (jalapeno)
5 cups chopped onion
3 tablespoons salt
2 cups sugar
2 cups cider vinegar

Combine all ingredients in large sauce pan. Bring to a boil. Cook uncovered for two minutes. Pour into hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/4" headspace. Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Great on purple hull peas!

Jammin’ with Friends

While I was talking with one of Skye’s mentors the other day, the conversation turned to our Berry Patch and the canning of jellies and jams. She pointed out that such skills are going to be in demand in the coming years. I guess they already are, because I spent a recent morning teaching three work friends to make blueberry jam. Truthfully, only one of them begged, “Do you know how to make jam? Will you teach me?” But the other two jumped at the idea of spending a morning with other women, picking blueberries and jamming them. Skye declared that grown-ups have weird ideas of fun: getting together to pick blueberries and make jam did not sound like her idea of a party. However, she was glad to entertain the other daughters in the backyard swimming pool.
But it was great fun. The berrying gave us a chance to chat in a companionable situation away from work. When we moved inside to make the jam, everyone pitched in and the work went quickly. Even the friend who said, “Oh, I’m not going to take any jam home: we’re really not jam people,” succumbed to the temptations of blueberry jam once she tasted the brilliant purple concoction. And when the day’s work ended with blackberry lemonade – made with syrup from my own berries – the day was declared a success. We’re still deciding whether our next lesson will be homemade yeast bread or roux that leads to gumbo.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Syrup, Jam, & Jelly Roll

I spent part of Thursday morning making hot pepper jelly. It's a treat around here, served on crackers with cream cheese, but it also makes great Christmas gifts. If I keep my act together, I'll make another batch later in the season, when the jalapenos and bells are red.

While I worked, Skye sat at the kitchen bar, studying Latin, keeping me company, and plotting to sneak bites of the raw bell pepper. Her food preservation lesson of the day was "always wear gloves when working with jalapenos."

I ended the work session with three pints and five cups of jelly. Skye and I also inventoried our pantry production for the summer. I've added a list to the sidebar -- I'll try to keep it updated.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Little Shade on a Hot Day

Skye snapped this picture of Cookie enjoying the shade of the cat cave under the angel trumpet. I wish I had a nice cool cave in the Cottage Garden: I might never come out!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

When Life Gives You Angel Trumpet Blooms....

When life gives you angel trumpet blooms… make new dresses for your clothespin dolls.

Skye is never bored for long. I truly believe the best parenting advice I ever received came from my friend Wisty who said, “Don’t be afraid to let her get bored. Kids have to get bored and move through that boredom to become truly creative.” Or something like that. Wisty is a wise woman.

We are not Luddites, but our home is not filled with all the latest technological gizmos. We have cable and a DVD player and cell phones and laptops and a digital camera. We don’t, however, have a Wii or an Xbox or Webkins or iPods. I’m not sure what we’d give up to make time to play with them…. there’s way too much real living to do. I’ve offered to get Skye an iPod for her birthday, as music is such a big part of her life, but she insists that she doesn’t want one. She likes her CDs and making her own music, thank you very much.

And Skye has always enjoyed making toys as much as playing with them. The clothespin dolls have been a favorite over the years. I’ll be sad when she doesn’t play with them anymore. But I’ll never be able to see an angel trumpet bloom in the same way.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Kitchen Garden Begins

Finally, the Kitchen Garden is more than a dream in my head and a sketch on paper. I first knew that I wanted a Kitchen Garden to surround our pool last summer when I read Jennifer Bartley's Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook. I planned the garden in my head, then put it on paper. At the time, we were adding our lovely back porch and rethinking what we wanted around the pool. I advocated for the Kitchen Garden, and it is slowly becoming a reality -- more slowly than I hoped back in September.

The ground is cleared. I moved everything I wanted to keep, gave lots of plants away, and put even more on the compost pile. The bermuda grass is gone -- there is a time and place for Roundup in my life. The perennial border that sat where the new Kitchen Garden will be had been overrun by Bermuda, which got its foot in the door when Skye was a baby and has been waging war and gaining ground ever since.

Love has tilled the ground. I have picked up rocks. Love is searching for topsoil to have hauled in to build the beds up. My perfectly symmetrical but impractical raised beds on paper have morphed to fit the new layout, and Love has made me a beautiful drawing using his cad program. I have actually purchased my own copy of Designing the New Kitchen Garden -- the public library will be so glad. When Dickson Street Bookshop didn't turn up a copy, I ordered it from Nightbird Books. (I really am trying to buy local more.)

There are more rocks to pick up, more tilling to be done, beds to build, soil to ammend and work, a fence to install, plants to set out and seeds to plant. My brother in Texas has promised to share his asparagus. The strawberry plants that are too close to the blueberry bushes will have a new home. Two roses in the holding bed (the very weedy holding bed) are looking for a new home. And this time next year, they will have one, and we here at the Realm will be enjoying more than just tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and berries. We'll be enjoying the beauty and bounty right outside our kitchen door.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Glory in the Morning

These purple beauties are gracing the fence on the south side of the Cottage Garden this summer. And it's confession time again: I've actually never grown morning glories before. I've bought the seed more than once, but have just never gotten them planted. I think it's a mental block: my mother grew morning glories on the fence behind our home one summer, and when my daddy spotted them, he declared them to be "nothin' but damn tie-vines!" To a Louisiana cotton farmer, the morning glory (aka tie-vine) could make a mess out of a well-kept cotton field. But those little wild morning glories were mild shadows of the beauties in my garden. The deep purple is truly breath-taking. And these guys are in my garden due to the generousity of friend and neighbor Cee, who shared these with me one Sunday afternoon in May.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Packing' Water: A 3rd Generation

Back in June, I heard that we were already ahead of the annual rainfall for 2005 & 2006 in this area. Indeed, I have done very little watering this year. Only twice have we begun packin' water, each time for a couple of days, and we have yet to start all-out watering. I carefully record the rainfall on the calendar by the back door: if we've had an inch in the previous week, we don't water. If we've had a 1/2" in the previous week, we start packin' water on the fourth or fifth day. But we just haven't gone without rain for more than 10 days since the summer began.

"We" here means Skye and me. She likes saving bath water, catching kitchen sink water, and hauling buckets of water around in her wagon and doling them out to the trees and bushes that I have identified as top priority subjects. I think she's actually a bit disappointed that we've had so much rain.

I'm very proud of Skye. Besides being a curious kid, she's very environmentally conscious. She's been trying to convert Love to the Packin' Water Philosophy. Check out the signs she posted above our kitchen sink last week.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Garden as Art

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Dee came over for supper and some downtime on the back porch. Image my delight when she showed up bearing gifts!

About a year ago, as we sat outdoors on the deck that preceded the back porch, she told me about how she had started etching and painting gourds. She even brought some of her finished and half-finished gourds to show me. The next thing she knew, we were tramping out to my gardening shed (locally known as "The Barn") to root around for gourds. I knew I had a couple out there that had come off a gourd vine here a few years ago. I had been saving them for a project that I doubted would ever happen. So my gourds went home with Dee.

Now they're home again. Isn't sharing fun?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mamaw's Canning Jars

It's confession time. I've been spending more time indoors than out these last few days. Aside from picking blueberries and Japanese beetles, I haven't really done much in the garden. But I have been weeding.

Weeding? Surely I've been in the garden. Nope. I've been weeding the garage. And the attic. And the pantry. And the linen closet. And that pesky cabinet over the stove with toothpicks spilled all over the place. And I feel better. It's a big psychic load to get rid of the clutter and the unneeded stuff that threatens to take over our modern lives. If it weren't for all the stuff, we wouldn't be neighbors to a mini-storage facility, where the busiest business day is December 26th. But I digress.

The hardest thing for me about weeding stuff is the concern that we might need this stuff some day in harder times. Part of that is my parents' heritage from The Great Depression, and part of it is the constant news reports of prices going up and the economy going down. But why keep stuff that we will never use again? So the baby stuff is going, along with some other things.

But not the canning jars, even though they take up lots of space on the garage floor. Years ago, Love and I rescued 13 dozen canning jars from behind his grandmother's vacant home. They were all bagged up and ready for recycling. They've mostly sat empty in our attic and then our garage since then, along with a few jars collected over the years as my mother has gradually gotten rid of hers. Canning comes out of my kitchen in a trickle these days: a few pickles here, a bit of apple butter there, but mostly jellies and jams that go into my collection of smaller jelly jars. But, I promise, Mamaw, I'm working my way back. Some year soon, hopefully next, our pantry will overflow with green beans, peas, tomatoes, tomato juice, and all the other things I used to can B.C. (before children). And your jars will be at work once again.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Independence Day!

Happy Independence Day, from our garden to yours!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July Ozark Gardening Calendar

One of my goals is to create a single gardening calendar for each month. I have lots of goals and not enough time, but today is the day to start. I have a few minutes while Skye finishes her Latin lesson.

I've been looking for a good gardening calendar for this region, and I think I've finally found one: Gardener's Tote-Book from Ozark Seed Exchange. My hope is to start with the information provided there, the notes I have scribbled here and there, and what's in my head and put together a gardening calendar for my microclimate.

July Calendar

July 1
Kitchen Garden:
plant bush & pole beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, lettuce
Monitor tomatoes for stink bugs & spray with pyrethrin.
Berry Patch:
Continue blueberry harvest.
All gardens:
Continue beetle patrol.

July 7
Patrol for webworms in pecans, cut, and burn.

July 15
Kitchen Garden:
plant bush beans, collards, southern peas, Irish potatoes
brocolli, lettuce, cabbage

July – after blueberry harvest
Berry Patch:
Fertilize blueberries with cottonseed meal (6-2.5-1.7), feather meal (13-0-0), fish meal (10-4-0), soybean meal (7-1.6-2-3) or alfalfa meal (3-1-2).

July 25
Kitchen Garden:
Plant turnips.

July 29
pre-sprout corn to plant August 1