Sunday, July 31, 2011

Garlic Math

I finished cleaning my garlic, weighed it, and saved out the biggest bulbs for seed today.  I even braided some of the soft-neck garlic, although my first attempt, using cloves of various sizes, is not as neat-looking as some I have seen.  I harvested about 17 pounds of garlic total.  An average grocery-store sized bulb weighs about 1 3/4 ounces, so that means I harvested about 200 bulbs.  I think I need to go into the garlic-selling business...

The Summer Herb Garden

If you use herbs when you cook, you can quickly go broke trying to buy them. In the produce section, stores carry tiny wilted packets of “fresh” basil, oregano, parsley, and other herbs for about $2. If you are lucky, you will find some truly fresh herbs at the farmers market for a reasonable price. Many of the dried herbs, I noticed, are products of China. No matter how small your garden, it is easiest to grow your own for fresh consumption and to dry some for use the rest of the year.

If you have a sunny spot big enough for a pot, grow some herbs, even if you don’t have room for anything else. I used to have an herb garden, but now I mix the perennial herbs in with my flowers and shrubs and I plant the annual herbs in rows in the vegetable garden. They are easy to grow, and with the exception of mint, behave themselves.

Rosemary is somewhat tricky to establish in the garden but once it’s happy you will not have to worry about it. The upright type seems to be easier to grow than the prostrate, or creeping, type, and it forms a nice evergreen shrub. Rosemary likes hot dry sites; my mother has tried for years to find some shrub that will grow across the front of her brick home that the afternoon sun bakes all day, and rosemary thrives where many other shrubs died.

I water rosemary often until it is established. I make sure the soil dries some between waterings, but I don’t let it dry out so much that it begins to wilt. Many plants tolerate this treatment, but rosemary does not. Rosemary will also die in soggy soil. I have killed many more rosemary plants than have lived in my yard, but because I persevered, I have several healthy, trouble-free plants. If you kill rosemary in one place, move it somewhere else until you find a good spot. They like sandy soil.

Sage, in my experience, is also difficult to establish and likes conditions similar to rosemary’s preferences. My mother has a patch of sage growing in the same baking sun the rosemary likes that is older than I am, but she gave me several starts of her sage before I got one to grow in my garden. Using my own sage in recipes instead of that jarred “rubbed sage” is worth the trouble. Thyme and oregano like more consistently moist, but not soggy, sites.

Basil is very easy to grow as a crop among your other vegetables. Sow the seed directly in the ground and cover it, and you will have a crop in about 2 months. Six plants or so should give you plenty to eat fresh, to dry, and to make pesto; freeze the pesto and you’ll have a supply all winter without having to pay the exorbitant prices for pesto in the grocery store.

Unfortunately for us, cilantro, a crucial seasoning in fresh salsa, tends to bolt to seed in our heat before any tomatoes are ripe. I managed to nurse ours along this year by planting a bolt-resistant variety and cutting off the flower stalks as they appear so I had some around to put with the tomatoes to make salsa.

It’s best to dry herbs when they are actively growing. Pick them on a dry morning, and shake off any bugs. I do not use any pesticides on mine, and I do not wash them; I suppose that if you wanted to wash them, you could, and then spin them dry in a salad spinner. I spread them on a wire rack or on paper towels on a cookie sheet, and I make sure there is ample room among the leaves for air circulation. When the leaves are crunchy, I store them in zip-top plastic bags in the cabinet.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Farmers Market, Iowa City, Iowa

For such a small town, about the size of Sumter in SC, Iowa city has a wonderful Farmers Market
Although there was no okra, there were plenty of other vegetables, many of which would have been burned in SC's heat by now
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Sunday, July 17, 2011

One Dozen Eggs!

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Nothing Starts the Day off Right... looking out the back door and seeing a chicken stroll across the driveway.  I moved them to greener pastures yesterday, but apparently the wings I trimmed about six weeks ago have grown back sufficiently to allow them to fly over the fence in search of even better food. Achieving another developmental milestone, Ella, 5, helped me catch those it was possible to catch, and helped hold the wings out for me to trim them.  Presently, seven of the nine are back in the pen, and the other two, which were too wild to catch, were decorating the porch of my husband's newly built Man Shed with their droppings. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gardening Developmental Milestones in Children

When I began gardening with my children, I did not realize that there would be a lengthy series of gardening “developmental milestones,” not described in my books about babies, that they would have to achieve before they could be more of a help than a hindrance in the garden. This weekend, when we planted beans, Ella, my 5 year old, achieved one of the most important milestones: placing the seeds in the row with approximately correct spacing without my constant supervision.

Before children can spend much time at all in the garden, they must be able to walk. My children both walked very late, and even after they began walking on hard surfaces, they needed a lot of practice before they could walk on uneven surfaces without falling, so throughout most of the first two years of their lives, I couldn’t do much in the garden when they were outside. Once my children walked well, they began moving through the other developmental milestones: not eating dirt at every opportunity, only eating plants or berries an adult approves, not pouring out the entire seed packet in one spot, walking around plants instead of on them, and walking only on mulched paths in the garden.

At about age four, Ella began achieving more complicated milestones such as remembering to use two hands to pick beans and peas so she didn’t tear up the plant in the picking process, and knowing what is ripe and what is not (this generally requires some taste tests to be sure I am right about what is ripe and what is not, especially where fruit is concerned). She also started taking plants out of their nursery containers and tearing apart the roots enough, but not too much, before helping me plant them. She learned how to place a single seed where I directed her; later on, I gave her an appropriate number of seeds and told her to spread them out enough to make them last the entire row.

Saturday morning, when Ella helped me plant beans, I showed her how far apart to space the beans, gave her a container of seed, and went off to other tasks. When I returned, I discovered that she’d correctly planted the seeds, and I dug another row and told her to plant it. With her unexpected help, I was able to plant several more rows of beans than I thought I would have time to sow. Later, I gave her the clippers and asked her to pick the eggplant; she was able to decide which ones were the largest ones and which ones were too small, and to pick accordingly.

Meanwhile, her two-year-old sister, Clara, was pouring out her bean seed in a pile in the row, and wanting more to plant. It will be awhile before she passes through the developmental milestones and is able to be more of a help than a hindrance, but at least she doesn’t eat too much dirt anymore. Anyone with small children knows they love to “help,” and most of the time that help results in an easy task taking twice as long as it should. However, when they are finally able to be of real help, the training time is worth it, as is the pride they display in telling others about their accomplishments.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tomato Canning Time!

Every year, I can tomatoes for the winter. Some of my favorite summer memories are of my family canning tomatoes, green beans, and other fruits and vegetables.  For a time, the house is full of tomatoes and infused with the delicious smell of cooking tomatoes, and then the time is over until next year.  Buy some extra produce from the Farmers Market and you can bypass the canned-goods aisle next winter.

I use a pressure canner, like the Presto 1781 23-Quart Aluminum Pressure Cooker/Canner,  to can mine.  Many people use a water bath canner, such as the  Columbian Home 0707-1 Granite Ware 21-1/2-Quart Steel/Porcelain Water-Bath Canner with Rack which I tried, but you have to add lemon juice or citric acid to make sure the tomatoes remain acidic enough to prevent botulism and I did not like the taste.  If you do much food preservation, you'll soon want a pressure canner, which will enable you to preserve, safely, many different fruits, vegetables, and meats.  The initial cost of the pressure canner is higher than that of the water bath canner, but the expense and peace of mind of knowing your food is safe is worth it.  For folks who make chili and freeze it, for example, you could pressure can it instead and safely store it even when the power goes out.  My mother has been using hers for at least 40 years, so it's not something you should have to buy again as long as you take care of it.     

My mother steams the tomatoes enough to split the skins, peels them, cuts them up, heats the tomatoes, and cans them.  I did this, but wanted to have less juice in my sauce.  I read about it and learned that if you cook the tomatoes thoroughly before you cut them, it prevents a chemical reaction that releases the juice.  I also didn't like having to handle the hot tomatoes to remove their skins.
To prevent the chemical reaction, I start with washed, whole tomatoes.  I do cut off any really gross places, and I wash them.  I put a splash of water in the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching.
Fresh, whole tomatoes in the pot

Clara "helping" put the tomatoes through the food mill

After the tomatoes are thoroughly cooked, I cool them some, and I put them through the food mill; I use the Roma Food Strainer and Sauce Maker for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.  The tomatoes and juice come down the white slide into the pot, and some of the seeds and the skin goes out the clear tube to the left into the compost bowl. And, I don't have to peel any tomatoes or burn my fingers on any that are still hot!

Tomato pulp and juice comes out into a pot for further cooking

 Everything must be boiling hot when you assemble the jars.  This setup works for me; the electric frying pan gives me some extra space on the stove.  In it I put the jars, rims, and flats, in about an inch of water.  I put a dishcloth on the bottom of the pan to keep the jars from bumping against the metal and breaking.  You will need a Norpro 600 Jar Lifter to put the jars into the boiling water, a Norpro Stainless Steel Wide-Mouth Funnel, and a magnetic stick is useful to get the lids out of the boiling water without burning your fingers. 

Filling the jars with sauce, making sure to leave about an inch of empty space at the top
Pressure canning works by heating the contents of the jars to a temperature above boiling, which kills spores of botulism and other diseases that simple boiling cannot do.  Pressure canning is safe, and easy, as long as you read and follow the directions that come with your canner.

Filled jars ready to go in the pressure cooker
My pressure cooker holds seven quart jars of tomatoes.  I reuse the rims and the jars, but I have to buy new flat lids because the seals will not work reliably more than once. Ball Regular Mouth Lids and Bands will get you started.  You will also have to buy jars, like Ball Regular Mason Canning Jar 1/2 Pt., Case of 12.  Ask some relatives or friends if they have any supplies stashed in the attic before you buy anything.  Make sure you use jars intended for canning; old mayonnaise jars, for example, are not sturdy enough to stand up to the pressure. 
Pressure cooker doing its thing

I have an extra stove in the garage so I do my canning out there.  I have a glass-topped stove in the house and the directions say not to use a canner on it.  Plus, if I have an explosion, I'd rather it happen out there than in the house!  Don't let that scare you though: modern canners have many safety valves built in and as long as you pay attention to the directions and to your canner, you will be safe too.  My mother has canned food for decades and has never had an explosion. 

I will not attempt to give you specific directions about canning on this blog post, but you can get the book Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving to get you started.  The book contains directions for water bath canning.  My pressure cooker came with a book of recipes and directions. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

This Week in the Garden

This week I harvested my first tomatoes.  As usual, some of my plants appear to be diseased and are dying, but I hope I have planted enough (about 50 plants) for some to survive to harvest so I will have enough to can.  My cucumbers are growing and producing well, and although I have lost some squash plants to squash vine borers, I have planted more and they are slowly bearing. 

I have managed to harvest some corn ahead of the raccoons, and picking off Japanese beetles keeps me busy.  I noticed a writing spider with a Japanese beetle in her web; I hope she has an appetite for more beetles. 

I am getting plenty of green beans.  I planted several varieties but I think I like the golden yellow wax bean the best.  It is the most tender.  My lima beans are growing steadily, although the plants will not bear for awhile.  The edamame is almost ready to harvest; we'll steam it and eat it like boiled peanuts.  I began digging potatoes from the vines that have died back.

At this time of year, the work seems to never end, and these hot temperatures make the work more difficult.  Even on very hot days, though, I value my time in the garden and am thankful for the time I spend in it.