Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fine feathers

All four hens finally finished the longest molt in history. They now are stepping out in fresh new feathers, and look beautiful! Now, despite the long nights of winter, we are getting eggs again. Only one or two a day, but that is pretty good for 2 year old hens in the dead of winter. Here they are this morning, eating fresh, although frozen solid, collard leaves from the garden. With all the greens they eat, their egg yolks are gorgeous dark yellow. I made the most amazing eggnog on Christmas eve!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The beauty from the beast

It has been beastly weather here over the last few days. Bitter cold (for us here in coastal NC, I know that cold is a relative term!), with temperatures near or below 20 at night, remaining below freezing during the day. It felt especially harsh because we had such a short time to get acclimated to the cold. Remember, we still had basil and peppers in the garden just two weeks ago!
The garden was hard hit, but, in some ways beautiful. Here is a red chard leaf, frozen solid. The colors are so bright and deep, and the surface shiny and clear. It reminds me of stained glass, and was just as hard and solid. The bed of young mixed greens is not so pretty. You can see how many of the plants have been knocked right to the ground by the freezing weather.
So, what will recover and what is now gone for the year? It is too early to know. The broccoli certainly looks bad, and while the kale is drooping, it doesn't seem as hard hit. Will the chard spring back? What about the young plants? Maybe. When this snap passes, and we get back to more typical weather, I will know the long term impact.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In from the cold

Sure enough, we had our first freeze this weekend (no prior frost at my house, just went straight to a freeze this year). There were two things in my garden that had no hope of making it through the freeze intact: a number of hot pepper plants and one, huge basil. Here you see the box of mixed hot peppers. I have no idea what I am going to do with them! Most of these are HOT. For now they sit, looking beautiful, in a box on my counter. Maybe stuff them in a jar and fill with vinegar that I can use in future bbq sauce?

The green basil leaves are a reminder of summer, and were lovely. I say were because I was so lazy that, even though I broke off the branches and brought them inside, I let them wilt on the counter until they were too sad to consider. Shame on me! For punishment I have to wait until next summer for fresh basil flavor.

One more treat that ripened this weekend, the three tangerines that my tree set. Remember last year when the tree had over 150 of these beauties? Well, last year's record cold killed back the branches to only about 10 inches long each. This was followed by record summer heat and drought. The poor tree is sturdy and green, but had to spend the year trying to survive and recover, and there were very few blossoms. These couple of tangerines were wonderful, and hopefully are just a taste of future, big yields.

Last, but not least in taste: I harvested one of the radicchio plants, doused it in olive oil, and seared it on the grill. I found one butterhead lettuce plant hidden under the arugula. The grilled radicchio and fresh butterhead lettuce made an amazing salad. You have to love a garden that gives you these tastes in early December during exceptional years.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Last minute successes; just say no

Well, it looks like winter may finally come our way tonight. It's delayed arrival, did, however, give me a chance for some last minute garden additions that just may make it! Here you see what I guess I will call a "winter greens mix." 5 weeks ago, on one of the last days of October, at a time that is usually much too late to do such things, I cleaned out my seed stash of all old lettuce, kales, turnips, and other winter greens packets. I figured they were old, and probably would not germinate well, and, to be honest, I knew I couldn't buy any new stuff next year with all these old packets already in hand! I had an open section of garden where the sweet potatoes had been, so I scattered all the seeds throughout. And look! Everything, and I mean everything, germinated. I thinned it down a few weeks later, and now you see a bed of lovely mixed greens. They are small, but sturdy. I will start harvesting some leaves to add spice and color and texture to salads, and will wait and see what makes it though the winter. A fun use for old seeds and a bare patch.

My next, and even later experiment was the garlic you see here. That didn't make it into the ground until mid November. Any other year it probably would have been a bust, and just rotted in the cold, wet ground. Not this year! I have nice, strong new garlic shoots peeking out. If all goes well, I will harvest my first ever garlic crop late next summer. I kept in mind the long season for growing garlic, and put it on the edge of a bed where it won't interfere with my spring and summer plantings.

Finally, here you see a photo of my first efforts at rappini (also called broccolini). This is the green you buy with cute little heads that look like tiny broccoli, and serrated greens surrounding them. It is a great, bitter green for Italian cooking. Well, I expected a short crop, sort of like arugula. After all, when you buy this it is only about 9 inches long. Surprise! This plant grows tall, over 3 feet, before putting out that tiny, now pitiful looking shoot. Your yield per volume of garden space is small, really small. If I had a large garden I may grow this again, as I love the crop, but it makes no sense for my tiny garden. I can grow other greens that substitute just fine (such as arugula), and get a much higher yield per square foot. The good news? The hens love these plants, and I am now pulling out one each day to feed to them.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fall colors and bald hens

A couple of photos to help you visualize how the ladies' coop looks during a molt: sort of like someone plucked a hen! Note how Lena's (far left) head and parts of her wings have only new pin feathers where the old feathers fell out. Each hen molts yearly, replacing the old with bright, new, healthy feathers. Hard work for the hen's system, so she stops laying for a bit during the molt.

Here too are some of the beautiful fall colors from the yard: The orange red of my red maple (chosen for its fall color and because maple provides one of the earliest spring food sources for the bees), and similar colors from my Muskogee crape myrtle, chosen for it's disease resistance, size at maturity (medium large tree), lavender blossoms, and fall leaf color. Last, even the young blueberry bushes have great fall color. Here you see the blueberry bed, with an understory of collards and flat leaf parsley.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Just another armload

I hate to just keep posting photos of armloads of amazing fresh greens, but that is what the garden is all about right now! Here is a basket full of broccollini (greens and small flower buds that look like broccoli), plus the last of 3 kinds of lettuce. I am so sorry the lettuce did not make it to Thanksgiving, but it all was bolting (going to seed), so had to be harvested. Way more than we could eat right away, so it has been rinsed and dried and wrapped in a damp paper towel and put in the fridge for salads all week long.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Even more abundance

Wow, the garden is exploding. Yesterday I cooked a 2 pound bok choy and we had half with lunch, and then an armload of arugula for dinner, cooked with garlic and shitake mushrooms, with half going into the freezer. Then I noticed that two of my broccoli heads are full size and need to be picked right away! Broccoli for dinner tonight. Finally, look into this beautiful radicchio plant. I know that nestled inside those leaves soon will be the beautiful radicchio for me to grill for a salad!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Time to breathe and eat

It is a peaceful time in the yard and garden. The hens are starting to molt (lose their feathers) and to lay fewer eggs due to the reduced light as well. The bees (the hive that is left) are putting away their winter stores of goldenrod pollen and honey. All the winter greens are growing well, and all I can do right this minute is harvest each day.

We eat lettuce in fresh salads every day, sometimes 4 kinds per salad. Each day I also choose between kale and collards, bok choy and chinese cabbage for a cooked green. Some time to breathe and enjoy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Shitake and Sweet Potato

This weekend the gardens yielded two of the most flavorful backyard, fall foods.

Although getting a bit old, the shitake logs produced another fall harvest. Aren't these mushrooms beautiful? You grow them yourself by using freshly cut, but dead hardwood logs (they can't be old trees found on the ground, as these may already be filled with undesirable fungus spores). The shitake spores can be purchased already embedded in small wood plugs. You drill small holes in the logs, insert the plugs, cover the holes with paraffin, and wait. If you keep the logs moist and your fingers crossed the correct way, you will get mushrooms like these. They taste amazing when fresh, and for those that I will not eat immediately, I just pull out the stem, and the main mushroom cap dries perfectly in an open basket on my cutting board. They can be soaked for a bit and then used in soups or other dishes later in the year.

The second crop harvested was my sweet potatoes. These are a long, narrow, old fashioned variety, and I don't have their name! You don't eat sweet potatoes right away. They must be cured for a few weeks, in a warm, high moisture environment, to develop their sweet, moist flesh. If eaten right out of the garden, they are dry and somewhat flavorless. Last year I cured mine in the attic, I guess I will do the same this year.

Finally,while digging the sweet potatoes I came across this tree root. Now the nearest tree is all the way across the yard, about 50 feet away, so it shows how hard a tree will work to get itself into the best watered and fertilized area. I left the root sticking out of the ground until I can get back to cut it off, hopefully from a number of feet away from the vegetable bed. Once that is done, I have half a bed for my absolute, final fall plantings.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Breezy with a chance of showers

The forecast for the last two days here was "breezy, with a chance of showers." What we got was days of blinding rain, over 20" in places, and winds of close to 50 mph at my home. Many folks have serious damage, with flooded homes and cars, disintegrating bulkheads, sinkholes threatening foundations, and the like.

We got off easy: a saturated lawn, every ant from the surrounding area moving up into the house, and some damage to plants. Based on the mild forecast, I didn't move plants inside, and lost most of my outdoor pots when they blew over and shattered. I will be re-potting this weekend. Young collards in the garden blew over, and are laying on the ground, but will recover and grow, if crooked. Chinese cabbage leaves are more tender, and not only did the plants blow over, but the individual leaves are full of holes and bruises.

With just some plant injury to cope with, I was very, very lucky.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Big changes in a short time

In the last two weeks of hot days and cool night the fall garden has flourished. Here you see rapini seedlings only a couple of weeks old, already past the size when I should have thinned them, but I will do that today. The Chinese Cabbage and Bok Choy that were small transplants in my last post are today these huge, beautiful plants, challenging one another for space. I think I will be harvesting some outer stalks of the Bok Choy this weekend.

One plant that has grown in leaps and bounds has taken it one step too far. The Romaine lettuces are tall and beautiful, but just in the last 3 days have started to elongate in the stem, a sign that the hot days were too much for them and they are going to bolt. They are plenty big for a number of good salads this week, then I will pull them out and replace them with new seedlings, or will seed a new row of lettuce. Plenty of time still for lettuces this fall!

Finally, two weeks ago my basil had gotten tall, and pale, and was mostly seed heads. It also was full of spittle bugs (yuck). Instead of pulling it up, however, I just cut it way back, and here you see the new, beautiful fresh basil leaves that replaced the spent stems.

And one last thing: these are Padron peppers, fried whole like they do in Spainish tapas bars. I received seeds as a gift from a lovely friend. The only problem? These were HOT. I mean burn your mouth and throat and gullet hot. They are producing now, but I don't know if I will be brave enough to try them again. I don't know if it was the drought (probably), or the soil, or what, but these usually mild mannered little guys ate me alive. I'll let a few mature and save the seed to pass on to brave souls.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The best time of year

This really is the best time of year in the garden, isn't it? The satisfaction of removing old, dry, dying plants, freshening the soil with new amendments, whether it be compost, rotted manure, or just plain fertilizer, and starting fresh with new seeds and tender green plants.

The struggle this year, until this weekend's rain, was that the soil was bone dry. Dry on the surface and inches down into the bed. I was watering all my seedlings and transplants twice a day, every day. I had emptied my rain barrels and strained my lower back carrying the water to the plants. But, it was worth it. With plenty of water, my transplants doubled and tripled in size in only a week. Rapini seeds germinated and popped up in only 3 days, as did Blue Curled Vates kale seeds.

Here you have a photo of the arugula seedlings, just a few days after transplanting. They had been hardened off (were ready for the full sun and breezes) before purchase, so did fine from the minute I popped them in the soil. The other photo is the full bed of new fall plants. Those in the middle have branch tips from weedy bushes in the marsh, broken off and placed on the south and southwest sides of each plant to give them some shade. By the time the photo was taken they were a few days old, and wilted. Those protective branch tips now have been removed, as the plants have adapted to the sun and wind.

What is in the ground? Arugula, kale, collards (2 types), endive, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, rapini (2 types), and broccoli. The latest addition, some buttercrunch lettuce plants and some romaine lettuce plants. The days are still hot, but I am hoping the cool nights are just right. I still have 3 Spanish pepper plants, one basil, a "fish" pepper, and half a bed of sweet potatoes from the summer season. New plants and seeds soon with take their place as well.

Finally a shot of the beautiful annual flowers that volunteered in a front bed this year, from seed dropped by last year's flowers. Despite no attention, and not even being picked or deadheaded, the patch just keeps getting larger. Right now the butterflies cover the flowers every day, and it is a beautiful site.

Ahhh, the fall garden is a wonderful thing.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bye, bye tomatoes, hello new season!

Four months ago, I never would have believed that I would have eaten so many sungold tomatoes I could barely stand the thought of another. But after just a couple of months of having quarts of these each week, we were giving up. The ground under the plants was littered with fruit that had gotten overripe and fallen off. The red tomato plants that shared the bed were getting too little care as well. Luckily, and maybe as nature planned, it is time to plant fall crops, and I needed an empty bed. So, out came the tomato plants in one of our beds this weekend!

Big beautiful plants, naked on the bottom half but full and green on top, each sporting some fruit and blossoms, ripped out by the roots. All the fruit, green and red, (that had not been pecked by birds or repeatedly stabbed by leaf footed beetles and stink bugs) were saved for the kitchen. All except those overly prolific sundgolds, they went right to the chicken coop. The plants will be disposed of, to prevent overwintering of any diseases. As many fallen fruit as possible were raked up and fed to the hens.

I was left with a clean, open, fresh garden canvas! I had a few broccoli plants I had picked up last week, so in they went, with lots of water. This week I hope to find the kale transplants I like, and will put them in as well. (I have faith that the hurricanes on the horizon won't hit us with too hard a punch. If they do, I will replant.) Seed packets will find their way outside in the next week or two.

Another bed of tomatoes was left for an additional couple weeks of harvests, as I make my final decisions on fall plantings.

I love a new season in the garden!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A one bloom, nighttime show

Here is my young Hylocerus undatus (pronounced hy-lo-SEER-ee-us un-DAY-tus), more commonly known as night-blooming cereus. This plant from the cactus family spent it's first winter in my east facing window, and then spent this summer on an east facing porch. About a week ago it began to form a huge, prehistoric looking bud, covered in tangles of thin, twining, flesh colored sepals. Last evening, around dusk, those sepals started to open, and the hint of petals could be seen. By 10:00 pm you have the half open flower shown here. This is a one night only, night blooming flower, about 7 inches across. I did not stay up to see it fully opened, as I get up long before sunrise, and thought it would still be open. Sadly, it already had closed and had started to wilt. I wonder if it was pollinated by any night going insect? These plants must come inside during the winter, and have a climbing, trailing habit. There have both flat leafed stems and tall, fast growing, pencil thin, round stems that seem to come up randomly. What a great plant!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lost bee colonies, miracles, figs

You may remember that hives with queens Loretta and Dolly were bursting at the seams only 5 or so weeks ago. I kept waiting for them to swarm, and, about two weeks ago, I noticed smaller numbers at the door, but never saw an actual swarm. Knowing what strong and healthy hives they were, I decided to leave them alone to regain strength. Wow, if I only had known what was going to happen.

This weekend I went in to all my hives to check their status. I was worried about Ella, but not my two most established and strongest hives. When I opened Loretta, I was horrified. Almost no bees in the honey, the top brood, then the middle, and bottom chambers. No sign of a queen (eggs or brood), and hundred of wax moth larvae. The wax throughout the hive was destroyed by the soft, thick, gray, disgusting wax moth larvae. Tan moths flew out from each level. There was nothing that could be saved, and essentially no bees to try and gather. My heart was broken, as this was my first hive, and has thrived and split by swarm for 4 years.

I almost cried when I opened Dolly and found she was headed down the same road. The only difference was that her bottom brood box was less infested, a bit, and there remained a number of bees. Again, however, no sign of a queen, or was I just too distracted by the destruction?

We ripped apart both hives, scattering the frames across the yard for the sunlight, as wax moths need the dark. I put one lone box back on Dolly's stand, with fresh comb, so that those remaining worker bees would have a home to return to. I planned to add them to one of the remaining healthy hives, to boost that hives numbers and give these orphans a home, but my plans changed.

The next day I noticed, from the house, a small clump on the branch of a dead shrub in the marsh. I ran down the stairs and out to the marsh to find a lone queen, fat and beautiful, surrounded by a few of her worker bees. I could not believe it. It had to be Dolly, so I dumped her in a container and took her to the lone box of orphan bees that had collected the night before. They had that high pitched buzz associated with stressed and unhappy bees, until the moment when Dolly was returned. The pitch changed instantly to a deep, contented hummmm. Will they survive this late in the year? Will they build up enough for winter? Will the moths again be too much for them? I don't know, but Dolly is home, the bees have a fresh start, and so do I. I hope I do better by the bees this time.

What else went too long without care this week? Figs. An entire roasting pan of overripe ones for the chickens, a bucket of beauties for me.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fresh sauce and salad

We are getting loads of ripe, wonderful tomatoes out of our garden beds right now. I had to share my favorite dish for these gems: Fresh Sauce for pasta. I got this from my Sicilian brother in law, and I love it.

All you have to do is blanch the tomatoes (drop them into simmering water for just a minute), remove them from the water, and let them sit for a few seconds to cool down. Cut out the stem end/core, and you will see that the blanching makes the skin slide right off, usually in one piece. Now cut each in half across the middle of the tomato (not from stem end to blossom end, but across the other way). This exposes most of the seeds and juice, and you can gently squeeze each half over a bowl to remove some of that watery center pulp. Chop up the tomato flesh and set aside.

Now, chop up as much garlic as you can (this is to taste, but I will use at least one clove per tomato, usually twice to three times that much). Pour a good dose of olive oil into a small frying pan (maybe a Tablespoon per tomato), heat over low heat, and soften the garlic. While that is cooking, chop a big handful of fresh basil and one of fresh parsley. The more the better with these fresh herbs. Now, dump the herbs and the softened garlic with oil into the fresh tomatoes, add salt and pepper (and you can sautee some fresh cayenne peppers with your garlic if you have some), and let sit for a few hours to blend the flavors. Serve at room temperature over warm pasta. Amazing. Add a salad of cukes or cukes and cherry tomatoes, and you are all set.

Now I am starving.