Sunday, July 31, 2011

Veggie Gardening - hey, it's progress

Hey, a cucumber and some Thai basil !
My latest, grandest attempt at veggie gardening on our mostly wooded lot hasn't completely failed. Earlier this summer I hauled nearly 9 yards of compost into an old dog run to create a raised garden bed, resistant to deer and not mired in heavy clay. It didn't take long to realize that all of that work was certainly not going to pay off in spades. My plants were quickly yellowing and sad. The potatoes were particularly hard hit. The leaves yellowed and fell off continuously, leaving only a few small emergent leaves grasping at life, in a cycle that lasted for weeks. It became clear that something was afoot with my compost. My expensive compost. My expensive compost that took days to haul from pile to garden bed. This manure-leaf litter mix compost was $27/yard, so you'd expect great things. You certainly wouldn't expect it to stunt your plants. But the problem wasn't obvious. The plants weren't burning, like you always hear about with incomplete compost. They were just plain sad. A soil test eventually revealed that the compost was indeed nitrogen poor, a result, I think, of the incomplete breakdown of the elements.

So, in theory, next year my bed will be fabulous. This year, I was quite hosed. I added nitrogen, but this is a losing battle. The tomato plants responded by shooting up in height - skinny as a rail, but tall - and producing very limited flowers. My tiny tomatoes have produced a handful each, but the heirloom varieties haven't bloomed. Several plants never grew past a foot in height. This leaves me to buy from the market. Tomatoes are an expensive fruit, maybe the most expensive at the rate we can eat them. We'll easily devour a huge Brandywine - sliced and drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper.
this tomato plant is so sadly skinny you can't tell it's 4' tall

I've learnt though that cucumbers are less picky about their environment. In the past, I've successfully grown two cucumbers. Really. Two. But this year, the plants have done very well, or at least, in my perspective, very well. I have three varieties growing - two slicing and one pickling variety - and I've harvested over a dozen. Small cukes cover the vines and they seem to grow at a tremendous rate. The one thing I have found is that they can easily hide in the vegetation, so it's almost like a treasure hunt trying to find them. So, I'm looking at their success as a great step forward.
the cucumbers have been romping

And, even though my veggies haven't been super successful, my flower beds this year are unbelievable. June was a particularly beautiful month, and the Fall bloomers are all setting themselves up for a great show. I have Japanese irises whose greens this year exceed 5', something I've never seen. And my English style, a.k.a. let the plants and the "weeds" fight it out themselves, has given off a crazy array of color. It's always hard to photo the garden, I think, because there always seems to be a lighting issue of some kind, but I've put a bunch of the plant photos on Picasa. The hydrangeas (I have more than 25 bushes) have almost all bloomed and are now changed to their deeper colors. I'm going to add some photos of them and the late bloomers as I can.

If you want to check them out, here they are:  My Garden Photos

On an unrelated note, I have successfully convinced all of my neighbors to move their trash and recycling off of the storm drain. For fourteen years, our trash and recycling collection has been on this concrete pad at the bottom of the driveway. Inevitably every few weeks, trash would litter the entire area for one reason or another. That was bad enough, but one day a few years ago I actually looked at where we put things for collection. I mean, of course, I know where we put stuff, but I never saw that it was the storm drain leading directly into the Patapsco River. Of course, then I immediately noticed that the garbage didn't just litter the common property but tons of bottles and other trash would fall into the drain. There is no filter of any kind between the street and the river. I guess that's so it won't back up.  This spring, I was able to organize our neighbors into a clean up, and they pulled some 13 garbage containers full of trash out of the stream. Perfect timing to propose we move the pick up. Only one neighbor resisted, but now several weeks later our road is no longer polluting that stream on mass. Yay!

Friday, July 22, 2011

SmallTown, Big Market

We were in Kankakee, Il. this past weekend for a wedding, a town I thought I'd never heard of until I was told it was called out in the lyrics of The City of New Orleans. I love that song. No recollection of Kankakee in it, though. In any case, as we hung about Saturday morning, I jumped on the opportunity to join in a trip to the local farmer's market.

The market is actually quite large, particularly for the size of Kankakee - about 25,000 from what I can find. They had great live music and places to sit and eat. There were a variety of vendors from produce to canned goods, bread, and gifts. I am always curious what the most unusual items will be at the markets I visit. In this case, there was a man selling various types of pickled beets. Like all sorts of weird combinations. My husband's cousins (my cousins-in-law?)  bought horseradish beets for their dad.
The market at Kankakee

There was also a really nice cheese stand. All their cheese was from Wisconsin, which is local enough to Illinois in my book. The cool thing, which I guess probably isn't a surprise coming from Wisconsin, is that the cheeses were really artisan varieties. They had nettle cheddar and apricot brie, and a host of other varieties both simple and fancy. It was definitely reminiscent of a European market stand.

great music stand at the market

It's Illinois, so of course there is corn !
And for those twisting their brains to recall those lyrics that Arlo Guthrie (corrected!) made so famous.. they are due to Steve Goodman...

Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin' trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Foraging: It's Wineberry Season

This is the first week here of wineberry season -- often referred to locally as wild raspberries. They are indeed a species of raspberry and they grow wild here, even rampant, but they are not native to North America. These berries litter the woods around our property and, if you can tolerate the thorns, reward the picker with a nice tart fresh flavor. In parts of the country they are considered invasive, though I'm not sure if that is true here in Maryland. Originally they were cultivated to use as a hybrid for raspberries, but they got loose. The great thing about them is that they grow in reasonably heavy shade, an attribute not found in many berries. We follow the edge of our yard or trails through the woods to grab whatever we can. Of course, the "best" berries taunt you from canes that are just out of reach. Despite better wisdom, my son and I are always drawn further and further into the brambles reaching for that cluster of perfect berries, inevitably caught by the many thorns and left scratched and battered.

This morning we took a friend out picking and, determined to overcome the thorny branches, we set an early morning meeting time and dressed in long sleeves and long pants. Naturally, we've hit a very humid spell and so we set off around 8am in already oppressive weather. The berries are close to their height now, and the picking is easy. The extra clothes were worth the heat, as we got caught many times, but our arms and legs returned unscathed.
Pick only dark red and plump berries - like the one far right bottom

The best berries are always just out of reach
and between you and the berries are these thorns!

wild blackeberries
Where there are wineberries, there are wild blackberries. Their season is just starting and so you'll only find a few dark black juicy berries on each cane this week. And they'll undoubtedly be very sour. I'm not a big fan of these berries, and I'm particularly not fond of their thorns, which, though fewer in number than those on a wineberry cane, are longer and far more vicious.  But they look tasty.  So when they are there, we pick a few of them too. These are not wild black raspberries, which are, well, raspberries and quite delicious. They are also much rarer to find in my woods; I tend to find them each year more by random than planning.
Nasty blackberry thorns !!

So, how do you use wineberries? Quickly! Wineberries do not last very long at all, and you'll want to do something with them within 24 hours. You'll notice they have a stickiness to them and the flavor is more tart than the cultivated red raspberry. They are great fresh, on cereal for example. I made jam with an early batch this week, which came out ok, but not great. Mixed with the sugar necessary for jam, the wineberry seems to lose its distinct fresh flavor. Today's pick will be macerated (sprinkle with sugar and let sit until the juices are drawn out). Then we'll turn lady finger type cookies (quickly!) in the resulting juice and layer the cookies, crushed berries, and cream cheese into a fast tiramisu-like dessert. Yum, Yum!
Today's harvest - random blackberries included

Traditional tiramisu uses marscapone cheese, which is rather expensive, and requires significantly more work to whip egg whites and fold in the rest of the ingredients. It's fabulous and we make it for special occasions, but for a quick "just us" dessert, we go with the faster, cheaper recipe. Well, it's not so much a recipe because it's modified heavily depending on what we have around. But it is faster and cheaper. The Germans, at least in the South, use whipped cream and something like cream cheese to create these big thick lighter versions of tiramisu. They are just absolutely fabulous. Ours is something in between. If we have whipping cream, we whip that and fold it into cream cheese with a bit of sugar. If we don't, we hand whip the cream cheese to make it a bit lighter, but still dense like the traditional dessert. The main lesson we learned from the Italians was to quickly toss the cookies in the coffee or juice that you are using. The cookie will seem dry, but as it sits in the fridge, it will absorb that liquid and have a lovely cake texture when it is eaten. That soggy gooky tiramisu you often find in restaurants is due to soaking the cookies in liquid, rather than tossing them quickly.  Making the dessert with fruit allows you to eat the great berries that are available all Summer, and you can make this with just about any fruit that will macerate well. 
Toss your berries in sugar and let them sit to extract the juice
These are the cookies we use
Macerated berries

Toss quickly in juice and layer with cheese....

then more cheese and fruit
Layer until you're out of ingredients - rest in fridge 30-60 min
This entry is part of "Feed me tweet me follow me home" blog hop at A Moderate Life !

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Furnace Hills Coffee Storefront and the Great Garlic Pull

That sounds like a great title for a tweener novel. Well, maybe swap out the word "storefront" for something more compelling. And I'd love for it to portend riveting character development and plot twists in what follows, punctuated with juvenile humor, but really, I just have multiple small things to write about and figured I'd slam them all together. But maybe my epic battle with the garlic will hold your attention.

Remember around Christmas time I wrote about two of my favorite local businesses for hot drinks - Sweet Simplici-tea for tea in Sykesville and Furnace Hills Coffee roasters in Westminster for, well, coffee. At the time, Dave Baldwin of Furnace Hills had acquired a storefront to roast and sell coffee from on Westminster's Main Street. For those familiar with the area, you can throw a rock from their place at 71 West Main Street and the Carroll Center for the Arts. It took a bit longer than they hoped, but they have opened for retail sale. Yesterday I had a chance to run by and pick up some freshly roasted Ethiopian Coffee. Dave was out, but I chatted a bit with Erin and took a few photos. The store hours are a bit irregular still, but you can always send them a note via Facebook. They also post there when the store is open later. As I understand, they are generally there on Monday and Wednesday 8-3:30, at a minimum, and they are still at the downtown Westminster Farmer's Market on Saturdays. Furnace Hills is still providing great locally roasted coffee, focused on providing a long-term income for Erin, who lives with Downs Syndrome, at very affordable prices. Here's a few pictures I snapped of the store.
Erin at the store

The new large roaster they have at the storefront

Furnace Hills Coffee at 71 West Main Street, Westminster, MD

After hemming and hawing a bit, or a lot, I finally pulled my garlic this past week. From everything I've read, which is not insignificant, deciding when to harvest garlic is quite an art. You are trying to balance leaving them in the ground to increase the size of the bulbs with pulling them before they've lost the protective outer coatings. There is lots of lore surrounding the perfect time to pull them, mostly having to do with how many leaves are brown, but in the end, nothing is really hard core science. If you yank them early, you get small cloves with too much outer coatings and it reduces the storage capacity of the bulb. If you yank to late, the coatings are gone, the cloves will start pulling away from the bulb, and, no surprise, it reduces the storage capacity of the bulb. So, what to do??! this is my first year with garlic, so what I did was read a lot. The Maryland Cooperative Extension says that most garlic in Maryland should be pulled around July 1st. Garlic is grown generally in more nothern climates, so as you read on the Internet, you'll see that most websites recommend pulling from early July through late August.  The key is the browning foliage.  Because I live in the woods, I'm usually about two weeks behind the neighborhood at the bottom of my hill. Of course, one might reasonably ask why you are growing garlic in the woods in the first place. Well, you certainly can't grow it if you don't try. So, I tried.
I made this!

I tried hardneck garlic, Red Chesnuk variety.  Hardneck garlic produces scapes that you can harvest and use in salads and stir frys while the garlic is maturing. But, it doesn't have anywhere near the storage life of the much smaller-cloved softneck varieties. In my case, the reason I tried this variety was because I ordered so late nothing else was available. Lesson learned. If you want to grow garlic, order early, like now. If you have sun and semi-decent soil, and you like garlic, I highly recommend it. It must have the largest payoff for effort reward of any annual I've grown, and it is quite cost effective.

Here's how it breaks down. A friend and I split a 1 lb order from Big John's Garden - an organic garlic and shallot farm - in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Why him? Well, I had just vacationed last year in that area and it's beautiful and he's organic. That's all. He's got a cool website, lots of variety (now, not in September), and was very responsive. He has these sampler packages, which naturally I missed out, ordering as late as I did. In any case, with shipping our 1 lb of Red Chesnuk was $27. I can't recall exactly if we split this evenly, but in any case, I ended up planting around 40 cloves myself. All you do is split the bulbs into individuals cloves, and put them in the ground a few inches under. Then mulch around them with straw or something. Garlic can not compete with other weeds, so if you don't want to be tied to weeding, you must mulch. One bale of straw will be plenty for Fall and then re-mulching in Spring. Then, no weeding. With the hardnecks, you remove the scapes as they come up in early June. Then you watch your foliage, and when it is 1/3 brown, or 1/2 brown, or when there are 5 brown left, or some other magical formula, you use a garden fork to go underneath the cloves and loosen them from their death grip on the earth. Having done that, you just pull gently, shake off the dirt, and let them dry in the house for about 3 weeks to cure the skins. If you try to pull them directly out of the ground, you'll be very sad. I am quite certain that my sneaky little garlic cloves tried to dig themselves in deeper during the winter... some of them were desperately difficult to get out of the ground.
Straight out of the ground - you can see the brown foliage

Ok, so I shelled out about $13-15.  If you buy organic garlic from the farmer's market, you are going to pay $1-3 per bulb based on size. based on the unrelenting reality that I have little sun exposure, most of my bulbs were pretty small. Still, when I added it up, I harvested about $50 worth of garlic this week. Not bad.  We also harvested my friend's garlic... the same original bulbs... but with a lot more sun...hers were big and plump... and I'd say easily $80-100 worth of garlic. Not bad at all. So, I already have plans to make a raised bed on the property where I have a bit more sun. This year, I want to try a softneck variety and we'll see what happens.
Mine are curing in the basement on paper
This post is part of Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop.