Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Behold! The Power of Compost!

I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but when we first bought our house, I almost threw away a 4-foot-tall tree peony.  It was April and either it didn't bloom or we missed the blooms because all I saw as a wanna-be gardener was ugly black sticks coming out of the ground a some unremarkable leaves.  It was planted--or should I say wedged-- in the corner created by a fence and the house.  Even *I* in my extreme naiveness knew it was miserable in that location.

Lucky for me and the peony, I decided to give it another year.  During that year, I read extensively and visited more and more gardens.  I taught myself a lot about plants: growing them and keeping them alive. And, importantly, I didn't miss the bloom.  That's right:  Bloom.  Singular.  However, all it took was that one luscious bloom to make me realize I had something special.

That year also allowed me to really discover all the idiosyncrasies of my space.  When you've got a small lot surrounded by trees and 2 story homes, you've got to really observe to find the little pockets of full sun.  And, did I find a pocket!  Half a foot in either direction, you've got dense shade from a fence and the neighbor's house. As an added bonus, I can view it from my kitchen window.  Washing dishes is far more pleasant when you're staring at a peony.

Last year, we had 2 blooms.  I decided to dump a generous portion of compost around the base of the plant. This year I've got at least 14 buds in various states of undress.

These blooms were brought to you by cow shit, y'all!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How Did I Get Here?

Now that school is over and I'm officially a Landscape/Garden Designer looking for the next step, I've started to look back at the crazy road that brought me to this place.

This post isn't meant to be one of those "garden as a metaphor for life" essays.  It's meant as a reflection as someone that doesn't come from a particularly creative, artistic background to one that produces gardens--something I view as collaborative art.  I come from a long line of electricians and engineers.  My mom really enjoys accounting.  I also didn't grow up with many garden-centric memories.  In fact, I hated yard work.  You got horribly sweaty (remember, I'm from Florida!) and then the dirt would just stick to you.  Like, so gross, for real.  **Flips 1990s hair***

As a female who excelled at both math and science, I almost felt duty-bound to chose that as a career.  Besides, I didn't know anyone that was an artist or graphic designer or anything like that.  I didn't really know people did those things as a career.  After the first week in my AP Economics class, I was in love.  Oh, rational expectation theory!  Diminishing marginal returns!  Giffin goods!  Utility maximization!  *This* was what I was meant to do.  Or so I thought.

I entered a PhD program for economics.  Perhaps it wasn't a good fit at the get-go, but I can't completely regret my time there because I made some amazing friends amongst my classmates.  But I was severely unhappy diving into the incredibly murky details of economic theory.  I fantasized about going to culinary school.  But they hours of a cook are terrible, as is the pay (at least compared to an Economist position).  I quit school and hopped off to my first job.

Years past and it became clear that a life spent behind a computer staring at spreadsheets and writing SAS code wasn't my idea of fun.  When we bought our house, I had these grand plans of a vegetable garden.  I decided to do pots of tomatoes using soil from our backyard.  CLAY SOIL.  Put into a pot.  And then watered repeatedly.  (In case you were wondering, this gives you basically cement.)  Needless to say, those tomatoes didn't exactly flourish.  They didn't die, I should note, though!  Not killing them was my first feeling of success as a gardener.

I guess it was a series of happy accidents that happened all in a row that lead me to this place of eagerly awaiting a new gardening magazine or almost causing an accident by paying a little too much attention to the flora I'm driving past.  The economist in me still strives for absolute efficiency in my use of space while the graphic designer is captivated by contrasts in texture and form and the plants-woman delights in the latest cultivars or rare species.  I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I discovered design--graphic, garden or otherwise--from the very beginning, but I don't regret my choices.

I've found my soul and it's the soul of a garden designer.  Even if it doesn't pay much or the hours are terrible, this is what I am meant to do.

This post is dedicated to my husband.  Without his wisdom and unwavering support, I'd be still sitting in that chair, hating every minute of it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Well, I Didn't Think This Day Would Come

A few years ago I remember talking to another food blogger & avid gardener at a happy hour about Arlington's ban on "farmyard" animals.  At the time, a pet dwarf goat was getting an eviction notice from the county.  The conversation naturally flowed to hens. I wondered aloud what the big deal with hens were.  I mean, they make lot less noise than a (poorly trained) dog and don't poop or pee in other people's yards.  And there's no law against poorly trained dogs in your own yard. Hens have the added benefit of creating amazing fertilizer. We figured you could probably raise rabbits for eating under the guise of pets, but both of us agreed that we weren't quite up to the task of killing a bunny ourselves.

Well, it looks like one group is trying to bring hens (not roosters!) to Arlington. My uncle has a backyard hen house back in Florida. I can vouch for the not noisy and not smelly possibility for raising laying hens. Those hens are pretty cute and didn't mind my rather grabby, not terribly gentle toddler to pet them.

Check out the Arlington Egg Project and sign the petition if you agree with them!  With any luck, hens for pets & for eggs will make their way back to this--formerly agricultural--county.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What's Growing, 2012?

You'll see a lot of the usual suspects from my previous veggie gardens.  I have, however, decided that eggplant aren't worth the space for me.  I love them, but they don't love growing in my garden. 

I have also decided that I don't really like Swiss chard.  I know, I know: it's "delicious" sauteed with olive oil, garlic & a squeeze of lemon. I've tried, in vain, to like it. Really, I have.  This feels like a huge confession because any time I tell someone that I don't like Swiss chard, it's as if I said I don't like rainbows or chocolate. Perhaps I need to turn in my crunchy yuppie card?

And, finally, hot peppers are more useful for our purposes than sweet, so sweet peppers are out.

Tomato (Sungold)
Tomato (Black Cherry)
Tomato (Eva Purple Ball)
Tomato (Amy's Sugar Gem)
Ground Cherry (Cossack Pineapple)
Hot Pepper (Cherry)
Hot Pepper (Jalapeno)
Hot Pepper (Banana)
Hot Pepper (Trinidad Spice)
Hot Pepper (Fish)

Winter Squash (Delicata Zeppelin)
Summer Squash (Dark Green Zucchini)
Pickling Cucumber (Edmonson)
Pickling Cucumber, Diamante
Pickling Cucumber, Homemade Pickles

Lettuces & Legumes
Pole Bean (McCaslan)
Pole Bean (Louisiana Purple Pod)
Bush Bean (Provider)
Lettuce (Deer Tongue)
Lettuce (Red Velvet)
Lettuce (All Season Butterhead Mix)
Lettuce (Romaine Freckles)
Arugula (Even' Star Winter Arugula)
Bok Choy (Tatsoi Rosette)
Corn Mache
Kale ("Dinosaur"/Nero Toscana)
Mustard Greens

Root Vegetables
Onion (Yellow Borettana)
Potato (going to try to use a sprouting 'Vivaldi' I got from the farmer's market.  these are seriously the most delicious potatoes I have ever tasted & the only places for seed seem to be the UK)
Potato (Purple Sweet)

Annual Herbs & Flowers
Purple Opal Basil
Thai Basil
Sweet Basil
Opal Basil

Perennials from seed
Rosa chinensis  'Angel Wings' (This is just an experiment.  It's supposed to be a very dwarf rose shrub.)
Agastache rupestris/Sunset Hyssop 
Aquilegia 'McKana Giants'/Columbine

Sunday, February 5, 2012

2012: The Year of the Early Spring

Let's just pretend that I haven't been missing in action for 6 months.  I  know we've all had periods of insanity that allow push you into survival mode.  While I can't promise that won't happen again, I can talk about my 2012 garden which I've already started.

That's right folks: Already started.

In fact, I've even direct sowed some lettuce and mache/corn salad outside.  I figure, seed is cheap, and with this warm winter, I'm just wasting time and space if the garden isn't planted.  I sowed that seed on Wednesday and there aren't any sprouts yet.  It might be too cold still but it's worth a shot.

I've also started some kale and perennials indoors. Kale does OK in colder temps, so I'm going to put that out as soon as it's ready and I've got a bunch of ornamental planting to get done on a very small budget so starting perennials from seed will help that stretch a little.

Usually I've already agonized over my planting plan, figured out how many of each veggie I need to grow, and artfully arrange them as to maximize form and function.  This year, I'm going to fly by the seat of my pants.  Mrs. OCD is going to go with the flow.  It's going to be insanity itself. The truth is I rarely follow my planting plan anyways. I always find another packet of seeds that I simply must use which throws everything off.  This year, I'm going to embrace my natural tendencies and see where it takes me.

If you're seed starting for the first time & are a bit nervous, feel free to visit my previous posts on the subject.  And, if you need a planting/seed starting guide for your edibles, I'm a big fan of the one created by the blogger at Skippy's Vegetable Garden.  Just plug in your last frost dates; I use 4/15 for spring crops & 5/15 for summer ones usually.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Vermin 1, Me 0

I've been really sad about the garden.  We're still getting masses of cukes and have had several tomatoes. 

However, a bunny has found it's way into the garden & eaten my radicchio and some of the bean plants.  This actually happened over a week ago & I'm just now able to talk about it without feeling simultaneously furious and sad. (Pathetic?  Probably.)  I've surrounded the lettuces with a barrier of marigolds & plan to replace the mesh upper with wood that can't be chewed through. 

It's so sad when you lose living things that you've nurtured over months & months, ya know? 

What a Rotten Day, So I Made Jam & Booze

Know what's not fun?  Getting your purse stolen at your neighborhood grocery store while you're strapping your baby into their car seat.  It's just unnerving when something like that takes a place you felt safe, ya know? I'm trying to think of this thief as someone that really needs the money and not someone targeting a mother distracted by her child which would just be heartless.

This trip to the grocery was to buy almond extract for Blue Chair Jam's Brandied Cherry Conserve. After all the required calls to credit card companies, filing a police report, and reporting my license stolen, I found comfort in the familiar and repetitive movements of making jam.  (And, the Blanquette I had bought to celebrate overcoming an obstacle certainly helped as well, although this instead became a night of celebrating my blessings.)

Do you have the Blue Chair Jam Cookbook?  If you've mastered basic jam making, I highly recommend it.  The jams are a bit more time consuming and the ingredients are a bit more expensive but the result is a very interesting combination of flavors that turns the most ordinary morning toast a special treat.

My variation of her Brandied Red Cherry Conserve is meant to slap you in the face with cherry flavor.  And, it certainly does!  Besides being awesome on toast, try swirling this into your morning yogurt, top a bowl of vanilla ice cream or top a pound cake (especially a chocolate one!).

Brandied Cherry Conserve (makes about 6 half pints)
My variation of a Blue Chair Jam recipe

3 lb pitted and stemmed sweet cherries
1 1/4 lb sugar (make sure it's cane sugar...the cheap stuff is usually GMO beet sugar)
3 1/2 oz lemon juice
zest of 2 lemons
2 oz dried currants
1/2 lb dried tart cherries, chopped
2 1/2 oz cherry brandy
3-4 drops of almond extract
3 cloves

1. Prepare your canner & jars (wash & sterilize them in 10 minutes of boiling water).  Keep them in simmering water to stay warm.

2. Combine half the cherries with 10 oz of the sugar & half the lemon juice in a non-reactive pan.  Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring often, and cook until the cherries are softened (about 5 minutes).  Turn off heat & let the cherries rest for 5 minutes.  Using blender/food processor/food mill/immersion blender, puree the mixture & put through a fine mesh sieve, discarding (or eating!) any solids that won't pass through.

3. In a large bowl, mix your cherry puree, the rest of the cherries, the rest of the sugar, the rest of the lemon juice, the dried fruit, lemon zest, brandy and almond extract (so, everything remaining except the cloves).  Let sit for 45 minutes at room temperature.

4. Put the macerated mixture back into your non-reactive pot & add cloves (preferable in a tea ball that you can easily get them out). Boil mixture, stirring to prevent sticking.  Cook until jam reaches gel point (testing either checking temperature to see if it's 220*F or using frozen spoons/plate).  This will be about 20 minutes.  When jam has gelled, remove cloves.

5. Fill jars leaving 1/4" head space, wipe rims, screw on lids & process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.  Let sit in bath for 5 minutes, off heat, afterwards & then remove.  Check seal after jars have cooled.

Boozy Cherries/Cherry-Infused Brandy (makes 1 quart)
After making above jam, I still had oodles of cherries left over, thanks to Whole Foods' wonderful $2.99/lb organic cherries sale!  After the day I had, more booze was necessary.  Cherry-infused brandy it is!  This will be great to drink as a cordial, spoon over ice cream, use in baking, give as gifts, etc.  Plus, it's significantly easier than making jam.

1 lb stemmed cherries (you can pit too, but then you'd need more)
1 3/4c brandy (get mid-grade)
1/4 c sugar
1 thin strip of lemon peel (optional)
Amaretto (optional)

1. Clean & sterilize jar.  Wash cherries.

2. Put cherries in jar.  Pour over sugar & brandy.  If using, add lemon peel and a splash of amaretto (note: Amaretto doesn't, according to my research, have enough alcohol to preserve the cherries, so just use a splash & do not replace the brandy with it).  Make sure cherries are completely covered; if not, add more brandy.

3. Place lid & shake to dissolve sugar.

4. Set in a cool dark place for at least 3 months to mature.