Monday, July 27, 2009

Unexpected Marvels

The garden is not about beauty. The garden is about creating a quiet, serene place of refuge and doing something purposeful as a family, with bonus points for helping the planet, living sustainably, reducing our carbon footprint, saving habitat, becoming locavores, doing the right thing in the great crisis of the twenty-first century. But a garden can't help being a place of beauty, both planned and utterly spontaneous. I didn't expect to marvel at the growing tip of a Trombetta di Albenga squash silhouetted against the sky like the prow of a Viking long boat. But there it is.

I did fully expect to admire the hollyhocks, but was completely unprepared for their collaboration with the morning glories in a spiral dance called "Rhapsody in Pink."

This random assortment of a single afternoon's findings ended up together in the same collecting dish merely by chance. Who knew that the volunteer blue potatoes, the sparking Sungold cherry tomatoes, the crinkled green pimientos, the purple plums, and the yellow plums would create a color palette to delight the eye?

And who knew that the same assortment -- well, almost the same, with zucchini replacing the plums -- coated with olive oil, garlic, and rosemary and gently roasted, would delight the eye all over again at the dinner table? Actually, that was not so much of a surprise.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Haricot Verts

These are Tavera bush beans, a variety of French filet beans, sometimes called "haricot verts" (which is, I think, simply French for "green beans"). They ripened all at once on about ten bushes, an experimental planting that has yielded these lovely results. It's easy to see why the French would favor these elegant haricots, long, thin, and elegant as runway models.

This is the entire harvest, so far. They are amazingly delicious -- tender, sweet, and flavorful! Just blanch them for a few minutes, whole and untrimmed, in vigorously boiling water, and serve with a bit of butter, salt, and lemon.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Harvest Kitchen

Last weekend was hot, high 80s. The cats were stretched out full length in the coolest spots they could find.

Not far away, a member of a supposedly more intelligent species was holed up in a stuffy little kitchen sweating over a boiling pot of beans. Or, to be exact, a non-boiling pot.

"A watched pot never boils," so goes the old saying. That was my first mistake, no doubt, in my week-end adventure of preparing a huge pile of Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake beans for the freezer.

"Put the beans into a pot of boiling water and blanch them for three minutes," read the instructions. When I dropped several bowlfuls of chopped beans into vigorously boiling water it stopped boiling. I assumed the water needed to come back up to a boil before I started timing three minutes. Wrong. But I wouldn't know how wrong until later.

It took about eight minutes for the big pot filled with beans to come back to a boil. Then I let them boil for another three minutes. Wrong. Wrong.

"Plunge the beans into cold water with ice, to stop the cooking." That step proceeded as indicated. The beans looked beautiful and tasted even better. Completely delicious. After draining them, I couldn't stop snacking. That should have been a clue right there.

"Dry the beans," the instructions continued. "How?" I wondered. I spread them out on a bath towel and patted them dry, popping more than a few into my mouth. So far, so good -- or so I thought at the time.

The next step was to pack the yummy little beanies into freezer containers. The batch filled nine pint-sized containers. I put them into the freezer feeling very pleased with a most productive afternoon in my harvest kitchen. Did I mention the double batch of green soup? Lots of big pots were steaming up the kitchen that day.

Several days later we tried some of the beans for dinner, just to see how the freezing worked. Ewwww, bland and tasteless! Somehow I had managed to remove all trace of flavor.

With a little searching on the internet I came across a blog comments conversation -- can't remember where -- that addressed the issue of how long the beans should stay in the water. The suggestion was to make sure the ratio of boiling water to beans is such that putting the beans into the water does not stop it from boiling. The beans should not be cooked, just plunged in boiling water long enough to disable enzymes and kill bacteria that could cause them to spoil in the freezer. Live and learn. Now I know that beans that taste utterly delicious are beans that have been over-prepared for freezing.

It's not as if we don't have plenty more beans to experiment with. Next time will be better. But what to do with eight more pints of frozen, flavorless beans. Minestrone, anyone?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wondering about Peppers

Over at a very inspiring and informative Northern California blog I've been following, Kendra of A Sonoma Garden, is wondering about her pepper plants. To her practiced eye they are mysteriously bereft of fruit and pathetic looking when compared to her photos from this time last summer.

So I rushed out to take a look at ours. Out of three varieties, two are showing some fruit. I don't have any documentation from last summer but remember it as a normally good year for peppers -- at least by our standards.

The Pimientos de Padron plant (on the left) is more than a foot tall, albeit rather spindly, and has one pepper that is actually harvestable, since they are supposed to be picked "when about the size of olives." Picking just one of these little conversation pieces is, however, like eating one potato chip. They are meant to be sauteed in batches with olive oil and salt and served as "tapas," a generic Spanish term for bite-sized yummies. They are mild and savory and much prized in Spain and are now a gourmet item in the foodie mecca of San Francisco. There's just one little proviso: every twelfth pepper or so is NOT MILD AT ALL. Eating them is a game of Spanish roulette.

H. and his friends in Berkeley were greatly intrigued and, having the try-anything-once mindset of young adults, took most of our abundant crop last summer. We ate the rest cooked into B.'s Yorkshire-pudding-like egg-and-cottage-cheese "puff." I always made him test them out first, not wanting to have my head explode at the dinner table. We never found a really really hot one. They are delicious once you get over the feeling of wariness.

The second pepper plant (on the right) is a sweet bell called Cal Wonder. We've never grown it before. It's just under a foot tall and looking pretty decent. The third plant (not pictured) is another sweet bell, Yolo Wonder, which is about the same size as little Cal but has no fruit showing as yet.

And that's the story so far.

This is a report from one of the thousands of micro-climates in the Bay Area. Whatever is affecting Kendra's peppers does not seem to be a problem here, a bit closer to the coast.

However, we also do not have ripe tomatoes. And, as usual, I'm worrying about the yellowing leaves on most of the tomato plants . . . .

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Diversity and Permanence Mean Abundance for All

Hooray for diversity. It's Mother Nature's way of keeping things interesting, complex, dynamic, and -- most important of all -- balanced. The balance of nature is no joke, as we are all finding out now that our species has thoroughly upset it. Despite the sobering odds, we can help restore the balance right in our back yards.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area every little valley and hillside has its own micro-climate and unique habitat. We lucky locals get to be amateur horticulturists, if we are so inclined, trying things out and seeing what works in our personal piece of paradise. This fine-grained variation is generally true of California, where Sunset Magazine had to develop its own set of more than twenty climate zones because the limited number of USDA options aren't up to the job of covering the wide array of West Coast growing niches.

Diversity helps create the permanence of a rich ecosystem of mutually supportive living things. That's why our modern habitat gardens are not the tidy rows of mono-cropping we senior citizens may have pulled weeds in as children. More and more, our aesthetic ideal is a colorful jumble of different kinds of plants and different varieties of the same plant.

The goal of a permaculture gardener anywhere in the world is to work with existing natural surroundings to create a self-sustaining food forest. First you have to learn what is there already so you will have a better idea of what might be added.

Know your ground; become familiar with its patterns of sun and wind and rain. Know the soil and understand how water flows across the surface and collects in the low places. Understand what wants to grow there on its own and which insects and creatures have already set up housekeeping. Only then can you intelligently assemble just the right mosaic of trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, herbs, flowers, and -- oh, yes, last but not least -- vegetables. If you do it right, after several years the whole thing "pops" and becomes an intricate web of life that just goes on growing on its own. You can wander through your garden of Eden plucking this and that with nary a care and without breaking a sweat. That's the theory.

I've never seen an actual food forest although I've read about some in this area. There is a famous one down in Point Reyes Station -- I'm not sure if it's open to public these days. Our garden is just a patch of rented ground with about 14 rather unsightly black plastic raised beds (easy to carry around, easy to assemble, relatively inexpensive). After seventeen years of observing I have only a hazy idea of what is happening here, nowhere near the permaculturist's high standard.

But you don't have to be a high roller to get into the game. Our little micro-climate is, at certain times of year, such as right now, a modest middle-class Eden. The plum trees and blackberry vines that were here before we moved in are bearing ripe fruit. The ancient pear tree is resplendent with its not-quite-ready-to-eat harvest, with no effort on our part except some minor pruning now and then.

There's nothing like eating a handful of just-picked warm juicy plums on a summer afternoon or, on a sunny morning, picking fat blackberries and putting them directly onto a bowl of breakfast cereal.

We love the pears during the thirty seconds that each one is at the peak of ripeness -- and love the pear tree for its beauty all through the year.

Little by little by little I am coming to know this habitat and even though I'm not proactively building a true food forest I do cultivate many different varieties of herbs, flowers, and vegetables. We are doing our best to preserve a thriving and diverse community of plants that attracts myriad insects, butterflies, and birds along with the occasional possum, raccoon, and deer. There's plenty for everybody.

Diversity and permanence mean abundance for all.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Trombetta di Albenga!

With each new gardening season it's fun to test out a new variety or two to tuck in amongst the tried and true heavy producers. Especially appealing are heirlooms with exotic foreign names: Pimientos de Padron peppers (Spain), Japanese Black Trifele tomatoes (Russia, for some reason), Biondi di Lyon chard (Italy). I can travel the world without leaving my backyard.

Several years ago I planted some seeds from Renee's Garden for an Italian climbing squash: Trombetta di Albenga, which basically means "little trumpet from Albenga." Albenga is a town on the Italian riviera not far from Genoa. The squash does climb and its fruits are indeed somewhat trumpet shaped. And I know they come from Albenga because there is a clip on YouTube of proud Albengans showing off their local produce. It is all in Italian but it features a big basket of these strange elongated vegetables.

The only misleading part is the diminutive "-etta." Be warned. These things are not little. They are mighty Jack-and-the-Beanstalk vines with huge leaves and dangling fruit that gets so big it won't fit into the refrigerator.

All summer long, with mingled fascination and horror, I watched two humongous vines grow and grow. Somehow the whole season passed and I never managed to actually cook any of the odd and alien greenish-yellow pods. Like a movie that goes straight to DVD, they went directly from garden to compost, with some brief detours into the house where they sat around until becoming compost-worthy.

Those intimidating plants might very well be nourishing this year's two vines -- grown from the same seed packet, several years old. Both of the new plants are thriving and this season I am determined to see how the squash cooks up.

Update: (February 7, 2011) We finally got around to using Trombetta in a recipe. As promised, it has a delicious, subtle, artichoke-nuanced flavor when sliced thin and cooked gently.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mid-Summer TLC for Tomatoes

It's time to add some booster fertilizer to the tomatoes, which are sucking nutrients out of the soil at a prodigious rate to fuel their splendid growth. It's also a good opportunity to catch up with installing the water-saving system that should have been put in when the plants were seedlings.

I use three-foot by three-foot Grow Beds, ten inches deep, for all the vegetable plantings, and have never been able to figure out how to install the long hoses of drip irrigation. And I find all those little plastic fixtures way too complicated. It's a good thing I love the soothing chore of hand-watering with a hose! Water is always an issue in our rainless summers. Our city is not on water-rationing yet in this ultra-dry California drought year but we have been asked to cut back.

Last year I read about sunken clay pots that are used in developing countries to bring water directly to roots and allow the roots to draw water through the porous clay as needed. The water percolates through the clay as the surrounding soil dries out. Nifty! The pots are specially made for that purpose -- beautifully shaped large round amphora-like jugs with narrow necks. It's a very ancient practice going back millennia.

A local equivalent that works well is to use clay flower pots with their drainage dishes and some black rubber stoppers from the hardware store (who knows what their actual purpose might be!). The rubber stoppers can be jammed into the hole at the bottom of the flower pot to create a permeable closed container. You have to be careful to get the right sized stopper for the particular pot.

I tried this last summer and liked the results so I'm gradually adding more pots. I dig a hole next to the chosen plant, trying not to disturb the delicate roots. In this picture you can see why this job is best done when plants are small: numerous white threads of disturbed rootlings. I plop the pot into the hole and gently pack the soil around it. The last step is to fill the pot with water and put the drainage tray on top as a lid. Voila!: an underground supply of supplementary water. It's not enough to take the place of hand watering, of course, but it helps keep the soil from drying out completely. Tomatoes like steady moisture. I read somewhere that they are like children: with warmth and consistency they thrive. Eventually, the hole will be completely lined with a spider web of tiny white roots.

Today, after putting in the irrigation pot and before putting down a couple of layers of mulch, I dug in some organic fertilizer (Whitney Farms Tomato & Vegetable Food 5-3-3), sprinkling it around each plant several inches from the stem and digging it in. It's important to water thoroughly both before and after applying fertilizer. I'm not sure why -- probably it has to do with root burn -- but it's a process I observe faithfully. Like all gardeners I have accumulated a number of rituals that have to be followed no matter what.

The first mulch layer is newspaper -- double sheets folded once to make a thin covering that worms absolutely love. They will snuggle up underneath the newspapers in droves and hopefully do all kinds of nice things for the soil.

The second mulch layer is dark compost -- Mango Mulch is what's shown here -- one to three inches thick. Ritual demands that it be kept several inches away from the plant stems. I think it's to give the stem plenty of air and keep it from rotting, but, again, I'm not sure why this has to be done. If all goes well this tender loving care will give the tomato plants everything they need to flourish.

Full disclosure: every year, no matter what rituals are followed, all my tomatoes get some kind of mysterious symptoms on the lower leaves. It's never enough to interfere with a bountiful harvest but always enough to make me fret and worry and wonder what's going on. There are so many different afflictions of tomatoes that I've not been able to make any positive identifications. These leaves are on the Sungold cherry tomato plant and the Better Boys are showing a similar condition: yellowing with brown spots that get larger and larger. And these are the hybrids which are supposed to be disease resistant!

Each year, however, I learn a little more and try out new things. That's part of the fun -- a big part.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Waiting for Tomatoes

Zucchini, beans, and basil on their own do not signal the full-on season of plenty -- despite refrigerator shelves sagging under the weight of this week's harvest. We are waiting for the tomatoes to give us that sense of overwhelming mid-summer abundance. Almost every day we poke around in the tomato jungle to inspect the growing green globes for any promising indications. The sungold cherry tomatoes are almost ready, the plant is about six feet tall and poking through the overhead lattice, a few fruits at the bottom are sunny and golden. The Black Krim are sizing up -- plants four feet tall, fruits not quite tennis ball size -- but have a way to go before the fruits get their characteristic dusky hue. The workhorse Better Boys are five feet tall with lots of green fruit ranging from golf balls to tennis balls.

Planting history:

Variety: Better Boy hybrid
Source: Rivertown (Soda Rock Farm) seedlings
How many: 4 plants
Seedlings planted out: May 3

Variety: Black Krim organic heirloom
Source: Whole Foods (Sweetwater Nursery) seedling
How many: 1 plant
Seedlings planted out: May 10

Variety: Sungold hybrid cherry
Source: Rivertown (Soda Rock Farm) seedling
How many: 1 plant
Seedlings planted out: May 10

Thursday, July 9, 2009

From Blossom to Bean to Belly

You can really see the progression of growth here on this very fruitful spur of what I think are Blue Lake beans (note to self: always label the seed pots!!!). Blue Lakes are rounder and plumper than the more flattened Kentucky Wonders. Lined up on this spur: blossoms at the tip, a teeny tiny beanlet just starting out, and some maturing beans almost ready to pick. The last couple of weeks we had a few beans at a time, enough to grace a soup. Now we have a mixed bagful of both varieties, enough for a centerpiece dish: green beans almondine. Yum.

Planting history:
Variety: Blue Lake pole beans (probably)
Source: Squirrels Seeds
Seeds planted: March 29, 2009
Seedlings planted out: May 10, 2009
First harvest: Sometime around June 30

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Still Life with Buddha and Lettuce

In the Buddha's corner of the garden some newly planted Red Sails summer lettuce seedlings are resting quietly in their impromptu shade house -- a quick construction of bamboo stakes stuck into the dirt with an old lace curtain draped overhead.

The metal grid is to keep the cats out. All sentient beings have their place in the grand scheme of things, of course, but if the salad-loving beings are to have their salads there has to be gopher wire at the bottom of the basket, cat grids on top, and sun protection overhead. A lettuce fortress.

The sun-shade method also works on a slightly larger scale. Here is a three-foot square Grow Bed also planted in Red Sails and covered in lace. No gopher underwiring and no cat grids, though.

Planting history
Variety: Red Sails
Source: Botanical Interests Seeds
Seeds planted: June 14, 2009
Seedlings planted out: July 4 and 5, 2009