Sunday, July 31, 2011


Is there anything better than a visit from relatives when they bring you a taste of home?

Tim's Aunt Pat and cousin Laurie came to visit for Tim's mother's birthday. They are always so thoughtful and bring some appropriate gift for our home. And this time they also brought a bag of South Carolina peaches from a farm stand in their town.

Of course I had to eat one right away, and this was far and away the best peach I've ever eaten. I hear it is a good year for peaches, and these are so sweet I am not even tempted to add sugar. Mmmmmmm! And they smell so wonderful.

Peach is my favorite flavor. I am a sucker for peach lemonade, and peach ice tea. I love Olive Garden's version with the frozen peach slices instead of ice cubes. Ocean Spray makes a delicate flavored White Cranberry Peach Cocktail juice that I can't resist.
And the coffee shop in town makes a wonderful peach mango smoothie. I usually eat peaches fresh, but I also enjoy them canned now and then (if Mom goes to the trouble). I have been known to cook with them too. Below is a delicious recipe for Peach Salsa that I've served with grilled pork chops.

Peach Salsa

Plan to make this fruity salsa early in the day or the day before for best flavor. Serve this tasty peach salsa with grilled or pan-fried pork, fish, or chicken.

•4 small peaches, peeled and diced
•Juice of 2 limes, about 1/4 cup juice
•2 teaspoons honey
•2 to 3 tablespoons diced red bell pepper
•1 tablespoon finely minced jalapeno pepper (optional)
•1 heaping tablespoon chopped cilantro
•1 small clove garlic, finely minced (optional)
•2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion or sweet onion


Combine all ingredients and refrigerate until serving time. The flavors are best if the salsa is refrigerated for 4 hours or overnight. Serve with grilled or broiled fish, pork, or chicken.
Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups.

**Footnote: Today ended up being sweet pickle day. Even though we went through a lot of cucumbers entertaining this weekend, what with veggie trays and cucumber salad, we still had an over abundance. I'm getting better at estimating required amounts of brine and jars to match the cucumbers I have.

I've also perfected a system to keep the jars hot. When I remove them in the stock pot from the stove, I set a second low sided pot in the sink, empty some of the sterilizing water from the jars into the second pot as I remove them, then set the jars in the pot of hot water as I stuff them which keeps them warm. Then I just carry this pot out to the turkey fryer to process, and add water to the first stock pot returning it to the stove top boil a second batch of empty jars. Result: no broken jars, and no juggling hot jars on the way out the door.

It also helps tremendously to have Tim around to watch the water bath, operate doors, and keep asking "how long?" and "what's next?". It keeps me on schedule. Canning food is one of those operations that goes so much smoother with an extra set of hands.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tomato Season

Mmmmm... Tomato Sandwich for lunch. It sure improves my daily view of the world.
Tomato season has started up. Here is tomato number two, a Dr. Wyche's Yellow. The first official tomato was an Ananas Noir picked July24th, two days later than last year. I ate that one right away, and quite frankly, it wasn't that attractive, so no photo.
One thing I do have to say for the first tomato of the season is that I was surprised at the complexity of the taste. It was very acidic, and had several layers of flavor. It has been my observation that the first tomato always has an intense flavor. I don't know if that says something about the growing conditions, or just the nine long months since the last taste.
The weather has been perfect for tomato taste. Long, hot days with complete control over the amount of water, so no washed out flavor. I picked it in the evening. I've often wondered if that has an effect on taste too. Having a horse who has to have his sugar intake monitored has brought my attention to the fluctuation of sugars in plants through out the day. Grasses use the stored sugars during the night for growth and photosynthesis. So, the sugar content is lower in the mornings. Stressed grass stores more sugar, waiting for the next rainstorm to trigger a growth spurt. So, if tomato plants behave the same, one would draw the conclusion that picking the fruit in the evening, during a dry spell, would give you the most intense taste.
To my knowledge, no one has done a study on tomatoes. Why? Because, obviously, Big Ag is more concerned about tomato appearance and storability than they are about taste. I'll just have to continue my personal, non-scientific studies on my own.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Food Storage Tip

Freeze your string beans individually by spreading them out on a cookie sheet.

Then store them in gallon size freezer bags so you can just reach in and take out how much you want. Saves space and bags!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Rainmakers

It was bound to happen sooner or later... On Friday morning, the 500 gallon rain water tank ran dry. I had been watering every morning since July 3rd. It was full at that point, and we have only gotten half an inch since then, which filled it most of the way. Luckily, the raised beds and intensive planting make water conservation a way of life. Everything is planted so closely together that if you water tomatoes, the run off is not wasted on the path, it waters the onions and peppers instead. We had been watching the water level closely all week, but when I heard the pump reverbing through the ground, I knew it had hit rock bottom and I'd better turn it off.

Tim took the opportunity for some annual tank maintenance. He hooked the shop vac up to the hole we keep the "dipstick" in, to pull fresh air through the opening, and went in to scrape and clean. That probably isn't OSHA's idea of correct "confined space" safety, but it kept him from asphyxiating.

There was a pretty good coating of rusty, organic sludge which he scraped off with a putty knife.

Then, using a Cool Whip container (an indispensable tool around here) he bailed about 15 gallons of dirty water out leaving us with a clean tank.

Then came the task of filling it. We do have a rain barrel full of water, but neighbor Mike, who does maintenance at a local company, has been collecting water for us. There is a cooling system at the shop which runs tap water through a coil and down a drain. Seems like a waste, so Mike brought a rain barrel to work with him, and recycled the water. We just wheel it up the walk on a dolly, and run a hose into the tank. At first, the water level is too high for the vent, so Tim keeps his finger in the dam.

Then Mike showed up with more water, and things became more streamlined. He just parked his truck up hill from the tank, and we got a longer piece of hose. They went back for another load, taking the opportunity to flush all the eye wash stations too, and recycle that water. They even rigged up a little chimney to screw into the vent hole, and began engineering other glitches out of the system. Next spring we will just stock pile rain water in barrels over at the down spout collector on the big garage, and fill and save them in case of draught.

Pretty soon our tank was full again. And guess what happened? Like today's title implies... it began to rain.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Endings and Beginnings

To everything there is a season, and in the past two weeks I have bid goodbye to the spring delicacies and hello to new summer life. We are in the throes of a heat wave. In the past three weeks, we have gotten a scant quarter inch of rain.

The lush, sweet, garden peas were pulled out and composted

leaving the summer cucumbers and carrots behind (yes these carrots and cucumbers were hiding in that mass of peas. On the left, my second planting of bush beans is a week old and beginning to fill in. The Sweet Success cukes are larger than a finger and should be ready in another week. The first planting of Marketmores are still thriving with still no sign of powdery mildew.

Leafy green salads have made way for sliced cucumbers garnished with bright cherry tomatoes at the table. I sure miss that lettuce, and when it began to bolt I taste tested each variety to make sure it was beyond hope before I pulled it by the armload and carried it to the compost. I will be able to replant for fall.

Bright Lights chard and borage sentinels are left behind with a small stake marking where I planted the Eight Ball zucchini. Just past the borage, in the second bare spot, you can just see a young zucchini. Not that I need more summer squash. I have 6 Magda squash stacked up on my kitchen counter right now. From one plant.

The onions are ready to pull.

And the potatoes are doing fine despite the fact that I have been not been generous with water.

This beautiful, creamy White Lightening eggplant could be eaten now.

But despite being in the ground a full week earlier than last year, the tomatoes will not be breaking any records for earliness. Last year I picked the first Jap tomato on July 22nd. This one isn't even beginning to blush. On the flip side, the plants are more productive. The dry, warm weather and mild night temps have been perfect for pollination. Just my luck, they will all ripen at once.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pickle Madness

It's NINETY THREE DEGREES outside! Let's boil some pickles!

Pickle Day came early this year. Last year it was the first weekend in August, and in that post I expounded on the finer points of pickle making, but this is my second (or is it third?) go-round, so I am an X Spurt. Ah yes, I consult my blog, and this is my third try at pickles.

This time I decide to try dill first, simply because we still have sweet pickles left from last year, but we are out of dill. And here are the challenges I faced. I do this, dear blog-follower, simply so you can learn from my mistakes:

1. To achieve maximum yield from each cucumber, slice from the blossom end first. This lets you hold the stem with your fingers as you slice to the bitter end. Very smart. And yes, random samples from more than a dozen cucumbers prove the the stem end will be more bitter, if the cucumber, does in fact, harbor any bitterness towards... whatever.

2. You will always lose one jar due to some mystery flaw or mistake.

3. Always prepare more jars than you calculate you will need.

4. Always prepare more rings and lids than you did jars.

5. Something else, unanticipated, will still go wrong.

I introduced a new procedure into my plan. To avoid inundating the house with steam, I prepared my jars and rings in the dishwasher. Sheer bliss! This is not the first time I have used the dishwasher since it's ill fated inaugural run. Its the second. The first time was our Memorial Day Picnic. We generated enough dishes that night that I talked Tim into using the renegade machine. He rolled back the rug, grabbed a pile of towels and prepared for the worst.

He and Vivian watched the dishwasher closely for the entire 63 minute cycle.

Which was actually beneficial, since in my careful planning for pickle canning, I needed to know exactly when the dishwasher cycle would finish. And it worked out well. The dishwasher behaved herself (both times). The only water I had to boil was for sterilizing the caps and I got the brine good and hot. The canning bath was all set up outside in the turkey fryer, which Tim was in charge of. And all was going well until I ran out of brine.

Now the Mrs. Gages pickle mix packet said use 17-20 pounds of cucumbers (I had 7), and it would make 10 to 12 quarts. So I figured I had enough cukes for about, about 6-7 quarts. And that's how many jars I prepared. I stuffed 7 and a half quarts, and ran out of brine. Actually, I saw I was running out, and I added a cup of water/vinegar mixture before I even got there. Then, I had to top off the head room with more vinegar. And I still had cucumbers left. Color me confused!

Then one quart jar broke in the canning bath. Tim acted quickly, skimmed the floating slices off of the water and returned them to the kitchen. When I sent the second batch of stuffed jars out for Tim to cook, I had leftovers. Whattodo-whattodo?

I remembered in my box of canning supplies I had a Ball dill spice mixture that had instructions for refrigerating, not "canning" the pickles. I ran to the basement and retrieved this packet (I was sort of wondering what these spices would taste like anyway) and whipped up the water and vinegar mixture and added the spices.

These are all the supplies you need to make Ball's refrigerator dills. You boil the brine mixture, pour it over your cucumber slices, and wait for it to cool enough to stuff the jars. Perfect solution to my quandary! And they're good too. I gave Tim a still hot slice as I was packing the two jars. Let me warn you.... hot pickles pack quite a vinegar punch! He agreed they were good through a fit of coughing as the vinegar hit his sinuses. We are now stocked up with dill pickles for another year, Tim helped in the kitchen, the dishwasher behaved, and we are doing our rain dance because tomorrow is a 60% chance of rain!

Friday, July 15, 2011

I Got The Blues

Blue is not just for flowers anymore!

Beautiful Blue Borage Brings Bees to the Beds

We have plenty of blue this year. Blue is really a novelty color in vegetable breeding, and growers are pulling out all the stops and developing some intense color.

The deep purpley blue of the blue podded peas is hard to capture on camera. It straddles the line between unique and grotesque.

The flowers are really the high point of these peas. The blue pods are pretty when fresh and new, but as they mature they darken to a morbid purple. It does make them easy to find on the vine. The peas are sweet enough, nothing to compare to modern sweet varieties, and the texture is rather dry and pithy. The pea seeds themselves are pale, and stand out a rather sickly shade in a plate of fresh cooked peas. This will not become a standby favorite of mine, although I'm sure I will grow it again just because it is interesting to watch. It falls in the class of ornamental novelty for me. Almost as pretty as ornamental sweet peas, way easier to grow, and edible as a bonus.

The garden is in full swing. We are eating squash, beans, peppers, onions and I've sampled the first of the Sun Gold cherry tomatoes.

The Purple Queen bush beans are a favorite of mine. (pictured with Magda squash)

Purple Queen is a beautiful dark green plant with stunning purple stems. The flowers are two tone purple, and the beans themselves are like frosted amethyst art glass making them easy to find, and a joy to pick. I try to pick these very early and slender as they quickly get coarse and over mature. Unfortunately, when you cook them, they turn regular boring green, leaving the cooking water a shocking lime jell-o green.

And look at this!

I picked these before supper, rinsed them and put them in a bag in the fridge. When I took them out, I noticed the water in the bag had turned a brilliant blue as if I had added food coloring. Fascinating!

Lots going on in the garden right now, and I think this might be a pickling weekend! Tim (who peels them and eats them like Popsicles) is not staying ahead of the cuke harvest and the onslaught is just beginning...

See the mishapen ones? That is from poor pollination. They are usually found tucked away in heavy foliage. Luckily, the honey bees have found the garden, and the borage/cuke row is a busy buzzy hive of activity. These cukes are all Marketmore. I have a second row of Sweet Success which is two weeks behind and just beginning to bloom.

When I'm not watering, picking and pickling, I will be doing my rain dance.

WE NEED RAIN BADLY! The 500 gallon rain water tank is half empty, and if we don't get the forecasted rain on Monday, Tim will have to bring the auxiliary rain barrel with the hand pump over to the garden. I long to wake up to the sound of rain on the window, roll over, and enjoy an extra half hour of sleep.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Evolution of a Garden

I am always so flattered by the nice compliments I get on this blog. I don't respond to each on individually, but let me say a collective "thank you". As most of you know, it takes a lot of dedication, TIME, sweat, brute force, planning and MONEY to get good results. I owe a lot to my creative and generous husband for helping to engineer this garden, and for financing most of it. If we figured in his time, we simply couldn't afford it. And besides Tim, I've gotten a lot of help and encouragement from family, friends and neighbors.

I was thinking this evening, sometime around 7pm when Tim and I settled in for round two of hulling peas, of all the time that goes into it. Of course, I consider hulling peas, into my collectible graniteware, with Tim and the cats for company, more of a hobby than a job, but this morning at 6am when I was standing in the garden in my pajamas with my eyes half open holding the water hose for the 14th day in a row, I wasn't having any of those carefree, romantic thoughts. And by 8 pm as I washed up the pans and stacked the peas in the freezer, I was beginning to count the hours these meals have cost me. Yes, it will be quick and easy to grab a bag of frozen home grown peas on a dark February night, but there are hours of planting and weeding, and picking and hulling and cooking and freezing than go into that little plastic bag.

Tim has already begun to differentiate between the varieties of peas and the ease of hulling in direct correlation to the number of peas in each pod and picked a favorite pea. Survivor comes out on top, and Maestro isn't much trouble, but I don't think I'll be torturing him with Wando ever again. My vote, hands down, would be for the Sugar Snap Peas which don't require shelling, although if you don't take the time to pull the string out as you pick, you WILL regret it.

So, my point is (and I do have one)... I don't remember the moment or the reasoning behind it when I had the revelation that ... "I want a vegetable garden". I remember always having a garden growing up, but not that it was any particular work. My parents had the greenhouse, which virtually eliminated all gardening time. There simply was no time in the busy spring, but it seemed to get done anyway. We always had fresh food from our own garden, or my grand parents' gardens. But it happened naturally along with the watering of bedding plants, the milking of cows and the baling of hay. Not that it wasn't work. I spent plenty of time hauling water, pulling pig weed, husking corn and shelling peas. It just didn't seem like any big deal. It was just part of the rhythm of our lives.

Over the years, the importance of gardening began to fade. It was replaced by actual work as in a career, more hay baling, horse showing, traveling, days at the beach, hours spent in the hammock with a good book. Eight years ago, Tim had the wild idea to buy this house, which was next door to his own and install me in it while he remodeled it as a "rental property". At that point, we had been dating for four years and he was already accustomed to responding to my whims. So, when I decided I wanted to try my hand at some home grown tomatoes, he fired up the rototiller and turned me loose.


I started with a 3 foot strip right behind the house. This was a PERFECT spot to grow tomatoes. The south facing brown shingled wall held the heat and created a nice little microclimate. And I got a lot into that little space. 16 tomato plants, a row of green beans, a row of carrots, some pod peas, and a cucumber plant. It was then that I discovered "heirloom tomatoes". One of my favorite greenhouses sold heirloom varieties. I remember I had Brandywine, Arkansas Traveler, and Golden Boy among others. I enjoyed them so much, I started reading on the Internet and discovered, and the second year I tried my hand at starting tomatoes from seed so I could have one of every color of the rainbow.

That 3 x 24 foot could not contain my gardening enthusiasm, and I talked Tim into giving up part of his beloved lawn. We had just removed a dozen or so large evergreen trees and tamed the side yard between my house and his (seen here in the background). Naturally, I wanted the garden plopped right in the middle of the yard to get the most sun, but he wanted it tucked away out of sight. The roots of ash trees to the right robbed much of the moisture from my soil, and the odds and ends of snow fencing were less than glamorous.

But I had pretty good success with beans and peas.

I think this garden was carved into the earth using the small tiller, but obviously that was going to be too much work for the girlfriend of a man with too many tractors. As my gardening ambition grew, so too did the equipment. Tim bought a large PTO driven tiller for one of the tractors, 200 feet of no climb horse fence to replace the plastic snow fence and more T posts. We still had a gate made of snow fence, which was held closed by an iron rod woven down one side.

Tim solicited help from neighbors Mike and Shelly. When we were married in 2006, we chose to sell Tim’s larger newer house and keep the quaint, 164+ year old farmhouse that had belonged to his grandparents during the Depression. Mike and Shelly moved from their house down the street to Tim's place, and Tim moved in with me. We were very fortunate in our choice of immediate neighbors. Tim cared for our little house and it's elderly occupant long before he bought it and there are several shared areas between the two properties. It made sense to bring in friends and continue sharing. Since they were gardeners, they were a natural fit into the garden routine. My allotted garden space grew!


I was growing tired of hoeing and tilling and had discovered “square foot” and “intensive” gardening techniques. I carefully measured 4 foot squares and planned which companions would be planted together. We moved the garden away from the nutrient and water hungry trees and further into the lawn where I'd wanted it to begin with.

I began to dream of the picturesque, low maintenance gardens I saw in magazines. I told Tim that when I grew old I would have a raised bed garden that didn't involve so much darn work. This piqued Tim's interest.

I still kept a lot of my tomatoes right behind the house where they flourished.

Around 2008 my gardening began to get out of hand. It was a wet year and I battled weeds in the paths and general dishevelment. We were still removing the fence every year to till with the big tiller. The garden was beginning to feel like a lot of work. Each spring, we would hook up the 5 foot tiller and till the soggy winter soil. Tim would coach me over and over as to appropriate tractor operating skills and RPMs. We would wrestle T posts out of a shed, and Tim would pound them into the ground, measuring each space carefully. Then Neighbor Mike and I would struggle with the heavy, unwieldy 200 foot roll of fence. Each fall, we would take an afternoon and reverse the process, storing everything neatly away for the winter.

And despite the fact that I was packing more and more into it, the garden began to spill over into the lawn... I even had more tomatoes in large pots over by the garage.

What a miserable year. Tim said if I would forego the work and hassle of gardening (as in setting up and taking down that fence and tilling twice a year.~ not to mention weeding and complaining) for one season, he would build me some raised beds. Of course I couldn't do without tomatoes. And eggplants, and peppers. And some basil. So I stubbornly planted a pot garden beside the in process garden shed.

But it was an awful year for gardening. It rained so much I had mushrooms growing in all the pots, and the bell peppers rotted on the vine before they ripened. The local Home Depot spread blight infected plants hither and yon. Friends pulled tomato plants and bagged them for the dump or burned them. The temperatures was so cool, nothing was setting fruit and I got ONE good tomato that year. The night time temps hovered in the forties all summer. I don't remember any eggplants setting at all, and like I said, the peppers rotted on the plant.
Over and over Tim and I and Mike and Shelly reminded ourselves that this was the best year ever to take a hiatus from gardening.


Ahhh... this is how I was meant to garden. True to his word, Tim set out in the spring to build a garden that both he and I could live with.

Once again, the garden spills over onto the surrounding land.

And becomes an entertaining haven.

So that is how my garden came to be. My gardening roots begin in a small strip of land right behind the house. Looking back over my brief garden experience, I see dry expanses of hard packed dirt, soggy jungles of weeds, and lots of hard labor. I also see a shared goal, many helping hands and a lot of satisfaction.