Saturday, April 11, 2015

This Blog will Return

Wow, I haven't posted since January? I didn't realize it had been that long.

I have a confession to make: Posting to this blog had become boring and tedious for me, so I quit for a while. When I first started this blog, I was unemployed, so I had a lot more time on my hands for blogging. Now that I'm employed full-time, I've been having trouble keeping up with taking care of my vegetable garden (especially during the busy spring planting season), so blogging about it took an even lower priority.

I don't plan on giving up on this blog, but I am rethinking how I approach it. Maybe there are more interesting things I can write about than just monthly garden updates. Perhaps I can talk more about the issues that draw me to gardening to begin with like sustainability, local food, genetic preservation, etc. Oh, and I must not leave out the part about having delicious home-grown food!

I don't know how long this break will be for, but I'll try to not make it too much longer. Maybe once I get all my hot-weather plants planted I'll have more time for writing. Right now I'm still scrambling to get all my tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers in the ground so they'll have time to mature before the really hot summer weather sets in.

See you then!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

New Year 2015

2014 was a hard year for me because my dad died. Looking back, the garden didn’t do so great either, probably because of neglect at some crucial times. I did manage to get a good crop of garlic, but the potatoes did lousy, the sweet potatoes got eaten by the deer, and the nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and tomatillos) were fairly lousy as well. I didn’t get any Black Futsu squash, so I ended up giving away the rest of that packet of seed. I only got one Charentais melon, and no Moon and Stars Watermelons. All the beans did OK.

I’m still trying to figure out how to plant fall crops in August while it’s still hot and not have them fry in the sun or get eaten by caterpillars before it cools down. This year I used the frost blanket left over from last winter as a shade, draped over wire cages. That seems to have helped, but I'm still having trouble with caterpillars eating my greens. I didn’t get any collards this winter because of caterpillars eating them up, and the deer ate up my lettuce. The only green I’ve been harvesting so far is arugula, which the deer don’t seem to like.

All the fruit trees did OK last winter except the Key Lime, which got killed down to the ground. It sprouted back (I sure hope it’s not grafted), but we dug it up and put it back in a pot, where it will stay so it can stay inside in winter. We replaced it in the ground with a Kumquat tree from Costco, which is supposed to be a hardy breed of citrus. Right now it seems to be doing fine, and is covered in ripe fruit.

The good thing about gardening is there’s always next year. If 2014 wasn’t that great, maybe 2015 will be better. I can look back at the mistakes I made last year and try other things this year.

I did finish the raised beds in the front, but I haven’t put landscape fabric and mulch in the paths yet, and the Bermuda grass is really starting to move in. That’s not such a huge project, so I think it’s a realistic goal to get that done this year.

Building a deer proof fence around the front garden is a bigger project that might take more time. Especially since I’ll need my husband’s help with that, and he’s got a lot on his plate too. We also don’t have a new shed yet, but I think that’s higher on my husband’s priority list. In the meantime I’ll just have to keep using wire and deer repellant spray to protect my plants.

Also the To Do List is getting rainwater tanks and installing a greywater system of some sort.

We’ve lived in this house for almost two years now, and it’s become clear that the soil here is just not as good as it was at the house we were renting when I started this blog. I did get soil tests done to get hard data, and they showed the soil here isn’t as good, but also the plant growth shows it. I’ve now grown several of the exact same varieties of plants here as I grew there, and they just don’t do as well. 2010 was a bumper crop of a lot of things, and that was the one year I was gardening there that wasn’t a drought. The main variable here really seems to be location. It’s a shame, really. I think about whatever college students must be living in that rent house now that probably don’t appreciate how fertile that back yard is at all!

The only thing for me to do is just slowly work at improving the soil here. It’s better to have naturally good soil, but soil can also be improved. It just takes time. My husband recently found out about some kind of horse stable around here that is offering free manure to anyone willing to do all the work of hauling it away. That sounds tempting.

Other than that, I need to figure out what I'm going to grow this year, which I think I'll save for another post. I've been spending my break looking over seed catalogs again and again wondering what I should plant and trying to not go overboard ordering more seeds than I need.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Cedar Moon and First Hard Freeze of this Winter

Last night it got down to 29 degrees, the first hard freeze of the winter. It's been a very mild winter so far, since we usually get our first killing freeze around Thanksgiving, not at the beginning of January.

I had one tomato plant survive the summer, and as you can see it is now mush, meaning last night really was our first "real" freeze, not like some of there other nights where it was maybe 31 or 30 degrees for a little while.

The peppers (and citrus trees) are tucked snugly under frost blanket. I've had peppers survive the winter before, so I'm confident I can get these to make it through as well.

The root crops (radishes, carrots, beets, parsnips, and turnips) are doing just fine. Before the cold front we got a good rain that I think really helped.

The Dwarf Grey Sugar peas are even starting to flower, while the Tall Telephone peas are looking good too.

The collards got badly eaten up, but they seem to have missed the kale. The kale is still growing really slowly, but is showing no signs of bug damage.

And I'm getting lots of seed catalogs! I intend to write a post soon about my New Year's plans for my garden in 2015.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Meyer Lemon Chess Pie

On finals week, my department at work has a potluck Christmas party, and I usually bring some type of dessert. This year our Meyer lemon tree was doing so well, that I thought about bringing a lemon meringue pie, but after reading about how meringue pies can be a bit tricky to make, I ended up going with a chess pie instead.

Chess pie is basically a custard pie with cornmeal in it, which gives it an interesting texture. Plain chess pie is extremely sweet, but lemon chess pie sounded good because the tartness should balance the sweetness. The problem was that when I searched for recipes, I found a lot of recipes that varied widely. Recipes varied between using only 1 Tbsp. of lemon juice all the way up to a quarter cup, a quarter cup of buttermilk to a full cup, 1 Tbsp. of cornmeal to 3 Tbsp, 4 or 5 eggs, 1 and a half cups of sugar or maybe two whole cups, half a stick of butter or maybe two sticks. I had no idea which one to choose. They even varied on how long you bake it, at what temperature, and whether you pre-bake the crust or not.

I finally printed out four different recipes and decided to combine them into my very own recipe! It was risky, but I think I've made enough other custard-type pies that I had a general idea how they work.

Turns out it worked great! It's a good thing I cut myself a sliver right away at the potluck, because when I came back later to collect my pie plate, it was CLEAN. My coworkers completely devoured it and didn't leave anything leftover for me to take home to my husband.

Glad I wrote everything down so I can make it again!

Meyer Lemon Chess Pie

  • Pastry for a single-crust pie
  • Juice of 2 Meyer lemons (about 1/4 cup of juice)
  • Zest from 2 Meyer lemons
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. cornmeal
  • 4 eggs
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 stick of butter, melted
  • 1/8 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, cornmeal, eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, and salt together until smooth. Place pastry into regular pie plate (not deep dish) and trim. Pour in filling.

Lay some aluminum foil over the top and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 30 minutes.

Let cool on a wire rack, and then chill in fridge before serving.

This pie had the gooey texture of a pecan pie, and a nice sweet-tart flavor. I used homemade pie crust with butter and lard, but you can use whatever your favorite pie dough recipe is, or store-bought. Regular milk might work instead of buttermilk, but I had buttermilk in the fridge already, and I think it's more traditional for chess pie. Regular lemon juice would work if you don't have Meyer lemons, but you might want to increase the sugar to 2 cups and/or use regular milk instead of buttermilk, because Meyer lemons are not as sour as regular lemons.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sweet Potato Pie

I'm the pie maker for our family's Thanksgiving at my in-law's house. Each year I bring two pies. This year I made an apple pie, and a sweet potato pie from homegrown sweet potatoes.

It was a good opportunity to use up the Garnet sweet potatoes that had split (like the one in the picture) or been damaged during harvest (a few of them got broken in half or stabbed with the digging fork). The damaged sweet potatoes weren't going to last very long in storage and needed to be used up soon. I ended up having enough damaged Garnets to get the 2 cups mashed sweet potato needed for the pie. I considered using the Molokai purple sweet potatoes, but decided to save those for something else. I wasn't sure how a purple sweet potato pie would look.

One of my sweet potatoes was a bit confused about whether it was an orange or purple sweet potato, but once I had them cooked and mashed up, the purple streaks didn't show. I cooked the sweet potatoes in the microwave and then mashed them with a fork.

Sweet potato pie is similar to pumpkin pie, but not exactly. Sweet potatoes have a denser texture than pumpkin, with more starch. I used a recipe from my Better Homes and Gardens red and white checkered cookbook, so I'm not sure if it's legal for me to reprint it here.

One difference from a pumpkin pie is it used a prebaked pie crust, which I made myself. With pumpkin pies, you use a raw crust, and the crust and filling cook together. It also needed 3 eggs, while a pumpkin pie needs 4 (maybe because sweet potatoes are denser) and a cup of buttermilk. The buttermilk seemed weird, but it gave the pie a nice tangy flavor. The spices were allspice and nutmeg. No cinnamon or ginger like pumpkin pie.

The recipe also called for only half a cup of sugar. It probably depends on how sweet your sweet potatoes are to begin with, and I was afraid mine weren't sweet enough, so I increased the sugar to 3/4 a cup. I'm glad I did too, because the pie still ended up being not especially sweet and probably could have been OK with a full cup of sugar. It was fine the way it was, though, and probably healthier than a sweeter dessert. Next time I think I'll use brown sugar instead of white.

And here is the finished pie. A lot of the time my pumpkin pies end up too soft and the slices don't stay together, but we had no problem with this pie holding together because of the density of the sweet potatoes. It looked like a pumpkin pie but had a distinctly different flavor because of the different spices and buttermilk.

Oh, and of course it was served with plenty of whipped cream.

The only problem I think needs improvement is the pie filling was a little bit lumpy. Next time I'm going to try mashing the sweet potatoes in the food processor or stand mixer to get a perfectly smooth puree.

But overall both pies were a big hit, judging by how we only had one piece leftover from each for us to take home.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Mistletoe Moon

It's been a strange winter so far, if you can even call it a winter. It got down to 30 degrees one night on the week before Thanksgiving, which is when I harvested my sweet potatoes. It hasn't gotten anywhere near freezing again since. Some days it even got into the high 70's during the day.

The light frost we had wasn't even enough to kill the eggplants and tomatoes, and now the eggplants have started to grow new leaves back. They're in for a disappointment once we do get a killing freeze.

The peppers are also still going strong. I've been harvesting a lot of Serranos, which I think I'll make more fermented hot sauce out of.

The garlic and multiplier onions are also doing well. The wire has prevented the chickens from digging in them any more.

The root crops are doing well. I've started harvesting radishes. I've also got carrots, beets, parsnips, and turnips growing.

It's gotten cold enough to get rid of the bugs that were eating the greens, but now the deer have found them. They don't like the arugula, but ate the tops off of most of the red lettuce I had mixed in with it.

The kumquats (in the picture above) and Meyer lemons in the front are almost ripe. I'm thinking of making a Meyer lemon meringue pie for Yule, even though it's not that traditional. But they should be ripe by then.

I planted a lot of Tuscan kale in the back to save seed, and it's doing OK but growing very slowly. There's also a lot of weeds coming up back there.

The peas are starting to climb their trellises in the back. I planted two varieties: Tall Telephone and Dwarf Grey Sugar.

And I have some more winter crops in trays to plant later: fennel, cauliflower, and more kale and collards.

I already started my pepper plants for next year. I wonder when I should start my other nightshades. I usually start my tomato seeds around Christmas, but I'm feeling impatient with how warm it's been lately.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sweet Potato Harvest 2014

This past weekend I decided it was time to harvest the sweet potatoes, because it looked like the last weekend we'd have before a freeze. Even without a freeze, as you can see in the picture above, my sweet potatoes thought it was too cold anyway. They're such tropical plants, that even temperatures under 40 degrees F makes them wilt.

My harvest this year was a bit disappointing. Still not as good as what I got in 2010. I'll have enough to eat for the holidays, but not the bumper crop I was hoping for.

I planted slips I grew from three varieties I got last year from Duck Creek Farms: Garnet, Molokai Purple, and Carolina Nugget. I discontinued White Yam because it didn't do well at all.

This year they ranked about the same as last year. Garnet was the best, followed by Molokai Purple, followed by Carolina Nugget.


Again this was my best variety, with a few specimens getting pretty large. Nice bright red skin. I'll keep growing this one unless/until I find a better orange variety.

Molokai Purple

This variety also did well again. Love the color! Now I have enough to actually do a taste comparison between purple and orange sweet potatoes. In 2010 I learned that White Yam was much drier and firmer than orange sweet potatoes. It made excellent sweet potato fries, while orange sweet potatoes can sometimes fall apart when they cook (fine if you're mashing them, but bad for fries). I'm interested to see what purple sweet potatoes are like in flavor and texture.

Carolina Nugget

Again Carolina Nugget was OK but not great. I got a few nice-looking potatoes, but not many. I gave it a second chance, but now I've decided to discontinue it. It's too similar to Garnet, but inferior, so out it goes.

For new varieties to try, I ordered three from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: Sweetie Pie, O'Henry, and Violetta. They came in bundles of six plants each, but sadly none of them did well.

Sweetie Pie

This is another ordinary orange variety, but unlike Garnet it has normal leaves instead of ivy leaves. I only got one root that wasn't split (the one at the top right of the picture), but it did get damaged by my digging fork. The rest were badly split all over.

This may not be completely their fault. This variety was right next to a big leak in the soaker hose, so when the sweet potatoes were watered, they got flooded. I didn't realize it would make that big of a difference, but maybe that's what split them.

Still, they went in the compost pile. I'll stick with Garnet for my orange variety for now.


This was my attempt to find another white variety, but as you can see, it turned out to be pretty pathetic.


I don't even have a picture for Violetta. I think all the plants for this one died. I couldn't find any. It was supposed to be a variety with purple skin and white flesh. I was curious to find out what a potato like that would taste like (more like a purple or like a white?), but I guess I'll have a try another one next year.


I'm keeping Molokai Purple and Garnet again for next year, but that's it. They didn't give quite the bumper crop I wanted, but still did respectably, especially compared to all the other varieties I tried this year.

The plants I got from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange weren't quite as good as Duck Creek Farms. DCF's slips were in excellent condition when they arrived, while SESE's slips were in more typical condition for slips that just spent some time packed up in a box. I'm not sure if DCF does something special to help their plants make the journey, or if I was just lucky that time. I'm also not sure if it matters all that much, since the slips I grew in 2010 were from Shumway's, and they looked more like SESE's slips, but ended up growing just fine.

Another problem was DEER! The deer feasted on the sweet potato leaves several times before I discovered I Must Garden Deer Repellent. Even though the plants grew back, I'm sure having to regrow all those leaves diverted a lot of resources away from growing lots of roots.

Finally, Bermudagrass is starting to invade my raised beds. It was especially bad on the side where I planted the new varieties from SESE. I hate that stuff! It's coming in from the surrounding lawn. A project on my to-do list is to put landscape fabric and mulch around all the raised beds so that there isn't grass right next to them.

I'm already wondering which new sweet potato varieties I should try next year. Should I get some other varieties from Duck Creek Farms, since they did so well? Should I try a different place, like Sand Hill Preservation Center? Should I go back to Shumway's and get more White Yam since they did so well in 2010?

In the meantime, I think this year I'll make sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving.