Monday, August 27, 2012

The amazing flowerless sunflower

This sunflower is tall and strong.  At the time of these photos, taken last week, it was nearly my height (I am 5'7").  Today, it is easily 6 inches taller than me. 

However, one of this sunflower's most distinct features is that is completely lacks flowers!  What happened is that as it was growing, something was regularly chewing off the top (I suspect deer, based on the height of the chewing... and it is a little disturbing to imagine deer that close to my house, as this flower is growing alongside our back deck).  You can see in the picture above that the lower leaves and "branches" are still getting chewed on.  Below is a closer version:
I do, however, have some hope that the sunflower is perhaps outgrowing its predators.  Because it does look like there may be some flowers trying to blossom at the very top.
Is that a flower, or just wishful thinking?
I have not tried to grow a lot of ornamental, non-edible plants... but the feeling that I can't save them from deer is just as frustrating as when it was my vegetables!  (and I guess technically sunflowers do provide an edible product, even if that is not why we planted them)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Herbs, part IV

 For those of you who have cats, or know a cat, one essential and super-easy-to-grow herb is catnip.

You can use the same drying method that I detailed yesterday, but our cats also enjoy this stuff fresh.  It can apparently be used for cooking, but I find the smell of it to be pretty awful so I don't think I'll be trying that.  I will leave it for the pets.

I grew this particular plant from seed - planted in March, it grew on a windowsill with some help from a lamp until the weather got warm. 

I moved it into a bigger pot that is currently on our deck.  The only downside of keeping it outdoors is that it does seem to serve double-duty as a snack for our cats and for whoever wanders by at night. 

Like many other herbs, catnip will flower and you want to make sure to pick the flowers off or trim it back. 

Considering how much this sells for in pet stores, and considering that it is much stronger when fresh, it has been very worthwhile for us to keep a catnip plant on hand.  We have had no complaints.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Herbs, part III

Fresh herbs are wonderful to use when they are fresh, but many of them are equally good (or better) when dried.  Two of my favorite herbs to dry are thyme and oregano.  The flavor really intensifies in these when you dry them, and I find myself using them a lot in recipes during the colder months.  Thyme pairs so well with mushrooms, which we eat a lot of, and oregano is a wonderful addition to any Italian or Mexican meal.
I recommend buying "Greek oregano," whether seed or transplant.  It supposedly has the strongest flavor.

Here is my technique for drying herbs:

1.  Pick the herbs, on stems if possible.
2.  Wash.
3.  Tie into a bundle and hang to dry.
4.  Label a brown paper lunch bag with the name of the herb.
5.  When the herbs have dried off (not dried out, but just dried off from the washing), place the bundle inside the paper bag.
6. Secure (you can use staples, paper clips, tape, more string.... whatever) so that the bundle can now still hang upside down, but contained in the bag.
7.  Hang in a cool, dry place.  My basement works great.
8.  The secret of the bag is twofold: a) you can let it hang forever and it won't attract dust or spider webs or anything else gross.  This is important because you can't really wash the herbs when they are dry (it kind of defeats the purpose of drying them out!), and b) the bag will catch any little pieces (especially handy with thyme).
9.  When you are ready to use these herbs or place them into another container, you can just kind of crunch them in the bag until they fall off the stems, then pour it into your container of choice.
10.  I am sure there is a time limit out there somewhere for dried herbs, but I've used them for a year with no loss of flavor or anything.  Note that I am not a food scientist so this is perhaps not the best guideline to follow!  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Herbs, part II

Several years ago, while at the garden center, I made the random decision to purchase a tarragon plant.  I had never used tarragon in a recipe but thought it might be nice to have on hand.  These are the sorts of decision you make when plants are priced very low.  Tarragon has a sort of licorice-y aroma and is popular in French cooking.  Tarragon vinegar is a very common ingredient in salad dressing.  Ina Garten uses tarragon quite a bit.

Much like the thyme plant we have, the tarragon grew rapidly and soon overtook the bed it was planted in.  It was the first plant I uprooted and moved to another location, figuring since I kind of hadn't used it yet, there was no real risk.  If it didn't make it, so what?

Several years later, the tarragon is flourishing.

It gets along well with its neighbors in the row of herbs I've planted and transplanted along my deck:
I trim it back from time to time, as it grows like crazy.  And I use it... hardly ever!  If you have any good ideas (other than those I've linked above), please share! 

It also appears to have multiplied.  When I was cutting it back the other day I noticed that we seem to have five plants instead of just one:

Which I am sure is an important biology lesson, but I'm not a botanist and have no idea how to explain it.  What I know is that tarragon is bright green and healthy, smells nice, and apparently goes well with tomatoes.  I welcome any other information! 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Herbs, part I

This week begins a series of posts about herbs.  I have the following growing in various locations in my garden and yard: thyme, basil, oregano, tarragon, sage, and parsley.  Do you notice what is missing from that list?  Cilantro.  I would love, love to grow cilantro, but have never gotten more than a few leaves... which, granted, is enough to sprinkle on a salad or on top of a dinner... but when you've got 75% of the other ingredients for salsa growing outside, it sure would be nice to have enough for an actual recipe!
 That has totally not happened.

At this point in the summer, I've given up on the cilantro completely.  It does not seem to do well in heat, and it "bolts" quickly - meaning, it goes from having flavorful leaves to producing seeds.  The seeds are known as coriander.

They are not what I put in salsa.

Occasionally, the plants just do what this one did above, which is die.  Pretty much, this endeavor is not worth the time and energy.  So I'll keep paying 99 cents for a bunch of the stuff at the store or farmer's market! 

Saturday, August 18, 2012


The completely insane summer weather we have been having here in Ohio sure has been good for one thing: lemons. 

There are 7 Meyer Lemons growing on my plant, and they are all about the same size right now, which is comparable to an average lime.  I really do not know how big Meyer lemons are supposed to get, but I know that they typically ripen during the winter months.  Not sure if these guys are just a little precocious, or if they are on schedule.  We'll find out!  I'm so excited about this, and I guess it's one benefit to this summer's tropical climate (in my opinion, one of the only benefits... but that's another story).  All I have been doing to this plant is watering occasionally, keeping up with biweekly feedings of Miracid, and trimming a few branches back.  When/if it ever gets colder here, I'll put it  back inside.  Eventually these can grow into tree size, so for next year I am imagining a bigger pot.  Right now the plant is still probably only in the range of 2 feet tall.  This is an experiment I am glad I tried! 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Another Friday failure?

After the Zucchini Fertility Debacle, I planted some more seeds with the hopes of being able to fertilize them by hand if needed, just so I could get some zucchini this summer.
Not sure that it's going to happen.  Although they are growing, there is nary a flower in sight.  Sad day in the backyard farm.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Another tomato recipe

All right, I admit it... none of the tomatoes in this picture were actually used in this recipe, since they were picked after it was made.  But they could have been, and certainly their family members were.
Maybe I called something else "my favorite thing to do with tomatoes," but that was in error.  If I did make that statement it is only because for a minute I forgot about my actual favorite thing to do with tomatoes.

Tomato jam.

There are so, so many good things to make with tomatoes.  Many of those things are amazing and delicious.  But if I had to pick one as my absolute favorite, it would unquestionably be Tomato Jam.

Follow the link above to the recipe... this isn't quite as ancient as the last one I posted, but it's still been out there in the world for a few years.  I cannot believe it took me until 2011 to discover it!  If you have extra tomatoes and an appreciation for fine condiments, you must try this recipe.  Halve it if you're unsure about what seems to be a weird combination of ingredients.  If you make it and are not crazy about it, I am positive you know someone who will be and you can pass the jar along to them.

I doubled the recipe (approximately) and ended up with about 2.5 pints.  Not enough.
Tomato jam is excellent on a cracker.  It is a perfect complement to sharp cheddar cheese.  Spread on the inside of bread when you make a grilled cheese sandwich, tomato jam turns your ordinary dinner into something extremely gourmet.  And if you dare to smear it on toast when making yourself a homemade egg-and-cheese sandwich... well, the result will probably have you running to the store for more tomatoes, ginger and lime so you can make another batch.  It's that good.  Don't expect me to share mine with you, but I do encourage you to try it yourself.

(also, I should mention that you do not actually have to go through the trouble of canning and sealing this stuff... if you make a small batch you can just keep in the refrigerator.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tomato time!

No update on the beetles... I planted a thousand radishes, removed the afflicted plants, and so far, so good (in fact, the radishes have already started to grow).  That one tomato plant doesn't seem to be recovering, though.  Thank goodness I have seven others... because I love days like this:

Yes, I officially have a windowsill full of tomatoes!  Some of them need the sunlight because they aren't quite ripe.  The others... I just put them there for the picture before chopping them up to use for dinner.  Turns out, a windowsill of tomatoes actually doesn't last that long (unless you have a much longer windowsill). 

Although I have thankfully not had issues with animals eating my vegetables this year, leaving tomatoes to ripen entirely on the vine can be a risky endeavor.  They are just sitting there waiting to be eaten, and I do not like to take that risk.  So, as soon as they are mainly red and release easily from the plant (my biggest cue that they are, in fact, ripe), I pick them and give them a little windowsill time as needed.

Tonight for dinner I used some of these tomatoes, as well as my very last jar of last summer's preserved tomatoes, in one of my very favorite summer recipes.  Sadly, I still don't have any of my own zucchini, so I did have to buy it... but this recipe is perfect for those of you who were able to grow both (or, for non-gardeners who got a great deal on those veggies at a Farmer's market). 

The recipe, linked above, is for an Italian vegetable casserole called Tiella.  I saw this on a cooking show years ago and have made it at least once or twice a year ever since.  In fact, today I checked the date at the bottom of the recipe printout I've been using all this time - 2004!  It is really so tasty that it is worth keeping in a binder for 8 years.  Check it out!

Thursday, August 2, 2012


One the absolutely most helpful tools when it comes to gardening is... Google!  I love how easy it is to find things.  Case in point: after this recent tomato upset, I examined some other plants and found the same yellow-ish insects with black spots also taking up residence in my Swiss chard.  I had to cut and dispose of all of it, since most leaves have some holes and many had these bugs on their undersides (no fear, I have plenty more growing and just bought some more seeds!).  So, then, I took to Google to investigate...

See the first picture there, on the left?  That's the culprit!  And it turns out to be the "Cucumber Beetle" that you see listed several times below.

Here's the bad news - not much to do about cucumber beetles.  Two non-chemical solutions I read about are to plant radishes nearby (seeds already purchased yesterday - regular old red ones, and also white daikon radish, because two websites specifically mentioned white radishes) and also to lay aluminum foil (or some other reflective material) around the base of the affected plants.  I plan on trying both of these.  We may begin eating radishes as a result!  And, since it never hurts, I am going to use some of our cayenne pepper crop to make a spicy spray that may deter these pests. 

- hot peppers, chopped up, with seeds
- Murphy's oil soap
- water to thin slightly

As you can see, this is a rather imprecise recipe with no quantities.  The heat of the peppers supposedly deters bugs, and the Murphy's oil soap helps it to coat the leaves.  You spray it on the undersides of leafy plants (like Swiss chard).  What we have done in the past is mix this stuff up and let it sit for a day or so.  Depending on your spray bottle, the seeds might be a problem, so you may need to strain it.  I have no idea about the effectiveness of this, but it is cheap to make and worth a try! 

I will let you know if I am able to keep this problem at bay.  I don't take kindly to invaders.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Another milestone... 300 site visits!  Thanks to those of you actually reading, and thanks also to those of you from Germany, Indonesia and Croatia (to name a few) who clearly must've stumbled upon this blog by accident.  I'll keep writing (and posting poorly-composed photos) if you keep reading!

Uh oh.

I found this awaiting me the other day.  I was unable to zoom in any closer, but even in this version I am sure you can tell there is something seriously wrong with that tomato... but notice the other one that looks fine.  I do not know the cause of this (yet.... or possibly ever), but I went ahead and removed not just the tomato but the entire "branch" to which it was attached.   Maybe I lost some other potentially healthy tomatoes in the process (see those little flowers to the left?), or maybe it was a necessary sacrifice to keep the rest of the plant safe.  I will be monitoring this one closely....