Gardening

The Yin and Yang of 2015

2015 was a year of yin and yang; probably every year is like that.  Mostly, this was a year that went by very quickly (where did the time go?) but also very slowly (during rush hour).

  Yin-Yang

  Yin-Yang

McCloud Thanksgiving

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Family Christmas togetherness

Norovirus

Booming business

Freeway gridlock

Dozens of flights to BUR 20150706_153619145_iOS

Blown up workout schedule

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No-shave November

A grey beard

30 selfies

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Halloween at the Hollywood Bowl with Wendy, John, Holly and Kenny

Being lost in the town you grew up in

Watching Stanford football and texting with John Gless

Losing to… Northwestern??

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The passing of friends

Weddings, anniversaries and babies

 
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Acts of terrorism The kindness of strangers
So much to share Time's up/pencils down

 


The 2015 Garden in Review

The gardening season is a little like the PGA Tour.  You can "wrap around" by planting over-wintering crops such as garlic and green manures.  In this case, there really is no end of one season and beginning of another.  But for the sake of declaring the season "over," let's consider that this year's garden is done.

The pictures are here:  Now let's talk about what worked and didn't work.

Winners

Tomatoes

A big winner was tomatoes.  We have a good system down now.  My brother Patrick dries and saves seeds from the best tomato plants of the previous year.  My sister Cheryl and I baby the seedlings along with heat mats and grow lights.  Then, first weekend in May, it's into the garden.  While we cut back on production due to the drought in California, we still had a good variety of plants, with lots of production.  Patrick was nice enough to find and develop my favorite, Oaxacan Jewel.  We also had Sun Gold (a favorite), along with standards like San Marzano. But there were some new ones as well, such as a Roma that produced great dried tomatoes.

Potatoes

Potatoes also did well.  The biggest reason for improvement over last year's crop loss was moving them to a different bed.  Last year's bed had (and still has) a resident gopher, who eventually ate through the roots of every plant.  This year, we planted potatoes in a smaller, but taller, and gopher-free bed.  Lots of soil amendments and regular watering meant that the crop came in great!  As an added bonus, we were able to harvest a few "volunteer" Kennebec potatoes from a different bed.  FTW.

Cucumbers

Cucumbers were also a winner this year.  We grew them for pickling.  These were either Jackson Classic or Alibi; I can't remember.  Despite being planted in the aforementioned gopher-infiltrated bed, we were able to get a good crop without losing too many to the little varmint.  We tried enclosing the plants in tomato cages, in the hopes that the plants would grow up the cages and get the fruit off the ground.  But that didn't really work.  I think a trellis will be the way to go for that.  We did a better job of picking the cucumbers regularly, which prevented the eventual discovery of baseball-bat-sized fruit.

Mixed Results

Squash

Squash, specifically pumpkins, did pretty well.  We didn't plant summer squash, since we knew it would be likely that they would go un-picked for long periods, resulting in squash too big to want to eat.  But Cheryl likes to plant pumpkins for harvest and display around Halloween.  We planted these on the perimeter of a greens bed, and tried to trail them out onto the surrounding ground to give them room to grow.  We got enough for a small door display (Cinderella type), and a couple of sugar pumpkins suitable for eating.

As with corn, we're finding that it's hard to justify growing our own when the local farm stand has tons of pumpkins available.

Basil

Basil would have made it to the Winners category, except that we mostly let it go to seed.  It's hard to process a 4'x4' bed of basil, unless you want to make a lot of pesto.

Artichokes

We planted some artichokes last year in the half-barrels, and were happy to see second-year growth.  Unfortunately, the chokes haven't been as tasty as we would like.  Maybe we're not picking them at the right time.  This is another why-grow-it-when-you-can-buy-fresh-locally item.

Asparagus

We're thinking that our asparagus bed is not producing as much as we would like.  We're not sure if there aren't enough plants or if the bed needs more nourishment.  Asparagus is also one of those vegetables you want to check on every day, sometimes multiple times a day.  There's nothing worse than an overly tough asparagus stalk that was perfect for eating yesterday.

Beans

I really like growing beans.  And last year's attempt was a bust.  So I was happy when I was able to get beans growing this year.  I grew French Flageolet beans (thinking they were the main ingredient in a cassoulet I remember having in Paris), but I didn't get much production.  Plus, these are closer to haricots verts in that they need to be picked and eaten at an early age.  I had waited until they were plump, by which time they were past their prime.  I got more production from the Italian Tongue of Fire beans, but both varieties were planted in a bed that has a gopher.  As a result, the gopher managed to chomp through many of the beans' roots, limiting what I was able to grow to harvest stage.

Losers

Peppers

Peppers were a big loser this year.  The ones I planted in my home garden were quickly devoured by a grasshopper (more on that below).  The peppers we planted at the Hubner Farm were left without water for a few weeks, killing off most of them.  The replacement peppers never really had a chance to set fruit before the end of the growing season.  We also had a problem with a viral wilt, which damaged some of the peppers.  I did manage to get one batch of pepper sauce out of the peppers (see photo album) but not the Cayenne sauce I've produced in the last couple of years.

Garden Greens

Greens we planted at the Hubner Farm (arugula, mixed greens, lettuce) did pretty well.  Providing some sun shade helped them grow without bolting. 

Greens at my house, on the other hand, were a complete bust.  Apparently a grasshopper had taken up residence in the garden.  While it didn't touch the tomato plants, it did eat everything else I planted.  Anything green was eaten down to ground level in a matter of hours.  If you check out the picture of our round planter with greens, you'll notice that the grasshopper ate the green lettuces and left the red ones.

The best natural control for grasshoppers is a chicken, but with Mona's interest in chasing birds that wasn't going to work.  I would have considered renting one for a day.

We continue to learn and refine our garden approach.  Hopefully we can see more success than disappointment going forward!

 


Cayenne Pepper Sauce

Last year I grew a big batch of Cayenne peppers, thinking I would dry most of them.  I did dry a bunch, but I had enough left over that I thought I’d try making a pepper sauce out of them.  I found this recipe and really liked it because it was both simple and easy to extend/modify.

Well, last year’s pepper sauce didn’t last very long, so this year I decided not to dry my extra peppers, but to make sauce from any peppers I wasn’t going to use right away.

Here on the table you’ll see a variety of peppers harvested from the garden and (for a few) picked up at the local farmer’s market.  There are Poblano’s in the lower right, Pimiento de Padron’s (center) that have gotten too big to fry up, in both red and green colors.  There are a few Corno di Italia Italian sweet peppers (lower left), and some Anaheim’s both from the garden and from the market.  And of course, there are the stars of the show: Carolina Cayenne peppers (that big pile of red peppers near the center of the picture).  Go here if you want to get more information on different pepper varieties.

 

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The first step was to remove the tops from the peppers and chop them up into smaller pieces.  I didn’t worry too much about removing the ribs or seeds (where most of the heat resides) because

  • I like the heat 
  • it’s a labor-intensive job
  • they all get strained out at the end

Once that was done, I loaded them into a saucepan.  You’ll see I also added some tomatoes from the garden, since I was already concerned that I had a lot more of the hot peppers vs. mild peppers in the mix.

 

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At this point (departing from the order in the recipe I quoted above), I added the white vinegar to the pan and let the mixture come to a low boil.  Then I added the kosher salt.  This mixture then simmered for about 20 minutes.  At some point I tasted the mixture and decided it was still too spicy.  So I tossed in some carrots (a garden first this year!) to add a little sweetness.  Here's everything simmering nicely.  Be sure to use your vent fan when cooking the peppers, unless you like searing your lungs with hot pepper vapors.

 

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Once the mixture had simmered and then cooled, I blended it in batches.  When I had the whole mixture blended, I started the process of straining the mixture through a sieve.  This is where all the bits of any size get strained out.  You can see from the picture that the mixture is thick enough that it wouldn't just run through the sieve by itself.  So this is a thicker sauce than a red pepper sauce like Tabasco.

 

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I then took a wooden spoon and carefully scraped down the sides of the sieve, pushing the contents through into the bowl underneath and capturing the solids.  I knew I was done when I felt like I was pushing around a golf ball-sized hunk of seeds and skins.

 

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At this point I would normally check the sauce for consistency and adjust, but I liked the consistency just as it was.  If I had wanted it thinner I could have added some more vinegar.  Last year, to thicken the sauce, I simmered a sweet potato in the vinegar and blended up some of that to give the sauce more body.  That also helped curb some of the sauce's spiciness.

 

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As you can see that saucepan of peppers yielded about a quart and a little more of pepper sauce.  Happily, I was able to give some of the sauce to my favorite pepper lovers and still have some for myself.  The other cool thing is that I discovered that the remaining vinegar used to cook the peppers had plenty of flavor.  So I strained all the seeds and solids out of that and bottled it, like Tabasco. 

 

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In fact, an easy thing to do is to just pop a couple of peppers into a bottle of vinegar, with a little salt and maybe a garlic clove.  It will infuse the vinegar with pepper flavor and you’ll have a great accompaniment for your next batch of sautéed greens.  So go out and grow some peppers, so you can try your hand at making some killer pepper sauce!


 


Garden 2012 Recap

Along with the photo album recounting the various stages of this year's garden, I thought I'd provide a review of what did and didn't work this year.

Hits

We tried okra this year, which was fun. It's true that if you pick the pods when they're small and use them right away (that day) then the sliminess associated with okra is minimized. Conversely, if you (as I did) let some of the pods get quite large (more than about 3-4 inches long), they have the consistency of tree bark.

I was able to get some good plantings of radicchio, the "Treviso" type that looks more like Romaine lettuce than a red cabbage. The flavor is bitter, like the more common forms of radicchio, but this variety can be used easily in salads as well as sautee's.

Garlic was a big hit. We planted it in the fall of 2011, and it was ready in the May/June time frame. We had some locally grown garlic as seed stock, which produced a hardneck variety with red paper skins. Drying the garlic was quite important, and those bulbs that we didn't dry thoroughly tended to rot. But the flavor and freshness of home grown garlic is a real treat!

Sweet peppers were largely a hit. We grew a number of varieties, focusing on yellow and red bell peppers, as well as Italian "horn" style red peppers. The peppers we grew under solar mulch did much better than the ones grown without it; the solar mulch peppers had much more well-developed root systems. We ate the peppers fresh and also roasted a lot of them, then froze or canned them. The sweet Italian ones were some of my favorites.

Through random chance, the one hot pepper variety that made it into the bed with the solar mulch was Joe's Long Cayenne. These were a pleasant surprise. First, they plants are prolific: I probably harvested 20 or more peppers off of each plant. The peppers were long, thin and crinkly, with a beautiful red color. Initially I had thought only about drying some of the peppers (for a favorite Cajun "uncle") but I had so many peppers that I was able to make a sauce with them. The taste of fresh cayenne pepper sauce is so much better than anything store-bought! I made some Tabasco-type sauce and then made a thicker version that would be great as a hot wing sauce. How good was it? The sauce was gone long before I had a chance to think about canning it.

One problem we did have with peppers (and some of the tomatoes) was Verticilium Wilt. At first I thought the peppers had been sunburned, so I put a row cover on the bed. But the peppers kept developing soft spots, which is a symptom of wilt.

We were much more judicious in planting summer and winter squash, especially after last year's summer squash overload. We put just three squash plants in a bed (along with hot pepper plants—see below), which gave them enough room to spread out and produce lots of fruit. With the plants not all crowded together it made it easier to find the fruit before they turned into squash baseball bats. The winter squash (butternut) turned out shorter than what you find in the store, but the flavor is still great.

I planted eggplants (having learned how to start them, along with peppers, from seed) in a barrel planter that I relocated to a sunnier spot in the yard. They did well and produced lots of 4-5 inch fruit (a purple variety and a purple/white striped variety). It turns out that the smaller size of the fruits meant that they were more tender and easier to cook up than larger eggplants. It was great to go out and grab a few for a quick stir-fry.

Fava beans did well this year. Planting early helped, as did using the smaller cages (sold for tomatoes) for support. I'd advise you to plant in quantity, because it takes a lot of fava beans to make a meal or side dish. You also have to pick them every day; we didn't, and the crop went bad after spending too long on the vine.

Kale was another hit. We planted both Russian and Toscano varieties; both were great. Kale is getting up there with Chard as one of my favorite vegetables for growing and eating.

We grew basil, since it goes so well with tomatoes. Cheryl made pesto and froze it; I haven't tried that. There's nothing like fresh basil in the summer, and they attract bees and other beneficial insects.

Foul Tips

Broccoli and cauliflower both did reasonably well this year. We got some nice heads of each, more so with the cauliflower. But the heads were on the small side, and letting them grow past baseball size usually didn't result in better size or quality. Using transplants made a big difference; it also helped to plant when the weather was still cool, in the early spring.

Corn turned out to be largely a bust this year, due primarily to not planting it early enough in the season. I selected a "late season" variety (Montauk) that did manage to produce some ears by September-October. But there just wasn't enough sun to get the ears really plump. Still, they tasted great!

We planted onions (Copra, for storage, and Alisa Craig Exhibition, for sweet onions) at the same time as the garlic. Since we planted the onions as seeds, thinning was required. And while I thinned once or twice, I decided late to thin the onions again. The Copra onions that were thinned and replanted early on did great. The Alisa Craig onions did well, but never developed the large bulbs I expected. This variety probably needs less daylight than we get at our latitude. The onions that were thinned late took a while to regain their vigor and grow, leading to under-sized bulbs at the time of harvest. The lesson here: thin early, and be aggressive!

Chard (aka Swiss Chard) is normally a staple in our garden. But for some reason we forgot to plant it early, as we usually do (it's one of the first vegetables ready for harvest). We did plant Chard in the summer, and got some good harvests, but we could have done better if we had planted earlier.

Cheryl and Patrick attended a tomato seed-starting class, and passed with flying colors. And rather than thin three seedlings and keep the best one in a pot, Cheryl kept each. That, together with the unexpected germination of "volunteer" plants from last year in the pepper and asparagus beds, meant that we had over 100 tomato plants in the garden. And yet, the production was not what you might expect with that many plants. The main culprit seems to be lack of soil fertility. Few of the tomato plants were as healthy and vigorous as I would normally expect—the plants looked spindly. They did produce a lot of tomatoes, but probably not as many as they would have if they had been healthier. A lot of the Marzano varieties produced well, but the fruit was small (under 3 inches).

We had wilt problems with some of the plants, and lots of "cat's eye" cracking due to inconsistent watering. The cherry varieties did reasonably well, as did the larger, "golf ball" sized tomatoes. But the oxheart and beefsteak varieties were not so productive and what tomatoes they did produce were kind of sick looking.

That said, the flavor of the tomatoes was fantastic! (One note—you really could only compare varieties in the field, since once they were harvested they all ended up in one basket and you couldn't tell one variety from another). We found a great recipe for tomato sauce that involved just roasting the tomatoes (along with other aromatics such as onions and garlic) and then blending the mixture together and straining. The sauce developed great flavor and couldn't be easier to make. We also dried some of the Marzano's; we would have dried more of them if they had been larger.

After last year's cantaloupe adventure (they really do need a lot of room!) we scaled back our cantaloupe planting to just a few plants. They produced softball-sized cantaloupe… small but still full of flavor. And the second round of plants were put in too late, not producing much before the cold and lack of sun shut them down.

I planted some "Alibi" cucumbers in a barrel planter at my house, wanting to make home-made dill pickles. Late planting and a lack of sun (the barrel is on the North side of the house) meant that the plants went a long time without producing anything. And then one day I was surprised to find a cucumber hiding under one of the plant leaves. I did manage to get enough cucumbers to make a batch of dill pickles (from an Andrew Zimmern recipe), that are delicious.

Cheryl planted strawberries, which took a while to establish. We kept them netted to keep the birds out, but they ended up growing through the netting (as did the weeds) which was a mess. As we move into winter, they've established themselves nicely and I'm expecting a better crop next year. We put down solar mulch to warm them up, but now that they're sending out "volunteers" I want to pull up the mulch so the plants can spread throughout the box.

Lettuce and garden greens did OK. The pelleted lettuce seeds a neighbor gave us didn't produce at all; either they were old or not adequately watered. We did manage to grow arugula (one of my favorites), as well as a couple kinds of lettuce and some Asian greens (mizuno, among other types). Again, the secret is daily harvesting, so that the plants don't go to seed while we're not looking.

Misses

I had high hopes for beans this season… which is all I got. We planted two types of shell beans and a dry bean, and had almost nothing to harvest. I got a handful of "Tongue of Fire" beans and no Flageolet. I think inoculating the beans, together with more consistent watering, will help for next year.

Hot peppers (Scotch Bonnet, Bhutan, Hawaiian, Thai) got off to a bad start and never recovered. The transplants were a bit scrawny, likely due to insufficient heat during the seed starting phase. I happened to plant them without solar mulch, which further slowed down their growth. I actually got a couple of Scotch Bonnets in November as I was pulling summer plants, but that was it. Next year, I may try starting these types of peppers in the greenhouse, as it will be nice and warm in there by late spring.

Like beans, the peas we planted grew but never produced much. I think inoculants will help here as well.

I tried planting a little dill to use in pickling, and got one or two snips but that was all. I need to choose a sunnier location next time!

Likewise, I tossed a few beet seeds in one of the tomato containers, but they were always too shaded to really get started.

Some Lessons

Feed Your Soil

While the weather this year was more in line with normal patterns of cold and warmth, many of our plants didn't grow as well as we had expected. Some of this might have been due to irregular watering, but I'm betting that our soil was just tired. At my garden on Canada Road, it was easy to keep the soil fertilized: I had an active horse manure composting operation going and needed to do something with the compost about every three months. This year, the garden at Hubner Hallow didn't get the benefit of horse manure compost, and the impact was evident. Many of the tomatoes, despite being in half-barrels with ample water, were just not as lush and full as I have seen in other years. To further back this up, the tomatoes that I did plant in one of the original beds—which came with composted soil from Canada Road—grew like mad, and had well-developed root systems.

Help the Bugs

The good bugs, that is. This was the first year where we had a deer fence around the entire garden area, vs. fencing off each bed. One of the unexpected side effects of that seems to have been an increase in the number of lizards in the garden area. We also made an effort to grow plants that would attract beneficial insects (such as basil) and/or discourage the bad bugs. I noticed a marked decrease in bug infestations, especially aphids and flea beetles. All of the produce looked a lot better!

2013 Focus

Thanks to my friend Cory at Neuscapes, we now have a reliable basis for irrigation in the garden. It's time to set up separate irrigation zones, and also to figure out watering frequency and duration given the kind of drainage the soil has.

We've also started addressing the soil fertility issue, planting green manures in the beds. The green manures will grow into the spring, at which time we'll cut them and plow them back into the soil. We're also working on horse manure compost.

We're already looking at what we want to feature in next year's garden, what's new that we want to try, and what we can't live without. Time to review seed catalogs and get ready for seed-starting early in 2013!


If These Boots Could Talk

I was inspired to write this post as I was packing up prior to our move last Fall from Roop Road, in the hills above Gilroy, to our new house in downtown Gilroy. We had committed that we would use this move to "purge" all of the stuff we had kept around since moving to Gilroy four years ago. I had gotten rid of most everything that wasn't needed anymore, or wasn't going to be needed in our new "townie" lifestyle. As I rummaged through the closet cleaning out my things, I came across these boots.

These Boots

My practical side was in favor of getting rid of the boots. I mean, look at them! There was a hole in one boot, from when Doc was still a puppy and needed something to chew on. The hole in the front of the other boot was from when Wiley was cutting his teeth.  I'd cut a hole in the back of that boot in order to get my foot in and out without pulling the insole out at the same time. But as I looked at the boots, I thought about the dirt, mud, and muck that had been ground into them since I put them on in those first days of living in Gilroy. And I realized that these boots could tell a story that I was feeling, the story of how my life had changed and how it was changing again, pointing me toward a future that wasn't at all clear.

My experience moving to Gilroy—and especially everything that happened thereafter—has had the feel of a dramatic movie. There were the early parts, mostly filled with the excitement of new beginnings, establishing new home and work routines, living with Sean and Danielle, learning (for me) about horses and how to be around them. That first summer was like the first month of living with new college roommates. The weather was warm, there was a pool to enjoy, and more than once we turned an afternoon swim party into an extended stay out by the artificial campfire, enjoying good wine and good company.

There were also the early signs of trouble. The title company failed to set up an impound account for taxes and insurance, meaning that every six months we were hit with a large tax bill, one we didn't fully factor into our many budget planning exercises. Each round of borrowing from the 401k seemed like it would be the last:  I kept thinking that things would settle down once we got past the moving-in expenses.  As it became clear that things weren't going to settle down, we took steps to reduce our credit card debt and attempted to modify our mortgage.  But, as this was before the economy fell apart, banks weren't too interested in helping proactively address their mortgage payments.

Then the crash hit. Eventually the company where I worked closed its doors, and I entered the ranks of the unemployed. The next nine months were filled with daily collection calls, endless loan modification conversations, and endless time spent looking for work. The mood wasn't grim, but it was nonetheless a time for cutting all unnecessary spending. Thoughts of buying a tractor to work the acreage changed to renting a tiller for a weekend, and eventually to taking a pick and shovel to the ground, determined as I was to start a garden. Along the way I discovered that I really liked working the soil:  it felt a lot more like farming than gardening. That led me to setting up a horse manure composting operation, which helped deal with the horse manure situation while also giving me the materials to amend the soil into stuff that could really grow things.  In short, I discovered my "inner farmer."

Once I did start working again, we were able to get the bank to agree to "piggyback" our months of missed loan payments onto the back end of our loan. But they wouldn't agree to restructuring the terms of the loan, reducing the interest rate to current levels or reducing the principal to something approximating the lower value of the house. So we went had to decide whether we wanted to try to stay in our house and wait for conditions to improve so we could refinance our losses, or cut our losses and move on. Our heads said "move!" our hearts said "stay!" In the end, logic prevailed over emotion and we told the bank they could have the house.

With that, we started looking into house rentals. There was a period of uncertainty about whether moving meant continuing to live with Sean and Danielle or not: were we looking for one house or two? How would we care for Sassy, Dandy and Tux? What about the dogs? Chickens? It was a stressful time for everyone. Eventually we decided to continue living together until we figured out what was next. After close to a year of sharing a house, Sean took a job working on a ranch in McCloud. That meant Sean would be moving soon, and Danielle soon afterward. The whole process happened quickly, and before I knew it I was helping Sean load Sassy and Dandy into a borrowed horse trailer for their move to McCloud. Seeing Sean say goodbye to Tux (he could only bring two horses with him) broke my heart.

Fortunately, we found a great home for Tux in a very short time. It was hard to say goodbye but we were really happy that he was going to a family that would love him and look after him.

And then, a few weeks later, Sean came back to pick up Doc and Wiley.

Samsung Galaxy 179

The one constant through all my life changes had been walking one dog or another. At first, it was Henry and Doc, and later Doc and Wiley after Henry passed away. I walked the dogs with Danielle every morning, and sometimes walked them again or let them out to run in the fields behind our house when I needed a break from job hunting or wanted to clear my head.

And then, a short time after moving his horses, Sean returned to take Wiley and Doc to McCloud.  I was happy that they were going to be with Sean full time again, but I knew that I was going to miss them. A lot.

Our household had, in the space of a month, gone from four people with three horses and two dogs to one that held two people (and Danielle on an occasional basis) with no dogs and no horses.  At least we still had our chickens.

With Sean now in McCloud (and Danielle soon to follow) and with my looking at a job that might involve lots of travel to Europe and Asia, Crystal faced the possibility of spending significant time alone in our house in the hills. This wasn't an attractive option, and she had a desire to try living "in town" vs. out in the dust and dirt of the countryside. We found a nice Victorian to rent pretty quickly, but it meant giving up the idea of getting a dog while we were renting, as well as finding a new home for our chickens (Gilroy doesn't allow them within its city limits). My life had gone from caring for horses, dogs and chickens, and working several rows of vegetables, to… none of that.

I almost got rid of the boots.

Why would I need them? I didn't see myself owning a place or living somewhere where I'd be establishing a garden anytime soon. Horses weren't in my future; neither were dogs, at least while we were renting a house. The chickens would be close by at the Hubners, but visiting them wasn't going to be the same as seeing them every morning and evening. (Update: the chickens enjoyed their time at Hubner Hallow, but were eventually discovered and dispatched by a local fox.) This whole moving to the country experience had seemed like a grand experiment that had gone up in smoke.

I knew where I had been. And even though things hadn't worked out the way I had expected, I liked my lifestyle. But, like it or not, my life was changing. What was it going to be like? And how would I like it? As I stared at those boots, all I knew was that I couldn't go back; I could only go forward.

The wheel is turning and you can't slow down,

You can't let go and you can't hold on,

You can't go back and you can't stand still,

If the thunder don't' get you then the lightning will.

--The Grateful Dead, The Wheel

After some time in my new environment I was able to realize that things had worked out. Maybe not the way I had imagined, but in a positive way nonetheless.  Sean had realized his dream of working as a horse trainer on a real, working ranch.  Danielle had developed sufficient skills in health education and non-profit management that I knew she was going be just fine. (And she has adapted well to life in McCloud, lining up multiple jobs and connections with the local education/non-profit community.)  Brian had done an amazing job learning how to network his way into a job that paid reasonably well and provided a lot of satisfaction. And he was successfully living on his own in another part of the country, one (as we saw on our recent visit to Washington, DC) that suits him perfectly, at least for now.  Crystal left the CPA firm she had been at, and moved into medical practice management for an oncology practice in Monterey.  On the day I was literally reviewing a job posting for Dutch Harbor, Alaska an old friend called to see if I wanted to do some consulting for him.  That turned into a full-time position doing some very interesting stuff.  And Crystal and I had worked diligently to reduce our expenses to a minimum, so that once I was working again we'd be able to meet our expenses and see the light at the end of our debt-reduction tunnel.

We've learned to enjoy living "in town" and being able to walk to dinner and the farmer's market. I'm able to ride my bike or walk to the train station. And I've channeled by gardening energy into helping set up and run the "Hubner Hallow" garden.

I'm glad that I decided to keep those boots. They still come in handy when things get mucky at the Hubner garden. And they remind me of where I've been, and what we've all accomplished. All in all, they've been a great investment. They hold a lot of stories, and they're not done telling their tale just yet.


Home Cured Olives Update

It's been about three weeks since we first picked our olives for curing. Here's an update on the three methods we've used for curing the olives.

Water Curing

This will turn out to be the fastest curing method. I had to change the water used for curing the olives every day. It took about 20 days to rid the olives of their bitter (think mouth-puckering) taste. So the next step was to prepare a salt water and vinegar brine, pour it over the olives, and top with some olive oil. Since I had a lot of olives, I put the olives in two containers and added some herbs (peppercorns, bay leaves and garlic) to one of the brine solutions. Now the olives will steep in the brine for up to a month to develop their flavor. Adding the garlic to one of the brines meant that I have to store that one in the fridge, to prevent unhealthy stuff from "cooking" in the brine. The other container is sitting in our shed, where the temperature is about the same as a wine cave.

Brine Curing

The brine curing has been the easiest method, but takes the longest time. After soaking in a salt water brine for a week, I transferred the olives to individual canning jars and brined them with a higher strength solution. The jars are now sitting in the same shed. I'll change the brine once a month for the next few (up to six) months, until the olives lose their bitter taste.

Salt Curing

The olives have been sitting in a plastic colander covered with kosher salt for a couple of weeks now. Once a week I put the olives in a bowl, re-mix them, and return them to the colander. Then I cover the olives with a new layer of kosher salt. You can tell that the salt is leaching out the moisture from the olives—the salt feels wet and the olives are starting to develop wrinkles. These guys have a few weeks of curing left and then they'll be ready for storing in brine or olive oil.

I'll check in again when we get to the tasting part… with any luck we'll have plenty of olives for those summer evenings on the deck with a glass of white wine, some cheese and a crust of French bread!


Our Weekend Culinary Adventure—Curing Olives

Jan2011 025 comp I am beginning to wonder if my life is going to be defined by the things I used to find disgusting. First, there were tomatoes. To be fair, I didn't find them disgusting, I just had no interest in eating them. (There was that unfortunate incident in second grade, when I had to eat two tomato sandwiches before Mrs. Robbins—an actual, retired WAC—would let me go play at lunchtime, but that's another story.) Fast forward a number of years, and I'm growing tomatoes for friends and neighbors.

Then there were figs. We had two fig trees in LA, and left them in place when we put in a brick patio in the back yard. From that point on, I only thought of figs as those things that went splat on the brick patio. I could either clean them up right away, or deal with the ants that would find them within hours. Fast forward a like number of years, and I'm grilling figs with prosciutto on the barbecue. Go figure.

And now we turn to olives. I grew up thinking olives in their natural state were poisonous (not true) and at any rate cursed them as they dropped onto the lawn in front of our condo, making a mess of things.

So now, having become interested in canning and preserving, I took note of the olive trees on our property. Our landlord had no plans for the olives (he put the trees in for decorative purposes) and gave us the OK to pick them. So Crystal and I went out before the rains showed up and picked olives for curing.

Jan2011 024 comp

It turns out that the "poisonous" notion surrounding olives (at least for me) has to do with the way they're normally cured. Commercially, olives are cured with lye. UC literature on home curing tells you how to do this without killing yourself, but I went the "don't try this at home" route and opted for the non-lye methods of olive curing. They take longer, but don't have the potential side effects that curing with lye can have.

Having picked a surprisingly large amount of olives, we moved on to the curing process. There are three main methods:

  • Water curing. You soak the olives in water, change it every day for about 10 days, and you're done. The main drawback to this method is the need to slice into the olives in order to allow the water to penetrate. Since we were working with small olives (Picholine, as far as we can tell), this took a lot of time. Fortunately, it was the perfect activity to take on while watching multiple shows on The Food Network.
  • Salt curing. This was the method I was most looking forward to. You pack the olives in salt, and let it draw out the oleuropein that gives uncured olives their (trust me on this, I tried one) incredible bitterness. These olives should be ready in about 6 weeks.
  • Brine curing. This method uses a brine of salt and water to cure the olives. It's the easiest method to do (change the brine once a month) but takes 4-6 months to complete.

Jan2011 028 comp

As it turned out, we had plenty of olives and so we've cured olives using each of these methods. The brine-cured olives are on the far left in this photo, the water-cured are in the middle and the salt-cured are on the right.

We'll let you know how they turn out; if they're good you can count on eating some during aperitif this summer!

Jan2011 028 comp Here you can see the brine-cured olives on the far left, the water-cured olives in the middle and the salt-cured olives on the right.

Garden Update

[NOTE:  I drafted this about a month ago, and have just managed to find some time to edit and post it.  Some updates are included as you read along...]

So we're nearing the end of summer, at least as measured by the calendar. Ironically, after a summer filled with overcast skies and cool weather, it's actually hot (90's) today. That's important for peppers and tomatoes, which really crave the warm weather.

This was the year of the expanding plan, to obtusely reference Steely Dan (who are themselves rather obtuse). It's time to step back and look at what went well and not so well.

The Good

The new beds worked swimmingly. They added about 200+ square feet of garden to work, which meant that I didn't feel compelled to jam as much stuff into the beds as possible. It allowed me to grow a lot more tomato plants than I did last year, and still be able to space them three feet apart (which they definitely need).

I was able to grow a number of vegetables I hadn't grown before: kohlrabi, carrots, radishes, Asian greens, red onions, shallots and pak choi.

And for some of the "returning favorites", I was able to grow more than I could handle. We have so much Swiss Chard that it's basically feeding the chickens (and whatever animal continues to dine on its succulent leaves). We've got plenty of corn, and it's certainly a pleasure to pick it and be eating it half an hour later. The potatoes did quite well, as did the red onions.

I was successful in getting tomatoes to grow from seed. All of the heirloom varieties still come from Love Apple Farm, but I started a number of Super Marzano's that have survived into adulthood.

I've been (so far) able to keep some green tomato varieties going. The plants developed fusarium wilt early on, and I managed to dust them with sulfur and isolate them so that they and the entire group of seedlings were able to survive. You know you're a dirt farmer when you go to Orchard Supply and ask them for powdered sulfur.

Upgrading the watering system really helped. I was able to run additional lines in each of the beds, expanding my production. And adding a shutoff valve for each bed means I've been able to shut down beds without cutting water off to others.

The Bad

The headline in this category has been the peppers and tomatoes. Cool weather early in the Spring meant that the peppers I started from seeds never really got off to a good start. I tried planting them anyway but the shock of planting killed most of them. Then, the cool weather since they were planted has delayed any pepper growth. I've had a few survive, along with the two I bought from OSH out of desperation. And they've responded to a couple days of heat by really gaining ground and showing some fruit. So I'm crossing my fingers that we'll have enough warm weather in September and October to get some peppers to harvestable size. (Update: it's now late September and we're on our third or fourth day of 90+ degree heat.)

The other heat lover, tomatoes, has also suffered in the cool weather. The plants adapted to the cool weather and have fruited up quite nicely. But without a run of hot weather, nothing is ripening. I joke that even the ground squirrels have given up waiting for the tomatoes to ripen. I've harvested a few Sungella's (kind of a golf-ball sized Sun Gold) and some Yellow Pears. Beyond that, everything is in "green" stage. And, now wilt is spreading among the plants. I got a few Rosalita's before the plant shut down, and I can see wilting leaves on other plants now.

Ironically, its' the plants I quarantined, putting them in wine barrels in the back yard, that have done better. I've harvested a few Super Marzano's and some wonderful Amazon Chocolates.

I really should have hilled up the potatoes. They went from too small to too large before I could get out and do anything about it. I thought it wouldn't matter much, but a number of the potatoes got exposed to the sun, which turns them (and other vegetables, like carrots) green. Plus, hilling them would have made it harder for the ground squirrels to feast on them.

The Asian greens grew really well; very prolific and easy to grow (along with the Pak Choi). The only problem was that they apparently weren't the dim sum veggies I had in mind when I bought the seeds. The stalks were about as tender as eating a twig. At first I thought that I had let them get too big. But even the small greens were tough. So it's back to the drawing board on that front.

The flea beetles, once they found the Asian greens and Pak Choi, really went to town eating the plants. As I learned with the arugula in the next bed, the best approach is to put a row cover on the bed when I plant the seeds, and then leave it there. I'll have to do that next year.

Another disappointment has been lettuce, spinach, and related greens. These grew great last year, but hardly grew at all this year. It's too bad, because they're one vegetable that appreciates the cooler weather. I blame the seeds, but it could be a case of over-watering. (Update: confirmed. When I moved the planter box recently, I figured out that the soil under the planter wasn't draining, so the dirt in the bed was waterlogged.)

And on that topic, I discovered the lesson about too much of a good thing. In the lettuce and some other beds, I ran four irrigation lines with emitters spaced every six inches. I had dreams of harvesting dozens of baby lettuces. For the longest time, I couldn't understand why the ground around these beds was so squishy; I was sure there must be a leak. Eventually I had a "duh!" moment and realized that putting that many lines with that many emitters in one space was causing the soil to get saturated. I think it's time to go to the stick-type sprayers for my lettuce.

My obsessive-compulsive attempts to start everything from seed saw its limits, especially with herbs. Basil started out nicely but promptly died when transplanted. Marjoram and tarragon never really made it out of the plant nursery. I think this is a category where buying starter plants make a lot of sense. And the flowers (yes, things you don't eat) that I started were a mixed bag. Lavender did the best, but it took FOREVER to get those suckers to grow.

The Ugly

Remember last year, and Navy Dry Beans? These plants completely overwhelmed the eco-friendly bamboo tripods I made for them, and continued on to use the corn as their personal trellis. We got a pound or so of cranberry colored beans that cooked up deliciously. So I was eager to plant a bunch more of these guys, and went for industrial-strength trellis materials (think galvanized).

Perhaps it wasn't fair to plant half the row with Navy Dry Beans and the other half with Green Beans. But where the Green Beans shot up and took over the whole trellis, the Navy Dry Beans just weakly went along, barely getting to the bottom of the trellis before the ground squirrels ate through the roots and put them out of their suffering. Maybe inoculation is the answer, or maybe the seeds were too old.

And about those Green Beans. Technically, they're haricots verts, those lovely, thin French green beans that everyone loves (like those lovely, thin French women, but I digress). I quickly decided that it's just too much work to hunt through the foliage looking for skinny, fairly short, green beans on a regular basis. So the beans I harvest tend to be the overweight, overly lanky American cousins of the French varieties. They're not as tender, but taste great all the same.

And then there are the ground squirrels. They (or some other rodent) have strip-mined the Swiss Chard, leaving me with stalks that have almost no leaves. They ate the Kohlrabi, then moved on to both melon plants before the plants could create any fruit. They helped themselves to potatoes, and ate all three cucumber plants and two of the three artichoke plants… so far. We'd be talking chemical warfare at this point except I don't want Wiley's inquiring nose to get him in trouble. Maybe it's time to take Tom up on his sharpshooting offer.

Late September Update

As part of moving (more on that soon), I've shut down most of the original garden. I moved two of the planter boxes. I left the asparagus beds, figuring the casualty rate from trying to move the asparagus plants outweighed the benefits. So someone is going to be surprised next Spring when asparagus plants start popping up! I harvested the last of the corn (yum) and all of the green beans. I've left the tomatoes, hoping that this run of hot weather might actually cause some of the fruit to ripen. I happened to transplant the peppers, basil, thyme and tarragon into some wine barrel planters and took them with me; they're quite happy with our current hot weather. I left the winter squash, to give it a chance to produce some fruit.

With a new house comes a new garden. The new challenges will be keeping deer, wild turkey (the bird) and other wild animals out of the garden. It should be a fun challenge!