Tuesday, July 2, 2013

When the garden gives you cucumbers, make freezer pickles!

It’s been raining nonstop here for more days than I even care to count.  Everything is gross and soggy and wet, causing some neglect out in the garden.  Tomatoes need tied up and everything needs a good pruning.  But today, for about an hour, the rain died down enough to go harvest some veggies that have ripened since late last week.

Today’s harvest included many tomatoes: 15 Summer Sweet, 6 Sunsugar, 1 Sweety, 2 Early Girl, and 1 Yellowboy.  I also picked cucumbers that were only greater than 10 inches long and that resulted in 9 cucumbers to add to the 3 already in the fridge.

I’ve been eating at least a cucumber per day for a couple of weeks now and have even given some away and I was beginning to run out of creative ways to continue to enjoy them on a daily basis.  I’ve been pinning many, many recipes for cucumbers on Pinterest lately but none of them could allow me, a single person, to consume 12 cucumbers before they went bad.  So I decided the time had finally come – I would call my mother and get my grandmother’s recipe for freezer pickles.

I can’t remember my mom actually making the freezer pickles as a kid, but I remember what it meant when I came home from school and saw a Cool Whip container sitting on the counter with condensation running down its sides.  Mom was thawing out those juicy, sweet freezer pickles my grandmother taught her how to make.  And now, for the first time in my life, it was my turn to carry on the tradition and make freezer pickles.

I was only going to make one batch of freezer pickles, strictly following the recipe.  But when less than two cucumbers provided me with the necessary seven cups for the recipe, I couldn’t resist making a second batch.  I also couldn’t resist straying from the recipe for the second batch – why not make some spicy garlic pickles while I’m at it?  After three hours of periodic stirring, I ended up with 4 containers of the original freezer pickles (on the left) and 4 containers of my variation (on the right).

My grandmother’s recipe is very close to this one.  My spicy garlic pickles included the addition of some fresh garlic sliced very thin and some crushed red pepper flakes, and I also reduced the sugar a bit.

Given that I’m likely going to continue harvesting more cucumbers than I can eat throughout the summer, I will be experimenting with additional variations of my Grandma Mallette’s freezer pickles and will continue to enjoy them long after cucumber season has passed.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Battle of the Bugs has Begun!

Yesterday morning, while enjoying a steaming hot cup of coffee on the back patio before the humidity became unbearable, I decided to pick some tomatoes and cucumbers for dinner.  While collecting the perfectly ripened fruits of the Summer Sweet tomatoes, I noticed one of the plants was missing quite a few leaves off the top.  At first, I figured it was my fault, as I accidentally bent the top of one of the stems a week ago while trying to chop down the weeds growing behind the raised beds and had to cut the stem.  But then, I saw it – damning evidence of the dreaded tomato hornworm.

These disgusting, grenade shaped droppings are a telltale sign of a tomato hornworm eating its way up and down the plant.  They can be found on top of the leaves and around the bottom of the plant and, combined with missing and/or chewed leaves, clearly indicate an unwanted pest in the garden.

Tomato hornworms can be found almost anywhere in the US and can quickly devour tomato plants.  They are up to 5 inches long and are pale green with black markings, eight white “v” shapes across their back, and a horn-like protrusion on the end.  Two summers ago I had my first encounter with tomato hornworms and it only took a minute to find the perpetrator.

Now, there are some people (like my father) who will break out the pesticides and spray away.  I am actively against using chemicals in my garden, particularly for pest control, but will occasionally spray some horticultural oil around if I can’t spend another minute picking aphids off of leaves.  Tomato hornworms are easily eradicated by pulling on a pair of gardening gloves, pulling (sometimes with force) the hornworm off the plant, and dropping it into a container of soapy water.  I also find that a little bit of squealing like a schoolchild and hopping from foot to foot helps to kill the suckers (or calm my nerves after dealing with the creepy crawly).

Today I found a second hornworm on a different tomato plant in the other raised bed.  I did another careful inspection of all of the tomato plants and didn’t see any more, but for the next few weeks this will be a daily activity to ensure the hornworms don’t destroy the tomato plants.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Time to Build a Trellis!

It was early May.  The plants had been in for about a month and the cucumbers were already growing out in any direction they so chose.  I have never grown cucumbers before but I knew that the plants would need to be trellised in some way so I started weighing my options.  And that’s when I headed to Home Depot to find some supplies and build a trellis.

I started with two 2-inch pine boards (one 8-feet  long and one 6-feet long) and cut them in half. 

A 4-feet by 3-feet trellis would fit nicely in the area off of the small raised bed so I screwed all the boards together to form a rectangle.

After what felt like hours of wrestling with a roll of 10-feet by 4-feet chicken wire, I managed to unroll enough to cover the frame and staple it to the wood.

And here’s where I had a major light bulb go off and I must say I am super proud of myself.  I faced two dilemmas with building a trellis – 1) how am I going to attach this to the raised bed so it doesn’t fall and 2) how the heck am I going to move a trellis when I need to cut the lawn?  Well, the answer to the first question came shortly after having left Home Depot (go figure!). I could attach the trellis to the edge of the raised bed using hinges – the hinges would allow the trellis to angle off of the raised bed without any stress to the wood frame of the trellis.  So off I went to Lowe’s, which just so happens to be between Home Depot and my house.

Sometime after getting off the highway and halfway through singing Jason Aldean songs at the top of my lungs, it hit me.  The answer to the second question, right there rattling around in my brain.  If I was attaching the trellis to the raised bed using hinges, why not add some hooks and chains to elevate the trellis when I need to mow the lawn?  I am so smart sometimes…ha.

Less than a month after installing the trellis, the cucumbers have already outgrown their 12-square feet of trellis space.  Cucumbers are growing through the chicken wire and around the sides, staking their claim around my yard.  But their sprawling doesn’t seem to be an issue now, since the grass in my backyard started dying off about a week after I installed the trellis.  Now I don’t even need my genius elevating-the-trellis-to-mow-the-lawn invention.  Go figure!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Taming the Tomatoes

I went on vacation for a few days and came back to my tomatoes screaming to be stabilized.  Most of them were a little over two feet tall and cranking out tomatoes like it’s midsummer.  For the past few years, I have tied each plant to its own stake, securing them with strips of old (white) grocery bags.  Now, this worked just fine growing tomatoes in containers, but it was time consuming to secure each individual plant to each individual stake.  And if the tomato plant outgrew its stake (as was the case last year with the epic 9.5 feet plants) I would have to restake the entire plant to a new stake.

Given that I’m growing my indeterminate tomatoes in rows in the raised beds, I was convinced there had to be a better staking method.  I was looking for something that wouldn’t take as much time since the already 85+ degree heat has just been melting my skin off and something that would allow me to add taller stakes with more ease later in the season.  After spending more hours than I’d like to admit reading gardening blogs and forums on the internet, I decided to try my hand at the Florida Weave.  In short, this method uses a stake on either end of the row of tomatoes (stakes can be placed in between if the rows have more than a few plants) and winding jute/twine around the posts and between the plants in a figure eight pattern.  Yes, that sounds confusing to the average reader and that is how it is vaguely described on many blogs and posts.  However, Betty over at Garden Betty describes it perfectly in this post, complete with easy to follow instructions and diagrams.  Here's a closeup of one of my Sunsugar plants secured using the Florida weave.

I used jute on my plants, which is controversial given some sag from watering and rain, but I want to be able to compost it at the end of the season and not have a plastic-based product to throw in the trash.  I figure the worst things that could happen are that I will have to restring some of the weaves later in the summer as the jute sags, or I will have to stake each plant individually if the weave doesn't withstand the elements.  And in the grand scheme of things, neither of those is a deal breaker for trying something that could save me from hours in the sun once the temperature sustains its typical 95+ degrees.

So, in about 20 minutes, I had applied the Florida Weave to the Sunsugar Cheery, Sweety Grape, Yellow Boy, and Summer Sweet tomatoes in the raised beds, and they are all happily vertical once again.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Planting Day!

I wait impatiently for weeks, carefully monitoring the 10 day forecast until there is no chance of consistently cold nighttime temperatures, until the Saturday morning I’ve been waiting for since October.  Planting Day.  My Christmas.  It’s my favorite day of the year.  It’s the day I know that spring has finally sprung and I can almost taste the incomparable deliciousness of a sun-warm tomato.

I never buy my plants from large chain home improvement or big box stores.  I have consistently purchased my seedlings from the Farmer’s Market in Raleigh for the past few years and have supported local farms while ensuring I knew my plants weren’t being flown from a greenhouse across the country.  This year, I also purchased seedlings from Gunter’s Greenhouse, an adorable greenhouse just a few miles up the road.

The first garden at my new home has been planted and I must say I find it rather impressive.  Both raised beds are filled with vegetables, and of course I couldn't abandon the perfectly good containers that have supported the growth of nine feet tall tomato plants.  What’s growing this year?

Tomatoes – 15
Sunsugar cherry (3), Sweety grape (3), Yellow boy (3), Summer sweet (4), Early girl (2)

Peppers – 10
Jalapeno (2), Big bertha (4), California (4)

Cucumbers – 4

Zucchini – 4

Blueberry bushes – 2

Fig tree

Planting day.  My favorite day.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Play in the dirt!

Hello, my name is Nicole, and I live in a perpetual state of dirty fingernails.  There is nothing I love more than the smell of dirt, the feel of grass between my toes, and the taste of a homegrown tomato.

I grew up helping my dad plant geraniums and marigolds along the front walkway and tomato plants along the back fence.  Some of my earliest memories involve the earthy, grassy smell of a young tomato plant being gently placed into a freshly dug hole in the ground and dead heading marigolds for hours with my little brother just to see whose flowers had the most seeds to bear.

Four years ago I began my own garden with just a few tomato and pepper plants in three small wash tubs on the back patio of my townhouse.  Each spring the garden grew and grew until I was left with just enough space among the containers and plants to put a patio chair and a grill.  This year it’s a whole new ball game – I bought a house and I now have a yard!

When I plotted out my garden beds in January, I made an unfortunate, although somewhat expected, discovery.  As is typical in North Carolina, my entire yard is clay.  Knowing there was no way I was going to be able to just work the clay and plant anyway, I decided the best option would be raised beds.  Since this is my first summer in the house and I have a million things to do, I decided that this year I would just build two beds to start.  I ended up building one 8’ by 8’ bed tucked neatly into the corner of the yard and one 5’ x 3’ bed along the fence.

Earlier this week, I had five cubic yards of 50/50 screened topsoil and compost delivered and dumped in my driveway.  I had no idea how much dirt five cubic yards was until the doors of the dump truck swung open.  I managed to move nearly three cubic yards from the driveway to the backyard in about four hours.  The beds hold about three cubic yards, although the rain over the past two days has caused the dirt/compost to settle, so I need to fill them back up.  The remaining dirt will be used to fill up my containers (from aforementioned container gardening) so I can continue container gardening as well.  I’m pretty sure there will still be dirt/compost left over, even after filling two beds and six-eight containers.

My neighbors looked at me like I was somewhat insane.  “The new kid expects to move all that dirt?! But she’s a GIRL!”  Ha…I get that a lot.  But I like dirt.  I like playing in dirt.  It’s through the therapeutic act of turning dirt and tending a garden that I have learned the most about life and about myself.