Monday, June 21, 2010

The Summer Solstice and Strawberry Moon

Today is the longest day of the year, Litha, the Summer Solstice. This Saturday is the full moon of June, the Strawberry Moon, because it's strawberry season (though it has been since about April or May). I probably view this day differently than my European ancestors did, maybe closer to how they saw the winter solstice, as a relief. In this case it's a reminder that it won't be this hot forever. We've now gone into the typical Texas summer very boring weather pattern where it's in the mid-90's and sunny every single day, and only gets down to the mid-70's every night.

I prefer calling this day "Midsummer" rather than how the weatherman calls this the first day of summer. As far as I'm concerned, it's been summer since May, and now summer is at it's full strength. Every day the dog day cicadas buzz away (also known as the "annual cicada", our species of cicada come out every year, unlike farther north where they're famously on 13 or 17 year cycles), and at night the loud calls of katydids now drown out the frogs, owls, and chuck-wills-widows I heard earlier in the summer.

Today's pictures were taken in the middle of the afternoon so you can see that even though I rewarded my plants for their hard work by giving them a good watering last night, they are still wilted during mid-day. Even the notoriously heat-loving sweet potatoes in the foreground droop in the sun. The cushaw squash is in the background. This mid-day wilting isn't a big deal, though. The plants are just closing up their stomata in the leaves to conserve water. As long as they open up again every evening, they're fine.

Even the newly planted corn shrivels up a bit in the middle of the day, despite using the more efficient C-4 photosynthesis. Corn, of course, is a warm-season grass native to Mexico, and most warm-season grasses use C-4. Cactus have a different water-conserving photosynthetic method called CAM photosynthesis, but most plants use C-3 photosynthesis and have to shut down all photosynthetic activities when they close their stomata in the middle of the day. In the top left of the picture you can also see my chard, which has still not bolted. All the other winter greens are long gone. This is much hardier stuff than I thought. It needs to bolt some day, right? I am out of chard seeds and wanted to save some.

The yellow crookneck squash are almost all gone from squash vine borers. This is a tricky little pest that I didn't have problems with before when I was a kid. Then our squash always got squash bugs, a bug that sucks the leaves of the plant. Squash vine borers are a different animal, a moth that lays its eggs on the plant, then the caterpillars bore into the stems and eat the plant from the inside out. Since they're inside the plant, they're very hard to get rid of with any organic means. Anything sprayed on the outside won't affect them. I think I'm going to go ahead and pull up what's left of my plants and then do something to try to kill the borers which now should be buried under the soil pupating...

Here's a bed I've already covered up with clear plastic, in this case to kill Bermuda grass. I'll see if it helps with squash vine borers too. This is a piece of dropcloth from the paint section of the hardware store. The area was well-watered and then covered with the plastic weighed down with rocks. I'm going to leave it on there until it's time to plant fall crops. Leaving the plastic on over the summer should bake the soil and kill any weeds, weed seeds, and insect pupae underneath. It's a nice, non-toxic way of dealing with these pests, aside from the fact that you need to leave a bed "fallow" for a few months in the middle of the summer for the plastic to do its work.
On the other hand, not all the cucurbits are having trouble. This is a Tromboncino squash, which is in the same species as butternut squash (C. moschata), and is borer-resistant, but unlike its cousins, it's eaten young like zucchini. However, I'm letting this one mature so I can save seed from it. The mature squashes are supposed to get up to three feet long!

This is not a watermelon, but a cushaw squash. Unfortunately, it seems to be the only fruit my plants have put out yet. I thought cushaws were supposed to be prolific (and I also thought they were supposed to be more pear shaped rather than round like this one). I went ahead and gave them some organic fertilizer and a good watering, so hopefully they'll set some more fruit in time to ripen before winter.

This IS a watermelon! Not having trouble with them setting fruit. I've found at least five so far. This guy is a little bigger than softball size. The variety is Blacktail Mountain, which is advertised as being good for northern climates. It doesn't seem to mind the heat here, but I mainly got it because the fruits are small. Maybe some day I'll try to grow big watermelons, but since this is the first time I've tried, I thought the small ones might be easier.

I recently planted one last squash variety, Queensland Blue. This might have been a bad idea, but I thought I'd give it a shot with just three plants. They seem to be doing ok so far. The picture on the packet was of some beautiful blue pumpkins.

The okra are also doing well. I just wish I had more of them growing. I almost have enough to make gumbo. Aren't okra flowers pretty?

The pole beans still haven't put out any pods, not even the Kentucky Wonders. Maybe I planted them too late and now it's too hot for them. They keep growing longer vines and even put out a few flowers, but no pods. Bummer.

The bush beans are doing better, and I'm also getting green beans in my CSA bag. These are some of my Dragon Tongue Beans. Not bad for a French variety that I was afraid couldn't take the heat. It's a flat, yellow bean, with purple stripes. Too bad the purple stripes disappear when you cook them.
The jalapenos, the only peppers I had that are thriving, are setting fruit too. I need to make salsa soon because I'm also getting a good crop of tomatoes.

Well, I leave you with a shot of the sunflowers that are coming up along the back fence. I'm not sure if these are here because birds were carrying seeds from a bird feeder and dropped them, or if they're here by some other means, but they are pretty and perfect for Litha. Overall, it seems that on this longest day, the summer harvest is in full force, though there are signs that heat stress is starting to get to some plants. Just like how the coldest weather is not until about a month after the winter solstice, by the next full moon I expect the garden will be more like an oven than a lush sanctuary.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pickled Beets

The first act of canning for 2010 turned out to be pickled beets. I've always liked pickled beets, though when I was a kid my mom made them by taking a can of beets and marinading them overnight. I first canned some back when I had a job taking down the Austin Farmer's Market during the summer, and we'd get a lot of leftover veggies the vendors didn't want to drag home. One weekend I got a big sack of beets, and another I got a sack of pickling cucumbers, so I had to learn how to can.

So far I have only done boiling water canning, which works for pickles, tomato products like salsa and pasta sauce, and jams and jellies. Other foods need a pressure canner which I don't have since they cost $200 or more.

Even though you can get boiling water canners that are specifically for that purpose, I've just been using my big stock pot. The advantage is I already had it, and I can use it for lots of other stuff besides canning. The disadvantage is that it doesn't have a rack to hold the jars in place, so they knock around a bit in there while boiling, which makes them more likely to break.

Except I haven't had a breakage for four years of boiling water canning, so I should be fine.

Before you can anything, your jars need to be sterilized. If you're getting your jars straight out of the dishwasher, they'll be OK, but mine were sitting around in the cabinet, so I boiled them for 10 minutes.
You also have to sterilize your bands and lids, except the lids shouldn't boil because that breaks down the rubber seal. You should only let them come up to a simmer. What I do is put them in a smaller saucepan, wait for the water in my stock pot to boil, and then ladle some boiling water over the lids in the saucepan and put them on low heat with a lid on. That seems to keep them at a nice, gentle simmer until I'm ready for them.

Also, I always go ahead and boil a full pot of jars (which is seven for pints), even if I don't think I'll use them all. I've found that I never end up with the exact amount of end product the recipe says I will, and boiling one more jar because you ended up with enough stuff to fill five instead of four is a pain and uses up a lot of extra energy. If you boil extra jars and don't need them all, you can just stick the extra back in the cabinet.

Canning jars and bands are reusable, if your family and friends cooperate and actually give you back your jars when they're done with them! So they may seem expensive, but they will last for years if you manage to hang onto them. The lids, however, are not reusable. The squishy rubber seal only works once.

The only specialized equipment I have for canning, besides the actual jars/bands/lids of course, are these three gadgets which really help when you're working with hot glass and metal objects that have been sitting in boiling liquids! In the front is a lid lifter, which is really just a magnet on a stick, to get the lids and bands out of their boiling water bath. On the left is the jar lifter, which is so named because it allows you to lift the jars out of the boiling water. The black part is the handle, and the blue part grips the jar around the rim. On the right is a canning funnel, which is not totally necessary but makes it a lot easier to neatly pour hot jam or pickling brine into jars without a drop getting on the rim and possibly compromising the seal. It also has a handy line inside to show you how high to fill your jars so you have the right amount of headspace (an air pocket you need between the surface of the food and the lid of the jar so you can get a proper seal; too much or too little are both not good).

I used a combination of recipes for my pickled beets. For the most part, I used the National Center for Home Food Preservation's pickled beet recipe, except I halved it because I only had 3-4 lbs. of beets from the garden. Instead of boiling the beets, however, I roasted them like Alton Brown does in his refrigerator pickled beet recipe but without the oil and herbs. I just don't like boiling vegetables. It leaks all the goodness out. I bet it would be OK steaming them too. I sorted them for size since I had some puny ones from my CSA with the big ones from my garden, so I could take the smaller ones out of the oven sooner.

The beets are cooked whole with the skin on, and then after they're cooled the peel loosens up, and it's very easy to pull it off with your fingers. Though I warn you, it WILL look like you have murdered someone in your kitchen once you're done.

The brine boiled while I skinned my beets and realized why this variety of beet is called "Bull's Blood". The brine has water, salt, sugar, cloves, and a cinnamon stick.

The recipe says you're supposed to boil the beets in the brine and then pour them in the jars, but that's messy and difficult when you're dealing with large pieces of food, so this time I layered the sliced beets and a sliced onion in there first and then poured the hot brine over using the canning funnel. I ended up with enough veggies for five jars.

To seal the jars, you put the lids on, then screw the bands on just finger tight. You don't want to screw them on too tight, because the bands are just there to hold the lids on, while allowing air to escape. As the jars boil, the air expands and bubbles out. When you take the jars out of the hot water, the air that's left inside cools, condenses since gases condense when they cool, and sucks the lid onto the jar creating a tight seal. It's SCIENCE!

The NCHFP says I have to boil jars of pickled beets for a full 30 minutes, which was unexpectedly long. Jams only take 10 minutes. Oh well, I don't want to argue with the experts and risk botulism, so I did as I was told. After a few minutes, I got worried as the water in the pot turned pink...


Great, so the first time I decide to blog my canning is also the first time I get jar breakage! The bottom of this jar blew out, and broken glass, beets, onions, and pickle juice spilled out into the pot. At least it was contained. I pulled out the jar (what was left of it), but left everything else alone until the 30 minutes were up. I pulled the survivors out, and poured the rest of the contents of the pot through a strainer into the sink, to catch the mixture of vegetables and broken glass so it could go into the trash.

And here are the four survivors. When you pull the jars out of the water, after a minute or two (sometimes sooner, sometimes longer) you should here a "POP"! That's the air condensing and popping the lids down. It means you did good. I'm glad to say all four survivors popped and therefore were successfully canned. I waited until they were cool before I washed off the outside to get any more broken glass and sticky sugar solution off. I didn't want to pour cool water over the hot jars and cause any more thermal shocks.

I guess I should start looking into buying a real canner with a rack to keep my jars from banging together. They're built to be boiled and cooled many, many times, but there's only so much abuse a little ol' Mason jar can take.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Unusual Place for a Nest

And the award for "Most Creative Place to Nest" goes to...

This Carolina wren (and its mate). Now, I know Carolina wrens are not too picky about where they stash their babies. They're cavity-nesters, but they seem to use a very broad definition of "cavity". I have known them to nest, not only in tree holes and birdhouses, but air conditioning units, pockets of shirts left on clotheslines, shoes left outside, and now...

This cow skull my next door neighbor has stuck in the fork of a juniper tree. Now, I don't know why he has a cow skull stuck in a tree, but he does, and now this deceased bovine's brain case is home to a brood of Carolina wrens, with the foramen magnum apparently making an excellent doorway for the wren parents. I watched this wren and its mate flying back and forth delivering caterpillars and other insects to the skull for at least half an hour the other evening while grilling dinner on the back porch. Unfortunately, as many birders have noticed, birds have a great talent for going away right when you raise up a camera or binoculars, so I didn't manage to get an actual shot of the wren poking its head into the back of the skull.

In other bird news, this morning I saw a female Black-Chinned Hummingbird enjoying my Scarlet Runner Beans. At least those beans are benefiting somebody. I think it's too hot here for runner beans, since they've only put out one pod all year, despite growing huge and making lots of blossoms. There's a possibility they might start producing in the fall, once it cools down but before it freezes, but I'm starting to think they're not worth growing around here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Brand New Swallowtail

I showed mercy towards the parsley worms feasting in my herb garden, and this is what I get! Yes, this is a parsley worm all grown up, a newly emerged Black Swallowtail Butterfly on the boxwoods in the front yard. You can see the empty crysallis right above the butterfly's head. My cat, Basil, is the one who alerted me to its presence, poking at it a bit with his paw. I thought it was odd that the butterfly didn't fly away until I realized it had just come out of its pupa and hadn't fully "inflated". Quite an exciting thing to see!

Despite his protests, I put Basil inside so the butterfly could dry its wings in peace. And the parsley worms even left me plenty of parsley for my own use, so it's a win-win. If you ever see some of these critters on any of your parsley-family plants (which includes carrots, dill, and cilantro), you might want to think twice about squishing them.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Goat Cheese and Summer Vegetable Pasta

This is another recipe that doesn't have any precise measurements. Just use what you have and eyeball it. It's a nice, light, vegetarian lunch that's a good way to use up summer produce from the farmer's market or your own garden.


  • garlic - I used one of my "runt" bulbs that only got about as big as a quarter. Use as much as you like depending on how garlicky you want it.
  • onion - My onions didn't do so well so I only got a few golfball sized bulbs. I used a whole one. Again, use how much you like
  • young summer squash - I used yellow crookneck from the garden. Zucchini or pattypan works too. Just try to get the youngest specimen you can so it will be nice and tender
  • wine - whatever you have around, I used Chardonnay
  • cherry tomatoes - quartered, or if you have larger tomatoes, diced
  • cherve goat cheese - very common at farmer's markets around here, or some other soft cheese
  • herbs - basil, parsley, thyme, or whatever you have
  • pasta - I used whole wheat spaghetti. Use whatever you want.
Other vegetables that would be good include young eggplant (same as the squash - get the youngest and tenderest you can), mushrooms, sweet peppers, and green beans.
Heat up some olive oil in a pan on medium-low and add thinly sliced onions. Cook them slowly to let the sugars caramelize so the onions turn golden, then add the garlic and thinly sliced squash. Cook until the squash gets soft. Oh, and don't forget to get your pasta going while the veggies are cooking.
Splash in some wine and let it reduce a bit, then add a chunk of goat cheese and the tomatoes. You don't want to cook the tomatoes, just warm them up and melt the cheese. This is the part where you would add herbs as well, but my goat cheese already had herbs in it, so I skipped that part.
Once the pasta is done, add it to the vegetables while still piping hot. Stir it around so the pasta gets coated in the sauce.

Add salt, black pepper, hot pepper flakes, Parmesan cheese, etc. to taste. Serve with that same wine you used in the sauce. Enjoy the cheesy pasta, bursts of sour-sweet tomato, and nutty bits of squash.

First Tomatoes (and squash) of the Year

And the award for the first tomato variety to ripen this year is a tie between Hawkins Plum and Black Cherry! Both were picked on May 31.

Unfortunately, the first ripe Hawkins Plum was rotten on the bottom and full of bugs feasting upon its spilled guts (yuck!). I'm not sure if it was because of BER or it touching the ground or both. The one in the picture wasn't quite ripe all the way, but I went ahead and picked it because it was starting to show signs of rotting too, and I didn't want it to get as bad as the first one. As it is, the rotten spot is small enough that it can just be cut off to save the rest of the tomato, and it's ripe enough that it can go the rest of the way on the counter.

I confess I usually prefer to pick tomatoes when they're not quite ripe and ripen them the rest of the way in the kitchen. This time I wanted it ripe all the way for photogenic qualities, but see what happened? This is why I like it pick them early, just in case. Less time for bugs or birds or other critters to get them, and once the tomato has started to turn to its mature color, it can ripen the rest of the way off the plant without a noticeable difference in flavor. This is different from the tomatoes from the store, which were picked while still completely green, and then ripened with ethylene gas, because at that early stage they wouldn't ripen on their own without help. That's part of the reason why they taste like crap.

By the way, BER stands for Blossom End Rot. It's supposedly caused by a calcium deficiency in the soil, but I doubt it because, well, have you seen my soil? It's MADE of calcium! On the other hand, it could be a calcium uptake problem, which means it doesn't matter how much calcium is in the soil, if the plants can't absorb it. I don't really worry about it too much because it seems like only certain varieties are prone to it, namely the plum category of tomatoes, and those seem to only get it on their first few fruits and then grow out of it. And, like I said, if it's not too bad, I can always cut that end off. Hopefully Hawkins will get over this BER thing soon enough once most of the tomatoes ripen.

The Black Cherries could maybe use a bit more ripening on the counter too. It's hard to tell. They don't look as dark as I thought they'd be, more of a light purple than black, with green shoulders (in tomato speak that's when the area around the stem of the tomato stays green even when the fruit is ripe). Basically, Black Cherry, as the name suggests, is the cherry version of a black tomato, another category of tomatoes that are very dark purple in color and often have green shoulders. They're also known for having a rich flavor. So far the only black tomato I've grown so far was Cherokee Purple, but I was sure happy with it. It made an excellent BLT.

The other tomatoes haven't shown any signs of ripening yet, not even the Yellow Pears, another cherry sized variety (even though they're pear shaped) which should ripen early. They've got a lot of green pears on them though.

I found this blog here where the author does tomato tastings every year of the varieties she's grown. That sounds like a good idea and I may steal it, if nothing else than to keep track of the tomatoes I have grown for my own reference, because there's so many varieties out there. Also, the flavor of a tomato can depend a lot on the growing conditions, so a variety of tomato grown in Texas may end up tasting a bit different than the same variety grown in Ohio. For example, the famous Pink Brandywine tomato doesn't do well here at all. It can't take the heat and drops most of its blossoms. On the other hand, black tomatoes like Cherokee Purple do great, while I've heard that in cooler climates they never really develop to their full potential color and taste-wise.

This is why heirloom plant varieties are so good, because they are diverse enough that you can find varieties that are adapted to your specific habitat, you just have to do a little research. Of course I'm not that interested in tomato varieties described as ripening early in cool weather, but I'm always on the lookout for ones that are touted as being heat-tolerant.

Well, enough rambling about tomatoes. As you can see from the picture above, I also harvested the first of another summer favorite, squash! Yellow Crookneck, to be precise. Actually, those pictured had gotten a little too mature and were a little on the seedy size. Summer squash are best harvested before the seeds have hardly developed at all, and in this variety the rule of thumb is to harvest them before they've started growing those cool warts. However, I am making one exception, since I need more seeds. I'm letting one squash on each of my six plants mature so I can harvest seeds. Supposedly letting any of your summer squash mature will cut down on production since the plant figures it's job is done once it's made some mature seeds, but with how prolific summer squash is, I'm not too worried about that.

On the other hand, when they're at this stage where they've gotten a little on the seedy side, they're great for stuffing, since you scoop the seeds out and are left with a nice container. But these guys ended up sauteed with some of my Chet's Italian Red garlic.

Finally, on that day of harvesting, I should also note that I dug up the last of my potatoes, the Rio Grande Russets. It was another disappointing yield of only 4.62 pounds. Now I'm pretty sure that it's not a variety thing, since all my potato varieties did lousy, but something to do with bad conditions for potatoes in general. I decided to give Rio Grande another chance as well, and separated out the smallest tubers for seed to plant this fall along with the Purple Viking ones I saved. I'm going to have to do some more research to find out what went wrong. The plants and potatoes themselves looked healthy, so I don't think it was a disease or anything. I just got pitiful yields. Maybe they need some kind of fertilizer.