Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dahling, you're beet-utiful!

I have a small confession: I am obsessed with the weather and pray on an almost daily basis for rain. I'm pretty sure God is screening my calls. Virginia for the past several weeks has been hot hot hot and dry dry dry. By tomorrow by last rain barrel will be empty and as I write this expensive city water is hooked up to the aquatic IV's that keep my garden alive.

If you're reading this in Texas or any other mid-western states that are enduring a heinous drought of epic proportions, I'm just glad my computer doesn't have an app that allows you to mercilessly slap me silly or hands would sprout from my computer screen like suckers on a tomato plant.

Tap tap tap.... The monitor seems solid. Whew! I'm relieved!!

Anyway, back to the beets. They were getting more expensive by the minute as I poured city water over their leafy green tops, so I pulled them up.  A salad of steamed beets, nectarines and goat cheese is on the menu for dinner.


I grew these Chiggia beets in a pot on my patio, which explains my puny harvest.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Chapter One

Before moving to Virginia eight years ago, we lived in upstate New York near Lake Ontario. If you missed the exit to our town, you went to the border, made a u-turn, and came back. Always preferring to live in town instead of on base, we bought a house built in 1895 that featured original stained glass, tin ceilings, handmade tongue-in-groove paneling, and a stone cellar. The house next door was haunted and there was a speakeasy in the basement of one of the homes down the street.  A massive flame maple, a few ugly shrubs and several clumps of peonies completed the landscaping. Hoping to sell the house quickly when we moved, we threw ourselves into restoring the home and creating a small garden.

The closing paperwork on the house included the original deed, handwritten in script on almost transparent parchment. With every new page and owner, the mystery of the house deepened. I wasn't just the latest owner, but another chapter in its story. Down came the neon yellow paneling that hid the handmade woodwork beneath it, the Pepto pink walls painted, moldy linoleum replaced, junk hauled from the backyard. We found tufts of horsehair in the crumbling plaster walls and used the hitching post in the front to help gauge how deep the snow was.

Flowers sprouted where snow had stood in mountains only months before and pigeons roosted on the garage. Rhododendrons, planted far enough away from the roof line to survive icicle sabers, crab apple trees, yarrow, astrantia, lady's mantle, delphinums, campanula, sweet william, and daylillies bought for a $1 a piece replaced the grass. I worked, my husband deployed, the kids went sledding down the porch steps. Our chapter ended and we moved to Virginia.

I've lived in my current house eight years, longer than I've ever lived anywhere. Will someone buy this house some day and proclaim to their friends that they got an incredible deal on a house built in 2003? I'll never know. Instead, I know that I am simply Chapter One. The new owners of my New York house neglected the garden and weeds took over. Military like me, they've already moved and new people have taken their place.

To illustrate my chapter, I've decided to leave notes to whomever lives in this house next. I should have started eight years ago, but I just didn't think about it. Buried in my garden will lay clues about the family that built this house and created the garden. And maybe, just maybe, if the walls are crumbling and the garden smothered with weeds, they will flip back a few pages to Chapter One and reclaim the garden.


The first tin I buried in the garden.


The first note says, "Laura and her best friend Rachel stood under the dogwood tree, posing for pictures before her Sweet 16 party. They are smart, goofy, and beautiful. May 2011"


I thought these little tins would hold up better than glass bottles. I slipped it in a Ziploc bag before I buried it.


Sweet 16!


Saturday, July 23, 2011

115 and climbing!

The mid-Atlantic is in the grips of a hellfire heat wave and I'm hunkered down under the ceiling fan. Our heat index yesterday was about 120, with more brutality scheduled for today. As for all the gardeners who deal with this kind of weather every summer, I think Mike Meyers in Wayne's World said it best. If the movie Wayne's World induces an instant migraine, skip the clip. If not, imagine Alice Cooper is all gardeners who deal with horrific heat annually and I'm, unfortunately, either Wayne or Garth.



Thanks to the SH2 (Soaker Hose Super Highway) and my midnight waterings, the garden looks great and IS FULL OF BUTTERFLIES!!! I've seen several large butterflies including a Giant Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, and several big dark butterflies that I think are Black Swallowtails but I couldn't get close enough to tell. Happiness and joy!!!!

Last summer I was given a clump of wildlflowers in a big lump of heavy clay soil a friend had dug out of her property.  I stuck the entire mass in the most inhospitable spot in my garden just to see how tough they were. Here's what they look like today!

Native blue mist flower is growing in one of the driest spots in my garden. An equally tough veronica 'Ericka' grows nearby.

Another clump of blue mist flower grows in the shade near the dog run, but unlike the wild variety, they spend most of the summer hooked up to an aquatic IV.

The plant straddling the metal fence that forms the dog run is also Blue Mist Flower (a type of eupatorium).


White Mist Flower grows in the moist partial shade near the garden hose. It's a vigorous grower that prefers afternoon shade and moist soil.


White Mist Flower and the variegated leaves of Painters Palette.


I just took this picture this morning and the plant is a bit limp from the heat. The rain barrel on the other side of the fence is known as the Big Daddy and holds 156 gallons of water. The White Mist Flower and daylillies next to it were planted this spring.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Most Useful Plant


Fat buds like smooth rumped babies bulge against green swaddling

sunshine petals slyly slipping out, yellow toes wiggling free.


Thick seeds stand at attention
toy soldiers with swords drawn.


Silphium grows wider before growing taller
broad leaves embracing the sun.


Tall and awkward, silphium perfoliatum stands in the corner
and waits to dance,


revealing to those who look closely
 a most beautiful heart.

Silphium perfoliatum is a native plant also known as cup plant. It's seeds are prized by goldfinches and other small birds. Its most distinguishing feature is the leaf joint around the square stems that holds water and dew, creating a water source for birds and insects. It can grow to be over 6 ft tall and lives in the back corner of my dog run, where it can take advantage of my neighbors sprinkler system. 



Saturday, July 16, 2011

Peach Redux

This is a repost from last summer. Peach cobbler is a summer staple in our house and this recipe is easy and really delicious.
As much as I love to garden, I truly love to bake and every summer I make peach cobbler. I don't grow the peaches and avoid buying them at the grocery store if I can. Our local grocery stores specialize in selling peaches that are hard, green, and smell more like a tennis ball than a peach. A few years ago in my quest for a peach that tasted and smelled like....a peach, I discovered Hollins Farms in Virginia. For a few bucks I could wander the orchards and stuff my bags full of white and yellow peaches, pick berries, tomatoes, etc. I was hooked and on Sunday headed back to the orchard.


Instead of writing about my garden I thought I would share my peach cobbler recipe. It's very easy and features a sweet biscuit topping. If you don't have access to great peaches, use nectarines. They're just bald peaches!
PEACH COBBLER

Peach Filling:
12 very large peaches or 24 small to medium peaches (You can mix white and yellow peaches.)
3/4 - 1 cup sugar (See Note Below)
4 tbs butter
3 tbs cornstarch
cinnamon and ginger to taste

NOTE:

Here's the deal with adding sugar to a fruit desert - fruit releases its own natural sugars as they cook. The more sugar you add, the more liquid they release. While this sounds ideal in theory, if you add too much sugar you'll end up with a very sweet, liquidy syrup that overpowers the flavor of the peaches and doesn't thicken correctly unless you add extra cornstarch. However, if you add too much cornstarch, you'll end up with a cobbler that tastes/looks like it's full of jam instead of peaches. If you are adding berries to the cobbler, add an extra 1/4 cup sugar to offset their natural tartness. This isn't a precise formula, however. You can vary the sugar from 3/4 cup to 1 cup depending on how sweet you like your desserts.

Peel the peaches and cut them into slices. I hold the peaches in one hand, peel them with a knife, and then just slice them up while holding them before plopping them into a large pot. It's messy but efficient. I give the peach peels to my worms.

In a small bowl combine the sugar, cornstarch, and spices. Add it to the pot and mix gently. Fresh ginger is excellent! Just grate it right over the pot of peaches.


This pot is full of white and yellow peaches.

Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the peaches. Cook the peaches on medium until the peach syrup begins to gently boil and changes from a cloudy brown to a clear brown. Don't cook the peaches on high heat or you'll burn them to the bottom of the pan. Trust me on this one!!! As soon as the mixture bubbles, thickens, and looks clearer, the peaches are done!

Turn off the heat and pour them into a 13 x 9 pan or two smaller pans. If you are adding any berries, such as blackberries, blueberries, or raspberries, add them now. Mix them in gently so you don't smash them. By cooking the peaches first, you don't have to worry about the topping cooking before the filling. This method works well for apple filling, too. Avoid using a pan that's too large. You'll end up with a dry cobbler because the filling will have spread out so much that when you cut into it, there's little to no syrup. However, if you use a pan that's too small, the syrup will bubble out of the pan, onto the oven heating element, and potentially set your oven on fire. Yep, trust me on this one!



Cobbler Topping:

This recipe makes A LOT of topping! If you are making one cobbler, you might want to just make a half portion of topping. This recipe isn't written for a stand mixer or food processor, although I'm sure you could use one.

1 cup butter, cold and cut into cubes
1 cup half and half or milk
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups flour (I use White Lily - See Note Below)
1 tsp salt
1 tbs baking powder (The fresher, the better!)

NOTE:

Not all flour is the same. Well, okay, maybe you already knew that. White Lily is a soft southern flour. What does that mean? It means it's made from a type of wheat that is naturally low in protein. Low protein flours create less gluten in the finished product, which gives you a softer, lighter baked good. A high protein flour will create a chewier baked good. If you don't have White Lily, try King Arthur All Purpose flour. Or just use whatever's in your cupboard!!


In a large bowl, mix all the dry ingredients. Add the butter to the bowl and with a pastry blender cut the butter into the flour until it's in pea sized chunks. When the butter cloggs up the pastry blender, just use a knife to clear it off and continue cutting it into the flour. This can be done in a food processor, but since I don't have a processor big enough to make a dough in, I always use a pastry blender.


Pastry blenders are very old school and can be found very cheaply at Walmart, Target, etc. They just continually slice up the butter until it's really tiny and is incorporated into the flour. The weird looking thing with the blue handle is a pastry blender.


Here's what the butter looked like after I sliced it into submission with the pastry blender.

Now add about a third of the milk/half and half. Pour some of the liquid around the edges of the bowl and some into the middle. Using a fork, gently pull the liquid and flour towards the center. Do this all around the perimeter of the bowl until you have a thick blob of biscuit dough in the middle. There will still be flour around the edges and probably under the biscuit blob, so go ahead and continue pouring the liquid and pulling it toward the middle. Resist the urge to take your fork and mix it in circles!!! You'll overwork the dough and end up with tough topping. Ugh! Once you have a incorporated all the liquid into the flour, let it rest for a few minutes.

Using your fingers drop little blobs of topping on to the pan of cooked peaches. Add as much or as little as you like.


When the pan is covered, sprinkle it with sugar and bake at 425. How long you bake it depends on how big the pan is, but check it after about 20 minutes. Cobbler is amazing served warm with vanilla ice cream but is also awesome for breakfast!


Enjoy and let me know if you liked the recipe!!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Almost Wordless Wednesday: One of These Things is Not Like the Other...

When I discovered mystery tomatoes in my garden I assumed they would probably be the same type. I left one in the flower bed where I found it and transplanted the other one to a big self-watering pot. The tomato in the garden is developing fat round fruit,

while the one in the pot bears a striking resemblance to a roma or plum tomato! I love a happy surprise!

I'd like to order a saute of microscopic carrots, please.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Filling the Void

Something's amiss at the Casa this summer. My garden, an organic pollinator paradise full of native plants, is conspicuously absent the large swallowtails, mourning cloaks, queens, checker spots, viceroys, etc that normally flutter from bloom to bloom. Hummingbirds, bees, skippers, and tiny blue butterflies that move so quickly I can't capture them on film, have been abundant. I had several swallowtail caterpillars in the parsley and carrots earlier in the summer, but nothing in the past month. I haven't even seen any large butterflies around town or at the animal shelter I volunteer for. The shelter is tucked away in the woods, its trails and garden always full of butterflies, including pipevine swallowtails. But this year I haven't seen any.

Where are they? Have you noticed a decrease in the number of large butterflies that have been to your area? Monarchs don't come our way until late summer. At this point, I'm just hoping they show up at all!

Please click on the poll to the right. I tried to increase the font size but wasn't able. Sorry it's so tiny! If you leave a comment, please let me know what state you're in. I 'd like to collect some anecdotal data to take with me to the Botanic Gardens in DC when I present this to the horticulturalists there. When pollinators disappear, something is very wrong!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Not Quite Wordless Wednesday

Take one metal fruit bowl,

add a second metal fruit bowl,

 a coco fiber mat and some potting soil,

  and some heat loving plants, such as portulaca and hens and chicks,

 and you end up with a drought resistant planter!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Welcome to Cheeksylvania!

I once had a neighbor who gardened in a pink dress, its waist cinched and skirt flowing as she carefully tended her small plot. I found her attire both horrifying and fascinating and could not fathom ironing a dress just to garden in it. This memory pops to the surface as I dig through my dresser for my favorite pair of work shorts. The loose, quick drying fabric and deep pockets wick away sweat and help me keep track of my pruners. I slip them on and secure the built-in belt as tightly as I can. I throw on a faded pink t-shirt, dog chewed baseball hat and head out the door. If my former neighbor could see me, she would close the blinds.

Kneeling in the garden, I lean and bend and when no one is looking, wipe my sweaty face with the bottom of my shirt. In and out of my pocket slide the pruners, the belt of my shorts loosening with every drop of their heavy blades. Too big for my frame, my shorts begin to dip and I'm vaguely aware that my underwear are showing. I tug at the waist, half-heartedly tighten the belt, and continue to weed.

Lost in thought, I methodically pull weeds and errant trumpet creeper shoots. The still heat has begun to cool and the sweat along my back is beginning to dry. A slight breeze drifts across my lower spine and around to my stomach and I smile gratefully. I continue to lean forward, ripping the rampaging stems of the trumpet creeper from my agastache and feel the pruners brush against my lower thigh, the pockets almost touching the ground. The slam of the fence gate and teen chatter fill the silence. Suddenly, I hear my daughter shriek and gasp.

"OH MY GAWD!!! Mom, I can see your butt! Those stupid shorts are falling down again!"

The rolling hills of Upper Asster, Cheeksylvania are on full display and I bolt upright, grabbing my shorts as I burst out laughing. I quickly tighten the belt and call out, "Sorry, hon! My shorts are too big. At least now my butt's not sweaty."

I fumble with the shorts but cannot stop laughing. Hiking shorts off the clearance rack: $20. Flashing your daughter while gardening: Priceless!!