Grow Local: How Does Your Garden Grow? — Part Trois

August 1, 2014 § 1 Comment

Time for the monthly update on my little back yard garden! As we’re coming into August, nightshades are just about ready for harvest, the sage has taken over the herb box, and I have a garden thief!

Nightshades keep on growin'

Nightshades keep on growin’

First up: that garden thief. Or maybe I should say garden thieves. It all started with chewed-up chives a few weeks ago, and was followed by half-eaten tomatoes, and more recently: brand-new baby lettuce plants chewed down to the roots!

Chewed lettuce plants

These were baby lettuce plants. Someone’s been snacking in my garden!

After mentioning the chive thievery during my recent chat with Webb Ranch farmer Deano Lovecchio, I learned that cats like chives — and it’s likely that one of my neighbors’ cats was probably helping itself to my garden. (And I love cats, but DAMN!)

As for the tomatoes and lettuce, I suspect the squirrels. More than once I was excited to pick a pretty, just-ripe tomato from the bush, only to find that, while the front was gorgeous, the back half was gone. So disappointing! What this all means is that between now and next month’s update, I will be getting a pellet gun learning how to install a fence around my garden. (Good thing I’m a DIY kinda girl!) Stay tuned… In the meantime, here’s the rest of the update.

Purple Jalapeños Peppers
This plant has been the star of my garden since Day 1; it’s been flowering regularly, and the peppers are sturdy and ripening on schedule.

Purple jalapenos

Love my purple jalapenos!

If you read the post on Spicy Cucumber Margaritas, then you know that these peppers turn red when mature. The mature peppers have a milder jalapeno heat, combined with a touch of red bell-pepper sweetness. To date I’ve only harvested two mature peppers, which I used to make pepper-infused tequila last month for said margaritas. If you’re looking to upgrade your margarita or tequila-drinking experience, give the recipe a try!

Cut peppers inside the tequila bottle

Cut peppers inside the tequila bottle

Just this week, half a dozen peppers on the lower half of the plant are starting to change color from black-purple to dark scarlet-red. Because the color is so dark, even through half of the transition, it’s hard to tell that the peppers are maturing until there’s a sudden pop of red amongst the green and purple.

Green Jalapeños
Last month I wrote that “the regular green jalapeños haven’t done as well” and “[h]opefully I’ll be able to report a bounty of green jalapeños in a few weeks.” Well, guess what? Yes, I can! During the past four weeks, this plant has gone gangbusters with fruit!

Green jalapenos!

Green jalapenos!

A major flowering happened at the beginning of July, and yet lots of blossoms dropped, so I wasn’t sure I’d end up with more than a couple of peppers this summer. My, how things have changed. The plant is just full of big, beautiful peppers, that range from 3 – 4 inches long. While the peppers aren’t quite ready for harvest yet, I see a lot of salsas (and maybe another bottle of pepper-infused tequila) in my future!

Ancho Chile Peppers
My other rock star pepper plant! These babies  are large (6 – 8 inches long), shiny green, and bee-yoo-tee-ful! As they’ve matured, they’ve grown longer, and the color has gone from a darker to a lighter green.

Large ancho chiles

Hellooooo, chile rellenos!

While many of the blossoms from the last flowering didn’t stick around, the peppers that were already on the plant are fast reaching maturity. I think our random weather — which has ranged from sunny, 90+-degrees to cloudy, 70-something days has delayed the maturity date.

The first two peppers, which started growing back in May, reached maturity, and then started to turn red before I could harvest them. I decided to go ahead and let them turn completely red by leaving them on a sunny windowsill. Eh, I have a few to spare, so let’s see what happens! Yep, I’m “making” dried ancho chiles!

Mature ancho chiles drying in the sun

Mature ancho chiles drying in the sun

I could string them up, but they get the most sun right on the windowsill. I turn them daily so that the drying process is pretty even.

Sweet Red Peppers
I don’t know what to make the red bell pepper plant. While it really started to flower and produce fruit once I ran a couple of drip lines to it during the first week of July, the growth has been minimal in the past month. In fact, I’m not sure it’s grown at all — unlike the hotter pepper plants, which are about four feet tall. The fruit on this plant is starting to ripen — especially the first (and largest pepper) — but some of the others are looking a bit anemic.

One pepper starting to mature

One pepper starting to mature

I suspect that this plant needs consistent hot and sunny weather to thrive. With the long maturity time (90 days or so), it looks like a small harvest this year.

Indigo Apple Tomatoes
Despite the loss of my first few ripe tomatoes to the local wildlife (ugh, suburban squirrels… so spoiled!), the plant is doing well. I think.

Indigo Apple tomatoes

Indigo Apple tomatoes

Some of the leaves are yellowing and drying out, which probably means that I need to adjust the watering plan, but the plant continues to flower and new baby tomatoes are popping up every day. Not only do the ripe tomatoes look cool, but they are delish, by the way — sweet with lots of flavor and low acidity. What I love is that the indigo/purple top doesn’t change color — just the lower half of the fruit, which does turn red when ripe.

Notice the star-shaped imprint from the stem

Notice the star-shaped imprint from the stem and the purple to red coloring

Lettuces
Lettuces have turned out to be more challenging that I anticipated, mostly due to our weather. The Black-Seeded Simpson went the way of the Little Gems, bolting just a couple of weeks after I planted them. Sure, lettuces are easy to grow and don’t require much more than sun, water, and good soil, but randomly throw in a week or two of 90+-degree temperatures, and they will throw up a stalk and get all bitter in protest!

Fortunately, with 30 – 40 days to maturity, and a long growing season, I can keep trying! This month’s attempt is “Cardinale,” a sweet, mild lettuce that has medium green leaves with a tinge of red.

Baby 'Cardinale' lettuce plant

Baby ‘Cardinale’ lettuce plant, with Lettuce Manoa in the background

Apparently it’s popular with cats… or squirrels… or cats and squirrels. (Again, arrgghhh!) The Lettuce Manoa, which I planted last month, has gotten a little crispy around the edges, but is fighting the good fight, so we’ll see how it’s doing next month.

Herbs
Not much has changed with the herbs in the past four weeks. They’re continuing to grow, seemingly unaffected by the random weather changes. I’m overdue to harvest and start preserving them for the cooler months, although I’m trying to keep the mint population under control by making mojitos regularly. It’s a tough job, but I’m commited to reducing food waste ;-).

Mojitos, anyone?!

Mojitos, anyone?! Or maybe I should say “Mojitos for everyone!”

Sage is the big winner in the herb box this month, which is to say that I have a crapload of sage  — more than I know what to do with at this point. If you have ideas for preserving sage or recipes or, well, anything, please share!

So. Much. Sage.

So. Much. Sage.

Last but not least, the residents of the northeast corner of my yard are a lot happier since I installed drip lines there. Lemon verbena and lavender, which I’ve been harvesting for flavored simple syrups and my baby lime bush are all thriving! I don’t expect to see any limes until next year, but you never know.

Lemon verbena, lavender, and lime

Lemon verbena, lavender, and lime

That’s what I’ve got growing! What’s happening in your garden?

Grow Local: In Which I Walk the Talk

May 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

650Food is six months old today! If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve been writing about food — eating, cooking, buying, and growing — in the 650, aka San Francisco’s peninsula neighborhoods. A few weeks ago I wrote, admittedly with a smidge of garden envy, about neighborhood gardens. Well, today my garden envy is gone…over…pfffffttt! While I’ve been encouraging people to “grow local” here (and on Twitter, if you follow me there), I want to tell you that I’m walking the talk. For the first time in many years, I’ve planted a small, edible garden. Hell yeah, I’m excited — I’m growing food! Well, right now they’re just baby plants, but by mid-summer, if all goes well, I’ll have food.Left to right: Little Gem lettuce, Burgundy Red Mix lettuce, purple jalapeno

There’s a lot to be said for growing your own food — reconnecting with the outdoors, teaching kids about where food comes from, eating simple, fresh meals — just to name a few reasons. You don’t have to plant an entire farm’s worth of produce, but you can easily get a small kitchen garden going to supplement what you buy weekly at the market. Wondering where to start? Think about the herbs, fruits, and vegetables that you love to eat or can’t find on a regular basis. For me, it started with peppermint and lemon verbena.

While this is not my first edible garden, I’m also not a gardening expert by any means. I definitely did some researching and organizing before I got started. First, I had to figure out where the “full sun” areas are in my yard — those spots that get 6-8 hours of direct sun. Most edibles love full sun — and it’s definitely necessary for fruit, which needs that light and heat to fully develop its sugars. Turns out I don’t have many full-sun spots in my yard, so that limited the garden size and location, right off the bat. (Good thing, too. Because once I got to the nursery to start buying plants, I wanted everything.)

Next I had to decide what I really wanted to grow. Sweet herbs — lavender, lemon verbena, and mint — were at the top of my list. After that I started thinking savory — sage (mmmm, fried sage leaves!) — and spicy, which meant peppers! I love summer salad greens, so if there was room, maybe I would give those a go. And finally, if I could squeeze out one more spot, I wanted just one tomato plant. My neighbor with the tomatoes was already making deals as soon as I mentioned my plans: he’d happily trade his tomatoes and basil for my peppers and mint.

Having picked my spot, I decided that a combination of pots and raised beds would take less time to set up and give me some flexibility in placing what I want to grow. I’m not exactly what you’d call “handy,” so getting pre-made raised beds sounded like a lot more fun than making beds. Fortunately Home Depot had these cedar boxes that just slide together (no tools involved, yay!).

Raised garden boxes

Cedar boxes 16″ x 16″ x 4″

I’d already decided that I wanted my garden to include as many organic components as possible, so here’s where the research really kicked in. I’d waited too long to start plants from seed, so that meant finding a reliable source of quality organic plant starts (baby plants). While the big-box home improvement stores stock a small selection of certified organic plants, you’ll do better to go to a local, independently owned nursery. Typically you’ll find better quality plants and better customer service. (Not to dis the big stores, but sometimes the folks working the garden section don’t know much about gardening. Or they usually work in lumber, or electrical, or plumbing. You get the idea.) A nursery can provide advice on planting, fertilizing, and managing your garden. Two mid-peninsula nurseries that stock organic plants: Wegman’s Nursery in Redwood City and Common Ground in Palo Alto.

Pots and plants at Wegmans Nursery

The first load of pots and plants

Finally, I had to source the soil and fertilizer. This was a tough one, and probably where I spent most of my research time and energy. The large home-improvement stores and small nurseries carry “organic” soil, but you have to read the labels to see what’s really in it. The challenge was finding a brand of organic soil that didn’t contain chicken manure, blood meal, or GMO’s. Unfortunately, most of the companies that use these components can’t or won’t disclose their source, so you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. For example, is the chicken poop in your soil happy, free-range chicken poop, or over-crowded, full-of-antibiotics, just-ate-the-dead-guy-next-to-me chicken poop? I mean, if I’m growing food in it, I want to know.

I ended up choosing Dr. Earth brand, which you can get from Orchard Supply. Dr. Earth is all about no GMO’s, chicken manure, or sewage sludge (who knew that was even an option in soil mixes??). Keeping it in the family, I also went with the Dr. Earth fertilizers.

Dr. Earth Pot o'Gold soil and fertilizers

Dr. Earth Pot o’Gold soil and fertilizers

So, I had my raised beds, pots, plants, soil, and fertilizer. All I had to do was wait for a not-too-hot, not-too-cold, not-too-windy day, and I could put it all together. Fortunately Mother Nature cooperated this past weekend, and I was finally able to plant everything (well, almost). Ta-dah! The big reveal…

Full view of containers and raised beds

From bottom to top: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce, Burgundy Red Mix lettuce, purple jalapeno, Indigo Apple tomato, jalapeno, Ancho chili

And a few closeups…

Left to right: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce

Left to right: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce

Little Gem and Red Burgundy Mix lettuces

Little Gem and Red Burgundy Mix lettuces

Purple jalapeno

Purple jalapeno — just because, well, it’s a purple jalapeno!

Lavender and lemon verbena ended up in pots on the other side of the yard, where they’ll also benefit from full sun.

Lemon verbena

Lemon verbena

Finally, yes, with the lime shortage in mind, I picked up a 5-gallon lime bush (no idea how I’m going to plant this thing). It will go in the sunniest corner of the yard, near the lemon tree.

Baby lime bush next to the lemon tree

Baby lime bush next to the lemon tree

There you have it: my attempt at a kitchen garden! I’ll try to post updates throughout the season, assuming the squirrels and raccoons behave themselves and stay the f— out. In the meantime, I’m pretty excited about the possibilities of what I might harvest later this summer!

Need help figuring out how to plant an edible garden? Check out this article from Houzz on growing edibles in 16 square feet. My go-to source for figuring out what plants will and won’t thrive in my area is the Sunset Western Garden Guide. (I received my first copy as a gift 20 years ago, and just finally bought the updated version this year.) For more garden and landscaping ideas and growing info specific to the Bay Area, Sunset.com is a helpful resource.

Have you planted a garden? What are you growing this year?

Inspired: Creating a Kitchen Garden

April 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

You know what I love about spring in the 650? Everything! The days are deliciously warm, and the sun sets late enough in the evening that you can have dinner outside. Spring color brightens every yard on my street, thanks to blooming trees, rose bushes, and freshly planted annuals. The luscious perfume of citrus blossoms fills my neighborhood, especially at night. It’s an indulgence just to sit in my backyard in the evening and enjoy that scent.

Citrus trees, full of blossoms, give off a heady scent all spring

Orange trees, full of blossoms in the spring

Spring gives me another chance to complete (hell, start) those “getaroundtoit” projects at home. It’s the time of year when I really start feeding my house-porn habit with stacks of design magazines and fantasizing about re-creating my backyard so that I can host fabulous al fresco dinners. (Hey, a girl can dream!) And in my fantasy backyard I would have a thriving kitchen garden, complete with herbs, vegetables, berries, and an assortment of fruit trees (again with the dreaming).

I have to admit that I’m having garden envy. I know — as if I don’t have enough fabulous, fresh fruits and vegetables in my life (some of which actually show up on my doorstep, thanks to my CSA)! Between the plethora of farmers’ markets here on the peninsula and the generosity of my neighbor with over-the-fence tomatoes and in-a-pinch limes, I’m pretty spoiled for locally grown produce. Yet, there’s something very special and satisfying about just slipping out the back door and snipping fresh herbs to finish off a dish, or seeing what you can pull from your own garden to make dinner.

On a recent walk through my neighborhood I noticed that my neighbors are using whatever space is available for creating gardens, including driveways and front yards. How cool is that?!

Driveway garden

Driveway garden

These homeowners are taking advantage of the sunny front yard for their garden.

Creative front yard garden

Creative front yard garden

Check out the artichoke plant in left corner of the yard:

Artichoke plant

Artichoke plant

My next-door-neighbor and his daughter just got the tomato plants in pots along our shared driveway fence last weekend. (He was pretty excited on planting day, and I have to admit, thinking about those summer tomatoes, I am too.) They also planted zucchini, basil, and lemon balsam.

A few months from now, there will be tomatoes here!

A few months from now, there will be tomatoes here!

I’ve had edible gardens off and on over the years, but planting one wasn’t really an option when I was running Gâteau et Ganache. I barely found time for the basics (sleep, exercise, or a meal that consisted of something more than taste-testing bonbons and marshmallows), let alone creating and maintaining a garden.

Being a seasonally focused business meant relying on local farms for the fruits and herbs I used for making bonbons. Sometimes I was able to plan fun field trips to places like Swanton Berry Farm to hand-pick organic blackberries. Other times it meant long, frustrating searches around the Bay Area to find a reliable source of fresh, organic peppermint. (Harder than you’d think, as it turns out. What’s up with that?). At some point I hoped to create a garden that would give me a reliable supply of the fruits and herbs I so loved working with when I was making chocolates.

Now that I’m cooking again and have a bit more time, I’m thinking about taking a step toward “garden-to-table.” Between my neighbors’ creativity in making their own small gardens and the impressive bounty of the farmers’ markets, I’m inspired to carve out a little space for my own garden this year. First on my list are the herbs I love using for sweet dishes: lavender, lemon verbena, and peppermint. They pair with most summer fruits and are perfect for infused syrups, ice creams, and yes, ganaches. Once I get those herbs going, I might add some basil and chives for salads and some jalapeno and poblano peppers, just because. If there’s time to get fancy, I might try some strawberries, or — dare I say it? — tomatoes. Stay tuned.

What’s growing in your yard and your neighborhood this spring?

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