Category Archives: gardening

Autumn on our balcony

I cannot yet bring myself to embrace Autumn like I once did. Here in Sydney, the only signs of the changing seasons are bursts of torrential rain, moonlight on the drive home, and a sickly browning of the deciduous trees in place of the usual coppers, auburns, golds.  But Sydney does have one distinct advantage over the Northeastern United States when it comes to Autumn: the garden is still green, still abundant.

Without the threat of impending frost, we plant dwarf green peas and drape our late tomatoes over the balcony edge. Once plucked of green caterpillars disguised as stems, the fruit begins to warm in color, too late perhaps for the taste of summer’s first tomato.  But that’s the price we pay for waiting until February to plant this year’s crop (February–once the time for picking seeds out for the coming year, now a time for greenery, and the hottest nights you could ever possibly envision).

It’s been a tardy summer, filled with other things. But here, finally, we managed to grow more than we thought we could in tiny pots, full of store-bought soil.  We have discovered that most things will grow in closer proximity than the seed packets claim, and while the results are occasionally cartoonish, like our French Breakfast radishes below will attest, they are still finer than their store-bought cousins.

Thinned out greens (young radish, kale, pea shoots, arugula, cilantro) make for memorable salads, accompanied only by good olive oil, a splash of balsamic, pepper, a dash of salt. And now that our sourdough starter is alive again (our newest pet), perhaps some homemade sourdough bread is in our future. Autumn is, after all, the start of baking season.

Time to go buy some flour.

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I don’t like Mondays

Because I have to leave the garden, of course.  I’ll keep this short, as it should be when it’s late Sunday night and I have only just finished all the things I wanted to do today. Go check out the garden!

So far, we’ve had good luck with purple pole beans, spring onions (so sweet and delicious I don’t mind eating them raw), sweet nantes carrots, arugula, and lettuce. We did manage to get some dwarf peas (I can’t remember the exact variety) and cranberry beans out of the garden as well, though they were nowhere near as prolific as the purple ones.  I’m guessing purple pole beans are more resistant than the cranberry beans and peas to whatever pests we seem to have in abundance, but have yet to test my hypothesis.

And that’s just the early, cold-loving stuff.  It looks like we’ll have good luck with four different kinds of tomatoes (reisentraube, jaune flamme, red/pink brandywine).  The fifth, the Kellogg’s breakfast variety, was not a fan of all the rain we had earlier and has acquired a nasty case of blight.  I clipped off a bunch of yellow splotchy leaves this weekend on the one plant we stuck in the ground, and gave everything a spray of copper and sesame seed oil to keep aphids from spreading the blight and whatever other nasty fungal diseases wet weather inevitably brings.  This may or may not be related to the fact that it’s not fruiting — all I know is it’s definitely not the strongest variety of the bunch. It’s a beautiful vine, though.

Soon we should also have squash, melons, and ground cherries. Peppers … well, we’ll wait and see.  It always takes them ages to get started up here, because peppers like the cold about as much as I do.  And I’m pretty sure we stunted them somehow… One day, when we can afford heat (or live somewhere a little more pleasant, weather-wise), we might be able to grow peppers. But right now, getting the seeds going on schedule is just not worth an extra hundred gallons of oil.

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DIY terra cotta watering system

This state has no shortage of water.  We can waste it as we please, without worrying about drought warnings, crop failures, or growing tired of countless images of cracked, parched earth on the TV screen.  This doesn’t mean we should.  Water is one of those things that you quickly learn to appreciate if you don’t have enough of it.  I know I hate wasting water after spending all those years in the San Joaquin Valley, where droughts are pretty much the norm.

Sometimes, I think the world would change almost instantly if those without water shortages were forced to live with drought for a few months. Just enough to realize that water is a limited natural resource, just like oil.  Unlike oil, it’s a resource we can’t survive without.

So, what does this have to do with the photos I’ve posted today? Well, I thought I’d share a sort of primitive drip irrigation method I stumbled across recently, which makes use of buried terra cotta vessels called ollas.  There’s an excellent post here on how this method works.  It’s designed for dry climates, but we decided to install them this summer to regulate our water use a little more, and to make life easier when we went out of town.  Essentially, we’re taking advantage of the permeable properties of unglazed terra cotta to distribute water to your garden slowly and efficiently, minimizing water loss from evaporation.  And yes, this is a new experiment this year — I’ll be reporting back on how well all of this works.  For now, here’s a little tutorial on how I made them, so you can have a shot at this yourself:

1. Find unglazed terra cotta pots and saucers (or just use 2 pots of the same size — I’ll get to that in a bit).  We chose 6″ versions from Home Depot, which cost $1.50 each.  You will also need sandpaper and a waterproof sealant.  The 100% silicon sealant for doors and windows (which you can find in the paint section of Home Depot or any major hardware store) works quite well.

2. Sand the lips of the pots and saucers.  The pots and saucers in the background of the shot above are shown to illustrate how we’re going to glue the olla together; sanding will help the pot and saucer edges match up.  Make sure to clean off the surfaces you sand with a bit of water and let sit for an hour or two to dry before you continue.

3. Line the lip of the pot with silicon sealant (lots of it).  You want to make sure there are no gaps in between the pot and the saucer — otherwise you’ll have a water leak, which will defeat the whole purpose of this exercise.  Let this dry overnight, and check again for any gaps.  You might even want to test these for leaks before you put them in the ground.

If you’re using two pots instead of a pot and saucer to make your ollas, you’ll have to seal up one of the drainage holes as well.  I made one of these as a test, and just stuffed the whole with plastic wrap and then covered everything in silicon sealant.  This leaked.  More silicon fixed the problem, but you’ll definitely want to test this style of olla for leaks, because it’s difficult to visually confirm that you have a good seal on this sort of opening.

4. Bury the ollas in the garden so the saucer part and most of the pot is underground. You’ll basically bury these deep enough so just the open drainage hole is sticking up out of the ground.  This is so you can fill the ollas up periodically.  The first picture on this post should give you a good idea of how to position your olla.  Then, just fill them up, and cover the whole with a rock or something, so you don’t create a nice little mosquito nest in your garden. (As an aside, check out our pea shoots!  We installed the olla this week, and had planted these a while ago. I can’t wait until they start flowering…)

Simple enough, right?  As you might guess, the size and thickness of your olla will determine how the water is distributed, so you may need bigger pots, etc, but for a small vegetable garden like ours (a 10″x4″ plot), I think these should be adequate. If you have planters, you can buy small versions of this (kind of like this) (or make some with little pots, if you can find them?).  We tried a version of these plant nannys last year that used plastic 2 liter bottles as the water reservoir, and had trouble getting a good seal between the bottle and the terra cotta input in the garden bed, but they may be worth trying if you have a container garden.

I suppose now we’ll see how long I can put off watering the garden with these in place.  Though with all the rain we’ve had lately, I don’t think we’ll have anything to worry about any time soon.

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A little rant

Why does this remind me of something?

For the record, our garden takes us maybe an hour a week, if that, despite the fact that we have to lug jug after jug of water from the basement of our building to water it.  We don’t need chemicals — we just plant a lot of different varieties and seed more than we can actually grow.  Then we weed out the weaklings and wash our produce carefully.  That’s pretty much it. It’s not foolproof — we’ve learned what we can and cannot grow easily over the past year or so — but it seems to work pretty well for us, despite night shifts and paper writing and all the usual hectic bits of life.  And you know what? Seeing something you raised from seed thrive is one of the best feelings I can think of.

Granted, it does take a little work to learn how to prep the soil, etc — particularly if you’ve been killing everything off (both good and bad) with chemical fertilizers in the past.  But once you’ve figured that part out, you’re set for life.

Thanks to the Yale Sustainable Food Project newsletter for the link.

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Seedlings!

I’m being a lazy blogger at the moment. But look! We have seedlings!

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Photography, gardening, and a few wedding details

Look! My first semi-pretty picture with the new camera.  I’ve basically just been playing around, taking pictures of anything and everything on all sorts of bizarre and random settings, as it’s been, oh, 10 years or so since I even seriously considered using an SLR of any sort.  And as with any new toy, I have no clue what I’m doing.  I have a manual or two to read yet…  I did at least manage to figure out what RAW format Photoshop will recognize today, so that’s something.  Now for one of my earlier attempts:

Seed packets are kind of hard to photograph. Especially when it’s dark, you have to rely on the flash, and oh, shiny paper really isn’t helping matters.  But we started our seedlings!  Four kinds of tomatoes, some ground cherries (which I’m soooo excited about), peas, carrots, lettuce, some thai hot peppers, thai basil, a couple kinds of scallions (regular and purple) and some pretty flowers.  We sowed kale outside, and are starting to see signs of life from last year’s strawberry plants, so that’s pretty exciting.  We saved the melons, zucchini, and beans for direct seeding, as they were a disaster when we tried to transplant those last year.  I guess beans don’t like to be disturbed… Almost everything we got was from seed saver’s exchange, which has a pretty good selection.  We’ve tried to be a little more careful about choosing varieties this year, in terms of climate and disease hardiness (and flavor, of course), so hopefully we’ll have a good harvest this year.  Especially since we hope to use some of this stuff for the wedding dinner.

Speaking of the wedding, I figured I’d tell you guys a bit about it, as I’ve hinted at it here and there, but haven’t really explained what we’re doing.  See, when James and I got engaged, I guess neither of us had really thought about wedding stuff at all.  We’d considered the marriage part plenty. But the ceremony? Not really.  When we told our family about our engagement, we were a little surprised that suddenly they wanted to know things like dates and locations and all of that … It was slightly overwhelming, to say the least.

We wavered between just going to city hall and having a fun weekend in NYC or something to planning something our families could actually attend.  We ended up choosing the latter option, because it’d be nice for my family to meet James’s, and besides, we sort of wanted to give his family an incentive to come visit (though we still may do the legal bit in city hall… More on that when we have a plan).  We decided to organize a family picnic with a little ceremony attached, at a place nearby where we spend a lot of weekends hiking.  There’s this awesome picnic pavilion in this park overlooking a creek, with a couple of usable fireplaces, two large grills, and a bunch of wooden picnic tables.  It’s even partially enclosed, and has a decent roof, so if it rains, we’ll still be ok.  Decoration-wise, we’re keeping it simple.  Candles in jars we’ve collected over this year, some fabric flowers I’m making, some pretty cloth, and table paper.  Nothing too fancy.  And we’ll set out paper and crayons / pencils for people to draw with, which will go in a scrapbook along with pictures after the wedding.

As for the food, well, we’re doing a simple picnic lunch buffet, which we’re making ourselves.  Roast chickens, which we can reheat on the grill, a few different kinds of salads, savory vegetable tarts (sage / onion and mushroom, maybe?), some homemade bread and cheeses, fruit, and maybe jam tarts and pavlova.  For drinks, we’ll do cider (hard and soft), and coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Serving yummy food is pretty important to us, so that’s the primary thing we’re trying to keep in mind in planning the menu.  I think we’ll start testing recipes soon, so more on that later.

Activity-wise, we’ll probably have lawn games out for people to play, set up a s’mores making stand by the fire places, and have a makeshift photobooth (backdrop + camera on tripod).  That and maybe an expedition to the castle lookout (along an easy trail) should be good. Maybe a treasure hunt? I am such a little kid when it comes to party games. Though to paraphrase a comment from a friend, kindergarten + alcohol = magic.  How could it not be?

Ok, now that I have put you all to sleep, I think I’ll leave it at that.  I suppose there will be details about dresses, wedding parties, and groom style, and that sort of thing later on, though maybe I’ll keep you in suspense about all of those details. I will say that my dress is not white, there’s a high chance we’ll both end up wearing Keens to the ceremony, and James may or may not show up in shorts.  It is, after all, just a picnic.

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More reasons to start a garden

Food porn opportunities are everywhere

Food porn opportunities are everywhere

Check out the gorgeous beans, tomatoes, and squash. Oh, the squash … We made some tonight, and it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Not grainy, like you get sometimes with acorn or kabocha squash that’s been sitting in your grocery store for something like an eternity, but smooth and supple, with a sweetness that makes dessert entirely unnecessary. Oh, and the flowering thai basil just makes me excited. But yah, that’s enough fawning over produce for one night.  I’ve got places to be. Tomorrow morning, in fact. I’m off to California, to visit a friend, say hello to some family, and go to a conference. And I have serious food plans. A tasting menu at Melisse in LA, lunch at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, and more excursions to the Cheese Board in Berkeley, because why wouldn’t I go if the conference is in Oakland? I want more bread …. Oh, and sourdough is calling my name.

squash warts

squash warts

But that’s tomorrow. For now, I want to leave you with one bizarre and sort of cool observation: those funny bumps you see sometimes on squash? That’s where it rests on the ground. It makes its own pillow!  And two, you can make an awesome meal from a random assortment of veggies, a few spices, tortillas, and cheese.  If the veggies are good, you really don’t even need the cheese.

Funky delicious potato

Funky delicious potato

So, I want to give you some ideas for an easy vegetarian meal. This isn’t really a recipe — just the best easy meal you could have on a Friday night.  You can use any veggies that take your fancy, as long as they’ll roast well.

My meal

My meal

We started with the garden produce we had on hand — a squash, bush beans, and a few peppers. We added in one very funky looking (but delicious) farmer’s market potato, and some cauliflower, button mushrooms, a bit of garlic (unpeeled), and rainbow carrots from the store.  We cut the squash into quarters, after scooping out the seeds, cut all the remaining veggies into similarly sized chunks, and pre-heated the oven to 425 degrees F.  After tossing everything except the potatoes in olive oil, salt, pepper, a tablespoon of freshly ground coriander seed, and a smaller portion of ground cumin (maybe < 1 t.), we placed everything in baking tins and threw it in the oven. For the potatoes, we tossed them in salt, pepper, olive oil, and spanish paprika. When everything was fork tender (maybe 1 hour later — this is a 1 dish go-about-your-business sort of dinner), we heated up a bit of cheddar cheese on some store-bought tortillas (habanero lime, from Trader Joe’s), and made our own fajitas.

The boys dinner

The boy's dinner

We both had the squash on the side, because it was easier. I didn’t feel like peeling it. But you could cut it up and roast it, too, or fork bits of it into your tortilla. You could use butternut squash, or acorn squash as a substitute, and it’d work perfectly.

This was a great first vegetarian night. We both got exactly what we wanted in a meal, no meat required. Really, even the cheese wasn’t that necessary — the veggies were tasty enough.  And I am definitely going to be excited about setting up a garden again next spring. Bring on the seed catalogs!

I’m not done yet …

James suggested I tell you what we grew this year, so here’s a list, with a few comments:

  • Pink brandywines – awesome heirloom tomatoes, and much cheaper to grow than to buy. They’re a bit finicky if you live in a rainy environment, but how indulgent is brandywine tomato sauce? You will be making a lot of it from the tomatoes bugs started tasting first.
  • Sungold tomatoes – these are orange cherry tomatoes. They’re a hybrid, a heavy producer, and are DELICIOUS.  Slow roast them and savor them in everything.
  • Yellow pear tomatoes – these are cute but not as tasty as sungolds, and definitely not as disease resistant. We won’t be growing these again next year.
  • Yellow and purple bush beans, haricots verts. The yellow and purple bush beans are my favorite. They seem to achieve a nicer texture when cooked, and have a nice flavor. The haricots verts really didn’t produce much at all.
  • Swiss chard – Awesome. They’re gorgeous, and they keep throwing up stalks when you cut some off for dinner. They weren’t terribly prolific in our garden, but we had enough to feed us with greens all summer.
  • Sweet nantes carrots – Also awesome. These are small, and really need to be grown in potting soil, because CT has rocks everywhere. They’re sweet and flavorful, and have a cute wrinkly witch finger look about them.
  • Arugula – Yum, but eat it before it gets warm and starts flowering. It gets bitter once it gets leggy.
  • Thai and genovese basil. Both varieties did really well as companion plants for the tomatoes, and gave us some tasty meals. The thai basil is gorgeous — it has lovely purple flowers, and a slightly exotic taste (gee, you think?). It’s also hardier than the typical genovese, but is a bit too strong for pesto.
  • A fingerling potato from the Union Square market – Complete failure. It seemed like it was going to work, but it died off, and then there was nothing left in the soil!
  • Sage, marjoram, oregano, cilantro, rosemary. All good herbs to have. We kept these in pots, since they can be brought inside when it starts to get cold.
  • Pea shoots. You can eat these, and they’re easy. They also like cold weather. They’re so cute — they have curly tendrils!
  • Onions, shallots. These hated our rocky soil. I did get the onions to grow a bit, and pickled them when they were still pretty small. Yum.
  • Kale – these are just tiny shoots right now, because we just planted them. They look happy, and are a cold weather crop, so I can’t wait to see how they do.
  • Peppers — I bought a 5 variety mix, and I think we had three different types pop up. I have no idea what kind — some kind of bell pepper, some longer, low-heat pepper, and I think some jalapeños. Yum.

Ok, that’s all I can remember so far. My flight leaves early, so I’m off to sleep. I’ll be back before Halloween, with an awesome lime cookie recipe, and some reports on Zuni Cafe and Melisse. See you then!

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