Monday, June 29, 2009

A Garden of Memories

Armenian Cucumber next to apple, June 29, 2009, 7:30 a.m.
This morning while watering the garden, I saw something glistening beneath the leaves of the sprawling cucumber vines, which are not trellised. After I was done watering the garden, I went around to the various beds to harvest ripe tomatoes, peppers, okra and herbs. When I got to the cucumber vines and dug below the tangle of vegetation, I pulled up a behemoth Armenian cucumber, which is pictured above (21-inches long and four and a quarter pounds).

That cucumber reminded me of my mother's garden.

Growing up, my mother always had a small, but very productive, vegetable garden in the backyard. At the time, I didn't realize it wasn't a hobby.

There were seven kids in my family and keeping us in groceries on the modest income my father brought home as a warehouse supervisor was a challenge--but one my mother met with grit, determination and compost.

On the kitchen counter next to the sink was a compost bowl, but I don't think that's what she called it. My mother insisted that all scraps from cooking or from our plates (not that there were many of those), should be diverted from the trash and instead go into that bowl. Each morning, she would go to the back of the yard and actually bury these bits in the soil around the plants.

She cultivated a raised bed garden that was less than fifty square feet, but the bounty that came from it was phenomenal. And large. Especially the zucchini. The zucchini that came from my mother's garden were as big as full-term newborn babies. They were often twenty inches long and about six to eight inches in diameter--and heavy. She would cut them into thick disks, dip them into batter and quickly fry them. With salt and pepper, they were delicious. Or she would cut them into chunks and add them to other dishes. To me, that's what a zucchini was supposed to look like.

Imagine my surprise when I began my life as an adult and went to the grocery store the first time and discovered zucchini the size of bread sticks. At first I felt ripped off, but later learned that they are "best" harvested at a more diminutive size than the zucchini of my youth.

I've grown a lot of zucchini since becoming a vegetable gardener, and have usually harvested them when they were "just right." Every now and again I have missed one or two, and they have grown large, but never as large as what came from my mother's garden.

Yet, today's harvest of that amazing cucumber brought me back to my childhood and my mother's garden. While we never had much in the way of material possessions, my mother made certain that we always ate well. And that meant eating from the garden.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Fair Juliet

Juliet tomatoes taken June 27, 2009, 8:00 am
If you want tomatoes that set and bear fruit in Texas' summer heat (at this writing we are expecting yet another triple-digit day), you can hardly go wrong with cherry or grape tomatoes.

In my garden the Juliet (Lycopersicon lycopersicum), which is somewhere in size between a grape and plum tomato, is a real champ. I even put the plant into the ground toward the end of April, which is terribly late for Central Texas, and it is still prolific (as you can see in the picture).

While I like to grow heirloom tomatoes, I also like to keep hybrids like Juliet in the mix, for dependable production. This tomato is not sweet like cherry tomatoes and not as juicy as grape tomatoes. In form, texture and taste, it reminds me more of an Italian plum tomato.

I've been picking them before they are fully ripe, but with a heavy blush, trying to beat the mockingbirds. They ripen nicely on the kitchen counter in a day or two.

They're great as snacks, in salads and salsas.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The New Urban Gardener

Green Costoluto Genovese heirloom tomato
When the economy started to plummet out of control in late 2008, Americans from coast-to-coast hurried to garden centers and home improvement stores where they snapped up vegetable seeds and plants faster than politicians take bribes. Citizens may have lost half their retirement incomes, but doggone it, they would not go hungry if they had any say in the matter.

This past spring, local independent garden retailers like The Natural Gardener, 512-288-6113, and The Great Outdoors, 512-448-2992, saw large spikes in sales of vegetable plants, seeds, bulk soils, compost and miscellaneous gardening accessories over the previous spring’s receipts. The majority of these customers, they discovered, were first time vegetable gardeners.

Carla Crownover says she meets brand new vegetable gardeners daily. Crownover is co-owner of Austin Urban Gardens, 512-619-7966, which installs raised bed vegetable gardens, complete with soil, throughout the metro area and beyond. She and her partner construct the beds with lumber made from recycled plastic and sawdust, and Austin Urban Gardens even sells timber kits for the DIY crowd. Most of her customers, says Crownover, are first time vegetable gardeners who are thoroughly excited over the prospect of growing their own food.

Do these new backyard farmers save money by cultivating food crops? It is certainly possible, especially if they grow things like heirloom tomatoes that sell for between $3.00 and $6.00 a pound at Whole Foods and Central Market. Vegetable growers will definitely save time and fuel costs by harvesting greens, tomatoes, peppers, herbs and more from their gardens instead of spending time on congested roadways and in grocery store checkout lines. If those food plots of theirs are highly productive, these folks will no doubt have fresh, delicious produce to preserve for future use.

At this writing, the economy is supposedly no longer in free fall; there are those who say the worst is over and that things are beginning to look up. Yet, even as the economic outlook improves, don’t expect this new crop of vegetable gardeners to let their rows lie fallow. This dark time in our nation’s history has shined a light on something that none of us knew we missed until we found it—a personal ongoing connection with the food we eat. And that’s something that never loses value.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pasta with Wild Arugula

Pasta with Wild Arugula, White Beans and Walnuts, prepared June 14, 2009
I used the wild arugula (Rucola selvatica ) growing in my garden in a recipe that I made for tonight's dinner.

The smell of the arugula when I picked it was intoxicating, and more intoxicating still was the aroma of the herb when I heated it in the pan with garlic and butter.

I was just cooking for one tonight, so I offer measurements for the solo cook/diner.

Pasta with Wild Arugula White Beans and Walnuts

  • 1 cup Farfalle (bow-tie pasta)
  • 1/2 cup wild arugula (or whatever you have)
  • 1/4 cup cooked white beans (may use canned)
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 Tb. butter or olive oil
  • 1TB. Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
  • Kosher Salt
  • Pepper

  1. Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente.
  2. Drain the water and put pasta back in pan over a low heat.
  3. Add the butter or olive oil and garlic and heat until you can smell the garlic.
  4. Add the wild arugula and cook until wilted.
  5. Add white beans and walnuts and heat through.
  6. Add a grind of pepper.
  7. Plate up and sprinkle with Parmesan, if desired.

This makes a hearty and satisfying serving for one.

Watering by Hand

New baby cantaloupe spotted on June 14, 2009
I'm not going to lie to you--it always feels like a huge chore to get up in the mornings to water the garden, especially when soaker hoses are not that expensive and would save me a lot of time and fire ant bites.

My soaker hose and drip system gardening pals think I am behind the times, and I wonder about that myself. But the moment I open the garage door to go outside, and feel the cool morning air on my skin, I forget about the "inconvenience" because morning is like that.

I love that I get to witness the magic of the garden. Today, I caught sight of my first baby cantaloupe. It was out in the open, minding its own business, looking as cute as could be. Of course I immediately began to worry--as any new mother would--about whether I could give it what it needed and protect it from harm. I'll do my best.

Bed of wild arugula in my garden, June 14, 2009
It seems I am on the same morning schedule as the bees. At first I would only see one or two, but since my wild arugula started to bloom with a mutitude of delicate yellow flowers, I see many more. I do my best to avoid wetting the flowers, as not to "dampen" the important work of these hard-working bees.

I harvested some of the leaves of the arugula plant--and the smell was intoxicating--and will use them in a dish I plan to make for dinner tonight: pasta, white beans wild arugula and walnuts.

The light in the morning is welcome; it is soft and casts gentle shadows. I feel at peace in the morning, with the sound of birds, wind, and running water. Watering my garden by hand in the early morning is easy and quiet and not something I plan to give up any time soon.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Hirsute Roots

carrots from jek in the box's photostream on flickr
Coarse and hairy with a woody core is an apt description of one of my exes. Interestingly, it also describes carrots that have spent their formative days in soil with too much nitrogen in it.

You'll notice the carrots in the photo have small-ish hairs on them, meaning the soil from whence they came was relatively well-balanced. Now, if you really want to see carrots gone wild, check out these hirsute roots.

Would you want to eat a carrot that looks like it's wearing a moth-eaten fur coat? Neither would I. Even when you peel away the pelt, you still have to deal with the unpleasant corky texture of the vegetable. No amount of cooking will save it--unless it is being cooked in a compost pile.

Proper growing conditions and nutrition will prevent your carrots from getting all hairy and forked up (poor nutrition also causes roots to fork and do other odd things).

Carrots grow best in cooler temperatures (55 to 70-degrees Fahrenheit), in deep, loose, well-draining, and lightly alkaline soil; seeds should be planted 1/4-inch deep. They like more water than you might think, and take it personally if you're stingy with the wet stuff.

Give them a fertilizer that has twice as much phosphorous and potassium as it does nitrogen, such as a 5-10-10. Give them a dose of fertilizer at the time of seeding, and again when the tops are about three to four inches tall. And start harvesting when they are about the width of your finger--of course that will vary with hand size, so use your best judgement.

If all goes well, you will have plenty of carrots to use in your favorite recipes. What? You don't have any favorite carrot recipes? Well,then, here are a few of mine from

Pickled Carrot Sticks
Cumin and Orange Glazed Carrots
Savory Cabbage, Carrot and Apple Salad
Steamed Carrots and Mint

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Although last year's vegetable garden--the first one at this location--was not as productive as I had hoped (there's always a learning curve at a new place, no matter how much experience you have), I remember feeling pleased that I had not had any pest problems of note.

I was aware, though, from listening to callers to John Dromgoole's gardening show on KLBJ-AM in Austin, that grasshoppers had been decimating other Central Texas vegetable gardens. I also remember feeling more than a little smug about my good fortune.

This morning as I was watering my garden, a chill ran through my body as I saw a grasshopper on one of my tomato plants. And not a little one. This was a creature big enough for Mothra to wrangle with.

And this grasshopper wasn't alone.

Everywhere I looked I saw grasshoppers in all stages of development. And now I am beginning to think that the tomato damage that I had attributed to the mockingbirds, may, in fact, be the work of these horrifying little beasties.

Okay, no more sumgness. Now I have to find a control for these critters before they get out of hand.

Any suggestions?

Compost Happens

Beet Harvest a la Horse Manure
Shortly after moving to Austin, Texas, in the 80s, I rented a garden plot from Sunshine Community Gardens with my friend Kathleen. After we became a familiar sight, long-time gardeners figured we were worthy of knowing some of their secrets. The older gardeners spoke with reverence and wonder about the miracle of manure in the compost heap. Many swore by cow manure, while others glorified horse manure.

We wanted our compost to know the glory of horse manure.

Parimutuel wagering had recently won approval from the state legislature, so we didn't have to look far before locating Manor Downs, a horse race track east of Austin in the town of Manor, where we would get our racehorse reserve.

We called the track ahead of time and told them we wanted to collect horse manure for our garden, and asked if that would be okay. There was a long pause on the other end of the line until an incredulous voice, with a thick Texas accent, asked: "Y'all wanna dyu whut?!" While the gentlman may have thought us not quite right in the head, I suppose he figured we were probably harmless, and agreed to our request.
We got to the track after work one afternoon, and since I wasn't interested in getting such earthy materials on my office attire, I brought a t-shirt, sweatpants and garden clogs to change into.

A group of cowboy hat wearing gentlemen who were gathered near the front of the stables pointed us in the direction of the manure mountains around back. I drove behind the stables, parked the car, and began to change clothes. Kathleen had the foresight to change before making the trek.

I pulled a cream colored, silk blouse over my head and with arms extended high into the air—leaving little to the imagination—I caught sight of one of the men rounding the corner of the stables. He stopped in his tracks and dust swirled around his boots.

I'm certain I heard him gasp for breath, not sure what kind of ungodly act he was witnessing. A young woman disrobing in front of a huge pile of steaming horse manure was not a thing one saw every day in Manor.

I finished changing clothes in the cramped space of my Ford Escort. By the time I slipped on my clogs, the remaining cowboy hat wearing men had gathered near their pardoner. These half-dozen gents sat on the fence, sipped adult beverages, and watched the strange young women shovel manure into large black plastic leaf bags.

We made the mistake of filling the bags too full, which meant both of us had to work together to get the heavy, unruly bags of pony poop into the trunk. One of the bags caught on the trunk latch, and manure spilled from the ragged wound inside the trunk and onto our feet. The cowboy hat wearing gentlemen hooted and hollered, but none offered assistance.

We finally managed to get about a half dozen bags of horse manure squeezed into my vehicle. The back end of the car hovered dangerously close to the ground. Kathleen and I were covered head to toe with manure dust, straw splinters and flies. We were proud of our accomplishments but disgusted by our appearance and smell.

We could hardly wait to get the booty back to the garden. We divided the manure amongst our gardening friends and added a goodly portion to our compost. That fall we had an exceptional garden and abundant harvest thanks to the miracle of manure. I was reminded of that miracle for several years thereafter, as I never completely got the smell of horse manure out of my car.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Slow Growing

Things are heating up outside; the night temperatures are in the upper 60s to 70s and the daytime temperatures are in the high 80s and 90s. I hoped I was hallucinating when last night KVUE-TV meteorologist, Mark Murray, suggested the possibility of triple-digit temperatures in the next couple of weeks. Is he trying to hurt me?

Anyway, you know what high daytime and nighttime temperatures mean for tomato plants, don't you? Your plants may bloom, but they won't get fruit set.

As easy as tomatoes are to grow, they do get persnickety about temperatures, but then, so do I. Heck, when the temperature gets above 80, screw it--I am not going to exert myself, either. End of story.

There are large-fruited varieties that are supposed set fruit when the heat is on, such as "Heatwave" and "Sunmaster," but even they aren't always reliable. I have found that if you want tomatoes all summer long, and if size really doesn't matter (whatever gets you through the night), then be sure to plant at least one cherry tomato in the garden, as they are reliable producers in hot weather. I had a yellow pear last year that was crazy with tomatoes well into fall.

Start new plants for fall by taking cuttings from your current crop of healthy plants and rooting them in a potting medium that drains well. Come late July put them into the garden with a little extra shade from the sun, and get ready for a fall crop.

Simple Tomato Salad

Tomato salad is a classic, and quite an easy and simple dish to prepare. I offer no measurements because I never measure. I will next time. But for today...


  • Tomatoes

  • Oregano

  • Basil

  • Olive Oil

  • Balsamic Vinegar

  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • Salt and pepper to taste

If you are using the large-fruited tomatoes, give them a large dice. If you are using cherry tomatoes just cut them in half. Place tomatoes into a bowl.

Tear leaves of basil and oregano, add to bowl.

In a separate bowl make the vinaigrette by whisking together enough olive oil, balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, salt and pepper to coat but not drown the amount of tomatoes you're using.

Pour half of the vinaigrette over the tomatoes, basil and mint, and coat thoroughly. Add more if necessary. If you have any remaining, save it for next time.

Serves: Depends on how many tomatoes you decide to use.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Tantric Tomatoes

When was the last time you devoured a large, succulent, vine-ripened tomato whole, allowing its luscious, sweet and earthy juices to dance on your tongue, or to run between your fingers and down your hands and arms, unselfconsciously permitting bits of its seed-imbued gelatinous pulp to cling to the corners of your mouth and slowly slither down your chin and onto the front of your shirt where it collected in a viscous pool of pale red?

If you're buying tomatoes from the grocery store, the answer to that long, drawn-out, and oddly arousing question is: probably never.

Even if you're not laying down your hard-earned cash for the pink and crunchy "tube tomatoes" at four to a pack covered in plastic wrap, most store-bought tomatoes still have as much flavor as a bag of crap. No, wait. Crap has more flavor.

Farmer's markets are everywhere these days, making it easier than ever for you--the consumer--to buy a wide variety of delicious vine-ripened tomatoes in a rainbow of colors.

And even better than a farmer's market tomato is one that you have grown yourself. Tomatoes are easier to grow than you might imagine, and will reward you with tangy, juicy, sweet and savory fruits to eat raw, or to use in your favorite recipes. Oh, and anyone to whom you serve a dish featuring your tomatoes will become your slave. THAT'S the power of a homegrown tomato.

If you are a fan of the pomme d’amour (love apple, so named for its alleged properties as an aphrodisiac—oh la la), then you ought to grow them—at least once—so you will know firsthand the joy of an honest, fresh, ripe tomato.

Be warned—once you cultivate, harvest and consume tomatoes you have grown yourself, you’ll have the bug (and we don’t mean hornworms…well, maybe...but we’ll deal with that later).