Experimenting with Arugula

This is the first year I’ve ever grown arugula.  Being a salad freak, I’m surprised that I haven’t grown it before.  Then again, I’ve never grown Nasturtiums until this year and I love putting edible flowers in my salad.    But, alas, I bought some arugula seeds and then went to a nearby nursery and saw a small flat of arugula seedlings.  I bought them.  I said to myself that I’d rotate them once the arugula was plucked & harvested, however the more I’m reading up on it, it sounds more like a self-seeder (somewhat like a perennial) which defeats the purpose of rotation.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to grow arugula (and forgot to ask the clerk), but from my veggie book, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith, found that the best ways to grow is sowing seeds directly in the soil 3” deep in Spring as soon as soil is good enough to be worked with.  They didn’t say what to do with a flat of “bunched-up” seeds together, but I’m assuming you can just plant the entire flat directly in soil.  This might be naive of me, but that’s what I did.  We’ll see how it pans out.

This is what the arugula looks like.  I chose the Rocket Arugula.  A spicier and peppier version of the scrumptious leafy green.

And this is how I put it in the soil.  Pretty simple looking, eh?  Well, let’s just wait and see if it turned out okay.  If you know of any other ways I should have done, this let me know!  I’m actually kind of curious how it’ll pan out.

Some things to keep in mind about arugula (some facts about arugula) that you might find interesting:

* There are 3 main types – Astro, Rocket, and Italian Wild Rustic.  Astro has a milder flavor and can be harvested a few days earlier.  Rocket, as mentioned above, has a spicier and peppery taste, and also an early harvest.  Italian Wild Rustic has tender leaves, a spicy flavor and sufficient yields.

* Only about 2-3 weeks after plants germinate, you can harvest the leaves (they’ll be about 2-3 inches in height).

* The flowers are also edible, so gather them up, bunch them up and put them in your salad!  They have an awesome flavor to them!

Okay!  I think that’s about it for arugula for now.  I also planted my other lettuces today.  So exciting!  To think in a month or so I’ll be eating daily fresh grown salads again.  Mmm.

Endive, Red & Green Leaf Lettuce               Cherry Tomato: Pantano Romanesco, Heirloom.


A Springy Thought

I love Sping.   No, wait.  That’s such a clichéd thing to say, isn’t it?  I mean, really; doesn’t everybody love spring?  Don’t we all feel that giddiness rush through our veins on the first sunny, warm day?  I can’t speak for everybody, but I do plead guilty to every so often feeling a surge of nostalgia during my teenage years when spring hits.  I can almost, almost, hear “Hey Macarena!” in the distance, and oh my God is that the mysterious sandy blond headed boy (what was his name?  Josh?) in my 10th grade pottery class moping beneath the Willow tree??  No.  False alarm.  It’s just an abandoned wine barrel.  Honestly; I need to get those aged eyes of mine checked.  Ah, yes.  Spring.  The season that makes the heart aflutter, the birds sing, and delicate petals bloom.

Our back garden is a place I cherish.  We spend so much time back there that our poor front yard gets sadly neglected.  I’m sure our neighbors don’t mind seeing thousands of overgrown weeds intermingling with one another, creating its own ecosystem … right?  Surely foliage from last Autumn’s appearance strewn all around the pebble pathway, housing all sorts of little critters, and dandelions will perhaps become the newest Front Yard Fashion.  I can see it now: HGTV’s latest Curb Appeal could potentially tear down a perfectly manicured front yard and put in “Urban Overgrowth” in its place.  Hmm.  In all seriousness, I plan to tackle this, ahem, eyesore tomorrow.

But back to the back garden!  The place nobody else sees, save for family and friends and our ferocious Gandalf (poor birds, bunnies and snakes … yes, snakes!) cat.  The garden has bloomed into an abundance of color.  Flowers, flowers, and flowers.  Best of all, it’s designed as a Wildlife Habitat where most of every plant helps protect and nourish wildlife.  Berries, foliage, nuts, pollen, nectar to name a few … we love to spy on nearby hummingbirds, squabbling jays and other birds (my avian knowledge is next to null), chipmunks and squirrels, and raccoons.  Considering this back garden is nearly entirely enclosed, it’s pretty impressive to see so much wildlife.  And the bees!  Oh, we do love the bees!

So, yes.  It’s just this time of year where everything outside begins to explode.  Where our childish selves are excused for thoughtless tendencies (examples being frivolous purchases of darling pink frilly tops, and neglected front yards … hey, just blame it on spring fever!)  On top of all the flowers and berries and fruit trees, we have our vegetable garden that we’ve been working on since February (more on that later).  Needless to say, we love the Earth.  So, in honor of Earth Day today, I write this little note of thanks … Thank you, Earth, for being so kind to us.  If only we can always be so kind to you.

Linens ‘N Things…

I’m always so tired of having to cram countless towels, linens (and things) in my incredibly small linen closet.  I have two complaints about this subject: Firstly, why are linen closets so small?  And secondly, why do I have ten times as many pillow cases and sheets as I do beds and pillows?  So, to solve one plight, this is what I did during a Spring Clean: I recycled a few of my linens.  By recycling, I mean making things out of them.

I grabbed a torn and ratty jersey cloth pillow case and ho-hummed for a while.  I squinted, sipped some tea and thought to myself, “I love the cloth, the texture and the softness – but what do I do with it?”  And then after a little while I saw a sailboat painted on it, and a little boys’ shirt.  I don’t know how to sew, but I thought I’d give it a go.

What I did was get out one of my youngest sons’ basic shirts and use that as a “sketch”.  I outlined it with charcoal and made two sizes bigger.  I handstitched it in black to give it somewhat of a “homemade edgy” look – I figured that since I’m not a sewer, if I’m going to make it look “homemade” I’d might as well make it look intentionally imperfect.  I still need to hem the collar somehow (this is where I’ll need some input), but for the time being it turned out better than I imagined.

It turned out kind of cute.  Whimsical in the way of “not perfect … at all” but I was pleased with it.  I put it on my youngest son and I beamed.  I made the baby and the shirt!  It was a satisfactory moment.

With some of the extra linens, I made the usual dishrags and a few homemade hankies.  I’m currently working on a little rag doll for my sons, which has so far only taken me a month.  In due time, in due time…

Harvest Time

Harvest Time
By: Roberta Owenjuly 09 155

Picture this.  Spring comes along and the vegetable seedlings you nursed to maturity are ready to be planted in rich, dark soil.  Spring rolls through and you see the little inch-high seedlings begin to take shape and form into something a little bigger, a little sturdier and a little more like a vegetable than a weed.  It’s amazing, almost miraculous, to see the little lettuces, leeks, carrots, onions or beets battling against spring’s unexpected frosts, winds or heavy rains.

As gardeners, we tend to these little lives with a special love and care.  They grow bigger and heartier through summer’s heat and sun.  And our green thumbs weed around all our hard work.  We nurture them endlessly:

  • Watering when rain is scarce
  • Supplementing with minerals and vitamins
  • Plucking out pests in and around our inviting habitat
  • Leafing through the entire garden making sure every little life is flourishing

Now picture this.  All the life that was once small and seemingly helpless is now full grown vegetables.  Tomatoes are in full bloom, bursting in radiant color.  Zucchini sits lazily on the ground, long and plump.  Potatoes are snug deep below the rich soil.  Beets are boasting in purple glory.  Onions, leeks, garlic and chives are shades of green so vibrant you feel healthier just looking at it.  Cabbages are spherically shaped in ruffled perfection.  Carrots and parsnips are laced in intermingled unison, nearly begging to be plucked and devoured.  Your entire garden is ready to be harvested.  It’s a bittersweet moment: the moment, you’ve been waiting for.  There’s something inside of us that silently says “I’m sorry.”  Not that we’re entirely remorseful (we wouldn’t have grown them in the first place if this were the case), but there is an undeniable hint of mixed feelings as we see our garden slowly getting smaller due to cropping.  But, it sure tastes good!

My husband and I have a vegetable, fruit and flower garden at home.  In addition to this, we have a garden plot (20×20) through the city’s community gardens program.  The vegetable garden includes potatoes, leeks, onions, chives, various herbs, eggplant, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, parsnips, squash, cabbages, cauliflower, lettuces, pole beans, sugar snap peas, garlic, zucchini, cucumbers, brussel sprouts and beets.  Needless to say, its upkeep took extreme dedication (thanks primarily to my husband) and time.  This is a 100 percent organic garden, no chemicals to rid pests.  This means every plant required manual riddance of slugs, aphids, caterpillars and cutworms (top four pests we encountered this year).  Most plants survived, but some did not.

The top three “successful” vegetables in our garden were tomatoes, cabbages and potatoes.  If you are a newcomer to growing a vegetable garden, I would highly recommend these three vegetables (in addition to lettuces, sugar snap peas and carrots).

We chose the Hillbilly and Riesentraube Heirloom tomatoes, bought from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog.  The Hillbillies are meaty and pink, rich in flavor and relatively easy to grow.  Because of their individual weight (two pounds) supporting the plant with poles is mandatory (we chose thick bamboo rods).  The Riesentraube tomatoes are smaller, excellent for salads and bear so much fruit you feel like you’ve become a master gardener.  Cutworms and tomato fruit worms are common pest dwellers for tomatoes; if you’re not the squeamish type, just pluck them off when you see them.  Early blight is another difficult and sometimes harder disease to control with tomatoes.  This occurs during hotter, wetter months of the season and targets older leaves.  Simply pruning off the diseased leaves before it infects the entire plant (early blight is highly contagious) can help the plant.  Proper irrigation and air circulation also helps to reduce the risk of early blight.

Early and Late Cabbage proved to be a success for us.  Early cabbage is very small (the size of a softball) so if you do grow this, keep this in mind.  We were expecting it to be much like late cabbage (the size of a basketball) as we left it nearly too late.  In its earlier stage, cutworms and root maggots almost annihilated our crop.  You’ll know a cutworm or root maggot has gotten its feisty little grip on it when you see the leaves chewed off or if the plant seems stunted in growth.  Removing cutworms is easy: just pick them off.  Root maggots, on the contrary, pose a different problem because they burrow inside the soil, attached to the root.  When this happens, the only natural way to remove them (from what I know and have researched) is to carefully uproot the cabbage, find the pest, remove it and carefully search for any more that may be in or around the soil.  Sometimes this helps, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s good to remember that the vegetable will not always survive the uprooting and replanting. In cabbages later stages (both in Early Cabbage and Late Cabbage), aphids pose a serious and annoying threat to both the plant itself and the gardener.  Spraying them off with water or wiping them away is a natural and organic way to eliminate this problem.  Aphids are tricky, though: they burrow deep in the leaves and require time and dedication to eliminate them.  This is gardening, though: this is why it’s hard work and why we’re so grateful when it turns out beautiful.

We planted Red, Purple and Yellow Seed Potatoes we purchased from Hohl’s Feed and Seed.  Potatoes flourish when planted in cool spring soil, but bear in mind you don’t want to plant them in water logged soil (this could rot the potato).  This is a fun plant to grow if you have children: set the potatoes out in an area of your home where there is plenty of sunlight and “warm” temperatures (about 65F) and in a few weeks you’ll notice little buds.  The buds will determine where you can slice the potatoes (if larger) in halves or thirds.  Smaller potatoes can be left whole.  Plant them in rich soil and you’re pretty much done.  They are low maintenance and offer a hearty bulb, therefore, children can easily plant the potato in soil themselves and feel a sense of accomplishment.  After time, when the potatoes are growing in leafy bushes and hotter weather rolls in, covering the plants in straw is a good idea (potatoes aren’t too keen on hot weather).  Each potato bushel yielded an average of seven delicious, colorful potatoes.

Some of the “not-so-lucky” vegetables we encountered were cauliflower, radishes and brussel sprouts.  Gardening can sometimes make you feel like a champ when all goes well, but when it doesn’t, it’s difficult not to get discouraged or frustrated.

Along with victories, every gardener has their failures.  In our case, it was the radish.  One word: maggots.  It’s so easy to say, “just pluck them away.”  However, the Radish sometimes enjoys playing peek-a-boo with the soil and its red top flirts with the rest of the radishes nearby.  Radish maggots spy these tasty treats and devour them.  Sadly, once a radish maggot gets to a radish, the only thing to do is toss the little red root away.  It’s commonly thought that slugs get to radishes, but when you actually take a closer look, peering inside, you’ll see the little white maggot worming its way, happily munching away.  I swear every year I won’t plant these difficult vegetables again, although I always do.  After all, what’s a garden salad without a radish?

Eggplant is finicky.  It takes its time to grow and seems like a lazy plant.  I call it the “Teenager Who Won’t Get Out of Bed for School on Time” plant.  Because, seriously: sometimes it misses its chance to get there on time!  We had two good eggplants, but should have had more.  We planted the Ping Tung; 70 days, 18” long, 2” in diameter, which claimed to be “sweet and tender, superbly delicious!”  And it was.  The two we grew.  I just wanted more and I would have loved to see it produce more fruit than it did.  There weren’t any pests and it was planted in the greenhouse (eggplants love warmth).  We’ll try again next year.

Brussel Sprouts are interesting vegetables.  You see so much foliage and no produce for a while.  And then suddenly, as if overnight, you begin to see small little buttons emerging from the stalks.  Even before they sprout their little green buds, however, aphids are attracted to the plant.  They burrow on the tops of the overlapping foliage, nestling themselves so deep, the gardener has to literally unfold each leaf and wipe them off, spraying off the aphids.  When the brussel sprouts do grow bigger and look more like the way we see them in markets, keep a close eye on each sprout: slugs, aphids and cutworms find these veggies a tasty meal.  The ideal brussel sprout is a firm, tight brussel.  To achieve this, plant in firm packed soil.  Firm soil equates to firm brussels and loose soil leads to loose flaky brussels.  Harvesting the sprouts if they are loose and later boiling them for your meal will result in tasteless, flaky veggies.  We found that the hardest thing about growing brussel sprouts were the aphids.  Getting rid of them is tedious work, especially when they return a week later!

The fun things about gardening are its unexpected surprises.  These surprises can be both good and not so good, but who doesn’t like a garden surprise?  Our “surprising” adventures in the garden beds were the pole beans, cauliflower and garlic.

We planted the Royalty Purple Pod pole beans.  At first we didn’t think they would make it: they seemed small and wilted in the sun and lacked the desire to climb.  We babied them endlessly.  Manually weaving the little vines around poles, creating elaborate and intricate routes to a better direction.  And then, as if they finally figured out what they were supposed to do, they flourished.  They grew.  They bushed out.  They wrapped around in curly definition around the poles, around the fence and up the twine.  They looked like they came out of the Secret Garden with their little curly-cues; their spiral little vines whimsically boasted to its neighboring apple tree; they were going to make it.  And then the pole beans began to sprout.  The first few we saw we ecstatically plucked them off for that night’s dinner and had a sense of pride.  And then ten more came.  After that, the entire bush was full of foot long beautiful, thick purple pods.  We plucked them off the vine, ate them raw and discovered a new favorite.  They all came to maturity nearly at the same time, so I would suggest canning, freezing and sharing with others.  They are a truly scrumptious eat.

My husband and I have planted Cauliflower before and have had good luck in the past, but this year we weren’t as lucky.  Cutworms devoured the roots to the point of complete annihilation.  Like cabbage, you can tell a cutworm found its way in the roots just by looking at it.  It stops growing (stunts) and looks horrible.  Our soil was rich and full of nutrients, but in addition to the cutworm, the cabbage looper (common pest for cabbage) attacked it, infecting the white button, leaving it inedible.  We planted both purple and white cauliflower.  Out of about six plants, only one made it and it was very small (but delicious).  With gardening, these things happen and they may be surprising, but it’s not worth getting discouraged over.

Lastly, we planted my favorite, Hardneck Garlic.  I love garlic.  I love cooking with it, I love roasting it and I even enjoy eating it raw (this is a very powerful immune booster).  When we received the pearly white bulbs in its brown paper sack, we immediately put them in the refrigerator, until ready to plant.  It’s such an easy plant to grow: get all the cloves from the bulb, directly plant in rich soil two inches deep, cover with soil and wait.  They’ll sprout and grow into tall, lanky, onion-like stalks.  When it’s time to harvest, be careful when you uproot it.  You need to wait until the stalks “die back,” turning brown and yellow.  Because of this, don’t pull; you need to dig them out.  We found the easiest way to harvest Hardneck Garlic was to uproot them with good, thick gloves (my favorites are the Atlas Gloves) and dig them out with your fingers (this way you can work around the bulb).  After harvesting, wipe off the dirt (don’t wash) and cure the garlic.  Curing is easy: place the garlic in an area with good air-circulation, out of the sun (underneath rafters, a shed or even in an area in your house) and leave for a few weeks.  After they’re good and dry, wash and bundle about ten bulbs (with stalks), braid them and hang.  Voila, you have a vampire’s worst enemy.

Gardening is a lot of work, a time-consuming activity and an excellent means for sustainable living.  The beautiful thing about gardening is anyone can do it.  Picture this: you’re a first-time gardener and after a successful season you find that you have found a new passion, a new hobby and have a new, raw taste for sustainability.  It’s delightful!

Saucy Sauce

We planted a new Heirloom variety of tomatoes this year: Hillbilly Tomatoes.  I knew little of this new fruit, but after pouring over each page in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog my mother so generously lent me, I spotted the Hillbilly.  A true tomato lover, I found myself drooling over the brilliant marbled red and yellow colors, and its intricate pink streaks showcasing perfect and succulent linings when sliced open.  Granted, I bought the seeds with no taste to judge on, but the words “rich, sweet flavor” sold me.  The day the package came, both my husband and I opened the envelope like excited children on Christmas morning.September 09 120September 09 126

Through four months of devoted time, love and care it is finally time to see the beauties in full bloom.  As though screaming, “Eat me!  Love me!  Devour me!” the Hillbillies have proven to be an absolute tomato gem.  We also planted a cherry heirloom variety, the Riesentraube, which are perfect for salads and sneakily popping in your mouth, freshly plucked from the vines teeming with these little red fruits of heaven.  However, the Hillbillies are my favorites: these 2lb fruits, when sliced generously thick, are excellent for a simple cucumber and tomato sandwich.  They’re meaty, sweet, and have that perfect sharp taste that a tomato should have.

Tonight we made a delicious Spaghetti Sauce, recipe provided by my sweet niece, Chanel, in England.  I have never made a Spaghetti sauce before, but am always up for a new culinary adventure.  If the recipe seems too difficult, with too many ingredients, and specific timing requirements, I have to admit: my sense of adventure gets dulled and I end up disinterested in the recipe the moment I begin.  I like simple, unpretentious recipes.  Chanel gave me just this, and the outcome tasted like a gourmet dish served in a five star Italian restaurant.  And trust me: I am no culinary expert.

Here is the recipe:

  • Grab a handful of tomatoes per person, or as many as possible (I used both the Hillbillies and Riesentraubes)
  • Score a cross on the bottom of each tomato
  • Crush a few cloves of garlic (I used 7 ripe from the garden because I am a bona fide garlic fiend)
  • Season generously with salt and pepper
  • 1 T sugar
  • A “glug” of olive oil

I added:

  • A handful of fresh sprigs of basil
  • 1 onion
  • ½ bell pepper
  • ¼ c. pine nuts

Roast all of this in the oven, 350F, for about 50 minutes.  Take out, mash a little (I used a potato masher) let cool and remove skins (I like the skins, so I left them on).   Pour over meat (if desired – can be used as an excellent vegetarian dish) and pasta.  Voila!  You’re done.September 09 115