Learning curves

Last summer slugs decimated the strawberry harvest from my garden. This year I was prepared. Or so I thought. I had a bag of diatomaceous earth stand by, and an old salt shaker to spread it around the plants. But there were no slugs. Instead, chipmunks discovered the strawberry patch and took a bite out of every single ripe strawberry. Continue reading

Guard owl and green harissa

Guard owl

It is the nature of gardening that after you have solved one problem the next challenge already lurks around the corner. After we moved the elderberry patch to a new location with moister soil last fall, the bushes are thriving. They developed many blossoms, albeit unusually late in the season, and some of them are still flowering.

ElderberriesThe birds would be just as happy about the elderberries as I am so the next question was how to protect them. We looked into bird netting and quickly dismissed the idea as too involved and too expensive. Then I remembered the plastic owl we had not used in years. So up on a tall stick it went. To give it more weight and make it sway more in the wind, my husband filled it with insulation foam.

If the birds won’t get used to the sight of the owl by the time the elderberries ripen, I am slightly optimistic that we will have elderberries this year!

Green bell peppers are an unwanted by-product from my garden. I do not like them and they only land in my kitchen when a stem breaks off, or when I harvest all of them before the first frost, regardless of their color. I have not been very successful in ripening peppers in a brown paper bag or cardboard box; they always soften before turning orange or red.

Yes, I do not like green bell peppers but that does not mean I would ever dump them on the compost. I usually freeze them, hoping that I will eventually find a recipe that uses lots of green peppers. The only recipe I make on a regular basis is Black Bean Soup with Cilantro, however that is only one green pepper down. I have looked for recipes using lots of green peppers but they always ask for so many other ingredients I do not have at hand that making those recipes would defeat the purpose.

Cleaning out the freezer the other day left me with two large bags of green peppers from last year. They had to go, with minimum effort and other ingredients. I decided to try my hands on some sort of mild harissa, hoping for a miraculous green pepper metamorphosis. Worst thing that could happen would be to throw them out after all.

A few hours later I had three jars of a smooth tasty olive-green spread for sandwiches or crackers. A generous amount of ground coriander and caraway gives it a distinct “Tunisian” flavor. And I was able to use up some leftover jalapeños in the process, too!

Green harissa

I am not sure my late Tunisian grandmother would call this a harissa but she was a recycler herself so she would understand.

Green Harissa

2.5 pounds cored and seeded green bell peppers

12 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

5 cored and seeded jalapeños, to taste

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

½ cup olive oil, more for covering

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Place all ingredients in a large cast-iron Dutch oven. Cook in the preheated oven for 2 to 3 hours until the liquid has been absorbed and the peppers are mushy, turning once in a while at the beginning, and more often towards the end.

3. Puree in the food processor or with a stick blender. Fill into sterilized jars with screw-top lids and pour a bit of olive oil on top. Keep refrigerated and use within 2 to 3 weeks.

Makes 2 to 3 medium jars

Round and lonely survivors

Calamities are part of gardening reality but I still cannot get used to it, and probably never will. Last year there were no eggplants due to flea beetles. This year, several dozen cucumber, summer squash and melon seedlings died on me, either chewed into oblivion by the striped cucumber beetle, or killed later by the bacterial wilt that the beetles transmit. The latest victim to the disease were the Hubbard squashes, which had grown as tall as the fence and just started to set fruit. I pulled the entire patch last week. Don’t mention it. Two cucumber plants are just hanging in there. I am trying not to get my hopes up too high for cucumber salad.

None of the gardeners I spoke to around here seems to have the same troubles. Driving by a pumpkin patch yesterday and seeing that field of healthy verdure made me jealous. Yet I should not forget that unlike many other parts of the country, we had plenty of rain here in northeast Pennsylvania. We are very fortunate; there could be many more failed crops.

And, there is a consolation prize in my garden! A friend of a friend had given me two plants of Tondo di Piacenza, an Italian heirloom zucchini. Although the beetles are populating them as well, the plants seem to be resistant (so far) and I am picking one or two beautiful round zucchini every other day. They are great for stuffing but now that I have more than just a couple, I can finally make my Zucchini Quiche with Goat Feta that I have been craving all summer.

Maybe I will switch to growing Tondo di Piacenza next year. But next year there might be no trouble with striped cucumber beetles, and some other calamity will hit a different crop. You never know.

Bark bag

As much as I like my vegetable garden to be neat and tidy, and as fiercely as I fight unwanted visitors there, I can also let things go and tremendously enjoy the areas where nature takes its course: the meadows where turkeys like to nest, white from Queen Anne’s lace right now, a hillside filled with Staghorn sumac and pokeweed for bird food, and, of course, patches of milkweed for monarchs.

We gave up on growing fruit trees a long time ago because deer were running them over or devouring them. The only survivors are two pear trees. In the last few years, some animal, most likely a groundhog, was faster than us and picked the loaded trees clean just when the pears were starting to ripen. This year we decided to take action and try to keep the critters away with Epsom salt and Plantskydd, a deterrent that has worked well so far.

On my pear protection mission today I found a bunch of pears on the ground that the wind must have knocked down. Before I could lose myself in fantasies about what to make with them, I had to find a way to bring them back to the house. It was sweltering hot and I had no intention to walk up to the house to get a basket or a bag. For a brief moment I considered taking off my T-shirt to carry the pears but the idea of bugs eating me alive made me discard that idea quickly. When I looked around at the edge of the woods for some suitable receptacle such as giant leaves, I found a large piece of bark – perfect for the purpose.

The pears will go into my favorite Spiced Chocolate Pear Cake.

Garden foes, garden woes, and a broken toe

Whenever I grab the sledgehammer to drive a bamboo stick into the ground in order to secure something in the garden, like I did this morning, I must think of the time when I paid my attempt to protect the tomatoes from predators with a broken toe.

It was a few years ago in August. The tomatoes were heavy with fruit and just starting to ripen. One morning, I found the first fully red tomato on the ground, a big bite taken out of it. The next morning, the same thing. And the day after that, two tomatoes.

As my husband and I were having coffee that morning, I must have given him the “if-you-want-tomato-sauce-this year-you-better-do-something” look before heading out the door. When I pulled up the driveway at midday, I found him in the garden, sweating in the hot sun, putting the finishing touches on a 2-foot wall he had built around the entire tomato patch, using every single piece of plywood and scrap wood he could find in the shed. I gave him a big hug and called him my tomato hero.

The next day I found… another chewed tomato. My husband had gone with our son to his baseball game so they could not hear me scream and curse. By afternoon, and after some frantic research, I finally had a plan. Since the damage most likely occurred at night, I was going to nail a blinking bike light to the inside of the wall, which would deter whatever munched on the tomatoes.

I hastily kicked off my garden shoes at the door and rushed into the garage in socks to fetch the bike light, a nail and a hammer. Not waiting for the light over the workbench to turn on completely, I reached into the shelf for the hammer… and pulled out the sledgehammer sitting on top, which crashed on my foot.

When my husband and son came back a couple of hours later, they found me in the kitchen, my foot in a bucket with ice, wailing. I prefer not to repeat their comments, and neither the comments and looks I got in the following weeks when all I could wear was sandals and someone saw my bruised foot and I had to tell my story.

After I was somewhat able to move around again, I hobbled down to the garden and angrily tossed the bike light into the tomato patch. I left it switched on even during the day and gave a damn about the battery.

The chewing stopped. We had a bountiful tomato harvest. A few more years of critter warfare followed before we turned the main garden into a real fortress that only humans with two free hands to lift the gate, winged insects, and an occasional chipmunk can access. Now I grow everything that has a remote chance of being eaten (including tomatoes) in that fenced-in area, and all the perennial plants that critters usually leave alone (raspberries, blackberries, red and black currants, gooseberries and rhubarb) are outside. This year I boldly snuck a watermelon into the outside garden too. So far so good but maybe it has just not been discovered yet.

After I drove the bamboo stick in the ground this morning, I pulled the last spring beets – beautiful striped Chioggia and Crosby’s Egyptian. It is amazing how happy an arm full of beets can make me. This would have been unthinkable in the days of bunny warfare – the tender beet leaves were one of the first things to be chewed down to the ground by rabbits.

I made Amanda Hesser’s fabulous Gingered Beet Pickles but used my own Elderflower Vinegar instead of white vinegar. Any other fruity vinegar will do as a substitute.

Zucchini glut? I wish

Usually in July I try to find new zucchini recipes. Not this year. The cucumber family in my garden has taken a terrible beating. Between zucchini, cucumbers and my beloved Charentais melons (no sorbet this year, alas), I lost more than 25 seedlings to the striped cucumber beetle. Not only does it eat the plants, it also transmits bacterial wilt, a disease that makes plants collapse overnight and against which there is no cure.

I thought the worst was over but yesterday I found my only surviving zucchini plant spread out in a sad wilted mass, full of blossoms and baby zucchini. The zucchini are perfectly fine to eat, and since we won’t have zucchini for a while, the pilaf I made with them tasted quite special. The next set of seedlings is just ready for transplanting, and who knows whether they will even make it that far.

I made a promise to myself: never to complain about too many zucchini ever again!

Quinoa Zucchini Pilaf

This can also be made with regular zucchini, in which case the seeds should be removed.

1 cup quinoa


6 to 8 baby zucchini, or 1 medium zucchini

1 cup cherry tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

4 ounces crumbled feta

1/2 preserved lemon, rind only, finely chopped

3 to 4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1. Wash the quinoa thoroughly in cold water at least twice. Drain in a fine sieve.

2. Put the quinoa in a small saucepan with 1.5 cups water. Salt lightly and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook until the water has been completely absorbed, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

3. Dice the zucchini and halve the tomatoes. Heat the olive oil in a wide medium pot or a skillet and cook the garlic for 1 minute, do not let it brown. Add the zucchini and cook until it just starts to brown at the edges, stirring often.

4. Add the to tomatoes and cook for about 7 minutes, until most of their juice has evaporated.
Transfer to a large bowl.  Add the quinoa, feta, lemon rind and basil. Toss and season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings

Strawberry suspense

Our first strawberry harvest, and we would have a bumper crop if some animal, or animals, was not taking a bite from almost every ripe strawberry. I am in the middle of a critter war – again.

Every time I try a new deterrent, checking out the strawberries the next day is more suspenseful than watching a thriller. I warily walk down to the strawberry patch, bracing myself for what I am about to find. First I stand there for a few seconds with my eyes closed, then I slowly open my eyes and start looking around.

The amount of Epsom salt I spread around the perimeter of the patch this morning should make the strawberry thieves sneeze so hard we should hear it by the house. But again, if the critters are as keen on the strawberries as I am they might just pinch their noses and continue nibbling.

One way of distracting myself from garden woes is to make something quick and easy from a hassle-free crop. Harvesting those beautiful radishes made me think back to the time when the rabbits could squeeze through the fence and devoured the radish greens down to the ground. So it is again just a question of notching up the defense; maybe it’s time to reconsider a fence around the strawberry patch. Meanwhile I will listen out for the sound of sneezing tonight.

Radish Salmon Spread

8 ounces low-fat cream cheese, softened

1 tablespoon milk

3 ounces smoked salmon, finely chopped

1 bunch radishes, finely chopped (about ¾ cup)

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh dill

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Stir the cream cheese and the milk until smooth. Add the radishes and fold in with a spatula, then fold in the salmon and dill. Season with pepper to taste.

2. Refrigerate. Take out of the fridge 15 minutes before serving.

Swan song? Hope not

The crabapples were plumper and larger than ever this year. This might not be a surprise after all the rain we had but for us, it is startling because in the spring it did not look as if the 25-year-old trees were going to make it.

After the snow melted, we realized serious bark damage on two-thirds of the trees. The bark had been chewed off all around from the ground to about a foot high. But then, as every year, the crabapples bloomed in the first week of May, making me want to cruise up and down our driveway again and again just to enjoy that gorgeous sight. Then came the drought in July, and the trees were still hanging in there.

And now this, a rich harvest! Such a severe damage to the bark is like removing the esophagus from a human body, totally disrupting food transportation. My explanation for the trees still being alive in mid-summer was that they must have had enough nutrients stored at the top. Whether these reserves could last a whole season I didn’t know.

I am marveling at this miracle, and at the same time I fear this might be the trees’ swan song. Meanwhile, I made crabapple jelly today, very much hoping that I will be doing exactly the same thing again this time next year.

Gingered Crabapple Jelly

To extract the juice from the crabapples, it is best to chop the crabapples coarsely in the food processor, then put them in the steam juicer. The amounts can be increased as needed with a juice to sugar ratio of 2:1.

2½ cups crabapple juice (unsweetened)

1¼ cups sugar

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

1. Mix the juice and the sugar and cook in a heavy pot over low-medium heat for 1 hour. Remove any scum with a ladle or a large spoon.

2. Put a teaspoon full on a plate and wait a couple of minutes. If it is still runny, cook a few minutes longer and test again. If it gels but it still a little soft, it’s fine, as the jelly will solidify considerably upon cooling.

3. Pour the hot jelly in sterilized jars through a canning funnel. Wipe the rim with a damp piece of paper towel to remove any drips and wipe dry with paper towel. Place the lids and the bands on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

9. Let cool and set for 24 hours without moving the jars. If processed properly, the jelly will keep for 1 year or more.

Makes 2 half-pint jars