28 July 2011

Garden Growing Pains

It finally rained. And rained. And rained. And the garden has taken on a new wild character.  Before last weekend it was orderly and charming like an adorable prepubescent, saying “I love you, mama!” and then skipping off to the bus stop with her pigtails bouncing. I remember thinking, “We’ve got this garden thing under control”. Monday morning after all the rain, my delightfully girlish garden had turned into an unruly tattooed teenager telling me she hates me and asking for birth control.  And even worse, she brought all of her trampy friends, the weeds, home with her.  She’s throwing a kegger and despite my efforts to get her to turn the music down and put out the joint, the party is raging on.  We have no control.   It’s a jungle.   

And after her bender, the garden looked dreadful:  the peppers that had to be uprighted after the last storm were on their sides again.  My zucchini plants took a serious beating, which is very disconcerting because they are my fallback vegetable.  I’ve counted on them being there even if they aren’t one of the prized plants.  They should really know better than to cause any drama.  The corn was doing its choreographed sideways dance again as though it were auditioning for one of those performance reality TV shows, and a few stalks, which definitely did not make it to the next round, were laying on the ground.  The tobacco, that is really just there for companion planting purposes and was getting big and bearing these beautiful, pink, fluted flowers, had turned to heaps of messy leaves.  The sunflowers got blown over again too.  Our vision was to have this wall of sunflowers at the back of our garden but after some poor germination and the storms, it looks like we are going to have just a few guardian sunflowers instead of the army we imagined.  And the weeds are rampant.

On the bright side, my melons are growing (something I’ve waited since the 6th grade to exclaim).  I was sure we were going to be melonless after a rough transplant and a rough diagnosis of melon borers from Nick’s uncle, but they seem to be thriving in the heat.  Or they might have heard my rant about how we are never doing melons again and decided to get their acts together.  I wonder if I can use the same tactics to boost my A cup to a nice, bouncy C.

And now for the insect portion of the program, the segment that has become my life—keeping the insects from destroying our garden (and home), keeping them out of Viv’s and my hair, and continually being surprised by each new ferocious breed that greets me somewhere on the property each day.  For example, we have locusts.  I thought locusts and cicadas were the same thing.  They’re not.  Neither is pretty, but the locust choir that lives in our backyard and likes shedding its skins on my back steps and picnic table is particularly ugly.  Each morning when I walk down the steps I am greeted with clusters of locust exoskeletons.  It’s like I’m living in the Old Testament.

Also, there was some sort of larvae underneath the leaves of our prehistoric zucchini plants that looks like caviar.  I had this brief fantasy upon seeing the tiny, orange eggs that I had discovered some incredible delicacy for which I would be featured in Saveur or Food & Wine.  There would be pictures in the spread of people carefully harvesting all the little eggs next to another of sushi-like appetizers with shredded zucchini in the center of cornmeal rolls encrusted with the roe--like California Rolls, but they’d be named something regional like Midwestern Maki or Redneck Rolls.  I didn’t have the name quite nailed down, but I knew it had to include alliteration.  I quickly snapped myself out of the bizarre daydream when I found tiny spiderlike things hatching from them.  I’m pretty sure they were baby cucumber beetles.  I’m also pretty sure they are not the next big thing in the gourmet world.  I then spent the rest of the 100 degree afternoon removing larvae and killing clusters of baby insects.  We made a vow not to use any synthetic chemicals for pesticide upon embarking on our garden project.  Nick secretly confessed that he thought the bugs might leave us alone since we had such a noble mission.  They didn’t.  He has been using an organic substance to repel the cucumber beetles.  He puts it in a backpack sprayer that looks like something out of Ghostbusters.  I keep telling him “Don’t cross the streams!”  It’s really not funny anymore, but I say it anyway to amuse myself.

Another creature living in our zucchini jungle is this huge, grey bug.  I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s very menacing.  Nick calls them ‘football player bugs’ because they have big square shoulders and look like little insect linebackers.  They even look like they feel entitled to date whatever cute blond cheerleader bug exists in their insect world.

The Japanese Beetles are the worst.  They have sick little bug orgies on the leaves of my precious plants.  If the grey bugs on the zucchini plants are the athletes, the Japanese Beetles are the rock stars.  I interrupted a serious party at Tommy Lee’s leaf pad the other day.  Also, they fly at me and get caught in my hair which makes me throw tantrums out in the garden that I’m sure make my in-laws reconsider allowing an Italian to move in next door.  I flail my arms and yell at them and then Nick will yell, “What?!”,  thinking I’m yelling at him and then I have to explain that I’m yelling at the bugs.  Vivienne has picked up my bug behavior and points them out and yells at them.  She swung a dishtowel at all the walls one afternoon mimicking a battle I had with the flies in the kitchen.  She kept saying, “A bug! A bug! No! No!”  I know I’m a little crazy when I’m doing these things, but when I watch her reenact my charades I realize that I probably appear mentally ill. 

Apparently the insects were not enough because now we have a new addition to the critter family on the Bonneur Manor—a woodchuck. It is living in a hole behind one of our compost piles.  I’ve heard they are not as cute as personified in cartoons.  Hopefully Tilly, my in-laws dog with which Viv is enamored, will come to the rescue and kill the little A-hole.

We have finally tasted our first tomatoes and cucumbers.  There has not yet been the cascade of produce we’re projecting, but the early bloomers have been harvested and ingested.  Vivienne ate the first Italian Heirloom and Roma Cherries on her own.  I didn’t even get a taste because she practically loses her mind when she sees red food.  I cringe when I see a tomato, strawberry, or cherry in plain sight because I know she’s going to go absolutely mental unless she eats all of it, immediately.  I can barely cut it up without feeling like I’m the worst mother ever and starving the child as she acts like she hasn’t eaten in days. Green food, on the other hand, she will not have (unless it’s ground zucchini hidden in the pesto. I’ve gotten sneaky).  So the cucumbers are all mine, which makes me very happy because a sliced cucumber with sea salt is just about my favorite snack.  We chose one cultivar, the Long Anglais, that is very prickly.  Typically I eat the skin, but unpeeled these would give me road rash in my mouth.  I can’t even pick them without gloves.  They surprise me every time I enter the cucumber patch because they are both prickly and yellow—very heirloomy looking.

Prior to the storm, our zucchini, despite the caviar deposits, was absolutely prolific.  We were getting a few small, tender pickings every other day or so.  Then we went out of town for not even 24 hours.  When we left there were a few small ones; when we came back there were fourteen enormous ones.  There was one I must have missed on a few rounds because when I stumbled upon it, I was sure there was a boa constrictor living in the zucchini patch.  Do they eat woodchucks?  I’ve heard the stories of people unloading ridiculous zucchini on friends, but we are really trying to do this whole self-sustainable thing (I know, I know). So I spent several hours putting all fourteen through my food mill and freezing them for winter soups and breads and whatever else I think of along the way.  The ground zucchini will be much more appreciated in muffins and breads in February when it’s freezing and we can’t even remember this tropical heat, which I secretly love.  I know it’s sick, but I love being seriously hot.  Nick, on the other hand, can barely survive weather over 75 degrees.  He’s had a perma-scowl on his face since July 15th that I suspect has taken residence until about September 15th.  Luckily he’s had a basement project and has been residing in his underground lair all week.  He’s been making a room in our basement into a root cellar.  The garlic was done curing in the haymow and the potatoes are just about mature so we are going to need keeping space for them.  All of this requires that he wears work pants and work boots and carries around tools, so not only do I get a place to store all our wonderful keeper vegetables for the winter, but I get a hot, rugged-looking husband too.  Between the tan and the tools, Viv just might get a little sister.

As summer continues, the garden continues to be a source of intrigue, joy, and even frustration, but it has been worth every moment of work.  It is so satisfying to harvest the vegetables and herbs of our labor and have them all right outside our door.  And aesthetically speaking, it is such a pleasure.  The garden is full of birds and butterflies.  We love our dusk walks to see how everything is doing at day’s end.  And every morning when I wake up, I love the vista through my kitchen window as I prepare breakfast.  Our garden is an island in the center of an ocean of soybeans.  I can see the surviving sunflowers beginning to peek over the back edge, the center aisle of tomatoes, which I proudly named the ‘promenade du tomate’ (it’s ok to roll your eyes—everyone else does), the onion perimeters, the few rows of broccoli that haven’t given up yet, and the numerous other plants.  The storm and heat did turn our gem of a garden into a bit of a maniac.  And although she’s going through a rebellious phase, like all phases, it will come to an end and with a little love and patience, she’ll get back on track and probably still get into a good college.

21 July 2011

Earwig Smoothies

I have great things to tell you—about our new country life, about the garden, about things I’m doing with that which comes for the garden, but first things first.  I drank an earwig.  There.  I said it.  I drank an earwig.  Not on purpose, obviously.  Viv wasn’t feeling well so I gave her a drink from her ‘pup’ (cup) and I thought I’d join her.  Upon taking a sip from my pup, I immediately knew what the foreign object in my mouth was.  I could feel its exact shape on my tongue.   Just like a few days previous, I knew it was the same insidious insect that I pulled off my ear, laying in bed, in the dark. Awful.  It was actually trying to be my ear wig.  See here in the country, at least in our house, it is high earwig season. They appear everywhere, including my mouth.  I spit it out in disgust—back into the pup and turned on the light to confirm its identity.  Yes, an earwig, or as I often call it, an ‘earwick’.  I say things wrong a lot, usually metaphors, but sometimes just common nouns.  I called them earwicks for the first fifty encounters or so and Nick would correct me.  His judgment was right in not correcting me when I was swearing at the one drowning in my pup.  He’s tricky though.  Even though the episode was clearly disgusting, he gave no reaction.  He will not ever indulge my disgust.  He wouldn’t do it if the damn earwigs were crawling out of my butt, which they almost were, since I found one on the toilet paper roll minutes before I drank my earwig smoothie.  Really, this is an inappropriate start to my country update.  It makes us sound like we live in squalor, which we do not (although our summer backyard is looking a tad bit rednecky with the collection of lawn chairs and toys and other lawn paraphernalia we’re accumulating).

And Nick seemed to have a change of heart regarding bugs a few days later when we discovered Tomato Hornworms on our tomato plants.  I rarely see the guy get squeamish, but he asked for his ‘thick gardening gloves’ before tackling the pests.  I would have loved to take pleasure in his discomfort except I was too busy getting the heeby jeebies.  Earlier that day I came across one of my cherished Italian Heirloom tomato plants completely defoliated on top.  I was sure a deer had been in our yard and eaten all the leaves until Nick pointed out the humongous, green, Tomato Hornworm on one of the branches.  Those suckers wreaked havoc on a good ten plants—all of the Italian heirloom variety.  While Nick shares their affinity for attractive Italian breeds, his face displayed a far-from-friendly greeting as he removed them by hand and disposing of them in a bucket of soapy water.  Suffice it to say that this was not the kind of bug one steps on unless he wants to replace a shoe.  They are strong, dense, and juicy.  As I write this I’m just sure there is one on my back.

We found the dreaded Tomato Hornworms just as the garden was recovering from a huge storm.  Our peppers were lying on their sides.  The sunflowers were hunched over with their leaf skirts over their heads.  The corn still looks like that part in the Thriller music video when they all lean to the side in unison.  And our tomatoes had limbs strewn everywhere.  They are just starting to bear fruit and they remind me of those apple trees in the Wizard of Oz--monsters with their long leafy arms.  I’m a little scared to pluck their fruit in fear one will say, “Well, how would you like to have someone come along and pick something off of you? “.  Luckily, the peppers seemed to go back into place with a little help. The tomatoes hardly had a scratch even though they had to be organized a bit.  And the sunflowers are looking much more ladylike.

Another byproduct of last week’s storm was a homeless baby robin--maybe just a week shy of flying.  After the nest was knocked loose from the tree, we found it living in a waste basket on our back porch among many, many empty craft beer bottles (my waistline is severely hurting).  Now do not ask me why I had a soft spot for this baby bird.  Nick kills a nestful almost every time he mows the lawn and I don’t think twice.  And if anyone is unaware of this fact, I am NOT an animal lover.  This does not mean I support animal cruelty (I like my meat pastured and properly raised, CAFO-free, thank-you), but I am not the type to ooh and ahh over any furry or non-furry creature.  In fact, most of my family knows how I feel about my parents’ ludicrous dog that does simply adorable things like walk on the kitchen table and eat butter and cheese out of the serving bowls and then practically mauls anyone who tries to stop her.  I’ve come very close on several occasions to making Cocker Spaniel cutlets.  The only thing stopping me is that my father actually loves the little beast.  If it weren’t for him, she’d be covered in breadcrumbs by dinner tonight.  So why I worried about this bird is beyond me.  When I found it missing from the remains of our IPA field day, I went searching, found it living in one of our cherry tomato plants, and proceeded to take more pictures of it than I do of our child.  Nick scared my little bird baby from its new home when we went on our Tomato Hornworm Hunt.  Don’t worry though.  I found it again and it can now fly.  Whew.

We are in between crops right now.  The prolific snap and shell peas finally turned brown and had to be taken down.  The leafy spring crops—spinach, kale, chard, arugula—as well as radishes, kohlrabi, carrots, and beets are long gone and mulched over.  However, I felt a little too attached to my lettuce mix to plow it under when we said good-bye to its neighboring spinach and arugula, so it has grown and bolted and looks like little bright green, red, and speckled Christmas trees.  We don’t eat it, but it’s so pretty.   We harvested our fifty-one heads of garlic and they are currently curing in the haymow (which in my head is spelled ‘hey mao’, like we’re greeting the Chairman). Our summer crops are developing nicely, but aren’t bearing quite yet.  There are lots of green tomatoes and green peppers all getting ready to turn red.   And we just found the most adorable tiny watermelons.  They are the size of an apricot.  It’s so hard for me not to pick them and use them for chic little garnishes on cocktails, but I better leave them since I was told that my melons will not be ample. Imagine that (eventually the melon jokes will stop . . . maybe).

Being at the end of the spring crops and the beginning of summer crops has made for some interesting recipes.  I pickled about ten jars of snap peas to stretch them out for the next month.  They are crisp and spicy and sour.  I think of them as delicious little Midwestern olives.  They might be delightful with a glass of Manzanilla, which I could not find at the liquor store—note to upcoming visitors.  Also, our last picking of carrots found a delicious home with spicy sausage and sage in a tortiglioni sprinkled with parmesan-romano.  The Venetian beets were quite tasty roasted in some olive oil and pretty enough for Carnivale in their little striped shirts.

Also, we’ve had much more luck with our broccoli and cabbage transplants than anticipated.  The broccoli made for a notable risotto.  We’ve harvested our first two cabbages, one of which made a nice stir fry with a few spicy Hungarian peppers that didn’t make it through the storm.  The other made a refreshing sweet and sour coleslaw.

The most exciting thing has been our prehistoric zucchini plants.  They look like something out of Jurassic Park.  I think they are just the most perfect filler vegetable.  I know zucchini doesn’t typically sound exciting, but the zucchini-basil croquettes we’ve had a couple of times now are, I think, good enough to make anyone change his mind.  They could be a meal on their own served with dill cream. And even better, the zucchini oatcakes with rhubarb sauce we’ve been having for breakfast.  It’s a great way to get your greens first thing in the morning! Best yet, the zucchini blossoms.  Although they require a little work in removing all the cucumber beetles before preparation (they must be rinsed into a sink of soapy water in order to drown them or they return to the blossoms moments later), we’ve had them stuffed with ricotta and herbs as well as beer battered.  The beer battered blossoms are definitely worth the work—crunchy and savory.

And so now we are waiting, waiting for the mountains of peppers and tomatoes our plants will, hopefully, produce. The eight pepper cultivars and six tomato cultivars we decided to grow are forming as I type and getting ready to be dried and canned into sauces, salsas and pastes.  I did a practice round of canning with the wonderful rhubarb from my mother-in-law’s garden.  It looks absolutely beautiful, all pink and green in the pretty jars on the counter.  I call it “botulism ‘barb” since I’m pretty sure I both sterilized and processed it wrong.  We won’t be eating it.  And I will be disposing of it once I get over the work gone wrong.  I stewed another pot of rhubarb and put it in the freezer for insurance.  We’ll need some Rhubarbulous Cake in the cold and dark of January sans food borne illness.  I’m thinking of a round white later cake with a rhubarb glaze.  But, the oven experiments won’t start until the temperature is at least below 80.  So we wait and we monitor the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants (my babies), corn and cucumbers daily in anticipation of the first harvest.  I check them even more eagerly than I check the mail for my Bon App├ętit.  In the meantime, the zucchini, the bundles of basil and cilantro and other herbs, the cabbage, the last of the broccoli, and some early onions are calling on my resourcefulness for original meals each day.  And of course, if we feel malnourished, we can leave our glasses out for a midnight snack of earwig smoothies.