Sunday, March 23, 2008

Spring Fever & Vegetable Line Up

I spent the morning planting vegetables and enjoying the weather. I did a bit of day-dreaming too, watching the hawks and herons hunt food for their young. It seemed as though the birds and lizards were enjoying the Spring weather as much as I was today. Robins were having a hey day on the last of the pyracantha berries and lizards scurrying over the boulders lining the driveway doing push-ups. A cowbird nested in the willow tree the last three years and I was pleased to see her again this morning checking out the same tree.

I planted a nice selection of tomatoes and peppers. Just to get your mouth watering for home grown produce, here's a photo of some of last year's crop. I'm hoping for a good a season this year too. I'm growing some of last years favorite along with a few new ones too. The tomatoes for this year are Arkansas Traveler, Black Prince, Bonnie Select, Brandywine, Celebrity, German Queen, Golden Jubilee, Grape, Lemon Boy, Mr. Stripey, Roma, Roma Grape, Sun Gold, Sweet 100's, and Yellow Pear.

New heirloom tomatoes for the garden this year are Arkansas Traveler, German Queen, Golden Jubilee and a new-to-me hybrid Lemon Boy. The Arkansas Traveler from the 1900's has pink flesh, tolerates high heat and humidity and resists cracking and disease. German Queen is a beefsteak type but smaller and less productive, but has excellent flavor. Golden Jubilee has smooth, well formed mild fruit. Lemon Boy has yellow not golden flesh and is very flavorful and produces a heavy crop.

Milder peppers are on the agenda this season and include Anaheim, Cubanelle, and Garden Salsa. Last year I had literally hundreds of peppers and I am still cooking with them. But when I only need two peppers to flavor a large crock pot, the hot peppers I grew last year will probably last me this whole season too. I also am planting Armenian cucumbers again this year. I was hoping to find some Yellow Submarines, but I have only seen and grown them once. If you ever have a chance to grow them I highly recommend them. They are huge but mild with thin skins and very flavorful.

One of my neighbors divided her garlic chives and brought me some to plant. These chives look much hardier and have thicker stems than any I have ever seen. I'll be planting them tomorrow and can't wait to see how they do here. I will also be starting some sugar snap peas with edible pods, asparagus beans, and will try growing okra for the first time.

It's a good feeling getting the vegetable garden in early this year, hopefully the weather holds, although we could definitely use some more rain. Till next time.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rusty Relics & Desert Lavender

If you ever get a chance to visit the desert in the Spring, I highly recommend it. It's a place to refresh your soul and relieve the stresses of daily living. Days are warm, nights are cool, the air is clear, and there is peace and solitude all around you. Every time I visit the desert I am amazed by all that's blooming and how the desert has a way of preserving items left behind by past visitors. Rusty cars, wagons, and adobe buildings should have been long gone, but they are still clinging to life like the desert plants and animals.

On a recent trip to the Anza Borrego Desert, I was pleasantly surprised to read in a brochure about desert lavender being in bloom. Since I have studied its native locations, I knew lavender is not native to the Americas, so I was curious to see this plant. I asked a volunteer at the park visitor center to point out the desert lavender. The plant is Hyptis emoryi and belongs to the same family, laminacea, as lavender. When the lavender colored flowers are crushed between your fingers they give off a faint fragrance much like the lavender I grow. Of all the plants in bloom the desert lavender was attracting the most bees. There were also many other desert plants in bloom. It seems incongruous to me to see beautiful flowers on prickly cactus plants, but there they were in all their vibrant glory. We were also happy to see the palm trees are left skirted which provides nesting places for birds and hiding places for the other creatures of the desert.

The desert has much to offer even to those who aren't excited by flowers. My husband liked the fact there are many off road vehicle trails we could take. Later we hiked up several steep canyons in search of the endangered Big Horn Sheep native to the Anza Borrego. Sadly, we never saw a Big Horn Sheep, but, nevertheless we had a wonderful and relaxing time.

On a side trip we visited the Vallecito Stage Station, an adobe built well before 1852 when it was found abandoned by early settlers. Later the building became the rest stop for the world's longest "jackass mail" run, The Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849, from Tipton, Missouri to San Francisco. The adobe has since been restored using original materials. The thick adobe walls and overhang provided us some cool shade and we imagined weary visitors from long ago relishing that shade in the summer heat which can rise to 120 F.

On another side trip we took a hike up Borrego Palm Canyon which is located at the end of the road near the RV and tent camping in the state park. Steep cliffs rise sharply on either side of the canyon and provide shade early in the afternoon. We made the moderate hike in the late afternoon to find a desert oasis palm grove near springs where the water runs cool and clear. The trail gains an elevation of about 350 feet in 1.5 miles and meanders through large and
small boulders. The way is lined with hundreds of desert flowers such as the yellow brittlebush, red chuparosa and blue indigo bush. We also saw a brightly colored, orange and black, daddy-long-legged spider crossing the path at almost every step we made. As we left the canyon at dusk, we were greeted by a full moon rising and a misty sunset. What a perfect close to a great day. We were reminded of the many wonders the desert has to offer visitors if they get off the main road and take the time to look around.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spring, Sprang, Sprung

Spring has definitely sprung around here. The flowering plum are almost gone, but the fruit tree blossoms are coming on strong. I decided to take a few photos to share with you from the garden. I am happy to see my plum tree has tons of blossoms, these bright white blossoms are from my Elephant Heart plum. Last year I was rewarded with five plums. I am hoping I have many more this year.

My Red Haven peach was loaded with peaches last year. This is one of the best tasting yellow freestone peaches I have ever had. Judging from all of the blossoms on the tree right now, I will have a ton of peaches this year too.

Candy tuft, Iberis umbellata, is a plant often overlooked most of the year, but it's spectacular in bloom. The bright white blossoms seem to light up like a light bulb in the garden. This plant requires excellent drainage and does well in full sun or part shade.

One of my gardening friends years ago, had Vinca major 'Variegata', variegated periwinkle, planted in a circle in the center of her driveway. The foliage of the vinca was so beautiful all year round, I vowed to have this plant one day. The vine is planted in a kidney shaped bed next to the gift shop and it's now taken over the whole bed and routinely escapes its boundaries. Vinca major is an aggressive grower which I knew when I planted it. It does look wonderful in the dappled shade of the native willow trees. Three standard rosemary accent the bed of vinca and both of their blue flowers bloom at the same time of year.

Next time I hope to have some wildflower photos to share - they're unbelievable this year.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

"Eat The Weeds"

Our local dinner group met tonight in an outdoor pavilion at a local ranch. Two of the dishes prepared for the evening faire were most unusual. One had Miner's lettuce and the other stinging nettle. They were both very tasty, but they are also very nutritious as well. Have you ever eaten nettle? When I saw the green nettle with lemon dressing, all I could think of was the stinging nettle I was familiar with as a kid hiking in the woods in Maryland. How could a plant such as this be good to eat? Well it was very good and I have since been reading that nettle has all sorts of reasons to recommend itself. It has more than 10 percent protein and freeze dried nettle is good as an antidote for hay fever. These are but two of the reasons you should consider nettle as a food.

We also had Miner's lettuce salad. This delicate looking plant tastes a lot like spinach and is known to provide a boost of vitamin C, which the early gold rush miners knew and ate to prevent scurvy. Well I knew about this plant having seen it growing everywhere in the Spring when I lived in the northern Sierra foothills. And I tried this little edible gem while hiking through the woods there. Both of these plants are common, found almost at our doorstep, and they are good for us too.

This past winter having run out of all the books I had brought with me to read on a long weekend to the coast, I picked up a used book called "Eat the Weeds" by Ben Charles Harris. I have long been interested in the nutritional benefit of herbs and various herbaceous plants. But I've found little research to support my hypothesis that these types of plants are very beneficial to human health since they provide many of the trace minerals and vitamins lacking in most of the foods we all eat in today's world. I decided to take another look at "Eat the Weeds" and found it was published in 1963 and is still current today.

Now I digress a little, but please allow me this liberty. Being a gardener, I am always surprised and consider myself lucky when I find an artifact left in a book by a previous reader. Happily finding in books, perhaps a recipe, a gardening article, or a dried leaf. While leafing through "Eat the Weeds", I was lucky enough to discover on page 64 a dried leaf in the shape of an arrowhead. The plant described on that page is the Tule potato, or Sagittaria latifolia. I live near the Tule River - what a coincidence!

Anyway, "Eat the Weeds" is a wonderful book full of information about numerous wild plants that are edible. Both nettle and Miner's lettuce (purslane) are mentioned several times in the book. Ben Harris covers many of the nutritional benefits of plants growing wild around us. Whether you look in your back yard, an empty lot, a pasture, or the woods, there are plenty of plants around you that are very beneficial and free for the picking, so help yourself.

Blood Orange & Spring Clean Up

One of the rewards of late winter is that citrus are ripening. This year I was rewarded with two blood oranges; Gary and I each had one. They were delicious. Since I had never actually tasted a blood orange, I thought I would do some research to see how my blood orange measures up to the characteristics of the species. I discovered that the ingredient in the orange that makes it red, anthocyanin, also happens to be an antioxidant. I also learned this same ingredient in blood oranges helps to protect against many types of health problems including diabetes. As with all natural remedies, do your own research and do not disregard the advice of your doctor.

With the warm weather we are having, I realize I am behind in my spring clean up chores. I have been busy cutting back all the perennials, raking leaves, cleaning up the vegetable bins, cutting back the herbs, and last, but not least, weeding. Cutting back perennials in the Spring is much better than doing it in the winter. One reason is because the dry branches help to hold leaves around the base of the plants and the leaves protect the plant from cold weather. Another reason is that the tall dried branches are a reminder where the plant is located in the Spring when the perennial starts sending up new shoots.

The buddleia prefers to be pruned in the Spring. I have tried pruning buddleia in the Fall and I have lost several buddleia that way. Buddleia is one of those plants which is stimulated to grow when it is pruned; therefore it makes sense to prune it in early Spring. Citrus are another plant that should only be pruned during the growing season since pruning stimulates growth for citrus. Last summer I had to prune my wisteria four times. I have always wanted a wisteria covered patio, so when we moved here I planted two wisteria on either side of patio near the gift shop. I didn't realize that a wisteria would take so much upkeep to keep it tidy. Hopefully I will be rewarded this Spring with lots of blossoms. I know I am definitely rewarded in the middle of summer, when the arbor is the best place to obtain relief from the scorching summer sun.

A Little Bourbon Never Hurt Anyone !

Lavender isn't the only edible plant I grow in my gardens. I also grow other herbs, vegetables and fruits too. You probably guessed I love gardening, but I also love cooking. So I am always looking for ways to incorporate what I grow in the gardens into various recipes. From time to time here I will post recipes I have tried using ingredients grown locally or grown right here in my gardens. As we all know home grown produce always tastes much better than store bought. The best reason I can think of is that the ingredients we get from our gardens or those that are grown locally are fresher. A great place to find local farmers in your area growing sustainably grown products is Local Harvest. Please check this organization out, they are a great resource and are doing a wonderful service for their members and for the public who wish to support their local economy and farmers.

Now you are probably wondering what bourbon has to do with gardening? Well there could be a lot of reasons, as I am sure many could attest to. But in this case, I was searching for a recipe to bring to a local dinner group I belong to, when I remembered having some delicious Bourbon Yams at a Ventura County Potters Guild ceramics workshop I attended recently. Since yams are in season in the winter, I wanted to try making Bourbon Yams to bring to the dinner group. Here is the recipe for bourbon yams.

8 yams
2 cups dark brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup bourbon
1/4 lb butter
3/4 cup pecans - chopped

Brown the pecans in a small amount of butter in a skillet and set aside.

Boil the yams for 12 minutes with water just covering them and drain immediately and put in cold water with ice added to stop the cooking process. After they are cool, peel and slice them.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter, add the brown sugar and cook till slightly thick. Then add the bourbon and heavy cream and blend together. Add in the sliced yams and mix around to coat them with the sauce. Then add in the pecans and mix around to distribute the nuts.

Put into a greased glass pan 13 x 9 and bake for 25 minutes at 375 (put a tin foil covered baking sheet underneath to catch anything that might bubble over.

I hope you enjoy these yams as much as I did. If you have any recipes to recommend, please feel free to recommend them to me.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

No Cows Allowed !

Have you ever tried to describe a cow? That’s what I was doing a few Saturdays ago when I discovered two cows in my garden. Apparently someone had locked the cows behind our gate trying to prevent anyone from hitting the cows, since the cows had been out on the highway. I spent that morning trying to locate the owner. Each person I called asked me to describe the cows - I couldn’t get close enough to see if they had a brand - just that they had green tags in their ears. I finally located the owner and he came and got them. All I could think of when I saw the cows was all the damage they were going to do, stepping on all the plants and eating whatever lay in their path. I might put up a sign on the gate saying, “No Cows Allowed !”

But what a minute, now that I think about it, animals seem to like the garden. Take for instance the wild turkeys, they come by regularly and browse around in the flower beds eating insects, oftentimes resting on the bench under the rose arbor. Then there are the great blue heron who land in the deodar tree trying to spy gophers popping up, hoping for a meal. Yes, it’s true I have actually seen two heron catch gophers here. One heron swallowed the gopher whole and another carried the gopher off, presumably to feed its young. The heron are actually making a dent in the gopher population. Then there are the sly visitors to the garden. The ones I know have been here by the evidence they leave behind. The deer who eat the roses and the skunks who help themselves to low hanging oranges, leaving the peels behind. If I could just get some of these visitors to do some weeding, things would be almost perfect around here.

The rosemary is blooming and the bold yellow of the Euryops "Tali' are making a wonderful show in the herb garden this week. The flowering plum trees are in full bloom. I notice there are very few honey bees this year. I would have
thought the pungent blossoms of the plum would draw the bees in droves, but not so. In recent years, bees numbers have dwindled for a number of reasons. To help our bee populations, plant flowers that are attractive to bees, such as zinnias. And try not to use any pesticides or herbicides in the garden. In this way you can help our bees stay healthy. Well, I am off now to check with my beekeeper neighbor to see why there are so few bees right now.