All’s well in the garden, well almost

Where’s this bad economy I keep seeing on TV? Go to any large mall or shopping center in Central Florida and try to find a parking space. Mid week, weekends – doesn’t matter.

If I do say so myself, the garden is turning out awesome this season. It has to be a combination of the improved soil, an improved farmer, and the sensational weather. As a concrete measure, I planted 50+ seedlings a few days ago and have had 100% survival. That’s highly surprising for me. I typically see a 5-10% fall out at that point in the process and always have spares available to compensate for the losses. I’m thinking that the greenhouse may be having some impact on that as well since the seedlings are being raised in an environment much closer to the garden than when I was growing them in the house or on the screened porch. I always tried to “harden” the plants before transplanting but it was only for a few days whereas the greenhouse is home for 4-6 weeks. The other thing different is that after planting I always spot some areas that are not quite up to par. This year I do have a spot but it’s less than 20 SF and will be corrected in February when the next scheduled composting happens. I distinctly remember the first couple of years when I would pinpoint the good areas so lots of progress in that department. I’ve taken a couple of pics to show off. Where you see the apparently empty areas, look more closely. There are small seedlings growing there, in keeping with my attempts to keep a continuous stream of goodies maturing.
Went back to Publix with Nancy to pick up on a couple more of the discount gas cards I mentioned some time back. While she shopped for the necessary $50 worth of merchandise, I went back to the produce section to really delve into what they were currently selling and how expensive it was. I was blown away last week when I did a cursory price check so this time I was going to home in on it. I picked up a bunch of kale, where a bunch is 3 leaves, $2.99. Three leaves isn’t even a good taste let alone a meal. The same was true with fresh collards-a bunch of perhaps 5 leaves, $2.99. Five leaves cooks down to a fork full at best. George picked a wash tub full last time, $30 worth if he’d bought them at Publix. A bunch of beets, that would be 3 beets – $2.99. That’s a dollar per beet and it’s hardly worth going to all the trouble of cooking just 3 beets. Leaf lettuce was $1.99 for a small bunch. If you mix lots of other stuff with it, there was enough lettuce for a salad for two. And let me mention, these veggies were just regular veggies, not organic. And they didn’t look very good either; really limp and colorless. George is convinced the high prices are a result of all the farmers growing corn for ethanol; my guess is the drought throughout the southeast.

I’ve noticed in past years that my cauliflower has a tendency to turn pinkish/purple after starting out the classic snow white. Doesn’t seem to effect the taste but it has bothered me just a bit because I thought maybe it was a fungus or something – maybe I was waiting too long to pick. Learned something enlightening in one of my seed catalogs – turning pinkish/purple is a sign of stress – either water or fertility stress. Remember my soil tests have come back saying my garden is fertility challenged, well there’s the explanation. I’m going to fertilize the cauliflower more heavily this year and see if that keeps the heads nice and white. Must be lots of experimentation going on with cauliflower because there are new colors offered every year. I’ve tried the orange variety, cheddar, the purple variety, I think it’s called Violet Queen, but this year is the first time I saw green cauliflower. Not sure why they named it Panther, but there it is. I am growing a variety called Veronica which looks like a cross between cauliflower and broccoli with green spiraled heads, very bizarre looking. It all tastes about the same to me but it sure raises a few eyebrows when served for dinner. My neighbor is a traditionalist and simply won’t pick anything but the white. Works for me.

Pro football again

I’m actually back watching some pro football this season.The Dolphins are finally winning and then there are the Colorado Gators. Normally I turn the tube on and after about 3 minutes get bored to tears and turn it off. Not so much this year. The Lions started off the season by actually winning some games caught my attention because I knew Simon would be stoked. Then the background noise from Denver about the fans wanting to see Tebow play but the leadership keeping him benched tweaked me a little since I have some friends in Utah who are ardent Bronco fans. I’ve watched them play 3 games now and one thing for certain, the games are super close right up to the last minute. And they do wear Orange and Blue.

I’m really hating this Gingrich surge. I smell another Goldwater disaster in the making. I’ve felt from the get go that Romney just wouldn’t get it but had hopes for any number of others in the race to eventually pull ahead. The only one worse than Gingrich would be Ron Paul from a self destruction standpoint. No doubt Gingrich is the smartest guy around but he’s the loosest of loose cannons. The lib media is just drooling with the prospect of keeping him viable to feed raw meat to the Democrats next year. I’m trying mentally to just forget the presidential situation and pull for a clean sweep of congress by the Republicans. If that occurs, I guess even Romney would be ok.

Accidentally tuned into a show on the tube the other night that made my day. After the PBS news they switched to a local garden show and before I could find the remote to change the channel, they announced that tonight the topic would be vegetable gardening and the host was some recognized expert. He was going through different veggies and different problems and casually mentioned beets and that he had consistently bent his pick trying to grow them. I’ve had exactly the same situation and blamed me for just not knowing the way to grow them. All of a sudden I felt relieved. He also said that he basically quit gardening in June and didn’t start again until September/October. That’s exactly how I read it. The exception, he said, was to grow sweet potatoes. He said you basically put the starts in around May and dig up the potatoes 5-6 months later. He said he just picked up a couple of potatoes from the grocery store and either half buried them in the garden or stuck them in a jar of water to force sprouting. Then pull off the sprouts and stick them in the ground. He said trying to grow almost anything else in the summer was way too much trouble and work for what you might yield. Another good tip that I learned the hard way – mark the spot where you plant the sprout. Once the vines start growing, it’s impossible to find the spot where the tubers start. He said you just work your hand down into the soil at the planting spot to feel the size of the tubers and whether they’re ready for picking. I add eggplant, green peppers, and okra to the list of summer stuff but have vowed to avoid all thoughts of raising tomatoes, squash, melons or anything else.

The Humble Chef

Today reminds me of a typical Sunday afternoon in Salt Lake City. The quilt frames are up, taking up the whole Great Room, and I’m whipping up a batch of chicken cacciatore for dinner. The key ingredient missing is my buddy and fellow chef, Chris. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to pull it off solo. We worked together like a finely tuned machine and turned out some true masterpieces of cacciatorium. I know I’ll be able to make the pasta but Chris was critical in coating the chicken, cutting up the veggies and being the chief cheer leader. The whole process used to take us a couple of hours and made a glorious mess of the kitchen. I don’t have an actual recipe to look at. In the past I remember that we took two different recipes from this very, very old Italian cookbook and combined them to create our own version. Naturally that book is history meaning I have to go totally by memory so it’s likely some spices will be missing or changed.

Another difference with this batch of pasta is that I’m using Semolina flour instead of regular flour. There was a difference right away in making the dough. It has more of a yellow color and a noticeably smoother texture.

Results – I was correct in remembering it was a very messy process. The semolina pasta was good and seemed just a bit firmer to me. Nancy has a better sense of taste than me and she thought it was better so it probably was. One big difference is that with just Nancy and I, there was enough food for two large meals and I don’t remember that being the case years ago. As for the cacciatore itself, it was pretty good but not up to our old standards – my opinion. I think the veggies were cut too small and the type of tomatoes used was not optimum. Clearly I need more practice or a skilled co-pilot.

TRAGEDY STRIKES – This weeks leads up to a full moon, I have a new battery for the trolling motor, and replaced the line on my two spec rods. The last time I’d used the jon boat or any of the spec equipment was last December. I had pulled the boat well up on shore when the lake level got too low to use the lift on the dock. It took everything I had to get it back into the water at which point I connected the battery to find out that the trolling motor was dead. When I started to mess with it, water poured out from the control head – a bad, bad sign. I took it up to the shop and started disassembling the head in hopes of drying it out and restoring it to good health. The wind started picking up so morning fishing was now out of reach. By mid afternoon, still nothing so I have to assume it’s history although I’ll try again tomorrow. Maybe bring it in to bed with us tonight for some real tender loving care. I was really disappointed when I called Bass Pro Shops – this is their house brand motor – and drew a complete blank about having it repaired. Something about a $99 diagnostic charge for a motor that cost $150 new. That price didn’t include any replacement parts or labor, just the diagnosis. Maybe it will work again in a couple of days but this full moon thing won’t happen again for another month and spec season is in full bloom, now. Luckily I found a reconditioned 40# thrust Minn Kota on sale and my bride found a free shipping coupon for Cabelas so as of this moment, there’s somebody in Nebraska filling out a shipping label with my name on it. In the mean time, I’ll be trolling behind the kayak. The spec gods are clearly trying to keep me off the lake.

Full Garden

Probably a good thing Urban Meyer left Florida. Clearly he has some mental issues. Wonder if they added a whacko clause in his contract?

I’ve mentioned before that I do grow some things in the garden that I don’t eat. My neighbor requested kale and collards plus Nancy likes them both. I like the way they look in the garden and figure if they’re eating those items, that means they’re not eating the things I like on the theory that you can only eat so much. Since George and Barbara know I don’t care for them and Nancy does, when they make a batch, they bring some over for her. Well a couple days back they did a major collard cutting and a few hours later a tupperware style plastic container with collards showed up on the kitchen counter. I bumped into both Barbara and George in the garden and they said that without a doubt, these collards were the best they had ever eaten in their lives. That’s a big statement from Barbara since she comes from a family that sold produce commercially for years and is a multi-generational southerner. So when Nancy heated up the greens as a side for dinner, I decided to take a taste and see if they were bitter and stringy as I remembered them (from about 50 years ago). Nope, they were really edible. I even went back for seconds since the first helping was only one forkful. Here’s the thing, the variety I grow is an old standby variety, I think they’re called Georgia collards, so it’s most likely the same variety they’ve eaten in the past. The difference has to be that within 30 minutes of being picked, they were cooked. With other veggies I’m aware of, as soon as they’re picked the sugars start converting to starches. I guess that makes them less sweet and toughens the texture. I think I mentioned that Nancy sauteed up a few kale leaves the other day. I did the same taste test and was surprised when they weren’t the least bit bitter. But it was the same – from the plant to the frying pan in about 15 minutes.

Guess what – the second batch of spinach seeds I planted, also a 2008 vintage, germinated just fine; guess I just can’t conclude that only new spinach seed works. So now we have a long position of spinach in the pipeline. When I say a long position, assuming poor germination at best, I planted a single 25′ row very densely, a few seeds per inch. Assuming all the ones I spotted do indeed pop out fully, and assuming I carefully thin them, there would easily be 100 running feet of spinach. Spinach is a really fast crop, I think this variety is something like 39 days – think spinach salad in January.

As of Dec 3, not a square foot of garden space available to plant. Put in 3 full 18 plant flats yesterday – and planted seed in the green house for the last planting of the season in about 6 weeks. Considering how much planting area I’ve added in the past year, no doubt this will be the largest crop ever at Rancho Purdom. After consulting with my two premium customers, Nancy and Barbara, I decided to not plant the celery at all. Their opinions were independently made but identical – celery takes too long to grow, takes up too much space, and is cheap at the grocery store so use the space for a better return. Anybody want any celery starts?

I’ve already planted Flashy Butter Oak lettuce in the spot previously designated celery alley. The flashy refers to the red streaks in the green; butter says it has some Buttercrunch genes, making it extra tender; Oak refers to the shape of the leaves so this variety has a really wide parentage. I grew it last year for the first time and it was extra good. Doesn’t like the heat at all so it’s a Jan/Feb crop for us.

Flower Sprouts

The seed catalogs are rolling in and I came across my first “must try”. This is not just a new variety, this is a whole new vegetable called “Flower Sprouts”. It’s a cross between Brussels and Kale and instead of the tight cabbage like heads on regular Brussels Sprouts, these are mini open leaf sprouts that look like tiny lettuces. There are 3 types – red, green, and bicolor. The catalog says you lightly steam, saute, stir fry, or roast and that the color will hold if lightly cooked. They’re very proud of them – $11 for a packet of seeds, probably 100 or fewer per packet. That’s about 10x the price I would normally pay for sprouts. The only thing telling me to toss caution to the wind and go for the gold is that I just got in from checking produce prices in Publix and was blown away to find a bundle of chard, about half enough for a meal, at $3.99 and a poor looking cauliflower for $3. That makes any seeds I buy seem a real bargain. I know I’m going to be the first kid on the block with Flower Sprouts.

From expensive seed to cheap seed. I mentioned that I could drop in on the local ACE hardware and get a pack of spinach seed if this last batch doesn’t germinate. We were driving by the ACE and I decided to just go ahead and get a seed packet and use it later this season if the older seed does germinate. Typically when I buy a packet of seed from one of the premier suppliers, it costs nominally $2.50. If I pick up a packet from Lowes or ACE it’s a lesser brand but will cost more on the order of $1.50. Turns out the ACE sells some bulk seed which happened to include spinach seed. I scooped out a small bag full, still much more than I will use in a season. It weighed about an ounce and cost 16 cents. There’s not a great variety to select among but they do have a few of the varieties I usually plant.

A post or so back I predicted no more info regarding ghost peppers. That turns out not to be true. I got a report back from my nephew, to whom I send a quart bag full via USPS. Although they were fresh picked and shipped the same day, when they arrived two days later, they were starting to spoil and only about half made it. I guess they had started decomposing to a liquid state which dripped through the shipping box. USPS double bagged them for delivery. I can just imagine what must have been going on in the sorting center or post office. The problem must be that the fumes from the peppers are so caustic, they attack the surrounding peppers and cause them to hyper ripen or decompose. So there must be a trick to packing these for shipment.

Had a double bad battery day. The battery in the truck had been threatening to crash for a while and finally did. And coming onto spec season, I needed to make sure the trolling motor battery was up to the season. It was as dead as it can get. Anybody priced new batteries lately? I think they’ve doubled in price since the last batteries I bought. The truck battery was a 2002 vintage so I really can’t complain about that.