Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I Pea'd Myself!

Oh, garden humor. I am a laugh riot.

For real, I have finally managed to plant sweet peas in such a way that I get, you know, actual peas on the vine! Woohoo!!!! The trick wound up being: plant early, plant in the shadiest spot in the garden, and sing to the vines encouragingly every day. They prefer Bob Marley. I'm sure that this won't necessarily work for everybody, depending on your region. If you live in the Northwest, for example, you might do better with full sun and, say, Lyle Lovett. The point is: I HAVE SWEET PEAS!! To be sure, there aren't a lot of vines, probably because the seeds I planted were old. Next year, I'll put trellises on the back of every bed in the shade and try to get a bigger harvest.

In other garden news, the potatoes got a second layer of hilling, this time with mucked out straw from the school farm. Forking it into barrels made me so happy that I'm pretty sure the Ag teacher thought I was insane. I doubt any farm I have will have cows, but the smell of straw + cow + manure is lovely to me. The taties already need another hilling. I'm considering going to the Ag Center, which is a huge complex where the state fair and various animal contests and RV gatherings are held. They have a pile of shavings and manure that anybody can go and get for free. I don't know about hilling potatoes with it, though. Maybe I should just try to find some more grass clippings? I remain skeptical about the potatoes, although they look beautiful and healthy in their golden bed (I'd take a picture, but we've been under a weird little streak of thunderstorms since around five, so I think I'll stay in here so as not to get zapped...maybe later after the weather clears.) I wonder what type of music they'd like? Garth Brooks springs weirdly to mind.

The first batch of compost is officially ready. There are still some bigger strands of grass left over from last year before I realized you really need to shred your stuff before chunking it into the bin, but I'm not too worried about them. I'll use the compost on my seedlings, which will go in this weekend. Poor babies. Winter sowing, it turns out, is a science for at least one person living in the South. Again, it might be easier somewhere else with more predictable seasons. This spring has been fairly consistently coolish, but our winter was a wee schizophrenic, especially at the end. The plants sprang up fast and then have been hunched down in their pots for at least a month. Transplanting them seemed to have little to no effect on their growth, although most of them really seem puny now, like they want to stretch their legs. I'll be trying to find fish emulsion this weekend to perk up the squash. I've read that too much nitrogen makes for not a lot of fruit. And I want a LOT of fruit!! (Oooooh, the thought of fried squash is ALMOST enough to make me long for the heavy heat of summer.) The others will get some compost--and maybe some Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes.

On the homefront, we've been doing good on the eating-in department. We took Jeffrey out to eat yesterday after a doctor's visit, but otherwise, we've eaten at home for the entire week. The rest of the month hasn't gone as well--we've done a terrible job of eating-in AND of keeping our budget. Sometimes I feel a bit like, "Dang, I'm growing a garden. How much do I have to pare down?" but this mainly comes on days when the kids are fractious or we have a packed schedule or when (to be honest) I'm just being lazy. Budgeting simply must be part of the homesteading effort, as well as doing a better job of using what we have here instead of buying something new. Baby steps.

I've settled officially on a biscuit recipe for the family. It yields yummy, tender, buttery, soft, crunchy on the bottom bread that everybody loves. It's a variation of Mama's recipe, one I read in "Better Homes and Gardens" by Scott Peacock, and one from Alton Brown, my culinary boyfriend (and fellow UGA grad.)

Not Hannah's Biscuits O' Joy
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Combine 2 cups all-purpose flour, three teaspoons baking powder, and one teaspoon salt. I use a whisk, other folks use a food processor. Eh.
  3. Pour one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar into a measuring cup. Add milk to make one cup. I use 1 percent milk, for what it's worth. This is a replacement for buttermilk. I don't know that I make biscuits enough to buy buttermilk since I don't know how long it lasts in the fridge, nor how much it costs. I'm perfectly happy with this substitution.
  4. Cut a half stick of cold, unsalted butter longways and then shortways. You're aiming for little butter cubes. Plop those into the flour mixture.
  5. Squoosh the butter cubes around in the flour mixture to break them up. "The experts" say aim for pea-sized pieces combined with smaller bits, which always makes me go, "Ack! Are we talking sweet peas? English peas? Crowder? PURPLE-HULLED PINKEYES????" Dude, you just want some bigger bits (field peas) and some smaller bits (graham cracker crumbs) and some flour. Don't have big hunks of butter in there.
  6. Stir up the milk and cider mixture. The acid in the vinegar will combine with the baking powder and make a nice fizzy dough that rises in the oven.
  7. Pour about 3/4 of the milk mixture into the flour and butter mixture. Some folks say make a well in the middle. Eh. I just pour slowly and hope for the best.
  8. Stir gently with a fork. This is the "Do this part carefully or you'll wind up with tough, dry, disks o'sadness" part. I mix until it's all just combined. Depending on weather, I sometimes have a bit of milky stuff in the bottom of the bowl. This is okay--I can always add a bit of flour during the kneading part.
  9. Plonk the dough out onto a floured surface. I use a wooden cutting board and I sprinkle maybe an eighth of a cup of flour onto the board. I have no idea if this is the "lightly floured" surface the experts go on about. This is what works for me.
  10. Now the kneading part. I flatten the dough out to about an inch and a half, fold it in half, flatten it to an inch and a half, fold it in half, repeat and repeat and repeat maybe six or seven times. I've heard you should knead eleven times, that you shouldn't knead, that you knead only enough to coat the back and front of your dough with flour. Whatever works, y'all. This works for me.
  11. Roll the dough out to about half an inch. I use a fairly large biscuit cutter and with a bit of smooshing the cut out parts together, I can get eight big biscuits and a little wonky one that I call the "sample." Don't spin the cutter; just push it down (I love the poofy little sound it makes) and lift it up. Put the biscuits on a parchment sheet lined pan so that they're almost touching, like maybe a centimeter between them. Poke holes in the biscuits all the way down to the pan with a fork, twice. Top each biscuit with a tiny piece of butter.
  12. Bake for, oh, eleven or so minutes. I never time it...I always go by sight.
  13. Eat and experience bliss.
Still working on the Cracker O' Joy. Will report when I've figured it out.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


I actually wrote few days ago. Wednesday? I don't know. Will's been on break and it screwed my sense of time all up. I did another homestead-y thing today and I'll document it tomorrow maybe, after a trip to our favorite herb farm.

Guess what I just did? No, really. Guess.

I ate a homemade graham cracker slathered with peanut butter. And it was AWESOME.

Or at least very, very good.

The recipe from Baking Bites proved to be spot-on and even when I totally mixed two steps up and wound up with largish blobs of butter in my rolled-out dough, they still taste good. Jeffrey is kind of squicky on the texture (he doesn't like crunchy at all and still speaks with longing of the thick, chewy slabs o' dough that were my second batch of crackers) and River refused to eat hers at all (it was sweet, you see, and I have decided this child might actually be a foundling--she eats neither chocolate nor peanut butter and...) BUT--Will and I liked them. Next time, I'll do a few things differently, starting with, you know, combining ingredients in the correct order. I also think I'll to process the graham flour a bit and try to break it down. The biggest difference between these and storebought was one of texture--storebought are smoother and...flakier, maybe? I also will substitute one of the tablespoons of molasses for honey. It won't change anything but the taste and I feel like, especially for the little ones, molasses makes for a more complicated taste. All in all, this was a successful test. I'm really stoked to think that in a few weeks I'll be able to mark one more item off my shopping list. Woohoo!

Now guess what I just did? It's about six hours later and I'm finishing up the post that work kept me from. I'm not snuggled down in bed because I had my very own Laura Ingalls Wilder moment and got up to water down the plants because of the expected frost. To my relief, it doesn't appear that it got down to freezing. NOAA has the temp at 35 degrees and while that's cold as poo poo, there's no frost on the car or the plants. I'll check again as it gets closer to twilight, but I think we were spared. (I have my fingers crossed for the peach farmers.)

The anxiety the forecast frost caused me was considerable; I'm not really sure why. Certainly, I don't depend on my garden for sustenance. And with our warm climate and long growing season, there's plenty of time to plant seedlings or even grow some crops straight from seed. I suppose it's that a lot of work went into my little seedlings--physical work, but also planning and hoping and dreaming. I'm starting to consider this venture to be less something fun to do because my Daddy gardened and more an actual lifestyle change, and the threat of frost threatened that lifestyle. Just checked the veggie garden frost! Yay!

So now I have a slew of newspaper-potted tomatoes and cukes and peppers sitting in my kitchen for no good reason. Ah, well. Better safe than sorry.

I dug out most of the seedlings from their winter-sown homes yesterday. (I had to leave some because the kids were clamoring for supper and my fingers were numb from making newspaper pots.) First, I needed to bring them in from the cold and second, they were getting a bit root bound and nitrogen-starved in the containers. It was odd to look at my garden sans containers. This has been an interesting experiment. I'm not sure what I'll do differently next year. I expected the peppers to go great guns, as I've frequently had volunteer peppers come up from missed fruit, but I only got two California Wonders and no banana peppers at all. I expected no eggplant, but yesterday I lifted two healthy seedlings and two "trying hard" seedlings from the container. (More than enough in our house, as I'm the only one who eats it.) The tomatoes got a mixed review, although I had to restart the seeds after a hard freeze. The Jelly Beans went pffff (I think I have three?), the Romas and Better Boys did okay, and the Cherokee Purples surprised me by going CRAZY and springing up all six. So...I'm set for tomatoes. (Will doesn't know this yet, but I'm thinking I'm going to be stuffing some of these jokers into a flower bed or two. Or, you know, seven.) I'd like to experiment a bit more...starting the seedlings earlier, bringing them in for frosty nights, etc. But I'm also going to look at a small grow-light set up for my herbs and peppers next year.

On Monday (again, ahead of the expected freeze), I hilled my potatoes. I had been meaning to do it, but I didn't get around to it and I had a good foot or so of plant sticking out of the soil.

Good old Ed and Daddy both recommend mounding soil or (in Ed's case) marsh grass around the plants as they grow to increase production. My soil being less than satisfactory in the organic matter department and lacking any marsh grass (or marshes, for that matter), I elected to do a hodgepodge and make my own marsh grass. I mixed soil from the big pile left from last year with grass clippings I got from friends and piled it all up around the plants. There was something so pleasing about the process: the rhythm of of shoveling the soil, stirring the clippings and soil together, forking it out of the wagon. Hilling potatoes is hard when you're using a box bed. The potatoes are crammed in as it is and mine are close to the edge. The answer was using a vinyl-wrapped chicken wire to create a sort of cage around the outside. I have no freakin' clue if this will work, but if it does, I figure I will have roughly eighty blue million pounds of potatoes. This means figuring out how to build a small root cellar, finding out if potatoes dry well, and unloading mounds of taties on all friemily who'll take them.

I think I'll head back to bed for a few more moments of snuggling with the hubs before the day gets going. It'll be warm today and there's still so much to do to get the garden ready. (Not least of which is figuring out what to do with a laundry room full of misplaced seedlings.)

Bonus shot of my precious little farmer boy:

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Um, About the Rain

Sheesh. I really got what I asked for. A pretty much whole week of blinding, stay in the house rain. Right now, I'm chilling out in the library waiting for the first of the severe storms expected today to arrive. More rain. Ahem. The rain in question will usher in a blast of frigid air--we're expecting cooler temps all next week, with two nights dropping to or below freezing. Argh.

With the coming cold (and rain), I elected yesterday not to set any of my winter sown babies out. The cukes and squashes are getting pissy in their containers, though, so I may try to get some slightly larger pots (or make some out of newspaper) to transplant them into next week. I've just realized that there's supposed to be an intermediate step between the place you first sow your seeds and the place they'll stay. Oh. Huh. It makes sense, I suppose. I have plenty of used newspapers after the weekend, so I think I'll roll some pots tonight after the kiddies are in bed while Will is watching the Braves. There are a few different ways to do it, so I'll hopefully have a veritable armada of pots come Monday. (BTW, omalawsy at the last link, I have found another urban gardener and she rocks my socks off. I think I'll be spending all of today poring over her site and pretty being lazy as she talks about all the work she does.)

I don't feel all too upset about the laziness today, as I worked a good bit outside yesterday. Having abandoned my setting out plans, I elected instead to do some transplanting of various plants around the yard and beds. First up were the lavenders I've been growing for about a year in the transplant bed. I dug them all up and used them to line the walkway of the cottage garden. Darryl from Olive Forge told me last year that he thought they might be Spanish, and a quick Google proved this to be so. Spanish lavenders aren't typically as fragrant as French lavenders, but these particular lovelies have a wonderful, honey-tinged scent as they leaf and bud out in the spring. The two (rather straggly) plants that I had in the front flower garden greeted me every day with that scent and it made me smile, so I decided to haul them all out front. I was able to get eight plants from the original four or five. I hope they'll grow into a nice little hedge for me. Research shows that they just might, providing the very moist soil in the bed allows them to. (Research also shows me that the name comes from the Latin word "to wash," which makes me long for a bathtub deep enough to steep myself with a few sprigs of lavender...sigh...) Hopefully, removing a few of the bordering blocks to allow a path through the bed will help with drainage. I'll be trimming them back hard after the rain to give them a break from making flowers and to encourage root growth.

I've decided to turn the front bed from herbs (with the exception of the lavender) to straight flowers. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that I have yet to find an organic solution to blackspot and the Joseph's Coat is prone to it and I need to go ahead and treat the bed. I want anything I use in my cooking or home solutions to be organically grown, so I need to move the herbs back to the main garden. After the lavender, I took out a sweet grass I got last year from Olive Forge and a tiny itty bitty jewel weed that self-seeded (oh, I hope I find some more later in the season.) I rearranged the stokesia into an orderly cluster (stumbling upon a truly gigantic dark brown spider scurrying around with her egg sac tucked under her...yay, Mama!--also, *shudder*) and moved an aster from the path's edge.

Then back to the back to put in two rabbit-eye blueberry bushes. They're covered already with blooms and berries, so I have much hope for at least a handful of berries for a snack come early summer. (The raspberries also have a few buds on them, which makes me SMILE as we edge closer to the kind of self-sufficiency I crave. I'm hoping to get a couple more blueberry bushes, some blackberry brambles and maybe some self-pollinating kiwis next week--unless the nurseries say it's too late to plant. FRUIT! Woohoo!) Anyway, I put them in the transplant bed after removing the last small lavender and mulched them with the grass clippings Will swept out of the yard.

What few clippings were left were added to the Phase One composter (the aluminum trash can). I'm trying to be very good about chopping everything into smaller bits, because I've realized that has been the primary problem in my composting history. I also am more careful to layer dry and wet stuff. I checked on the contents of the Phase Two composter (actual tumbler-style bin that Will got me for my birthday) and was THRILLED to realize that (drummmmmrooolllll) I'm getting some compost!! I finally did it right and I'm so excited because that means that if all goes well, I'll be able to use it when I put my transplanted seeds in.

I was reading over some of my blogs from last year and taking into account the things I've learned. The biggest success so far this year is the sweet peas. The vines are so healthy and tall (worried about them come Tuesday and Wednesday night), I know I did the right thing by planting them so early. Next year, I'll do the same for the Swiss chard. The winter sowing/heat fiasco this year and the lack of seedlings last year taught me that they need to go in the ground at the same time as I do my lettuce and peas. Live and garden and learn!

Plans for the upcoming week (despite the fact that it's supposed to be really chilly):

  1. Figure out what to do with all this chocolate mint. (It's the darker green stuff bordering the beds.)I don't mind having a bunch of it around (it's my favorite mint to use in charms and cooking) and in fact was afraid I had killed it dead, but this is ridiculous!! I might try to encourage it to grow around the little flower bed/not very much used spot under the bigger crepe myrtle. We're thinking about putting a little zen fountain out there, so it might work nicely.
  2. Decide on the zen fountain. :)
  3. Finish trellising the Joseph's Coat.
  4. Fix the front bed gate.
  5. Repot the seedlings.
  6. Start working on the sidewalk bed--the foundation will be transplanted rosemaries. I'll fill in with a few trellises of mini-pumpkins and some inexpensive annuals for right now.
Off to do laundry and attempt some homemade graham crackers from the recipe over at Baking Bites.