The Backyard

The Backyard

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Revisiting My 1994 Gardening "Roots"

Years ago, the local Newspaper, "Patriot-News", ran an annual gardening contest focusing on different types of gardens.  One year was vegetables, another was perennials, and in 1994 it was herbs.  I entered that year, and out of 51 entries, I placed second.  Here's the article on the 2nd place winner.

Herbal landscape, backyard culinary garden runners-up

An herbal landscape overlooking the Mahantango Mountains and a neatly trimmed backyard culinary garden in the middle of Harrisburg won second and third place in this year's Patriot-News "How Does Your Garden Grow?" contest.  Jill Wiest of Lykens Township won the $50 second prize for the landscaping job she did on her two-year-old home deep in the countryside of northern Dauphin County.  While Wiest's 1-acre landscaping shows that herbs can be just as ornamental as the flowers and shrubs that most homeowners plant, Hanyok's garden shows that it doesn't take a lot of space in which to grow a great garden.  The Patriot News eighth annual gardening contest this year focused on herb gardening, which has been flourishing like an upnotted mint plant these past two years. Out of 51 entries received, screening judges.... narrowed the field to six finalists.  Those finalists gardens were visited in Mid-July.  What the judges especially liked about Wiest's garden was how she followed the natural contour of the land in designing the beds. Rather than digging a rectangle at the base of  bank, for example, Wiest wrapped one large kidney-shaped bed along the bank, added a stone bench at the bottom center of the bed, and lined the whole thing in brick.  "She's blended her beds beautifully in the surrounding landscape", the judges said.  It didn't hurt that Wiest's back yard also overlooks the Mahantango Mountains and valley, offering a spectacular backdrop to the gardens.  (There's also a vegetable garden, a "fragrance garden" of scented herbs off the patio, and a rose/herb/flower garden in addition to the main kidney-shaped herb garden.)  The judges also were impressed that Wiest did all of her landscaping in less than two years.  She and her husband moved to the site and built a Victorian-style house on 7 acres that was carved out of her father's 70-acre farm.  "I've grown marigolds before, but these are my first gardens."  says Wiest.  "I've always loved antique roses, and that's originally what I wanted to put in. But when I was reading about roses, I kept reading about how herbs make such good companions for them"  That got Wiest interested in herbs, and before she knew it, she was reading herb books and making weekly trips to Fisher's Greenhouse in nearby Gratz to buy every kind of herb in the place.  Besides the main herb bed and the fragrance garden, about three quarters of the rest of the property's landscaping is done in herbs.  "I didn't want the traditional evergreens and flowers that everybody has", says Wiest.  "I wanted something different."    Instead of boxwoods and junipers, for example, the front of her house features foot-tall compact plants of germander (blooming purple) flanked by furry lamb's ears, several groups of lavender, a bank of sedum and several antique roses (which tecnically are considered herbs).  In all, Wiest is using 35 different herbs in her foundation plants.  The kidney-shaped bed has 42 herb varieties, including two banks of grey santolina ( a bushy gray herb with fern like foliage that can be clipped in a low hedge), several russian sage plants (tall, frilly foliage with bluish-purple flower spikes), and a bank of thyme.  "She was careful to plant low plants in the front and taller ones in the back", said the judges.  "She very obviously gave this  a lot of thought and has a eye for design".   Wiest's fragrance garden is planted in a circular bed off the brick patio, which was entered through a white wooden arbor planted with climbing roses.  In the fragrance garden are scented geraniums, lemon thyme, and lavender.   "I like herbs because they're mostly perennials, in most cases they're care-free and there are so many of them, Wiest says.  "And they are not that expensive either."  

And that my friends, started my journey to Master Gardening and the obsession I have today for growing and preserving things.   The remainder of the article was about the third place winner and runners-up.  Needless to say, 18 years later, few of these plants remain and the design is long gone, overtaken by other priorities and life in general.  Retirement is giving me the opportunity to get it back again and it feels pretty darn good.  

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Drying Apples

Our local farmer's market had a good deal on a bushel of local seconds apples: $5 for the whole bushel.  It was a deal too good to pass up.  We're not big applesauce eaters and some of the apples seemed less-than-crisp, so in the dehydrator they go.  We never dried apples before, but as a kid, my mother always had dried apples and I loved them.  Hubby wasn't sure if he'd like them either, but I think he's ok with them -- especially knowing no apples will be wasted this way.  The dehydrator handbook instructed me to slice the apples 3/8 inch thick.  It also said to core the apples, but I did an easier method and sliced through the core and picked the seeds out.  Much less waste that way.  I was thrilled with the results.  Two quarts of dried apple rings are sitting on the pantry shelf.

Friday, November 25, 2011

November 25 Garden in Central Pennsylvania

November has been exceptionally mild with temperatures hovering in the mid-fifties all month.  The mercury hit the low-sixties a couple times and the warm days have me still in the garden.  Food-wise, we're still eating salads made of spinach, carrots, onions, radishes, radicchio with some chard and kale thrown in, and there are a handful of red beets still trying to grow (doubt that they will amount to much at this point).  Work-wise, there's always something to do.   Today or tomorrow, I plan to finish up a project that's been about two years overdue: the herb garden overhaul.   I started to leave it go last year when mother took ill and now is the first chance I had to get digging.  It's a grassy mess.  I feel like I'm digging up the hay field by hand - literally.  A variety of switch grass has found its way from the field (only 10 feet from the herb garden) and covered about 1/4 of the approximately 700 square-foot garden.  It's difficult to dig up, but the end is in sight.  The grass roots entangled themselves in any remaining herbs which meant they too had to be dug up, de-grassed, then replanted.   This was the first of the beds I put in when we moved here 20 years ago.  At the time, it placed second in a local herb garden contest.  Out of 80ish entries, this garden and the herbs surrounding my house caught the judges attention for the variety of plants I used and the aesthetic appeal.  I had plants like silver wormwood, santolina, germander and one of my favorites that I've since completely pulled because it takes over, silver queen (makes beautiful wreaths). I had the traditional herbs too like tansy, lavender, and rosemary. All in all, there must have over 60 varieties of all kinds of herbs everywhere around the house.  I just love them.    At the time, I used very few herbs in cooking.  Today, the herb garden overhaul will be mostly edibles and a handful of varieties that attract beneficial insects.  Here's the rundown of the planned final herbs come spring.  This list may change.

Bulb fennel
Purple and green basil
Lemon Verbena (maybe - don't really use this too much but I love the scent)
Some sort of mint (there are dozens of varieties - I plan to plant a variety to dry and drink over the winter as tea).
Tansy (for beneficial insects)
Bronze fennel (for beneficial insects)
Garlic Chives (for beneficial insects)
St. John's Wort (good ground cover - and the flowers attract bees)
Wormwood (for beneficial insects)
Sunflowers (for the bees and birds)
Sweet Annie (for the beneficial insects)
Purple oregano (for the beneficial insects)
Russian Sage (for beneficial insects)
Rue (for beneficial insects and bees)


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thinking Through Thankfulness

There isn't a morning that goes by that I don't look at the sky and say thanks.  The world around us is magical, beautiful. Everything in it is amazing.  Yes, everything.  Including the mud wasps making their homes on the side of my bricks and the feral cat trying to stay cozy in the weeds of the wild flower meadow where the songbirds are picking on the seed heads of summer's finished growth. Those poor birds have no idea what's lurking under them.  It's all magnificent.  I say this to thank my family too for putting up with my food "interests" all these years.  I can't say it's been easy, but I trudge on with these peculiarities (to them) wondering if the day will ever come that someone in my family will grasp my food ways and join me.  Hubby is coming very close and I'm proud of him.  He's eating much less meat these days and has always steered away from cheese.   The holidays are difficult for me every year and this year seems harder.  Maybe it's because I've been "fighting" it all these years and for some reason, this year, I'm tired.  But I won't give in, and will not dine on the traditional holiday turkey.  I continue to feel sorry for the birds and for the treatment they endure in commercial agriculture production.  My family has learned of the turkey industry through me, but I'm told "I must have fell off the high chair when I was a baby."  They are farmers, meat eaters.  I'd rather not have a dead bird carcass in my kitchen, but I love my family.  Hubby, especially, I love dearly.  His economical thoughts go straight to the $.74 a pound birds and my thoughts go to how that poor bird was raised and tortured during it's short existence. I convinced hubby to allow me to purchase a free-range bird one year, but I never lived the $54.00 price tag down. And now being retired, he found the cheap birds especially attractive.  I can make a lentil loaf with mushroom gravy for a fraction of the cost of that cheap bird.    But I'm outnumbered.  For both Thanksgiving and Christmas, the inexpensive (and subsequently tortured) dead bird will prevail in our home and my hubby and family will engage in festive frolicking and food consumption.  They will be happy.  I continue to be thankful.

Thank you Farm Sanctuary for saving turkeys.
Thank you Ellen DeGeneres for asking people to adopt a turkey rather than eat one.
Thank you facebook friend Amy Vegan-Decker for your wonderful posts on saving animals

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hummus - "Rick's Recipe"

Hubby took a liking to a variety of spicy pepper hummus the local Walmart sold; but, like most mass-produced supermarket products, one day they stopped carrying it. So what did hubby do?  He devised his own recipe.  The part I always had trouble with was blending the ingredients together to get the smooth consistency without purchasing yet another electric gadget to clutter up the kitchen.  With a little research on that there world-wide-web, I found the answer - an immersion blender.  And it works beautifully.  Here's the recipe and here are the pictures of the results. 

Rick's Hummus

1 can chick peas, drained (but keep 1/4 cup liquid)
1/4 chick pea liquid
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons Tahini
1/4 cup Olive Oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon oregano
1/2 tablespoon crushed red peppers
1 tablespoon diced japaleno peppers
1/4 teaspoon pepper (we love cracked peppercorns ground in a coffee grinder)

Mix in a tall container with an immersion blender. 
Nutrition:  1/4 cup: Calories-170, Protein- 4 grams, Iron-6% of RDA, Carbs-9grams, fat-13 grams, Calcium -2% of RDA, fiber - 3 grams.

1/4 cup: Calories-170, Protein- 4 grams, Iron-6% of RDA, Carbs-9grams, fat-13 grams, Calcium -2% of RDA, fiber - 3 grams.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Mom's Pie Crust," Courtesy Whitegrass Cafe in WV

Cooking was never my forte' until Whitegrass Cafe entered into my life.  Whitegrass Cafe is a small restaurant in West Virginia that creates the most delectable dishes I've ever encountered.  The tiny cross-country ski resort packs them in all winter long and the Cafe sells out every weekend.  Reservations must be made weeks in advance.   The Cafe published two cookbooks and today I found the perfect pie crust recipe from Whitegrass Flavor, the most recent of the two cookbooks.  Hubby tried his hand at making pie crust a couple weeks ago using his mother's recipe with mediocre results.  Today, he was happy to see the Whitegrass pie crust success.  The consistency of the crust was smooth and it rolled nicely.  The real test was folding the crust in half and laying it in the pan without any tears or stretching.  It worked like a charm.  Cost savings making our own crust vs buying ready-made crusts is about 70%.  That's significant.  I'm now "Crusty" the crust maker and hubby is "Creamy" the custard filling maker.  We're such a team.  Here's the recipe

Mom's Pie Crust
(Makes one crust)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons vegetable shortening (like Crisco)
2 1/2 tablespoon butter, cold
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

My mom uses all shortening, but I use half butter and shortening.  Some say that lard makes a good crust.  You will have to work with it and see which you like best.  This recipe may seem overwhelming, but you can get hooked on making pie crust from scratch, I did.  MBG (Marybeth Gwyer)

Place flour, salt and sugar in a bowl.  Add shortening, blend with a pastry cutter, or by cutting in opposite directions with two knives.  Blend in butter until you have coarse crumbs with some pea-sized pieces.  Or you can use a food processor to mix the dough.  Pulse gently for 1 second at a time, don't over mix.

In the bowl, sprinkle one tablespoon of water over different parts of mixture.  Toss quickly with a fork until particles stick together when pressed gently.  Use only enough water to make the particles cling together (Jill used 3 tablespoons).  Dough should not be wet or slippery. Form into ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours.  Dough can be frozen for later use.

Remove dough from fridge, let set 5 minutes. To roll roll out dough, scatter a little flour and sugar over your work surface.  Flour the rolling pin as well.  Flatten dough ball and gently begin to roll out from center to all directions.  Turn dough as needed and sprinkle more flour and sugar as needed.  You may have to cut and paste areas to make a round shape.  Roll to about 1/8 inch thin.

Fold circle in half, gently, then quartered.  Pick up and lay in pie pan.  Unfold gently.  Trim, leaving 3/4 inch overhanging. Tuck that under and pinch around the trim for an edge. 

To bake an empty crust, first refrigerate about 30 minutes.  Cover the shell with foil and line it with 1/2 cup dried beans.  This will keep it from puffing up.  Bank in preheated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes.  then gently remove foil and beans.  Bank an additional 5-10 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from oven and cool.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Little Bit of Thyme

Thyme is a "woody" perennial herb coming in hundreds of shapes, colors, and sizes.  It grows flat and fuzzy to full and lush; it spreads, creeps and blooms with beautiful dainty pink flowers the bees love.  I've grown about a dozen varieties over the years with the creeping thymes such as wooly thyme, elfin thyme, and caraway thyme taking top honors in my garden as the most visual (at one point in time, I grew herbs strictly for aesthetics in the garden and seldom used them in cooking).  Today, I have one faithful variety I use for drying and cooking, "french thyme" (Thymus Vulgaris). I previously wrote about drying thyme at this link.   

After about three years, thyme plants grow leggy and "woody" at the base.  You get long stems with a cluster of leaves at the end.  This is the signal for you to work your magic and create new plants.   It's very simple and there are two methods.  Often times, the end of the branch will start to attach itself at a new location and roots will form.  If you see visible roots, you can snip the stem off at the base and plant that new plant elsewhere keeping it moist until it roots and starts growing.  If the long stems have not yet grown roots, you can simply bend the stem into the ground next to the plant, cover it with dirt, and new roots will grow starting a new plant.  this is a method called layering and is described more fully in the below link.  That new plant can be transplanted in a few weeks/months.  Mother Earth News did a wonderful article several years back about Thyme.  You can read it here.     I still enjoy running my fingers through the many scents of thyme at a nursery.  It's astounding how caraway thyme really smells like caraway seed, or lemon thyme is so lemony.  Enjoy your thyme!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Being Neighborly

Part of my quest for organic, clean and frugal living is staying local as much as possible. It makes sense to support local merchants and drive little.  After all, that's how it all began 70-80 years ago - on the farm and countryside.  I'm working towards getting more back to the farm lifestyle of years ago - not much different than how the Amish live today.  Luckily, visiting my parents is only a short, 5-minute walk through the horsefield which keeps it truly close-to-home.  With them both aging a bit (mother is 74, father is 81), I'm thrilled to lend a hand as much as I can.  Mom, a Type 1 diabetic (only 5% of all diabetics have Type 1 which is when your body isn't able to produce insulin), has had numerous health issues - especially the past year -- which leaves her limited in her abilities. Yesterday was a beautifully breezy day for hanging out the wash and that's what mother had on the agenda for me along with washing a couple windows I felt could use a shining.  She had me rearrange a couple things on the high shelves in her corner cabinet and in the process gave me a beautiful old dish she said she didn't ever use and didn't want it anymore.  I cook for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner each year for my family and the dish will come in handy for serving vegetables. I joked with mother I don't have to serve the mashed potates in a mixing bowl anymore.   Low and behold, I come to find out the dish actually has some history to it and the markings on the underside of the dish are a registry code.  Patented on April 4, 1867, it's called white ironstone and the company that made it is Elsmore & Forster and the china type is Tunstall.  The design on the bowl is post-civil war and many felt the idea for the design was conceived with the end of the war in mind showing a lone star at the top of the wreath in the design.  Mom loved the story to the dish and had no idea of the history.  I'm thrilled to have a new serving bowl, and a good neighbor!  

Friday, November 11, 2011

Another Use of Butternut Squash - The Seeds

We love butternut squash and have been growing it for years.  You'll see my many posts and pictures from years past if you search for butternut squash (here's a sample).  This year, now having the time to do more in the kitchen (thanks retirement!), I finally experimented with saving the squash seeds.  Thanks to Mother Earth News (instructions and recipes in the link), the first roasting occurred and it was a huge success.   The process was quite simple:
  • Scoop seeds out of squash into a colander (the norm when roasting squash)
  • Rinse the seeds removing all pulp
  • Spread on a paper-towel on a plate in a single layer to allow to dry for 2-3 days in warm place
  • Roast!
  • Note:  no need to hull the squash seeds.  Some folks find pumpkin seed hulls tough and inedible.  The squash seeds are lighter and edible.
I roasted mine in a fry pan following the Mother Earth News Spicy recipe.  I warmed the olive oil, spread the seeds in a single layer, then sprinkled with cayenne pepper, paprika, salt and pepper.  The results didn't last very long as hubby and I gobbled them down quickly.  Well, to be honest, mostly I did the gobbling.   Another batch is being fried up today.   The part I like most is the nutrition in squash seeds:

1 cup seeds:  285 calories, 12grams of protein, 12% of your RDA of iron, 34g Carbs, 12g Fat, 4% of your calcium.   Of course, add about 120 calories for the oil they are roasted in.  This is still tremendously good nutrition. 

I'll never compost another squash seed again. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Babysitting Amish Baby "Michael"

It was only for five minutes, but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch Michael while Marianne ran to the chicken coup to pick eggs on Friday.  It gave me a moment to reflect on Amish lifestyle and maybe apply some of their ways in my life.   Baby Michael was lying on the floor under the swing, just as happy as could be.  I talked and smiled at him and he smiled right back -- what a happy kid, I thought.  The living room was set up for practicality.  The couch, love seat, and chairs were all pushed flat against the outside walls with the window light shining in over the backs of the seats/chairs.  There was a bookcase with several children's books.  On the other side of the kitchen was the sewing nook with supplies and fabric.  In the middle of the house was the wood stove that likely kept the entire house warm.  The house was functional with a purpose. The kitchen/great room/sewing nook had linoleum on the floor and the living room had a hardwood floor with an area rug in the center.  Nothing fancy.  A plaque with the Lord's prayer was on the wall, but that was about it in terms of decoration.  No pictures, no family photos, no wreaths or dried/silk arrangements.  I liked it!  I thought how easy it would be to clean.  I imagined not worrying about how something looks: Do these curtains match?  Does the rug match close enough to the couch?  What sense does it make to waste time and money on making something match or stylish.  It doesn't.  My blue-plaid 80's couch and love seat are going to be around for many, many more years and I don't care much what people think of it -- it's saving me about $1,000.  At one point I wanted a new couch pretty bad because of the dated, 80's country look of it, but my mind has now changed and its a perfect couch -- you can sit on it and their ain't no torn or worn corners anywhere.  What else do you need?  Why spend money to keep up with what's in style this season.  In my mind (now), its clearly a waste of money,and spending five minutes with Michael solidified those thoughts.  I'm very grateful to have many classic, hand-me-down pieces of furniture that will never go out of style.  I guess I always had a little practicality in me after all. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Winterizing Your Carrots and Beets

Here in Central Pennsylvania (technically Zone 5 where I'm at), the temps can dip as low as single digits in the coldest winter months but surprisingly, beets, carrots, and other root crops will survive and you can harvest them all winter with just a little protection.  If you expect to harvest your crops before the ground freezes, all they need is a little straw mulch at ground level to protect the tops of the roots sticking out.  If you want to harvest all winter, all you really need to do is cover with a foot-thick layer of straw keeping the greens exposed so they can keep growing.  When there's snow all around and you move the mulch, you'll be delighted to pull out a fresh carrot in the dead of winter.    Here's a good link from Organic Gardening that may be helpful.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Going Without, Cutting Back, and Changing MY Attitude for "Stuff"

My mother loves Vanity Fair Outlets in Reading, Pennsylvania.  They are 100-year old clothing factory buildings that once employed hundreds of Americans.  Jobs now long-gone to overseas production of goods, the big old buildings now house the same brands once made there, but at a huge discount.   The name brand mother goes for is Lee and Wrangler jeans.  She was thrilled with her bargains: i.e., $8.97 for blue jeans plus a 10% discount for senior citizens on Tuesday.  Hubby even took a couple pair at that price for new jeans.  Me?  Read on.

Now retired and having a much better understanding of money, frugal living, and the world around us, my attitude has changed dramatically about shopping.  There was a day I wouldn't think twice about dropping $100 on a leather purse or boots.  Yesterday, I looked at a $29.99 wallet and felt bad for the animal that died for it.  I saw racks and racks of "useless items made by foreigners for dumb Americans to buy" as a book I once read put it.   There were stores full of plastic toys, wrapping paper and ribbon, perfume, fancy shoes, boots, purses,  blue jeans, underwear, luggage, socks, and kids clothing.  And the prices were very, very affordable.  A sign of the times, I'm sure.

My thoughts go to the Amish when shopping these days.  They are the masters of practical, useful products. Their thoughts are repair, reuse, or recycle.  They shop second-hand stores for used items and discount stores for low-prices.  They will fix, mend, or repair something until it absolutely cannot be used anymore.   In my head, I put an Amish person in the aisles of Vanity Fair and  I couldn't imagine them buying one item of anything at the Vanity Fair Outlets -- not one single item.  So neither did I.  I came home with money in my pockets and empty bags.  It was a good day -- for all of us!