Monthly Archives: April 2008

Living The Semi-Homemade Dream

Pookie has long been trying to get me to buy the fancy extracts sampler from Baker’s Catalog, and I finally succumbed when she convinced me that the new kitchen was a good excuse for getting them. So I’ve had these five little bottles sitting in the pantry, and I haven’t really had a lot of uses for them.

Fast forward to a month or two ago, when Boomer and I made our first venture to Costco. Being us, we couldn’t resist a box that had instructions on it for making 96 brownies:

Last weekend Pookie had the brilliant idea of using the extracts to semi-homemade up the brownie mixes; what can I say? She’s a genius! We started out with a batch of orange brownies, then moved on to the almond extract, and ended today with the coffee.

It should be mentioned that I’ve added orange extract to my homemade brownies before, so we knew it would be delicious in these. Pookie has gone so far as to say she wouldn’t be ashamed to bring a box of from-mix brownies with the orange added if she had to provide a dessert to an office potluck. I can highly recommend that as an additive. The almond also delighted me, although Pookie’s review was that if she hadn’t known that’s what the flavor was, she would have decided it was coconut, because it’s markedly not just a normal brownie, but not entirely obvious, either. It’s flowery and fresh-tasting, though, and really mellow if you let the brownies sit overnight. The coffee extract was a disappointment. It did the least of the three, both in terms of disguising the “from a box” flavor and in terms of bringing something extra to the table.

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Companion Planting: Take That, Pests!

We have recently upgraded from “throw stuff in the ground and see what grows” gardeners to “throw stuff in the ground, then read about how we could have done a smarter job of that, then see what grows” gardeners. Among the things we’ve read about how we could have done a smarter job of gardening have been some tips about pest-repellent companion gardening. Companion gardening is a concept we’ve kind of willfully ignored (although we totally inadvertently stumbled onto the cosmos/corn pairing our first summer, which may explain why we inadvertently managed a really good corn yield), but we’re becoming increasingly freaked out about pests. So when we read that marigolds are kind of a cure-all pest-repellent, and can be easily plopped into the corners of your vegetable beds and then left to work their magic, how could we resist?

This weekend has seen the final uncovering and dirt-filling of the beds, and after doing the not-at-all fun part of that yesterday, today was all about putting in our miracle pest-repellants in preparation for the big tomato-planting next weekend. We bought a handful of different marigold colorways, and then randomly dispersed them around the beds that had room for them.

They’re in the corners of the potato beds, on the ends of the radish/pepper bed, and in the newly-filled tomato and basil beds, ready to be boon companions to our crops.

And if nothing else, they’re a welcome spot of cheerful color amidst all the empty soil and wee, spring-green sprouts.

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All Walks Of Potatoes

So we planted four types of potatoes this year, Yellow Finn, All Blue, Banana Fingerling, and Desiree. They’re very distinct-looking potatoes, as their names would suggest; the Yellow Finn is a small, yellow waxy potato, the All Blue is, well, all blue, the Banana Fingerling is a waxy, yellow and elongated, and the Desiree is a red-skinned potato with yellow flesh. Now that they’re all sprouting, what’s surprisingly cool to see is how different their plants all look, too.

First to come up was the Banana Fingerling, and while it’s very potato-y, it has a kind of elegant legginess to it. I’m sure that’s purely coincidental, but I still think it’s cool that a long and graceful tuber has sprouted a long and graceful plant.

The Yellow Finns have been slower to sprout than the others, and right now they look suitably stumpier than the Banana Fingerlings. That will probably change soon, but right now, humor me, okay? I’m trying to run with the idea that the plants are all reflecting the potatoes they’re someday going to grow into.

What’s kind of cool about those two plants compared with the Desiree and the All Blue is that they’re the same color. The Desiree, meanwhile, is definitely veined with a hint of red:

Furthermore, I think the leaves are a little plumper and curvier. Although I’m probably projecting — I am convinced this plant is called “Roselle” (I have no idea why), so I think I’m looking for “Roselle”y traits when I look at it.

By far the coolest thing to happen in our garden so far this year, though, is the sprouting of the All Blues. They grew in blue.

We had visions of totally blue potato plants dancing in our minds for a few days, but as they’ve leafed out, they’ve greened up quite a bit. That said, they’re still a hell of a lot bluer than their compatriots.

So now I’m all excited that the four different plants have such distinct looks, so watch they all end up appearing exactly the same a month from now.

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Crop Update: Onions And Radishes

Our onions are starting to look like actual plants now, instead of just seedlings:

And meanwhile, in the next bed over, the radishes are rapidly expanding. Some of them are even growing their second leaves:

What’s sort of hilarious about the radish arrangement is that we laid that whole bed out with a very ambitious design that involved two types of radishes and four types of lettuce. We had concentric diamonds of lettuce, and then chevrons of radishes between them, everything to be direct-sown in successive plantings. Which is all well and good, assuming your seeds actually take. Which the lettuce did not. So now we have chevrons of radishes and big empty expanses where there is no lettuce. Which is probably a good thing, because we completely forgot to allot space in our planning for our pepper plants. Now it looks like we’ll have chevrons of radishes radiating out from a clump of peppers.

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The Fruits Of Our Garbage

We were super-excited when we moved to Maple Hoo and had enough yard space to be able to compost our kitchen scraps. One of the first things we bought for the yard was a compost bin, and we have, since day one, religiously deposited into it every compostable scrap we can. Last week, for example, we had citrusy cocktails in the afternoon and chili for dinner, and this was what the compost bowl looked like:

Now, we know there are all kinds of steps you’re supposed to follow to optimize your compost pile, with the balance of green and brown material, the aerating, the turning, the heat, the beneficial worms, the humidity, blah blah blah. We take the “benign neglect” approach, just dumping everything into the bin, very rarely thinking to try to add some brown (shredded newspaper or straw), and even more rarely thinking to turn it. After two years of just piling up the kitchen scraps and letting them do their own thing, we opened up the little hatch at the bottom of the bin, and look what we found:

It’s compost!

It was no mean feat shoveling that stuff out of the bin, and it got pretty stinky as the less composty stuff at the top of the heap started falling down as the foundation was excavated. What we managed to pull out of there was a bit damp, so we gave it a few days to dry out, but when it came time to fill in the last few beds in the garden, we had a couple of cubic feet of lovely, homemade compost!

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Fun With A New Camera

The other day we returned from a quick trip out to the garden and discovered we’d taken over 70 pictures of teensy-tiny proto plants in the garden none of which were completely in focus. Hm. Perhaps it was time to admit we needed a bit of an upgrade in the camera department. So we purchased a Canon Powershot A630. We… have no idea how to use it. Yet. But that’s not stopping us from goofing around with it!

Here I did a comparison of the old camera:

and the new:

Obviously, we have some kinks to work out, but all in all, it looks like we’ll get more detail and more life out of the new camera.

I also took it for a spin outside and had fun with the Macro setting, a garlic plant, and the lavender I potted today.

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Hey Maple Hoo — What Are You Growing Today?

Today was a hard-labor kind of day, a day that prompted Pookie to invent the term “yardfun” to trick us all into thinking we were enjoying what we were doing. But no matter how tiresome the work in the yard is, it’s all made up for by the sight of our plants growing in. So we happily fenced trees, dug up weeds, lugged soil and turned beds, because it’s already the last weekend of April — that means our “seedlings” are well on their way to becoming “crops”.

We have had almost no luck at all with our lettuces this Spring, which means we’re complete and total losers, because even the dimmest of bulbs can grow lettuce. But we did direct-sow some radishes a couple of weeks ago to go with our now totally imaginary lettuce crop, and they’re looking very sassy today:

We also direct-sowed a row of scallions in one end of the onion bed, and for the second straight year, were despairing that we’re too incompetent to grow bunching onions. But today, lo and behold, there are three wee little seedlings in the row where we planted dozens.

We’ll try not to eat them all in one place. (And we’re also going to start a tray of scallion seedlings tomorrow, because they were a crazy-good crop two years ago. The regular onions seem to work very well when they’re started and transplanted, rather than just tossed in the dirt, so maybe we’ll have better luck this way.)

The potatoes are in fine form, and we’ve got 17 plants coming up now of the 24 we planted. We’re going to give the remaining seven one more week to show they’re sprouting before plopping a few more seed potatoes into their places. Interestingly, when we went to strip the straw cover off the bed we’re putting the gherkins into this summer, we discovered there was an abundance of volunteer potatoes coming up in there. Obviously, we did a lousy job completely harvesting the crop we had in there when that bed was hosting potatoes last year.

There were no fewer than six potato plants above the soil, and it took some work to get all the way down in the soil to the sources.

Damn, that’s a lot of potatoes we missed. Oh, regrets. Terrible, terrible regrets. As Boomer said as we gazed upon them sadly, “That’s a whole meal.” This year we will be digging down to China if need be, to ensure that we’ve harvested each and every delicious potato morsel from our garden.

Meanwhile, the garlic is growing like a weed…

… And speaking of weeds, we’ve got lovely little violets growing of their own volition in our pumpkin patch. What a nice change from the dandelions and poison ivy that normally live in there.

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Maple Hoo Orchard: The Trees, Part 2

Today we re-fenced the remainder of our orchard, and took formal portraits of the trees while they were in the nude. If you look at Part 1 of this series, you can see what a difference a week makes for the leafing-out of these little guys. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly Spring just happens. Anyway, here’s the skinny on the rest of the orchard:

Rome Beauty

When we were perusing Trees of Antiquity for our second wave of apples, we thought we were going to go in for the flashy pink types, with the showy blossoms and bells and whistles. But on closer review, we ended up falling in love with the modest charms of the Rome Beauty. It’s said to originate in Ohio around 1848 and its fruit is “medium to very large with handsomely striped to almost solid red, thick skin”.

I imagine someday this tree looking like a picture a little kid would draw of an apple tree: a green circle on a brown line of a trunk, with bright red dots all over it.

It’s self-pollinating, and last year it claimed the honor of being the first tree in our orchard to bear fruit that the squirrels didn’t get to before us.

As you can see, those apples are not bright, solid red. We were totally squirrel-shy after the Peach harvest debacle, so we picked those way too early. They were, um, not very good. Should the Rome Beauty produce fruit this year, we’re going to consider letting them ripen before eating them this year.

White Pearmain

According to Trees of Antiquity, this is the oldest known English apple, dating back to the 13th century. How could we not choose to plant a type of tree that people have been cultivating and enjoying the fruits from for over 800 years? That is just beyond cool. We really don’t care what the fruits taste like (although this one allegedly is good for just about everything from eating fresh, to desserts, to making cider) — we just like that it’s been around for so long.

I should point out that we took some “artsy” shots of this one to show off Pookie’s favorite thing about our baby apple trees: the color and texture of their trunks.

Ashmead’s Kernel

The description of this from Trees of Antiquity’s catalog is like something out of an apple tree soft-porn romance novel:

“An old English winter russet, medium size, golden-brown skin with a crisp nutty snap, exploding with champagne-sherbet juice infused with a lingering scent of orange blossom.”

We’re not expecting any champagne-sherbet juice explosions this Autumn, thanks to the fact that Ash here has opted not to blossom this Spring.

For some reason, I suffer under the impression that this tree is actually the Ashmead’s Colonel, not Kernel, so I kind of feel like it should be some kind of Confederate gentleman officer from the Civil War, not an apple tree from 1700’s England. Clearly, this tree is a constant source of disappointment for me.

Cox’s Orange Pippin

This is kind of the apple tree. It’s supposed to be finicky, temperamental, and generally difficult, yet everyone who plants heirloom apples seems to want one. We also are operating under the belief that it originates somewhere near Blenheim, so we’ve decided it’s the same apple as the ones we fell in love with during that cheese dinner from Neal’s Yard.

Our tree here has yet to demonstrate even the slightest inclination toward blossoming, even now in its third Spring in our orchard, but he has managed to become our most resplendent tree by far. When we planted him he was less than waist high, then got ravaged by marauding deer, and somehow, in just two years, is now a towering, branchy behemoth.

Someday it will be a towering, branchy behemoth covered with the most delectable fruits we could ever imagine.

Alexander

We have one spot in the middle of our front row of trees that is the Hole of Death. Two years running now, we’ve had that one tree get completely devoured by deer. The first year it was a cherry tree from our nursery co-op, and the second year it was some now-forgotten apple variety. This year we plugged the hole with an Alexander, a Russian variety dating back before 1817. We don’t have a picture of him just yet because he is literally a three-foot-tall stick with one branch shooting off it. It has one tiny little proto-leaf. If it’s anything like the other trees in our orchard, though, next year it’ll be four times the size it is now.

So that’s all of them — the trees of Maple Hoo Orchard. They’re remarkably lovely, even in their unsightly cages of deer netting:

And maybe someday we’ll have to open to the public to let people pick their own bushels of apples, as we struggle to keep up with them.

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Maple Hoo Orchard: The Trees, Part 1

For most of our lives, we were not big apple-eaters. I spent most of my youth thinking that I just flat-out didn’t like apples, but I’ve since come to realize the problem is that apples from the grocery store taste like ass. They’re cloying, one-dimensional, and often mealy. We’re lucky enough to live very close to a big orchard, with the pick-your-own, and a wide array of apples to choose from, but even with that resource at hand, I’ve had a hard time finding apples I actually wanted to eat. Then, one glorious day in London, we stopped in at Neal’s Yard Dairy to pick out a sampling of cheeses for a picnic dinner. While basking in the fairy-tale wondrousness that is Neal’s Yard, we added some farmhouse loaves to our picnic, and then noticed the crates of farm-fresh produce in front of the store. There was a handful of varieties of apples and pears, and one apple caught our eyes. It was called a “Blenheim apple”, and the description said they had come from a old orchard in Blenheim and had the most crisp, superior flavor of any apple ever. Or something like that. At any rate, it was no lie. That cheese dinner still stands as the single best meal I’ve ever had, and those Blenheim apples stand as the single finest fruitstuff I’ve ever eaten.

We moved into Maple Hoo almost immediately after returning from England, and suddenly fell under the sway of the magical gardening vibe here. Along with our unprecedented (in our lives) urge to plant vegetables, we decided the front lawn needed to be augmented with a bunch of apple trees. Not because we love apples, but because we love those gnarly old rambling apple trees that live in so many of the yards around here. Pookie started researching heirloom apples, then, and found Trees of Antiquity, which is, if you’re even remotely interested in planting fruit trees or bushes of any kind, total porn. We never found exactly what the “Blenheim apple” is, but after poring over the catalogue, we developed an obsession. Twelve fruit trees later, these are the apples on which we’re pinning our hopes and dreams of making us learn to love apples.

Enterprise

This guy isn’t actually from Trees of Antiquity, as we were antsy to get planting, and they were mostly sold out when we got around to ordering from them our first year here. We picked him up on a “let’s see how many saplings and shrubs we can fit into the hatchback of one Prius” shopping spree at a nursery co-op. According to google, these are its traits: “Large fruit; red glossy skin; good for fresh eating and cooking; scab resistant. Mid to late bloom; late apples.” We haven’t expected much from this tree, other than just being gnarled and autumnal, and maybe standing in the mist occasionally like a picture in a Martha Stewart magazine.

And then this Spring happened.

It is covered with glorious blossoms. They were just a riot of little pink buds when we were restaking his cage of deer fencing and took that full portrait above, and then a few days later, they became a riot of huge, white, beautiful, fluffy, graceful blossoms.

The Enterprise tree has gone from bobo to crown jewel in just one Spring!

Spitzenburg

It seems like this is one of those status trees for apple snobs. It was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite, is “unexcelled in flavor or quality” (according to Trees of Antiquity), and is fussy to get cross-pollinated, because it needs three other trees’ pollen.

We figure we’ll never get an apple from him, but what kind of heirloom orchardists are we if we’re not cowing to the pressure to have this “unexcelled” tree in our collection? (You might be able to see in that picture taken during his deer-fencing restaking that Spitzy was sans buds or blossoms, when almost all the other trees had at least one attempt at a flower going on. It’s like Thomas Jefferson’s favorite remedial apple tree.)

Calville Blanc d’Hiver

We bought our orchard denizens in two waves, with the first year’s trees mainly just the dregs of what Trees of Antiquity still had in stock, and the second year’s trees selected in a glut of impulse-buy, “hey, we totally have room for a bunch more trees, right?” early ordering. The catalog description of this one is, “This is the gourmet culinary apple of France, excellent for tarts. Uniquely shaped medium to large size fruit, skin yellow with light red flush. Flesh is tender, sweet, spicy, flavorful, with a banana-like aroma. Fine-textured, yellowish-white flesh is also higher in Vitamin C than an orange! Grown by Le Lectier, procureur for Louis XIII. Continues to be served in fine Parisian Restaurants.” We can’t have a home orchard that isn’t growing Louis XIII’s apples, can we? It’s a touch of French aristocracy to balance out all that Spitzenburg Jeffersonianism.

And unlike Spitzy, Cal was sporting some lovely blossoms on class picture day:

Granny Smith

Also picked up at the nursery co-op, at the same time as the Enterprise. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that we’ve got all these fancy-pantsy trees, poor Smitty probably thinks she’s there just to produce grocery store-grade apples to make the other fruits look that much better by comparison. She was the first of our trees to ever blossom, though, an event that surprised us to no end. It was her first summer after being planted, and she produced two tiny, mutant proto-apples that did nothing but attract weird, creepy ants.

For all that she seems kind of mundane, she’s got the lushest, thickest foliage of all the apple trees in the orchard.

Northern Spy

When we planted our first wave of trees, we stupidly decided that we don’t often see any deer in our front yard, and anyways, there were lots of other green things budding and leafing out all over the place, so surely our new babies would be safe from those rapacious creatures. We were wrong. Every day we’d say to ourselves, “We should probably fence those…” and then we’d decide, “Eh, we’ll do it tomorrow.” Finally one morning we woke up and asked each other, “Do the trees look a lot smaller today?” Yes. Yes they did look a lot smaller. The deer had devoured them. The one that got it worst was our poor little Northern Spy. He was basically left for dead, just a lame little stick poking up out of the ground where there had once been a perky, leafy sapling. We were confident the other trees would rebound from what turned out to just be a really invigorating pruning, but we had serious doubts about the Spy.

Two years later, he is a towering beacon of hope for plants all over the world that have been ravaged by pests:

It is absolutely stunning to us that this tree, that had been nibbled down to a waist-high twig, is now significantly taller than we are, with leaves and blossoms, and, we hope this fall, delicious, crisp apples. It’ll be the feel-good story of Maple Hoo orchard.

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Front Yard Design

Gardening Gone Wild has a post up now for their Garden Blogger’s Design Workshop examining front yard gardens. Nancy J. Ondra writes “… the front yard can be the perfect space to let our garden-freak flag fly”. Well, that’s just screaming for us to write a bit about how we skipped the “garden-freak flag” and went right to “freak flag” with our front yard. We were not gardeners when we bought our house. In fact, “little to no yard” was very high on our list for what we were looking for in our next home — until we walked into the backyard of an open house and fell in love. Not long after moving in we decided getting fresh veggies from our local CSA was so great, growing our own veggies could only be that much greater, right? So we built a few raised beds and got all set to put them in the backyard. The only problem was we had only lived in the house for one Autumn and one Winter; the more we watched Spring come in the more we realized our backyard, with its giant shade maple was… well, shady. Not good. The front yard, on the other hand, was positively drenched in sun. Every day. All the time.

The house was the first one we’d lived in as adults that didn’t have an HOA. A friend of ours once described the beauty of not having an HOA thusly: “I can plant a tree in my front yard — upside down if I want to!” Looking at our pile of raised bed frames and our gorgeously sunny front yard we decided we’d proverbially plant that upside down tree and do something shockingly daring. We were going to put a vegetable garden in our front yard. Living in semi-rural New Jersey we’d seen plenty of vegetable gardens and micro-farms in people’s side yards. Plus our little house is tucked at the end of a dead-end, so it’s not like too many people would see it. And aren’t vegetables as pretty as flowers? What, exactly, we asked ourselves, would the problem be if we have tomatoes and garlic instead of roses and morning glories? So up came the sod, down went the beds, and in went the veggie seeds.

The more we worked on the garden in the front the more we discovered something amazing — all our fears of our neighbors hating us for sullying the street with an unconventional yard were for naught, as more and more of them dropped by while we were working to comment on how nice it was to see the sunny yard being put to good use. Since our street leads to a large wooded preserve with nature trails, we get a lot of foot traffic past the house; as the garden started growing we’d see people stop to look, some even walking into the yard to examine it more closely. How many traditional front yards draw passers-by in like that? Also, while everyone else’s yard was petering out in late summer in the dreaded NJ August, our yard looked like this:

Of course, living in Central NJ means deer and deer mean deer fencing. And deer fencing is ugly no matter what’s growing inside it. Particularly if you line the front of the yard with 12 heirloom apple and peach trees, each with its own cage of deer-repelling plastic mesh, and then enclose a 26 foot by 20 foot raised-bed garden with the same eye-sore fencing. Something had to be done. Borrowing a design from an historic house we had both adored for years, we had an intricate white fence installed around the garden proper, and had gray pea gravel laid on the paths. Suddenly our homey front yard veggie garden and dopey split-level suburban house took on the look and feel of a grand estate!

At first the fence seems impossibly tall, but the minute we stepped inside the gate and into the garden space we discovered the fence had almost magic properties. The entire rest of the world fell away. The sounds of the neighborhood grew distant, and the calls from the birds in the woods softened. And the garden itself seemed to expand hugely, until it became the largest and nicest “room” of the house. It was just impossibly peaceful, almost studious in its serenity. In short, it was the perfect space for gardening.

This is our first Spring with the new fence and paths, so we haven’t seen it surrounding a riot of pepper bushes, lush potato and tomato plants, and jaunty basils. Right now the beds are still looking pretty dormant.

Not many people opt to put vegetable gardens in their front yards, but sometimes you’ve got to let Mother Nature dictate your gardening actions. If she wants the sun in the front yard, then that’s where the veggies have got to go. There is no reason why we should let a silly thing like “what the neighbors will think” keep us from enjoying a summer harvest grown twenty feet from our front door.

We’d love to see more and more people taking this approach and growing vegetable gardens in the front, where everyone can see how beautiful a vegetable garden can be, and where everyone can share the joy of marveling over how a little seed can grow a towering cornstalk or a giant pumpkin.

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