Mucking About

In the spring, a young girl’s fancy turns to thoughts of putting down her knitting and sitting outside doing nothing but watching the clouds…I have just gotten new Spring shoes, and I spent the other morning scuffing around happily in them, in ankle deep muck.

Yes. Ankle-deep. Muck.

I am ridiculously excited these days by ankle deep muck. No, I haven’t got a horse (boy, wish I had – or at the very least, a herd of goats – that manure would come in handy about now!), but I do have a garden. Right now it looks like twenty-three four-foot plots in a grid shape, with the odd triangular and boomerang shaped plots on the very edge. It might be the tiniest bit mad to rhapsodize about dirt, because yes, to date that’s all it is, but it’s good dirt. Great dirt, if I might be so bold. It’s the dirt we’ve been working toward for the past… oh, six years or more.

Every year we’ve amended, tossed in various potions and promises in the hopes that we are continuing the process of breaking down adobe clay into reasonable soil. Last year’s backbreaking 15 sq. yards of composting tree leaves finally did the trick. That, and the water-absorbing polymer, the late rains, the early freeze, perhaps — everything rolled into one and the Moon being in the 9th House have created the kind of dirt that you step into… and sink.

Thus my new shoes, ankle deep, in muck.


Tomorrow will be one of those testing points in any relationship, wherein your nearest and dearest begins a conversation with you that opens, “Well, it’s time to choose the tomatoes. I think we’re only going with two plants this year.”

And one says, “Mmm” and “Hmm” and one tries very hard not to make any faces that look like incipient laughter will erupt or to have any expression whatsoever. Why? Because we have this conversation every single bloody year. And, every single bloody year? We end up with our body weight in tomatoes. And we’re food obsessed, okay? Even with the Plan of Miserable Reducing, ye olde body-weight is not… erm, slight.

And let’s not even begin on the peppers. Now, we are not Thai, and though I do a creditable imitation of Thai food (well, I can put a bit of coconut milk into anything… and if you’ve never tried it — people, you must, you must), I have no idea why every year we must grow those wicked-hot Thai bird chilies. Or the chocolate habañeros. I can understand squash very well. But six varieties?! Every year this dear man says, “Oh, we won’t let it get out of control.” And every year… well, you’ll see. You’ll see.

Garden & Remodel Update

If you squint hard you’ll be able to see me in this picture. Yup – these are the first of the garden space, with 6’3″ me standing amongst the rows, by way of perspective. We’re so proud of our beds this year it’s not funny. And best of all? Tomorrow we go to pick out tomatoes!

Jackie from one thread two thread has promised to send me some crimson hot peppers in exchange for a few of our seeds from Kitazawa. I’m hoping that she’ll have some luck growing the Thai Hot way up there. (I looked at your address on a map, Jackie: you’re about as far away from us as is physically possible while still remaining on the same continent! And when you say “frost” I’m thinking that you mean something entirely different than we do down here!)

The remodel actually looks like we may wrap up this current stage (floors) soon. The downstairs bathroom (shown to the right) is as “done” as it’s going to be for a while. We still have to get some additional storage for it, and to bring back some of the missing decorations … and, oh, some hand towels would be nice, as would some soap. But, other than that, it’s the first room downstairs to be completely finished.

The stairs have to come out again, temporarily, because they squeak awfully. So, we’re going to not let them “float,” but are going to apply copious amounts of construction adhesive. It’s not a happy thing, to glue them down, because it’ll make them harder to replace if they get damaged. But … well, you do what you have to, because the stair noses are actually working their way loose, and won’t be worth walking on in a few months if we don’t fix them.

More tomorrow, when we know how many and what varieties of tomatoes we end up with, and when the builder has left … hopefully for good!

Gardening Begins … Kinda Sorta

We’re both pretty sore today, ’cause we spent all day yesterday rototilling & then cleaning up rows to make high beds – they’re about a foot and a half above the level of the paths between. It took us just about all day to get watersorb, gypsum, slow-release fertilizer, and blood meal added; everything rototilled twice; and to form up the beds. But it’s now ready for planting, and all we’ve got to do is to get the tomatoes from the nursery & to lay in the major drip lines and we’re ready to plant.

In addition to what I listed in a previous post, we’re planting Collard Greens, Red Potatoes, and Sweet Potatoes. Most of those seeds come from Kitazawa Seed, which is a seed company here in San Francisco which specializes in Asian vegetables. They’re pretty cool, and I suggest that you grow some Kabocha squash if you grow anything at all, ’cause they’re truly fabulous – way better than pumpkin for making pies.

Here’s a diagram of what the layout is like. It’s 25 feet from top to bottom, and about 45 feet from left to right. The spaces between the rows are about 1 foot, so that should give you an idea of what you’re looking at.

The space is shady towards the top left corner (where the Celtuce is to go), and we’ve had to balance out where to put things based upon where they’ve been before (no tomatoes nor potatoes can go in the same place they’ve been unless you’ve had three years in between, for example), but we’re pretty sure of this layout.

One thing we learned last year was that you can’t really trellis more than two tomatoes in a row, because you lose fruit where the plants intermingle, and you end up with plants being dwarfed by their neighbors. So, we’ll be planting the tomatoes in short beds, with only two tomatoes in each bed, and stretching two support beams above the three beds. It should let us trellis successfully, and give us a better harvest. We’ll see.

We’ve also made the beds much higher than we’ve been able to make them in the past, which should make it easier to harvest and to weed. AND we’re only planting one thing in each bed. We’ve tried to mix things in the past – tucking basil beneath the shade of a tomato, for example – and it just doesn’t work all that well. Not only do you end up with things competing for resources, you also end up with an inability to plant things in replacement. For example, if you’ve already pulled all of your beets out, but you still have greens growing, you’re stuck with leaving that bed to the greens. If you plant just one thing, however, you could plant a replacement crop, better utilizing the space.

These are things we think about. And lie awake thinking about.

Happy Gardening!

Gardening Begins … kind of

Are you guys gardening yet? We already ordered our WaterSorb so we’re ready to start rototilling … but the soil’s going to be too wet for another couple of weeks. I’m sure that others are ready to start, though, because we left ours pretty much just “to stand” over winter (and harvested the last of the beets and carrots a couple weeks ago), so we had plenty of cover to keep the ground moist. Our friend (in whose yard we garden) did a rough till last week with his tractor, just to knock down the tall stuff, though, so there’s hope that it’ll dry out before midsummer.

We need to order from Kitizawa Seed for our Kabochas soon … I’ll probably take care of that today. We’ve found that Kabocha Squash makes a far better pumpkin pie than any other pumpkins, but the problem now is in choosing, because until I checked Kitizawa I was somehow thinking that there were, oh, maybe two kinds of Kabocha. No such luck. There are 12 varieties on Kitizawa’s site, so it’s either going to be a squash-filled gardening season, or we’re going to have to make some hard choices. Fortunately for us, our CSA will, no doubt, provide us with Delica (green) and Uchiki Kuri (red). Our trouble will be in deciding which of the other 10 varieties we should grow.

Next up, of course, will be the choosing of tomatoes. We are going to attempt some restraint this year, as we’re still not through with last year’s: some are in the freezer, awaiting pasta or something; more are in zips, dried, awaiting breads and pestos. However, when we get to Morning Sun Herb Farm, we usually find at least 6 different varieties right away, and a bit of wandering brings us a few more. Last year, thanks to the gophers, we “only” ended up with 7 plants. This year … I think we’re going to try for 6 plants. Only. No “fallbacks,” no “spares,” no “just in case the gophers get them.” We’ll see.

And, surprisingly, tomatoes and squash about does it for what we’d like out of the garden this year, except for an Armenian Cucumber and, perhaps, a couple of Ronde de Nice zucchini. And that’s it. Except for the things we have to grow in the way of “rent” for the garden space, that is: okra and collard greens.

It’s strange to think that we may have finally gotten our gardening under control. We’ll see – because we usually give ourselves these stern talking-tos – but I think that we may finally be learning that if you can’t eat it all, and if it makes it difficult to harvest, then you probably don’t need to grow it. And we especially don’t need to grow things which can’t be preserved easily, and which we don’t eat ordinarily. Eggplant falls into that category – the category of “one plant, maybe, if there’s room, and if the plant is free.”

That’s the problem, actually: the majority of our plants tend to be free, because other gardeners (soft-hearted lot that they are) have planted, intending to “thin,” and end up simply giving away their seedlings. So, they look at us, and we must have “sucker” writ large across our foreheads, because we end up with all manner of things to plant, unless we want to kill them off. So of course we plant them. And water them. And buy replacements when they get eaten by the gopher, because we can’t bear the empty spot where once was a plant.

Let the chaos begin.

Kitizawa Seed:
Find a CSA:
Riverdog Farm (our CSA):
Morning Sun Herb Farm:

Quick update: I made our purchase from Kitizawa, and can expect delivery in a couple of days. I guess I’m weak … ’cause I really couldn’t resist:

  • Akehime, Hybrid Winter Squash, Baby Kabocha
  • Sweet Mama, Hybrid Winter Squash, Bush Type Kabocha
  • Fairy, Hybrid Winter Squash
  • Armenian Cucumber
  • Prik Ki Nue Rai-Thai Hot Pepper
  • All Red Leaf Amaranth
  • Red Noodle Yard Long Bean
  • Tsu In Yard Long Bean
  • Nozawana Turnip Green
  • Celtuce (Stem Lettuce)
  • Atomic Red Carrot
  • Cosmic Purple Carrot

So, I really am going to stop. No more purchases. Except for the Collards, and the Tomatoes. Really. Honest.

The Philosopy of Neglect

Ages ago, I read that African Violets are actually from somewhere called Saintpaulia. Because they’re one of those plants that hardly ever blooms unless they’re forced to by a horrible dry spell, I doubt I’ll ever get to see them in the wild — I’m a desert person only insofar as there is a hotel with air conditioning, or a pool nearby.

I am inordinately proud of my Saintpaulia ionantha. My mother had these all the time I was growing up, and routinely overwatered them. I’m so much better at complete and thorough neglect, so my plant is thriving, blooming periodically, and doing just fine. I’m especially pleased because I started this plant from a slip of a parent plant that was given to me as a gift. All hail the feeling of delicious competence!

Like everything else beautiful, wild African violets are an indicator of species life; a botanical canary-in-a-coal mine. If things in East Africa are doing well, there are violets. If things are polluted… well, suffice it to say that the lands where these flowers grow are vigorously protected by any number of people.

African violets… glow. When seen in just the right light, they actually have some kind of a glitter on the leaves, which I couldn’t get to come through properly with the camera (unless I blew up the picture to a huge pixel-defying depth)… which of course was an epiphany that other violet-watchers have discovered. I find it makes them most horribly, violently, purple-prose spewingly philosophical, so I must share the wealth of pain:

“African violets are at their most beautiful during dry spells… when they have everything they need, they’re just lovely fuzzy green shrubbery. When they’re not watered, they send out blooms. Maybe they flower as cries for water. Maybe they flower to show us how to deal with adversity (oh, gag. I’m sure that’s not it.) graciously.”

And here’s another soppy florist motif: “The lovely African violet plant just needs a little light to keep it in bloom. This plant is symbolic of the human strength that fights back in the face of adversity with the aid of little hope for light at the end of the tunnel. This [plant] will help your loved ones to recuperate, to keep up their morale in the face of unpleasant situation and to fight back unpleasant thoughts and feelings. This plant is a great gift for your loved ones who may be depressed, sick or in a situation where they need the love and support of their family and friends.”

I’m sorry. I know I’m not meant to laugh at this… this gratuitious circuitousness, but for goodness sakes, if someone needs family and friends around, perhaps we should just take a chance and go sit with them… as lovely as my violet is while it’s blooming, it’s just not as good as listening effectively as I am. I do suppose it might help one fight back unpleasant thoughts and feelings, for about ten minutes (let’s revel in that feeling of competence again, shall we?), but after that…? Ooh, wait. That’s an unpleasant thought… Drat it, my usual psyche has come back again. Oh well. So much for my darling plant.

I suppose this is my nudge from the universe to go and listen to my sister complain from her hospital bed, but… nah. She has other people she’d be happier to see, so I’m taking a night off… to admire my violet.

Pepper Preserving

So, we’ve been making our way through our supply of dried and drying peppers, trying to knit them into something suitable for storage … and also something decorative, if we’re going to have them sitting around. Shown to the left is the first bundle – of what we had thought to be Thai Bird chiles, but about half of which seem to have a miraculous lack of heat. We’re probably going to end up saving these as simply decorative … or giving them away as such. It’s sad, really, because we know that one of the two plants was Thai Bird – we tasted the peppers, and they were truly magnificent in their heat. The other, though? Completely decorative and devoid of heat. I’m hoping that one of the two bunches is the Thai Bird and the other is the decorative, because of the differences in color and in ripening speed. We’ll see.

Next up are our Bolivian Rainbow Peppers. There’s no doubt that these babies are hot – painfully so, and of a type of pain which comes back to get you especially cruelly if you try to brush your tongue to take away the pain.

We’re going to let them dry, to see what they’re like that way. Shown to the left are the ripe specimens, and to the right are the immature fruit. They start out life purple and progress through a cream into a yellow and then red. The red ones seem to be holding up to the drying process better than the purple, which are wizening into almost pea-sized little black nubbins. The reds are keeping their shape, and not wrinkling.

Everyone should have a good, white wall in the house, upon which to hang their herbs (and fruits).

Here’re the lot of them, hanging in an out of the way area to dry. They will probably not be joined by the remaining peppers, which will go into the cuisinart to hopefully provide some flavor for the winter. We’ll see.

Operatic Death of the Garden

OK, so we yanked out the garden on October 2. By “yanked out” I mean to say that we tore down the tomatoes, harvested anything which was in any way shape or form edible, and left the rest … without water. Well, we were bright people this year, and turned in WaterSorb by way of drought protection. It worked. The silly garden is still cranking out produce three weeks later. True, we didn’t really leave much … but to come back (we garden at some friends’ house) to find nice, fat Armenian cucumbers is just rather a shock.

We’ll be adding more WaterSorb next year, too, ’cause the stuff degrades in about 5 years, so we added only 1/5 what the recommended quantity was, planning on adding that same amount every year, so that it’d be fairly constant. It should be interesting to see what happens when it’s got twice as much drought protection.

It truly is much like watching a Ballet demise, though. Scary.

Now, back to reinstalling software from the ground up … to make things nice and fresh for the next client. Sigh.

Pruning Out the Deadwood, Changing Seasons

Autumn is making me melancholy. Or something is. On nights when the moon is full, and the sky is that particularly brilliant shade of blue, when the wind is cool, even at noon, and things all around you are changing, well… you don’t really need an excuse to gently indulge your melancholia, do you?

‘Tis the season to read books and sip spiced hot chocolate, to ponder life truths and have a good cry for no particularly good reason; to write letters sans keyboards, with actual pens that use ink; to cement friendships, or slough off particularly noxious ones you’ve been hanging onto for too long. ‘Tis the season to shake off the deadwood, prune back the branches, and prepare to go dormant so that new growth can take place. Autum-time — it’s the slow-down that comes before the little death which comes before life returns.

Part of me hates change so much that all of this pruning and such makes me want to go back to bed, but letting something die back without pruning it, in plants, anyway, means that it’s not easy for the plant to come back to life. Trying to make changes stick in myself, without making room for them, without giving things up a few things that are comfortable, but hurtful, probably won’t work out either. So, it’s time, and every year this time rolls around again. I look forward to seeing how it will all turn out.

Meanwhile, the Silly Sibling’s Ceremony that took over my life is now over — (Which has me convinced that there is a God, if not, we’d still all be at the church still, waiting for her to finish her pedicure and maybe show up on time…wow. There are no words.) so I’m finally digging out of the filthy dusty house, returning library books, putting up the rest of the produce in the freezer and into the dehydrator, and finding the bedwarmers. It’s actually been coldish and rainy and it’s a welcome respite from the state of Eternal Summer via Global Warming. I’m relieved. Admittedly, I’m still disappointed at my retarded sunflowers; the only one I got is a full four inches tall — it looks like an oversized dandelion — but it’s time to shake off the failure and put in the bulbs and the sweet peas, maybe some amaranth, and more kale. Hopefully better results next time…

I have a wee dram of champagne waiting for me to take notice of it. Can you believe that someone had the good sense to make a sweet potato chutney that calls for champagne? I can’t drink it, but I can eat it!

Sweet Potato Chutney

  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 cups sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup champagne
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 3 Tbs. crystallized ginger, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbs. curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 3 Tbs. fresh mint, minced

In large saucepan over medium high heat, place onion, sweet potatoes; champagne; sugar, dried cranberries; crystallized ginger; cloves garlic, curry powder; and a spoon sea salt. Reduce heat to low and cook 30 minutes, stirring frequently.Remove from heat and stir in minced mint. Garnish with minced sprigs.

Meanwhile, I have a hankering for some more ‘classical’ applications for sweet potatoes… (and NO, they don’t include marshmallows, sorry): I think I’m going to jazz up the traditional caramelized sweet potatoes with ginger and orange juice instead of using brown sugar and butter. Or, better still, I might just try the whole thing with delicata squash; I hear it’s great baked with apples and caramelized.

The season of change: brings many possibilities!

End of the Garden

This weekend we tore out the garden. With the nights dropping below 50°F, there was no chance of the tomatoes ripening any further, so before the rain starts we decided to get everything out. One more weekend for those pesky things like shallots & onions and we’ll have everything ready to turn under for the winter, and we can start worrying with planting things like Cabbages and Kale. It’s looking like rain in the next few days, but we’re hoping it’ll stay away through next weekend, so that everything can be fully harvested and for the first time in many years we can get it turned BEFORE the wicked weather comes.

We ended up chucking the green tomatoes into the deep freeze, so as not to have to deal with them until we’re ready to make chutneys & mincemeats. The ripe tomatoes will be dried or frozen as well, the peppers strung up, and we’ll be all snugged in for the winter.

The only transplant to overwinter is the little Chiltepín, with its pea-sized fruit of doom (aka “hotness distilled”). They’re not so mean as the habañeros, as they don’t linger, but they do pack just about as much of a bite. They’re supposed to turn red … but I’m doubting it, as the seeds were fully formed & the plant hasn’t turned out anything BUT the little round green fruit. I’m almost afraid to see what happens if they DO turn red … but I’m really hoping that it’ll survive the winter inside. They grow wild all over the southwest and Mexico, and are supposedly the precursor to the modern pepper. So, I’m thinking that maybe ours is just going to stay green

With the end of the garden comes free weekends, and more baking. And figuring out what to do with about 15 pounds of hot peppers. The joys of gardening.

Identify Your Berries…

The fabulously colored Chocolate Habañero, shown to our left (or in a full shot here), is a berry. Identifying it as a berry isn’t all that special. Identifying it as a Habañero? That’d be the part which I failed to do so well. How could I fail to identify such a lovely fruit? Well … I made up for it with a fair degree of haste, spitting the partially-chewed pepper into the trash-can, gesturing wildly that I was unable to speak, and enduring. For quite a few minutes. The endorphins weren’t enough for me to make me want to do it again, but there was definitely the pleasure of relief.

Thus, I must say that I will NOT make the same mistake with the lovely little Chiltepin (Scoville Scale of approximately 100,000, which ranks up there with the milder Habañeros). I don’t know what I’m going to do with either of these little lovelies … but I’d imagine that they’ll be diluted quite a bit, perhaps in a large crock-pot of beans or something. I DO know that I won’t be biting one of them any time again soon.

Bolivian Rainbow Peppers, on the other hand, are only about half as hot….