Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Beginning and The End

Tea with my newspaper in the morning is a must-do for me, one of those "without which" I feel slightly off-kilter.

Imagine my glee this morning when I read in one of my favorite columnists, a threnody for our woeful summertime. In fact, just because clicking on a link is sometimes more than one can ask of friends, I want to copy the whole darn thing here:

We have known the sadness. We have known the walking up and down the streets and shaking our heads and saying, "No, no, no, no" in a low but semi-hysterical voice. (Try that some time; it's not easy.) Some of us have wept in our closets, so as not to alarm the children.

Oh, we were smug. We were residents of the Bay Area, and we know something about resisting the smug. But we can't always do it. Things are just too good. Not that we wish any ill to our friends and relatives east of the Sierra; quite the contrary. We love these people as though they were our own children, as they often are.

So when they had a heat wave and we had a cold wave, and by any objective measure their heat wave was a lot worse than our cold wave, we did not experience schadenfreude. (OK, maybe a tiny bit. We are only human, and smug. It's not a lovely character trait, but really hard to avoid here in the best place on earth. I mean no disrespect to Fiji.)

But for every up side, there is a down side. Usually, at this time of year, we would be living almost entirely on tomato sandwiches, with maybe a little tomato and mozzarella salad mixed in for variety. Because we are locavores (which is a relatively new coinage meaning "people who eat crazy stuff") and because anyway the best tomatoes are always found at farmers' markets.

Right now, we would be eating 'Early Girls' like anything and rejoicing in the first appearance of the Dirty Girl brand of 'Early Girls.' We're still eating the tomatoes, but we are not happy. Our foggy weather was too foggy. Even a tomato conditioned for cooler climates likes a little sun now and then. Drizzle is not its best friend. And so, so far, the tomatoes are not at their finest.

Not even close.

Oh, and where are the 'Green Zebras' and the 'Brandywines'? We see them, yes we do, but we do not taste the essence of same. They still look really weird, but looking weird is not enough - unless you're in the music business. Maybe that's why there is no music business anymore.

What will September be like? Will we be back to root vegetables already? Oh, look, darling, we could have a rutabaga sandwich with whatever kind of cheese goes well with rutabagas, which is, like, none of them.

Ah, but what of our heat wave, those two days of hell we had last week? Because we are really secure, smug people, we can laugh at how much complaining we did for 48 hours. People were pulling out their white lightweight garments and walking around like bedouins. People were remarking on the ambient temperature in various buildings.

We were silly people. We enjoy being silly people because it hides our steely determination to rule the rest of California. I bragged about my eaves, as I always do. Eaves help a house stay cooler. I felt sad for the eaveless people, and not in a smug way.

And anyway, perhaps it meant new hope for the 2010 tomato crop. Did this two-day blast of heat help the tomatoes? Did it plump up those 'Early Girls' and inject them with that last soupcon of flavor that's the difference between a transcendent experience and a nice red salad ingredient?

I tried looking up tomatoes in California Crop Weather Report. It did mention warmer-than-usual temperatures, but what is "usual" these days? It also said: "Tomatoes are being treated for stinkbugs." Great - all we need; some bioengineered super stinkbug. Not that it mentioned that; I am being alarmist. Will I never taste a truly fine tomato for less than $12 a pound?

Well, I had to look. Stinkbugs, members of the family Pentatomidae (from the Greek meaning "five sections," which refers to their antennae), emit a foul-smelling substance when disturbed. Smells like cyanide, say experts.

Just what I needed to hear. I shake my fist at the unhearing heavens and cry out, "When will I ever taste a tomato of quality, and not one of those supermarket gassed-up cardboard things? Is it too much to ask for someone who has, well, pretty much everything, but that's not the point?" The heavens, being unhearing (see above), do not answer.

Oh, well. There are some good Frog Hollow peaches out there. In which we cry out to the uncaring heavens, asking only for flavor and a little salt.

Made me guffaw right into my Earl Grey. Especially the line about living in the Bay Area requiring constant practice at resisting the smug, as though it's some special yoga brand. Ah well, I indulge myself.

Really, though, for those of you having counters groaning under pounds and pounds of tomatoes to be made into sauce, and salsa, and paste, and other good things, look. Here is the near sum total of my backyard planting of as near as I can tell, about two dozen tomato plants:

Notice that many have bug bites, or sun scald, and some of them are bright green? That one, at least, was an accident. Cherokee Purple, the occasional sulky Early Girl, and the Romas and San Marzanos that are sort of vying between ripening/rotting/being eaten by sowbugs as they lie on the ground. They don't even taste that great this year. Sure, feta and olive oil and red wine vinegar don't hurt, but I like tomatoes a lot. . . and these aren't worth it.

This was Not The Plan for this summer. To be fair, neither was a terrible flea infestation or family upheaval, but hey, I can't control the weather. My father in law suggested that I could buy tomatoes by the bushel and can them. I could. . . but last year when I did that they were $2 a pound, and I'm not up for that. I could perhaps drive 40 minutes away and get them for .60c a pound -- if they're available from the farm that's advertising on Craigslist.

We shall see. If I have a free day next week, maybe I can arrange a drive down there. Wonder if they'd let me glean for free? Or if not, I'll just look for a sale on canned organic tomatoes and stock up for the year.

And why, you might ask, why not wait for the warmer weather that you call "fall" in your expensive-but-lovely-weather-area? Well, because I don't think we have time:

That vine is collapsing like the old-fashioned paper straws that only lasted for about a third of your milkshake. Some blight -- not the vaunted late blight, I don't think - but some blight is crawling up the vines all across the garden. I won't be composting these babies this year. Short of broadcasting kale or cover crop seeds (or kale AS a cover crop) I'm not sure that I'm not going to be facing an awful lot of empty real estate in the garden soon.

The End, then, probably the End of the tomatoes. Except for the Sungold, rot their bright little hearts. The Sungolds will produce no matter what, for months. That isn't as cheering as I might think, alas.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Day Late. . .

And a few queens short.

Yes, it's another bee post!!

My oldest hive has a queen I call "The Bomber Queen." I think she's about three, if the hive hasn't replaced her without my noticing, and the hive is everything you'd want in a beehive. Calm, productive both of brood and honey, just lovely.

See the abundance of stores? See the worker showing up with little suitcase legs of bright orange pollen? I love this hive.

I have a beekeeping friend who is very interested in breeding feral queen stock; reasoning, I believe rightly, that it's better to have a mixed gene pool and feral bees are probably more adapted to life here than queens imported from somewhere like Hawaii or Ohio.

In the past couple of weeks, we've been doing things to the Bomber Hive -- splitting it into smaller sub-hives, in hopes that by using one of his fancy "make a queen" kit thingies, we could raise up a whole generations of daughters that would at least have one rocking parent. Oddly enough, even though we put two sets of eyes, adding up to over 85 years of seeing experience, to work, we managed to miss the queen as we went through the hive.

So she went to Berkeley.

No problem, we decided -- we can raise queens there too. Here, the leftover bees will just raise up some queens all on their own. Bees manage to make a new queen when they're in need. For bees "in need" can easily mean "the people took the queen to Berkeley," so they just needed some early larvae to lavish royal jelly on and hey, presto, new queens.


Yes, because it's always not a good idea to put all of your hope on any one larvae making a strong, healthy queen, the bees will just sort of make a few spare ones, too. I don't know -- maybe there are competing committees or something.

At any rate, we decided, hey, we can also try the method of putting queen cells off of frames into smaller breeding nucleus hives made from Stefani's other hive that specializes in bees and not honey!

Seemed easy, and yet. . . there are some things for which timing is fairly important. Comedy, for one, and probably juggling, and it turns out, queen rearing.

The little heat wave we experienced might have sped up the hatching for these new queens, or it could be that the two days, Wednesday and Thursday, that might have been good days for me to get in there and move some frames with capped queen cells were so busy I didn't get in until yesterday, but:

That cell, the one in the middle pointing down, the one with the nice large chewed opening in the end? Yeah, that's where the young queen was. She had gotten out. I didn't see her, but I wasn't surprised.

I did see evidence that she'd been around the hive, though:

See the nice, round-ended queen cell hanging down? See how it doesn't have an opening at the bottom, but a ragged hole on the side? Can you say "regicide"? Or in this case, I suppose it's state-sanctioned assassination, as the first or strongest queen to emerge will fight to the death other young queens emerging, and if she can get to some that aren't yet hatched, she'll take care of that little problem right away.


At least five total queen cells or former queen cells. It would have been nice to have gotten more, but now all I can do is wait until this queen manages to fly, mate, and begin laying eggs. In about 20 days I should know. It's been exciting, anyhow.

Since the beehives are right by the chickens, I managed to finally identify the tomatoes that volunteered in the chicken coop area:

Principe Borghese, the kind I wasn't going to grow this year, because I have so many awaiting foccaccia or sun dried tomato bread in the freezer.

It's probably appropriate that they're growing there, because they look like little monochrome elf eggs. Eggs and hatching, pretty much, all the time here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Collateral Damage

It's been a rough year here for tomatoes. Record cool temperatures, a bizarre two-day heat wave, rampant cherry tomatoes I can't get through to pick thoroughly. . . just not the abundant, lots-of-canning year I'd hoped for. One bright spot was the volunteer tomato out front. Sheltered in a warm corner, it bloomed early, set fruit early, and was the first to ripen anything. Even it's not doing all that well, really.

The other day I came home from a camping trip and found some weird problem with the fruit:

I thought it was maybe birds, or squirrels. . . turns out, my second guess was closer. When I looked carefully at the pumpkin I'd been babying along for Halloween, I found my culprits:

See the yellow spots? There are a couple of boys living across and down the street who are at that awkward adolescent age -- young enough so it's difficult to find them real work of any kind to do, old enough to start getting into bigger kinds of trouble. This summer, they've been exploring beebee gun wars, with plastic beebees. Everyone wears eye protection; they're pretty good about following the rules, but that didn't help these innocent bystanders.

Sigh. They need big farm animals or a flood to dig ditches for or something to explore -- anything but this coddled city life with very few big men in their lives.

I asked them not to shoot toward our house and showed them why. We'll see how it goes. Now if I can keep my kids from making bows and arrows out of sticks and string and shooting the sunflowers, we'll be on our way.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cukes worth knowing

By now, although lemon cucumbers are still listed as specialties in some catalogs I get, I count them as "regular" cucumbers. They're all over the farmer's market in our town, so that makes them mainstream in my eyes. And I never managed to start a single Marketmore nor purchase one. I think I expected Denise to take care of that, then the pickling cucumber thing happened and it all got away from me.

However, two fun new cucumbers that hover on the edge of novelty did make it through the early spring, and deserve some mention here.

First is "Rocky," a fingering cucumber, perfect for kids, or so the Territorial catalog said. I have seen some of the other homeschooled kids munching on slender baby Persian-style cucumbers, and decided to give this one a try.

Getting them started was a bit of a stretch. Small, touchy, easily killed, I ended up starting them in two rounds. Ultimately, I only ended up with two plants, and those aren't what I'd call overly vigorous. In their defense, they were behind the jungle of pickling cucumbers until last week. I think they are at about 24" tall right now.

Apparently I'm picking them a tad late, since they are supposed to be best at 2-3" and I'm usually hitting 3-4". The little cucumber eater isn't complaining, though, as she yells, "Rockyyyy!" and eats them whenever I point them out.

Next year, more plants, more babying earlier, and more sun. Then I'll have enough to make the other kids eat them for snacks, too.

More on the novelty end are the Mexican Sour Gherkins I first heard about from Mr. H. They have been a lot of fun, and are the perfect treat to offer garden visitors. I say, "Would you like an elf watermelon?" and then explain that they taste like a slightly citrus cucumber before they bite them and are disappointed in not getting a sweet melon!

The vines are delicate in appearance, and I think the fruits are most beautiful when they're teensy:

They aren't enough to make a meal of, and I do have one experimental jar of them on the pickled shelf to try eventually, but six or eight plants, started in February, have kept up a small but steady stream of fun. And that seems like plenty to ask of any vegetable.

Have you tried any "novelty" vegetables? Did you like them?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Against the grain

Healthy, growing plants, covered with fruit and the promise of more to come.

Generally, that's what gardeners work hard for. I know I do. So it's doing what I don't want to do at a visceral level to tear 'em out. But these lovely Ohio Pickling Cucumbers, from seed at least ten years old, were very productive. Very.

I grew them because Eldest Child had told me that she loved pickles. And I thought, "Why am I paying $2.50 a jar when I have a garden?" Thus, the cucumber patch. At first I thought that I wasn't going to get enough cucumbers. Experiment gone awry! I foresaw myself sneaking into the grocery store, hiding jars of pickles in raincoats to get them into the house undetected.

So imagine my surprise when they started bearing. And bearing, and bearing. . . I made jars and jars of pickles. Hooray! Friends said they tasted good, and I saw, in the soft focus future cinema of my brain, my child hugging me and saying, "You're the best mom in the world! I love them! Give me more pickles!"

Except that's not what she said. She actually said, "I think you overestimated my pickle wants. A temporary pickle eating stage doesn't necessarily mean it will endure for months and months."

Well. I made some more batches, just because I'd stripped dill seeds from the heads outside. And I kept piling up cukes for future pickles. But when a crop becomes a serious burden, and you're pretty sure that you've got enough to last at least into next year plus give away to the nice friends who bring you bags of rabbit poop, and there's 3 gallons still in the kitchen to pickle, it's time.

Out they came, and are now the top layer of the working compost heap. I put some rabbit poop and mixed up the soil -- it's ready for the next thing. The cucumbers left more behind, though:

I'll be making pickles after blackberry jam this evening.

It also struck me that the garden overview pictures don't really do justice to how huge the sunflowers are. I'm 5'6", and granted the sunflowers are 10-12" above the ground in the box, but lookie:

Pretty big.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A harvest day, anyway

Lots of bloggers participate in Harvest Monday, hosted by Daphne over at Daphne's Dandelions. I try. . . and this is a bit of it. It's less than I hoped, it turns out, because blogger ate some of my pictures and I'm too tired to go back and try to fix them. Maybe later.

As a chilly August follows a chilly July, the garden seems verdant. Loaded with fruits, the tomatoes and peppers bend under heavy potential, but I wonder if they're ever really going to ripen, or slowly wander towards autumn in lovely shades of green. The sunflowers (check out the monsters in back) are starting to bloom, but many are leaning perilously over. Note to self: sunflowers don't generally make good supports for pole beans. It's just too hit and miss. So that's what an overview in the gloaming light of Sunday looks like:

In fact, most of this harvest was Sunday's. I wandered outside after getting home from a day out with Denise and just had to grab the camera and do some picking and shooting. As I picked, I composed dinner in my head. Boiled small potatoes and cherry tomatoes:

Followed by those hidden beans with garlic. The chickens got a feast -- there was one pickling cucumber that was easily 7" long. I didn't even try, just broke it open and tossed it to the girls. I'd already visited them with treats and gotten the eggs, but it was only a small bushwhack past the beans and sunflowers again to deliver a monster.

The other bed of pole beans -- supported on poles because I'm one of those speedy learners, you know? -- reminded me strongly of kudzu. Maybe it was that I was already musing on Faulkner, given the way the light baptized the yard, or something, but I'm glad these are just beans.

On the other hand, I wish just beans were just easier to see. Even the yellow ones can be hard to trace. Mostly, I look into the bean patch and see this:

Just a jungle of bean "stuff." To be fair, I think this particular shot didn't have many/any beans in it, but it's a psychological reality for me. Someone needs to breed in a heat-destroyed fluorescent enzyme, so beans and cucumbers are easier to see.

It's fun to bring non-gardeners into my back yard, because I can usually count on some exclamation. Of course, no one is famous to their own family, and my kids tend to be pretty blase about what I do. I coax them to plant with me, or to harvest, but generally it doesn't move them. The two younger girls are pretty aware of their own garden beds, and try new things in them. Today, one young gardener was justifiably proud of her own sunflower accomplishment. I think these are Lemon Queen and Autumn Beauty:

Here's hoping it's harvests better than the weather deserves, all 'round.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

At least the beans warn you

Beans, bush beans, are second only to zucchini in the glut category, in my experience. Today was the first serious shot across the bow by the little rats. Fortunately, as they've been giving a bean or two at a time for a few days now, I was almost ready. And by "almost ready," I mean I'm very close to pulling out all the cucumber vines except the lemon ones. That should help with the feeling of drowning in produce. My goal was to make enough pickles for the year, and I think I did that.

Next year, though, a few more of the tiny "Rocky" baby eating cukes (seeds from Territorial) have got to be coaxed along. Only two vines isn't enough to hand them out for snacks. I don't think I've even gotten a picture of any -- they get eaten pretty quickly, and they're only 5" long.

If I don't eat beans immediately, they sit on the counter and wither. Everything save the Cherokee Purple from the top photo went into lunch today -- the beans flash-sauteed with a bunch of garlic and some salt, the tomatoes and lemon cucumber with chunks of feta, some vinegar and olive oil.

Beans like that are my favorite prep -- sometimes with sesame oil and seeds, too. The trick is to get them almost burnt in spots, and to use more garlic than seems advisable. I've taken it to movies as a snack, although it's probably not fair to wave that much garlic around unless you have enough to share.

I have enough summer squash to share.

Some of it will get cubed under breadcrumbs tonight, but I bet it won't make too much of a dent. There's always the food bank, fritters, and soup, though.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A ray of sunshine

Our peppers and tomatoes may be pouting in the few hours of cool light they're receiving each day, but someone else* has a nice crop coming along.

Ripeness is projected for mid-December.

*This explains why Denise isn't blogging, although she points out that she'd have to have been pregnant since October for that to be a valid excuse. . .

Monday, August 9, 2010

Green is a lovely color

And yet, and yet. . . I'm getting just a teensy bit tired of it. (Yes, anyone is welcome to remind me of this in about two weeks' time.) We have had a terrifically cool summer. It's almost showing off to mention it, because I know we have family and friends who continue to swelter in unaccustomed heat, with them and their gardens suffering. Changing weather patterns hurt everyone, just in different degrees of severity.

Knowing that I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, suffering, I do wish to whine about one thing.

Or a few. Such as this one:

And these wasp-waisted jewels:

Next to them, orbs of shiny green loveliness:

And finally, finally, on a plant that bloomed for the first time in February, for goodness' sakes, something that looks about like what we're all waiting for:

We complain mightily when it's too hot, as almost no one here has air conditioning, but I wouldn't mind a few more ripe tomatoes! Thank goodness for the Sungold cherries!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Straining Strainers.

A friend needed honey, and I was completely out. So the day before yesterday, I suited up and took a break from making enchilada sauce. The last time I'd checked, there weren't any capped frames in the hives, and also the bees had put brood up in the medium frames, just like this:

Honey on the outside, babies in the middle. This is an ongoing problem in the middle hive, the one I call the "boomer" hive. That thing is about six or seven boxes high, and just packed with bees. It's like they're only interested in making bees, not honey. I suppose that's a good thing, in the long run. But for now, either they're eating all of the honey they're making, or something. Big hive, not much to show for it.

The hive I thought wasn't doing well? Frame after frame of finished and lovely honey, at least 18 frame's worth. One boomer babyfull hive, one overachiever so far.

The final hive did okay. Some honey, not an unusual amount, but enough to pull off a super. It's my original Boomer queen, and she's still laying like this:

Comb after comb of solid brood (that's nectar in the little open spots). You don't have to see a queen -- I didn't yesterday in the two hives I went through thoroughly -- to see how she's doing. Queens are known by the brood they leave behind. I don't recall seeing eggs in any hive. Unfortunately, if I wear my contacts, my close vision is distorted, while I can see if I peer around my glasses. Oh well. Glasses are just one more thing to avoid in the middle of a sweaty hive observation.

Then, after toting almost four full supers into the house, I began extracting, and all was well until I realized that my nested strainers were clogging. Okay, I scraped with a rubber spatula, no draining. No problemo, I thought, I have a straining sock. I used it when I did crush and strain harvesting from the top bars. Retrieved it, filled it with the honey and wax, got a kid to give me a heavy weight to keep the straining sock above the honey in the bucket, good.

Good, that is, until a hole blew out in the side of the bag and the cappings and honey poured right on into the already-strained bucket. Rats. Next (okay, after a little bit of fussing) I considered whether the two straining bowls were reversed. They were, so I fixed that, but no draining. Hmmmm.

That evening was time to think like McGyver. Aha! Use a towel and colander to take the place of the troublesome strainers. I decided to go to bed and do that the next day. This morning, though, after setting up that alternate straining operation, we discovered as I lifted up the coarser strainer (600 microns instead of 400) that it was going fine. It's the tiny one that's clogged. Six hundred microns seems fine to me, so I just discarded the cloggy one and strained out what I'd done so far.

By this evening, I'd cleaned out 18 frames. Both sets of frames (one in a box, one with a box waiting) were returned to Overachieving Hive. Bees were pretty calm, as they always are if all I'm doing is giving something nice and honey-covered back.

There's only one remaining problem.

Slightly less than half the honey is filling up more than half of the straining bucket. I've never had this problem before, and I'm pretty sure it's not one I want to actually complain about.

Peeking in, however, makes me feel a little woozy. I have to bottle before straining the rest, and my older sister was encouraging me to approach the local high-end chef and offer him some. I don't know what sort of size container he'd like, so maybe I'll give them a quick visit tomorrow morning, if I don't lose my nerve. There's always the grocery store, friends, and our consumption to consider too.

And I think Ribbit wants some.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Eating the Seed

I meant to post the first part of this post earlier, and then I meant to participate in Harvest Monday, and hey, look, it's Tuesday, and here I am tossing a quick post off before posting about the past couple of days' other activities. . .

I had planned to save my medium-and-small sized potatoes as seed potatoes, but then realized that I don't want to grow these varieties again. What to do with the seed potatoes?

Throw them in an egg and sausage dish for a neighborhood brunch!

Mornings are my walk around the garden time, and some days I get company. We had our breakfast out there too.

Just in time, as the tomatillo onslaught has been tamed, comes the next overwhelming harvest. Cucumbers continue to overwhelm.

That particular first ripe bean won't bother anyone ever again, because my helper munched it up.

The end of the morning walk yielded a whole whack of stuff. I could hardly get it all in the house.

The rest of Sunday was spent making pickles. Yesterday I did bees, and today it's enchilada sauce and honey. All day long. I'm feeling the push push push of the summer garden, and the tomatoes aren't even done.