Playing in the dirt.

Archive for July, 2012

Second Harvest – 2012 July 21

Today’s harvest was more radishes and lettuces.  One bunch each of the French Breakfast and German Giant radishes, and about four loosely packed cups of assorted clippings of the largest leaves out of all the lettuce and spinach sections.  So, about twice as much of everything as last week, and it hardly looks like I made a dent in the lettuce.  That’s about $2 each of lettuce and radishes, based off farmer’s market prices, so my total return on the garden so far is $6.  We shouldn’t have to buy lettuce the rest of the summer!

A bowl of mixed lettuce greens and two bunches of radishes.

Hey! Turns out I’m a gardener!

I decided to make muffaletta sandwiches for dinner tonight after encountering some lovely garlic-rosemary-asiago foccacia bread at the farmer’s market on Thursday evening.  I began by slicing the bread horizontally.  Dressing was extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh-cracked four-pepper blend, and just a tiny bit of fresh ground sea salt.  The meats and cheeses are pretty salty already, and I didn’t want to over-salt the sandwiches, but I also wanted to season the dressing and the vegetables.

Focaccia bread drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

It’s very tempting to just eat it at this stage.


Traditionally, muffaletta uses an olive salad made with giardiniera, but as I do not care for olives and giardiniera does not care for me, I chopped up some canned roasted red peppers instead.

Focaccia bread drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, topped with chopped roasted red peppers.

Roasted red peppers are a good substitute for olive salad.

Then I layered roast turkey, prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, Black Forest ham, hard salami, and provolone cheese, all sliced very thinly.  A second sandwich for someone with a ham aversion used roast beef, turkey, and hard salami with the two kinds of cheese.

On top of that, I spread today’s lettuce harvest, thinly sliced onions and thinly sliced roma tomatoes.  Romas are not traditionally sandwich tomatoes, but I find they are less likely to trigger my tomato sensitivity.  I suspect that’s because Romas have so few seeds compared to their larger sandwich-typical cousins.

Most of a muffaletta sandwich, composed of focaccia bread, roasted red peppers, a variety of cold cuts and cheeses, mixed leaf lettuce, onion and tomato.

What do you mean I have to wait until dinner?

Then I wrapped the sandwich in waxed paper (plastic wrap is a popular alternative, but I appear to be out).  I placed a clean cutting board on top of the sandwich, assembled and wrapped the second sandwich, put that sandwich on top of the cutting board, put a large cast-iron skillet on the whole stack, and put it in the refrigerator with a package of bottled drinks on top of it to press it down.  Pressing is optional, but I find it helps marry the flavors, plus then I don’t have to unhinge my jaw to eat it.

Dinner is now over.  I think I should have picked up some fresh basil at the farmer’s market and put that on with the roasted red peppers.  I also think it needed more cheese, and maybe some banana peppers.  The nice thing about muffaletta, is you can make it somewhat differently every time!


First Harvest – 2012 July 14

Yesterday brought the first real harvest from my little garden.  I was so pleased!

We got to try some of both kinds of radish, the spinach, and some from each patch of lettuce, though only two of the four varieties in the mesclun mix were large enough to cut: the mustard and the arugula.  The “red looseleaf” is still very small, and I’m not sure I see any endive growing in there at all, yet.  It wasn’t quite enough to make a salad out of by itself, but it did turn out to be about a dollar’s worth of lettuces/spinach ($2, if I check organic prices) and about another dollar’s worth of radishes.  I ended up spending an additional $22 on bamboo canes to build trellises for the peas and cucumbers, which will be another post, but it was nice to start seeing some return on the investment!

The radishes are still a little on the small side, but they were certainly large enough to eat.  I left some of the smallest mature radishes to see how large they will get with a little more time.  The French Breakfast were tender and mild with good flavor, while the German Giant had a satisfying crunch and brought some late heat to their fresh crispness.  While I intend to purchase my seeds from a different source for next year, I would grow either of these varieties again.  The Burpee seeds have performed pretty well, with about 40% of my first planting sprouting, despite a couple of nights of freezing-or-below temperatures, and 85% of my second planting and 100% of my third planting of each variety sprouting.  I lost four sprouts in total to some kind of damage, which may have been insects or the wrong amount of water at a critical time rather than any defect in the plants.

A 1-inch German Giant radish and a small crooked French Breakfast radish in a small pie tin, each complete with leaves and garden soil on roots.

German Giant on the left, French breakfast on the right.

This evening, I’ll be mixing up some more soil in a large bucket, so I can have it on hand to patch holes caused by harvesting.  Once I add some more soil, I’ll plant more radishes in the empty spots, which should be ready by the end of August.  The stake visible here is part of my new trellis.

Radishes in a garden next to holes from harvesting.

Empty spaces, ready for a handful of good soil and a few more radish seeds.

A few new spinach sprouts are visible around these larger plants, which were lightly trimmed of their largest one or two leaves per plant.  The other patch of spinach has about three times as many plants, since the first planting of spinach took so long to come up, and I gave that patch a second planting about three days before most of the first planting started popping through the surface.  I did not second-plant the square shown below until a later date, and only planted in the empty spots.  I need to plant a few more seeds in here.  All in all, I got about a third of a cup of spinach.  These seeds took much longer to sprout than advertised, and I’d say about 70% of the seeds planted have sprouted.  I have not lost any spinach sprouts once they’ve managed that, however.  The leaves are tasty, and the fresh young leaves are not as tough as store-bought spinach, even when comparing to “baby spinach.”  I suspect that refrigeration and days of storage are responsible for that effect.

Young spinach plants in garden soil, with new spinach sprouts interspersed.

Strong to the finish!

The Rouge d’Hiver is growing quite well.  Pictured below is the square with the second planting, though there are several plants from the first planting in the adjacent square.  Because this was scatter-planted, I don’t know what the percentage of successful seeds is, but the results of the second planting are quite satisfactory.  A third planting has been made in the first square, around the existing plants, and a lot of new sprouts are beginning to get their first true leaves.  As you can see to the left, the Rouge d’Hiver seeds were rather migratory, escaping into the peas and the Forellenschluss.  These stray plants were pulled entire and the roots cut off, to add to the largest 2-3 leaves taken from most of the plants with at least 6 leaves (many had 10 or more).  There was about 2/3 of a cup of this lettuce.  I was afraid it would be bitter, as many red lettuces are, but it had a warm and lightly earthy flavor.  I would plant this variety again.

A vigorous patch of Rouge d'Hiver lettuce.

Rouge d’Hiver seems to like the conditions.

Because Forellenschluss eventually forms loose heads, I planted these with spacing in mind.  A few seeds apparently blew away as I was planting, and I found a few of these plants outside of their desired locations, as well.  Between pulling those and taking 1 leaf from each of the largest plants, I ended up with about a third of a cup of this lettuce.  It has a sweet, nutty flavor and a lightly crisp texture.  I have never seen this variety in stores, which I have decided is a real shame, since I find most commercially-available romaines to be uninspired and too much rib for the leaf.  I plan to use some of these to make lettuce wraps later this summer.  I will definitely grow this variety again, which amuses me, since I only bought it originally because it has freckles like me!  The seeds had good success, with over 90% of those planted sprouting, and the sprouts having a 100% survival rate.

Young Forellenschluss lettuce in garden soil.

Freckled faces.

The Salad Bowl lettuce is another variety that develops loose heads, so I again planted it with a bit more spacing in mind.  All but one of this second planting square sprouted, and I was able to take 2-3 leaves off the larger plants for a total of about a half cup.  It’s sturdy and seems to hold no appeal to vegetarian insects at all, and the flavor is sweet and complex.  This variety seems to find its way into commercial mixed salad packages from time to time, but I wish it was available in larger quantities and on its own.  This is an excellent lettuce to use as a “base” for salad, and I think it would also be good on sandwiches.  I will definitely grow this variety again.

Young Salad Bowl lettuce in garden soil.

It’s a jump to the left…

Some of the mesclun proved so attractive to the flea beetles that I had to look up what it was composed of.  The Burpee site says it’s 20% each of arugula, mustard, red leaf lettuce and endive.  I’m not sure how that math works out, but I do know that mustard was one of the recommended “trap crops” to plant in order to keep flea beetles off preferred crops, which explains their fascination.  They also seem to be willing to eat the arugula, but the mustard appears to be like candy to them.  Still, I managed to get a few leaves of both mustard and arugula, totaling about a third of a cup. (I don’t see any endive in there at all.)  the lettuce is all near the center of the section because this was also scatter-planted, and the water washed the seeds into a low spot in the soil.  I think I might grow these as separate varieties next year, in order to have more of each.  The mustard has a nice kick to it, and the arugula is just bitter enough to provide a nice contrast to the sweeter lettuces.  Most of the seeds appear to have been fairly successful, but again, I’m not sure any of the endive made it.  The first planting did not sprout well, but the second planting did.

Young Mesclun in garden soil, comprised of arugula, mustard, red looseleaf, and, theoretically, endive.

Put your leaves all in.

Here’s the first harvest.  The lettuces are all stuck flat together from being washed, but fluffed up to fill about half that colander after they were dried between layers of paper towel.  They all stored well in that stack of damp paper toweling on the counter for about half an hour, until it was time to assemble the salad.  I think the next time I pull root vegetables, though, I’ll take the colander out and give them a shower from the hose before I bring them in…there was an alarming amount of dirt in that pie tin before I was through, even though I tried to brush most of it back into the garden!

First harvest of lettuces, spinach and radishes, in preparation stages for a salad.

Time to wash up for supper!

All in all, this was easily enough success to keep me happy puttering around in the garden.  I’m already planning improvements and additions for next year, when I hope to get some zucchini, cabbage, onions and beans, and maybe some basic herbs, like chives, garlic and parsley.

Garden Nemeses

Content note: This post contains images of insects.

My turnips have fleas.

Well, they looked like fleas, and they jumped like fleas, but they were eating my turnip greens, which is very unlike fleas.  It is, however, very like some species of flea beetles, which adore brassicas.  There’s even a variety called the “turnip flea beetle” though those have a yellow stripe on each wing carapace, and the ones in my garden appear to be all black.  Other varieties prefer nightshades, such as tobacco, tomato, or potato plants, and still other species have other preferences.

A young turnip plant damaged by flea beetles.

Someone’s been snacking my greens!

They’re also rather difficult to deal with unless one is willing to use chemical pesticides, which I am not.  I’ve been exercising my patience by picking the tiny beetles off by hand when I can catch them.  It’s pretty easy, as long as I remember to keep from casting a shadow over them as I reach in, and don’t jostle the plant too much in the process.  Sometimes, they jump away and land on the wooden edge of the garden bed, and they’re really easy to squash there, because I don’t have to worry about damaging a plant!

A flea beetle on the cotyledon of a young turnip plant.

This tiny critter posted “Party at Teaspoon’s Garden” to Twitter. About a thousand of its followers showed up.

The other method I’m using is to dust the dry plants and surrounding soil every couple of days with diatomaceous earth and letting that sit for at least several hours before watering.  Diatomaceous earth, or “DE,” for anyone unfamiliar with it, is composed of fossilized diatoms, a kind of algae.  It’s mostly silica, and it works by virtue of its sharp abrasive surfaces, which scratch or penetrate the exoskeletons of insects, causing injuries that leave them susceptible to fungus or bacteria.  As a result, most insects will avoid surfaces sprinkled with the powder.  Food grade or garden grade DE is usually marked that no particular safety precautions are necessary, but some people prefer to wear a simple breathing mask and/or safety goggles, to prevent inhaling the fine particles or getting them in their eyes.  I just make sure to stand upwind before shaking it over the garden.  DE unfortunately looks like a “mysterious white powder,” so while it is readily available through many gardening or food service suppliers, it’s probably a good idea to keep the original packaging with the material, even when transferring it to a resealable container, like a lidded bucket or a large plastic container.  (It’s usually most economical to purchase it in larger quantities, usually 10 pounds or so.)

Young turnip plants dusted with diatomaceous earth.

Party’s over!
You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!

Another nemesis I’m having to be on the lookout for are grasshoppers.  Little green ones like the one below are kind of cute, when they’re not eating my lettuce, but I had to chase a big brown one the size of my finger out a few mornings ago.  It didn’t want to be chased, so I ended up having to pick it up.  I flung it in the direction of some tall grass, well within their usual jumping ability, so I figure it probably was fine and will end up back in the lettuce after telling all of its popper buddies its alien abduction story.

A small green grasshopper sits on a white garden hose reinforcer.

Don’t I look harmless?

And a brief followup about the skunk, though I don’t consider her (yes, “her”) a nemesis — she can’t get to the garden plants, and she’ll eat grasshoppers.  I surprised her the next morning, and she politely scrambled back beneath an old shed.  I happened to catch the movement out of the corner of my eye, and when I looked over, her tail was just disappearing, and four baby skunks were lined up to follow her back into the den!


I am not ashamed to admit that I squealed with delight.  Sadly, that old shed is not a terribly desirable place for a family of skunks, especially with a perfectly serviceable old shed on the vacant property next door.  Still, they’re not hurting anything, they’re just being skunks, and they’re healthy animals with no sign of disease.  We ended up putting a radio inside the shed on high volume for a few days, to give the skunks the impression that an annoying neighbor had moved in upstairs.

A couple of evenings later, I did see Mama Skunk out and about, but no babies along this time.  The original photo is really dark, but we have the technology (Colors->Auto->Stretch Contrast in GIMP, in case of interest), to lighten it up a bit…


A female striped skunk at dusk.

Mama Skunk is not interested in making new friends.


A Funny Tail

This morning, as I walked out in the smoky haze courtesy of a new and closer forest fire to water the garden, I was feeling a little Monday-ish, but thoughts of the garden always lift my spirits a bit.  I checked that the water had been turned off after the feral cat colony had been watered, and headed out to “the cat house.”  The cat house is a little sheltered area where we put out water for the colony, and I have to unhook the hose nozzle there and attach the hoses out to the garden in the mornings, then in the evenings, I unhook the hoses and put the nozzle back on, so the cats can be watered in the morning again.

As I approached the cat house, I noticed many of the cats hanging about, and I assumed that one of the old toms was inside and not letting anyone else join him.  I picked up the hose and opened the nozzle, so I wouldn’t get sprayed with water in my work clothes when I unscrewed it.  As I did, I glanced down and noticed a patch of long grey fur at the entrance to the cat house.  Then I frowned and looked back over my shoulder to where I thought I’d seen the cat with the long grey fur, and sure enough, there sat Old Mama, who is thirteen or fourteen years old and mother or grandmother (or great+ grandmother) to about 3/4 of the colony.  My stomach sank, and I looked back down to see two bright black eyes and a little pink piggy nose poking out at me as if to ask, “Whatcha doin’?”

Readers, I did not know I could still move so fast.

I shut the valve off, dropped the hose and leapt out of the “cat yard” before high-tailing it to the house.  I asked my mother-in-law if she’d be so kind as to go out in an hour or so and water, as I did not think that it would be a good idea to play with the skunk any more than I already had.

It’s been a bad year for rabies in skunks, but this one appeared to be in good health.  It was not particularly afraid of me, but it wasn’t aggressive, and it did not have a sick appearance in eyes, nose or fur.  The cats were mildly grumpy that they had to wait for their morning drink, but they weren’t agitated otherwise, which I would expect if the skunk had smelled of illness to them.  It didn’t smell of anything at all to me, so it obviously hadn’t sprayed anywhere recently.  I’m pretty stuffed up from all the smoke, but there’s limits to what swollen sinuses can block out.

Risks aside, skunks are fairly amiable creatures.  They prefer not to spray when given any other option. (And look how quickly I offered another option!)  They’re great for gardeners, because they eat so many of the things that eat the garden plants: grasshoppers, mice, moles, grub, weevils and various other insects.  Because my garden lives under a cover, I don’t have to worry about the skunk digging for grubs in my nice raised bed.  I’ve known wild skunks to be tamed to hand-feeding by someone with a bag of marshmallows and a willingness to risk being made to sleep in the garage.  (Please do not try this at home. Skunks can give a nasty bite, they do sometimes carry a variety of diseases, and marshmallows aren’t really good for them, anyway.)

For my part, as long as the skunk stays healthy, it’s welcome to hang around and eat as many grasshoppers as it likes.  You can bet I’ll be checking the cat house more carefully before I get near it, though!