Thursday, June 25, 2009

Trying Again with the Pumpkins

Remember when we were pumped about our pumpkins? Me too... Let me summarize our little pumpkin adventure thus far.

We saved the seeds from the bigger of our two Halloween jack-o-lanterns and planted them indoors in late winter, mostly just to see if they were still alive. They germinated all right and, as spring wore on, became quite gangly little vines on our bedroom windowsill. They even began sprouting blossoms.

But indoor winter weather just isn't ideal for vegetables—the sunlight isn't quite right, the air and soil are stagnant, the little cups holding them are small. We started these seeds way too early. So we planted a few more later. These, too, germinated and sprouted quickly, stretching toward that sunshine just out of their reach outside our bedroom window.

About half of the oldest seedlings eventually pooped out and died. We gave most of the others away. When the danger of overnight frost was gone, we finally planted our two remaining vines outside. Within days, someone or something nipped them off at the base of the stem.

I planted six more seeds in a shallow tray of seed-starter mix on our front porch. It dried out so quickly, I couldn't keep up with the watering, and only two of these sprouted. They promptly died while we were on vacation.

In a fit of frustration, I dumped the tray of seed-starter mix right onto the spot where we had planted those first two seedlings. I spread a handful of seeds around in it, making sure the seeds were just lightly covered with the soil. I watered it every morning (except days it rained).

Just a few days later, voila! Cute, aren't they?

Upon closer inspection, however, I gasped in horror at this creepy crawly discovery: Roly-polies were everywhere, and they were eating my precious seedlings! Just look at that guy munching the leaves of that poor baby pumpkin plant.

Web forums on the subject of protecting plants from roly-polies (a.k.a. sow bugs, pill bugs, wood lice) were mostly useless, mostly just hosting debates on whether or not these formerly endearing crustaceans actually do eat living plant matter. Guess what? They do. I was watching them chew.

So what to do without using insecticide? I mixed up some olive oil and hot pepper flakes to brush or spray onto the leaves, thinking the bugs might not like the spiciness. But I have not tried that remedy yet. I'll go back to it if my first line of defense doesn't work. I cut plastic drinking straws (See? We rinsed and saved those straws for a good reason!) into segments the length of the seedlings stems. I cut a slit down the side of each piece of straw, so I could slip it onto the little stems—it looks like the seedlings sprouted right out of the straw. Then I pressed the straw segment into the soil just a tad, to hold it in place and to give the seedling a tiny bit of protection under the surface. I also skipped a day of watering, since roly-polies love that ever-moist soil.

Today, it seems there are fewer roly-polies. So far, the seedlings are in good shape. I will, of course, keep an eye on them and adjust my battle plan as necessary. I'm saving the hot pepper oil just in case.

And, I'll have to thin out the bunch soon. (You saw how many there were!) I never liked thinning out my plants. It feels like killing something, wasting potentially good produce. At the same time, I understand that if I don't thin them out, leaving only the very few strongest seedlings, the growing vines will be fighting for soil and sun and water and space. In our tiny yard, even one vine would be fighting for space.

Friday, June 19, 2009

More Adventures in Edible Gardening

In mid-June, the temperature has finally crept up to what I consider comfortable; most other Chicagoans might consider it warm. Good gardening weather.
Today, I planted some more fun stuff in our yard: jalapeƱo seeds we cut out of a store-bought pepper, the butternut squash and cucumber seedlings I had started in small containers, and, just to see what happens, an avocado pit and some key lime seeds. We have previously made an avocado pit sprout roots and a scrawny stem in a glass of water, but it died before it really turned into anything. This time I just stuck it in the dirt. As for the key lime seeds, I have no illusions that we can sustain a citrus tree outdoors in this climate. They're just an experiment. If little lime trees happen to spring from the earth, I'll dig them up and pot them and then figure out what to do.
A garden really is just an outdoor laboratory, isn't it? I made an interesting discovery in mine a few weeks ago. This plant, and now, another baby one just like it, sprouted on its own in our little garden bed.
As it grows, it looks—and smells—a lot like a tomato plant. Last fall, I spread some almost fully decomposed compost onto my garden areas. Could it be that seeds from tomato scraps survived the winter and germinated "wild" on their own? We'll find out. I'm letting these two plants grow undisturbed until I discover they're actually a cleverly disguised weed.
Another experiment I began today is growing my cucumbers in a window-box-type container hanging on our fence, right under some latticework for easy climbing. But, can cucumbers thrive in shallow soil? There isn't much room for their roots to stretch. We'll see. Just in case, I planted two more seedlings in the ground at the base of the fence. They'll just have to reach a little higher before they can attach themselves to the lattice.
Meanwhile, my snow peas aren't doing so great in the hanging baskets. They look pretty, but don't get enough sun under the porch roof and therefore haven't produced a single pea yet.
The sweet pepper and tomato plants (the purposely planted ones) are still short but are slowly reaching for the sky. A pepper about half the size of my thumb is already growing, so that's something.
The strawberries are still producing like crazy. And we still have our own little salad bar out there with the remaining heads of romaine and buttercrunch lettuce.
The grapevine is stretching and has tiny clusters of tiny green balls. I wonder if these become the grapes, or if they become flowers that become the grapes? I've never seen the life cycle of a grape, so I don't know. Again, I say, we'll find out.
And, take a look at my bushy raspberry bushes (tied back to grow up against the side of our garage instead of out into the yard), fronted by massive shallots. Those onion shoots are almost waist-high. Their tips have burst into clusters of mini onions, shallot "heads" meant to be planted back in the ground, meaning the onions beneath the dirt are almost ready to be pulled. Could I have ten times as many next spring? Or even as soon as this fall?
Oh, and that scary-looking Chinese cabbage was definitely not cabbage. It sprouted lanky stalks of tiny yellow flowers. My mom suggested it was a type of wild mustard. She found the same thing growing in her garden 300 miles away. It had to have come from that Chinese cabbage seed packet we shared! Strangely, though, she did get some cabbage in her garden. Whatever it was, I yanked it out last week. Maybe I'll sow my leftover seeds later for a fall harvest and keep my fingers crossed.
What's new in your garden, readers?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chocolate Cranberry Macaroons

Inspired by Au Bon Pain's ambrosial, fist-sized Chocolate-Dipped Cranberry Almond Macaroon, I experimented a little bit and created this easy and quick bite-size replica. I should say, these macaroons are quick in that they require very little hands-on time, but there is cooling time needed for the "cookies" and then for the chocolate. So allow for a couple of hours overall, or make them at a leisurely pace, baking the macaroons in the early evening, dipping them in melted chocolate later that night, so they'll be ready and waiting in the morning. Mmm!

2 egg whites
pinch of salt
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut
1/3 cup dried cranberries or cherries
1/4 - 1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 - 2 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a mini-muffin pan.

Beat the egg whites and salt with an electric mixer until they form soft peaks; that is, you can form a temporary crest in the whites before it falls back down a little. (It is very important that you do not overbeat the egg whites into stiff peaks, as if you were making a meringue, or your macaroons will turn out too crunchy—more like macaringues...) Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the sugar over the whites and beat again for just a few seconds, until the peaks appear glossy.

In a separate bowl, toss together the remaining sugar, the almond extract, the coconut and the dried cranberries. With a rubber spatula, carefully fold these into the egg whites until evenly blended.

Drop the batter into the buttered mini-muffin pan, filling each cup just a little over the top. You probably will end up with a couple of empty spaces. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the coconut tips have begun to brown and the macaroons look like they're "breathing." Allow the macaroons to cool completely in the pan.

When the macaroons have cooled, use a spoon to scoop them out of the mini-muffin pan and onto a sheet of waxed paper or a baking sheet. They will still be gooey, so don't worry too much about their shape as you're scooping them—just keep them in somewhat of a ball form.

Put the chocolate chips and butter (start with the smaller amounts listed and melt more later if necessary) in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir until all melty and smooth, heating for another 15 seconds at a time if necessary. Spoon a glob of melted chocolate onto each macaroon and allow to set at room temperature. The chocolate will stay soft but won't come off on your hands when you gently pick up one of the treats.

These macaroons will keep well in an airtight container at room temperature for a few days.

Shared at: Thursday's Treasures, Full Plate Thursday, Whip it Up Wednesday, Friday Favorites

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Garden Eating Begins

I think it's finally safe to put the rest of my veggies in the ground. (Lettuce and snow peas I already sowed directly outside; they are "early" crops.) Here in Chicagoland, sneaky frost can occur overnight even in late May. So it was a week after Memorial Day when I finally moved my tomatoes and peppers from their tiny seedling containers, which I could put outside on nice days and bring inside on cold days, to the large wooden barrel containers in my front yard (the all-day sunny spot). But you better believe I'm watching the 5-day forecasts for that one rare overnight low in the 30s—I'll be running outside with newspaper and plastic bags to cover my precious plants. They're not quite seedlings anymore, but they're still tiny, thanks to the cool weather we've had. At this rate, it seems like it'll be July before we can eat anything out of the garden besides the lettuce!

Growing along with my lettuce is some scary-looking Chinese cabbage... or something. It looks more like a weed, with fuzzy, spiky leaves. When I look up Chinese cabbage, the pictures look like cabbage and not like the weird stuff growing in my little garden box. Maybe it is just a weed, but it's growing right where I planted those cabbage seeds. Maybe I got some bum seeds. I haven't picked or tasted any of it yet because I don't know what to do with it! It certainly doesn't look like it would be a pleasant texture. I'm sort of waiting to see how it grows out.

My other leafies, the romaine and buttercrunch lettuces, are growing great and taste great. I have been using some of the baby leaves in salads, making room for others to grow into full heads of lettuce. My spinach was good, but not all of the seeds sprouted, so we already ate it all and have to plant more. I think I can get another harvest before it gets too hot.

In the meantime, I'm just waiting for everything else to produce. Oh! Besides lettuce, we also have strawberries ripening now. About four at a time are ready every day or so, and I often just eat them as I pick them instead of saving them up for use as an actual ingredient in something, like strawberry shortcake. Now there's an idea...

So, what's growing in your garden, on your patio or balcony, or in your window sill? Check off your edibles in our poll over there on the right. If you're growing something that isn't listed, just click the "Comments" link at the top of this post and tell us about it!