Friday, July 2, 2010

Veggies gone wild, summer break.

I was standing at my kitchen counter yesterday morning, making a pot of coffee, and that's when I saw him. 

A squirrel. My furry little enemy was walking across the fence above our garden, only this time he was carrying a big, juicy tomato. It doesn't take a forensics team to figure out where he got it. A quick glance at the emptied vine I'd been waiting to pick confirmed the culprit. A wave of heat ran through my body, and I wasn't sure whether to scream or burst into tears. The nervy little F-er even sat himself down on the fence for a full on tomato salad feast. The rain the past few days had clearly wiped out my cayenne job, and I wasnt quick enough on the re-apply to avoid these eager critters from descending on my bounty.

Since it was too late to do anything about it, I ran to grab my camera, quietly went out into the back (not unnoticed by the little guy) and took a few pics of him - caught red handed (literally).

He's looking right at me.

Then I went out and got myself a five pound box of the fierce cayenne recommended by Erica at Les Douceurs de Marche. This is a full on war of the fruits, and I'm going to win it. I came home and created my very own artillery: a super sized "Cayenne Shaker". I took a large mason jar, poked holes in the top, and 65 sneezes later, my shaker was loaded and ready to go, and a fresh and heavy cayenne crop dusting was carried out immediately.

I am noticing however, that the cayenne may not really be the answer to my problems.  Unless I have endless amounts of time to re-apply (and shower every leaf of every plant with the stuff), these fluffy SOB's find a way around the hot spots. Upon closer inspection, I also found that the squirrels had taken the entire branch of 10 or so large tomatoes that were growing. How was one little squirrel was able to get away with that many tomatoes at once!?!? Do thy work as a team? It's not as though the branch was broken and some were left in the earth- they are all G-O-N-E. Even as I write this and peer out the window I see the bogies multiplying... three in the fruit section, two on the fence... I can't handle this.
The tomatoes that no longer exist

A friend has offered her scarecrow. I'm going to get it tomorrow and we'll see how that works out. I also had a friend wih her dog here yesterday afternoon...  the dog spent much of the day actually lying in the earth protecting my garden. If a squirrel even came near my yard - the dog went completely bananas, barking until it left. I may need to rent her out for the summer (anyone have a schnauzer that needs a place to laze around?). 

In other (better) news, things are cropping up like crazy back here. Cherry tomato trees have just about exploded, tons of tomatoes are hiding all over the place, and the height of the trees has tripled in size. The Roma tomato plants (not even sure I realized I planted Romas) are sprouting beautiful, bean-like tomatoes, that I cannot wait to harvest in a couple of weeks- the thought of them being robbed just hurts. The larger plants are looking a little bare, should be just a few days until some new big guys start to sprout up again.

The surprise Romas

Look how big those plants are getting! They were 1/4 that height!

In the veg section, things are getting so wild and crazy I can barely believe my eyes. I had to trim back some of the zucchini plant leaves, because they were shading the neighbouring purple onion, arugula & eggplants. Micro basil looks like a little fro of perfection, and every time I clip some, it seems to replenish overnight. The thyme seems to be growing a little slower... taking its sweet ass thyme (had to insert that cheesy joke). Everything else in the veggie section is doing really awesome, the arugula, spinach & herbs are growing faster than I can consume if you can believe it. Steady watering, good water flow (since the garden is on a slant) and great sunshine- Thank you (so far) mother nature! Let's see what happens when the actual vegetables start to come in (if they every do). The only problem so far with all the extreme growth, is that it comes with an onslaught of weeds. Not sure my legs could handle the man-hours of all the weeding in squat position that needs to take place. Thinking Ric & I need to blast some tunes and hit the weed for a few hours one of these days. Ya mon.

Week 1

same shot, week 5

My friend, the micro basil

Oregano ground cover action

Eastward in the fruit patch, ground cherries are growing steadily (and being eaten by the animals at about the same rate as they come in), & raspberry season is about to be in full swing. July is Raspberry season, and I'd better get on track with the rodent control, or I won't see a single red-berry in my hands. There are only a few berries coming from the plants this year, and I plan to harvest and enjoy each one.

Click here to read week 1 of my garden adventures!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A divine encounter with Lotus Root Chips

The lotus root is  the stem of the lotus flower. Growing under the water, the stem is peculiar in that it's shaped like bulbs that are attached one on top of the other, forming a long stem (sometimes 3 or 4 feet long). Imagine fat sausage links or perfectly smooth sweet potatoes connected end-to-end. The lotus flower sits above water like a lillypad with a flower on it, looking like it floats with no support- while the thick stem that is the lotus root, is actually attached below, extending from the bottom of the pond up to the top. You may have seen lotus flowers before.... they're commonly used in depictions of Buddhist and Hindu cultures as a symbol of purity, peace, & divinity, and they're pretty trendy across the board (think all things home decor related, often used in the famous artworks of Shepard Fairey, a popular choice for that classic lower back tattoo, and the list goes on and on). From the outside, the bulbous lotus root looks pretty unsuspecting, but when you slice that puppy open, you'll find pure epicurean beauty. I seriously love being in the kitchen with one of these.

Making lotus root chips have become my favourite garnish and addition to really any meal. You can find them at most asian grocers - I always pick up a few when I'm in, or passing through Chinatown. When lightly fried, these starchy roots turn into orange flower-like crispy chips that are dry, crunchy but not crumbly, and not greasy at all.Tuna tartare is the reason I first made them, & is still my number one complimentary dish, since eating thin and crispy chips with tartare is so necessary. Recently, I've been experimenting this root for almost everything (stir fry, salad, soup, you name it). It's very healthy - high in fiber, vitamin c, potassium - and low in saturated fat. Awesome. Here's how to prepare them.

Lotus Root Chips:
1. Separate the Lotus root bulbs. Peel each bulb, and set aside. Using a mandoline (Benriner being my mandoline of choice), slice the lotus root into thin rounds. Sprinkle with kosher salt.

2. Heat 1/4 inch peanut oil in high-sided skillet- and place 8 or so rounds in at a time. Be careful not to overcrowd the skillet. The oil will bubble slightly at first, and the rounds will begin to darken quickly. When they begin to change colour, flip at immediately. When the chips have turned a light-medium orange, remove from skillet and place on a plate with paper towel (they will continue to darken slightly as they cool)- move quickly, they burn fast!

3. Enjoy! These chips are so beautiful and amazing- you will be hooked after one try at making them.

Click here for my tuna tartare recipe & if you decide to try out the chip recipe, let me know how it works out! 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Happenings in the vegetable patch.

So there's been a nice steady few weeks of serious sun, and then big rains- which has really been great for my farming experiment 2.0. There has been some significant growth since planting day. 

The tomatoes are doing wonderfully. The three larger plants are actually producing beautiful looking fruit. the cherry tomto plant has already given me about 16 large (organic) cherry tomatoes,  the large "pink lady" tomatoes are huge, and slowly turning pink, and the third (which I thought was a pink lady, but was marked wrong at the nursery) has about 12 shapely looking medium size tomatoes, and I'm excited to see how long it takes them to ripen. They are gorgeous.

Over in the herbs & veg section, the herbs and lettuces are all growing nicely, with the exception of one spinach plant that seems to be struggling and looking pretty weak (I have no clue why!). The 4 arugula bushels have doubled in size, and the herbs are starting to look more full. The artichoke, eggplant, and zucchini plants look healthy and great- but I honestly have no clue what's happening under the ground or what to expect from those bad boys.

As for the fruits, all the plants look great- and some of the rasberry bushes (especially the heritage ones) are starting to have tiny greenish buds that I hope will turn into fruit near the end of the summer and save me from my uncontrollable need to spend 5.99 on raspberries on a weekly basis. Squirrels and birds be warned: I will defend my berries with force.

Heritage berries, almost turning pinkish!

The other plants seem to be budding as well, Im hoping that my 2 year old bluberry plant will actually produce some fruit this year- and I should see some strawberries too. The ground cherry plants are already showing the delicate paper-like green shells, that will soon house some pretty little yellow guys. I'm watching all of it, and feeling pretty positive. Watermelons dont look like they've made to much progress, and I'm not holding my breath.

Ground cherries

Animals seem to be staying away from the massive amounts of Cayenne that I have been putting down. I caught one squirrel actually jump from a vertical postion on the fence, right onto the tomato cage - a few foot drop. I ran out like a raving loon and scared it away. Besides that, they are still running back and forth on the fence all day but not daring to come down into the cayenne den of fire. It takes a lot of upkeep to sprinkle cayenne after each big rain, and it's going to get more and more intense as the summer gets on, and more fruit starts to blossom. I'm ready. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pardon my Garden

My house has a big, big, big, backyard. When we moved in 2 summers ago. I'd stare into the backyard and imagine a world where it was transformed into a farm, with rows and rows of vegetables and lanes i could drive down, overall-clad on my mini John Deere... 

(exit dream sequence)

Back to reality: Last summer I planted a pretty elaborate tomato & herb garden taking up only 30 percent of the available space in the earthy soil / designated planting space in our yard. The herb garden went really well - healthy, beautiful and smelled absolutely divine - mint, basil, sage, parsley & rosemary fragrance wafting into the house every time the back door opened. Flowers, I've got down, no problem. The tomato plants, to make a long story short, were a disaster. The plants grew large and intertwined, creating a tangled jungle of vine, fruit and massive spider webs complete with big spiders. Sounds like a blast right? Everything was planted wayyyyyyyyy too close together. Who'd have known when they were tiny tomato plants how huge they would be 8 weeks later!? Also, I didn't support the large tomato trees properly, so as the tomatoes grew heavy and plump on the vines, they would snap and fall onto the ground. Where they'd get scooped up by an animal or left alone to never fully ripen. The experience was all in all very disappointing for a gal who loves her do-it-yourself tomatoes. There were however, hundreds and hundreds of cherry tomatoes - most very difficult to access due to my poor landscaping job. This past winter I even kept up my farming practice with a brief two week obsession with farmville (sorry to those I dragged down with me), my virtual cows constantly moo-ing at me, & checking my watch when out for dinner (had to get back to water my rice on time!).

Last years jungle disaster

Which brings us to......  2010. One year of experience under my belt. I'm ready to say good riddance to failed gardening attempts. I'm going to chronicle the growth of what is my baby garden right now, as it blossoms into the tomato/raspberry/herb/arugula garden of eden. I've learned my lessons; plant with distance. These plants need their personal space to grow & flourish. Never "play" and prune in the garden at dusk (this will result in 87 mosquito bites and two benadryls). Lastly, be prepared to defend against the wildlife invasion. More on that later.

My ideal plan was to have a full herb garden (obviously, in order to create all the Bistecca Florentine a person can handle), tons of tomatoes, other micro greens, heirloom raspberry plants that were transplanted from my grandmother's old house, to my aunt's house, and now finally to mine (think... picking from the same raspberry plants my mom picked from as a little girl). That was the rough idea, with some new fruits and veggies to try out too.

Early the last Saturday morning of May, with coffees in hand, we headed to Jardin Jasmin. What a place. A huge and sprawling nursery with every species of fruit, vegetable, herb, rose & trees one could imagine- with helpful staff ready to answer your questions and help you find the best fruit and vegetables for your soil and yard conditions. We packed an entire 2 trolleys with plants, and our friend Alty (who came along to help out) even bought his own pile of crops to plant and harvest for himself in our yard.

After a hearty lunch, we threw on our billy boots and hit the yard with rakes and hoes in hand, ipod blaring out of speakers on the patio in the 28 degree sunshine. The work was physical, turning the soil, adding fertilizer, mixing it in, & watering (repeat, repeat, repeat) 

And then came the planning & planting. We split the garden into three sections, with rustic stone tiles we chose as a walkway to access the plants. From left to right: a new rose bush and a flower bush, the tomato section, herbs & vegetables, fruit.


The tomato section:
3 large tomato plants in the back (2 pink lady plants, and one with large cherry tomatoes)
the second row, beefsteak tomatoes, yellow cherry tomatoes. The large plants are in cages, in order to support the stems and fruit as they ripen and get heavy. As soon as the beefsteak tomato plants grow to a substantial size (if they ever do, I cant imagine a big tomato plant growing from the puny little guys that claim to be beefsteaks now), I'll put cages on them too. All of the tomato plants are planted verrrrrrrrrry far apart, to give them maximum space for growth, while keeping them separate.

Really, you're going to be a Beefsteak?

Herbs & Small vegetables:

Rosemary, basil, micro basil plants (my favourite new plant already), mint and sage (from last year), arugula, spinach, chives, purple onion, thyme, parsley, eggplant, zucchini, artichoke (artichoke was one of Alty's choices). Herbs are pretty easy to grow, and I'm not worried about my leafy greens. But the artichokes, zucchini (which I'm really hoping to have some blossoms with), and eggplant... really not sure how they are going to fare or if I planted them far enough apart. I didn't let anyone come into that section. I had to plant perfectly aligned rows (like a proper farm), and had to have complete control to be sure I got it right. 

My mom must be a geometry teacher right?

My predicted mvp of the summer, micro basil
I transplanted 5 raspberry bushels from my aunt's house, which should fruit this year (at least a few of them should - Raspberry plants fruit every other year). The Blueberries that I planted last year should fruit this year. 

Then we got extreme. These are are mega-longshots to grow in but I'm hopeful: Watermelons, Cherries, ground berries, grapes (would be cool if they grow and cover the entire fence one day), and yellow rasperries that I dont expect fruit from this year. 

After a long day

The issues:
Animals. Montreal squirrels, racoons, and groundhogs are nervy little bastards - they come right in, even de-rooted my home made chicken wire fence last year and devoured everything just as its ready to be picked. The dividing wood fence above our vegetable garden serves as a squirrel freeway. There is tons of furry action on that thing - they run back and forth all day long, and climb down into my garden for breakfast, lunch & dinner. I caught myself a few times banging on the kitchen window like a crazy old lady yelling at squirrels who can't hear me from inside my house, and don't care anyway.  Let's not forget the groundhogs & occasional raccoons. Awesome. Eric has visions of finding me on the back patio in a rocking chair, shotgun in hand, muttering to myself, protecting my lawn from critters, like a total whacko. I've officially waged war, scouring the internet, buying books, joining chat forums. So far the general consensus on defense weapons is Cayenne pepper. Animals dislike the smell (no kidding). I went outside with some of the strongest cayenne pepper I could find at Douceurs (yes, these squirrels are getting a nose-full of the strong, fresh, high end stuff, because that's how I roll), and sprinkled in all over the garden. Makes me sneeze just dusting the crops with it (which isnt saying much), but it sure did a number on my poor poodle dylan, he was squinting for hours after a romp in the yard inspecting the veg. So... we'll see how that goes. 

Minute 4 of what would be hours & hours of him squinting at me

Maintenance: I have to make sure I know how to clip each species, prune, fertilize & constant watering.

Finally, sunshine. All I can do is pray.

I'm learning as I go. Reading about bugs, animals, soil & gardening. Carefully caring for each tender vegetable, I head out after every rain and re-up the cayenne, snip away the dead leaves, and cut back the herbs where I have to. I already harvested 4 gorgeous tomatoes.