Sunday, May 31, 2009

Clean and Fresh Mosquito Repellant

Mosquito season is upon us! Not high mosquito season, no. That will come later, and we'll need a proper arsenal of citronella oil, long sleeves, and darting inside quickly at dawn and dusk.. For this light part of the season, it's been enough to put an enormous citronella plant on the back deck, and when the devil-insects start swarming, rub a leaf between hands, on faces, necks, ankles, and over hair.

By the way, I should say this plant used to be enormous. It's been plucked back, leaf by leaf, every evening, right at dusk.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Line Drying Clothes

It ought to be harder and more time consuming to line dry clothes compared to machine drying. If I told my friends it was actually easier, they wouldn't believe me. They'd think I was trying to be brave in the face of difficulties. Or trying to lure them into my insane peak oil fantasies.

But seriously, I think it's easier, most of the time. And I've always considered laundry to be the most tedious of household work. Here's my previous routine:

1. Put a load of laundry in the washer.
2. Switch the load to the dryer, add another load to the washer, go do something else, oops, got distracted and now the clothes in the dryer are wrinkled.
3. Add another load to the washer. Pile wrinkled clothes on the bed, planning to figure out what to do with them later.
4. Come back in a few hours later and discover dogs have decided to nest in clean, wrinkled laundry.
5. Start over at step 1.

The problem is there are so many things to do in a single day that I can't seem to stay close enough to the washer and dryer to make the process efficient. At least one out of two loads of laundry ends up sitting in the bottom of the dryer, wrinkled as a Shar Pei.

But with line drying, here's how it goes.
1. Put a load of laundry in the washer.
2. Hang out laundry.
3. Sometime during the day, remember to pull fresh, unwrinkled laundry from the line, fold right laundry into baskets.

Of course, the other benefits to line drying are pretty obvious. It saves energy, doesn't heat up the house, clothes smell wonderful and are naturally disinfected by sunshine. Additionally, the dryer is pretty hard on fabric. All that lint you take out of the lint trap? That's your clothes, disintegrating.

We don't have an ideal set up for a clothes line. The house is situated on a steep hill, with lots of trees. If I put up a clothes line anywhere around the house, I'd have to tramp down about 100 hillside stairs every single time I wanted to use it. Or, I could hang it near the garden, which is about 200 yards from the house. Instead, Widget Man installed a retractable line on our deck, which get lots of sun and is conveniently located adjacent to our actual house. It looks kind of crazy, I guess, when I've got undies and socks drying on the back deck. But we've gotten used to looking crazy.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Grapes on the Back Deck -- A Central Texas Tradition

When I was growing up in central Texas, all the old German houses and businesses had some kind of grape arbor. The fair grounds had a beer garden, of course, with a huge cedar arbor, big enough for dozens of picnic tables underneath. We had an actual German oompah band in our town, which used to play in the beer garden. Our neighbor, a genuine old German farmer, with the demeanor of a friendly elf, used to play the tuba in the band. The arbor was a shady, cool place to hang out in the summer and the bright green leaves created a beautiful, glowing light.
In the winter the leaves dropped and the gnarled vines took on a sculptural quality.

We don't have a beer garden but we do have a west-facing deck that gets incredibly hot in the summer. A few years ago we planted some grape vines on the hillside beneath the deck and added some fencing for them to climb. The grapes have finally climbed the twelve feet or so from the ground below and are reaching the deck. Besides the delight of having grapes grow right on our deck, we hope to follow the example of those early Texas settlers and take advantage of the leafy green shade in the summer, once the vines complete their journey up the cedar posts of our deck.

In the winter, when the leaves drop, we'll be happy for the extra warmth and sunshine of our west-facing deck. The gnarly vines will add a little character to an otherwise ordinary-looking deck and remind me of a sweet little old German farmer who played the tuba in an oompah band.

Technicolor Artichokes

I let some of my artichokes go to flower, not on purpose, but because I've never grown them before and didn't see it coming. These poor photos don't do the flowers justice. You can't really see how they shimmer and glow in the sun, like some floral mirage. They're huge too.

If I had a sunny spot in the beds in front of my house, I'd plant them there.

If I lived in a suburb with an anti-veggie garden property owners association, I'd pull all the bedding plants, all the box wood and red-tipped photinia, all the dull, uniform shrubbiness, right out of those beds, and fill them with artichoke plants. I'd fill them with huge, spikey, architectural artichokes, that need virtually nothing but an occaisonal sip of water, and once a year put on a showstopping, technicolor display.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

How to Create a Deer Banquet, or: A Fundamentally Unsound Idea

I have some advice, just in case this ever comes up: If you live in deer country, and spend a great deal of time and money installing an eight foot deer fence around an acre of garden space, do not think to yourself, "Hey, wouldn't all that fencing make a fantastic trellis for cucumbers?"

And before you break your back digging up the foot-deep, native grasses, enrich the soil with composted turkey manure and build eleventy million cucumber hills, try to recall why you built the fence in the first place.

And during the several hours it takes to run new irrigation tubing, to hook up said tubing to the main water manifold, to pull it all out again and re-rout it for a more efficient path, ask yourself at least once, "Now why did I build that fence?"

Because if you do not remember at least once during the several days of digging, double-digging, spreading manure, running tubing, and planting seed, why you built a deer fence in the first place, you will feel very, very foolish when all those cucumbers become a deer banquet -- when you go out to your garden every day to see the grass trampled on the outside of the fence, to see the leaves on the cucumber plants gnawed back to sad little stumps, and sometimes, to see a couple of extra-bold deer chawing away like they're at a Luby's on Sunday after church.

I'm just saying.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Toasting Chili Powder

We know that roasting veggies intensifies their flavors, mellows bitterness, and carmelizes the sugars. This is especially true for hot peppers. But what if you're not using whole peppers? What if all you have on hand for a recipe are dried, commercial chili powders?

Well, you can get much of the benefit of roasting by a quick toast in a dry, hot pan. What I've got going here, which I'll add to a pot of beans, is a mixture of ancho and cascabel powders. Even a commercial chili con carne chili mix is improved by a quick toast in a pan.

Just start with a heavy, dry pan. When the pan is hot, add the chili powders and stir. Keep the chilis moving so they don't burn. They're ready when they've darkened nicely.

That's it!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Favorite Pickling Blend

Favorite Pickling Blend

5-10 peppercorns
10-15 coriander seeds
1 Myrtlewood leaf
A goodly sized sprig of dill

1. Drop spices and herbs in the bottom of each jar.
2.  Use a proportionately upsized amount of herb and spice blend in the cooked pickling liquid + salt and dash of sugar to taste.

I normally use this blend for jalepenos, but this time I was making watermelon pickles.  

About that mytlewood leaf:  Of course you could use basil, but I discovered this leaf on a trip to Oregon and love the flavor.  I used up the supply I bought in Oregon and ordered more online -- I think it was a couple of dollars for a large package.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Curing Onions for Storage

We had an unexpected rain storm today and so I ran out to the garden to gather these onions in a hurry before they got wet.  I have them drying on the back deck now, and I'll put them back in the sun tomorrow, where they'll cure for a few days more.

This is the first time I've grown enough onions to store so I'm not quite sure what will work.  My dad used to hang them in nets from rafter in our store room but I don't have a store room or rafters.  Just a small kitchen with vaulted ceilings, impossible to hang anything from.  I also have a garage that gets really hot in the summer -- approximately the temperature of the sun.  And a climate that stays humid most of the year.  Any ideas on how to best store these onions? 

Sunday, May 24, 2009

First Loquat

Still very tiny, and the tree is still young, so we'll be lucky to get just a few this year.

But they make beautiful trees and are easy, easy, easy to grow under the toughest conditions that central Texas can offer.

There's a  restaurant in town with a loquat tree growing in the middle of a parking lot.   As far as I can tell, it never gets watered, or cared for in any way.  Yet it puts out bushels of fruit every year.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Green Smoothies

What's a gardener to do with an overabundance of garden greens?  Use them in salads, frittatas, omlettes, stews, and soups.  Make veggie enchiladas, tacos, and lasagnas.  

But the best, easy, fast, filling no-cook meal is a green smoothie.  This one is made with about 2 cups of cilantro, a banana, water, and ice.  Spinach makes a fantastic smoothie too.  It might look like pesto but the taste is lightly sweet and creamy.  So delicious that on weekends, when Widget Man is home in the mornings, I usually make 2 blendersful -- one for our breakfast and one that I transfer to mason jars and refrigerate for lunch or an afternoon snack.

Don't be skeptical.  I was at first and so was Widget Man.  But they taste delicious and power us through long hot days of gardening and working in the hot Texas sun.  Plus, very little clean up and no cooking to heat up the house.

You can make them sweeter by adding more fruit, if you like.  I especially like bananas and pears, because they add a creaminess.  Yogurt's good too.  And with bitter greens, a bit of lemon or anything acidic (like pineapple) cuts the sharp flavor.

Texas Sized Centipede

See this visitor to our garage?  Very mean, mean sting.

Squash Beds, Before and During

Here's what my first raised berm beds looked like, right after I tilled and built them.

Here they are now, with zucchini, yellow squash, several kinds of cucumber, and melon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Permaculture Bed

Cilantro is a pretty plant any time -- bright green, delicate, excessively fragrant. But when it's in bloom, and luring bees and butterflies to the garden, it's a showstopper. I mean, I can't stay away. I just stand there and smile. So that alone would be worth letting a plant that takes up about a third of a raised bed take its sweet time going to seed.

But I'm hoping for more. This is in my permaculture bed, where I let about ten percent of everything go to seed or otherwise run its natural life cycle. I started planting it two seasons ago, and now I'm getting all sorts of happy volunteers -- kale, dozens of kinds of lettuces and greens, beets, and basil so far. I've also got some leeks in there that I'm letting go to seed, and redivide. This season I added chard, spinach, and tucked in some peppers, tomatillos and tomatoes. One nice result of this mixed bed is that pests never get a real foothold, as they might in a monoculture garden.

The Cruelest Plant

This pretty, bright green, delicate plant seems to grow wherever soil has been disturbed. In the open field where I have my garden, that means it primarily grows wherever I am trying to work -- at the edges of the garden berms, around the raised beds, any place I've planted fruit trees or berries. I mulch pretty heavily but it still finds a foothold.

Don't let its lovely heart shaped leaves fool you. It's a killer. The tiniest touch leaves bright red streaks on my skin, and mean, lingering sting. I mean this plant causes some serious pain. Here's a measure that anyone from around here should respect: I'd rather be bitten by fire ants than encounter this plant. Aahh, now you understand.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Spring Harvest, Tonight's Supper, and an Almost Oops

On the menu tonight is chicken soup, made with the first of the yellow squash, zucchini, the very first bell pepper, some onion and herbs, all from the garden. I was going to add potatoes and carrots from the store, plus some chicken broth I'd made and frozen several weeks ago.

Instead, I came this close to adding potatoes, carrots, and frozen banana/coconut smoothie I'd made and frozen last week. Must make labels clearer.

First of the Cucumbers

This year I planted small picklers, some heirlooms called Lemon Cukes, names so for their color and shape, not their flavor, or so I'm told, and Armenian cucumbers, which are very, very long. I've got ity bity cucumbers on all the plants, maybe 30 so far, but these are the first to mature. I hope to have enough to can.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Paul James is Blogging

Yippee, one of my favorite gardeners has a great website and an entertaining blog.  Read it here.

And, nopal cactus is in bloom!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Beans Emerge

Offhand, I can't recall if these are Scarlet Runner, Purple Hyacinth, or Chinese Long Beans.

In planted 6 foot sections of each along a fence, in an attempt to prettify a untilitarian deer fence, plus, have lots of beans.

Cheaper, Better, AND Faster: Homemade Deodorant

My sister, who used to be a marketing exec, told me that in product marketing they say there are three basic attributes you can use to sell something -- cheaper, better, and faster. But you can only pick two. The idea is that nothing can be cheaper, better, AND faster.

I don't think this is true. In fact, when I play around with making things from scratch I insist that it be all three things. Here's the recipe:

Homemade Deodorant
1 part baking soda
1 part unrefined coconut oil
10 drops tea tree oil

Mix. Use.

I've seen some variations of this recipe all over the internet. Many call for more precise measures; some call for an addition of cornstarch, which is supposed to help absorb moisture. I doubt if this would help much for profuse sweating and when I used this version, it left white streaks on my black sweater. With just the baking soda, no streaks at all!

After this jar runs out, I may try this without the baking soda. This is because I think the coconut and tea tree oils are the key ingredients. Coconut oil is a gentle antibacterial (and antiviral!), will keep skin soft, and acts as a carrier for the tea tree oil. Tea tree oil is a more potent, though still gentle, antibacterial. And it's bacteria that make for smelliness, not sweat.

I think the reason that people are adding baking soda and cornstarch, besides the idea that they may ever so slightly inhibit the appearance of sweat, is that they want to mimic the appearance of a solid roll-on deodorant. I suppose this has the advantage of allowing people to reuse old solid deodorant plastic containers for storage. An easier solution is to reuse a small jar.

I was skeptical about this recipe, believe me. I'm as uptight as it comes about body odor -- not even remotely sophisticated or crunchy on this issue. But it has worked for over two months now, perfectly, 100% of the time -- in hot steamy weather, after hours in the garden, in stressful situations. And, because of my super-sensitive, cry-baby skin, I'd been looking for something that doesn't leave my skin all sensitive and bumpy, which all commercial formulations, even the so-called natural ones, do. This does the trick.

By the way, tea tree oil has a kind of medicinal, camphor-like smell, but it dissipates in just a few minutes. A possible alternative to this might be lavender, which is also anti-bacterial, though I haven't tried it yet.