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As Gardening Season Ends

Tomatillo from my community garden plot

I started six tomatillo plants from seed and they were very happy in the community garden. I’d never grown them, and was impressed at how prolific the plants were. I harvested mid-summer and canned many pints of salsa verde which, by my estimation, is more about the onions and peppers than about the tomatillos. Unfortunately, chemo has suppressed my sense of taste, so I’ve no idea whether the salsa verde tastes good. The tomatillo plants continue to grow and produce, and I may have left more than 100 fruits to rot in the garden. It seems unlikely I’ll plant tomatillos in next year’s garden.

It has been a hard season. I’ve faced two huge challenges to maintaining my kitchen garden:

1. It has been unusually dry this year. What little rain we’ve had came over a two-week period in August and did more damage than it did good.

2. I had major surgery before the season started to remove a tumor from my pancreas. Subsequent chemotherapy failed, and an alternative chemotherapy regimen has kept me weak and nearly constantly uncomfortable with gastric distress.

I had some help from my wife and some friends. My wife prepared one end of the main vegetable bed where I planted peas and carrots. She erected trellises for the peas, and we both harvested when peas were ready.

When my wife was away, a group of friends visited one weekend and removed an enormous amount of weeds from the main vegetable bed.

Conjoined paste tomatoes

All 68 tomato plants are still growing well, but late summer brought quite the onslaught of tomato fruit worms. Most tomatoes remaining on the plants are getting devoured, but I’m still harvesting about a half gallon of decent ones every four or five days. This is a single, unusual tomato on a plant that usually produces pepper-shaped fruits. It looks as though two tomatoes merged at birth.

What truly kept me in the game was signing up at a community garden. There I got two 10’ x 20’ plots where the garden’s management applies composted manure, plows it in, and plows again a week or so later to stop the first growth of weeds—all before gardeners have access to plant.

It was crazy easy for me to plant my prepared community garden plots. The soil was loose and raked smooth; I had only to press seeds into the soil or set seedlings in holes I could dig with my fingers.

The community garden helped me manage the dryness challenge as well: There are faucets and hoses that reach every plot and I was able to water my plants every 2nd or 3rd day.

I’ve gone rather light on blogging about the garden. The cancer has diminished many activities that used to be easy or even fun. Rather than catch up on all the most interesting moments of the season, this post is about where the season’s ending. Photos tell the story.

Three gallon tomato harvest

This was a typical harvest—three gallons of tomatoes and a few sweet peppers—about every three days until august. I’ve canned gallons of tomato pieces, whole tomatoes, and tomato sauce. Oh, and chili sauce and salsa in which tomatoes are a major ingredient.

Pruned tomato plants

Happily, the dry season discouraged common tomato plant diseases. I saw no early or late blight on my plants, though late summer rain fired up some bacterial disease that worked its way up the plants from the ground. I pruned affected leaves for several weeks, turning the tomato patch into a rather weird landscape.

Ten-foot tomato plants

My tomato trellises top out close to seven feet. The plants have grown three feet above the trellises… though this photo shows them a bit shorter. Tomatoes in the highest growth won’t ripen before frost, but there are a few just below the seven foot level that have a chance.

Small neck pumpkin

By early July I had grown squash seedlings under lights indoors and I planted them out at the community garden. One hill of neck pumpkins has barely performed; I must have set it on a bad patch of soil. Still, there are two rather tiny neck pumpkins maturing on the vines.

Small Kitchen Garden squash

Three years ago, without asking permission, my garden cross-bred a neck pumpkin with a fairytale squash. Unknowingly, I harvested seeds from a hybridized neck pumpkin and planted them in the next season’s garden. They produced gorgeous squash that I hoped I could stabilize through two seasons. Last season, they seemed to breed true. However, seeds I planted this year have produced three distinct varieties of fruits. The variety in the photo is the most prolific. The skin becomes creamy brown when ripe, a bit lighter than a butternut squash. Perhaps this version will breed true for next season’s garden.

Supposed purple cayenne peppers

I don’t recall where I got it, but last winter I picked up a packet of cayenne pepper seeds. It was a mix of seeds that would produce peppers in a variety of colors. Purple cayenne peppers, I think, are cheaters. The fruits start out purple but ripen to a bright red. Other colors in the packet were red, yellow, and orange. Sadly, I failed with cayenne. The plants were prolific early when I was dealing with a bumper crop of tomatoes and sweet peppers. Most of the cayenne peppers ended up in the crisper drawer and became anything but crisp.

Sorghum approaching harvest

A first for me, and still in progress: sorghum. I bought a packet of one hundred and fifty seeds and planted them in a tight square at one end of the bed. The plants have flourished. The seed heads are full and, I’m sure, ripe. Everything I’ve read suggests harvesting the seeds as close to first frost as possible and leaving the stalks to get some frost bite. Then harvest the stalks and squeeze the sap out of them to boil into syrup. Frost may be two weeks away, so I won’t be messing with the sorghum right away. In fact, my next big harvest needs to be potatoes. The above-ground parts of my potato plants never stopped growing until they were overrun by squash plants.

Cannas in the community garden

On a whim, I reserved several canna lily roots that we didn’t need to complete our “Hawaiian corner” behind the rock garden this year. I stuck the spare roots in my community garden plot among squashes, onions, and potatoes where the cannas wouldn’t interfere with other plants. It was quite late in the season, so the cannas are late bloomers, but there have been several flower spikes so far. In a few weeks, I’ll pull the roots and save them for next year. Knowing how many we need behind the rock garden, I’ll set aside a few extra to add flare in next year’s community garden plots.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – As Gardening Season Ends

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The Bigsby Market for Produce in Ithaca

Crysanthemums at The Bigsby Market

If you’re a farm stand, produce market, or garden center in the northeast, you sell chrysanthemums in autumn… which begins, apparently, during the last month of summer.

On my many forays to Ithaca over the past three years, I noticed and grew fond of a farm market just northeast of the city. The Bigsby Market is on route 13 and 366 just beyond where the two converge on the way to Dryden.

When I’m in Ithaca, I’m not about to invest in large amounts of produce, but I still stop to enjoy the displays and I try to buy something I can use. I’ve chatted with various employees there, and learned that some of the produce they sell comes from central Pennsylvania. In fact, they often have produce purchased from the Buffalo Valley Produce Auction which is about eight miles from my house.

Canarie melons at The Bigsby Market

The bin of canary melons was quite a mix of sunny orange and deep shadows.

I was in Ithaca two weeks ago, and I stopped at Bigsby Market late in the day. The market was decked out for autumn, and the late-day/late-summer sunlight provided the kind of illumination that excites all photographers.

I bought one delicious, perfectly ripe Bartlett pear, and I captured a whole bunch of photos from which I chose a handful of favorites to include in this post. It seriously looked like autumn at Ithaca’s Bigsby Market. Please have a look.

Canary melons at The Bigsby Market

Cantaloupe snuggled against watermelons in one of the produce bins at The Bigsby Market.

Pumpkins and winter squash at The Bigsby Market

Employees at the Bigsby Market stack pumpkins and winter squashes to make small towers. Some of the squashes avoid the fate and end up in heaps or bins.

Farm stand in Autumn

Sometimes things just fall into line. The Bigsby Market had an astonishing amount of produce; this is a modest sampling.

Sweet peppers at the Bigsby Market in Ithaca

Sweet peppers at The Bigsby Market shown in the evening sunlight. It won’t be long before local growers no longer have fresh produce to offer. At least for a little while, we can enjoy the colors and textures of autumn’s harvest.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Ithaca’s Bigsby Market

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Pears, Squirrels, and Woodchucks. Rats!

Pears!

Until the end of June, everywhere I looked on my pear tree there were pears… and most were in excellent shape. Things changed in July when a squirrel decided to take charge.

What a year for pears! My tree exploded with blossoms after the crazy cold winter and it seems every one of the blossoms produced fruit. I’ve never seen so many pears on the tree in any season.

I’ve tried not to get excited; you never know how a season will turn. Any honest gardener should be willing to acknowledge things go wrong; if you haven’t had a crop fail, you’re still a beginner.

My pear crop is failing

I suppose I’m being unfair to the pear tree to say my pear crop is failing. I’m failing my pear crop. Apparently, the pears are so good that a squirrel has taken charge of them.

We’ve watched that rascally squirrel climb the tree, chew through the stem holding a pear on the tree, drop the pear, run down from the tree, and carry off the pear. I’ve found pears half-buried in mulch in my garden, and I’ve stepped on them in the lawn. The idiot squirrel is hiding them as if to consume them in winter.

I’m so busy catching up on other gardening chores that I haven’t taken time to suss out a squirrel remediation system. Even if I find the time, I’m not sure I have the engineering skills.

Double-teaming varmints

So, my wife and I were eating dinner the other day, and I noticed the squirrel in the pear tree. As we watched, I wondered out loud how long squirrels live and whether they teach their offspring skills they’ve developed. (I wrote about a pear-eating squirrel in 2008; could this be the same critter six years later?)

Stored by squirrel for winter

I’ve stepped on pears that were cleverly half-buried in the lawn, and I’ve uncovered pears tucked under the mulch in my garden. Of course, after a few weeks on the soil, many of the pears are mushy, brown smears. The squirrel must have “hidden” this one within the past few days.

When the squirrel dropped a pear from the tree, my wife stood up (we can’t see the ground under the tree when we’re seated on the porch) and discovered a most disturbing truth: there was a woodchuck under the pear tree and it had acquired the pear! The squirrel and the woodchuck are in cahoots!

Will any pears make it to maturity? Will I harvest enough to make jelly? Will we have even one pear by the time the squirrel and woodchuck are done?

Do you have any varmint stories you’d like to share? Please leave them in comments, or link to them. Thank you for visiting.

Pear-thieving squirrel varmint

I thought the squirrel operated on its own as this photo reveals. My tree has noticeably fewer pears on it. In fact, a distressingly small number remain. I’ll spend time this winter pondering countermeasures to protect next year’s crop.

Pear-thieving woodchuck varmint

This here’s the varmint what steals pears from the squirrel varmint. Clearly the woodchuck is the mastermind and the squirrel is a henchman. Seems that if the squirrel actually ate all the pears it steals, it would quickly grow big enough to be indistinguishable from a woodchuck.

 

Dad’s Shovel

very old shovel

I grabbed this shovel from my dad’s garage when I needed to dig in his yard. Using it brought back memories and gave me respect for the value of being able to “do it yourself.”

Last week I needed a shovel to dig some holes at my dad’s house. As I had as a child, I found what I needed in the garage and went to work.

Through an hour or so of digging, I put a huge load on the shovel’s handle. Repeatedly, I dug deep and pulled to pry soil and stones loose. The handle bent but it never cracked. It bent more than handles on my own shovels and garden forks when I dig in my vegetable garden… and I’ve broken at least six of those in the last ten years.

Grow your own repair crew

My father always expressed his depression era mentality through maintenance and preservation: he cleaned and oiled what needed lubrication, and he repaired what broke. He involved his kids in these chores, and we learned to remove rust, paint metal to preserve it, grease bearings, oil joints, polish leather, clean spark plugs, sharpen knives and axes, glaze windows, calk, glue stuff, repair damaged wiring, remove and replace cotter pins, mix concrete, and otherwise keep stuff operational.

When I was eleven, my parents bought a weekend farm. This was the foundation of a strategy to keep their kids from becoming hippies. Whether it worked is fodder for another post, but the farm certainly changed us all.

knotty shovel handle

There aren’t a lot of shovel handles like this one in the United States. Smooth, well-worn bark covers most of the wood, though knots show where the handle’s maker removed branches from the main shaft.

At the farm we learned about sharpening and lubricating chain saws, cleaning and oiling leather, cutting black locust trees into fence posts, stringing barbed wire and electric fences, clearing brush, replacing rotted barn boards and beams, cementing washed-out foundations, and planting stream banks with willow to hold the soil in place.

And, of course, there was the shovel. (Remember? This is a post about a shovel. But first, a confession: I wrote this post a week ago and told a story about my brother and his handiwork. Before I posted the story, I mentioned it to my dad who told a very different story; a better story. So, here’s the amendmended version to reflect my dad’s revelations.)

well-worn shovel handle

The end of my dad’s shovel handle has a lot of character. Some bark is missing, revealing a crack in the wood, and the remaining bark is shinier here.

Dad’s Shovel

The shovel predates my memories, but I know it lived at our house and later at the farm. I have a vague notion that it had a machined wooden handle painted red, but the paint was well-worn. The handle also was well-worn, and one day under load at the farm the handle broke. (Knowing my dad, that was the second, third, or fourth handle to break on that shovel.)

Normally, we’d have bought a commercially machined shovel handle to replace the broken one—over the years we’d done as much for axe handles, sledge hammer handles, and shovel handles. But this time around, my dad went a different route: he created a new handle from raw materials in the forest.

And so, last week I held that home-crafted shovel handle in my hands. It flexed without cracking; without complaining and I mused as to the wood my dad might have used. For the legendary strength of the tree’s wood, I wanted to guess Hickory (people used to call baseball bats “hickory sticks” because hickory was the default material back in the day). The bark’s texture suggested Ash or Oak, and its color seemed okier rather than ashier. So, I guessed Oak.

My dad’s shovel handle has been in service for at least 20 years—and probably much closer to 30. As I empty out the house and garage to make way for renters (my dad moved out in January), I’m inclined to throw the shovel in my car so I can enjoy the handle in my own garden. But aside from the question of what wood my dad used, the shovel handle held a second mystery: someone carved my brother Kris’s name in the wood. The name being there had me thinking Kris had repaired the shovel and it seemed when I wrote this blog post that the shovel should go to Kris when my dad is done with it.

shovel handle for kris

Not the name of a treasured sled that represents happy, simpler days of childhood; this is the name of the craftsman’s son. Dad’s shovel handles are one-of-a-kind creations and impressively durable.

The Truth about Dad’s Shovel

Last week when I mentioned the shovel to my dad, he said, “I put that handle on. Didn’t I do one for you? I did one for Eric. I thought I did one for each of you boys.” Eric confirmed that HE has a shovel with a homemade handle having HIS name carved in it. I never had such a shovel.

I’m not bitter. Actually, it’s a sweet story to know my dad repaired these tools so spectacularly for my brothers. It’ll be a pleasure to make sure Kris eventually gets this shovel to use on his own farm.

My dad identified the wood: these are Ash tool handles. If ever you have the opportunity to repair a broken shovel handle, make your own from a branch of an ash tree. And carve someone’s name in the wood; you’ll create a story to tell.

 

Sour Cherry Mash and Custard Pie

Sour cherries are generally brighter and redder than sweet cherries. They are also a bit juicier and softer. The tartness of the fruit and the cherry flavor stands out when you use sour cherries in baking. In contrast, it’s easy to overwhelm the flavor of sweet cherries and lose them in your baked goods.

The cherry tree in my small kitchen garden is, perhaps, one season away from beginning to produce fruit. That doesn’t stop me from cooking with cherries. Among my favorite cherry-based products are Sour Cherry Jam, Sour Cherry Pie, and Sour Cherry Syrup. My wife sometimes makes Sour Cherry Jelly … and her jelly led me to Cherry Mash and Custard Pie.

Cherry Mash Pie

To make jelly, you extract the juice from fruit, add sugar and pectin, and cook. After you extract the juice from cherries, you have some volume of damp mashed cherry bits that look ready for the compost heap. The idea of composting the mash irked me.

So, one season I rescued the mash and baked it up in a pie. I made the pie as I would a whole-fruit sour cherry pie, though I reduced the amount of flour in the pie filling. The juiced cherry bits were down almost a quart of liquid, so a few tablespoons of flour would be enough to thicken the filling.

A Sour Cherry is Hard to Find

Few people in the United States ever encounter sour cherries in their natural form. Most of these delicacies go directly from orchards to factories where they end up in pie fillings, jams, toaster pies, and other heavily-processed baked goods. I have never seen fresh sour cherries in a grocery store, and it’s hard even to find them at farmers’ markets and produce stands.

Why? For one thing, sour cherries tend to be “in-season” for about two weeks a year. Even if you live near them, you have to be on your toes to get ahold of any. Perhaps of even greater influence: sour cherries are SOUR! People who know sour cherries don’t generally eat them plain because the cherries are just that tart. If you put heavily-sugared raw sour cherries in fruit salad, each one you ate would be an unpleasant sour bomb exploding in your mouth.

The tartness of sour cherries makes them spectacular for cooking! Add sugar and heat, and the three combine to make delicious confections. The flavor of sour cherries is so intense that it holds up just about any way you prepare the fruit. Sweet cherries, in comparison, have a very mild flavor that gets lost easily when you mix in flour, shortening, sugar, and seasonings.

The pie was just fine but it lacked volume. So, the next time around I included custard in the filling. It added volume and made the filling a bit less dense. The pie was perfect! Here’s how to make your own:

A custard pie traditionally doesn’t have a top crust. I’ve made cherry mash and custard pies with and without top crusts. It’s good both ways, but I prefer it crustier. That notwithstanding, please make pie the way you prefer (unless you’re inviting me to dessert).

Line a Pie Pan with Dough

For someone who hasn’t made pie, the most challenging task is making a decent pie crust. Rather than write the instructions in every article I post about making pie, I’ve created instructions on a separate page.

If you have a favorite pie crust recipe, line a pie pan with dough and move along to the instructions for making filling. Follow this link for instructions on making pie crust the way I do it. I promise this is a stupid-easy way to make dough and it’s really hard to mess it up. When you’ve lined a pie pan, come on back and make the filling.

Ingredients for pie filling

3 cups mash left from juicing sour cherries
1 cup milk
1½ cups sugar (less if you like a tart pie)
2 eggs
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Sour cherries are generally brighter and redder than sweet cherries. They are also a bit juicier and softer. The tartness of the fruit and the cherry flavor stands out when you use sour cherries in baking. In contrast, it’s easy to overwhelm the flavor of sweet cherries and lose them in your baked goods.

Procedure for pie filling

In a medium-sized bowl, stir the flour into the sugar. Then add the milk and eggs and stir vigorously. I use a whisk and beat until the mixture is smooth and uniform. Stir in the cherry mash and the filling is ready. See? It’s all about the crust.

Finish the pie

Pour the filling into the prepared pie pan. Then add a lattice-style top crust. The instructions for that are back on the how to make pie crust page.

Put the pie on a baking sheet that can capture drips – a jelly roll or pizza pan works well, and bake it in a 375F degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour. The pie is ready when the crust is golden brown and the center of the filling is firm. I test a custard pie by jiggling it while it’s still in the oven. If the center moves separately from the rest, it needs ten to fifteen more minutes in the oven. Don’t be afraid to bake it for 75 minutes if that’s what it takes.

 

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New Yard Birds in the Home Kitchen Garden Store

This yellow beauty hung out briefly on my windowsill in late autumn before it migrated via United States Postal Service to its new home.

One thing I love about spring is it includes the day each year that I get started in my small kitchen garden. Another thing I love about spring is meeting the new lineup of Yard Birds.

In winter, the Yard Bird artist designs new sculptures, collects tools and machine parts, and assembles dozens of his amusing creations. Then, in mid-to-late April, he sets his Yard Birds on the lawn at a downtown church during the Lewisburg Arts Festival. Thousands of people visit the Arts Festival which stretches five long blocks through town and spills into several side streets and parks. I enjoy the Arts Festival and get a little rush as I approach the lawn where I know the Yard Birds will be.

Within a few months after the Arts Festival I meet with the man who makes Yard Birds and I photograph fifteen to twenty of his sculptures. Then, when I get a chance, I post the sculptures at the Home Kitchen Garden Store.

Yard Bird Garden Sculptures are Up!

I finally got a chance! It has been a very busy growing season as I’ve expanded my herb garden and my vegetable garden annex. I’ve also added an ornamental bed (never thought I’d say that). Wait! I’ve added two ornamental beds though I planted melons among the grasses in one of them.

With all the additions to my small kitchen garden, it’s moving gradually toward being simply a kitchen garden. Before things die back this autumn I’ll try to capture the features and share them in this blog. In the meantime, I hope you’ll visit the Home Kitchen Garden Store Yard Birds page and have a look at the adorable creations from this year’s collection. The artist has combined shovels, rakes, reinforcement bar, and various machine parts to create quite a menagerie of whimsical garden sculptures.

Thanks so much for visiting!

The Lewisburg Arts Festival features several hundred vendors, performers, and civic groups. Lewisburg closes down the main street and a few side streets for a day. Vendors sell all kinds of handmade arts and crafts, and you can meet many of the artists—even watch them create. Each year brings several craftspeople who specialize in garden sculptures. Yard Birds are my favorite though I’m exploring with some vendors whether I might sell their products online through Home Kitchen Garden Store.

Part of the lineup of the year’s Yard Birds standing on the lawn at the Lewisburg Arts Festival. How many types of garden tools can you identify in these sculptures?

I have to build boxes to fit Yard Birds because the sculptures don’t come in standard shipping sizes. Occasionally, someone buys two Yard Birds going to the same address and I fit two into one carton. In this particular instance, the smaller Yard Bird looked adorable! I hope the new owner gets this view upon opening the box.

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