Monday, December 31, 2012

Best and Worst of my 2012 Garden

Just as I've done the last couple of years, I'm recapping the best and worst of my garden for the year. Inspired by all the year-end "best and worst" lists on TV, movies, music, fashion, etc., this list helps remind me what I did right and what went wrong over the year.

basil and ML 9-21
backyard caprese salad
Best -- Basil! In the past I've always had small basil plants, some of which didn't make it through the summer. But this year I was able to grow 3 healthy bunches. I ate many tomato-basil-mozzarella salads, had plenty of basil to throw into sauces, and I even managed to pick enough to store some basil pesto cubes in the freezer. These basil plants were in a very deep container, planted along side this Mortgage Lifter tomato plant, which brings me to...

ground cherry 7-24
pink girl hybrid vs pink brandywine
Best/Worst -- Tomatoes.  I tried some new varieties this year, some of which did OK, like the ground cherries, Pink Girl hybrids and pink Brandywines...

mortgage lifter 7-20
chocolate cherries 7-15
But others like Chocolate Cherries, Mortgage Lifter, Mr. Stripey, and Ace 55 hybrid didn't do well. I documented my Mortgage Lifter troubles extensively so I won't go into that again. I was talking to a couple of friends who had tomato troubles this year. One lives in the south, but another lives here in the DC area. I'm not sure why we weren't able to get good tomato harvests. For me, I think it was a combination of the heat, which can prevent tomato plants from flowering and setting fruit, and lack of pollinators. I didn't have many flowers in my garden this year to attract pollinators. I also had issues with garden pests, like aphids, spider mites, and horn worms.

Best -- Return of the pond frog! I'm actually not sure if he/she is the same one from last year or even 3 years ago. I read that frogs are a sign of a healthy pond, so I was really happy to see this little frog in my back yard this year.

Worst -- That stupid $$%@ squirrel. It was responsible for eating the few tomatoes that did grow, blueberries, corn stalks, and for digging up many of my seeds and transplants. I love sunflowers (hence the blog title picture), but I only had one grow this year because the squirrel dug up all my transplants.(Another Worst -- no sunflowers this year).  I'll have to protect them better next year. Now that the temperatures are bitterly cold, I feel sorry for the little guy (and yes, I know it's the same one. I recognize the mangy brown fur). I may or may not have felt bad enough to throw some unsalted almonds near a tree where I saw it lurking. I know he's thinking "Sucker!"

spring onion patch
Best -- I had a pretty good onion harvest this year--just over 2 pounds, not bad for the second year growing them. We left a few in the ground to see if they grow bigger.

dead potatoes
Watermelon harvest 2012
Worst - lots of garden fails this year. Beetles ate the potatoes, the two green bean varieties I planted in containers didn't really take off. Everyone seems to be able to grow squash and zucchini so well that they can't give it away, but squash bugs and cucumber beetles feasted on ours. The two little watermelons that we harvested were smelly and didn't taste well.

Although I had some disappointments, I have ideas for what to do better next year. I haven't begun serious garden planning yet, but I've been thinking about growing fewer tomato varieties, for example, and just sticking with a few that I've grown in the past and that did well in pots on my deck. I have to have sunflowers next year, I missed them a lot this past summer. I think my vegetables missed the pollinators they attract. I'll have to make sure to protect the seeds and transplants so they don't get yanked out before their time.

Last but not least, Best -- You! I love reading about your garden plans,and especially like seeing what gardens look like in other parts of the country or world. Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving words of encouragement,  advice, or sympathy. It makes all this a lot more fun!

If you'd like to recap your own Best and Worst, please feel free to link up or leave a comment below.

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for 2013!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Making the Perfect Risotto (almost)

It’s 12/12/12! I’ve read that numerologists say this day is auspicious, but I just like that all the numbers are the same. When it comes to numbers, I like making lists and numbering things and wanted to record a post today before the rest of the month flies by. The time between Thanksgiving and New Year's always goes by so quickly. Here's what's been keeping me busy:

1) Work - I've been swamped. One co-worker just got married and is on her honeymoon. Another is about to have a baby and recently started maternity leave. To help me out, they've assigned a new person to my team, but it's a junior analyst that requires my supervision and in addition to my work, I have to review hers. Luckily she's very capable and eager and smart, so it's not painful, but days have been very long. Once my newlywed co-worker returns, I should get back to a normal schedule.
2) Job hunting - I am very happy to have a job in these tough economic times, even if it's a job that makes me want to poke my eyes out with a stick covered in fire ants. Searching for jobs has become a job in itself, as all of you who've gone through the process are well aware. No bites yet, but I hope that by this time next year I'm in a more rewarding, more challenging position.
3) Holiday visits - I've been spending time catching up with friends that I haven't seen in months and preparing to see family that I only see once a year. I just found out that a friend of mine is moving to the Philippines in January, so amidst all the Christmas parties and get-togethers, I have a going-away party to go to this weekend.
4) Cooking/baking - To continue with the job-hunting theme, my cooking and baking skills are "entry level." Every year around Christmas someone gives me a little gift--simple things like homemade cookies--and I always feel like an ass for not having something to give in return. So I decided this year that I wanted to make fudge and give it out to neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, etc around Christmas. However, I've never made fudge before in my life. It was quite a learning experience. I made three different batches and all turned out very different in terms of consistency and flavor. My husband and friends said it was all edible, and I'm sure they'd never lie to me.

Now We Get to the Risotto Part...

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but I did have two goals for 2012: 1) run a 5K, and 2) learn to make risotto. I ran my 5K race back in October at the Zombie Run, and recently I’ve learned to make risotto, although I’m still perfecting my technique.

I really like rice. Although I am not a vegetarian, I frequently order vegetarian dishes at restaurants, and if there’s risotto on the menu, I always order it. Risotto is an Italian rice dish cooked in broth with other ingredients, like seasonal vegetables or mushrooms, and topped with Parmesan cheese. The trick to making it is to constantly stir the rice while adding just the right amount of liquid so that it absorbs properly. The first risotto I made was way too mushy and soupy. I made this version a few weeks ago, with Swiss chard from the local farmers’ market and onions from my garden (and non-seasonal, non-local frozen peas).

Risotto with Swiss Chard
Last year was the first year I ever knowingly and purposefully ate Swiss chard, and it was because of the Eat Local Foods challenge. I bought another bunch this year and was trying to think of ways to cook it. I thought the Swiss chard risotto came out well, and the chard gave it nice texture.

Then I got cocky and decided to make a sweet potato risotto for Thanksgiving, and I think it came out too dry. I probably cooked it way too long. I've read that it shouldn't take more than 20 minutes to cook a cup, and I was at it for about 30 minutes. Oh, well, I'll just keep trying! I have no problem eating my own bad cooking, and it's really fun to try to make such a challenging dish. Maybe next I'll try with butternut squash.

Do you like risotto? I hope you have a happy and auspicious 12/12/12!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Eating Locally: One Year Later

{Stuffed peppers--my first all-local ingredient meal ever}

It was a year ago this week that I started the challenge to eat at least one locally-sourced meal a day. Called the "Dark Days of Winter" challenge, it seemed like the logical thing for me to try after spending a couple of summers growing some vegetables and reading books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Omnivore's Dilemma.  I met some cool people via our posts and recaps, and after the challenge ended, some of us started our own breakout group (the SSFC) to continue to challenge ourselves to eat locally throughout the summer and fall. Although our mini-group's challenge ended last October, we've decided to continue throughout the winter.

Our new SSFC Challenge period begins this week also, and I'll have a post on what I made later. But something about the unseasonable warm temperature today (near 70 degrees!!?!) makes me want to recap some of the summer meals I ate.

Although we are supposed to feature at least one meal a week made from all-local ingredients, I have found myself incorporating locally sourced food into all my meals. This was a lot easier for me in the summer than last winter because of the greater variety of fruits and veggies. Some of my Almost All-Local Meals:

{grilled chicken, mozzarella, tomato & olive salad}

I found a great farmers' market near my house. According to the site: "The farmers markets sponsored by the Fairfax County Park Authority, is a locally grown, producer-only market system. You must grow, raise or make all products you sell. No distributors, re-selling or brokers are allowed. All produce grown, meat raised and other products made must be within 125 mile radius of Fairfax County." Perfect! This became my go-to market until they closed for the season in October. The chicken and olives above weren't locally sourced but the veggies and mozzarella cheese were.

 I have found a great VA-based source for mozzarella cheese. I've used it in omelets, salads, and just as a snack on a roll. I probably never would have stumbled upon this great company if I hadn't forced myself to look for local sources of cheese. Love them!

Ropa Vieja
Cuban-style ropa vieja (shredded beef) using flank steak from Smith Family Farm, based in Virginia. Onions and peppers came from my garden.

chickpea salad
Another light salad. The chickpeas and olive oil obvs weren't locally sourced, but the tomatoes and cucumbers came from my garden.

Finally, Ribollita (aka Italian peasant soup)--the local ingredients were all from my garden: yellow squash, zucchini, and onions. 

Although some things are impossible to get locally (like beans, olive oil, spices), I've tried to buy organic when possible, and I've also tried to eat with the seasons. It's strange--but not really, it makes sense--but I've noticed a change in my palate. I'm not craving blueberries and strawberries out of season anymore, which is good because the berries sold at grocery stores in the fall and winter often taste like water and I used to waste money because they'd go mushy in a couple of days. Lately I've been craving butternut squash, sweet potatoes, chard (what?! used to not like it), and I'm really looking forward to this winter's challenge. One great side-effect of these Challenges are that I've been inspired to get more creative in the kitchen!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

It's A Learning Experience

I had A LOT of garden fails this year. I recently posted about how my Mortgage Lifter tomatoes never grew, my corn stalks were either yanked out by garden pests as small shoots or gnawed down when they were almost ready to harvest, and I was only able to grow one sunflower.  We had so many issues with squash too. We ha a combination of cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and squash vine borers. Gross! This is another fail--watermelon. I love watermelon and would love to grow my own. We tried a couple of years ago, but with our crappy clay soil, the watermelon didn't grow well. So this year, with the raised bed, we thought with the deeper, better quality soil, the watermelon might do better. Nope. We harvested two tiny melons, and they tasted and smelled gross. Boo.

two bean plants

bean flowers ferry morse 6-30
I also tried an experiment with two different varieties of bush beans in containers, Ferry Morse Bush Contender and Burpee Bush Lake. Sadly, they didn't do well either. When I first posted this in July, the Bush Contender plant had produced some beans already; the other one had not. I liked that plant better, too, because of the pretty light purple flowers. By the end of September the Bush Contender had caught up in terms of bean production, but the beans that both plants produced were small and hard. And total bean production was so small that I don't even think I recorded it. Another fail. I'm not sure if it was the small container, the weather, or other issues, but beans just didn't grow for us. Every time something goes wrong, one of my friends says "Chalk it up to experience!" She says it in an affected voice, and it's a bit of a running joke between us (not just about the garden, but general life stuff too, because that's what your parents always tell you when something goes wrong), but it's true. Now I know--don't grow bush beans in containers.

 Here's something positive. Our pepper plants seem invincible. We weren't able to grow corn, beans, melon, certain tomatoes, or squash, but we have plenty of garden-fresh peppers! Here's the most recent harvest of some Golden Bells. They're small--all 3 can fit in one hand, but we get a nice harvest every week and can add peppers to sauces and soups. I'm not even that big of a pepper fan, but I'll take what I can get at this point. Despite the cold temperatures, the pepper plants are still producing, and we're slicing up and freezing peppers to use throughout the winter.

How's your edible garden doing? What are you harvesting?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Stormy Thoughts

I started this blog to keep track of my garden (and now, my attempts to eat locally and with the seasons). But I feel a little odd posting about plants and food right now when so many people in New York and New Jersey are still without power, without hot water, without a hot meal. I've heard from all my friends up there, and some have gotten power back, but many haven't. Many of my friends have small kids, and they're going stir-crazy! They're stressed about their empty gas tanks and the long lines to fill up. One friend's parents are in Staten Island. They're OK, but their business is destroyed, and I'm not sure about their home. That poor borough is a mess. I used to live in NYC, and I worked in lower Manhattan in a building whose lobby is now totally flooded. I'm grateful that the storm did not negatively affect me at all, and I feel guilty too. I'm frustrated that I can't help my friends, I can't invite them to my house for a hot shower, to wash laundry, to have a hot meal. Similarly, I always feel bad when the Gulf Coast gets hit with hurricanes. I used to live in New Orleans also, and I was fortunate enough to move away before Katrina. But I have many friends who still live there and I still go back often to visit. Some parts of that city have recovered, but it took a long time. I think the NY metro area will recover faster. Those are some resilient people! We're heading to NY the week of Thanksgiving. The trip was planned a long time ago, but it will be more meaningful now as I will, hopefully, be able to see most of my friends in person. As we begin November and approach Thanksgiving, I want to remember to be grateful for things I often take for granted: electricity, the ability to take a hot shower with the lights on, clean hair, clean clothes, hot food, hot coffee, hot tea, no line at the gas station, a fully-charged cell phone, a warm house, my family and friends.

(sigh) Well this is getting heavy. I've got to lighten the mood, so here's a picture of my cute little cat.

Here's another happy Autumn thing: pumpkin butter....

 (click the pic or here for the recipe link)

Have a wonderful weekend, wherever you are!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

After the Storm

after sandy, originally uploaded by Bumble Lush.

Thank you, everyone, for your positive thoughts and words about Hurricane Sandy. We are fortunate not to have suffered a loss of power or any property damage from the storm. Our power cables are buried underground, so that helps. The winds were strong and a little scary on Monday night, and the lights flickered a little, but overall, nothing happened. There are leaves all over the street, but no trees fell. The worst that happened was my butterfly bush toppled over. But it needed to be trimmed anyway, so I guess Mother Nature helped me along. Interestingly, the giant sunflower in the raised bed remained intact.

My friends and family in DC/VA/MD were also lucky not to have suffered damage to their homes or power loss. Unfortunately my friends in NY and NJ weren't so lucky. Most have no power and one is stuck in her apartment because the street is flooded. My heart goes out to them and those who suffered worse tragedies. Hopefully the clean up will go smoothly and the weather will be calm for the next few days to help that happen.

I think we're all happy to see Sandy in our rearview mirrors. If you were in Sandy's war path, my thoughts are with you!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hurricanes, Zombies, and Old Clothes

Cleo checks weather conditions

Along with everyone else along the East Coast, we are awaiting Hurricane Sandy's arrival, and hoping she'll leave quickly and not leave too much mess to clean up. I'm praying that no trees fall down near our house. As of 3:30 today it hasn't started raining yet, which is very good because the Marine Corps Marathon is happening today around DC and Virginia, and the runners probably had enough to worry about with the wind gusts. Not to mention the fact that they had 26.2 miles to run. My friend's husband is running it. They're both serious runners, although I'm not sure that they've ever run a marathon before. Can't wait to see how he did.

Speaking of running--this gets to the "Zombie" portion of my post--Yesterday my husband and I participated in Run For Your Lives, a 5K run/obstacle course through the woods where people dressed as zombies chase you throughout the course. One of my goals for 2012 was to compete in a 5K, so I was able to check that box off in style yesterday! I had so much fun, and I want to do it again next year. In the morning we were zombies. The event coordinators provided professional zombie make-up and shredded clothes and put us in various places along the course to chase the runners. All runners get a belt with 3 flags, and the zombies try to rip the flags off. If you make it to the end with your flags intact, you survive. If they're all gone, you've become infected and are a zombie. We had a 3-hour shift of popping out of bushes and trees and scaring the crap out of people. It was fantastic! After washing off our fake blood and changing into running clothes, we then ran the course later that afternoon. It was a completely different experience and so much fun. The sad part--in a true zombie apocalypse, I'd be zombie bait within minutes. My flags were all gone within the first mile.

Last night was a popular night for Halloween parties, but we were wiped out after the race and didn't go to any. Today is so gloomy, we're just relaxing at home, and planning to grill steaks before the rain really starts.

I'm behind in posting about the SSFC Challenge, which wraps up this week. Here goes:

The most recent challenge was to create an international dish. My favorite cuisines are Mexican, Cuban, and pretty much anything south of the border.


We made ropa vieja, a Cuban shredded beef dish, which literally translated means "old clothes." It's probably my favorite meal ever, and if it's on the menu, I'll be ordering it.

flank steak (Smith Family Farm, VA)
onions (my garden)
peppers (my garden)
crushed tomatoes
Husband's special marinade

So not all ingredients were locally-sourced, but the steak, main ingredient, was. Ropa vieja can be eaten on its own, but I like it with rice. And if I had plantains, I would have fried some up to eat along with it.

Now it's off to refill my wine glass and get cozy in front of the TV. That sums up my weekend. How was yours?
Are you in the Hurricane Zone? Any Halloween plans?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

End of Summer Garden Recap


I realize that I'm talking about the end of Summer while we're well into Fall, but we have had quite a busy last few months. The best news--the new windows are in! They were installed a week earlier than expected, and I can already tell the difference. We have needed new windows for years. The old ones were the crappy builder quality ones. Two had broken seals and moisture had come in. Some didn't close right and you could see gaps (which meant bugs could slither their way in). The screens didn't fit in all of them, so I couldn't open windows to let fresh air in. However, that didn't matter upstairs because all the windows on the top floor were so drafty. That meant that while the temperature was perfectly comfortable downstairs, as soon as you'd walk up the stairs you could feel the cold winter air, and cranking the heat up did not make a difference. In the summer the upstairs was stuffy. Our new windows are the energy efficient kind, and I think we'll see a real difference in our heating and cooling bills over the next year. Actually, I think I can already tell the difference. It's not chilly upstairs, I don't feel the draft when I walk up the stairs, and I have screens that fit so I can actually open windows to let fresh air in without worrying about flies or stink bugs flying in. Life is good.

So, about the garden. The pepper plants are the only thing that made it through the summer with flying colors. The photo above is of habanero peppers, but our 3 bell pepper plants are doing well too. The fruit are small, but it's nice not to have to buy peppers at the store.

Things That Didn't Work

mortgage lifter 8-1
{Mortgage Lifter on August 1}
basil and ML 9-21
{Mortgage Lifter on September 21--dry as a bone}

The Mortgage Lifter tomatoes never did take off. If you remember I posted a Mortgage Lifter SOS back in August because the plants were not producing anything. Actually, that's not true--one plant grew one tomato and that was it. Some suggested giving them an Epsom salt spray, which I did. That, plus the slightly cooler temperatures after the heat wave broke in August, seemed to help the plant that already had a tomato, because many more flowers appeared. Unfortunately, none of those flowers resulted in a tomato. The other plant was sucked dry by a tomato horn work. I came back from Maine to find that plant brown and dry, and Friends, I touched that creepy worm while moving the plant around. I almost died. Anyway, no luck with the ML variety this year. Not sure if I'll try again next year. But, as you can see, the basil has got on smashingly!

corn 8-12
Also, before I left for Maine, this is what the two surviving corn stalks looked like. This was the first time I tried growing corn. They were tasseling and we were looking forward to the home-grown sweet corn later in summer. Alas, we got back from Maine to find both stalks cut down and the corn completely chewed up (by the evil squirrel). Wah-wah.

A Pleasant Surprise


I want to end on a high note.Although squirrels and rabbits dug up all my sunflower seedlings and plants, one sunflower made it!  This is the only picture I managed to take, a little blurry, sorry about that. It attracted lots of bees, unfortunately a little too late in the season to help pollinate my veggies. But it was nice to have a sunny sunflower in my garden. They're my favorite flower, that's why they're on my blog header. Some of the seeds have dropped to the ground and I've seen a few new sunflower volunteers popping up. I doubt they'll make it through the freeze that's coming soon, but I was happy to see at least one sunflower pop up in my garden.

Did your garden have a good summer?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Technology Woes

I've noticed recently that when I leave comments on certain blogs, my comments don't appear in the post. One friend mentioned that on two blogs my comments are going to the spam boxes. I've noticed this seems to only be happening on Wordpress blogs, especially those that require you to log in to comment. So, Garden Friends, I may be leaving comments on your posts, but they are getting composted. (Blogger seems to be OK though). Anyone else experiencing this? Or know if there's anything I can do to fix it?

I know my computer is mocking me. (Also, I don't have a beard).

Monday, October 8, 2012

Checking In...

Source: via Angela on Pinterest

Things have been busy lately, and I've had a hard time keeping up with garden and SSFC posts. Last weekend we went to San Francisco for the wedding of one of my best friends from college. It was great to see so many of my friends all in one place! We all live in different parts of the country, and even though some of our group were missing,  it was so nice to be around people I've known for a long time and who know me well. As much as I like meeting new people, there's something comforting about being around people who know your history already.

Of course, being in California, I got to eat some fantastic locally-sourced food. At my friend's wedding, they served slices of avocado and mango in pieces of endive. I kept flagging the waitresses down so they'd bring the tray of these over (that's what I mean about being around people you're comfortable with).  I have to recreate this for myself, although I know mango and avocado are not going to be locally-sourced here in VA. One of the best parts about being out in northern CA--the wine. While in Napa we went to several wineries and you know the grapes are being grown right in their backyards. Can't get more local than that.

I saw so many cactus and succulent gardens, and so many interesting plants and shrubs that I wish I could grow in my own garden. I have some research to do on that.

Coming up this week--I'm still sorting through wedding pictures to send out to my friends. And we're finally getting new windows for the house! We've needed new windows since we moved in a few years ago, and we're finally getting them installed this week. At some point i hope to find time to update on my gardens and ongoing attempts to eat locally sourced food, but right now a lot of my online time is spent researching jobs and companies. Job hunting is a full-time job, oy!

So for now, off to refill my cup of coffee and get back on the search...

Friday, September 21, 2012

Celebrating Fall

Fall has always been my favorite season, mainly because of the beautiful red, orange, and yellow colors. Also, to me it represents a fresh start, maybe because a new school year begins and I still associate that with new beginnings. This Fall we're planning a little work around the house, and I'm hunting for a new, more interesting job, so I hope that this Fall season brings a facelift to both my home and career.

dead tree
front house 9-21
Fall is sort of a literal "fresh" start, too, because the blistering heat of summer is now gone. I can open the windows and not run the AC or the heater. There are fewer bugs. The humidity is lower and my frizzy hair becomes more manageable. There will be other "starts" in the garden this season. We lost a tree in the front yard earlier this week. Although I didn't think the rains were that heavy, apparently it rained enough on Tuesday to finally push over the edge the shallow roots of the spruce tree in our front yard. I hate losing trees. We also removed an azalea bush right in front of the tree. All that's left is a barberry bush and a lopsided azalea bush.   We found a bird's nest in the azalea bush! I'm glad that shrub is still intact. I hope once we get another tree up it'll provide a home for other birds. The best time to plant new trees is in the Fall, so if we can get things cleaned up and ready in the next few weeks, we hope to have a new tree before winter.

basil and ML 9-21

Things slow down in the garden. Last weekend we cleaned up our container garden. Gone are the dead, brown tomato plants. They didn't have a good year anyway. The basil has started to flower, so it's going to seed soon. The peppers continue to ripen and do well in the daytime heat, though the cool evening temperatures will start slow production down.

Gardening aside, one of the best things about Fall is the food!  This is the perfect weather for soup, it's still nice enough outside to grill and eat outside, and I can start using the oven again without turning my house into a greenhouse. A hot cup of tea or coffee is more enjoyable when the morning is chilly. So tomorrow, on the official first day of Fall, I will be switching from iced Chai lattes to warm Chai tea.
I'm joining Donna's Seasonal Celebrations at Gardens Eye View Head on over to read about how other garden bloggers are celebrating the change in season.