Winter Settles In

I haven't posted anything in this blog for a month now. I considered posting for Bloom Day and Muse Day, but the dates passed me by and I'm afraid I had to miss out (not that I would have had anything to post as far as blooms go). Since Thanksgiving, we've been inundated with snow and ice here in Kansas City, yet the weather has generally been quite mild. As we left for Christmas with family in Jefferson City last Saturday, we were trailed by clouds full of more snow. I'm unsure how much we got, however, because most of it has melted off.

The photo on the side here is how the vegetable garden looked just 3 weeks ago, taken right as the snow was falling over a layer of ice. I believe we got a couple of beautiful inches that day.

And here's the Egyptian lady in the front garden, covered up in snow. I never bothered cleaning up this area, but I think the dried-up foliage adds a lot of interest to what would otherwise be blank space. The sedum and irises look particularly nice.

My indoor herb plants have taken over sections of the living room, essentially any space I can eke out, as the sunlight is very limited. This project led to a Goodwill search for any sort of small table or plant stand I could find. We found a little cart that fits quite a few plants and can be wheeled around. I'm not exactly sure what the intended purpose of this thing is, but the rack on the bottom seems like it would fit magazines or something of that nature.

For Christmas this year, I decided to go homemade and made gifts of preserves and pumpkin bread. We had a great deal of preserves left from last summer and fall-- apple-ginger marmalade, salsa, and a green tomato dip--but I also made some apple butter and tomato marmalade.

Pumpkin and/or squash bread has been a sweet staple for the last few years. The original recipe comes from a Martha Stewart Living magazine from 02/03 and is originally intended for buttercup squash, but I've figured out it works just as well for any other type of winter squash--including pumpkin. Halloween being my favorite holiday and autumn being my favorite season, I usually buy as much squash for decoration as I can afford to. But after the season is over, these vegetables tend to get thrown away, which strikes me as such a waste. If you compost your vegetables, it's not as big a deal, but that's still a lot of food to throw away, if you ask me. For the last 2-3 years I've been roasting, pureeing, and then freezing pumpkin and squash in an effort to be more frugal and create less waste. While it's true that jack o'lantern pumpkins contain more water than the smaller and more dense pie pumpkins, I've used them for pies, pumpkin bread, and even pasta sauce. Despite what some will tell you, I've not noticed a discernible difference in flavor.

While roasting and pureeing in the fall can take some time, it's worth the labor later on. It's actually pretty simple. For smaller pumpkins and squash, cut the vegetable in half and pull out the seeds. (If you want to, you can hull the seeds and roast them, or dry and save for planting next year.) For larger pumpkins, cut into pieces to fit on a cookie sheet or roasting pan. Cook at 450º-500º for about an hour or however long it takes for the flesh to get soft. You want the skin to dent completely when you touch it. Scoop the flesh into a blender or food processor and puree. Spoon puree into plastic containers or freezer bags. That's it! Now you have puree for pies, bread, cakes, pasta sauces, and maybe more.

To celebrate the season, here's my recipe for pumpkin/squash tea bread. Copy it and make a batch at home. It makes one regular loaf or 4 mini-loaves and freezes beautifully. Since we tend not to eat a lot of sweets, I will freeze half a loaf for later.

Squash or Pumpkin Tea Bread

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cup flour (unbleached preferable; can be cut w/whole wheat)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup roasted squash or pumpkin puree (sweet squash like butternut or buttercup)
1/2 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350º. Butter and flour a loaf pan (or 4 mini-loaf pans) and set aside. Into large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, spices, and salt; set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, squash puree, melted butter, and 1/4 cup of water. Fold squash mixture into flour mixture. Stir in pecans.

3. Pour the batter into loaf pan and bake until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Turn bread onto a wire rack and let cool.

Here are 4 mini-loaves made last Friday. This year I tried a low-sugar bread cut with a Splenda/brown sugar mix, and it worked fairly well. My stepfather is a diabetic, so it's a bit easier for him to enjoy this version for breakfast. The low-sugar variety is not as sweet and rises a bit higher when baking. The color is also lighter, but if you're watching your sugar intake, it's something to try.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Some Odds'n'Ends

Last Wednesday, we got temperatures below freezing and a mild snow. Not much stuck on the ground, but it was bad enough to turn the broccoli and cabbage limp. While we were gone for 4 days visiting family for Thanksgiving, the squirrels gnawed on some more plants and knocked our suet feeder loose. So today I ended up doing some minor maintenance, pulling up the plants that probably weren't going to make it much longer and harvesting the tender broccoli heads. Maybe we'll get a couple heads of cabbages before it gets colder; it's hard to say.

I am doing a lot of indoor herb gardening right now and reading what I can. Current picks from the library include:
Carrots Love Tomatoes, Louise Riotte
Bob Flowerdew's Organic Bible
English Herb Gardens, Guy Cooper, Gordon Taylor, Clive Boursnell
I've flipper through all three, and I'm sure I'll discuss them all later.

What I'm really wanting to learn more about, which I could find no books on in the library, is permaculture. I know a little about what it is and already apply aspects to my gardening, but I'd like to develop a more detailed understanding of its practice.
I might just have to buy a book on the subject, but I'm not quite sure where to go. If anyone reading has suggestions, please let me know.
Don't know what permaculture is? Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive article on the subject.

Another thing that fascinates me is biodynamic agriculture, which is another type of alternative agriculture, which in this case derives from Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy. It's one of those odd practices that segues into a full range of non-garden interests of mine.


Cleaning Up the Vegetable Garden for Winter (or not)

With bulb planting complete, this November has mostly been about clean-up and preparing the vegetable garden for winter.

The vegetable garden has been the major project this year. Originally, the backyard had a sunken patio of concrete bricks and a roughly 4'x4' plot of dirt (but mostly weeds). Last year, I double-dug this plot, mixing the soil with a conditioner, and grew beans, pumpkins, peppers, and tomatoes. For various reasons, only the beans and peppers grew successfully. We also started a compost pile from the brush left by the previous owners, dead leaves, and kitchen scraps.

Even though it was very much a beginner's attempt, I learned a lot about the quality of soil in the yard and the movement of the light. While the space does not perhaps get the best light, being obstructed on nearly all sides by trees, it's private and easily accessible from the kitchen. Initially I had planned on setting plots between brick paths, but another difficult of the space is that it slopes. We began considering raised beds to create "terraces" without having the hire a landscaper. My boyfriend and I built the beds ourselves out of 1"x8" untreated pine boards and brackets, which were a lot cheaper than the cool brackets I saw in the Gardener's catalogue. It only took a couple days to build and assemble the beds, and we filled them with soil bought from Soil Service Center nearby. We left the paths open while working on the stone patio and pathing, but over the summer we covered the dirt with landscaping fabric and the mulch you can see in the photo.

Preparation for winter began when th night began getting colder in October. Pretty much all I had to do was remove the basil and marigolds and turn the soil, which I overplanted with winter rye back in August. I left the tomatoes alone until they started wilting, then removed the plants and turned the soil over. All three plots were covered with compost.

Otherwise, there hasn't been a great deal to do, since most of what I've planted can withstand frost. I bought a bale of straw a couple weeks ago to cover the carrots, since I read that they can usually overwinter with some protection.

The carrots were an interesting learning experience this year. The soil in the boxes was looser than the native dirt, so I figured I could get away without adding sand to the mix. Not so! The carrots I was able to harvest were twisty, wobbly little things. They taste fantastic, better than any store-bought carrots I've ever eaten, but there wasn't much to use, only enough for an Asian pickle dish and thrown into a chicken potpie. Of all the lessons learned this year, the major one has been, "always mix the soil with sand when growing carrots."

Despite the near-failures with the carrots, I have been mostly satisfied with the cabbages and broccolis that have turned out to be the bulk of this garden. One nice thing I've discovered is they all hold up to a bit of frost and are still as sturdy and strong as they were in August. In fact, these plants have become more productive in the cool weather, and I've been able to use a few small cabbage heads for eating.

For both crops, I went with the All Season Blend from Vesey's, which I'm not sure I'd recommend. Since it features early, mid, and late varieties, it was difficult to know how much and when the plants were to produce. While it eased the headache of figuring out when to plant the varieties, next year I think I'll go with a heavy producing variety of both early and late.

The broccoli, though, is doing better with the cool weather, and there are several plants with reasonably sized heads, like in the photo. Just when it felt like I would never get broccoli, I walked through my garden and saw this. It's not as impressive as the heads in the supermarket, and it doesn't look like the broccoli in the catalog photos either, but it's good enough for me.

Here's another view of the broccoli bed. I'm not entirely sure why the plants began to lean like this, but the squirrels (or maybe raccoons) have taken advantage, gnawing at the stalks of some and even stripping leaves. Kansas City is overrun with grey squirrels, and we have a veritable army of the little buggers in our neighborhood. Because of squirrels, I had to cover the soil in the beds with chicken wire. I lost most of my tomatoes while they were still green, too. Our dog, Molly, is a devoted chaser of squirrels, and tries her best to rid our yard of them, but there's only so much she can do. I imagine this will be a continual struggle in this garden.

On a much brighter note, here's my compost pile. The construction is very simple, just cedar post and chicken wire. While it's located in a shadier corner of the yard, it's still pretty effective and I've been able to use compost begun last year for several applications. Now both side of the bin are filled with raked-up leaves, ready to go for another year. Compost has to be one of the more satisfying projects. Even if you don't fuss over it, you eventually get something, and that something is always good.

Of course, we have a lot of trees in our yard and all those leaves won't fit into the bin, no matter how much you push them down. The rest of the leaves from the backyard got piled along the south section of the fence to offer some protection to the hydrangea (in the right corner of the photo) and the wild grape vine (the trellis on the other end). I've been letting leaves remain along the mulched paths and in the patches of mint near the gate. I prefer the look of dead leaves to bare dirt any day.

And that's pretty much it for winter preparation. I'm letting the cabbage and broccoli remain until the cold prevents them from producing, which may be a while if the winter is as mild as this fall has been. With winter drawing near, I'll be flipping through catalogs and books in preparation for spring.


Planting Bulbs & The Front Garden

Last Saturday I finished planting bulbs for spring in the front cottage garden. Now come the long 4-5 months of anticipation before the big reveal.

While last autumn I spent well over $50 for a wide variety of bulbs, this year I limited myself to a mere 6 for a little under that amount:
Triumph tulip, 'Negrita'
Lily-Flowering tulip, ' Ballade'
Allium aflatunese, 'Purple Sensation'
Single Late tulip, 'Violet Beauty'
Oriental lily, 'Stargazer'

The Negritas were purchased, for fairly little, from a wonderful nursery nearby, Soil Service Garden Center. The 'Ballade' tulips and allium were ordered from Brent and Becky's Bulbs; the 'Violet Beauty' tulips and 'Stargazer' lilies were ordered from White Flower Farm. In the future I will likely continue ordering from these smaller companies, since I've discovered they sell larger quantities for less than the bigger names, like Breck's, and with relatively quicker shipping. I am still learning how the discern quality of bulbs, but they seem fresher as well.

I'm opting for a cool color scheme in my front garden, blues and violets with the accompanying greens, mostly because this is my favorite range of colors. However, I am trying to add more brilliance and a bit of "pop" by tucking in some reds and red-violets (even fuchsia), wherever I can.

My approach to designing is a bit messy in that I have a rough scheme drawn out, but I try to give myself enough leeway to invent the structure as I go. I've noticed that this is very similar to the way I make art or write, in that I require sketches and some level of planning but do best when there's room for accident and invention in the process. Cottage gardens are very attractive as a concept, since they thrive less on structure than a kind of ordered chaos. Because bulbs have a tendency to multiple and aren't terribly fussy, they seem well suited to the form.

The front garden is really more a work in progress, as you can likely tell from this montage of photos I've taken since the spring:

This is really only a quarter of a rather long strip of dirt, which the statue is meant to break up some (in addition to the bush you can't see off to the right somewhere). I've received a number of compliments on the statue, which was purchased at Van Liew's, a local company that specializes in beautiful and unique fountains and lawn ornaments. She reminds me of a movie starlet from some Art Deco silent film set in a fantasy Egypt, and the oxidized patina adds to the feeling of age, which I love.

The spear-shaped leaves are Blue Flag irises (I believe), which were originally in the garden when we purchased the house and merely transplanted. The sedum at her left was also transplanted last year, and the salvia behind her has been moved to the very right edge of the patch of irises. And the clump of leaves to the right in the last photo are the asters I planted last month. I'm attempting to play with combinations of color and texture, to see what works and what doesn't.

I really can't want until spring comes around and I can start seeing what I only have pictured in my head. I can't wait to plant even more perennials and give this little strip more fullness and texture. The worst part of gardening is the waiting. What a wonderful means of learning some patience!


First Briefing

This is the inaugural post for what I hope to be a monthly garden journal. It might end up being more than monthly, depending on whatever is on my mind each week.

A bit of introduction for anyone passing by:

I currently keep another blog devoted to my interests in cinema, art, and literature, which is hosted on my domain. While I enjoy keeping that blog (despite not updating as regularly as I should), I haven't enough room to cover my growing love of gardening. Since I read a number of gardening blogs via Blogger, I decided to free up some space on my domain and resurrect my dormant account for this purpose.

I grew up and still live in the Midwest. I'm not many generations removed from farm folk, mostly of German descent. My early love of gardening and nature was fostered primarily by my maternal grandmother, who grew up in the country and kept a vegetable plot in her backyard. There was also my stepmother's family, who owned a family farm. As children we played hide & seek in the corn, fed calves, and gathered eggs. Beyond these experiences, I spent a lot of time alone as a child wandering whatever forest was nearby and learning whatever I could about the natural world.

When I was about 11 or 12, I developed an interest in our backyard garden at home, digging up irises and daffodils and transplanting them to see what would happen. I helped my mother plant her yearly plot of annual vincas, and she would usually consult me each year as to what plants to add or remove. In high school, I experimented more with splitting irises, sedum, and even a prickly pear. I stopped gardening outdoors when I started college, and for some reason I've never had much luck with houseplants.

In 2006, my boyfriend and I bought an adorable little bungalow on the southside of Kansas City. Since that time, I've been able to get back into gardening, and we've also undertaken a number of do-it-yourself landscaping projects. Last spring we built our own raised beds, and over the summer we laid a stone patio and path. While the improvements inside have often been chores (besides painting, which I enjoy), the outdoor improvements have usually been fun, if often challenging.

A few thing I hope to cover in this blog:

Organic gardening. I've been interested in this concept since before I had a garden, but I've only recently been able to increase my knowledge as to its application through various readings. This interests me from so many angles, which I'm sure will come up as I begin to update.

Horticulture and other science nerdy aspects of gardening. One of my future goals is to propagate as many of my own plants as possible. Also, gardens attract so much interesting wildlife, even in an urban setting.

Theory and design. I'm an arty sort of girl, so anything I bound to touch is going to relate to how things look and feel.

In gardening, these things are inextricably intertwined, but defining topics lends some scope to this blog.

There are going to be many things to cover in the next month or so, what with last harvest coming and bulbs to plant. Once I settle on a proper schedule, I'll be posting as soon as I can.