Growing Days

  (Moore, South Carolina)
Growing gardens. Growing green. Growing locavores. Growing kids. Growing one day at a time.
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Making Magic.

Last week, I picked up a novel called The Magicians by Lev Grossman, thinking that this might be a fun read for our girlie. As I found it in the teen section, however, I decided to read it first. (Confession: I love kids books, teen books, ANY books.) 

Whew. Thank goodness I checked it out! Within the first two pages, the author introduced topics including virginity (or lack thereof), masturbation, as well as some... flavorful... language.

Now, I'm not a book burner. In fact, nothing incites me more than extremist groups who try to ban Harry Potter from school libraries. But, I do worry about age appropriateness, particularly when a 10-year-old reads books with teen protagonists.

Yep. Not passing along this book to my daughter just yet.

Don't get me wrong—it's a good read so far. It's just too mature for my Kiki. Although she loves books with magic and fantasy, this one has a bit too much harsh reality that I don't want her to experience ever too soon.

Still, there is something magical about pushing the limits. As a child, I definitely read books that were too advanced for my age. And boy, do I remember the trouble we got in for passing around my friend Diane's dog-eared copy of Forever. I wasn't typically a rule breaker, but on the few occasions that I did—it was, well, thrilling.

And empowering.

Maybe even a little magical.

Breaking the rules and pushing limits is still a bit of a rush—but now, my rebelliousness lives in the garden.

(Wow, writing that aged me about 20 years, didn't it?)

I admit—I am very behind on my gardening chores this fall. In fact, I just planted our fall vegetable garden—two weeks ago. Even by South Carolina, zone 7b standards...that's late. It's almost futile.

Unless you push the limits and disobey certain rules.

Recently, I've become enamored with the concept of season extension. What can I do, with our little piece of earth, to feed my family throughout the winter? How can I keep my fall garden producing? Can I fight the elements and extend the harvest, even if the “experts” disagree? Will my garlic crop fail if I don't get it planted by Halloween? Will my lettuce wither and melt if I plant it in late October instead of mid-September? Or can I thumb my nose at conventional gardening wisdom and produce a bumper crop of brassicas to harvest in January?

The key, I think, is to break some of the rules...but still adhere to some of the tried and true methods for season extension.

There's a really terrific program with which I'm lucky enough to be associated: Greenville Organic FoodsOrganization's (GOFO) Grow Healthy Kids. Through GOFO, schools in a local district can participate in growing an edible garden, complete with lessons that match the ever important state curriculum standards. The students receive transplants and seeds, as well as organic fertilizer and supplies, from GOFO. However, the key to the success of the gardens is the highly technical row covers GOFO provides, which allows the schools to protect their crops during cold periods, so that the kids can continue to harvest crops throughout the semester.

Plastic covering + bent metal masonry ladders = mini greenhouses.

The schools can participate in both the spring and fall, with the focus on cool weather crops, since those are the veggies most easily grown during the school year in Upstate South Carolina. The low tunnels are easy to install, and the supports can remain in place throughout the growing season. When a freeze watch is issued, the teacher or students can simply place the plastic over the supports, securing the covering to the ground with rocks or bricks to keep it in place. The plastic protects the plants from damaging frost and insulates the plants from severe temperatures. On average, the temperature in the low tunnel is approximately 10 degrees warmer than the outside air. In our zone, those 10 degrees can mean the difference between an ongoing harvest—and complete crop loss.

Because I'm the Master Gardener liaison for the Grow Healthy Kids program, I decided it's time to practice what I preach.

Typically, I plant our fall garden in the potager—my experiment in an attempt to design a formal, attractive kitchen garden. Honestly, our other gardens are—to put it nicely—wild. Unkempt. In serious need of hours of weeding and prettifying. The potager is my one place that I try to keep balanced and organized. 


It's also the perfect experiment for bending the rules with season extension.

Because the potager resides in the midst of our backyard, and because our two sweet pups are fabulous destroyers of all things green, my darling husband installed a fence around the potager when we designed it.

My supports are already in place!

With no need to buy additional hardware to make low tunnel supports, I headed to the big orange box store to purchase the plastic cover. I spent a little bit more for a thicker covering. Wow--who knew how many assorted plastic drop cloths are available? For $25, I found a 4 mm, 20' x 50' plastic sheet to serve as the insulation of the low tunnel.

Honestly, the trickiest part of installing my winter covering was unrolling the plastic—if you have a friend handy, recruit the extra pair of hands. Still, in less than 15 minutes, the potager was covered, the plastic was secured to the ground on each side of the fence with several rocks, and the cool weather crops were insulated against the nighttime low of 30 degrees. 


Now, that's cold for South Carolina!

While the plastic protects against the freezing temperatures, it can also damage the garden if the temperature spikes. Immediately following our few days of freezing nights, we're back in the 70s this week. 

The beauty of the low tunnel system is its simplicity—when it's warm, roll the cover off the frame and leave it on the ground (or, in my case, on one side of the fence...)


and when the temperature drops—pull the cover back over the frame.

Presto! Fresh veggies into the winter!

It's like magic! (I hope.)

So, because I planted the fall garden so recently, I haven't harvested anything from it yet. Soon, I hope we'll have lettuce (eight heirloom varieties), spinach, chard, broccoli, pac choi, red cabbage, and cauliflower. 


But, because of the “Produce Post” hosted by smallkitchengarden.net, I thought I'd share a few things we're enjoying this week from the garden:


The fraise des bois keep surprising me. Even after several frosts, they are still producing fruit—and more flowers! Love, love these tiny delicious garden gems.

Last night, along with the quiche made from the eggs provided by our backyard chickens and enhanced with chives from the garden...


...we ate one of the last tomatoes of the season...picked green and ripened in a paper bag with a banana. Ripening green tomatoes was a huge success—our freezer is now filled with bags of tomatoes to use this winter, all picked while still green.

Our nine varieties of garlic harvested this summer continue to be a staple ingredient in almost every dish we cook. How can anyone not like garlic—especially homegrown garlic?

Probably the single most prevalent item I'll be using from the garden this week will be herbs...lots and lots of sage, parsley, rosemary, and thyme for Thanksgiving dinner. Our local, organic turkey will be dressed with many herbs. I'm still harvesting:

 Provence lavender


Italian Flat Leaf Parsley


 Pineapple Mint

 Peppermint

 Tri-Color Sage

Curly Parsley

Chives

 Greek Oregano

 Lemon Thyme

 Rosemary, possibly my favorite of all herbs.

So, while we won't be eating from the potager just yet, we might be harvesting heirloom lettuce to serve at Christmas dinner.

Homegrown lettuce in December? It's kind of...magical, don't you think?

Happy gardening!

XO ~

Julie
 
 

Thanksgiving Tomatoes.

It's curious. Why are salad greens and tomatoes irrevocably paired? In most zones, these garden staples don't grow during the same season—unless aided by a greenhouse. Who decided that diced tomatoes belonged on iceberg lettuce? (And does anyone still eat iceberg lettuce, which was the only green veggie that crossed my childhood lips?)

Obviously, the pairing of tomatoes and lettuce didn't originate with our local, sustainable farmers.

Still, I've always considered it a challenge to see if I could push the limits and actually prepare a homegrown salad with our own heirloom tomatoes and lettuce.

Last weekend, with an impending frost, I grabbed a large bowl, headed to the gardens, and harvested all of the decent looking tomatoes, peppers, and herbs before they succumbed to the weather. Peppers were sliced and frozen for winter fajitas, basil turned into pesto for a little taste of summer mid-winter, and the few ripe tomatoes were either eaten immediately or popped into freezer bags to use with pasta.

But the pile of unripe, green tomatoes towered on the counter.


I'm not a fan of unripe tomatoes. I know there are many pickling tips and recipes that employ green tomatoes as the star, but honestly—it's just not my thing. (Unless, of course, it's supposed to be a green tomato when it's all grown up, like Aunt Ruby's German Green or Green Apple. That's a different story.)

So, it was time for a little science experiment.

I've read various methods for ripening green tomatoes—put them in a box, hang the whole plant upside down in the garage. Instead, I opted for the easiest method that seemed most logical. Plus, all that I needed for said experiment was a paper bag. And a banana.

Now, that's my kind of experiment!

First, remove any leaves, stems, or dirt from the tomatoes. You don't want anything that can cause bruising. Only use fruit that is bug-free, at least three-fourths of its full size, and glossy green (or just beginning to ripen) for best results.

Place the tomatoes in the paper bag...


...add a ripening banana (please excuse this nasty banana. It's been in the bag and needs a replacement)...


...keep out of direct light, and voila! 


Within two weeks at 65-70 degrees, your fruit should ripen. (This tomato was completely green when I put it in the bag. The shoulders will remain green, because of its variety—Ananas Noir. It's an heirloom known for it's purple coloration with green shoulders.)

The banana helps speed the ripening process, as it releases ethylene. All fruits release ethylene, so you could also add a semi-ripe tomato into the bag with the green tomatoes, but bananas produce the most ethylene and quicken the process.


Isn't it amazing when something actually works?

Sadly, I won't be slicing tomatoes to serve on our homegrown lettuce. Somehow, I'm way behind schedule planting our fall garden, and our little lettuce plants are lingering in the driveway, begging to be transplanted into their home.

But first I have to clean up all of the blackish, frost murdered plants from the potager. And transplant strawberries. And get the beds ready for mulch.

Sigh.

Maybe I'll start a few tomato plants for the greenhouse, and when the lettuce is ready in the spring, we might have a real, homegrown salad. With tomatoes off the vine.

A girl can dream...

So, quick! Go rescue your green tomatoes before the frost hits.

And perhaps, if you're better organized than I am, you can have a homegrown salad with Thanksgiving dinner.

Enjoy!

XOXO ~

 
 

Christmas in October.

It's October, but it feels like Christmas.

Look what arrived.



Nope. It's not the kids' Halloween costumes. That was a different box.


These are my treats.




 


Garlic.




Specifically, it's my “seed garlic.”

I'm ridiculously excited!

I know what you're thinking. “Garlic? You can buy garlic at Publix. Bi-Lo. All grocery stores sell garlic.”

True. But until you grow your own garlic...you've never really tasted garlic.

Last year was my inaugural attempt to grow this pantry staple. I mean, honestly—I usually pay 99 cents for a three-pack of basic, white garlic bulbs. It seemed a waste of time and effort to cultivate my own organic garlic.

But you know my gardening obsession. I had to try it.

Oh. It was so worth it.

I know you're skeptical, and I understand. Truly. Though garlic dates back thousands of years, cures 22 ailments, according to an Egyptian papyrus dating from 1500 B.C., and was found in King Tut's tomb, garlic was shunned in America until the twentieth century, due to its pungent, lingering aroma. In 17th century England, it was known that garlic was “...not for ladies, nor for those gentlemen who wanted to court them.” 

It's a good thing that Peter and I both like garlic.

Many herbalists believe garlic can cure the common cold, fight high cholesterol, serve as a natural antibiotic, and even repel mosquitos.

Plus, we all know the mythology involved with garlic—vampires, be gone.

(Well, unless you look like Edward Cullen.)

Garlic, and its culinary uses, arrived with the influx of immigrants into the United States. It wasn't until our new citizens arrived that garlic became a common, well-loved fixture in the kitchen, permeating the American culture with its flavor...and scent.

I'm so glad it did.

Honestly, could you imagine Shrimp Scampi without garlic?

The beauty of garlic is that it's incredibly easy to grow. I promise. In the fall, when your garden looks tired, and you're pulling up the last of your gangly tomato plants, you can keep your garden productive with very little effort. It's also a great crop to grow if you've never gardened. You dig a hole, place a clove in the hole, cover it up, add some mulch on top, water occasionally during dry spells, and viola! By June, you'll be harvesting fresh, flavorful garlic that is so much better than the grocery store variety.

Speaking of varieties...do you know how many kinds of garlic are available?

Neither did I. But I do now...

First, there are a couple distinctions. Softneck garlics, which can be known as Artichoke, Italian, or Silverskin, are the most commonly grown garlics in the world. These are the garlics that you traditionally see braided and hanging in rustic farmhouse kitchens. Orphio, or hardneck garlic, derives from wild garlic. Orphio forms a circle of cloves around a single, woody stalk, while softneck varieties form cloves in a spiral layer. Hardneck varieties traditionally perform better in cold climates.

Then, there's elephant garlic. Just to confuse things further--it's not a true garlic but a type of leek, with a mild flavor.

Who knew? I'm overwhelmed with options.

So, as is my habit when I can't make a garden-related decision, I bought a little bit of a lot. Here's what's awaiting planting:

Softneck:

Italian Braiding

Inchellium Red

Bianco Piacentina (white)

Viola Francese (purple/white)


Hardneck:

Music

German Extra Hardy (purple striped)

Rosso di Sulmona (red)


Elephant Garlic


OK. Maybe it wasn't such a little bit. Peter rolled his eyes when he saw the boxes.

Among some of my gardening friends, I've heard that seed garlic is selling out quickly this year. So, if you want to try growing your own garlic, here are two sources I use:

http://growitalian.com

http://southernexposure.com

Now, the fun begins!


Prep the garlic.



Prepping the garlic is very easy but a little messy. You're simply separating (or “popping”) the cloves. Each clove will grow into an individual bulb. If you are OCD about your varieties, like I am, only prep one variety at a time so they don't get mixed. I like to separate the cloves over a big bowl to catch the papery skins, then put the cloves for each variety in a labelled paper bag. DON'T PEEL THE CLOVES. If some of the skin comes off, you can still plant the clove—but it can bruise easily, so handle gently.




I considered farming out this task to the kids...until my thumbs started hurting after the second bag of garlic. I turned on some mindless TV and continued popping the cloves.

By the way...do you ever find yourself watching kid TV when there are no kids in the room?  I'm a little disturbed by this new habit of mine.

Although “Phineas and Ferb” is brilliant, you have to admit.

Prepare the bed.


A raised bed for garlic is great—but honestly, I just plant it in my larger kitchen garden, which doesn't have raised beds. I like to keep the rows about three feet wide so that it's easy to plant and harvest without stepping in the bed and compacting the soil. Add organic matter, like well-composted horse manure, and make certain the soil is well tilled. In South Carolina, I use a lot of compost to prepare our soil for planting—red clay is my nemesis.

Plant.

Within a day or two of popping the cloves, you'll want to get them in the soil. For best production, garlic needs to be planted in the fall to give it enough time to make sizable bulbs.

It's mid-October, so for me, that's my cue to plant garlic and pansies. Seeds from Italy recommends that northerners plant garlic after the first frost but 20-30 days before the ground freezes so that the garlic clove can begin to make roots. All garlic needs a period below 40 degrees to make bulbs.



I'm planting a lot of garlic, so my method of choice is to dig long trenches, about three inches deep, placing one clove of garlic root-side down approximately every six inches. In each bed, though, I'm going to plant several rows of garlic, staggering the placement of the cloves to provide ample growing room. Cover with soil and water well.


Oreo thinks it's really amusing to jump on my lap while I'm trying to work. Ignoring her isn't an option--she'll start kneading my leg with her claws if I don't fawn over her. Between kids and animals, it's amazing I ever get any work done.

Mulch.

After planting, it's important to add three to six inches of mulch to your bed. Shredded leaves and dry grass clippings are free and work wonderfully. I'm using straw, only because I have other plans for my leaves, which involves making a new front garden bed...but that's a different story for another day...

Mulch serves various purposes, depending on your climate. In the north, mulch will keep the ground moist and warm throughout the fall. In the south, it keeps the soil moist and cool. The mulch helps protect the garlic by minimizing the freezing and thawing that occurs in unprotected gardens, which can damage the garlic. Mulch also minimizes weeds.

And truly...who likes pulling weeds?

Well, OK. I do. On bad days when I'm annoyed, I kind of like yanking those nasty weeds out.

It's cheaper than therapy.

Winter.

Hibernate. Read recipes for garlic-laden Italian dishes and dream of scrumptious summer dinners. If you're having a really dry winter, make sure to water the garlic bed occasionally.

Spring.

In early spring, look for little shoots peeking through the mulch. As the shoots emerge and the weather warms, remove the mulch from the bed. Water during dry periods, and let the garlic continue to grow. For hardneck varieties, you will see the main shoot curl as it grows. These are known as scapes. Cut them off to make bigger bulbs, but don't throw them away—they are delicious braised in a bit of olive oil.

Harvest.

When the lower leaves of the garlic plant begin to turn brown, it's time to harvest—which is typically in June in mild climates, July in colder areas. Carefully dig up the garlic bulbs, leaving the stalks attached, and store in a well-vented location for several weeks to allow the garlic to cure. Do not put the bulbs in direct sunlight.

Store.

After curing, remove the stem (unless you plan to braid the garlic) and the outer papery layer of skin to ensure clean bulbs. Really, those garlic braids look so much better when there's not red clay attached to the bulbs. Store in a cool, dry location—and save a few of your largest bulbs for next year's planting!

And there, my friends, you have it. A plethora of pungent, flavorful garlic, plus enough left over so that you won't need to purchase starter garlic again.

Isn't garlic grand?

Just remember...make sure you share the wealth with your significant other...because eating garlic alone can make for a very lonely night.

Why don't you make this super easy, looks-way-more-fancy-than-it-is dinner for your honeypot tonight? (Honeypot is my new favorite word.) It's my go-to dinner, based on a recipe from my dad (who used the term "honeypot" in a letter to my mom) when I need a super quick meal that feels special.



Shrimp Scampi

1 lb. jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined

½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick)

5-6 medium cloves garlic, pressed

1 tbsp. sea salt

1 cup white wine


Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Clean shrimp and pat dry. Arrange shrimp in a single layer in a casserole dish. Do not let them overlap.

In a small saucepan, melt butter. Add garlic, sea salt, and wine, stirring until warm. Remove from heat, and pour butter mixture over the shrimp in the casserole dish. Place dish in oven, and bake for 5-7 minutes, or until all shrimp is thoroughly cooked. DO NOT OVERCOOK or shrimp will be tough.

Serve shrimp and garlic butter sauce over pasta, with a light grating of parmesan cheese on top.

Serves two very hungry adults, one 9-year-old who will eat three shrimp, and one 5-year-old, who will eat only plain pasta with cheese.

Or serves four adults with normal appetites.

Mint, anyone?

 
 
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