Have Labor, Will Plant

This winter in the desert southwest we have had, at least what feels like, record heat. It always seems like a fictional story to watch the news of weather in other parts of the country, especially those experiencing record cold and snow. After years of living in various cold and snowy locations I can no longer envision prolonged cold and snowy climates. Up by the garden we have not had a killing frost since early February, which is very unusual. This has resulted in fruit trees, bulbs, shallots, rhubarb, onions, and a host of other plants sprouting and fruiting early. Now that the cherry and apple trees are in full bloom, we hope we can stay above freezing so we can enjoy bumper crops.

Unlike when I was growing up, my two favorite garden helpers get two weeks for spring break. Now, it might just be them telling me they are on spring break as they never seem to actually be in school – a snow day here, a day off there, this or that vacation other times. At any rate, they came down out of the mountains for a visit. What better to have them do during this unexpected warmth than visit the garden and help get it ready for summer. The biggest challenge we ran into the kids was a sheer lack of weight to power a shovel or pitchfork through compacted dirt; just left more for the rest of us to do.

What we did have great success with was planting some early season vegetables that should be somewhat frost tolerant should a more normal weather pattern returns. On the way up to the garden we stopped at the garden center and picked up some kale, Texas Sweet and red onions, and Brussels sprouts, a new crop for us. So, after amending the soil with various additives, my free labor and I set to work planting all of the new vegetables.

We also got the irrigation system up and running for the season. With an experienced helper that went much easier than normal and I had some company walking around the yard looking for broken sprinkler heads and such. Luckily there were only a few breaks that needed repair this year.

Down at home, the peppers I planted are doing very well and are about ready to be re-potted. The tomato seedlings are about ready to be grafted. And, I started the tomatillos last week. While I am nervous about what a warmer than normal season might mean, I am hopeful the frost holds off up by the garden so the fruit and other plants do well. After our short winter, the house and yard are once again filling-up with plants and I am filling-up with expectations of bountiful harvests.

Spring has Sprung

It is hard to believe that parts of the country are deep in winter and cold, snowy weather. It should be near 80 degrees here today again and I ordered a few new seeds for this summer’s garden. Over the past few months there has been discussion of what to grow. What didn’t work so well. What likely didn’t work well because of the extremely hot and dry (even by our standards) June last year. And, what can we readily buy at the farmers’ market.

The red onion seeds are busy growing bigger everyday. I am hoping there are enough to replace the bunching onions I have grown in the past. These are the same red onions I grew last year. They will be moved to a sunnier spot in the garden to, hopefully, encourage more growth than last year.

I have also started the habanero, serrano, and some new ghost pepper seeds. Most of them have sprouted. These varieties seem to be the hot peppers of choice around here. I am also hoping to be able to transplant a few of the pepper plants I brought down from the garden last fall and have been growing around my house all winter.

Tomatoes have been hard to narrow down for this summer. Last year was so hard on them it is difficult to get a good sense of what varieties should do well and what varieties just can’t take the high mountain desert. The only tomato I am adding is a Striped German. This is a bi-color variety (gold and red) that should be smaller than the Arkansas Marvel I grew last year. While the Arkansas Marvel tastes great, they grew 2 -3 times as large as anticipated. Most of them were near 1.5 pounds – which is a very large tomato.

The other big change is that I am swapping a miniature bell pepper and an Italian frying pepper for the Anaheim and Poblano peppers I grew last year. While those two varieties did fine, one of the growers at the market grows great, meaty chile peppers and I can steal that space in the garden for varieties I cannot buy. One of the trade-offs of having a small garden.

Although the rest of the garden space has not been finalized yet, it should closely resemble last year’s garden. We will hope for a more hospitable early summer so the tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos can set lots of fruit for an earlier and more abundant harvest.

Enchilada Sauce

One of the things that has happened since going gluten-free is that I find gluten in the oddest places. One of those places is pre-made enchilada sauce, whether at the store or in a restaurant. One of the local stores recently had bags of dried New Mexican chilies and that proved too tempting to pass up.

Enchilada sauce is one of those foods that you wonder why you ever bought it instead of making your own. We made a large batch in a relatively short time and other than cleaning the chilies did not involve a lot of active time. Although I have a few bags of chilies we grew and dried, I forgot to bring them with me so they will have to be used for the next batch. We did manage to use oregano we grew and dried this past summer.

So far we have not used the enchilada sauce for enchiladas. The primary reason for making it when we did was for red roasted pork tamales. I forgot to measure anything or take photos while making the tamales so that recipe will have to wait. I did remember to taste the finished product and it was well worth the effort, both sauce and tamales. The extra sauce is now waiting in the freezer. It may even make it into enchiladas yet.

Dilly Beans

Having lived in Maine for so long I have long known about dilly beans; however, I had never tried dilly beans until recently when we opened a jar we made a few weeks ago. Although I had heard about dilly beans for years, no one I knew made them so I never tried them. I didn’t go out of my way to find them because I did not grow beans so I never had an excess supply to preserve and dill pickles aren’t my favorite, I much prefer bread and butter and half-sour.

This past summer was a challenging year for growers in the central Arizona mountains. We had an unusually hot and dry June which, even for the plants that survived, delayed fruit setting on vegetables like tomatoes and tomatillos and peppers. Apparently it was a good year for beans because there were a lot at the farmers’ market. This, combined with a friend and I talking about them for the last couple of years because he is working with a guy looking to commercially produce them in Maine because they are so good, prompted me to set things in motion one weekend to make a batch.

I settled on a recipe after talking to people and reading lots of recipes. They are basically all the same except for minor differences, such as whether to add garlic, cayenne pepper, or a little of another herb. The recipe we made should really be kosher dilly beans because there is a clove of garlic in each jar.

I am glad we made the dilly beans. They are by far the easiest shelf-stable pickle we make. The beans are not even cooked first. I first cut the beans to length (I put a couple of small lines on the wood cutting board with a pencil), then, to a pint jar, a clove of garlic, some fresh dill fronds from the garden, and a little cayenne pepper is added, then the beans are put in the jar as tight as possible. After that the hot brine is added, the jars are sealed, and put in the water bath for processing for the recommended time, 10 minutes at sea level. The only hard part was waiting two weeks for the flavors to mingle before tasting them. The other good thing is that the recipe is very scalable. All you need are more jars and more brine to make all you need to match the amount of beans you have. The basic brine ratio is equal parts water and vinegar and 1 tablespoon salt per cup of liquid. You can also mix types of beans. If you have green beans, yellow beans, and wax beans, they can all go in the same jar.

The finished bean is crunchy with a bright fresh flavor. They are a great snack or addition to an appetizer plate. They only difference I will investigate for next year is 1.5 pint jars. The farmer we purchased the beans from mentioned that is the size jar she uses because they are a bit taller. That way not as much will have to be trimmed off. Have no fear that the cut ends were wasted; they ended up soup later in the week.

Jack Frost

Autumn is descending upon the garden and its shepherd Jack Frost has tiptoed through to see what he wants to steal. So far Frost has only nipped the tops of the most exposed plants – the gourds, squash, and cucumbers. The rest of the garden has not been hit, at least as of last weekend.

Because of the delay in setting fruit this year, the tomato and tomatillo plants have lots of fruit on them. We harvested what was most ripe over the weekend and a few green tomatoes for gluten-free fried green tomatoes, but that left a lot to fend for itself. The general weather pattern in the fall is that an early frost comes, kills the plants, then gets reasonably nice for a few weeks. We are hoping the first frost was the only one we will have for a couple more weeks so some of the remaining tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers will ripen. I know this will be slow because it is getting chilly at night even though it is nice during the day.

In anticipation of a killing frost the hot peppers and some of the annual herbs have been dug-up and moved south for the winter. The habanero and serrano peppers are re-blossoming, the ghost pepper is growing again (Yikes!), and most of the herbs are doing well. This will buy us a few months before frost threatens us here and the plants have to be covered or moved inside. Moving the plants created instant gardens when they were moved into their winter digs.

Fall also means we have been busy preserving some of the crop. Lots of chilies have been roasted and frozen, dilly beans have been made (more on those after we taste them), and there are jars of salsa verde around along with the habanero and ghost pepper hot sauce. The shallots have been replanted, onions have been dried, and the sweet potatoes are curing as I type. The apples have been mixed with lots of good things and frozen with a crumb topping for apple crisps later in the fall.

I will wait until a killing frost comes through before harvesting the horseradish. I am also going to try mulching the beets this year for harvest up through Thanksgiving. Hopefully these warm days will spur a bit of growth.