Intruder Alert!

Bunny in the garden

This past weekend we had an unexpected visitor in the garden. We have seen rabbits in the area, but, we thought we had taken steps to keep them out of the garden. Apparently we missed a step or two. This is the second time this year we have seen a little bunny running through the garden. The first time we could watch where the bunny ran through the fence. We then closed up that little hole. We thought we had closed the only easy opening.

While looking at some of the tomato plants last weekend we saw a little bunny hopping through another part of the garden. We decided to go see if there was another hole in the fence. After looking around a bit, we didn’t see a hole, but, we did see the bunny. The little guy had gotten stuck in the fence. I tried to pull him out, but he just yelped. Mommy bunny was right there, on the other side of the fence, wondering what we were doing. At that time we got a wire cutter and carefully cut the fence. The little guy darted off. He was still in the garden so we watched where he ran to find the access point. He didn’t find a hole so we assume he got into the garden when he was very little and has been in there a while. Because he couldn’t find his way out we had to corner him again, catch him, and put him over the fence. Once I got him I realized they are very wiggly. He is now over the fence playing in the neighbor’s yard (at least we hope he is still on that side of the fence).

American Lady Butterfly on a flower

We also had a friendly American Lady butterfly that let me get close for some photos and video. We have a variety of flowers planted to attract various pollinators, humming birds, and butterflies. Looks like it is working.

mystery pumpkin

The mystery cucumber is not a cucumber after all. This is creating a further mystery: Did I incorrectly label some of the pumpkins or gourd starts, did I totally confuse a squash or pumpkin seed for a cucumber seed, even though they look nothing alike, or, did the mystery plant start with a seed that looks like a cucumber seed? The leaf looks nothing like the other pumpkin seeds I started this year and all of the cucumber seeds were from the same package. Only time will tell me what the mystery plant is. For now it is taking over the trellis it is growing up. Hopefully the plant is not a giant pumpkin because I am not sure the trellis would be up to the task.

Have a happy 4th of July everyone.

Summer’s Here

Bird on Bird Bath

Our long cool spring is over but summer doesn’t officially start for a week. However, the crushing heat that has thankfully stayed away through spring showed up this week. This has been the best spring weather I remember having since I moved back to Arizona and started the garden. We actually had cool, cloudy weather with an occasional rain. In fact, the rain we had in June was the first measurable rain the Valley has had during the first two weeks of June since 1993. It was glorious. The plants were gifted three weeks to settle in and hopefully stretch their roots. I was gifted extra evenings having dinner outside and getting a stiff neck from looking up at the sky scanning for satellites to pass over (and many did).

Black Cherry Tomatoes

Well, that’s over and summer is here. Luckily, it is cooler at the garden than my house, which is why the summer garden is there. Unlike years past, we have baby tomatoes already on non-cherry varietals. Cucumbers are growing, and we are already harvesting peppers and an eggplant. Hopefully this heat will help the plants grow, even if it is too hot much of the day to set fruit.

Raspberries

Our unknown garden pest ate most of the gourds I had planted a couple of weeks ago. I thought they were big enough to have a chance, but, I guess I rushed things. The cucumbers are growing well enough to have displayed a mystery: The seeds are all from the same package, but, the blossoms and leaves are different. Hopefully the mystery blossoms are a type of cucumber. Now, though, I won’t know which, if either, is the variety I ordered and which is an unknown hybrid.

Tomatillo Plants in the Garden

Now, I wait. The garden grows. Anticipation builds. And I hope I turned the water up enough.

An Unexpected Treat

ripe cherries
Every now and then the garden is full of surprises. Last weekend was one of those times. The cherry trees were full of blossoms last March. Then, in April or May, it seemed like a lot of the developing cherries were hit by a frost. The ones I looked at then were soft and spongy. I walked back by the cherry trees this past weekend, and guess what: One of them was full of cherries!

A tree full of ripe cherries is a great and rare thing for us. It rarely happens for us because of the weather. We typically have early warm weather and the trees blossom. Then we have a cold snap and the fruit is killed. We also have a bunch of apples and even pears this year. If we get the pears before the pesky neighbors or birds (I don’t know which is worse, but, I’m leaning towards the neighbors), that will be a first in nine years.

Baby Excelsior Cucumber

As for the rest of the garden, the cucumbers are busy setting fruit. Almost all of the plants I brought up to the garden are doing great. We even have baby pumpkins starting. This time last year the cucumbers and pumpkins were being eaten by some garden predator. We never did determine if it was the birds or lizards. This year, whatever eats our small seedlings cleaned out our beets. I replanted them last weekend and covered them with fencing. Hopefully that will be sufficient protection and we will get beets this year.

Baby Cinnamon Girl PumpkinBecause of advantageous weather this June, namely cooler and wetter than past years, the tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, eggplants, and most everything else should be a good three or four weeks ahead of schedule. I’ll have to prepare for those harvests better than I did for the cherries. Because we did not anticipate harvesting over seven pounds of cherries, all we did was make a batch of spiced brandy cherries and froze the rest. The spiced brandy cherries are very similar to the cherry bounce we have made in the past, except we added clove and vanilla, and we’ll add cinnamon when I remember to bring it over. By this fall we will have yet another warming liquor to help us make it through the brutal Arizona winter.

Rhubarb and Blueberry Crisp

Rhubarb & Blueberry Crisp

There comes a time at which every tradition needs to be challenged to determine if it is relevant anymore or if changes are in order. I feel that is particularly true for food. However, if you want to change a classic, do so with purpose; then, change the name of the dish. I remember ordering a BLT years ago and it came with sprouts. Whether or not sprouts were a good addition (they were not, but avocado would have been) is irrelevant. A BLT is a specific set of ingredients and only those ingredients. If you add or subtract ingredients, it is a new dish. Inform people of that change and don’t continue to call it by the old name. Don’t even get me started on a martini vs. a vodka martini.

Some food traditions are classic and are classic and loved for a reason. The combination of ingredients has been honed over decades or centuries, and the taste is about as good as it can get. Others were born of a different time. A time when all food was locally grown and eaten in season. From this was born the strawberry and rhubarb pie. A very good pie by all accounts. But, now that location and seasonality are no longer requisites for ingredients, why not try other combinations. The desire to try new combinations and because I was never really a pie guy, even when I could eat gluten, led to the switch to fruit crisps and the substitution of blueberries for strawberries.

uncooked Rhubarb & Blueberry Crisp

We have tried many combinations with rhubarb. Of course strawberries. But also peach and blackberries to name a few. Then, finally, blueberries. One of the issues we run into with watery fruit like strawberries, peaches, or blackberries, is that all that moisture makes the resulting crisp a bit too liquidy. Another issue is that those fruits, no matter how good they are on their own, just don’t have a bold enough flavor to stand-up to the main ingredient – rhubarb. Blueberries, preferably the small, low-bush variety, not the huge, high-bush varieties, solves both those issues. Blueberries are dry enough not to overly contribute to a liquidy crisp and have enough flavor to still be distinguishable within the crisp.

The recipe below is the one we generally use. We have substituted other citrus zest and juice when we don’t have an orange and the taste is the same. If you want to experiment on your own, just substitute fruit and berries. If you want a crisp a bit lighter, go easy on the crumb topping. If you are using very sweet fruit, lighten up on the sugar. All you’re doing here is cooking fruit with sugar and a crumb topping. There really isn’t a limit to what you can do and, unlike bread or pastry baking, there are no hard and fast ratios to use. You can even freeze the uncooked filling and crumb topping for use later. Just put the filling and topping in their own bags.

Rhubarb and Blueberry Crisp

  • Servings: 6
  • Time: 1hr 30min
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • Filling:
  • 2 cups fresh Rhubarb, diced 1/2 inch
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen Blueberries, or whatever type of fruit you want to try
  • Scant 3/8 cup Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Orange Zest (though lime or lemon zest will also work)
  • 1/2 tablespoon Cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup Orange Juice
  • Crumb Topping:
  • 1/2 Cup all-purpose gluten-free flour (or regular flour if it doesn’t matter for you)
  • 1/4 cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/4 cup Sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • 1/2 cup Quick Cooking Oatmeal, not instant oatmeal
  • 6 tablespoons diced, cold, unsalted Butter (3/4 stick)

Directions
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. If using an Aga stove, use upper oven with the heat shield. We have done the recipe without the heat shield (which is about 425 degrees) and it worked fine, just check on the crisp once in a while.

Filling: Combine rhubarb, blueberries, 3/8 cup sugar, and orange zest in a bowl. In a small bowl or cup, dissolve the corn starch in the orange juice. Mix the juice mixture into the fruit mixture. Pour the combined mixture into a 9″ pie round that is on a cookie sheet lined with foil or parchment paper. The filling will most likely boil over and the cookie sheet should catch the overflow.

Topping: Combine flour, 1/4 cup sugar, brown sugar, salt, oats, and butter by hand until seems mixed together. Chill for 20 – 30 minutes.

Crumble the crumb topping over the fruit mixture. Cook for 1 hour, until the filling is bubbling away and the crumb topping is golden brown. Wait a bit to eat because it will be very hot. Serve warm with ice cream.

Garden Planted!

mild peppers in the garden

My conundrum was resolved late last week with the predicted weather. While it was still cooler in the mornings than I would prefer, the forecast showed a definite warming trend. Because of that and it being a long weekend, I decided to plant most of the garden. I left some of the smaller tomatoes (which really aren’t that small) and excess peppers and tomatillos at home to have in reserve and to see how much space would be left in the garden. I am hoping the cooler, overcast weather provides advantageous conditions for the plants to get acclimated to their new surroundings.

eggplants before and after

Because of success with the seedlings and because I started too many plants, I now have to pick and choose which plants to bring to the garden to fill in the remaining space. We have a lot of peppers so I doubt they will be moved up, at least those not the hot peppers I have from last year. I will have to decide which tomatoes to bring. Because most of them have blossoms, that will be a hard choice. The tomatillos will stay at home for now in reserve; we had a number of them die last year after planting. Because we use so many tomatillos, I am hopeful we get a good harvest this year.

tomatillos before and after

It is always amazing how the plants go from filling my yard to transforming the garden from dirt to garden. here are a few before and after shots.

plants in my yard

main garden

The Final Countdown

Baby Cherry tomatoes
I start the plants for the garden beginning in January in metro Phoenix with the intention of moving those plants to the cooler climes of the central Arizona mountains over Memorial Day weekend. Everything is based on that timing. I estimate the size of the plants so they can be moved. Up-potting the plants is based on that timing. My worries in the past have always been whether I will have crushing heat and dryness at my house before that weekend.

Homegrown Tomatoes
Plant ’em in the spring, eat ’em in the summer;
All winter with out ’em’s a culinary bummer.
I forget all about the sweatin’ and diggin';
Everytime I go out and pick me a big one.

Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes.
What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes.
Only two things that money can’t buy;
And that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes

Guy Clark – Homegrown Tomatoes Lyrics

In the years we have had crushing heat in May the peppers and tomatoes have been very unhappy and it takes considerable effort to keep things alive. This year my worry is exactly the opposite – cold and wet weather. We have had unseasonably cold and wet weather this May. The weather up by the garden over Memorial Day weekend is forecast to have low temperatures in the upper-30s to mid-40s. While tI very much appreciate the respite from the heat, these are not the temperatures the plants are used to and are not within the range i am excited about moving the plants into.

So, I have pending conundrum: Whether to move the plants as scheduled or wait a week or so for warmer weather. Hopefully the forecast by the garden will show strong signs of a warming trend. I never thought I would wish for a (slightly) warmer start to June out here, and I know I will long for cooler temperatures in a few short weeks as the weather reverts to normal.

Ripening Cupid Pepeprs

For now, the plants are in my yard and are healthy and happy. I have the first baby tomatoes on the black cherry plants and blossoms are on many of the other tomatoes. The tomatillos are starting to blossom and are tall and strong. The various peppers and the eggplants are busy setting fruit and new blossoms. The serrano peppers are doing well enough I have even started this year’s fermented hot sauce: red serrano peppers, whole coriander seed, oregano, salt, and garlic. I will keep adding serrano peppers as they ripen.

Fingers crossed!

Beet it on Down the Line

Black Cherry Tomato blossoms
It’s hard to believe it is almost summer – defined as: “The time of year when the plants sensitive to cold weather are transplanted into the garden.” The frost sensitive plants are still in my yard where it is nice and warm, and, were treated to some rain (an unusual occurrence this time of year by me) the other night. The non-frost sensitive plants in the garden are growing great, with some new additions over the weekend. In fact, the rhubarb is larger this year than it has ever been.

Cupid Peppers

Over the years I have researched how “best” to grow certain plants. Much of this information has not worked for me. I have tried the recommended seed starting soil mixes and they were near disastrous. I have also read that beets should be started as soon as the soil can be worked. Maybe that works in areas that have very small intraday temperature swings and consistent temperatures from day-to-day. I have tried that advice the last few years, along with thinning the seedlings, to try to maximize our harvest. Those years I have had hardly any beets reach harvest size. I think some of that is that the garden experiences wide intraday temperature swings (30+ degrees) and that it can be 75 this week and next, then 20 the following week. I can work the soil almost all year. The years I did have great beet harvests are the years I scattered the beet seeds in their area, didn’t thin them out, except by harvest, and when I planted them in late spring. This past weekend I scattered the beet seeds in their allotted area. I will decide whether to thin them out in the coming month or so. the last couple of years of mediocre beet harvests have been disappointing, so, hopefully that will not be repeated.

Thai Hot Peppers

Another part of the garden that was started were a few of the flower pots. We are changing these up somewhat from past years to try to add more color. As long as we don’t get a killing frost these should just roll along through fall and in the mean time are providing a bit of food for the bees and hummingbirds.

I will be moving the sensitive plants that are currently in my yard up to the garden in three weeks. Now my hope is that it does not get too hot at my house. The peppers have not been happy the few days we have already had that have been at or near 100 degrees. Based on the number of peppers and eggplants already on the plants, and the blossoming of the tomatoes, I am hoping for a great garden year.