And So it Begins

Early Garden Seedlings

Over the last few years I have noticed these posts seem to repeat themselves. Gardens are fairly structured and the various stages have to happen about the same way at about the same time every year to better encourage success. And so it is with this post.

Since the primary garden was put to sleep last fall, I have started most of the seeds, other than the cucurbits (squash, gourds, cucumbers). I did alter the seed planting order and timing a bit versus last year. Peppers, eggplant, kale, peppers, and garden flowers were all started in January. Other than one variety of flower, a hybrid lisianthus, that seems to grow on a glacial time scale, all of the early seedlings are adapting to the great outdoors. This week will provide their first taste of 90 degree heat, so they are protected from the afternoon sun.

flower seedlings

Just this week I started tomatoes and a new baby bell pepper for us, the seeds for which a friend traded me for some Aleppo pepper seeds. I had meant to scale back the tomato plants this summer. That will not be the case; I started ten varieties, all of which have grown well in the garden in the past. I did start the tomatoes about three weeks later than last year to provide more leeway if it is still cold up by the garden in May. Last year the plants had to go up to the garden in early May, instead of late May, because they were getting too big. If it had still been cold I would have been in trouble.

This past weekend we planted the red onion sets and the beet and carrot seeds. Those projects would have been easy enough, but they required getting the irrigation system up and running again. That is never as easy as it sounds. I expect a few fittings to freeze and pests to chew off a few sprinkler heads. We had those issues as well as a few more that were not brought on by cold or pests. I have not figured out what happens over the five months it is not in operation and why parts that worked when it is turned off do not work when turned back on. I know of one more inconveniently located leak, but we ran out of time last weekend for that fix. Because of that one zone is still off.

Well, we are up and running again. I will be moving plants around to new areas this year. We are drastically cutting back on some plants for this year while increasing the numbers of others. Hopefully this summer will not be as hot as last year and hopefully measures we have taken to keep the deer out will be successful. We can hear coyotes closer than the past couple of years so maybe they will force the deer to more remote areas.

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End of the 2016 Season

fall garden harvest

Well, it’s about that time of year when the garden is caput. The weather continues to be ok (meaning no frosts yet) but production is way down and many of the plants are spent. There are still a number of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and tomatillos to ripen. We’ll see how many are ripe before the end of the season.

The biggest issue lately has been deer. They have done their best to eat their way through the garden, including plants I didn’t think they would like, for example, rhubarb. They ate the tops off the beets so we decided it was time to harvest the last of them. We ended up with about 5 pounds. This was made up of a lot of fairly small beets. Now I just have to figure out how to grow them larger. One thing we are thinking of doing is trying new area for them and letting where they are rest for the year. We harvested a bunch of carrots this weekend too. Surprisingly, the deer did not eat the tops of the carrots.

garden grown carrots

I think the deer’s favorite snack was the tops of the sweet potatoes. Although we had great growth above the ground, at least until they were munched, we only found one or two finger-sized potatoes. I’m sorry to say that means the end of sweet potato growing for us. The kale was a close second favorite of the deer. It is now covered with netting. Luckily, only the leaves were eaten and left the stems so it should grow back.

Now that we have all of these fresh crunchy carrots I have to find something fun to do with them. I guess that will be this week and next week’s project.

All Hail Mother Nature

hail storm in garden
Just when you think things are going fine in the garden, Mother Nature decides to shake things up. This has been a weird growing season. I have talked to and heard from growers at various ends of the state and the general feeling is that this has not been a good year to be a grower. I have heard that numerous crops have failed this summer, even for experienced growers. The number of produce growers is down at the farmers’ market which I take as a bad sign. My latest obstacle was a hail storm.

Here in Arizona we welcome rain and thunderstorms. While I have never seen it rain anywhere else as hard as it typically does here, the promise of rain is always welcome. That was put to the test on Saturday when pea and marble sized hail was mixed in with the rain. In little more than an hour we measured about 1 inch of precipitation.

hail damaged plants

As you might imagine, hail and gardens are not the best of friends. The hail ripped apart the plants with bigger leaves, like squash, gourds, kale, and rhubarb. It flattened many other plants, including the beets and lima beans. It also broke branches and knocked tomatoes off the plants. I am hoping this turns out to be mostly cosmetic damage and that the plants will bounce back with a bit of calm weather and sun. Only time will tell.

Despite all this, I harvested about 28 pounds of tomatoes this week and 21 last week. For those of you who have not grown a lot of tomatoes, that is a lot for personal use. Until I heard that many local growers are having significant issues, I was concerned about the reduced production from some of the plants. I chalked a bit of the loss up to the deer eating the tops off many plants and the extra hot July this year. Now I am thinking things are going relatively well.

bowl of homegrown tomatoes

We have been roasting the extra tomatoes for future marinara and roasted tomato soup. The peppers are growing gangbusters; the eggplant plants are the biggest and most productive we have had; and, although we don’t have a large number of banana squash, we likely still have over 60 pounds of them.

I expect out peak harvest is still two or three weeks away. We have lots of green peppers and tomatoes busy ripening and a record number of eggplant blossoms. The one crop not doing well at all is cucumbers. We have made a batch or half-sour pickles, but they are growing very oddly. Any amount of bread and butter pickles we make this year might have to come from cucumbers from farm stands that will be visited on a trip to Colorado. While I would love having a big garden in a more conducive location, I am glad I am not trying to make a living as a farmer.

Baked Eggplant Parmesan Bites

Baked Eggplant Parmesan Bites

Every year I plant a few new plants to test them out. One part of the test is to see how they grow and produce. The second part of the test is to see how they taste and whether we can make good use of the product. A number of plants have been abandoned over the years for issues with either of these. For example, we tried growing strawberries and blueberries (you had to see that coming if you know how much time I spent in Maine) and both failed to grow, as did asparagus. This year I decided not to grow one of the peppers I grew the last couple of years, not because it did not grow well or taste well, but because I could not find a compelling enough use for them. The “holes” left in the garden from removing these plants are where I try new varieties. Last year’s star new variety was Japanese eggplant.

Japanese Eggplant on plantThe eggplant variety I grow is named Orient Express. They are long and thin. They cook fast and easy, no salting or frying required, and the skins are tender enough that no peeling is necessary. The primary reason I started growing eggplant was to make cabonatina. Make it we did and it tasted great. With successful growing comes the inevitable issue of excess production. We tried all kinds of recipes. Now that the eggplant are ripening again, I have been refining what I started last year. As you can tell, patience is a key component.

Last year, using traditional methods, I fried the eggplant rounds after dredging in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs, all gluten-free. That took a lot of time and added a lot of oil and bread crumbs, two things I don’t need more of in my diet. So, this year I tried baking the eggplant rounds without frying them, then making as usual. It was a very tasty success. The sausage I used was homemade spicy Italian sausage (that is not on the blog yet). I realize most people are not as obsessive as I get, so use whatever Italian sausage, spicy or not, that you prefer. I also usually make this and most recipes on a two-oven Aga. If using an Aga, I did all this in the upper oven. I also usually eat them as an appetizer, but they could easily be substantial enough for dinner.


Baked Eggplant Parmesan Bites

Ingredients

  • 1 Japanese Eggplant (or more depending upon your needs)
  • 1/4 Cup Marinara Sauce
  • 1/2 Pound Italian Sausage, spicy or mild
  • 10 Fresh basil Leaves, sliced thin
  • 2 Pieces Provolone Cheese
  • Parmesan Cheese

Directions
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice the eggplant into 1/2 inch thick rounds, or lengthwise. Spray a cookie sheet with oil. Arrange eggplant slices in a single layer. Cook for about 8 minutes, until just cooked through. You can do this step ahead of time and refrigerate until needed.

Cook sausage until cooked through and a bit crispy. I do this in the upper oven also.

Put a small amount of marinara sauce on each piece of eggplant. Don’t use too much. Put a small amount of sausage on top. Put a few slices of basil on top of the sausage. Top with a piece of provolone cheese and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Bake about 8 – 10 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and browned. You can also broil on Hi for about 3 minutes.

Enjoy!

Let the Fun Begin

bowl of fresh picked vegetables
It’s about that time of year the last eight months have been building to – weekly harvests. This past weekend we were able to start what should be weekly harvests of various produce. This is always an exciting time in the garden. It is also coinciding with the start of monsoon rains. The weather report shows we have had about 2″ of rain this week. I know for some of you that is an average week. For us in the desert it brings not only a bit of rain, but cooler temperatures, an always welcome occurrence.

Thanks to help from my two favorite helpers this last March we harvested almost 2 pounds of beets. This too is welcome as we have not harvested many beets the last couple of years. The equally good news is that this was just a thinning of the larger beets and we have lots still growing.

ripening tomatoes

The peppers are really starting to get going and there are lots on the plants. I thought I had reduced the number of Shishito peppers enough so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed, but that is not the case. I guess we will have to step-up our consumption. We also have a bumper crop of Aleppo peppers ripening. I am saving the seeds so hopefully they are stabilized and the pepper we get will be close to what we have now. I have a few I just planted so I should know before next summer.

The tomatoes are also growing gangbusters – our Lady’s in Waiting as I refer to them. Most of our preserved tomato supply, whether canned or frozen, is dwindling so this is just in time. Other than the plants being a bit shorter than expected there is hardly any evidence the deer munched them a couple of months ago.