Monthly Archives: July 2013

Ham perico in acorn squash boats

With the availability of free and plentiful produce, we usually feel more daring and tend to experiment with different dishes. We not only try new ones, but even enjoy combining two or more recipes  into something that otherwise would not have put together.

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Last week we had prepared baked acorn squash for dinner, a dish we enjoy to accompany meat and poultry. After dinner we ended up with four pieces left that we kept in the fridge to have with a future meal.

The next morning, seeing all the fresh cherry tomatoes and onions from our garden, I decided to make a favorite version of a Venezuelan egg dish, “perico with ham”. We had all the ingredients for the perico, but had run out of corn meal, the basic ingredient to make “arepas”, the traditional bread that goes so well with perico.

Need, as my mom used to say, is the mother of all inventions. The realization that I was not going to be able to eat the perico the usual way, made me search what else I could accompany it with. That is when I found myself face to face with the leftover baked acorn squash in the fridge.

Ham perico in baked squash boats.  A delicious and hearty breakfast

Prepare the acorn squash by cutting in half and removing a small portion of the ends so each of the halves can stand flat on a dish. Remove the seeds from the center of the squash, place a small spat of butter and 3/4 tsp brown sugar in the center.

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Bake at 400ºF for one hour or until the squash feels soft when poked with a fork. Brush the sides of the squash with the mixture of butter and brown sugar.

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Note that the acorn squash should be fully cooked before the next step. If prepared the day ahead, store it refrigerated, and warm it up in the microwave prior to serving.

To prepare ham perico for two people combine one half minced onion, three thin slices of Virginia ham finely chopped, and a handful of halved cherry tomatoes in a frying pan with a small amount of olive oil. Cook stirring occasionally until the onion starts looking translucent.

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Add three eggs to the pan, notice that in Venezuela eggs are not always beaten prior to cooking. As soon as some of the egg starts cooking on the pan, start stirring and scrambling all ingredient until it is fully cooked.

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Fill the warm acorn squash halves with the perico, and sprinkle with coarse salt and freshly crushed pepper to taste.

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The resulting dish was fabulous and very filling. It is a far version of the traditional dish, but it still had that special combination of sweet and salty that I tend to associate with Venezuelan cuisine. Try it and let me know how you like it.

Mid summer garden update

As I have been reporting all along, we are having a fantastic production of cherry tomatoes, the only variety we grew this year. We finally have reached the point at which our daily harvest is much larger than what our family can eat in salads in one day, so we have started to incorporate them in our usual recipes, and have shared our surplus with friends and neighbors.

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Last week was really bountiful, we also collected, onions, not very big, but very tasty, acorn squash, beautiful eggplants, and of course lettuce and basil. The latter seems now to grow much faster than my son can eat as pesto. Our hot peppers started to turn red, and so far I have collected a couple that I will be using to make hot sauce.

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The rains here on Long Island last week were a real blessing. All the plants look happy and are producing fruit regularly. By the end of the week, after the torrential rains subsided, I planted our next crops (lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, cucumber, spaghetti squash, zucchini, carrot, a funky looking heirloom pumpkin, and Kohlrabi which I am trying for the first time). I find that by starting to plant again at this time we can substantially increase our garden production as we have fair weather until at least mid to end of October on Long Island.

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Do you become a more daring cook when you have excess produce? In my next post I will share a simple but delicious recipe of a traditional Venezuelan breakfast with a twist.

Keeping them fresH2O

I have spent part of this summer trying to figure out how to preserve the two most perishable vegetables I grow. Lettuce, and zucchini (courgette) flowers.

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It is fairly easy to keep fresh one, or perhaps a couple heads of lettuce in the crisper section of the refrigerator. However, when you end up harvesting more than you can fit in the whole fridge, you know you need to try something different. The solution came to me simply, but out of necessity.

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Right after collecting a batch of lettuce leaves, I thoroughly rinse them in the sink in cold water to get rid of sand any other stuff still on them. I put them stem end down in a bowl keeping the larger leaves on the outside. I then fill the bowl up with cold water to keep the lettuce fresh. In this manner, the lettuce keeps very crispy, without drying up or browning for at least a day and a half right on the kitchen counter, without the need for refrigeration.

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Whatever lettuce we want to give away, we tie lightly in a bundle with a cord and put it in a plastic bag. I have been able to keep and transport lettuce like this for a few hours. When I have different types of lettuce available I make bundles with assorted leaves for an instant salad mix.

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Now, if figuring out how to keep lettuce came easy, zucchini flowers, on the other hand,  were a real challenge. The flowers comes up very early in the morning and if left on the plant they will close up and start wilting by early morning. As much as they are delicious for breakfast, we had seen some great recipes that we wanted to try for dinner. We had also offered flowers to friends who would not come over early enough to get them fresh off the plants.

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I tried everything: keeping the flowers on the counter; keeping them in the fridge; putting the flowers  in a vase; keeping the vase in the fridge, etc. The results were at least consistent, in the afternoon the flowers always looked somewhat sad, petals starting to curl, a little bit soft and dull yellow.

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My final try was last week. I cut the stems at the base, removing everything and leaving only the petals as a hollow tube. I rinsed the flowers and refrigerated them immersed in a bowl of water. It was not until the next evening that my wife took them out of the fridge and declared “this is it”. After more than 30 hours, the flowers were still firm, bright yellow and open all the way. We decided to eat them following Nonna’s recipe, they were delicious.

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Unfortunately, I got these promising results with the last flowers I collected before discarding and mulching the spent zucchini plants. My next batch of zucchini plants is still germinating, and will not be available for me to try again for a few weeks. If you are still getting flowers, and happen to try this, please leave me a note below, I would like to know what kind of results you get.

try some awesome zucchini/courgette flower recipes

How many, how close?

We usually make sure to have all our seedlings or plant cells ready to plant the day before or right on Mother’s Day. By then I have already prepared the garden, and laid out a tentative plan of where every veggie is going to grow.

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I don’t know if it happens to everyone else, but we usually end up with more seedlings and cells than we should put in our garden. I guess I get excited about trying a new type of pepper, or figure that we are going to need at least 4 plants of each variety of tomato, and of course you can never have too much zucchini or lettuce!!

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I know it may not be good practice, but I have always managed to squeeze all plants in the space available. After all they are so small, and  the directions on the packs of seeds and the tags on the cells are too conservative…

This year, however, I resisted the urge of growing every tomato variety available, and stuck to only cherry tomatoes. My rationale was that since we always cut tomatoes to bite size, I would be saving lots of time by growing them only to that size. I also figured that since they are so small, I should make sure I had enough plants to get us through the season, so I bought 4X4 cell packs. I planted them on 2 double rows separated by a row  of zucchini, and an extra row of zucchini to the right of the last double row of tomatoes. The spacing between each tomato plant on the double rows was whatever distance allowed me to place a tomato cage around each plant as I was running out of room.

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Early in June all plants were well established and growing nicely, at that time our concentration was on the lettuce which was growing very fast.

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By end of June, we had already started to tie back some unruly tomato branches, some were as tall as me. We started to see the tomatoes forming on the vines. The zucchini was in full production, it was then that it downed on me… how were we going to get to the fruit?

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By trying to maximize the use of the space we had prepared, I had not only crowded the plants, but had made it practically impossible to harvest them. In fact the first bowl of tomatoes that I collected, I ended up all scratched from crawling next to the zucchini plants.

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It was not until two days ago, that the tomatoes started ripening in quantity, today alone we collected over 2 quarts. Luckily, I had noticed that the zucchini plants were not producing any more female flowers, so yesterday I decided to remove them, which gave me room again to get closer to the ripening tomatoes. I will leave these rows empty for a while.

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I have put all these photos together in  sequence to remind us a few of the few lessons we learned this year: 1) We probably need 3-6 tomato plants at most. 2) Plants do need room to grow, and we need the room to work around them. 3) Big scratchy plants like zucchini should be planted on a border row for easier access, and should not be near plants that get harvested daily.

Have you ever over planted your garden? Do you have any suggestions on planting distances and location to make garden chores easier?

Hot Hotter Hottest Long Island

The thermometers must be melting. It is really hot here on Long Island, this is the third day of the heat wave and  not a drop of rain in the forecast.  Perfect day to be at the beach, so today I am just going to give a quick update on our garden status and then go cool down by the water.

Late last week I brought some straw mulch that I put around the remaining lettuce plants. They seem to have recovered and look like they are doing better with the mulch around them. We have been able to pick enough leaves to make salads and put in sandwiches, and the plants keep on growing.

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The eggplants are doing very well and so are the peppers. Yesterday I harvested some habaneros which I used for frying and also to make hot sauce. The zucchinis, cucumbers and squash are still producing but more slowly, each day there are less female flowers forming, so I guess it is the end of the season for those plants. I will leave the squash grow a bit longer, but in a week or so I may take the other two out to mulch. I already have planted cucumber seeds to take up the slack once these are gone.

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The bigger teasers are the tomatoes, each day so far we have been able to collect 5-6 ripe cherry tomatoes from all plants. These of course do not make it to any meal, we eat them while getting ready to leave for work in the morning. I have collected a few small onions from the ground, as some plants never recuperated after the heat on 4th of July weekend.

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The heat is doing wonders for our basil, the plants have grown incredibly this week, so on Friday we may be able to make a double batch of pesto. Maybe we can finally freeze some to keep for later

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Yesterday morning I was happy to hear the cicadas singing loudly, but could not hear them again when I came home in the afternoon, I hope they come back. The Black Eyed Susan and Day Lilies are in full bloom around our pond but nowhere else in our yard.

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TRES EN UNO, relief from the heat

One of the things I miss from Venezuela is fresh fruit juices. I am not just talking about OJ, but the full range of fruits available all year round. Jugos naturales are available at almost every corner in most establishments that serve food either to eat in or take out.

In Venezuela the juices are prepared by blending fruit chunks at high speed with ice, and a small amount of water or milk, we call the later ones batidos (shakes). We Venezuelans tend to have a sweet tooth, so most people also add some sugar, I prefer mine without.

The list of fruit juices available any one day is always as long as the list of fruits in season, some as exotic as guava, mango, soursop, passion fruit, and also some more familiar as cantaloupe and watermelon. There are some juices made by mixing two or three fruits and/or vegetables that are known to give you extra vitamins, energy and vitality. “Tres En Uno”, the name of the popular lubricant “3 in 1” which also claims miraculous results, usually identifies a juice made with beets, carrots and orange.

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At home on Long Island, and specially in the summer we make and drink a lot of natural fruit juices. We find them to be not only delicious but also very refreshing. One of our favorite juices is watermelon. Nothing really compares to watermelon juice when you are terribly overheated. The recipe and instructions are simple: chilled watermelon chunks, ice, blend and serve. If using the seeded variety, you may want to strain the juice before blending it with ice. The best thing is that this recipe can be repeated with any fruit you like, just  remember to add a little bit of water (or milk) to most other fruit.

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I also like to experiment with my own versions of “Tres En Uno” juices by combining whatever fruit I have on hand at home. I even use frozen strawberries or blueberries to add to my special mixes. Last week I made a delicious grapefruit/watermelon/blueberry which we had during breakfast. Be creative, this is a nice way to beat the heat.

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Preserving the flavor

It has been raining on and off for the past three days here on Long Island, but I can’t complain as our garden is looking once again very happy. Yesterday afternoon, I saw that a few tomatoes were starting to change color, so I went with a bowl to start collecting them. Big let down…I guess the branch I saw yesterday was the only one with ripening tomatoes. Luckily there are still many branches full of green tomatoes in all stages of development so perhaps next week is the true beginning of our tomato season.

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Since everything looked good, and there was little bit of rain in the air, I decided to clip some oregano and dill as the plants are getting very bushy, and I have had to clip their flowering ends quite often lately.

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Our oregano comes from a single plant that we bought maybe 17 or 18 years ago at a local nursery. When we bought it they told me it was called Greek Oregano, but my Greek friends tell me it does not look anything like theirs… It is a tough plant growing to about a foot in height with very aromatic leaves the size of a dime to a penny. It is very hardy, we have transplanted it everywhere in our garden and have given some away to whoever wants to grow it.

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The dill, on the other hand, is a recent addition to our garden. I had planted a few seeds last year that ended growing nicely and self propagated themselves. They now grow in between our celery and basil.

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I like picking all herb early in the morning, long time ago I read somewhere that at that time the flavor was always strongest. There is nothing like freshly picked herbs, but unlike basil, we cannot use all the oregano we pick at one time.

To preserve what we may use within a month, I blend a bunch of fresh leaves with olive oil. We keep the paste in a small glass jar in the refrigerator, and use it to brush on garlic bread, pizza dough or vegetables to be roasted, or by the pinch in any other recipe.

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I usually air dry the bulk of the oregano. I make small bunches of 10-15 branches tied up at the bottom and hang them upside down in my garden shed. Today I also dried the dill and tried a different method drying the oregano in paper bags that I had read up about in Pinterest.  Once fully dry, I collect the leaves and keep them in glass jars, or in ziplock bags if they are to be given away.

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Heat damage control

We had a great weekend away, but upon coming back we were faced with a very sad looking garden. The terrible heat wave that hit Long Island at the end of last week had no mercy on our garden, and even some heat tolerant plants looked sad and listless. The worst looking plants were of course the lettuce, which appeared as if someone had boiled them, and the radishes which had folded over and drooped over the sides of the tiered bed. Sunday afternoon, I spent a few hours watering, pruning  and trying to prop up all the fallen plants. All the photos in this blog were taken between yesterday and today. In retrospect, I wish I had taken some photographs to record how bad the situation was when we came home, but my mind was on trying to save what was there.

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Red sails lettuce in recovery, new growth at the top
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After three days, radishes are still standing but showing some burn scars
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We lost some cukes in the heat

This morning, the garden’s condition changed from critical to stable, but under close supervision.  The lettuce is once again up, there is new growth towards the top and it is  looking bright and healthy. The radishes seem to have managed well also, and the celery stalks feel firm in spite of the brown edges on their leaves. We lost a few cucumbers on the vine, that withered in the intense heat, and since our bees do not seem to know how to pollinate zucchini, I can see some flowers failed to produce fruit. In the intense heat, however, the peppers, eggplants, tomatoes,  acorn squash, and  basil seem to have gotten stronger.

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We will get some radishes after all
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Tomatoes managed well, even with some charred leaves
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Hot peppers getting hotter
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No worries here
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Turnip seedlings still doing fine
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Squash are nice and plump

Since we do like to travel in the summers, the goal for next year will be to improve the reach of my sprinklers to cover the garden area, any suggestions are welcomed. As an immediate solution this year I will try to improve the ground cover with extra straw to help keep the ground from baking in the sun if we happen to go away during a couple of very hot days. As I write this post, I can hear loud thunder outside, and the forecast calls for rains the next couple of days.

Annie’s Garden

This weekend, after the 4th of July BBQ, we took a drive upstate to Cooperstown NY with the kids. For those that cannot recognize the name, Cooperstown’s fame stems from being known as the birthplace of baseball, and the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

To us, however, Cooperstown is something more than the baseball themed stores and attractions that seem to populate Main Street and the outskirts of the village. To us it means family, a place where the pass of time seems to have graciously slowed down and where we can still see bits of how life used to be in a not distant past. My wife’s parents established there in the early 1960’s, and raised a family I am proud to be part of. My father in law held very dearly the title of native son of Cooperstown, to which he became entitled after residing there for 50 years. All of my wife’s family now resides there, and it is a special treat for us to come up and visit with all of them.

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My wife’s family home in Cooperstown

When in Cooperstown, and especially in the summer, my sister in law’s garden is a must stop for us. Annie is always innovating and trying new thing, and she is an open book when you have a question on anything pertaining to gardens. It was actually Annie who without knowing what she was doing at the time, planted the gardening seed in my head a few years ago. Even with that she had a green thumb…I still amaze at how bountiful her garden is, even in a much cooler climate and with a shorter growing season than ours on Long Island. Her vegetables, and flowers seem to fight for the limited space, and show how worthy of keeping they are by exploding with color, or giving incredible crops all season long.

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Beautiful colors and textures
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Borage flowers, a nice addition to lemonade
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Garlic flowers, are clipped off the plant to induce greater production, and can be a nice addition to a dish

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This year, a major addition was the construction of a natural fence to contain their garden. It is a very nice and interesting structure that I am sure will weather and age even more beautifully. To build it, her husband, Russ, bartered with local land owners to allow him to to cut the locust trees that he turned into posts, and the maple saplings that he interlaced in interesting shapes to form the fence. Russ tells me that the materials were cut and gathered by hand from over 6 acres of land, and dragged out of the woods without the use of machinery. Enjoy the photographs, leave any questions, I’ll get them answered for you.

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In order to use less locust trees, Russ split some of them into 4 posts
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Fence seen from the neighbor’s side

Nonna’s zucchini flower recipe

ImageLast year I had just posted some photos of my garden in Facebook when I got a comment from my friend Zuly in Italy. Her post under a shot of zucchinis said something like “do you also eat the flowers?, they are delicious”. The idea sounded intriguing and fun, as we had never tried them.

However the comment came at a time when our tomatoes were in full production, so our attention was mostly focused to thinking about how many different ways were there to eat tomatoes, and who else could we offer them to take them off our hands…soon after there were no more flowers to pick. As we planted our garden this year I kept in mind to try the flowers for sure this season.

Our first try was cut up flowers in a salad, the bright yellow pieces looked awesome, but honestly could not distinguish their taste with the dressing. For the second trial I decided to have them stuffed, but since I am not much of a recipe follower I decided to ad lib it, using whatever I had on hand… I made the stuffing with cottage cheese, garden oregano pesto and Parmesan cheese. Each flower took about 2 tsp to fill, and from there they went straight to a hot pan lightly greased with olive oil. My wife and I had them for breakfast, they tasted delicious, but needed major improvement with the somewhat soggy texture .

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My original filling
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I kept the whole flower and filled them though the top.
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I grilled the flowers, turning them once, the black burned stuff is cheese.

Yesterday we had a special treat, my son K and his beautiful girlfriend came over to spend the weekend with us. She is Italian (real Italian), when I told her I had collected zucchini flowers earlier in the morning she immediately said she loved them, and offered to prepare them the way her “nonna” made them. Ha, she fell right on my trap!! If I had a mustache I would have turned its tips….finally a chance to see how it is really done.

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Male flower in plant
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Yesterday’s flower harvest

Her preparation was elegantly simple but the result was awesome. She washed the flowers and cut the stems at the base. She then opened the flowers lengthwise, removed the stamen (where the pollen is in the center of the flower), and filled them with ricotta which she had previously salted and peppered. She wrapped the flower around the ricotta mix, passed them through an egg wash and finally covered them with flour before flash frying them in a shallow pan with olive oil. The flavor was subtle but delicious, and the texture was great as it was slightly crispy on the outside.

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Preparing the flowers
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It is much easier to fill them through the side
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close the flower by folding the sides over each other
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Pass over egg wash
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Roll over flour
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Frying in olive oil
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Crispy and delicious

To prepare the above dishes I harvest the male flowers early in the morning, right after collecting the pollen and distributing it among the female, or fruit bearing ones. The flowers look and are very delicate, so I bring them inside, put them in water and refrigerate them until I am ready to use them.

It is Pesto Friday

From a very early age, our youngest son developed an unusual taste for basil pesto sauce. Funny for an extremely finicky eater. He was probably the only child to open up a Tupperware container of “green pasta” at lunch time at school, and comeback home with garlicky pesto breath…we still wonder why we never got a note from his teachers…

Since then, “green pasta” has become a staple at our home, perhaps as common as mac ‘n cheese is on most other tables. We prepare pesto and hold it refrigerated during most of the year. In the cooler months we buy two full plants a week from the vegetable market, and quickly process it into sauce to preserve the wonderful flavor. Since we started gardening, Basil has of course been a main component of our garden, but it took us a couple of years to get into the rhythm of producing enough for our own needs.

We put the basil plants in the ground the weekend of Mother’s Day (when the risk of frost ends in our area). We have figured that 15-16 plants hold us up for the summer once in full production. Three weeks ago we had our first significant harvest of leaves, since the cool days lingered longer than usual this year.

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We make sure to use the immature flowers before they go to seed

Every Friday we harvest the basil early in the morning, as the the flavor is stronger at that time of day. We clip off the top 1/3 of the plants leaves, to keep the plants from producing mature flowers and going to seed, so they just keep on getting bushier with every harvest. We do use the young flowers and the very tender stems near the top, but discard the tough stems right next to the plants to compost. Our weekly production is equivalent to what you get from two full grown basil plants from the vegetable market.

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Portion of the plant that gets harvested

Our son, H, is responsible for making the pesto immediately after the leaves are collected. Our version of the Basil Pesto sauce can be made in a few minutes.

After washing the leaves in cold water, place them in a blender or food processor with 2-3 garlic cloves and 1/2 cup of olive oil. Blend at high speed until a thick paste forms, adding extra olive oil until all plant material has been processed. Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of parmesan cheese to the mixture an continue blending until homogeneous. And it is done. Some recipes call for pine nuts, but we find it does not add much to the flavor, and given the price of pine nuts we’d be flat broke by now. We keep the pesto sauce refrigerated in a closed container until we need to use it. If it is too thickwe mix a couple tablespoons of the water where we cooked the pasta with the portion of pesto we are going to use at the moment.

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This is our weekly basil harvest

Our garden is now producing enough to make a quart of pesto sauce a week. I was hoping to start freezing it and saving it for the winter months, but so far we have eaten all our production…I told you, we go through that stuff real fast.

A bee’s job

A couple of years ago I thought I was probably the only person that could not grow zucchinis. In disappointment I would see how what I thought were baby zucchinis would start forming at the base of the plant, only to wither and rot in a couple of days. After researching the problem I came to the conclusion that we probably had not enough bees in our property to fertilize the flowers.

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Female flowers grow towards the bottom of the plant. See small zucchini looking thing is actually the ovary, it will wilt if the flower is not fertilized
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This is the female flower. See the female organ in the center
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Male flowers grow on tall stems towards the top of the plant

Zucchinis produce two kinds of flowers, the female flower usually grows close to the base of the plant and is attached to the ovary (a zucchini looking organ). The male flower, on the other hand usually grows on a tall stem closer to the top of the plant, and away from the fruit bearing flower.  Since the sexual organs of the plant are held in separate flowers, the pollen must reach the female organ and fertilize the flower for the zucchini to actually form, mature and grow. If the garden does not have sufficient bees or other pollinating insects to move the pollen from one flower to the other one must do the work.

The zucchini flowers open up early in the morning, by 5:30-6:00 they are in full bloom. I go out in the garden early before the flowers wilt, and with a q-tip I swab the stamens to collect pollen that I then transfer to the female organ by gently touching them with it. By doing this I have been able to obtain a steady production of zucchinis throughout the summer.

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Collecting the pollen
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Pollinating the female flower
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Zucchinis growing, also see new immature flower forming
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This one turned into zucchini bread

Getting Ready for Round #2

By the end of June, we had already cleared out a couple of rows of veggies. One row had Romaine lettuce, but with the regular harvesting the plants started getting to look too scraggly, so we have ended up pulling them out and using them. The other empty row is where once again the snap peas failed to grow…

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Some of our daily harvest
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After washing the lettuce we separate it from their stems and tie it up in mixed leaf heads.

We have enjoyed the almost daily harvest of different lettuce varieties, and have been able to share with friends, neighbors and with the local church that runs a nice soup kitchen once a week.  So we have made a decision to re-plant our empty rows with new varieties of lettuce and salad greens, as well as turnips and beets. We planted the turnips and beets directly in the empty rows, and while we free up more room in the garden we started the greens in newspaper pots. There is a very good Youtube video on how to make the square pots.

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We first tried the round ones, and then found out how to make the square pots in YouTube

For Round #2 we have chosen to grow arugula, oak leaf lettuce, Swiss chard and red lettuce. As of today the seedlings were coming out of the soil, so we’ll probably be ready to plant them in another 10 days or so.

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Here they come

This is our garden

After texting pictures of my garden to all my family and friends, and the creating a photo log of this year’s garden we decided to go a bit further and create  a blog where we could share our gardening experience not only with our captive audience, but with future friends and not so close neighbors, and in turn exchange ideas that would help all improve our lives in the future.

Today  is mid season for some garden veggies, for others the season is all over, but  we are still going full force with our production and just this past weekend I started some more seeds to take us into the early fall.

We have had a fantastic season so far. Probably our best since we started gardening 4 years ago. Yes we are newbies at this, compared to most of you who have been doing it for years, but feel we have made tremendous strides and would like to share photos of our garden.

View of our tiered backyard
View of our tiered backyard
Here we have several rows of veggies.
Here we have several rows of veggies.
When our kids were growing up, we had a very large skating ramp in this area.
When our kids were growing up, we had a very large skating ramp in this area.
Lettuce
Lettuce
Eggplant, tomato and zucchini in the back.
Eggplant, tomato and zucchini in the back.
On the first tier we mainly grow herbs and radishes
On the first tier we mainly grow herbs and radishes