Sunday, July 29, 2012

Waiting for the Peppers

The plants are beautiful.  I planted several different types of peppers this season:

Jalapenos because they are my favorite peppers with heat.  Habaneros are too hot and I don't enjoy the flavor.

Bell peppers in three varieties.  California Wonder, Chocolate Bell and an orange variety whose name I've forgotten.

Pimento peppers are my favorite of the sweet bell type.  They have a lovely pointy shape and are heavy walled with few seeds.

Red hot chilis.  I enjoy growing them because they are easy to manage, prolific and drying them is a cinch.  They turn my winter time stir fry suppers into something wonderful.

So far, I've not harvested a single pepper other than a few little bitty chilis.  There are a couple jalapenos on the plants and I've seen one little bell that will probably be orange if it gets to maturity.  It has been frustrating me a bit.

I did a little digging around online and I discovered that not too many people are doing very well with their peppers this summer.  The super-heated summer we've been 'enjoying' in the Midwest is notorious for inhibiting bell pepper fruit set.  So we get lots of flowers but zero peppers.


Those that are doing well with their peppers are doing so with heroic efforts. Providing shade and cooling water spray for the plants during the hot parts of the day can improve yields.  Unfortunately, this sort of intensive pepper care is beyond the scope of my current capabilities.


The good news is that all is not yet lost for this year.  As the summer draws to a close and the weather starts to cool, the peppers will wake back up and begin to set more fruit.  I remain hopeful that Mother Nature will cool things down again.

I'll be ready and waiting.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Garden Update 22 July 2012

It's been about a week since my last photo dump from the garden.  So here we go again.

A couple days after I discovered the squash vine borers, I decided I had nothing to lose but seeds.  So I poked some more squash seeds into the pot with the surviving squash plants.  Yes, I know the older plants look puny and I have no idea why.  Every other year I have grown squash they virtually took over the entire yard.  This year, not so much.  Maybe it's the pot.  Maybe they need fertilizer.  Maybe they're just puny squashes.  I don't know.  But as you can see in the photo, the new planting is coming up nicely and in record time!  The first set of seeds took almost 2 weeks to emerge from the soil.  This planting was up in 4 days. That's got to be some kind of record.

The Roma tomatoes are finally growing and flowering. No fruits yet, but there's still time.  These were really a last-minute, impulse purchase at a big box store that shall remain nameless. I was pretty happy to see these little flowers open up the other day. 

Remember this little guy?  Yes!  That's the first eggplant I ever grew from seed.  It's still hanging in there and has about doubled in size since the last time we looked at it.  I have not figure out yet when that variety of eggplant is ready to harvest.  The other eggplant, my second ever grown from seed (I promise I'll stop saying that bit about growing it from seed...someday), is about the size of my hand.  I read online that when they get to be about the size of your hand and have a shiny surface, they're ready to pick.  This little purple fella is going to be made into a hummus-like dip this weekend.  I will report the recipe and the results as soon as I get there.


Speaking of eggplants...I discovered this little, odd-looking eggplant last night as well.  The variety is almost certainly an Asian type but I haven't located the seed packet yet to determine the specific variety so I'll have to report back later.  It's certainly pretty.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

AAAUUUGGGHHHH! Blog Episode One: The Squash Vine Borer

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. This gardening season was going very nicely. No major problems except for the odd little weevils that attacked, skeletonized and destroyed the mustard greens in my mesclun salad mix. It was ONLY the mustard greens. Apparently, we have very discriminating weevils in Nebraska. Who knew?

I dislike the mustard greens anyway, so no biggie to me.

But this. This is unacceptable.

I stepped out to the garden to water the plants in pots and examine the tomatoes for peak ripeness. That's when I noticed the squash plants didn't look right. By 'right' I mean they didn't look green and upright. In fact, they looked downright yellow and wilty.

So I grabbed the hose and, as I started watering, wondered how on earth I could have missed them yesterday. Upon closer examination, the truth was revealed: tiny, itty, bitty little sawdust-y holes at the base of some of the vines.

Squash vine borers! AAAUUUGGHHHH! I almost choked on my gum.

After a few moments of impolite comment, I reluctantly pulled out the vines that looked the worst and examined the remaining plants for holes. Not all of the vines were affected and, after some research, I concluded that they must be the butternut squashes I planted. Butternuts, for some reason, seem to be less affected by the borers. I'm still working on my seedling labeling skills so I'm not really sure which varieties are still alive.

Here's what I learned about the borers today: Squash vine borers overwinter in the ground as pupae and emerge in the summertime as adult, clearwing moths whereupon they set out in search of a likely looking squash plant on which to mate and lay eggs. When the eggs hatch, the little larva bore into the vines and take up residence inside the stem blocking the flow of water and nutrients to the plant which eventually dies. Once the larva matures, it digs down into the ground to pupate so it can emerge next year to ruin someone else's squash plants.


Organic controls of the squash vine borer are aimed more or less at prevention rather than destruction. Basically, the idea is to exclude the adult moths from your baby vines. This is best accomplished by learning to identify the adult moths and then, once you spy them buzzing around, using floating row covers or another mesh type barrier with tiny holes to keep the adults from laying their eggs on your plants. The eggs are most likely to be laid during the second half of June or so in my neck of the woods so putting up the covers for a few weeks during June and July should do the trick.

If you really want to try to save the affected plants you have, there is one thing you can try. Sterilize a sharp knife and use it to slit the stem of the affected vine upward starting at the point where the larva bored into the stem. When you locate the larva (or larvae), stab the heck out of it/them with the knife. Then carefully reposition the vine and bury the cut portion in the garden with dirt and keep it moist. With luck, the vine will put down more roots where it is buried and the plant may live. Then again, you might wind up with a dead squash plant buried neck deep in your garden.

Fortunately for you and me, the borers only have the one generation every year. So, chances are they have probably done the damage they were going to do already. It's going to be close, but I think I can set out another planting of seed and maybe get a few squashes before winter sets in. The seed packets all say 95-105 days to maturity and I have right about that many days until first average frost. I have nothing to lose but the rest of my squash seeds, right?

At least next year, I'll be ready for them. The little...darlings!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Why this place?

Most people you could talk to where I work would probably agree that I'm a bit of a nut job. It doesn't bother me much. I've been called worse.

You see, I live in a small, quiet town in the middle of Nebraska roughly 80 miles from my place of employment. It's not quite the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from here. My little town is a 'farming community' which doesn't exactly mean what might be inferred.

It used to be that a farming community was a town where family farmers could go to do their banking and buy tractor parts or seed. A farming community was where they kept the bar and the post office and possibly the sheriff's office if you were lucky enough to be at the county seat.

Most of that stuff is still here, but some of the soul has gone out of the place. A lot of the store fronts downtown are empty. Many of them have fallen into disrepair and some are possibly beyond repair without a big injection of cash. 
There isn't much of that around here anymore either.

Personally? I blame many things for the slow and painful decline of this little town.Generally speaking, many of the kids in these small towns are chomping at the bit to get out as soon as humanly possible. Very few of them have any intention or desire to take over where their father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and in some cases, great-great grandfather left off. No, mostly they stick around long enough to graduate high school and head off to the big city to college or whatever else their life holds in store.

Farm economy and government intervention has done little to help the family farm even exist much less thrive. The arrival of corporate farms in the 80's certainly didn't help much. Many folks got out of farming either willingly or by force. Those were dark times indeed.

No. Things are definitely not what they were when my grandfather farmed his land on the edge of town. But I digress.

With all of that in mind, my husband and I moved from the city to this rural space about 6 years ago. A lifelong city kid, my husband longed to live in the country. He dreamt of a farm for the two of us to live out our lives together. A place where the kids and grand kids could come and enjoy the peace and quiet.

A little slice of heaven, as it were.

That's where the 'nutjob' part comes in. Why in heaven's name would someone with a good job in the city move lock, stock and tea kettle out to the boonies? Why would she move so far away that her commute takes three hours out of every work day? I actually had a couple of reasons.

First of all is family. My Dad grew up here and lives in the next town over. There are dozens of people here who knew him, went to school with him, knew my grandparents, and knew my Dad's seven siblings. There are generations of my kin buried in the local cemetary. Living in a place like this gives one a sense of history. It gives me a feel for my roots. It makes me wonder if that's what it's like living in another country with a longer history than this one has. A sense of place is, I think, necessary for good mental health.

Secondly, I grew up in a small town that is actually a bit bigger than this one.  After 30 years in the city, I had had enough of the hustle and bustle and constant noise of living in a densely populated area. The car alarms, the traffic and the thousands of people rushing about at all hours are nerve-wracking. The hoodlums (yes, I said HOODLUMS) vandalizing and stealing whatever they can at all hours of the day or night in front of God and everybody instilled a constant thread of fear in me. The nightly news consistently filled me with dread. The city went from a place where I felt relatively safe on my own when I first moved there to a place where I wouldn't walk alone after dark. It became a constant source of stress, a place of little sleep and a place of zero sanity. I spent the last few years making sure to lock myself inside my house for fear of home invasion. I remember one particular night standing stock still and terrified in my bedroom closet listening to what sounded like gunfire outside my home and my husband stood near the front door with his deer rifle peering out into the night.

Enough already.

Here there is peace. Here there is room to stretch out your legs on the porch and sip tea in the evening. Here, I can walk the 5 blocks to the grocery store after dark and not worry about being accosted or even if I left the garage door open. Here, even if they don't personally know who you are, everyone waves as you walk or drive past. Here was my chance to live my own dream and possibly create the foundation of my next career...a retirement gig of sorts.

This is where I find myself at mid life wondering what's next. I'm still figuring that part out but I am fairly certain there will be chickens involved.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


If you need me, I'll be in the garden.
Ah! The Weekend.  I see it in my head that way with capitol letters.

It's pretty glorious: Two whole days of not driving for 3 hours a day and not spending 8.5 hours struggling and raging against the machine. My garden beckons and my dogs pounce and bounce with delight when, on Saturday morning, I emerge from my bedroom and dig out a couple scoops of dog chow and start the coffee pot with my current favorite weekend brew.

Of course, there are the usual chores and all those things I have to do to keep things moving as smoothly as possible.  It is really nice to have a couple days that I am not expected anywhere in particular nor do I have to complete anything under a deadline.  The time is more or less all mine and that in itself is relaxing.

But for me, the real quality time happens in the evenings on the weekends.  The pretty much self-imposed demands of the day have been met...or ignored and I'm free to enjoy some time just enjoying my life.

The picture above is the garden we started building this spring as it looks in the early evening hours this time of year.  This garden space along with the covered patio you can't really see in the picture takes up about one third of the space in what serves as our back yard. The neighbor's house and tree gives us some much-welcomed shade along about five or six o'clock We were a little worried that there wouldn't be enough sun to grow tomatoes.

As if.  Apparently there was no cause for alarm as we have tons of little green tomatoes coming on.  I know I keep mentioning the little green tomatoes but I can't help it.  Last fall was a long time ago.

The shed in the back was there when we bought the house. The little herb garden that you can almost see in the upper left area was put in last year as an experiment.  But everything else is new this year. I am ecstatic about these developments and have so many more things planned for the next few years. This year, we're hoping to get a couple more beds put in and some more fence work done.

Oops! Time for my Saturday afternoon lounge around the garden.  I'd better get my iced tea and head out!  I'm taking my tomato basket just in case.

Have a good one!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Garden Update!

Here are some of the things that are currently growing in my little slice of heaven:

Purple...verbena I think.  Nice color.
I decided to start with a flower.  Although I'm very proud of my veggie garden, this flower caught my eye this evening as I was taking these pictures.  It is growing in a hanging planter near the garage and flourishing there.  I'm not exactly sure what this one is but I think it's a verbena.  It came in the mixed planter that I bought at the garden center this spring.  Very pretty.
Red hot chili peppers!

The chili peppers are doing great!  They seem to love the heat we've been having.  I like to add a chili pepper to the dilly beans when I make them to give them an extra kick.

My first eggplant from seed.
This is, in fact, my first eggplant grown entirely from seed.  For the last few years, I've tried transplants and seedlings from various garden centers to no avail.  No eggplants ever appear.  Lots of flowers, but no fruits.  This one is beautiful!  I'm super proud of it even if it is tiny.

Got any good recipes?  I don't really like to eat them.  I just think they're pretty.
The first zinnia to flower this year.

For a number of years I have grown zinnias in my yard.  The last couple years I did not plant any.  This year, I decided I was going to have my zinnias again so I planted them in a cast off garden center pot that came from a shrub we planted last year.  The variety is 'Thumbelina' and they are adorable. There are purple and brighter pink and orange blossoms coming.  This is the only one that is open now.
Sugar Baby

Sugar Baby watermelons have been on my 'must plant' list for a long, long time.  They come out just the right size for two, or just for me if I've just finished mowing.  Sweet and juicy and I can hardly wait until this one is ready so I can dig in.  Nothing finer on a hot summer day than sitting in the shade munching on a melon.
Greenies!  Come on, I'm starving!

I am so impatiently waiting the ripening of the tomatoes! I'm tempted to 'photoshop' a little blush on these guys.
Bitty, baby cucumbers are so cute!

One of my garden favorites is pickling cucumbers.  Extra cruchy and tasty in salads as well as pickles, these little beauties never fail to satisfy.  I'll probably have more of these than I'll ever know what to do with if today's harvest is any indication.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Hands Still Smell Like Onions!

Even after washing them several times using the time-honored method of scrubbing a stainless steel spoon with dish detergent, my hands still smell like onions.

What do you do to get that smell off your hands?

The onions came from my garden of course. Earlier this season we had pulled a few for green onions on pizza and they were very mild.  The ones I cut up yesterday were a bit bigger and brought some serious tears to my eyes as I chopped. I found them in the garden with their tops laying in a dead faint on the ground. After a quick ‘google’ search, I discovered that it was normal for onions to do this when they are ‘done.’ So I pulled up a bunch of them (a bunch as in 8 or 10) that were just laying there and left them out to dry before preparing them for storage.

Storing onions can be tricky business. I am embarrassed to say that more than once I have wound up with a net bag full of green stems and smooshy bulbs. Unpleasant, to say the least. The reason my onions sprouted is because they were kept in a place that was either way too warm or way too humid. That place was my kitchen counter or my refrigerator. 

First, I figured since the onions at the grocery store were just sitting out there in the middle of the room under no special storage conditions, mine would be fine on the countertop.


Then I started keeping them in the fridge and that worked for awhile since we use quite a few onions at our house. Then, one day as I was clearing out the fridge looking for the source of that gawdawful odor, I discovered a sprouting, smooshy onion way back in the bottom drawer.

Ew. Who knew the fridge was a humid place? Not me.

Onions, it turns out, need low humidity, cool temperatures and darkness with good ventilation for good storage. Also, it pays to notice what variety of onion you’re working with. The later maturing types will often do better in storage than the early varieties.

So, in order to store your onions for winter use:
1.     Harvest onions when the leaves of more than half the plants are laying on the ground.  I take only the ones that have fallen over and leave the ones that are still standing up until they fall over.  I’m in no hurry to pluck them all up and, don’t quote me, but I’ve heard that a light frost in the fall will make them sweeter.
2.     Pull them carefully and leave the stems and leaves intact.
3.     Dry in a warm and well-ventilated area until the skins are papery.  This takes anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks depending on your humidity.
4.     Once the onions have dried sufficiently, cut off the tops leaving about an inch of stem on top.  You can trim the roots some as well but don’t cut into the bulb.
5.     Store onions in a cool, dry, dark place with good ventilation. You can try braiding them like some do with garlic although I’ve never mastered the art myself. I’ve yet to actually have enough onions left after canning salsa to warrant braiding. The best bet, for me at least, is to re-use an old onion bag saved from store-bought onions. Lacking that, you can use an old pair of pantyhose.  Just slip the onions one-by-one into the leg tying a knot in between the bulbs as you go. Then hang in a cool, dark, dry place until you need them. When you do, all you have to do is cut off an onion. If you use twist ties between the onions instead of knots, you can re-use your pantyhose next year.

We planted about 250 onion sets this year and about ¾ of them actually came up. More than half of those have grown big, green tops. I might actually have some leftover! If I do, I’m going to try braiding them together.

Of course, I still smell like onions.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day

Boy you can sure tell the 4th of July has come to the Heartland. The neighbors must have spent their entire paycheck on fireworks this year.  Could be a long night...

I spent a lot of time in the garden today making sure everyone had a good drink of water.  We've reached what I think of as roughly the midpoint of the growing season here at our little hacienda on the plains.  The next 40 or so days are going to be hot and difficult.

This time of year is known as the Dog Days of Summer (03 July to 10 August).  So named for Sirius, the Dog Star and its prominence in the heavens.  Way back in the day of the pharoahs, Sirius was believed to be the force behind the heat wave by virtue of its proximity to the sun.

Still, it's hot.  Damn hot.  So hot the corn is popping in the fields or so the farmers say. I didn't try frying an egg on the sidewalk, but I have no doubts it would work eventually.  This afternoon I watched as a robin hopped and skipped down the sidewalk in front of the house, panting like a dog.  Yes, I filled the bird water dish immediately which he (she?) promptly ignored.  There is no pleasing some birds.

The tomatoes are loving the heat though.  There are dozens of greenies out there just biding their time and getting ready to turn a beautiful red.  I have my knife and my salt shaker at the ready for the first sign of ripeness in totality.  I cannot wait. I was going to take a picture of those green tomatoes, but I'm going wait until they turn red.

A few days ago, after I determined that I absolutely could wait not a minute longer, I dumped out one of the four buckets of potato plants.  The potato vines have been slowly turning yellow and shriveling up and drying out which is a sure sign that the 'taters are just about ready.  I found, much to my husband's delight, about two pounds of potatoes where I had planted about a half pound of seed potatoes.

They are beautiful!  We cooked them up tonight with a couple little bitty onions from the garden after obtaining careful instructions via email from my good friend raptorunner.  She suggested that I cook them on the grill by making a packet from aluminum foil and filling it with chopped potatoes, onions, garlic and butter.

So that's what I did and, after a while, they came out pretty tasty except for the ones on the end that basically turned into cinders.  What can I say?  I'm no backyard grillmaster. Next time, if my husband lets me near the grill again, I won't cook them quite so long. I'm much better at growing potatoes than cooking them.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Where I am coming from.

I am an analytical scientist by training. It is my third actual career and one that I have worked hard and overcome many obstacles to achieve. I work in research and development for a large company who shall remain nameless. I enjoy the work that I do very much. But, just lately anyway, things have gone sideways for me at work. I, along with many of my co-workers, have been a little blindsided by some of the changes in our industry.

I still do a lot of the things I like to do. I still get paid to play mad scientist sometimes and I even get to wear the costume on occasion. But my days more often than not are now bogged down in paperwork and red tape. I went from working and creating in a more or less academic environment to laboring and producing in a business atmosphere practically overnight. At times, I find it repressive, joyless and uninspiring. The fact that I am getting paid to do these things is little consolation. Late last Friday afternoon, I could literally feel my insides shrinking and the empty space being filled with a low hum of panic. All I could think was, "If I have to do this until I reach retirement age, I'll just die."

So, I decided that it is high time to figure out what the next phase of my life will look like.

I like to think of it as my pre-retirement years. Normally, I think people my age (pushing 50) are starting to worry about money a little more and are starting to sock it away at a greater rate. Some of my contemporaries are talking about 401k plans and Roth IRAs and retirement homes in the South. Yeah, I have the retirement fund and I've considered a condo myself. But it's not enough. Not for me. Not after all this work. The thought of spending my Golden Years living in a condo in a place without seasonal changes, watching TV and complaining about the government full time makes me a little queasy.

There has to be a middle ground.

My husband and I have long dreamt of having a place of our own to grow food and keep ourselves close to the land. Recent health events have turned that dream into an imperative. Neither of us can afford to feed ourselves with the mass-produced, chemical laden products that pass for food these days.  So that's where my change starts.

Here I go.