Sunday, August 14, 2011

Master Gardeners' Booth at the Putnam County Fair

On Friday I visited the Master Gardeners' booth at the Putnam County Fair in Cookeville. The indoor part of the exhibit shows all the shade plants that can be grown in our gardens in the Upper Cumberland.This rain barrel illustrates how you can save water from your roof for your shade garden.

There was also a canning kitchen set up inside the booth:

And a place for kids to play "farmer's market":

Outside, there was a demonstration of a square foot garden. These are made from wood frames filled with a special soil mix. They were very productive! One of the beds had a trellis on it with beans growing on the trellis.

Also there was a beautiful and productive herb garden, with several kinds of basil, a big sage plant, and other kinds of herbs.

There were lots of examples of ways in which gardeners can use containers for food and ornamentals. Carrots were thriving in this container:

These cute hanging containers had succulents in them:

We also looked around in the exhibits of prize-winning vegetables, because we had heard that there were some really big watermelons. The rumor was true. These two melons were almost three feet long!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


A funny name for a pretty normal pickle. I found this recipe in The Victory Garden Cookbook, a cookbook from 1982 based on the PBS show "The Victory Garden." It's a great cookbook for gardeners, because the chapters are organized by vegetable: all about bean, cucumbers, eggplants, and so on. So when you have a lot of something, you know where to go.

The cucumber chapter is revelatory. Did you know that you can saute cucumbers? Maybe you have done it secretly in your own kitchen (as Julia says, "When you're alone in the kitchen, who's to know?"), but you didn't know that Chef Marian Morash does it in her restaurant. Also from this chapter I learned that a cucumber salad tastes better if you lightly salt the cucumbers ahead of time and let them "macerate," as they say in canning books, for at least half an hour before rinsing and dressing them. There are also recipes for braised and stuffed cucumbers, which Chef Marian says are common in Germany and France.

Like my neighbors on Brangus Lane, Chef Marian is never one to waste food. (I threw a tomato at a neighbor the other day, when he made a remark that I considered borderline sexual harassment. It bounced off his belly and hit the ground. His only comment was, "You're wasting food." So I picked it up and ate it.) You know those big yellow cucumbers that are lurking under leaves in the garden this time of year? Don't compost them! Make senfgurken!

Chef Marian says that senfgurken is "the German answer to watermelon rind pickle." What was the question? Anyway, you peel and seed the cucumbers (saving the seed, of course, if it is not a hybrid cuke), cut them into 1" pieces, make a brine of salt and water, cover the cukes for 24 hours, and then make another brine of straight vinegar and spices. You simmer the drained, rinsed cukes in the brine for a few minutes and pack them into jars with the brine. Ok, I'll write out the recipe, since it's an old (sort of) cookbook:

Senfgurken (Adapted from The Victory Garden Cookbook)

4 large yellow cucumbers, 1# each
1/2 cup pickling salt
3 cups water

1 qt vinegar (I used cider vinegar, but Marian Morash calls for white vinegar)
1-2 cups sugar
3 T pickling spices
4-5 tsp mustard seeds

Peel cucumbers, halve, and scoop out the seeds. Cut into wide strips or chunks like watermelon rind pickle. Dissolve salt in water and pour over cukes. Soak 24 hours, drain, and pat dry. Combine vinegar, sugar, and pickling spices and boil 1 minute. Then drop the cuke pieces in the brine. When the brine returns to a boil, remove cukes with slotted spoon and fit them into sterilized jars, filling to within 1/2 inch of the top. Divide mustard seeds among jars. Cover with the boiling liquid to within 1/4 inch of the top and seal the jars. Process for ten minutes.


To save seeds from cucumbers:
Let the cucumber get very yellow. Leave it on the vine as long as possible, preferably until the vine is dead, but before it starts to rot. Then you can bring it inside and leave it on the shelf a while longer, until it really is beginning to rot. Cut it open and scoop out the seeds. Put them and all the liquid attached to them in a jar. Allow this mixture to ferment for five days. Rinse this fermented mess in a sieve, and dump the seeds out onto a paper plate. Let them dry on the paper plate until crispy, and store in a ziploc bag or a jar in the refrigerator.

It's best to get seed from at least five different plants if possible. Mark the ones you intend to save with a plastic ribbon so that they won't get picked or eaten.

Canning 101: Okra Pickles

If you've never canned anything before, okra pickles are a good place to start. It's so simple:  you sterilize the jars, cram the okra pods in the sterilized jars, pour the pickling brine over them, put them in the canner, and process for ten minutes. There's none of that long cooking and checking for "set" that making jam involves. You don't even need an official "canner":  I use a stock pot with a round cake rack in the bottom. I have found that the big pots with racks sold for canning don't work well on the small burners of most electric stoves. (They probably work great on wood-burning stoves, where the whole stove top gets hot.) I wired a round piece of hardware cloth to my cake rack to make it hold the jars a little more steadily.

The first thing you do in any canning session is you sterilize your jars. Put them on the rack in your canner and start filling it with hot water. The water should fill each jar.  Keep adding water until it reaches the top of the empty jars.  (When you fill the jars with product and put them back in, they will be about an inch under the top of the water.)

Meanwhile, sterilize your lids. Canning jar lids have two parts: the lid and the band. The lid has to be brand new; you can't reuse old lids. But you can re-use the bands indefinitely.  When you buy canning jars, they will have new lids and bands with them. If you already have some appropriate jars (don't use mayonnaise jars), buy a box of new lids, and bands if you need them. The lids and bands come in two sizes: regular and wide-mouth. For the okra pickles, I'm using half-pint jars, which use regular size lids.

Back to sterilizing your lids:  place the lids (not the bands) in a small pot and bring to a simmer. They don't have to boil; they only need to reach about 180 degrees. The same goes for sterilizing the jars. So when you see a lot of bubbles and steam but not a rolling boil, that's a simmer.  If you have a thermometer, you can measure the temperature, but it's not really necessary. These are the lids:

You will need some special tools for canning. You can buy a set that includes a jar funnel, a jar lifter, a magnetic lid lifter, and a plastic knife that you use to remove bubbles.  Here's my set. Isn't it cute that they all match?

So your jars and lids are sterilizing. While you wait, get the pickling brine ready.  I am using a recipe from an old Gourmet magazine that I found on the site. But most recipes for okra pickles are pretty much the same. One thing about pickling and canning recipes: you can't mess with them too much.  The amount of acid in the recipe is critical to safe canning and spoilage prevention. So, don't change the amount of vinegar or water. You can change the seasoning of the brine, though: for example, you can use less cayenne, or add some other pickling spices.

The brine in this recipe is 3 cups of vinegar, 1 cup of water, some cayenne, mustard seed, dill seed, salt and sugar. You bring all that to a boil in a separate pot. It's ok for this to simmer for a while, while you wait for the jars to reach 180.

When the jars are hot enough, use your jar lifter to take one out of the hot water. (Now you see why you need a jar lifter!) Pour the hot water out of the jar and place it on a clean towel on the counter. Fill this jar as tightly as you can with 3 inch to 4 inch long okra pods, plus a garlic clove in the bottom. The tighter you pack them in, the easier it will be when you pour the brine in. Some of my okra was pretty long, so I had to select the short ones that would fit into the jar. You're not supposed to trim the cap off the okra entirely, but I trimmed some of the stems back a little to make them fit in the jars. If you like very hot pickles, you can add a hot pepper piece to each jar too.

Here are the packed jars:

Now all you have to do is ladle the pickling brine onto the okra pods in the jars. By now it should be boiling. Put the funnel on one of the jars and ladle the brine into the jar until it reaches 1/4 inch from the top. This is important: you don't want the jar to be too full, or have too much air space at the top either.

Now you see why it's good to really cram that okra in:  if it's too loose, it starts floating when you put the brine on. If it does, just cram a few more pods in until they sort of stay down.

Wipe the rim of the jar carefully with a very clean cloth or paper towel. Take your magnetic lid lifter, and lift a lid out of the hot water. Place it carefully on the jar rim, rubber side down. Make sure there is no little bit of spice or okra on the rim; this will prevent a good seal. Screw the band down on the jar to hold the lid in place. Use the jar lifter to put this jar in the canner, which is still simmering.

Do the same with all your jars. You can use the knife thing to remove any bubbles around the edge of the jar, but this is not really necessary with okra pickles.  It's something you have to do with jam, though. This tool also  has a handy measuring device on its end that helps you estimate what 1/4 inch clearance is at the top of the jar.

All your jars are back in the canner now:

Put the lid on and bring it to a rolling boil. Once it boils, start the timer. Boil the jars for ten minutes. Remove them from the canner with the jar lifter (now you're REALLY glad you have one of these!) and set them gently on the counter. In a few minutes you will hear the characteristic ping that the jar lids make as they seal.

Occasionally you may have a jar that doesn't seal. You can tell because when you press the lid in the middle after it has cooled, the little indentation will go down. The rest of the jars will already have that little dent down. No worries: just put that unsealed jar in the fridge and eat it soon. The rest of the jars can be stored on a shelf for six months or a year.

At first the okra pods will look as if they are floating too much in the brine in the jar. Don't worry. They'll "sink" later and look like the ones in the grocery store.

So this is the basic method for canning: sterilizing jars and lids; getting the product ready (which sometimes involves cooking it in a separate pot); filling the jars; processing the jars; and cooling the jars. I label the lids with a sharpie: I write the name of the product and the date on the lid.  Now that you know the basics, you can try almost any recipe. Start with The Ball Blue Book or The Complete Book of Home Preserving, if you don't have a canning cookbook. Both of these books have good general directions about canning.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Renovating Fall Perennial Beds: Peonies and Monarda

I have a semi-shaded perennial bed on the north side of my house that was beautiful in early July, when the bee balm (Monarda) was blooming its head off. The blooms were an intensely saturated purple, and they attracted all kinds of bumblebees, including those strange-looking bumblebee moths (Hemaris diffinis).   Also there are some daylilies and Siberian irises, a rose bush, and two clumps of peonies. (This is a bumblebee moth on a thistle, not a bee balm blossom, and I didn't take this picture.)

The problem is, the bee balm has just about taken over the whole bed, and in early August it looked pretty ratty. I thought about just cutting it to the ground, but when I did that, I saw that it was seriously impeding the growth of the daylilies and the irises. I started scraping at its roots, and I found out that the roots were very thick, matted, and pervasive. No wonder the daylilies looked puny!  I dug out almost all the Monarda to move to wilder places on my farm. According to Allen Armitage, Monarda is native to stream sides, under trees. Check. We have that on Brangus Lane. (His book, Herbaceous Perennial Plants, is worth having as a reference book, especially for Southern gardeners, as he gardens and researches perennials in Atlanta.)

While I was at it, digging up this bed, I decided to divide some of the peonies.  Some of the trees near that bed have gotten so big that they cast more shade than the peonies like. So I dug around one of the clumps and removed some of its underground buds, or "eyes."  They look like this:

There were enough under that clump to plant two new clumps of peonies in a brighter, sunnier place, and yet leave enough at the original clump so that it would grow again in spring.  This is a good idea, in case the transplanted clumps don't survive:  that way you won't lose that clone entirely. You plant the "eyes" about 2 inches deep, and no deeper than 3 inches, or they won't flower.

August is a good time to divide perennials that flower in early spring. I also divided some of the Siberian iris. These grow in clumps with rather matted roots, so you simply stick a digging fork into the middle of the clump and pry a piece off, to move elsewhere. People in my neighborhood are in the process of dividing perennials and getting rid of some, so it's a good time to swap. I will give some of the Monarda to my neighbor who has a semi-wild garden down by the Caney Fork, and I will get some Echinacea, daylilies, and irises from another neighbor who doesn't like pink flowers (the Echinacea) and has too many daylilies and irises. That way, I can expand my own perennial beds, and it won't cost anything but some time and labor.

I plant perennials rather closer together than is usually recommended, because that way they shade out the weeds more quickly:  usually I use a spacing of about 12 inches instead of 15 inches between daylilies for example.  In the fall, I also scatter around alfalfa pellets for fertilizer in the perennial beds. This is especially good for the roses. Then I mulch with leaves, pine needles, or straw.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Zee Best okra

The Victory Garden Cookbook (Paperback)I learned about Zee Best okra when I was working at the Urban Harvest teaching garden in Houston, TX. We grew it there, and it grew fantastically well in the hot Houston summers.  Zee Best makes a lot of branches, and unlike some okra varieties, the branches themselves begin to blossom and produce pods. So one Zee Best plant can make a lot of okra. In Texas okra can even winter over, if there is no frost, and begin producing again for a second year. Some okra plants there that I've seen have huge trunks, like small trees!

In my garden in Tennessee, okra doesn't winter over, but Zee Best is still very productive, and it's very tasty. Its pods are unusual in that they are not ridged, but smooth. The pods are velvety, with tiny soft hairs on them. They can get quite large before they become inedible. The pods grow fast, too, so it's best to pick them every day. I use a pair of Felco pruners to clip them off the bush.

There are many ways to cook okra. Of course, fried okra is famous, but I don't really like to heat up huge pots of oil for deep frying. My usual way to cook okra is adapted from The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash.

1 lb okra
1 lb cherry tomatoes
1 cup chopped leeks or onions
1 clove garlic
2 T butter or olive oil

Saute the leeks and okra in the melted butter or olive oil for about ten minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes and garlic. Saute for 3-4 minutes longer.  Reduce the heat, cover the pan, and cook for about ten minutes longer. Don't overcook okra; keep its bright green color if possible.

It's easy to save the seed from okra.  Early in the season, you select five pods from five different plants. Mark these pods with some plastic flagging tape so nobody will pick them. Allow these pods to grow all summer; they will get very long, and then they begin to get hard. When they turn brown and dry, they are ready to harvest. Inside are small black okra seeds. Shell these out and store them in a jar in the refrigerator until spring.

Okra does not like cold soil, so wait until the soil is warm to direct seed it in the garden.  Sometimes it is slow to come up, so pre-sprouting the seed is a good idea. This spring, I soaked the seed overnight and then wrapped it in a damp paper towel. I put the towel in a plastic bag, and I put the whole package on an electric heating pad on low. Then I covered it with a towel to make it dark (most seeds like darkness to sprout). I checked them every day, and when some of them sprouted, I moved the sprouted ones to the garden or to a pot to grow on, and I put the unsprouted ones back in the plastic bag. It took some of the seeds a lot longer to sprout than others, for some reason, but I got a lot of plants from just a few seeds that way. You can also start the seeds in small pots and transplant them when they have two true leaves.

Okra seed is short-lived, so don't try to save old seed for years and years. Grow new seed each year for next year's crop. Also, if you keep the seed in a jar in the refrigerator, it will keep better.