Monday, August 24, 2009

Gardening & Eating

It occurs to me that more often my posts tend to be about eating, not necessarily gardening. For me the two go hand in hand. Yes I have lots of gorgeous flowers in my garden, fuchsia dahlias and pure white phlox, deep burgundy knautia, roses, lavender, bright yellow coreopsis and more. We have bees and moths and butterflies a plenty. But the real satisfaction for me is in eating food that I grow myself. Ten times a day I'm out there checking on my acorn squash to see how they've grown. I sit and stare at the tomato plants, trying to determine what went wrong. I poke at the carrots daily to see if they are big enough to pick. And knowing that something is chowing down on my new arugula seedlings is enough to turn me into cranky gardener for hours.

As much as I'm addicted to gardening, I'm also addicted to cooking and eating. We love to eat in my family, and talk about food, and eat, and reminisce about great restaurants, and eat, and plan menus, and eat.

This summer we've been enjoying delicious veggie sandwiches made with our own tomatoes, spinach and zucchini. The other night we had a divine Vegetable Frittata with Asiago. All the vegetables were either from our garden or from the local farmers' market. The eggs were from our neighbors. The only non-local ingredient was the Asiago.

Somewhere in the back of my mind when Lily and I started planting seeds together in May, I knew that I wanted to share gardening with her not just to garden, but to enjoy the whole process of planting, nurturing, watching stuff grow and then eating it. Today when we made veggie sandwiches on crusty sourdough bread from Essential Baking in Seattle, she wanted mine. The kid only has five teeth and I didn't think she could eat it, but I broke off some anyway and handed it to her. It took her a while but she managed. And of course when she was finished, first she said, "Yum!" Then, "More 'mato, more 'mato." Damn is she cute!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Corn on the Cob

A few weeks ago when my dad was here for a visit, we sat outside in the 100 degree heat shucking corn. Of course Lily was very interested in it. So interested, in fact, that she wanted to eat it raw. I wasn't too sure how her stomach would like that, so I quickly cooked it and put a tiny bit of butter and salt on it. Then she wouldn't eat it because she couldn't hold onto it, too slippery. So I ate the ends to give her "handles" and she loved it. Now we can't keep her away from it and it's hilarious to watch her eat it.

One of the most stressful things for me when it comes to parenting, is feeding my daughter. It's stressful because I worry that she's not eating enough, or not eating enough of the right things. I worry that she might have some of the same allergies her dad has, gluten and tomatoes. I worry because half the time she doesn't eat at all, but feeds her food to her pal, Dizzy instead. I worry because so often she gets more of the food on her than in her, and it seems like she enjoys that. I know many of my worries are shared by other parents out there, and that I worry about things that are normal for a kid her age, but it still stresses me out.

Seeing her pick food from the garden makes me take a step back and realize, this kid loves food. She loves to play with it, yes, but she loves to eat it too, especially when she picks it herself like the strawberries, peas, plums and tomatoes from our garden. Already she loves fresh, local, organic produce; what more could I want?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Picking Beans

This week, or was it last week? (It's bad when the days run together, but what about when entire weeks become lost and hazy?) Lily and I went to our friends' 1/4 acre farm on Ebey Island to help pick green and yellow beans and I could have sworn it was this week, but now that I'm looking back on the days I'm pretty sure it was last week. Does that mean I'm only one week behind, or that I'm only aware of losing one week? I swear I lost most of my brain cells when Lily was born. Do they every come back?

Okay, I'm straying way too far from a garden post here. Lily and I did go to pick beans, or at least that's what I thought we were going to do. At first Lily was thrilled to be there. She had her new tennis shoes on for the first time and loved waddling up and down the long rows, usually looking at her feet more than ahead of her. The fun didn't last long.

Their farm is right near highway 2 and as soon as Lily heard the noise of multiple cars and large, lumbering trucks going back and forth, she became Cling-on. She has this oddly strong sense of hearing or some feeling in her bones. I swear this kid hears airplanes in the sky long before I do and they freak her out. She'll immediately stop whatever she's doing and throw herself at me. I don't even have to hold onto her because she's attached like Velcro. The sound of the traffic over Ebey Island was very similar to planes flying overhead, only it was more constant. Fun.

Ever pick beans with one hand while carrying around a 24lb whining kid with the other? Not so easy on the knees,or the back or arms. Not so easy. Plus it was HOT. And of course Lily only likes wearing a hat for about 10 seconds; then the novelty is gone. So I was worried about her Lily-white skin burning. Eventually she got a hold of the camera and seemed to be happy for a few minutes during which time I got to pick a few meals-worth of delicious beans. I'm not sure Dean and Jenny will ever want us to return. Whew! I'm exhausted just remembering it all.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What's Growing?

Miss Lily is taking a nap, so I thought I'd get a quick post in about what's growing right now, more for my own garden journal notes than anything else. Aren't the coreopsis beautiful! They're blooming along the west-facing fence in the backyard, behind a lilac shrub, and they don't get much sun. I planted them two years ago next to some dahlias and a gorgeous blue perennial salvia that is almost in bloom, and as tall as I am. Every year I say I'm going to move them all so they will get more sun, and I have yet to get to it.

The zucchini are done, I ripped them out because they had powdery mildew, bummer. But Early Girl and Sun Gold Tomatoes are ripening, and we've had a few small bunches of carrots, that Lily loves to pick.

The kale is still going strong, but the broccoli raab and snap peas are done. Every day we go to the garden to check for peas and now Lily brushes her hands together over the empty space and says, with her high-pitched questioning tone, "done?"

I'm not sure about the cauliflower starts I planted. Out of 6, three of them got devoured by some pest and the three that are left look really unhappy. The Brussel Sprouts I planted in the back beds are growing, but the leaves are being eaten by a tiny green worm. And the ones I planted in front are not doing much at all.

I planted Acorn squash and Delicata, (I think, I saved the seeds from last year's farmers' market purchase. Of course I only labeled the Acorn. Oops!) and they are both going crazy. More potatoes should be ready soon, and I planted arugula, more spinach and beans for the fall. Oh, and I pruned the strawberry bushes back in June, after the first batch of berries, and now they are also going crazy with runners and blossoms. Lily will be so happy to pick more berries.

And one lonely stargazer Lily, which I thought had been devoured by the slugs, bloomed. Sooo pretty!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lots of Tomato Help

Many of you replied to my tomato question, thank you, thank you! My dad thought it might be the heat and he also suggested using blood meal. His first thought, of course, was that Lily was eating them all before I could pick them.

My uncle Kevin guessed the abnormally high heat we've had and he also made the good point about not planting my tomatoes in the same spot every year. Very good advice for someone like me who is LAZY about rotating her crops!

Several of you suggested calling a county extension service through the department of agriculture or some sort of garden helpline. I took Annette's (from advice and emailed The Garden Hotline through Seattle Tilth Association. There web address is:, and their email is You can also call them at (206) 633-0224.

Falaah, the Environmental Educator at The Garden Hotline replied this morning.

"Hi Sara, I am sorry that you are having trouble with your tomatoes. You did identify some causes: excess nitrogen, extreme temps (over 100 or lower than 55 degrees,) inadequate pollination. It also could be drought stress, or shady conditions (doesn't sound like this is your problem.) I think it was the over 100 degree weather that caused your flowers to fall without setting fruit. Wait for new flowers to form. Protect plants with a row cover if our night temps dip below 55. Keep your tomatoes evenly moist (not soggy); do not let the soil dry out. I hope this helps."

Wow am I learning a ton! Thanks again, everyone, for all your help. Hopefully the great advice from Falaah will be helpful to those of you out there who shared in my tomato woes. Maybe all is not lost for tomatoes this year. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Help! Tomato Problem

My Early Girl tomato plant has been thriving all summer, until about two weeks ago when I noticed that the flower blossoms were dying and falling off. They're not producing fruit any more and I'm more than a bit pissed off. I've read a few things: 1. that it could be too much nitrogen fertilizer, 2. the extreme heat we had a couple of weeks ago, or 3. a lack of bees doing the pollinating. We have tons of bees and I quit using a nitrogen fertilizer back when they first began to flower. Does anyone really know what causes this, and, what, if anything I can do about it? The tomatoes that were there still seem to be growing and ripening.

I guess you could call me stubborn when it comes to growing my own tomato plants. My dad grew tomatoes all the time when we were growing up, and I've grown them successfully in Los Angeles and Georgia with little effort or worry. If I have a summer addiction it's the taste of home grown tomatoes. In fact I can't understand why in the world anyone would ever, ever, ever want to eat an unripe or pretend ripe tomato that was picked way too early and has NO ACTUAL FLAVOR. Unless you consider mush a flavor.

Here in Everett my tomato growing adventures have been less than successful. In 2006, our first summer in this house, I planted two Early Girl plants in the backyard raised beds. They grew like crazy with lush green leaves and tons of blossoms, but that was the year I learned about the path of sun over our house. By late August the raised beds back there get maybe three hours on sunlight and it's mid-day sunlight at that. And cold came earlier that year, like mid-September if I remember correctly. I think I got three tomatoes before a frost came.

I spent a few months in mourning, then, in January ordered tomato seeds from The Cooks Garden and spent February, March and April nuturing seedlings. Of course I had too many so I gave a few away and planted the rest in the front (south facing) yard. The Sun Gold, Cherokee Purple and Organic Garden Peach did the best. There were so many Sun Gold turning yellow and orange that I had nightly dreams of home made salsa, fresh salads with sliced tomatoes and cold blue cheese dressing to dip them in. Then during the last week of August I found out I was pregnant and my body decided it couldn't stand the taste of fresh, ripe tomatoes. Cruel.

Last year Lily was born at the end of April and I had no vegetable garden to speak of.

This year I decided to try to grow things that do well in this climate, you know the rainy, cool, breezy weather we typically have here in Everett. I purchased beet, carrot, spinach, kale, scallion and two kinds of pea seeds. I swore I wasn't going to grow tomatoes anymore, after all I can purchase them from the farmers' market. Well that oath didn't last long, especially when Central Market lures me in with beautiful tomato starts just outside the entrance.

Turns out our wacky hot weather we've been having this summer has been great for tomatoes, but could it have gotten too hot? My Sun Gold is thriving, but that Early Girl, I just don't know. Maybe I'm really not meant to grow tomatoes here. If anyone has an answer as to why the blossoms are withering and falling off without producing any more fruit, I'd love to hear it.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Compost Goodness

Years ago during summers my dad had a garden, I remember him adding food scraps to the compost heap in the backyard. In fact, he even meticulously cut up the scraps into smaller sizes so that they would break down quicker. At the time I rolled my eyes at his ridiculousness. Now I'm a compost nerd myself, adding, stirring, watching. And I love to see how many worms we have. Who would have thought? Here's a picture of my dad, "Papa" with Lily.

We do have a compost bin in the backyard which Greg made for me a few years ago out of some old pallets the previous owners left. It's a great size, plus I love that he made it using materials that were already there. However we're constantly adding scraps and debris to it, especially in the summer, so I never really give it enough time to turn into usable compost for the garden. Plus, this summer it became a potato patch and there was no way I was letting those go to waste.

I know they make some really handy composting machines that close and spin and turn the scraps to compost much quicker, but that would involve me spending lots of money which I'd rather spend on seeds and plants and, oh books, of course.

A few weeks ago we found some more discarded pallets and grabbed them so we could eventually make a second compost bin. That way one could be "cooking" and turning into that black gold while I add stuff to the other one. In the meantime I buy compost from Cedar Grove to top-dress my vegetables and flowers. Lily is fascinated with the bags of compost, so much so that she decided to taste some. Annette from said there is an old saying that says you need to eat a peck of dirt before you die to keep healthy. Well, Lily is definitley one healthy kid, then.

She also prefers to "help" put the compost on the plants by smothering it on the leaves. I'm not too sure how the zucchini feel about that, but Lily sure had fun with it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Neglectful Gardening

I was reminded today how much the garden really does grow without my tinkering and checking and watering and pruning. I think I hover too much when I'm here, because as soon as I leave town for a few days, I return and it's as if the plants had a party in my absence, growing like crazy, thriving without me around to pester them.

I left town on a Tuesday morning and returned Thursday. While I was gone, the garden phlox bloomed, tomatoes turned red in bunches, and the winter squash began its garden takeover.

Really it seems like they grew more in two days with me away, than in two days with me present. Hmmm... what does that say about my gardening? Should I be more neglectful? Is there a good way to be a neglectful gardener? Or writer? Or parent?

As for writing, it's kind of a fine balance for me. I can't go away for long periods of time, because not only does my writing really suffer, but I feel like a discombobulated mess when I return, and I become an incredibly cranky person. But, when I'm struggling with an essay, or with a difficult revision, or the end of a chapter, sometimes it helps me to walk away from it for a day or two and do something completely different, like work in the garden. Often when I do this, and let my mind wander about other things, something clicks way back there in my writer brain and I can return with a fresh take on my writing. It's literally refreshing.

Obviously I can't just leave Lily alone for a few days to fend for herself, but I do try to let her explore. I try not to hover and prune too much. Playing in the garden has been fabulous for that. I get to see her touch soft green leaves, pluck chive blossoms off, search for more strawberries and snap peas, clean rocks off in her mouth, learn words like "nee nee", and my favorite so far, plunk herself down on the grass in front of the blooming oregano and watch the "bums" (bumble bees) with patient curiosity.

Of course one could say I'll use any excuse I can to get out and play in the garden.