Sunday, July 26, 2009

Our Little 1972 Honda 600

We have a busy calendar - lots of things to do as our summer continues. Some of it revolves around a little toy in our garage - a 1972 Honda 600 2-door sedan. It's been in the family for years - originally a niece's high school car. After she blew up the engine, she dumped it at her grandfather's house. Aries' dad started fooling around with it - finding another engine to at least get it running again. He gave the car to Aries, and over time he's cleaned and fixed it up a bit more.

A few times a summer, a local car group puts together a Run-what-ya-brung Show-n-Shine and Street Dance in a local casino's downtown parking lot. Since Aries works on Saturday, he's never around for any weekend daytime car show events, but we do like to take the car downtown for the occasional Saturday evening dances.

The car is no showpiece, but since it's still running and pretty much still all original is it a bit of a curiosity. I don't remember them at all. I grew up in Colorado - maybe none of them could make it over the Rocky Mountains. But I guess they were really quite common back in their day on the West Coast.

We set out our lawn chairs, pop the hood and the trunk, sit back to people-watch, and visit with all and sundry. Lots of people stop to tell us stories from their high school days and "a car just like that." Kids just love it - a real car just their size. If there were a prize for "cutest car" we'd win it - that's what women say when they see it. I love seeing the smiles on faces when they see us driving it, out and about for in-town errands. It's a great little "town car." The trunk will hold five bags of groceries; it gets maybe 35 mpg (it is just a 600 cc motorcycle engine after all - you do have to rev it up quite a bit). And it's a great excuse for a little community social time.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Bicycle Valet

Muscle Powered, a local pedestrian and bicycle advocacy group I'm active in, is staffing a bicycle valet at our downtown Farmers Market every Saturday through mid-October. Last weekend was one of my days to work it.

That means getting there early, getting the sunshade, table, handouts, and chairs set up, and then just hanging out and keeping an eye on the bicycles (a few baby strollers too) for people while they shop.

We've encouraged other non-profit groups in the area to sign up to "help" staff our valet booth and information display (when telling another group I'm active in about helping, one elderly lady thought I said bicycle ballet - which made for a rather confusing discussion until we sorted that out). Last weekend, a friend active in Parks for Paws, a group advocating for establishing a permanent dog park in town, joined me. We enjoyed visiting with each other, and friends and neighbors there to shop, listening to the live music, and telling shoppers about our respective projects.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Chinese Pea Pods and Carrots

Friday evening, 6 p.m. We're both tired, and we're hungry. Aries brought home some fish fillets, so I put them over a bed of chopped shallots and mushroom stems, splash on a bit of dry sherry, salt & pepper, and get them into a 350ยบ oven to bake for 15 minutes. Toss the mushroom caps, with a bit of butter, into the skillet for a sauce for the fish. Now for a quick veg side dish.

Shading the pea roots with lettuce plants alongside (and the netting over the entire bed) has worked very well. My pea plants are still going strong into the middle of July. Peas and carrots sounds good. But this ain't yo' mama's little cubes of boiled-to-death veggies. Adapted for the microwave, this is a fast, healthy version of that old staple side dish (and makes for a great lunch, all by itself).

So I stir up the soy sauce glaze, and sprinkle some flour over the mushrooms in the skillet. The carrot slices cooking, I string the pea pods (picked this morning). Add some milk, salt & pepper, and a dash of paprika powder to the mushroom skillet; add peas to the carrots. The fish cooked, I dump the base of chopped shallots and 'shrooms and fish juices into the simmering skillet and give it a few more stirs. Toss the veggies with the glaze, and dish up the plates. A loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine (from Murphys California, just the other side of scenic Ebbetts Pass to the south) - gourmet dinner, on the table, in less than half an hour!

Chinese Pea Pods and Carrots (serves two)
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 carrot, thinly sliced on the bias
1 cup of flat Chinese pea pods (fresh or frozen)
2 tablespoons walnut pieces
1 teaspoon butter or margarine

Stir together water, soy sauce and cornstarch in a small microwave-safe bowl. Micro-cook in 3 30-second increments, stirring after each time. It should be thickened, clear, and bubbly. Set aside.

Place carrots with a splash of water in covered casserole dish and micro-cook 2 minutes. Drain. Add pea pods, walnuts, and butter or margarine, cover and micro-cook another minute or two, until veggies are crisp-tender. Toss with the soy sauce mixture.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Braided, Tied, and Hung to Dry

After a couple of days outside in the shade, it was time to get my garlic harvest into shape to store. Usually, when garlic is almost ready to harvest, the leaf tips turn tan and the green tops flop over, right at the soil line. When that happens on a few of the plants, I'll bend the rest of the crop down too and pull the soaker hose away to let the soil dry out for a few days before digging up the bulbs.

This year, my garlic didn't do that. The tops just dried out and all turned tan at once, still standing upright, and earlier than usual. They're really nice-sized bulbs - I got five pounds of garlic from a 2' x 4' patch. But having to pull dry plants out of still-damp soil means I don't know how well they'll store this winter. When garlic is harvested with the tops still somewhat green out of dry dirt, as it cures the wrapping layers stay intact, protecting the cloves inside all winter and into the spring. But the outer layers were already so dry that they flaked away as the dirt dried, leaving less wrapping around the bulbs. I'll have to keep an eye on the bulbs later this season, and if they start feeling shrunken inside the wrapping I'll have to do something - probably make garlic powder by peeling and dehydrating what's left.

But I prefer fresh garlic, and Mother Nature meant for it to last through the winter to grow anew in early Spring. So I'll try curing and storing it as usual for now. I didn't want to chance rubbing away any more layers, so my garlic braid isn't quite as pretty and shiny-white as usual. I just cleaned off the dirt a bit and trimmed the roots with shears. The bulbs too dry to braid are in a basket on the counter to be used first. I use braided garlic from the bottom up in order to keep the decorative aspect nice as long as possible, so I started braiding with smaller bulbs, those with cloves starting to separate, and those with the least wrapping layers. I add in bulbs to the right, left, and center as room is available, keep braiding a bit more at the top, and then bend the braid to the back. Then, using a short length of string, I tie tightly close to the top bulbs (the stems will shrink as they dry), criss-cross wrap a few times and tie again higher up, and then knot a hanging loop. I'll leave the braid out in the open kitchen to cure for a couple of weeks, then move it into the cooler, darker pantry to store. Then, I'll just have to keep an eye on it, watching for withering. The two biggest, nicest bulbs, those with the long stems not part of the braid, I'm saving to break apart to plant come October.

Friday, July 3, 2009

To-Do List; Plus Urban Chickens

I dug my garlic last night. It's a bit earlier than usual, and it never did fall over like it usually does when it's getting ready to harvest. It just dried up, still standing in place. But the bulbs are nice, big ones and are now out on a rack in the shade drying out a bit. The cloves on some of the driest ones started to separate, and some even have little bulblets growing inside the stem just above the main bulb (never seen that before). Those won't store well, and can't be braided so they'll get used first. But I think after a day or two, the rest can still be cleaned and braided to finish curing. I do so like the look of a garlic braid in my pantry.

The whole month of June was cooler and wetter than normal here. Most of the salad greens are still doing great (the arugula, spinach, and a red leaf lettuce have bolted, starting to flower). I'm harvesting whole lettuce plants every other day - for me, for friends and neighbors, and some for the chickens too. The snap and snow peas are starting to produce, and the English peas should be ready soon, if they can withstand the July heat. The corn, beans, and squashes are up and just starting to grow; the fruiting bed is slow getting going.

I'll be spending the holiday weekend pretty close to home - I've got lots to do to keep me busy. Here's my yard & garden to-do list:

Get the netting over the Reliance grape - soon! if I want grapes, and raisins, this year.

Pick, pit, and process more pie cherries - I've got a bowlful dehydrating on screens in the sun, but the ones on the inside branches are almost ripe.

Pick raspberries - these are new plants I got from a friend last summer, so they haven't set much of a crop, but there are a few red ones down low on the branches that grew last year.

Cut and dry oregano and marjoram. I made that the subject of today's post, just written and posted, over on the SGF Co-op blog - which is why I'm still inside on the computer.

Pack more straw around potato plants, and fill in bare spots in the row with the last of the ones from last year sprouting in the cellar.

Thin fruit, head back overlong branches, and remove suckers on the fruit trees. I did the Freedom apple a couple of days ago - it hadn't been pruned for a couple of years. The Gravenstein should be thinned, and then the Liberty and Macintosh. The Asian pears and plums need it too. There are dead branches (borer damage) on the nectarine and peach trees that need to be removed - those trees aren't looking too good (they're about 20 years old), so it's time to start thinking about replacements.

Get the extra tomato and pepper plants off the deck table. I need to either call the neighbors that said they wanted them, plant them outside my fence as u-pick freebies, or put them out of their misery.

Weeding, weeding, and more weeding - I got around the brassicas and the early bed looks good. I just wear my Ipod set on Shuffle, sit cross-legged on a foam weeding pad, scoot it along the row, and hand-weed around each plant. It's easiest after the soaker hose has run the night before, and I have to admit, I do enjoy the satisfying crunch/pop when you pull a weed out by the roots.

But I can hardly see the beets and carrots (they need thinning too, as does the strawberry patch). The fruiting bed really needs it next, especially inside the Wall-o-Waters (the nice little micro-climate inside is also very conducive to weed growth). It will be easier if I get the WoW's off first and then just do it all at once. The corn could use a quick going-over with the hula hoe before I hill-up the plants, and I should run it around the squashes before they really take off. I can't believe some people actually grow purslane intentionally! Sure, it's tasty, but here it grows like the weed it is!

Oh! and one other little interesting item: urban chickens are now legal in Carson City! My birds have always been legal, since our lot is larger than an acre. I've been interviewed a couple of times regarding urban chickens though, and always helped push for changing the ordinance. Our City Supervisors did just that yesterday - allowing up to four hens or ducks (no roosters), or two pot-bellied pigs up to 150 pounds each (the mayor has one - he abstained from the vote) anywhere in the city. It's now safe for some chickens I know of to come out of hiding!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Short Season Tomatoes and Peppers

Summer's finally here, and daytime temps are reaching up towards the 90's. But high desert nights cool off down in the 40's in June, and the 50's all summer long. Add to that a frost-free season averaging only a little over 100 days, and crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and okra can be a bit difficult to grow here.

Forget vine-ripened Brandywine tomatoes - they'll still be green when the nights turn frosty in mid-September. I grow Early Girl for salads and sandwiches, and Sweet 100 for snacking, usually grazing on them right there in the garden. Both are hybrids, so no saving seeds, but I like the taste of each of them so buy a packet of seeds every few years. I also plant at least six paste tomato plants - my main crop for canning in many different guises. I started with an Amish Paste tomato, and about 20 years ago started saving seeds from the biggest, earliest fruit each summer. I consider it my own personal heirloom now - I call it CC (for Carson City) Paste. Many of my pepper plants are also grown from saved seeds - I just smash open one of the peppers hung to dry in various ristras. I haven't yet been able to save viable seeds from my eggplants or okra, so I buy seeds for them. Black Beauty eggplant and Clemson Spineless okra do well here.

I start all my fruiting plants from seed in late March to early April. The tomatoes get transplanted once, into deeper pots burying part of the stem, in early May. The plants are still quite small by the end of May, but I think that lessens the transplant shock and once into the garden they'll settle in quicker. I start hardening them off just before Memorial Day - setting them outside for longer periods each day, bringing them back in at night.

I rotate the type of plants - early, fruiting, vining, roots & brassicas, corn & beans - around through my five garden beds so that the type of bed will be the same every sixth year. Tomatoes, in the fruiting bed, and potatoes, in the roots bed, are in the same family however, so I try to put the tomatoes in a different part of the bed than where the potatoes were only a couple of years ago. In early June, it's time to get everything into the ground. Each of my 50' planting beds get an inch of compost and a light dusting of my all-purpose fertilizer mix (equal parts bone meal, blood meal, and greensand) every Spring, so I level the surface and lay out a soaker hose.

Into each planting hole, I also add some crushed eggshells (for calcium), some Epsom Salts (for magnesium), and a bit extra of the fertilizer mix. Then I get the hose, fill each hole with water, and start setting in each plant. Most of the plants are set in as deep as they were in their starting pots, but tomatoes will form roots on any part of their stem if it's buried. So I pinch off some of the lower leaves and set them in even deeper, leaving only the top couple of leaves above ground. More and deeper roots on the tomatoes help alleviate problems that our temperature swings and dry climate can cause.

Next come the cages. The little cone-shaped tomato cages really aren't big enough to support my tomatoes, but they work great for the peppers and eggplants. For the tomatoes, I've made cages out of welded hog wire fencing. For extra support (we do get some pretty good winds out of the west), each of the tomatoes gets a metal stake (2.5' for the determinate paste tomatoes, 6' for the indeterminate Early Girl and Sweet 100) pounded into the ground, and then a cage, the same diameter as a plastic five-gallon bucket, goes over the post and is secured with a twist-tie. And then, the secret for getting a decent harvest from these long-season plants: a Wall-o-Water (WoW) is placed over each cage.

The Wall-o-Waters are stored through the winter in a five-gallon bucket in the shed. Once they're in place over each caged plant, I sit on the up-ended bucket and start filling each little tube. It's tedious business, but a pistol-grip nozzle on the hose makes it easier. It's tricky to get the WoW's to stand up when you first start filling one. If you have new ones without leaks and no cages, put a five-gallon bucket upside down over the plant, the WoW around the bucket, fill tubes on alternating sides until all are full, and then pull the bucket out. Okra doesn't need the support of a cage when growing, so if I don't have enough cages I'll make sure the WoW's over the okra are ones without leaks (I clip on old clothespins to mark which ones have leaks - one pin means only a leak or two, two pins means they'll work best over the big tomato cages). I have a piece of smooth wire fencing in a perfectly-sized circle I can use to support the WoW when filling. It's even easier than using a bucket, but make sure all the wire ends are bent to inside the circle. Once filled, the WoW is self-supporting. But I've found having cages inside each one make things easier, keeps the ones that have leaks from falling over, and provides extra support in our winds.

The WoW's, even the ones with leaks, provide wind protection and a warm little micro-climate inside to get my little plants off to a good start. Around the Fourth of July, our nights are warmed up enough to get the WoW's off the plants. It takes two of us to lift them up and over, off the cages. The water inside is dumped onto the plants, and the WoW's hung up on the clothesline to drip-dry, then stacked up, rolled up, and stored away in their bucket.