Category Archives: gardening

Where I Am Now

I posted a couple of weeks ago about our move to an apartment, and about selling my Xtracycle.

I’m still mourning a bit, especially when I think of an errand I could run by bike, or of things I’d like to grow.  But here’s where we are now: the balcony of our apartment, and me with my current bike, a Schwinn Avenue hybrid.

Kathleen new

And those would be planters on the left. Our youngest and I planted some seeds from her day camp, but only the fava bean plant has survived so far. I’ve got some more seeds, though, and we’re going to do some replanting. But that’s it for our garden, so far.

You can also see our pool toys on the right. Our complex has a pool, and that’s definitely an asset.

We’re still doing Girl Scouts, as you can see by my shirt. We went horseback riding yesterday, then today I dropped our eldest off at resident camp, and at the end of the month we’ll be going on a medieval-themed campout together.

I’ll still be riding that bike to work, once school starts. Actually, I had started riding it back in June, when I took the Xtracycle in for a tuneup. It’s lighter and faster, but I can’t carry much yet; I need to get a rack and/or panniers. And fenders, before it starts raining!

We have most of the boxes unpacked, but we’re still getting organized. So, life moves on.

Tomato Jungle!

I posted this picture of my tomato plants back on June 25th. The rows were nice and neat, and you could barely see the tomato plants inside their cages.

 

Now they’re a tomato jungle! I can’t get through the center path, and the vines are commingling.

 

There are plenty of both blossoms and fruit, and one lonely tomato is nearly ripe. It will be eaten with much celebration sometime within the next couple of days.

 

The Super Marzanos look exactly like they’re supposed to, long and skinny. This variety (a hybrid version of the traditional San Marzano) is excellent for pizza and pasta sauces. I’m looking forward to stewing them down and running them through the food mill!

 

There’s a Sun Sugar cherry tomato plant in there. I’ve been expecting those to ripen earlier, but they’re not ready yet. They’ll go fast in salads.

There are also Stupice (I think that’s the one ripening first), Costoluto Genovese, Belle Star and Long Keeper. I’ve lost track of which plants are which in some cases. The tags disappeared. No matter! They’ll all get used.

This year’s crop should be much better than last year’s. Hopefully I can get most of the canning done before I go back to work in September, too.

Oh, and I’m growing this little girl, too. She insisted that I take her picture. Cute, huh?

Abundance!

I’m starting to realize that growing a garden and subscribing to a CSA might be redundant. Fortunately, so far most of our crops are not overlapping! We are probably going to have an overabundance of peas soon, but we’ll see. We like stir-fry and raw peas (I’ve been snacking all day), so that might be OK.

Speaking of peas, I can definitely recommend the two varieties we planted this year: Oregon Sugar Pod II and Cascadia, both from Territorial Seed. Both are great for instant eating; sweet and juicy, not tough and stringy. These are far superior to the peas I’ve grown from seeds from the grocery store!

I also picked a few strawberries today; strawberries are late in the Pacific Northwest this year because we had a long, cool spring.

Potatoes, tomatoes, squash, broccoli and cabbages are continuing to thrive. I’ve also got some bean seedlings the kids planted that need to be transplanted ASAP.

Meanwhile, the CSA is keeping us supplied with a variety of lettuce and cooking greens, as well as radishes, turnips and more peas. In fact, we’re getting more greens than we can really eat in a week! I finally said to myself “So, what are you supposed to do when you have an overabundance of a certain crop? Preserve, of course, duh!”

You can can greens in a pressure canner, if you have one, but I don’t, and I’m not sure I’d want to anyway. I went with blanch and freeze, following directions from PickYourOwn.org. I do recommend using a salad spinner to drain and dry the greens after blanching. I also used re-usable plastic containers rather than plastic bags. Finally, if you do this, be aware that the greens will really shrink down after blanching and spinning! A whole bunch of greens (maybe half a pound?) yields about one cup for freezing.

So, come winter, we’ll still have some of our spring abundance available.

Easy Preserving: Tomato Sauce

The tomatoes. Sigh. Due to unseasonably cool weather, our garden didn’t produce enough tomatoes for canning, although we have had plenty to eat.

So last weekend, I bought 40 pounds of tomatoes from a local farm store. And then I promptly became ill, so I didn’t get them all canned right away. Instead, I whittled away at them by making small batches of tomato sauce, as well as a batch of tomato jam (which is a story for another time).

Tomato sauce is just as easy as applesauce. It just takes more time to cook down. Thus, to use my time (and our electricity) wisely, I’ve been cooking the tomatoes in the crock pot.

We have only a three-quart crock pot, which holds about five pounds of tomatoes. This produces one quart of sauce. So this is not the method to use if you want to make a large amount of sauce. But if you just want to make sauce in small batches when you have a chance, this works. You can divide your quart into smaller jars if you wish. A half-pint jar is equivalent to the smallest cans of grocery-store tomato sauce, and a pint jar is almost the same as a medium-size can.

Also, hat tip to Betsy Richter, who tipped me off on the crock pot technique. Betsy has a wonderful recipe for roasted tomato sauce, which I’m not using because it includes onions and peppers, and the USDA recommends using a pressure canner if you’re adding anything besides tomatoes. I definitely want to try it sometime, though!

Crock Pot Tomato Sauce

Equipment

  • Knife
  • 3 quart crock pot
  • 3 quart saucepan
  • Food mill
  • Rubber spatula
  • Ladle
  • Canning funnel
  • Magnetic lid lifter
  • Jar lifter tongs
  • Water bath canner w/ rack
  • Jars: 1 quart jar OR two pint jars OR four half-pint jars
  • A metal ring and lid for each jar.

Ingredients

  • 5-6 pounds Roma tomatoes
  • Salt (optional)
  • Bottled lemon juice

Wash the tomatoes. Scoop out the stem end of each (I use a tomato shark). Cut off any bruised or bad-looking spots (they can make your sauce spoil). Cut the tomatoes in half the long way. Squeeze/scoop out excess seeds and juice (I don’t work too hard at this. There will still be seeds in there for now). Leave the tomato skins on.

Put all of the tomatoes into the crock pot, and cook them on low for 10-12 hours. You can leave them to cook overnight, during work, whatever. If it goes past 12 hours, that’s fine too.

Place your food mill over the 3-quart saucepan. Run all of the tomatoes and juice through the food mill and into the pot, until all that remains is a seeds-and-skin sludge.  Scrape that into your compost bin.

You’ve probably got something that looks more like tomato juice in your saucepan. Bring it to a full boil, and let it boil down to the consistency you want. I keep it on medium-high for a while, and turn it down to medium if I’m walking away. Stir it once in a while. The total time will vary, depending on your tomatoes, your stove, and your taste (I’d say 20-40 minutes).  You may add up to 1 teaspoon of salt if you wish. Keep the sauce hot until you are ready to fill the jars.

While the sauce is cooking down, fill your water bath canner (or just a large pot) with enough water to reach one inch above the tops of your jars and bring it to a boil.  Make sure you have some kind of rack in the bottom — the jars should never sit on the bottom of the pan. Put the empty jars in it, letting them fill with water, and boil them for ten minutes. Put the lids and rings in a smaller saucepan and boil them for ten minutes, too (then keep them in the pan on low until you need them). You can also sterilize jars by running them through the dishwasher, but for one or two jars? It’s probably not worth it, unless you’re running the dishwasher anyway.

Remove the jars from the pot, dumping the water back into the pot. Add lemon juice to each jar: 1 tablespoon per pint or two tablespoons per quart. This increases the acidity of the tomato sauce so that it can be canned safely in a water bath canner. Fill the jars with tomato sauce, leaving 1/2-inch headspace between the sauce and the top of the jar. Stir with a butter knife or narrow spatula to distribute the lemon juice and eliminate air bubbles. Wipe the rim of each jar to remove any stray sauce. Place a lid on each jar and screw the rings on finger-tight (not too tight).

Use the jar tongs to place the jars back into the boiling water. Return to a full boil if necessary, and begin timing when the water is at a full boil, 30 minutes for half-pints, 35 minutes for pints, 40 minutes for quarts. If your altitude is greater than 1000 feet, you’ll need additional time — check the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning.

Remove the jars from the canner promptly, and let them cool without touching each other. You should hear the ping of the lids sealing fairly quickly — tomato products seem to ping faster than applesauce does. If the lid still pops up and down in the center after the jar has cooled, then that jar is NOT sealed properly. You should put it in the refrigerator and use it as soon as possible.

If anything here isn’t clear, or you have other canning questions, the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning is a great resource, as is PickYourOwn.org.

The canning process can seem cumbersome, and it probably will be at first, but you’ll catch on after the first batch. You’ll learn how to time things so that you have the canner boiling at the same time the sauce is ready. And you can let other people help — my daughters, ages 10 and 8,  have now learned to do all of the raw tomato prep, so I can concentrate on other things.

You may notice that canning your own tomato sauce doesn’t necessarily save you money. You can often get four 8-ounce cans of tomato sauce for a dollar at the grocery store. This recipe makes the same amount of tomato sauce, but you’ll pay at least $2-4 just for the tomatoes. If you grow your own (and have a good crop), you might do better.  And if you can get a good price on organic tomatoes (or grow your own), you can probably beat grocery store prices for organic tomato sauce. I bought local/non-organic tomatoes for $.85/pound, but could also have bought organic heirloom tomatoes through a buying club for $1.05/pound.

Canning my own sauce does, however, help me avoid the BPA-lined cans from the supermarket. And yes, it is satisfying to produce it myself.

Fall, the Garden, the Canning

Fall is officially here. It was off to a chilly start in Oregon, but now we’re getting temperatures in the 70s and 80s again. We’re still harvesting tomatoes from the garden — plenty to eat and cook with, but still not enough to preserve. We’ve got a fall crop of lettuce in, but the peas I planted at the end of July just never took off. Today I harvested about two pounds of green bush beans. The pole beans hadn’t managed to produce anything, but now the warm weather is making them blossom. I doubt they’ll have time to develop beans, but I’m letting them keep going for now.

I bought 40 pounds of tomatoes from a local farm store last weekend, and promptly came down with a bad cold, so most of them are still sitting in the kitchen. I did make a couple of pints of sauce, though, using the crock pot to cook the tomatoes overnight. I’m also planning to make tomato jam and canned diced tomatoes, if the tomatoes haven’t gone soft on me.

I just wish I could have done all of this over the summer! Instead, most of the harvest around here comes right when school starts for the kids and work starts for me.

Photo by visualdensity on Flickr, used via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Kettleman City and Choosing Organics

I’ve been to Kettleman City, California. Sort of. I’ve been to the part at the junction of I-5 and Highway 41, which is where we would turn off to go and visit my grandparents in Lompoc. It’s a cluster of fast food restaurants, gas stations, and motels.

Shamefully, I’ve never thought about any people who might be living nearby, or about whether there was anything more to Kettleman City.

Kettleman City proper is about two miles north of the freeway exit. About 1500 people live within the Kettleman City area (it doesn’t have city limits; it’s just a census-designated place). According to the 2000 census, over 90 percent of the residents are Hispanic/Latino, and speak Spanish at home.  Median household income in 2000 was $22,409.

Some residents work in the businesses at the freeway stop. More than half are farm workers. There’s also a Waste Management faciility nearby, and it’s not just a garbage dump — it’s a hazardous waste facility.

Why am I finding out about this now? I read an article today from Mother Jones Journal: What’s Killing the Babies of Kettleman City?

Yep. “Of 25 births over a 14-month period, five babies were born with cleft palates and other serious birth defects. Three of the five babies died.”  20 percent of the babies born in that time period were born with serious birth defects.

There are between 30 and 64 births each year in Kettleman City. In 15 of the 22 years since California’s public health department began tracking birth defects, all babies in the town were healthy, and in five other years, only one birth defect occurred. But in the last two years and 10 months, residents say, at least 11 babies have been born with serious birth defects.

There are a number of possible contributing causes: chemically-contaminated well water, diesel fumes and automobile exhaust from the freeway, chemicals from the hazardous waste dump, poverty, poor nutrition, and lack of health care.

One additional source of contamination caught my eye: pesticides used on farm fields.

More than half of Kettleman City’s labor force consists of farmworkers who are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides, and residents can smell the chemicals sprayed on the fields that border the town on three sides.

This reminded me of an often-forgotten reason for buying organic. It’s not just to protect ourselves and our children from those chemicals, it’s to protect the farm workers as well.  When I’m at the grocery store, wondering whether I really need to pay twice as much for local and/or organic tomatoes, I often don’t consider the human cost of the cheaper produce.  Am I getting tomatoes at 99 cents per pound or 59 cents per can because somebody’s husband, wife, brother, or sister picked them from a pesticide-contaminated field?

Once again, this makes a good case for knowing where your food comes from. Ask the farmer at the farmer’s market about pesticide use on his or her farm. Or buy the organic, so that you know the grower has followed certain standards.

I’ve got these tomato plants outside still, so obviously we know where our tomatoes are coming from right now. Cooking with and eating the fresh tomatoes has been great, but it doesn’t look like we’ll have enough for canning. If we rely on canned tomatoes from the store, I’ll have to either buy organic (expensive) or use cheap ones that may have come from contaminated fields. And then there’s the whole BPA issue with canned tomatoes. The commercial cans are lined with bisphenol-A, which is even more likely to leach into tomatoes because of their acidity.

So what I’d like to do is buy tomatoes to can, or get some pick-your-own tomatoes. Labor-intensive, but I think it will be worth it.

Garden Update: Tomatoes!

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We’re now getting a handful of cherry tomatoes every day. But the really exciting news is that the canning tomatoes are starting to ripen! They’re just beginning to turn yellow.

These are Heinz 2653, specially bred for canning. I have frozen tomatoes before, but have never canned them, so I’m looking forward to it.

Post created on my Motorola Cliq.