Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Digging in the Dirt: Part 1

Note from Sara:  You may remember that I've been lucky enough to have John (aka "El Gaucho") guest post for me in the past.  He and his girl, Alycia, have been friends of mine for years and years, and they're also the most prolific gardeners I know.  Because it seems that Mellisa and I are new to the world of growing our own food, I thought I'd ask John to hop over and offer up some tips.  I'll be pestering him for more as the season continues on, and hopefully we'll bully him into sharing more of his wisdom come next spring when it's time to plant again.  Enjoy!

Tips For Beginning Gardeners, Part 1:

Sara recently sent me an e-mail asking if I could offer up some trusty gardening tips to the wonderful readers of From Blah to Ta-Daa. When I pressed her for details about what kind of gardening tips to discuss, she said, “Make it for people like me. I seem to have some imaginary boundaries that venture only a few feet from my stove and refrigerator.” So bearing in mind that many people have time constraints, space limitations, fear of failure, imaginary boundaries, a dark and sinister past with failed gardening attempts, or just uncertainty of where to start in the huge realm of gardening, here are a few trusty tips to help you be successful in your garden.

If you’re already reading this blog, you’re obviously interested in cooking, preparing food, and making delicious dishes for your family. I’m here to tell you that even if you have any or all of the constraints I mentioned above, or have a “brown thumb” when it comes to gardening, that you should not let these things stop you from trying your hand at raising your own fruits and vegetables.

Here are a few things I’ve learned over many years playing in the dirt and succeeding and failing at growing stuff in the garden.

Just Like Real Estate – Location, Location, Location.
Make sure the spot you choose for your garden gets a full day (at least 6, preferably 8 or more) hours of sunshine, ideally oriented towards the south or west. Make sure that you’re near a water spigot, close to where your tools are kept, close to your backdoor/kitchen door, and not in a place where your dogs go to tinkle (Yes I made this mistake, remember this theme – every gardener makes mistakes).

The raised bed above faces south and is along my garage, so it gets additional heat and light reflected from the garage siding. I’ve learned that my heat loving plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) do really well here, but it took a few seasons of trial and error to find that out.

If you don’t have your own yard or live in a condo, townhouse, or apartment, a sunny South or West facing patio/balcony can easily support a pot of tomatoes, some fresh herbs, or even a small lemon tree. Don’t let the physical constraints of your situation keep you from trying to grow your own fruits and veggies.

Don’t Break the Bank.
You can literally start gardening with zero dollars and no tools other than your two hands. Yes, digging in the dirt with just your hands is much harder than using a shovel or a trowel, but it can be done. The point is that it’s easy to get caught up in buying fancy new tools, pretty colored pots, specialized gardening accoutrements, or tons of vegetable seeds through a seed catalog. The point is to economically grow a few veggies that you love, enjoy the fruits of your successes, and then build from there.

A recurring theme in learning to garden is the beginner who gets all excited about raising their own food, spends a few or even several hundred dollars on shiny tools, fancy pots, and exotic plants, and then somehow gets derailed. Expertise and proficiency in gardening can’t be purchased with money. Start out slow with a few necessities (or borrow them if you can) and build up your inventory of tools, seeds, garden toys, etc over a number of years. My collection of tools are a series of hand-me-downs, stuff from Freecycle or the “Free” section on Craigslist, things left in the garage by previous home owners, Christmas/Birthday presents, and a few things I’ve actually purchased.

Keep a Journal.
This isn’t a mushy “thoughts and feelings” kind of journal, though if you want to add your thoughts and feelings, by all means go ahead. Mine sometimes have expressions of my emotional pain like “I’m full of despair. I wish I could find the bunny that ate my cucumber and watermelon seedlings that I just planted yesterday. I’d like to lure that bunny into a trap with some Skittles and then punch him in his little bunny head." But that’s just me. I just use a basic Mead Composition book, but any notebook, pad of paper, or even Excel spreadsheet will work.

You want to write the logistics of everything in your journal. What you planted, where you planted it, and when you planted it. During the year, make a few notes (rainfall, temperatures, weird weather, bugs, plant diseases, etc), and then a recap at the end of the season. This will help you understand the things that didn’t work (remember - everybody fails at growing something, even experienced gardeners) and identify and repeat next year the things that did work.

Make a sketch or a list or a spreadsheet to help you document what you did in the garden. My beginning of the year sketches look like this:

For me, the journal method helps us as we’re harvesting our veggies and realize that if one particular tomato is delicious, I can identify which nursery we bought that seedling from and make sure to get one (or two or three) next year. Last year we realized that one variety of cherry tomato, a yellow pear shaped tomato, just wasn’t that good. It looked pretty in salads, but just wasn’t that tasty. But we also realized that another variety of cherry tomato we planted, a wild Mexican hybrid, was absolutely delicious (seriously sweet and delicious, it was like candy), and we made sure to plant several this year.

Good luck in your gardening endeavors. And it’s only July, so it’s not too late to start a zucchini, cucumber, tomato, or pepper plant this year…
- John

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Mom's Potato Salad

I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't remember the last time I had my mom's potato salad.  It's my most favorite potato salad recipe on the planet, and it's a quintessential summertime favorite for our family.  So when the 4th of July came and went, I decided that my mom's comfort food recipe was a must.

There are a zillion ways to mix and match a potato salad recipe (the latest issue of Food Network magazine has a pullout for 50 different ways to make potato salad - 50!), but this is one is my favorite!


Mom's Potato Salad
6 medium potatoes, boiled and peeled
4 eggs, hard boiled and chopped
2 medium stalks celery, chopped
1/2 medium onion, chopped (or 4 green onions, chopped)
1/2 c. chopped dill pickles
2 Tbsp. pickle juice
1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
1 tsp. dried dill
1 tsp. celery salt
pepper to taste
1 - 1 1/2 c. light mayo

Mix all ingredients, adding mayo until desired consistency.  For best results, chill for at least 4 hours to allow flavors to meld.

Ingredient Lineup:

You can peel the potatoes before or after boiling.  I peeled mine after boiling.
(And then because I had zero patience that day, I just half-peeled
the potatoes and left the skins on.  And told myself it was for color.)

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Fun: Popsicles

I feel like, at some point, I should stop complaining about the heat.  Really, I should.  But yesterday, our heat index hit 111 degrees, so I'm feeling somewhat justified.  Mostly, I just don't want to cook.  (Chips and salsa for dinner, anyone??)  So, with this heat, my thoughts often turn to things that do sound yummy - Popsicles.  Make 'em at home or buy 'em from the store, they sound so delicious right about now. 

What are you foodies craving in the smack-middle of July?

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Look familiar?  I posted these three recipes exactly one year ago!

Whoops!  How did Rory get in here? :)

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Homegrown and Homemade Hot Sauce

I have to be honest with you - The only contribution I made to this recipe was the typing and the eating.  Bo grew the peppers, tended to them, researched a recipe, and whipped it up.  All I did was stand around and look cute.  (Ok, maybe not all that cute with my frizzy hair and all this humidity, but you get the picture.)

We're novice gardeners, and these Apache pepper plants have been our most exciting crop yet.  The peppers are hotter than jalapenos, but when I've chopped them up for salsa, I overestimated their heat, and we ended up with a very mild salsa.  So, whatever peppers you end up using for this hot sauce recipe will be fine; use hotter peppers if you like some heat, milder peppers if you like mild spices.

We love this hot sauce dumped on chicken and mixed with this black bean salsa and eaten straight on tortilla chips.  It's got a mildly sweet flavor from the peaches and the brown sugar which adds a great balance to the spice.


Apache Hot Sauce
adapted from Allrecipes

6 Apache peppers (or habanero peppers), seeded and chopped
7oz. (half a can) of sliced peaches in heavy syrup
2 Tbsp. molasses
2 Tbsp. mustard
2 Tbsp. honey
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. white vinegar
1/2 tsp. liquid smoke
2 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. paprika
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. allspice

Place all ingredients into the container of a food processor or blender and blend until liquefied. Pour into a medium sauce pan and bring to boil over medium heat, stirring often.  Boil 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently.  Allow to cool and pour into clean jars, and refrigerate overnight before using.  Makes 28oz.

One of our Apache pepper plants:


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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Gardening + I Aren't Getting Along

This is my 2nd year of trying to garden and let's just say it's not going as planned. Who knew it would be this hard to squeeze a few veggies out of these plants?

I had dreams of growing enough veggies to keep my family of 6 eating their 5 a day all summer long but have yet to harvest anything more than 2 puny roma tomatoes and 1 sad looking banana pepper.

Thankfully while visiting with my family, my Aunt Kirsten took me on a walk through her garden...and my hope has been renewed.

I was amazed at all the vegetables that were in a word, bountiful.

I am feeling very resolute now as I look at my poor pitiful garden and can recognize the hard work that must be put in to grow things. It takes daily weeding, watering and lots of good old fashioned family time.

Her whole family helps with the work, and they have been blessed with enough for themselves plus plenty to giveaway and even a bit to sale. 

Even though I live in rural Oklahoma, this was the first time that I have seen corn actually growing on the stalk. While she was laughing at my antics trying to snap a ton of pictures, I was busy trying to capture the feeling of being able to walk outside to gather dinner. Could you imagine?

Instead of loading up 4 kids in the hot car,
driving to the store,
walking the aisles (buying a ton of stuff that I don't need)
and then having to lug it all the way home
and finally putting it away?

Most of the time after a grocery store trip, I'm just to exhausted to cook.

But if I could just walk outside and pick and wash...we'd be eating fresh from the garden every night!

Along with all the glorious veggies, she also has a massive patch of watermelon and cantaloupe sprouting. I told her when they are ready I would love to bring the kids down so they could see it growing right on the vine. I am convinced that my kids think food is grown right in the grocery store aisles.

Tomorrow I will be back to show you all the wonderful veggies that my Aunt shared with me. If there is anything that says summer more than a freshly picked dinner, I don't know what it is.

Do you garden or have any tips for a gal who would love to grow her own?


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Friday, July 1, 2011

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