Happy Spring – Building a Garden

 

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Cherohala Parkway – A frost in March that lingered

Living here in the Smoky Mountains during the winter made for some easy living. If it snowed, the sun shone the next day. If the temperatures dipped one day, we were in shorts the next. It’s been a lovely winter in our new home.

 

But now spring gradually spreads itself over us, and Robert has turned all of his attention to building a garden in the front yard of our mountain home. The first day we saw this cabin in May 2015, he jumped out of the realtors vehicle with his phone in hand with the compass app ready to go. He declared the side of the driveway (of course, on a hillside) to be perfect for a garden site as it faced south and receives the best of the summer sun.

DSC03586Onion seedlings ready to go in the ground. As usual,  he began his seeds several months ago, and now the onion plants are yearning to go into the ground. So are the other plants. Over the past two weeks, along with the help of some great folks, he’s been working every day to build beds and create a soil able to sustain vegetables during the growing season. It’s not cheap to build a garden from scratch in soil that is mostly clay, but it’s a one-time expense that will pay for itself within a few years of healthy harvesting of vegetables.The chosen spot for the garden before the heavy equipment arrived contained tree stumps we attempted to burn out to no avail. Let the excavation begin!

 

 

 

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Next post – the building of the beds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FREE March 9-13 – FROM SEED TO TABLE

S2T-5

Good morning – Just wanted to let you know that my book, From Seed to Table, is available for free download on Kindle today through Sunday, March 13.

This book is a compilation of my blog posts about gardening, harvesting, and preserving vegetables. It’s full of recipes and organized by the season. If you don’t have your copy, now’s the time to get it.

I haven’t been posting about gardening much in the past few years because we’ve been in transition and moving. But this month, my husband–the real gardener in our family–is building raised beds on the side of our North Carolina hill, foothill, mountain, and I’ll be posting his progress as he begins our new garden journey.

Here’s an excerpt From Seed to Table:

SPRING

Most years by the end of March, the seedlings are growing; onions and garlic are in the ground; spinach, lettuce, and cole plants await placement once the soil is workable. During the second week of March, Robert begins covering the areas of the garden with plastic sheets where he’ll plant first to protect the soil from the late winter/early spring snow and rain. The soil needs to be dry when he begins turning it over and readying it for planting.

Since there’s still a chance for frost or a freeze, we watch the weather each evening and keep the Reemay® near to cover the onions, if necessary. It’s a time of growth, but it’s a tender and tenuous time as well.

From Living Lightly blog – April 2, 2013

The spring of 2013 is late in coming to western Pennsylvania and other parts of the Midwest and Northeast. Spring sprung on the calendar more than ten days ago, yet the cold temperatures stymied our gardening plans. Seeds sprouted a month ago are now seedlings growing under lights in our family room.

I can tell they are yearning, as we are, for the warmer days and nights of spring, for the sunshine to heat the earth, and for soil large enough to spread their roots.

The onions should be in the ground by now or at the very least, they should be outside getting sunlight for a portion of the day. My husband has been putting them out for brief periods, but the temperatures are still too cold for any type of sustained sun bathing.

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The soil for spinach needs preparation. They’ll be ready to go into the ground as soon as the weather cooperates. If spinach is started indoors about a month before transplanting into the garden, the harvest will triple or quadruple, and huge succulent leaves will grow before the plants go to flower in June. Any plants grown indoors need to be slowly exposed to direct sunlight for a few days with minimal mid-day sun during the early spring.

The peas have been most affected by the cold weather of spring 2013. My husband worried for weeks that he wouldn’t be able to get the sprouts in the ground in a timely manner. He sprouts seeds on an old cookie sheet and covers them with several layers of damp paper towel. He has one tray all ready to plant, which he intended to do this past weekend. Then we heard the weather report for the first week of April: nighttime temperatures hitting the low to mid-20s. He said he’d put them in the ground even with predictions of high twenty temperatures, but 25 degrees is too low. He sprouted another set this past week because he’s fairly certain the ones already sprouted won’t last until he can put them in the

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peas ready to plant on March 30, 2013

ground. He put the tray in the basement, hoping to slow down the process.

We’re learning to be flexible with the unpredictable weather patterns of recent years. It’s not always easy, especially when we’re as eager for the warmer temperatures as the plants stretching for light right before our eyes.

 

If you enjoyed this excerpt, download the rest of the book for free until March 13, 2016 by clicking here.

If you prefer reading the paperback, click here. It’s $7.99 on Amazon.

Thank you and happy gardening. Would love to hear what’s popping at your house!

 

SAYING GOOD-BYE TO #PITTSBURGH

PNCPark

PNC Park

Nearly seven years ago, Pittsburgh took me by surprise when it grabbed my heart and squeezed.

All I knew of the city came from my college geography and history classes. At the time, I was struck by the role of rivers in the formation of cities. Pittsburgh doesn’t just have one river, but three, and during the Industrial Revolution in the United States became known for its ‘dirty’ industry. The rivers made it an attraction and strategic location and the seam of coal sitting underneath created an important industrial capital. Despite my interest in the location, I never thought about visiting, and I certainly never considered living in the Steel City.

Yet, life had other plans for me when I reconnected with a love from my teenage years. That’s the other thing I knew about the city. I knew more than forty years before that he’d left me to make a go of his life in Pittsburgh. After I graduated from college, I headed south to Florida. And that was my connection to Pittsburgh until 2009.

Fort Pitt TunnelWhen we reconnected, I visited Pittsburgh for the first time. Once my husband drove me through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and I came out on the other side into the magical land of the three rivers, I was a goner. I became more familiar with the downtown of the city than my husband, who’d lived in the north hills and only came downtown occasionally.the view

I shopped in the Strip district every month, stocking up on seafood, freshly roasted coffee beans, cheese, stuffed grape leaves,  and craft beers brewed nearby. Walking down Penn Avenue that cuts right through the heart of the Strip, dodging vendors’ tables piled high with Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins gear and indulging in impulse purchases of scarves and hats, put me in mind of a Moroccan or Chilean market.

For years, I’d denied my sports-dominated childhood. I grew up with four older brothers–athletes all–where I existed as the physically ungifted girl. But that all changed when I moved to the ‘Burgh. I went back to my roots, except this time instead of cheering for the Lions, Tigers, and Red Wings, I’d become a fan of all things gold and black.

Go Steelers!

Go Steelers!

There is nothing quite as exciting as attending a Steelers game at Heinz Field and watching the ketchup bottle spill the red stuff whenever the home team made it to the end zone. The coolness of entering Consul Energy Center gripped me and kept me cool while the Penguins melted the ice, playing stellar hockey and entertaining the fans with the likes of Crosby and Malkin. I never really liked hockey until these boys made it impossible to sit back and ignore.

But nothing made me more of a fan of Pittsburgh than going to PNC Park and watching those Pirates grow into a team that could be a contender. My husband took me to my first game in the spring of 2010 on a Friday night. Along with maybe one hundred other fans, we had our choice of seats to watch a lackluster team. Except for two new players: Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. I felt a rush of adrenaline when either one of them came to the plate. Within two years, the Pirates rose from laughing stock to winning team. It’s been a pleasure to watch them play and revel in their victories. This past year, thirty thousand fans often packed the house of Friday nights.

PNC Park

PNC Park

Last month, we left Pittsburgh physically. We’ve been in the process of leaving for six months, but in December it became official. Each thing I did in those final weeks became poignant with the thought I may never pass this way again.

Seven years ago, I’d never imagine the sadness I felt about leaving.

The move is positive, but as with most things in life, change is still a form of loss. I will mourn the loss of Pittsburgh in my life, but will be forever grateful for the home it provided me in the past six years as my husband and I began our life together. I will always view the Steel City with the soft chewy center as the place of my honeymoon that never ended. Steelers Fans

Thank you, Yinzers. I will always be a fan, and you will always be a part of my heart.

Heinz Field

Heinz Field from the Allegheny River

Raccoon Lake in western Pennsylvania

Raccoon Lake in western Pennsylvania

The abundant garden

Our abundant garden

 

And always the bridges of steel

And always the bridges of steel

GARDENING BY DEFAULT – TOMATOES, PEPPERS, AND PRAYING MANTIS

June 8, 2013 - Raccoon Township, PA

June 8, 2013 – Raccoon Township, PA

I’ve written several tons about my husband’s gardening abilities and prowess. But this year, we’ve had to readjust because of the major transition in our lives. We’re still one foot in Pittsburgh and heart and soul in the Smoky Mountains. He knew this year’s gardening would be non-existent, but still he refused to give up completely.

Before he left our cabin in early July, he threw two pepper plants and two tomato plants in the ground where he hopes to build terraced beds next year. He bought the plants at Lowe’s, unlike in past years when he started all plants from his own seeds. Yet, he persisted. When I came back to the cabin in August, the plants had survived and banana peppers and one tomato hung on the vine ready for me to eat.

August 2015 - Neglected Peppers

August 2015 – Neglected Peppers

I left the mountains and came back to Pittsburgh for a few weeks. We returned to the cabin last week. To our surprise, our neglected, but not forgotten plants thrived in our absence. My husband feels certain the soil and the sun will provide us with a two-season garden in the years to come.

Garden Bounty

Here’s another little treasure from our trip to the mountains. We picked up a hitchhiker and he clung to our windshield until we drove to the river where he finally flew off. Hopefully, not to get his head eaten by his female partner as some rare species of praying mantis are wont to do. Autumn is mating season so perhaps he decided to get away from that dreaded fate.

praying mantis

Tomorrow Robert undergoes surgery for his GERD, which we hope will help alleviate many of the symptoms he’s suffered through the past two years. It’s been tough for him, and we would appreciate prayers and positive thoughts for his recovery back to his old self. the leaves

Saying Good-bye

MaplehurstIt took me by surprise when I shut the garage door and prepared to leave the house for the last time. I sat in the driveway, crying. I called my husband, but he was in a meeting. So I sat and cried. We loved this home where we’d lived for the past five years. With our wedding in the backyard less than a month after we moved in, we began our marriage in the large house with a flat yard for my husband’s garden.ceremony

Love and produce blossomed and bloomed in this house. We didn’t sell the house because we hated living there; we sold it because the time had come for it to be used by a family big enough to fill its spaces.

And so this week after months of preparation and packing, the place stood empty, but not vacant. The walls echoed with the sound of our laughter and waited to embrace the young couple who bought it.

I cried again at the closing. Not tears of sadness, but of happiness for the family about to make it theirs. Two young folks with a five- and two-year old and another baby on the way in September, excitedly signed the papers turning it over to them. Their young sons played on the floor behind us, unaware of the momentous event occurring for their parents who were buying their first home.

“You know why we bought this house that was far too big for us?” I asked the couple as we signed papers. “It had a flat yard for the garden.”

“That’s my favorite part, too,” the woman said.

June 8, 2013

I wish them abundance, laughter, and love in this home that embraced us in its loving arms.

We left green tomatoes on the vine, peas bursting from pods, and onions peeking up from the earth. It feels good to walk away knowing we nurtured the land and left it better than we found it.

We move forward in a cabin that is much, much smaller and with no flat land. We’ve packed the pick-ax and boards for terracing a mountainside garden. Wish us luck!

 

I gave the couple an autographed copy of From Seed to Table and two of my novels written in this house. This home proved fruitful for both vegetables and words.

Click on cover for Amazon page

Click on cover for Amazon page

Happy #Earth Day – Pay Dirt – #Composting

Happy Earth Day 2015!

Celebrating Earth Day is a little bit like giving canned goods to the homeless at the holidays as if that’s the only time the food is needed. Same with Earth Day. We get all warm and fuzzy inside thinking about doing things to help the environment, but then May comes along, and we forget that the Earth still struggles under the weight of human weight and consumption, just as the homeless need food as much, if not more, once January 1 rolls around.

Here’s something to do year round to help you, the environment, and maybe even those who have less than you do. Food banks welcome fresh produce and making compost surely helps you grow your own.

I’ve been composting kitchen waste ever since I had a small rooftop garden in my efficiency apartment in Ann Arbor in 1979. Since then, I’ve composted on a 20-acre homestead, in an urban backyard, and behind the shed in my current home in Pennsylvania. It’s a simple process and begins with finding a container with a sealable lid to keep in the kitchen for the food scraps.

Not all of your waste from the kitchen makes good compostable material. Avoid the use of meat scraps, fish byproducts, cheese, bones, fats, oils or grease because they all attract wild animals and take a very long time to break down. Egg shells, coffee grounds and vegetable matter make the best material to start the process of minting your very own black gold.

Once the container is filled, take it to the compost bin and put it inside and cover with either brown or green organic material. Making the rich topsoil requires a balancing act between green materials and brown materials placed on top of the kitchen scraps. Think of the green things as those still close to the live stage: grass clippings, food scraps and manures. The browns have been dead for a while and consist of dry leaves and woody materials and even shredded paper. We use the ashes from our fireplace. Layering these elements, with the browns taking up the most space, leads to the decomposition of the materials. Air and water are essential in assisting in this process, but usually there is enough liquid in my compost container and in the air to not worry about wetting the materials. If you notice the material in the bin looks dry, go ahead and water it.

There are products you can purchase, from shredders to rotating drums to three-stage bins. You can spend from $50 upwards to several hundreds of dollars. If you live in the extreme north, you may need to invest in the more sophisticated type of equipment to ensure the success of your compost bin. But I’ve composted in Michigan, Florida, and now Pennsylvania and managed to do it successfully without expending lots of money.

When I lived in an urban setting in Florida, I did the simplest thing. But it could easily have been expanded. I bought a plastic garbage can for under $10 and cut off the bottom. I drilled holes all over the lid and sides to allow air flow. A nail and hammer would have accomplished the same thing. I dug a hole about three-inches deep in the soil the diameter of the can and placed the bottom into the ground, filling around the sides to make it secure. I covered the bottom with the dirt I had just removed, making sure it was nice and loose. Then I placed my kitchen scraps on top. I covered those with leaves from my yard and put the lid back on the garbage can. Every time I put new material from the kitchen into the bin, I stirred the whole thing with a shovel.

Here in Pennsylvania, we bought a simple compost bin from Lowes for under $50. It has panels on all four sides that slide off for easy removal of the dirt from the bottom.

I fill my flower pots full of this healthy rich soil where grateful petunias and pansies thrive in the dirt that started in my kitchen. Our vegetables and herbs will receive a healthy dose of the soil when it’s time, and then we start the process all over again.

Earthworms are the essential ingredient for turning the scraps into rich dark soil. If I see a worm in the yard, I’ll pick it up and carry it to the bin, but mostly the earthworms find it all by themselves. If you don’t see any in your pile, buy a small container of earthworms from the local bait shop and let them loose. They eat the organic matter, and quite graciously poop behind nice dirt. Maybe that’s what I love most about composting. It’s a way to be a part of the cycle of nature without disturbing or destroying it.

When I began pulling together information for my book, From Seed to Table, my copy editor read the part on composted and was amazed that she could very easily start a small pile in her urban backyard. Just be sure to cover all the food scraps and keep a secure lid on the heap or you’ll have wildlife other than earthworms wanting to eat your scraps.

Do you compost? What’s been your experience? Any tips or suggestions to add?

Click here for paperback Click here for KindleClick here for paperback
Click here for Kindle

And in honor of Earth Day and in remembrance of all we lost during Deepwater Horizon, I’m offering an eBook sale (either $.99 cents or free on Smashwords) on my novel Trails in the Sand. This contemporary fiction chronicles BP’s oil spill in 2010 as environmental reporter Caroline Carlisle races to save her family from the destructive forces of their past.

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Click below to be taken to the purchase site of your choice.

Amazon Kindle

B&N Nook

Apple iBook

Kobo

Smashwords (use coupon code FR84H)

Paperback (Sorry, I don’t set the price on this version!)

THE RITES AND RIGHTS OF SPRING

Tomato and pepper plants wait for warmer soil

Tomato plants wait for warmer soil.

It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! ~Mark Twain

It’s a rite of spring around our house that my husband begins preparing the soil and putting in the ground onion seedlings and pea sprouts.

Onions are in the ground.

Onions are in the ground.

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Spinach babies seeking the sun.

Spinach plants come out from under the grow lights and into the sunlight of warmer spring days. Tomato and pepper plants begin peeping out of the soil in their pots and when tall enough transferred to larger pots, waiting for that day in May when the ground and air temperatures are warm enough for them to stretch their roots into the soil of the raised beds.

Alas, this year hubby promised he’d go easy. After all, our house is for sale with hopes for a spring or early summer buyer and move. Hubby’s had a heck of a year health-wise, with the doctors no closer to a solution than they were a year and a half ago. A very large blood clot in his leg that broke off and moved to his lungs put him on the disabled list this past week. That didn’t stop him. The doctors at the hospital said he could do some planting, but they didn’t know that my husband believes the rite of spring planting is his right of life no matter his state. Sunday found him in his garden planting two rows–each fifteen feet–of pea seeds he’d sprouted during the past two weeks.

Rows of peas are planted in raised beds.

Rows of peas are planted in raised beds.

Monday found him in bad shape and a severe lecture from our family doctor has taken not only his right of spring to plant, but his rite of the season is squashed for now.

As we left the doctor’s office, he said, “There’s nothing more to plant for a while anyway.”

The pansies are my offering to brighten up the yard.

The pansies are my offering to brighten up the yard.

Thank goodness or we’d be right back where we started.

As the days warm and the daffodils bloom and tulips push forward, we also hope for answers for my stubborn husband with the green thumb.

How’s your garden growing this spring?

Don’t forget to download or get your paperback copy of From Seed to Table.

Winter Gardening Blues and Greens

???????????????????????????????Usually by this time of year, hubby happily starts a multitude of seedlings and places them under grow lights in anticipation of planting time. It’s different this year. He’s planted a few seedlings–onions, greens–but nothing like in years past because this year our house and, of course, our garden are for sale. We don’t know if we’ll be here in the spring. We certainly hope we’re not here in the summer.

He couldn’t help himself though. When I asked him why he started the onion seedlings, he said he wanted to plant them, so the new owners would be able to enjoy them in the summer.  I’ve joked that we should sell him with the house. Not that I want to leave my sweetie behind, but he could maintain the garden and share half of the produce with the new owners. After all, after five seasons of living here, he has the soil just where he wants it. Besides, it would make finding our new smaller digs easier. Try finding flat and sunny plots of land in western Pennsylvania. It’s not an easy task. In fact, it’s one reason we bought this house much too large for two people. But we have a wonderful side yard–flat and sunny.

The seed catalogs arrive daily now, and I’m proud that he’s showing restraint. The magazines arrive, but so far no subsequent delivery of seed packets. Unless, he’s shipping to his work address.

I added a few recipes to my guide on gardening, From Seed to Tableand gave the book a face lift for spring. Here’s one of my favorites for a cold winter night.

Drunken Butternut Squash Bisque

1 butternut squash, roasted – cut into several pieces (seeded). Dribble olive oil and maple syrup over the top. Roast in 350 oven until done. Roasting times vary by squash, but it usually takes from 45 minutes to an hour.

1 TBSP olive oil

1 TBSP butter

1 onion, chopped

¾ cup celery, chopped

½ tsp ginger (if you have freshly grated, it’s always better)

Cubed pieces of cooked butternut squash

½ cup Bourbon

2 TBSP maple syrup

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 ½ tsp vanilla

Salt and pepper to taste

Ground nutmeg to taste

½ cup heavy cream (optional – I rarely use it and the bisque is still wonderful!)

Heat oil and butter in large pot. Add onion, ginger, and celery and cook until onions and celery are soft. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the cream) and cook together for 15 minutes, until flavors are well blended.

In a food processor or blender, puree until smooth. Return to heat and stir in cream, if using. Heat thoroughly, but do not bring to boil. Serve hot.

Yummy.

Click on cover for Amazon page

Click on cover for Amazon page

 

Where Did Summer Go?

Potato Leaf Tomato

Potato Leaf Tomato

I haven’t forgotten you, Living Lightly blog. In fact, I think of you often, and then something comes along to interrupt so I don’t end up writing the post. I’m sorry.

Now that I’ve apologized, it’s time to move on–right into autumn. Now that I think about it, I know exactly where summer went. It went into enjoying the heat and preserving all the vegetables Robert carried from his overflowing garden to my waiting kitchen. Our freezers (we have three of various sizes) are filled, and I know that I have to spend an hour one day organizing so I can find food during the winter.

The tomato crop this year was the best one since we moved to our home here in western Pennsylvania. In fact, my own personal gardener tells me it’s the best year he’s ever had in more than forty years of gardening.

We canned more than forty quarts of Italian sauce and salsa. There are untold numbers of whole tomatoes frozen, waiting for me to make fresh sauce when the winter winds blow. Then when I said I’d done as much as I could with canning and freezing, we started giving away. We put a box out one Sunday afternoon in front of our house with the sign “Free tomatoes.” Within an hour, it was empty. We refilled it. I looked out at one point and a man was taking the whole box. I opened the front door, and yelled, “Do you want more?”

He smiled and ran to my door where I gave him an additional box. A few weeks ago when I was out trimming flowers, a man pulled into the drive and asked what kind of tomatoes did we grow. I answered that my husband grew a variety of types. He said, “They were the huge ones.” Potato leaf, that’s what they were, and they were huge and red and absolutely delicious.

Writing this post makes me long for those tomato sandwiches of summer.

So tell me, how did your tomatoes grow this year?

From Seed to Table S2T-5

Pasta Sauce from Frozen Tomatoes

10 frozen whole tomatoes

2 cloves garlic

1 chopped onion

several chopped peppers – I use both sweet and hot peppers

fresh or dried herbs in any combination and to taste: basil, oregano, thyme, fennel, tarragon

salt and pepper

Remove tomatoes from freezer and put in refrigerator for 4-5 hours. Rinse under hot water for a few second until skins peel off easily. Let skinned tomatoes sit for an hour or until core can be cut out easily.

In the meantime, sauté onions, garlic, peppers (or anything else you’d like to add such as mushrooms, carrots, or olives) and herbs.

Chop tomatoes, even if they’re still partially frozen, throw pieces into pan with sautéed mix.

Bring to boil then put on low for several hours, stirring occasionally. When sauce is reduced enough, it’s time to use sauce in your favorite Italian dish.???????????????????????????????

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#Monarchs and #Tomatoes As Summer Wanes

Potato Leaf Tomato

It’s been a very bountiful year for our tomatoes. They are the biggest my hubby has ever produced, and they are still coming although the leaves are telling us that the season is about to end.

I put up ten quarts of Italian sauce two weeks ago. We’ve given away dozens of tomatoes. I have seven bags of frozen whole tomatoes for the winter. This weekend we plan on doing eight to ten pints of salsa.

The last of this year's crop

This morning I walked outside to visit the dahlias and marigolds and sunflowers in full bloom and full of bees and now butterflies. We planted milkweed there in the spring, but only one of the plants has survived, but with no flowers. We planted it in hopes of helping the monarch butterfly that depends on these plants to fuel them enough to fly to Mexico each winter.

 

MonarchMuch to my delight and surprise, among the many butterflies feasting on the flowers, sat a monarch on a red dahlia.

The final weeks of summer bring their own bittersweet shots of beauty. I treasure these days. A few trees are turning orange but the weather is still hot and sunny.

I hope your summer has been bountiful and fruitful whatever you’ve done, eaten, or planted!

 

Recipes for preserving tomatoes can be found in From Seed to Table. S2T-5