Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016 Garden in Review

Well, it's that time of year again...time to see what worked and what didn't work for me in the garden.

Like all growing seasons, this past year taught me some lessons. That’s the great thing about gardening, you never have the same year twice and there are always opportunities to learn something new.

If I were to give 2016’s gardening season a theme, it would be “Pest and Disease Management”. Let's review, shall we?


My winter sowing effort was hit hard. First, I wanted to try growing in those decomposable peat pots, which I often see seedlings grown and sold in them at the Big Box Stores. I liked the thought of just plopping my seedlings in the ground and not having to store a cache of seedling pots in my shed.

Well, they turned into the WORST idea ever as they wicked moisture from the soil in the pots bone dry if I even turned my back on them for a minute. I would often have to go out 2-3 times a day and water them just to keep my seedlings alive.

We also had a late freeze, which fried my not-hardened-off seedlings, and that forced me to re-sow seeds again later in the season. This actually worked in my favor, as just when my hybrids were petering out in production, my heirloom seedling plants were taking off.

However, changing to a soilless seeding mix worked perfectly, so next year I will try again with that and maybe Solo cups!

Elsewhere in the garden, I learned from last year and planted all the greens in the back beds, put the garlic in the front beds (and label them!).

Late Spring/Early Summer

Personally, I think this is the prettiest time of the year besides fall. Everything is growing strong and healthy and lush.

I treated all my existing bearded irises with a grub control pesticide granules two times: once when they first broke ground and again about 6 weeks after that. I didn’t get any flowers, as the rhizomes took a beating last year and had to reestablish, but I’m betting that next year will be fabulous!

Late spring was also when I noticed that I had a vole problem. I first tried to deter them with castor oil and soap, then I tried above-ground bait stations, and eventually resorted to using wire planting baskets and poison to protect my plants and lawn.

I found the most effective way to reduce the vole population was by smashing up the bait nuggets into small pieces and “planting” those pieces directly in the active vole tunnels. If I just put them down their “air holes” and covered them up, it didn’t seem to be as effective. I had to find their active tunnels, gently push the soil away, plop a few pieces in, and then gently cover the soil back over without crushing the tunnel.  I did this every week or so until I saw no more new activity going on. This process took me pretty much all year to get them under control and I still have to plant “maintenance” bait out when I start to see new activity.


I tried zucchini again along with summer squash to a good enough success. At first, I tried row covers to keep the squash bugs and squash vine borers out, but that became too much work to maintain, so I sprayed the vines with BT every 7-10 days to control larval hatching cycles. This seemed to work quite well. I still didn’t get “overloaded” with zucchini and squash, but it was good enough.

I planted half of my toms in single rows instead of double…what a HUGE improvement in their health and production!

Figs started to grow! I finally got a glimpse of my first-ever figs this summer.

This past year made me realize that I needed to upgrade and amend my back perennial bed. In the spring/early summer, things look and behave wonderfully in this bed, but the soil there is awful, hard-packed clay and it needs help. When the temps climb, this poor bed suffers as the plants struggle to stay healthy and hydrated. This next spring I plan to dig all these perennials up and till in a ton of good garden soil and compost, then replant. This will be a big project, but it help the plants (and me!) in the long run.

Summer was when we also started noticing something going on with our lawn. From the ground, it just looked like the grass was dry from lack of rain, but from above inside the house looking out, there were definite patterns in the lawn. Circles, in fact.

A little research told me this was brown patch and it could potentially kill our much-hard-worked-for lawn of Kentucky Blue and Tall Fescue. Of course, this was no easy (or cheap) fix and we had to go purchase lawn fungicide to help mitigate. I now know that fungicide control for brown patch is really about prevention and growing the right kind of grass, so next year we will put it down before the weather heats up and this year we overseeded with Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue, which is supposed to be more resistant.

Late Summer/Early “Fall”

About the end of summer, I also noticed that one of my brand new hostas in my hosta bed looked a little different. I had been stalking the hosta growing forums online and heard about this ominous virus called Hosta Virus X.

This virus has the potential to completely wipe out any healthy hosta that comes in contact with and is heavily monitored and controlled by government agriculture agencies. Unfortunately, there are Big Box Stores that still somehow manage to sell hostas that have this virus, as they do not do a very good job of monitoring their products, plus most of the people working at the Big Box stores have no idea of what you’re talking about (nor do they really care) when you mention to them they are selling plants infected with Hosta Virus X.

I had to order special (and expensive) test kits to test my plants, and sure enough, one of my plants (so far) was infected. I pulled it up, bagged and disposed of it, and cannot plant another Hosta in that same area for at least 3 years. There is a lovely heucherella there now. I plan to test the others next year and know to only buy my hostas from reputable sources.

The rest of the garden did great, including the garlic and tomatoes. Lorz Italian garlic was my all-time favorite and best producing garlic. I still have about 50 heads of garlic sitting on my kitchen counter ready for eating!.

By summer's end I petered out like I normally do when the weather is hot, so no fall garden planting for me! I'm ready to pack in all in come August/September. 

Late Fall/Winter

In September, my figs trees gave me about 12 beautiful figs and I was thrilled! I have since pruned them and they are sitting dormant in their pots in the garage. They will get transplanted to bigger pots next spring.

I did not plant garlic or beans this fall/late fall, as I wanted to give my beds a break. Plus I was a little burnt out by the end of summer. It was a hot one for sure, but not as hot or dry as last year.

Thoughts for 2017:

I didn’t plant all that I wanted (as usual), as I felt I was battling critters and other garden/yard issues most of this year. But the MOST important lesson I did learn was the importance of fresh seeds. I noticed that some of the older seed packets I had that I tried to plant failed, so I need to reorder all new seeds soon.

Other thoughts for next year:
  • Date your seeds! After 2 seasons (sometimes less), your seeds lose their viability. Keep track of their expiration date.
  • Winter sow ONLY in plastic/Styrofoam cups!
  • Dig up and amend the back perennial bed by the porch – that soil is as hard as a rock and the plants struggle.
  • Implement some sort of automatic watering system for the back, mulched beds in the yard and the perennial bed. Watering by hand is really a time-consuming pain in the arse.
  • Try to find a stronger water pump for the water barrels...I would really like to use a sprinkler to water the grass if I can. 
  • Put down preventative fungicide on the lawn in April and follow-up with applications every other month till September.
  • Keep an eye on the vole population; don’t let them get out of control!
  • Try some Swiss Chard and Kale this year! Maybe Tiger Melons again.
  • Grow more annual flowers!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Meowy Christmas

Sending much love, warmth, laughter, hot chocolate, and cheese treats to all of you this Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Heirloom Pork, Pork, Pork and Beans

Last week was dedicated to my annual Great Cookie Bakeoff. I have to time it to be done on a Sunday or Monday at the latest so that all cookies are shipped and received within 2-3 days. That way, no one receives stale cookies. I didn't ship nearly as much out this year and I did not send any canned goodies.

I have barely canned a thing this year except for a batch or two of salsa, pickles, and my usual hoarding of crushed tomatoes over the summer. I KNOW!

Anyway, I'm here to talk about cassoulets, particularly one that I made from a Rancho Gordo Beans recipe.

Take note, if anyone ever makes you a cassoulet, they love you, I mean REALLY love you, because a cassoulet is nothing to take lightly.

I made this work of art last week and it was worth every ounce of effort. It took 2 days to prep and 5 + hours to cook in total, but the end result was sublime. There could be nothing better on a cold, winter night than to tuck yourself into this with a glass of Chard.

Heirloom Pork, Pork, Pork and Beans
Recipe Source: Rancho Gordo

1 pound Rancho Gordo Yellow Eye Beans (or any flavorful bean...I used flageolet)
1 1/2 to 2 pounds bone-in Pork Butt (Shoulder)
5 slices Uncured Rustic Bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips (lardons)
4 links Rustic Pork Sausage, cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces (I used Andouille)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 large stalks of celery, coarsely chopped
1 small carrot, coarsely chopped
6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 fennel bulb, coarsely chopped
14 ounce can diced tomatoes with the juice
1/2 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
5 branches fresh thyme (I used 1 tsp dried)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
2 cups panko crumbs
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Seasoning the pork butt: Remove the bone from the pork butt and cut the meat into 1 1/2-to-2 inch chunks. Season all sides of the meat with salt and pepper, and refrigerate it (uncovered) for a day.

Soaking the beans: Put the beans in a bowl and cover with 2-inches cold water. Soak the beans for 4 to 6 hours, or overnight. 

Begin the cooking: Put the bacon into a cold 5 quart enamel cast iron or other heavyweight Dutch oven and place the pan over medium heat. Cook the bacon from for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the fat has rendered and the bacon is just beginning to color. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon to a bowl and set aside.

Mix the mirepoix vegetables together and reserve 1/2 cup for cooking the beans. Add the remaining vegetables to the pan and sauté in the bacon fat, stirring from time to time for about 10 minutes until the vegetables have softened and are just beginning to color. Stir in the tomatoes and their juice. Add the wine, thyme and bay leaf. Tuck the pork chunks into the vegetables, leaving the top half of the meat exposed and put (uncovered) in the oven to cook for about 2 hours.

Cooking the beans (while the meat is in the oven):
Heat a medium size enamel cast iron or other heavyweight Dutch oven.  Add the oil and the reserved mirepoix and saute about 10 minutes to soften. Add the beans and their soaking water, adding additional water to reach 2-inches above the beans. Place over medium-high heat, cover and bring to a rolling boil. Continue to boil rapidly for 10 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary.

Place the lid slightly ajar (to allow evaporation), and reduce the heat to cook the beans at a gentle simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Add additional water as needed to be sure the beans are covered by 2 inches of water at all times; use the lid to control the heat. After about 1 hour, the smell of beans should be pronounced and you can salt the beans at this point. Add 11/2 tablespoons of salt. Continue to cook until the beans are just tender.

Completing the dish: Once the pork is tender, remove the pieces from the pan. Remove the thyme and bay leaf and discard. Put the cooked vegetables and any juices into a food processor. Add the smoked paprika, 2 teaspoons salt, a few grinds of black pepper and lemon juice and puree. Drain the beans and put them in the Dutch oven. Stir in the bacon pieces and the vegetable puree.
Nestle the pork meat and sausages into the beans, leaving the top half of the meat exposed and return to the oven (uncovered) to cook for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the panko crumbs in a bowl and stir in the butter. Remove the pot from the oven and sprinkle the panko over the top. Return to the oven for another 20 minutes or until the crumbs are a rich golden brown.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Bath Bomb Breakthrough

Since we've been back, I've resumed my bath bomb research. You know the old saying, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over-and-over and expecting a different result?" Well, that about sums up my life every day.

Every day I make a batch of sample bombs. I get 1 large, 1 med, and 1 small bath bomb from my experiment batch, I let them dry overnight, then I test them the next day or day after. I have LEARNED SO MUCH, but mostly it's theory.

Anyway, I have discovered that although many home bomb makers and even small businesses use cornstarch as a binder in their recipes, it is a huge FAIL for me. You see, bomb making is as elusive as it is scientific. What works for one person in California, will not work for someone else in Florida, or even Canada. Climate, altitude, hell...the alignment of Jupiter and Mars and whether the woolly caterpillars have fur in the fall...all play into whether bath bomb making with be successful or a fail.

I've moved over to potassium bitartrate (aka Cream of Tartar) as a filler and made a breakthrough. As a side note, did you know that potassium bitartrate (Cream of Tartar) is a by-product of wine making? Fitting, no?

Anyway, my bombs are now hardening up nicely and keeping their shape; however, I want them to float and I've tried packing light, packing heavy, packing while standing on one foot. Sigh. The medium-sized ones float, but the bigger ones are sinking...hmmm.

Back down the hole I go.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Cooking Class at Cakebread Cellars

On the last "official" day of our vacay to Napa Valley, we participated in a day-long cooking class at Cakebread Cellars. This event and reservation was the pivot of our whole trip to the West Coast. We found out about this class a year ago in November and bought tickets as soon as we could last February. There were only 17 tickets available and they sold out almost instantly. The tickets weren't inexpensive, so we made sure to plan all our other vacation events and schedule around this one singular day and it could not have been more perfect!

Now, I have a soft spot in my heart for Cakebread, as it makes the first Chardonnay that I fell in love with as a wine drinker. Also, not too many people know this about me, but I have a culinary degree (another life) and any food-centered event makes my heart go pitter-patter. And this class was a true make-it-yourself-in-the-kitchen-culinary-class...not some fancy chef prepping stuff in front of you whilst you sip Chard. I think this put some people off, as they didn't realize they were actually going to have to work for this meal...heck, some people didn't even realize the class lasted almost 6 hours!

The Menu:

Now, I have to apologize if some of the pics are fuzzy, as we were busy prepping and cooking in the kitchen. There weren't really any good opportunities for photos in the kitchen, and certainly not for a SLR camera, so I used my cell phone. 

So, me and my husband, along with 13 other strangers, made this entire meal. We teamed off and we each made one of the items off the menu: we had the Cioppino. Now, I did not tell anyone about my culinary background (I never do), but I practically swooned when Chef Brian Streeter complimented me on my knife skills! In the culinary industry, that's a high compliment...but I take that with a grain of salt, as I'm sure Brian was just thankful that I knew how to hold a knife. :-)

The meal turned out phenomenally and I have to say, and without bragging, the Cioppino was the best dish IMO! :-) We really did love the Roast Crab and the Salad as well. The teamwork and the communal dining experience was really special, especially since we knew we would be coming back 2 days before Thanksgiving and wouldn't be spending it with other people. So, in a sense, this WAS our Thanksgiving dinner!

If I lived in Napa and could afford it, I would attend ALL of Chef Brian and Tom's classes...hell, I'd probably ask if I could volunteer or work for them! This whole experience made me think about the choices I made in the past to leave the culinary industry and how I missed working in a restaurant kitchen (sometimes), but at the very least, it reinspired my cooking game to bring it up a notch! 

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Visiting Napa Valley

Napa Valley was such an amazing experience. After the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, we were ready to slow down, enjoy the view, and drink some wine.

And let me tell you, there wasn't a bad picture to be taken in the whole place. I wonder if the residents that live there year round ever get blase about what they see around them everyday? I suppose they do, as it's just what happens. The're probably like, "Yawn...another perfectly gorgeous vineyard. Ho-hum." If you ever plan to visit Napa, go in November when the tourists are gone, the leaves are changing, and the air is crisp. The views, the pace, and the afternoon sun were simply dreamy.

Hubby and I were taken aback though by the culture, which was MUCH more chill, health oriented, friendly, and back-to-the-land than what we expected and have here in Virginia. I told my husband, "These are our people!" There was so much focus on local and quality food; it was really tempting to imagine living there. Still, I think I will always be an east coast girl!

And of course, there was the wine. We didn't go too overboard, but mainly stayed with wineries that we had targeted to visit and made reservations. By the end of our trip, our palettes were fatigued and we didn't want to even see another glass of wine!  Another highlight of our trip was being able to visit the Heirloom Bean Mothership...Rancho Gordo Beans!



Thursday, December 01, 2016

Visiting Alcatraz

A visit to San Fran really isn't complete without a tour of Alcatraz, so on a foggy Sunday morning, we got up early to catch the ferry over to the island. There is really only one ferrying company that takes visitors to-and-from the island, and reservations fill up fast, so we made sure to book our tickets weeks ahead of time.

By and far, Alcatraz Island looks A LOT smaller than it really is from a distance. Expect to spend 2-4 hours walking the highlights of the 22-acre island, wear comfortable shoes, and depending on the time of year, layers of clothing. We were very lucky during our stay in that the fog cleared up perfectly by late morning, making for a gorgeous day.

The perspective vistas of the island were amazing! We definitely got our exercise that day going up-and-down all the hills, stairs, and paths inside and out the prison. I didn't know that in the 1970's, Alcatraz was occupied by Native American Indians as an act of reclamation activism. They lived on the island for 19 months!


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