Monthly Archives: July 2010

Gardening Disaster: I Am an Army of One

Earlier this month I posed the question, “Gardening Disaster: Am I the Only One?” Because it seemed to me that everyone in America suddenly had the natural ability to effortlessly grow bushels of organic fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, I planted two 1×4-foot container gardens and was immediately battling worms, fungus and some unknown kind of squash cancer. Is it really that easy for everyone else, I wondered, or were there other gardening failures out there, shamefully tending backyard brown patches of doom?

Cherry tomatoes by Laurie Sterbens

These fell off into my hand as I was tying up my cherry tomato plants, so they were either ripe or suicidal.

Nope. Apparently I am the only one. I posted on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and the overwhelming response was: … (crickets).

So, a gardening-impaired army of one, I keep fighting. I’m seeing signs that I might eventually beat this crop-failure thing, but I am also puzzled by new bits of agricultural weirdness. And I continue to find pests sneaking around under the leaves.

The other morning I went out to find a small black worm on a tomato plant and promptly flicked him into outer space. I then found a big green caterpillar trying to hide under a leaf. It didn’t look like a giant, evil hornworm; it was more of a cuddly cartoon caterpillar, and my son immediately fell in love with it. It also had much grabbier feet than the black worms, so instead of being flicked into outer space, it was humanely delivered to one of the shrubs in the front yard that I wish something would eat.

Healthy minature bell bepper plant below failed version of same plant, a twig.

Life is a party for this miniature bell pepper plant, which has sprouted a new round of tiny blossoms. Now check out the leafless, emaciated stick just north of it. This was the pepper plant’s identical twin, treated exactly the same way. Crazy plants.

My two cherry tomato plants lost most of their lower leaves to fungus, but the top halves are doing quite well and in fact seemed to grow a foot overnight. I never thought they’d get big enough to have to tie to stakes, but they were beginning to flop over, so I recruited an ornamental trellis from another part of the yard (that I hadn’t gotten around to putting an actual plant on) and tied the plants to it. While I was doing this, four ripe tomatoes fell off into my hands, so I took that to mean they were ripe though they might have just been suicidal. They weren’t quite as red as the storebought cherry tomatoes I had in the kitchen, but they were red enough. In a taste test, they weren’t as sweet as the professional tomatoes, but they tasted fresh and homegrown. I’m going to count this as a success. So far I’ve harvested two miniature bell peppers and four cherry tomatoes, bringing my vegetable cost per unit down to $10!

There was another miniature bell pepper that made it to a beautiful bright orange — and then the plant died. Meanwhile, its identical twin, purchased at the same time from the same store and treated exactly the same way, is growing beautifully and has sprouted a new round of blossoms. Go figure.

The most success I’ve had with anything has been with the marigolds that I planted too many of in hopes of repelling insects, along with one my son grew from a seed in kindergarten. With one failed pepper plant and an ailing squash plant, I began to wonder if the marigolds were crowding out my vegetables. So I moved them into separate containers and stationed them near the other plants so they can still stand guard.

I then moved the squash plant into a squash intensive care unit, which may end up being a squash hospice. It’s been three days and it seems slightly happier, but that could be my overly optimistic imagination.

Speaking of overly optimistic, I’ve just approached my builder neighbor about putting together a couple of raised beds. I may be an army of one, but if I fail I’m going to go out in a blaze of … um, dirt.

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A Berry Good Apple Pie

Rustic apple pie with blueberries in a glass pie plate

Fresh blueberries add a seasonal twist to this apple pie.

Though we’re still berry-pie season, yesterday I decided to make an apple pie. I don’t usually start thinking about apple pie until fall, but there were a few contributing factors. I’d been to church that morning and then worked in the garden. Baking a pie would complete my total transformation into Aunt Bea.

There were apples sitting in a bowl on the kitchen table, looking at me plaintively and whining about being ignored. I’d bought them last week as an alternative to all the berries and bananas we’d been eating. I thought I’d eat them as snacks, convert my son to homemade “apple dippers” and my husband could take them to work. As it turns out, apparently I will only eat raw apples in an office setting, my son prefers his apples corporately cut and packaged, and my husband won’t eat them at all as he is a devout bananavore.

My son also has recently had a mild fixation with cinnamon and loves to help me cook, so I thought this would be a fun Sunday-afternoon project for us. He cheerfully abandoned me, however, when the neighbors offered to take him fishing, so I was left to bake on my own, Aunt Bea minus Opie.

I’ve been making pretty much the same apple pie forever, though I’ve tweaked the recipe here and there. It’s based on an old Martha Stewart recipe for “Old-Fashioned Bottom-Crust Apple Pie.” How old? It appeared in “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook” by Robin Leach, released in 1992. This was one of my first cookbooks and I’m amazed I still have it. Most of the couples featured have since divorced.

Anyway, it’s a good pie, and quick and simple to make. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit, using whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose. Martha’s version called for serving with a dusting of powdered sugar and topping with whipped cream. I skipped that. The original recipe calls for a pinch of mace, which I never seem to have in my cabinet so it never gets in the pie. I also switched up the procedural order a bit to accommodate my slightly obsessive-compulsive desire to have the sugar and spices mixed together thoroughly and evenly before putting them into the pie.

I added a half cup of blueberries because we’ve been eating blueberries in everything lately. It made the pie filling a little juicier, and it was perfect served warm with vanilla ice cream.

Apple-Blueberry Pie

Crust:
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup whole grain white flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 teaspoons ice water
Filling:
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch ground nutmeg
3-4 tart apples (such as Granny Smith), peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, sliced into 5-6 pieces
Vanilla ice cream
Combine the butter, flour, sugar and salt in a food processor. Gradually add the ice water until the dough forms a solid mass.
Transfer the dough to a floured surface. Roll into a ball, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl and stir to blend. Roll dough to a circle approximately 12 inches in diameter and place in an 8-inch pie plate. Fill the crust with half the apples, half the blueberries and sprinkle with half the sugar mixture. Repeat with remaining fruit and sugar mixture. Dot with butter. Fold pastry edges over fruit.
Bake for 45 minutes, until the filling is bubbly and the crust is golden. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

The Picnic Backpack: Blue Spring State Park

For the first five summers of my son’s life, summer wasn’t much different from the rest of the year. He was dropped off by his father or me at daycare, preschool and then kindergarten for most of the year, and in the summer he was dropped off someplace else; a day camp or daycare.

This year was different. Mommy got downsized. So, while pondering options for a future outside of the downsizing-prone newspaper business, I decided to take full advantage of what could be a one-time opportunity for a summer at home with my son, now 6.

Except we’re not home a lot. As often as possible, we like to fill up the picnic backpack and head out for an “adventure.” Last week we decided to have our picnic lunch at Blue Spring State Park near Orange City, Fla. I’d been to the park twice before, but both times were to see the manatees that spend the winter in the 72-degree spring run. I’d never been to the park in the summer, and snorkeling in the crystal-clear water with some of the fish I’d seen there previously sounded like fun. Trevor had recently learned how to use his new mask, snorkel and fins, so I hoped he’d join me.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

I snapped this view of the spring run at Blue Spring State Park during our recent summer visit.

We arrived at the park just before lunchtime and it was already filled with families picnicing, swimming, canoeing and floating. We managed to find a picnic table, at Trevor’s request, near the playground, and unpacked our lunch. Trevor devoured his peanut butter and jelly sandwich as quickly as possible and made a new friend on the swings, giving me an opportunity to enjoy my salad slowly and study the map of the park to come up with a plan.

I ruled out canoeing since I’d be doing all the paddling, and Trevor isn’t a kayaker yet. Scenic boat tours on the St. John’s River were available, but we were in budget mode. Though the park’s website listed the short, boarded nature walk as the park’s hiking option, there is also a 4-mile half loop that begins at the main parking lot and ends at a primitive campsite. Hikers have to return by the same route, meaning I could end up having to carry a 50-pound kid for 6 to 8 miles. If that primitive campsite had a real fountain of youth, maybe. Otherwise, we’d pass on the hiking trail. (Incidentally, this trail isn’t mentioned on the park website but is on the map provided by the ranger station.)

Trevor was ready to swim, but a walk-through of the swimming area revealed that the water was over his head and there was no shallow area near the bank where he could play. Our solution: We rented a small inner tube ($5 the first hour) and I donned a mask, snorkel and fins and pulled him up the spring run. The area in front of the swimming platform was noisy and crowded with people jumping into the water and kicking up sand, but we crossed to the other side and soon I was able to point out a couple of gar and a few smaller fish as we made our way toward the mouth of the spring.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A boarded nature walk runs alongside the spring run, from the mouth of Blue Spring to the St. Johns River. This photo was taken during the winter manatee season. In the summer, the boardwalk is filled with swimmers carrying inner tubes.

Fortunately for me, we only made it halfway to the mouth of the spring before Trevor decided it was time to turn around. Floating downstream, as you can imagine, was much easier than going up and the only difficulty was navigating around the other inner tubes and swimmers as we made our way back to the platform. When we got out, Trevor said he wanted to try to get in with his mask and snorkel, but the stairs leading into the water were so crowded with people going in and out that it was impossible for a little guy to get into the water at his own speed, so we gave up and decided to follow the boarded nature walk to the mouth of the spring.

During my winter visits, Blue Spring was peaceful and pristine, with only manatees in the spring run or a couple of scuba divers exploring the bottom of the spring. This time we passed two pairs of divers on the boardwalk, and they were not looking overly cheerful. This could have been partly due to the fact that scuba tanks are heavy and it was a long walk back to the parking lot. But when we got to the spring I could see another reason they may have been dismayed — it was wall-to-wall screaming, splashing swimmers.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A manatee makes its way down the spring run at Blue Spring State Park.

On the way back to the car, we decided to explore the Thursby House, a two-story home built in 1872 by settler Louis Thursby. The house is filled with artifacts and displays that describe the life of the Thursby family, who grew vegetables, raised hogs and caught fish, alligators and other animals in the wilderness surrounding their home. This was about the extent of the information I was able to absorb between answering calls of “Mom! Mom! Look at this!” from every other room in the house, but I was fascinated, imagining what it must have been like to live in such spectacular natural beauty when it was still undiscovered and private.

You have to hand it to Florida State Parks. They’ve done a wonderful job of keeping Blue Spring in a mostly natural and fully beautiful state despite herds of trampling visitors year after year.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

From Nov. 15 to March 1, Blue Spring is closed to swimmers to provide a haven for the West Indian manatee. Park visitors can get a close-up view of the creatures from the steps of the swimming platforms.

I’ll probably visit again in the summer, and maybe will be able to get Trevor all the way up the spring run next time. But if it’s your first visit to Blue Spring, I’d suggest going during the manatee season, Nov. 15 through March 1. Blue Spring is a designated refuge for the West Indian manatee, and swimming, diving and snorkeling aren’t allowed while the manatees are there. This provides a peaceful setting to view the manatees, turtles, numerous fish and even an occasional alligator napping in the Florida sun.

Gardening Disaster: Am I the Only One?

A few months back I decided to finally let go of my fears, set past failures aside and join the millions of Americans now tending backyard gardens. I figured everyone seems to be doing this. Surely it can’t be as impossible and mysterious as it has always seemed.

People all over America seem to be throwing seeds into the ground and before you know it, boom, they’re harvesting bushels of tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. Michelle Obama stuck a shovel in the dirt one day, next thing you know, “Iron Chef” contenders are running through what appears to be a lush tropical rain forest of vegetables. People are starting gardens on urban plots and restaurant rooftops. Friends, family, co-workers—suddenly everyone is able to grow their own food.

Then there’s me.

I started a small with a container garden; a couple of tomato plants, a couple of miniature bell pepper plants, one squash plant, some herbs. This would hopefully provide some homegrown, organic salad ingredients as well as boost my confidence after an epic tomato-growing failure a few years back.

green cherry tomatoes with marigolds in background.

I’m getting a few cherry tomatoes now, but I’m battling worms and fungus. And the squirrels are out there, waiting.

I purchased good organic soil and read everything I possibly could before starting. My containers were self-watering! Foolproof! I inspected my plants every day. This isn’t so hard, I began to think. Maybe I can be a gardener like everyone else.

The fungus that seemed to develop overnight on the cherry tomato plants was the first indicator that things were about to go the usual way they do between plants and me. It was at this point that I gave up on the delusions of organic perfection and blasted the plants with anti-fungal spray.

Then I noticed all of my squash blossoms had disappeared and the plant seemed to be shrinking and turning yellow. Meanwhile, a friend growing squash in a container in a similar climate reported that she’d had to transplant hers because it got so big.

Sunday morning, after a couple of days of rain kept me from checking my plants, I went out to find that little black worms had reduced much of the tomato plants to fishnet.

I blasted the plants with another dose of spray and flicked the worms, which were now hopefully poisoned, as far as I could flick them. I have to confess, the blasting and flicking were kind of fun. But still, I never hear about anybody else waging such a nonstop, all-out battle against crop failure. Can I be the only one? Or are there others like me out there who just aren’t talking? Is there a vast vegetable conspiracy? A silent majority of fruit-growing failures?

I do now have two miniature bell peppers that appear to be ripe. At about an inch and a half long each, they seem miniature even for miniatures. If that ends up being the extent of my harvest, they will have cost $30 each and aren’t even organic.

two bright red minature red bell peppers on the plant.

These look like chili peppers but are actually miniature bell peppers — very miniature. If they end up being the only thing I harvest, they’ll have cost $30 apiece and aren’t even organic.

I also have quite a few little green cherry tomatoes popping up, but we’ll have to see who wins the war between the worms and me. And the squirrels haven’t even weighed in yet. I live in fear that someday soon I’m going to have to find out how far I can flick a squirrel.

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