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About Not Another Food Blog

I'm a travel writer by day and a home cook with an egg allergy in the family all the time. I have an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction and hope someday my fiction will be popular. In the meantime, I'm cooking and writing at Not Another Food Blog.

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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Newbie Gardener in Non-Organic Panic

Being new to the world of vegetable gardening, I’m a little obsessed with it right now. I usually wander out into the backyard to check on my plants first thing in the morning, then I might even check on them again later in the day. With such intense monitoring, you would think nothing could go drastically wrong.

But it did. When I checked my garden Wednesday morning, many of the lower leaves on the tomato plants had turned yellow and spotty. This must have happened almost overnight! Had I already killed my tomatoes? This would be a record even for me.

Cherry tomato plant with fungus

This disease appeared to develop almost overnight on my cherry tomato plants.

Fortunately my dad was visiting this week. My mother was the master tomato grower in the family, but Dad was around enough to see what was going on, and he told me when that happened to my mother’s plants, she had a spray she would use. This was a revelation. My mother’s tomato plants were occasionally weak or flawed? Maybe mine could be saved.

Dad didn’t know the name of the spray Mom used but said it killed fungus, so I hopped in my car and sped off like a plant ambulance in search of an emergency dose of fungus killer. When I got to the home improvement store,  I headed for a section of bottles with pictures of spotty yellow leaves on them.

Now, my plan with this vegetable garden was for it to be completely organic. This is clearly the healthiest, most ecologically sound option and is also madly trendy. I bought organic soil that was organically fertilized and had so far only used cayenne around the plants to keep the squirrels out. But in state of full tomato panic, facing a shelf full of toxic and nontoxic options, my idealism flew out the window. I wanted something that worked, and fast. I looked at the organic label, but it seemed kind of wishy-washy. It seemed to say, “I will probably kill some kinds of fungus. Maybe. Why don’t you take me home and see?” I didn’t have time for that. I needed a product that grabbed me by the collar and shouted, “I KILL FUNGUS! NOW!” Also, the organic product cost a lot more. I went with the old-fashioned stuff. That’s what my mother, the master tomato grower, would have done.

Green cherry tomatoes with marigolds in background.

Though the lower leaves are looking sickly, baby cherry tomatoes have begun to appear up top.

I raced home and sprayed the tomato plants and am hoping for a recovery. They still looked fungus-y this morning and there was something wrong with the squash, so I sprayed that, too. On the bright side, baby cherry tomatoes are starting to appear and the peppers are still with me. The marigolds are fantastic. Too bad they’re not something we want to eat.

In other garden news this week, I received an upside-down vertical strawberry planter as a birthday present. Now I can kill things from a whole new angle.

Pest Paranoia Means Garden Mostly Marigolds

Container garden 6/2010 Laurie Sterbens

My container gardens are growing cherry tomatoes, mini bell peppers, herbs, squash and a whole lot of marigolds.

A couple of months ago I was inspired to plant a small vegetable garden. Besides being a major national trend, I had heard that if my child was involved in growing vegetables, he might actually consider eating them. I have my doubts about this since he has so far proven to be a pretty unshakeable pastavore, but it worked on my neighbor’s kid, so I am hopeful.

Also, my son had grown a plant from a seed in kindergarten and it was starting to look a little depressed in its plastic cup. I thought he would enjoy replanting his seedling and watching it grow.

The only problem with this was not a small one. For my entire life I have been so incompetent with plant life that I seriously wondered if I should be allowed to have children.

My last attempt at growing vegetables was a complete disaster. My mother sent me two Earth Box gardening containers so I could try to grow tomatoes. She had four of these boxes on her deck and from them every year grew an 8-foot-high wall of plants that produced a bountiful crop of beautiful tomatoes all summer. These boxes were self-watering. She was probably thinking that surely I couldn’t mess this up.

But I did. Instead of an 8-foot wall of lush, productive tomato and pepper plants, I ended up with two boxes of emaciated green sticks and one tomato, which was removed and destroyed by a squirrel. Then one day I found the plants completely covered in little black worms. Eeek! I emptied the boxes, stored them in the garage and was too traumatized to attempt even a small container garden for years.

Though I had seen some appealing plans for small, raised-bed gardens in such magazines as Better Homes and Gardens that were as simple as buying three planks, sawing one in half and attaching them, I never seemed to be able to get this done. Plus, with my history of crop failure, it didn’t seem sensible to devote even a 4 x 8 plot to what might end up being a tomato graveyard. The two boxes in the garage would be just the thing. Baby steps.

I selected a sunny spot near a water spigot and on the opposite side of the house from the squirrel-infested orange tree. Then my son and I were off to the home improvement store to select our plants. Keeping with my theme of “baby steps,” I chose two cherry tomato plants and two miniature bell pepper plants. I also added one squash plant because everyone seems to do well with squash. I added a couple of herbs—rosemary and tarragon because we eat a lot of fish, and oregano because it’s very versatile. I would like to have put in some thyme, too, for the same reason, but I had to make room for marigolds.

Last year I wrote a story about a group of friends in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., who were trying to drum up interest in community gardening. One thing that stuck with me from that interview is that the rows of vegetables in their organic garden were dotted with the occasional marigold plant to repel insects.

After my experience with tomato-plant-devouring worm invasion, I was all about repelling insects. The more marigolds the better. Plus, my son’s little seedling was a marigold so it would have company. Lots of company.

I bought some organic dirt, too. It was probably more expensive and I’m not sure what made it better than plain dirt, but organic was the theme and I was sticking with it. Well, to a point. With our trunk full of organic gardening supplies, we stopped off at a McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home for a happy meal. Like I said, baby steps.

So, as you can see by the photos, so far, so good. Amazingly, I haven’t killed anything yet. I could end up being one of the state’s leading marigold producers. My son enjoys going out to check the garden with me every day, and his little marigold seedling now has two tiny buds on it. Maybe we will build that 4 x 8 bed after all.

Scuba Do: The Almost Undersea Adventures of Me

Laurie Sterbens with Jaws in illustration by Marianne Koch

This illustration by graphic artist Marianne Koch appeared with a March 30, 2006 story in The Daytona Beach News-Journal in which I described my dive into the shark tank at SeaWorld Orlando. In reality, I was standing in a plexiglass cage in the tank.

I have a tiny, barely noticeable but not imaginary bruise on my left shoulder. I got this injury in scuba class. Not as glamorous or exciting as a shark bite or the bends, but it does illustrate a fact about scuba diving that might surprise you: Scuba involves a lot of heavy lifting. They never show that on TV.

Scuba diving is a bucket list item for me, something I’ve wanted to do since childhood. I’m dragging my husband, Scott, along so he can be my dive buddy, though he has accused me of having him there to carry tanks and do the math. Yes, there is not only heavy lifting involved in scuba diving but math. They don’t show that on TV either. Little square-shaped problems that look suspiciously like algebra are used to determine how much nitrogen has accumulated in your blood and how soon and for how long you can dive again. I was born with an underactive math gland, so I’ll admit, having my husband along is helpful.

The heavy lifting occurs in the process of getting your scuba gear and tanks from your car to the dive site, which is apparently never anywhere close to where you have to park. In addition to a scuba tank or two that weigh about 50 pounds each, there is a bulky bouyancy compensator vest, or BC;  a weight belt that is about 10 percent of your body weight; an octupus-like configuration of hoses that attach to your tank; and your mask, snorkel and fins. All of this must be transported from the car to the dive site while, at least in this case, wearing a full wetsuit in 90-degree heat.

Like childbirth, however, once that part’s over with you forget how painful it was. Eventually we got into the water and the fun began.

We’re in the process of getting our open water diver certifications from Spruce Creek Scuba in Port Orange, Fla. Having already completed our written test and pool session, we ventured out last weekend for our first open water dive at Alexander Springs near Astor, Fla., which features crystal clear, 72-degree water and a pretty little picnic area. The spring is occupied by freshwater fish and turtles and there is rumored to be a small alligator, but on this summer Saturday the spring was primarily occupied by wall-to-wall swimming children. Navigating our way through the water was like being the underwater camera in the beach scene from “Jaws.”

In fact, I didn’t get to see the alligator or even a turtle. The most memorable sight from my dive happened as I was kneeling in about six feet of water watching our instructor, Brett, and Scott practice a skill. A very large — and by that I mean wide — boy with a serious case of “plumber’s butt” swam just above Scott’s head. I was wishing I knew a hand signal for “Hey! Plumber’s butt above!” when another kid swam up behind the first boy and pulled his swimsuit down to his knees. I really hope my diving future includes enough exciting scenery to knock that visual out of my head.

After we got the “okay” sign from our instructors for performing a variety of skills such as clearing our masks, sharing air and removing our BCs underwater and putting them back on, we did a “follow the leader” dive around the spring. Ideally, this would be an underwater tour in which the experienced instructor led us smoothly around and pointed out each feature as we nodded in rapt attention and absorbed the wonder of it all in Discovery Channel perfection. The reality was about a dozen divers bobbing around and bumping into each other at every depth level as we clumsily struggled with our bouyancy and balance.

Eventually our increasingly orderly school of divers made it around the spring and back to the shallows, then back up to the picnic area to do our math homework. Scott and I had packed sandwiches and eagerly devoured them after a morning of lifting, swimming and more lifting. You don’t see a lot of obese scuba divers; now we know why.

We have one more dive to complete before we’re certified. After that, I’m looking forward to a lifetime of underwater adventures.

Back to “Jaws”: Check out this hilarious short animated film, “Jaws in 60 Seconds.”

Eggless Kindergarten Graduation Cake

I’ve been an unemployed journalist posing as a stay-at-home mom for nearly three months now, and weird things are starting to happen. Famous in the family for my brown thumb, I started a small organic vegetable garden with my son. After seeing three miniature bell peppers appear, I became obsessed and started sketching out plans for year-round plantings in the two large raised beds that I now plan to build.

After nine years, the fake bride and groom no longer occupy the crystal frame in our living room and our wedding party now appears in a large silver frame with eight tiny windows that used to say “1 1/4 x 2.” The fake bride and groom were with us for so many years I thought they’d earned a place in the family, though, so they are in the frame behind our own wedding picture.

I am seriously hoping I’ll find employment before I descend into full photo-album creation or, horrors, scrapbooking, but I have become a frequent flyer at the large craft store that just conveniently opened near my home. I’m finding myself on the hunt for cake decorating supplies, mostly. This is weird because I’m not really into sweets, especially cake. I’ve never gotten over the revelation that icing had shortening in it. Gross.

But I’ve got a little boy with an egg allergy who deserves cakes like every other kid for his birthdays and other occasions. Most recently was his kindergarten graduation. His teacher wanted to have a cake for the class, so I volunteered to make an eggless version, which she supplemented with storebought cupcakes.

White rectangle sheet cake with yellow shell trim that says "Yay! Miss Holter's Class, You Did It!"

For a kindergarten graduation, “Congratulations” seemed too stuffy. I went with “Yay!”

I decided that “Congratulations Kindergartners” was too stuffy for little kids, and also didn’t relish the idea of piping all those letters and trying to fit it into an appealing design. “Yay!” seemed more appropriate.

I used two boxes of reduced sugar devil’s food mix, each one baked in a 9×15 rectangular pan. Instead of the three eggs called for, I use two parts powdered egg substitute and a half a cup of applesauce per layer. This produces a moist, somewhat dense and nicely flat layer a little over an inch thick.

After allowing the cake to cool, I spread store-bought chocolate-chocolate chip icing on one layer and topped it with the second layer. I then covered the entire cake with vanilla buttercream (I do make homemade buttercream) and put it in the fridge to set overnight.

To decorate, I first sketched out a design in actual size. I kept the piping to a minimal by using fondant for the balloons and some of the letters. I rolled the fondant out in a pasta machine and cut it with cookie cutters, letter shape cutters and whatever else was handy that worked. I piped on some of the lettering, the balloon strings and the yellow trim, which was vanilla buttercream. I then added star sprinkles. It was not a restrained, elegant design, but it was for kindergarten.  They’re not into restraint.

The cake was a hit, even with people who didn’t know it was eggless. Now I’m wondering what can be my next cake-decorating occasion. Although first there’s the garden…

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