Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Preserving Garden Goodness - Drying Cayenne Peppers

Cayenne peppers, like most peppers, turn red when they are ripe.   Some peppers, like bell peppers, we eat while they are still green.  And, salsa is usually made with green jalapeno peppers.  Speaking of jalapeno peppers, last year I pickled jalapeno peppers.  

This year, I have quite a few ripe cayenne peppers which I want to preserve.   

One way to preserve them is to dry them.  All that is needed is a large sewing needle and some fishing line.

The first step is to thread the needle with the fishing line and stick it through the cap of one of the peppers.

Next, wrap the fishing line around the cap and tie it in a knot.

Stringing peppers on the fishing line, like this.

Continue in this manner until you have a string of peppers the desired length.  It is best not to make it too long. 

For the time being, I just hung these peppers from a cabinet door handle, but I need to find a better place for them where they are out of the way.  A broom handle laid across 2 chair backs in an unused bedroom would work as a pepper drying apparatus.  Anywhere out of the way where there is plenty of air flow around the peppers would be fine.  Even outside in a sheltered area would work.  Just make sure the peppers are safe from freezing.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dear Deer

Our local deer have been a blessing and a curse to us this past month.  They have been a curse in that they have eaten much of the garden.  They have eaten our black-eyed peas down to about a foot tall. 

Here's a closeup view of how the plants look.

They have eaten our okra in much the same manner.

And, they have eaten all except one plant in a small patch of sweet potatoes that I planted in a raised bed.  No idea why they left the one plant.  Maybe something scared them off.  Or, maybe they just got full and will come back to finish this plant off next week.

However, I harbor no animosity toward them because the garden is tired and so are we.   The tomatoes are on their last legs and the weeds have gotten ahead of us.  So, the deer have given us an excuse to drop out of the farmers' market for a few weeks while we regroup, get some much needed rest and prepare for a fall garden.  That is where the blessing is.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Little Bluestem

We have 5 acres, but only use about a fourth of it for our gardening activities.  The rest of it, that which is not taken up by a few large trees, our house and outbuildings, is open grassland.  I like to call this part our "wildflower meadow" because in the spring there are a lot of wildflowers out there.  A couple of years ago, I wrote an entry about some of these.

As mentioned in the above blog entry, we only mow these grassy areas a couple of times a year.  During the middle to late part of the summer, the wildflowers are gone and many of the spring grasses have died  At that time, it becomes rather unsightly and it is time to mow.  I've suggested getting some goats and letting them mow for us, but Tom has not taken the bait so far.  

Anyhow, this year we divide up the mowing duties.  Tom mowed the large open area to the west of the house and I mowed the area between the house and the road.  As I was mowing, I noticed some tall clumps of bluish colored grasses that I decided to leave.  I just liked the way they looked.

Tom told me these grasses were Little Bluestem.  Having now done some quick Google searches on this grass, here's what I have found.  It is a native grass to North America.  It is a perennial bunch grass and is one of the prominent grasses in the Tall Grass Prairie, an ecosystem native to central North America.  

Little Bluestem grows to a typical height of 3 feet.  It is called "bluestem" because, in the spring, it has a bluish hue.  Even though it is currently late summer,  I found this one clump that still has this blue coloring.

Most of the grass is turning tan, like this.

 The seeds are tiny.  They form on the top 6 inches or so of the stem.

I hope that, by leaving the clumps of Little Bluestem when I mowed, they will produce lots of seed that will germinate next spring and produce more clumps of this pretty grass for me to mow around. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

How to Cut Basil

We are in the hottest part of the summer and most of the garden looks pretty tired.   However, one plant that excels at this time of year is the herb, basil.   It seems to love hot weather and, as long as one keeps it watered, it grows non-stop.....which can be a problem if we miss a Saturday at the market and it does not get its weekly hair cut.  When it is not cut frequently, basil produces flowers, like this:

When basil flowers, its energy goes into making seed, instead of leaves.  And, because it is the leaves that you want, this is a bad thing.

A couple of years ago, we were gone for a while and my basil patch looked like this:

The flowers are not large or showy, but the bees loved them and we love the bees because they help pollinate our crops.  

At any rate, we were gone for a few days last week and missed the Saturday market.  When we got back, I had to give the basil a severe trimming.  Here is a picture of a plant "before" it was trimmed:

And here is what it looked like after I finished:

Don't worry.  It will regrow quickly.  The  point is that you have to practice "tough love" to keep it producing those wonderful aromatic leaves.

So, here is what you should know when trimming your basil plants.  When you look closely at a basil stem, you'll see that it has smaller branches coming off the main stem.

It is important to cut the main stem just above where the smaller stems are growing.  So, if I were going to cut the stem above, I would make my cut about 2 inches to the right of my thumb.  See below.

If you follow this method, then the two smaller stems will grow  large and produce more leaves.  Thus, you get twice the number of leaves as you have on the original stem.  Not a bad deal.  It is like doubling your money!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Black Tomatoes

My previous two posts have been about tomatoes we are growing this year.  I hope you can bear with me for one more tomato post!  In particular, this post deals with a couple of tomato varieties we are growing that are classified as "black" tomatoes.  

I've always been vaguely aware that there were other colors of tomatoes besides red ones.  Most of the seed catalogs offer yellow ones, stripped ones, even green ones.  However, I usually fast-forwarded through these to the red ones and never give these other varieties much thought.  But, last winter while pouring over one of the seed catalogs, I noticed a cherry tomato called "Black Cherry".  This one gave me reason to pause because it looked just like the Cherokee Purple tomatoes that we grew last year.  

As I read the description of this odd little cherry tomato, I noticed it was in a section of the catalog titled "Black Tomatoes".  And, not only was Cherokee Purple listed there, but there were several varieties of similar coloring with exotic names like Black Krim, Carbon and Japanese Trifele Black. 

After doing a little online research I found that the black tomatoes appear to have originated in Russia and slowly spread to other parts of the world, having originally existed in only a small region on the Crimean Peninsula.  As they spread, they soon began showing up as new varieties in all shapes and sizes.  After some lobbying from me for the Black Cherry tomatoes, we order a couple of these black tomatoes, Cherokee Purple and Black Cherry.  

Although these are referred to as black tomatoes, most of these varieties are more of a maroon or purple-brown color.  In fact, the Cherokee Purples retain their green shoulders while turning a deep, dark red on the bottom.  Because the green never really disappeared, we had a learning curve to determine when they were actually ripe.

Black tomatoes tend to have an earthy sweetness to them and seem less acidic than red tomatoes.  But, you probably won't find them in the supermarket because they are more fragile than the supermarket varieties grown for shipping. So, head down to your local farmers' market to get them.  Or, try growing them yourself.  A packet of seed is cheap compared to the great taste you will enjoy from tomatoes fresh off your own vines.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Heirloom Tomatoes

We always try to grow at least one or two heirloom tomato varieties.  The definition of what it means to be an "heirloom" plant is open to debate. But, generally the term, as it relates to plants, means  the variety was being grown before World War II.  Heirloom varieties are also "open-pollinated" which means that, unlike hybrids, the seeds you collect from a plant one year and replant in subsequent years will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant.  Most heirloom plants have been passed down from generation to generation by saving seeds and replanting them the next year, thus insuring their survival.

In the past, we have grown Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine, Yellow Pear, Box Car Willie and Rutgers tomatoes.  Heirloom tomatoes can be very sensitive to environmental conditions, needing just the right conditions to produce well.  Tom is pretty much the judge as to which ones we keep and replant from year to year.  He has come to like Rutgers quite a bit because they seem to consistently produce well here in Oklahoma.  The others have fallen by the wayside for whatever reason.

This year, in addition to Rutgers, we decided to try Virginia Sweet, Arkansas Traveler and Cherokee Purple.  This picture shows them in order listed above.

We have found the Virginia Sweets to be somewhat temperamental.  They were late to produce, but when they finally did, we got some nice, large tomatoes.  The one pictured above does not do them justice.   In keeping with their name, they were very sweet ..... sweeter than any tomato I have ever eaten.

Arkansas Travelers were bred in Arkansas (our neighboring state) to produce in the hot, humid southern summer and are also crack and disease resistant.  They have consistently produced medium-sized fruit all summer and have the wonderful flavor one expects from an heirloom tomato.  I expect we will add these to our list of "keepers", along with Rutgers.

The Cherokee Purple tomatoes have also produced well for us this year.  Once you get past their odd greenish/purple coloring, you find them to have wonderful tomato flavor,  just like any other heirloom.  To my eyes, they don't look "purple", but ripen to where they are deep red on the bottom and a dark green around the stem.

Finally, when sliced they look like this.

Virginia Sweets (lower left) are yellow with red stripes.  Arkansas Traveler (top) look like any other tomato variety.  And, Cherokee Purple (lower right), have a deep red meat with seed pockets that are greenish black.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Cherry Tomatoes

We are being overwhelmed with cherry tomatoes.  We have so many that Tom has had to take up some room under our carport to house them.  Here's what he has rigged up.

(Note, we are in the process of expanding the pavement in order to have a place for a picnic table.  Thus, the bare dirt that you see.)

We have four different varieties of cherry tomatoes, as you can see below.  The lower left are Large Red Cherry tomatoes.  To their right are Coyote.  Above those are Sweet 100 and in the upper right corner are Black Cherry tomatoes. 

Here is a close-up picture to show a better comparison.

From left to right, the varieties are Black Cherry, Large Red Cherry, Sweet 100 and Coyote.  
This is the first year we have grown the Black Cherry and Coyote tomatoes.  Our original intent was to have several cherry tomatoes of about the same size, but different colors, that we could mix together in boxes to offer our customers at the farmers' market.

Unfortunately, the Coyote tomatoes turned out to be much too small for that.  They are, however, wonderfully sweet and delicious!  

In regard to the difference in size, there are three different types of "cherry" tomatoes.....regular cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and currant tomatoes.  The seed catalogs disagree on which varieties fall in to which category.  Generally, grape tomatoes are smaller than cherry tomatoes and currant tomatoes are smaller than grape tomatoes.  

I would categorize the Black Cherry and Large Red Cherry as true cherry tomatoes, while the Sweet 100 is a grape tomato, and the Coyote is a currant tomato.  However, the seed catalog that we ordered from called the Coyote a cherry tomato!  Go figure!