Apologies for the blog silence these last couple of weeks. Life has really got the better of me since returning from Italy. It is always tough adjusting back to normal life after being on vacation but this was compounded by it being the end of the quarter (I run a sales team) and our nanny deciding to become a stay at home mom.
I will not bore you with the details but it is NOT easy to find a nanny! We survived almost a month without a nanny and it was really an all hands on deck effort with my 70 year old parents helping out daily and my husband finishing work early every day. This past month was a blur of interviews, work and stress. What really helped me get through each day (in addition to my amazing son) was my garden. Each evening after I put my son to sleep I was able to take 10 - 20 minutes to walk around in the silence of the evening. I was able to look at the zucchini’s that had doubled in size since the day before, I smelled the roses and generally took a moment to relax and forget the crap in life that had been getting me down.
An article I read on health.com said ‘A recent study in the Netherlands suggests that gardening can fight stress even better than other relaxing leisure activities.’ With all the distractions we have in life today being able to be outside and focus on the garden helps me remember what is really important and realize that whatever is causing me stress is temporary and, in the scheme of things, not worth worrying about. Thank you garden...
This year my blackcurrants recovered from being moved last year and were back to their normal abundant cropping. I have only 2 plants and they produce so much fruit I am always at a loss for what to do with them. This is mainly because I made so much jelly 2 years in a row that 3 years later I am still eating it! Canned goods last forever right?
I am very glad that the blackcurrants did well this year because my red and white currants got decimated by a caterpillar. Oddly the caterpillar stripped all 6 plants of their leaves but left about 50% - 60% of the fruit intact. After picking the currants I ended up with more caterpillars on my clothing that fruit in my basket.
Back to blackcurrants...I went back to my favorite books, the River Cottage Handbooks. This time I went for No. 2 Preserves and found a great recipe for potted blackcurrants. When reading the description as being great with custard or ice cream I thought this would be perfect.
Getting blackcurrants off the plant individually is pretty easy so I decided to pick them this way so as to make the cleaning and canning part of the job easier. You really want to pack them in the jars but want to avoid crushing them. Once they are all in the jars you want to pour the syrup over them. To make the syrup you want to heat 600 ml of water with 200 grams of sugar. Once the mixture comes to a boil keep boiling for about 1 minute. Let this syrup cool slightly (to 60 degrees C) and then pour over the fruit up to the brim. Fasten with the screw bands as per normal for canning. Place the jars in water which is at 38 degrees C and then over 25 minutes heat to 88 degrees C and then maintain at this temperature for about 2 minutes. Lift out the jars and once totally cool check for a seal.
I have never canned this way but all of my jars were sealed and the liquid in the cans is a lovely blue/purple color, what a great use for blackcurrants!
When I lived in England I had a couple of allotments which was quite fun. I lived in a small house with a small garden so this was my only chance to grow anything. I had a smallish allotment in the beginning which was perfect and then a couple years after getting that one I took on another allotment 4x the size.
When taking on the large allotment, much to the dismay of the gentleman who ran the allotment, I refused to double dig as I had watched people do this on another allotment and was horrified by the amount of time it took them to do. I decided I would use half to grow potatoes and the other half for winter squash. I had heard that growing potatoes can help fight out the weeds. For the squash I put down black plastic and cut holes for the squash, again to suppress the weeds and keep the roots and soil underneath warm.
Weeds, especially bindweed, was a constant battle even with this approach. Every weekend I spent hours weeding and each weekend I returned there were more weeds.
When I moved to Seattle and bought a house with some land I think the fear of weeding led me to build my 30 inch high raised beds (also I needed them high enough to keep the rabbits out). Raised beds are not ideal for potatoes, onions etc. as I could not grow the quantity that I would find satisfying.
At the same time I have developed a system to ensure that I am getting massive amounts of vegetables and fruits for the space I have. The key to keeping the raised beds as productive as possible is to start the seeds in containers rather than sowing seeds in the beds. Vegetables like radish can't be done this way but most fruit and vegetables can. The benefit is that when you gain space after harvesting a crop, you have a ready supply of new plants to put in. This works so well for lettuce, spinach and other salad crops. I even start beans and peas in pots and plant them out when appropriate. When it comes to peas I plant the seedlings and then sow another pea seed close by for succession planting in the same space.
By using this approach my raised beds are pretty much full and productive 100% of the time (from May - October)!
I often go outside in the evening after I put my son to bed to just look around. I take notice of the little details, the colors and the small changes from day to day. I grow and forage for fruits and vegetables for flavor, above all else, but when you stop and actually look at these plants you realize how beautiful they are. The colors and shapes are amazing, it is no wonder artists draw and paint fruits and vegetables.
In the raised beds my eyes are drawn to the different types of lettuce both in shapes and colors. I now realize why I always grow way too much lettuce, it is because I am curious as to what the hundreds of varieties look like. I grow radishes because there is something so fun about picking them in order to see those bright, vivid vegetables below ground. Even with holes from slugs they look great, the colors look almost man-made. Cucumbers are another favorite of mine, the variations of green on the cucumbers make me want to look closer.
Wild fruit is also so attractive, I was able to catch a bee on a blooming salal today and by looking up close I realized how lovely the little light pink flowers are. Salmonberries are another amazing looking fruit. From the orange colored fruit to the reddish ‘hairs’, they really look a bit odd.
If you have the time, take a closer look!
What an amazing walk it was today. Everywhere I looked it was like a picture on a postcard. Those postcards of Tuscan landscapes are real. When you get up close you see that the various shades of browns, yellows and greens are from the different crops growing in the fields. Today I saw a dark, almost black, wheat growing in a field. The colors are really amazing and what I love is that they are really using almost every bit of land to grow something. Of course this area is famous for the Brunello wine which is 100% Sangiovese grapes but the olive oil and fruit is also amazing. I can say I have had so much amazing olive oil. The flavor is so rich and nutty and a flavor I have rarely tasted in the US. I read that a study done in 2010 said 69% of the imported olive oil in the US is rancid.
The fruit I am sure is amazing but based on the time of year I am here in Italy I have only been able to pick cherries from the trees and wow are they good. There are cherry trees everywhere, in manicured gardens but also in the hedgerows as well. This goes for other fruit trees like apples, pears, plums and figs. There are walnut everywhere as well. I just love seeing people growing so much and wonder why we don't see more people growing food in the US.
One things that I find quite interesting is that many of the fruit trees are much smaller than in the US. Possibly they are using different rootstock but apples, pears and plums for example are mature and standing about 10 foot high with the crown 6 foot in diameter with the trunk as the center point. These trees are covered in fruit. I am going to try and learn a little more while here.
Walking around the farm I am struck by how many varieties of fruit and nuts you can grow here in Umbria! Also the variety means that throughout the summer you really can have an abundance of fruit. Additionally, they can grow fruit that stores well so you can really grow all the fruit you need for the entire year! Not to mention the hedgerow fruit and nuts you can collect. On my walk I noticed blackberries, elderberries and juniper berries!
This farm produces wine and olive oil so these are by far the largest group of plants. They have 350 olive trees. Interestingly I have been told it is rude to ask how many olive trees someone has as this is equivalent to asking someone how much they earn since each tree gives a predictable amount of olive oil each year and everyone knows what you can sell it for. They also have hundreds of other fruit and nut trees, and as this is a 100 acre farm, I am sure I have missed a few varieties as well.
It is May here and we are currently eating the most amazing cherries which they have in abundance. In fact I am writing this blog while laying in a hammock attached to an olive tree and a cherry tree, this makes for excellent snack breaks! The figs will be ready in a month or so. The mulberries are not totally ready but I found the random ripe one or two. When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago my neighboor had a mulberry tree which I adored but I had to eat the berries without anyone knowing so I used to put bags on my feet so as not to dye my shoes and get caught. I used to spend hours picking and eating this delicious fruit!
In the late summer they will have walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds; they will also have peaches, apricots and kiwi. Then in autumn they will have quince, apples, persimmons and pears. Surprisingly the weather on the hill where the farm is located is too hard on citrus so they have built a greenhouse to house the lemons and limes.
What abundance this climate has to offer.
I had to make a work trip this week to a city in the southern part of the US. I am not going to name this city as I am afraid I don't have anything good to say about it. I am living in a depressing concrete jungle this week. Being here has made me realize that even a large city can have an abundance of trees and plants. As you can see, this one does not...
I have been lucky enough to travel a lot and cities like Singapore, London, NYC and many more, and all of them have really embraced the idea that you can combine concrete and living plants. I recall visiting a city in Austria that decided instead of normal trees they were going to plant fruit trees so that everyone could enjoy a tasty apple when in town. I don't understand why more cities don’t use fruit/ vegetable plants in landscaping. I was super impressed last weekend when I was walking on the Kirkland Corridor path when I saw blueberries planted on the Google campus. Blueberries are lovely bushes in their own right and of course they also produce delicious fruit.
I heading back to the green of the PNW tomorrow…thankfully :)
I have mentioned the wild fruit growing on my plot before. Today as I walked around the plot I really noticed how many wild/native plants which are growing here. I saw lots of Salal, Oregon Grape, Elderberry and Salmonberries. Parts of the plot are a sea of blue Forget-Me-Nots!
Today I was really taken with the beautiful flowers on the Evergreen Huckleberry. This time of year they are covered in delicate pink flowers which in July will be full of lovely tart berries. I really like mixing them with blueberries and serving with slightly sweetened cream.
The plants in the greenhouse are starting to take off with the warmer days. I have flowers on my tomatoes and they are already over 12 inches tall! I am feeling good about the 2017 tomato crop.
I always start calla lily and begonia tubers in the greenhouse and they will be ready to go out in a couple of weeks. I love growing them this way as I get to pick the specific type and color I want.
Here are some other lovely things growing in the greenhouse now!
One thing that I think is pretty cool about where I live is that I have native fruit bushes growing in the forested area of my plot of land. With all the cutting down of trees and the development of the massive ‘cookie cutter’ homes I feel like I am preserving a little bit of the natural landscape.
I have all sorts of fruit bushes growing such as Salmonberries, Salal, Oregon Grape but the one I have in the largest group are the red huckleberries. These are really attractive plants, they have lovely leaves and they can get quite large. They end up being covered in a delicate, slightly translucent, red berry which looks to me like a smaller red blueberry. The birds enjoy eating them as much as I do but there are more than enough to go around! Traditionally they used to be used as bait for fishing believe it or not!
This year I have big plans for this berry, they should be ripe and ready to eat in early July! I am going to try some jam but also some baked goods as well to try and see how the flavor changes based on the cooking method.
I would love to hear from you all if you have made things using red huckleberries...please share!
So far this has been a VERY rainy Spring in the Pacific Northwest but I was starting to feel like it was going to be a good year in terms of fruit, veg and flowers. That was until I went outside today and noticed that some sort of animal decided it was a good idea to hop into my raised beds and just chew off all of the blueberry flowers, not to actually eat them but just because he/she could.
Not only that but the stunning bed of 50+ lilies that have been growing happily and healthily for years is bare. Almost all of them just did not come up this year. This is a very big blow for me, the smell of these amazing lilies over the summer months is now something that will be hugely missed this year. Of the lilies that did come up some have been chewed off, by what I have no idea! I think it could be the rare breed of rabbit in my garden that seems to be able to jump 30 inches into the raised bed. This is quite funny because everything you read says that a rabbit does not jump this high.