Fall Migration: The Beautiful Country of Upstate New York

Sunrise in upstate OpenLotusGarden

Upstate sunrise

For the past decade, the end of summer has always meant traveling for me.  At the first hint of autumn, I would head south alongside the geese from my upstate New York homeland to arrive in time for the beginning of the school year in Atlanta.  But lately, those patterns have flip-flopped.  I’m finally (finally!) done with school, and as the geese are heading south, I’m northbound.  And due to a variety of developments, this time I’ll be staying for a little while.

I bid a reluctant, sorrowful goodbye to the urban garden I’ve been working on for the last four years in Atlanta, and I’m trying hard not to look back, for fear of lapsing into the sorrow of nostalgia for things lost.  The good news is that upon returning to my home region, I’m seeing this place with new eyes.  New York State is home to the country’s largest national park, hundreds upon hundreds of beautiful lakes, vineyards, agricultural land, and an abundance of small-scale farms, especially along the Hudson Valley, just north of The Big Apple.

himrod farm openlotusgarden

A small upstate NY farm

One of the facets of this beautiful land that I didn’t explore during earlier years is the stunning farmland in the rolling hills between the Finger Lakes.  A sizeable portion of it is occupied and farmed by old-order Mennonite families, who, through the particular quirks of their religious beliefs, are living on the land much like all of our ancestors did centuries ago.  Yes, (since I know you’re wondering) these are the folks whose primary mode of transport is horse and buggy, who opt for suspenders over belts, buttons over zippers, and put metal wheels on their tractors so that they aren’t used for extraneous, non-agricultural purposes. (And you’ll be hearing more about my experience with these kind folks a little later, promise!)

upstate farm

Late summer fields

So here we are.  The golden cornfields are shorn.  It’s definitely autumn.  The fall is a transitory season, a season of change.  A time to tuck things into bed for a good long rest so that they can burst forth anew come spring.  In the upcoming months, I’ll be exploring and sharing little sketches about this land where I came from, of course with a particular eye for gardens, growing, and positive change.  I hope it captivates y’all as much as it has me this second time around.

Personally I’m looking forward to the quiet season – it gives me a chance to reflect on the past year’s garden and projects, spend a little time with the garden’s bounty in the kitchen rather than in the soil, and it also allows me to plan and prepare for the cheerful riot of spring gardening activity.  I hope you’ll enjoy the next few months, as we make our way through this year’s winter passage.  Grab some wool socks, a blanket and some hot tea and start enjoying the gardener’s quiet season.  It certainly won’t last too long! 🙂

A Tioga County farm

A Tioga County farm

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“Gardening is a Subversive Act”

So y’all may have noticed that I haven’t exactly been on a writing binge lately, which will likely be explained in the post coming up next.  But in the meantime, I wanted to share this great video with you.  It’s a talk with Roger Doiron, who’s the founding director of Kitchen Gardeners International, which is a network of folks “taking a hands-on approach to re-localizing the global food supply.”

In it, he talks about the importance that our very own back (or front!) yard kitchen gardens can have in creating positive change for our modern agricultural wasteland.  (Side note: He’s the guy that successfully petitioned to have a veggie garden replanted at the White House.)  The talk is funny, it’s clever, motivating, and it makes some really important points.  So, I invite you to enjoy it, and then grab those seed catalogues, some graph paper, and start planning your garden for next spring! 🙂

* While the embedded video is from Youtube, full credit should to go TED.com for sponsoring such a consistently incredible array of inspiring, thought-provoking speakers on all manner of topics.  You can see more awesome talks at their website.

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Home-Grown Zesty Tomato Soup

Fall TomatoesSo this month pretty much marks the end of the summer growing season in most places, but I have the suspicion that some of you gardeners out there might still have some tomatoes hanging around that you need to use up quickly before the first fall frost claims them.  (Or maybe there are still some decent tomatoes to be had at the local farmers’ markets around? It’s worth checking!)

Either way, it’s definitely time to savor the end of those delicious summer veggies we’ve been enjoying these past months, and bid them goodbye until next summer.  Summer is great for eating tomatoes bite by bite like an apple, sliced up on a sandwich, dropped into salads, and in cool, refreshing, gazpacho.

But what to do with them as we head towards the heart of the autumn season?  Cook up a big pot of delicious tomato soup, I say!  It’s warm, it’s savory, it’s a little spicy (if you like it that way) so it’s the perfect culinary transition from summer’s end into fall.

Before saying anything else, I need to confess something: I’ve never, EVER been much of a fan of tomato soup.  But I now blame this wholly on the fact I had only  tasted the canned stuff until I made it myself. (Thanks, Mom and Campbell’s.)  The real deal is worlds and worlds better.

Start with some fresh, organic, and preferably local tomatoes, like these (straight from the garden):

Fall TomatoesGetting hungry?  Here’s what you need:

  • 6 cups of diced, peeled (unpeeled if you prefer) tomatoes (minus as many of the seeds as you can get out)
  • 2 red bell peppers, sliced, with seeds removed
  • 1 cup of onions, finely chopped
  • 5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • about a dozen or so fresh basil leaves, plus extra for garnish
  • 1  1/2 tsp fresh thyme
  • 1/2 cup of cream (or to taste)
  • sea salt, white pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste
  • miniature mozarella balls (2-3 per serving)

Start by heating up the olive oil in a pan and then cooking the onions until they’re translucent over medium/medium-high heat.  Add the garlic and cook for a couple more minutes.

Toss the tomatoes, basil, and red pepper slices into a food processor and blend until smooth. (Process in batches, if necessary.)

Combine the tomato basil mixture with the garlic and onions in a pot, adding in the the fresh thyme, sea salt, white pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste.

Simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, until soup cooks down some.

Add the cream, and heat on low until ready to serve.

Serve in bowls with 2-3 mozarella balls and a garnish of basil leaves.

Eat, enjoy.

open lotus garden tomato soup

What’s your favorite end-of-summer-into-fall recipe or food?

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Autumn Harvest: Fresh Sweet Pickled Peppers

Summer is finally winding down, even in the hot, dirty South.  And I’ll admit that it gives me a little ache in my heart to see it go, just the same as every year that came before this one.  I am a girl of summer in every sense – born during the warm season, and still completely in love with it.  The tomato plants in the garden are putting out their very last fruits, and the squash and basil are ready to be harvested.  Only the italian kale is showing no signs of letting up (and boy, am I glad for that!)

Details aside, autumn is a time for taking  pause to feel the earth begin to swing back around in its comfortable little orbit around the sun in this vast universe of ours.  It’s a time to note the days growing shorter, and a time for harvesting the fruits of the spring and summer’s labor. This Friday actually marks the autumnal equinox  this year – the day when the amount of daylight and night-time hangs in perfect balance for a moment before darkness reigns for the next six months.

With all the incredible bounty of the garden’s swan song this time of year, the issue of food storage and preservation becomes a focus of singular obsession for the thrifty gardener.  Cook, can, blanch, freeze, pickle, store, dry, dehydrate…any way you cut it, there are so many different (and delicious) ways to preserve the summer garden produce so you can still enjoy it during the upcoming months of fleeting days and long, cold nights.  And if you don’t have a garden with bumper crops of summer veggies to preserve, no worries!  Just find a local roadside farmer’s stand where you can stock up on your favorite fruits and veggies to preserve…most likely all stuff with flavor and prices you won’t find comparison for in grocery stores.

pepper harvest

While I was visiting the place I still call home last month (upstate New York), my uncle introduced me to an easy recipe for making sweet pickled peppers that I want to share with y’all.  It’s a great way to preserve peppers for a few weeks (in the fridge) or right through ’til next summer (if you decide to can them).  The peppers end up sweet, sour, and a bit salty…the perfect combination for adding the zest of summer to sandwiches, omelettes, quiches, fritattas, stir-fry, or sauces as we trudge somewhat reluctantly into the fall and winter seasons.

Ingredients:

  • A pile of sweet bell peppers  (green, yellow, red, and purple are all great for this, though my favorites are red and purple)
  • 1 quart white vinegar (5% acidity)
  • 1 quart water
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/2 tbsp noniodized salt (sea salt or kosher salt works)

Instructions:

  • Wash and core the peppers, then cut them into strips
  • Blanch the peppers in boiling water (they’re ready to take out when the water reaches a boil again)
  • Put the peppers into a large glass jar
  • Combine the vinegar, water, sugar and salt, and stir the mixture until the sugar and salt are dissolved
  • Pour the pickling mixture over the peppers until they’re completely immersed
  • Leave the peppers to cool, if needed, and then you can store them covered in the fridge for several weeks.  The peppers are perfectly fine to use after a day or two, but they taste the best after about a week of soaking in the pickling mixture.

(Note: absolutely consult specialized canning instructions if you’d like to can your own peppers; this recipe is for fridge storage only.)

And there you have it.  Beautiful, sunny, pickled peppers!  Keep them in the fridge for weeks at a time, or grab your trusty canning manual and use a similar recipe to put some delicious peppers up in the pantry.  Enjoy, and be well!

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Fickle Weather and Tomato Blossom End Rot

It seems like it’s taken forever to get a good supply of tomatoes coming in from the garden.  It’s not that we didn’t start them early enough in the spring.  It’s not because we transplanted them outdoors too late. It’s not because we didn’t feed them or fuss over them.  Maybe it’s just because they’re awaited with So.  Much.  Anticipation.

Luckily, the adage that good things come to those who wait has yet to been proven untrue in my life or in the garden.  But it had been such a very frustrating wait.  I can only write about it now because I’ve finally been feasting on plenty of fresh garden tomatoes for several weeks now.

You see, the garden was absolutely dripping with beautiful green tomatoes through much of May and June.  I’d  thrill at the first sign of a pinkish blush on whatever parts of them were exposed to the most sunshine.  I’d check them every few days, feeling the firmness of their skin begin to yield a bit more under my fingers each day, sometimes gently pulling against the vine to see if they were ready to let go.  But then, something bad happened.  After an unusually dry June, it rained.  It rained a lot.  And by then, those gorgeous tomatoes I had been pining for largely ended up looking like this:

Blossom end rot on a tomato

Upwards of 80% of the earliest tomatoes in the garden ended up getting these horrid brown-black spots on their undersides that grew and softened as the tomatoes continued to ripen, sometimes consuming more than half the fruit, if I let it get to that point.  More often than not, I would twist off the aborted tomatoes and pitch them into the compost, in the hopes of encouraging further flowering rather than the ripening of ruined fruit.  This is the sorrowful, but not uncommon problem known as blossom end rot.

Blossom end rot can happen to any variety of garden vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.  It can appear on tomatoes that aren’t the slightest bit ripe, or you may not notice it until you pick a tomato that looks beautiful from eye level, but when turned over, has a big rotted leathery spot on the bottom.  If I’ve noticed one thing, it’s that cherry tomatoes tend to be far less prone to blossom end rot than the larger varieties.  So it’s always best to plant a few cherries to tide you over if you do get a bit of blossom end rot on your other early tomatoes.

Blossom end rot on a Speckled Roman tomato

What causes the problem?  Well, it’s not a parasite, and it’s not a fungus, so you’ll be relieved to know that it can’t be transmitted between various plants in the garden like blight, mosaic virus, and fusarium wilt. (Thank goodness!)

In short, anything that inhibits the supply of adequate amounts of water (or calcium) to the developing tomatoes can cause blossom end rot.  Often, young lush plants that are growing quickly then exposed to dry conditions will have blossom end rot on their first crop of tomatoes, but the problem will usually go away as the plant adjusts to the less-than-ideal conditions. (This is what happened with mine.)

Poor root development can also make tomato plants susceptible to blossom end rot during stressful environmental conditions.  Transplanting tomatoes out too early into cold soil can negatively impact root development (and thus water and calcium uptake), so you’re not necessarily doing yourself a favor by getting your plants out as soon as you deem them safe from those last few overnight frosts.

Some gardeners point to a calcium deficiency in the soil as the cause of blossom end rot, but this is actually rarely a legitimate problem, unless your soil is somehow seriously demineralized.  If you want to be super-cautious about this, there are a few ways to get some extra calcium into your soil:

  1.  Some egg-eating gardeners will save the eggshells from their cooking, toss them into a blender (when dried) and then add a bit of the resulting powder when transplanting their tomato starts outdoors in the spring.
  2. Bone meal.  Plenty of calcium.  Optimally ethical and safe?  That’s definitely up for debate.  I used it briefly back when I started out gardening, mostly because that’s just what was prominently available.  Personally, I greatly prefer (and recommend) options 1 and 3, and 4 over this one.
  3. Gypsum or dolomite are both mineral-based (rock) solutions to low calcium.  Dolomite will raise the pH of your soil, though, making it less acidic, so do a pH test before adding it to your beds.  Gypsum, on the other hand, will add calcium to the soil without altering the pH drastically.  Another perk of gypsum is that it can help a little bit to soften up difficult soil.  See Walter Reeve’s article on the topic here for more info.
  4. Rock dust.  This stuff can contain a wide range of different minerals which can be used by the plants but also by the microbes in the soil, increasing soil vitality (and thereby plant vitality).  John over at growingyourgreens.com is a big proponent of this stuff, so here’s a video from him talking a bit more about it with Don Weaver.

Other measures that can help save your veggies from blossom end rot:

  • Regular watering during dry weather.  (Drip irrigagion is most efficient.)
  • Mulch around your plants. (Just a couple inches of mulch does wonders for retaining moisture in the soil.)

Summer sunflower and the all-important pollinator

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Summer Garden Harvest

Here’s what I picked yesterday in the garden while I was doing some maintenance weeding.  No additional words necessary, really.  Just check out that basket and read the shirt! 🙂

Grow your own food. Good for you, good for the planet!

Happy gardening!

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Cherry Tomatoes: A July Garden Taste Test

So it’s finally tomato season in the garden, and I’m officially rejoicing.  The garlic is harvested and ready to be crushed, the genovese basil leaves are there for the taking, and the olive oil is ready in the pantry…just waiting to be united with the grand dames of the garden—the beautiful, beloved, oft-worshipped big tomatoes.  And they’re almost there…the brandywine plants are laden with huge, heavy fruits…the only problem is that they’re still green.

Cherry tomatoes (left to right): Store-bought organic, then brown berry, yellow, and mexico midgets all from the garden

Luckily, there are always the cherry tomatoes—the juicy little mouthfuls of delight that bring in tomato season each year with great aplomb well in advance of their larger sisters.  I filled my pockets with a few different varieties when I went on my garden walk this evening, and decided to pause for a moment this evening and take the time to appreciate how they really taste, and how they measure up against one another.  And to round out the competitors, I threw in an organic grape cherry variety that I bought at the store several days ago before my own started to ripen up.

Organic store-bought grape tomato from Lady Moon Farms

Firm feel, but a little wrinkly and yellow toward the stem end, as they’re beginning to dehydrate. (As soon you pick a fruit from the vine, it begins the gradual processes of dessication and decomposition, and the longer it sits, the less vitality and nutrition it has available for whoever eats it.)  It was a little juicy, with very slight acidity, but seriously low on flavor.  (Or, I could say it was extremely mild, if I wanted to be genteel about it.)  This is probably partly due to the fact that at this time of year, Lady Moon Farms is most likely shipping tomatoes by refrigerated 18-wheelers up from Florida.  Not their fault, really—it’s just the way this crazy industrialized food business works.  Props to them for at least growing organically.

Brown Berry Cherry Tomato
(from Seed Saver’s Exchange, but grown in Open Lotus Garden)

These brownish-red cherries have shoulders that remain a deep greenish-reddish-brown when ripe, and they’re quite pretty.  The ones I picked to eat tonight were firm, but had a yielding feel under the fingers, which is usually a good indication that they’re perfectly ripe. They were super juicy, with a moderate acidity, and a good dose of sweetness to even it out.  Very good “real tomato” flavor that really fills up your entire mouth. Delicious!

Rainbow Cherry Tomato
(yellow cultivar out of a mixed pack from Botanical Interests, grown in Open Lotus Garden)

This cherry variety is an unusual pale lemon yellow color, and they’re slightly translucent so that you can see the veins in the flesh of the fruit. They’re really stunning to behold.  They, too, are very juicy, with a higher initial tanginess than the brown berry, but with a lingering sweetness that’s quite mild and pleasant.  Very good!

Mexico Midget Cherry Tomato
(from Seed Savers Exchange, grown in Open Lotus Garden)

The smallest of the three varieties, these plants are known to be dumfoundingly prolific.  Firm under the touch, these tomtoes have moderate juiciness, a good solid tomato flavor with a balance of acidity and sweetness, and the tanginess lingers even after the tomato’s gone.  I’d say this one has the strongest tomato flavor that we all know and love out of all four varieties. Yum.

So what’s the takeaway?

Don’t settle for store-bought tomatoes (even organic ones!) unless it’s the dead of winter and you don’t have any other recourse.  It’s well worth the effort, (and a just little extra change) to find a local farmer’s market to be able to fully relish the sweet, tangy fruits of the season while they’re freshly picked.  (Trust me, you deserve it.)

Or even better yet, just grow your own.  If you decide to try this route, then you can have the same experience I did this afternoon while I was walking though the garden:  peeking hopefully under the leaves and spotting a cluster of cherry tomatoes that look just about ready, feeling the ripe cherry tomatoes let go of the vine with a light twist of my fingers, and then poping those sun-warmed gifts of nature into my mouth and crunching into them for that irresistible flavor I can’t find anywhere else but in my own garden.

Speckled Roman Tomato

Hope you’re savoring the start of tomato season, too!

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