Category Archives: Gardening

Container Gardening & the Perfect Grape Tomato

Juliet Grape Tomatoes

Juliet Grape Tomatoes – plump, firm and perfectly tomato-y!

I am not much of a gardener, but I simply couldn’t do without my little container garden that I cram into the only corner of our back porch that gets any sun.  I love being able to nip out while I’m cooking and grab a handful of fresh basil, oregano, mint, lemon thyme, rosemary or parsley.  This year I added dill, cilantro and Mexican tarragon to the gang.  I have no idea what Mexican tarragon is, but it looked irresistible with its tiny golden flowers.  I also upgraded to new containers this year – some faux half barrels that I found at Lowes.  They are cute, sturdy, and the price was right!

The real tip I want to pass on here is a recommendation for a fabulous grape tomato that is perfect for container gardening – Juliet.  I have grown Juliet the past two summers and couldn’t love her more.  She produces gobs of tomatoes in grape-like clusters.  The fruit is firm and easy to slice, with a minimum amount of um, I believe “jelly” is the polite term (aka tomato snot), and the flavor is excellent.  The fruits are thumb sized and resemble wee little San Marzanos (see above).  The Park seed catalog classifies Juliet as a “saladette” tomato – somewhere between a grape and a Roma.  Never heard that term before!

Because they are so sturdy and don’t have gobs of jelly, they are perfect not only for salads, but also for roasting, sautéing for a quick pasta sauce, topping a pizza, or just dunking them, still warm from the vine, in blue cheese dip and popping in your mouth.  Heaven!  The sturdy, fleshy fruits last for about 2 weeks in a bowl on the counter – which is good because one Juliet will produce a good pint of tomatoes per week for about 4 months.   My porch doesn’t get a ton of sunlight, so just imagine how she would produce in full sun!

Juliet is not a common variety around here, but I have found plants at both Lowes and Walmart, and you can buy seeds from Parks.  I use organic garden soil which contains fertilizer that is supposed to last 3 months, so mid Summer I start feeding all my plants with Alaska Fish Emulsion (very smelly, do not get that stuff on your hands!), and the tomato gets the occasional dose of Epsom salts and finely crushed eggshells (use a spice grinder).  This year I am going to try Alaska Vegetable and Tomato Dry fertilizer, which has all the fishy goodness of fish emulsion with lots of the calcium tomatoes really need around here.

Juliette produces thumb size tomatoes in grape clusters

Juliette produces thumb size tomatoes in grape clusters

 

Even in partial sun Juliette is a vigorous producer

Even in partial sun Juliette is a vigorous producer.  As the stems grow upwards I tie them to a tomato cage and then train them to cascade back down again, making sure to evenly space the vines for good air and light penetration.

One more tomato growing tip I’ll pass along is something I discovered last summer.  Our hot, humid Southern summers can do a number on garden plants, and my Juliet developed quite a few brown, droopy leaves.  Since this plant is on my back porch I wanted to tidy up the look, so I carefully removed every browned leaf cluster on the plant.  To my surprise, everywhere I removed a leaf stem the plant regenerated a whole new one!  This regeneration kept the plant lush, full and bountifully producing all through summer right up till frost.

If you take a few minutes to remove any browned leaf clusters, the plant will regenerate itself.

If you take a few minutes to remove any browned leaf clusters, the plant will regenerate itself.

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Deer-Proof Flowering Perennials & Shrubs

Baby deerMake no mistake, that little cutie will grow up to be a marauding menace, a furry, four-legged locust that you will want to throttle with your bare hands.  And then eat.

Even though I live in the sprawling suburbia of North Raleigh, deer are a serious problem.  Recently I was talking with a friend who is planning to upgrade the landscaping in her yard.  The first time we discussed this project she was full of excitement about beautifying her yard.  Subsequently someone had put the fear of deer in her heart, and she was now just planning to fill her yard with a bunch of hollies that the deer won’t eat.  Now there’s nothing wrong with hollies – we have plenty of them as structure plants.  But there are loads of beautiful things you can decorate your yard with that these beasts won’t devour.  I quickly scrawled out a list of deer-proof shrubs and perennials that we’ve grown for years and encouraged her, “Don’t let the deer win!”

I thought I’d share that list with some pix in case you too are battling these creatures.  Now, it is true that each year the new crop of babies MAY sample plants that deer won’t normally eat.  You can’t really prevent them from taking one bite of anything, but these are plants that deer (and groundhogs and bunnies, too, for that matter – we’ve got ’em all!) typically leave alone.   It is definitely possible to fill your yard with beautiful blooms that deer won’t eat – “Don’t let the deer win!”

Salvia Mystic Spires Blue

Salvia “Mystic Spires Blue”

Salvia greggii

Salvia greggii

Salv Farin and salv greggii

Left foreground – Salvia farinacea; center foreground -Bluebells; Right background – Salvia greggii.  The Echinaceas on the left I wouldn’t recommend – they do get eaten and aren’t reliably hardy in zone 7.

Rudbeckia and salv black and blue

Foreground – Rudbeckia fulgita “Goldsturm”; Background – Salvia guaranitica “Black and Blue”

Ag Summer Sky and Ham and Eggs

Foreground – Agastache “Summer Sky”; Background – Lantana “Ham and Eggs”

Agastache Acapulco Orange

Agastache “Acapulco Orange”

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Agastache “Blue Boa”

Lantana Miss Huff

Lantana “Miss Huff”

Catmint - Nepeta

Nepeta (Catmint)

Ver Giles and Spirea

Pink flowers in the foreground – Veronica “Giles van Hees”; red flowers are Salvia greggii, the tall, bushy clump in the middle is a Solidago “Goldkind”- it blooms late summer and fall.  In the back of this bed you can see some Spirea japonica about to be covered in beautiful pink blooms.

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Pineapple Sage; in the foreground are Salvia greggii and some freshly deadheaded Catmints and Agastaches

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Hellebores (Lenten Roses) – even in the dead of winter when there isn’t much to eat, the deer will leave these alone.

Peonies 1

Peonies – awesome for cut flowers and the deer ignore them

Viburnum

Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum

Garden border

Salvia “Black and Blue”, Salvia greggii, Lantana “Miss Huff” and a Rose of Sharon.  A horrible picture, I know, but the point is these plants are in front of the picket fence the deer jump over on their way to decimate our garden.  Proof indeed that the deer just don’t like to eat them!

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Keep moving fleabags – nothing to eat here!

Spring Flowers

It has been an odd Spring here in North Carolina with heavy rains and wild temperature swings, not to mention the usual yellow fog of pine pollen that smothers the area for 2 or 3 weeks each year.  I was concerned that the frequent swings between 70’s-80’s and freezing temps would put a damper on the Spring flower show.  But despite the meteorological mayhem, we had a beautiful show in our yard, and of course I got lots of pix.  Enjoy!

This year the Lenten Roses survived a long, hard winter with several ice and snow storms.  The foliage suffered, but I’ve never seen more blossoms on them, and we even have tons of little seedlings popping up this year!

Lenten Roses 1

Lenten Roses 2

Daffodils are next to show up in our yard, and we have a good mix of early-, mid- and late-bloomers to extend the show.  Last Fall we (and by we, I mean our gardener) planted some new mid-season bloomers that I ordered from Brecks –Golden Beauty and Ice Follies.  Couldn’t be happier with them – they were huge and the Golden Beauties looked like lemon yellow Peonies.  Actually, all our Daffodils (and Lenten Roses, too) came from Brecks.  Our original planting was one of their “Super Saks” that contained a variety of Daffodils that bloom at different times.  Great value and great quality!

Early bloomers include these interesting two-toned varieties

Early bloomers include these interesting two-toned varieties

Golden Beauty and Ice Follies

Golden Beauty and Ice Follies

Love these sunny, super fragrant late bloomers!

Love these sunny, super fragrant late bloomers!

Next up we have our Crabapples.  We’ve had a Crabapple “Calloway” for several years, and it is rapidly developing into a much needed shade canopy for our paver patio.  If you are looking for a Crabapple I highly recommend this one – gorgeous, long-lasting blooms, good fruit, lovely leaves and it grows like a weed!  Last Fall we replaced an unloved Crepe Myrtle on the other side of the paver patio with a Crabapple “Prairie Fire”.  It has red-backed dark green leaves and smokin’ hot pink flowers.  I hope this little guy grows into a good counterpoint to the Calloway.

Calloway 2

Calloway 1

Crabapple "Prairie Fire"

Crabapple “Prairie Fire”

Crabapple "Prairie Fire" with our new Daffodils

Crabapple “Prairie Fire” with our new Daffodils

I think this was the best year ever for our Kwanzan Cherry.  Kwanzans are the world’s slowest growing ornamental Cherries.  Ours is about 10 years old (it was planted by the previous owner) and it’s just now starting to be noticeable out in the back yard.  I love how their blossoms look like Mexican paper flowers!

Cherries 1

Cherries 2

Even the Blueberries got in on the show.  There were lots of bees out there, so it looks like we’re going to have a good crop this year!  The Kwanzan is in the background – can you believe that dinky thing is a 10 year old tree!?

Blueberry blossoms

Last but not least, we have the Peonies.  I also purchased these as a five pack on the cheap from Brecks.  They are ridiculously hardy.  I have lost count of the number of times we have changed where we wanted them, dug them up and moved them.  Peonies are notorious for not liking that kind of drama and punishing you by not blooming or dying, but these babies just bloom like crazy every year and spread like weeds.  Next Spring we are going to have to dig them up again because they are all so crowded!  PS – I just love, love, love these new seed glass vases I got at Crate and Barrel!

Peonies 1

Peonies 2

The Peonies are just getting started, so hopefully I’ll have a few more pix – not to mention some snaps of all the new Agastaches, Anemonies, Tickseed and Speedwells that we put in this Spring (and again, by “we” I mean the gardener!).

Pineapple Sage

One of my favorite plants in our yard is a Pineapple Sage.  I bought a tiny 4″ pot of this beautiful herb about 5 years ago and it has been my Autumn delight ever since.   Here it is in situ in what we call the Bird Bed out back (so named for the feeders):

Pineapple Sage is the Autumn star of the "bird bed" out back.

Pineapple Sage is the Autumn star of the “bird bed” out back.  The bare spots in the bed are where the deer hit us especially hard this year.

I can't believe this huge shrub comes up from nothing every year!

I can’t believe this huge shrub comes up from nothing every year!

Pineapple Sage is a tender perennial in our area (zone 7), but this little guy is a champ.  After a few hard frosts the leaves dry up and fall off.  However, you must wait till Spring to cut the plant back to prevent the cut stems from rotting and killing the root system.  As the days lengthen and warm, a few leaves will peek out of the soil and then it is GAME ON!  One year we tried to “contain” it by pruning it hard in July, but this plant wants to be the size it wants to be.  If you don’t have a good 6 feet to give it, don’t bother.

Pineapple Sage enjoys plenty of sun and consequently plenty of water.  This bed is on our irrigation system, but this plant still requires a little hand watering because it needs more water than anyone else in the bed.  During late Spring and Summer this herb provides a lush green background to all the Mints, Salvias and Agastaches in the foreground.  When those plants slow down or stop blooming in Autumn,  Pineapple Sage sets its blossoms and takes center stage, providing our grateful Hummingbirds with a few last meals before they head back south.

This herb is edible, and can be used to flavor salads or cakes/cookies, to make tea or simple syrup, and the blossoms can also be used as an edible garnish.  The flavor is delicate, floral and a bit like pineapple (hence the name).  Pineapple Sage is quite disease resistant – we have had no problems with voles or deer eating the plant, nor any funguses or any of the other usual complaints in our hot, humid climate – which means you won’t have to hit it with any chemicals, so munch away.

This plant is so beautiful and can be seen from all over the yard – for such a simple herb Pineapple Sage really can be the star of your Autumn garden.  As I was looking at the snaps I took today, I realized that these brilliant blossoms look like they are lifting their hands and singing praises to their Creator:  “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well” Psalm 139:14  Amen!

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Butterflies!

No, not the kind you get when someone suddenly asks you to lead the group in prayer.  I mean the “yard bling” type – those impossibly wispy, fairy creatures who flit into our lives each summer.  As if flowers weren’t gorgeous enough, it’s like God said, “hmmm… I can top that!”  We have many, many flowering trees and perennials in our yard, and we used to have dozens of butterflies each summer.  About 5 years ago we had a freak late frost that killed them off, and they never really bounced back… until this year!  We are back in butterfly business, and I just had to get out there and take a few portraits today.

The butterflies are really loving the Lantanas and the Agastaches we have throughout the yard.  If you are looking for full-sun, deer-proof, hardy perennials for your yard, I can highly recommend Lantana “Miss Huff”, Agastache “Acapulco Orange”, Agastache “Blue Boa” and Agastache “Summer Sky”.  They are beautiful, easy to grow, bloom from Spring thru the first frost, and they attract butterflies!

Two female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (one "dark type" and one "yellow type") on Agastache "Summer Sky".

Two female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (one “dark type” and one “yellow type”) on Agastache “Summer Sky”.

One female (dark) and one male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Agastache "Summer Sky".

One female (dark) and one male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Agastache “Summer Sky”.

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Agastache "Summer Sky" and a bonus bee!  I love the detail in this photo!!!

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Agastache “Summer Sky” and a bonus bee! I love the detail in this photo!!!

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (dark type).  All dark types are females.

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (dark type). All dark types are females.

The underside of a dark type female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The underside of a dark type female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

A female yellow-type Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Lantana" Miss Huff".  The females have more blue tipping on the bottom of their wings.

A female yellow type Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Lantana” Miss Huff”. The females have more blue tipping on the bottom of their wings.

A male yellow type Eastern Tiger Swallowtail - you can see that he only has a few blue tips to his wing (down low).  All males are the yellow type.

A male yellow type Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – you can see that he only has a few blue tips to his wing (down low). All males are the yellow type.

Male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Agastache "Blue Boa".

Male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Agastache “Blue Boa”.

Female on Agastache "Blue Boa".  See how her blue wing tips go all the way to the middle of her wings?

Female on Agastache “Blue Boa”. See how her blue wing tips go all the way to the middle of her wings?

This boy is a little tatty, but I love his jaunty "eyebrows"!  I also love the detail on the Agastache "Blue Boa" blossoms.

This boy is a little tatty, but I love his jaunty “eyebrows”! I also love the detail on the Agastache “Blue Boa” blossoms.  You can see that they are much “fluffier” and thicker than normal for an Agastache – like  a feather boa.  Hence, the name I guess.

Agastache "Blue Boa" - easy to grow, showy blooms, and makes a nice, dense mound spring thru fall.

Agastache “Blue Boa” – easy to grow, showy blooms, and makes a nice, dense mound spring thru fall.  DId I mention it also attracts butterflies?  I did?  Good.

This girl also looked a little beat up.  She was all by her lonesome on a Lantana "Miss Huff" in the back garden.

This girl also looked a little beat up. She was all by her lonesome on a Lantana “Miss Huff” in the back garden.

Timberrrrrrr!

Genesis 2:15 – “God took the man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order”

It’s no secret there are a LOT of trees in Raleigh, and at times you have to get out there and “keep God’s garden in order”.  One of the Sycamores in our front yard contracted Sycamore Anthracnose and it gave me an excuse to have a tree service come out and cull several “nuisance” trees on our property, such as:

The previous owners had planted an unsightly (is there any other kind!?) row of Leyland Cyprus on the property line, which was ever so helpfully blocking our view of a beautiful stand of old apple trees and maples.  They needed to go.

The previous owners planted an unsightly (is there any other kind!?) row of Leyland Cyprus on the property line, which was ever so helpfully blocking our view of a beautiful stand of old apple trees and maples.

Ugh, there is no end to my dislike of Leyland Cyprus.  Got. To. Go.

Ugh, there is no end to my dislike of Leyland Cyprus. Got. To. Go.

And then there are these beasts…

The woods at the edge of our property are mostly lovely hardwoods, but there are a few honker Carolina Pines in there that I just loathe (so ugly!!!) and I've always wanted them out.  Finally getting my wish.  The light this morning was pretty harsh - sorry about the washed out photo.

The woods at the edge of our property are mostly lovely hardwoods, but there are a few honker Carolina Pines in there that I just loathe (so ugly!!!) and I’ve always wanted them out. Finally getting my wish. The light this morning was pretty harsh – sorry about the washed out photo.

While we were at it, I had them also nip the one little eye sore pine by the garden.

While we were at it, I had them also nip the one little eye sore pine by the garden.

And this poor guy…

The homes in our "neighborhood" are built on an old farmstead, and the remains of a fruit orchard lies between us and our neighbors to the west.  Those old trees have slowly been aging out, and it was time to take down a big ol' cherry.  Mind you, all these trees produce fruit that is fit only for the deer and squirrels, so the neighbors and we cut them down when they are no longer attractive.

The homes in our “neighborhood” are built on an old farmstead, and the remains of a fruit orchard lies between us and our neighbors to the west. Those old trees have slowly been aging out, and it was time to take down a big ol’ cherry. Mind you, all these trees produce fruit that is fit only for the deer and squirrels, so the neighbors and we cut them down when they are no longer attractive.

And oh, I noticed this needed a little attention when I was walking around with the tree guy…

The old-school Bradford Pear that had grown over the house.

The old-school Bradford Pear that had grown over the house.

And what started the whole ball rolling…

And what started all this off was the scrawny Sycamore in the middle that had developed Sycamore Anthracnose.  It would have cost more to treat than the tree is worth esthetically, so we opted to take it out.

The scrawny Sycamore in the middle that had developed Sycamore Anthracnose. It would have cost more to treat than the tree is worth esthetically, so we opted to take it out.

I researched a few companies and hired Gonzalez Tree Care to do the job.  They charged a fair price, were quick and did a great job – couldn’t have been happier with them and would recommend them to anyone.

Here’s the work…

After the Sycamore was removed

After the Sycamore was removed

Half the Leylands gone...

Half the Leylands gone…

The new view without the Leylands

The new view without the Leylands

After the cherry tree removal

After the cherry tree removal

Buh bye offending limb - I hope the plants on that side of the deck don't freak from all that new sunlight...

Buh bye offending limb – I hope the plants on that side of the deck don’t freak from all that new sunlight…

After limbing up the old Bradford pear

After limbing up the Bradford pear.  I know we’re just buying a few years before this guy has to come down, but I just love these old, slim pears.

I dunno...is this a fun job or a crazy job?

I dunno…is this a fun job or a crazy job?

Every branch on the pines was "zip lined" down to protect the young hardwoods below.   The guys really did a great job.

Every branch on the pines was “zip lined” down to protect the young hardwoods below. The guys really did a great job.

Getting ready to take the tippy top off the biggest pine.  That young man had ZERO fear up in those trees!

Getting ready to take the tippy top off the biggest pine. That young man had ZERO fear up in those trees!

After removing all the limbs and the tops, these 100 ft pine trunks were dropped in sections.

After removing all the limbs and the tops, these 100 ft pine trunks were dropped in sections.

The little pine came down so fast I didn't even get a picture!

The little pine came down so fast I didn’t even get a picture!

Yeah, I know, there are still some big pines, but now the young hardwoods are more visible and getting more light.  Go hardwoods go!

Yeah, I know, there are still some big pines, but now the young hardwoods are more visible and getting more light. Go hardwoods go!

Ahhh...now I can sit at my kitchen table (where I write) and not see a single pine!

Ahhh…now I can sit at my kitchen table (where I write) and not see a single pine!  Ditto for the view from the dining table in the screened porch.  Woo and hoo!

Genesis 2:15 – “God took the man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.”  Amen!

Lenten Roses – Harbingers of Prettier Things to Come

Hellebores nodding in the winter sun - come summer they will be safely shaded by a nearby crepe myrtle

Hellebores nodding in the winter sun – come summer they will be safely shaded by a nearby crepe myrtle

I’d never heard of Lenten Roses (Hellebores) before I moved to the South where they are fairly popular.  You can buy full sized plants in bloom at nurseries for $15 to $25, or if you are a more patient sort (and cheap, like me!) you can mail-order small rooted divisions for considerably less.  A few years ago I bought an inexpensive 5-pack of assorted Lenten Rose divisions from my favorite bulb supplier – Brecks.  To grow well these beauties need:

  • a shady spot
  • rich, loamy soil (or well amended soil if yours is less than perfect)
  • adequate moisture – not too wet, and once established, they will tolerate some dryness
  • that’s it!

I took my babies to a shady spot in the side yard, tucked them in beside the Autumn Ferns and forgot about them.  If you start with divisions, your plants will likely not bloom until the second winter.  Two years later, I happened to be out on the screen porch in the dead of winter and to my amazement, there they were – blooming away while everything else was dormant.  Unfortunately they were totally wasted in an area you can’t even see from the house.  At the end of last summer I had my gardener transplant them to a perennial bed containing 2 Crepe Myrtles large enough to provide the required shade.  The perennials are all cut back when the Hellebores are in bloom, so they really have room to show off.  I couldn’t resist taking their portraits!

I especially love green flowers

I especially love green flowers

These rose-pink ones have just a hint of green in the center

These rose-pink ones have just a hint of green in the center

These are more of a lilac pink

These are more of a lilac pink – see how pretty the foliage is?

These are my favorites - the foliage is a little tatty, but the color is so unique!

My favorites – the foliage is a little tatty, but the color is so unique!

Aside from adding rare floral beauty to the winter garden, Hellebores boast several other pluses:

  • The large, showy flowers last 2-3 months
  • They thrive in cold weather – hardy to zone 4
  • When the blooms are spent, the plant itself can be an attractive, “neutral” filler in the shade garden
  • They are deer resistant – ’nuff said!
  • If your plants are happy, every few years you’ll be able to divide them and increase your collection (or share with friends).  The best time to divide/transplant Hellebores is early fall, right before their pre-blooming growth spurt.

My gardener told me they probably wouldn’t bloom this winter, but as you can see, they bounced right back.  I can’t wait for next winter!

Blueberry Bonanza!

Five years ago Farmer John (my husband) planted a row of 5 lowbush blueberry bushes along the front fence of our garden.  He wisely chose varieties that ripen at different times (2 early, 1 mid-season, and 2 late) so we would have a long supply of fresh berries.  When he planted the shrubs they were literally twigs with leaves.  I thought we’d have berries in about 20 years!  The next year they sort of turned into wee little bushes and I think we each ate about 5 berries.  The third year we got a bowlful from the early- and mid-season ripeners, while the late-season ripeners took their sweet time maturing.  That year we discovered that we had to net the entire stand because the deer came by and ate our bushes along with the few berries that were on them.  Not cool!

Last year we got a few quarts throughout the season, which we mostly enjoyed on top of our morning cereal.  There really is something sublime about a big ol’ bowlful of Trader Joe’s bran flakes topped with big, juicy blueberries from your own back yard!  Unfortunately that year we learned a hard lesson about how to best net the berries.  We had surrounded the stand with bamboo and steel poles upon which we hung bird netting.  We then used galvanized aluminum landscaping pins to pin the netting to the ground every few inches.  Twice during the season a snake managed to get himself tangled in the netting along the bottom edge.  I felt terrible about accidentally killing two beautiful, beneficial black rat snakes, especially since our yard was overrun with moles and voles last year and we needed all the beneficial snakes we could get!  This year we put up edging around the outside of the netting so that anyone slithering by couldn’t contact the netting – so far so good, no casualties out there.

This spring the blueberries were covered in blossoms – all the bushes, including the late-ripening heretofore slackers.  I mean thousands of blossoms.  I’m pretty sure that each and every one of those blossoms matured into a plump, gorgeous berry, because we got so many berries we gave some away, had 2 friends pick all they wanted and finally just gave up and let the birds, squirrels and bunnies have at them.

This year’s bounty – jam, sauce, vinegar and plenty for the freezer

So what to do with all that bounty, especially when neither of us particularly care for baked goods with blueberries, such as pies, tarts or cakes.  Obviously we’ve been chowing down on fresh berries on our cereal, but that only goes so far to make use of some 20 quarts of berries!  Below are some of  the things I’ve done with this year’s crop.  Links will take you to recipes.  Even if you don’t have a blueberry patch in your back yard, there are lots of you-pick blueberry farms you can visit to get your own supply of fresh berries to savor.  I hope you enjoy some of my ideas for using them.

1. I used our first harvest to make some very yummy whole wheat blueberry pancakes (the leftovers of which freeze quite well for quick breakfasts later on).

2.  I made fresh blueberry sauce to top waffles and ice cream.  Our bushes are shaded in the morning (which is when it is cool enough to go picking), and the first few times I picked berries I realized I was taking some berries that looked ripe in the shade, but were really a day or two underripe.  Making a fresh berry sauce is a great way to use those tart underripe berries, since you are going to add sugar to the sauce anyway!  Simply heat berries in a saucepan with sugar to taste (try 2 cups berries and about 1/3 cup sugar to start with).  Simmer until berries pop and the sauce thickens – you can help them along with light pressure from a potato masher at the beginning.  Blueberries are so full of pectin I find I don’t need to use thickeners such as cornstarch.  The sauce will get thicker as it cools, so cook it until it is almost as thick as you’d like.

3.  I put up some absolutely awesome blueberry-blackberry jam, I think the best I’ve ever made.

4.  I have a batch of blueberry-basil vinegar steeping in the cupboard, waiting to reach perfection before I jar it up and process it for storage.  I’ve already used it to make a fabulous blueberry-walnut tossed salad.

5.  I put up a batch of sweet-tart blueberry-lemon sauce.  It is fabulous over Greek yogurt, and it would also be great over vanilla ice cream, lemon or berry sorbet or pound cakes.

6.  The rest of the berries have been tucked away in the freezer for later use.  Freezing berries is super easy if you follow these simple steps:  gently wash berries in a 10-1 water and vinegar solution (the vinegar zaps molds and bacteria on the berries); thoroughly rinse berries and lay them on a clean towel in a single layer to dry; pick over berries to eliminate any that are soft, unripe or split; place dry berries in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet; place baking sheet in freezer for about 2 hours; quickly transfer frozen berries to quart freezer bags; label, seal and store for up to 1 year.  This method also works for hulled whole strawberries, blackberries or raspberries.  Contrary to what a canning manual will tell you, you do not need to pack berries in sugar or syrup.  If you take the time to completely dry the berries and freeze them individually on a baking sheet, they won’t clump together in the freezer bags and you can easily remove just what you need.  If you freeze them with sugar or syrup, you’ll have a sugary brick that you need to use all at once.

Frozen berries are great in smoothies and cocktails, can be used to make jams and jellies (thaw them first), and can also be used in many recipes that call for fresh berries (follow recipe instructions as to whether you need to thaw first).  I have a friend who uses them on his cereal or oatmeal every morning, but that’s a little too cold for me!

Summer Tomatoes

Every April we have a battle at our house.  My husband John is chomping at the bit to get his garden in, and I harp at him to wait until after the last “freeze date” for our area – April 15th.  It is a great relief to both of us (for different reasons) when we finally head to the garden centers to pick out our seeds and tomato plants for the year.  It’s fun to pore over all the plants and pick out old favorites and “new” heirlooms to try.  I drive John nuts as I lovingly (okay, obsessively) pick out each and every plant!

Once these babies are in the ground, the battle really begins.  Our climate and environment present a gardener with numerous adversaries to overcome – wild temperature swings, abundant rain then weeks without it, fungal and bacterial diseases galore, nuclear strength weeds and a host of marauding vermin – rabbits, ground hogs, squirrels, deer, birds, cutworms, hornworms and tiny little fruitworms.  It hardly seems worth the bother.  Oh let’s get real, it’s not!

We learned a few years ago that if we net our tomatoes the birds, squirrels and deer leave them alone.  I leave them alone too, because it is a pain in the watoozie to undo all this hoo-ha just to get at a few tomatoes.  Last year we didn’t get the net up in time and the deer came and ate dozens of green tomatoes.  But within a few weeks the tomatoes fruited again and large ceramic bowls on my counters were overflowing with several kinds:  persimmon shaped Better Boys, fat, squatty Cherokee Purples, lumpy Big Beefs, plump Mortgage Lifters and big, round, orange mystery tomatoes (someone really doesn’t like to use plant labels).

It never fails – you can’t wait till the first tomato ripens, and then you have more of them than you know what to do with!  Here are some of my favorite things to do with Farmer John’s bounty:

  • Can ‘em!  Every year I put up a year’s worth of home-canned tomatoes.  Tomatoes canned in the US have the firming agent calcium chloride added to them.  This additive helps the tomatoes retain their shape after the canning process, but it also prevents them from breaking down into a velvety sauce when cooked.  For pasta sauces I buy cases of San Marzano tomatoes from Italy.  For everything else – salsas, soups, stews, etc. – I can my own.  A morning spent canning my own homegrown tomatoes connects me to nature and generations of women before me in a way that is both deeply satisfying and practical.
  • Tomato Tart – easy enough for weeknites, special enough for company.
  • Homemade Pizza Margherita – fresh and it also uses lots of that basil I always have growing on the back deck.
  • Italian Tomato Salad – so fresh and sooooo good!
  • Fattoush – another fresh, fabulous summer salad.
  • Lebanese Green Beans – a great way to use both fresh beans and fresh tomatoes.
  • BLT’s – for a special treat try these two variants:  (1) for two BLT’s mash one avocado with a bit of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice and spread on the top slices of toasted bread of each sandwich; (2) after you make a grilled cheese sandwich, open it up and insert the B, the L and the T – fat-bulous!
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