Yesterday was a snow day here in Ottawa — and by that I don’t mean the standard “school buses are cancelled, but schools and everything else is still open”, which is what generally happens around here. A large storm was incoming, so the elementary and high school boards closed the schools entirely the evening before (meaning no after-school extracurricular activities) and didn’t reopen them until this morning. All of the colleges and universities cancelled everything for the day. Anyone who had a job that let them work from home was encouraged to do so — and this is a government town, which means a lot of office workers. Any retail outlet that could keep the lights off did so, or at least waited until later in the day after the worst of the snow had been cleared to open to the public.
What this meant for my little family is that we were all home together yesterday. My husband worked from home while I watched the kids, both of whom were excited for the extra day off to complete their Valentine’s Day preparations. The four of us spent a good hour and three quarters clearing the driveway in the afternoon — well, my husband and I cleared it while the kids ever so slowly worked on the walkway. It was a lot of work, but at least the weather was lovely, hovering just below freezing and sunny once the snow stopped falling.
I have to admit that this season has really gotten me down. I’m not usually subject to the winter blues, but it’s been a rough year. There hasn’t been a week where someone hasn’t been home sick since the fall, which really isn’t helping. January was the snowiest one on record, which meant the kids missed a lot of school because of snow days as well. Between the sickness and the snow and the many very cold days, I think we’re all feeling kind of housebound.
So when I was out grocery shopping early the other day in preparation for the storm, I grabbed myself a bouquet of flowers at the cash. I know they’re probably meant for Valentine’s Day, but I thought that our house needed a bit more colour to contrast with the snow outside. Roses are traditional this time of year, but I am particularly fond of lilies, since that’s what I carried at my wedding. (I am also partial to orchids, since they’re my husband’s favourite flower and what he wore on his lapel at our wedding.) Every time I see these flowers they make me smile, and I remember that it won’t really be that long until we start seeing green outside again too.
A while back, just in time for my annual Halloween party, I was shopping for fruits and veggies from Costco to include on some platters. On a whim, I picked up a box of golden berries, which I honestly thought I’d never seen before. After a little bit of research at home, I discovered that they’re also called “ground cherries” or “husk cherries”, which I’d actually seen at the farmers’ market, and I’d seen the plants at the garden center. Despite the names, they’re not cherries at all; they’re part of the nightshade family, and are more closely related to tomatoes. The berries grow inside of paper husks that strongly resemble Chinese lantern plants. Apparently they’re pretty common to grow (varieties are native throughout the US and Mexico), but aren’t sold commercially here very often, which is why I wasn’t familiar with them.
I discovered that golden berries are a strongly sweet/tart flavour that is really hard to describe, except to say that they are delicious! They have a texture similar to a very meaty tomato, something like a less-juicy Roma. I served them as-is, but later I went back to the store for more and included them sliced in half in salads, and blended into smoothies. When garden planning season rolls around next year, I think I will try to add a few golden berry plants to see how they like my soil. I’ve had good luck with tomatoes and satisfactory harvests of potatoes, but my peppers haven’t fared nearly as well, so who knows how this new nightshade-family plant will fare. I’ve read that they can even be perennials, but sadly that’s for Zone 8 and above; it gets much too cold here in the winter.
What I’d really like to do is make golden berry jam next fall, since I found the fruit’s flavour to be a refreshing change to the usual fare around here. I mean, I could do it with store-bought fruit this year, but at $5.99 for 340g (which might maybe make a single jar), making a batch is a tad out of my budget.
Yesterday I spent a number of hours out in the back yard bringing in the last of the harvest from my garden. My mother popped by and was nice enough to help out for the low, low payment of some cherry tomatoes. Canadian Thanksgiving happens this coming weekend, which is usually a good marker for when the harvest should be in. Also, we’ve had one light frost already, and I didn’t want to leave the tomatoes out in that. The root vegetables would have been fine, but frost can totally ruin a tomato crop.
I filled one half of my double kitchen sink with tomatoes — mostly green or otherwise unripe ones, true. (The black tomatoes ripen from green, to green and black, and finally to red and black or all black, so they’re often hard and unripe event though they may be mostly darkly-coloured.) It took me ages to wash all of them, but it was worth it! The ripe ones will become the last batch of salsa, while I have a few recipes for the green tomatoes, which include green tomato chutney.
I also harvested a whole bunch of potatoes, enough that when they were washed and stacked they barely fit into my potato bin. I planted two different kinds of potatoes this year — a purple-skinned variety, and a white-skinned variety — but heaven forbid that I wrote down their exact names. Record-keeping was one of the things that this blog was supposed to help me accomplish, but I guess it doesn’t always work out.
I also harvested four good-sized eggplants (not bad considering I only had a few plants), as well as two plants-worth of Jerusalem artichoke tubers. I’ve never eaten these tubers before, so I’ll just have to see if they are any good — and if they agree with my stomach!
Taking advantage of the day’s harvest, last night I made everyone bacon, cheese (cheddar for the others, lactose-free Edam for me), and tomato sandwiches. It would have been much nicer if I’d actually thought of this for dinner earlier in the day, in which case I would have had time to make some fresh bread. But given that bread takes a minimum of three hours to make, I had to send my husband out to the grocery store instead. I asked him to pick up “a loaf of nice bread”, which he interpreted as “a loaf of whole-wheat Dempsters”. I’d say his idea and mine of “nice bread” differ quite strongly…
It’s that time of year again when everything seems to be ripe at once and it’s physically impossible to eat it all before it goes bad. Case in point: my tomatoes. I grow predominantly cherry tomatoes, although a friend did give me one black tomato plant that has done very well this year. I just find cherry tomatoes to be more flavourful than most of the larger varieties. And I plant tonnes, since I know that I’ll want to include them in a number of preserves come fall.
Case in point: this is what I brought in from the garden the other day. I think that these tomatoes, and probably the onions as well, will soon become spaghetti sauce. I might even go for the healthy veggie tomato sauce I made last year, and include the eggplant that should be ripe in a few days. (I had a lovely huge one ready to go, and then an animal go to it. Figures.)
At the same time, I had a few small radishes, the last of the cucumbers (the vines were starting to die back), and a few potatoes that were beginning to poke through the surface of the dirt. Something needs to be done with all of this produce before it rots!
The first step for me is to make at least one dinner with the fresh ingredients. I barbecued some chicken thighs with my usual spice mix (parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, garlic powder, and sea salt), and cooked up some of the potatoes on the grill at the same time. I know that they look very similar post-grill, but the difference was immediately apparent once they were cut open. I added some cherry tomatoes and sliced radishes as a veggie once everything else was cooked. It was a very simple meal, but it was both tasty and easy to prepare — which I needed after spending a couple of hours in the garden!
We’re starting to get a few cool days, and more than a few cool nights, which, in conjunction with the shortening daylight, signals to the garden that it’s time for fruits and veggies to ripen. I’ve had some meager results so far, if you don’t count the tomatoes.
For all of my efforts with gourds, a powdery fungus attacked the leaves of my plants and killed most of them off. I ended up with only one yellow zucchini, no green zucchini, no pumpkin, and only this teeny tiny butternut squash. It’s so cute that I’m seriously considering not eating it at all and carving it up or decorating it as a Hallowe’en decoration.
I did have about ten good-sized pears on my baby pear tree this year, but I didn’t get to them in time and the local squirrels and chipmunks made serious inroads. This is all that was left for me to bring in. The one on the far right developed kind of small and deformed, but it was still healthy inside. These fruits will be (and actually, all except one have already been) eaten raw, generally in packed lunches.
Despite fighting for my potatoes for sunlight, my few beet plants did okay. The roots weren’t much to talk about; I ended up with just enough to fill a single 500mL mason jar if I planned on preserves. However, the greens — which were actually red in this case due to the variety I planted, but at any rate the leaves — are also edible, and actually quite tasty! They’re good in salad, pesto, or stir-fry; basically, they’re tasty in any dish where you’d use lettuce or a similar leafy green. So I’m tolerably satisfied with my yield of beets, especially since I put in so few plants in the first place.
At the start of the month, husbeast and I took the kiddos to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum. It was a hot, lazy Saturday and we had a hard time getting everyone moving, so we arrived late and didn’t get to spend too much time there before it closed for the day. However, we did get a chance to watch a presentation in the Soil Lab about bees and the role that they play in the life cycle of a plant.
The girls were enthralled as they learned about the life cycle of bees and why they are so important to agriculture. At the end of the presentation, each child was given a bean that they wrapped in a cotton ball, watered with an eyedropper, and placed in a tiny plastic bag. The bags were tied on string loosely around each child’s neck, creating a necklace of sorts.
My children, like so many, have an on-again, off-again love of gardening. They love planting, and watching things sprout, and harvest time, and even weeding, if you can believe it. What they lack is the patience and upkeep that goes between each of these steps. Over the years, they’ve forgotten about many plants which have then died, or have ended up being taken care of by me. So I didn’t have high hopes for these beans. In point of fact, Thing 2 completely forgot about hers and has no idea where it ended up; we’re not even sure it made it home. However, much to my surprise, Thing 1 fed her bean a few drops of water every day and kept it in a cool, dark place for about two weeks. Her attention was rewarded, when seemingly overnight it sprouted! (I suspect that it may have been left to its own design for a couple of days, because it grew right out of the bag before she noticed — but no harm done.)
Thing 1 triumphantly presented me with her baby plant and requested that it be given a proper pot and some soil. I am happy to report that it is doing well and is visibly growing every day. Thing 1 couldn’t be more pleased. I don’t know how much of the museum lecture she will remember in the end, but I’m very happy that she learned the lesson that a bit of work and some patience can have very positive results. If that’s the only lesson she ever learns from gardening in general, then I count it as a win.
This year, I grew my own cucumbers out in the garden for the very first time. (Okay, I tried to grow lemon cucumbers a few years ago, but I only ever yielded the one gourd.) Given this year’s high yield after it finally started to rain at the start of August, I thought that I should preserve some of my crop by turning it into pickles.
A friend of mine had already used up an entire container of Bernardin Dill Pickle Mix‘s worth of pickles, and she wasn’t terribly interested in making more even though her cucumber vines were still yielding fruit. So she gifted me with all the extra cukes she had that were currently ripe, and I combined them with my harvest to date. It filled one entire crisper in my fridge.
Sliced up, all those cucumbers yielded two big Pyrex bowls full.
I filled my biggest stock pot and my pressure canner (which works perfectly well as a huge stock pot if I don’t lock the lid) with water, and I washed all the jars and rings and lids while I waited for the water to boil. With that much water, it takes quite a while. Then, while the jars and tools were sterilizing in the boiling water, I prepared the vinegar and spice mixture. Then I packed the cucumber slices into the jars, added the vinegar mixture, wiped the rims, put on the lids and rims, and processed the jars.
All in all, the pile of cucumbers yielded nine 1L jars. They all sealed properly and didn’t need to be re-processed, thank goodness. It’ll take a good six weeks or more before the pickles are ready to eat, since the longer they sit in the vinegar mixture, the better they taste. They should be ready for Christmas, at least! Or even Thanksgiving.