Winter Woes – Weather Watch 2014

Thick layers of snow on coldest day of this winter (so far) - 1/6/14

Thick layers of snow on coldest day of this winter (so far) – 1/6/14

I’m making a quick notation about this winter’s weather so I could see later how the garden responds. This winter we had a lot of snow and COLD. This picture was taken on the worst day of a particularly brutal week.  We had frost forming on the inside trim of our windows! Then the temperatures rose to the 40s about a week later, and much of the snow melted. We’ll see in the spring how that will affect my garden’s roses, hydrangeas, and fruit trees.

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Summer Time Supper Time

Aug 2013 001Now that summer is REALLY underway (I harvested the first ripe tomatoes a couple days ago), I consider what is available from the garden as I plan our meals and snacks. And whatever we’re not eating now, I’m trying to preserve for future meals.  Thus I’ve been blanching and freezing green beans and broccoli, and I’ve been cooking with Swiss chard and making lots of salad lately.

Here are several ways I’ve used garden produce in the last week:

Cucumbers – The simplest way to eat them is still a favorite: I like to slice them in half lengthwise and sprinkle Mrs. Dash lemon pepper on them. This fresh veggie treat replaces the baby carrots that accompany my lunches throughout the rest of the year. And I made the first jar of my mom’s brined pickles, so those have accompanied grilled burgers and sandwiches at Chez Rea. Tonight I made cucumber sandwiches with my chives-and-dill spread and the special addition of smoked salmon made by a friend and sliced banana pepper and tarragon (pictured above).

Lettuce – #1 son has declared that the crunch of lettuce takes a sandwich “to the next level,” so of course we’ve been adding lettuce (and now tomatoes, too!) to our sandwiches and burgers. I’ve also made a couple chef’s salad dinners this week, inspired not only by all the lettuce getting ready to bolt but also by the gift of local organic eggs from a friend’s cousin. I boiled some eggs, thawed ham cubes from the freezer, cut or crumbled some cheese, made a creamy dressing and mixed it all with garden lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

Swiss Chard – That gift of eggs also inspired me to make something like what my mom used to make whenever she had chard. She called it a tortilla, and I have learned that it is a variation of the Spanish style tortilla–probably something she picked up during her years in Argentina. Hers (and now mine) is a lot like the Swiss Chard Tortilla Española recipe in this video except that it probably had onion instead of garlic and whatever cheese she had around, if any, rather than the Parmesan.

Eggplant-Garlic Spread

Eggplant-Garlic Spread

Eggplant – Several of the Ichiban eggplant I’m growing this year are ready to harvest, so I pickled a couple and made a quick version of my favorite eggplant dip. I served it with bagel chips and thin wheat crackers alongside the salmon and cucumber sandwiches we had tonight. I added a bit of rosemary to the eggplant-garlic spread and a bit of tarragon to the cucumbers. Maybe tomorrow night I will saute more eggplant with onions and peppers and roasted cherry tomatoes and whatever else strikes my fancy. I could add turkey chunks and and fresh basil and serve it over pasta–another garden inspired meal!

Garden to table eating is the taste of summer–my favorite season!

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My Berry First Harvests of the Year!

2nd strawberry harvest this year - 6/4/13

2nd strawberry harvest this year – 6/4/13

Harvesting the garden has already begun! Yesterday I shared my second strawberry harvest of the year with my family; each of us got 2-1/2 strawberries. The first strawberry harvest a couple days before that had consisted of 3 strawberries. As always, I had just missed getting to the first ripe berry of the year before some critter got it. So that was when I put the netting over the strawberry bed because I’d rather share my berries with my family than with visiting critters.

Also pictured above is the first fragrant rose from the plant in my bed of herbs and edible flowers. I just LOVE edible flowers! However, I don’t actually eat many roses. Later this summer I will freeze some pretty pink rose petals in ice cubes. Blue bachelors buttons have also started blooming, and I like to freeze those flowers in ice cubes, too.

I just finished planting the Kitchen Garden today. You can see a few the blue Bachelor's Button blooms in the herb bed in the foreground of this picture. 6/5/13

I just finished planting the Kitchen Garden today. You can see a few blue Bachelor’s Button blooms in the herb bed in the foreground of this picture. 6/5/13

That herb bed comes to life each year before I get anything else planted, and it contains a few other things I’ve already harvested from this year’s garden.  For example, I used lovage leaves as well as chives to make egg salad because I didn’t want to run to the store for organic celery. The taste from the lovage leaves was much stronger than celery would have been, perhaps a bit too strong. I also used some tarragon in this new recipe: Egg Tagliatelle with Ham and Peas. This meal tasted very good, and I will try putting tarragon in more pasta dishes from now on.

The first thing I actually planted in the kitchen garden this year was snow peas. It will be another month or so, I think, before I actually get to pick and eat any pea pods. However, I have already enjoyed two “harvests” from those plants because I used the pea shoots to make salads when I thinned the plants. I used the second harvest to make a salad with hibiscus vinaigrette from some hibiscus vinegar I bought at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s gift shop earlier this spring. Yes, I just LOVE edible flowers!

It’s a lot easier for me to thin the pea plants now that I know I can EAT the thinnings rather than throw them away. Growing some peas exclusively for their shoots is another new thing I’m trying this year. Today I planted a few seeds around the three pepper plants in containers along my driveway.  We’ll see how those go.

Amaranth Dip with Pretzel Bread and Carrots - 5/27/13

Amaranth Dip with Pretzel Bread and Carrots – 5/27/13

And speaking of thinnings and plants coming back on their own, I began harvesting and using amaranth leaves a couple years ago. Amaranth is something I’ve grown in the kitchen garden for a number of years, just for visual interest at first. But ever since I started to avoid buying non-organic lettuce and greens (both are very high in pesticide residues if conventionally grown), I’ve taken to making better use of this green that seeds itself very readily in my garden. Last week I used some amaranth greens to make amaranth dip and served it with pretzel bread and carrots. To make amaranth dip, I just substituted blanched amaranth leaves for the spinach in a favorite spinach dip recipe. It came out with a pinkish hue, and I decorated it with a chive blossom. (I just LOVE edible flowers!)

I still let a few amaranth plants mature and flower so I can enjoy their tall burgundy plumes in late summer and fall. And then then the seeds will sprout everywhere again the following spring–a magical crop of greens that I did not have to plant myself.

Those tall burgundy colored plumes are amaranth flowers.

Amaranth Flowers in October – They are beautiful in flower arrangements and dry nicely, too.

Harvest Tally

It’s the  first  week of June (2013), I just finished planting the kitchen garden beds, and thus far this year I have harvested two bowls of pea shoots, a handful of strawberries, and three plastic shopping bags full of amaranth leaves plus a few leaves of herbs here and there. Not bad!

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Bag Lady

Just a quick update on the apples I grafted and planted 3 years ago:

That one tree that is full of apples this year had 3 apples last year. Only 1 grew to full size, but I had bagged them too late so it had a worm inside. I hope I got to them in time this year! This is the method I followed: The Ziplock® Orchard.

I bagged them on 5/28/13, and now 1-1/2 weeks later it it looks like several bags and apples have dropped–squirrels, perhaps?

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Butterfly Flutter By

A Monarch buttefly visitor in my cutting garden

A Monarch butterfly visitor in my cutting garden

One of the fun things about gardening is enjoying all the visitors who drop by, especially lovely butterflies like this one. The neighbor who lives behind our back fence has told me more than once how she has noticed that many birds and butterflies came back to our area after I started my garden.  While many different butterflies enjoy the herbs and flowers I’ve planted, I’m interested in planting native plants to encourage many more such visitors. Native plants are, of course, THE way to go if you want to attract and nourish local fauna as Doug Tellamy and others have demonstrated.

Here is a list I recently put together of plants for a butterfly garden composed of plants native to the Illinois area. This list is arranged in the approximate order of the plants’ bloom periods, plus a lovely shrub suggestion. I’ve included links to each plant’s description on the Illinois Wildflowers website because that has beautiful pictures as well as very detailed information. The Possibility Place Nursery is an excellent source for native plants, and they just might have a plant sale coming to a place near you.

Prairie Violet, 3-6″ (spring and perhaps fall, too)  Nectar: small butterflies (inc. Spring Azure), and Duskywing skippers. Host: various Fritillary caterpillars.

Golden Alexanders, 1-2′ spring-early summer, 4 weeks and then has decorative seed heads) Host: caterpillars of Black Swallowtail

Cream Wild Indigo, 2′ (summer–May-June, 3 weeks) – or perhaps White Wild Indigo if you’d like something much taller (and a longer bloom period–summer, 4-6 weeks). Host: caterpillars of the butterflies Southern Dogface and Orange Sulfur, the skippers Hoary Edge and Wild Indigo Duskywing, and the moth Black-Spotted Prominent.

Butterfly Milkweed, 2-3′ (summer–June-Aug.). Nectar: various butterflies, including Swallowtails and Fritillaries. Host: Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Hoary Vervain, 2-3′ (summer–June-Sep., 6 weeks). Host: Buckeye butterfly caterpillar.

Flax-Leaved Aster, 1-2′ (fall–July-Sept). Nectar: butterflies including Checkered White, Clouded Sulpher, Painted Lady, Comma, and Viceroy and skippers including Checkered Skipper. Host: caterpillars of Silvery Checkerspot butterfly, Pearl Crescent butterfly, and many moth species.

Prairie Blazing Star, 2-4′ (summer–July-Sep., 4 weeks) Nectar: Monarchs, Swallowtails, Painted Ladies, Sulfurs, Whites, and others. Host: caterpillars of the rare Schinia gloriosa (Glorious Flower Moth).

Wild Bergamot, 2-4′ (mid-summer–July-Sep., 4 weeks) Nectar: butterflies and skippers.

New England Aster, 2-5′ (fall–Aug.-Oct, 8 weeks) Nectar: butterflies, including Checkered White, Clouded Sulpher, Painted Lady, Comma, and Viceroy and skippers, including Checkered Skipper. Host: Pearl Crescent butterfly caterpillar

SHRUB: New Jersey Tea, 2-3′ (summer – 1 month), Nectar: some butterflies and moths. Host: Spring/Summer Azure butterfly, Mottled Duskywing skipper, and some moth caterpillars.

Site of the future butterfly garden at Lake Katherine

Site of the future butterfly garden at Lake Katherine

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The Rosemary Challenge

Rosemary in a Terrarium - 1/23/13

Rosemary in a Terrarium – 1/23/13

Ah, rosemary! 9 winters out of 10 I fail to get it to survive in my house. I’ve tried it all–keeping its pot over a tray of water, covering it loosely with a plastic bag, and parking it by a basement window, where the poor insulation allows more moisture in. In fact, I have one plant in that window now, sitting over a pie plate filled with water. We’ll see how that one survives.

Oops! I need to add some water to that pie plate.

Oops! I need to add some water to that pie plate.

Fortunately, I have a friend, April, who is the Queen of Rosemary. She bought a small plant from Ace Hardware several years ago, and now it fills a 12-inch pot and served her family as a small Christmas tree this holiday season. Therefore, my backup plan for this winter is leaving several little rosemary plants at April’s house; these happen to be cuttings she took from her plant last year and which she brought to my yard this summer. Apparently rosemary grows better here in the summertime and stays alive better at April’s in the winter.

In addition I’m trying something new this year: putting a couple plants in a terrarium (pictured above).  I discovered that the beautiful terrarium my sister Ann gave me is quite practical for growing small moisture loving plants when I managed to keep a frosted fern alive in there for a good while.  So now we’ll see how these two rosemary plants survive there. One has started to bloom!

One way or another, I hope to succeed in overwintering some rosemary this year.

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Falling with Style

Best Fall Ever

Summer may be my favorite season, but this fall–2012–is my favorite fall ever.

Hiking around Starved Rock – 10/8/12

For one thing, the beautiful colors have lasted longer here than usual. Usually it seems like autumn comes and goes in about two days, but we’ve been enjoying vibrant foliage and pretty good weather for several weeks now.  Perhaps I’ve been more aware of that because my family went to Starved Rock State Park on Columbus Day. It was my first time there, and it was a perfect day. The weather was sunny and cool, and several trees had already put on their fall fashions.

Fall in the Front Yard Garden – 10/25/12

Perhaps I’m more aware of this year’s fall colors because my own front yard garden is displaying them wonderfully, from the bright red burning bush on the north side (left of house) to the deep reds of the dwarf oakleaf hydrangea at the southern edge (right side). I don’t think I’ve ever seen the leaves on that hydrangea turn so beautifully. (I should press and dry some!) It looks great with the purple dome aster blooming by it, and the miscanthus has finally put some plumes up behind them. Meanwhile, the roses and Rosanne geraniums are still blooming away in other parts of the garden because we have not been hit by a hard frost yet.

Best Fall Containers Ever

As early frosts come and go, I keep rearranging the containers on the deck to keep the best looking summer ones out as long as I can. 10/1/12

Another reason this is the best fall ever is that I have the best fall containers ever, too. I used to think that changing container plantings with the seasons would cost too much time and money. However, I have found that changing just a few makes a great impact because I spend so much time viewing the deck from our kitchen as I work as well as enjoying the occasional evening by the fire out there.

View from kitchen door – 10/15/12

Ready for a relaxing evening! – 9/27/12

I have also discovered how to get a lot of bang for the buck on those container plantings. The four large ornamental kale started out as a $1 cell-pack that I bought in the spring. I planted them in the four corners of a salad bed in the garden, and look what was ready to transplant into my containers this fall–for just 25 cents each!

I transplanted this kale from the kitchen garden into its own container on the deck. The other three, two purple and one white, were combined with mums in other containers. 9/28/12

I also discovered a good source for nice BIG mums a few years ago when I happened to be working at the master gardener office on the day of the Farm Bureau‘s fall flower sale. These shrub-size beauties, which they get from Sunrise Greenhouse, sell for just $7 apiece. This year I got three in three different colors: orange, purple, and yellow.

The purple mum got its own container on the deck.

I put the yellow mum in a large container on the deck with two purple kale and a couple other transplants from the kitchen garden, some marigolds and amaranthus.

My favorite container is in the front yard. I combined the orange mum with white kale and added asparagus fern for filler/spiller.

Summer has not left me. It’s just falling with style!

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